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Those Who Favor Fire

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It’s the coffin-silent, half-light hour just before dawn, and Castiel is bored.

He’s been sitting in the front seat of his Continental, staring at the apartment building across the street, for something like six hours now. He checks his watch. Six hours and twenty-three minutes, to be exact.

Castiel almost always hunts alone, and he doesn’t usually mind the solitude. But stakeouts are a different story. He can’t trade shifts with anyone else, and the closest thing he has to entertainment is an extra-large cup of coffee from the nearest convenience store. Sometimes, if he’s feeling adventurous, he’ll bring a protein bar. (It’s not that he enjoys eating what amounts to flavored cardboard, but it’s a quiet snack and won’t leave a mess in the car.)

But his coffee ran out two hours ago, and his protein bar is nothing but a tacky memory stuck in one of his back teeth. He can’t afford to pull his attention off his target, so reading or listening to music isn’t an option. And he can’t exactly hold a riveting intellectual discussion with the passenger headrest either. Well, perhaps he could try, but he’s close enough to crazy as it is. Or so he’s been told.

He wishes he could at least smoke, but he’d have to open the window, and that would draw unnecessary attention to him. It would be just his luck for some insomniac to come strolling around the corner, see the red glow of a cigarette, and call the police on him for loitering.

Also, he’s trying to quit. 

Castiel barely notices his eyelids getting heavy as he stares at the building. It’s nice enough — historic, and vaguely Spanish colonial in appearance, with a white-washed exterior, cast-iron balconies and dark wooden shutters. The concrete path that leads to the arched entryway is sheltered by a large palm tree on one side. Its fronds sway gently in the mild fall breeze. Slowly, Castiel’s chin dips, vision blurring, a dark heaviness overtaking him. 

With a start, he jerks his head up. “Don’t fall asleep, dammit,” he scolds himself. 

Make sure you’re always well rested on a hunt, a voice in his head reminds him. It won’t do to make mistakes because you haven’t been sleeping.

“I know, Bill,” he says, quietly. “But I thought I should keep an eye on this place.”

Bill’s little nuggets of wisdom about hunting still tend to come back to him at odd times, never mind that it’s been a decade since—

Castiel snaps to attention. The apartment he’s especially interested in is on the third floor, and he parked a little ways down the block, so as to be able to keep an eye on both the main entrance and the fire escape that passes right by one of the apartment’s windows.

A shadow moves along the fire escape. It creeps up the metal stairway, stealthy and graceful. Never taking his eyes off it, Castiel reaches for the flask of holy water in the passenger seat and the gun in the glove box. Bullets won’t kill the kind of creature he came here to hunt, but Castiel feels better for being armed. If nothing else, a gunshot may give him a needed distraction. Sometimes, a distraction makes all the difference in who lives and who dies.

Silent as a specter, he opens his car door and slides out, tucking the holy water into his jacket pocket as he goes. The Continental is old, but Castiel keeps its hinges well oiled, so the door closes behind him with barely a noise.

Gun in hand, Castiel crouches down beside his car to make himself less visible. He keeps watching the shadow, which has now reached the third floor. Instead of climbing higher, it moves sideways, to the window of the apartment Castiel has been watching, something metallic glinting in one hand as it reaches for the shutter.  

Fuck.

If this is the kind of creature Castiel is after, he can’t afford to waste time. As quietly as he can, he dashes across the street and down the concrete path to the main entrance, thumbing off the safety on his gun as he goes. A few hours earlier, he made sure to tamper with the lock on the door so he could get inside the building without the time-consuming use of a lock pick. This comes in handy now.

He shoulders his way through the door, then uses his free hand to pull out his flask of holy water. Its cap comes off with a simple flick of his thumb. He takes the stairs two at a time, racing to the third floor and breathing past the burn in his lungs. When he gets to the door of 3A, he throws himself against it, once, twice, three times, until the age-warped wood finally cracks out of its frame.  

Castiel bursts into a small room, its furnishings and decoration barely visible in the near-complete darkness. Next to the window stands the backlit silhouette of a tall, broad-shouldered man. His eyes glint as he pivots to face Castiel, his posture tense and ready for attack.

Exorcizamus te,” Castiel chants as he moves further into the room, “omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas…

He strides towards the man, splashing holy water with one hand as he raises his gun with the other, heartbeat thudding in his ears—

“What the fuck?” the man barks, standing his ground.

There’s a thump in the next room, then a muted shuffling, like several sets of footsteps moving across a carpeted floor. A door opens, and the overhead light flares to life, Castiel’s eyes closing in reflex for a split-second. When he opens them again, there are three people in the room.

Two of them are the couple that lives here. Castiel recognizes them from the pictures in his case file. The man is tall and in his early twenties, with dark brown hair, wearing a faded gray t-shirt and pajama pants. The woman is a statuesque blonde, long hair curling past her shoulders and onto a Smurfs t-shirt that exposes a toned midriff. Castiel’s eyes slide to the third occupant of the room, whose own gaze snags briefly on the woman’s striking physique before he turns to glower at Castiel. This second man is in his mid-twenties, at a guess, dark blond and dressed not unlike Castiel himself: in a canvas jacket, sturdy jeans and Army surplus boots.

All three of them are looking at Castiel with varying degrees of alarm and anger, and he realizes he’s still pointing a gun at one of them. He lowers it, but doesn’t tuck it away. The intruder had no obvious reaction to the exorcism or the holy water, but he could still be dangerous.

The tall, dark-haired man — Sam Winchester, Castiel reminds himself — steps forward, putting himself between his girlfriend and the rest of the room. She frowns at him, but says nothing. “Dean?” Sam asks, obviously bewildered. “What the hell are you doing here?” Before the other man, Dean, can answer, Sam adds, “And who’s that guy?” He jerks his chin at Castiel, but his eyes are fixed on Dean, as though demanding an answer from him for Castiel’s presence.

“Dean? Your brother?” the woman asks Sam, and Sam nods. Castiel’s memory supplies her name from the file as well: Jessica Moore.

“I’ve got no fucking clue who he is,” Dean says, still staring daggers at Castiel. “I was just dropping by for a visit, and this guy busts in out of nowhere and attacks me.”

Castiel realizes he’s still holding a gun and an open flask of holy water. As there seems to be no obvious threat at the moment, he tucks them both away, as furtively as he can in full view of three other people. “I, um,” he tries, cursing himself for not preparing a cover story in advance. “I was just passing by, and I saw someone climb in through the window. I—” 

Dean snorts. “Tell it to the other one, man. You’re a—” He breaks off abruptly, eyes sliding to Sam and Jessica. Sam looks murderous. “An undercover cop, or something,” Dean finishes lamely.

Jessica crosses her arms and raises an unimpressed eyebrow at Dean. “An undercover cop,” she says flatly. “This guy came in here armed with holy water and reciting a Catholic exorcism.” She studies first Sam, then Dean, taking in their closed-off, guilty faces. “You guys know he’s a hunter.” She sounds surprised, but it’s not a question.

Sam gapes at her. His throat bobs with a heavy swallow. “Jess, you— I mean, how do you —”

Jess' expression tightens. “Let’s just say I grew up being taught exactly what goes bump in the night.” She looks down at her Smurfs shirt and pajama shorts, frowning. “You know what? I need to be wearing more clothes for this conversation. I’ll be back in a sec. You guys figure out what the hell a hunter is doing in our apartment.” She turns and slams the bedroom door behind her.

Castiel startles as a raucous laugh cuts through the stillness of early morning. “Sammy. Holy fuck, man!” Dean is bent over, wheezing, and Sam fixes him with a hard glare that goes completely ignored. “You run all the way to California to get out of the life and manage to hook up with a hunter chick by accident? That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in years.”  

Sam shakes his head absently, his only reaction a mumbled, “What the hell?”

Dean’s laughter slowly subsides to a quiet chuckle. Eventually, he straightens up, eyes narrowing as he looks at Castiel. “Back to the point. Who the fuck are you ?”

“Castiel Harvelle,” Castiel says, meeting Dean’s gaze squarely.

Dean’s eyes narrow further, back straight and legs planted, every inch of him screaming that he’s ready for a fight; might even welcome it. “What the hell are you, French?”

“I live in Nebraska,” Castiel says evenly, crossing his arms to show he’s not intimidated by Dean’s posturing. He doesn’t add that "Harvelle" has only been his last name for about fifteen years, ever since Bill and Ellen went on a trip to Kinko’s to forge a new birth certificate and some adoption papers. It seems a little too much information for a getting-to-know-you conversation. 

Apparently more inclined to defuse the situation than Dean is, Sam says, “Well, I’m Sam Winchester, and this is—”

“Dean Winchester,” Castiel interrupts. “Sons of John Winchester.” He doesn't bother to hide the distaste he still feels every time he speaks that name, even after all these years.

Dean flares up, eyes flashing dangerously. “What the hell do you know about—”

Sam shoots a quelling glare at his brother before turning to Castiel again. “Why are you here? And why did you think Dean was possessed?”

The bedroom door opens and Jess steps out, now wearing jeans and a baggy Stanford t-shirt. “Okay, first things first. I'm Jess. Do you still have that holy water...? Sorry, didn’t catch your name.” 

“Castiel,” he says, and nods. "It's nice to meet you, Jess."

He pulls out the flask. Under everyone’s watchful gaze, he pours some onto his hand, then passes it to Jess. When it’s clear that Jess’ skin won’t react to the water, she hands the flask to Sam, who doesn’t meet her eyes as he takes it. He passes the test as well, and hands the flask back to Castiel. 

“Now that we know no one’s possessed, let’s at least all sit down,” Jess says, eyes darting between the three of them.

Sam nods his agreement, expression unreadable. Dean looks like he wants to argue, but he bites down on his lower lip instead. It’s a nice lip in a nice face, and Castiel takes a moment to wish it didn’t belong to someone with the subtle charm of a battering ram.

Jess motions for Castiel to sit on the couch by the window, then takes her place next to him, leaving Sam and Dean to pull out the two chairs next to a small, rickety table by the front door. Dean leans forward in his seat, angling himself so that Castiel can easily see the large, sharp knife strapped to the inside of his jacket.

“I’d like some answers now,” Jess says, turning to Castiel with a defiant tilt of her chin.

Castiel looks around at them all, wondering how much to tell. Jess and Sam don’t seem outright hostile, and he did come here because he thought they might be in danger. Not to mention, it’ll be much easier to work the case with their active cooperation.

He settles on telling the truth; the relevant parts of it anyway. 

“I spend a lot of my time tracking demonic activity,” Castiel explains. “I found an unusual pattern of demonic omens in the area. When I marked them on a map, I realized that they formed a pentagram shape, with this apartment building at the center.” There is a sharp intake of breath from Sam. “I had a friend pull the tenant records for me and noticed the name Sam Winchester.” His eyes flick to Sam. “I saw John Winchester a few times at Harvelle’s Roadhouse, where I grew up, and I knew he had a son named Sam. It seemed odd enough to check out.”

“Oh really.” Dean leans back in his chair, smirking. “If you were buddies with our dad, how come he never mentioned you, or this Roadhouse place?”

“We’re not ‘buddies,’” Castiel growls, glaring at Dean. “He was friends with my adoptive father, but I doubt he knows I exist.” The topic of John Winchester is an uncomfortable one for Castiel at the best of times, and Dean’s attitude is setting him on edge. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he turns to glance at Sam and Jess instead. “But that’s not the point. I believe one of you is in danger. Possibly both.”

“Bullshit,” Dean snarls, crossing his arms. “We don’t know you from Adam. Why should we believe a word you’re saying? For all I know, you’ve got something to do with Dad’s disappearance.”

Sam turns sharply to face Dean. “Dad’s missing?” he asks.

“He’s on a hunting trip,” Dean says, eyes flicking to Sam. “He was supposed to check in with me three days ago, but didn’t.”

Sam scoffs. “So he’s working overtime on a Miller Time shift. He’ll stumble back sooner or later.”

“I’d like to hear more about these demonic omens Cas mentioned,” Jess says. “What are they, specifically? Cattle deaths?”

“Yes,” Castiel answers, pleasantly surprised. Not a lot of hunters bother with the details of demon lore. Most hunters don’t bother with demons, period. The ones who do tend to die young and bloody. “And water running to blood. Even a plague of locusts, about twenty miles north of here. I can show you what I—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Dean kicks at the flimsy table leg with his boot, earning an irritated glare from Sam. “Demons? Really?” He stares Castiel down, presumably trying to catch him in a lie. When Castiel refuses to blink, Dean glares at Sam instead. “C’mon, man. What’re the odds? In all our time hunting with Dad, we’ve hardly ever heard of demons, let alone seen one.”

“My family has a long tradition of hunting, and our library has some information about demons,” Jess says calmly. Castiel doesn’t miss the small flash of hurt that crosses Sam’s face at the mention of Jess’ family. Presumably, he wasn’t aware of any of this. “If Cas has the research to back up his claims, I’m inclined to hear him out.”

“Okay. You know what?” Dean pushes upright in his chair and reaches inside his jacket. Castiel tenses, thinking for a moment that Dean is going to go for his knife. Instead, he pulls out a cell phone and flips it open, typing away. When he places the phone on the table, John Winchester's voice emerges from the speaker, staticky and distorted.

“Dean… something big is starting to happen… I need to try and figure out what’s going on. It may… Be very careful, Dean. We’re all in danger.”

When the message stops playing, Castiel looks at Jess, who is frowning thoughtfully. She opens her mouth to speak, but Sam beats her to it. “You know, there’s EVP on that?”

Dean grins, triumphant. “See? Kinda like riding a bike, isn’t it?”

Sam gives a non-committal shrug, and Dean’s grin slides off his face. He clears his throat. “Anyway. I slowed the message down, ran it through GoldWave, took out the hiss, and this is what I got.” He frowns down at the display, presses a few buttons and puts the phone down again. A woman’s voice sounds from the speaker this time, melancholy and wispy.

I can never go home.”

“Huh.” Jess pulls her legs up onto the couch and crosses them, her long fingers curling around her ankles. “So what, he’s been hunting a spirit?” 

Dean shrugs. “Could be. But point being, he leaves me this message about how we’re all in danger, and then he doesn’t pick up his phone. Doesn’t check in.” When Sam doesn’t immediately react, Dean throws up his hands in frustration. “For fuck’s sake, Sammy! We need to go after him, figure out what’s going on.”

Sam scowls. “‘Sammy’ is a five-year-old, Dean. I’m a grown man. And Dad drops off the radar all the damn time.”

Dean opens his mouth, clearly about to argue back, but Jess’ voice, cool and implacable, cuts him off. “I have a say in this too, and I’d like to see what Cas has got before we decide anything.”

She looks at Castiel, one corner of her mouth ticking upwards in a tiny smile. “Is it okay if I call you Cas?”

Castiel returns her smile, grateful for the small measure of politeness. “It’s okay if you do,” he says, hoping the small emphasis on ‘you’ conveys his message. He’s not about to let a Winchester call him by the same nickname Bill used.

Dean glares at him, but doesn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he turns to Sam again. “What d’you say, Sam ? We gonna help out Dad or listen to this rando?”

Sam’s jaw works, his eyes fixed on the table as he thinks. “I agree with Jess. Let’s take a look at Castiel’s research.”

Castiel tries not to look too smug, so as not to add to the tension in the room. He probably fails, because Dean looks furious. “Great. That’s just great,” he says, between gritted teeth, and jumps up from his chair. “I need some air.”

All three of them flinch as the door slams shut behind Dean. It immediately creaks open again, the lock obviously compromised by Castiel’s earlier break-in.

“Think he’ll be back?” Jess asks, something cool and shuttered about her expression when she addresses Sam.

Sam nods, eyes flicking briefly up to Jess and then away. “Yeah. He’s got a hell of a temper, but he’s not a bad guy. He’ll come around.”

Jess nods, brief and business-like. “Alright, Cas,” she says. “Show us what you’ve got.”

devils trap divider

Sam doesn’t feel like he’s at his best. 

First, his front door gets kicked in (a small, disjointed part of his brain laments the security deposit that he and Jess scrimped and saved for) by a hunter, who’s convinced that his brother Dean, whom Sam hasn’t seen in years, is a demon. The confluence of those events would be enough to make this night crack Sam Winchester’s Top Ten Worst Nights, but the hits just kept on coming. 

Finding out about Jess… Sam sneaks a look at her out of the corner of his eye as the guy… Castiel, whatever the hell that name means, lays out a series of maps and papers on their tiny, water-stained coffee table. 

Even sleep-deprived as she is, Jess looks beautiful in the light of the morning sun that streams through the windows at her back. The whole picture is painfully familiar from countless study dates: her hair pulled back in a low ponytail, mouth pursed as she thinks, a tiny line of concentration knit between her eyebrows. Except now, she’s not looking at a textbook, she’s looking at a lore book, and Sam’s brain can’t handle the dissonance. 

Jess wasn’t supposed to be involved in this. Jess was supposed to be his ticket out, was supposed to be normal… 

Castiel uses one of Sam’s textbooks and a half-empty beer bottle to weigh down the corners of his maps. As Sam watches, he opens up a journal and picks out several newspaper clippings, placing them around the edges of a map with the ease and dexterity that only comes from experience. Whoever this guy is, he’s spent a long time hunting. 

“See?” Castiel tells Jess, their heads bent low over the map. He indicates several areas on the map marked by a red star. “That’s where you have your cattle mutilations, and here,” he stops to indicate another spot, “is where several people reported their water turning to blood, and then here,” he taps at a final place on the map, “is where locusts descended upon a farm. Put them all together…” He takes a pen and makes several bold marks across the map. When he pulls away, Sam sees the shape, burned into the backs of his eyelids and unmistakable. 

“A pentagram,” he supplies, somewhat unnecessarily. Jess’ eyes flick to him, and there’s something hard and sharp in their depths that he doesn’t want to think about. He puts that, along with most of the shit he’s found out about tonight, in a box clearly labeled To Be Dealt With Later, and focuses on the problem at hand. “All right, so demons are concentrating their attention here.” 

“That much is obvious,” Castiel replies, a hint of irritation in his voice. “What I can’t determine is why.” 

Castiel keeps talking, but Sam drifts out of the conversation. A sour taste rises in his mouth as he remembers the recurring dream he’s been having for the past week. Ash, and smoke, and blood clinging to him, along with the heat from the flames, licking at his skin, and worst of all, Jess’ voice, soft and plaintive, whispering, Sam? Sam? 

“Sam?” 

Sam blinks. Dean is in front of him, looking equal parts annoyed and concerned. He snaps his fingers in Sam’s face, close enough that Sam feels the breeze. Annoyed, Sam shoves his hand away. “I’m fine,” he says shortly, shoving down his dreams. (They’re just dreams, they have to be just dreams, anything else would mean that Jess...) 

“Yeah, sure,” Dean says, clearly not buying it. He takes Sam’s elbow and yanks him into the narrow hallway, just out of sight of Castiel and Jess. “Look, I don’t know who your new buddy is, and I’m not going to stick around to find out. We need to look for Dad. I mean, for all we know, he’s got a bead on the thing that killed Mom.” 

Good to know that Dean hasn’t changed in the past couple of years. Sam had hoped for more, but he’s not surprised by what he gets. “Nice try, but I’m not thirteen anymore. You can’t just bully me into doing whatever you want.” 

Sam jerks his elbow free from Dean’s grasp and rejoins Castiel and Jess. They both look up when he and Dean enter the room. There’s a clear question in Jess’ eyes, while Castiel’s gaze is carefully flat. Ignoring both of them, Sam speaks. “Alright. We’ve all agreed that Castiel’s information is legit and that we should stay here—” 

“The hell we have,” Dean interrupts. He waves his phone accusingly in Sam’s face. “You forget something? Like, I don’t know — the whole reason I came?” 

Sam clenches his jaw so tightly that he’s surprised he doesn’t crack a tooth. “If Dad’s in trouble, then—” 

“I would think that the imminent danger that you’re both in would take precedence over a hypothetical hunt.” Cas’ voice is acerbic, and it drags Dean’s attention to him. His nostrils flare, like a bull scenting a new opponent. 

“How about you lay off, Mulder?” Dean snaps. 

Castiel stands up. Though he’s not as tall as either Sam or Dean, it’s not an unimpressive sight. “I would think that helping your brother and his girlfriend would be more important—” 

Sam can’t take it anymore. He can’t. Hunting and demon omens and Dean and Dad, and he has a law school interview on Monday. His life was finally starting to fall into place, and now it’s tumbling around him like a house of cards. 

He leaves Dean and Castiel to their bickering and walks into the kitchen. He can still hear their voices, but thankfully, they’re muffled. Nervous energy fills him, and Sam paces through the tiny kitchen. There are several dirty dishes left over from dinner. He bitched at Jess last night to clean them right away so they wouldn’t get gross and crusty, and she teased him for being anal retentive before she climbed into his lap and distracted him well enough that the dirty dishes were the last thing on his mind. 

They feel like a joke now, staring at him with remnants of marinara clinging stubbornly to the cheap plastic surface. 

“Hey.” 

To her credit, Jess doesn’t try to pretend everything is fine. She stays at the other end of the kitchen, her arms crossed over her stomach. She’s giving him space. Or, as Sam’s hunter brain reminds him, she’s creating distance in order to launch a better attack. 

Small habits of Jess’ loom in his head. Her innate ability to catalogue the contents of a room seconds after entering. Her uncanny eye-hand coordination. The way she wakes when startled from sleep, hyper-alert, her hand darting under her pillow. 

Sam’s a fucking idiot. 

“Demons,” Jess says after a moment. 

“Yeah,” is all Sam can say in reply. He’s too busy rearranging all the pieces of the woman he loves into this new picture. Nothing makes sense. He looks at Jessica Moore, the woman he’d entertained hopes of marrying, and he sees a stranger in her place. 

“Look,” Jess says, her shoulders softening, “I know this is a lot to deal with, but we’ve got—” 

“Don’t,” Sam snaps, low and furious. Jess stops, her eyes wide. “Just… When were you going to tell me? After graduation? On our wedding night? When we had our first kid? Never?” 

“How about you get off your high horse for a second?” Jess’ voice is low and dangerous in the way that it only gets when she’s furious. “I’m not saying that I’m innocent in this, but I’m not going to get crucified either. If you’ll recall, I wasn’t the only one keeping secrets. I mean, God, Sam! Did you think you couldn’t trust me? Did you think that I wouldn’t back you up, one hundred percent, no matter what it was?” 

The sound of irritated sniping drifts in from the next room, but Sam shuts it out to focus on Jess.

“I never lied.” Sam ignores Jess’ scoff. “I never lied. When I came to Stanford, I put all of that behind me. That’s not who I am. Not even close.” 

“But it’s a part of you. No, listen. Listen.” Jess runs her fingers through the parts of her hair that have escaped her ponytail. “I didn’t tell you because… I wanted to protect you. I didn’t want to have to involve you in hunting unless there was no other choice. All of my family is involved in hunting in some way, but we make sure to have other day jobs. Otherwise, you get obsessed, and once that happens, your life expectancy goes down to single digits. Coming to Stanford, meeting you… Those were all important parts of my life too.” 

“Your family just…” Sam licks his lips. “Your family just let you come?” 

Jess’ expression cracks. Sam recoils from the pity in her gaze. “They encouraged it.” 

Those three words crack a fault line straight through Sam. On top of everything else that’s happened tonight, it’s just one thing too many. He swallows. In the back of his mind, he hears Jess’ scream as the flames start to lick at her body. He can still smell the sharp, copper tang of her blood, and he has to remind himself: It’s just a dream. It’s just a dream. 

He’s so focused on the frantic sound of Jess’ screams in his head, it takes him longer than it should to notice that the voices in the other room have escalated from sniping to no-holds-barred fury.

“We’d better get back,” Sam says, his voice thick. Jess tries to speak, but he talks over her. “From the sound of it, Dean and Castiel are getting ready to kill each other, and if they don’t succeed, then we have to worry about the demons killing us. We don’t have time for…” He waves his hand between the two of them. “Us.” 

Hurt flashes across Jess’ face before it’s quickly masked. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” 

Sam knows then, with the gut lurch that comes from certainty, that he’s just managed to shatter something between himself and Jess. He’s not sure, when he looks at Jess’ stone-faced expression, if it’s something that can be fixed. 

devils trap divider

“Here. Read this.”

Castiel barely glances at Dean as he shoves a pile of newspaper clippings across the coffee table. Dean scowls at him, fingernails digging into the soft flesh of his palms.

Ever since he watched his mother burn on the ceiling when he was four, his anger has sat just a little too close to the surface. Dean knows this about himself; knows that, if he lets it, his anger will turn from a constant, low simmer of irritation into a raging brush fire he has no way of controlling.

Being quick to anger has served him well several times when he was in a tight spot. But then there’s other times, where he knows that there’s no threat and he should just try to keep his cool. Like right now.

It’s hard to stay calm though, with the way this Castiel guy is getting under his skin. There’s just something about him — the way he keeps giving Dean these disapproving looks, or the way he won’t just fucking lighten up. Castiel doesn’t seem like he’d respond well to lewd jokes and he’s already proven hard to intimidate, and Dean doesn’t know how he’s supposed to relate to him if those options aren’t on the table. 

“I don’t know why you think I’m interested in looking at this crap. Hell, I still don’t know why you’re even hanging around here,” Dean snarls, ignoring the pile of paper in front of him. Reading through Castiel’s research is the last thing he wants to do. That would be as good as admitting that he thinks Castiel is legit. And if he is, how is Dean supposed to deal with that? Dad missing and almost definitely in trouble, and now this shit about Sam and demon omens? He never should’ve let Sam leave for Stanford. Dean was the one who was supposed to keep the family together. That was his job. And look how it turned out.

Castiel’s eyes flash dangerously. “We’re talking in circles, Dean. I already told you, I’m here because I think your brother and his girlfriend might be in danger. I’m here to help .”

Dean scoffs, every muscle in his body tensing for a fight, no matter how much he’s trying to tell himself that he can’t start shit in Sammy’s living room. “Yeah, well, we don’t need your fucking help, Cas-tee-elle. It’s always been me, Sam and Dad, taking care of each other. We don’t need anybody else.”

Castiel’s jaw works and he sits forward on the couch, fixing Dean with a glare. “You said you’ve never gone after a demon before. Well, I’ve been hunting demons since I was fifteen, and I know a pattern when I see it. And I think you would too, if you’d get your head out of your ass for one second and start looking at the big picture.”

Dean laughs, knowing it sounds unkind, and not caring one bit. Castiel is starting to look irritated, and something dark inside Dean cheers at the fact that he’s getting a rise out of the guy. If they start throwing punches, at least he’ll know where he stands. “The big picture where Sam and I trust some stranger over our own dad?” he asks, leaning halfway across the table in his seat, shoulders bunched up to make himself look bigger.

Castiel damn near snarls, and the sound sends a thrill down Dean’s spine that he only gets when he knows he’s about to fight or fuck. “Right,” Castiel says, ice-cold, but there’s a dangerous flash in his eyes. “Things always turn out great when people put their trust in John Winchester.”

He spits out the name like it’s an insult, and Dean finally loses it. He deliberately snaps that last, thin cord that was still tethering him to his self-control, relishing the boiling rage under his skin as he vaults off his chair. It clatters to the floor behind him. “What the fuck do you know about my dad?” he roars.

Castiel jumps off the couch and stalks towards Dean. Dean curls his fingers and plants his legs, ready for the attack he knows (hopes) is coming. “I know enough,” Castiel hisses, low and dangerous as he walks right up into Dean’s space, “I know that he—”

“For fuck’s sake, guys.” Sam is back in the room, just visible in Dean’s periphery, but his voice is far away, reaching Dean from somewhere deep underwater. “Would you cool it with the pissing contest?”

“Seriously.” Jess has walked into the room now, but Dean’s eyes refuse to leave Castiel’s face, those stubbled cheeks flushed with his anger, lips drawn into a thin line of fury.

“Cas,” Jess says. “If you want to stay and figure this out with us, you’ll need to stow your temper.” Calm and composed like they’re talking about the weather, she adds, “The same goes for you, Dean.”

Castiel immediately steps away and drops back onto the couch, shooting Jess and Sam a contrite look. “I apologize. I lost control, which, believe it or not, is unusual for me. It won’t happen again.”

But Dean wasn’t raised to yield in a fight, and the need to punch Castiel and make him regret his sneering, disrespectful tone is still itching under his skin. With a monumental effort, he locks it away.

He takes a deep breath in, another one out, before he turns and focuses squarely on Sam. If he can get Sam to come along with him, and maybe Jess too, they’ll be out of whatever the hell this is, and they can all stick together and find Dad. And Castiel can go fuck himself.

“C’mon, man,” he says, trying to project a calm and conviction he doesn’t even slightly feel. “This is family . I know you wanted to run off and be a real boy, and I tried to let you have that. For years I never bothered you. Haven’t asked for a damn thing. But I’m asking you now. Come with me. Jess too, if you want. Let’s go find Dad.”  

Sam meets Dean’s eyes, but there’s a distance in his expression that Dean hates. It was there even before Sam left for Stanford, but it was manageable. Now, it feels like a canyon. “Dean, I can’t just take off. Even if it wasn’t for the stuff Castiel told us, I’ve got a life here,” Sam says, much too gently, like Dean’s fragile or something. Dean clenches his fists and makes a conscious effort to slow his breathing again. In, out. “I’ve got a law school interview on Monday.”

The rest of Dean’s rage drains out of him; he didn’t even get to fight, but somehow, he lost anyway. “Law school?” he croaks.

He’d always figured Sam would go to college and get it out of his system. But then, once he’d done that, he’d come back, and the three of them would be a family again, just like old times.

But Sam nods. “Yeah.” He steps forward, a hand up like he wants to reach out and touch Dean’s arm, but he thinks better of it halfway there. Good. Dean’s not in a touchy-feely mood just now. “But listen, Dean. I want you to stay. I do. Help us figure this out, please? You’re an amazing hunter. You’ve got the best instincts of anyone I know. Better than Dad even.”

“Bull,” Dean snarls, but there’s no real heat behind it. He’s fresh out of that. “Everything I know, I learned from Dad.”

Sam’s jaw works, like he’s about to argue, but instead he says, “What I’m trying to tell you, Dean, is that if anyone can figure out what’s going on, it’s you. We need your help.”

There’s a look in Sam’s eyes, a plea for reassurance, that Dean recognizes. It’s the same look he used to give Dean when he had a nightmare and asked to crawl into bed with him.

Fuck. How is he supposed to argue with that ?

“For what it’s worth,” Jess says, stepping forward, a lopsided smile on her face, “I’d like you to stay too.” 

Dean slants his eyes at Castiel, who’s staring him down, unmoving and stoic again. Dean huffs out a heavy breath through his nose. “Yeah, alright.” He sits back down on his chair, willing his muscles to loosen, his jaw to stop clenching as he looks down at Castiel’s maps and newspaper clippings. “Fine. You wanna show me what you got?”

***

It’s close to noon by the time Dean finishes going through Castiel’s research. It turns out he really did do a good job pulling all this together. He took detailed notes on exactly why he thought each of the incidents were demonic in origin, cross-referenced the recent newspaper articles against similar occurrences in other places, at other times, and backed everything up with biblical lore about demons. Except…

“Don’t really see a lot of witness interviews here,” Dean says, looking through the spiral-bound notebook that contains Castiel’s notes. “Did you do any?”

For the first time since their fight, Castiel looks a little cowed. “No, I— I tried, but people skills aren’t my strong suit.”

Dean snorts. “Big surprise.” He can practically feel Castiel bristle next to him. Sam, who’s hunched over his laptop in front of the desk by the kitchen door, clears his throat pointedly. Not in the mood to apologize, Dean plows on instead. “So why’d you figure it’s Sam and Jess being targeted here? There’s, what, twenty people living in this building? Could be any of them.”

“Occam’s Razor,” Castiel says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Dean straightens up in his chair, glaring. “Whose what now?”

Jess walks in from the kitchen, carrying a takeout menu with a crude drawing on the front, of a guy in a curled-up mustache and chef’s hat, offering up a pepperoni pizza on a plate. She plops down on the couch next to Dean. “It means the simplest explanation is usually the right one.”

Castiel nods, eyes glinting with that nerdy gleam Dean knows and fears from Sam. “Demonic omens center on a building, for unknown reasons. There is a person in the building whose family is known to hunt supernatural creatures. The most reasonable explanation is that the omens relate to that person.”

Dean clenches his jaw, annoyed at being shown up. “Seems thin,” he says.

“I agree,” Sam chimes in, half-turning in his desk chair. Dean swallows down his surprise at having Sam take his side against a fellow nerd. “What if it is somebody else in the building, Castiel?”

Castiel turns to face Sam, leaning forward, hands folded between his legs and calm blue eyes fixed right on Sam’s face. Castiel has this intense focus when he’s talking to someone, like he’s putting his whole body into it, and it’s just another thing for Dean to hate about the guy. It makes him uncomfortable, having someone zero in on him like that.

“That’s why I decided to watch the building for a while, rather than approaching you or Jess right away,” Castiel explains. “I wanted to get a better idea first of what kind of people lived here, and what the nature of the threat might be.” 

Sam nods, apparently satisfied with that.

Jess waves her takeout menu and takes pizza orders from everyone. Castiel asks for artichokes on his, and Sam says that sounds great, and he’ll have the same. Dean bites his lip until he tastes copper.

They keep talking about the omens for a while, going over Castiel’s research again, but there’s nothing new to discuss, so eventually, they move on to other things.

Dean makes nice, and he even tells that story of the time he had to take Sam to the hospital on the handlebars of his bike after the kid broke his arm. Jess chuckles appreciatively, and even Castiel gives a little half-smile, but there’s all kinds of weird tension in the room that no amount of talking can shake. A good bit of it is definitely between Sam and Jess. For a second, Dean considers poking that hornet’s nest, but he almost immediately discards the idea.

After they finish their pizza lunch, Jess leaves for a while, and then Castiel does too, saying he’ll grab a motel room and get a couple hours’ sleep so he can help keep watch again after dark.

Even with Jess and Castiel gone, Sam moves uneasily around Dean, mostly staring at his laptop, clicking through random documents, typing away. Dean wants to break the silence that settles between them, but he’s not sure how. It’s like, in a few short years, they’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. 

Eventually, he decides to go for a walk to clear his head, but that turns out to be a mistake too. Stanford is a bright, clean kind of place, all coffee shops and shaved dogs and huge houses with spotless lawns. He gets a couple of appreciative looks from college girls as he goes, but he’s too stuck in his own head to do anything about it.

Sam fits in here. Sam belongs. But Dean? He’s at home in dive bars, the kind with peanut shells on the floor and a smell of stale beer that sinks so deep into your pores, no amount of showering will get it out. Or in abandoned warehouses, broken glass crunching under his foot, a weapon in his hand and the smell of blood in the air.

He walks until he gets to a park and sits there, alone with his thoughts and a to-go cup of shitty, too-sweet coffee, for the rest of the afternoon.

When the sun starts to dip low, he heads back to the apartment. Jess is back by then too. The strange tension hasn’t left: she and Sam are obviously walking on eggshells around each other. Dean can’t blame them. He doesn’t know how to act either.

Castiel comes back soon after, a bag of greasy Chinese takeout clutched in each hand. The food’s as good as this kind of food gets, but it sits uneasily in Dean’s stomach, amid his brain’s constant background static of, You’re not wanted here. Not really. They’re too polite to kick you out, that’s all. You don’t belong.

When it gets to be close to midnight, they divvy up watches. One of them is going to stay awake in the living room, the other one in the alley next to the fire escape, in case anyone tries to break into one of the other apartments.

Dean volunteers to take the first outside shift, tired of being confined in the small apartment, made even smaller by all the tension filling it up. He spends the next two hours circling the building, watching out for threats even as he tries to tamp down on the low simmer of anxiety in his gut. 

What if Dad’s in serious trouble? What if he’s hurt somewhere, bleeding out on some cold concrete floor?

The last time they saw each other was about a week ago, when Dean headed down to New Orleans to work a voodoo thing his own research had turned up. It wasn’t his first time working a case alone, not by a long shot, and Dad had found his own lead that he wanted to follow up, about a stretch of road in Jericho, California, where people kept dying. Dean had a hunch that John looked for a case around here on purpose, so he could go check up on Sam. Not that he’d ever let Sam see him, of course. The old man’s much too proud for that.

On his fifth circuit around the building, Dean gets to thinking about Sam and this whole demon business again. They still don’t know that there’s an actual threat here. Even if there is, Sam’s a capable hunter in his own right, and apparently, so’s Jess. And, much as Dean hates to admit it, Castiel seems to know what he’s doing. What the hell do they even need Dean for?

So what if he did go to Jericho? Just for a day, just to see if he can figure out what’s going on with Dad. It’s not much more than two hours from here. He could be there and back before anyone even misses him. Not that anyone would, the insidious voice in his head whispers. 

Dean’s so busy thinking through that idea, he doesn’t hear the footsteps approaching him until they’re right next to him. He spins until he can see the attacker’s arm, then curls his fingers around it, twisting and gripping tight enough to bruise. But whoever it is slides out of Dean’s grip like it’s nothing and dodges his punch, leg coming forward to sweep Dean’s feet out from under him. Dean pivots just in time to see it coming and steps back, putting his attacker off balance.

Now that they’re facing each other in the glow of the streetlight, Dean can see it’s Castiel, even with the metal grating of the building’s rear door throwing bizarre, twisted shadows across his face. Castiel’s blue eyes are shining with something wicked and exhilarated, and Dean grins, triumphant. There’s that fight he was looking for earlier.

He lunges forward, but Castiel dodges him again. As Dean sails past, Castiel grabs hold of his wrist and spins him until Dean’s dizzy and pinned to the building’s wall. His arm is bent at an uncomfortable angle, and one of his cheeks is scraping against the pitted concrete. Castiel’s breath puffs against the back of his neck. The fucker is barely winded. 

“Shit,” Dean curses, shame at getting his ass handed to him making his face heat. “Shoulda asked you to buy me dinner first.” 

“I believe I already did that,” Castiel says, deadpan, and steps back, letting go of Dean’s wrist. Dean straightens his clothes.

“I came out here to relieve you, but I appreciate the bonus sparring practice,” Castiel says, eyes glinting with quiet amusement in the low light of the alley.

“Yeah, well,” Dean growls, bad-tempered. “Can’t have you falling asleep on the job.”

He staggers off toward the far end of the alley, and Castiel calls after him. “Where are you going?”

“Gonna sleep in the backseat of my Baby,” Dean growls, the lie sliding off his tongue easily. Off Castiel’s confused head tilt, he adds, “My car.”

Castiel grunts his assent and turns away, setting off on his first circuit around the building. Dean feels a small sinking in his chest at the idea of leaving when Sam asked him to stay, but he knows he’s got to do this.

It’ll be fine, he tells himself as he crosses the street in back of the building and heads for Baby, the silver gleam of chrome and familiar sleekness of her lines beckoning him onto the open road.

He’ll just go and check things out in Jericho, and then he’ll come right back. No big deal.

***

Halfway to Jericho in the dead of night, Dean’s still wondering whether he made the right call. On the one hand, Dad’s out there by himself, and he’s obviously in trouble. On the other, the most important job Dad ever gave him was to look out for Sam. No matter what choice he makes, odds are it’ll be the wrong one.

After more than an hour of driving and pretending to enjoy the Metallica tape blaring from Baby’s speakers, Dean’s thought himself right into a headache. He knuckles at his temple, but it doesn’t do any good, and he used up the rest of his painkillers after that goddamn voodoo spirit threw him against a wall and he landed on his bad knee. Anyway, he reasons, it’s not like he can start looking for Dad in the middle of the night. So when he gets to a fairly quiet stretch of highway, somewhere on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada, he pulls over and climbs into the backseat. He tucks a blanket around himself, but the mountain air is bitingly cold even in the fall, and he wakes at odd intervals throughout the night, shivering.

As soon as the first beams of morning sunlight stream through Baby’s windows, he gets back on the road. He’d already researched hospitals in the area, and the only one within a thirty-mile radius of Jericho is his first stop.

Dean lucks out with the hospital receptionist, who’s twenty-five at most and blushes prettily every time he smiles at her. She says no one who fits Dad’s description has been admitted over the past few days, and even agrees to call down to the morgue for him. No matches there either. So if Dad’s still in town, he’s most likely alive.

Or no one’s found his body yet

Dean shakes that thought off and gets back in his Baby. His phone keeps buzzing, and he’s already got five missed calls from Sam, but he puts the ringer on silent and ignores it. He’ll call Sam back when he’s got a solid lead on Dad.

About seven miles out from Jericho, he runs straight into a police blockade. The road he’s on leads across a river valley on an overpass, sun-dappled mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. But off to the left, a smaller highway crosses the riverbed by means of a truss bridge. The bridge’s steel superstructure looks rusty and worn, like it’s seen a few decades of wind, rain and sun exposure. Access to the bridge is cut off by several sheriff’s department vehicles, and there’s a couple of deputies milling around, checking out the scene.

Dean pulls over to the side of the road and checks the map. If memory serves, this is close to the stretch of road where Dad said people were disappearing. Could be worth checking out. 

Dean rifles through the glove box and the stack of about a dozen law enforcement IDs he keeps there. He hasn’t got his monkey suit on, so FBI is probably out. He snags the Federal Marshal ID instead, and puts all the confidence he can muster into his walk as he approaches the bridge.

He flashes his badge at a couple of bored deputies milling around near the squad cars, but they barely glance at it, so Dean keeps right on going.

Near the center of the bridge, there’s an abandoned car, doors open, with deputies checking it out on either side. One, a white guy in his late forties or so, is kneeling next to the open driver’s side door. He doesn’t look like the sharpest tool in the shed, so Dean figures Deputy Asshat will do for reference purposes.  

“No signs of struggle, no footprints, no fingerprints,” Asshat is saying to another deputy, a black guy about the same age who’s looking down into the car’s interior from the passenger side. “It’s almost too clean.”

The second deputy, who looks like he’s got a huge stick up his ass, nods, like he knows exactly what’s going on. Dean would be really fucking surprised if he did. “So, this kid, Troy, who was driving the car,” Stick says. “He’s dating your daughter, isn’t he?”

Dean’s almost level with them now. They still haven’t even noticed him coming.

“Yeah,” Asshat says, tracing over the steering wheel with his gloved hand, like that’s supposed to tell him something. 

“How’s Amy doing?” Stick asks.

“She’s putting up missing posters downtown.”

While it might be fun, trying to see how long he can just stand here without either of these guys paying him any mind, Dean hasn’t got all day. He walks right up Stick, guessing that he’s the one in charge, based on the fact that he’s not actually doing anything. “You guys had another one like this just last month, didn’t you?” he asks, letting just a bit of smug, easy authority color his voice. Like someone who’s used to being the expert, used to his orders being obeyed.

Stick straightens up to talk to him, and Dean enjoys a brief mental image of that stick sliding just a little further up his ass. “And who are you?” he asks, obviously trying to match Dean’s tone to assert his authority.

“Federal Marshal,” Dean says, and flashes his badge, barely long enough for the sun to catch on the silver star.

Stick squints at him dubiously. “Little young for a marshal, aren’t you?”

Dean laughs, like he gets that all the time. “Thanks, that’s awfully kind of you.” He steps closer to the car, glancing inside. It’s just like Asshat said: squeaky clean. No signs of a struggle. “You did have another one just like this, correct?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Stick admits, eyes still narrowed with suspicion. Dean had better not press his luck by hanging around too long. “About a mile up the road. There’ve been others before that.”

Dean circles the car, briefly locking eyes with Asshat, who looks suspicious too, but keeps his peace. There’s not so much as a dent on the bumper. “Any connection between the victims?” Dean asks. 

“Nah.” Stick shrugs. “We figure it’s some kind of serial murder thing. Or a kidnapping ring.”

Dean grins his sunniest grin at the guy. “Well, that is exactly the kind of crack police work I’d expect out of you guys.”

Stick gapes at him. Dean’s enjoying himself now, would keep going all day if he thought he could get away with it, but in his peripheral, he’s clocked two guys in suits, escorted by what looks to be the sheriff. Well, fuck.

“Be seein’ you,” he says to the wide-eyed deputies, throwing in a wink for good measure. As he passes the monkey suit brigade on his way off the bridge, the sheriff stops him with a, “Can I help you, boy?”

