The presence filling the room drags Castiel back to awareness like a giant clawed hand. He's lying on a lumpy mattress, the fabric under him scratchy and too long between cleanings; the air is being artificially cooled and smells vaguely of mold and illicit chemicals. One of the motels Dean and Sam favor, then. A dim memory of Dean laying him on this bed drifts up from his subconscious. "Me and Sam, we're gonna go after Anna, so you hang out here and...look, Cas, just don't die, okay?"
"Up and at 'em, soldier."
The words are fire and power; they wrap around his Grace and pull him to his feet before he even realizes what's happening. The voice is familiar but the horror crowding his mind doesn't let him focus on it because what's behind the voice in unmistakable. He opens his eyes; those are John Winchester's eyes looking down on him but the twist to his lips belongs to someone else entirely. Just before he blinks he sees vast wings spread behind John, wings made of flame and light, wings so large scorch marks dance across the walls. He wonders if this is how Dean had felt in that barn so long ago.
This is the first time he's actually been in Michael's presence. He'd warned Dean that Raphael's power was a fraction of their eldest brother's but he hadn't understood. He knows the only reason he still has eyes to look is because Michael is allowing it. The sheer power is suffocating, like just standing in front of Michael is enough to push his head below water and he knows he could never be fast enough to flee.
But he has to try. He spreads his own wings (he feels tiny next to Michael, like a moth challenging a jetliner) and for one brief, cruel moment he thinks he'll be allowed to escape.
Michael gestures and the tether wraps tight around his wings, barbed and freezing and scorching all at once. He gestures again and Castiel is thrown against the wall and held tight, his teeth clacking hard enough from the impact for him to taste blood. Michael is there clutching him by his chin before he can even draw a breath and Castiel feels his skin blistering under Michael's fingers. "Well, well," Michael says, power leaking around the edges of his human voice. "I'm having a very productive day."
There's another presence still clinging to Michael, small shards of another's Grace fading and dying; the faint echo of a scream sinks into Castiel like thousands of icy needles, twisting and churning until he wonders if he'll ever hear anything else. "What did you do?" he whispers, guilt and horror momentarily eclipsing the terror.
Michael raises one eyebrow. "Your job for you, if I'm remembering correctly. You and...Uriel, wasn't it? Anna was your mission?" Castiel swallows hard, his throat dry as a desert. "Well, until that whole unpleasant business with Uriel came out, but we all know how that ended, don't we?" He makes a tsking sound. "You're a very dangerous being to know, Castiel." Castiel struggles but Michael only tightens his grip, sending pain lancing through him. "I'm speaking."
"You didn't have to kill her."
"She was a deserter. Of course I did."
Castiel closes his eyes. "What did you do to Sam and Dean?"
"Now why would I harm my own vessel? My brother's vessel? I sent them back to where they belong."
Castiel studies Michael's face, looking for the beginnings of the strain and decay he'd seen in Lucifer's ill-fitting vessel. "You have to let John Winchester go, he's not your true vessel. Sam and Dean won't ,exist if you don't."
"Well, that's not precisely true. Not in Dean's case, anyway, but you're right, we do need both of the Winchester brothers." He pats Castiel's cheek. "Don't worry, I'm holding back," he says and that thought is stunning, that this overwhelming power might only be a fraction of what Michael is capable of. "I wouldn't think of leaving a mark on him, you have my word."
Castiel can't understand why Michael is drawing this out. "Are you going to kill me?" he asks, keeping his voice steady. He didn't look away when Raphael tore apart the sky at the prophet's home, despite what every instinct screamed at him. He won't look away now, either.
All the same, his Grace shakes when Michael simply answers, "Yes."
Castiel swallows hard. "Because I'm also a deserter."
Michael smiles. "No, no, little brother," he says, and all Castiel can see is the bottomless pit behind John Winchester's eyes. "You're much worse than a deserter." He leans in close to Castiel's ear. "You're a traitor."
The word burns like the foulest blasphemy. "I'm not."
Michael almost laughs at that. "Castiel, you disobeyed the will of Heaven. I'm not sure how you can claim that's not treason." He tips his head to the side. "In fact, your name is the new word for traitor in Heaven. Did you know that?"
Castiel won't let himself break down. No matter how much he wants to. "None of this is God's will."
"How are you so sure of that? Have you spoken to our Father? Or is that just something you've decided?" Michael's hand is against his throat, not squeezing, not yet. "Do know the difference between the two of us, Castiel?" he says, applying just the slightest amount of pressure. "I have faith."
"Our Father wouldn't order this."
"Our Father once flooded the world. What makes this beyond him? And who are you to decide that?"
It's hard to speak against the slowly increasing force. "I chose to."
Michael chuckles again but there's only ice in his eyes. "There's no such thing as choice. We're all just instruments of Heaven's will. Weapons. Tools." He leans closer, squeezing hard enough to cause pain now. "Castiel, do you know the best way to dispose of broken tools?"
Castiel looks into Michael's eyes, trying to find the soul hiding behind all of the archangel's power. "John," he whispers. "Help me."
There's nothing but perfect, glacial calm in Michael's eyes as he answers his own question. "You burn them."
Castiel feels his Grace burst into flames. He screams and thrashes as pain fills every inch of him; he clutches at his brother's arm, his nails digging into the skin and Michael just squeezes hard, strangling him on top of burning him from the inside out. "John," he gasps out again, his voice cracking. "Help..." He screams again as a fresh wave of agony slams into him; he feels his head snap back against the wall as his body convulses. "Corporal," he whispers, his vision beginning to blur. With his last conscious thought he wonders if he imagined seeing that flicker behind Michael's eyes.
Then the world is nothing but fire and pain.
