Trust Issues

Part 2 of 2

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Anyone glancing in through the grime-smudged window of room 104 at the Lazy 8 in Fayetteville that night would deem the scene too dull for a second look. For all intents and purposes, things feel disturbingly routine.

Castiel sits in front of the television watching an old Steve McQueen western, occasionally making some odd comment about horses or asking some totally inappropriate question about women in brothels; Sam sits at the small dining table, transferring his cellphone photos to his laptop as he checks his email; and Dean slumps on one of the beds, back against the headboard, nursing a shot of Johnny Walker Red and trying his best to avoid eye contact with either of them. It isn't difficult. No one's looking his way. For the most part, everyone is silent and engrossed in their own activity.

There is one brief, and strangely unsettling, exchange about Samandriel, shortly after they arrive.

Sam is studying the photos on his laptop screen, trying to adjust the contrast, when he takes a deep breath and says to Castiel, "I'm sorry about your friend, Cas."

There is a long pause as television images flash in the angel's eyes, and both Sam and Dean wonder if he's going to respond at all. "He was my brother," Castiel finally says without looking up from the screen. "But we weren't friends."

Sam finds his gaze has drifted inadvertently into Dean's. Both glance away.

"He's free now," Cas adds genially.

"If by free you mean dead," mumbles Dean, knocking back the last of his shot.

Sam shoots Dean a look that would have annoyed him, if he hadn't been so distracted by Castiel's reaction. Cas looks up now, not at either of them, just slightly to the side of the TV set. He blinks a few times and frowns, giving Dean the distinct impression that he's struggling to recall what happened. "He's… dead. Yes. We freed him from Crowley."

"You did that," says Dean, watching him closely.

"I did that," says Cas, frown still in place, the words sounding almost like a question as his attention drifts back to the TV screen.

...

About half an hour goes by when Sam finally stands, looking uncomfortable, and announces that he'll be leaving. "The motel's just down the street, so I won't be far…" and Dean notices his uneasy glance at Cas as he says this. "Thing is, I've been on the road all day getting here. I need to sleep."

"Yeah," says Dean absently, draining another shot of Red. "You should do that."

"I'll be back in the morning," he says, pointedly, to Dean, who doesn't take much notice. "All the photos are transferred. I haven't really looked at them. We can do it in the morning. If that's, you know," looking uncomfortable again, "okay with everyone."

"Fine," murmurs Dean, feeling like the last life preserver from a sinking ship is about to float away from him.

"See you in the morning, Sam," chirps Cas, glancing up from the TV with a bright expression, nearly a smile. As if tonight was like any other. Sam and Dean both feel the ripple of chills that pulses out from him. They stare at him for a long moment as he re-immerses himself in his western, and then, with the synchronicity they've shared since they were kids, they are looking at each other. Sharing a single thought.

"Okay then," says Sam, pulling open the motel room door. "See ya."

"Hang on," says Dean, "I'll see you out." He follows his brother out, and they close the door behind them.

... ...

Dean glances up, hearing the crunch of gravel beneath leather-soled dress shoes, and smiles as he tilts a tin can over the ground.

"Hey, Cas."

They are about 100 yards from the motel, the sparse scattering of cars in the parking lot still visible from here. It almost feels like they're in the woodlands again, with trees rising up in the adjacent field, and a desolate emptiness all around. But the ground beneath them is asphalt.

"Sam came back in after he left," says Castiel as he approaches. "He said you needed me for something."

Dean pours gingerly, following the line of the liquid from the can in a wide semi-circle. "Yeah. I do."

It's nearly midnight. The rain has stopped and the wind has blown the sky clear of clouds, revealing an array of bright stars that cascade across the skyline and a bulbous moon sitting low and fat on the horizon.

"How can I help?" asks the angel.

Dean motions a couple yards ahead of him. "Stand right there."

Castiel obliges, planting his feet firmly on the asphalt. "Here okay?"

Dean glances up, smiles. "Perfect."

"What is it you're doing?"

"Just getting things ready."

"Ready for what?"

Dean doesn't answer. He simply continues pouring the precise and steady line of thick fluid onto the ground, bent over and backing away from it now as he pours, as Castiel watches. As Castiel realizes he's forming a circle around them.

"Is that…sanctified? Is that holy oil?"

"Yep," says Dean.

There is a pause.

Castiel's expression darkens. He doesn't move. "Dean…what are we doing?"

Dean stands up straight now, the circle complete. Looking directly at Castiel, he strikes a match. "We're just having a talk."

And then he tosses the match, igniting a thin line of fire with a deep, rolling whoomph that sweeps around them in a graceful arc, enclosing them in flames.

The circle is deliberately large, with a diameter of fifteen feet at its widest point, and maybe it's because of the size, or the amount of oil he used, or something about the wind patterns on this night, but the flames leap particularly high, a fiery wall that rises just over Dean's head. Even from this remote distance and on a night this quiet, it won't take long for this to be reported. But he's not concerned about that now. He's looking at his friend in the center of the fire.

Castiel stands motionless before an undulating curtain of oranges and yellows, warm air from its flames whipping the flaps of his coat. He stares back at Dean with wide, stunned eyes.

Dean takes a few slow, measured steps—he's determined not to rush this—and stops just in front of him. "I want answers from you."

"You could have just asked for them," Castiel snaps.

"I've been asking, Cas!"

The angel steps back, startled. "About…what?"

Dean scoffs. "Are you kidding me?"

"No, I…" He glances around helplessly at the flames. "I don't understand. What is it you want from me, Dean?"

Dean can hear the panic rising in the angel's voice. He lowers his own, keeping himself calm. "The truth, Cas. Without you dodging it, or changing the subject, or disappearing. I just want you to tell me the truth."

Castiel shakes his head. He looks utterly lost. "About what?"

Dean stares at him in disbelief, speechless. He hadn't been sure what to expect in reaction to direct confrontation, and as he and Sam threw together this rushed, clumsy plan he'd compiled a short list of possibilities in his head, but this…this wide-eyed display of ignorance wasn't anywhere on it. He watches as Castiel steps back again, raises both arms to his sides in exasperation, then lets them drop, a gesture of bewilderment and futility.

