Title: Trial and Error

Author: Sparkle Itamashii

Summary: In which Castiel manages to avoid being drawn back behind Heaven's permanently locked gates to stay with Dean... but at what price?

Chapter One

It was, of course, never as easy as closing a gate and being done with it. That wasn't their lot in life, had never been their lot in life. So it was hardly a surprise to either Sam or Dean when Kevin called to tell them that the gates of Hell could not be closed without also closing the gates of Heaven. That both had to close at the same time, so that the balance would not be overturned.

They had wanted to, at first. Dean had plunged headlong into the new set of trials, eager to rid the world of all the crazy outside influences that had messed it up so badly. No more demons, no more angels. Humans would be free to exercise their will, make their own choices, decide their own fates. It wasn't perfect, but it was a start, and with Sam on the mend from the second trial and Dean flying through the first, it had even seemed like a good idea.

Until Sam wondered aloud what would happen to Castiel.

"He's still an angel," he reminded Dean. "Won't the spell cast him back, too?"

That had given them pause for a few days. Together they had weighed their options and in the end the answer was obvious, if not salient. They couldn't afford to leave the gates open, even if it meant they would never see their friend again. Sam had made a show of being absorbed in one of the Letters' books when Castiel turned up outside the building, calling for Dean. They needed time alone.

Castiel had agreed that the gates needed to be closed. When Sam had finally joined them outside, Castiel had greeted him with a half-hearted smile, barely flashed, before he turned his full attention back to Dean. "This is why I Fell, Dean," he'd told him softly. "Your people deserve freedom from my family as surely as they deserve freedom from the forces of Hell."

Dean had scowled, but accepted it. There wasn't a choice; if he wanted to close the gates, Cas would go away with the others, disappear from their lives forever.

No matter how fine he acted, Sam knew that Dean was not okay. That didn't mean they would stop, it didn't mean that Dean shied away from the second task. It meant that they finished their final trials together, and found themselves standing across from one another in a field in Wyoming. Blood and bones littered the ground between them, arranged in a pattern. Dean couldn't seem to tear his eyes away from the pale, softly-striped feathers placed at the points of the sigils.

Their donator stood at Dean's side, drinking in the sight of him, expressionless. He didn't have to be there for it to work, but Sam had asked. Sam had asked because Dean wouldn't. Because Dean couldn't.

"Hey Cas?" Dean asked softly, still not looking. "We never asked about the human souls. When we close the gate, what happens to them? Where will they go?" He couldn't ask the question he wanted to ask- will I see you again, someday?

Castiel looked down, considering the question. "I suppose they will go into a cycle of rebirth. Your problems with spirits will probably resolve."

Dean nodded, like maybe he had expected that. "And the people behind the gates already?" He didn't have to mention their parents- it was scrawled all over his face.

"They will probably remain there," Castiel surmised. "Are you stalling, Dean?"

"Yes," he admitted, shifting uncomfortably. With a sigh, he pulled his lighter from his pocket, dragged his gaze up to meet Sam's eyes. "You first."

Sam glanced between them, but he swallowed his desire to pick at them, to make them say goodbye. They hadn't. Dean wouldn't, and Castiel didn't know how. It was a mess, but there wasn't room for Sam to interfere, not anymore. So he just raised the paper in his hands, full of words scratched in pen by Kevin- the incantation that would start this. He began to read aloud.

It wasn't a particularly long incantation and at the end, Dean knelt and lit the first of the angel feathers on fire. It blazed white and blue for a split second before the patterns beneath it caught flame as well, spreading from sigil to sigil. The holy oil mingled with the blood, the burning stench of it scorching through the air around them. Castiel shifted uncomfortably, feeling the first stirrings of the call home.

When Dean rose, he gave Castiel a final glance before unfolding his own piece of paper. He swallowed thickly, gaze dropping down to the words that would send Castiel away from him forever. He couldn't seem to unwire his jaw, couldn't make his throat unclench.

"You have to, Dean," Castiel told him, so soft it was almost lost in the open air of the field. "It will be okay."

Dean's face screwed up slightly, like he wanted to yell at Castiel, because it wasn't okay, because it would never be okay. But he just sighed, because he refused to let their last conversation be an argument. He wouldn't remember Cas like that. He didn't want Cas to remember him like that, either.

As Dean began to read, the pull in Castiel's gut became stronger. He could feel his Grace reacting to the spell, feel the way it clawed at his insides, trying to take him away from here. He would go, he knew, but he would cling to this realm as long as possible. He would be the last through the gates, staying at Dean's side until the very last moment, because Dean deserved that much. After everything they had been through, all the hardships, Castiel knew his worst regret would be that moment; the moment he truly left Dean on his own.

