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The alarm was turned off before Dean even knew he was awake. Shutting it off was muscle reflex by now. The beeping slammed him into consciousness all the same. He wasn’t really sure why he even set an alarm anymore. It wasn’t like he had anywhere to go. Maybe it was just a force of habit—something left over from his life on Earth.

For a long time, that was his first thought every morning: This isn’t my life on Earth. I’m dead. I’m in heaven.

The need to do that faded over time. Years had gone by, until one day he woke up and realized he’d been dead in heaven for a longer amount of time than he’d been alive on Earth. That thought sat uneasily in the pit of his stomach for a while, too. It also faded. Most days, anyway.

He stretched out his limbs, the comforter shifting around him and the soft mattress beneath dipping under his weight. He sat up, knuckling at his eyes. The sun was spilling into the room, muted by the shades. It painted the tan walls into an egg-shell white. The other side of the bed was empty, sheets still bunched up, pillow still indented. The door was cracked open on the other side of the room.

Until it wasn’t.

It opened quickly, just enough for Miracle to squeeze through. His nails clicked against the wooden floor, and he launched himself up onto the bed to snuggle into Dean. He did that every morning as soon as he heard the alarm go off. Dean huffed out a laugh while he ruffled Miracle’s fur and scratched his sides. Miracle smooshed his head against Dean’s chest, tail wagging happily. After a minute of that, he jumped off Dean’s lap and landed back on the floor. His tongue lolled out of his mouth, big brown eyes looking up at Dean expectantly. It was their little morning routine.

Dean swung his legs over the side of the bed and toed into his slippers. His robe hung off the back of the armchair in the corner of the room. Miracle circled his legs while he walked to the bathroom to brush his teeth and splash water on his eyes.

They went downstairs together. Coffee was already sitting in the pot, still warm. He put some bread in the toaster and fried up some eggs with hot sauce. He filled up Miracle’s water bowl, letting him sloppily lap it up.

Plating his eggs and toast and pouring a steaming mug of coffee, he took them out to the front porch. He paused for a moment outside the door just to take in a deep breath of the mountain air. It filled his lungs and almost made him lightheaded in its freshness. It was a world untouched by pollution and toxins.

The house sat in a basin of trees, a wide front yard stretching before it. A dirt driveway led out to a small bridge, under which a rushing stream flowed. An unpaved road snaked alongside the stream, leading down to the mountain and to whenever Dean wanted to go. It was a quiet spot, and usually the only sounds were cooing mourning doves and the rushing of the water. The weather was always perfect: just chilly enough for a jacket but not so cold as to numb his fingers—unless Dean wanted to throw snowballs at Sam. It never rained, unless Dean wanted to spend all day in bed. It was never too hot, right up until the moment he wanted to go for a swim. In the early mornings, mist wrapped the mountains in ribbons, but it always burned off after Dean’s first cup of coffee gently perked him up.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to spend eternity. On Earth, he kind of always pictured living in a place like this, and he guessed that was why he got it in heaven. It’d been waiting for him when he first arrived, even though he was pretty sure he’d never mentioned the fantasy to anyone. It was something that had lived in the deepest part of him.

But, somehow, Cas just knew.

“Hello, Dean.”

The voice was like rolling thunder against loose gravel. Dean wondered if he wanted to spend all day in bed, after all.

A gentle smile deepened the wrinkles around Dean’s eyes. He looked to the side, where Cas was sitting on the cushioned porch chair. His coat was off, draped over the wooden railing. He was reading a book. Beside him, the flames in the outdoor fireplace crackled and popped.

“Morning, sunshine,” Dean said, walking over. He placed his breakfast down on the coffee table and sat in the chair next to Cas. The fire felt good on his skin. Miracle trotted over and curled up between the chairs. “How long you been up?”

Cas didn’t look up from his book. He licked the tip of his finger and turned the page. “We’re not bound by the constraints of time here,” he reminded Dean. Dean thought about his alarm clock. He rolled his eyes. Anyway, the coffee was still hot, so he figured Cas hadn’t been up for long.

They sat in silence for a few minutes—Dean piling his eggs onto his toast and chewing, Cas reading. It was another little routine.

“What will you do today?” Cas broke the silence. He lowered his book down to his lap.

Dean shrugged. He didn’t really have any plans, which always used to bore the hell out of him during his life. He didn’t mind the occasional lazy day, but too many of them usually left him itching for a hunt. Now, hunting wasn’t an option, and Dean had to find other ways to occupy his time.

A lot of times, he managed to find something, whether it was having a movie day with Charlie, or drinking at the Roadhouse, or bothering the crap out of Sammy. And those things were nice, but he could feel them getting old. He needed to start getting creative or else he’d start climbing the walls.

Maybe he’d take up playing guitar again. He’d never really learned on Earth. Hell, maybe he could learn how to play every instrument—except the lame ones. He was staring down the barrel of forever, after all.

It’s not like he didn’t have time.

He and Cas did visit the Wild West once on vacation though, and that was pretty cool. A lot better than Dean’s last trip there on Earth now that he knew to expect less John Wayne-types and more herpes of the mouth.

“I dunno. Figured many I’d head over to the Roadhouse,” he said with a shrug. “Oh, and the store. Remember, everybody’s coming over for dinner tonight.”

Cas inclined his head in a nod. “I remember.” How could he not? They had family dinner once a week, and the two of them ended up hosting more often than not.

Dean put his fork on his empty, yoke smeared plate and turned fully to Cas. He slouched, kicked his legs over the arm of his chair and let them dangle. “You have to go be head honcho today or you wanna go for a drive?”

Cas sighed, sinking into his chair, too. Dean knew the answer before Cas even spoke. “Apparently, we’ve run into further issues with the expansion. I have to be briefed on what’s causing it, though I assume it will only be more theories.”

“Again?” Cas had complained about it before. And maybe “expansion” wasn’t the right word for it, but it’s what Dean had called it at first when Cas went on about how “recalibrating the very fabric of heaven’s metaphysical plane from the individual paradises of trillions of souls into a singular entity is more complex than any terminology that human beings can comprehend.”

But, apparently, this “expansion” would take longer than both the Big Bang and human evolution combined. And Dean had teased Cas for starting with his afterlife before moving on to everyone else’s. Cas had looked at him with the most earnest fucking face and said, “Of course I did, Dean. I did it for you.” And Dean had kissed him like he’d always wanted to on Earth.

“It’s complicated,” Cas reminded him. “And the other angels are looking to me for answers.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’re top dog.”

Cas raised a brow at him. “Are you complaining?”

“Hell no.” A grin blossomed on Dean’s face. He stood up, only to plop back down on Cas’ lap. Cas sat up a little straighter, circling his arms around Dean’s waist. “I’m good getting the perks that come with fucking the boss.”

“Dean, you really shouldn’t curse in heaven.”

Dean snorted. He ducked his head to slot their mouths together. Cas responded at once, parting his lips for Dean. And, yeah, this was definitely heaven.

When they broke apart, Dean pressed his forehead against Cas’ and breathed him in. He smelled just like the mountain air, but something else, too. Something that was hard to describe but had always been there. It reminded him of an underground bunker smack in the middle of America, of looking into the rearview mirror and making eye contact with the man in the backseat, of sleepiness after a long hunt, of the feeling of coming home, of a barn in Illinois as sparks rained down and a hurricane trapped inside human skin walked toward gunfire.

“Dean,” Cas said softly, his voice barely above a whisper as to not break their bubble of intimacy, even though there was no one around for miles. “Are you happy?”

He asked that all the time, like he was scared the answer would one day be no. Like he hadn’t done a good enough job rearranging the sky for Dean. Like Dean didn’t ache with love whenever he remembered that.

“Yeah,” Dean whispered back. He nudged his forehead a little more against Cas’. “You?”

And maybe he was a little scared Cas’ answer would change, too. They’d had all those years on Earth when he wasn’t happy and Dean hadn’t even known until it was too late. And worse, he was scared that one day, just being wouldn’t be enough for Cas anymore. Or, at least, being with Dean. Eternity was a long time, after all.

“I am,” Cas told him, a smile in his voice that barely touched the corners of his lips. It hung in the air momentarily until he followed it up with, “But I have to go. For now.”

Dean groaned, then teased, “Yeah, yeah. And what am I supposed to do while you're away, huh?” He leaned back to look at Cas fully.

Cas looked back at him, eyes gentle and reverent. “Listen to the mourning doves.”

He always said that, and Dean always wanted to kick his ass for it. And Dean would not, under any circumstances, admit that it brought him calm. A reassurance that Cas was coming back, would always come back.

“Whatever. But you’ll be back for dinner, right?”

“Of course,” Cas said, like he wouldn’t dream of anything else.

“Deal.” Dean kissed him again, just a quick peck, and Cas accepted it easily. He stood up and busied himself collecting his plate and mug while Cas slipped back into his coat.

“Don’t leave those in the sink,” Cas nagged, indicating the dishes.

Dean huffed, shooting him a glower. “I’m not the one who decided people still needed to wash dishes in heaven. You couldn’t’a reorganized that, huh?”

“I could have,” Cas answered smartly. “But you did once tell me you’d rather have a normal life than be a… How did you put it? Stepford bitch in paradise?”

Dean guessed he’d lost that battle. “Yes, I did,” he answered, trying to preserve as much dignity as possible. “Thank you for listening.”

“You’re welcome.” Cas stepped into his space. “Besides, doing the dishes relaxes you, even if you pretend to complain about it.”

And was it really any wonder how Cas had just known about Dean’s fantasy of living in the remote mountains?

He grumbled, “Whatever,” again because it wasn’t like he could argue.

