Recipient: a dropout
Warnings: Violence, some sex, language
Spoilers: References to events up through 5.03, but AU
Word Count: 32,400 (sorry)
Notes/Prompt(s): Oh, so many. I The major prompt: this is a cop AU, and if I told you much more than that, I would give away the premise and I don't want to do that. BUT this incorporates a lot of other stuff: UST, professional hostility, sex, language, religious/angel lore (liberally messed around with), Victor, Dean being awesome, Cas being awesome, and so on. The title is a reference to another prompt, "This Mess We're In," by PJ Harvey and Radiohead. Probably there's some other stuff in there too.
Thank you so, so, so much to trinityofone for heroically reading this through, as well as cheerleading through some difficult times. Thanks also to 22by7 for encouragement, ideas, and IMing above and beyond the call <333
Summary: "Castiel, this is Detective Winchester," Bobby's saying, voice rough and real. It's a distraction, although a brief one, the angel glancing at him before studying Dean again with that same silent intensity. "He'll be on the Circle Murders too."
They need three tries to get the address out of the security guard, the numbers mixed up with gasps and small, animal cries, and he breaks off, just when Dean thinks they're getting somewhere, to stare at Dean, wild and blank-eyed, and say It's just… it's all kinds of fucked-up shit.
The worst part, Dean thinks, isn't the blood, and it isn't the guts – not the sight of them anyway – and it isn't the cruel precision of the altar, with its bloodsoaked black cloths and its backdrop of bloody sigils.
"Altar's just like the three others," Victor says. He pushes past the photographer with an impatient, "You mind?" A quick gesture for the altar, pristine, symmetrical, Anthony DiPietro's driver's license smiling up at them. The skull grins too, happy with the knife shoved through the – Dean has no idea what it is. The coronal suture the coroner says, squinting through her glasses. "Cause of death?" Victor asks, and Wendy waggles her hand. Yes, no, maybe so. There's no telling, not here, anyway.
It's not the blood and incense that has Dean swallowing, the scorched intestines left to smolder to ash in a vat. It's the body, its hands curved into desperate, grasping claws; he can't even look at. He tries to think of the cop shows, the quip that would come in before the cut to the credits.
"Someone's working heavyweight magic here," he says instead.
"You think?" Victor snaps. Dean shrugs, and Victor softens a little. "Hey man, you okay?"
"Fucking peachy." So long as he doesn't look at the body, or think of the smoke. The rest, the sigils painted in blood, the lungs laid out like a pair of wings branded with Enochian and some other scripts, he can handle. He can handle turning his back on all that to talk to the officer who'd picked their guy up.
The officer has his eyes closed and is breathing through his mouth, although Dean knows he can probably taste the smoke; the air is that heavy with it, and it lies thick on the tongue. "He was just incoherent, man," the officer breathes. "I mean, can you blame him?"
"And he swears he didn't see anything?" Dean presses. "I mean, other than this."
"Would you want to remember, if you did?" The officer – quick glance at the tag, MacLaine, their department has a thing for old movie star names – twitches and laughs a little. He shuts his eyes and swallows heavily; they're glossy with nausea when he looks at Dean again. "He's going to check himself into the nuthouse first thing, you know. Then he's going to ward himself with all the salt and amulets he can find, and still wind up dead."
That's true, Dean supposes. Three murders – four now – and the three people who'd stumbled upon the altars had died screaming.
A small commotion outside the warehouse distracts him, and MacLaine scuttles off before Dean can tell him to stay. It doesn't matter because Bobby's here, rumpled and impatient, glancing briefly at the carnage before zeroing in on Dean. Something in Dean that's still twelve years old and remembering back when Bobby had been Uncle Bobby tightens with anxiety; Bobby's wearing that expression that shouts disapproval and unhappiness.
"So the son of a bitch is at it again." Bobby rubs at his temple, the headache he says has been festering for the three years he's been up at the top. "Dean, I'm – "
"We've got details on the security guard," Dean says before Bobby can keep going. "We're not going to lose this guy."
"I hope not."
Between sending in the reports and waiting for the media shitstorm to hit Level 5, Dean crowds in a handful of hours of sleep. It's the thin kind of sleep, thin enough that the real world filters through into his dreams, Victor talking to the property owner, keyboard clacking away, footsteps on the linoleum outside their office. When he breathes in, he breathes in the smoke that has saturated his clothes, and he's four again, staring at the smoking, dying carcass of his house while Victor types the incident report in the back of the firetruck.