"Please, Dean…help me understand. Why are you doing this?" And then softly, miserably: "Again."

Silence hangs for a moment. Flamelight shimmers in his eyes as they find Dean's. Quietly, in a voice unsteady with emotion, he asks, "Don't you trust me?"

Dean merely watches him.

Castiel takes another step back, as if physically repelled by the silence, by what he reads as Dean's response to his question. He continues backing toward the wall of flame behind him as he speaks. "Have I let you down somehow? Do you think I've been…lying to you? That I'm deceiving you?"

"Okay," says Dean uneasily, "back to the center. You're too close to the edge."

"After everything that's happened…after a year in Pergatory…do you really believe…?"

"Cas," Dean warns.

"You think I would betray you, Dean?"

Spurred into movement, as if jolted by the question, Dean grabs for him. "Damnit, Cas—" He seizes him roughly by the lapels of his coat, hauls him back to the center. "You trying to set yourself on fire?"

He releases him just as roughly and they stand staring at each other. Dean blows out a breath. "So are you finished? Got that out of your system?"

Castiel stares back, looking even more confused and a little indignant now.

"You know, for a millennia-old angel, you sometimes act like you just fell off the goddamn turnip truck. You think I'd be standing here with you, in one of Dante's friggin' circles of hell, burning my ass off, if I didn't trust you?"

It's Castiel at a loss for words now. His brow furrowed, he's struggling to understand.

Dean shakes his head and sighs. "This isn't an inquisition, Cas, you're not on trial. Has it occurred to you I might be trying to help you?"

The angel's frown deepens. Dean can almost see his thoughts tumbling in confusion, racing to catch up to something he clearly can't comprehend.

"Do I…need help?"

Dean chuckles softly, wipes a beaded line of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. "I'm thinking I might."

"If you tell me what it is you think I've done—"

"What I think you've…?" Dean lets out a flinty laugh, his patience wavering as the heat builds within the circle. "What the hell was that at the church tonight, Cas? Because what I think you did first was fail to show at a meeting that you insisted on, then you freak out on us, and then you abandon us out there!"

"I…I don't understand."

Dean takes a deep breath, tries to quell the flare of frustration rising within him. "Okay. Back to the start. Why were you so late tonight?"

"What do you mean? I was there."

"We waited nearly an hour."

"No, that—that's not—"

"We tore the woods apart looking for you."

"I may have been a few minutes late—"

"Nearly an hour, Cas!"

"N-no, I…I was there. It was Crowley we were searching for."

"We were searching for you. And when we found you?" Dean shakes his head. "It's like you didn't know us. Like we were the enemy. What the hell was that all about?"

Castiel begins slowly backing away as they speak, and this time Dean matches him pace by pace, backing him steadily closer to the flames, their eyes locked.

"You misunderstood," Castiel answers.

"You nearly decked me when I offered you a hand."

"I don't remember that."

"You don't remember that." Not a question. A statement of flat disbelief.

"I remember…finding you and Sam. And–and agreeing to a plan."

"Agreeing to a plan?"

"Yes."

"You mean the crazy-ass order you issued just before you bailed on us?"

"Bailed…? No—"

"Bailed yes."

"I left you and Sam only briefly. For reconnaissance."

"You told us to go home."

"What? No, I—why would I—?"

"You said we were in the way."

"No—Dean, I—"

"You don't remember saying that."

"I–I was trying to help. It was me who found Samandriel."

"Yeah. Except we'd wasted so much time looking for you we were too late for him."

"But that's not—"

"How did you find him again?"

"I told you, I heard him."

"You told us you'd tuned out of angel airwaves. How did his signal get through?"

"I–I don't know."

"How'd you know about the tunnels?"

"I'm not sure."

"What happened to the knife?"

"The what?"

"The knife, Cas, the knife that killed your brother!"

"It wasn't there, I don't—"

"Do you know who killed him?"

"No, I—"

"Because it had to happen fast."

"Dean—"

"And you were right there."

"I told you—"

"You don't know!" explodes Dean, his face inches from Castiel's as he presses him against the burning wall. Dripping with sweat and utterly exhausted, his whole body shaking with the effort it's been taking to contain his mounting frustration, he steps back. In a grim and defeated voice, he says, "This isn't working so well."

"I'm trying," says Castiel, his own voice a thin and desperate plea. He looks even more wrecked than Dean feels.

Dean wipes his brow again, sweat pouring from his pores in the oven he's built. "Yeah. Me too." He turns away abruptly, heading back to the center of the burning circle. "But I'm done. I'm calling this off before I spontaneously combust. Sammy? You there?"

Castiel turns to gaze thoughtfully at the dancing flames, focusing on them now for the first time. He pivots slowly, his gaze sweeping across the full arc of the circle. "That won't happen," he says distractedly. "You're more likely to die from heatstroke or carbon monoxide poisoning."

"Well, at least you've cleared that up tonight. Sammy!"

Sam's not responding. He wonders if he's having some sort of mechanical problem with the extinguisher they use, maybe the canister's trigger has jammed.

As he waits, Dean turns back to Castiel, who seems strangely fixated on the fire. It's the first time the angel has taken his attention off Dean since this started, and it occurs to Dean that it has probably become too difficult, too painful to even look at him anymore. It wasn't meant to be an inquisition, but it turned into one. And it was entirely pointless. "Look, I'm sorry," he says. "I know this was…a little extreme. Crap trip down memory lane for both of us. I just thought if I could focus you, keep you in one place, maybe somehow we could…" A heavy sigh of resignation, of defeat. "But I don't know how to reach you, man. It's like we're living in two different realities."

Softly, dreamily, Castiel says, "We are."

Dean isn't sure he's heard him correctly. He stares at the angel, who seems very calm now, as if mesmerized by the flames, his face serene in their flickering glow. "Sam?" he shouts again to the billowing wall, no longer certain if anyone's listening on the other side. "If you're there, man…hang on, okay?" And then he crosses back to Castiel.

"Say that again?"

