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The Phoenix

"Then I thought, 'I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days as the phoenix bird.'" -Job 29:18

They have been standing in the weird tower for approximately 12 seconds when Balthazar suddenly growls and glances over his shoulder at Dean and Sam. "Cover your eyes. For at least the next two minutes."

Barely exchanging a glance, the brothers both throw their arms up to shield their eyes as Balthazar steps outside his meatsuit and lets his Grace light the place up like the freakin' Fourth of July. The whirring din of the angel's light show is soon staunched by the flesh of Balthazar's vessel. Balthazar's voice, when he speaks, is just this side of smoke-rough. "All right, boys. Let's get on with it."

Dean and Sam look up, and suddenly there are a lot of scorched marks where there was only pretty artwork and white gleaming floors a moment ago. The marks appear slightly like huge tigers, or something equally feline and large in nature.

"Uh," Dean says intelligently.

"What just happened?" Sam asks, saving Dean the trouble of forming coherent sentences.

Balthazar picks invisible lint off his jacket and shrugs as he straightens his lapels. "I hate Guardians," he sniffs. "Not sure where Mummy got the little darlings. They usually sidle around the walls of Hell."

Dean stares at Balthazar, not really sure what to make of that. Balthazar glances over his shoulder, and rolls his shoulders again. It makes Dean think of Cas, the way he sometimes shifted his shoulders as though to shake away the tension. He wonders now if it has anything to do with the angels' wings.

Picking their way around what looks like smoked entrails, Dean and Sam follow Balthazar who strides across the grand foyer to a wide staircase that winds around the building's walls, circling up and up farther than Dean can see. He isn't quite sure how this tower works. Sammy doesn't either, judging by the nerdy stare his baby brother is wearing.

Dean thinks maybe they should be meeting more resistance than they are. When he says as much to Balthazar, the angel only laughs. "You really think we're any threat to the Mother of All?" He goes on to explain that the Guardians had only been for show, and the idea that they are utterly screwed keeps Dean silent for the remainder of their ascent.

When they reach one of the chambers nearer to the top of the tower, Balthazar hesitates. He holds out a hand, tracing it over the air above the door before him. It reminds Dean of something he's seen Cas do before, and he realizes that Balthazar is scanning the room beyond the door.

A moment later, the door creaks, groans, and splinters into thousands of wooden shards that rain to the floor at their feet.

Balthazar pauses again, seeming to steel himself. When he ducks inside, Dean follows immediately after and sweeps the right side of the room. At his back, Sam mirrors his movements and covers the left.

Satisfied that there are no big baddies about to jump out to kill them, Dean glances toward Sam in silent communication before he looks for Balthazar. The angel is standing at the wall opposite the doorway, head bowed as he stares at the chalk lines of a circle like a Devil's Trap littered in Enochian symbols.

Seeing what the angel sees, Dean's breath hitches.

There is the shadow of wings emblazoned across the wall, spreading over the strange circle. Dean chokes back a curse, knows that these wings are the equivalent of a tombstone for angels.

Balthazar inhales sharply, and moves toward the shadow of wings slowly. His hand twitches when he reaches up to trace the jagged outline of feathers. "We're too late," the angel murmurs.

"Yes. You are."

Dean will gloat later for still possessing the response time of a much younger version of himself. For now, he turns on the balls of his feet and lifts the Colt in the direction of the female voice. The girl standing there is slender, and can't be much older than 20. She stands in the corner of the room, wearing a white gown and a scary-calm smile on her face. Dean's instinctual hunter-alarms flare up and he knows at once what this is.

Balthazar confirms his suspicions as he says in an accusing tone, "Eve."

She smiles wider, a flash of white teeth. Dean thinks of snakes. "Hello, angel. Sam, Dean," she adds, eyes flickering between the Winchesters. Dean tries not to notice how her eyes linger upon him in silent assessment for several moments, like a predator zeroing in on its prey. Her attention moves back to Balthazar. "Now what business could an angel and two little hunters have in my house?"

"Where the hell is Cas?" Dean asks immediately. Sam gives him a surreptitious look out of the corner of his eye, his fingers twitching over the hilt of Ruby's knife at his side.

Eve frowns even as Balthazar strides confidently toward her. "Forgive the hothead, he hasn't had his valium-and-whiskey tonic yet today," he says lightly. "But we are missing the General of Heaven's rebellion, and we do have reason to suspect he's been here very recently." His eyes glance to the etched wings over his shoulder, then back to Eve.