Cas looked pretty smug with himself. “I’ll see you tonight,” he said, and then he was gone in an all too familiar flutter of wings—and part of Dean wished Jack hadn’t given the angels back their ability to fly because it was just as annoying as ever. In heaven, Dean could see Cas’ wings, or at least the version of them that “your human mind can fathom.” They stretched out wide—and Dean had never broken the measuring tape out, but he was pretty sure they were around twelve feet across a piece. At first, they appeared black, but they had an iridescent glow whenever the light hit them just right. Like looking through crystal against the sunshine: every color of the rainbow in a shifting, shimmering prism.

Dean had learned to ignore the panic that surged through him like a conditioned response every time he heard that flap of wings. There was no need for relief each time he heard them again whenever Cas came home. Because, when he left, Dean knew now that Cas was coming back. There was no fear of the opposite anymore.

Cas always came back.

Dean glanced down at Miracle. The dog lifted his head, staring at him.

“Yeah, I know. He’s a show off.”

 

///

 

It was a good morning for a run. The sun glistened in starbursts off the lake in the middle of the park, and the vibrant green shoots of grass next to the walkway smelled fresh in the springtime breeze. Sam got up with the morning light, put on his running clothes, and set out.

The neighborhood had still been quiet, probably because the only other person on the block crazy enough to get up that early in heaven was Jody. Sam gave her a quick wave good morning as she sipped her coffee on her porch before hustling on.

By the time he did ten laps around the park and returned to the row of houses and tidy lawns, a few more people were out and about. His own house was still dark, which didn’t surprise him at all. He went inside and showered off before heading to the kitchen to whip up two plates of scrambled eggs and toast.

He put them on a tray with two mugs of coffee and brought them both to the bedroom in the back of the house, where Eileen was still curled up under the covers, sleeping despite the sunlight cutting across her face from the window.

On Earth, after Dean had died, Sam left the bunker and headed to Eileen’s house. She took him in until, eventually, they moved into a new place and got married. The two of them kept hunting for a few years before deciding to step back after Junior was born.

They helped the hunters out in different ways. Mostly, hunters dealt with monsters and witches, since angels and demons weren’t really a threat anymore. And it wasn’t like there were any more end of the world situations going on. Sam knew it was something other hunters could handle, but he didn’t just want to abandon the community. In the years of their semi-retirement, he and Eileen provided research, set up safehouses around the country and made sure they were stocked with supplies, and, in Sam’s case, fielded FBI phone calls. One thing eventually led to another, and soon they had a whole network worked out for hunter check-ins and buddy systems. It worked, just like it had on a smaller scale with the hunters from Apocalypse World.

They still hunted on occasion. Eileen did it more than Sam, especially when Junior got old enough to help out. Junior always preferred acting as support to the Hunter’s Network rather than actively hunting himself, even if he was good at it. There were times on hunts where he reminded Sam so much of Dean. Hunting was in his blood, but neither Sam or Eileen wanted their son growing up like they had. They made sure he was able to have a pretty normal life—a home, schooling, friends, a prom date. He even got a master’s degree.

When Sam was a kid, if he’d been told the world of hunting and the normal world could coexist in a single person, he wouldn’t have believed it. But it had, and it had been a good life.

When he’d gotten to heaven and saw all the changes Jack and Cas had made, he looked at it as a new chapter. Five years later, it still felt like that sometimes. He often thought about the people he left behind on Earth, and how he should be helping them, and there were days when Eileen had to remind him that they deserved retirement. And she was right.

He was done. He was at peace with the life he’d had on Earth.

Sam carefully set the breakfast tray down on the covers and sat on the edge of the bed next to Eileen’s waist. He leaned in to brush away the hair from her face. Eileen squeezed her eyes tighter, waking up. She blinked up at him.

“Morning,” Sam told her, signing and speaking at once.

She grunted, annoyed at being woken up, but then she seemed to catch a whiff of the eggs and toast. She picked herself up by the elbows and glanced at the plates. “What’s the occasion?” she asked, a sideways smile coming to her face.

Sam picked up the coffee mugs and handed her one. “Just breakfast.”

Eileen knocked her mug against Sam’s in a mini-toast. “I’ll drink to that.”

 

///

 

Castiel landed among the soft, ethereal white light of one of heaven’s expansive corridors. A row of doors as far as the eye could see stretched out before him. One by one, the shiny plaques on each door were vanishing, the doors along with them. One day, billions of years from now, only one would be left, and it would lead to all of heaven. Corridors such as these were shrinking and disappearing.

But, at the moment, this particular hallway in the center of heaven—or, as Dean often called it, Corporate HQ—was humming busily. Angels flitted from one door to the other, some walking down the hall in groups of twos or threes as they discussed their tasks. These were all the angels that Jack had brought back from the Empty. Of course, it wasn’t every angel that had ever existed. Many were still slumbering, and would remain that way for eternity. Others had been left in the Empty. Jack had only brought back the ones that could be trusted and useful in reordering heaven.

On occasion, Castiel still sent flights of the host down to Earth to act as guardians over the humans, but for the most part, they all remained in heaven. There was no need to be vigilant on Earth anymore, not without a war. Rowena’s hold over hell ensured that. Whenever a demon stepped out of line, they were dealt with. It never came to anything as massive or tenuous as it had been during the days of the apocalypse. There was balance and, for the first time, relative peace.

And Castiel sometimes wished there wasn’t.

He missed Earth. He missed sitting among the mountains and listening to the wind. He longed to feel the push and pull of the tides, tamed and fettered by the moon, on the far-off coasts. He wanted to feel the way the burning heat of the sun transformed into life-giving warmth that kissed the flowers and trees. He wanted to watch the humans grow and live, to follow the bees as they created golden honey.

He’d given strict instruction to form heaven in the image of Earth, but he often thought the replica was lacking. The beauty of the world was not something that could be brought forth by the marble-carved hands of angels. A celestial being could not know how to appreciate the simplicity of birds flying south for the winter without experiencing it the way a human could.

Sometimes, he thought Dean felt the same way. That heaven was nothing but an off-color copy of the world he’d fought and died for. It was in the way Dean would watch the rain burst against the Impala’s windshield, in the way his smile wouldn’t meet his eyes when they reminisced about their time on Earth. It weighed on Castiel’s mind in moments like those.

Castiel turned and headed in the direction of the throne room, nodding quick hellos to the angels passing him. Samandriel tried to stop him for a longer conversation, and Castiel entertained it for as long as he could—perhaps out of guilt for once killing him—until he excused himself.

When he reached the throne room, he closed the doors tightly behind him, leaving the active hum of heaven on the opposite side. Silence filled him, as did the wisps of white light permeating the room. He glanced up, hardly noticing the lack of light fixtures or even a ceiling. The light simply just was. It both existed and did not exist, just the same as the room he was in now. Nothing but thoughts constructed into matter.

Still, his eyes avoided the throne. It had been a long time since anyone sat upon it, so long that it no longer belonged to anyone. If it did, it would belong to Jack.

Jack never used it.

“I’m here,” he said softly.

Half a second later, the sound of wings beat against the atoms surrounding him. He turned to his side, acknowledging his brother.

“Hey, Cas. How’s Smooch City?” Gabriel cajoled.

Castiel rolled his eyes. “Do you have to ask that every time I see you?”

“Yeah!” Gabriel wiggled his brows, then moseyed toward the throne and plopped down in it—and so much for no one using it. He hardly looked regal though. To him, it was just a chair. Castiel supposed he was right.

“C’mon! We need more banter,” Gabriel groaned, slouching lazily against the armrest. “You’re the only other guy in the universe on my level these days.”

Castiel popped a brow, wondering if any of this was necessary. “Your level?” he echoed, humoring Gabriel.

“Archangel, duh!”

The boost to his grace came when Jack first pulled Castiel from the Empty. It had been jarring at first, going from limited and failing powers to so much all at once. Castiel still didn’t know if he wanted the promotion in status—but it was necessary. Jack needed him.

“And did you have banter with Michael, Lucifer, or Raphael?” he countered.

Gabriel hummed and picked at his fingernail. “They were dicks.”

Castiel was certain Gabriel hadn’t called him to HQ for this conversation. He glanced around, waiting for his other right-hand man to arrive. He never came. “Where’s Balthazar?”

Gabriel stood up, his whiskey-brown eyes suddenly serious. “In the lockup.” Confusion passed over Castiel. Before he could respond, Gabriel held up a palm and continued, “Not behind bars. He’s with the prisoners waiting for us to show up.”

It gave Castiel more questions than it did answers. The furrow of his brow deepened. “Prisoners?”

There weren’t any prisoners. Heaven’s lockup had been empty for years—all but for one man.

But Gabriel nodded sharply. “Angels. We figured out what’s causing the hiccup in the expansion.”

To that, Castiel turned more fully. His human heart seized with worry. “What is it?”

“These angels… the ones we’re holding under lock and key,” Gabriel told him. “We caught them stealing souls from the heavens that haven’t been incorporated yet. That’s why it isn’t working. The souls that are supposed to inhabit them are gone.”

No, that couldn’t be right. The souls had to be somewhere in heaven.

A million questions raged through Castiel like wildfire, but the one that seemed most urgent was this: “Which angels?”

The angels that had returned from the Empty were supposed to be trustworthy. If Castiel let a wolf into their midst, he’d like to know if it had a pack.

However, Gabriel didn’t answer directly. His face twitched with a grimace. “I think it’s easier if I show you,” he said. At once, his wings expanded and he took off. Castiel swept after him.

They landed outside the entrance to the lockup, and Castiel found himself face to face with the prison’s guard.

“Gadreel,” he greeted.

Gadreel nodded stiffly to them both in turn. His stance remained at attention, but his grip slackened somewhat around the spear in his hands. “Brothers,” he said. “Welcome.”

At first, Castiel had his doubts about letting Gadreel guard the prison. But he, better than anyone, knew the strongest and weakest points of the lockup. Besides, he’d once sacrificed himself for Castiel. He was worthy of trust—and a second chance. He seemed much happier to guard the prison than to be trapped inside of it.