Still staring at the fire, in an oddly calm, detached voice, Castiel says, "We're living in two separate realities. Side by side. Yours is the truth, mine is a lie."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Did you know, Dean, that holy fire is the most purifying of all things in creation? That all things perish in its intensity. Even the most carefully designed fiction. I'm watching it burn to ash…"

"Okay…" Dean wants to shout at him, wants to seize him by his shoulders and shake him until the sense of what he's saying tumbles out, but the fervent glow in Castiel's eyes keeps him quiet and waiting.

"And she can't reach through it. Any more than I can. She can't reach me here."

Carefully. "She?"

Castiel begins speaking in a low, trance-like monotone, but his words roll out with increasing speed and intensity, as if he's racing to decipher what he's seeing in the fire before it burns away. "They've been taking me. She has. For weeks now. Whenever she wants me, whenever she needs me to do her bidding. She snatches me out of this reality, out of this time and space, without warning, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a thought, and suddenly I'm there—"

"Cas…"

"—with her and—and that white, white room, and I can't stop her, I can't reason with her, there's nothing I can do, as if I'm under her control, telling her everything, anything she asks for, and then I'm back—"

"Slow down, man."

"—like I was never away, time moves differently there, and everything that happened, everything she said, it's erased from my mind, as if it never happened, but.. I'm following her every order."

Dean moves closer. "Cas, you need to slow down. Who are we talking about? Who is she?"

Castiel blinks slowly, dazedly, his energy and the last of his calm draining away. "She…her name…" He winces, a hand rising to his left temple. "I—I don't know. I can't—"

"You said she can't get through the fire, any more than you can. Does that make her angel-grade?"

"The most powerful I've ever known."

"Sonofabitch," whispers Dean with soft vehemence. "What do they want this time?"

Castiel blinks again and turns to him, his eyes burning with intense clarity. "You. You and Sam. They want to know what you're doing, what you're planning. They want to know about the tablets, about Kevin, about the Gates. At first all they wanted was information."

"And you gave it to them."

"Yes."

"And now?"

Castiel pauses before answering. "Now they want me to stop you."

"What does that mean?"

"I'm…" He winces again. "…not sure."

Dean is struggling to think, the intensity of the sweltering heat and the haze of smoke collecting within the circle are beginning to make him feel light-headed. He begins pacing. "So you're telling me the suits in Heaven want the Gates of Hell to stay open? Why would they want that?"

"I don't know."

"Why do they need you? Why can't they stop us themselves?"

"I don't know."

"This woman. How do we reach her?"

"You can't. Even I can't."

"You've got to give me something here, Cas!" Dean explodes again, pacing faster. "At least give me a name!"

"Dean, I'm sorry, everything's becoming…" He massages at his temples with both hands. "It's interfering, the thing in my head."

Dean stops in his tracks, his attention snapping back to Castiel. "The what?"

"It's…interrupting the flow of clarity. The device they implanted. But if I concentrate—"

Dean stares at him in horror. "They implanted a device?"

"Naomi," says Cas suddenly, brightening. "Her name is Naomi."

"In your head?"

Castiel turns to him. Apologetically, almost shamefully, he says, "They use it to short-circuit my critical reasoning. To punish my resistance. To control me."

Dean feels sick. He wants to say something, rage and revulsion fighting for his voice, demanding outlet, but he can only manage a feeble and wholly unsatisfying, "Jesus…"

"My defiance displeased her. This was her solution."

Displeased. Dean wants to respond with some caustic quip about what she does when she's pissed off, but it's subsumed by sudden, roiling hatred for this woman he knows nothing about, this monster he's just decided he will personally hunt down and destroy. Quietly, through clenched teeth, he asks, "When did she do this to you?"

"Tonight. At the church. When I refused to…"

The angel's eyes go hazy for an instant…then sharpen, then flood with tears. Color drains from his face. He stumbles backward, losing focus on Dean, staring with a kind of sick horror into some point in the mid-distance.

"Cas?"

Castiel falls to his knees.

Dean drops beside him, reaching out to him, fearing he's about to collapse as he did outside the church. "What? What is it? Talk to me."

Castiel is lost in that middle distance. On a shattered voice he says simply, "I killed him."

Dean stares at him, not comprehending, thinking that he may have misheard, that the smoldering heat is messing with his hearing now. "You what?"

Distraught, staring off into that void of space, Castiel says, "I killed Samandriel. She put an angel blade in my hands and I murdered him with it." He begins shaking uncontrollably. "An innocent. One of my own." And with dreadful, dawning horror, "Another one of my own…"

Dean isn't sure how to respond. Everything has gone very quiet. Even the steady, lapping sound of the fire seems muffled and indistinct, as if deadened by the moment's brutality. He can feel Cas swaying beneath this hand, he can see the distance in his gaze stretching as if he's slipping into shock and his mind is shutting down, and he suddenly understands that the fate of his friend depends on whatever he says next.

Dean clamps a hand on Castiel's shoulder, shifting slightly into his hollow stare. "Cas, look at me," he orders. "Look at me and hear what I'm saying."

He waits until he can see Cas struggling to focus on him.

"However this went down, it wasn't your fault. Do you understand?" Castiel shuts his eyes as if trying to shut out the memory, or maybe the horror of reality, and Dean says sharply, "Keep looking at me." He digs his fingers into the angel's shoulder, certain he's bruising him, desperate to hold his attention. "They're controlling your every move, you just said so. This wasn't you."

"I killed him, Dean," says Castiel from that faraway place.

"They killed him."

"I fought them. I fought her…"

"I know you did."

"It wasn't enough…"

Dean flashes on a different conversation, not that long ago, in a motel room several states away, when Cas confessed to him that the price of his crimes against Heaven, the myriad lives he took, may be the taking of his own life. Desperation edges his voice. "You didn't do this. Tell me you know that."

Castiel isn't hearing him. "Wasn't enough…" he says again. "And they knew it wouldn't be. They knew…" His eyes widen now with new realization. "That's why they chose me, Dean… I understand."

"You understand what?"

He looks directly at Dean now. His broken voice carries an eerily calm resignation. "They needed a murderer. A killer."

