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The Way

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“Cas said…” Dean swallowed hard as he watched his brother limp toward him through the barren courtyard of the apocalypse-world camp. “He said you were gone. You died.”

Sam crossed the remaining feet to where Dean stood with Cas, Jack, Gabriel, and Mary. “I did. He didn’t give me a choice, Dean. Not really.” Sam looked over to Jack, his face a mixture of regret and pain. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what? What did you do, Sammy?”

“It’s me, isn’t it?” Jack said.

“He wants a relationship with you,” Sam replied. “That’s why he brought me back. To help him get that.”

All eyes turned to Lucifer, as he stepped through the camp gates, giving a cutesy wave that belied what lay underneath.

“But I don’t want a relationship with him,” Jack said, glancing at Lucifer, now slowly strolling toward them with a victorious smirk on his face.

Cas stepped forward. “Jack, he’s the only other one with power right now. Gabriel and I…we can’t help.”

“I hope you’re all planning my reunion party with my son,” Lucifer called out. “Because I’d hate to have to kill all of you.” He frowned at Cas, Sam, and Gabriel. “Some of you again.”

“If you’ve got a way to get us out of this, kiddo,” Gabriel whispered urgently, “now’s the time.”

“I can take him,” Jack said.

“No,” Sam said. “You really can’t. He’s all juiced up right now. I mean, we can fight, but…we’ll lose.”

“And then he’ll just take you,” Dean added, hoping to hurry along the decision-making process.

“No!” Jack took a step back. “No, I won’t… NO!” Jack’s eyes began glowing yellow and with a sharp crack, a golden fissure in the universe opened right in front of them.

“Go, go, go!” Dean shouted, pushing Sam, then Cas through the rift. He grabbed his mother’s hand, but she pulled back.

“No, Dean. You go. I’m staying here.”

“What? Mom, no. We came here to rescue you. Not leave you behind.”

Mary glanced at the dozen or so remaining feet between them and Lucifer. “I’ll do more good here. I don’t belong back there. I’ll stay and help Bobby. Go now. Take care of Sam.”

“Whoops!” Gabriel said, catching Dean and Jack off-balance as he shoved them into the rift, following close behind. “Later, bro. Hopefully never.”

Dean tumbled out onto a flat, empty field next to a two-lane highway.

“Close it!” Gabriel yelled to Jack.

Eyes still blazing, Jack raised his hand and the rift shrank into a tiny point and disappeared. “I want nothing to do with him!”

“I don’t blame you, kid,” Gabriel said.

Dean stood up and took stock of their surroundings. A couple of short, brick buildings stood to one side of the field. A parking lot and another building surrounded by trees was on the other side. Across the highway was a farm. “Where are we?” he asked Jack, hearing his voice sound harsher than he intended it. “And how are we gonna get Mom back?”

“I tried to take us back to the bunker,” Jack said. “It’s in Lebanon, right? And we were in Dayton.”

“Oh, do not tell me you zapped us to Lebanon the country,” Dean muttered, trying to figure out how to tell Sam about their mom.

“These trees are indicative of the American Midwest,” Cas said, “not the Middle East.”

Dean ran a hand over his face. “Of course you would know that.”

“Welcome to New Lebanon,” Sam said.

“What?”

“The sign, Dean.” Sam pointed to a utility pole with a vertical banner hanging from it. “It says ‘Welcome to New Lebanon.’” Sam looked around, then at Dean. “Uh… Where’s Mom?”

Dean sighed. This was it. “She wanted to stay. Help Bobby.”

“But—”

“I know, Sam. She said she didn’t belong here anymore.” Dean looked down the road to the right, seeing nothing but road and trees and sky. To the left appeared to be the outskirts of a small town. “Wherever here is.”

“Did you even try?”

“Of course I did, Sam! You think I want her in that world? With Lucifer?”

“We have to go back.”

“Not a good idea, Sam,” Gabriel said. “If you thought it was a death trap before…”

“Our mom is there, Gabe!”

“I know.” Gabriel nodded. “I know. But it was her choice.”

“She’s very committed to helping people in the camp,” Jack said. “She’d already told me she was thinking of staying if the option were presented. Although she’d be safer if I was there to protect her.”

“Who’s going to protect her now?” Sam asked.

“Bobby will,” Cas said. “I am certain of it. He won’t let anything happen to her.”

“Yeah, but…” Sam trailed off, one hand running through his hair.

Dean couldn’t give words to what he was feeling, what Sam must be feeling. To be so close only to lose her. Again. It being her choice only twisted the knife in deeper. The rejection was palpable. So that was it. Just give up, knowing she was in harm’s way, in another universe. And it wasn’t like there was a revolving door to go visit her. Jack was powerful, but lacked finesse. Aiming for Lebanon, Kansas and winding up in New Lebanon…

“Where the hell are we, anyway?” Dean demanded. “New Lebanon, what? What state?”

“Ohio. We’re still just outside of Dayton,” Sam said, looking at his phone. “Looks like maybe we just jumped universes but stayed in the area?”

“I was aiming for the bunker,” Jack repeated.

“Practice makes perfect,” Gabriel said, clapping Jack on the shoulder. “We haven’t formally met. I’m Gabriel.”

“So you’re…” Jack squinted in concentration. “My uncle?”

“Sure. That works.” Gabriel cast a wide-eyed look toward Cas before focusing back on Jack. “How much control do you have there?”

“Not as much as I’d like. Sam tried to help me, but…” Jack sighed. “I seem to have more power when I experience emotions.”

“Great,” Dean said, still trying to process everything that had occurred just in the past hour. A damn grief counselor could be set up for life, treating them. Which was never going to happen. “A half-angel with nuclear temper tantrums.”

“Emotions affect us all that way, champ,” Gabriel said. “We’re not unemotional because we don’t care. We’re unemotional because we could destroy the world a few times over if we get too excited. Catch my drift?”

“What are you saying, Gabriel?”

“Guys,” Sam broke in, holding his phone up. “We need to get back to the bunker. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to walk eight-hundred miles.”

“Hell, no,” Dean agreed. He nodded over to the parking lot next to them. “Let’s go car shopping.”

As they made their way across the field, Dean could make out a sign in front of the building next to the parking lot. A library. If they were closed, there was a good chance no one would be missing their car until morning. “Sam, go see if the library’s closed, or if anyone’s inside.”

“It’s empty,” Jack said.

“What?”

“There are no people inside,” Jack repeated, closing his eyes briefly. “But there is one ghost. An old woman who likes to sit with the children during story time.”

“Not ganking any ghosts today,” Dean said. He checked out the parking lot. Tucked into the far corner was a newer SUV covered in tree droppings, and not far from that, a dark minivan with a busted rear window, secured with plastic sheeting and duct tape. “Bingo.”

The minivan turned out to be unlocked—small town, older van, broken window; it was a good bet—and had a small toolkit in the back. Within five minutes, Dean had switched the van’s license plates with those of the SUV, intending to switch them again once they were out of town. If the van got reported stolen, it’d take the cops a while to track down all the plate switches, especially if they included a few out-of-state plates. He ripped the plastic sheeting off the window and stuffed it under one of the seats. The breeze would be nice, and they could always dump the van in Indiana.

He headed away from town—west, if he was reading the sun correctly—and settled in for the drive. “GPS work on that thing?” he asked Sam, who was riding shotgun.

“Yeah.” Sam shrugged. “Don’t know why it wouldn’t.”

“Can you get us to I-70?”

Sam tapped his phone a few more times. “You’re gonna need to head north about five miles.”

“’Kay. We got enough gas to get us to Indianapolis. We can switch plates or cars then.” Dean glanced at his brother. “I’m glad you’re back. No matter how it happened. Cas wouldn’t even let me—” He stared out the windshield and pushed all the emotions back down. “Wouldn’t let me go after you. I would’ve, you know. Even if they tore me to shreds.”

“I know, Dean. I’m glad he stopped you.”

“If we weren’t trying to save Mom…” His voice broke on the last word and he didn’t trust himself to continue.

“I get it, Dean. I do. We have to go back sometime anyway. We still need to defeat Michael. We’ll see her again, and we’ll convince her to come back with us. You, me, Mom, Jack, Cas, and Gabe. The bunker won’t feel so empty.”

“I wasn’t planning on Gabriel staying with us,” Dean muttered.

“I heard that!” Gabriel called out from the third row.

“Figures,” Dean said. “Stupid angel hearing.”

“Heard that too, Deano.”

“Great,” Dean called back. “Why don’t you three figure out how we’re going to defeat Michael? And for that matter, how we’re gonna get back to that giant ashtray of a universe?” He turned right on a county highway that looked like it would get them closer to the interstate.

“Rowena was successful before in banishing Lucifer,” Cas offered. “Perhaps she could do the same with Michael.”

“Maybe. But we still need to bring our A-game. How long will it take you and Gabriel to recharge?”

“Dean, it’s not that simple.” Cas let out a long sigh. “I may be more human than angel indefinitely.”

“What? Didn’t the Empty spit you back out at full power? You got the new duds. Much nicer coat, by the way. That short one didn’t suit you at all.”

“No.” Cas’ voice was laced with what sounded like disgust and anger.

“Well, wait, how did you get to Syria? I thought you got your wings back. You said on the phone that you flew to Syria.”

“I did. I got on an airplane—a cramped, smelly, noisy airplane—and flew to Lebanon. The country. From there, I convinced various travelers to get me to Damascus. After that, I talked at length to a belligerent camel, who eventually agreed to carry me to the location of the Tree of Life, where I encountered the Djinn who were guarding it.”

“Hold up, Cas. You—” Dean shook his head. “How did you get on an international flight? How did you pay for an international flight?”

“I retrieved Jimmy’s passport. It had expired, but I had enough grace to alter the dates. As for money, it is astonishing how many people leave their wallets unattended in the airport, even as the annoying voice keeps reminding them not to do so.”

“So you…” Dean couldn’t suppress a chuckle. “You forged a passport and stole a credit card?”

“Yes. I would have thought you’d have more to say about my arguing with the camel, especially when it insisted on speaking only ancient Akkadian.”

“Oh, no, that’s—” Dean laughed and shook his head. “That’s just par for the course with you, Cas.” When the reality of what Cas had said sank in, though, his mood sobered. “So, no wings?”

“Not usable ones.”

“And Gabriel?”

“Gabriel’s wings are just fine,” Gabriel called out. “But it’s going to take a while to…you know.”

“How long?”

“Erasing the Kentucky Fried asshat from existence took pretty much the rest of what I had. Because I totally would have been able to open that rift if it weren’t for him.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Dean said. “So how long?”

Gabriel mumbled something Dean couldn’t hear.

“Didn’t catch that. Human hearing. How long?”

“Weeks. Okay? Weeks. Maybe months.”

“We don’t have weeks, much less months,” Dean said. He started to ask Jack about his power when a painful twist in his abdomen caused him to wince and curl in on himself.

“What is it, Dean?” Cas asked.

“Hungry. Can’t remember the last time I ate.”

“Yeah, I could use some food too,” Sam said, already tapping on his phone. “There’s a mall up ahead on the outskirts of Richmond, just across the Indiana border. Could switch plates there as well.”

“Mall food? Really, Sam?”

“No, there’s this diner in the mall. Homemade, world-famous pies, it says on the website.”

“Done.”

Sam snorted. “How did I know?”

Chapter Text

Richmond Mall was small, as malls went, Sam decided. Even the mall in Grand Island, north of Lebanon, was bigger. Then again, Grand Island’s population was about two-thirds bigger than Richmond’s. As the five of them walked through the mall toward the diner, he noticed a few people staring at them, a few doing double-takes. Two teenage girls, a little younger than Claire, turned in the opposite direction and hid behind a large potted fern, apparently recording them on their phone’s cameras.

“Dean,” he whispered to his brother.

“Yeah?”

“People are looking at us strangely. We don’t look like feds. We’re not bloody. Could use a shower, sure, but… I mean, look at them.”

He watched Dean do a slow scan of the people in the mall. Most seemed to pay them no attention, but there were definitely a few who were paying a lot of attention, although trying—and failing miserably—to hide it.

“Paranoid maybe?” Dean said.

“It would seem our presence has caused some excitement,” Cas observed, coming to stand unnaturally close to Dean. “They are not only taking photographs and video, but appear to be texting or posting. Their constant glances our way lead me to believe we’re the subject of their messages.”

“Why would that be?” Sam asked. “These aren’t hunters. These are kids.”

“I don’t know, but my stomach doesn’t have the patience for this,” Dean said, heading off toward the diner again.

Sam followed with the others, trying not to meet all the open stares.

“Do you think people can tell we’re angels?” Jack asked softly.

“Nah,” Gabriel said. “It was hard enough to convince them a couple thousand years ago, and since then they’ve had the Enlightenment. We’d have to put on a big wing-and-light show, and even then, there’d be doubters.”

“This feels very uncomfortable,” Jack said.

“Maybe they’re in awe of all this handsomeness that walked in. You got Samsquatch here, and his pretty-boy brother. There’s dark-and-brooding, of course. And you’re an adorable cinnamon roll.” Gabriel paused. “You’re right. They’re probably all just in awe of me.”

Sam couldn’t stop his snicker. “Nice try, Gabe.”

“Hey,” Gabriel retorted, “I have a bruised ego to tend. Let me have my fantasies.”

“I don’t think your fantasies involve anyone with clothes on,” Sam said.

Gabriel waggled his eyebrows twice but didn’t say anything, and Sam decided to let it drop.

It was as they were waiting for a table that one of the young women who’d been watching them approached. “I’m sorry to bother you, but why are you in Richmond during hiatus?” she asked. “We’re like, in the middle of nowhere. Are you filming season fourteen already? Here? Shouldn’t you be home, or at a con or something?”

Dean gave her a blank look. “I don’t know what—” He turned a worried expression toward Sam. “What the hell is she talking about, Sam?”

“Oh my God, you are filming!” the young woman exclaimed. “Where are the cameras? Can I be an extra?”

“Miss,” Sam started, using his best talking-to-the-scared-witnesses voice.

“Kate.”

Sam nodded. “Kate. I think you have us confused with someone else. We’re just passing through and stopped to eat.”

Kate’s eyes widened. “Do you have Baby with you? Is she in the parking lot? Can I get a photo with her? Can I get a selfie with you?”

“Ba—” Dean’s worried look increased tenfold. “Dude. How does she know about my car?”

Kate’s phone rang and she excitedly brought it to her ear. “Yes!” she answered. “I’m talking to them right now.” She paused. “Well, hurry up!” Tapping off the call, she looked at each of them in turn. “I can’t believe I get to meet you. There’s no way I could afford to go to a con, and I just love you all so much.” She looked back at Cas. “I’m totally going to sign up for Gish this summer.”

“Gish?” Cas asked, his eyes narrowed in confusion.

“Kate,” Sam began again, “Who exactly do you think we are?”

Kate giggled. “Are you trying to stay in character? You’re doing a really good job.”

“I think there’s some confusion,” Sam said. “I’m confused, for certain. You think we’re…actors?”

“Uh, yeah, Jared,” Kate said. “And Jensen and Misha and Rich and…” Kate snapped her fingers a couple times. “Alex. Right? Your cat is awesome!”

Sam let out a long sigh and wished he had his laptop with him. His phone was going to have to do.

“I have a cat?” Jack asked.

“Kate, I’m sorry,” Sam said, “but our contract prohibits us from taking selfies when we’re on location. So, we really appreciate your discretion, but we need to go.”

“Oh, that sucks!” Kate said. “But I get it. I’m so glad I got to meet you! Love you all!”

Sam didn’t wait to see what she did next, but ushered them all toward the back of the restaurant, hostess or no hostess. He found two tables in the back corner, away from the cafeteria-style serving counter, and pulled them together so they could sit comfortably and figure this out. Because he was pretty sure Jack had done more than mixed up Lebanon, Kansas and New Lebanon, Ohio.

“What the hell was that all about, Sam? Are we in bizarro world again?”

“No, not that one. At least I don’t think so. You know what you’re going to eat?”

“Always.” Dean grinned, then looked at the other three. “You guys going to eat?”

“I will,” Cas said. He looked at Gabriel. “You should. It will help, despite the taste.”

“Three words, Castiel,” Gabriel said. “Home. Made. Cake. You don’t have to convince me.”

“I’m still not clear on whether I have a cat or not,” Jack said.

“No,” Dean said, standing and taking one step toward the serving counter. “It’s a buffet, Sam. I’m gonna go load up my plate.”

“No, Jack,” Sam added as Dean left. “You don’t have a cat.” He ran a hand over his face. “Let’s eat first. I’ll check a few things out, and then I’ll explain what’s going on.”

“Okay,” Jack said. “But I think I would like a cat.”

“Dean’s allergic to cats,” Cas said. “It would be impolite to bring one into the bunker. Also, they are frequently disagreeable.”

“Oh.”

“You may have more success with a guinea pig. I believe Dean has one sequestered away somewhere, though I have yet to find it.”

“I’ll help look when we get back,” Jack offered. “I’m not going to eat. You go ahead.”

As if on autopilot, Sam put together a salad, a bowl of apple slices, and two hard-boiled eggs for protein, then began searching the news sites on the internet. Everything looked pretty much the same: Trump was president, Republicans were gutting social programs, marriage equality was law but highly contentious, and the US was threatening retaliation against nearly every country except Canada.

Canada. That’s where that show was filmed, the one based on Carver Edlund’s books. Sam ate one of the eggs, then tapped in the author’s name and found several wiki entries, cross-referenced with the name Rob Benedict, who appeared to be an actor, singer, and musician, but not a novelist. He searched on the show’s name, finding that it was close to airing the last episodes of its thirteenth season, and had been renewed for a fourteenth. A related Twitter feed caught his attention, and he tapped on it.

He was glad he’d already swallowed the egg.

“Guys?” He looked up to get everyone’s attention. “You’re going to want to hear this.”

“What?” Dean asked, some unidentifiable foodstuff clinging to his lips.

“Gross, Dean.” He gave Dean a disgusted look and turned back to his phone. “So get this: we’re not in our own universe.”

“What?” came four voices in unison.

“But I—” Jack looked like he was considering stabbing himself with a fork. “I screwed up again.”

“It’s okay, Jack. We just need to figure out how to get home.”

“Yeah, where are your ruby slippers, Samantha?” Dean teased.

Sam ignored him. “Those actors—the ones people thought we were years ago when Balthazar sent us to that other universe—they exist here. And they’re actors on the show Supernatural, based on Chuck’s books. But this isn’t the same world. Remember in that one, the guy who played Cas on the show was killed? He’s alive and well here. And he’s promoting some sort of scavenger hunt called Gish. So that’s one question answered.”

“Does the bunker exist here?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to go find out. But that means—”

“We’re not fugitives!” Dean said triumphantly. “No feds out to get us. We’re off everyone’s radar.”

“Well, not everyone,” Sam said. “Because anyone who recognizes us from the show is going to think we’re these actors.”

“Did we switch places with the actors?” Jack asked. “Are they now where we were? Did I put them in danger?”

“No, definitely not. In fact, Dean’s…twin?” Sam smirked a little. “The guy who plays him, Jensen, started a…” He followed a few more links on his phone. “Brewery. In Texas. Lots of photos of him at the brewery on Instagram.”

“The brewery’s on Instagram?” Dean asked. “Thought you said it was in Texas.”

“No, there’s a page on Instagram for the brewery.” Sam shook his head at Dean’s blank look. “He’s on social media and he posted something earlier today. So, no, I don’t think we switched places with them. And look,” Sam held his phone out for a moment so everyone could see. “The guy who plays Cas has sent…” he started counting. “…four, five, six, seven tweets insulting the president, just in the past hour.”

“This isn’t a thought-form universe, that much I can tell you,” Gabriel said.

“A thought-what?” Dean asked.

“A three-dimensional interactive image created by a source of energy, like moi.” Gabriel paused, then continued. “Doctor Sexy. The Supernatural sitcom. Knight Rider. This isn’t like that. This is real.”

“You know, I almost thought you were responsible for landing us in Scooby-Doo land, but we didn’t know you’d survived yet,” Dean added.

“Oh, come on, Dean. If I was gonna put you in a cartoon, I’d never choose Scooby-Doo. No, you’d all be the coyote, and I’d be Road Runner.”

“Great,” Sam said. “But can we get back on track? It takes the grace of an archangel to open a rift.”

“And fruit from the Tree of Life,” Cas added. “I’m not going back there. Crying children. Spitting camels. I don’t know how you put up with it.”