John knows the jungle's too hot and humid for him to be feeling this damned cold. His whole right leg is numb but that's okay. He can live with numb. For however much living he has left, anyway.
He never felt the bullet that slammed into his hip and shattered it to pieces; all he knows is one second he was leading what was left of the platoon away from the VC advance, then the next his leg collapsed under him, pain spiraling through him like someone was taking a power drill to his bones. It's the moment he's been waiting for since the second he stepped off the helicopter; he's bleeding so fast it's already soaked through his uniform and pooling beneath him, the blood pumping in hot spurts that take him just a little bit further away with each heartbeat.
He's always known it would end this way, spending his last moments shivering and bleeding and staring up at the canopy of that godforsaken jungle. John has no regrets. It's never been a mystery to him what he's signed up for.
All he needs now is for his medic to go away and leave him the hell alone. He groans as another pressure bandage is pressed against his destroyed hip. "Goddammit, why don't you ever follow orders?"
"Corporal, I'm preeetty sure 'let me bleed to death in the jungle' is one of those orders I'm 'sposed to ignore." His hands and arms are so drenched in John's blood it almost looks like he's wearing red gloves. "Besides, Sarge drilled that whole 'no man left behind' bit in pretty good back at the Island.'"
John rubs his hands over his face and listens to the running commentary his medic falls into as he keeps going with the futile task of patching John up. Never in his life has he known anyone who talked as much as Danny Novak. The steady chatter won't even let John pass out. "This whole area is about to be bombed straight to hell, I called it in myself. I can't walk and you can't drag me, just get the fuck out."
"I can and I will." He grins at John, tearing yet another bandage into strips. "Besides, you're the only NCO we have left I still like. You die they might put Malskowitz in charge. Or Sherman, God help all of us."
The thought of their timid little comm officer leading anything other than cable is almost frightening enough to get John to his feet. "I think God left the building a long time ago."
"Don't say that." God is the only thing John's ever seen Novak be serious about. Well, God and the Cubs. "God is all around us. God..."
The whine of incoming artillery hits them both at the same time. John's eyes lock with Novak's blue ones; too fast for it to be anything but instinct Novak's on top of him, shielding him, and John doesn't even have time to curse him out for being an idiot before the blast.
There's always a deep serenity to the quiet after a big explosion; John blinks up at the tree cover, wondering where he is and how he's still breathing. After a few addled moments memory of the past minute or so comes roaring back and John props himself up on his elbows, ignoring the pain lancing up from his hip. It's just too damn quiet.
His stomach twists into sick, familiar knots when he sees why. Novak's not on top of him anymore, not quite; he's curled up at John's side, one bloody hand still clutching onto John's jacket. It takes less than a second to see that he's peppered with shrapnel, eyes wide and shock hitting him fast. He whimpers when John touches his shoulder. "Novak. Talk to me, Private."
He shudders but looks up, the corners of his lips twitching. "Yes, sir," he whispers. He gasps out a few breaths and John sees blood on his lips. "Guess...not dragging you out after all."
"Shut up. We called this in, choppers will be around to find us before we know it." What the hell. Might as well lie.
"Take care of my wife," he murmurs, his eyes going glassy. John realizes he's already so far gone he's forgotten John's wounded, too. "Look in on her for me, Corporal? I'd...'preciate it."
John leans down as much as he can, close to his ear. "You listen to me. You're gonna get out of here and go back to your crappy little town and you and your wife are gonna have a whole pack of Bible-thumping little brats. You're gonna name your first boy James after your old man, remember? You told us all about it." Novak just shivers, his hand still wrapped tight around John's jacket. "Jesus, Danny, c'mon," John says, his voice cracking just the slightest bit. He wonders when he's finally going to get used to this. "Don't leave me alone out here."
John hears him chuckle, a wet, choking sound. "Said...y'self. No...no good at following orders."
He hears rustling in the brush, getting louder and coming closer. "Of-fucking-course." He swings his rifle around, saying a silent little prayer that the damned thing still works. He may not be getting out of this jungle, but he'll take as many down with him as he can.
He hears the sound of boots stomping through the brush now, the number too many to be any stragglers from the company. He glances down sees Novak with one hand wrapped around the silver cross he wears tucked beneath his uniform, his lips moving but no sound coming out as he prays. John lets it pass without comment; he isn't turning down any help right now.
The first of VC comes into view and John feels the world turn sideways. He can pick out the leader easily, a slight man with a puckered scar across his face, grinning as he surveys the carnage in front of him. John can recognize him because he knows full well he personally put two bullets through the man's head not two days before. He looks at the soldiers flanking the leader and realizes they have empty black where their eyes should be. "What the hell?" he whispers.
"Take him," the leader says in perfect, unaccented English; as he gestures John notices a gold ring on his finger that hadn't been there two days ago. He shifts closer to Novak, shielding him as best he can; from the corner of his eye John sees him nod, hears him whisper the word yes. John fires a spray of bullets at the two soldiers as they approach; they stagger back for a second – one actually rolls his eyes – and then they keep coming.
The sky glows with blinding white light, so bright John has to close his eyes. He has a second to think this would be a really good time for that air strike he'd called in, but there's nothing. Nothing but the two black-eyed VCs reaching down to grab him.