Apparently, there’s a reason this guy made sheriff. He’s at least got the minimal intelligence to challenge a stranger walking around his crime scene. “No, sir,” Dean says, doing his best to look harmless now. “I was just leaving.” 

But as he walks away, he can’t resist a solemn nod at the FBI goons, and a cheerful, “Agent Mulder. Agent Scully.” 

By sheer dumb luck, he doesn’t get stopped again before he gets back to Baby, and he keeps going all the way into town this time.

It doesn’t take him long to find Amy, the girl putting up missing posters on any available surface. On a hunch, he invites her and a friend out to eat. It turns out to be a good call. The friend, Rachel, says people have been talking about how the disappearances might be connected to a local legend: a girl who was killed on Centennial Highway decades ago and now haunts the place.

It’s a solid lead, so Dean’s next stop is the library. That’s where he hits his first dead end. The database doesn’t have anything to say about a woman’s murder on Centennial, no matter how far back he goes. He feels like there’s something he’s missing, or should be thinking of, but he hasn’t been sleeping well since Dad missed their check-in a few days ago, and his phone is heavy in his pocket. Sam stopped calling hours ago.

Maybe he’ll take just one more day to look around, which means he needs a place to stay the night. There’s only two motels in Jericho proper, and Dean picks the one that looks cheaper. 

The ancient, sweater-wearing Mr. Rogers type at reception squints down at Dean’s MasterCard, made out to Hector Aframian. “You guys having a reunion or something?”

Dean frowns at him, tired and worn down. “What do you mean?” 

“I had another guy, Burt Aframian.” Dean’s heart kicks up a notch. He was about due for a lucky break anyway. “He came and bought out a room for the whole month.”

Dean has to pay the full rate on two rooms, plus twenty dollars in cash, before the receptionist agrees to fork over a second key to Dad’s room. 

The door sticks a little, and Dean kicks at it to get it open. When it finally swings free of the frame, Dean’s nose is assaulted by the rank smell of mildew and spoiled food. The room is a serial killer’s wet dream: Every last bit of wall is covered in printouts of newspaper articles, disturbing, monstrous images copied from ancient lore books, and marked-up maps of the surrounding area. Every doorway and window sill is lined with salt, like Dad was worried he had something on his tail. 

Dean zeroes in on a half-eaten burger, sitting in its grease-stained wrapper on the bedside table. He picks it up and sniffs at it, but regrets it immediately. It’s obviously the source of the bad food smell, which means Dad hasn’t been here in a few days.

Dean scans each of the walls, checking out the stuff Dad pinned up. Most of it is pictures and details of men who all disappeared along Centennial Highway, starting in the early eighties. Other than being men, they don’t seem to have anything in common: they’re different ages, ethnicities, all kinds of jobs, from lawyer to exterminator. Some were local, some just traveling through.

Figuring he’ll come back to the victims later, Dean heads across the room, to where excerpts from various lore books are pinned up under Sharpie-scrawled headers like “Demons,” “Spirits” and “Shapeshifters.” One of the headers reads “Woman in White,” and there’s a newspaper article taped right under it, titled “Suicide on Centennial.”

It’s dated April 25, 1981 and describes the death of a woman named Constance Welch, who took a swan dive off a bridge on Centennial Highway after her kids drowned in the bathtub. The bridge looks awfully familiar.

Suicide. Fuck. Spirits are born of violent death, and suicide absolutely counts. He really should’ve thought of that. Probably would have, if he hadn’t been so busy ignoring the weight of his phone in his pocket.

“Woman in white, huh?” Dean shakes his head and gives a weak chuckle. If he remembers his lore, a woman in white only kills men who have cheated on their partners. “You sly dogs.” 

The article mentions a husband, Joseph Welch, and Dean makes a mental note to look up his address and interview him first thing tomorrow. Dad probably already burned the woman’s remains, but it doesn’t hurt to double-check where she’s buried.

There’s no other obvious clues to Dad’s whereabouts, so Dean figures he might as well camp out here for the night, just in case Dad decides to come back. He kicks off his boots and slumps down onto the bed, where he tries and fails to watch TV for a couple of hours. He should probably call Sam back, but he’s not in the mood for a lecture.

Sleep that night comes late and sits uneasily. Dean dreams of Sam, standing on the railing of the Centennial Highway bridge, body curved forward like he’s about to jump. Dean tries to call out, to get closer, but his throat’s all closed up and there’s a hand on his shoulder that keeps him from moving. He turns to see his dad, who’s got his eyes fixed on Sam, expression unreadable. 

“Dad,” Dean croaks. “We have to help Sam.”

Dad doesn’t respond, other than with a small shake of his head and a tightening of his hand on Dean’s shoulder. Together, they watch as flames start licking up Sam’s feet, his legs, so hot that Dean can feel his own skin blistering. The fire engulfs Sam’s head, and he leaps off the bridge, into the black void beyond.

Dean startles awake to pale early-morning light, cold sweat beading on the back of his neck. His stomach growls, and he remembers that he didn’t actually eat dinner last night.

He pulls on Dad’s old leather jacket to shield himself from the cool morning breeze, his mood picking up as he remembers the diner downtown, and the sign behind the counter that advertised a pancake special. But he should’ve known he doesn’t get to have good things, because as soon as he steps out of Dad’s room, he clocks a sheriff’s department cruiser. Standing next to it are deputies Stick and Asshat, talking to the guy from reception.

Right on cue, reception guy notices Dean and points. Well, fuck.

Since they’ve already seen him, running is unlikely to do him any good. So instead, Dean turns and grins when Stick comes sauntering up.

“So,” Stick says, a triumphant gleam in his eye. “Fake U.S. Marshal. Fake credit card. You got anything that’s real?”

Dean silently curses Hector Aframian, who apparently got wise to the fact that someone was running up charges in his name. Well, no one ever claimed that credit card fraud was easy. Out loud he says, careless and smirking, “My boobs.”

Before he can count to three, there’s a hand on his neck, and the side of his face hits the cold, unforgiving hood of the nearest car. No sense of humor, these small-town deputies. 

Stick drives him to the station, dead silent for the entire drive. Asshat stays behind, probably to search the room. 

Once they get to the station, Stick leaves Dean to stew by himself in an interrogation room at the sheriff’s office. Dust motes float in the sunbeams that pierce through the shutters, and Dean’s already tried to count them eight times when someone finally walks in. It’s the sheriff himself. Pierce, according to the nametag on his uniform. He’s got sharp eyes and a regulation haircut, combed back in a way that emphasizes his big forehead. Maybe he figures it’s intimidating.

He’s carrying a brown banker’s box that he drops on the table in front of Dean. 

“So you wanna give us your real name?” the sheriff growls, every ounce of him screaming, ‘ Don’t bullshit me .’ Dean tries it on anyway.

“It’s Nugent. Ted Nugent.”

Pierce leans forward, arms resting on top of the box. “I’m not sure you realize just how much trouble you’re in here.”

Dean can play this game all day. He slouches against the back of the chair, legs spread, a smirk on his face. “We talkin’, like, misdemeanor kind of trouble or, uh, squeal-like-a-pig trouble?”

Unimpressed, Pierce drawls, “You got the faces of ten missing persons taped to your wall.”

Dean drops the smirk, because, yeah, he didn’t exactly consider that, and he can see how it looks bad.

“Along with a whole lot of Satanic mumbo-jumbo,” the sheriff continues, apparently smelling blood in the water. “Boy, you are officially a suspect.”

Dean nods, mock thoughtful. “That makes sense. Because when the first one went missing in ’82, I was three.” 

Pierce straightens up, unmoved by what should actually count as a pretty solid argument. “I know you’ve got a partner. Older guy. Maybe he started the whole thing.”

He pulls something from the box and tosses it onto the table in front of Dean. It lands with a thud and glides another inch or two. Dad’s journal.

“So tell me, Dean. This his?” Pierce asks, over the buzzing in Dean’s ears. How the fuck did he miss that? He tries to convince himself that he knew Dad never leaves his journal anyplace, and that’s why he didn’t look for it in the motel room. But he should have. Somehow, he should’ve known it was there. Dad would’ve expected him to. 

Off Dean’s silence, the sheriff nods, like Dean just confirmed something for him. Then he starts flipping through the journal, past drawings of vampires, werewolves and rugarus, past newspaper clippings and messy pen scrawl. “I thought that might be your name,” the sheriff says, perching on the table next to Dean. “See, I leafed through this. What little I could make out— I mean, it’s nine kinds of crazy. But I found this too.”

He taps the page in front of him and Dean leans forward. It just says “DEAN 35-111”, circled in black Sharpie. There’s nothing else on the page.

“Now,” Pierce says, sounding unbearably smug. “You’re staying right here till you tell me exactly what the hell that means.”

Dean knows what it means, of course. They’re coordinates. Dad’s alive and he wants to meet.

Which means another thing: Dean has to get the hell out of here, no matter what it takes. He looks up at the sheriff, unblinking. “I want my phone call.”

Chapter Text

The alarm goes off, same as it does every morning. Jess slaps at it, same as she does every morning, but then she sees the salt lining the window and remembers. 

It’s not the same as every morning. 

She’s alone. Sam drew the last watch, which means that he’s been awake since around four or five, going around the building and looking for suspicious activity. His side of the bed is smooth and cold, clearly not slept in. Jess feels grateful for his absence, and then feels guilty for feeling grateful. The truth is, she much prefers waking alone than waking up with Sam and having to go through the ordeal of either silence or stilted conversation. 

Last night was bad enough. She hadn't bothered to get undressed and had instead flopped into bed for the few hours’ sleep she would get before her watch. Sam slapped the lights off and joined her. 

Their mattress has a dip in the middle, and they often used to take advantage of it, laughing as gravity inevitably tipped them close to each other. Last night, that same dip felt like the yawning mouth of Charybdis, drawing them in no matter how hard they tried to escape. 

Jess’ arm brushed Sam’s elbow and he jerked away as though he’d been burned. 

“Do you want to talk about this?” she asked, offering not because she wanted to talk but because she felt like she needed to ask. 

It only took Sam a second to respond. 

“No,” he said, the single syllable dropping like a stone in a calm lake. The ripples reverberated, until they shook through Jess and threatened to knock down everything she held dear. 

Which brings her to this moment, waking at eight thirty in the morning, and hearing raised voices coming from the kitchen. 

Jess groans and twists her back to work out the kinks. She has the gross feeling that always comes from sleeping in day clothes, but after she brushes her hair and teeth, she feels something close to human. She doesn’t bother changing.

When she gets to the kitchen, Sam and Cas are at opposite ends of the room, glowering at each other like prize fighters, but the other bastion of testosterone is missing. 

Feeling like she’s stepping into a trap, Jess glances between them. “Where’s Dean?” 

Sam’s ire turns towards her. “Dean’s gone,” he practically spits. “And he’s,” punctuated with a vicious stab of the thumb towards Cas, “the one who let him go.” 

Instead of looking angry, Cas looks like he’s pleased and doing a poor job hiding it. His mouth performs an interesting twist: a smug smirk attempting to mimic humility. “I’m neither a prison guard nor a babysitter, and your brother is an adult. If he chose to leave after we told him all the reasons he should stay, then I’m afraid that’s his choice.” 

“Are you joking?” Jess asks no one in particular. "He just took off?"

How could Dean even consider leaving Sam when he knows there’s a threat of demons? Jess thinks of her own older sister's fierce protectiveness: Aggie would never abandon Jess when she needed her. It doesn't matter how strained the relationship between Sam and his brother is; there are some things that just aren’t done.  

Sam looks like he might want to argue, maybe defend his brother, but in the end, he settles for a gesture that's halfway between a nod and a shrug.

“Well, fine,” Jess snaps. “We’ll work the case by ourselves. Dean can go off and do whatever it was he was doing for four years while you were here.” 

She might be pissed at Sam, she might even be contemplating their suddenly dubious future, but anyone who treats her boyfriend like shit isn't worth her time.

“Fuck,” Jess says, her righteous anger leaving her in a giant rush. “I need something to drink.” 

***

Not even Sam’s poor attempts at bacon and eggs can diffuse the tension lingering in the room. Cas is still prickly, the walls that had started to wobble last night snapping up, this time with extra strength. Sam seems to vacillate between conciliatory and aggressive. Every time Jess’ eyes meet his, he carefully looks just over her shoulder. The first time it happens, it’s annoying. By the sixth time, Jess is almost incandescent with rage. 

She picks up her plate and slams it into the sink. The noise clatters around the apartment and a thin crack spiderwebs out from the plate’s center. Jess can't bring herself to care. 

“Alright,” she begins, starting off before either Sam or Cas can speak. “So, we’ve determined that demons are targeting either me or Sam. Could be both, since we both come from hunting backgrounds.” No one argues with that statement, so she continues. “I assume that we’re trying to be proactive, right? We’re not just going to wait around for the demons to come and murder us?” 

Cas’ expression doesn’t flicker at her snappish tone, though Sam flinches. “That would be correct,” Cas says, his voice even. “I think the best choice would be to start looking for any disturbances or anomalies. No matter how quiet a demon tries to be, it’ll always make some noise.” 

“Yeah, but there hasn’t been anything,” Sam insists. “Trust me, I’m not a moron. If there had been something suspicious, I would have noticed. We were trained pretty well,” he finishes, a bitter note in his voice. 

Jess’ gaze slices over to Sam. He’s never really talked about his family, other than to say that he wasn’t on speaking terms with them. He’s made oblique references to the way he was raised; references that, seen in the light of what she knows now, are starting to make a lot more sense. 

Cas rubs at his temples before dragging his hand down his face. He hasn’t shaved and his stubble is thickening. “There should have been something,” Cas insists. “Someone following you and acting strangely. Someone taking more interest in you than normal. A prickle on the back of your neck. Just something out of the ordinary.” 

Sam glances at Jess, and she answers for the both of them when she says, “No. There’s nothing.” 

This time, Cas’ sigh is tinted with frustration. “With all of these omens gathering, that's impossible. Maybe there was a professor, asking strange questions? A friend acting differently? Hell, a neighbor lurking in the doorway for a second too long?” 

None of these mean anything to Jess, but Sam stiffens. “It’s not really recent,” he says, speaking slowly. “But my friend. Brady. Around the middle of sophomore year, he went off the rails: his grades plummeted, he was skipping class and doing all kinds of drugs. I was trying to get him back on the straight and narrow.” His eyes flick up towards Jess. “He’s the one who introduced us.” 

For once, the memory of meeting Sam doesn’t fill Jess with warmth. Instead, a cold stone of foreboding sinks into her stomach. 

“Your friend, this Brady. Would he come over if you invited him?” 

Sam balks. “Hold on. You don’t really think… I mean, what if he just cracked under the pressure? A ton of kids start doing drugs and sleeping around in college. It doesn’t mean that a demon crawled inside them.” 

Cas stares at him. Sam starts to sputter. “We can’t… If he’s not possessed and we try to freaking exorcise him, he’s going to think I’m insane. There has to be something else we can do.” 

Cas reminds Jess of a rubber band, stretched taut to the point of snapping. He gives every impression of being immensely frustrated, but his voice is calm when he says, “Sam, trust me when I say that hunting demons is what I do. It’s what I’ve spent years doing. In this line of work, you shoot first and you ask questions later. If your friend isn’t possessed, then yes, you’ll look bad. Depending on how this goes, your friend might even press charges. But if he’s possessed and we don’t act… This is a zero sum game. There are no mulligans, and there is no forgiveness. If a demon is possessing your friend and you fail to act, then I promise you, someone will die.” 

A brief battle of wills ensues where Sam and Cas stare at each other. To Jess' surprise, it’s Sam who blinks first. 

“What do we need to do?” he asks. 

Jess listens to Cas outline a vague plan. It sounds good, but she’s rusty. What she needs is an outside perspective. 

***

In the two years that they’ve been dating, Sam always accepted Jess' admittedly vague excuses for why he couldn’t meet her family. In hindsight, she supposes that should have been a red flag, but at the time, she was just happy she wouldn’t have to explain the fact that her sister only has one eye, or the sigils on the family room walls. During her time at Stanford, she’s drifted apart from her family a little, but her sister still picks up the phone on the second ring. 

“Hey there, doctor lady,” Aggie says. “How’s Cali?” 

At the sound of her older sister’s voice, Jess’ heart lifts. “It’s—” She sighs, plopping down on the mattress. “Things are bad here.” 

Jess can’t see her sister, but she can sense the shift in mood even over the phone. “Bad like a shitty midterm bad or bad like monsters bad?” 

“Bad like demons bad.” 

“Shit.” Aggie stretches the single syllable into at least five and finishes with a whistle through her teeth. “You don’t do things by halves, do you?” 

“I didn’t start this,” Jess protests. 

“Well, I believe that. You always were the good kid.” In the background, there’s the soft creak of leather. Aggie must be in the library. The chairs in that room are comfortable, the leather worn smooth and shiny. “Alright, tell me everything.” 

In the end, the story goes faster than Jess expected. Aggie doesn’t show any recognition of the name Castiel Harvelle, and she doesn’t interrupt as Jess describes his research. Jess gives her the bare-bones details, carefully leaving out any hint of Sam’s involvement in hunting. Aggie hums slightly when Jess lists the omens and talks about Cas’ assertion that Brady might be possessed. 

“He’s right, and you know it,” Aggie says at the end. “If this guy really is possessed, then you need to put a stop to it.” 

“I’m not arguing that,” Jess says immediately, though she was hoping that Aggie would say Cas was overreacting. “I just need some help.” 

“You want me there?” Aggie’s voice sharpens with interest. “It’s a two-and-a-half hour flight; I can find a charter plane. I could be there before night.” 

“No, I think we’ve got this. Too many cooks in the kitchen already, you know? But I wouldn’t say no to some resources.” 

“You looking for anything in particular?” 

Jess pauses to consider. “I know that salt and holy water are big no-no’s for demons, but those hurt the host too. Is there any way to hurt the demon without hurting the host?” Jess swallows. “Brady… He’s a friend. I don’t want to injure him if we don’t have to.” 

“Maybe," Aggie says thoughtfully. "I’m not sure, and I’d need to cross-reference a few books, but I could have that information for you within the hour. Is that going to be soon enough?” 

“It’ll have to be. I don’t know anything else.” Jess' throat grows thick with emotion. For a moment, she wants nothing more than to run to her big sister, who always seems to be able to solve every problem. 

Aggie picks up on it. “You sure you don’t want me to come? It really wouldn't take me long at all. And if you want to come home with me afterward, you could do that too. Mom and Dad will be happy to see you. Mom’s been pissed since she broke her ankle on that banshee hunt; a visit would cheer her up.” 

For a moment, Jess considers it. Aggie would be as good as her word: she would sweep into Jess’ small apartment and somehow make it glamorous just by the fact of her presence. With Aggie’s help, Jess has no doubt the hunt would be managed and completed in a few hours’ time, and then they could both go back to Denver. She could rest at home and not have to deal with a stranger who seems to hate them even as he’s trying to save their lives, and a boyfriend who's turned into a virtual stranger overnight. 

“I know you’re going to say that it sounds stupid, but I think this is something that I’ve got to handle on my own,” Jess finally says. 

“It’s not stupid. But I said the same thing when I went after the pack.” There’s warning in Aggie’s voice, a reminder of what happened on that hunt. Jess swallows as she remembers: her older sister, carried home covered in blood. The ruin of her face, and finally, when the witches and doctors were finished, the empty hole where her left eye used to be. “Just be careful," Aggie says. "If you get yourself killed, I’ll figure out a way to break into Heaven and kill you all over again.” 

“Yeah. Fair enough.” Jess forces a watery laugh. “You’ll get me any information you have?” 

“Within the hour.” 

Aggie’s voice becomes business-like, signaling the end of the conversation. Jess knows that she should leave her sister to work, but she has another question. 

“Hey, have you ever heard of a hunting family named Winchester?” 

“Can’t say that I have,” Aggie answers, already distracted. 

“Nothing? Mom died about twenty-two years ago, apparently Dad’s a hunter? Two boys, one named Dean who’s also a hunter, and the other one named Sam?” 

“Hold on. Sam Winchester, like your Sam Winchester? He grew up in the life?” 

Jess nods, and then realizes Aggie can’t see the gesture. “Apparently so.” 

“I thought Sam was supposed to be a puppy.” 

“That was the plan.” 

“Well, shit.” Aggie sounds almost impressed. “That’s a complicated little tangle of lies. What are you going to do about it?” 

“I’m going to start by ripping a demon out of someone, and then I guess we’ll figure out the rest. You’ll email me when you have something?” 

“Of course. Take care of yourself, Jess.” 

“Always.” 

Jess hangs up the phone. The second she can’t hear Aggie’s voice, she ends up feeling more alone than before. Absurdly, tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. She dashes them away with the heel of her hand, takes a deep breath, and goes out to join Sam and Cas. 

  devils trap divider

For the second time in as many nights, Sam stands in the back alley of his apartment building, watching and waiting.

Fall had been pretty mild until now, but November is making itself felt tonight with a wind chill somewhere in the forties. Sam shivers when a particularly cold gust tugs at his jacket, but the feeling of discomfort crawling under his skin isn’t entirely related to the weather. It has a lot more to do with what’s about to happen. 

All day, he’s had random flashes of memory. In particular, freshman orientation has been playing on a near-constant loop. On his first day on campus, Sam was lonely and terrified and doing a poor job of hiding it. He was still shaken up from his last fight with Dad, missing Dean, and starting to feel like maybe this whole college thing had been a mistake. But then this guy walked up to him. A guy who wore a big, sunny grin, kind of like Dean, but without the underlying brittleness of a kid who grew up too fast, too soon. “Tyson Brady,” the guy said, holding out his hand. “But I usually just go by Brady.”

Confused, Sam was silent for just a beat too long before he took Brady’s hand and shook it. “Sam. Sam Winchester.” Trying to find the trap behind the friendliness, he added, “Did you need something?”

Brady shrugged, his grin not fading even slightly. “Nothing in particular. Just trying to meet people, and you looked like you could use a friend.”

Sam blinks back to the present when the streetlight just beyond the alley flickers. He starts fidgeting to keep warm, his eyes never leaving the sidewalk that leads to the front of the apartment building. The sidewalk where Brady is going to appear any moment now, with no idea of what he’s heading into.

The two of them were inseparable for most of freshman year. After Sam’s first college crush, Trish Garner, broke up with him, Brady sat up with him all night, playing video games in silent emotional support.

But then, after Thanksgiving break of sophomore year, Brady came back…. different. He was too loud, too volatile, too into parties and hookups and drugs. Sam figured something had happened at home, some huge and traumatic change. Maybe a death in the family. He tried talking to Brady at first, but Brady always denied that anything was different at all.

Sam figured it was just one of those things — people go through phases and need to get stuff out of their system. So he waited, and he kept spending time with Brady, trying to get him to remember the person he used to be. There were enough times when Brady seemed like his old self that the two of them didn’t totally grow apart. But they were never quite as close again as before.

He probably should have been more suspicious. In the life of a hunter, even one who’s trying to quit, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. 

Sam glances around, trying to make out Jess and Castiel in their hiding places further down the alley. He can’t, which he guesses is a good thing. They wouldn’t want Brady to suspect anything is wrong.

Not at first. The thought tastes bitter in his mouth.

Another memory swims to the surface: a house party the first week of junior year. When Brady found him in the crowd, there was a stunning, radiant girl by his side who was almost as tall as Sam. Brady introduced her as “my friend Jess,” and Sam spent the rest of the party talking to her. They started dating two weeks later, and they moved in together right before the start of senior year.  

God, Jess. He hasn’t had much time to process the fact that they’ve both been keeping major parts of their life histories from each other. He knows he has no real standing to be hurt, but he can’t seem to help it. Jess was supposed to be the happy, smart, fun, normal girl; the embodiment of everything he left Dad and Dean to find.   

Now, in less than forty-eight hours, it’s all come tumbling down.

Sam’s eyes start to water from the cold wind, and he knuckles at them, trying to get the sidewalk back into clear view. It’s past eleven, on his second night without a solid block of sleep. His limbs are heavy, and his brain feels sluggish.

When he called Brady earlier today, Brady seemed surprised to be invited over so late — granted, Sam doesn’t often keep these kinds of hours. (He can practically hear Dean’s voice in his head sometimes: For a college student, you’re pretty lame, Sammy .) But he grew up a practiced liar, and it was disturbingly easy to spin a cover story about a big assignment he was going to turn in that night, about wanting to celebrate after.

Sam checks his watch. It’s almost fifteen minutes past the time he told Brady to come over. He’s about two seconds from calling out to Jess and Castiel, suggesting that they try again another time, when movement beyond the alley snags his attention. There’s a shadowy figure strolling along the sidewalk, and Sam inches forward. He swears he can hear either Jess or Castiel shift ever so slightly in their hiding spots.

The figure moves through the pool of brightness puddling below the streetlight. Sure enough, it’s Brady. He turns and heads up the concrete walkway to the building’s main entrance. Sam takes a deep breath. This is it.

“Brady! Over here!” he calls out, then swiftly ducks back into the shadows.

After ten breathless seconds, Brady appears at the mouth of the alley. He’s backlit by the streetlight now, nothing visible but the tall, shadowy outline of him. “Sam?”

Sam steps forward, to where Brady can see him.

“Hey, man,” he says, smiling in a way he hopes is reassuring. “I was just taking out the trash. Saw you walk up. Come on, we’ll take the back way in.”

Sam points to the metal grating of the rear entrance, just behind and to his left, then starts walking toward it. He can hear the sound of Brady’s footsteps behind him. Heart beating in his throat, Sam keeps going until he’s level with the dumpster behind which Jess is hiding. He stops, turns, and clears his throat before he speaks a single word into the night.

“Christo.”

The effect is immediate. A flinch and a shiver run through Brady, and a low snarl rips from his throat. Out of nowhere, Jess is there, pulling a sack over his head. The sack has sigils drawn all over it in red ink — sigils to contain, to silence, and to sap the demon’s powers, Castiel had explained.

Castiel seems to know his stuff, because Brady stills instantly, his snarls subsiding even as Castiel himself materializes from the shadows at the far end of the alley. “The demon won’t be able to leave its vessel now, but we have to move quickly so we’re not spotted,” he says, low and urgent.

Sam knows he should be doing something, maybe checking for random passersby or making sure the sack is secure on the demon’s head, but his legs don’t seem to want to move. Castiel’s hand lands on his arm, warm and steady. “I’m sorry, Sam,” he says solemnly. “And Jess.” Somewhere off to Sam’s right, he can hear Jess mutter a quiet, “Yeah. Me too.” 

Castiel hurries off to fetch the car, leaving Sam and Jess alone with the thing wearing Brady’s body. Looking at Jess is more than Sam can stomach, so he keeps an eye on the demon instead. It’s utterly still, but its posture is tense, fists clenched and shoulders stiff with barely leashed fury.

After less than a minute, Sam hears the whistling rattle of Castiel’s Continental as it pulls backwards into the alley. Sam can’t help but think that Dean would be disgusted by the sounds the engine is making, and would be unable to resist tinkering with it. The thought is an all-too-brief distraction before Castiel jumps out of the front seat and pops open the trunk. Jess moves to the end of the alley, keeping a lookout.

Castiel catches Sam’s eye, and Sam wills his limbs to obey him. Slowly, carefully, they approach Brady, who is still standing unnaturally frozen. Castiel holds up three fingers, folding them down one by one. When the count is done, Sam surges forward and takes hold of Brady’s legs, a shiver of revulsion running through him at the touch. Even now, there’s still a sliver of doubt inside him, a shred of, What if we’re wrong? What if the reaction to the test was just a coincidence?

But it’s too late either way, because Castiel has already grabbed Brady under both arms, and on another count of three, they lift him off the ground. Grunting under the heavy weight, they shuffle slowly down the alley to the car, then drop their burden into the trunk. The lid closes on Brady with a clank that echoes too loudly in the night air, and Sam slides into the back seat. It’s uncomfortably cramped there, but Sam doesn’t think he could handle sitting next to Jess and her sidelong glances just now.

Besides, it’s hard not to feel as though Brady is in this situation because he decided to come up and talk to the wrong person back on that first day of orientation. So if there’s an occasional muffled thump as Brady’s limp body shifts with every turn down the streets of Stanford, Sam feels like he should be the one to bear witness.

  devils trap divider

It’s almost midnight by the time they pull up to the back gate of the Poor Clare Colletines’ monastery. 

When Jess gets out of the car, the fragrance of late-blooming flowers and ripening vegetables meets her, even so deep into the fall. A small stand of monkey puzzle trees looms along the hillside next to the monastery wall. The trees’ thick-fingered branches stretch skyward, appealing to the saints and angels in imitation of the monastery’s human residents.

At any other time, Jess would think this was a peaceful place, serene in that way religious sanctuaries have about them. But the reason they’re here tonight is anything but peaceful.

She leans against the side of the car as Cas walks up to the back gate, rapping against the weathered wood in an obviously pre-agreed signal of short-short-long-short. Sam walks up behind her, and their shoulders brush. He jerks back, and Jess is glad the darkness helps her hide her brief flash of hurt.

Cas was the one who had the connection to the order of nuns that lives here. On a previous demon case in the area, he’d said, he learned that the Clares keep a special room, underground and heavily warded, that they allow hunters to use. Apparently, they ask few questions, content in the knowledge that the room helps rid the world of evil.

Just as Cas raises his hand to repeat the knock, the gate opens, and a black-cloaked woman stands in the doorway, illuminated only by the thin beam of Cas’ flashlight and the small lantern the nun is carrying.

“Where is it?” she asks, her voice raspy and used-up in the way old people’s voices often are, but sharp and attentive too.

“In the trunk,” Cas says, without hesitation. “It’s contained and silenced. It shouldn’t cause trouble until we can get it to the room.”

The nun nods her acknowledgement. “Fine. Fetch it, and follow me.”

Between the three of them, they lever Brady’s dead weight out of the trunk, and Jess shudders as she touches the limp body. She called Aggie in hopes that they could find a way to make the demon talk without hurting Brady. But what if it’s too late? What if Brady’s been dead all along?

It doesn’t take three people to carry Brady now that he's out of the car, so Jess grabs hold of the bag of supplies they’ve brought. Supplies for torture , her brain reminds her, unhelpful. She enjoys a good fight as much as the next hunter, but causing deliberate pain to what’s still basically a human body, albeit one with a nasty infection, is harder to stomach.

Their motley group makes its quiet way along the inside of the monastery wall, past a seemingly endless sprawl of low-slung buildings and walkways. Jess is beginning to think they’re walking in circles when, finally, they enter the complex through an unassuming back door. They walk along a narrow corridor lit with flickering fluorescents. The corridor dead-ends at another door, heavy and made of iron. It’s solid except for a small, barred window at eye level.

The nun retrieves a heavy set of old-fashioned, ornate keys from her robes and unlocks the door. It swings open with a creak that sends a shiver up Jess’ spine.

She waits for Cas and Sam to pass through the door with their burden. Then, just as she starts to follow, the nun turns to face her. In the bright, unflattering light of the corridor, her face looks tired and heavily lined, but she still somehow gives the impression of a person who laughs often and well.

“Do what you have to,” she says, with a kind smile. “I’ll pray for you.”

Something about the nun’s words lifts a small part of the weight in Jess’ chest, and she nods her thanks as she walks through the door.

The room is stark and utilitarian, its grey walls painted with sigils on every side. There are one or two that Jess recognizes from books in her family’s library, but most are unknown to her. Still, she can feel the aura of power emanating from them, making the air itself heavy with foreboding.

In the center of the room, a chair is bolted to the concrete floor. Jess watches as Sam and Cas deposit Brady in the chair, noticing that the chair’s arms have iron cuffs attached to them. Cas snaps them shut over Brady’s wrists, running his thumb over the miniscule writing etched into them. Jess thinks it might be cuneiform.

The metal door clangs shut behind them, and a smell of papery decay and grave dirt settles over the room. Jess shivers.

They’re alone with the demon.

“Do either of you know how to draw a devil’s trap?” Cas asks. “It’ll take much longer if I draw it by myself.”

“A what?” Sam says, but Jess nods. While this is her first time actually hunting a demon, she knows a lot of the basics of the lore. Growing up, her parents (and Aggie) made sure of that. She doesn’t miss the way Sam’s attention snaps to her, surprise and hurt warring for control over his face. 

Jess takes the piece of red chalk Cas offers her. Together, they busy themselves with drawing the trap. Sam stands off to the side, glowering alternately at them and at Brady’s limp body.

After another few minutes, Jess and Cas straighten up and step out of the trap, moving carefully so as not to smudge the lines.

Cas retrieves something from the supply bag — a small satchel. He opens it and takes out a pinch of powder, scattering it all around the trap. The chalk lines light up with a white-hot glow, and Jess averts her eyes. When she looks back down, the light has faded, leaving the trap apparently unchanged. “What…?”

Cas’ lips curl up in a lopsided smile. “Powdered asphodel. It seals the trap. It won’t break now unless we want it to.”

“Nice,” Jess says, and even Sam looks reluctantly impressed.

Cas meets each of their eyes in turn. “Ready?”

Jess nods curtly, and Sam, after a sideways glance at her, does the same. Cas steps into the trap and pulls the sack off Brady’s head.

A human would squint and blink when confronted with sudden exposure to bright overhead light. But Brady’s eyes are wide open, inky black, and unerringly fixed on Sam.

“Well, Sammy,” he drawls. “That was a pretty dirty move you pulled. And here I thought we were friends.”

Disgust twists darkly in Jess’ gut. She was never as close to Brady as Sam was, and she never shared Sam’s faith that he’d magically change back into the person he was before sophomore year. But still. Brady was a friend, and to see something wear him like this… it’s sickening.

“You haven’t been my friend for a long time, have you?” Sam says, outwardly calm, but with a low undercurrent of anger that Jess has only heard a handful of times (mostly in conversations about Sam’s father).

The demon snarls low in Brady’s throat, lips stretched in a smile with too many teeth. “Oh, he’s still in here.” Jess feels an overwhelming flash of relief at that, and she can tell Sam does too, by the brief slackening of his face. “But yeah, he hasn’t been calling the shots since the middle of sophomore year. You probably guessed that.”

Cas glares at the demon with single-minded focus, looking fierce and utterly unafraid. “Why did you possess Brady?” 

Brady’s eyes flick from black to their normal, slightly washed-out blue. “Remind me, hunter.” He spits out the word like a foul bit of half-digested food. “Who are you, and why am I answering your questions?”

“Who I am is none of your concern,” Cas says, his voice a growl almost as low as the demon’s inhuman snarl. “And you’ll answer my questions because if you don’t, I can make life extremely unpleasant for you.”

“Bring. It. On.” Brady says, each word punctuated with a smirk.

Cas retrieves a flask of holy water from inside his jacket. He uncaps it, and steps right up close to the demon, less than two feet separating them.

Jess reaches into the pocket of her jeans, fingers worrying at the small piece of paper that carries the information Aggie sent her. A way to hurt the demon, but not the host, like Jess asked — but one that Aggie hasn’t seen used first-hand, and therefore potentially unreliable.

In the end, all three of them had agreed that there was no getting around holy water and salt, at least to start. But the plan is to avoid using it in ways that could cause Brady significant harm: no pouring anything down his throat. No burning large patches of skin.

Achingly slow, Cas tilts the flask, and a thin drizzle of holy water hits the back of Brady’s left hand.   

The demon snarls and strains at the bindings, smoke rising up wherever the water touches, but the effect is short-lived. As soon as Cas stops pouring, an obscene leer settles onto Brady’s face.

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” the demon hisses.

“Trust me,” Sam says, voice shaking with barely leashed anger now. “We’re just getting started.” He turns to Jess. “Salt?”

Jess grabs the shaker from the bag of supplies on the floor and tosses it to Sam, who catches it easily. He retrieves a pocket knife from his jeans and steps into the trap, bending over Brady’s right arm. The demon watches him with cold, calculating eyes, but there’s something wary about its expression too. “C’mon, Sammy,” it sneers. “You know a little stab wound won’t make a difference to me. Your friend Brady on the other hand…” The demon trails off, its tone sickeningly gleeful.

“Not really planning to stab you,” Sam says, even as he starts dragging the edge of the blade along the fabric of Brady’s shirt. The blade is extremely sharp, and the fabric separates easily, revealing the skin of Brady’s arm. Sam brings the blade down again, opening a cut so razor-thin, it barely bleeds.

Sam clenches his jaw and raises the container of salt. He hesitates, salt poised in his hand, and Cas looks at him sharply. When Sam still hasn’t moved a few seconds later, Jess swallows down her misgivings and steps forward. Sam’s eyes are wide when she grabs the salt from his hand, but he doesn’t try to stop her. Exhaling heavily through her nose, Jess pours salt into the cut.

The demon screams.

The agonized sound echoes back from the vaulted ceiling, ricocheting off the walls and pushing at Jess’ eardrums.

And then the screaming stops, replaced by a few seconds of panting breaths before the demon’s smirk slides back into place. “Very creative. But not creative enough.” The demon eyes all three of them shrewdly. “I’ve got you figured out, you know. You’re trying to hurt me and spare poor, sad Brady, but that’s why you’ll never get a thing out of me.” The demon’s eyes flash back to black as they slide over each of them, dripping with contempt and malice. “Because the guy I report to, back in Hell? He won’t be pulling any punches. So pardon me for not being afraid of a bunch of college kids and a washed-up hunter.”

Cas meets Jess’ eyes. They haven’t known each other long, but his expression is easy to read when he wants it to be. We need him to talk. And we won’t get it done this way.

Jess nods in wordless acknowledgement. She reaches into her pocket, touching the paper again. She’s memorized the words on it, but the solid feel of her sister’s instructions under her fingers helps steady her.

Aggie said there are certain Bible passages that hold a special kind of power. They won’t expel a demon from its vessel, like exorcisms do. But hearing them will cause a demon so much pain, it’ll be desperate to make it stop. Desperate enough to talk.

At least that’s the theory.

Induite vos armaturam Dei,” Jess intones, her voice echoing through the cavernous space. The demon stiffens, the smirk freezing on its face. “Ut possitis stare adversus insidias diaboli.”

Brady’s head snaps back at an unnatural angle, a choking, retching noise escaping from his throat. A strange buzz tingles under Jess’ skin, the power of the words lighting her up.

Cas gives her a barely perceptible nod. Keep going.

Quia non est nobis conluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem...” Her voice deepens, rises, until it seems to hover above them all, and the demon is starting to strain against its bindings again, legs scrabbling for purchase. “Sed adversus principes et potestates adversus mundi rectores…

An inhuman shriek tears from the demon’s throat. Brady’s features contort with agony, eyes slipping back and forth from black to blue to black again, seemingly beyond the demon’s control.

“Stop!” it shrieks. “Make it stop!”

Jess forces her mouth shut before more words can escape, slowly settling back into herself. Sam is gaping at her, something like awe in his expression. But there’s disappointment, too, and that hurts more than it should. 

Cas gives her the briefest of encouraging smiles before he turns back to the demon. “Talk. Why did you possess Brady?”

“Orders,” the demon snarls.

“Whose orders?”

Brady’s lips stretch into a thin, bloodless line of tension. “No. If I tell you, I’m in for a world of hurt.”

“You’re in for a world of hurt anyway,” Sam says coldly, his expression carefully wiped of emotion. “Go on, Jess.”

Another day, Jess would have resented the curt order, but there’s no time for hurt feelings right now. She takes a deep breath. “Tenebrarum harum contra spiritualia nequitiae in caelestibus…

“Azazel!”

There is a sharp intake of breath from Jess’ left, and she turns just in time to see a strange, eager light appear in Cas’ eyes. “What does Azazel have to do with this?” he asks sharply, moving closer until he towers over the demon.

It eyes him resentfully, but it also looks drained. Jess opens her mouth and steps forward, like she’s about to speak again, and it’s enough. The demon sags in its chair and starts talking in a low, reedy voice.

“Azazel has... children. Special children, who will be his army on Earth.” Naked, mad glee shines in the demon’s ebony eyes. “To help him open the gates of Hell and unleash the end times.”

Cas’ mouth opens on another question, but Sam beats him to it. “What does that have to do with me? Or with Jess?”

The demon’s head snaps to Sam, and its smirk returns, stretching Brady’s face into a bizarre, toothy grimace. “They’re all grown up now, Azazel’s children. Born twenty-two years ago.”

Fear slithers down Jess’ spine, making her shiver as she puts the pieces together. It’s 2005 now. Twenty-two years ago would mean 1983. The year Sam was born.

Please let it be a coincidence.

“What does it have to do with me?” Sam repeats, fear lacing through the fury in his voice, and Jess realizes: whatever the demon is about to tell them, some part of Sam already knows.

The demon cocks Brady’s head at an unnatural angle. “These children… Azazel came to their nurseries when they were six months old, and he gave them a gift.” Sam staggers back, expression slack with horror, and the demon leers. “Fed them some of his blood. Just enough to make them… different.”

“Different how?” Cas asks sharply, his eyes locked on Sam. There’s something wary and suspicious in his expression. On pure instinct, Jess steps forward, blocking Cas’ view of Sam.

“Powers,” the demon hisses. “They all have powers that will be of use in the coming war.”

“Well, you’re after the wrong guy,” Jess says, half-hoping that speaking the words will make them true. “Sam doesn’t have any powers.”

The demon cackles; a scraped, eerie sound. “Oh, but he does. Don’t you, Sammy?”

Sam shakes his head, but the motion is rigid, stilted. “No, I— I don’t—”

“Seen things, haven’t you?” The demon’s voice is high-pitched with glee now. “Visions of blood and death. Visions of fire.”

Sam flinches as if struck, and a fault line opens in Jess’ chest.

“Don’t bother to deny it, Sam,” the demon continues, its tone almost conversational now. “You saw her die, didn’t you?”

The demon jerks Brady’s chin at Jess. Devastation is plain on Sam’s face when he gives the smallest possible nod.

“That was why I introduced you to Jess, you know,” the demon says, black eyes gleaming, as though it’s feeding off their distress. “Azazel was worried you were getting too soft. We need you sharp, Sam. Sharp, for the coming battle.” The demon leans back in its chair, legs sprawled, the picture of relaxation. “So I thought I’d find you a sweet, innocent piece of tail, and once you got nice and attached, I’d roast her on the ceiling, just like Azazel did to your mommy dearest. Get you back into a fighting mood.” Brady’s eyes glide up and down Jess’ body, and it feels like a physical violation. “Guess I got the ‘innocent’ part wrong though.”

Before either Jess or Cas can react, Sam surges forward, the knife back in his hand and pure, righteous fury on his face. “I’ll fucking kill you!” he roars.

Jess’ feet move before she makes a conscious decision, and then her hand is on Sam’s forearm, holding on tight even as he strains against her. Cas has moved to Sam’s other side, keeping a vise grip on the wrist that still holds the knife.

“Don’t, Sam,” Jess says. “Remember, that knife won’t damage the demon. And Brady’s still in there.”

She can feel the moment all the fight leaches out of Sam. His arm goes slack under her touch, and he takes a deliberate step back. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay.”

Sam keeps retreating until he reaches the nearest wall. He steadies himself against it with one hand, facing away from the rest of them. Jess wishes she could go to him and comfort him, but she’s not sure it would be welcome.

“Where is Azazel now?” Cas snarls, turning his attention back to the demon. That strange eagerness from earlier is back in his eyes.

“I don’t know,” the demon says. Brady’s head is tipped back and to the side, twin pools of black watching Sam with obvious satisfaction.

Cas pivots to face Jess, jaw clenched. “Do it again.”

Jess nods. At least this is something she knows she can do.

Induite vos armaturam Dei.” That strange buzzing burrows under her skin again, filling her with power, stretching the confines of her body. “Ut possitis stare adversus insidias diaboli.

The demon roars its pain at the ceiling, writhing and pulling against its restraints. 

“Where is Azazel?” Cas roars.

“I don’t know!”

Jess looks back at Cas. Eyes bright with fury, he nods, and Jess picks up the chant again. “Quia non est nobis conluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem.”

“I don’t know!” the demon screams at the top of its lungs. 

Jess can see the veins in Brady’s neck straining and hear the rawness of his vocal cords. She stops. “Cas… please. Our friend is in there.”

A battle plays out on Cas’ face, short but fierce. Eventually, the fire in his eyes flickers and goes out, and he nods in tired defeat. “Alright.”

