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Tusk

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In a weed-choked cemetery at the end of the world, Castiel Novak watches his brother tumble into Hell and drag the devil down with him.

He kneels in the dirt, bleeding and broken, until Anna--miraculously reconstituted--presses two gentle fingertips to his forehead and cleanses his skin of blood and bruises, his body of fractures and scrapes.

He realises too late that she has erased the last touches he'll ever feel from his brother's hands.

_____

Castiel drives Jimmy's treasured Continental to a comfortable little house in Kansas.

When Dean Winchester, civilian and firefighter and the only person Castiel has ever fallen in love with (save one), opens the door, Castiel tells him he's okay. He tells him the apocalypse was averted and humanity is safe. He tells him Jimmy is--

--Jimmy is--

Dean pulls Cas inside and shuts the door against the rest of the world, wraps his arms around him and holds him through his silent, racking shock.

_____

A little more than a year later, Dean goes to answer the doorbell, leaving Cas in the kitchen slicing potatoes for dinner, and comes back wide-eyed and bewildered.

Jimmy follows behind him.

Jimmy is alive.

Jimmy crosses straight to Cas and crowds him up against the counter and kisses him like he wants to devour him.

Jimmy doesn't know how he escaped the Cage, they learn, after Cas shoves Jimmy away and throws salt in his face, grabs a silver knife from the cutlery drawer and slices Jimmy's freely-offered forearm. Jimmy doesn't know how he was resurrected. And he doesn't know why he hasn't acted on his feelings for Cas before.

"I want you," he says, so matter-of-fact it makes Dean's head spin. "I don't understand why this is such a big deal."

"You don't understand--?" Cas repeats, an edge of hysteria in his voice. "Because it's wrong, Jimmy! Because we're brothers!"

"So what? We're bodies, Cas. My body wants yours."

It would almost be funny, Dean thinks, if Cas's face hadn't collapsed--for one brief, telling moment--into yearning, sad and hopeless.

_____

Dean's not always great at reading a room. But he figures that if Sam ever came back from the dead and propositioned him, he'd want a private conversation, so he makes a relatively tactful retreat upstairs to let Cas and Jimmy talk things out.

Not even an hour passes before he hears the front door open and close.

When he gets back to the kitchen, Cas is slumped on a stool at the island with his head in his hands--one of which is wrapped in a dishtowel--and what used to be a full bottle of whiskey at his elbow, uncapped and down a few healthy ounces.

Normally, Cas isn't a drinker. He has a frankly superhuman tolerance for alcohol and he doesn't much care for the taste, so normally, he just doesn't bother.

Dean supposes normal is out the window and crossing state lines right now.

He's settling himself on a stool of his own and reaching discreetly for the bottle when Cas says, voice raw like he's been screaming, "He's been back for a year."

Dean's hand freezes an inch from the whiskey. "What?"

Cas raises his head and looks at Dean with bloodshot eyes and an air of shellshock. "One, maybe two days after I got here, he opened his eyes and found himself on the sidewalk outside. That's the first thing he remembers after the cemetery."

"Why didn’t he--?"

"He saw us through the window. We were sitting on the sofa watching television and he thought I looked 'okay', so he didn't think it was 'necessary' to 'disturb' me." Cas's sarcastic finger-quotes, usually hilarious, are harsh and brittle and devastating. Dean puts his hand on Cas's wrist where it falls on the counter and squeezes gently. "He found a car down the road, hotwired it, and left. He's been hunting ever since."

Dean has no idea what to say. He waits until Cas has taken another mouthful of whiskey, then picks up the bottle and takes a long, burning swallow himself.

"I did every test," Cas says, almost to himself, as Dean breathes the fumes from his throat. "Salt, silver, holy water, iron. I said an exorcism. I made a banishing sigil." That explains the towel on his hand, Dean supposes. "He's human. It's him." Cas's mouth twists into something that could be a smile if it weren't so torn up and bitter. "And he only let me know he's alive because he wants--"

Dean watches Cas's mangled smile turn desolate. Wistful. Carefully--so carefully--he asks, "And what, uh. What do you want, Cas?"

Cas tenses. His eyes flash alarm, then shutter; he gives Dean a guarded, wary look. When Dean doesn't move, doesn't let go of Cas's wrist, keeps his gaze calm and steady and open, Cas blinks, and his jaw tics, and he breathes in sharply. Putting his free hand firmly on top of Dean's, he leans in and says, blunt and honest, "Being with you this past year has meant everything to me, Dean. When I thought I had nothing, when I thought I would drown in my losses, you were patient and supportive and kind. Far kinder than I deserve. You are a good man, and I care about you very much. I love you, Dean. I want you."

Heat washes across Dean's skin, bashful and bittersweet. For a moment, he lets Cas's sincerity, his conviction, make him lightheaded. For a moment, he lets himself believe it could be that simple.

Just for a moment, because--

Cas's gaze falters. He retreats back across the counter; his shoulders hunch. He pulls his hands away from Dean's and presses the heels of his palms to his eyes and, like it's being dredged up from the core of him, he confesses, "And for as long as I can remember, I have w-wanted him."

Chapter Text

Cas leaves to go with Jimmy.

"I'll be gone one week, perhaps two," he says, standing formally at the bottom of the stairs. Over his shoulder, Dean can see his bag packed and waiting by the front door. "There's a spate of suicides in Illinois that Jimmy thinks may be a case, and a Satanist scholar nearby whose library might be useful in determining how Jimmy was freed from the Cage. I'd also like to try summoning Anna. She hasn't answered any of my prayers, but it's possible that Heaven is in such turmoil they're not getting through, or she can't get away on her own. If we still don't have answers by the time we start heading back, we might visit a psychic who lives not far from here. She's highly gifted, and it's possible a sitting with Jimmy could--"

"It's okay, Cas." Dean takes the final two steps down to the floor and Cas backs away, dropping his gaze, giving him space like he thinks Dean's going to brush right past him while declaring good riddance. Instead, Dean stops in front of him, balling his hands into fists at his sides so he won't try to touch. "Do what you need to do. Whatever you need to do. It's okay, just--" He swallows back the rest, 'be careful' and 'come home' and whatever other needy bullshit he doesn't want to put on Cas when he's already got one foot out the door. Marshalling his nerve, he catches Cas's averted gaze and drags it up to square. "Whatever you do, whatever--happens," he says, willing Cas to hear what he can't quite bring himself to say out loud, "I'll be here."

Cas hears it: whatever you do with him; whatever happens with him. The tension in his body dissolves. The cautious distance in his eyes gives way to something soft and intimate. He kisses Dean, and kisses him again, and undresses him as they make their stumbling way back up the stairs together. He lays Dean out on the bed and lingers over every bared inch of him, cherishing with hands and mouth and rasped endearments. He takes great care working Dean open with deft, deliberate fingers. He presses Dean into the mattress, presses them skin to skin everywhere they can touch, and rocks into Dean slowly, deeply.

"I'll come back," he promises into Dean's mouth between lush, tender kisses. "I'll come back to you, Dean."

Dean holds on and holds on and tries to believe it's not a goodbye.

_____

Two days later, Benny corners Dean at his locker at the end of their shift. "You sure had a sourpuss on you today, brother," he says, casual like he's commenting on the weather but with a watchful look in his eye that Dean knows means business. "You wanna get a drink, share what's making you so moody?"

Dean curses himself. Cas left the day before Dean's monthly 48-hour shift at the firehouse. At first, Dean had managed to keep his mind on the usual equipment checks and maintenance lists and catch-up paperwork; but once the busywork was done, all that was left was to wait for new calls to come in. And since he'd wanted to be too busy to think about all the things he didn't want to think about, naturally, a full 36 of his 48 hours were quiet as hell. He knew he hadn't been at his sociable best, but he'd thought he'd at least managed a respectable poker face.

If it were almost anyone else asking, Dean would brush it off, crack a joke, deflect and distract. But it's Benny, so he spends the block-and-a-half walk to the squad's preferred watering hole trying to figure out what he can actually say.

"Cas's brother showed up last week," he begins, once he and Benny have bellied up to the bar and taken the first sips from their beers. "Cas left on a roadtrip with him a couple days ago."

"Cas's brother," Benny repeats. Dean credits him for a decent try at sounding nonjudgmental. Despite Benny and Cas having him as common ground--and a few other things Dean's noticed in them both that neither of them will easily own--they've never really warmed past tolerating each other. "I didn't know Cas had any family."

"Jimmy's it. They, uh. A while back--before Cas moved in--they found themselves in kind of a...fucked-up situation. Not illegal," he adds, because he can see Benny picking up on his hesitation and vague phrasing and starting to make assumptions. "Just...heavy. Anyway, Jimmy stepped up to get them out of it, and Cas...well, Cas didn't expect to see him again."

"And now he's back."

"And now he's back. And he..." Searching for words--words that are nowhere near 'shamelessly wants to fuck his brother'--Dean drops his gaze to his beer bottle. He taps the sweating glass with his fingertips; he shakes his head. "Cas thinks he's different. Hell, I only met him once a few years ago, knew him for about five minutes, and I think he's different. The guy's been through hell, Benny. It makes sense that whatever happened to him would've changed him." Like Cas went through Hell and now wakes up sometimes gasping or crying or sick; like sometimes he doesn't want to get out of bed or be touched all through the next day. Dean understands that: he knows PTSD, he's seen it both professionally and personally. "But..."

Benny's determined nonchalance warms into genuine concern. "You worried about Cas being alone with him?"

Dean huffs out a humourless laugh. "Something like that."

"Sounds like he's bad news," comes a low, insinuating voice from the barstool on Dean's other side.

Dean turns to side-eye the newcomer. "Eavesdropping? Seriously?"

"Always," comes the answer, with a smug smile over his drink. "I love hearing about other people's bad decisions. Professionally, you might say they're my bread and butter."

Dean tries to remember if he's ever heard what this guy does for a living. He's another regular here; Dean's seen him around more than a few times, even shared a round and shot the shit with him once or twice. Reluctantly, because everything about him oozes prickishness. The way he dresses--in dark suits and shirts that are well-cut but waft a faint, musty smell--makes Dean think of actuarial tables. Or sales? He's good at arriving unnoticed, and seems to like sidling into other people's conversations and making them all about him.

Probably sales.

Dean opens his mouth to clarify that this particular conversation is not open to outside opinion, but his uninvited Emily Post sticks his oar in even further. "My advice," he says, lofty and arrogant and clearly, keenly uncaring, "is to call your boyfriend home and send his brother packing. With a troubled soul like that, everyone's better off if he knows to stay away."

Irritated, Dean turns his back and picks up his beer. Sharing an eyeroll with Benny, he grumbles, "Thanks, MacLeod. You're a huge help."

He can hear the limey bastard's smirk. "Anytime, boys."

Chapter Text

At the cracked and crooked curb outside Jimmy's motel room, Jimmy tosses his duffel into the Continental's trunk and gives the car a businesslike nod. "You kept it."

Castiel furrows his brow. "Of course I kept it." It was Jimmy's. He'd bought it with his meagre savings the day before he left for Stanford; it had been the first thing in his life that was solely his, and it helped get him to the first thing in his life he'd ever chosen solely for himself. He'd lived out of the back seat as he made his way cross-country from the hunt the family'd been working in Tennessee to Palo Alto, then for most of the first semester until dorm space opened up. When he started hunting with Castiel again years later, the car came with him. For all its age and conspicuousness and mechanical eccentricities, Jimmy loved it. One of the two things he'd asked of Cas before he went to face Lucifer was that Castiel take care of it.

Of course he'd kept it.

Castiel frowns when Jimmy shuts the trunk and heads for the passenger door. "Don't you want to drive?"

Jimmy changes course with a shrug. "Sure, I can drive."

He sinks into the driver's seat as if it belongs to an impersonal rental. He doesn't immediately reach for the radio, or give the rearview mirror a small, private smile as he adjusts it, or touch his fingertips fondly to the dash. He keys the ignition and turns to look over his shoulder to begin backing out and pauses at whatever he sees in Cas's expression. "What?"

"For the man who once made us both sleep in this car in the parking lot of a truly disreputable roadhouse after he drank too much and didn't want to let me drive back to the motel, you're taking this reunion very dispassionately."

Jimmy's face is disconcertingly unreadable. "I'm glad you kept my car, Cas," he says, returning to the task of checking his blind spots and pulling smoothly out of the parking space. "That's why I mentioned it."

They lapse into silence as Jimmy navigates them out of Lawrence and onto the I-70.

Cas catches himself watching Jimmy: the familiar not-quite-slouch of his body in his seat; the easy movements of his hands on the wheel and the turn signal; the subtle flex of his leg as he speeds or brakes or cruises. Riding with his brother again is--well. Castiel had expected never to have this again. He'd worked very hard to resign himself to not having it.

He's not surprised by how easily he's becoming unresigned.

After a few minutes on the highway, Jimmy drums his fingers on the wheel and smirks. "Remember what Mom said when I brought Connie home?"

Castiel does. Coming as it did with the news that Jimmy was leaving--and the subsequent fight between Naomi and Jimmy that would go without resolution for almost four years--it's the one amusing part of an otherwise generally awful memory. "'Emmanuel James Novak,'" Castiel quotes, adopting a semblance of their mother's scandalised, disapproving tone, "'this is the kind of car that enables sin in back alleys.'" Jimmy laughs, and Castiel starts to relax into his seat. "I'm still not certain whether she meant drug dealing, prostitution, or abortions."

Most of his attention on passing a poky little hybrid, Jimmy says, "I don't know about drugs or abortions, but I've always wanted to suck you off in the backseat."

Cas freezes.

His mind's eye paints the scene far too easily: the car parked haphazardly under a tree on a sunny scorcher of a day; himself sprawled out on the bench seat with his back to the door and his legs spread, his shirt rucked up and his jeans undone; Jimmy kneeling between his thighs, broad-shouldered and slack-mouthed. His hands raking into Jimmy's hair as Jimmy swallows his cock, Jimmy's plush lips stretching around him as he slides in and in and in; Jimmy's flushed cheeks hollowing, his cheekbones standing out sharp enough to cut, as he sucks him down. Jimmy's dark eyes trained on his, watching through heavy lashes, eager for Cas to come down his throat--

Castiel's hands curl into fists in his lap. His mouth dry, he mutters, "Just drive, Jimmy."

_____

It's almost eight hours from Lawrence, Kansas to Hazel Crest, Illinois.

Jimmy drives the whole way. Castiel offers to take over when they stop for food at the halfway point, but Jimmy shrugs him off, says he's fine to keep going, says he's not tired. He says the same when they stop again to top up the gas tank two hours later. He says the same when they pull into town as dusk is deepening into night and Jimmy suggests getting straight to the research they've come to do, like it's not too late in the evening for anything but finding a motel.

"You're just out of practise," Jimmy insists as Cas unfolds himself stiffly from the passenger seat at the door to the motel office. "All that time living like a civilian. The longest you've spent on the road in a year's been, what, trips to the farmer's market? Sunday drives with your honey?"

"Shut up, Jimmy," Cas grumbles, and staggers into the office to check them in.

_____

"Dean seems like a good man," Jimmy says as he unloads the gun duffel and cleaning kit onto his bed.

"He's a very good man," Castiel replies, unpacking the ingredients for an angel summoning onto the kitchenette's rickety table. "I'm exceptionally lucky."

"No shit. Have you looked at him? He's so fucking pretty, Cas, Jesus." Cas cuts an eyeroll Jimmy's way, and bites his lip against a smile when Jimmy winks back. For a moment, it's like being in the passenger seat while Jimmy drives: familiar and easy and thought to be lost forever.

Castiel has missed him.

Jimmy picks up and starts to disassemble a revolver, and continues, "Also, I'm kind of impressed that he didn't put up a fight about this."

Castiel's hands falter as he positions the ritual bowl. He hopes Jimmy didn't notice. With his eyes on his task, he asks evenly, "What makes you think he didn't?"

In Castiel's periphery, Jimmy pauses his cleaning and gives him a shrewd look. "I know you, Cas," he says, sounding nothing but sure. "I saw you with him in that house. If he wasn't okay with this, you wouldn't be here."

Cas takes a slow breath. They're skirting it now: Jimmy's intentions; Cas's attraction. The opportunity presented by this trip, unspoken but understood.

But Castiel has spent his whole life policing himself around his brother. Even now, he's reluctant to make the same admissions to Jimmy that he made to Dean. And he's reluctant to tell Jimmy that Dean--who is endlessly kind, supportive, and selfless; who self-blames and -abnegates and -sacrifices when faced with the prospect of loss--basically gave them his blessing.

Carefully, he says, "Dean prefers to give up the things he loves rather than wait for them to leave him."

"So he gave you up."

Cas looks up sharply. "I'm not leaving him, Jimmy."

Jimmy looks squarely back. "You already have, though."

_____

The summoning fails. They wait up for hours, and Castiel casts the spell again, but Anna doesn't come.

_____

The scholar who lives in Hazel Crest is an academic Satanist, not a practical one. The twins made extensive use of her private library in the run-up to the Apocalypse.

Back then, they were looking for information about the Cage that would help keep Lucifer contained. They found nothing useful.

Now, looking for information about the Cage that would help explain Jimmy's escape, they find nothing useful.

Back at the motel that night, Jimmy goes out for snacks and some air while Castiel tries again to summon Anna.

Again, she doesn't come.

Cas goes to bed before Jimmy comes back. He leaves the lamp on the far side of the motel room on for him and falls asleep feeling too warm, the air too heavy around him.

_____

The bed dips and sways beneath Castiel. He's reaching for the blade under his pillow before he's fully awake.

His wrist is caught and pinned beside his head before he's opened his eyes.

Jimmy sits above him. Sits on him, warm and heavy astride Cas's thighs. He's naked, his skin burnished in the lamp's weak yellow glow. He's hard. The hand that isn't holding Castiel's wrist to the mattress is slowly stroking his own dick.

Castiel is cored by strictly-cultivated panic. He plants his feet to try to buck Jimmy off, and fists his free hand and starts to swing; Jimmy lets go of himself and catches that hand too, easily, and keeps his balance, easily. And then he's bearing down, holding himself just a few inches above Cas as he pins both of Cas's wrists to the mattress. Pins Castiel with a look that says he knows exactly how false that fighting reflex really is.

"I'm tired of not having this," Jimmy says, and the intent in his voice makes Cas's cock harden in his boxers. Tilting his hips, Jimmy drags his dick slowly against Cas's through the fabric, lets him know he feels it. "Aren't you?"

Heat thickens and twists low in Castiel's gut. He stares up at Jimmy, caught.

There is a part of him that quails from this. The way he loves his brother is a sin. God may be gone and Heaven may be indifferent--Castiel may have already gone to Hell and been broken there, on his virtues as much as his faults--but his whole life, he has used fear of sin to train himself: he must recoil from this. He must hide his feelings and perform righteousness. He must deny himself.

But he has never been able to stop thinking about it. This scenario, this moment, this--possibility. Illicitly; irresistibly. Longingly.

Castiel's guilty fantasies collide with the current shameless moment, and he is dizzied by a rush of sheer unreality. It's one of his well-used scenarios: they're on the road together, just as they've always been; they're in a motel room that could be any motel room, with balding shag carpet and mold-speckled grout and a dingy popcorn ceiling. But Jimmy's bed is unused, the covers still made--Jimmy is in Cas's bed with him--Jimmy is touching him, rocking down against him--Jimmy's dick is hard, and Jimmy can feel Cas getting hard beneath him--Jimmy knows--and Jimmy wants--

Cas wrenches his hands free and grabs Jimmy's head, the back of his neck, and pulls him down. The kiss is hard and artless, a dare and an inchoate plea, and for a heart-seizing moment Jimmy is motionless and Cas is horrified. But then Jimmy smiles against his mouth; Jimmy tilts his head, fixes their angle; Jimmy parts Cas's lips and licks past them, past his teeth, licks into him. Cas opens to him with a shiver--slips his own tongue against his brother's--tastes him--and hazy unreality snaps clear.

He is kissing Jimmy, and Jimmy is kissing him. This is happening. This is real.

A helpless noise breaks from Castiel's throat.

The kiss falls into restless, messy pieces. They suck at each other's lips, nip with quick teeth; they tease and taste with darting tongues; they pant and gasp, warm and damp, against each other's slack mouths, stubbled jaws, bared throats. In no time, they're frantic, rutting against each other, Jimmy's naked dick little more than a taunt through Cas's boxers until they fumble together to shove them off Cas's hips and down his thighs. When Jimmy presses down again, presses them skin to identical, fevered skin, Castiel's last, precarious shouldn't dissolves in heat and weight and want. When their dripping cocks align in the cut of Cas's hip and ride together through sweat and precome, it lands like a bolt of electricity, hot thud in Castiel's bones.

Jimmy ducks his head and sucks hard at the tendon in Castiel's neck, then digs his teeth into the nascent bruise. Cas arches beneath him, clutches Jimmy's nape, makes a hungry sound. They move together--their hands on each other, their mouths on each other--but Cas is still starving, needs closer, needs more. He palms Jimmy's shoulderblades and the shifting muscles in the broad expanse of Jimmy's back; he fits his hands to the firm round of Jimmy's ass and holds Jimmy down on him as he rocks up, rocks up, rocks up.

"Ah, Cas--" Jimmy groans. Castiel's pulse staggers at the feel of his brother's dick twitching against his belly, a fresh well of precome smearing on his skin. "Cas. I want to come on your cock."

Cas's hips jolt. His hands tighten on Jimmy's ass, hauling him down as Cas grinds mindlessly against him. "Fuck," he rasps, and tries to control himself enough to let Jimmy up. "Please, Jimmy, yes--"

Castiel watches, breathless, as Jimmy raises himself on his knees and takes Cas's aching dick in his hand. It should be like watching his own hand on himself, he thinks distantly--they share the same broad palms, the same long fingers, the same angular wrists--but Jimmy's touch is new, and long-imagined, and Jimmy's. Cas's cock jerks, his stomach muscles tensing and quivering as he struggles not to come.

Lightning-quick, Jimmy's grip changes to a painfully tight circle around the base of Castiel's dick. "Don't you dare," he says, and Cas has to close his eyes against the look on Jimmy's face, the forbidding set of his mouth and arch of his brow.

Jimmy must have slicked himself--opened himself on his own fingers? Fuck--before he woke Castiel: after the first blunt nudge at his hole, Jimmy sinks down on Cas's cock easily. Cas trembles, staring at where they're joined. He watches the give of Jimmy's rim around the smooth slide of his cock; he feels himself push into Jimmy's body, slight resistance easing into a greedy clutch, hot and tight and wet and-- "Perfect," Castiel murmurs, rapt. "Perfect for me, Jimmy."

Jimmy's head tips back as he pushes himself down slowly, taking Castiel deep and full. When he has all of Cas's cock, he sways on his hips with a low, satisfied sound. "I've thought about this," he says, and he looks back down at Cas like what he's thought about is devouring him. Planting his broad hands square on Castiel's chest, he starts to ride.

Liquid heat washes through Castiel; again, he tries desperately not to come. Jimmy is strong and beautiful and alive above him, around him, his whole body working and working as he fucks himself on Castiel's cock. Restlessly, wonderingly, Cas's hands drift from Jimmy's knees to the blades of his hips to the subtle flare of his ribs; they graze fingertips over Jimmy's peaked nipples and stroke Jimmy's taut forearms before falling to grip Jimmy's thick, straining thighs.

Between them, Jimmy's cock hangs hard and flushed and leaking a steady stream of precome onto the flat of Cas's stomach. Castiel swallows convulsively at the heavy scent of sex, the mess of it, the obscenity. He wants to see Jimmy come. Fuck, he wants to see his brother come. He cups one hand over Jimmy's dick, presses it down so it rides between his palm and his stomach with each roll of Jimmy's hips. Rubbing his thumb over the wet slit, he swallows again, saliva flooding his mouth as he realizes he could lift his hand to his tongue and taste Jimmy like this, too--

Before he can do it, one of Jimmy's hands drags down his chest and closes around his hand. Closes Castiel's hand around Jimmy's dick and starts guiding Cas in jacking him.

Castiel's breath quakes. "Jimmy--" he says, "--you feel--" and he moans, lost in the shape and weight and thrust of Jimmy's cock in the tunnel of his fist; the control in Jimmy's hand as he helps Cas touch him how he wants to be touched.

"I've thought about this," Jimmy says again, but there's no satisfaction in it this time. Tearing a shred of focus from the relentless rise of his own pleasure, Castiel blinks dazedly up at him: there's an odd shape to Jimmy's mouth; an odd force in his words. "About having you inside me. Getting myself all over you. Don't come," he warns as Cas's hips buck beneath him, as Castiel shudders with the image, the promise, so close. The hand still braced on Castiel's chest flexes, pressing down hard as Jimmy shifts his weight to rock himself roughly down on Cas. The hand holding Cas's hand around Jimmy's dick squeezes tighter, twists. "I want to come on your cock, Cas, don't--fucking--"

With a snarl--frustration?--he pushes Castiel's hand away from his dick, wraps his own hand back around it and starts stripping himself. Shutting his eyes tight, he works himself between Cas's cock and his own fist, his body tense, his face set in concentration.

