Artist: levanera (snakeslide)
Fandom/Genre: Supernatural, Alternate Universe - Canon
Pairing: Castiel/Dean Winchester
Word Count: ~14.6k (minibang)
Warnings/Tags: Fractured Fairy Tale, What the Hell's Happened to Dean?, Animal Transformation, Romance, Humor, Dreamwalking, I Swear to God I Did Not Mean to Make a Beauty and the Beast Knock-Off, ... Does this Make Meg Gaston, (Temporary) Major Character Death, Graphic Depictions of Violence
Summary: Being the only angel in the entire Pacific Northwest can be tiring, even if these days Castiel spends more of his time shoveling manure than fighting off the hordes of hell. It's an occupational hazard, unfortunately; he earns most of his living rehabilitating wild animals a few miles outside Spokane. Wild animals like Dean, for instance— a mountain lion who's entirely too smart for his own good. There's a man in Castiel's dreams named Dean too, but that part's just a huge coincidence.
[ Art Masterlist Coming Soon to LJ! ]
Author Notes: I cannot possibly overstate the amount of love I have for my clear-sighted and fast-acting beta, whit_merule, all the random people on tumblr who listened to me whine about it, and last but never never least my belovedlevanera. I know you can do it!
Light fades, light returns. Times change. The moon swells and wanes in due course. The stars wheel overhead. The trees grow, wither, lie dormant, spring forth anew. The world is dying and being reborn every day, every minute, a constant state of entropy and animation that circles in on itself, the snake eating its tail, an endless ouroboros.
"Nearly over, nearly there," he murmurs soothingly, one gloved hand stroking over his patient's heaving side. "Nearly done. Just one more push."
She moans in protest, rolling her body restlessly in the dry straw and breathing in huge rasping gasps, neck arched at an angle that looks forced and desperate.
"One more," he promises. "One more, just one, right— now—"
Her hoarse bellow shakes dust off the rafters above, and in a sudden rush of bloody fluids Castiel cradles in his hands a tiny, perfect seal pup. It's the second of twins, very unusual for the species and a development he hadn't expected, but surprise is immediately pushed aside by concern. The little pup isn't breathing, warm and still where it lies across his palms, and he holds it carefully to his chest as he fumbles in the straw for his emergency kit.
Nestled in the bedding next to him, the exhausted mother makes a weak, questioning noise. "Everything's fine," he tells her, and begins what passes for CPR on a thing so small and new.
Its heart remains unmoved, its airways stubbornly closed, and Castiel imagines what he no longer has the ability to see: a soul, flame-bright and fragile, guttering like a candle in a high wind. About to be lost to the world forever. In the next breath he gives, he exhales some of himself as well. The sharp, brilliantly white shine reflects wetly in the mother seal's eyes, her head turned to watch him. The tiny back bows, tail giving a single wriggling twitch before it opens its mouth and squalls, as loud as its mother, twice as loud as its older brother.
A cheer goes up from the watching women crowding around the sides of the stall, and Castiel starts and stares around him, startled by the sudden reminder that there is more to the world than this one bawling newborn, eyes still tightly closed, fur already drying in stiff spikes.
Beside him, a slit appears in the broad belly of the seal mother, and a pale, exhausted woman crawls out of her first skin. Castiel carefully transfers his squirming armful, and in her embrace the pup's skin also peels back, to reveal a little sister to the baby boy tucked into the curve of the woman's other arm.
"Anhel," she calls him, and gives him a dry, brief kiss on the forehead. The pups begin to fuss, and she pulls back to tend to them.
The world turns, the snake eats its tail, and spurred by some secret signal hidden in its coils the women of the tribe pour into the narrow stall like a rising tide. They gather his things and sweep him out and away from mother and children, kit, bloodied gloves, filthy clothes and all.
Castiel washes in a farmhouse up the road, soap cracked and water ice-cold, swirling pink and viscous down the drain. Outside the window the ocean roils in the fragile predawn light, waves nearly the same color as the craggy black rocks they rage against. He's been in Oregon nearly three days, two longer than he meant to be, but for the sake of that small unseen soul cannot regret it.
Someone knocks at the mudroom door, and Castiel is escorted to the great hall, strange and fantastic totems rising twenty feet to its roof. The selkie king presents him with a very large, very dead salmon, and he receives it with grave seriousness; this tribe is poor and proud, the sea providing their only bounty. The fish, and their gratitude, are the only things they can afford to give him, and he waves away all other offers.
True dawn finds him on the verge of exhausted sleep, lulled by the asthmatic rumble of an ancient Jeep's engine. The salmon is sitting in a borrowed cooler under his feet, bouncing and jiggling at every pothole as one of the young men of the tribe drives him from the coast to the nearest bus depot. The selkie seems undeterred by Castiel's growing inability to hold up his end of their conversation, and projects his voice over the grinding beat of the local pop station playing on the radio.
Despite the noise, Castiel has slipped into a light doze when his cell phone starts vibrating, a buzz like angry bees emanating from his pocket. It's a number without a name; unsurprising, as he's never bothered to save any numbers besides Claire's. It does, however, look familiar.
