Part 1 of 2
Primary characters: Dean, Sam and Castiel
Genre: heavy on the angst, a bit of h/c
Spoilers: YES. This takes place (and was written) directly before season 8, episode 10
Summary: This story is purely an interpretation of the 8.10 promo (written because I couldn't wait for the episode!). It explores whether Sam and Dean can put their differences aside to help a desperately-in-need Castiel.
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"Where the hell is he?"
It's Dean's voice that finally snaps the long, brittle, and intensely charged silence. He is pacing at the edge of the clearing, where the trees and underbrush thicken into a densely wooded forest, and struggling to see his watch in the gauzy moonlight that filters through overhead branches. "We've already been here, what—" squinting and slapping at the crystal of his Suunto, "forty-five minutes?"
"Twenty-six and a half," says Sam in clipped, cold reply. He sits inside the Impala's passenger seat, where it's marginally warmer, the door swung open wide.
Dean glances fleetingly at him, noticing that his brother still refuses to make eye contact. "But who's counting, right?"
With that, the tense, festering silence returns. Dean shivers slightly in a chill wind that rustles the trees, hugging his arms around himself for warmth, and continues pacing. Somewhere within the foliage a single cricket chirps, a lonely survivor of the winter cull. "This is the place," Dean mutters, more to himself than to Sam. "I'm sure this is the place. I mean, we followed the coordinates he gave us. And it's not like he's going to screw up the coordinates. You sure you plugged in the right coordinates?"
Sam doesn't answer. He merely glares.
At least it's eye contact, Dean thinks.
"Okay," he says. "Fine. So we're in the right place. He's just late. Not a big deal…" He paces the length of the clearing, slaps again at the watch dial, and stops. "Except it is a big deal because he's never late. I mean, it's not like he's gonna get stuck in traffic, is it. And what the hell is the point of a backlight if the back never freakin' lights!"
"Tell me again exactly what he said."
Dean sighs impatiently. "Eight o'clock. Here. Something about Crowley and another tablet and rescuing something or someone..."
Sam gives him a withering stare. "And that's…exactly what he said."
"It's close enough."
Even in the dark and from outside the car, Dean can see Sam's eye-roll. "What?" he snaps.
"You have no idea what we're doing here."
"I just told you!"
Sam shakes his head and mutters something Dean can't quite hear.
"Didn't catch that, Sammy." The irritation in his voice is simmering into animosity.
Sam climbs out of the car and slams the door a little too hard. He fixes Dean with that stony glare again and says softly, "I said maybe you got the coordinates wrong, Dean. Or the time. Or the night. Or any number of details that I was relying on you to sort out, because I was busy dropping everything and driving four hundred miles to get here!"
"Funny," Dean snorts. "Didn't sound like you said that much the first time."
"You want the condensed two-word version?"
Dean turns suddenly, slamming a hand against a car door. "You know what, Sam? I didn't exactly beg you to come. If you wanted to stay home and play house with some chick, if that's your calling now, you should've said so, because I sure as hell don't need you here."
"You think I'm here for you?" Sam retorts, his voice rising. "You seriously think I'd be here for you?"
Dean can feel his hands begin to shake with the frustration and anger he's trying to contain. He doesn't dare speak because he can't trust what might escape from his stifled emotions. Before tonight, he hadn't seen or heard from Sam in over three weeks. And when Sam reached the Lazy 8 Motel in Fayetteville earlier that evening, they exchanged little more than polite comments about the weather before piling into the Impala and heading off the last thirty miles for the meeting place. It was thirty miles of bitter silence.
"Let's get something straight," Sam is saying now, his tone conveying a calm he surely doesn't feel. "I came because Castiel asked, because he said he needed us both, and that's the only reason I'm here. If it were up to me—" He abruptly stops himself.
"What?" Dean growls. "Say it."
Sam throws both hands in the air and walks away.
"Don't stop now, Sammy, you're on a roll!" Dean shouts. "You want out? You want to quit? Why don't you just say what you want!"
"I've been saying what I want, Dean," Sam fires back, reeling around to face him. "You just won't accept it!"
Dean stomps forward, closing the distance between them, stopping mere inches away. In a low, whiskey-cured voice he says, "I'm in a real accepting mood right now, Sam. Why don't you try me."
"Fine," says Sam, swallowing back the lump of emotion in his throat. "I'll do this one last job. For Cas. And then I'm done. After tonight I'm finished."
And there it is. Dean had been expecting it for so long now, anticipating the hollow gut-punch of pain, that the actual words seem almost disappointing in their simplicity, in the lack of feeling they deliver. In fact, he doesn't feel much of anything at all.
"Fine," he says. "Let's just get through this last fucking night then, shall we?" And he moves away from Sam and turns his attention toward the dark thatch of trees looming in front of them. A low rumble of thunder rolls in from the distant clouds.
"Where the hell is he?"
Castiel is in a graveyard. Of that he's fairly certain. Tombstones jut from the earth like jagged stilts, their inscriptions worn smooth from decades of harsh weather. Beyond them is a dilapidated wrought iron fence, fully erect in some places, mangled spikes twisting toward the ground in others. And beyond that is the inky darkness of the woods.
So unlike the white room.
The thought causes a spark of disorientation in his mind, so keenly knife-edged in its intensity it makes him flinch. It comes from nowhere and makes no sense. It's happening again…
He inhales a human-like breath of the chilled air around him, allows it to fill and expand his lungs, and slowly releases it. Sometimes this helps ease the transition.
