Author's Note: I can't make any promises, but this might be the last chapter, barring an epilogue. This story is definitely drawing to a close, though. Thank you so much for sticking with me through this mess, everyone who has reviewed/alerted/favorited. You are all wonderful.
Sam was still alive the next morning.
Still burning with fever and not conscious, but he was still alive, and was significant enough. Castiel had managed to find an ancient pump out back of the house that still worked, though the water ran out rusty for a couple minutes before it started to come clear. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Castiel had gone to sleep after Dean had snapped at him and then pleaded for reassurance for the fifth time, and managed a couple restless and uncomfortable hours. When he came down, Dean was sitting next to Sam's prone body, an expression of studied concentration on his face as he wiped away the blood on Sam's face with what looked like the remnants of a towel. His eyes, when he looked at Castiel, were red-rimmed.
Castiel suspected it was not just tiredness, but there was a new fierceness in Dean's eyes that told him it would be a bad idea to say anything comforting.
"How is he?" Castiel asked, neutrally. Dean looked back down at his brother, pale with spots of bright color in his cheeks.
"Not good," Dean said, lowly. "He woke up about a half an hour ago. Didn't seem to recognize me."
Castiel considered suggesting that Dean rest, and decided that it would probably not go over well at all. He sat down on the floor instead, looked at Sam. This close, he could hear the faint wheeze in Sam's breathing. Don't die now, he wanted to say. Don't do that to Dean. Don't do that to me.
But if Sam had been thin before, and tired, now he looked exhausted. Devastated and used, like an old blanket, to the point of wearing through. Castiel breathed through his nose.
"What's wrong with him?"
Dean shook his head, tightly, and didn't look at Castiel. The determination on his face intensified as he dropped the wet towel to the floor and smoothed Sam's hair off his forehead in what looked like a casual, careless gesture. "Just bruises, mostly. Some…other things. I took care of it. Those…the hunters can't have had him long. I can't…" Dean's head jerked sharply from side to side. "I don't know if he's sick or…something else."
Demons didn't have to break skin to rip someone apart, and with their lack of equipment- Castiel cut off that thought. "But hey," Dean said, and sounded like he was forcing his voice level, "We found him, right? And you said we wouldn't."
Is this so much better? Castiel was almost tempted to ask, getting the chance to watch him die? Will that give you the closure you want? It wouldn't help him, Castiel knew. He wished he could at least tell himself that Sam would be leaving pain behind if he died, but he wasn't that good of a liar yet.
If they all lived through this, perhaps he would get the chance to learn.
"I can make some food," he offered, because Dean didn't look like budging. Looked like he would rather do anything else, really. Castiel was almost annoyed, but that wasn't…entirely fair.
"Yeah," Dean said, absently. "That'd probably be good." Sam's head twisted to the side and he made a small, hurt sound. Dean twitched.
"Maybe we can get him to eat," Castiel said, carefully. Dean nodded, minutely, his eyes shifting back to Sam's face. He looked tense.
"Yeah," Dean said, something almost bordering on belligerent in his voice. "Maybe."
Castiel retreated into the kitchen to let Dean fuss without shame. Please, he thought, briefly, and cut off that thought, too. What had his prayers done thus far?
He wondered if the demons would return for them all. They were nearly defenseless, right now. He wondered if Sam had crawled into that basement on his own or been left there (to die, to wait).
Castiel found a pot in one of the cabinets and filled it with water, then went to go search for a way to heat it.
There was a fireplace in one of the rooms, and some only slightly damp wood by the side of the house. Castiel looked at the wood with the pot in one hand, and wondered just for a moment if maybe someone was still watching them, taking care of them-
Thinking that way would only lead to disappointment, though. There had been plenty of times, over the years, small blessings that made Castiel think that maybe, maybe someone would intercede, that his father was only waiting for the right moment to reveal his hand and save his creation.
Hadn't he, in the end? In some way? There was still no explanation for why Sam had survived even this long, why Dean was alive again. Castiel's thoughts half formed a prayer (a plea). Please, Father, if you hear me now…
Castiel shook the thoughts off and went back inside to tell Dean that he was going to attempt to make a fire to boil some water.
