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The very first thing Dean registered was the wind on his face. The next was the soft, green grass that he was laying on. He blinked his eyes open, momentarily blinded by the bright light of the sun beating down on him. There were moving shadows above him. When his vision adjusted, he realized those shadows were the long, white arms of a wind turbine. They moved in a slow motion circle, creating a hushed whoosh that filtered like a barely-heard bassline in Dean’s eardrums.

He sat up, finding more of the monolithic turbines in neat rows all around him. Above them was a blue sky interrupted by puffy white clouds.

“What the hell?” he muttered. He didn’t see Sam or Cas anywhere, and he wondered why Jack placed him in the dead center of a damn wind farm.

Dean got to his feet, his knees wobbling in protest under him. His head spun dizzily, and he guessed that’s what he got for daring to have a body again.

Orienting himself, he took another look around, searching for his brother and his angel. All he saw were the giant bases of the turbines. In the distance, a glass office building caught the sunlight, and Dean figured this must have been some kind of energy plant. But where? He had no idea what state he was in, let alone if he was in America.

“Sam?” he called as loudly as he dared, getting no answer in response, and that was just great because it wasn’t like Dean had a phone to call him with. He changed course: “Cas? Cas, can you hear me?” He didn’t hear his name being called back to him, nor came the familiar flutter of wings. And he probably wouldn’t hear it any time soon, because praying to Cas was useless. Before they left heaven, Jack tatted up their insides with some pretty hefty cloaking sigils to shield them from Chuck. Until Dean had a location to give Cas that was a little more descriptive than “the Green New Deal,” he was shit out of luck.

“Awesome,” he said under his breath, and turned in the opposite direction of the office building, because getting apprehended as a domestic terrorist for breaking into a power plant wasn’t on his list of things to do now that he was Earthbound again.

He didn’t know how long it took him to get to the edge of the turbines. Long enough that he was thirsty by the time he got there, anyway. There was a fence a few feet high that surrounded the plant. Beyond it were more fields and farmland with wheat shuddering in the barely-there breeze. Dean realized he could hear birdsong now. A stretch of road in the distance cut through the land. The sun glinted off a car as it drove along.

The fence stood between Dean and all of that. He went up to it, bending his head back to gauge how high it must have been, determining it was probably close to ten feet. Rungs of barbed wire were strung over the top. Dean wrapped his hands around the bars and tugged, hoping to find a weak spot. The metal didn’t move. All it did was dig into his palms and leave red marks behind.

He closed his eyes, letting out a heavy sigh. “Perfect.” A fly buzzed next to his ear.

Dean stepped back and peeled off his jacket. He tossed it up, and thankfully it draped itself over the wires. He paced back even further, taking in the daunting height of the fence.

It had been a while since he’d done this…

He took off into a run, launching himself up to grab the top bar of the fence.

And missed.

He fell to the grass again, straight on his ass.

“Son of a bitch.”

Okay, take two…

That time, he managed to grab the top bar and heave himself up, his boots scrambling for grip as he tried to walk them up the smooth surface of the fence’s metal rungs. By the time he rolled over his jacket on the wire and dropped down to freedom, he was sweaty and out of breath.

And his jacket was still stuck to the wire.

Briefly, he thought about jumping up to snatch it, but it would probably rip the material. It wasn’t worth it. It was too hot, anyway.

He headed in the direction of the road, the asphalt shimmering in heatwaves in the distance. On his way, he saw three sleek-looking cars drive up and down the road with a rush of tires on tar, engines oddly silent. One car was blasting some kind of electronic music out the windows. None of the drivers seemed to spot Dean walking through the field.

The road was deserted when he finally reached it. He looked up and down, squinting in the light as it bounced off the flat earth. There were mile markers sticking out of the dirt in intervals, and to his right, a small green highway sign stood a few yards away. He headed for it, and when he first read it, he thought he was having heatstroke.

Lebanon, 10 miles

“Lebanon?” he said, voice coming out rough from his dry throat. When the hell did they build wind turbines in Lebanon?

He considered calling for Cas again, but he really didn’t have much more information than before. The sign didn’t have a route number or road name on it. Dean had basically every road in America committed to memory at that point, but he still hadn’t fully caught his bearings yet. Plus, who knew what else had changed in the last fifty years?

He started walking in the direction of town.

About a mile in, he had to tie his flannel around his waist. His t-shirt was sticking to the small of his back, and his underarms were muddy. He passed the back of his wrist over his forehead to rid himself of the sweat collecting there.

It took him about an hour to get to the city limits, where farmland turned into neighborhoods of two-family houses and apartment buildings. All of it was shiny and new—or, at least, new to him. More of those cars that looked like they were trying to audition for a Tron knockoff were parked along the street.

Dean went to one of the cars on a side street and checked his surroundings to make sure he wasn’t being overlooked. With any luck, he’d be able to find an unlocked car to hotwire. He reached for the door handle, only to find there wasn’t one. With his fingertips still hovering nearby, a small ring of blue light appeared in the fiberglass.

“What the hell?” Dean muttered again. He pressed his finger into it. The light turned red. A message popped up in the center of the window, reading access denied. Dean stared at the message until it faded away, leaving only his slack-jawed expression looking back at him.

He leaned down and cupped his hand against the window to peer inside. The dashboard was slanted and lacking any gauges or instruments. There was a sleek, square steering wheel that looked like it was more for aesthetic than functional use. Dean pressed his thumb against the lock on the window again, testing a theory. Inside the car, icons, gauges, and controls flashed digitally on the windshield before fading out again when his fingerprint didn’t register. And it occurred to him that, even if he could get inside, there was probably nothing to hotwire in the first place. The damn thing was a computer.

A little over a half hour later, when the sun was dipping low in the orange sky, the houses made way for town. People were milling around the streets beneath glossy apartment buildings and restaurants with patrons talking and laughing in outdoor seating. Young people with dogs crossed in the crosswalk, and some dude was talking on what Dean could only assume was Bluetooth. There was even one girl jogging.

Hell, there was a bike lane on the street! It ran parallel to another lane where a group of people was getting out of a small ride-share car that didn’t even look like it had a driver.

Dean couldn’t breathe. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he felt like he’d just stepped into a really bad episode of the Twilight Zone.

Or no… No, not the Twilight Zone

“Oh, we are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

He couldn’t be. No way Kansas looked like this. This was some kind of yippie pot-smoking town in Colorado.

Desperate for some kind of normalcy, his eyes searched the street, blessedly finding a diner. He made for it, pushing through the doors into the crisp air conditioning. A kid in uniform was behind the counter. She glanced up at him, a welcoming smile on her face.

“Hi, welcome to the Lebanon Diner. Pick any booth you like,” she said, gesturing to the screen set into the counter. Dean blinked down at it, thrown. The screen depicted icons of tables, some of them green, some yellow, and some red.

At the top of the screen, there were a few icons that showed battery life and wifi strength. And the time and date. It was mid-October. October, and it was hot enough to be summer.

He’d had about enough of this shit.

“Uh, no, I…” He cleared his throat. Trying again, he put on his best smile under the circumstances and asked the waitress, “This may sound like a silly question but, uh… where are we?”

The waitress gave him a funny look. “The… Lebanon Diner,” she repeated hesitantly, her voice going up at the end like she was asking him.

Dean honestly tried for an easy laugh. It came out more like he’d just broken out of the asylum. “Yeah but I mean, Lebanon, Kansas?”

“Last time I checked.”

Dean tipped back on his heels slightly and breathed in deep, letting the information wash over him. By his math, the year was 2067, and apparently the world had pretty much gone digital.

“Sir?” the waitress asked. “Are you okay?”

Dean actually did laugh that time. He rubbed at his eyes. “I feel like I’m in a crappy remake of Back to the Future.”

