Endemic (It Takes a Soul To Hold It)
© 2010 gekizetsu

For Red, who commissioned this tale a long time ago. Plus, it’s around the time of his birthday. <3 x 1000, Red.

Back to Wisconsin, because Wisconsin is apparently ground zero for supernatural activity in the whole US by the sheer number of urban legends, and Red requested it. Dean and Sam check out mysterious underground deaths, and it all becomes too hard to resist in ways Sam wishes they had never discovered.

Gen, 7200 words, PG-13 for Dean’s mouth. Set in season 4, pre-Luci.

-|-

“Wisconsin? Seriously? Why don’t we just fuckin’ move there and stay.”

Dean was tired and out of sorts, and wasn’t even in the mood for killing anything for once.

Sam was finding himself pushing a little. They’d been trapped in Michigan for three days with nothing to do aside from watching TV, reading or sleeping, but just driving for the sake of driving held no appeal. They needed somewhere to go, some lead to follow, anything. The quarters were a little too close, and waiting for something to happen was unnerving.

He slid the laptop over to Dean. “Five people killed in the caves near a ruin called ‘Hotel Hell’ is at least kind of interesting, though,” he said. “C’mon.”

Dean sighed and poked at the laptop listlessly, scrolling down and skimming. “’Wisconsin Speleo-logical Society’s annual Hodag hunt‘? Dumbasses get together and do this for fun once a year, in groups? Go to Disneyland, or something.”

“They’re not actually hunting anything,” Sam said. “They’re just caving. Pretty popular sport.”

Dean snorted. “Crawling around underground waiting for something to bite your ass, or for the place to fall in, isn’t a sport.” He read in silence for nearly a minute, paying better attention now that he knew it wasn’t some ghost hunting group. “No obvious cause of death for anybody, no cave ins, no blood, no witnesses. Whole group of folks in one spot, no sign of a struggle.”

He looked up and stared into the middle distance, teeth set into his lower lip. “If anybody had been blue from lack of oxygen, or some weird gas was getting loose down there, they’d have just said it looked like suffocation and then put in a part about how no one will know pending autopsies, nothing more to see here, blah blah. News sites always love to theorize about that shit.”

“The comments after the story are better,” Sam said, leaning back in his chair. “There’s a guy claiming he was caving that weekend and was one of the people who found them first, and they were at the deepest point of Cooper’s Cave. Says they were laid out like there was a central blast point, but no evidence of a blast.”

Dean skipped to the comments. “So if it had been carbon monoxide or something, the first people on the scene would have been affected too,” he said. “Man, most of these people are nuts. ‘The area’s cursed’ and ‘the ghost of Al Capone did it’. Then they just start insulting each other’s spelling.”

“Question is, why hasn’t something happened before now?” Sam said. “They’ve been doing this for at least 45 years without a problem.”

“Caves were part of a health resort with a hotel until the hotel burned in 1985.” Dean shrugged. “Rumor says it burned three times, but there’s only record of one fire. Rumor also says a coven of witches opened a gate to hell in the fountain out front and a ‘white witch’ sealed it. Blood on the walls, screams from the basement, this is the same old thing you’d hear about any old building. Hotel’s still nearby. What’s left, anyway.”

“It was open as just a bar by 1985, and apparently no one knows what started the fire, but it completely gutted the place,” Sam said. “Exterior’s all limestone, too.”

“So up until then, place had regulars, and since then just annual cavers and the occasional sightseer,” Dean said. “This isn’t going anywhere, Sam.”

“The part about limestone doesn’t mean anything to you?” Sam said.

“I seriously don’t give a rat’s ass, or anything else’s ass, about limestone,” Dean said. “This is boring. There’s nothing to this.”

“Look up limestone,” Sam said, looking away.

“My eyes are crossing.”

Sam ignored him.

Dean began to read aloud in a ridiculous approximation of a Cockney accent. “’Because of impurities, such as clay, sand, organic re-mains, iron oxide and other materials, many limestones exhibit different colors, ‘specially on - ‘”

“Wait,” Sam said. “Organic remains.”

“So?”

“The hotel was built from limestone taken from the local cave system,” Sam said. “It’s not that crazy to think some of those ‘organic remains’ could be human.”