He stopped when he heard Dean talking lowly, for a moment thinking – but no, he could tell by the tone of voice that it wasn't a conversation, that Dean didn't expect a response. "Hey, Sam," Dean said. "I know you're probably surprised to…uh, hear me. Again. Been looking for you for a little while now. You didn't make it easy, you know?"
Castiel set the pot down on the counter and leaned against it, half closing his eyes to listen.
"Yeah, okay," Dean said, "I mean – I guess you can ignore me if you want. Bitch. But there's some stuff we should really talk about. I know…I know Cas said I was dead, but I mean, at this point that's something other people do, right?" Dean made a sound that was probably supposed to be a laugh.
"I missed you," Dean said, quieter, and then, even quieter, voice cracking slightly, "Come on, Sammy. Please be okay. You shouldn't have left. I don't know…you shouldn't have left. So don't do it now."
Castiel closed his eyes. He forced himself to straighten and cleared his throat before stepping into the main room. Dean's head snapped up.
"I was going to start a fire," Castiel said. "To heat some water."
For a moment, Dean looked angry. Then he looked away. "Yeah," he said. "Sure. Whatever." His hand reached out and brushed against Sam's flushed cheek, then pulled away. Castiel kept his face expressionless and averted his eyes.
Castiel watched the water boil. Dean watched Sam sleep. Neither of them spoke. Castiel didn't understand his own quietly simmering sense of anger.
Sam woke up when Castiel was pouring the pasta into the pot, and Castiel knew because Dean abruptly went perfectly still and said, "Sammy? Hey, hey, it's okay, it's me."
Castiel turned, just in time to see Sam's eyes open, Dean's expression intense like he was trying to will Sam conscious. "Sam, god," Dean said, and his voice cracked slightly. Castiel swallowed his own greeting, just watched. Sam's tongue flicked out over his lips and he made a small, unhappy sound.
"What is it," Dean asked, leaning a little closer, and Sam shook his head from side to side, squeezing his eyes shut.
"No," he said, abruptly. "No. Stop. Stop, please. Not him."
Dean jerked like he'd been slapped. Castiel almost wanted to laugh, but it would have been a harsh and bitter (and cruel) sound. "Sam," he said, again, unhappily, and Castiel saw Sam's whole body spasm.
"Just don't be Dean. Please don't be Dean."
"Maybe you should step back," Castiel said, quietly. The look Dean shot him was venomous, but he moved back, and Sam's breathing seemed to ease, though it was still a thin and half desperate sound. "Sam?"
"Cas?" Sam said, quieting slightly. Castiel crossed the room from his post at the fire and sank down next to Sam and his blankets. The floor was colder than he'd expected. Sam blinked up at him, eyes still bleary and slightly glazed. "I don't…"
Castiel could feel Dean's eyes boring into his back. "It's all right," he said, though it wasn't – it was the kind of lie he'd gotten good at telling, over time. Sam's wide eyes seemed to soften.
"You're here." It was barely loud enough to hear, and Sam sounded…relieved. So completely and totally relieved that it almost hurt to hear, and Castiel gritted his teeth. What had he ever done to deserve this strange value Sam seemed to place on his presence? Dean's glare seemed to grow hotter.
"Myself and your brother," Castiel added, not sure why he bothered with the appeasing gesture, especially when Sam tensed again.
"Dean? –-but I—"
"Can't keep me down, Sam," Dean cut in, and Sam's eyes flickered from Castiel away and back again. Castiel could see his pulse flutter under the nearly translucent skin of his neck, a little faster.
"He's dead," Sam whispered, to Castiel, like it was a secret. "I remember. Please. I wanna be done."
I just wanted an end. Castiel wondered if it wasn't cruel to keep Sam alive, when he'd been trying to stop for years and couldn't even make that choice. To be done. Dean made a thin sound his throat that sounded painful, and Castiel focused.
What did he care for cruelty, Castiel told himself.
"Sam," Castiel said, and hardened his voice, tried to call back the memory of how he might have sounded years and years ago. "Listen to me. Dean was dead. He's been resurrected."
Sam blinked once, not seeming to understand. "Oh," he said. "That's…oh. Good."
His eyes drifted closed, and he was gone again. Castiel took a deep breath through his nose and leaned back, not sure exactly what the bottomless pit that had opened in his stomach was. He stood up, slowly.
