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Games of Skill and Fortune

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How Dean makes it the half mile to the bunker, he’ll never be sure. 

He crash lands in a cornfield. He loses Michael’s grace somewhere in the skies over Nebraska — yanked unceremoniously from his body mid-leap — and from there it’s sheer luck, his body a long-range missile plunging unmanned toward its original destination, or something close. He sees the Platte River flashing in the sun away to the north, the river of semis crawling down I-80; familiar truck stops, railroads, an abandoned grain elevator he and Sammy exorcised one time, the river and its ribbon of cottonwoods, and then it’s the Haskins’ back stoop, bent and rocking-chair-weathered, rushing up to meet him, and he has only an instant to hope he neither crashes through its failing shingles nor impales himself on the pole holding up the scarecrow behind it before everything goes black.

He comes to what he thinks is only moments later. There’s something at work there, some vestiges of the angelic healing he worked wildly on his own body, mere minutes ago in that playa in Nevada — there’s salt dust on his face, his palms, his knees — and his leg is broken again, twisted and shattered beneath him, he’s bleeding freely inside and out, but he’s alive, and that means it’s no time to lie back among the corn stalks and wait to see whether the scarecrow works on whatever scavengers come to investigate the carrion that used to be Dean Winchester.

You beat him, he tells himself. You won. You won. His whole body still screams with the effort of turning himself over, and his shoulder doesn’t want to move. His entire right leg is a useless, bloody mass, dead weight, but he gets himself up on his elbows, somehow, and peers through the stalks.

They’re heavy with tasseled ears, standing straight and tall like an alien regiment in phantom symmetry. There’s no obvious path through them, but the bunker is south, and he’s not so addled he doesn’t still know which way that is.

He moves like a beached seal, heavy and awkward, his one functional leg beating weakly against the dirt to help him along. The first corn stalk cracks under his weight and jabs up beneath his breast bone, and his vision nearly whites out with the pain — internal organs, not okay — but he keeps going anyway. And going. And going.

Everything hurts, without the white fire of Michael’s grace brimming in his cells. His limbs weigh a thousand pounds; his blood beats, beats, and a thousand tiny lacerations pulse with every thump of his heart. There’s blood pooling in his abdominal cavity, welling in his lungs. He coughs, and it dribbles down his lips.

He’s going to drown in his own blood. He’s going to drown in his own blood, and Haskins will follow the trail through his cornfield and find him here, eyes pecked out, mere minutes’ walk from safety, from home —

No. Dean fights down the eddy of panic and drags himself on, shuts his eyes against the memories and fears and the incomprehensible magnitude of the task before him. He focuses until he is nothing but a single point in space, in time, in sensation — pain, determination, the god of putting one elbow in front of the other, Michael liked when people thought he was the god of things — be the god of this, this motherfucking cornfield — he has never known anything else, has never been anything else, he will crawl through this cornfield until the Earth stops spinning and the sun engulfs them all — and then he’s tumbling down the bunker’s steps, dust and straw clinging to the sticky, congealing blood of open wounds he didn’t know he had.

He finds that he’s laughing. Impossible, that laughter remains among his body’s array of functions, but there it is. It works bone splinters deeper into the tissue of his lungs. Did he always know the map of his own body so well? Or is it the artifact of an angel’s awareness, an internal geography that can’t be unlearned?

He can’t open the door laughing. He can’t do anything if he keeps laughing, he’ll laugh himself dead and they’ll find him here and that’ll be worse, that’ll be worse — than if he never made it home at all —

He stops. Time slides. He finds the doorknob and turns it, slumps through — they should’ve unkeyed him from the wards, why haven’t they unkeyed him from the wards — and then it’s just the second, interior doorway. The only obstacle left.

Sam and Cas are in there. Jack, maybe, Mom; the refugees from Michael’s world. He doesn’t remember killing any of them, in his time as the Sword. He doesn’t remember killing any of them —

He wrestles himself upright in a burst of reckless, terrified energy, gripping the doorframe and hauling, leaving bloody handprints on the wall. He nearly blacks out, but when his vision clears, he’s balanced on his one good leg, hip braced against the jamb, forehead resting on the cool surface of the door.

His left hand is still gripping on for dear life. His right is in the doorknob. He turns it, lets it swing open, doesn’t quite fall in after it as it goes.

It’s just the three of them at the war room table. Cas, Sam, Jack, and they’re lurching to their feet and Dean’s vision is swimming and Sam’s palming his angel blade, Jack’s mouth is open, he thinks they must be yelling but he can’t hear anything, his ears are ringing, but Cas —

Cas is halfway up the stairs already, and it doesn’t matter that Dean can’t hear him. His hands are empty, eyes wild, and his lips move and his voice sounds as clear in Dean’s head as if he’d spoken aloud — which he has — it’s all confused, but Cas is saying, DEAN, and Dean lets his head rest against the doorframe and says, through the dizzy lights in his skull, “Hey Cas. Miss me?”, or at least he thinks he does.

Cas comes up short on the mezzanine, body a thrumming wire, lips pursed and pissy, and Dean smiles, because something about that makes him ludicrously happy, a bubble of joy expanding in his chest — or is that the pneumothorax?

It sounds like the start of a joke. Is that a collapsed lung in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

He’s not sure if he says that out loud, or tries to. All he knows is that a moment later, Cas’s lips are tightening further still, and he’s stepping forward, reaching out to press two fingers to Dean’s forehead, and the entire world goes finally, blessedly black.

---

He wakes with Sam’s puppy dog eyes intent and too close to his face.

He’s in his own room, with his own record collection stacked on the dresser, his own photos in a little pile on the nightstand where they’re always falling once he’s propped them up. He blinks.

“Where’s Cas?” he asks, and his mouth feels like a small rodent died inside it; his words come out muzzy, but Sam seems to understand.

“He’s resting. Healing you took a lot out of him.” He frowns, eyebrows drawing together. “You nearly died, Dean.”

Tell me about it. Dean takes stock of his own body; it hurts, but his muscles and organs are whole. He can feel where his tissue is knitted together, erasing the marks of Michael’s beating in the desert, his own half-assed healing, the fall. He never realized how much skill this shit took; Cas is good.

“I gotta check,” says Sam, reluctant. “You’re really you? I mean, this isn’t some trick of Michael’s, right?”

Dean frowns. “Can’t Cas tell?”

Sam hesitates. He glances at the door, then rubs at his knuckles like he’s nervous. “Cas — hasn’t exactly been himself, with you gone.”

“What?” Dean struggles to sit up. “You saying he’s —”

“No, no-no-no,” Sam interjects hastily, pressing his shoulders back to the bed. Dean groans, stunned at how easily he goes. “You remember how broken up you were when he died?”

What does that have to do with anything? “Yeah?”

“Well —” Sam spreads his hands. “Cas has been grieving. All right? I mean, we all have, but he’s — you know.”

Dean really doesn’t. He chooses to ignore that. “So you’re saying you don’t trust his read on me.”

“I’m not saying I don’t trust him,” Sam says quickly. “I’m just saying he’s — been pretty desperate to get you back. He might be… seeing what he wants to see.”

Dean slumps back against the pillow. “So cut me. See if I bleed angel grace.”

Sam hesitates.

“Go on. I’m not made of glass.”

“Tell that to the guy who didn’t spend all night waiting up for you to stop breathing. Again,” Sam mutters, but he pulls out his angel blade all the same, and slices a thin line over the skin of Dean’s arm.

For a moment, Dean’s irrationally terrified that they’ll both be wrong; that grace will come spilling out, that Michael’s just been there, biding his time, all along.

Nothing happens. Just a thin trickle of blood. They breathe simultaneous, shaky sighs of relief.

“All right, then,” says Sam.

“All right,” agrees Dean. He’s home, he’s whole, he’s human. “So. What are we doing about winning this fucking war?”

---

What they’re doing, it turns out, is a whole hell of a lot.

Some things, Dean remembers himself, if only in bits and pieces. Naomi’s successful defense of Heaven — the negotiation at the gates, and the clang of their closure, echoing through every dimension of his grace-self like an enormous bell. Michael’s still a lone actor, at least; loose on Earth, devoid of an army or Heaven’s might behind him. Maybe that’s why he’s taking a more discreet approach to world domination than last time around. He hasn’t started smiting whole towns yet. Dean hopes that’s a good thing.

At home, there’s more news still. The bunker is quiet these days — just Sam, Cas, and Jack, who’s been a shadow of himself, Sam says, since Lucifer stole his grace — but that’s because they’re mobilizing almost everywhere else. Bobby and Mary have been touring the country, galvanizing every last hunter they know from both worlds to prepare for battle. They’ve successfully reclaimed a dozen Men of Letters capitula to use as bases of operations all over the continent. At the moment, they’re in Chicago, helping Maggie’s team set up a forge to melt down angel blades for bullets.

Jody’s got Lorraine Fox pulling Canadian hunters together at her place in Saskatchewan. Cesar and Jesse Cuevas are raising the battle cry in Mexico. Ketch is on his way back to Europe in an attempt to re-infiltrate the British Men of Letters; he believes they’ve undergone some soul-searching in the wake of the American catastrophe. At this rate, Team Free Will is rapidly expanding into a trained, highly organized paramilitary fighting force with strongholds in at least three countries. It’s more than Dean could ever have hoped for.

It isn’t nearly enough.

He tells Sam, in low tones, what he does remember. Michael is terrifying; stronger than anything they’ve ever seen, stronger even than Lucifer. Grappling with him for control was like battling an ocean of power, seizing at a single scale within the coils of an immense snake.

He managed it, though. Three times, once he’d battled out of the soporific illusion Michael cast around his mind — should’ve known a quiet night with a glass of whiskey in the bunker’s TV room would seem a pale imitation of the real thing, without Sam or Cas there to drive him up a wall.

The first he’d spent turning a circle with his hands in his hair, trying desperately to come up with a plan. He’d barely completed a single revolution before he’d lost his grip again, Michael roaring up to consume him like a speck of driftwood in a maelstrom.

The second time, he’d been busy plummeting through the stratosphere and trying to figure out how angel wings worked without Michael’s experience to back him up. The third, he’d zapped himself to Charlie and Rowena — still road-tripping, apparently, though with a hell of a lot of weaponry — in the hopes that they’d be both smart and unsentimental enough to come up with a plan.

He’d been too afraid to return to the bunker. Dreaded, somehow, that he’d be playing directly into Michael’s hands — or that he’d only leave with his entire earthly family dead around him and any hope of salvation dashed to smithereens. Rowena, though, knew how to bind an archangel; Charlie knew this Michael as well as anyone. He’d misjudged slightly and crashed physically through the roof into the rear seat of their car, managed a several-minute conversation and the bare threads of an idea, then felt Michael rallying for control and threw himself desperately clear.

He still doesn’t know if Michael caught the gist of that conversation; if he’s left Charlie and Rowena in danger. He doesn’t remember much but haze, after that. Landing on his knees on a sun-baked valley floor among alien mountains of twisted black rock. Michael’s rage, incandescent as the hammered-blue bell of the sky. Red blood, white sand; gathering thunder and the crack of lightning, cloud to furious cloud. Sheets of rain that evaporated into the baking desert air before ever reaching the ground.

Getting worked over by someone who lives in your own skin fucking sucks, and his body still twinges with the residual horror of it. For a moment, he’s back there, dust thick behind his eyelids, throat searing with dry heat and Michael’s rage.

He survived it, though. Snatched desperately at the bleeding edges of Michael’s grace, pouring like the sun’s corona from the inferno of his wrath. He’d gotten a sense in there, somehow, that Michael was not only angry at his defiance — that Dean had wrested control — but at a decision of his own: the Sword was more trouble than he was worth, and he was going to have to leave him, abandon the most perfect weapon God had ever seen fit to create. But he wasn’t going to relinquish it without damaging it beyond repair —

Dean’s voice shakes in the retelling. Sam watches him with quiet, patient sympathy, and Dean says, “He didn’t, though. He was messy — too angry to hold all his grace out of my reach, and I kept healing myself with it, but I don’t think he noticed. He left me for dead, and I used the last scraps when he left to blast myself here.”

He imagines, for a moment, the alternative. Bleeding out a hundred miles past the far edge of nowhere, instead of riding the final, supersonic clap of an angel’s wings home.

Sam’s grip tightens on his own hand for a moment, and then he reaches out, awkward, to pat Dean’s arm. “Do you think he knows you’re alive?”

Dean smiles thinly. “He didn’t mean for me to be. I’d guess no.” His amusement fades. “Sam — he wants to open another rift.”

“Yeah.” Sam looks down. “We figured. Bring his army through, right?”

Dean nods. He feels weak; the conversation has sucked his meager energy reserves dry.

Sam asks, “What’s stopping him?”

“He’s —” Dean coughs, dry and hard, and doubles up. The pain is fire in his lungs. He quells it with difficulty and lies back, panting.

Sam’s watching him, careful, face tight. There’s sympathy in his eyes, but also a need to know.

“He’s got the ingredients,” Dean manages. “I’m guessing he’s been gun-shy about using his own grace for it, though. Especially with me lurking around making grabs for the reins.” It clicks into place. “With me gone —”

“He might take the risk in a new vessel,” Sam says grimly. “That or look around for another archangel, but with Gabriel and Lucifer gone, he’s —”

“Shit outta luck,” Dean finishes. He casts for Sam’s gaze, holds it. “Unless…”

Sam blinks, then draws back in surprise, and Dean wonders if it isn’t a little feigned; if he hasn’t been thinking of this, and dreading it, all along. “Dean —”

“I didn’t tell him,” says Dean hoarsely. “Didn’t even dare think about it. And hell, I’m not sure myself. It’s not like we saw hide or hair of him or Adam, when we were down in the Cage.”

Sam swallows, and a vein in his throat jumps. He looks down. “They’re not — dead, ” he says.

“Yeah,” says Dean, as gently as he can.

“You wouldn’t have seen much of me either,” says Sam, “if —”

He stops short.

“Yeah,” says Dean again.

“It was Lucifer’s,” and there’s that whole-body shudder, even though Lucifer is gone, dead, they killed him, saw his wings burned into that church’s paving stones, “his —”

“Yeah.”

Sam closes his eyes. He inhales, settling himself. Dean thinks, this whole mess is worth it, if it means his little brother feels safe enough to show the cost, the work of being fine.

“Sam,” he says, when a long enough moment has passed. “You know what this means.”

His brother’s eyes snap open.

“It means we know something Michael doesn’t. We’ve got something he doesn’t.”

“We don’t have anything,” Sam says sharply. “Unless you’re proposing —”

“Think about it,” Dean interrupts. “It makes sense. I’ve got a handle on resisting possession now.” Sam’s looking skeptical, two shades shy of aghast. Dean talks faster. “We need the firepower, you know we do. If I —”

He’s cut off by the sudden crack of the door banging all the way open. His head jerks around, sending shocks of pain through the muscles of his neck.

Cas’s palm rests flat on the wood. His hair is sticking up in all directions, in a way that gives Dean an odd urge to touch it. His eyes are bloodshot red and, presently, murderous.

“You,” he says, “are fucking joking.

Dean tries to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth. He’s frozen. He feels suddenly, unaccountably — shy.

He swallows twice before he can find the voice to speak. “Hey, Cas,” he manages, and it sounds about as threadbare as he feels.

Cas’s expression doesn’t budge an iota. He just stands there glowering at them both.

At Dean’s right, Sam clears his throat. His face performs brief, guilty acrobatics.

He says, hopefully, “Coffee?”

---

Coffee doesn’t thaw the fury spiking off Cas’s hunched shoulders. Neither do pancakes, after Dean browbeats them both into letting him get up to make them — “you guys have been eating like college kids since I’ve been gone, come on, admit it” — though they both devour them readily enough.

So does Jack, when he fades quietly into the kitchen a little while after, gulping down large syrup-drenched forkfuls in a way that makes Dean wonder if he’s been eating at all. The kid looks thin. There are blue shadows under his eyes and a hunch in his posture that Dean doesn’t remember.

They don’t talk about his idea.

Dean figures that’s to his advantage — he needs to recover anyway, make the pitch when the marks of Michael’s battering aren’t quite so obvious on his face. Cas is still glowering, though, and Sam is still laughing a little too quickly, too forced.

Some of it’s relief, Dean figures. The sheer, bloody-minded relief of having his brother back; it’s been bred into them, over the years, worked into the molecular fabric of who they are. They’ll always feel easier with each other at their backs. A part of Dean feels a pang at that. Wishes, fruitlessly, that Sam felt as comfortable, as solid, with Cas, or Mom, or even Jack.

That’s just some of it, though. Some of it is — something else.

So he can bide his time. He can cook and clean and work himself back up to strength, bask a little in the soul-deep balm of home, and family, and bully them all into laughter when they start watching him like he might vanish if they look away.

There’s something prickly and strange and deeply satisfying in that, he thinks. It’s different from Sam digging desperate claws into the last scraps of Dean’s demon-dealt life; it’s different from the dread of Sam coming to look for him in Purgatory, and the shock of betrayal that he never tried. It’s — more like that day in the cemetery, I want a big funeral, all right, I’m talking epic, open bar, choir, Sabbath cover band, and realizing absurdly in that moment that they’d fucking give it to him, that Sam would move heaven and earth and possibly commit felonies in several states to get Gary fucking Busey to a cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas to read his eulogy, or at any rate he’d try before Cas set him right and went to deal with it the angelic way, and that —

— that’s an image that will never leave him, but for now, he doesn’t want Gary Busey, or a Sabbath cover band, or even a goddamn drink. He wants pizza. He wants old school, fast-food pizza, the greasy shit he secretly knows is way worse than what they make at the wood-fired place in Smith Center, but it’s his goddamn back-from-the-dead day, and he’ll eat bad pizza if he wants to.

Sam protests, predictably, that pizza can have vegetables on it, Dean, and that that stuff isn’t even cheese, you know they call it “dairy product” on the packaging, right, and then there’s a door slamming down the hall and they follow it to the garage to realize Cas’s truck is gone.

He’s back forty-five minutes later with three steaming boxes, and Dean could kiss him, for all that he’s still glaring and bloodshot and tight-lipped. Three boxes means Dean gets one for himself, which is frankly fucking appropriate, Sam can roll his eyes right back into his head if he wants to, and the next day Dean wants Chinese all the way from Hastings, and Cas goes and gets that too.

It’s a strange sort of truce. Cas is still pissed at him — every line of his body makes that clear — but he hovers anyway to watch Dean eat, shoves more food at him wordlessly whenever he runs out, even starts glaring Sam to silence when Sam tries to comment. It’s good all around, Dean thinks — Jack’s looking a little healthier, too, got more meat on his bones — and of course it can’t last. Of course the truce has to end when, on the third day, Sam walks into the library, clears his throat, puts down his beer with a firm clunk, and says, “I think Dean is right.”

Dean blinks. He’s finally cracked Cas’s shell of frosty remove; he’s spent the evening catching up with the news since he left, and reprimanding Cas for failing to apprise him of all the important developments. The Warriors won another championship — predictable — but so did the Caps, less so. Coco is out on Netflix — gotta make time for that, might actually get Jack to crack a smile, and the whole raising-the-devil’s-kid thing has perks when it comes to watching animated movies without the snide remarks — and he’s actually got a laugh out of Cas just now, something approaching forgiveness in his eyes, and then Sam has to go and torpedo it.

Still, Dean says, “What, about Jennifer Aniston pulling a Julia Louis-Dreyfus?”, just to make sure.

Sam exhales through his nose, mouth thinning. “No,” he says, “about Michael. Our Michael.”

“Ah,” says Dean. “Right. That.”

“Unless —” Sam backpedals, looking suddenly caught off-guard. “Unless you’ve changed your mind?”

Dean sighs. Cas is looking thunderous again; in his armchair in the corner, Jack’s eyes are round, mouth open in surprise.

Might as well rip the Band-Aid off. He says, “I haven’t changed my mind.”

Cas says, “Dean,” and Jack says, “What are you talking about?”

So Dean explains. The whole history of Sam jumping into the Cage as Lucifer’s vessel, and taking Adam and Michael with him; his eventual rescue at the hands of Cas and, subsequently, Death. He glosses over the years of torture, but by the look on Jack’s face, he’s reading between the lines.

“So,” he finishes, “point is, Michael’s still down there somewhere. Our world’s Michael. From what we’ve heard, he’s a little — cuckoo for cocoa puffs — but he’s there, and he’s an archangel, and that means —”

“That means you want to use his power.” Jack’s voice is calm, but he looks sick, furious, and the word power comes out heavy with self-loathing. It twists in Dean’s gut, to know how viciously the kid blames himself.

All the more reason to take this on. Powers or no, it’s not Jack’s job to stop Michael.

Cas says, “Absolutely not.”

Dean sighs. He sets down his pizza. “Cas.”

Dean,” Cas echoes, spiteful, almost, mocking. “Do you have any idea what it was like? The last time? To sit here, alone, with no idea if any of you were ever coming back? Or worse, when Sam and Jack did — and you weren’t with them?”

Jack flinches at that, like it’s his fault. Sam doesn’t. Dean meets Cas’s eyes steadily and says, “Yeah, actually. I do.”

“And you think,” snarls Cas, ignoring him, “that you can fall through that door bleeding from every capillary and two heartbeats away from dying, and I’ll let you just waltz out to do it all again?

Dean says, “I didn’t fall.”

He didn’t fall.

Cas’s nostrils flare. His face is white with fury.

“Cas,” says Sam cautiously. “Dean thinks he can control our Michael, and I — I think he’s right. I know what it’s like being possessed, remember, and once you’ve got that first handle —”

Cas wheels on him. He bites out, “I know what it’s like being possessed, too.”

Sam swallows. “I know,” he says, raw. “But I also know our Michael — better than any of you do, at any rate. He’s — broken. He’s powerful, yes, but it’ll be more like dealing with a kid than a full-blown archangel. And Cas, we need the help. You know we do.”

Cas’s jaw works. A muscle jumps in his cheek.

“I’m not gonna run off without talking it over with you,” Dean says softly. He means all of them, he thinks, but his eyes are on Cas. “I’m not. If I’m gonna do this, I — want you to have my back. All of you,” he adds, because it feels a little weird, suddenly; a little too intimate.

Abruptly, Cas sags in his chair. He rubs his hands over his eyes, and holds them there for a moment before dropping them back to his lap. He says, “Then let’s talk.”

---

They do, late into the night. Dean listens patiently to Cas’s litany of arguments; he’s got a lot of them, a fresh one every time one line of debate is exhausted, and yeah, some of his points are valid. Sam shuffles off to bed while they’re still talking, and Jack follows not long after, and then Cas just stops, mid-sentence, and slumps in his chair and closes his eyes and chokes out, “I can’t, Dean. I just — when they got back, and you weren’t — I can’t go through that again.”

Dean thinks, suddenly, of Cas throwing him against the wall in that alley, all those years ago; of his voice, loud and fraying: I rebelled for this?!

That was the first time he said yes to Michael, or tried to. Third time, he thinks, is the charm.

“Cas,” he says, and he hears his own voice catch. He reaches for Cas’s arm, squeezes it hard. “Cas, buddy, I know.”

“Of course I’ll have your back,” Cas says thickly. “And if Michael hurts you, I’ll — find some way to tear him to pieces. Both of them. I don’t care.”

“I believe it,” says Dean.

“But not yet,” says Cas, in a rush. “Just — think about it. And —” He breathes in, heavily, and out again. “I just got you back,” he says, dropping his head. “Don’t go. Not yet.”

Dean swallows. His own throat feels thick, suddenly, with unnamed emotion. “If it goes how I think,” he says, “I won’t go away at all.”

“Still,” says Cas. “Give me — a week. Can you do that?”

Dean nods. His face shouldn’t feel so tight; his eyes shouldn’t prickle so sharply. “I can do that,” he agrees.

Chapter Text

They don’t get a week.

What they do get is strange and soft, haloed with the gentle light of a nostalgic memory. Except that it’s not a memory, it’s right now, and Cas is still watching him with this liquid warmth in his eyes, like he means to memorize Dean, every degree of his laughter and every flavor in his cooking and every beat their gazes hold too long. Like he believes he can keep Dean himself through sheer force of will, if he only learns him well enough; or maybe like these are Dean’s last days on Earth.

They don’t leave the bunker much. They spend most of their time in the kitchen, except one evening when Sam is off on a call with Jody and Jack’s asleep in an armchair — kid sleeps a lot these days — and Dean grabs a bottle of the good whiskey, the stuff Crowley used to like, and cocks his chin quietly for the stairs, and Cas rises to follow him.

They sit to watch the sunset on the hill, passing the bottle between them, quiet until Dean points off to the north, toward the Haskins field, and says, “That’s where I landed.”

He hasn’t talked about that part of it. Hasn’t related anything about that grim death-crawl home. So it takes him more than a little by surprise when Cas says, “I know.”

He knows Cas senses his sudden attention, can see the jerk of his head from the corner of his eye. Cas doesn’t turn, though, just takes another pull from the bottle and says, “I went looking, after I finished healing you. I managed to cover some of your trail. Haskins is jumpy enough without finding a blood trail through his corn.”

Dean snorts. “I almost impaled myself on his scarecrow. I was terrified I was gonna hit it.”

“Landings,” says Cas, with feeling, “are terrible.

“That what it’s like for you? When somebody angel-sigils you away?”

A smile hovers at the corners of Cas’s mouth. “I did impale myself, on that fishing boat, eight years ago. Landed right on their main antenna.”

Dean laughs. He can’t help it; he’s talking angel crash-landings with Cas, and he actually knows what it’s like, now, a little, the sense of yourself as a vast glimmering shadow of wings. The way your grace-self parses information from the air, weather and longing and heartache and joy, the brush of the minds of men.

He says, “I ever tell you about the scarecrow that almost killed me?”

Cas knows all his stories. Cas has always known all his stories. But Cas says, “No,” and Dean tells it, all the same.

When he’s done, Cas is staring off into the distance in a way that makes Dean unsure if he’s been listening. His forehead is furrowed, and he’s got his distress-squint on. He says, after a long minute, “I should have known.”

Dean blinks. “Should have known — what?”

“That you were — back. That you were here. I’d been feeling it all day. If I’d acted on it — if you hadn’t had to crawl all that way…”

That’s bullshit. It’s such utter bullshit that Dean completely forgets to comment on it. “Why didn’t you?” comes out of his mouth instead.

“I…” Cas looks lost, so lost for a moment that Dean’s gut clenches with his resemblance to Jack, got to fucking make sure that kid’s okay, and then Cas says, “It wasn’t the first time.”

Dean’s chin jerks around. “What?”

“The day after you were gone.” Cas is staring hard forward, the muscles of his shoulders tightly controlled. “I woke Sam up in the middle of the night; I was sure I felt you outside. That you were — praying for me, that you were coming home. We searched for hours.”

“I wasn’t even,” says Dean, “I was under then, I’m pretty sure.”

“I know. It happened again the next night. And the next. Eventually…”

“You stopped listening.” Dean tries to imagine, and finds he doesn’t have to. He remembers seeing Cas, in glimpses on roadsides, outside his window, after Purgatory. He remembers being eaten by guilt.

He also remembers the hollow void of Cas’s absence, last year. He’d had no hope, then. No fantasies of Cas’s return. And it fucking broke him.

“Cas,” he says, his own voice rough, “you couldn’t have — there’s nothing you could’ve done.”

“Isn’t there?” Cas asks, quietly. “I couldn’t have — helped break his hold?”

Sam and Jack couldn’t, Dean almost says, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same, and that’s terrifying, he doesn’t know how to look that in the eye, so instead he says, “I did that anyway. It’s done.”

But Cas’s hands are trembling, and so is his voice when he says, “You shouldn’t have been able to crawl that far, Dean. You shouldn’t have been able to. It defies reason. It’s — a miracle that you did. You must have clung to enough of a remnant of Michael’s grace to get you through. But if you hadn’t — if things had gone as they should have gone —”

“Things don’t usually go as they should, when it comes to us,” Dean points out.

“That is not helpful,” says Cas, but he takes Dean’s hand when he offers it, and squeezes until his fingers go numb.

They don’t go in until after the moon has risen and the katydids are calling through the night. They’re walking close, bumping shoulders more even than the liquor should allow, and Cas catches Dean’s elbow in his hand for balance, walks him to the door of his room.

“Good night, Dean,” he says softly, paused in the doorway, and his eyes look like they’ve taken the stars inside with them. Dean is buzzing, happy, and since when is he such a lightweight? Maybe he’s lost track of how much he’s had, drinking with Cas, but he finds himself wishing suddenly, painfully, that he could see Cas’s wings; that he could feel what Cas feels, through his grace, or better, feel his own grace, sense Cas as he was meant to be seen.

He’s drunk, moon-drunk and silly with it. His face is flushing, but he could write that off as the whiskey’s fault.

“Night, Cas,” he says, and shuts the door.

---

He lies awake late that night. He lies awake thinking of Cas’s eyes, sidelong, blue; of Cas angry and exhausted, with his hair like a porcupine and his face like a road-killed armadillo. He lies awake thinking of Cas’s hand on his elbow and Cas’s fingers in his and why did he do that?, he doesn’t know, but they curl unconsciously where they brushed Cas’s skin, as if they haven’t gripped hands a hundred times before.

He thinks things might be weird, the morning after, but they aren’t. They go out for breakfast, all four of them, and make a trip for groceries so Dean can try a paella for dinner, mostly to prove to Sam that he can cook healthy if he wants to, and after he executes that triumph he and Cas and Jack adjourn to the TV room.

Jack betrays a flicker of excitement as he shows off to Dean how he’s learned to navigate Netflix. Halfway through Coco, though, he’s drifted off, head pillowed on Dean’s shoulder, breath whistling through his nose. He looks calm — more peaceful than in his usual restless sleep.

On Dean’s other side, Cas is abstracted, eyes only half-focused on the screen. They keep sliding to Dean, instead, and when Dean looks over, Cas’s face is cast orange and blue and purple in the lights of the Land of the Dead.

Cas sees him looking, and doesn’t avert his gaze. There are shadows under his cheekbones. Dean’s mouth feels dry.

Then Cas’s eyes flick away, toward the door, and Dean turns to see Sam there, grinning, arm outstretched with his phone horizontal and clearly in the act of taking a picture. Dean flips him off, careful not to jostle Jack, who sighs and nestles deeper against the flannel of his shirt.

“I would kick your ass,” he says, in a stage whisper, “if I didn’t have more important things to do.”

Sam takes another photo — Dean glowers — then comes fully into the room, tucking his phone back in his pocket and dropping, after a moment, to sit on the arm of the couch. They watch the movie for a few minutes in silence. Then Sam glances down at Jack and says, softly, “He missed you, you know.”

Damn them all. They’re going to make him fucking weepy, if they keep this up. Dean squares his jaw and fixes his gaze on the screen.

Héctor is fading away in Miguel’s arms; Mamá Imelda gives him her blessing. Miguel is sobbing. It’s not helping. The music swells, and Cas glances at him again as Dean blinks, hard.

Relief comes sudden and shocking, and it’s not really relief at all.

It is, rather, a voice echoing down the bunker hallway. A trilling Scottish brogue, less airy than usual.

“Boys? Boys.” Rowena’s voice is audibly strained.

Dean displaces Jack when he jumps to his feet. Sam has risen in the same moment. He leads the way out the door, and Dean is already reaching for a gun that isn’t there — one he hasn’t started carrying again, since he’s been back. He still knows the hand signals, though, hangs back as Sam advances, and that’s new, isn’t it? Wasn’t he usually the one who took point?

It’s only Rowena, though. She’s standing alone in the hallway, smoothing her hands over her gown again and again, as if her composure is hidden somewhere in its folds. Despite her best efforts, the lines of distress on her face are stark.

Sam relaxes a fraction, and Dean follows suit. Cas comes up hard behind him, Jack at his heels.

“Rowena,” says Cas, voice deep and distrustful.

But Rowena doesn’t muster any of her usual snark. She just looks blankly up at him, then at Dean, then Sam, and says, “There’s something you need to know.”

---

It’s already too late.

“He found us,” Rowena says, in hollow tones, and “I tried to keep him out, but he took it from my head, right out of my head, before Charlie killed me to stop him —”

“Wait,” Dean interrupts. They’re sitting around the bunker’s kitchen table, a strong mug of tea trembling in Rowena’s right hand. “Charlie killed you?”

“Took what out of your head?” says Cas.

Rowena sniffs and sets down her mug, twitching her already immaculate hair into order. “Of course she did. She knew about my spell; I did one for her, too. A fine lass.”

“Is she all right?” Dean asks. This is his fault; he dragged them both into this, going to them for help. If Michael hurt Charlie —

Rowena squares her shoulders. “She took longer to come back than I did, after Michael killed her. I left her at the nearest emergency room. She’ll be fine,” she adds, with a glare at Sam’s twitch of alarm.

“Rowena,” Cas interrupts again, grim and gravel-voiced. “What did Michael take?

She looks away. She toys with her skirts, a kneejerk of nonchalance.

Then, before any of them has a chance to ask again, she squares her shoulders and tilts up her chin like queen. She says, almost defiantly, “The spell I used. To keep the rift open for longer, on limited archangel grace.”

