The Game of God: Day 158 - part 2
The World's Largest Game of Telephone
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Warnings at the end.
— Day 158, continued —
Finding Claudia’s cubicle isn’t easy; the villa is huge and they lose sight of Sempronia a couple of times when servants get in the way. At the farthest end, they catch sight of Sempronia’s skirts and follow her down to the very last door.
Sleep cubicles aren’t very big in Roman homes, but this one seems a lot bigger, which is probably because there’s almost no furniture except a narrow cot in the middle of the room, the head against the wall. The windowless walls are plain, unadorned plaster, the floor plain tile; the impression isn’t a room you live in, but a room you never, ever want to.
A woman—Messina?—rises from the stool with a frightened obeisance as Sempronia approaches. Looking taken aback by the reaction, Sempronia waves her away and takes her place. “Little sister,” she says, taking Claudia’s hand, and Claudia opens her eyes, looking at Sempronia in confusion.
“Why—” Claudia coughs, dry and harsh. “Why are you here?”
“I wish to help you—”
“No,” Claudia says, faint, harsh color staining her face. “No, I will not have it. You must leave!”
“I would agree,” Emet says from the doorway, stepping aside as two male servants bring in a table and another a bag, and Bithy brings up the rear, holding something like a glass flask, neck narrowing into a small, stoppered mouth. As the men start to empty the bag carefully, Bithy sets it on the table like she can’t wait to get it out of her hands. “Sempronia, what are you doing here?”
“She is my sister,” Sempronia says, gripping Claudia’s hand.
“Please, Sempronia,” Claudia whispers. “Please, leave me this much.” Jerking her hand away, she rolls away, turning her back to Sempronia. “Emet, make her leave!”
Emet looks at her expressionlessly, then inclines his head to the door. “I would speak to you, Sempronia. The rest of you, continue in my absence.”
Rising from the stool, Sempronia looks at Claudia, then nods, following Emet out of the room. “What is the meaning of this?”
“If she wished my exclusion, she should have told me herself,” Sempronia interrupts. “Emet, please. She is my sister and she is in distress.”
“You cannot help,” he says finally. “But if you wish, I will allow you to observe. Only observe,” he adds. “If I have your promise not to interrupt or interfere.”
“You have it,” Sempronia says, turning to the door.
“It is not pleasant, Sempronia.”
She pauses. “What kind of treatment is this? I understood it was a new diet.”
“That is part of it. Sheep’s milk mixed with three eggs, honey, and a cup of wine,” he says. “Every third day, the cook adds one cup of finely chopped greens.” Emet tilts his head toward the door. “If you are certain, we should begin.”
“I am.” Going back into the room, Sempronia looks around. “Where should I—?”
“There,” he says, pointing to a corner of the room. Dean watches, baffled, as two of the men, Bithy, and Messina go to the bed while the third guy goes to stand by the table. Then Emet goes to the bed, seating himself on the stool. “Claudia,” he says. “If you won’t take nutrition willingly, we must do this. Will you—”
“No.” The dark eyes open, no tears this time; they’re the most alive part of her. “I won’t.”
Emet nods, reaching to press Claudia’s hand. “I apologize,” he whispers, and rises to his feet, gesturing sharply. Dean sees that one of the male servants is holding silk cords that he hands to Bithy.
At the foot of the cot, Messina reaches for Claudia’s sheet-covered ankles and pulls her to the middle of the bed. Claudia tries to jerk away, but the man is already kneeling at the head of the bed and pins her shoulders down.
That’s when Claudia comes to life and starts fighting.
Bithy kneels, catching Claudia’s flailing right hand and tying it to the cot while the man on the other side does the same with her left, attaching them to hidden hooks beneath the frame. Then Bithy and the man both join Messina, the man quickly tying Claudia’s ankles together as Bithy secures them as well on another hook. As fast as they are, it’s still an effort; Claudia may be thin, but she can fight.
“What are they doing?” Dean asks (like someone’s going to answer) as Emet approaches the cot, holding something he can’t make out.
“Hold her head still,” he says, and as the servant places a hand on her forehead, pinning her head to the thin mattress, Claudia sucks in a final breath and shuts her mouth tight, tears streaming from her eyes. “Claudia,” Emet says softly. “Don’t do this, please. Open your mouth.”
She glares up at him: fuck yourself.
Emet nods at Bithy, and she goes to the left side of the cot and reaches over, pinching Claudia’s nose closed.
Sempronia takes a faltering step toward the bed, eyes wide with shock. “What are you—”
“Not now, Sempronia,” Emet says, watching Claudia. There’s nothing but horrible silence; Claudia’s face slowly reddens, but she won’t open her mouth.
“How long…” Sempronia trails off, looking frozen.
“Until she loses consciousness,” Emet says flatly.
It feels like hours that they stand there, watching Claudia grow redder and redder, her skeletal hands clenched into tight fists as they wait. Honest to God, Dean can’t imagine she can keep that up. But she does, until she can’t anymore; her eyes fall closed, body going limp, and immediately, Bithy opens her mouth and Emet puts what he was holding inside, fitting it over her teeth. When he draws back, Dean realizes it’s some kind of bit to keep her mouth open.
“A reed,” he says impatiently, extending a hand, and another man hands it to him; it’s thin but long, at least two or three feet. Checking it quickly, Emet slides the tip between her lips before he starts to stroke her throat. Expression distant, he doesn’t do anything for a long moment, then abruptly pushes what looks like a foot of it into her mouth.
“What the fuck—” Dean starts, but Sempronia’s at the foot of the bed. “What are you doing?”
“I am inducing swallowing so the reed will not enter the airway,” Emet answers coolly. “The bottle, now: we don’t have much time.”
Now Dean knows why the bottle has that weird narrow mouth; it’s almost exactly the size of the opening of the reed, and using a small funnel, he pours the liquid into the reed and straight into her stomach. He also gets why it’s made of glass; Emet watches carefully to keep the flow steady.
It’s about half empty when Claudia stirs, and there’s almost no transition; the sunken eyes open blearily before widening in horror, and she starts to struggle. Muffled screams issue from her mouth before she jerks her head back with a choking sound, triggering her own gag reflex, and white foam bubbles up around the reed.
“Turn her head,” Emet says to Bithy, holding the reed steady and pausing the flow. “Claudia, we’re almost done; less than a third remains. Messina, Bithy, hold her head still: we’ll make this as quick as we can.”
That third takes forever, even if it’s only a few minutes; Claudia spits and gasps like she’s being suffocated, and both men are needed to keep her on the bed, one sitting on her thighs with a hand on her chest to keep her still.
Finally, the bottle’s empty, and Emet efficiently slides the reed back out as Claudia chokes and gags, breaking it in half and then in quarters with surprising viciousness before handing it to a servant. “Dispose of this,” he says, a flicker of revulsion in his voice. As he turns back, Claudia turns her head to vomit up a mouthful of bile and foamy milk directly into Emet’s lap. Dean doesn’t blame her, and from his expression, neither does Emet.
“No more,” Emet says, nodding at Bithy, who puts a thick wooden stick between Claudia’s lips. Dean wonders what horror comes next, but Emet simply removes the thing holding her mouth open and realizes it’s to keep her from biting him while he takes it out: good call there. “If you expel any more, we have to do it again. Please, Claudia: be content with what you have won.”
Claudia spits weakly, glaring at him, but she swallows hard and nods. Emet rises, gesturing, and the restraints are removed and Claudia lifted from the bed, soiled sheet discarded.
“Bathe her and see her to bed,” Emet says to Bithy and Messina, both of whom look less shaken than they should be (as Dean is); they’ve done this before, more than once. “Come and get me when she’s ready for sleep.”
After Claudia is taken away, the other servants rapidly strip the cot, repack the bag, get the bottle, and leave. It belatedly occurs to Dean that Sempronia’s still at the foot of the bed and hasn’t moved; there’s a suspicious glassiness to her eyes and though he can’t be sure, he thinks she’s breathing too fast, chest rising and falling in fast staccato.
Emet must see it as well; when the door shuts, Emet takes Sempronia by the arm and leads her to the bare cot, pushing her down on it before shoving her head down between her knees.
“Seven breaths, as we practiced,” he says calmly, placing a hand on her back, fingers spreading across the ribs. “Inhale deeply, hold for three seconds, then release; I will count. Think of nothing but the numbers, Sempronia. One.” There’s a long pause. “Two.”
In the same steady voice, he counts to seven and pauses, reaching to touch Sempronia’s pulse. “Again, as we practiced. Inhale and hold for five seconds, then release; I will count. Think only of the numbers, Sempronia. One.”
They go through seven breaths, then a third set with a seven second hold; at the end, Emet checks Sempronia’s pulse and nods, hand moving from Sempronia’s back. Slowly, she straightens, pale, mouth tight, but herself.
“I haven’t had one of those in a long time,” she rasps. “I thought they were—that they were gone.”
“The mind is vast,” Emet says quietly. “And ineffable. That they chase you still is no fault in you, as I told you before; it’s a credit to you that you remembered what to do when they caught you.”
She nods, swallowing hard, and some color returns to her face. “This would be why I was not told the details of Claudia’s treatment.”
“That is one reason,” he answers obliquely. “Ask, Sempronia; there is no longer any reason for concealment.”
“My—my mother ordered that,” Sempronia says slowly. “She knows…”
“When Claudia began to sicken and reject food, your mother came to me and asked me what could be done,” Emet answers. “I gave her the recipe for the drink you saw; even in her weakened state, Claudia could easily tolerate it, and it would keep her relatively healthy. She spoke to Claudia; if she did not eat, she must drink it each evening. At first, she allowed Bithy to feed it to her, if not with enthusiasm, with compliance, but eventually, she rejected it as well. Your mother asked me for options; this was the one she selected.”
“You—you told her of this?”
“Yes, I explained the process and she witnessed the first two applications,” Emet answers calmly. “At the beginning, it was not—like this. Claudia was apathetic during her feeding, but recently she has grown recalcitrant. As you saw.”
“I cannot blame her,” Sempronia says in revulsion. “You call this abuse treatment? Have you gone mad?”
“Generally, it’s a short term solution to feeding a patient unable to care for themselves,” Emet explains. “After a brainstorm or the apoplexy, when a patient suffers from the summer paralysis, or when they have sustained a brain injury that causes them to lapse into a coma, it is sometimes necessary. Either they recover their faculties well enough to care for themselves and we desist, or—”
“They die,” Sempronia finishes for him. “How long is such a treatment generally administered?”