The water over the fire was boiling just below the lip of the pot. He needed to go and stir it. The pasta was probably almost done. He glanced at Dean, who had a weird expression on his face.
"I'll finish the food," Dean said abruptly. "You stay with Sam." He turned his back on both of them, and even Castiel could read the hurt in his shoulders. Castiel briefly felt an intense urge to inform Dean that he had no right at all to be hurt, not here, not now.
He pushed it down and focused on the ragged sound of Sam's breathing instead. It was unpleasant and harsh and hitched on every inhale, but at this point every one felt a little like a miracle.
Or at least as much of one as he could expect anymore.
Sam woke up again to coaxing but didn't eat. Dean kept his distance with his head down and his shoulders hunched. Sam was fretful and feverish, half delirious; he grabbed Castiel's wrist and asked, plaintively, "Where's Dean?"
Dean tensed. "He's here," Castiel said, carefully. "Would you like to…talk to him?" Sam looked momentarily terrified and shook his head.
"No, he doesn't…no. Just tell him I'm sorry, okay? About everything. I don't want…I want him to know." Sam's eyelids drooped. "You'll tell him, right?"
Castiel heard Dean get up and leave the room. He didn't look over his shoulder. "Just rest," Castiel said instead of answering. "I'll be sure he knows."
Sam's smile was almost beatific. "Thank you for bringing him back, Castiel," Sam said. "And for bringing him back last time. And for staying with him when I couldn't, for being-" Sam made a short, abbreviated sound in his throat, shifted.
"Rest," Castiel said, more firmly. He glanced over his shoulder and could see Dean in the other room, leaning on the kitchen counter, his shoulders rigid. "We can talk about this later."
"You can't take later for granted," Sam said. "Dean always said that – later. We ran out of laters, and there were a lot of things I never got to…"
"Sam," said Castiel.
"I'm sorry," he said, whisper-soft, but at least this time the decision to close his eyes seemed to be intentional.
Castiel stood up and backed away after he was sure that Sam's breathing (still shallow but more regular now maybe than it had been) wasn't going to stop. He turned and ventured into the kitchen.
"Dean," he said, carefully.
"How about not, Cas."
Castiel pressed his lips together. "Did you think it would be easy?" he said, and perhaps a touch of scorn, or something, crept into his voice that he didn't mean to be there. Dean's knuckles went white as his hands clenched on the counter.
"No." Dean's voice was rough, harsh. "I didn't expect that. Nothing ever is, not for us."
Castiel pushed down the sudden wave of frustration that made him want to say not just for you, for anyone, nothing is easy, the world is full of pain and strife. It wouldn't help to pick a fight with Dean. "You'll get your chance," he said, instead, and made an effort to make it sound sympathetic.
(Sometimes he wished he'd ever had that gift, for sympathy, for compassion. If he had, he'd lost it long ago, like most things.)
"My chance for what?" Dean said, and the edge was sharper, more bitter. "I don't even…I don't even know what I'm going to say. He didn't even recognize me."
"It's been five years since he saw your face," Castiel pointed out, "And a lot has changed in the intervening-"
"I get it," Dean snapped, turning, his expression tight and rigid. "It's my fault, right? I screwed up, and I can't just expect everything to be hunky-dory-"
"That's not what I meant," Castiel said, and Dean snorted.
"Really?" Maybe it was, a little. Castiel did not think admitting that (particularly now) would be a very wise move. He struggled with what he did want to say, and remained silent for a little too long, apparently. Dean scoffed. "Yeah," he said, "I get the idea. I just…"
You wanted everything to be fine. We'd find Sam and you'd reconcile; that's what you wanted. Dean's shoulders slumped, and he scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Never mind."
Castiel took a deep breath through his nose. "Dean," he started to say, and Dean glared balefully at him again.
"What are you going to say, Cas? That it'll be okay? I'm not that stupid. We're like sitting ducks here, and Sam could still-" His head jerked to the side. "It'd be just like our lives," Dean said bitterly. "Get this fucking close and he dies. Proof someone has a sense of humor, right?"
Castiel bit his tongue.
"I'm going to sleep," Dean said abruptly. "Let me know if anything changes."