Sam knew he had Dean right there, because his brother cocked an eyebrow and his eyes lit up a little. Dean didn’t hide anything well, and the thing he usually hid worst was interest of any kind.

“Organic remains getting incorporated into the rock would have taken thousands of years,” Dean said. “C’mon. I don’t think the place is being haunted by some caveman who was left to rot by some saber tooth tiger.”

“You can make cement from limestone, though, and ground up bones would go unnoticed in the mix, since limestone’s also full of calcium.”

“You’re a sick bastard, Sam, and I like it,” Dean said with audible approval. “The place didn’t start catering to mobsters and shit until after 1927, though, so too late.”

Sam smirked. “You mean they never did repairs?”

Dean pointed a finger at him. “Awesome, but I’m still not sold. There could be all kinds of other stuff involved, or nothing.”

“I’m listening,” Sam said, leaning back and folding his hands behind his head.

“No, I don’t think witches were involved,” Dean said. He said ‘witches‘ the way he always did, emphasized with distaste. “And the place only burned once, not three times. No one died in the fire. Limestone has that whole ‘absorbing energy’ rep, but that’s the most cred I’d give it in this case. There’s no documented history to the land before the place was built. I think the whole thing is bull.”

Sam shrugged. “So the cavers just…what, all died by coincidence at the same time?”

“Devil’s advocate is so hilarious comin’ from you,” Dean said.

Sam set his jaw and tilted his head in a way that broadcasted how annoyed he was with that.

Dean realized he’d thrown it out as a defensive move. Sam’s questions had put him on edge, like he was being tested, like Sam knew something and was trying to get him to catch up, and he hated that.

“Look,” Dean said. “Screw it, we got nothing better to do. So we’ll go look at it. Okay? Every myth has a little truth to it and the truth is probably pretty damn little here. They probably just got hold of some bad dope.” He got up and started packing.

Sam sighed but followed suit.

-|-

Roughly halfway between Green Bay and Manitowoc was Cherney Maribel Caves County Park.

Sam was still reading when he could get WiFi.

“There was another cave that was commercialized for the resort, but it was blasted closed in 1930, and there’s no reason recorded. Could have just been unstable.”

“Could have been eating the tourists,” Dean said. “Bad for business.”

Sam snorted. “I thought this was all bullshit and there’s nothing here.”

“Hey, just throwin’ it out there.”

“Resistivity testing in the park 3 years ago indicate numerous passages and an underground anomaly,” Sam said.

“Hot damn.”

They parked out of sight of the highway and waited in silence, watching to see how much traffic passed on average, whether there was any movement in the trees surrounding the entrance to the nearest trails, how many cops or crime scene techs were still milling around.

When it became apparent there was no one around either still investigating the scene or rubbernecking, they chose one of the more obviously well-traveled trails and followed the signs to Cooper‘s Cave. They passed the caution tape at the head of the trail and the larger signs indicating that the trail and caves were closed indefinitely, no trespassing, area is monitored, all the same warnings that usually had the opposite effect of what they intended. Kids would be swarming over the place on a regular basis after dark on dares if nothing else, so they could expect that the place would be more heavily patrolled around then.

Closer to the mouth of the cave system were smaller, obviously older signs warning about White Nose Syndrome with a photo of an apparently affected bat.

“Bat plague,” Dean said. “Bruce Wayne is gonna be pissed.”

Cooler air wafted out of the cave mouth, which was smaller than they had anticipated. It was tall enough for Sam to walk in without ducking, but it began to narrow almost immediately. The soil was butterscotch colored, dry and soft beneath their feet, the cave mouth ragged and angled into the rock.

“None of the legends are about the caves,” Dean said finally. “No point goin’ in there. If the cave system runs under the whole park, and under the old hotel like it said, then maybe they have something to do with each other, or one is affecting the other. That’s kind of reaching, though.”

“We’ve gone after less,” Sam said.

“They’re not gonna reopen these caves, so it’s not like we’re savin’ anyone.”

Sam sighed. “We drove all the way out here, Dean. It might start here, but it might also spread out from here and not stay in the caves, if what happened wasn’t a natural accident. What do you want to do?”

