By San Antonio Rose
It had long been said, among angels and demons alike, that the world would end when a righteous man shed blood in Hell, when Lilith met her death, and when two human brothers played host to Michael and Lucifer for the final battle. All of them, including Michael and Lucifer themselves, believed it to be true.
None recalled that the plan had been Lucifer's from the start, not God's. And none realized that one false assumption would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
Dean didn't know how long he'd been in Hell—not very long, he thought, but he'd lost all sense of time early on in the haze of agony and remorse. He'd been left alone on the rack to recover from the last round of being ripped apart and had just about... regained his integrity, for lack of a better term, when he heard screams and sensed something coming toward him. He braced himself for another round with Alastair.
But the figure that entered the cell was bright like the brightest candles on Pastor Jim's altar had seemed when he was a kid, and a wholly different kind of agony seized Dean as the light poured over him.
Do you know Me, Son of Adam?
Dean's eyes could hardly make out anything of the Person who spoke to him, yet on some instinctual level, he did know Who it was. Yes, sir.
Why are you here?
To save my brother.
Is this your choice, then?
Yes. No. I don't—I didn't want to die, didn't want to go to Hell. But...
But what, child?
I don't deserve better.
There was a pause... almost sorrowful, Dean thought. Why do you believe you deserve punishment?
Suddenly Dean found himself spilling everything he'd ever done wrong, everything he'd ever blamed himself for. The Person just listened until he was done, not condemning, but not excusing.
There was another pause after Dean finished. Then the Person said again, Do you know Me, Son of Adam?
Will you follow Me?
If Dean had had a physical heart, it would have skipped a beat. You... You... want me to follow? You want me? But... I don't understand. I don't deserve it.
I have come to preach deliverance to those in bondage. And I have work for you, dear heart, for your brother is in danger. Will you come?
I... yes. Yes, I'll do anything.
A hand caressed Dean's face, and a burning sensation swept through him, like he'd been cut to shreds and Dad had stuck him in the shower and dumped a bucket of rubbing alcohol over him. But when it passed, he felt well and whole, and his eyes could bear the light again. Then the Person touched the shackles holding Dean to the rack, and they fell away. Dean toppled forward, and the Person caught him and gently set him on his feet.
Dean looked into kind brown eyes and shook his head. You shouldn't have come just for me.
The Person chuckled. Not for you only, Dean. Time does not function in Hell as it does on Earth. There are many who were in need of deliverance. But not all will be returning to Earth, as you will.
Oh. Dean really didn't know what else to say. Uh, so...
I cannot give you clear instructions here, behind enemy lines. But I will send guidance when you have returned, so long as you keep your eyes and your mind open. The Person touched Dean's forehead, and yet another kind of pain tore through him briefly. You must bear My marks as a sign, to Sam... and to others. Come now, we must leave.
Still dazed, Dean followed as the Person led him to a huge crowd of souls that seemed to be waiting for them. He caught one face in the crowd that looked exactly like Dad—but how could it be, when Dad had made his escape a year before? Yet Dean had no time to try to figure it out; there was a shout, and suddenly the whole crowd was racing forward, following the Person toward what looked like broken gates...
... and the next thing Dean knew, he was sitting up with a gasp in what looked like his own grave, though the top of the coffin and the earth covering it had been blasted away, leaving him a clear view of the cloudless star-filled night sky overhead.
It took a moment for Dean to get both his breath and his bearings well enough to push himself to his feet. He was still surveying the best way out when a gravelly voice said, "Here. Let me help you."
Dean turned and saw that the voice belonged to a dark-haired, blue-eyed man in a suit and trenchcoat who was leaning over the edge of the grave with his hand extended. He looked kind of scrawny, but Dean was still too shocked to turn down the help, so he took the man's hand and let the man half-pull him to ground level. Then the dude took a better look at Dean's hand and fell to his knees, wide-eyed.
"What?" Dean frowned before looking at his left hand... which now had a huge round scar in the middle and ached a little when he flexed it. Evidently there was a matching scar on his right hand.
"I... I don't understand how this can be," the man confessed. "I was sent to rescue you from Hell, but—"
"The Boss beat you to it," Dean replied with a wry smile.
The man (or was he?) nodded. "So it would seem. Yet He descended into Hell but once... but... that doesn't make sense. He harrowed Hell two thousand years ago."
Dean shrugged. "He said it wasn't a special trip. And there were a ton of other souls that got out at the same time."
"Then perhaps—but forgive me, Dean." The guy dropped Dean's hand and stood. "My name is Castiel. I'm an angel of the Lord. And since you don't need rescuing... is there any way I can serve you?"
"You can start by telling me how long I've been dead."
Dean nodded thoughtfully, wondering briefly what Castiel had stopped himself from saying and just why he knew deep down that Castiel was indeed both an angel and trustworthy, then looked up at the sky and felt a twinge in his side that stabbed clear into his heart. He took a deep breath and let it out again. "I need to get to my brother."
Castiel solemnly raised two fingers and touched Dean's forehead.
Sam wasn't smashed yet, but he wasn't sure being sober for this had been a good idea after all. He couldn't tell whether alcohol would have dampened or fueled the rage flooding through him like fire as the crossroads demon laughed at him.
"Sammy, Sammy, Sammy," she was saying. "You're damaged goods, baby boy. And Lilith just loooooves the new chew-toy she's got for her puppies. She won't let him go for a ten-year deal."
"Five years, then."
She laughed again.
"Sammy, Sammy, you do not wear desperation well."
"Hm, maaaaybe..." She leaned close to whisper in his ear, and he could smell the sulfur on her breath despite the pungent perfume she was wearing. "Depends on how nicely you ask."
Sam's stomach rolled, but he had just started to steel himself for anything she might demand of him when he suddenly heard something that sounded like giant wings flapping and two figures that looked like men appeared across the road, opposite the direction that he was facing. One of them looked like Dean, down to the clothes Sam had buried him in... and no sooner did the other man take his hand away from not-Dean's forehead than not-Dean cried out in pain and started bleeding from his forehead and hands.
The demon gasped and turned. "No... no, that's impossible... he can't be out already..."
