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ratherastory ([personal profile] ratherastory) wrote2013-10-02 02:32 pm

I See My Light Come Shining (From the West to the East)

Title: I See My Light Come Shining (From the West to the East)
Summary: With the Trials at an end, Dean thought that Sam would be fine and that they'd be able to turn the page on it all. As it turns out, he was wrong... Written for [livejournal.com profile] cleflink for [livejournal.com profile] spn_summergen.
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Show-levels of gore. Spoilers to the end of Season 8.
Neurotic Author's Note # 1: Oh my goodness, dear [personal profile] cleflink, I tried so hard not to have unrelenting angst in this, and, um… I'm not sure I entirely succeeded. I blame Season 8, and the show in general, because unrelenting angst seems to be a Thing™ lately. I hope you like it anyway! It was a really gratifying story to write, even if it was hard.
Neurotic Author's Note # 2: I would also like to thank the lovely betas who stepped up to rescue me from myself at the last minute: [livejournal.com profile] embroiderama, [livejournal.com profile] harrigan and [livejournal.com profile] moviegeek03. You are all marvelous and if I were there in person I would shower you with kisses! <3
Neurotic Author's Note # 3: The title is taken from Bob Dylan's song I Shall Be Released. It felt appropriate. :)
Neurotic Author's Note # 4: Yes, I know, I'm posting this really late after reveals. I am so swamped with RL that I've been neglecting all things fandom. Sorry!




Sam is squirming in his seat, trying to be subtle about it and failing. It's laughable, is what it is; Dean's six-foot-four brick shithouse of a brother trying to make it seem like he's not coming out of his skin a bare four inches away from him on the bench seat.

"Ants in your pants, Sammy?" he asks, and has to bite his lower lip to keep from smiling.

Sam levels a glare at him. "You did something," he says accusingly. "What the hell did you do?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "I didn't do anything, princess; don't get your panties in a bunch."

They've been driving down what feels like the same blacktop for days now, the trees on either side blurring into indistinct brown and green masses, the fading yellow line the only other indication of civilization for miles. Dean can't really blame Sam for thinking he might have played some sort of practical joke on him—there's been absolutely nothing to stave off the boredom except play the same tapes and read the same magazines over and over again. There's no Wi-Fi to steal out here, so the laptop isn't much use for entertainment or even research, not that there's anything to research, either. How do you even start researching what amounts to a holocaust in Heaven?

The only thing they can do is look for Cas. Cas, who's been AWOL ever since all the angels fell from Heaven like the world's biggest meteor shower. And that's what they've been doing, moving in a slow grid pattern to try to cover as much ground as possible. It's like looking for a goddamned needle in a haystack, of course, but what else can they do? Kevin is holding down the fort at the bunker, but Sam is edgy, twitchy in a way that he's never been, not even when he was all hopped up on demon blood. He can't sit still for more than a few minutes unless they're in the car. Now, though, even the car seems to lack whatever magic it's had up until now to soothe the savage beast.

"Dean, this isn't the time for one of your stupid pranks." Sam squirms in his seat again, and Dean makes a show of lifting both hands from the steering wheel to protest his innocence.

"Dude, I swear, I haven't done anything. I've been too busy worrying about your sorry ass, and about Cas. Why, what's wrong with you? You feel funny?"

"No. Okay, maybe," Sam concedes. "I'm… I don't know, itchy. Like there's something on my back, or in my shirt. You swear you didn't find some sort of cheap itching powder somewhere and sabotage my clothes?"

"My hand to God. You want me to take a look? I can pull over."

"No," Sam sighs. "Never mind. I'll shower when we stop. It's just driving me crazy. Regular crazy, not anything else," he adds, which, fair enough.

Dean might have maybe been hovering a little for the past few days, so sue him. It's not every day that your little brother nearly ends up as some sort of ritual sacrifice in an attempt to close the gates of Hell, so he figures he's entitled to keep a closer eye on Sam than usual. And, yes, okay, while maybe the whole near-brush-with-death thing is a slightly more common occurrence when you're a Winchester, it's still not exactly a restful experience.

"You sure you're okay?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "Good as I'm going to get," he says, with that irritating honesty he's been cultivating of late.

He isn't looking good, is the problem. They're less than a week out from the Trials, and he's still gaunt and frail looking, the circles under his eyes so dark they look like bruises. At least he's stopped spiking fevers, which Dean considers the smallest of all possible mercies. There's no telling what all that did to Sam's insides, which is an added incentive to find Castiel. If anyone can tell what's going on with Sam, it'll be Cas, with all his angel mojo, even if Cas is a few sandwiches short of a picnic these days.

Dean stops driving long before the sun has set, and it's something in and of itself that Sam doesn't say anything, just shoots him a slightly disbelieving look before leveraging himself out of the car. For a second Dean is tempted to reach out and put a hand under his elbow, just in case he's even shakier than he looks, but he holds back and watches Sam make his way slowly into the motel room.

Sam spends so much time in the shower that Dean is pretty much convinced that there won't be any hot water left by the time it's his turn. At this point, he's willing to forgo his shower until the morning if it means Sam will stop looking like he's ready to rip off his own skin with his fingernails.

"Did it help, at least?" he asks when the bathroom door finally opens, revealing Sam in nothing but a barely adequate white towel.

Sam shrugs. "Not really. Must be the laundry detergent or something. I took some Benadryl, so hopefully that'll clear it up. I can't really see what it is; it's at the wrong angle for the bathroom mirror."

Dean gets up from the bed. "Lemme see," he orders, and to his surprise Sam complies easily. Dean inhales sharply. "Wow."

"What?"