“Quit hanging around this stupid cave acting like I know what I’m looking for,” Dean said. “The hotel has to be cooler than this.”

He walked away, hands in jacket pockets, and Sam watched him go for a moment, trying to read something from the set of his shoulders.

Sometimes he was harder to read now than he had been that first year after Jessica had died and the whole thing had started. Or started again, depending on how he looked at it.

Sam sighed and followed along.

It was a half mile walk to the ruin, set out from the woods the way it was and visible from the highway. Sam watched Dean check the ground constantly and realized without asking that he was doing the same thing Sam was - looking for any surface evidence that the caves did come out that far and possibly run right under the hotel property. Any visible subsidence would go a long way to suggesting that something was acting up because it was being disturbed. The natural mineral springs that had caused the hotel to be built in the first place could have shifted or eroded part of the cave system.

They spent several minutes wordlessly paused at the tree line, listening and watching for tourists or a bored local news crew doing a follow up. The late afternoon autumn sun slanted a little further into the trees behind them and made the slightly hazy sky seem more sullen than when they’d arrived.

Dean was a little too still. One of the things that Sam had noticed most about Dean since he’d returned from hell was the patience. Dean had always been the one who charged in from the front whether it was necessary or not, and waiting had never been one of his strong suits. Now he stood motionless at the tree line, not quite shoulder to shoulder with Sam, eyes fixed on the limestone arches of the front of the old hotel without so much as shifting his weight once. It wasn’t a content stillness; it was just a holding pattern, faintly resigned, locked down.

Dean’s soul had been awake forty years longer than Sam’s, based on what Dean had told him, so it wasn’t hard for Sam to see how that weighed in. Their age difference had become vast, in a way.

The building was mostly a shell, the carefully laid stones giving it a rustic look based on how few of them actually matched in size or shape. Three stories of rectangular, wide-windowed simplicity stood just out of the trees. The only concession to the cave stone exterior was the cement stairs with their smooth iron railings leading up to the raised lobby. It was easy to see straight through to the windows in the back in some places, the interior gutted by fire, weather and time.

It would have been a fantastic sight the night it had burned, stones glowing with reflected light and heat, steam rising explosively from them when water finally got into the mix.

Dean headed out into the open space first, angling around the back of the ruin and staying shielded from the road. He leaned back a little to look up at the third floor, checking window edges and roofline, seeing where the rock had begun to shift slightly in places. Sam wandered up and looked into the closest window, picking up on the slight breeze that was concentrated through the lower part of the building. The dim interior was a wreck of old wall board and rotted plaster, buckled ceilings and splintered door frames. The outlines of the rooms were still apparent from the walls that had held their ground. Any pretense at flooring was gone, burned and rotted away to bare dirt in many places. There was a smell of damp wood and a hint of mold, overlaid with a heavy suggestion that birds and rats had taken up residence off and on over the years. Bottles and plastic wrappers littered the center of the floor.

It was quiet except for the breeze and the occasional bird noise. There still wasn’t much traffic on the road above.

They crawled in one of the windows. The outer stone ledges were easy to grip but scraped their hands. Sam landed first and kept an eye on his footing in the loose boards and trash on the floor. Dean sat on the window ledge for a moment, looking around, brow furrowed with concern.

“What.”

“Dunno,” Dean said. “Let’s look around and then get the fuck out of here.”

Dean wasn’t given to weird feelings that didn’t directly involve his own highly developed sense of danger, so Sam didn’t question him like he might have earlier on in their hunting lives. Dean would tell Sam what he wanted Sam to know, if something was really going bad. The trust that had once existed between them still went that way, at least.

They shuffled through the mess on the floor with their boots, getting a sense of the place and where things might have been. Graffiti dotted parts of the walls where there was still a covering to work with, nonsense tags that didn’t seem like a legacy worth leaving. The stairs had collapsed past the second floor, so there was no access to the third floor, and no real reason to go up there anyway. It wouldn’t have been that different from the second. There was no intact furniture left, but there was an occasional book, charred and swollen from past abuse, cloth backs broken and fibers from elderly coverings trailing out over the rest of the mess. The rooms would once have been fairly large with a lot of natural light, somewhere to go and relax. Parts of the flooring on the second and third floors had fallen in all the way, affording a view of either the first floor or the sky, and the brothers kept to the edges of the rooms near the walls where the structure would still be the strongest.