The end of the incantation drew near and the sensation tearing at Castiel's Grace was nearly unbearable. He wavered where he stood, the motion breaking Dean's concentration for a split second as he glanced to the angel. Cas shook off the attention with a nod of encouragement, and Dean resumed reading; Castiel didn't miss the way his body remained turned slightly more toward him, though.

Upon the last word of the spell, Castiel stumbled under the weight of the pain. Light began to glow from the sigils, replacing the fire, climbing skyward as they wove together to form the binding magic that would seal the gates. A hoarse shout escaped Castiel as he clutched at his chest, and a moment later Dean was on his knees beside him. He could hear Dean calling his name, but it was nearly drowned out by the ringing in his ears, the screaming inside of him as the spell began to tear him from inside his vessel.

Then Dean's hands were upon him and the relief that flooded his system closed his throat, constricting his chest in a helpless sob. For a moment he couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't do anything but allow the feeling of Dean's presence to wash through him before the darkness claimed him entirely.

The light from the sigils faded as the spell came to an end. Dean knelt beside Castiel's body, curled forward, eyes closed. Sam stood across the casting area, watching, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help, no solace he could offer now. Castiel was gone, and Dean would have to deal with that loss the same as Dean had dealt with burying all of their friends and family in the past. It never got any easier. He never got better at dealing.

The most Sam could do for him was to give him space and a little time, and then remind him gently that they couldn't stay in the field forever. That they still had to pick up Kevin, if nothing else, and finally get him home to his mother. There would be no more tablet translations for him, no more hiding, no more running. Sam and Dean would probably play clean up crew with whatever monsters were left, but it would never again be demons or hellhounds. Their heels would never be nipped after by angels demanding they play into the claws of their fates.

They were free.

Watching Dean curl his fingers into the cloth of Castiel's trench coat, Sam knew that their being free meant that they were also alone.

Sam tipped his head as he watched Dean's hands rise and fall on Castiel's chest, almost as if Castiel was...

"Dean, he- he's breathing," Sam exclaimed, bewildered.

Dean's attention focused, snapping up to Castiel's face, hope lighting his eyes. Though Castiel didn't stir, when Dean splayed his hands across his chest, he could feel him breathing, just like Sam said. He looked to his brother, expression mirroring Sam's own confusion. "Did it not work?" Dean croaked, throat still tight.

Shrugging helplessly, Sam crossed the sigils to reach Dean's side, stooping to kneel alongside Castiel. "Something happened," he said as he felt at Castiel's throat for a pulse. It was strong and steady. He met Dean's gaze, mind racing. "Uh- maybe it..." He shook his head, unable to come up with an explanation.

Dean shook his head and looked back to Castiel. He drew back slightly when a thought struck him. "Jimmy?" he proposed to Sam. "If Cas got called home..."

Sam shrugged again, this time with his hands, and looked back down. "Maybe...? I thought he was..." he said, trailing off. Jimmy was supposed to be gone, dead, moved on, but it would explain why the body was alive after Cas left. His eyebrows rose slightly. "If it is, we should get him back to the bunker."

"If it is, we should get him home," Dean insisted.

"Dean, his home... We can't take him there," Sam reminded him. He knew why Dean didn't want to take Castiel to the bunker, but he also knew that, short of abandoning Jimmy at a truck stop, it was their only choice. "They think he's dead. It was a disaster last time."

Though Dean scowled, he eventually agreed. They got Jimmy's body shifted into the back of the Impala. Sam didn't bother asking if Dean wanted him to drive, he just silently slipped the keys from Dean's nerveless fingers. He didn't once mention the way Dean spent the entire ride home twisted halfway around in the passenger seat, watching the man in the backseat with a haunted look in his eyes.

At the threshold of the bunker's entrance, Dean paused, Jimmy's body draped across his arms, trench coat dangling awkwardly. Partway down the hall, Sam hesitated, glancing back. Dean was just standing there, looking at the doorframe like it was an alien concept, as if he had never had to walk through a door before. Sam backtracked until he was standing in front of Dean.

Though it took Sam a moment, he realized why Dean had paused.

As long as he didn't cross the threshold, there was still a chance it was Castiel in his arms. That the sigils and warding symbols and runes bled into the walls of the entire bunker would prevent him from crossing with the angel. The moment he crossed, there was no going back. It would be Jimmy, and Castiel would be gone, and Dean wasn't capable of facing that right now.