“A week,” he answers. “Two at most. In very rare cases, when the patient is conscious but immobile or in great pain, we administer it for longer, but with syrup of poppies to keep them at peace and ease their passage from this life. It is not a treatment that can be maintained indefinitely.”
“How long has she been fed like this?”
“Two months?” Sempronia shuts her eyes. “My mother has gone mad.”
“Not mad,” Emet corrects her. “Claudia is all she has of Tiberius Sempronius.”
Sempronia opens her eyes. “How long can Claudia continue like this?”
“The recipe assures that she receives adequate nutrition,” he answers. “The human body is not an equation to be solved with x and y, however; the animus, as you call it, plays a part as well. She will weaken more, become subject to infection and disease—half a year,” he interrupts himself, voice flat. “That is the longest I’ve administered it.”
“The family insisted,” he answers mechanically, the dark eyes fixed on some point in the middle distance, and Dean wonders exactly what he’s remembering.
Sempronia sees it, too, and the calm mask of a Roman noblewoman falls into place. “I understand,” she says, watching Emet carefully. “It could not have been easy for your patient.”
“He had a brainstorm and did not recover. Despite our best efforts, ulcers developed from being immobile; they grew putrid and began to eat him alive,” Emet answers tonelessly. “He could neither move nor speak, but his eyes—they screamed as one being tortured. Why should he not: that is what it was, and I his torturer.”
Sempronia reaches out, covering the tightly clasped hands with her own. Startled, he looks at her as if he forgot she was there. With the doctor’s professional calm stripped away, he looks startlingly young. “Tell me the rest.”
“I was very young,” Emet whispers, and it occurs to Dean that Emet is young: thirty, thirty-five at most; how the fuck old was he when they sent him to care for a guy with a stroke? Why? “I had just completed my training in the temple when I was assigned to their household. At least, that was the excuse the High Priest gave when I made a mistake in his sleeping draught.”
“I mixed his syrup of poppies with atropine at triple its maximum dose. He died in his sleep.” He shakes himself, and Sempronia tactfully withdraws her hand as he resumes the practiced calm of a physician. “The family was not pleased. So I was sent to Greece and then Rome to continue my studies. Then I was assigned to the Ambassador’s household.” He smiles wryly. “I never thanked your mother for accepting me into her household; not even the High Priest could refuse a personal request from family of the Lord High Chamberlain for my services if I returned to Egypt, and the Ambassador could only do so much to keep me here.” Sempronia sucks in a breath in understanding. “The needs of Cornelia Africana take precedence, of course, and so by King Ptolemy’s order, here I stay as long as I am needed.”
“You certainly belong with us,” Sempronia says with a flickering smile. “We are all of us a household that defies the Senate of Rome before breakfast: inbred Macedonian aristocrats are nothing.” Taking a breath, she looks down for a moment before meeting his gaze. “Claudia—she won’t improve, will she?”
“Do not blame your mother, Sempronia; the fault was in me as well. I thought, given time, she would recover as she did before.” Emet’s shoulders bow. “There is no cure for melancholia, only treatments, and we know not why or how they work, or even if they will. Claudia doesn’t respond to any of them any longer; her condition continues to degrade, and I no longer believe there is hope for it to be arrested, not this time.”
“Why?” Sempronia bursts out, and Dean sees tears in her eyes. “Why—why now…” She trails off. “The Senate, their last refusal to order the Pontifex Maximus to pay Charon’s fare. Is that the reason?”
“That was the trigger this time, yes—”
“When we returned to Misenum years ago, she was not well, but you were able to treat her and she improved so much! Why not this time?”
“Because it is not that simple.” Emet scoots closer and reaches for her hands. “I have treated men with growths on their bodies that do nothing all their lives; in others, they become putrid and spread, killing them in a few short years or even months; still others, for decades they do nothing and then in a matter of weeks the growths spread and they die.”
“What has that to do with—”
“The diseases of the mind are no different,” he tells her. “Like a growth; like the disorder that causes bruising and exhaustion, that kills some and in others, simply eating sheep’s liver can keep the patient healthy; like the summer illness that causes paralysis and death for some, yet others it leaves untouched: we can treat them to the best of our abilities, but why eludes us. Melancholia is no different; we cannot see it or the damage it causes, but it is no less a disease because of that, and the damage is just as deadly as any that can be seen. Like any disease, we can treat it, but that’s all we can do. Sometimes, that is not enough.”
“We love her,” Sempronia whispers. “Can that—is that not enough to give her reason to live?”
Emet shakes his head. “If love were all that was required for a cure, no man would ever sicken, and we would claim an immortality the gods themselves would envy.”
“What I saw in this room tonight was not love, but torture.”
Emet squeezes Sempronia’s hands before releasing them. “Love can affect judgement as well.”
Sempronia is quiet for a long moment, the grief on her face almost painful to witness. Then she takes a deep breath, wiping away the tears as she meets Emet’s eyes. “It is done.”
“It is done,” Sempronia repeats, rising to her feet. “Claudia will not suffer this; I will not have it.”
Emet rises as well. “Your mother—”
“I will speak to my mother,” Sempronia answers, starting for the door before pausing to give Emet a tremulous smile. “Thank you, Emet.”
“The gods be with you, Sempronia,” he answers, following her from the room. “I’ll be with Claudia if I’m needed.”
Dean looks at her companion, relieved to see she’s as shaken as he is. “Uh, you want to—”
“Oh yeah,” she answers, and they both start at the door.
They only catch up to Sempronia about halfway to the tabilium—Christ, how big is this villa?—but she’s not hard to follow this time, just follow the trail of baffled and startled servants staring in the right direction. Dean watches in admiration as people jump out of her path and even the furniture seems to step back; Sempronia marches through the villa like an invading army. A single glance sends the steward scrambling back several feet when he tries to stop her when Sempronia reaches the tabilium, and she slams inside because fuck doors.
Cornelia looks up from contemplating something on her desk, blinking slowly at the sight of her daughter. “Sempronia, what—”
“Rescind the order to force feed Claudia,” Sempronia states, coming to a stop a few feet from the desk. “Immediately.”
Cornelia gets to her feet. “You don’t understand—”
“I just watched my sister be tortured for an hour,” she interrupts, and Cornelia drops back in her chair, face pale. “Do not tell me I don’t understand. You will rescind the order and allow Claudia her choice.”
“Or what?” Cornelia says quietly, and Dean feels a shiver run up his spine; the last time he heard her use that voice, it was giving Decumius his murder-orders.
“Tomorrow evening, I will be in Claudia’s room,” Sempronia answers, holding her mother’s eyes. “I will block the bed. I will not allow them to touch her. If you want her fed, you will need to order the servants to remove me from that room and tie me down. If you don’t want me in her room, you will need to imprison me. This will end, Mater; you will order it today.”
Dean’s close enough to see Sempronia’s trembling, hands clenched behind her back to control their shaking as she pits herself against the will of the woman who scared the Senate of goddamn Rome. Senators on the rostra itself flinched when Cornelia looked at them like that; Sempronia just looks straight back.
“If I rescind the order,” Cornelia says flatly, “she will die.”
“All men die,” Sempronia answers. “So will she. Her last memories will be of horror and pain and fear; how could they be otherwise? Let this end, Mater; let her last days be peaceful. Let her final memories be of her loving mother easing her passage and her sister at her side.”
Cornelia’s set expression doesn’t change. “She won’t take Charon’s coin.”
“She is of the Gracchi, daughter of Africana in all but blood; to take the coin would be beneath her. She will do as her sister did before her, and she will join Tiberius and Gaius and Licinia on the shores.”
Cornelia seems to shrink. “She is my daughter,” she whispers. “You would have me send her to madness among the shades?”
“How could she be content crossing to where Tiberius cannot go, where Licinia and Gaius are not?” Sempronia counters. “We might call it madness, but to her, that may be paradise. Let us send her with our love, and her memories of that love will sustain her shade in death the way it could not do in life.” She wets her lips. “Please, Mater… let your daughter, let my sister go.”
Cornelia doesn’t answer, expression unchanged, but Dean can almost feel the slow give; maybe no one but Sempronia could convince her.
“When Scipio died, there were many suitors for your hand,” Cornelia says abruptly. “I turned them all away.”
“I had no wish for another marriage,” Sempronia answers, looking confused. “I told you that.”
“That was not the reason.” Frowning, Sempronia takes the chair across the desk from her mother. “Though of course, that would have been reason enough, but it was convenient you agreed. I should have—I should have at least tried to change your mind.”
“I had no wish for another husband,” Sempronia repeats, an edge in her voice. “Mater—”
“Your father and I were in error when we contracted you to my brother’s son,” Cornelia continues. “A bright and intelligent girl has every advantage, but a brilliant one—other than your brothers, there were few men who could hope to match your mind and none who would not grow to envy it. Finding one superior was impossible—”
Sempronia’s expression dissolves into shock.
“—but Scipio was a true Cornelian, or so I thought: a scholar who would see his wife as his partner in all things and encourage the development of her mind.” Cornelia looks at her desk. “It was your father who told my paterfamilias and my mother—much against their will—that I was to follow in my father’s footsteps in scholarship after we were betrothed and my father died. On our marriage, he encouraged me to continue my education; whatever I wished to study, tutors were found and books acquired, philosophers and mathematicians and scientists and scholars invited to take residence with us. He bought a scribe who accompanied him on public business and went to both Senate and Committal meetings to transcribe proceedings for me. He could not take me with him when he traveled on public business, of course, but he wrote me daily when he was away and with those letters came his scribe’s reports. And when his public service ended, his travels through the world included me.”
Sempronia nods slowly.
“I thought Scipio would be the same,” she says softly, but the ripple of anger in her voice makes the hair rise on the back of Dean’s neck. “My brother adopted him as a man grown to give our name and pre-eminence, so I assumed he was of good character; my brother’s judgment was obviously flawed. I corrected that mistake, but far too late, and that burden I will carry to my death.”
From the look on Sempronia’s face, this isn’t something they’ve ever discussed. “I thought… I thought it was because of his role in Tiberius’s death.”
“It was,” Cornelia agrees. “And it was for you. The first time he touched you in violence, his death was assured; if I’d known before—but that doesn’t excuse me.”
“I concealed it,” she whispers.
“I am your mother; I should have known!” Cornelia swallows. “I knew he made you unhappy, however, and that should have been enough.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Sempronia says quietly. “You must know—”
“I know my daughter suffered,” Cornelia answers. “And I could have stopped it. You returned to your brother’s home so changed, so I brought you here, hoping—hoping that would help.”