They went back down and crouched in the elevated lobby, tracing their eyes along the edges of the stone arch set into the front facing just above it. The afternoon wore on, growing cooler. Dean walked out far enough to examine the stairs and rattle the railing, finding it still stuck fast into the cement. If nothing else, the place was well built and holding up long past what it should have based on what it had suffered.

Dean looked down into what would have been a courtyard, once, and stared at the dirt-filled limestone-ringed circle just in front of the entrance. “Fountain,” he said. “Wonder why they filled it.”

He was frowning again, and Sam turned and stood to look out the back of the building from that vantage. He walked back in and took a last look around, thinking maybe they’d seen what they needed to. He heard a whisper of clothing and boots on cement behind him, and turned in time to watch Dean disappearing down the stairs.

“Dean.”

Dean ignored him and walked right into plain sight from the road, headed for the old fountain.

Dean.”

He stood by the stairs and watched Dean stand by the fountain and stare into the overgrown, weed-strewn ruin of it. It was at least starting to get dark, and Dean wasn’t going to risk being seen, so Sam had to count on that. His judgment hadn’t lessened over time.

He stayed where he was when Dean toed at the edge of the raised stones, and he stayed when Dean knelt on those stones and stared into the dirt as if he was listening. He continued to stay when Dean braced his hands into the dirt as if it was too fascinating for him to ignore, and he did nothing more than raise his eyes to the distant road to watch for anyone who might notice Dean’s investigation.

He did not stay when Dean tried to back away from the fountain and obviously couldn’t, elbows buckling and fingers gripping the weeds.

Sam took the stairs down three at a time and reached him within seconds, grabbing him by his jacket and pulling him back. “What the hell,” he said.

Dean jerked out of his grip but didn’t say anything, eyes still fixed on the fountain.

Sam stood with him, glancing between him, the fountain and the road, wary, waiting. He couldn’t feel anything off, didn’t sense danger the way that Dean’s actions should have caused him to, and it confused the hell out him.

“What’s going on?” he said finally.

Dean turned and began to walk away stiffly, heading for the building, and Sam figured they were done, there, for the day. Whatever was bugging Dean, there was no point trying to drag it out of him.

He later wondered what would have happened if he had only followed, if he had made Dean take the stairs in front of him instead of taking them first and being too eager to get out of there. He reached the top of the first landing again with its safe shadows, and turned to get a bearing on Dean, but Dean was not behind him.

He glanced back and Dean was at the bottom of the stairs looking up at him with one hand gripping the railing like a lifeline. His eyes were empty.

“Dean.”

Dean turned and walked back for the fountain.

Dean!

He knew then that he couldn’t let Dean make it there.

His leap back down the stairs wasn’t fast enough, and Dean was past the ring of stones and standing in the center of the weeds by the time Sam caught up.

Sam stood and looked up at him, feeling out of breath and not knowing why. “Dude, tell me what the hell is going on,” he said.

Dean sat down in the packed dirt, looking blank and weary, focused on nothing.

“C’mon, enough, let’s get out of here.” Sam wanted to add please to that, but it wasn’t going to change anything and he knew it. Dean wasn’t being stubborn or testing some theory, not with that look on his face and the lack of willingness in his actions. They had been focusing on the caves and the hotel and their relation to each other, and ignoring everything else.

coven of witches opened a gate to hell in the fountain out front and a ‘white witch’ sealed it.

This was no gate to hell. Sam had seen hellgates, and while he knew better than to believe they were all alike, this was not one. It was a stupid fountain ringed with limestone and filled with dirt over time first by the elements and then by someone hoping to lessen their liability for anyone falling into the damn thing.

Dean slumped wearily onto his side and sprawled there with glassy eyes.

“Dean,” Sam said. “Dean, Jesus Christ, what is this?” He leaned in with the beginnings of genuine fear and got a grip on the cuffs of Dean jeans, pulling with the intent of bodily dragging him off the thing and manhandling him the hell out of there, if he had to.