"You can't stand there forever, Dean," Sam told him, but gently.

Dean managed not to say I can try, and instead took a deep breath before forcing himself to step over the threshold. Sam tried to pretend the sight of his brother's heart breaking didn't suck, but he couldn't lie to himself. He just silently followed Dean to one of the empty rooms, watched him deposit Jimmy on the bed. Jimmy didn't stir at all, and both boys wondered how long it would be before he woke. If he woke.

"I don't know about you, but I'm starving," Dean said gruffly, turning resolutely away from the bed, pushing past Sam.

With pursed lips, Sam spared a final glance to the man on the bed before turning to follow his brother down to the kitchen.

Darkness surrounded Castiel, utterly unbroken, silent, pressing in all around him. He could feel something wrapped around him, something warm and not completely unfamiliar despite that he could make no guess as to what it was. He was glad for it, whatever it was; he could hear the howling, feel the echoes of scratching, clawing madness and he knew whatever enveloped him was his only protection.

That knowledge only made it worse when the first crack appeared anyway.

The first claw to hook into him was excruciating. He thought maybe he screamed, but he couldn't hear anything, couldn't see anything. Everything that he was thrashed against the pulling sensation as the intruding presence attempted to drag him away with it. He couldn't be sure where it would take him, but he knew it was somewhere he didn't want to be. Somewhere he couldn't leave. So he fought, and with relief he found that he did not fight alone. The presence which held him became stronger, infused him with the strength to force out the attacker.

After that, Castiel began to build. He wasn't sure what material he used, only knew that he was pressing something into the cracks, something strong, something sealed by the friendly presence at his side. It burned where he smoothed the material around, but he knew it was necessary. Every time the tearing sensation clamored at his gut, he knew he had to keep building, keep burning, keep patching and layering until the blockade was so thick he couldn't hear the howling anymore. He couldn't feel the thing that ripped and tore at him anymore.

Castiel continued on until he couldn't feel anything, not even the presence that had protected him through the attack. Until he was safe- alone, but safe.

Only then did Castiel open his eyes.

Sam knocked gently upon the door frame, just enough to alert Dean to his presence. Dean stirred in his chair, lifted his head from his arms where they lay crossed over the back of it so that he could look over his shoulder to his brother. Holding up one of the two mugs in his hands, Sam offered a consolatory smile. Darkness underscored Dean's eyes, and he held out a hopeful hand for the proffered drink. When he looked inside the mug, it wasn't coffee or alcohol, and so he just clasped it in both hands, leeching warmth from it as he turned back to the bed.

"No progress?" Sam wondered aloud, taking a sip of his cocoa.

"He's not screaming, currently," Dean answered, voice dragged down to gravel with fatigue.

Taking a breath, Sam turned his attention to the unconscious man sprawled across the small bed. They had tried to rouse him for the better part of two days now, to no avail. Shortly after they had deposited him in the bed the first night and gone to fetch food for themselves, they heard him shouting. Abandoning their dinner, they raced upstairs to assure Jimmy that everything was all right, only to find him in the throes of some sort of hellish nightmare neither of them could end. They'd shaken him, they'd dumped water on him, they'd shouted back until they were hoarse. In the end, he just... stopped.


They had stayed for a while, sharing silent conversations, letting their fears bounce around the room as they watched Jimmy sleep. At least, they hoped he was sleeping and not just... well, they hoped he was sleeping. It would be easier for all of them.

Of course, nothing for the Winchesters was ever easy. After an hour of sitting tensely by, observing, Sam had finally suggested Dean go pick up Kevin and return him home. Though he knew Dean wanted to stay, he also knew there was no point in both of them sitting by idly. He was certain that Dean needed a break from the visual reminder of his loss.

Dean, however, was of the opinion that Sam could take his chick-flick-moment therapy crap and pick up Kevin himself, which was how Dean ended up sitting alone in the semi-darkness for almost two days. When Sam found him exactly where he had left him, he'd shuffled Dean out of the room and into his own bed, agreeing multiple times to take over watching Jimmy sleep soundly.

The problem was that Jimmy did not sleep soundly. Shortly after Dean had finally fallen asleep, the screaming began anew. Dean had trudged the distance between the rooms, scowling, to find Sam sitting on the edge of the bed looking harried. When he caught Dean staring at him, he held up his hands in surrender.

"Every few hours," Dean told him groggily. "He's been doing this crap every few hours and there's nothing you can do." I couldn't save him, either.