The waitress scoffed. “Yeah, the remake was pretty crappy, huh?”

He was gonna be sick.

Forcing a tight smile, he turned on his heels and pushed back onto the street, ignoring the weighted stare of the waitress on his back. He moved into the alley between the diner and some other building and leaned his hand against the wall to double over. He tried his best to catch his breath, and to not die of an anxiety attack a couple hours after he’d come back to life.

When he was sure he could speak, he straightened back out and looked up at the darkening sky. “Cas? I dunno if you can hear me, but I’m in Lebanon. Kansas. In some alley behind the diner in town.” He held out his arms. “So, if you’re listening, can you get here quick, ‘cause I’m having a full on freak out and—”

There was a flapping sound behind him, followed by, “Dean.”

For some reason, Dean hadn’t been expecting Cas to actually hear him. His heart skipped a beat, then started up again so fast, it actually hurt. He spun around, more than relieved to find Cas’ familiar face.

“Finally! Where the hell were you? I woke up alone in the middle of a fucking wind farm!” he demanded. “Where’s Sam?”

“Sam’s fine,” Cas assured, getting to what Dean really wanted to hear, and thank god for that. “It appears, you and Sam were both sent back to the last place your bodies were on Earth.”

Dean rattled his head, the information stunting his cognitive processes. “You mean, that wind farm—”

“Must have once been the field where Sam burned your bones,” Cas confirmed. It was bleak, even for them. Even bleaker, Cas told him, “Sam woke up in a crematorium on the other side of the state.”

“A crem—In the oven?”

Cas raised an eyebrow like he couldn’t believe it either.

Dean ran his hand down his face, not knowing whether he should be yelling or laughing. And then a thought struck him: “Where’d you touch down?”

“The bunker,” Cas told him.

Something in Dean’s gut curled. “In the dungeon?”

Cas pressed his lips together, looking at him evenly. “No. I’m not dead. It doesn’t matter where my body was last. I flew to the bunker. I assumed you and Sam would be there.”

Well, at least there was that. In the months after Cas died, Dean never stepped foot in the dungeon. He didn’t want Cas going in there alone either, even if it was just a room.

“Sam’s at the bunker now,” Cas told him, reaching out a hand. “I’ll take you there.”

Dean barely processed the words, but he nodded anyway. Cas clapped his hand over Dean’s shoulder. There was a lurching sensation, like going through a loop on a rollercoaster, and the next thing Dean knew, his surroundings were different.

He found himself standing in the crow’s nest in the bunker. He looked down at the grating under him. Then, slowly, he brought his eyes up. Where everything he knew was different, the bunker looked exactly the same. The map room below, the humming of machinery in the walls, the soft orange lights of the library, and the telescope standing proudly in its display.

Homesickness plucked at Dean’s heart. He took it all in, the familiar sights and the scent of the place that didn’t smell like anything at all because of how long he’d lived there. A breathless, bare smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. Everything inside of him ached.

There were footsteps from the library, and Sam appeared, looking up. “Hey.”

Dean dropped his shoulders, happy to have eyes on his brother again. He scanned Sam up and down for injury—or, hell, burn marks—and luckily found nothing. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “You?”

It was a loaded question. Dean looked around again, deciding that, whatever brave new world was outside those doors didn’t matter. He had the bunker, and he had Sam and Cas. He’d figure everything else out.

“Yeah,” Dean said, wrapping his hand around the railing, steadying himself. “No place like home.”

 

///

 

Sam kept his eyes on the map table, gaze flitting from one landmass to the next in rapt attention. There was a pen in his hand, and he tapped the butt of it against his blank notepad as he waited to jot down any coordinates. So far, all of the lights stayed dark, but Sam tried not to let that discourage him. He’d just rerouted the computer’s search parameters a minute ago. If anything popped up, the alarm would alert them.

But still, he kept his eyes glued to the map. Because the alternative was looking around at his surroundings as a whole, and he’d much rather focus on the individual pieces. Like the books in the library, or the catalogued items in the storage closets, or the lights on the map table.

Because, if he didn’t focus on the details, he’d see the room where he and Dean carved their names—Cas’ name, Jack’s name, Mom’s initials—into the table because they knew this place wouldn’t be theirs forever and they wanted to create something that would last. He’d see the armchair he used to like curling up in to read a book. He’d hear the phantom sounds of the movie Dean was watching in his “Dean cave” down the hall. He’d see the kitchen table where the four of them used to eat dinner as a family. He’d see the place that, in the beginning, he swore wasn’t home but became home anyway.

The place that wasn’t home anymore after Dean died.

When Sam left the bunker, he and Eileen only went back once or twice. He took Junior there once when he was a teenager, just so he knew it was there in case of emergency. But Sam never liked to linger in it for too long. It was too full of memory, of ghosts. Not the kind you could salt and burn either.

He heard footsteps from down the hall, and Cas turned the corner into the map room. Sam sat up a little straighter, offering him a nod and a grunted greeting. When Dean didn’t arrive on Cas’ heels, Sam asked, “Where’s Dean?”

Cas flapped his hands against his sides and came to a stop across the table. “Cooking.”

Sam frowned, wondering what there was to cook. He really hoped Dean wasn’t breaking out those old freeze-dried war rations that they’d both once gotten food poisoning from.

Cas’ gaze wandered around the table curiously before landing on the notepad under Sam’s hand. “What are you doing?”

Blowing out his cheeks and dropping the pen to run his hand through his hair, Sam leaned back in his chair. “I reprogrammed the computer to detect any major surges of power,” he explained, gesturing down to the table. “That way, it’ll ping us if any of the angels from the Empty touch down, or if—”

“A former deity wielding the power of billions of souls shows his face?”

Sam breathed out a laugh. “Yeah, exactly. But, so far, nothing.”

Cas pulled out a chair and sat down in solidarity, silently offering to wait with Sam for as long as it took. Sam appreciated it, but he didn’t really know how useful it would be. Chuck could have been cloaking himself. But, if this didn’t work, Sam really didn’t know where else to begin.

Maybe the angels. But that only brought about another slew of questions. Narrowing his eyes in thought, Sam decided to finally voice them: “Hey, Cas? Speaking of the angels from the Empty. How did they escape? I mean, do you think Chuck…?”

Cas lifted his shoulders. “I dunno. Maybe,” he allowed. “He couldn’t have freed them while he was in heaven. He wouldn’t have been able to from the lock up. His cell was too heavily warded. But maybe on Earth…” He looked off, his jaw set like he was angry with himself for not considering this possibility, even if it wasn’t his fault. “Chuck was mortal, but he was still once God. It’s possible he found a way to communicate with the creature from the Empty. He knows secrets about the universe that neither of us could ever comprehend.”

That made sense, but it still wasn’t adding up. “Yeah, but why would the Empty even give up the angels in the first place? For a deal? What could Chuck give it in return?”

Shifting in his seat, Cas considered, “Nothing. It's possible he didn’t need to give it anything, but to take something instead.”

Sam shook his head in question.

“After I died—when the Empty took me,” Cas explained, “it wasn’t like the previous times. I was awake.”

Sam blinked, shocked. “You were?”

Cas nodded, looking like it was a memory he didn’t like reliving. “I wasn’t the only one. I didn’t see anyone at first, but I heard them. Millions of angels and demons calling out. I don’t know how many. It wasn’t all of them, but… enough. That was how Jack and I rescued the angels we did from the Empty. They were already awake. We took who we needed and left the rest.”

“Wait,” Sam said, gesturing out with his hand in an aborted motion. He let it fall back to the table. “How could that happen?”

“You recall the bomb Billie made Jack into to kill Chuck and Amara? And, when he was about to detonate…”

“She sent him to the Empty,” Sam said, his eyes flickering back and forth in memory. They paused, turning back to Cas. “And that woke the angels and demons up?”