Cas bends down and scatters more of the powder from his satchel onto the devil’s trap. It gleams briefly, but when the light fades, the outer ring of the trap is broken. The demon slumps, relaxing back into its chair. But then Cas begins to speak, his low, rumbling voice echoing off the bare concrete walls.

Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii…

Brady’s head snaps back, and he starts to retch. Wisps of black emerge from his mouth, torturously slow, as though the demon is reluctant to let go, but being pulled irresistibly by a stronger force. The smell of sulfur fills the room.

…Ut Ecclesiam tuam secura tibi facias, libertate servire, te rogamus, audi nos!”

A column of foul black smoke rises from Brady’s mouth, tearing through the air with a shriek of pain and fury. The smoke curls around itself, writhing in place for a moment, before it hits the floor, shaking the foundations of the room as the demon’s essence is pulled back into Hell.

Brady slumps over, unconscious, and Sam is suddenly there, bent over him, feeling his pulse. Sam’s eyes are bloodshot, and his hands are shaking, but when Jess reaches out a tentative hand, he pulls away.

“He’s still alive,” Sam croaks. “Brady’s alive.”

Cas nods, solemn and business-like. “Go to the main building and find one of the nuns, Sam. They’ve taken care of possession victims before. They’ll know what to do.”

Sam looks like he wants to argue, but Cas stares back at him, unblinking. After another moment, Sam nods and turns to go. As he passes, Jess reaches for his arm, holding on tight enough this time that he can’t squirm away without putting up a fight. “The vision thing, Sam. Is it true?”

Sam’s eyes flit to her, then to Cas. He looks haunted. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “Yeah, it’s true.”

Jess lets her hand fall, and Sam keeps walking, the metal door falling shut behind him with a heavy thud. Immediately, Cas turns to her.

“This is bad. You know it is.”

Jess worries at her bottom lip with her teeth, a nervous habit she thought she’d managed to get rid of. “Yeah. Assuming the demon was telling the truth about why Sam’s been seeing things.”

Cas fixes her with a narrow glare. “The demon said Azazel killed Sam's mother. Did she die when Sam was six months old?”

“Yeah, in a fire that started in his nursery,” Jess admits. “But Cas, I’ve known Sam for years. He’s not a bad person.” Cas tilts his head, fixing her with a stare that very plainly says, You can’t possibly be this naïve. It makes her anger at Sam recede into the background, replaced by a fierce protectiveness. “Really. He… he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. And yeah, he kept some shit from me he definitely shouldn’t have, but I get why he did it. He was scared.”

Cas still looks unconvinced. “Jess, he could be a danger to you. To others.”

“No.” Jess shakes her head emphatically. “He’s not. I know he’s not.”

Cas clenches his jaw. “Alright. But I think we need help on this one,” he says, almost to himself. “Ellen, Ash, maybe Bobby Singer too.”

“Bobby Singer?” Jess asks, the name triggering something in her memory. “From Sioux Falls?”

“You know him?”

“No, but… Sam mentioned him,” Jess says slowly, trying to remember. “He said Bobby was like a second father to him and Dean.”

Surprise flits across Cas’ face for a split-second before it settles back into grim determination. “Alright. I trust Bobby’s judgment.” He holds up a placating hand, apparently sensing that Jess is about to snap at him. “I’m not saying I don’t trust yours, but I haven’t known you as long as I have Bobby.” He runs a hand through his hair, causing it to stand up on one side. “I’ll put in a call to a friend who’s good at research and won’t run his mouth. Then we can figure out next steps.”

Realization sinks deep into Jess’ core, making her suddenly bone-tired. “Sam and I can’t stay in Stanford, can we?”

Cas’ sad half-smile is all the answer she needs.

  devils trap divider

When they get back to the apartment, after a tense and silent drive, there’s barely two hours left until daybreak.

It didn’t take the Clares long to spring into action and make Brady comfortable in one of their rooms. They reassured Sam, Jess and Castiel that they had connections to one of the best doctors in town, someone who had experience treating victims of demonic possession and would provide Brady with the best possible care.

Sam felt a deep, hollow ache at the idea of leaving his friend behind without a familiar face to wake up to, but it was just one in a long list of hurts. Too many to count.

Jess kept trying to start a conversation, trying to get him to snap out of his stupor, to plan for packing up their lives and leaving Stanford behind. All the while, Castiel kept eyeing him with open distrust. But all of it was just background noise, barely disturbing the surface of Sam’s thoughts.

When he finally falls into bed, feeling every inch of distance between himself and the warm weight of Jess’ body on the other side, sleep is a long time coming.

Visions. Those gruesome, recurring glimpses he’s been getting, of Jess bleeding and burning on the ceiling of their bedroom, were visions. And, if the demon told the truth, he’s got demon blood in his veins. He feels unclean, polluted, controlled by something beyond his power to understand. And worst of all, the thing that did this to him also killed his mother. 

How can he ever begin to tell Dean about any of this?

Sam jerks awake to the sound of his phone ringing on his bedside table. Next to him, Jess stirs too, grunting in her half-sleep. Sam picks up the phone and squints at the too-bright display. It’s an unknown number. He should just let it go to voicemail, but instead, he flips the phone open and puts it to his ear.

“Hey, Sammy.”

“Dean?” Sam sits up, abruptly awake. How could Dean already know? How could he have found out? How—

“Hey, um. I kinda… got myself into a spot of trouble. I’m at the sheriff’s station in Jericho. They’re holding me on suspicion of murdering a bunch of people.” A weak chuckle rings down the line. “So… I know you’re probably pissed at me right now, but I could really use some help here, and—” Dean breaks off and sighs. Then, “Well, we both know Dad ain’t picking up the phone.”

Sam sinks back into the pillow, closing his eyes against the bright rays of morning sun piercing through the shutters.

Another crisis. Just what they needed.

*** 

“I told you, I’m fine,” Sam says, glaring at Jess. “I’ll go get Dean, and then I’ll be right back.”

“I can’t let you do that,” she snaps, returning his glare with interest. “First of all, you’ve got demons after you, and some seriously life-changing revelations to process. You’re in no shape to drive.” Sam tries to interrupt, but Jess holds up a finger to stop him. “Second of all, you and I need to get in touch with the university and suspend our enrollment. Then we need to pack our stuff and figure out our next move.”

“I have a place you might be able to stay for a while,” Castiel chimes in from the couch, sounding a little apprehensive in the face of Jess’ fury. Sam doesn’t blame him. “The Roadhouse, where I grew up. It’s carefully warded and it’s full of hunters.”

Jess nods at him. “Thanks, Cas.” She chews on her bottom lip, thoughts flitting across her face too fast to track. Focused like this, she’s more beautiful than ever, and Sam wishes he could tell her so. 

Something determined sparking in her eyes, Jess turns to Castiel. “I need you to go get Dean.”

Castiel looks thunderstruck. “What?”

“You’re the only one of us who’s actively hunting. I’d bet anything you’ve got a dozen or more fake government IDs in your glove box.” She waits a beat for Castiel to deny it, then adds, impatiently, “Don’t you?”

“I do, but I don’t see why I should be particularly invested in his well-being. He was extremely rude to me.”

Jess grimaces, conceding the point. “I know you guys didn’t exactly see eye to eye, and I'm still pissed at him for running off. But with everything we found out last night... he should be in on this, Cas,” Jess says, and finally, there’s something Sam can agree with her on.

“She’s right,” he says. “Dean’s not just the best hunter I know, but he’s my brother. If this— this Azazel guy really killed our mom, then Dean deserves to hear about it, and I know he’ll want to help us any way he can.”

“What about your father?” Castiel asks, a strange edge to his tone.

Sam’s jaw tightens. “He’s not picking up his phone, so I guess he’s out of luck. We’ll deal with him if and when he decides to come back. Dean, though... I know he can be kind of a dick sometimes, but he— he’s a good guy. He deserves his revenge just as much as I do.”

Castiel is completely still for a moment. Finally, he says, “I understand. I have… a score of my own to settle. And learning more about Azazel’s plan might help me do that.”

Jess’ face lights up. “So you’re in this with us, Cas? You’ll help us figure this thing out?”

Slowly, Castiel nods. “I will,” he says solemnly. But when he turns to Sam, he looks extremely annoyed. “That means I have to go get your dick brother, doesn’t it?”

Sam can’t help smiling at that. “Guess so, since I’m not allowed to go, apparently.”

“Fine,” Castiel says, exhaling heavily through his nose. “But if he annoys me, I’ll cuff him to the dashboard.”

Jess chuckles. “Sounds good to me.”

Sam feels almost weak with relief. Dean’s coming back, and they have the beginnings of a plan. There’s just one thing he needs to make sure of. “Me too. But, Cas?”

Castiel raises a questioning eyebrow.

“Hey, don’t— don’t tell Dean about my visions just yet, or all that stuff about Azazel and the special children.” Sam’s eyes land on the dresser and find the only picture he has of his family: all four of them in front of their old house, Sam himself just a baby in Mom’s arms and Dean leaning back against Dad’s chest, both of them with big, toothy smiles on their faces. “He might react... badly.”

  devils trap divider

Halfway through the morning, Castiel leaves for Jericho, grumbling something under his breath about “being sent to fetch that bag of dicks.”

When the door closes behind him, the apartment somehow seems a lot more cramped than it used to. Jess wonders where you’re supposed to start when you’re packing up your entire life. She’s so lost in thought that she flinches when Sam pops up at her elbow.

“You should go home.”

She pivots to find Sam staring at her, something wounded in his expression.

“What?”

“You should go home,” Sam repeats. “This whole thing—” He falters, licks his lips and tries again. “Something’s obviously happening, Jess, and I don’t know what it is yet, exactly, but it’s dangerous, and I don’t want you anywhere near it.” His hand lands on her arm, squeezing gently. “Please. I need you safe.”

Jess takes a deep breath, trying to tamp down on her anger. “You did hear the part where Brady's demon was going to kill me, right? We might’ve sent him back to Hell, but there’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of other demons who could take his place.”

She tries to walk away, to get to the kitchen, the bedroom, anyplace that isn’t here, where she’s surrounded by the cheap tables and chairs they picked out at the thrift store; where she’s forced to look at the framed picture of Sam and his family, or the one of the two of them together at a music festival last year. Sam reaches for her shoulder, turning her to face him again.

She lets him.

“Jess.” He ducks his head so he can meet her eyes. She’s always liked that he’s tall enough to tower over her just a little. Not a lot of guys are. “You don’t know. You don’t know what it was like, seeing… those things.”

Something cold and heavy settles in Jess’ gut. “So tell me.”

Sam’s entire frame shakes as he forces the words out. “I saw you, on the ceiling, bleeding, and then… fire. Fire crawling all over you, eating you up, and—” His voice breaks, eyes shining with unshed tears. “I could smell you burning. I could hear you scream.”

Jess is nauseous with the horror of the image, and she wants nothing more than to pull Sam close and let them be how they used to be. But she can’t quite bring herself to close the distance. Too much has happened in the past two days, and there hasn’t been any time to process. 

“That was yet another really big fucking secret to keep from me, wasn’t it?” she asks, voice a lot harsher than she meant to make it, and Sam flinches. “You were having visions of me dying, and you didn’t think that might be info worth sharing?”

Sam hangs his head, shoulders slumping. “I just… I thought they were dreams.” He swallows hard. “I was hoping they were dreams.”

“Yeah, well,” Jess says flatly. “If you have any more dreams, maybe fill me in.”

She does leave that time; walks right into the bedroom, with vague plans of pulling out her suitcase and starting to decide which parts of her life are disposable.

Sam follows her into the room. “Jess,” he says, soft, pleading. “I’m begging you. Go home. Stay with your family.”

She rounds on him, hands clenched, every muscle tense with frustration and helplessness. “They were going to kill me, Sam. They were going to pin me to the ceiling and burn me alive, and for what? For being your girlfriend. Hell, apparently, all this—” She gestures back and forth between them. “—happened in the first place because you’re… a special child, whatever the fuck that means.”

She takes a step toward Sam. He doesn’t yield, but there’s something apprehensive in his face. “So you know what? Maybe this started out being just about you, but now it’s about me, too. If you think I’ll just go home and crawl under the covers until the monsters go away, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Indescribably furious, she turns away and grabs her suitcase from the back of the narrow walk-in closet. It’s a bit of a struggle, wedged as it is behind every other thing that didn’t fit anywhere else in the apartment, but she manages. She’s so focused on her task, she almost doesn’t hear Sam’s question, spoken barely above a whisper.

“Jess, are we gonna be okay?”

She freezes, fingers clenching around the handle of her suitcase. “I don’t know.”

  devils trap divider

Castiel feels distinctly resentful as he leaves the apartment, his duffel bag swinging wildly against the backs of his legs. While he capitulates to the logic that he should be the person to get Dean, part of him doesn’t see why Dean has to be yanked out of jail. One less Winchester inflicted upon the populace surely can’t be a bad thing. 

It rankles, being ripped from the case (his case) so soon after discovering his first viable lead on Azazel in years. The fact that he hasn’t managed to get a solid night’s sleep since first stumbling across the Winchesters certainly doesn’t improve matters. The irregular hours of keeping watch would be bad enough, but whenever he did manage to catch a bit of sleep, the nightmares would start. 

Nightmares used to be a staple of his life; horrible, screaming things that would wake the whole house and send Ellen and Bill scrambling to his side. After a while, however, they subsided into an occasional torment. Now, they’ve started up again.

The hot copper taste of blood on the back of his tongue, the burning stink of rotten eggs bringing tears to his eyes. Alfie’s face, split wide in a sneer, his fair skin flecked with crimson. “All you humans had better prepare,” he growls, his pre-pubescent voice twisted into something monstrous. “He’s coming, Azazel is—” 

Castiel shakes his head once, sharply, to clear the memories. No distractions. Set up the pieces, follow the plan and everyone gets through alive. It’s one of the first lessons Bill taught him, and clearly it’s not a lesson that either John Winchester or his eldest son ever bothered to learn. 

In her darker moments, after Jo was already asleep, Ellen would permit herself to have a few drinks. It was during times like these when she would allow her mask to slip and confide her grief in Castiel. Foremost in her mind was the betrayal and hurt. “Never trust a Winchester,” she warned him. “Bill used to say John was reckless and impulsive and didn’t take good care of his partners. For a while, Bill wouldn’t hunt with him anymore because John was always going off plan. But John promised he’d do better, and Bill trusted him.” With a weary chuckle, she added, “He always wanted to believe the best of people, Bill did.” 

Now, having seen how the Winchesters operate, with a combination of deceit and impulsivity, Castiel understands better. 

Anger pulses through him again.Why should he bother getting Dean Winchester out of jail? Dean might have an ass to make angels weep and features pretty enough to land him on the cover of a teen magazine, but he’s also brash, impulsive, and irritating. He’s a liability, and Castiel’s whole life has been about minimizing liabilities. 

Castiel tosses his bag in the back of his Continental and closes the trunk. He keeps his hands on the lid and sucks in a few deep breaths to settle himself. Control. It won’t do anyone any good if he bursts into the Jericho station riding high on the wave of his anger. He’ll be calm, he’ll be professional, and he’ll do everything in his power to get Dean Winchester out of jail. 

But if it turns out that Dean Winchester is more trouble than he’s worth, Castiel doesn’t think he’ll lose much sleep leaving him in the clutches of the law. 

***

It’s only a two-hour drive to Jericho, but it still gives Castiel enough time to formulate a plan. It’s a fairly simple one, but he’s found that simple works best. Too many moving parts mean too many opportunities for something to go wrong. 

The drive also gives him a chance to call Ash. The phone rings several times before it goes to voicemail. Unsurprising, as Ash rarely wakes up before four in the afternoon, but it means that Castiel is forced to listen to Ash’s two-minute rambling introduction to his voicemail, specifically designed to discourage callers from leaving said mail. By the time he finally gets to the beep, Castiel’s irritation has had ample time to spark anew, and the message he leaves is curt. 

“Ash, it’s Cas. Listen, I need you to look something up for me. Run a nationwide search on children born in 1983 whose mothers died in house fires. The deaths would have been when the kids were six months old.” Castiel pauses. “And let’s just keep this between us for right now, alright?” He waits for Ash to agree and then feels embarrassed when he remembers that this is a voicemail. “Call me when you have something.” 

He hangs up and tosses his phone onto the passenger seat, deciding against checking in with Ellen or Jo for now. Ellen’s never been a huge fan of him hunting demons in the first place, and she's going to be less than thrilled to discover that he’s picking at the edge of some demon conspiracy. Additionally, he doesn’t want to reveal that he’s working with Sam Winchester until it’s absolutely necessary. 

That thought brings him back to the question he’s been trying to ignore for the better part of the morning: can Sam be trusted? He’s obviously not demonic: he was able to move in and out of a devil’s trap, salt and holy water had no effect, and he was able to utter the word Christo. None of that would have been possible if he was a demon. 

And yet. Sam has been having visions, apparently caused by demonic influence, and he was willing to lie about it: not only to Castiel, a stranger, but also to Dean, his brother. And, maybe worst of all, to Jess, who was the subject of Sam's visions. How was Jess helped by Sam keeping the truth from her? He was seeing the death of his girlfriend, his family, and he didn’t think to warn her? 

If Castiel had had any hint that his own family was going to be… He doesn’t understand how someone could have that knowledge and not move Heaven and Earth to try and prevent the outcome. 

Castiel pushes down on the gas and the Continental grumbles as it surges forward in an attempt to leave his thoughts behind. 

***

Castiel ducks into a fast food joint to change. When he steps inside, he’s wearing his customary outfit of boots, jeans, and a jacket. When he steps out, he’s wearing the most expensive suit he could buy based off his tips tending bar at the Roadhouse. It still doesn’t fit him exactly right — it’s a little too snug in the shoulders and thighs — but it serves its purpose well enough. He tries to tame down his hair with some water from the bathroom sink, but that’s a losing battle. Castiel stops when he resembles "just finished a long drive" and before he reaches "drowned rat" status. 

He finds the Jericho sheriff’s station easily enough. It’s a little too large, in the way that government buildings in small towns tend to be. A bronze statue of a police officer comforting a fallen civilian, slightly smaller than life size, sits out front.

Castiel makes sure to park the Continental in the back. It's best if he can hide his non-government-issued vehicle for as long as possible. Plus, the cameras tend to be worse towards the back of parking lots. 

He grabs the folder that’s sitting on the passenger seat. Before he left Stanford, he spent five dollars printing out a stack of official-looking papers. These forgeries are some of Ash’s best work, and he swears that they could hold up in actual court. Castiel’s never had to put that to the test, and he hopes today isn’t different. If everything goes as planned, flashing these papers and his badge should be enough. 

Of course, Castiel is starting to learn that when it comes to the Winchesters, very few things go to plan. 

When he walks into the station, the desk clerk’s eyes flick towards him in an automatic reaction before they return to the paperwork in front of him. Then they flick again, and this time they hold. Castiel walks towards the desk, calm and in control, with just the right hint of smugness in his step. Like he has all day, but he’d rather not be bothered. 

He reaches inside his jacket to pull out his badge. He flashes it just long enough that the light catches on the gold of the insignia and that the big FBI logo goes noticed before he flips it closed and tucks it back inside his pocket. 

The badge does it work: the desk clerk’s eyes widen and his hands stutter to a stop. Castiel doubts that, before the recent deaths, this man had seen anything more severe than a few DUIs. An FBI badge is certainly going to make its way around the station quicker than wildfire. 

“I got word that you’d booked a prisoner, first name ‘Dean’? Probably using an alias.” Castiel waits for the desk clerk to react. When he doesn’t, Castiel clears his throat. “Can I see the deputy in charge of his case, please?” 

“Oh. Yes, sir. Of course. Be right back.” The desk clerk bolts out of his chair so fast that it spins for three full rotations. Castiel is only waiting for a few minutes before the desk clerk comes back, this time with the sheriff in tow. His hairstyle and manner of dress scream "career law enforcement," and he starts looking at Castiel like they’re squaring up on opposite ends of the ring. 

“Good afternoon, Agent…” 

“Harrison,” Castiel introduces himself. He extends his hand for the requisite handshake, which the sheriff, Pierce by his name tag, tries to make into a test of strength. “Your arrest of the suspect known as ‘Dean’ pinged some alerts, so the office in Sacramento sent me up to investigate.” 

Pierce’s jaw tightens. “Well, that’s very interesting, but I think you’ll find that we’ve got this situation well in hand.” 

“No doubt you and your men have done a remarkable job, but if this man is who we think he is, then he’s wanted for— well, I don’t rightly know everything, but safe to say, you’ll thank me when I take him into custody.” 

“This sicko’s killed at least three people in my jurisdiction. He’ll stand trial and face justice right here.” 

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll find this extradition paperwork says otherwise, assuming that this man is the one we’re looking for. If I could speak to your suspect?” Castiel snaps his stack of papers into Pierce’s face, then starts towards the back of the building.

Most police stations are laid out fairly similarly; Castiel just has to head in the general direction of the interview rooms and wait for Pierce’s pride to kick in. Once that happens, Pierce will inadvertently lead him to Dean. The important thing is to keep moving. If he keeps moving, keeps the focus on him and not on his paperwork, then he and Dean will be walking out of here in twenty minutes. It takes Pierce a moment to catch up, and when he does, his forehead is red and shiny with anger. 

“I’m not going to allow you to interrupt an ongoing interview,” he practically spits. He grabs at Castiel’s elbow, and Castiel easily slides out of his grasp.

“I’ve tried not to ruffle too many feathers, but you and I both know what’s going to happen. I have those papers, and I can claim jurisdiction. So let’s not make this any more embarrassing than it needs to be alright? Put it away, sheriff. We don’t need to measure: I guarantee you, mine’s bigger, and this is a pissing contest you’re not going to win.” 

Pierce sputters in rage and frustration, which leaves Castiel free to continue forward. As a last-ditch effort, Pierce calls out, “He’s invoked his Fifth Amendment and asked for a lawyer. You can’t interview him,” when Castiel’s hand lands on the doorknob of Interview Room One. 

“Trust me, sheriff.” Castiel tosses a shit-eating grin over his shoulder. “He’ll want to talk to me.” 

With that, he pushes open the door. 

Castiel doesn’t necessarily consider himself a connoisseur of interview rooms, but he does have to admit that, once you’ve seen one interview room, you’ve basically seen them all. This one looks no different than many others he’s seen: a sparsely decorated interior with a table sitting in the middle. Chairs flank either side of the table, and a bulb hangs above the table’s center. A two-way mirror is prominently displayed along one wall. 

All of those details pale in comparison to Dean Winchester, sitting cuffed to the table. 

The minute Castiel enters, Dean sits up straight. The motion pulls at the cuff fastened around his wrist. The metal bites into his skin, and it must be painful, but Dean barely blinks. Instead, his eyes are fixed to Castiel. 

“You,” he blurts. A mixture of anger, confusion and several other emotions flash through his eyes. 

They’re very green, Dean’s eyes, Castiel notices as he sits, and then hates himself for noticing. 

“Me,” he agrees, leaning across the table. “I’m surprised to find you here, Dean.” Dean opens his mouth, but Castiel interrupts him. “I’m sure you also understand that you’ve taken your Fifth Amendment rights. You’re not required to talk to me if you don’t want to.” 

Castiel stares at Dean, willing him to understand his message. Dean blinks and sits back in his chair. “Yeah, I get it,” he says. “It’s fine. I wanna talk to you.” 

Castiel doubts that, but he relaxes. Looks like Sam was right. Irritating and infuriating as he might be, Dean is a hunter, through and through. “You can come in now, sheriff,” Castiel calls over his shoulder. 

Pierce slinks into the room. Castiel can practically feel the sheriff’s eyes burning through the back of his skull, but he ignores the sensation. “You can start filling out that extradition paperwork,” he announces, keeping his eyes on Dean. “I’ve got my man.” 

  devils trap divider

Dean feels like his brain has been restarted. 

Bad enough that it wasn’t Sam walking through the door. Worse that it was Castiel Harvelle, the asshole Dean was extremely glad to leave in the rearview mirror when he took off for Jericho. 

But worse still that Castiel Harvelle looks damn good in a suit. 

When Castiel walks into the room, Dean’s eyes are immediately drawn to the stretch of Castiel’s suit over his shoulders, the way his waist tapers to his hips, and, when Castiel turns to push the door, the stretch of his pants over his thighs and ass. 

He shouldn’t be noticing Castiel’s ass. Castiel is a dick and even if he was the best guy in the world, Castiel is a guy, which means that Dean only notices his face for punchability. Castiel has a very punchable face, but Castiel’s also done something different with his hair, which changes the punchability of his face. 

Castiel warns him about the need to watch what he says, and while Dean chafes at the reminder, he doesn’t argue that it was necessary. He’s flummoxed enough to spout out almost anything and inadvertently blow Castiel’s cover. The second Castiel mentions extradition, Dean understands his plan. As long as he’s quiet, Castiel can get him out of here. 

Being quiet gets a lot harder when Castiel starts talking to Pierce about him while Pierce is staring at the extradition papers like there’s a hidden map on the back. 

“Lucky you found this one,” Castiel says conversationally, stretching out his legs. “Sick son of a bitch, isn’t he?” 

Pierce grunts, narrowing his eyes at the paperwork. Dean kicks Castiel’s chair, shoving him backwards about an inch. Castiel has the audacity to look surprised. Problem? he mouths, and Dean glowers. 

“Real awful stuff,” Castiel continues, and Dean doesn’t think he’s imagining the extra relish in his voice. “Probably need to lock him away for everyone’s good.” 

“Agent Harrison, I’m trying to concentrate,” Pierce says, his voice tight. 

“I don’t know what there is to concentrate on,” Castiel says. “The great state of Nebraska is going to want to try this deviant for crimes committed there. After they get through with him, you can have a turn. Duke it out.” 

The word deviant strikes harder than it should. Vague flashbacks flicker through Dean's mind: the particular snarl on John’s face when he saw two guys walking down the street, their hands clasped palm to palm. He’d seemed to relish the word, like if he tried hard enough, he could stamp it into Dean’s skin. Hearing it now, from Castiel…  Dean flinches, absorbs the impact, and commits the rest of his life to hating Castiel Harvelle. 

“Yeah?” he finally says, drawing the attention of both Pierce and Castiel. Pierce’s eyes hold a last-ditch hope that Dean will say something that will force him to remain in this jurisdiction; Castiel’s eyes silently scream caution. “Well, you can look through all the shit you want to, but you’re still not going to figure out anything. That whole hotel room’s worth of evidence, and you’re too stupid to understand any of it.” 

Dean’s staring closely enough at Castiel to mark when understanding flashes through his eyes. “I think I’m going to take all that evidence back with me as well,” Castiel says. 

Pierce visibly deflates; he was counting on keeping that box to eventually wrangle Dean back to his station, no doubt. Begrudgingly, he packs up the box of evidence taken from Dad’s motel room. Dean breathes a sigh of relief when he sees Dad’s journal go into the box. 

“Anything else I can get for you, sir?” The sarcasm and derision dripping off of Pierce’s voice would cripple a lesser man, but Castiel doesn’t even seem to notice. 

“No, I think that’ll be it,” Castiel says. Now that he’s gotten what he wants, he’s all wide, gummy grins. “If you’ll just release the suspect into my custody?” He gestures at the handcuffs around Dean’s wrists. 

Pierce unlocks the cuffs. Dean only has a few seconds to revel in his freedom before Castiel is snapping his own set of handcuffs (what kind of kinky freak just carries around cuffs?) around Dean’s wrist. “Alright, Dean, time to face the music.” Castiel inclines his head towards Pierce. “Thanks for your help, Detective.” 

“One of my guys can carry that out to your car for you.” Pierce nods towards the box tucked underneath Castiel’s arm. Castiel does make a slightly awkward sight with the banker’s box underneath one arm and his other hand wrapped around Dean’s bicep, but he rejects the offer of help. Dean understands why: the monstrosity that Castiel calls a car is definitely not government issued. 

“So what about the hunt?” Dean asks, once they’re out of earshot of the station. “There’s a Woman in White floating around here, and now neither one of us can work the case.” 

“Someone else will come by and work it,” Cas answers. 

Dean scoffs. “When? When the body count gets so high that actual law enforcement starts to panic? It took Dad a few weeks to put this together and he’s the best hunter I know. No other hunter is looking here.” 

“Oh, for the…” Castiel rolls his eyes. He pulls his phone out and punches in a few numbers. Dean’s close enough to hear it ring and then a female voice answers. “Yeah, hi, Annie. It’s Cas. Listen, if you’re not doing anything else, can you stop by Jericho, California? There’s a Woman in White— Dean, did you manage to find out her name?” 

Dean glowers at Castiel, who looks calmly back at him. When it becomes clear that Castiel isn’t going to budge, Dean reluctantly bites out, “Constance Welch. That’s the name that the research turned up.” 

Castiel repeats the name into the phone. “And where did you say she’s haunting?” 

“Centennial Highway," Dean snarls. 

Much to his disappointment, Castiel just gives him a banal smile. “Hauntings are taking place around Centennial Highway. Do you think you'd be able to take care of it? I would, but I’m working another case and my ID’s already burned here.” The woman answers, and Castiel smiles. “Great. I owe you a drink next time you stop by the Roadhouse. Bye.” 

When he looks back at Dean, Castiel’s expression is almost unbearably smug. “Taken care of. Do you have any other concerns?” 

“Yeah, actually,” Dean says when the monstrosity that Castiel calls a car appears. “You need to get Baby out of impound.”  

“If you’re referring to your car—” 

“I’m not going anywhere until you get her out of impound.” 

Dean digs his heels into the ground. Castiel tugs at Dean’s arm, but Dean doesn’t move. Castiel stares at him and he stares at Castiel, and somewhere in those few seconds, Castiel understands that Dean has no intention of leaving without the Impala. 

Castiel curses lowly and fluently as he marches to his Continental. “Of all the…” He whirls on Dean. “You wait here,” he hisses. “In this car. If you move an inch from this seat, then I swear, my next stop is going to be a junkyard, where I’ll take an erotic pleasure in watching them turn your car into a tiny metal cube.” 

Even though the threat strikes right at Dean’s stomach, he doesn’t bother to respond. He can already tell that he’s going to get his way.

Grumbling under his breath, Castiel deposits him in the Continental's passenger seat, hands still cuffed behind his back. 

“Are you going to roll down the windows?” Dean calls as Castiel starts to walk away. “What if I overheat?” 

“You’re not a toddler or a Pomeranian; I have every confidence that you’ll survive,” are Castiel’s last words before he disappears in the direction of the impound lot. 

Once again, Dean is subjected to the sight of Castiel Harvelle’s ass. Once again, he pushes all traitorous, deviant thoughts to the back of his head and concentrates instead on the various punchable qualities of Castiel’s face. 

He is starting to get a little overheated by the time the Impala trundles back across the parking lot towards him. Ever magnanimous, however, he decides not to mention it, as Castiel lets him out of the Continental and pops the trunk. 

His trunk setup is similar to Dean’s, involving a false bottom and some compartments, but whereas Dean is more apt to throw shovels, shotguns and knives in at random, Castiel has… “God, you’re so anal,” Dean sighs. Only a sharp look from Castiel makes Dean realize the double meaning of his words. “I meant because of this.” He nods towards Castiel’s trunk. If he got out a ruler and measured, Dean’s sure that he would only find quarter-inch differences between the neat rows of guns and knives. “Not because of…” 

His mocking turns to silence as Castiel starts transferring weapons to the Impala’s trunk. “What the hell are you doing?” Dean manages to get out, but only after Castiel’s performed a quick reorganization of the Impala's weapons stash to accommodate his own.

“Moving my weapons into your trunk.” Two shotguns and a silver knife find their way into Baby.

“Yeah, I can see that. I guess what I’m asking is why."  

A thin smile splits Castiel’s face as he straightens. “Given that you’ve had a problem with doing what you say you’re going to do, I’ve chosen to stay with you and supervise you. And since you refuse to leave without your monument to masculine inferiority, I have to leave my car behind. Hence, the moving of the weapons.”   

Dean understands Castiel’s rationale: leaving weapons in an abandoned car is a recipe for disaster. On the off-chance that someone gets curious and looks inside the trunk, they’ll find what looks like the armory of a serial killer, which will raise all sorts of red flags. However, just because Dean understands it, doesn’t mean he has to like it. He makes up for his discontent by turning to his new favorite pastime: annoying Castiel. “You know the first time I throw on the brakes, all that shit is going to go everywhere, right?” 

Castiel pauses. “You’re not driving,” he says simply, before he returns to adjusting the weapons in the Impala. 

Dean blinks, sure that he’s misheard. Then, when Castiel doesn’t say anything else to clarify, he says, “I’m sorry, there was a, I heard a thing, ‘cause it sounded like you said that I wasn’t going to drive the Impala.” 

Castiel slams Baby's trunk, hard enough to send a tiny frisson of anger through Dean. No one mistreats his car and gets away with it. “You’re not driving.” 

It’s not necessarily the revelation that Castiel doesn’t intend to allow Dean to drive his own car that really sends him over the deep end. It’s the matter-of-fact tone, the way Castiel doesn’t even seem to anticipate an argument, that really raises Dean’s blood pressure. 

“Maybe you hit your head or something, but I’m driving my car.” 

Castiel looks evenly at him. “I'd like to see you try."

Dean sputters. He’s so caught up in his offense that he doesn’t clock when Castiel unlocks one of his cuffs. He does notice when Castiel opens the passenger door and clips the cuff to the handle. 

“Just to avoid wanderlust,” Castiel explains. When Dean doesn’t get into the car, Castiel tilts his head. “You don’t have to sit down, but it’s going to be pretty hard for you to run alongside the car once we really get going.” 

Dean gets into the car at the same time Castiel does, which means he gets a front row seat to Castiel sliding behind Baby’s wheel like he belongs there. Dean wants to reach out and slap him. In fact, he curls his hand into a fist before he reconsiders. The car is now moving, which means that Cas has the potential to wreck it. So Dean sits and seethes and plots his revenge. 

Fifteen minutes down the road, Castiel’s phone rings. Dean watches as he shifts to the side (why is he watching?) and pulls his phone out of his back pocket. “Yeah?” Castiel says, then his voice softens. “Hey, Ash. You already had a chance to— well, yeah, Ellen has that effect on people. Did you get any hits?” 

Silence follows. Castiel nods and hums. At one point, he shoots a sideways glance at Dean. “So other than that first name, the three you found were Andy Gallagher, Max Miller and Scott Carey. Really? Only those names?” 

Dean grits his teeth. The urge to ask what Castiel is talking about is almost overpowering. He wants to know what the hell those three names have to do with anything, and he wants to know why Castiel cut his eyes to him. He wants to know all of these things, but he’ll be damned if he asks Castiel. 

“All right. Well, keep me posted. Listen, I’m going to be at the Roadhouse in a few days and I’m bringing some friends. Yeah, well, you have fun telling Ellen that.” A small, almost fond smile passes over Castiel’s face. “I’ll see you in a few days. Bye.” 

Castiel hangs up and drops the phone in his lap. Dean lets almost thirty seconds pass before he starts in on him. “Who was that? Girlfriend?” He drops his voice to the low, insinuating tone that’s guaranteed to get his face punched in a bar. “Boyfriend?” 

Much to his disappointment, Castiel doesn’t react. In fact, the look in his eyes is almost… pitying. Dean shifts uncomfortably towards the door. 

Fuck this asshole. 

“So when are you going to let me go, turnkey?” Dean jangles his arm against the door to rattle his cuffs. “In case it hadn’t hit your attention, my dad is out there, maybe hurt, definitely needs help. So why the fuck are you taking me away from where I’m needed?” 

A muscle twitches at the corner of Castiel’s jaw. “Why are you so sure that’s where you’re needed? Your brother needs you too.” 

Dean scoffs. “Yeah, that excuse wore thin about four years ago. Sammy walked out of the house, and he hasn’t…” He snaps his jaw shut on the torrent of hurt and betrayal that was about to come pouring out. Castiel doesn’t get to know that. Castiel doesn’t get to know about Dad screaming at him and blaming him, Castiel doesn’t get to know about the dozens of unreturned phone calls until Dean finally got the hint and stopped trying to call his brother. 

“Sammy’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t need me,” Dean finishes. 

“You left, abandoning your brother and his girlfriend when they were under threat from demons. We have a lead on the demons, by the way, just in case you care.” Castiel’s hands tighten on the steering wheel and Dean can only imagine that he’s picturing having someone’s neck in his grasp. “We had a plan, and you left.” 

“You handled it fine, I'm sure. Or do you need me to hold your hand through every hunt, just in case you get scared?” 

That muscle in Cas’ jaw is ticking like a metronome. “Yeah, we handled it," he says, and speaks over Dean’s "Well then why the fuck are you coming after me" to say, “But you left when other people were counting on you. There was a plan, and you went against it.” 

“That’s what you’re pissed about? That I went against your plan? Well, suck it up, dickless, because that’s what happens in hunting. You have a plan, and then the plan changes. And if you can’t handle that, then maybe you need to get out of the game and do another job.” Dean rakes his eyes over Castiel’s form and does it slowly enough that Castiel is sure to feel every inch of his skin crawling. “Maybe tax accountant.” 

There’s a single beat of silence, and then another. And then Dean is slammed against the passenger door as Castiel jerks the steering wheel to the right. Dean throws every curse at Castiel as he scrambles back upright. Gravel crunches underneath the Impala’s tires, and the frame squeaks as Castiel pulls her off the road. Dean’s heart clenches in fear for Baby’s suspension, but even that is swept away in the burst of rage brought on by Castiel’s callous treatment. 

“What the fuck—” 

Castiel hits the brakes. Dean throws his hand up to stop himself from slamming into the dash. The cuff bites into his wrist; no way in hell he’s getting out of here without several suspicious bruises. He whirls on Castiel. At this point, he’s practically spitting with rage, but Castiel speaks over him. 

He never raises his voice, and that’s perhaps the thing that catches Dean’s attention the most. John Winchester is a shouter, and Dean’s immune to the way that screaming batters at his defenses. But Castiel doesn’t shout. His voice goes low and deadly. A tendril of ice creeps down Dean’s spine. 

“Listen, boy,” Castiel sneers. “Going off the plan is reckless. It’s dangerous. It gets people killed.” 

“Well, you look fine, and I’m willing to bet that all seven feet of Sam is fine as well, so unless you’re pissed because I ruined your timing, you can shut the hell up. I did what needed to be done, and it’s about time that you figured that—” 

“It gets people killed!” Castiel shouts. His fist strikes against the steering wheel. Dean can forgive the insult to his Baby only because Castiel’s face is so severe. 

“If you’re going to get into this game, then you need to realize that you’re going to get a few bumps and bruises. My dad raised me to act—” 

“John Winchester got my father killed!” 

The words explode in the interior of the Impala and there they hang. Dean doesn’t look at them, but neither can he look at Castiel, whose face is cracked open in devastation. It’s a pain that’s all too familiar to Dean, and so he looks away. 

“I don’t— You’re wrong,” Dean says, but the words sound weak even to him. Castiel’s face might as well be carved out of marble for all the expressions he’s showing. “What… what do you mean?” The words taste bitter on his tongue. 

“About ten years ago, John Winchester went on a hunt with a hunter named Bill Harvelle. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what happened. But what I do know is that John Winchester walked out of that hunt and Bill Harvelle didn’t, and it’s partly because John didn’t follow the plan they had set up.” 

Castiel swallows. It looks like it takes a lot of effort. “So when I tell you to follow the plan, it’s not because I’m anal, or I’m a tightass, or whatever other elementary insults you can come up with. It’s because not following the plan gets people killed. Don’t ever talk to me about the need to act. I know about the need to act. But if you ever do something selfish that threatens the lives of the people around you, swear to God, I’ll put you down myself.” 

Castiel’s breath is loud and harsh. The sound fills the Impala's interior until Dean feels like he’s suffocating. He instinctively rejects what Castiel said, yet it feels like an inescapable truth. His stomach roils, and for one horrifying moment, Dean thinks he’s going to be sick. 

Neither he nor Castiel speak as Castiel guides Baby back onto the highway.

Chapter Text

Every time Dean chances a glance at the driver’s seat, Castiel is staring at the road ahead like he’s planning to light it on fire.

It’s been twenty minutes since their fight, and Dean kind of wants to make some joke, just to break the deafening silence. The thing is, he’s still feeling shaken up himself. He’s not even sure why. For all he knows, Castiel is making shit up, or was fed some story that isn’t even remotely true. 

Except it feels true, especially the part about how Dad went off plan on that hunt with Bill Harvelle.

Dean remembers one time, when he was seventeen and Dad took him along to gank a pack of ghouls that had gotten a taste for living flesh. They tracked the ghouls to an abandoned warehouse, and Dad said he’d go in through the front. Dean was supposed to walk around the outside to the rear door and come at the ghouls that way. They’d meet somewhere in the middle.

But as soon as he got to the back of the building, five ghouls started closing in on him from all different directions. They came out of nowhere, and within seconds, Dean was surrounded. He hadn’t hit his last growth spurt yet, and all he had was one machete. He didn’t stand a chance. 

The first ghoul went down pretty easy, but Dean didn’t have time to get back into a good fighting stance before the second one attacked. He got knocked off his feet, and he couldn’t catch his breath. With the rest of the ghouls advancing on him, he figured he was about to get torn apart. But that was when Dad swept in from somewhere out of sight, cutting through those ghouls like it was nothing, taking them all down in less than a minute.

When all the ghouls lay dead, Dean got up and dusted himself off. “What happened?” he asked. “Thought we were supposed to meet inside.”

Dad shrugged, wiping the machete on the edge of his shirt as he started to make his way back to the gravel lot in front of the building. “The plan changed.”

The plan changed.  

Dean leans his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger window, staring out at the arid, mountainous landscape flashing by outside. In passing, he catches sight of a highway marker. It reads Route 6 East.

Dean’s distracted brain takes another moment to catch up to the significance of that information, but when it does, he straightens up. “Wait, wait, hang on. You’re going east. Stanford’s west of Jericho.”

Castiel’s eyes flick to Dean, studying him coolly for a beat or two, like he’s considering the pros and cons of keeping up the silent treatment. Finally, he says, “Wow. I thought we’d make it all the way to Nevada before you noticed.”

Dean spins around to face Castiel fully, then flinches when the cuff bites into his wrist. Castiel smirks.

“Nevada? Why the fuck’re we going to Nevada?”

“To meet up with Jess and your brother,” Castiel says flatly.

Dean shouldn’t take the bait. He really shouldn’t.

He takes the bait.

“Okay? Why’re Sam and Jess going to Nevada? I might not be a college boy, but I know the school year goes past November.”

Castiel takes a deep, long-suffering breath, like Dean’s company being inflicted on him is the worst tragedy in the history of the universe. “Remember that thing I mentioned? Where we have an actual lead on the demon case?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, cautiously. He doesn’t like where this is going one bit.

“Well, turns out, demons are definitely after your brother, and his girlfriend by extension, so it’s not safe for them in Stanford. They’re suspending their college enrollment and leaving town. I’m not sure where they’re going to stay, but for now, I’m putting them up at a safe place I know.”

And just like that, any residual regret and sympathy Dean might’ve felt for Castiel evaporates. Sure, Dean was hurt and angry when Sam ran out on their family. But the fact is, Sam built a life for himself, and within days of Castiel showing up in Stanford, it’s apparently gone to pieces. “Alright,” he snarls, “If you fed Sam some bullshit line that made him throw away what he had going over there—”

“You know what?” Castiel cuts him off, blue eyes cold as ice and twice as sharp. “This talking thing was a mistake. Let’s not do it anymore.”

Silence falls again. This time, it lasts. About half an hour later, Castiel pulls into the parking lot of a motel, the first one past the Nevada state line. It looks exactly like you’d expect: A half-broken neon sign proclaiming it the “H-me Aw-y Mo-el,” a single-story building that hasn’t seen a coat of paint in forty years, and sun-cracked asphalt in the parking lot.

“Stay here,” Castiel snaps as he slides out of the driver’s seat. “I’m getting us a room.”

Dean generously chooses not to point out that he couldn’t go anywhere if he tried, seeing as he’s cuffed and all. Instead, he paints on his most obnoxious smirk. “You didn’t even buy me dinner first. Is the romance dead already?”

