Dean tries to get up but he can’t move, or doesn’t want to. He can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. The cold is a solid thing pressing in on him on all sides. It slows him down. It makes him small.
Where are they?
There’s a murmur somewhere beside him and yeah, it could be Cas, but it could be the wind, who the fuck knows. Hey, what if it’s the amulet, taunting him? If that fucking thing speaks to anyone, it should be him , not Cas, and definitely not God. It should speak to a lifetime of small gestures, not grand ones that are difficult to understand. We’ve been though some rough times, amulet. And maybe…maybe you’ve been keeping secrets this whole time, you little bastard.
His teeth chatter like those cymbal-banging monkeys, and man, wouldn’t fur be fucking fantastic, right now? One of those little vests, too.
A fucking stove.
An inferno, because contrary to popular belief, some parts of hell are very cold. Some parts are very wet and some are dry, some are filled with cacophony, some with a ghastly silence. Hell is creative and diverse in its cruelty. It is, after all, the final destination of those who are beyond penitence, and there is no need to hold back. In the end, it should be difficult to distinguish the frost from the flame, the way they both destroyed the blood, extreme temperatures licking his skin, his throat constricted, his throat destroyed, he cannot say no, he cannot say stop. Like this. Just like this, the cold like hands that grab him, fingertips clinging to his skin, a battle of transubstantiation, blood into wine into ice into air.
Forty years in the fire. He sees it everywhere and it’s never going to let him go.
Take the knife, kiddo. I know you want to.
And Dean, unable to say no, no, please, no.
How long has he been lying here? He tries to move his fingers and toes, but can’t tell if he succeeds. Quick flash of a memory: a hunter who called himself Two-Toe Joe because he lost the rest up in the Rockies going after the werewolf that killed his cousin.
Something calls Dean’s name, unless that’s just the howling of the wind. Something nudges into him, then again with more force. The words are lost in the wind, the curses unrecognizable. Language is meaningless here, flawed. It scratches the surface of his consciousness, then makes his eardrums reverberate and it’s too much, it’s all too much, he can’t -
How long has he been -
Be kind to yourself, Dean, and take the knife.
He is having a dream, and in the dream, his knife drips blood and his eyes are black, but then a great white light rains down upon him. Dean calls its name.
"Dean! Wake up!"
There are hands on his face. A clumsy bolt of light surges through him and Dean gasps for breath, choking on the frigidity of the air.
"Cas -" He can barely make the syllable.
Somewhere out in the great big world, someone is turning down the volume, and thank fuck for that.
Then, as much as he can feel anything right now, he feels himself lifted from the snow and held tight, one arm clutching him, another hand on his face, then on his neck, then on his heart.
And then there is light.
What’s the Latin for it again? Fiat lux. Fiat gratia. Fiat amo. It’s all of those and none of those. The only thing Dean can comprehend is Cas’s touch, the heat that flows through him and tugs him back from hell. Dean is slowly losing his grip on reality, on himself, falling into something warm and bright, unless that’s just Cas, unless it’s just angels again, motherfucking angels with ten thousand wings and a host of spinning wheels and -
And just like that, Dean is back. Weak, but back.
He blinks in confusion, just to make sure his eyes aren’t frozen over. Checks his lips, too, but don’t wet them. Nobody wants icicles on their face, after all, but then it occurs to him that it isn’t cold enough for icicles. Dean’s clothes are damp. So’s his hair. So’s his face.
He can see.
The world is still mostly shades of white, white all around them, white falling from the sky, but shapes swim into clarity. The small hill that slopes up in front of them, and on top of it there is a small spired building with a domed roof and a cross. Behind them, he can hear the ocean. He is leaning against something soft, and a heart beats against his ear.
Everything is illuminated by a steady golden glow.
Cas clutches him too hard, breathing unevenly, and then Dean realizes what’s going on.
"Cas," Dean croaks, and just like on the beach after the snakes, it’s hard to ask him to stop. Dean wants this, can get high off of this, he needs this warmth, and what’s worse, he needs it or else he will die. If Cas keeps this up, he will die. The both of them will die ignominious deaths in the middle of this frozen wasteland, and what then?
Where are they?
"Stop," Dean says through gritted teeth. He balls his fists around the lapels of Cas’ coats and fails to shake him out of his stupor, he can barely move. "Stop. Cas."
It’s like Chuck’s kitchen all over again. It’s Raphael blowing out the windows in Maine and how Cas’s first instinct had been to shield Dean from the shards. Cas is so determined to destroy himself for Dean and he gives Dean no choice in the matter. I’ll save you whether you want it or not. It’s such a hilariously familiar habit that if Dean had had the energy to laugh, he would have. Welcome to the family, Cas. Enjoy your stay, however brief you may choose for it to be.
"Dean -" Cas’s voice is a strained and crackly thing, lost to the wind. "I can’t -"
"It’s okay," Dean says. It’s not okay. It’s not okay, but it is.
The golden light disappears. The cold rushes back in. With the light, everything is twice as blinding. Without grace sustaining him, the cold attacks with even more ferocity. Dean loses to it faster than before.
"I’m trying -"
"‘S okay," Dean says, already slipping away.
And before Dean passes out, he sees an impossible thing: someone appears over the crest of the hill.
"Cavalry’s here," Dean murmurs, and closes his eyes.
Dean can feel a hand pressing against his chest, another on the nape of his neck. He veers into consciousness when someone lifts him up, and then the pale white world continues winking in and out. He cannot move but he is moving. Okay. Good. Now if only someone had a space heater. Or a s’more. Or even a hot water bottle.