The disconnect is harsh. Disorienting. Castiel reaches for Jimmy, gets both his own hands back on him; he pets up Jimmy's flanks, down onto his ass, and tries to coax him back from wherever he went. Tries to pull him down for a kiss, but Jimmy won't come. "Jimmy," he says, and his voice is ruined. His fingers skitter on Jimmy's forearm, Jimmy's hand now a painful pressure on Castiel's chest. "Jimmy, I need--look at me--"

Jimmy frowns. He doesn't move his hands from what they're doing; he doesn't open his eyes. Arching his back, he shoves himself down on Castiel's cock and grinds, again, again, and he jerks himself furiously, and with a low groan he comes like it's being dragged out of him, spurt after long spurt striping warm and wet and messy across Cas's stomach.

And that's it, that's Jimmy coming with Castiel buried inside him, that's Jimmy's come all over him. Castiel gasps as he spills inside his brother, his hips working in ragged little upward pushes.

He watches, stunned, as Jimmy rises off of him almost immediately. As his still-pulsing dick slips out of Jimmy's hole, trailing come.

As Jimmy turns his back and moves towards the edge of the bed.

Anxiety extinguishes the pleasure of Castiel's release, curdles it inside him, turns it nauseous. He grabs Jimmy's wrist as Jimmy's hand finally lifts from his chest. "Hey," he says urgently, sitting up. "What's wrong?" The long-cultivated panic that was uprooted and cast aside when Jimmy touched him unfurls itself anew--it was sinful, it was sick, you've lost him, he hates you--and Castiel braces himself for regret, for shame, for disgust. "Are you okay?"

Jimmy blinks down at Castiel's hand on his wrist, then up to meet Cas's gaze. His face is flushed, his eyes bright, his lips kiss-bitten. He looks like he's just been fucked. He looks like he has no idea why Cas is upset. "Nothing's wrong," he says. "I'm fine." And he really does seem fine, sated and relaxed. The tension and frustration and withdrawal that were so jarring as he worked himself towards orgasm are nowhere to be found.

Forced himself, Castiel thinks, the correction occurring to him with leaden horror. "But you--it seemed--" He shakes his head, desperate not to misspeak. Struggling to separate his old, habitual fears from a new, crawling sense of wrong. "It seemed like you had to--to try--"

The puzzled furrow in Jimmy's brow clears. "Aw, Cas. You wondering if it was good for me?" He shrugs, easy. "Sure. I mean, it was different than I thought it'd be. I've been thinking about doing this with you ever since I figured out what my dick was for. All that time, all those expectations--I guess I always thought that, when we finally fucked, it would mean something."

Castiel stares, shocked silent. Raw.

Seemingly oblivious, Jimmy goes on, "I just thought I'd feel something, you know? But it's fine." Pulling free of Cas's nerveless grip, he swipes a careless finger through the come cooling on Castiel's stomach. "I came eventually, didn't I?"

_____

The Goddess of Truth demands to know how Jimmy's lying to her, rounds on Castiel and demands, "What is he? What is he?"

Castiel feels a hollow kind of vindication.

_____

Missouri Moseley looks at Jimmy lying chained up in the Continental's back seat and says, "Castiel Novak, who in Creation misplaced your brother's soul?"

Castiel stumbles to the bushes beneath her porch and is sick.

Chapter Text

Missouri feels Castiel's approach from miles away.

She doesn't know Jimmy's with him until the car pulls up outside her house and she can see him through the window with her physical eyes.

Castiel doesn't much care for psychics. She's known that about him since he was fourteen years old. Standing at attention behind his mother in Missouri's living room, his dutiful, disciplined obedience to Naomi's mission had been shot through with distraction, discomfort, and desperate, determined suppression. Missouri hadn't pried. Being psychic wasn't the same as being a snoop, and she'd always prided herself on her ability to judge where to draw that line. A surface glance at his aura was enough to know that Castiel was a good boy; whatever he was afraid of her finding out lay beyond that, and was his own business.

She hadn't met Jimmy until years later. He was a good boy, too, that was plain; but he was much less disciplined than his brother. Louder. Muddled up as it was with his grief and rage at the recent loss of his college sweetheart, his frustration at Naomi's absence, and his despair at having returned to a life he'd worked so hard to escape, Missouri could see clear as day the thing that made him just as uneasy around her as his brother still was.

"I thought about just saying it out loud for you both then and there," she tells Castiel, putting three spoonfuls of sugar into his tea before leaning across the table and pressing the cup into his nerveless hand. He takes it from her mechanically, his thoughts and emotions distant and numb. "But neither of you were ready to hear it. Too preoccupied with other things, too unwilling yet to face up to that piece of yourselves. Take a sip, honey." Drinking from her own cup, she waits patiently as Castiel does the same. He chokes a little on the first swallow, the taste cutting through his shock and startling him back into himself; he blinks, then drinks again, and again.

When the hot, sweet tea has put a bit of colour back in his blanched face, Missouri puts her own cup down and reaches across the table again, this time to fold her hand firmly around his. "This thing you've been carrying your whole life," she says, steadily meeting his wide, bewildered eyes, "this thing you've been burdened by, afraid of, hiding? It's love, Castiel. That's all it is. You love him, and he loves you. In his soul, he does. I saw it in him then, and I can see the memory of it in him now. It's love, sugar, and as long as it's not hurting you, or him, or anyone else, it's nothing to be ashamed of."

Chapter Text

When Dean comes home from dinner at Sam's and finds the Continental in his driveway, he has to sit in the Impala for a minute after he's parked, hands tight on the wheel, working to get the lightheaded rush of he's home under control.

He hadn't doubted Cas when he said he'd come back. He just hadn't anticipated the way the golden, boat-sized proof of it, parked in its usual place under the gnarled old crabapple tree at the corner of the front yard, would catch him so completely off-guard.

When Dean finally comes through the door from the garage, Cas is right there in the kitchen, waiting for him. "Hello, Dean," he says, smiling. It's the smile Dean's gotten used to seeing when he comes home, the smile that's mostly in Cas's eyes, pleased and fond and tinged at its crinkled corners with something that might be relief. Dean hadn't realized how much he's missed it, that eye-smile of Cas's, until he sees it now, after a week and a half without it.

And then Jimmy walks in from the front room, absorbed in the screen of his phone, and the smile in Cas's eyes shutters. His shoulders stiffen. His gaze falls, and his hands curl at his sides.

And Dean realizes he never asked whether Cas meant he'd come back to stay.

_____

"I don't want to presume," Cas says, stopped at the threshold of the bedroom, eyes downcast. "I can sleep downstairs, if you'd prefer."

Jimmy's downstairs. Dean offered him the couch, the TV remote, the wifi password--what the fuck does a soulless guy who doesn't sleep do to pass his off-hours? Dean doesn't know--then turned in, Cas trailing behind him like Sam's puppy on its way to the vet. Dean knows nothing would happen if Cas did go--nothing like that, not here, not in Dean's house, their house, with Dean right upstairs--but he knows how Cas gets when he feels guilty. He knows how Cas starts assuming the worst option is the best thing he could do.

Dean takes Cas by the wrist and pulls him through the doorway, uses his free hand to take Cas by the chin and tilt his face up for a kiss. "I prefer you here, dumbass," he says when the kiss breaks, while they're still too close to open their eyes. He presses their foreheads together before pulling back and letting go and willing Cas to believe him. Willing Cas to stay, even if just for now.

Cas studies him, eyes round and mouth soft. Unsure. But when he turns away from Dean, it's to push the door gently shut, and Dean lets out his breath.

They strip down to t-shirts and boxers, and they slip under the covers, and Dean switches off the lamp, and then they're lying next to each other on their backs in the dark, not touching.

Cas says quietly, "I don't know how to talk to you about this."

The resigned weight that's been sinking slowly behind Dean's ribs since he came home settles in his gut. He wonders if Cas had been waiting for the light to go off to start this conversation. If so, he can't blame him. "It's fine, Cas, you don't have to--"

"No, I think I do," Cas says, mild but firm, and then he lays there without saying anything else, thinking so hard Dean can almost hear it.

Sighing, Dean gives in to the part of himself that doesn't care about any of the Jimmy bullshit, the part that just wants to touch Cas because it's been a week and a half since he could. He gets his arm around Cas's tense shoulders and pulls him in close against his chest, pulls his arm over Dean's belly, tucks his head on Dean's shoulder with his hair tickling Dean's chin. "It's okay, Cas," he repeats, and like this--with Cas back where he belongs, where Dean can hold him and be held by him and breathe him in--he even kind of really means it. "You got a second chance with someone you thought was gone for good. I'm--" It sticks in his throat, puts a hoarse rasp in his voice. He hopes Cas chalks it up to a long day, the late hour. "I'm happy for you. That you could--have that."

"But I didn't." Low at Dean's side, Cas's hand closes around a fistful of Dean's shirt. "I didn't have it. I don't. Without his soul, Jimmy's--he's not right. He's not himself." Cas goes very still, and sounds very lost. "Neither of us got what we wanted."

There's an acid ache at the root of Dean's tongue.

He can relate.

But then Cas pushes himself up, props himself over Dean, pins him with a look Dean can feel. "I want you to know," he says, certain now, solemn, "that I would have come back to you regardless of what we discovered about Jimmy's resurrection. I'm here because I want to be with you, Dean. Not because there's something wrong with him."

It's nice to hear. It kindles a faint curl of warmth in the leaden hollow of Dean's chest, just enough that he can muster a wry half-smile. "But you're still gonna try to get his soul back."

Cas's eyes glint. He lies down again, tucking in close. "I have to. I can't leave him there. In Hell, it's been--" He stills again, sharply, before drawing in a deep breath and tightening his arm where it's slung low on Dean's waist. "It's been more than long enough already."

Forty years in four months, Dean recalls, and he feels like an asshole. Petty. Selfish. "Do you have a plan?" he asks softly. "Can I help?"

Cas is silent. Then: "Do you work tomorrow?"

Something in his voice, the evenness of the question, snuffs the last of the faint warmth in Dean's chest. He nods against the top of Cas's head. "Yeah. Overtime. Victor's kid's got a thing at school, science fair or something, so I said I'd cover his shift."

"How long will you be gone?"

"A full twenty-four, between Vic's shift and mine. Why?"

Cas speaks slowly, careful with his words. "We have an...acquaintance...who might be able to retrieve Jimmy's soul. I'm going to try to reach him."

"An acquaintance?" Dean shifts a little under Cas's weight. Twitches his foot against the sheets. "Anyone I know?"

"Not personally." Before Dean can ask about that, Cas is lifting up again and fixing him with another serious look. "It shouldn't take a full day, but--Dean, if you haven't heard from me by the end of your shift, don't come home. Go to Sam's, or Charlie's, or Benny's. Stay there and wait to hear from me."

Dean goes cold. "Cas, is Jimmy dangerous?" He grips Cas's arms where he's holding himself up. "Did he hurt you?"

Cas's gaze falters. He shakes his head. "He's not himself," he repeats.

_____

Three hours into Dean's shift, Cas sends him a text:

About to make contact. I love you, Dean.

He keeps his phone in his pocket for the rest of the day. Even when the squad gets called to a kitchen fire. Even when he stretches out on one of the cots in the overnight room for a nap his brain doesn't shut up enough to take.

He doesn't hear from Cas again.

_____

Benny has a date with his girlfriend after work; Dean assumes this means he'd be third-wheeling hard as an unexpected houseguest, so he doesn't bother asking. Charlie's hip-deep in a Moondoor planning session when he texts her; ordinarily, Dean would snap up her invitation to join in, but with worry for Cas gnawing away at him, he knows he'd only bring down the room and spoil her fun. He's halfway through a text to Sam before he remembers Sam's stuck in some big deposition today and won't be able to reply for at least another hour.

He shoots another variation on are you ok?? into the void where Cas should be, then keeps his hand wrapped tightly around his phone as he heads down the street to the bar.

It's late afternoon; the place is busy. Dean squeezes into a gap at the rail and is watching the bartender for a chance to get her attention when a low, sly voice comes from beside him: "No burly firefighting friend on your arm today?"

Shit. Dean hadn't noticed him there. "Not today, MacLeod."

He chuckles, the sound of it scraping against Dean's already-raw nerves. "Relax, Backdraft," he says, sliding off his barstool and brandishing his phone. "Much as I'd like to stay and chat, I have business to attend to." He knocks back the last mouthful in his glass without taking his eyes off Dean, then rasps, "Say hello to that boyfriend of yours."

Dean's spine crawls. He watches MacLeod make his way through the bar, parting the crowd without any apparent effort, his phone pressed to his ear. Whoever he's talking to, it's a short call: by the time he's across the room, he's hung up. He glances back, right at Dean--smirking--before he disappears out the door.

_____

Dean buys one bourbon and one coffee and nurses them both. He hears nothing from Cas.

Sam gets back to him eventually, though, with an invitation to let himself into Sam's apartment while he finishes up at the office. Beyond ready to be somewhere he can pace and curse and try to drown his misgivings more freely, Dean pays his bill and leaves the bar and makes his way through the chilly dusk to the lot behind the firehouse where he left the Impala.

He's about to unlock the car door when his phone rings. Communication Breakdown--not Cas's ringtone; unknown caller--but it sends adrenaline shooting through him anyway. He rushes to answer, fumbling both phone and keys.

Distracted, he doesn't really notice the footsteps approaching behind him. He doesn't see the face that looms over his shoulder in his reflection in the car window until it's too late.

He realizes the person behind him is Jimmy right before pain explodes through his head and he falls to the pavement, unconscious.

Chapter Text

Dean wakes up in an uncomfortable chair. His head feels like it's been split open. His shoulders and back are stiff. When he cracks open his eyes, bright light shoots whiteout pain through the throbbing ache in his skull.

He flinches, and learns that he's tied to the chair.

"Hey, Dean." Jimmy's voice, bizarrely casual, comes from his right. "Sorry about the headache."

Dean works his eyes open again and, wincing, finds himself in his own unfinished basement. His chair faces the stairs at the far end of the long, low-ceilinged room. Strip fluorescents glow harshly above his head to his left. The washing machine and dryer are against the wall on his right.

Jimmy stands at the table next to the dryer, doing--something. Dean can't tell at first, his eyes too sensitive to see clearly. But he's reminded of Cas not long after he moved in, standing right where Jimmy is now, discovering a mystical talent for folding fitted sheets into perfectly neat squares.

Instinctively, Dean pulls against the ropes. The strain flares up his spine and into his head and makes him dizzy, makes him nauseous. He coughs. "What--?"

"Yeah, I know this looks bad." Jimmy indicates the tabletop in front of him, and Dean squints at it until his muzzy brain makes sense of what he's seeing: an array of shady-looking jars. A wide wooden platter mounded in the centre with what looks like herbs. A long, straight knife. "It's nothing personal, though. I mean, I'm literally incapable of being jealous, so--"

"Jimmy." Dean's voice cracks. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"I don't want my soul back." For the first time since Jimmy showed up on his doorstep, Dean hears real emotion in his voice. Something like emotion, anyway, couched in firm decision. "Cas thinks giving it back to me will, I dunno, fix me, turn me back into a real boy, whatever. But it's been in Hell for centuries. With Lucifer, where he can do whatever he wants to it, for centuries. Even if Cas can somehow get it out, it'll be--" Jimmy looks away, his jaw ticking. "I'm told it's not gonna be pretty. I'm told that shoving it back into me now could make me suffer worse than if all of me had been in the Cage this whole time."

"Who told you that?" Dean struggles to focus. Cas never mentioned this. How long Jimmy's soul's been locked away, yeah, but-- "Does Cas know?"

Jimmy goes back to scooping things from the jars onto the platter. "Turns out, there's a spell," he says, with all the triviality of, The next bus comes in twenty minutes. "I cast it, my soul gets locked out for good. All I need is an unforgivable murder."

Dean's stomach turns. "Pretty sure most murders are unforgivable, Jim."

Jimmy cuts him a wry look. "Cosmically unforgivable. The spell's aim is to scar the murderer so horrifically, the soul can't call it home anymore. Using a family member does the trick, but--" Pausing his prep, he ticks off on his fingers. "--Mom's already dead; even if I could track down Dad, killing a total stranger doesn't amount to patricide; and I can't kill Cas. So. That leaves you."

Dean forces out a rusty chuckle. "Well, I'm flattered, but honestly, I've never thought you and I were all that close."

"Oh, we're not," Jimmy agrees, conversational as all hell. "But Cas loves you. He loves you, Dean. Killing you, knowing what it'll do to him? I'll be stained through the bone."

Fear clutches up Dean's throat. His breath thins.

He's going to die. Not because he got in too deep at work, or because he got behind the wheel after a couple too many drinks like Dad, or because of some stupid shoddy electrical work like Mom. He's going to die because he means something to Cas, and in Cas's world, that makes him a target.

"Gathered all our ingredients to hand, have we?"

Dean startles out of his spiralling thoughts, turns his head too fast and has to swallow convulsively against a new wave of nausea. He'd been sure there was no one else in the basement. More than that, it's a fucking impossibility that the owner of that voice is here. "MacLeod?"

Hands in the pockets of his overcoat, shoulders low and straight, MacLeod saunters out of the corner where the fusebox lives, looking totally at ease with the black magic hostage situation in front of him. Looking fucking delighted with it, actually. "Hello, boys. I see you've started the bondage fun without me."

"Don't talk about bondage, Crowley," Jimmy says mildly, still busy with his jars. "The thought of you and anything to do with sex makes my dick shrivel."

"Well, one look at Backdraft here all trussed and mussed should plump you back up in no time," MacLeod says, then tips Dean a confiding wink. "He fancies you, you know. Pales in comparison to his thirst for brotherly love, but a compliment nonetheless."

Dean gapes. They know each other. Judging by the casual contempt between them, they know each other well. His boyfriend's soulless brother and his watering hole's creepy busybody are making fucking skin-crawling jokes with each other.

Two completely separate parts of his life collapse into each other right in front of his eyes, and Dean realizes: MacLeod started showing up at the bar not long after Cas moved in.

Curling his hands into fists, the rope binding and scratching at his skin, Dean glares. "Who the fuck are you?"

MacLeod smiles and blinks. Dean jerks back in his chair when his eyes open cloudy red. "Crowley, King of Hell, at no one's service but my own," he introduces himself, sketching a shallow bow. As he straightens, a twist of his wrist conjures a ragged scroll to his hand; turning from Dean like he couldn't matter less, he gives the scroll to Jimmy. "Here's the incantation. Anoint the knife, say the words, and when you slit his throat, get the spray on your skin."

"All of it?"

"A spattering will suffice. No need to bathe." Slipping his hands back into his pockets, he spares Dean a glance, his eyes human again and gleaming with mirth. "I can't stay for the snuff show, more's the pity. A demon of my standing always has someone more important to be doing in. And while I hate to use the same parting line twice, I hate wasting a gift-wrapped opportunity for cruelty even more, so do forgive the repetition." He pauses, brimful with satisfaction; within the roiling tumult of his shock and fear and bewilderment, a small, calm part of Dean knows that pause is measured to the millisecond, entirely for effect. "Say hello to your boyfriend."

And he's gone, vanishing as abruptly as he appeared.

Dean blinks at the empty space his departure left behind. The small, calm part of him hears MacLeod--Crowley?--say hello, not goodbye; hears Jimmy say I can't kill Cas, not I won't kill Cas.

Dread wells up like cesswater. "Jimmy," Dean says, hoarse, his chest constricting around a horrified swell of panic, "Jimmy, is Cas--is Cas dead?"

"Hmm? Oh. I don't know," Jimmy says, stoppering his jars and picking up the wicked-looking knife, studiously dipping each side of the blade into the potion on the platter. "But his plan for getting my soul back involved asking Death for a favour, and he hasn't come back from doing that, so--" He shrugs, careless. "It's a strong possibility."

In Dean's stricken silence, Jimmy unrolls the scroll Crowley gave him, clears his throat, and reads aloud. The language is unintelligible, full of hard consonants and guttural vowels, but the rhythm of it pulls at Dean, fills his head, blanks his mind until Jimmy stops speaking and the air snaps like an electric strike. Dean jolts in his chair; he tastes pennies. He shakes his head, trying to clear it. He struggles against the rope, frantic, useless.

Jimmy turns and strides across the bare cement floor, holding the knife in an easy, businesslike grip. He stops right in front of Dean and raises his arm.

In the triphammer heartbeat as the knife starts its descent, all Dean can think is how goddamn indifferent he looks.

And then Cas is there. He's there. He pops out of fucking midair right beside Jimmy, and he catches Jimmy's knife arm mid-downward stroke, and he looks fucking pissed.

"Hello, Jimmy," he growls, "I'm back." And with a whip-quick uppercut, he lays his brother out.

_____

Somehow, Death is exactly what Dean might've expected.

Cadaverous and pale, with straight black hair and a trim black suit. Sharp eyes. A ponderous manner of speaking, like he knows he has all the time in the world to say his piece and intends to use every second he wants.

Fair enough, Dean supposes. It's not like anyone's going to interrupt him.

Less expectedly, of everyone who's been in Dean's basement today, he's the only one Dean's seen open the door from the main floor and come down the stairs.

By the time he arrives, Dean and Jimmy have switched places, more or less: Dean's taken up a shaky perch on the table beside the dryer while Jimmy slumps in the chair, tied up and unconscious. Cas brought Dean an icepack from the chest freezer across the room; now he hovers beside him with one warm hand on the back of Dean's neck, his thumb making slow sweeps over the base of his skull.

Death eyes them placidly from the bottom of the stairs. "Calm down, Castiel. He was never on your list."

Cas's hand tightens on Dean's nape. Dean doesn't get a chance to ask. "I held up my end of our agreement," he says, and Dean stiffens, a thin new thread of worry weaving through his adrenalin-crash exhaustion. Cas sounds angry, but his anger sounds brittle. And for all he's staring down Death like the force of nature owes him something, his hands have been trembling badly ever since he knocked Jimmy out. "Your turn."

"Are you quite certain this is what you want? I've laid out the potential consequences. And it's abundantly clear that Jimmy himself had..." Death's gaze shifts inexorably to Dean before returning to Cas. "...objections."

Cas draws himself up. "I'm sure. Put him back together."

Death inclines his head fractionally in acquiescence. He starts toward Jimmy with even, implacable steps.

Cas moves after him, his hand sliding off Dean's shoulder as he goes. Dean feels it trail away, then lift entirely, leaving him cold along the path of Cas's touch. He shivers. Forcing his legs to support him, he rises from his seat on the table and follows.

"Can you--" Cas starts, then stops in his tracks when Death turns, brow arched. Dean stops just behind him, eying the tense set of Cas's shoulders, the white-knuckled fists at his sides. "Can you tell me who did this to him? Please."

Death's brow doesn't lower; he doesn't blink. Dean can feel him weighing Cas's request. Finally, with a long-suffering sigh--that Dean finds weirdly hilarious; he has to bite his lip to keep from giggling--he turns back to Jimmy and gives him a long, considering look. "He has grace in him," he says, sounding downright apathetic about it. "Residue of Lucifer's possession, mostly. But also...there, in the darning. That miracle was performed by Annael."

"Anna." Cas says her name like a wound opening. "It was her. Why didn't she tell me? Why hasn't she--I've prayed, I've summoned--"

"Haven't you heard?" Death asks, the driest and most lethal of gossips. "The angels have sequestered themselves, Castiel. Heaven has closed its gates. Souls may still filter in from Earth, but nothing in Heaven can leave."

Cas blinks, his devastation turning stunned. "What? Why?"

"Politics, I suppose. I'm afraid I haven't been sufficiently invested to ferret out specifics. Now, if you don't mind," Death says, his tone shifting subtly but unmistakably from boredom to menace, "I don't have all day."

Pointedly, he raises one hand: he's holding a case, something like an old-fashioned medical bag, made of void-black leather and gleaming silver clasps. A fresh shiver runs up Dean's spine. Until now, Death's hands were empty.

Still dazed, Cas nods. Death turns again to loom over Jimmy, his bony fingers going to the clasps of the case.

The light that pours out when he opens it is blisteringly white, bright enough that Dean's eyes slam shut, his dulled headache stabbing viciously back to life. His hand shoots out towards Cas, lands on his arm and squeezes tight, holds on. Cas's hand grabs at his, just as hard.

Abruptly, the brightness turning the inside of Dean's eyelids red dims. He chances squinting his eyes open; beside him, Cas is blinking against the light too, a look of wonder on his face.

Following his gaze, Dean finds Death standing with his fist closed commandingly around something that leaks painful brilliance from between his fingers. "Holy shit," Dean breathes. "Is that--"

"Jimmy's soul." Cas stares. In its otherworldly radiance, his eyes shine.

They come tentatively closer, still clutching at each other, their free hands held up to shield their eyes from the light. When they draw even with Death, he cants his head, and the look he gives them raises gooseflesh all over Dean's body. "Remember, Castiel," he intones, forbidding as the grave. "He mustn't scratch the wall."

Dean doesn't understand, but Cas does: his grip on Dean's hand tightens painfully.

Doubt cracks through Dean like a thunderclap. He may not understand the intricacies of the moment--or of almost anything that's happened since he woke up tied to the chair; hell, nearly everything since Jimmy rang his doorbell two weeks ago's been above his paygrade--but he knows how fucked up shit has to be to scare Cas. And Cas is scared of this.

But even if Dean knew how to hit pause, to ask for explanations, to find another way, it's too late. Death is bending clinically over Jimmy's unconscious body; lowering his luminous hand to Jimmy's chest; uncurling his fingers from the nuclear ball of light that's Jimmy's soul; pushing.

Jimmy seizes upright, his eyes opening wide.