Mary Winchester, 28, deceased. Body not recovered. For years he'd been young and stupid enough to think she had gotten out after all, and would show up any day now, knocking on their big-city apartment door. Maybe, he thinks as he pushes his way back into the real world, he still is.
Not all the coffee in the world can help him once six rolls around and Victor takes over the cot. Dean stares at Victor's back, the fleece blanket tossed haphazardly across his shoulders, not that they need it; the air conditioner never cooperates, partly because the city's too cheap and partly because it's easier to pick out the presence of a ghost from the cold spots in a warmed-up room. Sometimes you don't know what you bring back with you.
Victor doesn't stay down for long, a half-hour catnap, and he's fixing his tie just in time for Bobby to poke his head through their door.
"Victor, what's up with that shifter case?" Bobby looks pretty much like he always does, slightly more wrinkled, maybe, hair slicked back but still looking like it belongs under his baseball cap. "Any leads?"
"In case you haven't noticed, it's been kind of crazy," Victor says. He smoothes down his tie, squints at his dim reflection in one of Dean's framed citations for bravery. Citations for stupidity, Victor and Bobby like to call them. "But," Victor shrugs philosophically, "we know the sewer system he's using; three of the banks on this line have been cited for letting their wards lapse, and he's hit all but one of them."
"Good." Bobby's eyes go glassy for a minute. "Listen, we can't slack on that. Can you get something together, wrap this up fast?"
Victor sighs, and Dean does too. They both know there's hundreds of miles of pipe and access tunnel down there, and shifters need only the tiniest break in the wards; give them an inch of decayed or scratched-out silver and they'll take a mile, and some of them work with human accomplices.
"We can't back-burner this," Bobby says, like they need the reminder, "but I need as many people as possible on the Circle Murders." He winces even as he says it; that's what the press has taken to calling it, after the perfect 360 of blood that's been traced on the floor of every single death so far. "Victor, I'd like you to get together a team, men and equipment, and take care of this mook." Victor nods reluctantly and reaches for his coat, You got it, but Bobby's already turning to Dean. "And you… we're getting breakfast. Know you didn't eat last night."
Bobby like he was eighteen years ago still shows up in flashes, like now. Dean's a bit helpless before it, has to try twice before he can ask Victor if he wants anything, even though all Victor ever has for breakfast is a bowl of Wheaties and the biggest mug of coffee Dean has ever seen. Right now even Wheaties sounds like too much, and Dean swallows, hates the fact this is getting to him, the nausea twisting his stomach some terrible hybrid of anger and fear and lingering smoke.
While he pulls on his jacket and tries to look enthusiastic, Bobby hovers with barely-concealed impatience. Victor's on his cell, setting up what Dean's sure will be a fun day in the sewers, flushing out the damn shapeshifter while Dean does… He pauses, realizes he has no idea. He'd assumed he'd be going downtown with Victor, but this is really Victor's case; he knows everything about shifters, while Dean can't get past the sliding unease of knowing all the shifter would need to do is touch him and everything packed up and locked in his brain would belong to something else.
Give him demons any day.
Bobby shepherds him out the door and down the hall, past the other overcrowded offices and the bank of televisions, an assortment of talking heads reassuring the public that the entirety of the city's police department is on the case, please be sure to ward your houses and places of work, and if anyone you know is behaving oddly, or if you notice anything suspicious, please call the police immediately, and oh yeah, and get your eyes carved out, Dean adds silently. The phones for the tip line are further down the hall and, predictably, ringing off the hook with all sorts of insanity, government conspiracies, terrorists, witch-hunt shit like blaming the weird neighbor.
"Fucking crazy," Bobby mumbles as he steers Dean toward the exit, not without a glance back toward his office, a dim space that smells like dust and the old books Bobby doesn't have time to read anymore.
Dean's sleep-deprived brain can't quite process the speed with which Bobby has him in the car and the car pointed downtown. They drive past the precinct's front doors, crowded close with reporters and six harried officers checking their credentials and anti-possession tattoos.
"It'll get worse before it gets better." Bobby's mouth twists with resignation, and then, out of nowhere, "We gotta stop by the federal building for a moment."
It says something about the week Dean's had, between the shifter and the newest murder (precisely fourteen days after the last one, Winchester, and six weeks after the one before that), that he nods and goes along with it. He stares out the window, the buildings and pedestrians shuffling by in the stop-and-start of congested traffic, and the things he sees every day – the people, the buildings, the wards carved into brick and marble and concrete – suddenly make no sense at all, like this world belongs to someone else.
