Title: Upon My Head
Warnings: Drug use.
Summary: AU of the 5.04 universe (in which Sam is, and has always been, at Camp Chautauqua). It’s funny, the ways in which Castiel has learned to experience regret.
Someone has a guitar somewhere.
Someone is playing a fumbled, old-stringed blues rhythm: E7, A7, B7, add 9, come back to the tonic – patterns that settle into the part of Castiel’s mind that knows how to count measures and identify scales. Angel download, Dean had called it once, and Castiel wonders if all his useless knowledge will fade in time, as his grace has faded, as the light is now fading from the cloud-shot summer sky.
“Maybe I’ll learn to play the guitar,” he says, sweet smoke trailing from his mouth as he lowers the joint.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “Because what the world needs now is another burned-out musician.”
Castiel shrugs, doesn’t take offense, because really that’s how he feels sometimes, burned-out – as if he’s been emptied from the inside, charred hollow. He taps his foot on the stained porch floorboards, one-two, one-two, a mindless metronome keeping track for no one.
“So what does the world need, Dean?” he asks.
Dean shrugs and grins, sharp and false. “World peace.”
Castiel doesn’t like that smile. “You’re harshing all over my mellow.”
Dean snorts whiskey, spluttering and coughing into the jelly jar glass he’s got clutched in his good left hand. “Chuck teach you to say that?”
“I’m not a parrot,” Castiel snaps, then, sullenly: “Yes.”
Dean shakes his head, leans back in the tattered, weather-beaten armchair and reaches for the bottle at his feet to pour himself another drink. He’s taken off his sling for the evening and he resettles his bad arm on his lap, tucks it close to his body. Castiel offers him the remains of the joint, spit-damp and almost gone.
“Nah,” Dean says, waving it away, as always. “Gotta stay sharp, man.”
“You know,” Castiel says conversationally, finishing the joint himself and stomping it underfoot, “If you leave a knife in a vat of alcohol for long enough, it grows dull.”
Dean scowls at Castiel, then scowls down at his whiskey. The guitar plays on, still the same blues song, and all that remains of the sun is a thin glow just behind the treeline. Camp Chautauqua is quietest at this hour, when the bugs come out and the world grows dim and shadows breed more shadows. The flicker of candles coming to life behind the blown-out windows of the cabins, the creak and sigh as people settle in for the night. Castiel imagines he can hear the rustle of clothing being shed, imagines he can hear the whisper of flesh-on-flesh, lips-on-lips – this is the hour for getting laid. Everyone looking for a way to lose themselves, looking for a chaos they can control. Maybe he should go find a body. Maybe if his own body weren’t so stoned.
“We’re almost out of bleach,” Dean says after a while.
“And almost outta Advil. And noodles. And canned beans. And iodine tablets.”
“Sucktastic,” Castiel drawls, and reaches for his rolling papers. That word he got from Dean, so Dean can’t complain.
“We need a supply run.”
Dean’s silence is a small one, a hurt one, and the part of Castiel that isn’t completely indifferent heaves a little sigh and lifts its head.
“We need a supply run,” Castiel repeats, because he’s found that sometimes repeating someone is the very best way to show you’re listening. Especially when you weren’t actually.
“A pretty big one,” Dean says, the fingers of his bad hand flexing a little in his lap. “It’ll take a week, at least. Head down into Massachusetts or New Hampshire, hit up one of those super-shopping centers on the border.”
Castiel watches the useless pulse of Dean’s fingers, curling into his t-shirt and releasing, curling and releasing. “Are you going?”
“Of course,” Dean answers, immediately defensive, and from his tone Castiel knows that there are others who might feel differently. Dean’s gone out with Sam on the smaller missions in the year since his injury – simple recon, one defense attack on some incoming Croats, but nothing overnight, nothing more than three hours from base camp. They haven’t needed one, yet.
Castiel feels something ping through the haze of his high, fighting up past layers of smoke and the leftover dazzle from the pills he’d snorted that afternoon, and it takes him a confused moment to identify it: worry.
“But we need you here,” Castiel says, choosing his words carefully – humans respond far more to flattery than chastisement, he’s learned.
“Nah,” Dean says, flapping a hand. “Chuck and Risa have things pretty well under control.”
“Chuck has problems with anxiety,” Castiel says. “And Risa scares people. With you and Sam both gone –”
“Maybe if you put down the pipe long enough to lend a goddamn hand, things’d go a little smoother,” Dean snaps.
Castiel snorts, gives a short shake of his head. “What do you expect me to do? I’m – I have no power.”