“Not as much as I’d hoped,” she says. “And you did loathe every physician that I brought to you.”
“One wanted me to eat nothing but beans,” Sempronia murmurs, looking pained.
“Yes, he was an idiot,” Cornelia agrees. “After Emet joined my household, however—I saw my daughter, the girl I raised, once again. You took up your studies, you became the mother little Sempronia lost, and you’re a far better chatelaine of a household than I ever was. Claudia recovered from Licinia’s death under his care as well, and I thought—” Her voice breaks. “I thought this time, he could do it again, if he just had time.”
Getting up, Sempronia circles the desk and leans down to embrace her mother.
“I have few years left,” Cornelia whispers. “Just—if Claudia could wait, we could go together, she and I. But that is selfish; as selfish as I was when I didn’t encourage you to seek another, better man to make you a happy wife. Instead, I kept you with me, and tried to shelter you from all pain, and in doing that denied you any hope of a family of your own.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Sempronia says against her mother’s hair. “You saved me. You denied me nothing; my family is here.”
“You saved yourself,” Cornelia says, pulling back to look at Sempronia. “Not all men—”
“It’s not…” Sempronia hesitates, then shakes herself. “I had no desire for another husband, and I have never regretted that decision. I have no distaste for men in general due to his treatment of me; if I had, I would have married again just so as not to give Scipio the satisfaction of haunting me after his death, I promise you.”
Cornelia chokes on a laugh. “Really, Sempronia.”
“Exactly,” she says, smiling at her mother. “As Scipio’s wife, I met most of the eligible men in Rome, and if I’d ever met one to my taste, I would have perhaps… but there were none. I will not ever be a happy wife, but I am a happy daughter; would that content you?”
“I would be content,” Cornelia says slowly, “if you are a happy woman.”
“Then be content,” Sempronia answers. “I am.”
Cornelia swallows, veined hands clenched in her lap. “Claudia should have finished her bath; I will speak to her with Emet present. If she—it will be her decision, as is right.”
Sempronia leans forward recklessly and hugs her mother with a choked sound. “Thank you.”
Cornelia returns the embrace. “So—”
There’s a knock at the door and the steward appears, looking harassed. “A messenger from Rome has arrived and insists on seeing you immediately. He said to tell you—” He makes a face. “’For remembrance’.”
“I will see him,” Cornelia says, standing up immediately, and Sempronia’s expression darkens. “Have him sent to my tabilium immediately.” She smiles at her daughter. “Go to Claudia’s room and tell Emet to wait for me.”
“If you wish me to return—”
“There’s no need,” Cornelia says, still smiling. “Do order the cook to serve dinner in an hour, however; I’ll see you then.”
Sempronia nods slowly. “Very well.”
As Cornelia puts away her papers, Dean takes the opportunity to check out the tabilium and wonders if Cas would like something like this. It’s at least three times the size of the one in Rome with two full walls of pigeonholes for books, some containing dozens of scrolls. Besides the huge, citrus-wood desk, the only other furniture is a long table scattered with scrolls, paper, pens, and ink wells, and three tall, narrow wooden frames before it, two of which hold paper.
As Cornelia settles herself at her desk, Dean goes to look closer and realizes the frames are holding giant scrolls. There are handles at the top and bottom which he realizes are to wind or unwind the scroll in either direction.
Then there’s a discreet knock, and Cornelia straightens at her desk. “Come in.”
The door opens to reveal two men: the steward in his immaculate tunic looking carefully non-judgmental of the guy with him, who looks like bathing isn’t his thing and is accompanied by the faint but unmistakable smell of onions and garlic.
“Domina,” the steward says formally, bowing. “Lucius Decumius would like to beg an audience with you.”
Decumius grins behind the steward’s back, revealing a couple of missing teeth.
“Please come in, Decumius,” she says before her gaze flickers to the steward. “You may leave us now.”
The steward frowns, but reluctantly, he retreats, and as the door closes, Dean sees Decumius is carrying a large, densely-woven bag slung over his shoulder, the material well-oiled to protect it from the weather. Not waiting for Cornelia’s nod, he comes to the desk, swinging the bag down on the polished surface, and removes a tall, wide earthenware cylinder and then a smaller one, setting both on the desk.
“More books?” Dean asks his companion, who shrugs, looking as baffled as he feels. The jars are plain enough, though now he can see the metal coating the bottom and stripes of banding up to the metal lids, sealed with wax and secured with dozens of metal-chased leather straps.
“Open it,” Cornelia says. The man’s grin widens wolfishly, unfastening the straps in seconds before turning the lid free and reaching inside, taking out a rounded grey—
“Jesus Christ!” Dean stares into dull eyes set in a grey-skinned face that drips fluid, held aloft by a handful of sparse hair. “What the fuck?”
“Natron solution,” his companion answers. “He must have gone to Egypt for it; no one in the world can reproduce their method when it comes to preservation.”
“Why the fuck would you want to preserve…” Dean’s eyes travel down to the neck and stop at the sight of sliced grey tendons and neatly sawn bone. “That’s—that’s someone’s actual head? Someone’s preserved head?”
She looks at him curiously. “What did you think it was?”
How the hell do you answer that? Up to now, there’s been a real lack of preserved heads in his life and God does he wish that were still true.
Getting up, Cornelia circles the desk and Decumius raises the head enough to be level with her own. “They say Opimius displayed my son’s head before his murderers. It is fitting he should experience that as well.”
Opimius: the consul that killed her son and all those other Romans. “How did she get him in Rome?”
“He was accused of taking bribes from foreign kings,” his companion answers. “He went into voluntary exile before it could go to trial.”
Dean looks at her, hearing the unspoken. “This time, he was going to be convicted.”
“Maiestas, treason against the State,” she agrees. “The penalty: stripped of his citizenship, flogged, and publicly executed, his fortune confiscated, he and his family rendered nefas and left destitute, and his descendants unable to stand for office.”
Cornelia didn’t fuck around when it came to revenge. “Like Gaius.”
“His fortune still goes to the state and he lost his citizenship in absentia, but he was able to transfer most of his fortune to his sons, provide dowries for his daughters, and settle enough on his wife that she wouldn’t be dependent on her dowry alone,” she answers. “And see himself comfortable beyond Cornelia’s reach, of course.”
Despite himself, his eyes are drawn back to Opimius. “Where was he?”
“Dyrrachium,” she says absently, then frowns for a minute. “I think you call it Albania now. All you need is a Grania ship and a map: he wasn’t good at this, no.”
Cornelia reaches out, prying apart the rubbery grey lips, and her mouth curves in a slow smile. “His tongue?”
“Here,” Decumius says, patting the other container with his free hand. “Ripped it out myself while he screamed for mercy; no coin for Charon will ever lie beneath it.”
Cornelia meets his eyes, dark eyes alight with something Dean doesn’t want to identify. “Well done.”
“Seal it again and then follow me,” she says, and in a few movements, the horror is back in its jar. Picking up both jars, Decumius follows her behind the desk to a door Dean didn’t notice before. Lighting a lamp, Cornelia raises it as she reaches for the door, and in the brighter light, Dean catches a glimpse of the frame; carved into the soft wood is a doubled set of symbols, shallow enough that even in daylight you probably couldn’t see them unless the light hit them just right.
“What’s that?” his companion asks.
He can’t make them all out, but he recognizes enough of them to make a good guess, and the pattern is unmistakable. That’s not just warding, not with a doubled line and those symbols; what’s in there isn’t supposed to get out. “Containment.”
He starts toward them and belatedly realizes he can’t; glancing at the floor, he tries again, but it’s like there’s more floor with every step he takes. Cornelia opens the door and goes inside, Decumius on her heels, but despite the lamp, the darkness swallows them both almost immediately.
“What the hell…” He looks at his companion, who looks just as baffled as he feels. “What’s going on?”
Before she can answer, she stills, and they both turn to the door. Something vaguely familiar lingers in the doorway, something that oozes around the symbols hungrily, searching for a single flaw. Dean hopes to God Cornelia knew what she was doing when she drew that; whatever that is, it shouldn’t even exist, much less get out.
“Dean?” she whispers, uncertain. “What is that?”
The door abruptly shuts, and it’s gone; that answers one question and opens up about a thousand more. Shaking his head at her question, he turns to search the room, concentrating; you can’t fuck around with shit that feels like that without—
“Contamination,” he murmurs, focusing on the third frame, currently empty. “There we go.”
She follows his gaze and Dean just stops himself from grabbing her as she starts toward it. If that’s where that scroll was hanging, Sappho was right about it, and how.
“It was here,” she says, glancing at him for his nod. Turning around in a flurry of skirts, she surveys the table. “Where’s the translation?”
Going to the table, he glances over the scrolls and focuses on the parchment still stretched almost flat and freshly sanded, like it’s been worked on recently. He scans the page, not particularly surprised that it’s mostly nonsense, entire phrases crossed out, corrections and counter-corrections beneath. He catalogues the other scrolls: Sanskrit, Pārsa, goddamn pre-Babylonian Akkadian, that shit was old when Hammurabi came to the throne. Religious texts, crazy mystics, natural law, what looks like a few ‘shroom trips gone wrong as fuck, and this is just the stuff she’s working with right now. She’s barely bothering to translate any of it; from her notes, she can read it as easily as the tongue of her birth.
Looking at the empty frame again, he thinks of those weird not-ink-splotches and of tinder: just enough to fill the center of your palm, left beside each body.
“For remembrance,” he breathes. “She was marking them.”
“She hasn’t got it,” he tells her, scanning the scrolls again just to be sure. Not yet, anyway, but something tells him that’s gonna change.
His companion’s shoulders slump. “Ecastor. All this time, and—then when?”
“Why do you want the translation?” Her eyes meet his, and suddenly, he gets it. “You know what she was trying to do.”
“What she did do,” she answers impatiently. “That scroll may tell me—”
“How she did it? Why the hell do you want to know…” She wets her lips, dropping her eyes, and yeah, he’s an idiot. “This is what you’ve been looking for.”
“Dean, you don’t understand—”
“Okay, this time, I’ll play,” he says, leaning back against the table and crossing his arms. “Help me understand.”
“We can’t win.”
“We haven’t even—”
“Spare me your platitudes,” she interrupts. “The Misborn patrol the shores in the Morningstar’s name; they terrorize the shades; their numbers are vast and will grow greater—”
“Wait—there’s more of them? How? Lucifer’s still breeding them?” He isn’t sure where to rate this on the horror scale; Cynothoglys buried in pieces in a pocket of time or unburied to be raped to have more.
