Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 10

Chapter 10: Deed on my Body, Lease on my Soul

Warm water soaked through Sam's tangled hair, rinsing out suds and sloughing away the oily, black muck from Dick’s eruptive demise, still clinging to him after a flight back to Bobby's on Angel Air. Sam rubbed the bar of soap over his arms and neck, scouring away the general sense of filth that lingered on his skin. He was grateful the older hunter had let him shower first. Bobby wasn’t too much worse for wear after the battle; Balthazar kept them at a safe distance during the fighting. He'd dropped Sam and Bobby off before heading back to Heaven while Michael and Castiel dealt with cleanup.

Cleanup. Sam snorted as he turned off the spigot and wiped away the water dripping from his nose. The angels burned the desert, torching anything within ten miles of TechMed's research facility. It'd be nothing but ashes by the time Sam's hair was dry. He didn't like it – normal, innocent humans depended on that place for their livelihood – but there wasn't any way around it.

Sam sighed as he briskly rubbed his head with one of Bobby's threadbare towels, wringing most of the water out of his hair. As he stepped out of the shower to finish drying off, several voices wafted up from the main floor. They were too muffled to decipher who said what, but Sam caught enough distinct voices to tell him Michael and Castiel had returned, and they were arguing with Bobby. Sam rushed through the rest of his post-shower routine (dry off, dress, run his fingers through his hair) and hurried downstairs.

"And I'm telling you it's a terrible friggin' idea!" Bobby's exclamation was the first piece of the debate Sam heard clearly, and it led to a standoff, judging from the tense silence that followed on its heels. Sam stepped into the living room, where the older hunter had situated himself in front of his desk, Castiel at his side. In the entrance to the kitchen, Michael squared off against the dissenters. Sam's eyes flicked between the two sides. He moved in front of the couch, equidistant from both parties. "What's going on, Bobby?" he asked.

"The winged genius over there who's leasing your brother's body–" Bobby glared at Michael "–thinks hunters can't do their jobs. So he's decided to stay on this hunk of dirt to 'fix everything' for us."

Holy crap that’s a terrible idea, Sam thought. He bit his lip and scrunched his face. Not only would hunters loathe the idea of angels doing their jobs for them, but Sam was pretty sure Michael's plan would have unintended consequences. He schooled his face into his most sincere expression and turned to the archangel. "Thanks for the offer, really, but I think we'll pass."

Michael frowned. "You haven't even allowed me to describe my intentions."

"Unless Bobby got it really wrong, I don't need to." Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, there's just too much that could go wrong if you stay long term."

"What is wrong with providing angelic assistance to the brave humans who defend this world?" Michael held himself stiffly, willing to listen to a dissenting opinion, but clearly not happy about it.

"Where do I even start?!" Bobby crossed his arms over his chest and glared.

Sam ignored the insult to hunter pride implicit in Michael's plan and took a different track than Bobby. "What if Hell retaliates? It'll be the apocalypse all over again, with Earth caught in the middle."

"I will not let that escalation occur," Michael countered, folding his hands behind his back. "With Heaven united and Hell in disarray, the demons will not be able to organize against us."

"Let's say you do win," Sam said, raising a hand to cut off Bobby's objection. "What then? Humans get to be second-class citizens in the angels' new paradise?"

Michael dipped his chin and locked eyes with Sam. "We will not overstay our welcome. The host will obey when I recall them to Heaven."

Sam shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. "Where is this even coming from?" Michael tilted his head, brow furrowed. "I mean, why do you have this sudden need to stick around and rid the world of evil?"

Michael shifted his fierce gaze to the dust bunnies in the far corner of the room. "It's what I should have done long ago," he murmured, "rather than orchestrate an apocalypse that destroyed your life, and Dean's. I should have followed my Father's final commandment immediately and protected this world."

Michael felt guilty, Sam realized. Crap. It was almost impossible to dissuade Dean from decisions born out of a desire to alleviate his guilt, and apparently Michael possessed the same brand of stubbornness as his vessel. No wonder they were a match.

While Sam wracked his brain for a way to convince Michael to back down, Cas stepped forward and spoke for the first time since Sam arrived downstairs. "What does Dean think of your choice, Michael?"

Michael’s eyes darted to his brother. Castiel waited him out. The staring contest dragged on for a tense five seconds, which seemed like a lot longer to Sam, before Michael let out a long breath. "He disapproves."

"Gee, I wonder why?" Bobby scoffed.

"He foresees some of the same problems as Sam," Michael acknowledged, taking Bobby's question at face value. "He also thinks humans are like teenagers who need to learn from their own mistakes." The archangel’s brow creased. "I don't understand why you want to keep fighting." He looked at Sam, face sincere in its confusion. "Why do you want to stay at war when you could have peace?"

Sam kept his gaze and voice steady. "Because we want to earn our peace. Humanity has a lot of growing up to do, I know, but we can only do that if you let us figure out our own problems... Fight our own battles."

"I cannot, I will not, abandon you," Michael declared, spearing the air with one hand. "My Father's last command placed you in my care."

"You won't be abandoning us," Sam placated. "You can keep an eye on things from Heaven, and if something comes up that we can't handle on our own, you can come down and help."

"I can be your eyes on the ground, brother," Castiel added. "I plan to stay on Earth, regardless of your decision."

Michael closed his eyes in thought, his face more serene than Dean's ever was, even when he was unconscious. After a long moment, the archangel's eyes opened. "I will agree to that course of action." He turned to Bobby and pointed at the tablets he and Sam had deciphered. "Robert, take great care with those. The knowledge and power they hold has never before been wielded by a human."

Bobby saluted with two fingers. Michael shifted his attention to Sam. "Thank you, Sam Winchester. For everything."

Sam wasn't 100 percent sure what he was being thanked for by the guy in charge of Heaven, so rather than say something stupid he proved he was the smarter Winchester brother and kept his mouth shut, bobbing his head.

With that, Michael stepped back and focused on Castiel. "Stay in touch, little brother," he said, a request rather than a command. Castiel dipped his head in acknowledgement. Michael tipped his head back. "Close your eyes."

When the unbearable incandescence of naked grace faded, Sam peeked out from behind the arm he'd used to shield his face. Dean sagged in Castiel’s arms, the angel supporting the slowly blinking hunter. Dean shifted until his weight rested mostly on his own legs, then shook his head like a dog shucking off water. He blinked twice more and looked from Bobby, to Cas, to Sam. "Well, that was a trip."

***

Dean sipped at his beer and tried not to think about anything. He sat alone on Bobby's porch, feet planted two steps down and elbows resting on his knees. The gentle sounds of a South Dakota summer filled the air, still warm even after dark. Sam was inside researching possible vampire activity in Louisiana. They were hoping to hunt down the nest that betrayed Benny. It was the least they could do for their friend. Dean took a swig of beer and hoped that Benny was still fighting up there in Purgatory, despite what Cas saw.

Shrill buzzing pulled Dean's attention to the electric bug zapper on the far side of the porch, teeming with insects. A single moth broke away from the chaos and fluttered up to hover and dip around the floodlight illuminating the scrapyard. The rest of the swarm congregated around the blue light of the zapper, each meeting its doom in turn.

Zap. Zap.

Dean felt sorry for them. Zap.

They were just following their instincts, trying to get someplace better. Zap.

Why didn't they follow the smart moth up to a light that wouldn't fry them? Zap.

He reached over and unplugged the zapper. The bugs weren't bothering him.

Dean closed his eyes and listened to the chorus of insects, relishing the quiet for a while. The wooden porch creaked as someone else ventured outside. Dean knew from the deep rustle of thick, stiff fabric and the sharp smell of ozone that Cas sat down beside him. They relaxed in comfortable silence, looking out over Bobby's graveyard of junked cars and buried monster bodies.

Dean still tried not to think about anything, but it was more difficult with Cas next to him. It reminded him that the angel still owned his soul, which somehow meant that Cas would get dragged to Hell if Dean got himself damned. Given how likely that scenario was, Dean was pretty pissed at the angel for not telling him about that little side effect of this thing they had going on. Still, Dean forgave Cas for the whole soul-selling debacle, and Purgatory had given him a lot of perspective. In fact, he even liked their "bond" or whatever the angels called it. He liked the little flashes of Cas he felt once in a while (they happened more often since Michael left, though not as often as in Purgatory). He liked the glimpses it gave him of the angel's emotions. He liked knowing that Cas needed him, or at least the energy from his soul.

Except, Cas didn't need him. Not anymore. Not since Purgatory, really. Cas had no reason to hang on to his soul, especially not with the risk of going to Hell thrown in. So, it didn't matter that Dean didn't want to lose it, the bond had to go.

Dean sighed. He'd put this off long enough. "So, you gonna give my soul back?" he asked, keeping his eyes on the junked cars illuminated by the floodlight.

The angel inhaled sharply and bowed his head. "Of course,” he replied, voice even. “My grace is fully recovered and with the war in Heaven over, the time is right." He stretched out his arm and placed a hand where Dean's mark lay beneath the skin on his left shoulder. Cas’s eyes opened a moment later and his hand fell away. "Your soul is your own again."

Dean turned his head at disappointment in Cas's voice. "You don't sound too happy about it."

"Why wouldn't I be pleased that you are free of me?" Cas asked, but his wide eyes and fidgeting fingers weren't even his most obvious tells.

"Dude, you are a horrible liar," Dean declared. "You can't even look at me when you lie."

Cas's fingers clenched around the hem of his coat, then loosened. He breathed deep, looking first up at the stars, then into Dean's eyes. "Dean, tell me why you wanted ownership of your soul returned to you."

That... wasn't the response Dean expected. "Um..." He scratched the back of his head. "Doesn't everybody want to own their soul?"

Cas stared him down. "You have already sold yours twice, and would do so again instantly to save your brother. I have held the essence of you in my hands, Dean, and I know you place little value on your own life and immortal soul. Tell me why you demanded it back when it was under the protection of someone in whom you trust, and who values it far more than you do."

Dean clenched his jaw. From the sound of it, Michael had blabbed about their little heart to heart back in Egypt. "Look, Michael told me the deal, Cas. You stay tied to me, you go to Hell if I do." He clenched his jaw and glared at his beer bottle. "I just can't risk that."

Cas laid a hand on Dean's back, the weight of it solid and steady. "Maybe it is not as great a risk as you think."

Dean grimaced. "How can you say that, Cas? You of all people know the kind of shit I've pulled, the things I've done."

"Sam has forgiven you for those things, as have Bobby and I. Can you not forgive yourself?"

Dean tightened his grip on the bottle. "Sam and Bobby are family, that's different."

Cas pulled back. "I see."

In the seven seconds it took Dean to figure out why Cas sounded absolutely crushed, the angel closed in on himself and shifted his weight to stand. Dean grabbed his wrist to stop him. "No! Cas, that's not what I... Damnit. I'm shit with words, you know that."

"Then perhaps you should quit worrying about the words and just say what you mean." Cas bit out, frustrated.

Dean gulped. He hated this. Vomiting up his feelings into words – words that could be turned around and used to rip him to shreds – always felt like pulling barbed wire out of his chest through his throat (and he knew exactly what that felt like, thanks to his time in Hell).

He wet his lips. "Cas, you're family." Those three words cut him open and he bled out the rest. "You are more important to me than anyone except Sam. I need you like I need him, and that fucking terrifies me because everyone in my goddamned cursed family dies or goes through hell, or both. Everybody close to me gets fucked up sooner or later, and I don't want that to happen to you."

Dean chugged the bottom half of his beer while he regrouped. Cas watched him with the same focus he applied to everything from complicated spellwork to infomercials. "Man, you're a frickin' angel. I can't... I won't drag you through the muck with me." He set his empty bottle down and turned toward Cas, meeting the angel's eyes. "But, I'll always want you around if you don't mind getting dirty."

Cas smiled, and it lit up his entire face. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “And I don’t mind getting dirty. I missed you while Michael was here.”

Dean nodded and grinned back. Cas wanted to stick around. Dean couldn’t figure why, but that didn’t matter. Relief flooded through him, water cooling his torn and scorched insides. Cas leaned forward, oblivious to personal space, or maybe just ignoring it.

"Dean, listen to me," he commanded with an authority that Dean could not help but respond to. "I returned your soul to you for two reasons. First, and foremost, because you asked me to. Second, because the only person who should have ownership of a soul as spectacular as yours is the one my Father gave it to in the first place. I have never feared being tied to you."

Dean's grin slipped into a half-smile. He searched Cas’s face for any trace of a lie. Finding none, he swallowed hard and squared his shoulders to the weight of the angel’s faith in him. "Thanks, Cas. Really. I still don't understand it, but thanks."

Cas nodded in return. They sat, engulfed by a comfortable silence broken only by the buzzing of nocturnal insects and the occasional soft ping of the lone moth colliding with the floodlight overhead.

Dean dropped his eyes to his boots and chewed on his bottom lip. He had another question for Cas, brought on by the first private conversation he'd had with Sam since Purgatory. Sam had cornered Dean upstairs as he raided Bobby's linen closet in preparation for bunking down for the night. Sam had apologized for not speaking up sooner and then informed Dean – using very PC terminology – that he supported him and hoped Dean wouldn't screw things up with Cas.

It had been a very confusing and uncomfortable conversation which ended when Dean fled to the porch as soon as his giant little brother turned his back.

The last thing Dean wanted to do was open that can of worms with Cas, but after the angel's speech about sticking with him despite his faults, Dean didn't want any rotting worms cropping up later and ruining everything.

He took several deep breaths, clenched and unclenched his fists twice, and took the plunge. "Hey, Cas?" He saw the angel turn his head out of the corner of his eye. "Sam seems to think we're a couple... Like, romantically. You know why that is?" Dean glanced up, but Cas just stared at him blankly. "He said it had something to do with what you told him back at the warehouse where we tried to trap Raphael using me as bait." God, that seemed like an eternity ago.

Cas nodded slowly, but furrowed his brow. "Dean, I only told Sam I wished to pursue a more intimate relationship with you."

Dean gave him the look he always did when the angel missed some pop culture reference, a unique blend of exasperation and fond tolerance. "Um... that's what that means."

"No,” Cas clarified, like it was obvious. “It means I wish to spend time with you apart from hunting. It means I wish to be a part of your life in peace and in war. I want more than comradery, I want companionship. I want you to want me around. I want... more than an angel should want."

The confession silenced Dean for a long moment. "Wow.” He turned his head and rubbed his mouth with one hand. After a deep breath, he met Castiel's gaze. "Well, I think I can work with that.” Cas's answering smile illuminated his face like the dawn. Slowly, steadily, until the brightness of it caught Dean by surprise.

The hunter chuckled in relief and grinned back. "We're something odd, aren't we?" he said, the words plucking at strings inside him, and it felt like music instead of torture. "You know I'm not into dudes, so the whole romantic thing is out, but I can work on letting you in more, not being such an ‘emotionally stunted ass,’ or whatever Sam calls me.” He clapped Cas between the shoulder blades and stood, extending a hand. "Let's have a beer once this vampire hunt is over, huh?"

Cas picked up the empty bottle and clasped Dean's forearm. "I would like that."

Dean pulled the angel to his feet and walked inside. Cas followed, pausing to glance at the moth still fluttering around the floodlight. He understood the irresistible draw of something so bright, and hoped his light wouldn't repel him as the moth's did.

***

Come morning, Castiel's hope from the still evening had faded. He watched as Dean and Sam packed their things into the Impala's trunk, jostling one another and bickering in the fond way brothers do. Sam had found a lead on the vampire nest late last night, so the brothers stole a few hours of sleep and were now set to begin the long drive south as sunlight peeked over the horizon, coloring everything it touched in shades of fire.

Castiel pushed his shoulders back and kept his face still as Dean tossed his duffel into the trunk after Sam's and slammed the hood down. Castiel closed his eyes to the scene. He should have expected that, despite Dean's honesty last night, things between them would not actually change. Dean was noble, brave and truly righteous, but also human. The inertia of familiarity and habit made any significant change difficult for him. Castiel would not begrudge his human this failing, though, for it was Dean's stubborn nature, after all, that had helped prevent the apocalypse.

"Hey Cas!" Castiel's eyes snapped open at Dean's shout. Dean leaned out the driver's side window, one hand on the steering wheel, the other waving for his attention. "Well? You coming or what?"

Castiel could not keep the smile from his lips as he strode over to stand beside the black, shining vehicle his human loved. "Yes, Dean. I am coming." Dean always found a way to surprise him.

Dean jerked his head toward the back seat. "Then hop in, Colombo. We got work to do."

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 9

Chapter 9: The Hunter

Hunched over Bobby’s desk, Sam spun at the gust of wind and burst of sound, like sheets on a clothesline snapping in the wind. Michael and Cas stepped toward him, out of the kitchen and into Bobby's living room-slash-study. "You guys need to answer your phones," Sam admonished.

"Dean and I were in Egypt retrieving this," Michael laid a small dagger with a white bone hilt and black blade – the poisoned knife Ishtar had stabbed him with – onto the edge of Bobby's desk. "Dean informs me that his phone does not get coverage there."

Sam rolled his eyes. An archangel couldn't get cell coverage outside the country? Sure. "What's your excuse, Cas?"

The angel searched Bobby's main floor with his eyes and completely ignored the question. "Where is Bobby?"

"Supply run," Sam said as he examined the knife. "Dean thinks we can use this to kill Ishtar?” He glanced at Michael, who nodded in confirmation. “You think it’ll work?”

Michael raised an eyebrow. “I would not have flown to Egypt to retrieve it if I did not.”

Sam ran two fingers along the hilt, a memory flashing behind his eyes of the pain on his brother’s face as this knife plunged into his back. “Good." He gestured at the center of the desk where the tablets rested, notes piled high around them. "Bobby and I found a way to kill the Leviathan, I think."

The two angels crowded around the tablets while Sam snatched his translation off the couch, where he'd deposited the stack of papers during his frantic attempts to get a hold of them both. Translation in hand, Sam stepped behind the desk and pointed at a small section of one of the tablets. He read:

“Cut off the head, and the body will founder. Waste not thy time nor thy breath upon the Leviathan herd. Point thy blade at the heart of their king, for from him springs all their messages. Leviathan cannot be slain but by a bone of a righteous mortal, as light and good as the Leviathan are hungry and dark, washed in the three bloods of the forsaken: a fallen angel, the ruler of fallen humanity, and the banished queen of the dead.”

Sam looked to Cas and Michael for confirmation. "This is basically a spell for making a weapon that will kill the leviathan, right?"

Michael nodded slowly. "Some ingredients will be easier to obtain than others."

"No kidding," Sam huffed. "That's why I called you two." He glanced at the plain-language list he'd jotted in the margin of his translation. "We need blood from a fallen angel, a demon, and Ishtar, if I'm interpreting this right, plus a righteous human's bone." Righteous. Sam looked at Michael. "Are we supposed to use one of Dean's bones?" he asked, stomach clenching.

Michael shook his head. "Dean still has need of all his bones, and there are other righteous human souls who no longer do. It will not be difficult to find one."

Sam let his breath out. "Good. What about the demon blood?" His stomach turned for an entirely different reason.

"Not just any demon blood," Cas noted. "The king of fallen humanity. The king of Hell." He looked at Michael. "We need Crowley's blood."

Michael's lips twisted into an almost feral grin at that. "Also not a problem. I'm looking forward to it, in fact."

Sam let that lie. "That just leaves a fallen angel and Ishtar." He looked at the two angels. "Know anyone who qualifies?"

Again, Michael nodded. "I know where our fallen brethren live. They will not even know they sacrificed to be part of this spell."

Sam's eyes widened. "You're not going to kill them, are you?"

"Of course not! We need very little blood for this to work, just enough so that mixed together the concoction drips over the bone." Michael glared. "I would never murder a defenseless brother for something so trivial."

"Sorry," Sam apologized, looking down at his notes again. "So, really, the only problematic ingredient is Ishtar's blood."

Castiel turned to Michael. "You and Dean go retrieve the rest of the components of the spell. Sam and I will use the time to create a plan for obtaining Ishtar's blood."

Michael nodded curtly and departed. When he returned thirty minutes later, Sam and Cas still hadn’t devised a workable plan. The zombie sightings other hunters called in to Bobby were sporadic, unlike the last time Ishtar raised her hordes. This time, the dead rose in small, isolated pockets across the country, rather than amassing into an army like Sam expected.

Sam pushed himself off the couch at the flutter of wind that announced Michael's return. He felt uneasy sitting while the archangel stood, for some reason. "Got it all?" Sam asked him. "Even Crowley's blood?"