“That’s bullshit,” Dean says bluntly. “Just ‘cause you lost your angel juice doesn’t mean –”
“My angel juice,” Castiel says, throat growing hot, chest curdled with sudden anger. “My angel juice. You – what have you lost, Dean? Tell me.”
“All right, so people have died. The world has changed. You ruined your elbow and can’t use your arm. It must be very difficult, I understand, but I – I have lost all the glory of heaven. Which means nothing to you because you will never know that kind of rapture, so you’ll never feel the pain that comes when it’s gone. Your happinesses have been so small, your pain can’t possibly be any larger. So don’t give me your words about power, because you, with your tiny mind, could never even hope to comprehend the true meaning of the word.”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Dean says, and walks away.
It’s funny, the ways in which Castiel has learned to experience regret. There are two kinds of human feelings that he’s discovered: the feelings of the body, and the feelings of the mind. He wakes up the next morning and feels his body regret the substances he consumed the previous day: his head aches, the sunlight bores through his eyelids, and his stomach flip flops dramatically, warning of stormy weather to come. His mind, meanwhile, has its tail between its legs and keeps replaying the way he yelled at Dean, how angry he was. He didn’t mean to soliloquize. It’s a poor way to conduct a discussion, he knows.
He regrets as he rises from his musty bed and pulls on his clothes, and he regrets as he rinses his mouth with tepid, algaed water. He continues regretting as he rolls a joint, and doesn’t understand why even the smoke doesn’t wash it away.
“Uh oh,” Chuck says at breakfast, spooning cream-of-wheat into his mouth and casting furtive glances over at the next picnic table, some twenty feet away. “I hate it when they fight. It’s like watching Mom and Dad argue, you know? Like, cool it, guys, I’m just a kid, you’re scaring me.”
Castiel watches as Sam slams a palm on the table, and Dean tosses down his spoon and stands up, bad arm strapped tight across his torso, good arm extending an eloquent middle finger in Sam’s direction as he retreats.
“I don’t know,” Castiel says distractedly, looking at Sam’s frustrated face, the dejected slump of his shoulders. “I never had parents. And you’re not a child anymore.”
“My parents fuckin’ hated each other,” Chuck says, picks something from between his teeth, examines it briefly, and puts it back in his mouth. “We should get a therapist for this place, don’t you think?”
Castiel doesn’t answer, too busy gathering his bowl and climbing to his feet. Chuck whines a protest, but Castiel ignores him, slides in across from Sam and raises an eyebrow.
“Hey, Cas,” Sam says tiredly.
“You and Dean were talking about the supply run,” he says.
For a moment it seems as if Sam will deny it, bristling a little, but then he deflates and nods. “Yeah.”
“You don’t want him to go.”
Sam looks at Castiel for a moment, mouth twisted to one side, and shakes his head. “It’s a bad idea. For a lot of different reasons.”
“Well, yeah, his arm, and –” Sam pauses, squints. “No way. Are you sober?”
It was just the one joint, so Castiel says, “Yes.”
Sam laughs a little incredulously. “Way to go, man.”
The condescension is irksome, and Castiel doesn’t respond, just waves at him to continue.
“It’s the arm,” Sam says, “yeah, but it’s… it’s mostly me.”
Sam gives an aborted shrug. “It’s just – I’m immune to the virus, so I’m always at the front, you know? I go in first. I come out last. Dean’s not – that’s not really a situation he’s too good with. I’m worried he’d do something really, epically stupid, and get hurt.”
“Right.” Sam sighs, pokes his cream-of-wheat listlessly. “I hate this stuff. Dean used to feed it to me when I was little – it reminds me of having no front teeth.”
“I tried talking to him,” Castiel offers.
“He made me angry, though. It’s difficult to have conversations when you’re angry.”
“Yeah, it is,” Sam says. “It’s also difficult to have conversations with pigheaded assholes.”
“Takes one to know one,” Castiel points out. He loves ready-made sayings. They’re so easy.
Sam, though, doesn’t look like he loves it. His eyebrows pull together and his forehead divides itself into shar pei-like wrinkles. “Real helpful, Cas.”
Castiel pauses at that, because he hadn’t realized until just now that he was, in fact, trying to be helpful – but he was, and Sam’s sarcasm is valid because he has been thus far failing. “I could talk to him again,” he suggests, somewhat grudgingly.