“No,” she whispers. “They’re attempting to breed themselves.”
He’s gonna need a new scale. “They can do that?” Though come to think of it, why not? “You said they’re dead, so how—?”
“Don’t you understand?” she says impatiently. “The Morningstar bred them of gods. The degenerate offspring of a daughter of Ether and the hybrid sons of Cerberus were sent to where the dead live.”
Abruptly, the tabilium vanishes into a darkness so deep it feels endless. Faintly, he thinks he can hear the sound of rushing water and looking down, he can make out barren ground, or at least, something like ground. As his eyes adjust, he takes in the vast twilight landscape, featureless and flat, broken only by a faint but steady descent in the same direction as the sound of water. There’s suggestion of motion in the near distance: not the Misborn, he realizes after a frozen moment. A crowd—a huge crowd, spanning in either direction into infinity—is gathered, and he can just make out individuals among them, drifting like leaves on the wind, without purpose. In a break between them, he glimpses a massive churning grey breaking white against the outline of rocks: the River Styx.
“The shades,” he whispers; those who had no coin to buy passage from Charon on the Barge of the Dead and thus condemned to madness on the very shores of the River. He can see faces now, blurry and indistinct: some blank as a new sheet of paper, others frozen in a rictus of remembered horror or pain or grief, ragged tunics and dresses drifting on a non-existent breeze.
“Come with me,” his companion says, and helpless, Dean follows her over the endless flatness, not even a rock to kick or dust to rise at each footstep, no footprints to show their passage, and there’s no sound, none at all. Looking back, he can still see the shades wandering, hopeless and helpless; somewhere in there are Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, Licinia and Claudia; he wonders if he’d recognize them if he saw them. He wonders if he even wants to.
“Here,” she says, grabbing his arm, and he stares dizzily down into a massive pit. He stares into it, unable to look away; a floor of gnawed bones and rotting flesh but worse is those still moving, wearing the living, rotting flesh of dogs and people both, squirming like maggots with human faces twisted into animal snarls, canine faces that gleam with intelligence, attacking each other with claws and fingernails and sharp canines and blunt human teeth. Screaming and shrieks fill his ears; they copulate in pools of blood on the mangled bodies of their own, groups of half-baby, half-puppy corpses consumed by their own dams and sires… God.
“Lucifer just let them go knowing…” Then stops, remembering who he’s talking about here. “He didn’t know.”
“No, he didn’t know.” How many ways is Lucifer going to accidentally fuck up his own almost-victory? Holes in reality and monsters who can’t die, can’t be killed (by them, anyway), eat gods, and now may be able to breed: what the fuck is next? “You said they’re attempting; they haven’t pulled it off yet?”
“Half of each litter are stillborn; the remainder don’t survive long after birth,” she says dully. “The first litters were miscarried within days. They have become more discriminate in their breeding and do not repeat pairings that fail.” She meets his eyes. “They are not animals, Dean; they’re born of the divine and they know exactly what they do. Their numbers are vast; it’s only a matter of time before they find a pairing that produces viable offspring. Once they identify it…”
Dean jerks around at a faint, thready sound behind them, his companion with him, and on the shores, there’s suddenly a lot of movement. Without thinking, he starts toward it, and to his surprise, she’s beside him. Halfway there, they both start running; something’s happening and it’s not good.
This close, he can make them all out, and the faces aren’t blank anymore; they’re all filled with mindless terror. “What’s going on?” he asks, scanning the area and seeing nothing. It’s only when his foot slides that he looks down into churning grey and realizes he’s on the shores of the River itself. The shades are inches away, but they can’t seem to get any closer, scrambling mechanically in the dry dirt like an invisible wall is holding them back.
No coin for Charon, he reminds himself bitterly; the shades aren’t even allowed to fucking try and swim their way to sanity. What the fuck did Charon need money for, anyway? Not like they were saving up to build a fucking bridge.
“Dean!” his companion shouts, and Dean turns around. Following her gaze, he looks up, up, and up at—
“Christ,” he whispers, mouth dry.
It’s like a mastiff, if they came fifty feet high and their skin was made of living, squirming maggots and their bones of rotting stone. The head’s a bare skull ribboned in grey-white strips of ragged flesh like tattered bandages, every inch of it squirming between thousands of tiny black eyes like a mass of dead beetles, dull and swiveling to and fro in constant, nauseating motion. Swallowing back bile, he watches the ragged mouth gape open in a horrible, shrieking laugh, revealing a cavern of jagged teeth that go on forever, breath puffing out in a noxious yellow mist with acrid smell of rotting, half-digested meat.
This is what Cynothoglys was tortured and raped to make; there’s no word for them but obscene.
Looking around, Dean catches his breath; there are dozens of them—hundreds of them—crowding the shades back and back toward the River until they can’t go any farther. He’s shoved against his companion, the shades hemming them both in their numbers and their drowning, endless, mindless fear. He wants to run but his legs won’t move; he can’t do anything but stare into that horrible face and be terrified.
From the corner of his eyes, he has the impression of movement, and just manages to turn his head in time to see an indistinct figure drift out of the mass of shades. Slowly, it resolves into a guy in a ragged tunic and the toga of a Roman citizen, gone from white to a dingy grey. The massive heads of the Misborn slowly turn to see him, another hideous mouth gaping open beneath the first and peeling back to reveal another endless field of teeth.
A second figure drifts over to join him; a woman, he thinks, colorless hair flowing down her back and a suggestion of tattered skirts forming to brush just above where her ankles might be. The Misborn grin with all their terrible mouths, a low, almost subliminal growl raising the hair on the back of his neck, and if he could talk—if he could think, if he could move, if he could even breathe—he would tell them not to move, to get away, to fucking run and never stop.
Helpless, he watches three of the Misborn pad toward them, every claw-footed step shaking the world like a rag doll, sending Dean, his companion, and most of the shades tumbling to the ground. Not those two, though; they just stand there like crazy people—shades, whatever—so small compared to those massive paws, those carbon-black claws, those gaping mouths. The Misborn could swallow them whole screaming and never notice a thing. Staring into that horror, they reach out thin wisps of arms to each other, hands clasping. Then they break, spinning around to run straight for the banks of the River.
In a nerve-shattering chorus of delighted screams, the Misborn give chase.
“No!” Dean’s companion struggles to her feet, pushing immobile shades out of her way as she stumbles toward them, her dress and jewelry melting away with every step for worn jeans, a flannel he thinks he recognizes as his (Cas’s), Alicia’s boots, brown hair twisted into Amanda’s severely coiled braid. He wonders if he should be surprised; this is what they do when they see monsters, after all.
Somehow, he drags himself to his feet, but that doesn’t make it any easier; each step is an effort, more than the one before, the shades are like moving through cobwebs made of gum, and terror tries to freeze him every time he thinks of the Misborn.
One more step he tells himself each time his foot touches the ground, thinking of Vera going back to the cabin from the practice field under the eyes of the monsters who tried to kill her, Cornelia walking the Forum knowing the monsters who killed her sons watched her every step, then Wendy, walking forever to their Headquarters with that message against the power of the monster in her own goddamn mind. This is nothing. Just. One. More. Step.
The Misborn give a triumphant howl, and Dean sees his companion’s sword flash out. He doesn’t have a weapon; fuck, he doesn’t even know how the hell he’s gonna fight them, but Amanda was right; they don’t do this alone. Fuck this bullshit, he can move, he’s got to; he can fucking run.
“Stop!” he shouts at her, but she ignores him, eyes on the runners. The other shades are shoved aside by their progress, revealing the banks and the massive, churning river, so long and wide that it seems to go on forever, draped in an eerie mist as thick as soup. The Misborn are fucking fast; both are almost on top of the running shades, and with another howl they pounce, the two shades vanishing from sight.
“No!” his companion shouts, and Dean takes two more steps before lunging desperately, bringing her down before she gets herself killed (or whatever the fuck happens to you here). “No,” she chokes, spitting out dirt and shoving him off as she clambers to her knees. “They can’t, they have no right—”
The Misborns’ howling loses some of the triumph, and Dean looks up in time to see them skid down the muddy bank, splashing into the water from their own momentum. Just short of the banks, first Skirt and then Toga push themselves upright from the ground, watching the River intently as the Misborn flounder farther from the bank. Belatedly, he grabs his companion’s arm (the one with the sword, he’s not stupid), but she doesn’t move, staring at the Misborn. The mist thickens, the water starting to swirl around them, and for all their paddling, they aren’t going anywhere.
He thinks he’s seeing things at first, a thin ribbon of orange that vanishes into the churning grey, but there’s another one, then another. They grow wider, like someone dumped orange dye in the water in long stripes. Paddling more frantically, the Misborn yelp in surprise when one of those ribbons brushes against them, trying to get away, but there are too many of them. More yelps, their padding becoming flailing as puffs of something grey-black fall into the water. It takes a moment for him to work out what’s going on, but as they twist around, he sees one long orange water-ribbon brush along its back and open it to bare, charred bone.
“What the hell…”
More wide ribbons of red-orange lace through the water and tip each current as the churning increases, fat red-gold bubbles rising lazily around them and breaking on the surface in spouts like boiling water. The Misborns’ yelps become discordant shrieks, their massive heads catching on fire when an orange-laced wave breaks against them, turning it into half-char. Paddling desperately, they turn their thousand eyes upstream and abruptly stop struggling, like they’re frozen in place. Following their gaze, he watches in shock as the River’s red-ribboned swells grow into a wave of pure red-orange, the leading edge of a river of fire
“Phlegethon,” he breathes, startled. He was Styx’s lover and killed her with his flames. His pain and grief and loss threatened to consume the Underworld, so it was confined within the banks of the river that also bore his name. They were reunited when Hades allowed Styx’s river to flow through and mingle with his, but it came with a price, or maybe Hades’ idea of a joke. As long as they flow together, she consumed him as he did her, and he’d destroy her again if they mingled for too long. At the very last moment, he had to veer away, and into Tartarus itself he emptied his horror and rage. “How?”
“We are the heirs of Charon,” she says, her voice thrumming with a hundred, a thousand, a million voices. “The Five Rivers are our domain. We deny them; we reject them. This is our will, and it will be done.”
The wave slams over the Misborn in drowning orange flames, pouring greedily down each of their screaming mouths and bursting out of their skeletal bellies, crumbling bone to grey ash. More waves follow, battering their dissolving forms until they vanish beneath the water entirely.