“Well, Jack can obviously do it,” Dean said, “but, uh, he needs a little work on the accuracy, right?”

“I’m not doing it again,” Jack said. “Not unless I know for sure I can get us to the right place. The right universe. This is all my fault.”

“Hey, let’s not place blame,” Sam interrupted. “Let’s just figure out how to get back.”

“And then how to defeat the alternate universe Michael,” Cas added.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Not like we haven’t been up against big odds before.”

Picking at his salad, Sam thought about their circumstances, feeling like he’d missed some detail. The lettuce was half-wilted, the tomatoes underripe, and he wondered if any of this food was genetically modified. Chances were good the supernatural would kill them long before their diets would. Except maybe for Dean and his cheeseburgers. He ought to have Dean get his cholesterol checked anyway, just to see where it was. Although he showed no signs of disease. Not even really any aging. Sam looked more carefully at his brother, watching him alternately digging into his food and casting surreptitious glances at Cas. What was the possibility that Cas kept Dean’s health in check, maybe without even telling him? He’d have to ask Cas. He’d healed Dean enough times that it probably wouldn’t take much extra grace to clean out Dean’s arteries or detox his liver.

At that moment, he latched onto one of the details he might have missed. “Cas, can you heal here?”

“Heal what?” Cas asked.

“I don’t know.” Sam shrugged. “Anyone.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Just…” Without thinking it through, Sam grabbed his clean knife and, with a hiss of pain, cut along his forearm, careful to not go too deep, yet deep enough to draw blood.

“Sam, what do you think you’re doing?” Dean demanded.

“Can you heal me, Cas?”

“Are you all right, Sam?” Cas asked. “This is not like you.”

“I’m fine. I just need to know if you can heal me. Before anyone sees the blood.”

Cas reached his hand out and covered Sam’s forearm. Within moments, the cut faded and disappeared entirely. “I would prefer you not continue to harm yourself like this.”

“I needed to test something,” Sam said. “And now I know.

“Full sentences, Sam,” Dean said.

“The supernatural exists here, Dean. Remember when we were the actors? There was no magic. No angel powers.”

“And if the supernatural exists here…?” Dean prompted.

“Then maybe magic works here too. Spells. Maybe there are hunters here. Maybe there’s a way to jump universes here that we don’t know about.”

“I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves,” Dean said. “How about we see if the bunker exists. That’ll say if this universe had the Men of Letters.”

“Dean, what if there are angels in this universe?” Sam asked, feeling hope for the first time in what felt like days. “What if we could call one of them? What if we could call the Castiel in this universe?”

“No,” Cas said adamantly. “No, I will not participate in that. It’s…an exceedingly bad idea. It could get you killed.”

“But it’d be you, Cas,” Dean said. “Just this-world-you, not you-you.”

Cas fixed Dean with a stare that Sam was just as happy not to be receiving. “I am who I am today because I met you. If there is a Castiel in this world, he would probably be nothing like me.”

“How do you know, Cas?” Dean pressed. “I mean, you could’ve figured out free will on your own.”

“No. I have been disobedient. Many times, apparently, though I don’t remember any of them. But to take such a big step as free will?” Cas tipped his head forward, his gaze intensifying. “There was no point in fighting until I found something worth fighting for.”

“What did you find?”

Cas rolled his eyes. “You, Dean. I found you.”

“Aaand on that note,” Gabriel broke in, “I vote for not contacting any angels anywhere. The universe couldn’t handle two of me.”

“Guys,” Sam said, “we need to get back to our own world. If summoning an angel will help get us there, I say we give it a shot. We can stay safe, trap them in a ring of holy fire. What other options do we have? Especially if we need archangel grace?”

“Okay, but we find the bunker first,” Dean said. “Or find out if it’s there. Or if there are other hunters. We know Cas can heal in this world, but we don’t really know the extent of the supernatural here, right? So I’ll drive, Sam, you research, and the God Squad can figure out how two depowered angels, a halfling, and a bunch of humans can kill an archangel who’s already got an army and control over most of the planet.”

“Maybe Lucifer will do our job for us,” Sam mused.

“I’m not sure which of them is better in that world,” Gabriel said. “Couldn’t at least one dimension come up with a version of my brothers that I’d actually like?”

“When you find it, let me know,” Dean said. “I’d pay money to see that. Well, someone else’s money, but still…”

“I understand why we need to do this,” Jack spoke up, “but it is a little unpleasant to hear one father and uncle talking about how to kill another father and uncle.”

“Just keepin’ it all in the family, kid,” Gabriel said.

“We’ve got another twelve hours to go,” Sam said, double-checking the maps app and real-time traffic on his phone. “You want me to drive for a while?”

Sam could actually see Dean’s decision-making process. What if he doesn't drive as well? But I am tired. He’s driven fine before. Even if it was a piece of crap. Maybe I should drive. A full stomach sure makes me sleepy.

“Yeah, maybe you should drive,” Dean acquiesced. “That second slice of pie’s making me a little drowsy.”

“Thought so.” Sam stood and made sure he left plenty of cash for their meals. “You suppose we can walk out of here without getting mobbed by fans of people who are not us?”

“When people on the television are avoiding fans and the media,” Cas said, “they say, ‘No comment’ and continue walking. It seems to create a kind of protective field around them. Perhaps we should try that?”

“Yeah, I just don’t want fans to think these actors are assholes,” Dean said. “I mean, us? We know we are. Them? Maybe they’re nice guys. Then again, they were pretty loaded in that other world, and most rich people I’ve met are pretty dickish.”

Sam shook his head. “Let’s just stick to what I said before lunch. By contract, we can’t talk about the show or take photos. The fans seem to really love the show. No need to make trouble for anyone.”

“Well, you lead then, Sammy,” Dean said, standing. “We’ll be your entourage.”

Gabriel slid out of his chair and gave a sideways knowing look to Cas and Jack. “Always with the drama, these two.”

As they left the diner, the number of people in the mall’s open areas had at least tripled, with women far outnumbering men, and what Sam figured was a median age of thirty. A lot of teens, some with parents or other adults, were glued to their phones, while most of the adults were taking photos or video. All of the attention seemed to be trained on them.

“Uh oh,” Dean muttered next to him.

It wasn’t clear who started moving, but as if an unstoppable avalanche, the crowd bore down on them with calls of selfie, photo, and hug overlapping each other. Before Sam could respond, hands were reaching for him, wanting to touch any part of him.

“Guys. Guys!” Sam called. “Hey, we’re not—”

“Hands off my ass!” Dean growled, bumping into Sam’s side as he twisted away from an overeager fan.

Immediately, Cas was in front of them, his stance protective.

“No blade, Cas,” Sam said quietly. “We can’t hurt them.”

“They are trying to hurt all of you. I will not let them.”

“Getting your angel to do your dirty work for you again?” a voice called out from the crowd. “He’s useless! Get him off the show!”

“Yeah,” another voice chimed in. “Bros before halos!”

“Destiel exists!” another set of female voices called in near-unison. “We love you, Misha!”

“It’s about the brothers,” someone else yelled. “Cas needs to die!”

“Kill the angel!”

“Hold up!” Dean shouted, raising his hands toward the crowd.

“See! He hates Destiel!”

“Dean is straight!”

“Get rid of Misha!”

Gabriel was suddenly in front of Sam, his arms out, herding them back the way they came. “In the diner. Back door.” He glanced at the crowd behind them and shouted, “Security and police are on their way!”

Mobbed

“Cops are here!” Sam added his voice to the chaos, understanding what Gabriel was trying to do.

The warning traveled quickly through the mass of people, some scattering as Sam made sure they all made it back into the diner and through the eating area to a back door.

“The hell was that?” Dean demanded, breathing heavily as they made their way quickly through the parking lot to the van. “They’re crazy!”

“The word fan is a shortened form of fanatic,” Cas said.

“Fans of this show are very vocal online,” Sam explained, looking between Dean and Cas. “Or at least some of them. Fights seem to break out mostly about your…um…profound bond.”

“Well, that’s none of their business,” Dean said. He paused in the middle of an empty parking space. “What is the show saying about it?”

“I’ll add that to my research,” Sam said, rolling his eyes as he continued on toward the van.

“Okay. Whatever. Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

Dean awoke to a sore low back and pain in his neck and shoulder. It was vaguely light outside, though he couldn’t tell if the sun was just past setting or just before rising. He sat up in the passenger seat, wiped the drool from his chin with the back of his hand, and glanced around the interior of the van. Sam was still driving, Cas and Jack were talking softly in the middle row, and Gabriel was conked out in the rear seat. Guy must have been really low on grace if he was sleeping. Dean almost felt sorry for him.

“Where are we?” he asked Sam, rubbing at the knot in the side of his neck. He was getting too old to sleep in cars. Or vans.

“We just passed Mankato maybe ten minutes ago. Should be in Lebanon in just a bit.”

“You’re shittin’ me,” Dean said. “That’s like twelve hours. Did you stop for gas?”

“Yeah, I did, Dean. You didn’t even stir.”

Dean whistled in awe. “I didn’t think I was capable of sleeping that long.”

“I’ve noticed that your ‘four hours’ was leaving your body in a state of extreme sleep deficit,” Cas said from the middle row.

“Can’t have everything as a hunter,” Dean said.

“Well, we’re about to have our moment of truth,” Sam said, turning off the highway.

Dean watched the lights of Lebanon pass them on the right before Sam took a left onto what should have been the road that led to the bunker. “Dude… Where’s the power plant?”

“I don’t know.” Sam slowed down as they drove past a farm on the right.

“It’s too flat.”

“It’s Kansas,” Gabriel said with a yawn. “Whole damn part of the country is flat.”

“The bunker was built into the side of bluff,” Sam said. “There are no bluffs.” He approached a miniscule park at the top of a very small hill and pulled the van over to the side of the road.

Dean opened the door and unfolded himself as he got out, trying to return circulation to all his extremities. “You sure you didn’t make a wrong turn, Sam? You gotta be tired.”

“I’m sure, Dean. We’re in the right place.” Sam walked over to what looked like a stone memorial in the small park as Jack, Cas, and Gabriel exited the van. “Guys?”

Letting out a long exhale, Dean made his way across the road toward where Sam was.

Cas came up on his left, his hand resting briefly on Dean’s arm. “Are you okay, Dean?”

“Yeah. Just a little sore from sleeping in one position for too long. Miss my memory foam.” As he spoke, he was aware of a slight coolness spreading through him, almost like a barely-there breeze, but under his skin. And the soreness in his neck was already fading. “Cas?”

“Yes, Dean?”

“Did you just heal me?”

“I don’t want you to be in pain.”

“I… Thanks, buddy. But we don’t know what we’re up against here. Ain’t our world, and you might need your grace for something. So don’t use it all up on unnecessary things, okay?”

“You’re hardly unnecessary, Dean.”

“Well, save it for the big stuff, then.”

“As you wish.”

Dean turned to look at him. “Did you just Princess Bride me?”

Cas’ face gave nothing away. As usual. After a moment, he raised an eyebrow.

Shaking his head, Dean sighed. That only meant Cas knew exactly what he was doing. He shifted his attention to Sam for now. “What’ve you got there?”

Sam pointed to the stone marker. “Welcome to the geographic center of the United States.”

“That’s where the bunker should be.”

“Yeah, Dean. No wrong turn. Just the wrong universe. No bunker, so probably no Men of Letters either.”

“Damn it. We need help. Who knows what Michael and Lucifer are up to, what kind of danger Mom’s facing?”

“I can do some more research,” Sam offered.

“This is all my fault,” Jack said softly. “You should have just let Lucifer take me.”

“No,” Dean said, hearing his voice harsh. “You can wallow in guilt if you want, after we get back to our own world. You’re the only one with any power here, Jack. We need you. We need you in top shape.”

“You wouldn’t even be in this world if it weren’t for me,” Jack argued.

“Well, the alternative was kinda death,” Gabriel said, clapping Jack on the shoulder. “I’ll take this over death, y’know? ‘Sides, here we have fans.”

“They aren’t fans of us, Gabriel,” Cas said. “And half of them want me dead.”

“Ah, ignore that mob back there. I’m sure you got fans, and besides, maybe they like the characters more than the actors. Plus, I have wings.”

“I’m sure the actor who plays you is much more well-behaved,” Cas said.

Gabriel snorted. “Well, that’s no fun.”

“There’s a motel in Smith Center,” Sam said. “About twenty minutes away. We can regroup, get some breakfast. I could use a few hours of sleep.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a plan,” Dean said. “I don’t know what else we can do now.” He started back toward the van, Cas beside him, with the rest of them trailing behind. The moment he saw movement around the van, he stopped abruptly and raised his hand to stop the others. “Who’s there?” he called out.

“Just me,” a male voice came from near the van. “I mean you no harm. I saw you stopped and thought perhaps you needed some help.”

“We’re good, pal,” Dean said, moving slowly forward.

“Are you sure?” the stranger asked. “Your van is damaged, and dawn is an unusual time to check out the geographic center of the U.S.”

“Where did you come from?” Sam asked, passing Dean on his left as he walked toward the stranger.

“I saw you from the house,” the stranger said. “Perhaps you are lost? I can help with directions.”

Dean caught up to Sam, the other three right behind him. “We just wanted to check this out,” Dean said. He got a better look at the stranger. About the same height, Caucasian, hair about Gabe’s length, blue jeans, gray lightweight bomber jacket. Probably just another Kansas hick. Harmless. “Heard a lot about it. We’ll be on our way now.”

“I see,” the stranger said. “Well, if you’re certain you need no help, I’ll head back.”

“Yeah. Thanks for stopping though,” Sam said. “The world could use more people who look out for others.”

The stranger gave Sam an odd look, then nodded once. “Indeed it could.” He turned and walked down the road toward the farmhouse they’d passed earlier.

“Okay, that wasn’t creepy at all,” Dean said softly, climbing into the driver’s seat. “Sam, you take a load off. I’ll keep my eyes open for that motel and a place to eat.”

Sam nodded. “If only he could have given us the kind of help we really do need.”

“Well, we’re not gonna get that from some Kansas farmer.” Dean hotwired the van again and pulled back onto the road, past the farmhouse and toward Lebanon.

“Uh…” Sam began. “How far do you suppose it is between that marker and the farmhouse?”

Dean shrugged. “Dunno. Few hundred feet?”

“Five hundred fifty-five feet,” Cas said from the middle row.

“Why?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know,” Sam said, shaking his head. “I just got a weird vibe. We saw him walking toward the house and then we didn’t see him at all when we drove by. And the house was dark.”

“Maybe he walks fast,” Dean said.

“Yeah, probably. I’m tired. My brain’s playing tricks on me.” Sam turned around in his seat. “You guys get anything weird from him?”

Dean watched through the rearview mirror as all three shrugged. “Get some rest, Sammy. I’ll get us a couple rooms and you can have your beauty sleep.”

 

 

Smith Center not only had a motel, but next door was a diner. Both were everything Dean expected from a tiny town in middle America. He reserved two adjoining rooms, grateful that his own universe’s credit card was accepted, steered Sam into one of the double beds in one room, and commandeered the other room for planning. Then he decided to check out the diner, after promising to bring Sam back something green and healthy. Cas said he was coming, Gabriel was making lip-smacking sounds, and Jack looked like he didn’t want to be left alone.

The diner had six tables crammed into a long, narrow room. Cas took his usual place next to him at the rectangular table; Gabriel and Jack sat on the other side of the table. The laminated menus were sticky, the tabletops looked like Formica, and the kitchen smelled like the absolute best of greasy comfort food. Steak and eggs caught his eye, while Gabriel said something about a triple short-stack of pancakes.

“I don’t get this place,” Dean said once they all had their food in front of them.

“It’s a diner,” Cas said. “What is there to ‘get?’”

“No, not the diner, Cas. Cell phones work, GPS works, hell, even my credit cards work, though they're not exactly mine. But no bunker. It’s like exactly the same world, except we’re not real.”

“That does pose an existential problem,” Gabriel said. “Your blood might not suffice for a spell either.”

“Oh, thanks,” Dean growled. “You got any other stellar ideas?”

“Well,” Gabriel said around a mouthful of pancakes. “We could stay.”

“We are not leaving my mom to reenact Flight of the Phoenix.”

“Okay, hold up, kiddo.” Gabriel raised both hands, one holding a fork loaded with pancakes, currently dripping syrup onto his plate. “It’s just an idea. Seems pretty nice here.”

“We haven’t even been here twenty-four hours,” Cas observed. “There could be evil we’re as yet unaware of.”

“Yeah, I’ll get Sammy on the research as soon as he wakes up.” Dean took another bite of his meal and felt It practically melt in his mouth. “Damn, that’s good. These little diners in the Midwest? They know their meat.” He chewed some more and swallowed. “Maybe if we get a newspaper. See if anything might attract a hunter. Could give us a better idea of what sort of monsters exist here and how we can network with any hunters. Me and Sam, every time we’ve been to another world, the supernatural finds us first. We don’t have to go looking for it.”

“I can help,” Jack said, excitement in his voice. In the blink of an eye, he disappeared, returning moments later with three…no, four newspapers in his arms.

“Damn it, Jack,” Dean hissed. “Don’t do that out in public! Someone’s gonna see you—or not see you—and we’re gonna have some serious explaining to do.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. But look, I brought newspapers.” He held out current editions of the Grand Island Independent, the Lincoln Journal Star, the Kansas City Star, and the Denver Post.

“There’s a convenience store next door,” Gabriel said. “You get those there?”

“No,” Jack said. “No I got these in each of the cities. I wanted to avoid fake news.”

“That’s not what fake—” Dean stopped, shaking his head. “Thanks, Jack.”

“Have you talked to the man from earlier this morning?” Jack asked.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s at a table behind you,” Jack explained. “I thought you saw him come in. I only noticed because he wasn’t there when I left but he was when I returned.”

“Shit.” Dean looked at Gabriel. “Did you see him come in?”

Gabriel leaned a little to the side to see around Dean. “No. I swear he wasn’t there a moment ago.”

“What the hell is he doing here?”

“Perhaps he’s hungry,” Cas said. “This is only twenty minutes from that farm.”

“The waitress just brought him biscuits,” Jack said. “And served him coffee.”

“Biscuits?” Dean asked.

“Yes. Two biscuits.”

“Well, that ain’t normal. But not like our kind of not normal. More like Sammy’s kind. How can you come to a place like this and not have bacon?” He flagged the waitress down and asked if he could get a salad to go.

“Of course, sir. I’ll bring you a container and you can fill it up at the salad bar.”

After watching him for a moment, Cas said, “I’ll make Sam’s salad.”

“Nah, I can do it.”

“I know you can, Dean. You’ll also probably put jalapeño peppers in it.”

Dean grinned. “Pickled beets and jalapeños. Anchovies if they have ‘em.”

“And he will not forgive you for a week. And I will have to deal with your childish arguments.”

“Aw, Cas, you’re no fun.”

When the waitress returned with a Styrofoam container, Cas stood. “Read your newspapers, Dean.”

Dean made a face at Cas’ back. “You think we need to be concerned about Farmer Guy?” he asked Gabriel.

“The timing is odd, but it’s likely just coincidence,” Gabriel said. “He doesn’t strike me as a particularly freaky farmer guy.”

“Yeah, okay. I’m probably just on edge.” Dean considered his surroundings for a moment. Nothing silver around here. They’d have to make some holy water. And he wasn’t gonna draw blood from the guy unless he could make it look completely accidental. “Maybe we talk to him on the way out. See what else he can tell us. Who knows, maybe he can help.”

“In what world,” Cas said, coming back while securing the top of the container, “is colored gelatin considered a salad ingredient?”

“In the Midwest world. Jell-O fruit salad is a thing. It’s actually pretty good.”

Dean laughed at the look Cas gave him—something between shock and disgust. “I’m just gonna ask Farmer Guy a few questions and we’ll head back to the motel.” He stood with the others, left a generous tip along with payment for their bill, and nonchalantly made his way toward the entrance, near where Farmer Guy was seated.

The guy was in the same clothes, staring into his cup of coffee like it held the secrets of the universe. Which, you know, maybe it did. Coffee was magical in the morning. He looked up as they approached and seemed not at all surprised to see them there. Medium brown hair. Gray eyes. “Gentlemen,” he greeted in a baritone voice. “Would you care to join me for some biscuits?”

“We just ate, but thanks,” Dean said. “We’re, uh, running down a story about paranormal occurrences in this part of Kansas.”

“Connected to the geographic center,” Cas added.