He would fucking love a s’more right now.
Suddenly there’s a rush of air, the smell of polished wood and old incense.
Cas’s voice: "Ne trogai evo."
"No, on bolen-"
"Skazal tebe, ne trogai evo!" Cas barks.
Someone’s hand runs through his hair, combing out the snow and ice. It toggles a memory loose.
Winter up in Minnesota, a seal was to be saved. Some demons, some missing kids. Some bad decisions in the woods that had Dean on his back and bleeding out into the snow, staring up at the shivering stars. The pain had eventually dulled to a low ache and the cold softened its grip. The world fuzzed at the edges. He knew that these are all bad signs. Already Dean was thinking about homecoming, the claws that would reach for him and the million sharp teeth welcoming him back to the pit.
This is it, Dean had thought, trying to not be surprised at fate. This is it, I’m sorry, Sam, fuck, this is it.
But then it wasn’t.
It was like seeing the hidden picture in a stereogram. It was the whisper of wings and flurry of wind that brought with it the scent of far-off lands. By that point, Dean could not speak and could only make the shape of the name on his lips, but Cas appeared as if summoned anyway, an austere smudge of beige disturbing the winter night’s slate gray. Cas drew closer to him, and was he angry at their failure? Was he relieved that Dean was alive? Dean couldn’t tell. All he knew was how Cas knelt by him and the snow didn’t settle on his body, as if it was showing deference to angels. The cold didn’t bend him, and his hands on Dean’s wound, channeling grace, were so warm.
Dean is fading fast, but then an angel’s grace surges through him, reaching out to collect all the parts of him already disappearing, pulling it all back together.
Somewhere off to the side, someone prays in a language he doesn’t understand.
And Dean opens his eyes, death falling off him like a dream or like something as unreal, because death is unreal in the face of this, of their mission, of Castiel kneeling on the ground beside him with one hand on Dean’s chest and the other on his cheek, forcing whatever’s left of heaven out of himself and into Dean.
Somewhere outside of his vision, someone says, "Slava bogy... Slava bogy..."
"Dean," Cas rasps, his voice cracking, stretched thin. "Dean, thank God."
Dean’s throat won’t work, and Cas is likewise inarticulate, having lost all vocabulary except Dean’s name. The best Dean can do is to put his hand over Cas’s hand, the one over his heart, and squeeze. He breathes in deep, and then he sleeps.
Dean wakes up and Cas isn’t there.
Last night comes back to him as a series of disconnected images - the cold, the angel, the light. Someone else’s prayer in the background of his resurrection. How many times can he keep cheating death? He tenses, gathering the instinct against enemies as is his usual habit when waking up somewhere he doesn’t recognize, but there is no one else in the room.
Dean lets the relief of escape wash over him.
He widens his eyes, trying to clear his vision. He’s on the floor tucked in the corner of a small wood-paneled room. There’s a blanket folded under his head and several more more draped on top of him, heavy and uncomfortable. There’s a cross nailed over the doorway. Framed photographs of people in heavy jackets grinning at the camera and the signs behind them are written in Cyrillic script.
Large golden bells hang from the ceiling.
Where the hell did Cas land them now?
The door creaks open and Dean goes for his gun, his knife. His fingers come up empty. The man standing in the doorway is around Bobby’s age, with a beard twice as impressive. His eyes are pale and clear, inquisitive, and his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He wears a bright blue winter coat over the somber black robes of a Russian Orthodox monk, and the effect is both comical and humanizing. In his hand, he holds a steaming mug of coffee that Dean can smell from all the way over here.
"Good morning," he says, the 'r' trilled. The accent is hard, firm.
"Morning." Dean’s throat is so dry. "You’re... you’re the guy from earlier."
The man shakes his head. "No, that’s Sergei." He crouches by Dean and offers him the coffee. Dean takes it gratefully. The coffee is sweet, more sugar than he’d usually put in, but it’s hot and that is all that matters. "You really give him a spin. He comes into my room like demons chase him and says to me, ‘Nikolay, I show you something. Nikolay, it’s a miracle.’ I thought he went mad." He gives Dean a small smile. "But here you are."
"Where are we?"
"Trinity Church," Nikolay answers. "Bellingshausen Station." Taking in Dean’s blank expression, he adds, "Antarctica."
"Antarctica, huh?" Dean says, because by now he has lost the ability to be surprised at anything.
"You don’t know?"
"Been losing track," he mutters.
Nikolay pulls a chair out and sits, crossing his legs. "What are you doing here? Besides the scenery and golden beaches."
Dean flops back down and stares at the ceiling. "Wasn’t our choice, man. It was a mistake." He squirms. "Uh, no offense."
"It’s kind of complicated."
"How did you get here?"
Dean grunts. "That’s complicated too."
"Then perhaps before you tell your story," Nikolay says, "it is time for breakfast."
Dean smiles. "Sounds good. Sounds real good. Thanks." Then he adds, "I’m Dean, by the way."
"I know," Nikolay replies. "The angel told me."
The room at the back of the tiny church that Nikolay leads him to is full of the bachelor clutter that Dean has seen in Bobby’s study on late nights. It has the look of a room that has accumulated many purposes - library, kitchenette, bedroom, and some kind of mission control. A radio console rises out of a pile of papers on the table, beeping occasionally. Portraits of dark-eyed saints watch Dean somberly from the walls, alongside an expired calendar, framed maps of the continent, and diagrams charting the tides.
