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((Supernatural Wincestiel Big Bang)) Something Worth Protecting (Part VI)
misha
winnywriter

“What do you mean by Grace, anyway?” Sam asked as he studied the bottle. The sky outside was growing pinkish gray, the sunrise just minutes away, it seemed. Sam had tried to sleep some, but it had come in fitful bursts, and eventually he’d just given up.

“The life force of an angel,” Castiel explained, gingerly taking the bottle from him and pressing it between his palms, almost like he was praying around it. The angel, it seemed, could still barely believe what he was holding in his hands, like it was the very lifeblood of the universe. To Sam, it just looked like water. “It must not look like much to you, Sam, but if you could see what I see, you would understand just how incredible this is.”

It struck Sam just how reverent Castiel sounded as he spoke. It never occurred to him what kind of thing it would take to make an angel of the Lord so amazed, but apparently whatever was in this bottle was one of them.

“Will it get us to Dean?” he asked, and Castiel's shoulders sagged.

“Sam...” he sighed, letting his arms fall at his sides, bottle still clutched in his fingers. “You should know that what Gabriel said...he was not lying. This will be incredibly dangerous. More-so than anything you've ever faced. I doubt even I will make it alive, and you...you'll almost certainly die.”

Sam swallowed past a lump in his throat at that, but he didn't back down. “All due respect, Castiel,” he said, “If Dean can face Hell for me, then I can face Heaven for him.” Castiel pursed his lips, and though he looked exhausted, there was a flash of pride in his gaze as well.

“That is admirable of you, Sam,” he said.

Sam shrugged. “He's my brother. What else can I do?” He let out a breath, striding over to Castiel and taking the bottle again. Castiel let it slip into Sam's palm, although somewhat reluctantly, and though the glass had been pressed between Castiel's hands and should have been warm, it was still almost icy cold against Sam's skin.

“So how does this work?” he asked. “Is there another ritual or what?”

“A human passing through the Gates into Heaven this way is almost unheard of,” explained Castiel. “Where we will be going is the realm of angels, not humans. You'll be treading where very few have walked before you, Sam.”

Sam had to grin a bit at that. “Well...it honestly wouldn't be the weirdest thing that's happened to me,” he admitted. For a moment, he thought he saw Castiel try to smile, but it faded before he could work out if he'd really seen it or not.

“Gabriel's Grace will protect you and allow you passage. But its power extends only until we reach our destination, and after that, while I'll do all in my power to keep you safe, you will be mostly on your own.”

Before he could stop himself, Sam let out a bitter, hollow laugh. “Guess that figures,” he said, and Castiel looked at him curiously. Sam shifted in place, not making eye contact as he gestured between the two of them and added, “You know, with our...bond being broken and all.”

Castiel sighed. “You know there's nothing I can do about that.”

“Look, I get it, okay? You'll go to Hell and back for Dean, but I'm just not worth the time. Not since Yellow-Eyes got his hands on me.”

“You know that's not what this is about. We don't have time for your jealousy, Sam.”

“It's not jealousy!” Sam barked. He wasn't so petty that he would let something as shallow as that get in the way of saving Dean. It went deeper than mere jealousy. That damn demon blood had screwed up his entire life, and just when he'd realized there was something out there that was watching out for them, it turned out Heaven had turned its back on him as well, ever since he was just a baby.

He opened his mouth a few times, trying to get the right words to come, and finally he continued, “Why is it that you can go all the way to the Pit for Dean like it's nothing, but you can't reverse the effects of some demon blood, huh?”

True sorrow seemed to well up in Castiel's eyes before he said, “I didn't realize this would affect you so strongly.”

“Of course it does!” Sam shouted, and he had to reign himself in before he could no longer resist the urge to throw something and watch it shatter. “Jesus, I'd thought I'd gotten over everything that damn demon blood did to screw with my life. Why would it have been so damn hard to go into that nursery and stop that from happening?”

“By the time I realized, it was already too late...” said Castiel, and there was real shame in his voice as he spoke, and guilt in his averted gaze.

“Yeah well maybe if you hadn't been so slow, we wouldn't be in this mess right now. Hell, maybe my mother would still be alive, and my girlfriend too.” Castiel looked down at the floor.

“There was nothing I could do for them,” he said mournfully.

“Then what is the point of you?”

Castiel did look up at that, and he looked so much less imposing than he had before, his wings drooping pitifully behind him, folded tight against his back as if he was trying to make himself look as small as possible.

“You're a guardian angel,” Sam spat. “You're supposed to protect people, aren't you? But all you can do is try and watch over Dean, and look how that turned out.”