"Castiel," Uriel says in his ear, and Castiel blinks.
"Oh. Is it that time already?"
The young man sees him onto a bus, and the bus takes Castiel across the border into Washington and up into the mountains, driver navigating the sharp switchbacks with death-defying alacrity. This shuttle is unfortunately the fastest mode of transportation now available to Castiel; his wings are no longer strong enough to bear his weight, and it takes him more than eight hours to arrive in the city. It's another half-hour in a cab before he reaches the gates of the Cold Creek Wildlife Sanctuary.
Being the only angel in the entire Pacific Northwest can be tiring, even if these days Castiel spends more of his time shoveling animal dung than fighting off the hordes of hell. It's an occupational hazard, unfortunately; he earns most of his living rehabilitating wild animals at a few miles outside Spokane.
He's not a veterinarian and has no formal training in animal husbandry, but he has had thousands of years to acquaint himself with humankind and the species over which they have dominion. Castiel had decided fairly early in their separation from Heaven to devote himself entirely to God's lesser creatures; at the time, he'd told Uriel it was because he could not bear to see so large a part of Creation ignored for others, and this was accepted as a pious and sensible reason. In reality, Castiel finds dealing with the equally stranded denizens of hell distasteful, and humanity has consistently baffled him since the commission of original sin. Really, the beasts and birds of the earth are so much more straightforward and easy to deal with.
He's been at the sanctuary nearly two decades, now. It's a bit strange to think he might soon have to leave it. Castiel wonders, as the cab pulls up the guard station at the entrance, where Uriel might send him next.
His official title is Mr. James Novak, Director of Volunteer Services, and it's by that name the security guard greets him. "Have a fun trip to the seal farm?" the man asks, leaning out the station window as the gates clank slowly open.
For all anyone at Cold Creek knows, Castiel was merely visiting a marine mammal sister shelter, and the selkies prefer to keep it that way. "It was certainly... interesting," Castiel answers, and the guard chuckles as he waves the cab through.
His trailer is as he left it, the last in a row of single- and double-wides that serve as staff housing, just skirting the edge of the woods and Mount Spokane State Park. He overpays the cab driver and hauls his kit and the salmon in its cooler up his rickety wooden steps and into the cool dimness of the mobile home.
It's bare— "Sterile," Anna had sniffed. "Would it kill you to put up some photos?"— but Castiel likes the order of it, the clarity of visual space. It's a straight shot from the door to his kitchen, and he's just transferred the fish to the refrigerator when there's a frantic knocking at his door.
"Mr. Novak! Mr. Novak, are you home?"
Castiel gives his bedroom door a wistful glance.
"I'm coming," he calls back, and lets the fridge door close with a dull thock.
"I just didn't know what to do," Andy frets, standing with Castiel beside the transport truck. In the back, a wooden crate yowls and hisses, noise enough that half the staff have gathered around the vehicle to stare and murmur between themselves in low voices. "I mean, I would have gotten Meg, but she's supposed to be off and the last time I called on a vacation day she said she'd make me eat my—"
"It's fine. Really," Castiel says tiredly.
The attending veterinarian sees Castiel and jumps down from the bed of the truck, a tranquilizer gun balanced over her shoulder. "Jimmy, excellent," she says brusquely. "Can you work with him? He's weak and badly injured, but sedation wore off during transport. Any more and we're risking an overdose coma when he does go down."
The crate is keening like bansidhe now, the animal inside obviously in a great deal of pain and stress. "Don't expect miracles," Castiel warns, and belatedly realizes the irony as he pushes forward to the tailgate.
He hoists himself into the bed, crawling forward on his hands and knees. The mindless howling reaches another level of panic and the crate shudders, rocking violently forward as the animal throws itself against the side. It's well secured, or it very well might have fallen over.
Castiel brings his face close and lifts his hands to the wood, murmuring, "Let's take a look at you," under the sound of the animal's wild snarling.
There's venting cut into the front of the crate, through which he can see something crouched low against the floor. The animal lunges again, this time towards him, and razor-sharp claws dig harshly into the wood surrounding the slits.
Ah. A cat of some variety. "No one here with harm you, I promise," he says, as the animal gives a coughing roar. "You're safe. It's safe," he repeats, and this time when the animal leaps for him he moves his hand to lay over what little of the tawny, blood-speckled paw makes it through the gap.
There isn't any of the electric undercurrent of possibilities that Castiel associates with shapeshifters, nor the sooty cling of spellcraft. It's simply a wild animal, one that's hurt, and terrified. "Shhh," Castiel whispers.
Safe, he thinks. Through that tiny bit of contact, he tries to impress the idea of the crate as den/warm/cozy. Of himself, den/friend/good. Of the sanctuary, food/water/friend. "You're safe here," he says again.
The cat's yowl trails off into a noise like a mewl, claws flexing slightly under Castiel's palm.
"It's a good place. Food and shelter."