They sit at the table and Dean is on his fourth cup of coffee.
"So I been chased, choked, threatened, and burned non-stop for the past day, pretty much, and I guess we can also add ‘being frozen’ to the list of fun things to do on world tours with angels. And here we are. And now we’re all out of goddamn chips. Uh. ‘Scuse my French." Dean makes a sign of the cross, just in case.
Nikolay just looks at him in amusement. "Not necessary. You lead an interesting life."
Dean snorts. "Too interesting."
There is a way about Nikolay that puts him at ease. Nikolay listens, laughs instead of judging, and doesn’t mind when Dean swears in his church. The very idea of being in Antarctica is slightly funny in a depressing way, but Nikolay’s company is a distraction from that. Here in this room, with their coffee, the rest of the world feels kept at bay.
"You’re really taking this all in a stride," Dean observes. "I’m surprised you haven’t brought out the straitjacket, with the shit I’m saying."
Nikolay gestures at himself. "As you can see, I am a man of faith. Besides," Nikolay exhales a breath, the steam swirling around his mouth. "there has been stranger things here these days. The temperature, for one thing. Here, on our island, usually it’s minus three Celsius, little more, little less." He makes a face. "Not anymore. It’s colder now, much more so. Poor bastards in the American station, they don’t leave it much anymore, they just stay inside. Though if what you say is correct? The end of the world? The devil walks free?" He smiles, and Dean wonders if he detects a little resignation in it. "Makes sense."
"That’s it?" Dean says. "‘Makes sense’? I tell you the apocalypse is here and you say ‘makes sense’?"
"Sorry," Nikolay says airily. "I can protest instead, if you like? Call you an idiot maybe? Arrest this man, he is telling lies!" He takes a sip of his coffee. "But is easier my way."
"The strange don’t seem to rock your world very much, does it?"
"Strange?" Nikolay looks at his window. "You mean strange like -" he indicates outside. "Strange like -" he gestures at Dean. "And the angel? Many strange things here right now."
Dean doesn’t know whether to be amused or irritated. "How do you find it so easy to believe?"
"How do you find it so difficult?"
He grinds his teeth. "You wouldn’t happen to have seen God hiding behind one of those glaciers, wouldja?"
"Not to my knowledge, but I have not looked very closely. Maybe you should ask one of the scientists here. They go out often. I like to stay inside, where it’s warm."
"Yeah, doesn’t seem like anyone knows anything much about God," Dean sighs. "Or, Cas’s god, anyway," he adds hastily, remembering Pele. "Or if they do, they ain’t talking."
"He speaks good Russian, your Castiel," Nikolay says. "But his accent needs work."
Dean laughs, because of all the things to say about angels, Nikolay would pick the accent? If Jimmy Novak had been Russian, would the accent have been better?
"You always like this?" Dean smiles.
"Not always. I asked your friend for proof he was an angel, for one thing."
"What happened to ‘thou shall not test the Lord’?"
"Your angel is not God."
"He’s not my angel, man."
"Are you not his charge?"
"Not really. We’re just... y’know. We’re helping each other out."
Nikolay gives him a look like he’s turning some thoughts over in his head, then says, "I see."
"Why? What did Cas tell you?"
But Nikolay just shrugs. "The same." He toys with the handle of his own mug, then clears his throat. "Shall I bring you another coffee?"
Dean slides his mug over with a thanks. He's starting to feel that headache again.
Outside of the church, there is a signpost with arrows pointing in every direction, each labeled with a city and their distance from the bottom of the world. It’s 15,509 kilometers to Moscow. It’s 4,938 kilometers to São Paulo and 14,022 to Budapest. Sergei has walked past it so many times, he says, that he has committed all the cities and distances to memory.
"It’s sixteen thousand seven hundred and sixty six kilometers from here to Tokyo," Sergei says. Nikolay has gone back to the station proper. Apparently he and Sergei are tag-teaming on Dean-sitting duty. "Did you go to Tokyo when you looked for God?"
Dean admits that, regrettably, he never made it to Tokyo, though Cas might have before.
He asked Sergei about Cas first thing when Sergei arrived, and he replied that the angel was still searching for his father.
"He told me to tell you," Sergei answered, "to pray for him if you need him, when you are able."
"Right," Dean said, biting down on the twinge of annoyance. "Of course."
They sit in the sanctuary, where there is a table and two chairs instead of rows of pews. ("Usually during the services, people stand. There is not much room, you see.") The paperwork that covered it has been pushed to the side, and he and Sergei sit across from each other with their mugs of coffee, again very strong and very sweet. The room smells vaguely of incense.
"I have always wanted to go to Japan," Sergei muses. "Especially during the cherry blossom season. I have heard so much. I watch one time a documentary, with the springtime. Everyone goes for a picnic. The sakura goes everywhere. It gets in everything. They interview this woman, outside under the cherry trees. There was cherry blossoms in her hair and she didn’t notice. She just speaks. She looks at the camera and talks about pollenation with flowers in her hair."
Sergei is younger than Nikolay, though his beard is not any less impressive. He’s Dean’s age at most, though probably a few years younger, with wistful eyes that give off the impression he is listening to music tuned to a different frequency. Where Nikolay exudes an air of general affability, there is a disoriented optimism to Sergei that makes him seem younger than he is. He is prone to wonderment and ridiculous questions ("Have you ever touched his wings?"). Maybe it’s just the look on his face. Hopeful people look young.