Michael smirked, a familiar expression on Dean's face, and held out a small glass vial. "He gave it willingly in exchange for my leaving Hell to its own devices for the time being. Hell still trembles in my presence." Sam arched an eyebrow but accepted the vial without comment.

Michael placed what appeared to be a femur, snapped off at the end to create a point, in a clay bowl on Bobby's kitchen counter and set a second blood-filled vial, the fallen angel's, beside it. He turned. "I will go check in on Balthazar and determine if his reconnaissance requires reinforcements." He was gone a heartbeat later.

Sam would never get used to seeing Dean just evaporate like that. He missed his brother. Sam sighed, then collected himself. "So now all we have to do is figure out who the king leviathan is," he said. "Any ideas?"

Castiel frowned. "The only creatures that have that knowledge are the leviathan themselves, and most likely Ishtar, as she seems to be allied with them."

Sam chewed his bottom lip. "So, we find a leviathan and somehow capture it and question it." He looked up at Cas. "Or, we kill two birds with one stone and ask Ishtar when we go after her blood, which we need to do anyway."

Castiel nodded. "We will need to subdue her to get the blood, so it makes sense to question her then. She may respond more readily to manipulation, as well."

So we don't have to torture what looks like a college co-ed, Sam thought. "Okay, then. Do you feel like being bait?"

Cas look up sharply. "What?"

Sam lifted his hands, palms out. "I know it sucks, but it's the only plan I've come up with that will make Ishtar come to us." He shrugged. "She wants you bad, Cas, and if we lay our trail of breadcrumbs right, she'll walk right into whatever trap we set."

Cas clearly didn't like it, but he agreed. "Take her knife, and let's go."

***

The unplanted field where they planned to trap and interrogate Ishtar provided almost no cover, but that was partly why Castiel and Sam had chosen it. A century ago a church burnt down on it, leaving the consecrated ground bare. That, and its proximity to a small town Tamara reported as overrun with the undead made it an ideal setting. Exposed in the wide-open expanse, Castiel served as a homing beacon for the goddess, exposing iridescent flashes of his grace, a strobe light announcing to any creature with the ability to sense it that an injured angel was trying (and failing) to hide there.

Within the hour, small groups of zombies shambled across the field toward Castiel and Sam. They'd set up most of the components of a summoning ritual to encourage the assumption that they weren't aware of the town's demise and were simply using the setting sun and the holy ground to summon more angels. Castiel glanced toward Sam, caught his gaze, then moved his eyes in the direction of the walking dead. Sam kept his eyes on the smoking bowl of ingredients at his feet, but Castiel knew the hunter understood.

Five minutes later, four groups of three to five animated corpses had them surrounded. Sam turned in a slow circle, trying to keep his eyes on all of them. Castiel had the advantage of several additional senses, fortunately. "I know you're there, Ishtar," he called. "Come forth!"

The goddess stepped from behind two expired police officers, their weapons still belted to their hips. She was clad in a boxy gray jacket and too-tight matching skirt.

"What's with the new outfit?" Sam blurted.

Ishtar sneered. "It's none of my doing." She tugged on the too-long sleeves with her pale fingers, her chipped, jagged fingernails betraying the coarseness beneath her smooth suit. "You're obviously waiting for me. Now that I've walked into your trap, what are you going to do?" She smirked. "Capture me? Torture me? Exact your revenge, little favorite."

Beside him, Sam tensed. Castiel agreed. Ishtar would have been a formidable opponent unprepared, knowing she had come ready for a fight swung the scales too far in her favor.

Castiel opened his mouth, not sure what he would say, but Ishtar held up a hand. "Wait, wait! Let me guess." She bit her lower lip and twisted her face into a mockery of concentration. "You are trying to stop the Leviathan from gaining a foothold here and systemically devouring every human on the planet. But, you have no idea how to kill them or where to find them." She smirked again and raised an eyebrow. "How am I doing so far?"

Castiel narrowed his eyes. Ishtar was different. In Purgatory, she had been obsessed – crazed, even – with her singular desire to spite God and utterly assured of her power. Now, she fidgeted, using insults and bravado to mask her unease and insecurity. Castiel knew that tactic well, having watched Dean employ it almost daily for all the time he'd known him. "You’re doing well, but not perfectly," he replied.

Sam cut one hand through the air, gesturing for him to not give away too much information. Castiel ignored him and followed his hunch. "We already know how to kill the Leviathan, but not who their king is or where to find him." He hesitated.

Sam, catching on, finished for him. "And we're missing a key component of the spell to make the weapon that will kill him." The hunter pointed as Ishtar. "The spell calls for the blood of the 'banished queen of the dead.'"

Ishtar narrowed her eyes, but kept silent.

Castiel stepped toward her. "Now you know why we are here. Why are you?"

She considered for a moment, then bared her teeth. "I'm here because I hate that pompous ass Dick Roman more than I hate you."

"The CEO of Richard Roman Enterprises?" Sam asked. Castiel recognized the name of the company that owned the research facility in Nevada they'd been monitoring.

Ishtar flicked her eyes to Sam before returning her attention to Castiel. "The king you seek took the form of a business mogul. Above all else, he seeks power. Not that he needs more of it. The bastard is practically unkillable."

She looked Castiel in the eyes. "And now the little favorite tells me that he has found a way to kill the Big Bad Leviathan. Our interests are aligned for the time being, angel. Dick will be going into the desert to some facility of his to oversee final testing on some new vaccine they're telling the humans will prevent them from becoming this." She stroked the arm of the corpse nearest her. "He should be there by moonrise."

"That's in like three hours!" Sam protested.

"You'd better hurry, then." She held open one hand and small jar of herbs from Sam's fake summoning flew into her grasp. She emptied it and held it beneath her wrist, which opened on its own, a stream of bright red flowing from it. In one smooth motion, she capped the jar and tossed it at Castiel. He stretched out and caught it before it hit the ground. In that instant, Ishtar melted back into her horde and disappeared. The dead dropped to the ground, empty once more.

Sam and Castiel turned to one another. Sam ran a hand through his hair and let out a gust of breath.

"Well, shit."

***

Sam crouched behind a junked car, waves of heat escaping the scalding asphalt into the cooler night air blurred his view of the road on the horizon and its stream of cars making their way toward TechMed's offices. The abandoned fill-up joint currently serving as basecamp offered little in the way of shelter, a husk of its former self, but it kept him out of sight. A bead of sweat dripped off Sam's face as he ducked back into building to report on the Leviathan migration.

Michael, Castiel, Bobby and Balthazar turned as he entered the slightly cooler air indoors. Not that the windows or doors were intact, but the roof kept out the worst of the heat during the day.
"There's still more coming," Sam reported. "Even if none of them are carpooling, we're still looking at least a hundred. Maybe two."

"What did you expect?" Balthazar bit off. "They don't call them Legion for nothing."

"It's enough of a force that they won't be deterred by a frontal assault." Castiel turned to Michael. "Can you still draw away their attention?"

The archangel's menacing grin looked at home on Dean's face. "I am looking forward to it."

"Well, alright then." Bobby held out a large bowl to Sam. "I did what apparently passes for a spell while you were out snooping. Just dumped all three jars of blood over the bone. Nothing happened, but the wing squad says it worked." Bobby shrugged. "Guess we'll find out."

Sam reached in and drew out their best chance at killing Dick Roman... Or the monster pretending to be him, anyway. The real Dick was probably long dead. "Did you get everything you need?"

Bobby nodded. "Frank wasn't happy about it, but the paranoid bastard owed me big, so he forked this baby over." Bobby picked up a large listening device that looked like a teched-out megaphone. "This thing's military. It'll pick up vocal vibrations from window glass at half a mile."

Sam stretched his lips down. "Huh." He shook his head. "As long as it'll help you keep any leviathan in the building off Cas and my back, I don't care what else it can do."

"And what may I ask is my role in this grand plan?" Balthazar asked from where he lounged against the counter.

"Dean would like you to watch over Bobby," Michael informed him.

Bobby blustered. "You tell that boy I don't need watching over."

"Forgive me." Michael inclined his head. "Dean's exact phrasing was 'keep any straggler big-mouths off Bobby's back so he can focus on keeping Sam and Cas from getting their asses chomped.' Apparently I mistranslated."

"Hmph."

Sam hid a snicker behind one hand. Not only would Bobby kick his ass for laughing at him, but humor didn't seem appropriate before they went into battle to prevent the end of the world… Again.

"It's time," Castiel said, stepping toward Sam. "Let's go."

A moment later, they stood outside a service entrance to the building, near the loading dock in the back. They exchanged a quick look, and Sam squared his shoulders and strode through the unlocked door.

***

Dean felt more alive than he ever had in his entire life, and he wasn't even controlling his own body. Michael drove through rank after rank of leviathan, slogging his way toward the front entrance of TechMed and drawing all eyes toward their frontal assault... Hopefully leaving Sam and Cas to navigate the building's insides uninterrupted.

The battle itself was exhilarating. It was a hundred-plus gooey teeth monsters versus one archangel and his hunter vessel, and Dean loved every second of it. He savored the black-and-white, guilt-free violence of Purgatory dialed up to 11, with him as Superman. Okay, I'll admit it, he said. This is pretty awesome.

Michael stretched their lips into a smile, answering silently as he flexed their right arm and severed the head of another leviathan. I told you, my grace was created by the Father to strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. I am the very definition of awesome.

Dean snorted. And humble, too.

He felt the archangel search for a reply, but instead he drew up short. Dean felt a sort of tickle at the back of his head an instant before Michael spun to look behind them, back toward the desert.
Ishtar stood on a lone rock some distance away, her hordes of zombies advancing toward the battle. There were hundreds of them, easily. Dean shivered inside at the eerie sight. Now we know where everyone from those abandoned towns went, he muttered.

"Indeed," Michael murmured. He dropped a second sword out of nowhere into his left hand and hefted it, settling his grip on the hilt. "Our brothers must do their work quickly." He returned his focus to the leviathan, turning his back on the advancing zombies. Dean didn't like knowing a frickin' zombie army was at his back, but they had their hands full with the big-mouths. Better to just let the ambling horde lurch its way into striking range.

Four dark-suited leviathan lunged at them as Michael turned. The archangel ducked and rolled, pin-wheeling his arms to slice through two of their necks. He sprung to his feet and used his momentum to pivot and dispatch the other two, efficiently slicing their heads off. Taking advantage of a moment's respite as the remaining crowd of leviathan paused in their attack, daunted, Michael wiped blood and black goo from their face. As his sleeve came away, Dean spied Dick Roman watching the battle from a window on TechMed’s top floor. Mike– Dean started.

I see him, Dean, Michael answered, silently. I've already informed Castiel and Balthazar. They are now aware of the king's location.

Dean didn't get a chance to thank the archangel, because about thirty zombies barreled into them. Holy shit! Dean swore in surprise. Those fuckers picked up the pace!

They did arrive sooner than I excepted, Michael conceded, struggling to throw the undead off of them. Zombies clawed and grasped at their arms and torso. Michael stumbled as several pulled at their legs. Dean yelled at the claustrophobic, crushing press of the dead around them. Do something, Mike!

Michael inhaled, pulling something from inside Dean as he drew in breath. His exhale launched a flash of golden-white light from their core that cut through the horde around them. The radiance faded, leaving only blood and bits of flesh behind.

Holy. Shit. Dean gaped as Michael moved their eyes over the devastation. He poked at the archangel during the brief lull before the leviathan and zombies advanced again. Mike, when this is all over, if you ever need a vessel again, just let me know. We make a damn good team.

Michael crossed his blades and sliced a leviathan's head off. Dean, I sincerely hope that day never comes, but thank you.

***

Michael's voice vibrated through Castiel's grace just as he and Sam finished clearing the main floor of the building: Dick Roman monitors the battle from a vantage point in the northeast corner of the uppermost floor of the building, like the coward he is.

Castiel gripped Sam's forearm and directed him toward the stairwell. He pulled the hunter close and whispered to avoid detection by any leviathan who remained inside to defend their king. "Michael and Dean spotted Dick Roman on the top floor in the northeast corner. Let's go."

Sam nodded, shifting his grip on the blessed bone in his hand.

They made their way up the stairs, careful to set their steps lightly. They climbed the final flight and gathered themselves behind the door. Castiel stretched his senses beyond the metal and found nothing waiting for them. At his nod, Sam eased the door open. They swept toward the northeast corner, Sam searching for their quarry with his eyes and ears, Castiel with other senses.

Dick Roman wasn't hiding. He stood before a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, gazing down into the chaotic fray that held Michael and Dean at its center. Castiel approached from behind, his vessel's footfalls silent on the marble floor.

"Can’t say I’m impressed with your little covert operation, angel.” Roman's smooth cadence grated against Castiel's ears. The voice should have been calming and pleasant to hear, but made his skin crawl. “Come to enjoy the view, Castiel?"

"I've come to send you back to Purgatory, where you belong," he growled.

Roman chuckled. "Now that would impress me." He twisted away from the windows and advanced on Castiel, looming over him with his taller frame. "I'm a hard thing to kill, especially when I have so much to live for. The grand plan is already in motion."

Castiel narrowed his eyes. "I know. That's why I'm going to destroy you." He lunged, thrusting the bone in his hand toward Roman's chest. The leviathan blocked the attack with a sharp swing of his arm and tossed the angel into a row of filing cabinets.

"To protect the humans?" Roman scoffed. "They're food, you naive child, nothing more."

Sam emerged from his hiding place behind the desk, which he'd circled back to while Castiel distracted Roman. "Maybe a little more." The hunter drew back his right arm, the true blessed weapon aimed for Roman's nose. The leviathan stepped backward, straight into Castiel's grip. The angel dropped his decoy weapon, seized a fistful of Roman's perfectly coiffed dark hair in one hand, and braced the other on the monster's back, baring his throat. Sam struck, and his blow drove the sharp edge of the bone through Roman's jugular.

Roman screamed, then roared, exposing row upon row of teeth. Then he grinned, black goo pouring out of his nose and mouth. Energy pulsed out from his chest. Sam backed away a step.

Pulse.

"Cas, what's happening?"

Pulse.

"I don't know."

Pulse.

They were coming faster. Castiel didn't wait to find out what happened next. He snatched Sam by the scruff of his jacket and flew them to the far side of the room.

In the space they vacated, Dick Roman expired in an explosion of black goo, the energy of his death catapulting everything around his corpse into Purgatory with his twisted soul. Castiel watched him go, then flew himself and Sam out of the building.

***

It is finished. Castiel's gravelly voice reverberated through Dean's head. Around him, the Leviathan left standing disintegrated before his eyes. They fell to the ground and burst, ink-filled water balloons staining the rusty sand beneath Dean’s boots. Michael lifted their eyes to the horizon, where Ishtar still perched on that lone rock, watching her horde close in around them.

Michael stretched his invisible wings. Let's do this, Dean goaded. They flew at a speed Dean couldn’t track. One instant they were miles away, the next he stood five inches in front of Ishtar. Her eyes widened and she jerked back, falling hard onto her back on the rocky sand. Her gray suit jacket fell open, the button popping off as she braced her arms and pushed her torso off the ground. She snarled up at them.

Michael followed her down. As they descended, he drew her small poisoned knife from its sheath at their back and let gravity work. They landed softly, straddling her hips in a crouch, and together drove the knife into her heart.

"That's for torturing Cas, you slimy bitch," Dean growled around his clenched jaw.

The goddess jerked beneath them, limbs spasming. Dark veins crept across the skin of her chest, climbing her neck to her face. Black tears escaped her hate-filled eyes as she held their gaze, the contempt in them lingering beyond any trace of life. Michael exhaled and stood, withdrawing the knife from her breast. He gazed back toward the building, then up at the waxing moon.

"You spoke, Dean. Of your own accord." Awe softened the archangel's tone. "I did not believe that to be possible."

That makes two of us, Dean replied. I couldn't pick a lock earlier, but this just... I don't. It kinda slipped out. Like it was nothing.

"It was certainly not nothing," Michael said, eyes on the piles of zombies collapsing into their former, properly dead state of being without Ishtar's will to keep them undead. "There will be time to ponder the significance of that later. Now, we should regroup with the others."

Yeah, Dean agreed, sighing. Clean-up's gonna be a bitch.

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Welcome to the Jungle

Four leviathan surged toward Michael, mouths gaping to display rows of razor-sharp teeth. Michael dodged, rolled, and sprung to his feet, blade in hand. He spun and sliced in one smooth motion, and his sword severed the heads off the two enemies nearest to him. Dean's body knew fighting well, and it moved readily to Michael's will. Michael had not taken many vessels in his life – he preferred to do battle in his own form – but he saw now why Dean was meant for him. They fit.

The two remaining leviathan backed up a pace, assessing. Beyond them, Castiel fought two leviathan of his own as he defended Garth, the outmatched hunter who'd called Bobby for backup and alerted them to the leviathans' location. Michael refocused on his own opponents, confident in Castiel's abilities. The leviathan shifted, strafing away from one another. They're gonna come at us from the sides, Dean warned. Michael trusted the hunter's instincts. He reversed his grip on his sword, facing the point down instead of out.

The leviathans attacked, attempting to flank him just as Dean predicted. Pivoting at just the right moment, Michael drove the point of his blade through the left eye of the leviathan on his right, then continued his spin and caught the other under the chin with the hilt. With a flick of the wrist, the stunned leviathan's head fell to the ground. An instant later his fellow met the same fate. Michael straightened and looked up.

Castiel swung his blade, removing the head of the leviathan facing him. Behind him, though, a fallen leviathan with a hole in its throat from Castiel's sword rose stealthily to its feet. Cas! Dean cried. In an eye blink, Michael stood behind Castiel's would-be assailant. He dispatched it with a single swing of his sword.

Dean reveled in the violence, exhilaration and satisfaction billowing out from his soul. Michael's own elation mingled with his vessel’s as they stood victorious over their enemies.

"Wow!" Garth's awed exclamation broke the silence. "Thanks, Dean." The scrawny hunter climbed to his feet as the angels put up their swords. "Bobby said you were the bee’s knees, but holy cow! I've never seen moves quite like that before."

Michael glanced at the small man before examining their surroundings. They had landed in a small copse of trees near several large industrial buildings. "What were they after?" he asked. The rest of the sparse northern forest surrounding them was devoid of human structures, save for a few paved access roads.

"I don't know if they were after anything," Garth said. "I tracked them here after I saw them–" he gulped. "After they ate some poor soul at the gas station a few miles back. I just happened to be driving by. I didn't know what sort of critter they were, so I called Bobby."

"It is well you did, or you would be dead," Michael said.

Garth frowned. "You don't seem much like Bobby described you, Dean. You feeling okay?"

Michael looked at him. "I am not Dean Winchester."

Garth's eyes widened and he stepped back, fumbling in his jacket. Great, now you spooked him, Dean said. He's probably going for the holy water.

Castiel stepped forward and touched Garth's shoulder. "Did Bobby tell you about me?"

Garth nodded. "Sure did, and I gotta say, it's an honor. I mean, my gran always told me to listen for angels, but I just thought she was crazy 'til Bobby called me last year and told me you guys were really real." Oh great, a fanboy, Dean snarked. He's even worse than Sammy.

"Then trust me when I say that Dean is well and Michael–" Cas nodded toward his brother, "–means you no harm. Now please, tell us everything you can remember about the leviathan."

"Well... Like I said, I was tailing them, so I didn't get much. I did hear one of them on the phone with the boss, though, before they found my hiding spot. That was right before you two showed up."

"How do you know it was their boss?" Michael asked.

Garth scrunched up his face. "Well, the first thing he said when he picked up the phone was 'Hi boss.'"

Dude, you pissed him off by asking a question that made it seem like you don't think he can do his job, Dean explained, sounding frustrated. Michael inclined his head toward Garth. "Apologies for the interruption. Please continue."

Garth put his hands in his pockets. "Well, it sounded like they were stepping up their timeline. Most of the conversation I could hear was 'yessir' or 'nosir,' but the few full sentences he did get out were excuses for not having something ready for shipment. I'm not sure what, but they did talk about a medical research center in Nevada." He shrugged. "I didn't catch anything else."

Nevada, huh? Dean mused. Big state to just wander through looking for big-mouths. We should see if Sam can scrounge up a smaller target.

Michael looked at Castiel. "Dean thinks we should contact Sam and Bobby and request they divert some of their efforts to finding more information about this medical research center. Do you agree?" Aw. You're learning democracy. Michael chose to ignore Dean’s comment.