Castiel bends back down into Baby’s interior to glare at him. “The day I use the words ‘romance’ and ‘Dean Winchester’ in the same sentence, you have my permission to shoot me.”

Dean keeps his smirk in place until Baby’s door slams shut, then scowls at the dust-brown mountains that rise up beyond the parking lot. He shouldn’t let this asshole bother him. It’s not like he’s planning to stick around to make friends. In fact, he’s definitely ditching Castiel, the first chance he gets.

Castiel comes back a few minutes later, a key in hand and a miasma of cigarette smoke hovering around him. He yanks the passenger door open hard enough that Dean overbalances and almost lands face first on the asphalt. He just barely manages to catch himself against Baby’s door frame with his other hand.

Not willing to give Castiel the satisfaction of commenting on that dick move, Dean says instead, “Didn’t know you smoked.”

“I quit,” Castiel says curtly, as he jams the key into the cuffs and unlocks the one that’s looped around the passenger door handle. He keeps the one still circling Dean’s wrist firmly in place.

“What the hell?” Dean complains as Castiel pulls him up, shoulders the door closed and drags him along, across the parking lot to one of the rooms at the far end of the complex.

“Told you,” Castiel says, giving the cuffs one final yank that has Dean stumbling after him to the door of room 12. “You have a habit of sneaking off, and I don’t relish the idea of being left stranded in the middle of nowhere without a car.”

It takes a bit of jiggling of the room key in the lock and a sound kick from Castiel, but eventually, the door opens, revealing a motel room much like the thousands of others where Dean’s spent most of his life. A faint whiff of sweat lingers about the place, and even from where he’s standing by the door, Dean can see a thin layer of dust covering the battered furniture.

“I don’t know, man,” Dean says, mock thoughtful. “This ain’t the life of luxury I’m accustomed to.”

He could almost swear Castiel’s lips try to twitch, but he schools his expression quickly and pulls Dean over to the nearest of the two twin beds. “Now, woah, wait a minute,” Dean says, talking over the sudden, confusing flare of panic and, goddamnit, interest at the feeling of Castiel’s strong, solid strength pushing him down onto the bed, one of his knees perched on the mattress and pressing into the side of Dean’s leg. Dean’s eyes are locked on Castiel’s face, which is much too close to his, close enough to smell the smoke that clings to his skin, to feel the soft tickle of his breath against Dean’s cheek—

Click.

The cuffs lock around the outermost rung of the wooden headboard.

Dean jiggles them, but they hold. Furious, he glares at Castiel, who’s still way closer than he needs to be, hovering above Dean with a smug grin on his face.

Castiel shrugs as he clambers off the bed. “I gave my word to Sam that I’d get you out of Jericho and back to him. So for now, you’re my responsibility. But once he gets here, I don’t give a fuck what you do or where you go. Speaking of Sam.” Castiel pulls a cheap flip phone out of his back pocket and slumps onto the other bed, keying in some numbers and putting the phone to his ear.

“Hello, Sam? I’ve got him. We’re at a motel. I’ll text you the address.”

Dean squirms upright on the bed as gracefully as he can with a wrist shackled to the frame, holding out his free hand for the phone. “Give me that. I wanna talk to him.”

Castiel doesn’t so much as glance at Dean. Instead, he keeps talking to Sam as though Dean’s nothing more than a bit of weirdly chatty air. “Listen, I know we said you guys could ditch Jess’ car after you got here, but I need you to ditch it in Jericho instead.” Dean tugs and strains at the cuff around his wrist, trying to get to Castiel and grab his phone, but Castiel just shimmies slightly to the right, putting himself neatly out of Dean’s reach. With a huff of frustration, Dean slumps back onto the bed. “My Continental’s parked in the lot behind the sheriff’s station. I’m guessing either you or Jess can figure out how to hotwire it?” Castiel pauses, listening. “Good. And make sure you leave as soon as you can. The longer it takes you to get out of Stanford, the better the chances that another demon picks up your trail. Taking Brady’s demon out of the equation gave us an advantage, so let’s not waste it.”

Dean pricks up his ears, trying to hear Sam’s response, but he doesn’t catch more than an indistinct mumble before Castiel hangs up the phone and turns to him. “If everything goes as planned, they’ll get here just after dark.”

Dean acknowledges the information with a resentful nod. “You gonna let me at least pee in the meantime?”

Castiel tilts his head as he considers the question. “Perhaps. Are you going to try anything?”

Dean bites back the ten smartass responses sitting on his tongue and shakes his head, resenting what feels like a defeat, but wanting out of the cuffs. And who knows, maybe he can figure a way out of here, then get in touch with Sam later somehow.

“I just want to emphasize,” Castiel says as he approaches with the keys, “that Sam and Jess are about to go off the grid. They’ll ditch their phones, Jess’ car, anything that would make them too easy to track. So if you leave now, you’ll have a very hard time finding your brother again.”

“Guess you don’t know me that well,” Dean snaps as the cuff falls open. He rubs at his sore wrist, silently acknowledging that, yeah, he’s damn good at finding people, but unless his brother’s forgotten everything Dad taught them, he’s also damn good at covering his tracks.

Castiel squints down at him, unimpressed. “If you force me to regret my decision, I’ll make you hold it next time.”

Dean chooses not to dignify that with an answer.

Instead, he takes his sweet time in the bathroom, and when he comes out, he pointedly steers clear of the bed and sits on one of the rickety chairs by the window instead. It creaks ominously, but it holds his weight.

Castiel looks up at him from where he’s sprawled on top of the other bed, reading a book. It’s True Grit by Charles Portis, which, yeah, Dean might’ve picked up a copy of one time. It was good enough that he still has it tucked away someplace in Baby’s trunk. After a beat or two of studying Dean, Castiel opens the drawer of his nightstand and pulls out a gun. He leaves it on top of the stand, in plain sight, then returns his attention to the book without another word. The cuffs still dangle off the headboard of Dean’s bed, useless for now, but not forgotten.

Dean kind of wishes he’d thought through his next step. As it is, he’s stuck sitting in silence, waiting for Castiel to say or do something. In the end, Dean’s the one who breaks first — after nine minutes, according to the old wall clock above the bathroom door.

“I’m hungry. Am I allowed to go out for food?”

Castiel raises an eyebrow at him. “Don’t ask stupid questions. I’ll text Sam and Jess and ask them to pick something up.” He marks his place in the book with a scrap of paper and bends down to rummage in a duffel bag that’s sitting by the side of his bed. 

“Here.” Castiel tosses a skinny, oblong foil packet at Dean, who catches it in midair. “Have a protein bar if you’re that hungry.”

Dean puts the thing down on the table, shuddering. “Thanks. I’d rather starve.”

“Fine by me,” Castiel says, and goes back to reading.

*** 

It takes Sam and Jess long enough to arrive that Dean seriously considers the protein bar a couple of times.

When a knock finally sounds at the door, it’s already two hours past sundown. Castiel picks up the gun off the bedside table and looks through the peephole. “Who is it?”

Jess’ voice sounds from outside, barely muffled by the flimsy wood of the door. “It’s us. Jess and Sam.”

Castiel tucks the gun away in the waistband of his jeans, but pulls a small flask out of one of the pockets. “Don’t come any closer,” he warns, as soon as he’s got the door open, and pours a bit of the flask’s contents onto the back of his hand. When there’s no reaction, he passes the flask outside.

Apparently satisfied, Castiel steps back, and Sam and Jess walk in. They both look tired, but there’s not a scratch on them that Dean can see. Sam’s carrying a couple of plastic bags that smell like Chinese food.

“Hey, Sammy,” Dean says quietly, not exactly sure where they stand with each other at the moment. “Jess.”

Jess gives him a curt nod, and all he gets from Sam is a flat “Dean.” Okay. Not a happy family reunion then.

As soon as they’ve all sat down at the table, Castiel starts interrogating Sam and Jess. Did they see anyone acting weird, or watching them, before they left town? Are they sure they weren’t followed?

Dean stays out of the conversation, choosing instead to dig into a box of mediocre fried rice like the starving man he kind of is at this point. He figures his turn to be interrogated is coming anyway.

Sure enough, once Castiel’s done asking questions, Sam turns to Dean. “What the hell were you thinking, running off like that? We could’ve used your help.”

Dean shrugs. “Didn’t seem like it,” he says, around a bite of rice. “Looked to me like you guys had it covered.”   

“Even if we did,” Jess says, poking angrily at a plastic bowl of lo mein with a pair of chopsticks. “You shouldn’t have taken off. Sam and I were kind of busy getting our whole lives turned upside down. Not a great time to have to save your ass from lockup.”

“Yeah, I got that message pretty loud and clear. My own brother couldn’t be bothered to come when I asked him for help,” Dean snarls, eyes locked on Sam, searching his face for even the smallest bit of denial or, hell, regret. “Haven’t asked him for a damn thing in years, and the one time I do ask, he’s got better things to do. So he sends some stranger we met, what, three days ago?”

“Believe me, it wasn’t my idea of a good time either,” Castiel says, pulling a spring roll out of a grease-soaked bag.

“I don’t get it, you know?” Dean says, trying to breathe around a sudden tightness in his chest. “Why bother at all? If I’m such a burden, why not let me rot? Seemed like you were pretty damn comfortable letting Dad fend for himself, so why not me?”

Sam’s chopsticks hit the table with a startling clunk. “Yeah, sure, let’s talk about Dad. ‘Cause Castiel and Jess and I, we interrogated a demon who was possessing one of my best friends, and you know what it told us? It told us it’s taking orders from the thing that killed Mom.”

All the air rushes out of Dean’s lungs as Sam leans toward him, eyes blazing with anger. “So where the hell was Dad, huh? He’s supposed to be hunting the thing, and when there’s finally a solid lead, he’s off somewhere on a ghost hunt. So you know what? Castiel had our back, and I was hoping you would too, but you decided you’d rather go running off after Dad.” Sam’s voice is sandpaper-rough, shaking with barely suppressed anger. “So… I’m guessing you didn’t find him, huh?”

Dean shakes his head on reflex, but he’s still stuck on something Sam said earlier. “What do you mean?” he croaks. “The thing that killed Mom? Who… what is it?”

Castiel sets down his half-eaten spring roll, leaning back in his chair. His feet nudge Dean’s under the table, and Dean flinches away. “It’s a demon, sort of,” Castiel says. “His name is Azazel, and he’s part of the first generation of demons ever created. There’s only four of them, and they’re known as the Princes of Hell. They’re stronger than your average demon, and their eyes are yellow instead of black.”

Castiel doesn’t really sound like he’s talking down to Dean, but Dean chooses to take it that way. There’s a hot current of anger pulsing under his skin, along with the lost, hollow feeling he associates with realizing he can’t count on his own brother to have his back. The anger is much easier to deal with, and Castiel is the least complicated target for it. “How do you know about this shit?” he snaps. “I’ve been hunting since I was a kid, and I never once heard the name Azazel, or anything about any Princes of Hell.”

“I’ve made it my business to know about Azazel,” Castiel says coolly, turning back to his food.

“Point being,” Jess says, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glance at Sam. “Azazel sent a demon to kill me and keep an eye on Sam because he’s got some kind of plan that—” At that, Sam’s eyes slide to Jess, and there seems to be a warning in his expression. Dean files that information away for later.

“That we’re trying to find out more about,” she finishes, but it doesn’t seem like that’s what she was going to say. There’s something challenging in the way she’s looking back at Sam. In his periphery, Dean clocks Castiel grimacing. Something’s clearly going on here, and Dean doesn’t like that he can’t put his finger on what it is.

Before he can ask, Castiel picks up the thread of the conversation. “Anyway, you see now why Sam and Jess couldn’t stay in Stanford. I’m taking them with me to a safe house in Nebraska while we figure out next steps. My friend Ash is there too, and he’s gathered some information that might be helpful in learning more about Azazel’s plan.”

Dean could swear Sam looks nervous at that. More than ever, he’s convinced that he’s out of the loop on something. So he does what he always does when he feels off balance: he doubles down on anger. “Yeah, you know what? I’m not about to give up looking for Dad.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Sam groans, running both hands down his face.

“No, listen,” Dean says, stabbing the table with his finger for emphasis. “I might not’ve found him, but I found his journal. He left me coordinates on one of the pages. Odds are, he wants to meet. If you guys really have a lead on Mom’s killer, and that’s a big if, doesn’t Dad at least deserve to know about it? Don’t we owe it to him to at least find him and let him know what’s going on?”

Predictably, Castiel flares up. “I am not going after John fucking Win—”

“Dean’s right.” Jess’ quiet voice cuts through Castiel’s agitation, surprising him into silence. “Look, John is connected to this case just as much as we are. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Let’s at least take a look at the coordinates and figure out how far they’d take us out of our way.”

Sam glares at her. “Jess, you can’t be serious.”

“Serious as a heart attack,” she says flatly. “Where’s the journal, Dean?”

***

They argue back and forth another few minutes, but eventually, Castiel goes to retrieve the journal from the trunk, and Sam buries himself in a stack of maps to try to pinpoint the coordinates. It doesn’t take him long to find the place: Blackwater Ridge, Colorado.

“That’s the middle of nowhere,” Jess says, frowning. “I know people who go camping at Blackwater Ridge. It’s wilderness.”

“Makes sense,” Dean says. “If Dad’s trying to stay off the radar, he wouldn’t want to meet anyplace where we’d run into other people. Or... remember his voicemail? He said something big was starting to happen. Maybe it's connected to Azazel, and maybe it's happening in Blackwater Ridge. We won't know until we check it out.”

“Okay.” Jess nods thoughtfully. “That makes sense to me. And Blackwater Ridge can’t be more than an hour or two out of our way, right, Cas?”

“Probably not,” Castiel admits, but he doesn’t sound pleased about it.

“Alright,” Jess says. “Dean, we’ll go with you to check out the coordinates, as long as you agree to come along to Nebraska after. You should stick around at least until we can figure out how this is all connected, and what we should be doing next.” She slants her eyes at Sam, who’s staring determinedly at the table. “I know Sam wants you to, even if he’s too proud to say so.”

It’s not like Dean has anywhere else to go, but he’s got his pride too, so he pretends to consider it for a moment before he says, “Fine.”

Jess faces Sam and Castiel in turn. “You two good with it too?”

Castiel blows out a heavy breath through his nose, but nods. Sam gives Dean an unreadable look, but eventually, he nods too.

Dean goes to the front office to get his own room after that. He falls asleep reading Dad’s journal, his sleep disrupted by dreams of his mother, screaming his name as she burns on the ceiling.

devils trap divider

The drive from Nevada to Colorado is much more pleasant than the one from Jericho. Dean insisted on riding by himself in the Impala, so Castiel, Sam and Jess pile into the Continental together. There are long stretches of awkward silence, disrupted only by bursts of stilted conversation, but at least Castiel never once feels the urge to wrap his fingers around someone’s throat and start squeezing.

All told, the drive takes about thirteen hours, so even though they hit the road just after sunrise, it’s almost dark again by the time they get to Dusty Springs, Colorado. The town is quiet and picturesque, nestled at the foot of the mountain range that forms the gateway to Blackwater Ridge National Park.

They book rooms at the first motel they find. Dean refuses to share with anyone, which suits Castiel just fine. 

The next morning, Castiel wakes shortly after eight a.m. and decides to stop by the town’s library. He’s still not entirely reconciled to the idea of hiking into an unfamiliar wilderness based on instructions from John Winchester. But it seems more or less inevitable at this point, so the least he can do is research what he’s heading into.

Apparently, he’s not the only one with that idea, because when he walks into the library, there’s Dean, sprawled all over a chair in front of a computer terminal and grinning flirtatiously at a petite young woman with a blonde pixie haircut.

Castiel seriously considers walking right back out of the library when the woman notices him and looks up. “Oh, hello. Friend of yours, Dean?”

Dean’s lips pull down in a grimace. “Wouldn’t go that far.”

“That’s a shame,” the woman says, eyes raking up and down Castiel’s body in a distinctly intrusive way. “I like him.”

Dean squints up at her. “Yeah? That makes one of us.”

“Well,” the woman says, smirking at each of them in turn. “Never let it be said that I can’t read a room.” She half-turns to walk away, but calls over her shoulder, “If you two lovely boys need anything, holler. Name’s Meg.”

Castiel watches as Meg disappears into the dim light of the stacks. She doesn’t return — not even when the library starts to fill with more patrons, including Sam, who walks in about twenty minutes after Castiel, and Jess, who makes an appearance another fifteen minutes later. Whatever disagreements the four of them have otherwise, they at least seem to share some of the same instincts.

Before any of the others arrived, Dean managed to establish a pattern of disappearances at Blackwater Falls, going back centuries and occurring exactly every twenty-three years. He also found a report of several hikers being reported missing just a few days ago. Castiel is reluctantly impressed with how Dean put that information together so quickly, though he’d rather chew off his own tongue than say so.

Sam takes a seat at one of the computer terminals and starts looking into whether any witnesses to the disappearances might still be alive. Castiel and Jess work together on trying to correlate the disappearances with reports of cattle deaths, storms or any other demonic omens. Dean heads outside to make some phone calls to local hospitals and motels, looking for any evidence that John Winchester is in the area, or has at least been seen recently.

When he returns twenty minutes later, his jaw is clenched, and he refuses to meet anyone’s eye. Castiel is sorely tempted to say “I told you so,” but Jess shoots him a positively murderous look, so he lets it go for the time being.

After two more hours of research, Castiel is forced to conclude that no demon omens occurred in the Blackwater Falls area anywhere close to the time of the disappearances. He knuckles at his forehead, trying to stave off the beginnings of a headache. “This is a fucking waste of time. There’s obviously nothing here that relates to Azazel.”

Dean spins around in his chair and fixes Castiel with a glare. His hackles have been up ever since he came back from making those phone calls, and, judging by the tense set of his shoulders and the flash of anger in his eyes, he’s just been waiting for an excuse to start a fight. “First of all, you don’t know that. Second of all, what kind of hunter are you, huh? Demons or not, there’s obviously a case. We’re already here! Let’s figure this shit out!”

Dean doesn’t bother to keep his voice down, and they’re starting to attract some distinctly dirty looks from the other patrons. Castiel leans forward across the desk that separates his terminal from Dean’s, hissing, “I’m the kind of hunter who knows he can’t carry the weight of the world on his shoulders all by himself. I’m the kind of hunter who knows there’s others out there with the same skills. Like Annie? She called me last night. She and her partner put that Woman in White case to rest in less than a day. Think you could’ve done it that fast?”

Dean’s face reddens, and he looks incoherent with rage. “You have no idea what I—”

“For fuck’s sake, guys!” Sam cuts them off sharply. “I’m so tired of this shit. You’re about to get us kicked out of the library.”

Even Jess looks furious. “How about all of you cool it.” 

Reluctantly, Castiel leans back in his chair, forcing his tensed-up muscles to unclench. Sam and Dean back off as well, though Dean still looks mutinous.

Satisfied, Jess nods. “Sam, you got anything on witnesses?”

“Yeah,” Sam mumbles, not meeting Jess’ eye. “This guy, Robert Shaw. He was a kid back in 1959. Saw his whole family dragged off by something. Supposed to be a grizzly bear, but there are huge holes in that theory. He’s still alive, and he lives in the area.”

“Alright. Great. You two.” Jess points back and forth between Dean and Castiel. “Whatever’s going on with you, figure out a way to get the fuck over it and go interview the townsfolk together. See what they know about the disappearances.”

Castiel opens his mouth to argue, but she cuts him off. “Yeah, Cas, I know. There’s probably no leads related to Azazel here, but Dean’s right. It’s a case, and we’re here, so let’s work it.”

Recognizing a lost cause, Castiel bites his tongue and nods. “What about you and Sam?”

“We’ll go see this Shaw guy,” Jess says, staring at the side of Sam’s head. “Sam and I need to have a discussion about something anyway.”

Dean looks back and forth between them sharply. “Look, why can’t I go with Sam? We've got stuff to talk about too, and I don’t see why I have to babysit Captain Tightass here.”

“Don’t. Start,” Jess snaps, cutting off Castiel’s retort about Dean’s obsession with asses. Probably just as well. Getting into a fist fight in a public library wouldn’t have been one of his finer moments.

Sam waves a tired hand at the front door. “C’mon, guys. Just get out of here. See what you can find out.”

Dean pushes out of his chair and, with a last, furious glare over his shoulder, storms out of the library. Castiel follows reluctantly in his wake.

*** 

It’s near lunchtime on a Saturday, and the town’s Main Street is bustling with families and couples out for a stroll or running errands. This high up in the mountains in November, the air is brisk, but the bright sunlight of midday paints every house and shopfront in stunning shades of green, red and gold. Most people seem reasonably happy to be out.

Dean trudges along, kicking at pebbles on the sidewalk like a distempered toddler. With a supreme effort, Castiel forces himself to be the bigger man and break the silence. “So where do we start? Just stop people and try to talk to them? Or go into the shops and chat up the employees?”

Dean stops to gape at him, appalled. “Wow. You weren’t kidding about being bad at interviews, huh?”

Before Castiel can defend himself (not that he really has a good defense, because, annoyingly, Dean is right), Dean starts counting off on his fingers. “First of all, it’s almost never a good idea to approach people while they’re walking along. They’re trying to go somewhere, and they don’t wanna be stopped. They’ll just think you’re selling something and their walls’ll go right up.” He folds down a second finger. “And the shops? Maybe if this was the middle of the week. But it’s Saturday, man. They’ll be serving a bunch of customers, and they’re not gonna have time to chat with random strangers about the local monster lore.” He shakes his head emphatically. “Nah, what we want is people who’re in a place where they’re stuck for a while, and maybe a little bored.”

Castiel frowns. “Like a church?”

Dean grins, and Castiel barely suppresses a small lurch in his chest at how that simple expression transforms Dean’s face, turning it sunny and charming. “Nope. Follow me.”

Dean walks with purpose now, down a few more streets until they reach the edge of town. He stops suddenly at the corner of the last block, where the houses give way to forest, and Castiel almost runs into him. “Bingo.”

Castiel peers around Dean’s shoulder at a small park, where approximately a dozen children are frolicking on a large play structure painted in faded primary colors. “It’s… a playground.”

Dean nods, smugly satisfied. “Yeah it is. Perfect place for interviews.”

With that, Dean crosses the street and approaches the park with determined strides, Castiel at his heels. “Dean, we’re two grown men who, in case you hadn’t noticed, aren’t currently in possession of any children,” Castiel hisses. “You’re going to get arrested. Again.”

Dean looks supremely unconcerned. “Relax. We’ll be fine. Just hang back and watch the master at work.”

“Sure.” Castiel infuses his reply with as much sarcasm as he can muster, which is a considerable amount. “A thirty-year-old man hanging out at a playground, just watching the kids playing. Nothing creepy about that at all.”

Dean pays him no mind and instead starts scanning the park benches that line the play structure on three sides. Most of the parents have formed little groups, but there are a few who are sitting by themselves. Dean zeroes in on a woman in her late twenties, slim and brunette, who is watching the play structure with a vacant look. “Perfect,” Dean mutters, and saunters over.

When Dean reaches the park bench, he hitches on a lopsided, flirtatious grin. “Hey,” he says, coming to a stop next to the bench. Castiel notices that even though there is plenty of space on the bench for Dean to sit, he remains standing. “Nice day today, ain’t it?”

“Nice enough, I guess,” the woman says vaguely, her eyes slowly sliding away from the playground to where Dean is standing. When she catches sight of him, her expression brightens considerably. “Which one’s yours?” she asks, returning Dean’s smile as she jerks her chin at the children.

“None, actually,” Dean says. “But I look after my niece sometimes, and she’s coming to visit in a couple of days. Me and my friend—” He points back at Castiel, who manages a barely-there smile and nod. Not that he gets more than a second’s glance before the woman’s attention is back on Dean. “We’re checking out some places to take her while she’s here.”

“Oh, that’s so nice of you!” The woman is positively beaming at Dean now, and Castiel is reluctantly impressed with Dean’s witchcraft-like ability to put her at ease.

Dean ducks his head in a surprisingly convincing display of embarrassment. Castiel could swear he even blushes a little. “Aw, well, it’s just what you do for family, right?”

The woman nods, but then her smile falls. “Oh god, I’m being so rude. Go ahead and sit down. There’s plenty of room.”

“Thanks,” Dean and Castiel say in unison, taking a seat next to each other. Dean leaves plenty of space between himself and the woman, forcing Castiel to perch on a single ass cheek at the very edge of the bench. “I’m Dean,” he says, “and this devastatingly handsome guy over here is Walter.”

Castiel feels a distinct urge to wring Dean’s neck — devastatingly handsome? Walter? — but the woman chuckles. “I’m Beverly, but Bev’s fine. And that, over there, is my daughter, Agnes.”

She points to a girl with shoulder-length, dark-blonde hair, who’s currently shimmying down a fireman’s pole.

“She looks about the same age as my niece,” Dean says consideringly. “I bet they’d love to play together.”

“Oh, sure.” Bev looks far too happy at that idea, if anyone were to ask Castiel. Which, of course, nobody will. “Hey, Agnes?” Bev calls. The girl looks up with a grin and waves at her mother. “Come over here a sec!”

The girl trundles closer, looking curiously at the two strangers on the bench. “What’s up, Mom?”

“This is Dean and Walter, hon,” Bev says. “Dean’s got a niece about your age, and he wants you to look out for her when he takes her to the playground. Can you do that?”

“Yeah, sure,” Agnes says, studying Dean and Castiel with no hint of shyness whatsoever. “What’s her name?”

“Mary,” Dean says, without hesitation. “She’s really looking forward to her visit because she loves monsters and she heard there might be one in the woods here.”

“Yeah,” Agnes nods, lighting up. “It’s super tall and pale, and it’s got these long, skinny arms and it eats people!”

“Agnes,” Bev admonishes, looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry. You guys probably know we’ve got a bit of a local monster legend here, and Agnes has a very active imagination.”

“No, really, it’s true!” Agnes says, looking distinctly annoyed at having her story doubted. “Everett drew me a picture of the monster just the other day. He said his grandpa saw it for real in the woods one time, and he’s always talking about it.” She turns to Dean and lowers her voice, conspiratorial, “I’m in love with Everett. That’s why we give each other pictures and stuff.”

Dean nods solemnly. “Makes sense. Just make sure he treats you right.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Castiel watches as Bev practically melts into the bench at the exchange. He refuses to feel anything other than professional curiosity.

“Hey,” Dean says, like something just occurred to him. “Do you still have that picture? I’d love to see it.”

Agnes scrunches up her face, thoughtful. “Not with me, but Everett’s just over there, and I think he brought his crayons. Should I see if we can get him to draw another one?”

“That’d be great,” Dean says, smiling brightly at the little girl, who beams back at him. “D’you think maybe he’d give it to me so I can give it to my niece?”

“Oh yeah, definitely,” Agnes declares with complete certainty. “I can make him do just about anything. C’mon!”

She takes Dean’s hand and pulls him up off the bench, dragging him along to the play structure. Castiel watches in complete fascination as several other kids sidle up. Less than two minutes later, Dean is perching on a bench next to a picnic table, surrounded by half a dozen children, all of whom seem to be in possession of paper and crayons. One of the children passes Dean a crayon and some paper in obvious invitation, and he accepts both with a grin.

“He’s great with children, isn’t he?”

The sound of Bev’s voice startles Castiel out of his distressingly fond contemplation of Dean, and it takes him a moment to focus on her. “Uh… yes. Yes, he does seem to be.”

Bev leans closer to Castiel, but keeps her eyes on Dean. “Do you know if he’s seeing anyone?”

The question shouldn’t throw Castiel the way it does. He suspects Dean isn’t, but he’s not sure, and what business is it of Bev’s anyway? “I, um— I really don’t…”

He trails off, and Bev’s eyes meet his. Sudden understanding dawns in her expression. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry. Are you guys… together?” She whispers the last word, like a dirty secret.

Castiel shakes his head, perhaps a little too emphatically. “Oh, no. No, no. No. No, definitely not. No, we’re not like that.”

Bev gives him a knowing look that Castiel doesn’t care for one bit. “Uh-huh. Well, I won’t get in the middle of whatever you guys have or don’t have going on.”

Castiel very much wants to stop having this conversation, so he excuses himself and strolls over to the park bench, where Dean is just getting up, a whole stack of drawings in his hands. “Thanks so much, guys. This was fun.”

A chorus of “Bye, Dean” and frantic waving follows Dean and Castiel as they leave the park. As soon as they’re out of sight, Dean leans against the side of the nearest building, leafing through the stack until he finds an impressively detailed rendering of a pale, vaguely humanoid figure with glowing red eyes, pointy ears and long, skinny arms.

“Is that the famous Everett’s drawing?” Castiel asks.

Dean nods. “Yeah. It looks damn familiar too. I think I saw something like this in Dad’s journal.”

He folds up the drawing and puts it inside his jacket for safekeeping.

Castiel clears his throat. “Listen, that… that was pretty impressive, actually.”

Dean shrugs, but Castiel could swear he’s blushing again. “’s nothing,” he mumbles.

Castiel notices that another drawing is now on top of the stack in Dean’s hand. It’s a fairly simple picture of a family of stick figures holding hands — a mother, a father and two children, standing in front of a house with a tree next to it. The smaller of the two children has brown hair that flops across his face, and Castiel is irresistibly reminded of Sam. “Is that one your art?” Castiel asks, grinning. “Looks like you shouldn’t quit your day job.”

It was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Dean’s expression shutters, shoulders hunching, as he shuffles the drawing out of sight. “Yeah, well. It’s none of your business.”

Dean pushes off the wall and stalks off, back down the sidewalk.

“Asshole,” Castiel mutters as he follows more slowly, trying not to notice the small twinge of regret in his chest.

  devils trap divider

Sam thought that once Dean and Castiel left, the tension would decrease. But it stays about the same, like he and Jess upped their production of tension just to fill the empty spaces. They spend about thirty minutes more at the library, where they both idly flip through books, waiting for the answer to jump out at them. 

“Jess,” Sam says a few minutes after Dean and Castiel leave. “Can we—” 

“It’s a library, Sam,” Jess says, not looking up from the book she’s perusing. “You’re supposed to be quiet.” 

After that, Sam shuts up, though not without ever-growing resentment bubbling underneath his skin. Yeah, he was keeping secrets, but it’s not like he was the only person in this relationship concealing their background. He would be more than justified if he met every one of Jess’ snide remarks with one of his own. 

But Sam doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything when Jess slams her book shut and sits back in her chair, glaring at the book like it’s personally offended her. He doesn’t say anything when she snarls, “Alright, this is pointless. Let’s go talk to what’s-his-name,” other than to politely supply, “Robert Shaw.” 

He doesn’t talk when they make their way to Cas’ Continental, kindly left for their use, other than to say, “We need to get our own car; I feel like an idiot kingpin driving this thing.” 

It’s a twenty-minute drive from the library to where Robert Shaw lives. Sam makes it seven minutes before his silence finally breaks. 

“Are we ever going to talk about where the two of us go from here?” 

Jess’ gaze remains fixed on the scenery through the windshield. “You want to have this conversation now?” 

“You were the one who said we needed to have a discussion, remember?"

“That's not what I meant.” It’s not often that Jess loses her temper, but it seems to be fraying now. Her voice is strained and almost snapping with ire. “I'm talking about your visions. You told Dean about them yet?” 

The question slaps Sam across the face. “Haven’t had time,” he answers coolly, which is a damn lie because there’s been plenty of time. 

“Yeah, look. I let you slide last night because it was all of us and I figured you didn’t want to go spilling your dirty laundry with Cas right there, but you do know that you’re going to have to tell him eventually right? Turns out people don’t much appreciate being lied to.” 

“I think the high ground is a little narrow for us both to stand on, so why don’t we agree to not even go there, okay?” Jess opens her mouth, but Sam’s had enough. “I’m not the only one who was lying, and I’m getting really sick of you conveniently forgetting that fact. Now, if you want to be pissed at me, that’s fine, that’s your right, but let’s stop pretending that I’m the only one who fucked up here!”

“If I had visions of you dying, I wouldn’t have kept it to myself! And don’t give me the shit about protecting me or trying to keep the supernatural from me. We are in a relationship, I love you, and when those two things are true, you tell the truth.” 

Sam swallows. His hands are sweaty against the steering wheel of the Continental. “Yeah, well,” he says, feeling like he’s somehow both in the wrong and completely justified. “You first.” 

***

The interview with Robert Shaw is among the more excruciating periods of time Sam has spent, and that’s saying something. He grew up with a teenaged Dean. 

Somehow, he and Jess manage to get through it without either killing each other or tipping off Shaw that anything is wrong. Their cover as journalists is perhaps a little flimsy, but Shaw is sufficiently desperate to talk that he doesn’t seem to care about cover stories

Shaw’s tale comes out in fits and starts, but it’s enough for Sam to know that what he saw definitely wasn't a bear, and enough for Jess to deduce that it might be a wendigo. When they meet up with Dean and Castiel (both still surprisingly alive, which Sam thought was doubtful when they left earlier in the morning), those two have managed to come to the same conclusion. 

“Well, if it’s a wendigo, that means we’ve got some hiking in our future,” Castiel says, looking more or less resigned to the prospect. Sam, on the other hand, is less than thrilled. While he enjoys a good nature excursion now and then, he also remembers Dean’s bitching about the frequent wilderness survival trips that Dad would take them on. He never did it within earshot of Dad, but it left the unmistakable knowledge that Dean is not wilderness’ number one fan. The thought of going on a hike with Dean, who will be miserable and therefore determined to make everyone else miserable, Castiel, who doesn’t bother to hide that he finds them all various shades of incompetent and irritating, and Jess, who can’t manage to look at him let alone talk to him, fills Sam with existential terror that he hasn’t felt since his freshmen midterms at Stanford. 

“Set your alarms for six.” Jess’ voice is carefully blank when she stands up. “If we’re going to make any headway into the forest and make it out again before dark, we’ll need to start early.” 

She stands up and walks out of Dean’s room, where they had been congregating. When they first arrived last night, Dean wanted his own space and so did Castiel, which left Sam and Jess. With the reasoning that it would be a waste of funds for them to get separate rooms, Jess pulled some cash from her bag and got them a room with two twin beds. Sam tried his best not to feel emasculated. 

God, he’s turned into one of those guys, and he hates that about himself. 

Castiel heads out soon after Jess, leaving just Sam and Dean in Dean’s room. Without the presence of a literal stranger and his girlfriend, this would be the perfect opportunity for Sam to come clean to his brother. 

Dean, I was having these weird dreams. They were about things that I hoped to god would never happen, but then a demon knew all about them and seemed to think that I was pretty damn important. Dean, I don’t know what the hell is happening, and I need… I need my big brother. 

“If we’re getting up that early, then I guess we need to go to bed,” Sam says. The smile he forces feels like his lips are splitting around razors, but Dean barely glances up at him. 

“Yeah, whatever. I guess try to keep it in your pants if we’ve got an early roll call tomorrow.” 

Despite the fact that it doesn’t surprise him, Dean’s dismissal still stings. Sam pushes away from the table, trying to swallow the bitter taste in his mouth. “Yeah. Whatever. See you tomorrow.” 

At his clipped tone, Dean blinks. “Hey, is everything all right? Are you and Jess—” 

“Yeah, I don't feel like talking about that.” There’s more that Sam could say, but he doesn’t know where he would start. “Anyway. Early day tomorrow.” 

Dean mumbles something unintelligible, but Sam doesn’t stick around to ask him to repeat it. He closes the door behind him and makes his way three doors down to the room he’s sharing with Jess. 

The lights are already off and the bed furthest from the door is occupied. The light from the parking lot catches Jess’ hair, turning it a brilliant gold, before Sam closes the door. Her back is to him, and Sam knows she’s not asleep, the same way that he knows he can’t talk to her. Between Dean and Jess, he’s suffocating under the weight of words unsaid, but he can’t tear his tongue away from the roof of his mouth, and so he says nothing. 

He takes the empty bed and tries to ignore how cold it is. 

***

Six a.m. comes earlier than Sam expected, and it’s a struggle to get out of bed. While Jess brushes her teeth, he makes a cup of crappy instant coffee and shoves his feet in boots. Jess pushes past him to get dressed, and Sam takes her place in the bathroom. He tries to catch her eyes as he goes, but her gaze slides past him as though he’s not there. 

It’s a subdued group that gathers in the parking lot. Jess’ jaw is set in a steel line, while Dean looks like a bear woken abruptly from hibernation. Castiel’s face is so blank that it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking, but Sam doubts they’re warm, fuzzy thoughts. 

They pile into the cars, Jess and Sam riding with Castiel while Dean drives the Impala by himself. Sam feels slightly guilty for leaving his brother alone, but he also isn't ready for Dean to start asking uncomfortable questions about what happened in Stanford. He'll tell Dean about the visions, just... not yet.

For his part, Dean doesn’t seem to mind, as he pulls out of the parking lot with a loud roar, Metallica blasting from the Impala’s speakers.

Once they get to the parking lot at the edge of the forest, Castiel starts digging in his trunk and produces a backpack filled with water purification tablets, a first aid kit, a compass, about a dozen lighters as well as various flavors of protein bars. Dean, on the other hand, pulls out a duffel bag full of weapons and a bag of M&Ms. 

“Those are your provisions?” Castiel asks, sounding genuinely appalled.

Dean pops a blue M&M in his mouth, making sure to chew loudly and obnoxiously. A smear of chocolate decorates his tongue. Sam makes a note to check his birth certificate for any hints of forgeries. This can’t actually be his blood relative. 

“Well, I don’t have hiking poles or whatever else you packed.” 

“You’re going hiking in the woods with nothing more than a few shotguns and a bag of candy.” Castiel’s voice is flat. 

Dean looks over at Castiel, eyes lingering on where Castiel is now attempting to shove an entire aerosol can into one of the pockets of his cargo shorts. “Well, I don’t do shorts, sweetheart.” 

Dean sets off on the hiking trail, whistling cheerily. Castiel glares after him, and for a moment, Sam is convinced that he’s going to see his brother murdered in front of his eyes. More so when Dean calls back, “Hurry up! Otherwise you’re not gonna get a chance to go through the whole scientific method before we gank this thing!” 

***

Four hours later, they’re about two and a half miles deep into the forest and have yet to find signs of wendigo activity. Sam keeps his eyes peeled for anything suspicious: scratching on trees, uprooted shrubs, disturbances in the earth that show where the hikers might have been taken, but he finds nothing. Frustration and worry dog his steps. He's getting tired, and he can tell that the others are too, even if no one's admitting it just yet. If they keep going much longer, they'll be too exhausted to be much good in a fight.

Just as he's getting ready to suggest that they should head back and try again later, there's a break in the trees. They make for it and find themselves right at the edge of a clearing that was obviously used as a campsite. The tattered remains of a tent are still there, and Sam swallows when he sees the jagged claw marks through it. All through the clearing, clothes and supplies are scattered, and here, Sam finally sees the signs of a struggle: deep footprints dug into the mud, trees knocked off, and spatters of blood over the tents and ground. 

“Any way to see where they went from here?” Castiel asks, peering around at the devastation. "Maybe we can track the wendigo back to its lair."

"That's a good idea, but we should keep an eye on the time. I don't want us to get stuck here after dark and—” Jess' words are cut off by a vicious, feral snarl. Cold fear jolts through Sam’s body, and he fumbles at his bag for the flare gun Castiel gave him to carry. His fingers feel too clumsy to work the weapon, but he manages. The trees press in around him, threatening and unknowable. 

“Keep your eyes open!” Dean shouts. “This mother is gonna be fast. You won't know—” 

The clearing explodes. Someone fires their weapon; Sam doesn’t know who. He’s screaming out for Dean, for Jess, for help, but his words are torn out of his throat and become part of the noise. He closes his eyes against the fury

And then everything stops. 

There’s an unnatural stillness to the forest. No birds sing, no trees rustle. There’s only the silence. Sam lifts his head from the protective cradle of his arms. His ragged, hesitant breaths are the only sound in the clearing. 

Jess’ braid is disheveled, golden hair escaping from it in wisps, but she’s not hurt. Sam appreciates the warm pulse of relief coursing through him before he carefully puts it aside. Castiel is already scanning the tree line, gun held easily in his hand. 

It’s just the three of them. Dean is missing. 

Panic tears through his heart with icy fingers. Sam scrambles up to his feet, stumbling in his haste. “Dean!” he screams. “Dean!” 

When no response comes, Sam’s mind slips from frantic into the kind of battle calm that would come when Dad took them on hunts. The panic, the fear, the anxiety are all still there, but they’re hidden behind a fog that obscures everything but the small details: the spot in the clearing where it looks like the dirt was churned. The destruction of a small shrub. He starts walking.

Out of nowhere, two arms close around his chest, and Sam struggles against them. He needs to go, he needs to find Dean—

“Sam, stop!” Jess’ voice is too close to his ear, and Sam understands who's holding him. All the fight goes out of him and he sags. A small oof sounds behind him and then the arms around his chest loosen. 

“We’re going after Dean, but we can’t go after him guns blazing. We need a plan.” 

Though Sam doesn’t argue with the logic, he’s getting extraordinarily sick of the phrase "We need a plan." It seems like that’s what people say when they don’t actually have an idea of what to do. 

Castiel sucks in a deep breath and runs his fingers through his hair. Sam can almost see the gears turning in his mind, and it’s not long before he speaks. “I can take point, but I’m not the best at tracking.” 

Castiel looks frustrated and ashamed, but his words strike a chord in Sam. “I can,” he tries, and has to swallow around the words before he gets them out. “I can track. I’m good.” With John Winchester as his father, he had no choice but to become a good tracker: being left in the middle of a forest with nothing but a hunting knife and a compass will do that to a person.

Relief loosens the tension in Castiel’s shoulders. “Good. Jess and I will follow your lead then, but we need to get started. If that’s what that thing can do in the middle of the day, then I really don’t want to see what it can do under the cover of darkness.” 

Right. Training. Pay attention to the details and find the pattern. He can do this. 

“Alright.” Sam hoists his bag up over his shoulder. He walks over to the area where he suspects Dean was taken. “If we start here, then we should be able to track him at least through the next few feet.” 

  devils trap divider

Dean wakes up at some point. His situation is not improved by this. 

He’s being dragged along the ground, his head and shoulders bumping against every rock, branch, and toadstool in the path. When his vision clears, he can spy a blurry figure, at least seven feet tall, walking before him. Its skin is a sickly grey that looks more like something found in the deep ocean than in a forest. Claws dig into his calf and shin, and a steady trickle of blood winds its way down from his calf to his thigh and then further. 

Dean bites his lip to hold in his groan. As terrible as his situation currently is, he doesn’t want to see how it worsens when the wendigo realizes he’s awake. As quietly as he can, he reaches into his pocket, searching for anything that could help him. His search comes up empty, save for a smooth, crinkly piece of plastic. 

Oh, for the love of… Dean bites back a groan, this one of irritation. The memory of Castiel’s smug face when he mocked Dean's lack of provisions swims through his mind. If he dies from this, it'll prove Castiel right, so Dean is not dying here. Simple as that.

The plastic crinkles when he slips his fingers into it, but it doesn’t seem to grab the wendigo’s attention. Maybe it doesn’t hear him. Or, more likely, having successfully hunted its prey, it just doesn’t care about what he does next. 

Dean lays his trail as best he can and hopes that Sam, Jess and Castiel are smart enough to follow it. 

After that, there’s nothing left but to lie back and enjoy the ride. 

  devils trap divider

For one dreadful, awful moment, the worst parts of Castiel rise up and ask a single question: Why go after Dean Winchester? 

The thought has no sooner crossed his mind than he immediately feels horrified for having it in the first place. Dean has shown himself to be a fairly competent hunter with a capacity for kindness (at least where children are concerned). Even if that wasn’t the case, he’s still a human being and therefore worthy of being saved. 

His guilt makes him cooperate fully as Sam leads him and Jess through a twisted tangle of trees and shrubs. For Castiel, who spent most of his youth in either the Illinois suburbs or in the Nebraska plains, a forest is a strange and forbidding place. Sam, however, reads it like a second language, pointing out broken branches and scuffs along the bark of trees. To Castiel, they look like the regular debris of foliage, but to Sam, apparently they paint a story. 

After thirty minutes of following a trail that Sam swears was made by something larger than any forest animal, Sam stops. “What the…” He leans down and picks something up. He examines it for a moment. Amazingly, he laughs softly. 