“I see,” the guy said. “Journalists, then?”

“In a way,” Dean said, not wanting to get into specifics. “You know anyone we could talk to about that? Any unsolved mysteries, missing people, things that go bump in the night?”

The guy pushed his plate of biscuits away and folded his hands on the table. “I could direct you to such people, yes. Every town has its strange happenings. They would no doubt send you on a hunt that may or may not result in any answers. But I have a feeling you’re looking for something else.”

“Well, it’d be a start,” Dean said. “We really need to find…um…a good story to cover.”

“For our editors,” Cas added. “At the newspaper.”

“Local paper?” the guy asked.

“Well, that’s just our day job,” Gabriel jumped in. “Who knows what this could turn into, you know? Podcast. YouTube channel. Maybe we’ll write a book.”

Dean tried to glare at the others without Farmer Guy seeing. “Shut. Up,” he whispered. He turned back to the guy. “Interns,” he said, shrugging. “So, if you have any names, that’d be great.”

“Very well. Since you’re in town here, I recommend going to the Smith Center Chamber of Commerce. They can fill you in on anything current. They can also give you directions to the historical society. And finally, you may want to visit your colleagues at the Smith County Pioneer.”

“Great. That’s, uh…great.” Dean turned to the others. “Y’all ready then?” He caught their nods and then clapped Farmer Guy on the shoulder. Firm shoulder. Warm skin. Felt human. “Thanks, buddy.”

The guy nodded once, and Dean led the way toward the door, only to hear, “You’re welcome, Dean,” behind him. He spun around but the table was empty. No plate, no cup, no biscuits, no farmer guy.

“Dude.” He pulled Cas around to look at the table. “Do not tell me I just hallucinated Farmer Guy.”

“Okay,” Cas said slowly. “I won’t.”

“You saw him too, right?”

“I did,” Jack said. “And I was going to tell you something,” he added in an undertone. “After we’d left. He ordered two biscuits.”

“Yeah. I saw ‘em,” Dean said.

“He ate one,” Jack explained. “While we were at our table. But when we stopped at his table, there were two again. The waitress never brought more over.”

“This sounds entirely up your alley,” Dean said, glaring at Gabriel. “Spill. What’s going on?”

“Not me, amigo,” Gabriel said. “I have nothing to do with this, and nothing to gain by it. It’s not even fun.”

“How did he know my name?”

“Maybe he overheard us,” Cas said.

“Okay, I’ll give you that.” Dean shook his head. “But the rest of it? How’d he leave the diner? This,” he pointed to the door in front of them, “is the only exit.”

“I don’t know, Dean. A demon, perhaps? Shape-shifter?”

“He was friggin’ polite. And helpful. I don’t know any supernatural creature—not a single one—that offers help without wanting something in return. Usually something bloody and painful.”

“Can we find out who owns that farmhouse?” Cas suggested. “Perhaps that will tell us something about him. At least his name. And we could drive back and interview him.”

“Yeah, that’s a good start.” Dean looked at the empty table again, shook his head, and led them all outside.

Chapter Text

“No house number,” Sam said absently, clicking through a real estate website. “Let’s try property records through the county.” He pulled up a records search form and entered the road and zip code. “Got it. How much do you want to know?”

“The guy’s name, for sure,” Dean said.

“Uh…” Sam double-checked the information before he continued. “It’s owned by a trust, but only the widow lives there.” He opened a new tab and searched death records. “See? Guy died ten years ago. And he was in his seventies.”

“Definitely not Farmer Guy, then,” Dean said. “You think Farmer Guy is her son? Grandson? He looked like maybe our age.”

Sam went back to the search results and found an old New York Times interview with the now-deceased husband about the disappearance of the family farm. Skimming it, he found reference to a single living child: a son who’d be about thirty now. He typed the son’s name into an image search and got a hit from a follow-up to the Times article years later. Sitting back, he let Dean get a good look at the image.

“Damn. So our mystery guy isn’t the son. He could still live there, though. Farm hand?”

“I mean, it could be a coincidence,” Sam said, closing out the tabs, “you running into him at the diner.”

“Yeah, but what Jack said about the biscuits? And him just disappearing on us? Who does that?”

“Demons,” Cas said. “And angels.”

“No wing flaps,” Dean argued. “Believe me, my ears are attuned to that sound.”

Cas gave Dean a curious stare, as if he wanted Dean to say more. But of course Dean didn’t notice it, and Sam shook his head in resignation. One of these days, Dean would get his head out of his ass.

Sam exhaled sharply. “Let’s get the rest of our weapons together. If we see the guy again, we can splash some holy water on him. And we gotta stop in town for some groceries. We can’t afford to eat at the diner all the time. Then we can do like the guy said and visit the chamber of commerce. At least if we’re writers, we don’t have to dress like feds.”

“I don’t do suits,” Gabriel said. “Just in case you were thinking about it.”

The comment caused Sam to picture Gabriel in a suit. Maybe something tailored with a pinstripe. And a vest. He pushed the image aside, not even sure why it intruded into his thoughts, and refocused on what they’d gathered already. Cas and Gabe were going to prepare bottles of holy water for each of them. Dean managed to find several containers of salt, as well as a sterling silver souvenir spoon at the local convenience store in their gift section, with Lebanon, Kans. engraved in the bowl and an ear of corn making up the handle. And Jack had reluctantly agreed to go back to practicing with the pencil to try and control his power. He was still their best hope, but without accuracy, the next rift could be so much worse.

“Dean and I will do the shopping,” Cas offered. “You work with Jack. Gabriel is more than capable of making holy water and we’ll bring back bottles for it.”

“Why are you splitting us up, Cas?” Dean asked as he was firmly led toward the motel door.

“It’s more efficient. Go. Now.”

Sam watched them leave, then heard Gabriel come up behind him.

“I honestly don’t remember Castiel being quite so bossy,” Gabriel said.

Chuckling, Sam turned around. “Only with my brother. Dean’ll never admit it, but he loves it.”

“You noticed that too?” Gabriel grinned and strolled back to the sink, singing Love Is in the Air.

“Disco, Gabe? Really?” Sam called toward him.

Gabriel waved over his shoulder. “Instruct the young grasshopper and don’t judge.”

Jack tilted his head as he sat on the end of one of the beds. “You want me to turn myself into a grasshopper?”

 


 

Castiel sighed with relief once they were in the van and heading toward the only grocery store in town.

“You wanna tell me what’s going on?” Dean asked, his tone sounding concerned.

“I can only take my brother in small increments. He…grates on me.”

Laughing, Dean said, “Yeah, I can understand that. He seems to be growing on Sam, though.”

“I did observe Sam watching him very closely,” Castiel said with a nod. “I thought perhaps he was anticipating trouble.”

“Oh, I don’t know… I’ve seen him checking out girls like that too. I mean women. You know, not like young girls or anything.”

“I understand, Dean. And if he was? What would you think about that?” Castiel hesitated to even ask the question, but it might help establish where Dean stood on the issue.

“Well, as annoying as it would be to have Gabriel as a brother-in-law, mostly I just want Sam to be happy. Y’know? He deserves that. And if that winds up being Gabriel…” Dean shrugged.

“You don’t see a problem with a relationship between a human and an angel?”

Dean pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not like it’d be the first time. It’s probably better not to bring any more nephilim into the world, but nah, not a problem.”

“Or Sam loving someone in a male vessel?” Castiel pressed.

“What is this, the 1950s?” Dean asked, sounding annoyed. “I don’t care who he loves, as long as he’s happy and safe. Emphasis on the happy and safe part.”

“And you, Dean? Do you want to be happy and safe?”

Dean snorted. “Two words that don’t exist in a hunter’s vocabulary. Sam can get out, have the life he deserves. Me?” Dean pulled into the extremely large parking lot attached to the relatively small grocery store and cut the engine. “I think it’s too late for me. Tried it with Lisa. Didn’t work. I don’t think the apple pie life is in the cards for me, Cas.”

“What if it was? Maybe not apple pie. Not that traditional. Perhaps…something more like pecan. Seemingly inedible on the outside but surprisingly satisfying on the inside.”

“Come on, you’re making me hungry now.” Dean hopped out of the van. “You think the store’s got pie? The diner does, anyway. Checked the menu. Home baked pie. Maybe they’ve got some pecan, huh?”

“They’re only open through lunchtime,” Cas said after climbing out and shutting the door. “Didn’t you notice their hours?”

“No, I noticed they had burgers, pie, and bacon.”

“Of course.”

“You like pecan pie, Cas?”

Castiel tried to intuit the meaning behind Dean’s question, but it was unclear. Most likely, Dean only meant the obvious, surface meaning. But just in case… “I do. Very much.”

“Huh.” Dean nodded. “Good to know.”

 

 

As they walked through the aisles of groceries, slow-tempo songs playing on the overhead speakers, Castiel considered how much of each waking day humans needed to spend planning, shopping, preparing, eating, and cleaning up meals. The need to sustain their bodies took a great deal of attention away from their creations, their purpose, their contribution to the world. And yet Dean, for example, derived great pleasure from food. It was more than physical sustenance. It was also social communion, a way of becoming close to others, to sharing more than a conversation or a hobby. It was, the more Castiel thought about it, an intimate act.

“Earth to Cas,” Dean’s voice broke through.

“Yes?”

“You okay in there? You looked awfully thoughtful.”

“I’m fine, Dean. Just thinking about how much time humans spend on meals.”

“Yeah, it must get boring, huh? Sorry about that. You don’t have to sit with us if you don’t want to.”

“Dean.” Cas put himself directly in Dean’s path, stopping him with a hand to his arm, and stared into his eyes, trying to reach beyond Dean’s ego to his soul. “It is never boring to sit with you while you eat.”

Mischief sparked in Dean’s eyes. “I’m that entertaining?”

“You are something, for certain.” Castiel let his hand drop. “What else do we need?”

“Bottles. We can just get a case of bottled water. Whatever’s cheapest. And we should see if they have pie here.”

Castiel nodded toward the front corner of the store. “I believe the bakery is over there.” He followed Dean and the cart, noticing a distinct change when a song came over the speakers.

Dean’s posture curled in slightly, his shoulders hunched, and his steps became shorter and slower. His hands, too, went from easily maneuvering the cart to gripping the handle tightly. Dean’s gaze went slightly out of focus, as if he was concentrating on something internal, and Castiel could feel a wave of emotion coming off him. He focused on the lyrics, watching Dean’s lips move as if he was barely mouthing along.

What is happening to me? Crazy some’d say. Where is my friend when I need you most? But I won't cry for yesterday. There's an ordinary world, somehow, I have to find. And as I try to make my way to the ordinary world, I will learn to survive.

Dean closed his eyes briefly and took in a shaky breath, held it for a few beats, and released it again. When he reopened his eyes, the playfulness was back, albeit a bit forced, and he’d returned to his regular stride. But Castiel had felt that wave of emotion as clearly as if it had been a freight train. Grief. Combined with the lyric about where is my friend when I need you most, Castiel could read between the lines.

“We haven’t talked, really, about when I was gone,” Castiel said, trying for a conversational tone. It was possible that this was one of those discussions that should happen over a meal, but everything he knew about Dean said that he’d open up more if he was busy doing something and could look at other things. If he had the safety of a distraction. An out.

“Don’t wanna talk about that time, Cas.”

“It must have been very difficult.”

Dean stopped short and faced him. “I said I don’t wanna talk about it. You were dead. It sucked. Now you’re back. And we have another world to save. That’s what I’m focused on.”

“Someday, we need to talk about it,” Castiel said. “I’ve left you too many times to have earned your complete trust. It wasn’t by choice, but it still happened. I’ve hurt you. Give me a chance to help heal you.”

“Getting back to our own world and then taking the fight to apocalypse world and ganking Michael and Lucifer, once and for all, and getting our mom back…that’s gonna help heal me. Not a bunch of talking about feelings. Come on.” Dean tipped his head toward a small mountain of cases of bottled water. “Grab one of those and let’s go see if there’s pie.”

Castiel easily picked up a case and tucked it onto a shelf under the cart. As he stood, a now-familiar figure stood at the entrance to one of the aisles, staring at the signs describing what foods were in each aisle. “Dean,” he said softly, not shifting his gaze.

“Him again,” Dean muttered. “I’m not going with coincidence this time. He’s following us.”

“I agree.”

Dean fished in his pocket and pulled out the souvenir spoon. “Might as well get silver out of the way. Can you take one of those bottles—” He stopped as Castiel pulled a bottle free from the case under the cart, twisted the top off, and stuck his finger inside, infusing the water with a tiny bit of his grace. “That works. Let’s go find out why he’s on our tail.”

“Funny running into you here too,” Dean said, hands in his pockets as he approached the guy.

“Small towns,” the guy said with a shrug. “Lebanon isn’t big enough for a grocery store yet.”

“Yeah, I hear you. I’m Dean, by the way, but it sounds like you knew that.” Dean stuck his hand out in a handshake and the spoon flew from his fingers and clattered at the guy’s feet. “Sorry, man. Could you grab that for me?”

The guy watched him for a second too long, then crouched down and retrieved the spoon, handing it back with no ill effects. “You don’t seem like the spoon-collecting type.”

“My mom,” Dean said, chuckling. “She loves these things.”

“Dean,” Castiel said, stepping forward, “are we still going to—” He broke off as he executed a perfect stumble, tripping over his own foot, and spilling the water all over the stranger’s arm, torso, and leg.

No steam. No hissing. No pain. Not a demon.

Castiel readied himself to bring out his blade, just in case.

“You could simply ask,” the stranger said with a slight smile as he brushed excess water off his arm.

“Yeah?” Dean replied. “Why are you following us?”

“That wasn’t really the asking I meant,” the stranger said, “but I’ll give you this one. You asked for help.”

“We asked for someone to talk to about any mysterious stuff happening.”

“Before that,” the stranger said. “You said, and I quote, ‘We need help.’ There was more, but that’s the essence of it.”

“Well, I don’t think you can help, so you can stop following us around.”

“You haven’t asked your other question yet,” the stranger said, a hint of a smile on his face. “The one that necessitated silver and holy water.” He looked down at his wet clothes and between one breath and the next, they were dry.

“Angel,” Castiel growled, manifesting his blade. “What do you want?”

“What I want is rather immaterial, is it not?” the stranger—angel—answered. “You asked for help. I’m here to help.”

“No,” Dean said. “I’ve met plenty of angels. First, you don’t look the part. No suit. Second, angels are dicks with wings. Except that one there,” he added, nodding at Castiel. “And C, angels don’t help. They have their own agenda. So what’s yours? What do you want from us?”

The stranger nodded once and was silent for a moment. “I can see I need to convince you another way. I am here to help, not to harm. And since convincing you may take a little while, I’ve done what I can to make it a little smoother for you.” He gave them each an acknowledging look. “Until next time.”

And then he was gone. No wing flaps, no breeze, no sound at all.

“Dean, he is not like other angels,” Castiel warned. “I can’t even tell that he’s an angel, and my grace should recognize another angel.”

“How does he just disappear without flapping out of here?” Dean asked. “Is this what teleportation in this universe is like?”

“He didn’t teleport,” Castiel answered. “I’m certain of that. He simply…ceased to exist in this dimension. He was here, and then he wasn’t.”

“So where’d he go to?”

“I would assume Heaven, but… He is an enigma, Dean. I don’t trust him. I don’t know how he’s doing what he’s doing. But he’s clearly powerful.”

“Great. Just what we needed.” Dean let out a long breath. “Well, let’s get these groceries and meet up with the others. At least we know angels exist in this universe. Maybe Sam can look into that in his research too.”

 

 

The first clue that things were not right was when they approached the van with their bags of food. Castiel saw it first. “Dean. Look at the back window.”

Dean looked up from the cart and frowned. The broken window was…no longer broken. “This the same van?” He left the cart and checked under the steering column where the ignition wires had been hanging loose, then stood and closed the driver’s door. “This ain’t our van. Where’s ours?”

The parking lot was impressively large, larger in square footage than the store itself. But there were no other dark minivans in the lot. And this one was parked in the same space they’d used.

“Do you think the angel repaired the van?” Castiel asked, trying to figure out if the guy had done it after leaving the store. When else did he have time?

“Dunno.” Dean opened the passenger door and rummaged through the glove box, pulling out a piece of paper the size of a postcard. “Holy crap.”

“What?” Castiel went to further inspect what Dean was holding. “What is it?”

“It’s a cab card. Registration. And it’s in my name. And a Kansas address.”

“I don’t understand. What does that mean?”

“It means I have proof the van is mine. It’s not stolen anymore.” Dean widened his eyes and reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He pulled a card out, displaying a Kansas driver’s license with the same address. “Son of a bitch.”

“Isn’t that your driver’s license?” Castiel wasn’t sure why this was surprising.

“No. Me and Sam haven’t renewed our licenses since we got ‘em. We just keep forging new ones. I’m telling you, Cas, I’ve never seen this one before.”

“The angel said this may take a while, so he was going to ‘make it a little smoother.’” Castiel was certain this was an appropriate time for finger quotes. “Now you have a legal license and the van is registered to you. Would you count that as ‘smoother?’”

“Hell, yeah. Means we don’t have to worry about being here for a while, or having the van tracked.” He put the card back in the glove compartment and closed the door. “Too bad I have to hotwire it again.”

They loaded the groceries into the rear of the van, then climbed into their seats. Dean pulled down the sun visor against the noontime light and a key fell out into his lap. “Son of a bitch,” he repeated. Looking dazed, he inserted the key into the ignition and the van started. “Guess what?” he asked, shaking his head slowly.

“What?”

“We got a full tank of gas too.”

Chapter Text

“So get this,” Sam said before Dean even walked through the motel room door. “The manager came by with extra towels while you two were gone.”

“Towels? That’s what you’ve got?”

“No, Dean. While he was delivering the towels, he apologized that he hadn’t realized we’d prepaid the room for two weeks.”

“Sam. We didn’t prepay the room for two weeks.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I know. So I confirmed with him that the charge actually went through, and he said yes. Then I checked our cards. There are no charges to the motel. Someone paid for our room for two weeks.”

“Farmer Guy,” Dean said. “Who, as it turns out, is an angel.”

“Which one?” Sam asked.

“Did he give you his name?” Gabriel asked immediately after.

Dean held up one finger. “I don’t know and no, he didn’t. He just said he was here to help, not harm, and it was going to take a while to convince us.”

“So he would ‘make it a little smoother,’” Cas added, again with finger quotes. “He also fixed the van’s window, created documents that show Dean is the owner, and provided a key to the ignition. And a full tank of gas.”

“Angels have the power to do that?” Sam asked. He glanced at Gabriel. “I mean, obviously you do. Or did.”

Gabriel frowned. “Yeah, thanks for reminding me, Sam.”

“No, I mean what kind of power would it take to do all that?” Sam clarified.

“I could do it,” Jack said, looking up from the bed, where he was still working with a pencil. “It’s not hard. You simply tell the window to remember itself as it was when it was whole, and the molecules rearrange themselves.”

“Not hard for you, maybe,” Dean said. “But what about altering the registration? Or a friggin’ driver’s license. In my wallet? Which he never touched? Don’t you guys have to touch things to mojo them?”

“I use my hand to direct my focus,” Jack explained. “But I don’t have to touch things, no.”

“Same,” Gabriel added. “It’s all about intention. Honestly, the finger snapping is largely for effect. Lets humans know how easy it would be for us to squash you like bugs.”

“Great image, Gabe,” Sam said. “No squashing us, okay?”

“Just sayin’,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But yeah, it takes a fair amount of power. I couldn’t do it now. Couldn’t have done it since I gave you guys that DVD. And it helps to see what I’m doing, be in the vicinity. What you’re describing? If he did it while he was in the store with you and not after he left? I could count the possibilities on one hand.” He wiggled his fingers in the air.

“So, an archangel,” Sam said. “That’s basically what you’re saying.”

“Probably, yeah,” Gabriel said. “If he’s my counterpart, I wanna get a good look at him.”

“He was unlike any angel I’ve ever known,” Cas said. “My grace didn’t recognize him. He didn’t behave like us. He is clearly hiding something, but I couldn’t detect any deception from him.”

“Guess that leaves us with the ring of holy fire,” Dean said. “Trap him until we get answers.” He sighed. “How are we gonna get holy oil in this universe?”

“I can get it,” Jack volunteered, getting off the bed.

“Wait!” Sam held up his hand before Jack could disappear. “Let’s put together a plan first before you take off, okay?”