Sam grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled Ruby's knife. "If this is some kind of trick—"
She shook her head wildly. "No, I swear, that's Dean—it can't be, but it's Dean, I swear!"
"SAM!" called not-Dean in that pained, urgent voice Sam would know anywhere.
"Let me go!" the demon demanded, plainly panicked. "That's an angel that's with him, Sam; he'll kill me!"
"No, he won't," Sam snarled and plunged the knife into her borrowed heart.
The demon fell and died, but the illusions across the road didn't disappear. Still furious and confused, Sam pulled out his flask of holy water and started across to confront them.
"Sammy," not-Dean panted, blood from the deep scratches across his forehead threatening to drip into his pain-glazed eyes. "It's real. I'm back."
"Like hell," Sam growled and splashed holy water straight into not-Dean's face, where it would get directly into the wounds that Dean had never borne in life...
... wounds that not only didn't burn when the holy water touched them but closed and faded to crisscrossed scars within seconds.
Sam froze in shock.
"More, please," the person who might possibly be Dean after all moaned. "Help me, Sammy, it hurts..."
"Stigmata," the other man explained, gesturing to maybe-Dean's bleeding hands as he eased maybe-Dean to his knees. "He bears the marks of the Savior and will share His suffering when evil is near."
It took Sam a moment to be able to decide what to do, but then he quickly cleaned and sheathed his knife and pulled out his handkerchief. Next he soaked the handkerchief with holy water and started wiping the head wounds with it while the other man started working on getting maybe-Dean's boots off. "How the hell'd you end up looking like Christo, dude?" Sam asked as he worked, keeping a close watch on maybe-Dean's eyes.
The only change he saw was relief as the pain evidently began to ease. "He pulled me out, Sam."
"Jesus. Said... said He had work for me, said you were in danger. Looks like He was right, too, you... ow... dumb ox. Crossroads deal? Really?"
Sam couldn't stop the angry tear that slipped out. "Shut up. I don't even know if you're really my brother yet. And if you are, you have no idea what it's been like."
"No idea? Sam, you lived without me for four years at Stanford just fine. I cracked in three days. I couldn't take the guilt of having let you die back in Cold Oak."
"Let me die? Dean—"
"Just shut up for a moment, Sam. Now, I have no idea what..." Probably-Dean gasped in pain before continuing. "What on earth is... is going on around here, but I know you had a demon flirtin' with you for a year tryin' to get you to go darkside, and I come back and find you tryin' to do something stupid—"
"None of 'em will deal!"
"That's not the point! Do I have to remind you what Dad said?"
Sam pulled a sour face and glanced pointedly at the other man, who had taken the holy water to wash probably-Dean's hands and was now bathing the scars in Probably-Dean's feet.
"This argument is counter-productive," the other man said without looking up. "Sam, will you see to his stripes, please?"
Suddenly horror-stricken, Sam let his hand drop from the back of Probably-Dean's head to the back of his jacket, which was starting to feel wet with blood from the flogging wounds.
Probably-Dean hissed at the contact. "Jus' soak it," he slurred, moving a hand up to press the wound in his side. "Jacket, shirt, everything. Be... be faster that way."
Sam nodded and took the flask back. Handing Probably-Dean the handkerchief to press against his side, Sam then pulled back the collars of the jacket and overshirt to pour the holy water down Probably-Dean's T-shirt. Probably-Dean groaned in relief and slumped forward against Sam's shoulder.
He felt real, warm, alive. He felt like Dean.
Before he even realized what he was doing, he pulled Dean into a hug and just held on as Dean's arms wrapped around him in turn, as Dean's hands grabbed fistfuls of shirt and as hot tears leaked out of both of their eyes.
"We need to leave," the other man said after a long moment. "We're not far enough from Dean's grave to be out of danger. Demons will be investigating within hours... and my brothers may do the same."
Sam released Dean to look at the other... guy. "Your brothers?"
"Yes. My name is Castiel. I'm an angel of the Lord." And a sudden flash of lightning revealed the shadow of wings unfolding from his back.
Sam swallowed hard. "Look... I believe you, I do. But other hunters, y'know, they're gonna need more proof."
"Call Bobby," Dean suggested, shifting to sit more normally with his legs in front of him. He sounded tired from his ordeal, but no longer pained. "Hey, Castiel, hand me my socks, would you?"
Castiel dutifully brought both socks and boots around and set them by Dean's feet while Sam pulled out his phone and called Bobby.
Bobby, somewhat predictably, sounded somewhere between tipsy and really drunk. "Sam? Y'all right, boy?"
"Hey, Bobby. Yeah, I'm fine. Listen, I've got... kind of a weird case here, and I need some help figuring out exactly what's goin' on."
"Need help with the lore?"
"No, I've got lore. I just don't know if it's reliable."
Bobby grunted thoughtfully. "I know a psychic, might could help. Where are you?"
Sam rattled off the coordinates of the hotel he'd checked into. Bobby rustled papers for a moment before giving him directions.
"'S about four hours in all, halfway between here and there," Bobby concluded. "Name's Pamela Barnes. Tell 'er I sent you."
"Actually, Bobby, would you meet me there? I just... really feel like I need you for backup on this one."
There was a pause before Bobby returned suspiciously, "Just what aren't you tellin' me, Sam?"
"I'll explain everything at Pamela's, I promise. It's not something I can tell you over the phone."
"What'd you do?"
There was a pause before Bobby sighed heavily. "All right. I'll call 'er. Meet you there in the mornin', 'bout 9. And Sam? I'm gonna hold you to that."
"Yes, sir. See you in the morning."
Dean looked up from tying his boots as Sam hung up. "Who's Pamela?"
Sam sighed. "Psychic. She's about four hours west."
"Why not Missouri?"
"Bobby knows Pamela."
Dean nodded. "You good to drive for a couple? I've missed my baby, but this..." He gestured to the thorn-marks on his forehead, the nail print in his hand showing clearly at the same time. "Kinda... takes some getting used to."
"And you've lost blood, too. Sure, I can drive for a while." Sam paused, suddenly feeling awkward. "Um... Castiel, do you..."
Castiel stood. "I believe I should attend to the demons who are following us. I will meet you there." And he was gone.
"He knows something," Dean said after a moment. "I dunno what, but he knows something."