A hand snakes out and wraps around the wrist of one of the soldiers, bending it back with a quick snap. John looks over and sees Novak pushing himself up, his eyes clear and focused and mouth set in a thin line; he wrenches the soldier down to his knees and presses his palm to the man's forehead. White light explodes from the enemy soldier's eyes and he falls over; almost before John can blink Novak does the same to the second. He gets his feet under him, crouching as if it's no problem at all to have shrapnel sticking out all over him; when he looks at John it's not an expression he's ever seen on Novak's face before, a curiosity that's intense and serene at the same time. "All will be well, John," he says, in a voice lower and raspier than John's expected, then he presses two fingers to John's forehead. The pain in his hip disappears; when he looks up he sees the shrapnel wounds on Novak are gone too, his uniform repaired. More VC are surrounding them, hanging back in a loose circle, but no one seems to want to approach.
"Well, I have to admit, that was unexpected."
They both look up at the VC leader – or whatever he is, John knows that man is dead – John feels the man beside him tense. Or whatever he was. John just knows that's not Danny Novak in there; he likes to think that if his medic had always been able to kill people by touching them he would have brought it the hell up by now.
Novak-or-whatever stands, a slightly stooped posture that's also different, and walks over to the VC leader. "You don't belong here."
The man grins. "No, no that's not true," he says, pointing one finger in Novak's face. "You don't belong here. This," he says, gesturing at the trees around him, "This is where I've belonged for, oh, years now." He leans forward. "I am God here." Novak twitches at that; the man plays with the gold ring on his finger and John hears rifles click to ready all around them. "Didn't like that, did you." The man looks over at John, catching his eye. "We are entertaining an angel of the Lord right now, Cpl. Winchester. Did you know that?" He looks back at Novak. "I don't think he knew that. I'm sure he's very impressed."
"Take your demons and leave. You have no claim on John Winchester."
"And now you're giving orders! I have to be honest, that's adorable." He steps so close their faces are almost touching. "I know for a fact that your orders are that none of you are supposed to be on Earth now."
John's at just the right angle to see Novak's eyes narrow. "You cannot be allowed to kill John Winchester. The entire future will unravel."
"Oh, you're all so serious. Who said anything about killing him? We were just..." He glances over at John, an almost obscene look on his face. "Going to have a little fun with him."
John sees Novak's hands ball into fists. "You won't touch him."
The leader inclines his head, studying the being in front of him. "I know you. You're...Castiel, isn't it?" The thing wearing his friend's face stiffens, and John's just glad to have a name for it now. "Oh, we've all heard of you. You're the one who's going steal back the Righteous Man, isn't that true? It's all we've been talking about in the Pit. We're all staking out little claims on what piece we get when the fiends are finally done with you." He leans in very close. "I'm a wing man, myself."
John sees Castiel's jaw tense as the man begins to circle him. "Of course, that'll only be after a few thousand years of torture, but I've always been patient."
"You should all get used to disappointment."
The man smirks. "That's what I'm forgetting," he says, snapping his fingers. "That only happens if your little siege works out. How's that going for all of you? Well, I hope." Castiel's eyes drop and the man's smile broadens. "No? I'm shocked. It's been what, forty years now? And nothing?" Castiel's head snaps up; before he can bring his hand up to strike the man catches it, and John hears Castiel hiss in pain. "Stop that. If you were allowed to kill me you would have by now, so let's stop pretending."
John brings up his rifle. The situation is already insane; he sees no reason not to run with it. "Let him go."
The man sighs. "The adults are speaking."
Castiel raises one hand. "It's all right, John." He shakes free and takes a step back, angling himself between the leader and John.
"Do you know why your siege isn't working? Why all the great and powerful hosts of heaven can't create one little breach?" He leans close again, almost like he's whispering in Castiel's ear. "Because I don't want it to," he says in a little sing-song voice. "That's the mistake you're all making. You see, a siege is an act of war. You really should have gotten my permission ahead of time."
"We don't act on a demon's permission."
"Shut up." Castiel's hands ball into fists, a clear You dare? expression on his face. "I'm not some witch who got sent to the Pit. I am War. And if it suits me I can make your siege last another ten years. Another hundred. Another thousand. Considering what he's up to now, what do you think will be left of your Righteous Man by then?"
"We've been waging war against you and your kind for millenia without your permission. We won't grovel now."
"You don't know the first thing about war. You swoop down from your ivory towers, fight one skirmish and call it a battle. Say what you will about the humans, but they know war. None of you would last one day in what we're in the middle of now."
John doesn't like that look on Castiel's face. It's a crazy, desperate look, the kind of look a man has on his face when he's about to charge sniper nest. "A wager, then."
The leader's eyebrows rise. "I'm listening."
"If I do what you say is impossible – if I can survive one day here – then you stop opposing the siege and let me through."
The man rubs his chin. "Survive as a human?"
"A counter-wager, then." Castiel's lips thin. "If you don't make it through the day, then we get you. No rescues, no take-backs. All ours, our own little pet feather duster. Then we have a deal." He shrugs. "It's going to happen anyway. Might as well make it official."
Castiel closes his eyes for one long moment. "I agree."
The man claps him on shoulder and Castiel staggers backwards, as if his gear's suddenly incredibly heavy. "See you at dawn tomorrow. We'll have special rack made up for you." Then he's gone, him and the soldiers with him.
John picks himself up and approaches Castiel, who's staring at his hands as if they belong to someone else. "So. When that guy said he was war..."
"He meant War, yes. The embodiment of."
"And you're an angel."
John lets out a long breath. It said a lot about how this tour had gone that he could just swallow that news and barely even blink."Something tells me that was a stupid deal you just made."
"It was certainly...not well-considered."
"Where's Danny? He still...?"
"He's safe. I'm using this body as a vessel. It's fortunate you were with him."
"So...what, if I'd been stuck with Sherman out here I'd be be screwed?"
Castiel nods. "Not everyone can be a vessel. Daniel Novak's bloodline is very special." He looks at John and it's clear this isn't a being who's used to being at a loss. "I don't...what do we do now?"