---

It’s already too late, but they drive through the night anyway, all five of them in the Impala, Dean at the wheel. In the center of the back seat, purple fire licks from Rowena’s hand over the splayed pages of a battered old road atlas. She keeps up a constant, murmured stream of spell words and directions, head bowed, eyelids squeezed shut tight. She points them down interstates and bumpy backroads and through the eerie shapes of rows and rows of identical pine trees, and then says, “There,” pointing a dramatic finger, and Baby jolts to a halt.

The clearing between the trees is empty, desolate in the pre-dawn light. Humidity clings to their clothes the moment they slide out of the car. Mist hangs in the air.

There isn’t even a single uprooted tree, no sign that the angels have been and gone. But still Dean feels their fading presence, a prickling on his skin.

“Damn it,” he says softly. His fist against Baby’s hood makes a muffled sort of ring.

Cas says, “Wait.”

And Dean sees it. A crumpled form he mistook for a pile of slash, stirring vaguely from its place on the ground. There are footprints all around it in the sand. It shudders, and goes still.

Dean gestures to Sam in silence. He pulls his gun from the back of his jeans — he’s ready, now, loaded up with angel bullets — and creeps forward, giving Sam time to circle left.

They approach from two angles. The thing doesn’t move.

It’s barely recognizable as a body, when they get close. It’s got arms and legs, yes, and a blood-matted head, but it’s not a person, not really; there’s something unearthly about the way it holds its limbs, something more deeply wrong than any of the dolls at the Pierpont Inn. It doesn’t stir as they approach, but Dean can see that it’s breathing. It’s alive.

It doesn’t flinch when he stops beside it. He dares a glance up, meeting Sam’s eyes over the thing between them. Sam shrugs, with his eyes as well as his shoulders, and flexes his grip on his gun. Dean hesitates, then tucks his away, and leans down to turn the body over.

It goes easily — more easily than he expects. It flops onto its back like a landed fish. Dean hears Sam’s intake of breath before he understands himself.

The thing’s whole face is frozen in an expression of twisted horror, mouth a manic rictus of a smile. Between its lips, its teeth are red with blood. Its hands are like claws at its chest.

Its eyes are moving. They’re wide and sea-green, darting frantically between Sam and Dean. They stare up, terrified beyond comprehension, out of the face of their half-brother.

---

“He knew somehow. Lucifer must have told him.”

Sam’s pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes shut tight. Cas and Rowena are clustered around Adam now, trying to draw something from him resembling language. Jack is hovering behind them, looking sick. With the sun’s arrival, the day’s already uncomfortably warm. The birds here sound like grasshoppers; the grasshoppers sound like birds. Dean’s sweating in his flannel.

He says, “You don’t think he’s still —”

“What, that Michael’s still in there?” Sam interrupts. “He must be. Or at least he must have been recently. For Michael — other Michael — to use him to open the rift.”

“If he is,” says Dean, and swallows.

“If he is,” echoes Sam, “and you still want to do this, it’s — gonna be now.”

“I know.” Dean glances over at Adam’s body. “If he even — fuck.”

Across the clearing, Cas looks up to meet his gaze. Then he’s extracting himself from Rowena’s conversation, turning her by the shoulder until she’s facing a startled-looking Jack. He moves quickly across the clearing, and when he’s close enough, he says, in a low voice, “He’s still in there. He’s almost completely drained, but he’s there.”

Sam’s eyebrows draw together. “Is he communicating?”

“No,” says Cas, “but I can sense him. And I — I think he can sense me.”

Despite himself, Dean feels his mouth quirk. “All that sensing give you any idea if he’s likely to be sympathetic to our cause?”

Cas gives him a dark look. “No.”

“I doubt he’s the other Michael’s biggest fan at the moment,” murmurs Sam. “At least if there’s anything rational going on in there.”

“Yes,” says Cas, “because ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ worked out so well for you last time.”

Dean sighs. He glances at Sam. “Would you — give us a minute?”

Sam looks momentarily taken aback. Then he says, “Yeah — yeah, of course,” and goes.

“Are you okay with this?” Dean asks, once his brother is out of earshot. He keeps his voice low, his eyes on Cas’s face.

Cas sighs, thrusting his hands in his pockets. He looks away. “You’d still do it if I said no.”

“Yeah,” Dean admits, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna ask.”

“I’m.” Cas’s shoulders inch higher, and for a moment, he looks like he’s going to spin around and start shouting. Then he breathes out slowly and says, “I’m as okay with it as I’m going to get.”

“Okay.” Dean glances toward Adam’s body, still twitching on the ground. “If he says yes — what happens to Adam?”

“He will die. His body barely remembers itself as it is; without Michael, it will cease to function. His soul will ascend to Heaven.” He’s delivering the information as if from a great distance, remote and indifferent — like he used to, Dean thinks, before.

Before what? Before — a lot of things. Before.

“You’re sure? That he’ll go to Heaven.”

Cas’s gaze flickers. “Yes.”

“Then — I’m going to do it. I’m going to ask.”

Cas says nothing.

“If — if he says yes,” Dean says. The words are spilling out of him, and he doesn’t know where they’re going, what he’s trying to say; only that he has to get it out. “We don’t know if he will, I mean, but Cas, just in case — I —”

I WILL DO WHAT YOU ASK.

Dean spins.

The voice comes from Adam and does not come from Adam. It fills the clearing, it fills Dean’s chest, and Sam is stumbling backward, Jack is clutching at his ears. Rowena is white-faced and wide-eyed; even Cas looks startled.

The voice doesn’t hurt Dean’s ears. It’s familiar; it speaks in the cadence of his own blood, rings in the chambers of his bones.

“Michael,” he says, and steps forward. Away from Cas. Toward the body on the ground.

The voice says again, “I WILL DO WHAT YOU ASK.

Adam’s lips aren’t moving. Dean’s not even sure if his vocal chords are sounding; this is another kind of voice, a greater voice. He thinks the grasshoppers have stopped their singing. Or maybe the voice is the grasshoppers, and the wind in the trees, the rumbling of the ground beneath his feet.

“Let’s get a few things straight first,” says Dean, more bravely than he feels. “I’m not your vessel, or your Sword. I run the show here. Right now, you’re screwed. I can get you out of this mess. Sign on with me, help us defeat Michael — the other Michael — and that’s it. You and I are done. Try anything else, and you’re out. Capisce?”

There’s a silence. Then, again, like thunder and sky, a whisper in his ear, the thrum of a faraway train: “I WILL DO WHAT YOU ASK.

Dean swallows. He glances back over his shoulder: at Cas, white-knuckled, eyes locked on his. At Sam, still recovering from the latest blast of Michael’s true voice. At Jack, eyes watering as if from a blast of wind to the face, and Rowena, knuckles flexed like claws where she clutches her thighs.

“All right, then,” says Dean, “yes.”

And Michael comes for him.

It’s nothing like the first time, a sensation of plugging himself right into the core of a nuclear reactor. He’s bracing himself so hard that he almost misses the needles of light suffusing his chest, and then they’re fading, as quickly as they came.

A great breath sighs out of Adam’s body. Dean thinks he glimpses a silvery shape go with it, float away upward, on its way home. There’s a surge of — something — under his sternum. Something savage and alien, something like triumph, or grief. Then it’s gone again, a flame flicking out in the wind.

The sorry thing on the ground before him goes finally, gratefully still.

And Dean’s just — normal. He can feel a faint awareness dancing at the tips of his wings — no, fingers — the tingle of a world he can’t usually sense, but it’s nothing like the wall of awareness that flooded him as the other Michael. There’s a sensation deep inside him like a small creature, curled up tight in its burrow. He can barely trace it. He feels like himself. Everyone is staring at him, and he thinks, for a moment, he catches a sideways glimpse of Cas’s battered wings.

Sam says, “Dean?”

Dean blinks. “Yeah.”

“You — good?”

“Yeah.” He swallows, twice. His throat is dry. “It’s me. All good. I can — barely feel he’s there.”

The tension doesn’t leave them, not exactly. It melts to a lower grade, though. Unravels enough that Dean finds he can think, for the first time, Michael’s got his army, SHIT, and then, dizzy, I’m okay.

“We should,” says Sam. “We should give Adam a hunter’s funeral.”

Dean’s moving on autopilot: solve one problem, then the next. “I’ve got lighter fluid in the trunk. Lots of slash, we can probably find good stuff for a pyre without cutting any trees down —”

He moves for the car. The others shake themselves as if from a dream, falling in step behind him.

He has the distant sense that Cas has reached out and gripped his hand, hard, even though they never touch at all.

Chapter Text

Sam takes the wheel for the drive home, just in case. Rowena agrees to stay another night, just in case, though she doesn’t look happy about it — I died today, you’ll remember! Technically, Dean thinks, it was almost two days ago, now.

Cas volunteers to keep watch over Dean as he sleeps: just in case. Leaving aside Cas’s insistence that he doesn’t need sleep — he quite clearly does, about as often as not — that’s a weirder one than the rest. “Just like old times, huh,” Dean jokes as he pulls back the blankets and slides into bed.

Cas tilts his chin in puzzlement, which honestly is just like old times too. Dean clears his throat. “Y’know — you, creepily watching me sleep…”

Cas’s expression clears. “If it would make you more comfortable,” he says, “I could face the other direction.”

“Nah,” says Dean, “you’re all good.” Then he adds, “Not that there’s any reason I should need sleep, either. I mean, I’ve got angel in me.”

“You have an archangel almost totally depleted of his powers in you,” says Cas, unmoved. “If anything, you should need sleep more.”

Dean thinks he catches it again, a glimmer of wings; some kind of warmth brushing over his face. He blinks, and it’s gone.

He’s pretty fucking tired, though.

Michael’s presence feels like a knot right below his heart. It quivers slightly every time he inhales, but keeps itself balled up tight. He feels normal, otherwise. He feels like there might be music, somewhere, that he can strain and strain and not quite hear.

“Yeah, all right,” he says, yawning, and is gone before he remembers to turn out the light.

---

He finds himself humming an unfamiliar tune, in the shower the next morning.

It’s — nice, kind of. It’s slow, and sort of sad, but pretty. He tries and fails to place it all day, thinks about asking Sam, or even Cas, with his Metatron-induced pop culture download, but doesn’t. It feels — private, somehow. He’s supposed to be the one who knows about music, anyway.

Everyone’s walking on eggshells around him. “Listen,” he says after breakfast, impatient with their worried gazes. “Far as I can tell, Michael’s out for the count, okay? Best we can do is let him rest up and get his powers back. In the meantime — I’m me. I can be useful.”

Rowena glances at Sam. Sam glances at Cas. Jack looks shyly at Dean, then away again, just as fast.

Sam says, “We’re — not sure that’s a good idea.”

“What?” Dean’s on his feet before he realizes it. “What’s the — I’m healed up, I’m not in my fucking deathbed, the hell do you —”

“Wait.” Sam raises a placating hand. “Listen, it’s just — we don’t know that Michael is on our side, right? He could be working for the other Michael. He could have his own agenda. Either way, if he’s here as a spy —”

Dean feels the anger drain out of him as quickly as it came. “Right,” he says, sitting heavily. “Until I’m back to spitting fire and shit, I’m a liability.”

“There are things you can do,” Sam says quickly. “It’s just — I talked to the others, Charlie and Bobby and Mom, and — we think it’s best if you don’t know all the strategy details. Just in case.”

Just in case. Those are his favorite fucking words, these days.

“Listen,” says Sam quickly. “With everything — there are some loose ends we haven’t taken care of. That werewolf case we were working, back in May? There’s a splinter faction down in Tulsa we haven’t had the chance to track down yet. If you wanted to take point —”

“Great,” Dean mutters, “just fucking great,” but what the hell, he’s a hunter.

He hasn’t thought he’s too good for a job yet. Now seems like a poor time to start.

---

Cas comes with him, because apparently their sole functional angel is not a particularly key resource in the war effort either. It’s a five-hour drive down to Tulsa — milk run, practically — but they get a motel room anyway, and Dean drops onto his bed with a grateful sigh. The whole angel thing’s supposed to make him need less sleep, not more.  

“I’ll watch over you,” Cas offers, predictably, and Dean rolls his eyes.

“Don’t give me that bullshit. You’re exhausted too." 

He realizes, as he says it, that he knows it’s true — and not because he can see it in Cas’s face. Cas looks more or less the same as ever, a little rumpled, a little angry, a little worn smooth with care. He just — he knows Cas is tired. He knows it as simply as if Cas had just unleashed the world’s biggest yawn.

And it occurs to him, suddenly, that he can see it. It’s so subtle he barely noticed it, but Cas’s wings are there — faint and transparent and battered-looking, drooping with weariness, folded back at his shoulders like a cloak. Only that’s not right, because his wings are also immense and everywhere, doming their hotel room, cradling the pair of them in a protective, warm circle. And they’re vast, stretching out into the sky, the cosmos, stray feathers brushing over stars and small towns and oceans, the gates of Heaven itself.

Wings is a pretty poor term for them, but he doesn’t know anything better.

Huh, he thinks. Hey, Michael.

The thing in his chest doesn’t answer.

“You’re sensing them,” Cas says softly, and his wings do something, reaching for Dean’s attention almost, brushing over his cheek. Dean turns into the sensation, curious, and Cas — stops.

“I’m — sorry,” he says, stiffly. “It’s rude of me — now that you can perceive them.”

I don’t mind, Dean thinks, but then it occurs to him that maybe he should mind, maybe this is some great breach of angel etiquette. What he thinks is one thing, but if it scares Michael back into his shell —

He’s not going to worry about it, that’s all.

Cas’s wings have faded anyway, just a vague hum in his awareness, and that’s fine. All of this is fine.

They haven’t talked about what he was going to say in Georgia. Which is good, probably, because Dean had no idea where he was going then, and even less so now.

“I should,” he says. “Get some sleep.”

“I’ll check the local newspapers for updates while you rest,” says Cas.

“No,” says Dean, glaring, “you’ll sleep. You need it.”

Cas hesitates. He looks like he’s about to say something. He opens his mouth, closes it again.

“All right,” is all he says.

---

The werewolf’s holed up in the top floor of an old hotel, so they pick the lock of the dry cleaner occupying what used to be the lobby. A leak from one of the machines has stained the tiled floor, and the racks of clothes reach all the way up to the ornate copper ceiling tiles, gleaming faintly in the light off the street. The front staircase is entirely blocked by boxes — it’s been coopted as a storage closet — but the back one is open. 

Dean’s feet creak on the steps as he leads the way, gun held low and ready. They clear each floor before they ascend to the next, but in the end, it’s anticlimactic: the attic is empty, just a series of old garrets with dusty cobwebs strung over their windowpanes and peeling wallpaper that exposes layers of newsprint glued over the laths. Dean peers close at one of them. Oklahoma City Evening Gazette, it says. July 3rd, 1890.

The room is broken up by the studs of what used to be walls between half a dozen tiny rooms. There’s a beat up old couch that sags in the middle and bottles and bottles of solvents, stolen, apparently, from the dry cleaners downstairs.

“He’s using them to clean up after himself,” Dean says softly. “Smart.”

Cas follows him through the attic, angel blade ready in his hand. Dean ducks low under the ceiling, checking behind the couch. The room is empty.

“He must be out,” he murmurs. “We can lay a trap for when he —”

He’s cut off by a roar, and swings around to see Cas dive just in time to keep the werewolf from ripping out his throat.

His eyes glow yellow in the dim light; his fangs are bared. He swivels his head between Dean and Cas as if unsure which of them to go for first.

He must have been lurking the second stairwell. Not Dean’s finest moment, but now that he’s out —

It happens as Dean’s raising his gun. He’s got the silver bullets loaded, hands steady, muscle memory. It happens as the werewolf swings to meet his eyes, lips drawn back in a snarl.

The thing inside him doesn’t just uncurl. It screams.

He manages one shot. It flies wild, and then he’s on his knees, gasping for air. His vision is clouded with sunspots, swimming, and his head feels like a balloon on a tether, swaying seasick from his shoulders. He’s cold, so cold, and shaking, his shoulders cramping like he’s trying to somehow bring them so far together he can hide under them, cover his head and shut out the world and be safe — safe

He’s trying to have wings, he realizes nonsensically. He’s trying to have wings, because fucking Michael is terrified for his life, and there’s a werewolf bearing down on him and he can’t even raise his goddamn gun.

The instant before the monster is on him, Cas’s blade plunges through its heart.

It freezes like that, fangs bared, eyes wide-golden and frenzied. Dean stares into them. His ears are a roar of static. His heart isn’t beating, it’s screaming, on and on and on and on and on.

Cas shoves the body unceremoniously away and falls to his knees at Dean’s side.

His blade drops to the floor with a hollow thunk. It’s red with blood now. It rolls on the floor in a wide arc, comes to rest at a crack in the floorboards. It sparks in the shaft of sunlight from the window. Dean stares at it like an anchor, focus, because he can’t — he can’t —

The panic isn’t gone, dead werewolf or no dead werewolf. The panic is inside of him, it’s every cell of his body, it’s — Michael, the panic is Michael, they’re one and the same and he’s been curled up tight inside Dean, crushing it small in his chest, but he’s awake now and there’s no shutting it off.

“Dean?” Cas is saying. Dean can feel the brush of wingtips more clearly now, because of course he can, he’s fucking Michael, he can feel everything more clearly, the photons of the sunlight and the wool fibers at his back and the speciation rates of the bacteria already going to town on the werewolf’s body — gross — and the goddamn terror ringing down Cas’s grace, which is not fucking helping. “Dean!”

“I’m — okay,” Dean manages, through gritted teeth. “Fucking — fucking Michael.

“What did he do?” Cas demands, checking Dean’s body now with hands and wings both. “Are you all right? Did he try to take over?”

“No,” Dean grunts, because he didn’t, really. His intestines are trying to coil themselves in knots. “Fucking — scared shitless.”

That, at least, isn’t literally true. Thank fuck. Though maybe more because angels don’t shit than anything.

“It’s okay now,” Cas is saying. “He’s dead — it’s okay.”

I know that,” Dean snaps. He sits up with effort. He feels like a terrified cat has dug its claws into his leg for balance, only the cat is inside him, and the claws are in his fucking nervous system, everywhere, and they won’t let go. “Tell him.

Cas draws back, surprise on his face. “He’s still,” he says, and it’s not quite a question.

“Yeah,” says Dean. “Fuck. Help me up.”

Cas does.

It doesn’t fucking subside. His body is a high-tension wire, every muscle tight to trembling. The panic tastes like acid in his throat. But he can work through it, he finds; he can drag the werewolf’s body out to the car, load it in the trunk with his muscles shrilling dread, not scream and not scream and not scream all the way to an empty riverside park where they burn the carcass among shotgun shells and empty beer cans and early goldenrod.

Dean insists on driving them home. Cas at the wheel is no good; he has nothing to focus on, no rituals to ride through the sheer physical terror that won’t fucking fade. It doesn’t fade when he’s driving, either, but his hands are at least smooth on the wheel, his turns precise, controlled. He feels like he’s going to vomit. He feels like he’s going to drop into the fetal position and never get up again. He drives.

They stop for gas two hours later, and Dean makes Cas go in for snacks while he works his trembling hands on the pump. Being under the sky feels like his body’s going to fly apart, spun out by the wildly humming engine of terror that is his chest. His shoulders are aching with it, too high and too tense for too long. He grips the pump handle tight and doesn’t blink.

Michael, you motherfucker, he thinks, we are not gonna let this shit stop us. I don’t care how fucking broken you are. You gotta power through.

The answer snaps back from inside him, acid and angry and nearly knocking him sideways. What do you think I’m fucking doing?

Dean jumps, then looks around quickly to make sure no one saw. “You swore,” he says, out loud. “Since when do angels swear?”

“Castiel does it.”

He sounds almost petulant. Dean sways on his feet. “I’m talking to myself,” he says. “I’m talking to myself. Out loud. In an empty fucking parking lot.”

You’re the one who signed up for crazy. Through the gritted teeth of its fear, the thing inside him sounds almost like it’s laughing.

Dean swallows. His head hurts. They’re alone. He’s alone. “Do you,” he says, out loud. “Do you know how to stop this?”

Just asking the question is like stabbing the panic in the gut. It redoubles, hissing inside him, and he feels the tension climb his neck, twist at the muscles of his face. It pulls his lips back in a silent snarl. “If I knew, ” he says, Michael says, “do you think I’d —”

He cuts himself off, breathing heavily. Dean’s lungs. Dean’s voice. But it’s not that Michael’s taken control, exactly — it’s that his fear is swamping both of them.

“Music helps,” he says, in a clipped, furious voice. “Sometimes. The right music.” And there’s that fucking tune in his head again, hesitant, wavering — the one that’s been driving Dean crazy.

No, wait. It’s not in his head. Michael is fucking humming it.

“No way,” says Dean, cutting him off. “No, we are not — curling up singing to ourselves. You gotta keep that shit in your head, man. Our head. And let’s make it Metallica, all right?”

He gets the distinct sense of ruffling feathers, a huffy voice in his head. You’re the one that had to go hunting.

“Yeah, well.” Everything hurts; feeling like this is fucking exhausting. “We’re in a war, so — not sure I can roll with the sit-at-home-and-always-feel-safe plan, pal.”

Michael doesn’t answer. Dean feels him retreating into silence in his head. He actually feels a little better than he did — he can turn his head more freely, muscle tension a little less — and when he does, he sees Cas, standing awkwardly behind him with a bag of junk food in his hands.

“Dean?” he says, and the warmth and worry pours out of him like a golden thing. It’s tangible, too tangible. It sets Dean’s teeth on edge. He’s — dealing with his shit. He doesn’t need to deal with Cas freaking out about it, too.

“I’m fine,” he says roughly, and gets back in the driver’s seat without another word.

---

By the time they make it back to the bunker, he’s feeling like death warmed over. His heart is pounding too fast, still, and his jaw hurts from clenching it. His fingers are white where they’ve been gripping the steering wheel. For a moment, in the stillness of the garage, he just wants to stay there — just to sit, with Baby’s leather at his back and her windshield between him and the world, sit there motionless and sink into himself until he can find some semblance of calm.

Cas is looking at him. He can’t just stay in his car forever. He releases the steering wheel and opens the door and walks into the bunker.

The lights are far too bright. His footsteps echo, loud in his ears.

Sam is at his laptop at the library table, Jack curled up in an armchair opposite him, asleep. Sam sits up, then freezes as he takes in Dean’s face. What it looks like, Dean can’t even fucking say.

“Are you —” he starts.

“Went fine,” Dean interrupts, dropping heavily into his own customary chair. He can feel Cas hovering somewhere behind him, uncertain. He rests his head on his arms on the table. He says past them, muffled, “Cas ganked the werewolf. Michael woke up and flipped his shit. Now I guess we’re a — fucking anxiety party.”

The chair isn’t safe enough. There’s air behind him, the heat lamp that is Cas’s care and concern. It prickles uncomfortably at Dean’s neck. He gets up, goes to the armchair across from Jack’s. There, at least, the leather is solid at his back. He slumps down into it.

In the chair opposite his, Jack is sitting up, blinking back into awareness. His eyes widen as they take his appearance in — whatever it is that gives away just how fucked up he is, Dean isn’t sure he wants to. Cas and Sam are watching him too. The panic writhes inside him.

Fucking hell. He’s had nightmares before, but this —

“I thought we’d seen it all.” It takes him a moment to realize he’s spoken out loud. “This shit is —”

“Is he scared of something?” Jack’s uncurled in his own armchair, sitting up, eyes more alert than they’ve been in days. “Is there something we can do?”

“I don’t think it works like that,” Sam says, softly, unexpectedly, and Dean feels a spike of gratitude that he doesn’t have to explain himself. He shuts his eyes. Sam adds, “I think with some things — the only way out is through.”

There’s a pang of helpless sympathy from Jack. Dean feels it, even with his eyes closed. He reaches an instinctive wave of comfort for the kid — something like holding out his hand. Hey, he thinks, grim. We’ll get through this one way or another. All of us.

Jack stiffens. Dean opens his eyes to find him staring.

Huh, he thinks.

“Uh,” says Sam. “When it — when I’ve had bad moments. It helps me to have something to do with my hands.”

“Cleaned the guns two days ago,” Dean mutters, closing his eyes again. The light is like knives through his skull. He’s so fucking tired. There are strains of Michael’s melody in his head, but he can’t quite piece them together.

“Here,” says Cas, and with effort, Dean opens his eyes yet again.

Cas is holding a deck of cards. It’s the one they keep on the shelf by the liquor cabinet, and almost never use. He says, quietly, “I’ll play with you. If you like.”

Dean stares at him. He has the odd, unshakeable notion that Cas is talking to them both.

Cas shrugs. He looks almost apologetic. “Michael always used to like gambling.”

---

Michael does like gambling. He likes it a lot. He likes it far more than he is good at it.

“He says he didn’t have poker, back in the day,” Dean tells Cas, shuffling the cards. His hands are faster on them than he thinks they were before. “He says he used to play the Royal Game of Ur. Whatever that is.”

“It’s ancient Babylonian,” Cas tells him, forehead creasing slightly as he studies his cards. “It became quite popular in Heaven. I was on guard duty for several centuries with an angel who had once been Michael’s valet. He’d developed a keen interest in games of skill and fortune. We played poker, Ganjifa, As-Nas —”

Dean snorts. “As-Nas?”

“It’s Persian,” Cas mutters, abstracted. He’s being oddly polite. Deferential. As if he’s talking not to Dean but to his one-time general.

The thing is, though — the cards do help. The first time Cas clears him out of chips, he gets up as if they’re done, and Dean might not have felt the panic’s gradual easing, but he sure as hell notices when it comes roaring back. He manages, through gritted teeth, “Again?”

And so they play, and keep playing, until long after Sam and Jack have gone to bed and Dean’s aching with weariness himself. He’s feeling okay enough that he rises to make his way to his own bed — and promptly stumbles, unbalanced by a lurch of terror.

He puts out a hand to catch himself on the wall. The floor pitches.

“This fucking sucks,” he mutters, squeezing his eyes closed.

“I’ll keep playing,” Cas says quietly. “As long as you need.”

But Cas is tired too. Fuck Dean for knowing that. He shakes his head. “I’m beat,” he says. “I gotta at least try. I’ll — let you know if I need anything, okay?”

He has no intentions of letting Cas know if he needs anything.

Cas probably got that. His mouth is thin. He says, anyway, “Okay,” and that leaves Dean to take on the task of going to bed.

Brushing his teeth is awful. Showering is awful. He only convinces himself not to sink to the floor under the spray because he’s not sure that if he does he’ll ever be able to get back up. Every task feels unfathomably huge; every challenge makes him want to sit down, or hit something, or cry. There’s no way he’s going to be able to fucking sleep.

The only way out is through. Fuck it. He shuts the door on the world, slides between his sheets.

Michael likes card games, huh? Michael has been missing out on some important modern technology.

He pulls out his laptop, boots up Spider Solitaire, and plays until he finally, finally lulls his overexerted brain into something like sleep.

Chapter Text

Turns out, time-sharing your brain with a half-crazy archangel nursing a solitaire addiction may be better than the alternative, but it still really fucking sucks.

Dean's days fall into a rhythm. Wake up, play solitaire. Make breakfast, play solitaire. Drink coffee, play solitaire. Sit around the bunker and play fucking solitaire.

He downloads an app with twenty-three different varieties of solitaire. He learns to play Montana and Double Canfield and Thieves of Egypt and Royal Parade. He makes some half-hearted explorations of online card games — he’s not going to start monopolizing Cas’s time or anyone else’s with this bullshit — but throws the brakes when he realizes Michael is way too excited about getting money involved.

“You’re bad at poker,” he tells him out loud, one morning. “You’re not gambling away my life’s savings in online poker. Not that I have any life savings.”

“I can make you life savings,” Michael counters.

That one throws Dean for a loop. “Wait,” he says. “Really?” Then logic catches up to him, and he adds, hastily, “Nope. No. Not doing that. No way.”

There’s a muffled snort from the hall. Then Sam’s poking his head around the doorframe and saying, “Are you guys arguing out loud again?”

No.

Okay, it does sound pretty weird when they both try to speak simultaneously like that.

It’s just him and Sam and Jack in the bunker mostly, these days, and it’s getting harder and harder to convince himself he’s okay with life on the sidelines. Sam is still striding around the bunker on phone calls that he shushes into silence when Dean’s in the room, pulling more and more massive piles of lore from the shelves and sequestering them in the lab he’s taken over as a workspace. Some of the time, Jack helps him. Other times, he drifts back out, looking listless and lost, and gives Dean an apologetic sort of glance before disappearing into his room.

He’s looking healthier, at least. Dean’s cooking is good for something, even if he can barely stomach it himself these days.

Sam thinks he should keep eating regular meals — you still don’t have very much grace, and: it’s better to err on the side of providing your body with critical sustenance, Dean. Hell, Dean’s never been one to get picky — he has eaten some seriously questionable gas station food in his day — but he might as well chug that gross protein powder shit if it’s all going to taste like molecules anyway.

It helps when Cas is home. Cas isn’t often home — he disappears for five or six days at a time, then rolls in at some random hour and sits around the library looking sleepless and wan for a while until Dean successfully bullies him into going to bed. Still, he always finds some time for Dean before he leaves again, even though it can’t be very interesting. All Dean does is sit around and play fucking solitaire.

“Sometimes,” Cas tells him, when he asks, “if I eat a peanut butter sandwich and — focus hard enough, I can almost taste it.”

“I can’t believe you live like this,” Dean tells him gloomily, placing an ace and watching the animated stack of cards fly up to the top of the screen. There’s a slight preening sensation through the running storm of emotional static in his chest. “Is it always this bad? I mean — you eat my cooking, sometimes.”

“It’s easier to experience flavor when you can sense its vicarious echoes in the other people around you,” says Cas, like that’s a fucking normal thing.

They’re sitting at the library table, where they usually sit: Dean with his laptop and Cas staring pensively into space. It can’t be interesting for him, but something about Cas’s presence makes Dean feel more like himself; Cas doesn’t worry about when he’ll become useful or how to manage the slowly recovering archangel riding shotgun inside him, or he does, yeah, but that’s not the main thing. Most of the time what he can sense from Cas’s grace is just like him looking up and saying Dean, warm and surprised and pleased he’s there, just this — joy. That he gets to sit around and watch Dean play endless rounds of solitaire.

“You’re saying,” says Dean, “that you like my cooking because I like my cooking.”

Cas squints, unperturbed. “You like your cooking a lot.”

That’s — true. It was. Shit. Is this what it’s like to be Cas? To feel everyone’s reactions to everything that happens bouncing back at you, all the time?

“I used to,” he says. “I used to make Sammy — whatever I could think of, with a few dollars and a microwave. The shit I put in Easy Mac.”

“He liked it with Lucky Charms,” Cas points out, placid, because Cas knows these things.

Dean snorts. No wonder the kid turned out a salad fiend. “Gotta try that one on Jack.”

Cas’s face creases in a smile. “He likes having you back.”

Yeah. Dean watches Cas, and feels something warm unfurl inside him. It’s not Michael, he doesn’t think; it’s a fizzing hum, electric. It tingles down to his toes and curls fondly around his heart. Cas is still looking at him, blue eyes, and the thing is like a current between them.

Dean finds it suddenly hard to breathe. He looks down, trying to swallow past the nervous tightness in his throat.

His hands are moving on the keyboard of their own accord. The screen shows the login page of an online poker website.

“Damnit, Michael!” Dean jumps to his feet. The cursor on the login page is blinking. He leans forward in a swift motion and slams the laptop shut.

You were distracted, says Michael, sullen in his head.

“I was not —” Dean starts, then stops, because suddenly Cas is at his side, concern in the lines around his eyes.

“Dean,” he says, which makes that fucking internal shiver come back, shit, “is everything all right?”

His hand is on Dean’s arm. Dean’s intensely aware of the point of contact, all of a sudden. He’s intensely aware of the — whatever-it-is pouring off Cas, the thing he can sense now whenever Cas is around, the wanted-seen-cherished feeling that is no doubt just general angelic goodness, what Cas feels for everyone, except that Dean’s —

— bored out of his mind, and starved for company, and newly wired to actually experience that overwhelming rush of affection piped directly into his brain, and half of him wants to run from it and half of him wants to bask in it, to just grab Cas and say stay, stay. To just sit in that feeling until he can convince himself it’s truly his — until he can’t remember ever feeling anything else.

He’s just as bad an addict as Michael is. “Too much solitaire,” he grunts, “better take a break,” and flees.

---

Cas is gone in the morning.

As usual, no one says where he’s going, or why. Dean’s been checking his odometer, though, and it’s ticking up by five thousand miles or more every week — no wonder Cas looks so fucking exhausted every time he gets home. One week, there’s sagebrush stuck in his undercarriage; the next, a dry, curled up maple leaf caught in the space beneath his windshield wipers.

It’s not hard to draw conclusions, whether Dean means to or not. Cas is working systematically across the continent, covering as much ground as he can. He’s searching for something. And he’s Cas, so that probably means he’s searching for a hit on angel radio.

Dean’s pretty sure he’d have known if Michael and his newly imported army had made a move, but this confirms it: they’ve gone off the grid, and Cas is trying to find them.