He needs to talk to Sam. Either that, he tells himself, dredging up a private grin, or pancakes.
First, though, it's suffering through the search going into the federal complex. The feds have been paranoid for a long time now, and Dean can't understand how they don't know that by trying to look for everything they're missing a whole lot. He has to take off his charms, including his necklace, have his tattoo scanned to make sure the ink is secure and that it is an actual tattoo instead of a stick-on. A demon tried that at the Pentagon a few years ago, and it had almost worked.
Then it's through the metal detector. Bobby forgets and has to take off his belt and go through again while Dean toes his shoes back on and endures being scratch-tested with silver and bronze. The guard, pale and bored, hands him an antiseptic wipe and a paper cup of holy water.
"Great time as usual," Dean pauses to check the guard's nametag, "Gus." Gus blinks, slow and almost exaggerated, and looks bored.
That's not the guy's real name, of course; names have power, and a powerful witch that gets a hold of an agent's name can hex his or her way into a lot of mayhem. It's happened before, it'll happen again, and the headache Dean's been cultivating since last night, fed by exhaustion and no food, grows a little more.
It keeps growing as Gus directs them to the branch FBSI offices, and spikes when the agent in charge there, "Seamus," tells Bobby they'll need to go up top. "Things are running late this morning, I guess," Seamus says vaguely, and drifts off to his paperwork. "You're expected up there anyway."
"Great," Bobby mumbles. "Fucking fantastic."
Two hours later, Dean thinks, it's still fucking fantastic, the two of them waiting in the open air of a goddamn helipad, god only knows how many stories up, waiting for something to happen, anything that isn't standing around and being too nervous and uncomfortable to be bored. At this rate, they're going to have to find a place with twenty-four hour breakfasts, with Dean's watch working its way toward ten and his stomach trying to devour his liver.
"I thought we were gonna go get breakfast."
"Keep your damn pants on." Bobby checks his watch again, and Dean has to work to keep his mouth shut about how his pants aren't the problem here.
His skin crawls with anxiety, they're so high up, and he feels like he should be colder, the wind should be fresher, something, instead of the prickling heat and the breeze saturated with smog and grit. The sun sledgehammers down on his neck. Even with a good ten feet between him and the edge of the helipad, the knowledge that another twelve stories lies between him and a messy end on the city streets makes his stomach twist, and okay, maybe it's not so much wanting lunch as wanting to get the hell off the top of the building.
"Look," Dean says to Bobby's uncaring back, "maybe I should – "
"Hello, Detective Singer."
Dean stays still only because it's that or make it nine feet between himself and oblivion.
A man stands there on the H that marks the spot at the center of the helipad. The breeze pulls at his trenchcoat and his tie and his hair; despite all the movement, and the galloping chorus of surprise in Dean's brain, and the sense that things are moving way too fast now in a way too unexpected direction, he's very still. When Bobby steps forward to greet him, his handshake is stiff, unpracticed, and Bobby winces, a muttered You want to leave a few of those bones unbroken?, and the man says something apologetic.
The prickling on the back of Dean's neck has nothing to do with the heat, or the crushing weight of the sun, and everything to do with the man looking at him -- no, the angel looking at him, because no human has eyes like that, raw power at odds with the battered trench coat. He has to fight the urge to look away, tells himself looking away won't matter, the damn thing will read his mind anyway.
Consideringly, the angel's head tilts to the side, and it's Dean's brain crawling now, not his skin, and he can feel the angel's mental fingers flicking through his thoughts like a file drawer. Get the fuck out of my head, he thinks as fiercely as he can, but the angel only blinks and keeps looking. If there's a way to make his mind invisible to angels, Dean doesn't know it; no one does, and the angels, dicks that they are, like it that way.
"Castiel, this is Detective Winchester," Bobby's saying, voice rough and real. It's a distraction, although a brief one, the angel glancing at him before studying Dean again with that same silent intensity. "He'll be on the Circle Murders too."
The angel's face, Castiel's face, doesn't say what he thinks of that, but Dean's pretty sure his does. He turns to Bobby, ten thousand protests crowding his throat and every one fighting to be the first one through, and Bobby's hand comes up forbiddingly. There's a glare for him behind the sunglasses, Dean knows, and he also knows enough to keep his mouth shut.
"This is why you've got Victor chasing the shifter around?" Well, usually he knows enough.