John looks up; the sky is dark and the air tastes like rain. "We march." He shoulders his gear, rapidly working through his options; getting back to base is a bad idea, especially with Novak not being Novak and the airstrike – in theory - running through any time. Fortunately, John knows another option. "Follow me. And you call me Corporal or Sir, you understand?"
It's almost a smile on Castiel's face. "Yes, sir."
The rain finally hits around midday, that rolling, driving rain unique to 'Nam that feels like it's never going to stop. John glances back every so often to make sure Castiel's still following; the angel went against his advice and put on the poncho packed into his gear when the rain first started and was learning first hand why no one did that more than once. John doesn't know who'd designed the damn things but marching in one could give a man heatstroke in a blizzard. "All right back there?"
"I'm fine," comes the rasped out response and John grins. The guy's stubborn, John has to give him that. And he doesn't complain, which was more than John could say for some of the other whiners he'd served with who hadn't just downgraded from angel to human that day.
And his instincts were good; he'd spotted an ambush point that let them get the jump on some VCs trailing them, and pointed out some symbology carved into the trees that John had always assumed was code but apparently was some kind of demon ward. Honestly, knowing that actual demons were running around made almost everything about the damned war make so much more sense. He'd needed some pointers firing the rifle the first time, but once the fighting went hand-to-hand with the machetes all John had to do was stand back and watch. "Almost there, soldier."
John hacks through a clump of rough underbrush and there it is, in that moment the most beautiful thing John had ever seen. "Right there," he says, pointing to a tiny, overgrown hut poking out of the brush. "That's where we'll hole up."
Castiel's long past the point of questioning anything; he takes up position by the door when John points it out and John pushes it open, keeping an eye out for any locals who may have decided it looked like prime real estate. To his great relief there's nothing and he lowers his gun. "All clear."
Castiel drops his gear and collapses to the dirt floor as soon as he's two steps through; John grins and steps around him, putting his own gear away in a corner. "At ease."
"Thank you, Corporal," Castiel says, his voice muffled. He rolls over on his back, needing two tries to manage it. "What is this place ?"
"A little hidey hole some of the officers like to use. My buddy Deacon got chummy with our last lieutenant and told me about it. Got some basic stuff hidden away in here." He tosses Castiel a worn, stained towel. "Strip."
Castiel's eyebrows shot up. "I don't understand..."
"You're soaked, we both are," John says, tugging off his boots. "You can't sit around in wet clothes. I've seen a man's feet start to rot off from not changing his socks often enough. Just because you won't be in that body after today doesn't mean you don't take care of it. So strip."
Castiel obeys the order, stripping down his his boxers as John does the same. He shows Castiel how to lay them out so they'll dry, then they both roll out their sleeping bags, Castiel clearly reveling in being off his feet. "That was...much more difficult that I'd expected."
John laughs. "I had to march you pretty hard. That's the thing the recruiters don't tell you, that war's 90% grunt work. March here, clean that, fix this. You held up good." Castiel seems pleased at that. "There should be an MRE in your pack," John says. "Might as well. You eat when you can out here."
He sees Castiel fish through the pack and come up with the MRE box; when he opens it and examines the pouches inside he sends John a skeptical look. John can only shrug. "Hey, I don't design the things. What're you stuck with?"
Castiel examines his pouch. "It says...ham and eggs?"
John grimaces. "Damn. Well, if it makes you feel better I'm in the same boat." He shows Castiel the procedure to heat the things up to make them slightly less noxious. "You ever eat anything before?"
Castiel shakes his head. "No. Normally I don't require nourishment in that manner."
"Sorry as hell this is the first thing you'll taste, then." John watches as he takes the first bite and really, the look on his face is just fantastic. "I warned you." As penance he takes a bite of his own. "Eat fast, you won't have to taste it as long."
Castiel give him a look like he's seriously considering the possibility that John's trying to poison him but obeys the order anyway. John finishes first and puts the refuse to the side, then he goes to the back of the hut and starts poking around.
"What are you looking for?"
"Something to make that up to you." His fingers brush against wood and John grins; he brushes off the dirt and lifts the lid from a box carefully hidden in the ground. "Deacon, if I could I'd marry you," he says, lifting out a bottle nearly three-quarters full of clear liquid.
"What is that?"
"Hand me your cup." Castiel does so and John gives him a generous serving. "It's bac si de. 'Nam moonshine. Deacon makes the stuff, God only knows where he picked that skill up. I can't promise it'll taste any better than the MRE but you'll forget about it a lot sooner."
Castiel sniffs at the alcohol suspiciously, but when John downs his own glass he follows suit. And he only sputters a little bit, much better than how John had reacted at his first try. "That's..." He blinks. "Huh."
"Hits you fast, doesn't it. Deacon likes his booze strong." He pours himself another cupful and drinks it down, then refills Castiel's cup. John stretches out on his sleeping bag, already feeling the world get fuzzy around the edges. "So. This op you're supposed to go on. You really going to hell when you're done here?"
Castiel nods. "I've been tasked with retrieving something very important."
"Yeah? Personnel or an asset?"
He frowns, considering. "A little of both."
"How good's your team?"
The frown turns sour. "There is no team."
"Any reason why?"
"It was deemed necessary."
"That sounds like a load of shit. No offense to you and yours." He drains what's left in his cup and pours some more. "But if that's the case, why the hell did they let you jump down here? You'd think they'd want to keep you wrapped up tight just in case."
Castiel takes a long swallow before answering. "You were in peril. As was my vessel, and should I survive this I'll need this bloodline to continue." John figures he must look pretty confused, because Castiel puts down the cup turns to face him. "You don't understand your importance. I'm...from further along in the timeline than this date. I know what you'll become and what you'll achieve."