“Oh. Okay.”

“You know…” Gabriel began. “The whole trapping us in holy fire thing? Doesn’t really endear you to us. We’re powerful beings. That’s what we’re used to. Rendering us powerless like that makes us more likely to think about eating your entrails than giving you answers.”

“What are we supposed to do instead, Gabriel?” Dean said. “Not like you would have told us who you really were if we’d asked nicely.”

“The angel did suggest asking,” Castiel said. “He said that instead of using holy water and silver, we could have asked him.”

“You gonna trust whatever he tells us, Cas?” Dean said.

Cas was quiet for a few moments. “No. You’re right, Dean. Especially when I can’t sense any deception from him.”

“The real question, though,” Sam said slowly, not really wanting to bring this back up, “is whether he can help us get back to our own world. If he’s as powerful as you say, maybe he actually can.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, his tone making it clear his mind was made up. “Well, we can ask him about it once he tells us who he is and what he’s really doing here. And if he can’t, Jack, we’re counting on you.”

“I’m trying, Dean. I really am.”

Jack’s voice sounded so despondent, Sam couldn’t help but reach out a hand to his shoulder. “We know you are, Jack.”

“All right,” Dean said, “where are we gonna set up this trap?”

 


 

“If we do it here,” Sam said, indicating the dirt and gravel parking lot in front of the abandoned RV manufacturing factory just a five-minute walk from the motel, “it’ll be behind this office building and unseen from any nearby roads. And we’re about to lose our light, so that’ll help too.”

“Yeah, but this place is huge, Sam,” Dean argued, feeling the tension building, knowing they needed answers yesterday. “How’re we gonna get him into the right place? If he’s that powerful, maybe he’ll sniff out the holy oil or something.” He turned to Cas. “Can you guys do that?”

Cas leveled a glare at him that had him involuntarily cringing. “If I could have, would I have let you trap me?”

A glance at Gabriel earned him a shrug.

“What he said,” Gabriel added.

Dean took the jug of holy oil that Jack had brought back from somewhere in the Middle East and formed a circle more or less centered behind the single-story office building at the front of the lot, using the old parking lot lines in back to guide him. The sound of a few nearby cicadas buzzed in the air, and aside from a few cars heading east from the diner, the main highway through the north end of town was deserted. He waved away a few fireflies, surveying the placement of the circle. As long as they could get the angel over here, they’d be fine. But the lot was so big, Dean was concerned about getting him in the circle.

“Maybe we should form a few other circles, just in case,” Dean said, looking around the lot.

“I got it,” Gabriel said, taking the jug from him. “But I still say this is a bad idea.”

“At least you’re not the one in it this time,” Dean shot back.

“Entrails, Dean,” Gabriel said. “Delicious.”

Dean heard Sam snort as he held back laughter, but when he turned to glare at his brother, Sam had an innocent look on his face.

“I would feel better about this if we could actually summon him,” Cas said, coming up to stand next to Dean as he shook his blade out of his coat. “Or if we knew whom we were summoning. I want to be ready for anything.”

“I know, Cas. Me too.” Cas’ nearness did help Dean feel a little more relaxed, and he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, allowing his muscles to release some of their tension. “Ready?” he asked everyone.

After four nods, Dean called out, “We need help!”

“We really do,” Sam added, speaking to the empty lot. “You said you’d help.”

Dean was quiet for a few moments, alert for any movement or the slightest change in airflow. “Thanks for the van repair,” Dean said to the air, looking all around. “But we really need some more help.”

“We believe you want to help,” Sam said.

“Some of us do,” Cas muttered.

“Look, I don’t know how to call an angel in this universe,” Dean said, still scanning the lot for irregularities. “And I don’t know your name, so I can’t, like, pray to you or anything. But if you can hear us, we’d really like to talk with you.”

“I’m here.” The angel’s voice came from the back of the office building, as if he’d been leaning against the wall, watching them all this time.

Dean spun around to see him as he walked slowly toward them and glanced briefly around the empty lot. Then he came to a stop precisely in the center of the circle Dean had poured. “I assume you’d like me here?”

Without answering, Dean flicked his lighter and tossed it on a part of the circle closest to him. The holy oil instantly ignited, surrounding the angel. But instead of the bitchface Dean expected from him, the angel smiled slightly and shook his head.

“We’re not letting you go until you’ve answered some questions,” Dean said, putting every bit of authority he could into his voice.

“I told you all you had to do was ask,” the angel replied, sounding patient.

“Yeah, well, you’re not high on my trustworthy list right now. Answer our questions and we’ll see.”

“I need a better look at this guy,” Gabriel said, striding forward and getting as close as he probably dared to the ring of fire. “Why don’t I recognize you?” he demanded.

The angel gave a warm smile this time. “You’re looking with the wrong sight, Gabriel.”

“He has no vessel,” Cas informed Dean. “I can’t discern his true form.”

“What do you mean?” Dean asked.

“He’s…all energy. Though we perceive him as solid.”

“So he’s like…what did you call yourself that one time? A celestial wavelength or something?”

“A multidimensional wavelength of celestial intent,” Cas said. “Yes, that would be an apt description here, but this is not possible on earth. That’s why we need to take vessels.”

“But apparently not in this universe,” Sam said. “He’s energy. What kind of sight is he talking about, Gabriel?”

“Look,” Jack said, coming up to Gabriel and putting his hand on Gabriel’s arm. “Close your eyes.”

Dean moved around the circle, keeping an eye on the strange angel, who seemed to be watching all this impassively, until he could see Jack’s and Gabriel’s faces. Both had their eyes closed. Gabriel seemed to be struggling with whatever he was trying to do, then relaxed and lifted his face toward the strange angel, only to inhale sharply and snap his eyes open.

“Michael?” Gabriel whispered.

“I am,” Michael answered. He let his gaze drift over each of them, a half-smile still on his face. “I repeat, I’m here to help, not harm.”

“Now I definitely don’t believe you,” Dean said, feeling every hope of finding a way home die within him. “You’re not getting this world, and I’m not saying yes, so if either one’s what you’re after, you can kiss those plans goodbye.”

“I repaired your van and provided you with documents as a gesture of goodwill,” Michael said calmly. “I want nothing from you, except perhaps your trust, so that I can help.”

“I’ve met two different versions of you already,” Dean said, “and both of you are class-A dicks. One wanted to start the apocalypse and the other nearly wiped out humanity waging war with Hell. And that one has plans to take over our world and do the same thing to it. Ain’t nothing you can say to make me think you’re not after the same thing.”

“Perhaps there’s something I can do, then,” Michael said.

“Well, you’re not getting out of that circle anytime soon, so good luck with that.”

“Dean,” Sam warned. “Don’t piss him off.”

“What’s he gonna do, Sam? I’ll make sure that fire stays lit all night and day if I have to.”

“You think you have reason to fear me,” Michael said, “but you are mistaken. Your universe is fractured and concrete. The Christian mythology played out physically. That is but one universe among many. Here, hell is a human construct, a misery completely of human creation.”

“I suppose you’re gonna tell me that Lucifer is a nice guy here too,” Dean said.

“Dean,” Michael said fondly. “There is no such thing as a fallen angel here.” He turned to Cas. “You are not broken, and there is nothing wrong with you.”

“I have sinned against Heaven,” Cas argued. “And earth.”

“No,” Michael said. “You made choices. Some freely, some coerced. Each had consequences, some of which were pleasant and some not. The only one judging you harshly, Castiel, is you.”

“Michael would not say things like that,” Cas said, sounding shaken. “He is our father’s fiercest warrior. Destined to fight Lucifer to the death.”

Lo kan, achi,” Michael said softly.

Oi bolape tol ol om,” Cas answered, lowering his head.

“I know. I hope to change that for you.”

“I don’t know if you can,” Castiel said, his head still down.

“Why is this not true in our world?” Jack asked. “In either of the worlds we’ve visited?”

“Every universe has free will,” Michael said. “Different choices are made in different worlds. Why are my alternate versions unkind to humanity? You would have to look at what started it all. It’s choices. It’s always choices.”

“But angels don’t have free will,” Dean argued. “Cas rebelled to get his.”

“Angels have always had free will,” Michael said. “Within parameters. In this universe, what we don’t have is the desire to stray from those parameters, because we see a broader vision of the world and our place in it.”

“In our world,” Dean said, “God bailed, leaving Heaven to its own devices. Which led to fighting. Gabriel can tell you all about that.”

Michael nodded. “Fractured and concrete. The Source of All can never not be Here. Or Now.”

“Your world sounds a little woo-woo compared to ours,” Gabriel said.

“Coming from five senses, a sixth sense will always seem out of place,” Michael said. “Now, I want to help, but you all still don’t trust me. And I cannot simply send you back to your universe. That would do a disservice to you all, and I can see where there are ways I can help beyond offering you a way to return to your universe. It’s all about choices, remember?”

“Well, I choose to go the hell back,” Dean said.

“We all want to go back,” Sam added. “Our mom, she’s trapped in yet another world. The one where that Michael has been waging war. People are dying. Our Lucifer is there as well, and…” Sam made a helpless gesture with his hands. “We’re the only ones who can stop it.”

“Yeah.” Dean barked a short laugh. “Two broken hunters, two former angels, and a half-angel who can send us to the wrong universe but can’t float a pencil. Go team.”

“The only thing standing between you and what you want—all of you—is what you believe,” Michael said.

“What’re we supposed to do, tap our heels three times and say, ‘There’s no place like home’?” Dean said. “I don’t think what I believe is gonna help.”

“Dean,” Michael said. “Can we talk without this…” he waved at the flames around him, “distraction?” He waited a beat and then walked through the flames.

Immediately, Cas was between them, blade raised. “That’s not possible,” he growled. “And you will leave Dean alone.”

“Think, Castiel,” Michael said, not unkindly. “You know this. I exist outside of space and time. Physical weapons—including fire, no matter what kind of oil fuels it—cannot harm me.” He came close to Cas, who continued to stand his ground, then held his hand out, palm up. “Take my hand, Castiel. You may keep your sword if you wish.”

“Hey,” Dean interrupted, sidestepping Cas and standing next to him, Ruby’s demon knife in his grip. “You don’t get to do shit with him.”

“I’m not going to do anything to him,” Michael said. “Only share something with him, which he can then share with you if he wishes.”

“Why Castiel?” Gabriel asked. “Why not share with all of us?”

“In due time,” Michael said. “You also will understand.” He gave Cas an intense stare, and even in the fading light, Dean could make out that his gray eyes had an ethereal quality to them. “Take my hand, Castiel. Just for a moment.”

“Cas, no,” Dean warned as Cas reached his free hand out.

“It’s okay, Dean,” Cas reassured him. “There is no deception here.” His hand slid into Michael’s, his eyes closed, and for a moment his face radiated pure bliss. Then abruptly he dropped his angel blade and jerked his hand out of Michael’s, covering the sides of his head and letting out a long wail.

“What did you do?” Dean shouted over Cas’ screaming. “Tell me!”

“I did nothing to him, Dean. This is the depth of his resistance to what I shared. He is not harmed.”

“You call that unharmed?” Dean gestured to Cas, who had dropped to the ground, groaning as if in extreme pain. “Fix him!”

“Michael, please.” Sam dropped to one knee next to Cas, but hesitated to touch him. “He’s our friend. We don’t want to see him hurting.”

“The only pain is of his own doing,” Michael said. “This is not punishment. It’s entirely the opposite. You will understand too.” He looked around the group. “All of you. What you believe about yourselves is keeping you trapped. The only way to free yourselves is to face it. This is what you must do. This is the only way I can help. It begins now.”

In the next blink, Michael was gone.

Dean dropped to Cas’ side, holding the angel’s shoulders, his arms, the sides of his face. “Cas? Cas! C’mon buddy. What hurts? How can we help?” When Cas didn’t even acknowledge his presence, he turned to Gabriel. “Can you fix him? Heal him? Something? Anything?”

“I—” Gabriel approached slowly, as if he was nearing an injured wild animal. “I’ll try.” He put his hand on Cas’ forehead for a few moments, then stood up, shaking his head. “He won’t let me in. I can’t do anything.”

“Let’s get him back to the motel,” Sam said. “We’re going to have to carry him.”

“No you won’t,” Jack said, moments before disappearing. Another few seconds and he was back, breathing heavily, standing next to the van.

“Nice,” Gabriel said with a nod. “Kudos to the kid.”

But all Dean could feel was worry. This wasn’t the first time an angel had tried to share something with Cas. Jack had done something similar, before he was even born. What was the damage this time?

Chapter Text

Dean guided Cas to one of the beds and tried to make him as comfortable as possible, given that Cas still had his hands clenched at the sides of his head. At least his groaning had faded into whimpers interrupted by occasional sobs. He hadn’t opened his eyes once since Michael had taken his hand, and Dean was ready to hunt the guy down and kill him slowly and painfully, no matter how kind he wanted them to think he was. Cas had been through enough, and one way or another, Michael was going to pay for this.

“Cas, come on. I want to help.” Dean sat down on the bed next to him, not caring right now what the others thought. Sam, at least, had taken a seat at the small table, sharing space with a tower comprised of the mini-fridge, microwave, and coffee maker, and was doing something on his phone. Somewhere, he’d picked up a charging cable and had the device plugged in. Gabriel was sitting on the foot of the other bed, watching Sam. And Jack was nervously pacing back and forth in front of the motel room door, as if he knew that what Michael had done was eerily similar to his own actions.

“This is my fault,” Jack muttered, near tears. “I keep getting people hurt. I keep hurting Castiel. I’m trying so hard, Dean, and I can’t stop hurting the people I love.”

“Not the time for a pity party, Jack,” Dean said. “Do that on your own time, after Cas is better.”

“Dean.” Sam’s voice was laced with disapproval. “Lashing out at Jack isn’t going to help.”

“Yeah? Well, it’s gonna make me feel better.”

Jack froze, raised his tear-stained face to Dean, then opened the door and left, not even bothering to close it behind him.

“Nice going, Dean,” Sam said, standing up and unplugging his phone. “You keep thinking you’re the one cleaning up everyone else’s messes, but Cas and I are the ones who keep cleaning up yours.” He left the room and closed the door with a sharp click.

Dean glared at Gabriel. “You gonna leave too?”

“You gonna bite my head off?”

“Apparently that’s what I do best.” Dean looked back at Cas and swallowed a lump in his throat as Cas went through another body-wracking sob.

“Look, Dean…” Gabriel sat down on the other side of the bed, glanced at Cas, then at the wall above the headboard. “I’m not interested in the heart-to-heart talks any more than you are, but—”

“Then don’t. Okay?”

“No. I’m going to. Because this isn’t the world according to Dean Winchester. You only see what you want to see, and you fight everyone who doesn’t share your view.”

“Oh yeah? Who was the one who stepped up when all your siblings were ready to destroy the world? Who kept fighting Lucifer without hesitation? Who was willing to take on every last angel if that’s what it took to protect the innocents of the world? That would be me and Sam and Cas. So you don’t have the right to lecture me.”

Gabriel sighed. “I’m not trying to lecture you. I’m trying to help you understand that this is going to take a team effort. More Avengers, less John Wayne.”

“And which one are you? Skurge?”

“Yeah, okay. I’m done.” Gabriel stood and went for the door.

“Running away again?” Dean called after him. “I guess that’s what you do best.”

“Go back to Hell, Dean,” Gabriel said over his shoulder. “You fit right in.”

 


 

Sam found Jack sitting in the middle of an empty field behind one of the motel’s wings. Jack had pulled up clumps of dead grass and weeds around him, nearly encircling himself with a line of freshly turned earth. His fingers were caked with dried soil and smears of mud; dirty tear tracks lined his face.

“Hey… Jack. Dean didn’t mean it.” Sam sat down next to him and found himself unable to resist running his fingers through the plant matter in front of him.

“Yes, he did. He’s always thought that about me. And he’s right.”

“No, he isn’t. He’s just really worried about Cas. And he took it out on you. That’s not right at all.” Sam watched Jack’s face for some sign that he was getting through, but the kid was as stubborn as Dean. Already, Sam thought of him as family, and the Winchester traits were all there.

“I’m no good, Sam. You’re a good person. You love so much. I just keep hurting people. I try to be good, but I can’t. It never works. I think I really am evil, no matter how much I fight it.”

“No, Jack. Don’t think that way. You’re not evil. You want to be good. That right there tells me you’re not evil. Your—” Sam caught himself. “Lucifer doesn’t want to be good. He just wants what he wants, no matter how many people it hurts or kills.”

Jack wiped his face. “If I really wanted to be good, deep down, I would be good. But I’m not.”

“I thought that way too,” Sam said, nodding. “I did. Found out later that a demon bled into my mouth when I was a baby. That’s what killed my mom. Well…before she came back. But I had powers. Cas was so pissed with me.” Sam chuckled at the memory. “The boy with the demon blood. That’s what I was. Compared to Dean as the Righteous Man, how could I possibly compete? I thought I was doing good, you know? I was trying to kill demons without killing their vessels, the innocent people trapped inside. But for some reason, Heaven disapproved.”

“That makes no sense,” Jack said. “Why would Heaven disapprove of saving innocent lives?”

“I think it was the way I was going about it. Using powers given to me by a demon. But the point is, Jack, you’re still trying to do good. That’s what counts. None of us can guarantee the results.”

“Heaven disapproved of you using powers given to you by a demon. So how much worse is it that I’m using powers given to me by the devil? He didn’t bleed into my mouth, Sam. He made me. It’s just who I am.” Jack sniffed and wiped his nose on his jacket. “You should go. Before I hurt you too.”

“No, Jack. I’m not leaving you.”

“You need to go, Sam. I don’t want to hurt you.”

Sam scooted closer. “That’s why I’m not leaving, Jack. Because you don’t want to hurt me.”

“But I will. I always will.” He shook his head. “If you don’t go, then I have to.”

“I’m not—” Sam saw the look of concentration on Jack’s face and reached out for him. “Jack, no!” His hand felt air; the eddies from Jack’s wing flaps were the only trace left.

Sam stood and brushed himself off, wondering if Jack had gone far. At least it was likely he was still in this world. He’d come back after he cooled off, wouldn’t he? Or had Dean pushed him too far this time?

He was headed back toward the motel when he spotted Gabriel stalking away from the vicinity of their room, looking like he was ranting at the sky. Gabriel was still an enigma, and Sam wasn’t sure what to think of him. He did help, years ago. And Sam’s heart went out to him for all he’d endured under Asmodeus’ captivity. But still, he’d been ready to turn tail and run again. And Sam really wanted to know what Gabriel saw when Jack encouraged him to use some other sight to recognize Michael. Some other way of seeing? Using his true form’s eyes?

“Gabriel!” he called out, jogging over toward him.

Gabriel stopped whatever he’d been doing and turned, looking kind of hopeless. His arms hung loosely at his sides. He spoke as Sam approached. “Your brother is being a dick.”

“Yeah. He does that.”

“Well, he’s being a bigger dick than usual.”

“He does that sometimes too. What happened?”

Shrugging, Gabriel looked across the field. “I’m never going to earn his forgiveness. Which, you know, he can hate me all he wants. But I don’t have to put up with it.”

“He’s worried about Cas and taking it out on everyone.”

“It’s bigger than that, Sam. He’s always been in charge. Not really a team player any more than I am, to be honest. But we’ve got to be a team if we want to get out of here. And honestly, I’m not sure I do anymore.”

Confused, Sam asked, “You don’t want to be a team? Or you don’t want to get out of here?”

“It’s pretty nice here, Sam. No one’s trying to end the world. No one other than the odd megalomaniac human here and there. Once my grace is back to full power, I can help with that. And Sam, the angels in this world…”

“What, Gabriel?”

Gabriel shrugged and shook his head.

“Gabe? What did you see? When Jack told you to close your eyes and you recognized Michael. How did you know?”

“I don’t know if I can explain it to you, Sam.”

“Try. Please?”

“It’s not like seeing with your eyes. It’s not an image. It’s more like…I recognized his energy. And I knew. I’m sorry I can’t explain it better.”

“I get it, Gabriel. I do. Sometimes you just know. It doesn’t matter what your eyes tell you.”

“Yeah. So… I wouldn’t mind getting to know him better. He’s not like any other version of my brother I’ve met before. I mean, he’s still Michael. That whole thing about wanting us to face our fears or whatever? That that’s the only way he can help? All Michael. Must be part of his DNA or something. But I call BS. He can do pretty much anything he wants to do. He just wants to dick around with us while I’m recovering and can’t call him on it.”