“Yeah?” Sam perks up a little, and Castiel is struck with how extraordinary it is that even after all this time, these humans believe he can fix things. It sends a flash of warmth through his belly, equal parts pride and shame. Because they are, of course, wrong – he can’t fix anything, not as he could, not with an easy pass of his hand over the rent seams, commanding them to knit and be whole once more.
“I can make the attempt,” Castiel amends. “I’m not promising anything, Sam. Dean listens mostly to himself.”
“No shit,” Sam huffs. “But maybe you can get through to him – he still treats me like a goddamn kid sometimes, it drives me insane.”
“He fed you cereal when you had no teeth,” Castiel reminds him gently.
“Gross cereal,” Sam mutters, but he casts an unhappy glance up towards the main cabin, where Dean is laughing at something Risa’s telling him, open-faced and grinning as she flicks her long black ponytail over a slim shoulder.
“Maybe if you had boobs,” Castiel says, and Sam pats his flat chest in mock despair.
Castiel smokes another joint before seeking Dean out, just to even the edges of his fading high, and he hesitates for a moment over the neat line of pills that someone (Gwen, most likely), has laid out on his pillow. He picks up one of the capsules, rubs a thumb over its smoothness for a moment, and then sets it back down. He can’t tell, sometimes, whether the drugs enhance his thoughts or drag them down – when he was an angel, his mind was always charged with grace, an electrifying background to every word he spoke, and though he seeks that electricity time and time again, nothing has yet come close.
He’s chosen to wrong moment to come and talk – he knows that as soon as he enters Dean’s cabin, but it’s too late now. Dean has the maps of New England rolled up on the table before him, a red marker clenched between his teeth as he tries in vain to unfurl the paper one-handed, rough and clumsy with frustration.
“Cash,” Dean says, raising his head as Castiel lets himself in. “Whasshup.”
“I wanted to speak to you about the upcoming mission,” Castiel says, coming forward to unspread the stubborn paper. Dean doesn’t fight it, steps back and waits patiently as Castiel smoothes the map over the table and weighs down the edges with a few books.
“Thanksh,” he says, and tugs the pen out of his mouth, spits the cap neatly onto the table.
“You can’t go,” Castiel says, figures he may as well get to the point as quickly as possible.
Dean’s eyes narrow. “Excuse me?”
“This mission. It’s too long, too dangerous, and we need you here. You’re not doing anyone any good if you’re ripped to shreds by Croats, Dean.”
Dean puts down his pen with exaggerated care, and turns to more fully face Castiel. “Cas,” he says, and the nickname belies the cold tone of his voice. “I’ve gone on every goddamn mission since we got to the camp. Do I look ripped-to-shreds to you?”
Castiel meets Dean’s gaze for a moment, and then slowly, deliberately lowers his eyes to Dean’s arm, to the makeshift sling and binding that keeps it immobilized under his ribs.
Dean flushes and twitches slightly as if wanting to hide the evidence of injury, but he visibly stops himself and squares his shoulders.
“I’m going,” Dean says. “End of story. Get the fuck out.”
“Why are you going?” Castiel demands. “Why, Dean? Your brother, your peers – they know what to do, just as well as you do – know where they need to go, what they need to collect, when to shoot, when to hide… they don’t need you to lead them anymore. And they certainly don’t need to worry about a teammate who’s not in full operating condition. I think they’ve got enough to worry about, don’t you?”
Dean turns away, jaw tight, and Castiel can see the hurt flickering in his eyes.
“You’ll hold them back,” Castiel says, because once upon a time he was merciless and he can be so still.
The dim room is quiet, just the harsh sound of Dean’s angry breaths and the creak of old timber as he shifts his weight from foot to foot. Like a fighter.
“You think you have to watch out for your brother,” Castiel presses, after a few moments of silence, “but Sam – he can watch out for himself.”
“I know that – it’s not Sam I’m worried about,” Dean spits, like he can’t help himself, and he shakes his head once, furious.
“Right,” Castiel says. “Of course not. Far be it from you to worry about your brother. Unheard of. Out-of-character. Atypic—”
“Goddammit, Cas,” Dean barks, good hand balling up into a fist, bad fingers stuttering their hopeless rhythm against his t-shirt. “You don’t – you don’t fucking get it. I know Sam can take care of his big damn self – I know that. But on a mission, everyone’s gotta have everyone’s back all the time, every second – you have to take care of yourself, but you have to take care of ten other people, too, and they gotta take care of you. Sam is – no one’s gonna have Sam’s back, not like I do. They all figure, hey, he’s immune, he must be fuckin’ immortal, too, and they know about his shit with Lucifer, they know the whole story, and he’s – they’ll watch out for him, sure, but not like I would. Not the way someone who…” not the way someone who loves him would.