"We're gonna talk about this over breakfast," Bobby says, one hundred percent detective and not the man who'd been Dean's almost-adoptive father for nearly ten years before he'd been Dean's boss. He flips his phone shut. "Put it away and let's go."
The angel doesn't eat, which is fucked up and wrong even though Dean knows angels don't like normal human things like large breakfasts or sex or hot showers. With any luck this isn't an undercover operation, because Castiel's pretty much broadcasting not of this planet, staring at the waitress when she comes to take their order, and then at Dean's plate when their order comes. Six pancakes, bacon and sausage, two eggs, scrambled, and it's some crazy defiance thing, or maybe he's just really freaking hungry, Dean has no idea, but he floods his plate with fake maple syrup and starts in.
"This isn't a federal case," Bobby says around a mouthful of bacon, "but fact is, we need help. These murders ain't solving themselves, and there's too much other shit going on."
The noise Dean makes is noncommittal; it's either that, or saying no fucking thank-you to the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigation and to the trenchcoated angel sitting next to him. The angel, Castiel, feels like and unlike a human, holding himself stiffly, no crazy angelic vibe rolling off him, only the occasional coruscating flash of blue when Dean forgets and looks. For all Dean knows, they could have been hanging out that night, watching the Winchester house burn down, and decided to do nothing about it even though Dean knows, knows for a goddamn fact, it was a demon and that's right smack in the middle of angelic jurisdiction.
"It's my understanding the rituals and sigils used haven't appeared in any prior reported murders," Castiel's saying now. His voice is rough, oddly impersonal; Dean thinks of being on base with his dad, the dry, practical speech of soldiers on duty. The face doesn't go with the voice, which is young despite age lines in the corners of his eyes, dark brown hair cut short and careless. It doesn't go with the clothes, either, anonymously bureaucratic as they are.
Bobby grunts. "Believe me, it's not a bunch of jackass kids who got their hands on a grimoire. I've been around the block and I've never seen anything like this before." He chews aggressively on a bite of waffle as Castiel says, "Human experience can be limited, as can your knowledge."
"Thanks for that," Dean says sarcastically, "your divine high– "
They eat silently for a while. Well, Dean and Bobby eat, and Castiel watches. The silence chews at Dean, almost unbearable with the weight of Castiel's presence. It's one thing to chase after the supernatural, he thinks, and another thing entirely to work with it. Supposedly it works well, but usually only the feds work with angels and since both feds and angels are dicks, probably they understand each other. This – the understanding, not being a dick, even though Victor had been a fed in a former life -- brings him back to Victor, and he waits until Bobby's had a chance to finish his waffle.
"Victor wants in on this," he says.
"Hey, I want him in on it too, but guess what? Sometimes you can't get what you want." Bobby swipes at his mouth with the napkin, balls it up, and drops it on his plate; Castiel watches this with the same infuriating superiority and disinterest, and Dean wants to break something. "But he's what I need on this case: someone who keeps his head and knows how to get things done, and doesn't pitch a fit about it." He softens a little, maybe remembering they have an angel with them, and inter-human bickering never makes their species look good. Maybe nothing does, high-and-mighty bastards that the angels are. "If the case is still open when he's done, you can bet your ass he'll be on it again."
"I'm sure it will be," Castiel says, and Dean bristles, opens his mouth to say something, but Bobby's glare cuts him off.
"When we get back, take him down to Records. Make sure he's up to speed." The flimsy receipt almost tears under Bobby's pen. "And I don't want to hear any bitching about it."
"We can leave as soon as Dean is done," Castiel says pointedly, like Dean's holding up the whole fucking show, so Dean apologizes for making him wait, and gulps down the last cold, gummy piece of pancake, almost chokes when he says "Okay, we can go now."
He barely has time to register Castiel's hand coming up, much less the warm, overwhelming pressure of Castiel's fingers on his forehead, and the next thing he knows they're in front of the station. People stop to stare at the two men who have appeared out of nowhere, but Castiel's stance announces him as an angel fairly quickly – or maybe, Dean thinks as he picks himself up, it's the waves of arrogant dick of an asshole coming off him – and life goes on.
"Shall we?" Castiel asks mildly.
Furious but unable to do anything about it, Dean spins around and stalks inside. There's some mercy in the world because the people most likely to torment him – Jo, Pamela, Missouri (head of Psychic Detection and for good reason) – aren't hanging around. Castiel heels him, an old-school detective down to the trench coat and badly knotted tie, looking around at the commotion, and it drives Dean nuts that he can't decipher the look on Castiel's face. Indifference, almost, and Dean's hackles go up again.