Suddenly Sam sounds worried, and Dean isn't at all sure that that's not the right reaction. Whatever this is, it doesn't look good. There are angry red patches on Sam's back. Only two of them for now, right over his shoulder blades, but that's two more than Dean wanted to see there. They're definitely inflamed, hot to the touch. Sam shivers involuntarily as Dean brushes his fingertips lightly over one of the spots, feeling swelling and what might be fluid under there.

"Whatever it is you're allergic to, this is a hell of a reaction. We got any calamine lotion or witch hazel?"

"You're not coming near me with witch hazel, you sadist." Sam pulls away and reaches into his duffel for a clean pair of boxers. "Let's see how it is in the morning, okay?"

Dean purses his lips. "Fine.

~*~

Morning rolls around, and there isn't time to check anything, because Dean's phone rings, the caller ID revealing only a payphone number from the same general area code as the bunker's. An automated voice asks him if he'll accept the charges, and he's about to hang up when he recognizes the recording that follows.

"Dean, it's me. I don't know why this voice insists I need to say my name. I did it last time and it—" the recording cuts off, and Dean hastily presses "1" in order to take the call.

"Where the hell have you been?" Dean snaps, and immediately regrets that those are the first words out of his mouth. Cas frankly deserves better than Dean and Sam have ever done by him, Dean especially.

"It's a long story, and mostly I don't know. I need you to come get me," Cas says, and God, he sounds tired. Like, ground-down-until-there's-nothing-but-bone tired.

Dean hesitates. "You can't just zap back to the bunker on your own?"

"No."

There's a world of unspoken atrocities in that one word, and Dean shivers in spite of himself. "We're on our way. Just tell me where you are."

Sam is already packing up what few things they unpacked for the night and carrying the bags to the car. By the time Dean scribbles down Cas's location on a piece of motel stationary, he's got everything ready to go.

"You okay?" Dean asks, because if anything Sam is moving even more gingerly than yesterday, which doesn't bode well.

He knows Sam didn't sleep well, because he spent half the night listening to him whimper in his sleep, or sitting up with half-stifled gasps and jerks. He'd thought the Hell-related nightmares were waning, but whatever the Trials did to Sam, it seems like it's all coming back now. Well, Sammy having nightmares is nothing new, he reasons. They'll cope, because they always do.

"I'll live. We'll get Cas, figure everything else out when we get back home."

It's weird, Dean thinks as he peels off out of the motel parking lot, how not-weird it is to call the bunker home these days. They each have their own bedroom, something Dean hasn't known since he was four years old, and something Sam has never known. Dean is pretty sure Sam never roomed alone even in college, and shacking up with a girl definitely doesn't count as having your own room. So, yeah. Having their own space, complete with bedroom and kitchens and library? That's awesome.

It takes five and a half hours to get back to Cas, driving so much faster than the speed limit that even Sam starts looking nervous after a while. Cas is waiting at a picnic table outside a dilapidated 7/11 with an even more broken-down phone booth outside. At least the phone inside still works, which is presumably how he was able to get in touch with them. When he spots them, he gets up, moving stiffly, as though he's been thoroughly beaten with a bag full of bricks. Hell, for all Dean knows, that's exactly what happened.

Sam is out of the car before him, but that's only because Dean has to take the time to switch off the ignition. He falters a bit when he gets up, which makes Dean's heart skip an uncomfortable beat in his chest, but he recovers fast and makes a beeline for Cas. By the time Dean reaches them, he's got one of Cas' arms over his shoulders, and Dean immediately grabs the other, managing an awkward half hug while he's at it.

"I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've been this happy to see someone among the living," he tells him, and is rewarded when Cas quirks a small smile at him.

"Come on," Sam tells him unnecessarily. "Help me get him to the car."

Cas is a mess. Dirty, disheveled, and dehydrated. There's not much Dean can do about anything except that last one, so he digs out a bottle of tepid water from under one of the seats and all but shoves it into his mouth.

"Drink all of it, Cas. Small sips."

Sam is fussing with one of their spare blankets, folding it into a makeshift pillow and arranging it on the back seat. "We should head back to the bunker, get you checked out properly. Are you hurt?"

Cas shakes his head, chokes on a mouthful of water and coughs. "Not physically."

"What did they do to you? Weren't you with Metatron, last time I checked?"

Cas just stares at him, and Dean swallows, rubbing a hand over his mouth. It's Sam who clears his throat a moment later.

"Cas… are you human now? Like, fully human?"

Dean doesn't even know how Sam jumped to that particular conclusion, but Cas shrugs, and that's all the answer they really need. Sam's still not looking good, rolling his shoulders as if he's trying to work out some kinks in the muscles, his face more flushed than it was when he first got out of the car, and a moment later he shivers, ever so slightly.

"All right, let's get this parade of walking wounded out of here," Dean declares. "We'll figure things out once we're back home."

~*~

Kevin is buried up to his neck in papers when they get back, quite literally. Dean can only see the top of his head bobbing up and down periodically from behind the stacks of notes and binders and books and other crap. It's only because he can hear him muttering to himself that he knows Kevin hasn't actually smothered under there.

"Hey, Special K, you eat anything today?"

"Fuck off, I'm working!" is the only answer he gets, so he shrugs and turns his attention back to more immediate problems.

Honestly, he doesn't know who looks worse, Sam or Cas. If he had to make a choice he'd say Sam, but Cas is running a close second. He sighs, tries to remember how much food is in the fridge and if he can make some sort of decent meal out of it, and then points, first to Cas, then to Sam.

"You, shower. Right now. I'll bring you some clothes you can change into. You, bed. And take off your shirt, I want to see how much worse whatever the hell that thing on your back is."

Sam rolls his eyes but doesn't argue, which already says something about just how shitty he must be feeling. Cas looks at him like he's lost his mind, which reminds Dean that, oh yeah, Cas has never had to take a shower in his life.