“We could help,” he tells the Michael in his head, feeling shitty and sullen that afternoon. “You could get a bead on angel radio, even with your grace still recovering. Cas doesn’t have to do it alone.”

They don’t trust me, Michael answers, a little nastily. He’s feeling shitty today too, for no particular reason Dean can discern, but the music in his head that never seems to let up is angrier, faster, more like thumping feet. And who says I want to help?

“Hang on,” says Dean, sitting up sharply. “You said you would. You volunteered —”

Besides, Michael continues over him. I’m not the only one they don’t trust. The abomination could do it, too.

“The — hang on. Hang on. You don’t mean — Jack?”

“He is Lucifer’s offspring. With a human.” The tone in Michael’s — Dean’s — voice is disgust.

“He’s not a — he’s family.” Dean frowns. That’s how it is, and if Michael feels any different, he’s going to have to just fucking deal.

He knows he is an abomination. It torments him.

That’s too stupid to merit a reply. “Lucifer stole Jack’s grace,” Dean points out instead. “He can’t hear angel radio anymore.”

He heard you just fine, that night after the werewolf hunt.

Goddamnit. Dean would have thought having an archangel on his shoulder would feel a little less like having a devil; he should have known. “That’s — angel radio?”

Michael’s disdain is palpable. ‘Angel radio’ is merely your name for a few of the vast and multitudinous ways we speak to each other that do not reach your ears. ‘Telepathy’ is another. Both are far too simple. We speak in a shiver on the air, in the wavering of distant starlight, in the dance of bees. We speak in the roar of oceans. In the old days an angel might speak to a human he held in regard by painting the clouded sky; the man would sit and watch for hours and seek to understand, for in those days —

He breaks off, abruptly, into stony silence. Dean waits, but Michael doesn’t continue.

“I thought angels weren’t supposed to hold humans in regard,” Dean says. “I thought that’s what leads to abominations.

The silence in his head stretches on. Dean waits. At last, when he’s nearly ready to give up on this whole fucking conversation, Michael says, suddenly, Lucifer’s the one who called them that.

Dean sits straight up. “And you think Jack’s an abomination because Lucifer said so?”

He is Lucifer’s offspring. He is an abomination twice over.

“Yeah, well, his dad stole his grace and tried to kill him, so I don’t think —”

“I keep telling you,” interrupts Michael, “he didn’t.” There’s a sensation of ruffling feathers. The — Jack-child has plenty of grace. It is rebuilding just like ours. If you opened your eyes, you would see.

And when Dean thinks about it, it’s true. There’s something about his awareness of Jack, about how he maps him in the bunker and feels the brush of his mind, and it’s — different from Sam, or from Mom and Bobby and the other hunters that have stopped by for intense, quiet conversations with Sam in the lab. It’s — more like Cas, but different again. He can sense it even now, an incandescent thrum suffusing the bunker’s halls.

Dean breathes in carefully, back out again.

Jack has power.

“So he’s — hiding it from us?” he ventures, already hating the answer.

The taste of Michael’s satisfaction is smugly cruel. I told you he was an abomination.

---

Jack isn’t in the library. He isn’t in Sam’s lab, either, which Dean ascertains by pounding on the door and yelling through it — he hasn’t forgotten the security protocols. Sam yells back that he hasn’t seen Jack in several hours, and so Dean turns down the corridor and back past his own room to the closed door of the one they’ve given to Jack.

He raises his fist to knock, but hesitates, his motion caught back by a will not his own.

Wait, says Michael. Look.

And his senses expand.

The door between them remains as solid as ever, but he can see Jack, suddenly, in his mind’s eye, drawn in golden light. He’s perched on the edge of his bed, hand outstretched, and the gold that is his power pours through his fingers, filling them to overflowing, light made flesh. He’s pointing at something small on the bedstand. A — pencil? The light streams from his fingers, flowing freely, and — makes it less than an inch into the air before hitting a wall.

It’s like some kind of invisible dam. The light surges and batters against it, but nothing gets through, merely froths and churns and builds. Jack is holding his breath, gritting his teeth, straining harder, and —

Nothing. Abruptly, the flow of light breaks off; it ebbs back into Jack’s body as he wrenches himself back, breathing hard, half a sob catching in his throat.

Dean’s not waiting any longer. He turns the doorknob softly, ignoring Michael’s protestation, and peers inside and says, quietly, “Jack?”

Jack’s eyes widen with sudden panic. He sits bolt upright, reaches as if to hide the pencil, then stops, apparently realizing that hiding things looks far more suspicious than having a pencil in the first place. He freezes, eyes on Dean’s face.

Michael is curled up tight with anxiety. Dean ignores him. “Hey, kid,” he says. “Mind if I come in?”

Jack hesitates, then shakes his head stiffly no.

Dean makes his way over to the bed, closing the door behind him. He sits on the edge, and looks at the pencil, and says, “So your powers are back.”

Jack’s shoulders hunch a degree higher. “They’re not back if I can’t do anything with them.”

His voice is soft and wounded. He looks so fucking miserable that Dean thinks maybe he’s been missing it, all these weeks; that Jack’s surface-level unhappiness is just the best mask he can plaster over the deep pit of self-loathing beneath.

Hey,” he says. “Hey. What’s wrong?”

He can feel Jack’s misery writhe in his chest. “I can’t do anything,” he says. “In apocalypse world, I was — at least I was useful. I could fight Michael’s armies. I could kill them. I could — make the children happy. But then — after L-Lucifer was gone, I thought —”

He breaks off. When he speaks again, it’s in their minds only. I thought I’d like being human.

He sucks in a shuddering breath, and closes his eyes. His chest rises and falls; there are tears on his cheeks.

He says, I thought — at least I wasn’t his anymore. At least there was nothing of him left in me.

Only it turns out there is. The cruelty of it twists at Dean’s heart. He thinks of Sam — I’ve got demon blood in me, Dean! I’m a whole new level of freak! — and doesn’t know what the fuck to say.

So it surprises him when his mouth is moving, and Michael is saying out loud with it, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Jack’s head whips up; he stares, eyes wounded. They meet Dean’s, and Dean slams Michael forcefully out of his mouth, his eyes, the muscles of his face. “What the fuck?”

Your grace isn’t Lucifer’s, says Michael, scornful, in their heads. Your grace is our Father’s. It flows from his love. Lucifer merely bore it; now he has passed it to you. Only you determine how you use it.

“I’ve used it to kill people, though,” Jack breathes. “I’ve used it to do wrong.

On purpose?

“No, it was an accident, but I — I killed someone. A security guard. I didn’t mean to —”

One person? Michael’s incredulity is palpable. Have you ever heard of Admah? Zeboim?

Jack sniffs, and shakes his head no.

Of course you haven’t. They don’t exist anymore. They were cities, near Sodom and Gomorrah. It was the first ever mass smiting; our aim wasn’t as good as we thought it would be.

“You — destroyed them?”

Utterly.

Jesus fucking Christ. “I’m not sure that should make anyone feel better,” Dean breaks in, “but Michael’s right, Jack. You’re not evil, and neither are your powers.”

Jack sighs. He looks down at the floor, and there’s a softness in the set of his lower lip, a jutting out of his chin. He says, in a small voice, “I still can’t use them.”

“Yeah, well, you and me both,” says Dean. “You think I know how to use this archangel shit? I’m flying blind here, kid. Maybe we can figure it out together.”

Jack looks up, and the hope in his eyes is almost painful to look at. “Do you think so?”

“Yeah.” A thought occurs to him. “Just — maybe outside somewhere. The amount of power you’re pouring at that thing, I’m not sure I want to see what happens if you break through the wall.”

For a moment, he’s afraid he’s frozen Jack in place. That his face will turn down again, his shoulders hunch.

Then — instead — a smile breaks across his face like the dawn.

“You can see that?” he asks eagerly. “Can you show me how?”

Dean has no fucking clue. In his head, Michael huffs a vague, grudging assent.

That’s good enough for Dean. He says, “We’ll do our best.”

---

And so they find a clearing in the woods above the bunker and get to work levitating twigs.

At first, Dean’s the only one with any degree of success. It still takes him the better part of a day to convince the first oak leaf to flutter half-heartedly over onto its other side. Even then, he’s not at all convinced it isn’t the wind except that Jack, who’s been listening carefully to Michael’s instructions on seeing his grace at work, leaps to his feet and shouts, “You did it!”, and he’s so excited that Dean can’t help but believe him.

From there, he progresses up to twigs, and branches, and limbs, until by the end of the second day he’s got half a forest’s worth of logs hovering in the air around him. He’s pretty sure Michael could have managed all of this in a breath, but Michael’s not very interested in taking the driver’s seat, and after his last experience, Dean’s perfectly on board with having his archangel ridealong firmly ensconced in shotgun.

He’s not as good at letting them down gently as he is at picking them up, and after a near miss with knocking Jack on his ass, Michael declares, “All right. Your turn, spawn of Lucifer.”

Dean winces. Jack doesn’t — Michael’s been calling him that all week, and he seems to be immured to it. Instead he cocks his head and asks, “Why do you speak out loud sometimes?”

Dean feels Michael stiffen. He’s pulling back, withdrawing inward, and Dean pokes him without thinking. Hey. Answer his question.

Michael hesitates. It is —

With sounds!

He feels the storm of anxiety go off like a tiny, well contained bomb. Michael swallows with his throat and says, out loud, “It is customary for angels to speak with every available frequency. From the vibrations of the atoms up through the wind and the weather and the sky. When one is in a human vessel, it feels unnatural not to use the vocal cords at one’s disposal, as well.”

Dean blinks. Jack voices his thoughts: “So why don’t you?”

“Because,” says Michael, in tight, clipped tones, “I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs. We’re done for the day.”

He retreats from the controls so quickly that Dean’s jaw hangs open for an instant before he remembers to take back over his facial muscles; he narrowly misses drooling. Michael is already curled tight and uncommunicative inside him, shrouding himself in a wall of music; it’s fast, frustrated, clipped as short as his words.

Dean shrugs, and helps Jack extract his jacket from under a fallen log.

They play solitaire for hours that night. Michael stays all but unresponsive until nearly five games in, when he breaks into Dean’s thoughts with a No, you idiot, don’t deal again until you’ve moved the seven!, and when Dean snaps back, If you’re such an expert, you do it, and Michael relents.

The music has changed again, dark and moody and introspective. It swells and quails and swells again, and occasionally Dean catches something like words — the flame, the sword — but every time he does, Michael seems to notice too, and the lyrics vanish down to some deeper channel of consciousness, out of reach.

They play thirty games, and win only four of them, even though Michael keeps backtracking in search of alternate scenarios for each hand. When they finally go to sleep, the music echoes through Dean’s dreams, and he wakes feeling tense and headachy and not disinclined to go back to bed for another five hours, but Michael tells him shortly, back to work, and they go.

For the rest of the week, Michael turns his focus to Jack. Dean, he decrees, should focus on his sensory perception — gathering the tangled threads of grace-awareness that drift over the world and sorting them, learning how to pay attention to each in turn, how to find what he wants. It will be difficult, with your limited mental capacity, Michael tells him, but try, and he turns his attention to Jack.

So Dean sits and sweats and senses. He discovers fairly quickly how to watch the threads of Jack’s power again, like Michael showed him before, and then moves on to other things: the pathways of earthworms in the soil below his feet, the green fire of photosynthesis glimmering in the trees. He traces the movements of the air, a passing bird, the architecture of its wing. He spreads his awareness across the cornfields, finds their kernels growing and ripening, Haskins creaking on his back porch with his Bible and his bottle of gin. He finds the river, sluggish and more polluted than he’d like to think about, and he finds Sam in his lab in the bunker, on the phone with — Cas, he knows it’s Cas somehow, but he pulls back his awareness before he can start eavesdropping on their conversation.

The sense of them leaves him with a pang in his gut. He sighs, and steadies himself, and returns his attention to nitrogen molecules.

He spends three days like that, and Jack’s power continues to yield nothing.

Dean can sense his growing frustration; it would be obvious even without Michael’s grace. The kid is sweating and scowling, and the knot of self-hatred inside him is growing once more, an urge to beat himself again and again in the chest. You couldn’t protect them, you let them die, and you’ll let Sam and Dean and Castiel die too, you’re good for nothing, you can’t even roll a twig over, you —

Dean watches the power pour from his hand. It beats, as always, against an invisible wall.

“Hey,” he says, out loud, without thinking. “Maybe stop focusing on you making it roll over, and instead just on — it rolling over.”

It sounds stupid, coming out of his mouth like that. Jack gives him a look that even on Jack can only be described as withering, turns back to the twig in question, and —

— the clearing blows up.

There’s wood and dust flying through the air, leaves, limbs, the carcass of a stunned bird caught dead on the wing. Jack yells, and Michael shrills like a dozen violins, and it’s sheer instinct that has Dean throwing up a shield, ducking down and hiding his face, and then there’s silence, and he slowly looks around.

There’s an ash tree on the ground in front of him. If he hadn’t defended himself, he’d have been impaled on its splintered end.

It’s a damn good thing they didn’t try this in the bunker.

The clearing — it’s more of a blast zone now than a clearing, extending a hundred yards in every direction — is deadly quiet. He can see the life wavering and fading in the trees around him, can sense the stillness in the soil.

Jack is standing dead center, with wind-ruffled hair and a shocked expression. “I,” he says faintly, “I’m so sorry.”

Dean opens his mouth, and discovers immediately he has no idea what to say.

But Michael does. “All right,” he says, and he’s as calm as Dean thinks he’s ever felt him, no tension running through Dean’s muscles, no music in his head. “Let’s start learning how to put things back together.”

---

They work late into the night.

It soon emerges that while Dean might be better at identifying what splintered log goes with which splintered stump and floating it into position, Jack is far superior at knitting xylem and phloem together, at coaxing the fire back into the tree’s living wood, laying his hands on its healing trunk until the leaves themselves burn green in the growing gloom and the whole tree crackles with life.

When the trees are reassembled, they turn their attention to the animals, and suddenly the tables are turned. Jack can strain and sweat as much as he wishes; he can heal a wounded wing or fill a chipmunk’s blood with life-giving iron, but he can’t bring life back to what is dead.

But Dean’s carrying archangel grace, pure and undiluted, and he can.

It’s a terrifying power, dizzying in its immensity. He lays a hand on the ground, and the soil stirs with life, isopods and earthworms and tiny nematodes resuming their duties of decomposition. He lets the power run through him until the earth feels as alive as it did before, then sees the little crushed bird at his feet, blood caked on its black-and-yellow plumage.

He picks it up, runs one finger over its head. Its tiny claws curl against his palm, and an instant later, it’s flitting free of his hand. It alights on a newly restored perch and begins to sing, disoriented, despite the hour of the night.

Dean’s reeling, overawed. He did that.

He has to sit down.

There’s a voice somewhere distant in his head, angry, insistent. What is that voice? Stupid, it’s saying, and not enough power and you don’t screw around with resurrections, you’ll drain your vessel dry, but it’s not important. None of it is important, and there’s something else in the bushes over there, a squirrel maybe, or — Dean struggles to rise, crawls toward the little body on the ground —

— and Michael slams into him, body and soul.

STUPID,” he roars, reeling back to grip his own knees, white-knuckled. His skin is pale and papery-looking, are those his hands? Dean’s out of control, riding reinsless on the back of his own mind, and Michael has his arms, has his legs, has his tongue. “You’re killing yourself!” he shouts. “You’re using your own life to bring them back, and you’re going to leave me to explain why I’m giving them back an empty vessel, you absolute fucking idiot!

You, Dean manages hazily. You let me try —

“So you would know how it works. Not so you would DIE!

“Dean.” Jack’s hands are on his shoulders, voice frantic. “Dean, are you all right?”

I’m, Dean tries, but he doesn’t have control of his mouth, he doesn’t have control of his mouth, and those four weeks are rushing back to him, he’s done it again, he’s lost, how did he regain control before, how the fuck did he ever kick something like Michael out —

“If I let you back in,” snaps Michael, “do you promise not to try to resurrect any more chipmunks?”

I, Dean thinks hazily. I promise.

And suddenly he’s himself.

He feels awful. Weak and waxy and limp; he tries to lift a reassuring hand to Jack’s shoulder, and it feels as if it weighs a thousand tons. Inside him, Michael is seething, beyond music, beyond words.

“I’ll get you home,” Jack is saying, tear-streaked. “I’ll get you home, Dean, I’m so sorry —”

Not your fault, says Dean, and he forgets to use his mouth but Jack seems to get it. Thanks, he adds belatedly, and then he’s floating, leaving the ground, cradled on a gentle cushion of air, and he should probably be glad Jack hasn’t blown anything up this time, but he’s too tired for thoughts that complex.

He passes out before they reach the bunker.

---

Dean wakes up some sixteen hours later to a pounding in his head and the faint awareness that Cas has been in his room.

There are voices floating down from the kitchen, Cas and Jack and Sam, and their presence feels like a warm tether to the world. He sits up, ignoring the spike in pain from his head, and downs the glass of water he finds on the nightstand, then stumbles into a pair of jeans and a flannel and out his bedroom door.

He’s met in the kitchen by three pairs of eyes studying him, sharp and silent.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean says, weakly.

“Hello, Dean.” Cas speaks stiffly, and in it Dean can read fear and relief and worry, happiness too, stress. He’s gotten so much better at reading graces, just in the last week; Cas’s shimmers silver and fainter than Jack’s, coiled efficiently in the muscles of his hands.

It’s not only in his hands, though. It’s also in his wings, spread wide and glimmering like a constellation, and Dean realizes suddenly that he doesn’t do that, and neither does Jack — they both could, but neither of them has learned yet the practice of keeping their awareness thrown wide, their hearts beating to the time of those they love.

You can, Michael reminds him. That’s what you were doing yesterday. Castiel has more practice.

He’s being quiet today, the sad, pretty thread of a song weaving through his consciousness like a lullaby. He recedes again, leaving Dean to face his family alone.

Dean swallows. “Listen,” he says, “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

For a moment, no one speaks. Then Sam clears his throat and says, “We’re just glad you’re okay.”

Jack nods, and Dean feels him take a grace-inventory, rough and clumsy compared to Cas’s instantaneous assessment. Then Sam says, “We should, uh,” and of course; they’re talking business, and Dean can’t be there. Of fucking course.

They’re worried, supplies Michael. About more than you.

Dean looks again.

And he sees what he didn’t before. This isn’t just the tension of his own stupidity and its aftermath, and Cas isn’t just home from his regularly scheduled rounds. He’d be in bed if he were — he looks exhausted — or else watching Dean sleep like a creepy angelic baby monitor. Instead, he’s got a cup of coffee in his hand, and he’s rising with Sam and Jack, an apology in his eyes.

“Uh,” says Dean as they file past him, off balance. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“We will,” says Sam softly, and Jack gives him an earnest nod, and Cas lingers for a moment, reaches out to grip his shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re all right, Dean,” he says, and takes another step, but he doesn’t let go, just bumps their shoulders together, and his fingers dig briefly into Dean’s knotted muscle, hard. Then he’s moving again, and Dean’s scrambling for something to say, and then there’s a crash from the map room and Sam’s voice shouting “ Cas!” and they’re both running, Dean hot on Cas’s heels, and they pull up short at the foot of the stairs.

Sam is standing on the mezzanine with his angel blade drawn, half crouched over something on the floor. Jack is a few steps below, his right hand out and ready. Cas lurches for the stairs, and Dean follows, security protocols be damned.

The bunker door is gaping open. Sprawled past it, in a mocking mirror of Dean’s own entrance six weeks ago, is the bloody, gasping body of yet another fallen angel.

Her ice-blonde hair is dark with blood. Her face still looks like she’s smiling at a secret joke. There’s a deep, gruesome gash at the base of her throat, carved down in a triangle between her collarbones. She’s breathing, barely, in pained, fluttering gasps.

“Michael sends his regards,” Naomi says.

Chapter Text

“He’s taken Heaven.”

The first words out of Sam’s mouth aren’t a question.

“He’s taken Heaven,” Naomi sighs, like unleashing the knowledge frees her of a great weight. “I’m sorry. I did my best.”

Jack is moving closer, reaching out. “Here, I can,” he says, and Dean sees him go to lift her with hands and grace together.

He gets her halfway upright. Then Naomi says, “No. Let me lie,” and fixes her gaze on him, and whatever passes between them, a moment later Jack is lowering her slowly, gently, until she rests again on the floor, half-upright now, head lolling against the wall.

“You were betrayed?” Sam asks. He’s lowered his angel blade, but it’s still in his hand.

“Yes,” Naomi breathes.

“By Anael?”

“Yes.”

“What are our losses?”

Her head lolls farther. “Only me. The others are imprisoned, as best I know.”

Sam nods, the muscles of his throat tight. “Michael has a message for us.”

Naomi smiles thinly. For a moment, she looks utterly like herself, as if her sternum isn’t split nearly in two and gaping open to the air. “Sic semper rebellis.

Sam huffs out a brief, humorless laugh. “Bastard.”

“Yes.” Naomi turns her head with difficulty, and lays her eyes on Dean. She rests them there, considering. “You die a lot. It never seems to stick.”

Dean clenches his jaw. “I’m stubborn like that.”

“You found him, I see.”

Inside him, Michael is still, as still as a wild animal trying to pass undetected under a predator’s gaze. Before Dean can muster an answer, Cas moves a half step to the right on the stairs, blocking his view of Naomi entirely, and hers of him.

“Castiel,” she breathes, a smile, a caress in her voice, and Dean realizes suddenly what’s wrong — so deeply wrong that he almost failed to understand.

She’s being kept alive by only the barest sliver of a grace. The rest is gone — ripped roughly from her chest. The meager flame that remains is already guttering, giving way.

“Naomi.” Cas’s voice is cold. “This is not your concern.”

“Nothing is my concern,” she sighs, like it’s some kind of bittersweet rapture. “I’m dying, Castiel.”

Cas’s body tenses, shoulderblades shifting at Dean’s eye level. But it’s Jack who says, “No — no, we can fix you. You’ll be all right —”

“You can do nothing, nephilim,” says Naomi, softly. “My grace is gone; I will not live as a human. My choice is made. All you can do is —” she takes a labored breath — “give me a swift death.”

No one moves.

“But then,” Naomi exhales into the silence, “I believe that is Castiel’s right.”

In front of Dean, Cas goes deathly still.

And Dean doesn’t need Michael’s grace to understand. I’m the one that kills you, he told Azazel once, you look into my eyes, you son of a bitch, because I’m the one that kills you.

That was revenge. This isn’t.

This is mercy, and it’s too much to ask. Too much to give.

“If you want to watch me drown slowly in my own blood,” Naomi whispers, “that, too, is your right.”

Cas still doesn’t move.

It doesn’t matter, though, because it isn’t a right, it’s a burden, and it’s not one Cas needs to bear. Dean shoulders past him before he can object, stops sharply at Sam’s elbow, looking down at Naomi. “Do you need anything else from her?”

For a moment, he thinks Sam’s going to stop him. Dean isn’t supposed to be here at all; he isn’t supposed to know any of this. But Sam’s eyes travel his face, and his throat bobs, and he says, “No,” quietly, and steps back and out of Dean’s way.

Naomi is watching him steadily. “I knew you would return,” she breathes, so softly even Michael’s grace can barely hear. “I knew we would be saved —”

Their response is simultaneous, immediate, and absolute. Dean reaches out as Michael offers the thread of power up to him; it’s there on his skin as he lays his palm on Naomi’s forehead. It takes only an instant. Naomi’s neck arches; her eyes and mouth flare with the briefest spark of white light. And then she’s slumped, a lifeless corpse, on the floor.

Dean turns around. Michael subsides into place inside him, holding his power at the ready. All eyes are on him. No one moves.

He squares his jaw. They’ve waited long enough.

“I think we’re on the team now,” he says.

---

Two hours later, they’re preparing for an all-out assault on Heaven.

The plan, Dean learns, is already in place. While Cas searched the continent for the heavenly host, Sam and the rest of their allies have been preparing for his success or failure in equal measure: a preemptive strike if they find Michael before he makes his move, a retaliatory one if he takes Heaven first.

They’ve expected all along that the gates would not stand. Sam and Naomi have been communicating in secret for weeks, exchanging battle plans and information, assessing the likelihood of Anael’s treachery — if not for Heaven’s desperate dearth of angels, Naomi would have cast her out — and laying the framework of a response to Michael’s assault. The handful of remaining angels were to surrender peacefully; Naomi alone was to offer herself as the last resistance, the final line in the sand.

It’s gone exactly as they intended it to go. Your brother is a fine commander, Michael comments. He did what I would have done.

You destroyed cities by accident, Dean reminds him, but there’s no barb in it; he agrees. Sammy’s got his shit together here.

“What we didn’t know,” says Sam, “is whether we would have any archangel or nephilim firepower to draw on. It looks like we do.”

He looks at both of them as he says it, Dean and then Jack, eyebrows raised in a question. Cas’s eyes are on him too, steady. “Yeah,” says Dean, his throat unexpectedly dry.

Jack lifts his chin. His mouth curves a little as he says, “I’m in.”

“All right.” Sam moves forward smoothly, spreading an aerial photo of the playground across the map table. He weights its corners with books, and points to the sandbox with its sigil. “To the best of our knowledge, this remains the only way in or out of Heaven, and it remains inaccessible to any but angels and their possessed vessels. We don’t know if that includes nephilim, but we’d rather not risk it.”

It doesn’t, supplies Michael.

Neither Cas nor Jack react to his pronouncement; for Dean’s ears only, then. Dean hesitates, then clears his throat. “Michael, uh. Michael says it doesn’t include nephilim.”

Nephilim are intrinsically human. It is why they are so powerful, and so feared. Fortunately, the few nephilim who survived to adulthood have never betrayed anything more than trivial human aspirations. Until now.

Dean ignores the dig. “He says they’re — mostly human.”

“All right.” Sam nods. “Either way. Our goal is to draw Michael’s forces out and flank them: humans from outside the gates, and angels from within. The gate at the sandbox is narrow enough that we hope to be able to pick them off, from both sides, a few at a time.”

Dean frowns. “What’s to make them come out in the first place? And how are Cas and I supposed to get behind them? They’ve got to be guarding the gate.”

“You’ll have a narrow window,” Sam agrees. “We need to dispatch the sentries before they have the time to call for backup; then you and Cas will enter the portal. Naomi made a place for you to hide just inside it — something that wouldn’t have existed in the Heaven from their world, so they shouldn’t be looking for it. My understanding is that it’s essentially a doubling over of the Axis Mundi, but it may present as a — closet, or a trapdoor.”

“Okay,” Dean agrees. “Kill the sentries, hop in the portal, hide in a closet until whoever comes to respond is past. But if I were Michael — other Michael — I wouldn’t send my entire army just to investigate a disturbance at the gate.”

Sam smiles thinly. But it’s Cas who says, “He won’t. Sam and Rowena have been working on a summoning spell for angels — one that builds on Metatron’s sigil. It will act essentially as a magnet, drawing all of Michael’s armies down to the gate, whether they want to come or not.”

“But — hang on.” Dean shakes his head. “If it grabs all the angels, won’t it also grab us?”

“No. It won’t.” Sam’s eyes are red-lidded, in that way they get after long hours of research, and his cheekbones look sharper than they used to, but his voice is steady and clear. “It doesn’t work on archangels. And it doesn’t work on angels whose wings have been clipped — if they’re unable to teleport, they’re unable to answer the summoning.”

“So, none of this world’s angels,” Dean says, just to confirm.

“That’s right. Which is why you and Cas will need to make your way to Heaven’s prison, free Dumah and the others, and return to join the fight.”

Jesus fucking Christ. They’re really going all out with this. If it goes as planned, he and Cas will need to fight their way through Michael’s entire fucking army to get back out. No escape but through victory.

Something else occurs to him. “Hang on. You said all of the angels with wings will get drawn down to the gates, except archangels. So — other Michael won’t be. He could be anywhere.”

Sam and Cas are looking at him steadily. Jack, at least, has the decency to look a little troubled.

Anger, hot and boiling, expands to fill Dean’s chest. “You were gonna let Cas face him down alone. If I wasn’t ready. A fucking archangel.

Cas has his eyebrows drawn together, face serious. His grace laps at the edges of Dean’s consciousness like a lake ruffled by the slightest breeze. “It was our only choice, Dean.”

Only choice. Right. “And were you gonna tell me anything before you went off on a fucking suicide mission?”

It snaps out of him, raw and furious, catching harsh on the cords of his throat, and Cas’s chin jerks up. For a moment, he only stares, then says, “Dean, I —”

Dean’s gut lurches. He didn’t mean that quite the — not quite the way it sounded, and he’s suddenly aware that he’s being a giant fucking asshole. Cas is trying to save the world, here, and Dean’s just been twiddling his thumbs on the sidelines. “Forget it,” he says roughly. “I’m sorry.”

Cas keeps staring. He responds, not out loud, but with a gentle probing thought, a brush of feathers: Dean?

Dean clamps down on whatever the fuck it is he’s broadcasting for Cas to hear. He looks at Sam, then at Jack. “All right. What else do we need to know?”

---

Jody and Donna meet them in Omaha, with a dozen hunters and Claire in tow — the look on Jody’s face says you try keeping her away from a chance to save the world . An even larger force is waiting in Peoria: Bobby and Mom, Maggie, and nearly fifty more hunters, refugees and locals alike. Even Cesar and Jesse are there, with a handful of hard-faced men and women with sun-dark skin and weapons they handle with the ease of long familiarity.

Ketch, Charlie, and Rowena are the last to arrive. Ketch is looking beleaguered, with the traces of a black eye fading on his face; his efforts overseas have been apparently unsuccessful.

Still, all told, their force is over seventy strong. It’s the largest collection of hunters Dean’s ever seen.

“Armed with angel-killing bullets, the lot of them,” reports Bobby. “If you can get ‘em in front of us, we can make things happen.”

No one’s sure exactly how many angels made it over from apocalypse world, but Bobby guesses it’s around a hundred. He doesn’t think there were too many more left — there was plenty of infighting, he reports, between factions that disagreed with Michael’s approach to the Apocalypse, and Jack did a number on those that remained. The odds are steep, but not insurmountable. Especially with an — admittedly shaky — archangel and nephilim on the field.

They converge on the playground in utter silence: Jody leading the right flank, Mary the left, Sam the center. Dean can sense the sentries — two of them — prickling at the edges of his grace-awareness when Cas raises his hand for a halt.

He meets Dean’s eyes. Dean nods, and palms his angel blade. Cas rests a hand on Jack’s shoulder.

Three, mouths Cas, two, one

Blink.

His wings work easily with Michael’s help. The landscape melts around him, trees to trees; there’s a slide on his right, and a man in an ill-fitting suit with wings he barely bothers to spread two paces before him. Dean takes them, one, two, and claps a hand on the angel’s mouth as he slides his blade home.

Across the playground there comes a matching flare: Cas, flown into position by Jack, knifing the other sentry. And then the humans are streaming out of the trees, Sam is yelling, “Go, go!” and Cas is running for the portal. “Dean!” he shouts, extending his hand, and Dean —

— can see the silver of exploded grace on his palm. It shines in the creases there; it stains. There’s an angel dead at his feet there’s a vessel dead at his feet and there’s grace everywhere, running ribbons down the gutters, in handprints on the bars of the Cage, grace and blood and grace and Lucifer’s smile —

Dean!

He tries to move. He stumbles. The sandbox swims in his vision, stained with blood.

Heaven is beyond that gate. Heaven with its smooth white halls and its faces, familiar yet unfamiliar still; Heaven with its catacombs of souls, with its billions of slivers of perfection, paradise as seen through an infinite compound eye — Heaven with Adam

A pain rips through Dean’s abdomen, knife-edged and crippling; he doubles over, seeing stars. Michael fists his nerve endings tight and cries, NO.

There are tears on his face. He’s gasping, shaking, knees digging into the grass. And Jack is at his side now, saying, “Dean!” and Sam is yelling, “Cas, you have to go! ” and Cas is speaking too, not in Dean’s ears but his heart — Dean? It’s all right, Dean. Help them at the gate, if you can. I’ll be fine.

And then there’s a flash of light, of dust, and he’s gone, and the knot of terror that is Michael crumples to boneless relief.

Dean heaves in a great breath and rolls flat on his back, gasping like a fish.

“Dean,” Jack’s babbling, “Dean, please —”

“I’m all right,” Dean groans, because he is. Michael’s not tearing up his insides anymore; he’s barely there at all, plummeting instead so deep inside that his awareness, his presence, is a mere thread of a whisper tickling faintly at the furthest reaches of Dean’s mind. It’s like being in that pine forest all over again, with Michael melting away as though he was never there. Dean sits up.

Sam and Rowena are already circling the sandbox, already leaning over to etch new lines in the design. Rowena chants rhythmically, kneading purple-flamed power through the air, and then Sam’s joining her, a deep-voiced Latin counterpart to her spell. The hunters form ranks surrounding them, ten healthy paces back, their guns at the ready.

Cas is inside that gate somewhere. Cas, and the hostile armies of Heaven.

Dean? The voice is faint in his head, a tendril stretched to breaking. I can still sense you, Dean. I’m safe. I can — keep you updated, if you wish.

Please, Dean thinks, as loudly as he can, relief washing over him. And then it’s there in his head, the faint sense of being tucked away: a secret place, a hiding place, as running feet sound in the world outside, and beating wings.