"My brother tried to get me into sushi for a while but then he gave up," Dean says. "I’m not so hot with the raw meat thing."
"I have not tried much sushi," Sergei admits. Then, in a subject change so sudden it’s obvious he has been thinking about it for a while, he says, "When I found you, you were almost dead."
"Yeah, well," Dean mutters. "I’m used to it."
"The angel said he found you in hell."
Dean wonders if Sergei knows that 'the angel' has a name, but all he can say is "yeah."
"He told me of your destiny, how you fought it," Sergei continues. "That there is no destiny anymore."
Dean looks down at his coffee mug and swirls its contents around. "I don’t think there ever really was."
"I have never seen anything like it," Sergei murmurs, and at this point Dean wonders if he’s needed in the conversation. "It was a miracle. I saw a miracle. You and your angel."
"He’s not my angel," Dean repeats, resisting the urge to fold his arms on the table and bury his head in them.
"He cares for you. Doesn’t speak much, but I can see. He stayed with you all night."
Dean raises his eyebrows. "He did?"
"Of course. Why wouldn’t he?" As if he already knows Cas better than Dean does.
"Probably felt guilty," Dean mutters, rubbing the back of his neck. He still feels heat radiating of his skin, and he wonders if Cas left his mark there, too. He cranes his head but it just makes him dizzy so he stops.
"You know," Sergei says carefully, "so many people live their lives saying they don’t see any evidence of God’s mercy at work."
"For a given definition of mercy," Dean quips. "And I hate to break it to you, man, but God’s still MIA."
"Do you not see?" Sergei asks. "You have been at the heart of so many miracles."
Dean looks him in the eye. "You don’t know anything about my miracles."
Instead of looking chastised, the monk just gives him a look of pitying concern. "It seems," he replies, "that you don’t either."
"Okay." Dean puts the mug down on the table. "Look, I probably should get going. Thanks for the coffee, and you thank your friend for me too. ‘S been real. Nice church you got here. We’ll send a card on Christmas, if postage isn’t too expensive."
"Dean -" Sergei says.
Dean bows his head. "Cas, come in, Castiel. Uh. Our Castiel who art in - somewhere, I guess - hallowed be thy -"
A gust of cold air, the rustle of wings or a trenchcoat.
"Dean." There is snow on Cas’s shoes, frost in his hair.
For a few seconds, Dean’s irritation takes a backseat to the relief of seeing a familiar face. He pushes his chair back and stands up. "Hey."
"You look well."
"I feel like shit."
"That’s understandable," Cas replies, moving closer to him. "I did the best I could."
"Yeah. Yeah, thanks for that. You, uh. You still have my amulet?"
Dean can see the lump of it under Cas’s shirt. Cas takes it out and lets it dangle from his hand, and Dean reaches out and runs his fingers over it, watching it catch the light. He closes his hand around it, a reassurance that it’s real, that it’s still here. They’re both still here, and thank fuck for small miracles.
"Good," Dean murmurs. "That’s good."
Out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees Sergei still seated at the table, watching them quietly with some undecipherable expression on his face. Dean lets the amulet go and shoves his hands in his pockets.
Cas nods at Sergei. "Thank you for letting him stay here."
Sergei’s eyes widen. "You’re welcome. You’re welcome, anytime. Of course."
The silence that follows stretches on too long. Sergei eventually excuses himself to see to something in the back room, but only after confirming that no, Dean doesn’t want anymore coffee, and no, Cas doesn’t want any coffee right now, thank you.
Once more, it’s just the two of them, thousands of miles away from home.
Cas asks, "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I - yeah. I am."
"Good." Then, "You shouldn’t have done that, back at the cave."
Dean flares his nostrils. "You shouldn’t have done that."
"You shouldn’t -" Cas says, then just glares at him. "I needed more time. I could’ve -"
"Could’ve died," Dean finishes flatly.
"I needed -" Cas starts, and Dean wants to say I know, I know, because he does, but the anger is welling up again and he feels no desire to pull his punches.
"You don’t," Dean interrupts. "Look at you, man. You have no idea what you need."
"And you do?"
Dean holds up his hands in mock surrender. "Hey, I'm just playing your game here."
Cas’s expression darkens. "This is not a game that you play."
"You're the one who asked me to come, remember?"
"Back in the cave," Cas says, "I did what I had to."
"Fuck you," Dean retorts. "Of all the times I’ve ever heard that fucking excuse in my life, Cas -" He shakes his head. "Okay, you know what what? Fine. Fine! That's fucking life, isn't it? I don't mind. Take me along then shove me to the side, never tell me shit. You're just like -"
"Like who?" Cas spits out. "Like who, Dean?"
Suddenly Dean is just tired. He rubs his eyes and sighs. "Like Dad, okay? Like my fucking dad."
Dean can’t tell if it’s hurt or anger in Cas’s expression, but when he says, "I am nothing like him," his voice is very calm. "If you’re afraid that I can’t protect you, maybe I should take you back home."
Home. Home is the smell of leather, the rumbling of an engine. Home is Sam.
"I don’t need protection," Dean bristles. "And I don’t need you to take me home. I need you to just take a moment. We’ve been going to all these places nonstop and getting nowhere. I need you to fill me in, fifty-fifty. I need to - hell. Cas. You asked me to come. You said you trusted me. So trust me."
"I do." Cas straightens, hands shaking before he balls them into fists. "I didn’t mean to for it to come to this," he says. "I never told you it would be easy. I have no other choice."