“Or maybe…” Sam thought about what he was going to say, trying to find the right words. “Maybe he’s trying to get us to see something. I do recall a particularly painful…lesson…in learning that I could survive on my own.”

“Uh…yeah. Sorry about that, Sam. My intentions were good. My method sucked.”

“I know. I do. I get it now. And, you know, you were right. I couldn’t see it then. It took me a long time. But I get it.”

“Well…” Gabriel kicked at some gravel in the lot. “I have no plans on going back in there until your brother is done slinging insults. So…”

“I really hope you come back with us,” Sam said. “We could really use your help. And I don’t mean that we just want you for what you can do. I…I wouldn’t mind getting to know you a little better. You’re not who I thought you were before. And what you’ve been through…”

“Sam…”

“No, Gabe. It doesn’t just go away. I’ve been there. Sometimes I think I still am there. Maybe…” He shrugged. “Maybe we could help each other.”

“It’s a nice thought, Sam. But—”

“Just think about it, okay? You don’t have to give me an answer right now. Just…consider it.”

“Yeah. All right.” Gabriel’s mood seemed to immediately shift to all business. “Maybe you can check on my brother when you go back in? Castiel put a wall up; he’s not letting anything in. Honestly, Dean’s probably the only one who can get through to him.”

“I’ll check. And…” Sam flung his hands out to the sides. “Jack took off. I don’t know where he is. But he’s convinced he’s going to hurt us all, so he’s staying away to…I don’t know, to protect us, I guess. He thinks he’s evil just because of who his birth father is.”

Gabriel laughed shortly and nodded. “You know, even Lucifer was good once upon a time. He’s a shining example of what eons of rage and hate will do.”

“Maybe you should tell Jack that. When he comes back.”

“He’ll be back. Good luck in there.”

“Ha. I might need it.” Sam turned walked toward the room, wondering about this conversation he’d just had with Gabriel. It was almost as if they were…friends. Could he consider Gabriel a friend?

 


 

Dean heard Sam return to the room but didn’t bother looking up. Cas seemed locked in a nightmare, and Dean had no idea how to bring him out of it. He’d tried a cold washcloth on Cas’ forehead, rubbing his arm…he’d even tried singing Zepp tunes as loud as he could with the thought that Cas would wake up long enough to tell him to shut up.

“How is he?” Sam asked.

“Same.”

“Dean, I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t your fault.”

“And it’s not Jack’s fault either. If you want to blame someone, blame Michael.”

“Oh I do, Sammy. I definitely do.”

“Then how can I help?” Sam sat down at the table.

“I don’t think you can. And I’m…I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t know what to do here, Sam. He’s not responding, doesn’t seem to know I’m here. And damn it, I’m exhausted. I need my four hours.”

“Why don’t you get some sleep.” Sam unplugged the phone charger and stuffed it in his pocket. “I’ll go next door; Gabe can use that room if he needs to sleep. And Jack… Well, whenever he comes back, you can send him over there too.”

“I’m not poison. You’re not gonna catch anything if you’re in the same room as me.”

“That’s not what I mean, Dean. Just…lay down next to Cas. If he wakes, you’ll know. And you don’t have to worry about anyone coming in and out.”

“I can hear him just fine from the other bed.”

Sam ran his hands through his hair. “Then go lie down in the other bed. Just go lie down. Get some sleep. Cas is physically safe, as far as we know. We’ll figure it out in the morning if he’s still like this.”

“Long as I’m out of your hair, huh?” Dean said. “I told you Jack was bad news. Been telling you that for months. Gabriel’s no use. Cas is…I don’t even know what Cas is. And here I am, trying to keep it all together. Story of my life.”

“It’s not just the story of your life, Dean. It’s mine too.”

“So you’ve got plenty of compassion for Jack, sired by the devil himself, but not for me? You gotta make it about you?”

“Dean…that’s not—”

“Just go, Sam.” Even the sound of Sam’s breathing was irritating him.

“You know what? Screw you, Dean.”

When the motel room door slammed shut, Dean heard it as the final nail in his coffin. Cas had locked himself away. Everyone else had left. Even Michael didn’t want him. In this bunkerless world, what was the point of anything?

Chapter Text

Sam entered their other motel room in a huff, contemplated trashing the place in frustration, but settled for flopping down on one of the beds and turning on the TV. PBS was running yet another pledge drive, and he flipped through channels until one piqued his curiosity at the same time it made his stomach drop. Someone had created a TV show based on Lucifer. But it wasn’t the real Lucifer, the one who’d tortured him, driven him insane, and lived in his nightmares. It was a charming, dark-haired Lucifer with an engaging accent and an air of innocence about him.

He was about to change the channel again when the TV Lucifer asked, “What is it you most desire?” The real Lucifer might have asked him that, only to give him the exact opposite. And what did he desire most? Happiness? Fulfillment? He’d had moments of happiness as a hunter, and definitely fulfillment. Love? Being with his family—both his brother and mom, but also his chosen family, with Cas and Jack, and maybe even Gabe—that was what he loved. If that was all he could have, he could be satisfied.

What, then? Peace? Would he even know what to do with himself if the world was at peace? This world didn’t seem to have any impending apocalypses, no wars between Heaven and Hell, no angels and demons battling it out with humans as the pawns between them. If it wasn’t for his mom being trapped, he could see Gabriel’s point. This was a pretty good world to be stuck in.

He plugged his phone in to charge and started browsing social media, leaving the show on in the background. The last thing he needed was a lovable version of Lucifer triggering memories of the very real one, so he was determined to stay up at least another hour. Plus, maybe Jack would come back, or Gabriel would come in. He wasn’t thrilled with either happening while he slept.

Not surprisingly, his Facebook and Twitter credentials weren’t recognized. At least something from their real world didn’t work here. He created new ones and started with searching on angels. Was it normal in this world for angels to show up and talk with people? Even an archangel?

Search results showed that some people absolutely believed, and others considered the idea religious garbage. A familiar name caught his eye and he clicked on it, his eyes widening at the sheer number and types of results about Cas. And Cas was mentioned a lot with respect to Dean. Sam followed links to groups on Facebook, hashtags on Twitter, even a foray into Tumblr, where he had to alternate between wanting to bleach his eyes and laughing hysterically.

Yeah, that would keep Lucifer out of his nightmares for a while.

 


 

Dean stripped down to his boxers, then sat down on the other bed, watching Cas. There was still no change, and Dean didn’t know what to do. He knew he’d been unnecessarily harsh with everyone, but he couldn’t bring himself to care much about others’ hurt feelings when Cas was so obviously in pain. It was as if none of them cared about Cas at all, and that thought refueled Dean’s anger.

He lay down on the other bed, but Cas’ whimpers kept jolting him and there was too much damn space between them. At least the plus side of chasing everyone off was that they’d have the room for a few hours. And if someone made a comment about him sharing a bed with Cas, under the circumstances? He could tear them a new one.

Cas was laying on top of the covers, fully dressed, curled up in almost a fetal position facing the door. Dean figured he should remove Cas’ shoes, but it was unlikely Cas would get cold. Getting the first shoe off resulted in some additional whines from Cas, but the second went easier. Dean lifted up the covers on the other side of the bed and slid in, turning over to face Cas’ back. He rested his right hand on Cas’ upper arm, rubbing in what he hoped was a reassuring touch.

“I’m here, Cas,” he said softly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Cas sniffled, stilled, then shuffled a bit back toward the center of the bed.

“I got you,” Dean said, moving his hand to rub up and down Cas’ back, over and between his shoulder blades. “Whatever it is, we’re gonna get you through this.”

He dozed off, not sure if he actually heard Cas mumble, “Dean…” or if it was his mind playing tricks on him. His hand stayed on Cas all night.

 

 

The very first thing Dean noticed was sunlight streaming rudely through a gap in the motel room’s curtains. The second thing was Cas’ blue eyes, open and watching him.

“Cas!” He sat up quickly, instantly regretted it, and blinked his eyes several times, trying to wake up.

“Hello, Dean.”

“You’re… Are you okay?”

“I am…unharmed. But not okay.”

“Cas, what happened? What did he do to you? I swear, I’m gonna kill him if it’s the last thing I do.”

“No, Dean. Michael didn’t do anything wrong. I… I don’t think I can talk about it yet, but he did not hurt me. Please trust me on this.”

“How can you say that? You were screaming! I mean, good thing you didn’t revert to your true voice, or you’d have deafened the entire town.”

“I am sorry about that.”

“No.” Dean shook his head. “You don’t need to apologize. I’m just saying, how can you say he didn’t hurt you? I saw him. I saw your reaction.”

“I promise, when I can talk about it, I will tell you.” Cas looked around the room. “Where is everyone?”

“Sam’s in the other room, I think. Gabe? I don’t know. And Sam said something about Jack taking off. I wasn’t really paying attention. I was concerned about you.”

“Your concern is appreciated, but I will be fine. Shall we check the other room?” Cas swung his legs over the side of the bed and peered over the edge for his shoes. Finding them, he began to put them on.

“They’re not gonna want to see me. But they’re gonna want to know you’re okay. I’ll hang out here.”

“Why would they not want to see you, Dean?”

“I might have said some things. It’s fine. Go talk to Sam.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Go, Cas. I’m fine.”

 


 

Castiel stood, his legs feeling a bit unsteady, and looked closely at Dean. There was something Dean wasn’t telling him, something that most definitely was not ‘fine.’ But he didn’t have the capacity at the moment to look for the truth behind Dean’s statements. Too much had been revealed when he took Michael’s hand; it was too raw and every fiber in his being railed against it. Just thinking about it, feeling it again, was nearly enough for him to shut down. And if he couldn’t accept it, there was absolutely no way Dean would. He would have to find some way to deflect Dean’s questions until Dean stopped asking.

“Very well,” he said, nodding once to Dean. “But I will be quick and then return. Perhaps with coffee and breakfast?”

“When you come back, we can go next door to the diner,” Dean said, not meeting his gaze.

“Of course.”

Castiel made his way to the other room and knocked on the door. Just before he was about to knock again, an exhausted-looking Sam swung the door open.

“Cas! You’re okay!”

“I will be, yes. You look unwell.”

“Oh…” Sam ran a hand through his hair, combing it with his fingers. “Didn’t get to sleep until late last night. I’m not up for a run today, but coffee would be great.”

“Dean suggested we go next door to the diner. Have you eaten?”

“Uh…” Sam stared unfocused over Cas’ shoulder at the parking lot. “You know, I think I’ll just get something to go. Eat here in the room.”

“Where is Gabriel? And Jack?”

Sam sighed. “You better come in.” He opened the door wider and stepped aside.

One of the beds had the covers bunched up at the foot, hanging off one corner. The other looked like it hadn’t been touched. Castiel saw that Sam had been sitting at the table, where his phone sat, plugged in. He sat carefully on the foot of the made bed. “What happened, Sam?”

“While you were…”

“Unavailable?” Cas supplied.

“Yeah. Um… Dean said some things to Jack, and Jack started going on about how he’s inherently evil because of Lucifer. He said he was going to hurt us too, so he… He left. I don’t know where he went. He hasn’t been back all night.”

“And Gabriel?”

“I talked to him right after Jack left. I thought he’d come back in the room, but…” Sam shrugged. “He’s thinking about staying, Cas. Not going back with us.”

“Oh, I’m not surprised by that.”

“I feel like I should go talk to Dean, but I’m afraid I might make it worse. I tried telling Jack about what I was like when you met me. You know, the whole demon blood thing. And he took it the wrong way, that he’s worse because he’s Lucifer’s kid, that he wasn’t innocent until a demon made him drink blood. And then Gabriel… I’m afraid I said something wrong. I mean, all I did was say I wanted him to come back, not just for what he can do but because I wanted to get to know him a little better. I don’t know… Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

Castiel considered this. “Gabriel is going to do what Gabriel is going to do. I doubt that any one thing you say will affect him much.”

“I just feel like every time I say something, I’m making it worse.” Sam shook his head. “I’m sorry, Cas. I shouldn’t be dumping this on you. You just got out of what happened. What did happen? When Michael touched you?”

“I’m sorry, Sam. I’m not prepared to talk about it yet.” Castiel sighed. “Maybe never, to be perfectly honest.”

“But you’re…okay?”

“I will be. You don’t need to worry about me.” After considering his options, Castiel made a decision and stood up. “Come have breakfast with Dean and me. And then we’ll look for Gabriel and Jack.”

“If you think Dean will—”

He reached for the doorknob. “He will. I’ll make sure of it.”

 


 

“Took a while over there,” Dean said as Cas came back into the room.  “He’s still pissed at me, isn’t he?”

“You and he and I are going to breakfast,” Cas stated. “Now.”

“Uh…Cas?”

“Get dressed, Dean.”

“Okay, so now you’re both pissed at me. Great.”

“Dean, I am not ‘pissed’ at you. You are assuming things I have not said. Get dressed and we’ll talk. Gabriel and Jack are temporarily missing and will not be joining us.”

Standing, Dean ran a hand over the back of his neck, trying to figure out what to say next. “I’m not sure Sam wants—”

“Would you rather eat dressed as you are?” Cas raised an eyebrow at Dean’s boxers, which had Dean feeling seen in ways that were both uncomfortable and intriguing.

“Uh… No. Give me two minutes.” He grabbed his clothes and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. He relieved himself and made a mental note for them to each get a change of clothes and find a laundromat. If they were going to be here two weeks, clean clothes were a must.

In no time, he was dressed and ready to head out. “Are we meeting him—” He stopped as soon as he saw Sam waiting for them outside. Sam looked both exhausted and hopeless, like he was just one step from giving up. “Sam, I’m—”

“Save it, Dean,” Sam snapped. “I need coffee before I can talk to you.”

Dean nodded silently and followed Cas to the diner. The back tables were occupied by a group of older men with leathery skin and farmer tans, talking and playing cards. Cas led them to the table they’d sat at earlier, pointed at him and then a chair, and then sat across from him, all the while staring at him as if he was daring Dean to step out of line.

Sam sat next to him facing the front and ordered coffee and a vegetable omelet, Cas stuck with coffee, and Dean’s stomach started growling as soon as he saw bacon. He went for the more traditional bacon, eggs, and hash browns, with an extra side of bacon. The side came out early, and after he devoured it, he figured he’d given the others enough time.

“Look, I said some things I’m not proud of,” Dean said. “Doesn’t make ‘em not true, but I could’ve said it better.”

Sam looked at him for a beat, sighed, and shook his head at the ceiling. He didn’t say anything.

Cas narrowed his eyes until Dean began to feel uncomfortable under such scrutiny.

“I’m sorry, Sam. Okay? I’m sorry.”

“You chased off both Jack and Gabriel,” Sam said. “And if I wasn’t your brother, I’d be gone too.”

“Yeah, I figured as much.”

“What the—” Sam broke off as their meals arrived. He dropped his voice to just above a whisper. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Everyone leaves, Sam. It just happened…faster this time.”

“Everyone does not leave. You chased us out.”

“What does it matter? It’s gonna happen sooner or later, this universe or another one. You’re gonna find someone to spend your life with, maybe train Jack or take over Bobby’s old job. Cas is probably gonna go back to Heaven.”

“Why would you say that?” Cas broke in.

“’Cause you always do, Cas. I mean, I thought you knew you were our family, but something comes up and you keep going back there. I can’t compete, man. And honestly, I’ve got nothin’ to offer you. I’m a broken hunter.”

“My business in Heaven is a matter of duty,” Cas said, “not of preference. The same way you will leave to go on a hunt when you must. When no one else can do what you can do. And given what is happening now, I have no more reasons to return. There is nothing more I can do unless I burn out my grace trying to keep Heaven open. I may be ordered to do that, but I will not.”

“What are you gonna do then, Cas? If Heaven dies, do you keep being an angel? And if you become human again, what happens when you die?”

“I thought,” Cas said slowly, “that I would stay. With you. If you’ll have me. I am more of a broken angel than you are a broken hunter. What happens to me beyond that is immaterial.”

Dean slammed his coffee mug down on the table. “It’s material to me, Cas!”

“I have lived a very long life. If I spend the remaining few years human, assisting you and Sam, I am content with that.”

“Damn it, Cas!” Dean ground his teeth together. So Cas wanted to spend the next few years with him, but would happily ditch eternity? The pain of watching everyone leave slowly, drawn out over years, was unbearable, and despite his best efforts, Dean felt pinpricks of tears in his eyes. He tried to blink it away and took another swallow of coffee, but it tasted burnt and his hand shook as he set it down again.

“What is it, Dean?”

“Nothing.” Dean stood and tossed his credit card on the table. “I need to get out of here.” He couldn’t look back as he left, digging the van key out of his pocket.

 


 

“What the hell was that all about?” Sam asked, hoping Cas had an answer.

“I am not quite sure. I thought he wanted me to stay, but now…”

“I’m sure Dean wants you to stay. You don’t know how…” Sam couldn’t help but remember how utterly devastated Dean was before Cas returned. “He was inconsolable after you died. This last time. But, Cas, he’s got a good question. If Heaven dies, what happens to you? What happens to Dean? Both of us have given up on any sort of normal life, but there was always the hope that…you know…when we died, when we’re done fighting, we’d find some peace. And now that’s not likely either.”

“There is nothing I can do to fix Heaven, Sam. At best I can possibly delay the inevitable by a little bit. A year at most. I have tried offering Dean everything I have. But my grace is limited and may never recover, and I can see now, that isn’t enough. I am useless to you both.”

“Cas, don’t say that. You’ve been useful even when you haven’t had any powers. You’re our friend. You’re family.”

“That’s…kind of you to say. But we both know it’s not true. I no longer have a purpose, a home. I am, as I said before, a broken angel, and it is selfish of me to want more than I can give.” He stood, not meeting Sam’s gaze. “Please excuse me.”

“Cas!” Sam reached for Cas’ arm, but missed, his fingertips grazing Cas’ coat. He should never have brought up Heaven. Of course he knew Cas felt useless, had felt that way ever since the angels fell. Why did he have to dig into Cas’ sore spot? And Dean’s, for that matter, suggesting that Dean was at fault for people leaving him. He thought back to his conversations with Jack and Gabriel. Did he say something that sent them off?

He glanced around the diner. A few of the older men in the back had left, with others taking their place in whatever card game they were playing. The one server was talking with the cook, occasionally checking to see if anyone was trying to get her attention for more food or a coffee refill. Some country station was playing softly over the speakers, and the whole space smelled like grease and laughter. It smelled like home, and Sam felt a tightening in his stomach as he wondered what his mom was doing right now. If she was safe. If she was even still alive.

He rested his forearms on the table and played with his coffee cup. “Uh…” he said softly so no one else could hear. “Michael? I don’t know if you can hear me. Dean would be even more pissed if he knew I was talking to you, but I don’t know where else to turn. And, um…no offense, but you seem more like the kind of angel I grew up believing in than any that I’ve actually met. Like wanting to help and all. So… I could really use some guidance. Or advice. Or anything, really.”

Sam chanced another look around the diner. No one new had arrived. The server was laughing at something the cook had said. The radio had changed to a different song. He watched the card game behind him for a moment.

“I’m glad you called,” Michael said from the seat across from him.

“Jesus, don’t do that!” Sam felt his heart hammering in his chest with the angel’s sudden appearance.

“If you’d rather talk to Jesus, I’ll have to make some arrangements,” Michael said.

“No…I—” Sam let out a sharp breath. “No. Thanks for, uh, coming.”

“I am always here to help.”

“That’s…unusual. Where we’re from. Angels don’t do a lot of helping. More the opposite, in fact.”

“Then perhaps when you return, you’ll know we’re not all that way. There are other possibilities. Other choices.” Michael looked over to the server and tipped his head up briefly.

“Is, um… Is there a Castiel in this world? An angel Castiel?”

“You mean the one who just left?” Michael asked.

“No, like from your universe.” Sam waited patiently as the server brought over a small plate with two biscuits and refilled his coffee. When she set the plate down, Michael smiled at her and she looked as if she’d just released weeks of tension before she walked away, a bounce in her step. “Did you just—?”

“Heal her? No. I reminded her of who she really is. That she is so much more than her body, her marriage, her job. And to answer your question, no. Not exactly. There is one that he reminds me of in this universe, but their names are not quite the same. And names matter.” He picked up one of the biscuits and broke it in half, offering one to Sam. “Please.”

Sam chuckled as he took the offered half-biscuit. “Breaking bread with me?”