He's not sure how he came to be here. It feels like he's just been somewhere else, somewhere completely different…and uncomfortable, and wrong, and white…but the sensation is fading even as he tries to understand it, like he's chasing a shadow into the sun. This has been happening to him a lot lately, more and more over the past few weeks, since last he worked with Sam and Dean. In the weeks he has been on his own, Castiel has experienced inexplicable episodes of confusion, a feeling of being wrenched out of a moment then forced back into it like an ill-fitting puzzle piece. It usually fades within seconds, leaving him feeling a bit dazed and slightly embarrassed; this is the sort of thing that happens to elderly humans with dementia and drunks, not to beings of ageless divinity like himself. As the episodes continued, they began leaving him with a feeling of vague discomfort, of dis-ease. And lately, along with all the new ideas and information they seem to engender, they've been leaving in their slipstream a feeling of dire wrongness.
Which is why he finally contacted Sam and Dean.
But this time the feeling left over is very different. This time there is nothing vague or shapeless about it. This time the feeling is one of acute dread, like it's a nightmare he's just awoken from, and the remnants of it are just behind him, hunting him, reaching with their claws to drag him inexorably back.
She's angry is the thought that leaps suddenly into his head. He has no idea what it means or where it comes from, only that it fills him with profound fear, with a dread that he's never known before. As if it's something he has no control over, something powerful and dark, something evil heading his way that he cannot possibly stop. He's just escaped it, he suddenly knows. He has no idea what, or how, but the certainty of his escape is undeniable. He's escaped and it's after him. It is hunting him down.
A kind of panic is rising within Castiel, closing around his solar plexus, his chest, his throat as it claws its way up. He glances around with wide, frantic eyes, expecting something horrible to leap from between the trees or from behind one of the tombstones, something hateful and vile from the nightmare he can't remember.
Someone very angry with him.
But of course there's nothing. It's quiet here. He's alone.
A flicker of lightning threads the clouded sky, and for the briefest instant the graveyard flashes white. Castiel shudders.
He wonders if he's losing his mind. Or perhaps he never fully regained it, and only now, after all this time, is the truth crumbling away to reveal itself. Perhaps he's sinking back into the embrace of madness.
But this isn't helping. He needs to concentrate, needs to still the desperately racing thoughts in his mind. Sam and Dean. They're here somewhere. They're waiting for him. He can tell them about all of this. Maybe they can help. He asked them to meet him, and…and then everything seemed to blur out of focus. In his escape from whomever or whatever is stalking him, he's lost track of both time and place…and even now he's losing his grasp on that very thought. Is someone stalking him? That's absurd…
A small voice from deep within tells him to hurry.
Castiel dives into the woods in search of his friends, not trusting his own honing abilities to find them right now and teleport him to their location. Like his thoughts, they're too disjointed, too unsteady. He stumbles through the underbrush, ducking through shrubs and leaping over deadwood. Skeletal branches claw at his skin as he runs, tear at his coat. He'll fix it later. He'll fix everything later. All he has to do now is find Sam and Dean.
Stumbling into a clearing, he finds the car, but they're not here. He turns around in a slow three-sixty, scoping the area, deciding on a path. There. Maybe half a mile through the trees he can see the sweeping arcs of flashlights. With the speed of thought, he's just yards behind them, and it's then that he hears their voices.
They're arguing. He catches words like "responsibility" and "unforgiveable" and, with pointed fierceness—though his senses are so frayed he can't be sure which of them says it—"seven years of this shit", and none of it means anything to him. He can't let it.
"Dean," he says to the broad-shouldered figure in front of him.
Dean spins around to face him with an angry, accusing stare, as if all of the rage that fueled his argument with Sam is now aimed and firing at Castiel. "Well, look who decided to join the party! Nice of you show up, Cas!"
"I'm sorry, I—" is all he manages before his words are bulldozed.
"Do you have any idea how long we've been waiting?" fires Sam.
"How long we've been tearing this place apart looking for you?" rages Dean.
"We've been looking everywhere!"
"We thought Crowley might have you!"
"What were you thinking?"
"Where the hell have you been?"
"I–I'm sorry," Castiel tries again, feeling like he's just stumbled unarmed and unprotected into a war zone. "I was—"
"Oh, that's perfect," snarls Sam, as the first of the rain begins sluicing down through the overhead branches. "I've got to go back to the car, my jacket's there."
"You left your jacket in the car? Why the hell would you do that?"
"Because I didn't expect to be wandering through the woods for half an hour!"
"It's gonna take you that long to get there and back," Dean shouts. "What are we supposed to do, just sit on our asses waiting?"
"Why don't you trying figuring out what we're doing here!"
"I can tell you that," says Castiel as he offers a neatly folded pile of canvas and waterproofing to Sam.
"Oh," says Sam, as if surprised to find Castiel still there. Recognizing his jacket, he takes it from the angel and struggles to stuff his long arms into the sleeves as the rains sheets steadily down around them. "Thanks."
"There's a church about half a mile south of here," says Castiel, nodding toward the upward slope of dense, dark woodland. As they huddle beneath a canopy of live oak branches that shelter them from the downpour, he explains to them that it's old and in disrepair, that it hasn't served as a place of worship for many years, but that somewhere within it lies a map to the location of the next tablet of the compendium. He tells them that Crowley may already have it, that he and his coterie arrived at the church earlier that day, that they may still be there now, and that Sam and Dean will need to search the premises and retrieve the map. They listen quietly as he speaks, absorbing the details with a sullen and tense impatience, as if their minds are still focused on the earlier argument and eager to return to it.