Sam hummed thoughtfully. "Maybe Pamela can help us get it out of him."
Sam picked up his now-empty flask and slowly screwed the cap back on. "So, uh. Stigmata?"
Dean nodded wearily. "He said I had to bear His marks, as a sign to you and to others."
"All seven? Hands, feet, side, back, head?"
Dean nodded again. "I don't... Eh. It's better than Hell. And it's not like I deserve to be back without some consequences."
"Save it, Sam. Let's just go before Lilith decides I've jumped bail."
Sam sighed. "Okay. Oh, here..." He reached for the amulet and found it oddly warm when his hand closed around it—not hot, but warmer than body temperature.
Dean started to reach for the amulet as Sam slipped it off but pulled back and hesitated for a moment. Then he shook his head. "No, Sam. Thanks, but... I... think you need it for now."
Sam frowned. "You sure?"
"Yeah. I'm sure."
Sam slipped the amulet back on. "Dean... what is with you? You haven't sworn once; you're turning down the amulet—"
"Not turning down what it meant," Dean interrupted, looking Sam in the eye. "You know that, right? I'd never..."
"Yeah, no, I get that. It's just... so you."
Dean sighed heavily. "I dunno, dude. All I know is that I saw Jesus down there. He busted me out Himself, gave me a second chance that I do not deserve. And I promised Him I'd do anything for Him. So... maybe some things can't go back like they were. Doesn't mean I'm not still me. Just give me some time to get my feet under me; I haven't even been back a whole hour."
Sam nodded slowly. "We should head back to my hotel. I need to check out, and I'm sure you need some dry clothes."
Dean snorted. "Yes. My shirt's startin' to stick to my back."
Sam pulled the car around so Dean wouldn't have to go near the dead ex-demon. And the smile that lit Dean's face as he slid into shotgun was all the more proof that this was indeed the real Dean; he practically glowed as he ran a hand along the dash and whispered "Missed you, baby."
They didn't talk much on the way back to the hotel, so Sam had no real way to gauge how Dean was doing until they arrived and got out. Dean took two steps, braced himself on the hood, and hobbled to where Sam had paused on the sidewalk in front of the room door.
"Dean? Are... do you..."
Dean snorted. "Feels like I had a spike driven through my feet."
"Nah. Just aches, kind of. First time I've tried to walk much. I'll be okay." But the hand Dean clapped on Sam's shoulder landed too heavily to be a simple reassurance, though Sam didn't call him on needing to steady himself that way.
Sam sighed as he subtly supported Dean on the way into the room. "I don't understand. Why would Jesus send you back to do something only to brand you in a way that leaves you crippled?"
Dean shrugged. "They also serve who only stand and wait."
"... Milton? Really?"
"Sam... just get me some clothes. I need to wash this blood out of my hair." And Dean pushed off Sam's shoulder and hobbled into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
Sam sighed and went back out to the car, suddenly feeling grateful that he hadn't given into the impulse to leave Dean's duffle at Bobby's when he'd left the week before. He wasn't entirely sure he could get used to Dean being this... zen about things, and he wondered how much of Dean's insistence that he'd be fine was a matter of his usual tactic of repress and deny, a tactic born of years under a parent who was more Marine than father. Sam didn't resent Dad as much as he once had, and he understood Dad better now than he had before losing Jess, but he also had a better understanding of how badly Dad had messed Dean up by putting too much on his shoulders.
Of course, it wasn't like Dean had MS or some other crippling disease, and he still had all his limbs and faculties. Maybe Sam was overreacting. Maybe Dean really would be fine. He wasn't sick. He wasn't an invalid. He was just newly resurrected.
And a stigmatic.
The enormity of that fact suddenly hit Sam like a ton of bricks and would have driven him to his knees had he not caught himself on the edge of the trunk. Stigmatics were rare, and if word ever got out, Dean could end up being the center of a media circus—Catholic media at minimum, though the secular press might get in on it, too, if only for the "serial killer formerly presumed dead" angle. And then there was the FBI. Sure, Dean said the stigmata were meant for a sign to more than just Sam, but until they knew for sure who "others" were... better to avoid stares and publicity both.
After retrieving Dean's duffle, Sam rummaged in the trunk and came up with a pair of shearling-lined work gloves and a bandana. Once he was back inside, he rolled the latter into a headband, then left it and the gloves on top of the pile of clothes he set on the edge of the sink. Dean was humming a little, which was a good sign, but Sam couldn't make out the tune. He didn't worry about it, though, just gathered up the bloody clothes Dean had dropped by the door and left to finish packing the rest of his things.
"Dude," he heard a moment later and turned to find Dean holding up the bandana and gloves with a frown, a towel around his waist and his new scars still visible but only pink from the heat of the shower. "What's with these?"
Sam sighed. "You'll get stared at. And what if someone calls the Vatican?"
"Hell, what if someone calls the FBI, huh? The last thing we need right now is to end up on the Feds' radar again."
"Sam, I can't hide them forever."
"I know. I know, but... just until we talk to Pamela? I mean, maybe she can help us figure out who else you're supposed to be a sign to."
Dean studied Sam's face for a moment, then sighed. "All right. Until we get to Pamela's."
Bobby had been at Pamela's house just long enough for her to spill that she'd been hearing some wild rumors from the other side when the doorbell rang. "That'll be Sam," he said unnecessarily.
"Sam and his surprise," she returned with a wink and headed for the door.
Bobby followed—and stood stock still in shock as she flung open the door to reveal not only Sam, but something that looked an awful lot like Dean apart from the bandana.
Sam smiled wryly over Pamela's head at him. "Hey, Bobby. Surprise."
But before Bobby could recover and go for his knife, Pamela had strolled up to the other figure on the porch with a suggestive smirk. "Well, Dean Winchester. Out of the fire and back into the fry—" She stopped short as her line of sight traveled up to the bandana, the smile falling into an unreadable expression that might have been wonder or fear or both.
Dean matched his brother's wry smile. "Yeah. That's... one reason we're here."
"Come in, quick."
Dean stepped over the salt line and under the devil's trap that had been over Pamela's front door longer than Bobby had known her, then walked right up to Bobby. "Hey, Bobby. I'm back."