Sam's fever rose and fell over the course of the day, breathing like a living thing. Sam himself alternated between nightmares that left him crumpled and whimpering and a stillness like death. Castiel preferred the former, though either way there seemed painfully little he could do. Dean had tended everything that could be tended, bandaged what could be bandaged, and now it was just a waiting game.
It left Castiel with too much time to think.
He watched the windows, half expecting a cloud of black smoke to appear at any moment, or a demon, grinning, to open the door, well well, look what we caught. They needed to move. They didn't have anywhere to go.
Dean didn't come back down the stairs.
Sam roused a little more fully after dark, his color a little stronger and seeming more lucid. Castiel, staring at the windows and realizing how easy it would be to not even see their doom coming (what would it matter, then again, what savor to life like this) didn't realize until he heard the harsh intake of breath. He half turned, to a blurry, mumbled, "Cas?" which Castiel thought marked the first time Sam had used that nickname. "S'zat really you?"
"Yes," said Castiel, simply. Sam blinked at him a few times before simply saying, "Oh," and dropping his head back down. His eyes remained open, however. Castiel stayed where he was and waited. The silence seemed to stretch and drag.
"I wasn't sure," Sam said quietly, finally. "You said Dean was here, and I thought…" Sam made a soft sound like a snort. "I dunno. That you were…he used to do that. Sometimes. To make sure I remembered…" Sam twitched and shuddered slightly, face turning away. Castiel crossed the distance and tucked the blanket more securely around Sam, on instinct, before answering.
"Dean is here," he said, making his voice as level and even as possible. "He is upstairs. Sleeping."
Sam stilled. Castiel could almost see him warring with himself, is it, is it true, can I believe- and knew the moment when he gave in to what had to be hope (relief) by Sam's sudden exhalation. "Oh god," he said, weakly. "God. Thank god. I wanted…I hoped if I…he came back."
Castiel's stomach flipped in a way it hadn't for a while; a new and different kind of dread. "Sam," he said, and knew his own voice had gone hard. "What did you do-"
Sam opened one eye and smiled, very slightly. "I just argued my case," he said, voice hoarse and too quiet. "To anyone who was listening."
"It's okay," Sam said, and his expression was, for a moment, almost beatific. "The world needs Dean. You need Dean. It wasn't right that he died and I didn't. I just had to…make someone get that."
Castiel wanted to grit his teeth, wanted to say and what gives you the right to give up, didn't we say-
"We've been looking for you for five days," Castiel said, voice flat. "Dean and I. Your brother has been relentless. I am not certain he has slept the last few nights."
Sam blinked, not seeming to understand. His expression flickered. "I just needed-"
Castiel narrowed his eyes and went on, cutting Sam off. "I thought you were probably dead and we would never know. Dean refused to admit it, but he feared the same."
"Cas," said Sam, voice slightly rough-edged.
"No," Castiel hissed, "You do not get to- do you ever think of anyone but yourself? I don't care what you want, I don't care how miserable you are, I don't-"
That wasn't Sam. That was Dean, voice a low, dark rumble, and for a brief moment Castiel wondered if Dean had been planning this, waiting for the perfect moment to swan in like a rescuer, and then he shut his mouth with what he imagined was an audible snap. Sam's head turned, and he made a soft, barely audible sound in the back of his throat.
"How about you back off?" Dean said, and there was an edge on his voice that it had been years since Castiel had heard, since the very earliest days when others knew who Sam was (could be) and suggested proactive action.
Couldn't we just, they said, and Dean said simply, no. For all his bitterness and anger and fear, still (at least then) –
Castiel took a couple steps back, biting the inside of his cheek so he didn't say anything. "It's okay," Sam said, and Dean, over him, "Shut up, Sam," harsh enough that Sam flinched. Dean's eyes narrowed as he stared at Castiel.
"Thought you said you were going to wake me up if anything changed."
Castiel thought to wonder, briefly, why he hadn't. He said nothing, though, held Dean's gaze in a way he couldn't have before. Dean's mouth tightened. "Go get some water or something," he said, "I've got this."
Sam seemed frozen. Staring at his brother as if there was no one else in the room, and Castiel felt his stomach clench and wasn't sure why. "Fine," he said, finally, and turned on his heel to go outside to the pump.
