Azazel dead, everything was supposed to be back to normal. The trouble was that
Dean didn’t know what normal was anymore.
The threat of the yellow-eyed demon had been hanging over his head since he was four years old. It was hard to believe it was over now; that he was finally safe and so was Sam. According to Bobby’s hunter contacts there had been no demon sightings on Earth since Azazel was killed. Dean had worried that some would be after revenge, but it seemed they were all too busy fighting each other. For the time being at least, demons weren’t a threat.
Even so, Dean couldn’t relax. He still felt like something was going to jump out at him from the shadows at any moment, ripping and slashing and clawing and dragging him away.
He had died every day for five years. Logic told him he was home and nothing would hurt him here, but from the moment he woke up he was constantly on edge, waiting to be tortured to death again, and it wasn’t until the sun set that he dared to breathe a little easier. The respite felt like an illusion, though. Dean feared that when it shattered he would find himself back on the rack with Alastair standing over him asking if he had truly been naïve enough to believe that he was free.
“This is all there is. Torture and death, over and over, for all of eternity.”
Dean could still hear him. The demon’s laughter echoed in his head.
Dean tried to block it out but the more he tried to convince himself that he really had been rescued the less believable it seemed. This reality was too good to be true. Cas was a constant presence at his side, but Dean clearly remembered the angel abandoning him. Dad was warm and accepting, but Dean knew that his father had kicked him out of home. Mom was talking openly about hunting, but that was something Dean was sure the ex-hunter would never do. Sam was here, but Dean had gone to Hell knowing that he would never see his little brother again.
This was just a new form of torture; it had to be. Pretty soon the other shoe would drop and the torture would feel one hundred times worse because he’d had this little taste of what it was like to be free.
It was going to destroy him.
Dean started to distance himself from everyone, building walls around his heart in the hopes that he could keep it from breaking. He stayed in his room as much as possible and barely said two words at the meal table. He flinched away from his mother’s hugs and refused to watch movies with his brother. He wouldn’t go into town with Bobby on supply runs or join his father tinkering with the cars out back. He kept to himself and they eventually worked out that he wanted to be left alone.
Cas was the only one who didn’t get the hint.
He didn’t try to force Dean into conversation or make suggestions about activities he could do to keep himself busy while his leg healed. But he didn’t leave him alone either. He was just… there. Always. He didn’t get upset when Dean ignored him or when Dean rejected his offers to help. He let Dean stubbornly navigate the stairs on his own but caught him when he nearly tripped. He was a silent sentinel at Dean’s bedside; Dean threw him out of his room one night, but when he woke up screaming from a nightmare Cas was there in a heartbeat to sooth him back to sleep. Cas opened the curtains in the mornings to let the sunshine coax him out of bed, ran baths for him and learned how to re-dress his wounds. He counted every mouthful of food Dean had to ensure he was eating enough. He even lured Dean outside to get some fresh air and exercise some strength back into his tender muscles.
Cas was gentle and he was patient and Dean hated it because it made him feel safe.
When he could not take it any longer, Dean forcefully shoved Cas away.
“Leave me alone!” Dean yelled. “Don’t you understand? I don’t want you here! I don’t need your help! Get the hell away from me!”
The calm countenance of the angel didn’t falter. Cas just looked at him with unwavering compassion. “Scream if it makes you feel better,” he said quietly. “But I am not leaving you.”
“You’re not even here! You’re a trick, a mirage! None of this is real! It is just another way for Alastair to torment me. You left me and I am rotting in Hell and I will never be free, not ever. As soon as I let my guard down Alastair will take all of this away from me and he will never let me stop screaming. But he can’t trick me. I know this isn’t real. You’re not here, you were never here. I wanted you to save me so badly, I prayed to you every chance that I had and for five years I deluded myself into thinking that you would come for me. But all of this is a lie. It just is. I’m not stupid. Do you hear me, Alastair? I’m not playing your game anymore! This is all you got? Why don’t you inflict some real damage? I’m not afraid of you. Hurt me all you want, but this sick mind-warp thing ain’t gonna work on me so you might as well give it up. Come on! Do your worst!”
Dean expected this make-believe reality to implode and for the heat and screams and stink of sulphur to crush in from all sides.
But there was only Cas and those eyes that could stare right into his soul.
“Alastair is dead, Dean. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“You killed him yourself.”
“I couldn’t. He’s too strong.”