The annoyance festers while he swings by his office to pick up the folder on the Circle Murders. As he fumbles around his desk, making sure he has everything, Castiel inspects the citations and certificates on the wall. "We can go," Dean mutters, waving the folder in Castiel's general direction, and the angel turns away from a photograph of Dean in the desert. Dean has to fight down the urge to explain it to him; probably Castiel already knows, having taken the magical mystery tour through his brain and all.
"You ever worked a case like this before?" he asks, to say something. Castiel's silence takes his words and swallows them up.
"No," Castiel says. He looks down the hallway that leads to the break room and a maintenance closet. "My responsibilities do not usually include… this."
"What, making sure innocent people don't die?" Dean snorts.
Castiel's walking alongside him now, close because the hallways narrow as they get into the older part of the building. In the still air, it's suddenly possible to sense more of what he is, power tightly controlled, sliding through the network of wards and talismans.
"I was called to help decipher the symbols and the arrangement of the altars," Castiel says with frigid calm. He stops dead, and there's no one around, no one to push through and break the steady, fierce concentration in Castiel's eyes – and all of that focused on Dean, tying them together, and Dean hates it.
"My work is espionage. And cryptography." The heat in the angel's voice sears, it's that unexpected. "I was called from the front to help you with this."
Slightly ashamed, and resentful of it, Dean gestures for them to go on. Castiel stalks down the hallway, coat swishing. Au exari hayah, eytau, Castiel mutters, and it's not Enochian, or Latin, or any magical language Dean knows, but the words settle into him anyway.
"That wasn't a curse, was it?" he asks, sideways look at Castiel, who frowns and shakes his head for no, and Dean decides to take what he can get and lets the silence ride with them down the flight of stairs to the basement and the Records room.
Records is the district library. Some of it's digital, praise the non-existent Lord, but a lot of it's big dusty books and it smells musty and old and always puts Dean to sleep. It's why he tries to keep all of what he knows in his head, where it does some good, and pick stuff up on the fly. Part of him knows this place is important -- without it, or the encyclopedia of knowledge he's got stuffed into his brain, or the journal he keeps in the hex box under his bed, he couldn't do what he does – but another part wants the rush, the running, the race.
Castiel glides effortlessly through all the wards, and past the guard as well. Dean barks an order at him to hold the fuck up; the angel swings around with a fierce look.
"Protocol," Dean hisses, jabbing a finger at the guard, who blinks as though seeing Castiel for the first time. Castiel flicks a dismissive glance at the guard and, with an economy that's almost ruthless, pushes up his sleeves, takes up the copper and silver knives, and cuts deep across his forearm.
"Satisfied?" Castiel asks. The blood, for a moment only, traces the seams of his tendons, beads like red raindrops on his elbow, and then the wounds close. Indifferently, even as Dean wonders if they're standing on holy ground now, Castiel wipes at the blood and rolls his sleeve back down. "Do you think we can get to work?"
"I don't know. Can we?" Dean takes his time with his own screening, unbuttoning his shirt all the way even though only the top two need to come off for the guard to check his tat and run the scanner over it. The entire time the angel watches with crackling impatience.
"The amount of time it takes for you guys to get your asses down here and you're all get-up-and-go now?" Dean rebuttons, pointedly ignores the angel's laser-like interest in his chest – no, his tattoo, he thinks, watching those eyes go narrow and considering. "Did they bother to brief you?"
"Yes." Castiel scans the rows of books, selects a few and transports them to one of the study tables. "The blood script is interesting; I've never seen that sort of work before."
"Something an angel doesn't know? Color me surprised." For a long time he's thought the angels really don't know much more than the rest of humanity, for all their mystery and their devotion to the one god no one's actually ever seen.
Nursing annoyance and indigestion, he really can't do anything except shift in time with Castiel as the angel works his way down the rows; it's not like the guy needs his books carried, although the stick up his ass says maybe he needs his ashes hauled instead. Castiel tosses him a quick look, dangerous in the dim light of the library and shoulders him aside to pick up an alchemical text.
He also has to fight the urge to keep picking at Castiel's almost insurmountable calm; it's the kind of calm Dean remembers before thunderstorms in Lawrence, right before the crash-bang of thunder and lightning together. While scholars still fight over it and the angels won't say for sure, parts of the Bible are true, and maybe there really are a couple of cities – more than a couple – sunk into the earth because they'd angered the angels that much. And all the treaties since then, and the angels agreeing to assist humanity on the strength of one guy's bargain (and who really knows what angels think, anyway?)… there's no promise, so far as Dean can see, of the angels not saying the hell with it and taking a broom to the entire planet.