"You good to go, Sammy? I'm going to show Cas the ropes for a minute. Guided tour of the facilities."

Sam nods and disappears without a word, leaving Dean to deal with a newly human former angel who understands plumbing only on a theoretical level. Granted, it's a highly complex theoretical level, but it doesn't prevent Cas from yelping when he accidentally turns the tap in only one direction and gets a blast of cold water right between the shoulder blades. Dean shoves his arm in the shower and twists the knob until the water reaches a more acceptable temperature, trying to keep his eyes averted in a somewhat futile attempt to save Cas' dignity. His shirtsleeve is soaked, but at least Cas doesn't seem to have any trouble working out the logistics of soap and shampoo. They'll cover shaving another time, he thinks gloomily.

Sam has fallen asleep on his bed, curled on his side, hands clenched into fists in front of him. His back must be bothering him a lot, since he's always liked to sleep on his back. Dean bends over him and shakes him lightly by the shoulder.

"It's not nap time yet, Sammy. Let me have a look, and then you can sleep all you like. Jesus—" he reaches up to press a hand to Sam's forehead when he realizes just how hot Sam is. "You're burning. Why didn't you tell me you were running a fever?"

Sam blinks at that, his eyes unfocussed. "Can't be right… he burns cold," he says nonsensically. His fever isn't bad enough for delirium, but Dean figures he's probably still half-asleep.

"Bad dream?"

Sam sits up groggily and nods, rubbing at his eyes. With very little prompting he pulls his t-shirt over his head, wincing and hissing a little bit as the fabric rubs against his back. It's Dean's turn to suck in a pained breath when he sees what's under the shirt. The red patches have spread, and now most of Sam's back near his shoulder blades is covered in large, angry-looking blisters. Actually, now that he's taking a closer look, they're more like abscesses. Whatever's going on, there's definitely infection setting in on top of everything else.

"Sam… this really doesn't look good. You remember anything from that last trial not going the way it should?" he's grasping at straws, here, but he can't think of anything that would cause a reaction like this.

"Well, I didn't die…." Sam offers, and Dean glares at him.

"Not funny, asshole. Apart from that."

Sam just shakes his head, and just like that, they're back to square one.

"Never mind the witch hazel, I'm getting the peroxide. Whatever the hell this is, we gotta get it cleaned out. I'm raiding the antibiotics for you, too."

"Just… no more ice baths, okay?"

"No promises."

Sam groans melodramatically. "At least this time don't dump me in fully clothed?"

"I said, no promises!" Dean yells, already halfway to the bathroom.

Cas is out of the shower when he gets there, painstakingly doing up the buttons of a shirt that's slightly too big for him. His pants are borrowed, too, and he's opted to go barefoot, not that Dean can blame him. As soon as they've figured out what the hell is wrong with Sam, he tells himself, they'll get Cas some of his own clothes so that he doesn't look like he came out on the wrong end of a clothing swap. He rummages through the medicine cabinet until he comes up with a bottle of amoxicillin that isn't expired, along with a bottle of ibuprofen.

"Something's wrong with Sam," Cas says, a statement rather than a question.

"And I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is. Can the Trials do something like that, do you think?"

"I wouldn't know."

Dean blows out both cheeks in exasperation, but he supposes it's a little unreasonable to expect Cas to know everything about a tablet that only Kevin can translate.

"Hey, uh… would you mind asking Kevin if he knows anything? Like, maybe there's something else on the tablet that could explain this. Or something. I don't know."

Cas shoots him a frustrated look. "Dean, I don't even know what we're talking about!"

Dean comes close to smacking himself in the face, because of course Cas hasn't seen what's going on. "Right. You, uh, you up to coming with me? You don't…" he stops before he can bring himself to say 'you don't have to,' because, yeah, Cas is human now and probably freaking out internally, but life sucks for all of them these days and, well, Cas is just going to have to learn to make it up as he goes along, same as everybody else.

To his relief, Cas falls in behind him without a word and follows him back to Sam's bedroom. Sam has lain back down on his bed, curled up again as if he's trying to protect himself from a beating. He's shivering a little even though the room is warm, and while he couldn't swear to it, Dean is pretty sure he hears him whimper under his breath. Dean sits next to him and hands him as much ibuprofen as he's sure he'll tolerate along with a dose of antibiotics.

"Here. I got Cas with me, he's going to take a look, just in case he sees anything familiar, okay?"

Sam dry-swallows the pills and nods, teeth gritted. "Fine."

"You don't sound fine."

That gets him a roll of the eyes. "Hurts like a bitch, is all. Like someone's driving hot pokers into my back from the inside out."

Cas is standing in the doorway, watching with that same bird-like tilt of the head he's always affected, but his expression doesn't waver. If what he's seeing rings any bells for him, he's sure as hell not letting on.

"You want to pull up a chair, Cas? If you're staying, I mean. This could take a while," he explains, holding up the bottle of peroxide and cotton swabs he's pulled out of the med kit he brought with him, along with a scalpel.

"What're you doing?" Sam squirms under him as he swabs the whole area with rubbing alcohol. It's been less than thirty minutes, but he could swear the infection already looks worse than before.

"Field surgery, Sammy. Don't freak out, but this shit isn't healing on its own, and you're running a fever. So I'm going to drain it, disinfect the whole thing, and bandage you up again. Just hold still."

Sam mutters something mutinous under his breath, but he does as he's told. About five seconds later, Dean is wishing he'd thought to do this somewhere other than Sam's bed, because the whole process is just about the grossest thing he's ever seen. The abscesses both burst like overfilled water balloons as soon as the blade touches them, and the next thing he knows Sam and the bed are both a mess of blood and pus and a whole bunch of other fluids he's not even sure he wants to identify. Sam makes a muted sound that's half pain, half relief when the pressure eases, and Dean takes a moment to press a hand between his shoulder blades.