There's a pause, as if it were considering this. Then, it makes the strangest sound, a weird warbling croon Castiel would more associate with its domestic cousins than a cat as large as this. It sounds, almost, likes it's trying to talk back to him. To ask him something.
"Safe. I promise," he says, and lets his hand drop.
After a moment the claws withdraw, but the cat doesn't settle back. Castiel watches, puzzled, as it maneuvers itself so that one vibrantly gold-green eye peers out at him through the venting.
"Oh. Hello," he says, surprised.
It repeats that questioning noise, this time more loudly, and blinks at him, pupil narrowing in the slanting fall sun.
"Jimmy?" It's the veterinarian, standing at the tailgate. "We good to go?"
"I... believe so," Castiel says slowly, frowning at that one visible eye. It's focused on his face, moving with him when he sways experimentally, and there's a disconcertingly intelligent cast to its gaze.
"We're going to move you now," he feels compelled to explain. "It may be a bit of a bumpy ride, but at the end you'll have a nice enclosure to yourself. And you'll be fed."
The cat stares at him for another long, uncomfortable moment before it gives a huff, and disappears into the shadows of the crate.
"Yes, sorry," he says, and turns and scoots down the truck bed. The forklift is fired up and positioned, and Castiel watches, perplexed, as the crate stays still and silent as it's lifted and carried away to the quarantine cages.
What Castiel wants more than anything at this moment (besides world peace, an end to hunger and for the vending machines in the main building to start stocking Payday candy bars again) is to fall into the narrow twin bed in his trailer and sleep through the next twenty-four hours.
Instead, he opens his front door and finds Balthazar sitting at his tiny kitchen table.
"Cassie, finally!" the other angel says with a bright smile.
"Go away," Castiel groans, and shuffles towards his bedroom.
Balthazar trails after him, watching with obvious amusement as Castiel bumps into furniture and bounces off doorframes before finally finding the edge of the mattress and collapsing facedown onto it.
"Still doing the whole sleeping thing, then?"
"It's not good for you, Cassie, invites all kinds of other nasty human habits. Like eating."
"Disgusting practice, eating," Balthazar says, flopping down next to Castiel's prone body. "All that mastication, fluids oozing everywhere. And don't even get me started on the excretion process."
"Of course, if you stop to look at it, fucking is by far—"
Castiel lifts his head out of the pillows and glares. "Balthazar. What do you want?"
The angel, ankles crossed and hands linked behind his head, shrugs expansively. "Are you going to the convocation?" he asks, addressing his question to the ceiling.
"Con—oh," Castiel says, remembering Uriel's phonecall. "Of course I'm going."
"Yes, well," and Balthazar shrugs again. "Some of us have better things to do."
"How is Bela?" Castiel asks, because mentioning Balthazar's charge is always a sure distraction and has the added benefit of reminding the other angel he'll shortly be needed elsewhere— if he isn't already. Uriel did offer Castiel a position as a guardian angel once, but he'd pleaded temperamental unsuitability.
Balthazar turns on his side, grinning at Castiel in the dim twilight. "She swindled this Austrian count out of two original Vermeers yesterday, I've never been so proud."
"You should be leading her in godly ways," Castiel says reprovingly, but Balthazar only laughs and reaches forward to ruffle careless fingers through Castiel's hair.
"She's happy, what more can I want?"
"Her eternal soul to return to Heaven?"
Balthazar snorts. "It'll get there, Cassie, she's not a mass murderer."
He lets his hand rest on Castiel's head, thumb brushing idly over his brow.
"Something's happening, Castiel," the other angel says, meditatively. "Something is changing."
Castiel looks at him, troubled. "What do you mean?"
Balthazar smiles, but it's thin and sharp as a blade. "Just be careful out here by yourself, yeah? Keep your eyes open."
"Do you still have your sword?"
"I— think so," Castiel says. Although he hasn't tried to manifest it since before his wings failed. "Balthazar, you should tell Uriel or Hester if you think something is wrong."
"Told you, didn't I?" Balthazar says, giving his head one last pat. "You tell them, Cassie. Go bring the glad tidings."
In the next instant he's gone, leaving a nothing but a warm indentation and the scent of cologne on Castiel's sheets.
Castiel has a dream that night.
It's a rare occurrence that's getting depressingly more common, the further Castiel slips from grace—or, rather, the further Grace slips from him. He never used to dream. Now, he walks the halls of New Jerusalem, flies over the domes of the White City, runs his fingers over the dazzling purity of the Gates that stand at Heaven's entrance. They part under his fingers and he wakes, reaching out into the dark for something that has been lost to him, to all of them for hundreds upon thousands of years.
This dream is different.
He's walking along the bottom of the ocean, looking up at the far-away silhouettes of whales as they pass overhead. The abyssal plains stretch out into the gloom in every direction, empty and desolate.
He walks, and as he walks, he begins to sense that there is something in front of him, a thing of unimaginable vastness. The sunlight that glimmers at the surface far above hardly penetrates here, and Castiel's eyes strain to discern a shape, any sign of movement.
He dreams, and walks. But he never comes close enough to truly see.