All of that's wrapped up in Castiel and his testy, tight-reined silence, sitting in front of a stack of books. Feeling useless and hating it, Dean grabs one and opens it to a random page. The Latin comes easily, although Sam's always been better at it.
"What are we looking for?"
"I'll know it when I see it." Castiel glances at Dean, eyes focusing for the tiniest flicker of a moment before turning back to his book. "If you could get a piece of paper and pen?"
Glorified secretary, Dean thinks. Fucking awesome.
Castiel doesn't quite understand why he got the assignment.
In one way he does; the request had been for help deciphering some very unorthodox sigils, sigils that weren't purely demonic – and weren't, he'd seen from the moment of peering into Robert Singer's mind, purely angelic either. And the ritual itself had been difficult to interpret, so many competing signals, or so it seemed. This is what he does, and has done since the moment his orders came down – which is to say, the first moment he can remember, when he had been asked What is your name? and he had answered, and in saying his name he had learned what he had to do.
Humans don't understand that. He senses, from the deep, fierce currents of resentment that pull at him, Dean Winchester doesn't understand it either. Castiel sighs.
Dean Winchester had left some time ago, muttering about going to get something to eat, or hell, maybe going to photocopy his ass. He trails hostility and passion behind him, and feels the world, all its joys and cruelties, with a keenness and to a depth that Castiel can't fathom. For that matter, he supposes he shouldn't be able to, or want to, understand the sort of mind that can flout the prerogatives of Heaven.
The books, unsurprisingly, don't tell him much, mostly useless to one who has the entire repository of Heaven in his head. Absently, Castiel sketches the sigils from memory, pen skipping across the pad of yellow paper he'd had to acquire from the guard. Modified Enochian, he thinks, with accent marks that twist the letters into unpleasant sounds.
Castiel shudders and puts down the pen. His head aches, an odd, localized pain, and distantly he thinks he's been gone from the front too long, but orders keep him earthbound even though this case touches him with unease. He'd seen Anna when she had been asked to find someone for the murders and until that moment he'd never seen her uneasy, or fazed by even the bitterest, fiercest battle. But then she'd collected herself and turned to him and said Castiel, I ask your help.
And that had been the surprise, her asking him before going to any of the others. An honor, but he'd rather be back in the garrison, or back up in the Heaven he can barely remember. Sighing – a human thing, Uriel would say scornfully – he looks at his wrist, the two small sigils scratched there. They're invisible to human eyes, but he can see them clearly, glowing dully, patiently.
The archives here are a poor substitute, not even the tiniest speck of a fragment of the collection in Heaven's vaults. The guard drowses at his desk and, suddenly impatient with the smallness of this place, Castiel spirits past him and out the door. No one pays attention except a large, dark-skinned woman, and Castiel knows she sees him, but she doesn't try to tether him or call him to her – wise on her part, despite her power – and before he can think about dereliction of duty, he shakes free from his human skin and wings out invisibly into the open air.
Blood and sigils chase him on his random course and even without a throat he sighs, the despair caught in the back of his voice, as he remembers Anna sketching the chaining symbol on his wrist: he's bound to this task until the end.
Victor isn't in their office, and maybe he won't be until this is all said and done; the coffee cup is missing, the one thing other than Victor's gun Dean knows he'd never be without. He has to resist the urge to call and check up; they don't nursemaid each other, and Dean has the weirdest feeling he'd end up bitching to Victor about the angel Bobby and the way-higher-ups have saddled him with, not commiserating over a day spent in the godforsaken sewers. Instead, he shoves his phone back in his pocket and scribbles a command for Victor to call him, maybe they'll go get drinks.
After he manages to shake off the worst of Castiel and his damned annoying presence, Dean meets Sam in one of the grungiest diners he's ever seen, something at the very edge of the student district and not a place he'd usually go. The floor creaks with grease and something sticky that Dean really doesn't want to think about. Behind the counter, the lone teenage boy who seems to be in charge pops his gum and ignores Dean as thoroughly as if he doesn't exist. And behind the boy is the standard series of warding sigils, a couple of them decayed almost to uselessness. There's also probably ten thousand health code violations going on in the kitchen, and come on, surely his lawyer brother could afford better.