"Easy, I got you. Going to clean you up now, okay? Make sure everything's pristine before I do anything else."

"Hurry up, already," Sam pants, teeth still clenched, and Dean does his best to accommodate him.

"There's something in the wounds," Cas says from over his shoulder, and Dean just about jumps out of his skin.

"Don't do that!" he snaps, then turns to look. Sure enough, right where the skin has parted, he can see two very large, dark spots under the thicker layer of dermis. "What the hell is that?"

Sam gasps and jerks away when he probes at one of the spots delicately with a pair of tweezers. "Don't! God, that hurts!"

"Sorry, sorry. Just… that can't be normal."

"You remember how you told me not to freak out? I'm going to start ignoring that request now if you don't tell me what the hell you're seeing!" Sam snaps. Dean lets it go, because he's in pain and running a fever.

Cas saves him the trouble of explaining. "There appear to be foreign bodies in your wounds. It's difficult to say exactly what they are."

"What?" Sam sounds a little panicky now, not that Dean can blame him.

"Okay, okay. Let's stick with Plan A for now, at least until we can get you to a doctor. Whatever those things are, I'm pretty sure I'm not qualified to deal with them. How bad's the pain, Sammy?"

"Um, better since you… did whatever you did. Maybe a six?"

Which, in Sam-speak, probably means an eight, but whatever, Dean's not going to call him on it. "Right. So I'm going to finish cleaning you up, we'll change the sheets, and take another look in the morning. You tell me if it starts hurting more, or if anything changes, okay?"

Sam slumps a little where he lies. "Yeah, okay."

~*~

"You got a plan?" Dean asks Cas later that night.

Sam has passed out, partly from pain but mostly from exhaustion and fever, and so they're letting him sleep as long as he can. Cas, though, doesn't seem thrilled at the idea of bunking down, alone or otherwise. So after making up the bed that he isn't likely to use tonight, he sits Cas down in the study with a beer (or maybe three). Sam would be better at this, getting Cas to open up about his feelings or whatever, now that he's human, but Sam's out of commission, which leaves all the touchy-feely stuff up to him, at least for now.

"A plan for what?"

"What you're going to do next?"

Heaven's shut off completely now, that much he knows. As much as he feels for Cas, because it must suck to never be able to go back home, Dean can't help but feel relieved. Then again, having hundreds or even thousands of displaced, confused and pissed-off angels wandering around the continental US (or, hell, the whole world for all he knows) is a recipe for disaster, too. You can't win for losing, it seems. It's the Winchester way.

Cas shrugs and takes a pull from his beer. "No, I don't have a plan. What would you have me do, anyway? I'm no use to anyone like this."

"So you'll do what the rest of us do when life hands us lemons. You find some cheap tequila, some salt, and you deal with it. It'll suck, but you keep going. Actually, scratch that. No alcohol for you."

Dean remembers a very different Cas saying to him once, I used to be part of a much better club, and cold travels up his spine. No way he's letting that happen this time.

Cas snorts. "As if you could stop me."

"I could take you," Dean jokes easily, but now that Cas is human, he thinks it might be true. Cas is used to having all the power of heaven behind his punches; it'll be hard for him to get used to normal human strength. "This is just like last time, only it'll probably last longer."

Cas makes a noncommittal noise and finishes his beer, and Dean doesn't say anything when he cracks open another one. Who the hell is he to sermonize people about self-medicating, anyway?

"Maybe there's something on the angel tablet that'll fix this," he says by way of a peace offering.

"There isn't."

Dean jumps, even though he knew Kevin was around here somewhere. "Jesus, Kevin. Scare a guy much?"

Kevin looks like he doesn't give a rat's ass if Dean died of a heart attack right here and now, not that Dean can blame him. He promised the kid he'd be out of the game, only to have to come and drag him right back in. Of course, he already warned Kevin that there is no way out, not really, and he supposes he shouldn't have made a promise he knew he'd have to break eventually. Kevin looks better than he did during the days he was on the run from Crowley. For one thing, he seems to have slept for more than an hour at a time. Plus he seems to have made use of the showers, changed his clothes, and even shaved his pathetic attempt at manly stubble.

"There's nothing on the tablet about turning humans into angels," he's saying when Dean starts paying attention again. "Or former angels back into angels. There's nothing about angels turning human, either, not unless they Fall, capital 'F.'"

"Didn't Anna turn back into an angel after regaining her grace?" Dean feels compelled to ask.

"And look how well that turned out," Kevin rejoins, and Dean has to concede the point. "The choice to Fall is irrevocable. An angel can't just decide one day, 'Oh, hey, maybe I made a mistake; I want back in!' And anyway, that's not what happened to Castiel. He didn't Fall, he was pushed. There's nothing in the literature about that. Nothing I've been able to find, anyway. I'm going to bed."

Kevin turns on his heel, but he hasn't taken three steps before the sound of screaming freezes them all to the spot. Seconds later, Dean is on his feet, because he knows what those screams mean. He sprints toward Sam's bedroom, gets there just in time to prevent Sam from faceplanting right onto the floor from his bed. He's still asleep, is the kicker, obviously caught up in a nightmare, and he struggles in Dean's arms, lashing out uselessly at some unseen attacker.

"Sam! Wake up!" Dean shakes him, for lack of a better way of handling this, keeps shaking him until Sam's eyes open all the way and he stops thrashing. "Hey, you good?"

For all that he seems awake, Sam's eyes are faraway, right up until they lock onto Dean with an expression that sends shivers up his spine. "Oh, hello, Dean," he says calmly, and whatever the fuck this is, it's not Sam.

"Sammy, snap out of it!" He shakes him again, even harder, and Sam's eyes clear.