VENITE!” Sam cries, and Rowena’s voice joins his. “Venite, omnia! Venite!”

And the sky rumbles.

Dean feels the crack of it through Cas’s hiding place, through the earth, through the heavens. He hears distant shouts, the whip of wings, and the first angel tumbles from the portal, and Sam strikes it down with a single blow.

Jack is yelling in Dean’s ear. “I need to help!” he says. “Are you —?”

Dean nods. “I’m fine!” he tries to shout, though he can’t hear his own voice; the world is thundering, shaking. Cas is moving again, running through hallways that flash white and twinge at the Michael-consciousness somewhere deep inside him; Dean ignores it and levers himself to his feet. Lightning flashes across the sky.

Sam and Rowena stumble back into the ranks of the gathered hunters, flinching away from the noise. Another angel comes tearing into view, eyes glowing white, hand raised. Jody lifts her gun, fires.

The angel drops. The portal swells, purple and blue-silver, and Dean can hear voices shouting from inside; or is that from Cas’s end? No — it’s his own, Cas’s hallways are still empty, he’s dropping deeper through the labyrinth of Heaven, and Sam’s yelling, “Like we thought. They’re organizing now — be ready!”

The next second, there’s a percussive blast that knocks everyone but Dean and Jack into the dirt.

Jack yells; Dean sways. And then Jack’s lifting a hand, and there’s gold energy pulsing out of him, a shield; hunters struggle back to their feet, blood flowing from their noses, their ears, and Sam’s face is bloody, too, but he lifts his gun and he fires.

His bullet strikes true. The angel flares, and dies, but his distraction has bought time. There are four of them now, in diamond formation on the sand, and one of them is reaching to scratch out Rowena’s symbols, to cancel the spell —

Jack screams, and leans into his power.

The angel stops dead, fighting against invisible bonds. The others take advantage of Jack’s distraction, twisting free; the first to succeed points, shouts, and Donna grabs Claire and dives out of the way.

The blast takes out two oak trees, uprooted and skidding through the grass. And Dean’s running, because he’s not sure he can help Jack — not sure if he can access that much power, with Michael as far away as he is, never mind wield it — but he thinks he can help Claire.

He skids to his knees at her side. She’s limp and unconscious, Donna shaking her hysterically by the shoulders, and Dean reaches deep for Michael’s power — it comes grudgingly — extends his palm.

He’s still not as good at this as Jack was, when Michael taught them together. But he’s the one who’s here.

The blood on Claire’s face vanishes in an instant. The next, her eyes are flying open, gasping, and Donna’s looking up to meet his eyes with gratitude. “Are you —” Dean shouts, and he can’t hear her response, but her mouth forms the words, I’m fine, so he nods and leaps upright again.

There are more angels pouring from the portal. Jack’s straining to hold them, teeth gritted and eyes screwed tight, and he can’t smite them, not with all his energy focused like this; the humans are doing their best to fire through the dust, but there’s so much kicked up now, the wind howling, thunder tearing at the sky. Dean feels more than sees an angel break Jack’s grip, and he reaches deep inside, raises his own fist, and hurls a raw blast of power.

The angel staggers, falls. A moment later, Bobby is there, ramming a blade through its throat.

He gives Dean a swift nod. They fight on.

Dean loses track of how many angels pour through the portal, and how many fall. He’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back, maybe both of them; Michael’s power, without his help, answers Dean’s call like molasses. He grabs unshaped fistfuls to hurl into the fray, and half the time has to stagger out of the way before he can send them anywhere useful, grab the nearest weapon to hand and do what he can in the way he knows best. Once, knocked back into the grass, his palm finds a stray angel-blade-bullet by chance, and he fumbles desperately as hands close around his neck, mashes it directly into his attacker’s eye.

He pushes down with both thumbs; he feels squelching. Then the angel flares out, and Dean’s on his feet again, running to join the next fight.

Somewhere deep inside him, he feels Cas round a corner, and skid to a halt.

Their scant angel allies are arrayed behind the bars, Dumah at their center, face pale and drawn. But they aren’t alone. Before them stands Sister Jo, a smile on her face, angel blade bare and ready in her palm.

“Castiel,” she says, quietly.

“Anael.” Cas steps forward. “Let me pass.”

She takes a sharp step backward, but in it, she raises her blade, ready to thrust overhand, aiming straight at Cas’s heart. “I don’t think so.”

Cas stops dead. His eyes are slow on her face; his heart is a storm. “They must be fools,” he says softly, “to trust one who has so often bitten the hand that feeds her.”

She barks out a laugh, easing back further, muscles tense. “Trust me? They don’t trust me, Castiel. They think me wingless scum like the rest of these fools. But they know me — they know whose side I’m on.”

“And whose is that?” Cas is tensing, readying his own blade; his voice is gravel, is thunder.

Heaven’s,” hisses, Anael, and strikes.

Dean lets out a yell of alarm, forgetting for a moment his own battle; an angel swings for his head. But Claire is there to stop her, with an angel blade to the heart. She gives Dean a cool nod, curls bouncing, and swings back to the fight, and Cas has deflected Anael’s blade too, has it knocked aside, her arm wrenched behind her back, his own blade to her throat —

A line of blood appears there, blood and grace. Anael flings her head back. “MICHAEL!” she cries.

Cas breathes in sharply. The gravel on the floor at his feet begins to tremble. Shadows flex on the walls. Dumah yells, sharply, “Castiel!”

And the next moment, all sound is lost, air crushed into stillness by the wings that clap over the room.

Michael steps from behind a pillar, cruelty glittering in the smile on his face.

He’s back in his old vessel, the one he wore before Dean. It’s restored, flawless, forbidding. His wings bloom black across the prison walls. His eyes are dark and terrible.

Dean never sees what happens. One moment, Cas is staring into Michael’s eyes, tensing his grip on Anael, digging the blade deeper into the hollow of her throat. The next, the thread of their connection is severed, drifting free and senseless as a wisp of wool on the air, and Dean has no eyes to look through but his own.

“No,” he breathes, sinking to the ground. “No, no, no.”

He can’t lose Cas. Not again. He can’t —

The battle is chaos around him, but it’s turning. Jack can hold five angels at a time, six, and though the hunters’ ranks have broken, though there are men and women on the ground and being dragged from the battlefield, the bodies of angels outnumber them. Sam is still upright and fighting, Jody and Mary at his back. Claire has an angel blade in each hand now, and whirls them through the air like scything claws, yelling, half-animal. Bobby and Donna stand back to back, each with a longarm to their shoulder, firing coolly at every angel who presents a clear shot. By the swings, Rowena is collapsed with blood on her dress, but still chanting; Charlie stands over her, a handgun in each hand, another holstered at the ready on her thigh.

The portal flares, and more angels pour out of it. Beneath their feet, the sigil is decaying. Dean struggles to find his feet. They need him — and if Cas is still alive, he needs him too —

The sky thunders once more. The trees themselves are trembling.

And then Michael steps through the portal and into the sand.

The chaos ceases as if every fighter is fallen under the swift and deathly pall of an unspoken spell. The teeming storm clouds melt away into nothing. The sky beyond them is black, black as night, though it can’t be, not yet; the firmament of stars is shrilling, faintly, screaming in what can only be pain. The world does not want to be wrenched apart as they have today; they’ve done a terrible thing, all of them, but in Michael’s hand is the most terrible sight of all.

He holds Cas high, face bloody, near-unrecognizable. It’s a pulp of flesh and bone and bruising skin, and his legs hang limp, like a doll’s.

“See what happens,” Michael breathes, in a voice that is mountains and planets, cold asteroids, dark roots of the growing grass, “to those who defy me.” And he lets Cas drop, a crumpled, heap, on the sand.

It’s not Dean who moves. He’s frozen, wordless, horrified beyond horror; the world is spinning apart beneath his feet. It’s Jack who’s running, shouting, “No!” and raising his hands, gathering a great pulse of light —

It’s not enough. He’s drained himself; Dean sees it. He knows it. And Michael’s raising a fist of his own, lightning crackling between his fingers, drawing back to hurl —

— and Dean dives, and feels the blow hit his chest, and then he feels nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Dean comes to with a groan and a vague impression of vaulted ceilings somewhere high in the darkness above him.

He blinks, once, twice. His vision blurs, black and white, and swims into hazy focus. He’s surrounded by bookshelves — towering above him, stacked with little black notebooks, lit soft-white from somewhere hidden, or probably nowhere at all.

He sits up. His whole body twinges from the effort. He scowls, rubs his eyes, and turns to see Billie standing behind him, scythe gleaming in her hand and a look of faint amusement — or maybe that’s abject loathing — on her face.

“Shit,” says Dean. “I died?”

Billie’s eyes travel slowly over his face. The corners of her lips tighten fractionally. “So it would seem.”

Dean struggles to find his feet, memory slamming back into him. He reaches for a shelf to claw himself up. “Cas — is Cas dead?”

Billie turns away, pacing toward her desk. “Castiel remains alive.” She drops her gloves softly onto its polished surface; the ring on her finger gleams. Her mouth looks like it has something sour in it. She leans toward him, splaying her fingers deliberately across the back of the chair at her desk. “I brought you here to talk.”

Dean reels slightly as he stands free of support, but he ignores it, moving quickly to follow. He doesn’t care about talking; he cares about Cas. “What happened?”

Billie’s fingers flex on the back of her chair. “It seems that Michael prefers to play with his food, given the opportunity. Fortunate for your angel friend; less fortunate for you.”

Cas is alive. Dean’s heart thunders. “Is he okay?”

Billie fixes him in her gaze like a pinned moth. She looks like she’s weighing the advantages of dismembering him and flinging the pieces wide across the Empty. She says, “I neither know nor care. There is another point we must discuss. That, not Castiel, is why you’re here.”

Dean opens his mouth. To say what, he isn’t sure; to beg for his passage back, to threaten, to distract her while he goes for the scythe — anything. You listen to me is on the tip of his tongue when he hears a noise behind him, a soft tread on the glossy floor, and turns.

Michael is wearing the guise of a young John Winchester. His face is taut, eyes narrowed. There’s a notebook held closed in his hand, spine pressed to his palm. He looks as he did when Dean first saw him, in 1978 — or no, he looks different still, because Michael then didn’t wear John Winchester’s expressions, and this Michael does. His uncertainty, his anger, his — innocence.

He looks so fucking young.

Michael’s hands are trembling. He presses his lips tight together. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says.

Dean turns to stare at Billie. This is beyond him; this is fucking above his pay grade. She straightens again, smoothing her hands over her coat where it brushes her hips.

“That,” she says, “is my point.”

---

“So,” says Dean, when a tense enough silence has passed. “Are you sending us back?”

Billie inclines her head toward him. She could annihilate cities with the tilt of her chin. She says, “You? Yes, I think so. Him — that is the question.”

Dean swallows, hard. Goddamnit. He can’t quite look at Michael.

It’s hard to believe that he’s about to go to bat for this fucker.

“Well, uh,” he says. “You said last time I had work to do, and you were right. I’ve got a job, and right now, I need him to do it.”

Billie regards him steadily. Behind him, he hears Michael shift slightly, foot to foot. Neither of them speaks.

Dean’s mouth feels dryer than Nevada. “So.” He tries to raise his eyebrows, demanding; it comes out as more of a wince. “We’d like the express ticket back, if it’s all the same to you.”

Nothing.

Billie’s still studying him, face sober. His skin shivers under her scrutiny. He wonders if the list of deaths on the shelves behind him includes blasted in the chest by an alternate universe dickwad.

“You know,” says Billie at last. “This? What’s happening now? That’s what I meant about an interdimensional house of cards, and a big dumb Winchester knocking it over.”

We didn’t —” Dean starts, but Billie lifts a hand toward him, a lazily elegant gesture, and his voice fails in his throat.

“Didn’t you?” She’s coming around her desk again, striding right for him, scythe still in her hand, and yeah, she said she would probably send him back, but — Dean swallows and stands his ground. “Who opened a portal? Who gave Michael — the other Michael — everything he needed to walk on through?”

Dean lifts his chin. He’s not going to apologize for what he had to do.

Billie stops mere inches away from him. This close, Dean can smell the strange perfume on her skin, dark and dizzying; can feel the heat of her body, heavy on the air. Shouldn’t Death be cold? His own muscles are quivering, swamped in a fear that has nothing to do with reason. He tries to lock it down — fails. Billie’s eyes travel over his face, his soul, over the anger and the determination and the weariness and the love, the years of grief —

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? That there are two of us.”

As if yanked from a spell, Dean turns.

He feels watery and weak, vision pale, unsteady. Michael’s chin is jutting out defiantly. He’s still holding the book against his chest.

Billie takes a step. Away from Dean, toward Michael. She’s — smiling.

“Hang on,” says Dean. “Hang on one second. If you’re saying —”

Billie says, simply, “Yes.”

Michael looks at her steadily. “Then you have your solution. If it’s my time —”

“The hell it is,” snaps Dean, “we had a deal —”

“I recall you saying much the same thing, the last time you were here,” Billie observes, but she’s not looking at Dean. She’s walking straight past him, straight toward Michael, where she’s going to — what? Send him on? To the fucking Empty?

But before he can stop her, before he can do something massively stupid like make a grab for the scythe, try to tackle fucking Death herself — she stops.

She taps the book in Michael’s hand with one perfectly lacquered fingernail. She asks, softly, “Is that what this says? That it's your time?”

For an instant, their gazes hold. For an instant, Dean is reminded that this is a being nearly as powerful as Death herself; that this is an archangel, the first among archangels, glorious and terrible and implacable, absolute.

Then Michael shakes his head no. His eyes are unreadable, every muscle tense. His hand is tight as a claw on the notebook, and it’s a moment before he releases it to Billie’s grasp, before Dean can read the words Michael, Archangel in silver lettering on the spine.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he says at last, again, the repeated phrase bursting out of him. “I’m not supposed to —”

“Yes,” says Billie calmly, “and that’s why I’m sending you back.”

She’s — what? Dean glances between them, confused, hardly daring to hope; but Michael’s not frozen anymore, he’s — fracturing, grabbing Billie’s wrist and face twisting in agony and demanding, “Why? I’m not one of your — this is all wrong. This book is a fate. My fate. I shouldn’t have —”

Billie only watches him, a terrible compassion in her eyes.

“It’s the only one. There’s only —” He breaks off.

“Isn’t that interesting,” Billie murmurs.

“Hang on,” Dean interrupts. He’s still feeling weak-kneed, but he steps forward anyway. “I’ve got shelves in here. You’re saying he’s only got one notebook? One fate?”

“Yes.” Billie turns to look at him, eyebrow raised, and he thinks for a moment, again, she’s going to squash him like a bug. Instead she says, “And usually, angels don’t have any. After all, a fate — any fate — is merely a shadow cast by free will. By choice. If there is one…” She trails off, turning to Michael again. “It’s because you put it there.”

Michael staggers backward. “I didn’t,” he says. “I didn’t —”

“Yes,” says Billie, “you did.”

No.” Michael’s shaking, gripping the shelves for balance. His face is slipping, a little, in his panic; for a moment it looks like Adam’s. “No, I — I was there when the levers of power were built . I was there before you were, reaper, and I’m telling you — this isn’t how it works. Angels don’t have souls, we don’t have fates, I shouldn’t be in your library at all —”

“Close,” Billie answers, turning on her heel to pace away again. She reaches a shelf, runs a finger over its surface, turns back. “But no. Angels do have souls, or at any rate, they could. They’re… vestigial.”

Dean shakes his head, hard. He feels like he has water in his ears. “You’re saying angels have — soul tailbones?”

Billie ignores him. “The architecture is there. Most of you simply don’t use it.”

“You speak of falling.” Michael’s voice is whisper-quiet, death-quiet.

She inclines her chin. “Souls do have a certain… gravity.”

“No. No, I haven’t — I wouldn’t. You’re wrong — there was a plan —”

“You’re not alone.” Billie is smiling, faintly, and Dean can’t tell if it’s from cruelty or kindness. “Lucifer experienced the same phenomenon; more recently, I believe, Castiel. If you’re —”

“I am not my brother,” snarls Michael, but for a moment he is, forms flicking over his face like a disjointed old movie reel; John, Adam, Lucifer, Cas, Dean —

“You are not,” answers Billie, quietly, “but you still have work to do,” and then they’re one again, and heaving a great desperate breath, and sitting bolt upright on the bunker’s library table with a single hammering heart and the shocked, worried faces of their family, all around.

---

Cas is okay.

“Cas,” says Dean, “you’re okay,” and reaches for him, and nearly falls off the table.

“Dean.” Cas catches him, one hand broad and sure under his left arm, the other gentle on his shoulder. His fingers curl around the nape of Dean’s neck, brushing the hair there, and the sensation is distracting; also the sensation of Cas’s warmth, his body and his grace, and he’s right there, close, so Dean presses his face against Cas’s stomach.

It’s sticky. His shirt is still matted with half-congealed blood.

Dean starts back with a small wounded noise he only realizes a moment later is from his own throat. “ Cas, ” he says, and cranes his neck to check Cas’s face again, but it’s free of blood, all the bones in the right place. His bloody shirt, though — a sudden, vivid image of Cas with a spear to the gut, black foam bubbling from his mouth — Dean paws at the already half-untucked tails, rucks up the fabric until he can see the skin of Cas’s belly, unmarred and warm-golden and smooth. His ribs feel nice under Dean’s fingers, gentle curves; in the slight dips between them, his skin is soft.

Dean slides his hand up further. There’s a heartbeat, strong and steady under Cas’s sternum.

Then another arm is looping around his back, his shoulders, taking his weight. “Hey, buddy,” Sam is saying in his ear, a shaky, relieved laugh in his voice, “all right there?”, and Jack is crouching next to Cas’s hip, which is where Dean’s line of vision is, to add, “Castiel is fine. He helped me heal him,” and a woman’s voice is saying, with cool interest, “Patients coming out of general anesthesia are often a little loopy. Have you seen this with temporary death before?”

Dean turns his head to see who’s talking, which brings it to rest against Cas’s stomach again. This time is okay, though, because his shirt is out of the way, just unbroken skin and the firm line of his hipbone. On the other side of the table, Alex is pulling a pair of gloves off her hands, pinching precisely at the wrists, her hair tied back in a bun. She’s facing toward Sam, talking to him, and Jody and Claire and Mom are clustered tight behind her. “You weren’t here before,” says Dean, indistinctly, because she wasn’t.

“I drove down after my shift. Figured you all might need some actual medical expertise, if you survived this shitshow,” Alex says. “Dean, I’m going to take your blood pressure in just a moment. Here, look at me.”

He is looking at her. She’s got something in her hand, lifting it, and then she shines a light in his eyes, swift and blinding, and he cringes away. “Good,” she says, “your pupils are responding normally. Track my finger, please.”

He doesn’t want to track her finger. He closes his eyes and tries to turn away, back into the warm certainty of Cas’s skin, but it’s Cas’s hand that tightens slightly at the back of his neck, Cas’s voice that says, “Dean,” so he opens his eyes again, and follows Alex’s finger as it moves.

It makes his head hurt a little. Everything is too bright; his eyes don’t want to go where he tells them. They do, though. And then Alex is strapping a pressure cuff around his arm, pressing a stethoscope to the inside of his elbow, pumping up the pressure.

There are voices talking, but Dean doesn’t think he needs to pay attention. He pays attention instead to Cas: to the warm rush of blood in his veins, the enveloping cloud of his wings, the relief tinged with love he’s wrapping around Dean like a blanket. Dean thinks he might be sending the same thing back. Michael is a quiet thread in his thoughts, unobtrusive, shell-shocked, and for just a moment, Dean lets himself forget about him entirely; lets himself focus on Cas, just Cas, all six-feet-however-many-dimensions living-breathing-humming-with-power of him.

“What happened?” he mumbles, remembering that he doesn’t know, when Alex unstraps the cuff and steps back away.

It’s a moment before anyone answers. It’s Sam who does, clearing his throat quickly before saying, “Nothing much after you — went out. The angels retreated, and so did we.”

Dean swallows. “Any —”

“We lost three hunters from Apocalypse world,” Mom says softly. “Injuries to plenty others, but they’ll all recover. Many of them thanks to Alex, and Jack.”

Dean turns his head again to look at the kid. He looks tired and drawn, with a weary, reserved sort of satisfaction hanging in the lines around his eyes.

“Strategically, it was a victory,” Jody supplies quietly. “We killed more of them than they did of us, and were able to avoid any key losses.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees Sam look away.

He should sit up properly, recollect his dignity, remember to be embarrassed that he’s got his hands shoved up Cas’s shirt and his face pressed to Cas’s skin, but he doesn’t want to. Maybe it changes your standards for pathetic, having a fucked-to-hell archangel humming broken little melodies in your head and pitching a cellular tantrum every time he gets scared. Maybe he’s just too grateful that Cas is still willing to touch him this way, to look at him, after Dean just about got him killed.

Because this is his fault. The failure of the mission; the dead hunters. He’s the one who lost it on the battlefield. Who wasn’t where he was supposed to be, couldn’t do what he was supposed to do. This is entirely his fucking fault.

His and Michael’s. He pokes savagely at the thing in his chest, and it hisses and recoils. Anger, like hot lead, pools in his gut.

He’s been distracting them from more important things long enough. He sits up stiffly, lets Cas’s bloody shirt fall back into place. He still can’t look at it. “I’ll be —” he says, and nods vaguely toward his room when the words don’t come.

No one moves. So Dean swings his own legs off the table, brushing Cas’s hands away; Sam’s already retreated half a step, but he comes forward as if to support Dean when he hesitates a moment before pushing himself upright.

Dean shoots him a warning look — Sammy. And Sam stops, doesn’t close that final gap, just stands and watches as Dean pushes himself gingerly to his feet and hobbles, step by careful step, from the room.

---

It’s late, so they sleep, for lack of anything better to do.

Sleep is a strange thing, when you’re an archangel, or half an archangel, or a fallen archangel with a broken sort of soul. There are weeks when it seems a foreign concept — alien, unnatural. There are nights when Dean falls into a slumber so instant and absolute that a hundred years could pass and he’d wake up unknowing. Sometimes, sleep is bliss, a sliver of the Empty, oblivion. Others, it’s a curse, and they run — dreamwalk clear of their own unquiet mind.

Sam’s dreams are of fire on ceilings, of children’s broken bodies, of hell. Occasionally, they’re of pizza and laughter, and those dreams tighten his heart — with pain, with fear, with longing — and make Dean flee. Jack’s dreams are of battle, explosions and running, swoops of triumph and grief. Tonight, there are lightsabers; Michael with a lightsaber, arrowing for Jack’s heart, and Jack has a lightsaber too, but he swings and swings and can never get it to work.

Mary’s dreams are of John. John smiling, John with black eyes, John with his skull yawing clear of his shoulders and maggots pouring from his severed neck. His butchered children lie at his feet. There’s a bloody knife, Echo 2/1 engraved silver against the red, in his hand.

It’s Dean’s once-fair hair in the dirt. Dean’s bowl cut in disarray, stained black in the night, hand reaching perpetually for Sammy’s, face too young, too back-breakingly young, to believe.

Michael’s grace shudders like a sob and pulls them free.

They’re looking out other eyes now. Eyes not their own, and so very their own; theirs is the small hand toying with the broken glovebox, closed and open again, closed and open. Theirs is the breath that fogs the window, that layers on the chill fog outside the car, rendering the bare shapes of trees across the cornfields even more ghostly than before.

The car is green, and old. The paint on the hood is peeling, and the sagging beige cloth of the ceiling is held up with thumbtacks, stained with long-ago coffee that must have flown far. The glovebox has a light that turns on when it’s open. It’s always half-open. The light shines golden through the lopsided crack like a glimpse of the maw of hell.

“Adam, stop that,” says a woman’s voice.

They turn their head.

Kate Milligan is wearing scrubs, and the skin below her eyes is shadowed and weary. She doesn’t look at them. She leans forward over the wheel like she doesn’t trust the road; like it might at any point dissolve into ice or snow or the River Styx, like the country around them might cease to be Wisconsin and become something more like Hell.

The ridge of the glovebox handle tempts their fingertips. A tiny pull, to make it fall open again; they don’t. They let their hand drop.

Michael’s song is playing.

It takes Dean a while to put that together, because he’s so used to it by now; the thread of melody through his mind, with words half-glimpsed, fleeing silver when he tries to grasp them, like fish from a school. They’re clear enough now, though, playing tinny over the car’s one working speaker. A woman’s voice, low and rising: I dreamed a dream in times gone by — when hope was high, and life worth living —

Kate’s humming along, wavering on the tune. Adam knows the words. They run through his mind like an old newsreel, familiar, uninteresting. Then I was young and unafraid, and dreams were made and used and wasted. His hands, deprived of their earlier amusement, find a cassette box on the floor and turn it over. But the tigers come at night —

The tiger in Adam’s mind is William Blake’s. Its stripes are licking flames; its eyes are stars, its heart a twist of sinew like oakwood in its chest. It snarls, and trees shiver. The lid of the cassette box creaks as Adam opens and shuts it again, and he spares a guilty glance at his mother, but her eyes are far away. He slept a summer by my side —

The art on front of the box is a dull gold circle on a black field. Inside it, a picture of a young girl, with sorrow on her face and her hair streaming like a flag, vertical stripes of blue and white and red. Les Misérables, says the writing across the top, and Dean wouldn’t know how to pronounce that but he thinks it’s some musical with Russell Crowe and Wolverine. But there are dreams that cannot be — and there are storms we cannot weather —

In Adam’s hands, their hands, the box creaks open and closed again, open and closed. The song dies away on the mournful pluck of strings. “Remind me to buy a VHS to record that anniversary concert next week,” says Kate. The new song begins abruptly, strident and loud: Lovely ladies — “And fast forward through that part! You know that’s only for grownups.”

Adam sighs, and obeys, leaning forward and holding down the button on the tape deck. The whirring sound seems to fill the car’s small cabin, and Adam rolls his eyes toward his mother exaggeratedly, letting his weight hang on his shoulder so that it starts to ache.

“That’s enough, that’s enough, stop bellyaching.” She swats at him lightly. “Come on, you’re going to Grandma’s for the weekend, don’t look so sad about it.”

Adam releases the fast forward button with a huff that feels as familiar as Michael’s. He sits back in the passenger seat, arms crossed over his chest, and stares down the road. There are trees on either side of them now, and shrubby undergrowth that reaches for the road. A semi blasts past with its headlights on, and the car shakes.

Who am I? asks the man singing over the speaker. Can I condemn this man to slavery? Pretend I do not feel his agony? This innocent who wears my face, who goes to judgment in my place, who am I —

Michael is shaking, receding, struggling to tear free. Dean holds on; digs his fingers into the memory like it might hold some sort of answers. Like it might be some sort of truth.

Adam stares on, unknowing. Dean’s brother. The speaker thunders. How can I ever face my fellow man? How can I ever face myself again? My soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago —

“No one,” snarls Michael. “You’re no one, we’re no one, you don’t fucking exist —

Who am I?

Adam turns his gaze to the window again. His eyes are blue-green chips of ice, and Dean’s outside them now; Dean’s pulling free. Michael’s yanking on him with all his might. “That’s private, ” he hisses, “it’s not yours —”

Who am I?

“Not yours —”

And they’re falling, flying, tumbling at a hundred miles an hour, as if over Nebraska again, but it’s no cornfield that awaits them, no scarecrow. It’s merely Dean’s bed and his sweat-soaked sheets, wrapped tight around their legs, and they lurch upright shaking, struggling to resolve the familiar, dark room into focus.

Who am I?  

Dean raises his hands to his face. Michael’s face. His cheeks are streaked with snot and tears. His breath is coming in great gasps, gulps of air bigger than his lungs can hold. They gust in and out of him, and he feels his rib crack with the effort, heal itself instantly. Who am I, who am I, and it’s not music anymore, just a desperate litany, like the world cracking open inside him, and Dean’s too exhausted to be angry. He’s too exhausted for any of this; too exhausted to do anything but sink to the floor and reach for Michael like an injured animal and say, Hey. Hey. It’s okay, between the bone-jarring gasps, and cradle him as they sit like that until morning.

---

Dawn comes with Michael spent and quiet, occupying the smallest corner he can of Dean’s mind. His head feels empty and clearer than it has in weeks, and the dull pound of guilt in his ears is not Michael’s but his own.

He finds Sam in the kitchen, looking like he’s barely slept, though Dean knows he has; knows it from the dreams he doesn’t want to think about. He’s got a cup of coffee and a file of spells on the table before him, and he looks up at Dean blankly, like he sees him but doesn’t, and the rush of big-brother hits Dean like a horse’s kick to the chest.

Sam’s been so fucking on top of everything. With Dean gone, with him here, with him on his various orbits of Michael-related fucked-uppery, and Dean slipped into letting him without even thinking about it. Without even wondering how Sam’s doing with the whole thing, because they’ve always been a pair, the two of them, and Dean’s always been the senior partner, so if Dean knows how he’s doing then he knows how Sam’s doing, and he realizes abruptly that that’s no longer remotely the case.

“You eaten?” he asks quietly, and when Sam shakes his head no, he starts scrounging, finding eggs, cheese, some veggies for omelettes. There’s a half-empty bottle of orange juice in the fridge that he thinks might’ve been there for a while, and he sniffs it tentatively, but it’s still good. He pours a glass and sets it beside Sam’s coffee mug with a thud. Frowns at him when Sam looks up at him skeptically. “Well? You’re the one always saying we’re gonna live to old age or whatever. Vitamin C, Sammy.”

Sam’s mouth slips into an uncertain half-smile, which fades just as quickly. “Dean —”

Sam.” Dean folds his arms and stares his brother down until he finally laughs, shrugs, and drinks the orange juice.

“Cas went to Chicago to help with some of the smaller healing jobs,” Sam tells him, as Dean clatters a spatula, flipping the eggs. “He said to tell you he’ll be back by tomorrow.”

Dean feels a spike of anxiety in his chest. “All right.”

Sam sucks in a breath like someone who’s dreading his next words and determined to say them anyway. “Dean —”

He’s going to ask about the chest-groping. He’s going to ask about the chest-groping, and the stomach-nuzzling, and Dean can say he was high off resurrection and has no idea what Sam’s talking about, but Sam’s gonna see right through that bullshit. He tenses, fingers digging into the spatula’s plastic handle until he suddenly realizes it’s starting to melt, his grace as tight as his grip, and Sam says, “It wasn’t your fault. What happened.”

Oh. Well.

That might be even worse.

Dean sets the spatula down carefully before melted plastic can drip into Sam’s omelette. His voice, when he speaks, is wooden. “How do you figure that.”

“Because it’s mine. What happened to Cas, to those hunters, what happened to you — that was my call. I did that.”

His voice is calm. Deceptively calm. Like he’s daring Dean to call him on it, daring Dean to shred apart this fucking bullshit world that makes his baby brother responsible for the fate of everyone, again and again and again, when he should’ve had — normal. Should’ve had white picket, apple pie law degree, Jess.

He stares down at the omelette. It’s starting to smoke; he flips it. “I shoulda been with him. I froze.”

“You weren’t even supposed to be there,” counters Sam immediately. “We made the plan without you there. You or Jack. And we’d have been completely — completely fucked, if you hadn’t been. And I’d have —”

Dean turns with a protest on his lips, but it dies at the sight of Sam’s face. It’s gray, and tired, and utterly desolate. “And I’d have been the one who led them to a massacre,” he finishes.

The omelette’s not burned beyond redemption. Dean shovels it onto a plate, grabs a fork, and places them both aggressively dead center on Sam’s notes. He swings himself into the seat opposite him. “Listen,” he says. “You’ve gotta —”

“I know I’ve gotta,” Sam interrupts, and his voice is strained, but he’s cutting off a forkful of egg all the same. “I’ve got to keep going. I can’t let them down. I asked Bobby if he’d take command, but he wouldn’t. I’ve got to. I just —”

He breaks off.

Dean looks down. “Michael thinks you’re a good general,” he says, and feels his gut clench, and lifts his eyes again to Sam’s face.

For a moment, he can see half-chewed egg in Sam’s open mouth of surprise. Then he swallows. “He said that?”

“When you explained the plan. Yeah.” He tries to give Sam a smile. It feels more like a grimace. “He should know. You’ve outsmarted him before.”

It feels like another lifetime, those desperate final days of the apocalypse. Dean’s own readiness to put an end to things, to yield; Sam’s wild, unflinching hope.

And here they are. They’ve both said yes. Sam’s play worked, at least.

The bottom of his mood drops out like it’s always been a lie. He can’t solve things with omelettes, and he can’t solve things with Michael; he’s useless, fucking useless, the lone dead weight on the family tree, and they’re losing a war that he’ll never help win. He’ll live out the rest of his petty life on its sidelines. He’ll watch every last person he loves die.

Billie never had any purpose in mind for him. Only punishment.

He claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You’ll be all right,” he says, you’ll all die, and flees before the twist of his mouth can betray him.

Chapter Text

Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, Dean leaves the bunker.

Michael is shifting uneasily in his skin, wingtips brushing over their surroundings grudgingly, as if he’s afraid the walls are coated in communicable disease. But everyone is sleeping in their rooms, and if they’re moving restlessly, a brush of feathers can send them into a deeper slumber, spread smooth darkness over their hectic dreams.