“Look,” he says, turning around. The smile on his face is wider than Castiel really feels the situation calls for, but when Sam holds his hand out to them, Castiel sees the reason for his sudden good mood. 

A single blue M&M is nestled in Sam’s palm. It’s a little worse for wear, but it’s unmistakable. 

Castiel thinks back to the morning and Dean munching on the stupid candy. “Well,” he says, searching his brain for an appropriate response. “That was some quick thinking.” 

Your brother is still an asshole, is what he doesn’t say to Sam, because it’s not conducive to a good team spirit. 

But asshole or not, Dean managed to use dime store candy to enable a rescue. In the privacy of his own mind, Castiel admits that he’s vaguely impressed. 

  devils trap divider

Between three hunters — four, once they get Dean untied — two flare guns and Castiel's small arsenal of aerosol and lighters, they make pretty quick work of killing the wendigo, but adrenaline is still pumping through Sam’s blood as he stumbles out of the monster's cave and into the cool afternoon air. 

It’s useful, because he’s still mostly carrying Dean. He’s the only live person they found in the cave. The rest of the victims were reduced to piles of something that Sam doesn’t want to think too strongly about for now. Once they're safely out of town, they'll have to call in an anonymous tip to the Park Service.

Dean’s breathing is a little too strained for Sam’s liking, but when he asked if Dean was alright, all he got was a gruff, "I'm fine." Jess and Castiel decided to walk back to the car ahead of them with most of their weapons and bags, though not before Dean popped a handful of M&Ms into his mouth. Before witnessing that, Sam would have said that it was impossible to turn eating candy into a taunt, but now he knows better. 

If neither Castiel nor Dean get themselves killed by monsters, it’s possible that Sam might kill them both himself. 

Sam’s almost positive that Dean has a cracked rib, but Dean keeps up a near-constant stream of chatter anyway. It's a coping mechanism Sam remembers well: focusing on the euphoria of the hunt to distract them both from the pain and exhaustion of it, and from the horror of what they found in that cave.

“Did you see how we lit that mother up? Man, I’ve never hunted a wendigo before; Dad only hunted one, that time in—” 

Sam blinks as a bright flash of light obscures his vision. His knee buckles, sending both him and Dean lurching forward. From a distance, he hears Dean’s curse, but he doesn’t care because at that moment, pain splits his skull apart from end to end. It’s a knife slicing through his temple, like the worst migraine he ever had multiplied by twenty. 

Dean slips out of Sam’s grip as he falls to his knees. His fingers twist in his hair as he tries to keep his head from cracking. Dean is calling his name, almost frantically, but his shouts get folded into the roar inside his skull. 

“No, no, no,” Sam moans, as the light behind his eyelids shifts into a series of images. This is how they start, this is how it was when he saw Jess die, this is… 

A quick flash of a shiny floor. People standing in a line. A row of professional-looking people behind a high counter with a large window behind them. Footsteps echoing across a polished tile floor.

The word “bank” rises to Sam’s mind, and once it does, Sam knows it’s the right one. 

His vision blurs in and out. Details slide past him like water slipping through his fingers, no matter how hard Sam tries to hold onto them. All he can see is a figure walking up to a teller and talking to her, and then the vision cuts off, as quickly and decisively as someone shutting off a television. 

Sam takes in a shaky breath and fights back nausea. Though he’s never been hit by a semi, he assumes this is what it feels like. With difficulty, he pieces himself back together until he’s finally Sam Winchester, actual functioning human. 

Of course, Dean doesn’t exactly make things better. His hands are rough as he pushes at Sam’s shoulders, shoving his jacket aside to pat over his torso. “Where are you hurt?” Dean asks, his own difficulties pushed aside. 

“I’m fine,” Sam says, even though he’s possibly the furthest thing from fine at the moment. “Seriously, Dean, I’m fine.” 

“Like hell you are.” Dean’s face is a map of determination as he stares at Sam. “Tell me what the fuck is going on. Right now.” 

The white-hot, agonizing pain has subsided into a dull throb, which Sam knows will stay with him until he manages to fall asleep. If he manages to fall asleep that is. “Would you believe me if I said it was nothing?” 

The look on Dean’s face says that he will not, so Sam resigns himself to talking. 

“This is going to be one of those things that sounds worse than it actually is, so I’m going to need you not to freak out until I’m done, alright?” Storm clouds gather on Dean’s face, so Sam speaks quickly. “So about a month ago, I started having really weird dreams. They showed me the same thing all the time: I dreamed that Jess was dying; burning up on the ceiling, the same way Mom did.”

Dean looks positively murderous. Sam cringes to think about what comes next. “I kept it to myself, but the demon who was possessing my friend told me they weren’t dreams at all; they were visions. He said I get them because I’m one of what he called the 'special children', which are apparently connected to the demon that killed Mom.” 

The words taste bitter on his tongue, but that’s nothing compared to the betrayal and anger sweeping over Dean’s face. Just like that, Sam is no longer a senior year Pre-Law student. He’s once again an awkward twelve-year-old, wanting nothing more than his older brother’s approval. 

“Okay,” Dean says, his tone light, which means nothing because Dean is always like this before he explodes: affable until vicious. “So tell me which part of that was supposed to sound worse than it actually is?” 

Dean’s voice heats as he speaks, until Sam flinches at the whip-crack bite of the last words. Ignoring his injuries, Dean gets in his face. One push is all it takes to send Sam toppling back on his ass. A branch digs into his left cheek, but he doesn’t want to take his eyes off of Dean for the millisecond it would take to move it. 

“You’re having visions and they’ve got something to do with a demon! With Mom's death, even?” Dean’s finger digs into Sam’s chest, and Sam knows that there will be a finger-shaped bruise there tomorrow. “What the hell… What the fuck were you thinking hiding this from everyone?” 

Guilt shifts Sam’s gaze away from Dean’s face for a quick, one-two count. It’s enough time for Dean to connect the puzzle pieces. Dean’s face changes from furious to something so far beyond furious, Sam’s 760 SAT verbal score doesn’t even have a word for it. “Oh, you weren’t hiding it from everyone, were you? You were just hiding it from me.” 

Dean’s assumption is not entirely correct, but Sam doesn’t get a chance to defend himself. “Jess knows? Castiel knows?” Dean’s face flushes a brilliant shade of red. “Are you fucking… And you thought I didn’t deserve to know because what? I’m too stupid to do anything? If this is your way of punishing me, then good job, Sam.” 

A quick flicker of hurt flashes across Dean’s face before it’s ruthlessly suppressed. “Dean, I didn’t intentionally…” Sam stops there because he did intentionally keep this from him. “Castiel and Jess… They both wanted me to tell you, but I could never find a time that felt right.” 

“Yeah.” Dean’s face is a terrifying blank slate. “I think I’ve got some things to say to them as well.” He sets off towards the park’s entrance. With every step he takes, his stride lengthens until he’s almost running. 

It falls to Sam, weak and woozy, to follow after him. 

  devils trap divider

Dean’s head is aching, he’s fairly certain that he has two cracked ribs, and there are the various cuts and bruises that come from being taken by a monster who intends to eat you. The news that his baby brother, the one whose diapers he used to change, now gets visions and that a demon and a literal stranger are more in the know than he is, is just the shitty topping on an already shitty day. 

Sam is trailing behind him, calling his name. The obvious pain in his voice sparks at the protective place inside Dean that wants to shelter Sam from everything monstrous in the world, but Dean squashes that part. 

He should have known that Sam was lying to him. Sam lies, more often than not. He lied about Stanford, after all. Filled out application forms, gathered references, took the SAT and ACT, and sent his mail to a PO Box, all under his and Dad’s noses. The first inkling Dean ever had of what Sam was planning was the night that Sam started packing. 

So yeah, the knowledge that Sam is hiding stuff from him doesn’t come as a huge surprise after he’s had a moment to think about it. What sends boiling fury coursing through his body is the fact that both Jess and Castiel hid Sam’s visions from him. They knew and they let him carry on like an idiot. They knew about Sam’s visions, they knew that something was wrong with his brother, and they didn’t tell him. 

Two heads look up when he comes storming into the parking lot. Jess’ expression is worried and then confused and then worried again once she clocks that he’s alone, and Castiel… Dean’s seen marble statues with a greater range of expression. When they get a better look at him, both Jess and Castiel look cautious. 

Good. They should look fucking scared. 

Castiel barely has enough time to set aside his bag before Dean’s hands are grabbing his jacket. He slams him backward against the trunk of his shitty Continental, ignoring Jess’ shouts. For his part, Castiel doesn’t fight, other than to wrap his hands around Dean’s wrists. 

“You fucking knew?!” Dean shouts. Spittle flies from his mouth to land against Castiel’s cheek. “You knew about my brother, and you didn’t tell me?” 

“Dean, what the hell are you doing? Dean, back off—” 

Jess tugs at his arm, and without thinking, Dean pushes her aside. It’s not a hard push, but it’s enough to send her stumbling backward. 

Barely a second later, the brick wall also known as Sam Winchester slams into him. It’s only by throwing out his hand to slap against the Continental that Dean manages to keep his balance. 

“You keep your hands off of her,” Sam snarls. He’s strategically placed himself between Dean and Jess like he thinks Dean is going to try something. 

“Sam, I’m fine, and I’m perfectly capable of defending myself,” Jess snaps. 

“What the hell are you thinking?” Sam demands. “You’re attacking Jess, you’re attacking Castiel—” 

“Look, you want to lie to me, I’m pretty used to that Sam, but they lied to me too.” 

“They were only doing what I asked—” 

“And that works for your girlfriend, but not for him.” Dean pokes his finger towards Castiel. The blood rushing through his ears creates a dull roar. It’s all he can hear as Sam moves his mouth. 

“You want me to trust you when you’re going to lie to me? I don’t fucking know you! All I know is what I’ve seen, and frankly, I’m not impressed.” 

“I assumed your brother would tell you in his own time," Castiel says, still outwardly calm, but there's something at the back of his eyes that Dean can't decipher. "It was a family matter and I didn’t want to get involved. I’m sorry if you feel I’ve been less than honest with you—” 

Dean scoffs. “Less than honest? Less than honest is saying someone’s jeans don’t make their ass look fat. What you did put me and my little brother at risk. We’re not friends,” he spits at Castiel. “We’re working with you because it’s convenient. The second that changes… I don’t care if you’re drowning. We’re done.” 

Dean puts all the venom he can into his voice. He wants to wound. He wants to rip Castiel apart, limb from limb, so he can feel some of this pain that’s currently eating through his chest. He wants Castiel to hurt like he does. 

He’s not sure whether he gets his wish or not, but he gets some kind of reaction. Castiel’s eyes widen and his nostrils flare. For one wild moment, Dean thinks that Castiel might actually swing on him. 

That doesn’t happen, but Castiel does grab his backpack. It swings out from his body in a wild arc that threatens to take out both Dean and Jess before it slams against Castiel’s thighs. Castiel wrenches open the door to the Continental and throws his backpack into the passenger seat. When he turns around, he speaks directly to Sam. Dean might as well not exist. 

“I’ll text you coordinates to the safe house in a few minutes. If you come, you come. If you don’t, don’t expect any help from me in the future.” 

Without another look, Castiel gets in the Continental. The engine rattles and sputters to a start. Smoke billows out of the tailpipe, and Dean has to jump backward in order to avoid the gravel spraying out from under the tires. 

By the time the exhaust and dust die down, Castiel’s Continental is long gone, leaving only the Impala, Dean, Sam and Jess in the parking lot. 

Chapter Text

“So what’d you see?”

Jess’ question draws Dean’s eyes to the rearview mirror. Jess is by herself in Baby’s back seat, eyes hard and fixed on the back of Sam’s head. Sam’s posture stiffens. “What do you mean?” he asks, his tone a painfully fake attempt at casual.

“You had another vision, right? That’s what all that was about?” Jess’ voice is rising, but then she seems to make a conscious decision to de-escalate, crossing her arms and slumping back against her seat. “What was it this time? Was I bleeding out from a stab wound? Throat cut in some alley? Demon possession? What?”

The air in the car feels thick enough to cut. Dean’s anger is still boiling under his skin, but he keeps it locked down for now. If nothing else, he wants to know the answer to Jess’ question, and he sure as hell isn’t about to talk to Sam.

“Nothing like that,” Sam says, eventually. “It was… weird. There wasn’t anybody there I knew, and I’d never seen the place before. The details were a little fuzzy, but it looked like a bank.”

Dean’s eyes flick to Sam. “A bank?” 

Damn. So much for the silent treatment.

“Yeah.” Sam frowns, knuckling at his temple. “There was… a guy. He walked right up to the counter with… some kind of bag. He was talking to the teller.” Sam hesitates, blowing out a deep breath through his nose. “She gave him money. Looked like a whole bunch. Not the kind of cash most people would feel comfortable carrying around.”

“So what?” Jess asks, reluctant curiosity creeping into her voice. “You had a vision of a bank robbery? That's pretty different from what you were seeing before."

Sam stares at the road outside the windshield, eyes distant, like he’s searching his memory for something. “I don’t know, there was… something weird about it. It didn’t seem like anyone was freaked out or angry. The teller was smiling.”

“What the hell?” Jess murmurs, mostly to herself. Then, to Sam, “Why do you think you were seeing that?”

“I don’t know, Jess, okay?” The sharp edge of anger in Sam’s voice surprises even Dean. Sam’s voice is much smaller when he says, “Just… I’m tired. Can we not?”

Jess doesn’t respond, and Dean shoves his favorite Zepp tape into the slot to dispel the uneasy silence.

***

By the time Baby crosses the Nebraska state line, Sam and Jess still haven’t exchanged another word.

Dean’s anger has cooled off somewhat, replaced by a dull, achy sort of disappointment that he can push into the background, along with the pain from his cracked ribs. He could really use a fucking drink, but it’s not like he trusts Sam or Jess to drive his Baby, so instead, he’s stuck with his thoughts. 

There’s the big question mark of his dad’s whereabouts and intentions. He clearly wanted Dean to go to Blackwater Ridge, but then he wasn’t there. When Dean first got dragged into the wendigo’s nest, there was a frantic moment where he scanned every dark, stinking corner of the place, half-expecting to see his Dad lying in a pile of decaying human remains. But he didn’t, which was both a relief and really fucking confusing. Because if Dad wasn’t in town, then what the hell was the point of sending them on a wild goose chase?

There’s something else that doesn’t add up. If Castiel was able to read the demon omens around Stanford, Dad should’ve been able to as well. He should be here with them right now, figuring this shit out. So why the hell isn’t he?

God knows Dean could use some parental guidance. Because apparently, the thing that killed Mom is somehow connected to his little brother, and he still feels like he’s only got half the truth about that whole mess. Special children. What does that even mean?

And then there’s Jess and Castiel, keeping secrets from him. He doesn’t blame Jess for siding with her boyfriend, but Castiel is a different story.

Somewhere in the past day or so — working with Castiel on those interviews, watching him face down that wendigo without so much as a flinch — Dean realized he didn’t totally hate the guy. Sure, he enjoyed riling him up, but not out of malice or spite; mostly, it was about trying to get that stoic facade to crack so Dean could see what was underneath.

In his twenty-six years of life, Dean hasn’t made a lot of friends — the kind of life he was raised in just didn’t offer much in the way of opportunities for slumber parties. But maybe down the line Castiel could have turned into one of those rare friends, assuming he didn’t get tired of Dean’s bullshit before that happened. Friendship, though, requires trust and honesty; even Dean knows that much. Which means they’re back to square one.

By the time Baby pulls up at the address Castiel gave them, the sun is starting to sink lower in the sky. Looking at the sight in front of him, Dean’s convinced that Castiel has pulled some kind of elaborate prank on them. This can’t possibly be the “safe house” he was talking about.

For one, the squat wooden building that sits at the end of a long dirt road is clearly a bar, not a house. It’s surrounded on all sides by flat country; the monotony only broken by a line of trees set about three hundred yards back from the building. A galvanized tin roof shelters the bar’s main door from the elements, but the metal looks tarnished and warped. The entire building gives the impression of being a little lopsided, like it might sink into the prairie mud if someone gave it a good shove.

There’s an ancient phone booth in the dirt patch that passes for a parking lot, and a rusted pumping station that’s seen at least five decades of life. The sign atop the front door, which reads “Harvelle’s Roadhouse,” looks like it used to be a dark green, but is now so rusted and faded, it’s hard to tell.

Well, at least the name is proof that they’re in the right place.

Dean pulls right up to the building and gets out of the car, not much caring whether Sam and Jess follow.

“Hello?” Sam’s voice rings out too loud in the almost-winter silence. “Anybody there?”

Dean steps up onto the porch and rattles the front door. It’s locked, so he reaches into his pocket for the lock-pick kit he carries. He winces a little at the sharp pain in his ribs as he bends to his task.

“Shouldn’t we knock first or something?” Jess asks, stepping up next to him.

“This way’s faster,” Dean says flatly, just as the lock gives and the door creaks open.

Inside, old-fashioned wooden paneling lines the walls, chipped and in some places discolored by suspicious, rust-brown stains. The windows have thin, grimy curtains drawn across them that give the light a gloomy quality where it reflects off tables, chairs and bar stools. The centerpiece of the room is a long wooden bar. A grinning monkey statue sits on the scratched surface, holding up a cup with a bottle opener inside, like some kind of offering to the gods of cheap booze.

At the back of the bar, a large, tarnished mirror reflects Dean’s pale face back at him. There’s a jukebox in the corner and a couple of pool tables at the far end of the room. It’s the kind of place where Dean usually feels at home, except the silence is just too damn eerie.

Silence abruptly stops being a problem. Just as Sam and Jess step through the door behind Dean, there’s a loud crash, followed by a curse, and the three of them flinch as one.

“Someone’s through there,” Sam whispers, pointing at a door just beyond the bar.

“We shouldn’t have left the guns in the car,” Jess whispers back, and dammit, she’s right.

Before any of them can turn tail and run outside to fix their weapons problem, there’s a snarling, snuffling noise from somewhere near the pool tables. Dean almost jumps out of his skin. If he had to put money on what made that noise, he’d probably land in the vicinity of “pig with a sinus issue.”

When he takes a closer look at the nearest pool table, though, he realizes there’s a guy curled up on it. His back is to them; apparently, he’s passed out.

“That doesn’t look like Castiel,” Sam says as he steps up next to Dean.

Before Dean can answer, the door next to the bar opens with a thwap of displaced air, and a middle-aged woman with long brown hair steps through, carrying a plastic tray filled with glasses. “Well, hello there,” she says, raspy like she smokes a pack a day or at the very least gargles with whiskey. If Dean's got his facts right, no one here is actually related to Castiel by blood, but with a voice like that, this woman sure sounds like she could be. She sets the tray down on the bar, scowling at them. “Nobody ever teach you guys how to knock?”

A familiar voice sounds from behind her as the door opens again. “They were raised by John Winchester. What do you expect?”

Castiel is carrying another tray of glasses. He sidles past Ellen and slides behind the bar, where he deposits his burden on one of the shelves below the mirror.

Dean is just about to tell Castiel where he can stick his attitude when the woman speaks up, all steely, irresistible command. “Castiel James Harvelle! I don’t care who raised these folks. You asked them here, which makes them our guests . Mind your manners.”

Castiel looks mutinous, but, under the force of the woman’s glare, he unclenches a little. “Ellen, this is Sam and Dean Winchester and Jessica Moore. Guys, this is Ellen Harvelle.”

With that, he turns back to his glasses, unloading them from the tray and arranging them on a narrow shelf just below three lines of liquor bottles.

“Nice to meet y’all,” Ellen says, once she’s done glaring daggers at Castiel’s back. The words are friendly enough, but they’re lacking the smile that would usually accompany them. “I’m Castiel’s mom, or as good as. Which is more of a joy some days than others.” She leans back through the door to the kitchen and calls, “Joanna Beth! Come on out here. We’ve got visitors.”

A petite girl with a lovely face and long, wavy blonde hair steps through the door, nodding at them. “I’m Jo.”

Normally, Dean would give her a flirty little once-over, but what Castiel said about Bill Harvelle getting killed on a hunt with Dad is still on his mind. That’s Ellen’s husband and Jo’s father, so he figures he should tone it down a little. He settles for a quick nod and a tiny, close-lipped smile.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Jess says from behind him. “But aren’t you going to test us? You know, in case we got possessed along the way?”

Castiel gives Ellen a wry look, which she returns with a snort. “Guys, this place is warded to the gills. If you were demons, you’d have a hell of a time even finding it, let alone making it into the bar.”

She jerks her chin at the ceiling. Dean looks up to find a huge sigil painted all across it.

“Devil’s trap,” Jess says appreciatively. “Nice.”

Sam points over his shoulder at the still-snoring lump on the pool table. “Uh — I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s someone passed out back there.”

“Eh,” Jo says, shrugging. “That’s just Ash. Yo, Ash!” 

“Wuh? Closing time already?” The lump jerks upright and reveals itself as a short dude in a cut-off flannel shirt, with a mullet that falls past his shoulders. There’s a barely faded shiner around one of his eyes and three days’ worth of scruff along his jaw. A heavy, gleaming silver skull necklace hangs down his front.

“I’m sorry, him ?” Dean pivots to where Castiel is still putting away glasses behind the bar. Castiel’s eyes flick to him, unmoved. “The Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie? He’s your source for demon intel?”

“Excuse you,” Jo says, scowling at him and crossing her arms. Dean does not notice that the skimpy black tank top she’s wearing makes her boobs look nice, goddammit. “Ash is a fucking genius.”

“Language, Joanna Beth,” Ellen snaps. “But she’s right. Ash is a fucking genius.”

“Certified,” Ash says, stretching the word like a piece of chewing gum as he hops off the table and saunters over, shooting a pair of finger guns at Dean as he goes. “I like you.”

“Don’t bother, Ash,” Castiel says, eyes back on his work. “He’s straight.”

Dean’s head snaps around so fast, he’s surprised it stays attached to his neck. “The fuck?”

Dean could swear he hears a low chuckle from Jess. Sam, wisely, says nothing.

Ash walks closer, giving Dean a squinty once-over. “You sure ‘bout that, Cas? I’m getting some vibes.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean says, cheeks heating, his skin suddenly feeling too tight for him. “Keep your damn vibes to yourself. I don’t swing that way.”

Ash huffs, disbelief written plainly on his face. “Whatever you say, man.”

“Look,” Dean says, pointing a warning finger at Ash’s chest. The guy is standing too damn close. “I don’t make any assumptions about how either of you two like to get your dicks wet, so don’t fucking start with me.”

“Don’t worry, Winchester,” Castiel says, leaning onto the bar with an obnoxious smirk on his face. “I only sleep with guys I like, so you’re safe from my corrupting influence. Can’t make any guarantees for Ash though.”

“Would you lay off him, boys?” Ellen says, snapping at Castiel and Ash with a dish towel. “He just got here. Jo, make yourself useful and show our guests where they’ll be staying. Ash and Cas’ll help me finish getting ready for opening time.”

With a final glower at Castiel’s back, Dean follows Jo and the others out the door.

***

Jo leads them across a scrubby field in back of the building to a small farmhouse that Dean hadn’t noticed before. The slight angle of the tree line hides its location from anyone just passing along the dirt road, which is probably intentional. Dean notices a couple of cars pulled up next to the house, including Castiel’s god-awful Continental. To the right of the farmhouse is a low-slung annex that looks vaguely like a dorm building on an army base, single-story and with windows all along the side.

“The house is where Mom, Cas and I live,” Jo explains. “Ash’s bedroom is in the annex. But, like you saw, he doesn’t always make it there.”

She produces a couple of keys from her pocket and passes one each to Dean, Sam and Jess. “These open the main door to the annex. They’re specially warded. Demons can’t touch them.”

“That’s amazing,” Sam says, a nerdy gleam in his eye as he inspects the etchings on his key. Dean kind of forgot how excited his little brother could get about this lore stuff, and he can’t help but warm a little at the memory.

The annex is as plain inside as out, but a whole lot cleaner than the Roadhouse, The linoleum floor of the main corridor gleams under fluorescent lighting. About ten doors open all along the corridor on one side. “You guys rent this place out?” Jess asks, peering up at the ceiling, which is painted with a devil’s trap much like the one inside the Roadhouse.

“Yup,” Jo says. “Whenever hunters pass through and need a place to crash.”

She pulls out two more keys. “These ones open the doors to your bedrooms. Dean, you’re in the fifth one down, Sam and Jess are in the third.”

Dean watches Sam dart a shy glance at Jess. Jess’ expression might as well be carved out of marble, but she doesn’t raise any objections to the rooming arrangement.

When Dean inserts his key into the lock, it gives easily, and the door swings open to reveal a plain but clean bedroom. The single twin bed has a warm-looking woolen blanket on top of the covers, and there’s a dresser and a small desk. The furniture looks old, but in decent shape. All in all, it’s a whole lot nicer here than in most motel rooms Dean’s stayed in. At least it doesn’t smell like mildew or sex.

As he looks around, his attention is drawn by a framed charcoal drawing hanging above the bed. It clearly shows the interior of the Roadhouse, rendered with strong, bold lines. The people in the drawing are no more than silhouettes, but it’s obvious that there are plenty of customers sitting at the tables and playing pool in the back. Behind the bar, there’s a woman with long hair, and a man with his arm around her shoulders. Despite the rough, sketch-like nature of the drawing, there’s something nostalgic, almost melancholy, about it, and Dean wonders if this is what the Roadhouse used to be like. Before.

Castiel’s words sound in his head again. John Winchester got my father killed.

Someone’s moving in the field outside Dean’s window, and he walks up to the glass to investigate. It’s Castiel himself, striding away from the Roadhouse and towards the tree line, hands in his pockets and shoulders hunched. Once he’s reached the edge of the forest, he digs in his jacket for something, and a moment later, Dean can make out the glowing tip of a cigarette, followed by a puff of smoke.

“He was supposed to quit. Mom's gonna kill him.”

Dean jumps, heart in his throat. “Jesus. Warn a guy.”

Jo looks him up and down, amused. “Some hunter you are if people can just sneak up on you.”

Dean concedes her point with a tip of his head. “Did you do that?” he asks, jerking his chin at the drawing.

“Nah. Cas did.”

“Oh,” Dean says, because that idea never even occurred to him. “Didn’t know he could draw.”

Jo’s mouth twists into a wry smile. “There’s probably a lot you don’t know about him. Not sure what issues you’ve got between you, but he’s a good guy. The best, actually.”

Dean decides not to argue with that. Despite her small size, Jo has the look of someone who wouldn’t think twice about gutting him if she thought she could get away with it.

“Hey,” he says, feeling unaccountably shy about the question. “Castiel, um, Cas. He’s your adoptive brother, right?”

“He’s my brother,” Jo says, eyes glinting dangerously. “But yeah, he’s not my parents’ biological son.”

“What happened? How’d he end up here?” Dean’s not even sure why he wants to know, but there’s something in his gut, poking and prodding at him, daring him to ask.

“Not my story to tell,” Jo says. Before she turns to go, she adds, “You should try asking him some time. Better get him really fucking drunk first though.”

***

Once Dean’s unpacked his duffel and put his clothes away in the dresser — and isn’t that a fucking weird feeling? He doesn’t remember the last time he actually got to unpack — he decides to head outside and scope out the surrounding area. If they’re going to stay here for a little while, it couldn’t hurt to know the lay of the land.

When he steps outside, the air of early evening is just on the verge between crisp and cold, a slight breeze ruffling the treetops, plucking the last few leaves off the almost-bare branches.

Sam’s sitting on a tree stump right at the edge of the forest, looking out at the flat landscape with glazed eyes. Dean used to see him look like that as a kid, whenever things just got to be too much. When Dad came home angry and reeking of whiskey. Or when he’d been gone too long, and Sam could tell, despite Dean’s best efforts, that they were running out of food.

At the sight of Sam, Dean suddenly feels so damn tired. He’s tired of fighting with his brother, of being angry at each other, of not talking. Tired of being alone.

He walks up slowly, making plenty of noise as he approaches so as not to startle his brother. But Sam doesn’t move a muscle until Dean comes to a stop right next to him.

Sam doesn’t take his eyes off the horizon when he says, “I asked Jo why Castiel is so weird about Dad, and she told me Dad got her and Castiel’s father killed on a hunt. You think that’s true?”

“Castiel told me that too,” Dean admits. Hunching his shoulders against the cold, he bounces on the spot as he considers Sam’s question. “You know, I think it probably is true. At least, it felt true when I heard it.”

Sam nods slowly. “Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.”

Just as it always does, the need to defend Dad rises up in Dean. “Look, stuff like that… it happens in hunting. People die. It’s just the life,” he says, but he hears the lack of conviction in his tone. The surprised look on Sam’s face when he finally tears his eyes away from the horizon shows that he heard it too.

“It’s not just that, and you know it,” Sam says deliberately, meeting Dean’s eyes. “Dad was never too careful with his own life on hunts, and he wasn’t always careful with his hunting partners’ lives either, if he thought taking a risk would get him an advantage.”

Dean wonders how Sam could know about that. Unlike him, Sam never went on a lot of hunts with their dad, and Dean was always careful not to tell Sam about the riskier shit him and Dad got up to. But it looks like Sam knew anyway, somehow.

“Yeah,” he croaks. “You’re not wrong.”

Sam shuffles to the side on his stump a little, making room for Dean to sit down. Dean does, taking the gesture for the Winchester-style peace offering it is.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” Sam says, so quietly that Dean almost misses it. “I should’ve told you right away, about my visions. I just… I don’t know what it all means yet, and I’m scared. I’m scared, and I’m angry. I wanted to make a life for myself where everything didn’t revolve around monsters and death and horror, and now it turns out I never had that option. So I…” Sam looks down at his hands, studying the way his fingers are twining together in his lap. “I need you with me on this, man. Whatever this is, it’s big, and I can’t deal with it alone.”

“You’ve got Castiel and Jess,” Dean says, a small, uncertain quaver in his voice. He hopes Sam doesn’t notice. “The Roadhouse crew seems pretty capable too.”

“It’s not the same,” Sam says, looking up at Dean with suspiciously wet eyes. “You know it isn’t. I need you.”

Dean nods, his throat bobbing with a heavy swallow. When he thinks he’s got his voice under control, he says, “Sam, if I’m gonna be a part of this, I need you to be honest with me. All the way, alright? No more secrets. Starting right now.”

Sam takes a deep breath in and lets it out, something slack and relieved settling into his expression. “Yeah, man. Definitely. I promise.”

Dean nods, wondering if he’s truly ready for what Sam’s about to tell him. But it doesn’t matter, does it? He has to be. “Okay, then talk. Tell me everything,” he says. “Including what a ‘special child’ is, what that demon wants with you, and what it’s got to do with Mom.”

And Sam does talk. He talks until Dean’s hands and feet are numb with the cold — about his friend Brady, about interrogating the demon inside him, about how another demon called Azazel fed Sam blood, apparently, for fuck’s sake, about how it killed their mom when she got in the way.

Dean almost loses it a couple of times, but Sam pins him with big, sad eyes that beg him to listen, so he does, even as his hands curl into white-knuckled fists inside his jacket pockets.

When Sam’s finally done, he looks as drained as Dean feels, and Dean knows he’ll be dreaming of fire again tonight. But as they head back to the Roadhouse together, shoulders bumping every other step, there’s a sense of peace and rightness in Dean’s chest that he hasn’t felt in years.

  devils trap divider

Morning comes early at the annex, with the sun peeking through the blinds in the room that Jess is sharing with Sam. She rolls over onto her side and squints at the window. Beside her, Sam lies on his back, snoring softly. 

He slept fine last night. Jess, on the other hand, spent the night tossing and turning, desperate to grab just a few minutes’ sleep. The double bed she and Sam are sharing is comfortable, the room is sparse but tidy, but Jess can’t find any comfort in it. No matter how soft the mattress is, it can’t distract her from the fact that no one wants her here, and increasingly, she doesn’t want to be here. 

Aggie’s offer still dances around her mind, and while Jess has no interest in taking it, she can’t deny that it looks appealing. Spending a few weeks at her family’s home sounds like it would beat the detente that she and Sam have settled into. Dean barely looked at her on the trip from Blackwater Ridge, and Cas seems to treat them all equally as the enemy. While she didn’t have many opportunities to interact with either Ellen or Jo, Jess didn’t exactly get the impression of a warm and fuzzy welcome from them either. Ellen seems to treat them with the same neglect given to a particularly unfortunate-looking stray cat, while Jo’s attitude resembles a neutral army sitting across the border: cautious watchfulness. Ash, at least, seems to accept their presence. For one, the joint that he offered her yesterday afternoon would seem to indicate that. 

Jess slips silently out of the bed. Sam stirs and grunts in his sleep, but Jess was trained from childhood to move silently when necessary. He never wakes, even as she pulls on her jeans and ducks out the door. 

The sky is just lightening from grey to pink when Jess walks out of the annex. She immediately regrets not bringing a hoodie; this early in the morning, the air is still nippy, but she’s not going to risk sneaking back into the room. She briskly rubs her hands over her arms, trying to stave off the cold, but all that action does is make her more aware of it. 

“Wouldja come in already?” Ellen’s voice takes Jess by surprise and she turns swiftly around to look at the farmhouse. Ellen’s head pokes out of the doorway, the rest of her body safely (and smartly) kept inside the house. “You’re making me cold just standing there.” 

While Jess isn’t sure of her welcome with the Harvelles, she’s also equally certain that she doesn’t want to go back into the annex until she has to. She jogs across the small yard and ducks underneath Ellen’s arm to slip inside the house. 

It’s easy enough for her to spot the wardings and traps around the door, though she doubts that anyone without extensive hunting background would be able to spot them. The postel of the door is made of iron, and Jess would be willing to bet that the small, white lines just on the inside of the door are embedded salt lines. The door frame itself is decorated with intricate carvings: devil’s traps, Sanskrit, and even cuneiform are etched up and down the sides, along with what Jess thinks might be Mandarin. There are also wardings along the doors that she doesn’t recognize. Jess’ eyebrows furrow as she traces the lines of one of the symbols.  

“It’s Enochian,” Ellen says, noting her interest. 

Jess thinks for a second before the answer comes to her. “Language of the angels.” She turns to Ellen. “Angels aren’t real.” 

Ellen’s shoulder lifts. “Maybe, maybe not. Ash made himself fluent in Enochian just in case, and I’ve gotta tell you, I ain’t seen that boy be wrong yet.” 

Jess puts aside the question of whether angels are real or not (she’ll definitely be calling Aggie later to ask) and follows Ellen further into the house. They pass by a wall with photographs and Jess tries to look without making it obvious that she’s looking. She catches sight of a wedding photo with a much younger-looking, laughing Ellen leaning back into a tall, blond man. His arms are around her waist, and he’s looking down at Ellen as though she hung the moon specifically for him. There’s another family photo of Ellen and the same man, this time with a small infant that Jess guesses is Jo. The final photograph shows Ellen, her husband, and Jo. This time, they’re joined by a gangly, dark-haired youth. His face is still a little plump with baby-fat, and the dark circles under his eyes are missing, but it only takes one glance at his large, blue eyes to recognize Castiel. 

There are no more pictures. 

“Cas was fifteen when that picture was taken,” Ellen says, leading Jess into a living room populated by weary, sagging couches that have been upholstered enough times to be considered patchwork. A bookcase in the corner groans under the weight of dozens of books. Jess recognizes a grimoire shoved next to a Nicholas Sparks novel. “Kids that age, it’s damn hard to get them to smile for anything, but Cas was always…” Her eyes are soft and hazy with reminiscence, and then she seems to remember where she is and who she’s with. 

“That was when Cas first came to live with us. If I’d known what I was getting into… Never ran through so many damn Kleenex in my life as I did back then. He’d die if he knew I was telling you this, but that’s what kids are for, right? So you can embarrass the hell out of them?” 

“I wouldn’t know. Never really thought about kids before,” Jess says, ignoring the small twinge in her chest that the lie causes her. 

She’s thought about kids. Every time Crystal, one of her friends from pre-med, brought her daughter by and she reached out for Sam with chubby arms and a happy burble, Jess thought about it. Every time Sam skirted close to the topic of his father or his childhood, Jess thought about it. She thought about it every time she got her birth control shot at the student center, and she thought about it the one time she sat in a McDonald's bathroom staring at a pregnancy test, unsure of what color she wanted it to turn. 

She’s thought about kids, but for the past week, she’s been pretty damn careful not to think about anything at all. 

“Really?” Ellen’s eyebrow raises. “Kid like you, coming from the family you come from, I figure it ain’t exactly a lack of resources holding you back.” 

“I didn’t know anyone recognized me,” Jess says a little stiffly. 

“Oh, I know we must look like the worst kind of hillbillies compared to what you’re used to, but no mistake, we’ve got our fingers in a fair amount of pies. Ash runs interference for damn near half the hunters in the continental forty-eight, and more abroad. And hunters stop by the Roadhouse all the time. So yeah, your family’s been mentioned once or twice.” 

“Oh.” Jess feels oddly embarrassed by this, and she can’t put her finger on why. “Sorry, I guess. I never heard of you.” 

“I wouldn’t have expected you to. Bill always kept to himself. He liked to work alone, and he usually just did the small hunts. Poltergeists, salt and burns, cursed objects. Sometimes, he’d want to do bigger hunts, but I’d tell him, I’d say Bill, you’ve got Jo, and if you take a job where you don’t end up coming home, you’ll leave me to explain that to her, and if that happens, she’ll end up hating me and I’m going to kick your ass.” Ellen’s laugh is a little watery. “You know, I told him that, and I told him that, but then some hunter came along who needed help, and it wasn’t Bill’s way to ignore that.” 

Jess follows Ellen into the kitchen. Her immediate impression is that of warmth. While Ellen’s kitchen is cramped, and the paint is peeling off of her cabinets, and her counters are chipped and gouged, Jess wants nothing more than to sit down and have a meal at the messy, cluttered table. Ellen starts a pot of coffee and turns to face Jess. 

“Any relationship is hard, but you add hunting into it, and you make it about thirty times more difficult. But you’d know all about that, I reckon. Being hitched up with a hunter.” 

Jess pulls up a single shoulder in a lackluster shrug. “It’s fine,” she says noncommittally. “It’s… You know.” 

“Honey, I really don’t, but let me give you a nickel’s worth of free advice. You don’t bullshit a bullshitter. If you don’t wanna talk about it, that’s fine. God knows I ain’t one for prying into someone else’s life, but anyone who looks at you two for longer than thirty seconds can tell that something’s not right.” 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Jess says. She clenches her fists and her fingernails dig into her skin. 

“Okay,” Ellen says easily. “But while you’re here, help me with this, would you?” 

Within short order, Jess finds herself in charge of monitoring the pancakes that Ellen ladles into the pan. “I can’t really cook,” she protests, but Ellen ignores her. 

“Just wait until the bubbles stop popping,” she says, a little unhelpfully. “If something starts burning, then you waited too long.” 

After the third burnt pancake, Jess starts to get the hang of it, and by the sixth one, she’s capable of using a spatula to move the pancakes from pan to plate. “Lot of pancakes,” she comments, watching the stack rise. 

“Lotta mouths to feed.” Ellen takes a sip from her mug. “Ash always eats enough for three, and those Winchesters look like they could put away some food.” 

They fall into a silence that isn’t uncomfortable but isn’t cozy either. The smell of coffee is thick and heavy in the kitchen, and Jess should be reassured by the small nod to normalcy, but everything is too different for her to find comfort in scraps. 

“So, Stanford.” Ellen’s non-sequitur interrupts the silence so abruptly that Jess almost fumbles the last pancake transfer. “You’ve got to be pretty smart for that.” 

Jess shrugs. “Not stupid at the very least.” 

Ellen looks at her, but Jess gets the impression Ellen is also looking through her. “Bill always wanted Cas to go to some fancy school. God knows he’s got the smarts for it, but you know kids. They never want to listen to their parents; they always know what’s best. God, the fights he and Bill would have. We didn’t want them hunting, see, either Cas or Jo. We didn’t want…” Ellen knuckles at her eyes, unashamed. “Well, Cas was halfway through his second year at the community college when Bill… When we lost Bill. And after that, I knew there was no keeping him there. I didn’t even try.

“I tried with Jo. Tried to keep her away from hunting, tried to get her interested in school, but she's always been hunting happy. Swear to god, from the first time that girl could walk, she was reaching for a shotgun. God, the time she got her hands on one of Bill’s by accident, I almost bit his head off. Told him that if my baby girl ever touched a gun again, I’d shove it so far up his ass, he’d have to reach down his throat to pull the trigger.” Ellen’s laugh is sad and rueful. “Probably not a surprise that Jo only lasted a few weeks in school before she gave it up.” 

“It’s possible to do both,” Jess offers, a little quietly. “You can hunt and have a normal life.” 

Ellen’s eyes harden. “Maybe for some. But it always gets you in the end. Look at you. You went to college, found a boyfriend, were all set to graduate and get your fancy degree. And now here you are, in the ass-crack of Nebraska, fresh off a wendigo hunt. You really think it’s possible to have all things in moderation?” 

A door creaks open down the hallway and bickering voices fill the air, saving Jess from having to answer. A small, genuine smile softens Ellen's face. “Cas and Jo will be down soon. You don’t have to wake up those Winchester boys, but I know for a fact that there’s nothing in the annex fridge except half a grapefruit, ketchup, and some out-of-date milk, so I can’t imagine they’ll thank you for making them miss breakfast.” 

Jess nods. As she’s backing out of the kitchen, she almost runs into both Cas and Jo, who appear as a united front. That lasts only until Cas’ jaw cracks with a massive yawn. 

“Look out, he’s on his way for coffee,” Jo says. “He’s not human until he’s had at least three cups.” 

“Anyone ever tell you that you’re really annoying?” Cas grumbles. He tries to dodge Jo’s elbow, but he’s not quite fast enough. She strikes a glancing blow against his ribs, enough to make him grunt, but not enough to impede him in his journey to the coffee maker. 

“Oh, Jess?" Ellen calls over her shoulder. "When you bring the Winchesters, go ahead and bring Ash too. We’re probably going to need his help.” 

***

No one talks during breakfast, but Jess can’t tell if that’s because the food is so good or because the tension is so thick. There are plenty of loaded glances, but no one speaks until there’s one last, pathetic pancake left. No one seems willing to claim it, and that’s when Ellen strikes by clearing her throat. 

“Alright. Now that we’re all here in one spot, I think it’s best that we have a chat. I’ve heard bits and pieces of the story from Cas, but I think we all need to hear the whole tale, from the top this time.” 

Several pairs of eyes dart around the table, so quickly that Jess wonders they don’t all get whiplash. Sam looks at Dean, and then looks at her. Dean looks at Sam, then at Cas, and then at her. Ash concentrates mostly on his laptop, but his mullet listens intently. Meanwhile, Jess makes sure to look at no one. 

Finally, Sam breaks the silence. He starts the story from the beginning, or at least from the moment when Cas interrupted their night by kicking down their door. He tells the story clearly and concisely, not omitting any details, but also not rambling. Listening to him, Jess remembers exactly why she was attracted to him right from the very start. 

Ellen taps her chin with a single finger while they wait in tense silence. Across the table, Dean clenches his jaw. His fingers are tight around his fork, almost as if he’s thinking of using the syrup-flecked utensil as a weapon. Jess herself is tense. So far, Cas, Ellen, Jo and Ash haven’t given the impression of being hostile, but hearing that the person sitting across the table from you has demon blood in them is something that most hunters won’t readily accept.

“Special children. Huh.” Ellen's eyes slide to Sam. “And this demon said that they were supposed to be part of some plot to unleash Hell on Earth?” A nod suffices as her answer, and she continues, “Don’t suppose he was obliging enough to tell you when or where this was all supposed to go down.” 

“You know as much as we do,” is Sam’s reply. 

“I already had Ash do a search for children who match Sam’s basic story: born in 1983, mothers died in a house fire when the child was six months old," Cas says. "So far he’s managed to come up with three other names.” He slides a notepad with lines full of clear, small handwriting to Ellen, who looks it over. 

“That's all?” Jo asks. “I would have thought there would have been more. I mean, if you’re trying to build an army, four sounds like a pretty pathetic number.” 