Castiel nodded. "Yes. I will drop Garth off near his vehicle and then call Sam. What will you do?"

Michael looked at the largest building of the small industrial area off to their right. "Dean and I will investigate why that building is the only one in this area with no one inside it."

You can tell that from here? Dean asked, skeptical.

Angels can sense life in all its forms, especially sentient forms, Michael explained. An angel could tell you the exact human and monster population of any city. An archangel could tell you how many animals, birds, fish, and insects lived there as well.

Dean didn't have a response for that.

"I will rejoin you soon, then," Castiel said, placing one hand on Garth's shoulder and departing.

A moment later, Michael alighted directly inside the front entrance of the vacant building. The lights were off, but his grace augmented Dean's eyesight. They would have no problem searching.

So, what exactly are we looking for, here? Dean asked.

"Anything that will tell us why that group of leviathan was traveling here." Their trajectory and this building's vacancy made it their most logical destination. Dean did not question the assumption, which Michael took as agreement. They started their search on the ground floor and worked their way up through the deserted building. Michael searched with his grace and senses that Dean did not have, leaving his vessel to focus on sights, sounds, and smells.

As they ascended the stairwell toward the third floor, Dean jostled against Michael's grace. Can I ask you a question?

Curious, Michael paused his investigation. "Of course."

Dean hesitated. Michael waited. When we killed those leviathan back there, I enjoyed it, Dean admitted. Michael tilted his head. "And? What is your question?"

I haven't felt like that since Purgatory, and I want more of it, Dean spilled out. Purgatory... Down there things made so much sense. Some stuff was fucked up, sure, but the fighting? It felt so pure. Everything up there was fair game. I didn't feel guilty about any of it. How much I enjoyed the fighting, the killing... It scares me sometimes. Dean gathered his courage. I guess my question is, how can a killer like me possibly be the Righteous Man you and Cas seem so convinced I am? How can I be the true vessel for Heaven's General? It just doesn’t make sense.

Dean’s confession reverberated through Michael’s grace like Revelation. Finally understood. They fit together because he and his vessel shared the struggle to define their worth outside of their prowess as warriors, and Dean did so without an innate assurance of God's blessing and love. Michael knew his own worthiness because he knew that his Father created him to be militant. Dean had no such faith.

He compressed his grace around the human's soul for a moment, offering support. "You are a warrior, Dean, a soldier," he tried to explain. "Fighting is a part of who you are, and always will be, but it is only a part. If there is anything I have learned in the short time I've known you, it's that there is far more to you than your abilities as a hunter."

Dean remained silent for a moment, his soul shivering in Michael's hold as he digested the angel's words. Thanks, Mike.

They searched the third floor in companionable silence.

The fourth and final floor contained just three offices and a single, small storeroom. It and the two smaller offices contained nothing of interest. The door to the large office was locked. That’s either a good sign or a really bad one, Dean commented. Michael reached out hand to force the door, but Dean protested. Wait! If you bust it down they'll know someone was in here snooping. Let me pick it.

Michael relented, and drew himself as far back as he could within Dean. No matter how small he made himself, though, Dean could not reach out far enough to control his limbs. Damn it! The hunter cursed. Take the wheel. I'll have to talk you through it.

The process was annoyingly slow, but Michael understood the value in leaving no trace of their investigation. Finally, the lock clicked. The expansive office featured a single large mahogany desk with two metal guest chairs facing it, two bookshelves, and a single unlit floor lamp.

Michael glanced at each bookshelf, but saw nothing noteworthy. At Dean's urging, they sorted through the small stack of folders on the desk, but discovered nothing except order forms and invoices for construction materials, similar to what they'd found elsewhere in the building. Michael began to doubt his suspicions.

Check the drawers, Dean insisted.

The first two contain only employee evaluation forms and vacation requests. The third was locked. Jackpot! Dean crowed, and once again coached Michael through the lock-picking.

The locked drawer held a single rolled-up bundle of papers. Michael spread them out across the desk, revealing an architectural diagram, a blueprint. On the left side, marked as the entrance, were waiting rooms with television sets, couches and other amenities. Moving to the right, Michael saw the outlines of showers and other facilities, followed by a long hallway. The hallway turned a 90-degree corner at the edge of the building. The room it led into was large, had only one entrance, and was marked "Butchery." A conveyor belt led further into the facility from there.

Oh my god, Dean breathed, horror spreading through his soul. They're building a meat-packing plant for people.

Michael frowned. "Humans are more intelligent than this, and most value their lives above nearly all else. They would not walk so willingly to their demise."

Dean shifted inside him. They would if they didn't know it was coming. If they went there thinking they were safe... Those first rooms look like fancy hotel lobbies.

"But why come here in the first place?" Michael asked.

I don't know, but at least now we know part of their plan, which is more than we knew before. Plus, now we have an idea of their timeline.

"How so?"

None of the construction contracts we found were billed as completed, Dean explained. They're still in the planning stages, thank god.

Michael straightened and re-rolled the thin diagrams. "What troubles me most is that Ishtar remains with the leviathan, but I cannot discern her role in this plan." He returned the blueprints to the desk drawer and closed it. "She is not one to wait and plan, so what use do the leviathan have for her?"

Well, they're not keeping her around for her personality, Dean quipped. Either way, at least we know how to stop her.

"We do?" Michael knew of no weapon effective against her, save for the Elhyim Yad, which they had already determined they could not use.

Sure, Dean replied. With Ellie out of commission, we'll just have to stab her with her own knife.

Michael frowned. "You think that will work?"

Sam found something in Purgatory that looked exactly like the black knives she used and when he sliced her with it, she lit up like a dying demon.

That sounded promising. A weapon from her prison may prove effective against the goddess. "I hid the blade she struck us with in Egypt."

Great! Tell Cas where we're going and let's go. He can get another angel to be his backup on big-mouth patrol while we're gone.

The gust of wind as they flew off fluttered the loose papers in the office and swung the once-locked office door wide open.

***

Castiel perched on the flat roof of an abandoned gas station in the desert. Fifteen miles to the south, the TechMed research facility baked in the harsh sun, its dark, reflective windows and rooftop gleaming on the horizon. A subsidiary of a holding company owned by Roman Enterprises, Inc., TechMed's website boasted "great progress" and "recent breakthroughs" in research of "diseases that impact behavior, such as Alzheimer's, Mad Cow, and Rabies." No other active research facility in the state had as clear a connection to the leviathan, so – at Sam's recommendation – Castiel focused his reconnaissance on TechMed's facility.

Balthazar landed next to him. Castiel smiled. "I'm glad you came, Balthazar," he greeted without turning from his post.

"Anytime you need my help, Cassie." Balthazar shrugged. "Besides, I was going out of my mind cooped up in Heaven. You have no idea how boring things seem up there after spending time down here." He rubbed his hands together. "Earth is so much more exciting!"

"Sometimes I think I'd prefer the quiet," Castiel replied.

"Oh, come off it," Balthazar turned to face Castiel. "You know you'll never leave here, not while Dean's still up and kicking."

"No," Castiel agreed.

Balthazar shook his head. "Your grace is still tied to his soul, isn't it?"

Castiel drew in a long breath. "Yes."

"But you're fine!" Balthazar protested. "I can see it. Your grace is good as new, Cassie, so get rid of that bond before it's too late. It's too risky to keep it for whatever sentimentality is keeping you holding on."

"I have faith in Dean. Maintaining our connection is how I can prove that to him."

"Attaching yourself to a human like that is dangerous, Cassie," Balthazar said, placing one hand on his friend’s arm. "He could ruin you."

"He could, but he won't." Castiel turned and met Balthazar's gaze. "Dean is a good man, Balthazar. He will not be damned."

"He'd better not be, because if he gets dragged to the Pit, so do you." Balthazar's voice grew harsh. "That's how our brother Azazel ended up a demon, you know."

"I remember." Castiel said – evenly, with great effort. "That's a risk I am willing to take, brother. I've gone to hell for him once already."

Balthazar shook his head. "He's going to be the death of you, Castiel, and I hate him for it."

"I wish you didn't, but I know I can't change your mind," Castiel replied, unable to keep the hurt from his voice.

"Let's just enjoy what time we have left." Balthazar offered a small smile. "I don't want you to die mad at me."

Castiel huffed and turned back to his watch. They stood in silence as the sun set behind the glare of TechMed's facade.

***

Dean marveled at the view. It was breathtaking, and he couldn't even breathe on his own right now. He was almost glad Michael was in control of his body, because standing at the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza would have left Dean gaping at the landscape and hanging on for dear life from the height. The peak they stood on was weathered and rounded from thousands of years of wind and sand, but it supported their weight with a solidness that spoke to the monolith’s endurance of ages. Michael held Ishtar's poisoned black knife in one hand, retrieved from a hidden sarcophagus in the tomb beneath the center of the pyramid.

The sunrise lit the landscape in soft pinks and oranges, and the bustling din of early morning tourists and souvenir-sellers drifted up from the ground, complementing the scenery rather than detracting from it. Combined with the impending end of the world, the scene would make any guy introspective and philosophical. Dean was in the middle of trying to figure out if Cas owning his soul was somehow bad for the angel – Balthalzar certainly made it seem that way when he found out – when the question floated out of his mind of its own volition.

Is owning my soul hurting Cas?

Michael paused before answering, which Dean interpreted as a sign he wasn’t going to like the answer. "The last angel to bind his grace to a human soul and hold it beyond the human's death and judgement was Azazel."

Dean started. You mean the Yellow-Eye Demon? The one that killed my mom and ripped apart my family and poisoned Sam when he was a baby? He was an angel?

Michael closed his eyes for a moment, shuttering Dean's world. "The bond between soul and grace is such that where the soul goes, the grace must follow. If the human passes through to Heaven, the angel returns home."

And if I get my ass damned, Cas goes to Hell with me. Dean felt sick. He'd already sent himself to Hell once, and he was definitely dumb enough to do it again. Cas, you stupid bastard. Why didn't you pick someone else?

Dean didn't realize he'd sent that thought outside his head until Michael responded. "Because he knows, as I do, that you are a good man. You will not be damned again, Dean."

Michael's certainty kept Dean from fully panicking, but he was far from calm. Michael's grace squeezed him again. Dean figured it was supposed to be a hug.

"Dean, do you know what my name means?" Michael asked.

Um... I may have missed that day in Sunday school.

Michael chortled. "It means 'Who is like God?'. I realize now that I was meant to keep my brothers and sisters true to our mission of serving the creations that our Father made in His image. You, humanity, are 'like God'. None of you who try to serve one another, as you do, deserve damnation."

Dean poked Michael back. He got it. Thanks. Dean shook himself out of his weird mood. Not being in control of his body messed with his emotions, and he was not a fan. Let's get back stateside.

As soon as Michael landed, Dean's phone started buzzing. Michael ignored it, walking toward the edge of the rooftop where Castiel and Balthazar stood. Dude, aren't you going to get that? Michael reached into Dean's pocket and pulled out the phone. 12 new messages and 3 new voicemails.
Michael stared at the screen.

Dean shoved at the angel's grace. Just tap the voicemail button. No not that one, the other one! The one that looks like a phone. There you go. Jeez.

All three calls were from Sam. Dean told Michael how to play the most recent message. The archangel held the phone up to his ear just in time to hear Sam's urgent tone.

"Damnit Dean, or Michael, whoever! Answer your phone! Bobby and I found something big and we need your help to pull it off. Get here as soon as you get this."

Guess we're heading to Bobby's.

Michael gestured to Castiel, who stood watching them closely. "Sam and Bobby have discovered something of use. We must go. Balthazar–"

The V-necked angel waved without turning around. "I'll stay behind and babysit the shiny building, oh fearless leader. I'll let you know if swarms of leviathan show up."

Michael and Dean both glared at Balthazar's back. Castiel flew off, and they followed.

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 7

Chapter Seven: Master of Puppets

The shouting shook motes of dust off the bookshelves in Bobby's living room as the older hunter tore into Michael for not letting Dean have his body back while Castiel stood nearby, ready to intervene if the argument got violent.

In the kitchen, Sam tore into his slice of cold pizza with more force than necessary, but he figured it was better to demolish Bobby's leftovers than his furniture. He'd devoured three slices and his stomach still growled at him. Being almost dead apparently worked up an appetite.

"I don't see why you think you need to stick around," Bobby growled. "That boy deserves to live his life, and he's saved this whole planet without your help before! Heck, we don't even know what it is we're fighting yet!"

"Leviathan." Cas's deep voice rang with the foreboding declaration. "I was unsure of it when I encountered them in Purgatory, but I don't know what else they could be."

Michael looked at Sam. "Is this true?"

"Yes, they're leviathan." Sam set the pizza aside. "We'll take care of it on our own, like we always do."

Michael glared. "You are arrogant to wager all life on this planet against your ability to fight an enemy you know nothing about."

"We handled them just fine in Purgatory," Sam argued, overstating things a bit.

Michael shook his head. "Purgatory was created by my Father to be their prison, to weaken them. Without that cage, they would have devoured the entire world. Make no mistake, you have never faced a foe like the leviathan before. If they get a chance to organize they will be nearly impossible to defeat."

Sam glared back. "We'll figure something out. If you want to help, do it from Heaven."

Michael stared him down. "I will be able to have a much greater impact here."

"Dean will have a greater impact here!" Sam ran his hands through his hair. "Don't you get it? This isn't about beating the leviathan. This is about me getting my brother back!"

Castiel stepped forward. "I may have a solution." He looked back and forth between them. "Neither of you will like it, but it may be the best compromise."

"What is in your mind, Castiel?" Michael asked.

The angel drew his chin up. "The point of contention is that Michael wishes to fight, and the rest of us wish to see Dean fight as well.” The two hunters and archangel nodded their agreement, and Castiel continued. “Before his soul passed on to heaven, there were moments when my vessel was aware, alert. Even now, Dean has some notion of what is happening around him."

Bobby uncrossed his arms and stepped toward them from where he'd been leaning against his desk. "What are you suggesting?"

Castiel's shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. "If I was able to keep Jimmy awake enough to speak to me, Michael should certainly be able to do that, and more, for Dean."

Sam shook his head. "Nice try, but I don't think Dean will appreciate being trapped in his own body like that."

Michael shifted his contemplative gaze from Sam to Castiel. "I propose we ask him."

***

Cas wasn't paying attention to him and Sammy left a long time ago. Dean didn't like it. He never really like being alone, but usually he hid it better. Now, when Cas's grace stroked him, a caress to let him know he wasn't forgotten, Dean soaked it up. Part of him wondered what was taking so long, but the rest was just happy to be this close to Cas again. Dean felt safe here like he hadn't since he was four years old. Though he knew he couldn't, he wanted to stay.

Dean, you cannot stay here forever. Cas's voice surrounded him. You have a life to live.

Dean sighed (or he would have, if he had lungs at the moment). I know. What's taking so long? Can't you find Michael?

Castiel's silence told Dean everything. Michael isn't going to leave, is he? I'm not getting back in my body. He should have known better, Dean berated himself. All angels except for Cas were two-faced dicks.

Not exactly, Castiel said, then tried to bring Dean up to speed. The angel failed miserably at giving Dean the details he needed to truly assess the situation (how pissed off Sam was, Michael's ready-to-smite level, stuff like that), but Dean gathered that Michael still wanted to use him as a vessel so he could kick the leviathan off the planet (and hello there, something else to feel guilty about, because the monster of all monsters apparently snuck through the portal after they came home, barnacle-style), Bobby and Sam objected, and Cas thought of a different solution.

So what's your genius Plan B? Dean asked.

Michael may be able to help you see and hear the world while you serve as his vessel, though you would not be able to act on your own.

Dean tried to imagine that. He'd only been possessed once, and that was by Michael and right after Ellie had used up most of his soul's battery power. He remembered being able to see and hear what the archangel did, but it was fragmented and exhausting. Plus, this could be a long-term deal. Who knew how long it would take until Michael was satisfied they'd beaten the leviathan. And what if some other Big Bad showed up? The world was a giant clown car of evil, and the Winchesters would always be on the front lines of that fight.

I don't know, Cas, Dean admitted. I don't know if I can handle knowing what's going on and not being able to do anything about it, and Michael might never leave. At least here I know I'm not going to be trapped forever.

It was Michael's suggestion that we ask your thoughts on this course of action, Cas returned. My brother means well, Dean. I am certain of that, and I am confident he will return to Heaven as soon as he secures humanity's safety.

Dean deliberated. If I have to share headspace with an angel, I'd rather it be you than Michael, he confessed.

Cas seemed pleased at that. I know, Dean. But Michael is right. We will need him in order to defeat the leviathan.

Can you ask him if he'd be able to give me the reins once in a while? Let me actually do stuff sometimes?

Castiel withdrew for a moment, but returned quickly, again sliding along Dean to let him know he was back. He isn't sure he'll be able to pull back enough to allow that. Cas sighed, then continued. He also said that he is the Prince and Commander of the Heavenly Host and he will not sit idly by during a fight.

Dean heard all those capital letters loud and clear. He bristled. He sure did during the apocalypse, which we stopped.

Castiel's touch flickered. Michael wishes me to tell you "That fight had not yet truly begun. If it had, this world would be ash.”

Apparently the angel had relayed Dean's comment verbatim.

He also says there is wisdom in Heaven's General and the Righteous Man both fighting in this battle, and I agree, Cas continued.

It would be nice to have celestial backup at all times, Dean thought. But there was one last hurdle holding him back... Will me being Michael's vessel mess with the power cord running between my soul and your grace? I don't want to agree to this and then have you waste away.

Castiel's grace cooled against Dean. No, my grace is whole again. I– His grace stilled. When I held the souls of Purgatory within me, it was an easy thing to fix.

Oh. Speaking of the souls and Cas's power trip... Cas, you almost damned yourself with that stunt back in Purgatory. Dean had felt it. That sickness would have eaten the angel up from the inside if he had held it much longer. Before I go back, I need to know why. Why would you do that to yourself?

For the same reason you damned yourself when Sam died. Love. Cas said it like it was obvious, like Dean should have known.

That doesn't make any sense! Dean protested.

I couldn't bear the thought of Ishtar destroying the world you died protecting, so I did the only think I could think of to save it.

The only thing he could think of was basically suicide? Had Cas thought Dean would just let him rot in Purgatory? Didn't you know I'd... Sam and I... would come for you?

I thought you were gone, Dean. You have taught me so much about what it means to be alive, Cas's grace swept tight around Dean, nice and toasty once again. Without you, the whole of creation seemed so much darker.

Dean warmed all over, then shook himself. He really needed to get back in his own body. Chick flick moments were uncomfortable to begin with. He didn't need to be having them while literally sharing headspace with the other person. Okay, I guess I get it, he told Cas. But if you ever do anything that stupid again, so help me, I'll kick your ass.

The angel's grace bubbled around him in what Dean interpreted as laughter. Come, Dean, Cas said softly. Let's get you back where you belong.

***

Sam squinted and shielded his eyes with one hand as brilliant golden-white light shone out from where Castiel's right hand rested on Dean's chest – or Michael's chest, he supposed. When the brightness faded, nothing had changed. Cas let his hand fall to his side and Michael stepped back, his eyes closed.

"Well?" Sam asked, raising his eyebrows.

Michael opened his eyes. "Dean is well. He wants to know if you are still 'hearing voices,' though I have assured him I repaired the wall."

Sam felt a hint of a smile on his face. "I'm fine, Dean." He tapped his forehead with one finger. "It feels like everything's back to normal up here."

Michael tilted his head, brow creasing. "He says you have never been normal." The archangel straightened. "This conversation is not an efficient use of our time. We must establish a plan to stop the leviathan before they establish a foothold in this world."

"Well, what do we know that'll hurt 'em?" Bobby asked, starting off the planning session with munitions.

Sam crammed the now-empty pizza box into the trashcan. "When we came across them in Purgatory, decapitation was the only sure way to keep them down, but it doesn't kill them," he said, striding back into the conversation in the living room. "But Dean had the most success using the Elhyim Yad on them. It looked like it burned them from the inside."

Castiel drew the weapon, back in the billiard-sized orb shape it had before Purgatory, out of his trench coat's inner pocket. He slid the tips of his fingers across its smooth surface for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't believe the weapon will be of much use to us now."

He held it out toward Michael, who stepped forward and took the orb. "Castiel is right," he confirmed after inspecting the weapon for himself. "The Elhyim Yad has no energy left, and Dean's soul cannot be used to power it whilst he is my vessel. That amount of strain would tear any human soul into pieces."