Dean went rigid, back arching away from the ground, and the scream that ripped out of him made Sam drop him and stumble back violently enough that he nearly lost his footing. He stood several feet away, breath held, waiting to see what else would happen, but Dean only fell limply back against the ground as if nothing had changed. The only evidence of life was the flutter of lashes and the breeze ruffling his hair.

The sun was setting behind, faster than Sam wanted it to, and his most obvious course of action was out of the question.

He paced around the outside of the fountain, mind locking into resolution mode, looking at the available facts with cold and calculating calm. He occasionally wondered if he was even capable of panicking anymore, after what he’d seen and done over his life, and it was one of the most useful things he was grateful for.

Facts. Stick to facts.

The stones were not broken or even cracked anywhere in the circle; he considered breaking the circle. That was option one. Dean was caught in something that would have a breaking point, and the object was to find that point without hurting Dean. If there was a spell, breaking the stones wouldn’t be the only cure. If there was a curse, the same thing held. If Dean was drawn to the fountain and Sam was not, then there was something about Dean that had caused him to approach in the first place.

If pulling Dean away was not going to work, then dismantling the thing that had captured him was not going to, either; it wasn’t necessarily a purely physical bond but it started there.

He flipped his phone open. No coverage out there. Not right in that spot, anyway.

He continued to circle. No traces of fading marks in the ground beyond the fountain, no patterns in the stones themselves. Maybe the stones held something else. Maybe the witch rumor had started because someone had actually done something out there they shouldn’t have. Maybe it was the dirt it was filled with, and maybe it was filled with more than dirt.

Sam huffed out a worried breath and got his knife out. After a moment of hesitation, he leaned onto the fountain near Dean’s head and waited. He didn’t feel anything, and Dean didn’t move, not even when Sam pressed a hand to his forehead. Sam kneeled on the fountain for a long moment, waiting for any change, and when nothing came, he began to dig with his knife.

He was sweating from more than just anxiety in the cool air several minutes later, with the shadows gathering, and an unknown deadline pressing him down. He carved out a slice of the dry, packed earth and dug it out with as much strength as he dared use, coated in it up to his elbows.

Something flashed blue-white out of the dirt at him, from almost directly beneath Dean’s shoulders, and the light was so violent for a moment that it shorted out his vision and made his ears ring. He flinched away hard enough that he almost tumbled back into the sparse grass around the fountain. He sat frozen with eyes closed, using whatever other senses he still had to try and pinpoint what had happened and whether it was still happening. Whatever had passed by had been momentarily warm against his skin but not warm enough to sting.

His sight was a crazed dazzle of photo-negative sunspots when he opened his eyes, and nothing else had changed. He was at least glad that it wasn’t dark yet, because otherwise the flash might have been a lot more visible.

His knife struck something solid and dull and easily scratched by the blade.

Blinking quickly to try and see better, he dug a little more and encountered the dirty off-white of long buried bone.

He wasn’t anywhere close to being surprised. What the hell had they been doing, with this fountain, since it had been built? What the hell kind of agreement had they set up, or been honoring, since the stones had been laid? Why Dean and not him, why not one of the dumbass kids tagging the place?

The skull lay just beneath where Dean’s head was now positioned; a torso long devoid of any flesh mirrored Dean’s. More than a decade had passed since the bones had been loosely covered. The hardier and deeper rooted weeds were woven into the ribs and spine, showing their forebears had grown up and around the body as it had decayed. There had been a surface layer that someone had collapsed onto, and then weeds had grown around and through them as another layer of dirt had been added.

Something had locked them into place, the way Dean now was.

Sam needed something, and wasn’t sure what. He needed more information on the history of the place, for starters.

We read everything, he thought. We read everything we could find. It’s not like we just decided to half-ass this.

As much as he hated to walk away, he did, and kept going until his phone picked up a signal. He was feet from the highway near the fence bordering the property and didn’t really care except that he didn’t want to be chased off, if it came to that, and he didn’t want anyone to try and move Dean. He walked along the fence as he dialed, trying to get back into the trees. The quickly falling darkness would only help, from there.

Bobby answered after four rings, sounding concerned, as if he knew his boys were in trouble again. He said nothing to dispute it.

Sam explained everything, every detail that had led them to where they were, and Bobby was silent a moment.