“Well, there’s no guarantee that Sam and the other three are the only ones with demon blood in them,” Ash points out. “There could be a lot of other variables that we don’t know about yet. Once we find these others and talk to them, we can start to fill in the blanks a little more. Remember, I’m like a search engine: the more information I have, the better I’m able to work.” 

“You’re something alright,” Dean cracks. He’s slumped low in his chair, tapping at the table. Based on how he and Sam have been interacting this morning, Jess can tell that the tension between them has eased, but Dean’s still outwardly prickly towards anyone who isn’t Sam. “Where’d you learn how to do all of this anyway?”

“MIT,” Ash says, tossing the tail ends of his mullet over his shoulder. At Dean’s disbelieving look, he shrugs. “It’s a school in Boston.” 

“Yeah, I think I’ve heard of it,” Dean says, as Ellen and Jo hide their smiles either in their coffee mugs or behind their hands. Cas, however, makes no attempt to conceal the smirk crawling across his face. When Dean catches sight of it, the tips of his ears turn a bright red, and he slumps even further into his chair. 

“Well, I think Ash is right.” Her eyes still dancing with mirth, Ellen distracts them by tapping at the notepad Cas passed her. “I think the best hope of figuring out this plan and stopping it is in finding these special children.” 

“What do we do with them once we find them?” 

Dean’s question makes everyone pause, but Jess already has an answer. “We convince them to come with us.” All eyes turn to her, but she continues. “We explain what’s happening and that they need to be protected—” 

“And hope in the meantime that they don’t call the cops on us—” 

Jess ignores Dean’s interruption. “And tell them that the only way that they’ll be safe is if they come with us.” She looks at Ellen. “Can the annex handle being at full capacity?” 

“Hell, it’ll be more life than has been in the place for a few years. Don’t know how we’ll deal with the noise, but we’ll figure it out. If you want to bring them here, then I might give some other hunters a call. Bobby Singer’s been getting fat and lazy up in South Dakota. A wakeup call might be just what the old bastard needs.” 

Jess doesn’t miss the happy light that rises in both Sam and Dean’s face at the mention of Bobby’s name. Something in her chest settles at seeing the lines fade from Sam’s forehead, even if it’s just for a second. 

“Now we just need to figure out how to split the trips between the four of you.” Dean, Sam and Cas all turn surprised eyes on Ellen, and she smiles. “Oh, you’re not going out all together; are you serious? The last hunt you did together, you barely got through in one piece because you couldn’t stop bickering. You’re just lucky that everyone was already dead before you got there, because you sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to save anyone with the way you’re fighting. I figure teams of two will work, what do you think, Ash?” 

“Yeah. Two by two. Sounds like a plan.” Ash’s voice is distracted and he doesn’t look up from his laptop. Clearly, he’s written off their whole conversation about preventing the end of the world as uninteresting. 

Everyone looks as though they want to argue with Ellen, but no one seems able to find a reason. Jo is the only one who speaks, a hard, challenging expression on her pretty face as she asks, “So whose team am I going to be on?” Her chin sticks out in clear defiance. 

Ellen’s face darkens. Real anger and fear shine in her eyes. “That’s a funny question, Joanna Beth. Your ass is staying right here.” 

Jo looks like she wasn’t expecting any different answer, but her eyes flash with anger. She shoves her chair away from the table, the legs scraping across the floor. “Good to know that my curfew is still intact when it’s the end of the world.” 

She storms out of the kitchen and through the living room. A few moments later, the front door shuts with such force that it threatens to shake the house. Ellen stares after Jo, frustration and hurt warring for territory on her face. She only stops when Cas gets up from the table, much more quietly and slowly than Jo. 

“I’ll talk to her,” he tells Ellen. “Ash, you’ll tell me what happens?” 

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” Ash waves a hand in Cas’ general direction. 

Cas pauses to put a hand on Ellen’s shoulder. She reaches up to squeeze it, silent gratitude in the gesture. Cas doesn’t seem to notice the rest of them as he leans down to kiss Ellen’s temple, showing more vulnerability in that moment than Jess ever thought him capable of. Without a word to the rest of them, he disappears after Jo. 

When she turns back to them, Ellen looks a little more haggard, but her determination never fades. “You’ll go after these special children in pairs. That way, there’s not too many cooks in the kitchen, and you’ll still have someone to watch your back. You can figure out who you want to go with; it’s all the same to me.” 

“That’s fine,” Sam says, his voice tight. His eyes dart to Dean, and Jess has the sinking realization that she’s no longer Sam’s first choice. That knowledge sits like a rock in her stomach, and she almost misses when Ellen starts speaking again. 

“One last thing.” Ellen’s eyes slice over to Sam. “Not that I don’t trust you, but it doesn’t sit right with me, letting you walk around without someone getting a look inside your head first. No offense, but I’d like a second opinion about whether or not you’re dangerous.” 

Ellen is unflinching, even when Jess and Dean start speaking at the same time. 

“Look here, lady, I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but if you think that someone’s gonna go poking around in Sam’s head, then you’re—” 

“Ellen, you can’t possibly think that Sam would be dangerous; Sam’s the most—” 

Sam’s voice rings out, strong and emphatic. 

“Enough.” 

Jess turns to Sam, her mouth hanging open in an unflattering circle of surprise. For all she knows him, Sam’s face is impossible to read. She can’t tell whether he’s ashamed, angry, or any one of a dozen other emotions. His hand, which had been clenched in a fist, slowly uncurls. 

“Second opinion. What do you mean?” Sam’s voice is even, and he doesn’t even bother looking at either Dean or her. Dean sputters with indignation, but for Jess, it’s another brick in the wall, another straw on the camel’s back. 

“There’s a psychic who lives up near Pontiac, Illinois, name of Pamela Barnes. If I give her a call, she’ll be here by tonight. She’s the best damn psychic I know, and I’d feel a hell of a lot better if she poked around your noggin to see what’s going on in there.” 

“Fine.” Sam bites the word out, not sounding happy about it. “If that’s what it takes, then fine.” 

“Sam, you don’t have to—” Dean begins, but Sam cuts him off. 

“We need to get to the bottom of this, and we’re not going to get there without help. This is our best lead, and I’m not about to throw it away.” 

Jess can tell that Dean isn’t happy, but he plasters an insincere smile on his face. “I dunno, Sammy. What if she looks into your head and finds out the truth?”

“Which is?” Sam asks, caught between irritated and amused. 

“That there’s nothing in there.” Dean’s stage whisper fades, and his smile turns wide and obnoxious. Sam manages to control his expression for a whole ten seconds and then he’s laughing. 

It’s the first time Jess has heard Sam laugh in almost a week. She should be grateful that he’s managed to find even a little sliver of happiness amidst the horror and fear, but there’s only bitterness in her chest. 

“Excuse me,” she says around the lump settling in her throat. “I need to go check on… I need to go.” 

She gets up from the table, not quite as quickly as Jo, but quicker than politeness would demand, and walks towards the door. The back of her neck burns with the weight of everyone’s eyes on it, but she doesn’t care. All she can focus on is the pang of loss when she thinks about Sam’s laugh, and the fact that she wasn’t responsible for it. 

***

The rest of the day passes with excruciating slowness. Jess spends most of it on the porch swing of the farmhouse, bundled up in a hoodie against the cold. There’s a book in her lap, but she can’t bear flipping through more than a few pages before she gives it up as a lost cause. It might as well be written in Dutch for all that she understands it.

She doesn’t see Jo or Cas for the rest of the day, but she does hear a series of shots ringing out from the woods behind the annex. Either someone’s getting murdered, or there’s some intense target practice going on. For everyone’s sake, Jess hopes it’s the latter. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Dean working on the Impala. He’s been under the hood for most of the afternoon. From what little she’s seen and heard of the car, Jess doesn’t think that it needs any of the rigorous maintenance to which Dean is subjecting it; she suspects it’s an outlet for Dean’s nervous energy. Dean Winchester doesn’t seem like someone who can sit idle while the great events of the world are turning around him. 

She hasn’t seen Sam since this morning. When she went into the room to grab the book, she heard the sounds of the shower going, but she didn’t stick around to wait for Sam to come out. Probably a little selfishly, she’s been waiting for Sam to come to her. So far he hasn’t. 

It’s stupid to feel this way. She knows that if Aggie or any of her friends were here, they’d give her a slap upside the head for being childish (well, probably her Stanford friends wouldn’t be so bold, but Aggie wouldn’t hesitate). She knows that the mature thing would be for her to find Sam and try to talk about this, but she can’t bring herself to do so. They’ve had several talks. None of them have gone well.  

While she watches the clouds chase themselves across the sky, Jess doodles small designs into the margins of the book. She tries to recreate the Enochian symbols that she saw earlier in the morning, but she thinks she’s getting the angles of the warding wrong. If angels are in fact a thing, they might actually kill her before she has a chance to defend herself. 

“Hey.” Jess’ head jerks up at the quiet greeting. Sam stands in front of her. One hand is tucked into the pocket of his Stanford hoodie while the other hand holds out a steaming mug. “It’s not chai, but it’s something.” Sam lifts a single shoulder in a rueful shrug. “You should have seen Ellen’s face when I asked if she had any tea. You would have thought I asked her for pickle juice. I think this came from Cas’ stash.” 

Jess accepts the mug, her frigid fingers wrapping gratefully around the heated porcelain. Even though it’s not her favorite, the clean, herbal scent of green tea soaks into her sinuses. It’s soothing, and for a whole second, she forgets her troubles. 

They come crashing back into her when she looks over the rim of the mug at Sam. His shoulders are hunkered down like he’s expecting an attack. For a man over six feet tall, it’s a ridiculous look, and if she and Sam were on better footing, Jess wouldn’t hesitate to tell him so. As it stands now, she feels like she and Sam are barely acquaintances. 

“So Ellen called Bobby,” Sam says. He leans against the porch railing, ignoring the unspoken invitation of the open space next to her on the swing. “He’s on some kind of hunt with a guy named Rufus, but he said he’ll be here as soon as that wraps up. In the meantime, he recommended Pamela too.” 

“Well, I guess if Bobby and Ellen both say it’s okay, then it’s fine.” Jess really doesn’t mean for the caustic tone to creep into her voice, but she can’t stop it from appearing. 

“Yeah.” Sam’s nose wrinkles. Jess knows the look. It means that he’s pissed about something, but he’s not going to come right out and say it. 

“When is the psychic getting here?” It takes Jess a moment to retrieve the name from her memory. “Pamela. When is she getting here?” 

“A few hours, last I heard. Apparently, psychics drive fast. Something about always knowing the best route.” Sam scuffs his toes along the porch. “Did you want to sit in on the meeting?” 

“I don’t know,” Jess asks. “Am I allowed?” 

She doesn’t know who this stranger is who’s taken control of her tongue. She doesn’t want to be this way, caustic and sarcastic and unlovable. She wants to be able to be a rock, to give Sam the unwavering support that he needs, but hurt has turned her into a beast. 

“I wouldn’t have asked if you weren’t allowed.” Sam’s voice is tight, biting back irritation. His hair flops into his eyes as he looks at her, but he doesn’t make any attempt to shake it away. His jaw works, like he’s planning to say something else, but he ends up keeping silent. The porch creaks underneath him as he walks away. 

Jess watches him go. 

***

True to Sam’s prediction, Pamela arrives a few hours later, just when the sky is starting to purple. Her headlights cut through the area in front of the farmhouse, making Jess squint from where she’s looking out the window. A shadow falls over her shoulder, and she knows it’s Sam. Dean, who has been a silent, brooding presence in the corner, glances up from the book that he’s been pretending to read for most of the evening and says nothing. 

Cas, Jo and Ash were the smart ones. They volunteered to man the bar, kitchen and tables in the Roadhouse. Though it’s run down, there’s a thin stream of customers (mostly hunters) that patronize it, looking for cheap beer and news alike. For a moment, Jess wishes that she was with them. While she’d have to deal with the questionable smells and occasional wandering hand, it might be better than this tension. 

The first knock on the door goes unanswered. It’s only at the second that Jess forces her feet to move. Ellen is in the kitchen, readying dinner, so even though it’s her house, it’s Jess that answers the door. 

Jess’ first impression of Pamela Barnes is that of an unsheathed knife. It looks harmless enough, until someone stupid enough to mess with it happens to pick it up. After that, only blood can follow. 

“Hi,” Pamela says, tossing her dark hair over her shoulder. Her leather jacket creaks when she shifts, and her jeans are tight enough to have been painted on. A Ramones tee stretches tight over her chest. From the corner, Dean’s head picks up in interest. “I heard that you called for a psychic?” 

Thankfully, Ellen does appear then to make the introductions, and her no-bullshit attitude moves their party from the doorway to the living room. Once there, Pamela sits on the chair opposite Sam, and Jess takes up a position at Sam's back. Her elbows are propped on her knees, and she leans forward just far enough to expose her cleavage. Judging from the dart of her eyes towards Dean, it’s not an accidental move, though Jess wishes that she would stop looking at Sam as though he’s a rare steak. 

“So you’re him, huh? The demon boy.” Pamela’s eyes travel over Sam’s frame, elevator slow, and Jess bristles. 

She’s not the only one. Dean shoves forward, his apparent crush vanished in the insult to Sam. “Look—” he starts, only to stop at a quick gesture from Pamela. 

“Relax, studmuffin,” she drawls. “I can tell that he’s not demonic.” 

Sam’s shoulders relax just a fraction. Despite their current situation, Jess can’t help but reach out and rest her hands on his shoulders. Without looking, he reaches up and takes her hand in his. 

“Just like that?” Sam demands. 

Pamela’s eyebrow creeps up her forehead. “Well, demons are usually pretty easy to spot, if you know how to look for them. All black smoke and brimstone. You’re not like that.” A line appears between Pamela’s eyebrows as she narrows her eyes. “There’s a little… A crack? I can see it. Something demonic touched you, but it was so long ago. You’ve plastered over it, time and time again. Every act of kindness, every compassionate word, every affirmation of love, you tried to get rid of it.” 

Her eyes open. While her pupils are huge black circles in her dark eyes, her gaze is lucid. Sam, meanwhile, looks like he’s been hit over the head with a two-by-four. 

“There’s still… demon in me?” 

Pamela’s smile is kind. “Sweetheart, I’ve seen humans with no demon in them at all whose souls are a hell of a lot darker than yours. You have a crack, and as long as you don’t do anything purposeful to widen it, it’ll never grow.” 

Sam’s hand closes around Jess’ with enough strength to grind the small bones together. His shoulders tremble with the strain it takes to keep his voice even when he says, “Thank you. That’s… that’s a load off my mind.” 

Behind Pamela, Dean looks as though he’s just run a marathon and come off the worse for it. Ellen, on the other hand, looks years younger. Her shoulders are lighter, and an actual smile tugs at her mouth when Pamela asks, “So, do you know a place where a girl could get a drink around here?” 

***

Jess leaves before anyone can get truly drunk. Dean is well on his way, the combination of relief and Pamela’s presence apparently proving overwhelming. Neither Ellen nor Pamela actually appears inebriated, but their heads are tilted together in a conversation that excludes everyone else. 

And Sam… 

It’s like she and Sam are standing on opposite edges of a canyon. They can see the other person and even perform some rudimentary form of communication through hand signals, but they can’t reach each other. They’ll never be able to understand each other. Watching Sam and Dean communicate with the same wordless shorthand that she and Sam used to use is too painful, especially when she senses the subtle closing of the ranks among the Winchesters. She doesn’t even know if Sam and Dean are doing it on purpose, but the fact remains: they’re slowly going to a world that she’s not a part of. And the more she thinks about it, the less she’s sure she wants to be.

She did try. After the first round of drinks, when everyone was just beginning to forget the tension and adrenaline of the night, she went up to Sam and laid one hand over the back of his neck. She could feel the tense muscles jump underneath her fingertips, and she remembered countless nights of sitting hunched over their books, cramming for exams. He would always let her rub the tension out of his muscles then, but when she tried this time, Sam flinched away from her. 

“Sam,” she said, quietly enough so as not to be overheard by anyone else. “Sam, can we please talk?” 

Sam stared straight ahead, avoiding her eyes. “Yeah, but not right now, alright? It’s been a long night. Tomorrow. Or, you know. Whenever.” 

Jess’ hand fell back to her side. She felt like she’d been slapped. She watched as Sam got up and purposefully insinuated himself into the conversation between Ellen and Pamela. Dean spared her a single, inscrutable look before he followed. And Jess… She was left to slink out of the house and end up here, standing on the porch and watching her breath puff out of her lips in short, white bursts. 

Jess looks back towards the annex, but it looks so cold and abandoned that she can’t bring herself to sit inside the empty building. By contrast, the Roadhouse is bright and loud. Noise spills out from the windows and doors, and the light coming through the windows makes the night seem just a little less dark. 

A few heads turn when she walks into the bar; a few eyes linger longer than is specifically polite. The patrons’ eyes snap back to their drinks or their business quickly enough when Jess lets her hand fall easily to the hunting knife she decided to strap to her hip before walking in here. She wears it naturally enough that anyone who isn’t a complete idiot can tell that she knows how to use it, and whatever these hunters might be, they’re not idiots. 

Cas is working behind the bar. One eyebrow creeps up his forehead when he sees her come in, but he doesn’t say anything as she grabs a seat at the bar. Jo, however, plops down on the stool next to her. She faces the rest of the Roadhouse, her back to the bar and her elbows propped up on the counter, and she's smiling with almost insolent cheerfulness. 

“Get tired of the psychic mumbo jumbo?” 

Something about her question almost puts Jess’ teeth on edge, but she stops herself from snapping. Despite the challenge in Jo’s eyes, there’s something hungry and vulnerable behind them. Jess remembers how, earlier in the morning, she stormed out of the house once Ellen denied her the opportunity to hunt. 

As much as Jess and Sam crave normalcy, Jo craves hunting, and Jess can’t make herself be cruel to her. 

“I ended up with the distinct impression that I wasn’t wanted.” Her tone aims for casual, but falls several feet short. Behind her, Cas has been wiping off the same section of counter for several minutes, but she can’t fault him for wanting to know what happened. 

It’s unpleasant, being on the outside and looking in. 

Jo cranes her head backwards at an angle that makes Jess’ neck twinge in sympathetic pain. Jess doesn’t need to look to know that she’s having a virtually silent conversation with Cas. She knows the type, if not the particular language that the Harvelles use. Whatever the content of the conversation is, it has a final result: Jo jumping off of the stool and pressing a cloth into Jess’ hands.

“Well, lucky you ended up in here. You can help me bus some of these tables. If you work really hard, Cas might give you a beer at the end of the night.” 

Cas makes a small noise of agreement, proving that he’s been listening intently to their conversation. “You’ve got the choice between piss-water and, uhhh...piss-water lite.” 

Despite her foul mood, a smile spreads over Jess’ face. “Well, with that kind of reward, how can I refuse?” 

It’s backbreaking work. Jess is sweating by the time she finishes with the third table, but it does help keep her mind off of everything. While she works, she and Jo chatter. It’s all about inconsequential things, but with the weight of the world pressing in on all sides, it’s nice to talk about something as stupid as the latest contestant on The Bachelor. 

Jess doesn't stop working until after the last hunter has left for the night. Cas dutifully passes her a beer when she's done, and her nose crinkles as she takes a sip. “You weren’t lying about the piss-water,” she chokes, rubbing her tongue against her teeth in an attempt to get the taste out. 

Jo laughs and reaches over her to snatch the glass from her hands. She finishes the beer off in three gulps, then tosses the glass over her shoulder without looking. Cas snatches it out of the air, but not without a dirty look in Jess’ direction. 

“So, are you feeling better?” he asks. Strangely, it sounds as though he even cares about her answer. 

Jess lifts a shoulder. “I guess.” She’s a little deflated. Up until Cas asked her that question, she hadn’t been thinking about Sam at all. Now, he’s all she can think of. 

Jo holds up a finger, and then lightly vaults over the counter. Her blonde head disappears for a second, and then she reappears with a medium-sized box in her hands. A flick of her thumb opens it, and then Jess is treated to the sight of at least seven knives, all of them kept in impeccable condition. 

“You could always use one of these to get his attention,” she says brightly. Correctly reading the mixture of horror and surprise on Jess’ face, she hastens to say, “Kidding! Kidding!” 

“Jo has quite an extensive collection of knives,” Cas says, with customary dry humor. “What you’re seeing now is her Roadhouse selection. There’s also a Home collection and an Annex collection. And probably more, but I don’t know where those are kept.” 

“And you never will,” Jo answers, false sweetness dripping from every word. She turns to Jess. Her bright grin is equal parts friendly and terrifying. “So, yeah! If you want to borrow one… Well, you can’t, but, you know, it’s the thought that counts.” 

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s that dire,” Jess says. This time, when she holds out her hand for a beer, Cas hands her a bottle of Bud-Light. Jess makes a moue of distaste, but it’s better than whatever the hell Cas gave her before, so she takes a quiet drink. 

“It’s just hard, staying around when you realize that you’re not wanted,” Jess says, after a few quiet moments pass. “It makes you wonder how much longer you’re going to stick around.” 

Neither Cas nor Jo say anything, but the warm press of Jo’s shoulder into hers feels like comfort.

Chapter Text

Blood. There’s so much blood.

The coppery-warm smell of it hits Castiel as soon as he steps into the house. Thick, glistening smears of red have painted the back of the couch and discolored the delicate floral pattern of the wallpaper.

Castiel has been here before. He knows what waits for him if he keeps walking, and he doesn’t want to see it.

He tries to stop, to turn back, but he can’t seem to control his movements. His legs carry him inexorably forward, ever closer to the doorway at the far end of the living room. 

He passes a bloody handprint on the floor, and just beyond it, a long, broad trail of red, leading straight to the kitchen. The trail is interrupted and smeared in places; as though someone was dragged, kicking and screaming.

Castiel’s feet pull him to the kitchen doorway, where he sees a small boy sitting next to the stove. The black-and-white checkered floor tiles are stained crimson by twin pools of blood, spreading outward from two unmoving bodies sprawled on either side of the boy.

Alfie.

His small, delicate head is cocked to the side and he’s smiling as he drags a finger through the blood and uses it to draw nonsense patterns onto the cabinets behind him, like an obscene chalk painting.

“He’s coming for you. Azazel is coming for all of you,” Alfie sing-songs, in a sickly-sweet distortion of his usual gentle voice.

Horror chokes Castiel as the stink of rotten eggs, mixed with the metallic tang of gore, fills him up. He wants to run, to scream, to scratch out his own eyes so he can keep from seeing this abomination, wants to—

A hand lands on his shoulder, heavy and grounding.

Castiel looks up into Bill’s warm, kind face. “Don’t look, kid. Just don’t look at it anymore,” he says. Nodding numbly, Castiel fixes his eyes on the agent of his salvation, clinging tight to the last shreds of his sanity.

A shadow moves behind Bill, creeping closer.

Look out, Castiel wants to say, but the words won’t come, and then the tip of a knife pierces Bill’s chest from behind. Bill sinks to his knees, arms raised toward Castiel in supplication. The light fades from his eyes, and he crumples.

There is a dark-haired man in the kitchen doorway, his face a half-remembered scowl.

“You see, boy?” he says, turning to address someone just outside Castiel’s line of vision. “That’s how it’s done.”

Dean steps forward, hands clasped behind his back like a choir boy, and nods solemnly. As he looks up at his father, there is a vacant, adoring expression on his face that Castiel has never once seen there in real life. But then Dean’s eyes slide to the scene of horror in the kitchen, and his expression distorts into a mask of anguish. 

“Sammy, no!”

Dean rushes past Castiel and sinks to his knees on the tile floor. The bizarre, awful figure sitting in a pool of red is no longer Alfie — it’s Sam. Sam, black-eyed and grinning, his front spattered with viscera. 

Tendrils of crimson soak into the fabric of Dean’s jeans. He doesn’t seem to notice as he cradles Sam’s face in his hands. “Sam, no. No no no. Sam!” He grabs hold of Sam’s shoulders and shakes him. Sam’s head bobs back and forth, the mad grin never fading from his face. 

Eyes cold with rage, Dean turns to Castiel. “You fucking knew? You knew about my brother, and you didn’t tell me?”

Castiel tries to stammer out a reply, but the words won’t come, and then Sam moves. He raises his right hand, clutching the knife that was in Bill’s chest a minute ago. He plunges it into Dean’s gut, cackling insanely.

“No,” Castiel whispers as he watches Dean’s face go slack.

Castiel jolts awake.

His pulse races in his ears, violent nausea welling up and threatening to choke him. He tries to cover his face with his hands, but they’re shaking too badly. “Fuck,” he mumbles.

Before he met the Winchesters, he rarely dreamt of Alfie anymore. Now, he’s back to seeing his little brother’s blood-stained face almost every night, much as he did when he first came to live with the Harvelles.

Back then, when he woke up screaming, Ellen or Bill would sit with him until he’d calmed down, careful not to touch him unless he asked for it. Things didn’t truly get better until Jo decided to start sleeping in his bed. She was just a six-year-old in pigtails, but already too strong-willed to let his half-hearted objections dissuade her from what she thought was best.

And it helped, having the small, soft warmth of her close by. Over time, the dreams troubled him less and less often. By the time the two of them got too old to share a bed, Castiel had stopped being afraid to go to sleep.

But he never forgot about the demon who stole his childhood. 

He’s coming for you. Azazel is coming for all of you, it told him, right before Bill exorcised it and forced its essence back to Hell. The name "Azazel" was the only clue Castiel had as to why his first family was killed, so he spent the next fifteen years researching what little lore he could find about the Prince of Hell, trying to discover his whereabouts and plans. Nothing solid materialized until he met Sam Winchester.

No wonder the dreams came back.

Castiel is also no stranger to nightmares about Bill’s death. Over the years, his subconscious has conjured up an endless variation of scenarios that all ended the same: with John Winchester scowling down at Bill’s body.

More unusual is Dean’s presence. Castiel has never dreamt of him before, and he doesn’t see why he should. They’re nothing to each other — not even friends. Dean was very clear about that.

Their fight at Blackwater Ridge echoes through his head again, Dean’s voice harsh and angry: You fucking knew? You knew about my brother, and you didn’t tell me?

Something has been bothering Castiel about that fight, and he thinks he knows what it is now. Dean sounded furious, but really? He was afraid. He was afraid for his little brother, and hiding it behind a façade of anger and bravado. It’s not Castiel’s chosen coping mechanism — that would be sarcasm and a tendency to withdraw from other people — but the end goal is the same: a way to keep the fear at a distance without actually dealing.

Still feeling a little shaky, Castiel pulls on a t-shirt and some sweatpants and stumbles downstairs. The sun has barely risen, only a few milky-pale rays sneaking through the curtains in the living room and kitchen.

When Castiel gets to the bottom of the stairs, there’s a bloody smear on the banister. He closes his eyes and counts to three. When he opens them again, the blood is gone.

Breathing past a fresh wave of nausea, he staggers to the kitchen and fills the coffeemaker with water. He’s going to need so much coffee.

He was at the Roadhouse until closing last night. According to the digital clock on the microwave, it’s barely six o’clock in the morning, meaning he got less than four hours of sleep. But it can’t be helped. Even if he could fall asleep again, he would rather chew broken glass than risk another nightmare.

Castiel is trying to focus on watching the calming, steady drip of black liquid into the coffee pot when he hears the front door open and shut. He doesn’t recognize the rhythm of the footsteps approaching down the corridor, and he immediately tenses up, hand flying to the knife block.

He turns to find Dean in the doorframe, and the echo of Castiel’s dream is so vivid, it takes him a moment to blink away the vision of a knife protruding from Dean’s gut.

But Dean is fine, healthy and whole, and looking at Castiel with an expression that sits halfway between suspicious and confused.  

“Hi,” Castiel says, mostly to break the lingering spell of the dream, but he immediately feels like a fool. They’re not supposed to be talking, let alone be friendly.

Dean blinks, clearly just as surprised as Castiel at the break in hostilities. “Um. Hey.” Dean jerks his chin at the coffeemaker. “Actually came to see if there was coffee.”

Castiel nods, and pulls two mugs out of the cabinet, holding one out to Dean. After the barest moment of hesitation, Dean walks all the way into the kitchen and joins Castiel in front of the counter, taking the mug from him. Their fingers brush, and Castiel’s eyes catch on Dean’s for just a moment. They’re very green.

For fuck’s sake, he reprimands himself. You’re not supposed to be noticing things about him.

Yet, Castiel can’t quite seem to look away either. But then Dean clears his throat, and the moment breaks. “What’re you doing up so early?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Castiel says, turning away to retrieve some eggs and bacon from the fridge. He still feels vaguely nauseous, but an excuse to keep his hands busy and his eyes off Dean suddenly seems like an excellent idea.

To Castiel’s complete bafflement, Dean doesn’t take the hint. Instead, he trails after Castiel, taking the package of bacon and carton of eggs right out of his hands.

“Let me,” Dean says. “You don’t look so hot.” Dean flushes, and Castiel can’t fathom what he’s supposed to do with the information that Dean’s freckles are very lovely with a bit of pink to accentuate them. “Um, I mean. You look fine, you just… just, like you didn’t sleep. You know what I mean.”

Dean’s voice sounds gruff, but he looks flustered, and Castiel is more surprised than ever when he realizes there’s a smile pulling at his own lips. Dean doesn’t return it, having schooled his face back into a devil-may-care scowl. “Just sit and drink your coffee,” he growls, pointedly turning his back on Castiel.

Castiel fills his mug and retreats to the table as instructed, watching as Dean busies himself at the stove. Before long, the delicious smell of crispy bacon and scrambled eggs wafts through the kitchen. Nausea is now the farthest thing from Castiel’s mind.

Dean doesn’t talk while he cooks, other than to ask about where to find salt and pepper. But the silence between them isn’t awkward. If anything, it feels… domestic. Castiel shakes his head to clear whatever cobwebs are muddling his thoughts. The words “domestic” and “Winchester” do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.

Just as Dean starts plating two servings of perfectly crisped bacon and outrageously fluffy eggs, the front door opens again, and Sam walks into the kitchen, looking just as worn out as Castiel feels. “Oh. Hey, guys.”

Sam slumps into the chair next to Castiel. Dean puts plates piled high with food in front of them, then goes back to get another for himself.  

They focus on their food, none of them apparently feeling very talkative. Still, Castiel can’t help but notice the way Dean’s eyes dart up to Sam every so often, as though he’s working up to something. Eventually, he says, “I need to take off for a couple days.”

Castiel’s fork clatters onto his plate. He doesn’t remember losing his grip on it.

Dean flinches, eyes darting to Castiel. Sam looks mostly confused, a bite of egg suspended halfway between the plate and his mouth. “What?” he asks.

“Yeah, I, um. Late last night, I got a call from this guy, Jerry Panowski, from Pennsylvania. Dad and I helped him out on a poltergeist case a couple years ago.”

“Is it back?” Sam asks, then shovels more eggs into his mouth.

“Nah, but something else is going on. Our kind of something,” Dean mumbles around a piece of bacon that’s still partway poking out of his mouth. Castiel tries hard to find it disgusting and annoying, especially since Dean is clearly hatching yet another stupid, half-cocked plan. “He wouldn’t give me any details at first, but I pushed him a little, and he said a friend of his was piloting a plane that crashed. Jerry listened to the cockpit voice recorder and found EVP on it.”

Castiel should stay out of this. He doesn’t know why he would do anything else. And yet, he seems to be talking. “I can call some of my contacts, and maybe Ash could ask around too. Between the two of us, we’ll be able to find somebody to work the case.”  

Dean shakes his head mulishly. “Can’t do it. Jerry brought this to me personally. He said he put his job on the line talking about the recording at all, because the investigation’s supposed to be confidential. He’s not gonna trust some random hunter he never met.”

Sam’s response is a lot more surprising than Dean’s. “Well, if you think I’m letting you go alone, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Dean freezes. “What?”

“There’s something out there, Dean. None of us should be going off on our own right now, and least of all somebody who’s close to me.” A shadow flickers across Sam’s face, there and gone in the blink of an eye. “What happened to Brady proved that.”

“You’re not leaving here, Sam,” Dean says, pointing a warning finger at his brother. “This place is safe. With all that warding, no demon’s gonna be able to come within ten miles of you.”

“Whatever Azazel’s got planned, it’s not happening yet, and he’ll want me in one piece until it does. So I’m the best person to watch your back,” Sam shoots back, determined not to give an inch. Apparently, stubbornness is a family trait.

Dean looks unhappy, but gives a resigned nod.

Castiel looks back and forth between them, completely at a loss. “You’re both insane. What about the leads we have? The names of the special children? We should be looking into those. Look, if this is about trying to find John Winchester again—”

When Dean turns to him, his expression is cold and furious in a way Castiel hasn’t seen all morning. “There were more than a hundred people on that flight. You know how many survived?”

Castiel refuses to rise to the bait, knowing perfectly well that Dean is going to answer his own question anyway.

“Seven. Seven people survived.” Dean’s eyes bore into Castiel’s, blazing with righteous anger, but Castiel doesn’t look away.

“Something brought down that plane,” Dean snaps. “If we don’t stop it, it might kill again. We’ll go look into it, take a couple days at most. There’s at least three capable hunters here to work the leads, plus a psychic. Hell, Bobby’s coming this way too and—”

Castiel has heard enough. He pushes back his chair, abandoning his half-eaten breakfast to head back upstairs and drink his coffee in peace.

Let Dean Winchester and his brother do whatever the hell they want. The only reason Castiel cares about any of this is because he needs Sam. Rather, he needs Sam’s connection to Azazel if he wants to find the demon that ended his childhood on a blood-soaked floor, fifteen years ago.  

It’s not until Castiel gets back to his room that he remembers he left his coffee behind in the kitchen.

  devils trap divider

There’s something achingly familiar about the oil-and-leather smell of the Impala’s interior, the way the engine roars with every acceleration, the rattle of the vents when the heat comes on. 

Back at Stanford, Sam used to put a lot of effort into convincing himself that he didn’t miss his family and its horror-soaked, revenge-driven business; that he never would. But it turns out not to be as simple as that.

His insides are a tangle of contradictory emotions: relief at the tentative understanding he’s reached with Dean. Excitement at the prospect of a supernatural mystery waiting to be solved (because he always did enjoy the intellectual challenge that comes with most hunts). The creeping dread of the speck of contamination inside him, which even Pamela’s reassurances couldn’t entirely dislodge. And, perhaps most of all, the hurt and anger that rises every time he thinks about Jess.

He saw that hurt and anger reflected back at him when he told Jess he was taking off for a few days. Two hours into the drive to Pennsylvania, her body language is still seared into his brain — the way her lips thinned and her eyes shuttered, her arms wrapping around her chest in an attempt to close herself off.

She stormed out of the room before he could explain, cutting off his promise that they’d talk after he came back. He tried to go after her, but, judging by the death glare he got from Jo when he asked where Jess had gone, she didn’t want to be found.

Sam is painfully aware that he deserves that glare, and Jess’ silence, and a lot more besides. He’s been putting off the conversation about their relationship, even though it absolutely needs to happen before the gap between them widens to the point where it can’t be bridged at all. But he’s never done well when he feels backed into a corner, and life has been nothing but corners lately. He’s been reacting to one crisis after another, as has Jess.

He just needs… space. Just for a little while, so he can process. His own future, and Jess’, hinges on the outcome of their talk, and at this point, he doesn’t even know what he wants that future to look like.

Dean’s voice tears Sam out of his spiraling thoughts. “Why were you so gung-ho about coming along on this hunt anyway? And don’t give me that bullshit about keeping me safe. I can take care of myself.”

Sam shrugs and looks out the window, watching the flat, grey-brown landscape of eastern Nebraska flash by. “Maybe I wanted to spend some time with you. It’s been years since we’ve hung out, just the two of us.”

Dean snorts. “Yeah, right. You’re running away from Jess.”

“I’m not running away,” Sam says, even though he absolutely is. “And I don’t want to talk about it.”

“C’mon, man.” Dean’s tone is airy and teasing, in the specific way that Sam knows masks real concern. “Of the two of us, you were always Mr. Feelings. Between Jess and the vision thing, you can’t tell me you haven’t got a whole bunch of emotions up in that floppy-haired Sasquatch head of yours.”

To emphasize his point, Dean reaches over and flicks Sam’s temple. Sam swats at him.

“Look, if I knew what to do about any of it, I’d tell you.” Outside the window, a green road sign flashes by. Twenty miles to Omaha. “But I don’t. Jess and I are out of sync, and I don’t know how to fix it, or even if I want to. I have no idea what’s going on with the vision thing, or how to fix that either. Basically, I can’t do a damn thing. So I’m just trying to get out of my own head for a day or two and spend some time with my brother. Is that so hard to understand?”

Sam isn’t exactly sure when he started to raise his voice, but by the end, he’s shouting. Dean doesn’t seem put out though. He just nods, lips pursed and eyes fixed on the road ahead. “It’s not,” he says quietly.

“You’re probably happy to get some space too. You and Castiel are always at each other’s throats over one thing or another.” Sam doesn’t mean anything in particular by the remark. He’s just trying to make conversation about something other than his own issues, but Dean’s shoulders stiffen, and his hold on the steering wheel tightens visibly.

“Captain Tightass ain’t here with us, so let’s not conjure him up, alright?” Dean says, flat and final.

Sam watches the tick of a muscle in his brother’s jaw, and just like that, the pieces fall into place.

Sam likes to think he’s fairly observant in general. Whatever his dad’s faults might be, he did teach his sons how to read people. So, growing up, Sam noticed the way Dean’s eyes would sometimes linger just a little on good-looking guys. And every once in a while, Sam noticed those guys looking back, a small spark of interest passing back and forth. Whenever that happened, Sam knew it was going to be the kind of night where Dean would either get drunk out of his mind or start a fight. Possibly both. As far as Sam could tell, those were the only two ways Dean ever acted on his attraction to other men: drowning it, or channeling it into aggression.

But things are different with Castiel. Unlike those other guys, he won’t be out of sight, out of mind by morning. At least, not while they’re all staying at the Roadhouse. So Dean can pick fights, and he can drink, but Castiel will still be there the next day. Eventually, something will have to give.

Dean’s knuckles stand out white against his skin where he’s still clutching the steering wheel much too tightly, and Sam thinks maybe his brother is doing a little running of his own.

  devils trap divider

The Winchesters are long gone by the time Castiel emerges from his room. Of course, that also means that the food is long gone. Accordingly, Castiel is forced to silence the unhappy grumblings of his stomach with a protein bar. He finishes it and picks oats out of his teeth with the tip of his tongue, all the while thinking mournfully of the hot plate of bacon and eggs that he abandoned earlier this morning. 

He’d rather dig up a fresh, gooey corpse than admit that Dean’s breakfast was delicious. 

Of course, because Castiel’s life is an epic farce, Ash and Jo are waiting for him in the living room. Jo sprawls across the couch, and her mean little grin tells Castiel that she was waiting to corner him whenever he slunk back to civilization. Ash, meanwhile, in true Ash fashion, lies on the ground with his feet propped up against the back of the couch. He’s staring at the ceiling, seeing whatever Ash things are up there, but he moves quickly enough when Castiel digs a toe into his ribs. 

“What the hell,” Ash complains, but not without good nature. He squints at Castiel. “You might want to move. Right now, I can see straight up your nose, and trust me, it’s not a pretty view.” 

Castiel glares, but takes a step back. “Special children. Where’s the nearest one? If the Winchesters are going to go swanning off and do whatever they damn well please, Jess and I might as well do something productive.” 

“Andy Gallagher, last known address in Guthrie, Oklahoma,” Ash drawls. “‘Bout a seven-hour drive? Maybe more, considering your rolling rubble heap.” 

Castiel shoots a sharp glare towards Ash, which is ignored. “I like my car.” It’s an old refrain that falls flat. Jo arches an eyebrow at him. 

“I bet Dean could fix your car,” Jo says. Her voice is low and insinuating, and Castiel hates her a little bit in that moment. 

“Has anyone seen Jess this morning? Ash?” 

Jo and Ash do an excellent job of pretending he’s not speaking. “That Dean’s pretty cute, huh? Those eyes.” Jo elongates the two-syllable word into at least eight syllables. 

“He is awfully pretty for a hunter,” Ash acknowledges. 

“Too bad Cas has dibs.” 

Jo grins at him. Her eyes sparkle with the kind of malice only found in a younger sibling. Castiel glowers. 

“You assume that I’m attracted to dicks.” 

“Well, aren’t you?” Jo asks archly. 

Castiel winces. “Fair enough, I walked into that one. But you know what I mean. I’m not attracted to assholes. Fuck. You know what I mean!” 

“The Castiel doth protest too much, methinks,” and Castiel is going to murder Jo. 

“How is it that you only remember Shakespeare when it’s most likely to piss me off?” he asks through gritted teeth. 

“Hey, I like Shakespeare,” Jo protests. “The Lion King was good. And I liked 10 Things I Hate About You.” 

“Good for you,” Castiel sneers. “In the meantime, keep your nose out of my business, unless you want it chopped off.” 

“Ooooh, tough words,” Jo jeers. Ash has rearranged himself to sit cross-legged on the floor. He watches the interaction between them as though he’s at a mildly interesting tennis match. It’s all for show: Ash has seen much more interesting fights than this. 

“Fuck off,” Castiel mutters, without heat. He doesn’t want to fight with Jo, but the idea that he could be attracted to Dean Winchester is… Well, Jo’s not often stupid, but sometimes she’s the dumbest person on the face of the earth. 

“Castiel Harvelle, language!” Ellen’s scolding voice sounds from behind him. 

“Like I didn’t learn half of those words from you,” he says, without turning around. He gets a slap upside the back of his head for his troubles, which, to be fair, he deserved. 

“If you and Jess are going to go find that boy, then you need to leave now. Otherwise it’ll be dark by the time you get there, and you’ll have wasted a day.” 

Ellen has to reach higher than she used to in order to ruffle his hair, but she manages. “Call us when you get there, and make sure you come back.” 

“Yeah, yeah, of course.” Castiel mimics irritation, but happiness curls warm through his chest.

He’ll never erase the horror of that one night, the blood and gore and death, but when he thinks of family, he thinks of Ellen’s chili, Jo’s snark, and Bill’s smile. 

***

Castiel packs the car with his duffel, and Jess does the same. After bidding a quick farewell to Ellen, and promising again to check in once they arrive, he and Jess make their way to Guthrie, Oklahoma. It’s definitely not the worst road trip he’s taken (that dubious honor belongs to a twelve-hour drive from Bozeman, Montana, to Denver, Colorado, all performed with a broken tibia), but it’s not necessarily the most comfortable one either. He and Jess are still virtual strangers to each other, and music fills the majority of the silence along the drive. 

“What do you think he’ll be like?” Jess asks, after they stop at a gas station to refuel and use the bathroom. She chews idly at a Twizzler and stares out the windshield. When she feels Castiel’s eyes on her, she turns in her seat to look at him. “Andy, I mean.” 

Castiel shrugs and taps his fingers against the steering wheel. “Difficult to say. I mean, he might not even know anything’s different about him. Sam didn’t, until his visions started. Andy might just be a regular guy.” 

“Or?” Jess prompts. Castiel silently curses her intuition. 

“He has demon blood in him. Who knows what it does to a person’s psyche? Not everyone can be Sam. It might have… changed him.” He can tell, from how Jess slumps back into the seat and her subsequent silence, that she doesn’t much appreciate his answer. “Anyway, it’s not going to do us any good to wonder about it now. We’ll just see what happens when we get there.” 

Jess hums a wordless agreement, and they finish the rest of the drive to Guthrie in silence. 

***

Upon their arrival, Castiel and Jess make short work of checking out the address Ash gave them. They worked out their story on the way into town: he and Jess will pose as lawyers of Andy’s aunt’s estate, on their way to deliver the news of his windfall. Generally speaking, the news of incoming wealth, even if it’s not for them, will loosen people’s tongues.  

Under that guise, Jess and Castiel quickly find that although Andy has an apartment, he rarely spends the night there. When asked about his whereabouts, his neighbor shrugs. “He hangs out at the diner sometimes?” 

A trip to the diner sends them out on yet another wild goose chase. Their waitress, Tracey, just shrugs her shoulders when asked about Andy, but there’s a small smile tugging at her lips. “Yeah, he comes here a lot. He’s kinda… different? But not, like, bad different. He’s nice to hang out with.” Seeming to realize that she’s just standing next to their table with a slightly dopey expression on her face, Tracey straightens up and clears her throat. “Anyway. Hasn’t stopped by today though.” 