Her smile doesn't return. "You really came here with the intention to steal away my youngest? What was your plan, angel? How did you think to win back your brother? You have no power here. This place is my domain." Her words stretch and fill the space of the room like a silent force, quivering on the air in tense silence.

A glance is exchanged between Winchesters and angel in reply. Sam nods minutely. Dean smirks, but it is mirthless and bitter. "Not sure Crowley would agree with that," he says.

Eve's eyes flash. Dean catches sight of something ugly and twisted behind the Mother's gaze, something wrong and plainly inhuman. The Mother snarls, "You know Crowley." Her eyes are all predator now, skin pale and sickly as though all her energy is gathering outside her body. The tension that trembles in the air twists more tightly. "And do you know where the demon is?"

"Lady, right up 'til the dick popped up to help drag me into Limbo, I was under the impression that Crowley was dead," Dean retorts, gritting his teeth. "No love lost between him and me, if you know what I mean."

Eve stares at him, unfazed. "Fine," she deadpans. Then, a smile blooms over her face and she turns her head to speak over her shoulder. "Come to Mommy, little one."

Dean frowns and exchanges a quick glance with Sam. What the hell? The walls around them seem to hum, then rumble as a sudden gust of wind bursts into the chamber. Dust stirs, easing up from the floor and through the edges of the stone walls. And then something enters the room, a silent boom echoing out from the space behind Eve. Dean almost has to blink at the sudden bright form, thinks he can make out the elegant arch of a long neck and the swirl of long tailfeathers before the light curls inward and collapses in on itself.

Then suddenly Castiel is standing there, head bowed submissively. Only this isn't Cas. Everything about him is...off. Castiel looks weird, and he isn't wearing the trench coat, is decked out in a black coat and suit instead. His eyes are pale and almost silver-blue, and eternally empty. His face is impassive, alien like the angel he had been before Dean had taught him to loosen the stick up his ass and live a little. Somehow, Castiel reminds Dean of dusk and shadows and moonlight, and that is definitely the weirdest thing Dean has ever thought.

This is not what Dean had been expecting. Balthazar or Sam, either, if the choked-off sounds at his side are anything to go by.

The weirdest thing is the wings that Dean has only ever seen the shadow of, now curled around Castiel's shoulders and much different than the black magnificent things he remembers. The wings remain curled, but Dean thinks that they look like the open sky on the road at night. He thinks he can see tiny pinpricks of stars glowing in the feathers, can see the midnight-satin hue of the sky at its darkest. On the edges of each feather there is the shimmer of azure flames.

Dean admits privately that Castiel in any form is beautiful.

But, still, this is wrong.

When he finds his voice again, Dean rasps, "Cas?" Castiel stares back at him, no sign of recognition in those strange eyes. Dean turns the sudden raging fury in his chest onto Eve, growling, "The hell?" He knows Castiel is no longer an angel; but he had expected Cas, not this creature who sees a stranger where Dean stands.

Eve smiles beatifically. "He is my son, now. He no longer bows to the world of Man." She raises a hand by her side; Dean is horrified when Castiel moves to nuzzle his cheek into the Mother's open palm, his eyes falling closed as if enraptured. Eve's eyes hold Dean's for a moment before she turns to coo to Castiel, "Are you ready to seek Hell's Warden for me, little one?"

Castiel doesn't answer aloud, but those silvery eyes blink up at Eve. And God help him, Dean wants to cry when he sees Castiel's head tilt just slightly. Eve smiles brightly at her new son, and turns her eyes back to Balthazar, Sam, and Dean. "Sorry boys, but I have a date to find," she says with a smile. "You'll have fun with my other children, won't you? They love to play with new toys."

Castiel's new wings spread around the Mother, and before Dean can take a step forward they vanish. "Dammit!"

Balthazar gives a jolt, one hand moving to his opposite shoulder and face pinched with annoyance and pain. "Oh, bugger," Balthazar mutters. "She clipped my wings."

Dean whirls to him just as Sam says, "Uh. Guys?"

Dean knows before he turns in the direction Sam is pointing. He hears the growling. When the hunter finally manages to look, he tries hard to remember if he has silver bullets with him. The Alpha appears to be a werewolf-zombie crossbreed, all gray skin and pale hair and huge fucking teeth, and normally that would be awesome. Normally being, with Dean ensconced in a hotel and this shit being a bad SciFi flick on TV.

The werewolf lunges, and Balthazar steps forth to meet it.