Castiel was silent for a long few moments before finally looking back up at Sam, and when he did, the angel looked like he was in pain. “Would you have preferred I left him in Hell?”

Sam blinked.

“I mourned your loss, Sam,” Castiel continued. “I mourned for Mary, and for Jessica, and for John. I searched for a way to restore the bond between us, to repair it to the state of your brother's, but it was impossible.”

The sound of their names on Castiel's lips, the names of all the people that Sam had lost made his heart ache, and he uneasily rolled the bottle across his palm, back and forth, between his fingers, the crystal glass cool and smooth against his skin. He swallowed thickly.

“Dean should never have made that stupid deal in the first place,” he found himself saying, his voice ragged.

“He did it for you,” Castiel said warmly, and to Sam's surprise, he let a ghost of a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. “The bond between you two...it's stronger than any guardian angel bond I've seen.”

Sam nodded. “So this...” He looked down at the unassuming bottle in his hand. “This will get us to him.”

Castiel paused for so long that Sam's chest began to tighten uneasily. “Yes,” he finally said, but Sam could tell the statement was missing a “but.”

“Don't leave anything out, Castiel,” he said. Castiel's mouth formed itself into a hard line.

“I can't promise that we'll be successful. The ritual could very well kill us both right at the start.”

“It might not,” Sam pointed out. “And there's no other way, is there?”

“No,” Castiel confirmed, and there was nothing to add to that statement, Sam was sure. “Sam...” Sam looked at him, and the angel shifted uncomfortably under his gaze. “I have failed many times...I failed to protect you, and I failed to protect Dean. I may still fail now, but not without doing everything in my power to save him. I want you to understand that.”

Sam nodded. “So this ridiculously dangerous ritual,” he said after clearing his throat. “How does it work?”

The angel reached for the bottle in Sam's hand, and Sam gave it to him. “It must be performed with the rising sun. Your arm, Sam.”

“Again with the blood?” Sam asked, trying as best he could not to sound like he was whining. It did get old having to be cut up time and time again, though. Why did all these rituals have to involve human blood?

“Not quite,” said Castiel as he grasped Sam's arm, his fingers digging into the flesh there, and suddenly Sam's skin was burning, and he cried out in pain, but Castiel kept his grip tight and unrelenting. When he finally let go, and Sam pulled his throbbing arm to his chest, there was a complex sigil left burned into his skin. It was unlike anything Sam had ever seen, and he stared at it in wonder.

“The mark will grant you passage through the Gates,” Castiel said. He pulled the cork from the mouth of the glass bottle, and what looked like steam began pouring out of the opening.

“Could have used a little warning before you branded me,” Sam mumbled, but Castiel didn't seem to have heard. The angel was too busy watching in awe as the steam rising from the bottle swirled and twisted in the air, shimmering, seeming almost alive.

“Are you ready, Sam?” Castiel asked softly, his voice so uncharacteristically gentle that Sam had to look up at him, and when he did, he saw real fear in the angel's eyes, mixed with the same determination and purpose that was seated deep in his own chest. It took him off-guard, but somehow, it only made him stand more resolute in the face of this seemingly impossible task, and he nodded.

“Ready,” he said, though for what, he still didn't know.

Castiel tipped the bottle, and what poured out didn't look at all like water or anything else that Sam had ever seen in his life. It was like a living liquid, slithering out of the glass and shining iridescent in the newborn sunlight streaming through the window. It twisted and glided through the air, toward him, and he flinched at first, but a calming, warm presence surrounded him as it coiled around his body. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move as he watched Castiel's eyes, wide and glistening with amazement. It occurred to Sam just as the Grace focused in on the sigil on his arm, that this was the closest he'd ever come to having an honest-to-God religious experience, and suddenly the holy energy flooded into his veins through his burned flesh. What he felt was not pain, but it was so sudden and overwhelmingly intense that he let out a strangled cry of surprise, and his vision bled white.

The last conscious thought he had was a sincere hope that he wasn't dying, because he had a hell of a lot more to do before he'd let death take him.

-

When Sam had been a little kid, he'd had the same dream almost every night for months on end. It had been a relatively simple vision, and one that he remembered as vividly to this very day as he had seconds after waking up as a child. In it, he recalled, he'd been flying. No, that wasn't quite right – he'd been falling, uncontrolled through space, plummeting through a vacuum. That was all he could remember, that sensation of falling through nothingness, toward even more nothingness. In those dreams, he had never reached the bottom or even seen it coming, and every time he'd woken up, the realization that he had been awake had been met with a kind of disappointment, because part of him had always wanted to know what rested at the bottom of that gaping void, if anything at all.

Sam dreamed of that same void again now.