“I’m told two prisoners were recently taken in,” Castiel said.

“Yes. Balthazar is inside now, waiting for you.” He turned and held his palm up to the arch over the door. After speaking a few words in Enochian, sigils appeared in bright blue lights around the threshold. They faded out of existence just as quickly as they’d come. Gadreel faced Castiel and Gabriel again, saying, “You may enter.”

Castiel thanked him and pushed through the door, Gabriel following after him. Balthazar was hovering next to a cell midway down pristine, white hall. Each other barred enclosures they passed were empty, as they had been for some time.

All but one. Castiel barely allowed himself to glance toward it as he walked by, but something low in his gut clenched tightly on the rare occasion he had to visit it. His grace sparked readily on the tips of his fingers, preparing to defend himself if he had to.

Unlike the other cells to his right, it sat on the left, specially built with a solid, thick door etched with all the Enochian magic possible. A small, barred square window was the only thing allowing the light in. Shadows lurked on the opposite side—deep and black. The man inside didn’t stir.

Castiel felt the tension in his shoulders ease somewhat after he’d passed the cell.

Upon his approach, Balthazar lifted his brows in ways of a greeting. Castiel acknowledged it with a look, but didn’t allow himself anything friendlier. Not in the midst of prisoners. He stopped in front of the bars, shock overcoming him when he caught a look at the two angels sitting on the stone bench.

“Duma?” Castiel asked. He narrowed his eyes at her, just to ensure he wasn’t seeing things. He hadn’t brought her back from the Empty, not after what she did to Jack. Sitting next to her was another angel Castiel hadn’t seen in years. Barachiel had died before the apocalypse, during a battle to save one of the 66 Seals. He had always been fiercely loyal to Michael and Raphael, which was why Castiel hadn’t expected him to follow Jack now.

“Hello, Castiel,” Duma said, tone rife with bitterness and hostility. Next to her, Barachiel was glowering at him.

“We found them stalking about the heaven of a 14th century peasant boy,” Balthazar reported. He shook his head and tutted. “Practically standing out in the open after so long flying under our radar.”

“Looks like someone’s getting sloppy,” Gabriel taunted.

“More like arrogant.”

Castiel ignored his brothers. He asked Duma, “How did you escape from the Empty?”

Neither of them answered, but kept their expressions stormy.

“They aren’t talking,” Balthazar said. “Barely said two words, in fact.”

Castiel glanced at him, then at Gabriel, before returning his attention to the prisoners. “They’ll talk to me,” he said darkly, taking a step closer to the bars. “Why are you taking souls from heaven? Where are you keeping them?”

He was met again with stony silence.

Duma.”

“Oh, please, Castiel,” Duma groaned, rolling her eyes and tilting her head back. She picked herself off of the bench and met him on the other side of the bars. “I don’t answer to you. And I don’t see why anyone else is.” She shot a look at Balthazar. “He killed you himself, didn’t he?”

Castiel purposefully didn’t tense his fists at his sides. He couldn’t let on that she was getting under his skin.

However, Balthazar leaned in with a bright smile. “Yes. He did. Call it a disagreement between friends. I hardly remember what it was about anymore, do you, Cas?”

Castiel was grateful, but he didn’t allow himself to show it. Especially not when Duma’s eyes flickered back to him.

“He’s lying. I bet any angel here would turn on you in a second,” she taunted. “You’re not God, Castiel.”

Castiel bit down hard on his jaw. She was right. He wasn’t God, nor did he want to be. But he had a responsibility to the angels and to all the human souls under his care. More than that, he had a responsibility to his son. He would shoulder the burden of heaven if it meant Jack didn’t have to.

As if she’d read his mind, Duma said, “And neither is Lucifer’s half-human abomination.”

Castiel took another charged step forward, summoning his blade to slide into his fist. Luckily, Gabriel and Balthazar had anticipated it. They grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Easy, Cas,” Gabriel told him.

Castiel took a breath. He hadn’t meant to lose control, because that was what Duma wanted. He knew as much from the satisfied smile that had spread onto her face.

“Go ahead,” she said, eyes flickering down to his blade. “Kill me again. I won’t tell you anything.”

He stared her down for a long moment before shaking out of his brothers’ grasps. Quickly, he tucked his blade back into his coat.

“What would you like us to do?” Balthazar asked him. “We could get the answers out of them in one way or another.”

Torture. Castiel didn’t know if he had the stomach for it. Not long ago, he wouldn’t have thought twice. But then he rescued a man from hell plagued with nightmares of the cuts and carves he’d inflicted; and Castiel knew no good ever came from such barbaric means.

Gabriel suggested, “Or we could call Naomi. See if she can dig around their heads. I’m guessing she’s still got her old tools around here somewhere.”

“No,” Castiel answered definitively. He wouldn’t allow torture, and he certainly wouldn’t allow Naomi to shift through any other angel’s grace ever again. He kept Duma’s eyes, neither of them blinking. “Keep them here for now.”

He knew she hated him enough not to give up her secrets, but perhaps he didn’t need her. If she wouldn’t talk, someone would.

Castiel paced away from the cell, out of earshot from Duma and Barachiel. Gabriel and Balthazar followed after him, listening attentively when the three of them huddled in close.

“What’s the game plan, coach?” Gabriel asked, clapping his hands together.

“If there really are as many souls missing as we think, there’s no way the two of them managed to take all of them alone,” Castiel considered.

“You think they had help?”

Castiel nodded, pressing his lips together in thought. He hoped he was wrong, but if two angels escaped from the Empty, who’s to say more hadn’t? “Search the individual heavens still left. Find the other rogue angels.” Warily, he glanced around, back at Duma’s cell. “Take a squadron with you—only the ones you trust. Other than that, keep this between us for now. We don’t know who could have infiltrated our ranks.”

“Or, here’s a dismal thought,” Balthazar chimed in, and Castiel’s stomach was already sloshing, “we don’t know if any of those angels from the Empty turned our brethren.”

Castiel hated the concept even more when it was said aloud. He nodded curtly. “Go.”

At once, there was a flutter of wings, and Balthazar was gone.

Gabriel remained, looking like he had something on his mind. Castiel looked at him more fully.

“Cas,” he asked, “are you planning on telling the Winchesters about this?”

Castiel looked away, not wanting to lie. He knew he should tell Dean and Sam, but they’d want to help. He couldn’t drag them into it. They were at peace now, as they should be. Castiel couldn’t ruin that for them.

“When…” he started, trying and failing to keep the hesitancy out of his voice. “When we have more answers.”

Gabriel must have known what that really meant. His eyes shone with knowledge. Still, he nodded as if accepting it. “Okay. You wanna keep them out of it, that’s your business. But—and I’m just spitballing—maybe it’s time you told Jack what’s going on.”

Castiel didn’t want to do that, either. Jack’s job was to keep the universe in balance. It was already too much to ask for one so young. When Jack brought Castiel back from death and told him that he’d absorbed God’s power, Castiel swore to himself he’d do whatever he could to help him.

Jack wanted to remain hands off, so Castiel couldn’t.

Gabriel lifted a brow, sensing Castiel’s reluctance. “He might know something we don’t.”

He was right. Castiel knew it. He’d put off telling Jack about their issues long enough. Now that they knew the cause of it, Jack might be able to find where the lost souls were being kept. He nodded, instantly regretting it. “Yes, I’ll… I’ll tell him.”

Gabriel perked up a little, clapping Castiel on the shoulder. “Chin up, bro! We’ll get this sorted out in no time, and then we’ll all be laughing about it later.”

His certainty boosted Castiel’s spirits somewhat. He forced a smile to his face. This was his first real test since heaven became his responsibility. There had been tensions and mistakes along the way, but nothing like this. He was glad, at least, he had his friends to help him through it.

Gabriel stepped back and winged after Balthazar. The moment he disappeared, Castiel’s mood diminished. He dropped his shoulders in a breath and let his eyes slip closed. He allowed himself only a brief moment to be overwhelmed before he had to deal with the task at hand.

Of course, he’d intended only a moment.

But he hadn’t expected to hear a mocking tone coming from the darkness behind the heavy cell door. “Yeah, Cas,” the voice said. “We’ll all laugh about it later. I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle.”

Castiel lifted his chin, but kept his eyes forward. In his periphery, he saw a white hand wrap around the bars in the door’s window.

After his power had been taken from him, the prisoner was allowed to live out the rest of his miserable, mortal life on Earth. When he died, many angels wanted his soul to go to hell, but Castiel made sure it came to heaven. They had to keep an eye on him, to keep him locked away for eternity.

Castiel realized his hands had formed into tight fists. His grace thrummed just beneath the thin layer of his skin.

“Unless you can’t handle it,” Chuck said. “Hey, tell you what: I’d be happy to give you a hand.”

Castiel wouldn’t listen to this. He wouldn’t let Chuck fill his head with self-doubt.

Without a word, he spread his wings and left the lockup behind. He didn’t stop flying until he was out of HQ. He soared over swaths of human souls enjoying their eternal rest until, eventually, he came to a meadow.

It was vibrant and green, brightly colored wildflowers dancing in the gentle breeze among the tall grass. Butterflies fluttered around each other, and bees lazily moved from petal to petal. The trees that surrounded the area were alive with birdsong, and the radiant light mimicking the sunlight warmed the air. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.

In the center of the meadow, there was a cottage. A picket fence surrounded it, enclosing a garden of flowers and vegetables inside. Castiel paced closer to the gate, catching sight of a brunette woman tending to the strawberries.

“Kelly,” he said, pushing through the gate.

Kelly looked around, a warm and pleasant smile spreading on her features. She was wearing gardening gloves, and her jeans were covered in dirt when she sat back on her ankles. “Castiel,” she said. “Is it Thursday already?”