"So, we're back to decapitation," Bobby said. "Well, it's straightforward, at least. Bit messy though." He tugged on the frayed rim of his trucker cap. "Michael, you said we had to keep 'em from organizing." Michael nodded. "Well then, seems to me the best plan for now would be to have the two angels go find as many of the big-mouths as they can and hassle them until Sam and I can dig up a more permanent solution."

"Sound reasoning," Michael replied. "But leviathan are formidable opponents, even for angels, and there is only so much power I can wield without harming bystanders."

"I'm not asking for a war," Bobby stressed. "Just enough time to figure out how to shove them back into Purgatory for good."

"Bobby, we don't even know where to start looking," Sam pointed out. "If what Michael said is true, then leviathan haven't been on earth since before humans even existed."

Castiel stepped forward. "I know of only one source that would be old enough."

Michael frowned. "That knowledge is forbidden, Castiel."

Cas stepped forward, challenging. "Then let Father return and cast me down for giving it to them. I disobeyed and helped to save the world from Lucifer's hate and your obstinance. 'Forbidden' does not carry the same weight with me that it once did."

Michael drew himself up. He inhaled deep, nostrils flaring. Flint met steel as the angels’ eyes locked. Finally, Michael let out his breath and backed down. Gritting he teeth, he said, "Dean wants me to tell you that he's cheering on your rebellious words."

Sam rolled his eyes, opening a bottle of water to wash down the pizza. Of course that's what Dean would focus on. "What source is this you're talking about, Cas?" he asked.

Castiel looked at Michael, who disappeared in a gust of air. Cas looked back at Sam. "The Word of God."

Sam choked. "What?!"

"The Word of God, inscribed on tablets of stone," Castiel repeated. "Michael is retrieving it now."

Sure enough, Michael reappeared moments later, carrying two large stone tablets. He set them side by side on Bobby's desk. "Are you certain, Castiel? There is more written here than how to kill Leviathan."

Cas nodded. "Yes. If any two humans deserve the knowledge of angels, it is Sam Winchester and Bobby Singer."

"Aw, shucks." Bobby chimed sarcastically, sitting in his desk chair and examining the tablet. "Of course it's written in Enochian," he muttered.

The aging hunter sighed before looking up. "So, we know how to slow 'em down at least. Any idea what they want? It'd help pin down where they might be."

No one had an answer.

***

Ishtar loathed Dick Roman. On the arrogant prick’s orders, his cronies hosed her body down with frigid water, stuffed her into an ill-fitting, scratchy gray suit, and raked a comb through her tangled hair. Now, Roman had the utter audacity to sit before her in his modern, ornate office and lecture her as though she worked for him. She was the one who made his escape from Purgatory possible. Without her, this king would still have a prison for a kingdom and a mob of disloyal, back-stabbing subjects. She sat perfectly still in the uncomfortable office chair, crossed her arms and fumed.

"Don't look at me like that, darling," he soothed, voice as oily as his true form and the hair of the business mogul he posed as. "Of all the other creatures on the vast planet, you're the only thing out there I don't want to rub off the bottom of my shoe." He walked around the desk and loomed over her. "You and I, we're the oldest things around. We should be on the same side."

She glared at him. "Is that why you nearly tore me apart to get here? I am the only reason any of you made it through that portal."

Dick leaned back and nodded. "True. You know how to press your advantage. Fine." He showed her his teeth. "I'll let you go first. What do you think we should do now that we've made it to this rock."

Ishtar searched his stolen face, but found no ulterior motive. "We should destroy everything. Burn it all to the ground, like I was going to before the archangel cast me into Purgatory."

Dick chuckled. "No."

Her eyes narrowed. "No?"

"Absolutely not," he said. "Why would we revert to a failed plan? Roman Enterprises is all about moving forward, and your plan..." He gestured toward the door, which opened to let in five of his underlings. "Your plan would take us backward."

Ishtar leapt to her feet but Dick's entourage got to her first. Three of them wrestled her to the ground and the other two unhinged their jaws and exposed their fangs. Eyes wide, Ishtar tried jerk way, but her captors held her fast. Wide-open mouths descended toward her.

"No!" She screamed.

"That's enough," Dick said, calmly calling off his dogs. The teeth drew back, but the goddess remained pinned to the floor.

"Now, do we all remember who the CEO of this operation is?"

Ishtar swallowed and nodded.

"Fantastic!" Dick cheered. "Now we can get on to discussing my expectations and what you need to do in order to be successful in this company."

Ishtar ground her teeth to keep from lashing out at his posturing.

"Humans, I've observed, are gullible, panicky herd animals," Dick continued. Then the bastard projected a PowerPoint on the wall. Meaningless statistics scrolled by as he yammered on, enamored with the sound of his own voice. "Like most herd animals, we'll need to breed out some of their more undesirable traits before they're an ideal food source, but it should only take three or four generations to do that." He turned and grinned. "Since they have the life span of fruit flies, that's an acceptable time frame."

What a pompous idiot, Ishtar thought. Four human generations was more than enough time for them to rebel, riot, or have Heaven come to their rescue, but Ishtar wasn't going to tell Mr. Know-It-All that.

"Now, I know you're asking yourself, 'what's my role in this grand plan?'" Dick said, turning back toward her.

No, not really, she thought.

Dick waited a beat, frowned. His minions opened their mouths above her again. Cringing, she bent to his will. "What is my role in your grand plan?"

Dick showed his teeth again. "Glad you're on board, darling." He leaned back against his desk and crossed one ankle over the other. "I mentioned humans being panicky animals. You're going to give them something to panic about."

"You think they'll turn to you when the dead rise?"

Dick guffawed. "Of course not! One of our biggest advantages here is that collectively they are entirely unwilling to believe what's in front of them." He smirked. "No, they won't come to us when your hordes start destroying villages and towns. They'll come to us when a mutated rabies virus… or maybe we'll go with Mad Cow Disease–" he cut himself off and waved over his secretary. "Make a note to take that down to Market Research."

"Yes, Mr. Roman," she said and hurried off.

Dick looked back to Ishtar. "The humans will flock to us for a cure to a new disease that's turning the good folks down the street into violent animals. Roman Enterprises has been funding medical research for years, and we'll have a vaccine ready for release in a matter of weeks."

Ishtar met his gaze. "And what will this vaccine actually do?"

He grinned again. "You don't miss much, do you? I like that about you." He stood and rolled his shoulders. "The vaccine we're working on will slow the metabolism and inhibit higher brain function." He returned to the chair behind his desk and shuffled a few papers. "Once we perfect it, those changes will be permanent. For now, they'll ensure we can eat our meals in peace."

He waved one hand and his minions released her. Ishtar righted herself and rose to her feet. Dick looked up at her, unconcerned.

Ishtar knew if she challenged him now, she'd lose, and it grated. Gritting her teeth, she turned to leave.

"Oh, and darling," She looked over her shoulder. Dick stared her down, all business. "If you even think about trying to jump ship, I'll eat your heart out." His upper lip lifted. "Roman Enterprises has a hell of a non-compete."

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 6

Chapter Six: Lay it on the Line

Tumultuous metaphysical winds buffeted Castiel's wings as he fought to keep the journey back to Earth as smooth as possible. He carried precious cargo. Dean and Sam's souls reacted very differently to the flight, though it lasted less than a minute in their perception of time. Dean shouted and whooped as though enjoying a carnival ride. Sam screamed, fear shaking his entire form no matter how Castiel attempted to reassure him.

It was a very loud trip.

When the portal cast them out into an unknown forest, the quiet was jarring. Frantic, hushed voices broke the stillness. "Is something out there?" a female voice whispered.

"I don't know. Did you hear something?" her male companion answered. Castiel stepped toward their tent, nestled between two large evergreens. Purgatory had disoriented him. He needed to regain his balance within the spheres. These young humans could tell him where he was, and, centered, he could then fly to Bobby's.

The low buzz of a sliding zipper signaled the tent opening. "Holy crap!" The young man fell back into the tent, the harsh beam of his flashlight dancing wildly.

"Where am I?" Castiel asked.

"Oh god please don't kill us you can have whatever you want man we won't tell anyone I swear–"

"Where?!" Castiel interrupted the boy's babbling.

"The 100-Mile Wilderness," the girl squeaked. “In Maine.”

Castiel turned his attention to her and inclined his head. "Thank you." To avoid further trauma for the pair, he backed into the darkness of the woods before taking flight toward South Dakota.

Sam did not enjoy their second flight any more than he had their first. His soul shook so hard Castiel winced in discomfort as he landed.

We're okay, Sammy, Dean tried to reassure his brother. It's just Cas. I know he's gigantic like this, but he's still Cas. We're safe with him. His efforts had no effect.

He cannot hear you right now, Dean, Castiel told the hunter.

Dean clung to Castiel's grace, shivering. Castiel stroked the hunter's soul to assuage his worry. I believe the wall that Death erected to protect Sam's mind from his memories of the cage has eroded. Michael will help.

Castiel prayed that last part wasn't a lie.

Bobby's house stood vacant when Castiel landed. He leaned back against the kitchen sink – where a lifetime ago he’d warned Dean that Lilith was breaking the seals to Lucifer’s cage – to wait for the older hunter’s return. Before long, between being cocooned in Castiel's grace and Dean's ministrations, Sam's soul calmed to the point of lucidity.

Cas, you're colossal, he announced, naked awe radiating from his soul.

A smile snuck onto the angel's face. My true form is the size of your Chrysler Building.

Castiel enjoyed a few moments of peace before the Winchesters proved they were, in fact, normal human brothers.

Dean, quit moving around! You keep knocking into me. Sam complained.

Then get out of my way, Sammy. I'm working.

Castiel frowned. Working? Dean, what do you mean?

Dean’s soul swelled and sagged in an equivalent of a shrug. I dunno. Cleaning, I guess.

Cleaning what? Sam asked.

Stuff. Dean replied. Everything. I don't know. I feel like I'm made of Scrubbing Bubbles or something and I just need to get everywhere or something bad will happen. His voice turned petulant. Just leave me alone for a little bit. This is hard.

Placing a hand to his chest, Castiel observed Dean’s movements deep inside his grace. Dean's soul swirled around, brushing past as much grace as he could. At first, Castiel thought Dean was trying to absorb the power of his grace, but no... his essence passed through Dean's soul like a sieve. It was only when Castiel noticed  what was missing that he realized what Dean had done.

The poisoned darkness from Ishtar's knife was gone. The spell that kept it at bay had disintegrated when they left Purgatory, and yet Castiel felt no ill effects. "How is this possible?" he marveled.

The growl and crunch of gravel as Bobby's 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle pulled up cut Castiel’s musing short. Two doors slammed. Bobby's front door opened to reveal the grizzled hunter and a step behind him, Michael, still wearing Dean’s vessel.

Castiel straightened. "Hello, brother."

Michael inclined his head. "Castiel. I'm glad to see you've made it back safely."

"Where're the two idiots who went in after you?" Bobby demanded. "If they didn't make it out in one piece I'm gonna take it outta your hide."

Castiel smiled and gestured to his chest. "They are with me." He looked to Michael. "Though Sam is not well."

Michael's brow furrowed, a look of confusion made familiar by Dean's face. "What is the matter?"

Castiel explained quickly, then made his request of Heaven's last archangel. "Sam needs to return to his body, and soon. Can you rebuild the wall in his mind? Will you help him?"

Michael considered for a moment.

Bobby elbowed him in the side. "If you can't even do this then what the hell use is being an archangel, anyway?"

Michael frowned, but nodded. "While I have no doubt that Death is a better architect than I will ever be, I will do what I can to fortify his remedy. I will do so as often as necessary during Sam's lifetime. I suspect one day his mind will be strong enough to create its own defenses."

Castiel breathed a sigh of relief. "That day may come sooner than you think, Michael. Sam's strength surprises many."

"I don't doubt it." The archangel gestured toward the basement door. "Sam's body is in the panic room. Shall we?"

Castiel led the way down the stairs. The steps creaked as Michael and Bobby followed.

Though Dean held on to his brother as long as he could, Sam returned to his body readily, eager to be back in familiar territory. Dean called out as Sam slipped away and Castiel gently closed the connection between them.

Bye Sam! He sounded bereft.

***

Sam opened his eyes. He felt good, surprisingly so. Wait... Why was he on the cot in Bobby's panic room?

"Welcome back, son." Bobby's gruff voice brought everything crashing back.

Sam pushed himself upright. Bobby, Cas and Dean – no, Michael – hovered nearby, various degrees of concern on their faces. Sam rolled off the cot and staggered to the desk chair as quickly as he could. He didn't exactly have good memories of lying on that thing. He eased himself into the chair, muscles protesting his earlier speed. He wasn't sore, exactly, but everything felt stiff.

Sam remembered finding Cas and Ishtar, and Cas going ballistic and pushing him off the ledge. He remembered Benny pulling him back to safety, but then everything blurred. "What happened?"

"Purgatory eroded the wall Death built to protect your mind," Michael responded. "I was able to repair it after Castiel reintegrated your soul into your body."

Sam blinked. He did feel a lot better, more sure of the reality of the world around him. He met Michael's gaze. "Thanks."

The archangel nodded. "You are welcome."

Sam looked back at Cas and Bobby. "What about Dean? And Benny?"

"Who's Benny?" Bobby squinted at him.

"Dean is still with me, as you were a few minutes ago," Castiel said, touching his chest. "Benny..." He dropped his gaze. "He didn’t make it."

"Oh." Sam ran a hand through his hair. While he and the vampire hadn't gotten off to a great start, Sam had started to think of him as a friend. Now Benny would never find out for sure what happened to the woman he loved or avenge his own murder.

The shrill clangs of Bobby's landline shattered the moment's somber silence. The phone rang, and rang, and rang...

"Make it stop doing that," Michael ordered.

Muttering to himself, Bobby stomped upstairs. A moment later his irritable "Whaddya want?!" drifted into the panic room.

Sam shook his head and looked back at the angels. "So, what happens next?" He focused on Michael. "Are you going back to Heaven so Dean can–" he gestured from Cas to Michael "–be Dean again?"

Michael hesitated, but Cas answered before Sam could press him. "I will return Dean to his body as soon as possible, but I need an answer from my brother, first."

"An answer to what?" Sam asked.

"Yes, Castiel." Michael turned to face the other angel. "What is your question?"

Cas pointed at the hollow of his throat, where – beneath the newly mended trench coat and dress shirt – the point of Ishtar's black blade had emerged when she stabbed him in the back. "Ishtar's knife was laced with poison. I could feel it polluting my grace. She cast a spell to prevent it from killing me while we were in Purgatory, because she wanted to use me to escape again." His hands fell to his sides. "While she held me captive there, she told me the blade she struck you with was poisoned, too. How did you survive? How did Dean?"

That was news to Sam. He held his breath, hoping they hadn't escaped Purgatory just to have Dean die… again.

Michael's brow furrowed. "I do remember feeling more pain than I expected when she stabbed this vessel." His eyes closed for a few moments and an expression of intense concentration stole over his features. It was a face Dean usually reserved for memorizing Latin exorcisms and women's phone numbers. "Dean's soul must have filtered out all impurities," Michael continued. "I can feel traces of his touch lingering in my grace, just as I can see him in yours now." He lifted his head and opened his eyes. "Father has gifted my true vessel with a soul that not only gives power to one of Heaven's greatest weapons, but also serves as an alembic for celestial energy."

The two angels looked awed. Sam raised an eyebrow. "You mean Dean's soul is like the world's most efficient liver?" He snorted. "That's ironic considering what he puts his through."

Michael frowned at Sam's levity, but Cas gave him his signature half-smile before turning back to the archangel. "Will you return to Heaven now, brother?"

Again Michael hesitated. Sam stood and approached him. "You're going to give my brother his body back, Michael. You're on our side, right?"

"Of course I am," he replied, offended. "I will never again doubt my role as a protector and defender of humanity." He paused, then straightened. "Which is why I cannot, in good faith, leave my true vessel. You may yet have dire need of my aid."

"That's bullshit! You can't squat in there indefinitely, just in case something bad happens." Sam jabbed his index finger into Michael's chest. "This doesn't belong to you!"

"Neither does it belong to you." Michael's calm demeanor only served to piss Sam off more, but before he could come up with a better argument than "fuck you" Bobby tromped back into the panic room.

"Sorry to interrupt," he drawled, eyes going from Michael, to Castiel, and finally landing on Sam. "Hunter contact of mine near where you lot popped back onto this grungy plane of existence just called with great news.” Sam tensed at the obvious sarcasm. “The whole area is crawling with shapeshifters that bleed black goo, don't die, and have a helluva lotta teeth,” Bobby continued. “And the best part is, Ishtar's with ‘em."

Michael turned to Sam. "See?"

***

Water.

Cold, dark, suffocating.

Ishtar's body spasmed, and she discovered she could move. Feet, knees, elbows, hands touched the muddy ground. The crown of her head broke the surface and she gasped in breath when her mouth and nose hit the cool air. Breath steaming, she crawled farther from the frigid water's grip. Clear water dripped from her hair, down her nose and her shaking arms.

Polished black shoes filled her vision. She raised her eyes. Far above her, he grinned, showing a row of gleaming white teeth. "Hello again. You remember me, I'm sure." He flicked an invisible piece of dust off of one cuff. "My name's Richard Roman now, but you can call me Dick." With one foot, he forced her chin up, exposing her throat and arching her neck painfully. "I'm the one in charge, now."

Ishtar trembled.

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 5

Chapter Five: High Voltage

Lucifer pestered him incessantly. Sam focused with all his might on Benny's story about how he'd been killed by his own nest for the crime of falling in love with a human, but Lucifer's sardonic commentary ruined any chance Sam had of showing empathy. Luckily, Dean had that covered.

"Man, that really sucks," he said over his shoulder as he led the way through the trees, the Elhyim Yad in hand. "And you were never able to find out for sure what happened after?..." He made a slicing motion across his throat with his free hand.

Benny shook his head slowly. "I've never stopped asking every other fang I come across down here, though." His lips split in a wry smile. "Guess that's one of the reasons I'm so keen on getting back topside."

"Revenge can be a powerful motivator, can't it Sam?" Lucifer taunted from somewhere behind Sam's left ear. "In fact, I counted on it. I would never have gotten out if you hadn't been so hell-bent on revenge." A beat of silence. "Did you see what I did there, Sam?" Sam clenched his fists. "Hell-bent. Get it?" Sam started talking over the devil's barbs.

"Well, you'll get a chance to figure everything out when we get back." He clapped the vampire on the shoulder as they traipsed around a small pool of murky, stagnant water. "If you need help making any heads roll, Dean and I would be happy to help." Dean whirled to face them, his face surprised but hopeful.

Sam turned to Benny. "You got killed because you were trying to do the right thing. I was wrong about you." He extended his right hand. "Sorry I gave you such a hard time, before."

Benny clasped his hand. "It's forgotten, brother."

Dean looked back at them with a crooked smile.

"Awww! What a touching moment!" Lucifer chimed in, sarcasm dialed up to 11. "Too bad he doesn't know how terrible you are at being there for your brothers when they need you, Sam."

Sam twitched as he drew his hand back. Dean shot him a concerned glance as the trio set off.

"What's the matter, Sam?" the devil sneered from directly behind him. "Did that one hit too close to home?" Sam hunched his shoulders and ground his teeth. "Too bad. Even I'd feel guilty with your track record. Shall we recap?" Sam stopped hiking and breathed deep. Lucifer's worst onslaughts always came in waves. All he had to do was ride it out, and the devil's voice would recede for a few hours.

"When John went off the deep end and left his boys alone for two weeks with $200, did you help Dean stretch the money? Noooo. You begged him for dessert and field trip money until he broke down and made up the difference by giving some pervert a hand job."

That's not what Dean said happened, Sam reminded himself. He drew in a shaky breath.

"Or how about when Dean sold his soul to save you? You couldn’t figure out how to stop him from going to hell. Then, when he got back, were you there to help him pick up the pieces? Nope! You were too busy fucking a demon and starting the apocalypse to help your PTSD big brother. And let's not leave out the fact that Castiel, Dean's only friend got dragged into Purgatory because you messed up."

"Shut up!" Sam bellowed. "Just shut up!" He clutched two fistfuls of his hair and pressed his wrists to his ears. Lucifer laughed, and a chill slid down Sam's spine. That laugh was victorious.

"Sam! Look at me!" Sam’s eyes fluttered open to see Dean’s worried face in front of his own. He hadn't realized he'd closed them.