Dean can only stare at him, trying to absorb his words.

"Don't you see? I was perfect. A ready-made monster."

Dean seizes him by his coat lapels and wrenches him upward, dragging him to his feet. Compliant as a ragdoll, or too exhausted to try, Castiel doesn't resist. He allows Dean to shake him fiercely as he shouts, "Cas, you shut the fuck up, do you hear me? Because I need your help! I need you to focus! We need to focus on how to stop them!"

"It's me you need to stop."

"And we will! We'll figure it out. You and me and Sam. But you've got to hold on, Cas, you can't fall apart on me now. We'll figure this out."

Castiel reaches out and clutches the collar of Dean's shirt. "You have to help me."

"We will."

"You have to stop me."

"We will."

Pulling Dean closer, his fist twisting into the collar, he says in a whisper, "You have to kill me."

Dean stares back, stunned.

"When the fire is out, my window of clarity will be gone…and they'll take me again. They'll use me. They'll turn me against you."

Dean's throat has gone dry, tightening around his words. "We won't let that happen—"

Tears pool in Castiel's eyes, the whisper broken and pleading as he says, "I don't want to hurt you."

"You won't. You'll fight them."

"And it won't be enough."

"Cas—"

The angel pulls him very close now, his voice low and fierce and resolute. "Before that happens, you have to take the angel blade, and you have to destroy me."

Dean can't speak.

"If you don't help me, Dean, they'll turn me into the monster I was. They've already started." His voice breaks, tears spilling freely. "If our friendship means anything to you, if you've ever cared about me, promise me you'll do this. Please, Dean. Help me."

The circle of fire billows and sways indifferently around them, a sparkle of embers rising into the midnight sky. Dean lays both hands on Castiel's shoulders, his vision rippling with his own tears, and he nods once. "I'll help you, Cas. I promise." He swallows back the emotion threatening to undermine his force of will. "But not like that. We'll find another way. We'll figure this out. You have to trust me."

The angel gently releases his friend's collar, lets his arm fall to his side. He says nothing at first, merely gazing at Dean with a strangely poignant mix of affection and despair, flames dancing with the tears in his eyes. He smiles sadly.

"You're still trying to save me," he says.

"You're still trying to stop me."

Castiel glances very briefly then at the fire that encircles them, the smallest flicker of intention that tells Dean everything. "And I will," he says. And before Dean can respond to what he knows is about to happen, Castiel shoves him to one side, and with a surge of renewed strength he's diving for the fire.

It happens so fast. Dean cries "No!" as he clutches at the trench coat and catches a sleeve, causing the angel to stumble as it pitches Dean forward within inches of the burning wall. He's shouting with everything in him "Sammy, now, now, now!" as he lunges for Cas in a tackle that sends both of them crashing to the asphalt, so close to the flames their heat singes Dean's jacket, and he latches onto him in his fiercest hold, but the angel is too strong, too determined, wrenching free of Dean's grip and kicking him backward as he claws toward the circle's edge. Staggering to his feet, he glances down at Dean briefly, almost apologetically, and as he steps into the fiery wall it collapses in an explosion of high-pressure chemicals blasted from the extinguisher Sam holds on the other side, dousing the ring.

The moment of frenetic chaos is followed by silence and a surreal stillness. Sam stands holding the extinguisher on the other side of the smoldering line on the asphalt, thick gray smoke pluming overhead. Dean has climbed to his feet, struggling to catch his breath. And both of them stare wide-eyed at Castiel, who stands between them as motionless as stone, head down, clothes drenched in the metallic-smelling retardant fluid from the extinguisher. His left arm hangs in a twisted and mangled mess, the flesh incinerated by the fire's touch, tendrils of smoke drifting from the melted jacket sleeve and what's left of the blackened, papery skin and scorched bones beneath.

Dean tries to remember later how long they all stood there like that, as if trapped in a single frame of a horror movie. It could have been half a minute or half an hour, Dean's never sure, but it seems to last interminably. It ends, however, in the space of a breath. Castiel's head lifts, his eyes closed as he inhales a deep lungful of the smoky night air, and as he releases it, a soft white light shimmers down the full length of this body. As it glistens around his feet and melts into the ground, he opens his eyes. His arm his healed. His hair and clothes are dry, his trench coat restored, clean and looking like it has recently been pressed. Sam and Dean simply look on in speechless astonishment.

...

"So," says Castiel. "What is it you want?"

Several seconds tick by. Dean's response is barely audible. "What?"

"You wanted to talk to me about something."

Dean fails to answer. He simply stares at him with an odd, hollow, almost frightened expression, and in that instant it strikes Castiel how different he looks from just a moment ago. His clothes are disheveled, he's covered in sweat and grit from the asphalt, he's breathing in quick, labored rasps, and…wasn't he standing where Castiel is now?

"You said we're having a talk," he tries, finding it difficult to focus. His head feels thick, there's an unpleasant, acrid odor hanging in the air that makes it hard to concentrate, and Dean still isn't answering him.

"He meant the three of us," says a voice from over his shoulder, startling him, as Sam appears from nowhere.

"Sam. Didn't you…leave?"

Sam joins them, looking far more calm and composed than his brother. "We came out here to talk things through," he continues, apparently not hearing the question. "Dean thought we might need you to referee while we try to hammer a few of them out. You know. Like a marriage counselor." He casts a satisfied little glance at Dean's wince. "But I don't think we need that. I think we can work this out between the two of us, the way we always have. What do you say, Dean?"

Dean is struggling with words again, looking at once annoyed and grateful for his brother's droll, casual confidence. But Castiel senses something more beneath Sam's demeanor, a kind of guarded urgency that makes no sense to him.

"Yeah," Dean finally manages. "Nothin' mends a fence like a punch-up and a few beers." A corner of his lip tips up in an attempt to smile. "Not necessarily in that order."

Sam smiles back at him. And for a moment everything seems okay, and Castiel wonders if the strange fog in his head is simply distorting his perception. But the moment stretches into an uneasy, creeping silence that no one seems to know how to fill, and even without looking up, he can feel Dean watching him. They're both watching him.