“This is an ancient custom,” Michael said. “Sharing food is common to all religions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, and many more. Some say it is the highest form of karma, that it brings one closer to the Source of All.”

After checking to make sure he wouldn’t be overheard, Sam asked, “Is there some protocol for this?” He indicated the half-biscuit.

“Generally, one eats it.”

“Heh… I mean, am I supposed to offer a prayer or something?”

Michael caught him with a gaze a thousand times more unsettling than any Cas had ever given him. “You already offered a prayer. That’s why I’m here.”

“Is eating this going to zap me back to my own world?” Sam nibbled on the edge of the biscuit. It tasted exactly like a biscuit.

“No. I would not be that unkind to you.”

Sam took a full bite of the biscuit and washed it down with some coffee. “Michael, I don’t understand. We’ve been at each other’s throats since we called you. And…” Sam cringed. “I’m really sorry about the holy fire. We had to be careful.”

“I know. It didn’t hurt me.”

“I noticed. Did you do something to us? Or is it me? Everyone took off separately. Everyone’s angry. Every time I try to help I just seem to make it worse.”

“I did nothing to you, Sam. Not to you or anyone else. All I did was create the circumstances that would allow all of you to understand what is in your way and move through it.”

“You mean what you did to Cas?”

Michael shook his head. “I did nothing to Castiel, other than show him the truth of who he is.”

“Well, now he thinks he’s useless,” Sam said, feeling his frustration build. “Is that what you showed him? Because if that’s what you see, then your world’s even more messed up than ours.”

“It is not my truth to share,” Michael said. “He may share it if he wishes.”

“He said he wasn’t ready to talk about it.”

“And yet he told you he thinks he’s useless,” Michael pointed out. “If he is not ready to talk about what I showed him, then what he said cannot be it.”

“Okay. Yeah. I get it. But Jack’s gone. He thinks he’s evil. Gabriel took off somewhere and said he wants to stay. Dean’s mad at everyone. And I don’t know what to say or do to bring everyone back together.”

“This is what is in your way. It is not for you to bring them back together. What is in your way is the way through.”

“You’re talking in riddles. Can you just undo whatever you did and help us figure out how to get back to our own universe?”

“Sam,” Michael said, leaning closer. “What has been set in motion cannot be stopped. But the trajectory can always be changed. You have a choice in every word, every action, every thought, every belief. You hold the power here, not me.”

“But I’m just making everything worse.”

“Are you? Think very carefully about your answer. Are you, in fact, making everything worse every time you act or speak?”

Sam let out a long breath. “No. Not every time. But some of the time.”

“And what was true for you in those times?”

Sam thought back. The demon blood. Dean insisting he stop using his powers. Killing Lilith. Saying yes to Lucifer. Being soulless. “I can’t be trusted with power,” he said just above a whisper. “It’s when I have power that I make things worse.”

“No.” Michael shook his head. “You have power now. Those times you were thinking about? You gave up your power. Your agency.”

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“Those were traumas you lived through. Your thoughts about them are very loud.”

“Huh.” Sam considered that. “You’re saying I gave up my power? But I was using my powers.”

“Your manipulation of energy is different from having power. You gave up your agency to your addiction, which led to disastrous results. You gave up your agency to another, which led to disastrous results.”

“I’m sensing a theme here. But I’m still…I’m afraid of what I’d do if I had a lot of power.”

“This is what you are not yet understanding, Sam. You already have a lot of power. You fear moving into it—you fear claiming your full agency—because you anticipate the same disastrous results. But those results happened because you gave it up, not because you moved into it. What is in the way is the way.”

“So…how do I claim it then?”

“At the risk of repeating myself, understand and be mindful that you hold power in every word and deed. And then act or speak with intention. You did before. Leading a…” Michael appraised him for a moment. “A raid? Addressing a roomful of people?”

Sam huffed out a laugh. “Yeah. We were about to take down the British Men of Letters. I guess I thought of that as leadership, not power.”

“What do you think leadership is? Using your power—your agency—with intention.” Michael slid Dean’s credit card over in front of Sam and stood. “Your breakfast is paid for. I’ll be around.”

Sam pocketed the card as he watched Michael leave through the door like any normal person, then jumped up and ran after him. But despite being able to see for several hundred feet in every direction, there was no trace of the angel. Typical.

Chapter Text

Dean drove around Smith Center, finding two bars a block apart from each other. One was opening in an hour; the other didn’t open until evening. But the more he thought about it, as tempting as it was to lose himself in a few shots, Cas might still need him. Even if Cas didn’t want to stick around for the long haul.

Instead, he drove back past Lebanon, up to where the bunker would have been if this was the right universe. The tiny park was empty—no surprise—and he parked in roughly the same spot they had before. In the light, he could now see a tiny, one-room chapel, several benches and picnic tables, and a separate covered picnic area. He walked over to the stone memorial, which held a flagpole he hadn’t seen the other night, and stared at it as he thought.

So now they’d met an angel in this universe. Funny how it didn’t matter what universe it was, the supernatural always found them first. But this angel apparently wanted to play mind games with them, while diminishing Cas to little more than a scared child. He picked up a rock from the base of the stone marker and threw it at the covered picnic area, hearing it bounce off one of the wooden supporting posts.

“Easy with the rock-throwing, there, Deano.”

Dean frowned as he made out a familiar figure sitting up from where he’d been laying on one of the picnic tables. “Gabriel? What are you doing here?”

“Thinking.” Gabriel hopped off the table and made his way out from under the roof, blinking his eyes in the sun.

“About?”

“Did you know there are ley lines that run through here?” Gabriel said instead of answering. “‘Course you did. That’s why the bunker was built here. Though these aren’t as strong as some other areas. You should feel the ones in Winnipeg.” He whistled in appreciation.

“Cas is better,” Dean said. “At least he’s awake and pissing me off. He won’t talk about what happened.”

“Eh, he’ll come around. What’s he done to piss you off this time?”

“It’s nothing, really. You want a ride back?”

“It’s not nothing if you’re out here and he’s back at the motel. Spill, Dean. I suck at being a therapist, but I can commiserate with the best of ‘em.”

Dean kicked at the grass. “He doesn’t care about eternity. About what’ll happen to him if Heaven dies.”

“Aha. That’s just a matter of perspective. You humans are taught to think about the big picture differently. Behave yourselves and your reward is an eternity in Heaven, right? I hate to burst your bubble, but our universe’s Heaven isn’t really about reward. You’ve probably already figured that out.”

“Yeah.” Dean thought about his brief foray into Heaven. “More like warehousing of souls while they stay stuck in happy memories.”

“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds downright manipulative.” At Dean’s glare, Gabriel made a gesture of submission. “Okay, point made.” He sighed. “Look, angels are not built to care about eternity. Heaven’s our home as well as our workplace. Do I want to see it die? No. And I might not have a choice. But our perspective is always in the moment. Now is the only time there is. There is no forever. And Castiel? A soldier in an eons-long war doesn’t spend much time thinking about when the war’s over. It’s about surviving the battle of the moment to fight another day.”

“Mmm.” Dean nodded once. “So talking about the distant future is as foreign to him as free will was?”

Gabriel pointed his finger at Dean and clicked his tongue. “You got it. And on top of that, he’s not going to promise you anything he can’t deliver. With Heaven on the fritz, I wouldn’t want to plan anything more than a month away.”

“When we get back… Can you fix it? Heaven?”

“Pfft. I don’t know. Not even sure I’d be let back in.”

The hopelessness Dean felt now seemed to be on a cosmic scale. Heaven was dying. His mom was trapped in a dystopian world with Lucifer and a bunch of human-hating angels. The five of them trapped in this world had no way home. He looked over at Gabriel. “Sam said you were thinkin’ of staying here.”

“Yeah. Still thinking about it. C’mon. Let’s go back. You need to talk to Castiel before he gets any more worried.”

“What?”

“You did walk out on him, yes?”

“We had an argument,” Dean corrected. “I left before I said something I’d regret.”

“Exactly. You’re gonna need to lay it all on the line this time, kiddo. Tell him everything. What you think. How you feel, Past, present, and future.”

“Not happenin’, Gabriel. Sam’s the one who does the chick flicks. Not me.”

“Oh, bullshit. You and Sam have been crying over your feelings in the Impala for years.” At Dean’s surprised look, he continued. “I’m neither blind nor stupid. And yeah, I’ve seen you more often than you’ve seen me. Don’t give me that look. You can deny it to yourself, and you can deny it to Castiel, but you can’t deny it to me. And I really don’t know how much time we’ve all got left. So just talk to him.”

Dean couldn’t think of what to say, so he nodded once. As he climbed back into the van, he called over, “You want a ride?”

“Nah. Gonna think for a while more. I’ll be back this evening.”

On the twenty-minute drive back to the motel, Dean tried to figure out how he was going to have this talk with Cas. Gabriel was right about one thing: no one knew how much time they had. And Dean was for damn sure not going to push Cas away in whatever time they had left.

 


 

Castiel returned to the motel room, only to realize there was nowhere else for him to go. He had no desire to walk around in the Kansas heat, no vehicle, no destination in mind. He wasn’t sure how to access Heaven in this universe, or if it was even worth pursuing. It did occur to him to ask how Heaven was run here, and if there might be some solution to take back to his universe’s Heaven. But that meant having a conversation with this world’s Michael, and he was not at all ready for that yet.

He sat down on the bed where he’d woken up. Where Dean had slept next to him. Dean, who deserved so much more than Castiel could ever give him. Perhaps the only way he could make Dean happy was to find Dean’s soulmate, quickly, and make sure they were together before spending the rest of his existence trying to keep Heaven open. In this, he felt he had a purpose. But to do this meant getting back to their world.

Still, he began a mental list of what Dean’s soulmate must be like. Female, of course. Athletic. Aware of the supernatural. Familiar with hunters, and possibly able to hunt as well. Strong enough to keep Dean in line when he inevitably got stuck in his way of thinking. Someone who knew when Dean needed to be told what to do and when he needed to take the lead. Someone who understood his moods, his wounds. Someone who enjoyed cheeseburgers and beer. Someone who would never, ever leave.

Castiel sighed and stared up at the ceiling. This woman would be impossible to find, and even if, by some miracle, he found her, it would take too long for her to get to know Dean. That’s if Dean didn’t chase her away first.

What Michael had shown him, had forced him to look at, was so preposterous, it approached blasphemy. Initially, it had shaken him and caused untold pain when he tried to accept it, but now he was able to relegate it to a bad nightmare. As long as no one asked him about it, he was sure that in time, he could come as close as possible to forgetting it entirely.

Which brought up another question. The Michael in this universe was nothing like any of the other versions of Michael he’d met. Well, except for the attitude of I know something you don’t, and I’m not going to tell you. That was familiar. But if this one was different enough, then maybe what he’d shared wasn’t fully true either. Or maybe only applied in this universe. That thought was worth considering longer.

He meditated for a while, calming his thoughts to the tiniest awareness while stillness quieted the rest of his being. But inevitably, Dean kept intruding into his conscious mind, and the longer he tried to focus on that stillness, the less calm he felt. He glanced at the motel’s clock radio and noted it had been almost two hours since Dean left the diner. A thread of worry wove its way through his chest, constricting his vessel’s lungs. There didn’t seem to be much threat in this world, but old habits die hard. The truth was, Castiel felt better when he knew exactly where Dean was and what he was doing.

Castiel sent a bit of his awareness out with his grace, trying to find Dean, but it was no use. Dean was still warded. Gabriel was easy to find, but was busy with something and waved him away. There was a brief and odd connection with someone else who looked a lot like Jimmy Novak. It wasn’t enough to get a full read on, but he caught glimpses of laughter laced with regret, two children playing in a park, and unconditional love that shattered into a million pieces when a little girl asked, “Is this a dream?” It was difficult to understand without any context, but he understood one thing: family—whether by birth or by choice—was what one mourned leaving and rejoiced coming home to.

Sam had told him he was family. Dean had referred to the bunker as Castiel’s home as well as theirs. Why was he resisting accepting the Winchesters as family, and their home as his? That question led him immediately back to what Michael had shown him, and he pressed his hands to the sides of his head, fingers clenching at his hair, trying to drive that memory back into the recesses of his mind.

Once it was vanquished again, he raised his head, dropping his hands to his lap and squinting at the early-afternoon light from the open door, backlighting Dean’s silhouette.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean said from the doorway before closing the door behind him.

“Hello, Dean.” The worry retreated and Castiel relaxed a little.

“Um… Can I…? Yeah, I’m just gonna…sit down.” Dean made his way over to the other bed and sat.

Dean was clearly uncomfortable and Castiel’s worry began anew. Perhaps this was where Dean would ask him to leave. After all, he had nothing to contribute to getting back to their own universe.

“Dean, if you want me to leave…”

“What?” Dean looked up, surprised. “No. No, Cas, I don’t want you to leave. In fact, that’s…that’s part of the problem. I don’t ever want you to leave.”

This was confusing. “You want me to stay…in this universe?”

Sighing, Dean ran a hand through his hair. “See, I’m no good with words. And I keep tryin’ to show you, but it’s not coming across.”

Castiel could sense Dean retreating back into himself, locking whatever he’d wanted to say back up. “Dean, talk to me. You don’t want me to leave…what?”

Dean looked down at the floor, played with the hem of his shirt, then let out an audible breath. “Me, Cas. I don’t want you to leave me.”

“I have no intentions of leaving you,” Castiel said, unsure where this was coming from. “I already told you that even if I was ordered to return to Heaven to prolong its power, I would not. I would rather stay with you.”

“Yeah. And you also said that if a few years of being with me was all you could have, it was enough.”

“It is. It would be selfish of me to want more than that.”

“Well, maybe I want you to be,” Dean snapped. “Maybe I’m selfish too.”

“What are you talking about, Dean?”

“I… I don’t know how long we’ve got. If we make it back to our world, we still gotta go back to Thunderdome and fight Michael. And Lucifer. I mean let’s be realistic. The chances of me walking out of all that are pretty small.”

“You know I will help in any way I can,” Castiel said.

“That’s not the point, Cas. If I don’t make it…”

“You are concerned about what will happen to your soul if Heaven dies,” Castiel finished, remembering what Sam had said.

“No. Whatever happens to me, I figure I’ve earned it. It’s above my pay grade. But the past six months…” Dean scrubbed his hands over his face. “I always thought Sam was the one I couldn’t leave. Gotta take care of Sammy. And then he was still there and you were gone…” Dean sighed. “I can’t do this without you, man. Whatever’s in store for me. I just… I need you too much. Not just however long we have. I mean like forever. And that scares me, Cas. I know you can’t promise anything, and it terrifies me that if Heaven dies, you might too, and I can’t—” Dean closed his eyes and swallowed, visibly trying to gain control over his emotions. “I can’t do that again. I can’t.”

“Dean…” Castiel could feel his own newer emotions building. Something like grief that hadn’t happened yet. “I can’t promise forever. I’m still an angel. Not a very good one, but… I already know what happens to me when I die. I don’t think humans ever go there, to The Empty.”

“Billie said that’s where she’d send me and Sam,” Dean said. “When she was still a reaper.”

“You would not enjoy it, Dean. That creature is…highly irritating. And miserable.”

“It ain’t about enjoyment. I just… If you leave again, willingly or not, I don’t think I’m gonna survive it.”

“What would you have me do, then? I am open to suggestions.”

Dean shifted on the bed, making eye contact. “You know you’re family, right Cas?”

“You and Sam have said as much, yes.”

“I know I’ve said you’re like another brother.”

Castiel felt a plunging disappointment, and he wished his wings still worked so he could leave this conversation before it became any more painful. “Yes. You have.”

“That wasn’t quite true. I don’t… I don’t feel about you like I do about Sam.”

Sighing, Castiel nodded. This was it. “I would not expect you to, Dean. He is your true family.”

“No, you’re not…” Dean shook his head. “I’m not sayin’ this right.” He stood and motioned to Castiel’s bed. “Can I sit next to you?”

Confused, Castiel tilted his head. Why would Dean want to sit next to him if he was about to tell him they were not family after all? Still, he couldn’t say no. “Of course.”

Dean pulled his boots off and climbed onto the bed, sitting up against the headboard but partially facing Castiel. “Me and Sam, we’re always gonna be family. I’d do almost anything for him. Have done some pretty stupid stuff for him.”

“Yes, I would agree that selling your soul was a stupid move.”

“Then again, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met you. So, silver lining, right?”

“Silver lining?”

“To the clouds.”

“Why are we talking about clouds now?”

“Never mind. The point is, I’d move heaven and earth for Sam. But…”

Castiel lowered his gaze, unable to watch Dean’s face anymore. Finding it difficult to form words in any language, he managed to say, “I know I am unworthy—”

“Shut up, dumbass,” Dean said.

Castiel felt Dean’s fingers under his chin, tilting his head up. “Dean…”

“I love Sam, but I don’t wanna do this to him.” Dean leaned forward and pressed his lips to Castiel’s. Timid, soft, warm. All too soon, it was over. Dean pulled back for a moment, searching, a silent question in his eyes.

“Oh,” Castiel breathed, not knowing what else to say. Before Dean could move any farther away, Castiel closed the distance and kissed him back, remembering how he’d moved his lips when he’d kissed Meg. How she’d tasted like sulfur and self-hatred and his heart broke for her. And Dean… Dean tasted like the sweetest fruits mixed with an exploding nova, radiance shining from within and beckoning him closer, even if it meant his own demise.

The First Kiss

When they finally separated, Dean was breathing heavily. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“You don’t love me as a brother,” Castiel said.

“No.” Dean grinned. “Never have, really.”

“You love me as…a lover?”

“Well, we’re not there yet. But I think I’d like to, uh, move in that direction.”

“I thought…”

“I know what you thought, Cas. You think you’re not good enough for me, and man, that is the farthest thing from the truth. If anything, it’s the other way around.”

“You think too little of yourself, Dean.”

“Back atcha.”

Castiel considered this for a moment. He was not being asked to leave. The opposite, in fact. He thought he understood a little better how Dean felt about the future, but he had nothing to offer other than his steadfast presence. What happened to Heaven was beyond his power. And now… Dean wanted more from their relationship. But what could he offer in this arena?

“Penny for your thoughts,” Dean said.

“My thoughts are certainly worth more than a penny,” Castiel responded.

Dean shifted a little closer. “Whatever they cost, I’ll pay.”

“I… I don’t know how to do…more. I don’t know what to do next.”

Dean graced him with one of his adorable half-smiles. “You can kiss me again.”

“Yes. I can do that.” Castiel licked his lips, then leaned forward again, kissing Dean lightly on the mouth, then pressing harder.

Dean’s tongue made a tentative swipe against his lips, and Castiel parted them slightly, his own tongue moving forward to meet Dean’s. He lost all ability to track their movements then, aware only of Dean’s mouth and tongue moving against his, of Dean being too far away. He reached out and splayed his hand behind Dean’s head, pulling him in closer, shifting his own vessel forward to minimize the amount of space between them. He could feel heat building between them, a fiery tightness that hummed across his skin and produced the most unusual sensations. Barely able to tell where his lips ended and Dean’s began, he chased Dean’s heat, seeking more. He felt Dean’s fingers in his hair, lightly scratching his scalp, then grabbing fistfuls and pulling Castiel’s head back so Dean could mouth against his jaw, his neck, over to his ear.

Dean hesitated for a half-second as if he was about to say something, then returned to kissing his neck, nipping at the tender skin beneath his ear, over his pulse point, teeth dragging across his Adam’s apple. “Was gonna suggest,” Dean said, “that we lose the clothes, ‘cause I don’t know when or if we’ll get to do this again.” He rested his head in the crook of Castiel’s neck for a moment before leaving a kiss there. “But I don’t want you thinkin’ you’re a quick lay. You’re worth more than that, Cas. I wanna do this right.”

“I don’t care about right, Dean. I’m just…” Castiel sat back and felt himself smile. “You love me.”

“Yeah. I do.”

“And I love you. I’ve told you before, but perhaps you’ll accept it this time as I intend it.”

“Wait… This is what you meant? Before? When you were dying?” Dean made a face. “That other time when you were dying?”

“Yes. I didn’t want to die without telling you how I felt.”

“Wow.” Dean looked away for a moment, then returned his gaze. “How long?”

Castiel had to break eye contact then, feeling guilty for not saying anything for so long. “Since Hell.”

Dean’s eyebrows shot up. “Since…? And you never said anything?”

“Would it have made a difference?”

“No, you’re right.”