"Stop that, stop fucking saying that. That’s not true and you know it. The choice exists. It’s why you’re here. It’s why I’m here. Okay? We can choose to lay down and die, but we’re not doing that. We’re here, right here, right now. Okay? So be here."
Dean takes a deep breath. This probably isn’t the best place to have this conversation: Cas still looks worn down. Old . They’re both sweating, somehow, despite the snow screaming by the window. The saints are watching them from the walls, and Mary and Christ Pantocrator bear silent witness from the altar. Dean’s shirt sticks uncomfortably to his chest, and he tugs at his collar.
"If you ask someone for help, then let them fucking help you. It’s simple," he says, and hopes they both believe that. "Come on, Cas. We’re fuckin’ drowning, man. How much longer can we do this? How much longer can you pull a save out of your ass?"
"As long as it takes," Cas says, but Dean sees how drained he is, how stretched thin.
"You’re falling apart," Dean insists. "And this? This isn’t going anywhere and you got jack shit most times."
"You may be ready to give up, but I’m not," Cas growls.
"Fuck you," Dean retorts. "I’m not giving up. It’s a rethinking of strategies, something you can’t seem to pull your head out of your ass long enough to do."
It's Sam all over again, his whole fucking family all over again, with Sam's we're not any closer to finding Dad and the truth of it hanging heavy in his heart, the unspoken blame lingering all around them.
"If there is a better strategy, tell me," Cas says, narrowing his eyes. "If you had given me more time with the ifrit, we wouldn’t -"
"If I had given you more time with that asshole," Dean shouts, "we’d both be dead by now."
Cas leans in; Dean stands his ground. He wishes he were less used to anger. They are standing too close again because neither of them are proud enough to back down. "I never forced you to come," Cas says, "and I’ll do this alone if I must."
"That’s not what I said."
Cas turns around and walks to the doors.
"Cas, damn it -"
The church doors swing open and Cas turns and leaves. Dean goes after him, cursing under his breath as he squints against the glare, but by the time he steps outside, Cas is gone.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" he yells at the sky. There's no irritation this time, but blinding rage, hopelessness.
Dean scans the landscape but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for really. He hears Pele in his head, there is no difference between love and loss and Alastair he's playing you like a fiddle, he's gonna cut those strings and for a moment he thinks what if you're right -
"Come back inside." A touch to his elbow. The nature of the touch is strangely familiar, but the hand itself is not. Sergei.
"Yeah." Dean doesn't move.
"He’ll come back."
Dean doesn't answer.
Sergei is persistent. "A loss of faith is a powerful thing."
"Too much faith seems to be the problem here." Dean looks back and meets the concerned gaze of the young monk.
Sergei asks, "You have never heard of overcompensating?"
Dean barks laughter. "Heard of it? Hell..."
"You feel close to the things that you love, whether you understand them or not. Perhaps even because. Come." Sergei lays a hand on his shoulder. "He’ll come back. He cannot leave you when he relies on you so."
"Rely on me for what?" Dean demands.
To his credit, Sergei asks, "When was the last time you ate?"
"Uh, Nikolay gave me some bread earlier..."
"Can find something for you," Sergei says. "Come."
Dean lets Sergei take his elbow and lead him back inside. It's frustrating how his feet still don't want to work for him, how his limbs still feel heavy and leaden.
Sergei hands Dean a thick coat and says, "Dress properly this time."
They strike out into the landscape.
"Bellingshausen used to be so gray," Sergei says. "Dirty. That hill there? It’s rusty barrels underneath. The snow covers it up. The snow covers everything. All over the shoreline, you see lumber, parts of machines, all these things. But then it snowed and snowed. You cannot see them now."
He points out the signpost to Dean. They can’t read any of the cities or distances at all; the snow has swallowed it whole.
"Welcome to the resort," says Sergei.
There’s a violence in how the winter rewrites the landscape. Dean tries to imagine Bellingshausen Station before the snow fell; he tries to imagine the grayness, the debris, the sterile functionality of an outpost at the end of the world. He can’t. Everything has been forcibly rendered pristine. Whatever clue Cas is looking for, perhaps it too is buried.
"Hey, so," Dean says. "You’re a man of God. Have you seen him around here?"
"Nyet, I have not seen him," Sergei replies. "Used to hear him, maybe. But quieter now."
"Hearing God like how? What does he say?"
"Not words. Leanings. Feelings."
Dean smirks. "Like having oatmeal versus pancakes for breakfast?"
"Not exactly," Sergei smiles back. "Anyway. Oatmeal is the favorite here."
At the main compound, in the real kitchen of a squat snow-covered building, Dean sits at a table and watches Sergei and a woman converse in Russian as Sergei peers through the tupperwares in the fridge. Sergei shrugs and says something in a resigned tone; the woman laughs. She refills her mug with hot water from the kettle, and smiles at Dean.
"The weather is bad everywhere, my friend," she says, and winks, then leaves.
"What’d you tell her?" Dean asks.
"I tell her you’re from McMurdo," Sergei says, and tosses a container on the table. "Perhaps here to escape the cold."
Dean opens the tupperware. It looks like croissants, four of them, and he finds his mouth watering. "What’s this?"
"Pirozhki." Sergei takes utensils from the drawer. "You will like it. My mother’s recipe."
Dean smiles. "Your mother mailed you food all the way out here?"