Every Thursday, or what she perceived as Thursday, Castiel would visit her. They’d walk together, or sit in her garden, or drink tea and talk in her kitchen. Castiel always enjoyed their time together. He hated having to intrude on her for a reason other than a social call, but he knew if he’d find Jack anywhere, it’d be with his mother.

Kelly saw Jack more than anyone. He visited her every now and again, and she even kept a bedroom in the cottage for him. A piece of Castiel was envious of her. He rarely saw Jack, and though he knew that Jack was never far—always around him in every atom of existence—he still felt a dull ache in his human heart when he thought about him.

Which meant, he felt it all the time. Because Jack was always on his mind in one way or another. Kelly said that’s what it meant to be a parent.

“No,” he told her apologetically. “I’m looking for Jack. Have you seen him?”

Instantly, Kelly frowned, knowing something was wrong. “No, I haven’t,” she told him, almost making it sound like a question. Castiel couldn’t deny that a large part of him was relieved. Maybe he could still protect Jack from this. Maybe he could find answers himself, and Jack would never have to be bothered.

Kelly stood up, pulling off her gloves and brushing the dirt from her front. “Is everything okay?”

Castiel didn’t want to lie to her. He looked off at the meadow, sighing through his nose. “I don’t know yet.”

“Oh.” She gave a thoughtful hum. “Well, I could try praying to him. He usually answers.”

She was trying to be helpful, and Castiel knew it would only take a word from her for Jack to appear. But something inside of him jolted, telling himself to find a solution so Jack wouldn’t have to. They still didn’t have any answers, nor did they know the extent of their problem. When they knew more, and if the situation called for it, Castiel would find Jack. There was no need to overreact.

“No,” he decided, trying his best to offer a smile. “Thank you. It isn’t necessary. But… if you do see him, have him find me.”

Kelly seemed uncertain. Still, she nodded. “Okay. Sure… You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.” He hoped he sounded more genuine that time. He felt a little better than he had a moment ago, anyway. Being outside the white halls of HQ, and among the souls of humanity, especially those of his friends, always helped him gain perspective.

“I should go. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

Kelly smiled at that, but she still appeared uncertain. She fiddled with her gardening gloves. “See you then.”

Castiel flew off again, headed back to the heaven’s center.

 

///

 

The Impala’s engine rumbled through the Roadhouse’s gravel parking lot, her tires crunching on packed dirt and rock. Dean turned the car off, his hands stilling on the keys over the ignition. He knew who he’d see inside: the usual crowd. It was a safe place, full of people he loved. People who loved him. It was a comfort to know they’d always be there.

Most of the time.

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…

But sometimes he wanted to hit the gas pedal and end up looking at faces and scenery he’d never seen before, somewhere he could flash a badge with a fake name and people would be none the wiser.

Another car jounced off the road into the parking lot. It was a familiar yellow eyesore. Dean couldn’t help but smile just a little. He got out of the Impala with a screech of the door hinges and spread out his arms wide. Charlie killed her car’s engine and sprang out. Her red hair was a flash of color against the greenery. She was wearing a Firefly novelty t-shirt.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said, coming up to him.

“Hey.” Dean threw an arm over her shoulder and pulled her against his side. They started for the bar’s entrance.

“Where’s your better half?”

“Right there. Don’t you see her?” Dean joked, nodding toward the Impala.

Charlie rolled her eyes, pushing off of him when they reached the door. “Ha-ha. Very funny.” Dean tossed his head back in a laugh and followed her into the musty inside of the Roadhouse.

A few old hunters were sitting around the tables and booths, drinking beer and munching on peanuts. Some were playing pool, too, and Dean was surprised when he didn’t find Ash in a lump on top of the pool table, snoozing away. Blue Oyster Cult was playing on the jukebox. Charlie bounced toward the bar and practically jumped over it. “Hey!”

“Hey!” Jo called brightly, a rag hanging over her shoulder as she poured someone a draft beer. She gave the man his order before walking over to Charlie and planting a kiss on her lips. Dean muttered about how gross they were before heading to the opposite end of the bar where Bobby and Rufus were arguing about something.

“You fellas ever get tired of nagging one another?” Dean said in the way of a greeting. He clapped Bobby on the shoulder.

“What can I say?” Rufus said with a sharp grin. “Being right never gets old.”

“Uh-huh,” Bobby intoned.

“Bobby’s avoiding Karen,” Rufus explained, like a kid tattling on a classmate.

Dean popped his brows, turning to Bobby’s sourpuss expression. “Am not,” Bobby defended. He picked up his beer, but didn’t take a drink. “She’s on another kick of hers. Experimenting again. I love the woman, but if I have to eat one more rhubarb turnover…” He shook his head.

Dean couldn’t exactly blame him. He remembered when he’d met Karen briefly on Earth. He’d thought all the pies were a side effect of whatever weird zombie thing she had going on, but it turned out she was just like that. At least she was keeping herself busy. That was more than Dean could say.

“I keep telling her I’ll be her taste tester,” Dean offered for the billionth time.

“No. No, no,” Rufus cut in, holding up his palm. “She wants Bobby to do it. And I will personally kick his ass out of Kingdom Come if he doesn’t realize how good he’s got it.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Bobby dared. Dean let his hand slip off Bobby’s shoulder and left them to hash it out. He knew Bobby was too crazy about Karen to not stuff down as many failed baking attempts as it took. Dean honestly never thought he’d understand that sentiment until Cas started burning pots of sludgy coffee for him to wake up to every morning in the bunker. Hell, it even got to a point where Dean would miss it whenever Cas was away.

He went back over to Charlie and Jo, who uncapped a bottle of Margiekugel’s and slid it to him. He caught it on reflex, the condensation chilling his palm. “Hey, Dean. Figured you’d want the usual,” Jo told him.

Dean picked the beer up, staring down the label. He realized he wasn’t actually all that thirsty suddenly, at least not for that brand of beer. “Thanks,” he said, ignoring the way his stomach clenched. He saw Charlie shoot him a funny look, and he ignored that, too. “Where’s Ellen?” Dean asked, just to change the subject.

“She and Dad are taking the day off, so I’m running the place myself,” Jo said, leaning an arm against the bar. “Tried to make Ash help, but he’s working on some soul-tracking machine that’ll help him find Heisenburg so he can tell him everything that’s wrong with string theory or something.”

“Sounds like fun,” Dean said, accepting it. He’d learned not to ask questions where Ash was concerned. “He gets it working, tell him to find Brando for me.”

Next to him, Charlie picked up her own beer and grabbed him by the elbow. “Hey, babe, me and Dean are gonna go grab a booth,” she told Jo, but her voice was way too casual, which meant she wanted to discuss something. Dean wondered if he was in trouble.

Jo nodded, waving them off, and Charlie steered him toward the back tables.

“What’s with the face?” Charlie asked the second they were settled into a booth far out of anyone’s earshot.

“What face?” Dean said, playing dumb.

“The beer face.”

Dean rolled his eyes and took a sip of his beer. It had almost no flavor, he was so used to the taste by now.

Charlie fixed him with a stern look, sitting back and crossing her arms. “You’re bored again.”

He sighed, regretting ever telling her the thoughts that crept into his mind from time to time. It would happen every few months in a cycle: everything would be fine, then out of nowhere he’d freak out that he was stuck in the same place and domestic routine for eternity, then unjustified anger about it would simmer in his gut as he tried not to take it out on anybody, then he’d take it out on somebody, and then he’d remember that things weren’t so bad and he’d be fine again. Rinse and repeat.

“I’m good,” he said, and admittedly, he’d left out the part right before freaking out where he was in denial. But he had no reason to be in denial! He was good. He was in heaven, surrounded by everyone he ever loved! And that was just the thing, wasn’t it? He was surrounded by everyone he loved. Sure, Bobby had Karen and Charlie had her parents, and everyone had everyone, but it was all Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. And Dean was Kevin Bacon in this scenario. Because no one else was the focal point here. He was the focal point. Heaven was arranged around him.

What the fuck else could a guy ask for without sounding ungrateful? What the fuck could a guy want if literal paradise revolving around him didn’t make him happy?

It was a lot of pressure.

“You say that now,” Charlie countered. “Have you talked to Cas about it yet?”

Dean didn’t need to talk to Cas. He was actually the last person who needed to know about any of this. “I’m good!” he tried again, exasperated. “Hell, I’m great! I got everything I ever wanted, remember?”

“Well, yeah,” she said levelly, but it didn’t seem like she was done.

He cut her off before she could finish: “Okay, then!”

“But!” she interjected, and he could already feel himself moving into the anger stage of the cycle. “Sometimes that’s not always the best thing.”

He drank his beer again, wondering if he should have ordered a cosmo or a martini or something else he’d never get caught dead (literally) drinking just to change it up a little. But that would only give Charlie the satisfaction of knowing she was right.

And maybe he was right. Or maybe all of this was a fluke, and he never should have gotten into heaven in the first place. He wasn’t cut out for eternal peace. He was supposed to be on the ground, fighting and clawing and hating every second of it with the dream of one day sitting on the beach somewhere, relaxing. A dream that was always just out of his reach, keeping him going, like a pack mule chasing a carrot on a stick.

Every time he’d ever had a chance of happiness on Earth, he’d screwed it up. Maybe there was a reason for that. He just didn’t know why. Why he couldn’t be like Sam or his parents or Charlie or anyone else in heaven. Why he couldn’t be happy with what he’d earned.

Why he couldn’t feel like he had, in fact, earned it.

Sometimes—and this was really fucked up—he thought hell made more sense for someone like him.

“Wanting and needing aren’t the same thing, right?” Charlie asked.

“What am I supposed to say?” he challenged. “Hey, Cas, thanks for paradise. Can you throw in a set of steak knives while you’re at it?”

Her eyes fell to the table, posture slouching. “Well, no, but—”

“I mean it,” he said, pushing all his determination into his voice. It felt wrong. “I’m good.”

