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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 lock up.” 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 lock up 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 lock up, 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 lock up. 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 the 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 lock up 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 she 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 barbecues, 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 with 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 lock up.

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 lock up. “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 lock up,” 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 lock up 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?”

Chapter Text

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!”

Chapter Text

The Lost Coast Mountain House & Resort
Ferndale, CA
One Year Ago

Cameras erupted in bursts of light. They left stars in Carmen’s eyes. She could barely see the members of the press tripping over themselves to be closest to the red velvet rope. To be close to her.

“Carmen!”

“Miss Eliot, over here! Carmen!”

The heels of Carmen’s shoes sank into the red carpet. The gold sequins on her dress shimmered. She waved to the crowd, posed for pictures. Overheard, black birds wheeled through the cloudy sky.

Slowly, she walked forward, toward her waiting limo. The golden statue in her hand was lighter than she’d expected it to be.

“Carmen, how does it feel to take home the Oscar tonight?” someone in the faceless crowd called to her. Another camera flashed. The lights spread her shadow all around her—at her sides, her back, in front of her.

She kept walking, passing by one of the theater’s grand windows as she did. Her reflection was crystal clear, as if in a mirror. It walked in stride—its hair askew, make up smudged, a hairdryer in hand. A crow was perched on the windowsill, pecking against the glass. Clink, clink, clinking.

The limo driver opened the door for her, the inside of the car a mass of shadows. Before she reached it, she looked around, a smile straining on her face, ear to ear. She couldn’t believe it: a girl from rural Michigan had made it in Hollywood when everyone told her she wouldn’t. They were choking on their words now.

She waved at the photographers, wishing she could stay in that moment forever.

You can, a voice reminded her.

She would.

She gripped her trophy tighter, stepped into the limo. A handsome, smiling man waited for her inside, two celebratory flutes of champagne in hand.

There was something warm around her ankles. Wet, inviting. She glanced up at the raised partition at the front end of the car. Her reflection shimmered in the shiny black surface. It grinned at her, eyes empty. White tile was in the backdrop, a full bath.

Carmen sunk down into her seat. Her reflection sat in the water. The warmth on her ankles spread to the rest of her body. She took the offered champagne, clinked her glass against her companion’s.

Her cheeks hurt with all the joy written on her face. Her heart pumped steadily, and she allowed the moment to wash over her. It was peaceful.

Lenses were flashing outside the tinted windows of the car.

She lifted up her Oscar, showing it to her reflection. On the surface, her reflection held up the hairdryer.

Carmen wanted to stay in this moment forever.

She loosened her grip, let the award fall to the warmth of her lap.

The cameras erupted.

 

///

 

Present Day

The weapon was in hand. He held it readily in front of him, one hand on the button that would trigger the device. Keeping his footsteps as light as he could, he paced down the long corridor, staying close to the wall. He turned, peering through the threshold.

And there was his target—back turned, shoulders relaxed, unguarded and unsuspecting.

Now was the time to strike.

He stalked forward, breath trapped in his lungs, heart in his throat. His fist tightened around the weapon.

He was close now. So close.

“Don’t even think about it, Dean,” Sam said, not bothering to turn around.

Dean dropped his arm disappointedly, letting the evil clown doll he’d picked up from the Halloween store in town dangle at his side. Ever since he got it, he’d been trying to catch Sam off guard with no success. He huffed out a breath and walked around the kitchen table to plop down in front of Sam. “You suck.”

Sam shot him an annoyed face—all pursed lips and tight brow—before going back to his breakfast. Dean eyed the plate of eggs and the mug of coffee. He put the clown doll on the table and pushed the button, making the jagged-mouth move up and down. It emitted a maniacal laugh that was more kitsch than bone-chilling.

Sam frowned at the thing in morbid disgust, which was at least a little bit satisfying. “Why’d you even buy that thing?”

“Because it’s Halloween!” Dean defended.

“In four days.”

“Don’t be such a downer. Just because you blew chunks in front of your grade school crush doesn’t mean everyone has to be lame.”

Sam rolled his eyes, probably regretting ever having told Dean that story. “Halloween is lame. I can’t believe people still haven’t realized that.”

“What haven’t people realized?” Claire asked as she walked into the kitchen. She was still in her pajamas.

Before Sam could answer, Dean said, “How lame Sam is for not liking Halloween.”

“That is lame,” Claire agreed, perching on the edge of the table. Dean gestured toward her and popped his brows at Sam, resting his case. It earned him another bitch face.

“Anyway,” Dean said, swiping Sam’s mug of coffee up and taking a sip to claim it as his own, “anybody seen Cas yet?” Cas hadn’t gone to bed last night—or the night before. He’d been running himself ragged ever since he got back from heaven. Dean knew he was trying to find where the angels went. They all were, and they weren’t having any luck.

There was probably a reason for that. Their working theory was that Jack took all the angels and hid them away somewhere. They just didn’t know where, or why. But all the human souls had been left in heaven, which was a good sign. If they’d all been gone, too, Dean would have been more worried. That would have meant Chuck was behind the sudden disappearance.

Sam and Claire both shook their heads no, but it didn’t matter. Almost on cue, there was a sudden gust accompanied by a rush of wings. “What?” Cas’ voice came from behind Dean.

Dean jumped, not having expected it. He swiveled around to glare at Cas. “Where the fuck have you been?”

“Oymyakon.”

“Oy, my achin’ where?”

“Russia.”

Dean’s head rattled with about a million questions. He didn’t know why the one that reached his lips was, “Had a hankering for some borscht?”

Cas shot him an unamused look before slumping to the table and sitting next to him. “Oymyakon is one of the most remote places on Earth.”

“You thought the angels could be hiding there,” Sam inferred. Cas slumped a little more, so Dean guessed his search was a bust. Sam offered him sympathetic eyes. “We’ll find him, Cas. We’ll find all of them.”

“Just maybe not anytime soon,” Dean cut in. It earned him a few sharp looks. “I’m just saying. Jack might not be on Earth. He could have packed up the angels and taken them anywhere.”

“But why?” Cas said, frustrated. “Why would he leave heaven unguarded? Chuck is more of a threat to the human souls than he is to the angels.”

“But the souls up there are safe, right?” Claire asked. “You said heaven was locked for everyone but you.”

Cas nodded, still somber. Hopeless. Dean hated seeing him like that. “Yes. For now. But, the more powerful Chuck grows, the easier it’ll be for him to get into heaven. And Jack—”

“He’s alright,” Dean cut in.

“How do you know?”

He didn’t. He didn’t know anything. “Because,” Dean tried. “Jack’s got the power of God, right? Plus Amara’s power! Wherever they are, they’re safer than any of us.” Unless they were wrong about the angels hiding. Unless Chuck got to them first. Dean’s stomach knotted at the possibility, but he didn’t voice it. Cas didn’t need to hear that.

“Look, we’ll find them—eventually. Or they’ll find us,” he said instead.

It didn’t seem to buoy Cas’ spirits at all. “And in the meantime?”

Dean shrugged, about to suggest they go into the Dean Cave and spend the day watching a horror movie marathon. But Claire spoke up first: “Well, if you’re looking for things to do, you could hunt.”

Everything inside of Dean came to a screeching halt. He could even feel tire skids burning in his chest.

“I think I found a new case last night,” she continued. “I was gonna put another hunter on it, but if you’re available…”

Sam nodded, seeming interested. “What’s the case?”

“Last year, some woman outside Ferndale, California offed herself at a resort’s annual murder mystery party.”

No way Dean was driving all the way to Northern California for that. It was a waste of time. He scoffed. “So?”

“She wasn’t the first to kill herself at that event,” Claire told him pointedly. “There’s been a suicide there every October for the last eight years. Sounds like it could be something.”

“Or it could just be a really shitty party,” Dean countered. “Have you checked the Yelp reviews?” He stared down at his coffee, absentmindedly spinning the mug in slow circles against the table. The black liquid inside swirled.

Sam held his hand out, attempting to stop the back and forth. “I think we should take it. It’ll be good for us.”

Dean shook his head quickly, wondering why the hell Sam thought that. He put all his effort into wondering about it, because if he didn’t, he would have been too focused on the unease curling around his lower gut.

“Neither of us have hunted in a while—you longer than me,” Sam explained, and Dean rolled his eyes at the reminder. “We need the practice, especially if we run into Chuck or his angels later on.”

“There’s a difference between monster hunting and going toe-to-toe with Charlie’s Angels,” Dean said. “Plus, a murder mystery? Really? What are we, tourists?”

“You’re the one who loves Halloween,” Sam pointed out.

At the same time, Cas said, “I’m finding it hard to believe that you’re opposed to dressing in costume.” Dean pursed his lips at both of them in annoyance.

Sam glossed over it and put on a determined face. “It’ll help us get our heads back in the game.”

He was right. Dean knew he was right. And dressing up like it was the 1920s did seem kind of awesome. Actually, going to a gimmicky murder mystery had always been on his bucket list, which Dean definitely wouldn’t admit out loud. But that wasn’t the point! He didn’t even have a bucket list anymore because he was already dead. “Small problem: all our fake IDs expired forty years ago! We don’t even have phones! Or money!”

“Give me till tonight,” Claire said. “I’ll get you what you need.”

Dean ignored the funny, assessing look Sam was giving him. He turned to Cas, trying to find a reason for not going. “What do you think?”

Cas opened his mouth and breathed in, then closed it again. Thoughtfully, he said, “I need to find Jack and the host.”

“Castiel,” Claire butt in. “You went to freaking Russia looking for them. Maybe you need to take your mind off it for a while and come back with fresh eyes.”

Cas inhaled again and tipped his head to the side, looking like he was agreeing.

Dean huffed. “Okay, but how would we even get there? ‘Cause I’m not taking the damn hyperloop and no way I’m not-driving one of those self-driving spaceship cars!” He shuddered at the very thought of it. “I don’t even have my baby!”

Claire snorted out a laugh, and Dean really didn’t see why that was funny. Not until she said, “The Impala’s here.”

Dean’s mind blanked. He stared at her, hardly blinking. He couldn’t even find it in himself to be annoyed that she hadn’t said anything sooner. All he could think about was his car. Here. Home. With him.

“It’s in the garage,” Claire went on. “Sam’s son dropped it off here a few years back.”

“What?” Sam asked, sitting up straighter. “Why would he do that?”

Claire gave another dry laugh. “Uh, how about because it’s a total gas guzzler?”

Dean was barely listening. He didn’t even hear a word after it’s in the garage. Nothing else mattered, anyway. His mind reeled around a single phrase: my baby, my baby, my baby…

Before he even knew what he was doing, he jumped up from the table and ran in the direction of the garage. He paused briefly at the top of the stairs into the garage, eyes scanning the shiny old school cars, their polished metal glinting in the overheard lights. His gaze landed on the Impala. It made his heart seize.

She’d been there all that time.

Distantly, he was aware of rushing footsteps following after him, but he didn’t linger. He rushed down the steps and made for the car, a grin pulling so wide it hurt. “Hey, sweetheart,” he whispered, running his palm along the hood. His warped reflection in the tuxedo black gloss looked back at him. Something like grief sat heavy on his chest. The weight of it combated against the balloon of happiness swelling inside him.

She was still perfect, just like he remembered. He needed to get inside. He needed to turn the ignition and hear the engine rumble into life. And then maybe he’d feel alive, too. Finally, he’d know it. He’d know he was alive.

Something deep and dark in the back of his head told him not to do it.

If he did it, there was no going back.

“Dean.” That was Cas’ voice. Dean looked up sharply, consciously realizing for the first time that Sam, Cas, and Claire had followed him. They were walking past the row of cars toward him.

Dean spread his arms out wide. “Look at her!”

Cas came to a rest at the opposite side of the hood. “You have the Impala in heaven.”

“Well,” Dean said, his voice raising an octave—because that wasn’t actually true. He looked down at his car longingly. “Yeah, but that’s just a replica, right? I mean—this! This is the real thing!” He felt giddy. “My one true love!”

“I’m glad to know where I stand,” Cas answered flatly.

Dean ignored him, too busy making heart-eyes at the Impala. And he came to a decision: “Okay. California. Hunting. Let’s go.”

Sam’s forehead lined. “You wanna drive the Impala to California?” he asked slowly, like he hadn’t grown up in that very car, driving from coast to coast and back again.

“Yeah? Why not?”

“Good luck finding a gas station that still sells gas, grandpa,” Claire said, crossing her arms.

Dean pouted. She didn’t know what she was talking about. Of course there were still gas stations! It’s America!

“We’re taking her!” He didn’t leave any room for argument.

“Fine. Sure,” Sam acquiesced. He took a few steps backward. “I’ll go see what we’re up against. Claire, can you help with the IDs?”

Claire shrugged. “Kinda what I’m here for.”

Dean didn’t care about any of that crap. He opened the Impala’s driver door and slid inside, eyes alight, fists gripping the smooth leather of the steering wheel.

 

///

 

They were already on their second night of the drive, having just crossed the border into California. Dean had gotten lost earlier that day and blamed it on the new highways that “weren’t supposed to be there.” It took them about four hours out of their way, all told, before Dean finally caved and let Sam direct him with the GPS app on the phone Claire had picked up for him.

Halfway into the trip, Sam had figured it was a good time to give Dean and Cas a crash course on how phones worked nowadays. Cas had stayed quiet through most of it, his brow pinched in concentration. Dean had been a little more vocal.

“It’s a phone, tablet, smartwatch, and computer all in one?” he’d asked like the thing had personally offended him.

“Yeah, check it out,” Sam said, taking the slender strip of silver from around his wrist. He’d kept it folded and swiped out the holographic screen. “Phone mode—works the same as a regular smartphone.” He unfolded it, making the screen bigger. “Tablet.” He’d set the device on the Impala’s dashboard, causing a holographic keyboard to appear on the flat surface. “Computer.”

When he put the device back on his wrist, he’d said, “And you can do stuff when it’s like this, too. See? Take pictures, answer calls, check the time. GPS,” he’d added pointedly.

Dean had only huffed and said, “I’m never gonna get used to that.”

Sympathy washed over Sam. “Yeah, you will.”

That had been in the morning. It was dark out now. Silence hung in the car, which was draped on all sides by the thick fog coming off the empty stretch of road around them. The moonlight managed to cut through at times, only to be strangled by the mist moments later. All the headlights did was illuminate the swirling wall in a sickly pale glow.

The cassette tape in the player had run out about an hour ago, and neither Sam nor Dean bothered to change it. And it wasn’t like they could turn on the radio anymore, since that was all subscription-based now. It was probably better that way. Dean needed to focus on driving in fog that thick.

Throughout the ride, Sam kept casting surreptitious glances Dean’s way. His mind was reeling, always falling back on his brother’s weird behavior since they got back to Earth. It wasn’t like Dean to be hesitant about a hunt, even if he did perk up when he realized they had the Impala. Maybe Cas had been right, after all. Maybe Dean was just gun shy about how much the world had changed. Sure, Dean was great at adapting, but deep down he always loved staying in his comfort zone. Now, nowhere was his comfort zone. It was the same thing Mary had gone through when she came back to life.

It only strengthened Sam’s belief that they needed to hunt. That might be just what the doctor ordered for Dean. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else going on.

Maybe now was a good time to broach the subject. Cas had popped out a few miles back to pick them up something to eat so they wouldn’t have to stop. They were alone. Maybe Dean would tell Sam what the issue was.

“So,” Dean said, and it very nearly startled Sam out of his skin. It definitely knocked him out of his thoughts. “You find anything else out about this hotel?”

“Uh,” Sam said, running his hand through his hair in an attempt to recover. He’d been doing some research as they drove, looking into the history of the mountain house and the police reports about the suicides that happened there. “Yeah. Like Claire said, there’s been a death there every October like clockwork. The latest was an aspiring actress from South California. Carmen Eliot.”

Southern California? Like LA?”

Sam breathed out a laugh. “California is two states now.” He’d forgotten that had happened after Dean died. Ignoring Dean’s scandalized eyes, he continued, “Anyway, the place itself is pretty kosher. According to the website, it was built in the 1920s, but it’s on the Lost Coast—only one road in and out back then. The place shut down in the 40s, sat abandoned for a hundred years, and about a decade ago, someone bought it and renovated it.”

“A decade?” Dean asked, his eyes briefly flashing off the road to meet Sam. “And the deaths have been happening for eight years. You think the new owners might have something to do with them?”

Sam blew out his cheeks and slapped his hands against his thighs. His watch lit up, sending up a mini holographic GPS telling them to continue straight in two miles. It cast the inside of the car in pale blue until the map faded away again.

“Doubt it,” he said. “A lot of hotels and motels were bought up and renovated back in the 30s through the 40s. Old school Americana was trendy for a second.”

Dean hummed, probably thinking the same thing Sam had at the time: why would anyone want to stylize the dumpy rooms that the two of them grew up in?

“Okay, so what? Place is old. Renovations could have woken something up. We’re thinking vengeful spirit?”

“Could be,” Sam allowed. “But there weren’t any reported deaths the first time the hotel was open. One thing about the latest vic—the actress? Her friend told the police that, the night before Carmen died, she called her up and started talking like she was going to the Oscars.”

“And?”

And the girl could barely get an audition. So, I dunno. I thought it might be a djinn, but Carmen was conscious. She was participating in the murder mystery or whatever.” Sam tossed up his hand and let it fall back to his lap. “And, who knows, maybe that had nothing to do with whatever’s there.”

“She might have just been drunk,” Dean suggested. “Or high.”

“None of that showed in the toxicology report. The only thing that showed were traces of desvenlafaxine in her blood. It’s a mood stabilizer.”

“So, she was depressed?

“Seems like.”

“Depressed enough to kill herself?”

Sam shrugged. “Maybe? Who knows? But that doesn’t account for the other seven people. We’ll just have to see what’s what when we get there.”

Dean hummed in agreement. After that, silence fell again, and Sam couldn’t help but feel pressure creeping up against him. It sat like lead in his gut, touching ice to the back of his neck. Cas would be back any time now, which meant Sam’s window was closing.

He cleared his throat, telling himself to just go for it. “Hey, Dean?” Dean made a sound, prompting him to continue. “You, uh… You doing alright?” He kept his eyes on Dean, looking hard for any micro-expression that Dean might try to shut down.

Dean knitted his brows together and looked at Sam again like he was crazy. “I’m fine,” he answered as if the question was out of left field.

Sam sighed, but he probably would have been more concerned if Dean actually came right out with what was on his mind so easily. “Then what was all that back at the bunker? It kinda seemed like you didn’t wanna hunt.”

“I wanna hunt!” It sounded too forced to be true.

“Right,” Sam said. If he pushed any harder, Dean would shut down.

But, before he could figure out a gentle approach, there was a fluttering from the backseat. “Here,” Cas said, reaching over the bench to hand over a greasy brown take out bag.

“Finally!” Dean complained. “I’m starving!”

“Thanks, Cas,” Sam said, relieving him of the bag and placing it on the seat between himself and Dean. He took out his black bean burger and sweet potato fries. Dean dug into the bag next, bringing out a couple fries and stuffing them in his mouth. He reached back in, feeling around.

“Dude, did you forget the ketchup?”

“Um…” Cas said. “I’ll be right back.” He disappeared again.

Dean slapped his hands against the steering wheel. “He forgot the ketchup,” he said in an exasperated tone that suggested it was part of some long-standing argument that Sam was supposed to be privy to.

Sam wondered how much time they had before Cas came back.

Dean reached into the bag again, but instead of fries he pulled out the receipt. He balked down at it. “Fifty-six dollars for two combo meals? What the—” He nearly swerved off the road.

“Inflation,” Sam reminded him, snatching the receipt out of Dean’s hand so he would focus on driving. “Plus, you ordered a…” he regarded the paper, “double bacon cheeseburger.”

“And?”

“And,” Sam said, “meat’s expensive these days. Especially beef. The higher prices helped curb climate change.”

“Climate—They’re cows! What do they have to do with global warming?”

Before Sam could correct him, Cas was back, reaching over the seat again and letting biodegradable ketchup packets rain down from his fist.

Dean looked at him in the rear-view mirror. “Cas, tell Sam that cows didn’t cause global warming.”

Cas’ eyes ricocheted back and forth, visibly wondering what kind of conversation he’d walked in on. “Well,” he said, overcoming, “the methane produced by livestocks’ digestive systems contributes to 0.36 percent of greenhouse gasses.”

Dean looked affronted by that. He snatched up a ketchup packet and ripped it open with his teeth, then squirted into the bag. “Huh. Brave new world,” he muttered.

Sam glanced over his shoulder at Cas, sharing a look. Then, he turned his attention back to Dean, trying not to appear too concerned while watching him unwrap and chomp into his burger like he was determined to enjoy every bite.

 

///

 

The fog didn’t break up with the morning light. It sat over the cliffs, still and smudged, and Dean could picture himself losing the road and careening downward into the icy gray waters of the Pacific. Around them, the leaves of the trees were dull shades of brown, their thick trunks standing between the mist like phantoms as they reached toward the sky. At least it was finally starting to feel like autumn. There was a damp chill in Dean’s bones. The world smelled of earth and decay.

Angry pewter clouds swirled thickly in the sky over choppy waves, promising one hell of a storm.

Up ahead, the hotel loomed over the cliffs, a lonely and isolated structure. It still had that early 1900s aesthetic to it: all iron and spindles, gothic windows that Dean thought were a little too on the nose for Halloween. The winding road led them toward a gate, with a big sign over it that read “Lost Coast Mountain House & Resort.” There were a dozen of those sleek UFO cars in the parking lot.

Dean got out of the car, his knees popping and back aching from the drive. It’s been a long time since he’d been in a car for that long. And it’d been a long time since he had a real body to really ache.

“Gotta say, I’m starting to see why this place made so many people kill themselves,” he said when he heard the passenger doors open and close. “I’ve been here five seconds and I’m already depressed.”

He didn’t so much see Sam’s eyes roll as he did feel it. Sam walked to the trunk to get his duffle. “Come on. Let’s check in.”

Dean looked around at Cas, seeing if the joke landed with him at least. He should have known better. A perched crow, its claws digging into a low hanging roof, cawed at them; and it was the closest thing Dean got to a reaction.

Cas pushed past him. Dean scoffed, got his duffle, and followed after him.

The inside of the hotel was going for the same old world feel as the outside. The floors were wall-to-wall ornate red rugs, and the walls were made of dark, paneled wood. Crystal chandeliers hung from the low ceilings, black and white portraits and candid pictures hung from frames, the bright exposure of them washing out the subjects’ skin enough to make them almost transparent. A reception desk sat beneath a flight of rickety stairs, and there was a giant mirror right behind it, reflecting the clerk’s uniformed shoulders.

Right at the bottom of the stairs, a wide threshold led into a giant dining room. A hallway led toward the back of the hotel.

“Anyone else feel like Jack Nicholson is gonna come out with an axe?” Dean muttered, readjusting his duffle’s strap on his shoulder.

When they approached the desk, the receptionist looked up, a professional smile on her face. “Hi. Checking in?”

“Yeah, uh—Emily,” Sam said, his eyes flashing to the woman’s gold name tag. “We have reservations. Under McJohn.”

Emily brought her eyes down to one of those fancy holographic computers-slash-phones-slash-toaster-oven-probably and typed in the name. “Yes!” she said brightly. “Three people. We have you in room 110. You should like it. It has a great view of the ocean!”

“It has a great view of the fog,” Dean corrected, which made Emily’s smile flicker somewhat.

She recovered quickly, brightening again. “The weather will clear up. Or so says the forecast. Fingers crossed they actually get it right this time!” She laughed, and Dean gave a pity-smile because he knew how annoying it was when no one laughed at your jokes. “Anyway. Can I see some ID?”

“Sure,” Sam said, and pulled up his new fake ID on his smartwatch-slash-refrigerator. Because apparently IDs were all digital now, too, but they could only be accessed with a fingerprint—like hackers couldn’t find ways around that. When Claire had handed Dean his device and told him about all the information on it, he’d joked, “What, are my dental records on here, too?” And she’d rolled her eyes without giving him an answer, so he really hoped his dental records weren’t actually on it.

The whole thing was basically an invitation to steal a person’s identity—which was great for guys like them, but not so great for real people.

While Sam checked them in, Dean took the opportunity to glance around the lobby. There was no one else around, despite the sitting room with cushy armchairs and a bookshelf next to a crackling fireplace. The flames hued the room in red. He turned back to the mirror behind the desk, finding his skin tinged in the same color.

His eyes were starting to get dry from lack of blinking, but he kept staring. Too tired suddenly—even to blink.

Sam and Emily kept talking, their voices going in one ear and out the other. Muffled words. Sounds without meaning. Sam was tapping his fingers against the desk as she continued to check them in.

Tap, tap, tapping.

Something flashed in the corner of Dean’s vision. Movement in the mirror. Too quick to see.

He blinked himself right, shaking himself back into reality. His eyes had just played a trick on him. He glanced behind him, just to make sure. There was nothing there.

“Okay, you’re all set,” Emily said, pulling Dean back into reality. “The murder mystery starts tomorrow at noon, but there’ll be a reception later tonight. The schedule is in your room, as well as a list of spa treatments, hiking trails, and other entertainment options. Do you have any questions?”

Dean perked up slightly, wondering if he could get a Swedish massage. Emphasis on the Swedish. But Sam said, “No. Thank you.”

“Great! I’ll have someone bring your bags up. In the meantime, my name’s Emily and I’ll be here for whatever you need. I’m the owner, so don’t be shy!” She laughed again, like it was a joke, and Dean didn’t offer her any sympathy that time.

The three of them trudged up the stairs on the way to their room. “Bell boy service and a spa,” Dean said, knocking his shoulder against Cas’. “I think I’m coming around to this place.”

“Dean, we’re here to work,” Cas reminded him.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, grumpy, I’ll see if they got a couple’s massage.”

 

///

 

The morning was spent sweeping the hotel for any clues on what they were up against. Now, it was almost time for the reception, so they called it quits on looking around. In their room, Dean and Cas were arguing about the reception’s 1920s-appropriate dress code until, finally, they reached a compromise. Cas kept on his usual suit, because “it’s all I brought, Dean, and it doesn’t matter,” and Mr. Murder Mysteries Are For Tourists convinced him to lose the trench coat, since “you’re lucky I’m not asking you to put on a flapper dress.” Sam locked himself in the bathroom to change when Dean then made a comment about what Cas’ legs might look like in a skirt.

The cocktail party was hosted in the dining room at the front of the house. Emily made a speech about the rules of tomorrow’s game to the crowd of twenty or so people. Each of the guests picked their roles out of a hat; and they got their polaroids taken, the name of their character written beneath the picture and taped to the wall. Waiters and waitresses walked around carrying trays of finger food, champagne, and gin drinks. A stereo designed to look like a gramophone played soft jazz. All the while, idle chatter lifted up from the crowd as they mingled around the dining table.

Across the room, near the fireplace, Dean was trying to flirt his way to information with one of the waitresses. Cas was talking to a guest, and Sam found himself in front of his third couple since the night started. Like most of the attendees who weren’t Dean, they hadn’t put much effort into their costumes. She was in a contemporary black dress and a headband with a feather in it, and he was in a normal suit. They were middle-aged, and from Utah, and Sam had almost given up on them having any answers until the husband said they’d been there the previous year.

“We just had so much fun last year. We had to come back,” the wife, Adrienne, said, touching Gerry’s arm.

“Oh, really?” Sam said, feigning interest. “Wait, I read something about last year when I was looking at reviews. Didn’t someone die? An actress?”

Both of their faces turned somber. Adrienne took a sip of her drink. “Yes. It was very sad,” Gerry said, scratching uncomfortably at his curly dark hair.

“Did you talk to her at all? What happened?”

“No, no, we didn’t,” was the answer. “But the paramedics said it was suicide.”

Sam twirled his champagne, realizing they didn’t know anything, after all.

“Oh, but I think she spoke to her,” Adrienne offered, gesturing toward the other side of the room. A young woman was standing in front of the oversized, gold-framed wall mirror. Her hair was cut into a bob, and she was in a shimmery flapper dress that actually looked like it was from the 1920s.

Sam popped his brows. “She was here last year, too?”

The couple gave a wry laugh. “Oh, yeah,” Gerry said dryly. “She kept going on and on about it last year. Apparently, she’s been coming for the last four years. Five now, I guess. She kept saying she was born in the wrong era.” He rolled his eyes.

“She’s passionate,” Adrienne said, shooting her husband a reproving look. “We arrived three days ago for spa treatments, and we were sure we’d be the first ones here for the event! But she beat us! Anyway, I think I saw her and her partner speaking to the deceased last year.”

“Partner?” Finally, some leads. If there were two people who had been coming for multiple years, there was a good chance one of them saw something.

“I, um…” Adrienne glanced around the room as if looking for someone. “I don’t see her here. Maybe they aren’t together anymore.” She let it go with a shrug.

Sam nodded, pushing a polite smile. “Right. Excuse me.” He left the two alone, heading toward the mirror. On his way, he caught Dean’s eye, silently letting him know he might have something. Dean had moved on from the waitress to a waiter, and he silently conveyed that he had nothing.

When Sam reached the girl, she was straightening her headband, a serene smile on her face. She smacked her ruby red lips to fix her lipstick.

“Excuse me?” Sam asked, ducking forward to get her attention. She didn’t take her gaze of the mirror. In the reflection, her eyes moved lazily toward him. “Hi. Uh, I’m Sam. I was just talking to a few people who said you’ve been coming here for a few years?” He gestured vaguely backward to the couple. In the mirror, the dark windows on the opposite side of the room creaked in the wind.

“That’s right,” she said. She lifted her white gloved hand, holding it out to the side of her in offering. “Valerie’s the name.” She was putting on a voice, some kind of attempt at a transatlantic accent. Sam figured she was really into the theme of the party.

He humored her by shaking her hand. “They said you and your partner have been coming to this event for a while?”

Valerie laughed suddenly, a quick, wry thing. “We did. Until now. Just me this year, see?”

Sam pinched his face in sympathy, guessing they had broken up. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was mutual.” She turned her attention back to her reflection and smoothed out her dress. “She and her new doll mutually kicked me to the curb.” Sam’s expression turned to confusion, but she must have misread it because she said, “Oh, don’t look like that! It’s the 1920s.”

He offered a breath of laughter at that. There was only one potential witness now, but he’d work with what he had. “So, hey, what do you think about all the deaths that have happened here over the years? Did you know any of the people?”

“Deaths?” she asked, vaguely intrigued, like she had no idea what he was talking about.

He rattled his head. “All the people who have died at this event,” he clarified.

Something dawned over her face. “Ah, yes,” she said with an exaggerated wink. “The murders. The butler done it last year. Who knows who will fall victim this time? I bet it’ll be that one.” She pointed into the mirror, at Dean’s reflection. She dropped her hand, laughing.

Sam honestly couldn’t figure out if she really didn’t know about the suicides or if she was way too into the game. The former seemed a little unbelievable considering how many years she’d attended. Either way, it was frustrating.

“Loosen up, slim. It’s a party,” Valerie told him. “Have yourself a Gin Rickey.”

Sam nodded, deciding to come back to question her later. He excused himself and walked over to Dean, who was popping cocktail weenies into his mouth from the greasy napkin in his hand.

“Anything?”

Dean shook his head, swallowing a lump of food. “Staff’s not talking. It’s like they got a gag order or something. You?”

Sam sighed, glancing around at Valerie, still smiling happily at her reflection. “Maybe. I dunno.”

“What about from Tim Curry wannabe over there?” Dean asked, pointing his chin in Adrienne and Gerry’s direction.

“No. We might have to do another sweep later—with the EMF this time.”

Dean hummed, chewing on another hotdog. “Or maybe this place is less Overlook Hotel, more Bates Motel.”

That didn’t sit right with Sam. “Yeah, but, if it is a regular person killing people, wouldn’t they have found them by now? I mean, you said the staff isn’t talking. Why wouldn’t Emily want to get to the bottom of this?”

“Unless Emily’s the killer.”

Sam snorted. “She didn’t really strike me as the H.H. Holmes type.”

“Well, she definitely needs to go to jail,” Dean complained. “Have you heard half these character names people got?” Sam pulled the corners of his mouth down. He hadn’t been asking anyone about what roles they’d picked from the hat. “I’m some Hollywood tabloid reporter named Pablo Paratzy. I mean…”

Sam bit down on a teasing smirk. “I thought you said this whole murder mystery thing was stupid.”

Dean’s mouth opened and closed a few times like a fish out of water. “It is. Shut up. Who’d you get?”

Sam hadn’t even looked. He fished into his pocket and pulled out the folded strip of paper. “Uh, Henry Cross, studio hitman for hire.”

What? Trade me.”

“No!”

“Come on! Cas got cast as the chef and he won’t trade me, either. He doesn’t even eat!” As if to prove a point, he popped his last mini hot dog into his mouth.

Sam rolled his eyes. They had better things to focus on. “Can we just focus, Dean? On the case?”

Dean shrugged. He balled up his napkin, looking for a place to put it. “Whatever. Fine. Maybe the killer isn’t human, but if it is a monster, wouldn’t they wanna capitalize on that? They could say the place is haunted.”

Sam pulled a face. Who would want to take their life in their hands for a game after the body count this place had racked up?

“Don’t gimme the look. The world hasn’t changed that much, okay? I bet people are still horny for the supernatural.”

Sam scoffed, shaking his head.

“Ooh, speaking of—” Dean clapped the rolled-up napkin into Sam’s hand before brushing the crumbs off his own. His eyes were across the room, where the person Cas was talking to had just drifted away. Cas was pulling at his tie, loosening it. “I’m gonna go see if I can convince him to trade characters.” He started walking away.

“Dean,” Sam griped after him. “We’re supposed to be working.”

Dean twirled around to say, “Loosen up,” and Sam was a little annoyed at how many people had told him to do that tonight. “It’s a party,” Dean went on, walking backward. “And who knows? Any one of us could be murdered tomorrow!”

Sam knew he was talking about the game, but actual people had died. “That’s not funny.”

Dean ignored him and turned back around. He nabbed two champagne flutes off a waiter’s tray and suavely approached Cas like he was a random stranger that caught Dean’s eye.

Sam looked down at the napkin, not knowing what to do with it. He tossed it into the fireplace, letting it go up in smoke.

 

///

 

There was a framed poster on the hotel room’s wall beside Dean’s bed. Over the years, Castiel noticed most of the motels and hotels across America had art, but they were typically pictures of cityscapes or beaches. This one, however, was bizarre, like many of the posters he’d seen hanging in the halls.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Castiel squinted at it. Behind him, Dean was sitting at the foot of the bed, remote control in his hand pointed at the television, his chin resting in his other hand. Sam was sitting against the headboard of his own bed, ankles crossed in front of him, tablet open as he researched. It all felt very familiar. Castiel would have paused to appreciate the nostalgia of the moment if the poster wasn’t occupying his thoughts.

“There’s no TV on this TV,” Dean complained. “It’s all apps.”

“TV is all apps now,” Sam said absentmindedly.

“So, I can’t flip through channels?”

“You can flip through apps.”

Castiel tuned them out. He often did when they bickered. “I don’t understand this poster,” he said at last, turning around to look at the brothers.

Without glancing up from the TV, Dean said, “’Cause it’s in French.”

Castiel shot him a weary glare that Dean didn’t even notice. “It says it isn’t a pipe,” he said, “but the painting clearly depicts a smoking pipe.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sam explained, “it’s a painting of a pipe. Not actually a pipe.”

Castiel blinked, understanding dawning on him. He brought his attention back to the painting. A smile spread on his face. “I understand. It’s a joke.” He supposed it was a mildly amusing one.

Dean exhaled loudly and tossed the remote to the side. “It’s not a joke. Some asshole decided it was art.” Apparently fed up with the conversation, he swiveled around to look at his brother. “You got anything?”

“Maybe,” Sam said. Castiel turned around more fully to give him his attention. “So, remember how I said Carmen Eliot was on mood stabilizers? That got me thinking. I went through the medical records of the last few victims. Looks like all of them were on some kind of medication for depression or other mood disorders. A few of them had been in and out of hospitals on suicide watch.”

“Okay, great, so we drove out to California for nothing,” Dean said.

“Not necessarily.” Sam folded the computer and shifted on the bed, sitting upright. “I mean, they all still came here to die. Why this hotel?”

“Maybe it’s got a reputation, like that forest in Japan.” Dean gestured behind him at the poster. “Or maybe they all hated the shitty hotel art.”

Castiel glanced at the poster momentarily. “It is strange that the suicides only happened at this event in particular.”

“Exactly,” Sam said empathetically, holding out his hand. “Why just during the murder mystery?”

Dean dug at his eye with his forefinger. He seemed tense. Castiel watched the line of his shoulders, wondering why Dean was so hesitant about this hunt. “Doesn’t mean it’s anything,” Dean groaned.

There was a beat of silence, and then Sam let out a wet scoff. “Okay—You know what, Dean? You don’t wanna be on this hunt? Drive home.”

“I never said that!” Dean exploded.

Castiel’s heart jumped into his throat. It had been a long time since Dean had been that quick to anger, a long time since Dean’s mood had been so changeable. He couldn’t help but to think it was his fault. Dean didn’t want to be there. He shouldn’t have had to come—to the hunt, to Earth. Castiel should have never asked that of him.

“Then, what’s the problem?” Sam asked, obviously trying for patience, but there was an undercurrent of frustration in his tone.

“It’s just not—” Dean started, then cut himself off abruptly. Sam shook his head, waiting.

Castiel sighed down at the muted colors of the comforter. “It’s not who you are anymore.”

Even now, it seemed unnatural to say such a thing. Denial choked Castiel, but he wasn’t quite certain what he was denying: the fact that the three of them were no longer what they once were, or that deep down they always would be.

It wasn’t a question any of them should have to face, least of all Dean. Coming to Earth was a mistake. All it had done was cause Dean distress. Castiel was meant to bring him happiness.

He felt Dean’s eyes cut toward him. Dean breathed in audibly, holding the air in his chest. “Exactly.” Lowering his gaze, he repeated flatly, “It’s not who we are anymore.”

“Hunters?” Sam asked quietly. “Dean, we’re always gonna be hunters.”

“Well, maybe I’m not!”

Castiel studied Dean’s profile. Dean’s eyes were searching the carpet, moving quickly. When Castiel’s gaze moved to Sam, Sam was already waiting for him. There was worry on his face, reflecting Castiel’s own emotion.

“Whatever,” Dean said, the mattress moving when he stood up. He pushed past Castiel without meeting his eye and stomped out the door.

“Dean!” Sam tried to call, annoyed and concerned, but the word was cut off by the door slamming.

A rock was sitting in Castiel’s gut, weighing him down. He should have known how much returning to Earth would have affected Dean. “I’ll…” he began, trying to hide his shame, “go talk to him.”

Sam sighed, clearly wanting to talk to Dean himself. But he nodded. “Good idea,” he said softly. “Thanks, Cas.”

It didn’t take long to find Dean. Castiel followed the silent longing that Dean’s soul was crying out. He found Dean outside, along the railings on the edge of the cliffs. His shoulders were in a hard line, and Castiel approached him carefully. Dean knew he was there.

“Dean.”

Dean didn’t turn around to look at him. He kept his hands around the top rung of the barrier and his eyes downcast at the drop. Castiel came to a rest beside him. Below, the icy black waters of the Pacific sprayed foam against the rockface before retreating back into the swell. The water must have been more than a hundred feet down, even at high tide. From above the wall of clouds, the moon pulled on the water like a puppet master pulling on strings. A flock of black birds wheeled overhead.

Castiel rested his arms on the chilled metal of the barrier. It seemed a flimsy thing to protect fragile humans from a fall. He listened to the violence of the water, and to Dean’s breathing, and tried to think of something to say.

It was Dean who spoke first. “You don’t have to babysit me. I’m good.”

Castiel slid his eyes over to Dean, inspecting his profile. It was a barely there silhouette nearly lost to the smudgy, starless night. Dean was hunched in on himself to combat the stiff wind.

“No, you’re not,” Castiel countered, and Dean bristled. Castiel couldn’t allow it to get to him, not when it was his fault Dean was unhappy. “I know what you’re doing, Dean, and you don’t have to spare my feelings.”

Dean turned his head sharply, unable to conceal the panic and raw emotion in his eyes.

“I know being back on Earth—hunting—is hard on you,” Castiel continued. Dean deflated in a breath and turned back to the drop off. The wind lifted the ends of Castiel’s coat, aiding the pull of gravity toward the ocean. Castiel could feel its force like a weight, and he wanted to grab ahold of Dean to make sure he wouldn’t fall. He kept his hands to himself, looking down at them instead. “If… After this hunt, if you want to go back to heaven… I can take you there.”

Dean stayed quiet, and Castiel could only imagine what he was thinking. That he’d failed, that he was letting everyone down. He was wrong.

“No one would blame you,” Castiel assured him. “You’ve done enough.”

“No, that’s not—” Dean said, cutting himself off. He lifted his hands and dug at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Castiel waited for him to marshal his thoughts. “I dunno. I don’t know what I want.”

Castiel didn’t know what to say to that. Dean was usually more decisive than that. Still, he nodded, allowing Dean all the time he needed to make up his mind.

Dean dropped his arm and tilted his head up at the sky. The crows called to one another as they swooped downward toward the cliffs. “You ever think about what might have happened if we survived last time?”

Castiel frowned in question, not understanding the change of topic. But it didn’t seem to matter, because Dean admitted, “I do. Sometimes. Try to picture it… What my life might have looked like. I don’t know if I would have stayed in hunting the whole time. Maybe I would have settled down.” His cheek pulled in a slanted, wistful smile. “I definitely woulda gone on vacation. A beach somewhere. Mai Tais and frozen margaritas. Tan lines.”

Castiel dipped his head, humored by the imagery. Something dull strummed through his chest at the thought of the life Dean never lived on Earth. The life he and Dean never lived. Dean asked, “What about you?”

He shrugged, bringing his hands together over the barrier. What he wanted didn’t matter. “Jack would have still needed me in heaven.”

“Yeah, but… if he didn’t?”

There wasn’t much of an answer that strayed beyond reality. Castiel had what he wanted: Dean, Jack, his family. Everything else—his responsibilities, his duties, his sacrifice—was the price he had to pay to keep them. It was worth it.

He breathed in the salt air, staring at the ocean and the life hidden beneath its depths. So much more than what met the eye on the surface. The whole world was like that. Humans were like that. Dean… Dean most of all.

“I wouldn’t mind a vacation on the beach,” he said for lack of anything else. “If I’m invited.”

Dean snorted. “You kidding? It wouldn’t be much fun without you.”

Warmth spread through Castiel’s chest, quite unlike the damp chill licking at his fingertips. “If you wanted a beach, all you had to do was ask.”

Dean’s expression dimmed slightly. His smile was still on his face, but the twinkle in his eye had lost some of its luster. “I know. But it wouldn’t be… You know, earned.”

Castiel stood up straighter, turning into him. “You have earned it.” He wondered if Dean would ever truly understand that.

Dean brushed it off and leaned forward into the railing. “Think that deal expired.”

“No, it hasn’t,” Castiel told him. He recalled a gas station in Idaho, a customer who came in with a coupon for a free liter of Coke with a purchase of gasoline. It had been dated from two years prior, and the customer had been angry that the voucher could no longer be accepted. He’d asked to speak to the manager, and Nora had to come over.

Heaven wasn’t a gas station, but Castiel was management.

He told Dean the same thing Nora had said to the customer that day: “We will honor your coupon.”

Dean snorted out a laugh. “Gee, thanks.”

Castiel fought back a smile, happy he was able to raise Dean’s spirits.

Dean slid his hand into Castiel's, his fingers cold to the bone. “We could go to a real beach while we’re here on Earth, too. If we got time,” he said, voice low.

Castiel imagined it. A real beach, not a construct. Messy, sand everywhere, sunburn and mites and hungry gulls, clinging seaweed and an undertow. Dean would hate the beach. Secretly, Castiel thought it was worth an eternity of listening to his complaints just for one golden day beside a real ocean.

“Yes, we can.”

Dean gave his hand a squeeze. They listened to the crash of the waves. “It’s late,” he said. “We had a long drive. There’s no TV. Can we go to sleep?”

Castiel knew better than to push, but he couldn’t rest now. Maybe Castiel could find whatever they were hunting and take care of it before morning so Dean wouldn’t have to.

“I’ll… take another look around the hotel,” he offered gently. “See if I can find anything that will help us.”

Dean chewed on the inside of his cheek, going silent. After a while, he said, “Okay.” He let his hand slide out of Castiel’s and Castiel felt colder without his touch.

“Get some rest,” he told Dean’s retreating back. Dean didn’t say anything. He walked back in the direction of the hotel.

 

///

 

Castiel had been wandering the corridors for hours. Every guest room he passed was quiet inside, the souls of each individual bursting with dreams. Once, he heard a woman speaking in one of the rooms, her voice muffled by the wall. The only other sounds were the creaks and moans of the hotel, some springing from beneath his shoes, some caused by the wind whipping off the ocean.

The sconces along the walls were dimmed to a meager orange glow that deepened the color of the wooden-slatted walls into red. The absurdist artwork and black and white portraits of people long dead hung between the doors. Their subjects’ eyes followed Castiel’s progression. There were mirrors, too, hung above stands with vases and other decorations, and he moved through their shadowed reflections with little regard for them.

Eventually, at the end of one of the long corridors, he came upon a door with a sign on it that read, Private. Do not enter.

Castiel paused before it, considering what might be inside. It could be nothing—but he needed to check everywhere. With any luck, he would find whatever it is he was looking for, and he could end it. Dean could enjoy the rest of the event without needing to hunt, and no one would die again.

He tried the door handle, finding it locked. Castiel glared at the sign with contempt, and then he was on the other side of it. He stood at the bottom of a narrow, plain stairwell, his back to the door, his angelic senses kicking in when his human eyes saw only pitch darkness. There was another door at the top of the rickety flight. Castiel spread his wings and flew inside.

Beyond the door was an apartment: an outdated kitchen, a living area that led out to a balcony overlooking the cliffs. Through the glass doors, thick clouds hung low on the rushing ocean waves. Framed photographs depicted Emily, a man, and a few other smiling faces. Down a short hallway, Castiel heard a television on in one of the bedrooms. Pale blue light flickered in the darkness of the room’s open threshold.

There was another sound, too. A steady beeping. Castiel turned his head in the opposite direction of the bedroom, finding another doorway off the living area. Inside, a man was tucked stiffly beneath the covers on the bed. He was laying on his back, his arms placed unmoving at his sides atop the quilt. An oxygen tube, its clear plastic snaking off the bed to connect to a hissing tank, was in his nose. Wires were coming from his wrist. The beeping EKG monitor spiked rhythmically, creating a mountain range on the screen that casted the room in a sickly green.

Upon approach, Castiel saw how frail the man was. Young, but thin and delicate—likely in that bed for a long time. He bore a striking, but withered, resemblance to the man in the photographs in the next room. Castiel’s heart ached at his plight. He placed his hand on the man’s brittle hair and sent his grace forward, searching for the source of his issue. But there wasn’t just one source. He was riddled with illness, more malignant tissue than was healthy. Castiel couldn’t eradicate it, even with all the power he now held.

This man was too far gone. He would likely be dead within the month.

Castiel realigned his grace to his vessel and removed his hand with a resigned breath. “I’m sorry,” he told the man in a whisper.

There were footsteps from the next room, a loud yawn accompanying them. Castiel shielded himself from human sight and stepped back from the bed. He watched Emily, clad in pajamas, walk into the room. She checked the EKG, then moved closer to the man, setting her hand on his tenderly. “’Night,” she said, a sad smile on her face, but Castiel didn’t know who it was for. The man couldn’t see her. He couldn’t hear her either.

Still, Castiel couldn’t help but feel he was intruding on a private moment. He shouldn’t have been there. He couldn’t help the man or Emily, but he could find whatever entity was infesting their hotel. He flew from the apartment and landed back in the hallway, staring straight at the privacy sign.

He lingered momentarily, wondering where to check next. He hadn’t yet gone down to the main level, to the dining room or the lobby. He turned to make his way in that direction when a low sound caught his attention.

A woman was laughing, seemingly trying to keep her voice down. “Quiet now.”

Castiel looked down the hall, catching sight of a shadowy figure standing in front of one of the mirrors. She was looking into her reflection, still chuckling.

“Oh, you’re awful!” she said, humored. “I’ll have you know, I am not that kind of girl.”

He tilted his head, wondering who she was speaking to. She was still in costume from the party, a short and shimmery dress and an elaborate headband. Castiel wondered if she’d had too much to drink.

“Miss?” he asked, walking slowly in her direction as to not spook her. When he got closer, he realized he recognized her as one of the people Sam had interviewed. Valerie, Castiel thought her name was—the witness.

Valerie didn’t even appear to hear him. She kept speaking into the mirror in a low rasp. “Fine, then! Just one more drink,” she said, gesticulating. “You go on and get it—No, no, I promise not to move. I’ll be right here when you return. Now, go before I change my mind.”

Castiel’s eyes flashed to the mirror, finding only her grinning reflection in it. There was something off about her smile. It was too rigid to be real. There was nothing of it on the rest of her face. Her eye make up was smudged, black tracks running down her cheeks, and her lipstick was smeared all over her face. Her hair was askew and her dress rumpled. He considered the fact that, not only was she drunk, but she might be sleepwalking, too.

“Excuse me?” he asked again, stopping a few feet away from her.

Valerie swiveled slightly, catching sight of his reflection in the mirror. “Oh, I know you! You were at the party,” she said happily. She could clearly see him, but her eyes remained blank, sightless. She was definitely dreaming. Castiel considered tapping her temple to return her to normal sleep, but he didn’t know which room was hers. She could have wandered down a few floors, for all he knew.

“Yes,” he said, trying for a tight smile. “Um… I think you should return to bed.” He didn’t know how else to go about this. Should he wake her up? If she kept wandering, she might injure herself.

“Well, aren’t you forward!” she laughed.

His eyes widened, alert. “No, I—I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, don’t be so serious, handsome. Why the long face?” Her voice was strange, like an actor in one of the old movies Dean always made Castiel watch. Her words were too clipped and annunciated. An accent from nowhere and everywhere.

“What’s that?” Valerie asked, but she wasn’t speaking to him that time. She was looking in the opposite direction in the mirror and nodded like she was listening to something. “Of course, darling. Be with you in two shakes.” She punctuated it with a wink.

Despite himself, Castiel’s gaze flickered back to the mirror. There was nothing. Just Valerie, himself, and the darkness.

“There’s no one there,” Castiel told her. It was strange, but the antics were beginning to unnerve him. He recalled being under Naomi’s control a long time ago, a puppet with its strings being pulled. Empty.

Valerie’s smile stretched a little wider, her cheeks straining. “Don’t be silly!” She gestured around. “Can’t you see them all?”

Castiel didn’t know why that made his grace become alert. He looked up and down the empty hall just to make sure they were really alone, then he turned back to her. “The only people here are you and me.”

“Smooth talker!” Valerie said. She put her hand on his sleeve. “Tell you what. See if you can bring me some hooch before that other fella gets back and we’ll talk.”

Castiel pressed his lips into a line and nodded curtly to mask his discomfort. Valerie didn’t seem in any danger of falling down a flight of stairs at present. Maybe, if he left her alone, she’d return to bed.

She sighed blissfully. “It really is capital, isn’t it?”

He shook his head. “What is?”

“This place.” Her lips were pale with how wide she was stretching them. Her eyes remained in a fog.

A sharp sound came from behind him. Castiel’s head whipped around, finding only the window at the end of the hall. There was a crow sitting on the ledge. It pecked at the glass again.

He rattled his head, and he realized he’d been holding his breath. Deflating, he brought his attention back to Valerie, who was suddenly facing him. Her smile was gone. Castiel was surprised to find that fact jarring. Her face looked wrong without the smile somehow.

It had looked wrong with it, too.

He tried extracting his arm from her hand, but her fingers latched onto him. He tried to get out of her grip without hurting her.

“There’s something about this house,” she said, voice so low it was almost part of the shadows. Castiel froze at once. She leaned in closer, whispered, “It’s wonderful.”

Slowly, his brows knitted together. His grace was gathering in his hands, preparing as if he were in a fight.

“Valerie,” he said. “What are you seeing?”

As if her face was a skipping film reel, Valerie smiled again. She laughed deliriously and turned back to the mirror.

Castiel breathed out through his nose, letting the tension leave him. He reached for her hand on his arm and gave it a pat, his eyes scanning the hall behind her. There was a door open that he hadn’t seen before, and he assumed that was her room.

“Let’s, um… Let’s get you back to your room,” he said, putting his hands on her shoulders to guide her in the right direction. Her skin was cold and smooth to the touch, like touching glass. Luckily, Valerie went without argument.

As they walked, she waved at certain parts of the wall every now and again, saying things like, “toodle loo” and “bye now” and “see you at the next one.” Castiel gritted his teeth and ignored it. She walked into her room, still laughing, and he closed the door behind her.

Breathing in relief, he stepped back from the door. He could still hear her speaking from the other side.

Hopefully she’d be able to get some proper sleep now.

Castiel shook the unease of the experience from his skin, but he couldn’t rid himself of the sudden weighted feeling of being watched. He looked back at the window at the end of the hall. The crow was gone.

 

///

 

Dean.”

Dean squeezed his eyes shut tighter. Sleep dripped from his mind sluggishly, leaving remnants of itself like a sheen on his body. His limbs were still too heavy to move.

Someone was knocking at the door.

“Dean, come here.

The voice was familiar, but was staticky, like it was coming through the wavelengths between two radio stations.

Knock, knock, knocking.

Dean.”

Dean inhaled sharply, now fully awake. He sat up. The room was dark, night black behind the drawn curtains that led out to the balcony next to Sam’s bed. Sam was asleep, unperturbed by the noise. Distantly, the waves crashed against the rocks with a hiss. He scanned the dark room, the pieces of furniture looming black against the walls, the shadows collecting endlessly in the corners. There was an armchair on one side of the dresser, the silhouette of a floor lamp behind it. In the darkness, the outline of both formed a figure—sitting, staring. A trick of the eye.

Dean knuckled at his eyes to shake the rest of sleep off of him, figuring Cas must have been the one at the door. He knew he should open the door before Cas exploded it in a fit of impatience.

He hauled himself out of bed, shuffling through the shadows. A faint reddish light from the hall was illuminating through the crack under the door, shining a pin-light through the peephole. Cas wasn’t knocking anymore.

Dean twisted the deadbolt unlocked and pulled the door open. “What, you forget about you wings—”

The doorway was empty.

Dean blinked dumbly at his reflection in the hallway mirror opposite his door. “Cas?” He peeked his head out, squinting in the dim light of the sconces. The hall was uniform on both sides: a long stretch of carpet, a window at one end and the stairs on the other, the exact same number of doors stretching on from the right and the left—a mirror image. And no Cas.

He turned back to his reflection on the right side of the hall, a pensive expression staring back at him. He’d probably just been dreaming.

He was just about to close the door and head back to bed when the sound of music filtered into his consciousness. It was too low to hear at first, and he had to strain his ears to listen. Some kind of jazz music, like the kind that had been playing at the cocktail party. It drifted up the stairs from the lower level and glided down the hall.

The room behind Dean’s reflection was still dark, and Sam hadn’t woken up. A nagging tugged at the back of Dean’s head, telling him to check out where the music was coming from. He stepped out fully into the hall and pulled the door soundlessly closed behind him.

Carefully, he made his way down the hall, eyes scanning the narrow width of his surroundings as he moved. Halfway to the stairs, paranoia crept in, settling like ice on his shoulders. He felt naked, walking around in his sweatpants and a t-shirt, no shoes, no gun. He considered turning around.

With every step, the music grew louder. The same few notes playing over and over and over. Saxophones and pianos. The hanging mirrors staggered throughout the hall tracked his progress, his red-tinged reflection silently moving from one to another, passing through.

When he reached the top of the stairs, he ducked his head, squinting into the shadows. The blue dark remained still, all but for the music shuddering through the night. The first step creaked under Dean’s bare feet. He took them down, one by one, the ice on his back spreading through his core, into his belly, up his chest.

The music skipped, like it was coming from a real record player. It started up again, the same melody. Again, again, and again. It was coming from the dining room on the other side of the wall.

Dean paused at the bottom of the stairs and leaned slightly forward, looking inside. The table was empty, ashes in the fireplace. On the butler’s stand, the fake gramophone was lit up, the phony record on top of it spinning. Dean glanced over his shoulder into the lobby, gaze moving along the vacant couches and chairs in the sitting area.

The gramophone must have been hooked up to some kind of Bluetooth—if that was even a thing anymore. It might have been turned back on by accident.

He turned the corner into the dining room, the large mirror against the wall coming into view. The shadows deepened inside of it, black and smudgy. It reflected a perfect replica of the room—the still life of the table, the lights of the music player glowing against the inky windows—all of it reversed. Dean’s image stepped into it, and he went to the gramophone to look for the off switch. He grunted in annoyance when he didn’t find it right away, his hands hovering over the thing.

He pushed a button at random, and that must have done the trick. The music cut off abruptly. The lights clicked off. For a second, all he could hear was his own heartbeat. It was a strange thing. His heartbeat. He realized it served a purpose again.

Beat, beat, beating away. Not just for show anymore.

Soon, the beating was accompanied by the breathing hiss of the ocean waves beyond the cliffs. Distantly, birds were cawing.

Dean rubbed at his eyes, figuring it was time to head back to sleep. He turned for the stairs—and something moved in the corner of his eye. He reacted quickly, head turning in the direction of the mirror. The only thing there was him.

That had happened before, when they’d first checked in. It wasn’t uncommon. Dean thought that happened to everybody—their eyes playing tricks on them in the mirror. Sam would say it was something to do with human evolution, something left over from their days cowering in the dark before they discovered fire. Cas would then say something about how he remembered the day humans first struck a flame. Dean would tune out. If he thought too hard about fire, he’d see scorch marks trailing every memory he’d ever had.

His mother was ash; his father was ash; his body was ash. It sat thick in the dining room’s fireplace. It coated his tongue.

He stayed perfectly still, looking at the mirror, waiting to see movement again. When it didn’t happen, he walked around the table and stepped closer. His reflection followed him. He met it at the thin barrier of glass.

Eyes moving to every corner of the mirror, he watched out for movement. He didn’t see anything, but he thought he could feel it. It touched his back, made the hair on his neck stand. It slithered through his gut. Dean’s eyes flashed to the reflection of the room over his shoulders. Nothing was there.

He looked back at himself, holding his own stare. His breath fogged the surface when he sighed, obscuring the image. Dean kept staring, letting the fog dissipate.

A thought popped into his mind, unbidden.

I’m supposed to be dead.

Dean blinked. He hadn’t realized he’d said the words aloud until he saw his lips move in the mirror. He breathed out again, face blurring. Dean lifted his hand and pressed it to the glass to wipe away his breath. The mirror followed the movement, image flipped.

It was warm. Soft. It felt like he was touching someone else’s hand.

Dean drew his arm back carefully and jumped back. His breath was trapped in his throat, and his eyes were wide. And his reflection remained in place—arms at its side, looking at him.

Dean backed up into the table, not looking away. Blindly, he felt behind him, searching for a utensil—a knife—something to defend himself.

The reflection watched his movement with vacant eyes. A slow smile came to its face.

Suddenly, the gramophone burst into life. Dean’s heart skipped a beat, air punching out of him, as he reflexively turned toward the sound. Its lights bathed the corner in pinks and purples. The music played—saxophones and pianos. The same few notes, but different now. Backwards.

He snapped his head back to the mirror, and found his reflection synced up with him again. But there was something in the threshold leading out into the lobby. A shadowed figure. It stood there, features too dark to see. When Dean chanced a look around at it, it was gone.

The music cut off.

Dean’s heart was slamming against his chest. His eyes ricocheted between the mirror and the doorway. One was normal; the other was empty.

He ran his hand down his face, collecting himself. Cursing himself for his fear.

It had been a long time since he’d seen a ghost.

 

///

 

The dark clouds hadn’t broken up during the night. They sat low and heavy over the cliffs, churning up the foam-laced waves to swell and break on the jagged rocks. Before Sam went into the bathroom to shower and dress for the day, he was convinced it would be pouring by the time he remerged.

It wasn’t.

There was no pat, pat, patting of rain on the windowsill. In fact, there were only the sounds of a nature documentary on TV. Cas was sitting on the edge of Dean’s bed, frowning at the holographic screen. Birds cawed loudly beneath a British narrator’s voice.

Cas glanced up. He offered a small smile in greeting.

“Hey,” Sam said, his eyes flickering to the messy blankets and pillows behind Cas. Dean had still been sleeping when Sam got into the shower, but he was gone now. Sam was surprised to find Cas sitting there without him.

As if reading his mind—even though Sam knew he actually wasn’t—Cas said, “Dean went down to the breakfast buffet. He told me to stay here and tell you what I found last night. Or, well, didn’t find.”

Sam went to his shoes at the foot of his bed and slipped into them. “No luck?”

Cas inhaled through his nose, seeming despondent. He clicked the remote, making the TV turn off. “No. I couldn’t sense anything—no EMF or sulfur.”

Sam hummed thoughtfully. “Okay, so that means no ghosts or demons.” At least they could rule out what they weren’t up against now. “A witch, maybe?”

Cas lifted his shoulders. “It’s possible, if the victims truly were compelled to commit suicide.”

The two of them headed for the room’s exit and into the hallway toward breakfast. Sam’s stomach was empty, and he needed food and coffee for his synapses to start firing at full speed. “Did you find any hex bags?”

“I wasn’t looking for them,” Cas admitted. “But, like I said, I didn’t sense anything—and I searched everywhere. The hotel, the grounds. I even went into the owner’s apartment.” He stared off into the middle distance of the hallway before them. “All I found there was a very ill man.”

Sam scrunched his nose in question. “What?”

“A man,” Cas said again. “He was unconscious, likely for a long time. He has extremely aggressive lung cancer. I couldn’t heal him. He was already too far gone. I assume he was Emily’s husband.”

Sam gave an empathetic face.  “Well, hey, if we can’t save her husband, maybe we can save her guests.”

He expected Cas to brighten somewhat at that, but his face wilted even more. “Yeah,” Cas said softly. There was something in the set of his shoulders that Sam didn’t really understand. It looked like Cas was feeling guilty about something. He didn’t have to wait long to find out what though, because Cas lifted his chin again and said, “Sam, I’m sorry. I should have never asked you and Dean to come back to Earth.”

Sam shook his head, trying to cut Cas off. Yeah, he admitted that it was a little weird being back. The world was pretty much the same as he remembered it, give or take a few things, but it had been a while since he was in the thick of hunting. Every morning, he woke up thinking he needed to cook breakfast and make sure Junior caught the school bus on time.

But he was still a hunter—and so was Dean. Maybe they both needed to be reminded of that.

“Cas, no, come on,” Sam said, waving it away. “It’s not like you forced us. It was our decision. And we weren’t just gonna leave you to handle this on your own.”

“But Dean—”

Right before the steps leading to the lobby, Sam halted and turned into Cas, putting a hand on his shoulder to stop him, too. “Dean’s adjusting, remember?” There was a part of Sam, deep down, that still didn’t believe it. He knew Dean was struggling to accept everything from the price of a cheeseburger to how to work a TV, but there was an underlying issue. That, maybe, Dean didn’t want to adjust. Or that he was actively trying not to.

Cas nodded, but he still seemed concerned.

Trying to comfort them both, Sam said, “Trust me, the longer he’s here, the better it’ll get. He’ll get back into the swing.”

Or not. There were warning signs—small ones that were all too familiar that Sam had picked up on. If you asked him, he couldn’t tell you what they were. It was more of a feeling. He knew Dean, and he knew when his brother was toeing the line between stubborn optimism and hopelessness. And it was starting to feel like Dean was tipping toward the latter. But Cas seemed willing to believe, so maybe Sam could trick himself into believing it, too.

“Now, come on. Let’s get some breakfast before the game starts. We can figure out our next move while the guests and staff are distracted.”

 

///

 

“It’s a ghost.”

On either side of him at the table, Sam and Cas shared a look. Dean had strategically picked a spot in the dining room that allowed him to keep his eyes on the mirror at all times without having to see his reflection in it. It only half-worked. He could see his shoulder, and his hand every time he picked up a forkful of waffles or sausages. Sam was in full view, and there was nothing abnormal about his reflection. The rest of the room seemed fine, too. But Dean wasn’t taking any chances.

“A ghost,” Sam echoed flatly, unimpressed.

“Yeah. I saw it last night.” Dean swung his attention to Cas, to the untouched cup of coffee in front of him for appearance’s sake.

Cas was frowning at him. “When you were sleeping?”

“No, I—I woke up in the middle of the night. There was music coming from down here, so I went to investigate, and there was something in the mirror.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the mirror and reminded himself to keep his voice down. The people around them were too wrapped up in their own conversations, anyway, with the excited buzz of anticipation of the start of the murder mystery.

Sam shook his head. “What was it?”

“Me, but not me,” Dean tried to explain. He was met with deeper frowns. Letting out a frustrated huff, he recapped, “It looked like me, but it wasn’t my reflection. And then when I tried to touch the mirror, it was warm. Like, skin warm. It was a ghost.”

Dean was looking at his brother, and he didn’t miss the way Sam’s eyes flashed over him to share another look with Cas.

“Are you sure you weren’t just dreaming?”

“Dean, I couldn’t sense any ghosts last night,” Cas said.

“Okay, well, did you ever come down to the dining room? You didn’t even hear the music, did you?”

Cas shook his head, proving Dean’s point.

“Okay, then.”

“I dunno, Dean,” Sam said. “It doesn’t sound like a ghost to me.”

“Why not? It’s not like we haven’t seen a ghost who can possess a mirror before, right? Like Bloody Mary.”

Sam shot him a skeptical look. “You think it’s Bloody Mary?”

Why the hell was he dismissing this? Dean didn’t see him coming up with any better alternatives.

“It’s something,” Dean said through his teeth.

“Sam, if Dean’s certain, we should entertain the possibility,” Cas said, and Dean was glad one of them was on his side.

“Exactly!” They were looking for a ghost. He didn’t know what else it could be. He just wasn’t sure if it was that one mirror specifically or if the ghost could jump out of it, so they needed to cover all the bases. “Let’s do an EMF sweep while everybody’s distracted with the game.” He already had the EMF in his pocket, ready to go.

Sam nodded, putting up his palms in surrender. “Okay. Worth a shot. Let’s see if we find anything.”

“We will.”

“Let’s see,” Sam reiterated pointedly.

Dean bit down on his jaw, fixing Sam with a look. Sam had never disregarded his hunches like this before, or at least, not in a long time. Not since he shed the smug College Boy attitude that used to sometimes make Dean feel like an idiot.

Dean told himself the same thing he had in those days: he knew how to do his job. He might have been out of the game for a while, but it didn’t matter. He still knew how to do it.

“Good morning, everyone!” Emily’s cheerful voice broke their staring contest, and both Dean and Sam turned their eyes on their host. “If I can have your attention, please, I’d just like to go over some of the exciting items on today’s itinerary.”

The rest of the guests fell silent around them, some of them exchanging exuberant glances. They gave their attention to Emily. Or, at least, most of them did. In the mirror, Dean noticed one of them staring ahead at her reflection. She barely blinked, almost in a trance.

Valerie, Dean thought her name was.

“First up,” Emily said, “we’ll take you—”

A loud scream from the sitting room cut her off.

“Miss Emily!” a woman frantically called as she rushed into the dining room. She was in one of those French maid costumes, feather duster and all, and Dean couldn’t help but to get a little sidetracked from the whole ghost thing. “Miss Emily, come quickly! He’s dead!”

The maid was over-acting, but that didn’t seem to bother the other guests too much. They reacted with excitement, which would probably be a fucked up thing to do if it had been a real murder. Dean reflected on that, because yeah, actually being part of a murder mystery was fun. When it was fake. He’d been part of plenty of real ones, and giddiness usually wasn’t his initial reaction.

“Dead? Who?” Emily gasped, and she wasn’t getting an Oscar any time soon, either.

“Come quickly!” the maid said, waving them all into the lobby.

“Everyone, if you would calmly follow me,” Emily said, walking backward, and Dean didn’t know how many murders she’d seen, but bringing a crowd toward it like a tour group wasn’t common protocol. “It seems our regularly scheduled events will have to be put on hold.”

The guests all stood up and filed out of the room, a hum of chatter rising up as they did. Sam cast Dean an exasperated look before following. Dean hung back until the room was empty, then walked around the table to the mirror. His reflection followed his movements. He waved his hand in front of it, trying to trip it up. It waved back. He leaned in, his breath fogging on the glass, and stared hard. The reflection stared back with the same intensity.

Checking over his shoulder to make sure he was still alone, he pulled the EMF out of his jacket and turned it on. It hummed, the red lights spiking and disappearing. Dean frowned down at it as he scanned the device along the length of the mirror. Nothing changed until he got closer to the wall sconce next to it.

Dean hummed down at it, then eyed the mirror again. Briefly, he wondered if Sam was right. Maybe he’d been dreaming.

No. It’d been real. He was sure of it. The ghost must have been able to jump out of the mirror. It was the only explanation.

Behind him, there was a tapping on the glass. Dean’s eyes snapped back to the mirror, expecting to find something moving inside it. All he saw was a crow perched on the window across the room. It pecked at the glass. He looked around, momentarily watching the bird. Behind it, the gray clouds swarmed over the rushing ocean.

Dean turned off the EMF and went into the sitting room, where the guests were crowded around a man in a suit and ascot laying on the floor. His eyes were closed, head lolling to the side. A pretty obvious folded piece of paper was sticking out of his jacket pocket. His chest rose and fell in the tiniest movements, giving away the fact that he wasn’t actually dead.

“I just don’t understand why anyone would want to kill him,” the maid blubbered into a handkerchief.

Another man, dressed in a blue, outdated police officer uniform and a monocle, had a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Not to worry, Miss. I’ll find out who did this. But I’m going to need help.” He was talking to the room as a whole now: “Whoever did this would have left clues. We find them, they’ll lead us to the killer. We need to search the hotel. Leave no stone unturned!”

Dean wandered to Cas’ side and placed his hand on Cas’ lower back. “Bet it was the Scarlet Lady. She was hot.”

Cas raised a brow at Dean, actually seeming amused by the joke.

The guests were dispersing, all of them wandering around in groups of two and three to search for clues. None of them seemed to have spotted the paper in the dead guy’s pocket.

“Watch this,” Dean said, letting his hand slide off Cas. He went up to the fake dead guy and crouched down to pull the paper from his pocket.

The actor winked one eye open. He whispered, “Good job, buddy. People usually don’t see that one.”

Dean snorted in laughter. “I bet,” he muttered, and unfolded the first clue.

It was a letter, written in typewriter ink. Except it was backwards. The words. The letters.

Dean blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, the note was the right way around.

He shook his head quickly. He hadn’t just imagined that. Had he?

His mouth suddenly felt dry.

“What does it say?”

Dean looked up to find Cas standing above him. He cleared his throat, trying to right himself, and stood up.

“Uh, let’s see.” He held the note up so they could both read it. “I have a face that does not frown. I have hands but no legs, so I cannot walk but I can move around.”

Cas pinched his brow in thought. “That could be anything,” he said. “Most organisms on this planet have what could be considered a face, but human beings are the only ones that consider expressions a means of communication. Though, if it doesn’t have legs, the most obvious answer is a serpent. Then again, serpents don’t have hands—”

“It’s a clock,” Dean cut him off before he hurt himself. “The answer’s a clock.”

Cas opened his mouth to object, and then seemed to think better of it. “Oh. Of course.”

“Good work, Watson,” Dean told him, slapping the note to Cas’ chest so Cas had to catch it. “So, we’re looking for a clock.”

“I thought we were looking for a ghost,” Cas reminded him.

Dean shrugged. “We can do both. Gank a vengeful spirit and kick ass at a murder mystery. Maybe the winning prize is that couple’s massage.”

Cas tried to act annoyed, but his eyes were too fond. Dean couldn’t look into them for too long without melting.

“C’mon, let’s tell Sam what we got.”

 

///

 

The EMF was silent. As Dean navigated through the hotel’s maze of hallways, he’d even checked to make sure the device was on a few times. Every so often, the line of red lights would flash and warble, but never for long enough to be anything substantial. So, Dean kept moving, occasionally running into other guests in faux-1920s attire while they searched for clues. Sam and Cas were in different wings of the building trying to find clues of their own.

It had been a while since Dean had caught sight of anyone. He realized that belatedly, right about the same time he realized he was lost. He’d been wandering, his eyes on the dead EMF, when he turned the corner into an ill-lit hall. A sconce halfway down the hall was flickering steadily, the bulb at the end of its life. It gave the impression of a gloom that the other lights staggered along the walls couldn’t compete with, as if they were all just as strong as their weakest link. There was a floor-to-ceiling window at the other end of the corridor, facing an adjacent hallway. Barely any sunlight streamed onto the carpet. It was too obstructed by black clouds.

Dean could hear the thrashing of waves being beaten against rocks. It sounded closer than ever before.

He paced down the hall, one foot in front of the other, his dress shoes silent against the faded art deco carpet. As he drew closer, the flickering light bulb gave off a low buzz. It flashed in the mirror hanging opposite to it, playing shadows and tricks on the glass. His shadow moved around him with every hiccup, behind him when the light was on. In front of him when it wasn’t.

The EMF spiked, shrieking in Dean’s palm before going quiet.

He stopped short, breath caught in his throat while he stared down at the device. It did nothing. He turned to the flickering light and held the EMF up to it, testing a theory. It spiked again, the red lights staying live for a few moments longer than before.

Dean’s shoulders dropped as he exhaled.

Maybe Sam was right. Maybe it wasn’t a ghost, after all. Honestly, the explanation didn’t sit right with Dean anymore, either. He felt like there was something he was missing. That the creature he was hunting wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be. A spirit, maybe, but in the way thunder and lightning were the same thing. One was just an echo. A ripple. A replicated memory.

The coils in the bulb flared again, hot and red in Dean’s eyes. His shadow hit the wall, a flicker of movement in his peripheries. In the mirror. He turned to it just as the light died again. In the relative darkness, his face stared back at him, the shadows hanging off his reflection’s shoulders. He didn’t know why it made his stomach knot, why his heart sank deeper into his chest like a stone in the water.

He passed the EMF from one hand to another and raised it up to the mirror.

A few things happened at once.

The device jumped. The light flickered back on. Something moved at the mouth of the hall.

Dean’s gun was out of his waistband and in his hand immediately. He pointed it to the empty end of the hall, in the direction from which he came. His breath sat tightly in his breast, and there was a needling at the back of his neck.

No one was there. He’d only seen a shadow, a quick movement out of the corner of his eye. It might have been a trick of the light. Or it might have been another guest, which would have been bad if he’d pointed a gun in their face. He was a little glad it wasn’t the latter.

He rattled his head, annoyed at himself for being so jumpy. Putting his gun away again, he focused. His attention went back to the mirror, and he raised the EMF back to it. It didn’t react that time. It probably only had before because of the light.

“Great,” Dean murmured at his reflection. “You’re a big help.” His reflection mouthed the words back at him.

He’d wasted too much time in that spot. Actually, he’d wasted too much time in the entire hotel uncovering nothing. Some hunter he was. He should head back to the lobby to see if Sam or Cas had better luck.

Just as he made up his mind, a tapping sound reached him. He turned to the other end of the hall, listening out. It happened again, more persistent that time. Dean squared his shoulders and followed the sound. As he approached, he could make out a small, muddled shadow on the carpet. It came in from the window, on the other side of the glass.

A bird. A damn crow sitting on the ledge, pecking at the window. Beyond it was a cliff, the hotel about a yard from the edge. After a long, dizzying drop, white laced waves threw themselves upon jagged boulders. Dean frowned.

“Get the hell out of here,” he said, gently knocking the toe of his shoe against the glass. The crow didn’t shoo away. It flapped its wings and cawed.

The EMF emitted a low sound. It vibrated against Dean’s palm.

Dean looked down at it, brows knitted. “What?” He glanced around, trying to outrule any signs of a ghost. A light fixture, a wall plug, anything electric. The only thing in the corner between the two corridors was a replicated painting of some naked dude pushing a black boulder up a hill.

Dean waved the EMF around, scanning the wall and painting, wondering if there were wires on the other side. It kept humming at an irregular pace, never jumping, never indicating a certain spot.

Ridiculously, he started scanning the window. The lower he got, the steadier the sound became. The row of lights were lit up in red, barely even blinking. On the other side of the glass, the bird stared at the device curiously. It pecked on the glass again.

Dean was crouched down, gaze fixed on the crow’s beady black eyes.

What?” he said again, not understanding.

Before he could figure it out, the crow spread its wings and flew away. The EMF cut off suddenly, like a radio abruptly turned off. It happened so fast, Dean’s pulse skipped.

He stared hard at the EMF and gave it a few whacks, trying to bring it back to life. Because there was no way a damn bird could have set it off.

When it didn’t react, Dean sighed and dropped his arm to his thighs. He rubbed his temples with his thumb and middle finger. None of this made any sense.

Rallying himself, he stood back up and turned off the EMF, because either it was on the fritz or Dean’s mind was. In one last attempt before giving up, he turned his gaze to the hallway opposite the window. It was more of the same: hotel room doors, hall stands, mirrors and portraits. It was a deadend, a grandfather clock sitting proudly against the wall.

Dean blinked at it with interest, remembering the clue he’d found on the fake dead body.

Maybe this trip wasn’t totally wasted.

He moved down the hall, headed straight for the clock. He could hear the ancient, iron hands ticking the closer he got. It counted out the seconds, measured and certain. Dean stopped in front of it, eyes searching it for another clue. The gong inside was stationary, the polished wood clean.

His eyes gave the base another once over before moving upward to the clock face. There weren’t any clues there, either. Except…

It was ticking backwards.

Dean stared at it, watching the seconds hand on its strained procession in the wrong direction. Tick, tick, ticking.

“Dean.”

Dean didn’t mean to gasp. He spun around, heart lodged in his throat. He caught sight of the ends of a tan coat turning the corner.

“Cas?” Dean called, a relieved sort of calm washing over him. It was Cas. Why he’d practically whispered Dean’s name and then left without waiting, Dean had no idea. Maybe he’d found something. Maybe he wanted Dean to follow.

Dean walked after him. “Sweetheart?”

He didn’t get an answer. His footsteps became hurried.

Cas?”

There was a distant rushing sound, like the beating of wings. Dean turned the corner, staring into the empty hallway.

The light flickered, shadows pooling. It didn’t turn back on.

 

///

 

Castiel landed in the middle of the hallway on the fourth floor. He imagined this level of the hotel would provide as many clues as the others he’d searched. That’s to say, none.

“Oh!” someone said to his left, sounding startled. He glanced over his shoulder, finding Adrienne and Gerry halfway down the hall in front of a photograph of a flapper. There was a note on cardstock in Gerry’s hand. Adrienne clutched her chest and said, “I didn’t see you there!”

Castiel offered a tight smile and nodded. “Apologies. I’ve been told that I’m… quiet.”

Gerry chuckled at that, seeming to accept the excuse. “They should put a bell on you!” And then, “Did you find any clues? We just got one.” He held up the note, waving it slightly.

Dear,” Adrienne scolded. “Don’t tell him! I’d like to win this year.”

“It’s a game, Addy. Don’t mind her. She’s competitive.”

Castiel tried to come up with an excuse to leave. He’d already stretched out his grace in search of EMF and found none. Nor did he find any traces of sulfur. He doubted Sam and Dean had any luck. The brothers wanted to sweep the hotel again, to search for anything they might have missed yesterday, anything Castiel could have missed last night. But there were only so many times they could search the same area and expect different results.

He had the creeping suspicion the deaths actually were suicides, after all.

“Yes, well,” he began, still having no idea how to pardon himself. But he didn’t need to.

A scream cut through the corridor, sounding distant. It perhaps came from another wing. Castiel jerked around in its direction, his wings flexing with the urge to fly. He couldn’t. Not with the two humans behind him.

Instead, he took off on foot, going as quickly as he could. He was aware of Gerry and Adrienne rushing after him at a much slower pace.

By the time he reached the source of the scream, a small group of guests were already hovering around the open door of one of the rooms. A maid was crying, her face buried into one of her colleague’s shoulders. “She’s dead!” she was saying.

Castiel slowed to a halt on the outskirts of the group. He looked up, finding Sam and Dean hasting forward from the opposite end of the hall, their boots audible against the carpet.

“What happened?” Sam said when he got closer.

“In there!” the maid said, pointing into the room.

The other maid looked at Sam with a haggard expression. “There’s, um… In the bathroom…”

Castiel pushed through the murmuring crowd to get closer. “You said someone was dead?”

The first maid nodded.

“Who?” Dean asked.

Sam dug into his pocket and pulled out his fake FBI badge. “It’s alright. We’re here to help.”

The second maid nodded, seeming slightly more at ease. “It’s a guest. She’s in there. Angie went in to clean the room and found her.”

Castiel shared a look with Sam, then fished for Dean’s eyes. Dean’s face was turned, staring at the doorway.

Sam went into the room, telling the crowd to stand back as he did. Castiel followed him, passing the unmade bed and the duffle on the floor, heading for the bathroom.

Valerie was in the bathtub, her face bobbing on the surface of the water. She was still in the same dress Castiel had seen her in last night.

Sam crouched down next to the tub and placed two fingers on her pulse. And then, “Damn it.”

Castiel let out a breath and shook his head down at the floor, grief warring with anger inside of him. He’d seen her last night. He should have known…

Sam looked up at him, eyes firm. In his periphery, Castiel saw movement in the mirror over the sink. Someone standing over his shoulder. He looked around, gaze latching onto Dean.

Dean took in the scene, his lips parting when he saw the body. Then, he closed his mouth, expression full of something Castiel couldn’t quite name. It was either frustration or sadness, maybe even acceptance. Or maybe not. It was the shadow of emotion.

Castiel turned back to Valerie, her pale body limp in the water.

 

///

 

A couple of cops were standing in the hotel’s entranceway, their hands on their belts and their radios crackling with static, while they spoke to Emily and another member of staff. Emily’s arms were wrapped around her middle, her face lined. Outside the doors, a few cruisers and an ambulance were in the parking lot, their strobe lights soundlessly flashing and bleeding into the gray air. A crowd of guests were hovering in the dining room’s entrance, looking on.