Cas nodded. “The creature that rules over the Empty wouldn’t have liked that. It’s possible it released the angels to Chuck just to get them out.”

Some of the puzzle pieces were fitting together, but Sam couldn’t help but think they still didn’t have the whole picture. “What about the demons that woke up?”

Cas pressed his lips together, not knowing. “Jack and I got out as soon as we could. We didn’t stick around to find out who was and wasn’t awake, or what would happen to them.”

“Yeah, I don’t blame you,” Sam said. He’d never been to the Empty, but from what he’d heard of it, he never wanted to go.

Before either of them could consider it further, Dean’s cheerful voice came from the hallway. “Okay, soup’s on!” He came into the room, a dish towel thrown over his shoulder and an apron tied around his waist. Sam couldn’t help but laugh a little bit at the sight.

“Dude,” Sam said, shaking his head. “What did you even find to cook?”

“Found a couple boxes of mac and cheese,” Dean said, which Sam guessed wasn’t ideal but it was edible, at least. But then Dean added, “And a can of tuna. I made a casserole.”

Sam pulled a disgusted expression. “Dean… Gross.”

Dean’s face fell. “What? Come on, you used to love mac and tuna!”

“Yeah, when I was five and didn’t know any better,” Sam shot back while pursing his lips. He waved it away, knowing they had more pressing matters than dinner. “Anyway. Me and Cas were just talking about how Chuck might have gotten the angels out of the Empty.”

Dean was picking at a stain on his apron. He dropped the fabric and lifted his face, looking both confused and annoyed. “Why?”

Sam’s brow collapsed. He shared a look with Cas before turning his attention back to Dean. “Wh—why?” Sam echoed. “Because it’s… Chuck.”

“So?” Dean said with a shrug. “We’re just here to find him, right?”

“Right…”

“It’s not like we have to fight him.” Dean looked to Cas for confirmation. “Right?”

“Of course not,” Cas told him.

“Okay, then!”

“Yeah, but, Dean,” Sam stammered out. “Jack’s gonna have to fight him. Maybe Cas, too! Don’t you think we should know exactly what we’re up against here?”

“Well, we don’t know anything,” Dean reasoned, but it seemed more like a prepared argument. “So, let’s just find him and then Cas can send someone to do some recon and they can find answers. That’s not our job. Now, c’mon and get dinner before it gets cold.” He turned around, disappearing back into the hallway.

Sam blinked after him for a long time, dumbfounded. When he realized he wasn’t breathing, he exhaled in a scoff, then turned back to Cas, hoping he had some kind of explanation.

Cas’ shoulders were slumped, expression solemn. “He… saw Lebanon earlier,” he said. “I think he may still be adjusting to the differences since the last time he was alive.”

Sam settled somewhat, feeling sympathetic. He’d only been dead for five years. He pretty much knew what the world was like now, because he’d lived it. But Dean had been dead for close to fifty years. He was basically a fish out of water.

But still, something needled at the back of Sam’s head, telling him that wasn’t the reason Dean was acting so weird all of sudden. He just didn’t know what else it could be.

“I’ll, uh… be right back,” he said, standing up. He headed for the kitchen, finding Dean in front of the stove, scooping mac and tuna into a bowl.

Dean glanced over his shoulder, a bright grin lighting his face. “Ha-ha! Knew you could resist. How many scoops do you want?”

Sam jostled down the steps into the kitchen, keeping a watchful eye on Dean. He moved slowly, trying not to spook his brother. “Dean? Are you okay?”

Dean brought two filled bowls over the table and placed them down. “Yeah? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, it’s just…” Sam really didn’t know how to phrase this. If he came in too hot, Dean would deny everything. “You don’t wanna fight?”

“Sam, it’s not—”

“I know,” Sam interrupted, holding up his hand. “It’s not our job. But we still have to be smart about this. And it’s not like we don’t have a job to do, and you’re in here… cooking. Are you sure there isn’t anything you wanna talk about?”

Dean rolled his eyes and turned his back, moving toward the stove again. He placed the lid back over the pot.

Sam pulled his shoulders back, trying to understand. Maybe Cas was right. “Is it… the town?”

Dean froze, the line of his shoulders tensing. After a long second, he turned around. “I’m good. It’s just—you know. It was different from how I remember. With the—” he waved his hand. “Future shit.”

Nodding empathetically, Sam tried to show Dean he was there for support. “It’s a lot. I get it. Lebanon, it’s not…” He laughed, stepping closer to the tin island counter. “It’s not really some Podunk town anymore. Center of America—they decided it’d be a good place for the turbines.” He threw a hand up and let it fall back down to the counter. “People came for jobs and the town just kinda grew around it.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Dean said, folding his arms and leaning his back against the stove. “I guess seeing all the tech didn’t help either. All that shit really happened in fifty years?”

Sam guessed he’d never thought about it like that. “Yeah,” he mused, shrugging. “Think about it: when we were kids, we were playing Pacman at arcades. But, by the time you died, people had smartwatches. These things happen pretty fast.”

Dean stuck out his bottom lip and bit down on it thoughtfully. Around it, he said, “I guess.”

He didn’t seem heartened by any of the logic, so Sam promised, “You’ll get used to it.” It was Dean. He always adjusted.

But, even now, Sam wasn’t fully convinced they’d discussed the whole problem. There was something else, he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Well, at least this place is the same,” Dean said, glancing around. “Kinda.”

Sam frowned. “What do you mean?”

“There’s leftovers in the fridge. And beer. And the pantry’s stocked,” Dean told him, pointing a thumb in that direction. And Sam wanted to ask him why the hell he made mac and cheese and tuna fish for dinner if they had other food options, but Dean went on: “I mean, is someone living here?”

“I dunno, could be,” Sam said. It wasn’t really that big of a deal. “Probably not though. I’m sure people come in and out of here all the time when they need to.”

“What?” Dean asked, hesitant. But he already looked pissed. “You didn’t lock up after you left?”

Sam didn’t really know why Dean was acting in that way. He laughed lightly. “Yeah, I locked up. But I made copies of the key and gave them out to other hunters.”

“You what?” Dean picked himself off the stove suddenly, something like repulsion on his face. “You just let strangers in here? Sam, this is our home!”

What the hell?

“Yeah, Dean,” Sam said slowly. “It’s also the largest collection of lore in the world. That could help a lot of hunters. Plus, it’s not exactly like we were using it anymore.”

Dean’s cheeks dimpled in annoyance, but he didn’t have an argument for that. He huffed, “Whatever.”

Sam shook his head, trying to get back on course. “Look,” he said, “why don’t you come back out and me, you, and Cas can figure out what to do about—”

“No, I’m—” Dean began, much too quickly. He must have realized that because he cut himself off. “It’s kinda been a day,” he excused, frustration still evident in his tone. He rubbed his eye with his pointer finger. “If I start thinking about the Chuck search, my brain is gonna start bleeding.” He went over to the table and picked up one of the bowls of mac and tuna. “So, why don’t you and Cas have your little pow wow and fill me in later? I’ll be in my room.”

He stomped toward the hall. Walking up the stairs, he called over his shoulder, “If it’s even still my room.”

Sam bit down on his tongue, fighting back his retort. He shook his head at the cabinets and reminded himself that Dean just needed time. He’d get over the initial shock of coming back to life and get back into the swing of things.

He had to.

 

///

 

After Sam went to sleep, Castiel remained in the bunker’s library, flipping through the various tomes they’d pulled from the shelves that could give them any lead on how to extract the souls from the rogue angels before they could give them to Chuck. They wouldn’t give back the souls willingly, like Castiel had all those years ago. It would have to be forced.