“Stay with him,” he said. “I’m going to dig around a little and call you back.”

“I can’t get a signal by the fountain,” Sam said. He kept his eyes trained on Dean’s still form the entire time, afraid to look away.

“Then stay on and I’ll do it a bit at a time,” Bobby said. “Stay calm, boy.”

Sam thought he’d been doing a damn good job of just that, but something in his tone had apparently tipped Bobby off.

“You boys were researching the hotel and caves,” Bobby said, and Sam could hear him tapping at something. “The fountain was incidental.”

“Yeah,” Sam admitted. “It had it’s own myths, but they were so out there that…”

“The fountain wasn’t in the original plans,” Bobby said. “I got that much, right off the bat. You boys getting rusty?”

“No,” Sam said, but there was no defensiveness in it. He and Dean were out of step with each other, again, and it was leading to mistakes.

“It wasn’t in the plans, and it was built first. Once the hotel was completed, then never even used the damn thing, wasn’t even turned on. It just sat out there and looked ridiculous. They actually placed the hotel based on where the fountain sat. I think you know how bad that is.”

Sam cleared his throat. “Something wanted it there, and still wants it there,” he said. “Okay, but what kind of pacts, or….Bobby?”

The signal was gone.

Sam cursed in worried annoyance and tried again. The signal came and went several times, but there was never anything strong enough for him to make use of. He was on his own.

He paced for several more minutes, hoping his luck would turn, and finally, he just couldn’t leave Dean there alone any longer. It was really getting dark, and a sharper chill was coming with it.

He returned to the fountain, removed his jacket, and covered Dean with it. He pulled out his penlight and looked at the bones again.

He didn’t have anything with him. At the best, he might be able to try some sort of cleansing ritual using what little salt he had at hand (it was always in their pockets) and parts of the ruined drywall inside for drawing symbols, but he had a feeling he was up against something a little tougher than that.

When it dawned on him who might be able to help and wouldn’t be cut off from him by something as simple as satellite coverage, he cursed aloud.

He hated to do it. If they started depending on…him to that extent, they’d stop counting on themselves. It would dull their ability to think on their feet. Castiel was a last resort, if at all; never a first.

Angelus ex Machina.

Screw it; he didn’t have any other options right then. The longer Dean stayed there, the less likely it was he’d be able to get loose, if at all. Sam knew that. He could feel it.

He stepped away from the fountain and breathed deeply, thinking the angel’s name with all the concentration he could summon, then speaking it aloud, then shouting it to the sky.

Clap your hands if you believe in fairies.

Castiel was not likely to respond to him. He was tied to Dean, after all, and Sam was an afterthought, more a part of the problem than the solution. Castiel’s behavior so far had told him that.

His own behavior had told him that.

He added Dean needs you to his entreaty to the sky, and there was still nothing.

Beginning to feel frantic, he turned back to the fountain and went back to digging. Long minutes of wondering what the hell he was doing and choking on dust later, he encountered another set of bones, nearly a foot further down, stacked under the previous, same pose. Much, much older. Beginning to crumble under weight and time.

They come and lie here for no damn reason and get swallowed up, he thought. How long? How many? Was the first set of bones under the fountain itself, having called for someone to build it some sort of monument? How many had come to that patch and just set themselves down on it without knowing why?

Something had gotten loose when he’d first begun digging, something bright and warm and one of a kind. What it might be made him feel cold with dread.

It had been replaced with another, so had finally moved on.

He threw himself off the fountain and put everything he was into screaming a name that didn’t mean anything to him except that it might save Dean. Castiel had raised Dean from hell, and there was no way this was any greater than that.

He wondered if he could forcibly summon an angel, and how much further out of favor it would throw him with the current group in power. He decided he didn’t care.

Castiel!”

He would shout himself hoarse if it meant he’d get the angel’s attention.

Okay, I am still capable of panicking a little, at least where Dean’s concerned.

“Sam Winchester.”

Sam whirled in response to the voice at his shoulder, finding the very last of the twilight on the face of the vessel Castiel had chosen, looking staid and unruffled as always except for the faint narrowing of blue eyes and the mild frown between them.