He screams.

Chapter Text

Anna Milton is very young when she starts refusing to let her father tuck her in at night. She screams when he tries to play with her. She runs to her mother and clings to her whenever he gets close. "Not Daddy," she whimpers, burrowing into her mother's arms, hiding her face in her shirt. "Not Daddy, not Daddy!"

Her parents take her to doctors, to therapists. Her father hides his dismay and sadness behind patience and kindness and support. Eventually, Anna grows out of it.

She never entirely grows out of the nightmare. It recurs every now and then, but she can never remember the details after she wakes up. All she remembers is disobedience and judgement and a faceless father who intends to punish.

_____

Anna is six years old when Castiel and Emmanuel Novak join her class at school, three weeks into September.

At recess, Anna marches up to the twins where they stand huddled together at the far corner of the playground, watching the other kids play like they're not sure they're allowed to join in, and tells Castiel, "I like your name."

Castiel stares at her wide-eyed. Emmanuel laughs. "Nobody likes his name. It's weird and hard to say and hard to spell."

"I like it," Anna says stubbornly. She does. It feels familiar inside her. It feels right, like when she fits a piece into a puzzle. She gives Emmanuel a scornful look. "Your name's weird and hard to say and hard to spell."

Emmanuel scowls. "I know."

"His middle name's James," Castiel pipes up shyly. "He likes it better."

Anna considers this. 'James' still doesn't feel like 'Castiel' does. It has a bit of the familiar-feeling, maybe, but none of the rightness. But then, nobody else's name has ever made her feel like Castiel's does, either.

She shrugs. "Well, pick what you wanna be called and I'll call you it, okay?"

Now it's Emmanuel/James who stares at her wide-eyed. "Oh. Okay." Beside him, Castiel beams.

One day two months later, Anna comes to school but the twins do not. When their desks are empty the next day as well, she goes to the teacher and asks her to read The Dark at storytime instead of Paper Bag Princess. "The twins' mommy already read them The Dark and they didn't like it," she explains when Mrs. Greensboro gives her a funny look. "So you should read it while they're away and save Paper Bag Princess for when they get back."

Mrs. Greensboro's funny look doesn't go away. "Oh honey, since you were such good friends I thought you knew. Castiel and James have moved away. They won't be coming back."

Anna cries so hard her mother is called to take her home.

_____

Anna is fifteen and halfway through the first day of term at her new high school when she sees a pair of twins in the hallway. They have dark hair and eyes so blue she can see the colour from across the hall; they stand angled towards each other, watching the other students like they aren't sure they belong among them.

Anna says the name aloud before she even fully remembers it. "Castiel?"

When he looks at her, eyes wide and solemn and cautious, the same sense of recognition she felt as a child clicks inside her, along with a strange rush of relief. She grins.

"Dad got transferred to a new parish," she tells them over lunch. "We moved here at the beginning of summer, and I'm still not totally unpacked."

"Mom moved us into a crappy little apartment a week ago, then took off for the next stop on her holy crusade," James--now Jimmy--says, then shifts in his seat and frowns down at his soggy pb&j when Castiel gives him a hard look.

Unsure in the sudden tension between them, Anna asks hesitantly, "Is that why you disappeared from first grade? Your mom's...job?"

Castiel's expression smooths back to calm as he turns to her, nodding. "Mom does God's work. We all do," he adds, and if he sees Jimmy's sullen eyeroll, he ignores it. "But few people can devote themselves to it like she does."

"Some people don't want to," Jimmy mutters, then sighs and looks up, joining the conversation properly again. "She signed the lease for a whole year, though. Now that we're in high school, she tries to keep us in one place through the school year."

"At least you know you can settle in for a while," Anna offers, then adds, faintly teasing, "If you're church-shopping, I might have a recommendation. The minister's a giant dork, but his sermons aren't always boring."

Jimmy rolls his eyes again, much more good-natured this time. Beside him, Castiel smiles softly, most of it in his eyes. "I'd like that," he says, and Anna ducks her head to pretend to be focused on her fruit salad, letting her hair fall around her face to hide her blush.

_____

Anna and Castiel kiss on a late November afternoon, huddled together on the bleachers during their free period, sharing a hot chocolate to stave off the cold. It's Castiel's first kiss; it's not Anna's.

They have sex on an early March evening in the twins' shared bedroom, when Jimmy's at the library and their attention drifts from their history project. It's a first for them both, by turns awkward and giggly, overwhelming and sweet.

They're mired in bashful afterglow--Anna sitting on the edge of Castiel's bed in her underwear, clumsily refastening her bra; Castiel lingering under the bedsheet, trailing his fingers over her hip--when the sound of the apartment door opening and closing shatters the quiet.

"Ugghhhh, Cas, I found one reference to something like the thing Mom called about, and it was in a book about ancient Minoan mythology. I dunno what you want to tell her when she calls back, but--"

The apartment's not big. By the time Jimmy pushes open the bedroom door, Anna's managed to scramble into her jeans, but Castiel's only gotten as far as his boxers. He holds his jeans in his hands and straightens slowly as Jimmy, standing in the doorway like he's hit an invisible wall, looks between them.

"Oh," he says, and he sounds--

--Anna can't really tell how he sounds. "Hi, Jimmy," she says, feeling her skin flush and prickle as she fumbles to turn her t-shirt right-side out and pull it on.

For a flash of a second as her head pops through the collar, she thinks she sees something a lot like devastation on Jimmy's face. By the time she looks again, it's gone, his expression a hard blank as he turns to Castiel. "You--really?"

Belatedly, Castiel resumes pulling on his jeans. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn’t think you'd be back so early--"

"This is our bedroom."

"I know. We didn't mean--we didn't really plan to--"

"This is our space, Cas!" Jimmy explodes, hands cutting sharply upwards, splotches of colour coming in high on his cheeks. "Ours! Yours and mine! I don't bring people here and fuck them three feet from your bed!"

Castiel's jaw tenses. His gaze falls. "No, you don't," he says, and he sounds--

--Anna can't really tell how he sounds, either.

The silence that falls feels ugly. Uglier than Anna understands, given how easygoing the twins are about almost everything else in their lives. Given how Jimmy's both Castiel's brother and her friend. Given how she's never seen him have any problem with her and Castiel being together until now.

Uneasy, she says, "I'm--I'm gonna go," and Castiel looks up just long enough to catch her hand and squeeze it briefly. No one speaks as she crams her books into her backpack and grabs her coat, hurries past Jimmy and through the tiny apartment, shoves her feet into her sneakers and lets herself out the door.

As she makes her way to the stairwell, she hears their voices through the wall, muffled and indistinct but raised, fighting.

_____

Three days after the last day of school, Anna gets a phonecall.

"Mom came back yesterday," Jimmy interrupts her halfway through hello, somehow sounding both livid and defeated at once. His voice is tinny down the line, and there's noise beneath it, a constant rushing sound. "We're leaving."

The rushing sound fills Anna's head. "...what?"

"It's bullshit, this stupid--she always--she didn't even give us time to--you deserve--" Frustration mounts in his voice, louder in her ear with every broken sentence until finally, he settles on what he wants to say. "Cas is writing you a letter--little chickenshit probably just doesn’t want to face you--but who knows when he's actually gonna be able to mail it. I'm sorry, Anna, it turns out he's exactly the same kind of asshole Mom is. All about the fucking mission."

In the underlying rushing sound, something blares. A truck horn, Anna identifies distantly; and the rushing sound is cars going past, lots of cars, like you'd hear at a highway rest stop. Blankly, she says, "You're already gone, aren't you."

Jimmy's silent. In the background, the cars rush past. "I'm sorry, Anna," he repeats, and he sounds it.

The letter arrives four days later.

Castiel writes, You mean a lot to me, Anna. I truly regret not being able to say goodbye to you in person.

He writes, Jimmy thinks I'm a coward. But I wanted to explain, and there simply wasn't time.

He writes, Our mission-- and Anna stops reading.

_____

Anna is twenty-nine and about to be late for her afternoon seminar when a chorus of voices speaks inside her head, as jarring and bewildering as a thunderclap in a snowstorm:

"Castiel Novak is saved."

When the echoes die down enough that she can think her own thoughts again, she finds herself shivering on her hands and knees in the parking lot, her fresh cup of coffee a splattered starburst on the pavement beneath her. A few concerned passersby have stopped and are asking with increasing urgency if she's okay.

Her knees throb from how hard she must have hit them when she fell. Her palms sting; when she looks, they're scraped raw, blood oozing up around speckles of grit. She feels confused and afraid and overcome. She starts laughing and can't stop.

She feels joy.

_____

The night before they steal her grace back from Uriel, Anna sits with Castiel on the hood of Jimmy's car and shares her fears.

"Angels are nothing but orders and obedience and faith," she says.

"I fell because I started to doubt," she says.

"Most angels have never seen the face of God," she says, adding bitterly, "I know I haven't."

The more she says, the more he withdraws, his shoulders hunching, his expression troubled. "There is a plan," he says finally, his hands clasped together in his lap as if their grip on each other is all that's keeping his own faith from slipping away. "There must be a plan. Otherwise..."

Anna puts her hand over his. She didn't realize how cold her fingers were; his hands are hot beneath them. "Castiel," she says gently, ducking her head until she can catch his gaze and hold it, draw it reluctantly upward. "I heard the angels talking about how they found you in Hell. It wasn't your fault," she tells him, not letting go when he tries to pull free. "It wasn't something you did. It was something that was done to you." He shakes his head and turns away, still looking guilty and sick and afraid.

Raising her other hand to his cheek, Anna turns him back and kisses him, tender and chaste.

For a moment, he lets her. Then, slowly, he pulls back. "Anna..."

He's only regretful about this now, them, right now. Even as loss sinks an ache into her heart, the corners of her mouth tilt wryly upwards. She'll take it. "You know, it's probably my last night on Earth," she says, deferring, only a little bit serious.

Castiel smiles too, small and sad. He looks down at their hands. "I believe that you didn't know until now," he says softly. "But I can't trust that what you are had no influence."

She can't argue. She remembers the click inside her when she first heard Castiel's name; she knows now it was recognition, her unconscious angelic mind responding to the name of the Righteous Man of apocalyptic destiny. The rightness she's always felt around him was the contentment of an angel keeping good watch over one of Heaven's most prized assets.

But she had other feelings, too, and those feelings were human. Those feelings were real.

She wants to tell him her feelings were real.

She squeezes his warm hands once, then lets go. Tilts her head against his shoulder briefly, then straightens.

They sit together on the hood of Jimmy's car and watch the stars.

_____

Jimmy puts it another way.

As she's heading into the cabin, sick of the endlessness of the night sky and wanting to escape, one last time, into bounded, earthly, human things, he fades out of the shadows. "When you two were dating," he says, "I was happy for him. I was relieved. I argued with Mom about leaving--went toe-to-toe with her--and for the first time it wasn't because I didn't want to go. I did it because he finally had something normal in his life." He laughs, harsh and humourless. He shakes his head. He walks away.

She lets him go.

_____

Anna is captured. Anna is re-educated. Anna is tasked with matters that keep her far away from the Novak twins.

Nevertheless, she responds immediately--instinctively--to Castiel's desperate prayer.

In the Green Room of the Apocalypse, he meets the creaking façade of her angelic dispassion with steadfast conviction and stubborn defiance. "If you were ever really human, Anna," he says, holding her gaze with every ounce of righteousness shining in his soul, "if you ever truly felt anything--you know this is wrong. You know I must go to my brother."

It feels true inside her. It feels right.

Her feelings were real.

She takes him to Jimmy.

She takes him to Jimmy too late.

_____

Lucifer rises; the apocalypse begins. Anna helps the Novaks as much as she can.

She stands up to Zachariah. She urges caution with the Antichrist. She calls Gabriel a hypocrite when he reveals himself, accuses him of running away because he was too afraid to fall, and considers the fact that he doesn't smite her into oblivion both confirmation and a minor miracle.

She searches for God because it's a reasonable strategy to do so, not because she has any real expectations. She's neither surprised nor disappointed when Joshua confirms he won't be found.

After being remade at Stull--after healing Castiel's wounds and seeing him off on his way to his Earthly reward--she returns to Heaven and finds it in chaos. The Host is riven into factions: Raphael, the last archangel, desperate for some semblance of Paradise, advocates loudly for a new apocalypse, one of the angels' own making. One that will not fail. But many among the lower orders--and a surprising number of Seraphim, including Anna herself--push for reconstruction and a total withdrawal from the affairs of humankind. Democracy is an unknown concept among angels, but the majority of voices begins to drown out the few.

Anna stays only long enough to be sure that reason will carry the day. Then, arrowing her wings, she plunges down to harrow Hell one final time.

She feels the Host's decision to close Heaven's gates just as the Ninth Circle comes into view. As she brings the full force of her wrath and mercy to bear against the Cage's hold on Jimmy, the first tendrils of the Closing pierce shallow hooks into her grace. Praising the timing, she allows Heaven's claim on her to sink in deep; then, struggling viciously for every bare second, she belays its irresistible tow, fighting towards Jimmy even as the strength of the summoning builds and builds and builds.

When at last her grasping hands land on Jimmy, she submits at once to the rapture. It rips her away, and she lets it: lets the force of it pull her and everything she holds through the clutches of the Cage, past embattled demonic hordes, all the way out of Hell.

It takes a fraction of an instant.

With a monumental effort, she asserts her will again just long enough to leave Jimmy on Earth: in another fraction of an instant she has remade his body on the sidewalk outside Castiel's new home, filled it with everything left in her hands, and sparked life back into his cells.

Cursing the timing now, she wishes she could see Castiel again, to explain. To be sure that, with his brother returned to him and his human lover at his side, he will be well. To say goodbye.

But the Closing is nearing completion, and Heaven will not be denied the return of its natives. She is dragged away before Jimmy even opens his eyes. She is back in Heaven before he sees his brother through the window. She is locked away behind its adamant gates long before he turns and walks away.

Chapter Text

Dean's exhausted and concussed, and Cas seems shellshocked. Even between the two of them, it's a struggle to get Jimmy's unconscious body up the narrow basement stairs.

When they hit the main floor and Cas turns to aim for the living room, Dean's tempted to go along just so he can let go of Jimmy's deadweight a little sooner. Instead, he redirects them to the stairs to the second floor. "He's reabsorbing his soul, Cas," he says gruffly. "He doesn't have to do it on the fucking pullout."

They get Jimmy to the bedroom. Cas pulls the blankets back, and Dean lays Jimmy down, and then Dean turns without a word and goes, leaving Cas to get his brother situated: take off his shoes, undress him, tuck him in. Climb in beside him and cuddle him back to consciousness. Whatever; Dean doesn't want to stick around for it. He retreats.

When Cas finds him again, he's standing at the kitchen counter, rucking his sleeves up past his elbows while the sink fills with soapy water.

"Dean? What are you--"

"My homemade mac and cheese." Dean lifts a bowl crusted with the remains of his family-favourite cheese sauce from the day-plus-worth of dishes cluttering the counter. He uses it to gesture at a plate with a spray of crumbs--and a fork--welded onto it by a thin caramel smear. "My pecan pie. The last piece of my pecan pie. Look how dried on that shit is."

In his periphery, Cas's hands half-rise before falling again, helpless. "You don't have to do this right now--"

"Nobody did it before now." There's a good head of suds built up. Dean cuts off the water and starts gathering cutlery. "I gotta bust out the steel wool 'cause your soulless brother was too busy planning my kidnapping with his friend the King of Hell to soak his damn dishes." He drops his accumulated handful into the water, wincing when the clatter stabs at the ache in his head. Plunging his hands in, too, he starts to scrub.

For a few long seconds, it's just Dean and the dishes and the hot water splashing around his rope-raw wrists. And then-- "He'll be different when he wakes up," Cas says, sounding a little too optimistic, a little more uneasy. Aiming for reassurance, scrabbling for certainty. "With his soul back, he'll be--he'll be better. You'll like him, Dean. Who he really is. I know you'll get along--"

"He tried to kill me, Cas!" The dishcloth lands in the water with a smack. Dean turns around, his last-ditch attempt to focus on something normal for five fucking minutes a failure right out of the gate. "Your soulless brother--your resurrected soulless brother--who you're fucking--nearly murdered me because he didn't want his soul back. Joke's on him, though, 'cause you went and got Death to cram that sucker back in." The fuck even is Dean's life anymore, that those sentences just came out of his mouth. "How the hell'd you even manage that, huh? What kind of deal can you make with Death?"

Cas stares, poleaxed. Like somehow he'd thought Death could show up to fulfill a quid pro quo in Dean's basement and Dean wouldn't ask any goddamn follow-up questions. "It's not--"

"If you say it's not important, I swear to God--"

"He wanted me to do his job." Cas's jaw tics. "For one day. I was Death for one day."

Dean thinks about Cas squaring up to Death in the basement. Cas's trembling hands. I held up my end of our agreement. A chill sweeps through him. "You...Cas, you killed people?"

Cas shakes his head, even as his gaze falters. "It was their time. I preserved the natural order."

"You preserved--" Dean doesn't realize he's swaying on his feet until his hip checks the edge of the counter. He sags against it, his head buzzing. "Jesus, Cas."

"Everything has its time, Dean. Death doesn't choose, or decide--I was a mechanism, not an intercessor." Despite the thick swallow that bobs in his throat, Cas stubbornly raises his chin. "I would do it again. For Jimmy, for y--"

"Of course you would. You look like you're gonna puke just thinking about it, but yeah, you'd swallow that bile and get the job done. Who cares what it does to you, right? How--if--you come home to the people who care about you? Who, by the way, wouldn't have a damn clue what happened to you, because you didn't fucking share the plan!" The metaphysics of Death--of Cas being Death, holy hell--are too much right now, too much for Dean's soreness and his exhaustion and his fear. He lets his focus pull to another grievance, a more mundane one, and regains his footing. "Why didn't you tell me what you were gonna do, Cas? Maybe I couldn't have done anything to help--hell, maybe I would've tried to talk you out of it--but at least we would've been in on it together!"

They've had this talk before. Not on this level, maybe, but Cas has never been one for sharing what's going on in his head. Dean can admit he's not much better. Hell, most of his firehouse squad are cagey bastards; in Dean's experience, not letting people see too much of what the bad days do to you comes with the first-responder territory. But three months after Cas moved in, when Dean still hadn't gotten more than the bare facts--when all he knew was that, even though everything was supposed to be over, Cas still kept a demon-killing knife under his pillow, a jar of holy water and a canister of salt under the bed, and a packed duffle in the trunk of the Continental; still spent his nights sick with nightmares and his days being as small as possible, like he expected to be shown the door if he used too much of Dean's air--he'd decided they couldn't make any kind of go at any kind of life unless Cas let him in, even just a little. "Talk to me," he'd said, and said again, and said again, until finally Cas believed that he could.

"C'mon, man," Dean says now, and he hears himself begging but he can't help it. He thought they were past this. It hurts. "We've been doing this for a year--whatever this is, together, for a year--and suddenly I'm, what? Just some civilian who can't handle shit?"

"I was trying to keep you safe." Dean makes a derisive noise. Cas takes a step closer before stopping short, agitated and pleading. "The end of the apocalypse was supposed to be the end of my life as a hunter. I wanted it to be the end. If I had thought for a second that any part of that life would so much as touch you, I never would have--" He turns his head and drops his gaze. At his sides, his hands close into fists.

"You never would have come here," Dean finishes for him. Finds the end of that sentence without even trying. "Great. Yeah. Me, you can do without. Him--you'll kill for him, you'll kill yourself for him--and this ain't me being jealous," he says, negating the mistaken understanding that dawns in Cas's eyes, "because I don't want you to do any of that shit for me. But you chose it, Cas. You chose it. You say you wanted to stop hunting, but Jimmy showed up and--" He snaps his fingers. "--that's it, that's all you needed. You went back to that special, scary life with him that you've decided I'm not a part of." A deprecating chuckle bubbles up from the pit that's hollowing out his chest. "The hell of it is, I'm not even surprised. I knew he'd always come first for you. I've known since the day you turned up on my doorstep that I was the consolation prize."

In the shocked silence that follows, Dean turns to the sink and slips his hands back into the water, fumbles with the dishcloth and the first utensil he finds. He didn't mean to say that out loud. Or maybe he did. He can't tell. He's too worn out by the last day, the last couple weeks--all the ugly, anxious, needy shit he usually buries with no problem that Jimmy's arrival stirred up--to know what he does and doesn't want Cas to hear.

His pulse is loud in his head. He doesn't hear Cas cross the room, and jumps a little when Cas's hands dip in next to his and Cas's sturdy fingers wrap around his wrists. Pulling their hands out of the water, Cas uses his grip to turn Dean to face him; a quick glance up finds him ashen. "That's not true," Cas says, sounding devastated. "You're not--Dean, I've never thought--"

Dean backs away. Pulls against Cas's hold. Cas's hands tighten at first; then, defeated, they slacken and let him go. "I'm going to Sam's," Dean tells him. He'd be proud of how steadily he said it, but he can't feel anything else today. "I told him I'd be there when he got home, and--" A belated check of the clock on the microwave, and fuck, it's after eleven. He sent his last text to Sam around six. "Shit, he's gonna be worried sick." He spares a glance to the sink, all the dirty dishes still littering the counter, but the manic urge to tidy up has left him. All he wants now is out. Averting his gaze, he takes his first step towards the door to the garage.

Cas gets in his way. Kneejerk response, Dean's sure. Unthinking. Cas wouldn't keep him, not by force.

"You gotta give me time to process, Cas," he says quietly. He doesn't look up.

Faltering, Cas moves aside.

_____

The Impala's parked neatly in the garage, thank God. Dean assumes Jimmy dropped him in the backseat after knocking him out and drove them both home. Convenient, sure, but smart, too: if he'd left the car at the firehouse, somebody would've wondered why Dean hadn't taken his baby home with him when he wasn't scheduled to be back at work for another four days. Somebody would've checked up on him. Somebody would've found his dead body earlier than Jimmy was probably counting on.

His phone is on the floor in the back. When he picks it up, it damn near buzzes apart in his hand: eight texts from Sam, three from Charlie, four missed calls. He calls Sam back before he even puts the key in the ignition.

Sam answers on the first ring. "Where are you? Are you okay?"

"On my way now." When he hears Sam suck in a breath down the line, he shakes his head and forestalls the anxious tirade he knows is coming. "Look, I'm fine, but it's a long story. I'll tell you when I get there."

He tells Sam everything.

Almost everything.

A hell of a lot more than he'd tell almost anyone else. Sam already knows a hell of a lot more than most people: he met Cas and Jimmy during the thing a few years ago with Lisa Braeden's son, and--like Dean--got the truth about their lives then. Hell, Sam got more involved in that mess than Dean did: while Dean called the whole thing done when Ben was safely home and the Novaks' Continental was a speck on the horizon, the lawyer Sam was interning for at the time ended up taking the case of one of the other parents whose kid had been replaced, a woman who'd known the thing in her house wasn't her little girl and, unfortunately, was seen trying to do something about it.

Sam likes Cas. They get along. They've been known to hang out on their own when Dean's not available. Cas has happily volunteered himself for dogsitting duty more than once, and Cas and Jess are friends, too.

So Dean tells Sam almost everything.

By the time he's done, Sam's eyebrows have climbed up his giant forehead at least five times, and Poppy's gone from snuffling excitedly around Dean's ankles to passed out on his feet. Too tired for his usual pretence of being nothing but annoyed by the mutt, Dean reaches down to pet her soft, slowly breathing flank. Furry little pest's keeping his toes warm, at least.

Sam leans back in his desk chair, a little wild-eyed. He runs his hand over his face, then back through his hair. "Holy shit, Dean."

"Hey." It's not like Dean thought he could tell Sam how close he came to dying and Sam wouldn't be upset. Still, he hates seeing it. Scraping the bottom of the barrel of his big-brother fortitude, he dredges up some residue of reassurance. "Hey, I'm fine. And Cas is fine, and Jimmy's probably gonna be fine." Willing the truth of it into at least temporary existence, he repeats, "I'm fine, Sam."

Sam looks at him flatly. "Sure. You're fine. Not freaked out at all."

"I'm not." Dean begins to spread his hands, then reconsiders when he realizes the abrasions on his wrists are showing. He turns the movement into a shrug, resettling his shirt sleeves so the cuffs slip down to the heels of his palms. "C'mon, man, I run into burning buildings for a living. This was--it sucked, okay. It sucked a lot. But it's over now, and I'm fine."

Now--dammit--Sam's giving him his lawyer look. "Yeah, you run into burning buildings," he agrees, and Dean slumps against the couch cushions, stifling a sigh. He's about to get an argument. "You look scary shit in the eye without blinking. Hell, after Cas moved in, you saw him through literally apocalyptic PTSD. So for you to be taking a time out now? That's how I know you're freaked." On a dime, Sam shifts from Making A Point to Being Supportive: his eyes go round, kind and earnest. "And that's okay, Dean. It is. You almost died."

Dean stares blankly at his knees. He almost wants to tell Sam the rest. Because yeah, he's taking a time out, but not for the reasons Sam thinks. Not because the black magic shit shook him, although he won't lie, it really fucking did. Not because of the narrow escape from being murdered, or because the guy holding the knife looked identical to the guy he's spent the last half-year thinking he could live the rest of his life with. Not even because he wasn't prepared for the lengths Cas would go for his brother; when he told Cas he's always known where he stood compared to Jimmy, that was nothing but the truth.