So they'd sat together on the floor the rest of the night, Dean leaning into Sam's shoulder until he fell asleep again. Sam had stayed up, watching Jimmy and thinking about what they were going to do about this. They would have to take him to a hospital soon, if for no other reason than because they couldn't hydrate him properly for long here. How they were going to explain this to anyone was beyond him, but - though he would never tell Dean he'd thought it - maybe they wouldn't have to. Maybe they could just drop him off in a far-away town, and let the system deal with him.

"I suppose that's something," Sam answered finally, taking another sip of his cocoa. He screwed up his courage and took a breath. "You know, Dean... we can't keep him here forever. Not if he stays like this."

"I know," Dean replied.

"I looked up a few hospitals that have... you know, good psychological care wards," Sam tested carefully. He hadn't wanted to bring it up to Dean. They both remembered all too starkly their time - as well as Castiel's time - spent in mental hospitals. It never seemed to end well.

Dean scowled at his cocoa. "We're not dropping Cas off at another loony bin."

It's not Cas was on the tip of Sam's tongue when he noticed they were being watched. "Dean," he said, trying to direct Dean's attention to their charge.

"Sam, I said we're not-"

"He's awake."

Dean's attention snapped back to the bed, his eyes meeting stark blue. His chest constricted painfully, and though he opened his mouth to say something, nothing came out. His ears were ringing, his blood pounding, and Castiel - Jimmy, he reminded himself - had done nothing but simply open his eyes and look at the brothers, confusion settling into his features.

"It's okay, Jimmy," Sam said from behind Dean, and the world sped back to normal. "You're safe for now, and we're going to help get you on your feet."

Jimmy looked between the two of them, his confusion only seeming to deepen.

"Cas said you were... gone," Dean told him, choosing carefully. He didn't want to freak Jimmy out by telling him he was supposed to be dead. "What do you remember?"

With a slight head tilt, Jimmy squinted at them. "I should not be here."

Both Dean and Sam froze at the familiar tone, at the low, gravel-filled voice. "... Cas?" Dean asked, eyes narrowing.

"Yes, Dean," Castiel replied. The moment the words were out of his lips, Dean was out of his chair, backing up a pace, like Castiel might turn on them.

"No, we closed- you- There's no way you-"

"How are you here?" Sam asked warily, over the sound of Dean's inability to form a coherent sentence.

"I don't know," Castiel told them, brow furrowed, eyes not focused on anything. They recognized the gesture; he was attempting contact beyond their senses. "As I said, I should not be here."

"Well, you are," Dean pointed out gruffly, anger thick in his tone. He didn't want to blame Castiel, but he'd spent the last two and a half days thinking he was lost forever, listening to him scream, unable to do anything, and now Castiel was just there again? "We closed that gate, Cas. We sent everyone home from the party early, so what are you still doing here?"

"Did it not work?" Sam asked, voice heavy with concern. The trials had been difficult enough the first time through. He wasn't sure they would survive round two, not without the pure hope they'd had this time, that it would succeed. Not while knowing their first attempt had failed so spectacularly.

"I don't... I don't feel my brothers anywhere on Earth. I cannot hear them." Castiel tipped his head as if it would make Dean's fondly-named 'angel radio' any clearer. It only caused him to scrunch his face in frustration. "I cannot hear anything."

The boys stared at him and he stared back, all of them trying to determine what had happened, how Castiel had escaped being whipped back home with the rest of the Host. It was only when Castiel looked around himself that he seemed to realize where he was. His eyes widened considerably and he was on his feet a moment later.

"We are at the Men of Letters' home base," he stated, like it meant something.

"Yeah, Cas, you were gone, you were supposed to be gone," Dean reminded him slowly, trying to wrap his head around the situation. The thought of Cas being lost to him still ached, worse when he said it aloud, even though Castiel was right in front of him. Even though Castiel seemed okay, Dean wasn't. "We thought we were dealing with Jimmy, not..." Dean motioned to all of Castiel, swallowing hard.

"Not an angel?" Castiel prompted, raising his hands as if to indicate their surroundings. His point was lost on Dean, but not on Sam.

"We brought you here because we thought you were human," Sam said aloud for Dean's benefit. Dean's face paled slightly as he caught the train of thought. "Cas, this entire place is angel proof, we made sure of it. It's everything proof, humans only. Dean shouldn't have been able to bring you in unless..."

"Unless I were human," Castiel finished for him, his eyes meeting Dean's at last.