Then it’s over: the red-orange ribbons thin, looping playfully through the emerging grey currents and vanish into the distance. The river swells once more in a single grey wave that deposits char-black shapes on the rocky banks. Crawling free of the water on shaking, skeletal legs, their mouths gape open to howl, revealing all those many teeth again.
As it turns out, that’s a lot more impressive when you’re like fifty feet tall and not the size of the average purse-dog.
“You’re kidding,” he breathes, a hysterical laugh dragging itself from his throat. They shriek again like a couple of pissed-off Chihuahuas, and he’s almost embarrassed for them. He also wants to dropkick them so badly his foot is itching for it; how the shades are resisting is the real mystery here.
Skirt and Toga both climb to their feet, looking down at the Misborn like the drop-kick solution is on the table as of right now. The howling trails off as the Misborn realize just how close they are to human foot-size and suddenly begin to yelp, running frantically for their larger brethren to cower bravely behind their massive legs before starting that horrible (purse-dog) shrieking again. Turning around, Skirt paces toward the larger Misborn before coming to a stop, tilting her head as she looks up at them. He wonders if she’s gotten taller or something; right now, it’s almost like she’s looking them right in the eye.
Then she smiles and crooks a finger: come and get me.
Dean’s companion tries to shake off his grip on her arm, which isn’t happening. “What is she doing?”
He spares her an incredulous glance. “Seriously?”
“Shades are only a forgotten memory of who they were,” she says impatiently. “All that’s left is madness.”
Skirt’s smile widens as she regards the unmoving Misborn, and she starts to laugh.
The joyous sound winds down the infinite banks of the River and curls through the masses of shades like the first breeze of a new spring, warm and sweet. It’s dawn breaking after the longest, darkest night of your life, bright and new; it’s the taste of pie and fresh coffee and cheeseburgers and steak when you’re starving; it’s cold water after a walk through an infinite desert when you’ve forgotten everything but thirst; it’s falling in love and breaking your heart and doing it all again, right from the start; it’s the grief you learn to live with and live beyond; it’s when the pain finally starts to end and you’re still there; it’s eating dirt and then standing back up, every time.
It’s the wounds that finally heal, the scars you wear, the memories you won’t give up, the dreams you won’t lose, the promises you made, the proof that you didn’t just survive, you lived. It’s the thousand people you were and are and might be and could become. It’s running full-speed straight to the edge because that’s what you do when you see a cliff; you fucking jump.
To the shades who’ve known nothing but their own forgotten pain for eons, in a barren wasteland gutted of everything, even the memory of hope, it’s a revelation. This is not all there is; we are more.
And then, the River joins her.
Tucked into each current and each lap against the shores, the laughter grows louder, merriment and mockery and challenge all three; soon, it’s the only thing he can hear. As one, the Misborn jerk, and he realizes what they’re hearing is Charon’s laughter. They stepped from the Barge they lit with their own hands to face Lucifer, his followers, and his abominations on this side of the River Styx, placing themselves in front of the terrified shades, and waited. The Misborn howled in triumph, unleashed and hungry for the taste of another god; they were almost upon Charon when they ceded their domain and their power in full to Elysium, denying even themselves the right to cross again. They laughed as the Misborn began to eat them alive, laughed as River denied Lucifer’s claim and refused him passage, laughed as he stood as helpless as any shade just short of the muddy banks, unable to cross.
They laughed when Lucifer finally killed them: I win.
Still laughing, Skirt dances backward, more substantial now, more like a person and not just the memory of one. It’s like watching a movie going from black and white to color, like the sun coming out from behind a galaxy of clouds: golden skin that pinks across her high cheekbones, the colorless curtain of hair becoming a bright fall of gold, and eyes like the sky in summer meet his for a breathless moment.
He feels himself smile helplessly: talk about a face to launch a thousand ships.
One eyebrow arches in amusement before she twirls away, skirt swirling around her. Toga takes her hand, their fingers lacing together as their eyes meet for a look as intimate as a kiss, before darting together into the masses of shades, vanishing like smoke.
As the laughter fades into silence, the Misborn don’t move, their thousands and thousands of eyes searching the banks warily. They eat gods for breakfast (lunch, dinner, dessert, and midnight snack), but a couple of shades own their asses (the River helped, fine), and suddenly, terrorizing them just isn’t fun anymore. Slowly, one by one, the mammoth feet begin to retreat, massive heads turning constantly to survey the cowering shades. Just in case those scary shades want to laugh at them again.
Or… mostly cowering. As the masses begin to move again, their figures growing less distinct as they lose themselves again in their own pain, a few stay apart, unmoving, eyes fixed on the ground. Following their gaze, Dean sees the outline of bare feet in the featureless ground where she danced, and in each step is a burst of brilliant green, fragile blades of grass pushing up through the dust and spring leaves folding open to taste the air, buds opening in shocking blues and pinks. Almost instantly, they begin to wither, dying brown crumbling to grey ash before his eyes, and the ground smooths them away until even the footprints are gone, unmade, as if they’d never been, a barren wasteland once again.
For a moment, though, it wasn’t; for that moment, it was more.
“You see now?” his companion says in a choked voice, sheathing her sword and jerking away from him. “Do you understand the danger we’re in?”
“They can’t cross the River,” Dean says, tearing his gaze from the featureless ground and wondering if he imagined it.
“The River unmakes them, but it won’t last. Soon, there will be more of them; they will breed until they can cross the Rivers on the bodies of their own dissolving brethren that will clog it; they’ll invade the realms of the dead one by one—” She stops short, eyes drifting over the masses of shades around them, like she’s trying to figure out how to gather them all up and stuff them somewhere else, somewhere safe. She turns back to look at him, eyes tear-bright. “I have to save them, don’t you understand?”
“I know,” he says, wondering how far along that Barge is, though how she’ll get the Rivers to let them pass is a mystery. If she could have done it, he’s pretty sure she’d be swimming them over on her back if she had to. He could help with that, come to think; he knows how to swim, after all.
“Do you?” she asks softly. “Tell me this, Dean Winchester; how long do you think the Underworld alone will satisfy them? How long until they’ve invaded all the realms of the dead and grow bored with hunting us?” She takes a step toward him, and he just stops himself from backing away. “Then where will they go?”
He swallows. “They’ll use the Door.”
“The living are no more their natural prey than the dead,” she says. “But you’ll add variety to palates jaded by such monotonous fare—”
“Stop it.” If they’re all able to exist on earth… “The Door, if you close it—”
“We have no rights to the shores nor the Door,” she interrupts. “If it were that easy, do you think I’d be here? Do you think I would search Cornelia Africana’s memories for what I need? Only a god can command the Underworld’s obedience; the Misborn could be cast to the deepest of pits of Tartarus and sealed within with a word.”
“If the god isn’t eaten first!” Dean retorts. “If it were that easy, don’t you think one of ‘em would have done it instead of running, dying, or joining up?”
“I won’t make their mistakes.”
The thing is, she might be right, and that would probably be worse. “You felt what was in that room,” he tries. “Whatever it was, she got it from that scroll. You can’t think anything worth having can come from that!”
“If I can save us with it,” she answers, straightening her shoulders, like when he asked her what was in her sword, “I don’t care.”
This is what we do, Dean realizes sickly; this is what we are. We crawl out of the filth and pretend we’re better, but first chance we get, we crawl right back in, eyes wide open. The road to hell is paved with every lie you ever told to justify what you do; you don’t sell your soul for anything or anyone but yourself. The only true thing is exactly what she said, the reason we do it; we don’t care.
“Then who’s going to save us from you?”
She takes a step back like he slapped her. “I wouldn’t—”
“You sure about that?” He snaps his fingers, and the tabilium unfolds around them again. Not like it was, though; the angles are all wrong, the shadows darkening, deepening, curving more deeply around the table, that third, empty frame. “Sweetheart, you have no idea, do you?”
“How did you…” Her head jerks around to look at the closed door, hand dropping to the hilt of her sword. “Do you hear that?”
“Always.” Her gaze snaps back to him as he strolls toward her, eyes widening. “Do you like it?” She tries to retreat and comes up against the newly formed tabilium wall. Bracing his hand against the smooth plaster above her head, he smiles down at her. “Do you?”
Revulsion fills her voice as she answers, “No.”
“Don’t worry.” He leans closer, breathing his next words into her ear. “The way you’re going, you will.”
She stiffens, and Dean has just enough time to wonder if he’s going to get a sword in the belly before she shoves him backward. Stumbling, Dean falls. And falls. And falls.
Opening the door to their room, Dean glances inside, but Cas is already asleep, half-sprawled against his pillow like he was too tired to finish laying down before he fell asleep. Shutting the door carefully, he fights the urge to stare at him (be a creepster), but he’s gotta figure out how it works that a billion millennia old angel in a thirty-forty something year old body (with stubble, no less) can look so goddamn young.
He didn’t actually need additional guilt, but the sight of the prescription bottle on the crate by their bed offers it anyway; picking it up, he reads ‘Alprazolam’ written in marker over the faded label in Vera’s painfully neat script. There’s also a candle burning merrily on the bedside crate, the protective glass revealing rich ripples of varying shades of blue and green that smells like early spring.
Shedding his coat, he hesitates before crossing to the balcony door, the curtain pushed back just enough to reveal a glimpse of Ichabod. He eases open the door just enough to slip outside. If he wasn’t awake before—and he was—the biting cold would do the trick, and so would the memory of the thin rope that Kamal found up here. Cas, as it turns out, isn’t sure about thirty feet and Dean’s not sure exactly how many years of his life he lost just thinking about what would have happened if that rope broke. It feels like another life.
The memory of Joe’s face flashes through his mind, freeze-frame locked on shock and horror followed by disgust as he walked to the mess. It’s like the last few months made Joe forget what Chitaqua really was; it wasn’t about saving the world, Christ. It was just another Winchester family tradition, passed down father to son to an entire camp of hunters, that revenge is a life you live, the only victory that counts.
Dean takes in the spread of Ichabod at night, the line of the wall disappearing into an endless, roiling darkness. The darkness starts to spread across the horizon, parting for glimpses of a jagged red sky, and beneath him, the screams are just beginning; it’s like music.
This is what we do; this is what we are; this is what I am.
“No.” He tries to force his fisted hand open against the icy stone of the balcony, swallowing back the shock of pain that imbeds itself in his shoulder like a knife, twisting relentlessly with every stuttered breath. That makes the screaming louder, the only thing he can hear, each voice distinct: Grant, Beretta, Beard, Remington, Bushmaster, Micah, do you hear it? That’s gonna be you and so many more, more than he can ever count. He stares at the rusty gleam of the knife in his hand, leather-wrapped hilt fitting against his palm like it’s always been there, like it’s never left, like he never left. He’s still there, still crawling in the blood and filth before the empty Throne, he just does it now in a shiny new meatsuit. Just like Erica said, no one can tell the difference. Maybe there’s no difference to tell. Maybe—
He jerks around, searching the empty balcony. Frowning, he goes back inside and sees Cas sitting up in bed, one hand rubbing restlessly against an upraised knee.