"Dean?"

He lets out a sigh of relief. "What the fuck was that?"

Sam is clinging to him, fingers digging into his arms. He's shaking either from the dream or from pain, Dean isn't sure which. "Nightmare?" he offers, and Dean hears Cas snort from the doorway.

"Guess I'll invest in some earplugs, then," Kevin comments dryly.

Dean hauls Sam back up onto the bed but gives up trying to settle him back when Sam winces and insists on sitting forward. The dressing on his wounds is starting to peel off, and Sam hisses and pulls away when Dean tries to fix it.

"Aren't you the soul of empathy," Dean says over his shoulder to Kevin, who makes a derisive noise at the back of his throat.

"Oh, you want me to be empathetic? You want me to identify with Goliath here, who played chicken with the Trials and blinked at the last minute?"

Dean feels his face heat up. "You'd rather he died?"

"As a matter of fact, yes!" Kevin snaps. "I don't want him dead, but if it's a question of him dead and the gates of Hell closed forever or him alive and demons running amok all over the place? I'll take door number one, thanks. All those months of work, when you promised me it would be over? It's all in the toilet now, thanks to you two. And on top of it all, heaven's been shut down, which means there is nothing, nothing standing between us and the demons except for a handful of hunters, and I don't need to tell you what a shitty option that is!"

Dean's about to answer, or maybe get up and give the snot-nosed little prophet something else to think about, when Sam grips his arm even more tightly.

"It's okay. He should be pissed. Leave it."

Kevin's gone, anyway, stalked off to sulk in his room like a sullen teenager. Then again, that's pretty much what he is, barring all the prophet stuff, complete with dead family and missing finger. Maybe Sam's right. If he wants to sulk, he might be entitled, at least for a little while, so long as they're all safe.

"What were you dreaming about, Sam?" Cas is the one to ask.

Sam shrugs. "Not important. It was just a nightmare. Have 'em all the time. We got any better painkillers than Advil?"

There's something about the look on Cas's face, though, that makes Dean wonder. "C'mon, Sammy. Level with us, here. Painkillers after you answer Cas' question."

"That's extortion," Sam complains. And, okay, maybe withholding painkillers while Sam is literally shaking from pain isn't a good idea, but he's committed to this course of action now. Sam glares at him. "I was dreaming about Hell. Happy?"

"Of course I'm not happy!" Dean snaps, at the same time as Cas asks, "What exactly?"

Sam stares at him incredulously. "You want details?"

"Yes."

Winchesters don't do details; it's part of the game. Sam doesn't even know where to start, that much is obvious. Dean gives his leg a pat and gets up.

"Okay, I take it back. Painkillers first, and then we can care and share."

He rummages in the med kit he left before in the room and comes up with some Percocet. Sam swallows them dry as well. Not for the first time Dean finds himself wondering exactly when they became this cavalier about meds. Dad was always way more careful about this sort of thing. Sam still doesn't look like he wants to talk, and Cas looks like he's about to bang Sam's head against the wall until his dreams just leak out his ears, so he clears his throat.

"You know, when—when I used to have nightmares," Dean starts, and it's a bit of a white lie, because he still has nightmares but Sam doesn't need to know that, "it was mostly about this woman. A girl, really. She couldn't have been more than twenty, twenty-two. And… she was the first—" he falters when his brother grabs his wrist and squeezes.

"You don't have to," Sam tells him. "Thank you, though."

Cas is still looking at them expectantly. "I need you to tell me, Sam."

"It's not about the torture. I have those dreams all the time, same as you," Sam says to Dean, which tells him that maybe he hasn't been as good at keeping it all under his hat as he thought. "It's… it's different, this time. It's like it was right in the beginning, when I said 'yes.' I don't remember much after that, right up until I woke up in Stull Cemetery. It was dark, and it was cold… I've never felt cold like that, not even when—not even after I fell."

"You've been dreaming of Lucifer. When he was using you as a vessel."

Sam shakes his head. "Sort of. It’s not memories. It's more like… I don't know how to describe it. I keep dreaming of climbing through the dark, and he—he talks to me, all the time. It's like I never got out. All my worst fears keep coming true, like all this has been one really long, elaborate hoax, and I've been in Hell the whole time. Or worse, I never went to Hell at all, and Lucifer is wrecking the earth while I'm locked away somewhere inside my own head."

He looks like he's going to keep going when his whole body spasms with pain, and he digs his fingers into his own thighs, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out.

Dean pushes him forward. "Let me see. Those bandages are coming off—may as well get rid of them. I should try cleaning out those wounds again."

Cas is looking grim, but he doesn't say anything as Dean rolls Sam onto his stomach. Dean chews on his lip, wipes a hand over his mouth, because not only have the bandages started to come off, they're being forced off because there is something goddamned growing out of Sam's back. Gingerly he peels back the rest of the blood-and-pus-stained gauze, and can't quite stop himself from jerking back as soon as all of Sam's back is revealed.

"Oh my God!"

Sam pushes himself up onto his elbows, craning his neck in an attempt to see. "What?"

"You—your back," is all Dean can manage. "Wings."

Because right there, sprouting directly from Sam's shoulder blades, trembling ever so slightly, are two tiny, delicate black wings.

~*~

"You know what this is," Dean says accusingly to Cas, once he's found some morphine and knocked Sam cold with it, because he can't deal with Sam freaking out about growing freaking wings until he figures out entirely what's going on.

"I suspected, but I couldn't know until Sam told me about his dreams. That's confirmed it."

"So it's something to do with Lucifer?"

"I think it is Lucifer."

Dean's blood runs cold. "Come again?"