“How long for you?” Castiel said, taking a chance.

Dean chuckled. “Remember that night in Bobby’s kitchen? You said you could throw me back in Hell? That I should show you some respect?”

“You were very…defiant.”

“Yeah. Well, half of me wanted to kill you that night. The other half wanted to kiss you.”

Castiel hummed. “And yet you did neither.”

“Couldn’t make up my mind.”

“And which,” Castiel said, reaching his hand into Dean’s hair and pulling him close again, “have you decided?”

Dean kissed him differently this time, like he was taking control, and Castiel let him. His lips were hungry, his energy almost predatory, as if he wanted to prove that he could have won. “Still not sure.”

Castiel gave himself over to Dean’s attention, acting on some base instinct, only aware of good, more, and Dean.

A foreign sound that Castiel identified seconds too late as the motel door opening caused him to pause.

“Hey, have you seen—?” Sam stood in the doorway, one hand on the knob. “Oh, thank God. Finally.”

Dean froze next to Castiel. “Sam…”

“I’m glad, Dean. Really. Relieved actually. Thought you guys would never figure it out. Don’t let me interrupt.” Sam backed out of the room, pulling the door closed after him.

“Sam!” Dean called, jumping off the bed and making some sort of adjustment to his jeans.

“I’m not going to cockblock you, Dean,” Sam said, still holding onto the door.

“I’m not… We’re not… I’m doing it right, Sam. Like I shoulda done a long time ago. Have I seen who?”

“Whom,” Sam corrected absently. “Gabriel. He just walked off and I haven’t seen him since.”

“Yeah, he was at that geographic center park, talking about lay lines. Not sure what that has to do with anyone getting laid, but whatever. He said he’d be back tonight.”

“Ley lines, Dean.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No,” Sam corrected, “they’re electromagnetic lines of energy that cross the earth. Some people swear by them; others think it’s junk science.”

“Some people think vampires sparkle too.”

“Yeah. Well, thanks. About Gabe. I’ll let you two…”

“Sam,” Castiel called, getting off the bed as well. “Would you come in, please?”

“I don’t want to—”

“Sam,” Castiel repeated. “Please. We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Sam watched as Dean and Cas sat back down on the bed where they’d been making out. That…was weird to think. He was happy for them, and he wasn’t lying when he said he was relieved. But he was only just now realizing that the epic eye sex they’d been having all these years was going to get worse. And he might need to invest in ear plugs. Did weird things happen when a partially-powered angel orgasmed? Did even weirder things happen when a fully-powered archangel orgasmed?

Shaking that thought out of his head, Sam looked for a place to sit. The other bed seemed wrong, somehow. But in the chair at the table, across from the two of them on the bed where they were… Well, shit, now they were holding hands and sharing that look, and Sam wasn’t sure he’d ever been this uncomfortable. Even playing an actor in front of a camera.

“The internet was right about you two,” Sam said, hoping to ease his discomfort. At least they could be uncomfortable too. He sat down in the chair and tapped a tuneless rhythm on the table with his fingers.

“Wait, what?” Dean’s attention was all on him now. “What about the internet?”

“They’ve been shipping you guys for ten years.”

“Shipping us where?” Cas asked.

“Relation-shipping,” Sam said, now imagining putting his brother and Cas in a shipping crate and covering it with postage.

“Like that musical?” Dean said, looking uncertain.

“Yeah. They write stories—books even. Some based in our universe and some in others. Sometimes Cas is an angel, sometimes human. Sometimes you’re both, uh…wolf-like.” Sam snorted his amusement. “Needing to mate.”

“Mate?” Dean repeated, a red tinge standing out on his face.

“Yeah, and they make up all sorts of interesting facts about angels’ mating habits. You know, like um…creative uses for wing oil.”

“I am not a bird, Sam,” Cas said. “Where my wings are, they don’t require oil.”

“And the art,” Sam continued, remembering some of the things he’d seen. “Really talented artists putting you guys in some compromising positions. Graphic positions.”

“Okay, Sam, that’s enough.” Dean held his hand up. “I don’t need to know any more.”

“Oh, but you really do, Dean. There are entire sites devoted to you guys having sex.”

“Sam!” Dean’s face was bright red now.

Unable to hold his laughter in anymore, Sam let himself relax. “I’ve got more. There are videos—”

“No,” Dean cut him off. “Don’t people have better things to do with their time?”

“From what I gather,” Sam said, “it gives them…uh…pleasure.”

“Okay, anything but this,” Dean said, running a hand over his definitely-blushing face. “Change the subject. Please?”

Sam nodded, knowing he had plenty of leverage if this didn’t work. “I talked to Michael.”

“You what?”

“Sam, that could have been very dangerous,” Cas said.

“Well, you two had walked out in a huff. Gabriel’s doing who knows what, and I’m afraid to even think about where Jack is and how he’s doing. If we walk around much in public, we get recognized—and not in a good way—and we still need to find a way to get back. So I thought it was worth the risk.”

“Okay.” Dean nodded. “I don’t like it, but I can see where you’re coming from. So how much of an ass was he this time?”

“Not a lot, really.” Sam thought over their conversation. “He was saying that what is in our way is the way. But for each of us, not us as a group. I think.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, I told him he was speaking in riddles.”

Cas tilted his head slightly and seemed to gaze, unfocused, across the room. “It does make sense.”

“Yeah?” Dean asked. “How so?”

“Michael said we have all the power here, not him,” Sam offered. “Because we have choices. And he said something about you, Cas, but I don’t know if I should say it.”

“Why?” Cas asked.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t want it to hurt you again.”

“It won’t, Sam.”

“Okay. Well, he said he didn’t do anything to you, which I still question. But he said he showed you the truth of who you are. And what that was, he said, was not for him to share.”

Cas lowered his gaze and brought his hands together in his lap. “What he showed me, shared with me, was—is—painful because it couldn’t possibly be true. And yet…if I am completely honest, I want it to be true. I want it, but it cannot be, and that is painful.”

“What, did he show you with your wings intact or something?” Dean asked.

Cas shot him an irritated look. “No. And they are intact, Dean. They’re just not…” He sighed.

Sam sat forward in his chair. “What did he show you, Cas? I promise, Dean will shut up and listen.” He sent his best bitchface to his brother. “Won’t he?”

“Yeah, sure, fine,” Dean said.

“Perhaps it would be best to use a metaphor here,” Cas explained. “When I first saw Dean—”

“In Hell?” Dean asked.

“Dean!” Sam hissed. “You promised!”

“No, Sam, actually you promised.”

“When I first saw Dean in Hell,” Castiel repeated, a little louder, “I didn’t see the demon he was becoming. I didn’t see the twisted things Alastair forced him to do. I saw the brightness of his soul underneath all that. It was pure and radiant and brighter than any other I’d ever seen. It was…righteous.” Cas turned to look at Dean. “But you didn’t see that. I think you still don’t. You see yourself as tainted by what you’ve done.”

“I started the damn apocalypse, Cas,” Dean said softly.

“Unknowingly,” Cas answered. “But even the things you did with full knowledge, some of which you felt you had no choice about, you see them as being unforgivable. But that’s not how I see you. I still see that brilliant soul that captivated me all those years ago.”

“Yeah, but maybe your view is a little biased,” Dean said.

“My grace sees truth, Dean. That’s how I was created.”

Dean looked down and ran his hand over the back of his neck.

“You said this was a metaphor, Cas?” Sam asked.

Cas nodded. “What Michael showed me… It’s how he saw me. The same way I see Dean. He saw me as…” Cas visibly swallowed. “Pure. Loyal. Courageous.” He paused, then added in a whisper, “Divine.”

Sam was quiet for a few moments, and when Cas didn’t continue, he said, “Cas… That’s how we see you too.”

“But it’s not true,” Cas argued. “It can’t be.”

“We’ve all screwed up,” Sam said. “Sometimes little things, sometimes not.” He chuckled. “Usually not. But we’re more than just what we’ve done. More than what we’ve experienced. You can make mistakes, Cas, even big ones, and still be loyal, still be pure. Still be divine.”

“Sam, I have sinned. Terribly.”

“No, Cas.” Dean frowned, shaking his head. “You don’t get to have it both ways. If you see my soul as—” he made a face, “righteous, despite all the crap that I’ve done, and I don’t get to argue about it, then you get to still be a holy badass, despite what you’ve done. And believe me, I’ve been pretty pissed off at some of the things you’ve done, but that’s not who you are, man. Sam’s right. You’re more than that.”

“But…what Michael showed me… It wasn’t about being more. It was about being…whole.”

“Do you think you’re less whole because your grace isn’t at full power?” Sam asked.

“No…” Cas began. “Well… I consider that my choices have led to my weakened grace. So perhaps. Why do you ask?”

“What Michael said, that first time we met him. He said the only thing standing between us and what we want is what we believe.”

“Right,” Dean said sarcastically. “There’s no place like home.”

Sam shot him a warning look before returning to Cas. “He also said that what we believe about ourselves is keeping us trapped. Cas, it’s like your beliefs about yourself, about not being whole or worthy, are muting your grace. Don’t you see? Even if it doesn’t actually affect your grace, it’s keeping you stuck.”

“A self-fulfilling prophecy,” Cas said, sounding thoughtful.

“Exactly. And self-sabotage can be really powerful.”

“Yeah, but Sam,” Dean added, “changing beliefs ain’t easy.”

“Sometimes it is,” Sam argued. “You didn’t believe in angels until Cas showed up. That changed fast.”

“Well, that was kinda obvious. Hard to ignore, you know? And that was believing something outside of me. Changing my belief about myself? That’s harder.”

“Who’s harder?” Gabriel asked from the doorway.

“Gabriel, that is inappropriate,” Cas said.

“Inappropriate’s my middle name,” Gabriel returned.

“You don’t have a middle name.”

“Do now.” He flopped down on the unclaimed bed. “What’d I miss?”

“Well, Dean and Cas are together together now,” Sam said.

Gabriel gave them an appraising look. “For real? Or is Dean going to dive back into his closet?”

Dean’s head snapped up. “Hey!”

“Have to call it as I see it, Romeo.”

“We were also talking about Sam’s talk with Michael,” Cas said. “It’s very…illuminating.”

At that, Gabriel sat up and turned serious. “You talked to him? Alone?”

“Yeah.” Sam shrugged. “He was kind of helpful. Talked in riddles, but…I just feel like he actually cares.”

“What did he say?”

“A lot of things, but… The other night, when he said what we believed about ourselves was keeping us stuck. Trapped. I think we’re starting to understand that. And he told me that what’s in our way is the way through. For each of us.”

“Because that makes a whole bunch of sense.”

“No, it kinda does,” Dean said. “Your whole thing was family. Right? Too much fighting upstairs and you got out. I can understand that.”

“Dean,” Sam said, hoping he wouldn’t go too far.

“And you helped us and got out again. Until you didn’t.”

“Not the best of memories,” Gabriel warned.

“I think what Dean’s trying to say,” Sam jumped in, “is that family has always been in your way. It’s what you’ve been avoiding. If what Michael said is true, then that’s your way through. You’ve got to face your family.”

“Not many of them left to face, from what Cas tells me,” Gabriel said.

Sam kept his voice gentle. “When’s the last time you went home, Gabe?”

“Depends on what you call home.”

Sam held Gabriel’s gaze, refusing to let him wiggle out of this one.

Finally, Gabriel relented. “Long time. Longer, if I can help it.”

“Why?”

“Don’t think they’d want me. I told Castiel before, I’m a fuck-up, Sam. No one wants me around. Unless they just want to take from me.”

“I think Heaven will take anyone at this point,” Cas said.

“And we’re back to the just taking from me.”

“I told you, Gabriel, obedient angels got Heaven to where it is now. Maybe it needs a screw-up to save it. You don’t have to hand your grace over to them.”

“See, I think my grace is about all I’m good for.” Gabriel looked away. “I’ve got nothing to offer in your fight in the apocalypse world except maybe as a distraction, buy you some time. That’d be a suicide mission for me. Without my grace, or without it at full power, I’m nobody, guys.”

“No.” Dean stood up and got a bottle of water out of the mini-fridge. He gestured to everyone else to see if they wanted one, but had no takers. “Cas was thinkin’ that too, for a while. That he was just a tool to be used, a hammer. Without his grace, he was useless.” He took a few swallows of water. “And that’s bullshit. For him and for you. Yeah, you can do some crazy things with your power, but that’s not who you are.”

“Yeah?” Gabriel shot back. “Then who am I?”

“You’re scared,” Cas said. “You’re scared to go home, to face whoever is left. You’re scared to stand up to Lucifer again, to stand up to Michael. Any version of him. Staying here, you’d get to avoid all that.”

“So what if I am? Apocalypse-world Michael isn’t exactly friendly. Lucifer almost managed to kill me before. He did teach me a lot of what I know, and I don’t know if I can pull that off again. This universe? This is the best hiding place of all.”

“If Michael’s right,” Sam said, “that’s exactly why you can’t stay. You’d be trapping yourself because you’re not facing what’s in your way.”

“I’ll tell you now, Michael is not always right.”

“Oh, we know,” Dean said.

“But maybe this one is right about this thing,” Sam said. “I mean think about it. Dean’s afraid everyone is going to leave him. Cas is afraid of being useless, of failing everyone else. Jack’s afraid of being evil.”

“And you?” Gabriel asked.

Sam let out a long breath. “I’m afraid that even when I’m trying to do the right thing, I keep making it worse. Say the wrong thing. Do the wrong thing. It’s like making the wrong decisions for the right reasons.”

“I can relate to that now, Sam,” Cas said. “It’s not pleasant.”

“Yeah.” Sam thought for a moment. “I just don’t quite get what he meant by ‘what’s in the way is the way. Like, how do we move into it or through it?”

“Dean was courageously honest with me,” Cas said. “What he was saying before that, I misunderstood. I thought he wanted me to leave. His vulnerability in being honest helped me see the truth behind his words.”

“So honesty? Is that it? Or vulnerability?” Sam looked at each of them before the commonality became glaringly obvious. “We all think too little of ourselves.”

“What are you saying?” Dean objected. “I’m awesome.”

“You are awesome,” Cas said. “And you think too little of yourself. You think you deserve to be abandoned. That is, as you would say, bullshit.”

Sam felt sudden anxiety course through him. “We need to find Jack.”

“His warding didn’t work.” Cas closed his eyes. “He should be easy to track.”

“Yeah, I’ll look too,” Gabriel added.

Moments later, both angels shook their heads. “I can’t find him,” Cas said.

“Jack?” Sam said aloud, closing his eyes and focusing on him. “Jack, can you hear me? We really need you to come back to the motel. We’re okay—everyone’s safe. But we’ve learned some things that will help, things we need to share with you. Please? Jack? I promise, you’re not going to hurt us by hearing us out, okay? Jack?”

Sam opened his eyes and waited.

After several minutes, Cas said, “It shouldn’t take him this long.”

“Yeah,” Sam agreed. “I’m worried.”

Chapter Text

Dean felt at a loss. The kid could be anywhere. Or really, given his power, any when. “If you guys can’t find him, what does that mean?” he asked. “Is he still on the planet? In this universe?”

“He could have figured out how to hide himself from us,” Gabriel said. “It’s not difficult.”

“Speak for yourself,” Cas muttered.

“I’m just saying, Castiel, for someone with his power, it wouldn’t be hard once he gets the hang of it. And if I were at full power, I probably could still find him.”

“So what does that mean?” Dean repeated.

“Means we’ve got no idea,” Gabriel said. “He’s gun-shy about moving between dimensions, so he probably hasn’t left this one. But he could be having high tea in the Pleiades for all we know.”

“They don’t have high tea in the Pleiades,” Cas said.

“What?” Dean looked sharply at Cas. “You’re telling me—”

“We’re getting off topic,” Sam broke in. “We should just call Michael. He said he’d help. He has helped.”

“Oh, hell no,” Dean said. “You wanna be besties with him, go right ahead. I still don’t trust that he doesn’t want something in return.”

“Dean, I’d just be asking for information.”

“Right. And if Jack’s wallowing somewhere in the Australian outback, you’re just gonna what? Hop in the van and go get him?”

“You have a better idea?” Sam shot back. “Let’s hear it.”

Dean opened his mouth and closed it again, once he realized he had nothing. “Cas and Gabe can keep trying.”

“How many times? Three? Ten? Until our two weeks are up?”

“I don’t know, Sam. Okay? I don’t know.” Dean looked away as he ground his teeth. “Fine. Call him. But I’m still not giving him anything.”

“Cas? Gabriel?” Sam asked. “You two okay with this?”

“It is the prudent option,” Cas said.

“Yeah, whatevs,” Gabriel said. “I am kind of curious about the guy.”

“Do you suppose he can find our room if I give him—” Sam’s question was cut off by a knock at the door.

“I’m thinkin’ so,” Dean said, gesturing for Sam to get the door.

“You’re not even going to open the door for him?” Sam asked, standing. “That’s real mature, Dean.”

Dean sneered at him, half-hoping someone else was at the door so he could make fun of Sam. But no, it was Heaven’s most terrifying weapon, looking like a Kansas farmer.

“You knocked,” Sam said, stating the obvious while stepping aside to let Michael in.

“Why knock?” Dean asked from where he sat. “Why use the door at all? Why not just show up in the room? Angels have never had a problem appearing wherever the hell they want.”

“You’re angry,” Michael observed.

“No shit,” Dean answered. “I’m still not on board with you just wanting to help. And I’m not happy about you getting all cozy with my brother.”

“Hmm.” Michael nodded slightly. “As to your initial questions, I knocked to make it clear that you are inviting me in. You’re taking an active, not a passive role, in my being here.”

“Huh,” Sam said softly. “Like we’re saying yes.”

“In a manner of speaking. But not the way Dean is thinking.” He came farther into the room and stood between the small table and the bathroom while Sam closed the door and returned to his chair. “This universe is not fractured and concrete, Dean. I require no vessel. I am not at war. Do you know why I truly want to help, Dean?”

“Power trip?” Dean suggested.

“Not mine,” Michael said.

“This time, you even lost me,” Gabriel spoke up. “I know you’re big on being cryptic, but maybe tone it down a bit?”

At that, Michael smiled. “You’re the playful version of Gavriel. Practicing less self-discipline. Or…” Michael assessed Gabriel carefully. “Maybe practicing none at all.”

“What does self-discipline have to do with this?” Sam asked.

“Gavriel is the angel of strength to resist desires,” Michael said. “Self-restraint. His very name means ‘God is my strength.’”

Dean glanced at Gabriel, who shrugged. “Right.”

“We didn’t ask you here about Gabriel,” Sam said. “We’re worried about Jack. He was with us earlier. He’s…um…a nephilim. Lucifer’s son. But he’s not evil. He’s our friend and we care about him. He’s not answering our prayers and Cas and Gabriel say they can’t sense him. I’m hoping you can.”

“What would be even better,” Dean said, “is if you could just go get him and bring him back here. He’s young. Impressionable. He’ll trust you. Probably.”

Michael looked out the window. “Naphil.” He turned back to Sam. “Nephilim is plural. How did you pray to him?”

“I just…talked to him,” Sam said.

Dean rolled his eyes. “We’re not really religious types, you know? Didn’t learn how exactly to pray or anything.”

“You did just fine at the abandoned yard,” Michael said.

“But like Sam said, I was just talking.”

“Frequently, Dean prays to me by telling me to get my feathery ass to where he is.” Cas gave Dean an exasperated look but now Dean could see the fondness in it too. “There are no feathers on my ass.”

“Works though,” Dean said with a half grin. He felt Cas’ hand touch his between them on the bed, and he intertwined their fingers, daring Michael to disapprove.

Instead, Michael glanced at where they held hands, smiled a bit with his eyes, and spoke. “Prayer is not about words or formulas. It’s about intention and honesty. That’s what we hear, what we perceive. When you are incarnated in human form, you have both your soul and a human ego. Souls are honest. That’s their default. Souls can be damaged and healed, but they don’t lie. Lies and deception come from the ego. The ego dies with the body, but the soul is eternal. At a life review, a soul is often brutally honest in its self-examination. When you speak from your soul, we hear you, whether you use words or not.”

“What do you mean, words or not?” Dean asked.

“We can feel longing too,” Cas said, staring at the bedspread. “Even unspoken.”

Dean watched as Gabriel glanced at Sam, then looked away. “Oh.”

“You can be very loud without making a sound, Dean,” Cas added.

Dean felt himself blush, but the more he tried to hide it, the worse it got. Then something Michael had said earlier saved him from further embarrassment. “You said not your power trip. Whose then?”