Bobby glanced at Pamela and Sam. "You're sure?"
Pamela nodded. "It's Dean, all right."
"I tested him last night," Sam added.
Bobby took a couple of ragged breaths before pulling his heart's son into a rough hug and getting his ribs nearly crushed in return. After releasing Dean, he finally managed to ask, "Son... how?"
"It's kind of a long story," Dean replied. "But Sam told you the truth last night. He didn't do it."
"Long and complicated," Pamela agreed. "Let me see them."
Dean pulled off his gloves then, followed by the bandana, and Bobby gasped as he saw the reason for them. "Dean, what the..."
"Stigmata," Dean replied. "Got the full set. Don't feel 'em much now, but when a demon's near..." He didn't finish the thought, just shook his head as lines of remembered pain crinkled around his eyes.
Pamela stepped closer to Dean. "May I?" she asked, holding out her hand.
Dean held his right hand out to her and didn't flinch as she took it and gingerly touched the scar in the center of his palm.
She reeled backward briefly, then shook her head. "It's the real deal. I've never seen anything like this."
"Real deal," Bobby repeated. "As in..."
"As in Dean has seen God face to face."
Dean nodded. "It's true. Jesus busted me out."
Bobby frowned. "What? How?"
"It was the Harrowing of Hell," said another, unfamiliar male voice, and Bobby turned to see someone else standing in Pamela's front hall who hadn't been there a second before.
Pamela blinked. "What do you want, Feathers?"
"My name is Castiel," 'Feathers' said somewhat irritably.
"He's an angel," Dean added as easily and absently as if he'd said Sam's my brother. "Got something for us?"
"Yes. Information I believe God would want you to have."
Dean nodded. "Awesome. Ah, Pamela, you got someplace where we can sit?"
Bobby expected Pamela to flirt and Dean to flirt back. It didn't happen. Evidently Pamela was still rattled by what she'd sensed from touching the scar—and it took a lot to rattle that woman, Bobby knew. Instead, she just nodded and pointed toward her living room. "Sure. In here."
The three men took the couch, with Sam and Bobby flanking Dean through some unspoken agreement based on protective instinct. Pamela got herself a beer and took the recliner, and Castiel, after a moment's hesitation, sat stiffly on the loveseat.
Dean rubbed absently at his left hand as if it ached and said, "You're on, Castiel."
Castiel stared at Dean. "First, I must ask you to realize that angels don't know everything. We can be mistaken. And it appears that in this case... all of us were."
Dean winced and put a hand to his side. "Go on."
"It has been said from time immemorial that Lucifer's Cage is bound by many seals and that sixty-six of these must break for him to be released and begin the Apocalypse. It is also said that only the first and last are fixed, the first being that a righteous man shed blood in Hell, the last being that Lilith meet her death at a human's hands. That human, it is further said, must be the brother of the righteous man, for they are destined to be the vessels of Michael and of Lucifer for the final battle."
Sam and Bobby looked at Dean in alarm, but Dean, starting to look a little pale from the pain, only clutched at his side more tightly. "Alastair," he said quietly. "That's why Alastair kept... kept saying he'd stop if I picked up the knife, agreed to torture."
Castiel nodded. "Yes. My garrison is tasked with preventing the Apocalypse, and we had just been charged with laying siege to Hell to break you out when... I found your grave already open. I... confess I was in haste to aid you, so I fashioned my own vessel rather than taking the time to ask my true vessel for permission to use his body."
Dean frowned. "Why's that a bad thing?"
"My superiors would not consider it good."
Sam leaned forward. "Castiel... why are you telling us this? I mean, you act like there's some kind of problem with Dean already being out."
Castiel shifted his unblinking stare to Sam. "From one point of view, there is not. The first seal cannot break as it was foretold. But I now believe it was never intended to do so. Hell is not our province, Sam; we knew that time does not function there as it does here, but we thought that it was similar, that the Harrowing took place too long ago for Dean to be affected by it. Although... it is possible for us to bend time enough to travel through it, so it may be that Messiah, as Lord of Time, can bend it more easily than we can and reached Dean that way. I don't know."
"What's your point?" Dean prompted.
"My point is that for millennia, we have believed a lie. And I fear that my superiors may be too invested in that lie to recognize that it was never God's will to begin with."
Dean clutched at his side again and looked over at Sam. "You got any holy water?"
Sam nodded. "Yeah, here." He pulled out his flask and handed it to Dean, who drank gratefully and sighed in relief after swallowing.
Castiel's normally inscrutable face suddenly looked sad. "I'm sorry, Dean. I didn't realize..."
Dean waved off the apology. "'Sokay. We need to know. So. We got a bunch of... of idiots with wings thinkin' they know better than God. What do we do about it?"
"I don't know. I can hide you from angels and demons, but that would not stop them from using humans to find you."
Dean shook his head. "No. We're not hiding, not yet. He gave me these as a sign, Castiel." He held up the back of his right hand. "I don't care if they don't like it. We have to show them they're wrong."
"Even if it kills you?"
"He brought me back once."
Castiel nodded slowly. "All right. I'll... I'll do what I can." And he was gone.
Looking decidedly grey of face, Dean took another long drink of holy water. Had Bobby not been close enough to smell, he would have thought Sam had given Dean a whiskey flask instead.
"Actually," said Pamela, looking at her now-empty beer bottle as if he'd spoken aloud, "that sounds like a good idea, Bobby. Anyone else take their coffee Irish?"
Dean shook his head as Sam said, "Uh, no, thanks. I'm good."
"I still gotta drive," Bobby replied. "Thanks, Pam."
Pamela shot a worried glance at Dean but nodded and went back to the kitchen.
"Dean?" Bobby asked. "You all right, son?"
"I will be," Dean nodded, the pain in his face easing to simple exhaustion. "Don't know why, but the holy water helps." He rubbed at his chest a little. "'S like I can feel the spear..."
"Gives a whole new meaning to heartburn," Sam deadpanned.
Dean just huffed and leaned back, letting his eyes slip closed.
"Sorry. That... probably wasn't..."
Dean waved it off.
Then Sam frowned and reached up to touch the amulet he was still wearing. "Bobby... do you remember reading anything unusual about this amulet before you gave it to me?"