He ran out on Cas because he just got confirmation that he's not enough for him, will never be enough for him, and he can't fucking look at him until he's had a chance to figure out how to take that hit and roll with it.

Dean doesn't know how much of his thoughts are showing on his face, but Sam must see something: when he speaks next, his tone is gentler. "You take care of people, Dean, and that's amazing. That's admirable. But when you can't--when the ask is too much--you're allowed to stop. You're allowed to be spun, or angry, or both. You're allowed to need some space, and take some time."

Dean tries to muster a guffaw, a deflection. He's too fucking exhausted. He can't. Sprawled across his feet, Poppy resettles in her sleep, nudging her muzzle more firmly against his shin, and somehow, after everything else, that--the damn dog making herself comfortable like she knows he's not gonna kick her away no matter how much of an inconvenience she makes herself--that's what makes Dean's nose itch, his eyes well up.

Sam clears his throat and turns his attention to the legal pad on the desk in front of him. When Dean got into how MacLeod--Crowley--stalked him at the bar, the nerd started taking notes. Now, he flips back through the scrawled-on pages like they're far more interesting than his brother having a breakdown on his sofa. "You can stay here as long as you need," he says, and he almost manages to make it sound off-hand.

Blinking hard, swallowing the lump in his throat, Dean nods. "Thanks, Sammy."

_____

Sam's long gone to work by the time Dean gets up late the next morning. Poppy's fucking delighted to have someone still in the apartment, and tumbles around the kitchen making excited little half-yip-half-growl noises while Dean tries to feed himself from the crunchy-granola contents of Sam's cupboards and fridge.

After his deeply pathetic breakfast, he meanders listlessly through the apartment, tentatively flexing the sore points in his body, trying not to think.

He has literally nothing to do today, which is a problem. Before everything went to shit, he'd had a hazy plan to do laundry and get groceries and call Charlie for the rundown on yesterday's Moondoor strategy session. He could call Charlie, he supposes, his thumb hovering reluctantly over her contact in his phone. But Sam called her last night when Dean wasn't answering, and while they both texted since to let her know he's okay, Dean's not up to giving her the explanation she'll be looking for. Especially since he hasn't yet worked out a version of events that's sanitized for the uninitiated.

He could get groceries. But what he gets and how much depends on how many people he'll be feeding over the next few days, and finding that out means talking to Cas. And then, of course, he'd have to take the groceries home.

He ends up walking Poppy--whose leash training is still a work in progress, apparently--to the park, where he spends a solid hour watching her tear around chasing squirrels and birds and her own whippy tail. It's normal and easy and mindless, and after fifteen minutes or so Dean realizes the aching tension in his neck and shoulders has unwound considerably: he's actually enjoying himself.

Still, to keep Sam from getting any ideas about choosing to leave him alone with the dog on any kind of regular basis, when they get back to the apartment he instigates a game of tug using one of Sam's socks. If he takes a picture of Poppy with one spotted ear flopped inside-out, gnawing triumphantly on her argyle prize, well, Sam never has to know he took it because she's cute.

Then he's right back where he started: wandering Sam's apartment, trying not to think.

When he finds himself trying to figure out how to make anything in Sam's kitchen yield a halfway-satisfying dinner, he stops where he stands, drops his chin to his chest, and sighs. "Fuck."

He gives Poppy a grateful pat on his way out the door.

_____

When he gets home, the Continental's not parked outside.

"Cas?" he shouts as he barges in from the garage. The counter's clean; there are no dishes in the drying rack. "Cas! Jimmy!"

His voice rings back at him.

There's a piece of paper on the island, folded so it stands up. His name's on it, printed in Cas's angular hand.

The note's not long: just a few concise lines. Dean reads it once before crumpling it up in his fist.

"You stupid son of a bitch," he says to the empty house. "I didn't mean you had to leave."

Chapter Text

Cas is keeping things from him.

It's not that he doesn't answer Jimmy's questions; he does. Since Jimmy woke up, he's asked more than enough to know that Cas is willing to answer.

"How did I get out?" he asks, disoriented and disbelieving, barely two minutes after waking up warm and refreshed and archangel-free in a comfortable bed in what's apparently Dean Winchester's house. The last thing he remembers is Stull Cemetery: Cas's blood on his fists and Lucifer screaming in his head; choking on terror and grief as he toppled himself into a hole in the world. "Why aren't I--?"

Cas stares at him like he's not sure he's real. Jimmy wants to tell him he's not the only one with doubts. "After you...fell...Anna was resurrected with a substantial increase in power. She retrieved you."

"How long was I...?"

"A little more than a year."

"Jesus." A year. A year in Hell-time is--Jimmy doesn't do the math. He doesn't want to know.

...he doesn't know. There's nothing between his last moment in Stull and two minutes ago, nothing in his mind but a weird blankness that feels, when he focuses on it, like pressurized static. "Why don't I remember?"

"A mental block has been placed between you and those memories. A wall." Cas's gaze falls; his jaw tightens. Jimmy thinks about the weeks after Uriel pulled Cas out of Hell: the nightmares, the sleeplessness, the soulsick self-loathing. The strict asceticism Cas adopted in a desperate attempt to atone for his own torture and feel worthy of his salvation. Jimmy had been horrified when he found out what Cas was trying to live with. He feels a rush of gratitude, relief, and--inescapably--guilt, that Anna took care to shield him from whatever he went through in the Cage.

"And you?" he asks, needing to change the subject. Needing to know about Cas now, because it's been a whole goddamn year. "You've been here, with Dean, since--like I asked?"

"Yes."

Jimmy eyes the duffle sitting at the foot of the bed. When he woke up, Cas had been packing it with clothes from the dresser across the room. "And...now you're leaving?"

Cas pulls in a deep breath. "Yes. To keep him safe."

"From what?"

Cas stands and goes back to the dresser. "Everything that comes with us."

They've been back on the road together for weeks now. And that--sitting behind Connie's wheel, feeling her sway as he pushes her up to highway speed; having Cas in the passenger seat like always, comfortable and content and with him, with him, the only way Jimmy's allowed to have him--has felt like the kind of miracle Jimmy'd never been able to believe in before.

But there are things Cas won't talk about. Things he comes to the edge of saying, only to shutter suddenly behind his eyes and avoid mentioning entirely. Things Jimmy can feel going unsaid.

Cas is quieter than usual, too. Withdrawn. Sure, they've never been particularly touchy-feely--and God and the Devil both know that Jimmy has his own shameful reasons for keeping his hands to himself as much as he possibly can--but it's not like casual shoulder-claps or playful elbow-nudges have ever been off-limits. It's not like they never hug.

Jimmy's never felt Cas tense up the way he did when Jimmy hugged him after waking up. It makes no sense, because as far as Jimmy's concerned, saving the world and getting his brother back from Satan's clutches should make a person less uptight, not more.

Jimmy's sure that if he can just ask the right question, Cas will have to lie outright to keep his secret. And then Jimmy'll have him, because Cas has never been able to lie to him, not about anything important. Then, at least, Jimmy will have some clue as to what it is that Cas doesn't want him to know anything about.

The hell of it is, Jimmy has no idea what question he needs to ask.

_____

They're in Shoals, Indiana, tracking a cursed miner's lamp. After spending an entire day at the library trying to decipher century-old, mostly-handwritten mining records, they return to their motel room to find a demon idly perusing the pay-per-view menu.

Jimmy and Cas stop in their tracks just inside the door. Their salt and holy water and the demon-killing knife are still stashed in bags under their beds; they hadn't expected to run into demons on this case. Or at all, actually. Jimmy hasn't seen a single news item suggestive of demonic activity since he got back, and Cas hasn't mentioned demons at all. Jimmy'd gotten the impression that the aborted apocalypse left Hell and its minions holed up licking their wounds.

"There they are!" The demon exclaims in welcome. Her eyes are beetle-black over her happy grin. "The Doublemint twins, out of retirement and back on their bullshit."

"Exorcizamus te," Cas begins immediately. "Omnis immundus spiritus--"

The demon winces theatrically before relaxing into a smirk. "Sorry, dude," she says, hooking two fingers into the collar of her t-shirt and pulling it aside to reveal a binding link branded onto the skin of her shoulder. "I'm not going anywhere." With a blink that turns demonic black to human hazel, she looks to Jimmy and gives him a slow once-over. "Heya, Jimbo. Lookin' a little less devil-may-care these days."

Jimmy makes himself ignore her appraising gaze and his crawling skin. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

Her smirk breaks into a sunny smile. "Nope! But you're famous, Jimmy Novak, and I'm a big fan. I mean, what demon doesn't wanna throw her panties at Lucifer's meatsuit?"

Jimmy's teeth grind. "Hard pass."

"Aw." She gives him an exaggerated pout, wagging her finger in admonishment. "Be nice, or you won't get any of the very valuable information I have to offer. About Crowley."

"Crowley?" With a jolt, Jimmy realizes he hasn't heard about--much less thought about--Crowley since the apocalypse. The realization seems strange, somehow; for no reason he can figure, he finds himself second-guessing it. "He survived the big showdown?"

"He did. And now he's running around calling himself the King of Hell, like he's the heir apparent." King of Hell echoes in Jimmy's ears, not in the demon's voice but in Crowley's. Giving himself a mental shake, he refocuses on the demon as she snorts derisively and crosses her arms. "It's a fucking joke. He helped stop the apocalypse; he's not fit to rule. Lots of demons think so." The look in her eyes turns cunning. "Lots of demons are looking at other, more qualified candidates."

Jimmy shares an incredulous glance with Cas. "I am not going to stage a coup for the throne of Hell," he says flatly.

The demon barks out a laugh. "Oh, Jimjam, no one's asking you to. You might be the true king's true vessel, but without him on-board, you're just a shell. Pretty to look at, and if we hold you to our ears we can enjoy the echoes, but not exactly leadership material."

"Then why are you here?" Cas demands.

"Like I said, I want Crowley deposed. Permanently. And you two assholes have a talent for taking out Hell's upper management." Uncrossing her arms, she spreads her hands in a gesture of beneficence. "I just want to share some intel that'll make your job easier."

Jimmy raises his eyebrows at Cas. They have a brief, silent conversation that encompasses the salient points--of course it's likely a trick; regardless, the information may be useful--and ends in tiny nods and squared shoulders. Resolved to hear the demon out while keeping watch for any opportunity to kill her, Jimmy turns, opening his mouth to tell her to spill.

"Jimmy, you should go outside. Keep watch for an ambush."

"What?" Jimmy whips his head back to his brother, only to find Cas looking like that was a totally serious suggestion and not one of the dumbest things Jimmy's ever heard him say. "No."

"Jimmy--"

"What is wrong with you? I'm not leaving you alone with the suspiciously helpful demon!"

Something weirdly troubled flickers beneath Cas's stony expression. He gives Jimmy a long, deliberating look. Jimmy stares back, mystified.

Into their silence, the demon offers, "You guys want me to wait outside while you debate safety strategies, or...?"

"No." Coming to a decision, Cas pushes the door to the motel room closed and turns his attention to the demon. "Talk."

The demon looks between them, as if to confirm they're all on the same page, then shrugs. "Okay, then.

"Once upon a time, there was a crossroads demon who liked to play with his marks. Offer shorter terms for bigger rewards, offer extensions at hilariously steep prices, send the puppies to sniff around the mark on time but actually sic 'em with intent to fetch a few months late, that kind of thing. For the lolz, you know?" She quirks her brow, then rolls her eyes when the twins just stare at her, unimpressed. "Unfortunately, his shenanigans caught the attention of a hunter. A real hard-line hunter, too, one of those T-1000-type bastards who just won't quit. Once this guy was on the demon's trail, it was over; the demon just didn't know that yet.

"So the hunter closes in, and eventually chases the demon into this hole-in-the-wall rat trap of a bar. It's after closing, super late, and there's just one person still inside: the bartender. Well, the demon knows a bargaining chip when he sees one, so he grabs the bartender and holds a knife to her neck and uses her as a shield, telling the hunter to leave or he'll kill her.

"What does the hunter do?" Drawing herself up, the demon slips her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and levels the twins with a keen-eyed stare. "Cool as a fuckin' cucumber, he shoots the bartender in the gut. Lets her bleed out all over the floor, then steps over her body to take out the demon. Three human-shaped people enter; only one leaves."

Jimmy shakes his head, disturbed. He and Cas are no strangers to collateral damage--unfortunately--but they always try to prevent it where they can, and minimize it where they can't. This guy sounds like the worst kind of hunter, the kind that doesn't care about the lines.

He also--in a deep, distorted part of Jimmy's mind he can't quite bring into focus--sounds familiar.

Cas is frowning hard. "What does any of this have to do with Crowley?"

"Right, Crowley," the demon says, nodding, as if she'd just been about to mention him herself. Shifting her stance, looking eager, she slips her hands free of her back pockets; her right hand comes away with something in it, something she tosses at Jimmy so easily, so casually, that he catches it without thinking. His fingers close around a little packet wrapped in rough burlap that warms instantly where it touches his skin.

A hex bag.

The demon meets his startled glance with a wicked smile. "He said you'd remember."

"Remember--?" Jimmy repeats blankly, and then Cas is next to him, grabbing his hand, trying to pry the hex bag away. Jimmy's fingers won't budge. The bag is still heating up, hot enough now to burn, to make Jimmy's hand spasm in an autonomic attempt to open, to drop the thing causing him pain. But his fingers won't move--his fingers can't move--he can't let go--

And he remembers.

--the bar really was a hole-in-the-wall, with half its sign burnt out and the other half so grimy it almost looked like it was. The floor was both sticky and crunchy underfoot; the chair the demon threw at him lost a leg when it clattered into a table; the table, already wobbly, was sent rocking. The bartender's name was Robin; she babbled it out the moment the demon grabbed her, like she'd seen too many pop-psych cop shows and thought humanizing herself would help keep her alive. But the deciding factor here wasn't humanization: it was math. And the math was so straightforward Jimmy barely had to think about it. One life, Robin's, against all the lives that would be spared if the demon died and his deals were broken. Jimmy squeezed the trigger without hesitation, and Robin and the demon both looked so shocked--

--the restless spirit throwing people down the staircase at a former orphanage could have been any one of five kids who'd died there after taking similar "accidental" spills; Jimmy'd exhumed them all, even though the spirit stopped trying to stop him after the second grave was lit. Dig and salt and burn. Half an hour down the highway, he pulled off at a diner to refuel; his steak and eggs were warm and filling, but the taste in his mouth was perfunctory. Flesh and fat and protein. "What a shame it is to see the once-mighty hunter reduced to mere subsistence," Crowley mused, suddenly standing beside Jimmy's booth, eying him--his dirt-smeared clothes, his adequate meal, his impassive expression--with distaste. "I hate to see you at such loose ends," he went on, his voice pitched for commiseration. His eyes gleamed. "Which is why I've come to offer you work."--

--driving a blocky van up to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, the entire property isolated and gated and warded through the rafters; opening the back of the van on a shapeshifter wrapped in chains thick and tight enough that it couldn't slip its skin, a vampire glaring defiantly over its muzzle, a djinn so tranquilized it could have been one of its own victims; passing his cargo off to demons who dragged them all into the warehouse, down a long hall full of shadows and the rotting stench of death--

--naked in a motel bed, arousal thick in his veins and hot in his belly; damp skin on damp skin, chests to waists to slotted thighs, hips rutting against identical hips; touching Cas like he's always wanted to, finally, finally; burying his hands in Cas's soft, sweaty hair and kissing him open-mouthed as Cas clutches his shoulders and surges beneath him and kisses him back--

The rush of memory stops. As if he'd been braced against a physical buffeting, Jimmy sways on his feet, blinking slowly, dazed. His hand is empty. The hex bag is on the stained carpet, crushed like it's been stomped. The demon's nowhere to be seen. The door hangs open, letting in traffic noises and the cold night air.

Cas is in front of him, round-eyed with fear. He says Jimmy's name. Jimmy watches his lips move, the shape of his mouth, and says, wonderingly, "You kissed me back."

Cas's stricken expression is the last thing he sees before his mind erupts with rage-fire-hurt-hide-dread-shame-pain--

Chapter Text

On Dean's last shift before a mandatory four days off--the most time off he's had in two months--Bobby sticks him with a condo complex's annual fire inspection.

He did it on purpose, Dean knows he did. Condo inspections are boring as hell with a side of annoying as fuck, a day of guaranteed monotony interspersed with run-ins with snooty asshole condo owners whose Pomeranians or Persians or other dainty fucking puffball pets are too nervous to deal with the alarm testing.

"He could've at least put us on an old-folks' home," Dean grumbles to Benny, not for the first time, as the latest snooty asshole stalks back to his unit, cooing at the apparently traumatized animal accessory under his arm.

His attention on his clipboard, Benny agrees, "You do like flirting with the biddies."

"Some of those old broads are spicy as hell. It's adorable."

Benny finishes his notation on unit 4C, and they turn to head back to the elevators. "Bobby knows you're not keen on downtime these days," he says patiently. "He's just sending you off with a reminder of the job's bullshit so you'll take to being away for a few days a little easier."

If it were almost anyone else speaking so openly about Dean's bad mood--worse, about attempts to manage Dean's bad mood--Dean would have to get defensive. But it's Benny, so Dean just scowls. "Plenty of bullshit in my life without him shovelling more on the pile," he mutters, then ends the conversation by stabbing at the elevator call button.

It's not like Dean didn't know his luck was going to run out. For two months, he pretended he was flying under Bobby's radar as he picked up overtime shifts, swapped weekends, collected favours, and generally ensured he wouldn't have to be stuck with time to himself more than one day every couple weeks or so.

But nothing ever flies under Bobby's radar. After the new shift schedule was posted and none of the rest of the squad would meet Dean's eyes, he knocked on Bobby's office door with his best Aw Shucks, Uncle Bobby, look on his face, only for Bobby to open negotiations with, "You can take four days, or you can take two weeks."

So at the merciful conclusion of the condo inspection, Dean's staring down the much less merciful barrel of four whole days off.

He takes his time leaving the firehouse: takes an unnecessary shower, helps himself to a bowl of Benny's gumbo out of the fridge, shoots a little more shit than usual with the incoming crew in the bay as he takes the long way to get to the parking lot. When he can't find another excuse to linger at work, he dawdles on the drive home, hiding in the Impala's comforting rumble as long as he can. He thinks about calling Charlie and seeing if she's up for a movie or a trip to the Roadhouse or, Dean doesn't know, fucking bowling, maybe. Thinks about swinging by Sam's and taking Poppy to the park, maybe sticking around for dinner.

Thinks about all the household shit he's been putting off, what with deliberately not being home as much as possible over the last two months, and yeah, maybe that's where he'll start. Fill the first day with laundry and dusting and washing floors and scrubbing bathrooms. Get enough groceries that he can make meals for the next month, and then he'll have dishes to do...

He's so preoccupied with strategizing how to deal with all the free time he's about to spend in his too-empty house that, when he turns onto his street, the car parked at his curb, long and gold and tacky as hell, doesn't immediately register.

_____

Dean walks slowly out of the garage, his keys digging painfully into his palm, as Cas rises out of the Continental's driver's seat. He looks rough. Like he hasn't been sleeping much; like he's been worrying. He looks worried now, coming to the edge of Dean's winter-withered front yard and stopping like he doesn't know if he's allowed to be there.

"Hello, Dean," he says, and it's a question.

"Cas," Dean says, and it's an ache.

He doesn't invite him in. They sit on the porch, on the bench Dean's dad salvaged from the old house after the fire, the one Dean salvaged from his dad's storage unit after his death. Ever since he started thinking of this house as home, he's thought about converting the bench into a porch swing. It hasn't happened yet.

Cas tells him it was almost like it used to be, for a few weeks: he and Jimmy on the road together, saving people, hunting things. He tells him the wall Death put around Jimmy's memories seemed solid: Jimmy had no recollection of the Cage, and no inkling of having been soulless. No idea what he did while he was soulless.

"We didn't--" he begins, but stops, lips pressing tight, head angling away. --touch each other, Dean fills in for him, his inner voice toneless.

Cas tells him the wall worked until Crowley sent one of his minions with a hex bag-shaped wrecking ball to knock it down.

"Whatever Jimmy and Crowley were doing together must be something Crowley desperately wants kept secret," Cas observes. "He went to great effort to incapacitate him."

Dean looks across the yard to where the Continental sprawls against the curb. Through the sunset's glare on the windows, he can just see Jimmy in the passenger seat: he's sitting oddly, with his back pressed to the door. Like there's something in the empty driver's seat he doesn't want to be close to. "How bad is it?"

"He's lucid, generally. But his mind is unreliable. His recent memory moreso. He can't concentrate. And the hallucinations..." Cas shakes his head. "He won't tell me, but I'm sure they're constant. He barely eats. The last time I saw him sleep for longer than a few minutes, he had a nightmare that--" When he doesn't continue, Dean turns and finds him hunched in on himself, wearing the same expression Dean used to see in the mirror after keeping Cas company through the worst of his bad nights.

His gut hollows. "Jesus."

Cas draws in a long breath. "Dean, if I'm to follow the lead I've found--if I'm to even attempt to fix any of this--I can't take him with me. And I can't leave him somewhere unattended and trust that he'll be okay. Not when he's like this." His hands wring slowly between his knees. "I know I have no right to ask this of you. If you tell us to go, we will."

There's so much Dean could say. For two months he's been thinking about what he'd say to Cas if he ever saw him again, and the script only ever got longer. What he does say, sounding more wounded than he intends, is, "You already left, Cas."

"Because he hurt you," Cas protests; then, caving in on himself, he adds wretchedly, "Because I hurt you." When he looks up again, his eyes are round and raw. "I never wanted you to be hurt, Dean."

He knows Cas means it. He can't look at him, knowing how much he means it, because Cas isn't just talking about scrapes and bruises and an attempt on his life. It makes the fact that Dean got hurt anyway that much worse. "Would you have come back if you hadn't needed help?" he asks, staring out across the yard again, at the Chambers' house across the street this time instead of at the Continental.

To his credit, Cas takes a long moment to think it over. "I don't know," is his eventual answer, also to his credit. When he continues, his honesty is heavy with yearning. "But I would have wanted to. So much of the time, I would rather be here."

You were never a consolation prize, Dean, Cas had written in his note. The life we had together was my reward.

Dean takes a breath. Counts to five. Lets it out in a long sigh that plumes gently in the evening's cold air. "Is he dangerous?"

The last time he asked that question, Cas dodged it and Dean almost died. This time, with his gaze fixed on his brother, Cas answers plainly, "Only to himself."

_____

The careful touch of Cas's hands as he helps Jimmy out of the car does what Cas's touch always does to him these days: Jimmy feels it everywhere. Not just the touch; knowledge of the touch, and the painfully heightened awareness that it's Cas's touch. Images flash through his mind, jumbled fantasies--memories--an indecipherable flood of obscenity; sensations ghost on his skin, his nerves, phantom scents in his nose, phantom tastes on his tongue.

If his body weren't failing and therefore incapable, he'd get hard every time Cas so much as held him by the elbow. Jimmy supposes he should appreciate his current state of over-exhaustion and starvation for saving him some humiliation.

By the time he's able to surface from the pornographic melee in his head and focus again on what's actually happening, Cas is helping him up the porch stairs and into Dean's house, his arm wrapped around Jimmy's back for support.

Lucifer follows, glancing around at the yard, the porch, the entryway, like he's an interested buyer. "Not bad," he says as Cas leads Jimmy past a silent, watchful Dean and lowers him onto the couch in the front room. "A little small, but decent enough, given the public servant's salary. Kind of snug for three," he adds, then slides Jimmy a conspiratorial wink. "But that's fixed easily enough."

An invisible force swats Dean across the room, slams him against the wall. Drags him up, his face contorted in fear as he tries and fails to struggle. Pins him to the ceiling, helpless, where his stomach blooms a deep red gash and flames erupt around him and the room fills with the stench of burning skin and hair and blood and screams, Dean's and Amelia's both, terror and agony--

"I'll be back as soon as I can," Cas says, his hands warm and gentle as they cup Jimmy's face.

Jimmy flinches hard. There's no fire, no screams, no sickening smells of painful death. Behind Cas, Dean stands in the arch between the entryway and the living room, frowning but whole.

Jimmy squeezes his eyes shut against Lucifer's mocking grin.

_____

If Cas looks rough, Jimmy looks sick. His face is chalky, his lips pale and cracked; his glassy eyes are weighed down by heavy purple shadows. He moves stiffly, like all his joints ache. He's visibly lost weight, which is pretty alarming given that Cas said the wall only broke a week ago.

Outside, the Continental pulls away from the curb and disappears down the street.

Dean eyes Jimmy where he's slumped on the couch, panting like the trip from the car was a brisk uphill hike. Cas said he's mostly lucid, but Dean's pretty sure he wasn't--at least, not entirely--as Cas brought him inside. He doesn't know what the etiquette is when a guy suffering soul-trauma hallucinations is your houseguest. "You, uh, want something to eat? Drink?"

"Almost more than I want a good night's sleep," Jimmy rasps, blinking up at him with bleary but coherent eyes. Dean relaxes fractionally. "But even if he lets me swallow something, I'm not sure he'll let me keep it down." Dean tenses again. One corner of Jimmy's mouth gives the ghost of a quirk. "He makes food look rotted. Makes it taste rotted, too, or like--like something nobody should ever have in their mouth." A sickly green seeps into his complexion. Shutting his eyes and swallowing convulsively, he tips his head back against the couch cushions. In his lap, his hands squeeze into fists. He manages, "Maybe some hot water?"