Castiel leaned back in his chair, scrubbing his hands down his face in mental exhaustion. The book open in front of him was describing a ritual for soul transference, and it wasn’t of much help. He wasn’t really focusing on it, anyway. His mind kept wandering—or, that is, his grace did.

It was strange, being back on Earth after so long away from it, especially with his grace stronger than it had ever been. Castiel had forgotten how loud the world was. All that human longing, crying out, their prayers and emotion sent upward. And there was the other sentient life on the planet as well, from the birds wheeling about the sky to the small, warm bodies of the creatures burrowed in the dirt. There was the shifting of the tectonic plates on the ocean floors. There was the rain coming in from the north, hundreds of miles away. There was the pressure of gravity and the turn of the world on its axis. There was movement and life. Everywhere. Constantly.

It was a wonder.

Castiel had gotten used to the confines of his vessel long ago. And yet, he suddenly felt so small and caged within his own skin. He wanted to be everywhere, to see everything. To stand on the tallest mountain and overlook the humans like a giant. To sit in a field and watch the ants marching. To help those in need. To remember the perspective he’d once had outside of heaven’s white halls.

He supposed the best way to help was to find Chuck and stop him before he could bring heaven and Earth to ruin. His guardianship over Earth used to be in the small miracles and tiny brushstrokes. Now, people counted on him, and he’d need a bigger paintbrush.

Mind still reeling, he slammed the book closed, deciding to take a break. He’d be no good to anyone if he didn’t center himself. Picking himself up, he left the library behind and walked the familiar path to the row of dormitories in the hallway. Dean’s bedroom door was ajar, and Castiel could hear him shuffling around inside.

He rapped his knuckles against the wood, and he wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe it was muscle memory. It’d be decades since he’d had to knock on Dean’s door before entering, because it was Castiel’s door, too. But not here. This space had always belonged solely to Dean.

Dean was sitting on the edge of his bed, an open shoebox in hand. He glanced up when Castiel, wondering what Dean was doing, shouldered the door open a little more.

“Well, looks like everything’s pretty much the way I left it,” Dean said with a huff. He picked up the shoebox’s lid beside him and fit it back on the box. He muttered, “More or less.”

Castiel walked inside, closing the door gently behind him. His eyes flitted about the room, taking in the weapons hanging on the wall and the assorted items on the desk and shelves. It was just as he remembered it. Everything that Dean was and always had been filled his senses, settling warm inside Castiel’s human heart.

“Were you expecting anything different?” he asked.

“I dunno. Maybe.” Dean dropped the box on the floor and pushed it under the bed. When he was finished, he brought his attention to Castiel. “You know, Sammy let other hunters use this place after we were gone. Can you believe that?”

Castiel didn’t know why he wouldn’t believe such a thing. The bunker housed an array of information that would help hunters. But Dean seemed offended that anyone would dare enter this place uninvited. Castiel understood that. For so long, this had been the only real home Dean had ever known.

In a way, Castiel felt the same. It was where they built their life together, where the four of them lived as a family. It was more than just a place to lay their heads. It was their own.

But it wasn’t anymore.

He wouldn’t say that when Dean was likely working through similar emotions. Instead, he hovered next to the bed and asked, “How are you, Dean?”

Dean shrugged airily and kicked his feet up onto the mattress. “Okay, I guess.” But he said it in that tone of voice that suggested he was only pretending.

Castiel lifted a brow, waiting.

Dean rolled his eyes. “I dunno, man. What do you want me to say? I never thought I’d be back here again. It’s weird.”

Castiel nodded, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what Dean was getting at. Was he upset at being back? “Well… With any luck, we’ll locate Chuck soon and then we can go back home.”

Dean held his eyes for a second before dropping them to the bed. He picked at the quilt. “Yeah…”

“Dean,” Castiel said, remorse filling him again. It was his fault Dean had been plucked from paradise. Dean glanced back up at him in question. “I’m sorry. I… If there was another way, I would have never asked you and Sam to leave heaven.”

“Hey, no, c’mon,” Dean said gently. He leaned forward and grabbed Castiel’s hand, tugging him down to sit on the mattress. “That’s what we do, right? No reason for you to shoulder this alone.”

Castiel was grateful for that, even if he wished things were different. Because this wasn’t what the Winchesters did anymore. They were supposed to be at peace.

“Plus, it’s pretty nice being back,” Dean added, a smirk lighting his features. “Memory foam mattress still remembers me.”

Castiel smiled softly at that, his mood lifted. “Unfortunately, you are unforgettable.”

“Bet your ass,” Dean told him, wrapping his fingers around Castiel’s tie and bringing him in for a kiss. As it lingered, Castiel became aware of the subtle differences of Dean’s physical body to his soul. He always did feel an electric pulse whenever they kissed, but it tasted different now. Less like lightning, more like life down to its subatomic level. The powerful current holding atoms together, creating and ever-changing.

The sensation buzzed on Castiel’s lips. He deepened the kiss, wanting more. Wanting to explore every part of Dean’s physical form. He wondered if Dean felt the difference, too.

Dean was feeling something. Need and desire. His longing broke like the tide against the shore in Castiel’s chest.

Dean palmed at Castiel’s coat, trying to tug it off until frustrated sounds started puffing out of his throat and he had to stop kissing to focus. Castiel took mercy on him by pulling the garment off, then removing his suit jacket after it.

Dean was already working on the knot of his tie. “Too many damn layers,” he grunted, even though Castiel specifically remembered Dean once saying the layers were good for a strip tease. It didn’t seem important to bring up at present.

He swung his leg over Dean’s lap to straddle him and framed Dean’s face with his hands to kiss him deeply again. When it broke, Dean got him out of his shirt, and Castiel lifted Dean’s t-shirt over his head, too. Immediately, Dean wrapped his strong arms around Castiel’s middle, shoving their chests together, and pulled him down the mattress.

Castiel traced his hands down Dean’s sides, gathering his grace into his fingertips and letting it move against Dean’s skin. Dean sighed into it, the beat of his heart kickstarting inside of him. Castiel could feel it—Dean’s heart, his breath. And it was real, necessary. He buried his nose into Dean’s throat and sucked on his pulse point.

Dean’s hands tightened on his back, and he bent his knees upward to trap Castiel’s hips. He rolled his body up, dragging their groins together. It made Castiel wonder why they were still wearing pants.

He picked his head up, hovering close to Dean to share choppy breaths. Dean brushed their noses together, his lashes fluttering.

“Is this a whole new body?” Dean asked, his voice coming out rough. Castiel didn’t understand the question. “’Cause, if it is, you’re about to swipe my v-card.”

As good as that sounded, Castiel felt a possessive thrill go through him, denying the sentiment. “No,” he said, pressing a kiss to Dean’s chin—then to his neck, across his broad shoulders. “I built this body for you.” He kissed down Dean’s clavicle to his chest, which inflated with a tripping inhale. “Every inch of it.”

He kept moving his mouth down Dean’s stomach, recalling the way he’d reverently molded his body, as if from clay, after hell. It was beneath him now, pulsing and heating up, and it was the closest to benediction Castiel had ever truly come. He folded his hands around Dean’s hips and mouthed at Dean’s stomach just over his waistband. “This is mine.”

He heard Dean swallow, and he glanced up just in time to see the bobbing of his exposed throat as he tipped his head back against the pillow. Dean’s eyes were skewed closed. Beneath his skin, his soul was painted in heat—fiery oranges and red. It shimmered in waves, bright and bold.

Castiel undid the front of Dean’s pants, and Dean lifted his hips off the bed to get out of them before sitting up to pull them off all the way. Meanwhile, Castiel stood up at the foot of the bed and removed his shoes and pants, too. When he was finished, Dean had shimmied to the top of the bed, sitting against the headboard. His eyes scanned Castiel up and down, a smug smirk pressed onto his mouth.