Luckily, before his conviction snapped like a string held too tautly, Jo slid into the booth next to Charlie, a beer in hand. “So, what’s the gossip?” she said lightly.

Dean pushed an easy smile, happy for the intrusion.

 

///

 

Five of them were crowded around the farm-style table in Dean and Cas’ kitchen—Sam, Eileen next to him, John on her other side, and Mary and Dean across from them. There was also a place set for Cas, but, so far, no sign of the guy himself.

Sam’s eyes flickered to the clock over the stove. They’d been sitting there for at least thirty minutes, watching the steam rise from the fettuccine alfredo in the giant serving bowl between them. There was also a basket of dinner rolls and a big salad. Dean hadn’t let them touch any of it. Not even the salad. Sam’s mouth was watering.

An awkward kind of silence had fallen over the table a couple minutes ago, and he fished for a topic to get the conversation going again. But there were only so many times they could ask if anyone had talked to Henry and Millie that week, or if Mom had paid a visit to Deanna. Only so many times they could talk about how their days were going.

Don’t get him wrong, he was glad they had a family dinner every week, even if it was usually just the six of them. The extended family and friends tended to only stick to parties and outdoor barbeques, but Sam always invited Adam each week. He honestly didn’t blame Adam for turning them down. And he knew, when it was Dean and Cas’ turn to host, Dean always made a heaping extra portion. He claimed it was so everyone could take leftovers home; but, really, it was for the same reason he kept a spare bedroom upstairs. Even if it had never been used. Even if the extra portion had never been needed.

But, maybe one day they’d have more people at their table. Not too soon, Sam hoped. But he knew, when the time came, Claire would always get an invite. And Sam and Eileen both anticipated the day their son would be part of family dinner. Dean always talked about how he couldn’t wait to meet Junior, but with any luck, there were still long years until that day came.

Sam glanced at the clock again. Where the hell was Cas? He was hungry.

“So...” Eileen said, and everyone’s eyes immediately snapped to her. Sam’s heart skipped, relieved that she’d come up with another topic to fill the time. “Are we gonna eat, or…”

Sam deflated, even if he was happy that someone finally said it.

Across the table, Dean shot him a glare like it was his fault. Then, he shuffled in his seat, giving Eileen a tight smile. “Just give ‘im another couple minutes.”

“I mean,” she said hesitantly, glancing around at the others like she was wondering if she should say it: “He doesn’t eat.”

“She’s got a point,” Dad chimed in, and Dean’s glare was wearier that time.

“John,” Mary reproved.

He shrugged. “What? I eat.”

“Damn it, this is family dinner,” Dean growled, throwing out his hands. “We’re gonna eat as a family!”

If Dean was already in his explosive stage, it meant he was even more pissed at having to wait for Cas than any of them. Probably hungrier, too. Trying to diffuse the situation, Sam signed for Eileen as he said, “Dean’s right, Dad. What are you gonna do if you don’t eat? Die?”

“Very funny,” John said.

“He probably just lost track of time,” Mary suggested.

That would probably be really easy to do with the kind of pressure Cas was under. It couldn’t have been a cake walk running heaven, especially when it was undergoing a total overhaul. And especially when he didn’t want the job in the first place.

That was never something Cas had admitted to out loud, but Sam knew his friend well enough to know he’d rather be among humans.

Sam was grateful for all Cas had done for them, and for every soul in heaven and on Earth. And he was sympathetic. But he was hungry. And so was everyone else. With this crowd, if they didn’t eat soon, there’d be trouble.

“Maybe if we just started with the salad?”

Sam!” Dean yelled.

Sam blew out his cheeks and sat back heavily in his chair. “I mean… have you tried praying to him?”

“No!” Which meant yes. Dean snatched his beer off the table and took a swig. He swallowed hard and said, “Dude’s busy. He’ll be here. He said he’d be here.”

Mary turned to him. “Dean—”

“Okay, I am sorry that Jack took a cosmic bong hit and went off to vibe, leaving Cas to run the universe! I think we can let him be five friggin’ minutes late!”

Silence fell again. No one mentioned that Cas was actually over a half hour late.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam noticed Eileen slowly reach forward, like she thought no one would notice if she only moved an inch at a time, and grab a dinner roll. She tore off a piece and ate it. Sam’s eyes widened, gaze flashing to Dean’s scandalized look before moving to her.

Eileen looked back and shrugged. “I’m hungry,” she defended.

Dean looked like he was about to go nuclear. But, before the cap blew, a light wind swept through the room, followed by a fluttering of wings. Sam turned his head to find Cas standing in the threshold leading into the kitchen.

He deflated, glad that they had avoided a civil war. Cas always had some pretty great timing.

“See?” Dean said, clapping his hands against his thighs. He had on his too-chipper smile and his tone was clipped. “There he is!”

“Apologies,” Cas said, walking toward the table. He looked a little harried, and Sam furrowed his brows, wondering for the first time why Cas was so late. But Cas didn’t meet his gaze. He glanced at the empty dishes set before everyone and frowned. “You haven’t eaten?”

“We were waiting for you,” Dean told him pointedly.

Cas’ expression became even more perplexed. “Why? I don’t eat.”

“That’s what we’ve been trying to tell him,” John muttered.

Eileen hid her laugh behind her dinner roll as she chewed, and Sam tried to do the same thing with his wine glass.

“Just sit down, would ya?” Dean ordered, yanking out the chair between himself and Mary. By the time Cas settled into it, the serving bowl of pasta was already being passed around.

“So, uh, Cas,” Sam said, keeping his tone casual, filling his plate up. “Dean mentioned there was some trouble with the expansion. Everything okay?”

Cas was jostling the bowl of parmesan cheese in one hand and the bread in the other, attempting to pass them both to Mary. “Yeah, it—It’s fine. Nothing to concern yourself with.”

Sam narrowed his eyes, a funny feeling in his gut that went beyond hunger pains. “You sure? Might be good to talk it out.”

“Eh, probably a bunch of magicy-sciencey crap that’ll go over our heads,” Dean said, mouth full. He swallowed down a lump of food and went on, “Just chalk it up to a tough day at the office.”

“Yes,” Cas agreed woodenly. “It was a tough day at the office.”

Sam dropped the subject for now, even if he still wasn’t satisfied.

Either way, the conversation changed when Mary said, “Oh! Did I tell you that your dad and I are planning a trip to 1920s New York?”

“No? No way!” Dean exclaimed.

John leaned into the table while twisting some pasta into his fork. “Your mother always loved those gangster movies.”

Mary opened his mouth, letting out a few mock-defensive sounds. “They’re interesting! I’m just excited to see it all.”

“Yeah, Cas likes New York, too,” Dean said, and Sam caught the wink Dean shot Cas’ way. “Especially the Chrysler Building, right, Cas?”

Sam didn’t know what that meant, but he couldn’t help but to smile at the fond look Cas gave Dean in return. He was happy the two of them finally figured out their crap. He was even happier he didn’t have to deal with living under the same roof as them now that their crap was figured out and they were basically married.

“Should be fun,” John said, “even if it is just part of the simulation Cas and all the other angels cooked up.”

Sam shared a quick look at Eileen, both of them inwardly rolling their eyes. John was still pretty wary of the angels, and he wasn’t too crazy about having one in the family, but it was something they all tried to ignore as much as possible. Apparently, it had blown up into an all-out argument in the early years after Dean arrived in heaven. Sam didn’t know whether or not he was glad he wasn’t there for that or if he was pissed he wasn’t able to jump to Cas’ defense.

“Well, I like the simulation,” Mary said, elbowing Cas.

“Thank you,” Cas told her. “But that isn’t the word I’d use for it. I don’t believe there’s an appropriate human word for the reality human souls experience in heaven.”

“No, I think there’s one,” John said. He snapped his fingers in thought. “What’s—uh. What’s that computer game the kids used to play? Where they could give people houses and jobs?”

Sam knitted his brows together. “The… SIMs?” He had no idea his dad even knew about computer games, much less that game.

“Yeah!” John exclaimed, looking at Cas. “It’s like you’re playing the SIMs.”

Dean was looking down at his food, taking a long time to twirl his pasta. He must have felt Sam’s eyes on him, because he quickly took a bite.

“Yes, it is,” Cas answered with barely concealed snippiness. “In fact, I frequently put your son in different outfits and make him talk unintelligibly.”

Sam didn’t really catch John’s reaction to that, because a shocked burst of laughter came out of him. Across the table, Dean was choking on his food and beating his chest with his fist. His ears were bright red.

“Okay, that—We don’t have to—” Dean stammered. Eileen’s eyes were twinkling with amusement, and Mary was chewing around a laugh. John was only nodding, knowing he’d lost that round.

Weirdly enough, Cas’ comment caused any tension that had hung around the table to disappear. And, Sam thought, with every passing family dinner, John would become more and more comfortable with the fact that there was an angel in the family. Sometimes, Sam thought he already was. After all, they were in heaven, and they were all together. No more dying for one another, no more threats, no more losing one another.

Things were good, and they all knew it.

When Dean spoke again, his voice was a higher pitch. “Anybody else got another topic?”

Eileen didn’t come to his rescue. “I used to play the SIMs a lot.”

Sam snorted. Eileen’s favorite pastime was teasing Dean. It’s part of the reason Sam married her. “Yeah, me too.”

“Great,” Dean said, downing another sip of beer. There was a fake smile plastered on his face. “That’s great.”

 

///

 

Night settled like a blanket over the mountain. Or, that is, whatever the angels had going to make it look like night. Outside, the only noises were the chirp of the grasshoppers and the distant, calming rush of the stream.

Dean went from window to window on the first level of the house, making sure they were all locked. He finished with the door, giving the deadbolt a good twist in case it wasn’t turned all the way. He knew he didn’t have to do that anymore, technically. Cas swore up and down that only the angels he could trust—or at least keep in line—were in heaven now, and it’s not like there were any demons or monsters in paradise. But the nightly ritual still made Dean feel better. At least he wasn’t breaking out the salt and devil’s traps, right?