"So what will you be doing?" Dean finally asks, though it seems to Castiel without much genuine interest. "While we're searching for this map."
"I'll be searching for the angel Crowley's been detaining and torturing for the past three weeks. He's most likely here. His name is Samandriel. I believe you've met him."
"Right," says Dean vaguely and distractedly, "yeah."
"There's a dampening spell in place over the church to suppress angelic energy, which is why I believe Samandriel may be inside," Castiel explains. "Once there I'll be rendered as powerless as he is," he says, and it's in that instant that he is reminded of his own faltering acuity, and the true reason he asked his friends to be here. His polished relay of information freezes. It has been so easy to simply recite the necessary facts. Details rolling off his tongue smoothly and effortlessly, the words flowing through his lips as if by rote, and once he began explaining the mission, everything he so urgently wanted to confess to Sam and Dean—the lapses, the uncertainty, the unsettled feeling…the dread—began to simply slip away, as if it was never there.
They don't notice that he's stopped talking.
"So this is a rescue mission," says Sam in a tone similar to Dean's.
"Not for us," says Dean, as he drops to one knee and begins shuffling through his duffel bag, pulling forward for easy access the weapons he now knows that he'll need. "We go in, gank demons, grab a map, get out. Is that about it?"
"Um," says Castiel, scrabbling now for the threads as they slide from his reach, "yes."
"One question," says Dean, still rifling through his bag. Sam stands a few feet away, snapping fresh batteries into his flashlight. "How do you know all this?"
Castiel glances down at Dean. "What?"
Dean doesn't look up. He pulls a .45 Colt from a side compartment in the bag and slides it behind his back beneath his belt. "I'm just curious where you're getting your intell, dude. You been tailing Crowley?" He smiles up at Castiel now, a glint of mischievous pride in his eyes. "Smackin' up his stooges and makin' 'em squeal?"
The angel blinks at him. "I don't understand anything you just said."
Dean huffs a small laugh and zips up his bag. Sam shuffles impatiently. "This rain's not letting up. We should get going."
"Yeah," agrees Dean, all traces of amusement fading fast. He shoots a hard look at his brother. "Let's get this over with."
Castiel is still thinking about what Dean asked, feeling confused and irritated by a question that makes no sense to him but certainly should. Perhaps because he doesn't know the answer. How does he know about the map? About Samandriel? How does he know where the church is? And why does even thinking about these questions cause his thoughts to twist and tighten around them like a vengeful Gordian knot?
He tries to focus on his friends. Sam is frowning at his flashlight as he toggles the on-off switch. Dean is staring listlessly off into the forest. Their thoughts are elsewhere. They don't want to be here.
But they are. They came at his asking. But…why did he ask them?
Thunder rumbles low and baleful again, and there's a brief flash of lightning high in the clouds. The rain falls in a soft fluttering sound on the leaves above them, steady and unrelenting. Sam and Dean are waiting for him. For an instruction or a move. Perhaps to teleport them closer to the church. But they're still consumed in their own thoughts, in the tension and anxiety that Castiel met when he first arrived, too consumed to notice his confusion, his desperation.
Until an unexpected thing happens. Castiel notices it only in the periphery of his vision, and even then it doesn't fully register. Sam turns toward him and stops, and as Dean pulls himself to his feet, hoisting his duffel bag over his shoulder, his brother catches his arm. Annoyance flares on Dean's face as he tries to pull away, but Sam holds tight. He doesn't look away from Castiel. Dean glares at him for a moment, then follows his line of sight, his gaze resting on the angel. And then they stand very still, watching him with odd, intent expressions on their faces. Dean calls his name. Castiel replies, or at least he thinks he does, from the tangle of misfiring thoughts, and in that moment he realizes he has their full attention.
As if a switch has been flipped, a torrent of images and memories floods Castiel's mind. All the things that have been happening to him, the sense of losing time, of being in the wrong place, of forgetting vital pieces of information…and now, of the overwhelming dread, the foreboding, the nascent danger to them all that transcends Crowley and the tablets. They need to know…
The last time Cas looked this bad, this battered and lost, was when Dean found him in Pergatory. It's not so much his physical state—although his coat is torn and muddied, his hair disheveled, the skin of his face scratched and bleeding and inexplicably unhealed—as his demeanor. He looks apprehensive, almost overwrought. He keeps glancing over his shoulder, eyes darting in all directions, nerves strung tight. There's something in his eyes that looks like fear. But what troubles Dean most is the tremor he can see in his friend's hands…
"Cas?" he says, voice low and calm.
It takes a while for Castiel to respond. When he finally glances their way, he seems both startled and disarmed by their attention. His voice is barely audible against the drone of thunder. "Yes?"
They both watch him.
"What's going on?" Dean asks carefully, quietly.
"I told you. There's a church—"
"No," says Sam. "He means… Are you okay?"
The darkness of the night seems to expand around them all, swallowing them into implacable, endless black. There are no stars in the sky, no moon, and even the trees become featureless and shapeless against the night. Castiel seems frozen in place, a fixture of the dark, only his pallid face and the icy blue of his eyes discerning him from the empty space behind him.
"No," he finally says softly, looking to Dean more vulnerable than he's ever appeared. "I'm not. I need your—"
And then his eyes roll up, his head falls back, and he collapses to the black ground.
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?
The question roars through his head with the force of a tidal wave. Dazzled and blinded by the tortuously white light, he's not sure at first who said it.