“You are stronger. You defeated him, Dean. In the end, you were the one to save me. If this had all been in your imagination, don’t you think I would have been able to strike Alastair down easily and we would have made a clean escape? We did it the hard way, Dean. I lost my Grace and you were badly hurt. You are still hurt. That ache in your leg is not imaginary Dean. It is your body healing the slow and hard way. But you are getting better. And believe me when I say that you will be okay. It will take time, but you will recover from this. I promise.”
Still uncertain, Dean reached down to his wounded leg. He dug his fingers into the white gauze and was rewarded with a sharp, stabbing pain.
“This is real,” Cas said. He took Dean’s hand, covering it with both of his own so he couldn’t tear his injuries open again in an effort to feel something. “I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Risking everything, Dean took a deep breath and exhaled, letting all of the fear and doubts drain away. “This is real,” he echoed.
The world didn’t end.
Cas just squeezed his hand in gentle reassurance, and Dean believed him. Everything was going to be okay.
“We need to talk about what we’re going to do now,” Mom said as she served up dinner. “Bobby’s hospitality has been very generous, but I think we have outstayed our welcome.”
“It is no trouble,” Bobby said, holding up his plate to accept a slice of meat pie. “To be honest it has been nice to have some company around here.”
Mom distributed the vegetables, giving Dean a stern look when he wrinkled his nose at them, but when he reluctantly put a piece of carrot in his mouth she gave him a few extra potatoes and slathered gravy on top. “Even so, we can’t stay here forever. We have a home and a life back in Lawrence. Sam and Dean have already missed a month of school and I’m sure there is a line of customers waiting for John to get back to the workshop.”
“School?” Dean asked. It might have been five years ago, but he still remembered that his last week of school had involved getting homophobic slurs yelled at him and dumb jocks attempting to beat the crap out of him. “I’m not going back there. I dropped out.”
“Not officially. As far as the school is concerned you are on extended sick leave because you contracted glandular fever.”
“So no one back in Lawrence knows I died?” It was depressing to realise that no one at school would have missed him anyway.
“No, so they should take you back no questions asked.”
Dean prodded moodily at his pie. “Great.”
“Mom… I don’t think school was really Dean’s thing,” Sam spoke up. “I mean, I love maths and science and history and all that stuff, but Dean has always been more of a hands-on guy.”
“He needs to finish his education.”
“But he chose hunting. Just because you and Dad realised what a big mistake you made when you kicked him out, doesn’t mean he has to go with you if he doesn’t want to.”
“Of course he’s coming home with us,” Dad said. “Where else would he go?”
Bobby shrugged. “It’s up to you, Dean, but you know you’re always welcome here.”
“You’re not his father.”
Bobby’s face darkened. “You do not want to get into this with me, John Winchester.”
“But Dean, surely after everything that has happened you don’t want to keep living this life,” Mom said.
Dean wasn’t sure. He didn’t think he could cope with going out on a hunt tomorrow, but he still couldn’t imagine being anything other than a hunter. He didn’t want innocent people to go through the sorts of things that he had. Monsters were still out there, and someone needed to hunt them. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Give him a break,” Sam insisted. “He doesn’t have to decide his whole future right now.”
“We need to head back to Lawrence soon,” Mom said. “Dean, we’re a family. We want you to come home.”
The problem was that Bobby’s house felt a lot more like home than Lawrence ever had. It was the only place where Dean had felt he could really be himself. While they were here, everyone had been different. They felt like a family for the first time in a long time. Maybe that would continue back in Lawrence, with the truth out at last, but Dean couldn’t be sure. Besides, Bobby and Cas were as much his family as his parents were. He couldn’t leave them behind and pretend none of this had ever happened.
“I have to think about it,” he said.
“Come on, Dean, don’t you think you’ve done enough? You saved the world already. You defeated the big bad.”
“Actually, there’s a bigger bad you need to worry about.”
The unexpected intrusion received an instantaneous reaction from everyone in the room – they all leapt up from the table and pulled out weapons, Dad stepping in front of Mom, Mom pushing Sammy behind her and Cas shielding Dean. They were all ready to shoot first and ask questions later but the intruder flung up his hands. “Don’t shoot!”
Bobby flung holy water anyway and it had no effect.
“I’m not a demon,” the intruder said in an affronted voice, plucking a tea towel off the surface to dry his face with. “What appalling manners you humans have. I come here out of the goodness of my heart to warn you about the impending Apocalypse and you don’t even invite me to tea.”