Dean paces the kitchen floor as he waits for the kettle to boil. "Fuck," he whispers, scrubbing his hands through his hair. "Fuck."

He stirs a pinch of salt and a spoon of sugar into Jimmy's water, then pulls the hot chocolate mix out of the cupboard for himself. He adds a generous splash of whiskey to his own mug, because he fucking deserves it.

When he returns to the living room, Jimmy's curled over with his forehead pressed to his knees and his hands clamped over his ears. He startles hard the third time Dean says his name; looks disoriented when he looks up, and sheepish when he finally focuses on Dean and the steaming mugs in his hands. "Sorry," he mutters, reaching belatedly for his drink. "He gets loud sometimes."

To cover the chill running down his spine, Dean nods wisely. "Yeah, I hear the devil can be a real asshole."

Jimmy snorts. Raising his fortified hot water to his mouth, he breathes in the steam for a second before taking a tiny, tentative sip. Dean thinks his throat works harder than it should around the swallow, but he gets it down. "Thanks," he says, and leans forward to set the still-full mug on the coffee table.

Dean takes a much heartier sip of his fortified hot chocolate as he crosses to sit in his recliner, willing the whiskey to kick in quick.

And then it's him and his boyfriend's slowly dying twin--the incestuous love of Cas's life and Dean's attempted murderer, who may not remember he's either of those things--sitting in Dean's living room with hot drinks, as if Jimmy's just dropped by for tea. Faced with either making small talk like that's some kind of reasonable option, or feeling out the conversational minefield he'll be tiptoeing through for the next day or two, Dean takes another chocolatey swallow for strength. "Can I ask...what do you remember?"

"Bits and pieces, mostly," Jimmy answers, promptly and frankly enough that Dean thinks he was waiting for the question. A slight easing of the tension in his shoulders says he's relieved to be addressing the elephant sitting square on both their chests. "Some Cage stuff, some post-Cage stuff. Not everything. And what I do remember is distorted, jumbled up. Like having funhouse mirrors in my head." Raising one hand, he rubs wearily at his temple. "Cas told me I stopped the Apocalypse. He told me Anna brought me back. And he told me Anna didn't bring all of me back." He takes a long breath in, and Dean knows what's coming. "He didn't tell me I screwed things up for you two. I figured that one out on my own." His hand falls back to his lap, and he looks at Dean with honest regret. "I'm sorry."

Dean can't meet that look for long. His gaze drops to the inside of his mug, which he's holding up in front of his chest like a shield. "From what I'm told, you weren't yourself."

In his periphery, Jimmy shakes his head. His gaze falls to the threadbare knees of his jeans. "I keep getting these flashes of things I did. Unnecessary brutality. Killing civilians. Me and--me and Cas," he says, and the stutter, the faint hitch in his voice on his brother's name, answers that question, Dean supposes. Maybe Jimmy doesn't want to hide his feelings, or maybe he's just too worn down to be able to: when he looks up again, his tired eyes are full of sorrow and apology and ashamed acceptance. "They're my memories. I might not have been entirely human at the time, but that doesn't mean it wasn't me."

Well, hell. Dean brings his left hand up to help steady his mug as he drinks down the rest of his hot chocolate.

Later, after washing dishes and going through the mail and texting Sam and Charlie and making a grocery list and dropping the duffle full of clothes he dug out of his locker at work beside the washing machine to be dealt with in the morning--after spending the evening anywhere except the living room--Dean digs up some spare sheets and a pillow, and beards the lion. "You gonna be okay down here by yourself overnight?"

Jimmy turns sluggishly from the TV. It's been on, volume at a low murmur, since Dean offered him the remote before retreating to his anywhere-but-the-living-room activities, but every time Dean's glanced in on his way past, Jimmy's been either focused on another part of the room, or entirely vacant. "I won't sleep much," he says, a vague non-answer. Belatedly, he comes into focus and double-takes at the changes in his surroundings since the last time they spoke: his mug of water still full and sitting on the coffee table but now stone cold, the lamp Dean turned on an hour or so ago, the darkness outside the windows. "Are you going to bed? Do you want the TV off?"

"Nah, you can leave it on." Dean deposits the sheets and pillow on the empty end of the sofa. "You want the pullout pulled out?"

Jimmy shakes his head. "Like I said, I won't sleep much." But he reaches out and puts his hand on the pile of bedding, his fingers splayed, his thumb rubbing slowly at the old, faintly-pilled flannel. "I really appreciate this, Dean," he says quietly, his gaze lowered. "I know Cas does, too."

Dean shifts his shoulders. "I'm off work the next few days anyway," he says a little too heartily. "Nothing on my plate but cleaning this pigsty. I've been working a lot lately, so the domestic shit's kind of gotten away from me."

"Domestic shit?" Jimmy repeats, and blinks up at him with a new spark of alertness. "Love it. Let me help."

Dean eyes him--frail, over-exhausted, sitting up only because he's got the sofa under him for support--dubiously. "Jimmy..."

"I mean it. Household chores are my dream," he says, so earnestly Dean can't help but chuckle. But Jimmy's actually livening up a little, leaning forward, fully engaged by the prospect of housework, of all things. "I'm not kidding, Dean. Growing up, with Mom dragging us all over Creation on her holy crusade, I used to actively fantasize about keeping up someplace permanent. Yardwork. Property taxes. Normal chores, not hand-to-hand practice and occult weapons maintenance. When I had my own place at college, I fucking nested, and that was in a crappy student rental with holes in the walls and a weird stain in the bedroom carpet that made Amelia nauseous."

It's the most Dean's heard him say since--ever. He's smiling, small but genuine; his voice warmed with fondness when he talked about his apartment and the person he shared it with.

Dean's struck by the realization that this is Jimmy. The kinda weird, kinda dorky enthusiasm for mundanity and domesticity; the wry tilt to his smile that shows he can laugh at himself about it; the obvious happiness he feels thinking about the home he made with his college girlfriend. And before that: the sincerity in his apology for fucking up Dean's love life, in his gratitude for Dean's hospitality and help. His willingness to take responsibility for his actions, even the worst ones, even the ones he doesn't remember. This is Jimmy with his soul; this is Jimmy's mind clear of satanic interference, however briefly. This is Jimmy.

After Cas introduced them on the changeling hunt four years ago, Jimmy'd mostly left Dean and Cas to themselves. This is the first time Dean's seen him like this.

He sees a lot to like.

Maybe mistaking Dean's silence, Jimmy slumps back against the couch cushions, his gaze faltering self-consciously. "Besides, I, uh. I know I'm not gonna be a great houseguest. If I can help it, I'd rather not be the worst houseguest."

Dean makes a couple of decisions, one of which is to not tell Jimmy he won that title the last time he stayed. "Once I get some laundry done, I'll bring it up here for you to fold," he says instead.

The smile Jimmy gives him is surprised and shy and humble. "Perfect. Thanks."

Dean nods and raps his knuckles on the end table and turns to go upstairs, his hand rising to rub at the warmth spreading over the back of his neck.

He's two steps up when something occurs to him that stops him in place and tightens his grip on the bannister. "Hey," he calls back to Jimmy, forcing himself to sound casual, like it doesn't matter, like it's a joke. It could totally be a joke, right? "If Satan starts telling you to get into the steak knives, you come wake me up, okay?"

The pause before Jimmy answers isn't too long, but it's long enough: Dean's heart starts to sink, his gut to sour. "Don't worry," Jimmy calls back finally, his voice impossible to read. "He says a knife would be too quick."

Dean lies awake most of the night, unable to tune out the unintelligible murmurs from downstairs.

_____

"Makin' love in the afternoon with Amelia, up in your bedroom."

Jimmy smiles, his eyes still closed. Amelia's singing voice is low and lilting and uneven. She only ever sings softly like this, only ever to him, because she doesn't think she's any good. But Jimmy loves her singing voice. He's loved it ever since the first time she mangled Simon and Garfunkel in a fit of silliness during a lazy Spring Break afternoon, the two of them spooned up together on the almost-new mattress Amelia'd donated to the cause of Jimmy's dingy apartment.

Her hand skims into his hair as she continues the song, her long fingers playing and petting. Jimmy tilts his head into her touch, loving it. Loving her. "You get up to wash your face..."

She pauses; takes a slow breath. It's an unnatural break in the song, ruining the flow. Dissonance chills at the back of Jimmy's neck, a sudden, creeping sense of dread.

"...when you come back to bed, someone's taken her place," Lucifer finishes, and Jimmy's eyes fly open. Jerking his head out from under Lucifer's hand, he shrinks back as much as he can into the corner of Dean's couch.

Lucifer grins as Jimmy's panic turns first to grief, then disgust. "The song's more accurate that way, Jimmy," he says, as if laying out a patently obvious fact in the face of stubborn opposition. "Let's face it: you're kind of fickle. You left Amelia for Castiel. You left Cas for me--"

"Not by choice," Jimmy grits.

Lucifer quirks an eyebrow, but otherwise ignores the interruption. "You left me for Crowley, who you also left for Cas, and now..." He looks pointedly at the basket of half-folded laundry at Jimmy's feet. "You do know that playing happy homemaker for your brother's boyfriend won't make him like you."

Jimmy doesn't answer. He doesn't need Dean to like him. He just needs Dean to forgive them enough to take Cas back when the time comes.

Lucifer's expression melts into scornful pity. "Oh, Jimmy. It won't make him do that, either."

_____

Mid-afternoon, Jimmy asks if he can take a shower.

Dean tells him where the towels are and sends him upstairs and doesn't think much more about it until, a few minutes after he hears the water shut off, there's a clatter and a cry and a heavy, gut-churning thump.

"Jimmy?" he calls sharply, stilling in the middle of washing the kitchen floor. In the silence that follows, he drops his mop and takes the stairs two at a time.

At the closed bathroom door, he tries again. "Jimmy, you okay?" Nothing. His hand goes to the knob and finds it unlocked, thank god. He didn't want to have to kick in his own door. "I'm coming in."

Humid air washes over him as he pushes the door open. What must be Jimmy's kit is scattered across the tile floor--razor, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream--and a towel lies crumpled by the bath mat.

Jimmy's huddled in the corner where the vanity meets the outside wall, his back pressed under the window, his pyjama-clad knees drawn up to his bare chest. In the bright overhead light, his damp skin is sallow and fear-bleached. His hair's still wet, seeping thin rivulets of water down his corded forearms from where his hands are clenched in it like he's going to pull it out by the fistful. Every few seconds he flinches, full-bodied, hard. His eyes are sightless and staring and wide with terror.

"Jimmy," Dean says again, and Jimmy flinches again, violently enough to crack his elbow against the vanity. Dean takes a breath and tamps down his own fear and lets his training take over. "Jimmy, it's Dean. Dean Winchester," he says, his voice low and calm. He approaches slowly, his empty hands held open and visible. "You're in my house, Jimmy. You're in Dean Winchester's house in Lawrence, Kansas. You're safe, Jimmy. I know you don't feel like it right now, but I promise, you're safe." He lowers himself as he gets closer, until he's just a couple feet away and crouching on the floor, right at Jimmy's level. "Can you hear me, Jimmy? Can you look at me?"

Jimmy's white knuckles stand out starkly in his dark hair. He stares right through Dean.

"Okay. That's okay, Jimmy. You're okay." Still moving slowly, Dean leans in as much as he dares, trying to see if Jimmy has any obvious wounds or weapons; to his relief, he finds nothing. Easing himself down, he sits at a right angle to Jimmy, his back propped against the vanity, his legs stretched out, falsely relaxed. "I'm gonna keep you company down here, okay, Jimmy? I'm gonna stay with you. Just gonna sit and talk for a while." He gives it a beat, then adds lightly, "If you get sick of me, you let me know."

He starts off easy, repeating who he is, where they are, telling Jimmy what day it is, what year. Then, thinking of Jimmy's enthusiasm for housework, he talks about all the chores he's crossed off his list so far today, and the few things still left to do. "Thanks for helping with the laundry, Jimmy," he says, tilting his head to try to catch his vacant gaze. "I don't mind putting things in the washer and dryer, but folding's a pain in the ass. After Cas came to stay, I always let him do it. I wasn't taking advantage, though: he hates doing dishes, so I always did those. It evens out."

Then he branches out: he tells Jimmy about Sam, how he's been busting his ass to get himself established as the newest junior associate at the firm that hired him fresh out of law school; and he tells him about Jess, how she's been busting her ass to finish up her M.D. while volunteering at Planned Parenthood twice a week. "I have no idea when those two actually find time to be in the same room together, much less co-parent their mutt," he says. And then he tells Jimmy about Poppy, and how Dean and Jess are conspiring to train her to sniff out and destroy bags of kale chips because neither of them have been able to train Sam out of buying the disgusting things.

As he rambles, he keeps a close eye on Jimmy for any sign of returning lucidity. The first hopeful indication comes during the Sam-and-Jess portion of his monologue: the muscles in Jimmy's hands and arms unlock, and his hands slide down his head until they come to rest in loose fists at the sides of his neck, just under his ears. While Dean's talking about Poppy, Jimmy stops flinching.

And then Dean hears himself say, "Did Cas ever tell you how we met?" The second his brain catches up to his mouth, he curses himself: given the fucked-up love triangle they've got going on, Cas is probably the last thing he should be trying to use to connect with Jimmy. He starts casting around for another topic and a tactful way to veer into it, but just as he's opening his mouth to backpedal, Jimmy's eyelids flutter. His forehead creases with something other than fear; a shiver runs through him. Then he's absent again, staring again, but the crease stays in his brow, tempering the terror in his expression just a little.

Dean curses himself again, then makes a conscious effort to relax. It's not like he hasn't told this story before. It's not like he doesn't have various sanitized versions prepared for trickier audiences.

He has conflicting ideas about which sanitized version he wants to give this particular audience, though. Knowing in his bones it's a terrible idea, he takes a breath and prepares to wing it.

"It was a Friday night, okay, and I was at this bar--Jesus. I wouldn't set foot in that bar these days if you paid me. It was, uh. It was below a hole in the wall, basically. I don't remember what it was called. Hell, now I think about it, I don't know that it even had a sign out front. It was a place to get what you wanted where nobody'd remember seeing you if anybody asked questions later." As if Jimmy's an active participant in the conversation, he shoots him a wry look. "The kind of place where your chances of getting what you were looking for and getting the shit kicked out of you for looking for it were pretty much fifty-fifty.

"I was twenty," he says, and he means to let that fact stand as a self-explanatory broad-stroke: twenty-year-olds are reckless, younger and dumber than they think they are, and I was twenty. But with a glancing thought to the way Jimmy spoke about his mom--and another to what Cas has said about her, and his and Jimmy's childhood, and Jimmy's eventual escape--the shading comes out of his mouth, instead. "Still living at home, but starting to itch pretty hard for space. I knew some things about myself, but I wasn't anywhere near being out yet. My dad was still alive, and, uh. Well, he liked me as a ladykiller. And I still thought father knew best, you know? Besides, Sammy and Dad never got along, and he was in the middle of making his push for college, so life was just easier if I--didn't.

"Anyway, this Friday night comes along after a hell of a week--nothing major, just pecked to death by fucking ducks--and I'm itchin'. Fight or fuck, I didn't much care. I knew which one I preferred--I knew which one'd be easier to hide from the old man in the morning--but honestly, I'd've taken pretty much anything, just so long as--" --it involved having a man's hands on me, he doesn't finish out loud. Clearing his throat, he shifts himself on the unforgiving tiles.

"So I went to that bar, and I had myself some drinks, and I looked for what I could get. And Jimmy, I may be a ruggedly handsome son of a bitch nowadays, but when I was twenty, I was pretty. That bar's usual clientele was about an interstate's worth of hard road, and I caught nearly every mile looking back at me. Fight or fuck, I was spoiled for choice." Chuckling ruefully, he shakes his head. "I can't believe how goddamn lucky I was, man. Any number of guys in that crowd could've eaten me alive or beaten me to death and barely broken a sweat. And there I was, buzzed and cocky as hell and fucking asking for it.

"When I saw Cas, I thought he must be there to hand out Watchtower and preach repentance." Dean's smile broadens as he sees him in his memory: Cas in his slacks and sweater--either old and much-worn or second-hand, but nice, neat, respectable--standing in the crowd at the bar like he'd been cut out of a church pamphlet and glued into a third-string rough trade magazine printed in some biker club's basement. "It clearly wasn't his scene. But there he was." Eyes on his fingers where they're rubbing idly at a bleached spot in his ratty old jeans, Dean repeats, "I was so goddamn lucky."

He approaches the guy for three reasons: he looks only a couple-few years older than Dean, instead of the decade-plus range of the rest of the guys there; he's by far the cleanest and most attractive option Dean's seen, the kind of put-together that begs to be disheveled; and because, if he is in fact some kind of self-righteous Bible-thumping missionary to the sodomites of Kansas, Dean wants to fuck with him. Scandalize him.

Tantalize him, maybe.

So he sidles up beside the guy at the bar and says, with all the swagger of three illicit shots and the shit-disturbing mood he's in: "If you're here to teach us how to pray, you should know I'm already a pro at the kneeling part."

Only for the smirk to fall right off his face when the guy turns to him, sweeps his dark-eyed gaze over his body before fixing on his mouth with unmistakable intent, and says, simply, "Good."

"He wasn't like me," Dean continues, flattening his hands on his thighs. "He wasn't local; he didn't need the anonymity. And I don't think he was into the danger. He could've cruised a much friendlier, much safer bar. I've never asked him why he was in that pit," he realizes aloud, then darts a belated glance at his audience and files the realization away to look at more closely at a better time.

"When I woke up in Cas's motel room the next morning, his shit was still there, but he wasn't. No big deal; I figured he'd stepped out to spare us the morning-after awkwardness, so I took what I thought was my cue and got dressed. I was tying my shoes when he came back in with coffee for us both and asked, casual as hell, if I wanted to go for breakfast with him."

Dean stalls, taking a swallow of coffee and hoping it will kick his brain into gear. "But we--this isn't--we had a one-night stand." A gay one-night stand, his brain and body specify, as if he could possibly have forgotten.

"Yes," Cas agrees, like he's not really sure why they're stating the obvious. And then, in a perfect deadpan that gives Dean zero hints as to whether he's being fucked with, he says, "I'm sorry, I don't usually have one-night stands. Do they categorically preclude breakfast?"

"So we went for breakfast. And it wasn't a date, not really. We didn't tease, or get handsy." Cas hadn't, anyway. And since Cas hadn't, Dean had felt flat-footed and gave up after only a couple tries. "And when we went back to Cas's motel room after we ate, well, that made breakfast make sense: Cas just wasn't finished with me. But then we watched crappy motel cable when we weren't--uh. Busy; and we went out for snacks later, and we took a detour on the way back so I could show Cas where the closest library was, and we ended up spending the whole damn weekend together. And it was just so fucking normal, you know? Just two dudes hanging out." In between bouts of truly awesome sex, the kind that Dean, to that point, had only ever had with women: thorough, attentive, indulgent. Fun. Nothing like the perfunctory get-off-and-get-out that was all he'd ever known from his few times with men. Dean huffs a laugh at himself, at the memory of his confusion and conflict and tiny green shoot of hope at the dawn of a new idea. "That was the first time it ever occurred to me that being with a guy didn't have to mean scratching an itch in the back room of some sketchy, anonymous dive."

"He'd just wrapped up a hunt," Jimmy croaks. Snared abruptly out of his memories, Dean looks up: Jimmy's rubbing his face, pressing his fingertips against his closed eyes before dragging them down his cheeks and around his neck to knead wearily at his nape. He blinks at Dean, his eyes red-rimmed and exhausted but clear and present, and relief floods through Dean like a headrush. "A rough one. He's never told me what was so bad about it, just that it was. He'd worked it solo, too, which is never a picnic. He was at that bar because he knew some other hunters hung out there. He was looking for somebody who'd get it, who'd get the mood he was in."

It stings a little, which is dumb: it was over a decade ago, and besides, Dean's the one Cas took home with him. Still, it hits too close to one of his recent sore nerves where his worth to Cas is concerned--Suddenly I'm, what? Just some civilian who can't handle shit?--and Dean can't stop the reflexive, shit-eating grin that hitches onto his face. "And then he settled for me," he concludes with a wink.

The eyeroll Jimmy gives him is identical to the ones Dean gets from Cas when he catches Dean out about putting himself down. Even granted the twin thing, its effectiveness at knocking Dean's self-deprecation sideways is uncanny. "You have to know by now that Cas doesn't settle. If he took you back to his motel that night, he wanted you there." Sighing, Jimmy tips his head back to rest against the wall like his neck won't hold it up anymore. "He's wanted you ever since," he adds, easy like an afterthought, his gaze fixed on a point in the empty air near the ceiling.

A mess of emotions tangle up under Dean's sternum: pride, discomfort, uncertainty, embarrassment. Interest. Curiosity. For all the time Dean's been with Cas, there's never been anyone who could explain him like this. Not like Cas is some impenetrable mystery Dean needs spelled out, but like Cas is a person with a family who watched him become who he is, a family with shared experiences and insights and stories and fucking blackmail material. And Jimmy--Jimmy's known Cas since before they were born. He's his brother, his twin, the person Cas has spent most of his life with. Even the thing they hid from each other because they thought they wouldn't understand it turned out to be something they shared. Jimmy knows Cas like no one else knows Cas.

And there's envy, selfish and shameful, tying all the rest of Dean's feelings together and knotting up hard.

"You should have seen him when you two ran into each other again on that changeling case," Jimmy goes on, conversational as hell, oblivious to Dean's inner turmoil. "He was so happy to see you, so ready to help you by helping your friend. He wanted to make a good impression. And then he'd remember he only had six months left, and--"

A violent shiver cuts him off, and Dean realizes Jimmy's trembling. He can't tell if he's cold, or if his muscles are rebelling after having been locked for so long; regardless, concern--and the opportunity to end the bathroom confessional Dean's regretted from the moment he started it--jars him up off the floor. "Hey, man, let's get you dressed and back downstairs--"

"For the longest time, I thought he was exactly like Mom," Jimmy goes on, ignoring him. Or maybe, Dean thinks as he takes in Jimmy's thousand-yard stare, the detachment in his rambling, wet-cement voice, maybe he's not entirely here again. Fuck. "T-t-true believer," he stutters, a stronger shiver quaking through him, and Dean hauls himself off the floor and goes to the towel cupboard and finds one of the few he has that haven't had the thick-and-fluffy used out of them; brings it back to the corner and crouches down and wraps it carefully around Jimmy's bare shoulders, chafes Jimmy's arms brusquely once he's wrapped up. All the while, Jimmy keeps talking like they're chilling on the back porch with beers, like he doesn't notice his own teeth chattering. "Good soldier in the war against evil, didn't need anything other than his cause to give him purpose. Would've lived or died by the mission and felt fulfilled either way. I guess I wanted us to be different like that. I wanted something to make him--wrong." Distracted as Dean is, it takes him a moment to catch the unspoken for me. It lands when Jimmy's hands close into shaking fists on the edges of the towel and pull it tighter around himself, when he turns his head to meet Dean's anxious gaze and his shadowed eyes are heavy and steady and lucid.

Dean sags back onto his knees, but doesn't let himself be relieved again yet. "Are you back?" he asks, his worry making it sound like a demand.

One corner of Jimmy's mouth tilts in faint, faint amusement. "Did I ever really leave?"

Dean drops his chin to his chest, blowing out his breath. "Jesus, Jimmy--" he growls, and moves to stand up.

"No, Dean, wait." Jimmy catches Dean's forearm before he can rise, his grip weak but surprisingly stubborn. When Dean looks up, Jimmy's humour has vanished, and the look on his face--christ. It's not quite the look of intensity Dean's used to seeing on Cas when he's bearing up under the weight of the world, but goddamn is it close enough: it makes Dean's chest ache the exact same way. The identical features are fucking unfair. "Listen. Seeing Cas with you was when I started to get that the mission wasn't it for him. But he--he gets tunnel vision sometimes, Dean. During the Apocalypse, he couldn't see outside of losing me.

"So once I knew--" Jimmy's eyes close briefly; his lips press tightly together, and he shakes his head once. When he opens his eyes again, uncompromising determination wars with his exhaustion. "Once I decided I wasn't going to make it out the other side, I knew he'd need something to keep him going. Someone to look after. I didn't know if he'd be able to figure out on his own that he deserved a life outside of hunting, of--of this, of--" Us, Dean thinks is the word he doesn't say. "So I sent him here. I made him promise he'd come to you. Not because he wouldn't have on his own, but--to make sure he would." Finally, he releases his hold on Dean's arm. Even as he slumps back against the wall, his chin tips up defiantly. "I made myself the asshole that dictated his brother's life from his deathbed."

Dean stares. The knot in his chest rasps and binds and threatens to snap. "So--what, Jimmy? You want me to say thank you?"

Jimmy returns his stare, but all his urgency has bled away. When he speaks, he sounds worn and sad and done. "I want you to understand that, now, I don't think he can see outside of getting me back."