He swears that Sergei flushes. "It is her recipe, but Nikolay made it. Said I am too thin."
"Haven't eaten it, huh?"
"Saving it," he says. "Special occasion. I will heat it up for you."
"I don't think I count as a -"
"You count," Sergei beams, and he sets the oven to preheat, nodding to himself.
"Thanks," Dean says. "Hey, you, uh... you got any drink on you? Something to warm a body up?"
"Ah," Sergei lifts his head in understanding. "You like vodka?"
"I don’t know, the vodka in Antarctica any good?"
Sergei lifts a shoulder. "Good? Debatable."
Shit, Dean doesn’t care. He’s about to ask if it’s cold, but thinks maybe that’s not going to be an issue.
Sergei pours him a few fingers, leaving a glass of orange juice next to it. "Just in case," he says.
Dean ignores the orange juice. Sergei leaves him the bottle.
"I'm sorry, we don't have much."
"Trust me, this is a fu -" Dean stops. "A Thanksgiving dinner."
Dean digs into the pirozhki (onion and egg, a weird combination, but it works surprisingly well) with gusto, and Sergei watches him with curiosity, as if at anytime Dean might sprout antlers or reveal the secrets of heaven and hell. Well, Dean’s got none of those. He’s just going to eat this dinner. It’s a damn fine dinner. The bread is almost hot enough to burn his fingers, and the filling definitely is, but considering recent events, he does not mind at all. After umpteen cups of the monks’ coffee, the savory taste is a welcome change.
"He asked me if I talked with him," Sergei says. "With God. Recently."
"I’m guessing that would be a no," Dean says around a mouthful of food.
Sergei’s smile is dry and worn.
"Uh-huh. Cas didn’t like that answer, did he?"
"I didn’t know what to say," Sergei says. "To an angel? What right do I have? But he wanted to talk. I gave him the honesty he wanted."
"Guy’s not very good with honesty," Dean quips.
"And yet...this gives me hope. All of this. It gives me hope."
Dean raises his eyebrows. "Hope?"
Sergei frowns, considering his words. Then he says, "If the angels deign to descend from the heavens to save us from the cold, then surely we are not alone. Surely something is watching over us.If an angel can still reach for one man, then there is hope for all angels and all men."
Dean tries to respond, and finds he has no words.
"This is where the evidence of God lies," Sergei continues. "There is no proof of God, you see. There is only evidence of him. Perhaps this is it."
"I don’t think that’s God, man." Dean pours himself a little more vodka. "I think that’s just evidence of Cas. And I’m tired of - " He falters. He pours himself a little more. "I’m tired."
"We are all tired," Sergei says, not that this helps.
Sergei leads him to a bedroom at the end of the hall, explaining that Sasha, its usual occupant, is at Artigas investigating the crazy weather patterns with the Uruguayans. Dean can have the room for now. He’s not exactly sure when he falls asleep, but wakefulness prods at him now, and even before Dean opens his eyes, he know Cas is there.
"How long was I asleep?" he asks.
"Five hours," Cas says from where he’s seated on the chair by the bed. For a quick moment, Dean flashes back to a hospital room, to Alastair and the wounds that Cas was forbidden to heal. (He came back later in the dead of night, and Dean knew because he dreamed of the sun that night, and when he woke up the next day, the doctor examined him and declared a clean bill of health, joking about acts of God.) "Thirty-seven minutes," he adds, "give or take."
"What did we just fucking talk about, man?"
Cas frowns. "We talked about several things."
Dean groans and rolls over, burying his face in the pillow. "Never mind."
Cas continues to watch him. "Dean, I was always going to come back," he says.
"So, what, did you find your dad?" he asks. If Cas did, would he even have come back?
"I thought -" Cas begins, and hesitates. "I thought maybe..." Then he gathers himself, begins again. "I was in Boston, and the amulet started to glow."
Dean smirks. "God’s in Beantown?"
"I followed -"
"Is God a Pats fan?"
"I followed -"
"Does He pahk His kah in Hahvahd Yahd?"
"I followed where it led," Cas says, not even bothering to be irritated at his interruptions. He tells Dean about how he had shoved people out of the way, tells him about how the amulet burned into his skin, but the pain didn’t stop him. How could it? "And I thought about all the things I'd say, all the things I wanted to apologize for and everything I wanted to know," he says, but when Cas got there, it was not his father at all.
"Who was it?" Dean asks.
"Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of lo -"
"I know who Aphrodite is." Dean says, amused. "Just making sure. So. What did the goddess of love have to say?"
Cas smiles grimly and shakes his head. "Nothing."
"Nothing about my father."
Dean eyes him. "Great. At least she didn’t try to drown you in foam, I guess."
"She bought me coffee."
Dean raises his eyebrows, but he feels the incredulous smile on his face. "Goddess of love bought you coffee?"
"A grande cappuccino with extra caramel syrup."
"That’s not coffee," Dean corrects, and grins. "Tell me, Cas. What do an angel of the Lord and a goddess of love have to say to each other?"
Cas shrugs, an uncomfortable gesture that's he’s been doing more and more. He looks down at the amulet in his hand. "It does this sometimes," he says instead. "My father is just one of many gods. The amulet gets confused."
"Yeah, I kinda figured that one out."
Dean meets his eyes. They don’t say anything for a long while, and then he just says, "So where to now?"
"I don’t know," Cas sighs. "Someplace warmer for you, maybe."
"Okay. I’m good with that." He’s about to slip about of bed when he realizes he still has Sergei's jacket draped over him. He rolls it up and lays it on the bed.