“Balthazar?” Cas asked in surprise.
“Yes, it’s me.” He offered a charming smile. “Hello, Cas.”
“You know this guy?” Dean asked.
“He’s an angel.”
“That isn’t hugely reassuring.”
“Oh don’t get your panties in a twist,” Balthazar said. “I’m one of the good guys.”
“He’s a soldier from my old garrison. A friend.”
“Precisely. Cas and I go way back… though I suppose it is further back for you. You have no idea how strange it is to be talking to a version of you that is thirty years older than the angel I know. Or, rather, the angel I knew.” A shadow of grief passed across his face.
“Castiel is dead?”
“Yes. Raphael killed him for aiding in your escape from Heaven. It wasn’t pretty.”
Dean remembered that Cas had said there was another version of him up in Heaven. He didn’t know the other guy personally but it saddened him to know the angel was dead, especially since his actions had helped to save him from Hell.
“I’m sorry,” Cas said.
“Well you were him once, so it is not like he is gone completely. But he did not deserve to die that way. Which is why I am here.”
“What is it, Balthazar?”
“Castiel was a friend. But more than that, he was a good angel. The best of us. He would not have betrayed Heaven without due cause. After he exploded and was posthumously declared a traitor, I went looking for an explanation. I had to dig deep, but I discovered that the upper management has been feeding us lies for centuries.”
“They planned to start the apocalypse,” Cas said.
“Yes, well I for one did not sign up for that. Dad may have left us high and dry but his last instruction was pretty clear; we are charged with the protection of this planet. Sure, the humans have done a good job of wrecking it themselves but despite their general stupidity, bad taste in music and terrible film-making, the population as a whole doesn’t deserve to be annihilated.”
“Thanks,” Dean said sarcastically – Balthazar had just insulted the human race after all – but he was also somewhat grateful to find another angel who was on their side. “But I thought we stopped the Apocalypse already.”
“Yeah, well, you put in a good effort there kiddo but, demons or no demons, the big bosses are determined to see this apocalypse happen.”
“What are they going to do?” Cas asked.
“You know those old prophecies about the Righteous Man? He will break the first seal and then he will be the one to end the war…”
“I’m familiar with the prophecies, yes.”
“Word is that young Dean here is the Righteous Man.”
“So what if he is? The seals are irrelevant now that Lilith is dead.”
“Perhaps, but it is the second half of the prophecy you need to worry about. Ever wonder how a mere human was supposed to kill Lucifer and stop the Apocalypse? Turns out that he was only ever destined to be a weapon for the archangel Michael to use. Dean is Michael’s vessel.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Dean asked. Whatever it was, he did not like the sound of it.
“It means Michael wants to wear you to the prom,” Balthazar said. “Once he has possessed you, he will break Lucifer out of the Cage himself. They will have their prize fight, and the winner will take all.”
“Michael can’t take Dean without permission.”
“I am aware of that. But I am afraid they will find a way to persuade him.” Balthazar looked around the room. “It seems Dean has a lot to lose.”
The unspoken threat hung heavy in the air. Dean felt sick. He didn’t know if he could withstand any more torture, but he knew he would break in an instant if anyone tried to harm Sammy.
“They wouldn’t – they can’t – they’re angels,” Mom blurted. “Why would they want to hurt my family?”
“You are merely collateral damage, my dear. This is the Grand Story. They could care less, I’m afraid.”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“I do not know. But you had better think of something, because they are coming. And they will be here soon.”
“Balthazar, stand with us,” Cas pleaded. “We could use your help.”
“Sorry, brother. I warned you for Castiel’s sake, but although he was willing to die for this cause I am not. I have to look after my own interests. Goodbye, Cas, and good luck.”
The angel vanished as quickly as he had arrived.
There was a long silence.
Dean sighed. “Yep, now I know this is for real. Only my life could be this screwed up.”
“So I guess we hit the books and try to find a way to stop the armies of Heaven,” Bobby said. “Sounds easy.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a cake walk alright,” Dean said.
Cas’s expression was grave. “This is far more serious than inanimate baked goods taking a stroll. This is the end of the world.”
“Isn’t it always?”
Cas shot him a look.
“Yeah, yeah, we’d better get started.”
Dinner was abandoned as they all went looking for books that could help them find a solution to this problem.
Dean didn’t think it would do them much good, though. They were doomed.