"Dean," he heard, softly, behind his back. Hoarse and almost reverent. You don't deserve, Castiel thought harshly, and then wasn't sure who he meant, and was too aware that none of them deserved anything much at all.
He didn't listen to the rest. When he came back in with a bucket of water, though, Sam was half upright if shaking violently, Dean supporting him, and clinging to his brother like the only solid thing in the world. He was making small, desperate, barely muffled noises where his face was pressed into Dean's shoulder.
Castiel fell still. Dean's eyes were closed and his face looked damp.
He set the water down and left the room, and then the house, feeling strangely hollow.
Dean emerged a couple hours later, just as the barest hints of light were beginning to touch the sky. He looked exhausted, but somehow…lighter. Like something suddenly made sense to him. "Hey," he said, and sat down. "He's asleep again."
"Has his fever broken?" Castiel asked, making his own voice level, almost clinical. Dean gleanced at him, then leaned forward, elbows on his knees.
"No," he said, "Not yet. But I think he's…maybe better. Might pull through this."
Castiel wanted to say you don't know that. Wanted to say and what about the demons? Wanted to say what gives you the right to hope?
He said nothing.
Dean breathed out, long and slow. "God. Cas, he's…he's still Sam." He shook his head. "Still the same goddamn fucking Sam."
"What did you expect?" Castiel asked, perhaps a little more sharply than was strictly necessary, but he couldn't care. Dean didn't even seem to notice.
"I don't know," he said, and ran a hand through his hair. "Something. I dunno. I mean, he's still…a mess. You know? Kept apologizing to me and saying…shit, I don't know." He paused, took a shaky breath. "And he's not…mad. I was…Sam can hold a grudge like nobody's business, you know? And I…but he's just not."
Castiel staired out at the horizon and nearly said so nothing has changed, then, you can still do no wrong, of course he's not angry because it was always his fault. As it was always mine. That's why we followed you into death, isn't it? "I see," he said, instead.
Dean rubbed his face and leaned back, kicking out his legs. He made a short, harsh sound, like a laugh."We all get through this, we're going to the fucking Grand Canyon. I think we've earned it, yeah?" He paused, then looked at Castiel. "You can have next shift. Now, I mean. He kept asking about you. If you were okay and everything." He narrowed his eyes. "I'm not going to apologize for earlier. Sam doesn't…he doesn't need anyone chewing him out right now, so whatever your issue is-"
Castiel made a derisive sound in his throat before he was aware of intending to do so. Dean's eyes narrowed.
"I merely think," Castiel said, with less delicacy than he meant, "That it is somewhat – rich for you to act as though you have been so solicitous of your brother's health all along. To accuse me of having an "issue" with Sam when you-"
"Stop right there, Cas," Dean said, harshly. Castiel ignored him, stood up stiffly.
"Nothing ever changes with you," he said. "You never look back. You never look at yourself, never-"
"What is your problem?" Dean said, standing up as well, voice taking on a harsh edge. "You've gone all weird since we- are you disappointed that Sam's alive, or something?"
"No," Castiel snapped. "If you've forgotten, I am the one who has been most lately-"
"Don't pull that out on me," Dean said, voice darkening. "Sam and me are okay, you don't have any right to-"
"And what have you done?" Castiel said, cutting him off. "What have you done to deserve any of this, to deserve getting what you wanted? One could easily accuse you of doing more than your fair share to bring on the end. One could easily lay Lucifer's rise at your door. Your hands are stained with as much blood as anyone's, and you couldn't even surrender yourself to faith until it was far too late. You never believed in God, or in Sam, or in me and you-" Castiel realized his voice had raised almost to the point of yelling, and made no effort to moderate it. "You ascend to heaven. You are brought back and given a second chance with your brother, given peace, forgiveness, and-"
"Cas," Dean said, his voice odd.
"What did you do to deserve this reward? I kept my faith in God long after the last shreds of my grace were gone. I kept my faith in you even longer. I kept Sam alive when all I wanted was to let him die, and I followed you into the wild when I believed there was no hope of resolution. And this is what I have, Dean: I have you and Sam, to whom I am now extraneous; I have an empty and fading world that I don't belong in; I have the memory of what I was and no eternity of peace waiting when I die. You are God's favorite son, and you haven't earned it, while I have sacrified everything I have and ended up with nothing. So don't tell me what I don't have a right to. Don't-"
He cut off. Dean was staring at him with something like appalled fascination. Castiel stared back, waiting.