“What?” Castiel asked, getting back in bed. Part of him hadn’t wanted to ask. His body was thrumming impatiently, begging him to put his hands on Dean again.

“You’re really getting your rocks off ‘cause I got a body again,” Dean teased.

Castiel bit down on the inside of his cheek, not wanting to give Dean the satisfaction of knowing he was right.

Somehow, Dean knew. His laugh was deep and gritty. “You kinky bastard.”

“Maybe,” Castiel allowed. He situated himself between Dean’s thighs again, kneeling in front of him. He dragged his fingertip down the center of Dean’s chest, reveling in the way Dean’s breath hitched. “But I did put you back together.”

“Yeah?” Dean asked, hooking his hands around the backs of Castiel’s thighs. He bent his head back to lock eyes. “Why don’t you take me apart now?”

Castiel was happy to oblige. Using the point of his finger on Dean’s chest, he gently shoved Dean back against the headboard again and lowered himself down. He kissed the inside of Dean’s thighs, sucking the skin red, before taking him into his mouth. Dean’s fingers were clutching his hair, his exhales broken moans and his body quivering.

Castiel could tell when Dean was getting close. He usually could, in the way Dean went quiet with concentration. But there was something else this time, too. Castiel could sense the way Dean’s nerves were lighting up, the way his muscles were tightening, everything inside of him held on the brink of collapse.

He pulled off of Dean, getting a whine of protest in return. But Castiel stayed close, breathing into the patch of saliva on Dean’s lower abdomen. He collected his grace into his fingers again and dragged one, featherlight, up the curve of Dean’s dick.

Dean came immediately, his mouth in an O-shape and his brow lined, his soul on fire. Castiel watched it as if it were happening in slow motion, savoring the loveliness of it all.

After, Dean tipped his head back against the shelf, knocking some of the contents around. Shoulders lax, he breathed up at the ceiling until those breaths eventually gave way to laughter and a sated grin.

Castiel wiped his mouth with his wrist and sat back on his heels, blinking. His own body was still strumming with need, but he wanted to relish the way Dean was glowing from the inside out just a little longer.

Dean lowered his chin, catching Castiel’s eyes. Then, his gaze fell lower. “Oh,” he said, tone light. “Your turn.” He resituated himself, climbing to his knees and straddling Castiel’s lap. He dipped his face in to capture Castiel’s mouth, kissing him thoroughly and messily, and Castiel loved it. He loved the way Dean kissed him, rough or tender, impassioned or lazy. Dean always put his whole self into it, just as he did with everything else he’d ever done. He would hum against Castiel’s lips when he was happy, or nip at him when he was playful. He would push forward, only to pull back again so Castiel would have to chase him.

Castiel was always chasing him.

He returned the kiss with passion, as though it would make up for all the lost years between them on Earth. Like he could go back in time and kiss Dean for every day they should have been kissing. Like he could fit a millennium of love into it.

Dean traced his heated palms down Castiel’s spine to grope at his ass. He lifted one hand to rough down Castiel’s arm and grab his wrist. He bent their arms and held them up, tangled their fingers together. Castiel felt himself smiling against Dean’s mouth. Sometimes, Castiel felt as though all of life and civilization was born from Dean’s hands.

With his free hand, Dean sloped around Castiel’s side, running downward, the muscles in Castiel’s stomach jumping at his command. He teased him a little more, dipping down to swipe his palm across Castiel’s thighs, or fondling him before finally wrapping his hand around Castiel’s dick.

Castiel tore away from Dean’s mouth to drink in the stifling air. His throat was dry and raw, but Dean’s name found its way to his lips. Dean tipped his forehead against Castiel’s staring downward in focus. Castiel kept his eyes on Dean’s face in the close proximity, taking in the freckles on his cheeks.

Emotion racked its way up his chest. Something too big to name. Something the angels had no words for. It was human. It felt holy.

“C’mon, dove,” Dean encouraged, using the term of endearment he only uttered in delicate moments. Castiel could feel his orgasm building up inside of him. It rolled in like thunder, causing his body and grace alike to thrum under Dean’s every touch. “C’mon, I got you.”

Once, Dean told him that it sometimes felt like he was flying when he came. It had never been that way for Castiel. More than anything, he felt at one with his body, with the world, with Dean. His grace aligned perfectly with his skin, and it was only when he released it, did it explode outward again. But in the moments before that, he was flesh and bone and a beating heart. He was human. He was Dean’s.

He belonged.

His orgasm hit, burning him up from the inside. Distantly, he was aware of the lightbulb in the lamp shattering, but it was a little hard to care about that at the moment. Dean worked him through it, and Castiel’s eyes flickered across his face, watching Dean in the darkness with rapt fascination.

And, sometimes, Castiel still couldn’t believe he got to have this.

After his body slowed to a stop, Castiel dropped his head to the pocket between Dean’s neck and shoulder, breathing in the sweat and the spiced scent lifting off his skin. Smile still stretching his cheeks, he pressed a lingering, chaste kiss there. Dean chortled roughly and placed his hand on the back of Castiel’s head. He leaned back down the mattress, slowly pulling Castiel down with him. Castiel stretched out on top of him, focusing on the pleasant humming current that had overcome his physical form.

“Anyone remember where we kept the spare light bulbs?” Dean laughed, and Castiel felt the vibrations of it where their stomachs were pressed together.

“I believe I can help with that,” Castiel said. Taking one hand off Dean, he held up his palm to the air, manifesting his grace. A dancing wave of blue, green, and purple lights bloomed next to the bed, casting the room in a swimming, multi-colored glow. It was a simple matter of manipulating the Earth’s magnetic field and the electric particles around them.

He lowered his hand, looking back down at Dean. Dean’s face was bathed in the lights, his eyes twinkling in awe as they flickered back and forth along them. “What are we calling these? The Midwestern Lights?” he joked, but his tone was too heavy.

Castiel watched the way his soul shifted in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color, never twice the same. It burned beautifully, brighter than any paltry light show that filled the starlit sky.

Dean’s attention moved back to him, then very quickly lowered his gaze. His soul turned blush-pink. “Quit looking at me like that,” he said, a smile in his voice. His hands settled on Castiel’s lower back.

Castiel readjusted his vision, letting Dean’s soul fade to his eyes to look at his physical form instead. It was every bit as marvelous. “No.”

Dean picked his head up off the pillow to press their lips together in a kiss less passionate than before, less concerned with becoming a means to an end. Castiel basked in it, still keeping his eyes half-open to look at Dean’s face.

Castiel had never known him in this way on Earth. Now that he did, he realized that heaven was just a word.

 

///

 

On that comfortable memory foam mattress, Dean fell into a deeper sleep than he had in a long time. It’s not as if his bed up in heaven wasn’t comfortable, and the quiet mountain air was usually great for sleeping. But there was something about being in the bunker again, in his old room in the first space that had ever really been his own. It felt a little bit like coming home after a long vacation. It wasn’t just comfortable; it was comfort.

Maybe Cas felt the same way too, judging by the way he was breathing in sleep. Or, not sleep. Cas didn’t actually do that; it was more like he was recharging his batteries. It usually only lasted a couple hours before he woke up to read a book or slap some headphones on to watch a movie. Sometimes, he would get out of bed completely and go do other things, but Dean was usually dead to the world by then. Other times, he would just watch Dean sleep, which was still creepy. But Dean had to admit, he much preferred stirring awake in the middle of the night to blearily find Cas still lying next to him than finding himself alone.

He liked it the most when Cas did his not-sleeping-sleeping thing, which lasted a little bit longer after sex. Dean didn’t know if that was because he needed it or if he just wanted to remain close. Either way, four hours later, Cas was still pressed up against Dean’s back, his arm slung over Dean’s hip and his hand wedged between Dean’s boxer-clad thighs.

And Dean slept deeply.