_____

After Dean helps him up off the bathroom floor and back downstairs--and, like a grumpy mother hen, into a shirt and socks and under a blanket on the couch--the world starts fuzzing out every now and then. Microsleeps. Jimmy's heavy eyelids weigh down when Dean's at the top of the stairs, only for him to jolt awake like an alarm's blared in his ear as Dean takes the final step at the bottom. Or his head nods forward at the beginning of a commercial for toothpaste only to jerk back up just in time to see the toothpaste's logo cut to the next ad. Or one moment he has a firm if tired grip on the mug of lukewarm chicken broth Dean gave him, and the next the mug's upside down in his lap, the broth all over his henley and pyjama pants.

He hates the microsleeps. He doesn't even get an adrenaline rush with the abrupt awakenings, just the disorientation of aborted rest and lost time. And now, wet clothes he's too exhausted to change himself out of.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he mutters, staring down at the spill as it seeps through to his skin. "I don't think any got on the couch, at least."

Dean comes to retrieve the mug and help Jimmy to his feet, his own dinner--a plate of pizza, because Lucifer isn't sabotaging his ability to tolerate solid food--abandoned on the coffee table. "It's okay. You alright?"

Sprawling extravagantly in Dean's vacated recliner, Lucifer laughs like it's the funniest joke in the world. Jimmy tries to focus on the warm, solid reality of Dean's hand on his elbow, only for his funhouse-mirror mind to overcompensate and send him spiralling into the same obscene welter usually reserved for Cas's touch.

Unlike with Cas, though, none of it feels like memory. He recognizes thoughts he's harboured, guiltily and in secret, since he met Dean on the changeling case and found himself attracted to the best weekend of his brother's life; he sees even guiltier, even more secret fantasies he's indulged in involving both Dean and Cas. The whirl of images and sensations are all things he knows never happened, which at least makes them easier to deal with. Snatches of half-recalled reality only drag Jimmy deeper into his head to try to chase the full memory, but without that persistent nagging need to own his own experiences, he can usually haul himself out--

But then there is a memory, cracking through him like a lightning bolt: Dean's body in his arms, heavy and lolling--Dean's warm skin under his hands--breathing in Dean's scent, leather and sweat--

--scratchy rope pulling through his fingers as he ties Dean's wrists.

Jimmy doesn't know if the memory is sexual. It's all mixed up with his fantasies and his pornography and he can't tell any of it apart.

He pitches himself at the jagged glimpses of sensation, desperate for more clarity, more context. He had his hands on Dean--he had Dean's weight against him--he tied Dean down, and he doesn't know--

--Cas, though. Cas wouldn't have left him here, would he, if--

"But Cas didn't exactly have other options, now, did he?" Lucifer asks mildly.

"Hey. Jimmy, hey." Dean's voice cuts through, barely. Jimmy blinks, and blinks again, and realizes he's shaking his head. "Are you okay?" Dean asks again, worry making him harsh the way it did in the bathroom.

"What did I do to you?" Jimmy demands, fragmented memory and what little Cas has actually told him--you were soulless; he left Dean to keep him safe--fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle with a horrific picture. "Did I--Dean, did I--"

Lucifer's laughing again, a sound of pure delight.

_____

When Sam shows up at the door that evening, eyes round and forehead creased with concern, Dean lets him in without a second thought.

"How's Jimmy doing?" Sam asks as he closes the door behind himself, peering over Dean's shoulder into the shadowy living room where the TV's on at low volume, its light flickering over the lump that is Jimmy on the couch.

Dean sighs and rubs his forehead. It's been maybe ten minutes since Jimmy was finally able to uncurl from a shuddering ball of guilt and self-loathing. "Not great," he says, keeping his voice low. "He half-remembered kidnapping me a little while ago. Made some assumptions about the half he didn't remember, and nearly threw up all the nothing he's had to eat today."

Sam's forehead creases move in a complicated and unidentifiable range of shifts before settling into even deeper furrows. His mouth purses hard before curving into a sad, sympathetic frown. "So he's remembering things?"

"Lots of what he went through in Hell, and I think most of that gets reminiscent play-by-play from the Lucifer figment in his head. Not much of what he did when he was soulless, though." As usual when he says this shit out loud, he hears the words coming out of his mouth like someone else is saying them, someone whose life is very different from his. Someone whose reality is nothing like his. And then, as usual, he feels it land in him, like a meteorite crashing down to vaporize the dinosaurs and boil the oceans and usher in a whole new age: this is his reality now. "Jesus, listen to me. This supernatural crap's a literal fucking nightmare."

"Yeah, we're such jerks," Sam commiserates, and when Dean looks up, his eyes are black.

Sam makes a lazy flicking gesture and Dean is thrown backwards. He slams up against the wall hard enough to rattle the pictures hung down the hall, hard enough to make his head spin; he's held there, half a foot off the ground. He fights against the force pinning him, struggling hard to so much as lean forward, but it's like trying to push down a sequoia: nothing moves.

In the front room, the light from the TV shuts off. "Dean?" comes Jimmy's voice, uncertain.

"There he is!" Dean's heard Sam sound cheerful before--of course he has--but he's never heard him sound like this. As Sam turns to watch Jimmy lurch across the room and fetch up heavily against the frame of the arch between front room and entryway, he realizes the difference: until now, Dean's never heard Sam sound malicious. "Hiya, Jimmy. I know what you're thinking, but don't worry: you're not hallucinating."

Jimmy's wide eyes narrow. Still holding onto the doorframe for support, he draws himself up. "Exorcizamus te--"

"Ah-ah-ah." Undisturbed, Sam cuts him off, wagging a chastising finger. "You look like you don't have much breath to waste, so maybe don't." Like Dean, he must see Jimmy's gaze dart to the mat under his feet, because he goes on, "That won't help you either," and, radiating good humour, fucking hops across the border of the devil's trap painted on the underside. "Sorry."

"No." Shock had slackened Dean's efforts against the demon's paralysis--because that's what this is, Jimmy tried to exorcise it, it's a fucking demon and it has Sam--but now he struggles again, harder. He still can't move. "No, Cas warded the hell out of this house, literally. Demons, angels, spirits. How the fuck--?"

"That was before his brother came back. After..." In his suggestive trail-off, the demon puts on Sam's best compassionate expression, the familiarity of it perverted by those oil-slick eyes. Dean's skin crawls. "Well, maybe your boyfriend was just too anxious to hit the road with his inaugural IncestFest to make sure his castoff's protection was solid."

"You're lying," Jimmy says flatly. "After I got my soul back, Cas and I went over every protective charm and sigil in this house. I helped him fix broken wards. By the time we left, everything was intact. Dean was safe."

The demon holds its poker face for an endless moment before breaking into a smile and spreading Sam's hands wide. "You got me. Cas is a pro at protection. But say, Jimbo, how d'you think those wards you helped fix got broken in the first place?"

Dean's already chilled blood runs cold. He can't believe he didn't think about this before now. "Crowley. Jimmy, you--" Dammit, they just had this meltdown. "You broke the wards to let him in."

"And once he was in, the King took steps to maintain his access." Breezily, the demon ticks off items on Sam's fingers. "The wards on the house don't work anymore. The traps inside it can't hold. An exorcism might tickle, but it sure won't vacate the premises." It shrugs Sam's shoulders, careless. "Our malevolent ruler's a venal opportunist with barely half the popular vote, but he's got tricks."

Dean sends a desperate look Jimmy's way, only for his gut to drop through the floor: Jimmy's staring off at nothing, glazed over, swaying on his feet.

"Looks like Jimmy's checked back into the Cage for a while. That's good news for you, Dean," the demon says, offering an encouraging smile, "'cause I won't kill you 'til he can appreciate it." With one last glance at Jimmy--maybe checking to make sure he hadn't reacted to what it had said--the demon turns its full attention on Dean. Under its shining black eyes, pinned helplessly to the wall, Dean feels like a specimen on a board, awaiting dissection. His body lashes out in mindless fear response, trying again--and failing--to thrash free, because hell, that's exactly what he is.

He wishes Cas were here.

As if the demon heard that thought, its smile turns thoughtful, predatory. "Dean Winchester, the lay so good he made Castiel Novak retire. What's your secret? Is it just the pretty face, or do you have--" Sam's eyebrow arches, his mouth twisting into a leer. "--special talents?"

Dean's teeth grind down a flare of panic. "Maybe it's my refreshingly non-demonic personality."

Sam's expression falls into a look of exaggerated pity. "Just the face, then. Still, I can't really blame him." The demon sweeps its gaze over him, thorough and appreciative. "The packaging's pretty nice."

Horror and revulsion churn Dean's stomach. He understands now, fully, why Cas insisted that he get an anti-possession tattoo. At the time, he'd gone along mostly because it was important to Cas; of course demons were out there, just like changelings and angels and the other shit Cas hunted, but they were a theoretical threat. Not part of Dean's reality. He's never going to forgive himself for letting Sam get away with carrying a charm instead of being inked. For not insisting he carry that charm with him all the fucking time. "You're not getting into it," he spits.

"Oh, I know," the demon agrees, far too easily for comfort. "Your boyfriend made you get an ugly little 'no trespassing' sign." It smiles in a way Sam never has. "Don't worry. I plan to leave it intact so he can use it to identify what's left of your--"

Sam's body jolts. The smugness on his face is replaced with surprise, eyes and mouth going comically wide.

The force holding Dean to the wall disappears so suddenly he almost falls. He stumbles when his feet hit the floor and he flails out with his arms for balance and he thinks wildly that the demon's been killed, Sammy's been--

But as he gets his feet back under him, the demon's still standing. Focused inward, like it no longer even sees Dean at all, it wonders aloud, "What are you--?" Its head tilts, and it swivels around, and Dean sees Jimmy.

He's standing in the arch, left hand gripping the frame, right arm extended straight out in front of him with his hand raised toward the demon, palm out. His eyes are clear and steady. The look on his face is pure concentration.

His fingers twitch, and the demon jolts again.

"Jimmy--?" Dean says, lost.

Jimmy shakes his head slowly, once. His focus doesn't waver. "Stay there, Dean," he murmurs, and as if the demon had been waiting for an opening it lunges--

--and Jimmy's jaw sets and the demon jolts again before it can touch him, stopping mid-motion like it's hit a wall. And it starts to choke.

It starts to choke black smoke from Sam's mouth.

"Holy shit," Dean breathes, watching Sam's body go to its knees as it gags and heaves, sooty smoke wisping out in shreds before billowing out in clouds. Cas told him about this. While Cas was in Hell, a demon got its hooks into Jimmy, tricked him into honing an ability to exorcise demons with his mind. Eventually it tricked him into using that ability to break the last lock on Lucifer's cage and set him free. According to Cas, Jimmy hadn't used that skill since. Dean didn't know he could still do it.

He doesn't think Cas knows Jimmy can still do it.

A glance at Jimmy finds him riveted in effort, his fingers curling into claws, tendons straining. His whole body's straining, like he's putting in the effort to actually budge that sequoia. Dean has no idea how he's doing it, given the state he's been in since Cas dropped him off--

As if thinking it broke the spell, Jimmy staggers, gasping. Dean watches with dread as the oily clouds of demon that had been pulled out of Sam start funnelling back into him. "No no no--"

Jimmy plants his feet and raises his arm again and glares. The smoke stops going back into Sam, but it doesn't start coming back out, either.

"You gave this to me," Jimmy says, and his chest is heaving for breath, but his voice is iron. A vein stands out in his temple, ticking. "You told me it was mine. I'm going to use it."

He raises his left arm to join his right. His eyes glint blue and blazing with the intensity of his will.

Smoke starts to pour from Sam's mouth.

Once Sam's coughed out one final, shuddering shred, Jimmy squeezes his hands into trembling fists, and light sparks and sizzles inside the roiling black pool on the floor. The demon smoke collapses in on itself as it burns, turning to embers before fading into nothing.

And Jimmy falls like deadweight.

Dean was already crouching next to Sam, hands patting him down, needing to reassure himself that he was okay. It's the new alarm in Sam's shocky--hazel, thank fuck--eyes, his gasp, the way he startles forward, that has Dean turning towards Jimmy just in time to see him land hard and not move.

"Jimmy?" Dean and Sam both scramble across the floor towards him. Dean reaches him first, grabs his shoulder and turns him over onto his back and finds his face streaked with sweat and tears, his lips and chin bloody from the twin red rivulets wending down from his nose. "Jimmy, c'mon, eyes open. Look at me, dammit--"

Jimmy's eyelids flutter. His breathing is shallow, rapid; he wheezes on every broken exhale. "Dean," he says, and his voice is faint but his tone is urgent. "Dean, you have to--wherever Crowley was when he was here--hex bags."

Dean's eyes widen. "Fuck." He lays Jimmy down as carefully as he can, then rises and runs down the hall to the stairs, hits the light switch and clatters down into the basement.

Sam follows, bewildered and stumbling but alert. "Tell me what we're doing."

"Looking for hex bags," Dean says shortly. "Little cloth-wrapped bundles of black magic shit. We gotta find 'em and burn 'em, and then the house should be--" He can't get the word safe out of his throat. "Then the wards and traps should work again. You take that end," he orders, pointing Sam to the left side of the basement before heading off to the right.

"How many will there be?" Sam asks as he goes.

"I don't--" But then he remembers something Cas told him once, about magic and curses and ranges of effect. "Four, maybe? One at or near each corner, to make sure the whole house was covered. Hopefully no more than that. Fuck."

They fall silent as they search. Dean goes to the corner where Crowley appeared out of the shadows, and finds the first hex bag tucked on top of the fusebox. "Sam," he calls, and holds up the bag for him to see. "Like this."

"One behind the water heater," Sam calls back a few moments later.

Dean finds another wedged under the dryer's exhaust port; Sam finds one more behind a box of Christmas decorations. They pile the bags together on the cement floor, and Dean digs a box of matches out of his camping gear.

The hex bags are slow to light, but once the flame catches, they burn like dry tinder. In under a minute, they're nothing but ash.

Sam lets out a heavy, quaking breath. "Is that--?"

A crash from upstairs has Dean hurtling back up the stairs, heart in his throat. "Jimmy!"

When he reaches the hallway, he pulls up short. The front door's hanging open, the outside handle dangling like it's been kicked, and Lee Chambers, the single dad who lives across the street with his daughter, is standing on the mat in the entryway. His eyes are beetle-black, and he looks deeply unimpressed.

"I'm guessing my associate indulged in an evil monologue that had the unintended side effect of telling you exactly how to spoil our fun," the new demon grouses. To demonstrate his reasoning, he tries to walk off the mat and can't.

Bare satisfaction straightens Dean's spine: they got all the hex bags. Stalking down the hall, confident again in Cas's protection, he growls, "Get out."

"Ex...orcizamus... te," comes Jimmy's voice, weak and dazed and faltering, from the direction of the living room floor. "Omnis... im-immundus..."

"Omnis immundus spiritus," Sam picks up, coming up behind Dean and projecting for the cheap seats. "Omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii..." He doesn't trip over the words once, and Dean wonders when exactly he memorized the rite of exorcism.

The demon goes without a fight, billowing out of Lee and out the open door and off into the night.

While Sam takes Dean's shaken neighbour back across the street, Dean kneels next to Jimmy on the living room floor, slings his arm around his shoulders, hauls him up and moves him to the couch.

"That was a stupid thing you did," he tells him, getting a pillow under Jimmy's lolling head before turning on a lamp and taking stock. Jimmy's breathing has slowed, but it's still laboured. When Dean checks his pulse, it flutters under his fingers. The nosebleed hasn't stopped. "Cas is gonna be real pissed if you just killed yourself, you know that, right?" Jimmy looks up, but his eyes can't seem to focus. Dean wants to call an ambulance, but can't imagine trying to describe what's wrong with him. He doesn't know if medicine can even help him. "Thank you for saving my brother," comes out of his mouth next, and that makes the whole thing catch up to him: the last day of strangeness and tension and worry; the last half-hour of abject fear for his family, his home, himself. He looks at Jimmy, lying there wrecked and wasted, and feels the tangled knot in his chest fray apart, all the things it held bound up tight spilling free inside him unchecked and unbearable. "I'm, uh. I'm gonna call Cas, Jimmy. I'll be right back."

Jimmy's hand fists weakly in his shirt, stopping him before he can stand. "Dean," he rasps, and Dean's own throat burns. "Dean, please--you and him--" His eyes close, then drag back open. With a raw echo of the will he invoked to exorcise the demon, he meets Dean's gaze. "I'm still that asshole," he says. "You should have what you want."

"No." Dean shakes his head. He doesn't know if he's denying Jimmy's impending death, or his emotional blackmail, or both. "No, you asshole, don't you fucking dare--"

Maybe he thinks a shock to the system will keep Jimmy grounded. Maybe it's because Jimmy and Cas are identical, and Dean's never been able to see Cas in pain without needing to comfort. Maybe it's gratitude, or desperation, or forgiveness or adrenaline or frustration or curiosity, or some fucked up skein of all of the above and more.

Dean doesn't parse it. He takes Jimmy's face in his hands and leans down and kisses him.

Jimmy's lips are chapped and bloody under the soft press of Dean's mouth. After a motionless moment, they part in a small, surprised gasp; then, when Dean doesn't immediately pull away, they press tentatively back.

With that slight returned pressure, what began impulsively becomes deliberate. Neither Dean nor Jimmy deepens the kiss, or shies from it; they hold the touch between them, warm and willing and still.

When Dean finally draws back, he feels strangely calm. Sweeping his thumbs over Jimmy's stubbled cheeks, he waits for him to open his eyes.

He waits.

"Dean? Jimmy?"

The voice from the entryway ruptures Dean's silent, watchful bubble: everything comes crashing back. Rising from the couch, he turns and feels his knees go unsteady at the sight of Cas standing just inside the busted front door, sharply alert, his demon-killing knife held low and ready at his side. "Cas," he says, and it comes out hitched and helpless.

"Are you alright? What happened?" Cas strides to him, setting his knife down on the coffee table as he comes. When he reaches him, he grips Dean's arm with one hand and raises the other to Dean's jaw, his gaze intent on Dean's face. Lingering with concern on his mouth, where Dean realizes belatedly he can feel a sticky smudge of Jimmy's blood. "Dean, tell me what happened."

Dean turns his head into the touch, closing his eyes and swallowing hard. "Jimmy saved our lives."

Cas's hands fall away, as Dean knew they would. He feels Cas step past him towards the couch; hears him say, "Jimmy? Jimmy," and turns his back to give them privacy.

Dragging in a breath, dragging his hands over his face, he steels himself against the crash he can feel looming, the guilt and grief that's starting to rise; cuts them off and shoves them down and tells himself he has to keep his shit together so he can be strong for Cas. When he's got a handle on himself, he sets his jaw and opens his eyes and finds a woman--vaguely familiar--standing in the entryway, wearing an ill-fitting yellow waitress uniform and watching him with mild interest.

Demon, he thinks, fresh adrenaline spiking. Grabbing up Cas's knife, he starts towards it, ready to kill.

"Dean, no!"

Cas's hand clamps down on his shoulder, stopping him mid-step. Coming around him, he pulls the knife from Dean's grasp and sheathes it in his own belt.

The tide of fear and fury that propelled Dean forward sinks into confusion. "Cas--?"

Cas spares him a desolate look before turning to the woman. "He's dying," he says to her. "If you want the information he has about Crowley, you must help him now."

Leaning a little to see around them, she surveys Jimmy's limp body on the couch and arches a speculative eyebrow. Conversationally, she responds, "Or I could take what I need from his mind and let him die."

Cas is still standing close to Dean, still holding his shoulder; Dean feels him tremble. "That's not our agreement," he says harshly, and Dean's heart plummets.

Cas made another deal.

"No," the woman sighs, disappointed but in agreement. "It's not."

She walks placidly forward, passing Dean and Cas like they're inconsequential, and sits on the edge of the couch. She places her hand on Jimmy's head, palm on his forehead, fingers spread through his hair. "Mmm," she comments quietly, almost as if to herself, "you are a mess, aren't you."

She closes her eyes, and spidery red veins glow to life like embers under Jimmy's skin. Cas's hand clenches on Dean's shoulder as the woman breathes in, slowly, and the hellish fractals craze their way through Jimmy's body towards her touch, into her hand, up her arm and neck and face. They wreath her head like a crown before fading away.

She sighs again, this time in satisfaction. Opening her eyes with a smile, she folds her hands in her lap. "There. That's my end upheld."

Jimmy groans, the sound turning into a dry cough. He raises his hands to his face and scrubs them over it, then knuckles at his temples like he's kneading away a headache.

Dean watches, bewildered and amazed. A minute ago, Jimmy was too close to death to open his eyes; now he's moving freely. Still tiredly, but with more energy than Dean's seen from him since he arrived.

And then he opens his eyes and sees the woman sitting over him and jerks upright so fast he nearly throws himself off the couch. "Jesus--Mom?" he exclaims, stunned and disbelieving and aghast, and Dean realizes why he thought she looked familiar: he's seen Naomi Novak in Cas's few family photos.

But Cas is shaking his head as he steps past Dean to draw Jimmy's gaze. "No, Jimmy, it's not her. She just chose to look like her." With a glance back at Dean that conveys a world of resignation and apology, he says:

"Dean, Jimmy, this is Eve. The Mother of Monsters."

Chapter Text

Naomi Novak is a believer.

She listens closely to the Reverend's sermons, and takes seriously the stories and lessons taught at Sunday school. When she's small, she reads and re-reads the colourful, picture-filled child's Bible her parents give her; as soon as she's able, she graduates to a proper Bible, solemnly bound in black with a cross embossed in gold on the cover. She prays before every meal and every night before bed to thank God for her blessings. She dresses and speaks and behaves with respect to Him, and pities her classmates who laugh at her for her modesty and dignity. Almost all of them are kids she doesn't see at church: she knows their meanness as proof that their spirits are weak.

Naomi believes in God, in His Son and His Word and His Glory. She believes in good and evil, righteousness and sin. She believes in blessings and trials and the worthiness of the steadfast. She believes in fellowship, and in the importance of demonstrating it every Sunday in clean, starched clothes on unforgiving wooden pews.

Her belief is a pillar inside her, foundational and unyielding.

_____

"Be not afraid," the man says, smiling pleasantly. He seats himself on the other side of the picnic table where eleven-year-old Naomi is reading her Bible, waiting for her mother to finish placing her order with Mrs. Donati, the talkative seamstress who lives across the street. It's a sunny afternoon, but chilly; the park is otherwise empty. "I am a messenger of the Lord, and I bring you good news."

Naomi leans back, eying his short, thinning hair and his long, scrawny neck and his too-big, faded-brown sweater. Her fingers curl around the edges of her Bible. "You don't look like an angel," she says doubtfully.

"No?" He cocks his head to the side. "What do angels look like? Wings? Halos? Fiery eyes?" And Naomi startles back, clutching her Bible to the front of her coat, because he blinked when he said the last and when he opened his eyes--

--his eyes are--

--his eyes are glowing. The whole centres of them, the parts that had been dull brown and black before he blinked, have flared up, lit by what must be holy fire. The colour is pale in the afternoon sun, but it gleams unmistakeably, almost like candle flames. Yellow.

"I can't show you the other stuff," he goes on, extinguishing the light with another casual blink. "Your eyes would burn right out of your head."

It crashes through Naomi that she has just questioned--disrespected--an angel of God. Bowing her head, she drops her Bible and raises her shaking hands in supplication. "I'm sorry, please, I wasn't--I didn't mean--"

The angel's hands slide against hers, engulfing them and pressing them down to the weather-roughened tabletop. His skin is cool; his grip is strong. "There is nothing to forgive, child," he says indulgently, and Naomi chances a wide-eyed look up to find him still smiling. "These are skeptical times. But that's why I've come to you, Naomi. Though the world grows secular, your faith has the power to sustain." He nods at her Bible where it landed haphazardly on the table, its thin pages riffling in the breeze. "You've devoted yourself to studying His Word, which has given you a better understanding of His teachings. This has made you a more perfect instrument of His will."

Pride is a sin; Naomi knows it is. But she has to be forgiven the flattered rush that comes with having her devotion praised by an angel, hasn't she? "Thank you," she murmurs, fighting not to fidget. "I--I try to be good."

The angel tilts his head again, his smile fading as he gives her a considering look. He lets go of her hands, and even though his skin was cool, her hands feel colder without his touch. "The greatest gift God gave humanity was free will. Do you know what that means?"

There's an odd tone in his voice now, something Naomi can't identify but doesn't like. She doesn't like that he's stopped smiling, either, or that he's looking at her like she might not be good enough. But she does know what free will means--it's usually part of the lessons about Adam and Eve at Sunday school, and also Naomi's heard adults talking at fellowship lunch after church--so she says, "It means that people can make their own choices, even though some people aren't very good at making the right ones."

That brings the angel's smile back, only now it's big and sharp. "Close," he says, and he sounds like he finds something very funny before he turns serious again. "It means that just catching the Lord's eye isn't enough. In order to be chosen, you have to choose.

"He has a plan, Naomi." The angel folds his hands on the tabletop and hunches forward, getting quiet like he's sharing a secret. Naomi leans forward too, caught up in wonder. "It's a very important plan, and very complicated, with a lot of moving parts. My job is to make sure all those parts are in place and...well-greased." He blinks, and when his eyes open, they're yellow again. "You could be a part of the plan, Naomi. All you have to do is choose. Do you want to play your role?"

Naomi's heart pounds. She stares at his eyes, the otherworldliness of them, their intensity as he looks back at her. She feels almost dizzy with the weight of the question, the expectation, her excitement and purpose and joy. "Yes," she says. Her voice trembles with how much she wants to serve. "Yes, I want to be chosen."