"That's not your coat."
"I know. Sergei let me borrow it."
"Oh." Cas pauses. "I have a coat."
Dean frowns. "Yeah, I know? What -"
"Never mind," Cas interrupts. "Come, let's go."
"Back to the motel?"
"Not just yet," Cas says. "Can you do with one more place?"
"Depends on the place."
Cas holds out a hand. "Trust me."
A gentle knock on the door, and Cas's hand falters, drops away.
"Come in," Dean says.
The door opens and Dean feels like they're on stage. Sergei and Nikolay stand in the doorway, watching them. Sergei’s mouth moves silently, as if he’s in prayer.
"How do you say "thank you" in Russian?" Dean asks Cas.
"Spasiba," Cas says, and Dean nods at the monks and repeats the word.
"No need for thanks," Sergei assures them.
Nikolay smiles at Dean. "Ni pukha ni pera!"
Dean just blinks. "Um?"
"Similar to your "break a leg"," Nikolay says. "You say back "k chortu"! Means -"
"It also means "thank you"," Cas provides. He looks at Dean. "We should go."
Dean mock-salutes Sergei and Nikolay with two fingers and a smile. "Dasvidanya."
"And to you," Nikolay says.
Sergei steps forward and, looking like he's about to lose his nerve, gives Cas a kiss to each cheek. He clears his throat and follows by giving Cas a hug. Cas's bewildered expression is visible over Sergei's shoulder, and Dean looks down and stifles his own laughter, but then Sergei releases Cas and kisses Dean’s cheeks too, giving Dean his own hug. Very tentatively, as if handling a bomb, Dean hugs him back. Pats his back for good measure.
"Will you come back?" Sergei asks, pulling back. "Or let us know that you are all right?"
Cas smiles: relaxed, easy. "You'll know."
There is light, and then Dean sees water. His boots sink into the sand, and a balloon vendor rolls past them under the colorful cloud of his own wares. A little girl tugs on her mother’s arm and points at them, wide-eyed. He hears the roll of the ocean, streams of Spanish. The sky is blue in its purest form, all clouds chased away.
It’s the Playa Bagdad.
"You mentioned this place," Cas says, "back in Teotihuacán."
"Yeah," Dean says, stumped.
Cas starts walking along the shore, away from the crowds, and Dean speeds up to follow.
There’s a small smile on Cas’s face. "I figured you deserve it."
He waits as Dean sits in the sand and removes his shoes and socks. He watches curiously as Dean sinks his toes into the sand, then walks to the edge of the waves, feeling the water lap at his feet.
"Maybe you’re right," Cas says, coming next to him. The water washes over his loafers, but he doesn’t seem to mind. "Maybe God is hiding. Maybe he doesn’t want to be found."
He doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t sound happy either.
"Wanna fish?" Dean asks. He expects Cas to say no.
Cas says yes.
Dean smiles. Throws an arm around Cas's shoulders. "We should probably rent some rods."
The Playa Bagdad stands out in Dean’s head for the peace he still associates with it. The years Sam was at Stanford tend to blur together in Dean’s head, but there were two bright spots. One was Cassie. The other was the wide blue waters of Matamoros. No Dad, no Sam - just Dean alone in the whole wide world, and for once it was a thought that didn’t terrify him.
Dean leads them down the shore to the boat rental. "Can't we just -" Cas starts, but Dean shakes his head.
Cas looks around the dock, the boats bobbing around it. "We can borrow one," he says.
"Steal one, you mean?"
"Borrow," Cas repeats. "I'll return it. We have no currency. Would you like to fish or not?"
"Yeah, sure," Dean says. Suddenly, everyone finds something fascinating to watch in the opposite direction, and they slip on by. Cas picks up some rods and leads him to a boat. "Dude, you need to come along the next time I hustle pool."
Cas sits in the boat, setting the rod against the side. Dean starts up the engine. And they’re off.
They ride in comfortable silence for a moment, the whir of the engine keeping them company. The beach gets smaller and smaller behind them, and Dean takes a deep breath and relaxes. The Blue Grotto flashes through his mind, and he tucks it into a corner of his memory. A promise. Someday.
"Here’s good," Dean says, because his instincts say so.
He turns off the engine, and Cas watches as Dean picks out the bait, then swishes the line out into the blue with a flick of his wrist. It barely makes a splash. Still got it, Dean smiles to himself. A moment later, Cas follows suit.
For the first time in who the hell knows how long, Dean is fishing.
"So... we just sit here," Cas says.
Cas holds the rod in his lap, and after another moment, crosses his legs at the ankles. There's not much space, and his thigh bumps against Dean's. He still doesn’t look convinced, but he leans back in the seat. "Do you expect to catch fish like this?"
Dean shrugs. "Hey, if one happens to wander by, cool. If not, no big deal."
"This isn’t an ideal fishing spot," Cas says. "There aren’t many -"
"Cas. You’re ruining it."
They sit in silence for a while, their rods quiet and still.
"You know I’m not saying to give up on looking, right?" Dean says finally. "I mean, nothing could stop me and Sam finding our dad, you know? At least mine told me he was dropping off the face of the earth."
"Maybe my father did, as well," Cas says, eyes drifting up to the sky. "Maybe I overlooked it."
"It’s better to look and be wrong, than to not look and be right." He thinks he read that in a fortune cookie once. Or was it that Morgan Freeman movie?
