At the end of September, tree grew in the middle of the lake. Locals called it a miracle how quickly and extensively the tree grew through the frosty nights of autumn. Its branches spread like wings, casting cold shadows on every inch of water. The wind rustled its limbs and leaves but never enough to snap even the smallest twig. Locals started seeing sickness in the tree as it grew and it should have grown weak as its leaves fell permanently, but the tree did not perish. No, it was as if it was fighting hard against the sickness that inflicted it and it was not about to let it defeat it. The tree kept its head above the water and the ice when winter came around.
In the spring, when the ice melted and its aching limbs could shake off the icicles, the tree began to die. Even then, nothing ever broke off. Every piece remained attached, but slowly the disease wilted every extension from the dark, twisted trunk. The locals wanted to cut it down, but there was no way—it was too big, too far out in the water. Only time could relieve the tree of its pain and the locals of the hassle. So they waited with the tree for the first strong storm of the summer to send it sinking through the depths of the water.
Toward the end of May, on the eve of summer's moisture and burn, the Impala drove up to the lake. Sam and Dean Winchester got out of the car.
"You sure this is gonna work?" asked Dean, eyeing his brother. Sam did not look particularly confident, but he said it would as soon as he saw his brother steal a glance through the rear window of the Impala.
"It should, Dean. That's what Cas said, right? That the grace would still be here?"
"The man was half out of his mind when he found us. I dunno, Sammy. Hard to know when he can't string two words together," said Dean, shaking his head as he opened the trunk of the car. He started rummaging through the collection of weapons.
"Should we try and wake him?" Sam asked, nodded at the back seat. Dean kept pushing guns and bags of salt around.
Dean grunted in response. Sam opened the door to the back seat of the Impala; he peered inside. Castiel lay on the back seat, his pale, unshaven face stretched by the pained sleep in which he was so deeply trapped. Sam watched the former angel's hands clench and unclench around the shotgun Dean had given to him.
"Get his ass outta the car, Sam. We're losing time," ordered Dean. He was already standing by the gates, yanking at the rusty lock.
"Right, uh, just a sec—"
Sam knelt and reached into the car.
"Hey. Cas? Cas, we're here," said Sam, shaking Cas by the shoulder. Castiel mumbled in his sleep. His lips tightened into a line and he turned his face toward the seat of the car. Sam heard the gates snap open.
"Holy—Sam, get Cas over here already! The damn tree's gonna keel over!"
"It's falling? Crap. Cas, come on. You've gotta get up. Cas—"
"What? What's wrong?" demanded Dean, marching up behind Sam. He poked his head in the car. "Sleeping Beauty, come on. You dragged us out here, so rise and shine."
Cas lay motionless, still facing the seat. His hands were relaxed around the gun, which was slowly sliding out of his weak grip. Dean turned Cas over onto his back; the gun fell to the floor of the car. Blood was slowly running from his nose down his face. He pressed his fingers to his neck; Sam watched Dean's face lose its color.
"Cas—no, Cas, we're almost—don't die on me now, Cas. Sam—"
Sam jumped out of the way instantly. Dean pulled Cas into his arms and out of the Impala. Dean carried Cas all the way to the water's edge just as the tree started to sway dangerously. Every so often, Dean heard the sound of crumbling wood. A storm was on the air and it was just winding up for its first punch.
"Damn it," breathed Dean. "Now what? Sam—tell me you've got somethin'. Please!"
"Uh—," Sam stammered.
He reached into his pocket and read over the hasty notes he'd taken on the day that Cas had stumbled into their motel room, hardly able to stand on his legs, his eyes sliding in and out of focus. He had written everything that Cas had managed to say before passing out. Dean had sat staring at the dying man for a long time before reaching for the liquor on the nightstand while Sam read the notes over and over.
Sam now read the sheet of paper three, four, five times, searching for something different, but he might as well have read it once. He knew from the start that there was nothing that could help them if Cas died before they got to the only thing that could save him.
"Damn it, Sam—"
"I'm trying! Dean, I—"
There was a soft shift in Dean's arms. Dean's eyes widened.
"Dean… the water…," he rasped. Cas's eyes fluttered; Dean tried to catch a glimpse of the bright blue. "It'll take me to the rest of my grace."
"You'll drown, you moron. You're gonna die before you get to the tree."
"Dean, please. Let me go."
"Dean!" shouted Sam.
"What, Sam?" snapped Dean.