Sam almost grinned at him in relief, but he pointed toward Dean without bothering to even draw more breath first. “I know it’s not a gate, but I can’t get him free. You have to.”

Castiel looked like he wanted to take issue with Sam over what amounted to an order, but his eyes slid to Dean and darkened even further in the low light. He walked away from Sam without pause, gait as stiff and businesslike as always, uneasy in so physical a form, trench coat billowing out slightly in the breeze.

Sam trailed along behind, barely behind, willing something to happen sooner than later. He waited for the angel to ask.

Castiel said nothing, simply placed a hand on Dean’s forehead much the same way Sam had earlier, only he was capable of looking deeper rather than just trying to assess what was on the surface, or to comfort.

Castiel leaned closer, limned with the glow from Sam’s still-shining penlight that had been haphazardly left in the dirt near Dean’s head. With his other hand, he dug into the loose dirt by Dean’s chest, fingers clenched, eyes fluttering closed.

Sam began to feel like a voyeur, and worse. But he stood close and still, waiting, hoping.

There would likely be a price of some kind, for a sacrifice whipped back like a coin on a string; there always was, in the balance of things. He would pay it, and go on paying it, if the angel would pry his brother loose.

Without opening his eyes, Castiel said, “The very nature of having been resculpted in my hands has made your brother suitable for many things.”

Sam didn’t think that Castiel realized how big an admission that was, to a human, much less to a human that loved Dean as much as he did.

That he didn’t wrap his hands around the angel’s throat was a testament to his self control and ability to understand that he couldn’t affect an angel anyway.

“I would really appreciate it,” Sam said with audible restraint, “…if you would explain that.”

“I did not intend for anything like this to happen,” Castiel said without looking at him, but by his tone, Sam could tell he was addressing him. “I am not…I had not engaged in the kind of reconstruction Dean required, before.”

“But it didn’t occur to you to warn us, knowing what we do,” Sam said. “What else is he suitable for, exactly?”

Castiel moved his hand from Dean’s forehead to his chest, still and considering.

“Cas?” Sam said. “What else have you set him up for?”

“Do not come any closer, Sam,” Castiel said.

Deep down, no matter what they did, to Sam they were still angels, the fierce angels of the Bible, the comforting angels of legend, powerful and fair and holy. So he held still and watched, feeling helpless but full of an ingrained faith that Castiel would fix it.

“You are correct that this is not a gate,” Castiel said. “It would be better protected, fortified. It is, however, guarded. It takes a soul to hold it, and it has been searching for a suitable one for a while, and discarding the rest.”

Sam felt the cold prickle of dread mixed with adrenaline rush down the backs of his arms to lodge in his chest.

“The prior contract here has expired,” Castiel said, moving a hand back to Dean‘s forehead. “It was a temporary solution that was not repaired when it should have been.”

“Was it…a seal?” Sam said.

“No. It’s a thin place between here and the lower realms. They happen on their own.”

Sam hated the neatness of it, the simple explanation given, almost as if he should have known. Castiel wasn’t judgmental, though, and rarely had any underlying meaning to his words; he was as plainspoken as Dean but without the sarcasm. Sam didn’t really care what it was about, anymore, as long as Castiel got Dean loose.

“Can you get him out?” Sam said. “It…it doesn’t need to be his soul that holds it.”

Castiel looked up, suddenly, lifting his head to look straight on yet still away from Sam. “Who would you have take his place?”

Sam wanted to say you but he knew it wasn’t fair. He closed his eyes in regret. “I just want Dean free,” he said.

“I’m capable of more than that,” Castiel said, voice lowered even further as he dropped his gaze back to Dean. “We’ve allowed these…agreements…to go on too long. A wound like this should be cauterized, not patched.”

Sam tensed when Castiel placed a hand back on Dean’s chest and gripped the soil again with the other, connecting them in a way. He didn’t have to see anything to sense the power that gathered.

Something in the air tensed, coiled, and Sam refused to step back.

Nothing visible came of whatever passed; Sam felt something like a snap that twisted along the bridge of his nose and popped his ears, a change in the atmosphere that sank into his bones and the earth Dean rested on. A moment later, Dean gasped and arched against the dirt again, but not with the pain Sam had caused when he’d tried to pull him free.