John realizes it was a mistake to start drinking before having this conversation. "So you're not just an angel, you're from the future."
"Of course you are. Because this was making too much sense up 'till now." He refills Castiel's cup, then his own. "So you're saying I'm important in the grand scheme of things?"
"You're one of the most important people who've ever walked this planet, Corporal."
"We're drinking and barely dressed. You can call me John right now."
Castiel seems pleased at that, too. "You seems surprised."
John shrugs. "Guess I'm just surprised to hear I have a future."
Castiel props his head and studies John with intense scrutiny, as if he looks just hard enough he could see under John's skin. "Why are you here, John?"
John lays on his back, his hands threaded behind his head. "It take it you mean 'in this jungle' and not 'on the Earth.' That seems more a question I would ask you." John sighs. "It's not a long story. I volunteered."
After all this time, John's really not sure. "My old man died when I was seventeen. Heart attack, real sudden. He was a mechanic and when he passed everyone expected me to start running the shop, and I just...I don't know. I didn't want to. Up till then I loved that place, but as soon as my dad died every time I set foot in it all I could see was me there for thirty years, just like my dad. Just like my grandad too, and I just...I couldn't do it. I didn't want to have the rest of my life mapped out by someone else."
Castiel's brow furrows. "So you joined the military?"
John laughs. "Yeah, I know. It must've made sense at the time, I guess. I tell you, the first few months I was here I would've cut off a limb to be back in my dad's shop."
John sees that Castiel doesn't miss the implication there. "But that changed."
John nods. "This place...it gets into your blood. You get to the point where there's no future here. No past. All you think about is getting through that one day. One hour. One minute. Nothing else matters." He finds the box of cigarettes in the MRE and taps one out. "When I really focus on something, when I get an idea in my head that's all I can think about. I was like that working on cars when I was a kid, I was like that in basic, and it's the same here." He takes a long, deep drag on the cigarette. "Started to like it. Not all of them do. Novak doesn't," he says, gesturing towards Castiel. "You hear sometimes how some guys get lost out here and I think I'm one of them. Don't know if I'll get back. Hell, if I want to get back."
There's a deep sadness in Castiel's eyes. "If I told you that you would survive this, that you would go on to have a wife and children, would that bring you peace?"
"I'm betting plenty of guys get out of 'Nam and never really leave it." He taps out the ash into his empty MRE box. "And God help the poor woman who gets stuck with me."
"You've already met her."
John blinks in surprise. "Who?"
Castiel's frowning, as if he hadn't meant to say that. John wonders if the alcohol's hitting him harder than he'd expected. Then he shrugs, apparently deciding to just go with it. "Mary Campbell."
John almost chokes. "The woman hates me."
"Nonetheless. The cherubs have already linked your hearts together. Nothing you or I say can change that now."
John shakes his head. "No, that doesn't make sense. When I enlisted she came to my house and told me I was an idiot, tried to talk me out of it, and then when she couldn't she said that she hoped I fell out of the helicopter my first day. Said she wouldn't be surprised if I lost the war all by myself."
Castiel tilts his head. "Is that normal for humans? To go so out of their way for someone they despise?"
John had never thought of it that way. "Huh." He needs this subject to drop; finding out about his own future is a new level of strange. "So you're done with this at dawn. How long after that do you ship off to hell?"
John studies his face. He looks older than Novak, not just the age in the eyes but the way he held himself, the new lines around his mouth. Older and weary. "How'd you wind up with this mission?"
Castiel's lips twitch. "I also volunteered."
"So you just have a habit of agreeing to stupid things. Good to know."
Castiel's eyes cut toward him, scowling at the teasing. "Someone needed to volunteer. I was tired of waiting."
John lights another cigarette. "There's no extraction plan, is there." Castiel looks at him and John shakes his head. "That's why you agreed to War's deal. If this goes FUBAR, you were stuck down in hell anyway."
The crease between his brow deepens. "I'm not familiar with that term."
"FUBAR. Means fucked up beyond all recognition."
His lips twitch up again. "Then yes. That would be accurate."
"So I'm gonna ask again, why the hell are you here? If you're the only one for this op, why let you go?"
Castiel is quiet for a long time. "I have no particularly special skills. I don't give orders. If I were to fall, the loss would be marked and mourned but would have no long-term repercussions. Any of my siblings could achieve my objective tomorrow." He looks at John and even aside from his eyes being a little bloodshot from the booze the look in them is strange. Almost star struck. "While, you, John, may be the most important man who ever lived."
John stares up at the thatched roof of the hut. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised Heaven treats its soldiers the same way we do down here." Castiel sends him a questioning look and John sighs. "That's the difference between NCOs and officers. NCOs are supposed to keep their guys alive, and the officers tell them how they're gonna die. Generals don't see soldiers, they see numbers and tactics. Guess it's the same with you." He smiles, a memory coming to the surface. "Got into a fight with my last LT over that, God rest his stupid soul. Last time someone tried to tell me my men where disposable." He takes a drag on the cigarette and hands it to Castiel. "Here, try it."
Castiel takes a careful breath, coughing suddenly on the smoke. "Go easy. God knows we all smoke like chimneys out here." He takes another breath and this time it's easier; John sees the surprise and pleasure on the face at the new sensation. "Any good reason why they won't come pick you up if you run into trouble?"
"One of us in Hell can be explained away. An entire garrison is an open declaration of war. We're not capable of taking on the full, focused force of Hell, no matter what we would like to tell ourselves."
And it's funny, but a smaller scale version of that was exactly what John had almost come to blows with his lieutenant over. "Well, good thing you're a Marine now. No man left behind, semper fi and all that."