Sam stood with Cas a few paces away from the group of curious, costumed partygoers. They’d already flashed their fake badges at some of the detectives who were around earlier. The detectives had a file open on this place for years, despite the higher ups in the city telling them to close it. “Resources,” one of the detectives had excused with a derisive snort, “or lack thereof.” In the end, they were all ruled suicides.

Sam hadn’t expected the cops to know anything, anyway.

From across the room, Emily glanced over at him, and he hadn’t realized he’d been staring at her in thought until that moment. She gave him a tight smile, now aware that he, Dean, and Cas weren’t normal guests. She thought they were undercover agents looking into the suicides. At least that would make their investigation a little easier to conduct.

Sam looked away, casting his glance outside the open double doors. Dean was in the parking lot speaking to one of the paramedics. His FBI badge was hanging in his hand at his side. Nearby, two other paramedics were hoisting a gurney with a body bag into the back of the ambulance. A couple of crows were perched on the roof of the vehicle, their heads tilted and beady black eyes watching the scene. When the doors were slammed closed, they squawked and flew off, spooked.

“I saw her last night,” Cas said, voice low. He was beating himself up. “I assumed she was sleepwalking.”

“I know,” Sam said in ways of comfort. Cas had mentioned it after Valerie’s body was found. “I talked to her, too, Cas. This isn’t your fault.” His words felt hollow. In truth, Sam agreed with Cas. They should have known. Sam sensed something was off about Valerie and he let it go.

Maybe he was rustier than he thought he was. Maybe, like Dean, he was out of practice.

Except, Dean didn’t look out of practice. His shoulders were stiff as he interviewed the paramedic, but hunting seemed to come as naturally to him as it always had.

Sam saw Dean thank the paramedic, and the two departed. Dean cast a look to the side, out over the water, before heading back into the lobby, his eyes finding Sam and Cas. While still speaking to the cops, Emily distractedly watched Dean’s movements. She rattled her head after a few seconds and turned back to her conversation.

Outside, the ambulance drove off with a crunch of wet gravel.

Sam shook his head, silently asking Dean what was going on. He didn’t get an answer until Dean was close enough to speak at a low volume. “Well, that was a bust. Guy says this place has a reputation, but there’s no foul play, as far as he knows.”

Sam sighed, hope draining. “Yeah, the cops said the same thing.”

“Well, maybe they’re right,” Dean said, shrugging. “Could just be suicides.”

“You don’t believe that,” Cas said.

Dean eyed him levelly. “You’re the one who said she was sleepwalking.”

Cas’ eyes flashed in a mixture of anger and hurt before he glanced away. Sam knitted his brows together, surprised Dean would say something like that. It was unnecessarily mean. Admittedly, that wasn’t unlike Dean, but it still struck Sam.

“Okay, Dean, it—” Sam shot a pointed look at Cas before glaring at his brother. “It’s no one’s fault. We just gotta get to the bottom of this before it happens again.” He turned back to Cas. “When you saw her last night, you said she was acting weird. Weird how?”

Cas seemed to consider it for a second. “She was talking to people—but there was no one there. She kept speaking into a mirror.”

Something clicked in Sam’s head. He held out his hand to the center of their small huddle. “Wait, when I talked to her yesterday, she was looking in the mirror, too.”

“So, she really was seeing someone?” Dean asked skeptically. “Maybe she was just a narcissist.”

Sam shrugged, not having the answer. The only witness they had was dead now. “Maybe not. There’s tons of lore about souls getting trapped in mirrors. It’s why some cultures cover all the mirrors in a house with sheets after a family member dies.”

“But there was no EMF. How can it be a ghost if it didn’t leave a trace of itself?” Cas reminded him.

“And why couldn’t either of you see it when you were talking to her?” Dean added.

“I dunno.” Sam thinned his lips, thinking. The cops were moving away from Emily now, leaving the hotel. Emily turned to the employee next to her and began talking in hushed tones. This hadn’t been the first death in her hotel. Someone who worked there had to know something.

“We need more to go on,” Sam decided. “Okay. I’ll check out Valerie’s room, see if I can find anything. You guys ask around. There’s gotta be something we missed.”

 

///

 

“This is gonna be a bust. She probably won’t know anything either,” Dean said as they walked down the stairs to the lobby together. Castiel casted him a sideways glance, only half-noticing the pale, ghastly faces of the framed photographs that lined the walls. The long-dead humans stared out at them blankly, as if they were translucent.

Castiel let out a breath, trying to remain optimistic. They’d spent the last few hours interviewing members of staff about the deaths over the years. None of them were very helpful. In fact, many of them hadn’t been on staff the year before. The employee that seemed to have been there the longest was the groundskeeper who came on two years prior.

The maid who’d found Valerie’s body had gone home for the day, and Castiel had wondered aloud if they should pay her a visit. Dean didn’t seem to think it was a good idea. “You saw her. She was in shock,” he’d said. “She probably didn’t see much besides the body in the tub.”

They did interview the other maid who was on the floor at the time of the death, but she didn’t have any answers. In fact, she seemed more interested in her phone than in their questions. If she was that distracted while speaking with the FBI, Castiel assumed she wouldn’t have noticed much in the ways of a ghost.

Emily was the only one who might be able to give them any answers.

“We can at least try,” Castiel told Dean, mostly because, apart from Emily, Castiel was out of ideas. And Dean was surprisingly unhelpful that day. Disinterested might have been a better word. Distracted. Castiel wasn’t certain what to call it, but he thought he understood the root of Dean’s attitude.

Dean didn’t think of himself as a hunter anymore. He’d never thought of himself as a hero. Castiel prayed solving this case would change his mind.

They approached the hotel’s front desk, where Emily had her neck bent over a tablet. In the large mirror behind her, her reflection rubbed tiredly at her temples.

“Long day?” Dean asked, leaning against the desk.

Emily gave a sardonic scoff. “And a long night.”

Castiel thought of her husband, unconscious in the hospital bed upstairs. From the drawn look on Emily’s face, it was clear she was no stranger to death. Castiel couldn’t shake the feeling that she could help them.

“Agents,” she said, looking up, seeming to realize who they were for the first time. Her tone was more clipped than usual, her smile as sharp as a knife. “How can I help you? A spa appointment, maybe?”

Castiel’s eyes flashed to Dean, expecting him to react to that. Dean kept his face forward, looking at Emily. He didn’t respond to her, either, which Castiel thought he’d do.

“No,” Castiel said, filling Dean’s silence. All afternoon, he’d been trying to remember how to speak to witnesses. What kind of tone to take, what to say, and, most importantly, what not to say. He still sometimes couldn’t judge what humans would think of as “too blunt,” as Dean always put it.

“We’d like to ask you a few questions regarding Valerie’s death.”

Emily’s expression became pinched. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told the cops: it was a tragic event.”

Castiel waited a moment for Dean to respond to that, but Dean stayed quiet. He flashed another look at him in the mirror. Dean was still staring forward at Emily—or, no. Past her. Into the mirror. Castiel did a double-take, just to confirm it. Dean didn’t even seem to notice. His expression was blank.

“Um,” Castiel said, attempting to stay professional. “And the other deaths over the years? Were those tragic events?”

“Yes,” Emily said pointedly. “The suicides were horrible. But, if you’re asking me why they did it, I can’t help you.”

“Do you have any idea why they all picked this hotel, during this event, each year?” he pressed.

“Like I just said, I can’t speak to their mental state.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes at her, wondering if he should read her mind. He promised himself he’d never do that to a human. It was far too invasive. But she seemed far too frustrated by his questions to be fully honest. Or perhaps she was just stressed. Castiel didn’t know.

He looked at Dean again, hoping for help. Dean was always better at reading people. But Dean seemed disinterested. Distracted.

Or, no…

Dean’s expression had shifted, but only slightly. The barest of smiles ghosted onto his face. Eyes distant, but serene.

Something tugged at the back of Castiel’s mind, telling him something was wrong.

“Unless they weren’t suicides,” he said to Emily.

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. And then, “The police ruled all of them—”

“We understand that,” he interrupted. He had a feeling the usual line of questioning would be fruitless, but he gave it a shot regardless: “In the days leading up to the deaths, did you notice anything strange?”

Emily frowned. “Strange?”

“Strange smells? Cold spots?” Castiel said, even if the words belonged to the Winchesters.

“It’s usually cold here this time of year.” She crossed her arms over her chest, as if protecting herself from the chill.

“What about the victims? Were they acting out of the ordinary?”

“I couldn’t say. I didn’t know any of them personally.”

Castiel dropped his shoulders, weary and defeated. He didn’t know what more to ask.

There was a sudden tapping sound from the window. It drew his attention, and he found two crows on the ledge. One was pecking incessantly at the glass, and he thought it might splinter it and fly into the room.

Beyond the window, over the ocean, more black bodies circled in the bleak sky.

“Are there always so many corvids here?” he asked, recalling the crow he saw pecking against the window the night before. It seemed odd that it should happen again. Maybe they were attempting to get out of the cold, too.

When he looked back at Emily, her features had grown stormier. “Is that relevant?”

He supposed it wasn’t.

“Look, if you don’t mind, I have a lot to do, Agent,” she said, placing her hands on her hips.

Sighing, Castiel said, “Thank you for your time,” without really meaning it. He wished he could say a few other choice words to her instead. He added, “Let us know if you think of anything.”

He turned away, ready to head back up the stairs. He only got a few steps before realizing Dean wasn’t following.

“Dean?” he asked, looking over his shoulder.

Dean didn’t answer. He was still staring ahead at the mirror, not even blinking.

Suddenly, Castiel felt the cold as clearly as any human. Valerie had been acting the same way.

Emily furrowed her brow at Dean, either curious or uncomfortable. Castiel paid her no mind. He walked back up to Dean carefully and touched his hand to Dean’s shoulder. “Dean.”

Dean blinked. He shook his head as if waking up. Head craning to face Castiel, he said, “Sorry. Must’a spaced out.”

Castiel knitted his brows together, looking into Dean’s eyes, trying to determine what was wrong. “Are you—”

“I’m good,” Dean said, brushing away from Castiel’s touch. He half-glanced at Emily. “Thanks for your time.” Quickly, Dean walked away from the desk, headed to the stairs. His shadow stretched out long in front of him from the yellow light of the wall sconces.

Castiel watched after him. The cold was no longer on his skin. It had collected in his gut.

 

///

 

“I still think she knows something,” Dean said as they walked down the hall back to their room. His shoulder brushed against Cas’. “I mean, you saw her, right? She looked shifty.”

Emily had been way less than helpful, as was the rest of the staff. They were no closer to finding out what was going on. But Dean’s gut was telling him Emily was behind this, and his gut was never wrong.

“Maybe,” Cas allowed. “She doesn’t seem like a killer.”

Dean snorted and pulled out their room key absentmindedly. “They never do.”

“No, they don’t.” Cas let out a thoughtful sigh, then turned gentle eyes on Dean. “Maybe you’re right. You are the professional.”

“So are you,” Dean told him, knocking their shoulders together.

“Only because I learned from the best.”

Dean ducked his head, fighting a flush and the way his stomach fluttered. It was tough to do with the way Cas was looking at him, so damn fond. Dean wasn’t sure he deserved the praise. Not anymore. Cas was probably just trying to make him feel better after last night, anyway.

As they approached their room, he deflected, “Anyway, hopefully Sammy is having more luck with—”

He stopped dead, his reflection in the mirror over the hall stand blinking dumbly back at him.

For a second, Dean didn’t understand. That’s where their door should have been. But it was like someone swapped it for the mirror across the hall.

“Dean?” Cas said, his touch to Dean’s elbow startling Dean back into reality.

He looked over his shoulder in the mirror, finding the door behind him. Slowly, he turned, something cold sloshing in his stomach.

Cas’ brow was pinched with concern. “Are you okay?”

Dean shook his head, trying to reorient himself. He hadn’t been paying attention as they walked, his mind too wrapped up in the case. He’d just turned in the wrong direction.

But he could have sworn the door was on the left side of the hall.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said, and stepped across the hall to unlock the door. “Like I was saying, maybe Sam found something that’ll help.”

 

///

 

To get into Valerie’s room, Sam swiped a master keycard from a maid’s cart. He searched the room from top to bottom without any luck. There were no hex bags—just a whole lot of dust bunnies hidden under the bed. He sighed, sitting back on his heels beside the mattress.

Then, his eyes fell on the door to the bathroom.

He pulled out all the drawers under the bathroom sink, ripped back the shower curtain to search the tub, and checked behind the toilet. He even unscrewed the shower head to make sure a hex bag wasn’t hidden in there.

Nothing.

His eyes kept straying back to the bathtub. The water had been drained, but he remembered how deep it had been. Not deep at all. She’d drowned herself in the shallow waters of a tub. How was that even possible?

She hadn’t even left a note. None of the victims had.

Both of those things only furthered his belief that they weren’t suicides.

He glanced around the small space, wondering if there was a place he’d missed. That’s when his eyes landed on the small strip of space beneath the bathroom counter.

Sam dropped to his stomach and peered into the small, dark area. There was something in there—way in the back near the wall. He reached his arm in, feeling around blindly before his palm connected with the soft object.

He pulled it out and climbed to his feet, inspecting the object in baffled curiosity.

“What the hell?” he whispered, holding the black feather between up to the light and twirling it between two fingers.

 

///

 

Sleep hadn’t come easy.

The three of them spent hours walking around the hotel with the EMF meter and recorders, and came up with nothing. At one point, Dean had heard stomping from one of the hallways, but it turned out to be a couple of kids up way past their bedtime—and it was something they knew, too. One look at an adult and their little shadowed feet scurried back into their room.

Dean heard them again at around 3 AM when he was trying to sleep. Stomp, stomp, stomping. Muffled, running footsteps. He ignored it and fell asleep soon after, Sam already snoring in the other bed, Cas still wandering the hotel’s corridors. He was likely the only phantom there.

A half hour later, the running footsteps started up again, louder this time. They were right outside the door, and they pulled Dean back into consciousness. He grunted and buried his face into his pillow. When they sounded again, he wrapped his pillow around his ear to try to deafen himself to the racket.

Just when he convinced himself he was doing a good job at it, there was a fleeting touch to his shoulder. Cas, who’d probably given up on finding ghosts and noticed Dean had woken up. Dean ignored him, too.

Cas touched him again, shaking him slightly, trying to get his attention. Sam kept snoring.

“Stop,” Dean said into his pillow. Cas did it again. Dean groaned. “I hear ‘em. Not our kids, not our problem. Don’t they have parents?”

Apparently, Cas didn’t agree. He shook Dean again, harder that time.

What?” Dean hissed, finally giving Cas what he wanted and whipping around.

Cas wasn’t there.

Dean blinked at the darkness until his eyes adjusted. The space on the bed beside him was empty. Sam was still sound asleep. Dean turned to look at the wall on his other side to see if Cas was there instead. But there was nothing but that stupid poster.

Coldness was setting in on his lower spine, crawling upward one vertebra at a time like a dying insect. His eyes scanned the rest of the room—the small entrance leading to the door, the table and chairs, the glass balcony doors next to Sam’s bed. There was a bird perched on the ledge, its black wings flapping as it flew off like something had spooked it.

Dean’s gaze strayed toward the armchair, his heartbeat pulsing in his throat. There was a childish instinct within him telling him not to look, to cover himself with a blanket as a shield.

The lamp behind the armchair created a distorted shape in the darkness—a head. Dean’s imagination formed a silhouette, sitting in the chair, staring back at him. He blinked to ward off the gathering shadows in the corner of the room. It was nothing. A trick of the eye and an overly tired mind. A chair and a lamp. It was nothing.

And then the outline of the lamp shifted.

Something rose up from the chair. A tall shadow, a man. It stood in the corner, staring. Dean couldn’t make out any features, but he felt its eyes on him. There was something in that stare that made Dean want to keep looking.

Dean was biting down hard on his jaw. His muscles tensed, primed for a fight. Slowly, he reached behind him, palm whispering against the sheets. He felt under his pillow until his fingers connected with the chilled metal of his gun.

The figure kept staring at him.

Dean opened his mouth, wanting to call for Sam, to wake him up. No sound came out. A breath rattled past his lips. Something told him the thing would disappear if Sam woke up. That it wasn’t for Sam to see.

The figure moved. Dean reacted immediately, leveling his gun, safety already off. The figure didn’t approach him. It turned slowly toward the door, its shadow bleeding into the darkness as it walked past the bed, to the exit. It disappeared on the other side of the wall.

Dean didn’t hear the door open, but that didn’t mean the thing wasn’t gone. It meant Dean had to follow it. There was an itch in his feet, bone-deep, urging him to get up, to find out where the figure was going.

He was out of bed before he’d made the conscious decision to do so, bare feet against the carpet. His footsteps hardly made a sound as he went to the door—the dim light coming through the peephole, under the wood. It creaked on its hinges when Dean opened it.

Across from him, in the orange glow of the dim sconces, he saw his reflection in the mirror. Gun held up, face lined from his pillow, thin white t-shirt and boxers and nothing more.

He glanced up and down the hallway, finding the tidy row of doors in an equal count on either side. The figure wasn’t there. The kids’ footsteps were gone.

And then, “Dean.”

It was a whisper. Familiar. Safe.

Dean turned to the right and found the hall still empty. He stepped out into it, the door closing gently behind him. In the corner of his eyes, something flickered in the mirror’s reflection. He pulled his gun toward it, finding only himself looking back.

“Dean.” The voice was more insistent that time. It was coming from somewhere far away.

“Jack?” Dean answered, voice low.

Pounding footsteps started up quickly from behind, making Dean jolt. The kids ran around him, paying him no mind at all. They raced down the hall, toward the end, chasing one another. When they reached the stairs, the girl ran down them. The boy stopped. He turned around, his face barely visible in the low light. He looked at Dean, face stern.

Dean blinked, and the boy was smiling. A big smile. Ear-to-ear. Straining. His eyes remained expressionless.

The boy lingered for a moment, watching Dean, like he was waiting for Dean to catch up. Then, he turned abruptly and rushed down the steps. As soon as the top of the boy’s head disappeared down the stairwell, the footsteps stopped.

There was a lump in Dean’s throat, and he didn’t know if it was dread or daring. His heart beat outside his chest, following after the kid, wanting to see where he led. Before Dean’s mind caught up, he was walking. One footstep after another.

There was a framed poster coming up on his right—another one of those surrealist painting copies. The light from the bulb across the hall from it flared against the glass. Dean passed it, his peripheries picking up on something in the reflection. Just behind him. Walking as he walked. A silhouette. A few paces behind him.

It was in the mirror on his left, too. A little bit closer. Same height as him. Just his shadow.

He reached the stairs, looked down at the lobby below. There was someone standing at the foot of the steps, his back turned to Dean, the outline of his trench coat boxy around his ankles.

Relief flooded through Dean’s chest. “Cas,” he called down in a whisper-shout.

Cas didn’t turn around fully. He turned his head slightly, showing his profile. And the warmth in Dean’s chest trickled away. “Cas?” He didn’t know why he kept calling the figure that.

But he wanted it to be Cas.

Cas started walking away from the staircase, heading into the hotel’s dining room. He disappeared through the threshold.

Dean tightened his grip around his gun, but he could hardly feel it in his hands. He felt like he was walking through a dream. Beneath the carpet, the wooden stairs whined beneath his footsteps. He kept his shoulder close to the wall, bypassing the black and white oval picture frames. In the warped, silver reflection of the sconces’ metal, his eyes caught a figure moving behind him.

It was closer now. Right against Dean’s back. Dean didn’t feel anything there.

He followed Cas into the dining room. The table was set, shadowy figures sitting around it. Cas was sitting at the head of the table, his back to Dean, posture rigid. Sam and Eileen sat on one side. Jack was on the other. Their shoulders were upright, hands on the table on each side of their empty plates. In unison, their heads jerked toward Dean. Dean blinked, and found sharp smiles instantly cut into all their faces.

The cold was seeping up his back, spreading out to his shoulder blades. He didn’t know why he was so calm.

There was movement in the corner of his eye. The little boy came up and wrapped his arms around Dean’s leg. His teeth were white and shining in the dark, eyes blackened by the shadows. Dean pat the top of his head, ruffling his hair. “Hey, Junior.”

The little girl came up on his other side and grabbed his hand, tugging insistently. Her fingers were smooth and cool, like a porcelain doll. She and Junior looked at each other, twin razor grins staring back from a short distance.

“Mary,” Dean said, catching her attention. “You having fun with your cousin?”

His daughter didn’t answer, but he knew she was enjoying their playtime. It was written on the lower half of her face.

Junior let go of Dean and ran to the table, footsteps thump, thump, thumping. He pulled out a chair next to Jack and sat down. Mary gave Dean’s arm another tug, and he went with her that time, letting her lead him to the opposite end of the table. Everyone’s necks turned stiffly, tracking his movements.

On his way, his eyes found the mirror. In it, there was a dark room, an empty table waiting to be filled. Dean tore his eyes away from it, pretending not to see.

He pulled out his chair at the head of the table and settled into it. Mary waited at his side, her smile straining. Then, she scampered to her own seat next to her cousin.

Dean looked across the table at Cas. A big smile lit up Cas’ cheeks, so unlike his usual smile. Sharp. All on the lips. None of it in the eyes. Dean smiled gently back.

They’d been waiting for him to start dinner. “Sorry I’m late.”

Cas didn’t say anything. He just kept grinning, all teeth. It made the cold thaw away.

Dean scanned the empty places at the table.

“Where’s everybody else?” Dean asked. No one answered.

Dean looked around, meeting Cas’ distant eyes and fixed smile.

“They’re on the way?” Dean asked him.

He took the silence as a yes. He looked back into the living room, at his family. The others would be there soon and they could start dinner. Mary’s grandma was on the way. Claire and Kaia. Jody, Donna, and the rest of the girls. Bobby and Rufus. Charlie. Rowena. Everyone. And they’d all be smiling, too.

Like Dean was now.

 

///

 

The corridors of this house seemed never-ending, all of them identical. Like the night before, Castiel hadn’t found anything out of the ordinary. He paused in front of one of the hallway mirrors, his reflection staring back at him, frowning. It offered him neither answers nor advice.

And then something tingled in his grace. A deep well of want. Longing. But it was laced with happiness, too. It felt like Dean.

Castiel spread his wings and transported himself downstairs to the Winchesters' room. Both Sam and Dean were still asleep, and Castiel’s eyes landed on Dean tucked beneath his blankets. He smiled gently, wondering what Dean was dreaming about. Whatever it was, he was praying, so Castiel must have been a part of the dream. Warmth spread through him while he paced closer to the bed as if Dean’s desire was a magnet.

He reached down, meaning to brush Dean’s hair back from his forehead, when he realized the prayer was still too distant. It wasn’t radiating from Dean.

Castiel frowned, withdrawing his hand.

He didn’t understand. It felt like Dean. It was Dean. He was sure of it.

Urgency was rising in his throat. Swiftly, guards up, he took flight, following the feeling. It brought him down to the lobby. Castiel glanced around the desolate, dark area. He was alone.

“Hello?” he called, voice low. Nothing answered. And, still, he could feel it. Feel Dean.

Carefully, he paced into the dining room, finding it empty. Outside, wispy fog ghosted its fingers against the windows. He scanned the room, eyes attracted to the mirror against the wall.

Immediately, he shot to attention. There was a figure inside the mirror—sitting at the head of the table in front of the fireplace. Castiel shook out his arm, willing his blade to materialize and drop into his hand.

His eyes flashed to the table. Empty. Then back to the mirror. There was someone there.

Gripping his blade, he walked forward, squinting hard at the figure. Until its familiar features came into view.

Castiel’s breath stuttered.

“Dean?”

 

///

 

Dean?”

The smiles were gone. Dean frowned, not understanding why all the happiness was suddenly ripped from the room. The cold was settling back in. It was pulling at him—urgent. He ignored it.

“Should we start eating?”

Dean!”

Cas’ voice. Cas.

But Dean was looking right at Cas, and he hadn’t said anything.

At once, everyone's neck snapped toward the mirror. Dean looked, too, slowly. Cas was standing in the reflection, his lips parted and brow lined. Dean didn’t understand it. He was on his feet before he knew it, pacing toward the mirror.

“Dean?” Cas said, sounding like he was coming from somewhere distant. Underwater.

Dean shook his head, confused. He felt like he was coming out of a fog.

He stood in front of Cas, staring back at him.

Cas put his hand on the mirror, his skin flat and discolored against the glass. There was fear in his eyes. “Dean! Can you hear me?”

Dean looked behind him. Everyone, his family, was gone. His chest felt hollow.

“Dean!”

He turned back to Cas, not understanding. Something was wrong.

He asked, “Why aren’t you smiling?”

 

///

 

Castiel took flight immediately. He didn’t want to leave Dean, but he had to. There was an imposter sleeping three feet from Sam, and it was the thing they were hunting. More than that, it was the only thing that could bring Dean back.

He landed between the beds, Sam still a lump under his covers. The thing masquerading as Dean stirred. Castiel wouldn’t allow it a moment to catch its bearings. He summoned his angel blade and pounced, grabbing the creature by the front of the shirt.

“What—Cas! What the hell?” the creature shouted, grabbing onto Castiel’s wrists. It was convincing, but Castiel couldn’t believe he’d been fooled for so long. He pressed the tip of his blade to the creature’s neck.

“What are you?”

From his bed, Sam took in a sharp breath and picked his head up.

“What are you talking about?” the creature yelled. “Cas, it’s me!”

“Whoa, whoa! Cas!” Sam called, instantly alert. He sprung out of bed, hair askew and hands held out.

“Sam, this isn’t Dean,” Castiel said, not taking his eyes on the creature.

“Sammy, he’s talkin’ crazy!”

Castiel tightened his fist around its shirt. “How did you trap him? Where is he? I won’t ask again.”

“Cas,” Sam said, voice tense. He took a half-step forward and gestured to the angel blade across the creature’s throat. “Put that down and let’s talk about this.”

“This is not your brother,” Castiel told him, chancing a look away from the creature to lock eyes with Sam. “Trust me.”

Sam looked between the two of them quickly, like he was trying to make up his mind.

When the silence stretched, the creature said, “Sam! C’mon! It’s me!”

Sam stepped closer, his shoulder brushing against Castiel’s in the small space between the beds. He stared down hard at the creature. “Where’s Dean?”

Castiel didn’t know what had convinced Sam. Maybe it was trust in Castiel, or maybe Sam just knew.

The creature’s eyes darkened, as black as storm clouds.

Suddenly, there was a loud tapping at the window. Both Castiel and Sam whipped their heads around, and it was a mistake. The creature took advantage of the distraction by grabbing Castiel’s blade and yanking it out of his grasp. It jumped to its feet and lurched forward, swiping the blade in an arc. Castiel leapt backward too late. The point of his blade slashed at his shirt and cut a shallow line into his stomach, his grace singing as it cast its moonlight glow into the darkness.

Castiel grabbed his stomach and grit his teeth.

Sam threw a punch, only for the creature to duck out of the way. It elbowed Sam in the nose, sending him reeling backward and landing on his bed. The creature tossed the blade to the side and ran for the balcony doors.

“Cas!” Sam called, voice thick as he clutched his nose.

Castiel rushed after the creature as it flung open the doors. The sound of the crashing waves became louder. The curtains billowed inward, momentarily blocking Castiel’s view of the creature.

He came to a halt on the balcony, searching wildly for the creature, but it was gone.

Above, a black mass of crows wheeled against the dark sky, cawing.

Sam rushed to Castiel’s side, blood coming from his nose. His wide eyes scanned their surroundings before meeting Castiel’s, full of distress and trepidation.

Castiel bit down on his jaw, doing his best to tame his own fear.

He brought his gaze back to the crows over the water.

 

///

 

Dean stared at the spot where Cas had disappeared. In the mirror, the dining room was dark and empty, except for the window. A crow was perched on the sill, its sleek, black feathers visible between the gap in the curtains. When Dean turned around to look at the window behind him, the bird wasn’t there.

Air was suddenly hard to find. It sat cold in his gut, spread the frozen chill through his bones, along his skin. His breath fogged the mirror in front of him.

He had to get out of there.

Slowly, Dean stepped away from the mirror and made his way to the lobby. The stairs leading up to the next level were on the wrong side. Across from them, where the front door should have been, there was only a wall. Set high up onto it was a glowing exit sign, the letters backward. Dean moved toward the sitting room and grabbed a book at random from the shelves. The ink on brittle paper seemed foreign, in another language. All the words were in reverse.

Dean skewed his eyes closed, hoping for it to go back to normal when he opened them. It didn’t.

He remembered the first night in the hotel, the mirror in the dining room, his own face smiling back at him. The warm touch of his hand through the glass.

Clarity flooded Dean, suddenly. None of this was real.

“Cas…” he breathed out, like a prayer. He’d just seen Cas.

Cas was real.

Dean dropped the book and bound up the stairs, rushing down the corridor until he reached their room. The door wasn’t on the side it should have been. His image was reflected in the mirror on the opposite wall. Smiling at him. Watching him.

Dean tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. It rattled in its frame.

“Sam!” he called, pounding on the wood. “Cas!”

Dean,” someone called from far away. It was his mother’s voice.

Dean,” Charlie called from the same direction. More voices called out for him, overlapping with one another. Dean’s fist tensed on the doorknob and he closed his eyes again, trying to focus. Trying to decide if the voices were real. Listening out for Sam or for Cas, and never hearing them.

Underneath all of it, he thought he heard the cawing of crows.

When he opened his eyes again, he turned back to the end of the hall. The stairwell was gone, a corner leading to an adjacent hallway in its place. Dean looked around, finding the same image behind him.

Dean,” the voices called. Beckoning him. He didn’t know if they’d lead him out of the maze or deeper into it, but they were the only things he had to go off.

Dean.”

He followed them down the hall.

 

///

 

“This is what we’re up against,” Sam said, absolutely sure. He and Cas had been up for the rest of the night researching. Sam had even called Claire and Kaia and put them on the case, too. And, in the end, they found it. Sam turned his tablet over, showing Cas the screen.

“The sluagh?” Cas read, brow furrowing in question. His eyes flickered over the tablet to look at Sam. Across the room, Halloween morning was deep and dark outside the window. The clouds had gathered even thicker over the ocean, threatening a storm. But the rain wouldn’t come. Sam knew that now. The sluagh had gathered the dark clouds in their wake.

“They’re from ancient Celtic mythology, before the days of Christianity,” Sam explained, taking the tablet back. “By some accounts, they’re faeries who went dark. Other sources say they’re spirits of sinners too evil even for hell. It’s said they take the form of a flock of crows.”

Cas pinched his lips in thought. “There have been crows all over the grounds.”

Sam nodded sternly. “Plus, the black feather I found in Valerie’s bathroom.”

“These creatures are the ones doing the killing?”

Sam shook his head. “Not necessarily. But I think they’re making people kill themselves. The sluagh go after the people they think are weak—the sick, the dying, but also people who are grieving or depressed. They only appear in the days leading up to Samhain—”

“Which is why all the deaths were in October,” Cas finished for him.

“Yeah. They come to collect their victims’ souls. Once they have it, it becomes one of them.”

“I don’t understand,” Cas said. “If these things prey on the weak, why are they after Dean?”

Sam rubbed at the back of his neck, not really sure how to word his reply. There was something Dean wasn’t telling them. Something he hadn’t been telling them since they got back to Earth.

“I dunno,” he decided on saying, just so they could move on. “But you said Dean was happy when you saw him, right? Well, maybe that’s what the sluagh does. They show you what you want. Carmen Eliot was an aspiring actress and her friend said she was talking like she was going to the Oscars. Valerie was a party girl who wished she was a flapper. What if this is—is like a Djinn dream? Except, instead of fading away—”

“The victim kills themselves to stay in the dream,” Cas finished. “But why create a reflection of the person in the real world?”

Sam still hadn’t figured that one out. “I dunno. I mean, Valerie’s kept looking in the mirror, right? And you said you saw Dean in the mirror. So, maybe that’s how these things take people. It traps the vic, then controls them through their reflection.”

“Controls them? Toward suicide?”

Sam blew out his cheeks, not having the answer. Even if the sluagh had forced the victims into taking their own lives, there still might be some choice in the matter. Why else go through the trouble of showing them their dream life?

Cas jumped up, pacing toward the balcony doors like his footsteps alone could spin the earth off its axis. “We shouldn’t have let it escape,” he said, tone seething. “If it could lead us to Dean…”

That wouldn’t do any good. They had to focus. “Cas—”

He didn’t expect Cas to react with anger. “This is my fault. Dean wanted to stay in heaven.”

Cas,” Sam yelled, trying to stop him before he got any further. “You can’t—” They didn’t have time for this. “I told you, me and Dean chose to—”

Cas wheeled around, cutting him off. “How do we stop them?” he demanded.

Sam sighed, letting it go. He couldn’t deal with a hunt, Dean’s secrets, and Cas’ guilt at the same time. He needed to prioritize.

“According to the lore, there’s no way to kill them. And, after they’ve got your scent, there’s only one way to stop them. By putting someone else in their path. I think someone traded Dean’s soul for theirs. That’s why there’s been so many deaths here. The sluagh go after the sick and the dying, right? You said you saw Emily’s husband, and he was dying.”

“He was in a coma,” Cas said, eyes moving in thought. “There’s no way he could have made a deal with these things.”

“Maybe it’s not him.”

Cas seemed to reach the same conclusion. “Emily.”

Sam nodded solemnly. “Yeah, maybe. Makes sense, right. Emily’s the one who puts on these events every year. Maybe she’s luring in potential victims.”

Suddenly, Cas got that look in his eyes, the one that was wrath and fury. The one that was all angel. “So, we have to give them Emily’s husband in exchange for Dean? We have to kill him?”

That looked like it was the only way. It sat like a rock in Sam’s gut. “I dunno if he deserves that.”

Dean doesn't deserve it!” Cas gritted out.

“No, I know, I—” Sam let out a frustrated sound, trying not to argue. They were both burning the candle at both ends. “I’m not saying he does. But are we really gonna hand deliver an innocent man to these things? That’s not why we’re here.”

Cas agreed; Sam knew he did. He let out a heavy breath, anger leaving his body, and fell back into the chair. “Nine people have already died in his stead. If he lives until next October… Even if he lives until the end of the night, Dean…”

“I know,” Sam said, somber. They didn’t have a choice. “These things aren’t gonna stop until one of them is dead.”

The words hung in the air, as thick and heavy as the storm clouds outside.

Cas said, “What’s the plan?”

 

///

 

Castiel’s reflection stared back at him behind the sigils painted on the bathroom mirror. The blood used for ink was fresh, still dripping down the glass, clotting together. Sam’s palm was slit open, the crimson glistening in the green overhead light.

“Okay,” Sam said with an air of finality. And with tension. He held out his palm, and Castiel hovered his own hand over it, sending his grace forward to stitch up the wound.

“You’re certain this will work?” he asked, eyeing the sigil skeptically.

Sam pressed his lips together in a firm line, expression more hopeful than reassuring. “It should. You remember those spell books Rowena left me after she died? This was in one of them. It’s usually used for scrying—or, uh. Spying.”

Castiel raised a brow in question.

Clearing his throat, Sam said, “But, I figured, since you can fly…”

“I would be able to transport myself once the link is established,” Castiel finished for him.

“Exactly.” Sam turned back to the mirror. He nodded once to himself, determined. “It should work.”

That meant he had no idea if it would truly work, but it was good enough for Castiel.

“And when I find him? How do we get back?”

“Dean’s under the sluagh’s influence,” Sam said. “Once you break him out of it, that connection should break on its own.”

“Should,” Castiel echoed flatly. Sam was using that word a lot. Should.

But, if there was a chance it would work—a chance of saving Dean—he would take it.

“You got this,” Sam said, a flicker of an encouraging smile coming to the corners of his lips. “Just find him.”

Castiel didn’t know what he’d say to Dean when he did find him. He supposed he had to make Dean understand that whatever he was seeing wasn’t real. The rest was out of his hands. Only Dean could break free of the sluagh. Only Dean could save himself.

He would. Dean was strong. Stronger than the sluagh knew. Even if he had to be reminded.

Castiel would remind him.

“In the meantime, I’ll follow Emily, make sure she doesn’t do anything to make things worse,” Sam told him.

Castiel looked back at the mirror. His reflection stood taller, pulling its shoulders back. “I’m ready.”

He didn’t take his eyes off the mirror as Sam began the incantation. Slowly, the image in the reflection began to fade and darken, as if it were overcome by fog. A creeping chill curled through Castiel’s grace, wrapped its way around his body. He focused on it, looking for the source of it, following it. He spread his wings.

And then, Sam was gone. The world felt different around him—too loose, but heavy, electric. Like storm clouds about to break.

His reflection wasn’t in the mirror.

Castiel stepped out of the bathroom, and was taken aback when he realized everything in the hotel room was on the opposite side of where it should have been. The beds were to his right, the door leading to the hall to his left. He opened it and walked into the corridor. It stretched out on both sides, the perspective warped so that it seemed to go on forever. Maybe it did. The stairwell leading to the ground floor was nowhere in sight.

He didn’t know what he’d been expecting when he transported himself there—what he’d find in Dean’s dream. This seemed more like a nightmare.

There was a flutter of something in the opposite direction from where Castiel was looking. He reacted to it, quickly turning his head, his grace mounting in defense. Shadows were amassing far down the hall, their tendrils undulating and curling like vines along the walls, the ceiling, the carpet. It moved slowly, unhurried, still too far away to be an immediate threat. But just close enough for Castiel to know it would catch up if he didn’t move.

A nightmare.

Even Dean’s ideal world was full of monsters. Castiel looked away from them.

As he walked forward, he stretched out his grace, searching for Dean.

 

///

 

The murder mystery was coming to a close. Some of the guests were on the last of the clues, while the others had given up in favor of getting drunk. Sam spent most of the day following Emily at a distance. So far, nothing she did pointed to anything suspicious. She mainly stuck to the main desk, printing out papers and talking to bill collectors on the phone.

Throughout the day, crows gathered around the hotel. They perched on the roof, wheeled in the bleak sky over the white-capped ocean, cawed from the trees. Sam kept a wary eye on the cliffs as they continued to flock, as if they were waiting for something.

Maybe Emily was waiting, too.

By the time the sun went down, Sam knew he couldn’t wait any longer. The winners of the game would be announced at the 7 o’clock dinner, and the guests would no longer be distracted after that. More than that, Halloween was dwindling to a close. If he didn’t do something, Dean would be dead by midnight.

Making sure Emily was still at the front desk, Sam went upstairs and picked the lock of the door leading to her residence. His stomach was in knots the whole time, breath trapped in his chest as his mind reeled with uncertainty.

Because, yeah, maybe Cas would find Dean in time. Maybe he’d be able to knock Dean out of it. Or maybe not. But time was running out and there was only one sure way to save Dean. Sam knew it. Cas knew it, too.

The apartment was dark, quiet except for Sam’s breathing. Outside the balcony doors, half a dozen crows were perched on the railing. The swirling clouds blocked out the moon and stars.

He followed the steady beeping of the EKG into the room where Emily’s husband was laid out. The man was in a hospital bed, wires snaked out of monitors and jutted out of brittle flesh.

It didn’t bring back good memories. Dying like that, plugged into machines, wasn’t a great way to go. But then he thought about how the sluagh’s victims had died—how Dean would die if he didn’t stop it—and he figured there were worse ways to die. Emily’s husband wouldn’t feel any pain, anyway.

Sam stood over the bed, eyes on the multicolored lights of the machinery. On the power switch. He raised his hand toward it, then paused, his gut tightening. He curled back his fingers, dropped his hand. The oxygen tank hissed as the man’s chest rose and fell.

“Damn it,” Sam whispered, closing his eyes.

This wasn’t why he was alive again. He was supposed to save people. He knew—of course he knew—that it didn’t always work out that way. But there was a difference between a monster killing a victim and pulling the plug on a sick man. A difference between killing a person and damning them to a hellish existence.

The sound of distant footsteps reached Sam’s ears. They were coming from the stairwell.

His eyes flew open, and he scanned the room quickly for somewhere to hide. Just as the footsteps grew louder, he ducked through the closet door. The slats in it offered an obstructed view of the room.

Emily walked in, carrying a piece of paper in one hand. There was a kitchen knife in the other.

She set the piece of paper down on the bed, and Sam had to narrow his eyes to make it out. It was one of the polaroid pictures all the guests had taken on the first night.

Dean’s picture.

Sam tensed, fury licking through him. He reached into his waistband and pulled out his gun.

Emily put her hand on her husband’s forehead, smiling sadly down at him. Then, she picked up his hand and sliced a small line onto it with the knife. Using the blade’s tip, she transferred the blood to Dean’s picture.

Sam pulled back the safety on his gun and rushed out of the closet. “Emily, wait!”

Emily reacted immediately, whipping her head around. Terror flashed over her face. She screamed and held the knife out in warning.

“How did you—” she stammered.

“I know what you’re doing,” Sam told her, his hands tightening on his weapon. She looked at it in horror, and Sam realized what he was doing.

Emily wasn’t a witch. Following her around today had made that abundantly clear. She was just in over her head.

“Emily,” he said again. He could reason with her. He held up one palm to show he meant no harm and slowly tucked his gun away. “Look. I know you’re the reason for all the deaths that have been happening here over the years. And we know you’re just trying to protect him.” He gestured toward the man on the bed.

Emily’s breath shuttered, her eyes going wide.

“But this has to stop! Please. You can’t let anyone else die for him. You have to let your husband go.”

“My husband?” Emily said, shaking her head quickly. Sam pulled his brows together, not understanding. Not until she told him, “He’s my brother.”

 

 ///

 

The hotel had no end. Every time Dean thought he was reaching an exit, he turned a corner to another long corridor. Each was exactly the same as the last, as if they were mirror images. The only thing that changed was the person waiting for him at the end of each hallway.

First, it was Sam. He’d stood with his back facing Dean, his shoulders unmoving. Dean had called to him and rushed forward. Eventually, his pace slowed, and with every measured footstep closer to his brother, something cold and sharp ratcheted further and further up Dean’s throat.

Midway down the hall, Dean felt something at his back. Close behind him, stalking him. He’d looked around—and saw Sam. His back once again turned to Dean. When Dean turned again to the opposite end of the hall, Sam was gone.

His mother was in the next corridor, her back turned, her face shielded. Then there was Bobby. Jack. Charlie. Kevin. John. And then there was Cas. Dean had gotten as far as reaching out toward Cas’ shoulder, hoping to spin him around, before the clawing feeling of being watched became too much. Just like Sam, just like all of them, Cas had moved to the other end of the hall. Dean couldn’t reach him.

Instead of trying, he moved on, turning the corner. He didn’t know who he expected to find and the end.

But this hallway was different.

There weren’t any doors—just mirrors set into the wallpaper. Midway down the hall stood an oval-shaped antique full-length mirror. The hallway was reflected in the glass. Dean’s image was not, like he was invisible.

Dean’s eyes flickered below it, at the set of boots and jeans. The legs shifted slightly, as if to take a step forward. Dean copied the motion. The person behind the mirror took another step, and another, walking in place.

Dean paced forward, his legs on auto-pilot, like whoever was behind the mirror was pulling his strings.

Deep down, his muscles pulled. His fists tensed at his sides. His body reacted, trying to fight against the control. It felt like fighting against an undertow. He could thrash and coil and kick, but he was swept away anyway.

And maybe that was for the best.

Maybe he wanted to see what was on the other side.

As he walked, his reflection passed through the mirrors on each side of him. He turned his head to each, seeing the images play out behind him.

One of his family sitting down to dinner.

One of two kids playing in a backyard.

One of a packed bar that looked familiar, but in the way a dream was familiar.

All of them, images of the life he never got to have.

As he watched himself walk through them, his muscles relaxed, and the paranoid sensation of being watched transformed into something warm and welcome. A sense of calm overcame him and he let himself keep walking. Walking toward his life. Toward the life he could have had.

To the life he should have had. Even if it wasn’t real.

He turned back to the mirror in the center of the hall. Two hands curled around the sides, white fingers clenching the wood. In the glass, a mass of shadow walked in time with him. It was hazy at first, but then it started to take shape. A head, shoulders. A body. It was dark, unformed, but it was him.

It was going to be him.

Distantly, Dean heard a flutter of wings.

He heard a crow caw.

Calling, calling, calling.

 

///

 

Dark figures lined the hallway. They were blurry, smudged images, a row of them against the walls. They seemed to pull all light into them, consuming the buzzing, weak glow of the sconces. Castiel could feel them watching him from their eyeless faces. His fist remained tight on his angel blade, prepared to defend himself if he had to.

But he wasn’t certain he could kill a shadow.

However, the sluagh remained stationary as he passed them by. Every now and again, he heard the beating of wings behind him. He would look over his shoulder and find the corridor at his back was erased. It was replaced by nothing. Just blackness. Just a deep, dark empty.

He ground his teeth together and ignored the way dread crept up his spine like a twisting, thorny vine.

Instead, he turned his focus on Dean. At times, he could feel Dean, or his longing, anyway. It would spike, then dull, then fade. Dean, whether consciously or not, was praying. It was few and far between, but each time, it helped Castiel narrow down his location.

It must have been hours since Dean’s last wordless prayer. Castiel was wandering in the bruised dark, seeking him blindly. The shadows followed him close behind, licking at his heels.

He turned a corner into another corridor in the endless maze—and stopped short.

Dean was up ahead, his back facing Castiel, his hands held tensely at his sides. He crept down the hall as if he were walking toward something.

Castiel picked up his pace to catch up with him. “Dean!”

At once, Dean spun around. His expression was flinty, shoulders rigid. He stepped one foot back, almost like he was placing himself into a fighting stance. But his emotions betrayed him. Castiel felt the pull on the invisible string that connected their hearts.

Relief swelled inside Castiel, causing a smile to spread on his face.

It wasn’t too late. He’d found Dean.

“Dean,” he said again, coming to a stop in front of Dean. He checked Dean’s face for any sign of injury, but all he found was distrust. His smile dimmed.

“You’re not Cas,” Dean said firmly. His arms were halfway raised, fists halfway formed.

He was fighting the sluagh’s control. That was good. But, if he was still trapped, it meant he wasn’t fighting hard enough.

“Dean, it’s me,” Castiel told him. Behind him, the cold and inky dark was held at bay. Dean turned his head, looking over his shoulder briefly before swiveling back around, but Castiel wasn’t certain what he was seeing. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was leaving that place together.

Dean narrowed his eyes, assessing Castiel.

“It is me,” Castiel said again. He didn’t know how to ease Dean’s anxieties, how to convince him. Maybe if he touched him, if he reached out…

Dean reacted swiftly by grabbing Castiel’s wrist and twisting it. He shoved Castiel hard against the wall and kept him in place with his forearm on Castiel’s chest. There was a warning in his eyes.

Dean,” Castiel tried again, “listen to me. None of this is real.”

“Yeah, no shit. What are you?”

“No, I’m—I am. You are.” He shook his head, trying to marshal his thoughts so he could explain. “The deaths weren’t suicides. There are creatures—the sluagh—that compelled the victims to die. They trapped you here. You have to fight them.”

Dean’s steely gaze ricocheted across Castiel’s face like he was searching for something wrong with it.

“It’s not real,” Castiel said again.

A muscle in Dean’s jaw jumped. “Which parts?” he demanded.

Castiel blinked. For the first time, he took in the look in Dean’s eyes. They were distant, dizzy and out of focus. Did he think he was still in the real world, hallucinating? Or did he know he was out of sync with reality, and Castiel’s presence complicated the matter? Whatever he thought, he couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what was fake.

Dean’s head jerked to the side quickly, like he’d heard something. He stared down the hall, eyes moving, seeing something that Castiel couldn’t.

As Castiel watched his profile, grief superseded all other emotion.

“Oh, Dean,” he said, closing his eyes, only allowing himself a moment for emotion to crash into him like a wave. Now wasn’t the time for guilt. Right now, he had to save Dean. He opened his eyes and urged, “Whatever conflict you’re feeling, we will find a way to endure it. Dean, I know you want to go back to heaven—”

Dean’s head snapped back to the front, looking directly at Castiel again. The abruptness of it made Castiel’s breath hitch.

“Heaven?” Dean said, voice barely above a whisper. His eyes strayed down, to where his arm was pinning Castiel to the wall. Slowly, he stepped back, putting space between them. His hands dangled at his sides.

“Heaven,” Castiel echoed. “Yes, Dean. I know you want to go back, and we will. Once Chuck is gone and we find Jack and the other angels, I promise—”

It took a moment to realize Dean was shaking his head. His lips were parted, eyes fractionally wider. “I can’t stay here.”

Here. Castiel didn’t know what Dean meant by that. Here, trapped? Here, Earth?

He had a suspicion it was the latter.

“Dean…”

Dean was in pain. Why had Castiel ignored it? Why had he made excuses, convincing himself Dean would be okay in time? He should have known just how deep Dean’s pain ran.

Dean turned around, staring at the long hall that stretched for an eternity before them.

“I can’t stay here,” he said again, this time with more cold determination.

Castiel stood up from the wall urgently. “Dean—”

Dean started forward again.

“Dean, listen to me. It isn’t real.”

Dean didn’t stop walking. Not looking around, he said, “Yeah, I know.”

Castiel opened his mouth to call Dean’s name again, but he never got the chance. The shadows at his back advanced, surrounding him, choking him. It felt like he was underwater, but not weightless. Pulled down into the depth by an undertow.

Castiel fought against it with his blade, slashing and stabbing in hopes of finding something physical. He didn’t.

“Dean!” he cried out, more afraid of that purposeful look that had dulled Dean’s eyes than of the dark.

But he had to escape first.

He skewed his eyes closed and summoned his grace, gathering it against the barrier of his vessel’s skin until it bubbled over. It collected in his palm. He held it up, letting loose the light inside of him. It cut through the shadows, causing them to flee. His grace sang.

After he reeled it back in, he opened his eyes, ready to rush after Dean.

The hallway was empty.

Castiel’s heart beat frantically.

Dean!”

 

///

 

He found himself back where he started, outside the door of their room, his slanted image in the reflection across from it. The sound of the crows followed him, growing louder and louder.

Beneath it, he heard Cas calling him.

No. Not Cas. It wasn’t Cas.

Was it?

Something in his gut told him it was real. Cas was real. And Dean had run from him.

His reflection in the mirror went to the door and pulled it open. His body followed its lead, finding the door unlocked that time. He rushed into the room and stopped between the beds, arms swinging at his sides. He didn’t know what to do next, where to go. He found himself seeking out a mirror in hopes that it would tell him what to do.

Instead, his eyes landed on the poster over his bed.

This is not a pipe.

Who was he kidding, trying to hunt again? He was so out of practice, he let the monster get the jump on him right away. He’d gone too soft; his skin had grown too thin. And yet, it was still too thick for retirement. For peace.

He’d tried for years to settle into peace. Why was it so easy for everyone else? Why did everything inside of him fight against it? He was nothing but hope and expectation and make believe. Always faking it, never actually making it.

This is not a pipe.

Maybe it was better to let his muscles atrophy and his body waste away. Maybe that’s what it would take to be who he needed to be now.

Maybe it would be real, if he just let it be.

There was a sharp caw from the window, and he glanced over to find a crow settling on the balcony. Its wings flapped against the cold, stiff wind. It cawed again and tapped its beak against the glass.

Dean bit down on his jaw and looked away. It remained in his periphery.

Another crow flew to the window. Its wings knocked up against the glass. The first one pecked again, trying to get Dean’s attention.

Dean closed his eyes, trying to focus on anything else. It only made him more aware of the crows.

His thoughts felt too tight, packed into his skull like dense fog. He clasped his hands to his head in an attempt to relieve the pressure.

It had been a while since he’d been like this. Since his thoughts were as sharp as blades on raw, battered flesh. When his chest was like a bridge that collapsed in on itself, concave and drowning in the ravine below. When every breath dragged in through his teeth was enough to take him out of the fight altogether.

Reality was loose around him, shirking away before it touched his skin.

He didn’t know how much time passed. It felt like hours. There were more crows at the window now, a little audience to witness him losing his mind.

There was something in his chest that wouldn’t shake loose. Its tendrils spread out, gripping his gut and clawing at his throat. Everything inside of him urged him to do something. To open the window and shoo the birds away—or to follow them. To do what they wanted.

That seemed like the easiest option.

The birds kept tap, tap, tapping at the glass. Their wings beat dully. They screamed.

He couldn’t listen to this anymore. He couldn’t just stand there.

He wanted it to end. He needed it to end.

He couldn’t do this again. To cling to life until his fingers were bloody and his nails were down to the nubs. To sink his teeth in. To not let go.

What was the point? It’d be ripped from him sooner rather than later.

Would that be a relief, when it came? He could go home. To his family. To dinner. To the life he could never have on Earth.

“Cas,” he heard himself eke out, but he didn’t know why. It only made the noises grow louder, faster. The birds whipped themselves into a frenzy.

He needed a barrier to block them out. A foxhole. A shelter to ride out the storm.

Dean stumbled into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. The small space was less of a foxhole, more like a coffin.

He could still hear the crows. If anything, they grew louder in the small space, their cawing ricocheting off the tiles.

He rushed to the sink and turned on the faucet, splashing cold water onto his face. His hands gripped the sides of the counter so tightly, his knuckles went white. He skewed his eyes closed and tried to breathe.

His heart kept hammering. Bang, bang, banging against his breastbone.

He turned the sink off and brought his eyes up, his heartbeat snagging painfully. Instead of water dripping down his face, he saw blood. It was covering his reflection. The image in the mirror didn’t follow his movements. It stared at him, a thin cloudy veil fogging its eyes. Still, Dean knew it could see him.

It could see him how he really was: weak, afraid, nothing more than a shadow. Dead.

He was supposed to be dead.

He gripped the sink tighter, a shout ripping from his throat and bouncing off the walls. The reflection reeled its arm back and sent his fist into the center of the mirror. Dean felt the sting of it on his knuckles. Blood dripped warm through the cracks in his fingers.

 

///

 

Emily was looking at the hospital bed, expression pained. “It was Ray’s idea to buy the hotel,” she said gently. “It was his baby. I knew how much he wanted it, so I helped. Ten years ago, we opened this place together.” She turned back to Sam, shaking her head. “But, a couple years after we opened it, he got sick.”

“Cancer,” Sam said knowingly.

She swallowed hard. Her fist tightened around her knife at her side, but she didn’t raise it. “And then those things came.” Her breath came out choppy, tears prickling in her eyes. “I never wanted anyone to get hurt! I went to this psychic in town. She told me how to get rid of them by putting someone else in Ray’s place. I thought… after the first time, it was over. But then, the next Halloween, they came back.” Tears rolled down her cheeks, and Sam didn’t know if she was angry or sad. Maybe both. “They kept coming back!”

“And you kept sacrificing people.” Sam knew he should be unforgiving, but he couldn’t help but to feel a little bad for Emily. In a way, she was a victim of the sluagh, too.

The EKG monitor kept up its steady rhythm. Beep, beep, beeping.

“I know,” she admitted. “But he’s my brother! I know I can’t keep him alive for long. The doctor’s said he won’t last until the end of the year. That’s why Valerie wasn’t enough. I needed another sacrifice. I’m just trying to get him to live through October—so they don’t get his soul. Those things won’t be back next year.”

Sam shot her an empathetic look. She was desperate, but he wouldn’t let her hurt Dean. “Yes, they will,” he said, taking a step forward. “Emily, it won’t be over. These things come after the grieving, too. They take people, and then they feed on their loved ones’ despair. If Ray isn’t alive next year, they’ll come for you.”

Emily backpedaled, stricken. She trampled over Dean’s picture on the floor. “What?”

 

///

 

Shards of the mirror sat jagged in the sink. Dean looked down at his bloody knuckles. His gaze moved up, seeing the same blood staining his reflection a dozen times over. It ran along every spiderweb crack in the mirror. The voices called for him, the static falling away, becoming clearer. The crows were calling outside. He could hear their wings beating against the window.

Dean’s splintered reflections changed. Pieces of it smiled back at him, filling him with a sense of calm. The others just stared.

And then there was the one in the center. It reached into the sink.

Dean reached in, too. His arm shook and strained, the resistance too weak.

His reflection moved first. He followed it, picking up a jagged piece of glass. Dean held the glass up to his face. The image between the sharp edges smiled at him.

He pressed it to his throat.

The birds cawed.

There was a flutter of wings.

“Dean!”

The sharpest point of the glass was touching Dean’s neck. Blood prickled and bloomed from the tender flesh. Dean felt the sharp sting of it. He felt the corners of his mouth pull in a serene smile.

This was for the best. Sam and Cas would be fine without him. Dean would go back to heaven. He’d figure out what he’d been missing for the last fifty years. He’d be happy there. He couldn’t have that on Earth.

He’d find peace.

“Dean, please!”

That voice broke through the swarming cacophony. It was pleading, but steady. A life raft to grab hold of, to pull him from the shadowy depths.

“Dean, put that down,” Cas said. He was standing close to Dean, hand held out, asking for Dean to hand the shard of glass over. He wasn’t in the mirror. Dean’s reflection was smiling, eyes imploring him to do it. To slice.

It was for the best.

Just one quick movement and he’d find peace.

“Dean, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you to come back to Earth. I… But you have to fight it, Dean! You were praying to me. That means some part of you doesn’t want to do this. Fight it!”

Dean was so damn tired of fighting. It was who he was. It was all he was.

He wasn’t supposed to be that guy anymore.

Cas’ hand wrapped around Dean’s shoulder, but the pressure of it felt less like a push, more of a pull. Dean’s reflection frowned.

“You’re stronger than they are,” Cas was saying. “I know you are. From the moment I first saw you, your soul was brighter than anything I’d ever seen. It still is, Dean. Don’t let them have it.”

Outside, the crows kept calling. Cas’ voice seemed closer now, drowning them out.

“I won’t let them have you.”

In the mirror, Dean caught sight of Cas’ profile. His face was turned to Dean, eyes big and blue and sad but still full of fire. Cas was looking right at him, the real thing. Not the reflection. He was looking right at Dean like he always had.

In Cas’ eyes, Dean always saw himself reflected more clearly, even when he didn’t want to.

And damn peace. Maybe there was no such thing as that for him, but he knew what was real.

He’d take that over peace any day.

 

///

 

“Please,” Sam tried again, desperate. He prayed Cas had found Dean by now. “You have to call them off.”

“No,” Emily murmured, shaking her head frantically. “No. No, I can’t.” He brought her hands up, one bloody palm resting on her forehead. Crimson dripped down the side of her face. She held the knife loosely. “I can’t let them take him.”

Sam’s eyes flashed to the monitors, wondering if he could overpower Emily and switch them off. He didn’t want it to end like that.

 

///

 

Dean blinked.

His reflections followed the movement exactly. Its face wasn’t bloody. Its eyes were clear. Every image had faded away, leaving only his sallow face. He blinked again—and dropped the shard of glass back into the sink. It shattered into smaller pieces. A few drops of blood tainted it.

Beside him, he heard Cas let out a heavy breath. He was panting with relief. It was all Dean heard. The crows were silent.

He turned to Cas, shame blooming in his chest. But he was alive to feel it. He was alive.

“Cas,” he gasped out.

 

///

 

“Emily, listen to me,” Sam called.

“No!” Emily jerked the knife forward, pointing it threateningly at Sam. Sam put his hands up, taking a step back.

He could rush her. He could take the knife. This had to end.

Emily’s arm was shaking, the knife trembling in her grip. Tears rushed down her cheeks.

Outside, Sam heard crows. There was movement in the window, and he realized one had perched itself on the sill. It looked in, eyes fixed on Emily.

Sam’s stomach dropped. “No…”

Emily inhaled sharply. She looked at her brother. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice broken.

Sam rushed forward, meaning to rip the knife out of her hand. He was too slow. She set the tip of the knife to her own throat and slashed.

 

///

 

Cas’ hand tightened on his shoulder. “Dean.”

Dean glanced around the bathroom. Above, the fluorescent light hummed, seeming to break through the muddy gloom with more ease. He took in another sharp breath, his lungs less constricted than before. It was the difference between a high altitude and sea level. It no longer set a fog around his mind.

Like all dreams, he hadn’t truly known he’d left reality until sleep fell away. He was in control again.

The next thing he knew, he was being hauled into a hard embrace. He felt like he could collapse into pieces—like the mirror. Shatter. He closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around Cas, breathing in the scent of him.

In the mirror, Cas didn’t let him go.

 

///

 

It was just after midnight.

The bright strobe lights of the ambulance lit up the hotel’s parking lot in flashes of blue and white. Castiel heard garbled, staticky chatter coming over the police officer’s radio as the EMTs carefully pulled the gurney out of the front door. Emily’s body was covered, wheeled to the open doors of the vehicle.

Minutes earlier, Ray had been put in a separate ambulance and driven to the hospital, presumably where he’d live out whatever time he had left. It seemed a cruel fate.

The other guests, clad in robes and pajamas, hung back around the cars. All of them whispered among themselves, faces drawn. Members of staff huddled together as they silently watched. One was smoking a cigarette, gray smoke curling upward. The waves crashed against the rocks.

Castiel’s eyes lingered on the back of Dean’s head. The brothers were leaning against the Impala’s trunk, watching the proceedings. Castiel stood next to the car, his hands buried in his coat’s pockets. They’d been interviewed by the same detectives as before, and Sam and Dean easily lied about what happened. Castiel didn’t know what exactly they’d said, but the police ruled Emily’s death a suicide.

Castiel tilted his head back, looking up at the night sky. The clouds had broken up, letting the light of the moon illuminate their pale wisps. The breeze blew cold, making the bottom of his coat flutter.

The EMTs loaded Emily’s body into the back of the ambulance and closed the doors. The police officer got back into her car.

Dean shifted, standing up from the Impala. Voice low and bitter, he said, “That’s one person who’s never gonna see heaven.” He turned then, and headed back into the hotel.

Sam looked around, catching Castiel’s eye. He seemed exhausted, forlorn. Castiel felt much the same.

He swiveled around, his gaze trailing after Dean. He watched him disappear into the hotel.

 

///

 

The sun came through the smudged glass of the balcony doors, illuminating the hotel room. Dean had his duffle open on the bed. He shoved dirty, unfolded clothes and his toiletry bag into it. Sam and Cas had already gone to pack up the car. The sooner they were out of there, the better.

At least there was one silver lining to this whole crap-fest: they didn’t have to pay for their room. No one did. The whole thing was comped because of all the death.

The door opened slowly, and Dean half-glanced up to find Sam poking his head through. “Hey,” Sam said, entering the room fully. There was hesitancy in the way he moved. Treading lightly, like Dean was an injured animal.

Dean wasn’t injured. Apart from a bruised ego that harbored embarrassment beneath the twisted scars of anger, he was just peachy. He grunted at Sam in response—something that sounded in the general area of “hey.”

“Cas is in the car. We’re ready to head out,” Sam said, hooking his thumb behind him at the door. Dean didn’t say anything. He zipped up his bag with so much force, it nearly ripped. “So, uh. What, no Scarlet Lady in the library with a lead pipe joke?”

Dean didn’t look up from what he was doing. “Guess not.”

Sam must have expected a laugh. He was floundering. He puffed out his cheeks, scratched at the back of his head. “Anyway. Guess you were right from the jump, huh? Looks like it was the owners causing the deaths.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I know how to do my job, Sam.” He hadn’t meant to say that. At least, not so harshly. Sam was just trying to give him a pep talk, and maybe Dean needed it. Or maybe he was better off festering in his anger. Not anger at the monsters or Emily or Sam. He was angry at himself.

Did he know how to do his job anymore? He didn’t even realize he wasn’t in the real world until it was almost too late.

Sam sighed. It was a weary thing. “Dean,” he said softly, not mad. Worried, maybe. “What’s going on with you? You’ve been acting strange since we left heaven. And don’t say you’re fine, because clearly you’re not.” He gestured vaguely toward the window, which the sluagh had beat their wings against just hours ago.

Dean hoisted his bag over his shoulder, hoping that would shut down the conversation.

It didn’t.

“I mean, is it… Earth?” Sam asked gently. “All the changes?”

Dean scoffed. “It’s not that, Sam. Yeah, whatever. Gas is twenty bucks a gallon and TV is all apps now. I’ll get over it.”

He brought his gaze back to Sam, meaning to appear determined; but Sam was giving him his kicked-puppy eyes and Dean faltered. “Then, what is it?” Sam asked in that tone of voice Dean couldn’t say no to. Full of care. “I mean… Cas said, when you were in the mirror world… The sluagh showed you heaven.”

That wasn’t completely true. Dean rubbed hard at his eyes, internally debating what to say. “No, they didn’t. Well—Yeah, they did. They showed me a lot of stuff. Heaven, family, whatever. But I knew all of it was fake. It was like it knew that’s what I was supposed to want, but it was so fake. It was the other stuff that seemed real.”

“Other stuff?” Sam asked, latching on.

Dean’s hand tightened on his duffle’s strap. He looked down at his shoes, because it was easier not to say this to Sam’s face. “I was hunting. That’s it. It was just… this hunt.”

There was a pause. Dean felt the air shift when understanding dawned on Sam. “You do wanna hunt.”

Dean shook his head. He didn’t know what he wanted. Except maybe one thing: “I want something real.” He forced himself to look up at his brother, finding more confusion written on Sam’s face. Dean didn’t know how to explain, but he had to try.

He prefaced, “Promise you won’t tell Cas?”

Sam perked up a little, eager. “Yeah, of course. Is everything okay between you guys?”

“Everything’s fine,” Dean waved away. “It’s not Cas, it’s… hunting.”

“Okay,” Sam said, making it sound like a question. He shook his head. “Dean, I know you think you’re not a hunter anymore—”

“I am a hunter,” Dean cut him off, and it was like a crack in a dam. Everything spilled out after it. “That’s the problem. I’m always gonna be a hunter, Sam. I don’t belong in heaven. I’m not at peace. And I’ve been trying—You got no idea how hard I’ve been trying. But it just feels…”

His eyes searched the room for an answer. He didn’t expect to find it, but there it was. The poster on the wall.

This is not a pipe.

This is not your life.

This is not Dean Winchester.

“Fake,” Dean said. “I’m fake up there. It’s supposed to be an imitation of the real world but—but that’s all it is! An imitation! I mean, just once I want the roof to leak without knowing it’s been specifically designed to leak!”

Sam was quiet, expression full of despair.

Dean didn’t know how to make him understand. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to go back to heaven. But he couldn’t stay on Earth.

“I just know…” Dean couldn’t look at Sam dead-on anymore. “The longer I stay here, the harder it’ll be to go back. Because, whatever peace is, I’m never gonna be able to settle into it if I know what I’m missing down here.”

Deep down, he knew it was already too late.

Chapter Text

Outside Tirana, Albania

Whispered voices cut through the night. He could hardly hear what any of them were saying. They hissed and overlapped, falling over each other like a stampede of terrified animals. They spoke in different tongues, languages from all over the globe, languages that didn’t even exist anymore. But he knew what they were saying.

They were crying out for help. Constantly.

It started over a month ago. Sometimes, the voices were quieter, a simple ringing in the ear. Sometimes, they festered. Sometimes, they screamed. He didn’t know what made them scream.

They were doing it now.

His eyes shot open into the darkness of the dingy, decrepit room in the abandoned farmhouse he was squatting in. The heat was stifling, but the night was silent. Not even the crickets were chirping. The waxing moon was hidden behind a cloud.

He sat up on the mattress. In his head, there was screaming. He couldn’t take it anymore. He’d tried to outrun them, but they followed him everywhere.

They needed to stop. He needed to stop them.

He needed to know why the demons were crying out for help.

 

///

 

Dean focused on keeping his punches at eye-level. Every time he threw one, he tried to imagine a world past the dull slap of his boxing gloves against the bag. He thought of a demon with black eyes coming at him, or a snarling werewolf, of a visage in a mirror shattering under impact. He thought of vampires in a barn. Of everything he could have done differently.

He was rusty, that was for sure. He’d only been at it for ten minutes, snapping simple straight punches and hooks against the bag in the bunker’s gym, but there was already sweat on his temples. His wrists were protesting under the impact. When his shoulders started to complain and fatigue made him drop his arms lower, he picked them back up again and punched in double-time.

He did it until he couldn’t anymore—until his lungs were burning and his arms were shaking. He grabbed the top of the bag and practically hung off of it while he caught his breath.

Yeah, he was definitely rusty.

In the back of his mind, he heard his father’s voice barking at him to keep going. To keep his hands up. To dig deeper whenever he got too tired. Dean needed to hear that right now, because he wouldn’t get anywhere while resting. He certainly wouldn’t be much good on a hunt if he didn’t get his act together.

He was weak and sloppy, and not just physically. His mind wasn’t sharp either, which was made totally apparent by the whole fiasco in California. He’d told Sam that he’d always be a hunter, but he couldn’t even do that right.

He didn’t want to get anybody killed, so he needed to get back into shape. All of him. Hence the boxing. It was a good mind-body connection.

When his heart felt less like it was actively trying to eject itself from his esophagus, he realized the back of his neck was prickling with the sensation of being watched. Warily, he glanced around and found Cas standing in the doorway, hands folded behind his back and head tilted just off-center, looking like he’d been there for a while. He frowned when Dean met his eyes, like he was wondering why Dean had stopped.

“Didn’t realize I had an audience,” Dean griped, hoping not to sound self-conscious. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm, but all it did was transfer more dripping perspiration there.

“Would you prefer it if you didn’t?” Cas asked levelly. His words were almost drowned out by the Velcro rip of Dean taking off his boxing gloves.

Dean tossed the gloves to the side and pulled up the bottom of his t-shirt to mop his forehead. “Kinda.”

There were hints of an expression on Cas’ face: a subtle eyebrow raise, consideration sparkling in his eyes. He let his arms dangle at his sides and stepped further into the room. “What about a sparring partner?”

Dean scoffed humorlessly before he realized Cas was serious. “No!” Because if he was already tired just from training on the bag, he’d get his ass handed to him by an archangel.

Cas’ face fell. “Dean, you aren’t going to hurt me.”

“I know! You’ll hurt me!” He remembered the first time he ever tried to punch Cas. He’d nearly broken his knuckles. “Rock-hard skin is an unfair advantage.”

“I won’t use my grace.”

Dean wanted to argue, but Cas was already taking off his trench coat—and you’d think Dean would be used to that after four-plus decades of seeing the guy naked, but his brain still short-circuited. He floundered for an excuse even more when the suit jacket and tie came off.

It wasn’t like there was an excuse, anyway. Dean didn’t exercise for the hell of it. He never had. He wasn’t like Sam, who went for daily morning jogs—because, if Dean was running, either somebody better be chasing him or he better be the one doing the chasing. He didn’t really train, either, which he realized now was a stupid move.

Cas knew why Dean was in the gym. After California, how could he not know? At least he wasn’t trying to talk about it like Sam kept attempting to do. Cas was offering Dean a chance to punch out his frustrations—and to stop being so damn rusty.

This would probably help Dean more, anyway. Heavy bags didn’t punch back. Monsters did. And Cas sure as hell did, too.

“Fine,” Dean said, holding up a finger, “but, you do use your grace, we’re not having sex for a week.” That was probably a lie.

“Of course,” Cas answered, knowing it was probably a lie.

Dean turned around and went for the equipment bench to wrap his hands up. Grace or not, he wasn’t trying to get bloody knuckles. He was just finishing up when he heard Cas behind him. It wasn’t his usual stealthy footsteps, the kind that caused a thrill to zip through Dean’s entire body in anticipation of Cas’ arms wrapping around his middle, of Cas pressing his lips to the back of Dean’s neck before resting his forehead between his shoulder blades, of Cas whirling him around to kiss him on the lips.

Dean knew this brand of stealth way before he knew any of that. It was deadly, a lion stalking its prey.

He whipped around—just in time to see a left hook arching toward him. Dean reacted by ducking out of the way, letting Cas’ fist swing over his head. He stayed low and jabbed hard at Cas’ gut, causing Cas to grunt and step back. Dean jumped up to full height again, surprised to find himself grinning. This was actually kind of fun.

Cas scowled in return. He moved forward again, his fist flying toward Dean’s face. Dean slipped out of the way, hearing the rush of Cas’ arm miss his ear by a fraction of a second. He took advantage of how close Cas was to strike his elbow horizontally into his jaw.

And now it was less fun, because Dean got the impression Cas was letting him win.

“C’mon!” Dean goaded while Cas recovered. “That all you got? Don’t tell me that’s what’s been guarding heaven these last few years!” He went to the center of the room, bouncing from foot to foot. His pulse was hammering in his chest. His sides were already sore.

Cas looked at him, the blue of his eyes darkening with that ancient fury that sent hurricanes into motion. Dean was grinning again, satisfied.

That was all it took.

Cas barreled forward. Dean jumped out of the way. He swung—only for his punch to land against Cas’ arm in a defensive block. The next thing Dean knew, his teeth were aching. Cas had punched him under the jaw. It sent him reeling backward.

Dean shook out, trying to recover quickly. There was some space between them, and Dean instinctually remembered his footwork while they circled one another. Dean’s eyes flickered up and down Cas’ body, taking in the way he moved. It was funny. People heard angel and they expected graceful, flowing movements—a practiced, choreographed dance. Something beautiful. Cas didn’t fight like that at all. He was a battering ram. And, better than anybody, Dean knew what Cas could do with his body.

His gaze moved across Dean in an assessing way, no doubt calculating any weakness. He probably saw it all: the flush in Dean’s cheeks, the sweat dripping into his eyes and stinging, the way his breath was coming out labored. Hell, he probably heard how fast Dean’s heart was pumping. And then his eyes swept up, locking onto Dean’s and holding there. And Dean’s heart skipped.

He rushed forward before Cas got the chance. He sent a one-two punch to Cas’ eye, landing both hits. Cas grunted, then kneed Dean in the gut. It nearly knocked the wind out of Dean. He doubled over—which was a rookie move. Cas kneed him in the face.

“Sonofa—”

He stumbled back, blinking the stars away. He was pretty sure his nose was fractured. He could feel blood dripping from it—otherwise, it was numb, seeming clogged in a way akin to a bad head cold. He ignored it and got back into his fighting stance.

Right foot forward.

He always had favored southpaw, even though he was right-handed. That was because, when he was training as a kid, John always made him start in that stance. Dean had learned everything—every punch, every defensive move, every kick—backwards first. Until it all became muscle memory. Until it became his stronger side. Until his punches came from the opposite arm that his opponent anticipated. It gave him the advantage.

Cas was on him again, rushing forward. Dean kicked him square in the chest, causing Cas to backpedal until his spine hit the heavy bag. Dean went after him, moving into another straight punch. Cas got out of the way, circling to the other side of the bag, and Dean’s knuckles caught the weighted plastic.

From the opposite side, Cas sent the bag swinging hard into Dean’s chest—which meant he was cheating with his super strength. Dean grunted loudly upon impact. He stumbled back again.

There was a fluttering of wings behind him. Dean reacted quickly. He slipped out of the way of Cas reaching forward to put him in a chokehold. When Cas’ arm was over his shoulder, Dean grabbed it for leverage. He lurched over, using the momentum to pull Cas across his back. He let go of Cas’ arm, watching him land hard on the mat.

Dean chuckled as he circled to Cas’ feet to stand over him. He nudged Cas’ shoe with the toe of his boot, watching Cas’ chest rise and fall in rapid breaths. There was a bleeding cut over his eyebrow. He glared up at Dean.

“Cheater,” Dean teased victoriously through panting, burning exhales.

Cas’ eyes narrowed dangerously—and Dean probably should have seen it coming. He kicked, sweeping Dean’s ankles out from under him. Dean went sailing down, landing on top of Cas with a dizzying thud.

“Only because you fight dirty,” Cas countered. He slapped two fingers against Dean’s forehead, and something familiar spread throughout Dean’s body like sunshine on a warm day. It healed his nose, fixed his tweaked ankle, and cleared away the blood.

“That wasn’t fighting dirty,” Dean said matter-of-factly. A smug smirk pulled at his cheek. He could feel Cas’ wild heartbeat through his shirt, could feel the swell of his stomach in every breath against his belly, could share in the heat coming off his body. The fecund fragrance of wind on a spring day lifted off of him.

“Yes, it was, Dean,” Cas argued, his brows shooting up to his hairline in annoyance. But he was just faking it.

“No, sweetheart, this is fighting dirty.” He crashed their lips together in a hard kiss. Cas responded immediately, parting his lips for Dean and letting their tongues roll together, devouring. His knees came up on either side of Dean’s waist, boxing Dean in. Dean pushed his hips against Cas’, already feeling his adrenaline take a hard left into arousal.

He buried his hands into Cas’ hair. Cas fisted at the back of Dean’s sweat-drenched shirt, broken moans lifting out from his throat and puffing into Dean’s mouth. Dean pulled away, pulling Cas’ bottom lip between his teeth as he went.

Cas helped him out of his shirt. Then, in a rush of blood to the head, Dean was rolled onto the mat, Cas on top of him. They were kissing again—dirty turning into downright filthy—while Dean hastily unbuttoned Cas’ shirt.

 

///

 

Sam walked back into the library, his second cup of coffee warming his palm. His computer was on the table, still open to the news reports he was sorting through from his filtered alerts. So far, nothing screamed Biblical God or angels or even monsters. It looked like it was going to be a slow news day.

That was probably for the best. He could get some more research done, and he knew Cas would help. But, for the moment, it looked like Sam was alone. Before he went to make another pot of coffee, Cas said he’d go to the gym and check up on how Dean was doing. It looked like he was still in there—which hopefully meant they were talking.

Since they’d returned from California a week ago, Dean had been pretty down on himself, but Sam couldn’t wrangle any more words out of him than what he got the morning after the hunt. With any luck, Cas would get something from Dean.

Sam set his coffee down and pulled out his chair, about to sit, when he heard a buzz come from the next room. His head whipped around. On the map table, a red light was blinking. Sam rushed into the room, wide eyes taking in the location indicated. It looked like it was somewhere in Indiana. Sam’s heart rate sped up, his palms going dry.

It could be Chuck.

Across the room, the machinery hummed as it kicked into life, startling Sam at first. It chugged out a roll of paper. He hasted toward it and ripped it out, scanning the page for the coordinates of the anomaly.

Terre Haute, Indiana. They could be there in ten hours if they moved quickly.

“Guys!” Sam yelled, not waiting for an answer before tearing into the hallway. The paper rustled and flapped in his hand as he ran. “Guys! I think we’ve got something!”

He came to a running halt outside the gym’s door and looked inside—

And immediately wished he hadn’t.

Sam gave a retching sound and slammed his back against the hallway wall, his hand over his eyes.

This! This is why he was glad he never lived with Dean and Cas after they realized they were disgustingly in love. This very reason! Because “disgusting” was the main word here!

From inside the gym, he heard Dean’s thick, evil laughter, followed by, “Sorry, Sammy!” He didn’t actually sound sorry at all.

Sam dropped his hand and let out another choked sound. He kept his eyes down and marched away from the gym, wondering if he needed to head to the bathroom so he could wash his eyes out with soap.

He went to the library again and threw himself into the chair in front of his computer. He started pulling up local news websites for Terre Haute. He resolved to not think about anything else, and definitely not to talk about it.

Ten minutes later, Dean and Cas walked in. Dean had a wide, teasing grin on his face, and he was practically sauntering into the room. At least Cas had the decency of looking apologetic, even if his clothes were rumpled.

“What’s up, Sam?” Dean asked, plopping down in the chair across from him. Cas stood at the edge of the table.

Sam cleared his throat and decided to be the adult here by launching right into it. “Hey. So, there was a power anomaly in Indiana,” he said, flipping the paper with the coordinates and energy readings over and passing it across to Dean.

“Chuck?” Dean asked, demeanor becoming more serious.

“Could be. Or his angels. I’ve been checking local news and police alerts. So far there’s nothing.”

“But you’re certain something happened,” Cas inferred.

Sam nodded. There could be a hundred reasons why nothing was being reported. It might not have even happened around people. “Yeah. We need to go check it out.”

Dean pursed his lips down at the paper, studying it a little too hard. But he nodded curtly in agreement.

“I should go ahead and assess the situation,” Cas said.

“Good idea,” Sam agreed. “But stay at a distance. If it is Chuck, we don’t want him knowing we’re on to him. So, hang back from the action.”

Cas nodded.

Sam stood up, folding up his computer with finality. “Me and Dean’ll meet you there.” He put the device back on his wrist and shot a look at Dean, who dropped the paper to the table and glanced up at him. “After Dean deep-scrubs the mats in the gym.”

Dean’s face lit up again, and Sam really shouldn’t have said anything. He thought he’d decided to not talk about this.

“It was a beautiful act, Sam,” Dean told him, mock-serious.

Sam turned away, leaving to get packed. “Nope.”

Before he left, he caught the very beginning of the shit-eating grin Dean directed Cas’ way. Cas tried his best to bite down on his own smile.

Sam would have called them out for it—but he was not talking about it.

 

///

 

The empty countryside outside of Terre Haute rolled by in the early morning light. They’d driven through the night, and Dean kept his eyes on the farmland stretching out in the miles that led into town. Everything was quiet—stalks of corn swaying in the breeze along the roadside. The farmhouses were dark through their windows; the pastures weren’t spotted with cows, horses, or other forms of livestock.

It felt strangely desolate. Dean hadn’t even seen so much as another car since they got off the highway a half hour back.

“You said this town had a big population, right?” he’d asked at one point.

Sam only shrugged. “Decent sized, I guess.” From the tone of his voice, Dean knew he’d also sensed the uneasy stillness around them. It put Dean on his guard.

During the drive, Sam kept checking the news and social media for alerts about Terre Haute, but so far there was nothing. It was a small town built around a high-security prison. According to what Sam said, it’s where all of the federal US inmates on death row were locked up while awaiting execution. When Dean heard that, a knot formed in the pit of his stomach and remained there as the hours wore on.

Soon, farmland made way for houses and condominiums, but the sidewalks were still just as vacant. Cars sat in driveways and on the sides of the streets, some with their doors hanging open. Houses, too, were left open. They didn’t see another soul.

Dean pointed the Impala in the direction of town, the twisting in his stomach only tightening with every silent second. His fingers flexed around the steering wheel, wishing it were a gun.

Up ahead in the distance, the concrete prison rose up from the flat earth. The smaller buildings of downtown followed it like pebbles to a monolith.

“Do you see that?” Sam asked when they reached the very edge of the town’s center. He was leaning into the dashboard, squinting at something ahead. Dean followed his line of sight to the intersection leading to main street. There was a heap of something pink and sickly red sprawled out on the pavement next to the side of a bank. It glistened in the sunlight.