"In ten years' time, you will be tested and you will be judged. Do you agree?" When Naomi lifts her chin and gives a solemn nod, the angel's yellow eyes dance. "Good girl," he says, thick with satisfaction. Standing, he leans across the table and kisses her forehead.

She shivers under the benediction.

_____

When Naomi is twenty, she and Chuck Shurley both volunteer to run Youth Group.

Chuck is new to their congregation. New to town, having just moved across the country to live with his grandmother. He's twenty-four, and comes across a little nervous, a little shy; despite this, he's friendly and easygoing. Likeable. He writes in his spare time. He's already had a short story published, and is working on his first novel.

Unlike Naomi, he's not overly interested in preparing lessons or structuring the group's time. Unlike Naomi, he's blessed with an ability to extemporize; they both know scripture inside out, but Chuck has a talent for coming up with just the right passage and a thoughtful reading seemingly without thought, no matter the topic, no matter how out-of-the-blue. Unlike Naomi, he quickly establishes an easy rapport with the kids in the group. He brings his guitar to his first meeting, which immediately makes him "cool" in a way Naomi knows she simply isn't, and has never cared to be.

"Old Testament order, New Testament approachability," he says once, gesturing first to Naomi and then to himself, smiling. Naomi is charmed, only slightly against her will.

After less than a year, Chuck signs up for a charity mission to South Africa. He gives Naomi an address where she can write to him, and promises he'll be back in a few months.

He doesn't respond to her letters. Not even the one telling him about the pregnancy.

He doesn't come back, either.

_____

The pregnancy is a mortification, in the spiritual sense.

Only the last few months of it fall within the tenth year since the angel's visitation. Even the babies' due date is months before the exact anniversary. (Chuck came into and left Naomi's life too early to be the test the angel spoke of, but she considers him a test nonetheless; a test she knows she failed. She decides to value the lessons learned and experience gained through her failure, and scorn the naiveté lost, and trusts it's enough for God to see her contrition.) Nevertheless, Naomi thinks--much more than once--that this must be the test he spoke of. She soldiers through every regret, every discomfort, every temptation and torment and indignity. She refuses to be judged wanting.

She thanks God when her parents agree, finally, that she will keep the babies rather than put them up for adoption. She thanks God when the college where she is working towards an undergraduate degree allows her to defer her studies for a year. She thanks God when her parents pull her old baby furniture out of the basement and her father tells her, in the gruff way he has of addressing emotional subjects, that he's started to make a second set.

She thanks God when her twin boys are born healthy and squalling.

_____

The night the boys turn six months old, there's a fire in their nursery.

The fire department investigates. The police investigate. The insurance company investigates, more than once. Naomi tells them all that she was asleep in her room down the hall when the sound of Castiel crying woke her; that by the time she reached the nursery, it was full of smoke; that she called frantically for her parents as she rushed to get both boys out of their cribs; that she didn't know her father was in the room until flames were jumping from the walls and it was too late to reach him.

Some of what she tells them is true.

She was awoken by the sound of Castiel crying. When she reached the nursery, there was neither smoke nor fire. She picked Castiel up and walked a circuit of the small room to try to soothe him, pausing over Emmanuel's crib when she saw that he was awake as well. She noticed something dark fall onto his pale blue sleeper, and looked up, and found her father pinned inexplicably to the ceiling, his face a rictus, his belly cut raggedly from hip to hip and dripping blood.

The room erupted with fire just as Naomi remembered, through her overwhelming confusion and horror, that it was ten years to the day since the angel's visitation.

At the funeral, Naomi grips the pulpit's lectern with white knuckles as she delivers her eulogy.

She says, "God sends us trials. We may not understand why, or to what purpose, but it is not our place to question. It is our place to keep faith in His design."

She says, "'Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?'"

She says, "My children and my mother and I were spared. These are blessings."

_____

"It's such a terrible tragedy," the waitress says as she refills Naomi's water glass, nodding at the newspaper Naomi has spread open on the table and is staring at, ashen. "They're saying it might've been bad wiring in the nightlight. Can you imagine? At least the father got the baby out safe. Poor little thing. Just six months old, and she's lost her mother."

It's been almost three months since the fire in Naomi's own nursery. She's on a day trip to Macomb to deliver one of her father's last custom furniture orders. The story in the local newspaper is about a family in Nauvoo whose nursery went up in flames two nights ago.

Once she's made her delivery, she finds a payphone and calls home to tell her mother there's been a delay, she won't be back when expected, she might even need to stay the night. Then, mind churning, she drives to Nauvoo.

The family wasn't named in the paper, but the street where they lived was, and Nauvoo is a small town: Naomi finds the house easily. One of its upper windows is broken, the siding around it scorched. Police and fire department vehicles are parked in the driveway, investigations ongoing inside.

Naomi remembers the process.

She parks her truck halfway down the block and sits there for a long time.

_____

When Naomi starts looking, she finds that her nursery fire was the sixth one in the continental United States since the beginning of the year.

She looks closer--researches, and makes phone calls--and finds correlations: cattle deaths, strange weather, and electrical storms near each home in the days leading up to each fire. One adult killed in every blaze, while all the babies survived. All the babies exactly six months old when their nurseries burned.

She researches more--makes more phone calls, takes day trips--and meets a man named Rufus. Meets him again, in fact. His real last name isn't Williams, he tells her when he seats himself abruptly opposite her in the diner where they agreed to meet; and he's not an inspector for the insurance company like he said he was when he interviewed her and her mother three months ago. "I do investigate shit, though," he says, dropping a well-used journal on the table between them. The book is more than twice its original thickness with all the extra papers and clippings and photographs stuffed between its pages. "Shit like nursery fires that don't seem connected at all until you notice all the freaky similarities between 'em."

Naomi eyes the book, then Rufus, discomfited. "And what have you found?"

Hunching forward over the table, Rufus folds his hands together on top of his journal and pins her with a look that dares her to disbelieve. "Demons."

Rufus says, "Most of 'em just want to fuck with people, you know, make chaos and hurt and fear. But some of 'em are damn businessmen. Show up with a smile and a gift, seal the deal with a kiss, come calling for payment down the road. Ten-year term, most often. They want the soul, usually, but sometimes something else that's precious that the sonofabitch can use."

Rufus says, "I started thinking: why aren't these folks dying in their kitchens or basements or bathrooms? Why's it always kill 'em in the baby's room? Hell, why's it always the baby's room that goes up in flames? Because that's where it is when they walk in on it."

Rufus snorts so loudly that the elderly couple sitting halfway across the diner turns to give him a disapproving glare, and says, "Ain't no such thing as angels."

_____

Naomi drives home mechanically, her mind a decade away.

It's late when she gets back. Her mother is dozing in her father's old armchair; Naomi drapes a blanket over her and turns off the lamp, then goes to the twins' room.

The boys are fast asleep, their identical little faces slack and peaceful. She reaches carefully into Emmanuel's crib to stroke her fingertip over his curled hand, his small, perfect fingernails. She reaches carefully into Castiel's crib to touch his foot, lightly squeeze his small, perfect toes.

Neither of them stir.

"No," she murmurs, decided. "No. It was an angel in the park. The demon in the nursery was my test." She looks between her sons, and has faith. "This is my test."

When her deferral year is up, she does not go back to school.

_____

The boys are four when Naomi's mother has a heart attack.

After the funeral, Naomi sells the house and settles accounts. She makes investments, and a plan, and a will.

She packs up her research and her Bible and what's left of her family, and begins the hunt in earnest.

There hasn't been another nursery fire since before the boys turned one. Three years on, while Naomi remains alert for signs of that particular demon, she's resigned to the possibility that her own ignorance and lack of preparation let it slip away. Nevertheless, determined to play her role in opposition to the unholy as God intended, she turns her attention and her efforts to others of its kind.

Black-eyed demons are common. Red-eyed demons are rarer; she meets none herself, but finds credible accounts from other hunters and victims. Monsters are abundant. Naomi learns quickly that the world is teeming with unnatural things, all of them affronts to God in the threat they pose to His creation.

Years pass, and she finds no evidence of yellow-eyed demons. Secure in her belief that yellow eyes are not demonic, but divine, she puts the few similarities between her angelic encounter and the standard demon-deal procedure firmly in the category of coincidence.

If she also finds no credible evidence for the existence of angels, well, she supposes coincidence runs both ways.

_____

The twins are sweet boys, thoughtful and affectionate. Naomi has loved them their entire lives, and as they grow up, grow into their personalities, grow into themselves, she loves them all the more.

She loves them, and she watches them.

Castiel is a quiet, dutiful, respectful child. He is obedient, and minds her well. He is drawn to faith in much the same way she is: he welcomes order and purpose and clear definitions of right and wrong.

Emmanuel worries her. He's a rambunctious child, curious and headstrong; as he grows older, he becomes willful and provoking and over-bold. He questions much more than he should. He grows skeptical of Naomi's mission, then openly scornful of it. He doesn't object to the work itself--he has a zeal for hunting evil, and he believes in saving lives--but he makes no secret of his contempt for his mother's sense of holy obligation.

"I like helping people," she overhears him tell his brother once, after she'd had to put her foot down--yet again--about the necessity of Confirmation. "I don't get why we have to be on a holy crusade in order for it to mean something."

She suspects she knows the root of his resistance.

She refuses to accept that it's incurable.

But she can't always be there to keep Emmanuel in check. Her mission is demanding: it requires her to go to dangerous places, associate with dangerous people and things, and commit dangerous acts. She can't always bring the boys with her, especially when they're young.

"You must be your brother's keeper," she tells Castiel. When he is small, she looks into his solemn little face until he nods, then hugs him and sends him on his way. As he grows up, he needs the reminder less and less.

_____

Naomi is so accustomed to not having to worry about Castiel, she's blindsided when he tells her his date that evening is with a boy.

"Please don't joke about things like that, Castiel," she says without looking up from her dinner. She won't grant such foolishness any more attention than it deserves. She focuses on taking another forkful of potatoes and lets her voice convey her disapproval.

"I'm not joking," Castiel says, and now Naomi looks up, jaw set, because Really, Castiel, this sort of tastelessness is unlike you. The sincerity she finds on his faintly-blushing face stops the admonishment in her throat and grinds her world to a halt. "His name is Matthew. We're going to the movie in the park."

Emmanuel--James, James, he's gone by his middle name for a decade now and she still has to remind herself--is just visible from where she sits in their rental apartment's small kitchen, lurking in the doorway of the twins' shared bedroom. Eavesdropping, obviously, and for a moment Naomi thinks he put his brother up to this. But if he had, he'd be laughing--smirking, at least--and when she looks at his expression, it's clear he's not amused in the slightest.

Her hand has gone nerveless around her fork. "I don't understand. You dated that girl in Ohio."

"Anna. And now I'm going to try dating Matthew. I like girls and boys," he says, sounding patient and sure even as his cheeks take on more self-conscious colour, and Naomi is too thrown to continue her argument. She finishes her dinner in silence while Castiel finishes getting ready, and is busy clearing the table when he leaves.

She had intended to spend the evening copying information from the family's stack of nearly-overdue library books into their reference journals. She gets as far as bringing her materials to the table and sitting down before the swelling welter in her chest has her standing again, quickly enough to topple her chair.

There's a church two blocks away. She walks there blindly, sinks into a pew, and prays.

Sometime later, James slips in next to her.

Naomi's hands clench together in her lap. "Did you know?"

"Yeah. For a while."

"Have you talked to him? Have you tried to make him understand that he's--he's confused, mistaken--?"

"This isn’t something he chose, Mom," he says, and she hears her own disapproving tone directed back at her. "None of us get to choose," he adds more quietly, and then he sighs. "It's just who he is."

They sit for a time.

The church is Catholic, grand and ornate and nothing like the plain modesty of the church Naomi grew up in. But her hunting career has taught her to take holy ground as it comes; she strives to feel God's presence, to have her fears quieted by the quiet in the vast, drafty nave.

In a soft, peacemaking tone, James says, "Liking men doesn't make him evil."

"No. But it does make him wrong." Naomi meets his look of shock and protest with as much steady certainty as she can muster. "God made none of us perfect, Emmanuel. Our task is to strive to be worthy of His forgiveness." She takes his hand firmly in hers. "You must watch over him. Look out for him when I'm away, when I can't be there to--make sure he--" Anxiety squeezes her lungs; urgency pounds her heart. The words come to her, familiar and necessary and filled with conviction. "You must be your brother's keep--"

James yanks his hand free, looking at her as if she is the abomination. When he speaks, his voice is low and hard and furious. "Don't you ever say to him anything you just said to me."

He stalks out of the church, hitting the door hard enough that the bang echoes and echoes.

_____

James runs away to college, and excels there. It's not a surprise: he's a smart boy, studious when engaged, willing and able to put in the effort necessary to succeed. He earns scholarships and takes part-time jobs to cover his expenses. He begins dating a girl in his second year who moves in with him at the start of their third year. He selects a major in Communications. He lives as a civilian and is happier than Naomi has seen him in years.

She keeps track of him, of course. He is her son, and he is her trial, and she will not forsake him.

Castiel continues to excel at hunting. He remains steadfast to the mission, and righteous. He fails to renounce his unnatural desires, but he neither flaunts them nor, as far as Naomi can tell, indulges them overmuch. When no other signs of degeneracy become apparent, she focuses her attention on more immediately troubling things.

Such as the resurfacing of a pattern, long dormant and cold: cattle deaths, strange weather, electrical storms. Nursery fires on the night the babies turn six months old.

_____

"You told the police you saw a man in the nursery after the fire started," Naomi states, dressed in her Insurance Investigator suit and sitting stiffly in a hotel room armchair.

The newly-widowed Olivia Darcy, cradling her sleeping son on the bed, hugs him more tightly. "My husband--" she begins, her voice catching and her gaze faltering, but Naomi shakes her head.

"No, Mrs. Darcy. Tell me about the other man you saw." Olivia darts her a wary glance before looking down at her son, biting her lip. She had mentioned the second man in her first statement; she recanted him later, clearly having decided--or been convinced--she'd imagined him. Making a decision of her own, Naomi adds, "After you saw your husband on the ceiling."

Olivia's head snaps up, her eyes wide and shocked. "How did--I didn't tell anyone he was--"

"I know." Naomi projects calm even as her whole body winds taut with anticipation. Olivia Darcy is the first witness to have seen anyone other than a family member in their fire. "I know because my sons' nursery burned, too, and my father died pinned to the ceiling."

"What?" Olivia shakes her head, her shock turning to fear. Her son stirs uneasily in her arms. "No, that's--"

"Please, Mrs. Darcy. There's a way to keep this from happening to anyone else, but I need your help to find the thing responsible." Naomi and Daniel Elkins did not part friends, in large part because of her relentless interest in the Colt and his relentless refusal to indulge it. But now that the demon has resurfaced--and the Colt's the only thing that can kill it--Naomi's sure she can convince him to tell her what he knows. She just needs to come prepared with solid information backing her argument. Keeping her gaze steady on Olivia, she leans forward. "Tell me about the other man."

Olivia takes a few long moments to absorb, and think, and rock her son as she pulls herself together. Naomi looks on in silence, her growing impatience tightly leashed.

"I grabbed Isaiah out of his crib and got out of the room," Olivia begins finally, hunching around her son as if reliving the moment of putting herself between him and the fire. Naomi sets her jaw against her own memory of doing the same. "I don't know why I turned around. The nursery was full of f-flames, but I could see--I thought he was a shadow. But he was standing by the window, on the far side of the crib, and there was no light behind me, and just the--just the fire in front, so he couldn't have been a shadow. He wasn't." A tear spills down her cheek; as she ducks to wipe it away with a fold of her son's blanket, she shakes her head. "I couldn't see his face, but I saw--I saw his eyes, and they were--his eyes were--"

"Were they black?" Naomi asks, and it comes out as a demand. Her fingers are white-knuckled around her pen and notepad. "Or red? Did they glow red?"

"No," Olivia whispers, hoarse and hollow and bone-honest. The beat before she continues is just long enough for a dreadful apprehension to spear Naomi through. "No, they glowed yellow."

_____

Demonic possession is painful and horrifying and the final, irrevocable annihilation of Naomi's most stubborn--most foolish--belief.

While the yellow-eyed demon wears her face to torture her sons, it shows her its memory of making a deal with an oblivious, prideful little girl at a picnic table in a park over thirty years ago.

'And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith,' it quotes, and laughs at her devastation and resignation and regret.

I was so excited when I found out you were having twins, it goes on, as it soaks her voice with sarcasm to ask Castiel, "What are you and God going to do?" Two special kids for the price of one! Honestly, Naomi, you were already my favourite, you didn't have to keep trying like that.

It's a real shame your dad walked in when he did, it laments, and forces her to watch her father's shock and fear and agony as it dragged him up the nursery wall and onto the ceiling and gutted him for interrupting its business with the twins. Jimmy's growing up so well; I can only imagine what I could've done with Cassie.

Naomi's too busy fighting for control to respond before James uses the Colt and the demon escapes.

_____

Naomi has spent more than twenty years trying not to fail a test that never existed.

She has spent more than thirty years having resoundingly failed a test she never knew she'd been given.

Castiel is dying. James is corrupted, and may already be lost.

Naomi watches them from the door of Castiel's hospital room, leaning heavily on her crutches. Castiel looks empty, his face slack, his body unmoving except for the mechanical rise and collapse of his chest as the respirator breathes for him. James looks terrified, hunched in the chair at his brother's bedside, pale with exhaustion, fevered with desperation. He keeps reaching out as if to touch--his hand hovers over Castiel's hand, his arm, his shoulder, his face--but never does, pulling back instead to swipe at his own tears or wrap his arms around his own chest or bury his hands in his own hair and pull. He's barely left Castiel's side since they were admitted.

Without Castiel, Naomi doesn't know what James will do.

She makes her way to the hospital's basement, the Colt heavy where it's tucked against the small of her back.

When she makes her offer, the yellow-eyed demon smiles.

_____

The doctors are amazed by Castiel's recovery. They call it a miracle.

James nods in agreement, immediate and wholehearted.

Castiel smiles uncertainly, darting glances at Naomi.

When the doctors have left and James has gone for coffee and she and Castiel are alone, Naomi tells him, "If I have ever hurt you, it was because I was afraid for you. Evil is cunning. It comes in many guises."

She tells him, "Our mission is righteous. If we are good soldiers, and unflinching, God will forgive our methods."

She tells him, "You are your brother's keeper," and kisses his forehead, and goes to her death.

Chapter Text

Dean intercepts Sam on the porch, pulling the front door shut behind himself, careful of the kicked-in lock. "How's Lee?"

"Confused. Freaked. But he's okay. The, uh. The demon only had him for a couple minutes," Sam says, then sucks in a deep breath, a little uneven.

Dean eyes him in the porch light. "And you?"

Sam shakes his head, not answering right away. "I took Poppy for a run after work," he says finally, and his mouth pinches in self-recrimination. "I took my anti-possession charm off for my shower."

Dean's gut twists. "Was Jess home? Did it--Poppy--?"

"They're fine, they're both fine. Jess was at work. Poppy went nuts, barked and growled, angry as hell, but she kept her distance. And the demon really wanted to get here, otherwise--" The pinch in Sam's mouth turns into a grimace as he blanches, his throat bobbing around a convulsive swallow.

"Hey, you're okay." Dean wraps him up in a hug. Sam's giant sasquatch body all but collapses into it, clinging back in a way he hasn't since they were little kids and Dad was on a tear, and Dean hates it. He hates the thing that scared his brother so badly. He hates that he's the reason it came into Sam's life. "You're okay, Sammy. You're all okay." Pulling back, he keeps a steady grip on Sam's shoulder as he meets his eyes. "And first thing in the morning, you and Jess are gonna go get inked like me and Cas are."

"Yeah," Sam agrees immediately. "Yeah, no fucking kidding." Backing away, he scrubs his hands over his face and through his hair. His skin is too pale, his shoulders too tight; his eyes are too wide and over-alert. Nevertheless, he makes an obvious effort at composure when he nods to the Continental slouched against the curb. "That's Cas, right? He's back? How's Jimmy? Is he--"

"Jimmy's good, actually." Dean latches onto the redirection, and tries not to show that he's choosing his words. "He's fine. Cas brought some mojo back with him, fixed him right up. He still needs to eat," he allows as Sam's eyebrows climb up his forehead, "and sleep for a week, but--no more hallucinations and shit."

"Seriously?" Sam's composure cracks into a nervy, incredulous smile. "What, like, a sprinkle of fairy dust and he's all better? Just like that?"

Dean pictures the scene he left in his living room: Cas standing at attention, back stiff and voice rough as he explained how he found Eve and his Hail Mary hope that his enemy's enemy could be turned into some kind of friend. Jimmy with his arms crossed like he had to hold himself together, his expression stony, his complexion ashen, his newly lucid gaze darting between Cas and Eve and the floor. Eve looking on with an air of finite patience and placid but impending threat, a primordial force of creation wearing Naomi Novak like a Halloween costume. "Yeah, apparently. Just like that."

_____

Dean begs off letting Sam back into the house. "It's been a long fucking couple of days, Sammy. And we, uh. Me and Cas and Jimmy. We've got some shit to work out."

It's nothing but the truth. Sam has to recognize that, even as he gives Dean a searching look and sets his jaw like he's thinking about objecting. But all he says, finally--vehemently--is, "Be careful."

Dean drags him into another hug to distract from how he doesn't actually say he will.

He gives Sam an anti-possession charm for the road and sends him home and refuses to feel guilty about his lies of omission. The memory of his little brother wearing the demon's twisted leer and oilslick eyes is too fresh.

_____

In the kitchen, Dean turns on the coffee maker and replaces the carafe with a thermos. While the coffee brews, he mixes up some electrolytes for Jimmy in the biggest water bottles he owns. He packs up the remaining half of the pizza he had for dinner, and a box of crackers from the cupboard, and a tub of homemade applesauce from the fridge, and by then, the coffee's just about finished. He waits for the trickle to tail off into drops, caps the thermos, and adds it to his pack.

He grabs his coat off the hook by the door to the garage before returning to the living room with his supplies.

Eve and Cas still stand on the far side of the sofa discussing next steps, Eve full of condescension and growing impatience, Cas terse and tense. Jimmy, sitting on the arm of the sofa in a barely-vertical heap, is the only one to see Dean coming. Turning his head, he looks Dean up and down, catalogues the pack and the coat and whatever expression Dean's got fixed on his face, and gives him a small nod.

"Here," Dean says, drawing up next to him and handing him one of the water bottles. "Slowly. Small sips. Get through some of that without bringing any back up, and I'll give you some solids."

By then, Cas has noticed him. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean watches him do the same once-over and come to the same conclusion Jimmy did. Unlike Jimmy, he frowns. "Dean--"

"I'm coming with you."

"Dean--"

"Cas." Jimmy's quiet, firm voice cuts him off at the knees. "He's not a civilian anymore."

It's a blink-and-miss-it reaction: Cas is nothing if not practised at keeping his shit under wraps. But for just a second, he looks so fucking sad, Dean has to look away.

_____

According to Jimmy, Crowley's compound is outside Vermillion, South Dakota, about five hours away. It's already past nine o'clock. It's a clear night, cold but dry, and they shouldn't have any trouble making good time, but--

"You've been behind the wheel for half the day already, Cas," Jimmy says, putting his water bottle on the floor so he can shrug into his jacket. "Once I get some food in me, I can drive--"

"Once you get some food in you, you're going to sleep," Cas overrides, sounding offended that Jimmy doesn't understand the obvious facts of the situation. Frankly, if Cas hadn't said it, Dean would have. "Yes, I've had a long day, but I wasn't near death for any of it."

Jimmy scoffs, not contradicting him outright, but also not hiding a pointed look at Eve. Dean reads it loud and clear: he's also sure Cas made some pretty significant edits when telling the story of how they came to their little agreement. "We're going to walk right into Crowley's damn lair, Cas. You can't be running on empty--"

"Hey, guys, come on." Recognizing the early signs of brotherly entrenchment, Dean holds up a placating hand. "We're all tired. None of us should really be charging into a boss battle right now, okay? And the best I'll be able to do with this--" He gestures at the front door, its broken handle fitted carefully back into place but ready to fall apart again at the first determined grip. "--is jury-rig it, at least before the hardware store opens in the morning." Lightly--as if he hasn't been looking for an opening to pump the brakes on this whole damn thing--he begins, "Why don't we stay the night here, get a good night's sleep--"

"There will be no further delay." Eve's power--barely noticeable under her Naomi disguise since she reined herself in after healing Jimmy--is suddenly, excruciatingly present. It nails something in Dean's lizard-brain that freezes him mid-conciliation, prickling his skin with the abrupt, certain knowledge of mortal danger. "I have had to wait for a vessel," she goes on, each word like chiselling ice, "and I have had to wait for information, and now I must wait while we travel. If I weren't bound by the limitations of embodiment, I would have gone to Crowley and dealt with him in a thought the moment I knew where he was. My family's suffering has gone on far too long. I will not wait one second longer."

Dean didn't see the fire that started him on the path to his job. He'd been playing tee-ball the afternoon the electrical fire killed his mom; his dad was in the stands with one-year-old Sammy on his lap, and none of them knew anything was wrong until they came home to a truck-choked street and flashing lights, soot streaks and smoke and the acrid smell of things burnt away. That was when Dean learned his first, best lesson about fire: it doesn't care.