Castiel looks at him curiously. "What does that mean?"
John takes the cigarette from Castiel's fingers, takes a drag then hands it back. "Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. It's the Marine Corps motto, and I can't talk for the brass but the grunts, you and me, we take that seriously. You're under my command, so you're one of mine. You get into the shit down there and
find away to give me a call, I'll drag your ass out." John realizes he's drunker than he thought but he does mean it. He means every word.
"You're not in Hell, John. I know that for sure."
"Then say you're in Echo company. God knows there's probably enough of us down there."
Castiel takes another drag on the cigarette, getting surer with each breath. "You're not what I expected, John. If this is my last night, I'm glad was allowed to meet you."
Castiel shakes his head. "Only eager to be started."
John watches him smoke, struck again by how genuinely different the man beside looks from the Danny Novak John knows. It's Novak's sandy hair and blue, blue eyes, same sharp jaw, same body, same everything but he's still where Novak's a fidgiter who can never relax, quiet instead of needing to fill up every silence. Even the way he smokes is different; John knows he can't be doing it intentionally but he holds the cigarette like he learned how to smoke from old Bogart movies, the cigarette dangling from his fingers like it's part of his hand. It really is a hell of a picture. And it's starting to have an effect. "Fuck. This is damned awkward."
Castiel's eyebrows quirk up. "What is?"
John knows there no way but to just say it. "If you were really Danny we'd be messing around by now."
Castiel's brow furrows some more, as if he's trying to decode that, then he blinks in surprise. "Don't look at me like that," John says. "That's the least of the things that happen out here we don't write home about."
Castiel looks at the ceiling, a thoughtful look on his face. He holds the cigarette for so long it almost burns down to his fingers and John snatches it away. "Give me that. You're wasting it." He takes the last drag, lights another one, takes a drag from that one and hands it back. Watching Castiel's lips part as he breathes out the smoke only makes his hard-on worse. "Knew a Japanese fella once, one of the guys in Delta company. He hated it when the guys would share smokes. Said his mom always told him that was...how the hell did he put it. An indirect kiss."
Castiel taps his ash into his MRE just as John had. "Are you saying you want to kiss me, John?" He says, slurring just enough for John to know he could scratch "get an angel trashed on the 'Nam bathtub gin" off his list of things he never thought he'd get to do.
"My turn." When Castiel reaches out to hand over the cigarette John instead uses the opening to tip the angel's chin up with one hand and kiss him, a little sloppier than he'd intended but his head's spinning pretty hard. "And yeah," he says, finally pulling back, "maybe I am. That okay?" Castiel just nods, his eyes wide with surprise and so blue. John's never seen eyes so blue. John kisses him again, slower now, and Castiel moves against him, his hand on John's waist. "Everyone is scared," John whispers against his lips. "Everyone. Angel, human, I don't care what you are, you know you might die in the morning you are scared. Don't pretend you're not."
John feels a very faint tremor run through Castiel's body. "They weren't supposed to know I was coming." John traces his fingertips down Castiel's spine, feels him lean into the touch.
"Hey. Echo company. Semper fi. Remember that and you'll be okay."
Castiel kisses him then, and John can tell he probably hasn't done this before but then John knows he's not the most experienced guy in the world, either.
As he closes his eyes he sees the cigarette burning itself out on the ground, forgotten.
Castiel watches John sleep against him, marveling at how something so simple as another's breathing can be so soothing. It's been a very long time since he's taken a vessel and even so, this is all new. This is all very new.
He wonders that he's not tired as well, considering that War had wanted him to have human limitations. Perhaps the Horseman thought the challenge would be too simple if he could spend much of it asleep.
A branch snaps outside and Castiel goes still. The jungle is full of life, Castiel knows it could be anything, a bird, a primate, even one of the large cats he'd seen slinking through the underbrush on the way here.
Yet he knows it's not. He very carefully disentangles himself from John, not willing to wake him, and dresses. The clothes are dry enough now that they almost feel comfortable again; he leaves the pack, hoping he won't be going far, and he also leaves the rifle. John had told him they were wet enough that they would have to be cleaned to be reliable and Castiel doesn't know how.
And besides, he's better with blades. He slips out the doorway, startled at how poor human night-vision is; he glances at the sky and estimates that there's a little under five hours until dawn. It's frustrating to have his sight baffled this way; he hears another crack, the same sound but from a different direction. He draws back against the building and slices the blade of his knife against his palm, just deep enough to draw blood, and quickly draws a sigil over the doorway to make the structure invisible and impassible. He has just enough time to finish before he feels the blade at his throat.
Castiel swings around and buries his knife in the stomach of his attacker; whoever it is staggers back and Castiel turns around, pulling out his machete. His hope withers when the enemy soldier straightens up and pulls the knife from his gut, a perverse leer on his face. It's face. The demon's black eyes shine in the darkness; as Castiel watches he sees more come out of the darkness, ten, twenty more. He's spent his entire existence fighting demons. This is the first time he's ever been helpless before them.
Two rush forward and grab his arms, wrenching them behind his back; he's just started whispering the exorcism chant when War himself steps out of the foliage. "Don't any of you idiots hear that? Gag him! Now!"
One of the demons takes the easy approach and simply punches Castiel in the face; his vision goes white for an instant and he feels blood pour down his face, choking him when he tries to breathe. He opens his eyes and sees War crouching before him. "Ooh. Are noses supposed to bend that way?"
Castiel spits blood on the ground. "You can't get him. I made sure of it."
"Very true. But on the bright side, I have you. I guess that'll have to help me learn to deal with that disappointment you told me about." He makes a wind it up gesture and the demon hits him two more times, so fast he can't brace for it. The world goes hazy and dark; he remembers what John had said about how all you can do is make it through one minute. One hour.