But as shards of light coalesce like fragments of broken glass, her face takes shape over his, just inches away. Her dark hair is swept back from skin as pale and translucent as porcelain. Her eyes are intense and shining, the color of cobalt. They are filled with rage.
"First you leave our meeting before we're finished," Naomi says, her voice bristling. "How did you manage that?"
Castiel remembers everything, how by sheer force of will he'd managed to rip himself out of this room and back to his reality. But his response dries up in his throat as he stares up at her.
"It doesn't matter. It won't happen again. But what you were about to do, what you were about to say…" The pupils in her eyes dilate, blackening with intensity as she leans closer. He can feel her lips against his right ear, a wisp of her hair brushing his cheek. Lowering her voice to a wintry, lethal whisper, she asks, "Do you think we'll allow you to ruin everything?"
He tries to speak, wants to explain, but once again the words evaporate, and all at once he understands that she's not allowing him to speak. He is meant merely to listen. To hear. To obey.
It's then that he realizes he cannot move. He doesn't dare look away from her, but he can feel that his arms and legs are heavily restrained, locked into place, and that he's lying back at an angle from where she stands over him. Even his head feels somehow immobilized. The room is familiar, but all of this is new…
"We asked you merely to locate a map and retrieve a captive angel, and even that you're resisting."
"No," Castiel chokes out. "I want to help him—" He'll do anything to help his felled brother, to bring him home safely; it was never that he questioned, it was her tactics, it was deceiving the Winchesters, deceiving him—
She holds up a single hand to silence his thoughts.
Almost gently she says, "You're a great disappointment, Castiel. I personally had such high hopes for you." She steps back and regards him evenly, her expression less of anger now than of regret. "But you've proven yourself untrustworthy. You're far too out of control to be allowed to continue as you have."
I'm sorry, he wants to say. But he's not sorry. He's relieved. As much as he wants to atone for his sins against Heaven, there is something about all of this that has felt wrong from the beginning. Perhaps it's him. Perhaps he's the wrong person for this. Perhaps he's been too influenced by his relationship with the Winchesters and their doctrine of free will to ever again follow an order without questioning it. Maybe now they can find the right person for this work.
"We have the right person," she says, smiling down at him coldly, and from the corner of his vision something silver flashes in her hand. "We just need to fit you with an insurance policy, to ensure your obedience from now on."
It all happens so fast. Another flash of silver as she raises an object over his head, a device—is it a drill?—that she holds deftly in her hand, its pointed edge razor sharp and searing hot as it touches his forehead with a piercing, high-pitched screech.
"You have new orders, Castiel," he hears her say through the first wave of horrific pain. "And this time you'll follow them."
She may be saying more, but it's lost in his own scream of agony.
Dean leaps to Castiel's side. The angel has crumbled to the ground, doubled over in nearly a fetal position. Dean gives him a shake, calls his name. Sam has come up just behind him, his breath on Dean's neck.
"Cas?" Dean says again, more urgently this time. "C'mon, man."
The angel's eyes flutter open. Dean tucks a hand under his arm to help him up, when Castiel suddenly and quite violently recoils, swings a fist at Dean that misses him entirely but nevertheless sends him reeling backward and colliding into Sam, then raises both arms in a defensive cross over his face, with the thundering shout: "DON'T TOUCH ME!"
The sound is deafening, like an explosion at close range. Tree leaves ripple in its shockwave.
It takes a while for the hiss of rain to gradually filter back in through the shocked silence hanging palpably in the night. Sam and Dean are both standing motionless, both staring thunderstruck and speechlessly at Castiel, who slowly staggers to his feet, looking pale and unsteady, a vacant sheen in his eyes. He blinks a few times, sways to one side, corrects himself. Dean starts to move toward him, but Sam rests a hand on his wrist, subtly holding him back. They don't dare move.
Lightning flashes in a zigzag overhead, the bass of thunder so deep it seems to roll beneath their feet.
Castiel's left eye twitches slightly, like a nervous tick, and one hand raises to his temple, touches it briefly, then drops back to his side. As Dean watches, it occurs to him for one crazy moment that it's no longer his friend standing there.
"Cas," he finally says very carefully, so quietly that he's not sure he can be heard over the rain. "What the hell, man?"
Castiel blinks again, as if clearing a mental fog. There's something mechanical, almost automated, in the stilted way he moves, and as he slowly looks up at them with those vacant eyes, Dean feels a chill. "There isn't much time," he says. "We have to move."
Sam shakes his head slightly, his ears still ringing. "What…what just happened, Cas?"
Castiel doesn't answer at first. He simply stares. And Dean has the impression that he's reconfiguring, computing the correct response.
"Crowley has left Samandriel alone in the church. He needs our help. I have to reach him."
Struggling to follow, Dean asks, "Samandriel is definitely there? You know that?"
"I can hear him. But Crowley will be returning shortly. Because of the dampening spell, he'll need to physically enter from the outside. The two of you will patrol the area, detain him if he appears."
"You…want us to detain Crowley," asks Sam incredulously.
"We have no more than ten minutes."
"Cas, how do you know this?" presses Dean.
The angel turns to—on?—him, his expression flat, his voice cold. "We have a window of opportunity before he returns. That window is closing."
"O–Okay," stammers Sam, "just get us inside the church and we'll find the—"
"No," Castiel says sharply. "You will remain outside of the church until I give you the all-clear. You will wait for that. Do you understand?"
"Not really," mutters Dean.