Dean’s stomach turned with nausea when they got close enough to make it out. It looked like some kind of animal—maybe a sheep or a goat—but it was completely skinned. Its eyes were gouged out, tongue gone and jaw cut down to the white bone. Organs were jutting out from a slit in its stomach. A swarm of black flies buzzed around it, gorging on the raw meat.

Blood was splashed onto the brick above it, painted in a dysmorphic blob instead of a sigil or shape.

“What the fuck?” Dean muttered under his breath. He got to the intersection and turned right—and immediately slammed on the brakes so as to not hit the skinned cow in the middle of the street.

Heart pumping in his ears, Dean looked around at the line of store fronts up and down the street. More dead animals, more blood. It was everywhere: splattered onto windows, trickling down doors, running like rainwater to the sewage drains. Pink, fleshy animal bodies were gutted on the sidewalks, intestines hanging from stop signs. The corpse of a giant pig was ripped to shreds on a bench advertising the local pizza place and a goat was twirling from its hindlegs from a rope over the bus stop. Lamb’s heads were nailed to a few of the doors.

All around them, flies buzzed hungrily and carrion birds pecked at the carcasses. Dean spotted a vulture perched on top of one of the buildings, eyeing them like it expected them to be its next meal.

In the passenger seat, Sam pulled out his gun and opened the door, climbing out of the Impala. Dean killed the engine and got his gun out, too, cocking it for good measure. He stepped onto the asphalt, the stench of rotting meat immediately overcoming his senses. He swallowed convulsively, trying not to gag. Sam was breathing into his sleeve.

“You said this place was full of death row inmates, right?” Dean double checked, tearing his eyes off the grotesque scene to look at Sam. “Like… murderers?” Even so, he was having trouble thinking the inmates caused the chaos. Most death row inmates weren’t clinically insane, or even multiple offenders. This looked more like cult activity.

Sam nodded severely. He lowered his arm, face twisted in repulsion. “Yeah, but, Dean…” He looked around. “Even if they did escape, do we really think they’re the ones behind this? I mean, why? How could they have done all this? And where are the townspeople?”

All very good questions.

A fly buzzed alarmingly close to Dean's ear, making him swat it furiously away. He looked around again, something catching his eye. From one of the apartment windows upstairs, he thought he saw a curtain twitch. He kept his gaze on it, looking out for more movement. Nothing came.

“I’m gonna call Cas,” Dean said, trying not to have the sick thought that something happened to Cas. Why the hell didn’t he call when he saw all this?

Putting his gun into his waistband. Dean tapped on the device on his wrist, putting it out of sleep mode and finding Cas’ contact info. He held it up to his ear, listening to it ring. That feeling in his stomach worsened with every passing trill.

Until, finally: “Dean?” Cas’ voice was quiet, like he was whispering so he wouldn’t be overheard.

Dean breathed out some of the tension in his lungs. “We just got into town. We’re on main street—outside the bank.”

“I’ll be right there,” Cas said, flat and distracted. The line went dead. Above, a raven cawed loudly and incessantly as it flew by. It swept down to a flock of black feathers tearing at one of the animals down the street.

Dean swatted at the flies and turned to Sam. “Says he’ll be right—” There was a flap of wings, and Cas appeared on the other side of the car next to Sam. Lamely, Dean finished, “here.”

Sam wheeled around to face Cas. Dean walked around the Impala. Every line of him was held firmly, every muscle straining in preparation for a fight. Sam was carrying himself in the same way, his gun still clutched in his hands. But that wasn’t what spooked Dean the most. There was something in Cas’ eyes. Something haunted and piercing.

“What the hell happened here?” Sam asked, keeping his voice down. It sent goosebumps up and down Dean’s skin. He felt like they were being watched.

Cas looked off at the dead animals and blood, shaking his head in dejection. “I don’t know. The townspeople had begun doing this when I arrived.”

“The townspeople?” Dean blanched. “Not the prisoners?”

“All of them. The guards, too,” Cas corrected. “They brought the animals into town and slaughtered them.”

Dean let out a heavy breath, eyes far away as he imagined it: people dragging the animals off pick-up trucks and flaying them in the streets. The last time he’d seen that much carnage, he was in hell.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Sam said, face pale.

Cas was shaken, too. “I have.” He walked further away from the car, eyes on a smear of blood over a doorway. “In Egypt. The people there… they weren’t only told to put lamb’s blood over their doorways to spare them from death.”

Dean slapped his mouth closed, biting down on his jaw. Leave it to the Bible to give the PG, cleaned up version.

Sam breathed out, “These are sacrifices?”

Cas turned around, nodding. “There’s an altar set up in the prison. I just came from there.”

“So, what? Chuck went all Old Testament on these people?” Dean said, the dread in his stomach steeling into anger. “Why? What are the sacrifices for?”

Cas started shaking his head in thought, his mouth opening to speak. But then a voice came from behind Dean.

“For power.”

All three of them whipped around, Dean’s gun back in his hand and pointed at the ready in a flash. A young man stood in the center of the intersection. He had a mop of dark hair and pale skin, and he couldn’t have been older than 30. He carried himself like he was much older, though.

His eyes flickered listlessly to Dean’s gun. Calmly, he said, “Easy.”

Dean glanced at Sam, who was easing his gun, too. Cas was staring ahead at the kid, his eyes narrowed and head cocked like he was confused. Dean dropped his arm fractionally, ready to bring it up again at a moment’s notice.

“Twenty-four hours ago, this town was swarming with angels,” the kid said. “There was a guy with them. God. I followed him here.”

“You followed him?” Dean asked. “How?”

“I followed the voices inside of him. The demons he swallowed. They were calling to me,” the kid said. Dean didn’t understand. Was he a demon? An angel?

The kid went on, “I watched God come here and take everyone’s soul—and I don’t mean he lined them up one by one. He took them all in one go.”

That must have been the power surge the computer in the bunker picked up.

“And then he told the townspeople to get him more souls,” the kid continued, walking closer. He kept his distance from them and did a half-circle to the sidewalk. He kicked at a squishy lump with the toe of his boot, sending up a squelching sound. The flies around the body scattered. “Hence the animals.”

“Okay,” Sam said hesitantly from over Dean’s shoulder. “Are you… a hunter?”

The kid snorted out a sardonic laugh and turned his eyes on Sam. “Come on. Don’t tell me you don’t remember me, Sam.” Dean’s hand tightened on his gun, threatened, and then the kid’s eyes moved to him. “Dean.” He nodded his chin in Cas’ direction. “He knows who I am. Don’t you, action man? Sensed you the second you flew into town. I shielded myself from you, but not anymore.”

Dean was at a loss. He swiveled around, looking to Cas for answers. Cas’ face was carefully neutral. Looking right at the kid, he said, “Jesse Turner.”

Dean blinked, the memories associated with that name hitting him like a brick wall. A kid—a young kid—with the power of a god. Demons pinning him to the wall. Cas, a little action figure on the mantel. The antichrist.

He whipped back around, getting his fist good look at the kid standing before him. He’d grown out of his baby face, but he looked the same now that Dean realized it. It was in the eyes. But he should have been much older. Dean figured it was his power keeping him young.

Jesse?” he echoed, stunned.

Jesse didn’t so much as nod. “We need to talk,” he said, glancing back down at the carcass at his feet. “But not here.”

“Why?” Sam asked, eyes volleying back and forth suspiciously. “Are we being watched?”

“No, because it reeks out here,” Jesse said sharply. He turned back from where he came. “Follow me. There’s a diner without any entrails in it. I’ve been squatting there.”

Dean swiveled around to share another stony look with Sam and Cas, and all three of them decided to follow Jesse. Not that they had much of a choice. Jesse was the one with answers, apparently. Dean walked after him, getting his gun ready and his eyes peeled and searching just in case they were being watched. They trudged quietly through the buzzing wall of black to the dark windows of the diner a few blocks down.

A bell over the door chimed happily when Jesse pushed the glass door open with both palms. Being inside was almost a relief to Dean’s senses, but it was jarring, too. He didn’t know how much he’d gotten used to the stench of the blood and death until it was gone; he didn’t realize the sound of the flies and birds was so loud until the door closed and cut them out.

Jesse walked toward the door to the kitchen. As he went, he waved his hand at the tables in the deserted diner. Three chairs at a table in the center of the room squealed as they were jerked back against the tile by an invisible force. “Make yourself at home,” Jesse said. “I’ll cook up some burgers.” The kitchen door swung closed in his wake.

Dean honestly didn’t know if he had the stomach to eat after the scene outside. Decay still lingered in his nostrils like a phantom. Plus, it was nine in the morning—not exactly time for a cheeseburger, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d done that. His biggest concern was this: “Where’d you get the meat?”

Jesse appeared in the chef’s window behind the counter. “Oh, I took a chunk out of one of the dead cows outside and ground it up into patties.”

Dean pulled a disgusted face. He definitely wasn’t eating that.

But then Jesse rolled his eyes. “It’s a diner, dumbass. They were in the fridge.” He disappeared again, leaving Dean to feel like an idiot.

Dean huffed, stomping toward the table with Sam and Cas in tow. “Well, he’s just as snarky as I remember,” he muttered.

Sam scoffed, sitting down across from Dean. “Yeah, no kidding.”

When Cas settled into the chair next to Dean, the three of them leaned in for a huddle. Keeping his voice low so Jesse wouldn’t overhear him, Dean said, “Did you hear what he said about the demons? Chuck swallowed them, too?”

He guessed he hadn’t thought of it. Crowley had loaned Cas demon souls back in the days of heaven’s civil war. Sure, they were tarnished, but they were still sources of power.

“Maybe that’s what happened to the demons who were awake in the Empty,” Sam answered. “Could be, Chuck didn’t just take the angels to do his work. He took the demons, too.”

“It’s the only place that would have enough demons for Jesse to hear calling to him,” Cas considered. “Except hell, but the demons sleeping in the Empty were ripe for the taking.”

Sam pressed his lips together and nodded, seeming to agree.

The fragrant scent of burgers on the grill wafted into the room, the sizzling of patties along with it.

“Okay, that’s great,” Dean hissed. “So now he’s got demons, souls from heaven, and a handful of souls from Indiana?”

Cas said, “I think we have to assume he’ll move on to other towns to collect more souls—if he hasn’t already.” He shook his head, folding his hands tight on top of the table. He was more than troubled. He was still blaming himself. “His angels already stole billions of souls from heaven. That’s immense power as it is. If he’s after more…”

Dean didn’t want to think about it. His eyes flashed to Sam, who seemed to be thinking the same thing. Chuck’s endgame wasn’t just getting the souls. There was something else. Something they didn’t know about. “Anybody else starting to get the feeling that he’s pre-gaming before the party?”

The fact of that washed over all three of them. Dean hated it more and more with every passing second.

Sam leaned in again, gesturing out with his hands. “Okay, what about Jesse?”

“What about him?” Dean whispered.

“He’s obviously here for a reason. Maybe he’ll help. I mean, think about it. He’s one of the most powerful beings we’ve ever met. Jack might not be able to take out Chuck alone, but him and Jesse working together? It wouldn’t matter how many souls Chuck has.”

Sam’s eyes were alight, full of optimism that Dean didn’t feel.

Apparently, neither did Cas. “Except we don’t know where Jack is.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “Plus, the last time we asked Jesse for help, he fucked off to Australia. What makes you think he’ll wanna help this time?”

Sam shook his head, digging deep inside himself for hope. “It’s worth asking, isn’t it?”

Before Dean could even consider it, a bell dinged from the chef’s window. He jerked up, startled, as found Jesse sliding two plated burgers onto the ledge. “Order up,” Jesse said.

Shooting them another weighted look, Sam got up and walked around the counter to pick up the plates. Jesse came out of the kitchen with two more in hand. He placed one in front of Cas and then plopped down in his chair to go to town on his own burger.

Dean glanced down at the burger Sam slid to him, wondering if it was safe to eat.

After a long beat of silence, Sam said, “So, Jesse.” Jesse didn’t even look up from his burger. “You said you were following Chuck? For how long?”

Jesse chewed, then swallowed, leaving them in suspense. He said, “Not long. A day. Like I said, I wasn’t tracking him. I was tracking the demons.”

“Right. The demons.” Dean picked up his burger but didn’t bite into it, even though it smelled amazing. His mouth started watering. “You said they were calling for you?”

“They were calling for help.” Jesse stopped chewing long enough to glare at each of them in turn like they were being rude. “Eat.” He said it with such commanding presence, that for a split second, Dean thought he was willing them to do what he wanted. But he wasn’t. Dean was kept in control of his own actions. He looked down at the burger and decided to roll the dice. He took a bite, flavor bursting into his mouth. His eyes widened down at the burger, astounded. He needed Jesse’s recipe.

Across from him, Sam took a bite, too, seeming less impressed. Cas took a bite just to make Jesse happy, probably because he didn’t want to be turned into a toy again.

“Anyway, since the last time I saw you, I’ve been hopping around from place to place,” Jesse told them. “Mostly hunting.” Dean was relieved to know he was using his powers for good. Jesse had been a good kid, but he didn’t know what kind of adult he was. “Monsters, since the demons and angels have been quiet for years. Or, they were. Up until a few weeks ago. It was like they just… woke up.”

Dean snorted around another bite because of the word choice. Mouth full, he said, “‘Woke up’ is right.”

“I’m guessing you three know why,” Jesse said.

“Yeah,” Sam answered. “Chuck—uh, God… He’s not God anymore. He was mortal, but then he died and was locked up. But he escaped. He’s trying to get power again. Souls are a source of that. But the demons—the ones you’re hearing? We think they were in the Empty. It’s the place angels and demons go when they die. We think Chuck made a deal with the creature that runs the Empty to give him the angels and demons there. Or at least some of them.”

Jesse pulled his brows together like he thought Sam was crazy. “Sure. I’m happy things settled down for you after the apocalypse.”

Dean wanted to laugh, because that was actually pretty funny.

Sam leaned in a little more, looking like he was gearing up for something. “Jesse—”

“Oh, no,” Jesse said, setting down his burger. “I know that look. You want my help. Answer’s no.”

Dean deflated. Honestly, he didn’t know why he was disappointed. He’d figured as much.

“Why not?” Sam asked, clearly trying to keep down frustration.

Why?” Jesse laughed venomously. “How about because, last time, you two only wanted to use me?” He glanced directly across from him at Cas, and if looks could kill…

Actually, with Jesse, looks probably could kill.

He tried to murder me.”

Dean put down the second half of his burger, no longer hungry. He suddenly didn’t want anything from Jesse.

Cas let out a heavy breath. “Jesse, trying to kill you,” he said, shaking his head apologetically down at his hands. “It was a mistake. I’m sorry. Years after we met you, I became a guardian to a boy much like you. Jack. Through him, I learned that goodness is chosen—every day. So is evil. Neither are inherent. I wish I had known that sooner.” He glanced at Dean quickly from the corner of his eye. Dean met his gaze, surprised to hear Cas voicing any of this.

Cas went on, “Maybe then, I would have been able to see what Sam and Dean saw in you.”

Jesse narrowed his eyes at Cas, assessing him like he wasn’t sure whether or not it was bullshit.

“Look, Jesse,” Sam said. “The point is: we both want the same thing.”

“No, we don’t,” Jesse snipped. “I just want the voices to stop. I want to be left alone!”

“But the only way that’s gonna happen is if we stop Chuck,” Sam reasoned.

For a second, it looked like Jesse was listening. He pursed his lips and picked his burger back up. “How about this: You help me stop the people here and I’ll think about it.”

That sounded like a big fat no, but Dean was willing to play ball. “Stop them how?”

Jesse leveled him with a look. Dean withered.

“By killing them?” Sam said, affronted. “They’re people.”

“Without souls,” Jesse reminded him.

“That doesn’t mean they’re evil,” Cas said.

“Oh, now he cares!” Jesse sat back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Look at what they did outside. And in the prison. God wants them to sacrifice more souls to him. What happens when they start branching out to other towns and killing people?”

Dean had to admit, Jesse had a point. He hated it, but he didn’t know how else to stop them. It was only a matter of time until human sacrifice was in the cards. But wiping out a whole town? There had to be a better option.

“Taking them out is our best bet,” Jesse finished.

“No,” Cas said with finality. He stood up abruptly, his chair screeching behind him. “There has to be a better way.”

“Enough out of you, feathers,” Jesse groaned. The second the words were out of his mouth, Cas was gone.

Dean jumped, searching around wildly for Cas. He didn’t see him anywhere. Panic immediately flooded his senses.

But then the kitchen door swung open, and Cas came out, looking pissed off. Dean sighed in relief.

Only for Cas to disappear again. And come through the door again, seeming even angrier. “Jesse—” He disappeared again.

Jesse had to fight back a smile.

“Jesse, enough.” He was gone again.

Dean pursed his lips. Now that he knew Cas wasn’t an inanimate object or at the bottom of a volcano, his fear melted into annoyance. By the seventh time Jesse made Cas disappear, Dean said, voice testy, “Okay, enough. He gets it.”

Cas slammed through the door, fury in his eyes, panting heavily. He stopped walking, probably expecting to disappear again. It didn’t happen. Warily, he walked to the table, eyes fixed on Jesse. Jesse looked back at him, amused.

“Jesse,” Dean said, recapturing his attention. “Before we kill a bunch of people, why don’t we see what we’re up against first? We need to go to the prison.”

“I’ve already seen it,” Jesse countered. He indicated Cas. “So has he.”

“We haven’t,” Sam said. “So, let’s just… go and we can figure out a solution from there.”

Jesse appeared to consider it. “Fine,” he said at last. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The next thing Dean knew, his stomach was turning even faster as he was hurdled through the void. It was jarring, unlike the disoriented sensation Dean felt every time Cas flew him somewhere. This wasn’t flying. It was more like he was a stretched out rubber band being snapped back into place. Less like a frisbee; more like a slingshot. He wondered if the burger making its way down his digestive track managed to follow him.

When his thoughts caught up, he realized they were standing inside a prison cell. A bunk bed was pushed up against the cold concrete wall, and the steel bars were open. Distantly, Dean could hear the crackling of flames.

Jesse put his finger to his lips, telling them all to be quiet. He nodded outside the cell, and tip-toed in that direction. Dean cast a glance Sam’s way before following him out into the row. They were high up, on the top tier of the cellblock. Dean tensed his fists over the railing to steady himself when he looked down at the floor below.

There were more dead animals, some whole and some in pieces, arranged in straight lines on the floor. The lines jutted out like sunrays, coming together in the center where a pyre was erected. The fire was stoked high, sending puffs of black smoke upward along with the smell of cooking meat. Dean suddenly had the urge to throw up his recent breakfast.

People stood silently in between the lines of the carcasses, and others were on the second tier of the prison, overlooking. People young and old, some in street closes and others in inmate uniforms. They all stared forward at the fire, completely silent.

“Jesus,” Dean heard Sam mutter under his breath.

Dean looked at Cas beside him, taking in the taut lines of Cas’ face as he looked down at the tableau.

Jesse whispered, “Told you so.”

Dean had enough. He stepped back from the railing, pulling at his mouth worriedly. He didn’t know how to save these people.

The others followed him back into the cell, crowding in together.

“Now do you get it?” Jesse said, voice still low. “Even if we could save them, there’s no way to get their souls back. There’s only one option.” He glared pointedly at Cas. “You know that.”

Cas breathed out, visibly racking his mind for another solution.

“We don’t know that,” Sam interjected. “Not for sure. Maybe there’s a spell or something we can do to keep them in town.”

“And let them die slowly when the food runs out?” Jesse countered, and Dean had to admit, he wasn’t really seeing other options here, either. At least, not a long term one.

But they still had a short term. “Okay, let’s hang on a second,” he said, putting his hand between Sam and Jesse to stop the argument from progressing. “We need more time to think—so let’s give ourselves time. The way I see it, the town’s all gathered in here. We can lock them inside the prison for a few hours until we come up with something better.”

“And if we don’t? What, we’re just gonna cross that bridge when we get to it?”

Dean wanted to laugh, because getting to a bridge only to discover there was never one in the first place summed up their entire lives. “One thing at a time,” he advised. “Now, come on. Sam, you and Jesse take the other side of the prison and bar the doors. Me and Cas’ll take this end.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

Jesse was less on board, but at least he was willing to do it. “Fine.” Sam pulled out his gun again and the two of them left the cell, sticking close to the walls and walking silently away toward the left.

Dean checked his gun to make sure it was loaded and started heading off, but Cas grabbed his arm to stop him. “Dean, what if Jesse’s right? We can’t allow these people to hurt others.”

Dean sighed, trying to seem more in control than he felt. He had no idea how they were going to help, or if they even could. It’d been a long time since he’d had to make life or death decisions like this—but he still had his instincts. And he needed to learn how to listen to them again after fifty years of trying to bury them.

“One thing at a time,” he repeated. For now, it was all he had.

 

///

 

Sam stood back as Jesse melted the heavy steel handles of the door leading to the prison’s recreation yard. The metal heated up a blazing red under Jesse’s palm, then cooled immediately when he stepped away. Sam pushed on the door hard, testing it out to make sure it was stuck, like he had to the last three doors they’d barred. It was still warm to the touch, but it held firm.

“So, basically, the new God took you off the bench and put you back in the game?” Jesse asked, continuing their conversation. Sam had filled him in about heaven, and his, Dean’s, and Cas’ arrival back on Earth.

“Yeah, pretty much,” he said, keeping his voice low so it wouldn’t carry through the hall. He and Jesse continued walking in search of the next exit. “Uh, the Nephilim Cas mentioned earlier? Jack? He kinda took over after Chuck.”

“And, what?” Jesse said, tone skeptical. “He just asked you to come back to Earth and you did it? Just like that?”

Sam shrugged, not knowing why it was so hard to believe. He was sure most people would have made the same decision if they knew they could help.

Why?”

“Because,” Sam said distractedly, keeping his eyes out for any sign of movement. “It affects heaven, too. Even if it didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. Just because we died doesn’t mean what happens on Earth isn’t our problem anymore.”

“No, that’s exactly what it means,” Jesse countered.

Sam turned his eyes on Jesse sharply, his brows knitted together in question.

Jesse looked forward, muttering, “I wouldn’t have come back.”

Eyes softening, Sam told him, “That’s not true.” Jesse had been a smart kid the last time they met him, and he had a good heart. Sam sensed it in him then, and he sensed it now. He was confident, when push came to shove, Jesse would make the right decision. He had to. “That’s not who you are.”

“Yeah, well,” Jesse said, tone stiff, “no offense but you don’t know me.”

“I used to,” Sam said, trying for a gentle, sympathetic approach.

It made Jesse snort sardonically. “What, like a hundred years ago? You think I might have changed a little since I believed Pop Rocks and Coke could put you in the hospital?”

Maybe he had a point, but people didn’t change that much. Their values didn’t change that much. Jesse still knew right from wrong, and he knew helping the world was the right thing to do. Sam didn’t blame him for running away when he was a scared kid; but, now, Jesse could make up for that.

“A lot’s happened since then,” Jesse went on. “My parents are dead. A lot of people I loved are dead. And it turns out you three get to be alive again, so that sucks.”

Sam ground his teeth, trying for patience. Jesse was looking to get a rise out of him. Junior used to do that to Sam and Eileen all the time when he was a teenager. Hell, Sam used to do it all the time to John. He wasn’t about to fall for it, especially since it usually meant there was a deeper issue. “Jesse, I get it, okay?” he said. “It must be hard for you—being like this. Never being able to get close to people or—or have friends—”

“I have lots of friends,” Jesse interrupted like it was obvious. It threw Sam off for a second. Jesse was regarding him like he was stupid. “What? Did you think I was one of those sad, loner, wandering the Earth types? Like an ‘80s kung-fu movie?”

“Well…” Sam stammered, trying to course-correct. “I mean, you do wander the Earth.”

“You can keep in touch with people even when you’re far away. They have these things called phones—and social media.”

“Right.” Sam nodded. He did his best not to feel like an idiot. “The point is: you’re one of the most powerful people Dean and I have ever met, and that’s saying something. You can use those powers to help people, and you do. You know that. Why else would you become a hunter?”

“I’m half-demon,” Jesse shot back. “I kinda only had two career options: hunting monsters or Wall Street billionaire. Doesn’t mean I need to go out of my way for people. I didn’t ask for this.”

Sam was losing his patience, no matter how much he tried to cling to it. He didn’t understand why Jesse was acting so selfishly. “Neither did I! But, if we don’t help people, who will? Who will help them?” He finished, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the townspeople in the main cellblock.

“No one ever helped me.”

Sam stopped walking abruptly and grabbed Jesse’s sleeve, pulling him around to face him. Jesse didn’t resist, but his expression remained petulant. Sam didn’t care. He needed Jesse to listen to him, because he realized what the problem was now.

Jesse was still that same scared little kid.

Sam couldn’t have helped Jesse when he was young, not when he had no idea what he was doing himself. And he couldn’t help him now, either. The only person who could do that was Jesse.

“Okay, fine,” Sam told him. “You think you don’t owe the world anything? Fine. And maybe you’re right! But your parents? All those people you love, living or dead? You owe them something.”

Jesse’s eyes darkened dangerously. Sam didn’t let that hinder him.

“So, step up. Otherwise, what are you still doing here?”

He didn’t expect an answer, and he didn’t get one. He didn’t even wait for one. He let Jesse go and stomped forward, intent on completing the job he had to do. Jesse hung back momentarily, his gaze trailing after Sam.

 

///

 

They’d already secured the doors leading to the next cellblock and the cafeteria. The one they currently stood behind opened to a long corridor, and Castiel wasn’t certain where it went. Like he’d done with the others, he wrested one of the thick rod handles from the steel door and bent it sideways. The metal whining, he twisted it around the second handle.

When he was finished, he looked at Dean, silently asking where they should go next.

Dean’s eyes flickered to the secured door, then to Castiel’s hands hanging at his sides, then up to Castiel’s face. “God, that’s still hot.”

Castiel sighed in slight exasperation. “Dean.”

Dean shrugged innocently. “What? It is!”

It was a nice compliment, but it was neither the time nor the place. “Not here.”

Conceding, Dean said, “Fine. You go that way, see if there are any other exits.” He indicated a direction with his chin, then nodded behind himself. “I’ll check this side. Think there might be a stairwell or something. I’ll text you if I find anything.”

“Alright,” Castiel told him, starting away from Dean.

In a stage whisper, Dean unnecessarily called after him, “And keep your eyes peeled for any of the Manson Girls.”

There weren’t any other true exits on the perimeter of the cellblock, though Castiel did find a stairwell. He ripped the doorknob out of it and tossed it to the side, certain that would do the trick. The only other door he found on that side of the building was a janitor’s closet. He tapped on the device on his wrist, but didn’t come up with any notifications from Dean. Dean hadn’t prayed to him either, so it was possible he didn’t find anything.

He turned to double back in Dean’s direction, set on finding him so they could rendezvous with Sam and Jesse to plot their next move. Secretly, he wasn’t certain they had a next move. The townspeople’s souls were gone, and the prison wouldn’t hold them forever. Sooner or later, they’d get out and they’d go to neighboring towns to complete Chuck’s mission. Either that, or they’d starve.

Their odds of saving these people were slim at best. But what was the alternative? It had been a long time since Castiel had purged a town. The act never sat well with him, and this time was no different. Except, perhaps, he wouldn’t be under orders. He wouldn’t be exacting some divine plan he wrongly thought just.

The angels, wherever they were, were under his command. Had the host been there now, the order to raze the town would come from him. What kind of leader would he be if he did that? Heaven was meant to be different now. He was supposed to make it different.

He wondered if he’d hesitate in giving such an order. He wondered if there’d be an angel among their rank who heard the order and felt the same as he had in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Admah and Zeboiim, of Pompeii.

A distant, echoing sound ripped him from his thoughts. It was a shout, a familiar voice booming off the tile halls, the words muffled. Dean. It was followed quickly by two loud gunshots.

At once, Castiel took flight. He landed in the approximate area where the gunshots had originated, but the hall was empty. A few feet away was the final door leading into the cellblock. It was unbarred.

Castiel, heart in his throat, wanted to call out for Dean. He forced himself to remain silent.

Glinting in the overhead lights, he spotted Dean’s gun on the floor. It had slid toward the wall, abandoned. Dean wouldn’t have left it if he had a choice.

Wings stretching, Castiel flew back up to the top floor of the cellblock, where he’d stood with the Winchesters and Jesse. He looked over the railing, eyes scanning the scene below. Soon enough, the grunting sounds of someone resisting echoed off the high ceilings. The people standing along the altar looked in the direction of the sounds.

Two men in orange jumpsuits came into view. Dean was between them, trying to rip himself out of their hold as they dragged him in the direction of the fire. One of Dean’s arms was bent behind him at an awkward, painful-looking angle.

Castiel gritted his teeth, his fists tightening around the railing.

When they reached the man standing to the left of the fire, the prisoners forced Dean to his knees. Castiel stepped back from the railing and manifested his blade. It dropped smoothly from his sleeve into his hand, the hilt radiating with divine fury.

“What, no s’mores?” Dean's gruff voice rang out.

Below, another of the townspeople came forward and handed their leader a gun. The man took it, inspected it wordlessly, and leveled it to Dean’s face.

Castiel flew. He landed behind the leader, and didn’t allow himself remorse. He plunged his blade into the man’s back, hearing him gasp. He retracted his weapon and pushed the body to the side, dead. Dean looked up at Castiel.

“Took you long enough!” he yelled. Then, his chest inflated, preparing himself for what inevitably came next.

The townspeople rushed forward. Dean dove for the dropped gun and rolled onto his back, shooting one person in the leg and another in the shoulder. Castiel kept his blade tightly in his fist, but only used the sharp ends to injure and the hilt as a blunt instrument to incapacitate. He used his body more, swinging his fist into the chaos and ramming into others to knock them down. He slammed a man’s face into his knee and tossed him to the side, into two others running forward. All three ended up sprawled on the floor.

Dean was on his feet now, and Castiel caught glimpses of him kicking and elbowing, punching—like he had only yesterday morning in the gym. But he was favoring his left arm, his shoulder likely injured. He mostly used his legs to fight, angling himself sideways to kick someone in the chest before using the momentum to spin around and push back an assailant behind him with his boot.

Someone came up on Castiel’s back, grabbing him around the middle, trapping his arms. A woman launched toward him, scratching and hitting. He used his grace to fling her to the side. Then, jerked his head backward, hitting against his assailant’s nose. There was a yelp, and the person released him, falling backward into the sickly squish of an animal carcass. Castiel’s cheek was stinging. He touched his fingers to his skin, drawing back blood where the woman had scratched him deeply. His grace took care of it, humming softly as it stitched up the wound as if it had never occurred.

He turned back to the fight, eyes always seeking Dean. The townspeople kept coming, overwhelming them. “Dean!” he shouted in warning as someone rushed Dean’s left. Dean elbowed him hard in the jaw, then went back to the other he’d been fighting, kicking the man square in the chest and pushing him back.

Castiel flew to Dean’s side, knowing their best course of action was to flank each other. But for how long? The townspeople weren’t staying down, and they were surrounded on all sides.

Dean’s back pressed against Castiel’s, holding himself taut and at the ready, but his heart was racing and his breaths were labored.

In the center of the room, the fire crackled.

Then, there was a gunshot.

Sam and Jesse rushed in, Sam holding his pistol in front of him. The woman whose leg he shot went down with a shout.

Jesse held out his arms in front of him, crossing them. Forcefully, he pushed them out in a sweeping motion. Immediately, the room was empty. The only ones left were the four of them and the dead body of the man Castiel had killed.

Castiel breathed out, letting the fight leave his body. Behind him, Dean swayed slightly.

“They won’t stay gone,” Jesse told them. “I sent them to the edges of town. But, now that they know we’re here, they’ll be looking for us.”

Castiel opened his coat and tucked his blade inside.

“So much for keeping them in the prison,” Dean said, nursing his shoulder.

Castiel glanced around, taking in the animal blood and entrails that were now smeared across the tile.

Sodom, Gomorrah, Pompeii. Terre Haute, Indiana.

He didn’t see another way.

 

///

 

The late afternoon sun mirrored its light over the diner’s large windows, illuminating the blood streaking down the glass. They’d been sitting there for hours, fortifying the building in case anyone attempted to get in. However, the street outside remained mostly devoid of life bigger than the wings and talons ripping at rotting meat. Castiel only spotted two people in all that time, but it seemed as if they were on patrol. They’d been walking down the street with purpose, rifles in their hands.

That had been two hours ago.

Castiel looked toward the back of the diner, where Sam was researching containment spells, even though they all knew he wouldn’t find any large enough to encompass an entire town. Not for mortals, anyway. Especially those without a soul.

He turned his gaze to Dean, who was sitting on top of one of the tables, his legs swinging beneath him. Dean changed the angle of the bag of frozen peas he held to his shoulder and winced. Castiel sidestepped a few chairs on his way to him.

“Here,” he said, offering his hand. Dean removed the bag of peas, allowing Castiel to cup his shoulder. Castiel sent a pulse of grace through Dean, mending the torn muscles and ligaments.

“Thanks,” Dean muttered, giving Castiel a small smile. Castiel tried to return it, but he was certain Dean could see the questions in his eyes. They were the same questions all of them were asking, just not aloud.

How long were they going to stay there? What were they going to do about the civilians? What if the only answer was purging the town?

With every passing moment, that solution became clearer and clearer. There was no other way. Not that Castiel could see. And if they didn’t act soon, they’d be found.

The kitchen door swung open. Jesse walked out, catching all of their attention. He’d been in the back all day, likely trying to put as much space between himself and them as he could.

“Okay, it’s been hours,” he announced. “Anyone have any ideas that don’t involve wiping the town clean?”

Regrettably, Castiel didn’t. He glanced back at Dean, who appeared just as dejected. Any remaining hope was erased when Sam shut off his computer and shook his head, eyes somber and defeated.

“Yeah, thought not,” Jesse said.

“I don’t see you coming up with anything,” Dean barked.

“Dean,” Castiel said gently, touching his fingers to the back of Dean’s hand on the table in order to settle him down. He sighed, knowing it was time they faced some hard truths. “I don’t think we have a choice. We can’t allow these people to spread into neighboring towns, and if Chuck told them to sacrifice more souls to him, his angels will be back sooner or later to collect them. We can’t stay here. They’ll find us.”

Dean bit down on his jaw. “In other words, it’s us or them?” He took his hand out from under Castiel’s touch and dug at his eye with the heel of his palm. “Man, I did not miss that.”

Castiel couldn’t allow that comment to affect him at present. But he wished Dean no longer had to make such kinds of decisions.

Slowly, Castiel became aware of Jesse’s eyes on them. He looked over at him expectantly, but only found Jesse chewing on the inside of his cheek in thought. His eyes flashed between the three of them, assessing.

“I don’t get it,” he said after a moment. “You guys were dead. You got out! None of this is your problem, so why do you care what happens on Earth anymore?”

The question struck Castiel. He supposed it was logical, but it was also callous.

Sam must have felt the same. He said, simply, as if he’d never considered another point of view could exist, “Because it still matters.”

“And it’s not just Earth,” Castiel pointed out. “It’s all of creation. Earth, heaven, hell. If Chuck reclaims his power…” He shook his head, consumed by the possibilities. “Who knows what he has planned?”

Jesse pressed his lips together, and perhaps he thought the three of them were wasting their time on a fool’s errand. He likely wasn’t wrong in that assessment. But Castiel still believed that sometimes all it took to save the world was someone foolish enough to try.

“You said you’re a hunter,” Dean said, the anger in his tone moments away from bubbling over. “So what kind of question is that? Better question is: why don’t you care?”

“I do,” Jesse bit out.

“I’m not convinced.”

Jesse turned away, pacing closer to the window. “I do care,” he maintained. “But I also know that you can’t save everyone.”

Castiel had heard that time and time again. It was a lesson he had to learn for himself long ago. But it seemed Jesse had let that truth harden him.

“You can save some of them,” he said, because he’d rather be a fool. He’d rather try.

Jesse looked around, and some of the guardedness in his expression had melted away. Behind him, the light coming through the red glass washed over his features.

He said, slowly, “I think I know what to do with the people here.”

Castiel shared a hopeful look with Dean, then Sam.

Jesse turned back around to face them. “I can’t stop them from killing—but I can get them to kill the right people. Even the playing field.”

“What does that mean?” Dean asked.

“You’re not gonna like it,” Jesse promised.

But they all knew their preferences didn’t matter anymore. They had to do something.

Castiel told him, “It may be the only option we have.”

Jesse nodded once, taking it in stride. “Okay. Then, I need you to draw everyone in town here—to me.”

“Why?” Sam asked, standing up from his table. “What are you gonna do?”

“God took their souls,” Jesse said. “I’m gonna put some souls back into them.”

 

///

 

The sun was honey-thick as it spread its dying light over the land. Dean figured they had about an hour until it set completely, leaving them in darkness. He’d really like to be done with this whole mess by then.

He was behind the Impala’s wheel, steering her slowly through the residential streets. Sam was beside him, shoulders pulled back, eyes scanning the sidewalks for any sign of movement. He remained quiet, but Dean wouldn’t have been able to hear him if he did try to talk. Music was blasting from the Impala’s speakers, pouring like a deluge out of the car’s opened windows. The beat shook Dean’s eardrums and vibrated in his bones, trying to loosen the ball of nerves that was sitting inside of him.

They were coming up on an adjacent street, and Dean planned on turning the car into it. Suddenly, a large pick-up truck with floodlights racked on top sped forward from the curb. It screeched to a halt, tires burning tracks into the road, and blocked the Impala’s entrance. Dean reacted reflexively by slamming on the brakes.

His eyes went wide, knuckles going white around the steering wheel. He made eye contact with the man and woman standing up in the truck’s flatbed. The man was carrying an axe. The woman held a rifle level at the Impala, but she didn’t shoot. Not yet.

“Showtime,” he shouted over the music, but he was pretty sure Sam didn’t hear him. He put the car in reverse, meaning to back up and get away from the truck. Sam’s hand shot out, grabbing Dean’s elbow.

Sam mouthed Dean’s name, alarmed. He was looking over his shoulder in the rear window.

Dean turned around, following Sam’s line of vision. People were coming out of the woodwork, like they’d been waiting to advance. An organized attack. Men and women and kids. They walked out to the street from inside the houses, between fences, from backyards. They carried guns, saws, fucking hedge clippers. A few more cars had appeared down the block, driving forward.

He shared a look with Sam.

They had to move.

Dean slammed down on the accelerator, backing up. Quickly, he put the car into drive and went around the pick-up. Ahead, just as behind them, people were walking out to the streets, but there was still room to drive.

He glanced in the rear-view mirror, watching the civilians following the car.

He kept driving.

 

///

 

A few dozen prisoners and guards were back in the penitentiary’s main cellblock. Some moved the dead animals back into position, others stoked the fire until it was roaring once again. Castiel watched from above, shadowed away from the weakening sunlight that spread reds and oranges across the tile floor. The colors blended seamlessly with all the blood.

It was time. He had to get these people back into town.

He pointedly didn’t take in a breath in preparation, not wanting to breathe in the putrid smell of decaying flesh. Instead, he got right to it. His blade in his hand as insurance, he flew down to the bottom floor, revealing himself on the other side of the fire. Before him, the flames and smoke singed at his face.

The prisoners spotted him at once, each of them standing tall. The guards pulled out their guns.

Pulling from the flickering light of the fire, Castiel gathered the shadows it cast around him. He set back his shoulders, letting his wings spread out to their full span on either side. They blocked the glow, their silhouette on the concrete wall at Castiel’s back.

The people before him coward backward, though those with weapons clutched them even tighter in defense.

He reined in his wings, and with the smallest of flutters, transported himself to the side of the cellblock with the unbarred door. The humans searched around wildly, their eyes eventually finding him.

Castiel pushed through the door, prisoners and guards alike on his heels.

 

///

 

Sam looked out the Impala’s rear window, seeing the townspeople following after them. Some were piled into the flatbeds of trucks, some on bikes, and most following on foot. Dean drove slow enough for them to keep up, but not fast enough to gain on them. The music now off, Sam heard the Impala’s engine revving loudly as Dean navigated back toward the center of town.

Dean’s gun was on the seat between them. Sam kept his in hand as he eyed the knives, baseball bats, and shotguns totted by the people after them.

“You think Cas got to Jesse yet?” Dean worried.

Sam glanced at him briefly, expression tight. He didn’t say anything, but he hoped Cas was alright on his own.

They got their answer soon enough when Dean pulled the car back onto the main street. Jesse was standing in the middle of the intersection. Cas was nearby, hand out as he strained to keep the people from the prison at bay behind an invisible barrier.

Dean left the engine idling as he jumped out of the car. Sam scrambled out, too, leaving his door hanging open in his rush to hold out his gun in defense. “Jesse, now!” he heard Dean shout.

The crowd of people filled into the street, abandoning their vehicles and holding up their weapons. Sam pointed his gun from person to person, not liking how close they were getting.

“Jesse!” he yelled, his heart rate kicking up. He didn’t dare look over his shoulder to see what was taking so long.

And then a deafening crack sounded—asphalt ripping apart and crumbling. Everyone stopped, their eyes turning upward in panic. Sam whipped around just in time to see the sunlight blocked out by a giant cloud of black smoke. It was rushing up from the massive cracks in the earth. Jesse stood in the center of it, his eyes skewed closed, his palms splayed toward the ground.

Torrential wind whipped through Sam’s hair and beat at his clothes. The demon smoke scattered, pillars of it diving toward the townspeople and forcing its way into them. Some people dropped under the force of it.

And then, as soon as it started, everything went still. Sam could still hear the rushing wind in his ears. He rattled it away, leaving silence. He realized even the flies swarming around the animal remains had fled. The only thing that was left was devastation and torn up earth.

The demons that had fallen got to their feet, each of them with their eyes on Jesse like they were awaiting instruction.

“You won’t harm any of these bodies,” Jesse ordered them. “You’ll keep the human inside alive at any cost.”

The demons stayed quiet, watching.

Sam remained tense, unnerved by being surrounded by so many souls from the pit. He hated this plan—but it was the only one they had.

Jesse looked around in a small circle. He told the demons, “The former God is trying to get his power back. He’s brought angels with him. Find them. Send them back to the Empty. Go.”

Sam held his breath. He watched as the demons turned around and walked away or piled back into their cars, each set off in different directions. They’d leave the town abandoned, an army marching off to their posts.

He breathed out.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Dean muttered, his breath coming out in quick bursts. Sam turned around to look at him from over the top of the car. He popped his brows in agreement.

He’d almost missed getting away by the skin of their teeth.

“This doesn’t feel like much of a victory,” Cas said, walking closer to the three of them.

Jesse shrugged. “The townspeople are alive.”

“Yeah, but some of them are still gonna die,” Dean pointed out. “You sent them after angels.”

“What do you want from me?” Jesse huffed. Then, a smile quirked at one corner of his mouth. “I’m not a miracle worker.”

Sam dropped his head into a breath of laughter. None of them had been too crazy about this plan, and he didn’t like the fact that more demons were on Earth. But they did need soldiers to battle the angels from the Empty. The less souls Chuck got, the better.

Jesse nodded then. “Okay. My work here’s done. Nice seeing you three. Hope it never happens again.” He turned around sharply, walking off down the road.

Sam drew in a breath, wanting to call after him. That couldn’t just be it. Jesse could help them. He couldn’t just give up on the world.

Before he could say anything, Jesse stopped. He kept his back to them, the line of his shoulders rigid, and it looked like he was deciding something.

“But if you need me,” he said, half turning his head to show them his profile, “give me a call.”

Sam stood straighter, letting that wash over him. He nodded gratefully. “Thanks, Jesse.”

He blinked, and Jesse was gone.

“Well, this sucks,” Dean said after a long second. “But hey, at least we got the antichrist on our side. Never thought that’d be a good thing.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Our lives are still pretty fucked up, huh?”

Dean half-smiled like it was a joke. “Yeah. That’s actually kinda comforting.”

Sam realized he was right, weirdly.

The three of them piled into the Impala, and Sam stared out at the deserted streets. The birds were returning to pick the rancid meat off the animals. Crumbled chunks of road and sidewalk sat like raised scars among the shattered glass of the storefront windows.

“I’m never eating meat again,” Sam decided. He looked at Dean, knowing his brother wouldn’t share that sentiment despite everything.

Dean didn’t answer. He pressed the cassette tape back into player, and Black Sabbath blasted from the speakers. He backed the car up, away from the torn up section of road, and drove them out of town.

Chapter Text

This clothing store was different from any of the others Dean used to drag Castiel to. For starters, there wasn’t any clothing. Not that Castiel could see. It was a small, white room with colorful décor and digital advertisements of models wearing the latest fashions. Booths—“fitting rooms,” as Castiel recalled—lined three walls. Dean was locked in one of them now.

They’d driven into town with the clear objective of going to the grocery store, but before they reached their destination, Dean decided he needed a new coat for the quickly approaching winter. “It’ll take five minutes. Not even,” he’d assured. However, when they arrived at the store, the attendant behind the desk informed them that they had to reserve a fitting room online. Dean did, and they waited for ten minutes until the allotted time.

Presently, Castiel was sitting on the couches in the front of the store. He was joined in silent solidarity by three other people who were waiting for a loved one to finish shopping. One woman was texting incessantly. The two men were also staring at their phones. Castiel had his elbow propped up on the couch’s arm, his chin in his hand. Bored, his eyes scanned the small line of people that had formed nearby as they waited for their reservation. Then, he turned his gaze pointedly on the room Dean had disappeared into fifteen minutes ago.

He had no idea what was taking so long.

Sighing, he changed his position to sit upright, his fingers drumming on his knee.

One of the men on the adjacent couch must have thought the motion was an invitation to converse. He put his phone down, laughing gently. “Yeah, mine’s in there, too. Taking forever.”

Castiel pushed a polite smile, secretly wondering if he should set the fitting room’s door on fire just to get Dean out of it. “This feels longer than forever,” he answered, having some experience in the matter.

Seeming happy to commiserate, the man said, “Yeah, tell me about it!”

Castiel opened his mouth, prepared to explain the theories of special relativity and time dilation, since the man asked, but then he heard Dean call his name. He looked over at the fitting room, seeing Dean peeking his head out of the door.

“Cas, c’mere. You gotta check this out,” Dean told him, eyes alight.

Castiel huffed again. He’d hoped Dean’s emergence meant they could leave, but apparently not. As Castiel stood up, the man beside him gave him a thumbs up, as if wishing him good luck. Castiel raised his thumb in return before heading for Dean.

Dean opened the door a little wider and stepped backward into the cramped room.

“What?” Castiel asked, propping the door open with his shoulder. He gave a cursory glance around, seeing more clothing items than a jacket strewn about the hooks. He was fairly certain Dean was wearing a different shirt than he’d had on when they entered the store.

“Look at this,” Dean said animatedly, stretching out his arms to present the full-length mirror hanging on one of the walls. He tapped the glass, causing pictures and descriptions of clothing items to appear. “It’s like online shopping in person! How cool is this? And—look—Okay, so say I want this—Actually, not that.” He scrolled through the items on screen. “Okay, say I want this.” He tapped the item. A portion of the back wall of the room slid open, and the item he’d selected was on a hanger in the compartment.

Dean gave an excited sound. “Isn’t that awesome?”

Castiel narrowed his eyes, wondering if Dean had been doing this the entire time he was alone.

“And they got a whole bunch of shit.” Dean turned back to the screen and began scrolling again. “They got these shoes that project a GPS on the ground, and when you take a wrong turn, they light up red.”

Jack had light up shoes, Castiel remembered. They didn’t have a map in them, though. He wasn’t sure if it was the same principle, or why any of this was relevant to purchasing a winter jacket.

“Oh! They have sexy clothes, too,” Dean added, wiggling his brows and smirking suggestively. “Costumes.”

Castiel needed to put an end to this before Dean dressed him up as a construction worker again and asked him to take out his drill.

“And they got these gloves that have a built-in keyboard. I’m not getting them ‘cause they’re ugly as hell, but it’s pretty cool—”

“Dean.”

Dean glanced away from the screen, brows popped in question. And, as happy as Castiel was that Dean was adjusting to the advances on Earth, they were wasting time that could otherwise be dedicated to finding Chuck. Or Jack and the angels. Like Sam was doing back at the bunker, where Castiel should have stayed, in hindsight.

“Is this what you’ve been doing?”

Dean’s expression rearranged, becoming sheepish. “Well… yeah, but all the clothes I have in the bunker are old. And I was looking for you, too.”

“Me?” That was wholly unnecessary. “Why?”

Dean groaned. “’Cause you’ve been in the same duds for fifty years.”

Castiel raised his brows. His clothes were fine. They didn’t have any blood stains or tears. Even if that happened, his grace could easily repair it. This was a waste of time.

“C’mon, at least a new tie. Work with me, man,” Dean said as if this was a negotiation.

“Dean, there’s a line of people waiting,” Castiel told him.

Dean made a frustrated sound, but he relented. Maybe. “Fine. Gimme five minutes and then we can go.”

Absolutely not. Not after the last five-minute promise. They were leaving immediately.

Castiel wasted no time picking Dean up and tossing him over his shoulder, like Atlas to his very own, private world.

His world grumbled petulantly and kicked out his legs in an attempt to be set down.

“Cas! Put me down, you dick! I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”

The texting woman looked up from her phone, eyes wide. Some of the fitting room doors opened, and people stuck their heads out to see what the commotion was about. A few of the other people in the store were blanching. Behind the counter, the attendant’s expression was a little more difficult to read—almost hungry—but Castiel didn’t linger on it.

Cas! I hate it when you do this!”

On his way out, Castiel made eye contact with the man he’d spoken to on the couches. The man was pulling the corners of his mouth down, seeming impressed. Castiel gave him a curt nod. He pulled the door open and carried Dean out of the store.

 

///

 

Sam sat in the quiet solitude of the bunker’s kitchen, his tablet in hand. He flipped through the photos on the screen, making his way through the social media posts. The current picture was of two kids—a freckled, hazel-eyed boy, seven years of age, and an even smaller girl with a mountain of tightly curled hair—as they opened presents on Christmas morning.

The next post was a video, taken the same day. The boy was tearing into wrapping paper. His eyes lit up at what was revealed inside. Beside him, a black woman still in her pajamas laughed gently at the reaction. She was holding her hand out to her daughter as the girl walked around on unsteady legs.

“Mom, Dad, look what Santa got me!” the boy exclaimed.

There was a familiar laugh from behind the camera. Junior’s voice said, “Take it out of the box and we can set it up, okay, buddy?”

The video ended, and Sam kept staring at the playback icon. It was posted a little over a year ago. It was December again, and Sam hadn’t realized how many Christmases he’d missed until that moment.

It was way too tempting to not miss another one.

Suddenly, he became aware of footsteps in the hall. He hadn’t even heard the bunker’s door open, but he figured Dean and Cas must have finally gotten back from the grocery store. Heart skipping like he was about to be caught doing something red handed, Sam swiped away the screen and folded up his tablet.

“Hey,” he called, keeping emotion out of his voice. “What took you guys so long?”

Someone stepped into the kitchen’s doorway, but it wasn’t Dean or Cas.

“Sam,” Jack gritted out. His face was pale and, as though he, too, was just learning how to walk, his knees wobbled. He gripped onto the door frame for balance.

Sam was on his feet and across the room at once. “Jack? Jack! Hey!” He took Jack by the shoulder, panic in his eyes as he searched Jack’s face for any physical sign of injury. He looked fine, just weak. Sick, almost.

Jack took in a deep breath, like he was relieved. Safe. He pressed in close to Sam, leaning against him. Sam hugged him back, despite the thousands of questions and worries in his mind. For the moment, he was just glad Jack was home.

 

///

 

It was strange—being back in the bunker. Being back on Earth. Sitting at the table in the library across from Sam, a mug of tea warmed Jack’s palms while he stared at his muddled reflection in the liquid. Everything was strange.

He hadn’t been back in so long. He hadn’t eaten or drank anything in years. He hadn’t had a home for longer than he did have one.

Keeping the balance of the universe had given him a certain perspective. He knew all of this—Sam, the tea, the bunker—mattered. He also knew that everyone and everything else was just as important. All those people and trees and houses were the fabric of the universe. He was just the thread that stitched it all together. Without it, he didn’t have a purpose.

Everything was important, nothing and no one more than anything else.

But, now that he was back on Earth, with Sam, the tea, the bunker… It felt like the most important place in the universe.

He was tired, his powers and his consciousness stretching everywhere at once. He wanted to reel it all back in, and go to his bedroom, and sleep. He was tired, and when he got too tired, he ran back home.

That hadn’t been his intention. He was there for a real reason. But, now that he was there, he knew he’d come back because it’s where he wanted to be.

“Feeling better?” Sam asked after a long pause in which neither of them had spoken. His voice was low, like Jack was already asleep and Sam didn’t want to wake him up. His voice was kind.

Jack looked up from his tea and tried to smile reassuringly. “A little,” he said, not wanting to lie to Sam. “It just… takes a lot of power, keeping the angels where I’m keeping them.”

Sam’s forehead was pinched. “Where are you keeping them, Jack?”

Jack opened his mouth to explain, but the booming sound of the bunker’s door opening interrupted him. Dean’s voice immediately filled the space. “Because, it’s embarrassing! You don’t just do that to a guy in public. Imagine if I did that to you. How’d you like it?”

“Dean, you wouldn’t be physically able to lift me,” Cas answered. They were walking down the grated metal stairs into the map room, bags of groceries in their arms.

Across the table, Sam shot Jack a withering, tight-lipped look. Jack didn’t know what it meant, exactly, but he didn’t need to. Dean and Cas were fighting again. It sounded like normal bickering, the kind that Jack remembered ended anticlimactically, usually when they “got over it,” as Sam had once explained to him. Sometimes, their arguments lasted longer. Days. Sometimes, much longer. Jack hadn’t understood how to differentiate between them at first.

He’d learned quickly. Their real arguments were always about him.

At least, in the end, they’d “gotten over” that, too. Jack never wanted to come between them. He’d always tried not to. It was part of the reason he stayed away in heaven. He’d already resolved to be on his best behavior now so Dean and Cas wouldn’t fight.

So far, it wasn’t working.

“That’s why I said imagine, dumbass,” Dean said.

“Well, maybe if you didn’t waste so much time, I wouldn’t have had to resort to that.”

They set the bags down on the map table.

“Oh, why? You got a hot date to get to?”

“Guys,” Sam called after clearing his throat. Both of them stopped bickering and cast their gazes toward the library. When he saw Jack, Dean blinked rapidly in shock, pulling his shoulders a little tighter. Cas was already rushing toward him.

“Jack! Are you alright?” His hand rested on Jack’s shoulder, both warmth and worry lining his face.

“I’m okay,” Jack told him.

“Where the hell have you been?” Dean demanded, but there was concern in his voice, too. He was in the library now, as well, leaving the grocery bags abandoned on the table. “Cas went up to heaven and said the place was a ghost town.”

“I’ve been with the angels. I hid them,” Jack said to the room in general. “I built a bubble outside the universe. It’s… safe. Getting them out of heaven was the only way to banish Chuck’s angels. Or at least, most of them. There may still be a few left behind, but they can’t get out.”

“Wait,” Sam said. “You… expelled the angels from heaven? Again?”

“It’s more complicated than that.” Jack wasn’t sure how to explain it to them. He couldn’t find the right words for what he’d done. “But, yes. I can let them back in, though. And I will. But for now, I made it so Cas is the only one who can get in and out of heaven.”

“And you’re safe?” Cas asked, like it was the only thing that mattered. Jack was brought back to that room, the three men surrounding him, the bunker, the tea. All the things that mattered more than anything.

“For now,” Jack said. “If Chuck gets too powerful, I won’t be able to stop him from finding us. But Amara says we have time before that happens.”

Amara says?” Dean asked.

“She’s still in here with me. She talks to me sometimes when I don’t know what to do. It’s helpful.”

Cas let his hand slip off Jack’s shoulder, and Jack heard him take in a deep breath. He was still worried.

“Okay,” Dean said, coming up to the table but not sitting down. His hands were held in loose fists at his sides. “So, why are you here now? Did she tell you to come?”

“It was my idea. I need help. The power it takes to keep heaven locked up and to maintain the place where the angels are hidden… It’s overwhelming. If I keep trying to do both, Chuck could get through more easily. Amara said there’s a spell that can fortify heaven’s gates so I wouldn’t have to. She gave me a list of ingredients.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the folded piece of paper before handing it to Sam, who studied it, his eyes darting back and forth across the page.

“We have some of this stuff here,” he said. Then, he winced. “This other stuff might be tough to get. Some of it’s primordial. It’ll be rare—if it even still exists.”

“Just another day at the office,” Dean griped, taking the list from Sam when it was offered. Cas went to Dean’s side and read it over his shoulder, his brows furrowed in thought.

“Yeah, but I think I know someone who can help,” Sam said. “When I was still alive, and whenever anybody needed something hard to find, the Hunter’s Network used a supplier. Well, two suppliers, technically. They work as a team. They might have these ingredients. If not, they might be able to get them.”

Dean said, “Okay. Who are they?”

Sam gave a shallow laugh. “You’re not gonna like it.”

“Great. Who are they?”

“You remember Anael?”

“Anael?” Cas echoed. Jack remembered her, too. She’d helped them with the Occultum.

“Alright, I don’t trust her, but she’ll play ball as long as she’s getting paid,” Dean said. “Who’s her partner?”

Sam pulled a face. “A demon.”

“What demon?”

For a second, it looked like Sam was searching for the most delicate way to answer the question—but, judging by his expression, he didn’t find one. “Bela Talbot.”

Dean blanched, and then his face darkened, so Jack assumed this demon was an enemy. “Bela? She’s a demon? I mean, duh, she’s a demon—but she’s topside already?”

Sam scoffed. “Are you surprised?”

“Who’s Bela?” Jack asked.

“An evil skank,” Dean answered vehemently, and it only made Jack more confused. “Man, she was a bitch when she was human.”

“But good at her job,” Sam said pointedly. “And she’s still good at it.”

Dean tossed his head back in a groan. “Fine. How d’we find Thelma and Louise?”

“Last I heard of them, they were based outside of Memphis.”

“Guess we’re going to Memphis, then.”

“Let’s go,” Jack said, moving to stand up. Instantly, the room started spinning, and his stomach was woozy. He sat back down, hissing. Maintaining both the angel sanctuary and heaven was even more overwhelming from Earth, so far away from both of them. The more he overexerted himself, the weaker he’d become—all while Chuck was getting stronger.

He realized Cas was hovering over him, holding his shoulder again. Dean was more alert, and Sam had jumped to his feet. He hadn’t meant to worry any of them.

“I’m fine,” Jack tried, even though he knew none of them would believe it.

“Fine? Jack, you can barely stand up,” Sam said gently. “Look, me and Dean’ll go. You stay here and rest up.”

“Yeah, it’s just running an errand, right?” Dean agreed. “It won’t take long. We don’t need God for it.”

The words stung, even if Dean hadn’t intended them to. Jack told himself it was logical, but he wondered if it was just an excuse. Dean probably didn’t want him tagging along—or being around at all.

“I’ll stay here with Jack,” Cas told them over Jack’s head.

“I’ll be okay,” Jack insisted, trying not to be an inconvenience.

Cas squeezed his shoulder. “Well, we need to start getting out the ingredients for the spell that we already have. We can do that together.” He offered a reassuring smile.

Jack let out a breath, secretly glad that Cas was staying, and that he could do something useful for when Sam and Dean returned. He nodded.

“Okay, that’s that,” Dean said, looking at Sam. “Let’s hit it.”

 

///

 

They drove through the night. It was late, and by that time, their company on the thruway was mostly big rigs. Music filtered out of the speakers on a low volume. Dean had one hand on the steering wheel and his other resting on the door. Sam’s face was lit up in the soft glow of a screen as he researched. And, for a second, the last fifty years were nothing but a daydream—wandering thoughts that blew out the window and scattered on the miles of highway behind their car.

Surreptitiously, Dean glanced over at Sam, wanting to take in the moment, knowing it wouldn’t last. But his eyes fell down to Sam’s tablet instead. On it, there was a picture of a kid, his large grin missing a couple teeth, with his arms slung around a bushy-haired toddler. They were lit up in fiery gold behind a menorah, three of its candles lit. Dean’s eyes tracked back up to Sam in curiosity before flicking back to the road.

“Who are the kids?” he asked.

“What?” Sam said quickly, immediately pulling his posture straighter and angling the tablet screen away. “No one, just—nobody.”

Dean pulled his brows together, a little concerned now. “You were just looking up pictures of random kids?”

“What? No! Dean—”

“Just making sure!”

Sam folded his tablet with one hand and dragged his other hand down his face, pausing to rub his eyes. “They’re no one. Don’t worry about it. How long till we get there?”

Dean let the abrupt, totally not-smooth at all topic change slide, knowing when to pick his battles. “’Bout five hours.”

Sam nodded, too-casually resting his arm along his window. Silence fell again, but it didn’t last long. Sam said, “So, uh, speaking of kids. Kinda weird having Jack back, right?”

Dean put his other hand on the wheel, his grip tightening fractionally. “Uh-huh.”

“Not bad weird, you know? I just wasn’t expecting it.”

“Well, we’ve officially seen him more in the last few months than we have in five decades put together,” Dean told him, both his voice and his smile tenser than he’d wanted them to be.

Sam didn’t seem to notice. “Yeah…” He stared off out his window. “Did you think he looked tired? Not just because of the heaven thing, but—I dunno—mentally tired? I just worry about him. We all do, but—” He ran his hand through his hair, thinking. “I dunno, I just wish—”

“He’s fine,” Dean said. He didn’t know why they were talking about this. It wasn’t like it would change anything. No matter how much they worried about Jack or thought about him or missed him, it wouldn’t change a damn thing. “Hell, he’s better than fine. He’s God.”

“I know,” Sam defended. “But that’s a lot of responsibility.”

Dean almost rolled his eyes and bit out something sarcastic. Oh, really? Is being God capital-G stressful? I didn’t know that.

“Yeah, well, it was his idea to take Chuck’s powers, remember?”

Sam scoffed. “He didn’t really have a choice, Dean. None of us did.”

Dean remembered. But they had a choice after, once Chuck was gone. And Jack had made his decision. “He chose to disappear and become one with the Force. Not us. Not Chuck. That was all him.”

He could feel Sam’s eyes on him, securitizing the side of Dean’s face. Dean kept his gaze firmly ahead, watching the hood of the Impala eat up the white and yellow lines of the road.

“He was doing what he thought was right,” Sam said.

The steering wheel was digging into Dean’s palms with how tightly he was holding it. “Then let him keep doing that. If he wanted our help, he’d ask for it—and he did. Which is why we’re here. If he doesn’t want to see us beyond that…” Dean and Cas kept a room for Jack. Sam knew that. And Jack didn’t use it because he obviously didn’t want to see him—or Sam. “We can’t force him. So, he wants to stay away? He can stay away. That’s his choice, too.”

Cas still saw him sometimes. Kelly still saw him. Maybe Jack just liked them better, and that was fine. Dean couldn’t do anything else for him. Not anymore. That ship sailed a long time ago, and Dean sank it in the harbor.

He knew what it was like to try to avoid a parent. Dean saw Mary way more than he saw John. Even if he told himself it wasn’t intentional, even if he made excuses. Even if he’d gotten over all the crap that happened when he was a kid and everything his dad placed on his shoulders. He still sought out his mom more.

Besides, after so long, Dean wasn’t even sure he could call Jack his own anymore. He was just some guy who lived under the same roof as Jack for a little while. At this point, Jack had Kelly and Cas for a lot longer. But it’s not like Dean had the power to find Jack and make it right. Jack did, but he didn’t do anything about it, so he must have not wanted to.

Dean kept his eyes on the road.

Sam didn’t say anything, even though he was being too quiet in the way that suggested he really wanted to speak. Dean was glad he kept whatever it was to himself.

They got to Memphis a few hours after sunrise. Their destination was right on the Arkansas border on the banks of the Mississippi. Barges and freighters chugged down the river, sounding their horns up at the cirrocumulus clouds.

In a previous life, the building might have belonged to the government, or maybe it had been a museum. It was a large, Roman style structure with a row of columns adorning the front. A giant fence blocked it from the desolate surroundings, and the gate had a sign that warned: Keep out, condemned structure.

Apparently, Anael and Bela had been using the place for years.

Dean parked the Impala out of sight, and he and Sam scaled the fence around back. Guns out, they crept along the side of the building, looking out for any kind of security system. The grounds remained quiet. He peered around the corner of the building, met with nothing but overgrown grass shuddering in the breeze that came off the water.

“Maybe no one’s home?” he said, speaking too soon.

Behind them, came a low, snarling growl. Like a dog, except worse. Dean would know that sound anywhere. His skin prickled, hair standing on end. Trying not to make any sudden movements, he turned his head to Sam. Sam was holding himself tensely, meeting Dean’s eyes with the same realization that they’d really stepped in it this time.

Dean's eyes flickered behind Sam, but he didn’t see anything. Of course, he wouldn’t. It was a hellhound, and it sounded close. There was a crunching noise of paws scratching dirt, and Dean looked down to see the grass being uprooted by an invisible force about a yard away.

Their only course of action was to get inside the building and bar the door. It would buy them some time.

“Count of three,” Dean whispered. He cocked his gun, ready to give Sam a headstart while he loosed a clip into the hellhound to slow it down. “One… two…”

A loud whistle ripped through the heavy, chilled air.

“Come here, girl,” a familiar voice called. The hellhound’s growling stopped, and loose dirt got kicked up, revealing the creature’s path as it ran to its master’s side.

Dean whipped around, coming face-to-face with the last face he expected to see.

“Apologies for my guard dog, gentlemen,” Bela said. “She’s a sweetheart, really.”

“Bela?” Dean exclaimed, almost at a loss for words. When Sam said she was a demon, he’d been expecting her to be riding someone. But she looked exactly the same. “Aren’t you supposed to be hell’s bitch? How do you look like you?”

Bela’s catlike smile formed on her face. “Charming as ever, I see,” she said before explaining: “Perks of having an angel as a partner. We struck a deal, found my bones, and she rebuilt my body. Some might call me sentimental for that, but what can I say? You can’t beat perfection.”

Dean really couldn’t argue with that. He popped his brows, tipping his head to the side quickly.

“And the hellhound?” Sam asked, which meant that was a new development. He slipped his gun back into his waistband, but Dean kept his in hand. Bullets wouldn’t kill Bela—not like the demon killing knife Dean had in his pocket—but he still felt better having some kind of weapon in hand while she was around.

“Can you believe there was ever a time I was afraid of them?” Bela chuckled, placing her hand in mid-air, on the hound’s back. “Turns out, they were the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m richer now than I ever was when I was human.”

Dean rolled his eyes.

Bela dropped her hand and sauntered closer. “But enough about me. Last I heard, you both were dead. What was it for you, Dean? A hunting accident, wasn’t it? Something embarrassing. You shot yourself in the ass?”

Dean bristled, because it was better than reddening in humiliation. “That’s funny.”

Bela ignored him, looking at Sam. “And I much preferred you old and frail.”

“Well, we’re back,” Dean said, cutting right to it. “And we’re here to deal.”

“We need ingredients for a spell,” Sam told her. His gun might have been away, but his tone was terse and his expression dark. Whatever arrangement the Hunter’s Network had with Bela and Anael, it wasn’t friendly.

“Well, then,” Bela said, her eyes practically turning into dollar signs like in a cartoon. She held out her arm. “Step into my office.”

She led them to the building’s main entrance and through the front doors. And Dean thought somebody had to update the sign on the gate, because this place was less condemned and more a palace. The entrance was a large, circular rotunda with statues and busts standing before fresh white walls. A pristine marble staircase led up to the second level, and Bela’s slender hand whispered on the polished stone of the railing as Dean and Sam trudged up the stairs after her. Dean glanced upward at the ceiling, which was trimmed in gold leaf and had a wall-to-tall painting of a battle scene.

On the second level, Bela brought them down a long hallway and pushed open the doors to a giant sitting room. A sturdy desk sat in front of another massive painting that took up the entire back wall.

Anael was perched on the side of the desk, a file folder in her hands. Once they entered the room, she closed the folder and stood up fully.

“I was wondering when you two would show up,” she said, her sharp voice projecting across the room.

“You… knew we were back?” Sam asked while the three of them walked closer.

“Angel Radio keeps buzzing about it,” she answered, waving it away. “Or, at least, it was up until a couple months ago when it went quiet.”

“Yeah, that’s actually kinda why we’re here,” Sam told her. Anael crossed her arms and lifted a brow, waiting for him to go on. “You remember Jack?”

“New God. How could I forget?”

“Right. Well, Jack asked us to get some ingredients for a spell to protect heaven. From Chuck.”

“Chuck?” Bela asked. “Chuck Shurley? The old God?”

Great. So, she was all caught up. Mostly.

“Chuck broke out of a heaven’s lock up,” Dean said, giving them the Sparknotes version. “Now, he’s jonesing for some souls to power up again.”

“For what?” Anael asked, and Dean couldn’t tell if she was interested or worried. “To take back control?”

“That’s what we’re going off of.”

“What ingredients?” Bela asked.

Sam took Jack’s list out of his pocket and handed it over. Bela crossed to the desk, standing beside Anael. They put their heads together, going over the items together.

“Oh, that one’s going to cost them,” Bela muttered to her at one point.

Anael nodded, pointing at the list and whispering, “We’d need to get that one.”

“Yes, of course.”

Dean huffed at the little performance. He looked away, not wanting to give them the satisfaction. His eyes landed on a weird sculpture that was either a flower or a vagina. He pulled a face, trying to figure it out.

“Easy enough,” Bela said, knocking Dean back into the moment. She placed one hand on the desk and leaned into it. “There’s one or two things we don’t have on hand. Give us—” she glanced at Anael, the two having a silent conversation, “say, a day to get them.”

“That’s all?” Sam asked.

“We’re efficient,” Bela quipped.

Dean flapped out his arm, gun still in hand. “How much is this gonna cost us?”

At that, Bela stood up straighter, smiling in a sly way that Dean remembered and really hated. “One moment while I confer with my partner.” She and Anael stepped back toward the wall and started talking in hushed tones.

Dean groaned inwardly and turned to Sam. “Great, they’re conferring.”

“We knew it was gonna cost us a lot,” Sam reminded him.

“I still don’t like it. The last thing we need is Oceans 8 making a damn plan over there.”

The women turned back to them, twin glints in their eyes that spelled trouble.

“We’ve decided, instead of money, we’re willing to barter favors,” Bela announced.

Sam squared his shoulders again. “That wasn’t part of our deal.”

“Our deal expired when you did,” Anael shot back.

Sam glared, but he didn’t say anything in return—and Dean had enough of this. “You know this God is who’s asking for these things, right? You really wanna mess with that?”

“God for now,” Bela corrected. “But, from what you’ve said, that could change tomorrow should Chuck Shurley reclaim his throne. Perhaps I like those odds and I want to place my bets on him instead of your boy.”

Dean prickled, wanting to say Jack wasn’t their boy. Instead, he demanded, “What do you want?”

“There’s a relic. Very old, very valuable,” Bela said, opening the computer on the desk and typing something in. A few seconds later, up popped a projection of a circular brass medallion with a square hole in the center and an infinity symbol carved into it. “One of a kind, you see. We have a buyer lined up for purchase, but we haven’t secured a way to procure it.”

“And you want us to do it for you?” Dean inferred.

Anael said, “That’s the idea.”

Dean shared a look with Sam, both of them silently agreeing it wouldn’t hurt to get more information before they said no.

“Where do we find it?”

“There’s a syndicate of illegal street racing that moves around the country. It’s almost exclusively for monsters, but they do get the odd human,” Bela told them. She typed something else into the computer, and the picture changed to that of three women—triplets, by the look of them. And pretty hot. “It’s run by the Erin sisters. They’re currently in possession of the medallion.”

“What does it do?” Sam asked, and that probably should have been their first question.

“Does it matter?” Anael said.

Yes. We’re not stealing some ancient relic for you so it can hurt innocent people.”

Bela and Anael shared another long look. Anael let out a huffy breath and conceded, “It doles out punishments, but it only works on guilty people. Happy?”

Guilty was up for interpretation. Dean didn’t like this plan. “So, what? Some billionaire caught his wife banging the pool boy and wants to get back at her?”

“Buyer-seller confidentiality, I’m afraid,” Bela told them. “Do we have a deal or not?”

Dean wanted to say not, but it wasn’t really like they had a choice. They all knew that.

And how hard could it really be? Enter some monster drag race, drive fast, and then sneak around looking for a giant gold paperweight? Sounded easy.

After another shared look, Sam said curtly, “Fine. Deal.”

Bela grinned. “Marvelous. I’ll send you all the details you need to get in. Meanwhile, you might want to start driving toward Atlanta. A race is scheduled to take place there tomorrow night.”

“We’ll meet back here for the trade,” Anael added.

Dean felt dirty, like he’d just whored himself out.

He and Sam turned around, about to see themselves out, when Bela called, “Oh, and Dean? The competition at these races is no joke. If you’re determined to enter, you might want to get a better and faster car than the hundred-year-old clunker you have outside.”

Dean gaped, too offended to speak. He shot a glare at Sam, wanting some backup. Sam, the traitor, sighed like he thought Bela had a point.

Dean was past offended now. Anger caught up, and he slammed his jaw closed.

 

///

 

The sun had set on the city, lights painting downtown in pinks and greens that smudged together against the skyline. Five hours after closing time, Sam sat behind the main desk in the dark showroom of a Ferrari dealership. The newest models were on display in the window-lined, platinum room, the clean curves of their carbon bodies glinting in the security lights. One of them was open, its winged doors suspended up to reveal the tight-fitting cabin.

“Okay, try it now,” Sam said, the phone on his wrist on speaker.

Dean was in the lot outside, already in one of the cars. After hacking into the showroom’s computer, Sam had unlocked the car for him. Now, he was working on a way to get the AI onboard to scan Dean’s face, voice, and fingerprints so it would respond to him without keeping those bio-keys in the server’s database.

“’Kay. What’s it doing?” Dean asked over the line. On the computer screen, the icon of a handprint appeared when Dean placed his palm on the inside of the car’s windshield. The loading circle around the icon swirled before blinking green. There was another screen hovering nearby, filled with lines of code. Sam typed away, hoping he was remembering it correctly.

Junior had been better with car computers. He’d taught his old man a thing or two, but Sam was only seventy-five percent confident he could actually pull this off.

Briefly, Sam wondered if Junior would pass along that kind of knowledge to his kids, or if he’d keep them out of hunting. He tried not to linger on that thought.

To his surprise, the code took. Dean’s handprint blinked off the screen, but the circle around it remained. “I think I got it,” Sam reported in a mixture of relief and astonishment.

The car’s computer had been learning Dean’s voice the whole time, and Sam managed to erase that from the dealership’s system, too.

“Ya know, Sammy, your tone isn’t really reassuring.”

Sam pulled an annoyed face and, even though Dean couldn’t see it, he was pretty sure Dean knew it was there. Jacking cars had changed a lot since they were kids. Less hotwiring, more hacking. And Sam had never had to hack into such an advanced system before. Most hunters in the Network needed unassuming cars—Hondas and Fords. But this, he thought as his eyes scanned the vehicles around him that looked futuristic even by modern standards—was a whole different ball game.

“I’d like to see you do this,” Sam snipped back.

“Yeah, yeah. Not my fault cars got lame,” Dean said. “What’s taking so long, anyway? I feel like I’m setting up a friggin’ iPhone. Cars are supposed to drive.”

Sam was mostly ignoring him now. “Just a sec. I’m trying to disable the tracker.”

“The tracker?” Dean sounded horrified.

“Yeah, it’s for things like roadside assistance.”

“No, Sam. It’s for things like cops.”

“That, too.”

Over the phone, he heard Dean give a loud sigh, and Sam could picture him pinching the bridge of his nose to stifle a headache. “Can’t believe cars come with built-in lojacks now. What, people were just okay not having privacy? Why do the cops need to know when someone goes to the grocery store, huh? You pick your kid from little league but, don’t worry, the boys in blue know about it. And can you imagine if Henriksen had that crap? We wouldn’t’a lasted a week.”

Sam was fully ignoring him now.

He focused on the task at hand instead, entering the next piece of code. And then, the info screen changed. It was replaced by a warning message, locking him out. The showroom’s overhead lights snapped on, blinding him momentarily, and a burglary alarm blared.

Shit.”

“Sam?” Dean asked. “Is that—”

He could still salvage this. He’d managed to wipe Dean’s information from the system and override the car’s security system. He could disable the tracker on the go. Everything else, they’d figure out later.

“Dean, we gotta go,” Sam said, pushing out of the chair and hasting around the desk. The police would be there any second. He held up his wrist to ear and spoke into his phone. “Turn on the ignition.”

“There’s no key! How the hell do I turn on the ignition?”

“Turning on the ignition,” a British-accented voice sounded over the phone.

“Okay, I guess that’s how!”

Sam burst out of the showroom’s door and rushed into the lot, December’s crisp air hitting him at once. Dean, one foot hanging out and planted on the asphalt, was sitting in the driver’s side of a light-weight chrome-colored car. The roof was made of glass, and a black solar panel wrapped in a band around the car, starting at the glowing blue front wheel, running beneath the door, and curving around the back of the roof to the other side. When Dean spotted Sam, he pulled his leg in and lifted himself out of the seat, stretching his arm up in an attempt to close the lifted wing of the door. The passenger side was open, too.

By the time Sam folded into the cramped bucket seat, he could hear police sirens. Dean was still fruitlessly pulling on the door.

“It won’t budge.”

“Say close the doors.”

“What?”

“Say close the doors!”

“Close the doors!”

“As you wish. Closing the doors,” the car’s computerized assistant said cheerfully. Immediately, the doors on either side shut and locked. “Welcome aboard, sir.”

Dean pulled a face at the greeting, but Sam didn’t pause to explain. The windshield was already lit up with gauges and icons, bathing both of their faces in pale blue. Sam’s heart was pounding anxiously, trying to rip itself from his chest. He should be the one in the driver’s seat, because Dean had no idea what he was doing. But it was a little late for that now. The car would only respond to Dean.

“Put it in manual drive,” he instructed quickly.

“Uh, manual drive,” Dean told the car, his hands held up and tensed like he didn’t know where to put them.

“Entering manual drive. Please remember to follow the rules of the road,” the car said conversationally. In the footwell, the digital pedals lit up in blue. The steering wheel, a three-sided rectangle without a bottom, also started glowing from behind.

“Where would you like to go, sir?” the car’s computer asked, way too calm for the urgency of the moment. Police lights were bouncing off the buildings down the street.

“Dean, drive!”

Immediately, Dean gripped the wheel and stomped down on the accelerator. Sam was slammed back in his seat, jouncing around while Dean tore out of the lot and onto the street. He cut the wheel sharply to turn, and Sam’s hands scrambled to grab onto something so he wouldn’t end up in his brother’s lap. His shoulder smashed against the door.

“Put your damn seatbelt on!” Dean shouted, voice too big for the small space.

“I’m trying!”

He was flung back into a sitting position when Dean pointed the car straight down the road. Sam took the opportunity to clip in. He glanced over his shoulder as he did. Out the back window, two cops cars were zipping after them, their roof lights flashing in two neat, curving lines from the top of the headlights to the taillights.

Dean was white-knuckling the wheel, eyes fixed ahead, and Sam figured now was probably a good time to give him a crash course in what driving was like these days. In the five years since he’d been dead, even he didn’t recognize some of the technology on the dashboard, but he still knew enough.

“Okay, there are no side or rear-view mirrors. They’re cameras. See?” He waved his hand to two small screens stacked on top of one another to Dean’s left. They showed the cop cars and road behind them and in their blind spots. Then, he gestured down to the console between them. “Gear shift’s digital, but it’s voice controlled, too. Everything else is pretty much the same. Got it?”

“No!” Dean barked, eyes still frozen ahead. “Nothing’s the same, Sam! This thing’s a spaceship!”

Sam’s thoughts were scattered, buzzing around out of his reach, and he could feel tension locking up his shoulders. He took in a breath, trying to calm himself. “You got this,” he encouraged, pretty sure they were about to die.

He looked ahead, a busy street with cars zipping back and forth between the buildings coming on dangerously fast. Leaning forward, he turned on the GPS, causing a transparent map to come up on the window.

“Where would you like to go?” the car asked again.

“Quickest way out of town!” Dean yelled.

“Of course, sir. Calculating,” the voice told them. The map zoomed out, showing the roads around them. A few of them were lit up in red. The computer said, “It appears traffic is heavier than usual tonight,” and it really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

Sam and Dean both groaned, Sam tipping his head back against his seat.

“I’ve found a clear route to the highway via the backroads. Would you like to take it?”

Yes!” they both shouted in unison.

“Of course, sir. Please turn left at the intersec—”

They were already there. Dean jerked the car left, the tires squealing under them. Sam’s hand slammed against his door. A few cars came to screeching halts, their horns blaring.

The cruisers sped after them as Dean threaded through the cars on the three-lane road, pushing the Ferrari as fast as it would go. Ahead, a traffic light flicked to yellow. Dean slammed down harder on the pedal. The light turned red over their heads.

Another voice sounded through the speakers: “Pull the vehicle over.”

“What the fuck was that?” Dean demanded, taking his eyes off the road for a flash to look at Sam.

“The cops.”

“Well, turn it off!”

“Pull over, or we’ll be forced to stop you,” the police said over the comms.

“They can do that?” Dean asked.

Sam didn’t answer, because, yeah, they could do that. The tracker was still on, which meant they could take control of the car if they wanted to.

“Turn right onto Concord St. in 300 feet,” the navigation instructed.

By that time, most of the cars on the road had pulled off the side to let the police through. Dean swerved into the right lane and turned. Sam tried to keep himself from being jostled too much while he used his tablet to get into the car’s computer system. The police lights followed them into the narrow side street.

“This is your last warning. Pull over or—” The voice cut off, and Sam wasn’t sure if he’d overridden the comms or the entire system.

The British voice replaced the police’s. “Sir, it appears you’ve turned off the safety override. When it’s safe to do so, pull over. Failure to comply will result in my contacting the authorities.”

“Jarvis is a narc?” Dean asked, sounding as betrayed as Sam had ever heard him.

Sam threw up his hands, stress making him silent.

Dean’s face darkened, and he adjusted his grip on the wheel. “Screw this,” he decided, and Sam had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Before he could figure out, he was jerked to the right while Dean made another sharp turn. And then jerked back again when the car stopped on a dime. Through the windshield, a group of people dressed for a night out stumbled to a halt in the middle of the crosswalk. They looked at Sam and Dean like a few deer in the headlights; Sam and Dean looked back at them, eyes wide.