"Whatever you're hearing man, it's not real," Dean insisted. Sam shook his head and closed his eyes again. Lucifer laughed on.

Dean's warm hands framed Sam's face. "Listen, man. You gotta be quite," he begged. "You gotta stop yelling or we'll all be toast. Please Sammy."

Sam realized he was yelling. Or screaming. The sound was a bit of both. He managed to cut his voice off.

"Okay, it's okay," Dean soothed.

It's not okay, Sammy, Lucifer whispered in his head. You talked to me, and now I'm not going anywhere. Sam whimpered.

"Sam, look at me, brother." Sam opened his eyes again to see Benny's face next to Dean's. "Whatever demons you got squabbling away in your skull, you keep in mind they can’t make you do anything you don't want to." His quiet, steady voice pushed Lucifer back, little by little. "They're getting their power from inside you. You can use it, too."

Dean moved his hands from Sam's face to his shoulders. "Whatever he's saying, he's lying, Sam."

"He wasn't lying, Dean," Sam choked out.

"Well, then he was twisting things around.” Dean squeezed Sam’s shoulders, grounding him. “All you need to worry about right now is sticking with Benny and me, finding Cas, and getting the hell out of here. Okay?"

Sam took a deep, shaky breath, then nodded as he exhaled. "Okay."

Okay, Sam. I can wait.

***

Castiel waited, but it would not be for much longer. The tense lines of Ishtar's frame as she dragged him through the dense woods told him they drew near her destination. He extended tendrils of his grace outward, brushing it along the smoky souls teeming nearby. The ancient creatures allied with Ishtar shrunk back, as if they knew his intentions, and he let them be. There were hundreds, thousands of other souls within his reach that did not even realize they were targets.

Ishtar jerked him sideways, and they stepped out of the tree line and into an open, rocky space. A jagged ravine lay in between them and a small spot at the peak of the opposite ridge that glowed blue – the portal back to Earth. It was time. Castiel slowly, so very slowly, began to pull the energy of nearby souls into his grace. No flesh barred the way, so nothing betrayed Castiel’s intentions save for a faint glimmer brightening Purgatory's eternal twilight at the final moment of each soul's freedom. These spirits were pale shadows compared to the luminous ferocity of Dean's soul.

Castiel thought he felt the hunter nearby, his grief still playing tricks on his mind. He flooded the void inside him with the power of Purgatory's souls to banish it. Enough energy to mend the tear in his grace that lingered from Raphael's attack, and more. Where Dean's soul had exhausted the hunter merely to staunch the flow of grace, Castiel devoured enough energy from the collective damned of Purgatory to shore up his reserves and heal the wound completely.

The stream of energy, of power, had no end. No wonder Raphael had wanted to open the gate. With this power behind him, none would challenge him.

Castiel raised his eyes to Ishtar's back. She stood at the very edge of the ravine, wind whipping her tangled blonde hair around her bare shoulders. The portal above them gave her pale skin the blue hue of death. She turned her face toward him over one shoulder and her eyes widened. Castiel stepped forward, but two figures rushed past him on either side.

Castiel blinked. The scene before him remained.

Sam Winchester and a vampire traded blows with Ishtar, keeping her off balance as they attacked the goddess from two sides. The vampire managed to distract her long enough for Sam to swing his weapon, a broad-bladed axe, and the black end sliced into Ishtar's left side. She screamed and clutched the wound with both hands as yellow light flashed inside it. Ishtar dropped to her knees and Sam turned to Castiel.

"C'mon, Cas!" He gestured toward the expanding portal. "We have to go! Dean's clearing a path!"

Dean?

Oh, this isn't real, Castiel reasoned. Ishtar was trying to trick him.

Castiel snarled and hurled his power at Sam, knocking the illusion over the edge of the ravine.

"Sam!" the vampire yelled, diving after him.

Castiel returned his gaze to Ishtar and pulled at the last of the souls surrounding him, her oily compatriots. They writhed and slid from his grasp, but he had more strength now. He reached again, seized a handful and pulled them toward himself.

"Cas, stop!" Dean's voice cracked across the chasm. Castiel looked up.

"You're not real," he breathed, hands and voice shaking. The inky souls slipped away.

***

"Cas, whatever you're trying to do, stop it!" Dean felt sick. Deep inside, he knew whatever Cas was doing was a Bad Idea.

Not two minutes ago, he and Ellie fought their way past a group of Leviathan barring the steep path up to the portal, clearing the way for Sam, Benny and Cas to follow. Just when Dean thought they’d succeeded, the Leviathan smoked up into the sky and spiraled toward Sam and Benny. Dean spun and his stomach dropped. Ishtar lay on the ground with Cas standing over her. Benny sprawled on his stomach thirty feet down the ravine, his death grip on Sam's arm the only thing keeping Sammy from tumbling to the bottom. Dean's brother dangled, his whole body below his forearms hanging off where the rock face turned from steep into sheer cliff.

Ishtar was out of commission, and there was no way Sam had simply lost his balance, which meant Cas had pushed him over. If Dean needed any proof other than the pit in his gut that something was wrong with Cas, that was it.

The angel looked up again, and Dean waved one arm to get his attention. "Cas! Listen to me, man! Let's get out of here!"

Cas shook his head, a slow, deliberate refusal. "You are not real."

Oh, not good.

Dean scrabbled as close to the edge as he could get, his boots sending the loose gravel careening down the face of the cliff. "I'm real, Cas. Can't you tell it's me?"

"You're dead." Dean could barely hear the angel over the distance and the wind, but Cas didn't seem to have any trouble, so Dean kept talking.

"You thought I was dead? I prayed to you every night, Cas!"

Castiel dropped his gaze to his chest and touched the jagged, bloodstained rips on his no-longer-white shirt. "I couldn't hear you. I couldn't hear anything." He looked back at Dean with empty eyes. "Now I hear everything."

What the fuck did that mean? Cas's stony face sent chills down Dean's spine and that sick feeling climbed to his chest. He swallowed hard to keep from puking.

"Well hear me now! I'm right here, Cas. Not dead." He tried for humor. "You know we Winchesters are tough sons of bitches to kill!"

Not even a hint of a smile. Crap. "You are dead. I saw it. Ishtar stabbed you and Michael with her poisoned blade. You are gone."

Poisoned? Had he heard that right? That was news to Dean, but it was a problem for later. "Guess she didn't use enough, 'cause both me and Michael are still up and kicking!" The wind picked up, and it struck Dean that they didn't have much time before the portal closed. Ellie tingled in his hand. I don't know how to convince Cas I'm me, and I'm not leaving here without him and Sam, Dean thought at her.

Ellie burned. Dean winced as the heat moved from his hand to his left shoulder. Right where Cas's freaky handprint had been. Was. Cas said it was still there, somehow underneath, or inside maybe. Indelible.

Dean switched Ellie into his left hand and pressed his right to the mark on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and felt. When Cas used Ellie to kill Raphael, Dean had been aware enough to remember what Cas's grace felt like. Dean searched for that feeling. When he found it, he pushed it through Cas’s mark with all his might.

"Dean?" Cas whispered. Dean heard him clear as day. He opened his eyes. They stood nose to nose, not three inches apart.

"You feel that, Cas?" Dean urged, laying his right hand on the angel’s shaggy cheek. "It's really me. I’m really here. Please."

Cas extended his right hand, and Dean held his breath. The angel's fingers wrapped around his bicep and warmth shot through him.

"Dean." Their eyes met, and Cas – his Cas – was back. Dean’s relieved smile morphed into a grimace as the nausea spiked.

Cas brought up his other hand to support Dean as he bent in two. "Dean? What's wrong?"

Dean shook his head and fisted his free hand in the lapel of Cas's trench coat. "Whatever you were doing right before you lost it and tossed Sam's ass over a cliff, you have to undo it. It's making us both sick."

"Sam." Castiel jerked out of Dean's grip, searching the far side of the ridge until he spotted Benny and Sam making their slow, precipitous return to the top.

"They're fine, Cas." Dean squeezed the angel's arm to get his attention back. "Whatever you did, please stop. I think it's killing us."

Cas blinked twice. "The souls." Dean did not like the reluctance in Cas's voice.

"What souls?"

Cas spread his arms wide.

Oh shit. "Are you telling me you did what we spent the last six months trying to keep Raphael from doing?"

Cas cocked his head to one side. Double shit. "Cas, did you eat all the Purgatory souls?"

Cas frowned. "Only as many as I could reach. And I did not eat them. I took their energy."

"Yeah, okay. Spit them out, now."

Cas’s eyes narrowed. "Do not give me orders."

Dean held up his free hand, palm out. "Sorry. I just..." Dean wet his lips. "You gotta get rid of them, man. They're poisoning your grace, and it's contagious." He held his stomach as another bout of nausea rolled through him.

Cas hesitated.

"Please." Dean glanced at the pulsing blue vortex that was their scary-ass door back home. "We don't have much time."

They locked eyes again, and Dean struggled not to look away. Suped-up Cas had seriously intimidating eye contact.

Finally, Cas arched his back and light burst out of his chest. It fountained up into the cloudy sky, dissipating with a peal of thunder. Cas dropped to the ground, gasping.

Dean straightened. Things felt right again. Maybe even better than right. He felt like he'd been walking around with a cloth over his face the whole time and suddenly he could breathe again. "You okay, Cas?"

The angel nodded, avoiding Dean's eyes. Dean shook his head. "Don't you dare feel guilty. We don't have time right now." He clasped Cas's forearm and hauled the angel to his feet. "Go grab Sam and Benny and let's get the hell out of here."

***

Castiel didn't need to breathe, but now he suspected he knew what it felt like to be drowning and have someone pull you back to the surface. Dean had saved him, more profoundly than by simply providing assistance in battle. Had any human ever saved an angel's soul? They were meant to be the shepherds, yet Dean had sojourned all through Purgatory to find a wayward angel. Castiel did not know if it was possible to repay such a debt, but he would start with getting them all back to Earth safely.

His wings carried him easily to the far side of the ravine, Ishtar's sigils washed away like chalk while he’d held the power of Purgatory within his grace.

Castiel landed beside Sam, who lay in the fetal position on the ground, clutching his head. Ishtar was back on her feet, locked in combat with the vampire. Benny struggled to keep the goddess away from Sam, swinging his machete in wide arcs. "Get those boys out of here, angel," he called over his shoulder. "I belong here anyway." Castiel nodded and hefted Sam in his arms. His large frame was bulky, but manageable.

Castiel landed back at Dean's side a moment later. "What about Benny?" the hunter protested, even as he checked Sam for injuries.

Castiel shook his head. "He chose to stay behind."

Dean turned, as if to go back for his friend, but Castiel blocked his way. "Dean, we don't have time. It was his choice. Don't let his sacrifice be in vain."

Dean still waivered. "We need to get Sam back to Michael," Castiel insisted. "Before his mind breaks under the strain."

That did it, as Castiel knew it would. Dean cursed and climbed up to the portal. He looked back and gestured at it. "So, how do we do this? Just click our heels and jump?"

Castiel shook his head. "Even from out here, I can see the pathway is too rough for you to traverse alone, unshielded."

"In English?"

"I'll have to hold you and Sam inside me so I can protect you as we go through. There will be..." He searched for the right metaphor. "... debris."

"Right." Dean looked from him to the portal and back again. "Ready when you are, I guess. You need me to do anything?"

Castiel gently folded Sam's trembling spirit and fit it inside his grace, soothing the man's fear. He held out a hand to Dean. "Give me the Elhyim Yad. I will carry it across with you."

Dean hesitated only a moment. "Take good care of her," he muttered as he deposited the weapon in Castiel's outstretched palm. “She can be a bit sensitive.” Castiel didn't keep the small smile from his face as he used his other hand to pull the hunter toward him, softening his soul's perception of itself as he did so. Dean fell into his grace as easily as coming home.

Castiel glanced back toward the fight between Ishtar and Benny, just to see if perhaps the vampire had gotten away.

He hadn't. Benny lay unmoving under the deep shade of the tree line. Ishtar hunched not far away, surrounded by the creeping shadows of her allies. An instant later, they attacked. The goddess screamed and writhed as the Leviathan engulfed her. Some of her betrayers slid into the still-flashing wound in her side and her cries cut off. The stolen corpse she wore disappeared behind a wave of black.

Castiel pitied her, in that moment. It didn't stop him from stepping through the portal, so he missed what happened seconds later.

Ishtar's body rose from the ground, her limbs jerking erratically. Dark water leaked from her eyes, nose, mouth and ears. She twitched, and the last of the Leviathan surrounding her slipped into her side. The wound closed. She leaned forward and stood in front of the portal a heartbeat later. "This is going to be so much fun." They smiled maniacally and stepped through.

The blue light flickered and went out, and Purgatory returned to gray.

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

They’d reached Day Fifty, by Sam’s count. Well, "day" being relative. "Slightly less dark" might be a better way of putting it. As soon as the sky lightened enough to see by, Dean was on his feet and leading the way through the forest, as usual. Sam and Benny had no choice but to follow or risk losing Sam’s single-minded, stubborn-ass big brother. Sam had never seen Dean this obsessed.

"You and dear old daddy always had the role of Obsessed Winchester covered, Sammy," Lucifer sneered. "Imagine if Dean had joined that club… You might have actually killed Azazel before dear old Dad bit the big one, maybe even before old Yellow-Eyes had Jess torched."

Sam tightened his grip on his ax and took a deep breath, which morphed into a yawn. The devil's taunting had been impossible to sleep through, the past few nights. Sam was exhausted, and their latest skirmish with the Leviathan didn’t help. Four of them had ambushed the trio near a small pond. Sam was starting to suspect they had a thing for water.

If it hadn't been for Dean and the Elhyim Yad, all three of them would be dead, Sam was certain. He and Benny had held their own for a little while, but the Leviathan were hard to kill. So far, beheading was the only way they'd found that worked, and even then, you had to keep the head and body separate or they'd reattach and you'd be back at square one (that had been a thrilling lesson to learn).

But Dean... He fought like it was a dance, and he was the choreographer. It wasn't his usual strength and leverage-based style, either. Dean didn't overpower his enemies, he just maneuvered his body into a position where he could use the divine weapon on them. During the fight yesterday, Sam saw the Elhyim Yad transform at least five times,, seamlessly shifting from gun to knife to machete and back again in the blink of an eye, depending on how Dean wanted to use it. Dean had a blast. Sam hadn’t seen his brother have that much fun in a long time.

Dean hopped over a tangle of fallen branches ahead and Sam shook himself out of his thoughts. He pretended he was holding up well, but Sam knew Cas’s absence and Dean’s relentless drive to find him was wearing his brother down. And his strange connection to the Elhyim Yad was... worrying.

"Wait, I know this one!" Lucifer jumped into Sam's thoughts. "A weapon of heaven takes a liking to big bro. You get jealous and convince yourself you're worried about him." Lucifer chuckled. "Then everything goes to hell and it's all your fault. Same song, different verse, Sammy."

"Sammy!" He jerked his head up to see Dean glaring at him. It was his worried glare, not his angry glare, but Sam bristled anyway.

"What?" he snapped.

That brought Dean up short. He glanced at Benny and jerked his head to the side. The vampire obeyed the silent request to scout ahead, whistling as he strolled away.

Dean turned back toward Sam and stepped close. "Okay, man. What's up with you lately?"

Sam did not want to have this conversation right now. Or ever, really. He played innocent. "What do you mean?"

"Cut the crap, Sam." Dean scowled. "You've been jittery since we got to Purgatory, you've gotten crap for sleep, and now you've starting to talk to yourself."

Sam hadn't realized he'd been doing that. He ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair. Dean had enough on his plate right now. He didn't need to worry about his little brother going insane, too. "I'm fine."

"Bullshit." Dean didn't raise his voice. He stated it as simple fact. His face shifted from angry to concerned. "I'm just worried about you, Sam. This whole trip is a loss if all three of us don't make it back home in one piece." He placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. "Cas, me and you all gotta make it out of here."

Sam nodded and opened his mouth to tell Dean he'd been hearing the devil. Lucifer’s shout rattled his left eardrum and Sam jumped at the outburst. "Wow!" Lucifer exclaimed. "That was quite the speech! Dean really knows how to rouse the rabble when he feels like it." 

"Sam?" He turned back to his brother.

"It's Lucifer, Dean." Sam tried to get it all out in a rush. "I've been hearing him since we got to Purgatory, but I can't see him so I know it's just in my head, and he never shuts up especially at night and it's keeping me awake and I swear I was going to tell you about it but I didn't want you to worry and --"

"You didn't want me to worry?" Dean interrupted. "Too late, Sam." He sighed, and his face softened the way it only did for his brother and small children. "Besides, it's my job to worry about my little brother."

That threw Sam for a loop. Not the sentiment, that was pretty much the foundation of their relationship, but Dean's light tone. "You're not pissed?"

Dean tilted his head a fraction and made a face. "Maybe. But I can be pissed after we figure all this out and get home, with Cas in tow. For now, I'd settle for you leveling with me from here on out."

Sam nodded, a tiny smile sneaking into his somber expression. "Yeah. Probably a good plan."

Dean clapped him on the shoulder and turned away. Sam followed him toward the sound of Benny's whistling.

***

Dean listened with half and ear as Sam and Benny argued in hushed voices (that they probably thought he couldn't hear – Sam should know better) about whether or not they should stop for the night. He knew if he kept going, they'd keep following. The humans were Benny’s ticket out of this hellhole, and there was no way Sam would leave Dean alone in said hellhole. At least, Dean hoped he wouldn't. If Sammy started listening to the voices in his head, Dean wasn't sure he could predict his brother's actions.

Dean should've expected something like this, too. Once he'd figured out that Ellie could show him where to go to find Cas, something bad had to happen to knock him down again. That's how his life worked. Dean just hoped Sam could hold on to his sanity long enough for them to get back home. Once they did, they could figure out how to fix it. If it was just Death's wall breaking down like Sam thought, maybe Michael could do something about it. If it was actually Lucifer reaching out from the Cage again... Dean didn't really want to think about what the solution for that problem would be.

Ellie warmed in his hand, her little way of offering reassurance. Dean had no idea how he knew that was what she was doing, but he knew, just as sure as he knew his baby back home was grateful after a tune up. Of course, she couldn't exactly show it like Ellie could. Thanks, he thought at the bowie knife in his hand.

Sam's hand on his shoulder pulled Dean out of his thoughts. "We should stop for a while, Dean."

"Tired already, Sammy?" Dean teased. "All tuckered out from keeping up with me?"

Sam shook his head. "You're as tired as I am, and I’ve slept 10 hours in the last three days."

Dean shrugged Sam’s hand off. "We can't stop now, Sam. We're getting close, I can feel it."

"All the more reason to take a rest, chief," Benny chimed in. "Don't want to show up to a fight half-asleep."

Dean didn't have an argument for that. "Okay, okay," he relented. "We'll stop as soon as it gets dark."

Sam raised an eyebrow. "It is dark."

Dean looked around. Shit, it was dark. He'd been so wrapped up in worrying about Sam he'd completely missed when the dim light faded to true night. He could still see pretty well, though, which was weird. He blinked a few times. Ellie kind of buzzed in his palm. Oh.

Dean sighed. "Yeah, okay. Who's turn is it for first watch?" Benny saluted. That meant Dean on deck in their someone-stay-awake-so-we-don't-get-killed rotation. "Right. See you in a few hours, then."

Benny reclined against a tree, eyes scanning the forest. Sam and Dean bunked down beside one another, using the base of the tree to block the wind.

Sam shut his eyes and slowed his breathing immediately, but Dean had no intention of falling asleep. He was tired, but too wound up to even think about sleeping. He stared up at the canopy, one hand gripping Ellie where she rested on his chest, and focused on feeling out where Cas was.

Ellie warmed again and started pulsing softly against his chest. Something like dense fog stole through Dean's mind, clouding his thoughts and weighing down his eyelids.

"Ellie, what're you doing?" he mumbled, fighting and failing to keep his eyes from drifting shut.

Sibilant whispers echoed in Dean's ears, assuring him now was a time for quiet, rest, stillness. Dean faded away before the whispers stopped.

Dean dreamed, but he knew it was real. A murky shore emerged from fog rolling over a dark pond. The still water rippled as Ishtar's pale hand withdrew from the water. She murmured an incantation Dean couldn't understand. Castiel lay still behind her, sleeping or unconscious.

Cas! Dean yelled as loudly as he could, but his voice made no sound and the angel never stirred.