Bobby thought back. "Nothin' comes to mind. Why?"
"It... got hot all of a sudden."
Dean frowned a little without opening his eyes. "Never did that when I was wearin' it. Think it was reacting to Castiel?"
"I don't think so. I didn't notice it until... until you started hurting. Huh. And it's been warmer than usual ever since you came back."
"Yeah. Guess that's a reason for me to hang onto it, though, huh? I mean, if it reacts when something's up with you."
"Probably not that simple, but yeah. Guess so."
"No," Pamela said, coming back from the kitchen with her Irish coffee and also looking a bit pained. "It's not that simple at all."
Bobby looked over at her. "You holdin' up, girl?"
Pamela ignored him, he thought. "Every time Dean winced, I felt a spike in... divine presence, for lack of a better word. That's probably what the amulet's reacting to."
Bobby frowned. "You sayin' God's torturin' my boy?"
"No," Dean and Pamela chorused.
Pamela continued, "Stigmata, they're... they're like a conduit, a psychic connection. The stigmatic shares in the suffering of Christ."
"I feel what He feels," Dean explained. "And this whole damned thing hurts Him bad."
Sam blinked. "Dean... did you just..."
"No. Adjective properly applied. It's damned."
Sam sighed and reached over to rub the back of Dean's neck. Dean leaned into the touch.
Pamela took a drink and sank back into her recliner. "Dean, I don't want to be ungracious..."
Dean shook his head and sat up. "No. I get it. If you're pickin' up even a fraction of what I've felt..."
"Yeah. I'm sorry."
"Me, too." Dean pushed himself to his feet unsteadily and started to pull on his gloves.
Sam jumped up beside him. "Dean—"
"Sam, I can rest just as well in the car or back at the motel. We need to get out of here for her sake. Hey, uh... thanks, Pamela."
Pamela nodded. "Good seein' you again, Bobby. Nice to meet you, Sam."
Sam looked over at her sadly. "Yeah, nice to meet you too."
Bobby nodded his thanks to her, and then he and Sam turned their full attention to steering Dean back out to the Impala.
The hunters decided to go back to the motel where Sam and Dean had spent the rest of the night after getting to town around 2 that morning, both to let Dean rest and to let Bobby first give Sam the third degree and then help him figure out what in the world they were going to do with this little curveball. Dean was all too happy to leave them to it; dealing with such literally excruciating pain had worn him out. It wasn't long after his head hit the pillow that he was sound asleep and dreaming.
He found himself on a dock where he'd gone fishing one time while Sam was at Stanford. He wasn't usually one to enjoy fishing and wasn't even sure there were any fish in the lake at all, but it had been quiet and peaceful, a sorely needed respite from the stresses of hunting and the pain of life without his brother. His only wish then had been that he hadn't been alone.
And now, suddenly, he wasn't.
"It is restful, isn't it?" Jesus said with a small smile, flicking His own rod out over the lake from the chair that had appeared next to Dean's. "Most of the Twelve were fishermen by trade, but Peter enjoyed it more than most. I can't say I blame him."
Dean couldn't help smiling back. "Did You ever go fishing?"
"Now and then, mostly before I started My ministry. I was the oldest brother, too, you know, and My mother and brothers had to eat. Not that Nazareth was all that close to the Jordan, but once in a while we had cause to go someplace where the fishing was good, and James and I would go."
Dean wasn't sure why that idea seemed so odd to him. Maybe he should have paid more attention to the Bible stories Pastor Jim liked to tell.
Jesus' smile grew. "It's okay, Dean. You're a new believer, and you have a lot to adjust to—and not just matters of faith. You don't have to understand everything in one day."
Dean sighed and looked down at his hands—scarred, even in his dream, but not hurting now. "You're barely giving me a taste, aren't You?"
"I'm giving you what you can bear."
"How? You were up there for three hours, right?"
"Three hours that felt like all of history."
"How'd you last that long?"
"With man, this is impossible."
"Only I could."
"But You didn't have to. Why would You go through all that?"
Jesus looked Dean in the eye then. "Because I love you."
Dean couldn't stop the tear that slid down his cheek. "I don't deserve it."
"Dean, let Me worry about what you deserve—and what I choose to give you."
Dean's gaze fell. "Yes, sir."
They fished in silence for a long moment, and Dean tried not to boggle too hard over the fact that Jesus Himself seemed to want to just hang out in Dean's head.
"I'm glad Castiel came to you," Jesus finally said. "He's faithful, and he's curious enough to figure out the truth when it's obviously not what he's been told."
Dean nodded. "So if the first seal can't break... is that it? Is Sam out of danger?"
"Not yet, no."
"Then Lilith's still gonna try to kill..."
"Not kill. That's the ruse. Her game is corruption."
"Yes, Ruby. The idea is for Ruby to provoke Sam into killing Lilith. Her blood is one of the few keys to the Cage."
"But if the first seal will never break, what's the point in killing Lilith if it won't let Lucifer out of the Cage?"
"Dean, the Cage holds the Beast. Lucifer was never there."
"Listen. There will be time enough for you to gather enough evidence to make sense of what I've just told you. In the meantime, enjoy your brother's company again. You're alive, and Hell has no claim on you now. You need not always be solemn," Jesus finished with a grin.
And Dean woke with a start to find Sam shaking his shoulder.
"Hey," Sam said quietly. "I'm about to go get lunch. You want anything?"
Dean caught his breath. "Yeah. Bacon cheeseburger, extra onions." And nothing twinged.
Sam blinked. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Dean smiled. "Yeah, I'm sure."
The corner of Sam's mouth quirked up. "Okay. Coke?"
"Yeah. And Sam? Pie."
Sam grinned and left. Dean looked around and saw that Bobby had dozed off on the other bed, so he dozed off again himself until Sam returned.
The burger didn't have onions, but Sam had brought a large soda and two kinds of pie. So Dean breathed a quick, silent grace over the food and blew his straw paper at his brother, hitting him squarely on the ear.
Sam's startled yelp was music to Dean's ears.
"You sure this is a good idea, son?" Bobby asked for the fifth time as Dean pulled the Impala up to the back door of Bobby's house that evening. "I mean... this house has seen some stuff."