He could see nothing, hear nothing – there was not even the rushing sound of air past his ears. The only sensation he was aware of was the bottom of his stomach dropping out as he plummeted toward something he couldn't possibly identify. Perhaps, he thought, he would be falling forever. Despite this looming thought in the back of his mind, he felt no fear. This, despite the darkness and the utter lack of control, was a safe place. Nothing could reach him here.

So it was a serious jolt to his system when he was violently shaken out of his stupor to find himself lying on his back on a patch of dry grass, a pair of vibrant blue eyes staring down at him intensely.

“Sam,” Castiel was barking, shaking him by the shoulder until Sam had come to enough to pull away and sit up. “Are you alright?” Sam nodded as the angel rested back on his haunches, wings folding in tight against his sides.

“I'm guessing we're not dead,” Sam said with a grimace, pressing his hand to his forehead. “I don't really feel dead.”

“We're still alive,” said Castiel. “For the moment.”

“Well...that's something.” Sam pushed himself up, standing and taking in his surroundings. They were standing in a wide clearing, trees lining all sides around them. There was nothing particularly outstanding about the forest they'd apparently found themselves in for the moment, but there was something...off about it that Sam couldn't quite place. The trees were gnarled and twisted unnaturally; their leaves were an impossibly dark, waxy green, making them look almost artificial. The sky above them was a deep blue, like the night sky back home, but there were no stars. Tiny points of light shown through the azure curtain of the sky, but they were not stars; that much, Sam could tell. Rather, they looked more like the shattered remnants of something much larger, like broken glass.

When Sam coupled all of this with the look of near panic in Castiel's eyes, he knew right away that something had gone very, badly wrong.

“This Heaven?” he asked dubiously. Castiel flexed his fingers by his sides, forming his hands into tight fists, his knuckles going white. His feathers puffed out in anxiety. Sam took a cautious step toward him. “Castiel?”

“It is Heaven,” the angel finally answered raggedly, “more or less.”

“More or less?”

“It's an offshoot of Heaven. A...fragment of it. It's been split from the rest of the Kingdom.” As he spoke, Castiel's voice sank into a tone that was full of such mourning and loss that Sam had to feel for him, even if he didn't fully understand what he was saying.

“Is it Asaph?” he asked. “Could he have the power to do something like that.”

“Most likely.”

“So what does it mean, anyway? For us, I mean. If we're in some...broken off part of Heaven, how do we find Dean?”

Castiel's silence spoke volumes.

“We're still gonna be able to find Dean, right? I mean, that archangel grace or whatever the hell it was didn't all go to waste, right?” Castiel didn't seem to hear him; the angel's eyes were shut tightly, his brow furrowed in concentration. When Sam reached out to plant a hand on his shoulder, Castiel started, gaze darting back and forth, trying to take in everything at once.

“Castiel?”

“I'm cut off,” Castiel said, sounding as if he was miles away, completely oblivious to Sam's presence.

“Cut off from what?”

Finally, the angel looked at him, seeming to come back to himself. “From the Host. From my brothers. From anyone who might help us.”

It took a moment for the information to sink in.

“And Asaph...?”

“He's here.” Castiel stiffened, like an animal sniffing the air for predators lurking in the dark. “He's somewhere in this fragmented piece of the Kingdom...I can feel his presence. It's corrupt and dark...”

Sam took a moment, closing his eyes, breathing deep: in...out...in...

“So...what?” he asked tentatively. “We're on our own?”

“It would seem.”

“Okay...” But it was not okay. It was not at all okay. The meaning of Castiel's words sank in slowly: they were facing a ludicrously powerful rogue angel, the two of them, on their own – a being strong enough to maim an archangel, power-hungry enough to kidnap innocent people from the angels charged to protect them, and neurotic enough to break off his own little chunk of Heaven to settle down in. Hell, Sam hadn't even been convinced about the existence of angels until just a few days ago, and he could tell already that this was way, way out of his league.

This was more than a Windego or a demon or a vengeful spirit. This was the stuff of fire and brimstone and heavenly retribution, of God and holy warriors and divine plagues. First his brother had been dragged to Hell, and now he'd been dragged to Heaven, and just like before, Sam was dealing with powers far beyond his comprehension.

Dammit all if that was going to stop him, though.

“There's got to be something we can do,” he persisted, trying to get through to Castiel even though the angel seemed to have gone somewhat pale. “We came all this way. I'm not just going to run away now with my tail between my legs!”

Castiel looked up at him, and there was real sorrow in his voice as he said, “You couldn't if you wanted to, Sam.”