"Think of it this way… Heaven is closed off, with no way to interfere on earth. Kevin himself has said it. But the gates of Hell aren't closed in any way, since Sam failed to complete the Trials. Hear me out—" Cas lifts a hand to stop him when Dean tries to interrupt, because it's not Sam's fault that he stopped the Trials, it's Dean's. "Crowley's departure has left a void in the power structure of Hell, and once Sam went through the Trials he left himself wide open to whatever influence was strongest at the time. Since he is first and foremost Lucifer's true vessel—"

"Hey!"

"Stop interrupting me. He is first and foremost Lucifer's true vessel, and that makes him an ideal doorway for the Morningstar to try to escape."

Dean wipes both hands over his face. "Tell me you're joking."

"Why would I joke about this?"

"I don't know. I sort of hoped…" He knows it's true, though. He recognized the voice when it spoke to him, remembers it from the rose garden in Jackson County, from Stull Cemetery. There's no mistaking it. "Okay, so how do we fix it?"

"I don't know."

Dean glances at the clock. "Well, whatever it is, we're not going to figure it out tonight. Old Satan's not going to manifest before morning, is he?"

Cas looks irritated. "How should I know? You assume far too many things about me, Dean, including knowledge of things that have never before been attempted, let alone accomplished. Up until I met you, Lucifer had been imprisoned for millennia with no hope of escape. Not until Sam was born, in any event. How should I know how he might try to escape a second time? Or how long it would take?"

"So… this is what, an educated guess?"

"Far more educated than anything you might come up with, but essentially, yes."

"Super. So that brings me back to my original point. Might as well get some shut-eye while we can, before this gets too hairy. That goes double for you, now you're not powered with divine mojo anymore. You need sleep."

He all but shoves Cas down the hallway to his new bedroom, points him at his bed, and then ignores his own advice and heads back to Sam's bedroom. He pulls up a chair next to the bed and carefully lays the back of his fingers against Sam's forehead to check for fever. He's not surprised to find him still burning to the touch, but he does seem to be sleeping comfortably under the numbing effect of the cocktail of drugs swimming around in his bloodstream. The wings look larger already, grown from the size of Dean's pinky finger to the size of his hand in the hour or so since he last checked them. They twitch and tremble a bit, flexing away when he delicately strokes the fragile bones, testing them, though he's not sure for what.

Sam stirs a little, murmurs something unhappy sounding in his sleep, and settles again under his touch.

"Don't worry," Dean tells him, keeping his voice low so as not to wake him. "We'll fix this. I didn't pull you back from the brink just to lose you again. I'm done with that, you hear? Done with losing you over and over again. We're going to fix this, and then we're going to damned well hang it up and let someone else take over this stupid goddamned thankless job."

The declaration takes him by surprise, as much by the fact that he said it at all as by the fact that it's true. Aside from that one year when he thought Sam was dead (and he sort of was), it never really occurred to Dean that he could retire from hunting. It's always been Sam's dream to have a normal life somewhere or, barring normal, at least a life without hunting. Dean stopped because he couldn't imagine hunting without Sam, but as long as they were together he figured they'd just keep going until they met the end that all hunters meet, sooner or later. Now, though, with this latest kick in the teeth, he thinks he might finally get what Sam and Kevin have been going on about this whole time, because Dean is done. Completely done. Stick-a-fork-in-him done.

He must fall asleep, because the next thing he knows he's opening his eyes to find himself staring at the white ceiling of Sam's bedroom, with a wicked crick in his neck and a whole load of muscles in his back protesting that he never even knew existed. He straightens up only to find Sam perched, almost literally, on the side of his bed. The wings have grown exponentially overnight—the tips are brushing the mattress under him, the feathers gleaming in the glow of the bedside lamp.

Sam's look is sheepish. "The good news is that they don't hurt as much now." He shifts a little on the bed, and the wings flex behind him, compensating for the movement. "So… I'm going to try getting up. Catch me before I fall on my face?"

The attempt at a joke is lame, but Dean is game to try anyway. "Forget it, Gigantor. There is no way I'm throwing out my back catching your heavy ass. I'm the only functional member of our little Scooby gang these days, you may have noticed. You're Daphne, by the way. Kevin is Shaggy, which I guess makes Cas Velma. Or maybe Scooby, I haven't decided."

"You're seriously making a Scooby Doo reference? Now?" Sam cranes to look over his shoulder again, and his wings flare out to either side with an all-too-familiar rustling sound. Dean is almost completely sure they're already bigger than before. "No chance this is some elaborate hoax by an unethical land developer?"

"Afraid not. So, the good news is, it probably won't kill you," Dean starts, trying to figure out a good way to explain this that won't end up with Sam freaking out.

"So what's the bad news?" Sam looks like he's bracing himself, and maybe he should.

"Uh… Cas thinks it's Lucifer, trying to climb out of the Cage right through you. 'Cause you're his vessel, and all."

Sam doesn't even blink at that. "I guess it makes sense. All the dreams I've been having…"

He stands up, wings flexing to accommodate him, and doesn't so much as falter. Dean makes an abortive move to catch him—completely belying his earlier promise to let Sam faceplant—but there's no need at all. Sam's fingers curl shut and open again at the same time as the wings, right up until Sam reaches out curiously with his right hand and runs a finger along his left wing bone. Dean can't quite read the expression on his face, caught halfway between wonder and something that might be fear, tinged with sadness.

"We'll fix this, Sammy. You hear me? We'll fix this," he promises, and Sam just nods.

"Yeah, sure," he says softly.

~*~

Dean calls a war council, mostly because he likes being in the War Room. It has a table that lights up, and the comfiest chairs in the whole place, barring the library, of course. That, and "war council" sounds way better than "emergency meeting," which is way too Corporate America for his taste. Whatever they're calling it, it's overdue. He's caught Sam staring at him a few times, and the look in his eyes has sent chills down his spine.