Dean honked the horn, and the kids jumped and rushed back to the sidewalk. Slamming down on the accelerator again, Dean asked, offended, “What was that?”

“Collision assistance.”

“Turn it off!”

“I don’t know how, Dean!”

“The authorities have been contacted, sir. Please remain calm,” the computer reported. Dean picked one hand off the wheel in an irritated gesture before slapping it back down.

When they looped back around to the main drag, three more cop cars had joined the chase. Sam reprioritized the tracker and focused on shutting down the computer’s AI. It fought back, but eventually, “Okay, you’re fully manual.” The GPS cut off, too, leaving them blind.

“Finally,” Dean grunted.

Ahead of them, the boulevard was cleared. The lights of another police car were speeding toward them. Dean said, “Hold on.” Sam’s hand slammed against the roof of the car as Dean turned onto another side street. It forked, and he cut the wheel to the left, slamming into the side of a parallel parked car in the process. There were a few more vehicles driving along the road, and Dean wove in and out of traffic.

Sam slunk into his seat and ran his palm down his face. He didn’t know when he’d started to sweat. When he glanced over at Dean to see how he was doing, his jaw almost dropped.

Because Dean was grinning.

“Wanna tell me what’s funny, Dean?”

“I feel like I’m in Grand Theft Auto!”

Sam didn’t know what to say to that. But he really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Something caught his periphery, and he jerked his head to the side. There was a bus coming up on their right. As if he was actively trying to give Sam a heart attack, Dean cut the wheel again, turning right into the bus’s path.

“Dean!” Sam yelled on instinct.

They must have cleared the bus by a couple inches, and Dean zipped down the adjacent road. “Whoo! Did you see that?”

They went over a bridge, the city lights twinkling on the water below. A passenger train was alongside them, the people inside pressing their noses to the glass and looking at them in interest until the train was left in the dust.

“Can this thing fly?” Dean asked.

Sam’s expression collapsed and he looked at Dean like he was crazy. “What? No! Why would it—”

“It’d be cool if it could fly! Fine, does it have paddle shifters?”

“What?”

“It’s a supercar, Sam. Where are the paddle shifters?”

Sam rattled his head. He felt like Dean was speaking a foreign language.

Dean let out a frustrated sound and started feeling around the back side of the steering wheel. Just when they made it to the other side of the bridge and began speeding up an incline, he must have found something, because a large smile pulled at his cheeks. “Oh, fuck yeah. Now we’re cookin’ with gas!”

Sam swiveled around. The cop cars were behind them again, a little further away than they had been before but still way too close for comfort. He turned forward when they crested the hill. Instead of braking, Dean kept his foot on the gas. The pedestrians, buildings, and cars out the windows started to blur. Lights trailed behind in long lines.

Dean!” Sam shouted, stretching the word out, as he hung on for dear life. Over him, Dean hollered, “Whooooo-hoo-hoo-hoo!”

At the bottom of the hill, the car jounced and bounced, probably getting some air. But that was the least of Sam’s concerns because, ahead, there was a row of police cars. They were blocking the road, the cops guarded behind them with their guns pointed. About a hundred feet in front of them, a long strip of metal was laid across the road.

“Dean, don’t go over that! It’ll cut the car’s power!”

Determination suddenly painting his face, Dean slammed on the brake, turning the wheel at the same time. Sam was flung forward, his seat belt cutting into his chest, and the spinning momentum threw him against his door.

The car was facing in the opposite direction now, everything still and silent except for the rushing of blood in Sam’s ears and both of their breathing. There were skid marks in the shape of a donut burned into the road around them. White smoke was dissipating off the wheels.

The cruisers that were chasing them were speeding forward, sirens blaring.

Dean’s foot hit the accelerator, and they were off again, driving right for the cops coming down the hill.

Sam took in a deep, steadying breath, already knowing Dean’s play.

The train was further down the hill than the cops, the tracks parallel to the road. It was coming up on an intersection.

Sam ground his teeth, his hands tightening around his seatbelt just to have something to hold onto.

Just as the train was on top of the intersection, Dean cut the wheel. The train’s headlights cut across Sam’s face. The Ferrari’s tires bounced up onto the curb. And then they were on the adjacent road. Behind them, the train whoosed on, cutting them off from the cops.

Sam fell back into his seat, willing his heart to slow down.

Dean was laughing. “Dude! I’m Steve McQueen!”

Sam kept his eyes forward. A breathless smile, whether from relief or adrenaline or humor, was trying to force itself onto his face. “I hate you.”

Dean kept laughing as they drove off into the night.

 

///

 

Morning found them somewhere along a deserted Alabama road off I-20, halfway between Birmingham and Atlanta. Dean figured they’d reach the city in a couple of hours, and they’d have time to kill before the race.

But first thing’s first.

The car was parked on the side of the road, Dean leaning against the side and squinting forward at the grassland around them. It was a little bit warmer there than it had been in Memphis, and a little more humid. But the sun wasn’t by any means baking, and there was just enough chill in the breeze to remind Dean that it was early December in the south.

And if that wasn’t enough, in the near distance, there was a giant billboard asking whether he was going to heaven or hell, and to call a number to find out. He half-entertained the thought of actually calling in to tell them the answer was heaven, since he was sleeping with God’s righthand man, and that he could put in a good word for them if they took down that stupid sign.

He refocused his attention on Sam, who for the last hour had been working on disabling anything and everything that could track them or identify the car. Dean was getting a little hungry, and he was just about to ask how much longer this was going to take when Sam unfolded himself out of the car.

“Okay. We should be good,” Sam told him.

Dean dipped his chin in a nod as Sam leaned against the car next to him. “Too bad. I was kinda looking forward to another car chase.”

“Really? Because I’d be happy if we never did that again.”

Sam was never any fun. But still, Dean had to admit, he was having fun. It had been a long, long time since it had been just the two of them on the road—high-tech car or not. A long time since they were actively seeking out monsters.

It felt like Dean had only just gotten back from a vacation, and he was rested and rejuvenated, ready to get back to work. All memory of the break was fading while the old grind of normalcy was reacquainting itself to him.

It felt right.

And it pressed guilt onto his chest like a boulder.

He side-glanced at Sam, wondering if he was thinking it, too. Maybe not. Sam had other things on his mind, and Dean hadn’t forgotten.

“Sam,” he began, and Sam looked over at him. “Seriously, who were the kids in those pictures?”

Sam’s face shuttered. But then he breathed out, seeming to give up. “They’re my grandkids,” he admitted.

Dean nodded down at his boots. He’d figured as much.

“Liam and Janelle,” Sam went on. “Liam’s eight in February.” He tossed one hand in the air before letting it fall limply back to his side. “Eileen never got to meet him. He was born a few months after she died. And I… Well, looks like Janelle’s four.”

Dean had no clue what to say to that. He couldn’t imagine what that must have been like, having a grandkid he never met. Not being able to watch them grow up.

Dean couldn’t even imagine what having a grandkid would be like. It was too weird. Sure, in unguarded moments, he sometimes allowed himself to think about what it’d be like to have a kid. A few times, and only for a second, he thought he did. But it was always just some distant dream, not meant for him. And grandkids? He never let himself get that far.

But knowing Sam had descendants out there seemed natural. The Winchester family tree kept growing. It was weird, but Dean almost felt like those kids were his great-grandchildren. People he was never meant to know, but knowing they existed, that his family still held a piece of the earth, was enough.

He doubted that was enough for Sam though. And it didn’t have to be. They were alive again.

“Well, we could swing by after we wrap up in Atlanta,” Dean offered. Sam’s head snapped up immediately. Dean shrugged. “You could meet her. I’m sure Junior would want to know you’re—”

“No,” Sam said quickly, shaking his head.

Dean jerked his head back, not having expected that. “Why not?”

“Because, it—” Sam cut himself off with a scoff. He leveled his hand sternly. “Just forget it.”

“Forget it?” Dean echoed, not understanding. “Sam, he’s your kid. You get a second chance to be with him, and you’re not gonna take it? Don’t you wanna at least talk to him?”

“No, Dean, just—Can we just drop it?”

Dean bit down on his jaw, wondering why the hell Sam was acting so touchy. He usually wouldn’t shut up about his son once he got going. “Alright, fine,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender. “It’s dropped.”

“Good,” Sam echoed. “So, let’s focus on the hunt.”

“Fine.”

There was a long pause, filled with tense silence and birdsong. Sam looked off in one direction, Dean in the other. And the mood passed, changing quickly in the way it only can between siblings.

“Bela send you the info for the race?” Dean asked.

“Yeah,” Sam said, holding up his phone. When he opened the invitation, a video immediately popped up and started playing.

On screen, there was the full throttle vroom of cars speeding down a track, which was bullshit because Dean knew for a fact that cars were too vanilla to make that sound anymore.

Experience the real way to ride or die,” a sultry female voice said. The video showed three scantily dressed people waving flags, supercharged racing cars zipping between them, and it was good to know advertising hadn’t changed at all in the last fifty years. More images flashed: a vampire’s fangs, an overturned car in flames in the background while a man with glowing gold eyes walked toward the camera, black demon smoke flying alongside a speeding Lamborghini.

Furious Racing,” the voice said before the video went black.

Dean popped his brows, arms crossed across his chest. Something akin to embarrassment curled inside of him like it did every time he got off to a particularly cringeworthy porno. “Gimmicky.”

“Yeah,” Sam scoffed, dropping his hand. “She sent me the invitation, too, so we’ll be able to get in.”

“Any idea on what we’re walking into?” Dean asked. “Anael and Bela weren’t exactly upfront about who we’re stealing this relic from.”

Sam shook his head. “I tried to find out everything I could about the Erin sisters, but there isn’t much. Couldn’t find any arrest records, tax returns, not even so much as a social media account.”

“There’s nothing online? How’s that even possible anymore?”

“No idea,” Sam said with a shrug. “But they’re careful. They could be anything—werewolves, deities, demons.”

Dean hummed thoughtfully. He hated this. He hated Anael and Bela separately and he hated them even more together. “Anybody else get the feeling we’re being set up?”

“Only a lot.”

“Sounds about right.” Dean picked himself up from the car. “Okay. So, I drive, keep everybody distracted; you go snooping around for this magic amulet. We’ll be in and out.”

 

///

 

Just before 2AM, Sam and Dean drove to the spot where the race was taking place. It was outside of an old, crumbling warehouse inside Atlanta’s city limits. The area was surrounded by asphalt, weeds and grass shooting out of the jagged cracks in a bid to reclaim the land. Dean drove the car around to the other side of the looming building, and the dead quiet slowly gave way to a cacophony of sound and headlights.

Over a dozen cars—all of them decked out with flashy modifications and colors—were idling on the side of the makeshift race track. Some of the drivers were outside of their cars, talking to one another or doing some last-minute tune ups to their vehicles. Some of their eyes glinted unnaturally in the flashes of taillights, and Sam glanced over the horde of openly displayed fangs and claws. A crowd of rowdy onlookers had gathered to one side of the track.

They parked next to a bright pink hotrod, and Dean left the engine running when they got out. Sam’s eyes followed the line of orange traffic cones that marked the track. It wasn’t very long, and it had one sharp bend to it. The night, dotted by weak streetlights that cast shallow yellow pools onto the faded lines of the expansive parking lot, smelled of burning rubber; and he wondered if that was from the cars or if it was some lingering aftereffect of whatever the factory had produced.

“Invitation?” someone said, and Sam quickly looked over at the man who had appeared inside the stream of their headlights. He was a big, muscle-tee type with a tattoo of claw marks on the side of his shaved head. Security, judging from the way he carried himself.

“Uh, yeah,” Sam said, walking forward. He pulled up the digital invite Bela had sent over, and the security guard scanned it.

He checked the information. “Winchester, huh?” he said, looking up to assess both of them in turn. “I heard he had a son. Didn’t know he had two.”

“Yeah?” Sam intoned, straight-faced. “Who’s that?”

The security guard didn’t seem to buy it. He narrowed his eyes. “Also heard a few rumors that the brothers were back. Sounded like a ghost story to me.”

“Look, pal, we don’t know who you’re talking about,” Dean said. “We good to go or not?”

The security guard growled softly. “Yeah, you’re good,” he said in a way that suggested he would be keeping an eye on them in case there was any trouble. But, if he knew who they were, he knew they weren’t intimidated.

The only question was: how did he know they were back?

When the guy walked away, Sam turned fully toward Dean. “Did you hear that?” Dean exclaimed. “We’re basically the bedtime story monster parents threaten their kids with to make them behave.”

Sam pressed his lips together, made slightly uneasy from the realization. When they’d been alive, pretty much every supernatural creature knew their name. Now that they were gone, they were myths. The only thing that troubled him was what they’d turn into now that they were back.

“How did he know we’re alive?” Sam pondered.

“I dunno! Some monster saw us and posted it in the Facebook group? Who cares, as long as they’re scared.”

He had a point, but Sam wasn’t too comfortable with that fact while they were literally surrounded by monsters at that very moment. “Yeah, more of a reason to get out of here ASAP.”

Suddenly, the crowd erupted with ravenous cheers. Sam’s attention jerked toward them, watching them part as a woman walked out of the giant warehouse doors. It was one of the Erin sisters. There was a whip tucked into her belt—a scourge with pieces of brown metal woven into the rope.

Something needled at the back of Sam’s mind, trying to tell him something. There were dots; he just couldn’t quite connect them.

Dean must have seen the look on his face. “What is it?”

“I dunno yet.”

He watched the Erin sister saunter toward the track. On her way, the tattooed security guard stopped her. He whispered something in her ear, and she nodded. Then, she was on her way again.

The first two cars had lined up at the starting point. By that time, the other drivers had all gotten out and formed a small crowd a safe distance from the traffic cones. Sam and Dean joined them, looking over their heads as the Erin woman placed herself in front of the cars. She pulled something out of her jacket pocket, a glint of brass.

“Dean, look,” Sam urged, grabbing Dean’s arm.

The medallion dangled from a thick leather strap when she held it out to the cars. Her other hand wrapped around the handle of her scourge, and she raised the weapon into the air. She snapped it, the crack resounding. At once, the two cars sped past her, whipping up her hair. The crowd roared. Around them, their fellow drivers shouted and cursed. The tires wailed.

It was over almost as quickly as it started. Smoke spun out from the back tires as the cars braked hard. It was followed by sweeping silence where there had once been too much noise. It was jarring, and unnerving, and Sam scanned his surroundings before making wary eye contact with Dean.

The driver’s door of the losing car opened up. A man got out, his wide eyes revealing the double pupils of an arachne. He was clutching his hair, pulling at it hard. When his back slammed against the side of his car, the short, strangled sounds he’d been giving off turned into pained screams.

“What the hell?” Sam said under his breath

The arachne’s fight didn’t last much longer. He went still, and his body dropped to the tar.

Sam blinked, not knowing what the hell to make of it. Near the warehouse, the crowd erupted again. The drivers were more sober. They turned away, headed back for the cars. The winner of the last race drove off, and more security guards came out to get rid of the body and all it had left behind.

“What the fuck was that?” Dean demanded, as if Sam had any idea.

A voice came from behind them. “First time, I guess?” They both whipped around to find a woman leaning against the hood of her car. She picked herself up and crossed her arms. “It’s that medallion she has,” she explained, nodding her chin in the direction of the Erin sister still on the track. “Makes you relive all your regrets until they literally eat you up inside.”

Anael and Bela had said the relic punished the guilty. They hadn’t said anything about how.

“Enough to kill you?” Dean clarified.

The driver nodded curtly. “It starts when the race does. If you believe the company line, whoever loses the race, loses their life. But some people say the medallion decides the outcome from the get-go. Whoever’s the guiltiest, that’s who’s gonna lose every time.”

Sam felt like there was a word on the tip of his tongue. He’d heard of this before, or something like it. He just couldn’t place it. It was driving him nuts.

“Why would you come back and race again?” he asked, astounded.

The woman laughed. “We don’t have a choice. Sure, some people do. They come here to settle personal scores. But the rest of us? The Erin sisters roll into town, and people in the know come to them, tell them stories about those who have wronged them. If the sisters think it’s bad enough, their invitation finds you. The second it does, you’re driven here.”

“Driven by what?”

“Voices. Hallucinations. A preview of everything that medallion brings back to the surface.” She shook her head. “It’s tormenting. Even if you win the race, it doesn’t let you go. Not until you come back here and race again.”

“Until you die?” Sam said.

She looked at him flatly, not answering for a long time. And then, “If you’re here by choice, I suggest you turn around now and drive away. Otherwise, you’re never leaving.” She opened the door to her car and slid into the driver’s seat.

Her words swam through Sam’s mind. He turned to Dean, who stared back, wide-eyed.

“No way Bela didn’t know about this,” he said. “Cunt sent us here to kill us.”

Sam took in a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “You’re not gonna lose.”

“Not gonna lose?” He splayed out his arms in a challenge. “Sam, who’s guiltier than us?”

That wasn’t true. Sure, they made a lot of bad mistakes, but they were good people. Sam believed that. He knew Dean did, too. Dean was just freaking out.

“I have been lying to Cas for decades, and that’s on top of a zillion crap things from our crap lives. Like causing twenty apocalypses, for starters! What happens when I race against a guy whose crime was eating the last cookie?”

“Dean—” Sam grunted, knowing he had to nip this in the bud. He held out his hands, leveling with Dean. “We don’t know for sure if the races are rigged. Maybe you just have to win, and you can do that.”

Dean scoffed. “With voices in my head? Come on, Sam!”

“I’ve seen you eat a full steak dinner with a fork and knife while booking it 90 down the freeway. If anyone can drive distracted, it’s you. You were kinda born for this.”

Dean cheeks dimpled with annoyance in response.

“Look,” Sam said, reining him back in. “Stay out here. Keep an eye on the Erin woman.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“She’s got two sisters, right? I’m gonna find them, and make that one trade the medallion for their lives.”

Dean glanced at the race track, grumbling. “Fine. You go tie up the hot blondes, and I’ll try not to crash my car!”

Sam took that to mean Dean agreed with the plan. He clapped Dean firmly on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit.”

He left Dean, and Dean’s sour expression, behind. First, he blended into the crowd. While the next race was starting, he slipped to the side of the warehouse and crept to the back in search of a way in that wasn’t the front door. He found a back entrance and forced it open with his shoulder until the gap was wide enough for him to squeeze through.

The smell of rubber was worse inside the dark, damp cement building. To his left, there was a narrow hall. To his right, there was a ladder leading up to the broken catwalks above. Sam took out his gun, keeping it at the ready, and stalked to the hallway.

So far, there was no sign of anyone. The only sound was the steady, distant clunk of water dripping.

And then, suddenly, something cracked through the silence.

Sam spun around, gun leveling reflexively. There was a shadow on the catwalk. She looked down at him, a similar scourge as the one her sister carried in her hand. Sam waited for her to make a move.

Behind him, two hands grabbed his jacket. The next thing he knew, he was sailing through the air, his weapon getting lost along the way. He hit the floor and slid against the wall. His chest was tight, the air knocked out of him. Trying to breathe, he blinked up at the woman walking toward him. She was nearly identical to her two other sisters.

She stood over him, glaring down her nose at him for half a second. Then, she lifted her high-heel. Sam saw it coming down quickly toward his face.

Everything went dark.

 

///

 

There was a car on fire on the other side of the cracked parking lot. It was on its side, and the bright orange flames contrasted to the blue night. A chimney of smoke chugged upward. The wind swept it across the track.

Dean had watched six races so far. All of them ended in death.

At the beginning of each one, the Erin sister would stand in front of the revving cars and hold up the medallion. Then, she’d crack her studded whip through the air. The crowd would erupt in cheers and jeers, and the cars would take off with wheels spinning and whining behind them. Some had even altered their cars with an obnoxious fake V8 simulator to make up for the lack of sound the electric engines made. It was just gaudy enough that Dean didn’t feel too bad when the person using it was the one to lose the race.

So far, the deaths had each been varying degrees of horrible. The most recent one lost control mid-race and knocked against the side of a cement barrier. The speed it was going made it flip over, and the electric wires inside sparked, starting the fire.

Before that, most others finished the race. But, without fail, the loser would lose more than just a car race. Some of them got out of the car, screaming and clutching their heads, collapsing to their knees before sinking lifelessly to the asphalt. One guy stayed in his car, but Dean could hear his muffled shouts of pain from inside. He’d thrashed around, hitting against the car horn as he did. Until, eventually, the horn honked in a steady, endless stream. Like a heart monitor gone flat.

The crowd had cheered and cheered.

And now it was his turn behind the wheel.

He drove the Ferrari up to the start line. A red Porsche was beside him, and Dean glanced out the window to check-out his competition. The man eyed him back threateningly—eyes red where they were supposed to be white, veins spidery under ashy, wrinkled skin. A rugaru. Hopefully—Dean couldn’t believe he was hoping for this—a rugaru who’s eaten so many people, he can’t get the blood off his hands.

Dean faced forward, looking at the tall frame of the Erin sister. She was holding the medallion by the leather strap in one fist. The other held her whip.

She held the medallion up, arm outstretched.

Dean steadied himself by tensing his hands around the steering wheel. He could do this. He just had to keep himself in check for ten seconds. That was the duration of the race. Ten seconds.

He could totally keep his regrets from gnawing at him for ten seconds, right?

Darkness was creeping into his vision. His mind suddenly felt fuzzy around the edges. He shook his head, trying to find something to focus on. The crowd. He looked over at them, and it was a mistake. All of them were booing him.

Figures.

The Erin sister raised her other arm, the brass-studded ropes of her scourge falling around her wrist.

Dean’s adrenaline picked up. His foot hovered over the acceleration.

The fog in his mind was thickening, making him grunt in an effort to fight against it. It almost felt like being on the verge of sleep, when his mind was dreaming up errant thoughts and voices but he was still just conscious.

Through it, he heard Cas’ voice from somewhere far away. “Are you happy?”

Dean shoved it to the side and pulled himself together.

The whip snapped. Dean pressed on the pedal in a quick, fluid motion. Beside him, the Porsche jerked forward quickly. It jetted off down the track, going at full throttle right out of the gate.

“I don’t think so,” Dean said aloud. The Ferrari caught up to the Porsche two seconds later until both cars were nose and nose. The speedometer glowing on the window climbed up and up. “Ha! Eat it, jackass.”

Dean chanced a glance at the rugaru, who’s eyes were fixed forward. But he kept shaking his head in shallow bursts, like he was trying to shake off a gnat. The thrill of Dean’s momentary victory stole away. As he watched the rugaru, Dean’s vision went in and out of focus, colors and shapes turning into a blur of motion. He clenched his teeth against it and turned back to the track.

He was coming up to the turn, marked by five arched traffic cones. That meant he’d have to feather the brakes soon to avoid the car’s tendency to understeer—because, apparently, Ferrari still hadn’t figured that one out. He wanted the Porsche in his rear-view before that happened.

But just as he was about toe down on the pedal, a voice sounded in his head. Clear as a bell.

How long before I can come out?”

Dean shuddered at the memory, suddenly feeling nauseous. His foot slammed down on the acceleration, and he thought his vision might have blacked out for a second.

When he came to, the turn was right on him. He cut the wheel, feeling the car strain around him. The Porsche didn’t steer fast enough. The sides of both cars rammed into each other, sending up sparks.

The second the track straightened out again, Dean punched the accelerator. He pushed the car as fast as it could go to the finish line. His heart was thrashing when he crossed it, the Porsche’s nose level with his back tire.

He slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a guttering halt.

And, for a second, everything was silent. There were no more voices, no rush of road beneath him. There were only his heavy breaths filling the car.

Slowly, his grip around the wheel relaxed. Laughter bubbled up from his chest.

Whooo,” he breathed out, half-heartedly despite his best efforts. “Let’s do that again.”

He glanced out of the windshield, the instruments still glowing steadily. Through them, he watched the Porsche’s bright red taillights. His humor faded completely when he remembered what would happen next, and he waited for the rugaru to get out of the car.

It never happened.

The taillights cut out suddenly, and the Porsche peeled away—like its driver thought he could outrun his fate. Almost immediately, the car began swerving from side-to-side. It hit crater-sized potholes in the asphalt and bounced, uncontrolled.

It must have been only seconds, but it felt like an hour. The Porsche careened toward a cement barrier near the wire fence that surrounded the parking lot. Dean ripped his eyes away, and the flat, loud crunch of metal hit the air like a blunt weapon.

Dean got out of the car, deaf to the whoops and hollers of his audience. His eyes were on his opponent’s car—or what was left of it. It looked more like a pancake than a car at that point. Sharp shards of carbon fiber stuck out from the wreckage, and the skid marks on the road were still smoking. Dean breathed out, just happy it hadn’t been him.

Out of all the ways to go, he never expected to die in a car crash. The road wouldn’t betray him like that.

He looked around, hoping to catch sight of Sam in the crowd. Instead, his gaze latched on to three men headed directly for him. One of them was the security guard from before. The two who flanked him must have been his lackeys.

“Winchester,” the guard said when he was close enough.

Dean thought about the gun in his waistband, the silver knife in his boot, the switchblade in his inner jacket pocket, and all the other weapons he was packing. “Yeah?”

The man snapped and pointed his thumb over his shoulder to the warehouse. “Bosses want to see you. Come with us.”

Shit. That only meant one thing: Sam was made.

Dean bit down hard on his jaw, trying to come up with a plan. He could probably take these guys, but he was surrounded by monsters who’d be all too happy to pounce on a Winchester. Besides, his best chance at getting out of there was fighting next to his brother. And he was pretty sure, wherever they were taking him, that’s where Sam was.

“What for? I won, didn’t I?” he asked, just to be annoying.

“Come with us willingly,” the guard said, and the two others appeared at Dean’s sides, grabbing his arms tightly. One of them opened his mouth to show his fangs. “Or we’ll force you.”

Dean shook out of their hold. “Sorry to disappoint, fellas, but the only guy who gets to carry me is my boyfriend.”

The guard didn’t seem to appreciate the joke. He turned around and started walking. Dean went after him, flanked by the vampire security guard and whatever brand of monster the other one was. On his way toward the warehouse, Dean felt the back of his neck prickle in the sensation of being watched. He looked to his left, finding the Erin sister who’d been flagging the races watching him from afar. The smoke from the smoldering wreck wrapped around her like lace. She looked away from him to tie the medallion to her belt.

Dean faced forward, a bad feeling sitting in his stomach like ice.

The inside of the warehouse was bleak and musty. Dust covered the floors, thick enough to see footprints in. The glass in the windows was shattered. Most of the machinery was taken out, but half a conveyor belt from a production line sat dilapidated in the center of the room. The metal door of the machine was falling off its hinges, revealing the mechanisms and wires inside.

Dean wasn’t focused on any of that. He watched the three figures on the other side of the machine: the two other Erin sisters, both of them holding the same kind of brass-studded whip their sister outside had, and Sam, tied to a chair. There was another wooden chair a few feet away from him, and Dean assumed that was for him.

“Well, thanks for saving me a seat,” he quipped. The women crossed their arms in unison, regarding him up and down. He made eye contact with Sam, making sure he was okay. There was a nasty looking cut on his cheek, blood oozing sluggishly from it, and a back and blue was blooming around his eye, but he looked mostly fine.

The biggest security guard forced Dean to stand still, and the other two checked him for weapons. They got most of them, except for the silver knife, and brought them over to the conveyor belt, joining Sam’s stripped weapons. Then, they forced Dean into the chair and pulled his arms behind him to tie them with an electrical wire.

“Easy,” he grunted from the pain in his shoulder. “Those are my driving hands.”

The security guard pulled tighter in response, and the wire cut into Dean’s wrists. When they were finished, the sisters gave them a nod, and the monsters started for the exit. While it was happening, a reflected flash of moonlight caught Dean’s periphery. He glanced over at Sam’s back. Sam had a pocketknife in his hands, and he was working on cutting through the layers of wire around his wrists.

Some security, Dean thought, and moved his eyes away to keep from drawing attention to Sam.

“So. The Winchesters,” one of the sisters said almost as soon as the door across the room boomed closed. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Yeah, we get that a lot,” Dean answered, pulling a sharp, one-sided smirk.

“Then, the rumors aren’t true? You didn’t accidentally fall on your own machete during a vampire hunt?”

Dean’s expression immediately dropped. Anger bubbled up, leaving no room for shame. “Alright, who started these rumors?”

“Dean, not now,” Sam hissed, and that was easy for him to say.

“This is important! I have a reputation to uphold!”

The Erins looked amused, but before either of them could talk, the warehouse door opened again. There was a click of heels echoing off the high ceilings as the third sister approached. The medallion swung from its leather strap, hitting against her thigh. Her whip was still tucked into her belt.

“Okay, triplets. Now it’s a party,” Dean said as she approached.

“Cute,” she said, taking her place in the front and center of her sisters. From the way the other two stepped back to give her room, it was pretty clear she was the mastermind behind all this. She pulled in a deep breath through her nose, looking at the Winchesters like they were rare cuts of meat.

“Sam and Dean Winchester. Mm! You can imagine how excited I was when I found out you’d fallen into my lap. The blood on your hands. You must be filled to the top with guilt. All that tormenting yourselves… Practically doing my job for me. So, what is it? Have you come to kill us?”

“Actually, we came for your belt buckle,” Dean said, nodding toward the medallion. “But, sure, we can kill you if you ask nicely.”

She untied the medallion from her hip, holding it up. “What, this? Do you know how many people have tried to steal this from us over the years?”

Dean didn’t really care, because they were the ones who were going to succeed. “Yeah? And who’d you steal it from?”

“No one.” That was Sam. He’d paused in trying to saw through his bondage while the focus had shifted to him. Chin held high, he said, “It’s always been yours. People might know you as the Erin sisters, but that hasn’t always been your name. You’re the Erinyes.”

That name sounded familiar. Dean stared the leader down, and she looked almost excited that she’d been found out.

“Yeah, I figured it out,” Sam continued. “Settling other people’s disputes? Harassing and punishing your victims until they die? You’re the furies. The Greek gods of vengeance.”

Great. More gods. Just what they needed.

The leader folded her arms, mirroring her sisters. “The other deities said you were clever. We heard you even outsmarted Zeus once. But now I guess we know which brother has the brains.” She looked between them in an assessing way. Then, she unfolded her arms, hand clutching the string of her medallion tighter as she brought it up. “But let’s see which of you has more guilt.”

Dean wouldn’t show fear—not to some cut-rate god people stopped worshipping thousands of years ago. After the race, he knew what was coming. He could handle it. What guilt could they torment him with that he didn’t rehash every day, anyway?

“Oh, sweetheart, go ahead. Read our minds. You see half the shit in there, you will be begging us to kill you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him dangerously. “We’ll see.” She raised her hand, letting the medallion hang heavily.

At first, nothing happened. And then, just like before, his vision started swimming. He tried to blink it right. When that didn’t work, he rattled his head.

The magic was affecting Sam, too, but he must have been able to control himself better. Vaguely, Dean was aware of Sam doubling his efforts to free himself.

The three women before Dean were blurred—they became smudges of color and shape. Their images came in and out of focus, but they didn’t look like humans anymore. One of them had the head of a dog, the other looking like an old woman. The leader’s hair was made of writhing snakes. They went out of focus, and when they came back in, their skin was coal-black and their eyes were red. Bat wings spread out from their shoulders.

There was too much noise—screams, agony. There was heat and piercing pain. Blood on Dean’s hands. Alistair’s hand on Dean’s shoulder, his hissing voice in Dean’s ear. “Very good. Cut deeper next time.

More memories broke free, a flood of them. They choked Dean, cut off his air supply.

It means—” he heard himself say. It was followed by Sam’s voice, “What? No. Say it.” Tears in his eyes, there in the honeymoon suite of a hotel. “It means you’re a monster.

You may be able to forget about that, but I can’t!

The words echoed through his head, cutting like knives.

Just hop on in,” Dean said, watching Jack lie down in the ma’lak box. Jack’s doe eyes were so trusting. “How long before I can come out?”

You’re bored again,” Charlie accused.

Dean. Are you happy?” Cas asked, voice soft and full of love. “Yeah,” Dean answered, knowing it was a lie.

It’s like I’m you!” Jack exclaimed, happier than Dean had ever seen him. Dean didn’t know why he ruined everything with his answer: “No. It’s not.

Dean shook his head, trying to grasp reality. Trying to get a hold of himself. The furies images came into focus again. Except it wasn’t them at all. Jack was standing there, holes in his t-shirt. Knife in his hands. Blood on the knife; no blood on his wounds.

My brother thinks you can be saved.

You don’t think that?”

No, I don’t… If I’m right, and it comes to killing you, I’ll be the one to do it.”

Dean gasped, but it was useless. He couldn’t breathe.

Jack’s not family… He’s not like you. He’s not like Cas. He’s just not.

A gun in his hand, pointed forward. Jack was on his knees, eyes still so damn trusting as he looked up at Dean. Dean could drown in that memory.

But now, me and Sam, we got a shot at living a life. Without all this crap on our backs. And that’s because of you… I wanted to say… I need to say—Thank you, Jack.”

Suddenly, the world slammed back into focus. Dean pulled in a sharp breath, filling his lungs. It felt like razors inside of him.

Sam was out of his restraints. He’d tackled the leader of the furies to the ground, and the medallion had slid out of reach across the concrete floor.

The two other women let out yells, raising their whips in unison. Sam rolled out of the way of their blows, the brass studs clanking against the floor. He landed against the bottom of the conveyor belt and swiftly went for his gun. Three loud bangs erupted as he shot the furies in the chest.

All it did was slow them down.

The warehouse doors banged open. The three security guards came through, the biggest of them with yellow eyes, fangs, and talons. A wolf. The vampire had its second set of teeth ready, his eyes glinting in the moonlight.

Sam grabbed a knife off the conveyor belt and rushed to Dean, cutting through the wire. By that time, the furies were on their feet again, all three of them brandishing their whips. The leader snapped hers out, and it cracked through the air.

“I got them,” Sam said, raising his gun again. “Take care of the guards.”

They parted immediately. Dean rushed to the conveyor belt and jumped onto it, the rest of their weapons at his feet. The guards came to a running halt a few feet away, looking up at him. The vampire and the wolf bared their teeth again, growling. The other hung back slightly, and Dean still had no idea what he was. It didn’t matter. He’d kill him all the same.

“What’re you waiting for? An invitation?” Dean taunted.

Rising to the bait, the werewolf launched forward, and Dean kneed him in the nose, making him stumble back. Dean swept down and plucked his silver knife from his boot. He jumped off the machinery, ready to plunge the blade into the wolf’s chest.

He didn’t get the chance. The vampire grabbed Dean by the back of the shirt and flung him through the air. When Dean hit the wall, his shoulder absorbed the blow with a spike of searing pain. He rolled over onto his stomach, sputtering and coughing the air back into his lungs as he pulled himself up on all fours.

The vamp didn’t give him a second’s rest. He sprung forward, and when he was in range, Dean dropped one elbow to the floor for stability and kicked out his opposite leg. His boot connected with the vamp’s kneecap, sending him down to the concrete.

By that time, the werewolf had recovered. He rushed forward. Dean switched his knife to his good hand and threw it like a dart. It hit the bullseye, piercing the guard’s heart. He went down, and Dean refocused on the vampire.

He didn’t have a blade big enough to cut off the vamp’s head, so he’d have to improvise. He grabbed the guard by the hair and slammed his head against the floor—once, twice, three times. Blood stained the cracks in the concrete, but the monster was still groaning. Alive.

Movement caught the corner of Dean’s eye. He jerked his head around, finding the third guard standing a few feet away. Dean prepared himself to take him on, but the man didn’t make a move.

He blinked, eyes opening to a blood red. When he blinked again, they were normal.

A crossroads demon. Far away from any crossroads. But the details didn’t matter. Dean had just the knife for him back on the conveyor belt.

Except, the demon didn’t attack. He just stood there—looking at him. A second later, he was gone. Transported himself away to parts unknown, scared off.

Dean slammed the vamp’s head against the floor again for good measure. He got up and went to the conveyor belt, eyes on the broken hinges of the machine’s door.

Across the way, Sam had managed to get one of the furies’ whips. He hit one across the check, and blood spurted from the wounds. She let out an agonized yelp and doubled over.

Dean grabbed the door with two hands and yanked it. The metal whined, but the hinges didn’t snap. He put his boot on the side of the machine for leverage and pulled again, his shoulder feeling like it was about to pop out of the socket. He gritted his teeth against the pain and kept pulling.

Behind him, the vamp was getting to its feet.

The door came off. Dean stumbled back—just in time for the vamp to rush him again. It landed a punch to Dean’s face, then his ribs. It forced Dean backward, his lower spine hitting against the conveyor belt. He grunted under the impact and was forced to bend over backward to avoid the vamp’s advancing teeth.

His arms were wedged beneath the metal door, and he put all his strength into shoving it upward. The monster staggered back. It was enough time for Dean to stand up and hit the vamp across the face with the door. The sharp, broken edge dug into his palm. The vampire backpedaled.

Now was his chance.

His shout echoed off the ceiling as he ran forward at full speed, catching the vamp by the neck with the side of the door. He put all his weight behind it. The vamp’s hands came up, trying to get the metal away from him to no avail. He was forced back, pinned against the wall. Dean had gained enough momentum that the metal went right through the vampire’s neck, severing it.

The monster’s body collapsed to the floor, blood pooling. The metal rang out as it hit the concrete beside the corpse.

Dean pulled in a deep breath, trying to gather whatever was left of his strength. His shoulder was on fire, his face stinging where he’d been hit, and his hips were tight from all the kicking. His spine was on the verge of crumbling in on itself.

“Dean!” Sam called. Immediately, Dean turned. Sam had more blood on his face, and on his arms. His shirt and jacket were tattered. But the furies didn’t seem much better. Sam shouted, “Brass hurts them!”

Brass. Where the fuck was Dean going to find some brass?

His eyes landed on the medallion on the floor. There wasn’t much he could do with it. It wasn’t a weapon—except, yes, it was.

He ran for it, grabbing it by the leather strap.

“Hey!” he shouted, catching all three of the furies' attention. He took a gamble, and held the medallion up. Sam threw his arm over his eyes, shielding himself.

The women froze, their wide eyes on the brass relic. The leader cried out in agony first. She clutched her head and fell to her knees. Her sisters followed. Dean wondered what they were seeing—all the centuries they lived, all the punishments and torture they’d inflicted. It was burying them.

It must have taken only a few seconds. The woman fell to the ground, their eyes still open, their bodies motionless. Dead.

Dean dropped his arm heavily, body sagging.

Sam let the fight fall off of him, too. He grunted in pain, his shoulders hunching and his fists tightening. They needed to find a motel quickly and clean his wounds.

“Sam? Sammy!” Dean called, using the last of his energy to rush to his brother. He grabbed Sam by the shoulder and hauled him upright.

Sam looked a lot worse for wear. His expression was contorted, and he was breathing sharply in the way he did when the pain was unbearable.

“How bad? Scale of ten,” Dean asked, just wanting to know what they were up again.

“Three,” Sam gritted out. The liar.

He clasped Dean’s shoulder, half-reassuring and half-not reassuring at all.

“Okay,” Dean said anyway. He let his arm fall away, and the two of them slowly made for the exit.

Sam was limping a little. “How was the race?”

Dean was ready to sleep for a full week. Everything hurt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually felt so alive.

“I kicked ass.”

 

///

 

The Lebanon Diner was in the middle of its evening dinner rush. Castiel and Jack had been there for close to forty-five minutes already, Castiel with a coffee and an untouched burger in front of him to keep up appearances, and Jack with four plates of various food items scattered around. Every so often, Jack would order something else from the digital menu on the edge of the table, and their waitress would cast him concerned glances when she brought the plate over.

“I think we should order the pizza next,” Jack said, still chewing on his caramel-covered Belgian waffle. With his free hand, he scrolled through the menu, brow set in intense focus. “Pepperoni or buffalo chicken? Or both?”

Castiel took a sweeping look at the piles of plates. “Are you… still hungry?” He already knew the answer was no. Jack didn’t have to eat. Technically, he’d never needed to. But he always used to do it for enjoyment or comfort. Castiel supposed Jack had learned that from Dean.

“No,” Jack answered, taking another forkful of his waffle. There was silence between them for a moment, filled with the music playing over the diner’s speakers, the chatter of the other patrons, and the clinking of cutlery and plates.

Jack swallowed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten anything. A really long time. I missed it.”

His tone had been light, filled with the same childlike glee he’d always possessed, but Castiel felt the words sink like a stone in his chest. He pushed his burger out of the way and clasped his hands on the table before him. “Yeah, I know.”

He glanced around the restaurant, taking in the sights of the families and friend groups eating and laughing together, breathing in the scent of fried food. He looked anywhere but at Jack, otherwise he’d be reminded that Jack wasn’t a child anymore. Perhaps he never truly had been. It was a strange thought, and even stranger was the grief it caused. Castiel had never been a child, either. Somehow, this was different.

It took him a minute to realize Jack had stopped eating in favor of looking around, too. Jack’s eyes scanned the groups of families and friends at the tables, then moved to the window next to their booth to watch people bundled in scarves and coats walking down the sidewalk besides the snowbanks. All the small moments of everyday human life. All the things he’d never had.

“I missed Earth,” Jack said, voice a little more somber than before. More wistful. “There are times I want to come back to it, but…” His brow furrowed, not in thought but in emotion.

“But you know, if you do, you won’t want to leave,” Castiel finished for him. He’d often felt the same pull toward the Earth, and he’d often had the same reservations. It was a precarious thing, to be a guardian but only from afar.

Jack’s eyes flicked down to the table. He placed his hands on his lap. “My mother always says I’m special—and I know that’s a good thing. She says it’s a good thing. But, sometimes, I hate it. And I wish I wasn’t. Sometimes, I wish I could be… normal.”

Castiel nodded down at his conjoined hands. More than anything, he wished for that for Jack, too. He wished for that for Dean, and for Sam.

Privately, he wished for that for himself. To have a life with Dean and know that it was his, too, and he wasn’t just an outsider with no claim to human things. To have Jack with them. Or to be a regular angel instead of being constantly on the precipice of making the wrong decision that would affect everyone and everything. To belong to either heaven or Earth, to the humans or the angels—not neither, not somewhere in between the two.

“I understand,” he said. “What you do—what you are… It’s important. You’ve given people on Earth their freedom, and you’ve given them peace in heaven. Jack, I wish you could have those things for yourself.”

“I know,” Jack said, perking up slightly. He picked his fork off the table and speared a jalapeno popper. “But, right now, I have pizza. And a milkshake. And mozzarella sticks. That’s not so bad.”

Castiel couldn’t help but laugh gently at that. “No, it isn’t.”

“Cas?”

He looked up expectantly.

“Those things we give to the humans… Do you ever wish you had them?”

Castiel opened his mouth, ready to deny it. Because it didn’t matter. Because Jack needed him to say no. Jack didn’t need the guilt of an affirmative answer. Jack needed to hear that Castiel had everything he needed, even if Castiel wouldn’t admit that he didn’t have everything he wanted and likely never would. Even if it were possible, his wants were too many. Too conflicting. They weren’t worth dwelling upon.

It was better to lie. To Jack. To Dean. To himself.

But Castiel faltered, unable to get the words out.

Luckily, he was interrupted by their waitress bringing over another plate. “Okay, one appetizer sampler with extra avocado eggrolls,” she said, jostling the plate from one hand to another and she searched for a wide enough gap on the table to set it down. Jack shuffled the dishes around to make room for her.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” she told them, tone mildly concerned.

“Thank you,” Jack said politely, smiling up at her. “You let me know if you need anything, too.”

She shot him a puzzled expression before departing.

Castiel let out an exasperated breath. He watched Jack pick up an eggroll, inspect it, and then stuff it into his mouth in one bite—and, yes, he certainly learned that from Dean.

He also resolved that, tonight, the only thing the waitress needed was a very generous tip.

 

///

 

“Sammy, wake up.”

Sam drew in a sharp breath, consciousness flooding back in. He blinked his eyes open to the lemonade-colored light of the setting sun that surrounded the Impala. They weren’t moving, and Sam couldn’t hear the familiar, comforting rumble of the car’s engine. He figured that meant they were back at the bunker.

He hadn’t even meant to fall asleep, but he wasn’t used to spending so much time in the car anymore. After they left Anael and Bela, the steady rocking of the road and the familiar sound of the classics drifting from the stereo kept making Sam phase in and out of sleep. It was comfort, he guessed—security. The sense of returning home, only his home was the journey and the long miles of road.

He sat up and ran a hand down his face, yawning. There was a crick in his neck. His muscles were sore, his fresh scabs were itching on top of stinging, and all he wanted to do was crawl into his bed and go back to sleep for a long time. “We’re back?”

“Something like that,” Dean answered.

Sam blinked, and it finally occurred to his sleep-sluggish mind to take a look at their surroundings. They were in a neighborhood, filled with rows of houses and yards covered with fluffy, freshly fallen snow. The Impala was parked on a quiet corner, a green street sign beside them marking the crossroads of Elm and Willow.

He knew those streets. He knew this place.

Heart thick in his throat, his head jerked to the left, looking down the adjacent street to a gray-washed house three doors down. The kids were in the front, their puffy winter coats making them look like a pair of plump blueberries. Liam dropped down to the snow and started making a snow angel. Janelle laid down beside him, attempting to copy her brother but not quite understanding how to do it. Rebecca snapped pictures of them.

Then, a snowball hit her shoulder. Sam watched her look to the side and shout something he couldn’t hear. Laughing, Junior came into view from behind the SUV in the driveway. He joined Rebecca in watching their kids.

Sam’s breath came out choppy, fogging the window. For a second, he thought he was still asleep and this was a dream, but he was suddenly too alert for that. He blinked away his hot tears, happiness turning to sorrow before suddenly becoming anger. He turned back to Dean. “Why did you take me here?”

“To see them,” Dean said. “We’re only a couple hours from the bunker. I didn’t know they lived that close.”

Sam shook his head. “Dean—”

“Come on, Sam. He’s your kid! Don’t you wanna let him know you’re here? Meet your granddaughter? Say hi to your grandson?”

Of course, Sam wanted to do all that. But he couldn’t.

“And he’s my nephew. I wanna meet him,” Dean went on. “Tell him good job with that wife of his, too.”

No, Dean. I said I didn’t wanna come here.” Why couldn’t Dean just listen to him for once? He knew Dean meant well, but he didn’t understand. How could he?

“Why not? They’re family, Sam. I’d kill to have grandkids. Closest thing I could ever get to that is grand-puppies.”

“Yeah, and don’t you think it would traumatize them to see their grandpa looking younger than their dad does?”

Dean scoffed. “Right, like we’ve never seen our parents and grandparents when they were younger than us.”

Sam let out a heavy breath, his anger draining from him. He told himself not to look back at Junior, no matter how much he wanted to. “That’s my point, Dean,” he said. “Our lives were messed up.”

“Okay, but he’s a hunter. The monsters know we’re back. What if he finds out you’re back and you didn’t look him up? Won’t he be pissed? I was pissed.”

Sam shot him a withering glare. “I didn’t have a soul, Dean.”

“Exactly! But you do now!”

Sam scrubbed his hands down his face again, half in exhaustion and half in frustration. He wondered what Eileen would say when he told her about this, when he told her he didn’t talk to their son. She’d probably be angry at first, but she’d understand. Eventually.

This wasn’t about her. And it wasn’t about Sam.

“Fine,” Sam said, shifting more to face Dean so he could stem the temptation to turn around. “You wanna know why I don’t wanna see him?”

Dean’s hands were resting on the wheel. His brows shot up and he nodded quickly, like his answer was obvious.

“When we’re done here—with Chuck… We’re going back,” Sam told him. Dean’s gaze hardened, then dropped. “We’re not staying, Dean. He already mourned me and got on with his life. And, what? I’m just supposed to make him go through that again?”

“Maybe you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Dean tried. “Remember when we got Mom back? We finally got to have a relationship with her and it was great.”

“Yeah. And then we lost her again.” Sam knew that was a long time ago now, but Dean wouldn’t forget that pain. And he definitely hadn’t forgotten everything that came after it. “And it was worse than the first time she died.”

Dean swallowed, turning his head to look out the windshield.

Sam sat back in his seat, letting the silence fall heavily around him. He couldn’t help himself. He looked over again, smiling sadly at what he saw. Junior and Rebecca were in the snow now, too, and the four of them were making a snowman.

His smile faded in the glass.

“I can’t do that to him, Dean.”

Dean was chewing on the inside of his cheek thoughtfully, but he didn’t argue.

“Can you just respect my decision on this?” Sam asked.

Dean didn’t say anything. Another long moment passed before he twisted the key in the ignition and the engine turned over. Sam let out a breath—relieved, and maybe a little disappointed that Dean hadn’t tried harder to convince him.

Dean swung the car around to drive down the street away from Junior’s house. Sam craned his neck to look out the back window, watching Junior take off his scarf and wrap it around the snowman’s neck. He watched until the neighboring houses and fences obstructed his view.

 

///

 

It was after dark by the time they pulled off the highway and onto the long dirt road that led to the bunker. About the same time the abandoned powerplant came into view, Dean spotted the red taillights of an old pick-up glowing up ahead. Inwardly, he groaned, because it wasn’t Claire and Kaia’s car and Dean really hoped it wasn’t another hunter looking to stay the night. He was way too tired for company.

But, when they pulled alongside the truck outside the bunker’s door, Cas and Jack got out. Dean cut the Impala’s engine, the rumble of it replaced by the creak of Sam’s door opening.

“Hey,” Dean called over the roof when he got out. “Where were you?”

“Town,” Cas answered. “Jack wanted to see how it had changed.”

“I tried sushi!” Jack declared proudly. And then, “I didn’t like it.”

Sam snorted tiredly and went to the trunk to get his duffle.

“Yeah, ‘cause it’s overpriced crap,” Dean agreed. He met Sam at the back of the car and pulled out his bag, too, then slammed the trunk closed. He figured he could pull the car into the garage in the morning. Slinging his bag over his back, he started toward Cas. Snow and gravel crunched under his boots. On the way, he casted a half-glance at Jack, unable to linger long. “Why’d you drive, anyway? Couldn’t you have just flown?”

Cas shrugged marginally, not giving an explanation past that. He looked between Dean and Sam, sizing up their injuries, and said, “What… happened to you?”

“Long story,” Sam told him.

Cas looked like he was about to argue, but he dropped it. He pressed his fingers to Dean’s forehead, and instantly, Dean’s shoulder felt better. All his bruises and cuts disappeared. Jack did the same thing for Sam, so Dean figured Jack’s strength was back up. Maybe being on Earth, taking a few days to rest up at home, did the trick.

Cas glanced toward Sam and asked, “Did you get the ingredients for the spell?”

Together, the four of them started for the bunker’s door.

“Yeah,” Sam said, patting the side of his duffle. “Wasn’t easy, either.”

“Why?” Jack asked. “Did… they not have them?”

“Longer story,” Sam said while unlocking the door.

Dean slung his arm over Cas’ shoulder and pulled him in close. “Cool story. I got in a high-speed police chase,” he bragged. “And then, I won an illegal street race.”

Cas looked at him sharply, brow lined in dismay. “You what?”

“Don’t get him started,” Sam sighed. The door whined open and he disappeared down the steps. The rest of them followed, and Dean had to let Cas go to fit into the narrow space.

Jack was looking over his shoulder, eyes alight with interest. “Like in the movies?”

“Yeah, except better!” Dean told him while Sam opened the second door into the crow’s nest. “It was awesome. Especially the outrunning the cops part. You shoulda seen it. Move over, O.J.”

Inside the yellow light of the bunker, Jack was giving him an ear-splitting grin. He kept looking over his shoulder to face Dean while they all walked down into the map room. Dean had almost forgotten how excitable Jack could get, like a little puppy, except he could actually ask Dean to recount cool stories.

With his expression so animated and eyes so lively, Jack didn’t look like God. He looked like a kid. Like the kid he was before everything bad went down.

Dean was in the middle of telling Jack about the rugaru he beat in the race when Sam stopped short in the entrance to the library. Immediately, his posture changed into a fighting stance. Dean froze, too, and he felt Cas and Jack do the same.

Sitting in one of the armchairs along the side of the room, a man in an all black suit and a peacoat casually set down his tumbler of whiskey. The bottom of the cut glass clinked gently against the drinks stand.

Voice low and smoky and sounding exactly how Dean remembered, he said, “Hello, boys.”

Chapter Text

Crowley?”

Dean watched Crowley stand up from the armchair and straighten out his suit jacket—as if it was the most casual thing in the world. Like he hadn’t been in the Empty for decades, and Dean hadn’t been in heaven, and the whole damn world wasn’t circling the drain.

He didn’t know why Crowley being alive again was hard to believe. Everyone in that room, himself included, had died and come back time and time again. But Crowley was like a cockroach. He survived and survived and, when he finally died, that was the end of him.

But here he was.

“Is that all?” Crowley asked, mock-offended. “No ‘welcome back, Crowley. We missed you dearly’? No kissing my ring in gratitude for my untimely demise?” He held out his hand like he actually expected someone to drop to their knees and kiss it.

No one moved.

“How are you alive?” Sam asked instead, sounding just as flabbergasted as Dean was.

“Ah, yes,” Crowley said, plucking his whiskey glass up from the stand. He didn't drink. “Well, I suppose I have Chuck Shurley to thank for that. When he came to the Empty to free the angels and take the demons, some of us managed to slip through the cracks and return to Earth.”

Yeah. Like a cockroach.

“I hear he’s making a bid for heaven’s throne again.” Crowley pointed one finger in Jack’s direction. “And this is his competition.”

Dean glanced over his shoulder at Jack. Cas was hovering right next to the kid, eyes like daggers. Actually, Dean was a little surprised Cas didn’t have his blade in hand the second Crowley focused on Jack.

“Crowley,” Jack said, brow furrowed in concentration. “I… remember you. You helped trap my father in Apocalypse World when I was born. Or, you tried to.” He looked at Cas. “Is he a friend?”

“No,” Cas answered emphatically. At the same time, Dean said, “Not exactly.”

Not exactly?” Crowley echoed, really offended that time. “Excuse me, but I happen to remember sacrificing myself for you morons!”

Dean rolled his eyes.

“Many people have sacrificed themselves to save Sam and Dean,” Cas told him matter-of-factly.

Crowley settled somewhat, voice returning to normal volume. “Yes. They have. But I did it with the most dramatic flair.”

Here we go, Dean thought a half second before Cas charged forward. “That is not true. I once—”

“Okay, cool it!” Dean demanded, holding out his hand to catch Cas by the chest before he could say another word. He really couldn’t believe Cas was actually about to go there. He shot him an annoyed look and a silent, seriously?

Cas dropped the slightest amount of tension from his shoulders. He was still glaring ahead at Crowley, who blew him a kiss.

Dean turned his attention back to Crowley. “How’d you know we were back on Earth?”

“One of my crossroad demons reported it to me.”

Dean thought back to the warehouse in Atlanta. The demon security guard who turned tail and ran instead of fighting.

Your demons?” Sam echoed.

Crowley popped his brow, like it was obvious. “Yes. Decades ago, I found myself waking up to the great, vast nothingness of the Empty. As you can imagine, I wasn’t alone. Amongst the fallen angels and demons were a number of my old worker bees. You see, demons—they don’t truly want anything. Just chaos and ruin. But crossroad demons are different. They’re like children. They crave structure. They crave… a daddy. So, I gave them one.”

“Is this pertinent information?” Cas bitched.

“I’m getting there, kitten,” Crowley responded. “In any event, once back on Earth, I learned that mother is Queen of Hell and—no doubt in an attempt to spite me from beyond the grave—folded my old division. There were dozens of crossroad demons wandering the Earth, directionless. They were all too happy to join my burgeoning venture. I may not be King of Hell anymore—” He sipped his whiskey, probably for dramatic effect. “But I’ll always be King of the Crossroads.”

“Okay,” Dean grunted. It was weird, but he’d almost missed having Crowley around. He guessed he hadn’t really realized it until that moment. But it could have just been nostalgia talking. “If they’re not making deals, what are they doing for you?”

“They’re spies.”

“Spies?” Sam prompted.

“I have them in all corners.”

“To what end?” Cas demanded. It sounded more like a threat if he didn’t like the answer.

“To see who comes out on top,” Crowley responded plainly. “Chuck or your boy.”

Dean probably should have seen that one coming.

“Lucky for you, I’m rooting for Jack. And for the universe to stay as it is: the angels in heaven, demons left to their own devices; everyone happy. So, here I am.”

“And what?” Dean asked. “You just stopped in to say hi?”

“Afraid not,” Crowley said after another pull of his drink. He went back to the stand and poured himself another glass of the good stuff. “I have information that may help. And, would you look at that? Here’s me, saving your hides again. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“Crowley,” Sam said curtly, shaking his head in frustration. He must have forgotten how long it took Crowley to get to the point, and his general philosophy of why use one word when a hundred would do. “What information?”

“Chuck is using souls to gain power, yes?” Crowley asked them, not waiting for an answer. “Well, there were rumors in the Empty that suggest those souls are a means to an end. It’s said, before Creation, he hid an emergency supply of his power in the Empty, somewhere no one would ever find it. He’s using the souls to gain enough strength to take the power back.”

Dean searched the floor, letting the information sink in. It was cold and heavy.

“You’re sure?” Sam asked, voice alert now.

“Well… I’ve never seen it myself,” Crowley admitted.

“So, we’re supposed to go off the word of demons?” Cas said.

My demons,” Crowley corrected. “They wouldn’t lie to me, and I wouldn’t have come to you if I wasn’t certain.”

Suddenly, everything was urgent. They were on the clock like never before. They had no idea how much power Chuck needed to get into the Empty, or how close he was to achieving it. And that meant it could have been years, weeks, days. Seconds.

“We have to get it before Chuck does,” Jack said, coming forward. All hints of the little kid he was minutes ago had left him, as if they’d never been there at all. “I can absorb the power so he doesn’t.”

“In the Empty?” Sam said. “Can you… get us there?”

Jack pressed his lips together in thought. Then, “No. I don’t think so. Humans can’t enter the Empty. And I’ve never brought anyone into it. I’ve only taken them out.”

Crowley said, “Then, that settles it. Some preternatural someone goes to the Empty, searches for the power, and Jack takes them back out.”

He said it like it was simple—like they had any idea where the power was in the Empty, like the shadow creature wouldn’t be after them once it found out they were there, like Chuck wasn’t right on their heels.

“You volunteering?” Dean barked.

“After years of wandering around the void? Pass,” Crowley said.

“That leaves only one option.”

Dean’s skin prickled at the sound of Cas’ voice, so determined and resolved. He spun around, not to argue but to dismiss the idea entirely. “No.”

“Dean—”

“No way! Cas, you’re talking about killing yourself!”

There was another way. There had to be. Dean wasn’t letting Cas die again, and he definitely wasn’t letting him go to that place again!

“Temporarily,” Cas reminded him wearily.

“Oh, well, in that case… Double-no! ‘Cause when has anything ever worked out as planned for us?”

“It has to be done.”

“Fuck you. It’s not happening.”

“I’d be with him the whole time,” Jack assured, but it wasn’t comforting. Not in the slightest. “If anything bad happens, I’ll bring him right back. Trust me. Please. I can do this.”

Dean bit down on his jaw, wanting to say no again. His heart was pounding and his chest was too tight, and every instinct in him told him not to trust Jack. Not with this. Not with the life of someone he loved. Not again.

Guilt stabbed at his heart because of it.

He looked at Sam, begging for some back-up. Sam only sighed, ever-trusting. “It’s our best bet,” he reasoned. Then, to Jack, “Of course, we trust you.”

Jack was still looking at Dean like his approval was the only thing that mattered.

Dean’s fists tensed at his sides. He looked hard at Cas again, but Cas didn’t back down. Dean was out-voted, and they were running out of time.

“Damnit!”

 

///

 

“I hate this plan,” Dean said in no uncertain terms.

They’d moved to the bunker’s infirmary, where Cas was sitting upright on one of the narrow beds. Jack stood at his side, and he could feel the uncertainty radiating off Cas’ grace. He wasn’t sure if it was that or Dean’s words that gave him pause about whether or not they should do this. Maybe both. He looked around at Sam, eager for reassurance.

Luckily, he found it in the set of Sam’s jaw. Sam glanced at him quickly, trust in his eyes. But he was nervous, too. Jack could tell. It was in the swirling, muddled colors of his soul. Jack tried not to focus too hard on that.

“We know,” Sam said, tone pinched. “You said that already. A hundred times.”

“Well, I do,” Dean confirmed. Jack kept his eyes averted from him at all costs, not wanting to find any mistrust about Dean. In heaven, Dean seemed happy, and Cas assured Jack over and over again that Dean had left any anger he’d still harbored for Jack on Earth. But things were different now. They were back on Earth—and it was possible Dean had found that animosity again, picking it up from exactly where he’d dropped it.

Jack knew his presence in the bunker complicated that. It always complicated everything.

But he was different now, too. He had control over his powers. He wouldn’t let any of them down.

“Dean, it’s fine. I won’t be gone long,” Cas said, laying back on the bed. He folded his hands over his stomach, already a corpse displayed in a coffin.

And Jack realized it wasn’t the bringing Cas back to life part that worried him. It was this part. Killing him. Even temporarily. It felt wrong.

But Cas looked at him and nodded, letting Jack know he was ready. That he trusted him.

“If you’d rather I kill him, I wouldn’t mind the opportunity,” Crowley butt in from his spot on the stairwell. An observer looking on, he must have read Jack’s hesitation somehow. Jack looked at him, the demon with red smoke shielding his twisted face. He remembered Crowley—vaguely—from when he was still in his mother’s belly. If Sam and Dean trusted him, so would Jack.

Dean and Cas both looked over at Crowley, narrowing their eyes. “Shut up,” they both said, voices overlapping, hostility in Dean’s tone and loathing in Cas’.

Jack wondered if he had to like Crowley on top of trusting him. He guessed not.

“It’s okay, Jack,” Cas assured him, voice gentle once more. It bolstered Jack’s confidence. But, when he hovered his hand over Cas’ forehead, that confidence wavered. His eyes swept up, locking on Dean’s. He waited, not knowing what he was waiting for.

Permission. He didn’t know it until Dean nodded once, telling him to go ahead despite his instincts. Dean was putting his faith in Jack, and that more than anything else doubled Jack’s determination.

“Stand back,” he said. Dean and Sam both stepped away, Dean’s fists balled at his sides, his eyes fixed on Cas.

Jack placed his palm on Cas’ forehead and sent his power forth. It shot through Cas, headed straight for the heart of his grace and burning it out from the inside. He felt it swell and exploded, like a star in supernova. Cas’ body arched, and the light spilled from his eyes. It pulsed once, consuming the room in a ringing hum and a shockwave, and then it abruptly cut out.

The vessel went slack on the bed. Two full-winged scorch marks fanned out, burned into the next bed behind Jack and stretched out to the far wall on the other side.

Quickly, Jack’s eyes snapped to Dean. Dean didn’t even appear to notice. His jaw was locked tightly, hard gaze still on Cas. Jack turned to Sam instead; and Sam, still trying to hide his apprehension, pushed a flimsy smile. “Go, Jack,” he said.

At once, Jack spread his wings and left Earth behind. It was a strange sensation, like it had been the last time, heading into the Empty. Like clogged ears that wouldn’t pop from pressure after a swift descent. Heaven and Earth had so much stimuli—and then suddenly, jarringly, there was nothing.

Jack stared at the vast, endless darkness. Thick to the eyes but thin to the touch. Cas was at his feet, lying supine in the same position he’d died in on Earth.

Jack crouched down and placed his hand on Cas’ shoulder. Again, he sent his power forward, this time to wake Cas up. “Cas,” he said, shaking him gently as if willing him to rise from a nap.

Cas’ eyes fluttered open, seeming to take a second to adjust to the darkness. “Jack,” he said, sitting up. Jack offered his hand, stood up, and pulled Cas to his feet.

For a moment, the two of them remained in place, looking around at the darkness as if they expected to see anything at all.

“What… does it look like?” Jack asked, realizing he had no idea how to find Chuck’s power.

Cas breathed out into the airless void. “Let’s hope we know when we see it.”

It wasn’t reassuring, but it was all they had.

“Can you sense anything yet?”

Jack furrowed his brow, searching inward. He didn’t feel any different, and he definitely didn’t feel a pull of power. “No.”

From the looks of it, Cas deliberately stopped himself from withering. They both knew it wasn’t going to be so easy. But Jack also hadn’t realized how difficult it would be until that moment. He took another sweeping look around at the uniform black without a horizon. Everything looked exactly the same, and the Empty stretched on forever. How would they even find it?

“Where do we start?” he asked, hoping for guidance.

Cas shook his head before catching himself. He turned back to Jack, expression clearly encouraging Jack not to give up hope—so Jack wouldn’t. “Right here.”

It was as good of a place as any, but they couldn’t stay there forever. The Shadow hadn’t realized they were in its realm yet, probably because there were still angels and demons awake in it already, but it was only a matter of time.

“Which way do we go?” he asked, knowing Cas had no idea, either.

Cas glanced around, seeming to pick a direction based on nothing. He clapped Jack on the shoulder, steadying them both. “This way, come on.”

Jack followed him, and kept his senses on the lookout for any twinge of power.

 

///

 

It had been days. Weeks. Months, even! Months since Cas and Jack had left for the Empty. But then Dean tapped on his phone around his wrist, and the clock face informed him it had only been three hours.

He sat in one of the hard metal chairs in the infirmary, having pulled it closer to Cas’ bedside what felt like decades ago. His posture was slouched, elbows digging into his knees, eyes on Cas’ pale face. His expression was serene, like he was asleep—but there was no rise and fall of his chest, and Dean knew he’d be cold to the touch. And that would just be wrong because Cas was usually a furnace. He always warmed up their bed in the winter, and Dean avoided curling up to him like the plague in the humid nights of summer.

And now he was just a hollowed out shell—like he had been way too many times before. All that fire in him burned out, the ashes and scorch marks serving as evidence of that. Dean very pointedly didn’t look at the wings, which meant his eyes kept straying to them with the morbid need to grieve for a guy who was coming back.

Cas always came back. Always. It’d be no different this time. Especially this time. This had been the plan, right?

Dean swallowed down the rock in his throat. He reached out, meaning to blanket his hand over Cas’ resting on his stomach, but he chickened out at the last second. He’d be too cold.

There was a sound in the doorway, a very pointed clearing of a throat. It wasn’t until that exact second that Dean realized he’d been silently praying, even if he hadn’t meant to. A steady stream of, come on, Cas, come back. Get your ass moving and you come back to me.

Cas probably couldn’t hear it in the Empty, anyway, and that was a shitty fucking thought.

He was almost glad for the distraction when he found Crowley, hands in his coat pockets, striding down the steps into the infirmary like he owned the place.

“What do you want, Crowley?”

“Entertainment,” Crowley answered, his voice as smooth as glass. He went over to the table at the base of the stairs and placed his hand on another chair there. “I just spent the better part of a half-century wandering an endless void. But this?” He held up one finger, indicating their current situation. “Much duller.”

Dean turned away from him, playing at more annoyance than he actually felt. He didn’t have room for any emotion other than worry. He thought he might actually start wringing his hands. He hated not being there, in the Empty, with Cas—helping. Doing anything at all.

Crowley dragged the chair over with an obnoxious, prolonged scrape of metal against tile. Dean huffed, turning his eyes heaven-bound for strength. When Crowley situated the chair on the opposite side of the bed, he didn’t immediately sit in it. He leaned over Cas, inspecting his unmoving form for a second. Then, he raised his hands and clapped twice, loudly, in Cas’ face. As expected, Cas gave no reaction.

“Ah, truly alone, then,” Crowley reported.

“Stop it!” Dean demanded, trying to swat Crowley away but his hand only hit air. Crowley plopped down in his seat, seemingly settling in to join Dean’s small vigil. “What are you even still doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be in—I dunno—hell?”

Crowley gave an indignant sound as he wrapped the ends of his coat over his knees so they wouldn’t sweep the floor. “Why the hell would I want to go back to hell?”

Dean shrugged, kind of just figuring it was a given. “Your mom’s queen now.”

“And, as far as I’m concerned, she can keep the job. It’s thankless.”

“Last I talked to her, she seemed to love it.” Of course, that had been a long time ago. Even longer in hell. Rowena might have hated it, too, by now.

“She would,” Crowley said, seeming disinterested. “I haven’t forgotten Mother’s ego. I’m certain she believes she was born to be queen.”

“Yeah, reminds me of someone,” Dean countered.

Crowley let the comment slide. Instead he asked, “What about you?”

Dean shook his head. “What about me?”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than watch over lover boy here?” He indicated Cas with his eyes.

He was teasing, but the words still put a chokehold on Dean’s heart. “Probably.”

“Then, shall we?” Crowley said, already standing up.

Dean didn’t move. If anything, he planted his ass more firmly on the chair. He looked down, not so much staring at Cas as he was averting his eyes from Crowley. But he felt Crowley assessing him, hovering there halfway to a stand and halfway to a sit.

“My god. He really is lover boy,” Crowley mused, apparently deciding to sit back down. Dean bit down on his jaw, keeping his eyes on Cas. After a pause, Crowley kept talking: “Not that watching the two of you dance around each other for so long wasn’t a particularly sadistic form of torture for everyone involved—but him? Seriously?” His voice went up a few octaves, like it always had when he was surprised.

Dean wasn’t in the mood to be needled. He shot Crowley a dull glare.

Crowley didn’t exactly hum, but he did give the barest of thoughtful sounds. And then, “What’s it like?”

Dean jerked his head back, because there was no way Crowley was asking what he thought he was asking. “What?”

Crowley rolled his eyes regally. “Heaven. I have no interest in your love life.”

Dean settled, because thank god. “What, no one ever described it to you?”

“Of course, they have. But I’m asking you. Dean Winchester. I would have thought eternal paradise would have had you clawing your own hair out from boredom after a week.”

He had no idea how right he was.

Dean didn’t know what his face was doing, but something in it must have given him away. Crowley popped a brow, leaning in with interest. “So, it’s true? You are bored?”

“I’m not—”

“Please.” Crowley held up a hand to silence him. “Save me from the faux indignation and denials. It’s your old pal Crowley, remember?”

Dean wanted to keep denying, but he guessed it was no use. His eyes flickered back down to Cas briefly, just to make sure he was still out. When he was sure of it, he said, “After him and the kid took over, they changed everything around upstairs. It’s not separate people going through their memories forever. It’s… real.” It didn’t feel like the right word, even if it was. “Like Earth—except no monsters, no demons. Only angel I see anymore is him. And everyone’s there, together. My family, friends. We got a house, a dog.” He shouldn’t have sounded so damn miserable. “Everything I ever wanted.”

“A dangerous thing to have,” Crowley said knowingly. Dean guessed he did know. Crowley had the throne of hell once, and ever since he got the job, he hated every second of it. Maybe there was something to be said of the fight, not just the winning.

Dean laughed—a quick, dry thing, because it wasn’t funny in the slightest. He rubbed at his eye, trying to stifle the headache he hadn’t even realized he had. “Man, some days, I just wanna shoot something.”

“Of course, you do!” Crowley answered with gusto. “You’re Dean Bloody Winchester! What’s the alternative? Waiting for feathers to get home from the office, prepared to hand him his smoking pipe and slippers? That doesn’t sound like you.”

It wasn’t like that. Except, it was kind of like that.

Sometimes, it still felt like he and Cas were just playing house. One day, they’d return to the real world.

“Ever since we got back to Earth, he keeps thinking I don’t wanna be here,” Dean said. Now that he started, he couldn’t stop himself. It actually felt good getting this off his chest. Sam knew, but he didn’t understand. Dean didn’t expect Crowley to understand, either, but at least Crowley wouldn’t hover over him, watching Dean’s every move with sympathy. “When, really, I dunno if I wanna go back. It’s not like I got a choice, right? But, I swear, if I have to go to one more neighborhood barbecue…”

Crowley’s forehead lined in agreement. “Kind of makes you miss hell.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” But at least there was something to do in hell. At least, in hell, he was still in the thick of it, fighting and surviving. In heaven, he wasn’t even on the sidelines. “I did miss Earth, though,” he admitted.

Crowley nodded, staring off into the middle distance, and Dean realized that spending so long awake in the Empty probably meant Crowley could relate.

Dean let out a breath, feeling a little lighter for it. And a little heavier. He looked back down at Cas. “And I can’t tell him any of this.”

“So, you’d rather fake it for the rest of time to make him happy by thinking you’re happy?”

Yes.

“No, it—” Dean clamped his mouth shut, deciding to try again by avoiding the question entirely. “He’s just giving me what he thinks I deserve.”

Crowley sat back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other and giving Dean one of his looks that seemed to either suggest I know you better than you know yourself or you stupid idiot. Simply, he asked, “Don’t you?”

And Dean honestly wasn’t sure how to answer that.

“Huh,” Crowley mused. “Maybe you don’t.”

Dean’s expression immediately shifted into offense. “Okay. Thanks. That’s not a fucked up thing to say at all!”

“Come off it,” Crowley said coolly. “It was an observation, not an insult. You know how vengeful spirits are made.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Unfinished business and all that.”

Dean wasn’t connecting the dots. “I’m not a vengeful spirit.”

“You know there’s more than one type of ghost.”

And Dean did know it. All too well. It was the kind of ghost that couldn’t be salted and burned. The kind that didn’t have bones, only teeth. Only blood.

“And what’s my unfinished business, huh?” he challenged, secretly hoping that Crowley had an answer.

But Crowley only shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I only came in here because there was nothing on telly.”

It should have pissed Dean off, but he found himself chuckling. He shook his head into it, looking downward.

“What? Don’t tell me you almost missed me?” Crowley asked smugly, reading Dean’s mind.

Still with a hint of humor on his face, Dean told him, “Not even close.”

Crowley didn’t exactly smile, but Dean was pretty sure he got his meaning.

 

///

 

“Do you sense anything yet?” Castiel asked, voice hushed. He was keeping ever vigilant for any sign of movement in the darkness, but he chanced a look at Jack beside him.

Jack had his palm held out in front of him, scanning it slowly from side to side as he sent his power forth as far as he dared. They’d done this before, when Jack first found Castiel in the Empty after he’d taken on Chuck’s power. But finding angels was much easier, and had taken a fraction of the time. It might have been minutes altogether.

This, on the other hand, stretched out into eons and ages.

“I’m not sure,” Jack said, tone tight with concentration. “It’s not like last time. There was… so much then. Now, there’s nothing.”

Castiel nodded. There were still angels and demons walking around the Empty—somewhere out there—but it was much more vacant after Chuck took who and what he needed.

“What about the Entity?”

Jack dropped his arm. “I’m not sure. I don’t think it knows we’re here. I’m shielding us, but—”

“But this is it’s realm,” Castiel finished for him, understanding. Navigating the Empty unseen had been easier last time, too, with so many conscious beings distracting the Shadow. They didn’t have that luxury this time.

“Keep trying,” Castiel told him, hoping it was encouraging.

Jack nodded, and they continued walking.

Before they could get far, footsteps sounded behind them, and Castiel knew whoever was there must have been close. The Empty swallowed up sound, choked it down whole with no hope of escape. To have heard anything at all, the newcomer must have been breathing down his neck. He could feel it, almost—that breath. The presence. It made his skin bump in a human, evolutionary reaction.

Unlike any human, he gathered his grace to his fingertips, feeling it crackle with warning. Jack must have felt the new presence, too, because as he gathered his power, there was a shift in the void that became almost stifling—like air pressure building before a thunderstorm.

Castiel whipped around, instantly latching onto a figure in the dark. It walked forward, boots sending ripples across the black mirror beneath them. Her blonde hair stood out like a sore thumb.

Castiel’s throat constricted. The Shadow had found them. He placed himself in front of Jack like a shield, and wished he had his blade to defend them.

The figure moved closer, cocking the head of its familiar visage. “Castiel?” it asked, as if it were surprised to see him. There was no menace in the voice. Just surprise.

Castiel squinted, not letting his guard down.

The creature wearing Meg Masters' face got closer, then stopped in front of him, folding its arms over its chest. “What’s the matter?” it asked, raising a brow. A sideways smirk pulled at its lips. “Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me. I’ll get offended.”

Despite himself, the weight in Castiel’s chest was lifting—slowly, cautiously. It left behind confusion. He blinked, adjusting his vision to look beyond his vessel’s eyes. There was a face hidden just under the visage before him. It was twisted by hell, monstrous.

It was the face of a friend.

“Meg?” he asked, hardly able to believe it. He let his grace slide back into place, disarming it just enough to be wary of any other threats. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Of all the angels and demons in the Empty, he hadn’t expected to see her. “I thought you were—”

“Who? That poser who stole my face?” she cut in. “Guess again. It’s Britney, bitch.”

He shook his head, both relieved that they hadn’t been found by the Empty and happy to see Meg again. Behind him, Jack shifted, which reminded Castiel to introduce him. Castiel swiveled around to indicate him and said, “This is Jack. Jack, this is—”

“A demon,” Jack said matter-of-factly.

“A friend,” Castiel told him. “Meg.” He shot Jack a look, silently expressing that she was trustworthy.

Jack seemed to understand. He turned his attention to Meg and said, “Hello.”

“Hey,” Meg said, a hint of interest in her tone. When Castiel looked back at her, she asked, “And who’s Jack?”

She was asking about their relation. It was a little hard to explain and they didn’t have the time at present. “He’s…” Castiel began, fishing for a succinct descriptor. He said, “God.”

At the same moment, Jack supplied, “I’m Castiel’s son.”

Meg blanched. “Your son is God?” she exclaimed. “Why am I not surprised?”

“It’s a long story,” Castiel told her. “But, Meg, you’re… awake?” Some of the disbelief filled him again.

“Still pointing out the obvious, huh, Clarence?”

“Who’s Clarence?” Jack asked haltingly.

“Wow, he really is your kid.”

Castiel turned back and forth between them, knowing there wasn’t time for an explanation. They shouldn’t stay in the same place for long, or else the Shadow might sense them.

“So, what? You two are dead, too?” Meg asked.

“I am. Temporarily,” Castiel said, and it occurred to him that Meg might be able to help. If she’d been awake all this time, wandering the void, she may have known where Chuck’s power could be. Or, like Crowley, she might have at least known about it. It was a start.

“We’re looking for something,” he said, hope tugging at him dangerously. “The former God, Chuck—”

“Chuck, the prophet moonlighting as a hack writer?” Meg interrupted.

“Yes. No—It—” He tried not to get frustrated. That would only waste more time. “He wasn’t actually a prophet. He was only pretending to be one. It’s believed there’s a reservoir of his power here in the Empty. Crowley told us.”

Meg huffed. “Crowley. There’s a guy you can trust.”

Of course. Crowley had killed Meg. She hated him, and Castiel couldn’t blame her. Perhaps he shouldn’t have mentioned Crowley’s involvement. She might not want to help. Castiel, in fact, barely wanted to work with him again.

“So, what? That smarmy bastard finds a way out of here and decides to tell you about a major power up out of the goodness of his own heart?”

When she said it like that, it sounded even worse than it was. But Crowley had changed since Meg last met him. Castiel hated to admit it, but he was an ally. “It’s difficult to explain, but I trust his intel. We need to find the power before Chuck does so Jack can take it on.”

Meg placed her hands on her hips, pinching her lips tightly in thought. After a second, she hummed, seemingly having decided to help them. “This God power,” she said. “It look anything like a big ball of white light?”

Castiel had never seen it, but it had to be the power. There was no light in the Empty.

“You’ve seen it?” Jack asked, determination in his voice.

“Once,” Meg said. “Made my skin crawl. It was so… good.” An exaggerated shiver rocked her spine.

“Can you take us to it?” Castiel hoped.

She seemed to consider it again. Slowly, she walked a half-circle around them, coming to an abrupt halt with a click of her heels coming together. “Everything around here looks the same. But, once you get used to it, you kinda pick up on things. Yeah, I think I can get you there. Or at least, the general vicinity.”

Castiel inhaled in relief, the thick black nothingness filling his lungs. It was at once too-hot and freezing cold.

Jack said, “I should be able to sense it when we’re close.”

“Don’t worry, sport. I can get you close,” Meg said with a wink at Jack. She turned around again and began to walk. “Follow me.”

 

///

 

Castiel didn’t know how long they’d been walking. It could have been seconds, or hours. It could have been weeks back on Earth. Like it did in heaven, time worked differently in the Empty. But it wasn’t the same. In heaven, time happened all at once—or, at least, it had before Jack modeled it to work like it did on Earth, but the lack of constraint remained in heaven’s center. In the Empty, however, the hands of the clock were tied behind its back, desperately writhing to free itself of its restraints.

Meg got them close, and eventually Jack was able to feel the presence of Chuck’s power. He began to lead the way. As they drew closer, Castiel began to feel a current pulling under his skin. His grace reached out toward the power, drawn like an arrow to true north. He followed Jack, knowing they were on the right path. At the same time, he kept his eyes searching the flat, endless darkness, looking for signs of movement. None came.

He also spoke with Meg. She walked at his side, listening and cutting in to say crude comments as Castiel caught her up on the events that happened since her death.

“So, let me get this straight,” she said. “You got all the angels kicked out of heaven, became human, angel-ed up again, died like six hundred times—” he couldn’t help but breathe out a laugh at that, “adopted the son of Lucifer and a Republican with the Hardy Boys, defeated God, and then your kid became God? And you run heaven? That sound like a good recap?”

Her shoulder bumped into his every now and again as they walked. Castiel glanced forward again, making sure Jack was still in sight. Jack paused briefly to look around, and then kept walking again, like a canine catching a scent.

“It is… a good recap,” he confirmed.

She scoffed out a sardonic laugh. “Sounds like fun. I’ve been walking around this living hell for the last fifty years looking for a way out.” It was said as a joke, but there was a bitterness running beneath it.

Being trapped in the shadows for that long was enough to drive anyone insane—but, even before that, as she slept, he knew she was reliving her regrets. He wondered what those were.

Guilt twisted Castiel’s insides. He pressed his lips together and looked at her remorsefully. “I’m sorry, Meg,” he said. “If I had known you were awake the last time I was here, I would have sent you back to Earth.” At least he could do that now. Jack would send her back.

“Whatever,” she answered tersely. “Not like you were looking for demons, right?” He wondered if she meant that as forgiveness.

“No, I wasn’t.”