Sam let out a steadying breath as he recalled Gabriel's earlier warning. “One-way ticket...” he mused, glancing down at his arm. The brand there was still visible, but faded, as if it had had months to heal rather than just a few minutes, or however long it had been.

He wondered vaguely how long he had been out, whether time passed differently here than it did on earth. What if it had been months for Dean? What if it had been years?

He grew cold at the thought, and he forced it away.

“So we either sit here and wait for Asaph to find us,” he said, “or we take the fight to him. If it would even be much of a fight...” He glanced around at the circle of trees and up at the discolored sky. Out there, somewhere, relatively close by, was the creature called Asaph that had taken Dean. Maybe it was a one-in-a-million shot; maybe it was reckless; maybe Dean would kick his ass if he ever found out what he was doing, but if there was even a chance that he could save his brother – even if it was the smallest chance in the world – how could he go back on it?

Impossible wasn't in his vocabulary right now. No matter how tiny the chance, he had to grab it with both hands and hold on with everything he had.

“You're not going to give up, right?” Sam asked Castiel. “You're going to try and save Dean?”

Castiel shrugged. “It's my duty as his guardian,” he said.

“Yeah well it's mine as his brother.” He took a few steps toward the tree line, looking up at the disfigured branches and wondering what the real, untainted Heaven looked like, and whether he'd ever get the chance to see for himself. He turned back to Castiel. “Which way?”

Castiel let out a breath. “I can't be sure. I don't know what Asaph has done, but the bond between Dean and me...it's growing weaker. I'm having trouble sensing him in this corrupted place.” He sounded sad, almost forlorn, and Sam grew anxious. If the bond between Castiel and Dean was weakening, did that mean there was only so much time left before it broke completely? What would happen to Dean then? What would happen to Castiel?

“So how do we find him then?” Sam asked, trying as hard as he could to hang on to some little sliver of hope. Castiel looked deep in thought for a good long time before something seemed to occur to him, and he looked up at Sam with a questioning gleam in his eye.

“There is one way, I believe,” he said. “I'm not sure if it would work, but it's our best shot.”

“Okay?”

“I'll need your help.” Sam had barely nodded before Castiel approached him, placing both hands solidly on the sides of Sam's head, and Sam stiffened.

“What are you doing?”

“The bond between brothers is strong, Sam,” Castiel said, almost sounding as if he was drifting off into some kind of trance, his eyes closed and his brow furrowed in concentration. “Stronger than even you may realize. It's not unlike the bond between guardian and charge, in fact. And if I could somehow use it...”

“You could find Dean,” Sam finished, and Castiel nodded. Sam expected to feel something, but the only sensation he was aware of was that of Castiel's hands on the sides of his face. “What do I need to do?” he asked. “You know, for this to work.”

Castiel opened his eyes, just for a moment, to look up at him, and they sparked with divine purpose. “Just concentrate on him,” he said. “On Dean. He faced Hell for you, Sam. Your bond is strong.”

The mere thought of it made Sam's chest tighten in sorrow, but it only solidified his resolve.

If Dean can face Hell for me, I can face Heaven for him...or at least one angel.

The feeling overtook him all at once; he could feel Castiel tapping into his mind, like he was a conductor for an unbelievable surge of power. It rushed through him, pooling in his mind and bringing up flashes of memory: of childhood nights spent curled around each other in the back of the Impala, of silent lunches spent together on unfamiliar high school bleachers before they moved on to the next city to become the new kids all over again, of collapsing into his brothers arms as his life bled away and he sank into darkness, and of watching the exact same thing happen to Dean right before his eyes and not being able to do a damn thing about it. Dean flooded through his mind, and he felt his soul reaching out for that familiarity, felt Castiel following that grasping strand of consciousness, following it like one would follow a trail of bread crumbs. And suddenly the presence was gone, receding, leaving him with only faded afterimages of the vibrant memories and, to his surprise, tears in his eyes.

He gasped, feeling unsteady, and it took him a moment to realize that it was Castiel holding him up on his two feet.

“Apologies,” said the angel. “It can be a shock, bringing a bond like that to the forefront of you consciousness.”

“I'm fine,” Sam rasped. He pushed himself up, forcing himself to stand straight of his own volition. “Did it work? Did you find him?” Castiel was already brushing past him with a nod before he'd finished the question. The angel seemed to be in a trance, taking slow, dragging steps toward the trees, and the branches parted for him with an unearthly, foreboding twist.

But it was a lead. It was a glimmer of hope. Even if it was a step toward their imminent deaths, perhaps, it was a step toward finding Dean, and Sam could only move forward. So he hosted himself up straight and followed Castiel into the looming shadows of the divine forest.


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