It’s Castiel’s turn to lapse into silence as he passes Dean’s words around in his head, and Dean sighs, turns back to the colorful maps laid out on the table, marked with stars and circles and a hundred other symbols that mean danger.
“I didn’t think of it that way,” Castiel says, because he hadn’t. “But Dean – Sam worries about you equally. Especially now. You will be a distraction, not an asset. With your very presence, you put him in more danger. It’s important that you understand that.”
“You’re a dick, you know that, Cas?” Dean says, but his voice lacks venom.
“I’m a dick that doesn’t want you to die,” Castiel says. “And I don’t want Sam to die.” A thought occurs to him, and before he can spend too much time with it, before he can tamp it down and dismiss it, he says, “I could go.”
Dean raises an eyebrow. “Sure you could.”
“You’re always serious.”
“You’re supposed to say –”
“I know what I’m supposed to say.”
“Say it, then.”
Dean lets out a long, put-upon sigh. “Who the fuck is there.”
“I don’t know, actually. I can’t remember the end.”
“Jesus, Cas, you really know how to crack ‘em out, don’t you.”
“See, though? Sometimes I’m not serious – but I am now. If you’re worried about Sam – I could be the one to watch him. I’m immune to the virus, I know very well that he isn’t immortal, and I – I have warm feelings for him. Those would help me keep him safe.”
Dean shakes his head decisively, squeezes his good hand around his bad wrist, a nervous gesture he’s picked up lately. “No offense, buddy, but you’re just about the last guy I’d trust with my life right now, much less Sam’s life.”
Castiel would not have expected that to hurt as badly as it does, but the words send a rush of painful blood to his heart. His purpose – his purpose for a very long time – was Dean Winchester’s life. He was trusted by God with Dean Winchester’s life. And things are different, he’s different, the world has sinkholed out from under him and been replaced with what feels like seafoam and mold, but he suddenly sees, with a brilliant burst of clarity, just how far he’s fallen. Truly fallen. He has been forsaken by Heaven and he has forsaken Earth in turn, and now he has … nothing.
“What if,” he begins, licks his lips, tries again. “The mission isn’t for another week. Correct?”
“Let’s say,” he says, “hypothetically, that I stay completely sober for this next week. No drugs.”
Dean regards him skeptically. “Let’s say you did.”
“Would you – trust me? With Sam?”
“Cas,” Dean sighs. “I don’t trust Sam with Sam, okay? And honestly – I’m not too excited about the idea of putting you in danger, either.”
“I can take care of myself, too.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. “Right. The way you’ve been taking care of yourself lately.”
“Listen,” Castiel says, losing patience. “If you go on this mission, you endanger everyone, Sam included. And if you can’t be there to watch your brother, I am your next best option – the facts are simple, Dean.”
“Simple even for a mind as tiny as mine?”
“I’m sorry about what I said last night,” Castiel says sincerely. “You’re an asshole, and that’s hard to deal with sometimes. But this conversation is over as far as I’m concerned – either you go and make things difficult for everyone involved, or you stay behind knowing that someone who loves Sam – or at least likes him very very much – is watching out for him.”
Dean passes a hand over his mouth, head shaking slowly, eyes fixed on the map on the table. But then he says, “One week, Cas. One week. And I swear to god… I’m gonna have people watching you, and if you so much as look at – at anything, a bottle, rolling papers, I don’t care, I’m gonna go on the mission and die just to piss you off.”
“If that’s a joke, it’s a shitty one.”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
“Your mouth is turned up at one corner,” Castiel points out, and Dean ducks his head a little, readjusts his bad arm in its bindings.
“Just don’t… I’m not expecting a miracle, Cas. Those days are over. But if you could – if Sam had someone – ”
“We’ve made a deal,” Castiel says, bops a decisive fist off the tabletop. “I would suggest we seal it with a kiss, but somehow I think you’d prefer a handshake.”
Dean snorts and offers his good left hand, and Castiel takes it. He pretends not to notice when Dean, at the last moment, gives him a small, plaintive squeeze, but he can feel the pressure on his palm even after he’s left the cabin.
Bugs, Castiel realizes that night, are unbelievably loud. Tiny ones zip in and out of the air around his face with high-pitched whines and buzzes, and larger, hard-bodied beetles the size of dimes clatter against the ceiling and bounce down the walls. He watches the moths most closely, watches how they dip their wings into the flame of his candle, so desperate for light that they singe themselves and fall fluttering to the floor in a dusty, balletic descent.