“Even though me dying was kind of your fault,” she said, and he wasn’t certain how she came to that conclusion. Possibly because she was helping them when she died. “Kinda mine, too. I used to eat Sam and Dean for breakfast, and then I helped them?” She shook her head at the irony of it. “And then they won Crowley over, too. Does everyone go gaga for you three?”

Castiel supposed she had a point. Rowena had once called it Winchester Derangement Syndrome. Sam and Dean did have a knack for converting their enemies to friends. Castiel wasn’t sure he could say the same of himself, though.

“Don’t know what I was thinking, getting myself killed to buy the three of you some time.”

He wondered if that was her biggest regret.

“Well, in fairness,” Castiel said, “I’ve died for Sam and Dean, too. Six hundred times.”

She snorted, her laugh more genuine now. He couldn’t help but feel like he’d accomplished something.

When he glanced over at her, she was already searching his profile, assessing him. He frowned.

“You’re different,” she mused. “And I don’t mean in the totally hot, DILF power-up way,” she added, gesturing forward to Jack.

Castiel’s frown lines evened out somewhat. He brought his eyes ahead again, watching Jack. Meg was right. He had changed. “Yeah. I guess you could say I’ve, as the humans call it, settled down.”

“Yeah, right, Castiel. You’re the poster-child for the all-American dream,” she chided. “A kid, a steady 9-to-5? All you need now is a ‘50s sitcom housewife to cook you pork roasts.”

Castiel smiled down at his shoes, watching the dark matter rippled out under him like a stone skipped on the water. Tilting his head back again, he considered, “Dean does make an excellent pork roast.” Or so he was told.

Meg gasped sharply, throwing her arm out to stop him. Castiel stopped immediately, looking at her with his brow furrowed in confusion. She was grinning a wide, teasing grin. “No way!”

Before she could get any further, Jack called, “Cas! Meg! I think I got something!”

The two of them shared an urgent look before catching up to Jack. He was standing still now, his palm remaining outreached. “It’s… power. God power,” Jack said. “But it doesn’t feel like Chuck’s.”

That was impossible. It had to be Chuck’s. No one else had that level of power.

Except…

“It…” Jack said, splaying and straining his fingers. Suddenly, a pinprick of white light pierced through the darkness. It pulsed and was pulled forward by Jack’s command. As it drew close, it became roughly the size of a basketball. The white and blue of it swirled around each other. Castiel squinted against it—pure, powerful, humming energy. Beside him, Meg stepped backward and shielded her eyes with her arm.

Jack dropped his arm, breath coming out choppy.

He said, “It feels like Amara.”

Castiel’s eyes widened, the implications of it being Amara’s power dawning on him.

And then, “Castiel!”

He looked around quickly, already on high alert from the panic in Meg’s voice. She was bent over, tugging at one knee with both hands. She didn’t budge. Castiel’s gaze trailed downward—to the sickly black tendrils reaching up from below her and wrapping around her boots, her calves, up and up.

“Get it off!” she called as it quickly consumed her torso.

“Meg!” Castiel tried to rush toward her, but his feet were stuck. He looked down, finding his shoes covered in black goo.

“Cas,” Jack said, cold with fear. It struck Castiel in his center, and nothing mattered more. Behind him, Jack’s feet were glued, the same as Castiel’s.

The Shadow had found them.

The tendrils of tar were around Meg’s face now, moving and undulating, the white light of energy shining off of it.

There was a squelching sound as, to Meg’s right, more of it reached upward, whirling around itself and creating a shape. A body, shoulders, a head. Color bled into it as the Shadow mimicked a form. When the last of the black oozed away, Castiel was staring back into his own face.

The Shadow grinned crookedly. “Well, now,” it sang. “Looky what I’ve got here.”

 

///

 

“Dean, relax,” Sam tried, even though he knew it was futile.

Relax? It’s been eleven hours!”

Sam shifted in his seat at the table and bit down on what he wanted to say. It’s not that he didn’t agree with Dean. Jack and Cas were gone way too long. He was worried something bad happened. But saying all that out loud wouldn’t make Dean stop chewing his nails and pacing the infirmary. Saying it out loud definitely wouldn’t calm Sam’s own nerves, either.

Jack said he’d get them out of there at the first sign of trouble. Granted, it was Jack and Cas, so Sam didn’t believe that promise for a second; but he trusted them both enough to get back in one piece.

It wasn’t just the people in that room depending on them. It was every plane of existence.

“The Empty’s a big place,” Sam reasoned. “Maybe they’re still looking.”

Dean stopped pacing. “I don’t care! We gotta—I dunno, wake him up!”

Sam glanced over at Crowley sitting on the stairs. Crowley had his elbow propped on his knee, his fingers splayed over one side of his face, looking both bored and exasperated. He didn’t offer any help. Sighing, Sam slapped his arm back down on the table beside him. “How, Dean?” he asked, some of his frustration slipping into his tone despite his best efforts. He was exhausted. They both were.

“I dunno!” Dean yelled again.

“Look, just—” Without him meaning to, his eyes slid over to where Cas was still laying, lifeless, wings scattered into ash, on the bed. He snapped his gaze away, hating to see his friend like that. And, for a second, everything that was riding on the success of this mission wasn’t important. Making sure Jack and Cas were alright was the only thing that mattered.

His internal battle pushed back with reason, reminding him to have faith in them.

“Give them one more hour,” he said, trying to placate Dean. “Just one more hour and, if they still aren’t back… we’ll look for a way to get them out.”

They wouldn’t find it. They couldn’t get into the Empty. If there was a way, Sam would have found it in research all those years ago after Cas was taken. It hadn’t been for a lack of trying. It had been because there was no viable way.

Dean knew that. But maybe hope kept him quiet. He continued pacing.

Sam sent up a silent prayer to Jack to hurry up.

 

///

 

The power radiating from the pulsing ball of light resonated through Jack. He could feel it inside, flowing through him, drawing energy from it. But it didn’t stop there. It rushed like a stream toward one particular place in the back of his head, a space he’d carved out to keep Amara comfortable.

But now, she was inching forward, pushing her way to the front to meet the surge of power. The opposing forces snapped at his synapsis in quick, electric shocks.

He tried to focus on what was happening outside of him: his feet stuck to the ground, Cas trapped, too, Meg consumed by bubbling black, and the Shadow grinning malevolently with Cas’ face. Jack tried to free his foot physically. When that didn’t work, he attempted to fight back with magic, but Amara was using all of it.

Stop, he begged her.

I can help, her voice echoed back, not so much an auditory sound. He knew what she’d said before it consciously processed in his head.

Meanwhile, the Shadow had begun to circle them. “If it isn’t the king and his noble knight,” it said snidely. Its voice didn’t even sound like Cas’. Then, shaking its head, it tutted. “I would have thought better of you two now. Will you ever learn from your mistakes? No… No. And that’s why he’ll win.”

“He’ll?” Cas said, turning his head this way and that to follow the Shadow.

Chuck. God. Whatever you want to call him.”

Jack glared at the creature. “It’s not his power.”

Inside, Amara was reaching out.

The Shadow laughed as it came to a stop in front of them again. “I’m sorry. You think I care whose power it is? Chuck’s, Amara’s. It’s all the same to me. I told him the same thing when he first stowed the power here—without my permission, by the way. Sneaky.” It stepped closer to Jack, eyes fixed on the light. “All because he didn’t want to share his toys.”

Let me out, Amara demanded.

“What toys?” Cas said quickly, regaining the creature’s attention.

It spun around, stomping back to Cas. From over its shoulder, Jack made brief eye contact with Cas, and he understood what was happening. Cas was trying to distract the Shadow, to buy time for Jack.

Jack, let me out.

“Oh, Castiel,” the Shadow said. “Haven’t you ever wondered why Chuck has the power to both create and destroy, but Amara only has one of those things?”

Jack let that information wash over him. Inside, Amara was thrashing to be free—but she’d never been free. Chuck took away her choice again and again.

And Jack was doing the same thing to her now.

“She wasn’t always the Darkness,” Cas said, expression pinched in realization.

“Ding, ding!” the Shadow mocked. “What he left here is pure Light. And that’s why he needs it. He needs the light back in order to win. And he will win.”

Cas jerked forward, but his feet were still caught. “What did he promise you?”

“Peace and quiet,” it said. “Something you—” it pointed a stern finger in Cas’ face, and then toward Jack, “and you took from me.” Then, fluttering its fingers in a grand gesture, “He comes back, takes all the angels and demons, takes his power, and I get to go back to sleep. At long last.”

Jack exhaled deeply, letting his body relax.

Amara.

“No,” Cas said firmly. “I won’t let you. Not unless you let us go now.”

The Shadow walked a few paces backward, laughing again. “No. No, you see, Castiel, unlike you, I do learn from my mistakes. I may not be able to put you to sleep—but I can shut you up.”

It waved its hand and, at once, the blackness around Cas’ feet began moving up his legs, like it had for Meg.

“Cas!” Jack yelled, panic taking over him for a second.

“Jack, fight him!” Cas called as the sludge rose higher and higher at an alarming pace. “Get back to Sam and Dean. Tell them the power isn’t Chuck’s.”

No. Jack wouldn’t leave him. He could stop this.

Amara could stop this.

“And tell Dean—Tell him…” For a flash, pain and sorrow passed over Cas’ eyes, even if he tried to hide it. And then, calm. “Tell him to listen to the mourning doves.”

Jack wouldn’t do that. He wasn’t letting Dean down again, and he wasn’t losing Cas. He couldn’t. They were all he had.

He skewed his eyes closed and focused hard on clearing his mind, stamping down the anxiety, creating a pathway for Amara.

Amara.

She pushed forward, following the pull of power.

You’re free.

Jack’s eyes flew open, yellow light ringing his pupils. Dark smoke came forward from his chest, twirling through the air and forming a shape. And then, there was Amara.

She looked forward at the Shadow, brow lined, eyes flickering from it, to Meg, to Cas with the blackness climbing up his chest. Finally, her gaze landed on the ball of energy.

Jack felt dizzy. He shook his head, trying to adjust to the empty space in his head that Amara used to occupy. Without her, his powers were unrestrained, flowing through his veins like blood to a dead limb. They grew stronger, but it hurt.

“No,” the Shadow breathed out, shaking its head at Amara, knowing there was nothing it could do now. Knowing it had lost.

Amara, holding up her palm, stepped closer to the light. Her eyes slipped closed, and her hand connected to it. It bled into her, the white-blue glow growing brighter and brighter until it overtook her. And then it faded.

“No!” the Shadow yelled, a child throwing a tantrum.

Amara turned to it sharply. “Enough,” she commanded, raising her hand again. The imitation of Cas’ face immediately turned back into the black sludge. The Shadow sank back into the ground slowly, squelching and bubbling. Amara had given it what it wanted. It was asleep again.

Jack looked down at his sneakers. They were free. He lifted one leg, testing it out. Smiling, he looked at Cas, watching the tendrils release him. Cas breathed out heavily and looked down at his hands. Across from him, Meg was freed, too. She swayed unsteadily before catching her balance.

“What’d I miss?” she muttered deliriously.

Jack brought his attention back to Amara, his smile growing. “Thank you for saving us.”

Amara lifted her chin in acknowledgement. She looked at each of them in turn, and they looked back. Then, without a word, she raised her hand again.

Jack braced himself for flight.

Amara snapped her fingers.

 

////

 

This was officially taking too long. Dean knew, logically, that Cas and Jack were searching an entirely different realm—literally walking around in the dark—looking for Chuck’s power, but it was taking too damn long.

He was still in the infirmary, pacing incessantly and biting his thumbnail down to the nub. Cas was still motionless on the bed—pale and dead, and it gave Dean way too many flashbacks of Cas’ cold body. He’d hoped he’d never have to see that sight again but, apparently, Cas’ solution to the trolley problem always would be to blow up the fucking trolley while he was still inside it.

Sam was on the chair, his leg bouncing, showing he was getting impatient, too. Crowley was leaning against the wall, inspecting his fingernails like he was bored to death.

Dean had half a mind to stab Crowley back into the Empty just so he could tell Cas and Jack to hurry the fuck up.

And then, the silence in the room was abruptly broken. Cas dragged in a deep breath, jerking upright. Sam jumped to his feet. Dean bolted, at Cas’ side in a fraction of a second. “Cas? Cas!” He put one hand on Cas’ shoulder to steady him, his other wrapping around Cas’ hand—and Dean didn’t know if that was for Cas’ benefit or if he was steadying himself.

Cas blinked into the light. Catching his breath, he looked up at Dean and nodded, showing he was alright. Physically, he seemed fine. He flexed his free hand, re-aligning with his vessel. His eyes still looked too a little too distant for Dean’s liking. Haunted.

Vaguely, Dean was aware of Sam calling Jack’s name, and Jack saying, “I’m okay.” He’d appeared in the space between the beds, and Sam was grasping Jack’s shoulder.

Dean glanced up at him, briefly catching his eye before Jack turned his attention to the center of the room. Sam followed his gaze, jolting in a mix of surprise and defense. Dean snapped his gaze over, too, and found two faces he never thought he’d ever see again.

“Amara?” he said, gaping. And then, with a little more confusion, “Meg?”

Meg was picking herself up from the tile floor. She slapped at the elbows of her leather jacket like she was getting dust off of them, meanwhile tossing Dean a bro-nod in greeting. “Hey,” she said—casually. And, at this point, why the hell not?

“Dean,” Amara greeted, her stern voice instantly commanding Dean’s attention. His chest was doing the weird tightening thing it always did when she was around. A strange cocktail of wariness, shame, and fascination.

Amara didn’t linger on him long. Her eyes scanned the room, first landing on Sam. Then they went to Crowley, her cold expression turning marginally hostile. “Uncle Crowley.”

“Hello, poppet,” Crowley said smoothly. “It’s been too long.”

“Not long enough.”

Meg snorted in approval. “Okay, I like her.”

Dean gritted his teeth, his hand clenching Cas’ where they hung conjoined at his side. He guessed Cas had found Meg in the Empty and decided to put her back on the chessboard, the damn sap.

“Charming as ever,” Crowley told Meg.

Before they could keep going, Sam said, “Amara, how… Why are you here?”

“She saved us,” Jack told the room in general. “The creature in the Empty found us. Amara put it back to sleep.”

“What?” Dean said, shocked. “The rest of the angels and demons there, too?”

Amara tilted her head downward in something of a nod.

Jack continued to explain, “We found the God power, but it wasn’t Chuck’s. It was hers. I unbound us and she absorbed it.”

“What do you mean, it was hers?” Sam asked before Dean could.

“I remember now,” Amara told them, recapturing all the eyes in the room. Her face was twisted in thought, gaze pointed downward. “Before my brother locked me away, but after he created the archangels… He took some of my power from me and hid it.”

“Why?” Sam asked.

“It was pure creation. He didn’t want me to have that.”

Sam let out a surprised breath. He lifted his arm up in a sweeping gesture. “He let you keep the power to destroy what he created, but not to create anything yourself?”

It seemed like either really bad planning or a really insecure ego to Dean. “So what, Chuck was cool with you stomping on his sandcastles as long as you didn’t have a bucket and shovel?”

Amara opened her eyes wider in confusion. “That means nothing to me,” she said. “But yes… to what your brother said.”

“But why?” Sam said. “If he wanted that power all to himself, why not absorb it?”

“Because he couldn’t,” Amara said. “Not without destroying himself. He left me with the Darkness and took the Light. If he’d tried to absorb one without the other, he would be unbalanced. It’s why he hid my creation powers instead of destroying them, because doing so would have killed me and caused everything to collapse in on itself. Chuck couldn’t have the power, but it had to still exist. There must be balance—in the universe, but also in ourselves.”

Dean let that sink in, a thought occurring to him. “Hang on. Are you saying… if Chuck took all of your powers, he could keep the balance himself? The universe doesn’t need the two of you?”

“Yes,” Amara said.

Dean shared a heavy look with Sam, even though neither of them knew what to do with that information.

“But now you have your full power back?” Cas said, voice still rough from disuse. “That means you and Jack will be able to defeat Chuck.”

“Not yet,” Amara said, effectively causing all Dean’s hopes to crash and burn. “That was only a small portion of my power. The rest of it must still be hidden. It will be in pieces. Judging by what I’ve regained, I’d say there are four others left.”

“Where?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know. They’re hidden.

Dean huffed, trying not to roll his eyes at that.

Sam’s expression pulled in a question. He leveled a palm in the air and asked, “Wait. If you need balance but that was only a piece of your creation powers, how are you... alive?”

“It’s my power. I didn’t have to steal it from my brother. As long as it exists, I exist—it doesn’t matter the form it takes. It will be different for Chuck to take it on.”

“Hence the souls,” Crowley mumbled thoughtfully, again leaning against the wall.

“Yes,” Amara confirmed. “They act as a ballast. He can’t take on my power until he has enough strength to counterbalance it.”

Sam breathed out in the way he did when he had an idea. Eyes shifting back and forth in thought, he said, “That gives us time. If Chuck’s not strong enough yet, we could—could find the rest of Amara’s power before he can get to it.”

Dean thought the plan over. It could work.

For the first time since they got back to Earth, they actually had something that could work.

But it was easier said than done. Who the hell knew where the other parts of Amara’s power could be? They could be on fucking Jupiter, for all Dean knew.

“He’ll have sensed the shift in the power,” Amara said then. “He likely knows I’ve reclaimed it. He’ll want to steal it from me.”

Amara was far from defenseless, but they couldn’t risk it. “Then you go back into hiding. Back where Jack stuffed the angels,” Dean told her, and she seemed to agree. Nothing in her expression changed, and she didn’t say anything, but Dean took that to mean she agreed.

“That won’t last forever,” Jack reminded them, walking away from Sam to stand next to Amara. It was kind of a bizarre sight, seeing them side-by-side. The Gods of the universe. Jack was just a kid.

No. Not just a kid. He never had been, Dean reminded himself.

Jack finished, “When Chuck gets stronger, he’ll be able to find us. But we can hold him off.” He looked at Amara. “Together.” And then, his eyes went solely to Cas. “I have to return with her.” It was like Jack was asking permission, except his eyes were a little too soft for that. He was hoping one of them would say no.

But they couldn’t. They needed Amara protected, and this was the best course of action. They all knew it.

Cas sighed, seeming pained by the thought of it. He nodded to Jack, more accepting than allowing it. His hand was still in Dean’s.

Jack and Amara joined hands, and Amara said, “When you find my power, call for Jack.” She was looking at Dean, so Dean answered with a nod of his own. Then, there was a quick pulse of white light from Jack and Amara. It built until it consumed them. When it faded, they were gone.

For a while, no one moved. No one spoke.

And then Crowley stood up from the wall. “Well, this has been a productive day—”

Dean knew that tone of voice. He looked sharply at Crowley and ordered, “You’re not going anywhere.”

“We’re gonna need help finding the power,” Sam agreed.

“Yeah, count me out,” Meg said, stepping forward to where Jack and Amara had disappeared. “I signed up for the apocalypse way back when, remember? Fun times. I didn’t sign up for God power.”

Dean almost told her to get lost, if that’s how she felt. But they needed as many hands on deck as they could get. “Too bad. We got you out of the Empty. You owe us.”

“First of all, who’s we? Didn’t know you were French, Dean-o,” Meg shot back. “Secondly, anyone want to remember how I ended up in the Empty in the first place? Saving your asses—from him, by the way.” She shot her arm out in Crowley’s direction, seeming offended by his very presence—which was probably fair. “So happy you honored my memory.”

Cas glanced up at Dean. “She has a point.”

Dean’s cheeks dimpled, really not in the mood to deal with Cas’ attitude toward Crowley right now. Or his tendency to take Meg’s side. He got back on topic instead. “Crowley’s on board.”

“Am I?” Crowley asked.

Dean glared at him. “Yes! If you wanted to stay out of it, you wouldn’t even have come here in the first place.”

Crowley titled his head to the side and settled, unable to argue.

Dean focused on Meg. “You get on board, too, or we can send you back to the Empty right here and now.” He pulled a sharp, toothless smile to show he wasn’t playing around.

Dean,” Cas reproved, more exasperated than warning. Dean hadn’t realized how tightly he was squeezing Cas’ hand. He compensated by dropping it.

Meg groaned, crossing her arms. “Fine. Wouldn’t wanna get FOMO anyway.”

“Good,” Sam said, voice clipped and tense, like he knew aligning with demons again was asking for trouble. But they were demons they knew and, to an extent, trusted. Crowley and Meg had been on their side before when it suited them—and, right now, it suited them.

Great,” Dean added through his teeth. “Rah-rah, go team.”

The five of them went silent, each of them staring at each other like they couldn’t believe they had to deal with this bullshit again.

 

///

 

After the frenzy of old faces parading through the bunker in the last twenty-four hours, things were awfully quiet now. But at least that gave Sam time to think. He sat at the map table, internally rehashing everything they learned about Amara’s power and Chuck’s search for it. And the only conclusion he came to was that they knew jack squat.

But it gave them a clear objective. Something more concrete than “find Chuck.” Now, they knew what Chuck’s plans were—at least short-term—and it was a race to find Amara’s power before he was able to claim it.

Footsteps sounded from the library. Sam glanced over to find Dean, two bottles of beer hanging from his side, coming to join him.

“Hey,” Sam said, getting a grunted response back. “How’s Cas?”

“Alive,” Dean supplied, and Sam figured he wouldn’t get much more out of him. It was the most important aspect, anyway. Dean slid a beer across the table, and Sam caught it, the glass already blossoming with condensation. “He said things got pretty dicey after the Creature from the Black Lagoon showed up.” Dean sat down across from Sam and folded his legs onto the chair next to him. He took a long, steady drink.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “Thank god we don’t have to worry about that anymore. Or, thank Amara.” The creature from the Empty was asleep; so were all the angels and demons that had still been walking around in there. It was one less thing on their plate.

“Yeah,” Dean agreed thoughtfully, rolling his bottle in his hand. Knowing the Empty was off the board was a bigger relief to him than it was to Sam. Even more so for Cas. Sam wouldn’t blame Cas if he decided to take the week off.

Dean brought his gaze over to the map table. “What are you doing?”

Sam took a pull of his beer, realizing it was the first caloric thing he’d had in what felt like forever. It was pretty refreshing.

“You know how I set the computer to scan for any bursts of power?” he asked, and Dean gave a noncommittal shrug that meant yes. “Well, if any of Amara’s power is hidden on Earth, it would have been here for a long time. So, I changed it to look for steady pockets of power. But, so far…” He blew out his cheeks and swept his hand through the air in a defeated motion.

“Staying hidden, huh?”

“Big time. And, even if there is one on Earth, there are still three others after that.”

Dean planted his feet on the floor and swiveled forward. He dug the heel of his palm into his eye. “Right. Who does Chuck think he is, Voldemort?”

Sam was pretty sure Chuck had broken up Amara’s power and hid it away a long time before Harry Potter was published, but he kept that to himself.

He chewed on the inside of his cheek, regarding the map table again. It didn’t light up, but Sam didn’t let that dampen his optimism. “We’ll find them,” he said, determined. “We’re looking. I called Claire and Kaia earlier, and they’re on it, too. Crowley’s telling his spies or whatever to keep an eye out. And Meg’s helping.”

Dean snorted dryly. “Yeah. Meg.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Dean. You’re seriously gonna start?”

What?”

Like he didn’t know. “You’re jealous because she has a crush on Cas.”

“I’m not jealous,” Dean protested a little too quickly. “What do I have to be jealous of? If anything, I won.”

“Right,” Sam said, laughing shallowly. “Well, you might wanna tell that to Cas about Crowley and Amara.”

Dean shot up a little straighter, spreading his arms out on top of the table. “Oh, come on! Amara—that was a weird… thing! It wasn’t even a thing! And Crowley…”

Sam shot his brows up, half-horrified.

Dean sputtered, “I was a demon! Sue me!”

Yeah, he really didn’t want to know that about his big brother.

“Really didn’t need confirmation, Dean.”

“You brought it up!” He angrily took another sip of his beer.

Sam drank, too, trying to forget what he just learned. He’d probably need a lot more beer for that.

“Whatever,” Dean said. “I’m just saying, she better not try to sweep Cas away to some corner of the world for a week so she can cozy up to him.”

He was overreacting. A lot. He had nothing to worry about.

“Dude. I haven’t seen my wife in months. I don’t have any sympathy for you.”

Dean quieted at that, probably because he knew Sam was right. For him, Cas was down the hall and stupidly in love and not going anywhere. Eileen was a lot further away. Sam couldn’t help but think all of this—everything—would have been a lot easier to handle if she was around.

“The point is,” Sam said after swallowing another mouthful of beer, “is that we’re all gonna have to work together if we're gonna get this done.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean grunted. Then, “Do you think we can? Get it done?”

Sam considered his answer. Maybe he was being too optimistic, and maybe they were doomed to failure. But, the way he saw it, it was always better to gamble on hope.

“Yeah, I do,” he said, and he meant it. “For the first time, it feels like we’re close.” He nodded to himself. “It feels good.”

Dean visibly let that sink in. He kicked his feet up again. “Almost forgot what that was like.”

“Me, too.”

Sam sat back in his chair. The two of them drank in silence. And he did not admit out loud the realization that he’d missed feeling this way.

 

///

 

Around midnight, Dean left Sam in the library, a pile of books reaching Sam’s nose stacked on the table beside him and a tired but resolute slump to his brother’s shoulders. He found another lump of exhaustion already in bed, where Dean had banished him hours ago. He never expected Cas to actually listen, but the fact that he had was probably a testament to how much his trip to the Empty sucked.

Dean changed clothes and crawled into bed next to him, too wired to sleep. Instead, he sat against the headboard and took out his tablet, scrolling through news articles that might point them toward a random ball of God power—preferably somewhere in driving distance.

Cas wasn’t asleep, but he was resting. Laying on his stomach with his face tucked against Dean’s hip and his arm slung limply across Dean’s lap. There was no wing there to cover Dean. Or maybe there was. In heaven, Dean couldn’t see Cas’ wings unless he manifested them, but he could still feel them. But now, Dean didn’t even have that. He thought if he focused hard enough, he could feel it, but he was probably just imagining things.

The sensation was empty, and weirdly unsettling. The first time he’d felt Cas’ wing drape over him at night, it had freaked him out. He got used to it quickly. With a lack of feathers to run his fingers through, Dean settled for idly stroking Cas’ hair with one hand while he scoured the web with the other.

And Cas kept quiet, but he was doing it in a really loud way.

Dean didn’t press. He’d seen the look in Cas’ eyes when he got back from the Empty. If Cas wanted to talk about it, he would eventually—not that Dean would know what to say. Instead, he kept playing with Cas’ hair and let Cas curl up against him, giving him something warm and solid and alive to ground himself with.

“Dean,” Cas said after a while. Dean’s eyes flickered down to him. He couldn’t see Cas’ face from the angle. When Cas spoke again, Dean could feel the vibrations against his hip. “I think I should return to heaven.”

Everything inside Dean came to a screeching halt. But he obviously hadn’t hit the brakes soon enough, because he still crashed hard into a brick wall. It came crumbling down on him, burying him.

Why now? Was it something Jack said? Did he need Cas back in heaven? Or maybe going back to the Empty made Cas lose his nerve.

Cas couldn’t leave. They had a job to do, and now they had a plan! Well, not a plan, but a strategy. Or, okay, a general idea.

It occurred to him that Cas was still talking. “If Chuck left Amara’s power in the Empty, it’s possible the rest won’t be on Earth. Heaven is the safest place for it. He could have hidden a piece of it there. It would serve him to keep at least some of the power close at hand.”

Oh. He was talking about searching heaven, not staying there. He was talking about a mission. Dean breathed.

“Yeah, but why wouldn’t he have taken it when he was up there?” Dean asked.

Cas poked his head up, tired eyes squinting up at Dean. He seemed more mentally tired than physically. “If what Amara says is true, he wouldn’t have had enough power yet. It’s worth a look.”

Dean hummed, mulling it over. He didn’t disagree, but it might have been a waste of time. Just like the internet was proving to be a waste of time.

Maybe they didn’t even have a general idea. They were totally just winging it. As always. It felt like old times.

“The angels have been rebuilding heaven from the ground up. Wouldn’t somebody have spotted something like that by now?”

Cas lifted a shoulder in a half shrug. “Not if it was hidden. Besides, Amara’s power is nearly identical to Chuck’s—and Chuck was the one who created heaven. Unless one knew to differentiate between Chuck and Amara, the power could have felt uniform to the rest of heaven.”

Dean didn’t pretend he knew how to differentiate between power signatures. He’d just have to take Cas’ word on it. But he wasn’t too happy about being on a different plane of reality as Cas twice in as many days. He wasn’t used to that anymore. He guessed that came with the territory of being alive again, and having a cosmic being to share eternity with.

“In any event,” Cas said, “someone has to perform the spell to fortify heaven, and seeing as I’m the only one able to enter heaven right now…”

“You’d have to go up there, anyway,” Dean inferred. “So, you figured, why not kill two birds with one stone?”

“The spell doesn’t call for animal sacrifice.”

Dean refused to even pretend it was a funny joke.

Everything aside, he wasn’t crazy about the idea of Cas going to heaven without back-up. The place was empty of any friendly angels, but they didn’t know for sure if some of Chuck’s angels had managed to stay behind. Cas had probably already considered that, though.

What he probably hadn’t considered was that he just came back from a voided hellscape.

“Shouldn’t you be resting?” Dean needled.

Cas let out a heavy breath, picking himself up even further to glare at Dean. Dean glared right back, and Cas eventually relented. Because Dean was right.

“It’s worth a look,” Cas said again, dropping back down. He hooked his chin on Dean’s thigh. “The power may be there. The internet won’t be helpful in answering that question.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you think?”

“It’s all cats.”

“It’s not all cats,” Dean countered. “You go to the right sites, you get a different kind of pussy.”

Cas huffed, unamused.

“Alright,” Dean said, getting back on topic. “Go to heaven, but make sure you have some back-up. Take Bobby or Mom or someone to help you look.” There was no shortage of hunters who’d be willing to help, especially if they were half as bored as Dean was up there. He kept that part to himself.

“I’m not asking your father,” Cas said, like that wasn’t obvious.

“Yeah, I don’t think that road trip would end in the power of friendship,” Dean agreed.

Cas shifted, lifting himself up again. He looked at Dean for a long while, expression set thoughtfully and ruefully. Dean blinked, guarded. “What?”

“I’m sorry you can’t come with me,” Cas said. “You’d have to die again, and getting you back into your body after would be a delicate undertaking. It’s not worth the risk.”

Dean averted his eyes, not wanting Cas to find out what he was thinking. “It’s cool.” He hated that Cas felt guilty about bringing Dean back to Earth. But what was he supposed to do? Make Cas feel guilty about their life in heaven instead? That was way worse.

“You seem to be adjusting better,” Cas told him.

Dean pushed a smile. “Just had to get my sea legs back, is all.”

Cas nodded slowly, not arguing—and thank god. He laid down again, tucking himself back in. “I’ll go in the morning.”

Dean folded up the tablet and set it on the nightstand. “Great. Meantime, we should be on the lookout for any of the power on Earth. I think I found a couple potential God-level-miracle leads. Might be nothing, but me and Sammy can go check one out tomorrow. Claire and Kaia are pretty close to the other one, so they’ll probably wanna take that.”

Eyelids heavy, he turned off the light and slid down the headboard to lay on his back. Cas lifted his arm long enough to transition from Dean’s lap to his stomach. His nose brushed against Dean’s shoulder.

“You just watch your ass up there,” Dean said into a yawn. “And, next time you decide to put it on the line, just remember you’re deciding for two now, okay?”

“Consider my ass watched,” Cas’ voice came from the darkness. Dean rested his hand over Cas’ on his chest, hooking their thumbs together.

Warm. Solid. Alive.

He closed his eyes and let himself drift.

Chapter Text

Castiel had promised Dean he wouldn’t search heaven for Amara’s power alone. So, after he’d performed the spell to fortify heaven’s defenses, he flew to the Roadhouse, knowing he’d find help there.

Except, as he stood on the gravel lot, he didn’t find the usual cars parked there. In fact, the lot was empty and the world was quiet. He looked around at the bar’s darkened windows and didn’t see anyone moving inside. At once, heaven felt like a ghost town, despite the thrumming energy of billions of souls colliding with his grace.

“Hello?” he called, and only the birds answered.

He walked toward the Roadhouse’s door, but only managed to take a few steps before it started to seem as if he was wading through water. A few more steps, and he’d be halted completely. The building was warded against angels. The Harvelles must have done it to defend themselves against Chuck’s soldiers.

Knowing the Roadhouse was a lost cause, he readied himself instead to fly to Sam’s house in search of Eileen, or Mary’s to ask for her help. But then, the tip of something sharp dug into his lower back.

“Don’t move,” a woman’s voice threatened. It was familiar, and Castiel knew without a shadow of a doubt that she’d kill him without hesitation if he made any sudden movements.

Slowly, he raised his hands to show he meant no harm. “Ellen,” he said.

The blade at his back fell away. “Castiel? What the hell are you doing back?” He turned to face her, clocking the angel blade hanging at her side. She called in the direction of the Roadhouse, “Everyone relax! He’s one of ours!”

“Everyone?” Cas echoed, shaking his head. An even more pressing question was: “Where did you find an angel blade?”

Ellen snorted. “You think you’re the only one with resources? Come on inside. I’ll get you a beer.” She opened the door, revealing the warding sigil on the other side. After pulling a piece of chalk from her jacket pocket, she struck a line through the sigil, and the resistance Castiel felt pushing at his grace instantly dropped off.

He followed Ellen inside, his eyes scanning the room. Jo was near a window, putting her pistol away. Jody was doing the same at the back door. Eileen set her angel blade down on the bar, where Charlie and Kevin popped their heads up from hiding now that the coast was clear.

“Castiel?”

Castiel barely had the chance to turn around before Mary enveloped him in a hug. “Why are you here? Where are Sam and Dean?” she worried.

“They’re okay. They’re still on Earth,” he told her, and she visibly relaxed. He scanned the room as a whole again. There weren’t any customers, but there was an ancient desktop computer on the far end of the bar. “What’s going on?”

“I was hoping you could tell us,” Mary said. “After you left, Bobby, John, and I sent word to the other hunters. We were all on our guard looking for Chuck and his angels. But then, a few months ago, things went really quiet—and Ash’s Angel Radio machine suddenly started working. He said it was because heaven stopped reorganizing, so the frequency wasn't jammed anymore. But it wasn’t picking up on anything. Just static.”

“It was Jack,” Castiel said. “He took the angels out of heaven to protect them. I’m the only one who can get in or out. He tried to eject Chuck’s angels, too, but he said there may be some left.”

“I think he’s right,” Kevin said from his place near the old computer. He leaned down over the machine and started typing. “I can show you.”

Castiel shared another look with Mary before walking to the end of the bar. Everyone else gathered around, too. Charlie stood next to him, giving him a friendly smile that lacked some of her usual exuberance. He focused on the screen, where white lines and dots blinked on a black background. The dots were in a circle, and in the middle of them was an even larger dot that blinked more rapidly than the rest.

“Ash and Charlie were able to combine the Angel Radio scanner with Ash’s soul finder,” Kevin started to explain.

“Except, instead of souls, we made it pick up on angel grace,” Charlie interrupted. Castiel pulled his brows together, wondering how that was possible. The pause in recalibrating heaven’s metaphysical plane from trillions of heavens to just one could have allowed for a device to pick up on Angel Radio’s frequency, but to have a radar for grace? It shouldn’t have been possible.

“Right,” Kevin continued, as if he was unaware of the marvel this invention was. “You see those dots? Those are angels.”

Castiel leaned in closer. There were two dozen angels represented on the screen.

“We weren’t sure if they were yours or Chuck’s,” Ellen said, “so we treated them like a threat.”

“They’re not ours,” Castiel said, standing up straighter again and shoving his hands into his coat pockets. “The icon in the center—what is it?”

“We’re not sure. But we think they’re guarding it,” Eileen said.

“God power,” Castiel said. “It’s Amara’s. Before Creation, Chuck stole it from her and scattered it. He’s trying to get it back for himself.”

The room went quiet as everyone processed the information.

“But you said Chuck can’t get in, right? And they can’t get out?” Jo asked, concern licking her tone.

“As long as heaven’s fortification holds. I used a spell to strengthen them, but the more powerful Chuck becomes…”

“The more shit out of luck we’ll be?” Jo finished.

Castiel nodded.

“Castiel, they’re not collecting any new souls,” Jody said, squeezing her way closer to the bar between Jo and Mary. “They’ve been guarding it like that for months. We set up shifts to monitor it. If they move, we can alert everyone else, but—”

“They haven’t moved,” Ellen said. “Not an inch.”

“We have hunters all over the human part of heaven, just in case,” Mary said. “They’re keeping an eye on things, making sure everyone else stays safe. Right now, we’re trying to keep everything under wraps.”

He was grateful. Just like on Earth, if every human knew of the existence of supernatural dangers, there would be chaos. But there were some humans who deserved to know, humans who needed protection. “What about Kelly?”

“I saw her yesterday,” Mary reassured him, and relief washed over Castiel. “She’s safe. She knows everything we do.”

“We have three hunters posted at her door, just to be safe,” Eileen added. “And another one in the woods to call for backup if they need it. We figured… God’s mom. Might be a target.”

“Thank you,” he told them all, still looking at Eileen. He wished he could see Kelly himself, but he needed to focus on the task at hand. He refocused on the computer screen. “Where is that?”

“Some place called the Garden,” Charlie said. “Ash said that’s basically the heart of heaven?”

“You can think of it more as a nuclear reactor,” he corrected, trying to put it in a term that humans might understand. “It’s where all of heaven’s power is stored. Everything is drawn from it. It makes sense that Amara’s power would be kept there. It would be hidden in plain sight. No one would know the difference.”

But he should have. He should have sensed it.

“So, what do we do?” Jo asked. She was already pulling her shoulders back as if preparing for a fight. “Go there and take the power back?”

He hadn’t even asked for their help yet, and already each of them appeared so willing. Just as Sam and Dean had been. They were meant to be enjoying paradise.

Pushing his remorse to the side, he said, “We can’t take it. Only Jack and Amara can, and I won’t send him into a fight with the angels.”

“Then, we fight them first,” Mary said, getting nods of agreement from the others. “We clear his path.”

Eileen tugged on Castiel’s sleeve. As she spoke, she signed, “Sam told me about the Garden. He said it transforms into what a human expects to see… What if one of us goes first, and the Garden pulls from our memory? The angels won’t know what to expect—but we would. We would have the upper hand.”

He shook his head. “It wouldn’t work. It’s different for angels. In the Garden, we’re aware of what a human sees, but, what we see… It’s difficult to explain, but they would still have the advantage. We’d have to draw them out.”

“To where?” Jody asked. “Here?”

He wouldn’t risk the souls. “No. It would have to be somewhere without any humans.” He considered the best strategy. They could go to HQ, but the halls of heaven are vast. It would be better if they had a more contained area, a battlefield they could control.

He racked his brain, trying to come up with something. Silence fell as the rest of their group considered it, even though he never expected any of them to have any plausible ideas.

Though, he supposed he should have known better.

“Oh!” Charlie yelled, slapping his chest with the back of her hand. “The abandoned heavens! The ones where the souls were stolen, so you couldn’t incorporate them here. They’re still out there, right?”

She was right. Billions of heavens sat empty. Castiel drew in a breath, wondering why he hadn’t thought of it himself. “Right.”

Charlie grinned like she was proud of herself. Over Castiel’s shoulder, Jo said, “You’re pretty hot when you’re a genius.”

“Guess I’m always hot,” Charlie answered.

Castiel ignored their flirtations. “This machine? Does it encompass all of heaven?”

“Most of it,” Kevin said. “We should be able to track down some of the empty ones. Oh! And I could use the Angel Radio scanner to guide you. We could hack into it so it can be two-way communication.”

Castiel lifted a brow, knowing that would become a problem when all the angels were back in heaven. But, for now, it might work. Only, “The other angels would be able to hear it, too.”

“Not unless we create our own frequency,” Kevin said. “Charlie, you think we can do that?”

“I can do anything,” she said, so confidentially that Castiel believed her.

“How would we get the angels to follow us?” Eileen asked. “I mean… they haven’t moved. Why would they leave now?”

“We could trick them,” Jody said. “Castiel said it’s like a power plant? Well, what happens when there’s a big surge of energy somewhere? All the power gets diverted to it and everybody else’s lights flicker. All we’d need is something powerful enough.”

It could work.

“Yeah, I don’t have any electric chairs on hand,” Ellen joked darkly.

Brows pinched, Mary said, “Do you think… Jack?”

Castiel was about to protest, but Eileen beat him to it. “It’s not safe for Jack yet.”

“Well, we need something with the power of a god,” Jo said, hands on her hips.

Instantly, an idea struck Castiel. He worked his jaw, considering the ramifications for it. He’d needed to weaken heaven’s defenses momentarily to let someone else in, but it might be worth it. And it wouldn’t be for long.

“We don’t need Jack yet,” he mused, eyes fixed at the dot that represented Amara’s power on the screen. “If we’re going to trick them into following us, we’ll need a Trickster.”

 

///

 

Douglas, Wyoming

Sam, angel blade ready in his hands, crept along the back wall of the run-down cabin outside of town. Around him, the woods were quiet except for the birdsong. From the side of the house, he could hear fallen leaves rustle as Dean stealthily moved to the front of the cabin.

That morning, they’d gotten up early and drove to Douglas, following a potential lead. For close to a month, no one in town had gotten injured and fallen ill. The only deaths were the elderly. Last week, a couple got into a car wreck that they never should have survived, but they came out without a scratch. Before that, a man got shot in a hunting accident and lived to tell the tale.

Sam and Dean interviewed all of them, and they all said the same thing: it was a miracle.

There seemed to be a lot of those going around recently, and it wasn’t just Douglas. There was a thirty-mile radius, and Sam and Dean were currently dead-center. Sam didn’t know what to expect inside the cabin. When they’d first arrived, he saw shadows moving inside the window. If there was God power inside, there were probably angels guarding it.

Still, something didn’t add up to him. Why did this only start happening recently, if the power had been there all along? Could the angels be moving it around until Chuck was able to swallow it? But what about the townspeople? If Chuck needed more muscle to take on Amara’s power, why wouldn’t he take the townspeople’s souls like he had before? It didn’t make sense.

But it was a lead, and they had to check it out.

There was a window up ahead. He snuck up to it and peered through, trying to look past the closed lace curtains. He could make out any shadows, and nothing inside stirred.

And then, “Sam!”

Sam’s heart skipped. Dean was in trouble. Readying the blade in his hand, Sam charged in the direction of Dean’s shout. He turned the corner, and spotted Dean standing on the dirt path that led to the front door. There was no one else around.

Sam shook his head, his guard relaxing slightly. “Dean, what—”

“No, don’t—” Dean yelled, holding up his hands.

It was too late. Sam couldn’t move his feet. He tried to lift them, but they were glued to the ground.

“…come over here,” Dean finished lamely.

“What the hell?” Sam said, still struggling to free himself. It was no use.

“It’s a trap.”

Something was wrong. If it had been angels, they wouldn’t have been trapped. They’d be dead. And this wasn’t Enochian magic.

They weren’t up against angels, and there wasn’t any God power.

“Dean,” Sam said, swinging his eyes back to his brother. “This is witchcraft.”

The cabin door opened, catching Sam’s attention. He watched two people walk through. They were young, but Sam felt like he was looking at ghosts.

“Sam? Dean?”

“Max?” he said, and then his gaze flickered to the woman beside Max Banes. She had to be a ghost. “Alicia?”

 

///

 

Castiel drummed his fingers on the table he was sitting at, his cheek resting in his opposite hand. What felt like ages ago, he’d prayed to Jack to send Gabriel to heaven, but he was beginning to wonder if the message got through. Regular prayer couldn’t reach Jack where he and the angels were. Only Angel Radio could. But they’d been waiting long enough for Castiel to doubt even that.

While he continued to wait, he scanned the room. Ellen was behind the bar, drying off glassware with a rag. Charlie and Kevin were still in front of the computer attempting to find a line of communication that the rogue angels wouldn’t be able to hear. Mary, Jody, Jo, and Eileen were sitting at various tables—Mary and Jody’s guns and angel blades were out in front of them, Jo was oiling her knives, Eileen was bouncing her knee impatiently.

Then, suddenly, the relative quiet was shattered by the front door slamming open. Castiel, and everyone else, came to attention, his grace ready to defend from the potential threat.

Gabriel walked through, arms outstretched and a broad smile on his face. “Lucy, I’m home!”

Castiel dropped his shoulders. “Hello, Gabriel.”

Ladies,” Gabriel greeted. “Bro. How’s—”

“Please don’t ask me how ‘smooch city’ is,” Castiel demanded, punctuating Gabriel’s fabricated phrase with air quotes.

“Uh, I was gonna say, how’s Earth,” Gabriel corrected, striding more into the room. He made a show of stretching his neck from side to side. “God, I wish I was there now. You wouldn’t believe how cramped it is where Jack put us. No room to breathe! Feels good to stretch my—ya know, everything.”

Castiel withered. Perhaps calling Gabriel here was a mistake.

“But enough about me,” Gabriel continued. “Jack cracked me outta that bottle to help. So, your wish, my command. Yadda, yadda.” He leaned his arm against the bar and winked at Ellen. “What’s the haps?”

Castiel caught him up, but it seemed Gabriel was already informed about the search for Amara’s power. It was only a matter of filling him in on the plan to use the abandoned heavens, and what they needed from him.

“Okay, got it,” Gabriel said. He was on a barstool now, body oriented toward the rest of the room. “So, you needed someone to cause enough chaos to make the angels leave their post, and you thought of little old me?”

“Yes,” Castiel said.

“Can you do it?” Jody asked.

Gabriel shot her a look that was mainly eyebrows. Standing up, he said, “Easy-peasy. Already working on a plan.”

“Good enough for me,” Mary said. She stood up, too, and holstered her gun. She picked up the angel blade on the table, showing she was ready to get started.

“Works for me, too,” Eileen agreed.

“Well, you know I’m in,” Jody said with a shrug.

“Me, too,” Ellen said, putting down the rag. “Jo?”

Jo snorted. “Duh, Mom. Surprised you’re asking.”

Ellen hummed. “Well, it’s not like you can die in heaven, right?” She seemed to consider it. Then, tone serious, she asked Castiel, “Right?”

Castiel wasn’t certain death was the right term for it. He opened his mouth, about to explain, but then he caught sight of Jo’s wide eyes. Back to her mother, Jo mouthed, “Say no!

He was put on the spot, uncertain which Harvelles' ire he’d rather risk.

“No…” he said slowly, and Jo perked up with a grin.

Ellen stared at him hard, like she was deciding to believe him. After a moment, she hummed again and said, “Alright by me.”

From behind the computer, Charlie said, “I’m more of a lover than a fighter, but me and Kev can stay here and direct you guys!”

Kevin nodded whole-heartedly. “We have these.” He pushed a shoebox filled with tangled earbuds forward. Jody took it and started shifting through while Kevin explained, “It’s how we can keep in contact. But, uh… we still haven’t—We still don’t have a frequency yet.”

“Working on it!” Charlie assured, slight aggravation in her voice.

Gabriel sauntered over and plucked the box from Jody. “Don’t bother, kid. I already got one you can borrow. Archangel Radio.”

Castiel frowned, confused. He’d never heard of a separate frequency for archangels. But, before he could ask, Gabriel said, “What are these, airpods? You know these things always get lost, right?”

He tried to hand them to Eileen, who blinked at him like he was an idiot. “I won’t be able to hear you.”

Gabriel opened his mouth awkwardly, and Castiel was momentarily astounded to find him at a loss for words. He wasn’t sure anyone had ever managed to render him mute before.

Sniggering, Jo snatched the earbuds from Gabriel’s palm. “We got her covered.”

“Righty-o,” Gabriel said, chipper once more. He passed the box to Mary, and it continued making its rounds. “Anyway, these should work as long as you stick by Cas. Think of him like a cell tower. Stay in range and we’ll all be chatting it up.”

“There’s an archangel frequency?” Castiel asked, joining the group.

Gabriel looked at him like he was insane. “Yeah. What do you think I’ve been talking to you on these past however many years?”

Castiel tilted his head. He’d assumed it’d been Angel Radio.

Gabriel scoffed. “They didn’t give you the manual at orientation? No doy, there’s an archangel frequency! Everyone else is in the group chat, and we’re the NSA agents spying on them. We got our own thing.”

“Group chat.” Castiel narrowed his eyes.

Gabriel groaned. “Someone un-lame him. I have other things to do, remember?”

Moving past it, Castiel said, “What things exactly will you be doing?”

Gabriel walked backward away from the group. “Castiel, Castiel. You worry about kicking ass and taking names—and getting Auntie Amara’s power back.” His whiskey-color eyes glinted mischievously. “And leave the rest of it—” he held up his hand, putting his thumb and middle finger together, “to me.”

He snapped.

Castiel was thrust forward with such force, he momentarily wondered if he’d survive the landing. Thankfully, he did—and so did the humans, though they all appeared to stumble off balance and hold onto their heads in nausea.

While they recovered, Castiel surveyed their surroundings. The heaven Gabriel had sent them to appeared to be the inside of a shopping mall. To their left, the employee of a sunglass kiosk was closing up for the night by zipping up the gray cover. Many of the storefronts were already barred by metal gates. He looked up at the level above, where people in very bright, loud outfits and eccentric hairstyles walked in groups with shopping bags. A food court was behind them, the carousel in the center of it slowly spinning. A mother leaned down and wiped ketchup off her son’s cheek with a napkin.

Attention shoppers!” a cheerful voice said over the loudspeaker. “The mall will be closing in—

As if reality was a skipping record, everything reset. The kiosk employee zipped up the cover again. The shoppers were back where they began. The mother cleaned the boy’s face.

Attention shoppers! The mall will be closing in—

“I feel like I’m in Stranger Things,” Jody said. Castiel whipped back around, looking at the group of hunters before him. Jody was in a security guard uniform, and she was eyeing the others skeptically.

Mary was in an oversized powder blue blazer, and her hair was crimped and stacked high on her head. Ellen was dressed similarly. Eileen, her hair in pigtails fastened by thick scrunchies, appeared to be in a bright yellow aerobics outfit, including legwarmers. Jo’s shirt was too large for her frame, one side of it falling off her shoulder, and it was belted at the waist; she also had on heavy eye make-up and clunky jewelry. Some of them were holding shopping bags.

Confused, Castiel looked down at his own clothes. He was in a bright pink windbreaker and parachute pants with a pattern of multicolor paint splatter. There were plastic sunglasses atop his head. For the first time, he realized he was also holding a shopping bag. There was a Sears logo on it.

Attention shoppers!”

“Gabriel?” Castiel said. “What is going on?”

Gabriel’s voice sounded in his head over Angel Radio. “I basically hit the pause button on every heaven except for the main one—Well, pause button more or less. It’s on a fifteen second time loop.”

Castiel looked around. The man at the kiosk closed up again. The mother tended to her son. The merry-go-round juttered and then spun as if nothing happened.

If Gabriel did this to all of the remaining individual heavens, it must have taken immense power. Admittedly, it was impressive. However, “Was the clothing necessary?”

“Hey!” Gabriel said, sounding offended. “You said you wanted me to go big, right? Don’t question the master!”

Castiel rolled his eyes, taking Gabriel’s answer for a no. But the clothing didn’t matter, not as long as still had—

“Where’s my angel blade?”

He couldn’t sense it, nor could he manifest it. Panic rose up inside of him.

“Chill out,” Gabriel said. “Check your bag.”

Castiel pulled his brows together and opened the Sears bag, and the hunters did the same. He pulled out a spatula and oven mitts, which were decidedly not weapons. And then, at the bottom of the bag, he found a chef’s knife. The energy coming off of it spread through his fist, mixing with his grace.

Gabriel,” he said through his teeth. He should have known better than to ask for his brother’s help. It had been too long since Gabriel had played any of his tricks. He was taking advantage.

Eileen was holding a battery powered water gun. She tested it out, then pulled a face. “It stinks.”

Mary leaned forward, smelling it. “There’s holy oil in it.”

“What the hell is this?” Jo complained, pulling out a Rubik’s Cube from her bag.

“You’ll figure it out,” Gabriel promised. “Now, let me focus! Talk to Charlie and Kevin.”

Charlie said, “Guys? Can you hear me?” It was a little strange, hearing a human speak over Angel Radio.

“We can hear you,” Ellen said, touching her earpiece.

“Charlie, what are the angels doing?” Castiel asked.

Kevin answered, “When Gabriel did what he did, there was this blip on screen. The angels started moving around after it, but none of them have left.” As he spoke, Mary signed for Eileen.

“Well, that’s good, right? It means it made a dent,” Jody reasoned.

Castiel wouldn’t use the adjective good, but, “They know we’re here. They’re planning what to do.”

“How long till you think they catch up?” Ellen asked.

He scoffed, having no idea how to answer that. “Seconds? Hours?”

“We’ll keep track of them and let you know what they’re doing,” Charlie said.

Mary said, “We should come up with a plan, too. For when they do get here.”

Castiel gripped the handle of the kitchen knife more tightly, preparing for a fight at any moment.

However, that moment didn’t come for a long while. They spent the time they had getting a layout of the area, finding places to retreat, setting traps, and checking their weapons. Castiel still wasn’t enthusiastic that his angel blade had been transformed into a household item, but he’d make due. In any event, Jody’s gun was loaded with angel killing bullets, and they’d found a hardware store with tools that could be of use. It seemed Gabriel had transformed much more than their clothes in this heaven.

Although, Castiel still wasn’t certain what Jo’s Rubik’s Cube was for.

“So, you think Dean doesn’t wanna be on Earth?” Mary said. She and Castiel were currently in the women’s section of a department store. He was putting the finishing touches on a banishing sigil. The red blood, stark against the clean white wall, dripped downward. Using these would be a last resort, seeing as heaven was still locked, so their enemy wouldn’t go far. He himself would also have to be far away if and when it was used.

While they worked, Mary had asked about Sam and Dean, and Castiel had told her the truth.

“I originally thought that,” he admitted. “But now… I dunno. At first, he was reluctant to hunt, but I don’t think that was because he didn’t want to.”

“Because you think he’s trying to not want to?”

Castiel sighed. Speaking about this was more complicated than he’d imagined. But, then again, Dean’s emotions were more complicated than anything Castiel had ever known. The only thing he was certain about was that Dean was hiding something from him—maybe even from himself. He was too quick to brush off returning to heaven when Castiel told him of his plan to locate Amara’s power. On top of that, Dean had insisted not to hunt at first, but he took very little convincing to actually do it.

There was something he wasn’t saying—something beyond what he was saying. Castiel knew it. He wasn’t an idiot.

“I think,” Castiel said carefully, “he found happiness in his life on Earth—eventually. But he’s happy in heaven, too.” Wasn’t he? Castiel sometimes doubted it. “Maybe he thinks he has to choose between the two.”

The sigil complete, Castiel stepped back. He looked down at the cut on his hand, balled it into a fist and let his grace stitch the skin back up. When he opened his palm, it was clean.

“Doesn’t he?” Mary said, her curls bouncing more than usual when she shook her head. “You guys are coming back here. He knows hunting won’t last.”

Castiel didn’t want Dean to have to choose between two things that he wanted. If that was even the issue.

Maybe it was part of it.

In the moments he observed Dean, in the times Castiel thought Dean could be happier, he understood why that was. He just didn’t want to admit it, because admitting it would mean he’d failed.

Mary exhaled heavily. “Look, Castiel, I don’t know what Dean’s feeling. But I know, personally, when I stopped hunting to settle down and have a family, it was tough. I got bored! And, yeah, I wanted to hunt. I missed it. But that didn’t mean I didn’t deserve to settle down, too.”

Perhaps Castiel had missed the point, but something Mary said echoed through his skull. “You think he’s bored in heaven?”

Mary opened her mouth, eyes widening. “Well, I don’t—”

“Are you bored?”

“No, Cas! I did my time. And so did Dean, but he—”

Before she could go on, Charlie’s voice came through over Angel Radio. “Guys! They’re closing in.”

Immediately, Castiel’s eyes snapped away from Mary. He scanned the area, looking for signs of movement.

“How many?” Jody said in his head.

“Ten.”

The message had just come through when a gunshot rang out through the mall. Castiel swung his attention back to Mary—but she wasn’t alone. There was an angel behind her. Gabriel’s power must have affected the enemy angels, too, because this one was also dressed in ‘80s fashion.

“Mary!”

The angel grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her. She crashed into a clothing rack, causing both it and a nearby mannequin to topple over.

Castiel held up the knife in one hand, and gestured out with the other, hoping to quell the other angel. Maybe he could talk sense into him; maybe he could expose Chuck’s lie, and this angel could choose for himself who to follow.

“Brother,” he said, “you don’t have to do this.”

The angel lurched forward and grabbed Castiel by the jacket. With his empty hand, Castiel grabbed the angel by the wrist and twisted his arm, eliciting a pained yell. Mary rushed up behind the angel with the silver bar of a clothes rack and hit him across the back. Castiel stabbed the knife into the angel’s gut, and at once, light burst from the vessel. When it faded, he fell heavily to the carpet.

Castiel barely had a moment to breathe before he heard a fluttering of wings. Another angel was standing in the aisle between departments.

“I got this,” Mary said, pulling out the hammer she’d found in the hardware store. “Go help the others.” She rushed forward to meet the angel, and Castiel ran toward the entrance to the rest of the mall.

He made his way back to the center of the mall, where he could hear the sounds of the scuffle. Every so often, a gunshot would echo off the walls. His high-top sneakers squeaked with every hurried footfall.

Attention shoppers! The mall will be closing in—

When he reached the overlook above the food court, he looked down over the railing. Eileen was using her water gun to soak an angel with holy oil. Ellen lit a match, and the angel went up in flames.

Behind him, there was a flap of wings, and cold metal bit against his throat. “Don’t move,” a female voice said behind him.

Castiel went rigid. Slowly, he lifted up his hands in surrender. The angel behind him marginally let her guard down. It was enough. Swiftly, he swiveled his body and grabbed the angel by the arm. He slammed the back of his head into her nose, then lurched forward and pulled her across his back. She fell over the railing, abseiling to the floor below. The tile floor cracked beneath her upon impact.

Belatedly, he realized her blade had nicked him in the struggle. He touched his fingers to his throat and pulled away fresh blood. He’d barely felt the sting of her blade. Since he became an archangel, there hadn’t been a soldier from a lower order that had attempted to wound him with their blade or otherwise. In that moment, it dawned on him that he was immune to death by their weapons.

Self-assuredness filling him, he healed himself and transported to the lower level, where the angel was lifting herself to her feet. Before she could recover, he pushed her in the center of the chest. She was thrown backward, crashing through the metal gate blocking the arcade’s entrance. The flashing lights inside the arcade danced and the music warbled. The angel didn’t get up.

“Hey, if anyone’s free, I could use a little bit of help in the food court!” Jo’s voice sounded over Angel Radio.

Castiel’s head jerked in that direction. In his periphery, he saw Ellen pause mid-fight, dread coming off of her in waves.

“I’ll go,” Castiel said. He focused on pinpointing Jo’s location, and flew toward her.

He found himself crouched behind the counter of one of the fast food vendors. He could hear the sizzle and pop of french fries in tubs of hot oil. Jo had her back against the shelves, panting. There was blood on her shirt, and her lavender colored tights were ripped at the knees. “Hey,” Jo said, panting. “You see those mall rats out there?”

Slowly, Castiel put his hand on the edge of the counter and lifted himself up just enough to see over it. Three angels were nearby, blocking Jo’s exit. Far behind them, the horses on the carousel bobbed up and down. The mother wiped ketchup off her son’s face.

Castiel lowered himself again.

“So, what? We rush ‘em?” Jo said with a wide grin.

“We wouldn’t have the element of surprise,” he said.

“Yeah, I think we’re a little past that.”

She was fiddling with something on her lap. Castiel looked down, finding the Rubik’s Cube. He squinted at it, recognizing the pulsing power radiating from it each time she moved a row.

“Throw it,” he instructed.

She blinked. “Why?”

He popped his brows, because she’d find out soon enough.

“Fine. Here goes nothin’.” She shifted, picking herself up to a crouch. She wound back her arm like a baseball pitcher, and the toy sailed through the air.

There was a blinding flash of light followed by a loud bang. Castiel’s ears rang from it. When he looked over the counter again, the angels were gone.

“No way!” Jo laughed. “Angel hand grenade?”

They both stood up.

“Not exactly. It banished them, but they’ll still be in the area—and weakened. Find them.”

The sound of wings fluttering reached his ears once more. An angel had appeared on the other side of the grill—and Castiel knew him. He wasn’t an angel Chuck had released from the Empty. He was one Castiel and Jack had taken with them to rebuild heaven.

“Jehoel?” he said, not understanding. All of the angels were supposed to be with Jack. “Did Jack send you?”

“No, Castiel,” Jehoel said, pulling out a knife. “God sent me.”

The air tripped when Castiel breathed in. His grace thrashed inside of him. He held out his arm, acting as a barrier between Jehoel and Jo. “Jo, go. Now.”

“Cas—”

He didn’t take his eyes off Jehoel. “Go.”

Jo jumped and slid over the counter, then ran off to find another fight.

“Jehoel, what are you doing?”

“Ask yourself that,” Jehoel told him, hatred in his voice. “You really expected me to follow you, Castiel? The rebel? Along with the son of Lucifer? Neither of you are God.” He advanced forward, holding out his weapon.

Castiel raised his blade. “Please. You have a choice,” he said, backing up. His hand brushed against the side of the deep fryer.

“Then, I’ve chosen.” Johoel ran toward him.

Castiel sidestepped out of the way and grabbed Jehoel by the shirt. He plunged him face-first into the vat of bubbling holy oil.

Jehoel kicked out, thrashing. Castiel’s hand burned in the oil where he was holding his brother down. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he pulled Jehoel out and, fisting his blade, stabbed him in the breast.

Jehoel kept screaming, his face red with welts, grace spilling from his open mouth. Castiel withdrew his blade and pushed him to the ground, where Jehoel’s wings scattered into ash along the floor and grill.

As soon as it was over, all of Castiel’s focus went to the searing pain in his hand. He hissed, cradling it by the wrist. Just like Jehoel’s skin, it was bright red and bubbling. He skewed his eyes closed and sent his grace toward it. It healed him well enough, and he tensed and flexed his fingers to realign with his vessel.

Perhaps he wasn’t as immune as he thought.

Attention shoppers!”

Castiel breathed out, realizing it was suddenly much too quiet. The fight must have been over.

And then, Charlie’s voice was in his head: “Guys, what’s going on?” She sounded panicked. Castiel came to attention at once. He’d been focused on Jehoel’s betrayal, and he hadn’t been listening to Angel Radio. Now, with the tone of Charlie’s voice, both Castiel’s grace and adrenaline raged again.

As quickly as he could, he rushed from behind the counter and navigated through the metal tables and chairs of the food court. He caught sight of the hunters huddled together on the floor outside the arcade. Jody was in the middle of them, sweat on her forehead and blood on her hands as she put pressure on a wound in her stomach.

Castiel ran faster, his sneakers squealing on the tile. “What happened?” he said when he was close enough.

“One of the angels got her,” Jo said. She was supporting Jody’s head. Mary was helping to put pressure on the wound while Ellen soaked up the blood with her blazer.

Eileen looked up at Castiel. “Can you heal her?”

He wasn’t sure he could, but he had to try. He came closer, and Mary moved out of the way to let him kneel down next to Jody. He hovered his hands over the wound and closed his eyes, willing his grace forth.

It rang as it shifted through Jody’s soul, but without the presence of a physical body, there wasn’t much he could repair. It was equivalent to patching up a hole in the ozone with masking tape.

When his grace snapped back into his vessel, Castiel’s breath came out choppy. The blood was gone, at the very least. However, Jody was still gritting her teeth. “It still hurts,” she said.

“I healed you superficially, but…” He shook his head. For all his power, there was nothing he could do. “It’s more difficult to heal a soul. There’s nothing truly tangible.”

“What does that mean?” Mary asked, tone slightly accusing.

“She needs time to heal,” Castiel said.

“Great!” Jody gritted. “The one thing we don’t have.”

Castiel looked at her with forlorn eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said, remorse overcoming him. He shouldn’t have listened to Dean. He shouldn’t have asked any of them for help. “You have to rest. If you strain yourself any more, your soul could collapse.”

“Doesn’t sound fun,” Jody said, trying and failing at humor.

“What does that mean?” Jo’s eyes were wide. “She’ll die?”

Across from Jody, Ellen was glowering at Castiel. “I thought you said that couldn’t happen.”

Castiel’s breath punched out of him, frustrated. “It’s not death, it’s—it’s more complicated than that. Her energy will become part of the fabric of heaven. She’ll be alive, just not conscious.”

“So, like a soul coma? Forever?” Eileen said.

Castiel wasn’t certain how to best make them understand.

“Guys! Guys,” Jody said. “I’m okay. I’m not going into a soul coma. I’ll stay here! You all keep going.”

Castiel hated to admit it, but she was right. It was their only option. It was too late to turn back now.

“What do we do?” Mary asked, looking at him. “If we leave her here, we’ll lose communication with her.”

Though he was loath to, Castiel said, “The angels know we’re here. We can’t let them catch up.”

“And what happens when more angels stumble in here looking for you?” Ellen challenged. “Jody can’t fight. She needs someone to stay with her. Me and Jo’ll do it.”

“What?” Jo argued. “Mom, no way! I’m seeing the end of this.”

“Joanna Beth, this isn’t an argument!”

“The hell it’s not! We go on one hunting trip and all of a sudden you’re treating me like a kid again!”

“Well, blame him!” Ellen yelled, gesturing toward Castiel. “He’s the one who lied to us!”

Castiel stilled, knowing he deserved that. He should fly away, lure the angels himself, leave the humans where they were safe.

He couldn’t protect them.

“Ellen, Ellen,” Mary said gently, taking Ellen’s hand. “Listen—I’ll have Jo’s back. We all will. We won’t let anything happen to her.”

Everyone went quiet. After a long time, Charlie said, “I’ll be here to guide her the whole time, Ellen. Promise.”

For some reason, that seemed to do the trick. Ellen sighed, then hissed, “Dammit. Jo, I swear to God, when this is over, you get your ass back to the Roadhouse.”

Jo nodded, expression severe. “I will.”

Ellen didn’t look at Jo. She looked at everyone else. “Well, then what are you waiting for?”

Slowly, the women stood up and backed away. Castiel remained crouched down. First, he turned his eyes on Jody, touching her shoulder in hopes that it provided comfort. She gave him a small, pained smile in return. He knew she didn’t blame him. But he blamed himself.

Then, he faced Ellen. Quietly, he promised, “I’ll watch over her.”

“You’d better,” Ellen said, her voice too emotional to be a threat.

Castiel stood up and walked toward the others. Mary was holding Jo’s hand. Eileen was beside them. Castiel stood between them, grasping both of their hands. Eileen gave his hand a squeeze, and it bolstered his spirits somewhat. He kept his eyes on Jody.

“Guys, where do we go?” Jo asked.

Kevin said, “There’s a sector not too far from you. C-59-008.”

Castiel prepared for flight.

“I’ll have Gabriel take you back to the Roadhouse when he can spare the focus,” he told Ellen and Jody.

Ellen didn’t say anything. Jody told him, “Thanks, Castiel. Good luck.”

He spread his wings and transported himself and the hunters away.

 

///

 

“How are you still alive?” Sam asked.

After the Baneses released Sam and Dean from their trap, they moved into the cabin. It was even tinier on the inside than it was outside, with a threadbare couch in the center of the room and a one-person cot with a flannel blanket against the wall. At the foot of the bed sat an antique cage with a bird inside; one of its wings hanging limply. Beyond that, there was a kitchen sink and a bathroom, but there wasn’t a stove. All the pots and pans were stacked next to the fireplace.

Sam didn’t understand. It appeared as if the Banes twins were living off the grid, and maybe with good reason. They looked exactly the same as the last time Sam and Dean had seen them over fifty years ago.

He and Dean were sitting on the couch, and the twins pulled up rickety wooden chairs across from them.

“We could ask the same thing to you guys,” Alicia said. “Wanna swap stories?”

“Sure. We were in heaven and now we’re back to stop God from enslaving the universe. Your turn,” Dean said, tone clipped and wary. He was on edge, and Sam thought he knew why. The Baneses had always been good witches, good hunters—but, if Alicia was alive, they were dealing with dark magic. Who knew what had changed in the last half century?

“I’ve been using magic to keep us alive,” Max said, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t seen that before. Rowena had done that. But it didn’t account for everything.

Sam looked at Alicia. “You died.” He’d seen her die. He’d held her hand while she died. He thought back to that day, and remembered everything else that happened. “The twig dolls that witch was using...”

Alicia’s face shuttered.

Next to Sam, Dean blanched. “You’re one of those twig things?”

“She’s not a thing,” Max shot back.

“But she is a twig doll?” Dean clarified, and the look on both of their faces was confirmation enough.

Sam shook his head somberly. “Max, we told you not to do that.”

“Yeah, and I’m glad I didn’t listen.”

“Max,” Sam said again, gazing briefly at Alicia. Now wasn’t the time. The magic was done. Alicia was back, and she had been for a long time. Sam hoped there hadn’t been any ramifications, and that it really was Alicia in there, but he couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t heard from either of them in the years after Dean died. Sam had tried to reach out to Max sometimes, hoping to get him to join the Hunter’s Network. But Max never returned his calls. Sam guessed he knew why now.

“What are you guys doing here?” he asked instead of everything else he wanted to say. “Are you the reason no one in town’s getting hurt?”

Max settled, and he nodded. “Yeah.”

“We do that,” Alicia added. “Move around, protect the people in town, move on.”

Dean pulled a face. “Why? I mean, you’re hunters, right? Why aren’t you hunting?”

Both of them scoffed. “Yeah, right,” Max said, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. “Demon activity is what it was before the apocalypse started, and the angels are gone. It’s back to regular monster hunting, and regular human monster hunters. Kinda hard to hunt without eventually running into someone from the Network. Once they figure out what we are, what do you think happens next?”

Sam wouldn’t accept that excuse. “We have plenty of hunters that practice magic.”

“Max is more powerful than any of them,” Alicia said curtly. “And I’m a thing, remember?”

“Alicia—” Max tried, but she powered through.

“We have to help people from behind the scenes, because if word gets out about me, the hunters’ll call me a monster.”

Sam looked down at his lap, empathy filling him.

Dean defended, “Look, I didn’t mean—”

“Yeah, you did,” Alicia interrupted. “And they would, too. You know us, but they don’t. Everyone who did is retired or dead. They’d want to hunt me. Do you have any idea what that’s like?"

Sam closed his eyes, the memory of too-real nightmares and blood filling his head. Yeah, he knew what it was like.

“I do,” he said, looking up again.

Both Max and Alicia fell silent, because they knew it was true.

After a pause, Dean said, “Is there a reason we should want to hunt you? Like, oh, I dunno, working against the forces of nature to stop whole towns from dying?”

“Dude, first of all,” Max said, leaning forward again, “you kinda sound like a hypocrite right now. Second of all, we’re not messing with anything. People are still dying, just… not before their time.” He looked at his sister. Then, more quietly, “We don’t want anybody to die before they’re supposed to. Monsters aren’t the only things that kill people.”

Sam shared a look with Dean. He knew what it was like to lose his sibling too young by something random. Something he couldn’t hunt.

“If you wanna see for yourself, we’ll show you,” Alicia said. “Tomorrow.”

Both Sam and Dean turned their attention back to the twins. Together, they asked, “What’s tomorrow?”

 

///

 

They’d traversed three other empty heavens throughout the course of the day—an apartment complex in contemporary Havana, a 19th century fishing boat somewhere off the coast of Japan, and a village in Nigeria.

Now, Castiel found himself standing inside a castle in medieval Scotland. The chainmail shirt and padded gambeson vest he’d been forced to wear were weighty and uncomfortable. He almost wished the angels would catch up to them sooner rather than later so they could move on. But the humans needed their rest. He didn’t want another one of them getting hurt. Thankfully, after they left the first heaven, Gabriel collected Jody and Ellen and brought them back to the Roadhouse.

They were safe, but Castiel couldn’t help but feel as if he’d failed them. He tried not to linger on it, which was difficult to do in the quiet moment.

He stood to the side of the tower’s slit window and peered out at the night sky. Beneath, the land was tinted dark, and the town below was freckled with the amber glow of candles. Distantly, sheep bleated. It was a film reel playing on a loop, the stage set but the story missing.

Behind him, Mary and Jo were huddled together, speaking in hushed tones as the gloom from the mounted candles did little to combat the darkness. Eileen was sitting with her back against a tapestry depicting a dragon on the wall, not sleeping but hardly moving. They’d been there for almost an hour and, tempted as Castiel was to rest, someone had to be lookout while the hunters tended to their basic human needs. Castiel could still conserve his energy while playing the role of sentry.

However, he could feel Eileen’s eyes flash toward him every now and again. It took her some time to lift herself up and walk toward him, her hands on her hips and a tight smile quirked her mouth. She leaned against the opposite side of the window. She wore a leather vest over a tunic, a gorget around her neck and pauldrons on her shoulders. When they first arrived, she’d laughed at the fact that she, Mary, and Castiel had been dressed as knights while Jo was put in the flowing dress of a maid.

“Nothing yet?”

It was a redundant question. If the angels arrived, Charlie or Kevin would have alerted them.

He shook his head and waited for her eyes to stray back to him to say. “They’re searching for us. It’s only a matter of time.” With each passing heaven, the amount of time it took for the angels to catch up grew shorter and shorter. He kept his vigilant gaze on the sky.

She nodded and nibbled on her bottom lip in thought. “So,” she said, signing. “How… are you? Down on Earth, I mean.”

Humans always had a tendency to speak around what they truly wished to say. Over the years, he found she did it more than most. Like Dean. Castiel often wished they’d be more direct. “You mean, how’s Sam?”

“Actually, I asked about you,” she teased. “But now that you mention it…”

He dipped his head in a breath of laughter before answering, “Sam’s fine. He’s adjusted well.” Eileen nodded, seeming both relieved and distraught at the same time. He thought he understood why. It had been two months since she’d last seen her husband. It couldn’t have been easy for either of them.

Again, Castiel found himself wishing he hadn’t put the Winchesters in this predicament. He wished he’d caught on to Chuck’s plan sooner. He wished for a great many things.

“Eileen,” he said, signing for her to regain her attention. “I apologize for taking him away from you. I know you must miss him. And he misses you.”

At once, her expression turned urgent. “You didn’t take him away. He wanted to go. If he chose to stay, he would have regretted it—if staying even crossed his mind in the first place. That’s just who he is.”

She seemed proud of Sam. Castiel felt the same for his friend, and for Dean. They were both very brave, even when they shouldn’t have to be any longer.

“Yes, it is,” he agreed, not without sadness.

Eileen flashed a look toward the others before dropping her voice slightly. “Can I tell you a secret?”

He pinched his brow, wondering what it was. That wasn’t the first time she’d asked him that question, and the secret usually entailed a complaint about something Sam did. He doubted that would be it. According to the adage, distance was supposed to make the heart grow fonder.

Whatever the case, he would keep it between the two of them. He always did.

“When you guys went to Earth,” Eileen said, “I was kinda… jealous? I mean, heaven’s great. But sometimes it can get a little… Um. Boring. No offense.”

He let her words wash over him and breathed out. Briefly, his gaze fell on Mary. She and Jo, and all the others at the Roadhouse, seemed in their element during the events of the day, alive in a way Castiel hadn’t seen them since they died. It reminded him of Dean.

“Are you offended?” she checked, cringing.

“No,” he said, and he meant it. Perhaps part of him always knew this was inevitable, despite his best efforts. “You’re hunters. You’re human. I… It’s no wonder you’d become nostalgic for your lives on Earth.”

He supposed he had a secret, too. That this understanding came from more than observation. That, first-hand, he knew: “It’s not the same here.”

She pressed her lips together like she thought she’d disappoint him if she agreed outright.

“It’s different for angels,” he said, and tried to convince himself that he could still count himself among the mentality of the host. Perhaps he could. After the fall, many angels came to understand the merits of Earth and humanity. But they never felt it. Not to the extent he had.

“We were built to serve. To fight and to sacrifice ourselves for a cause. But humans?” He shook his head, still marveling over aspects of humanity even after all this time. “You choose life. You want to live, even in pain or captivity, even when it would be better to die. Even when you think you don’t, there is always some piece of you that clings to life. And this—heaven. Jack and I tried to make it so it was an extension of that life, but… It’s not the same.”

That’s all there was to it. He was just surprised he’d said it aloud.

Eileen’s eyes were both pitying and empathetic. She said, “In some ways, it’s better. I’m happy here. We all are. But there are times when I feel like I’m… missing out on things. Down there? Not just Junior and his family, but with the world. There are new things that I’m never gonna experience or know about. Everything will be different in a hundred years, and I won’t be a part of it. And I know that’s something I have to get over, because I had my time. But, still. Not knowing… it bothers me sometimes.”

He didn’t know how to fix that for her.

She seemed to already understand that he couldn’t, and she didn’t appear to expect him to try. “But that’s okay. You can’t make everyone happy every second for the rest of time. Maybe nothing’s perfect—even in heaven. I know, if I was happy all the time, I’d really get bored.” She laughed, attempting to lighten the mood with her joke.

Instead, it made Castiel consider something he hadn’t before. For so long, he’d tried to make Dean’s part of heaven perfect. He’d done everything he could to make Dean eternally happy. But, if what Eileen said was true, was it possible that Dean was too happy? And if, like Mary said, it bored him? Castiel certainly had no idea how to approach that issue.

“Has… Has Dean said anything like this to you?” he asked hesitantly.

Eileen frowned and shook her head. “No. Why?”

He opened his mouth, ready to divulge his thoughts—but his mind sputtered to a halt. He wasn’t even certain what his own thoughts were, so he wouldn’t be able to voice them. They were half-formed and elusive.

More than anything, Castiel wondered what Dean wanted. And what Dean thought he deserved to have.

“Nothing,” he said, words failing him.

She took it in stride. “Okay. But you know you can talk to me. I have a Winchester of my own to deal with, remember? I know how dramatic they can be.”

He nodded up at the flint ceiling, agreeing wholeheartedly. “There are certain theatrics to overcome.”

She laughed lightly, and for a moment Castiel forgot his worries.

And then, light flashed in the corner of his eye. Quickly, he brought his attention back to the sky. The light was gone, but he’d recognized it.

“Castiel?” Eileen asked, sensing his worry.

“There was a scout.” It would be moments until the angel returned with the cavalry.

Sure enough, Charlie’s voice sounded off in his head. “In-coming! Five of them this time!”

Mary and Jo were on their feet at once. Castiel exchanged a look with Eileen before moving away from the window.

“Everybody ready?” Mary asked.

“Let’s go,” Castiel said to Jo. Together, they started down the long, shadowy corridor. Mary and Eileen went through a door in the opposite direction and took the winding flight of steps downward.

Castiel kept a steady pace, his footfalls sounding through the narrow stone hall. Jo was lagging behind, cursing and hissing every now and again. Her heels clacked against the flint.

“Can you walk any faster?” Castiel huffed. They had to move faster than this.

“You try doing this in a skirt and heels!” Jo snapped. “And a corset! I can’t breathe in this shit!”

Castiel rolled his eyes and kept walking. They were almost outside.

Over Angel Radio, Charlie encouraged, “I bet you look really pretty, babe!”

“I look amazing! That’s not the point!”

Mary’s voice came through next: “Eileen and I are in position.”

Castiel opened one of the doors leading to the cobble courtyard outside. He stuck his head out and took a sweeping look around to make sure they were alone. There were only two figures present: a pair of guards standing at the foot of the stone steps. They didn’t move, and they wouldn’t. One of the guards cleared his throat, and ten seconds later when the time loop restarted, he did it again.

The armored horses Castiel and Mary had reined to a post were still there. He looked back inside and caught Jo’s eyes, silently nodding to tell her to follow him. They rushed down the steps together, past the guards, and went to the horses.

A long lance, its tip glinting in the moonlight, was resting against the post. After he’d mounted one of the horses, he grabbed the weapon, his grace thrumming warmly inside of it. It was his blade, transformed to fit the scenery.

Beside him, he heard Jo grunt. “Screw this!” she said, and then there was a tearing sound. Castiel snapped his head over to see her crouched down and ripping the end of her skirt. She stood back up and nodded to herself. “Better.”

“Guys, hurry! The angels are almost there!” Kevin warned.

Jo swung onto her horse and took up the bow hanging from the quiver strapped to her saddle. “Angel blade-tipped arrows,” she said, impressed, as she inspected one of them. “Guess that brother of yours has some good ideas. I’m still kicking his ass for the corset.” She pulled at her horse’s reins and galloped for the stone archway leading out of the courtyard.

Castiel looked upward at the night sky, hoping to find his patience somewhere among the stars. He rode after her.

Charlie directed them toward the angels that had touched down in the woods that surrounded the castle, and before they even reached the trees, Castiel could sense angels moving around inside. Then, the sound of hooves came from the dirt road that led through the forest. Three angels emerged from it, all of them mounted on armored horses and holding lances. They came to a halt outside the tree line.

Castiel looked at each of them in turn. He didn’t recognize any of the vessels, especially while wearing helmets, but their grace seemed familiar. Castiel knew them once, before the days of the apocalypse.

“Arakiel,” he said. “Elelth, Hofniel. You know me.”

“What are you doing? Let’s go,” Jo hissed.

Castiel paid her no mind. If he could stop any more bloodshed, he would. These angels were once loyal warriors, but they’d died before Chuck’s true nature was revealed. When he resurrected them, they must have gone back to only following orders.

“We don’t know you, Castiel,” Elelth spat. “Not anymore. You’re fallen.”

He shook his head, trying to reason with them. “You don’t understand.”

“We don’t need to understand.” She leveled her lance, the point of it a foot away from Castiel’s mount’s nose. The horse snorted and backed up, no matter how much he tried to hold it steady. Apart from the day a decade ago when Dean wanted to go horseback riding, Castiel hadn’t ridden one since before the flood. He was rusty, to say the very least.

“Cas,” Jo urged.

“You’ve strayed from the path,” Elelth said, “and now you’ll be punished.”

Beside her, Arakiel and Hofniel readied their weapons. Castiel could feel the grace radiating off of them. They couldn’t kill him, not anymore. They were Seraphim. But it wasn’t himself that Castiel was worried about.