Michael doesn’t lack for power; not anymore. Just for the fucking backbone to use it.

So — they’re trying exposure therapy.

The Impala’s engine rumbles softly as Dean starts her up. He creeps out of the garage in low gear, eases gently up the hill, keeping her quiet. I don’t think this is a good idea, Michael is saying. You should at least tell them —

Dean growls, “I left a note.”

And what if you’re right, and I’ve got no nerve? What if I knock you flat on your ass with no one there to back you up?

“Then let’s hope I still know my exorcisms.”

Michael huffs briefly, and retreats into his music.

There is a logic to this mission. With angelic warfare occupying everyone’s attention, regular old hunting cases have gotten less heat. Not none — Sam’s had a rotating response team taking care of small cases, Dean and Cas’s werewolf hunt among them — but there’s been a recent spike in demonic omens down in Louisiana, and with the power vacuum in hell still an utter unknown and no one else in any kind of shape to make the trip, Dean is fucking going.

And you’re in shape to make the trip? Michael asks pointedly.

Dean keeps his eyes on the road and the beam of his headlights, the gray smear of dawn on the horizon, the stalks of corn waving colorless on either side of the highway. “That’s what we’re gonna find out.”

---

There are six rogue crossroads demons in Shreveport, slapping down bargains like it’s the Wild West for souls.

That’s what saves Dean’s ass, in the end. None of them are together, all out on the prowl, and they don’t stop at one soul on the night, either; later, when Dean finds their lair, he also finds poker chips, whole stacks of them, with contracts written in miniscule print around their margins and a silver shine that dissipates when he brings the butt of his knife down hard to crack them in half. Michael twitches a little with longing inside him, making his fingers itch for the press of a deck of cards, but by that point he’s pretty much a wreck anyway, three different melodies a cacophonous mess in his head, and Dean grits his teeth and ignores him.

No, the demons are all on their own, which is a damn good thing, because Michael’s fucking useless.

From the first demon, he’s a knot of high tension wire inside Dean’s skull, grinding his molars together and seizing at the muscles of his neck and doing something that can only be described as hyperventilating with his wings. The worst part is that he actually is trying to help — he’s clinging on tooth and nail to his power, trying to offer it to Dean for his use, but his grip is so tight, so wild, that when they go to smite the first demon, it only blinks, and laughs.

Dean winds up ramming an angel blade up under his sternum, which puts an end to his laughter pretty quick. That’s one; they have five more to take care of.

The second one, Michael’s even worse, wracked tight with spasms of terrified energy, and when the fight comes, Dean doesn’t even try to use his power, just falls back on good old hand-to-hand combat instead. But that’s barely working either, the muscles of his back tight to breaking, and Michael keeps beating his wings frantically and saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, until Dean shouts, “Just shut up!

The demon cocks her head at them, her back against the wall. “Talking to yourself, Deano?” she asks, and Dean kills her, and moves on.

On the third demon, Michael tries to rally himself for battle, and just — fails.

The nerve goes out of him with all the grace of air from a deflating balloon. It’s like a sobbing child is clinging to the cortices of Dean’s brain, flinging himself down and screaming out his fear and his misery, and Dean tries one blow, two, before the demon’s got him back up against the wall, got a hand at his throat, and he gasps out, “ Exorcizamus te. Omnis immundus spiritus —

Demons four through six go much the same.

By the time they’ve broken the contracts and cleaned up the lair, Michael’s unfurled a little, quieted, but Dean’s hands are bloody and his eyes are aching and his body is a mass of weary pain. He could be dead five times over tonight; should be, maybe. He can’t remember the number of times he faltered when he should have been sure, missed a block, failed to land a blow. He wouldn’t trust himself in the field with anyone else. He’s dangerous.

So much for fucking exposure therapy.

He falls into the hotel bed that night — more like early morning, over 24 hours since he left the bunker — without even taking off his boots. His phone is a mess of frantic texts. He opens the most recent one, from Cas, and thumbs back, Fine. Then he turns his face into the pillow and wills himself to drop into sleep.

---

When Dean wakes the next morning, the sun is streaming through the blinds, and he’s in a mood so black it flickers at the edges of his vision.

Self-loathing pounds in his gut as he showers demon blood out of his hair, as he hands over his key at the desk, as he eases his Baby out into traffic, over the sharp drop of the curb. It sings in the raging guitars of the Metallica he turns up louder, louder, trying to drown out the rhythmic, miserable fury of Michael’s own music — only Metallica’s too fucking hopped up on its own shit, too happy, and he cuts it abruptly to let Michael’s lyrics fill the sudden silence in his head: you’re standing in your grave.

Well, hell. That’s always been true anyway.

It’s ten hours from Shreveport to Lebanon. Dean sits in the passing lane and doesn’t drop below eighty once if he can help it, comes up hard behind tailgates and hovers there like some kind of angel of destruction — which he fucking is — until whoever the fuck’s in front of him gets the hell out of the way. It’s not that he wants to get home; he wants to go, to just fucking drive until he finds the edge of the earth and keep on driving, and he might as well fucking do it, since he’s good for nothing anyway.

He contemplates, for one brief, fantastical moment, sweeping right by the turnoff at the grain elevator. Shooting past Lebanon and on, westward, toward the distant mountains two states away, toward — something. Or nothing.

He doesn’t. His foot is smooth on the brake, hands automatic on the wheel. But then he’s turned and he’s crossed the tracks and he’s still turning, off the road that leads to the bunker, pulling into his usual parking spot outside Donnie’s bar.

He’ll just knock back a shot or two. Just — something, to take the edge off. Maybe that’ll help Michael fucking relax.

A dozen motorcycles are parked out front — not unusual, this time of year — and one middle-aged guy’s standing by the door with a cigarette, puffing energetically away at it. He’s wearing a leather jacket and black boots but otherwise looks more like an accountant than a biker. Dean gives him a stiff nod as he passes, shoulders through the door, and makes a beeline for the bar.

Donnie’s got his niece Tina helping him out for the summer, and she’s behind the bar today, pretty and dimpled in her cloud of brown hair, pouring highballs with a casual competence. She fixes two lime wedges in synchrony on a pair of glasses and turns to hand them over the bar to a middle-aged couple who smile at her as they take them. “My daughter loves that anime stuff,” the woman says confidingly, gesturing at the T-shirt under Tina’s apron, and Tina leans forward smiling to say something in return, and a voice at Dean’s elbow asks, “The usual?”

Dean turns. It’s Donnie, looking oddly out of place in a pair of reading glasses that he reaches for, an instant later, and folds self-consciously into his shirt collar. He never particularly needed Tina’s help to run things, but she’s home from college and good enough at the job that Donnie now spends most of his days, when it’s not too busy, with a book at the corner table.

It’s getting busy tonight, though — more so than usual. All three pool tables are occupied by bikers, intent on their games, small piles of cash on the rails. Dean grimaces, turns back to Donnie, and says, “Make it a double.”

Donnie doesn’t fully take his eyes off Dean’s face as he pours. “Haven’t seen you around much.”

“Yeah.” Dean resettles himself in the bar stool, leaning on his elbows, and Donnie takes the hint and doesn’t ask again.

Instead, he lets Dean knock back his whiskey and pours him another without asking. When Dean sips it more slowly, his eyes stray again to the pool tables. He’s watching them carefully, and there’s a small crease between his eyebrows.

Dean shifts again, managing a subtle glance backward. There’s no obvious sign of anything amiss. “Trouble?” he asks in an undertone.

Donnie shakes his head slowly without looking away from the tables. “No,” he says, after a moment, “just — see that guy with the shaved head? Skinny guy?”

Dean doesn’t need to look again. The guy Donnie’s talking about drew his eye, too; he’s all loud quicksilver motion and smiling like a shark. The kind of guy who might be the best hunting partner you ever had or might put a knife in your ribs at the first chance he gets, or both. He nods.

“He’s new, I think. They don’t know him that well. And it’s nothing I can put a finger on, but he’s been riling them up all night.”

Dean glances back again. The guy with the shark smile is done with his own game; he’s leaning over another biker who’s about to take a shot — this one’s wearing a bandana — and whispers something in his ear. The bandana guy stiffens; shark guy throws his head back in a laugh, pats his shoulder once, retreats.

Michael’s quiet inside him, a low hum. Dean nods his chin slightly toward the tables. “Want me to —?”

Donnie hesitates a moment, eyes still on the far side of the room. Then he says, “Yeah, if you like.”

Dean nods, throws back the rest of his whiskey, and makes his way over to the tables.

He’s not even planning it as a hustle. It’s an easy enough persona to slip into, though: the good-natured local drunk, losing a little money each game he plays and laughing about it every time. People like that guy. He’s harmless, charming, an easy source of laughs and cash alike. He loses three games in a row, making it close enough it’s not embarrassing, and turns down a drink one of them tries to buy him, and in between shots, he watches.

Shark guy’s name is Austin Miller. He’s the cousin of another member of the group, Troy, but none of the others know him; he just moved out from Massachusetts to Oklahoma with his girl and her kid, and he talks a lot about that, until eventually Dean figures out that his girl is not in fact his girl in any way. He’s loud, he never stops talking, and he’s always skirting the inside edge of provoking outrage, moving on too quickly from one comment to the next for any one of them to fully register.

“Hey, I didn’t know you got yourself a black girl, Tom,” he’s saying to the guy playing him. “Hey, is it true that black girls —” and here he leans close, says something Dean can’t hear, but the guy named Tom stiffens, sparks flying in his eyes, before Miller rattles on, “only, I been trying to convince my girl for years to try that, and maybe yours could talk to her about it —”

And then he’s off again, somehow onto a fishing trip he took in Miami, and Tom’s blinking and trying to figure out whether he should throw a punch or just take his next shot instead.

He opts for the latter. “Hey,” says the biker-accountant from earlier, Dean’s opponent now, “you gonna take your turn, or what?”

Dean lets the slow, blinking refocus show on his face. Truth is, he’s closer to his out-of-it act than he’d like to admit; he’s still rattled, still churning somewhere deep in his gut with howling self-hatred, and this bar, these pool tables, feel like a flimsy patina of reality over that deeper truth. He shakes it off, paces around the table for his next shot. Bending low, he eyes the cue ball. It’s not that hard a shot; should he miss left or right?

But before he can decide, there’s a hand settling on the back of his neck, and he goes still.

“You’re not the one he wants to play, Stinson,” says Austin Miller, delight curling in his voice. “He’s been watching me.

And before Dean can react, before he can wheel around and throw the punch he so desperately wants to throw, before he can find out whether Michael’s about to have his back or try to dribble through the nearest floor drain instead, Miller squeezes briefly, murmurs, “Finish your game. I’ll be waiting,” and is gone again.

There are eyes on him. The room is tenser than ever.

Dean misses his shot.

---

The thing is — when it comes down to it — Austin Miller isn’t all that good at pool.

He’s good at psyching his opponents out. He’s good at all your basic shots, and a few tougher ones besides. He’s good at the kind of reckless self-confidence that sometimes makes a person seem more talented than he is, but he’s not so good that Dean even has to shed his act to beat him.

So he doesn’t. Michael’s gone quiet and attentive, a lull in the music inside Dean’s head, but outwardly, he’s the same bumbling drunk. He laughs self-consciously every time he makes a more difficult shot, lets Miller’s invective roll off him, keeps it close. There’s a moment, four balls left on the table, when he thinks he might have fucked it up — given Miller too much of a chance, and he sinks the 7, he’s lining up for the 8 —

“Corner pocket,” he says, the more obvious shot but the harder one, should bank it into the side, and he takes the shot and the 8 bounces harmlessly off the rail, spins to a stop, perched on the pocket’s lip.

“Oh come on,” snaps Miller, throwing his cue loudly against the table behind him.

They’ve garnered an audience. “Don’t sweat it, Austin,” says someone — the cousin, Troy — “no way he’ll sink all three, you got this.”

Dean can’t help smiling.

The 14 to the side pocket’s an obvious shot, easy, but it’ll leave him with nothing on the 10. He hits it to the corner, instead, and the cue ball stops right where he wants it. Right where he needs it to be for the bank shot, and then the 10’s in, and there’s no need to wobble on the shot at the 8, to give Miller a fraction of a second of hope, but he does it anyway, just for fun.

The 8 falls. Miller grabs his wallet, angry, and snaps, “Again.”

They’re sinking into the hunting calm, Dean and Michael both. He hasn’t felt it in so long; hasn’t felt this clarity, this precision, this tempered-steel knowledge of himself and what he can do.

He pauses in the act of collecting his winnings. He slowly pushes them back across the rail — the whole pile. He says, “All right.”

Still, he’s not planning to be a dick about it.

He’s not. He really isn’t. Up until Miller breaks and sinks two and misses his third and grabs Dean’s wrist, as he’s walking around the table for his own shot, and hisses, “That bitch behind the bar your cousin or somethin’? You fuck her anyway, or is her grandaddy there more your style?”

Dean feels his heart beat. Once, twice.

He lets the mask drop.

He smiles.

It only takes the lightest of pressure at the right point to break Miller’s grip. When he reels back, clutching at his wrist and opening his mouth in outrage, Dean walks right past him. He takes in the table, unhurried. Play the 4 to open up the 2 to set up the 7, finish on the 5 — anticipation is coiling in his chest, and Michael is bubbling with something like glee, but Dean keeps his expression one of deliberate unconcern as he lines up his cue.

He runs the rack.

The crowd around them is deadly silent. But when Dean sinks the 8, leaving the table littered with stripes, and turns around, Miller’s right up in his face, shoving his chest. “You hustled me,” he says loudly. “You’re a fuckin’ liar and a cheat —”

Dean steps around him to pick up his pile of cash. Inside him, Michael is thrilling with adrenaline, and he’s not sure he can stop himself from throwing a punch, next time Miller shoves him. “We’re done here,” he says quietly. “Better move on.”

There’s a moment of tense silence. Then Miller’s cousin adds, in a tone that betrays his anxiety, “Yeah, Austin, come on.”

Miller’s shoulders rise. His face is furious, blotched red.

Then, abruptly, it slumps.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, and turns away.

Dean lifts his eyes, for the first time, to meet Donnie’s, still perched at his table. He’s got his eyebrows raised, a little ironically, as if to say, Was that really the best way of handling that? Dean offers a tiny shrug, and starts back toward him.

He sees the change in Donnie’s expression — the sudden alarm — a split second too late.

The pool cue explodes across the side of his face. Stars bloom in his eyes and he’s on the floor, butt of the cue thrusting hard into his chest as Miller slams a boot into his ribs. He reels back for another kick, and Dean’s lungs can’t seem to draw air, there’s pain exploding through his chest, the cue lifting again for another blow —

— and then he’s got it in both hands, and jerks it hard, and sends Austin Miller sailing across the room.

He lands against the far wall with a resounding crash and crumples in a heap. Dean’s on his feet, breathing hard, the pain suddenly gone from his chest, staring around at the stunned faces of the other bikers.

There’s a split second where it could go another way. A moment where they might turn and run, collect their fallen shitbag of a comrade and get the hell out of Lebanon. Bandana guy is drawing breath to say as much, starting to raise his hands in a peacemaking gesture, and then Troy Miller lets out a wild yell and hurls himself at Dean, and the moment is lost.

It’s the wrong call.

Dean moves smoothly, effortlessly, by instinct. Troy Miller is on the floor and it’s accountant guy coming for him with a yell, two others joining him, three of them at once, and Dean whirls, punches, lays two of them flat. The next guy has a pool cue, which Dean shatters with a touch. When he stabs blindly at Dean’s face with the splintered end, Dean sends him flying across a table.

And then there are more coming, and Troy Miller’s up again, howling, right in Dean’s face, and manages to land a punch across his cheekbone. It heals almost as soon as it hurts, and Dean’s laying a palm flat on his forehead. He feels his own lips draw back in a wild grin. Troy Miller’s eyes are glowing white, back arching, jaw falling open — white light is beaming from his mouth, too, searing, blinding, and the other bikers are falling back with yells of terror, but Dean’s not blinded, he’s on top of the world, blood singing with power and mind with righteous fury, because this is what he was made for, the Sword, and now —

No.

He shoves Troy Miller away with a surge of blind horror, wrenching Michael’s power free. The guy staggers and falls, but his eyes are still human, not burned-out husks, darting wildly. He flops onto his belly, heaves, and vomits on the floor.

“Dean!”

Dean’s on the floor, too, because he doesn’t trust himself anywhere else. He’s got a tight grip on Michael with both hands, but Michael’s still raging, rejoicing, straining to get at his enemies. “No you fucking don’t,” Dean gasps, and he’s not sure if he’s speaking in his head or out loud, vision blurred, senses haywire with the strength of Michael’s euphoric longing to fight, to kill, to win. “No fuckin’ way.”

“Dean.” There are hands on his shoulders, his face, and it takes Dean a moment to differentiate them from his own desperate many-dimensioned grip on Michael’s grace. But that’s Cas’s face in his vision, Cas’s face and Cas’s form, wings midnight blue and clear ocean water, gentle-feathered and ringing with stars. And his grace is brushing through Dean’s consciousness, soothing, seeking, but it’s all inflamed with fire — with Michael’s desperate, rabid struggle to slip the leash.

Cas draws back, and Michael redoubles his efforts, scenting freedom. The sudden cold of loneliness makes Dean gasp with involuntary shock.

The noise is drowned, though, when Cas deals him a sudden blow — not with his hand but with his grace, sharp and hard and ringing through Dean’s dimensions like a bell, a tuning fork, like the inside of a cathedral at midnight. The world goes black, white, blue, then soft gold-brown again, green felt and warm lamplight and Cas looming over him, tight jaw and wild eyes.

Michael is reeling back inside him, shaken by the blast of power. Dean coughs, sits up, pushing Cas away at the chest. “‘M fine,” he grunts. His entire body aches like a struck gong. Cas hovers. “Thanks.”

“Dean,” says Cas, choked, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”

It’s hard to formulate a response over the lingering ringing in his ears. “All good, Cas. It workd,” he mumbles. He looks around carefully, taking in his surroundings. The bikers are unconscious on the floor, Tina slumped across the bar. Relief and agitation war in his chest. “How’d you know to come?”

“I called him.” Donnie steps into view, gesturing with the cell phone in his hand, apparently unperturbed by the entire affair.

That’s — wait. “Wait,” says Dean. “You knew?

An unreadable look passes between Cas and Donnie. Then Cas says, “I believe the expression is ‘pony up,’ but given the current state of your bar, I’d be happy to defer payment —”

Donnie makes a sour face, retreats to the cash register, and returns a moment later with a fifty in his hand. He slaps it into Cas’s palm harder than he needs to, and Cas inclines his head and slides it into his pocket.

Hang on,” says Dean, staring between them. “You knew. And you — knew he knew?”

“And had a bet on whether you knew he knew, yes,” Cas agrees. Then, unnecessarily: “Which I won.”

Donnie shakes his head in disgust, sinking onto the floor to join them, with his back to the leg of the pool table. “I can’t believe you’re that oblivious. You know I’ve lived here my whole life, right? That my family’s been here for generations? You really think we believed that place was a regular old power plant?”

Dean’s head hurts too much to take this in. He spares Cas a pleading glance — come on, you just hit me with your multidimensional wavelength of celestial intent or whatever, help a guy out? Which sounds oddly dirty, somehow, but Cas takes pity. “I sensed that Donnie was aware of your identities as Men of Letters and introduced myself. I asked him to call me if trouble ever followed you here.”

Dean scowls. “And how long ago was that?”

“Several years,” Cas replies placidly.

Which is something he could certainly drill down on, but he’s distracted by another question. “Hang on — does Tina know?”

Donnie shakes his head, glancing over at his niece’s unconscious form on the bar. “But I’ll probably let her in on it if she wants, after this.”

The stab of guilt, when it finally hits, is no less potent for its delay. “Uh,” says Dean, looking around at the damage to the bar. “I’m sorry.”

Donnie snorts. “Don’t apologize to me. This guy’s been in here five times in the last two days, looking for you.”

Dean glances at Cas, then quickly away again. He never did read all those texts. He grimaces. “You let him know the second I walked in here, didn’t you.”

“Yep,” says Donnie, unrepentant. “Found you a pretty good distraction, too.” He doesn’t need to gesture; he raises his eyebrows comprehensively at the chaos surrounding them.

“I would have been here sooner,” says Cas, “but I was in Hastings at the time.”

So send Sam, Dean thinks, send Jack, but maybe this isn’t about that; maybe this is about Cas, him and Cas, and that’s a sleeping bear he isn’t sure he wants to poke.

He grimaces as he pushes himself to his feet. His body is still groaning, Michael still flung wide and lying low, flattened against his neurons and humming indistinctly. “All right, I get it,” he gripes. “I’m not some wayward pet, Cas.”

Cas gives him a Look. A look that communicates plainly, even if his words in Dean’s head didn’t, Do you really want to talk about this here?

No. “Fine,” says Dean. Then, to Donnie: “Can we —”

But as he turns, the room is already reassembling itself, already gleaming with fresh cleanliness, brushed all over with the feathers of Cas’s wings. The first few bikers are beginning to stretch and rub their eyes.

“They will have no memory of what happened,” Cas tells Donnie, in a serious undertone. “Tina will, but if she wishes to be relieved of the knowledge — after you’ve spoken with her — you need only call.”

Donnie nods tightly. He reaches a hand up for Dean to pull him upright — some form of forgiveness. Dean does, and Donnie nods, formally, and then Cas is taking him by his other arm and drawing him out past the yawning bikers and through the swinging door.

The parking lot is cool under the streetlights, the kiss of the night air sudden and welcome after the stuffiness of the bar. There are frogs calling from some unseen pond, and moths swarming the lights, and Cas drops Dean’s hand as suddenly and as sharply as if the touch of it burns his skin.

Dean swallows. “Cas —”

“I don’t get it,” Cas interrupts, wheeling to face him, and his face is white with fury. “Explain it to me, Dean, please. Explain to me what could possibly possess you — when I just watched you die, when I just carried your dead body with these hands across the bunker’s threshold — when I wouldn’t let them salt and burn you, when — explain to me what could possibly be so important as to make you disappear without an explanation. Again.”

Dean’s mouth is like old parchment. Swallowing is an effort. “I left a note.”

Cas’s face tightens still further. He fishes in his trenchcoat pocket, and then he’s holding out a battered scrap of paper, folded and refolded and worn at the creases. It looks far more than two days old. Dean’s own handwriting is a vivid indictment in the orange sodium light. “‘Back soon,’” Cas quotes. “Back soon. Do you have any —”

And suddenly, Dean wants to cry. He wants to rage and he wants to kick over the nearest trash can and he wants to take Cas by the shoulders and — because he does know, and he did burn Cas’s body, wrapped it in the goddamn sheets and built the pyre, and he’s sat on his ass in the bunker so many countless fucking times while Cas tears off on another guilt-ridden wild goose chase as likely as not to get him dead, again. Dean knows and he knows they’ve never resolved it, not really, because he’s never had the goddamn courage to be angry in quite the way he wants to be, to grab Cas by the lapels of that fucking trenchcoat and tell him, Stay. You stay. You’re mine, and you’re going to goddamn stay.

That’s what’s bottled up inside him; that’s what’s hovering on the brink of his lips. But what comes out, somehow, is, “I’m a liability.”

Cas startles, tense lips parting slightly, looking as surprised as Dean feels. But now that he’s said it, he can’t stop, and the words pour out of him, angry and biting. “This whole — it was supposed to help. Having Michael on our side, it was supposed to win the war. And instead it’s just taken me out of it, even more than I already was — it’s made me poison, Cas. I almost got you killed. I’m worse than useless — I hurt the people I’m trying to save.”

The words hang in the air between them, violent, an almost-solid form.

“Dean,” says Cas, more gently than before, and there’s an understanding and sorrow in his eyes and in his grace, like he’s heard more than Dean was ever trying to say.

“And — yeah, I split,” Dean rattles on, roughly. “And it was shitty and I’m sorry, but I had to — do something. I had to try and whip him into shape, get him in a few fights, get him over this fucking battle panic of his.” If Michael’s listening, he doesn’t care.

“Did it work?” Cas asks quietly.

Dean snorts, low and bitter. “No. Nothing works. Nothing fucking works at all. Nothing works but fucking pool.

Cas’s hand settles on his shoulder, and suddenly Dean doesn’t feel as if he has any secrets at all. Suddenly he thinks that Cas maybe understands him, and has always understood him; suddenly, he feels phantom wings wrap around him, ghostly, or maybe not as ghostly as he thought. They feel like home. They whisper: you are mine, too.

“Pool,” says Cas, out loud. “That’s a start.”

Chapter Text

Dean and Cas develop a rhythm, over the weeks that follow.

Heaven is under siege — the gate at the sandbox guarded around the clock. Rotating shifts of hunters keep watch from the remains of the playground, lurking under slides, in turrets, behind the rootstock of the great fallen oak. When an angel appears, they’re ready with blood sigils on every wall to blast the enemy away.

It’s impermanent, of course. It buys a few hours, as the angel in question orbits the earth; as they plummet to a landing, regain consciousness, dust themselves off. There’s nothing to keep them from winging their way right back to the playground, or elsewhere, wherever they want to go — nothing, that is, but the cleanup crew: Dean and Cas.

It’s almost too perfect. Charlie’s invented a modified version of the angel-banishing sigil that incorporates a tracking spell, and Rowena made the final tweaks to implement it. Every time some feathery ass gets fired out of their new and improved angel cannon, Dean gets a call from the hunter on duty. He gets coordinates.

And he gets an hour or two to get Michael ready for action.

There’s a pool hall in San Francisco that’s open nearly any hour of the day. A back alley card game in Brooklyn, a casino in Hong Kong. It doesn’t matter if they win or lose. It’s something about the scent of money, the metered doses of risk. It sinks Michael deep into a steel-edged calm. It quiets the chaos in his head, hones it.

It makes him lethal.

Cas comes with him, just in case. They slip in and find a place, Cas silent at Dean’s shoulder, wings spread vigilant over everyone in the room — ready to fight, ready to take Michael in hand if he needs to, but he hasn’t needed to yet. Not since Donnie’s.

Some of the regular guys get to thinking Cas is Dean’s bodyguard, which cracks Dean up and makes Cas wrinkle his nose and say, “Why? It seems like an obvious conclusion.” That forces Dean to explain that he’s bigger than Cas, and far better at conventional modes of fighting, which prompts Cas to beat him in an angel-blade-throwing challenge, which is frankly unfair. Cas has had millennia to train with these things. And Dean’s pretty sure he’s using his grace.

They actually win some money. Michael’s creating all their antes out of thin air anyway, but hey, a little extra never hurts.

Sam starts calling them Bonnie and Clyde. Rowena asks which is which. It doesn’t matter. Dean’s fucking useful.

Because the hunting calm travels. They play for an hour, and ghost back out again, and then Dean’s dropping them at the spot, wherever it is — sometimes even before the angel in question has cratered back down to earth. And then they’re ready, to kill or to capture, and if Dean thought he was good at extracting information from enemy combatants before, he had no idea what an archangel’s worth of power could do.

Michael is frustrated, his angels tell them. Michael is furious, Michael is clawing at the walls of Heaven, too afraid to come out himself, too afraid to send a legion for fear they’ll all be killed. Michael is clawing at the walls of Heaven, and his troops are doubting him; Michael is clawing at the walls of Heaven, and he’s scratching another way out.

That news hits them like a bucket of cold water. They’re high on the Altiplano of Peru, the conical peaks of volcanoes in the distance half-visible in the predawn light. The brightest thing around is the angel: shining, screaming, pouring out what it knows. Dean startles back, and withdraws his palm from its head, and says, “What?”

He’s making another way out,” repeats the angel, and its words drip and bleed and pound with grace. Its words are its being, dissolving sluggishly into the soil and the air, but that doesn’t matter. Dean can hold it a little longer. Learn a little more. It gasps, writhes, but it keeps speaking. “He means to keep attempting the gate — to keep you distracted. While he makes a new portal. One that no hunter can reach.

Dean feels cold all over. “Where?” says Cas sharply. “Where will this new portal be?”

Where he won his first war,” breathes the angel. “Michael’s favorite place in the world.” It coughs, flickers, grins.

“Where’s that?” Dean demands, reaching out again with Michael’s grace.

But the angel only laughs, laughs and keeps laughing, and then its back is arching and it’s convulsing and spewing the stuff of itself out to the stars, burning its own wings into the sand at its back, scorching them, seizing. And it’s over, just Dean and Cas and the chill air and the remains of the night.

“Damnit,” says Dean, softly, and his phone rings.

Cas glances at him. He always looks at Dean like that, after one of these sessions, like he’s remembering the time Dean picked up a knife at his asking. His grace is gentle, assessing. Dean ignores it, raises his phone to his ear. “Yeah.”

“Got another,” says Robert’s voice over the phone — one of Jody’s Canadian boys. “Atlantic Ocean, looks like. Ready for coordinates?”

Dean’s always ready for coordinates. Michael’s mind might be riddled with holes and traps, but he’s still an angel. He’ll remember. “Yeah.”

“Nineteen point seven three one nine seven three,” Robert rattles off. “Negative forty-six point nine four two eight one three.”

“Got it, thanks.” Dean hesitates. “Hey — is Bobby there?” He knows he sometimes comes to help on the night shift.

“Nah, man, just me and the guys,” says Robert. “If you want —”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll text him.” Dean’s still not entirely used to there being a Bobby that isn’t their Bobby — never mind the whole thing with Mom — but if anyone knows what Michael’s favorite place in the world is, it’ll be him.

“All right,” says Robert, “have a good one.”

“Yeah, you too,” says Dean, and hangs up.

Cas is still looking at him. He’s beautiful like this, moonlight grazing his cheekbones, his angelic form half-melted into the night. Even as he watches Dean, he’s monitoring everything around them: the distant tread of fox feet on gravel, the slumber of a tortoise, the flutter of moths.

Dean feels Cas’s attention catch, briefly, on one with a broken wing. It’s flying drunkenly, seesawing, colliding with stems of grass. And then it isn’t: it’s whole, and moving with its brethren’s chaotic dance through the night.

The corners of Dean’s mouth twitch without him telling them to. “Cas,” he says, “anyone ever tell you you’re a soft touch?”

Cas looks blankly at him. “It will die in a few days anyway. I may have doomed it to more suffering than it would otherwise experience.”

“Whatever you say,” says Dean, and Michael huffs with impatience inside him — he wants to go, wants to fight, or play, or something — and an instant later, he’s sending out a surge of power, one that startles Dean into letting it pass unchecked.

Moths blossom out of the scrubby bushes around them. They’re enormous and pale green, luminescent, growing. Before Dean’s eyes, blue and black patterns wash over their hindwings, and they sprout long, elegant tails. They calm their frenzied fluttering as if realizing they don’t need it anymore; they float, buoyant on the night air.

Showoff, Dean tells Michael.

Whatever, says Michael. Can we go now? I fixed the moths. I want to play roulette.

Dean sighs. His clothes are stained with blood and grace; a moth has landed on his sleeve to investigate. It’s enormous, the size of his hand, antennae waving like fern fronds. “Can’t walk into a casino looking like we just came out of a knife fight.”

“Actually,” Cas puts in, “I think at several of our usual haunts, that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.”

Yeah, yeah, says Michael, and an instant later Dean’s clothes are clean, and he relents.

He takes Cas’s hand, and closes his eyes, and they’re flying again, speeding away from the dawn.

---

The thing with Cas is —

Dean doesn’t know what the thing with Cas is.

It’s not like anything’s changed. It’s not like they’re — making out on the job or whatever. Hell, he doesn’t even know if Cas would want that, if Cas would know how to want that — okay, there’s some evidence on that front — but even if he did, it would be pretty fucking weird to do anything with Michael riding shotgun. So, Dean’s not pushing. He’s not asking questions. He’s just —

He’s just kind of over the whole self-doubt thing, when it comes to Cas.

They’ve got a war to fight. They’ve both died for it. They’ve both made complete idiots of themselves over each other — okay, that’s more Dean, but —

They’re either all gonna die or they’re not all gonna die, and Dean’s had his share of last nights on Earth, but it looks like his plan these days is mainly to make sure Cas is around. To watch Cas smile and watch him frown with worry and turn one into the other, if he can, and he usually can. And if there’s a morning, good, and if there isn’t —

He’ll take that too. He’ll fight to his last breath, for his family, for his fucking planet, but he’ll take it.

Michael’s clawing a new way out of Heaven, and that means there’s a reckoning on the way. For now, they’ve got a roulette table, and the promise of another angel hunt, and Michael is focused, thrilling, a hound on a scent.

Dean lets him play. He lets himself drift. He watches Cas, and watches Cas watch him, and their wings cast long shadows on the glittering casino ceiling, shadows no one but them can see.

---

Robert’s coordinates take them straight into a hurricane.

They should have fucking thought of this, hurricane season on hurricane alley, but they didn’t, and Dean nearly loses his grip on Cas’s shoulder the moment they materialize into howling rain and darkness, the moment the first blast of wind tries to rip him away.