Ishtar bent over the water. "How much longer must I drag the angel in circles?! Why haven't you killed them yet?"

Who was she talking to? Or was Ishtar actually crazy enough to have a conversation with her own reflection, Gollum-style?

The pond's surface rippled.

"I don't care what kind of weapon they have!" Ishtar screeched. "The angel is ready. I've done my part. Now do yours."

'Ready'? What did that mean? Ishtar was obviously working with someone, and she had something nasty planned for Cas. Dean tried to get closer, but in the strange way of dreams, he couldn't move.

"What do you mean, 'a change of plan'?" Ishtar slapped the water. "It's my plan! I'm the only one who can change it!"

The water shifted in an unnatural way that made Dean's skin crawl. Water shouldn't slither and coil like that.

Ishtar smiled, all teeth. "I will reconsider, then. I like your suggestion, but can you do it?"

The water shivered.

Ishtar leaned over it. "It is decided, then. I will see you at the portal."

The pond stilled and the world faded beneath gray fog.

Dean started awake. The world was silent except for the pounding of his heart in his ears. He glanced over at Benny, still standing watch, then at Sam.

Sam was twitching and moaning in his sleep, in the grip of a nightmare. Dean reached over and nudged his brother. "Sammy. Hey, wake up."

Sam jerked away. "No! No! Stop!" His back arched off the ground as he tried to escape a phantom pain.

Dean rolled into a crouch, grabbed Sam by the shoulders, and shook him. "Damn it! Sam, wake up!"

Sam's right arm flailed out in a punch that knocked Dean onto his ass. Benny stepped in to help, holding down the larger hunter's kicking legs. Dean lunged forward and slapped Sam sharply across the mouth. "Wake up!"

Sam surged forward, his eyes snapping open. He gasped in a few huge gulps of air, his eyes darting around wildly.

Dean edged closer. "You back with us, Sammy?"

Sam hesitated, but nodded. Dean rubbed his aching jaw. That one was gonna leave a mark.

"Since I reckon any sleep on your part is done for the night, you mind if I catch some shuteye before we start traipsing through the woods again?" Benny's low, calm drawl was the perfect remedy for the tension in the air. Dean chuckled, and even Sam huffed. With a nod, he offered the vampire a small smile of appreciation.

"Sure thing, Benny." Dean answered, meeting the vampire’s eyes and giving his own nod of thanks. Benny tipped his cap as he settled in for the night. The Winchesters huddled together on a fallen tree branch, each pretending their closeness was for warmth rather than reassurance.

***

Michael grew weary of his younger brethren. Before his... absence, while trapped in the Cage with Lucifer, he had remained aloof, following his Father's example. The lower choirs had need neither of his encouragement nor his critique, so he remained apart, dispensing orders through the established chain of command. That strategy may prove to be another of his many miscalculations, for he now held little sway over the hearts and minds of the multitude of foot soldiers that comprised the bulk of the host. Had Raphael survived to continue his rebellion, such an error would have been catastrophic. With Raphael’s death – Michael's grace twisted at the memory – lukewarm allegiance of the host was merely an annoyance, but it was one Michael would rather do without.

"That is my decision, Rachel. It will be." He turned away from her protests. "I leave the details and organization in your capable hands. I am returning to earth for a time." He flew.

Michael wasn't sure why he had expected instant loyalty from his brothers and sisters. He knew they all possessed more freedom than they thought. Father had insisted on utter obedience, though, and it was easier to instill in the small ones if they thought it was their true nature to begin with. How foolish he and the other archangels had been! Gabriel had run away rather than enforce that illusion. Looking back, Michael thinks Gabriel's departure was a sign warning that Heaven was turning sour under his leadership.

He had wanted everything to go well so badly, though. He'd wanted his Father to return and see his eldest son capable and strong and loyal. Now Michael questioned if he'd ever been any of those things. More and more, he realized that Father had not abandoned them; it was they who had abandoned Him. Pushed Him away with their childish, selfish refusal to grow and change.

Michael alighted in Robert Singer's kitchen with barely a sound. As Dean and Sam's closest human kin, Robert was a valuable resource to Michael, and not just for his prowess as a hunter and learned man. No, Bobby Singer's true value lay in his deep knowledge of the Winchesters: how to know their thoughts, how to anticipate their reaction to a given stimuli, and how to convince them to take an alternative point of view. Michael had witnessed Bobby perform each of these miracles during his time watching Dean, and he wanted to gain those skills for himself.

Michael turned Dean's eyes across Bobby's home, but the hunter was nowhere to be seen. Extending his senses, Michael could feel the older man's soul nearby, but he was unable to pinpoint his location. Which meant, of course, that he was downstairs in the circular, subterranean room with walls of salt and iron where he often kept watch over Sam Winchester's empty shell, though Michael had told him many times it would have no effect.

Deciding to walk, Michael strode through Bobby's house, letting Dean's familiarity guide him. The creaking stairs announced his presence sufficiently, or so he thought. He stepped through the open door to the panic room and faced the barrel of a shotgun.

"Oh, it's you." Bobby replaced the gun on the desk beside him. He was sitting across the room from the bench where Sam's body rested, doing some work with his hands at the desk.

A few moments later, Michael realized the hunter was forging bullets.

"They're silver." He observed.

Bobby grunted. "Kills werewolves, shapeshifters, skinwalkers... All sorts of nasties."

"Interesting."

Bobby turned around and shot him an incredulous look. "What? You didn't know that?"

Michael allowed a small smile to lift Dean's lips. "What need have I for human weapons against such creatures?"

"Not much, I reckon."

Bobby returned to his work and Michael assessed the sigil-work in the room. It was as impeccable as he'd noted the first time he came down here. He wondered if Bobby had done it himself or if Castiel had assisted in some way.

The hunter interrupted his idle musings. "So, did you pop down here for a reason, or am I just that lucky?"

Still examining the sigils on the floor, Michael told him. "I wanted to notify you that I have issued new orders in Heaven. Now that I have consolidated my power and restored order, the angels of the lower ranks are to be organized into smaller garrisons and assigned to regions here on earth. They are to keep watch over hunters and offer assistance wherever possible. I have instructed them to take vessels only if absolutely necessary."

Bobby made a strange noise in his throat. Michael looked over. He had stopped his work on the bullets and rested a clenched fist on one leg. Michael felt Dean's brow furrow with his confusion. "What is the matter? This will be a tremendous boon to your efforts to protect other humans."

Bobby shook his head. "Look, can I be frank with you for a minute here and not get my ass smote?"

Michael nodded. He valued the hunter's opinion, just as Dean did. Perhaps even because Dean did.
"Hunters are suspicious, paranoid bastards, and most of ‘em don't even work well with each other, much less something not human. They ain't gonna take kindly to big brother keeping tabs on ‘em at all times." He took a deep breath. "Plus, I'm not sure your lot is going to be doing any good up there in the clouds. Hell, you didn't even know what silver bullets are used for."

"So what are you suggesting?"

Bobby shook his head again. "I'm just saying that maybe this new plan of yours will do more harm than good. Hunters have been getting on fine without angels perched on their shoulders for two thousand years. We're fine on our own."

Michael gazed up at the wrought-iron devils trap in the ceiling as he considered. "I will not abandon humanity to fight against dark creatures alone. However," he looked down at Bobby, "I value your advice. I will start by instructing the garrisons to observe once again, and refrain from any interference." He stepped forward. "But, I will have one member from each garrison take a vessel. They will be an emissary to the hunters of their region. We will learn your ways before we offer our aid."

Bobby nodded slowly, rubbing his beard with one hand. "That could work, if your emissary job-shadowed the right hunters. I can't help you out everywhere in the world, but where I have contacts, I'll ask around and see who'd be willing to take on a summer intern."

Michael nodded in thanks. "I appreciate your efforts."

He returned to his study of the demon-repelling sigils, but Bobby called his attention again.

"Sam and Dean have been gone for over two months, now, and I appreciate that you're keeping Sam fresh down here, but how long do you think this rescue mission of theirs is going to take?"

Despite the gruffness, Michael understood the worry behind the question. He wished he had a better answer.

"I have never been to Purgatory, nor have any of my brethren. Since Castiel is the first, I do not know whether time moves differently there as it does in Hell. Our friends could return today having experienced mere hours in that realm, or years may have passed for them."

Bobby stared at him for a moment before grunting. "That isn't exactly comforting."

Michael frowned. "It wasn't meant to be."

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 3

Chapter Three: Crazy Train

Sam heard a splash followed by a thud as Dean sent the final monster's head into the water and its body hit the ground. The bearded guy lowered his machete and extended a hand to help Sam. Sam pressed both hands into the rocky ground and levered himself to his feet before backing away a step.

Dean jogged up behind him. "Sammy! You okay? I saw that thing standing over you and I couldn't get over here." He looked over at the newcomer. "Thanks."

"Anytime. Like I said, seemed you could use the help."

"We're fine now, thanks," Sam said. Whoever this guy was, there was no way he was human and therefore, Sam needed more than ten seconds in order to trust him.

"Now where are my manners?" He drawled, pinching the rim of his hat. "Name's Benny. Benny LaFitte. I used to hail from Louisiana, back in the day."

"I'm Dean." He jerked his head at Sam. "This is my brother, Sam." Sam said nothing, assessing. "So..." Dean slid the Elhyim Yad, still a machete, between his belt and his jeans near his left hip. Sam knew some part of Dean pretended he was a swashbuckling pirate in that moment. Luckily he kept it to himself in front of the stranger.

"What the hell were those things?" Sam asked, drawing Benny's unwavering gaze away from Dean and the very powerful weapon of Heaven that they definitely weren't going to let get stolen.

"Leviathan," Benny answered. "Old, nasty, been trapped down here longer than just about anything…” He cocked an eyebrow at the brothers. “Not usually the instigators of a fight, though."

"Oh, they instigated," Dean disagreed. Growls echoed from the woods on the far side of the stream, interrupting the rest of his argument. The trio moved quickly away from the open banks and into the cover of the forest.

As soon as the faint gurgling of the water disappeared behind them, Sam planted his feet and put an arm out to stop Dean, as well. Benny went on two more paces, then turned. "Well, you coming?"

"Not until you tell us what you are."

"Sam…" The warning in Dean’s voice told Sam his brother already counted Benny as an ally. When had Sam become the Winchester with trust issues?

"Nah, it's alright, Dean." Benny tucked his fingers into his front pockets. "It's a fair question." He opened his mouth wide and exposed vampire fangs. "'Bout what you expected, Sam? If it's any comfort, I got a good handle on the hunger down here. Benefits of practicing back on earth."

Sam scrunched his forehead. "What do you mean?"

Benny shrugged. "I feed on blood, not people. Learned long before I got here how to control myself."
Sam shifted his weight. If Benny was truly like Lenore, feeding on animals and not draining humans, then what did he want with them?

"So if you don't want to eat us, why'd you help us?" Dean asked.

Benny grinned. "Well, I heard on the rumor mill a couple of humans were wandering about, and I just had to see for myself."

"How'd you even find us?" From Dean’s intense tone, Sam could tell he was hoping Benny could somehow lead them to Cas.

Benny tapped the side of his nose with one finger. "Sniffed you out. There aren't any humans in Purgatory, present company aside, so the scent of you lingers in the air." His face turned calculating. "Wasn't hard to track, once I found it, and if I could find it, everything else can, too."

"Why?" Sam asked. "Why is everything here gunning for us?"

Benny looked a bit surprised at that. "You don't know?" He glanced from brother to brother. "You don't belong here," he declared, his voice taking on a deeper tenor. "This place, it's for us, for the monsters, and it's doing its damnedest to spit you out."

Ice slid down Sam’s spine. Benny nodded at him and turned to Dean, for whom the pin hadn't dropped yet. "Everything here is looking either to eat you or hitch a ride out."

Dean stiffened. "Everything?"

Benny huffed a laugh at his tone. "Never said I don't have an ulterior motive, chief. I want out, too."

"That's not gonna happen," Sam vowed.

Dean shook his head. " We're not leaving until we find Cas."

Benny squinted at them. "Who?"

"The angel. He came here right before we did. We're here to get him out."

Benny shook his head and stepped back. "Now, I can't help you there. I've not seen nor heard anything about that."

Dean scowled and reached for his weapon. "Funny, because the last nasty we asked told us practically everything up here can tell where Cas is, and that he's heading toward a ravine we can find by following a river somewhere near here."

Benny shook his head. "Sounds like you got some bad information, boss. I don't know how to find your angel and there sure ain't no rivers nearby. This stream’s the biggest water in these parts." He wet his lips. "If it's true your angel's headed for a big ravine, we might be headed to the same place. The nearest portal out of here I know of is at the top of a cliff like that."

Dean stepped forward, loosening his grip on the weapon. "How do we get there?"

"Wait a minute, Dean." Sam watched Benny as he spoke. "Think about this for two seconds. You want to trust the directions of a vampire we literally just met over the information you got out of the last one? How does that make sense?"

“I have a good feeling about this,” Dean insisted. Sam’s eyebrows shot to his hairline. Dean made a frustrated noise and glared at his mud-caked boots. Two breaths later, he met Sam's eyes with regret and resolve warring in his expression. "People say just about anything when they think they're about to die, Sam." He waved a hand at Benny. "And if Benny's right, the last vamp had okay intel, it was just a little off." His argument was flimsy, and they both knew it. Sam stared his brother down. Dean’s real reason for wanting to work with the vampire would spill out in three… two…

"He can help us find Cas, Sam," Dean blurted, turning so the brothers stood chest to chest. "That's all that matters right now."

"And he's using that against us," Sam half-whispered, monitoring Benny over Dean's shoulder. "We accept his help and he'll find a way to use us to get himself out of here, I guarantee it. Do you really want to be responsible for setting him loose on the world?"

Dean frowned, but didn't look away. "He said he doesn't feed on people. We’ve seen vamps do that before. Remember Lenore?"

Sam rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to ask when his brother turned into a gullible idiot when Dean cut him off. "Look, Sam, we don't have a lot of options, here. We have to find Cas, and fast. I got this feeling in my gut that he doesn't have very long." Dean glanced over his shoulder at Benny, then turned back to Sam. "We can deal with the consequences later, alright?"

No, not alright, but Sam could tell he wasn't going to win this one. He conceded with a sharp nod, nostrils flaring.

Dean clapped him on the shoulder and swiveled to face Benny, who'd been picking beneath his nails with the tip of his machete. "So what's your plan?"

Benny stowed his weapon. "You gonna help me get out of here?" Dean nodded. Benny waited.

"You have my word, we'll get you out," Dean promised after a beat.

"I'll hold you to that," the vampire replied seriously. "In the meantime, I'll show you the way to the exit and we search for your angel along the way."

Sam stepped forward. "Why can't you just tell us how to get there, and then we'll find Cas and meet you there."

Benny chuckled. "Because I need you to be alive in order to get me out." He tilted his head to look up at the canopy and spread his arms wide. "I know my way from place to place around here. You can't deny I know the terrain better than you two, and that's a serious tactical advantage. You need me if you're going to survive long enough to rescue this ‘Cas’ of yours."

Dean glanced at Sam, then shrugged and gestured at Benny. "Well then, lead on, buddy." Benny set off through the trees with Dean barely a step behind him.

Sam clenched his jaw and followed a few paces behind, keeping an eye out for threats from all directions, but especially from their new guide.

***

Every time Castiel thought he got his bearings, Ishtar changed directions. He couldn't discern a pattern to their path, and it seemed sometimes she didn't know where they were going, either. That was how Castiel knew she was stalling. Ishtar had been imprisoned in Purgatory for millennia. She knew every dank crevice and brambled path. She pulled them from place to place, wasting time while the creature she'd spoken to through the pool accomplished whatever task she'd set it to.

At first, Castiel surmised that Ishtar's goal was to bind him permanently. He’d felt the spell keeping him powerless start to break down almost immediately, and while it would still be some time before he would be strong enough to attempt escape, her grip over his grace was far from permanent.

His grace must be the key. It, and nothing else, distinguished him from every other creature here. Of every dark, violent soul trapped in Purgatory, his was the only one that fundamentally did not belong, and his was the only one made of grace. It tantalized the things Ishtar had called upon at the pool. Castiel had not yet caught a glimpse of them, so he couldn’t discern what sort of creature they were, but he felt them circling like buzzards.

They wanted out. And they’d allied themselves with his captor.

Ishtar had not given up on her mission to destroy the earth that God loved, Castiel realized. She sought to escape Purgatory again. Castiel tensed, flexing his power against Ishtar's bonds. She was going to use him, or his grace, to get out. The slinking creatures she worked with were either obtaining a key tool or accomplishing some essential preliminary task, which meant Castiel had time, but not much of it. He needed to figure out how he could use whatever portal or spell Ishtar planned to employ to get himself back to Earth, or at the very least prevent Ishtar from returning there.

Castiel wasn't even sure why he wanted to return to Earth. Dean was dead, and Sam had Bobby to rely on. Neither of them would be happy to see Castiel return while Dean remained gone, he was certain. And with both Michael and Raphael dead, Heaven would either return to normal or devolve into post-civil war chaos. Castiel had no desire to see either happening to his brothers and his home. Had Michael and Dean survived, it would be different...

Dean. If Castiel had not urged Dean's acquiescence to Michael, his closest friend might still be alive. The guilt of it ate at his grace, but the worst part of mourning was the fleeting moments when Castiel thought he could still feel the hunter's soul, faintly. His grace still reached across the void that used to hold their connection toward the only human soul it had ever owned, ever touched so intimately.

The worst instance thus far of Castiel's emotions playing tricks on his mind had been mere hours ago, when Ishtar stopped for a moment beside a small, muddy creek. She'd bound Castiel near the water’s edge, walked out of his hearing and crouched beside a shallow, still pool. He pretended not to notice, but he'd known she was communicating with her ally again. Castiel took the opportunity to clean himself. He'd been surprised to notice that his vessel's beard had grown out. Between Ishtar's spells and Purgatory itself, his grace didn't have the energy to spare to keep his borrowed body in stasis. His clothes were ripped and dirty, as well, but there was nothing to be done about that.

Ishtar had come up behind him, dug her fingers into his shoulder, and hissed, "Come along, little favorite. We're getting close. No use wiping away dirt when there's so much blood on your hands, anyway."

She was right, of course. Castiel had been the cause of much destruction and death during his long life, but if he let Ishtar escape Purgatory again, he'd be responsible for the deaths of every living thing on the earth. As despair gripped him, his grace leapt inside him. Dean! He'd lifted his eyes, expecting beyond reason to see the hunter standing before him. Castiel knew he was lost when his eyes met empty air. Of course Dean wasn't there. He was dead. But Castiel's grace insisted the hunter was beside him, urging him to hope. That bittersweet self-deception was beyond any doubt the worst feeling Castiel had ever experienced.

And it lingered. Even now, his grace shifted and stretched, reaching for a flickering gaslight across the foggy expanse of Purgatory's spiritual landscape. Castiel clenched his fist and pulled himself back, drawing his grace away from siren figments of his grief.

Ishtar noticed the movement and jerked his arm. "Deep in thought, little favorite?" She mocked. "You should pay more attention to your surroundings." She paused and swept one arm around them before dragging him onward. "The souls of Purgatory, my children, are stronger than you think. Be wary of them and leave them be, for they are of no use to you."

No use? Castiel knew otherwise, and so should the goddess. He peered up at her. "All souls are power, Ishtar," he said. "You must know this."

She seized his hair and threw him to the ground. "Do not dare devour the spirits of my children to increase your own strength," she hissed. "They are power, but they are mine and I will destroy you if touch them."

Castiel saw Ishtar's bare foot coming for his face too late to dodge. He did not see the goddess's venomous, self-satisfied smirk after she turned away.

As he lay gasping in the dirt, blood pouring from his mouth and nose, the angel marveled at how far and swiftly he had fallen. It would only be a few more steps downward to do what Ishtar clearly feared: forcing the ragged, scattered souls of Purgatory into himself and scavenging their power for his own. The very thought of it was abhorrent. But what did he have to lose?

He let his eyes fall closed and waited for Ishtar to once again drag him across Purgatory's terrain. To stop her ravaging the earth, he would sacrifice himself. He would swallow down all the bitter souls this forsaken place had to offer. But first... First he would indulge himself, lose himself in the fantasy that Dean still lived. Castiel reached out with his grace, stretching as far and wide as he could in order to catch any false glimpse of Dean's glimmering soul. It would be his last comfort.