However, before he could react, Jo pulled an arrow from her quiver and loosed it. It hit Hofniel in the throat, between the gap in his armor. He let out a loud shout as his dying grace lit up the night.

“Go!” Castiel yelled, pulling on his horse’s reins. Jo did the same. They galloped uphill, back from where they’d come. Arakiel and Elelth were on their heels.

When they reached the packed, winding streets of the village outside the castle walls, Castiel lost sight of Jo. He chanced a look behind him, seeing Elelth a few yards behind. A few villagers walked around, setting the scene, and pigs snorted inside a pen when Castiel passed it. He pulled hard at the reins to avoid a vegetable stand at a bend in the road.

“Jo?” he called over Angel Radio.

“I still got the other one!” Jo said. “Stick to the plan!”

Castiel breathed out, relieved she was still alive. He dug his heels into the side of his horse to make it go faster and navigated in the direction of the castle’s courtyard. But he must have taken a wrong turn. He ended up on a pitch, stands lining either side and a divider draped in cloth running down the middle.

Reluctantly, he slowed his horse to a stop, the stands blocking his way out. He turned around, finding Elelth stopping at the opposite side of the long divide. She held out her lance again and flicked the visor of her helmet down. Her horse snorted and hooved at the dirt.

Castiel rolled his eyes and sighed, wondering if Gabriel was having a little too much fun with this.

He brought his lance into position and spurred his horse forward. Elelth did the same on the other side of the divide. A canter turned into a gallop. Castiel narrowed his focus onto the weak points between Elelth’s armor. There was one just below the rounded end of her gorget. He tipped up the end of his lance, calculating the angle—not to wound but to kill. She hadn’t given him any other choice.

They came upon each other quickly, her lance splintering against the side of his as he plunged the tip into her armor. It ripped from his grasp, his horse continuing to run down the line. Behind him, there was a pained shout that was soon swallowed whole by the vibrations of white light. Castiel felt it in his own grace, the pull of gravity toward a black hole.

Elelth toppled off her horse and died on the pitch.

Castiel pulled at his mount’s reins at the end of the divide and wheeled it around. He trotted up to where her body lay, where her wings were burned into the dirt. She stared up at the night sky blankly. His lance was still sticking out of her stomach.

Stopping beside her, Castiel let out a sigh of regret. He only allowed himself a moment to mourn her before pulling the lance from her and riding for the castle.

In the courtyard, the guards looked straight ahead, neither of them seeing him. One of them cleared his throat. Castiel slid from his horse’s saddle and bound up the stairs, through the castle door, and down the corridor in the direction of the great hall. Outside the doors, he could already hear the sound of metal crashing and shouts of exertion from inside.

He came to a skidding halt in the threshold. Jo, Eileen, and Mary were sword fighting Arakiel and two other angels. Mary had blood on her lips and she cradled one shoulder as she swung her sword. The angel ducked, and sparks flew off the metal as it scraped the stone wall.

On the dais where two empty thrones sat before a banner, Eileen kicked Arakiel in the chest, sending him slightly backward. If he’d been human, he might have fallen over.

“Mary!” Castiel called.

Mary spared him a quick glance before returning to her fight. All three women began directing their combatants to the center of the room. Castiel tensed his fist at his side, collecting his grace in it. When the angels were close enough to each other, he shouted, “Get down!”

Mary, Jo, and Eileen dropped to the floor. Castiel flung his arm forward, directing his grace at the angels. They flew backward, sliding across the floor when they landed.

The humans rushed for the corridor, and once they were through the door, Eileen grabbed a candle from a sconce and touched it to the floor. The holy oil they’d lined the room with ignited, spreading out on both sides with speed and fury. Inside, the angels got to their feet, recognition and anger darkening their faces in the flickering firelight. They were trapped.

“You’re sure that’ll hold them?” Eileen asked.

Castiel nodded, feeling the heat of the flames on his cheeks as they grew higher. “For now,” he said. “Until I can take them to heaven’s lock up.”

“But there are more angels from the Empty out there,” Mary said, ripping her eyes off the three in the room to meet Castiel’s gaze. “They could come here and free them.”

Castiel bit down on his jaw, knowing she was right. But they couldn’t linger. They were so close to the Garden. The longer they stayed put, the more time the angels had to plan against them.

“We have to move.”

“Charlie, Kevin,” Jo said into her earpiece. She had a bruise blooming on her cheek. “We’re ready to jump. Where to next?”

There was a pause on the other end, and then Kevin said, “Sector Q-80-406. It’s nearby!”

Castiel stood straighter, ready to spread his wings to transport them there. But Mary said, “You go. I’ll stay here and make sure they don’t escape.”

He wouldn’t leave her exposed and alone. The moment he did, they’d all lose contact with her. If she needed back-up, she wouldn’t get it. “No, Mary,” he argued.

She shot him an impatient look. “Castiel. You may be everybody’s boss in heaven… but I’m your mother-in-law. You have to listen to me.”

He pressed his lips together, uncertain how to respond to that. She’d never referred to herself in that way before, and it was overwhelming to know she considered him a Winchester. But he knew, even if he could respond, she wouldn’t listen.

As if she was wondering what he was still doing there, she made a shooing motion with her hand and said, “Go. I got this.”

It was dangerous, but if anyone could handle themselves, it was her. He nodded, making up his mind. “Be careful.”

Then, he turned to Jo and Eileen and tapped two fingers to their foreheads. He flew.

 

///

 

The Impala pulled into the cracked parking lot, the tire crunching over weeds and loose gravel. Sam peered out at the large, dark windows of the classrooms. The school must have been a private elementary school at some point, judging by the giant cross over the main entrance, but it appeared long abandoned. There was graffiti on the brick walls, and the unkempt grass was brushing the feet of the Virgin Mary statue that sat outside.

“You sure this is the right place?” Dean said, putting the car into park.

“It’s the address Max texted me.”

Dean hummed, not seeming all that happy about their current situation. “Looks sketchy to me. Hell, the whole thing’s sketchy! Max and Alicia don’t want their secret getting out. How do we know we’re not walking into a trap?”

Sam turned his eyes on Dean sharply. “Because they’re our friends.”

“Friends who never tried to contact you?”

“Can you blame them?” Sam said. “I mean, I get it. I get why they didn’t wanna join the Network. You remember when Gordon tried to hunt me?”

“Gordon was crazy.”

“Lots of hunters are crazy—or—or—misguided.”

Are they?” Dean shook his head. “Look, man, I don’t like thinking it. It’s Max, but are we sure that’s Alicia? We told him not to mess with that crap. It’s bad mojo.”

It was Alicia. Sam was sure of it. Even if it wasn’t her body, it was still her consciousness, if what happened to their mother was any indication.

“Magic isn’t inherently bad,” Sam told him. “It’s not inherently anything. It’s how it’s used that matters.”

Dean’s brows shot up high on his forehead. “You’re telling me bringing someone back from the dead isn’t black magic?”

Sam threw up his hand in defeat and let it slap back down to his lap, because it’s not like he could argue with that. But, “We’re ones to talk. Like we never messed with life and death? Dean, we’re alive now. You were dead for fifty years!”

Pursing his lips, Dean glanced away. “Forty-seven.”

“Forty-seven,” Sam echoed with an incredulous scoff. “Right, well, I’m pretty sure guys who have been dead for forty-seven years don’t get to celebrate their forty-second birthday.”

Dean twisted his face. “Who’s celebrating?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Let’s just… see what Max and Alicia have to say, alright?” he said, getting back on track. “We know them—we knew them. We know they’re good people, and good hunters. We owe them the benefit of the doubt.”

Dean’s shoulders dropped. He reached for the keys in the ignition and turned the car off. They got out of the Impala and walked to the school’s front door, both of them casting their gazes this way and that, more from caution than wariness. When they reached it, Sam half-expected the door to be locked, but the toe of his boot connected with a chain and padlock discarded onto the concrete. He shared a look with Dean, then opened the door.

The hallway beyond was littered with art and construction paper that had fallen from the bulletin boards on the wall, and Sam thought he heard mice squeaking from inside the walls. As they walked, he listened out for any other sounds, but nothing came. Despite all his talk about giving their friends the benefit of the doubt, his fingers itched to pull out his gun as a precaution.

Then, further down the hall, Max stuck his head out from one of the classroom doors. “Guys!” he called, waving them over.

Sam quickened his steps, Dean close behind him.

Max stepped back into the classroom, allowing them access—and the school might have closed down, but class was still in session. Six kids ranging from teenagers to as little as ten-years-old were sitting at the desks. Sam scanned each of them. One girl had a wilting potted plant in front of her, and she commanded it back into a vivacious green. There was a boy, a toothy smile on his face, dreamily watching a butterfly flap its wings around a glass enclosure.

Eventually, Sam found Alicia. She was crouching beside the desk of the youngest in the room. The antique birdcage from the Baneses’ cabin was on top of the desk, the bird with the lame wing still inside. Alicia was holding the girl’s hand, whispering encouragements or instructions to her. Soon, the bird contracted its wing, and then fluttered it, healed.

“What am I looking at?” Dean asked.

“A classroom,” Max answered.

“A class—Yeah, I can see that. What are they doing here?”

Sam tore his eyes off the students. “You’re teaching them magic.”

Max shrugged. “Mostly, we’re teaching them how to control it. They were born with magic—like me. I had my mom, but… they didn’t have anyone. So, now they have me and Alicia. These aren’t the only ones, either. We find them all over.”

It was a secret, Sam realized. Max was showing them all this because he trusted them.

Max went on, “We’re teaching them how to use their magic to help people—heal them, cure illnesses, that kinda thing. Like I said, the angels are gone. Someone has to step up.”

“And you thought that was you?” Dean asked.

“Actually, Alicia did,” Max said, tilting his chin toward his sister. Sam swung his eyes back to her, watching her smile happily at the little girl who fixed the bird. She must have felt Sam’s gaze, because she looked back, and her smile dimmed marginally.

“After… You know. What happened,” Max said, “things were different. She wasn’t like me and Mom. Magic didn’t come naturally to her.” Sam nodded, remembering. “But, then, when she came back to life, that changed. I dunno why. Maybe it’s the magic keeping her alive. But she didn’t know how to control it at first. It got kinda scary. I thought maybe you guys were right about not wanting to bring her back.”

He glanced over at them, a cheeky grin spreading on his face. “You weren’t, by the way.”

Sam let out a soft laugh at that, more convinced than ever that he was right.

“We got it under control eventually, but she was scared. She didn’t want anyone else to be scared—so, we started going around, doing this.”

“Opened yourselves a Hogwarts,” Dean said, his tone different than before. Less accusing, more placated. He was coming around.

As for Sam, he was astounded. He knew what it was like to have a power he couldn’t control, to wish it would go away and then, when it was clear it wouldn’t, to be desperate for a way to control it. Ruby wasn’t exactly the most ethical teacher though. After Lucifer got out of the Cage, Sam swore never to use his powers again. He only ever wanted to save people, but his abilities caused more harm than good.

Only harm, as it turned out.

He wondered if he had a better teacher, if he’d still feel that way. If he wouldn’t be terrified of that part of him getting out again—even now, even after so many years.

He remembered, when Eileen told him she was pregnant, his first reaction was fear. Because what if the baby was like him? What if Sam passed down the demon blood to their son? When it became clear Junior didn’t have any abilities, Sam was relieved—and maybe a little disappointed, too. Because a part of him still believed, despite everything, he could use them to help people—if only he had the right guidance. If only he had someone to believe in him.

Jack was proof of that, just as Sam hoped he’d be.

“So, what d’you think?” Max asked, knocking Sam out of his thoughts.

Sam met his eyes. He didn’t know how to answer that question. All this was making him think. Even after he swore off his abilities, he’d always been drawn to magic. It might have been why he and Rowena had become so close. When he died, he never thought he’d have the chance to practice it anymore. Now? He wanted to shake off the dust.

“You think we can sit in on today’s lesson?” Sam asked.

Max’s grin bloomed even wider. He slapped Sam on the back. “I dunno. Think you can fit in the desks?”

Sam laughed. Max might have had a point, but Sam was determined. He walked further into the classroom. Behind him, he heard Dean tell Max, “The nerd loves school.”

 

///

 

Castiel landed on a patch of tan, loose dirt. He looked down at it, and his gaze redirected to the sandals on his feet beneath bare legs. The world was filled with the uproarious cheers and jeers of a thousand people packed onto the stone seats of a stadium. He looked up at the azure sky over the colosseum. There was a jarring hiccup in the cheers as the loop started over again. Above, a flock of birds flying above the arena blinked out of existence and reappeared back where they’d started.

“Now this is more like it!” Jo exclaimed, causing Castiel’s attention to snap toward her. She was staring down at what she was wearing: body armor over a short tunic. A circular shield was strapped to her forearm, and a harpoon with an angel blade for the spear was in her fist. Her blonde hair was tucked into a visored helmet.

Beside Castiel, Eileen was similarly clad, but she held a short sword. A braid fell over her shoulder.

Jo glanced up, her brows lifting. She pointed at Castiel and said, “Okay, if Dean ever found out you wore that and he wasn’t here to see it, he’ll kill all of us.” There was exuberance in her voice, as if she were living out some kind of fantasy. Castiel had heard Dean use such a wistful tone in the past, usually whenever he made Castiel wear a cowboy hat.

Castiel knitted his brows together in confusion and looked down at what he was wearing. A red tunic poked out from the ends of golden-plated armor. Leather bands were on his wrists, and his blade had been transformed into a gladius. In his shadow that the sun behind cast on the dirt, he realized his wings were visible.

“Dean can never know,” Eileen agreed.

Castiel squinted at her, then again at their audience.

“What can Dean never know?” Charlie’s voice said.

Jo touched her earpiece. “Babe, we’re gladiators!”

“No fair!”

“This is someone’s good memory?” Castiel blanched. From what he recalled, these arenas were bloody.

A loud boom sounded behind them, and he quickly whirled around to find the doors beneath the stands opening. Two horse-drawn chariots rushed into the sunlight. They carried an angel each, their wings stretched out straight behind them to compensate for the wind. The angels had caught up to them much faster than before, and Castiel could only assume that was due to their proximity to the Garden.

“It’s gonna be a great memory for me later!” Jo called upon seeing the angels. She raised the harpoon over her shoulder and tossed it. It lodged into one of the angel’s wings, making him fall to the ground. Jo pulled out her sword from the scabbard on her hip and ran forward.

A chariot was headed right for Castiel and Eileen; the angel riding it leveled her spear. Eileen jumped out of its path, to the side, but Castiel took a different direction. He beat his wings to push off the ground and let the chariot rush by beneath him. He landed on the other side of it.

The angel took flight, too, somersaulting mid-air and flinging herself toward Castiel. The tip of her spear caught the sunlight. The crowd continued to roar.

Castiel flexed his wings out and collected his grace inside of them. Putting all his strength into it, he pushed them against the air. The force of it sent the angel backward in an uncontrolled arc. She hit the dirt in a cloud of dust.

Briefly, he looked over his shoulder, where Jo and Eileen were fighting the other angel, who had blood on his face. He used one wing to sweep Eileen away. Jo let out a ferocious yell and slashed at him.

Castiel went to where his sister had fallen. She remained laid out on the dirt and he could see her grace struggling to recover from the blow.

“I don’t want to kill you,” he said, trying to give her the same choice he’d given Jehoel. He never got that far. She cried out and picked up her spear, driving it into his gut.

He hissed at the shock of pain—which was more mental than physical. For a split second, he was certain he was dead.

And then he remembered. Only another archangel could kill him.

She must have known that, and still she made her choice.

Castiel wrapped his fist around the spear’s handle below the blade and pulled. Blood stained the silver.

At his back, there was a shout and the earsplitting hum of grace collapsing as the humans won their fight.

He turned the spear around and plunged it into the angel’s heart. At once, light spilled from her mouth and eyes. She erupted, then went dark. Her wings turned to ash against the dirt.

Castiel turned around to find Jo wiping blood from her mouth. Eileen’s face and arms were covered in dirt. The audience hissed again when the loop started over. The chariots’ wheels whined and the horses’ hooves thundered against the earth as they ran, spooked, in wild circles around the arena.

“Guys!” Kevin said. “Two more angels left the Garden. There’s only one left!”

Castiel, Eileen, and Jo looked at each other, each of them silently trying to come up with a tactic.

“We can draw the last one out,” Eileen said.

“Divide and conquer,” Jo agreed.

“There’s an empty heaven right outside the Garden,” Charlie told them. “Sector A-21-09.”

Movement caught Castiel’s periphery. The two angels who had flown from the Garden walked out of the doors.

“I can take ‘em!” Jo said. She ducked down and picked her harpoon off the ground. “You guys get the last angel.”

“Jo,” Castiel protested. If anything happened to her, Ellen would never forgive him. Charlie and Dean would never forgive him. And he would never forgive himself.

“Get the hell outta here!” Jo yelled. Then, recklessly, she ran to meet the angels in battle.

Castiel gritted his teeth, wanting to stay. But he knew she was right. There was only one angel left, the others either dead, trapped, or engaged. It left an easy path to the Garden. Their best strategy was to lure the last angel away from the Garden and clear the path for Jack and Amara.

He grabbed Eileen’s arm, and the last thing he saw before transporting them was Jo locking weapons with one of the angels.

When he touched down on a bright, manicured lawn, he was in his regular clothes again, which came as something of a relief. Eileen, too, was in the attire she’d been wearing at the Roadhouse. He released her arm when he was sure her dizziness from flight had worn off.

It was strange, but he felt somewhat off-balanced himself. There was a kind of buzzing in his ears, and he could only liken it to a dial tone. A phone left off the hook. Angel Radio, archangel or otherwise, was jammed up. He wondered if that was because they were so close to the Garden now. He shook the sensation away as best he could in favor of getting his first good look at their surroundings.

Instantly, he recognized it. Something like ice filled his chest. It dripped slowly downward, filling him with deep dread.

He knew this place. It had always brought him so much comfort. Though, it had taken him a long time to get that sense of serenity back. For a while, all he saw on this lawn was the charred wings and pallid faces of the angels he’d slaughtered. The image of them faded over time, but now it was all that remained in the absence of a kite fluttering in the breeze, of the man in the red sweater chasing after it.

How many of his slain brothers and sisters were back, ready to take vengeance on him now for what he’d done to them?

And the soul that had occupied this heaven? Was he among the first that they’d captured? While the others taken were random, this soul couldn’t have been.

Death and grief and guilt. It was all that was left. It lingered like thick fog.

“Castiel?” Eileen said, her voice low and soft, like she was speaking to a scared child. She placed her hand on his shoulder. It offered some comfort, but not enough. “Are you okay?” Her eyes flickered toward the park. “Where are we?”

“Tell her, Castiel.”

Castiel froze. The voice was ancient and all-too familiar. Slow and dulcet and cold, and yet still imbued with wrath and power. And now he understood why Angel Radio wasn’t working. It was purposefully being tampered with.

He should have known he’d see Raphael again.

He gripped his blade tighter and turned to face Raphael. Carefully, he kept his expression blank, not wanting to show even an ounce of fear. Raphael might have seen it though, in the defensive set of Castiel’s shoulders.

Beside him, Eileen took her cue from Castiel. She squared up and raised her blade, which would be useless against an archangel. Castiel held out his arm and stepped in front of her, making himself a shield between her and his brother.

“Here we are,” Raphael said. He was only a few yards away. In his female vessel, Raphael stood shorter than Castiel, and yet his grace towered. “Back where you first tried to defy me.”

“You’ll remember how that ended for you,” Castiel said with less confidence than he felt. He realized that Raphael had wanted him to come to this heaven. He’d waited, sent his soldiers forth, and Castiel inched closer and closer to the Garden, closer to this heaven. All that time, Raphael had been listening to them over the archangel frequency, knowing exactly where they were and waiting. Waiting and plotting his next move while Castiel was busy with the angels. Raphael wanted him distracted.

“I am God’s chosen,” Raphael said haughtily. The eyes of his vessel stared forward blankly. “I do not end.”

“Whatever he promised you, it’s a lie. He will kill us all.”

“Maybe you,” Raphael boasted, “but not me, Castiel. When our Father reclaims his throne, he has promised me a place at his side, and all the universe will bow to us.”

All this time, all those years in the Empty reliving his regrets, and Raphael would still follow a mad man? “He wants us to bow to him. That includes you.”

“And I will, gladly. Unlike you, I am not under the illusion of free will, Castiel. What makes you think you know better than God?”

Castiel ground his teeth. He wondered if Raphael actually had any regrets, after all. If he was even capable of it.

“You tried to fill his shoes once,” Raphael said, “and you were nothing more than a cheap imitation. A failure. Lucifer’s abomination is no better.”

On reflex, Castiel leveled his blade.

Raphael didn’t move. He stared Castiel down coolly. “You still don’t understand. He will always win. Can you say the same about your false god?”

Eileen stepped out from behind Castiel. “Yeah? At least he doesn’t send other people to do his dirty work—like a bitch.”

Raphael turned his gaze to her, eyes suddenly hardening. Behind them, Castiel saw his grace pulse. A moment later, Eileen gave a choked sound. Her hand flew to her throat as if she were trying to break free from an invisible noose. Her eyes were wide, looking to Castiel for help as she continued to gag.

“Enough!” Castiel yelled, anger and alarm filling him to the brim. He charged a few steps forward in warning.

“You always had such a weakness for these… lesser beings,” Raphael said.

Eileen fell to her knees, still struggling for air.

“They aren’t lesser.”

“Aren’t they? They’re so fragile. I will prove it. After I kill you, I’ll go after all those who you care for the most, and I will break them.”

It wasn’t a threat. It was an assurance, as cold as an iron sky promising a blizzard.

Castiel gathered all his power and let it loose. “Enough!” he yelled again, pushing his palm through the air. His grace flung forward in a white-hot stream. It knocked Raphael down. Castiel could taste his blood in the air.

Behind him, Eileen gasped in a large breath, like she was coming up from underwater.

Castiel didn’t look back. He stomped closer to Raphael. “I am stronger now than you have ever been. Go, or I will kill you.”

Not a threat. An assurance.

Raphael laughed darkly as he got back to his feet. Blood slid down from the corner of his mouth. “Castiel,” he said.

Castiel made the error of blinking, and in that time, Raphael had flown behind him. He grabbed Castiel’s arms and bent them backward. A burst of pain went through Castiel’s shoulders, and he tried his best to grip his blade tighter.

“You may have physical strength, but you lack malice,” Raphael lectured like it was a bad thing. “And, most importantly, you lack will.”

The words caused a wildfire to rage through Castiel’s veins. He twisted out of Raphael’s grasp and slammed his fist into his brother’s face.

“I have will,” he said, watching Raphael stagger backward. He pulled his shoulders back, gripped his weapon with intent. “And I will show you malice.”

Raphael stood up straighter, and his blade fell into his hand. He let out a yell and rushed forward. Castiel twisted out of the way, missing the point of Raphael’s blade. He tried to punch him again, but his fist flew past Raphael’s ear. And then, there was the pain of broken bones when Raphael’s elbow collided with Castiel’s nose.

Castiel jumped back, staring his brother down. Warm blood trickled out of his nose, but he didn’t divert his grace to heal himself. Not yet. He needed every last bit of it in guard. When the taste of iron filled his mouth, he spit the crimson blood out onto the green grass.

He ran forward, blade arching. It sang when it met Raphael’s blade between them. Raphael pushed against him, trying to force both blades to Castiel’s throat, and Castiel dug in his heels and pushed back with all his might. He stared hard into Raphael’s cold gaze.

And then, Raphael gasped and sputtered. It off-balanced Castiel momentarily before he caught himself.

Eileen had snuck up behind Raphael and stabbed him in the spine with her angel blade. The silver point stuck out of Raphael’s chest. Grunting, she drew it back with a sickly squelch. It did nothing but distract Raphael—but it was all the time Castiel needed.

He drove his blade into Raphael’s chest. Light burst around it. It filled his brother’s face, blinding—blinding even to Castiel.

Quickly, Castiel went to Eileen and shrouded her from the chaos akin to an exploding star consuming a galaxy. “Close your eyes!” he shouted. She buried her face into his chest, and Castiel turned away as the seismic boom of Raphael’s dying grace shook the earth.

And then it was over.

Castiel drew away, meeting Eileen’s eyes when she looked up at him. Together, they turned to Raphael’s body on the ground. His eyes were pale, his wings burned onto the grass, and Castiel imagined a thousand others scattered on the lawn. He tore his gaze away, letting guilt eat him alive—but only for a moment.

He couldn’t change the past. He could only create the future.

As if she felt the same, Eileen slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze. She offered a small, tired smile. “One more time?” she asked, holding up one finger of her free hand.

He smiled shakily back and nodded once. He mirrored her gesture. “One more time.”

He flew them to the Garden.

They stood on a path in the center of a vast display of pink and purple hydrangeas, sunny begonias, white lilies, and fragrant lavender. Wooden benches lined the path leading to a magnificent domed greenhouse.

Castiel let go of Eileen’s hand. He watched a slow, reminiscent smile spread onto her features as she looked around.

He tapped her on the shoulder, and when she looked at him, he signed, “What is this place?”

“The National Botanic Garden in Dublin,” she told him, awe in her eyes. “Sam brought me here once… It’s where he proposed.” She looked down the path, at the doors of the greenhouse. “Right there.”

Castiel followed her line of sight. Warmth washed over him as he imagined it. Humans put so much importance on marriage, when it was only a legally binding document recorded by fleeting governments and ephemeral empires. Love lasted longer, and was much more powerful, Castiel knew—but it was the gesture that mattered. He would be lying if he said he never imagined a ring on Dean’s finger.

And then his eyes adjusted, catching a glimpse of the writhing light inside the greenhouse. His grace tugged toward it.

He walked down the path, Eileen beside him, and pushed through the glass doors. The inside was balmy and hot, and colorful butterflies fluttered around the various greenery. Amara’s power sat in the center of it all, making the plants that surrounded it appear even more vivacious.

Eileen’s breath tripped audibly. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“Yes,” Castiel agreed. He closed his eyes and used Angel Radio to break through the barrier of Jack’s hideout to send him their location, and to tell him it was safe.

There was a gust of wind and the rustling of wings. Castiel opened his eyes and turned to Jack and Amara. Jack smiled widely at him. Castiel did a quick scan, making sure Jack was still whole and healthy.

“Jack,” he said, calm at last.

“Hi, Cas,” Jack greeted. “Hi, Eileen. Amara, this is Eileen.”

Amara raised her chin, examining Eileen. “Yes,” Amara said. “Jack’s told me about you. Sam Winchester is your husband. I’m—”

“Amara,” Eileen said. “I know. God’s your brother.”

Amara withered fractionally. “Unfortunately.” She turned her attention to the luminous power and started toward it, palm raised.

Castiel exhaled, relief filling him. He caught Jack’s eyes, then Eileen’s. The tension bled from Eileen’s shoulders as she let herself come down from the fight.

Amara brought her hand to the light. It built and built, filling the room.

 

///

 

After checking out, Sam walked out of the motel’s office and walked along the line of doors until he reached the Impala. The car’s engine was idling in its parking space while Dean finished up tossing the rest of their stuff into the trunk. Max and Alicia were standing next to him, the three of them saying their goodbyes.

Alicia glanced up, finding Sam. She gave him a soft smile, the wind causing her curls to flutter across her cheeks. When she left Dean and Max to join Sam on the sidewalk, Sam gave her disarming smile in return.

“So,” she said, shoving her hands into her jacket pockets. “Sorry again for not telling you we’re alive.”

Sam breathed out a quick laugh to show there were no hard feelings. Actually, it was the exact opposite. Something she’d said in the cabin had struck a chord with him.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “I mean, I get it. I know what it’s like… to be something you think people are gonna wanna hunt.”

She gave a strained laugh and glanced away. She tried to tuck her hair behind her ear, but the breeze caught it again. “What, you mean people wouldn’t be afraid of the half-witch, half-twig monster?”

“Trust me, there are worse things,” he said, shrugging. Then, he held out his upturned palm, gesturing to her. “But, for what it’s worth, you’re not a monster.” He watched that pass over her, her expression shifting into something more somber, and he hoped she was taking his words to heart. He wished he had believed them when he was younger. “You’re still you. And you’re still doing good work.”

She nodded shallowly. “Thanks, Sam,” she said softly, and Sam leaned down to meet her in a hug.

The two of them joined Dean and Max next to the Impala. As Dean slammed the trunk closed with an air of finality, Max said, “Well, you guys have our numbers now. So, I guess we’ll be seeing each other again.”

Sam hoped that was true.

“But if you could still keep it low key that we’re alive, it’s probably for the best,” Max added.

“Done,” Dean told him.

Sam nodded, silently promising that they would. If the Baneses didn’t want the Hunter’s Network to catch wind of them, their secret was safe with him.

Dean went to the driver’s side and opened the door with a whine. Over the Impala’s roof, he directed a small wave at the twins, then slipped into the car.

“See you around,” Max said when Sam opened the passenger door.

“You will,” Sam told him. He got into the car, and Max and Alicia moved onto the sidewalk while Dean backed out of the parking space.

Sam waved at them through the window. In the side mirror, he saw them wave back until the Impala turned onto the street and drove off.

 

///

 

Dusk had fallen by the time Castiel landed in the Roadhouse’s dusty gravel lot. He shared a tense look with Eileen, neither of them knowing what they’d find inside. Jody’s injury could have worsened, and who knew if Mary and Jo had made it out alive. Hoping for the best, he steeled himself. Eileen nodded at him, which afforded him some courage. The two of them walked into the bar together.

Relief flooded him when he set eyes on everyone who was inside. Ellen was behind the bar, pouring beer from the tap, and Kevin and Charlie were exactly where Castiel had left them. Mary and Jody, a bandage on her shoulder, were seated at the bar. Jo was at one of the tables.

Everyone quickly looked at Castiel and Eileen when they entered, their guards going up and then suddenly relaxing. Charlie jumped from her chair and rushed across the room. Castiel braced himself for an all-consuming embrace.

“You made it!” Charlie squeaked. Abruptly, she ended the hug and punched him playfully on the shoulder. “We won!”

He couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. “Yes. Thanks to all of you,” he said, his gaze sweeping around the room. It landed on Jody. He hadn’t allowed himself to think on it before, but if anything had happened to her, Claire would have never forgiven him.

“I’m glad you’re okay.”

“I’ve had worse,” Jody said, shrugging it off. “Maybe not to my soul before, but…” She pulled a face like the distinction between body and soul didn’t matter. She took a sip of her beer.

“Yeah, well, you lied to me,” Ellen accused, pointing sternly at Castiel. “You said we couldn’t get hurt in heaven.”

Briefly, Castiel’s eyes flickered to Jo, who stared back wearily.

“I believe I said you couldn’t die.”

“Uh-huh, ‘cause it’s ‘more complicated’ than death, right?” Ellen said, calling him out.

Jo groaned loudly and said, “Mom! Cool it, okay? We’re fine.”

“Yeah, and it was kinda fun,” Charlie said. That got a grumble of agreement from everyone in the room. Something like disappointment curled in Castiel’s gut, but then he remembered what Eileen had told him. He turned to her, and she shrugged.

“It was,” she agreed.

Perhaps all humans really did feel the same way at times during the afterlife, or maybe these humans were not like any other. They were exemplary. Castiel supposed he would simply have to accept that.

“Well, how about a toast to our first hunt in… God, half a century?” Mary suggested, picking up her own glass.

Castiel would like to stay, but he needed to get back to Earth. The job wasn’t done. “I have to go.” And he wasn’t the only one; although, it seemed Gabriel had already left. He asked, “Where’s Gabriel?”

“He’s gone,” Ellen said. “After Jack and Amara got the power, Gabriel dropped Mary and Jo back here and flew off to meet them.”

“He took the angels we captured to the lock up, too,” Mary said.

“Don’t worry, we thanked him for you,” Kevin assured him.

Castiel wished he’d had a moment with his brother. He wanted to know how the other angels were doing—what morality was like, if they were tired of hiding, wanting to fight. But he was sure Hannah had everything under control for now. He trusted her.

“Give Sam and Dean our best when you get back down there,” Jody told him.

“Yeah,” Ellen added, “and you let us know if there’s anything else we can do from here.”

He shook his head. Everything they’d done, they’d done without his instruction. They were all more than capable of defending themselves. “Keep up your guard,” he said. “Repaint the angel warding. The spell I placed around heaven’s gates may not last forever.”

Mary said, “No, but we will.” And he supposed they would.

“Alright, everyone who wants to do that toast better get in here,” Ellen said. Charlie and Jo wandered over to the bar to get their drinks. Eileen followed, snatching a beer up.

Excited chatter filled the room as the humans recounted their stories of the mission. Castiel lingered momentarily, taking them all in, their passion and their bravery and their resilience. And it was a shame, a voice in the back of his head told him, that Earth no longer had this place—and these people to fill it. And yet, still, even in death, none of them had stopped fighting for humanity.

Without them, Castiel might have ended up like Raphael or any of the other angels who blindly served God. Without them, Castiel might have been lost.

Eileen must have felt his eyes. She looked over her shoulder expectantly.

Castiel offered her a soft smile. He signed, thank you.

In acknowledgement, she raised her beer in a mini-toast toward him.

Castiel spread his wings and took flight, Earth-bound.

 

///

 

Dean followed Sam down the bunker’s stairs into the map room. His eyes were burning with exhaustion from the glare of headlights on the nighttime roads, and his neck was sore from hours behind the wheel. He slid his duffle onto the map table next to Sam’s, then added the weapons duffle that he’d been holding at his side.

“Well, that trip was a bust,” he complained.

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “We didn’t find any of Amara’s power, but it’s good to know Max and Alicia are still around.”

Dean guessed he was right, even though it barely justified the ache in his lower lumbar from sitting for eight hours. That all could have been avoided if the Baneses called Sam to tell him they were still kicking years ago, but it didn’t matter anymore. The point was, they could use as many powerful witches on their side as they could get.

As for the God power: “Yeah, hopefully Cas is having better luck.”

As if on cue, the bunker’s door whined open again. Dean looked up to the crow’s nest and found Cas walking through.

“Speak of the angel,” he muttered to Sam.

Cas wrapped his hands on the railing and looked down.

“Anything?” Dean asked.

“Yes. The power’s with Amara.”

Dean breathed out in relief. It was a pretty big relief to have Cas home, too. He hoped the two of them could stay on the same plane of existence for a while.

As Cas walked down the stairs to join them, Sam said, “That’s good. Two down.”

“Yeah, three to go,” Dean reminded him. They still had no idea where those other three pieces could be.

“At least, it’s something,” Sam said, always looking on the bright side.

Cas nodded, and then, “Everyone says hello.” Dean wondered who everyone was, but he didn’t ask. Cas would probably tell him about it later, when the shadows under his eyes were less pronounced. He didn’t look banged up—only tired. Dean could relate.

“And, um,” Cas said, turning his attention to Sam. “Eileen said to tell you… other things that I…” His eyes shifted awkwardly, “don’t want to repeat.”

Dean’s brows shot to his hairline in amusement that he turned on his brother.

Sam ducked his head into a shallow, embarrassed laugh. “Uh, got it. Thanks, Cas.”

Cas asked, “What about you? Did you find anything?”

“Max and Alicia Banes,” Dean told him. “No God power, though.”

“The witch twins?” Cas asked, pulling his brows together.

“Yeah, we’ll catch you up,” Dean promised.

“You guys do that,” Sam said, yawning widely. “I’m gonna hit it.” He picked up his duffle and headed to the hallway toward the bedrooms. “’Night.”

“’Night,” Dean echoed, and Cas said, “Goodnight, Sam.”

When the sound of Sam’s footsteps faded, Dean stepped closer to Cas. “Okay,” he sighed, wrapping his arms around Cas’ waist under his coat. Cas placed his hands on Dean’s shoulders, and the warmth that radiated off his palms instantly relaxed Dean’s aches and pains. He still didn’t know if that was Cas subtly healing him, or if that was just the comforting affect his touch had on Dean. Either way, Dean was glad to have him back in his arms. He wouldn’t admit that he missed Cas these last couple of days, but he was pretty sure Cas got the message.

“What d’you say we make some popcorn and pick out a movie?” he asked.

“Unless I’ve been away longer than I thought, it isn’t movie night.”

Dean shrugged. “I’m in the mood to shake things up a little.” It was a half-joke, but it was also half-serious. He had no idea when he’d gotten so old and boring.

Cas had gone quiet, expression contemplative as his eyes scanned Dean’s face.

Dean frowned in response. “What?”

Blinking, Cas shook his head. A small, gentle smile pressed onto his lips. “You pick out the movie. I’ll make the popcorn.”

“Deal,” Dean said before pecking a kiss to his mouth. He pulled away and picked up his duffle, leaving the weapons alone for now. He’d drop his bag off in his room before meeting Cas in the Cave.

He started walking in the same direction Sam had disappeared in when Cas said, “Dean?”

Dean stopped short. He looked over his shoulder. Cas opened his mouth to say something, but then his eyes dropped to the floor. He tensed his hands into fists at his side. Worry needled at Dean’s chest, making him wonder if something happened up in heaven.

“What is it?”

Cas looked up sharply again. He said, “I just remembered we still have some of the pie we bought at the farmer’s market. Should I bring that, too?”

Dean’s pulse settled, happy to know it wasn’t anything serious. Happy they were both home safe. “You think I’d say no to that?”

Cas smiled again. He nodded once.

Dean turned around and headed to their room.

Chapter Text

“Okay, easy. Watch his—Sammy, watch his head!”

Dean shifted Cas’ weight in his arms, which was tough to do because Cas wasn’t even helping. He was out cold, body slack and arms hanging off Dean and Sam’s shoulders as they tried to get him through the door of the motel room.

They just wrapped up a witch hunt in Provo, Utah. Sam clipped her with witch killing bullets, but not before she hit Cas with a spell to knock him out and cast another spell on Dean to slam him against a brick wall. Dean’s ears were still ringing a little, and the back of his head was tacky with blood, but he wasn’t concussed. He’d be fine. Cas, on the other hand, had only managed to regain consciousness long enough to mumble some words, and then he was out again.

“He’s slipping,” Sam grunted, trying to get a better hold on Cas. It was no use. He was falling out of Dean’s grip, too. Instead of correcting it, Dean picked up the pace and used the rest of his strength to drag Cas to the bed.

Panting heavily to catch his breath, Dean took a step back and watched Cas laying comatose on top of the shitty motel quilt. He was alive, and it was only a matter of time until the spell wore off, but Dean couldn’t help but to be a little distressed. Cas’ grace should have been able to combat the spell, so why the fuck wasn’t it?

“You’re sure he’s alright?” Dean asked, not able to bring himself to look over his shoulder at Sam. Cas’ hair was matted to his forehead, his clothes wrinkled.

“Yeah, the spell she used wasn’t that serious,” Sam assured him, and Dean really wished that made him feel better. He pulled at his mouth, trying to compose himself.

“Dean,” Sam said, placing a hand on Dean’s shoulder. Dean put on a brave face and finally looked around, into Sam’s concerned eyes. “You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean dismissed. “Just a little banged up. You know—brick wall. Why can’t they ever fling me toward a feather bed?”

Sam snorted a laugh, letting his hand slip off Dean’s shoulder. “Good question.”

Dean went to the end of the bed and pulled Cas’ shoes off. There wasn’t much he could do about the trench coat and suit, but he still wanted to make Cas comfortable. He yanked the covers out from beneath him and draped them over him, then rearranged the pillow under his head. He loosened Cas’ tie a little more than it already was so the guy didn’t hang himself in his sleep.

Cas almost never moved around while he was sleeping, but Dean figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

The motel room was tiny. When they’d checked in two days ago, the girl behind the counter said they only had one room left, which had one queen-sized bed. Exhausted after hours on the road, Dean said they’d take it. Luckily, the staff was able to roll in a cot, and Sam and Dean took turns sleeping on the bed. That night was technically Sam’s turn, but Dean guessed, now that Cas was recovering from the spell, Dean was getting the bed again.

While he continued to make Cas as comfortable as possible, Dean said, “Yeah, well, the bullet in the chest serves her right, right? She’s dead, I’ll sleep off the headache, and Cas’ll recharge his batteries. Everybody wins.”

Sam didn’t answer. When Dean glanced over at him, his brother was giving him a strange look, like he’d never seen Dean take care of anybody before.

“Sam?” he snapped, causing Sam to rattle his head. “You good?”

“Yeah,” Sam laughed. “Just tired, I guess.”

“Join the club.” Dean walked around to the other side of the bed and peeled off his jacket and flannel. “I think I’m gonna hit it. Guess Cas sorted out the sleeping arrangements, huh?” He sat down on the bed and pulled off his boots with a grunt.

“He did?” Sam asked.

Dean glanced pointedly behind him at Cas’ still unconscious form. “Kinda.”

You’re gonna sleep in a bed with Cas?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “No, Sam, I’m gonna sleep on the floor!”

Sam held up his hands in surrender, an amused look on his face. “No, hey. Just… making sure.” And Dean had no idea what that meant, but he was too tired and his head was pounding too much to argue about it.

As Sam unfolded the cot and got ready for bed, Dean shucked off his jeans and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He came back out, giving up the bathroom for Sam, and climbed into bed next to Cas. Before settling in, he ensured Cas’ pillow was comfortably supporting his head. Making sure the bathroom door was still closed—because Sam would never let him live this level of affection down—he brushed the hair away from Cas’ forehead.

Dean laid down on his side, watching Cas’ chest rise and fall. His eyelids were getting heavy. He dropped off to sleep before Sam even emerged from the bathroom.

 

///

 

The radiator in the corner of the grungy motel room kicked into life, pulling Dean slowly back into consciousness. There was sunlight behind his eyes. It filtered in from the crack between the curtains over the window. He drifted toward wakefulness on a lazy, warm current, unaware as of yet of Cas’ loving eyes memorizing his every feature…

“Hmm?” Dean groaned, still half-asleep and drooling. He was only on the cusp of consciousness, where reality felt like a dream and dreams felt like reality. He thought he heard someone speaking.

He scrunched his eyes tightly before letting them flutter open into the sunlight cutting down his face where it came in through the curtains. When his vision focused, he saw a pair of warm blue eyes just a few inches away. Cas startled, quickly tearing his gaze away and shifting to a seated position.

“Hey, look who’s up,” Dean said groggily, picking his head up. He knuckled at his eyes to get rid of the sleepies in their corners.

“Hello, Dean,” Cas said, tone low and soft. He was still looking anywhere but Dean, clearly knowing he’d been caught staring. “I… apologize. I wasn’t—”

“Being a creep?” Dean teased, propping his head up with his hand to look up at Cas.

A muscle in Cas’ jaw tensed. “Yes.”

Dean gave a dismissive snort. “Sure.” He glanced around the room, realizing Sam wasn’t anywhere to be found. Dean hoped he was picking up coffees and breakfast. They both wanted to get an early start to drive back to the bunker. “Anyway, how you feeling? That witch did a number on you.”

“I’m fine,” Cas told him, recovering from his embarrassment enough to look at Dean again. “Thank you… for taking care of me.”

Dean nodded, relief sweeping over him. “Gotta say, I was kinda surprised that KO spell worked on an angel.”

Cas looked down at his hands on his lap. “Well, my grace isn’t what it once was.”

Relief turned to cold panic. “What?” Dean asked, shooting up in bed. Why hadn’t Cas said something before? “Why? ‘Cause heaven’s sealed off?” That could be the reason. Heaven drew its power from the angels, and vice versa. The last time Cas was cut off, he practically became human.

“That’s possibly part of it,” Cas sighed. He shook his head ruefully. “It’s all my fault—”

“Whoa, hey,” Dean said, reaching out for Cas’ arm. How could Cas even think something like that? No one had known what Chuck had been planning all that time he was locked away. “C’mon, don’t start with that crap.”

Cas’ eyes were on Dean’s fingers where they were wrapped around his sleeve. Slowly, they traveled up Dean’s arm and rested on his face. He didn’t say anything in return.

Dean let him go and sat up fully, the motion causing the cut on the back of his head to throb dully. He grunted, hand automatically flying up to touch the wound.

“You’re hurt,” Cas said.

“Nah, I’m good,” Dean told him. “Just a little tender.” He touched the blood dried onto his hair and frowned. “And I need a shower. Think I’m gonna do that before Sammy gets back, then we can hit the road.”

“Okay, Dean.”

Dean got out of bed and stretched his arms over his head, feeling his back realign. He also felt Cas’ eyes on him, being a creep again. And if Dean knew Cas, his gaze was on the flash of skin beneath where Dean’s shirt had lifted up during his stretch. It brought a smirk to Dean’s lips when he turned back around. “You know, you’re looking pretty grimy, too,” he said, wiggling his brows. “Wanna join me?”

Cas’ expression immediately shuttered. “You—you want… You want me to shower with you?” he asked like it was an uncommon occurrence.

Dean hummed. “Well, it’s our sacred duty to conserve water, right?”

Cas blinked at him dumbly.

What?” Dean defended. “Jeez, you get hit in the head, too?” Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the bathroom. “You coming or what?”

A few seconds went by where Cas just kept staring at his back, and then he heard Cas practically trip over himself to scramble after him. The horny bastard. A rush went through Dean, but he kept it to himself. He turned on the water and started stripping out of his clothes.

Cas got out of his own clothes hastily, wide eyes fixed on Dean like he was afraid Dean was going to change his mind. And, yeah, fine, Sam would probably be back any minute—but who cares? Dean was willing to put Sam through another bout of trauma as long as it was funny. And as long as Dean got laid.

He stepped into the shower, letting the water fall in rivulets down his shoulders and chest. Breathing in the steam really helped his headache diminish, and the heat from the water relaxed the tension in his shoulders. As Cas stepped in and closed the curtain, Dean ran his fingers across his stubble, and figured he could get away with another day before he had to shave. Cas would probably insist though, since he got his rocks off shaving Dean.

First thing’s first, he reached for the small motel-size shampoo and squeezed some into his hand, lathering up his own hair. He turned to Cas, ready to do the same, but he realized Cas wasn’t even under the stream with him. He was standing statue-still, lips parted and eyes as round as dinner plates as he watched Dean.

Dean furrowed his brow, wondering if Cas actually hit his head on the hunt yesterday.

“What are you doing? Get over here,” Dean demanded. He grabbed Cas’ wrist and tugged him into the spray until their chests were basically touching. Shampoo suds were streaking down Dean’s face and getting into his eyes now. He grunted in annoyance and dipped his head under the water to rinse it out.

When he blinked the droplets away from his lashes again, Cas was still regarding him tensely. He didn’t even look like he was breathing. Dean was starting to get self-conscious, actually. He looked down, searching for whatever the issue was. All he saw was the water swirling down the drain and around their feet. Cas’ hands were in tight fists at his sides—and his dick was already filling out.

And leave it to Cas to not understand that an invitation to shower together was also an invitation for shower sex.

A wry smirk quirked Dean’s mouth. “You need some help with that?” he asked, pressing their wet skin fully together. He hooked his hands onto Cas’ sides and buried his face into his collar, sucking on the skin there. Cas’ breath snagged, sounding louder in the enclosed space of the bathroom.

“Dean,” he eked out, seeming like it took some effort. “Are you… Are you certain about this?”

“Told you, I feel fine. No concussion or anything,” Dean said between laying kisses to Cas’ neck. Cas’ eyes fluttered closed and he tilted his head to give Dean more room to work. By the time he got to the bolt of Cas’ jaw, Cas’ hands were touching him, featherlight and hesitant, like he still thought Dean was hurting.

Cas,” Dean whined. “I’m good.” They were both fine. They survived the witch, and Dean thought that was cause for celebration. He kissed Cas’ lips, hoping to reassure him, and then it was like the damn dam broke. Cas deepened the kiss in a frenzy. His hands flattened on Dean’s back, and the next thing Dean knew, he was pushed against the tile wall. Cas kissed hungrily. He pressed his hips into Dean’s. And that was more like it!

Dean widened his legs as much as he could without slipping. He groped at Cas’ ass, hauling him in even closer, desperate for friction.

With every kiss, he prayed this wasn’t a dream. As though answering those prayers, Cas grabbed Dean’s thigh and hooked his leg around him, drawing them impossibly closer—

“What?” Dean said, pulling away. He could have sworn he heard something.

Cas jerked his head back, staring at Dean with a swollen mouth and fear in his blown-out pupils. Dean’s leg was still around his waist. He glanced around, trying to listen out past the thumping of his heart and the hissing of the water.

“Dean…” Cas said, almost sounding apologetic.

“Did you just hear something?” Dean interrupted.

“Did I—”

“Like a voice?”

Cas’ expression became concerned. “Are you… hearing voices?”

Dean wasn’t sure. He’d heard something, but it had sounded like it was coming through a wall. Maybe someone was in the hotel room next to theirs and the walls were thin? It must have been the people next door. If he listened hard enough, he could still hear them in conversation on the other side of the wall.

He shook his head, trying to right himself. “No,” he decided. “I’m good.” Wanting to get back on track, he used his leg anchored around Cas to pull him in again. “Where were we?”

A relieved breath puffed out of Cas’ throat, a dreamy smile blooming on the heels of it. He leaned back in and sealed their mouths together again.

 

///

 

After the thirteen-hour drive back to the bunker, Dean really wasn’t in the mood to go to the grocery store, and it wasn’t really like he could use one of those grocery delivery apps for their super-secret Batcave. So, that resulted in them not having too much in the way of dinner. Dean put in an online order at the new—or new to him, since it’d been there for ten years—pizza place in town he’d been meaning to try and ordered two pies for pick-up.

He headed to the library, already pulling on his jacket and digging into his pocket to ensure the car keys were where he left them. Sam and Cas were inside the room when he arrived. “Hey,” he said, and stopped short when he realized how close the two of them were hovering together. Sam was holding a giant book open in his hands, and Cas was leaning in. They were both sporting some pretty serious faces and were whispering to one another.

Then, in unison, they both snapped their heads up to look at Dean like he’d just walked in on them talking shit about him.

Dean kicked out his leg and scuffed the heel of his boot against the floor when he came to halt. He jerked his head back awkwardly. “What’s with the huddle?”

“Nothing!” Cas answered way too quickly. He looked skittish—and kind of sweaty. Which was crazy because he didn’t actually sweat. Dean would know. He’d tried to make Cas sweat about a hundred times with no success.

“We’re just, uh,” Sam said, lifting the book in his hands a little higher. He pulled an innocent face and shrugged exaggeratedly. “Researchin’. Like we do.”

Dean’s eyes volleyed from side to side, trying to ignore how much his secondhand embarrassment was going through the roof. And he didn’t even know why. But Sam and Cas had been acting weird all day, and Dean hoped it was something that would blow over soon.

“Uh-huh,” he said, powering through. He walked further into the room. “Anyway, I’m making a food run. Figured we could try that pizza place in town. I wanted to order a meat lover’s but it was crazy expensive—‘cause beef, I guess. So, I got a cheese and a pepperoni. Cool?”

“Yup. Cool,” Sam said, and Dean was kind of surprised he didn’t complain about not getting a vegetable pizza or any of that gross shit.

“Yes, it’s… cool,” Cas said, tone stilted. Dean’s forehead lined in confusion, because it’s not like Cas was going to eat any of it. Cas tore his eyes away, staring down at the floor like it was the most fascinating thing in the world.

“Okay. Great,” he said, fondling his keys. He glanced over at Cas again. “You wanna take a ride, sweetheart?”

Sam jerked his neck over to look at Cas so quickly, it gave Dean whiplash. Cas picked his head up too, eyes widening. “I… Um…”

Okay, something was definitely up. Dean held out his arms. “Something you guys aren’t telling me?”

No!” Sam and Cas yelled at the same time. It was suspicious.

“No, just…” Sam began, closing the book in his hands. He walked forward, a smile plastered on his face. “Go get the pizza. Take your time. Me and Cas are kinda in the middle of—”

“Research,” Cas supplied.

“Right. Research.”

Dean narrowed his eyes at them, wondering how he’d gotten stuck with two of the world’s biggest freaks. He couldn’t deal with them on an empty stomach.

“Okay, then,” he said, crossing the room toward the exit. He stopped right before the map room and swiveled around, finding Sam and Cas in the exact same spot they’d been in before, watching him. He pursed his lips and held out his hand to gesture at the two of them. “Be normal when I get back, okay?”

He didn’t wait for a response before heading to the stairs.

The whole drive into town, Dean tried to come up with an answer as to why Sam and Cas were acting like total spazzes. It was as if they were trying to keep a secret from him—but what? It wasn’t his birthday until later in the month, and it wasn’t his and Cas’ made up anniversary. So, what could it be? He racked his brain, trying to come up with another important date, but all he did was come up short.

He was missing something.

Dean walked out of the pizza place, two boxes stacked in one hand as he got out his keys. A few kids were standing around the Impala, gawking at it and taking pictures like it was the t-rex skeleton in the Museum of Natural History. Smug pride filled Dean’s chest, even when the kids scattered upon his arrival.

He opened the passenger side door to set down the pizzas, his mind back on Sam and Cas’ collective freak out after the brief distraction.

He wondered, too, just how long Cas was sticking around this time.

Dean stood up so fast, he nearly bumped his head on the roof of the car. His hand automatically flew to his gun in his pocket. He looked up and down the sidewalk, trying to figure out who said that.

The kids were about a block away now, chatting and laughing among themselves, and no one new had stepped out of any of the storefronts. Dean bit down on his jaw, still searching the block. A car drove slowly past him and continued on to the stop sign.

Maybe he’d just overheard someone’s conversation—but he swore he’d heard Cas’ name. The voice had been clear as day. It was unfamiliar, but there was something about it that he’d recognized. He’d heard it in the motel that morning, he was sure of it.

He looked at his phone on his wrist, wondering if that stalker computerized personal assistant that was constantly trying to direct him to the nearest bar or strip club had said something. But he didn’t have a notification.

With one last wary look around, Dean walked around the Impala and slid into the driver’s seat. The strong scent of the pizzas was making his stomach grumble, and he wondered if he was hallucinating from hunger pains. But he’d been much hungrier in his life, and it’d never made him hear voices.

He rattled the thought away, determined to forget about it, and turned the keys in the ignition. The moment the car rumbled into life, the same voice began speaking.

Not that Dean blamed him for not wanting to stick around after everything that happened. But things were different now. Safer for all of them. Dean wasn’t sure he could watch Cas walk out the door with that in mind.

Maybe he wouldn’t have to. Cas seemed pretty enthusiastic in the shower that morning. But Dean knew his one-night stands tended to be just that. One night. No one ever stuck around. The few who actually made the mistake of staying always got hurt.

He didn’t want to hurt Cas.

Dean was white-knuckling the steering wheel. His eyes flashed to the rear-view mirror, finding the backseat empty. He swiveled around fully just to make sure. The radio was off—not like there was any radio anymore, anyway—and that definitely wasn’t his phone.

It was a woman. A girl, actually. She sounded young. She also sounded like she was sitting right next to Dean, waxing poetic about—what? Cas leaving? Dean’s heart was in his throat.

Was Cas planning on leaving?

As he eased Baby onto the street, heading home, Dean wondered if now was the right time to ask Cas to stay.

“Who’s there?” Dean demanded, his voice too loud in the enclosed space. No one answered. Dean took in a breath, running his hand down his mouth. “I can’t believe this,” he muttered. He was losing his mind. He was going insane. That’s it. He’d lost it!

But it didn’t feel like he was crazy. Whoever this girl was, she was speaking in clear, complete sentences. Sentences about him and Cas.

He stayed quiet for a long pause, just listening to the engine as he drove. His breath was held behind his teeth as he anxiously waited for the voice to start up again. It didn’t. He didn’t hear it again for the whole drive.

But then, among the squeal of the bunker’s front door opening, it spoke, as if it had been waiting for him to arrive.

The bunker’s heavy front door squealed open with its familiar greeting, welcoming him back home. Dean stepped into the crow’s nest and looked down into the map room, where Sam and Cas were sitting at the table, their heads bowed sternly. They both glanced up with twin expressions as somber as a funeral.

And, yeah, there Sam and Cas were, looking up at Dean like he’d just walked into an intervention. Christ.

He hustled down the grated steps, his confusion bubbling into rage. He couldn’t believe this shit was happening. He caught Cas’ eyes across the room—

—and saw them slanted with misery. Cas looked down again, unable to hold his gaze.

“Shut the fuck up!” Dean shouted at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam jump and Cas’ head snap back up urgently. Dean didn’t know if that was because of his outburst or if they were hearing voices, too. Maybe they were! Maybe that’s why they were acting so weird before. He dropped the pizzas on the table and pointed upward with one finger. “Do you hear that?”

“Uh,” Sam said, his eyes flashing to Cas. “Hear… what?”

Great, so he was alone in this. Perfect!

“The girl!”

“What girl?” Cas asked.

“Dean,” Sam said, climbing to his feet. He gestured toward the table like he was about to impart some really bad news that was better taken sitting down. Because Dean’s day wasn’t bad enough already. “Sit down. I—Well, me and Cas wanna talk to you.”

“Sit down?” Dean yelled. “I just told you I got a voice in my head narrating my life and you want to talk?” His glare moved to Cas, the sadness on his face deepening, and Dean didn’t know why.

Was the voice right? Was he leaving?

“I think this confirms it,” Cas said to Sam. “Whatever he’s hearing, it must be a part of the spell.”

Sam nodded, pressing his lips together. “That’s what I was thinking.”

Dean held out his arms akimbo, totally lost now. Did they know what was happening to him? “What spell? Please tell me you guys didn’t accidentally unleash a curse from the storage room again!”

“What?” Sam asked, face scrunching. He shook it away quickly. “No, Dean. Listen… We think, when that witch hit you in Utah, she put a love spell on you.”

Okay, now Dean was especially confused. “You think she did a what?”

“A love spell,” Cas said, voice rough and almost choked.

“No,” Dean said, past the point of finding any of this funny. “I’ve been under a love spell before. This ain’t a love spell. This is a Will Ferrell movie!”

“When were you under a love spell before?” Sam asked, looking at Dean like he was the crazy one. And, okay, maybe he was. Or maybe they were actually onto something and that witch did mess him up somehow.

“Dean.” Cas stood up, walking halfway around the table before stopping himself abruptly. He drew in a breath, eyes downcast. “What happened this morning… in… in the motel’s shower…”

Why was he bringing that up, especially in front of Sam? “What about it?”

Cas shifted awkwardly. “We had intercourse.”

Dean shared a look with Sam, who actually seemed worried instead of grossed out. “And? We do that a lot.”

“No, we don’t.”

He said it with such self-assured sincerity and genuine concern that Dean found himself actually doubting their entire relationship for a second.

This couldn’t be right. Dean knew his feelings for Cas were his own. He’d felt them long before Provo. Hadn’t he? Suddenly, he wasn’t so sure.

Dean ignored the voice, focusing instead on Cas. “What are you talking about?”

“We think,” Sam said, “you were hit with a love spell that’s making you… go after Cas.”

Hurriedly, Cas added, “Dean, I never meant to take advantage of you. If I had known, I never would have…” He shook his head like he was the guiltiest bastard alive.

Okay. Dean thought he understood what was happening here. That witch did hit him with some kind of spell, and she got Sam and Cas, too. Except theirs was some kind of memory spell.

Dean found himself chuckling, even though this wasn’t funny. He placed his hand on the table and leaned into it. “Right. Sure. Quick question: before Utah, what was the last hunt we went on?”

“Uh, Worchester,” Sam said with a shrug. “With the nun and the haunted painting.”

Oh, they were that far back? Dean tried to think about what had been going on in their lives around that time. He was pretty sure Cas was still living on borrowed grace, which made his comment that morning make sense all of a sudden. But there was another point of reference, one Dean could way more easily prove.

He took off his jacket and pushed up his rolled sleeve to his elbow, showing them his bare arm. Both of their expressions turned perplexed.

“See?” Dean told them triumphantly. “No Mark of Cain! That witch hit you guys, too.”

But neither of them looked convinced. Dean's stomach constricted.

Sam asked, “What’s the Mark of Cain?”

 

///

 

“…And now we’re back here on Earth looking for Amara’s powers to stop Chuck. This ringing any bells?”

Dean had spent the last half hour trying to catch them up on the last 50+ years, which wasn’t exactly easy. He rushed through it, giving them only the major highlights, but maybe he should have gone more into depth because Cas was still looking at him like he was crazy.

Sam, however, was pinching his brows, eyes darting back and forth in thought. He leaned back in his chair and said, “Yeah… Wait. Cas, Dean’s right.”

Dean had never been so happy to hear those words. “Thank you!”

“I remember,” Sam said, shaking his head like he couldn’t believe he’d ever forgotten.

They both looked at Cas across the table, who stared off at the corner for a long pause. He had his jaw set, his fist posed in front of his lips. He spread out his hand in a frustrated gesture. “I don’t remember any of this.”

Dean deflated, all of his hopes shot down. At least he had Sam on his side—but he wanted Cas. He tried not to get ahead of himself, but he was starting to panic that this would be permanent. What if Cas never got the memories back and they had to start at square one? Dean didn’t think he had it in him.

“It must still be the spell,” Sam said. He looked at Dean. “Are you hearing the narration now?”

Dean paused, listening out. Thankfully, everything was quiet. “No. Not since I got home.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gone. You said you don’t hear it all the time?”

“It comes and goes,” Dean answered. “So, what? We’re thinking that witch in Utah hit us with something?”

“Maybe. But it affected us all differently.” Sam gestured to each of them in turn. “You’re hearing voices. Me and Cas lost our memories, but it looks like, whatever it is, it’s stronger for Cas. I’ve never seen a spell do that.”

He took his phone off his wrist and set it on the table, putting it into laptop mode. “Maybe that can help me narrow down what spell she used so we can counteract it.”

Dean nodded haplessly. He lifted his eyes up to Cas, who sat there neutrally. Dean looked at the computer, then back at Cas. Something was wrong. “Hang on. That’s not weird to you?” he asked, indicating the computer.

Cas narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing it. “Should it be?”

Dean and Sam shared a look.

“Cas, you know what this is?” Sam tried to clarify.

“Human technology.”

Okay, that answer wasn’t helpful.

Dean looked at him hard. “What year do you think it is?”

Cas rolled his head to look at Dean, expression bitchy. “According to which human calendar?”

It was the only answer Dean needed. He urgently turned his focus on Sam, who seemed equally alert. “He’s supposed to be stuck in—what? 2015?”

“Yeah, there about,” Sam said, thinking hard.

Dean jumped on it. “Okay. We didn’t have this shit back then. If it’s not weird to him, then—”

“It’s not a memory spell,” Sam finished for him.

“Then what is it?”

Sam shook his head. Then, he leaned in closer to the table, seeming ready to get to work. “I’m gonna call Claire, see if she’s ever heard of anything like this.”

“Claire?” Cas asked.

“Novak,” Sam said, scrolling to her contact number.

“Jimmy’s daughter?” His expression shifted ever so slightly, giving away his anxiety, but only if you knew him. Dean had forgotten how inexpressive Cas used to be, even at that point in their lives. He had to rip his eyes away from Cas’ face, because his chest suddenly felt too hollow.

“Yeah. Long story,” Sam answered flippantly while the phone rang.

Claire picked up on the third ring. “Hey, loser.”

Cas’ brow collapsed.

“Hey, Claire,” Sam said into the laptop. “Where are you guys?”

“In the car, crossing into Maine. Why? What’s up?”

“Hey, Sam,” Kaia interjected.

“Hey. Dean and Cas are here, too,” Sam told them. “We have a—uh. A situation here. Wanted to get your take on it.”

“Okay, shoot.”

They caught them up. On the witch in Provo, on the voice Dean was hearing, on whatever the hell was going on with Cas. Every few seconds, Dean would glance at Cas, who seemed really uncomfortable every time Claire spoke. He didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes on the table—and Dean didn’t know how to comfort him.

“Sam was able to break out of the spell, but Cas is still in it,” Dean wrapped up. “We think that witch might’a done something.”

“I don’t know,” Kaia’s voice came through the line. “You killed her, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So, the spell should have died, too. Even if it didn’t, it shouldn’t last this long.”

“Castiel, you have no memories?” Claire asked.

Cas’ head jerked up, eyes landing on Dean like he was calling mayday. His throat bobbed when he swallowed hard. Slowly, he leaned into the table. “None past when… Well, I was human. And I became an angel again after I—”

“Got it,” Claire interrupted.

“Yeah, but it’s not a memory spell,” Dean told her. “Cas still knows it’s now. And where his memories stop—That was right around the time I got the Mark. He doesn’t know about that.”

“There are a few other things I didn’t remember while I was under the spell,” Sam said. “Things that I should have known about. Like the demon blood.”

Dean would have given anything to forget about that.

“Uh-huh…” Kaia mused.

It sounded promising. “Uh-huh?” Dean echoed. “What’s uh-huh?”

She didn’t answer directly. “When you hear the voice, what’s it saying?”

Dean shrugged. “I dunno. Personal crap.” They probably needed more to go on, but no way was he sharing the gritty details. “Stuff I’d never think—Or, I mean, I would just not like that. I don’t know! It feels like I got a romance novel audiobook in my head!”

There was heavy silence over the line. And then one of them let out a sound like they couldn’t hold back their laughter anymore. They laughed for a good ten seconds. Dean stared at the laptop screen, not knowing if he should be offended or self-conscious. He was a little bit of both.

When the laughter died down, Claire said, “You’re in a fanfiction!”

Dean looked at Sam, wondering if he had any idea what they were talking about. Sam frowned and shook his head. Some distant memory tingled at the back of Dean’s brain. “Wait, like that shit Becky Rosen used to write?”

“I don’t know who that is,” Claire said, humor still licking her tone. Kaia laughed again.

But what Dean said must have jogged Sam’s memory, because he said, “They’re writing it about Chuck’s books?”

“People still read that crap?”

“Yeah,” Claire said. “It could be the books, but from what you said, it sounds like the TV show.”

Dean blanched. “There’s a TV show?”

Sam started typing immediately.

“Yeah. It’s pretty bad, but in like, a good way,” Claire said.

“You watched it?” He was fully offended now.

“I wanted to see who played me! But they haven’t gotten up to that yet, last time I checked.”

Sam slapped Dean’s arm, and Dean crowded in to look at the screen. Cas got up and walked around the table to join in, but Dean wasn’t paying attention to that. He was too busy staring at the images on screen. He made a disgusted noise. “Oh, come on! Those guys look like underwear models!”

“They’re hot,” Kaia chimed in, not being very helpful.

“Yeah, we’re gay, but they’re hot,” Claire added.

Apparently, Sam didn’t let any of it phase him. He said, “Looks like it’s been on for nine years. That’s pretty impressive.”

“Oh, yeah, like Law and Order with monsters,” Dean groaned.

“It’s got a cult following,” Claire said, which made sense because so had the books. Dean just couldn’t imagine why anyone would watch that.

By that time, Sam had clicked onto some blogging website. “Yeah, looks like it,” he said. “And, hey, check this out.” He read, “‘I’m glad the show took out the MOC story line. It was way too soap opera-y and I’d rather see Dean wrapped up in a snuggly blanket while I spoon feed him pie.’”

“Too soap opera-y?” Dean scoffed. “Screw you, that was a traumatic time for me!” He really couldn’t argue about the second thing though because, at that very second, he kind of wished he was wrapped up in a snuggly blanket being spoon fed pie.

“Makes sense why Cas doesn’t remember it though,” Sam told him, focusing on the matter at hand. “And, if that’s what the show’s up to, it’s what people would be writing about. Maybe that’s why you only hear it sometimes, too. It only happens while she’s writing.”

Dean rubbed his eye. “So, someone’s writing a fanfiction based on a TV show based on a book based on our lives? And I’m tuned into it? Am I getting that right?”

“Looks like it,” Claire said.

“How? The witch?”

“That doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Maybe it’s another witch?”

Still standing over them, Cas said, “It could be the person who cast this spell is the one that’s writing this… fanfiction.”

Claire let out a noncommittal sound. “No idea.”

“Okay, thanks, Claire,” Sam said, wrapping up the call. “We’ll let you know how it goes.”

“Oh, please do!” Claire yelled emphatically. “I’m dying to know how—”

Dean reached over and hit the end call icon, cutting her off.

“So, what now?” he asked.

Sam blew out his cheeks. “Now, I guess we… read… some… fanfiction.”

 

///

 

For the next few hours, Dean avoided Cas, even if he pretended he wasn’t. He kept his nose tucked inside his research. None of the words he read managed to stick. His thoughts were on Cas. Always on Cas.

It seemed unreal that he hadn’t felt this way before the witch hunt. It was tempting to claim he didn’t but, in the deepest parts of himself he never allowed to see the light, he knew it wasn’t true.

Dean tried to push the voice to the back of his head, telling himself it was just a figment of his imagination. Kind of. It was a figment of someone’s imagination, anyway. He was just getting a front row seat to it, like his own personal radio station that only played porn. Which might have been awesome if that porn wasn’t about him—and if it didn’t come with all the annoying, mushy plot surrounding it.

He turned the corner into the kitchen, finding Cas sitting at the table, staring down at his hands. Cas glanced up upon Dean’s arrival, a small and awkward smile coming to his face.

There was an image of Cas in the forefront of his mind. The despair, the grief, the shame that Cas had worn on his face when he and Sam told Dean about the love spell. It was enough to give Dean pause. He questioned his own feelings, yes, but he had to question Cas’, too. Was it possible Cas felt the same way? That it was something beyond loyalty, or friendship, or devotion? Was it real?  

He’d never let himself consider either of their feelings, too convinced it would lead to disaster. Too convinced there was nothing to find. There couldn’t be. Not for them. It would end in the ruination of them both.

Dean cleared his throat, stepping into the room. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Cas said, casting his eyes downward again.

This was stupid. Why did Dean feel so weird around him? It was Cas! It had been decades since there’d been so much tension between them. Dean almost forgot what it was like.

He slid into the seat across from Cas at the table. “Still nothing?” he asked hopefully, even though he already knew the answer.

Cas shook his head apologetically. “I’m trying to remember.” He said it like he was letting Dean down. “I want to remember… Everything you said. About… us. And—and Jack. I wish I could remember him.”

A pang of remorse shot through Dean’s heart, even though he didn’t know why. It wasn’t his fault Cas didn’t remember the kid, but he hated the idea of Cas not knowing who Jack was. How much Jack had changed him—changed all of them. In Dean’s case, made him worse, and Dean was actually kind of okay with Cas forgetting that part. “Yeah,” Dean said, dipping his head and rubbing at the back of his neck. “You will.”

Since earlier, the hollow feeling in Dean’s chest only got worse. The crater of it opened up wider and wider every time he thought about how much Cas had forgotten. About their life. About him.

About them.

Hell, part of him was even a little jealous in that regard. Cas had no idea what was in store. There was some version of him that would live it all again, and some version of Dean who would be figuring it out right alongside him. The two of them, falling for each other again and again. Not because of fate. It was something they’d build together from the ground up. Something—the only thing—that was real.

The much more dominant part of Dean wouldn’t wish that journey on his worst enemy. And he wanted his best friend back.

When he looked back up, Cas was regarding him—but there was something different than the way he usually stared at Dean. It was like he was holding back. Restrained. It was the way he used to look at him, Dean remembered, from before they were together.

“Dean,” Cas asked haltingly. “Are we really…” He left it hanging in the air, like saying it out loud would jinx them.

Dean nodded, pushing a low wattage smile. “Yeah. We are.”

Cas’ features lightened, becoming almost serene. It was still weird for Dean to think that anyone could love him that much.

“What’s it like?”

“Good,” Dean said, not really knowing what else to say. “It’s good.” It sounded lame, but how could he sum up close to forty-five years of their life together? He felt like he had to give Cas something. Maybe details would jog his memory. “We have a dog. Miracle.”

Cas lifted his brows, interested.

“And a house,” Dean went on.

Okay, so he sucked at giving details.

Still, Cas seemed to be considering it. He ducked his face again, smiling shyly down at the table.

Cas brought his gaze up again soon after, as if he couldn’t stay away for long. Their eyes were drawn to one another like a moth to a porchlight.

Dean wanted to roll his eyes at that metaphor, but Cas was still gazing at him. So damn fondly. Like he didn’t believe Dean existed.

“Are we happy?” Cas asked.

Dean’s stomach clenched. Cas asked that so often, and every time Dean answered, it felt like a lie. But what was he supposed to say? Dean loved Cas and he wanted to be with him. That wasn’t the problem. It was everything else. It was Dean. He was the problem.

But Cas wasn’t talking about that. He was asking about them—their relationship. Maybe it didn’t have to be a lie. Maybe Dean could answer without feeling like he’d failed Cas.

Or maybe Dean could tell Cas the truth. Could tell him everything. Maybe, now that Cas didn’t remember centering heaven around him, he wouldn’t be so hurt or angry that Dean wanted the gift receipt. Maybe Dean could get away with speaking his mind without offending Cas.

Dean opened his mouth, and the words died on his tongue. He couldn’t let Cas down, especially not with Cas looking at him like he hung the moon. “Yeah. We’re really happy.”

Cas’ eyes were twinkling, and Dean wished he could remember. It was a funny thing to think with the guy sitting right across from him, but he missed Cas. All of Cas.

Before they could say anything else, Sam came in, his tablet open. “I think I got it,” he reported.

Dean sat up straighter, alert. “Really?”

“Yeah. So, check this out—I’m on this website that looks like it’s just for fanfiction,” Sam explained, sitting down next to Dean and angling the screen so they could all see it. “There are like—a billion Dean-slash-Cas stories on here, which is crazy because the site can’t be that old. It’s still in beta.”

Dean leaned in, looking at a few of the links on the screen. His eyes strayed to the side, where it showed how many works were in the Dean/Castiel tag, and he gaped at the number. How many people were fantasizing about him naked? Self-consciousness creeped in. “Don’t these people have anything better to do?”

Sam scoffed out a laugh before changing the screen to a different tab. “Anyway, there’s one specifically that started posting a few days ago. It’s about Dean getting hit by a love spell, and Cas is the one he latches onto. And, get this: It takes place in Provo.”

Dean shared a heavy look with Cas over the table. “Who’s the author?”

“Uh, the username is—” Sam said, turning the tablet back to him. “Hellercat2049. I tracked her IP address—Again, in Provo. It belongs to a girl who goes to the local university. Heather Freeman.”

“Okay,” Dean said, slapping the table as he stood up. “Let’s go pay her a visit.”

 

///

 

“So far, no sign of her,” Sam said over the phone. They got to Provo a couple of hours ago and found Heather’s apartment building. It wasn’t a campus building, which thankfully meant it wouldn’t have much in the way of security, but it was still close enough to campus that there were banners hanging from the streetlights advertising the upcoming basketball game.

They’d been sitting there for what felt like forever. Around them, the night was spotted with pools of light from the streetlamps and the blue glow of a nearby campus emergency call box. The window of Heather’s third floor apartment was dark, but it was too early for her to be asleep just yet. That meant she wasn’t home.

Dean parked the Impala across the quiet street from the building, and he and Cas stayed there to keep an eye on the front door. Sam was a block away on the other side of the building in the direction of campus, watching out for Heather walking back to her apartment.

Sam called Dean to check in, but there was really nothing either of them had to say. Dean tried to keep himself patient, because that’s what stake outs required. His knee bounced anyway.

During the drive back to Utah, he’d heard Heather’s voice a few times. Once, he blasted the music to try to drown her out. It didn’t work.

“Yeah, we got nothing,” Dean agreed over the phone.

“She’s gotta turn up eventually. We just have to—Wait!”

Dean tensed, becoming more attentive. His head turned toward the passenger seat, locking eyes with Cas.

“I see her,” Sam reported, voice lower now. “She’s headed to you. Two minutes out. I’m gonna hang back for a sec so it doesn’t look like I’m following her.”

“Great. Good,” Dean said eagerly. “We’ll stay on her.”

“Stay in the car until I get there,” Sam said. “We’ll plan our next move.”

Dean agreed, and he hung up the phone. About a minute and a half later, the figure of a young woman turned the corner around the building. She was in a puffy coat and winter boots, a backpack sitting on her back like a turtle shell as she hunched in on herself to ward off the cold. She skidded a little on a patch of ice on the sidewalk, arms flailing out for balance—and Dean had to admit, she didn’t look like an all-powerful witch. She just looked like a college girl. But appearances were deceiving.

“There she is,” Cas said, pointing out the obvious.

They watched her disappear into her building’s front door. A minute later, the light in her apartment’s window turned on.

“Are we certain she’s a witch?” Cas asked, voicing his own reservations.

Dean had no idea what else she could be. Maybe a telepath, but she’d have to be a pretty damn strong one to reach across state borders. The only one Dean knew of who was that powerful was Andy Gallagher, and he and Sam met for beers once a week up in heaven; and, as far as Dean knew, there weren’t any super-charged demon blood babies left on Earth.

“I dunno. Maybe she could be like, a prophet?” Dean said, grasping at straws. “Ya know, like Kevin or Donny? Except hornier. What do you think? You got the name Heather Freeman written on your eyeballs?”

Cas shook his head despondently. “No. She isn’t a prophet, but it’s possible that, when Jack became God, he created new prophets. We’d have no way of knowing.”

That didn’t sound like Jack, and it didn’t really jive with his hands-off approach, but Dean guessed it wasn’t impossible. It didn’t sit right, though. Prophets only saw what was going to happen; they didn’t create realities.

“Yeah, the only guy who’d know that is an amnesiac.” It was supposed to be a joke. It didn’t feel like one. He pushed a grin, and Cas gave the barest of polite smiles down at his lap.

“Yes,” he whispered. He really had no idea what Dean was talking about.

“Yeah,” Dean stared at the steering wheel. “Gotta say, Cas. I can’t wait to have you back.”

“I’m right here,” Cas said, bristling, and Dean couldn’t help but think that if it was today’s Cas, that sentence would have come out a lot sadder. Either way, Dean regretted what he’d said.

He didn’t want to argue. They did that a lot back in the days Cas was stuck in. Argue. Over stupid things that felt like the end of the world at the time. He wished he could take back half the shit he’d done and said, but he couldn’t. And Cas always forgave him, anyway, even when it was the stupidest thing he could have done. Even when Dean didn’t deserve it.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he backtracked. Because that’s what it had always come down to, hadn’t it? They never meant what they said, and it was practically an act of God to get them to say what they meant. Cas didn’t understand that yet.

Dean raised his eyes, looking out at the dim glow of the streetlight outside the apartment building.

“I just… Me and you, we went through a lot of shit. We put each other through a lot of shit. And it took us a hell of a long time to get where we are—or, I dunno, to realize we were kinda there the whole time. Or most of the time, I guess.” He turned back to Cas, who was looking at him and listening intently. Dean’s chest hurt, like his heart was trying to push out of his body and land in Cas’ lap, where it belonged. He shook his head ruefully. “I guess I just don’t wanna do it without you. And I really don’t want you to do it again without me.”

Cas let out a shaky breath and dropped his chin. His throat clicked when he swallowed. And then, “I love you.” He said it like it was a secret. Like it was something he was afraid of letting out.

It still scared the fuck out of Dean some days, too. Like today.

He slid his hand under Cas’ jaw, lifting his face up marginally. He felt more grounded for it. “I know, dove.”

Cas’ brow pinched slightly, and Dean didn’t dare to hope that was recognition in his eyes.

“Me, too,” Dean said, and he felt Cas’ smile against the heel of his palm.

“Can we…” Cas began uncertainly. “Do we, um…”

Maybe if this had been all those years ago, Dean would have told him to spit it out. But Cas had always been bad at asking questions, especially when it came to asking for things he wanted. And Dean recognized the look in his eyes.

“You want me to kiss you.”

“Very much.”

Dean chuckled and scooted closer to him across the seat. He placed his other hand on Cas’ jaw and stroked it with his thumb, leaning in.

Cas’ lips were hesitant at first, nothing more than featherlight kisses as if he were fearful that anything else would drive Dean away. Would make it too real. But Dean wanted real. His heart ached for it, cracking open for all the yoke to spill out. He parted his mouth and darted his tongue against the seam of Cas’ lips, silently asking for access to—

Dean jerked himself away. Cas’ shoulders went rigid, eyes wide in panic, like he knew all this was too good to be true.

Dean ignored it for now. “She’s writing again.”

The look of pure terror fell away, and Cas’ face rearranged into concern. “You can hear her?”

“Oh, I can hear her.” He glared at the yellow light spilling from Heather’s window and decided enough was enough. He was done with the cheesy romance novel lines and he was done with Cas’ memory loss.

He pulled his gun out of his waistband and checked to make sure it was still loaded with the witch killing bullets.

“Dean, what are you doing?”

“Screw this,” he grunted. He shoved open the Impala’s door and got out, then crossed the empty street to Heather’s building. Behind him, he heard Cas get out of the car and follow after him.

In his periphery, he saw Sam come around the side of the building, but he didn’t stop, even when he heard Sam urgently call his name. Sam started jogging toward them. Dean ripped open the door and stepped into the entrance stairwell. He took two stairs at a time in his haste.

When he reached Heather’s door, he readjusted his grip on his gun. He stepped back and sent a forceful kick right below the doorknob. By that time, Sam and Cas had caught up to him. Dean kicked again, and the door splintered and swung open. Inside, there was a shriek of terror. Dean rushed into the apartment, Sam and Cas right behind him.

The apartment was a small studio, barely bigger than a typical college dorm. It had a tiny fitted kitchen and a table, a bed, and a desk, which Heather was currently jumping up from. Her computer was left open on the surface. She grabbed her purse off the desk and scrambled onto her bed to cower into the corner. Fumbling, she took out a bottle of pepper spray from her bag and held it up toward Dean. And Dean had no idea how that was supposed to protect her from a gun.

It also seemed like a really weird weapon of choice for a witch.

He glanced around the apartment, his eyes immediately falling on the transparent, life-size image of two men sitting on what looked like a car’s bench seat. There was no car around them. One of them had his hands tucked under the other’s jaw, and their kiss was suspended in time, looking like someone hit the pause button on a movie.

Dean pinched his brows, getting a better look at the two of them. They looked like those actors from the Supernatural TV show. His eyes refocused to the bookshelf behind them, lined with what looked like the full collection of Chuck’s Supernatural books. His gaze darted to the TV show poster on the wall over the bed, those same male model types striking a serious pose.

Finally, he looked at Heather, whose expression was that of utter, bone-deep terror.

“I don’t have any money!” she cried out.

Something was seriously not adding up here.

“Dean,” Sam said cagily, coming up behind him. “I—I don’t think she knows who we are.”