He wondered if, at some point in the rest of eternity, he’d stop keeping this ritual up. At the moment, it seemed unthinkable. Even considering it would go against his every instinct.

Once he was satisfied, he headed upstairs, leaving behind the shadowy kitchen with the dishes still on the drying rack and the Monopoly game strewn out on the living room coffee table. His slippers whispered gently against the hardwood.

He finished up his other nightly routines of washing his face and brushing his teeth in the hallway bathroom. On the way to bed, he barely glanced at the spare bedroom, its door closed. They kept the room made up for Jack, just in case he ever decided to come visit. He never did and he never would, but Dean didn’t have the heart to tell Cas that.

Once, Dean thought he heard someone rustling around in that room, but it turned out a bird had gotten inside the open window while they were airing the place out. He categorically denied the way his heart had sunk in disappointment. Since then, he’d resolved to ignore the room altogether.

In their own bedroom, Cas was already under the covers, his back propped against the headboard and a book open in his hands. Miracle, who was curled up on his doggy pillow beneath the foot of the bed, winked one eye open upon Dean’s entrance.

Dean hovered in the doorway for a few long seconds, just watching the two of them. And maybe sometimes boring was good. Because it gave him this: his little family in the mountains, and a warm, peaceful feeling deep in his chest that he suspected might be happiness. Or maybe safety. Same difference, really.

“What?” Cas asked, not glancing up from his book. It effectively broke the moment.

Dean fought back an eye roll and crossed the room to his side of the bed. “Nothin’,” he mumbled, slipping under the covers. They were already warm from Cas’ familiar body heat.

Cas lowered his book, eyeing Dean suspiciously, and it wasn’t like Dean was going to just say the cheesy, romantic thoughts he’d just been having. Instead, he said, “So. Dinner. Dad was kinda in a mood tonight, huh?”

“He’s still ‘warming up’ to me,” Cas answered dryly, picking one hand up to make finger quotes, shooting Dean’s old phrase from years ago back at him. For the thousandth time. Sometimes, Dean wondered if John would ever get used to the idea of Cas being part of the family. He was pretty sure his dad had gotten over the whole Cas being a dude side of things, or at least that’s what Mary and Bobby said; but he was less sure that John would ever get over the fact that Cas was an angel.

John didn’t know any other angels. He didn’t realize that Cas was practically human! But Dean guessed it didn’t help that Cas’ idea of being civil toward John’s thinly veiled comments about him being a supernatural being was thinly veiled hostility.

But, hey, they had the rest of time to work this out. It had to happen at some point in the current millennia. Or it better, anyway. Dean wondered if it was possible for him to get stress-induced gray hairs in heaven.

“Yeah, well, drama keeps things interesting, right?” Dean said, rolling onto his side. He propped his head up with his hand and looked up at Cas.

“Does it?” Cas asked, raising an unamused brow. It only made Dean want to tease him more.

“Yeah! That’s why people watched the Kardashians for so long!”

Cas closed his book and placed it on his bedside table. “I always found Khloe to be level-headed.”

Dean grimaced. “You would.” And then, a thought struck him: “Hey, they’re probably all dead by now, right? Does that mean they’re up here? Or, nah, they definitely went to hell, right?”

Cas laid down and mirrored Dean’s position. “I can certainly check, if it’s bothering you. But, even if they are here, there are several trillion souls currently occupying heaven. It’s doubtful you’d ever run into any of them.”

Dean frowned, his excitement dwindling at that. “I dunno, Cas. Forever’s a long time.” He wiggled his brows. “Might have a Kim sighting.” And then he had another thought, one worth serious consideration: “You think her ass made it to heaven?”

“I know of one ass that made it to heaven.”

Dean shot him a death glare, but there was no heat behind it. “Dick,” he muttered, leaning in slowly to fill the space between them. He felt Cas smiling against his lips.

Talking about Kim Kardashian’s ass and Dad’s bad mood was all well and good, but the topics were only cover-ups for what Dean really wanted to talk about. After everyone had left, Cas told him about the souls that had disappeared from their individual heavens. He didn’t say why, or if they knew what the cause of it was, and Dean kind of wanted him to cut the crap. Just because he was in heaven didn’t mean he had to be fully retired.

When the kiss broke, Dean hovered close. His eyes dropped down to Cas’ chest, and he fiddled with the collar of the t-shirt Cas was wearing as pajamas. “You sure there’s nothing I can do, right? I mean… about the HQ situation.”

Cas let out a deep breath through his nose. “No, Dean. The other angels and I can handle it.”

Shrugging, Dean tried not to seem disappointed. “I dunno, Cas. Missing souls kinda sounds like a big deal. Might be an all hands on deck job.”

“Dean.” Cas warm palm came to Dean’s cheek, causing Dean to snap his gaze up to meet an earnest set of blue. “Your only job anymore is to be happy.”

Dean bit down on his jaw, hoping that Cas couldn’t see how disheartened the words made him feel. A weight was pushing down on his chest, and it got heavier and heavier every time Cas said shit like that. Because Dean wondered how long he’d have to pretend those words were a relief. He wished he didn’t have to. He wished his smile in response was content and genuine, not laced with bitterness just under the surface. Maybe, if he tried hard enough, it would be.

But, for now, it felt like he was lying to Cas.

“What, and you don’t get to be happy?” he asked. Because Cas deserved it, too. If Dean and Sam got to retire, Cas should be able to. He shouldn’t have to be saddled with running heaven. It’s not like he ever asked to be in charge.

Cas tilted his head just off-center. “I think we’ve already established what my happiness is, Dean,” he said. “It’s being here. With you.”

Dean tried to fight back a flush and a smile. He wondered if Cas really meant that, even after so much time had passed. Cas got what he wanted, but he must have known by now that the fantasy was probably better than the reality. Even if it wasn’t, he couldn’t be happy with Dean all the time. It had to fade eventually. Dean lived in terror of when that day finally came.

“Still?” he dared to ask.

Cas nodded, eyes twinkling fondly. “Still.”

The weight on Dean’s chest lightened somewhat, lifted by the bubbles blowing and popping inside of him. “Okay, Romeo,” he muttered embarrassedly, and leaned in for another kiss before Cas could make him blush like a schoolgirl some more. And, for just a second, he thought he could get used to this whole happiness thing.

After a while, Cas parted his lips, deepening the kiss. Dean slid his hand under Cas’ jaw, palm bristling against the day-old stubble. He shifted, pressing in closer to him, as Cas rolled onto his back. A rumbling sound, like thunder on the beach, came from Cas’ throat. It went right through Dean, sending bolts of electricity.

He was just starting to take off Cas’ shirt when a different rumbling sound started up. It was distant at first, and then, suddenly, the picture frames on the walls were rattling. A tremor went through the room.

They pulled away from each other at once, both glancing around warily. The rumbling had stopped almost as soon as it started. Dean thought of when he was a kid, when a hunt took them to California. It had been the dead of night when the hotel room shook, waking him up. Dean didn’t know what it was. He’d thought it’d been a monster, and John wasn’t there to kill it. Sam cried and cried.

“Was that an earthquake?” he asked, turning back to Cas. There was a heavy, sober feeling in Dean’s gut telling him something was wrong. There was danger. Cas shifted his gaze to him, his brow lined with the same concern. Dean’s skin went cold.

Before either of them could speak, the rumbling returned. It was more violent than last time, as if the first quake had only been a dress rehearsal. The lights flickered quickly, and the clock fell off the nightstand. Miracle whimpered with fright and jumped onto the bed, cowering in the space between Dean and Cas’ bodies. Dean realized he had a vice grip on Cas’ shirt, and Cas was grasping his wrist.

It felt like forever—and no time at all—before the quakes diminished and rolled away into nothing. And still, Dean’s breath was trapped in his throat. His jaw was set, shoulders pulled back in a way they hadn’t been for years. Every muscle was overwrought and ready to leap into action. It was seamless, what his body did once it remembered how.

When he was sure it was over, he let his fist fall away from Cas. They needed answers.

Cas seemed to think so, too. He said: “I have to—”

“Go,” Dean told him.

Before Dean could even look his way, there was a flap of wings, and Cas was gone.

Miracle crowded into Dean’s lap, his body still shaking and shivering. It was enough for Dean to know that whatever security he’d let himself have for so many years was over now.

 

///

 

HQ was on high alert. Where, earlier, angels had been rushing to and fro, intent on their tasks, they were now rushing around to parts unknown to deal with the aftershocks of whatever had caused the sky to tremble. Castiel could still feel it in his grace. The quake hadn’t yet reached the furthest parts of heaven, but it was rolling through without any sign of slowing down. It had started here, at the epicenter. That much he knew.

He turned to his right, seeing two stationary figures standing among the chaos. They were in conversation, a female vessel with cropped white hair and a high-held chin, the angel inside carrying the visage with intent and ferocity. Before her, standing just a foot shorter, was another angel in the slender vessel of a man.

“Naomi! Hannah!” Castiel called, making for the two of them at once.

Both of them quickly swiveled their heads to him, their gazes briefly flickering up and down his person in question. Castiel hadn’t realized until that moment that he was still wearing one of Dean’s rock and roll t-shirts and a pair of sweatpants, thanks to Dean’s ban on Castiel wearing “real” clothes in their bed because they were “uncomfortable to sleep next to.” His feet were bare. He ignored the realization, because there were much more pressing issues.

Naomi undoubtedly thought so, too. “Castiel,” she said. “We have a problem.”

Castiel stopped in front of them, panic filling his chest cavity at her words, as vague and obvious as they were. He met Hannah’s eyes, seeing the worry filling them. It didn’t provide any solace. “The quake. What caused it?”