“Hey.” Closing the door again, he pulls the curtain shut against the cold, then remembers and opens it enough for Cas to have a good view outside. “Did I wake you up?”
Cas frowns blearily from behind a fall of disastrous bangs; it’s goddamn adorable. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“You were snoring, dude.”
“I was waiting… never mind.” Still frowning, he reaches to turn on the lamp and loops an arm around his knees before his gaze abruptly sharpens. “What do you have in your hand?”
Dean freezes, but looking down, he sees his fingers are clenched around the prescription bottle. Right. “Sorry, I just—I guess I forgot to put it down.”
“Vera gave it to me when I went to the infirmary before returning to Headquarters,” Cas says. “She’s currently assisting Dolores with other patients and will be spending the night there when she’s done.”
Dean remembers the open curtain as he drops the bottle on the crate by the bed. “Did you need it tonight?”
“Vera insisted I take one before going to bed,” Cas replies, which is an answer, sure, just not to the question he actually asked. Or maybe it is. “How is Manuel?”
“Mercedes came off shift when I left,” he answers mechanically, wondering what Vera saw that worried her. “He seemed better, but again, Mercedes.”
“Good.” Sitting down on the edge of the bed, Dean toes off his boots, but there’s a sense of unreality that he can’t shake off, like everything’s just an inch off where it should be. “Dean?”
He jerks, almost ripping his last pair of socks. “What?” Christ, he used to be better at this. “Sorry, distracted.”
“I noticed.” Shoving the covers back, Cas scoots closer. “What’s wrong?”
“Christ, what do you think?” he snaps. “Better question: what isn’t? Where the hell have you been?”
Cas freezes, and that, friends, is what it looks like to sucker punch someone with less than twenty words. Downstairs, Joe is drinking away the knowledge Dean Winchester isn’t any better than the team leaders, than Erica; Vera’s already figured out that between Dean Mark I and Mark II there’s no difference at all. The proof is in the morgue, the infirmary, in Naresh’s custody, rotting outside Ichabod’s walls, screaming in Hell, and buried somewhere in Chitaqua, the ashes from every death on patrol and the ashes of the man who taught hunters how to be better monsters than anything they would ever hunt.
Cas starts to withdraw. “Don’t,” Dean whispers: I think I’m going crazy. Something’s wrong, and I can’t remember what it is. I can’t even remember why I think something’s wrong. “Sorry. I just—a fight with Joe. Did that earlier today with Vera, so figured add in you, got a complete set.”
Cas nods, but that doesn’t mean much; he’s also exhausted, just got woke up by his crazy partner, is taking scripts for their actual intended therapeutic use, and burning a magic candle. This close, he can see the violet shadows beneath red-rimmed eyes, and hey, maybe he could stop thinking about himself for a few fucking seconds.
“What did you and Joseph argue about?” Cas asks, voice carefully neutral.
“Later.” He reaches for Cas’s face and tilts it in the candlelight, almost embarrassingly grateful when Cas stills but doesn’t pull away. “Same question you asked me, and yeah, you can tell me to fuck myself.”
Cas tries to look away, but Dean tightens his hold. “I’m just tired, that’s all. It’s been a long day already and hardly started.”
“Tell me about it.” He brushes back the dark hair, and for some reason, that makes Cas relax. “Mind if I join you or should I find a couch tonight?”
“Do you know where I can find a space heater?”
“Then your company would be very much appreciated. It’s very cold.” Leaning closer, Cas brushes cool, dry lips against his before abruptly pushing him back. “Change, please. Street clothes do not belong in bed.”
Dean raises his eyebrows.
“Classical conditioning. You have only yourself to blame,” Cas says mockingly, and Dean grins in relief, sliding out of bed and stripping quickly, finding sweatpants and a long-sleeve t-shirt waiting for him at the foot of the bed, along with socks. It makes his throat tight.
Climbing back into bed, he shoves back the blankets and reaches for Cas, kissing the surprised curve of his mouth. It’s supposed to be a tease, but something knotted tight within him loosens at the taste of him, the low, breathless sound of Cas’s laughter against his lips. Rolling on his side, he strokes his thumbs over the high cheekbones against the grain of the thick stubble.
“I should have been with you. At the mortuary.” Cas opens his mouth. “I know, but you shouldn’t have had to deal with it alone. Two weights, I get it, but this was like a—a two-weights situation in the same place.” Cas shrugs, the blue eyes flickering away, which Dean’s tentatively categorized as a hill Cas may or may not want to die on; let’s find out. “Want to talk about it?”
He shakes his head, hair falling forward to hide his expression. “Joseph reported to you hourly…”
He reaches to push the dark hair back, tucking it behind Cas’s ear, unable to stop himself; this is still so new, that he can do that after wanting to for so long, since before he understood what it was that he wanted. Cas leans into the touch; this part, at least, is new for Cas, too. “Tell me.”
“When I had my duties,” Cas says softly, breathed like a secret between them, “I thought of only what came next. Then I was done—at least, Joseph said so—and now I can’t seem to think at all. Every time I try, I remember Gary is dead, and so is Andy.” He lets out a shaky breath. “I wish I hadn’t disciplined Gary for the incident with the condiments in the mess,” he says in a rush. “Yes, it was psychologically traumatic for witnesses, but no one was physically injured, so why did it matter? It’s ridiculous; why on earth did I care so much about sanitation and mental scarring? Humans are very psychologically resilient.”
“Typical.” It’s not hard to see where this is going. “Alicia.”
“She died.” There’s something raw in Cas’s voice that reminds him of watching Cas bent over Alicia’s body. “I watched her die. I didn’t care if she shot me or anyone else; I just wanted her alive. The rest was details.”
He nods; that really does rearrange your priorities fast.
“We talked,” Cas adds. “In the infirmary before… everything.”
“How’d that go?”
“I don’t know.” Not a surprise. “I was angry. I’m still angry, and I haven’t forgiven her. But—what she did… it should matter more than it does.”
He’s not sure he ever seriously thought this would go any other way. Sure, not this sequence of events—Christ, who could—but Cas as a practicing junkie couldn’t even manage to avoid half-adopting a traumatized teenager. For fuck’s sake, he got between Erica and Crowley and she organized his goddamn attempted assassination. Cas sucks at being a nihilistic asshole when it’s more than cosmetic. “It’s different when they’re your own.”
Cas searches his face. “Is that what it is?”
“There’s a reason Justice wears a blindfold.”
“That was Fortuna,” Cas corrects him. “Justitia never wore a blindfold; how could she render judgement without clear sight? She took the advice of her lover, Prudentia, who was reason and knowledge, and who judged actions within the context that they were taken.” Seeing Dean’s carefully crafted blank expression, he rolls his eyes. “Not just what you did, but why you did it and the circumstances surrounding it, and that doesn’t work anymore; I’m just indulging you.”
Dean grins, admitting nothing. “Why was Fortuna blindfolded?”
“Because she played favorites, and it caused problems.” Dean snickers at Cas’s annoyed expression before it melts into something darker. “Have you decided what to do about Alicia?”
It’s weird, how the most obvious question in the world still seems to come out of nowhere. “No,” he admits. “You get I’m not deciding anything without you, right?”
Cas doesn’t answer immediately. “Alicia thinks she’ll be leaving Chitaqua.”
It’s the perfect solution, maybe because it’s the only solution; she can even say it’s voluntary for reasons whatever and no one has to know why. Even every other unconfessed assassin, who—as long as they keep their mouths shut—go about their lives. Unless she decides to give him the names of every living assassin still in Chitaqua, and sure, it’s possible—anything’s possible—but he’s not counting on it.
It’s the perfect solution because it’s the easiest, and fuck knows, it’s not like they get anything easy.
“You’re aware that Kyle is blaming Micah for Gary’s death and Mark’s injuries,” Cas says abruptly, and Dean’s almost grateful for the change of subject except the subject is goddamn Kyle.
“Yeah.” He strokes down Cas’s back, feeling the muscles tense beneath his fingers. “Look, we still have to question Kat—”
“I see no reason to question Kat, other than what Naresh requires, of course. She’ll say the same if she has any sense. I doubt Kat will confess, in any case.”
Dean stiffens. “You think Kat did it? Did Jeremy or Joelle—”
“No, but that’s beside the point. It doesn’t matter,” Cas interrupts. “Who made the shot is immaterial; Kyle, Kat, Micah, and Cathy all had drawn weapons in that hall, and you don’t draw a gun unless you mean to use it. Which specific gun the bullet came from is irrelevant; they’re all guilty of murder.” Cas hesitates for a moment, then pushes himself upright to look at Dean. “If they insist, Carol can be left to Ichabod’s justice, but Kyle and Kat should return to Chitaqua with us.”
“They should have a hearing, of course, and they may offer a defense, but unless there are special circumstances we’re not aware of—that the geas is showing new and unexpectedly convoluted symptoms that includes terrible plans and actual mind control—they should both be executed.”
Sitting up, Dean shoves a pillow against the headboard and settles against it; it’s that kind of conversation. “Kyle didn’t know the real plan.”
“That only makes Kyle’s crime greater. Kat was trading a prisoner of Chitaqua to his lover for personal gain, but Kyle believed he was involved in a conspiracy to kidnap a human being under Chitaqua’s protection and deliver them to what we were protecting him from, a demon.”
No hunter could even think that without a flinch, and Dean’s no different. “Yeah.”
“I would have put a bullet in Micah’s head without regret,” Cas continues. “I would have agreed to exile him outside the wall with ten days’ worth of rations, a gun, and a knife, though he certainly didn’t deserve the mercy. He didn’t deserve to be unwillingly traded to a demon, however; no one deserves that. That it wasn’t true is irrelevant; it was true for Kyle. He didn’t merely betray us; he betrayed everything we are.”
Three weeks ago, Dean executed two people outside the Ichabod’s daycare who sold out fifteen kids—and an entire town—to demons and doesn’t regret a thing. You can’t be a hunter and do what those people, what Kyle did; he’s not sure you can do that and still be people.
“Yeah,” he says finally; he doesn’t regret this, either. “I know.”
Cas relaxes. “I don’t know how easy it will be to get Ichabod’s agreement.”