“I have no idea who you are!” she yelled, still holding up her pepper spray.

Dean didn’t believe it. She had to be lying. “Then how are you in my head?” he demanded.

“I’m not! I don’t—Please! You have the wrong person!”

His eyes flickered back to the frozen, transparent figures. “We’re them! You’re writing about us.”

“What? No, I’m—They’re from a TV show!”

Dean’s confidence wasn’t so much wavering anymore as it was crashing and burning. She really had no idea what was going on. He kept his gun leveled, just in case, and looked over his shoulder. “Cas,” he said, knowing Cas would understand what he was asking for.

Cas opened his mouth, eyes hesitant. But then he seemed to resolve whatever internal struggle he had. He walked toward Heather slowly. Instantly, Heather started shouting for help and trying to push herself further into the corner. The pepper spray came out in a steady, hissing stream, hitting Cas’ chest. Cas sighed in a put upon way, and touched two fingers to her forehead.

Dean didn’t know what exactly he showed her, but she stopped screaming. When he lowered his hand, she blinked up at him—confused and spell-bound and disbelieving.

“No, that…” she stammered. “You’re—But it’s not real. You’re—”

“Dean and Sam Winchester,” Dean told her, getting to the point. “And that’s Cas.”

Heather pulled her knees up to her chest and started panting. “I’m dreaming. That’s it. This is a dream—or I’m going crazy.”

“Yeah, that’s the same thing I said when I started hearing your voice in my head!”

“Dean,” Sam said pointedly. “The gun.”

Dean had honestly forgotten he was holding it. It was more of a security blanket than a weapon at this point. Huffing, he stowed it away.

“My voice in your head?” Heather asked. She poked the middle of her glasses, pushing them back into place on the bridge of her nose.

Dean gestured toward her desk. “You’ve been writing porn about me and Cas!”

Her eyes practically popped out of her head. “Oh my God. You know about that?”

“Sweetheart, I’m your number one subscriber.”

Sam gave a choked, aggravated sound and pushed past Dean, putting himself between Dean and Heather. “Heather,” he said, using his calm, good cop voice. “It’s okay. We’re not here to hurt you.” In Dean’s opinion, that promise came a little too soon. “We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.”

“Yeah, like, for starters, what the hell is that?” Dean demanded, pointing at the suspended animation people. “What, is that some kind of hologram?” Was it part of the TV show? Were he and Cas together in the show?

Heather cast her eyes down. “No, it’s, uh… Well. It helps me write. To… visualize things.”

Dean pulled his brows up. “So, you’re watching porn about me and him. That’s just great.”

Sam let out another choppy sound and shot a death glare over his shoulder at Dean. He said, “Heather, how are you doing it?”

“It’s a spell.”

“So, you are a witch?”

No,” she hurried to clarify, and Dean was getting really mixed messages. “I mean, my grandma was. She taught me some stuff. But I more, like… dabble. I can’t do much.”

“But what you can do, you use to get your rocks off?” Dean accused.

“Dean!” Sam scolded.

“How are you in Dean’s head?” Cas demanded. “And how did you steal my memories?”

Heather’s head jerked up at breakneck speeds, staring at him with her jaw slack. “Oh my God, is that your voice?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Answer the question.”

She cleared her throat, seeming to get control of herself. “I don’t know. I promise, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Please, I’m really not a witch! Please don’t kill me!”

“No one’s killing anyone,” Sam said, eyes fixed on Dean. And Dean wasn’t going to kill the girl! Not anymore, anyway. He believed her.

Heather breathed out shakily. “Okay. Look, I do this spell all the time and it’s not powerful at all. As far as I know, this has never happened before.” Probably because Dean was dead before, and anything else she wrote about was most likely actually fictional.

“Okay, Heather,” Sam said, holding out his hand. “We’re gonna need you to tell us everything.”

 

///

 

Heather chugged down giant gulps of golden beer for an impressive amount of time. Finally, she set the glass, more than halfway empty, on the table and wiped the foam from her lips with the back of her hand. Breathing hard to catch her breath, she glanced at each of them in turn.

“Oh, God. You’re all still here. I was really hoping I was having a stress-induced break from reality.”

Dean rolled his eyes and took a pull from his own beer.

After Heather’s initial shock had worn off, Sam suggested they go somewhere to talk. Dean wanted to argue, but he could see why three older men in a college girl’s room would make her feel uneasy. She directed them to a bar on campus—a very public place full of drunk students watching a basketball game. So public, in fact, that no one was paying attention to what they were talking about in their booth by the window.

“Yeah, well, we wouldn’t be here if somebody didn’t need visual aids,” Dean grumbled.

“Okay, I’m sorry,” Heather shot back. “I only have so much time to write my free novel-length stories. I am a third-year eco-engineering major with a scholarship to maintain, a job, and a social life. I guess I never expected the characters from my favorite series to be alive!”

“Alright, I didn’t ask for your damn resume. Cool it, Virginia Woolf.”

Thankfully, Heather did cool it. She sat back in the booth, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose before folding her arms tight against her chest. She glanced hard at each of them again—Sam in the booth next to her, Dean across from her, and then Cas next to him. “How are you guys alive, anyway? Even if Supernatural is real, those books came out in the early 2000s.”

“It’s… complicated,” Sam told her, and judging by her reaction, it didn’t seem to be good enough. He sighed. “We were dead.”

“And I’m an angel,” Cas supplied needlessly.

Dean hooked a thumb in his direction. “And he’s an angel.”

“Right,” Sam went on. “Anyway, we were sent back—by Jack.”

Her eyes widened. “He’s real, too?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah, and he needs our help to take down Chuck. Again.”

Dean watched her reaction, seeing a few micro-expressions wash over her face. He kept expecting her to freak out about God being back in the game. And then, anticlimactically, she said, “Who’s Chuck?”

Dean shared a look with Sam, both of them thrown off.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a fan?”

“Yeah, but…” Heather seemed to think about something, then asked, “Wait, are you talking about the prophet? From the apocalypse era?”

Dean blanched. “He kept himself a prophet in the books?” Anger bubbled inside him. Of course, Chuck wouldn’t make himself the villain! “Fuckin’ coward.”

“Wait, he’s not a prophet?” Heather asked, looking to each of them for an explanation.

Sam held up a placating hand. “That’s not important right now. What is important is breaking Cas out of your spell. I was under it, too, but Dean managed to get me out of it. We don’t know why it’s not working for Cas.”

“How am I supposed to know?” she asked.

“It’s your spell,” Dean reminded her.

“It’s a glamor spell. That’s all!”

“Apparently not. Because Cas is still 50 First Dates and I’m still able to hear you narrating everything.”

Heather groaned, grabbing her beer again. “God, everything? Even the rough drafts?”

Right, because that was the troubling part of all this.

“I’m just happy I got to keep my memories,” he said, not really happy at all. He’d prefer if none of this happened, actually, but wasn’t that the story of his life?

“Yeah, why is that?” Sam asked Heather.

She shrugged. “I dunno. I mean, the fic’s in Dean’s POV. Maybe that’s why? And as for him—” She looked at Cas, her eyes lingering. Such emotion passed over her face that Dean actually felt himself getting a little possessive.

Castiel!” She leaned forward, spreading her arms toward him on the table like she expected him to take her hands. He didn’t. He narrowed his eyes in confusion, but she didn’t seem to notice. “I am so sorry! You deserve so much better! I love you so much and I need to tell you that because you need someone to tell you that!”

“I don’t…” Cas said, looking as out of his depth as Dean felt. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“Okay, focus,” Dean snipped. “You love him so much? Help snap him out of this.”

“Right.” She cleared her throat and hooked her hair behind her ears. “Okay. So… this is a fic, right? So maybe we go by fic logic!”

“Which is?” Dean and Sam asked at the same time, and for some reason it made Heather break out into a wide grin.

Thankfully, she got a hold of herself and said, “Well. I mean… If Castiel… How do I say this?” Her gaze kept flashing to Dean, and he got the feeling he wasn’t going to like her answer. But whatever it was, he’d do it.

“Okay. If this were a fic—and I was writing it… which I am…”

She was stalling.

“The thing that would bring his memories back is… Ugh, I can’t say it!” She put her face in her hands. “Not with them looking at me!”

“Heather!” Dean gritted. “Spit it out.”

She threw up her hands. “Okay, fine! Maybe… True… love’s… first kiss?” She scrunched her face like she was preparing for a bomb to go off.

Dean and Cas dropped their shoulders in a sigh. He’d really thought she was on to something. The idea was a bust.

Glancing at Sam for any better ideas, he found his brother biting back a laugh.

“Nice try,” he told her. “Any other ideas?”

She sat up straighter, offended. “You’re not even gonna consider it?”

“I know what you’re trying to do.”

“I’m trying to help!”

“Don’t get ideas for your next story, okay? Not gonna happen.” He took another pull of beer to shut down the conversation.

Sam must have lost his battle with trying to compose himself because he was sniggering. Dean shot him a glare. Sam only shrugged, defending himself with a quiet, “It’s funny.”

“Heather,” Cas said, leaning forward slightly. “We’ve inadvertently tested your hypothesis to little success.”

“Okay, but…” She held up her hands and made a little rotating gesture in pantomime thought. “I mean, have you tested it out with everyone in your life? Are you sure there’s no one else you could try it with?”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Dean griped, setting his beer down with such force, some of it sloshed over the top. “Cas.” He swiveled toward Cas and grabbed him by the tie, yanking him into a kiss. Because enough was enough. If it would get her to shut up and come up with real options, he wasn’t above some PDA. Especially if it proved it a point.

When the kiss broke, Cas was smiling hazily, looking at Dean like he was the only person in that shitty college bar. Dean turned sharply to Heather. “Happy? Didn’t work. And, believe me, it was far from the first one!”

Heather didn’t even appear to hear him. She was staring at them with her mouth hanging open. And then, “Oh my God, I knew it!” And Dean had a jarring visceral reaction to that because, in that moment, she reminded him so much of Charlie when he’d first told her about him and Cas. Actually, those might have been Charlie’s exact words, too.

He couldn’t help but soften a little bit. His guard lowered, he felt the anxiety of the day washing over him. What if she couldn’t break the spell? What if Cas was stuck like that?

“Now do you see why I’d like to get his memories back?” Dean asked.

Heather’s face turned more empathic, finally understanding the real gravity of the situation.

“Look, Heather,” Sam said. “I think I have an idea.”

Dean didn’t realize he was holding onto Cas’ hand under the table until that moment. He squeezed a little tighter, hope seizing him.

“The glamor spell is tied to your story, right?” Sam asked, and she nodded. “So, maybe we have to get rid of the story.”

“What?” she asked, acting like Sam had just asked her to sacrifice her puppy. “You mean abandon it?”

“No, I mean delete it,” Sam corrected. “Get rid of it completely. It’ll break the connection between the story and the spell.”

Her brown eyes turned pleading. “No, come on! I worked so hard on it! And… my readers. I don’t wanna disappoint them! I mean, sure, there aren’t many of them but—Please don’t make me delete it!”

Dean was about to start yelling again, but then Cas slipped his hand out of Dean’s and put them on the table. “Please,” he said, immediately attracting Heather’s attention. “I don’t know if it will work, but we have to try everything.” He pressed his lips into a thin line, despondent eyes slowly finding Dean. “I’d like to remember.”

Dean tried to keep his expression neutral so Heather wouldn’t realize how much Cas was playing her.

Heather gave a heavy exhale, sounding pained. “Okay, Cas,” she decided, and Dean tried not to get his hopes up too high in case it didn't work. “Just because you’re you.”

She took her phone off her wrist and unfolded it. Pushing her beer to the side to make room, she set it on the table and woke up the holographic screen. The keyboard popped up on the table in front of it. She navigated to the webpage, her finger hovering over what must have been the delete button.

“You were fun while you lasted,” she told the fic, looking for all the world like a captain going down with her ship. She pressed delete and breathed out. “It’s done,” she reported, and put her phone back into sleep mode.

Dean anxiously looked at Cas, who was leaning over slightly. Cas blinked rapidly and shook his head.

“Cas?” Dean asked, a rock lodged in his throat.

Cas looked up at Dean, his eyes seeming to come back into focus. “Dean,” he whispered. “I… I think it worked.”

All the tension left Dean’s body. A smile bloomed on his face. He shot a look across the table, finding Sam nodding in relief and Heather smiling gently.

Dean turned back to Cas, something telling him it was too good to be true. “Wait, Cas,” Dean said urgently. He said the first memory that came to mind: “A few years ago, when we drove out to that overlook. You remember why I got so mad?”

A vertical line formed between Cas’ eyes as he thought, and Dean’s pulse was hammering in anticipation. “Yeah,” Cas said distantly. “Yeah, because…” He quirked a smile, letting out a breath of laughter. “Because Miracle got into the cooler in the backseat and ate all the sandwiches you’d packed.” He caught Dean’s gaze then, eyes warm. “I stole an apple from the orchard we passed when you got hungry.”

Dean felt like he could collapse. He turned to Sam. “He’s back.”

His attention moved to Heather, who didn’t seem too upset about having to delete her story anymore. Dean decided to buy her another beer before leaving the bar.

 

///

 

“Okay, well, this has been the weirdest night of my life,” Heather said, pushing open the door to her apartment. Dean, Sam, and Cas trailed in after her, and Dean made a mental note to send her some money to fix the door frame he'd kicked in. She added, “And kind of the coolest.”

“Yeah, glad you thought it was fun,” Sam breathed out, giving a tight smile.

Dean pointed around the small studio. “You sure you don’t have any story notes or anything laying around that could mess us up, right? ‘Cause I’m kinda over Utah for a while.”

Heather set her purse down on the desk, and Dean was a little relieved she trusted them enough to step out of reach of her mace. “Yeah, I’m not that organized,” she shot back.

Dean dipped his head to the side, figuring that was good enough for him. Almost. He looked behind him at Cas, who was incredulously staring at the Supernatural poster on the wall now that he was out of the fanfiction mind control.

“What about you? You sure you’re good?” Dean double checked.

Cas nodded his head. “I am. I remember everything.” His expression melted into something warm, eyes searching Dean’s face. And yeah, he was back.

“Wow, do they always do that?” Heather asked, causing Dean to break eye contact with Cas so he could scowl at her.

Sam said, “All the time.” He turned around and clapped Cas on the shoulder before heading out the door.

Cas lingered momentarily to take one last sweeping glance around the room. He gave Heather another awkward look, probably figuring out how to say goodbye. Stiltedly, he said, “It was… nice to meet you.”

Heather broke out into a smile, the kind Dean was quickly learning was only reserved for Cas. She threw her arms up and enveloped him in a tight hug. “It was nice to meet you, too!”

She held on for a little too long after Cas stiffly patted her on the back. Dean had to stifle a laugh into his fist. He knew Cas appreciated Heather’s attachment to him. He just didn’t know what to do with it. The guy got overwhelmed when puppies showed him too much attention.

When the hug broke, Cas nodded at her once, going for a smile. “Bye,” he said, then followed Sam out the door.

“Bye!” Heather called, leaning against her desk.

And Dean figured it was up to him to stay the final goodbye. How the hell did he get stuck with that job? “So, uh, listen,” he said, “do me a favor? Stop writing porn about me and Cas. It’s a little invasive.”

Her mouth fell open, eyes going wide. Then, she crossed her arms and squared herself indignantly. “It’s not porn.”

He popped his brows.

“It’s not about that!” she maintained, faltering slightly. “And even if it was, you’re one to talk! You have a whole library of porn!”

He wanted to argue, but he guessed she had a pretty good point. “Touché.”

“And it’s not just porn,” she went on, a little less combative. “It’s… meaningful. Dean and Cas—the ones in the show and books, I mean… They’ve helped me a lot.” She looked down bashfully and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Accept myself and… stuff.”

Dean considered that. He never saw himself as any kind of role model, but he had his own TV heroes growing up that made life a little easier. Made him know he wasn’t all alone. He still hated those stupid books—and Chuck—and now the TV show—but he guessed helping some girl feel a little less alone wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

He recalled a group of girls from a long time ago who put on a musical at their high school, and he thought maybe he’d done a little more with his life than hunt things. Maybe he was still helping people, even after he died.

“Fine. It means that much to you—go ahead,” he allowed, and shrugged. “You’re actually not half bad.” She was a better writer than Chuck, anyway. And a kinder one. “You could probably even get published one day.”

There was a shy smile on her face now, cheeks flushed in the low light. “Thanks,” she muttered. It made Dean feel kind of good.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t want to make one thing abundantly clear: “Just—enough with the spells that make it all play out, alright? Write the old-fashioned way.”

She laughed, throwing up her hands. “Trust me, I’m done with that! I don’t want any more TV characters knocking down my door. Literally.”

“Good,” he said, relieved, but it reminded him that now she knew all the ugly things in those books were real. Monsters, ghosts, demons. “And call us if you ever need anything. We got some experience with weird.”

“I will,” she answered, seeming to take it to heart.

He figured that was a good enough goodbye. He turned around, heading after Sam and Cas. But Heather called urgently, “Uh, hey? Dean?”

What now?

He swiveled back around. “Yeah?”

She kept her mouth open, letting out some choppy, broken sounds like she was building up the courage to say something. Dean tilted his head forward, hoping she’d just spit it out.

With a breath, she asked haltingly, “Can I ask you kinda a personal question?”

He closed his eyes and shook his head, wondering what on Earth it could be. “You write about me naked. That’s not personal enough for you?”

“No, I don’t mean—Ugh.” She clapped her hand over her forehead, either exasperated or embarrassed. “You’re not gonna answer, anyway. You’re you.”

That was a little offensive. “What is it, kid?”

“You and him,” she said at last, and Dean was sure she was talking about Cas. “When does it… You know? When did you guys finally get together?”

Dean glanced at the line of Supernatural books on the shelves. “Shouldn’t you know that already?”

She shook her head. “The show’s still going. And it never happened in the books.”

He didn’t know why that surprised him. After all, Chuck had left other stuff out of the books, like the demon blood. And Chuck had said that Cas was the only guy who ever managed to break out of the narrative, so Dean guessed the fact that it wasn’t in the books made sense. But it got him thinking about what else was left out—and what was put in.

“Hey, Heather,” he said, taking a step further into the room. “How did those books end?”

“Ugh!” She rolled her eyes, and he guessed she wasn’t a fan of the ending. “It was so stupid. The Sam and Dean story technically ends with the two of you going to heaven. You die in a hunting accident—which is so dumb.”

Okay, ouch, but fair point.

“And Sam just… goes back to normal life. Like nothing happened! We don’t even know if he ends up with Eileen!” She went over to the bookshelf and pulled out one of the novels. “Here.” She offered it to Dean.

Dean looked at the cover. Carry On: book 327 of the Supernatural series. The cover art depicted a gravestone that read Winchester. He flipped to the first page and saw it was published in 2022. Two years after Jack took over and Dean died. Chuck had published it after the fact.

Belatedly, he realized something: “You said the story ‘technically’ ends here?”

Her face turned grim. “Yeah.” She went back to the bookshelf and pulled out another novel. Dean traded her for the other one. This one was titled Epilogue: the final installment in the Supernatural series. The rest of the cover was black.

“Carver Edlund published that—years after the last one. It came out right before he died,” Heather explained. “Everyone was excited. We thought he was gonna fix the ending but… it was worse.”

Dean’s heart was hammering. He couldn’t stop looking at the cover. “Worse how?”

“The whole thing follows the God character getting his power back by swallowing up souls. You and Sam weren’t even in it. Cas is only mentioned once when it’s revealed God absorbed all the demons that were trapped in the Empty. That’s when he absorbed Cas’ grace.”

Dean’s gaze snapped up. “He can take on angel grace?”

“Once he got powerful enough, yeah.” Then, something seemed to dawn on her. She became more alert. “Hang on. Is all this stuff happening?”

He didn’t have time to answer that. Suddenly, everything felt way too urgent. “Why? Wha—What’s his plan? To take back heaven?”

“No,” she said severely. “It ends with him taking all his power back from Jack and… killing him.” Dean couldn’t breathe. His pulse was pounding so loud in his ears, he almost couldn’t hear her over it. “And then, he wipes out everything. Heaven, hell, Earth. He starts over. A new story.”

Dean’s throat clicked when he forced down a swallow. His skin was standing on end.

He’d planned this. All of it. Chuck had planned it.

“How did he power up? Besides the souls I mean? Does the book mention anything about him looking for Amara’s power?”

Heather shook her head. “No, nothing about Amara. But he does look for some of his old powers that he hid away.”

“Does it say where?”

She opened and closed her mouth, thinking.

“Heather, does it say where?” He tried to keep his voice down. He didn’t want to spook her any more than he had already tonight.

“No! No,” she hurried to say. “But… there were discussions online. People figured out where one of the locations might have been. I mean, this fandom is kinda full of scholars, so—”

“Where is it?” he asked, his patience at the very end of its life.

“When he goes after one of the pieces,” she said, “the book mentions a place that’s ‘seen as pure.’ So, we all figured that meant—”

“Purgatory.” His whole world narrowed down to sense memory: fear and adrenaline and power, his feet aching from running, his cheeks wet with speckled blood, Benny whistling, Dean’s eyes skewed tight in prayer.

They had to go back to Purgatory.

“Yeah,” Heather confirmed.

Dean snapped out of it. He held up the book. “Can I keep this?”

“Yeah, I’m never gonna read it again. It was garbage.”

Well, he guessed one woman’s trash really was another man’s treasure. They needed to go through that book with a fine tooth comb.

He placed his hand on her shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze in appreciation. “Thanks.” Quickly, he made to turn around again.

“Wait! You never answered my question!”

Right. He almost forgot. She wanted to know when he and Cas got together. He figured he owed her that much now, even if it was personal. But it seemed to mean a lot to her.

“Okay, look,” he said, turning back to her. He tried to think of some way to answer the question without really answering it. It was still their business—his and Cas’. And maybe a part of him wanted to keep what had happened in the bunker’s dungeon, and everything that happened after it, between the two of them.

“Me and Cas,” he said, “our lives were—are complicated. To say the least. But—and I guess I should be thanking you for this… If there’s one thing I learned from this whole mess today, it’s not to get held up on semantics. Yeah, maybe it took us a long time to get our heads out of our asses.” He scoffed, because it really did take them a long time. “But me and him? Even here on Earth, we had a life together. We had a home and a family. And we built all that together. No matter what else went down…” He felt the barest of smiles pulling at his lips, and a small breath punched its way up his throat.

There really was only one answer to the question: “It was always him.”

It took him a second to realize there was silence. It took him another second to remember he was in a room with another person he just met and he’d said all that out loud.

He cleared his throat, trying to save some face. It took all his willpower to look at her head on again. When he did, she looked like Cinderella who’d just found her Prince Charming.

“Wow,” she said dreamily. “You should really write a fic.”

He rolled his eyes, the moment broken. “Okay,” he grunted, and finally turned fully to the door.

“I mean it!” she called after him as he ripped the door open. There was laughter in her voice. “I’d read it! Bye, Dean!”

 

///

 

They’d gotten back to the bunker a few hours ago. Chuck’s final book was sitting in the center of one of the library tables. It was an innocuous thing: pages and ink. But Dean could feel its presence like a boulder crushing his lungs. He paced back and forth in thought, his eyes constantly flickering to the worn, black cover. Sam and Cas sat at the table, both of them staring at it, too.

“Maybe…” Sam said hesitantly. He was the first to break the minutes-long silence that seemed to stretch out for days. “Maybe it’s not what we think it is.”

Dean scoffed. He stopped pacing to put his hands on his hips and shake his head miserably down at the floor.

He couldn’t believe they were back here again: right at the start. All this time, and Chuck was still moving them like pieces on a chessboard.

“I’m just saying,” Sam said, sounding way more optimistic than Dean knew he felt on the inside. “Heather said we aren’t even in the book, right? That we’re still supposed to be in heaven. And Cas is supposed to be in the Empty! So, Chuck was wrong about those things. This book might just be… wishful thinking?”

“It’s possible,” Cas agreed, and Dean wondered if he was the only one thinking realistically here. They needed to prepare for the worst. But Cas kept going: “After Jack took his powers, I can’t see how Chuck could orchestrate his story any further. He had no sway over fate.”

“That we know of,” Dean countered. “He was God! He knows how to do crap none of us do—powers or not!” He flung out his hands, glaring at the book. “Maybe it’s bullshit, or maybe it’s a double bluff and he’s playing us again!”

“Dean,” Sam breathed out, hanging his head.

Dean bit down on his jaw. He felt a tension headache coming on, pinching at the nerves at the base of his skull and hardening the muscles at the back of his neck into rock.

“We were supposed to be done with this,” he muttered, even though he knew crying about it wouldn’t get them anywhere.

“Okay, let’s not jump to conclusions,” Sam leveled. He reached for the book, flipping through the pages quickly. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Dean. I mean, we have Chuck’s entire game plan at our fingertips now.”

“His game plan to wipe out all of existence?” Dean shot back.

“Not if we stop him first.” Sam looked down at the book’s cover, thinking. “He still hasn’t gotten any of Amara’s power. We need to get to them first—and now we know where one of them is.”

“Purgatory,” Cas said, voice low and rough. Dread spread through Dean’s center. All the nightmares, all the running, and the certainty that every battle would be his last. Purgatory, with its teeth and claws. Ravenous. Hungry.

A spark went through him every time he heard its name. It wasn’t a spark he could stamp out, because then he’d have to acknowledge it in the first place. He needed to let it die, suffocate and choke itself into ash. He wasn’t supposed to feel that way anymore.

Purgatory was the opposite of peace. Dean wasn’t supposed to want that.

But they had to go. They didn’t have a choice. He looked at Cas. “You think you got the juice to open a portal to it like Michael did?”

Cas pressed his lips together in thought. “Yes,” he decided. “But Michael was much more powerful than me—than any archangel. I can open the portal, but I won’t be able to keep it open once we’re on the other side. I’ll need someone here to maintain it.”

“I can do it,” Sam offered. “I’m the best with magic. Plus, it’ll give me a chance to read this over—” He tossed the book back down on the table. “See what we’re really up against.”

Dean nodded, going over the plan in his head. Purgatory. He and Cas were going back to Purgatory.

He lifted his gaze, meeting Cas’ across the table.

That spark inside of Dean was doused with gasoline. It blazed.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Purgatory smelt of scorched earth. It was a woodsy fragrance, which stood to reason considering the dense forest that stretched upward, taller than redwoods, with gray and thick trunks. But, under the tingling aromas of wet moss and scattered, dead leaves, there was the lingering scent of charcoal and ash. Castiel squinted upward at the sky, eternally pewter as if the age-old smoke had collected against the heavens and that’s where they remained. The sun never shone on monsters.

At Castiel’s back, the portal gave off an electric zap. Dean stepped through, stopping next to Castiel. As he scanned their surroundings, Castiel glanced sidelong at him. He was wearing a backpack filled with supplies, food, and weapons. His gun was kept close in the back of his jeans and there was a machete encased in a leather sleeve hanging from his belt. Castiel’s eyes strayed behind them at the jagged golden line of light the rift cut through the fabric of reality.

“How long’s that thing gonna last?” Dean asked.

“So long as Sam maintains it on Earth and I maintain it on this side, it should hold for however much time we need it to,” Castiel answered. If either magic was severed, the rift would close. He hoped they wouldn’t be there long enough to have to worry about that possibility.

Dean nodded once. His jaw was set, expression hard; his shoulders were pulled back in a sturdy line. All of him was on his guard. He fell into the stance naturally, as he always did in Purgatory.

“Well, we should hurry up anyway,” he said.

Castiel looked at the trees, wondering where they should go. Their only plan was to wander and hope that, eventually, his grace would pick up on Amara’s power to lead them in the right direction. Apart from that, they knew where not to go, and that was everywhere else they’d ever been in that forest.

It didn’t exactly narrow it down.

“And let’s try to stick together this time,” Dean added pointedly, half-joking.

Castiel couldn’t agree more. He set his eyes on Dean and reached out his hand between them. Dean put on a show of rolling his eyes, but he was grinning bashfully. Castiel lifted a brow to show he was waiting.

“Alright, fine,” Dean said, clapping his hand into Castiel’s and giving it a squeeze. “Let’s get going, Casanova. Stay sharp.”

Hand-in-hand, they headed through the trees.

 

///

 

“I’ve already told you everything I know!”

Claire didn’t buy that for a second. She stared down the angel, whose grace was still shining through the most recent cut Claire had sliced into her. She was in a female vessel, but the human inside was long dead—probably went to heaven when the angel went to the Empty. Ever since Chuck pulled her back into the real world, she was riding around in a hollow shell. Claire was sure of it. After so many years, she was able to tell the difference.

Angels were kind of her specialty.

Even if they weren’t, Kaia had placed one hand to the angel’s head and said there was no way inside her mind to quickly get answers. Nothing left to dreamwalk through.

Claire glanced over her shoulder, where Kaia was sitting on a crate in the abandoned dock house. She kicked one heel against it as her legs dangled, and the hollow inside of the crate banged softly. Outside, the salty, frigid Maine air snapped against the dark windows. Claire could hear the rush of the sea.

Kaia raised a brow, silently conveying that she didn’t think the angel was telling the truth, either.

Claire flexed her fist around her Grigori sword. The angel must have caught the motion because she tensed, the Enochian cuffs binding her hands together behind the chair clinking. Blood stained her shirt.

“Really?” Claire deadpanned. “You came all the way to Maine to get ingredients for a spell, but you don’t know what the spell does?”

“It’s for God,” the angel maintained.

“No, duh,” Kaia interjected.

Claire rolled her eyes and held out the sword. She touched the tip to the angel’s cheek and applied enough pressure to threaten, not to cut. Yet.

“Okay, wait!”

A smirk tugged at Claire’s lips. Finally, they were getting somewhere.

“It’s for Purgatory! To open up Purgatory,” the angel rushed to say.

“Why does Chuck wanna open Purgatory?” Claire demanded, but she thought she already knew the answer.

“The power you’ve been looking for—part of it is there. But he’s not strong enough to open a rift on his own yet. He knows the Winchesters are after him. He couldn’t wait, so he told us to collect the ingredients for the spell.”

Claire lowered her sword and shared another look with Kaia. If the angels were preparing a spell, that meant Chuck could be coming to Maine. For the first time, they’d know for sure where he’d be. But she had to be positive of that before she told Dean, Sam, and Castiel.

Sharply, she returned focus to the angel. “Chuck’s coming here?”

The angel glowered, suddenly mute again.

“Hey!” Claire demanded, raising the sword again. “Is he coming here?”

“No! When the rift opens, the barrier between this universe and Purgatory will weaken. He’ll be able to slip through from anywhere.”

Shit. No Chuck.

But maybe that was a good thing. They didn’t know how powerful he was yet. If they tried to trap him, they’d be going in blind.

Claire asked Kaia, “You got any more questions?”

Kaia stared back steady, indicating she was okay to end this.

“Me, either.”

“Good. Now what are you going to do with me?” the angel asked.

“Great question.” At once, Claire plunged the sword through the angel’s stomach. The angel screamed, the sound swallowed up by the humming of the light that spilled from her mouth and eyes. There was a blast that swept through the dock house and shattered the windows. Then, all went quiet but for the ringing in Claire’s ears. “There’s your answer.”

She drew the sword back with a squelch, letting the angel’s body slump. Relaxing her arm, she paced closer to Kaia. Kaia stared at the body and shook her head ruefully. “That would have taken less time if—”

“Can’t dreamwalk an angel, babe,” Claire reminded her. “And I’m pretty glad there wasn’t a human in there anymore.” She looked down at the blood on her sword. “Really glad.” In fact, with any luck, the human had died very quickly after the angel took her as a vessel. It would have been better than being trapped in her own body. She may have consented at first, but she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

No vessel ever did.

Kaia didn’t say anything else on the matter. She said, “We should call Dean and Sam and tell them what we learned.”

Claire nodded, agreeing. She lifted her wrist and punched in Dean’s number. It didn’t even ring before going to voicemail.

This is Dean. If you have this number, you know I’m alive...

It was a stupid message, and Claire denied how much it comforted her every time she heard it.

She hung up before the beep. “Not answering,” she said. “They’re probably still in the middle of that hunt.”

“The fanfiction hunt,” Kaia snickered.

“We’re never letting them live that down,” Claire said. And then, “Let’s clean up and get back to the bunker. We can tell them what Farrah Fawcett told us there.”

Kaia slid off the crate, and the two of them worked on cleaning the dock house of blood and fingerprints. When they were finished, they disposed of the body in the sea.

 

///

 

In a few hours, they’d lose the light. Not that there was ever much of it in Purgatory. The sun backlit the thick, dark clouds, causing them to act as a filter that smudged the world in gray. Dean checked his watch, which told him they’d been walking for a little over ten hours. It also reliably informed him that he had no cell service.

He was just glad their journey had—so far, knock on wood—been uneventful. A few miles back, he caught the glimpse of a monster looking at them from atop a ridge. It ran off, spooked, the second Dean spotted it. It never came back with a pack.

Still, Dean kept his body tense and his mind alert. He was constantly ready to grab his blade or pull out his gun. Walking beside him, Cas kept scanning the trees.

They’d have to call it quits soon—at least for the day. Dean was actually looking forward to making camp. He was starving, and the jerky he packed wasn’t cutting it anymore. On top of that, his heels were starting to feel a little too-tender inside his boots.

He’d suck it up for a little longer, though. The sooner they found Amara’s power, the sooner they could leave Purgatory. And the sooner they left Purgatory, the better.

At least, that’s what he told himself.

There was something about being back there. It was exhilarating, like it always had been. He reminded himself that it was hard, too: threats lurking at every turn, no shelter or easily gotten food or water, no certainties.

It was a little weird how suddenly nostalgic he was for those days.

“Dean,” Cas said sharply, urgently. He kept his voice low and stopped walking. Dean stopped, too, immediately preparing for a fight. From the way Cas reacted, Dean knew this had nothing to do with their search. He heard something. That was only confirmed when his angel blade slipped from the bottom of his sleeve and into his palm.

After a second of deliberation on which weapon to pick, Dean pulled out the machete.

“Where?”

His gaze flashed between the trees, looking out for movement.

Before Cas answered, there was a sound of crunching leaves immediately behind them. Something launched itself at Dean’s back, making him fall face-first into the dirt. Upon impact, the machete fell out of his grip.

The weight on top of him lifted for a second, and then he was forcefully rolled onto his back. A man with dirt and grime covering his face was standing over Dean. He threw his head back and revealed the sharp teeth of a leviathan.

Cas appeared behind the leviathan and drove his blade through the thing’s back. The point came out through its chest, the silver covered in black ooze. The leviathan roared and transformed its face back into that of a human’s. As it whirled around to claw at Cas, he drew his blade back and severed the head. It fell and rolled away, and Dean shoved the body off of him.

He caught movement coming out of the trees. Three more leviathans.

“Cas, behind you!”

Cas engaged them, and Dean grabbed his machete and jumped to his feet.

One of the leviathans rushed him, and Dean swung the blade through the air. The leviathan caught his wrist, using its inhuman strength to stop him. Quickly with his free hand, he pulled his gun out and shoved the business end against the leviathan’s stomach. He pulled the trigger. The beast roared and staggered backward. Dean arched the machete again. The head came off in a spurt of black goo. The body thumped against the dirt.

Cas was still fighting the other two. As one got close, Cas shoved it dead-center in its chest, and it flew backward like a ragdoll. He swung his blade at the second one, but the leviathan managed to get away.

Dean ran up behind it and lobbed off its head.

By that time, the one that had gotten flung was on its feet again. Dean spun around to meet it and, in a moment of confusion, Cas yelled, “Dean!”

And then Dean was on his ass again. Another leviathan had emerged from the trees. It pinned him down. Cas was fighting the other one, so Dean was on his own. His fist tightened around his machete. He wouldn’t be able to sever the head from that angle, but he could still do some damage.

But then, the metallic glint of another weapon caught the bruised daylight. The blade whooshed through the air, cutting a clean line through the leviathan’s neck. Sickly black oozed out of it, and the leviathan’s face went blank. Half a second later, both head and body toppled to the side, revealing the man behind it.

Dean got a good look at his hero and savior. At his slender and lanky build. At his bright, brimming grin.

“Howdy, Dean!”

Garth?”

Vaguely, Dean was aware of Cas finishing off the last leviathan.

Garth offered Dean his hand and pulled him up. When Dean was on his feet, Garth slapped his shoulders to brush the dirt off. Then, he threw his arms around Dean, squeezing tightly.

“Boy, am I glad you see you!” Garth exclaimed.

Dean chuckled, still half-shocked. He hugged back, and he hadn’t realized until that moment how much he’d actually missed Garth’s overbearing embraces.

Me? I should be saying that to you!” Dean told him when the hug broke. “You just saved my ass.”

“Aw, it was nothin’.”

But it was something. From time to time, Dean would look around the old and familiar faces at the Roadhouse in heaven, and he’d remember all over again that Garth wasn’t among them. That he couldn’t be. That, even after all the good he’d done for the world, he’d spend the rest of time running and fighting.

Garth didn’t deserve that. Dean hated thinking about his friend’s fate.

Though, from the looks of it, Purgatory hadn’t dampened his spirits one bit.

Cas came over, putting his blade back into his coat. There was some black gunk on his neck, which Dean wanted to wipe off of him immediately for a myriad of reasons, but he wasn’t injured. Dean kept his hands to himself, except to gesture between them.

He introduced, “Garth, this is—”

“You must be Castiel!” Garth flung himself at Cas, pinning Cas’ shoulders in a hug. Cas’ expression became confused. He made eye contact with Dean over Garth’s shoulder, and Dean dipped his head to the side and made a face to express, Yeah, he does that.

“I’ve heard so much about you!” Garth said, finally pulling away. “You know I got a Castiel, too, right? Dean remembers, don’t you, Dean?”

“Yes, I… heard,” Cas told him. And then, awkwardly and unsurely, he added, “Thank you.”

“Well, Dean always used to say such nice things about you,” Garth told him. It made Cas look at Dean again with a mixture of smugness and humor, like he was under the impression that Dean wouldn’t shut up about him to anyone who’d listen.

Ears heating up, Dean stammered, “I don’t know about always.”

“Now, don’t be shy, Dean,” Garth told him, feigning seriousness. He laughed. “Come on, I’m only teasin’!”

The friendliness was typical for Garth, but he was joking around like this was still normal. Like they’d seen each other a week ago. Except, the last time Dean had seen him on Earth, neither of them knew it would be the last time.

“Garth, don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see you, too,” Dean said, “but you don’t actually seem all that surprised to see us.”

Garth sobered a little at that. “Well, ‘course I heard about your… Well, your death. When Sam called me up about it, I didn’t think me and Bess would ever get over it.” Dean knew he meant that, even if it was hard to believe. It softened Dean somewhat. “But you just can’t keep a Winchester down. I figured it was only a matter of time till you came back!”

Dean breathed out a laugh, forever amazed by Garth’s optimism.

“Doesn’t really explain why y’all are in Purgatory, though,” Garth prompted.

“We’re searching for something,” Cas told him.

It gave Dean an idea. “Yeah, actually, maybe you can help us with that.” He glanced around, remembering the leviathan bodies strewn around them. It wouldn’t take long for their heads to reattach. “You think we could go someplace else to talk about it?”

“Of course!” Garth said, chipper again. “Why don’t we head back to town and you can tell me all about it. Ooh, Bess is gonna be so happy to see y’all!”

Dean rattled his head at what Garth had said. “Town? Purgatory has towns?” He shared a look at Cas to see if he had any idea what Garth was talking about. He didn’t.

Garth chortled. “Sure, it does! What, did you think I was camping for the last seven years?”

Seven years. That meant Garth had gotten old and died a natural death instead of some hunter coming around with a silver bullet. It was a small relief.

But Dean was still reeling too much to pay attention to that. As he and Cas followed after Garth, he answered, “Kinda. I’ve been all over Purgatory, and I’ve never seen any towns.”

“Is that a new development?” Cas asked.

Garth frowned thoughtfully and shook his head. “No, they’ve been here forever. They’re all over. Maybe you weren’t looking in the right places. See, most of us creatures just wanna live in peace—like we did on Earth. So, we stick together, live in towns, while all the unfriendly creatures are out here tryin’ to kill each other.”

Walking behind them, Cas pointed out, “But you’re here now.”

“Lookin’ for you!” Garth said, glancing over his shoulder. “Our merchants got back not too long ago—We send them out a couple times a month to trade with the other towns. Anywho, while they were on their way back, one of their scouts spotted you. He ran ahead and told me there was a human and an angel walkin’ around. And I thought, I only know of one human crazy enough to do somethin’ like that.”

Dean remembered the monster he’d seen on the ridge. “Wait, if he didn’t recognize us, why’d he tell you?”

“’Cause I’m the mayor!” Garth chuckled, like it was obvious.

Dean’s brows shot up to his hairline, but he guessed he shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Town’s not far from here. About two miles straight ahead,” Garth told them. “You’d’a probably run into us if you kept heading in this direction, but I’m glad I found you before you became that leviathan’s dinner.”

Dean snorted. Maybe if it was anyone else, he would have told them he had it all under control. To Garth, he said, “Yeah, me too.”

As they kept walking, Garth asked, “So, how’re Sam and Eileen doing?”

Dean filled Garth in about heaven, and Garth told them more about the town. Their main export was grain, thanks to the kind of soil the town was built on. And that’s how it came to be called Barley. It might have had a different name originally but, if it had, no one remembered it. The two-thousand-year anniversary since Barley’s founding was coming up in a few days, and there was going to be a fair, which Garth exuberantly invited Dean and Cas to. As fun as it sounded, Dean hoped they weren’t in Purgatory for that long.

Garth also told them about the vegetable garden he and Bess kept in their backyard, and how proud he was of the fifty-pound pumpkin they were growing for the fair’s competition. And, while he never said the exact words, Dean knew it: Garth was happy.

Soon, the path that cut through the forest started to resemble more of a dirt road. Thin wheel tracks cut through it in parallel lines. Boot prints of various sizes were scattered all around, and the three of them added their footprints to the collage.

Not long after, the trees thinned out, and Dean got his first good look at Barley. Not that there was much to see just yet. The town was surrounded by great wooden walls to keep out the violent monsters. He only spotted one weak point: a tunnel that allowed the nearby stream to flow inside the town’s limits.

They approached the gates, and Dean glanced up to find two guards standing at lookout points. Garth explained that they were dragons, because dragons are “real good at guarding stuff.” He waved hello to them, and one of the guards slipped out of view. A few seconds later, the gates opened up on electric tracks. The widening gap between them revealed the main street of the town within.

It reminded Dean of the thousands of towns he’d seen in western movies, with its dirt road and wooden buildings on either side of the street. People were pulling carts along the path, but instead of horses pulling them, it was bicycles or tamed versions of those gorilla-wolves that had jumped Dean on his very first day in Purgatory so long ago. There were vehicles, too, with crude engines, like something out of the 1800s. At the end of the street, there was a big brick building with a clock tower, the weak sunlight behind it casting its shadows onto the smaller buildings.

Every so often, Dean would spot something that he never thought possible in Purgatory—like an ice cream parlor or a barber shop, a grocery and drug store or a doctor’s office. Every time, Dean would nudge Cas’ shoulder to make sure he’d seen it, too.

They attracted glances while they kept following Garth, and Dean’s awe instinctually gave way to unease when he remembered he was surrounded by monsters. But, if anyone knew who he was, no one seemed to shoot him any death glares. Garth said hello to almost everyone by name, and a few times he would stop and introduce “my old friends Castiel and Dean Winchester.” Dean kept expecting some kind of negative reaction, but all he got were a bunch of nice to meet yous and how do you dos and welcome to Barley; if you’re looking for salt water taffy, come on down to my shop any time.

Garth took them to a side street, which seemed to be more residential houses than shops. The buildings weren’t crowded together, which allowed Dean to see further down the hill, where the crops and farmland full of livestock stretched on for what seemed like a few miles. There were some other people strolling around the street, but there didn’t seem to be too many kids—which Dean guessed was a good thing, considering everyone here was dead.

They reached a house that was a little bigger than the other ones surrounding it. It was a clean, white wooden structure with a well-maintained lawn surrounded by a picket fence. The sign outside the gate read Mayor’s Office. Garth held the gate open for them with his arm outstretched, and they ambled down the stone path to the front door.

Inside, the house had a modest greeting room with paintings of former mayors on the wall. Garth’s office sat to the left, and the room opened up to the rest of the house.

“Bess!” Garth called once they were through the door. “Looks like I was right! Dean and Castiel are here.”

Bess came through from the back, a warm and welcoming smile lighting her eyes. She looked exactly the same, despite all the years that had passed since Dean last saw her. “Dean. I’m so glad it’s you. I don’t know what Garth would have done if it hadn’t been,” she said, and Dean leaned down to hug her. Her embrace wasn’t as intense as Garth’s, but it was still nice. She patted his back when releasing him. Then, she looked at Cas. Cas seemed to be preparing himself for another hug, but it never came. Bess offered her hand. “It’s good to meet you, Castiel. I’m Bess.”

Visibly relieved, Cas shook her hand.

“We named our son after you,” Bess told him.

Cas’ eyes flashed to Dean like he was unsure how to respond to that and he was begging for help. Dean was tempted to let him flounder, but he decided to have mercy. “He knows.”

“Bess, they say they’re here looking for something. Figure we could help,” Garth told her.

She nodded. “Of course! Is there anything I can get for you first?”

Garth gasped a little, and said, as if Dean expected him to have a fully cooked meal and a bath waiting the second they walked through the door, “You’re right! Where’s my hospitality? You must wanna sit down.”

“You got no idea,” Dean told him.

“I can make those grilled cheeses you like so much,” Bess offered.

Dean nearly died and went to heaven. Again. Except, there weren’t any grilled cheeses like hers in heaven. “Oh,” he said, delighted.

Bess laughed and touched his arm. “Coming right up.”

But before she could move, a man who looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s joined them from the back of the house. Garth perked up even more. “Dean! You remember my boy, Sam? He was just a little thing last time you saw him.”

Dean blanched. It felt like the guy had been a baby just yesterday. “Uh, yeah.”

“Hi, Dean. My parents have told me a lot about you,” Sam said. He looked more like Bess, but he had Garth’s build. And Garth’s ears. He also had a very soft, calming voice. “And you must be Castiel. I have a twin named after you.”

Dean shook his head, remembering where they were. “Hang on. You’re… here already?” he asked. “I mean, you’re…” His eyes flickered between Garth and Bess, and Bess tore her eyes away in a mixture of sadness and anger. Dean didn’t want to say the word. Lamely, he finished, “Here?”

“I am,” Sam answered. “I’ve been here for over twenty years.”

Dean had no idea what to say to that.

“It was a hunter,” Bess said, voice hard.

“Mom,” Sam said somewhat wearily, like this was a conversation they had before. But she was right to be pissed. If Sam was anything like his parents, he didn’t deserve to be hunted. He didn’t deserve to die so young. “It was a well-meaning, inexperienced hunter. He couldn’t have known.”

“Known what?” Cas asked.

“On Earth, I opened a center with the goal of rehabilitating creatures like us, but had been led down the wrong path,” Sam explained. “We strived to take them in and show them that they don’t need to give into their predatory natures of hunting and killing. See, many creatures don’t know that being members of society is an option—whether that’s because of what they were raised to believe, or other social and economic factors. We worked to give these creatures the opportunities that they may have not had before.”

Dean blinked dumbly. He’d never even considered that, but Garth’s son was talking about it like it was a given.

“We had a patient—a young werewolf who’d been initiated by his pack when he was a boy. Unfortunately, he relapsed. It happens from time to time. Pack and nest mentality are hard to break out of. A hunter went after him. When he found him, I was there, trying to get him to return to the center. And, well…”

“I’m sorry,” Cas said.

“Thank you. But, thankfully, the program is still running on Earth today. And I’ve been able to continue my work here in Purgatory. I often go with the merchants on their trips and reach out to the creatures in the forest.”

Dean looked at Garth, who was beaming with pride, and he wondered how many of those could-be-saved monsters he’d personally killed over the years. It made his gut squirm. Trying to offset the discomfort, he joked, “Wow, so you made a halfway home for monsters.”

Sam chuckled gently, and he was definitely zen enough to be a therapist. He reminded Dean a little bit of Sonny, except less of a hard-ass. “You could say that. But we prefer the term creature. Monster has negative connotations.”

It only made Dean feel more like an asshole. “Right… Uh, sorry.”

Sam let it go easily. “We’re all learning every day.”

“You could say that again.”

They were brought to the living room at the back of the house while Bess whipped up her famous grilled cheeses, and Dean didn’t know if his ass was currently planted on the most comfortable couch in existence or if he was just that happy to be off his feet. Either way, the grilled cheeses were even better than he remembered, and when he was done with his own, he snagged the uneaten one off Cas’ plate. Cas didn’t know what he was missing, but it meant more for Dean.

Mouth full, he caught them up on Chuck’s plan, and the search for Amara’s power.

Garth shook his head, thinking. “I’ve never even heard of anything like that around here,” he said, then turned to Sam, “have you?”

“No,” Sam said apologetically.

Dean deflated, even though he’d tried not to get his hopes up.

“Well, maybe someone in town will be able to help,” Bess offered. “You’re welcome to stay in the guest room for as long as you need.”

From the foyer, Dean heard a knock on the door. Night had fallen outside, and he didn’t know how common of an occurrence it was for someone to come by around dinnertime, but Garth was the mayor so he didn’t think anything of it. While Sam excused himself to go answer the door, Dean told Bess, “That’d be great, thanks. We can ask around tomorrow. Hopefully somebody knows something.”

“Yeah, maybe one of the merchants has seen somethin’,” Garth said. He kept talking after that, rambling about who might be best to talk to, but Dean wasn’t listening. He was too focused on the short conversation he heard from the front of the house.

After the door opened, Sam’s voice said, “Oh, hi there, Mr—”

“Are the rumors true? Is Dean Winchester here?” another voice said, cutting Sam off. A man’s voice. Gruff and dulcet and dripping like molasses.

Dean knew that voice. His heart skipped a beat, and he told himself it was impossible. He jerked his head in Cas’ direction, and the perplexed, disbelieving expression on Cas’ face was enough to let Dean know he wasn’t crazy.

He jumped up and sprinted to the front of the house.

“Yes, they’re true,” Sam was saying.

Dean stumbled to a halt at the sight of the vampire standing in the doorway. Benny looked up, immediately catching sight of him.

“I’ll be damned,” Dean said, still unable to believe his eyes. The last he heard, Benny was gone. Deader than dead. Erased from existence.

But there he was, eyes glinting in the way they always had. “Ain’t you supposed to be dead?” Benny asked, walking into the house.

“Says the other guy who’s supposed to be dead.”

They met in a hug in the middle of the room, and it finally hit Dean that this was real. His cheeks hurt with how wide he was grinning. Benny gave him a tight squeeze, and the hug broke. They kept a hand on each other’s shoulders, sizing each other up.

“Man, last time I was here, a leviathan told me you got yourself killed,” Dean told him.

Benny shot him a look. “And you believed a leviathan? Come on, now.” And, yeah, maybe that was a good point.

Then, Benny’s gaze flickered over Dean’s shoulder, and his hand slipped back to his side. “Castiel,” he said.

Dean looked around, finding Cas in the threshold. Garth and Bess were right behind him.

“Hello, Benny,” Cas said, striding forward. Dean stepped to the side, letting him into the small bubble around them. “I’m glad to see you’re alive.”

“Well, not that you two aren’t a sight for sore eyes,” Benny said, “but what the hell are you doing here? What, you get trapped again?”

Dean snorted. “No, actually. We’re here on purpose. Looking for something.”

Benny narrowed his eyes in question.

“Benny’s one of our merchants,” Garth said. “He might’a seen something.”

If anyone had, Dean was convinced it’d be Benny. Hope seized him. “It’s God power.”

What now power? You boys punchin’ above your weight again?”

Cas moved past the comment. “You would have known it if you’d seen it. It exudes energy. It would have looked like a ball of light.”

Benny frowned, shaking his head. “No, don’t think so.”

Dean breathed out. It’d been worth a try.

Continuing, Benny said, “Only thing like that in Purgatory I know of is the human portal outta here.”

Dean nodded, licking his lips. He guessed they were back to square one. That was okay. When they got to Purgatory, they knew the search wouldn’t be easy, and—

He jerked his head up, realization slapping him in the face. He looked at Cas, then at Benny, and it seemed like all three of them had the same epiphany at the same exact time.

“Son of a bitch,” Dean said. Why hadn’t they thought of it before? “I mean, that’s—It can’t be, right?” But it was. He could feel it.

Benny made a noise like he couldn’t believe it, either.

Dean laughed mirthlessly and shook his head at the floor. To Cas, he said, “We’re dumbasses.”

“Yeah,” Cas agreed into a scoff.

“Well,” Benny said, clapping them both on the shoulder and holding firm. “If you two are headed for the human portal, you ain’t goin’ without me.”

 

///

 

The next morning, Castiel followed Dean and Benny outside the safe gates of Barley and back into Purgatory’s vast, vicious forest. There were enough provisions in Dean’s backpack—nuts and fruits, water and dried meats, and bottles of cattle blood—for three days, and hopefully more bullets than they’d need. They set out to the northeast, and it took them the entire morning to link up with the trail they’d once taken to the portal. From there, it would be a day and a half’s journey.

That is, if they continued on in the correct direction, which there seemed to be some confusion about on Benny’s part.

It happened two hours after they broke for lunch. Their trail brought them to a shallow gorge whose creek had dried up, leaving behind moss-covered boulders. They all knew they had to follow the gorge until it sloped downward and the land evened out. However, there was an argument on how to proceed next.

“I’m tellin’ ya, we go east,” Benny maintained, but no matter how many times he said it, it continued to be incorrect. “Going west’ll take us toward the waterfalls.”

“I distinctly remember caves to the east of here,” Castiel told him. He’d sheltered in them during a rainstorm in the year he was outrunning the leviathan.

“If you’re remembering correctly.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. Time and distance had made him forget how contradictory Benny could be. “I always remember correctly.”

“Oh, you do, don’t ya?” Benny taunted. “Well, I’ve been up and down this forest more times than you can count, and I say you’re wrong. Back me up, Chief.”

Dean was sitting down on a nearby rock, his head in his hands from exasperation. He didn’t back Benny up, or say anything at all. He just shook his head and grunted. Castiel chose to believe that meant Dean was on his side.

Still, he was tempted to let Benny have his way, if only to prove a point. But they were already wasting time. They needed to find Amara’s power. Once they were close enough to it, Castiel would be able to sense it and lead them to it directly without fear of argument—but, for that, they needed to go in the right direction.

“We don’t have time for this,” he said pointedly, shutting the conversation down.

“Well, then maybe we oughta split up and see which one of us gets there first,” Benny suggested, grinning. He rested his blade, the same one he’d carried the first time they trekked through Purgatory, on his shoulder and puffed out his chest. Castiel wanted to take him up on that. He wasn’t even certain why Benny was there in the first place, apart from sentimentality. The moment Jack and Amara arrived to collect the power, Castiel and Dean would go back to Earth. That left the vampire to return to Barley on his own.

But the fact remained: they didn’t need him. Castiel and Dean could go west while he traveled east—in the wrong direction.

“No one’s splitting up!” Dean yelled, standing up. He took a few steps forward and placed himself between Castiel and Benny. “Can we just pick something?”

“West,” Castiel said while, at the same moment, Benny said, “East.”

Castiel glowered at him.

“I got an idea. Why doesn’t Dean break the tie?” Benny said.

It was good enough for Castiel, because Dean was on his side. They both looked at him expectantly. Dean appeared, to borrow a human turn of phrase, like a deer caught in the headlights. He licked his lips, eyes darting between the two of them. Then, he lowered them to the ground and said, “Fine. Let’s go east.”

Dean,” Castiel scolded, betrayed.

“See? Told ya I was right,” Benny said smugly. He turned around and headed in the direction he’d chosen.

Castiel kept his eyes on Dean, not even blinking so that his silent displeasure wouldn’t go uninterrupted. Dean sighed. “He’s in these woods a lot, okay? Just suck it up,” he said before following after Benny.

Castiel threw up his hands in defeat. It wouldn’t last long, anyway. At least, in a few hours’ time, he’d have the satisfaction of being proven right. “This is a mistake,” he said as he followed them, and that was the last he’d speak on the matter.

“So glad to see you kept that bubbly personality of yours, Cas,” Benny threw over his shoulder.

Castiel shot a deadly glare at his back.

While they walked, Dean and Benny continued to converse about their lives since they’d last seen each other. It was a friendly conversation, and Castiel took no part of it unless he was addressed directly. He kept his eyes on the trees instead, trying to sense any potential threats. When he wasn’t doing that, he observed Dean.

Dean, who laughed brightly, whose eyes shone. Dean, whose soul was swirling in pastels and fiery sunset hues, revealing his mix of happiness and passion. They were colors reserved for long drives and loud music, for hugging Charlie Bradbury, for teaching Sam what the different parts of the Impala’s engine did. Colors reserved for working with his hands, for cleaning his guns, for trying something new that he’d always wished to learn, for the moments Castiel skimmed his thumb along Dean’s lower lip.

Castiel tried not to think about why they were coming out in Purgatory.

Hours later, just as Castiel predicted, they came across the mouth of a cave in the rocky foothills of the mountain. They stopped walking, and he heard Benny sigh in that way people do when they have to admit they were wrong.

Benny held up one finger. “You say I told you so and I’m kicking your behind.”

Castiel opened his mouth, about to challenge that assertion. He never got the chance.

A rumbling growl came from the trees around them. Five werewolves came forward, surrounding them. They must have been sheltering in the caves and thought the three of them were intruders. Their faces were already twisted, eyes yellow and teeth bared. Castiel swore inwardly and drew his blade. This would waste even more time.

“Fellas,” Dean said, pulling out a knife in one hand and his gun in the other. At his back, Benny was lifting his blade. “Looks like we’re lost. Can you give us directions to the nearest gas station?”

One of the werewolves retracted his claws and leapt forward. Dean shot it in the heart with a silver bullet. It went down immediately, but the resounding echo of the gunshot through the forest would attract more wolves.

The others tried to rush them. The one nearest Castiel lunged toward him, swiping her claws at his coat. It left a slash in the fabric. Castiel plunged his blade into the creature’s chest and drew it back quickly. Blood spurted in its wake, misting him. The wolf fell to her knees, clutching her wound, and then toppled to the ground.

He spun around to find Dean pinned against a tree, holding another wolf at bay with his forearm. The wolf strained forward, teeth slick with saliva and trying to rip out Dean’s throat. Dean put the muzzle of his gun to the wolf’s ribcage, right beneath its armpit, and fired. The wolf was blasted away.

Meanwhile, Benny had managed to cut the last assailant across the chest. His fangs were out. So were the wolf’s. It tried to rush him again, and Benny arched his blade through the air. It missed when the wolf jumped backward to avoid it.

Castiel grabbed the wolf by the back of its shirt and jerked it toward him. He slapped his hand to the wolf’s forehead and sent his grace forward, burning the creature from the inside out. Light shone in its eyes before fading, taking its life force with it. Castiel released the body and let it fall.

He could hear Dean catching his breath. Benny put his fangs away and lowered his weapon.

Castiel glared at him, silently expressing his frustration. As he tucked away his blade, he glanced Dean over, making sure he was unharmed. Dean toed one of the bodies and said, “Guess they were living in the caves. We better get going before the rest of the pack turns up.”

“We should be going anyway,” Castiel said. “We’ll have a lot of ground to cover as we head west.”

“Thought I told you not to say I told you so,” Benny griped.

“Alright, enough,” Dean said, tone clipped. “Cas, you were right. Happy?”

“No.”

“Great, me either. Now, let’s go.”

Benny let out another breath, and he and Castiel shared a look, both of them knowing Dean was annoyed with their bickering.

“Lead the way,” Benny said, obviously deciding to keep the peace.

Castiel started walking, Dean beside him. “This never would have happened if you had listened to me,” he whispered, aware of Benny trailing behind them.

Cas,” Dean exhaled, giving him a sharp look. But his expression changed, his gaze falling to Castiel’s neck. “C’mere, you got a little something.” He licked his thumb and rubbed it on the side of Castiel’s throat, mopping up the speck of blood. It left a wet residue behind that Castiel was hyper-aware of, and it drained the ire from him. If that was Dean’s apology for not having listened to him, Castiel forgave him.

“Now, come on,” Dean said. He started walking a little faster.

Castiel felt Benny’s eyes on his back. He glanced around, catching a look that he couldn’t quite interpret. It was half-scrutinizing, half-thoughtful. Quickly, Benny rearranged his face. His eyes moved to meet Castiel’s, and he winked playfully.

And, yes, Castiel forgave him, too.

He turned around and continued west, toward Amara’s power.

 

///

 

Sometimes at night, during Dean’s first go-around in Purgatory, he would worry that the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning. Either because he’d get torn to shreds by some fang or claw in his shallow sleep, or because time might have worked differently in Purgatory like it did in hell, or just because monsters were the stuff of normal people’s nightmares—the evils that crawled around in the dark, and the only defense against them was to turn on the light. Purgatory just seemed like a place where, like a scared little kid pulling his covers up over his eyes, even the sun would hide because it knew that, here, not even the light could protect you.

Dean would pray to Cas for a little longer on those nights that seemed endless. It was his security blanket. His shield.

But morning after the morning, the sun rose over the trees. And day after day, Cas was still missing.

The forest looked different in the long shadows of dusk. The gray air was hued in blues and purples, like a contusion. The darkness played with his eyes, making even the bark on the trees seem like a threat. In a matter of minutes, it’d be pitch-black.

They made camp near a rushing creek, where soft grass and feathery ferns sprung up out of the earth. Near the water, and with the sun dying, the temperature had dropped a few degrees. Dean sat on a fallen tree and warmed his hands next to the cautiously small fire they’d built from twigs and dried leaves. Thankfully, the Fitzgeralds had packed them plenty of food for the trip, so they didn’t have to go hunting for dinner.

They’d eaten in relative silence, and it was kind of crazy how comfortable it was even after so long apart. Within the months of it being just the two of them traveling together, Dean and Benny had developed a shorthand. Hand gestures and looks that meant something specific, whistles and touches that meant something else. It was something Dean shared with Sam, too.

Unlike with Sam, it was never discussed with Benny. The need to survive made it arise. But it created a bond that went beyond survival, the ability to look at another person and practically be able to read their mind. After over half a century, Dean thought he’d forgotten it. Turns out, it was like riding a bike.

When Cas had joined them, the dynamic was different. He wasn’t in on the little code Dean and Benny shared, and a lot of times it felt like Cas and Benny weren’t even speaking the same language. Quickly, Dean found out that he was the interpreter between the two. It was there, for the first time, that Dean realized he and Cas had developed a silent language all of their own, too, one he hadn’t even known he’d been speaking. Over the years, like with all languages, certain things changed meaning, and some words went out of style. Sometimes, Dean still felt himself forgetting the rules of its grammar, but it was his favorite one.

There were words written on the lines of Cas’ face that had no direct translation into English. Their fingers threaded together, and his whole life became defined.

After they finished eating and night closed in around them, Cas went in search of more firewood. There was a gut reaction to follow him, like Dean used to get whenever Cas wanted to go off on his own in Purgatory. Back then, Dean always offered to help collect the wood and dried leaves, but Cas always saw right through him, no matter how much Dean tried to play it cool. A couple times, Cas even snipped at him. “I’m not going to disappear, Dean,” he’d said vehemently. But it’s not like he could blame Dean. After a year of searching for the guy who’d been running away from him, Dean didn’t want to let Cas out of his sight for fear that he’d bail again.

But it was different this time. Dean knew Cas was coming back, so he stayed around the fire with Benny and prepared to bunk down for the night.

“So, what d’you say? I take the first watch?” he asked.

Benny was poking at the embers of the fire, trying to jolt it back into life after it had dwindled. “Sounds good to me. You know I need my beauty rest.”

Dean snorted. Settling in, he picked his machete off the dirt and wiped the blood and black goo off of it. He glanced around for a rock to sharpen the edge.

As he did, Benny mused, “Kinda weird being back out here like this, huh?”

“Ya think? ‘Cause I was just thinking it felt like old times,” he answered, giving up his search. He set the machete back down, leaning it against the fallen tree, well within reach.

“What, you tellin’ me you and Cas don’t do much campin’ up in heaven?”

“You know I hate camping.”

“I remember you complainin’ about the bugs. Wouldn’t shut your mouth about it.”

“I got bit like a thousand times,” Dean defended. It’d been the itchiest time of his life, and he’d had the clap. Twice. “By the time they were done, I’d’a had more blood in me if you bit me.”

“You use guns to kill monsters or you just talk ‘em to death?”

“Okay. Hilarious,” Dean said in lieu of a wittier comeback.

They went quiet for a few seconds. Benny poked at the fire again. Dean kept thinking about those damn mosquitos. Maybe it would have been better if he’d had a tent. And, he couldn’t believe he was considering this, but the trail in the back of their house led up to the mountain summit and had a pretty awesome view. Dean had always thought of building a gazebo or something up there. But it might be fun to spend the night, too.

“Camping might shake things up a little,” he thought aloud.

He hadn’t expected Benny to pick up on his train of thought but, even without any of the details, Benny put the stick down, gave Dean his attention, and said, “There it is,” like he’d been waiting for… something.

What?” Dean said, already defensive.

“Earlier, when you were tellin’ me about heaven,” Benny said, “didn’t sound too much like paradise. Now, I’ve been all over this place with you. Seen you at your best and your worst, so I know there’s no way the Dean I know don’t want some spice with his sugar.”

Dean held out his hand and shook his head. “What does that even mean?”

Dean,” Benny said pointedly.

Dean deflated in a sigh. “Alright. Am I really that obvious?” It felt like everyone could see it: Charlie, Sam, even Crowley, for shit’s sake.

“Maybe I just know a side of you no one else does,” Benny answered, and Dean guessed that was true. No one else except Cas. Maybe including Cas.

Hopefully including Cas.

“You think he knows?” Dean asked, indicating the trees where Cas had disappeared.

“Would it be a problem if he did?”

Yeah! It’d be a huge problem!”

Benny shot him an incredulous look that Dean tried to wave away.

“I dunno, Benny. I just… I’m gonna disappoint him,” he said, because he might as well while he was being honest. “I feel like I already am! I mean, he sees me as this guy—and I’m trying to be. But what if I’m not?”

Benny shrugged, like it was no big deal. “So, what if you’re not?”

Dean scoffed, because Benny didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Or what if you are?” Benny shot back. “Either way, the point is: after all the shit I know you two have been through, you’d expect him to be straight with you, right?”

“Cas? Straight?” Dean tried to deflect.

It didn’t work.

“Honest. You’d want him to be honest.”

Dean dropped his eyes. He licked his lips to buy himself some time. “Yeah, I guess.”

“And you wouldn’t want him to pretend to be something he ain’t for you?”

Dean didn’t have to answer that. Benny already knew what it was, anyway.

“So, what makes you think he’d want somethin’ different?”

Okay, so maybe Benny kind of knew what he was talking about. But it was more complicated than that. Dean always figured, if he tried hard enough, he could be different from the thing he always saw in the mirror. That, if he worked really hard, he could be a fraction of the person Cas saw in him. But, the deeper he dug, the more skeletons he found.

“You need to do both of you a favor and tell him,” Benny advised. “Chances are, he knows already, whether he wants to or not.”

Dean’s eyes snapped up, panicked.

“Now, I know you didn’t ask, but the way I see it—he reorganized the attic so you could be happy? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say he wants you to be happy.”

He was right. Maybe Dean just needed to hear it phrased like that, or he needed a good kick in the ass. But, just because Dean knew Benny was right, didn’t mean he wanted to bring up the subject with Cas. He wouldn’t know where to start! Especially now, with so much going on.

Maybe he could keep avoiding it, putting it off until a better time. Tricking himself into believing he’d actually do it someday.

He wondered which Cas would get more pissed about: Dean confessing that he’d been lying to him for their whole relationship or Dean not telling him and Cas finding out some other way.

He didn’t want to think about this. Not tonight. Not ever.

“And what about you?” he asked, trying to change the topic. “You’re living in a town now. You happy?”

Benny knew what Dean was doing, but he let it happen anyway. Probably because he’d said his piece, and there was nothing else he needed to say on the matter.

He shrugged. “Guess I am. A lot better off than I was.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, glad to hear it. From Benny, that was five stars on Yelp. And Dean found comfort in knowing he and Garth had each other’s backs when Dean couldn’t.

“Hey, let me ask you something,” Dean added. “Last time, did you know Purgatory had towns? We coulda had a roof over our heads the whole time?”

“I’d heard rumors about them,” Benny admitted. He picked up the stick again and poked at the fire. The flames shuddered. “Guess I never went lookin’ for any of ‘em.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

Benny put on a self-deprecating smile. “Figured a guy like me had no place around well-deserving folks.”

Dean let that sink in. Because, by that, Benny meant he didn’t think he deserved peace.

Okay, maybe Benny knew exactly what he was talking about. Because maybe Dean didn’t deserve peace, either.

“What changed your mind?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual instead of beseeching an answer.

Benny’s expression changed. The look in his eyes deepened when he raised them to Dean across the fire. “You did,” he said in a moment of rare, earnest vulnerability.

Dean’s heart stopped for what felt like a very long time.

And then, there was rustling from the trees. Reflexively, his hand was on his weapon. Benny went into guard, too. But Cas stepped out of the shadows, more firewood and twigs than anyone had business needing piled in his arms like they weighed nothing.

Whoo-wee!” Benny hollered. “Would ya look at all that muscle!”

Dean relaxed. And maybe he would have cracked a joke, too, if Benny’s words weren’t still ringing in his ears.

“This should be adequate to get us through the night,” Cas said, setting the pile down next to fire. Some of the pieces rolled on the dirt.

“And then some,” Benny told him. He lifted his twig and twirled it. “Say, you don’t have any marshmallows magically hidden up your sleeve with that blade of yours?”

Cas frowned, perplexed. “No. Why would I be carrying confection?”

Benny hummed. “That's too bad. We coulda made s’mores.”

 

///

 

The next day led them ever-closer to the portal. With each step, Castiel could feel its power pulling at his grace like a magnet. He’d been directing them for a few hours but, after some time, the route became familiar, and it was only a matter of retracing the steps they’d trod through the same trees many years prior.

They walked in single-file, Benny at the front, Dean in the middle, and Castiel bringing up the rear. It was another familiar pattern. They kept quiet for most of the day, whether due to exhaustion or caution. Perhaps a little bit of both.

If Castiel closed his eyes, he might have been able to slip back through time. It was a strange thing to find tugging at his heartstrings. Purgatory had never been a happy place. It had been a punishment. Penance. But it had also been the catalyst that, both times, had brought him closer to Dean. The thing that revealed what really and truly mattered.

He thought, maybe, it was doing that again. He just didn’t know what it was trying to tell him.

Another strange and nonsensical thought. Places couldn’t speak. Perhaps he was projecting.

Or maybe Dean’s attitude throughout their journey had burrowed under his skin. Even now, he watched the way Dean’s shoulders shifted beneath his jacket. They were pulled into a tense line, forever on his guard, but he wore the posture naturally, like he was born for this purpose.

And then, after hours, Dean broke the silent bubble they found themselves in. “Hey, Benny?”

Up ahead, Benny didn’t so much as glance over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

“What’s that folksong we used to sing? The French one? You remember that?”

Castiel couldn’t help but smile gently at the memory. It was an activity that was taken up before he joined their little group the first time they were in Purgatory. Dean had already been fluent in all the words, even though he admitted once that he had no idea what any of them meant. They used to sing it while they were walking and certain there weren’t any leviathan lurking, or around the fire at night, or even once when they were fighting a pack of rugarus, which Castiel thought was an odd choice.

But Dean seemed to enjoy the upbeat tune and the words he had no meaning for other than comfort.

“The Cajun one,” Benny corrected. “La Valse Du Bayou Teche.”

“Yeah, yeah, Valse Bayou Whatever,” Dean answered, gesturing toward Benny’s back with his blade. “How’d that one go again?”

Benny turned around, walking backward. “You don’t remember?” He didn’t seem offended. Mostly, he appeared to be teasing. There was a large grin on his face, and his eyes flickered over Dean’s shoulder to Castiel.

Castiel could hear the smile in Dean’s voice. “I’ll remember it. Get us started.”

“Alright, then.” Benny faced forward again and rested his blade on his shoulder. His voice filtered behind him, a low and deep rasp. “J'ai rodaille' et j'ai prié, Pour t'avoir chère, Pour t'avoir avec moi à la maison…

Stiltedly, Dean joined in, merely humming the tune and muttering every other word at first as he got a feel for them in his mouth again:

Ta famille est tous contre moi
Quoi moi j'va faire chère?
Quoi moi je va faire moi tout seule au Bayou Teche?

Castiel listened to Dean, watching the tension bleeding out of him and the easy sway of his gait.

Purgatory was a land of abominations. Punishment. Penance. But, from the twinkle in Dean’s eyes as he sang, one might think he was reliving a memory from the halcyon days of his youth.

They were away from civilization, in a world of their own design. Just as he did the first time, Dean came alive. And Castiel didn’t think it was because he was surrounded by monsters to hunt and kill. It wasn’t because Purgatory always gave Dean a direct and clear purpose, whether it was finding Castiel or the human portal or the leviathan blossom.

It was because he was free of all expectations, free of the weight of the world. He decided for himself what mattered most. He created his own purpose.

And suddenly, everything became clear. It wasn’t a question of happiness. It wasn’t a question of boredom. It was the reason Castiel knew to be true from the moment Dean came to heaven. The issue he’d tried so hard to alleviate.

Dean was unfulfilled.

Castiel could not give him choices. He could not give him true freedom. Instead, he had tried to give Dean peace in heaven, but in all those years he never once saw Dean as light and unfettered as he was right now.

J'ai crié et j'ai pleuré
Pour te avoir chère

Dean glanced around, eyes twinkling and smile radiant as he met Castiel’s gaze.

“C’mon, Cas!” he hurried to say between lyrics.

Castiel rolled his eyes, feigning reluctance. But he felt light, too. Free. Away from heaven and Jack’s expectations. He was here with Dean, and unlike Dean, he understood the words to the song. And he understood why Benny might have picked this one for Dean.

Once, when Dean asked over the campfire what the words meant, Benny had only shrugged and excused, “They wouldn’t translate all that well into English.” And, when Dean looked away, Benny winked at Castiel like they now shared a secret. It was the same way he’d winked at Castiel yesterday.

Castiel hadn’t understood what it meant the first time. He did now.

Giving in, Castiel joined the singing, if only to make Dean happy:

Pour te avoir juste un autre fois à la maison

Dean stumbled on the words and tossed his head back in a laugh.

Mais venez nous 'joindre mes chère
Venez nous 'joindre avant mourir au Bayou Teche

Dean threw his arms out wide on the last note. In front, Benny hung his head and shook it affably. And, at that very moment, Castiel understood everything that Dean had never said.

I wandered and I prayed
To have you, dear
To have you with me at the house
Your family is all against me
What will I do, dear?
What will I do all alone on Bayou Teche?

I shouted and I cried
To have you, dear
To have you just one more time at the house
But come join us, my dear
Come join us before we die on Bayou Teche

“Man, what does it say about us that those are good memories?” Dean mused.

Benny answered, “Think it means we’ll take whatever we can get.”

 

///

 

That night was Benny’s turn to take the first lookout shift. About a half hour ago, he’d disappeared into the inky shadows between the tree trunks to stalk circles around the campsite. Every so often when he was close enough, Dean would hear the whisper of fallen leaves or a branch snap under Benny’s foot. There was an owl hooting in a hollowed out tree somewhere. The campfire crackled and popped.

Other than that, the woods were silent.

Dean had his head resting on Cas’ chest, his body against Cas’ side, his arm slung across his torso. He felt bad about it, getting to use Cas as a pillow while Cas was fully on the dirt. He’d even argued at first, but Cas was pretty insistent.

But that was just so like him: willing to get dirty and be uncomfortable so that Dean didn’t have to.

It was a chilly night, making the earth beneath them rock solid, so Dean was pretty happy about the shared body heat. Cas’ trench coat was draped over them to shield against the occasional wind that whistled through the trees. Dean listened for another kind of whistle that, at any given second, could come off as a warning that unfriendly monsters were nearby.

In the meantime, he kept his ear pressed to Cas, hearing the steady and sure beat of his heart act as Dean’s favorite lullaby. Except, Dean couldn’t sleep. He was exhausted from walking all day, and his ankles and knees were aching, but his eyes wouldn’t stay closed for long. As he watched the flickering firelight cast moving shadows on the bark, he idly stroked Cas’ ribs though his shirt.

“You should be sleeping. We’ll reach the human portal tomorrow,” Cas reminded him in a whisper.

Dean snorted, because duh. “You can still feel it?”

“Yeah.” Cas was resting his head on his palm, acting as a barrier between his hair and the dirt. He moved slightly, probably trying to adjust into a better position. Not too much though. Like he didn’t want to disturb Dean. “I could feel it the last time we searched for it, too.”

“Yeah, I remember,” Dean whispered, picking at one of Cas’ buttons. Last time, Cas’ spidey-senses kicked on a few hours away from the portal. It was probably the only reason they were able to narrow down its exact location. They didn’t know how he’d picked up on it the first time, but Dean guessed that question was answered now. It was because the power behind it was celestial; it was the thing that forged him into being.

“Don’t remember you picking up on it a few days out last time, though,” Dean added.

“Well, I didn’t have archangel grace then.”

Dean grunted, supposing it made sense.

Then, Cas dropped his voice even more and confessed, “And I… After I started sensing it, I waited a few hours to say anything.”

Dean furrowed his brow at the admission. He picked his head up to look at Cas in question. “You did?” Cas nodded. “Why?”

“Selfishness,” he answered, and inhaled deeply in a kind of inverse sigh. “I wanted to get you out of this place but… I also wanted a few more hours with you before…”

Realization dawned on Dean. “Before you pushed me through the portal and stayed behind.”

Cas didn’t nod or say anything. He just stared back at Dean, eyes dark shadows against the fire.

Dean snorted out a dry laugh, not sure whether it was funny or not funny at all.

Cas’ brow collapsed. “What?”

“Nothin’,” he said. “Guess I just never realized how many times in our lives you decided whether we were together or apart.” In Purgatory. Countless times on Earth.

In heaven.

Cas always used to leave for one reason or another, usually to throw himself on his own sword for Dean. After they got together, it took a while for Dean to stop looking over his shoulder to make sure Cas was still there.

“Someone had to be decisive,” Cas intoned.

“Oh, decisive? That was you being decisive? Okay, pal.”

Briefly, a smile twitched the corners of Cas’ lips, but it could have just been the shadows playing on his face.

“Well, do me a favor,” Dean said, keeping his tone light. “Next time you decide you wanna hightail it away from me, give a guy a head’s up.”

“Dean, I never wanted to leave you.”

Dean scoffed. He was sure there were a few times leaving him was a relief.

Dean. You were my dying wish.”

He said it so matter-of-factly. It struck Dean in his center, hearing it phrased like that. He’d always been so hung up on Cas disappearing that he never stopped to give any credence as to why Cas kept doing it.

Huh,” he breathed out, considering. He’d never seen Cas’ side of it like that before: happiness in leaving, in knowing the person he loved was safe because of it. Dean had only seen his own side: trying to bring them back together. He still thought that was the only way to actually be content.

“I guess you were kinda mine, too,” he realized. When his eyes refocused, Cas’ expression was inquisitive. Dean almost told him to forget it. But there was something about being among those trees that always made him honest.

“I didn’t think I was gonna get to heaven—not after all the times Billie said me and Sam would get thrown into the Empty. So… when it was happening… I dunno, I guess the thought of that made it easy. To, you know, let go. ‘Cause, I thought, at least me and you could bunk together for the rest of time.”

It had taken some of the fear away at the time, the thought of being unconscious next to Cas for eternity. He’d imagined it: the two of them side-by-side in a pitch black room. It probably wouldn’t have worked out like that, but Dean wouldn't have known the difference anyway. The reality of it hadn’t been the point. It was the hope of it had made him a little braver.

He looked down at where his body was tucked into Cas’. “Guess I kinda got my wish on that one, right?”

He didn’t look back up, but he felt Cas’ eyes moving around his face. “Did you… want to go to the Empty?”

Dean scoffed. “Hell, no! But, hey, living out all my biggest regrets in life? Figured it might at least be entertaining.” It was supposed to be a joke, but too late Dean realized what he’d implied.

And maybe he was being a little too honest.

He cleared his throat, staring off at the fire. He told himself that it was fine. Cas wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Cas would be oblivious.

Except, Cas had gone quiet. His thoughts had gone loud.

Dean’s skin buzzed, suddenly too hot.

A few seconds that felt like hours passed, and Cas said, “Dean? May I ask you a question?”

Dean tried to meet his eyes, but his gaze snapped away again. He considered saying no. Inside of him, his walls built up, fortifying. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Are you happy?”

Dean froze. The way Cas said it—it wasn’t in the tone he usually used to ask that question. It was firmer.

“What, like right now?” Dean answered, side-stepping. “’Cause, look around. We’re kinda in the middle of—”

“No, not right now. In heaven. And please don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.”

Dean bit down on his jaw. He told himself to lie, like always. Yeah, of course I’m happy, Cas. He said it all the time. It was practically a reflex.

He didn’t know why the muscle memory was failing him now.

He couldn’t have this conversation. No way. He picked himself off of Cas, letting the coat fall off of him, and moved to the other side of the fire. Behind him, he heard Cas sigh and sit up. Dean rubbed hard at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.

Yeah, of course I’m happy, Cas.

That’s all he had to say. He opened his mouth to say it.

“How long have you known?”

Damn it.

There was a pause, and then Cas said, “I suspected. Maybe from the beginning. But I denied it. And then… we came to Earth. You tried to resist hunting, but once you started, you fell back into it so easily. But seeing you here? In Purgatory? I can’t deny it anymore. So, please, Dean… Are you truly happy?”

Dean stared upward at the trees, not really seeing them. He mulled over Cas’ words.

Tried to resist hunting. Not, didn’t want to hunt.

They’d both been lying to themselves and each other the whole time.

Dean pushed his back against the door of the brick wall around his heart, telling himself it was sturdy enough to hold.

“No,” he said, ripping it off like a Band-Aid. A mirthless laugh punched out of him, and he turned around to find Cas on his feet, too. “I was bored out of my friggin’ mind, Cas. And I know that’s fucked up, and that I’m fucked up. And I tried. You gotta know I tried. But it’s like—up there, I can do and have whatever I want, except I can’t really, because it’s designed to give me whatever I want.”