Hannah pressed her lips together, clearly deciding on how to best word her answer. In the end, she settled for just one word: “God.”

Instantly, Castiel’s brow collapsed. “God? Chuck?” he asked. It was impossible. Chuck was powerless and locked away in the dark in a heavily warded cell.

“Come with us,” Naomi told him. At once, the three of them flew to the entrance of the lockup.

And Castiel hardly recognized it.

It was different than it had been earlier that day. The door was blown open, its pieces scattered on the floor. Scorch marks were burned into the archway where the locking sigils should have been. And, below, there were other marks burnished into the pristine white.

Castiel gaped at the silhouette of wings. “Gadreel?”

“Dead,” Naomi reported, not un-callously but still not lingering on the matter. She walked through the ruined archway into the lockup. “Follow me.” Hannah went after her.

Castiel took another moment to track his gaze over Gadreel’s fallen wings. Remorse passed over him, but he breathed it out and followed the others inside.

Gabriel and Balthazar were already there, Gabriel crouching low besides two burnt out shells of bodies on the floor before Chuck’s cell. The door to the cage was hanging on its hinges, just as the bars of Duma and Barachiel’s cell were toward the back of the row. Both were empty.

“Is that…” Castiel began, eyes dragging over the smoldering, charred remains. The foul stench of burning meat hung in the air. It made his stomach turn.

“Our prisoners?” Balthazar finished for him, glancing up to meet his eyes. “Afraid so.”

Before Castiel could open his mouth to ask what had happened, Naomi spoke up. “The souls the prisoners had stolen from the individual heavens, Castiel. We believe Duma and Barachiel had absorbed them. After they were brought here, they used that power to free themselves from their cell and give them to Chuck. The transfer killed them.”

Castiel froze, his fingers going numb. It stole over the rest of his body and dimmed the fire burning at his center.

There were flashes of memory. Cold, black depths. Blood on his hands, on his face. Bodies strewn before him. Thick, black goo.

He blinked the memories away swiftly, and realized Hannah was speaking. At first, it sounded like her voice was coming from under water.

“If our intel is right, they didn’t have all the souls that had been taken with them,” she said, “but we think there were at least a million between the two of them. It was just enough power to free Chuck.”

“Yeah, me and Bal found out some stuff, too,” Gabriel said, rising to his feet. He turned his face to Castiel, raising a brow. “Bonnie and Clyde here weren’t working alone, after all. There are more angels that escaped the Empty—and some who didn’t. Maybe they were turned, maybe they were always loyal to the Big Guy. But they’ve been slipping him souls for a while now.”

Castiel took a moment to swallow down the dryness in his throat. When he was absolutely certain he’d found his voice, he asked, “How many?”

Gabriel fixed him with a dark look. “Enough.”

“Castiel,” Naomi said from behind him. “You, better than anyone, know how much power comes from absorbing that many souls.”

Blood on his hands. Blackness in his head, in his grace, filling his mouth like water. He couldn’t even look at Balthazar out of shame.

Naomi continued, “They have stolen billions of human souls. If Chuck takes on even more, his power could soon match Jack and Amara’s. He could reclaim heaven.”

No. Castiel couldn’t allow that to happen. Chuck would destroy everything they’d built, everything Jack had fixed in heaven and on Earth. And he would kill the Winchesters first.

Quickly, he buried his fear, snapping back into reality.

“Do we know where he is?” he demanded, looking at the group.

“Not yet,” Hannah said.

“Fine,” Castiel said, coming up with a plan. “I want all the heavens yet to be incorporated on lockdown, and angels stationed at every entrance in the main heaven. Gabriel, Balthazar, bring every angel who’s under suspicion of being loyal to Chuck to Naomi and Hannah for questioning. I want all the rogue angels harboring souls found before they can get to Chuck.”

“And if we find dear old Dad?” Gabriel asked.

Castiel ground his teeth, thinking. But he already knew the answer. He had no other choice. There was only one person powerful enough to extract the souls from Chuck now. “Leave that to me. I’ll get Jack.”

The others nodded, seeming ready to follow their orders.

“Go,” Castiel told them. Immediately, Hannah, Gabriel, and Balthazar disappeared.

Naomi remained, her eyes fixed carefully on Castiel.

Castiel kept his gaze lowered on the bodies at his feet, wishing she would leave. He still sometimes felt uneasy alone in her presence, and it only added to his current anxieties.

“What is it?” he asked, marshaling his courage enough to give her his attention.

She straightened her posture, folded her hands in front of her. “The safety of the human souls in our charge is my number one priority, as it is for all of us,” she said. Castiel narrowed his eyes at her, not really sure where this was going. Of course, he knew that Naomi took her position very seriously, and would go to whatever length to see it through.

“It’s not a question of if,” she continued, “but when we find those loyal to the old God in our ranks… we’ll need answers, Castiel. You know that.”

Clarity dawned over Castiel. He knew what she was asking him. His fists balled at his sides.

“What would you have me do to get to those answers?”

And there it was, stated as plainly as either of them dared.

He couldn’t look at her. Something was clawing its way up his throat, and distrust snapped at his mind. But she was right. He hated it, but she was right. They needed to get to Chuck, and they needed to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

He took in a breath, ready to tell her to get the answers by any means necessary.

And then, suddenly, the air behind him shifted.

“Cas!”

Naomi’s gaze redirected over his shoulder, but Castiel barely saw it. Despite everything, his frayed nerves and nightmarish memories and regretful choices, a breathless smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. However briefly.

He turned around, a cocktail of happiness, love, and fear brewing within him.

“Jack.”

 

///

 

Dean paced the carpet in Sam’s living room. It’d been hours and they still hadn’t heard from Cas. Sam and Eileen sat on the couch, Sam with his elbows on his knees and his hands folded in front of his mouth like he was in prayer. Their parents had come over, too, and John was currently standing next to the window, peeking out of the curtain and surveying the area for threats. Mary was in the armchair, leg bouncing impatiently.

Miracle was laying down on the side of the couch, his eyes following Dean attentively.

“Someone’s out there,” John reported, his voice low and laced with warning.

Dean instantly stopped pacing. He glanced at his dad, then made eye contact with Sam, who’d sat up straighter, too. Something was churning in Dean’s stomach that was somewhere between nerves and dread, even if he didn’t want to admit it. They were sitting there with no answers, thumbs up their asses, and no idea what the hell they were up against.

But there was something else, too: a sensation he didn’t want to admit even more than the fear. Excitement. His hand flexed for want of gripping a gun. His adrenaline pumped, eager for a fight.

He wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore.

From outside, there was the sound of someone whistling. It was a familiar tune. Dean relaxed, ignoring his disappointment.

“It’s Bobby,” Sam said, standing up. It caused the tension in the air to be cut by half. He moved out of the room and to the front door.

From the entranceway, there was the sound of the door opening. Sam’s quiet voice said, “Hey, Bobby.”

It was followed by, “Sam.” The two of them walked into the living room together, Dean’s eyes instantly meeting Bobby’s.

“Did you drive through town? What’s happening?” he asked.

Bobby flapped his arms against his sides and blew out his cheeks. “Beats me. Everything but the Roadhouse is locked up. Went by there before I came here. Bunch of old hunters are sitting around asking questions. Ain’t got any answers, though.”

Sam sat back down on the couch and started signing for Eileen.

“We don’t either,” Mary said.

Dean shook his head in frustration. Why was taking Cas so long? And what if something was really wrong? If the shockwave was felt all through heaven, it must have come from HQ—and Dean had just sent Cas there without a second thought. He should have gone with him. What if Cas was hurt? Or worse?

He tried not to think about that possibility.

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as they thought. Maybe it was just something with the expansion.

Dean knew in his gut that wasn’t true. He started pacing again. “Cas went to HQ to see what’s what. But that was about five hours ago, so…” He threw up his hands in defeat.

“Maybe he’s just… being thorough?” Eileen suggested, not really believing it.

Dean turned to her and crossed his arms. “Yeah, maybe,” he muttered. It didn’t make him feel any better.

C’mon, Cas, he prayed, hoping Cas could still hear him. Hoping he was just ignoring Dean instead of being dead.

“Anyone else notice how much of our afterlife is spent waiting around for Cas?” John said dryly, turning away from the window.

Dean snorted, even though he really didn’t have it in him to laugh at the moment. It probably wasn’t a joke, anyway.

“He’s busy, Dad,” Sam defended.

“Well, I don’t know why one of us couldn’t have gone with him.”

Dean bristled, knowing now wasn’t the time to get into an argument. They were all tense and hostile. It didn’t matter if his dad didn’t trust Cas. Everyone else trusted him, especially Dean.

“John,” Mary sighed, “I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”

Bobby chimed in, “Let the boy do his work.”

“The boy is an archangel,” John countered, and Dean guessed they really couldn’t argue that point.

Bobby marginally dipped his head to the side. “Fair enough.”

Dean didn’t know why that was the final straw. His stress levels bubbled over. “So, where the fuck is he?”

Almost on cue, the shuddering sound of wings filled the space. Dean thought his knees could give out with how relieved he was that Cas was okay. Instead, he wheeled around, ready to demand answers. He found himself freezing.

Because Cas hadn’t come alone.

“Jack?” Sam whispered in disbelief. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw him standing up, but he didn’t move toward Jack. Mary stood up, too, blinking rapidly.

Dean’s breath was trapped in his throat. Mouth open, his eyes flickered to Cas. Cas looked back, silently conveying that it was really Jack. Dean couldn’t believe it.

Jack looked the same as he always did: sad, puppy eyes, sneakers and a t-shirt. In fact, Dean was pretty sure the kid was wearing the exact same outfit he’d seen him in last.

Jack lifted up one hand, a heaviness about him juxtaposing his former childlike delight. “Hello.”

Dean’s breath forced its way out of him.

“Jack,” Mary said, tone sad and awed.