Cas frowns. "That makes no sense. The apocalypse doesn’t give us much time. It’s better to be right."
Dean rolls his eyes. "Dude, do you ever -"
"Do you ever just... turn it off? Look, here’s a tip from one mortal to the new kid on the block."
"I’m not mortal," Cas snaps, and Dean feels Cas's shoulders tense.
"Okay, look," Dean sighs. "When an angel goes to take a minute, where do you go? You told me about Anna’s favorite place, but... where’s yours?"
Cas stares at him, and his frown deepens but somehow is less agitated. It’s still so strange how that happens. Dean still remembers Cas threatening to throw him back in hell, but sometimes Cas looks at him like this and Dean’s mind goes blank. He can only wait for the next thing to come.
Cas stands up. Dean braces himself in case the boat tips over, but nothing of the sort happens.
"Come here," Cas says.
"What?" says Dean, but he is already pushing himself to his feet. Cas lays a hand on his shoulder, right over the scar, and he steps behind Dean, back to front, arm like a seatbelt. He slips an arm around Dean’s waist, and then he speaks into Dean’s ear.
"Hold on tight."
"Um," says Dean. He’s about to say, "What’s going on," but he doesn’t get to because suddenly, beautifully, impossibly, the world fills up with light.
The great beat of wings, the heartbeat of wings, the wings of a heart - it’s all blurring for him and then Dean is rising, he is soaring above the earth. He feels the heat of grace all around him, and yes, he can see now, he sees the blue sky fading into stars and stars and stars. He breaks on through to the other side, and Dean hears in his heart rather than his ears a roar of triumph. This is what angels sounds like, he thinks, remembering Pontiac and Cas’s voice shattering the glass.
The earth, the planet, the fucking planet falls away beneath him until it is a small blue marble, until it is gone.
Until Dean sees the stars around him, separated by vast distances from each other, but such distances mean little to angels and Dean knows this now. He knows so much. It’s a direct hit, a transfusion straight to the veins, and he can scarcely process it, the way angels see, the way angels hear. He passes Jupiter, where Castiel is suffused with a nostalgia for the fierce winds and roiling storms. They remind him of his family’s hosannahs.
And then the asteroids, and then the nebulae, and then the shooting stars, the galaxy falling away beneath him, and it should be terrifying. It should be scary how small he is in all this, how tiny he is in the context of all this. Instead he feels oddly comforted. He is small, and small enough that he can be contained in cupped hands. He doesn’t feel dwarfed. He feels held.
And Castiel, around him, beside him, behind him, a thousand arcs of flame, says, Here.
Dean is aware of great arcs of light at the edge of his vision, some unnameable substance that inspires both surrender and awe. Wings that stretch as far as the heart can sing.
Castiel says, Here.
When Dean was seventeen, he fell in with a crowd of self-styled rebels in Massachusetts and dropped acid for the first time. It was six hours of bliss and genius, and when the effects began to wear off, the return of the normal world was like an offense to him. The return to his motel room in Kansas City is kind of like that. Suddenly Dean is back in the same motel room he was in one day ago. (Two? The time zones throw him off.) There's no fire or snakes or gods or demons here. Everything is unremarkable, and set for one.
It's quiet. He can just hear the water dripping from the leaky faucet, the springs of the bed creaking next door. He runs a hand over his dresser, expecting dust or some evidence of how long he's been gone, but his fingers come away clean.
A touch to the small of his back and he blinks. It's careful, soft: a touch that he's come to associate with Cas. Was Cas like this before? He can't remember. Dean takes the comfort without a word, because this might be it, this might be all he ever gets again.
Finally, he turns to face Cas, and Cas's hand slips away. There's a small smile on Cas's face, and an expression that Dean can't quite read, but he thinks he will be able to, in time. They just need a little more time. A little more peace, maybe, but if wishes were fishes...
"Thank you," Cas says.
"I didn’t do anything."
"You did plenty. You were what I..." Cas falters, then settles on: "Thank you, Dean."
"Glad I could help." Dean shifts his weight. He scratches the back of his head, then shoves both hands in his pockets. "Hey, you want a drink?"
Cas shakes his head. "No, I should go."
"Cas, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve been going for like the past twenty-four hours straight."
"Actually, it’s been longer -"
"Man, shut up." Dean laughs. He’s already heading for the bottle on the table. "Not the fucking point. Okay? Look, if God wants to play hide and seek, that’s his prerogative. Maybe he’s not ready to come out of hiding yet, who the hell knows. The point is..." He pours the whiskey into the two styrofoam cups the motel provides. "Maybe sometimes you just gotta... I mean. Maybe he just... Look, lost things want to be found."
"What if I don’t find them?"
Dean approaches and hands him one cup. "Then there are other lost things that want to be found."
Cas looks at him and there it is again, that contemplative frown, borderline confusion and borderline surprise.
Dean sits down on the edge of the bed, balancing the drink on his knee, and looks back up at Cas. He says, "Stay."
He reasons to himself that it’s not any stranger of a request than "come help me look for God".
It’s only when Cas says okay that Dean exhales.
Cas puts his drink down on the bedside table. He shrugs off his coat and folds it over the back of a chair. He takes off his blazer and does the same thing. Dean watches wordlessly from the bed as Cas's fingers go to the knot of his tie and tugs, lifting it over his head. He hangs the tie over the blazer.
Cas picks up his drink.
Dean smiles as he holds up his glass. "Bottoms up."
"Yes," Cas agrees, clinking their glasses.
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