***

Dean ground his teeth, clenching his fists as Sam “interrogated” the unlucky rugaru that stumbled across their path, while he was relegated to guard duty with Benny. Not that Dean thought his brother couldn’t intimidate when necessary – his natural height and bulk helped in that department – but his head wasn’t in the game. He’d forced Dean to let him take the lead on the last three monsters they’d run into, overpowered and grilled for Cas’s location, but not a single one of them let anything slip about where the angel might be. But according to both Sam and Benny, Dean was too “on edge” to handle conducting an interrogation.

Dean huffed under his breath at the thought, keeping a watchful eye on the murky forest. He’d been cool as a cucumber peeling faceless souls’ skin off under Alistair’s tutelage in Hell. He knew he could get the information they needed to save Cas. Sam, on the other hand, had been twitching and glancing around erratically since they got to Purgatory, and Dean still couldn't get him to explain why. Whatever it was, it wasn't good, and Sam’s refusal to even acknowledge there was anything wrong just added to Dean’s frustration. He hated feeling useless, but he couldn’t help Sam and apparently he couldn’t help Cas either. They'd been searching for weeks and were no closer to finding him than they'd been when they started. Dean knew, deep in his bones, that Cas was running out of time.

Sam grunted. Dean spun around in time to see his brother bend double, one hand at his temple and the other pressed against his gut. The rugaru’s bloodshot eyes met Dean’s for an instant before it took off, sprinting away through the trees in the direction the trio had come from. Dean pursued. The monster stumbled down a hill they’d climbed earlier and Dean changed direction at the top, going down at an angle. He vaulted over a familiar fallen trunk and slowed, steps light as he listened to the rugaru scrabble over the pile of boulders at the bottom of the hill. The creature rounded the massive trunk hiding Dean from view. It didn’t even see the hunter until he’d landed a half-dozen punches and kicks.

"Where's the angel?" Dean yelled in the thing's face, throwing it to the ground as Sam and Benny caught up in his periphery. The rugaru gurgled up at him, it's face a bloody pulp. Dean growled and squeezed the monster’s dislocated shoulder. It’s wheezing indicated Dean had probably broken a couple of its ribs, too. Dean was too pissed to care.

"Tell me where the angel is!" Dean flung himself on top of the crumpled monster, using his bodyweight to drive the thing's shoulder and hip into the hard ground. It screamed in pain when Dean twisted it onto its back by its bad shoulder.

"Dean, maybe you should--"

"Shut up, Sam." Dean was not in the mood. He drew Ellie out from his makeshift sheath and pressed the cutting edge of the blade against the rugaru's panting throat. "Where's the angel? Tell me everything you know, right now, and the rest of this will be quick."

Dean didn't quite know where his desperation was coming from, but he knew it had something to do with Cas and he didn't care about anything else. His brother was by his side, so he put all his energy into trying to find the other most important person in his life. Cas had pulled his ass out of so many fires, if Dean couldn't save him from this he'd never forgive himself. He had to find Cas.

Ellie warmed in his fingers, heating up to the edge of Dean's pain threshold. Dean glanced at the weapon with a murmured "what the--?" and the rugaru seized its opportunity. It head-butted Dean and rolled away from him, scrambling to its feet. It lunged at Dean, who was still shaking his head and blinking away stars. The rugaru tackled Dean to the ground and Dean braced himself for pain, but the rugaru reared back and sucked in a ragged breath, Benny's machete sticking out of its chest.

Dean breathed a sigh of relief as the body fell to the side. Benny offered him a hand up. Once on his feet, Dean lifted his right hand to examine Ellie.

"Dean? What's wrong?" Sam asked softly.

Dean shook his head. "Something's up with Ellie."

"Ellie?" Benny voiced his confusion.

Dean blocked them both out, concentrating on the weapon in his hands. What are you trying to tell me? She warmed up again, and Dean's eyes slipped closed as memories flickered behind his eyelids. They were more feelings than images, all muddled together. It felt so familiar, though. It felt like power and safety and affection... When it clicked, Dean almost slapped himself on the forehead.

"It's Cas!" he told Sam and Benny, looking up at them. "He used Ellie after she powered up using my soul, right?"

Sam nodded, but his scrunched eyebrows and frown said he still didn't get it. Dean elaborated. "She remembers what he feels like. She can find him!"

He swung Ellie around in a slow circle. When he reached a point slightly to the left of the direction they'd been headed in, she hummed, vibrating in his hand. Dean was five paces ahead through the trees before he realized Sam and Benny hadn’t followed. He threw his arms out and gestured the direction Ellie pointed. "C'mon guys. Cas doesn't have time for us to stand here with our thumbs up our asses!"

Benny shrugged and raised an eyebrow at Sam. "It's 'bout the same direction we'd been going in, anyhow. I'm up for a detour."

Sam stared at Dean. Dean stared back with his best I'm-your-brother-please-trust-me face on. Finally, Sam sighed. "What the hell." He cracked a smile at Dean. "It's not like we have a better plan."

Dean grinned back, hopeful for the first time in days. He turned to lead the way through the dense forest, and prayed to Cas once again. "I hope you can hear me, buddy. We're coming for you."

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 2

Chapter Two: The Gambler

Bobby needed an extra set of hands. And legs. Or an assistant. An assistant would be nice.

"Yes, she's my agent and you'd better back off, sheriff, or my boss will give your boss a talking to, and I think we both know that kinda crap don't run uphill," Bobby growled into his landline phone marked "FBI." He listened to the green police chief of Kansas City apologize profusely and then hung up. Tamara should know better than to piss off the locals. That's one of the reasons Bobby'd put her in charge of clean-up in the first place.

His regular landline clanged at him. "This better be good, I'm busy."

"Nice to talk to you again, too, Bobby."

"Tamara," Bobby tugged at the rim of his trucker cap. "What the hell are you thinking, pissing off the local PD?"

"Just trying to move things along a bit faster, Bobby," she replied, her clean accent breezing through the sentence.

"Well it ain't making my life any easier having to cover for you every ten minutes."

"Oh, don't be such a codger." Tamara paused, growing serious, "Listen, Bobby. Things are pretty well handled here, but your friends are making the other hunters nervous. And me as well. Can you do anything about it?"

Bobby leaned in his over his counter, fingers gripping the phone tighter. "They doing anything in particular that's making folks twitchy?"

Tamara clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Not exactly. It's more that they just never leave us alone. How would you like to be under constant surveillance?"

Bobby looked up, eyes going to his office, where Michael perused the spines on a bookshelf, casual as you please, and most certainly eavesdropped on every word of their conversation. "It's just peachy."

Tamara exhaled a gust of breath. "So yours stuck around, too, then."

Bobby grunted an affirmative. The angel’s rigid stance, stiff as a statue, made Bobby’s skin twitch. Dean never posed like he was the goddamn David.

"Bobby, what are we going to do if they become a problem?"

The older hunter sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it." And we sure as well won't make plans within earshot of the problem.

"Right," Tamara said. "Well, take care of yourself, Bobby. I'll call if we have any other problems over here."

Bobby hung up, not in the mood for a goodbye. The way his life went, there'd be “other problems,” so he'd probably be hearing from her again sooner rather than later, anyhow. He trudged into his office and plopped down behind his desk. After a (very short) moment of deliberation, he retrieved a tumbler and a bottle of whiskey out of the bottom right drawer. He poured himself a generous glass, then eyed his celestial roommate. A week and a half, and the archangel hadn't left him alone for more than five minutes put together.

"So," Bobby started. Michael turned to face him, and the incongruity of seeing his serious, emotionless expression on Dean's usually emotional, expressive face led to two large swallows of alcohol in quick succession. Bolstered, Bobby continued. "The undead are back to being regular dead and things seem pretty quiet around here."

Michael nodded. "Yes. Ishtar's hold over the dead of this world ended when she returned to Purgatory."

Bobby took another drink, then got to the point. "So what're you and your buddies still doing here?"

Michael's brow wrinkled. "The angels I called upon after we defeated Ishtar are accomplishing the task I set before them: watching over your fellow hunters as they ensure no restless spirits arise from Ishtar's disruption of the natural order. They are also protecting the hunters who remained at the site of Raphael's death from any attempted retribution from my brother's more fanatic followers."

"Uh huh." Bobby finished off his glass of whiskey. "And what are you still doing here?" The in Dean went unspoken, but not unheard, Bobby was certain. After all, Sam's comatose meatsuit was down in the panic room gathering dust. The archangel had put the brown-haired giant into some sort of suspended animation to prevent decay while the brothers' souls were off gallivanting through the monster afterlife. Just like he was supposed to do for Dean’s body.

Michael paused, considering his words. "If I leave this vessel, I cannot reenter it without Dean's permission." Bobby shook his head and poured himself a second glass. He saw where this was going even before Michael finished. "If Dean is still in Purgatory and the need arises, I will have no way of intervening in this world."

"So lemme get this straight,” Bobby said, pointing one finger at the archangel. “You just decided once Dean left that you'd keep on keepin' on with his body while it's unattended. Just in case you need it for something else he never gave you permission to do with it." Bobby sipped at his whiskey and settled back in his chair. "Your logic ain't winning me over, angel."

Michael straightened, chin high and eyes cold. "Then it is fortuitous I do not need to 'win you over,' as you say." He stepped toward the desk, towering over Bobby, reminding the hunter he was scowling at heaven's general. "I will remain in my true vessel until I see fit to leave it, and nothing you do or say will change that."

Summoning his courage – or perhaps channeling some of Dean's utter recklessness – Bobby took another sip of whiskey and stared the angel down. "You do anything to hurt that boy and you'll regret it. He's not a toy for you to play with."

Michael didn't waiver under Bobby's glare. "I don't play."

***

"Dean, that's not a toy. Quit playing with it!" Sam badgered him for the thousandth time, slapping his arm with the back of his hand before continuing to lead their aimless march through Purgatory's wilderness.

"I'm not playing with it," Dean grumbled, stowing the bowie knife Ellie was currently shaped as, dampening the temptation to stroke the handle. Dean couldn't help it. When he held the weapon, he felt safer. It was an echo of how he'd felt while she recharged using his soul. First Cas, then a badass weapon of heaven... Dean wondered if his soul was good for anything other than being a glorified battery.

"It sure looks like it," Sam said, pulling Dean away from his thoughts. "I mean, if you're going to get on my case for not paying attention, at least don't be a hypocrite about it."

Dean rolled his eyes, but he knew Sam was right. "Yeah, yeah. I just like holding it is all. I me c'mon, we're in the middle of friggin' Purgatory. I feel better having something pointy or shoot-y in my hands."

Sam turned to face Dean. "That's another thing, Dean." He tossed his (really too long) hair out of his face. "How much do you trust that thing? I mean, I get that we're not physically here so it can transform, but the way it's connected to you? It seems a little..." Sam shifted his grip on his new ax as he searched for the right word. "It seems a little intense." He looked back at Dean. "I’m just not sure how much you should be encouraging that."

Dean pulled an incredulous face at his brother. "I've freaking been inside Ellie powering her up, Sam. Of course we’re connected, and yeah, it's intense."

Sam shook his head, unconvinced. "You've just gotten really comfortable with it really fast, Dean. I mean c'mon... 'Ellie'? It's a weapon, not a person."

For some reason, Dean took offense on Ellie's behalf. "Don't be like that Sammy, you'll hurt her feelings."

"Her? Now you're talking about it like you do the Impala," Sam huffed. "Got a new favorite inanimate object?"

Now that was going too far. "Bite your tongue, Sammy. I'd never cheat on Baby! She's still my best girl."

Sam rolled his eyes, but the corner of his lips turned up a fraction and he started hiking again. Dean grinned. Brother annoyed; crisis averted.

Two hours later, they stopped by a shallow stream to rest for a bit. Despite trekking through a good 10-15 miles of woods, Dean wasn't thirsty (not having a body was weird), but the cool water felt good on his hands and face when he splashed himself. He stepped back from the water to keep watch while Sam did the same face-splashing routine. The grey trees on the opposite bank shaded the white, smooth river rock, letting tiny fragments of foggy light through their branches to glance off the water. It was beautiful, in an eerie way.

Dean wished Cas was there to see it. He imagined the angel hunkered over the water, his trench coat frayed and muddy at the edges from the endless miles they'd hiked. His black slacks would be ripped and dirty, and his tie would be loose (or looser than normal, anyway). Dean blinked, and he watch the scene play out like a movie. Cas squatted with his toes in the water, his slender fingers wiping away muddy water from his shaggy beard. Dean was surprised his imagination pictured Cas with a beard.

A figure emerged from the fog behind the angel. Dean clenched his fists. Ishtar put a hand on Castiel's shoulder. Dean watched her speak, but his mental movie was on mute, for some reason. The way Cas's eyes fell closed and the lines on his tired face grew deeper told Dean that whatever she said wasn't good. He could feel the angel's pain, exhaustion, and what Dean could only describe as mourning. Cas felt like he had nothing left to fight for.

Don't listen to her, Cas! he tried to shout. We're coming for you. He knew Cas couldn't hear him. I'll save you, I promise. Just keep fighting! Cas raised his head and his crystalline blue eyes pierced straight through Dean.

"Dean?"

Dean shook his head, blinking away the... what even was that? Daydream? Hallucination? He nodded to show Sam that he'd heard him and was still paying attention, then looked away from the creek. They needed a better plan to find Cas than wandering around and hoping for the best. Purgatory could be vast, for all they knew, a haystack far larger than anything they'd ever searched before. They weren't going to find their needle by chance.

"We need a different plan, Dean," Sam said, straightening up from the water's edge.

Dean chuckled. Sometimes he swore they could read each other’s minds. "Yeah. I was just thinking that." He turned to look at his brother. "Any ideas? 'Cause I've got nothing."

Sam bit his lip. "I hate to even suggest it, but..." He took a breath. "Cas is an angel. If two humans are attracting attention, there's no way he's not making more waves than we are."

Dean cut his eyes up to meet Sam's gaze. "You mean we should interrogate the nasties we come across. Get them to tell us what they know, no matter what it takes." Sam looked down, and Dean nodded slowly. His face hardened. "Let's go find some monsters, then."

***

Monsters weren't exactly a rare commodity in Purgatory. All Sam and Dean needed to do was find a defensible location, hash out a plan, and wait.

So far, none of their quarry had known anything valuable. The three vampires, two werewolves, and single shtriga they'd roughed up hadn't been able to give them anything more than that the angel was a bright, strobing light in Purgatory's endless gray, but not every creature could sense where he was from a distance. While Sam found that a bit comforting (it upped the odds that Cas was okay), Dean found it frustrating.

"I think you mean he's got a case of the crazy-eyes, Sam," Lucifer drawled. Sam still couldn't see him, but he heard him clear as day, close enough behind his ear that he caught himself turning his head more than once, trying to catch a glimpse of the devil out of the corner of his eye.

Instead of answering, Sam focused on keeping watch while Dean questioned their current prisoner, a lone vampire.

"Where's the angel?" Grunt. "Oh, that was a nasty punch to the nose," Lucifer commented.

"Where's the angel?" A dull thud as Dean's boot hit soft flesh. Lucifer whistled, low. "That one's gonna leave a mark."

Sam tightened his grip on his new weapon. The rough hilt creaked. He looked down at the shining black blade of the ax. Though it was larger and its edge more jagged, it reminded Sam of how Ishtar's obsidian knife had glimmered, like a tarnished angel blade. He wondered where the werewolf he'd taken it from had gotten it.

"Where's the angel?!" Dean's voice was sharper than before. Sam turned in time to see Dean drag the vampire upright, pin him against a tree, and press the cutting edge of a machete (the Elhyim Yad's current shape) against the vampire's throat. Sam hurried over and stood close behind Dean, not stopping him, but close enough that Dean eased up slightly. Sam being close always toned Dean down a bit (unless he was mad at Sam, of course) as some kind of residual desire not to scare his little brother.

Dean leaned in toward the vampire, narrowing the empty space between their faces down to inches. "Listen close you son of a bitch," Dean growled. "You know how this works. I'm going to kill you either way, but you get to decides whether it’s quick and painless or slow and definitely not painless." The vampire's eyes darted from Dean to Sam and back again. Sam kept his expression neutral, but steely.

"I don't know where he is now, but I might know where he's going," the fang gasped, rushing through the sentence so fast Sam almost couldn't distinguish the words.

Dean leaned on the weapon a fraction more. "Keep talking."

"He's with the goddess-"

"Ishtar?" Sam interrupted. The vampire's chin quivered, as close to a nod as he could get without slicing his throat open on the blade.

"From what I've heard, it looks like they're heading to the ravine."

Dean showed his teeth. "And where's that?"

The vampire looked between them again, then pointed behind Sam. "Go that way until you get to a large river. Follow the edge, going opposite the direction the water runs. It'll take you straight there."

Dean glanced over his shoulder at Sam. Sam nodded. Dean swung the machete, and the vampire's head hit the ground. Dean wiped off the blade like he was smearing the last bits of butter off onto a bun. A moment later, the machete was back to looking like his handgun.

They started walking, and Sam kept pace with his brother's quick strides for a good mile and a half before he cracked.

"Dean?"

"Yeah?"

"You seem... I don't know, comfortable with this whole 'trap and interrogate' plan."

Dean didn't slow down or even glance at Sam. "So?"

"So you're a little rougher around the edges than normal and I'm worried that you're kind of enjoying this too much." He shrugged. "I thought you'd be more conflicted."

Dean gave him a look at that. It was his what the hell are you talking about look. "They're all monsters, Sam. What's there to be conflicted about? You're the one who always ends up sleeping with them."

"Do not bring Ruby, or Madison, into this Dean. I'm not talking about relationships. I'm talking about how much you seem to enjoy being here." Though, now that Dean brought it up... "Besides, you being pissy at me for that is kind of hypocritical, don't you think?"

Dean did stop then. He turned, mouth crooked and one eyebrow at his hairline. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Sam knew Dean wouldn't catch on unless Sam spelled it out for him, so he did. "Cas, that's what I'm talking about."

Dean looked from side to side for a moment, assessing their surroundings before looking back at Sam, completely befuddled. "What about him?"

Sam shrugged. "Before everything hit the fan in Kansas City, back in that warehouse where we were trying to trap Raphael, Cas and I talked."

Dean's eyebrows went up. "About me."

Sam huffed, exacerbated. "Yeah, Dean, because the guy has had a crush on you for like two years and you were using yourself as bait. It came up."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa..." Dean held up a hand. "Lemme get this straight. You had a five-second conversation with Cas and you think that we're in some kind of relationship, like you and Ruby?"

"No!" Sam paused, looking for words that wouldn't piss Dean off. "I just think maybe it's a possibility and I told Cas I'd be okay with it."

Dean stared at him for longer than Sam was comfortable with, his face stony. Finally, he grunted out what might have been a laugh, or possibly a burp. "Don't give up your day job there, Dr. Phil." Dean shook his head. "That's just... no. Cas and me aren't like that, and never will be. Plus, you know, he's a guy."

"Cas obviously doesn't care..." Sam scratched the back of his head and rushed through the rest, "and he said you wouldn't either." Dean stared again, so Sam explained. "He said you'd... you know... with guys, before."

"Ugh." Dean looked up at the sky with a why me? expression, shut his eyes, and shook his head. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand. "Listen, Sam, I don't know exactly what Cas said to you, but I'm only gonna have this conversation once." He looked Sam in the eyes. "I'm straight. I like girls. A little experimentation in high school under the bleachers with fifty bucks on the line does not make me gay."

It was Sam's turn to stare. "You had sex for money?" He couldn't believe it.

"No! Jesus, Sam. I hustled pool for money. I jacked off in front of Billy Thompson on a dare. Whoever chickened out had to pay the other guy. And now we are done talking about this." He turned and continued forward, this time setting a pace fast enough to make talking more trouble than it was worth.

Sam let his brother get a few steps ahead and used the time to process the conversation, with Lucifer color-commentating in the back of his mind.

Purgatory's ubiquitous fog and eternal dusk made telling time nearly impossible, but they kept Dean's furious pace long enough that Sam started really looking forward to a break. When they reached a stream, he relished the opportunity to wash the sweat and grime off his face. Just like before, Sam surveyed the banks for signs of trouble while Dean splashed himself, then he crouched and took his turn. They hadn't spoken since clearing the air earlier, and it wasn't a comfortable silence.

Dean squatted down and leaned back on his haunches. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then fidgeted with a pebble. Sam watched him. Dean frowned and chucked the pebble into the stream. "Listen, Sam. I'm not mad at you, okay?"