"Your job is to stand guard against Crowley." A harshness edges his tone, a growing impatience.
"I thought our job was to find some map," says Sam with a frown.
He turns on Sam this time. "I said you will wait."
"You said you'll have no powers in there," counters Dean. "Shouldn't you have back-up?"
"He's right," says Sam. "Wouldn't it make more sense for us to follow you in?"
"You search for your winged buddy while we take out Crowley's goons," Dean says.
"And then we'll find the map," Sam concurs.
"I don't need—"
"We're coming with you," says Dean flatly, his tone declaring a final decision has been made.
It seems to take Castiel off-guard. He steps away from them, stumbling backward into the massive gnarled trunk of the oak behind him as he speaks. "This isn't—you can't—" And as his voice rises through his clenched jaw, "I have my or—"
He abruptly stops, flinching as if he's just been physically struck. His head drops and a hand presses against his left temple.
The brothers exchange uneasy glances.
"Your what?" Dean asks quietly.
The angel doesn't look up as he speaks. One trembling hand massages his forehead as he struggles through the words, as if each one is causing him pain. "My…my orders. If you can't follow my orders, I don't want you here. In fact, you should go, you should just…" He winces and sucks in a sharp breath. "…go…"
Dean drops his duffel bag and crosses to Castiel, closing the space between them.
"Cas," he says gently, affecting a calm that he doesn't feel.
His friend doesn't respond. His eyes are hidden behind the hand at his forehead. Rainwater spills in thin rivulets from a tangle of wet hair at his brow, tracing paths down his face.
"Look at me," Dean instructs him. He places a hand carefully on the angel's shoulder. "Hey—"
Castiel flinches back from the touch, and Dean tightens his hold. "No, don't fight me," he says firmly. "Just look up."
The angel reluctantly obliges. His hand falls to his side again, and he lifts his gaze into Dean's. He looks utterly exhausted, like he's just fought and lost a battle that Sam and Dean had no part of. He looks like he's in pain. But most unsettling of all, there's a hollowness in his expression, an emptiness in his eyes, that makes it look like he's not entirely there.
"You need to tell us what's going on," Dean says. "Let us help you."
"I don't need your help," he finally replies in a thin, taut voice that sounds little like his own.
"A few minutes ago it sounded like you did," says Sam, who has quietly drifted over and now stands firmly at his brother's side.
"Just before you took a swing at me," says Dean.
"What's happening to you, Cas?"
"Talk to us, buddy."
Castiel tilts his head back to take them both in, to assess their stance toward him, Dean thinks, their proximity. He's taking note that he's effectively surrounded, with Sam blocking one exit, Dean the other, and the immense trunk of an oak tree at his back. He exhales a long, ragged breath. "Okay," he says. "Let's talk." And then in the measured but artificially kind voice of a teacher admonishing wayward children, Castiel says, "Asking you here was a mistake. From the moment you arrived, with your pointless questions and your petty squabbles, you've done nothing but waste my time. Your problems aren't my concern. You're of no use to me. And you're in my way. Now get out."
And they do. Stunned and unnerved by his words, reminded that they're in the presence of a being whose mere voice can make trees quake, they both take a step back without thinking twice, opening a space for him. He of course doesn't need them to do this, but he steps into the space anyway, as if to make a point, and then turns back to them.
"Stay away from the church. Go home."
Dean watches him for a moment, then takes a deep, unsteady breath. He glances across at his brother, then down at the weedy mud at his feet. "Look, we'll do a sweep for Crowley if that's what you—"
Dean looks up at Sam, who motions over his shoulder toward Castiel. The space where the angel had been standing is empty. It's just the two of them now.
They stand wordlessly for a moment as the rain swells around them, the din of thunder softening beneath the surge of wind. Both of them at a loss for words, both trying to take in what has just happened, neither of them understanding it. It's finally Dean who breaks the uncomfortable silence.
Sam looks up, startled out of his thoughts. "Huh?"
Dean shakes his head, rolls his eyes a little. "Half the crap I said to you before." Then shooting a steely glance at Sam, "Only half though."
Sam offers a small laugh, wiping strands of wet, matted hair from his forehead with the back of his hand. But his brother isn't finished.
"Mostly I'm sorry for you getting dragged all the way back here for…" He shrugs, raises both palms, then lets them drop wearily to his sides. "Whatever the hell this was."
"It's not your fault," says Sam quietly.
"I know. Still… Helluva way to go out, huh?"
Neither says anything for a long moment. The rain falls steadily, a dismal, ever-present backbeat to the evening.
"I just want you to know…" Dean finally says, and then fades out.
Sam tries to catch his eye, but can't. "What?"
Dean sighs. He focuses on the weeds at his feet. "If you need to head back now, Sammy… it's okay. I mean, I can't really say I understand it, but…" He looks up now and meets his younger brother's eyes. "You've got to do what feels right for you."
Sam watches as Dean gives him a single nod, as if to punctuate the words, then dips his head and looks back down, water dripping off his chin. "I will," Sam says. He's still watching him, knowing how difficult that had to be for him, feeling a pulse of admiration, and adds softly, "Thanks."
If he squints, Sam can just about see the chrome of the Impala winking in the wet distance. It amazes him how that car catches non-existent light. "It's not like we have much choice," he tells his brother.
"He didn't leave us much," says Dean sullenly, still staring down.
"He doesn't want us here."
"Made that pretty clear."
"He doesn't want our help."
Dean peers up at him now. "Definitely not."