“The universe,” Michael answered.

“I’m with Gabriel,” Sam said. “You lost me. You want to give the universe a power trip?”

“This entire universe is comprised of energy vibrating at different frequencies, some of which you perceive as solid. Your body. The bed upon which you sit. The food you eat. But fundamentally, it is all energy. Anger and fear vibrate at very low frequencies. This stalls growth. Love and joy are very high frequencies. They are aligned with Source energy. Part of my job is to assist others in raising their vibrational frequency to one of alignment with Source.”

“That why this doesn’t bother you?” Dean asked, raising where his and Cas’ hands were joined together.

“It is frowned upon in our universe,” Cas said. “But not unknown.”

“You are both beings of energy, currently inhabiting a physical body. Any reservation I would have, Castiel, is nullified by your host no longer being present.”

“You mean because Jimmy’s gone?” Dean clarified. “In Heaven?”

“Correct,” Michael answered.

“So it’s about consent? Not being different species?”

Michael shook his head. “Your body is a species, Dean. Your soul is a being of energy. It doesn’t have a species. You are thinking in three-dimensional terms, and the real world, the world beyond your five senses, has many, many more dimensions.”

“Like parallel universes?” Sam asked, clearly geeking out. “Are we from a different dimension, then?”

“No,” Michael explained. “Dimensions are varying perceptions of reality. Parallel universes are the playing out of different choices in alternate space-times.”

Sam nodded eagerly. “That makes a lot of sense. And, Michael, I would really like to learn more, like how many parallel universes there are. Are there an infinite number? How can we move between them without all the spellwork we did before? But that brings me back to Jack. He thinks this is all his fault, and I’m worried he’ll get hurt.”

“He is safe,” Michael said to Sam. He turned his gaze to Dean. “I suggest you strongly consider why you’re still holding animosity toward him.”

“I’m not,” Dean argued. “I told him so.”

“Remember what I said about honesty and intention. Did your feelings match your words?”

“It’s what needed to be said, okay? My feelings are my own business.”

“Right,” Sam jumped in, “but Jack’s half-angel. He can probably sense your intentions and any strong feelings. Like blaming him for Cas’ death.” Sam looked at Michael. “Right?”

“Stop trying to be teacher’s pet, Sam,” Dean snapped. “Look, I’ll get over my anger. It’s just gonna take some time.”

“It wasn’t anger, Dean,” Sam said. “You were furious. I’ve never seen you so lost and miserable. Never. You wanted Jack dead.”

“Dean,” Cas said softly, squeezing Dean’s hand in his. “This is why we need to talk about when I was gone. It’s not Jack’s fault. It’s as much mine as anyone’s. And I’m back. I’m here, Dean. And I’m not going anywhere.”

Dean nodded twice, letting out a long sigh. “Yeah.”

“Try praying to him again, Sam,” Gabriel suggested. “And maybe Dean can join in. Remember, it’s not about the words.”

“Jack?” Sam said aloud. “I’m really concerned about you. I want to make sure you’re safe. And…we know more now too. At least come back so we can talk.”

“Yeah, uh, Jack…” Dean cleared his throat. “It’s Dean. But maybe you already know that.” He glanced around the room, silently challenging anyone to poke fun at him. “Look, I’m…uh…I’m sorry I’ve been so angry at you. I’m gonna work on it, because you don’t…uh…you don’t deserve it. When Cas got killed, it just…I didn’t know how to deal with it. And I took it out on you. And, uh…I’m sorry. Okay? I made some assumptions about you ‘cause of who your…birth father is. But, you know, I’m not my dad either. I’m makin’ some different choices. And I think you are too. So…can you come back? Please? Uh, Dean out.”

“You’re not on a walkie talkie, Dean,” Sam chided.

“Shut up, Sam.”

A few loud wing flaps announced Jack’s return as he stood in front of the motel window. For just a moment, Dean swore he could see giant wings folding themselves behind Jack before they disappeared from view.

“Jack,” Sam said, relieved. “You’re safe.”

“Yeah, where’ve you been?” Dean said. He caught his mistake almost immediately. “Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s your business where you were. I am glad you’re all right.”

“How’d you figure out how to block us?” Gabriel asked.

“Block you?” Jack tilted his head. “I didn’t. I just really, really didn’t want anyone finding me.”

Gabriel nodded once. “Huh.”

“Jack, we know you’re not evil,” Sam said. “Some of your actions didn’t turn out the way you wanted, but you didn’t choose evil. You kept choosing to help. Or protect. I really want you to see that. And, uh… I was wrong before. What I said about Heaven disapproving of my exorcising demons?”

Jack tilted his head in question. “Oh?”

“It wasn’t the exorcisms that were the problem. It was that I was giving myself over to the demon blood, to wanting—needing—more. It led to me trusting Ruby when I shouldn’t have, and then killing Lilith and breaking the last seal, setting Lucifer free.” Sam suddenly focused on Cas. “Did you know, Cas? That that’s where it would lead?”

“No.” Cas shook his head. “Not specifically. Perhaps my superiors knew. All I knew was that you needed to stop, or the entire world was at risk. The more you gave in to the demands of the demon blood, the more of yourself you lost, and the more danger that put everyone in.”

“Twenty-twenty hindsight,” Sam said, returning his attention to Jack. “It all makes sense now. So you see, whoever’s blood or DNA or grace or whatever you have in you? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what you choose to do with it.” With a nod toward Michael, Sam added, “I’m thankful that Michael helped me see that.

“I have made some truly spectacular mistakes,” Cas admitted. “Far beyond anything you’ve done. But they were all made out of a desire to protect the ones I love.” He glanced at Dean, then their intertwined fingers.

“You guys are—?” Jack looked between them, then at their hands. “I’ve wanted this for so long.”

“Yeah, me too,” Sam said. “Though I think the eye sex is going to get worse, not better.”

“I don’t care,” Jack said. “It feels…” He put his hand over his chest. “Right. It feels right.” Jack appraised Michael. “You feel right too. Not like the other one. The other one felt very wrong.”

“Alignment with Source,” Michael said. “Or not, for the alternate version you met.”

“My mom…” Jack paused and seemed to consider whether or not to continue. “She told me that I could be who I choose to be. That my—that Lucifer—didn’t determine who I was. Neither did she.” He looked at Michael. “This is the choice you’re talking about?”

“You determine who you are in every action, every word, every thought, every belief.”

Jack gave a half-smile. “She also said an angel was watching over me. When I heard her say that, I thought she meant Castiel. But by then he was dead. Maybe she meant you.”

“Perhaps,” Michael suggested, “she meant that there would always be an angel watching over you. When one is—” he glanced at Cas “—temporarily indisposed, another will step up. You are not alone. You never have been, and you never will be.”

“Can you help us get home?” Jack asked.

Sam let out a relieved sigh. “You’re coming home with us?”

A smile played around Jack’s mouth. “You said I was family.”

“You are.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dean added. “You are. Family’s not perfect. Sometimes we get angry with each other. But we get over it. You’re stuck with us.”

“The question is how to get home,” Cas said. “Unless… Gabriel?”

“Gabriel is still in a refractory period,” Gabriel said.

Dean held his free hand up. “Way too much info, Gabe.”

“And no fruit from the Tree of Life,” Cas said.

Jack’s shoulders sagged. “I’ve still failed.”

“That depends entirely on how you define failure,” Michael spoke up. “You are used to your world, which, as I’ve said before, is fractured and concrete. Even a sixth sense, or any of the other senses one might possess, must be expressed through the five senses there. A fractured, concrete world requires spells, objects that are proof of your intentions, desires, and honesty. Trying to reach a goal and falling short is only failure if your value is winning. When your value is growth, trying to reach a goal and falling short is progress.”

“Still too much on the cryptic,” Gabriel said, holding his head in his hands. “Stop making puzzles for us to solve.”

“You see your world as a war, win or lose,” Michael said. “What if you saw it as a dance instead? A balance of movement, each one playing their part.”

Sam and Dean snorted simultaneously. “Yeah, we don’t have a great history of being told to play our parts,” Dean said. “And I’m still not willing to be ‘the Michael Sword’ or whatever.”

“My metaphorical sword is one of truth,” Michael responded. “Be honest with those you love. Live your truth. That is how you are my sword. Your truth paves the way for the redemption of your world.”

“And what about Jack?” Sam asked. “You said Lucifer doesn’t exist in this universe. What does that mean for Jack?”

Michael glanced at Jack, then Sam. “In a fractured, concrete world of contrasts, of light and darkness, there will be good and evil. That allows choice. Good or good is no choice.”

“But there is evil,” Sam argued. “We’ve seen it. We’ve fought it.”

“Have you?” Michael asked. “Or have you fought the eventual manifestation of choices?”

“Some monsters aren’t evil,” Cas said. “They just prey on humans. The worst of them—the true evil—that’s by choice.

“There’s evil,” Dean said. “I’m sure of it. There’s just no destiny. We’ve proven that. Even the Fates didn’t know what to do with us.”

Michael turned that ethereal gaze on Dean. “If those you fight choose evil, what prevents you from choosing the same?”

“That’s not who we are,” Dean said. He paused, sensing that this wasn’t what Michael was asking. “You mean to tell me this whole thing was just to teach us about free will?”

Michael tipped his chin up a few degrees. “You are here by choice. In every moment, you have choice. Through choice, you have power. There is no power greater than choice.

“I thought love was the greatest power,” Sam said.

“Love has the highest vibrational frequency,” Michael corrected. “By itself, however, it has no power. It must be chosen. Is there power in being commanded to love? Forced to love?

“Love can’t be forced,” Jack said.

“Indeed,” Michael agreed. “The power lies in the choice.”

“When we came here…” Jack continued, “the rift… I chose. I chose not to have anything to do with Lucifer. He’s not my family.

“And you can choose to go back. Nothing controls you other than your own beliefs about yourself.”

“That’s all?” Jack asked, looking confused. “I just choose?”

“You choose with a strong belief, a knowing, and with clear intention.”

“So, if deep down, I think I might be evil…or stupid…”

“Then your choice will have unintended consequences,” Michael finished.

“But if I believe in myself? Know that I’m good because I choose good, like Sam says?”

“What were your intentions when you created the portal that brought you here?” Michael asked.

“To get away from Lucifer. He wanted me. I didn’t—don’t—want him.”

“Would you say, then,” Michael continued, “that fear drove your intention?”

“Maybe. And anger. Disgust.”

“Low vibrational frequencies,” Sam said.

“Focus on what you desire,” Michael suggested. “Focus on love. Focus on your sense of your chosen family.”

“Can I—?” Jack motioned toward a pen and pad of paper on the nightstand.

“You don’t need my permission,” Michael said.

Jack nodded. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and let it out, then reached out his hand toward the pen, his face scrunching as he focused.

“It’s not about making it happen,” Michael said, coming over to him. “It’s about letting it flow through you.”

“The Force,” Dean murmured. “You’re talking about The Force.”

Michael smiled. “George Lucas listened to his guides too.” He returned his attention to Jack and raised his hand to shoulder height. “May I?”

“Uh…yeah,” Jack said, watching carefully.

Michael rested his hand on Jack’s shoulder and almost immediately, Jack gasped.

Dean started to speak, but Cas squeezed his arm in caution and shook his head.

“Do you feel that?” Michael asked.

“Yeah,” Jack said in a breathy voice. “It’s like what I felt before I was born, but stronger. Clearer.”

“Allow it to flow through you.”

Jack nodded. His face relaxed, a hint of a blissful smile gracing the corners of his mouth, and he gestured toward the pen again. Without a single wobble, it floated off the pad and into Jack’s hand. He opened his eyes and grinned. “It’s like I connected my energy to the pen’s energy and called it to me. Like I’m part of it and it’s part of me.”

“You learn quickly,” Michael said.

“So I could…” Jack looked around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes. He stopped at Cas. “How do you feel about Dean?”

Cas licked his lips, looking uncomfortable for a moment. “I love him.”

“Dean? How do you feel about Castiel?”

Dean gave a half-shrug. “Same.”

“No. I need to hear you say it. I need to feel you feel it.”

“You don’t ask for much, do you, kid?” Dean grumbled. He turned so he was looking into Cas’ eyes, first seeing so much blue, then joy, love, trust, even adoration. He swallowed around a lump in his throat, having to push the words out. “I love him,” he said, his voice coming out rough.

Jack sighed and nodded, then closed his eyes again. He raised his hand, palm out, and seemed to pet the air in front of him. Slowly, a golden rift formed, light shining brightly from within.

Sam blew out a breath. “Jack. You did it.”

Jack lowered his hand and the rift healed until it was gone. “I know I can do it now. And I know that was our world.”

“Well, bring it back,” Dean said. “We can go home.”

“But what about Heaven?” Sam asked. “Our Heaven? How are we going to fix it?”

“I might have a way,” Gabriel said softly. He looked up and met Sam’s gaze, then added more confidently, “I can fix it. I’ve spent a long time running away. It’s time to go home. And I think I know a way to help you with evil-Michael too.

“What are you thinking?” Cas sounded wary.

Gabriel grinned. “Bilocation. If one of me bites the dust fighting alongside you, the other me will have already started repairing Heaven.” He looked sharply at Sam. “What?”

“What, what?” Sam returned.

“Your whole…” Gabriel waved his hand at Sam, “feeling just changed.”

Sam shrugged. “I just…I don’t want you to go.”

Gabriel’s look softened. “Doesn’t mean I can’t come visit, once it’s up and running again. Maybe take a vacation to Kansas. The ley lines here are kinda cool after all.”

Sam nodded finally. “How are you going to fix it?”

“Something Dean said. That it’s just warehousing souls while they’re trapped in their own happy memories. What if we connected them to each other? What if we allowed them choice within parameters?” Gabriel looked questioningly at Michael. “What if we connected them to the Host? Souls are powerful. Little nuclear power plants. Heaven could become a co-op.”

Cas sat up quickly, pulling his hand from Dean’s. “Gabriel, you could start a mutiny.”

“Pfft. They’re already in Heaven because of their choices. Give them more freedom, more choices, and it comes with a bit of responsibility to keep Heaven open. The sheer number of souls there is going to mean an individual soul won’t notice it at all. And we’ll be honest about it. Transparent. No tricks.”

“But the hierarchy…” Cas argued. “The Host can only operate with order.”

Michael seemed to consider the problem. “You are talking of the network that connects all angels, all messengers of Source?”

Cas nodded. “Yes.”

“That network is stronger than you think, Castiel. It has its own consciousness, its own rules. Adding to the network creates unity, not chaos. Truth, remember? Souls are honest; egos are not.”

“So truth brings about redemption for Heaven too?” Dean asked.

“Even so.”

“You know,” Dean said to Cas, “the only ones who’ve created problems in Heaven are angels. It’s not the souls.”

“I know a few things about handling a lot of power,” Gabriel said. “I think it could work. Indefinitely.”

Cas nodded thoughtfully, then looked at Michael. “Why did you help us?”

“When you choose life—and love—for yourself, you give others permission and an example to choose life and love for themselves. You have now before you life and death, blessing and curse. U’vacharta b’chaim. Choose life. Choose love. And live.” In the next moment, Michael was gone. No wing flaps, no breeze.

“Let’s go home,” Dean said. “Can’t wait to get back to my memory foam.”

“Uh… How about in the morning?” Gabriel said. “I’m hungry. And tired. Could use a few hours of sleep.

“Dean,” Cas said, looking hopeful. “Perhaps you would like to try some pie?

“Oh, yeah, the diner’s got pie.”

Cas tipped his head down a bit. “I was thinking of my own recipe. Pecan.”

Sam squeezed his eyes shut. “Ew, guys. Gross. And not in front of Jack.”

Jack looked back and forth between them. “I like pie.”

“I’m kind of a cake guy, myself,” Gabriel said, waggling his eyebrows at Sam. “Fancy a little angel food cake?”

Dean snorted. “Emphasis on little.”

Gabriel glared at him. “You just wait. Karma’s a bitch.”

“I believe we need a third room,” Cas said.

Jack looked even more puzzled. “But I don’t sleep.”

“Precisely why we need a third room,” Dean said. “With Netflix.”

Cas nodded emphatically. “Jack, you’re going to love Netflix.”

“I love nougat,” Jack offered.

“Great!” Gabriel stood up. “I’ll make a candy run. Samshine, you wanna come with me?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sure.” Sam stood from his chair.

“And…” Jack began.

Everyone turned to him. “What is it, Jack?” Dean asked.

“I would also love a cat.”

Chapter Text

TRIVIA AND REFERENCES (in order of appearance)

     Chapter One

  1. New Lebanon, Ohio is a very real place, located just outside of Dayton
  2. The New Lebanon library is also a real place, and the Google Maps Street View showed a dark minivan with a broken rear window in the parking lot
  3. No minivans were actually stolen in the course of this fic
  4. The ghost who likes to listen in on story time may or may not be made up
  5. Ancient Akkadian is the language that would have been spoken in that region in biblical times

     Chapter Two

  1. The Redmond Mall is a real place (yes, you're probably catching onto a theme here)
  2. The diner is next to, but a separate building from the mall. I connected them in artistic license
  3. Given the divergence from 13x21, I placed the time of these events as beginning May 3, 2018, the same day that 13x21 aired
  4. By May 3, 2018, season 13 had already wrapped
  5. Alex' cat, Lord Tyrion, has his own Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/thelordtyrion/
  6. The May 3rd Instagram post for Family Business Beer Company (with a photo of Jensen and Daneel) is at https://www.instagram.com/p/BiUen1uAmO0/?taken-by=familybusinessbeerco. Jensen shared it on his own Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/p/BiUhXOAgYpO/?taken-by=jensenackles
  7. I stopped counting how many times Misha insulted the president
  8. All of the comments shouted by the crowd are actual comments used by those who identify as fans, in one form or another

     Chapter Three

  1. The park, the farmhouse, and their relative distance and direction from Lebanon, Kansas are...you guessed it: real
  2. The Smith Center motel and diner are, yes, real. So is the menu they order from
  3. Flight of the Phoenix (2004) is a remake of the 1965 film, in which a plane crashes in the Mongolian desert, leaving its occupants to try to survive as they work together. Jared Padalecki plays the role of John Davis in the movie
  4. The Grand Island Independent, the Lincoln Journal Star, the Kansas City Star, and the Denver Post are all real newspapers
  5. So is the Smith County Pioneer

     Chapter Four

  1. That farmhouse really does not have a number, and really is owned by a trust
  2. I did all of the research Sam did on this house and its owners. It's not stalking. Honest
  3. The New York Times interview with the now-deceased owner of that house is also real. You can read it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/02/us/02album.html
  4. The follow-up article on the son is fictitious
  5. Sadly, the sterling silver spoon is also fictitious. It's based on a souvenir spoon with the same corn-ear handle but from Witchita, KS
  6. The song that Dean reacts to is Ordinary World by Duran Duran (1993). You can listen to it and view the lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1PnQT4emS0
  7. The above song haunted me the entire time I wrote this fic
  8. Lebanon does not, in fact, have a grocery store. The closest one is in Smith Center

     Chapter Five

  1. The abandoned RV manufacturing facility is also real
  2. In my headcanon, since the original biblical angels' names are in Hebrew, and Hebrew is one of the oldest languages, this would be their default spoken language. Their real language, however, is telepathy. Pure thought

     Chapter Six

  1. In Thor:Rangarok, Skurge is depicted as a bit of a coward, who works for personal gain and self-preservation

     Chapter Seven

  1. Tom Ellis plays Lucifer in the Lucifer TV show, originally on FOX for the first three seasons and now moved to Netflix for Season 4. Richard Speight, Jr. is directing at least one episode of Lucifer, Season 4
  2. The line that ends with there was always the hope that…you know…when we died, when we’re done fighting, we’d find some peace is a reference to the line in Carry On Wayward Son of "there'll be peace when you are done"

     Chapter Eight

  1. The two bars Dean finds do exist in Smith Center, and their open hours are accurate
  2. The connection Castiel makes to the person who looks a lot like Jimmy Novak is, in fact, a connection to Misha Collins. On May 3rd, Misha posted about taking his kids to a park before he left for London, Berlin, and then Rome. Reading between the lines, one can easily detect regret that he spends so much time away from them. That post is here: https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/992071026623336449

     Chapter Nine

     None

     Chapter Ten

     None

     Chapter Eleven

  1. That's this chapter. I'm not writing notes on my notes, no matter how tempting it is.