"Bobby, it's fine," Dean replied, getting out and grabbing his bag. "I haven't reacted to places yet, and you know that motel had seen some stuff." And he charged inside before his surrogate father could stop him, only the dull ache in his hands suggesting that Bobby's anxiety wasn't only over supernatural deaths that had occurred there.
What could Bobby feel he had to hide now?
Dean was hungry, so he made his way through the front hall, past the place where he recognized that Bobby had killed Karen in self-defense while she was possessed—and Rufus Turner exorcised her? That was news—into the kitchen, where everything became clear. It wasn't more than a flicker of vision, barely a ghost, but Dean still caught a glimpse of a tableau: Bobby's father beating Bobby's mother in a drunken rage, and a much younger Bobby shooting his dad to defend his mom.
Dean's hands did no more than ache.
He took a deep breath and let it out again as Bobby came to the door, white-faced. "Bobby. It's okay."
Bobby blinked once, twice, and his mouth opened and shut a couple of times before he managed, "What?"
"It's okay," Dean insisted, spreading his arms a little as the ache eased. "Now can we get somethin' to eat?"
Color and joy flooded back into Bobby's face as all the tension left it. "Yeah. Yeah, sure, hang on." And he started bustling about the kitchen, starting chili.
Sam looked from Dean to Bobby and back. "What was that all about?"
"Nothin'," Bobby said quickly—too quickly, they all knew that, but Dean wasn't going to spill if Bobby wasn't. "Just... lettin' me know he's good to stay here."
Sam looked a question at Dean, who shrugged, and decided to drop it.
The brothers spent two weeks at Bobby's, getting Dean used to being topside again and sorting out where his limits were with regard to his scars. A minor salt-n-burn proved to be almost too much, as Dean could barely hold the shotgun at the graveside and couldn't handle the shovel at all because his hands ached too badly. But car repair was still well within his purview; Sam found him a New Testament on tape to listen to as he worked, and a fairly good time was had by everyone. In fact, all was quiet.
Finally, by the end of the fortnight, Dean was starting to feel restless. Sam came back from a grocery run to find him cleaning guns and asked him about it.
Dean shook his head. "I dunno, dude. I just... God brought me back as bait, right? But we're not catchin' anything sittin' on the shelf here. So..." He slid the clip back into the magazine of the gun he'd just finished cleaning and chambered a round. "Time to go fishing."
Sam gave him a careful once-over. "You're sure you're up to it?"
Dean shrugged an eyebrow. "Not like I've had the flu, Sam."
Sam nodded slowly. "All right. Where to?"
"Blessed if I know. We can pick someplace and just head that way, see what turns up."
"How 'bout Spin the Bottle?" Bobby teased, coming in from the kitchen to take the groceries from Sam.
"Fine by me," both brothers chorused, and all three men laughed.
So after supper, Sam spread a map on the kitchen table and Dean spun a bottle, which pointed south toward East Texas. Then they said their farewells to Bobby and headed out, getting as far as Topeka before agreeing to stop for the night.
Barely had they gotten settled in their motel room when they heard a knock at the door and a male voice cracking on "Pizza!"
Dean winced as pain lanced through all his limbs, then nodded tightly to Sam.
Sam glanced through the peephole, threw open the door, and snarled, "What the hell do you want?"
"Parley," replied the Trickster, waving a white flag with one hand and holding up two pizzas with the other. "I've got questions; you've got answers. So, pax? Pizza?"
"Let 'im in, Sam," Dean ground out.
Stonefaced, Sam stepped back to let the Trickster enter.
The Trickster grinned up at Sam as he stepped over the salt line, but his smile faded as he came far enough into the room to get a good look at Dean. "Well. Looks like at least some of what I've heard is true. You got any appetite at all, Deano?" he asked, setting the pizzas on the table.
Dean glared at him. "What do you care, after Broward County?"
"Hey, I was trying to help Sammy prepare for life sans big brother, show him the weak spot the bad guys were planning to exploit. You ought to be thanking me."
Dean didn't start bleeding, but the pain shifted to his chest and intensified greatly, and he collapsed against his bed.
"Dean!" Sam cried.
"What... what are you?" Dean gasped, clutching at his side and looking at the Trickster.
The Trickster looked from Dean to Sam and back and laughed nervously. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Do you have any... idea... how you're hurting Him?"
"What? I don't—"
"Hello, Gabriel," Castiel interrupted, appearing at Dean's side and putting a supportive hand on his back.
The Trickster looked from Castiel to Dean to Sam and dropped down in a chair, looking trapped. "Hello, Castiel."
And the pain in Dean's side eased a smidge.
"Gabriel," Sam repeated. "As in archangel."
The Trickster—Gabriel—nodded. "No, Dean, I didn't know. I didn't know Dad knew. Didn't know Yeshua cared. We haven't heard from Dad in ages; I thought He'd just quit talking to us."
"No," Dean panted. "No, you all... quit listening."
Gabriel flinched at that, and Dean's pain eased a bit further. "I just... couldn't take the fighting anymore. So I got myself a face transplant, my own Witness Protection Program. And then you mooks showed up last spring." He sighed. "I thought... maybe if I helped things along, we could just get it all over with. I just want the fighting over," he repeated, almost pleading.
The pain eased enough that Dean could breathe better. "So this... this is not... about some prize fight... between your brothers. This... is about you... being too afraid... to stand up... to your family."
"Well, what am I supposed to do, fight destiny?"
"This was Lucifer's plan," Dean returned. "He's not in the Cage. He never was in the Cage."
"What?" the other three voices chorused.
Dean nodded. "'S true. Jesus told me."
Gabriel slammed his fist down on the table, and Dean's pain eased further. "Now it all makes sense. It figures. It just figures. It's the Beast in the Cage, right? Seven heads, ten horns, ten crowns?"
"That's great. That is just great. Luci's fooled all of us this whole time, while he's running around free."
"So what are you gonna do about it?"
The question hung in the air for a long moment before Gabriel asked quietly, "Why do I have to do anything about it?"
The pain in Dean's side spiked again, and he couldn't help crying out as his eyes clenched shut.