"Seriously?" Kevin comes in with a bowl full of Doritos. "You're calling this a war council?" He plunks the bowl on the table before plopping into one of the comfy chairs and propping his feet up against the edge of the table. "Pretentious. And lame."

Dean smacks the sole of his foot. "Not on the fancy table! Other tables are fine, this one lights up, so you don't get to smudge it all up with your filthy sneakers."

Kevin rolls his eyes but obediently turns in his chair a little and crosses his legs in front of him instead, then pointedly shoves a handful of chips into his mouth. Teenagers.

Cas has brought a tray with beer and pretzels and popcorn—his particular favorite—and sits down next to Sam, who's still trying to figure out the whole folding-his-wings thing. They've grown so that the tips reach mid-thigh now, and haven't shown any signs of slowing their growth.

"Why are we even here?" Kevin pipes up again. His lips have turned orange, as have the tips of his fingers. "All we're going to do is sit around and agree that we have no fucking clue what's going on."

"Well, with that can-do attitude, how can we go wrong?" Dean helps himself to some Doritos, ignoring Kevin's futile attempt to keep the bowl to himself. "I was thinking that we have the two people in the whole world who probably best qualify as experts on angels right here in the same room. Now, I'm just spit-balling, here, but you tell me that isn't a good place to start to figure out just how the hell we're supposed to keep Lucifer from reliving his prom night wearing his very best Sam-suit."

"Very evocative, Dean, thanks," Sam comments dryly.

He's brought one of his shirts with him, and is busy cutting slits all the way up the back to accommodate the wings. He's going to add in snaps after, he told Dean, to keep it from flapping around. Trust Sam to think of details like that when goddamned Lucifer is trying literally to crawl through his skin.

"What exactly were you hoping we could tell you?" Cas asks.

Dean swallows his chips. "I don't know. But there's all sorts of stuff about how angels work on the tablet, right? And there are all the symbols and sigils you taught me to banish angels or trap them or keep them out of places, right? So I figure there has to be a way to zap old Luci right back to where he came from."

"I didn't see anything like that," Kevin says. "There's nothing in the operating manual that even remotely refers to Lucifer, except vague allusions to archangels in general, and I don't think he exactly counts anymore."

Sam clears his throat, not looking up from the shirt in his lap. "I think we're overlooking the obvious, aren't we?" he says mildly. "There's one way for sure that Lucifer never makes it topside…"

"No," Dean says, at the same time as Kevin barks, "Oh, fuck you!"

Sam's head snaps up in surprise, and Kevin scowls. "Yeah, you heard me. No way. There is absolutely no fucking way that you back out of the Trials because big brother didn't want you to die, only to play the goddamned martyr now. No. You had your chance to fall on your sword, and you forfeited it right about the same time you forfeited my chance to ever have a normal life. So fuck you, Sam! We'll figure out another way."

Sam's mouth twists wryly. "Thank you, I think."

"Don't thank me. I just want to make sure you don't get an easy out after screwing the pooch on this."

"Noted."

"Right." Dean tries to get things back on track. "So, Cas. Any thoughts on, I don't know, banishing the Devil?"

"The banishing sigil won't work on Lucifer. Certainly if it did work it wouldn't be permanent, and would likely last less than a day. At that point, I don't think it even qualifies as a stopgap measure."

"Okay, how about trapping him?" Dean tries not to let his frustration show, but he's pretty sure he's failing. "We can still make holy fire, even though we're running low on oil these days."

Cas shrugs. "If you're content to trap your brother inside an eternal ring of fire, then yes, that will work."

"Obviously I meant we get Lucifer out of him first."

"There is no way to permanently and forcibly remove an angel from a vessel that has consented. Once consent has been given, it's irrevocable."

"What about binding?"

Dean, Cas and Kevin all turn simultaneously to look at Sam, who shrugs with a rustling of feathers.

"Remember when Meg bound herself to me?" he asks, and yes, Dean does remember, thank you very much. It feels like seven lifetimes ago, when it was easy to promise Sam that he'd never let anything bad happen to him. "It was a simple enough brand, but it kept her from getting exorcised, and it gave her control. Why can't we reverse engineer it, except for angels?"

"It would have to be more complex than that," Cas says, but his expression is thoughtful, as though he hasn't entirely dismissed the idea.

"Having Lucifer trapped in your body isn't exactly an improvement," Dean starts to point out, only to have Kevin interrupt excitedly.

"No, wait. We might—there's a thing, a clause, I guess. Vessels don't get to revoke consent, but they do still sort of get a say. It's a two-way street, being a vessel, right? The angel has to want it, you have to want it, and then the two become one. The vessel gets access to everything, even if he can't do anything with it, am I right?"

Both Sam and Cas nod at that, which is unsettling in the extreme.

"Kevin," Dean says sharply. "Bottom line, here."

"Bottom line, you pull out every single book you can find on angels, I go back to the tablet, and we can make a brand-new cage for Lucifer, right here in the body he picked out himself."

"So he rides shotgun with Sam until, what? What happens when…." He can't bring himself to finish his sentence.

"What happens when I die?" Sam supplies quietly. "We have to make sure he goes right back to Hell, I guess."

~*~

It's deceptively simple, in the end. They spend three virtually sleepless days scouring every tome they can find in the Men of Letters' library (and there are more than Dean would have thought), looking for any and all references to ways to bind angels—whether it be to their vessels or anything else. Kevin ignores the books in favor of the tablet, but as far as Dean is concerned the tablet is probably their best bet to unlocking the mystery anyway, so he just keeps Kevin supplied with as much Mountain Dew as he can hold without his bladder exploding, and tries not to worry too much about Sam.