Sam smiles just a little. "And you know, he…" as he glances off in the direction of the church, retrieving his knapsack from the ground, "…really doesn't want us in that church."
Dean returns the small smile. "He really doesn't."
Sam tightens the knapsack's strap over his shoulder. "So are you leading the way, or am I?"
Dean grabs his duffel bag as they both head south into the forest. "Depends on which of us packed the satnav."
The tunnels beneath the old Catholic church, constructed during the early eighteenth century, have a colorful history. First used primarily for the production and transport of bootleg alcohol, they later became part of a secret network of way stations to guide escaped slaves to freedom in the northern states. Shortly after, they became a shelter and hiding place for wounded Confederate soldiers, often deserters. But these days, with the abandoned church in ruins and deemed unstable, its doors and windows barricaded with loose plywood and warning signs, the tunnels beneath have been mostly forgotten.
Castiel knows exactly where they are.
He knows that somewhere within the crumbling walls of the derelict old structure lies the key to the location of the next tablet, and that Sam and Dean were meant to retrieve this key, in whatever form it takes. (His head still throbs from the act of rejecting that plan, of sending them away. But he had no choice.) He'll have to return for this later. He is here for only one purpose now, and time is running short.
The nave is in shambles. Rain sleets in through broken rafters, where sections of the roof have collapsed. Pews are toppled, jagged shards of broken glass, crushed cigarette cartons and beer cans litter the floor, amid piles of rotting wood planks and fractured beams that reek of decay. Rodents have undoubtedly crawled beneath them to die. Castiel moves decisively toward the east end of the building, toward the dilapidated altar, where an assortment of syringes and needles festoon the lectern, and a huge cross that must once have inspired devotion and prayer now tilts forward in a sullen, vaguely threatening angle. He turns right, into the chancel. He shoves aside the massive rood screen that stands protectively before three rows of wooden choir benches. He can see where the bench closest to the wall has been pushed aside recently, leaving deep crevasses in the floor beneath it. And he can see the frayed leather strap tied to a wide wooden panel there, a panel that otherwise looks like all the others. He grabs the strap and heaves it up, pulling open the door to the underground tunnels. This is where he'll find his captive brother.
He doesn't know how he knows these things; but he knows better than to question them.
He climbs down the metal rungs that protrude from the earthen wall and serve as a makeshift ladder. It's very dark down here, very dank, and the smells of mildew and wet decay grow thicker the further he descends. He reaches the bottom, the empty dirt floor of the first tunnel, and heads into its pitch black embrace. At the first junction, he turns left, at the next he turns right, never slowing, never faltering. He knows exactly where he's going. A faint flickering light throws shadows against the far wall, and when he turns here, he finds his brother.
A single candle flickers light across the tunnel, six feet wide and ten feet high, solid rock on either side. Samandriel lies crumpled at its far end in bruises, gashes, and pooling blood as black as tar. His garments are torn and soaked in the fluids from his multiple wounds. His wrists are shackled to the wall behind him, perhaps the same shackles worn by slaves from another era. Elaborate sprays of crimson stain the walls all around him, and even where Castiel stands, the dirt floor is spongy with blood. They've done horrific things to him here.
The young angel's head hangs limp over his chest, his torn and battered face a death-like pallor in the gloomy light. His eyes are swollen closed. The youthful, cherubic vessel he chose has aged years in the past three weeks.
Castiel crosses the length of the tunnel to reach him, taking the key that hangs torturously close from a ring in the opposite wall. As he kneels beside the broken angel and works the key into the first shackle, Samandriel lifts his head. He murmurs something Castiel can't understand, then begins choking.
"Don't speak," orders Castiel as he slides open the metal latch and very gently lowers the mangled wrist into Samandriel's lap.
As the younger angel gazes up at him and tries to speak again, Castiel is aware of the sudden energy shift—he can almost feel the leap of Samandriel's heart, the surge of gratitude and wonder. "It's you," he manages now through the gasps, his eyes radiant beneath their swollen lids as he struggles to keep them open.
"Don't speak," Castiel says again, unlatching the second manacle, but the joy effusing from the angel can't be contained.
"It is you, isn't it? Castiel? You're alive?"
Sharp, guttural sounds erupt from the angel's throat now, and at first Castiel mistakes them for a coughing fit. But it's laughter, he realizes. Joyous, delighted laughter. Through blood and bruises, Samandriel is beaming up at him with nothing short of adoration. "You're alive," he says again, tears welling in his eyes. "I always knew it. I knew Father could never take you from us. I knew…"
"Shhh," whispers Castiel.
"I knew His love for you was too great."
Castiel is beginning to feel sick.
"And that you could never leave us. And now…" Tears spill down his blood-smeared cheeks. "…the most precious of answered prayers…here you are."
Looking down at the battered angel, he realizes that his gratitude isn't so much about being rescued as about being rescued by him. His fallen hero alive and well and coming personally to his aid.
The pure love lighting the young angel's face is transformative. Frail and deathly only moments ago, his renewed life force shines bright and determined now. Castiel is momentarily transfixed by it…
Samandriel is cooing blithely about faith and trust, about the power of their Father's love (Castiel isn't listening), when suddenly he stops, his expression shifting into something more somber. "I haven't said anything to Crowley," he says fiercely. "I've been strong. Despite his most…enthusiastic efforts…I've said nothing to him, Castiel. I would die before betraying my brothers and sisters."
And looking into the angel's soft, earnest eyes, Castiel believes him. There's confidence in his words. There's strength. And it occurs to Castiel in that moment that he's in the presence of a very fine soldier.