He's fought fires for a decade now. All kinds--sullen smokers, raging infernos, explosive chemical shitshows--and every one has been an object lesson in just how much fire doesn't care. It's a deadly force utterly without will: it doesn't hate or want or love or fear; it's mindless, directionless, meaningless.

Eve's declaration rings through Dean's house, her power crackles in the air, and in the cold clarity of fear Dean thinks: Holy shit. This is a fire that cares.

"If you need a break, Cas, I can drive," he offers weakly.

Cas's hands are balled into fists at his sides. He nods once, belatedly, before they begin to uncurl. "Thank you, Dean," he says without looking away from Eve. "Maybe in a couple of hours."

They all get back to prepping to leave.

As he shoulders his pack of food, Dean glances at Jimmy. He's pale, his eyes round and darting continuously to Eve and away, but the expression on his face doesn't look much like fear.

Dean's not really sure what that expression is.

_____

They pile into the Continental, Cas in the driver's seat with Eve beside him, Jimmy and Dean in the back.

Jimmy sinks into the car with a sigh, his eyes falling briefly shut. On the seat, the hand that isn't holding his water bottle gives the upholstery a sweet caress. Dean recognizes the touch: it's the kind he sometimes gives his own baby when he comes back to her after riding in nothing but firetrucks for a couple days.

He looks up and finds Jimmy watching him back, tired eyes shadowed and inscrutable in the dark. Dean turns away to focus on his seatbelt, his coat, his pack.

Cas steers them unerringly through Lawrence's quiet nighttime streets, pulls them onto the interstate, accelerates. He's not one for having the radio on while he drives, and he doesn't turn it on now.

Jimmy polishes off most of the first water bottle, and a sleeve and a half of crackers, and about a third of the tub of applesauce. After he sets the food aside and wraps his coat around himself and slouches down in his seat, it takes him roughly thirty seconds to go boneless with sleep.

Eve sits upright, alert, silent. Her power seeps through the car, contained in her body but still present, still tangible. Her focus on the dark horizon is absolute.

Dean begins to fade. Adrenaline crash, the quiet, the gentle, boatlike sway of the car at speed--nothing for him to do, nothing he can do, until they get where they're going--he sinks into it all, his body weighed down with exhaustion, his head hazing over.

With a sluggish kind of detachment, he finds himself watching Cas. He's been in this car--Jimmy's car--with Cas plenty. Cas has driven them to the library or the grocery store or the garden centre. Cas has driven them to Charlie's in the morning and D.D.-ed them back again after midnight. Cas has driven him to work, just because. Cas has driven them to and from dinner at Sam's, both of them happy and relaxed and idly, sweetly handsy on the return trip, anticipating home.

He wonders if Cas ever felt like he was watching himself in those moments the way Dean feels like he's watching himself now. As if part of him can't quite believe what he's doing, and is trying to recognize himself in the moment from the outside.

It's Jimmy's car, Dean thinks again, something in him insistent about it. Something else in him drifting inexorably from the pet of Jimmy's hand on the seat to the grip of Jimmy's hand on his arm to the faint, blood-wet pressure of Jimmy's lips against his.

He blinks his burning eyes and ducks his head, his throat tight.

"Dean." Cas's voice is low, barely loud enough to be heard over the hum of the wheels on the highway. It drags Dean's eyes up again to meet his in the rearview mirror. "Are you okay?"

Something trembles in Dean's chest. "Yeah, Cas," he lies. He clears his throat. "I'm fine. It's just, uh. Just been a long day."

Cas's eyes flick away to check in on the empty highway ahead before coming right back, sharp in a way that lets Dean know he sees through his bullshit but soft around the edges. Weary. "You should rest until I'm ready to trade off driving."

"Yeah." There's an inevitability to it: he'll shut his eyes on this hellish fucking day only to have to open them again later and continue it. "Yeah, okay."

He feels Cas watching him through the mirror while he mimics Jimmy, slumping down in his seat and settling on a reasonable angle for his neck. The urge to tell Cas to keep his eyes on the road is the last thought he has before he passes the fuck out.

_____

When Dean surfaces, it's been about an hour and a half, and Cas is pulling into a rest stop.

The humans troop to the bathroom, stiff and stumbling. Eve doesn't move from the passenger seat, still emanating that sharp-edged anticipation and finite patience.

"It's so weird, seeing her in my car," Jimmy mumbles as he washes his hands, squinting against the harsh white strip lights overhead. "Mom hated Connie," he tells Dean as Dean takes a palmful of soap at the sink next to him. "She rode in her exactly twice, and both times, she was barely conscious and didn't have a choice." He shuts off the water, then rubs his wet hands over his face and into his already-messy hair, turning it into even more of a bird's nest.

"I barely remember my mom." Jimmy drops his arms to his sides and gives Dean his full attention. Dean shrugs, focusing on the cold water running over his hands, the suds rinsing down the drain. "She died when I was five. I've got pictures, stories. Stuff my dad and my grandparents told me. Not much that's all mine, but, uh." He gives his head a shake as he cuts off the water. Why the hell does he keep oversharing with Jimmy in bathrooms?

But his mom's smile rises in his mind, warm and beloved--not from memory, but from photos; he never sees that smile without early-80s film grain and a yellowish tint to all the colours--and his mouth keeps going, his words coming out raw and honest: "If something showed up wearing her face, I'd be pissed as hell."

Jimmy's mouth twists. "The weirdness helps with that. It's easier to remember it's not really her when she keeps doing things--saying things--the real her never would." He stares at nothing for a beat before a ghoulish kind of humour livens his drawn face. "On the other hand," he adds, turning to where Cas is drying his own hands by the trash can, "ordering us to drop everything and drive all night for a hunt is so in-character, it's like--"

"We shouldn't keep her waiting." Cas's voice is gravelly and forbidding. Without looking at Jimmy or Dean, he tosses his paper towel in the garbage and stalks out the door.

"It's like she never died," Jimmy finishes his thought, looking after Cas with another unreadable expression.

_____

Once they're all back in the car, Jimmy slouches in his seat at a new angle, crosses his arms tightly over his chest, and closes his eyes again.

Cas, now in Dean's old spot behind Eve, digs into Dean's pack and inhales a couple slices of pizza before balling up his coat between his head and the window.

Dean slugs back a few mouthfuls of coffee from his thermos, turns on the radio just loud enough to know it's on, and drives.

His nap helped, short as it was. Black, dreamless sleep took the lowness he felt before he conked out and folded it up all neat and numb. It's better behind the wheel, too. Piloting the car is something to do, something to focus on to keep himself from picking at those neat folds and working them loose. It's not exactly exciting--the night is clear, and the only other traffic on the interstate at this hour is transport trucks--but it's not like they'll be lacking excitement once they get to Crowley's lab. Dean decides to do what he does when the hours start to drag at the firehouse, and appreciate the monotony while it lasts.

Thinking about Crowley's lab, it occurs to him that they don't exactly have a plan in place for storming the castle. Dean has a vague idea from the few stories Cas has told him that in-depth strategizing isn't often a key part of hunting: the unpredictable nature of monsters and ghosts and demons means the twins can only plan so far ahead, and after that point, all they can do is be prepared to improvise.

They have a clear objective, at least. And a secret weapon.

Before he can think too much about whether it's a good idea, he says to Eve, "You're going to kill Crowley, right?"

It's the first time he's spoken directly to her. If she's surprised, she doesn't show it; she doesn't even look at him, just inclines her head in a slight but certain nod. "Yes."

Dean nods as well, staring out at the midnight horizon. "Good," he says, and it comes out mean.

She looks at him then. He sees the turn of her head in his periphery, and feels her attention land on him, and tries not to squirm under it even though it feels like she's reading his fine print. "You're not like those two," she observes. "You're not a hunter."

"No. But, uh, like Jimmy said, I'm not much of a civilian anymore, either. Crowley hurt my family too," he says, and he means Crowley got Sam possessed, and he means Crowley used Jimmy, and he means Crowley used Jimmy against Cas.

Eve nods again, curtly, satisfied. "You understand, then, the responsibilities of love."

"He does not understand you." Dean startles as Cas's voice rasps out dark and furious from the back seat. He'd thought he was asleep. "You make your family by stealing from others," he goes on, and Dean's heard him angry before, but not like this. "Your 'love' curses innocent people to lives of violence and cruelty, aberrance and desperation. It makes them predators. Killers. Inhuman." He scrapes in a breath, and his next words are thick with disgust. "Your children are monsters."

Tension aches in Dean's whole body. He barely dares to breathe.

Eve's expression doesn't change. "My children are survivors," she corrects, Naomi Novak's voice unconcerned and even. "And when they can't fight anymore, they deserve peace, not immolation for someone else's cause."

Glancing to the rearview, Dean's heart trips painfully: Cas looks like Eve just gutted him. He sits like his strings have been cut; his face is torn open with devastation, but just for a split second. Just until he realizes Dean's looking, and turns his head sharply toward the darkness outside the window.

The radio murmurs unintelligibly in the quiet. The Continental's tires hum on the asphalt.

From directly behind him, Dean hears a whispered, "So fucking weird."

_____

As soon as they're off the interstate, Dean pulls into a carpooling lot so the twins can get the weapons out of the trunk. The next few miles pass with Jimmy giving Dean terse directions through the backroads over the sounds of bullets rattling in boxes and guns being checked and loaded.

Crowley's lab is in a factory with boarded-up windows and scorch-marked walls that sits squat and decrepit in an overgrown lot. The nearest neighbour's another industrial property half a mile away.

Jimmy directs Dean through the sprawling lot, the Continental jouncing slowly over cracked and pitted asphalt, to a lonely door at the side of the building. Windows line the top of the wall three storeys up, half of them broken, the rest filthy. A rusted-out fire escape dangles crazily from under one of them, swinging gently from its few still-intact bolts, casting disorienting shadows under the dying flicker of the floodlight perched at the corner of the building.

Before they climb out of the car, Cas reaches over the seat to hand Dean a sawed-off shotgun and a handful of shells. "They're salt rounds," he says. "If you must fire, aim for the head."

Dean swallows down a crest of anxiety and takes the gun. He's no stranger to firearms. His dad taught him and Sam to shoot when they were kids; when they were still a little too young for it, probably, but that was just how Dad operated after Mom died. And Dean makes irregular visits to the range with Charlie, because a skill is a skill and he might as well keep his up, especially if he gets to be entertained by Charlie's competitive streak while he practises.

But he's never shot at anything more threatening than tin cans or paper targets.

He's never shot at anything shaped like a person.

"I never went inside," Jimmy says when they're all standing ready in the eerily empty lot, facing the door, gripping their weapons. "I don't know what they did with the ones I brought them. I don't know what we're going to find--" His jaw grinds. At his side, his fist flexes around the handle of the twins' demon-killing knife. "But I can guess. Christ. Everybody ready?"

Eve's already striding to the door. When she takes hold of the handle and pulls, the loud metallic snap of a lock breaking echoes through the night.

Jimmy follows Eve, moving with resolve. Cas gestures for Dean to follow Jimmy, then falls in at the rear, his own shotgun held low and ready.

The hallway inside is bare cement, dimly lit by failing fluorescent strip lights and coated in grime. The occasional gaping doorway leads to what look like former offices, all of them empty. Eve leads them to the first junction, where she turns decisively right; down that hall to a set of doors she opens with another crack of a breaking lock; left down a short hallway that branches off from the main one on the other side. Dean wonders just how many of her children's eyes she's seen this place through, to be so sure of the route.

They don't encounter a single demon. Their steps echo, and the fluorescents buzz, and those are the only sounds they hear.

"Does this feel increasingly like a trap to anyone else?" Jimmy mutters. Dean glances over his shoulder and finds Cas's face set, hard and unhappy.

The next set of doors are plastic-sheeted and swinging, and when Eve pushes through them, Dean's gut churns: the air that wafts out of this new hallway carries a sickening stench, copper and bile and rot. Jimmy shudders; Cas coughs. The humans' steps falter as they enter while Eve stalks ahead, her stolen body radiating rage.

This hallway is studded with doors on either side: industrial, windowless, closed and padlocked and scrawled with sigils. The doors, the walls, and the floor are splashed with stains, brown-red and black and, in nauseating splotches, festering shades of green.

From behind some of the doors come muffled, terrible sounds. Scratching. Keening. Dull, rhythmic thudding.

"Jesus," Dean chokes, breathing shallowly through his mouth only to catch a whiff of burnt flesh on top of all the horrifying rest. "Fuck, they're--we have to get them out--"

"They'll kill us." Jimmy's voice is hoarse. He stares at the door the thudding is coming from, looking sick. "As soon as the doors open, they'll--they're not human, remember, they're--" But his warning is hollow. Even as he speaks he shakes his head and moves closer to the door, his free hand rising to hover over the handle, the lock.

Dean's had nightmares like this. Hell, a few awful, heartbreaking times, Dean's reality's been like this: people trapped, hurt, making whatever noise they could in their desperation to be freed; Dean on the outside, unable to help, failing his purpose. His eyes skip frantically from one filthy, scarred, padlocked door to another. His hands itch for a Halligan, an axe, the fucking jaws of life.

Cas's hand grips Dean's shoulder. He comes around to stand in front of him, drawing Dean's attention, holding his helpless gaze steady. "I know," he says, his voice strained under its comforting pitch. "I know, Dean. But Jimmy's right. In the state they must be in..." His mouth presses into a tight line; his compassionate eyes turn flinty. "We have to deal with Crowley first."

Crowley. Dean looks up, past Cas--to see how long the hallway is, how many cells they'll have to pass in order to visit some karma on Crowley-fucking-McLeod--and finds Jimmy a few steps ahead, the expression on his sallow face stricken and ashamed. The same shame Dean saw in him when he apologized for all the shit he did when he was soulless, before he even remembered clearly what most of it was. The same shame, but aware now, and brimming with self-loathing.

When their eyes meet, Jimmy startles like he's been caught. Averting his gaze, he turns to hurry after Eve, the set of his broad shoulders tense and guilty.

Crowley hurt my family, too.

"Let's end this fucker," Dean growls.

_____

They catch up with Eve just in time to follow directly behind her as she slams through the door at the far end of the nightmare hallway. The room it opens to is wide and high-ceilinged, brightly-lit, with grimy white tiles covering floor, walls, and ceiling. The floor is gently concave, sloping to a wide drain in the centre. There are dirty metal tables lined up against the walls: the smaller ones have wheels and are covered in tools that Dean doesn't let himself look at closely; the bigger ones, without wheels, sit squarely beneath sets of thick iron rings threaded with thick iron chains that end in rusty iron cuffs. All of those tables are, blessedly, empty.

The room is not.

"Hello, boys," Crowley says, standing on the far side of the room, his eyes gleaming satisfaction. "Backdraft. Your first hunt, is it? Nice to see it's a family affair."

Eve starts toward him with a snarl. Smoothly, Crowley raises his hand: he's holding a pistol, and he aims it straight at her. "There's phoenix ash in these bullets," he says, an easy by-the-way.

Eve stops in her tracks.

Under his breath, Cas bites out an uncharacteristic, "Fuck."

Dean glances at Jimmy, who shakes his head uneasily.

The mystery doesn't linger. "Kill me," Eve dares, unafraid, and dread plummets coldly into the pit of Dean's stomach. At no time had anyone brought up even the possibility that their ace-in-the-hole primeval force of creation could be killed. "Send me home to Purgatory. I'll come back." She smiles. "If I have to, I'll come back as many times as it takes for you to run out of bullets."

"And how many of your precious kiddies will you watch me flay to the marrow in the meantime?" Eve's smile vanishes. Crowley makes a dismissive gesture with his free hand. "Or we could call off the hostilities, and you could give me the key to Purgatory's interminably finicky lock. I don't need all your souls," he coaxes, switching effortlessly from pointed demand to oozing persuasion, "only enough to definitively quash the opposition. Once that's done, won't it be nice to have a friendly face on the throne of Hell?"

Jimmy scoffs. If it's bravado, Dean can't tell. "A cheater's face. Real friendly, Crowley."

"Cheating is all there is anymore!" Crowley's rasping bellow echoes off the tiled walls, his cool assurance of just a moment ago vaporized in an eruption of exasperated fury. "Do none of you simpletons understand what 'post-Apocalyptic' means? There are no rules now! No plan, no purpose, no point!" Taking a breath, he shifts his shoulders in his tailored jacket, subsiding. "It's a free-for-all, boys and girls," he finishes, a venomous sting lurking in his careless tone. "Smash the nearest window and take what you can carry."

It's a shit-stirrer of a take, Dean has to give him that. The twins are glaring it down, their game faces on. But Cas's jaw is ticking the way it does when his mind's racing from one bad thought to the next, and Jimmy's hand is flexing on the handle of his knife like he's working himself up to try to use it even at this distance. Dean's pounding heart sinks to his boots. They're fucked.

"No." Eve lifts her chin. She looks calm, and speaks evenly, but her power swells and crackles with wrath. "My children's souls are not yours to burn." And she raises one arm, hand up, palm out.

There's half a second in which Crowley's mouth twitches into the beginning of a smirk. Then his body jolts like he's touched a live wire; his hand spasms, and his pistol clatters to the floor. A red-tinged golden glow flares to life in his chest, brilliantly bright even beneath his black suit. It beams up his throat and out of his mouth, now open and roaring in pain; it burns like all-consuming embers in his wide, shocked eyes.

Dean doesn't understand right away what he's seeing. It's only when Jimmy says shakily, "Holy shit. She took that, too," that it clicks.

Eve kills Crowley much more quickly than Jimmy exorcised the demon that had possessed Sam. Ten seconds; maybe twenty. Crowley screams until he doesn't anymore. When the glow fades, the body drops, deadweight, its open eyes staring, empty.

_____

"When you came to me to propose an alliance," Eve muses, gazing thoughtfully at her palm as if she can read her new power in the lifelines. Hell, Dean thinks wildly, maybe she can. "I accepted more out of efficiency than interest. I had no idea how exciting your offer truly was." Lowering her hand, she gives Cas's shocked expression a benevolent smile. "Neither did you, it seems.

"Among the prisoners here are three of my firstborns," she continues, turning her back on Crowley's sprawled body like it's trash she just dropped at the curb. "You will break the warding on the cell doors for me, and I will share this marvelous new ability with them. They in turn will share it amongst their siblings and their children, and soon--" Her smile broadens happily. "--no demon on Earth will be safe."

_____

Almost, almost an afterthought, Eve nods to the gun lying crookedly on the floor just out of Crowley's dead grasp.

"Someone take that," she says.

_____

Dean follows the twins back into the nightmare hallway. He follows their lead in using the barrel of his shotgun to scratch at the sigils painted on the doors, breaking their lines. The noises from inside the cells intensify as soon as a sigil breaks, until finally all the wards are broken and the captives are frenzied, padlocks rattling in their hasps.

On autopilot, he follows Jimmy back through the maze of the building, Cas at his back. The din of the prisoners rings in his ears alongside the echo of Crowley's dying screams; the foul air of the cell block is thick in his nose and mouth and throat; the sight of Crowley's body jerking and collapsing repeats and repeats in his memory; and then he's bursting out the door into the abandoned lot, gasping. The fresh outdoor air clears his fog and chaps his lips and is fucking delicious.

Staggering to the Continental, Dean unclenches his hands from around his shotgun and drops it on the trunk. He realizes belatedly that he never had to fire it. He still hasn't shot at anything shaped like a person. Shivery little trembles start up in his hands, his knees, deep in his gut, and he sags against the car, flattening his sweaty palms on its cold metal. "Holy fuck, Cas," he exclaims into the night, loud in the small-hours stillness. "You do this shit for a living?"

Cas's hand finds Dean's shoulder again and rubs a warm path to the nape of his neck. His touch is firm and kind and grounding. He meets Dean's slight hysteria with a mix of concern and his driest brand of humour. "Not really a living, no."

Dean huffs a perfunctory laugh. At some point, one of his hands left the car and took a fistful of Cas's jacket; once he notices, he tightens his grip. "How the hell did you ever put up with me complaining about my job, man."

Cas tilts his head. The worry in his eyes softens, muted by fondness. "We weren't in competition. Besides, I liked hearing about your day."

Dean's breath hitches. An ache closes his throat; tears prickle hotly behind his eyes. Cas has this way of cutting his knees out from under him by just fucking saying things like that, plain and unremarkable and so damn full of care. Dean used to hate being caught off-guard by Cas's unselfconscious little statements of affection. He used to love it.

It's been a long time since the last time it happened.

With Cas's hand warm on his back and Cas's jacket held tight in his fist and Cas's voice repeating I liked hearing about your day in his head, Dean misses him so much it hurts.

Clearing his throat, he forces himself to release his grip. Straightening up, he turns to look at the factory. "So, uh. Eve's plan," he says, and somehow he manages to sound passably businesslike. "Is this a good idea?"

At the other end of the car, in his own slumped perch on the hood, Jimmy laughs. There's an edge of mania in it. "Monsters killing demons? Demons inevitably retaliating? Both factions killing each other so we don't have to? Hell yeah, it's a good idea. Best idea I've ever heard. Eve's a goddamn visionary, we should've been working with her from the start." His mania fades. Winding down, he shrugs. "Besides, we can't exactly stop her."

But they could have. They could have stopped her the moment Cas picked up the gun with the phoenix-ash bullets. They could have stopped her by leaving without breaking the wards on the cell doors.

They didn't stop her, and now it's too late. Even as out of his depth as Dean's been this whole damn time, it's obvious that's not the same as can't.

Maybe that answers his question.

The factory door opens with a screech. Dean scrambles to his feet; at either end of the car, Cas and Jimmy snap to alert, raising their weapons. But it's only Eve who exits. She crosses the lot unhurriedly, victorious. "It's done," she announces as she draws up in front of the Continental, only to be interrupted by a crash from above.

Out of one of the broken windows near the top of the factory comes another crash, then a weirdly deep, skin-crawling scream. A scream, and a rushing funnel of smoke that pours through one of the broken panes and twists away into the inky sky.

Jimmy slants a look at Eve as the demon makes its escape. "You're not going to stop it? It'll warn other demons. You'll lose the element of surprise."

"An unnecessary advantage." She watches indifferently as the smoke disappears into the night. "My children are strong enough without it. Even stronger now, because of you." Turning to face Jimmy, Eve's hard triumph softens. After so long seeing nothing from her but threat and anger and unearthly, unquestionable force, her open gratitude is strange. Her tenderness is fucking bizarre. "From such a pitiful mess, such strength. What a wonderful gift you are, Jimmy."

Jimmy goes very still. A complicated rush of emotions cross his face, including distrust and defenselessness and something that looks a lot like Cas's moment of devastation in the back seat of the car. Each of them there and gone, ending with very deliberate, very determined impassivity.

"If your war takes a turn," Cas says, his voice pitched to caution; Jimmy turns abruptly away from Eve's reverent gaze, but looks past Cas, and raises his hand to scrub his face as Cas continues. "There will be no...'baby boom'. We'll be watching, Eve. If we see your family driving up its numbers--"

She shakes her head, still weirdly gracious--amused, even--despite Cas's obvious threat. "Another unnecessary advantage. I have so much more faith in my children than you do, Castiel." Then, more decisively, she adds: "More than enough faith to leave them to their own devices and trust in their success. You have Crowley's gun?"

It takes them all a moment to follow. When the penny drops, Dean blurts, "Wait. You're saying--you want us to kill you?"

"I want to return home to Purgatory," she says, and they're back on familiar ground now: the correction comes with her usual edged suggestion of limited patience. "A good mother ensures her children are equipped with the tools to live well, then steps back to let them do so. My work is finished. It's time I leave them to theirs."

It seems ridiculously simple. And, actually, a fucking relief: until now, Dean hadn't had any idea how their alliance with the eldritch horror wearing an ugly yellow waitress uniform was going to end. If it would--or could--end without casualties. A polite request that they help her win Mother of the Year by shooting her dead seems like the best, if also the most surreal, of all possible scenarios.

But the ugly yellow waitress uniform isn't the only thing Eve's wearing.

Beside Dean, Cas pulls Crowley's pistol from his waistband and looks it over, focused, expressionless. He checks the chamber and snaps it shut. He clicks the safety off then on then off again.

Jimmy approaches slowly, his face a disciplined blank as he watches Cas run his weapon check.

After everything else that's happened--the shitty rollercoaster ride through the life of a hunter Dean's been on, chosen to be on, since Cas and Jimmy showed up on his doorstep--the twins' exquisite professionalism in this moment is too much. "Cas, wait," he says, words spilling out in anxious disbelief as Cas fits the pistol's grip against his palm. "You shouldn't have to--neither of you should--not when she looks like--"

Cas stills. He doesn't raise the gun, but he doesn't look up, either. Instead, Jimmy comes around his brother to lay a gentle hand on Dean's arm. "It's okay, Dean--"

"No it's not fucking okay, Jimmy--" He's not just anxious, he realizes. He's angry. He's so fucking angry. This is the life Cas and Jimmy have led. This is what they're used to. They're going to put a bullet in something that looks exactly like their dead mom, and they're trying to reassure him that it's okay. "I'll do it," he says suddenly, and it's a challenge, he's calling their bluff, but fuck, he means it. He'll do it so they don't have to. "Give me the gun, Cas, I'll--"

Smoothly, without hesitation, Cas raises the gun and fires.