Right up until the distant boom of the bunker’s door opening woke him up.

Dean jerked his head off his pillow, adrenaline immediately putting him on high alert. At first, he thought he’d dreamed it—the age-old fear of someone breaking into his home spun into a nightmare now that he wasn’t used to sleeping there anymore. But then he heard the door slam closed.

Heart skipping into his throat, he reached behind him and blindly slapped Cas’ leg. “Cas,” he gritted out.

Cas took in a sharp breath and lifted his head up, eyes squinted and nose scrunched at the audacity of being woken up. But then Dean said, “Someone’s in the bunker,” and Cas’ expression rearranged into concern.

“What?”

“I just heard the door open.” Dean extracted himself from Cas and swung his leg over the side of the bed. He picked up his gun from the side table.

“There are voices,” Cas said, sitting up. Dean couldn’t hear so much as a murmur coming from the entrance, but Cas was probably hearing a full conversation. “Two people.”

It occurred to Dean that they could be hunters. He remembered the leftovers in the fridge, the way the bunker looked like it had been recently used. Sam had given other hunters access, and people probably treated the place like a free motel.

But, just because they were hunters, it didn’t mean they could be trusted.

“Let’s check it out,” he said, keeping his voice low. He stalked to the door, his bare feet against the cold floor. Cas got out of bed and followed him. When Dean reached the door, he stuck his head out into the hall, making sure all was clear.

It wasn’t. Sam was moving stealthily against the wall, his gun pointed downward in both hands before him. Dean caught his eye and gestured him over.

“You heard the door open, too?” Sam asked.

Dean nodded, trying not to be annoyed at Sam for giving out the key. The three of them moved quietly down the hall, and Dean gestured for Sam to loop around to the map room while he and Cas went for the door next to the telescope. By then, he could hear the voices of whoever was inside the library. They could surround them.

He and Cas stood on opposite sides of the closed door. Dean cocked his gun. Cas’ fist tightened around his blade. Heart slamming in his ribs, Dean held Cas’ eyes for a long second. He reached forward, and tore the door open.

And he was immediately met with a punch to the face. Dean reeled to the opposite side of the door from where the assailant had been waiting for him.

He blinked, shaking out his head to right himself, and prepared for a fight.

And then he got a look at the women with her fists up. Blonde hair with a few strands of silver cascading over her shoulders; blue eyes with lines around them. She was familiar.

The woman’s mouth hung open, and she lowered her hands. Breathlessly, she said, “Dean?”

Dean couldn’t believe his eyes. This had to be a dream. His gaze swung over to the other woman standing between the tables. The subtle grey was a little more apparent in her dark hair. Behind her, Sam entered the room, his gun already tucked away into the waistband of his sweatpants.

“Claire?” Dean asked, the name getting stuck in his throat.

Cas came in behind Dean, his eyes instantly finding Claire. He breathed out her name.

Claire glanced between Cas, Sam, and Kaia, and then her attention moved back to Dean. “It’s… really you?”

“It’s us,” Sam assured her. “Hey, Claire. Kaia.”

“No, last time I saw you, you were—” Claire began, shaking her head at Sam. “You were in a casket.”

“And old,” Kaia added.

Sam blew out his cheeks and flapped his arms against his sides.

Dean’s cheek was swelling, probably bruising, too. He touched the sensitive skin and tried not to hiss. “Long story. But yeah, we’re us.”

Claire looked at Cas, like his presence was the only thing that actually convinced her. Then, she took in a shaky breath and flung herself forward into Dean’s arms. A thrill went through Dean’s chest at the memory of her doing that before—when she was a kid. Now, she must have been in her late sixties. His heart broke just a little.

Still, he wrapped his arms around her tightly, and suddenly it was all real. He was on Earth. He was alive.

When the hug broke, Claire moved to Cas, and Cas closed his eyes into the embrace, seeming to savor it.

She hugged Sam, too, and they did the same with Kaia. With the greetings out of the way, Dean was able to focus on the duffle bags sitting on the table in the library. They looked like they’d just gotten back from a hunt.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“We kinda live here now,” Kaia told him. “When we can.”

Dean jerked his head back in surprise, and he wasn’t sure why it was so surprising. When he got used to the idea, he actually kind of liked it. He hated thinking about strangers coming through here to crash, but Claire and Kaia were family. The bunker should go to them.

“You do?” Sam asked, met with twin nods. “I never knew that.”

“It’s been a few years,” Claire explained, then turned to Dean and Cas. “We use it as a home base, mostly. We don’t really hunt all that much anymore. I mean, when a kid needs help, we help them, but we mostly give support for the hunters in the Network. You know, spells, ingredients, FBI checks.”

Putting aside the fact that they were basically the new Bobby, Dean rattled his head and echoed, “The Network?”

“The Hunter's Network,” Claire told him. “Sam never told you? It was his and Eileen’s idea.”

Dean’s eyes swept to his brother, who was giving out a few modest and protesting sounds. “Well, it was kinda a group effort,” he said. “But, yeah. It was basically the same idea as with the hunters from Apocalypse World.”

Dean had no idea Sam and Eileen had done that, or that Claire and Kaia were running it now. He wanted to crack a joke, but his synapses were firing blanks. All of this was information overload.

And Claire had moved on. She looked between the three of them. “How are you… back?”

Quickly, Dean shared a look with Sam, and then launched into the story.

 

///

 

Dean couldn’t sleep much for the rest of the night. His mind was too wired, thinking of everything that had changed. If the crazy cars and the town weren’t enough to convince him, seeing Claire and Kaia was.

Sam hadn’t seemed too taken aback, but why would he? He’d been able to watch them get older. Hell, he’d been at their wedding. He even told Dean about it once. And Cas wasn’t too stunned by how much they’d grown up either, but that was different. The human aging process was small potatoes to a guy who watched galaxies grow up.

But the last time Dean had seen Claire, she was barely in her twenties. She’d still done that sullen teenager thing where she’d roll her eyes and secretly smile at any joke Dean tried to make over Jody’s dinner table. One night, she’d given him a hug goodbye and said “see you later, dummy,” but Dean never saw her again.

The last time he saw Kaia was here at the bunker after she’d gotten back from the bad place. Dean felt a little better about that parting of ways, knowing she was off to live her life. He just never thought he’d miss it.

He’d missed so damn much.

Cas got out of bed around 4 AM to hit the books again. He was still in the library when Dean gave up on sleeping two hours later. Dean threw on his robe and headed into the kitchen to see what he could scrounge up in the way of breakfast. Before he even reached the kitchen, the wafting aroma of coffee filled his senses and made some of the fog in his head dissipate. He knuckled at his eyes, expecting to find Sam in there.

Instead, he found Claire.

She was sitting at the table, munching on toast, a steaming mug at her elbow. In her hand, she held up a thin silver strip of alloy, out from which three holographic screens jutted one after the other. The back of the translucent images were blurred so he couldn’t really see what she was looking at, but they looked like webpages.

No way Dean was awake enough to deal with that Star Trek bullshit yet.

“Someone’s up early,” he said, shuffling into the room.

Claire glanced up. Mouth full, she answered, “Hey. Couldn’t sleep.” Crumbs sprayed through the images of her fancy tablet thing. She swiped at the holograms with a finger, making all three of them disappear back into the silver bar.

Dean sniffed tiredly and poured himself a cup of coffee, basking in its scent. He brought it over to the table and slid in across from Claire, who actually folded up the slender device and slapped it onto her wrist like one of those damn snap bracelets from the 90s. Dean took a giant sip of caffeine.

“So, what’s it like being alive again?” Claire asked, brushing butter off her fingers.

