[personal profile] xaara
Title: A Pathless Land
Author: [livejournal.com profile] xaara
Rating: G, gen
Timeline: post-5.16 (vague spoilers)
Characters: Castiel (Dean, Sam)
Summary: From this distance, the earth curves like a solitary marble, rolled into a corner and forgotten.

A Pathless Land

In Maine, the surf pounds over the sandbar and whorls into foam along the beach, marooning tangles of seaweed among the algaed ribs of a shipwreck. Castiel tucks his hands into the pockets of his coat to keep it from flapping and angles through the wind, the taste of brine at his lips. He studies the wreck, filling in the heft of hull, the weight of the beams and decking, masts and spars. The tides have worked the remains into driftwood. He tries to guess how much time has passed since the ship washed to shore, wonders whether it still lives in memory. He could have known, once, could have touched the ribs and heard their heartbeat.

"It's early for tourists."

Castiel turns to find the voice. An old woman stands behind him, holding a bag by one handle. The bag's contents anchor the plastic as it flutters and snaps. "I'm not a tourist," says Castiel.

"You have family up here?" she asks, bending to dig a bottle cap out of the sand and drop it in the bag.

"No." He turns back to the waves, the wreck. The rain begins to fall a mile to the south, working its way up the coast.

"Then what brings you?" She shuffles a few steps onward, her eyes searching the beach, and plucks up something that she turns over in her hand and adds to her collection.

"I'd hoped to be alone."

She doesn't hear the tone or doesn't care. Her smile starts deep in her. "You just let me know if you need directions. I've lived here long enough." She laughs, a wheezing sound like a hard-won breath. "Been picking up trash off this beach for forty years."

He wants to ask: why? Here where the winters blow bitter and spiteful, where the ocean never calms, where houses cluster with their salt-peeled paint curling away from warped siding. But he can't, so he brushes her mind instead, where he tastes wild blueberries and smells the pines and watches in bemused terror as a skunk and her pups parade right down the middle of Ashton on their way inland into the sunset. Her husband brewed the strongest, blackest coffee, and though she hated it when he was alive, she brews it the same way now, in memory. The bathroom sink's leaking again—need a new washer—and a box of litter for Max, hope the store's carrying that brand—damn picky cat.

It washes over him like the tides she was born to, until he pulls himself away and says, "What happened here?" pointing to the wreck.

The woman lights up. "She was a coal schooner, headed up to Portland and hit the rock at the mouth of the Spurwink in the fog. 1897, it was, the Howard W. Middleton."

Castiel allows her presence close again and listens to a woman telling the story to her child, weaving the fog and the darkness. Children coming home from a the lights and laughter of a dance, the tearing and shouts out over the waves. Three masts like reckoning against the sky, and the sailors helping the tugs ferry cargo ashore before she took on water. Washed-up fragments of coal, glinting secrets in the sand.

"It changes every year. Never know what you'll find after the nor'easters. But it's always there."

"Thank you," says Castiel. He crouches to retrieve a candy wrapper from beneath one dark rib. The plastic crinkles in his hand and falls soundlessly into her bag.

She nods and continues past the wreck and towards the river. Her heart full to overflowing.

Castiel squints at the blurred horizon and sees only water, reminder of a greater flood. The first drops of rain sting his face. When he brushes them away, they replace themselves, tireless. He blinks, breathes deeply, and for a moment the rain stills, the suspended spheres grey and expressionless as the ocean behind them. He imagines shrugging out of his trench coat, unknotting his tie. Leaving suit and shirt in a pile at the bank, wading into the water. Letting the undertow wash him, as unrelenting as baptism.

But the seas will boil soon enough, or turn fresh and sweet; they offer no sanctuary. He sets the thought aside and exhales. Draws his coat around himself. The rain dots the sand, first in discernible circles, then overlapping like a finger-painting into eights, into clouds, into a wash, a blur, rivulets digging channels down the beach.

He thinks, after a while, of the woman. He looks for her, but she has gone, her footsteps fading in the thickening downpour.

--

His phone rings moments after his arrival in Luxor. He looks at the display, sees Sam written there in glowing letters, and silences the tone.

"You're missing the sound and light show at Karnak," says Amun. "It's a big draw these days. They do it in nine different languages, project right onto the wall, only a hundred Egyptian pounds. You can get it all in miniature, too, if you want, and catch a taxi outside to take you back to your hotel."

Castiel has no words for response. His shoulders ache from flying without the boundlessness of heaven to buoy him. He stands for a minute, trembling, and reaches inwards to his grace. It thrums at pace with his heartbeat, tattered and true.

"You're a sorry one." Amun flickers out of focus when Castiel looks at him directly, reappearing in periphery. "Hey now, none of that. You know the rules."

"I'm sorry." He wills his voice to steady, his breathing to calm.