A young man, whose name tag reads “Webber,” stops by to pop his head into their conversation. “Andy? Man, that guy is awesome! He can get you tickets to anything.” Nodding in satisfaction, he walks away. 

Tracey tops off their coffees. “You could try looking for his van?” 

Castiel blinks. “His van?” he asks stupidly, when it appears that no other information will be forthcoming. 

“Oh, yeah. It’s a big purple van with a barbarian woman riding a polar bear on it. You can’t miss it.” 

Thankfully, Jess is there to pick up his slack, because Castiel finds himself dumbfounded. His brain runs in circles trying to picture this van and comes up empty. It isn’t until Tracey leaves that Jess leans in close to him and whispers, “So I guess we’re trying to find a van now?” 

Castiel tosses a few bills onto the table to cover their meal. It’s probably more than the meal was worth, but he’s never heard a waitress complain about getting a bigger tip. He and Jess start walking down the street, and it only takes them a few blocks before they see it. 

Normally, when someone tells Castiel You can’t miss it, he knows that he’s in for at least a few hours of searching. However, Tracey’s words prove the exception to the rule, because parked on the side of the street is a lurid purple van with a very busty barbarian woman triumphantly riding a roaring polar bear. 

“Oh,” Castiel says, a little unnecessarily. “There it is.” 

He and Jess approach the van. Castiel squints and looks in the driver’s seat to find it empty, while Jess goes around back. When Castiel joins her there, she already has a thin set of lock-picks out, and her forehead is screwed up in concentration as she works. Castiel is impressed when it takes her only a few seconds to pick the lock. 

The skunky smell of pot assaults Castiel’s nostrils as he and Jess open up the doors. It smells like what Ash smokes, which leads him to believe that, if they ever met, Andy and Ash would get on like a house on fire. 

Jess laughs as she unearths a bong that’s at least half as tall as her. “Is it just me, or does this guy seem like he would know how to party?” 

Meanwhile, Castiel crawls into the back of the van, past the bead curtain, to flip through some of the possessions there. His eyebrows rise when he sees the books tossed carelessly in the corner, and he picks several up to show Jess. “These books are beyond college level,” he says, flipping through some of the pages. Complicated equations blur before his eyes. Castiel considers himself intelligent, but these problems are well beyond his capacity. 

“Jess, who is this guy?” 

Castiel never gets an answer to his question. Someone asks, “Who are you?” and Castiel hurries to crawl out of the van. 

Standing behind them is a short man with beard scruff and curly brown hair. He doesn’t look threatening (he’s dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, for God’s sake), yet there’s something about him that puts Castiel’s senses on high alert. 

“Are you Andy Gallagher?” Jess asks, recovering herself first. 

The man’s eyes shift towards her. “Who wants to know?” 

Jess plasters a wide smile on her face. “Well, we’re associates from the firm of Curie and Johnson, and we’re here with exciting news. Is there anywhere that we can talk?” 

A little too late, Castiel nods in support. Andy squints at him, then turns his suspicious gaze to Jess. Her ingratiating smile is a little warmer than Castiel’s, but neither seems to have an effect on him. Andy’s face darkens in a scowl. 

“You’re lying.” That accusation alone would be bad enough, but worse is yet to come. The air sparks and bristles around Andy, and the hair on the back of Castiel’s neck stands on end in warning. The words tumble out of Andy’s mouth, power dripping from every syllable.

“Tell the truth.” 

For a second, nothing happens. Castiel almost relaxes, but then… Something hooks in his brain, obedience beyond rational thought, and one by one, his secrets come tumbling out of his mouth. Worse, he’s almost happy to be giving them up. Beside him, he hears Jess’ voice overlapping his, until they’re speaking in a strange tandem of honesty. 

“See, we started looking for you because it turns out that you’ve got demon blood in you, and we needed to make sure that you’re not evil. I don’t think you’re evil, but we have to make sure. My boyfriend has demon blood in him too, and he’s not evil, but maybe he’s secretly evil and just hiding it well, and you know, I’m not really sure that I want him to be my boyfriend at the end of this—”

“I’m working with these hunters, but I don’t really trust them because their dad got my dad killed, and everything I see of them tells me that they’re just like their father, plus there’s the demon blood thing, which means that they can’t be trusted, but I also really like having someone else to hunt with, and Dean is really good with kids, and makes a good breakfast, and when the sunlight hits his freckles in just the right way, they’re beautiful—” 

Castiel and Jess both ramble to a stop at the same time. Heat spreads across the back of Castiel’s neck to the tips of his ears. What just came out of his mouth… No one was ever meant to hear that. Thankfully, Jess appears to be in the same boat. Her face is a brilliant red, and she doesn’t seem to be able to meet his eyes.  

It’s then that he blinks and looks around. He and Jess are the only ones standing on an empty street. 

Andy Gallagher is gone.

***

Castiel and Jess regroup at the same diner where they had breakfast. The waitress, Tracey, seems unsurprised to see either them, or their expressions of vague shock. “I told you,” she says, refilling their water glasses and taking their menus. “Andy’s just…” The smile on her face is fond. “He’s something special.” 

“Yeah,” Castiel mutters, picking at a hangnail. “Special.” 

God, he wants a cigarette. 

He and Jess pick at their food. The lettuce in Jess’ salad is wilted as it swims in watery dressing, and his club sandwich has seen better days, but that’s not what keeps their eyes away from each other. Castiel can’t stop replaying those last damning words in his head: not so much the parts about the Winchesters (he’s said the same to their faces, and he holds no shame for that), but about what came after. About Dean. 

Castiel’s stomach churns, and he pushes his sandwich away. Next to him, Jess looks relieved for an excuse to stop poking at her lackluster salad. She occupies her time with shredding the wrapper from her straw, and Castiel senses that it falls to him to start this conversation. 

“So, it looks like Andy has some form of mind control ability,” he says, keeping his voice low just in case Tracey comes to their table. “That would fall in line with the theory that the special children all have some kind of psychic power.” 

“Tell the truth,” Jess echoes, ripping the already small pieces of her wrapper into infinitesimal shreds. “Is that mind control? Is that the power of suggestion?” 

“Whatever it is, he could do a lot of damage with that power. I mean, pulling cheap party tricks like getting concert tickets is one thing, but imagine what else he could do. What kind of chaos he could cause.” 

Jess’ forehead crinkles as if she’s deep in thought. Castiel’s about to ask her what she’s thinking about, but he’s interrupted by a staticky news report coming from the TV in the corner. “Reports from witnesses are still sketchy and many seem to conflict, but all agree that there was no violence involved in this bank robbery. Tellers cannot recall the details of the suspect’s face, but all remember him as being polite and accommodating. One teller even reports that she was ‘happy’ to hand over the money, though she has no idea what possessed her to commit the act.” 

Jess straightens. All of her attention is focused on the TV. “Sam saw that happening,” she whispers. Her eyes cut to Castiel. “He had a vision when he was leaving the park at Blackwater Ridge, and he saw a bank robbery almost exactly like that.” 

Castiel’s mind whirs through the facts. They have one of the special children, who seems capable of controlling people with just the sound of his voice, and another special child, Sam, who saw a vision of just this thing happening. His stomach clenches at the thought of confronting Andy again — Andy, who so easily stripped secrets from his mind that he didn’t even know he had — but this is his job.

Jess correctly reads the expression on his face. This time, it’s her who tosses down a few bills on the table. “I think we need to find Andy Gallagher again,” she says grimly. 

***

Castiel and Jess head back to the Continental and make their way down the streets of Guthrie, slowly enough to attract the occasional honk from other drivers. Castiel reaches for the police scanner he keeps in the car and sets it up, just to give them advance warning of any calls regarding a suspicious vehicle. For now, everything is quiet, so they continue the search. 

They find Andy’s van parked on a different side street. Castiel parks directly behind it and reaches for his gun. He checks the magazine and flicks the safety, and after a few moments, Jess does the same. Castiel stares out the windshield at the back of Andy’s van and says, “If he starts to use his powers, shoot him. I don’t want to think of the damage he could do while both of us are armed.” 

The order sits squeamishly in his belly, but Castiel isn’t taking any chances. He’s going to have nightmares for weeks over having his innermost thoughts dragged forth like a child’s plaything. He won’t take the risk of anything worse. 

Judging by the look on Jess’ face, she’s having difficulty with the idea of shoot first, ask questions later, but she doesn’t argue. They both exit the car and take flanking positions at the back of the van. Castiel grabs the handle to the rear door and meets Jess’ eyes. She settles her position and lifts her gun before giving him a short nod. 

Castiel takes a deep breath. Then, in one smooth movement, he pulls open the rear door and slides around to peer into the back of the van. “Get out!” he shouts, raising his voice over the ‘80s synth-pop blaring from the speakers. 

Smoke billows out of the van’s interior, followed by Andy’s head. His hair is messy and his eyes are rimmed red. “What the…” he starts, seemingly more confused than furious. “You’re the guys from earlier. What do you want with me?” 

“Get the fuck out of the van.” Castiel spits the command out through gritted teeth. Despite his warning to Jess, his finger rests on the trigger guard. Somehow, he can’t bear to bring himself to shoot someone who’s not actively threatening him. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to relax around Andy, however. 

“We want to talk to you about the bank robberies,” Jess adds. 

Maybe, out of the two of them, she looks like the more reasonable person (ridiculous, because she’s also pointing a gun at Andy). Andy chooses to direct his question to her. “What bank robbery? I live out of a van.”

Castiel’s patience, never a long-lasting resource, starts to fray at the edges. “The one you pulled off this afternoon, using mind control. Unless you want to suggest that there’s someone else in this town with your exact same set of powers?” 

Andy performs an excellent pantomime of confusion, blinking slowly and mouthing What? in Jess’ direction. Before he can argue or use his powers, the police scanner squawks in the background. Castiel tries to ignore it — the last thing he needs is to be distracted by someone’s domestic dispute — but a low hiss from Jess grabs his attention. 

Beyond furious, he takes his eyes off Andy for a second to see what’s bothered her, and she jerks her head towards the scanner. “Listen!” she orders, when she sees that he’s about to open his mouth. 

Though every atom of Castiel’s body screams in rebellion at allowing even a second of inattention when it comes to Andy, he thinks that Jess has earned a modicum of trust from him. He listens to the scratchy voice coming through the speakers. Immediately, it’s clear why Jess wanted him to listen. 

“—one teller reports a robbery in progress at the Bank of Guthrie, corner of West and Maple. No confirmed description of the suspect, but reports indicate a similar MO to this morning’s robbery—” 

Once again, Castiel’s brain kicks into overdrive. The pieces are scattered all over, but there’s only one way to arrange them that makes sense. 

“There’s someone else,” he says, tucking his gun into his waistband. The moment the gun disappears, the tension bleeds out of Andy. He leans against the interior of the van, tiny in his relief and puzzlement. Castiel looks over at Jess and sees that she’s put the pieces together, same as him. 

“Someone else in this town has the same powers as you do, and they’re the one who’s robbing all the banks.” 

  devils trap divider

The skunky atmosphere inside Andy’s van is less than ideal for a strategy session, so the three of them relocate to the Continental, whose only failing is a stale old-person smell that clings to its vinyl seats at all times. (That, and the embarrassment of being seen in it, Jess thinks, biting down on her bottom lip to keep a smile from forming at the thought. Cas seems awfully attached to his hideous car, and Jess has dealt with worse problems.)

“So you have no idea who this other person might be?” Jess asks, turning around to face Andy, who’s got the lost, anxious look of someone whose buzz has been harshed.

“None.” Andy fidgets against the back seat, eyeing Jess and Cas uncertainly. “So this… this stuff I can do. You’re saying it comes from—”

“Demon blood, yes,” Castiel cuts him off. “Back in 1983, this demon chose several children and fed them some of his blood to give them psychic powers, like visions of the future, or mind control. We’re not sure why the demon chose the people it did, but it seems the ultimate goal is to groom them as soldiers for a coming war.”

“That’s fucking insane, man!” Andy runs a hand through his hair, causing it to stand on end. “I’d say, ‘Why the hell should I believe you guys?’ But one, I already put the truth whammy on you, and two, I guess part of me always figured the other shoe would drop about this mind control thing.” He chuckles weakly. “I never got that lucky before. There had to be a catch.”

Cas rolls his eyes in a distinct well, duh fashion before he lets them unfocus, staring unseeing at the sidewalk. Even in the week or so that Jess has known him, she’s managed to realize that Cas prefers solving cases inside his own head, rather than through conversations with witnesses. Sighing inwardly, she prepares to keep the interview going by herself.

“So, as far as we know, the only thing you and the other people have in common is that their moms died in nursery fires when they were six months old. Your mom did, right?”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t know what happened to my birth mom. My adoptive mom did, though.”

Cas whips around, his focus instantly on Andy. “You’re adopted?”

“Yeah, what—”

“Were you born in this county?” Cas asks urgently.

“Yeah,” Andy replies, plainly confused.

Cas turns the key in the ignition, the Continental’s engine wheezing and squeaking to reluctant life. “I think I have an idea. Andy, can you get us into the county office to look at local birth records?”

At the prospect of a problem with an obvious solution, naked relief spreads across Andy’s face. “Hell yeah.”

*** 

“Probably shouldn’t have let you kids in here,” the elderly guard says, casting a troubled glance back over his shoulder at Cas, who’s busy removing boxes from shelves and piling them onto the small table at the center of the room.

“No, it’ll all be fine,” Andy says, his smile so friendly and reassuring that even Jess feels herself relaxing a little at the sight. Before they left, Andy consented to leave his robe and slippers in the van and put on actual clothes. Mind control powers or not, a grown man walking around a government office in loungewear is bound to arouse suspicion.

“Just go get a coffee, alright?” Andy says, slinging a friendly arm around the guard’s shoulder. In a whisper, he adds, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”

Jess barely stifles a snort, but when she looks up to catch Cas’ eye, his expression is all squinty-eyed confusion.

“Dude, you’ve never seen Star Wars?”

“Oh.” Cas shakes his head. “Not in a long time. My little brother used to love—” He breaks off, clamping his jaw shut with an audible click. Before Jess can say anything else, Cas steps away to retrieve another box, the set of his shoulders tight as he retreats.

Oblivious to the sudden change in mood, Andy saunters back in. “Alright, he’s taken care of. So what’re we doing?”

“Looking for your birth record,” Cas says, opening a box at random and waving his hand to dispel the small cloud of dust that rises from it. “I have a hunch that we’ve been going about all this the wrong way.”

“What do you mean?” Jess asks, pulling up a box of her own.

“I mean that we’ve been looking for children whose mothers died in house fires, but we’ve only been able to find four of them. Clearly, there’s at least one more, and our search for house fires didn’t turn him up. We’re missing something.”

“Right. But what else did the kids have in common, as far as we know?”

“I’m not sure. We know Azazel chose children who were born in the spring of 1983, but maybe that wasn’t the only criterion. Maybe he favored certain bloodlines.”

“You mean if I had a cousin or something who was born around the same time, they might have powers too?” Andy asks, visibly trying to slot the pieces into place.

“Exactly.”

“Huh.” Jess half-pulls a file folder from inside her box, but it’s labeled October 1965, so she shoves it back. “So if we can track down the name of Andy’s birth mother, we can try to talk to her, see if she can help us find any relatives of Andy’s who might be our mystery bank robber.”

Cas nods absently, bent over a stack of yellowed forms he’s pulled from one of his boxes. Andy picks a box and gets to work too. They rifle through the files with increasing frustration, because whoever was in charge of filing the county’s records apparently had only a passing familiarity with the alphabet and the concept of chronological order. Jess is on her fourth box by the time Cas clears his throat.

“Got it,” he says. “Date of birth May 23, 1983, mother Holly Beckett.”

“Huh.” Andy drops the folder he was holding back into his box, raising another small cloud of dust. “That name doesn't ring a bell. If she still lives around here, I’ve never met her. Can’t decide if I’m happy about that or not.”

“Holy shit,” Cas says, his eyes traveling down the paper at lightning speed. “Holly Beckett gave birth to twins.”

Andy gapes at Cas. “Hold up. You’re saying I have an evil twin?”

Jess moves around the table to look over Cas’ shoulder. “Looks like. A brother. Obviously, you went to the Gallagher family, and your brother—”

Cas shuffles the stack of papers he’s holding to reveal an adoption record. “The Weems family, from upstate. They named him Ansem. Does that sound familiar at all?”

Andy shakes his head, looking a little dazed. “Nope. What does this guy look like?”

“Hang on. I’ll check out his DMV record, if he’s got one.” Jess moves to the computer terminal at the far side of the room, pulling up the records search. It takes no more than a few keystrokes until the screen shows a result. “Guys? You might want to look at this.”

Andy appears at Jess’ side, bending over to look at the screen. There’s an audible intake of breath. “Fuck. That’s Webber.”

“His address is local,” Cas says, already halfway to the door. “Let’s go.”

*** 

Cas’ expression is frozen in marble as he steers the Continental through an outlying neighborhood of Guthrie. To an outsider, he would seem perfectly calm, but Jess is starting to learn this about him: the more stoic his demeanor, the more he’s freaking the fuck out. 

To distract herself from her own worries about the looming confrontation, Jess turns to face the tightly curled ball of anxiety in the backseat. “Alright, Andy. Tell us everything you know about this guy.”

“Well, I mean, not much,” Andy says, hands twisting uneasily in his lap. “He shows up one day, like, a couple weeks ago? Acting like he’s my best friend in the world. Kinda weird, you know. Like he’s trying too hard.”

Cas grimaces, as though Andy just confirmed his worst suspicions. “He must have known you guys were twins. Which makes it all the more odd that he changed his name. Why not just come right out and say he was your brother?”

“No idea,” Andy says, looking forlornly at the trees and houses flashing past the window.

Less than five minutes later, they pull up in front of a narrow two-story. The block around it is decidedly less trim and cheerful than Guthrie’s downtown. The paint jobs on the houses have faded with decades’ worth of sun exposure, the windows are barred and the grass in the yards is patchy and yellowed. A Rottweiler barks its displeasure from where it’s chained by the steps of a half-collapsed front porch. A small playground sits at the end of the street, the slide cracked down the middle. 

“Scenic,” Jess mutters as she scans the block for any threats. “Okay, this is really important. We have to make sure he doesn’t suspect anything. We just want to talk to him for now, and we have to keep him from using his powers on us at all costs, alright? You remember the cover story?”

Andy nods, too quick and too shaky. “Yeah.”

Jess wishes they had more time to prepare him, but it’s no use. They’re here, and they have to do this.

They stroll up the walk, Andy taking the lead, Jess making an effort to keep her posture loose as she falls into step beside Cas. She can’t help but wonder if this Ansem guy can sense them coming. Maybe he’s already watching them. She barely resists the urge to check the windows for a telltale curtain twitch.

They walk up the lopsided, weathered steps that lead to the front door, Andy stepping up to the door to knock.

“Hey, Webber? It’s me, man. Andy.” Andy pitches his voice to be heard inside the house. It only shakes a little, and Jess feels a small surge of pride at how well Andy is dealing with all this, considering. Maybe he’s still got some residual THC floating around his system.

The door opens to reveal the young man from the diner. Jess notices him now in a way she didn’t before — the defensive way he hunches in on himself, the way his small, washed-out-blue eyes dart around as he takes them in.

“Hey, man. What’s going on? What’re these two doing here?” Ansem’s gaze is laser-focused on Andy even as he jerks his head at Jess and Cas in turn. 

“They’re with a nonprofit that helps adopted kids find their birth families,” Andy says, sounding just a little too cheerful to be convincing. “They say you’re my brother, man.”

“Why’d you bring them here?” There’s barely controlled anger in Ansem’s voice, and Jess’ hand twitches, trying to reach for the gun tucked into the back of her jeans, out of sight. On Andy’s other side, Cas looks poised for a fight.

“Wasn’t sure how you’d react,” Andy says, huffing a painfully forced chuckle. “Why’d you use a fake name? Why not just tell me you’re my brother?”

Ansem steps back just a little, his shoulder bumping against the door as he moves. It opens just a little more, and, out of the corner of her eye, Jess sees a stack of bills on the kitchen table. They look brand-new.

When her eyes dart back to Ansem, he’s already studying her, calculating and strangely triumphant. He saw her look at the money. Well, fuck.

“I wanted to tell you, bro,” Ansem says, smiling at Andy now. The smile is all teeth, and it doesn’t reach his eyes. “But he didn’t let me. He said I had to wait until the time was right.”

“Who did?” Andy asks, taking a small step away from Ansem. Ansem’s eyes track the movement, a scowl showing his displeasure.

“The man with the yellow eyes. He came to me. In a dream. He said I was special. He told me he’s got big plans for me. For us.”

“That’s crazy, man.” Andy’s lips try to twitch up and maintain the veneer of pleasantry, but Ansem’s face darkens.

“I’m not crazy.”

They need to get the fuck out of here. Now. Jess tries to lock eyes with Cas, to get a read on how they should play this, but it’s already too late.

Ansem moves so fast, he’s barely a blur in Jess’ periphery as he turns first to Cas, then to her. “I know you have guns.” When Ansem speaks again, his words cut through the air with a thrum of ancient, malevolent power. “Kill each other.”

Time slows, unspooling in a series of uncountable moments. Cas’ eyes widen in horror. His hand reaches for the gun Jess knows is tucked at his back. Ansem pushes past Andy and runs down the front steps, away from the house. Her own hands close around her weapon with cold, irresistible finality. Andy’s eyes dart frantically between them, then to Ansem’s quickly retreating figure.

Cas stalks forward, pushing Andy out of the way. Andy falls back against the doorway, arms flailing. He’s shouting something, but it doesn’t penetrate the thick, white fog now blanketing Jess’ brain. Her eyes are locked on Cas, and she clutches her gun tight, thumbing off the safety. Her fingers curl around the trigger as she sights along the barrel.

Stop!” The voice rings through every fiber of Jess’ being, in the same way Ansem’s did, but… not. The power behind this voice is still a violation of her will, but not with the intent to harm. Jess lets out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding, fingers relaxing their hold on her weapon. “Stop,” the voice says, a gentle, tentative prodding at the center of her brain. “Don’t kill each other.”

Jess blinks hard until the scene around her swims into focus, time slotting back into its proper flow. Andy is looking back and forth between her and Cas, palms out in a please don’t shoot me gesture. Cas’ hands are trembling as he tucks his gun away. He’s white as a sheet. Too late, it occurs to Jess that there’s an important piece missing. “Shit. Where’s Ansem?”

“He took off in your car,” Andy says, darting an apologetic glance at Cas. “I tried to use my powers to stop him, but… they don’t seem to work on him, and I… well, I didn’t want you guys to kill each other, so I—”

“It’s okay, Andy,” Jess says, trying her best to sound less rattled than she feels. “You did the right thing.” She moves out into the yard, looking both ways along the street. The Continental isn’t anywhere in sight. “Can’t believe we lost him that quickly though. Didn’t think anybody could hotwire a car in just a couple seconds.”

“He didn’t have to hotwire it,” Cas rasps, running a shaky hand down his face. “I thought it might be important for us to be able to make a quick getaway. I left the keys in the ignition.”

*** 

They make their slow, defeated way back to where Andy’s van is parked, a good forty-minute walk. Jess floats the idea that Andy should come back to the Roadhouse with them, for a safe place to stay if nothing else. He takes a lot less convincing than expected.

“Yeah. Probably better that I’m somewhere… safe.”

“Oh yeah, don’t worry about that,” Jess says, bumping her shoulder into Andy’s in a pointless effort to lighten the mood. “The Roadhouse is warded specifically to keep demons out.”

“No, I meant…” Andy swallows heavily. “Where other people are safe from me.”

Jess gives up trying to improve anyone’s mood after that. Cas is a lost cause anyway. He hasn’t spoken since he hung up the phone with Ash, who promised to keep an eye out for sightings of the Continental, or for reports of strange bank robberies.

Most of Andy’s possessions are already in his van, so they’re on the road within an hour, Andy driving, while Jess and Cas are slumped against opposite walls in the back. Cas’ eyes are fixed on a miniature disco ball that dangles from the ceiling. Every time the late-afternoon sunshine hits it just right, it paints a kaleidoscope of colors onto his face, but he doesn’t so much as blink.

When the silence starts to feel too heavy, Jess asks, “So… if not all the special children had nursery fires, you know what that means, right?”

“There could be hundreds of them,” Cas says tonelessly. “Maybe thousands. And there’s no way for us to find all of them.”

“Yeah. Fuck.” Jess stares down at the satiny throw she’s sitting on, the flower pattern blurring into meaningless ink blots as her eyes focus instead on the giant bong digging uncomfortably into her thigh. She scoots further down the wall to get away from it. Getting high sounds really good right now, but, much as she might like to let down her guard, Andy is still a special child. They won’t know for sure that he’s safe until Pamela evaluates him.

When Jess looks up again, Cas’ eyes are still fixed on the disco ball, tracking the hypnotic back-and-forth swing of it.

“Cas? You okay?”

Cas shakes his head, whether in answer to her question or to rouse himself out of his mood, it’s hard to tell. “Sorry, I—” His throat bobs with a heavy swallow. “I have a thing about… I don’t do well with… being controlled.” He swallows again, and blinks hard. His voice sounds croaky when he adds, “Possession.”

He reaches into the front of his shirt and pulls out a silver pendant in the form of a pentagram, surrounded by a sun corona. “It’s why I always wear this. Anti-possession charm.”

“You want to talk about—”

Cas shakes his head again, more vigorously this time. “No.”

“Okay.”

Jess clambers across the mess of books and pillows in the center of the van and slumps down next to Cas, their shoulders touching. Cas doesn’t acknowledge her, his fingers tapping a restless rhythm against his thigh.

“So,” Jess says, nudging Cas’ foot with hers. “You like Dean’s freckles, huh?”

One corner of Cas’ mouth twitches. It’s a weak effort, but it’s there. “Shut up.”

  devils trap divider

Dean’s been awake more than twenty-four hours, and his body craves sleep. He feels it in the ache of his lower back and shoulders, in the heaviness weighing down his limbs, in the fatigue that stretches down to his fingertips. Yet every time he so much as blinks, he remembers the lurch and jolt of the plane underneath him and the sickening swoop of his stomach when he realized that they were in a two-ton metal tube and gravity had just come calling. 

His fingers are shaking against the steering wheel. To still them, he tightens his grip to the point of white knuckles. Streetlights flash through the window, illuminating Sam’s face. Dean doesn’t need to look over at him to know that Sam’s wearing his patented, puppy-dog, please tell me your woes so that I can impart my own brand of Dr. Phil wisdom expression. It sat weirdly on his face when Sam was twelve; almost ten years haven’t improved it in the slightest. Out of fear that a sideways glance will be mistaken for a desire to talk, Dean doesn’t dare even look at Sam. Instead, he keeps his eyes fixed on the road ahead through the windshield. 

After the first six hours of driving, Dean falls into a stupor. His mind goes blissfully blank and all that matters is the wash of asphalt underneath the tires and the rumble of the engines. His ass goes numb, and his arms grow heavy, but Dean doesn’t bother to answer when Sam hesitantly asks if he wants to stop somewhere for the night. 

If he were to answer, then Dean would say, quite petulantly, that he wants to go home. It’s a child’s answer, and if John were to hear him say it, it would earn him a slap upside the head. Dean got just that, the first time he dared to throw a temper tantrum because his four-year old’s patience was stretched too thin between hotel rooms and the backseat of the Impala. That was the day Dean learned that home was an intangible thing, like happiness. Something that was meant for other people and Hallmark specials, not for Winchesters. 

Dean knows that, the truth of it beats in his blood, and yet. He still wants, in some way passing understanding, to go home. 

Minutes drag into hours, and finally, Dean turns down the road that will lead them to the Roadhouse. A sensation like relief rises in him when he sees the "Harvelle’s Roadhouse" sign illuminated by the headlights. There are no cars in the parking lot, and the neon "Open" sign is dark. Dean drives past the Roadhouse itself, to the small parking area in between the farmhouse and the annex. Ellen’s Jeep sits in the parking lot, but instead of Cas’ monstrosity of a Continental, there’s a van parked there with…

“Is that…” Dean knuckles at his eyes, sure that the long drive finally has him hallucinating. “Is that a lady riding a polar bear?” 

“Looks like,” Sam says faintly. 

Dean smirks. “So, you think Captain Tightass finally found the stick he sat on when he was a baby, or did he just get kidnapped?”

He waits for Sam to join him in his mockery (Sam can play high and mighty all he wants to, but Dean knows that he is a petty bitch when he wants to be), yet Sam only offers him a tight smile. His hand is already on the door handle when he turns to Dean and says, “Yeah, I really don’t know. Jess didn’t text me anything except to say that she and Castiel were headed back to the Roadhouse. They found who they were looking for, but apparently, there were some problems.” 

“What kind of problems?” Worry stirs in Dean’s chest, and he hates it. He’s fine, and Sam is fine, and Dad is maybe not fine, and those three people are all he has room for in his life. He can’t be bothered caring about people who are, in the long run, probably nothing more than cannon fodder. He can’t. 

But as the plane’s nose was dipping down, and they were plummeting through the sky, Dean had a moment’s spare thought that surprised him. In between reminiscing on his sins (that week in Vegas, the Cartwright twins, the gambling and violence and occasional impure thought whenever Dr. Sexy was on), one thought floated to the surface: I really wish I hadn’t been such a dick to Castiel. 

That thought was so disturbing, it managed to completely erase his terror at dying in a fiery crash for almost a full second. By the time it became clear that he was indeed not going to die, the thought had vanished, but it reared its ugly head again on the drive home. 

“She didn’t say,” Sam says. His face pinches. “I’m going to go…” He gestures vaguely towards the annex, and doesn’t wait for Dean to say anything else. Dean tips his head back against the seat and lets out a long, slow sigh. Without Sam’s presence to distract him, there’s just the thoughts in his head, and those are almost deafening.  

He’s going to do better, Dean decides. He might be an asshole, but he’s not usually a deliberate asshole, especially not when someone is helping him. Sam doesn’t seem to have a problem with Castiel, and he doesn’t think Jess ever had a problem with Castiel (the memory of her smug little smirk upon being told that she could call him "Cas" still rankles, but Dean refuses to think about why), and Dean really doesn’t enjoy being the only dick in the group. 

So he’s going to do better. Tomorrow, Dean amends, his Captain Tightass remark of only a minute ago coming back to haunt him. Tomorrow, he’s going to do better and at least be polite to Castiel. 

But right now, he really wants a drink.  

It isn’t really stealing if he sneaks into the Roadhouse and leaves some cash on the counter, Dean figures. His boots crunch over the gravel as he walks towards the Roadhouse’s backdoor. The ancient lock yields underneath his picks in less than two minutes, and Dean makes a mental note to tell Ellen to redo her locks. 

He sneaks through the kitchen area, but when he cracks the door that leads to the front of the house, he notices there’s a light on by the pool tables. As Dean watches, a shadow slides over the wall. 

He’s not alone. 

He moves silently through the door and past the bar, into the dining room area. His hand reaches behind his back for the Colt tucked securely into his waistband. The grip is solid against his palm, and warm from being snugged against the small of his back. Dean squints through the darkness, trying to make out the figure at the far end of the room.

Once he sees who it is, he relaxes, and his hand falls away from his Colt. 

A single light hanging over the pool table illuminates Castiel. A pool cue is held carelessly in his hands and a cloud of smoke hangs over him. As Dean watches, Castiel carelessly knocks the ash from the tip of his cigarette into an empty beer bottle. 

“Isn’t Ellen going to be pissed when she finds you smoking in here?” 

Dean’s question breaks the silence. For a moment, he sees the thrill of tension in Castiel: the quick cataloguing of anything close to hand that might be used as a weapon, and then the moment when those thoughts are discarded. Castiel’s shoulders slump. He doesn’t bother to turn around when he answers, “Unless you tell her, she’s not going to find out.” 

Dean scoffs lightly. “I’m not a narc.” 

Castiel’s hum sounds approving. He indicates his beer bottle with a jerk of his head. “Mind getting me a fresh one? You can get one for yourself too.” 

Grateful for the permission, Dean ducks behind the bar. He opens the fridge and grabs whatever his hand lands on first. He’s not picky, and if Castiel had a preference, he should have specified. 

Castiel accepts the beer that Dean hands him. With a swift twist of his wrist, he removes the lid and flicks it into the trashcan against the wall. It’s a practiced move, and one Dean knows he couldn’t replicate. He sets the cap on the bumper of the pool table. 

The silence between them isn’t necessarily comfortable, but it’s not filled with seething hostility either. Dean accepts it as a win and sips his beer as Castiel moves around the pool table, looking for new angles. His cigarette dangles from his bottom lip as he squints down at the table. He makes several shots in rapid succession, sinking every one of them, and Dean pretends like he doesn’t notice exactly how good Castiel looks bent over the table. 

“You’re up late,” Dean finally comments, once there are only a few more balls left in play. 

For a moment, he thinks that Castiel isn’t going to answer him. He finishes his beer and drops the cigarette butt into the empty bottle. Then, he shrugs. “Couldn’t sleep,” he offers. 

Dean thinks that’s the end of it, but Castiel continues. “The hunt that Jess and I went on. It was… different than I expected.” Castiel props himself up against his pool cue as he stares down at the table. His throat bobs with his swallow. Something haunted passes over his face, made mysterious by the dim lighting. He looks up at Dean, and he seems so much older than he did when Dean left for his hunt. “I think that the special children are going to give us a lot more trouble than we thought they would.” 

An uncomfortable pause follows that proclamation. Dean wants to say something against it, but his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth. What is there to say? What kind of comfort could he offer while the world is falling apart around them? 

Dean sips his beer as Castiel finishes his original game. He doesn’t say anything as Castiel racks the balls up for a new game, and he doesn’t say anything when Castiel hands him a pool cue, or when Castiel leaves to get them two new beers. 

Neither one of them says anything as they start to play. 

  devils trap divider

The sound of Sam’s familiar footsteps approaching down the annex corridor jolts Jess out of an uneasy sleep. By the alarm clock on her bedside table, it’s almost two in the morning.

Jess considers turning her back to the door and keeping the room dark, but she knows Sam would see right through that. She’s always been a light sleeper. Bracing herself, Jess sits up and turns on the bedside lamp.

When Sam steps through the door, he looks exhausted, the dark shadows under his eyes visible even in the dim light. “Hey,” he says. “You okay? You said something about…” He trails off.  

Jess nods and tries for a small smile. “Fine.”

It’s not exactly the truth. The vague impression of a nightmare tugs at her, a memory of being unable to control her own limbs. But she’s awake now, and it’s not as though she needs a second opinion to tell her what that particular dream was about.

“How was your hunt?” she asks.

Sam sighs, shaking his head as he walks to their shared dresser to dump his duffel bag. “It was a demon, Jess,” he says quietly.

He looks utterly defeated in a way Jess can’t remember ever seeing before — his shoulders slumped, his eyes dull and hopeless. Over the course of their relationship, Sam has been prone to brooding and sometimes even anger, but in the end, he always bounced back to the warm, cheerful person Jess fell in love with. She tries not to wonder if he’ll be able to manage it this time.

“A demon?” she asks.

“Yeah. Just a plain demon with a taste for chaos. If half of what Castiel says about Azazel is true, that demon I hunted with Dean wasn’t nearly as powerful or dangerous. But we almost died anyway, just trying to exorcise it.”

Sam sits down heavily on the bed, running both hands through his hair as he stares down at the floor. “How the fuck are we supposed to win this, Jess?”

Jess’ fingers twitch with the need to reach out and offer comfort. But before her hand has traveled even half the distance between them, Sam pulls away, retrieving his overnight bag and heading for the bathroom.

As soon as the door closes behind him, Jess kills the light and turns over, facing the wall.

Chapter Text

Jess wakes to the sight of ice coating her bedroom window. Intricate geometric patterns climb up the glass and glitter in the pale light of morning.

On his side of the bed, Sam is still fast asleep. The gentle rise and fall of his body under the sheet makes him look peaceful, but Jess knows that peace is fleeting at best. The question he asked her last night still echoes in her head.

How the fuck are we supposed to win this?

The fact is, they’re up against an enemy they know little about, and they have no reliable way of killing him. If they ever want to get out of this mess and start to rebuild their lives, they need at least the beginnings of a plan.

Jess’ thoughts drift to Aggie, as they always do when she’s faced with a problem she doesn’t know how to tackle. Growing up, Aggie was always the devil-may-care sibling who flew by the seat of her pants, while Jess was the anxious one who planned everything down to the second. But underneath her attitude, Aggie has an amazing analytical mind and a deep grasp of hunting lore. She’s practically a walking encyclopedia of monster and weapons knowledge. If anyone has answers, it’s her.

Making up her mind, Jess slips out of bed and pulls on her robe. It’s too thin to really keep her comfortable on this icy morning, especially as the radiators in the annex are just as ancient as the rest of the building and the insulation around the windows isn’t spectacular. For extra warmth, Jess tugs a woolen blanket from the bottom drawer of the dresser and pulls it tight around her shoulders, pushing her feet into a pair of slippers as she heads for the door.

The annex kitchen is deserted, which isn’t unexpected. Ellen’s stopped letting other hunters stay overnight, forgoing the extra income to ensure the safety of Andy, Sam and any other "special children" they might bring back here. Right before the trip to Guthrie, Jess floated the idea of paying Ellen for letting them stay at the annex, but Ellen just grimaced and waved her off, declaring the subject closed.

Jess makes for the saggy, brown velvet couch that sits catty-corner from the stove and pulls out her phone. It’s a burner, her well-loved iPhone having been disposed of before she left California, along with all other means of identifying and tracking her. 

Since leaving Stanford, Jess has checked in with Aggie twice, and each time, it was abundantly clear that Aggie hates being out of the loop on Jess’ location. But the one thing Jess and Sam have been able to agree on is the fact that it’s safest if no one knows where they’re staying. The Roadhouse is heavily warded, but it’s never had to withstand an onslaught by a Prince of Hell. After everything the Roadhouse crew has done to help her and Sam, bringing a demonic attack down on everyone’s heads seems like a poor way to repay them.

The line rings three times before a jaw-cracking yawn sounds from the other end. “You’ve reached the amazing, fabulous, very sleepy Aggie Moore. How may I direct your call?”

Jess snorts, instantly feeling better. “You’re ridiculous. Did I wake you up? I sometimes forget I’m not on Pacific Time anymore.”

There’s a small intake of breath, and then a rustling of fabric as Aggie presumably makes herself comfortable in bed. “Hey, lady. It’s good to hear your voice. Wasn’t sure when you’d call again.”

“Yeah. Well.” Jess usually prides herself on being articulate, but this doesn’t seem to be the day for it.

“Let me guess. You need help.” There’s no accusation in Aggie’s voice — if anything, she sounds relieved.

Jess doesn’t bother to deny it. “That’s your job, right, as a big sister? Bail me out when I need it?”

“Comes with the package, I guess,” Aggie replies, sounding completely alert now. The ability to wake up more or less instantly is just one of the many qualities that make her a good hunter. “That ‘bailing out’ thing better not be literal though. If I hear you’ve been doing crime without me, I’m going to kick your ass.”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Jess curls up against the arm of the couch and pulls the blanket around herself, letting her sister’s deep, familiar voice comfort her. “It’s demons again. I need to know how to kill one.”

“Huh. You just don’t do easy, do you?”

“You know I don’t.” In perfect sync, they intone, “‘Easy is for other people,’” the unofficial Moore family motto. The familiarity of the ritual makes Jess smile. She wishes talking to Sam could be this effortless. It used to be.

“Alright, c’mon,” Jess says, returning to the matter at hand. “I’ve got places to be and people to see. How do I kill a demon?”

Aggie hums thoughtfully. “Not sure. There’s plenty of stories about angels killing demons with their swords and lances and stuff, but I’m pretty sure angels are a myth, or someone would’ve seen one by now. You know, other than those people who like to play ‘spot the Virgin Mary on a tortilla’.”

Jess grins. She can practically see the vague, hand-wavy motion that most likely accompanied the last statement. “Aggie, be serious.”

“Fine,” Aggie replies, her tone the equivalent of an overdramatic eye roll. “I’ve heard a few stories about special weapons that might be able to do it — knives with incredibly powerful anti-demon warding or spells etched into them. I’ve never seen one in person though, and those would all still kill the host.”

“I hate to say this, but it might be worth the collateral damage if we could find something that can waste this thing.” Jess exhales heavily through her nose. "The demon that's after us isn't just your run-of-the-mill monster. It's something called a Prince of Hell. Cas says they’re one of the oldest demons in existence. Even if we find a knife that can theoretically kill a demon, it might not leave a scratch on this guy.”

To her credit, Aggie doesn’t miss a beat. “So basically, you need a weapon that can kill anything? Like a monster A-bomb?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Huh. The only thing even remotely like that I’ve ever heard of… you know, this is probably total bullshit, but I read once that Samuel Colt was supposed to have built a special gun that would kill any supernatural creature. Comes with its own custom-made bullets and all.”

“Fuck.” Jess chews on her bottom lip, the warm contentment she felt a minute ago seeping out of her. “You’re right. That’s got ‘myth’ written all over it. Probably nothing to it.”

“Yeah. I’ll look it up though, and see what I can find. I’ll ask Mom and Dad too, but I’ll keep the reason I’m asking on the down-low.” A beat of silence hangs heavily between them, and Jess knows exactly what Aggie is going to say next. “They were pretty broken up, you know, when they found out you suspended your enrollment at Stanford. You were supposed to be going to med school, lady.”

It’s only because Jess knows her sister so well that she can sense the minute undercurrent of hurt beneath her light, joking tone. Aggie has always been rooting for Jess to go to college and build a career, though Aggie herself never showed any interest in doing anything other than hunting. At odd moments over the past few days, Jess has wondered whether her sister might fit in better with the Winchesters than she does. The thought stings.

“I know,” she says. “I’m still going to finish. Just… later.” It doesn’t feel right to make that promise, knowing she might not be able to keep it, but a small, foolish part of her hopes that saying it might make it true. “And I will talk to Mom and Dad. I just… I’m not ready.”

“Alright,” Aggie says. She accepts Jess’ assurances much too easily, which means that she’s probably gearing up to strike at a different nerve.

Please don’t ask about Sam. Please don’t ask about Sam.

“How’re things with Sam?”

“Fine,” Jess responds automatically.

“Bull.”

Jess pulls the phone away from her ear to make a face at it. It’s pointless, but it does make her feel better. “I’ve been trying to talk to him. He’s been shutting me down every time I try to figure out what’s going on in his head.”

“Huh. Have you considered that maybe it’s not worth figuring out?”

“I have,” Jess admits, swallowing around a sudden lump in her throat. “I’ve been thinking about it; leaving Sam behind and coming home until this all blows over. I’m not sure he even wants me here. But it’s just… this demon tried to have me killed, Aggie. That’s pretty damn personal. I feel like I need to see this through.”

“Yeah.” The line crackles with a heavy exhale. “I miss you, lady. I’ll go through the library, see if I can find anything solid on that Colt thing.”

“Thanks, Aggie. Miss you too.”

The dial tone sounds in Jess’ ear. The blanket slides off her shoulders, letting the cold draft from the window seep through her thin robe and prick at her skin.

  devils trap divider

Castiel sits at the kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee. Sam and Dean are on either side of him, with Pamela at the far end. Ellen and Jess lean against the counter, cradling mugs of their own. A few minutes ago, Jess walked in to announce that she had some news, drawing the attention of everyone who was either in the kitchen or the living room.

For Castiel, her arrival was a welcome distraction from Dean, who’d been keeping up a steady stream of flirty banter with Pamela. Exactly why this bothered Castiel so much, he didn’t care to examine too closely. Last night, he’d shared a few beers with Dean, and they’d played a few games of pool. But it’s still a stretch to call them friends, let alone anything that would entitle Castiel to jealousy.

He forces his thoughts off that unproductive subject, and back onto Jess’ story about the Colt. Ellen looks doubtful, and judging by their expressions, Dean, Sam and Pamela aren’t convinced either.  But there’s something about what Jess told them that has set a wheel turning in the back of Castiel’s head — an almost-forgotten memory clicking back into place.