Sam waited. Dean tugged on a fray on his knee. "Cas is the best friend we’ve ever… that I've ever had. He's practically family, but..."

Sam shook excess water off his hands. "But what?"

Dean glanced over at him, then stood up. "But the guy practically stole my soul ‘cause he thinks I'm an idiot, Sam. I just don't know where I stand with him sometimes." He clenched a fist and looked out over the water. "I don't want to screw things up with him. We're kind of the only friends he has, you know?"

Sam nodded, standing up himself. "I know. And I also know that you being less of a dick to him would go a long way toward 'not screwing it up'." Sam used the finger quotes just to annoy his brother, who scoffed.

"I'm not a dick to him."

Sam actually laughed at that. "Dean, you're kind of a dick to everyone. It's part of your personality."

Dean put a hand to his chest and gasped. "How dare you!" He made an exaggerated offended face at Sam, then smirked to show he was kidding. Sam rolled his eyes. The grin slid from Dean’s face and he bit his lip. "Seriously, though. What do I do that's so bad?"

Sam shook his head, searching for the right words. "You're just... it’s obvious when you're mad, but you never actually tell anyone that you're happy they're around, even me. To people who aren't used to it, that's kind of rough."

Dean raised an eyebrow. "So, what're you saying? I should just let something like stealing my soul slide?"

Sam rolled his eyes because of course that would be Dean's example scenario. "Cas had good intentions, Dean."

"Last time I checked, those don't pave the road to Heaven."

"Still, maybe he wouldn't think you're an idiot if you actually talked to him like an adult once in a while."

Now Dean genuinely did look offended. "I talk to Cas like an adult."

"Dean, you have literally called him, and I quote, a 'baby in a trench coat.'"

Dean frowned and shifted his shoulders, looking out across the stream again. "I was kidding."

"Yeah, but Cas might not know that. Maybe you should--"

"Son of a bitch!"

Sam started at Dean's outburst. "What?"

Dean gestured around them with both arms. "Look around. This is the same goddamn stream we were at before."

Sam looked, and his stomach sank. Dean was right. "We just walked in a giant circle."

"And didn't find any big-ass river. I’m gonna reattach that vamp’s head and rip its lungs out through its teeth!" Dean kicked the rocky shore, launching a few of the pebbles far out into the stream. Sam’s eyes followed their arc.

The stones disappeared under the water. Sam squinted. An inky black film crept over the surface. "Dean, are you seeing this?" Sam whispered.

"Yeah,” he responded, hushed. “What the hell?"

Sam watched the darkness spread toward them. "Dean, I think we should go."

Dean grabbed Sam's jacket and backed away from the water's edge. "I think you're right, Sammy."

They turned to run. Sam heard a whoosh of displaced water an instant before two large gobs of black goo slammed into the ground in front of them. They rose up quickly into roughly human shapes and advanced. Sam stepped backward and bumped into Dean's back. Sam glanced over his shoulder at his brother, who was facing down two goo-monsters of his own behind them.

"Any bright ideas, Sam?"

"Run or fight?"

Dean spared a half-second to give Sam a resigned look. "Here, it's always fight." Dean lunged, drawing the Elhyim Yad and firing at the nearest target in one smooth motion. Sam swung his ax in a large arc, trying to keep the two things from herding them into the water. As he readied his weapon for another swing the monster nearest to him unhinged its jaw. Sam held his ground, though his skin shivered when the thing let out a hissing roar and exposed rows upon rows of sabre-pointed teeth.

"Holy hell what the fuck are these things?!" Dean yelled, falling back into Sam's line of sight.

"I don't know, but they have way too many teeth to be friendly!" Sam answered, swinging the ax again.

"Ya think?" Dean fired off several more rounds of the gun-shaped weapon's never-ending supply. "Ellie's hurting them, but damn it they just keep coming. How the fuck do we kill these things?" Dean sounded desperate.

Sam couldn't answer, staring down the two things coming at him. He feinted to the side, pivoted and swung his ax toward the nearest one's neck like he was going for the fences. The head went flying, and the body fell to the ground.

"Huh." Sam hefted his weapon again. "Decapitation works!" he hollered at Dean.

Dean's grip on his weapon shifted slightly, Sam blinked and Dean now held a machete. It still creeped Sam out how in tune with the weapon his brother was, but when Dean gracefully spun and sliced through the neck of one of his opponents he decided he could get used to it. Sam took a deep breath. They could win this fight... Maybe.

One of the two remaining monsters tackled him into the water, and Sam’s tentative confidence evaporated.

Cold water rushed over Sam's head, obscuring his vision. The blurred outline of the monster above him opened its gaping maw and Sam bucked with as much force as he could muster. He managed to dislodge the thing long enough to scrabble back out of the water, struggling to get to his feet and keep a solid grip on his weapon at the same time.

The thing kicked the back of Sam's knees and his feet slipped on the wet stones, but he managed to twist onto his back as he crashed onto the stoney shore. Sam tried to swing his ax again but even his arms didn't have the reach to do any damage from the ground. The monster towered above him, sneering.

"The goddess sends her regards," it hissed. The thing unhinged his jaw, lunged forward, and a machete separated its head from its shoulders.

The body fell, and a stocky, bearded guy in overalls stepped into view. He adjusted the collar of his dark wool jacket and touched the low rim of his black flat cap. "Hope you don't mind my butting in,” he said in a slow, smooth southern drawl. Looks like you fellas need some help."

Means Nothing Without You - Chapter 1

Chapter One: Immigrant Song

Dean and Sam fell. And fell. And fell some more. It was like the most epic cannonball off of the world's highest high dive, but Dean felt in his bones they wouldn't go splat when they landed.

They did tumble, though. Dean rolled through dead leaves and dirt before gravity stopped him. He lay still on his back and stared up at gray, viridescent clouds. They blanketed the sky, the air heavy with the calm before a violent storm that never came. Dean shivered. This whole dimension – or whatever – hummed with the tension of an eternal Mexican standoff.

Dean climbed to his feet, searching for Sam. He spotted the mass of limbs and hair sprawled a few yards away. "You all right, Sammy?" Dean called, keeping his voice soft. They were in Purgatory, after all. No sense announcing their presence to whatever nasties might be out there listening.

"Ugh. Yeah." Sam lurched to his feet and staggered over to Dean. "What a trip."

Dean opened his mouth to agree when something hit him on the head. "Ow!"

Rubbing his bruised scalp, Dean glared down at the offending missile – a roundish, rough, black rock. Dean made a face and squinted up at the roiling clouds. "Did the sky just throw a rock at me?"

Sam shook his head, equally flummoxed. He bent over and picked up the rock. His face went blank, then lit with recognition. "I don't think it's a rock, Dean. I think it just looks like one."

"What?"

Sam held the rock out to Dean, who raised a skeptical eyebrow at his brother, but reached out and grabbed it anyway.

The instant Dean touched the rock his hand tingled and warmth spread through his whole body. The sensation was vaguely familiar. It tugged at Dean's memory. It kind of felt like...

"It's the Elhyim Yad, Dean," Sam declared, his pitch rising with excitement. "It feels like when I used it on Ishtar back in Iowa. You can feel it too, right?"

Dean nodded slowly, staring at the not-a-rock in his palm. "Yeah, I can feel it Sammy," he breathed.

"Do you think you can use it, like Michael said?" Sam asked.

Dean tilted his head and bit his lower lip, considering. "Maybe. I mean, I never actually used it before, but..."

Sam waited a moment. "But what?" he prompted.

Dean shrugged and shoved the not-a-rock into his front pocket. "But it feels familiar, I guess. I don't know. I'm not good at this stuff." Dean scanned their surroundings. "I think we're better off looking for actual weapons in case we run into unfriendlies." In case. Dean snorted to himself. Right. Like we’re ever that lucky.

"But–"

Dean cut his brother off with a stony glare. Sam followed his brother’s wary gaze around the gray, monster-filled forest and deflated. "That's probably a good idea. I get the feeling this is the calm before the storm."

***

Pain. Wrong. Castiel's angelic senses could seize hold of nothing else to center him. There was only Ishtar's unyielding grip on his vessel and the dissonance deep inside his grace screaming you do not belong here.

Purgatory. She must have pulled him into Purgatory. Castiel struggled to bring the last few minutes of the fight in Iowa into greater focus. He remembered Ishtar torturing him with Raphael's blade, and he remembered seeing Michael with Dean as his vessel, and he remembered Michael telling him that Dean was aware before Ishtar drove her black knife into them both. If it was poisoned like the one she’d stabbed him with… Castiel closed his eyes. He must not let himself think that they are dead. Hopefully the venom he felt flowing through his vessel and his grace would kill him before the goddess could break him.

At a sharp jerk of his shoulder and tug from the hand in his hair Castiel’s eyes snapped back open. "Don't drift away on me, little favorite," Ishtar sing-songed, the corpse housing her making her voice sound far too young. "We still have a long ways to go. Don't you want to see the all beautiful scenery God's lies left for my children and me?" Castiel tried to keep Jimmy's features from showing the sharp twist in his grace at the distain permeating her words. He must have failed, because she stopped and jerked his head closer to hers. "Half-fallen and you still can't stand to hear blasphemy," she marveled, staring down at him with wide eyes. Matted strands of her long blonde hair tickled his face. Ishtar sneered and continued her march, towing him by the hair.

Castiel tried to get his bearings enough to plant his feet as they slithered through the dank undergrowth, but Ishtar changed directions too often and this entire plane of existence seemed engineered to disorient him. "Where are you taking me?" he rasped. The ubiety Purgatory forced on Castiel’s grace was as inconvenient as it was abrasive. It blinded him, removing any perception outside of his vessel's senses.

Ishtar smiled, teeth bared. "It doesn't matter. You won't like it any better than any other part of my prison, my home. You forget, angel, I have lived here for millennia, and I hold within me the souls of many of my children." She pulled him across jagged branches, tearing Jimmy's slacks and coat. Castiel heard the truth in her words. His Father created angels to exist in Heaven and equipped them to fight in Hell, but Purgatory? He did not belong here and the wrongness of it sapped and clawed at his recently healed grace. He doubted he could defend himself here, even if he could muster the strength to attempt an escape flight. If he could distract the insane goddess long enough, though, perhaps he could flee on foot...

The sharp sting of thorns on his face jarred Castiel from his strategizing. "Thinking of running away, little favorite?" Ishtar taunted as she sidestepped another tangle of thorns, forcing her captive through them. "Don't try my patience. I may not have killed you yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. After all, I killed your brother and your pet human."

No.

The goddess of the dead looked upon Castiel's broken face and smiled. "You didn't guess, little favorite? The black blade I sunk into your precious Dean's back poisoned both him and the archangel riding his meat. They're both dead, Castiel. Consumed by darkness."

Castiel felt the breath leave his lungs. Dean was gone, and Michael with him. Last year, when Castiel had thought his Father abandoned them all, he thought he had experienced as much loss and grief as an angel is capable of feeling. This hurt so much more. Castiel's world crumbled, and so did his will to resist. He wilted in Ishtar's grip and felt hot tears slide down his cheeks.

Castiel turned his gaze out into the gray decay surrounding them. Ishtar’s shrieking laughter at his despair echoed through the rotting brush and churning fog. Dark, amorphous shapes shifted through the trees, like black water sifting through cracks in a dam.

***

Purgatory reminded Sam of fifth grade. He'd had a teacher whose fondness for pop quizzes bordered on pathological. The constant low-level anxiety of that classroom had done more to prepare Sam for hunting than many of John's gruff speeches about vigilance, possibly because Sam had actually wanted to please his teacher. Sam had walked into that classroom each morning with the wariness and focus of a soldier trapped behind enemy lines. Purgatory dialed that feeling up to 11. This place and its ashen landscape and its hordes of monster souls made his teeth itch and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Sam hated it.

Dean loved it. Or at least thrived on it, Sam thought. Where Sam's response to Purgatory's atmosphere was stress, Dean came alive, eyes and head swiveling as he watched for danger, steps light and quiet. The consummate hunter, naturally efficient and deadly as Sam had never been.

"Don't sell yourself short there, Sammy. You're plenty deadly. You've gotten more people killed than Jack the Ripper."

Sam froze. Lucifer guffawed. "You didn't really think running away to Purgatory would keep me away, did you?"

Sam had, actually. Lucifer had been after his vessel, so why would he be interested in tormenting Sam now that he was just a soul?

"Because it's just so much fun messing with you, Sam," Lucifer cackled, then his voice dropped. "Remember all the fun we had in the Cage? This is just me moving the show to a new venue."

Sam inhaled deeply through his nose. Exhaled slowly. All logic said that this wasn't real. His mind was just catching glimpses through the wall Death had put up. Or it was breaking down altogether, Sam thought.

"Sam!" Dean's hoarse, voiceless shout jolted Sam out of his own head. "Pay attention, man," Dean admonished. "We're in the middle of Godzilla versus Mothra, here. Keep your head in the game."

Sam shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah, I am. I was just thinking."

Dean eyed him. Sam could tell he wanted to pry, but Dean let it go. "Less thinking, more searching, poindexter. We're looking for Cas, remember?"

Dean turned and started through the woods without waiting for an answer. Sam followed, convincing himself not to tell Dean about hearing Lucifer until he figured out if it was really the devil talking or if there was a problem with the wall. No sense in both of them worrying about it when they had more pressing concerns, like not getting killed. Sam knew Purgatory wouldn't stay quiet for long.

Sam’s feeling was right. Not thirty minutes later, they were ambushed.

The werewolf who stepped out from behind a copse of trees in front of them was smallish, a several inches shorter than Dean and not as built. The three others who flanked them were huge.

"Well now, what have we here, boys?" the small(er) one asked, a strange cadence to his accent that Sam couldn't place.

"Looks like humans, boss," one of the giants answered in a register so low Sam practically felt it in his chest.

"I reckon you are correct, Smithy," the boss said. He peered at Sam and Dean, back to back in defensive crouches. "Now I have not seen nor smelled a human since I was alive," the werewolf drawled. He slipped his thumbs behind his suspenders and inhaled deeply through his nose. "That's the stuff. Good, living hearts they have, boys."

Sam wet his lips. As the four werewolves closed in, he heard Dean mutter "Shit, shit, shit, a whole friggin' pack, shit..."

The wolf nearest to Sam took a step forward, a long ax-like weapon with a jagged cutting edge in his hand. "Let me rip into him, Silas. I can't hardly recall the taste of a human heart."

"Nor can I, Levi, but like my father always said, patience is a virtue." Sam swept his gaze in a frantic semicircle, desperate for anything he might use as a weapon. The leader, Silas, stepped closer. "Suppose that's why Pops and I never did get on well. I ate him, in the end." A feral grin split the werewolf's lips, further exposing his elongated teeth and fangs. "I get one of the hearts. The three of you can fight over the other."

The pack of werewolves leapt, and Dean and Sam burst into action. Sam lunged forward, barreling into the werewolf rushing at him, Levi, and used his momentum to tackle his burly opponent. They hit the ground hard, the impact jarring the werewolf's grip on his weapon loose. Sam rolled so that his entire bodyweight pinned Levi's weapon arm down. They grappled for control of the ax.

Sam managed to get both hands on the staff of the weapon just as Levi shook him off his arm. The werewolf pulled up and back on the ax as they rose off the ground, trying to choke Sam with its long handle. Sam's arms strained, veins popping as he fought to keep the werewolf from cutting of his breath. It was a losing battle. As the wooden handle pressed against Sam's jugular, Levi leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "I want you to know, I'm not gonna share one bite of your heart. It's all mine."

Sam scuffled his feet into a different stance. "First you have to get it out of me," he gasped. Then he dug his feet in and thrust his hips back and shoulders down, heaving the werewolf over his head. Levi landed on the ground on his back hard enough to jolt the ax completely out of his grip. Sam swung it down with all the force he could muster. The shiny black cutting edge buried itself in Levi's face. The werewolf spasmed, then went still. Gasping for air, Sam yanked his new weapon free and turned to find Dean.

Dean was in trouble.

The two remaining grunts had him backed against a large tree trunk about fifty yards from where Sam stood, Silas looking on from a few strides farther on. Dean must have tried running to a more defensible position. From what Sam could see, his brother had a gash on his forehead and was favoring his left side, which meant he'd probably taken a hit or two to the chest and possibly cracked a rib.

Sam started running toward his brother, even as he calculated the odds. Dean had gotten at least a few blows in on the two bulky werewolves, because one had a broken nose and the other's right elbow was bent the wrong direction. None of that was going to make any difference, because there was no way Sam would get there before they dealt serious damage to Dean. Sam shouted, trying to distract them, but he didn't know what possible good it would do.

Silas glanced Sam's direction, and his two underlings followed suit. The instant their eyes were off him, Dean reached into the front pocket where he'd stashed the Elhyim Yad and pulled out... his Colt 1911? How the hell had Dean brought his favorite handgun with them into Purgatory?

Dean fired off two quick shots, hitting both lackey werewolves square in the chest. Knowing his brother, Sam didn't have to wonder if they hit the hearts. Silas darted forward and grabbed Dean from behind, slamming his right wrist into the tree trunk, trying to dislodge the gun. Dean grunted in pain, but held on. He threw his head back, slamming into Silas' nose. The werewolf lost his grip and Dean jerked forward, stumbled, and sprawled onto the leaf-covered ground. He twisted onto his back just in time to see Silas's head slide from his shoulders.

Sam lowered his ax and wiped some of the blood spatter from his chin. He stepped forward and offered Dean a hand. Dean let out a gust of breath, then took Sam's hand and let his brother haul him to his feet. "Nice timing, Sammy."

"No problem." Sam gestured at the handgun still in Dean's hand. "Were you planning on telling me you brought your gun along somehow?"

Dean looked down at the gleaming weapon in his hand. "Thanks, Ellie," he murmured.

"What?"

Dean looked up at him. "I started thinking Ellie here'd be a lot more useful as a gun than a rock and then boom. Gun."

“Ellie?” Sam's eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. "You mean the Elhyim Yad? You gave a weapon designed by God himself, something that's capable of killing archangels, a nickname?"

His brother shrugged. "It's easier to say." Then Dean tucked the most powerful weapon either of them had ever encountered into the back of his jeans and led the way forward, though neither of them knew where they were even trying to get to.

***

Finally, they arrived. It took days of travel, longer than she would have preferred, but dragging the angel slowed her pace and ages had passed since she sought out this place and its power. Ishtar bound Castiel to a great tree with rope and ritual, then glided toward the edge of the still, black water of the shallow pool, lithe steps leaving no trace of her passage over the dank ground. Ishtar kept the angel in her line of sight; even weakened, the Maker's First Children were not to be underestimated, especially His favorites.

Ishtar's voice grew deep as her lips shaped words of power. "Asbu a alkam. Asbu a alaksu qabu sisituam. Asbu a alkam." ** The dark water roiled for a moment, then settled, the surface now covered with an inky black film. An oily voice undulated out of ripples in the water. "With whom am I speaking?"

Ishtar stepped into the shallow pool and leaned until her reflection stared back. "Don't you recognize me, old foe?"

The water gurgled. "Ishtar! How are you? I heard you managed to take a trip back home. I'm guessing that didn't end well for you."

Her lip curled. "I'm not here to be insulted by you, Leviathan. I'm here to offer you something: freedom."

"I'm listening."

"We've both been caged in here too long. Now that I've been to Earth, I know what will be necessary to subdue it." Ishtar knew her gambit posed great risk. No one could control the leviathan, save their king. She must make him understand she is indispensable. "Only together, is it possible for us to both get what we want."

The water churned. "Do not presume to know what I want, hag."

Ishtar bared her teeth. "I know you want out, just as I do. It's not difficult to figure out, you stain." She squeezed her fist around the filthy edge of her body’s meager clothing and steadied her voice. "I have a way out for all of us." Ishtar lifted her eyes from the pool to Castiel, who had given up struggling against his bonds. "But I need more time to prepare. Time that you can give me."

An unnatural wave spiked out of the pool, turned toward the captive angel like a periscope. The inky water settled and was still for a long moment. Ishtar started to think she'd pushed too hard, but the surface rippled again. "What would you have me do?"

Ishtar smiled. "Kill the humans trying to rescue him. Without their interference, I can make the angel comply."

The black water swelled. "It would be our pleasure, goddess."

** Rough translation:
"Dark water come. Dark water I command and summon you to me. Dark water come." -- I played fast and loose with an online Sumerian dictionary. This is most definitely not correct. Sorry I butchered an ancient language. :(