“Hold on!” he roars, and redoubles his grip, and Cas brings one arm around with effort to grip his wrist. His hair is already soaked, trenchcoat plastered to his body, and Dean tries to haul him close, to shelter them both with his wings, but he can’t, he can barely stay airborne. The pressure howls and drops and they plummet forty feet; then another gust catches them and slams them upward again, and Cas slips down to Dean’s fingertips before he grabs him bodily with his grace, every last tether of it, and yanks him close.

They snap together, chest to chest, face to face, and it’s a little awkward but it’s better. The wind isn’t trying to snatch Cas from him anymore, and water is streaming in rivulets down Dean’s nose onto Cas’s face, but they’ll survive that, they both will. Dean casts desperate eyes around.

They’ve already been blown hundreds of yards from their intended coordinates. There’s no angel in sight.

Another blast buffets them, and Dean yells and tightens his grip on Cas and nearly goes pinwheeling through the air. It feels more water than air; every gust is a stinging, solid blow.

He can’t see anything. He tries to cast his grace wide, but they’re moving too much already — whipped away from their path — and it’s taking all his focus just to stay in the air. “Cas,” he shouts, more with his grace than with his voice, “can you do a search? I’m not —

Even as he says it, the air dips out from under them again, and they drop. Dean yells — seaspray hits his face — and flares his wings again, back to their original coordinates, flails for a moment for balance on the raging currents of air.

There’s nothing here. Nothing as they crisscross the area, again and again, gridding the ocean’s fury in search of something — anything —

They’ve lost one. They’ve lost one, and it’ll be loose in the world, unchecked, unless they can —

Cas shouts, “THERE!

And Dean sees it.

It’s a body, thrown high by a vicious wave, sucked back down into the ocean’s gape. It’s limp and doll-like, twisting in the water, and he’s still got Cas and Cas still doesn’t have working wings but they’ve taken too much time already. Dean takes a deep breath, and arrows his wings like a bird’s, and plunges into the sea.

He can’t see anything. He can’t see anything — grace, right — and there it is, a limp hand in the water. He grasps for it, wrapping his free arm around Cas just in case, and misses; he reaches again — touches fingertips — a third time —

And he has it. The hand is smaller than his, slender, but callused. He grips tight, screws his eyes shut, spreads his tired wings —

— and pulls, yanking all three of them out.

It’s not his most controlled flight. It’s more like being launched from a slingshot, but at least they’re clear of the water, clear of the storm — and they’re streaking through the atmosphere, faster than they should be, and he throws desperate wings out to slow them down, to bring them to rest.

He drops them, with surprising deftness, on the nearest beach.

It’s light here. Gray clouds across the sky, but without the hurricane blotting out the sun, it’s day. The slopes of the island are a green so brilliant they seem to be glowing. Under the vegetation, the rock is black basalt, dropping in sheer steps away to the narrow strip of beach and the sea.

The angel crumples onto the sand. Dean and Cas both keep their feet, but it’s a near thing, and it takes Dean a moment to remember to stop clutching Cas to his chest. When he does, Cas staggers back a step, and shakes water out of his hair, and then an instant later, he’s dry, and Dean is too.

Dean starts. He always forgets he can do things like that — simple comfort things. Dry clothes. Warmth.

The angel in the sand coughs. A crab that’s ventured close to her scuttles, startled, away. Her human muscles ripple, and she levers herself slightly, painfully, onto her elbows.

She’s got a mane of blonde curls that tumbles down to hide her face. Her body — her vessel’s body — is long and lean and muscular. She’s dressed like a hunter, tattered canvas jacket and jeans. There’s a bloodstain on her saturated shirt, and when it rides up, Dean can see a shallow gash across her side.

He glances at Cas. Did she get that in the storm? Robert didn’t mention any kind of combat, but maybe —

She lifts a hand to tuck a mass of curls behind her ear. She turns her face slowly, wary, her battered wings shaking as they unfurl, and Cas palms his angel blade. Dean raises a thread of power, lifts his hand.

“Please,” she croaks, “don’t kill me — I’m here to defect.”

As she speaks, she levers herself up on one elbow, and turns her head to face them fully.

Her eyes go wide.

The flash of recognition hits them both at the same moment. Cas exhales sharply, “ Anna, ” and Dean feels his hand fall, eyes widen, as he breathes, incredulous — “Jess?”

---

“No,” breathes Jess. “No, no-no-no —”

She’s scrambling backward in the sand, eyes wild. They’re on Cas. He moves forward cautiously, starting to bend at the waist, but when she raises her hand and flinches away, he stops dead. He glances back at Dean.

Dean raises his eyebrows — got my back? — and Cas nods.

He steps forward slowly, holding up both hands with palms flat to show he’s unarmed. They’re each just as dangerous as angel blade, but Jess — Anna? — doesn’t need to know that, if she doesn’t already. “Hey,” he says carefully, squatting down. “Are you okay?”

Her eyes dart to him, briefly, but she doesn’t speak. She looks back to Cas, fear written across her face, and Dean feels Cas’s pulse of pained uncertainty at the reaction.

Dean swallows. “Are you,” he says, carefully. “Is your name Jessica Moore?”

She goes still. Eyes narrow. She’s watching him like she expects him to sprout fangs at any moment. “I’m — Anna,” she says.

“Okay,” says Dean. First step: agree with whatever she says. “All right. I’m Dean — Dean Winchester.”

“I know,” says Anna, but her eyes have already slid back over his shoulder, to Cas. She seems calmer now, with him between them, but her mouth twists with venom. “What I don’t know is what you’re doing with him. He’s supposed to be dead.”

Dean feels increasingly like he’s missing something. “Listen,” he says, “I know Michael beat Cas up pretty good, but as you can see, he’s all right. And he’s on my side, so if you’re okay with me, then —”

“Dean,” says Cas quietly. “She knew my alternate universe self.”

“Your — what now?” Dean demands, but Jess-Anna is already speaking over him, panicky and furious, “ Knew you? You fucking tortured me, you bastard — brainwashed me — you’re dead. ” She goes white. “Oh, God. Are you in my head? Is this —”

“Hey, hey,” says Dean again, swiftly, and she stops talking. He can sense the fine trembling in her limbs. He turns to stare at Cas. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

Cas’s mouth tightens. It’s clear he’s reluctant to answer; he’s got that stubborn set to his chin. He looks away and says, grudgingly, “I — encountered the Apocalypse World version of myself, while we were there.” His eyes are somewhere on the horizon, on the basalt slopes of the island crumbling down into the sea. “I killed him.”

“You — hang on. You what now?” Dean lurches to his feet, abandoning their rogue angel in favor of staring at Cas. “Cas —”

“He wasn’t fit to live.” Cas still isn’t looking at him. “He’d been — reconditioned so many times, with so little motive to break it, that he was — their puppet. Their monster. I suspect he performed the same work on others that Naomi did to me. I know they used him to torture humans.”

Cas,” says Dean. He doesn’t know what to say; he doesn’t know what to think. His mind is swamped by the blank horror of it. For Cas to come face to face with some nightmare version of himself — for him to kill him — for him to mention nothing of it —

You shouldn’t have had to face that, he says, directly into Cas’s mind, and he throws behind it every ounce of love in his body, every last drop of who he is.

A muscle in Cas’s jaw works. He drops his eyes, and nods.

It’s a struggle to remember that Anna — Jess — is still sprawled on the sand at his feet. She looks older than she did when Dean met her. Well, she should — he looks older too — but her face is worn, strands of gray in her blonde hair. She looks hardened, weary, capable.

And — Anna? That’s stranger still to wrap his mind around, because he never could see beyond human vision in the time he knew her, never learned the colors and the shapes of her grace. That’s what Cas recognizes, he assumes — it lives in the hollows of human faces, in the shadows they cast, even when an angel isn’t intentionally showing their true form — and he can see it, too, but it’s like anything: when you’ve spent millennia with angels, as Cas has, they’re easier to tell apart.

Maybe Michael should carry that reservoir of knowledge, too — but Michael, Dean’s realized, doesn’t know many angels by sight at all. The heavenly chain of command never involved much fraternizing with his inferiors.

Anna plucks faintly at the chords of his memory, though. And Dean remembers:

Michael killed their world’s Anna. Dean was there.

Well, it’s still far from the weirdest alliance he’s ever formed. “I think you’d better decide,” Dean tells her, “whether you’re willing to trust us. And if you are, you’d better tell us everything.”

---

Dean’s phone is dead.

He stares for a long minute at the blank screen, stained with seawater, debating whether he should warn Sam somehow. Go ahead to explain what’s happened, or try to tap into his mind somehow. Receiving prayer is pretty reliable when you’re an angel, but it’s much harder to transmit information in the other direction. Great way to wind up with busted windows and broken eardrums; Dean knows that from personal experience.

In the end, he decides that it’ll be a pretty nasty shock no matter how they do it, and they might as well rip the band-aid off. He places one hand on Cas’s shoulder and the other on Anna’s — she’s still twitchy around Cas, still shying as far away from him as she can — and blinks them both to the bunker’s front door.

Anna’s looking more nervous than ever. She rubs her arms, even though there’s no chill. Dean watches her for a moment, then steps back, and lets Cas lead the way inside.

He’s hoping no one will be around. He’s hoping he can set Jess-Anna up with a bedroom and a guard, safely out of sight; he’s hoping he’ll still have a chance to explain. A quiet moment with his brother, an are-you-okay.

He’s not that lucky.

Sam and Bobby and Mom are sitting around the library table when he comes in, all three of them on separate laptops, with papers and plans splayed over every square inch of available space. Mom looks up first, face breaking into a smile that stops short and turns cautious at the sight of Jess. “Sam,” she says softly, and in the same moment, both he and Bobby turn.

Sam freezes.

There’s a look on his face Dean hasn’t seen in years. Not with Lucifer, not with the British Men of Letters; not when he was tied up or tortured or taken prisoner, not once. Not on his knees for Dean and the Mark of Cain. Not since — shit, honestly? Not since their last case with clowns.

The thought almost shakes a hysterical laugh loose from Dean’s chest. He loses his stride, slightly — hesitates on the steps.

And Bobby is moving forward on swift feet, a look of dumbstruck amazement on his face, and he’s saying “Jess — Jessica Moore?” and stepping right past Cas to pull her into a tight, astonished embrace.

She goes with it. She brings her own arms up slowly, and says, “Bobby?” in a voice that trembles, and then she’s burying her face in the collar of his jacket and he’s saying, “I thought you were dead, child,” and she’s mumbling, “as good as, Jesus, you have no idea,” and Dean’s at the bottom of the steps, and Sam’s still frozen like a man abandoned by time.

Dean clears his throat. “I take it you two know each other.”

Bobby coughs and draws back, shaking his head. His eyes are shining. “I wouldn’t have believed it. Haven’t seen Jessica in — something like eight years. Not since her whole plan to recruit angelic assistance turned out to be a trap. Which I warned her against.” His words are scolding, but his tone is kind.

Jess picks up her head. She wipes her eyes quickly on her sleeve. “Anna didn’t betray me, Bobby,” she says. “She was brainwashed. We’re better now. She wants to help.”

“Hang on.” Bobby draws back. “You telling me she’s still ridin’ around in there?”

Jess hesitates, then nods, and Dean steps forward. “We vetted them, Bobby. We think she’s telling the truth. Our world’s Anna rebelled against Heaven, too, and wound up brainwashed and dead for her troubles.”

“I knew Anna well,” Cas adds. He’s standing a little awkwardly, hands by his sides, like he’s trying to look unthreatening and doesn’t really know how to go about it. “She was the leader of my garrison. When I first began to have thoughts of rebellion, she — helped me. Helped me help myself.”

“We’d like to be guarded,” Jess says quietly. “I’m fairly confident we’re free of their control — Anna wouldn’t be able to give me the wheel so readily if we weren’t — but we’d rather be safe.”

Bobby glances back at Sam. He’s the commander here; he’s supposed to be making these decisions, supposed to be stepping up and greeting the defector, supposed to be taking charge.

A long moment passes. Sam’s face battles for something like composure; it struggles in vain.

“Of — course,” he manages finally, pushing himself to his feet. His chair scrapes and skids, and he winces. “Ask Rowena to — to keep watch, she can — cuff your power, if you’d like her to.”

Everyone’s still staring at him. “O-kay,” says Bobby slowly.

Sam sucks in a deep, desperate breath. It fills his chest, swells it; he steadies. Just enough.

“We’re glad to have you,” he says, “welcome,” and inclines his head, and walks with slow, measured steps past Jess, past Dean, and down the corridor and out of sight.

---

Dean wants to go after him then and there.

But there’s debriefing to be done, and getting some food into Jess, and telling Bobby and Mom the details of what happened. He should be telling Sam — this is Sam’s business — but Sam’s nowhere to be seen, not even a flicker of emotion distinguishable from the general melee of the bunker and its inhabitants, and it’s nearly an hour later, the five of them deep in a discussion of the architecture of Michael’s new way out of Heaven, that Cas says in his mind, Dean — just go. He needs you, and Dean obeys.

Sam’s not in his lab. The door to his bedroom is closed, and the lights are all off. In the windowless depths of the bunker, it’s nearly pitch-black, but Dean has more-than-human eyes, and as he turns the doorknob and creaks it gently open, he can see Sam sitting on the far side of his bed, facing away, back rigid in the dark.

“I’m fine, Dean,” he says, the moment Dean’s through the door and closing it behind him.

“Yeah, bullshit,” says Dean, and comes to sit on the end of the bed, and waits.

The line of light under the door is the only thing for his human eyes to focus on. With his grace, he can sense the rest of the room: spare, severe, maybe even more so than it was before all this bullshit went down. It’s funny — Sammy used to like having things. Used to throw fits about books that got lost in their various moves; used to cling to the material evidence of his personhood like it was the difference between life and — not death. Death was never Sam’s fear. Like it was the difference between life and hunting.

He let all that go, at some point. Pared it away. “I should’ve warned you,” Dean says, quietly, into the dark.

“Why? It’s not — she’s not —”

The answer comes too swiftly to be anything but a lie. Dean snorts. “You and me both know that’s not true.”

Sam sucks in a deep, trembling breath. It sets the springs in the mattress shivering. Dean should really get him a memory foam one; neither of them are as young as they used to be.

“So, what?” asks Sam, harshly. “Am I supposed to tell her that I used to be in love with her doppelganger? That she burned on a ceiling? That the price for a world that Michael hasn’t destroyed — yet — is her life?”

“She’d pay it,” says Dean, steadily, because he hasn’t known Jess — either Jess — for long, but he knows that. He knows that on a level deeper even than Michael knows things; he knows that somewhere instinctive, in his bones.

Sam wheels to face him.

“She shouldn’t have to,” he snarls, striking the flat of his hand hard against the bed. There are tears on his face, snot and tears, and he demands, “How can you say that, like it’s — like she — like she had a choice? I had a choice. And they killed her to get to me, to keep me angry, to keep me hunting, and if I’d just — stayed the fuck away, or if I’d been honest with her, taught her what was out there, how to defend herself, she’d never —”

“Sam,” says Dean, quietly.

“Don’t! Just don’t,” Sam snaps. “You saw her. She’s one of the resistance, over there, she’s — just as strong and, and badass as any of them. She could’ve been that here, too. She could’ve defended herself. If I hadn’t needed her to be — sweet and innocent and as far from hunting as —”

He breaks off, breathing hard. “Sam,” says Dean again, and reaches out a tentative hand for his brother’s shoulder, and Sam twitches him away like a horse with a fly.

“We have paid,” he says slowly, dropping each word like a furious weight, “so fucking much. For this half-assed, not-quite-destroyed planet. And I’m — fine with that. I made my peace with that. But she —”

Dean thinks of Cas ramming an angel blade through his own mirror image’s heart. He thinks of Cas, in a world where he never had the chance to rebel; thinks of Cas with Naomi’s drill in his head and his eyes shining with madness. Cas with nothing to anchor him down. He wasn’t fit to live.

“She made it,” whispers Sam. “Even there. In any world without me — she made it. She should never have been the one to pay.”

This time, when Dean moves to pull him in, Sam goes. He curls over heavily, too big for this, and lets Dean jam his face against his sternum anyway. Lets Dean wrap his arms around him and grip his shoulder tight; lets Dean rock him, just a little, murmuring, “Hey, brother. Hey.”

And Sam sobs against him, sobs like he hasn’t since they were little more than kids, until Dean’s shirt is sticky with snot and the damp patch is growing cold against his skin.

When he finally stills enough to pry himself away and sit up, straightening again, Dean asks, because he can’t help it, “What did it feel like? When you saw her?”

Sam looks down at the floor. He says, in a voice more hollowed-out than Dean’s ever heard it, “Joy.”

Chapter Text

Dean finds Cas in the kitchen, after all the humans have gone to bed.

“Want anything?” he asks, eyeing the contents of the fridge, but he’s kind of given up on the whole eating-in-case-he-needs-it thing lately. Cas shakes his head, and Dean grabs them two beers, slides one across the table and twists open the other.

It doesn’t really taste like anything, but it’s shitty beer; it never really tasted like anything anyway. He drinks, and Cas follows suit, and then wipes his mouth and asks, “Is Sam going to be okay?”

Dean sets his own bottle down more slowly. “I don’t know,” he says, after a moment. “I mean — it’s Sam, so — yes? I think so. I just —”

He shakes his head.

“That battle shook him, man. And the fact that the siege is working so well — it’s good, but if I know Sam he’s going back over it constantly. Trying to think what would’ve happened if we’d just done that from the start. Then add this, and —”

He breaks off. But Cas nods like he understands.

“Cas,” Dean adds, in a low voice. It feels urgent, somehow; it feels necessary. “If I’d been there, in Apocalypse World — when you met you, I mean —”

“You wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Cas interrupts. He’s not quite looking at Dean. “None of you would. That was for me to face.”

Which — fuck, fine, he isn’t wrong. Still. “I hate it,” Dean confesses, in a near-whisper. The idea of an irredeemable Cas; an irretrievable Cas. A Cas he can’t reach. “I hate it so fucking much.”

But Cas is smiling. He stands, and finishes his beer; Dean briefly wonders how Cas-as-human did with the discovery that his usual rate of alcohol consumption was more than effective at getting him drunk. “She made me practice killing you, you know,” he says, conversationally. “Naomi. Thousands of times. In a warehouse full of Dean Winchesters.”

Dean blinks. He — did not know that. He definitely did not know that.

“It still didn’t take.” And Cas is rising, touching Dean’s face, briefly, with the back of his hand. His knuckles are rough and chapped. His thumb brushes Dean’s cheekbone. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

The strength of his affection curls around Dean’s chest, and squeezes. For a moment, he can’t breathe.

And then Cas is moving again, dropping his bottle in the recycling as he walks out of the kitchen, and Dean stays there sitting, head spinning, for a long time before he can finally convince himself to move.

---

He makes an attempt at sleeping after that, for form’s sake, but knows within thirty seconds of lying down in bed that it isn’t going to work.

Michael’s been pretty gun-shy about sleeping, since the dream. They have managed it once or twice — on the demon-hunt, a few other times — usually when Dean’s exhausted enough to drop right out like a stone. But it’s been a couple weeks, now, and he isn’t tired — isn’t particularly convinced that he wants to spend the next several hours staring at the ceiling and waiting for the morning to come.

He gives it five more minutes. Then he gets up, pulls his jeans back on, and goes to take Baby for a drive.

She’s not getting enough action, these days. With him and Cas winging everywhere now, and Dean mostly riding the pine before that, she’s barely been out of the garage all summer. He checks the oil, brake fluid, transmission before he starts her up; feels for that play in her steering column that’s been coming back more often lately. She’s good, though. She purrs gratefully at him, and he settles a hand for a moment on her dash in solidarity before shifting her into drive.

Kansas at night is a landscape transformed. Dean’s never lived anywhere long enough to notice these things before, but he’s started to realize that there are a thousand different Lebanons: Lebanon by moonlight, Lebanon under a hundred-degree sun; Lebanon with the ears of corn hanging heavy and the goldenrod nodding on roadsides. Lebanon with green shoots of winter wheat just poking up from the bare soil, with the stench of manure from the feedlot heavy on the air.

The country roads change, too. In early summer, before the grader comes through, they’re juddering, washboarded nightmares, shaking every bolt in Baby’s body. By August, they send up plumes of dust, pennants a mile long. In winter, they freeze hard, and melt to mud, and freeze again, until by spring they’re a rutted obstacle course, and he climbs Baby over their ridges as if she’s a Jeep.

Now, they’re smooth and eager-to-please, rising up to meet his tires. Insects dart crazily in his headlight beams.

With Michael’s grace, he can see more of Lebanon than ever. He can sense the dreams of children in their beds, and the pathways of mice skittering through the old grain elevator. He can tell the rails on the tracks are made of iron mined on the shores of Lake Superior; that it once settled from a two-billion-year-old ocean suddenly flush with oxygen and the earliest precursors to plants. He can discern some sense of who died in this lonely, half-tumbled-down farmhouse, and who against that telephone pole. He can listen in on the songbirds flying south by night, high above them, and feel the tug of magnets and memories on their tiny brains.

He can see how sitting and watching this, for centuries, would hold some appeal. He can understand why Cas loves it.

And yet you let him debase what he is, for you.

Michael’s voice in his head is cool, measured, unexpected. Dean’s fists jerk on the wheel. He clenches his jaw.

“What are you talking about,” he says.

Castiel. You heard the reaper; he’s fallen. He even wants to be human. Because of you.

Michael’s still speaking calmly, but there’s anger coiled deep within him. Anger Dean had no idea was there; anger he’s been riding around with, for days, for — weeks — waiting.

It’s immense. It’s powerful; it’s muscular as a snake.

It comes with a sinuous sense that this is a reckoning. That it was always coming; that he always knew, or should have known, that a day would arrive when Michael would remember himself enough to revolt.

He turns with steady hands onto a weedy drive. It leads to an old barn, but it’s overgrown now, and staked with No Trespassing signs; his headlights shine on a barbed wire gate before he switches them off. The barn itself is warped crazily, silhouetted against the night sky, the spine of its roof collapsed in a swooping curve. It looks like two bird wings, caught in the first wild leap into flight. Dean turns the key in Baby’s ignition, and she goes still.

Michael is tense and silent. Dean sighs.

“She’s not a reaper,” he says, out loud, “she’s Death. And I think Cas gets to want what Cas wants.”

And what of what I want? He’s still simmering. Still working himself up to the fullness of his fury — all those deferred rebellions. Every time he ever trusted Dean, ceded to his wishes, offered his advice; every moment taking the backseat. That first agreement: I will do what you ask.

Might as well get it over with.

“What do you want?” Dean fires back. “You’ve never said.”

The response is sudden, vicious, absolute. The snake in his chest is twisting around his heart, squeezing tight, and Michael’s hissing, with all the venom of a thousand years of anger, I want to go back. I want the Apocalypse. I want to tear your brother’s throat out; I want to purify the Earth —

He’s squeezing the air out of Dean’s lungs. Dean chokes for breath. “Really?” he gasps, through the iron bands around his throat. “‘Cause that’s not what you said back then. You said you — loved Lucifer. You said you didn’t want to kill him any more than I wanted to kill Sam.”

I lied, bellows Michael in his mind. I LIED, to bend you to my will — I wanted nothing more than to kill him —

“Well Lucifer’s dead,” Dean pants, “and you’re still here, so I guess you — got what you wanted, right? So why — not do it? Why not start — remaking the Earth — in your image?”

He gets only an instant of warning, before Michael’s fury goes nuclear.

It blasts out of him. Storm clouds roil, and lightning forks down from the sky; corn stalks flatten to the ground. The barn rumbles and collapses into splinters, and Dean flinches down in his seat. Barbed wire strains and snaps, lashing through the air; one end strikes Baby’s windshield and cracks it. Thunder clashes again, and there’s electricity running down the snapped wires, arcing between them, illuminating them ghostly blue. The grass is catching, burning, flames licking toward Baby’s wheels —

— and then the sky opens up, and rain pours down on them for thirty seconds like they’re standing under God’s fire extinguisher, and then it’s done.

Baby rocks back into place on her axles, and Dean can breathe. His body is unharmed; his car is unharmed. Everything else he can see, for a mile or more around, is flattened to the ground.

He can’t help but feel a needle of reckless amusement. “So that’s your image, huh? Destruction? Nothingness? Makes sense, actually; that’s what Apocalypse World looked like, most places. I’ve had you riding around inside me for a while now. Looks like a pretty accurate picture of your soul.”

Shut up, snarls Michael. SHUT UP.

“You know what I think?” snaps Dean. He’s not sure where it’s coming from, this furious desire to wrench the knife, to have done with this, but it’s like he’s on rails and he can’t stop. “I think your problem is that you loved your brother. I think he used that against you every chance he got. I think you loved Adam, and he used that against you, too, in the Cage; I think he tortured both of you ‘til you went mental, ‘til there was nothing left of you but this sad — pathetic — quivering — little thing.

There’s a long silence in Dean’s head. His chest is heaving hard, still recovering; his ears are ringing.

He didn’t torture me, Michael says, and Dean goes still.

He sounds furious, still, but small with it. He didn’t torture me, not ever. He tortured A-Adam. He tortured — any human I favored, back before the Fall, when I was merely following our Father’s edict to love them. He said I had to learn; I had to see how spineless and pathetic they were, and then he’d rip out their spines —

Dean swallows. He’s not going to feel sorry for this asshole. “So — what? You decided he was right? Human lives mean nothing? Your dad was full of crap?”

For an instant, two, Michael’s silent. He’s hyperventilating with his wings again, sweeping them too-hard-too-fast over the ruined field, and the words rip out of him like a physical thing, like a piece of Dean’s lungs, torn loose and spit free and building impossibly, a wild crescendo:

“Your lives are GAMES!”

The roar of it takes them both by surprise. The earth shakes, again, Baby rocked by a blast of wind; but Michael’s not done, he’s ranting now, Do you not see that? They don’t matter. You don’t matter. You flare into being for a meager instant, and pass from this Earth as foolish as you entered it, and you — YOU — are meant to be the pinnacle of my Father’s creation?

Dean opens his mouth to shoot something back, but Michael twists the air from his throat. Your brother agonizes over what he did to that girl, like it matters. Like it’s not all brief and pointless and insubstantial. That angel — that angel loves you, he wants to fall for you, and I don’t understand how, I don’t understand why he would give up all he has for — for a toy , for something that will have only the merest increment of existence —

I’m not a toy, Dean wants to say, but he feels suddenly weak; he didn’t — the thing with Cas, it’s been kind of intense, yeah, but is it really like — that?

Michael blasts by the thought uncaring. It makes sense that Lucifer fell. He cared too little about our Father’s commands, and too much about humanity; he cared about destroying them. But I — I was the good son, I —

Abruptly, the energy of fury abandons him, and he sags with grief.

I failed. I failed him, I failed humanity — in every way I could have failed, I did. But if I can’t — if I can’t learn to be a brother in a billion years, if I can’t bring a single soul to reward — how can you matter? He sounds pleading, suddenly, desperate. How can your little lives mean anything, if mine has not?

The darkness settles over his thoughts like a blanket of lead; like the shadow of a moon. And suddenly, in a wave of anger, the leash on Dean’s tongue snaps.

“You think our lives are games?” he demands. “Your life is a game. One you let your brother set the rules of from day one, so you could never win. You talk about failing? All of your failures — all of them — are about your brother. Failing to save him, failing to save people from him. You never tried to do anything else.”

Michael’s grace shudders in a drawn out sob. A firefly blinks on the windshield, a tiny beacon. In the distant sky, a star falls.

For a moment, it’s doubled by the crack in the windshield, refracted in twin streaks, brief and beautiful. It winks out, silent, with a final brief burst of light, just as it merges again into one.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy,” Dean continues, harshly, “but your brother’s dead.

And so should I be, says Michael, low and anguished. Without my brother, I am — what am I?

“Oh, bullshit,” snaps Dean. “Me and Sam used to talk like that, and you know what? It sucked. It’s no way to live. You want to talk games? This, down here — this is real. We live and we die; we only get so many chances, and we make them count. We make mistakes, we learn from them, we get better. And I don’t know what you read in that book of Billie’s, but if it’s true, you’ve only got so many chances yourself.” He glares at the crack in the windshield; glares at the pointless constellations, still shining as they have always shone, still impossibly remote. “So maybe you should stop wasting my time with this bullshit and decide what you’re gonna do with the time you got.”

It doesn’t happen in some — rush of feeling, some grand reconciliation.

They’re just both sitting there, silent. They’ve both wrung themselves out; said all they can possibly say. Milked every last drop of fury and resentment dry.

They sit there until another firefly begins to flash, and the one on the windshield flies away. They sit there until the moon is nearly setting, and some distant frogs remember themselves enough to begin a tentative chorus once more. They sit there until Dean’s ass starts to ache and his bare arms start to feel cold and his thoughts turn to blankets, and Cas, and Sam, and hot soup. Then Michael says, a little stiffly, We should put it back together.

Almost before Dean’s understood the words, the corn is straightening again, flushing night-green, leaves whispering. Rusty tendrils of barbed wire coil and and slither through the grass, climb gnarled posts as they float from where they’ve fallen, tug tight, knit with their neighbors, twang as they’re pulled secure. And the barn is rising again, blooming like one of Michael’s moths from its little hill. The twin peaks of its gables jut high; the weathered shingles shuffle back into place. It’s as it was before: eerie and dramatic, broken-backed, forlorn.

“Why not fix it all the way?” asks Dean, distracted for a moment from the lingering coldness between them.

Michael doesn’t answer for a moment. I liked it better this way, he finally says, and Dean takes his cue, and starts the engine, and turns the wheel toward home.

---

It’s later than Dean thought, and they’ve driven further than he thought, and the birds are singing and the river’s surface silvering with dawn by the time he pulls down the bunker’s driveway and steers the Impala back into the garage.

His bed is tempting, his usual tension distant enough that sleep sounds downright simple. But as he turns down the corridor to his bedroom, he hears voices murmuring in the kitchen, a woman’s, and then Sam’s.

He pauses to listen.

“Your mom told me about my — who I was in this world,” Jess says quietly. “I understand now why you reacted so strongly to my presence.”

Dean tenses, waiting for Sam’s reply. But it’s the little half-laugh, the one that’s not quite genuine but not cause for alarm, either. “You’ve really got a thing like Dean and Michael, don’t you? You can access Anna’s senses?”

“Yes,” says Jess. “It took us a while to work out — especially since we were undercover in Michael’s army — but yes.”

There’s a moment of silence between them. Then Sam says, “I’ve been possessed a few times. But never — we were never on the same side.”

“That sounds terrible.”

“You would know.”

“I suppose I would.” She laughs, a little sadly, but it’s light, still; it’s bearable. “She was full of holes. I could tell that, even slammed to the side I was. It took a long time to put her back together.”

They’re both quiet for a moment. Then Sam asks, “How did it happen? You and Anna?”

A rustle of clothing, like a shrug; the clink of a mug on a counter. “She came to me.”

“I’m surprised you trusted her.”

“I didn’t. It was at the point in the war where there were very few humans left on earth, and most of us who’d made it were resistance; the angels were running out of vessels. I’d just taken charge of the encampment in Big Sur, and she started circling me. Blowing out windows. I figured they’d really gotten desperate, to try and enlist me.

Dean can hear Sam’s frown. “I thought Michael’s whole play was to find a chosen people and deliver the Earth to them. He didn’t have anyone who believed in his cause left?”

Jess pauses. Then she says, a little delicately, “They were slaughtered.”

Sam starts.

“Not by our people,” Jess says quickly. “Bobby kept a tight leash on things. But we weren’t the only groups out there fighting the angels; there were others, far more militant. Some of them even went all monster-cult — turned themselves into vampires or werewolves to fight better. To take out more enemies. It backfired when they started to starve.”

“And these — cults — took out Michael’s human allies.”

“Them and ordinary humans.” Jess’s voice is deliberately tough. “There was infighting; a lot of it. Brothers from angelic bloodlines murdering each other over who’d get to be the vessel — slaughtering each other’s children. Things got really ugly, really fast.”

“I can’t imagine.” Sam’s voice sounds warm, a little hesitant. “How did it — start? I mean, how did you — did you go to Stanford?” He cuts himself off. “I’m sorry; you don’t have to —”

“No, it’s okay.” A hand settling briefly over another doesn’t make a sound, not really, but Dean hears it anyway, or maybe senses the tiny frisson in the air. “I did go to Stanford, then UCSC for grad school. I was doing fieldwork in the Central Valley, environmental justice stuff, when things started to go bad.” The smile in her voice is brittle. “I was debating whether I should go home and see my family — there’d been some scary near misses, earthquakes and then a freak tornado — but they kept telling me they were fine. Then, in one day, every major city in California got blasted off the map.”

“Jesus,” Sam breathes.

“It’s not the worst place to be, the Central Valley,” Jess continues. “When everything goes to shit, I mean. The community I was working with took me in. There’s food; it doesn’t get too cold. But at some point someone else figures out they want to live there, too, and then someone else decides to shut off your water supply, and then you’re fighting for control of the fields and the irrigation systems, or else you’re running. Some of my friends — they decided to fight. I learned to fight, too, but in the end I went with the ones who ran.”

There’s another gentle clink of ceramic on metal, the dry sound of Sam swallowing. “When did you meet Bobby?”