"Just do what he says—we don't have time, or options!" Sam said. Dean could hear the desperation in his brother's voice, the edge that he knew they would both fall over if they lost their friend again. It was going to be worse if they lost him because Dean did not try every option they had.
The winds were picking up. The tree looked dangerously close to toppling over, creaking and stretching its old bones, shifting in its watery seat.
He walked through the water until it was up to his waist before letting Castiel out of his arms. Dean watched the limp vessel sink. When he saw Cas open his eyes beneath the water just before falling out of sight and lock on Dean's eyes, he very nearly dove after him. But Dean took a step back and watched, even when every fiber in his body was screaming, no, you son of a bitch, go after him and get him the hell out of there!
The sky tore open and rain fell in sheets against them, hitting their skin with the precision of trained knives. Dean clambered out of the water and stood next to Sam under the cover of a nearby tree.
"Can you see him?"
Sam shook his head.
"Damn it!" Dean said quietly, turning away from the lake.
"What? Is he out?" Dean asked, suddenly turning around.
"Move!" yelled Sam, pulling Dean by the arm away from the lake. The tree was falling hard and fast, totally ignorant of the waves it created, the boys watching in terror, or the former angel in its growing shadow. They barely reached the Impala in time. The highest branches hardly touched the side of the car, but Dean still slid his hands along the doors, feeling for damage.
"Close," exhaled Sam.
Dean stepped over the branches, making his way back toward the banks. He caught sight of a figure dragging itself above the water, barely staying up long enough to catch some air. Without a thought Dean threw his jacket aside and dove in after him. Sam heard the splash and ran to the gate.
"Dea—" he started to shout before his eyes registered what he was seeing: Dean and a very pale, very human-looking Castiel. "Something's wrong," he realized. His eyes widened as the right train of thought took form. He reached in his pocket and read over the notes from the day Cas had returned again. As heart began to beat hard and fast, Sam began to understand what was happening.
"Sammy!" shouted Dean, something catching the end of his brother's name in his throat on a fine little hook. He turned back to Cas, who was lying on his back on the gravel, eyes shut, his body perfectly relaxed. Dean reached down and moved his head so he faced the sky and the falling rain. The blood on his lips and nose slunk away.
I need you, Dean, he said. Cas had not actually spoken the words, but Dean heard them in every way. He couldn't stop hearing them ever since the day he stumbled back from the dead, and Dean had no idea how to tell him the same. He couldn't communicate the way Cas did, and he was supposed to be the human, the one with the feelings and the emotions.
"Cas, come on. I need you, too."
Castiel did not move. He continued to lie on the gravel, emotionless and still. And frail. He looked more breakable than ever. Dean looked up and around. Sam was nowhere to be seen.
"Damn it, Cas, you owe me big if this works."
He leaned down to Cas's face. Dean retracted a couple of inches but one more look at the angel's pale lips was all it took.
I need you, too.
His lip just barely brushed Cas's mouth when he jumped backward.
"Oh, son of a—sleeping beauty my ass…."
But Dean looked back down at Cas's body and regretted instantly. Dean crawled back to Cas's side and kissed him on the forehead, brushing the wet hair out of his eyes.
"Dean!" Sam shouted, jogging down the hill. He was carrying something in his hands. "Dean, I've got it. The grace—not all of Cas's grace was in the tree! Some of it went into his coat! Here," Sam threw the coat at Dean, "put it on him and get him back in the water."
"Sam, are you blind? It's too damn late! You couldn't'a figured this out five minutes ago?"
"Cut it out, Dean. Just—just try. There's a chance we'll get him back, so—"
"He's gone, Sam! Gone!" roared Dean, standing up. "Try if you want, but, goddamn it, I bet Cas is in a better place now. I say let him go. He doesn't need us where he is now, and that's prob'ly better for him."
Dean stormed back to the Impala and out of view. Sam glared after his brother for only a moment before getting Cas's body upright.
"Come on, Cas, help me out here," he muttered, pulling his limp, slim arms through the sleeves of the trench coat. As Sam pulled Cas's other arm halfway through the sleeve, he started gasping for air. Cas's eyes snapped open and he started sucking air in irregularly.
"Cas—Cas, Cas, hang on—stop moving—you'v—," Sam said, struggling to keep Cas from rolling back into the water. As soon as the trench coat was completely on Cas's body, he said,
"The water. Help me."
Sam helped Cas to his feet, got a good grip on him, and started walking into the lake. He nearly tripped over the branches snaking beneath the surface in every direction. Sam could only get so far.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Sam. "Cas? Cas, stay with me. We need you—"
"Water. Let me go."