He waved out his arm. “I feel like I’m living in a in a fucking Barbie Dreamhouse, man. I have everything! But it’s all plastic.”

He held himself rigidly. And he waited for the inevitable fallout.

Cas stood there for a long time, mouth open but not saying anything. His big, sad eyes flickered back and forth across Dean’s face—and that was it. Dean’s walls were shattering like they were made of glass. He wished he could take every word he’d just said and hide them from view.

And then Cas said, “Why didn’t you tell me any of this sooner?”

“Because!” the word punched out of Dean, too loud against the trees. It popped him like a balloon, all the hot air fizzling out of him until he was nothing but a deflated heap. He looked down at his shoes.

“Because…” he tried again. “I didn’t want you to think I’m not grateful for everything you did—or that I’m not… happy… with you. ‘Cause I am.” He gave a lame flapping gesture with his hand. “Both those things.”

He swore he was. If he could say anything and mean it, it was that.

When he dared to look up at Cas fully again, Cas hadn’t moved. The emotion in his eyes had deepened, and Dean felt sick with the knowledge that he’d hurt him. Cas did everything for him, and now he was probably thinking it wasn’t enough. That wasn’t his fault. It was Dean’s. Cas was too good for him; Dean could never live up to the guy Cas thought he was. He’d tried, but he was bound to be a disappointment from the get-go.

“Cas, I’m sorry,” he said. His voice wavered slightly, and he clenched his fists at his sides to hold steady.

Cas narrowed his eyes. “You’re sorry?”

Dean shook his head, wondering what the hell else there was to say. “Yeah, I mean… You—you made paradise for me! What the hell kind of person doesn’t want paradise?”

He didn’t understand it. He wanted heaven. He did. He wanted to want it. But those were two different things.

Cas shook his head. “Dean,” was all he said in that sorrowful way of his.

And, of course, Dean made him miserable. Dean couldn’t even make himself happy!

“Sorry, Cas,” he said again. It was the only thing he could say.

Silence fell, and Dean could count his heartbeats in his throat. He wondered how many more it would take before Cas told him he was a lost cause.

Then, Cas stepped closer, feet shuffling against the leaves. “You have nothing to apologize for,” Cas told him.

Dean looked up sharply, brow furrowed. Cas’ expression was genuine, forever looking at Dean like he was precious. Not shattered, not anymore, but with all his jagged cracks puzzled together by liquid gold. Dean could feel his gaze like a physical touch. It sent goosebumps up and down his arms. It filled his chest like water.

“This isn’t your fault,” Cas told him. He stepped marginally closer, keeping Dean’s eyes. “Do you remember, years ago, after the apocalypse, when I asked you if you’d rather have peace or freedom?”

Dean raised his chin slightly, a reflex telling him to square up—to defend himself against that question as if it were a weapon. A gun, its bullet ripping through the part of Dean that was supposed to be numb, the part that wanted things the rest of him knew he couldn’t have.

Peace or freedom? Of course, Dean remembered that. At the time, he thought the answer was freedom. Later, he thought it was peace. Too late, he realized there wasn’t one without the other. Not for him.

“You never got to experience either,” Cas told him. “Just when it was in reach, you were ripped from it. From the life you could have had, free of Chuck and destiny. That’s why I tried so hard to model heaven after Earth, Dean—because I wanted to give you what you couldn’t have in life.”

Dean’s thoughts were spinning. He couldn’t latch onto a single one. They floated above his head and left the rest of him vacant.

Cas thinned his lips into a line, seeming remorseful. “But I was always bound to fail.”

“What?” Dean breathed out. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut.

“Not because you're wrong, Dean,” Cas assured him quickly, and Dean wondered how long Cas had been keeping these words inside. “But because you never got what you earned. All your life, you went from battle to battle, constantly fighting for the world. You never knew what it meant to live outside of that, like Sam got to. Sam had time to let go of the fight, to be at peace with his life. To move on and to do whatever he wished. You didn’t. You were abruptly taken from battle and expected to immediately adjust to peace.”

Dean’s temples were throbbing and a stringing pressure was burning his eyes. He couldn’t look at Cas dead-on—because he was right. Dean had never thought he’d live to get as old as he did, but he’d always wished… somewhere deep inside of him that never saw the light. It wasn’t something he admitted even to himself.

Other people got to live their lives and grow old because of the things he’d sacrificed.

It wasn’t fair.

There was a voice inside of him that had whimpered those words over and over again in a constant mantra. It’s not fair. It isn’t fair. Dean had shoved them down, talking over them in a voice that sounded like his father’s until one day it sounded like his own instead.

It doesn’t matter, he’d told himself. Suck it up. You don’t get fair.

But now that first voice was rising up on flood waters, and Dean couldn’t drown it.

It’s not fair!

“Dean, no one deserves paradise more than you,” Cas told him, recapturing Dean’s attention. “But you deserved to live. And you deserved to not have to decide between peace or freedom.”

Dean felt like he was going to collapse. He was one unsteady breath away from his knees giving out under him. Exhaustion overcame him, and his shoulders drooped, feeling way too heavy. He turned slowly and moved back to the place they’d been tucked in together. He sat down weightily on dirt.

And maybe Cas was right, but it wasn’t like it was worth anything. Maybe he should have been angry about that, but he was just too damn tired right now.

“Yeah, well… it’s not like it matters,” he mumbled, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He bent his head between them and pressed his palms to the back of his skull, feeling the stretch in his weary, sore muscles. “I’m already dead, remember?”

“You aren’t now,” Cas told him. And Dean tried not to think about it like that. He had to only see this stint on Earth as temporary. He dropped his arms to his lap and looked up at Cas. Cas sat next to him, saying, “What if—after all this is over, after we defeat Chuck—we stay? On Earth.”

Dean straightened out immediately, heart kickstarting back into life.

Could they do that? Was that even a possibility?

“You and me,” Cas went on. Then, haltingly, added, “If… you want me to join you.”

That was almost funny. “If I want—Cas, of course I’d want you to—” Dean rattled his head, attempting to marshal his thoughts. He was trying to process too much at once. “Back up! We could stay?”

“I don’t see why not. It’s worth at least asking Jack to grant you that.”

Dean didn’t know what he was feeling. It was a weird mix of revelation, joy, and fear. He could have a life. He could do whatever he wanted—on Earth, not in heaven’s self-contained little world. He could do all the things he’d wanted to, and he’d be on the clock. It wouldn’t be endless. Every day would mean something. Every day would be his.

But could they really do it? Dean would feel better knowing Cas would be with him, but life never exactly kept them in the same room for very long. Something always got in the way. That would probably be double because of Cas’ job. The daily commute alone would be hell.

“You run heaven,” Dean reminded him.

Cas opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but then he withered. “Yeah,” he muttered, slouching. He was a warm, sturdy wall beside Dean—and Dean couldn’t believe that Cas had been so wrapped up in giving him a life on Earth that he actually forgot for a second that he was the big boss upstairs.

Dean felt hope dwindling—like it always did. It was tempting to say it was nice while it lasted, but he didn’t want to let it go just yet. He wanted to hold onto it with two hands so tightly, they’d have to pry his fingers open to get it back.

“I mean, maybe… Maybe Hannah can take care of things for a while?” he suggested. “’Cause I got, what? Forty, fifty years left? At most? That’s gotta be a blink of an eye to an angel, right? That’s like, a lunch break for you guys.”

Cas nodded in consideration, eyes far away. “Maybe.”

Or maybe Cas didn’t want to give up his job. He was doing good work, after all. Maybe Dean was just being selfish and Cas didn’t know how to tell him that.

“You could… go back,” Dean said, regretting the words instantly. His throat closed up, trying to stop him from saying anything else. He realized he was holding Cas’ thigh. Cas turned his head to look at him, a question on his face. Dean cleared his throat and continued, “If you’d rather stay in heaven, I mean.”

“Would you want that?”

No! God, no. But… what do you want?”

Cas turned away again, seeming like he didn’t know the answer. Or, he did, but he didn’t want to say it. “People rely on me. Jack, the angels, the souls in heaven’s care, the souls who one day will be in heaven…”

Dean tightened his jaw. All that time in heaven, Dean was miserable, and Cas knew it. Cas had done everything he could to make Dean happy. Dean wanted to do that for him now. “Not what I asked.”

“I know,” Cas admitted, sighing. “I miss Earth, Dean. I miss humanity. Most of the time, I… I wish I could be there instead of in heaven. But I can’t. There’s too much that needs to be done.”

It was such a Cas answer, the self-sacrificing bastard. “Okay,” Dean said, tipping his head to the side. “But I think you’ve done enough work that you could put in for some PTO days. I mean, if Jack says no, we could always just send him to his room.”

At least that got a laugh out of Cas, as small as it was.

“You deserve it, too, you know?” Dean told him. “Getting to do what you want.”

Cas’ face turned somber, and he brought his eyes to Dean again. “You realize, if we do this… Sam will still return to heaven?” Dean had known that, somewhere in the back of his head. Eileen was still up there. Like Cas had said, Sam got his peace on Earth. He’d want to go back. “And you won’t get to see anyone you love until you die again.”

Dean let that wash over him. He took an inflating breath and held it in his chest for a long time, not willing to let it out again.

He let it out, anyway.

“Yeah,” he said, staring forward at the fire. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to live, but he didn’t want to lose anyone again.

“We don’t have to have the answer tonight,” Cas told him gently. He rested his chin on Dean’s shoulder, the tip of his nose brushing Dean’s jaw. Dean squeezed Cas’ thigh once.

“Chuck’s still at large,” Cas went on. “We have time to think about what we want.”

Dean nodded. He didn’t feel any better. Doubt was swirling in with hope now, muddying the waters.

“Yeah, if Chuck doesn’t kick our asses first,” he snorted.

He felt Cas smile. “There’s that.”

Dean let his eyes slip closed. He pictured what it might look like: retirement. Life.

“We could finally go to the beach,” he said, knowing Cas would understand the change of topic. Cas always understood. “Hell, we could live at the beach. You think you’d like that?”

“I’d like to have any life with you,” Cas whispered, “whether it’s for forty or fifty years or for eternity.”

Dean felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Hey, come on, buddy,” he said, pretending to be offended. He turned his face, nudging his nose against Cas’. “It’s gonna be eternity no matter what, got it? Don’t skimp out on me now.”

Cas’ eyes were sparkling again with profound adoration, drinking Dean in. Dean shifted slightly, dipping in for a kiss. Cas kissed him back slowly.

Peace and freedom. When he’d first heard that question, Dean had no idea that the guy asking it would one day be a big reason he’d managed to even touch either of those things—if only for a second.

And yeah, maybe there was still doubt and uncertainty. But at least they’d figured out this part. Dean would always consider that a win.

 

///

 

That morning, Sam got out of bed and headed right for the library. The rift was still humming steadily, its pulsing static light casting a slight golden glow on the tile floor. On the table, the poultice had a stream of gray smoke lifting up over the rim of the bowl. The ingredients inside would need to be replenished in a few hours, but Sam was glad it had held throughout the night while he slept—not that he expected anything else. The magic was strong, even if the connection to Cas’ grace on the other side of the rift was tenuous.

Chuck’s final book, its spine cracked open and pages face-down on the wood to hold their place, was on the table next to the poultice, where Sam had left it six hours ago. He lifted it up and frowned down at the text. He only had about fifteen pages left before he was finished with it. He would have been done sooner if he hadn’t been taking notes, highlighting passages that might mean something, and flipping backward every now and again to reread sections in an attempt to connect a few dots.

Where he’d left off, Chuck had erased heaven and hell. He was moving onto the physical plane of the universe, causing the galaxies and stars to collapse and fold in on themselves. The people of Earth were observing this phenomenon occurring in their night sky—watching it all go dark—and cowering in fear. When it was all over, Chuck would swallow the Earth whole. And then he’d start a new story.

Sam needed some coffee.

Through the map room, he heard the bunker’s door boom open. The sound was followed by footsteps on the stairs. He placed the book back down and watched Claire and Kaia appear.

“Hey,” he called.

They didn’t put their duffles down before rushing into the library. Their expressions seemed urgent, and Sam was about to ask what was wrong. But Claire’s eyes snapped over his shoulder to the rift. “What is that?”

“It’s a portal,” Kaia answered, eyes fixed on it, face pale. “To another world.”

“Uh, yeah,” Sam told them. “We found a lead on some of Amara’s power. Purgatory. Dean and Cas are there now.”

Purgatory?” Claire echoed, tone strained. She and Kaia shared a heavy look. It made Sam’s stomach roil, but he didn’t know why. She said, “How long have they been there?”

“A couple days. Why? What’s going on?”

Claire stepped further into the room, letting her duffle fall heavily off her shoulder. She slid it onto the table. “You know how we were tracking Chuck’s angels in Maine? Well, we caught up with them. We captured one and made her talk. She said Chuck was trying to get into Purgatory. He just didn’t have enough power to open the rift himself yet.”

Sam shook his head and shrugged. “Okay.” It didn’t change anything. They knew Chuck was after the power, too. “So, Dean and Cas’ll get there first. Hopefully, it takes Chuck a little longer to open his own door—”

“No, Sam,” Claire interrupted hastily. “The angel said Chuck didn’t need to open his own rift if someone else did it first.”

Sam’s stomach dropped. His heart skipped a beat.

The rift had been open for days. If Chuck drew power from it and utilized it for himself, Dean and Cas could be walking into a trap.

Sam tried his best to shove down his panic.

“We gotta get them out of there.”

 

///

 

Castiel stepped into the clearing, his shoulder brushing against Dean’s. On Dean’s other side, Benny said, “Well, boys. Looks like we made it again.”

The three of them stared up at the top of the rocky cliff, where the undulating blue and white light of Amara’s power crackled and whorled. Castiel could feel the pull of it, not just against his grace but against everything. All life in a two-mile radius bowed to it. The birds, the insects, the animals all gave it a wide breadth for fear of being consumed. Even the trees bent in its direction, like flowers growing toward the sun.

It felt like he was standing before the explosion that set off the Big Bang.

Dean turned his head to Castiel. “You ready?”

Castiel nodded, and together, they started up the mountain. As they drew nearer, the energy radiating off the portal grew louder, swallowing all sound. Castiel remembered the chaos well. As the leaves were shaken from the trees, they were sucked toward the center of the mass. Castiel’s coat tails whipped around his legs in a hurricane; his tie flapped against his chest; the gale swept through his hair. He used his grace to steady himself from being knocked over, off the precarious side of the cliff. Every so often, Dean or Benny lost their footing and grabbed onto him or each other for balance.

“Call Jack and Amara! Tell ‘em to get down here!” Dean shouted when they reached the top. His words were barely audible in the cacophony.

Castiel closed his eyes and sent up a silent prayer, using his grace to carry the frequency out of Purgatory and into the pocket universe Jack had carved out for a safe space. Angel Radio was silent, as it had been for months, but he utilized it to send his exact location to Jack.

It reached him more quickly than Castiel had anticipated. Almost immediately, the wind stopped. It was jarring almost, and Castiel nearly toppled over from the strain of bracing himself against it when he no longer needed to. The zap and whoosh that had beaten against his eardrums faded into a hum.

He opened his eyes, finding the light before him subdued. It was larger than the one in the Empty had been. Sensing power behind him, Castiel turned around, prepared to find Jack and Amara.

That wasn’t who stood before them just slightly down the incline.

“Hey, guys,” Chuck said, a grin on his face, his arms folded behind his back. Then, he let his smile drop, feigning innocence. “What? Not who you were expecting?”

Castiel summoned his blade, letting it fall into his fist. Beside him, Dean and Benny held out their weapons. Castiel tried to storm forward, to put himself in the line of fire, between the enemy and Dean, but Dean grabbed his arm tightly. Castiel allowed himself to be stopped, and Dean’s hand fell away.

“So, this must be the has-been God,” Benny drawled.

“And you must be the plot device,” Chuck retorted, pointing at Benny.

“’Least I keep things interesting.”

Chuck was smiling again. “I like him. I mean, I should. I wrote him.” He took a few steps closer. As one, the three of them tensed and pointed their weapons at him. Chuck ignored the threat, shrugging. “But, in the end, he was just another failed attempt to get the fans hooked on a new relationship that wasn’t Columbo over here.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes at Chuck, not allowing himself to take the bait.

“You know the fans, right? I think you met one of them. Heather?”

He blinked, letting the words wash over him in a vulnerable moment. Beside him, Dean kept his guard up. “You sent her?”

“I wouldn’t say sent,” Chuck said, waving it away. “I just needed you guys to open up the door to Purgatory so I could slip through, and she just happened to be the closest person at the time. So, I made sure Dean could hear her writing process—If you even wanna call fanfiction writing.” He laughed derisively at that. “Anyway! Here we are!”

Dean clicked his tongue and bit out, “Well, I’m a much bigger fan of her work than yours.”

Castiel mounted his grace, pulling it toward the barrier of his skin. It zapped in his fingertips, stretched beyond the confines of his vessel. Becoming bigger than his body. He wondered if Chuck was powerful enough now to see his wings.

If he could, he didn’t appear intimidated.

“Maybe you’ll think differently when you see what I have planned.”

“Yeah, you mean erasing the universe?” Dean said in a bid to buy time. Castiel heard him silently praying to Jack and Amara. It was useless. They wouldn’t hear him where they were hidden. Angel Radio wouldn’t even work. Castiel could now feel a resistance, something blocking his prayers. He didn’t know what it was, but it must have been Chuck’s doing.

Chuck dipped his head to the side and pulled down the corners of his mouth in mock thought. “Eh. Kinda a generalized way to put it, but yeah. Should be happening any day now. I mean, I’m pretty much halfway there. I already beat you to Amara’s power that was on Earth.”

Castiel’s eyes flickered to Dean, watching a muscle in his jaw jump at the new information.

“And, once I get that one—” Chuck gestured toward the energy behind them, “it’s only a matter of time until I have the last piece of the puzzle. Stealing back what Amara got from the Empty and heaven shouldn’t be too hard after that.”

No. It couldn’t be. Even with two portions of the power, Jack and Amara combined would be enough to stop him. They had to be.

“Now, is it me, or is he monologuin’?” Benny taunted. “I hate it when they monologue.”

Chuck chortled at that—and then his face darkened. He swiped his hand through the air, sending Benny flying sideways. He was slammed into a tree trunk and landed on the dirt, unconscious.

Dean let out a furious yell and charged forward, blade first. It happened before Castiel could stop him.

Chuck sidestepped, letting the machete hit the air. He grabbed Dean’s wrist and twisted it. Dean’s shout was pained that time, and it ripped through Castiel. He was brought down to his knees. The machete fell to the ground. Dean struggled, trying to break free.

“I really hate to do this, Dean. You know you’re my fave,” Chuck told him. “But a soul like yours? It’ll really be a power boost.” He put his free hand on Dean’s forehead, and Castiel saw the moment Dean’s soul shuddered. The swirling colors began to muddle, and the light began collapsing in on itself, forming a turbulent tornado in his center. It started to lift out of him, ushered by Chuck’s power.

No.

Castiel sent his grace forward with the speed of a whip, wrapping it around Dean and using all his might to pull him away from Chuck’s grasp. Dean flung through the air and landed on rock and loose dirt, sputtering and nursing his arm. But he was alive, and whole.

And the diversion worked. Chuck’s attention was on Castiel now.

“I heard you got a power up,” Chuck said. “Archangel grace. Good for you, Castiel.” He started walking forward again. “Too bad you only got it because of nepotism.” Then, he paused, thinking. “Wait, is it nepotism if it’s a son who gives the father power? Or is that just the other way around?”

“Stop talking,” Castiel said through his teeth.

Chuck didn’t even appear to hear him. He gave a noncommittal sound and said, “Oh well, doesn’t matter. I’m gonna kill both you and Jack, anyway.”

Castiel would make him stop talking.

He unfurled his wings to their full span and let his grace burn bright, reaching it outward in columns of fire. It glowed in his eyes.

Below the mountain, the birds squawked and fled from the canopy of leaves. Miles away, in a stream cut through the forest, the pebbles and rocks trembled, sending ripples through the water. The fish and tadpole inside darted for safety. The temperature of the air rose by a degree, and the atoms holding the physical plane together thrashed against each other.

Keeping his blade raised and ready, he held up his other hand toward Chuck. His grace collected in his palm, emitting a white light. Like a bullet, it shot forward, consuming Chuck.

Castiel burned and burned, using every molecule of reality as fuel to drive his grace into the heart of this former god. He could feel it, nucleus by nucleus, taking Chuck apart.

And then something went wrong.

It happened suddenly, the push turning into a pull. Before he truly understood what was happening, he was thrown backward. His spine landed hard on the gnarled, exposed root system of a tree. But the shock of pain was nothing compared to the all-consuming wildfire raging inside of him—vessel and grace alike. He rolled over onto his stomach, coughing. He tasted metal in his mouth, and spit it out onto the dirt. The pain ebbed away, and his teeth were stained with crimson.

Distantly, he realized he’d heard Dean shout his name in panic. Grunting in the effort it took, Castiel lifted his head to Dean, to make sure he was alright. He was pinned to a tree by an invisible force, his boots hovering a foot off the ground.

Chuck was striding toward Castiel. Castiel looked around wildly, scrambling for his fallen blade. Before his fingertips brushed it, Chuck kicked it out of reach.

Cas,” he said in a reproving tone, like a parent to a child. “You know, I didn’t have to play with your memories when I made Dean hear Heather’s story. But I just couldn’t help myself! You gotta understand, the first time around… I just kept forgetting about you. I mean, who can blame me? You’re just so forgettable!”

Castiel tried to gather himself, to pick himself up off the dirt on shaking limbs. Chuck kicked him hard in the stomach, sending him back down.

“After a while, I didn’t even know why I kept bringing you back. It wasn’t like you added anything to the story. And then you just got away from me. Oh, I tried to fix it.” He put his hand on his heart, expression earnest. “Honest! All that stuff about your grace failing at the eleventh hour? It was supposed to keep going until you were too useless to be any help in the fight against me. But… I was already too late. I just couldn’t get you to—” He kicked Castiel again, causing the pain to flare anew, “to do what I wanted you to do.”

Chuck bent down and grabbed him by the coat. There was a rush of blood to Castiel’s head as he was forced to his feet. His back was slammed against the tree trunk, and Chuck held him in place by the lapels.

“I guess it’s my fault you were able to slip out of the story like that,” Chuck told him, almost as if he were apologizing. “So, me to you, I promise, this time… I won’t forget about you again. Okay? Got that, Castiel? I control you.”

Castiel swallowed hard, trying to find a way to regain the advantage, to push Chuck off of him. He couldn’t. He’d underestimated Chuck’s power.

But he could still do one thing: be defiant.

“I won’t let you hurt Jack, or the world,” he vowed. “I’ll die first.”

Chuck hummed. “Yeah, probably,” he agreed flippantly. “Dying first is kinda what you do, right?” He lifted one hand off Castiel, the other still a crushing weight on Castiel’s chest. He held out his arm, and Castiel’s blade lifted off the floor and flew into his fist. Chuck looked it over, inspecting it.

“Cas!” Dean shouted, voice hoarse. In his periphery, Castiel saw him struggling to free himself to no avail. But Castiel didn’t look at him. He didn’t dare. He kept his eyes on Chuck’s because, the moment he allowed them to stray to Dean Winchester, his resolve would shatter.

He would face Chuck.

He would be disobedient—until the end.

He drew in a breath, and braced himself for Chuck to plunge the blade into his heart. He braced himself for death.

“But you know what?” Chuck said, like he’d just changed his mind. “I’ve always kinda had a thing about playing with my food. Bad habit, I know! But what are you gonna do?”

He brought the point of the blade to Castiel’s throat and sliced.

Castiel’s eyes widened, realization making him cold.

Chuck inhaled deeply, and Castiel’s grace hummed. He fought, trying with all he could to hold it back, to keep it inside. He could feel it thrumming, crumpling and weakening, sent into turmoil. It hurt, like the breaking of a limb. His wings folded in on themselves, the joints twisting and the feathers shedding. Molten heat rushed through his veins, heading for his throat, leaving ice in its wake.

Head spinning, his eyes could only make out color and light. Mostly light. It sang in glory as it moved out of his body.

No!” he heard Dean yell from somewhere very far away.

Everything was far away.

It happened slowly, and then too fast. Chuck released him, and Castiel couldn’t hold himself up on these fragile legs. He sank to the earth, his back against the rough tree.

Too slow, his senses adjusted. His vision came into focus, revealing the muddled greens and browns of Purgatory. The static ringing faded from his ears, leaving relative silence, and he had to strain his hearing for sound. His chest burned, breath coming in and out of him rapidly. His heart thumped in his chest.

He held his palm up to his face, stretching and curling his fingers. All he felt was the stretch of sinew and cartilage.

Everything was so small. Confined to a tiny form, only able to see as far as the horizon allowed. Only able to meet the world with body and hands. The earth below him was stationary, as if the planet had no axis on which to spin, and if they were a fixed point in space. Only aware of his immediate surroundings and his scattered thoughts.

Everything was big. Out of reach. A moon, shielded by its relative location on the other side of the planet, thousands of miles away; a sun, hidden from him by the clouds, a once-short 93 million miles away; the stars at an even greater distance, their positions in the universe lost to him. The world stretched out on all sides, completely unknown, completely out of his sight and control.

“Archangel grace,” Chuck said, standing over him. “That’ll really help me move things along. But, for now…” He turned, his path set for Amara’s power.

Castiel blinked at him uselessly.

Chuck neared the power. He lifted his hand to it and placed it against the pulsing light. It brightened, building and building. Castiel’s eyes watered and stung. He had to look away.

 

///

 

Sam slung his hastily packed backpack over his shoulder. He checked his gun to make sure it was loaded.

“Okay. Stay here, keep the spell going,” he told Claire and Kaia, who watched him with worried faces from their spot next to the library tables. Sam nodded, more to rally himself than to reassure them. “I’m gonna find them and warn them about Chuck.”

He had no idea how he’d find Dean and Cas. He didn’t know Purgatory as well as they did, but he’d figure it out. All he needed to do was reach them in time.

“What if it’s too late?” Kaia worried.

Sam couldn’t think like that. “No,” he said, casting a glance over his shoulder at the portal, still crackling away. “The portal is connected to Cas’ grace. If Chuck already got to them and they survived, they’d be back by now. Either that, or…” He didn’t want to say it. He couldn’t. His throat closed up at the mere possibility.

Claire nodded, seeming to understand his meaning. Delicately, she said, “Or else… the portal would be closed.”

“Exactly.”

She offered him a smile that was probably weaker than she’d meant for it to be, no doubt attempting to boost his spirits. Whether she had any confidence in this plan was a different matter. He barely had any confidence in it himself. Hell, he barely even had a plan! But what he really didn’t have was time.

“Okay,” Sam said again, bracing himself. He had to go. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck,” Claire and Kaia said a step out of sync with one another, their voices overlapping.

Sam turned around. He took a step toward the portal.

And then, light and heat erupted in an explosion. He was thrown back, skidding across the tiles. Claire and Kaia had been knocked off their feet, too.

Forcing himself to recover quickly, Sam lifted his head off the floor to stare wide-eyed at the rift.

Except, there was nothing to stare at.

“No,” he whispered.

The portal was gone.

 

///

 

The light faded, and Dean rapidly blinked the spots from his eyes.

Cas was still slumped against the tree trunk where Chuck had left him. Benny was still out cold.

Chuck lowered his arm, the bright white glow fading from his eyes as he turned to Dean with a smile. “See you around, Dean,” he said. And then he was gone.

Dean dropped to the forest floor, the impact sending a quick burst of pain through his ankle when he landed on it wrong. The air was ripping in and out of his lungs, and his heart was jackrabbiting against his breastbone. His bruised wrist complained with every movement.

“Cas!” Dean called, picking himself up. His ankle was still sore, but the tenderness in it disappeared a little more with every step. He fell to his knees beside Cas, who was panting hard. His eyes were dazed, but he blinked up at Dean. Blood trickled out of the cut across his neck. Dean grabbed his cheeks, trying to be gentle, but he wanted to cling to him. “Cas. Are you okay?”

“I…” Cas said, his eyes darting all around them. He looked smaller somehow. And paler. His skin was cold.

“How much of it did he take?” Dean asked. If Chuck had taken enough of Cas’ grace, that meant the rift back to Earth would have been closed. They could be stuck there. But, right now, that was the least of Dean’s concerns.

Cas’ eyes snapped back to Dean. They were filled with anxiety. “All of it.”

Dean’s chest collapsed. All the air punched out of him.

“I’m human.”

Chapter Text

47 Years Ago

It was the end of everything.

That wasn’t true. Castiel knew that. Billions of souls would continue to be created every day, and billions more would ascend to heaven. The Earth below would continue to turn. The flow of the universe had not been interrupted. Every atom of existence stuck to its path. It did not stop for the death of one man.

It felt like it should have in this case.

Life was a fleeting state of matter, especially for humans. They spent more time dead than alive in the grand scheme of things—even more time not having existed at all.

But Dean Winchester’s death seemed monumental. As if creation began with his soul. As if the universe was lacking now that he was no longer a physical, breathing part of it.

Castiel sat in the backseat of the Impala. (Except, it wasn’t the Impala. It was an exact replica of it, and he prayed Dean wouldn’t know the difference, though part of him hoped he would.) It was a bright and sunny day in heaven. Birds were chirping. The sky was blue. The air was as warm as an embrace.

He squinted out the window at the Roadhouse, where Dean had just arrived moments ago. Dean was sitting on the porch, drinking a beer with Bobby Singer. He was smiling beautifully, and he appeared lighter. Almost unlike himself. But he was himself—the same shining soul, unburdened by a physical form and hardship.

He was sitting right there. And Castiel mourned him.

Only a handful of months had passed on Earth since Castiel last saw Dean. It seemed like no time at all, even though much had happened. Castiel recalled being taken by the Empty, swallowed by eternal darkness, and being at peace with the fact that this was his end. He hadn’t expected to stare into that same darkness while fully conscious. To wander in it for what felt like eons before coming across another.

Hannah. She’d clung to him, half-mad with solitude, and told him she’d woken up in that place days ago. Sometimes, she heard other angels calling out, but she never found them. They walked through the vast desert together in search of others until, one day, a light broke through the darkness. Castiel recognized it at once, and at first he’d been stricken with fear, certain Jack was dead.

Jack helped them find more angels, and he took them from that waking hell and back to heaven. Castiel was brought back not just with his grace restored, but with more power than he’d ever wielded with grace alone. They began rebuilding heaven together, and then Jack left, favoring a more hands-off approach now that the angels had their instructions. Had Castiel. Jack was gone—most of the time.

Or, no… He was still there. In everything. In the sunlight. In the chirping birds. In Castiel’s thrumming grace. He was there and not there, and Castiel was still learning to cope with the difference.

He was taken out of his thoughts when, for a brief moment, he felt something aching and familiar pulling at the center of him. Right where his heart might have been. He refocused his eyes on Dean, who was dipping his head in a shy smile. His soul pulsed with longing—a silent prayer unbeknownst to him. Known only to Castiel.

Castiel knew what Dean’s longing felt like. He’d known it for years. It was the rope that had fastened Castiel to Earth—and now they were both untethered. Dean, floating. Castiel, falling. Still falling. Even now. Even after all this time.

The longing in Dean’s chest made Castiel want to step out of the car and go to him. But everything inside of him remained frozen in place. He reminded himself that he and Bobby had agreed that Bobby would greet Dean into the afterlife. Because it was right. Bobby should be the one to do it.

(Bobby hadn’t so much agreed as he did grumble, “alright, if you say so,” when Castiel told him it was right. It’s what should happen. Because Bobby’s heaven was the first that had been incorporated into the wider plane of existence. It had latched onto the heaven Castiel had carved out for Dean’s eventual afterlife—the seed from which a vast network of roots sprouted.)

Castiel remained in the car—even when Dean picked himself up from the chair and walked up to the Impala. Even when Dean settled into the driver’s seat, ran his hands over the steering wheel, and sighed happily.

Briefly, Dean’s eyes flashed to the rear-view mirror, but he didn’t see Castiel staring back. He looked right through Castiel. Just as he always had.

Something in Castiel moved. He fisted his hands on his lap, telling himself not to reach out and touch Dean. Not to reveal himself. Because Dean was happy, at peace. It was what he deserved. Castiel’s presence would only complicate matters.

Dean turned on the radio, and the song that lifted from the speakers sounded familiar. He must have played it once on Earth when Castiel was in the car, on one of their drives through the various American roads that seemed to stretch on forever but, he realized now, ended too soon.

(There was a cassette tape in Castiel’s breast pocket that suddenly weighed the mass of a star.)

“Ah!” Dean said to no one, but Castiel wanted to pretend he was speaking to him. “I love this song.”

Dean was happy. Castiel would not intrude on that.

His eyes scanned the side of Dean’s face, taking in every lovely inch of him. He still seemed so far away.

When the Impala started driving forward, Castiel flew back, landing outside the car on the dirt next to the entrance of the Roadhouse. He watched the sun glinting off the black metal until it was out of sight. He listened to the rumbling of the engine and the music blasting from the windows until it faded into the distance.

“Why didn’t you say anything to him?” Bobby asked, sipping on his beer.

Bobby had always been astute, but how he knew Castiel was there was a mystery. Still, Castiel accepted it and revealed himself. He remained still, watching the road where the Impala had disappeared.

“I thought it better for him to acquaint himself with heaven first.”

It was an excuse. It felt like an excuse.

Bobby sighed, but didn’t reprimand Castiel. Instead, he nudged gently: “Might be a lot easier to do with his best friend around to help.”

Castiel turned away from the road to look at him. He didn’t say that Dean would have no trouble settling into his afterlife, because he’d be surrounded by friends and family. He didn’t need Castiel there. That would only serve as a reminder of Earth and everything that had gone wrong.

A piece of him knew that was just another excuse. Dean’s thoughts would turn to Earth eventually. It was inevitable. But Castiel would do everything in his great and vast power to ensure that wouldn’t happen any time soon.

Bobby hefted himself up to a standing position with a grunt. “We’re gonna throw him a little welcome party here tonight,” he said, nodding back to the Roadhouse door. “Try to be there, huh? And maybe bring that boy of yours, too.” He popped his brows and took the final swig of his beer.

Castiel breathed in, the air ballooning his chest.

Jack would not come. (Jack was already there.) And Castiel wouldn’t disappoint Dean or Bobby by arriving without him.

Luckily, he was saved from having to answer with a lie. Angel Radio sounded off inside of him. Hannah was calling, saying they required him for a decision.

“I have to go,” Castiel said. “I’m needed.”

Bobby tipped his head in a nod. “Don’t forget you’re needed here, too.” He clapped Castiel on the shoulder before retreating inside the Roadhouse.

Once the door was closed, Castiel took flight. The echo of Dean’s longing in his chest remained, both filling him up and making him empty all at once.

 

///

 

“To Dean!”

“Cheers!”

Whiskey slopped out of his shot glass, wetting his hand, as Dean clinked it against Charlie’s and Jo’s. This was their third toast of the night, but Dean had drank much more than that. Everyone wanted to buy him a drink, apparently, and he wasn’t about to say no. After all, he was dead. If there was ever a time to get slammed, it was now.

He kicked back the whiskey, feeling it burn down his throat and go right to his head.

The Roadhouse was packed with faces he knew and loved—some he never expected to see again, and some he actually never saw before that night. Bobby, Karen, and Rufus were all sitting at the bar; Ellen and Bill Harvelle were bartending; old hunters who had given their life to the fight hung around the pool table; Pamela’s laugh carried above the sounds of Zeppelin over the jukebox; half the Campbells were throwing darts; Pastor Jim was drinking a glass of wine; and Dean had finally met his grandmother, Millie. When he’d first arrived, Charlie had tackled Dean into a hug, and Kevin had jumped in to join. Dean was happy to see Kevin there—and he figured Jack must have had something to do with getting him into heaven.

Chatter rose up from the tables and people had to twist and turn around one another to navigate through the packed house. Dean hadn’t realized he’d known so many people in his life. Had loved so many people—or that so many had loved him. But they filled a room, and there were still plenty left on Earth, too. For so long, it had just been him and Sam. But, looking around now, he realized he had a family. A big one.

It was perfect.

It was almost perfect.

“Best part of heaven?” Charlie slurred, voice thick from the whiskey. “No hangover the next day, bitches!”

Dean laughed, hooking his arm over the back of his chair. “Great, then keep ‘em coming.”

Easy,” Jo advised. “If anyone can find a way to die of alcohol poisoning in the afterlife, it’s you, Dean.”

Babe,” Charlie said, leaning into her. “Be nice. It’s his party!”

Jo slung her arm around Charlie and brought her into a kiss. Dean popped his brows, pointing at the two of them. “Since when?” he demanded.

Charlie shrugged. “I got game.”

It wasn’t an answer. His eyes flashed to Jo for an explanation. Jo shrugged, too. “She’s got game.”

Dean didn’t know how he felt about this. Happy, he guessed. How could he not be? He was in paradise.

But before he could comment further, someone grabbed his shoulder and said sternly, “Dean Winchester.” He knew that voice. It was the voice of a hard-ass, one that was supposed to stop him dead in his tracks. All authority and threat.

Dean whipped around to find Victor Henriksen. “No way!” He jumped up from his chair and clapped Victor on the arm. “You made it here?”

“Funny, I was about to say the same thing to you,” Victor said. “There was a time I coulda sworn you were headed straight for hell.”

Dean scoffed out a laugh. “Well, you were right.”

Victor turned his eyes to Jo and Charlie. “Okay, next round’s on me,” he decided in that same cop tone he always spoke in no matter the subject.

“Bourbon,” Dean told him, pointing at his face.

“Oh, I remember. It was my job to know everything about you, Winchester.”

Dean blanched as Henriksen turned and headed for the bar. When he looked at the girls again, they were both arching their brows at him suggestively.

What?” he challenged.

“I gotta find out what everything about you means right now!” Charlie shrieked, practically falling over her chair in her rush to go after Victor. Dean figured it probably wasn’t worth it to stop her. She’d be disappointed when she figured out “everything” meant FBI stuff. Or maybe she wouldn’t be. Henriksen was very thorough.

Dean sat back down, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder at the door in the process. It remained closed. Dean licked his lips, tasting alcohol, and tried to ignore the twisting disappointment in his gut.

He was happy.

He reminded himself he was happy.

“Okay,” Jo said when he turned back around. She folded her arms on the table and leaned into them. “That’s the tenth time you’ve looked at the door tonight.”

Dean let out a sound to play it off like she was crazy. He twirled the bottom of his shot glass in a puddle on the table just to do something with his hands.

“It’s Castiel, isn’t it?” Jo asked.

Dean bit down on his jaw, trying to harden himself to the mention of the name. There were a hundred reasons why Cas wasn’t at his welcome party. According to Bobby, Cas was top dog in heaven now. He was probably just running late. He’d be there. How could he not be?

Especially after—

Since he told Dean—

He’d be there.

Dean found himself half-hoping that Cas wouldn’t show up. Because what would Dean say to him? In a room full of people? Dean had plenty of time to think in the months between Cas getting taken by the Empty and this moment. He’d practiced a thousand different versions of everything he’d say to Cas if he ever saw him again. Now, his palms were sweating and he’d forgotten his carefully prepared script.

He didn’t know what he’d do when he saw Cas again. Apologize for killing him, probably—and then go from there.

Dean looked around again, and the door stayed closed. He caught his mom’s eyes in the crowd, and she smiled at him. Dad’s arm was wrapped around her waist. Dean offered a smile back.

Where the hell was Cas? And where was Jack? Where was the rest of his family?

“Never fear! More shots are here!” Charlie’s voice rang out. She and Henriksen were coming over with a tray laden with precariously sloshing whiskey glasses. More people crowded around the table, hands grabbing at the glasses. Dean was handed one, pushing him out of his thoughts.

He looked up at the familiar light eyes and dark hair grinning down at him. Mick held up his glass. “To Dean Winchester! The man of the hour!” As far as toasts for the recently deceased went, it was a little odd. Dean didn’t know if this was supposed to be a funeral or a birthday party. Either way, he wasn’t sure he deserved it. After all, all he’d done was die.

Maybe that’s why Cas wasn’t showing up. He’d sacrificed himself for Dean, and just like every other part of their relationship, Dean couldn’t even get that right.

A shout went up above the crowd. “To Dean!”

Dean pushed a smile and knocked his drink back, his thoughts swimming.

 

///

 

Later that night, Dean was taken to his home in the mountains. Castiel had created the place especially for him. It was quiet, away from the rest of town but not far enough that Dean couldn’t quickly shed the solitude whenever he wanted. Like the bunker. Unlike the bunker, there were large windows that let in the bright daylight when the sun was overhead. There was a stream for fishing, enough land for a garden and growing food, and space for Miracle to run and hike when he eventually joined Dean in heaven. There was also a garage for the Impala, which he knew was important to Dean.

Castiel stayed a safe distance behind Dean, keeping his footsteps on the hardwood light and soundless as he followed Dean through the house. The place was new, but it looked lived in. Loved. Already full of happy memories with its framed pictures of familiar faces and wood stacked next to the fireplace.

Dean picked up a picture of himself, Sam, and Bobby from a stand in the living room and smiled down at it warmly. Castiel was filled to the brim with joy from that smile.

Dean liked it there. Dean was happy. It was what he deserved.

But then, when Dean set the picture frame back down and looked over his shoulder at the empty kitchen, the warmth in Castiel’s chest fizzled. He could feel the hollow in Dean’s heart as if it were his own. He didn’t understand. Dean was longing for something.

What had Castiel missed? What was wrong?

He followed Dean out the front door to the porch. Dean went to the very edge, his hands wrapping around the railing. He took in a deep breath, his chest filling with the fresh mountain air. Mourning doves cooed from the trees’ branches, singing their lonely tune. The stream that ran along the property rushed distantly.

Castiel stayed by the sliding glass door, watching the shifting lines of Dean’s body, mesmerized by the swirling colors of his soul.

“Cas?” Dean said, so low that Castiel thought he was imagining things. His heart seized, thinking for a moment that Dean knew he was there. But then Dean continued: “You got your ears on?”

Castiel could weep. How many times had Dean started his prayers with that phrase?

Big things: We need your help. Sam’s hurt. We think we found another one of those 66 seals. We could really use some celestial answers here.

Then, later, small things: I forgot to put milk on the list, so pick that up, too. I’m picking out a movie to watch so you better get your ass in here if you want any say. Just checking in to tell you me and Sammy got to the motel. What’s Jack’s favorite pizza topping again? I need a drink, and so do you. I’m at AutoZone looking for oil for your truck; do me a favor and text me what synthetic group the engine takes; it should tell you in the manual in the glove compartment.

Even in the months after he’d left Earth, even when Dean thought Castiel was still in the Empty, he still prayed. When Castiel had been human, that had been the most difficult part about adjusting to life as a mortal: not being able to hear Dean’s prayers. That voice that lived in Castiel’s head for so many years, it became an intrinsic part of him.

“I dunno if you got the memo, but I’m here. Bobby said Jack brought you back and… all this—That you did all this heaven stuff. So, uh… Listen, I know you’re probably busy and everything, but if you got a second… I think we should probably…”

Dean’s hands tightened on the railing and he hung his head, seeming to gather his thoughts.

Castiel realized he was holding his breath. It sat like lead in his lungs. It was the only thing that filled him. Everything else was consumed by the black hole of Dean’s longing inside of him.

He knew he was intruding, and Dean wouldn’t like that. Especially now, when Dean’s mask had slipped, all his guards lowered, and his soul was a beacon. Dean always seemed so small and vulnerable when he thought he was alone. It was stunning to behold. Castiel clung to the rare moments Dean had let all his defenses fall away even when he knew Castiel was beside him.

“I don’t like the way we left things,” Dean said, lifting his head again. And there it was. Castiel had expected rejection. He just hadn’t expected to be alive to feel it. And that was fine. He hadn’t told Dean about his feelings because he wanted to hear them reciprocated—even if, in quiet moments, he dreamed it. But he also hadn’t been fully prepared for the sting it caused. It wasn’t something he ever thought he’d have to deal with.

“So, get on down here so we can make it right,” Dean prayed.

Castiel was a coward. He remained frozen in place, not revealing himself, even if he desperately wanted to. It was better if Dean forgot about him and embarked on his afterlife on a joyous note.

Dean let out a breath. He glanced around like he expected to see Castiel. Then, he looked behind him, his eyes searching the furniture and the outdoor fireplace. His gaze landed on the threshold, lingering there. Castiel didn’t even dare to breathe. He knew, logically, that Dean couldn’t see him, but it felt like he could. Castiel stared back, stricken and petrified and still in love.

And Dean lowered his eyes.

“Yeah,” he said, his mouth twisting into a smile that looked more like a grimace. Castiel ached and ached. “Yeah, you’re probably busy.”

He couldn’t bear to be there any longer. Dean was settled. That was all he needed to know. He shouldn’t have stayed in the first place. He flew off, back to the center of heaven, trying and failing to outrun Dean’s vast, visceral longing.

 

///

 

Another dart sailed into the board, a shiny, sharp metal point speared into the bright red cork. Dean turned around with a victorious grin on his face.

Charlie groaned. She was sitting at one of the tables in the Roadhouse, a beer that was mostly just dregs and froth next to her elbow and her head dramatically in her hands. She held up a twenty-dollar bill pinched between two fingers. “Take it.”

Dean plucked it from her hand. “Wanna go for another round?”

She glared at him menacingly. “You cleaned me out.”

They were in heaven, where money was actually worthless, but it was still fun to win. Dean chuckled and dumped himself in the chair across from her just in time for Jo to come by with more beers.

It was early in the day, the sun painting a dust-speckled line on the rustic floor, banishing some of the grungy gloom that hung around the bar. There were a few other hunters hanging around the tables—either playing pool or nursing drinks while chatting in hushed tones. Ellen and Bill were off somewhere—Maui?—leaving Jo to run the place for a few days.

Ash was missing, too, and Dean really hoped he was working on that new version of his heaven-hopper machine. Or at least his Angel Radio scanner, which apparently went kaput when heaven reorganized. Something to do with frequencies and physics, and Dean didn’t really care. He just barked at Ash to get it working again so he could actually track down angels. One angel in particular.

“Well, what can I say?” Dean told Charlie, pushing the phony, broad smile to remain on his face despite the way his mood soured at the thought of Cas. At the thought of having to find him instead of just having him there in the first place. “I’ve had nothing better to do for the past six months.”

Charlie frowned, more annoyed than sympathetic. If they had this conversation once, they’d had it a million times. “That’s not true. You can do anything you want. Heaven, remember?”

Oh, Dean sure did remember, but he was less and less sold on the idea of eternal paradise with each passing day. What did he have, really? An empty house on a mountain top, one that didn’t actually exist on Earth except in a fantasy? A replica of a car while his little brother drove around in the real one? A roadhouse that was nothing but charcoal and ruin?

That wasn’t the only thing that was ash. Dean wondered where his had been spread.

“Right,” Dean said into his beer, raising it to his lips.

“Well, you could always throw another rager up in that mansion of yours,” Jo said, parking her hip against the table.

Dean nearly choked on his beer. “No! Took me a week to clean up after the last one!”

“Yeah, because you got too drunk and started trashing the place,” Charlie pointed out.

Dean pursed his lips, but he couldn’t argue. He’d played it off as a fun thing at first, going into his kitchen and throwing plates on the floor just to hear them shatter. People joined in until it was basically a Greek wedding. Then he moved onto other things, anything breakable, because it was heaven so it’s not like there were consequences.

Except, he’d been hoping there would be. He’d been hoping someone would catch wind of it and show up to tell Dean to knock it off. To yell at Dean for ruining everything, for breaking all his toys, for not being grateful for all the good he had now. He’d been hoping for Cas’ attention.

And now, he was out of options. He’d tried praying. He’d even tried praying to Jack. They all went unanswered.

Dean took a large gulp of his beer instead of saying anything.

As if Jo could read his mind, she asked, “Still haven’t heard anything from Castiel?”

Dean shook his head, trying to keep his expression casual. “Guess he’s still busy.” How, after six months of this bullshit, Dean was still making excuses, he had no idea. Maybe because he had to believe it. Otherwise, he’d think about why Cas was purposefully ignoring him. And that would only spiral into the realization that Cas regretted what he said to Dean, regretted dying for him—even if he got a promotion out of the deal. It’d spiral into the realization that he should regret it, and Dean wouldn’t blame him at all if Cas didn’t want to go down that road again. Like an alcoholic who’d gone to rehab and now understood what was best for them. Now understood that, before, all they’d been doing was poisoning themselves.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Charlie said in a voice that suggested it was just a line. She was a terrible liar.

“Maybe,” Jo agreed thoughtfully, not really agreeing at all.

Dean narrowed his eyes at her. “What?” he challenged. He knew he wouldn’t like it. Judging by the petrified look on Charlie’s face, he was sure he’d hate it. But maybe he was a glutton for punishment.

“I’m just saying,” Jo said bluntly, “maybe they want to keep the angels and humans separate. This is supposed to be like Earth, right?”

Dean scoffed. “Right, because there were never any angels running around Earth.” If only that were true.

“Okay, but there are no monsters here, either. Or demons,” Jo pointed out. “Maybe this place is supposed to be Earth but… just for humans.”

It made sense, Dean guessed—for normal people. Because, when he really thought of it, half his best friends were some variation of supernatural creature. But he was a special case. And he knew about one other special case currently residing in heaven, too.

Lily Sunder. He’d tracked her down and gone to visit her and her daughter a couple of months ago. Akobel, the angel who helped her raise the girl on Earth, was with her. When Dean had asked him where Cas was, Akobel said he didn’t interact with Cas when he was in HQ. And Lily told him she didn’t use her Enochian magic anymore, then not-so-politely told him to fuck off for the rest of time. So, that was a dead-end.

The point was: angels visited the human part of heaven. So, where the hell was Cas? And where was Jack?

Dean was still on the hunt for Kelly, which was why he needed Ash to hurry up with those projects. If anyone knew how to get ahold of Jack, Dean figured it would be his mother. Get to Jack, get to Cas. Get his family back.

Somewhere deep down, Dean knew it was no use. If Cas was playing hard to get, Jack would be even tougher to track down. But Dean needed some kind of goal to work toward or else the thought of an empty house, beers and darts at the Roadhouse, and no monsters to hunt for the rest of time would drive him insane.

And, yeah, he was aware of how fucked up he was.

“Yeah, but it’s Cas,” Dean said like it explained everything. He was met with blank stares. “He’s not just an angel!”

“He’s the angel, according to what Bobby said,” Jo countered.

Dean snapped his jaw shut. He already knew what Bobby said. He’d made Bobby go through the conversation he and Cas had back when heaven first started reorganizing about a million times. Or, at least until Bobby smacked Dean on the head and told him to leave him alone.

“But this is Cas we’re talking about,” Dean insisted. He could feel the panic rising up in his throat, desperately trying to choke it down. “He’s pretty ride or die. Or, you know—ride, then die, then come back to life again.”

Jo didn’t know what she was talking about. She’d only met Cas once, and that was back when he was just coming off the Righteous Path train.

“Trust me, he wouldn’t just up and leave.”

Actually, that’s exactly what Cas would have done. He did it all the time. But not forever. He always came back. Always. This time would be no exception.

Except if it was. Except if, this time, Dean had run out of second chances.

He turned back to Charlie, hoping for back up. “Right?”

She nodded all too quickly. “Yeah, totally!”

Dean ignored the way her voice squeaked. If she believed that Cas wouldn’t abandon them, Dean could believe it, too.

“Good.” He knocked back the rest of his beer in one go. It tasted way too bitter on his tongue. He stood up, trying to carry himself easily. It didn’t work. His entire body was a ball of nerves. “I gotta go. See you guys later.”

They both nodded a silent goodbye, appearing unwilling to utter a single other word. It both annoyed and relieved Dean.

He left the Roadhouse and climbed into the Impala, driving off in the opposite direction of his home. He couldn’t go there now—sit alone in an empty, too-big house.

He planned on driving aimlessly, but instead he found himself back at an old bridge above a ravine a few miles outside town. He always went there to think. It was in the middle of the forest, muffling all sound, off the beaten track. He’d never been interrupted there.

Actually, it was one of the only places he actually felt at peace in heaven—among the sound of the rushing water, the sweeping breeze, the fresh air, and the deep, dangerous fall.

He slowed the Impala to a stop in the middle of the bridge but didn’t kill the engine. The rumbling idling sound of the car echoed against the tar, steel, and cement. Dean kept his hands gripping the steering wheel.

He didn’t want to think in circles today. And he didn’t want peace.

He kept driving, coming to the other side of the bridge, and then going a few more miles until he caught sight of clearing in the trees on the side of the road.

Dean pulled off into the dirt and turned off the ignition. He reached into the glove compartment, taking out his filigreed Colt pistol and getting out of the car.

So, trashing his house didn’t get Cas’ attention. Maybe he needed to go bigger. Be louder.

He marched to the center of the clearing, took aim at one of the trees. The gunshot shocked the still forest into life, splintering the trunk of a tree and sending birds wheeling into the sky from the canopy.

Dean prepared himself—for a flutter of wings, for a familiar voice, for angry eyes promising to smite him. For anything.

He looked around, finding only trees.

“Where are you, man?” he whispered. There was no reply.

Sadness was pooling in his gut, ice cold. It was easy to pretend it was gasoline. He set a match to it.

Raising his arm again, he pulled the trigger until his clip ran out.

 

///

 

After all this time, this particular heaven remained Castiel’s favorite.

He stood, hands in his pockets, on the perfect green grass, the blue sky above him, and the sunrays warm to the touch. A few yards away, a man in a red sweater let the kite tethered in his hands climb marginally higher toward the fluffy, towering clouds. Castiel was in plain view, but the man didn’t pay him any mind. To him, Castiel was just another park-goer enjoying a blissful afternoon.

Despite his work to integrate heaven, Castiel would be sad to see this individual paradise go. It was selfish, but he would miss the peace and tranquility this man’s heaven had always brought him. It was a patch of reality that he knew, without fail, he could frequent when the pressures of the universe became too much.

When Dean’s longing constricted his chest enough to trick Castiel into believing he needed to breathe.

The simplicity of it always centered him and reminded him what was important. It reminded him that all of humanity was important, not just Dean.

He supposed one might call his visits to this place therapy.

Yes, Castiel would miss this man’s heaven very much.

But the man might be happier surrounded by his friends and family as opposed to nothing more than the perfect, sterile memories of them. Castiel had given instruction to the angels to rebuild this park exactly as it was now so that it might be a gathering place for this man and his loved ones. For the first time, Castiel wondered who those people were. For the first time, he saw this man in a new light. And he hoped, very much, he’d find joy in seeing the ones he loved again. Memory was not enough.

He inhaled, taking in the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass and newly bloomed flowers.

There was a flutter of wings swooping in behind him, and Castiel felt the familiar presence of his sister’s grace.

“Castiel?” Hannah said, stepping forward and settling at his side. Her face was pinched like she knew she was interrupting something.

Castiel’s eyes lingered on the man for another moment before he exhaled. He pulled his shoulders tauter and allowed the universe to flood back in. “What is it?” he asked, turning to her.

Her gaze flashed sidelong at the man in the distance, and she said, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’ve just received word from sector 2-4-00-B. They’ve run into an issue with the integration.”

Castiel tilted his head to the side, confusion following concern. “What kind of issue?”

Hannah pressed her lips together. “Maybe it’s best if you follow me.”

He nodded, and they were off. Moments later, they landed on the outskirts of the main heaven. A number of angels were soaring above, wheeling in widening circles with their arms outstretched. The shimmering haze of celestial light became a placid blue under the command, and it began stretching to the horizon, to meet the part of the sky that was already built. Next would come clouds, then precipitation, and then flocks of birds to beat their wings along the air streams.

On the ground, more angels worked on building grass and trees, insects and animals, boulders and mountains. Castiel found himself on a high, rocky cliff. The ocean below was sparkling but flat, as the winds and waves had not yet been crafted.

Judging by the blueprints of the geography, this was meant to be somewhere in Europe. Perhaps Norway. Castiel wasn’t certain what time frame, precisely, it was supposed to reflect, but those angels working in sector 2-4-00-B had been tasked with integrating the Bronze and Iron Ages. However, he couldn’t help but notice there weren’t any structures.

In the near distance, the land came to an abrupt stop. Another hazy, pulsating wall of the energy and matter that separated the heavens from each other stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see. Half a dozen angels stood before it, their palms raised as they sent their grace into it. It was supposed to collapse and allow the individual soul’s heaven to phase through and fill in the scenery. But it didn’t seem to be working.

“The heaven is resisting,” Hannah told him.

Castiel shook his head. “I don’t understand.” From her expression, he gathered that Hannah didn’t know what the cause of the issue was either. “Has this happened before?”

“Not to my knowledge.” That meant no. As Castiel’s second in command, Hannah would have known.

“Has anyone gone to the human’s heaven to see if there’s a problem on that end?”

Hannah nodded. “Jehoel did. He confirmed there was nothing out of the ordinary. Whatever it is, it must be on our side.”

In truth, Castiel had been expecting something to go wrong sooner or later. It was inevitable. He was even a little surprised it had taken this long. Still, a cocktail of dread and inadequacy snapped at his mind. If they didn’t find a solution for this, the angels could lose faith in his leadership.

Belatedly, the first part of what Hannah had said processed. “Jehoel? Isn’t he a guardian?” There were a few guardians stationed on Earth, just to keep an eye on things—perform minor miracles, report demon infractions to Castiel which were usually resolved by sending word to Rowena—but the host’s presence among the humans was limited. Castiel never wanted it to be non-existent, as it was in the days before the apocalypse, or overwhelming, such as in the years after the fall. But the few guardians and protectors on Earth served an important function.

“He was,” Hannah said, “but he asked to transfer roles. He felt he would be better suited to work on the integration.”

Castiel’s first reaction was puzzlement. “He asked?” Angels rarely asked for things. When they did, they were seen as rebels. He should know.

Hannah shrugged. “You’re the one who told us to rule our own fate. I thought you’d be pleased?”

He blinked, stomping away the age-old indoctrination of heaven’s bygone era. “Of course,” he said, remembering himself—remembering who was now and what the angels expected of him. “I am. Our brother’s choice is admirable.”

Hannah dipped her head in a nod and turned her attention back to the angels still attempting to break down the barrier. “He seems happier,” she commented.

Castiel squinted forward, watching the angels’ progress. Or lack thereof.

He wondered, “And you? Are you… content?” There was a reason he picked Hannah as his second. For a time while he’d been on Earth, she’d commanded heaven. The angels looked to her for guidance; they respected her. She’d done an exemplary job for the short time she’d held the position, and Castiel often wondered if she should reclaim the role now.

Sometimes, he wondered if she thought so, too.

But she didn’t seem to harbor any ill-will toward him. In fact, she smiled gently. “I am.” As if understanding his concerns, she continued, “I may have once brought order to heaven, but you and Jack have brought stability. And peace.” She eyed him, her gaze warm and encouraging. “You’re doing a good job, Castiel.”

He tried to smile back, but it was a weak thing. It was difficult to be reassured when they were standing in front of his first failure.

Or, at least, his first failure as the leader of heaven.

Marshaling his attention to the matter at hand, he said, “Is Jehoel here now?” He scanned the surrounding angels, but he didn’t spot him. Perhaps hearing his report firsthand would give Castiel a better sense of what they were up against. There may have been something Jehoel missed.

“He should be working in this sector closer to the eastern shores,” Hannah said, pointing in the general direction. “What do you hope to gain from…”

Her words were suddenly swallowed up by a pang in Castiel’s chest. It was sharp at first, as if he’d been stabbed, but then it quickly eased into a steady, dull thrum.

Cas, you’ll never guess what’s on TV.

Castiel closed his eyes and turned his head in the direction of the sea. There was no breeze to calm him, but still, he felt swept up. Vaguely, he was aware of Hannah still speaking, but there was only one voice he clung to.

You remember that night we stayed up and watched all the Rambo movies? And you got so pissed at me for saying all the lines in First Blood?

Castiel hadn’t been angry with them. Like he always did, Dean shouted the lines he particularly enjoyed a few moments before the characters spoke them—usually with more exuberance, too. Castiel constantly found himself watching Dean more than any movie, waiting for Dean’s eyes to light up and for him to shout the dialogue. It just so happened that, that night, Dean had caught him. And Castiel had to pretend he hadn’t been staring out of fear that Dean would end the movie. He’d rolled his eyes and feigned a huff, and Dean had laughed musically.

That was a good night, man. I… Well, I’m just sayin’. Might be good to have a movie night like that again. I mean, looks like they’re running a marathon now, so. I dunno. If you wanna hop on in? I could make popcorn.

“Castiel?”

It was as if all the contents on Castiel’s chest had been pulled out. He felt the tightening of Dean’s heart, the vacuum of space behind his ribs. It left Castiel breathless once more.

Or I could just pray all the lines at you.

It was supposed to be a joke. Dean’s longing was too great for it to be genuine.

There was a touch to Castiel’s shoulder. Immediately, Castiel ripped his eyes open and jerked his head toward Hannah. She started, surprised, but then her expression rearranged into trepidation. “Castiel?” she asked again. “Are you alright?”

She already knew the answer, and she already knew why.

“I don’t need to speak with Jehoel,” Castiel told her quickly, trying to course-correct. His voice sounded rough, too insistent. Shame burned at the center of his grace, and he cursed these human emotions.

“Oh. Okay. If you’re sure,” Hannah said, letting her arm drop back to her side. She didn’t question him further, and he knew it to be a kindness.

He needed to go. He knew he shouldn’t, but he wanted to go to Dean. To sit beside him on the couch and watch Dean’s smile spread wide at all his favorite scenes of the movie, to become mesmerized by the way the blue light flickered across Dean’s face, to linger in his presence. Even if Dean didn’t know he was there.

Maybe, somehow, Dean would sense him without realizing it. Perhaps the turmoil in his heart would be quelled, and the nostalgia would be fleeting. And, when Castiel left, Dean would be happy again.

He could do that. For Dean.

“Alert me when the issue has been resolved,” he said. He knew there was nothing more he could do there, anyway.

Hannah nodded, not looking him in the eyes.

Castiel flew to Dean’s side.

 

///

 

Gray bark blasted off a tree trunk under an earsplitting crack.

Dean was back in the clearing. He went out there a few times a week, just to shoot and slash at the trees and bramble in hopes of it getting Cas’ attention. For all the good it did. As soon as the wood splintered, it repaired itself in the time it took Dean to blink. And Cas never showed up.

He’d read somewhere that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Dean disagreed with that. That wasn’t insanity. It was desperation. It was doing the only thing in his power. He’d been doing that all his life.

Call him insane. Call him desperate. He was past giving a shit.

“Come on, Cas!” he yelled, nothing but his own echo answering him. He leveled his gun again and emptied half a clip into a single tree. In a blink, it was made new. And it pissed him off. He could feel his face flushing with anger, and if he wasn’t careful about his blood pressure, he’d get a nosebleed.

But, hell, it wasn’t like hypertension could kill him, right?

Right?

Actually, that gave Dean an idea.

He lifted his gun again and pressed it against his temple, his finger hovering over the trigger.

“Cas, you better get down here—or I’ll do it! I swear to God, I will!” he shouted. His heart slammed wildly against his ribcage. “Let’s find out if I can die in heaven!” He really hoped Cas would show up, because he really didn’t want to find that out.

“Come on, you son of a bitch!”

“Dean Winchester.”

Dean whipped around, his gun arcing out to point at the newcomer in reflex. He relaxed when he realized who he was looking at, even if it was unexpected. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” he asked Balthazar, letting his arm drop to his side.

“I am. Thank you for asking.” Balthazar pressed his palm to his chest, pretending to be heartened. “Your concern for my wellbeing is truly touching.”

Dean rolled his eyes. Balthazar was just as annoying as he remembered—and Dean didn’t really want to talk to him. It was actually pretty insulting that Cas sent him to talk to Dean instead of showing up himself. But at least it confirmed his belief: the angels were watching him. “Where’s Cas?” he demanded.

“Busy.”

Dean’s patience was wearing out. “Busy? I’ve been here for over a year! The guy hasn’t had five minutes in his schedule? Looks like you need to find him a new girl.”

Balthazar gestured outward in a lackadaisical shrug. “Well, he is running all of heaven, you understand. It’s quite the demanding job.”

“I don’t care. I need to talk to him.” Dean shoved his gun into the back of his jeans. It was a mistake. He felt less domineering without it in his hand. Lamely, he finished, “So, get him over here.”

“I can’t,” Balthazar told him, and maybe Dean had been an idiot for expecting anything else. “But I’m happy to take a message.”

No. Hell no. This was a personal conversation. “Not gonna happen.”

Balthazar’s phony smile dropped. He sighed, looking upward in exasperation. When he lowered his gaze, it flickered momentarily over Dean’s shoulder. Quick enough to miss. Dean didn’t think much of it.

“Fine, then. I suppose he’ll never know what you have to say,” he challenged.

Dean wasn’t giving up so easily. “So, what? He’s just gonna avoid me forever?”

Avoid you?” Balthazar chuckled. “What makes you think that you, a human, are important enough to warrant the grand poobah of heaven’s avoidance?”

Now, that was just bullshit. Cas could ignore him all he wanted, but he couldn’t pretend he didn’t care. Even if he regretted what he’d told Dean the last time they saw each other, even if he regretted his sacrifice, he could at least give Dean the courtesy of saying it to his face.

Dean gritted his teeth, seething. “Well, word on the street is, heaven’s still working on bringing fiber optics to every neighborhood.”

“Yes,” Balthazar admitted. “Incorporating each individual heaven is a work in progress. All the more reason Castiel is busy. Your point?”

Dean paced closer to him, pulling his shoulders tighter, posturing. “My point is: why start with me? Huh? You coulda started in Ancient Rome or whatever. Gone with a pope or a saint. But Cas started with me. Why would he do that if I was so unimportant?”

Balthazar’s eyes flickered just past Dean again—and that time, it caught Dean’s attention. He narrowed his eyes in suspicion, waiting for him to do it again.

“Dean,” Balthazar said, appearing unaffected by the line of questioning. “You’re in heaven, are you not? You have everything you’ve ever wanted. You are or soon will be surrounded by everyone you’ve ever loved. Why do you insist on coming out here and shooting at trees like the charming barbarian you are?”

Dean stuck to his guns, not allowing himself to get distracted. “I wanna talk to Cas.”

“Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say to you.”

“I dunno. He was pretty chatty the last time we talked.” Dean was surprised he hadn’t choked on the words. He almost did choke on the emotion that clogged his throat in their wake. He swallowed hard, forcing it back down.

Balthazar slumped, finally defeated. Again, for the briefest half-second, his eyes flashed to the same spot over Dean’s shoulder. And Dean latched onto it like a dog with a bone.

“What do you keep looking at?” he demanded, not waiting for an answer before looking around to see for himself. There was nothing. He searched the trees in the clearing, seeing only bark and grass. But something was there. He could feel it.

Someone was there.

“He’s here, isn’t it?” Dean said, the anger in his veins bubbling over to rage. He turned around fully and swiped his hand out, expecting to feel something. He only caught air.

“Of course, he isn’t. Don’t be ridiculous,” Balthazar tried.

Dean ignored him. “Cas? Cas! Show yourself, you dick!”

He couldn’t believe this. How long had Cas been doing that? Hanging around when Dean didn’t know? Had he been doing it the whole time? Dean would kill him! Because that was worse than avoiding him or ignoring him. That was hiding. That was lying.

And the worst part was, deep down, Dean couldn’t blame him. If Dean were him, he wouldn’t want to show his face, either. Because Dean had killed him.

“Cas!”

“Dean, he isn’t here,” Balthazar tried again.

“Castiel!”

“He’s gone.”

The words hit Dean like a punch to the gut. He turned around to face Balthazar again, eyes wide. Pleading, despite himself.

Balthazar let out a deflating breath. “He’s gone. He was here, but not anymore.”

Dean didn’t want to believe it. Balthazar could have been lying again, but something told Dean he wasn’t. “Why?” he heard himself eke out.

Balthazar’s expression morphed, no longer the glib, sarcastic indifference he usually wore. He actually seemed apologetic. “I don’t know.”

Dean’s throat clicked when he swallowed. He dropped his gaze to the dirt.

“Go home, Dean,” Balthazar advised gently. “Enjoy your afterlife. It’s in your own best interest, I assure you.”

Dean bit down on his jaw, glaring up, fully prepared to tell Balthazar that was a crock of shit. But Balthazar was gone.

And Cas was gone.

And Dean didn’t understand any of it.

 

///

 

Castiel heard the Impala’s engine fading into the distance, which meant Dean had given up and gone home. He both wished for and dreaded the possibility that Dean might have given up for good.

He stood among the tall trees, away from the clearing, his chin tipped up at the dense canopy of leaves. His eyes remained closed, listening to the Impala’s retreat. He prayed it would take the twisting pit in his chest with it, but it never did. It remained just as knotted, just as empty. It might have stolen his breath if he were human.

Presently, there was a flutter of wings behind him. Balthazar said, “Well, he’s gone for now. I assume he’ll be back with larger weaponry next time.”

Castiel let his eyes slip open, the patches of blue sky above the green leaves coming into focus. He realized he was holding his hands in fists at his sides.

“He’s angry.” The words came forth without his say so, like they needed to get out whether he wanted them to or not. They came from that deep hollow at his center, but they didn’t relieve him of any pain. Part of him didn’t want it to. That longing was holy. It was Dean. And it was the only piece of Dean that Castiel could have.

Balthazar sighed. “It appears so. I’d venture to guess he’s confused, as well. As am I, if I’m being honest. He’s the one you love the most, apart from Jack. You’re clearly miserable. Why do you continue to ignore his calls?”

Castiel wasn’t ignoring Dean. How could he ever ignore the man who constantly occupied his every thought?

“Why not just speak to him?”

Castiel lowered his head, hardening his expression. He turned around to face his friend. “You know why.” Balthazar had known perhaps even longer than Castiel had.

“Yes,” Balthazar said, pity written on his features, licking at his tone. “But he seems rather insistent on speaking with you. Maybe you should reevaluate your stance on—What is it you do?” He twirled his wrist in a vague, mock-thoughtful gesture. “Ah, yes. Visit without him knowing.”

Balthazar didn’t understand. He couldn’t. Castiel was like him once: unable to love. Unknowing of the sacrifice love entailed. “It’s better this way.”

“For whom?”

Dean, Castiel wanted to say, but the name died on his tongue. He knew it wasn’t completely true. Still, he had a convincing argument: “I’m not with him and already, I’m ruining his chance at happiness. Going to him will only make it worse.”

Dean didn’t need him anymore. Castiel only served one function now, and that was to keep heaven running. So Jack wouldn’t have to. So Dean would be happy. Castiel’s own misery didn’t matter, not as long as the people he loved were unencumbered.

Dean didn’t need him and that would become abundantly clear if Castiel went to him. He would not ruin Dean’s peace by allowing him to become a slave to his guilt, and he would not overstay his usefulness. Dean owed Castiel nothing.

Balthazar must have known he’d touched a nerve. Even if he couldn’t sense it, Castiel’s sudden shift in tone had been clear. The pity on his face transformed into sympathy. “Cas. You don’t know that until you hear what he has to say.”

Fear jumped in Castiel’s gut. He stowed it away, telling himself it wasn’t there. He maintained, “You don’t know him like I do.” Balthazar didn’t know Dean’s passion in everything he did. Dean would fight this hard to see anyone, especially when he was angry. Castiel wasn’t special in that regard.

“Perhaps,” Balthazar allowed. “Or maybe you know him too well. You think he’s incapable of surprising you.”

He was wrong. Dean always surprised Castiel. For all Castiel understood him, he still couldn’t quite figure Dean out. He was a soul constantly in flux. A kaleidoscope. A crystal prism catching the light.

But what if he didn’t surprise Castiel this time? Worse yet: what if he did?

It was better to never know. Castiel would happily shoulder that burden so Dean wouldn’t have to.

Balthazar flew off, leaving Castiel alone beneath the trees. The sound of the Impala’s engine was gone.

 

///

 

“Okay, so you wanna make sure it has these grill marks on it—but don’t char it,” Dean instructed, standing over the barbecue, manned with tongs and an apron. He flipped over the steak. “See?”

There was a party behind him—friends and family passing around potato salad and sitting on lawn chairs while music played from a stereo. Dozens of cars were parked one on top of the other in Dean’s driveway. Chatter and laughter lifted up to the summer sky.

Beside him, Kevin leveled him with a look. “Dean, I don’t know how many times I have to tell you I’m vegan. I don’t care about the perfect way to cook a steak. I just came over here to give you these.” He held up a tupperware of seasoned cauliflower steaks that he’d brought from his own kitchen for Dean to place on the barbecue.

Dean pinched his lips in annoyance, because no one ever wanted to marvel at his grilling expertise. A wayward, traitorous thought told him that, if Cas were there, he’d at least pretend to care.

But Cas wasn’t there.

Unless he was and he was going all Invisible Man on Dean.

“Fine, give me the damn plant garbage.” He snatched the container from Kevin’s waiting hands.

Someone appeared on his other side, and Dean gave him a sidelong glance, taking in the frayed arm-holes of the man’s jean vest. “’Sup,” Ash said, dragging out the word in his stoner-voice. “A few people are asking about when those burgers are gonna be ready.”

“What, and they sent you to find out?” Dean said, slapping the cauliflower on the grill, far away from the steaks.

“Well, I did win Outstanding Large Delegation in model UN in high school.”

Dean didn’t even ask questions anymore. Ash could tell him he consulted on building the ISS and Dean would have no choice but to believe him.

“I’m putting them on in a minute.”

“I’ll let the people know,” Ash told him with a salute. He started to turn away, but Dean called him back.

“Hey, Ash. How’s that Angel Radio scanner going?”

It’d been a few months since Dean had any updates. Usually, it didn’t take Ash this long to crack a problem.

“Ah. Still eluding me like a classy woman,” Ash told him, which was not what Dean wanted to hear. It dampened his mood more than the cauliflower had.

“Yeah, I think it’s ‘cause of the way heaven’s structure keeps shifting,” Ash continued to muse, even though Dean didn’t really care. He wanted the bottom line, not the details. “Before, when heaven was made up of individual paradises, there were… think of them like gaps in between. And the radio waves passed through them, making them easy to pick up on.” He held his hands up and slid his fingers loosely together, allowing for spaces between the webbing. “Now? It’s all starting to come together. No space.” He tightened his hold, his knuckles going white under the pressure. “Every time I find one, it closes up.”

Dean glanced at Kevin to see if he understood any of that. And of course, he did.

“It’s like losing a radio station on the other side of a mountain,” he said, and Dean had a better idea of how to conceptualize that. All he heard in his imagination was garbled static.

“Exactly,” Ash agreed. “Can’t move a mountain, compadre.”

Dean brought his eyes to the incline behind his house. It stretched up to the sky, and Ash was right. Dean couldn’t chip away at it, couldn’t move it, couldn’t go through it.

And then a thought occurred to him: “But I can go over it.”

He was met with blank stares, but Dean wasn’t paying attention to them. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of this before. “Heaven’s still rebuilding, right? So, it’s gotta end somewhere.” If he just kept driving, he’d reach the end eventually. But that end could have been anything: a different reality, empty space. He needed to make sure he was going to the right border. The one with heaven HQ on the other side.

And there was only one way to make sure of that.

“Do you know where the Axis Mundi is?” he demanded of Ash.

Ash shook his head. Kevin asked, “That’s the road that connects all the heavens, right?”

“Don’t really need a connector anymore,” Ash said.

“Yeah, they do. It needs to lead back to the home office,” Dean insisted. He rocked back on his heels, pissed at himself for wasting so much time. His heart was pumping. He was two seconds from telling everyone to leave so he could hit the road. He needed to find the Axis Mundi. It had to be somewhere.

“Dean, are you sure it’s a good idea?” Kevin worried. “If Castiel hasn’t been around—”

“It’s a good idea,” Dean snipped, not allowing for any differing opinions. And even if it was a bad idea, he’d do it anyway.

Ash shrugged. “Worth a shot.” He turned away. “Don’t forget about those burgers.”

“I think the steak is charred,” Kevin said.

Dean’s eyes flashed down to the barbecue. Smoke was lifting off the meat. “Shit!” He quickly plated them, even though they were nothing but slabs of charcoal at that point. But he was too anxious to have an appetite anymore. His thoughts were on finding the Axis Mundi.

If Cas wouldn’t come to Dean, then Dean would go to him.

 

///

 

Dean was bent over the Impala’s grill, his face hidden beneath the propped-up hood. It was an uncomfortably warm day—which meant Dean wanted it to be hot. Sweat stains bloomed under his arms and on his lower back, making the thin fabric of his t-shirt cling to his skin. As he turned a wrench, he grunted, and the muscles in his arms tightened with every motion.

Castiel swallowed, which was very difficult to do for some reason. He kept averting his eyes on the dirt driveway, but before he realized it, they strayed back each and every time to admire Dean.

After a while, Dean straightened out. He stretched his neck from side to side and rolled his shoulders back to get the kinks out of them. One hand poised on the Impala’s hood, he stared into the engine, taking one last survey. He must have decided he was done, because he closed the hood and tossed the wrench back in with his tools.

“Alright, I earned this,” Dean said to no one. He went to the green cooler sitting next to the Impala’s wheel and pulled out a beer. Castiel watched his every movement, taking in the sway of Dean’s hips and the way his muscles moved like water under his shirt. Dean twisted open the beer and leaned on the grill. He took a long pull, his throat bobbing.

Tentatively, Castiel went to the Impala and perched himself next to Dean—close enough to feel the way the air always thrummed in the space between their bodies, but far away enough to avoid any accidental touch.

Dean lowered his beer and looked out at the expansive land in front of his property. In the time since he’d been in heaven, he’d built a tool shed and planted a garden “so I can grow my own fruit for pies,” he’d told Castiel in prayer once. Nearby, the stream hissed with white noise, and the mourning doves cooed.

Castiel could hear their song viscerally. Despondent, lonely. It radiated from the center of the man next to him and passed through Castiel’s chest. Dean tapped his nails against his bottle. He wasn’t praying, but he appeared deep in thought.

Castiel couldn’t take his eyes off Dean’s profile.

Not until he heard a familiar voice in his head.

“Cas?” Jack said. Abruptly, Castiel forgot all about Dean. “Cas! Come quick. I need you.”

Panic surged through him, causing his grace to mount like he was going into battle. Castiel left Dean immediately and followed Jack’s call. It placed him in heaven’s throne room.

Except, the room was vacant.

Castiel pulled his brows together, the tension still in the line of his body and apprehension like a plague on his mind. He took a sweeping look around.

“Peek-a-boo!” someone said jovially. Gabriel stuck his head out from behind the throne. He was grinning when he stood up straight and stepped around it. “Gotcha good, didn’t I?”

Castiel shook his head, both befuddled and annoyed. “Where’s Jack?”

“Oh, Jack?” Gabriel said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. He blew out his cheeks in a noncommittal way. “He was never here. Thought you’d pick up on that.”

“He called for me.”

Gabriel popped his brows. “Uh, no, bro. That was me.” He pointed to his face and twirled his finger in a circle. “Still a trickster, remember?”

Castiel seethed. He’d thought Jack had been in trouble. He’d cut his time with Dean short for nothing.

Through his teeth, he said, “You could have called me as you.”

“Yeah, but I figured this way was faster,” Gabriel said like it didn’t matter. He spun around on his heels and swaggered to the couch along the wall. “If you knew it was me, you might let it go to voicemail. But you’ll always pick up for God 2.0.” He plopped down on the couch, crossed one leg over the other, and stretched his arm across the back. He drummed his fingers.

“Fine. What do you want?” Castiel said, accepting it. The sooner Gabriel gave the reason for this meeting, the sooner he could return to Dean.

Gabriel hummed. “It’s not really what I want that’s the problem. Balthazar asked me to talk to you.”

“Balthazar,” Castiel intoned. He thought he knew what this was about. Ever since that day in the woods, Balthazar had been trying to nag him into speaking to Dean. Castiel wasn’t interested in Gabriel being enlisted into that role, too.

“He’s worried about you. Thought you could use some good ol’ fashioned big brother advice.”

“No,” Castiel said pointedly. “Thank you.”

He could feel his wings flaring and arching, pulling tensely. His grace fortified itself further as if it were primed to fend off a physical attack.

Gabriel scoffed. “Who do you think you’re kidding? I’ve known you since you were this big.” He hovered his hand about two feet off the floor.

“I was never that big.”

“You know what I mean,” Gabriel said, waving it away. “I helped train you, Castiel. You know what that means?”

“Does that require an answer or will you tell me regardless of my interest?”

Gabriel went on like he hadn’t been interrupted. “It means, I know all your defensive maneuvers.” Castiel’s wings bristled. Gabriel snapped and pointed. “See? Like that.”

Castiel rolled his eyes and considered flying away.

“And I know when you’re scared,” Gabriel added.

It was preposterous. Gabriel couldn’t have known that. Castiel hadn’t felt fear—or anything at all—before his time on Earth. His entire existence could be broken up into two parts: before Dean and after him. Fear was part of the latter.

He shot Gabriel a glare that might have turned a lesser being into salt.

Gabriel threw up his palms in mock-surrender. “Hey, don’t kill the messenger.”

“I’m fine,” Castiel said, wanting to shut this conversation down once and for all. “You needn’t worry. My feelings for Dean don’t interfere with my ability to command the host.”

Gabriel stopped drumming his fingers. “Yeah, I know that,” he said. And then, “Wait, seriously? What makes you think I only care about you because of your job?”

It was a nice sentiment, but it was unnecessary. Castiel understood his function.

“Is there a point to this conversion?”

If Gabriel wished to impart some kind of false wisdom, Castiel would allow it. So long as it made Gabriel—and Balthazar—leave him alone.

“Yeah! The point is: go talk to your hubby!”

“He’s not my—” Castiel grunted and tore his eyes away. “He is not my hubby.”

“Whatever he is. Talk to him. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Castiel didn’t even know where to begin answering that question. The list was vast.

“What, you afraid you won’t get what you want?” Gabriel challenged. “Or maybe you’re afraid you will.”

Castiel froze. It took longer than it should have to recover from the blow. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Sure, it does!”

He’d had enough of this. His patience was gone, as was his temp