"Then…" says Castiel, "I'm not needed here."

Dean swallows with an audible click. Softly he says, "Go back inside, Cas."

Castiel looks up at him. "Are…are you sure? I don't mind staying. Being a…" What was it Sam said? His thoughts spiral away into that fog, he feels himself sway and Dean reaches out to steady him. "…reverie."

"You can be a reverie some other time," says Dean. "We've got this covered."

"Oh. Okay…" But it's not okay. The sense of disorientation, of everything being subtly off, is palpable, a sickly pressure in his chest. His attention locks onto Dean, who looks as unwell as the angel feels. "If you're alright."

"What?"

"You seem…" searching for a word that won't somehow offend him, "unsettled."

He catches the look that Sam and Dean exchange.

"And you smell like smoke," he adds. "You both do."

Dean hesitates, looking uncomfortable, then waves an arm vaguely toward the tree-lined lot behind him. "There was this guy…"

"A farmer," Sam helps.

"…burning his…" He's struggling again.

"Crops," says Sam.

"Yeah," says Dean.

Castiel says nothing. His bewilderment over the blatant lie is offset by his concern for Dean.

"Look, it's…it's been a long night. But I'm fine," Dean quietly assures him, trying to smile again. "How are you feeling, Cas?"

"I'm fine," says Castiel, confused by the question.

Dean unexpectedly laughs, an abrasive, mirthless sound. He turns to his brother, his voice a little too loud. "How 'bout you, Sam? You fine too?"

Sam's look is equal parts worry and warning. "Well, actually—"

"We're all just fine then! How freakin' awesome is that!"

It's an odd little moment, a snapping of Dean's tautly held composure, but the angel has no idea what it means, what any of this means right now, and what he wants more than anything is to simply explain that he's confused, he feels out of sync, and he might need his friends' help, but something deep within prevents him from doing that, an inner voice that warns him against drawing them in, a sudden and unsettling knowing that his very presence puts them in grave danger and that what he needs to do right now more than anything is teleport away from them as far as he possibly can, and in that instant of intention a short, sharp current of white heat sears through his temples.

A hand falls on his shoulder, heavy and distracting. He blinks a few times and finds Dean directly in front of him, his intense, riveted gaze belying the calm set of his face. "Cas," he says gently, ducking his head slightly to catch the angel's eyes. "Hey. I want you to do something for me. I want you to go back inside, grab one of those beds, and crash for a while. Will you do that?"

The pain recedes as he focuses on his friend, who seems so solid, so real, even as the world dips and sways behind him. A strange word in this context, crash, and what was he thinking before that, wasn't it important…?

Dean is waiting for a response. Sam stands at his side.

"Crash?" he hears himself ask as if from far away.

"Rest."

"I don't need rest."

"I think you do." The look Dean pins him with tells him the decision has been made.

Castiel frowns. "Wouldn't it…wouldn't it be a more productive use of my time to study the symbols Sam found? Sam, if I can use your laptop—"

"You can't."

Both Castiel and Dean start at the sharpness in Sam's tone.

In a softer voice, he continues, "He's right, man, you look beat. And we've got a long day tomorrow, we're going to need you, so… I'm with Dean. Get some rest."

Dean glances at his brother with a flicker of surprise, and a look of unmistakable gratitude for the show of support.

Which Castiel finds frustrating because their renewed solidarity seems to be angled against him. Feeling absurdly ganged up on, he stammers, "But I don't need…I don't require—"

Dean's grip on his shoulder tightens. "Stop arguing."

"Leave that to us," says Sam.

"Yeah," Dean smirks. "The professionals."

He opens his mouth to protest further, but the brothers' attention is fixed on him again, their concern no longer veiled, their determination unflinching, and despite the transcendent powers of Heaven itself at his disposal, the angel feels outflanked. And irritated. He shrugs Dean's hand from his shoulder and steps back from them. "Fine then. I'll just…" He glances across the dark parking lot, toward the squat, gray-brick building in the distance, a dull neon light strobing "V CANCY" over its safety-glass-doored entrance. Non-descript but familiar and safe, welcoming in its own way. Almost summoning him…

He does feel desperately tired—which makes no sense to him, since nothing particularly taxing has happened today—and he doesn't suppose a brief period of rest would do him any harm. Except…that's not really what's calling him back, is it?

"Hey."

Dean's voice snaps him back from the hazy digression. He looks back at them, feeling strangely vulnerable and alone and not at all comfortable with these sensations.

"You need anything, anything at all, you come find us." Dean's got that look again of trying very hard to appear casual while issuing a clear order. "Okay?"

"We'll be right here," says Sam, a reflection of his brother. The pair of them, thinks Castiel dully, joining forces to comfort an angel of God.

But as he takes in their reassurance, he realizes with sudden alarm just how deeply, even desperately he wants to take comfort in them, yearns to find peace in their words, in their presence here with him tonight, as if blind faith in these two will somehow resolve whatever is so glaringly wrong with this night that his mind is too muddled—too damaged?—to identify. It makes him angry with himself. "Why would I need anything?" he snaps. "It's the two of you with all the issues."

He pivots back and heads for the parking lot. And then stops. Reminded suddenly of why the brothers are remaining behind, of the gaping rift in their relationship.

He can feel they're still watching him, with bewildering compassion, and human emotions rise and clash within him now, guilt and worry, shame and affection, and deeper than all of these, the enduring desire to help them. Maybe everything doesn't have to be wrong here tonight. He turns back to his friends, steadying his voice, dropping it to a lower register. "Perhaps if you can find some common ground…something you both care about…maybe then you can…"

But the thread of thought is slipping away even as he reaches for it, lost to his exhaustion and frayed mindset. He sighs and lowers his head, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opens them he finds he's looking at his left hand. Splaying his fingers, studying them. Even his hand seems…wrong.

They're watching him intensely again, he can feel it. He is aware that Dean is about to speak, maybe even step toward him.

"I'm going to crash now," Castiel announces slowly and carefully, wanting to get the phrase right. He doesn't wait for their response. He turns toward the motel and leaves them.