“Years later. I’d been captured, and transported to what used to be Denver. He was part of the team that got me out.” She smiles, suddenly, with such brilliance that it beams right through the bunker’s halls and catches in Dean’s chest. “He had my niece in his camp — my cousin’s kid. I hadn’t thought anyone was left.”

“Alexis?” Sam asks, softly.

“Katherine.” The word is lovingly spoken, and heavy with sadness. “Alexis didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” She laughs, whisper-thin. “It’s good to — talk about it. It’s been a while since I’ve really had a chance.”

For a while, there’s quiet between them. Then Sam says, with evident effort, “So — when Anna possessed you.”

“Right.” Jess takes in a breath; she sounds rattled, a little. “She spoke to me about it for — weeks. Gave me intelligence on Michael’s forces, and their movements. I evacuated one of our outposts on her warning, and didn’t lose anyone when angels attacked it. It could be hard for her to give specific enough information to be useful — angels without vessels are less anchored in time, it’s harder for them to understand causative chains of events — but she knew she wanted to help me, and I was starting to trust her more.”

“And then?”

Jess sighs. “We’d meet on this bluff over the ocean, when I was out gathering food. One day Katherine was with me — it was the peak of the berry harvest — when Anna came to warn us there were angels coming. There was no time to get under cover; she wanted me to say yes then and there.”

The clink of silverware. “And she’d been reprogrammed? It was a trap?”

“No.” Jess’s voice is warm, but sad. “I thought it might be, though. I wouldn’t say yes. So — Katherine did.”

Dean sucks in his breath at the exact same moment Sam does. He doesn’t know this Katherine, in any universe, but — a kid —

“She was incredible,” Jess admits softly. “Killed every last one of them, and dumped their bodies in the ocean where they wouldn’t lead anyone back to us. Then she brought Kat back to me, completely unharmed, and left her, and told me she’d be back in one week’s time if I wanted to — if I wanted to speak again. We did, and I said yes.”

“But they’d gotten to her in the meantime,” Sam concludes quietly. Then, more urgently, “Is Katherine still —?”

“Bobby thinks she might be.” Her voice carries a terrible burden of hope. “California split off from the rest of the rebels, several years ago, about when the Pony Express really got shut down. Bunch of guys on Harleys with ham radio setups,” she adds, at Sam’s apparent confusion; “they used to be good at passing messages around checkpoints. It’s how Bobby and I kept in touch. He’s not sure now, but as of the last time he heard from Katherine — she was alive.”

“You want to go back,” says Sam.

“I — yes,” Jess admits. Her voice has gone quieter. “If I can.”

Another long silence lapses into being, weighty as a physical thing. Dean swallows. He should leave them; he should let them finish this conversation in privacy.

“They’re alive here,” says Jess, almost too softly to hear. “Aren’t they?”

Sam doesn’t hesitate. Doesn’t qualify, or explain how he knows. “Yes.”

“Are you still — in touch?”

“No.” A rough, breathy laugh. “But I keep tabs. It’s — sort of hard to explain what we do.”

“It must be strange,” Jess murmurs, “living this kind of life with everyone — everyone all around you, none the wiser.”

“It’s good they’re none the wiser,” Sam says, and he’s rising; there’s water rushing from the sink, plates being set in it. “It’s — everything we work for.”

“Still,” says Jess, and then, almost urgently, “Sam — I’m not her. I didn’t know her. But I’m so sorry for your loss.”

The water shuts off abruptly. Sam says, “Yeah. Yeah — yours too.”

---

They meet that afternoon to decide what to do about Heaven.

Jack is back down from Chicago, with Maggie in tow. She’s matured into a tough and capable leader, over the last few months, and Dean thinks Jack’s been learning from her. He carries himself with a little more confidence, a little more reserve, and greets Jess and Anna gravely. Then his face cracks into a smile and he gives everyone else a little wave, and they settle down to business.

Bobby and Jess and Anna all know in a heartbeat where Michael’s new gate will be: three thousand feet in the air over Abilene, Texas.

It’s place he tore Lucifer to shreds, the first time. The one place on Earth he left standing, armored against all outside incursions, even after every last one of the chosen people he’d led there had killed one another off.

“It would be feasible to mount a human attack,” Bobby points out, “if we had access to military aircraft.”

They exchange glances. “Bobby,” says Mom, gently, “one of the disadvantages of operating in a world the angels haven’t destroyed yet is that the military still keeps a pretty tight lock on its aircraft.”

Bobby shrugs. “I was just asking,” he says, and they move on.

And on. They go back and forth, around and around; attacking the sandbox didn’t end well last time, but if Michael succeeds in building a new gate for Heaven and counteracting Metatron’s spell, angels will be able to use their wings freely — they won’t even need to use the portal to access Earth. Right now, the field of battle is probably as favorable as it’s going to get. But they’ve tried fighting on this field, and at the end of the day — even with Jess and Anna on their side, even with Dean’s Michael somewhat cooperative — the odds are not with them.

There’s more news, too. Jess says more angels than Bobby ever guessed made it through the portal from Apocalypse World — more than three times as many, most of them smuggled in without vessels. Many of them found new ones, before the re-taking of Heaven; some are still waiting, trapped, for the opportunity to return to Earth and take on human form.

“We need a bigger army,” says Mom, voice grim.

They all know they’re not going to get one.

“All right.” Sam spreads his hands, ticking his points off on his fingers. “Right now, we have four angelic beings — one archangel, one nephilim, Anna, and Cas. Three of whom can fly.”

Dean doesn’t think Cas means it to be obvious, the way he shrivels with shame. He sends a blast of angry denial at him in answer. No.

Cas goes still. At least he's not hunching in on himself further.

“Plus sixty-seven humans,” Sam continues, “and one witch.”

They’ve been through all of this before. “With the element of surprise —”

“But there’s no way we can surprise them,” Maggie interrupts. She looks a little shocked to realize, suddenly, that all eyes are on her. She swallows. “Right? They know we know about the new gate. They’ll expect us to be waiting, when they open it.”

Jack says, “What if we open it first?”

Sam blinks.

Dean blinks.

Dean says, “Can we do that?”

“Yes,” says Jack, at the same moment that Cas replies, “We believe Jack might be able to. To — punch through, where Michael has already weakened Heaven’s walls.”

Everyone is staring. Cas adds, after a moment, “We believe that nephilim power may hold — an unusual sway, over the fabric of Heaven. Jack sensed it last time, and he and I have been discussing the details.”

Sam glances at Dean. “Does Michael agree?”

Michael feels oddly remote inside him. It takes him a moment to process the question, and respond: The child could do it. Yes.

Dean nods.

“I’m sorry,” Bobby cuts in, “but how does that help us? Seems to me, ripping Heaven open just means more angels coming at us, faster.”

“The siege is working,” offers Mom.

“But it can’t indefinitely.” Cas has his hands folded tightly on the table, knuckles white. “And we’ll stand a better chance against Michael’s angels if they’re disorganized — if they’re not expecting an all-out fight.”

Something about his posture sends knots of fear twisting through Dean’s gut. “Cas, what are you saying?”

Cas squares his gaze on Dean. “If we’re going to do this, we need to give it everything we have.”

Dean crosses his arms. “Yeah, and?”

“I can’t fly, Dean. I won’t be useful at the gate. But if I can free Dumah and the others —”

Of course. Of fucking course.

No,” says Dean. “No. It won’t make a fucking difference, Cas!”

Jess is frowning. “I see your point, Castiel, but — Michael regards the imprisoned angels as his insurance. They’re there to be Heaven’s battery, freeing up the rest of his forces to deploy where he will, once the gates are open. If you release them, you run the risk of destroying Heaven entirely.”

Cas’s jaw juts out. “I have to try.”

“What, and risk yourself just so we can add six crappy powered-down angels to the fight?” Dean demands. “No.

I’m a crappy powered-down angel, Dean,” says Cas, and that is it, that is fucking it. Dean stands, chair shrieking with the inhuman speed of the motion; his limbs are shaking. He opens his mouth to say — what, he doesn’t know, something to make Cas see sense, to realize they’re better sticking together, to —

“Shut up,” says Michael.

For a confused moment, no one quite realizes who’s spoken.

Cas is still opening his mouth to argue, and Bobby’s looking at Dean like he’s suspicious of his sanity; Mom’s caught up in a whispered exchange with Sam, heads bent together. Jack’s lips part in a little o, and Maggie glances at him swiftly. It’s only Jess — Anna — who raises her eyebrows and crosses her arms and sits back in her chair.

Dean considers, for a moment, grabbing the reins back. Michael doesn’t usually try for them, so when he does, it catches Dean off guard — but his grip is easy to shake.

But Michael’s speaking in his mind. Wait.

Out loud, he says, “Castiel is right; the angels must be freed from Heaven’s prison. Dean and I will go with him.”

“Hang on,” says Sam, “you’re a third of our firepower at the gate. More than a third. If you —”

“Silence.” Dean feels a shred of Michael’s lingering disdain for his brother, but before he can protest, Michael’s stepping stiffly back up to the table. His motions feel alien, under angelic control. “You say you need a bigger army. I can get you a bigger army. I have —” he draws in a deep breath, experimenting with the capacity of Dean’s lungs — “a plan.”

Do you now. Everyone’s staring at him now; everyone’s gone silent. And Dean feels something blossom in his chest.

Something reckless. Something confident, something like what Michael feels with a pair of cards in his hand or a pool cue tapping on the floor, something like watching the roulette wheel spin. He feels the smile start from somewhere deep inside him. It fizzes up his throat, tugs at the corner of his mouth.

Michael leans forward and rests his palms on the table. He looks around, meets their eyes one by one. He ducks his chin, and lets the smile grow.

“It’s a bit of a gamble,” he says.

Chapter Text

The drive to Abilene is ten long sun-blazed hours, Dean at the wheel and Sam and two open laptops crammed into the passenger seat, barely room for his knees.

Cas and Jack are in the seat behind them. It means something, having his family together like this, in the end; it means something seeing Mom’s car in the rearview, then Bobby’s, Jody’s, then Donna’s monster truck. Dean hums to Zeppelin, taps his thumb on the wheel.

They stop for gas in Salina, and then again in Guthrie. Dean’s passengers shuffle each time: Sam to compare strategy notes with Mom and Jess and Anna, Jack to ride with Bobby and Maggie for a while. Then it’s just Dean and Cas and the open road, a pile of junk food neither of them really wants between them.

The grass along the roadsides is parched and pale, the fields an impossible irrigation-green. The ditches are all red dirt, puddles of water muddy brown or reflecting the brilliant blue sky. Wind turbines labor on their enormous pedestals, row after row. Their immensity makes them look slow, but the wind is whipping, frothing layers of cottony clouds across the sky, shaking the leaves of the little oak trees huddled in the draws.

Dean puts his hand on the seat between them, brushing aside an unopened bag of potato chips. Cas puts his hand on top of it, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“We should maybe talk about this,” Dean suggests, after two hours. “If we make it through tomorrow.”

Cas traces the lines of Dean’s palm with his thumb. He nods, agreeably, and doesn’t answer.

In Weatherford, at a teeming truck stop massed with cars and semis and sunscreened families, Sam joins them again. Cas relocates to the back seat as if he was never anywhere else, but that’s okay too, that’s good. Dean won’t be able to look after his little brother, tomorrow. He’ll take this while he can.

He makes Cas dig through the box of cassettes for this one tape — the one he made when Sam was fourteen and surly, girl troubles at school and Dad troubles at home, the year Dean turned nineteen and finally stopped pretending a high school diploma was in his future, and only told Dad later that he’d put Sam’s name alone on the transfer form.

It had been a fight, in the restrained, disappointment-sour way Dean and John fought — I didn’t raise you to be a high school dropout and no, you raised me to be a hunter — and Dean had wound up on the bench for most of that February in Mississippi, driving a shitbox of a car around town and picking up shifts doing oil changes when they were slammed at Roy’s down the road. He’d fixed the stove in their dingy rented apartment and learned to cook a few things, like real cooking, not box shit. It hadn’t been that bad, except when Sam started citing the whole saga chapter and verse in his list of grievances against Dad, and burst into tears one day on the way to school when Dean told him to give it a rest.

It wasn’t about Dean, not really. It was about a girl at school and adolescence and frustration and the curse of always moving on, and Dean went home and scrounged through Dad’s tapes — he’d been making his own copies, for the shitbox — and started making a list, and by the time he’d gotten back to school to pick Sam up, he’d had it ready: all the songs Sam loved and hated to admit he loved, the ones he couldn’t help singing along to. The ones that went with good times, all three of them in the car together, the ones that might remind Sam he did belong to this family and it did make him happy, sometimes.

The title on the tape is visible but faded, printed in shaky block capitals that are hard to credit as Dean’s own handwriting. He slides it into the slot, and the first drumbeats of “The Fire Inside” sound, and Sam bursts out laughing.

“Seriously?” he asks, when he’s done. “The ‘Sam’s Bitch Face’ mix?”

“Hey,” says Dean, “these are some jams.”

By the end of the song, even Cas is humming along to the piano line — occasionally wavering out a tuneless “the fire inside” a beat too late — and Sam’s fucking gone, and yeah, it turns out he does still know every single lyric to "The Weight," start to end. And “Rocket Queen,” and “Ruby Tuesday,” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which will never fail to crack Dean up.

He’s too busy grinning to do much singing himself, but Cas’s voice joins the choruses, and he hums vaguely along when he doesn’t know the words, a low, fond thrum behind Dean’s right shoulder. Dean swallows down the warm prickling reaching feeling that gives him, and belts out, “I wanna know — have you ever seen the rain —”

When they finish “The Gambler,” they rewind to play it again in Michael’s honor. They roll into Abilene with the windows down and all three of them — all four, even Michael’s getting into it in his obscure way — howling out the chorus, volume all the way up, deliriously happy in that end-of-the-world kind of way, laughing themselves to tears.

---

The motel is a few blocks from downtown, off a sun-bleached parking lot with sun-bleached, adobe-hued walls. The heat shimmers off the pavement. Even the run-down outdoor pool looks unappealingly warm. The guy at the front desk stares at them like he hasn’t seen this many guests in years.

Dean isn’t angling for anything when they divvy up rooms; he really isn’t. But Jess and Anna are sharing with Mom, and Jack’s bunking with Sam, and that leaves him and Cas, the obvious pair.

They move their bags inside, before dinner. The door closes behind them and Cas walks over to the far bed, looks vaguely at the wall for a moment. His eyes pass over the mirror, the TV, as he turns, and he gives Dean a lopsided smile. “So — last night on Earth. What are your plans?”

He looks so fucking beautiful right now. He looks rumpled and care-worn and old, and Dean’s never loved anyone more in his life.

“I thought I’d just sit here quietly,” he offers, smiling, and Cas laughs, but then he’s across the room, suddenly and saying, “Dean,” and his voice is low and urgent, but Michael’s there; they feel him, both of them, and Cas reaches — falters — stops.

Dean catches his wrist in one hand. He’s not sure if he’s trying to stop Cas from touching him, or from pulling away. He leans closer. “If we make it through this,” he says, fiercely, “hell, if we don’t make it through this. I’ll find you. Okay? No matter what happens.”

“I’ll find you,” Cas echoes, and touches Dean’s face with his fingers, and drops his hand.

For dinner they walk to a steakhouse two blocks away, with an old-school wood plank facade and enough space for all of them in its massive dining room. The burgers are decently priced and gloriously juicy, and Dean bites into his and tries to imagine the flavor, tries to taste the smoke and the sauce, to draw it from the minds of the hunters all around him, just in case it’s his last one.

Some of the younger hunters are talking about going to a bar after this; some of them are talking about a strip club. Dean doesn’t begrudge it; hell, he’s been there. But somehow, they all end up wandering back to the motel together anyway, Sam in the lead, talking quietly with Jody; somehow they all gather in the parking lot floodlights, watching Sam with hope and a sober sort of anxiety, like they expect him to say something inspirational.

Sam realizes it at about the moment Dean does. He looks around, and his face is calm, but his throat bobs when he swallows.

“Get some rest, if you can,” he says, quietly. “We’re destroying Heaven in the morning.”

---

There’s a hotel in downtown Abilene — no, it’s a museum now, says Bobby, who knows this kind of shit even in a world not his own — with a massive neon sign on its roof, elegant ten-foot-high letters on spindly scaffolding, glowing red even by the light of day. You can see it for blocks around, printed like typewriter letters on the sky: The Grace.

Some hotelier named it after his daughter, Bobby says. A hundred years ago. Cas glances at Dean, and Dean glances at Cas, and feels the ripple of Michael’s amusement across the still pool that is his grace.

“Make sure you’ve got salt and iron on you,” Sam tells the assembled hunters. “This isn’t remotely over, if we win.”

If they win. If the ghosts fall. If Heaven is empty.

Michael says he can turn the displaced souls to fight for their cause. He hasn’t been able to explain how, or why; he clams up every time Dean tries to press him on the subject. It’s infuriating. The barest thread of hope; an article of faith.

It’s the best they’ve got.

Sam has his own duffel of weapons on his shoulder. A familiar image, from so many hunts, so many times it was just the two of them against the world. Dean’s shoulder feels bare without it. He’s got none of his hunter’s arsenal, not this time — just his angel blade and, rippling between his ribs, his personal nuclear bomb.

“Hey,” he says, voice low under the clatter of guns, but Sam turns. He catches Baby’s keys one-handed when Dean tosses them, but his eyes widen, just a little.

Dean swallows. “Take care of her if I don’t —”

“Shut up,” says Sam, pocketing the keys, and then his arm is around Dean’s shoulders, tight, the other one wrapping around his ribs. Dean finds his face buried in flannel, and breathes it in — Sam smells like Dad used to, gunmetal and wool — and then Sam’s clapping him hard on the back, once, inhaling deeply, stepping away.

“I’ll see you,” he says, not quite meeting Dean’s eyes, and Dean echoes, “See you,” and they go.

Baby leads the way out of the parking lot. The convoy of hunters behind her, and they raise hands in parting to Dean and Cas as they go, offer nods and half-glimpsed smiles. Jack waves from the passenger seat of Mom’s car like he’s off to the beach for the day, and Dean can’t help shaking his head and grinning at that, sending a parting thought: Take care of yourself, kid.

I will. I’ll take care of all of them, says Jack, though of course he can’t, and Dean shakes his head and lets it go.

Jess is riding in Bobby’s passenger seat. Bringing up the rear, this time, and she meets Dean’s eyes, calm and steady, until they turn the corner, and are out of sight.

Then the parking lot is empty. Dean turns to find Cas is already looking at him. “Are you ready?” he asks.

Dean nods, and swallows. He reaches for Cas’s shoulder, and wings them away.

---

There’s just one guard left at the sandbox. One of Cesar and Jesse’s men, whose wife just had a baby, back home in Guadalajara; he’s leaving as soon as Dean and Cas are through. She knows her way around a salt circle, he says; can protect herself until he gets there, if it comes to that. If it doesn’t come to that — well, he’ll get to meet his baby girl.

He’s a grim-faced, quiet sort of man, the kind who’s learned to nurture his joy by holding it close, not letting it out for just anyone to see. He gives them a nod when they materialize, and gestures them on, formally, as if this is a ritual any of them have performed before.

The playground is eerie and deserted, half in ruins, morning mist still burning off. If there are angelic guards, they must be inside. There’s no one else to be seen.

Cas hesitates at the lip of the sandbox. He glances over at Dean. “How is he?”

Michael’s been at a low simmer for two days. He’s letting it build, now; he’s a caged bird of prey, wild and tense and still all at once. He says, into both of their minds, I’m good.

For a moment, Dean thinks Cas is going to ask again. He doesn’t. He merely turns and leads the way into the portal, and flashes, and disappears.

Dean steps after him onto the sand. He can sense the architecture of this gate, through Michael’s eyes, the way it’s buttressed and restricted; his wings feel squeezed, strangled under its low arch. He steps forward again, again, and —

It’s not sand that meets his shoes. It’s a hard surface, immaculate and smooth, and he takes one more step and blinks his eyes to find that Cas has already dispatched the lone guard, wiping his blade on the fabric of his pants and scanning down the hallway. His grace echoes off the walls like fragments of glass; it blazes with something that isn’t quite light.

The hall is long and white and empty. The dead angel’s blood is stark red on the monochrome floor. Its surface is hard and mirror-polished, but somehow doesn’t make a sound under Cas’s footsteps. Doors without knobs line the walls.

Dean pauses, for just a moment, where he is on the threshold. He’s not sure if it’s his hesitation or Michael’s. This is — something else. Something that, in all his long years fighting in the battles of Heaven and Hell, freedom and fate, he’s never quite had to face. Not like this.

He takes a deep breath and hurries after Castiel.

“It doesn’t look like last time I was here,” he whispers. Even that sound carries in the stillness. “Last time there was —”

“A road, I know,” Cas murmurs back. “Shh — in here.”

This door has no knob, either, but it opens at Cas’s touch. He glances up the corridor, down again, and then pulls Dean inside and seals the door behind them.

Now — they wait.

“Last time, you perceived Heaven as it would have made sense to you,” Cas explains, in a low voice. “A series of experiences strung along a two-lane blacktop. Now that you’re carrying Michael’s consciousness, his more extensive experience has overridden the Heaven of your own invention.” He pauses. “My presence probably makes a difference, too.”

It didn’t used to be like this, contributes Michael. It used to be — more open. Vaulted ceilings and colonnades. An image presents itself in Dean’s mind, suddenly: walking over marble flagstones past rows of ornate columns on either side. Beyond them, a candle-lit dining table laden with meat and wine. A quiet, rough-stone room illumined by a single shaft of light. A pitching chariot, golden and red in the dust; a pebbled beach at the foot of a cliff, waves hissing loud in the stones.

There are more archways, half-glimpsed, beyond each of those — an endless open-air market of personal heavens, a mosaic of human joy. For an instant, Dean imagines being able to stroll through them at will, one after another, these pinnacles of elation or contentment or peace. The thought pierces him with a deep spike of melancholy. The image fades.

He blinks into the darkness, trying to readjust his vision. “It used to all be like that?”

“It did,” murmurs Cas. He’s close enough that even Dean’s human senses can feel the warmth of him, the rush of his breath on the skin of his neck. “I believe they started to have trouble with souls wandering into other heavens, and changed it.”

There was a long debate. Some thought that no soul should ever want to leave its true Heaven, and if they did, it meant we had failed in constructing it; others felt that it was humans’ own fault for falling, and that a creature that would leave the safety of the Garden could never be expected to be satisfied with any paradise, even one of their own making.

“Sounds boring,” Dean says. “One happy memory, forever. Just — frozen like that.”

But even as he says it, it feels like a lie. A peaceful night in the bunker — any night, with Sam and Cas, maybe Jack dozing on his shoulder as a movie flickers at low volume on the TV —

Except that it wouldn’t really be Cas, or Jack, or even Sam. It wouldn’t be the same.

He blinks. The real Cas is right in front of him, both hazy and impossibly defined in the gloom. His true form fills the closet with glimmering shadows. He’s looking at Dean with a squint, that one he gets when he’s processing new information, and it means more than he quite wants to betray. “I didn’t know that,” he says.

Dean blinks. Know — what? Did Cas just read his mind?

We did not think it best to share the details of the theological debate with lower orders of seraphim, says Michael. Joshua nearly resigned over the whole affair.

Right. They’re still talking about the heavens. Dean feels his cheeks redden. “Can’t look good,” he comments, over his embarrassment. “When even paradise can’t nail the customer satisfaction.”

Michael coils restlessly. It was never supposed to be this way.

There are things he’s still holding to himself. Half-answers to Dean’s probing — Heaven doesn’t work like that. No, only an archangel could —. He’s been calmer than Dean ever could have imagined; more focused than seemed possible, a month ago. He’s still edgy with nerves, though. His grace still feels like it’s made of teeth.

Cas has to work his left arm up between their bodies to check the watch on his wrist. Rowena spelled it to keep time with Central Daylight, even though Heaven tends to get vague about these things. He peers at its face. “Any minute now.”

The words are barely out of his mouth when the BOOM rings through the very electrons of their wings.

Dean staggers, and Cas falls heavily against him, knocking them both into the wall. The wall is shaking, too, the door is juddering in its frame, testing the limits of right angles, of Pythagorean geometry. There are distant voices shouting — where? — the new gate! — did he tell you-? — we’d better —

Another blow. There’s a high-pitched singing in Dean’s ears, but it isn’t Michael. It’s not anything with a tongue or a mind of its own; it’s the walls of Heaven itself.

Again. The world is trembling so hard he can’t tell if he’s making a sound; his vocal chords are vibrating, or feel like it, but the rest of his body is, too. The rest of his grace — shot through with gold now, with humming, splintering fractures. He’s being shaken apart. He’s being made anew. He clutches Cas’s hip, presses his forehead to his shoulder, feels his teeth quake in his jaw.

The singing builds. It’s accompanied by a roar, now, and a hum at the pitch of the world.

Don’t worry, says a voice in his head. It’s in his head but not in his head; it’s everywhere, the air and the walls and the atoms and the light, there’s light now, the darkness of their closet forgotten. It’s a bright, friendly voice, a familiar voice. We won’t hurt you if you don’t get in our way. We just want Michael to stop.

Then Jack strikes one more blow, and Heaven caves open.

The closet shudders and bursts, expelling Dean and Cas onto the floor outside in a heap. There’s no one around, though — just an empty hallway, suffused now with the golden light of Jack’s magic. The rush of possibility sweeps through Dean. He is powerful. He could go anywhere — do anything.

The gates of Heaven are open.

The walls around them feel insubstantial, shot through with gold and suggestion. Enough of this, says Michael, and snaps Dean’s fingers, and suddenly it’s as it was in his vision. The walls fall away. Columns soar, dense with ornamentation, to a ceiling that’s painted in shifting skyscapes. They’re hung with dense ivy, here, and there a grape arbor, and there are children laughing somewhere out of sight. Cigarette smoke drifts from a gallery ahead, along with voices in a language Dean doesn’t understand — or he does, it’s Lao, but trying to hold that fragment of Michael’s vast knowledge in his brain along with everything else makes his head hurt, so he stops.

There’s a screech somewhere, a skidding of tires, a man swearing. Then a woman ducks out through an archway and out of a motorcycle helmet in one motion, dark hair falling loose. “Henri,” she says, and then turning, wide-eyed, “qu'est-ce qui se passe?

“You’re in Heaven,” Cas says awkwardly, hands at his sides.

They need to move. “Go nuts,” Dean tells her, and puts a hand at the small of Cas’s back, and they hurry on.

They pass living rooms and rooftops, mountain summits and open fields, bars and bedrooms and quiet crooks in spreading old oak trees. Bookstores, battlefields, high school bleachers; a sailboat with gentle waves slapping on its hull.

The details don’t matter. There are emotions pouring from each archway like a thousand rich perfumes: companionship, kindness, triumph, solace, awe. More and more, curiosity, as the sleepers wake from their dreams. As they blink into awareness of the other heavens spilling out around them; as a few of them begin tentative explorations up marble steps and through porticos and down terraces. “Hello,” Dean hears someone say, and “Jesus, who are you? Is this —” “Yes, I think it is. How’s that?”

Bobby’s out there somewhere, this world’s Bobby. Jo and Ellen. Dean’s own dad, maybe, and that’s a weird one to think about. Cas said once that things were alphabetized, and maybe that’s true, but there’s no apparent logic to the heavens they’re passing through — here they’re in ancient China, a fishing boat on a still pond, and there in some raucous club with salsa music blasting, and here again on horseback, but they’re moving too quickly to tell what kind of horse, from where, from when.

“The prison is — this way, I think,” Cas says, and he’s pointing down a branching, curving path, one that winds past laurels and a little brook that’s somehow sprung from the midst of everything. Dean follows.

Behind them, there’s a shout. Angel — not human. “Hey! Stop them!

Dean twists. He catches a glimpse of the speaker, suit-clad, officious, but then souls are crowding around him, their voices overwhelming one another: “Who are you?” “Is this Heaven?” “I thought I’d see —” “I demand to speak with your —”

Dean and Cas run on.

The path takes them deeper, down into passageways that feel more like catacombs; the heavens are darker here, simpler, more campfires and dry shelters from the rain. Dean meets a few startled eyes on his way past, and in some of them, he feels Michael’s flare of recognition, but they hurry on.

The prison is down a final sharp staircase, abrupt and plain. Stone cells, iron bars.

Anael is waiting.

She’s already got a jagged smile on her lips, tossing her angel blade from hand to hand. “Castiel — again, really? You mean to try the same foolish plan?”

Cas glares. Michael coils, warm and heavy in Dean’s chest.

He steps from behind Cas, into Anael’s view. “Couple wrinkles this time, actually,” he offers, casual as the blade of a knife.

Her eyes widen, but she covers it quickly with a sneer. Michael is fizzing with music, just out of reach. “Dean Winchester, the famous Sword. I hear you’ve got the bargain basement edition riding around in your skin these days. How’s that working out for you?”

Dean opens his mouth, but before he can muster an answer, Michael takes his tongue.

Anael.

His voice is low, amused. Almost — indulgent. He’s doing something, with his grace; stretching it a little, feathers stiffening and smoothing, casting deeper shadows into the small room. Or should I say Sister Jo?

Dean blinks. Anael stiffens, and takes a half step back. She looks — younger, suddenly. Her hand holding the angel blade hovers a fraction of an inch lower, uncertain.

Malchiah?” she breathes.

Memories are filtering through Dean’s mind, half-glimpsed. Weariness of pomp and circumstance; of obligation. Feet that trace mechanical rounds of Heaven’s halls, face hidden. A question, a hesitation, a false name. A small, drab desk; a hand holding a gleaming counter. Silver souls streaming past.

Friendship. Something like friendship, for those little snatches of time.

You always said you wanted to be something more than Heaven’s bean counter, Michael observes. I see they’ve upgraded you to jailor.

For a second, an uneasy expression hovers on Anael’s face. Then she lets out a bark of laughter, humorless, startling, and drops her blade to her side.

“You’re Michael,” she says. “You’re the fucking archangel Michael. I don’t fucking believe it.”

I apologize for the deception. Michael’s tone is almost warm.

“You apologize for the fucking — you asshole. This asshole —” she looks at Cas, as if he’s supposed to grasp the magnitude of some idiotic cosmic joke, “let me think he was an ordinary soldier. For millennia.

Cas just keeps glowering at her. He doesn’t lower his blade.

Michael says, We need the prisoners, Jo.

She turns her head back to face him — them. There’s a blank, soft, injured look in the set of her mouth.

For a moment, Dean thinks she’s really going to do it. She’s going to step aside and let them pass, drop her blade and her eyes and the thing will be done. Her shoulders stoop, briefly, in defeat.

Then she raises her head again, eyes glittering and more-than-human, and says, “No.”

Cas takes a step forward; Dean opens his mouth to protest. But Michael casts a settling sweep of grace over the both of them, as if to say, Wait.

“I don’t know how you can ask that of me,” says Anael, and that’s a real wound in her voice, a real twisting knife. “Whoever you really are. I don’t know how — after sitting with me all those times, watching the souls stream in — you know how many there are. How many billions. You know what will happen to them if you free these angels — if Heaven falls.”

Yes. And I’m asking you to trust me.

Her mouth twists. She doesn’t have to say it: you didn’t even trust me enough to tell me your name.

“Anael. Jo.” Cas’s voice is low and urgent. “Michael has a plan for the souls; he believes he can convince them to fight on our side, and restore Heaven once the battle is won.”

“Your side,” she snaps, fury suddenly blazing. “His side. All of you keep telling me to pick a side, and when I do —”

She cuts herself off. She’s breathing hard, nostrils flaring white.

Dean can sense wheels turning somewhere he can’t comprehend. Mechanisms far older than he is clicking into place; cards falling, roulette wheels whirring, stones clacking on stone. Anael’s hands stretch, flex, as if the balance of human eternities ticks again in the joints of her fingers.

She meets Michael’s eyes. Hers are cold and hot and heavy with challenge. “Let’s play for it,” she says.

Chapter Text

“Let’s play for it,” says Anael.

The table appears in front of her, instantly and without circumstance. It is simply there where it was not, draped in white linen that flutters, barely, as if from an unseen breeze.

It’s big enough for two, and only two. Michael steps forward with Dean’s feet, and there is a chair for him to draw back, wrought metal twisted delicately under his palm. Anael is seated across from him.

Between them is a game board.

The squares on it are large, inlaid, patterned in dense motifs. Wood stained deep carmine; lapis lazuli; mother-of-pearl. Eyes stare through geometric jungles from one square; rosettes unfold like flowers in another. Dean — Michael — reaches a hand out to touch it. He feels the smooth of shell, the slight tacky cling of freshly varnished wood.

Twelve spaces, down the central track of the race. Twelve houses, twelve fates; this game was never played for coin alone.

“The Royal Game of Ur,” Dean says, in Michael’s voice.

Anael’s mouth twists with something equal parts venom and sorrow. “Your favorite.”

Behind him, Castiel shifts.

It’s all right, Dean thinks to him, in the part of himself that is still solely Dean. It’s all right. I think.

“You’re the guest,” Anael says, eyes glittering. “Your roll first.”