Dean rubbed at his eye again. “Not like it’s the first time,” he considered, but it was the first time it happened after so long. He shrugged. “I dunno. Okay, I guess.” He glanced around the room. Some of the pots and pans were hanging from different hooks than he’d usually kept them on, and there was an ancient-looking air fryer collecting dust on the counter that he’d never bought. Other than the small details like that, the bunker looked pretty much the same.

It still felt the same.

“Looks like you’ve been taking care of the place.”

“Yeah, well, mopping is a bitch.”

Right?” he scoffed, happy to commiserate. Admittedly, he didn’t hate cleaning, but it took fucking forever in a place that big. Weirdly, a pang of nostalgia overcame him.

Claire chuckled and rested her chin in her hand. She was giving him the same look she had last night, like she could hardly believe he was in front of her. He could definitely relate to that.

“What, you don’t have a giant mansion in the clouds?” she teased.

Smiling down at his coffee, Dean shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that.” He did miss his house, and Miracle. But they’d be there when he got back, waiting for him. Forever. “But it’s pretty nice, you know… I mean, heaven. It’s not like it used to be with all the individual people reliving their greatest hits. Jack and Cas overhauled the whole place—or, they still are, I guess. But everyone’s together. Like it should be.”

He didn’t expect her to smile sadly at that. Actually, he didn’t expect to feel sadness twisting inside of him over his own words. There was just something about it. Yeah, everyone was together. Yeah, everyone was at peace. But they were still dead. Dean was aware of that every second, but it mostly just sat in the back of his mind. Sometimes though, it would make its way to the forefront, shooting forward like a bullet. It hit him viscerally. It told him to fight to be alive again.

“You ever see Jody?” Claire asked, and he realized that’s why she was sad.

Clearing his throat to rid himself of his own thoughts, he answered, “Yeah, a lot. She’s good—with her husband and son. Misses you girls though, and Donna.”

God, Donna. She must have been wrinkled and gray by now. Dean could hardly imagine it—all that exuberance, all that life, stooped and diminished. He almost didn’t want to ask: “How’s she, by the way?”

“Donna?” Claire lifted her shoulders, eyes falling down the table. “You’ll probably be able to ask her yourself any day now.”

Dean didn’t know what that meant at first—until he did. “Oh.” He cast his gaze down, too, collecting himself before pushing a smile. “Well, hey, she’ll come to us and we’ll throw her a hell of a welcome party.”

Claire snorted, seeming brighter. “She deserves it. But… I think she’s kinda ready to go. Ya know, after Doug died—Her husband,” she clarified.

Dean blinked, shaking his head. “No way. Doug Three?”

“Four, actually.”

He barked out a surprised laugh at that. A genuine smile slid across Claire’s face, and she joined in. And, in that smile and glinting in her blue eyes, Dean saw the kid he used to know.

He also saw Cas, which was weird. Her resemblance to Jimmy was even more apparent now that she was older. She had frown lines around her mouth, loose skin on her neck, and a scar on her cheek that seemed to have faded after many years. It struck him then that she was older now than her parents ever got to be. Older than Dean ever got to be.

Forcing himself to think of something else, he slapped the table lightly and asked, “What about Alex and Patience? How are they holding up?”

“Good, yeah,” Claire said. “Patience’s daughter is graduating college in the spring.”

Ugh,” Dean grunted, his flesh crawling. He hated the passage of time. He fucking hated it.

Claire rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it.” But she seemed proud. “And Alex is still in Sioux Falls. Been working at a private practice there for like… twenty years or something. But we still call her when someone needs patching up. We all stay in touch. You know…” She shrugged. “They’re my sisters.”

“Good,” Dean said, chest swelling. He glanced toward the empty hallway, suddenly aware of the voices filtering through from the library. He couldn’t hear the words, but he recognized the cadence of Sam’s voice—and then Kaia’s. It reminded Dean: “And I’m happy that you and Kaia stayed together this long.”

Another smile came to Claire’s face then, this one a little coy. She was playing with the ring on her finger. “Me, too,” she said.

Silence fell over them then, and Dean wondered if they should head to the library and see what the other three were talking about. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay there in the early morning comfort and quiet with Claire.

And then: “Hey, Dean?”

Dean brought his attention back to her, noticing something vulnerable in her eyes.

“Since everyone’s together up there,” she asked slowly, her gaze flickering up intermittently, “do you ever… run into my parents?”

Dean sat back, wondering how long she'd wanted to ask him that. “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes. They live a few towns over, but—Actually, Jody sees them a lot. She’s friends with them. Guess they bonded over you.”

Claire raked her hand through her hair embarrassedly. “God, that’s so weird.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “No, it’s good! They’re proud of you—all of three of them.”

It only made her more embarrassed, but she was biting down on a smile. Her eyes flickered to the doorway. “Does it ever get confusing, with my dad and Castiel both there?”

And now, Dean was a little embarrassed, even though he really didn’t know why. “No… No, it… Maybe the first time,” he admitted, remembering the day, a few months after he got to heaven, when he ran into Jimmy. If he hadn’t been dead already, the shock might have stopped his heart. He could have sworn it was Cas. Or maybe he’d hoped it was.

And, just because he didn’t need his heart anymore, apparently didn’t mean it couldn’t break when he realized it wasn’t Cas at all.

That was a long time ago. It had been awkward. He didn’t like thinking about it.

“But, no. You can tell them apart,” he said, trying to find the words to describe it. “They’re just… different, I dunno. They even look different.” He realized he was staring into the middle distance. When his eyes focused on her again, she was giving him a wry smirk. Dean frowned self-consciously. “What?”

“No, they don’t,” she said, humor in her voice. “Maybe to you.” She was making fun of him.

And Dean so wasn’t having this conversation. “Okay—”

“No, c’mon,” Claire needled, her grin widening. “I had to watch you two dance around each other for years! I wanna know. How long have you been together?”

Were they really that obvious? Dean groaned, kind of hating himself for being so head over heels. Or, well, openly head over heels, he guessed. But he never thought he’d have to go through this again, the whole coming out thing. It took a year before he actually told anyone upstairs—even Charlie; especially Charlie—that he and Cas were together. But at least most people had the decency to act surprised, unlike Claire was doing now.

But it’s not like Dean was about to shove himself back into the closet and deny everything now, not after so many years.

“Practically the whole time,” he acquiesced. “There was a little while in the beginning where… Doesn’t matter.” He waved it away. “But it’s been—Hell, just about forty-five years.” Saying out loud was actually a little staggering. He and Cas had been together for longer than Dean had lived on Earth. He never thought he’d see the day.

Claire’s smile dropped in slow motion. “Hard to believe you’ve been gone that long,” she whispered, sadness returning.

It was infectious, no matter how much Dean tried to tamper it down. “Yeah, well… I’m here now.” She seemed almost willing to accept that. He leaned in. “And so’s Cas. He missed you, too, you know.”

Suddenly, she was frowning. “Right, so much that he never came back to Earth to say hi?”

Dean couldn’t help but get defensive at that. “Hey, come on.” He definitely didn’t want that sullen teenager to come back out over this. “He’s practically running the show upstairs. Cut him some slack.”

She withered, but didn’t argue.

“And, like I said, he’s here now. So, you guys should… I dunno. Talk. Go out for some ice cream. He’d like that.”

Claire snorted out a sardonic laugh before he was even finished talking. “Go out for an ice cream? That might be a good bonding activity if I was eight.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Alright, smartass. You haven’t changed a bit, you know that?” It was actually kind of nice. The longer he talked to her, the more he saw it. She was older, yeah, but she was still Claire.

And Claire didn’t seem to agree. She shook her head. “Yeah, I have, Dean,” she told him, too heavy to be light, and stood up. She leaned over to pick up the coffee mugs. “And so have you.”

He hardly registered that, and he had no idea what she meant by it, but it didn’t seem important all of a sudden. Because something had slipped out from the collar of her shirt. The necklace hung by a rope, barely swinging under the heavy weight of the amulet.