There are sleeping pills in the chest at the foot of his mattress, next to a half-empty bottle of moonshine, and the combination, he knows, will knock him out soundly until morning and beyond. He won’t hear the bugs when he’s asleep, won’t hear the way his mind whirrs in time with their translucent wings -- why, why, why. Why would he agree to such a stupid arrangement? I’ll be miserable and alert for a week if you let me go on a torturous, dangerous, high-stress mission with your surly little brother, who, incidentally, sometimes hears the Devil echoing around his stubborn skull.
Castiel half-sits up, threadbare sheet falling from around his shoulders, and he’s leaning towards the chest almost before he knows what he’s doing. Dean would never know – there’s no way he would know, if Castiel had one drink, just one drink – the room is empty, the windows are dark, Dean is fast asleep four cabins away, fast asleep like Castiel could be if only he had something inside his head besides the jangle of his own frenetic thoughts.
Dean is not God – Dean cannot know what his subjects do when his face his turned – and yet Castiel does not open the chest. It has been a long time since he’s put faith in anything, since he’s made any promises to a higher power, and if he can’t keep this one – then Castiel is truly gone. He’s already half-gone, more than half-gone, already smudged and erased ‘til he’s barely more than a trace, but he hasn’t disappeared completely. And he doesn’t think he wants to.
He lies back down, and the moths continue swooping towards the fire.
“Rumor has it you’re off the good stuff,” Chuck says the next morning, when Castiel emerges from his cabin into the bright hot sun, droopy-eyed from sleeplessness and jittery with want.
“I’m irritable,” Castiel tells him. “Your voice is very annoying.”
“Got it,” Chuck says, and hands him a cup of coffee. “Thought you might need this.”
Castiel frowns down at the dark liquid. “Thank you. That was thoughtful.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll still clear out,” Chuck says. “I’ve been there, man. It’s not awesome. But you get through it, sorta kinda.”
He claps Castiel on the shoulder and hurries on to where the camp is assembling for breakfast. Cream-of-wheat again, Castiel guesses by the enormous pot he can see over the cookstove, sending up shimmering waves of heat into the August air.
Dean is already over there, trying to juggle a bowl, a cup, a gun, and a rolled-up map in his one good hand, and Castiel watches as Sam narrowly saves the bowl from toppling to the ground. Dean says something that has Sam pursing his lips and wrinkling his nose, and Dean grins, nods his head at a free picnic table. Sam follows, sets down the two bowls he’s holding and takes the rest of Dean’s stuff so his brother can settle himself onto the bench.
Castiel looks over the assembled people, all chewing and talking and strategizing and flirting and being shamelessly human, and he starts to turn to go back into his cabin. He’s not really in the mood for chitchat.
But Dean sees him just at that moment, and he cups his hand around his mouth, shouts “Hey Cas!”
Castiel waffles for a moment before making his glum way over to the table, standing sullenly at the head of it as Dean and Sam look at him expectantly.
“Siddown, man. Eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Dean looks him up and down, eagle eye searching for any sign that Castiel has reneged on his word, and Castiel says, “Dean, I’m not very nice right now. And you’re probably the first person I’d hit. So please don’t look at me like that.”
“Sorry,” Dean says, has the grace to look vaguely embarrassed.
“Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, Cas?” Sam asks, and Castiel realizes that Sam doesn’t know of the bargain. Of course he doesn’t. He’d hit Dean himself if he knew Castiel was going cold turkey for the privilege of babysitting.
“Yes,” Castiel says, and glares at Dean.
Dean grins, a real, warm smile, and against his will Castiel finds himself smiling back. Barely.
“You want me to get you some food?” Sam asks, hesitant like he knows he’s missing something, and Castiel shakes his head, his eyes suddenly caught by the way Dean’s t-shirt has ridden up his shoulder, twisted a little from the sling. The edge of his scar is barely visible, still livid against his skin. Castiel’s own hand.
Castiel stands there and listens to the din and clatter of the morning, listens to Dean and Sam snipe at one another, thinks about how nice it would be to retreat to his cool cabin and drink himself back to sleep – and he thinks about how Dean squeezed his hand last night, when Castiel made his promise. The pressure of that promise was there in the shape of Dean’s fingers, and he thinks about the shape his own fingers left on Dean’s shoulder so long ago – thinks about the promise he made then, how he thought he would never break it. The handprint hasn’t faded, not a bit, even though Castiel himself has – and that, Castiel thinks, has got to count for something.
He’ll make it count.