---

The dice are not dice, but bones.

The pieces — engraved soapstone discs — flutter in his fingers. They are birds: a swallow, a rooster, a raven. The eagle is a talon’s lethal curve. The storm-bird sparks like lightning.

They play.

Michael’s smiling, sinking into that knife-edge clarity that Dean’s come to know so well. His swallow blooms from a rosette’s center like the flower’s secret heart taking flight — the fourth house. Anael murmurs, “You will find a friend.”

Dean knows, because Michael knows, what that means. This game comes from a time when kings were gods and gods walked with men; it comes from a time when flocks of birds carried truths as deep as art, as mathematics. There was no boundary between omen and acumen, between the supernatural and the real.

It is what the fourth house means; it is what the fourth house has always meant. Anael rolls her die, and moves her raven a space beyond. She collects three tokens from the wager pile.

“You will stand in exalted places,” comments Michael, or Dean, or both.

“Darling,” says Anael, “I already have,” and she passes the bones back.

They play.

The game swings this way, then that. Anael knocks Michael’s raven from the board, and he captures her eagle; his swallow arrives at the twelfth house only to be stranded there for three turns before he finally brings it home. They each take tokens from the pile, return them, take them again.

The heaps before them are shifting constantly, but Anael’s is larger. It grows steadily larger still.

The game ends when she at last brings her eagle home. A tidy stack of gold gleams at her left hand. She smiles like the blade of a knife. “Out of three?”

“Always,” murmurs Michael, and stacks his game pieces again.

They play.

Cas is a silent stone guard at Dean’s back, eyes catching everything, unmoved. Like all those casino nights. Time is a possibility, faint and distant. Dean is somewhere within; Dean is nowhere at all.

“You will be as the lion,” Anael says, when Michael moves, and he laughs, and watches her hands. “And you as one who weighs silver,” he offers in answer.

She’s smiling, smiling right down to her bones. “Is time such a circle?” she asks.

Is there a battle going on somewhere? How long have they sat here? Michael rolls, and moves a piece, and answers on his own behalf: “No. ‘You will go up the path.’”

Anael doesn’t answer. She rolls. She studies the board.

She has two moves. Two moves, and one is safe; one is smart.

She takes the other.

She says, “‘You will cross the divide.’”

They play.

Anael wins.

The table vanishes, along with its gold. They’re standing again. Castiel is stirring, restless; his angel blade warm and ready in his palm.

“Do what you came to do,” says Anael, and steps aside.

---

The spell is lifted, and Dean can hear the battle raging. It’s sound and beyond sound, elemental; he feels it in his cells, the walls between them, the marrow of his bones. He feels as though his bones might shake apart.

Heaven is shaking apart.

Somewhere in Michael’s power, he can sense its structure: the spindling fibers that jut through its vast architecture. They’re dwindling to fishbones, brittle and translucent. In the outer reaches, at the stress points, they’ve already begun to fray.

“Come with us,” says Cas, and Anael nods, face tight.

Dumah is lurching out of the cell, rubbing her arms as if they’re cold. Zuriel follows, grabbing for her hand. They’re so few, their graces weak candleflames beside the forge that is Michael’s. And Dean realizes, abruptly, that he’s the one holding Heaven up, now, even though he’s not trying to. He’s the last beacon of power in an edifice that’s been decaying since almost the beginning of time.

He thinks he glimpses it, then, for an instant — the true heart of Michael’s plan.

“Come on!” yells Cas, and Dean jerks to reality. Cas is reaching for him — his hand. Dean takes it. He thinks there’s music swelling now in Michael’s wings, but he can’t pull it apart from the sound of the world coming apart at its seams. He tightens his fingers on Cas’s, and runs.

It isn’t hard to tell where they’re going — toward the gold. Toward the chaos and clamor, human voices carried on some cosmic wind, Jack’s joyful grace; Anna’s singing underneath it, silver and deadly. And Michael’s blue-white fury, too, raging against them — the hall lurches, tips, and Dumah stumbles, but Anael pulls her upright —

They come up short, feathers shrieking with the effort of the sudden stop, because at their feet is a chasm at the edge of the world.

This gate was supposed to be glorious, Dean understands, because Michael understands, because Michael has always understood his counterpart; better than he wants to believe. It was supposed to vault into the clouds; it was supposed to be as deep as it was tall, the type of archway a legion of angels could march through shoulder to shoulder, grim-faced and terrible. It was supposed to be forbidding and magnificent, a symbol of this new god’s power.

It isn’t that. It’s just a gaping, open wound, where half of Heaven’s walls are torn away.

Dean can see silver souls falling like water from hallways that have been cut in two. Can hear their cries of fear and confusion and delight. He can see, with his grace-sharpened vision, the Earth laid out before them, far below — fields and roads and hills and people living, blue sky and white clouds and the land all gold and green.

He can glimpse, past the jut of a broken beam, the sigil that Sam and the others have drawn, a vast battleground of holy oil, writ large on the dusty field behind the Dyess Air Force Base. The flare of dying angels there, the bolts of power Jess and Anna are using to strike them down from the sky, into the waiting hunters’ arms.

All around her — above her, below her, encircling her — are the furious waves of Jack’s and Michael’s power.

Jack’s eyes are full gold, his hands straining and flexing as they command waves of power across the battlefield of sky. He doesn’t look human; he looks like a star. He fights in rays, spears of light; but Michael’s grace is a riptide, swirling and seeking and ravenous for any opening, any snatch it can get of Jack’s human self. Dean sees it lance through a lapse in his defenses, and bite at his side; Jack yells and doubles over, sending out a wave of golden shields, and Michael retreats. But he’s laughing — laughing.

He’s winning.

There are too many angels on the ground; they’re overwhelming the hunters. One breaks free of the holy fire and arrows upward again. Anna swirls and strikes it down again, but she’s faltering, Jess’s human face blistering with the effort of the fight, power flagging in her chest.

“I need to help them!” Dean screams in Cas’s ear, forgetting for a moment that he has more than his human voice to rely on over the roar of the end of the world. “Will you be —”

It’s a long way down. Too long. And Cas doesn’t have wings; or he does, but they’re tattered and next to useless, barely enough to cushion the fall —

“We’ll be fine!” Cas shouts back, wind whipping at his words, too. “Go!”

But he’s still gripping Dean’s hand.

Both of their eyes drop to it at the same moment. Dean tries to tell his fingers to relax, to disentangle from Cas’s, to let go. Whatever happens next, Cas will be safer on the ground — safer, out of the deadly heavenly whirlpool of whatever it is Michael means to unleash.

The muscles of his hand clench tighter.

It takes him a moment to realize he’s not the one doing it. That this is Michael, taking him over, one last time. That the reins are truly out of his grasp, now; that Michael could have knocked Dean aside, any time he wanted, all along.

IT’S TIME, says Michael, and gathers the remnants of angelkind in the wide sweep of his wings, and propels them all into thin air.

---

The air is not air; it’s thick with silver souls.

For just a moment, as an updraft catches them, they soar above the chaos. And Dean can see everything — the miles of Texas plain stretched out below them, the muddy rivers, the rift of Heaven splitting open like a fault line, like a vast thundercloud a thousand miles long. It’s dark and bruised, and the souls are falling, falling, in sheets and streams and downpours, staining every horizon.

It’s cataclysmic; it’s the biggest thing Dean’s ever seen. A vast bowl tipping to drown the Earth below.

Silver falls so thick it turns to lead. The mist around it burns purple, red, kaleidoscoping into flashes of something else. Into images, Dean realizes after a moment — heavens, like all the ones they hurried past, before they ceased to exist. But no, they’re not just heavens, they’re lives , played out on a thousand million overlapping reels of film — a child’s birth, a dance, a first kiss — skies and television sets and open roads, glass bottles, the pages of books —

— and Michael’s pivoting in the air, arrowing his wings, and diving into the flood.

For a moment, Dean can’t breathe — he doesn’t need to breathe, he’s not human — and he’s dimly aware of Cas’s palm still pressed against his. And then, from the seething chaos, there’s Bobby’s face, his own Bobby, Bobby’s hand reaching for him, dissolving — saying, in a wondering tone, son —?

Bobby! Dean tries to shout, but he doesn’t have a voice. And it’s Charlie, body stained dark with her blood, only it’s not, she’s straightening, smiling, shouting Dean!, her hair bobbed, eyes glad and haunted — and she’s reaching into the chaos of the ether around her, and there’s Bobby again, and Charlie crying, we did it, we found him, he must be dead too — you must be Bobby, it’s nice to meet you. Isn’t this wonderful?

It’s not, Dean tries to answer, I’m not dead, it’s not wonderful —

But he’s lost all sense of gravity; doesn’t know if he’s falling or flying. She might be right.

Dean! and that’s Kevin Tran, materializing at Charlie’s shoulder. He looks happier than he did in life, healthier; he grips her arm. What’s happening? It’s awesome —

Goddamn, boy, glad we found you, says Ellen, in a voice that’s half a growl. There’s Jo beside her, grinning. Hey, Bobby. Where’s Sam?

And then Ash, appearing suddenly amongst them all. I don’t know that Sam made it up this time, kids. Now that we’re all here —

No, you’ve got it wrong, Dean wants to say. Sam’s not dead; I’m not dead, and this isn’t Heaven, Heaven’s gone —

“No,” says Michael, “we’re waiting for one more.”

Cas’s free arm is wrapped around Dean’s hips, bracing, reassuring. If he’s seeing people of his own, Dean can’t tell — Jimmy, Amelia — but his grip is warm and disconcertingly solid. They’re still tumbling madly, twisting through what isn’t quite air, but Dean’s family — his family — stays with them, swirling like a school of fish. One more, Michael said. Dean thinks, heart stuttering, — Dad?

But it isn’t Dad’s face that wavers, reluctantly, into form; it isn’t Dad that resolves from the raging torrent of souls. It’s another face, younger, fairer, with a skeptical slant to his eyes, hovering just out of reach.

I didn’t ask for this, says Adam.

“I’m sorry,” says Michael, with Dean’s mouth. It could be Dean saying it too. It should be Dean saying it too, for all that’s happened. “But I’m going to ask for your help. Just one more time.”

Adam frowns. His jaw clenches. He doesn’t speak.

I’m going to ask for all of your help, Michael says, and flings his grace out wide.

It unspools and unspools and keeps going, running wild through the falling souls; a thread, a tide, a revelation. Dean knows, rather than feels, the vast gears of gravity grinding to a halt. The souls slowing to hang suspended — turning, drawn tight and listening, a whole endless ocean of them spun through with Michael’s grace.

He never knew Michael was this big. Never knew his own human body could hold this much. And he’s stopped short, too, spread-eagled mid-air, still clinging to Cas, and suddenly he can see — he can see everything.

He can see the earth below, Sam and his army with shotguns to shoulder, circled in salt, laden with iron charms. He can see the earth yesterday, and tomorrow. He can see Bobby’s night in an Abilene motel room, years ago, stitching up his own side with a fifth of Jim Beam, a grumpy phone call to Rufus. The week he and Sam spent, not here but twenty miles away, in a little rental with a lifeless backyard and a cracked basketball hoop in the driveway, Dean practicing his dribbling, Sammy too young to really defend — can see Ellen and Jo blasting down this highway, laughing together at Jo’s music on the stereo, Ellen shouting over the wind and the noise, I know I’m old, but you kids who like this crap are actually crazy —

He can see the oceans that flowed here, the strange swimming monsters that roamed them, the reefs that flourished and died —

The stardust that whirled from the darkness to coalesce into this earth —

The long-distance phone call between two strangers. The painting a man labored over for years. The song a cowboy sang to his horse, alone on the prairie, trying to find his way home. The grocery store checkout lines, the crying hospital waiting rooms, the awkward smiles and the punched walls —

It’s not heavens. It’s everything, all of it, people and the world they live in and their endless dance.

Michael says, You see what I see.

The souls are listening. All of them. The faces of the humans are wide-eyed wondering pinpoints, far below. Dean can see Sam’s, searching the sky, eyebrows tight with worry, as if he’s looking for Dean.

This world is not one man’s. It is not one angel’s. It is multitudes.

And Dean sees him, or a shadow of him, swimming behind curtains of light.

John Winchester’s gaze is slow — cautious. He studies Dean’s face, then Adam’s.

Dad, Dean tries to say, but Michael has stolen all the voice that he has.

His father’s eyes travel away, away. And down — across miles of air, through seas of soulstuff, tracking across the earth, somehow. Time and space are bare suggestions; distance telescopes. Dean knows — doesn’t know how he knows — that Dad’s eyes have found the face of his middle son.

Michael’s still speaking. Dean’s lost track. Something about — power, ambition, sacrifice. He isn’t sure if he’s recollecting words or emotions.

Will you join me? Will you fight to preserve it?

The universe hangs on its fulcrum.

Adam says, I will.

---

It passes through them like a wave.

Dean can feel the ripple spreading. He thought he was overawed by the magnitude of Michael’s grace before; that was nothing. He’s flowing out and out and doesn’t stop, all of his power, all of his self, shining and unflagging. Dean sees it sweeping into souls, sparking rainbows of color inside them — in Adam’s chest, in Bobby’s, Ellen’s. He’s seeing — is this possession?

They’re saying yes to him. Every last one of them, somehow, and Michael isn’t flowing into any one vessel — they’re all his vessel, or maybe he’s theirs. He’s — cosmic, fundamental. Some kind of power Dean isn’t ready to grasp; abruptly, he remembers Chuck’s voice through the haze of memory — it’s hard to believe he still has anything as finite and personal as memory —  archangels are different, they’re the stuff of primordial creation —

Dean’s not going to survive this. Whatever Michael’s planning, whatever he’s doing — he’s transforming himself. Performing some kind of alchemy, alloying archangel grace to billions of pure human souls, but Dean has a body and it’s going to be atomized. He can’t contain this kind of power, can’t take this kind of force.

He thinks, Cas —

And the last of Michael’s grace flows out of him and he’s alone.

The air is clear and thin and soulless, too sharp to breathe.

He’s hanging in nothing, twisting, tumbling. He’s falling. He’s human and he’s falling, again, hold on Cas’s hand slipping —

The earth seems impossibly distant. Its ground impossibly hard.

He tumbles, pivots, and he can see Cas’s face. Frantic and terrified, his mouth forming a soundless Dean! , lost in the wind —

His hold slips. And Dean’s falling, alone, a rag doll plunging from the celestial battlefield and toward his own trivial doom.

Above him, he can’t see the souls like he could, in all their dizzying individual splendor. But he can glimpse the tide of them, half-visible, like the reflection in a glass window on a sunny day. They swirl, and coalesce; they’re flowing for the battle, for Jack and Michael, and they’re knocking Jack aside.

Michael screams, loud and furious enough to reach even Dean’s human ears. The souls press around him. Except that one tendril doesn’t — it’s threading free, lancing down through the sky like a bolt of lightning, and suddenly Cas is propelled forward; suddenly his hand is finding Dean’s shoulder, gripping tight.

Bring him home, murmurs some kind of music on the air, and Cas hauls Dean in, folds his arms around Dean’s ribs and presses his face to Dean’s neck.

They plummet together, trenchcoat flapping wildly, air screaming in their ears, toward the rapidly growing buildings of Abilene.

---

There’s a moment, when he can see the cars crawling on the streets, the people emerging from doorways and squinting up at the strange colors in the sky, that Dean thinks, with perfect clarity: I’m still going to die.

Cas’s wings are too tattered to slow them. And he’s still an angel, the fall might be rough but he’ll survive it, but Dean —

He gulps air. His eyes are streaming; he can’t make a sound. Cas, he prays, I

Shut up, ” Cas snarls in his ear. But the rooftops are impossibly near now, the great neon letters of the Grace filling his vision past the flapping of Cas’s trenchcoat, and —

The point of the A snags it neatly, rending it up the back, and they jolt, spin, and Dean lands hard on the rooftop on the cushion of Cas’s chest.

It takes him a long moment to find his bearings. To gulp down enough air and panicked heartbeats that he knows his own body — that his limbs are his and his mind is his and gravity and earth and air are fixed, constant, and —

He’s breathing. He’s alive.

But Cas is white-faced and still beneath him. Dean locates his own hand, numb where it’s been clamped between them, and clumsily cups Cas’s face. “Cas,” he manages, through lungs that feel like they might never inflate again —

Cas opens his eyes. They’re fiercely blue and dreamlike, mirroring the sky. For a moment he just lies there, slack and stricken.

Then he starts to laugh.

His face creases up with it, breath wheezing. He laughs and laughs, ribs pressed against Dean’s and shaking, and slowly Dean’s horror loses its greater share to joy; slowly, he starts to grin back, as Cas laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

They’re alive.

“Landings,” gasps Cas, “am I right?”

“Shut up,” Dean tells him, and kisses him.

Another laugh spasms into his mouth, a second. Then Cas’s eyes flutter closed, and he’s tilting up into the kiss, lips soft and chapped and opening. Dean gets a hand in his hair. Cas makes a noise like he’s dying, and presses his palm to Dean’s chest, right against the beat of his heart.

How long they pass like that — making out on a rooftop beneath an immense neon sign, while the battle for the fate of the world rages beyond them — Dean will never really be able to tell. His senses are too full of Cas to measure time; the fragments of his rational mind too swamped in adrenalin and euphoria. He could find that tiny noise Cas makes when Dean’s thumb brushes his earlobe, when his tongue grazes Cas’s teeth — again, and again. He could live in this moment forever.

At last, Cas’s eyes open again, clear and burning with joy. He blinks upward once, twice, and then he says, “ Dean, ” and struggles to sit up.

Dean rolls off him. He lands hard on his back — he isn’t entirely in control of his limbs yet — and sees what Cas does.

Jack’s been knocked clear of the chaos, falling fast, but he rights himself somewhere halfway between Heaven and Earth. A moment later, Anna’s with him, blonde hair a blazing flag in the unearthly light of the battle. And above them —

Above them, Michael’s burning like a dying star.

He’s all ash and spears of light, raging, helpless against the tide of souls washing at him. He flings bolts of power, but the souls merely eddy loose around them and surge for him again.

There’s a scream — like a galaxy rending — that splits the air.

And in a final thunderclap burst of light, Michael’s gone.

---

What happens next will take years for Dean to fully understand.

He can only see it in glimpses, like sunspots behind his eyelids; blink, and they’re gone. The absence of grace is still a rattling emptiness inside him; his self, whatever is Dean, feels too small to ever fill that void. His inner ear is skewed and dizzy, certain the ground is rushing up on his left to meet him. Reality feels invented; everything beyond Cas is wavering conjecture.

Still, he has some sense that the gold rent in the sky is more than an usual play of sun on clouds. That the silver flooding into it isn’t just haze; that the cumuli surrounding it are growing unnaturally, towering even faster than they should in a late Texas summer, purpling with sunset while the sun’s still high in the sky. A shiver travels up his arms as if a shadow has passed — some weight on the universe lifted.

“He’s gone,” he says, and he doesn’t mean the Michael who just exploded like a star. He means Michael, his Michael, all his prickly attachments and his fear.

Cas has his face tilted up as if he’s listening. The sky sheds orange light along his jaw.

“He’s — Heaven,” he says, slowly. “He gave himself up to them.”

What does that mean? Dean doesn’t ask it. “Do you think,” he says, instead, “that’s what he saw, in Billie’s notebook?”

Cas glances at him, sidelong. “You would know better than I.”

Dean takes in a breath to answer. With it comes a tiny tingle of shock, a heartbeat that thumps harder against his ribs, and he catches his breath.

It’s small — smaller than anything he could have imagined. It’s not Michael, not really. But he hears a distant strain of music fade, and from the corner of his eye, he thinks, for an instant, he can see the shape of Cas’s wings.

It’s over. They need to get down from this rooftop; they need to find Sam, let him know they’re all right. Dean needs to eat a burger, a real one he can taste. He needs to sleep. He needs a shower. All his humanity’s back online.

Cas is looking at him, out of the corner of his eye. His hair is a mess, the back of his trenchcoat ripped in half all the way up to the collar. It splays off his arms like a parody of two wings. His lips are parted, just enough for Dean to see the way his tongue presses at the back of his teeth.

Fuck it, Dean thinks, and leans to kiss him, and keeps kissing him, as the sky fades slowly back to midday blue.

Chapter Text

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Oliver Pryce, scowling in the doorway of his home, “not you lot again.”

Dean blinks, affronted. He’s never even met this guy before. “Hey.”

Cas gets a hand on the door before Pryce can slam it. He glowers, bracing it open; his hair is still sticking up in the back where Dean was running his hands through it half an hour ago. “Just perform another séance for us, and we’ll leave you alone.”

“‘Just perform another séance,’” Pryce mimics, hobbling clear of the door; he walks like his knees are a subject of some agnosticism. Casting a sharp look at Dean, he adds, “Guess you’re not playing murder-lockbox anymore, hm? I suppose that’s good. You’d think Colors here would be in a better mood, with the dicking he just gave you.”

Dean chokes. Cas just keeps glaring, gloriously unmoved.

“Oliver,” says Sam, levelly; he’s hiding a smile. “We’re sorry to trouble you. We just — something pretty big went down with Heaven recently, and we want to make sure everything up there is all right.”

Pryce hmphs vaguely, and leads the way into the next room.

He dumps a half-completed chess game unceremoniously into its box, sweeping the table clear for a cloth with a pentacle drawn at its center. Five candles, lit, and then he turns impatiently and raises his eyebrows to demand, “Well? Something of the deceased’s?”

Behind Sam, Bobby shifts uncomfortably into view. “Uh. Do I count?”

Oliver Pryce stares for nearly a full minute. “Jesus Christ on a fucking pogo stick,” he mutters, finally. “All right, fine.”

Sam clears his throat. “We do have his hat, still, but we thought — the resonances might be clearer.”

“And I figure, might as well meet this other me,” Bobby growls. “Before I get my ass back where I belong.”

“You’re madmen,” Pryce declares. “All of you. All right, then, pull up a chair already,” and they do, joining hands.

For a moment, Pryce merely closes his eyes, settling himself. Then he intones, “Amate spiritus obscure, te quaerimus. Te oramus —

“All right, all right, I heard you,” says Bobby’s voice, and the flames of the candles flare.

Next to Dean, Sam starts so hard he nearly drops his hand.

The flames are growing, taking form. They curl together into the shape of a man’s torso, his head, and smoke coalesces into features, a worn-out trucker’s hat. Flame-Bobby looks down at himself, holds out his hands, dripping sparks. “Huh. That’s a neat trick,” he says.

“Let me try,” says another voice, a girl’s, and then a third: “I told you using the TV as a focus would work just fine,” and flames are spindling out to take the form of Jo, Charlie, then Ellen. “Yeah, yeah,” says Ash, and he’s there too; “Sorry, kids. Kevin would’ve joined us, but he’s off visiting his girlfriend, and we figured five usually works best.”

The Bobby sitting at the table is staring. He turns, suddenly, to Pryce. “What did you do?”

“I don’t — it doesn’t usually work like this! I don’t know —”

“I think it’s a Heaven thing,” interrupts Dean.

Next to him, Sam starts. He raises his eyebrows at Dean as if to say — you what now?

Dean offers a tiny shrug. He doesn’t know why he thinks that; he just does. But the flames spit and turn, and now Bobby’s beaming up at him, saying gruffly, “That’s right, kid. You did good with that one.” Then, leaning closer and jerking a thumb over his shoulder: “Is that another me over there?”

Sam clears his throat. “Yeah — alternate universes. He was curious to meet our version of you.”

The Bobby in the fire swivels again. “And? What’s the verdict?”

Across the table, the flesh-and-blood Bobby swallows. “I lived longer,” he offers, voice scratchy. Then: “But you raised some damn fine boys.”

There’s a long pause. Fire Bobby has his arms crossed; after an evaluating silence, he nods. “I’d say you better look out for them, but at their rate, they’re probably looking out for you.”

Bobby shifts in his seat. “Actually, I’m headed home. Got people back there; we need to rebuild.”

They’re planning to leave in the morning: Bobby and Jess and Anna, along with their contingent of defecting angels and Apocalypse World refugees. Dumah and Zuriel are going, too; they say there’s no need for them in Heaven anymore. Dean still isn’t sure what that means, and Cas has had nothing to offer, either; they visited the sandbox gate once, together, only to find that it’s gone.

Dean’s asked Anael, too, in a private moment. She just smiled her inscrutable smile and told him she always preferred Earth anyway.

“We just wanted to check, before they leave,” says Sam, “that everything’s — okay, up there. No one really knows what’s going on.”

Bobby glances around at the others in the fire; they shrug their shoulders back at him. “Best we can tell,” he says, “it’s ‘cause of Michael. He sort of — gave us all a piece of himself. We’ve been talking about it, and we figure —”

“It used to be, the angels had to manufacture and maintain all of our heavens, right?” Charlie interrupts, eagerly. “And they tried, but it helped to keep things simple, memories on a loop and all that. Kinda boring. Only now, with Michael giving his power back —”

“We can all run our own heavens,” Jo finishes. “And wander between them as much as we like.”

“Or build ‘em together,” Ash adds. “Like — oh, well, you can’t see — but like this bar.”

Dean glances at Sam, then Cas. It doesn’t sound so bad, an eternity of hanging around the Roadhouse. Maybe even — a bar of his own.

There’s an expression of sudden clarity on Cas’s face. “That’s why none of the gates of Heaven are open. You’ve —”

“— taken over, yeah. Inmates running the asylum and all that.” Ellen’s smile has an edge to it. “No offense, but after millennia of your lot’s leadership, folks here have more or less decided they’d like to do it themselves.”

She looks like she’s steeling herself to argue, but it sails right by Cas. “That seems entirely reasonable,” he agrees.

His words hit Dean with a swoop of his gut; he clenches his jaw. The room seems darker, suddenly. The candles are burning low, devoured by the strength of their flames.

Bobby’s turning, again, in his pillar of fire. He looks at Dean, gaze lingering for a moment, then Sam.

“Listen, boys, we should probably get going.” His voice is heavy, suddenly; serious. “And we’re gonna have to ask — it’s probably not too good an idea to do this again.”

Dean frowns. He doesn’t like the sound of that. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah, kid.” Bobby’s voice is gentle. “Yeah. Just — we’re building a new world up here; don’t want to upset its balance. We’ll see you when we see you, all right? No more apocalypses maybe, just livin’ and dyin’ like regular people are supposed to do?”

Dean’s throat closes up tight. But Sam half-laughs, smiling a little painfully. “That sounds all right, Bobby,” he says.

Bobby nods, swallowing visibly. “You take care of my boys for me,” he says, but he’s not looking at his alter ego. His eyes are on Cas.

Cas nods gravely. Dean swallows, and tries to clear the roaring from his ears.

He participates vaguely in the goodbyes, in thanking Oliver Pryce. Turns the music down low for the short drive home. Sam keeps glancing at him from the passenger seat, but he’s also half caught up in a discussion of logistics with Bobby, behind him; how Jack means to open the rift. What supplies they’ll need, for rebuilding a functional road network; how to get in touch if they need more resources from this side.

Cas is quiet, too, and Dean thinks about how he used to be able to sense the prickle of his attention — his watchfulness, his concern.

He pulls into the garage and hesitates as the Impala’s doors creak all around him. Sam and Bobby are still deep in conversation, moving together toward the hall to the bunker proper. Cas starts to close his door, then stops, one hand on Baby’s roof. He leans back down. “Dean?”

“Yeah,” says Dean, “I’m,” and he opens his door, slides out. Schools his face to neutrality.

Cas isn’t a fucking idiot. Dean tries to move past him without meeting his eyes, but Cas catches him by his jacket and stops him where he stands. He looks into Dean’s face, eyes searching. “Dean,” he says again, “what’s wrong?”

Dean’s not fucking ready for this conversation. They both said some things, yeah, at the end of the world, and everything since has been great, it’s been fucking awesome, but Dean’s — not ready. Cas is gonna think he’s clingy — needy — pathetic.

Cas’s frown deepens. Dean tenses to brush him away.

Dean,” says Cas, a third time, and fuck him; he can’t do that, either.

He takes a deep breath and inclines his head toward the far doors. He meets Cas’s eyes. “Walk with me?” he says.

---

The night air outside the bunker is cooler now, with the deepening of fall. There’s the sound of water on stones from the river, invisible in the darkness. The breeze smells of decaying oak leaves and, somewhere distant, a skunk. Dean avoids potholes by feel in the darkness, and he’s fifty or more yards down the gravel frontage road that follows the water before his pulse quiets enough to stop and let Cas catch up.

A few stray stars are visible through the half-bare branches of the trees over his head. When he had Michael in him, he could see the whole galaxy, from anywhere, at any time; Dean never expected to feel so small and useless with him gone.

He thought it would be a relief, being back to himself. And it is. It is. Just —

Cas stops next to him, feet shuffling in the fallen leaves, and waits.

Dean pulls in a slow breath, feels the night air seeping through his jacket. Its cold fingers crawl up his back. “The hell am I supposed to do in Heaven,” he says, fixing his gaze forward, “if you’re locked out?”

He doesn’t mean to move as he says it, but his body betrays him. There might as well be a hook fastened under his chin, for how it always turns toward Cas.

In the dark, Cas’s face is only half-visible, but its transformation from worry to relief plays out clear as day.

“Dean,” he says, “I won’t be. Only for a little while.”

Great; he’s in fucking denial. “That’s not what Ellen said.”

Cas laughs, lightly. “No, it’s — do you remember during the Apocalypse, when I was cut off from Heaven?”

Dean — does, yeah. A Cas who couldn’t heal. Later, in the alternate future where Zachariah sent him, a Cas who was barely an angel anymore. That Cas was strung out on drugs and sex, gone half-crazy without his mojo. It’s hard to imagine this Cas taking quite that road.

“My power will dwindle,” Cas says, gently. “Over time. It’s already far from what it was, and I find I don’t miss it. The compensations are — more than worth it.”

Burgers. Showers. Sex.

“By the time you’re an old man,” Cas adds, voice soft, “I will be too. No more angel than you are.”

The knowledge spreads, a slow trickle of warmth, through Dean’s veins.

He still can’t quite turn all the way. He scuffs a rock in the road. “Pretty fucked up,” he comments, “thinking it’s good news when your —” boyfriend? lover? partner? — “tells you he’s gonna die.”

Cas is smiling at him, eyes crinkled and loving. “We’re all going to die, Dean.”

“They’ll let you upstairs? You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be.”

Well, shit. Dean looks at him, helpless, sidelong, for one second, two, then pulls Cas in by his tie for a kiss.

They’re there for a while, like that. Melting closer and closer together — lips and then hands, pulling fabric aside, exploring skin. Cas’s thumbs are slipping, teasing, inside Dean’s waistband; their bellies are pressed hot together, shirts rucked up to their ribs — when a sudden splash sounds from the river, and an unseen bird in the trees above them whitters away in alarm.

Dean stops dead, heart pounding. “Fish,” Cas murmurs against the pulse of his jaw. “Just a fish.” His fingers knead at Dean’s hips.

It’s cold, though, on Dean’s bare skin; he can feel it now, and shivers. He has family inside, warm food, whiskey. A bed where they can reconvene this later. “Cas,” he says, gasping, as Cas’s mouth moves down the line of his throat — “Cas.

He puts his hands over Cas’s and pulls them, gently, free. Cas draws back with a modicum of reluctance; his eyes are gleaming and intent. Dean swallows.

“Can’t have either of us catching cold,” he offers, “if we’re gonna get old together.”

For an instant, Cas only stares at him. Then he throws back his head and laughs.

---

Dean doesn’t remember much of Michael’s music, anymore.

A few strains of melody, yeah, and the occasional lyric that pops into his head unannounced. He tried looking up a Les Mis recording, once, with his headphones on and his bedroom door locked, but nothing sounded quite like it did in Michael’s memories. He tried reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, too, and gave up a third of the way through — too much to keep track of without faces to put to names — but he got the gist of it: long-suffering criminal seeking redemption through caring for others, wrestling with the nature of good and evil. Something like that, anyway.

Maybe he’ll let Jack convince himself he wants to see the movie sometime. That doesn’t sound like too bad a plan.

As they walk back to the bunker that night, though, hand in hand, he thinks he can hear it. Not in his ears, not really; it’s more in the beat of his heart. A memory that doesn’t quite live in his brain, but somewhere else, the same place that supplies extra colors, every now and again, or makes him think he can feel the brush of Cas’s feathers on his face.

Do you hear the people sing? it’s asking, now. Do you hear the distant drums? It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

Dean smiles. Tomorrow can bring whatever the hell it wants, if Cas is here.

He pulls him closer by his trenchcoat, leaning together as they walk. Got to find Cas some more clothes, if he’s going full human again; he looks good in blue. He’d look good in Dean’s old Zeppelin t-shirts. Hell, he’d look good in fucking anything. Out of it, too.

Cas elbows him. “Stop thinking about me naked. It’s distracting.”

Dean raises his eyebrows, and pictures himself naked instead.

With a muffled groan, Cas pulls them to a halt, and kisses Dean comprehensively. When he pulls back, Dean’s breathing hard, his senses full, heart aching with happiness. The music pounds a little louder with the drumbeat of his blood — beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?

This one, thinks Dean, fucking this one, and reaches for Cas’s hand to lead him home.