"Brother, please," Castiel pleaded. "Zachariah won't listen to me. Nobody will, except Balthazar. An archangel's testimony would carry far more weight. Please."
There was a long, agonizing silence, finally broken by Sam's "Dammit!" when Gabriel evidently disappeared.
Dean's pain let up enough for him to be aware of Castiel dropping into a crouch beside him and pressing a cool flask into his free hand. "Here, Dean," he said. "This cordial is used by the healers in Heaven. Perhaps it will help."
Dean nodded. "Thanks, Cas." He gingerly took a sip of the fragrant liquid and felt immediate relief. Opening his eyes, he smiled at the angel. "Wow. Thanks."
Castiel didn't smile, but he did look happier. "You're welcome. Guard it carefully; I don't know whether I can get you any more."
Dean nodded and capped the flask.
"Hey, Dean?" Sam asked with a puzzled frown and pizza boxes in his hands. "Didn't Gabriel bring just two pizzas?"
Dean frowned. "Yeah, I think so. Why?"
"There are three boxes now."
Dean stood with Castiel's help, set the flask of cordial on the nightstand, and went over to look. One box held a pepperoni pizza; one held a pizza with Canadian bacon.
And the third held a chocolate chip cookie pizza with SORRY in purple frosting.
Castiel stayed the night in Topeka, just in case Gabriel returned. He didn't. So Castiel left in the morning, and Sam and Dean, for lack of a clearer direction, kept going south on I-35. A couple of minor demons attacked them on their way through Kansas and a couple more in Oklahoma, but while Dean's scars opened each time when the demons got close, they didn't bleed nearly as freely as they had that first night at the crossroads. A small sip from Castiel's flask was all it took to get Dean mostly back on his feet.
Still, each ordeal took a lot out of Dean, and by the time they got to Corsicana, Texas, Sam got the feeling that they needed to stop for the night. Once they were checked into a nearly-deserted motel and Dean was settled on the bed—not in, since he insisted he wasn't quite ready to turn in for the night—Sam set salt lines and hurried off to get supper.
He had just pulled back into the parking lot when he felt the amulet's temperature jump.
Cursing, he parked and jumped out of the car, demon-killing knife in hand. Two individuals, male and female, stood outside the motel room door.
"Sam!" said the female, reaching for the knife. "Thanks for keeping that warm for me."
Sam swallowed hard and kept it out of her grasp. "Ruby?"
Ruby started a little song and dance about how horrible her time in Hell had been and how Lilith had given her a chance to get out. "And all I had to do was find you and kill you."
Sam backed away from her. "I don't think so."
They looked at each other for a moment before Ruby grabbed the other demon and shoved him onto the knife. "Get in the car," she said as the other demon fell. "We gotta get out of here. Now!"
"SAM!" Dean yelled from the room, startling Ruby.
Sam pointed the knife in Ruby's face. "Look. You want to talk to me? You find a body that's empty. Or I send you straight back to Hell."
Ruby huffed. "Fine." And she smoked out.
Sam quickly wiped the knife on the other demon's shirt and hurried back into the room to find Dean a sobbing, bloody mess. "Dean! Did they..."
"No... nobody... got in..."
"Okay. Okay, let me get—"
"Sam... save it... she'll be back."
"Ruby? Ruby caused all this?"
Sam wanted to deny the possibility, but he couldn't deny what he saw. Dean was in worse shape than he had been at the crossroads—far worse than even closer proximity to two minor demons had made him before. Sam swore. "What do I do, Dean? I can't let you bleed out!"
"Just... drink... holy water..."
"Holy water. Right." Sam pulled his flask and gingerly helped Dean drink a few gulps before Dean cried out again and fresh blood started pouring from the scars.
A different female voice cursed from just outside the door. "What happened to you, Shortbus?"
Sam jumped up and advanced on her. "Outside, Ruby. Now."
Ruby huffed. "I am outside, Sam."
"Fine, fine." She let him back her to the end of the parking lot. "You know, I just escaped from Hell. I deserve French fries."
"And I deserve the truth, Ruby. Why are you here?"
"To save your life."
"No. Why are you really here? You know Dean got out too soon. What's your game?"
She laughed nervously. "Come on, Sam. Look—" She held up papers from a hospital declaring her host a brain-dead Jane Doe. "Proof. This body is 100% socially conscious."
He walked up to her as if to kiss her. "Good. Then nobody else will care if I do this." And he drove the knife through her borrowed heart.
The heat in the amulet faded as she died.
After quickly cleaning the knife again, Sam sprinted back to the room. Dean was panting loudly but not screaming in agony anymore. "She... she gone?"
"Killed her. Where's the cordial?"
"Nightstand. Top drawer."
Sam grabbed the cordial out of the drawer and helped Dean drink. It took a long drink for the wounds to close this time, and although Dean's eyes no longer looked pain-glazed and shocky from blood loss, he could barely keep them open.
Sam carefully capped the flask and set it on the nightstand, then started to go close the door, only to find Castiel walking in.
"I have seen to the demons," Castiel said. "How is he?"
"Still pretty weak," Sam replied. "I was just about to get him cleaned up."
"We don't have time." Suddenly Castiel was next to the bed, putting a gentle hand on Dean's head, and the blood disappeared. "Lilith will be here any moment."
"Oh, no, she won't," Gabriel stated, appearing lounging in the doorway. "Not this century. If Luci wants her out, he'll have to go get her himself."
"Ga... Gabriel?" Dean panted, pushing himself to his elbows but not looking any more pained than he had been.
Gabriel wouldn't meet Dean's eyes; instead, he shrugged and kicked at the doorframe. "Ah, heck. Yeshua needs somebody to look after you muttonheads, right?"
Dean was trembling with the effort of keeping himself upright, but he said more insistently, "Gabriel."
Gabriel finally dragged his gaze up to meet Dean's.
Dean managed a weak smile. "Thanks."
Gabriel's answering smile was small but genuine. Then he took a deep breath and pulled himself upright. "C'mon, gang. Let's get out of here before someone calls the cops."
Castiel effortlessly pulled Dean to his feet as Gabriel snapped his fingers and collected the brothers' belongings. Sam then helped Castiel half-carry Dean back to the Impala and ease him into the front seat while Gabriel tossed the bags into the back. Once Sam was behind the wheel, Gabriel snapped his fingers again, and they found themselves on a shoulder about five miles out from Bobby's house. Then both angels waved farewell and vanished.