Castiel prays he can make it through five.
It's been nearly an hour since Castiel could feel his arms. His wrists are tied behind his back to a bamboo pole, so tightly Castiel felt his shoulder rip out of joint when they'd done it. That came after they'd ripped out his fingernails, and he'd never imagined such a minor injury could cause so much pain. He's ashamed of how quickly the demons made him scream; he's fought creatures from the Pit for millenia and not once been made to cry out, never before shown weakness. Pain is so much closer to the surface as a human than he'd realized. He can't distance himself, he can't do anything when the pain overwhelms him except scream.
He refuses to beg, though. He intends to deny War that small bit of pleasure.
And the pain lessens slightly when he sees just how much that angers the Horseman. There's perhaps thirty in the camp War's set up, a third of those demons and the rest human soldiers tricked by War's masquerade as their dead leader. War gestures one of the humans over, talking rapid-fire in the man's native tongue, and the helplessness of not being able to understand the words when he's used to understanding all language settles in his stomach like a stone. The soldier asks a question and War rolls his eyes, already finished with the conversation. "Take 'em both, for all I care," he says in English, a subtle little bit of torture, and then Castiel can only watch as the soldier approaches him, holding War's now well-bloodied knife. Castiel grits his teeth as the soldier wrenches his head to the side by his hair; his resolve fails when the man starts sawing his ear away from his skull, moans first then finally a scream as the flesh is torn away. He can only assume the reason he isn't passing out is because War won't allow it.
The Horseman crouches down before him, clicking his tongue to produce a grating, tsking sound. "What should it be next? The other ear? Maybe start in on those pretty blue eyes you have," he says, waving around a long, curved dagger. "We could get out the cane again. You seemed to really enjoy that one."
Castiel shivers. His back is a mass of raw flesh; what War calls a cane is a bamboo pole reinforced with steel, studded and sharp. That was how War had dragged out his first scream. Castiel raises his eyes, refusing to be the one to look away first.
War grabs his chin, studying his face, then shoves him hard enough that Castiel has to catch himself to keep from falling into the mud. "Do the other one," he says, his gesture making his desire clear.
Castiel fights this time, forcing two other soldiers to hold him down as the third cuts. Castiel stares at War for as long as he can, making sure the Horseman knows he isn't broken, that War doesn't have the power to break him.
Although Castiel is starting to have his doubts. He's doesn't know if War can damn him by killing him personally; demon contracts tend to be very particular about certain things. Castiel suspects that's why he has the humans here and why War hasn't just killed him already. Hedging his bets, Castiel thinks is the human term.
Castiel concentrates on what John told him: just focus on surviving one minute.
War has picked up the cane again when Castiel sees movement in the underbrush. He squints hard into the foliage and sees it again, the wrong kind to belong to some base animal. War hands the cane to one of the human underlings; just as the man begins to swing Castiel realizes the shape in the brush in John Winchester, his face covered in camouflage paint and his rifle up and at the ready. The soldier finishes his swing and bring the cane down where his neck meets his shoulders hard enough to send pain lancing down his spine.
Two seconds later the crack of rifle shot fills the air and soldier's head comes apart. It's easy to tell the humans from the demons by the reaction, panic versus vague alarm, and Castiel sees one of the humans fall, then another. He realizes John is sniping and holds still, letting the panic of the humans give John more targets.
Then there's an ear-ringing explosion that Castiel realizes was a grenade. When he lifts his head John is there in front of him, his eyes so dark with fury they almost look demonic themselves. He frees Castiel's hands and the pain when his arms fall forward is so fearsome Castiel thinks he might be able to pass out after all.
He feels John drag him back behind cover and tries as hard as he can to focus. "Shouldn't have left the shelter. You were...were safe there."
"I can't hang back while one of my people gets captured. It doesn't work like that." He kisses Castiel's forehead then straightens back up. "Can you take the demons?"
Castiel nods. "I need...I need time."
John cocks his rifle. "You got it."
Castiel begins to chant as John lays down covering fire, an old Enochian exorcism powerful enough to work on a Horseman, as least on a very temporary basis. The demons seize as the ritual takes hold and John throws another grenade to keep the humans back.
Almost all of the demons, anyway. War is clearly affected but not in any way incapacitated; as Castiel feels the ritual wind down, two lines left, one line, he sees War take out a battered sidearm and aim directly at his head.
He doesn't realize John's seen it too. Just as War pulls the trigger John steps in front of Castiel.
Castiel finishes the last four words, then things begin to happen very quickly; as John crumples down into his wounded arms Castiel sees the demons erupt from their hosts in vast plumes of black smoke.
That leaves only the humans and before the enemy soldiers can gather their wits Castiel grabs John
with his one working arm and retreats with him back into the foliage.
Castiel lays John in his lap and puts pressure on the wound. "You shouldn't have done that," Castiel whispers.
"Told you...my men...not disposable."
Castiel feels blood slide between his fingers. "You're not going to die here, John." He can hear the enemy approaching but can't move either of them further away; he slides John's knife out of his belt and keeps it ready in case he needs to buy John those last few moments. John's hand is around his wrist and Castiel strokes his hair very gently. "You're going to leave this place. You're going to marry Mary Campbell and have children, very important children." John's eyes are open but Castiel doesn't know if he's listening. He's never realized minutes could drag on so long. "You're not going to die here because you're going to undergo a great trial, one no human has ever withstood." Castiel leans down further, his lips close to John's ear. "Heaven will marvel at you, John Winchester."