Samandriel seems to be waiting for some response, perhaps hoping for some small sign of recognition from his beloved hero.
"Can I help you stand?" asks Castiel, his words sounding tinny and hollow to his own ears. He's about to offer his arm for support, but Samandriel, as if eager to prove himself, braces against the stone wall behind him and climbs quickly, if unsteadily, to his feet. His clothes hang in smears of deep scarlet, slashed in many places, burned in others. What they've done to him is unforgiveable…
"Castiel, what is it? Your hands…"
Castiel starts from his daze. The young angel is staring at his hands, frowning with worry. Castiel follows his line of sight to his own hands. They are shaking quite badly.
The two of them stand strangely motionless for a moment, facing one another in the undulating gloom of candlelight. In his weakened state, the young angel's concern for Castiel is unnerving. "We should leave," he suggests, trying to be helpful. "They'll be back soon."
Castiel doesn't move. He stares at Samandriel, the tremor in his hand becoming far more pronounced as he reaches into the breast pocket of his coat. And then stops. "No."
"I can't," he says miserably, closing his eyes, feeling dizzy.
He feels a gentle, hesitant touch on his arm. "What is it you can't do, brother?"
Gritting his teeth, choking out the words as his mind begins to crash… "I won't. I won't do it. No."
And the response is a lightning strike of intense, nerve-shattering pain that sears through this temples. He cries out and arches backward and the dirt floor is suddenly lashing against his face.
Through blinding firebolts of electric torture that run the length of his body, sending him into convulsions, he can just about make out Samandriel's face close to his, he can feel hands on his back trying to hold him still. "Castiel, what's happening? What can I do? How can I help you?"
Castiel reaches through the haze and seizes the other angel by his blood-soaked shirt collar.
Samandriel leans closer, he cradles Castiel's face, fingers gently stroking sweaty locks of hair from his brow. "Yes. Tell me how to help you. Tell me what you need."
Almost inaudibly against the white noise of pure agony that rages in his head, Castiel says, "Run."
"I need you to run," he repeats through a jaw locked and clenched so tight he's sure he'll fracture it, but the pain would be lost in the paroxysm he's drowning in now.
Samandriel blinks at him, not understanding.
Shoving the broken angel backward with all this strength, he roars: "RUN!"
A torrent of new pain rips through Castiel so viciously, cutting off his breath, that he's unable even to cry out, his body contorting and seizing violently now. A series of electric shocks, each breathtaking in their impact, fires from his temples, down his spine, through his entire body with sickening force. White fragments slice through his vision with every seizure of his body, and the noise...the white noise in his head is deafening. For an instant he loses all sense of identity. He forgets who he is, where he is, what he's doing here. Nothing exists in the universe but pain.
"It's alright, brother," says a voice from very far away, as the universe of pain tilts slightly. There are hands beneath him, at his back, on his shoulders, he's being gathered into someone's arms, and surely this can't be right. With a great force of will, he forces his eyes to open. Through the bleached and grainy sepia tone of his vision, he can see Samandriel at his side. Impossibly, the weak and tattered angel has hoisted him to his feet and is half-carrying, half-dragging him down the tunnel, the candle in one hand guiding his way. "Lean on me. Let me take your weight."
"No…" Castiel groans, unsure if he can be heard. "…please go away, please—"
"I'm not leaving you, my friend," says the young soldier. "I've got you. We'll leave here together." Glancing at him with a reassuring smile: "We'll save each other."
Castiel tries weakly and uselessly to fight him, but Samandriel is dragging him from the tunnel with impressive determination, already making the first turn. The pain is beginning to ease now, beginning to ebb into merciful nothingness, and he wonders if he's blacking out. For a moment he lets himself drift, willing himself into the bliss of blackness.
Until the single thought of what he's here to do, the order he's been given, impassively reasserts itself.
"Please…leave me, Samandriel…" It's the first time he's ever spoken the angel's name out loud to him, and he can sense the way it lifts Samandriel's confidence, the way it bolsters his determination, and Castiel is immediately sorry for saying it. They're in the last length of tunnel now, a dim light frosting the far end, filtering down from the chancel.
"Not much further, brother. We're almost there." And as he keeps speaking, Castiel feels certain that it's for his benefit, to keep him conscious and responsive. "I feel very unworthy of your presence, Castiel. You of all the angels, of all my beloved brothers. That you should come to my rescue… I surely don't deserve such fortune."
As his rescuer pulls him toward the exit, Castiel begins to sob. "No. You don't."
Samandriel turns to him, misreading his companion's emotion. "We're nearly there, my friend. I've got you."
They've reached the ladder. Samandriel drops the candle to the dirt floor and makes a move toward it, but Castiel raises an arm to the wall, pressing his palm flat beneath the first rung, blocking him.
Softly and coldly as tears course down his face, Castiel says, "And I've got you."
Samandriel looks at him innocently, candlelight playing across his features, and smiles. "What do you mean?"
In a last, futile attempt to make all of this stop, one last insignificant plea of resistance before it is crushed out of existence, Castiel winces in pain.
"I'm so sorry," he says on a whisper. His hand connects with the angel blade inside his coat this time, and as he pulls it into the light, Samandriel's expression flickers with recognition, with surprise, but without understanding. And as Castiel plunges it deep into his chest, the young angel's eyes go wide with confusion, with hurt, but without blame. Somehow, as fantastic light floods the tunnel, his last moment of life still holds only love for his hero brother.