...

Sam and Dean stare at the space the angel vanished from.

"He has no idea what just happened," Sam says quietly.

"Yeah, well," murmurs Dean. "He's not alone." The words Castiel left them with are echoing dismally in his mind. Spoken in such precise and careful diction, on any other day it would have made both of them smile. But tonight it sounded a little too much like the angel was announcing his fate, like some grim premonition, and it sends chills through Dean.

"How're you doing?" asks Sam, still standing at his side.

"I'm fine. I just said so."

Sam grunts softly. "Yeah, I heard what you said. I'm still asking."

Dean considers a snarky comeback, and feels it wither in his throat. He decides to at least aim for the truth. "You heard Cas. I'm...unsettled."

He stares at the motel, aware that he's still wearing that mask of easy-going calm, that his face is actually starting to hurt from the effort of maintaining it. He drags a hand over his face and deliberately turns his back on the motel, facing the empty expanse of rural darkness that stretches into the night and still smells faintly of smoke and chemicals. He drops the mask. Sam does likewise. For a moment they stand side by side saying nothing, just staring into the dark.

"So, how much were you able to hear?" Dean finally asks, with discernible reluctance.

"Pretty much everything," says Sam. And then with a small frown, "Up until just before you started fighting. When the conversation suddenly got quiet. What was he saying?"

Dean averts his brother's gaze. "Nothing important, just…"

"What?"

His shirt damp from perspiration and cooling fast in the night air, Dean shrugs against the chill he can already feel sinking into his bones. "He asked for our help."

Sam considers this for a moment, his frown deepening. "And then he took a dive into the holy fire?" He cocks an eyebrow at Dean and smiles dubiously. "What, did you tell him no?"

"He was messed up, Sammy, he wasn't thinking straight."

"Okay…" Sam is unconvinced. "Still, it seems—"

Dean turns to face him. "We've got to help him, Sam."

"And how do you propose we do that? We don't even know what we're fighting."

"We know it's the friggin' winged empire striking back," says Dean, his voice rising unintentionally. "Not like we haven't fought these bastards before."

"Yeah, but this time they're not showing themselves. They're hiding behind Cas. They're hiding…inside him. How the hell do we fight that?"

Dean takes a measured step back from him. "So what are you saying? We close ranks and kill him?"

Sam glares at him, too stunned at first to answer. "Did I say that?"

"Wouldn't be the first time."

"Oh," Sam snorts, "so we're talking about your fanged friend Benny now."

"It was your answer with him," says Dean, temper flaring.

"And it was your answer with Amy! In fact—" Sam is shouting now, his own temper rising to meet Dean's, "not all that long ago, it was your answer with Cas!"

"This is not the same thing, Sam!" Dean shouts back, rage throbbing in the veins in his neck.

"Then stop making it the same thing, Dean! Can we just focus on the here and now please?"

"Fine! Here and now." Dean draws in close to his brother, their faces inches apart, and lowers his voice. "He killed someone, Sammy. You heard that part, right?"

Sam holds his ground. "I heard."

"And?"

"And…" Sam throws both arms out to his sides in an exaggerated shrug, as if the answer is plainly obvious. "It wasn't his fault."

Dean says nothing. He draws his own arms around himself and turns away.

And in that gesture, Sam reads the doubt. "Wait…" he says slowly, anger beginning to give way to bewilderment and disbelief. "Do you honestly think I would hunt Cas down—Cas—for being manipulated by something he has no control over, that he doesn't even remember? You think I would do that to him?" Dean won't meet his gaze. "You think I would do that to you?"

Silence lingers for a long moment. Sam finally turns away from his brother and stares off into the diamond-chipped sky, the horizon lost beneath the swath of stars. With a small shiver, he pulls his jacket tighter. Softly he asks, "Is that who you think I am now, Dean?"

Dean is trying to maintain a detached implacability, but he's failing miserably. He finally releases a ragged sigh. The anger is gone from his voice when he speaks, in its place a subdued, wounded regret. "What I think is that… neither one of us is who we used to be. Before we got thrown in separate directions." He pauses. "It's not like I can second-guess you anymore."

Neither of them is looking at each other. They both stare into the inky sky.

"Or trust me," says Sam quietly.

...

Inside the motel room, Castiel stands at a grimy window watching Sam and Dean argue in the distance. He can hear their voices, can easily detect the agitated tone, and the way it rises and falls, but he can't make out the words. He doesn't choose to. It's not his business. If they want his help, they'll let him know, and he trusts that. He trusts them. He wants nothing more than to help them, but he thinks he may not be in the best state of mind to do that right now. And he suspects they know that too.

He looks at the bed nearest the door and considers their request—more of an order—that he rest. He doesn't require rest; he is, after all, an angel. Dean in particular never seemed to fully accept that he's not limited by the needs for rest, certainly not for sleep, that humans are. But still…there's something inviting about the pile of pillows, the crumpled bedspread, the quilt draped lazily over the top. He allows himself to sit down on it, and to close his eyes, just for a moment. He is, he must concede, so very tired… From outside the voices of his friends drift in…quieter now, perhaps reaching some sort of agreement? He hopes so. He takes a deep breath, the way humans do, and feels the inexorable sway of exhaustion pulling him into its arms.

The symbols.

The words are in his head from nowhere, unsolicited, unwanted visitors. His eyes snap open and he finds himself staring across the room at Sam's laptop. The computer Sam refused him access to. Before he realizes he's even moving, he's standing above a blinking blue screen, and with a series of swift keystrokes, images are racing across it, too quick for the human eye, perfect for his. The images flash across his retinas, imprinting themselves on his memory.

A shout from Sam echoing from the other side of the parking lot draws his attention back to the window. He can't discern the words, but he can feel the sharp edge of their disappointment, their bitterness.

Sam asked him not to do this. He told Sam he wouldn't… he told them both. But isn't this why he's here, why he had to come back? Isn't this more important than Sam's request…more important than their trust in him?

No.