He's about two seconds away from asking Sam if his student loans are that bad when he sees Sam's despondent face, really sees it, and Sam usually has that emotional, martyred, I-grieve-for-the-world expression going on anyway. But this is extreme, even for him, and when Dean approaches him cautiously, bracing himself for an awkward heartfelt confession, Sam sighs heavily. Along with the sigh comes the news.
"What do you mean 'she called it off?'" Clumsily, Dean slides into the booth, tries not to think of what he's probably sitting on. To distract him, there's a ring, a simple silver band, on the table, reflecting the dim, greasy light that comes through the window.
"Sammy, I'm honored. Really, you shouldn't have."
That doesn't even get him the hint of a grin, only a bitter huff of laughter. "Like I said, she called it off." Sam's gigantic paw-like hands engulf a cup of coffee, weak brown coffee that doesn't even steam. He shrugs and smiles bitterly at it. "In public. In front of almost half our friends. She even gave the ring back"
"That's… that's pretty fucking cold." A glance around the restaurant doesn't offer any more help, anything else to say. "She doesn't seem like the kind of girl who would do that." And anyway, Jess had been – for reasons Dean pretends not to understand – as madly in love with Sam as he had been with her. In the interests of preserving his masculinity, Dean doesn't say this, only repeats, "Pretty fucking cold."
"Yeah, well, I was pretty busy at work, y'know? New associate and everything. She said she got tired of waiting for me." Another sigh, and Dean can almost taste the neglect, morning breath and microwaved breakfast burrito and all. "She thought I was cheating, too, with my office mate."
"That doesn't sound like you, Mr. A Diamond Is Forever."
At least that gets him a laugh and a smile, even though it's tight. This right here is why he stays the hell out of relationships, to avoid this pain, and never mind Sam's optimistic assurances that it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. Sammy's the one with the storybook life, the rags-to-riches American dream, with the good job and the beautiful girl, the retriever and picket fence and the kids, the whole ball of wax.
"Guess you don't know some people as well as you'd think, huh?" Sam glances out the window, something sullen and festering in the line of his forehead. "Sorry for dragging you out here."
"Not a problem." Dean waves the waitress away when she approaches. "Look, you want to come over tonight? I could dig up a couple chick-flicks, chocolate, I think I got some nail polish if you want to do your nails."
"Jerk." Sam does laugh this time, unexpectedly bright in the dingy restaurant. "I gotta drag my ass to the office… Maybe I'll come by this weekend?"
"I'll hold you to that," Dean says, and Sam smiles, honest and grateful, and it's the first and only time today Dean feels decent about anything.
The feeling lasts not quite as long as he'd like; by the time he fights traffic to get home, he's exhausted and he swears he can smell smoke, the dry, unpleasant coat of sweat that's melded city scents and burned flesh into his skin. As he stands under his shower, eyes closed against hot needles of water, he tries not to think about more burning, whether Anthony DiPietro's corpse or his house, or the strange, distant heat of Castiel's eyes.
Castiel finds himself down in Records more often than he'd like. Dean insists on interviewing the few people who can be interviewed, and while Castiel is happy to let him – dealing with more humans than necessary seems painful and counterproductive – it means the only place for him to be is this small basement room, with three large corkboards covered with schematics and composite shots of the first three crime scenes. The folder for Anthony DiPietro's case is spread across the table, but Castiel hasn't looked at it. He's taken down two of the photographs from the board belonging to Don Harding, the first victim.
Just, stay here and do… whatever the hell it is you do, Dean had said, and only the orders burned into his awareness, to track down the being behind this and see it destroyed at any cost, had kept him from… from what? Castiel frowns down at a photograph. An upsurge of something hot and fierce had choked him, paralyzed him for a moment before demanding action, that he pin Dean in place and explain to him what he, Castiel, was, what was owed to him, being what he was, what he, Castiel, could do.
A crumpling sound brings him back to himself, and Castiel forces his hand to relax, smoothes out the folds and wrinkles in the now-crushed photograph. Not, he supposes, that the photograph is any great help now; he's memorized the smallest details of it, and it tells him nothing beyond the bare facts of the patterns of blood and the grit of the cement floor, one black candle set on the northernmost point of the circle, above the sigilla maior, the one he needs to decipher.
It differs across the four rituals, and all he knows is that each sigil is meant to summon a different spirit. Dean had been dismissive of that, any rookie knows where the calling signs are placed in a circle. Even Castiel has to admit it isn't very impressive; then again, the ritual is – another thing he finds he must admit – a masterpiece of code, nothing other than the universal circle that one might find in books, or even in the vastness of angelic knowledge.