Sam is doing his best to keep Dean from worrying about him, carrying on as if absolutely nothing was wrong, which of course only makes Dean worry more. It's not as if there's no reason to worry, not with Sam trying to literally re-enact The Raven from the point of view of the bird. The wings have stopped growing, at least, but they stretch all the way to his ankles, and when he spreads them as far as he can he has a wingspan of fully eighteen feet, which as far as Dean is concerned is utterly ridiculous. For one thing, there's no way that the wings can be three times the length of Sam's body.

"Seriously, how does that even work?" He pulls gently on one of Sam's wings, trying to figure it out, and the wing jerks spasmodically in his grasp.

"Quit that!" Sam twists in his seat to glare at him. "And I don't know, okay? They just… sort of fold up."

The weird part is, they actually do fold up. Sam has cut slits into all his shirts, but if Dean didn't know the wings were there, he thinks he might not be able to tell that there's anything different about his brother at all. Well, not physically, anyway. More than once he's caught Sam looking at him, or Cas, or even Kevin, with that expression that doesn't belong to him, the one he knows is all Lucifer and has nothing of his brother.

Cas sighs and rolls his eyes. "It's because they don't truly exist on this plane. They're manifestations of divine intent. Angels are meant to fly, and so humans interpret our wings the way they see fit. Their wings," he amends, and Dean's stomach clenches.

Sam doesn't miss it either, but seems equally at a loss as to what to say. "But they grew in physically."

"Only because you expected them to."

Sam opens his mouth, probably to protest that he never expected to grow wings period, but he appears to change his mind and Dean hears his teeth click together when he shuts his mouth again. It's probably for the best.

It's Kevin who comes up with the design, although Cas helps him out with the calligraphy of the Enochian. Apparently Kevin's penmanship is terrible. That leaves it to Dean to figure out the equipment in the Men of Letters' workshop, twisting a wire coat hanger in the shape of the design with pliers and a vise grip. It's crude, but it doesn't have to be fancy in order to work.

"You're sure this'll work?" he asks, and Kevin shrugs and Cas scowls.

"How should I know?" Kevin says. "This is just highly educated guesswork. It's the best highly educated guesswork you're going to get, though."

"Good enough for me," Sam says, and that seems to be the final word on the matter.

They decide that the best place to put the brand is at the small of Sam's back, mostly because it's the most accessible spot without wings getting in their way. Cas and Kevin are busily drawing as many Enochian sigils on the cement floor of the panic room as they can, while Dean ignores the rows of chains and cuffs hanging on the bare walls. Instead he helps Sam strip off his shirt, folds it carefully and puts it away. He can see the muscles in Sam's back moving and flexing to accommodate the wings easily, as if they've always been part of him, and when Sam turns and smiles sadly at him with an uncharacteristic tilt of his head, it takes all of Dean's self-control not to flinch away. The homemade brand is currently resting in coals so hot they're burning bright blue and red in a small brazier brought in specifically for this purpose (and Dean tries very hard not to think about what other purposes it might have served in the past). He pulls it out before it can melt—he's not actually sure at what point a wire coat hanger will melt, but he's not taking any chances—and watches as it glows bright red in the dim light. Distantly he can hear Cas chanting the summoning ritual in Enochian, the one that'll bring Lucifer forth at the same time as the brand drives him into his own tiny pocket dimension at the back of Sam's mind.

"Ready, Sammy?" he asks, and is very proud when his voice doesn't shake.

Sam nods, drops first to his knees, then forward onto his arms to lie full-length on the floor, spreading his wings to give Dean easy access to his back. Dean hesitates for a moment, looking at the smooth expanse of skin marred here and there by tiny scars—the product of years of hunting—and the one large, thick scar at the base of his spine from the fatal wound Jake Talley inflicted on him all those years ago. It's nothing but one bad memory in a sea of others, but Dean can't help reaching out to brush his fingers against it, then pulling back almost instantly when Sam flinches.

"Sorry."

Sam just nods again jerkily. "Just… get it over with, would you?" he demands, and Dean hands him a thick piece of leather to bite down on.

It's a matter of seconds to take a breath to steady himself—he'll be damned if he lets his hands tremble while he does this—and with a determined thrust he presses the red-hot brand against Sam's back. Sam's scream of pain is mercifully muffled by the leather, but his wings flare out and back instinctively. One of them catches Dean squarely in the chest with surprising force, sending him tumbling across the room, where his head snaps back against the wall with a resounding crack, and everything goes dark.

~*~

Cas is kneeling over him when he opens his eyes again, probing none too delicately at the lump on his head. Dean winces and bats his hands away.

"Ow, Cas! Get off! I'm okay. Where's Sam?"

"Outside," Kevin answers.

Dean staggers to his feet and doesn't push Cas away this time when he catches hold of Dean's arm to keep him steady. "You just let him go?"

"Well, either it worked and Sam can go anywhere he likes," Kevin points out, infuriatingly reasonably, "or it didn't work, and how exactly are we supposed to stop Lucifer himself from going anywhere he damned well pleases?"

Dean doesn't bother taking the time to answer, just sprints as fast as he can through the narrow hallways and shoves open the heavy door, letting in a blast of damp, chilly air.

"Sam!"

He spots Sam almost right away. His brother has climbed all the way up onto the roof of the bunker, silhouetted between two of the tall chimney stacks by the light of the setting sun.

"Sammy!" he yells, louder this time, and is rewarded when Sam's head turns toward him fractionally. "Sam!"

Sam lifts one hand in a gesture that's half wave, half salute. His wings spread out behind him, so wide that for a moment they all but block out the sun. Then he smiles, wide and bright, and kicks off from the roof, reaching toward the sky. Dean can hear the great wings beating rhythmically as he takes off, climbing higher and higher, and he doesn't bother calling out again.

Instead he watches as his brother soars ever farther away, until he's nothing but a black speck against the setting sun.

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