He snaps the lid down. Draws a hand to his head, as if to catch the stitch of pain suddenly shooting through the left side of his skull. He won't re-open it, he won't. His fingers tremble as they dig into his forehead. The pain is ratcheting up.

He stumbles backward toward the bathroom. Leans over the sink, douses his face in icy water, in hopes of numbing the pain. He's not human, it shouldn't feel this hard to breathe… He closes his eyes, draws in a slow, deep breath, feeling oxygen fill his lungs and steady his thoughts, and as he releases it, he re-opens his eyes, meeting his pallid reflection in the mirror.

Behind him is his brother Samandriel, covered in blood, his eyes wide and terrified and confused, an angel blade jutting from his ruined chest.

Castiel spins around.

The bathroom is empty, but a voice drifts faintly through his mind in the flashback's wake: I trusted you, Castiel.

The angel's knees begin to buckle. He grabs for the sink behind him, struggling to brace himself against it, feeling his skin slide against the wet porcelain. The room spins. Excruciating pain, and shattering white noise, crash simultaneously through his head, and the moldy eggshell tiles of the linoleum floor somehow lift to catch him.

...

"I trust you with my life, Sam."

Sam waits for the other shoe to drop. He can see his brother weighing it up.

Dean has withdrawn from the formidable ring scarring the asphalt, remnant chemical fumes still hanging over it like a halo, and settled beneath a sprawling oak tree, his back to its enormous, knotted trunk, much like the one they'd cornered Castiel into earlier that evening. Those few hours ago that feel like weeks.

Sam gives up on waiting. "But not with Cas's."

Dean doesn't look up.

"You know, you're not exactly a shining example of loyalty yourself, Dean."

Dean sighs impatiently. "What do you want me to say? I'm sorry? Fine. I am. I'm sorry about the text message. I'm sorry I lied to you." And then firing a fierce look at Sam, a clear warning shot. "I'm not sorry about protecting a friend."

Sam turns this over in his thoughts for a while. There is so much he wants to tell his brother, so much he needs to say… He casts a glance at the drab and dreary Lazy 8, its bank of windows staring back lifelessly, aware that one of them may be looking back. Now isn't the time. There are too many other things to talk about, and they've already been out here too long.

He clears his throat. "Okay."

Dean looks up at him dubiously. "Okay?"

"Yeah."

"Really?"

"No, not really, but we've got to move past this somehow. If we're going to help Cas. I mean, that's what we're doing out here, right? You didn't buy the line I fed him about the two of us hammering things out, did you?"

Dean sniffs, looking offended, and glances down. "You think I'm stupid?"

"I think you're scared, Dean. You're scared you're losing me, scared you're losing Cas, and it's turning you into a paranoid asshole."

Anger twitches the corner of Dean's lip. "Careful, Sammy, you're gonna make me cry."

"I haven't left yet, Dean."

"You're on your way."

"I'm standing right here."

"With one foot out the door."

"I never said—"

"Where were you, Sam?" The sudden shift in Dean's tone is disarming. It's not the same voice he used earlier that evening when directing the same question at Castiel. It's not accusatory, not even angry. It's simply, and openly, hurt.

"What are you talking about?"

"First time I called you in there." Dean raises his chin toward the asphalt ring twenty feet away. "I called you, like, three times waiting for you to douse that bitch, and nothing happened. I mean, as it turned out, your timing was pretty good, but—what, did you decide it was a good time to grab a beer? Check email? Text your girlfriend?"

"Are you serious?"

"I'm just curious."

Keeping his pitch cool and even, Sam says, "My timing was perfect."

Dean grunts. "Because you got lucky."

"Because I was watching."

"From the other side of a wall of flame taller than me," sneers Dean.

"From the branch over your head, you moron."

Dean slowly gazes up at the tangle of thick, solid branches silhouetted against the moonlit sky just over his head.

"Easy climb, gave me a clear vantage point. I watched the whole thing." He has Dean's full attention now. "And I could see things that maybe you couldn't, like the way his expression changed when he was watching the fire. So yeah, I heard you, but what I decided was that dousing our last chance of finding out what the hell's going on was a bad idea at the time."

Dean seems about to say something, then changes his mind and looks down. After a while he mumbles, more to himself than to Sam, "Good call."

"You didn't really think I was going to leave you alone in there, did you?"

Dean doesn't answer. He doesn't have to.

Sam hadn't actually given up hope until that moment. Throughout all the weeks of simmering resentment, and even in the blow-up at the church when he lashed out at Dean with his promise to walk away after tonight, even then he didn't really believe what he was saying, and he hadn't truly given up. He certainly hadn't made any real decision. But right now, in the ashen light cast in his brother's eyes, he sees such a loss of faith in who they are, both as hunters and as brothers, that the tarnished hope still remaining begins to crumble. It seems the decision has been made for him. And it's his fault, he knows. And everything Sam was determined to eventually share with his brother—what really happened after he lost Dean—once the anger and resentment had cooled, once this insanity with Cas had settled, once the time was right, all of it is slipping away.

Until Dean says, "He wanted me to kill him."

Sam's attention snaps back to his brother. "What?"

Dean is looking up at him, his gaze locked onto Sam's. "What Cas said to me at the end. Remember you asked?" Sam is caught so off-guard by the disclosure, his nod is nearly imperceptible. "He thinks he's a threat to us. He thinks he could turn. And he wanted my promise that I'd put him down."

"And when you wouldn't…"

"He decided to do it himself." Dean pauses, still watching him, gauging his response. Quietly he adds, "I thought you should know."

...

They talk for nearly an hour.

It's hesitant and guarded at first, full of stops and starts, but as they brainstorm ideas, banter opinions, accepting some, rejecting others, the flow of strategizing becomes effortless and smooth, a shift into a well-worn groove.

They talk about this new breed of angels and their sadistic ringleader—referred to so often by Dean as "this Naomi bitch" that Sam comes to think of it as her full name—exchanging theories of who they might be, what they might want, and how they might fight them. They talk about Kevin and the tablets, about the symbols they discovered, they talk about Crowley's part in all this, and why Samandriel had to die.