Yeah, they’re gonna need to talk to Joe. If Joe ever speaks to him again, and yeah, not thinking about that right now. “We’ll figure it out,” he says quickly. “Still not sure what the hell Kat was doing.”
Cas raises an eloquently incredulous eyebrow (he’s reading eyebrows now, what the hell happened to him?).
“All she had to do was rappel down the wall and walk to a crossroad and we’d never know until we heard the screaming from the mortuary. Carol needed her and Cathy, yeah, but Kat didn’t need them, so why?”
“She didn’t,” Cas answers. “She needed to get out of our Headquarters and then Ichabod without being stopped or shot by Ichabod’s patrol, buy herself enough time to deal with Erica—and for that matter, not be killed by her or another demon instead—and be allowed back inside after she was done to retrieve Andy. And then escape with him, of course, though how she planned to accomplish that part is still a mystery I have no desire to solve. Carol’s plan gave her everything she needed, and that plan required Carol’s participation. What happened to everyone else was of no interest to her.”
“Cathy to separate her watchers,” Dean says slowly. “Kyle as muscle, and Jeremy—and bonus Joelle—as hostages to get her back inside the walls when she was done?”
“Or some variation with those key elements, yes. During the planning, Carol and Kat must have made provision for Micah remaining in Naresh’s custody, and Kyle would be needed to help with Naresh’s people as well as deal with Kat’s team. She couldn’t have hoped to win against all three of her team in that room, but she and Kyle together could handle two.”
Dean’s not so sure about that. He remembers Sarah restraining Kat after Andy’s death; unlike Drew, she wasn’t fucking around keeping Kat down, and she wouldn’t have hesitated to knock Kat out if she did anything she didn’t like. If Sarah had been the one to go downstairs to talk to Cathy, there’s no way Kyle could have gotten her from behind. He watched Sarah from Ichabod’s walls, and a woman who could sneak up on a Hellhound and beat it almost to death after working out its position from at least twenty feet away using Cas and fucking snow isn’t someone you could sneak up on. She’d have had Kyle on the ground before he could so much as raise that goddamn gun to hit her. Unless he shot her in the back, of course; two years and change fighting together means he probably knows better than Dean what will work and what won’t.
If Sarah had been in that room, though… Kat wasn’t stupid, or at least not that stupid. She’d know she’d only get one try at Sarah and it would have to count. And Sarah—he remembers her expression when she came to him about Kat’s behavior. Just a split-second hesitation because Kat was team—that would have done it.
“Joelle was a very useful bonus,” Cas adds, almost casually. “It not only gave them two hostages to use to negotiate with on their return, but prevented Jeremy from—doing anything imprudent.”
Without a gun to Joelle’s head, nothing would have stopped Jeremy from going for his when Phil went down. And then—shooting to disable instead of kill is a lot harder than it looks in the movies, and he doubts Kyle’s reaction to being drawn on would be anything but lethal.
(Without that gun to Joelle’s head, Kyle, Kat, Carol, Cathy, and Micah would all be dead at Zero, Erica’s career as a demon would be over with Ruby’s knife in her chest, and Alicia wouldn’t have learned how it felt to die. He doubts Cas would have waited any longer than getting a clear shot, and knowing Cas’s range, that could have been way before the jeep even stopped.
After that… he can live without wondering too hard about that.)
“Jeremy did good,” Dean says, because it’s true, and because it takes the set expression off Cas’s face. “He and Joelle with that demon…”
“Maimouna was impressed as well.” Almost immediately, the amusement fades into something that makes him wonder about the time between Cas and Alicia arriving at Headquarters to an empty lobby and reaching Zero; that must have felt like years. “Under the circumstances, Maimouna requested that Jeremy stay with her and Joelle tonight. With Vera, Joseph, and I unavailable and the rest of the militia on alert, she thought I’d prefer Jeremy wasn’t alone.”
“Who’d you send over there with them?” There’s no goddamn way Cas let Jeremy out of this building without at least—
“Maimouna’s floor has several empty rooms, and Lee’s team volunteered; they said they could sleep there as well as here.”
An entire team, should have guessed. “Was that Joelle’s first time?” Cas nods, and Dean adds her to his mental list; when she passes her eighteenth birthday, if she still wants to do this, she’s in Amanda’s next class. You can’t teach people like her not to throw themselves between people and danger, so they’re going to have to teach her how to survive it. “Good call. Easier to talk to someone her own age.”
“Maimouna mentioned that,” Cas says wryly. “I checked on them before I went off duty; Maimouna told me they played Gin Rummy with Kenjo, Devansh, and Marilee before they went to sleep. He’ll report first thing in the morning.”
Dean’s just about to suggest sleep when Cas reaches out in a blur of motion—God, he never gets tired of seeing that—and catches his wrist. Turning his hand over, he frowns with professional concern at Dean’s fucked-up hand. “I should have checked it when you arrived.”
“It’s not your job—”
“I’d like to see you try to fire me,” Cas interrupts. “Sit up.”
Dean seriously thinks about ignoring him—he’s sick and tired of goddamn hand drama—but a cramp ripples through the palm, jerking his hand half-closed and killing whatever he had of plausible deniability at birth (and newsflash: he didn’t have much anyway).
“Fine,” he says ungraciously.
“Thank you,” Cas says with exactly the right amount of sincerity to broadcast ‘you’re an idiot’ to anyone in range of his voice. “Extend your fingers—don’t force it.” Dean complies, relieved he’s at over three-quarters extension before he can feel the strain. “Make a fist—slowly.” He gets why Cas said slowly; the faint tremble he hadn’t even noticed is obvious now, and he wonders how long it’s been doing that. Cradling the back of his hand, Cas slides his thumb from heel to the first joint of his middle finger. “Just overuse, but that couldn’t be helped today. Any cramping?”
“Yeah. A little.”
Cas slides off the bed. “Give me a moment, and I’ll get the lotion.”
Dean stares at his clenched hand, listening to Cas go through their bag and the pad of his feet on the floor as he returns. The bed dips, and Cas settles cross-legged beside him, reaching for his hand again and spreading it on his knees. He remembers what Cas said last night; it’s not just his job but a privilege. This is something Cas wants to do and plans to keep doing. Like sharing a bed and a cabin and that thing people call a life.
Cas saw what he did to Grant, listened to him talk about nightmares of Hell, and that’s nothing to what he must have seen when he met Dean there himself, nothing to the memories he took before bringing Dean back to earth. He’s still here; he still wants to be.
“There’s nothing in my hand.” The words cling to his tongue, try to stick between his teeth, but he gets them out there.
Pouring lotion in his palm to warm it—and that’s just, he just does that, warms up the lotion first, doesn’t even think about it—Cas nods. “There’s not, no.” Reaching for Dean’s hand, he starts at the center of the palm right where the muscles cramp worst.
“Sometimes, there is,” Dean whispers. “I just—just can’t see it.”
Dean’s head snaps up so fast he almost pulls something. “How did you…” He tries again. “How?”
“You told me,” he answers as the tips of his fingers work over Dean’s knuckles. “In Volunteer Services, when the geas broke and you thought that you killed those four people, you told me you could still feel it in your hand. When I asked what, you said ‘your knife’.” Cas glances up. “You said ‘sometimes’; it’s not constant?”
“No.” He stares at his hand very hard. Either Cas is hiding utter horror better than anyone ever (not impossible) while doing a fucking expert massage or— “There’s more. At Volunteer Services, I thought you were dead.”
“Yes, seeing me alive was enough to break the geas,” Cas agrees. “Useful—”
“Yeah, good job being alive. The dead woman—before I catalyzed, I kept seeing your face while I was getting people out.”
“Interesting,” Cas says in the voice of scientific curiosity. “You resisted catalyzation. That may be another reason we have had so comparatively few actual incidents; there is resistance, and it may need time to wear down—”
“Yeah, really interesting,” Dean interrupts desperately. “The last time, there was a gunshot—at least, I thought I heard one—and when I saw you—the body— I knew they’d shot you, that they killed you.” Cas nods. “Like every other time.”
That checks the nod. “What other times?”
“Those nightmares I was having before we came to Ichabod, to start. Where I’d get to the cabin right after the team leaders killed you and Vera, before I could stop them.”
Cas’s head comes up sharply. “What?”
“It was different every night—how you died, I mean—but I always got there too late, after you and Vera were dead.” Fuck, just get it out there. “It changed when we got to Ichabod. Our first night here, after what happened in the street earlier, I dreamed about that. Mob of people killed you right there, and when I found you, you were dead.”
“And after that?”
“They stopped. I mean, I don’t remember any dreams after that.” Cas’s expression isn’t reassuring here; he should work on that. “Cas?”
“I don’t…” Reaching for the lotion, Cas pours out more, then takes Dean’s hand again. “That was what you wouldn’t tell me you were dreaming about? My death, before you—before you were even here?”
Dean expected awkward (to understate the case) but not—whatever this is. “Dude, dreams are… yeah.”
“Months.” Cas hands still for a split-second. “Not all the time, but since I found out about the team leaders—it’s been on the roster, yeah.” Strangely, not an improvement from torture dreams, either. “Cas?”
“Why didn’t you tell me before—” Then, proving Cas has in fact grown as a person, he adds, “Yes, that might have felt rather awkward for you.”
“’Honey, I’m dreaming of a thousand ways you die by bullet, wanna have sex?’” Dean says deliberately. “That’s a serial killer’s pick up line after they already have you in their goddamn dungeon-basement tied to a meat grinder or thresher or something, come on!”
“It’s not as if you were dreaming of having sex with my bullet-ridden corpse,” he says dismissively, to highlight where he seems to be having issues when it comes to the scale of ‘normal.’ Worse, Dean can see his point, which tells him nothing he wants to know about himself, thanks. “You said you were having those dreams before we came to Ichabod? And our first night here? Literally, you dreamed of—”
“You dying by mob on the asphalt of Ichabod, and no, I didn’t fuck your corpse.”
“And the knife? When did that start?”
“After Volunteer Services.” Then he thinks about it. “Before, sometimes when I’d wake up, I’d feel like something should be there and wasn’t, but it’d go away. Now, it’s the opposite.” He braces himself. “Look, I think I’m—”
“When was the last time you felt it?” Cas asks, getting that look on his face. That look, the one that means Cas is thinking and fuck knows.
“A few minutes ago, on the balcony,” he answers impatiently; Cas can do his thinking thing later. “Look, I gotta—”
“And it went away on its own?”
“No, I heard you yell for me and it stopped.”