"Think't's over?" Dean slurred.
Sam sighed as he reached for the ignition. "I dunno. Hard to say what might still try to come after us. But if Lilith's under lockdown... I can't very well kill her, can I?"
Dean snorted. Sam smiled fondly and reached over to squeeze the back of Dean's neck, and Dean used what was probably the last of his strength to scoot over and lean his head on Sam's shoulder. He was asleep before Sam pulled the Impala onto the road.
Gabriel and Castiel—whose name inevitably got shortened to Cas—came in and out of Bobby's house over the next several days while Dean finished recovering, reporting on how things were going in terms of getting Hell off the Winchesters' trail and hammering the truth home through thick angelic heads. Slowly, the supernatural world went more or less back to normal. And just as slowly, Sam and Dean came to the conclusion that Dean, at least, needed to retire.
As June wore on toward July, Sam caught Dean looking at the calendar more than once. Finally, he said, "Dean? You... got a doctor's appointment coming up or something?"
Dean startled. "No. No, nothing like that; it's just... Ben. His birthday's coming up."
"Oh. Okay. You... wanna go down?"
Dean snorted. "Don't want to scare the kids, dude, lookin' like this."
Sam rolled his eyes.
"Actually, Sam... there's... somethin' I've been wantin' to talk to you about."
Sam sat down, and they talked. For hours they talked, pulling in Bobby, going over every conceivable angle, every possible way it could go wrong. None of them could think of a compelling reason not to try it.
So the Winchesters drove down to Cicero, and on the day after Ben's birthday party, Dean rang Lisa's doorbell.
Lisa looked delighted to see Dean again, but her face fell as she glanced up at the bandana he was wearing again. "Dean? Did... did something happen?"
Dean sighed and nodded. "Yeah. A lot happened. It's a long story. But the short part is, I... was wondering... if you were serious. I mean, if you still want me to stay."
She blinked. "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that. Does... that mean..."
"I'm retiring, yeah. There's a job here in town, might be a good fit. But Lis, I gotta be straight with you. Things are kind of different now." And he pulled off his gloves.
She gasped. "Is—are those—"
"Couple of months."
She laughed nervously. "Be kind of awkward to have a boyfriend move in with those."
"That's what I mean. Lisa Braeden, will you marry me?"
She gasped again, more loudly.
"I know it's sudden. You don't have to answer now. Me and Sam, we're gettin' a place. But... it's forever or nothing for me now. And when I picture myself happy, it's with you."
She took a couple of deep breaths to center herself before replying, "Look, I'm not saying no. But if you're gonna be in town for a while, why don't we take it a little slower, huh? At least go on a couple of dates before we decide for sure."
He nodded. "Sure. Yeah, that's... I just... wanted to ask you up front. So you'd know."
"Oh, Dean," she breathed and pulled him into a tight hug.
In the spring of 2012, a Hispanic couple at a garage in Cicero, Indiana, got into an argument. The exchange grew more and more heated until the husband struck the wife.
They were both startled when the mechanic cried out and collapsed against the engine compartment of their car, clutching his side as his wrench fell useless from his other hand.
Concerned, the wife ran to help him, only to be pulled backward when her husband caught her by the hair. The mechanic cried out again. Then the husband stalked over to the car with every intention of beating the mechanic senseless just to shut him up.
But there were spots of blood already starting to soak through the back of the mechanic's shirt, as if the man had been whipped. And a trickle of bloody sweat was peeking out from under the bandana he wore.
"Santa Maria," breathed the wife and crossed herself.
The husband was taken aback for a moment before deciding to go after the mechanic anyway—on what principle, no one could be sure. But by that time, the mountain of a bookkeeper had come out of the office to block the husband's path and laid him out with a single punch. He was just beginning to stir when the police arrived to take him into custody.
The wife hesitated near the car as she watched the officers surround her husband, but then she felt a sweat-soaked glove gently take her wrist as a hoarse voice said, "¿Señora?"
She looked around to find the bleeding mechanic, supported by the bookkeeper, holding her wrist and looking urgently at her. "¿Sí?"
"Él es malo. Dejarlo."
"I said leave him, sweetheart. Next time he'll kill you."
The bookkeeper translated that into Spanish and also added a suggestion of a priest she could talk to, a Father Sanchez who not only understood Spanish but could help her end the marriage without violating church canon. "Y, señora—" he glanced at the mechanic and touched a finger to his lips.
She took a ragged breath and nodded. "Sí, comprendo. Gracias." And she left.
"Abusive spouses, Sammy," Dean groaned as Sam fished the cordial flask out of his back pocket. "Gonna be the death of me."
"Your Spanish is getting better," Sam noted as Dean drank.
Dean took a deep breath and let it out again as the scars closed. "Didn't need it for the two last week. Don't care what color they are—why do they gotta beat on each other here?"
Sam huffed his agreement. "My place or yours?"
"Yours. Lisa's got a class."
Sam got Dean's arm around his neck and hoisted his brother to his feet just about the time Sid, the friendly neighborhood construction contractor, wandered in.
"Whoa, Dean!" Sid exclaimed. "You okay, dude?"
"Migraine," Sam replied for Dean.
"Really? What triggered it this time?"
"Domestic in progress."
"Sheesh, Dean. You can't let that kind of thing get to you, man. Lighten up."
Dean managed to make exhausted but annoyed eye contact. "Maybe if people would quit actin' like demons, I could."
Sid shook his head, bewildered. "What does a chick like Lisa see in you?"
"Goodbye, Sid," the brothers chorused and left.
"Idjit," Sam muttered once they were out of earshot.
Dean rolled his eyes and flexed his hand. "He means well."
Sam nodded down at his hand. "Is that—"
"Nah, not Sid." Dean nodded across the street, where a certain well-respected businessman was walking a few blocks away. "He's one I'd like to bust wide open if I had the evidence."
"Who, Dick Roman?"
"Yeah. He's human, but..."
"Maybe Bobby knows a cub reporter who needs a break."
Dean chuckled. "Like the way you think, little brother."