They talk about Castiel. What it will take to help him, to pull him back from this precipice's edge, and how they'll keep him oblivious both to their efforts and to the unwitting role he plays. Dean shifts uneasily as they discuss the angel's determination to protect them, all too aware of the deadly measures he'll take to ensure their safety. His fingers absently skim the blisters that flared along his forearm from the heat of the holy fire as he fought to restrain Castiel, just before the angel so effortlessly broke free.

"We'll stop him, Dean." Sam is watching him, reading his fears. "Whatever it takes."

They talk about keeping him close, and how they'll do that. They decide to issue a very specific mandate—cloaked in casual suggestion and friendly advice, based on how they're working as a team now—that the angel's not to disappear, no more zapping away, no more missions on his own. It might work, it might not, ultimately depending on how much he trusts them, but it's the best way to keep him safe, even if they have no control over where he might be dragged off to in those nano-seconds that "this Naomi bitch" has him.

They talk about how they can use Castiel—their direct link to "Winged Monkey Central," as Dean calls it—to feed the angels false information, as a means both of throwing them off-track and garnering intell. Neither of which is likely to work for long, but it might at least buy them time, which they agree their ill-fated friend is running dangerously short on.

What they don't talk about are the twists and turns their relationship has taken over the past six hours, or for that matter, the past six months. They don't talk about Amelia, or Benny, or whether their bond is too broken for an alliance beyond this situation with Castiel. In a strange way it doesn't seem relevant. It feels to them both as if this moment—right here and right now—is the only one that matters. They are at each other's side right now, and everything else—the anger, the bitterness, the wealth of unspoken truths—pales in significance against that. It won't disappear, but it can wait.

They've wandered back to the parking lot, where the Impala sits by itself at the far end like a lone sheet-metal sentinel, and they lean against its onyx hood now, speaking in low, hushed voices. Sam says his reservation at the motel down the street has by now expired, so there's no point going back. He adds, casually, that there's no point in paying for two rooms either, especially if they're going to be here for a while. He'll take the shabby, sagging couch in Dean's room, and as exhausted as he feels, he's actually looking forward to it. Dean listens without argument.

The conversation stalls. They both know they need to return to the room, to check on Castiel and continue the elaborate pretense that began as the last embers of the ringed fire drifted skyward around the three of them tonight. Neither of them is enthused.

"You know," says Sam, aware of his brother's reluctance to embark on another lie, "if we want to talk to him again—I mean really talk—there's always the holy fire option."

Dean smirks. "Our very own Cone of Silence." He pushes off from the Impala's hood and turns toward the motel. "Not exactly the Cone of Convenience. Large circles of fire aren't easy to set up in a motel room. Management tends to frown on that sort of thing."

"We'll figure something out."

"Yeah," says Dean, sounding unconvinced and far too weary to argue. He crosses in front of Sam and begins slowly heading toward the room.

"Hey, Dean."

Dean stops without turning.

Behind him Sam says, "I heard what you promised him. That we'd find a way through this." He pauses and Dean waits. "Well, I'm promising you now."

For a moment the night is utterly still, utterly soundless. It's as if everything around them has stopped and waits for Sam's next words. "We'll find a way. We're not going to lose him."

Dean doesn't move, doesn't speak.

With a quiet intensity, Sam says, "No one's losing anyone."

Dean turns back to him now, meets his gaze across the Impala's hood, seeing the resolution in his little brother's eyes. He manages a tired smile. "Damn straight."

...

Castiel wakes up on the floor of the Lazy 8 bathroom, his right cheek pressed against the greasy cold of a tile.

His head feels thick, sluggish, making focus a difficult task, but the pain is muted now, the white noise a dull background hiss. He can't quite remember how he ended up here. The last he recalls clearly, he was standing over Sam's laptop. And he's aware of a pull to return there…

He struggles to his feet and studies his reflection in the mirror. Everything is in the right place. His clothes look tidy, his hair is combed back neatly, and his skin, though cast grey in the dim overhead light, is unblemished. His eyes stare back weary and glazed, but they are his. Everything on the outside looks correct. And feels wrong. Because within the perfect packaging, he feels fragmented, dissonant, at odds with some part of himself, some imposter, that he can't recognize or even clearly see. For a moment as he stares at the flawless facsimile of his vessel, he doesn't know who he is.

The laptop. He needs to get back to the laptop.

He crosses back into the main room, stopping at the table where Sam's computer sits. He glances outside and sees the brothers in the parking lot now, standing near the Impala. He remembers very little about the events of the past evening, but the reason they're out there stands clear in his mind. They are trying to heal the breach that has divided them. They are looking for common ground…

Did he suggest that to them? That part is hazy, as is much of the detail of all that transpired tonight. Something important happened at the church, something involving a fellow angel—

is Samandriel dead?

—but he's not sure what, and he's still mystified as to why he ended up on the floor of the bathroom. Everything is tortuously unclear. And he should feel frightened, he should feel desperate for answers to what's happening to him, he should in fact be out actively seeking them rather than standing here in the dark, secluded space of this cramped room, but as he peers out at the Winchesters what he feels beyond anything is calm. It's the calm of knowing that if he can't rely on himself, he can rely on them. It's the only thing he's certain of right now: his trust in Sam and Dean. There is nothing and no one in this universe he trusts more.

And it pleases him immeasurably to see them together out there now, speaking, working through their differences.

He can hear their hushed conversation outside—not the actual words, but the tone that carries them, calm and steady and fluid. And the sound, a rhythmic ebb and flow of soft resonance, somehow more like a tone of music in the angel's ears than of voice, fills him unexpectedly with a sense of peace. In that instant the information on the computer is forgotten; in fact, all that he captured earlier from its screen is let go, simply released from the holding pattern in his mind.

He drifts over to the bed by the window, its comfort still waiting, still inviting, and lies back in its soft embrace. He's surprised at just how comfortable it is, how welcoming. The lulling, music-like tone from outside, the quiet conversation of his companions, his only family, fills his mind as he closes his eyes, and in the peacefulness he's found—a transient thing at best, he knows—Castiel does the one thing he never expected to. He falls into a dreamless, contented sleep.

x


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