The base letter is Enochian, Graph, he's figured that, but with complicated flourishes and interpolations that are not angelic, three smaller symbols in subscript beneath the Enochian. He takes a deep breath to settle, wishes for the clarity of his true form; the flesh clouds and unbalances, his mind tugging him in any one of ten contrary directions. The case, Dean Winchester, Heaven, the fortunes of his brothers on the front, back to Dean again.
Castiel picks up the other photograph, one with a close-up of the subscript letters, a prayer on his lips, let me see, and the calm settles over him, the way it does when Anna gives him messages from Hell, asking for his translation.
Subscript: One Hebrew beth, Coptic, alpha, the last Malachim. Teth. A cartouche drawn around the teth, so finely Castiel wonders if it had been painted with a brush. Distant recognition whispers to him, and here is the stillness, the moment before discovery.
Change the letters around. The teth anchors the word, the strongest letter, belonging as it does to the angels and not to mortals. It isn't a word, but a root, the simple form out of which words are born, and it's Hebrew. ABD, from which come the words for destruction, perdition, and Hell.
He replaces the photographs on the board so the circle is whole again. In almost the center of the board, Don Harding stares up at nothing with melted eyes. He's barefoot.
A small commotion at the entrance pulls him from himself. It isn't Dean – Castiel has the feeling he would know if it was, even without looking – but Victor Henricksen, Dean's regular partner. He shoulders his way through the small swinging gate, swiping at the small, lightly bleeding scratches on his forearm with the damp patch of gauze that smells unpleasantly of disinfectant.
"Hey." Detective Henricksen nods at him, the gesture friendly despite its quickness. Castiel nods back. "Dean got you chained down here?"
"No." He doesn't feel like explaining about his orders, or the uncomfortable, creeping suspicion that Dean, even without angelic wards or the handful of other methods that can trap an angel against its will, is keeping him down here anyway. From the sudden spike of amused disbelief, Detective Henricksen feels the same way. Castiel frowns. "I was brought here to do this," he adds.
"Yeah, I heard." Detective Henricksen – Victor, maybe, although Castiel has no idea when humans allow themselves to be called by their first names – takes down a book. The fluorescent lights slide over the dull gold of the title. De formis mutabilibus et creaturis, on shapeshifters, skinwalkers, and spells of metamorphosis.
Dean had been unhappy about that, Castiel knows, his partner being "screwed" and assigned to another case to make room for Castiel's unwelcome presence. Cautiously, Castiel watches Henricksen, in case he feels the same way, but he receives only a quick smile before Henricksen opens the book and flips to the page he needs.
"You are one of Dean's friends," Castiel says abruptly.
"Yup." Henricksen frowns down at the page. "I don't suppose you know a better way to track these things down than searching miles of sewer tunnels."
"I do not." Shapeshifters are of this world, the distant, bastard offspring of Watcher angels and humans, and they have never properly been his study. "Although it was once customary to make offerings to them. Treasure, or something else they were known to covet."
"Let me break out my treasure chest." The book thumps shut, and Henricksen sighs with frustration. "I've hunted down fifteen of these things, but this part never gets any more fun."
"Why would it?" Victor laughs and shakes his head. The laughter seems more than Castiel's comment would warrant. "I guess I meant less awful," Victor says, once he stops laughing, and Castiel doesn't see how that makes much more sense.
He returns to his original tack. "Detective, I was ordered here to help solve this case, and I can't do this if I can't make Dean – Detective Winchester – cooperate with me." Victor makes a disbelieving noise, but Castiel presses on. "I know – " He realizes with the very words on his tongue that telling Henricksen he had seen Dean's past, and the first rocky days of his and Victor's partnership. "How can I bind – " No, that isn't right; one of the rules, the first rules, is that humans must bind themselves, no spirit can do it. "How can I work with him?"
Victor taps a thoughtful finger on the desktop, staring at nothing.
"He's not really one of yours. You know that, right?"
"I know," Castiel says. It's hardly a surprise; it had been the first thing Castiel had found out for himself, and he thinks Dean belongs to no one but himself.
"Just give him some space," Victor says. He swings himself up and out of his chair, bouncing a little with some sudden energy. "He'll come around eventually, once he's stopped pissing and moaning about it."
"Thank you, Detective."
"Any time." And then Victor is gone, back through the doors, and Castiel is alone again, with Abbadon's name staring at him from the corkboard, and more uncertainty than before.
This story has been split into parts due to length. Continue reading here.