The very familiar amulet.

For a second, Dean was too shocked to speak. “Is that my necklace?”

Claire stood up fully, something flashing over her eyes like she’d been caught red-handed. “Uh, yeah,” she admitted, placing her hand over the amulet. “I… found it in your room. Kinda figured you wouldn’t mind if I stole it.”

He shook his head, still blinking. He didn’t know whether to be flattered or weirded out. But none of that mattered right now. “No, that’s—” He stood up quickly, holding out his hand. “Can I see that?”

Claire shrugged. She set the mugs down again and pulled the necklace over her head. The metal of it was warm in Dean’s palm, the weight so familiar, heavier than it should have been with all the memories it carried. But he stowed all that, because it was more than just a necklace.

Swiftly, he turned for the hall and made for the library, Claire calling after him before following. Sam, Cas, and Kaia were sitting at the tables in the library, in conversation over their open books. Dean didn’t actually hear any of their words with how loud his heart was beating in his ears. Not until Sam looked up and said, “Dean, hey. We were just—”

He didn’t wait for Sam to finish. He held the necklace up by its string. “Claire has this.”

Sam jerked his head back. There was a scraping of a chair against wood as Cas stood up.

“Is that—” Sam began.

“The God-finding necklace? Yeah!”

“The what?” Kaia asked. Dean glanced at her, licking his lips as he wondered if he should launch into an explanation.

Cas got there first. “This amulet—it burns bright in God’s presence.”

“Do you think it would still work?” Sam asked, practically reading Dean’s mind. He stood up, too, and walked around the table to meet them. “I mean, Jack has Chuck’s powers now. Would this still even… register him?”

Cas shook his head, seeming to think. “I dunno. Maybe? It should still be connected to him in some way, but… I don’t see how we can use it to locate Chuck. It only works if he’s already present.”

“You said it’s connected to him?” Kaia asked. Dean hadn’t realized until that second that she was standing near them now.

“Theoretically,” Cas corrected.

Kaia’s eyes moved behind Dean, meeting Claire’s. They shared a long look. Claire asked, “You think you can do it?”

Dean shook his head, at a loss. “Do what?”

“Dreamwalk?” Sam asked, exhaling heavily. “Kaia, are you sure?”

“Maybe.” She turned her focus back to Dean. “I’ve gotten better at it since I was younger. Since the bad place was destroyed, I don’t see the other version of me there. I don’t see any other universe, because there aren’t any anymore. But it’s helped me focus. I can dreamwalk other people now.”

“Yeah, but, Kaia,” Sam said, “have you ever tried it with someone this powerful before?”

Kaia took a deep breath. “No. But I can try.”

Claire stepped forward, nodding, even if she didn’t look thrilled with the plan. “I think it’s our best bet,” she said, then turned her head to Kaia. “But, if you sense anything wrong, get out of there.”

Kaia pressed her lips together, expression serious, but she nodded in promise.

“Okay. It’s worth a shot,” Sam agreed. “Just… be careful. We’ll all be here with you.”

“Yeah, and we don’t even know if it’ll work,” Dean reminded them, even if he hoped it would. It would make all their lives a lot easier.

A voice in the back of his mind reminded him that, for them, things were never easy.

Claire went to the table and dragged out a chair, pushing it behind Kaia, who sat down in it. Briefly, Claire placed her hand on Kaia’s shoulder, and Kaia touched Claire’s wrist, silently reassuring that she’d be okay.

Dean stepped forward and held out the necklace, letting it dangle. Kaia looked up at him, controlling any hesitation she must have had. She took the necklace, wrapped her palm around the amulet, and closed her eyes.

For a long time, nothing happened, and Dean realized he was holding his breath. With every passing second, he became more and more sure that it wasn’t working.

And then Kaia’s eyes began moving back and forth behind her lids, like she was dreaming.

“There’s… It’s blurry,” she reported. Dean glanced at Sam and Cas, sharing looks. “It’s… a house, I think. It’s messy. Old.”

“A house?” Dean echoed. She had to give him more to go on than that.

“Green kitchen cabinets,” Kaia said. “There… There’s a window over the sink.”

Dean felt like there was a word on the tip of his tongue, except it was a memory. It was like he could picture what she was describing—but also, he couldn’t. It wavered between reality and nonexistence.

“Chuck’s house,” Sam said under his breath. His eyes snapped up. Louder, he said, “That’s Chuck’s house—when we first met him. Remember?”

Dean blinked, meeting Cas’ eyes. Suddenly, he remembered that kitchen. He remembered the floor quaking and the shining, humming grace of an archangel filling his senses.

“Kaia, is there anything else?” Sam prompted.

“I don’t… Wait,” Kaia said. “I—” Suddenly, she gasped sharply, her small frame filling up. And then she froze, not letting the breath out. Her knuckles were going white with how tightly she was holding the amulet.

Dean’s stomach dropped.

“Kaia?” Claire panicked, rushing back to her side. “Kaia?”

Slowly, Kaia let the breath out. She opened her eyes.

Relief overcame Dean, until he noticed the way she was looking at them. Her eyes moved pointedly from person to person, like she was inspecting them. And then, they found him, lingering for a long time.

Ice slid down Dean’s back.

That wasn’t Kaia.

A sideways smirk came to Kaia’s face. She said, “Hey-ya, Dean.”

No.

Kaia gasped again, her eyes skewing shut, but she let out of the breath immediately, body sinking into the chair like she was exhausted. Her hand opened, letting the necklace fall to the floor.

Claire was kneeling beside her, hands on Kaia’s arms. Her face was sheet-white. “Kaia, are you okay?”

Kaia blinked, rattling her head. She looked up at Dean. “He knows you’re looking for him. He knows you’re on Earth.”

“Shit,” Dean hissed, guilt filling him. So much for the element of surprise.

“And we know where he is,” Cas said with determination.

Sam turned to him, gesturing out with his arms. “Yeah, but, if he knows we know, he’s not staying there for long.”

“It’s a start,” Cas said. “I’ll go to heaven, have angels surround the area. If nothing else, it will prevent the angels from the Empty from getting to him.”

Dean nodded swiftly. “Good. Hurry.”

Without another word, Cas was gone, the pages of the books on the table rustling and turning over in the burst of wind.

Dean focused on Kaia and Claire again. He bit down on his jaw, sorry that he’d even had the idea about the necklace. Sorry for putting Kaia through that.

Yeah. Nothing was ever easy.

 

///

 

Castiel arrived into the glowing white halls of heaven, prepared for the buzz of activity that would undoubtedly meet him.

Except it didn’t.

The corridor was empty, not so much as an echo of fluttering wings or footsteps reaching his ears. Immediately, he knew something was wrong.

He looked up and down the hall, expecting someone to turn the corner. No one came.

“Hello?” he called. His own voice traveled down the polished floors, flying past the closed doors of the individual heavens left.

He made for the throne room, finding it vacant, too.

“Gabriel?” he called. No answer.

“Balthazar?” No fluttering of wings.

“Hannah!” Nothing.

Castiel realized his breath was coming out in shorts pants. His pulse was racing. His grace thrummed inside of him, building and collecting in preparation for a fight.

He flew to Naomi’s office, desperate to find even her.

She wasn’t there.

Castiel closed his eyes, trying to focus on the energies coming in from all around him. He scanned HQ for signs of life—even an echo. He found nothing. No angels.

He ripped his eyes open, panic overcoming him.

“Jack?” he called frantically.

His mind reeled immediately toward the worst case scenario: that Chuck had gotten in. That he’d absorbed more souls, taken the angels.

No. It was unthinkable.

Because if Chuck really had gotten into heaven… If the angels were gone…

Then where was Jack?

Terror stole over him. He remained alone.

Jack!”