Castiel feels a tingle of energy spread across his body and almost laughs. The enemy is almost upon them but it doesn't matter. He's made it through that last minute. "Do you feel it, John?"
"Feel what?" John murmurs, and Castiel presses a kiss to his temple.
Michael drops him to the floor; Castiel curls into a ball, choking and sputtering and stares up at the archangel in confusion. Michael's staring at his hand, brows drawn together in puzzlement; when he reaches for Castiel again his hand jerks back. "No," Michael whispers, a low harsh sound, and Castiel feels hope flare. That's not Michael speaking.
Michael shakes his head, a look that's almost amusement in his eyes. "Don't make me hurt you, John." He reaches back for Castiel and wraps his hand back around Castiel's throat, hauling him up to his feet.
This time when his hand jerks back Michael lets out a small, surprised gasp of pain. "Not what I agreed to," says the low voice again, John's voice.
Michael raises his hands, letting Castiel drop again. "All right, all right. Have the traitor if he's so important to you." Michael gives Castiel one last, significant look, one that promises to finish this later, and then he feels that impossible presence disappear, like air rushing out of a room.
Castiel thinks he can be excused for passing out.
When he comes to again he sees John Winchester crouching over him. "Up and at 'em, soldier." Castiel feels that instinctive rush of fear but there's no one besides he and John in the room. "It was the eyes," he says. "His kid got his eyes." John kisses him then and Castiel realizes he's almost for gotten how good it feels to be kissed. He clings to John as he pulls back, unwilling to risk that he might have hallucinated the rescue. "I heard you calling but it was like I was in a fog. I couldn't do anything. He said that if I let him take me over he could save Mary. I didn't think..." He shakes his head. "Was that the trial?" John asks. "Was that it?"
Castiel shakes his head. "I'm sorry, John. You're going to go through many trials."
John helps him sit against the wall and Castiel can't say which of them is shaking harder. John traces his fingers down Castiel's neck, touching the edges of the marks Michael had scorched into his skin. "Shit. Shit. He told me he was the general of Heaven's armies, what did you do do to piss off your CO like that?"
Castiel could still feel the fire under his skin. "He's not technically my CO. Not any more."
John gives him a long look. "Was it a good reason?"
Castiel nods. "I believe so." He pauses, remembering Dean's eyes shaming him in that room. "I found myself in a situation like the one you told me. I was forced to disobey."
"Good for you." He startles suddenly. "God, Mary," he breathes. "Is Mary..."
"She's safe, John. I promise you."
John lets out a long, shaky breath. "Good. Guess you know you were right about the two of us, huh?"
"I did tell you."
John shakes his head. "Yeah, well, I don't think I would have had the guts to approach her when I got back if you hadn't been so sure about it." He slides a cigarette out of his pocket and lights it, leaning his head back against the wall. "Don't tell her I'm doing this. She's on my case to quit."
"It is a damaging habit for humans." John offers him the cigarette Castiel takes a deep drag, coughing more than he had the last time. "This body isn't as used to this." He can't stop his vessel from shaking; he draws his knees up to his chest and feels John rub his back. He lifts his head and studies John, the knowledge of what horrors lie ahead of him filling him with sorrow. Castiel wishes more than anything he could give some warning. "Did you find your way out of the jungle, John?"
John takes the cigarette from his fingers and finishes it, throwing the butt down to the garish carpet. "I think I'm still working on it," he admits. A quick smile flits across his face. "Mary looks at me sometimes and I think I'm almost there." John tilts his head to side, studying Castiel back. "How about you? You here now looking like that can't be anything but bad news. Just how deep are you right now?"
Castiel shakes his head, kissing John again instead of trying to answer. He's been in darkness so long he hardly remembers what light felt like.
He feels John moan softly, then John pulls back, regret in his eyes as he trails one hand down Castiel's cheek. "Hey. We gotta ease back on that. I'm a married man now."
Castiel nods. "Of course."
John grins. "Hey, I started it." He leans back against the wall and lights another cigarette, one arm finding its way around Castiel's shoulders. "Thought about you a lot," John says. "Always wondered how that op of yours went off. If you were stuck in Hell or if it all worked out."
"It worked almost better than I could have expected," Castiel says. He indulges in a sour smile. "It's everything since then that's gone poorly." He takes the offered cigarette back. "I'm reminded of you often, John. Very often."
He feels John study him for a long moment. "That MRE still the only thing you've eaten?"
Just the memory of that meal serves to make his stomach churn. "Yes. I've been...leery of human food since then."
John stands up, clapping him on the back. "Come home to dinner. Mary cooks a mean steak and she's always on me to bring friends home."
Castiel tilts his head to the side. "How would you explain me?"
John just shrugs. "The truth. You're an old friend from the war."
Castiel allows John to pull him to his feet. "I have to...my friends are waiting for me."
"Would they really mind if you grab some dinner first?"
Castiel turns that over in his mind and realizes that no, they wouldn't. Dean in fact would probably insist on it. And at any rate, he isn't all that sure he's capable of traveling through time now, anyway. "All right." He stumbles when he tries to walk, his legs not quite up to supporting him yet, and he feels John's arm wrap around his waist. "Thank you for hearing me, Corporal," he murmurs, the memory of Michael's eyes crowding out everything else for a moment.
"Hey," John whispers into his ear, "Corps motto, remember?" He lets John hold him until he feels his strength return. Longer than necessary, if he's honest with himself. John doesn't seem to mind. "You ready to march, soldier?"
Castiel nods, the words bringing back the rich scent of the jungle, the memory of rain and oppressive heat and the press of another's body. He recalls the power of those memories helping him find his way back out of the Pit . "Sir, yes, sir." John's arm goes tight around him. "Lead the way."