"Under the water. Leave me there, and go find Dean. Come back when you find him. Go, Sam."
Sam met Cas's unfocused eyes for a second. He knew Cas knew what he was doing, so he gently let Cas sink beneath the water once more. He waded back to the shore, forced himself not to turn around to watch the water, and ran up to the Impala. Dean was sitting on the back of the car with a full can of beer in his hands, staring at the ground. He did not look up when Sam approached him.
"No, he's going to be okay!" said Sam with a small laugh of disbelief. "Dean, he's gonna be fine. Come on."
"Sam, no. I'm tired of this. I'm tired of getting my hopes up and then watching everything just die. I'm just… I'm—what the—?"
Dean's eyes widened, focusing on a point behind Sam; Sam turned around and the Winchesters watched the water of the lake brighten and the tree darken and disintegrate. Even the branches near them broke down and blew away in the intensifying wind. The bulb in the street lamp over their heads burst in a shower of sparks.
Sam and Dean ran to the gate and watched the water return to normal. The pieces of the tree gathered in the center of the lake where the tree's trunk once stood. Every piece quickly turned from black to the purest white as the water spun around a single point faster and faster until it emitted a bright beam of light from the center of the lake. Sam hid his eyes, but Dean watched a little longer. He couldn't tear his eyes away, especially when he heard a familiar sound—the sound of angelic voices speaking in hurried whispers of old Enochian. The ground shook. The windows of the Impala shattered and cascaded with the rain. Dean fell to his knees, finally shutting his eyes and covering his ears with his hands.
Finally, the voices stopped. Quiet—a gun-toting silence—settled over the trees. Slowly, Dean opened his eyes. In the center of the lake, there was a figure overshadowed by the great shadows of his wings; his whole form glowed and trembled with the grace of the Lord as it settled back into its owner. Dean stood and took a couple of steps toward the bank of the water. Sam quickly appeared beside him.
"Cas?" Dean finally said, struggling to steady his voice.
Castiel approached them with slow, calm steps across the surface of the water, the light around him slowly dissipating as he came closer. Sam took an instinctive step backward.
"Don't run, Sam," said Cas in the steady, gravelly voice that the Winchester had gone so long without hearing. Finally the light completely disappeared. Cas stood before them with water up to his knees, the bottom of his trench coat floating in the water. His arms were wide open. Cas looked first at Dean, then at Sam, and back at Dean. "Thank you. I can't start to thank you."
Sam rushed forward and threw his arms around the angel. Dean snickered; Cas looked quite surprised. His face reddened for a moment before he awkwardly hugged Sam back. He exhaled and smiled.
"I suppose that was overdue," Cas said when Sam let him go.
"Yeah," Sam agreed with a grin. Sam glanced back at Dean, who shot an annoyed look right back at him. "Welcome back. It wasn't the same without you, Cas."
"I'm just… happy to be alive," Cas said, finally smiling widely. His eyes rested on Dean. Sam watched his brother, who suddenly looked like he was at a lack for words.
"I understand, Dean. No need to say anything," said Cas.
"I'm happy you're alive, too. Damn it, Cas, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for everything. I need you," he finally said, his voice breaking ever so slightly on the last word. Cas said nothing, only watched Dean curiously. The rain started falling harder.
"Well, let's ship off before we get a flood going here," Dean stated gruffly. Sam nodded and started heading back toward the car. Dean and Cas followed.
"But Dean, God hasn't said anything about a flood."
"Not what I meant, Cas," grinned Dean, wrapping his arm around Cas's shoulder.
"Have you heard something? Did the angels announce the flood while I was gone?"
"And the ark—"
Dean pulled Cas into a hug, silencing him. He kissed him on the forehead and looked at the angel. Cas only smiled at Dean. Neither said a word, lest the moment be killed so unceremoniously. In the distance the Impala's engine revved in time with the thunder rolling overhead.
Thunder ripped through the sky and Dean woke with a start. He looked around the dark motel room, lit only by the gray light of the storm outside. He sat up in the chair; the gun with which he'd fallen asleep fell from his hands to the floor. As he bent to pick it up, the old trench coat, which still smelled of the lake Dean swore he would never see again, fell from behind his head to the ground. Dean picked this up as well and put the two objects on his lap. He stared at them, his mind blank. Dean ran his hands aimlessly from the metal to the fabric and back.
Damn it, Cas. I still need you.
Dean took the gun, the trench coat, his car keys, and his half-empty bottle of whiskey. Dean slammed the door behind him.