Jack turned to her. He was the most powerful creature in the universe and, still, he looked afraid, remorseful. Small. “Mary,” he said, voice cracking. “I’m…”

“Oh, Jack,” Mary said, full of forgiveness. She moved forward and wrapped him in a hug. Jack let his arms hang at his sides, and then his shoulders shifted in a visible, audible breath. He hugged her back.

Something lifted off Dean’s chest, an age-old weight. It had been there for so long, he’d forgotten about it. Thought it was normal. He thought he’d forgiven Jack for killing Mary; he was sure he’d gotten past it. But he realized he hadn’t. Not until now.

They were together. They were family. And now that Jack was there, the family was complete.

When Mary and Jack’s hug broke, Sam stepped in, holding out his arms. “Jack,” he said thickly, and Jack hugged him, too. Over Sam’s shoulder, Dean saw Jack close his eyes into it. When they parted, Sam put his hands on Jack’s shoulders and got a good look at him. He seemed happy, even among all the uncertainty.

After Jack and Eileen shared a hug, his eyes fell to Dean. Dean realized he’d been standing back, watching it all unfold. There was something shy in Jack’s body language as he looked at Dean that made shame burn hot in Dean’s gut. He knew their last few weeks together on Earth hadn’t gone well. Dean wished he knew how to take it all back.

And, the worst part of it was, he didn’t know if he’d make a different call if they had to do it all over again.

The thought made him sick.

“Hey, kid,” he said, stepping forward. He put his arms around Jack, and Jack hugged him back firmly, seeming to cling to him. Dean had known hugs like that all his life, except he’d been the one in Jack’s shoes. The desperation, the guilt, the silent begging to not let go, the tension in knowing the affection couldn’t last.

When the hell did Dean turn into his father?

He let Jack go, hardly able to look him in the eye. But he could feel everyone’s eyes on them, so he clapped Jack on the shoulder and forced a smile like everything was fine.

“Good to see you,” he said, swallowing hard. And it was good to see Jack. Dean was glad he was there. He just hadn’t been ready for the wave of varying emotions that came with the reunion.

Trying to get attention off of himself, he cleared his throat and looked at his dad and Bobby. “This, uh… This is Jack,” he introduced.

“New God,” Bobby said, brows popping. “Heard a lot about you.”

“So have I,” John told him.

“And I’ve heard a lot about you. Both of you,” Jack said, seeming slightly more chipper. He looked between John and Bobby. “A lot.”

Sam breathed out a laugh, his eyes still watery. Cas had barely taken his gaze off Jack the entire time. There was a gentle expression on his face, and the barest of smiles pulling on his lips. There was so much aching love there, so much pride. Devotion and ferocity becoming one in the same. Dean knew how much Cas missed him.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on you. All of you,” Jack told the room in general. “You seem happy here. I’m… glad.” Then, he focused on Dean again. “Thank you for keeping a room for me in your house.”

Dean blinked, rattling his head. “You know about the room?” His eyes flashed to Cas, who didn’t seem too surprised by that, but Dean knew Cas still saw Jack from time to time. When his thoughts stopped wheeling too fast to grab hold of one, Dean realized, “That day… when I heard someone up there. That was you.”

Jack nodded. “I thought it would be better to leave. I didn’t want to confuse you.”

It didn’t work, because Dean was confused about what he would have been confused about. So, what, Jack just popped in sometimes without anyone knowing but he didn’t want anyone to think he was sticking around?

The fact that he was there now reminded Dean that this wasn’t a happy reunion. Jack was there for a reason, and they needed to know why. “Why are you here?” The tension in the room built up again after the brief interlude. “Not that it isn’t great to see you. But, if you’re here, I’m guessing whatever’s going on is a lot worse than we thought?”

Cas and Jack shared a look, and it was enough for Dean to know that he really wasn’t going to like the answer.

“Chuck escaped heaven’s lockup,” Cas told them.

Dean blanched, his eyes widening. He felt like he’d just been slapped across the face. And, at the same time, he’d partly been expecting it. Ever since Chuck died on Earth and they put him in lockup for the rest of eternity, Dean hadn’t fully let his guard down. Because eternity was a long time, and Chuck was spending it alone with his thoughts. Planning.

Dean never voiced his concerns, and he didn’t like thinking about them—because he trusted Cas, but part of him had always anticipated this happening sooner or later.

“What?” Sam said, voice tight.

“Chuck?” Bobby echoed, letting the information wash over him. “Aw, hell.”

John held up a hand. “Castiel, how did this happen?” Dean ground his teeth at the almost accusatory tone in John’s voice. Like he wasn’t really asking how did this happen, but how did you let this happen. The worst part was, Dean had been thinking it, too.

Cas huffed in frustration, already looking like he was at the end of his rope. He kept his attention on Dean and Sam. “I told you about the issues we’ve faced with heaven’s integration. There have been a group of rogue angels who have been snatching souls from the individual heavens still left.”

“Angels?” Sam said.

Dean shook his head. Cas had told him about the missing souls, but angels were stealing them? “I thought you said you could trust all the angels now?”

“These weren’t angels who were originally brought back,” Cas said, but he looked sorry, like this was his fault. Dean wasn’t sure if it was or wasn’t at the moment. “We don’t know how, but they escaped the Empty. We caught two today but we don’t know how many there are, and we don’t know exactly how many souls they’ve taken. It’s estimated in the billions. Balthazar and Gabriel are seeking those answers now.”

“Wait, hang on,” Eileen said, shaking her head. “What do the angels want with the souls?”

Clarity slammed into Dean like he’d just run into a brick wall. His eyes moved back to Cas. Cas’ gaze was already waiting for him, strained and haunted.

Sam gave a breath, obviously having figured it out, too. His eyes were moving back and forth in thought. “To give to Chuck,” he said. “For a power up.”

“A power up?” Mary prompted.

Dean was still holding Cas’ eyes, not really listening to any of it. His stomach was constricting so tightly, he thought he might throw up. He wanted to somehow tell Cas it was ancient history, nothing they should even be thinking about anymore.

But he was the one who watched Sam have a mental breakdown. He was the one who watched Cas walk into a river. He was the one who burned Bobby’s bones. Sometimes, that still got to him.

“Souls act like nuclear reactors,” Bobby explained. “They got lots of power. If Chuck swallowed billions of them…”

Cas ripped his eyes away, looking at Bobby. “He could have unlimited power.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Bobby said, but there wasn’t anger in his voice. His expression softened. “Spilt milk.”

Cas looked downward, seeming to appreciate the gesture of good will.

“So, when you captured the rogue angels,” John said, getting them back on track, “they gave the souls to Chuck?”

“It appears that way.”

“And you just let them in?” Dean growled, unable to keep it in any longer. The second the words left his mouth, he wished he’d said them differently. Because Cas shot him a withering, guilty look.

“I didn’t know what their plan was at the time, Dean, or that they had the souls with them.”

And, fine, it was a good excuse. Bobby was right. All of this was spilt milk. It couldn’t be undone. They had to redirect their focus. “Okay, so what, now Chuck’s loose in heaven? You got people looking for him?”

“Chuck’s on Earth,” Jack cut in. “But I don’t know where. I felt him leave heaven.”

Sam stretched out his arm. “Okay, so send angels to Earth to find him.”

“I can’t,” Cas said beseechingly. “Except for a select few, I don’t know which angels I can trust anymore. I don’t know how many of them have been turned by those who escaped the Empty. Those I can trust are busy tracking down the rogue angels to ensure they can’t give Chuck any additional power.”

It all sounded like a bunch of hot air to Dean. He waved his hand, trying to rush Cas to the point. “So, who can you send?”

The room went quiet.

Cas stared back at Dean levelly.

It took a long second for Dean to catch up.

“Us?” Sam asked, seeming to recover more quickly. There was apprehension in his voice. “You wanna send us back to Earth?”

“Yes,” Jack said plainly. “You’ve both fought Chuck before.”

Dean scoffed, turning away in an attempt to collect himself. “Yeah, last time we fought him, our job was to get our asses handed to us while you did all the heavy lifting.”

“You would just have to find him,” Cas assured. “After you do, the host can take it from there.”

Dean licked his lips and matched his gaze to his brother’s. Sam’s eyes were heavy, but he was seriously considering it. And Dean was, too.

He didn’t know how that made him feel. They’d been out of the game for longer than they’d been in it at this point. To say the least, they were rusty. Dean wanted to say they weren’t those guys anymore. He wasn’t that guy. He was retired, at peace.

And yet…

And yet, a thrill went through him at the possibility.

“You can return right back to heaven after it’s over,” Jack promised.

And maybe that’s the thing that scared Dean most: that he didn’t want to leave now but, if he did, he wouldn’t want to come back.

But what he wanted didn’t matter. There was a job to do. If they had any hope of remaining at peace, they needed to stop Chuck in his tracks. Sam knew that, too.

Dean swayed around, looking at Cas. “You coming, too?”

Cas pressed his lips together, considering it. “Yes,” he decided. “Hannah can oversee things while I’m gone.”

Dean dipped his head. It was good enough for him, especially if it brought Cas’ boots back on the ground alongside his own. Something told Dean this mission needed all three of them. Even if it didn’t, he needed all three of them.

“Jack?” Sam questioned.

“I’ll stay here,” Jack told him, “to make sure heaven is protected in case Chuck tries to come back. We don’t know what his plan is.”

Mary put her hand on Jack’s shoulder. “We’ll be here, too, to help him,” she offered, looking around the room. “All of us.”

“I’m sure the hunters in the Roadhouse’ll be on their guard, too,” Bobby said.

Dean looked at Sam again, silently asking if they were really doing this.

And, yeah. They were really doing it.

He took in a steadying breath, already feeling his muscles tense and his shoulders straighten out in the rigid stance of a soldier.

“Okay,” he said, clapping his hands together. “What are we waiting for?”