Cas frowns. “You heard me call for you?”
“Dude,” he answers without thinking. “You cut right through the—” His tongue almost loses it, but the momentum of a sentence pushes it through, “—screaming.”
Cas sits back. “Screaming,” he says softly, almost to himself. “Of course: ’Can you hear it?’ What else would it be?”
Screaming; that’s what he’s been hearing. Everyone that he tortured in Hell; of course that’s it, of course it is. What else would it be?
“I should have asked for more details regarding how the game of ‘telephone’ works,” Cas continues, resuming the massage before catching Dean’s eye. “That’s how the changes in the geas as it spreads was described to me.”
“The geas,” Cas answers casually, and Dean’s suddenly aware the cramps in his hand are gone and also, what the hell? “Dean?”
“I…” Telephone. “You think this is about the geas?”
Obviously. “It can’t be. This has been happening all the time since…” Wait.
“Volunteer Services?” He nods blankly. “That fits.”
“How does it—”
“This afternoon, before I spoke to Alicia, I went to see Dolores regarding the other three catalyzed survivors from Volunteer Services. She let me observe Bushmaster, and she told me they kept asking one question—”
“’Can you hear it?’” He starts to ask why Cas didn’t tell him before now, then realizes the obvious answer is ‘when?,’ which hey, would be now. “Why?”
“In the interrogation room, Micah was acting—oddly—after you visited him. He was saying the same thing.” Yeah, now that Cas mentioned it, he does remember something like that. “Why did you have them turn the cameras off?”
“In case I needed to beat him up,” Dean answers distractedly; what happened in that room? The way Micah was looking at him… “What do you think? In case he said anything about Alicia. He was careful before—no idea why—but I couldn’t risk it. What does that have to do—”
“Of course he was careful,” Cas says with a snort. “Casting suspicion on her was to try and get her to see him, but he assumed—for some inexplicable reason—that if he accused her outright, you’d believe him without question and kill her out of hand. That would have spoiled his plan, such as it was.”
Not that inexplicable. Might have worked with the other Dean, too. “Okay, back to Micah and going to the infirmary after: why’d you think they were connected?”
“Micah’s behavior made me curious, especially in light of Remington’s suicide. In theory, he could have picked up the geas from anyone, but he only started exhibiting that behavior after you visited him. As it turns out, the four catalyzed survivors from Volunteer Services acted oddly as well when they finally woke up.”
Dean licks his lips. “How are they doing? The other three?”
Cas hesitates. “Currently, Dolores is administering increasing doses of thorazine to keep them from injuring themselves or others, but—”
“If they can remember what I did to them? Not a surprise.”
“Dean, you can’t actually kill someone with a hallucination, no matter what you may think. Barring heart failure or a stroke, of course—”
“I didn’t kill them.” Cas frowns, and Dean adds deliberately, “Like I didn’t kill Grant.”
Cas finishes off at his wrist, shifting to stroke up the palm to each finger, searching for tension, before lowering Dean’s hand. He doesn’t let go, though, thumb stroking absently against the center of Dean’s palm.
“They wouldn’t have survived it,” he adds in the spirit of getting it out there. “If it’d been real. On earth, anyway.” In the Pit, he’d just have been getting started. “It was me. Not the geas—it was me.”
“It was you,” Cas agrees. “Just as it was me in the mess, just as it was them in Volunteer Services with you, just as it has been for everyone who was catalyzed and survived. I may find you unique and a wonder to behold, but the geas is far more egalitarian. It doesn’t care you’re Dean Winchester; it only cares what it can do with the material that is you, and what part it can exploit most easily. Just like everyone else.”
Searching Cas face, all he gets is vague annoyance. “You’re saying—” He hears his voice break but can’t really care right now. “You’re saying I’m not that special.”
“Exactly. The geas cannot work with anything that is not already there in the human mind; all it can do is activate and emphasize one tiny part to the detriment of the rest,” Cas says. “The geas is playing telephone when it spreads; the iteration that those from Volunteer Services and Micah had, I suspect, is the same as the one you have now.”
“But I broke it!”
“You did,” Cas says. “Those four did as well, probably from sheer shock they were alive and not horribly mutilated.”
“You’re welcome,” he answers, innocent of irony. “But everyone else—both those still inside the room and those you sent outside—were still affected until we dropped the number below threshold. We were in the room long enough for you to contract it again from them or any of us, thus beginning a new iteration of telephone, and to pass it to whoever at that moment did not have their own version of the geas already. Or who had just had theirs broken. Fortunately, we removed you before threshold was reached and Naresh released you to Chitaqua before anyone else could be infected—”
“How can you be sure of that?” Right. “No other crazy people asking if anyone else can hear it.” Cas nods, and Dean goes over the timeline; yeah, that makes sense. “Okay, so I’m the source of this version; what does that mean? Why are they going crazy?”
“The answer to a question we didn’t know we could even ask,” Cas answers, looking so weirdly pleased that Dean’s almost happy about becoming a proto-demon on earth, oh God, what? “How stupid of me: it’s not random.”
“What’s not random?”
“The geas,” he answers. “It’s not random, those fears do have something in common; it’s selecting the most recent strong expression of fear—as in the most recent you remember—and using that.”
“You mean whatever might have scared you last?” Holy shit, that makes sense. “Literally that could be anything, even a guy walking up behind you and making you jump?”
“Or even the last thing you worried about before contracting the geas, provided you were very, very worried. That’s why it works even with incredibly inane fears that it shouldn’t be able to exploit; it’s using your own memory to provide your brain context and to build realistic hallucinations as needed. The last thing you were afraid of before you touched the first map—”
“—was you being shot.” Yeah, that makes sense. “This version…”
The original geas said ‘be afraid of this; run.’ The geas was designed for human fear, though; it wasn’t meant to cover what the rack did. The human mind didn’t even have context for it where pain was probably the smallest part; if the geas carried even a little of that…
“That’s all you can hear in Hell: screaming,” Dean breathes. “You can’t run away; no matter where you go or how fast you run, you’re always right there.” Cas nods. “That’s why she went for the thorazine; that’s an anti-psychotic. It’s not the geas that’s making them crazy; it’s what I—”
“It’s the geas,” Cas says quietly. “Exploiting that tiny part, as its instructions told it to. The creators—as is their wont—didn’t consider what adding in the memories and fears of someone who’d actually been to Hell would do, much less what exposing humans on earth to—that…”
“Torture by Alistair’s apprentice,” Dean says. “Just say it. I was there; I remember.”
“That,” Cas says firmly. “Normally I’d admit this isn’t something that the creators could have foreseen, but they foresaw literally nothing, so they don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”
“I’m hearing screaming, I feel that goddamn knife… it’s happening to me, too. Just slower. Except what I’m afraid of—”
“—is becoming a demon, yes, that much was obvious,” Cas interrupts. “It’s a hallucination. It’s not real—”
“If I can’t tell the difference, does it matter?”
Cas regards him seriously for way too long, then nods, like he just came to life-changing decision. “If you can’t tell the difference, ask me.”
The frantic hamster-wheel that passes for thought in Dean’s head grinds to an abrupt halt. “What?”
“Ask me,” Cas answers like that’s supposed to make sense, adding, “It’s not as if I’ll lie to you.”
There is so much wrong with that he has to work on where to even start. “And if you say it’s real? Hallucination you or real you, I mean, what about that? How will I know?”
“If you’re not soaking wet from holy water and covered in rock salt when I say it, you can take as a given it’s not really me. Unless you’re standing in a devil’s trap, of course. Check for that.”
Of course. “Simple. I guess.”
“But not easy, I know.”
“What’s going to happen to them?” Dean asks before the silence can stretch too long. “The ones from Volunteer Services. Are they…” He’s not sure what goes there.
“After observing them, I recommended that we place them in an artificial coma. Dolores agreed.”
Not what he expected. “What do you think that’ll do?”
“At minimum, it will keep them from hurting themselves, which has become something of a difficulty, as they’re becoming resistant to thorazine—or rather, the geas is adapting to resist it,” Cas answers. “Now that I have a better idea of what they are experiencing, it may also help preserve their sanity. The subconscious brain handles dissonance extremely well; dreams can do anything, after all.”
“Dreams of being in Hell.” He knows all about that. “Oh yeah, that’s better.”
“In this case, that’s true; you’re the proof.” Dean wants to argue that, but relatively speaking (to needing thorazine) that’s true. “Hypnotics also cause amnesia; whatever happens, they probably won’t remember it.”
“Yeah,” Dean says, hoping his voice isn’t too rough: probably. “When is it happening?”
“Dawn, but with everything that happened today…” He makes a face. “I asked Dolores to inform me so I could be there and left the front desk with orders to inform me immediately if she sends word. To help Chess move the patients.”
Yeah, that’s why Cas wants to be there: muscle. (Though yeah, that, too.) “I’ll—”
“If your next words are ‘go with you,’ no.” He stiffens, but Cas just raises an eyebrow to show how unimpressed he is. “This is not merely a request from your second in command; it is an ultimatum from your partner. You may choose which one you’re offering your acquiescence, but you will not be there.”
“It’s not your fault.” Dean looks away. “Dean, I can’t stop you from making yourself miserable, but I can make it difficult enough that you’ll have to expend an extraordinary amount of effort to manage it and therefore be far too tired to do it very effectively.”
He can’t exactly work out what that means, but a yawn brings the conversation to a halt. Cas’s mouth twitches, and Dean doesn’t bother fighting it; he’s goddamn tired. “Fine, whatever, you ready to sleep?”
“Yes,” Cas answers, blowing out the candle and reaching to turn off the lamp as Dean double-checks the curtain is still open enough for a view of outside.
Abruptly, the bed shifts and Dean’s sinking into the mattress under the weight of Cas, who stares at him thoughtfully from three inches away. Not that he objects or anything, but— “What?”
“Human Behavior 101,” says Cas seriously, bracing an elbow beside Dean’s head. “I have a question.”
“Shoot,” he says (maybe not even metaphorically).
“Even when you’re stupid beyond words—”
“Hey,” he interrupts because he’s kind of got to.
“—I find it both maddening and charming.” The blue gaze sharpens, like he can still see Dean’s soul, like there’s something there worth seeing. Like— “Why is that, pray tell?”
He licks dry lips. “Dude, you’re crazy.”
“Of course.” Cas cups his face, callused fingers curving to fit the angle of his cheek, his jaw, then leans close enough that Dean can feel him breathe. “You like that about me.”
Warnings: explicit involuntary force-feeding, suicide ideation, discussion of suicide.