As the light winks out and sounds of commotion drift down from the church, Castiel slides down the cold stone wall, his body wracked by sobs, the bloody blade slipping from his fingers.
Sam and Dean are rummaging through the ruined church, turning upright overturned pews, pulling apart rubble, sifting through the trash they find in a small desk just inside the entrance. The good news is there's no one here. No demons, no captive angels, no King of Hell. The place is empty, apart from the rats. The bad news is there's no map.
And no sign of Castiel.
And they've started arguing again. It was simple things at first, like which direction they should enter the church from—Dean wanted to storm in guns blazing through the front, Sam thought a furtive entrance through a side window would make more sense. But soon enough it expanded into more complicated areas, like who was going to tell Kevin's mother that the team would be one man short, and how soon Sam would be tearing back to Texas. In the middle of that, Dean suddenly stops, one hand up.
"Did you hear that?"
"Like…a shout, like…run?"
"You think maybe Crowley's hiding in the confessional telling us to run?"
Dean scowls, and it's back to the argument. Until before long they are barely speaking and tearing the place to pieces less in a search than in a venting of steam.
That's when Sam sees it. It's so dark in the gloomy nave that it's no wonder it was missed. The fact that it could so easily be mistaken for graffiti gives it a perfect hiding place.
"Dean," Sam says, shining his flashlight along a high wall alongside a boarded up window that once held stained glass.
"What am I looking at?"
"There. Don't you see it?"
Dean squints at the dusky light playing across red and blue scrawls of paint.
"No. I mean yeah, but I don't think that's what it is."
They both step closer, lifting on their toes, flashlights trained on the cuneiformed squiggles on the wall. They do have a certain Enochian look to them, though neither of them recognizes the symbols.
"You think this is the map?" asks Dean. "What, like, directions in hieroglyph?"
Sam shrugs. "Maybe."
"How do you know that's not Crowley's dampening sigil?"
"We've seen those before. This looks different."
Dean sighs and steps back, surveying the trashed church. "Okay. Whatever."
Sam bristles slightly. "What do you mean, whatever?"
"I mean I think you just want to get out of here. But if you think that's it, take pictures or something. Do what you want. You will anyway."
He continues sifting through the rubble as Sam stares at him, quietly seething. It doesn't take him long to pull out his cell phone, aim it at the wall, adjust the flash, and begin snapping photos. He can transfer them to his laptop later and, if that's what it comes to, send them to Dean. Interpreting them will be someone else's problem. Sam is scanning them on his phone, wondering if there's enough light, and that's when a flash of light the intensity of a small neutron bomb douses the entire church.
It's impossible to know exactly where the flash originated, but one thing is clear: it came from below. It takes Sam and Dean less than a minute to locate the choir benches behind the rood screen, and the open trap door beneath the back bench. They rush down the makeshift ladder that leads them underground.
The tunnel looks empty at first. Breathless and wired, guns drawn and ready, it takes them a moment to notice Castiel slumped against the back wall, knees to his chest, his face hidden in the shadows.
"Cas?" Dean approaches him cautiously. "What happened? What was that?"
"Samandriel is dead," comes the flat, monotone reply.
Sam's eyes dart around the tunnel. "What? When? Is that what—?"
"That was the flash," says Dean quietly, his flashlight running the length of the sweeping charcoal tattoo of wings on which they stand, stretching the length of the tunnel, burned into the dirt. He looks at Castiel. "You get the bastard who did this?"
Castiel still hasn't looked up. His focus is on some hazy middle ground. "No."
"Who killed him, Cas?" asks Sam. "Was it Crowley or one of his henchmen?"
"Are they still here?" Dean glances warily down into the tunnel's darkness.
"No." Castiel climbs to his feet, brushes the soil and dust from his trenchcoat.
Dean takes a step closer. "Who was it? Who killed him?"
"Does it matter?" says Castiel in the same lifeless voice. "He's dead."
And with that the angel heads up the laddered rungs and out of the tunnel, leaving Sam and Dean to follow.
It's a thirty-minute car ride back to the motel in Fayetteville, but it feels like hours.
No one says a word.
Dean is a little surprised by, and not entirely comfortable with, Cas's decision to ride along with them in the backseat. Considering the diatribe he launched before ditching them in the woods, he thought Cas might want a little space. It's weird that he hasn't spoken about what happened at the church, and Dean can't help wondering how much he's hiding. Cas isn't exactly talkative about his interactions with his feathered friends (not that there've been many since he pulverized most of Heaven), but this kind of silent shut-down is nothing like him. This entire evening has been nothing like him.
He glances at his friend a few times in the rearview mirror. Cas stares expressionlessly through the back window, his eyes dark and lifeless, orange light glinting off them as streetlights flicker by. He doesn't move, doesn't shift his view, for the duration of the journey. The hairs on the back of Dean's neck bristle every time he glances back.
And then there's Sam. Sam's not even staying at the same motel as Dean. He deliberately booked a room two blocks away. Nothing about this evening is right.
Occasionally casting him a careful sidelong glance, ready to pretend he's checking the sideview mirror should Sam catch him, he can see the beleaguered worry lines in his brother's face, the drawn and burnt-out expression. He's tired. He's anxious. He's pissed off. He's worried about Cas, about Dean, about whatever's happening in Texas… He's a champion of worry, his little brother. And if Dean were to ask him right now how he's feeling, he'd say "fine." The patented Winchester reply.
With his brother at his side and his best friend in the backseat, the two people in this world he cares most about, Dean has never felt more alone.
... ... ...