"Jesus, Cas," Dean said, finally. Castiel turned for the door, hoping that somehow Sam hadn't woken, that he wouldn't have to discuss this twice.
"Nothing is fair, and I know that," Castiel said, flatly. "But I don't believe I have to like it."
He closed the door quietly behind himself. Sam was where they had left him, still pale and still. Castiel sat down cross-legged and waited. Watched.
Dean didn't come back inside.
Castiel didn't let himself feel guilty. Kept vigil. "Where do we go from here?" he asked Sam, quietly. "Where do I go from here?"
Sam, of course, didn't answer, and Castiel didn't have one for himself.
Castiel didn't realize that he had fallen asleep until he woke up with his head aching and Dean sitting on one of the decaying chairs and watching him and Sam both. "Fever broke," Dean said, voice suspiciously level and even. "He woke up a little while ago but not for long. Pretty exhausted."
"To be expected," Castiel said, on the same tone. "But that's good news."
"Yeah. Probably." Dean rolled one shoulder back. "It's still…this used to happen. He'd be better and then get a whole lot worse."
"Have you asked him about the demons?" Castiel asked, and Dean glanced at Sam sharply like he thought the word alone would wake his brother.
"No," said Dean, almost curtly. "Jesus. The last thing he needs is to worry more."
"They could come back at any time."
"Or maybe they had their jollies and left him for dead," Dean retorted back, and Castiel nearly winced.
"Demons wouldn't leave anyone for dead they could kill themselves," Castiel said, making his voice flat and hard. "The slower, the better. You know that." Did not say: you were good at it yourself, once. Dean seemed to hear it anyway, by the way he tensed.
"We leave here," Dean said, "Where do we go?" And that was the problem wasn't it; Sam wasn't well and who knew where the next shelter would be, what condition it might be in. Castiel subsided. Dean was watching him closely.
"Cas," he said, suddenly. "I'm sorry." and Castiel turned his head to stare at him, startled. "What you said," Dean went on, haltingly. "It's all…pretty damn true. I'm no saint, never thought I was. And you're…hell, you were the only decent angel in the bunch. And a damn good – friend. I…never woulda made it as far as I did without you." Dean scuffed his shoe along the floor. "If I could do…you deserve a lot better than me and Sam and our mess."
Castiel blinked blankly at Dean, taken aback. Uncomprehending. Finally, he said, "I may have spoken too harshly."
Dean shook his head. "Not really. You've got a lot to be pissed about. And out of all of us, you've probably got the least to pay for." Castiel looked at him silently, and Dean's gaze fell to Sam's sleeping features. "So. Yeah. Thought you should know."
Castiel looked at Sam as well, lying quietly between them. He couldn't find the words he wanted to say, wasn't even sure what they were. His heart squeezed like a fist had wrapped around it. They were still so far away, from anything. From peace, if they could even have that.
Sam shifted, mouth moving in words that Castiel couldn't read. He twitched again, and one eye opened halfway.
"Dean?" He said blearily, apparently roused by their conversation. He looked pale, but less gray, perhaps. Castiel watched Dean's face, saw it go soft and fond.
"Right here, Sammy."
Dean moved forward, dropped to his knees and pushed the hair off Sam's forehead. "Yep." Sam's brow creased.
"He's here too. You good, Cas?" Dean's voice was rough and quiet, a far cry from even a moment ago. Castiel's heart thudded hard, twice.
"Yes," he said, carefully. "I am well."
"Hear that?" Dean said, and almost smiled. "We're all good. I'm good, Cas is good, you're good. Wanna rest a little more?"
"Dean," said Sam again,fading out fast.
"Yeah," said Dean. "We'll still be here when you wake up. Not going anywhere, kiddo. I'm not going anywhere."
Castiel watched them, Sam's hand groping to wrap around Dean's wrist and squeeze weakly, Dean's hand on Sam's forehead lingering like a benediction. He thought, I am seeing one soul mended, here.
Thought, almost at the same time, this is what grace looks like. Not the blue-white glow of an angel's power. This. Just this.
For a moment, a few precious, bright moments, even for Castiel, it was like touching what he'd never have again.
It was enough.