Amun scuffs at the ground with one foot, raising dust that catches the breeze. Behind him, the Valley of the Kings lies arid. Castiel remembers watching, fascinated, as workers dug the tombs and inscribed incantations and testaments of good. The lifelong task of unweighting one's heart against Ma'at's feather.

"Your father is not here," says the god of the hidden, gently. "This is a place of dead things."

Castiel knows, has known from the moment he arrived and before that. The night presses over him, his wings leaden. Boats skim the river, sails bright in the darkness, and he thinks of rivers of blood and the screams of men covered in boils, each new touch an agony. And before, standing with the host at Heaven's gate as his brother—the first among them, the most beautiful—fell.

"I'm not looking anymore," he says.

"But you're looking for something?"

Across the river, the twang of a plucked instrument, the haggling clamor of voices, the waft of saffron. "No," says Castiel. "No. I'm not."

When Amun speaks again, the words too close, Castiel struggles not to turn. "Perhaps not, Angel. Or perhaps you are like those who have visited me here before, looking for a place to fall."

Castiel does turn then, spinning on the ball of one foot and grinding desert beneath the leather, something boiling under the flesh of his borrowed body. Amun disappears, the space that held him smoothed into the hollowed hopes of the dead.

--

From this distance, the earth curves like a solitary marble, rolled into a corner and forgotten. The seas a brilliant blue, the land dappled brown and green and fringed white with the retreating winter. Castiel holds his vessel now, its molecules designed for a life beneath the atmosphere, the crushing weight of creation. The body panics at the darkness beyond its understanding, but Castiel soothes it, allows his form to expand past its confines.

Here, for the first time in months and despite the ache, he stretches his wings.

Returning, he wonders whether this is what it will be like: the spin of the world, the tumble into the heat and the messy, uncoordinated prison of anatomy. He closes his eyes to listen as the air gathers and thickens, rushing past him, catching at his clothing.

Perhaps he could time it for daylight, camouflaging himself against the brighter burn of the sun.

--

"Dude, where are you? Dean's been flipping out," says Sam when Castiel calls him, sixteen days later. It had taken him two weeks of phone silence to fish the device out of his pocket and realize that its screen had gone blank. Another two days in the Himalayas, cold lacing his eyelashes with frozen wind-whipped tears, before he wondered whether he should find a new one.

"I'm all right," says Castiel. In the background: Is that Cas? Is he—give me the phone. No, I'm serious, Sam.

"You have my number, if you need it." He hangs up. The phone rings immediately, and he watches the screen flash until the noise stops, until another noise, eighty-three seconds later, announces a voicemail.

An hour after that, another call, another voicemail. This one shorter. The screen tells him, 2 missed calls. He wonders at the evasiveness of it, the implied blamelessness. Missed. As an accident, as poor aim. As failing to wake for a meeting, or failing to catch a train, or failing to understand. As homesickness. As mourning.

This time, the voicemail tone beeps on its own. Castiel opens the phone to a text from Sam, an address. if u want it says.

--

Twenty-one days after the Winchesters pierced the veil of Heaven, walking into a home Castiel can no longer reach, he stands concealed outside the gates and watches Peter accept souls, one at a time, each ushered blindfolded into its understanding of eternity. Ringing past the gates, a hint of his brothers' song.

Songs of praise. Songs of obedience and worship, songs of penitence and perfection.

He sang in that chorus once, his voice the steady bass as others drew point and counterpoint above, an intuitive harmony. At this distance, hampered by physics and nerve endings, by the heavy air, he can't find the notes.

He thinks of Dean Winchester's music, wailing celebration of love and lust and chaos. Flips his phone open, finds the latest text, and steps into an Arizona motel room, hot and close even in the relative cool of spring. He ignores the fraying tendons, the snapping feathers as he closes his wings.

"Hi, Cas," says Sam. He scrubs a hand against his denim-clad thigh and half-smiles, eyes quiet.

Castiel nods. Perhaps it would be better at night, so that someone might look up and believe in wishes.

"You okay, man? Dean's been. I mean. We've been."

Or perhaps spread out and sailing, friction of his fingertips searing the air. Burning away the fingerprints, leaving him formless, nameless, new.

His grace hums through him, along the arteries and veins and capillaries of his vessel, dying as his hair and epidermis and fingernails, renewed in his lungs and marrow, dividing exponentially as his cells twin themselves. He closes his eyes to see it, white beyond all colors, and opens them to Sam, who sees only the reflection of light.

"I'm all right," he says.

"Good," says Sam. Again, "Good."

Outside, the familiar rumble of the Impala's engine, then silence. Castiel sits beside Sam, his wings fitting painfully against his back. "I think," he says, staring at the weave of the carpet. "Maybe. I should learn to drive."

Sam doesn't look at him. He lifts a hand towards Castiel's shoulder, pauses. His breath hitches.

"Yeah, okay," he says, and the door opens to Dean's silhouette, sun brilliant along his mortal edges.
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xaara

May 2010

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