The air felt lighter and easier to breathe after that, and Sam realized it hadn’t only been his own anxiety that had added weight to things.

Castiel turned away from Dean and leaned against the fountain, face in shadow, shoulders dropping.

“You should take him elsewhere, Sam,” he said.

Sam had trekked any number of miles with Dean over one shoulder before, and he didn’t mind it then.

Only when he reached the car did he remember that he hadn’t thanked the angel.

He consoled himself with the fact that the angel had, after all, made it all possible in the first place.

-|-

“Holy shit, I’ve never had eggs like this before. Dude, is this like, some local recipe or something? I need to move here and eat these eggs every day, forever.”

They were just eggs, like any other eggs in any other small town diner anywhere else in the contiguous 48 states, except maybe with a little less salmonella. Sam suppressed a sigh.

Dean had awoken like a new man, excited about everything and full of energy and enthusiasm. It was almost eerie if it hadn’t also been a relief and kind of hilarious. To Sam, anyway.

“I hope the line cook back there is a chick, because I so want to marry her right now.”

Sam had listened to the litany of how great and awesome and epic everything was. Sunrise was great, car was running awesome, the toast at this place was epic. There had been a ten minute discourse on the quality of the soap in the bathroom at the motel they were staying at. Dean felt good, for the first time in a long time, and Sam was not going to do anything to lessen that. Possibly ever. Even if it meant Dean went on like that for days.

Apparently angel mojo had a kick to it with positive side effects.

Sam had not told him what had really happened, and had no intention of ever telling him. Dean didn’t remember anything past digging around on the second floor of the old limestone hotel, and Sam was content with that. He’d told Dean it was the fountain, because Bobby could back that up and it was easy enough to prove, with the bones lodged in it. Instinct told Sam that the truth in that case would rankle Dean. Dean wasn’t exactly adverse to Castiel helping, but there was still something about the angel that sent Dean into dark silences. Convincing him that the fountain had tried to trap him and failed was good enough; further convincing him that Sam had sealed it and the whole thing was over was easier, once Dean had decided the world was great and epic that morning.

Dean started three separate fights - one in a diner, one in a gas station, and one in a bar. He didn’t get to finish any of them because Sam loomed large behind him and warned off anyone who strayed too close before he could bodily remove Dean from the situation.

Sam did, however, let him wander off with three tipsy girls the next night, because it was one more thing Dean could let loose without many negative effects, and it was better than him challenging anyone he saw.

If it meant Dean was actually sleeping, and eating decently, and looking at the world like it was a gift even if only temporarily, then Sam wasn’t going to put a damper on it.

Sam looked into it a little further once he could convince Bobby they were fine.

One site, Unexplained Research, had more solid info:

Thirty masons, commissioned by Father Francis of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kaukauna, completed the project in four months. The Steinbrecker family ran it as a health spa hotel and retreat for clergy.

A retreat for clergy. The limestone would have been soaking up an awful lot of piety. Perfect way to hold a thin spot together, for a while.

When Father Francis died in 1927, the hotel experienced a change in clientele which included bootleggers, mobsters, and prostitutes. It went through several ownership changes until it was purchased in 1986 by the present-day owner Bob Lyman.

And, consequently, a little something extra became necessary to hold the place together once the prevailing energy veered off the straight and narrow. Sometime after 1927, the luring of the right kind of soul began, and was used to plug the leak in the dam. Why it wanted to keep itself whole, there was no telling. Whatever was beyond, it wanted to stay there.

Sam caught a figure from the corner of one eye several times in the ensuing days, dark-haired and distant, the tan of a standard trench coat registering just before he turned his head and found no one there.

He was not that dense.

How many angels had held a soul more than once, had repaired and replaced and become solely responsible for that kind of material?

It wasn’t exactly pity he felt, not at that late stage in the game, but he was still capable of empathy. Dean had been freed from first hell and then an indefinite term as a band-aid on the thin skin of the world by a creature not made for it, and Sam had to wonder what that meant.

Castiel, though, would never get loose. Not after that. He stood between Dean and whatever came next, and as badly as Sam wanted to be concerned, all he could feel was relief that if he fell short, there was another line of defense.

He would never let it get that far.

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