“I don’t know, Jess,” Ellen says, clucking her tongue. “Sounds too good to be true. Like a bedtime story for hunters: ‘the unbeatable gun’.”

“I thought it was probably a myth too,” Jess admits. “But then my sister did some research, and it turns out, there’s actually a pretty decent written record of the Colt. It shows up in at least four different hunters’ journals, and each of them keeps careful count of the bullets. According to the earliest record, there were 13 bullets to start with, but eight have been used by various hunters to kill things nobody thought could be killed, including a phoenix and, in at least one documented case, a demon.”

Pamela leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. “Okay, let’s assume we believe this Colt exists. Your sister find any record of where it might be hanging out these days?”

Jess shakes her head, looking frustrated. “No. The last record Aggie could find dates back to the 1970s. It hasn’t been seen in decades.”

“Then what’s the point of even bringing it up?” Sam asks. An edge of frustration is obvious in his voice. “We don’t have time to chase after fairy tales. We need a viable way to kill Azazel, and this isn’t it.”

Jess looks like she’s been slapped. “Listen, any time you feel like making a constructive suggestion instead of—”

Castiel holds up a finger to stop the bickering from escalating further. “Hang on, Jess. There’s something… Ellen, do you remember a guy who used to come to the Roadhouse years ago? Daniel something?”

Ellen frowns, tapping her forehead in thought. “Yeah, I think I know who you mean. Elkins, his last name was.”

“Yes, that’s him. He used to talk to me a lot when he came by.”

Ellen chuckles wryly. “Yeah, he took a real shine to you.”

Castiel nods, trying to picture the man’s face. An image swims to the surface of a deeply lined forehead, bushy brows and a warm kindness that was rare to see in an older hunter. “He used to tell me stories. He claimed he was going to live forever because he had a gun hidden away at his house that could kill anything.”

Pamela studies him shrewdly. “You think he might’ve been telling the truth.”

“I don’t know why he would have lied.” Castiel shrugs. “I was a kid, with no skills and no connections. There was no need to try to impress me.”

“Unless he was trying to get into your pants,” Pamela says, punctuating her statement with a lewd wink.

“It wasn’t like that,” Ellen says firmly. “Wouldn’t have let Cas hang around the guy if I’d gotten any kind of ‘creepy old man’ vibe off him.”

“It really wasn’t like that,” Castiel agrees. “He mentioned once, when he’d had a few too many, that I reminded him of his son. I guess he enjoyed telling me about his hunts, and I soaked it all up.”

Ellen gives him a slightly melancholy smile, then turns to Sam and Dean to explain, “Bill used to take Cas hunting with him, but this would have been pretty soon after he died.”

As always when Ellen talks about the time right after Bill’s death, a flicker of pain passes across her face. None of them like to think too much about that period in their lives — how Ellen wouldn’t smile for days at a time, and Jo would go off into the woods by herself. Or how Castiel’s nightmares started up again, keeping him awake more often than not.

Castiel reaches out to squeeze Ellen’s hand. She squeezes back, and they exchange another small smile. In his periphery, Castiel sees Dean shift awkwardly in his chair, but the sign of discomfort doesn’t feel as satisfying as it would have just a few days ago.

“What makes you think the gun Elkins mentioned is the same as the Colt?” Jess asks.

“Elkins said it was passed down from one hunter to the next, and that it had five special bullets to go with it,” Castiel says. “He said he took it off a dead hunter in the ‘70s and had kept it ever since.”

Silence falls at the table. Sam is the first to break it. “Do you have any idea where this guy might be? Does he still come to the Roadhouse?”

Ellen shakes her head. “Not in years. Think he might’ve had a falling-out with some of his hunter friends.”

“You know where he lives?” Dean asks.

“He never told me,” Castiel replies. “He seemed a little paranoid at times.”

Dean snorts. “I would be too, if I had the freaking Death Star of guns lying around the house.”

Castiel feels his lips tick up in response to Dean’s joke. Dean looks a little surprised, but then he returns the smile with a shy one of his own, and Castiel tells himself the warm glow in his chest has nothing to do with Dean and everything with memories of Alfie chattering away about Death Star trivia.

Sam throws his hands up in frustration. “Look, even if the gun exists and this guy had it, which is a big if, he might’ve died years ago. And we have no idea where he is. This is pointless.”

Jess looks livid, but before she can respond, Dean says, “Wait.” He looks at Ellen. “You said the guy’s name was Daniel Elkins, right?”

Ellen nods, and Dean’s expression takes on a thoughtful cast. “Huh. There’s something familiar about that. I think…” He holds up a finger. “I think… alright, hang on just a sec. I’ll be right back.”

Dean jumps off his chair and marches out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, the front door slams behind him.

“Okay then,” Ellen says slowly. “This better be good.” She turns to Pamela. “How’d it go with Andy this morning?”

“Fine. He felt a lot like Sam, actually. I could see that he’s got something demonic in him, but there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s good people.” She slants her eyes at Jess and Castiel. “But you said this other guy, this Ansem, he was different?”

Castiel barely suppresses a shiver at the memory of the dark, malevolent intrusion at the center of his brain. Kill each other.

“Yeah,” Jess says, meeting Castiel’s eyes, her thoughts clearly running along similar lines. “Very different. Has Ash found any trace of him yet?”

Castiel shakes his head. “Not yet. He’s going to keep looking. When I saw Andy this morning, he seemed to be taking it hard. He thinks it’s his fault that Ansem got away.”

“Kid’s got his heart in the right place,” Ellen says, on a heavy sigh. “And if he’s always taking the weight of the world on his shoulders, he’ll fit right in with the rest of us.”

“Where is he now?” Sam asks. “I wouldn’t mind talking to him.”

“Ash and Jo are on a mission to cheer him up,” Castiel says. “There was talk of knife throwing.”

Pamela leans forward. “You know, I’ve been thinking—”

Before Pamela can finish her thought, Dean walks back in, a faded leather journal in his hand. His face is lit up with excitement, and Castiel can’t help but notice how lovely Dean looks when he’s excited.

“I knew I’d seen that name somewhere. Take a look at this.”

Dean puts the journal down in the middle of the table, pointing at a couple of lines of scrawled writing in the middle of a page. They read, “D. Elkins: 970-555-0158.”

“You think it’s the same Elkins?” Sam asks.

Dean shrugs. “Bound to be. All the contacts Dad put down in his journal are hunters, and how many hunters called D. Elkins could there be?”

“That’s a Colorado area code,” Jess says. “If we can get into the phone company’s records, it should be easy enough to find out what address it’s tied to.”

“I can do that,” Sam says, and Dean claps him on the shoulder with a proud smile.

“You always were the best hacker in the family, Sammy. Let’s see if you’ve still got it.”

“It’s Sam.” Sam sounds a little weary, as though they’ve had this conversation many times, but he doesn’t look angry. In fact, there’s a gleam of anticipation in his eyes.

The mood of the room seems to have shifted, the air somehow feeling lighter than it did a moment ago. For the first time since Ansem burrowed his way into Castiel’s brain, he dares to hope that this fight they’re facing might go in their favor.

***  

In the time it takes Castiel to sneak outside for a quick smoke, air out his clothes and come back, Sam has tracked the phone number to an address in Manning, Colorado.

“That’s maybe a five-hour drive from here,” Sam says, turning to Dean, who’s sitting next to him on the couch. Castiel and Jess are curled up in recliners on opposite sides of the coffee table. “We could leave first thing tomorrow and be there by midday.”

“Cas should go with you,” Ellen calls through the open doorway from the kitchen, where she’s brewing up another pot of coffee. “This Elkins guy doesn’t know you boys from Adam, even if he might have worked with your father. But he likes Cas.”

Castiel sighs inwardly at the idea of going on another road trip so soon after the last one, and with two Winchesters of all people. But Ellen has a point. “Fine.”

“I’ll come too,” Jess says. “This was my lead. I want to follow up on it.”

Sam shoots her a look, a strange mix of irritation and concern. “We don’t need four people to go, Jess. You just got back from Oklahoma, and it sounds like that was a hell of a trip. You should take a break. You don’t need to prove yourself to us.”

“Oh really.” Jess’ eyes flash dangerously. “Cas was on that same trip, but you don’t seem to mind him coming.”

“Hold up, y’all,” Pamela pipes up from the kitchen. She’d been chatting with Ellen and nursing a shot of whiskey, but she saunters into the living room now, dropping onto the couch between Dean and Sam. Castiel tries not to bristle at the way she immediately drapes her arm over the back of the couch behind Dean, or the way Dean smirks at her in response. “Before everybody goes haring off again, I’ve got something I want to run by you.”

Sam swivels around to face her. “What?”

“I’m glad we’ve got this Colt thing to follow up on, but I don’t think we should put all our eggs in one basket. Now, I’ve been thinking.” She leans forward, removing her arm from the back of the couch. As she does so, her eyes meet Castiel’s, giving him a knowing look he doesn’t care for at all. Pamela is nice enough, but there is a reason psychics make him uneasy. 

She winks, then thankfully turns to talk to Sam before Castiel can make a fool of himself by losing his temper. “You and Andy have demon blood in your veins; that much we’re sure of. It’s given you visions, Sam, and it’s given Andy and this Ansem kid mind control powers. But what if there’s other things you can do? Things that could help us win against this demon?”

Dean frowns, skeptical. “Like what?”

“I used to have a friend, another psychic. She lost a son to demon possession, and she got obsessed with the idea of killing a demon without harming the host.”

“Impossible,” Jess says, shaking her head. “You can hurt or exorcise a demon without harm to the possessed person, but if you stab or shoot a demon to death, the human dies too.”

“Except there’s another way,” Pamela says, “and my friend found it.” She takes a deep breath, as if to steel herself. Her usual swagger seems to drain out of her, and it’s oddly unsettling. “Her idea was that if she had some demonic power in her, she could turn that against other demons and use it to burn them out of their vessels. So she got her hands on a demon’s blood, and she…” Pamela breaks off, swallowing heavily before she continues. “She drank it.”

Dean’s eyes widen. “Okay, if you’re suggesting that Sam should—”

Pamela holds up her hands, palms out, in a gesture of don’t kill the messenger. “I’m not. I would never suggest anyone go down that road. But my friend’s plan… it worked. She was able to kill demons. Just burned them right out of their vessels, and if the vessels were still alive, they were fine. But it came at an awful price. She got addicted.” Pamela rubs at her eyes with the heel of her hand, looking suddenly tired. “The power of it was too seductive. She wanted to stop, but she couldn’t, and that blood… it changed her into something I didn’t recognize. One time, I saw her eyes flash to black. I told her about that, and there was still enough of her left that she asked me to help her detox. We tried, but… it was too late.” Pamela’s voice cracks on the last word. “She didn’t make it.”

Jess looks stricken. “I’m so sorry.”

Pamela waves her off, though her face twists in pain. “Thanks, but it was a long time ago. Point being, I would never suggest that Sam and the other kids put more of that poison into their systems, because I’ve seen what it can do.” She slants her eyes at Sam again. “But since you’ve already got some in there, we might as well try to make use of it. See if we can train you up.”

“You want to train Sam and the others to kill demons?” Dean asks, incredulous, but Pamela nods. She opens her mouth to say something else, but Sam beats her to the punch.

“I’ll do it.”

At Sam’s statement, flat and certain, Dean swivels around. “What?”

“Think about it, Dean. Even if this Colt thing pans out, you really think that when it comes down to a fight, it’ll just be us against this Azazel guy? We saw what he did to Brady. Who’s to say he won’t come at us with a dozen possessed people? Or a hundred?”

Dean looks as though he knows Sam has a point, but isn’t prepared to admit it. “You heard Pam just now, right? About what happened to her friend? You want that shit to happen to you?”

“Dean is right.” The words surprise Castiel even as they leave his mouth, and they clearly surprise Dean too, judging by his almost comically slack-jawed expression. Trying not to smile, Castiel plows on. “This kind of power… it shouldn’t be toyed with.”

“Exactly,” Dean says, nodding triumphantly.  

“But Sam has a point, too,” Jess says, and this time, Sam is the one who looks slack-jawed. “We can’t go up against a potential army of demons with one gun and five bullets. We need options.”

“Look,” Pamela says. “I know why you’re concerned, Dean. And you, Cas. Hell, I am too. And I’m sure Sam and Jess have those same concerns too, but here’s the thing. I know what it looks like when this kind of thing gets taken too far. I know the warning signs, and I know when to stop. I want us to have options, but I won’t let Sam or Andy or anybody else get hurt.”

Ellen walks over from the kitchen, crossing her arms as she leans against the doorframe. “I say we should give it a go if Sam and Andy are willing. I trust Pamela’s judgment. Hell, I trust all our judgment. We got a house full of hunters here who’ll put a stop to any psychic shenanigans as soon as they go too far.”

Dean shakes his head, scowling. “I still don’t like it.” Privately, Castiel agrees with him, but he can tell they’re outnumbered.

“You don’t have to like it. Just keep an open mind, man,” Sam says. His eyes are wide, pleading. It’s clear he’s already made his choice, but he still wants his brother’s approval. “Please?”

Dean’s shoulders slump, and Castiel can pinpoint the exact moment the fight drains out of him. “Alright. Say we do this. How exactly are you proposing to train these guys to kill demons?”

“Bobby and Rufus are on a demon hunt,” Ellen says. “They said they’d come over here to join us, as soon as that business is wrapped up. What if we ask ‘em to bring one of the black-eyed bastards back with them?”

Pamela grins at her. “Like a practice demon?”

“Sure,” Ellen says, shrugging.

“What about the special children?” Jess asks. “There are still two more out there whose names we know. Someone needs to check them out.”

Ellen nods thoughtfully. “Why don’t you and I go after one of them, Jess?” Jess’ expression immediately turns stormy, and Ellen gives her a look that can only be described as fond. Castiel doesn’t think he’s ever seen her give that particular look to anyone other than Bill, Jo and himself. “I know, I know, the Colt thing was your lead, but you really think that Elkins guy’ll appreciate four people showing up on his doorstep?”

Jess still looks displeased, but eventually, she nods.

“What about the Roadhouse?” Castiel asks.

“Pamela and Jo can keep it open for me,” Ellen says. “Or at least keep Ash from burning the damn place down.”

“Actually, I’m coming with you and Jess.”

Everyone turns to find Jo walking through the doorway that leads to the mudroom in back of the house. Castiel thinks of himself as fairly stealthy, but Jo is in a league of her own. He didn’t even hear the back door close.

“It’ll only take a couple days, right?” Jo says, planting her legs in anticipation of the fight she has to know is coming. “And Pamela will still be here to keep the bar open. She’s done it before.”

“Uh-uh.” Ellen shakes her head, lips pressed into a thin line. “No way in hell, Joanna Beth. You heard what Jess and Cas said about this Ansem guy. Not all of these kids are overgrown puppies like Sam and Andy. I am not putting you into that kind of danger.”

Sam’s “Hey!” and Dean’s snort are drowned out by Jo’s, “For God’s sake, Mom!” She steps further into the room, fists balled at her sides. “I’m not some little kid who needs to be protected from every last thing. I grew up around hunters. I know how to shoot a gun and throw a knife as well as anybody here — hell, better than some. Back me up here, Cas!”

Alarmed to be called out, Castiel flinches. He looks up at his little sister. From an objective point of view, she’s undoubtedly an adult, but he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to see her that way. To him, she’ll always be the gap-toothed and pigtailed little girl who crawled into his bed so he wouldn’t have nightmares anymore. “I agree with Ellen, Jo,” he says.

Jo’s look of disappointment stings, but it’s only a brief flash before her expression turns back to anger. “When is anyone around here going to start treating me like an adult?”

Ellen narrows her eyes, voice flat and ice-cold. “When you start acting like one.”

With one last venomous look, Jo spins around and storms out, slamming the back door. Ellen turns to Castiel, looking tired. “Would you…?”

Reluctantly, Castiel nods. “Yes. I’ll talk to her.”

He would usually prefer to give Jo some time to cool down — he knows from experience that she has a mean right hook — but Jo has been known to cool down by running away, and they can’t afford for that to happen right now. Not with what’s out there, waiting for them.

Once Castiel gets outside, it doesn’t take him long to find Jo. She’s in the backyard, perched on an old tree stump that they use to split firewood. One of her more intimidating knives rests on top of her open palm. Castiel stops short about ten feet away.

“Are you planning to stab me with that?” he asks, only half joking. 

“Considering it,” Jo says, her eyes on the knife. “You’re not Mom, but you’re on thin ice.”

Castiel edges a little closer, inclining his head at the stump, which is easily big enough for two. “Can I sit?”

“It’s a free country,” Jo says, tipping her hand until the knife overbalances. In a lightning-quick motion, she catches it, fingers wrapped firmly around the carved wooden hilt. Cas recognizes the knife as one of Bill’s. His initials are carved into the handle.

He sits, letting his arm brush against Jo’s. Their breath puffs into a pair of small clouds in front of them, mingling in the crisp air. They’re both wearing thick flannels, but they probably should have put on coats. It is November, after all. Still, Castiel doesn’t complain, content to let the silence stretch between them until Jo is ready to talk.

“I was always jealous of you, you know?” Jo says eventually, her voice a lot softer than Castiel is used to hearing it.

“Jealous?” He tilts his head at her, confused. “Why?”

“’Cause you got to go off with Dad on hunts, and he taught you everything he knew. That’s what I wanted. But he only ever seemed to want to do that stuff with you.”

“Jo, it’s not about who he liked better, if that’s what you think, or about you being a girl,” Castiel says, ducking his chin to catch her eye. “You were still in elementary school when he… when he died. You just weren’t old enough.”

Jo grimaces, rubbing her thumb over a spot on the knife’s hilt that’s dark and smooth from frequent handling. “Maybe. But Mom still treats me like a kid, and I’m so fucking tired of it.”

“But you know why she does it, right?” Castiel asks. He takes a small risk by bringing his hand up to Jo’s hair and brushing a strand of it behind her ear. Her hackles have come down far enough that she allows it. “She lost Bill, and it almost broke her. She can’t lose you too.” He pulls back to meet Jo’s eyes again. “I can’t lose you.”

“What about me?” Jo asks, and Castiel is surprised to see wetness gathering in the corners of her eyes. Jo hardly ever cries. “Am I just supposed to sit on my ass while you and Ellen and everybody else I care about is trying their hardest to get themselves killed? I can’t do that.”

“I know,” Castiel says softly. He tentatively wraps his arm around her shoulders and squeezes. “And I’m not saying you can’t be a part of this fight. Not at all. But dealing with these psychics, it’s… different. Sam and Andy might not be dangerous, but Ansem definitely is. When we find him, or anybody else who’s using their powers to hurt or kill…”

“We’ll have to kill them,” Jo says quietly, leaning a little into Castiel’s side.

“Yes. Are you prepared to do that, Jo? To kill a person, a human being?”

Jo pulls back to gape at him. “If they were threatening you, or Ellen, or any of the others? Hell yeah.”

“Fuck,” Castiel says softly. “I think I believe you.”

Jo cackles and pulls him in for a hug. It’s nice — warm and familiar in a way that reminds Castiel of late mornings in bed when Jo was still little, Castiel curling up with her to tell her increasingly ridiculous stories about fierce unicorns and lovestruck swamp monsters.

“Are you opening up tonight?” Castiel asks when he lets go, inclining his head in the direction of the Roadhouse.

“Yeah, it’s my turn,” Jo admits, though she doesn’t look happy about it.

“Do you want my help?”

“Nah. Jess said she wanted to stay busy, so I’m making her bus tables for me. I’m good.”

Castiel huffs an exaggerated sigh. “Thank God. I have important plans to find Ash and Andy and get high as a kite.”

“Ugh, gross.” Jo grimaces as she gets up and sheathes her knife in the leather holster she likes to wear around her hips. She wipes at her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her eyes still look a little red, but there’s a reassuring, teasing grin on her face now. “Just don’t bring your skunky boy smells into the bar after.”

“I make no promises,” Castiel calls after her as she starts walking towards the Roadhouse. The only answer he gets is a pair of middle fingers flashed his way.

  devils trap divider

In his twenty-six years, Dean’s managed to form a lot of dislikes. The list includes: ghouls (gross), sand (it gets everywhere and it’s irritating), the weird, funky smells that come free with the purchase of any motel room he gets for the night (enough said), and also cucumbers. 

But what he really hates, almost more than anything else, is waiting. 

It’s not that he doesn’t agree with Sam’s logic: the drive to Colorado is long enough that leaving now would put their arrival time long after dark. In Dean’s experience, most hunters react to an unannounced visit after dark in a violent fashion. He’d rather not get shot; not even by the gun that they’re looking for. 

Doesn’t mean he has to be happy about what amounts to an essentially wasted day. 

His first idea, catching up on some sleep, is almost immediately discarded. He spends about ten minutes lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling, while his brain tosses around Pamela’s and Sam’s words. 

She got her hands on a demon’s blood and she drank it. She didn’t make it. 

I want to try it. 

Just thinking about it is enough to make Dean sick to his stomach, and his brain performs a similar rebellion. He’s definitely not sleeping anytime soon, and the same disquiet that keeps him from sleeping prevents him from reading. Not even Cat’s Cradle can keep his attention for more than a few minutes, and flipping through Dad’s journal is worse. Every time Dean picks up the leather-bound volume, all he can think about is how Dad hasn’t responded to any of his voicemails. Dean’s blood boils to think about it: hasn’t he been listening? Doesn’t he know that they need him? What the hell did Dean do to make Dad not listen? 

Thinking that he’s been ditched like an unwanted prom date is bad enough, but then Dean thinks about what Dad would say if he found out that Sam has demon blood in him. Worse, that they’re working with other hunters in an attempt to use said demon’s blood to battle demons with psychic powers, given to Sam (once again, ta-da!) by demon’s blood. Dean honestly doesn’t know whether Dad would commit them to a mental institution or just shoot them outright. Either way, this latest idea would go over like a lead balloon. 

Yeah, being in his room isn’t productive. His thoughts are starting to perform a dizzying whirlwind as they chase themselves around his head. He needs to get out. 

Dean walks out of the annex and immediately clutches his jacket closer around his torso. It’s late enough in the day that the cold has started to bite, and when he exhales, he can see his breath coming out in white puffs. It’s going to be winter before he knows it, and for some reason, that knowledge fills Dean with a kind of despair. 

Jesus. If he’s having an existential crisis over the damn seasons changing, then he needs to get the fuck out of his head. 

He glances longingly towards the Roadhouse. Tonight, it’s hopping with business — well, as hopping as the Roadhouse ever gets. Several cars in varying states of disrepair are parked in front of the building. To the normal citizen, they would just be vehicles on their last legs, but to Dean, they might as well scream Hunter. Dad was one of the few hunters who seemed to take pride in his ride, but maybe Dean’s just biased. 

There’s little that he wants more than to lose himself in the familiar routines of a bar. Get a drink, hustle some pool, rig the jukebox to play something other than the hair-band crap that Jo seems to favor. Just thinking about it is enough to make Dean’s fingers itch for action. He leaves the annex, and is bound for the Roadhouse, but then he spies the van with the woman riding a polar bear painted along its side. It's parked in the field, a discreet distance away from both the annex and the Roadhouse. That in itself doesn't seem too unusual, but what does grab his attention is the peculiar grey tint to the windows. 

It's pretty clear what's going on inside, and if Dean's looking to get out of his own head, smoking up wouldn't be the worst way to do it. As he approaches the van, he can hear voices and the strains of Tales of Brave Ulysses. He taps sharply on the back door and, after a few seconds, it opens. 

The strong, skunky smell from the smoke is almost enough to blow him over when it billows out of the van in a nearly solid cloud. Dean actually takes a step backward, his eyes stinging. He tries to smother his cough in his shoulder, but he’s unsuccessful. 

Ash's voice sounds from somewhere inside. “Ah, that’s no way to introduce yourself!” Damn it. 

Since his coughing has already been caught out, there’s no point in pretending like he’s not affected by the smoke. Dean knuckles at his eyes to clear out the little tears. It’s not like he never smokes. It’s just that finding a regular, trustworthy supplier is difficult when your whole life is on the road, and he can't exactly grow his own shit either. 

He still doesn’t think that he deserves the chorus of snickers from Ash, Castiel, and some scruffy dude who must be Andy.  

“Well, Dean-o? You in or are you out?” Ash asks. “Whatever you decide, make it quick. If Ellen catches us back here, she'll rip us a new one.” With that encouragement, Dean decides that he’s most certainly in. He clambers into the back of the van, and Ash shuts the door behind him. 

With four guys in the back of the van, space is cramped. Dean ends up shoved next to Castiel, and no matter how much he shifts, he can’t make it so their elbows and knees aren’t brushing together. After he squirms one too many times and ends up almost kneeing the new guy in the family jewels, he finally subsides. 

“Hi,” scruffy dude says, offering Dean a lazy, two-fingered salute. “Andy Gallagher. Cas and Jess found me.” 

“Ah. Hi.” Dean remembers Castiel and Jess talking about Andy this morning, but he’d been a little more interested in the sliver of skin revealed by Pamela’s low-rider jeans and hadn’t paid that much attention. 

Now that he’s in the van, Dean is caught for what he’s supposed to do. It’s not like he’s really friends with any of these guys. He and Castiel might have shared a few beers, but Dean’s not ready to go spilling his secrets into his broad shoulders. The smoke in the van is thick enough to turn both Andy and Ash’s faces into vague little smears, and he’s probably never going to get the smell out of his jacket. 

Andy grabs his attention when he leans forward. “Hey. I’m the one who found out that I had a literal evil twin and got plucked from my life, and you still look tenser than me.” He offers a bong to Dean, his red-rimmed eyes crinkling in a smile. “Come on. Take a load off.” 

Dean accepts the bong and reaches in his back pocket for his lighter. Though it’s been a while since he’s done this, the motions remain familiar. The glass is warm around his mouth as he tilts the bong towards him. His lighter flicks, filling the van with the sharp, earthy scent of pot. Smoke billows towards his lips, and Dean pulls the stem out and inhales. 

Almost immediately, he starts coughing. His throat and eyes burn, and his lungs are screaming in furious indignation. Swift hands pluck the bong from his hands, leaving Dean to finish coughing in peace. 

“That’s alright, let it out. This is strong stuff.” Ash doesn’t sound judgmental. In fact, he almost sounds proud. “Not for the faint of heart.” 

“Gardening is one of Ash’s many talents,” Castiel says. His dry voice is almost more than Dean can take right now. 

Despite the fact that less than thirty seconds ago, Dean felt like he was trying to hack up a lung, languor starts to spread through his veins. A comfortable haze settles over his mind. The edges of the world turn soft, and he slumps against the wall of Andy’s van. The disco ball hanging from the ceiling sparkles every time a lighter flicks. There are so many reflections shown, so many instances of refracted light. It’s beautiful, Dean decides, how the light catches against the bong, or against the curve of Castiel’s hands where they hold the stem. 

When the bong is passed back to him, Dean doesn’t hesitate. This time, he’s ready for the bite, and he manages to keep his coughing mostly contained. Castiel’s shoulder presses into his as Dean passes the bong over. It’s warm and solid, and even when there’s no more excuse for them to touch, Dean doesn’t pull away. 

Heaviness settles into his limbs. His arms, his fingers… They’re all too heavy to move, but they’re so light. Nothing more than smoke fills them. Him, Ash, Andy, Castiel… They’re all nothing more than starlight and dust poured into vessels, but Dean’s head is too heavy to hold up. He tips to the side, murmuring in surprise when he comes up against a solid, warm wall. 

“I think you’ve had enough,” Castiel says. This close, Dean can hear the catch and burr in his voice and feel the rumble in his chest. It reminds him of the Impala, right when she’s switching from second to third, and a strange sense of exhilaration fills him. 

“I’m good,” Dean protests. “Shit, I’m… I’m great.” He can remember being worried before he stepped into the van, but those concerns seem distant now. Dean blinks, and they’re too far away for him to spy. Music floats through him, filling him up with the plaintive strains from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Dean wants to stay like this forever: no hunts, no worrying about Sam or demon blood, no nightmares, no wondering what he did to piss his Dad off so badly he won’t send them a damn text message. Just the harsh burn of smoke, the radio playing in the background, the soft sound of conversation drifting around him, and the warm solidity of Castiel’s shoulder. 

“Yeah?” Though Castiel sounds amused, his voice lacks the hard edges that Dean has come to associate with him. 

“I told you, man,” Ash says, expertly blowing smoke rings after his hit, “this is good stuff. Guaranteed to make you forget all your problems.” Without looking, he passes the bong to Andy. 

“Yeah,” Andy agrees. “You’re looking so much better. Mellow.” 

Castiel reaches out and plucks the bong away from Andy before Dean has a chance to reach out for it, but even that overstepping of boundaries doesn’t manage to spark anything other than a mild amusement. “I’m good,” Dean slurs. “It’s all good. Prince of Hell? Demon blood? Psychic powers? I don’t care. I don’t even care that I don’t care.” 

The Wall of Castiel never wavers, and Dean leans up against him. It’s fine, he could sit up straight, except that he doesn’t want to. Besides, why bother? Castiel is next to him and being accommodating and helpful. It would be a dick move to not lean up against him, right? Plus, he smells nice. Like smoke and pot and laundry detergent. Nothing revolutionary, but nice. 

Deep in the back of his mind, Dean knows that something’s wrong with his assessment of the situation, but right now, he can’t be bothered to think about it. 

  devils trap divider

It isn’t until night falls that Sam realizes just how much of the past four years were spent in an endless pursuit of studying. Without an exam to cram for or a paper to write, he finds himself with nothing to do. He tries to read a book, but the words slip by him before he can decipher their meaning. After realizing that he doesn’t know the main character’s name, Sam puts his book aside. He could go to the Roadhouse for a drink and company, but he saw Jess heading there earlier, and it seems like they could both use a bit of time away from each other. 

Sam entertains the thought of seeking out Castiel, but he and Castiel still aren’t really friends. Asking Castiel to hang out with him just because he’s lonely feels beyond pathetic. 

Instead, Sam spends his night flipping through one of his Constitutional Law textbooks. Highlighted passages jump out at him, remnants of a life that he tried so hard to claim. Now that life has slipped through his fingers, and Sam can’t help but wonder what’s next. 

He talks a big game, but the thought of using his powers to kill a demon is ludicrous. He can’t help but think of what Dad would say if he knew. Would Dad even care enough to listen, or would he shoot first and ask questions later? Somehow, Sam doesn't think John Winchester would get along well with the Roadhouse crew. 

After skimming over the same passage three times, Sam admits defeat. Clearly, there’s not any relaxation in his future, so he might as well pack his bag for the trip tomorrow. Fortunately, his duffel is still fairly well-stocked from his last hunt. All that remains is to change out his underwear and a few shirts. He finds the suit he wore while impersonating Homeland Security in Pennsylvania, and after a moment’s thought, he folds it as carefully as he can and puts it in his duffel. While Dean might complain about wearing suits, they definitely open up a lot of doors. Plus, it’s a little easier to believe someone is a federal agent when they’re not dressed like an escapee from the Canadian wilderness. 

With his bag mostly packed, Sam ventures out to the annex bathroom to brush his teeth. He stares at his reflection in the sickly fluorescent light. Were the circles under his eyes always so pronounced? Did he always have those lines on his forehead? 

Those thoughts weigh heavy on his shoulders as he turns to go back to the room. When he opens the door, he has another nasty surprise: Jess is sitting on his bed, right next to his duffel. Sam isn’t sure exactly how to describe her expression, but it falls somewhere into the category of "not pleased." 

“See that you’re ready for tomorrow.” Sam used to love the way Jess could pack so much aggression into her politeness, but now he finds that it’s a habit that has backfired on him. 

“Jess…” he starts, but trails off. Everything he could say has the potential for disaster. 

“I just think it sucks that you’re making me sit at the kids' table on this Colt thing. It was my intel that you’re working off of; it should be me going on that trip.” Two bright spots of color appear on Jess’ face. “That was a really shitty thing to do.” 

Sam’s patience snaps. He tosses his toiletries bag onto the bed, narrowly missing Jess’ hip. She doesn’t flinch, and somehow, that just makes him angrier. “Yeah, well. Seems like there’s a lot of that going around lately.” 

“Are you telling me that you’re still—” 

“You lied to me!” The words explode out of Sam’s chest before he can even think to stop them. “All the time we were together, every single time I asked about meeting your family, and you lied. At least I had the decency to tell you that my family wasn’t one that you wanted to meet, but you just kept on making excuses for why I couldn’t meet yours.” 

“I was going to tell you!” 

“When? When did you think would be a good time? After I told you that I loved you? After we moved in together? When?” 

“How about you ease up on the high ground?” Jess shoves herself off of the bed in one smooth motion. The next second, she’s in Sam’s face, five feet and eleven inches of glorious wrath. “In case you hadn’t realized, I’m not the only one who kept childhood secrets, and I’m getting really sick and tired of being treated like the enemy when we both did exactly the same thing! And let’s keep in mind that it wasn’t me who was keeping visions of other people dying to themselves!” 

“I know!” His voice comes out as a roar, and Sam has to make a concentrated effort to bring his voice down. “I know, I know.” 

He takes a step back just to put distance between him and Jess. It feels like a metaphor. “I don’t know why it bothers me so much. I should be able to get over it. I know. But I can’t.” 

Jess flinches. “Well,” she says, making a valiant effort to keep her voice from quavering, “if you’re finding it that difficult, then perhaps we shouldn’t be together.” 

If she’d taken a knife and slammed it into his chest, Sam couldn’t be more surprised. He stares at Jess, hoping against hope that he misheard her, but he knows he didn’t. Her chin quivers, but her eyes are steel. 

“What are you saying?” he asks, his voice reaching a register it hasn’t since high school. “Do you want…” 

He watches the bob of Jess’ swallow. “This isn’t… This isn’t what I want, anymore,” she whispers. “Sam, I love you, and that’s never going to change, but I can’t sit here while you cast me aside like I’m nothing. Like you can’t trust me. Me,” she says. She blinks and her eyes are glassy. “I just think we need a break.” 

John Winchester taught Sam a long time ago that it never helps to ask for things. People will reject you, and sometimes, they’ll even take pleasure in it. But if he thought it would make any difference, he would get down on his knees and beg. 

“Where will you… I mean. Are you going to stay here?” Each syllable tastes like bile in his mouth. 

Jess looks at a spot over his shoulder. “For the time being. If everything goes right, then we have at least two more psychics who will be staying here, not to mention Bobby and Rufus. It’s not like we’ll be here most of the time anyway, so being cooped up with each other shouldn’t be too much of a problem.” 

“What about tonight? Are you going to...?” Sleep here, he doesn't say, but Jess doesn't seem to need him to. 

“I don’t think that’s for the best.” Jess speaks quickly, like she needs to get the words out or else they’ll be lost forever. “I’ll find another room.” 

“Could you stay?” Sam’s voice comes out in a pathetic croak, but he can’t gather enough pride to be ashamed. Jess’ eyes are wide with surprise when they flick towards him. “Just for tonight?” 

Sam is raw and aching. His Constitutional Law textbook sits on the nightstand, forgotten and forlorn. Jess is the one remnant of his old life, the one thing he thought he could count on until the end. To lose her is unthinkable. If she walks away now, he doesn’t know what will happen. 

“Yeah,” Jess says, the corners of her eyes softening. “I can stay tonight.” 

  devils trap divider

Conversation drifts around Dean. He catches little snatches of it here and there, but he doesn’t bother to pay attention. No one asks him his opinion, but the oversight doesn’t feel insulting. More like they just don’t want to bother him. It’s nice. Dean appreciates that they’re not going to harsh his buzz. 

His eyelids grow heavy. Eventually, he allows them to close. Just for a second, he thinks, just to rest my eyes. 

A few moments after that, he shivers and winces at the bite of cold air against his skin. “No,” he moans, trying to pull away from the discomfort. “Don’t want—” 

“Come on,” a low voice says close to his ear. “Your back isn’t going to thank you if you spend the night in the van.” 

Dean stumbles forward. His toes catch on nothing at all, and he pitches forward. A solid hand, planted in the center of his chest, stops him from falling flat on his face. After that, his arm is slung over a broad pair of shoulders. He and his savior walk into the annex together. 

All too soon, he’s falling into his bed. Though the mattress is comfortable, he still mourns the loss of the body pressed against his side. The world seems somehow colder without it. He frowns, clutching his arms tight around his midriff to ward off the chills. The blanket that’s pulled up over his shoulders only helps him somewhat, but it’s better than nothing. 

“Sleep it off,” the voice tells him. 

Dean tries to come up with some kind of response — thank this amazing person, maybe even do something stupid like ask them to stay — but he’s asleep before he can think of what to say. 

Chapter Text

Gentle fingers skate across Castiel’s skin, trailing butterfly touches down his sides. Someone whispers in his ear.

Cas, sweetheart, the voice says. Want you so much.

The man on top of him smells of smooth whiskey and worn leather. His lips press devotion and care into the sensitive skin below Castiel’s ear. Castiel arches up to meet his lover halfway, nosing at his neck, scraping blunt nails down his back. He’s drunk on the warm skin under his hands, the irresistible press of their bodies against each other that feels so good, so right.

“I’m twenty-one years old, Mom! I can make my own decisions!”

Castiel jerks awake, heart racing from the sudden return to consciousness and the hot, urgent arousal still coursing through him.

He quickly identifies the source of the disturbance. Jo and Ellen’s voices, pitched at top volume, echo through the house. Castiel groans and pulls his comforter over his head. He doesn’t need to hear the rest of the fight to know what it’s about. Semi-regular confrontations about Jo’s obsession with hunting have been the soundtrack of his life for the past fifteen years.

He turns over and wonders if he can go back to sleep. Sam and Dean will probably want to leave for Colorado sooner rather than later, but judging by the light outside his window, it’s barely past dawn. In any case, he doesn’t think they would take off without him. Not because they actually want him along for the trip, of course, but his connection with Elkins makes him a useful asset.

We’re working with you because it’s convenient. The second that changes… I don’t care if you’re drowning. We’re done.

Castiel sighs. He wishes his brain would stop replaying that fight with Dean on an endless loop.

At least his erection is gone.

He doesn’t feel particularly sleepy anymore either, but wild horses couldn’t drag him down the stairs right now. Jo and Ellen would ask him to pick a side, and it’s too damn early for that.

So instead of getting up, Castiel lies back and tries to recapture the memory of his dream. Sexual dreams are a rare occurrence for him, and he wonders what prompted this one. He’s noticed a few times that smoking pot helps keep his nightmares at bay, but he’s never known it to have a positive effect on his libido before.

Maybe it wasn’t the pot.

His brain chooses to illustrate that thought with a memory of Dean in Andy’s van, loose and smiling as he leaned up against Castiel’s side. Another one, of Dean flopping against him, giggling and affectionate, as Castiel walked him back to the annex. And finally, the coup de grace, Dean’s sleepy smile as Castiel tucked him into bed. He managed to restrain himself from doing something abysmally foolish like kiss Dean’s forehead or, God forbid, curl into bed beside him. But it was a near thing.  

“Dean is straight, you idiot,” Castiel growls in the general direction of his crotch, although he has to admit that he’s had his doubts on that score. Ash has maintained all along that Dean is just deep in the closet, and he loves making Castiel listen to his list of reasons at least once a day. (Most of the reasons boil down to, “The way he looks at your ass, dude!”)

Downstairs, Jo and Ellen seem to have run out of steam, judging by the sudden silence settling over the house. If Castiel had to guess, he’d say they’re both sitting at the kitchen table now, observing a pointed silence while they pretend to be busy doing paperwork (in Ellen’s case) or studying the Knife Country catalogue (which Jo subscribes to mostly because it annoys Ellen). 

Anyway, Ash’s thoughts on Dean’s sexuality are a moot point. Even if Dean is attracted to men, he obviously isn’t out, and Castiel isn’t interested in being anyone’s secret or casual experiment.

Which is why nothing is going to happen. No matter how good the burn of Dean’s stubble might feel on the inside of Castiel’s thighs, or how good his sweat might taste if Castiel ran his tongue along his collarbone, or how tempting it would be to have Dean on his hands and knees, to part his cheeks and lick into him…

… and his erection is back. Wonderful.

Castiel turns over, squeezing his eyes shut in a determined attempt to go back to sleep and ignore the insistent throbbing between his legs, but it’s proving more difficult than anticipated.

Maybe he could take care of himself, as long as he tried to stay away from thoughts of Dean?

Before the idea is even half-formed, Castiel’s hand develops a mind of its own and strays downwards. He runs a single finger up and down his length, enjoying the light, teasing sensation, so like the gentle touches in his dream.

The need to masturbate is something else he rarely experiences. He doesn’t find pornography arousing, and he hates the idea of fantasizing about people who might not be willing partners in real life, so mostly, he just abstains.

Right now, though… right now, it feels good.

Castiel wraps his fingers more tightly around himself, biting his lip as he starts to stroke up and down his shaft. The glide is just a little too dry, but it’s still pleasurable, and he’s not in a hurry anyway. He closes his eyes and relaxes into the feeling.

Dean on his knees, peering up through his lashes, licking at the head of Castiel’s cock.

A ragged moan falls from Castiel’s lips as a sudden surge of heat washes through him.

“Goddammit,” he mutters. He should probably just stop and take a cold shower.

He doesn’t stop.

Instead, Castiel reaches one-handed into his nightstand for the small bottle of lube he keeps there. As he coats his fingers, he tries to redirect his thoughts to someone, anyone else.

But who else is there? Castiel considers Alex, his on-again-off-again boyfriend for three years in his early twenties. But their final breakup wasn’t exactly amicable, and Castiel doubts Alex would thank him for jerking off to thoughts of him these days. Then there’s Brian, an occasional hunting partner and friend who became a little more than that over the years. But Brian is married now, so, again, not an ideal solution.

Those two sum up the entirety of Castiel’s sexual history. He huffs a frustrated breath as he circles his thumb over the head of his cock. Maybe what he needs to do is empty his mind and focus on nothing but the sensation of touching himself.

Determined to do just that, he closes his eyes, centering his thoughts on the slick warmth of his hand. He thrusts up into it, and it feels good, a low moan falling from his lips as arousal builds underneath his skin. He speeds up his strokes and lets his other hand trail lower, past his balls, down to his hole. The circling, teasing motion of his finger lights up his nerve endings, making him spread his legs in anticipation. It’s been so long since anyone has touched him there. Even longer since he’s been fucked.

Stroking himself faster, he presses inside with just the tip of his index finger, groaning at the sensation of being filled up. It feels so good, and he’s so close, he just needs—

Dean, on his knees, eyes hazy with bliss as he takes Castiel’s cock deep inside his throat.

“Fuck!”

Castiel cries out as he spills all over his hand, breath coming fast and ragged.

As soon as the haze of orgasm fades, Castiel is furious with himself. He picks up the first thing he finds — the bottle of lube — and throws it across the room. It hits the wall above his dresser and drops, landing somewhere out of sight. Castiel decides not to go looking for it. Serves him right if he can’t find lube the next time he needs it. Whenever the hell that’s going to be.

Breathing out through his nose to calm himself, Castiel grabs a dirty t-shirt from the hamper by his bed and uses it to wipe himself down.

As he gets dressed, he tries not to dwell on the fact that he’s about to spend five hours cooped up in a car with the object of his unsanctioned fantasies.

  devils trap divider

Sam’s eyes open as the sun filters in through the window. He managed to grab about three hours of sleep total, having spent most of the night staring at the curve of Jess’ shoulder and the knobs of her spine. At least forty-five minutes passed while he memorized the mole just underneath her hairline. His arms ached with emptiness, and he wanted nothing more than to hold her, but he wasn’t sure whether that was allowed. Jess granted him one more night of grace. He can’t push for more. 

Rolling over takes him an eternity; he doesn’t want to disturb Jess, who apparently feels no ill effects from their fight the previous night. He grabs his laptop from the bedside table. Out of habit, he checks his email. It’s not as though he’s going to receive any missives from professors, but it’s a part of his routine that he refuses to give up. 

There are the usual emails trying to sell him something, a mass email from Stanford informing them of changes to dining hall hours, and then an email from Becky Warren. Sam’s eyebrow rises. He and Becky were part of the same study group, and bonded over being the only two members who didn’t plan on entering the soulless world of corporate law. Not telling Becky that he was temporarily leaving Stanford remains one of Sam’s many regrets about the situation.  

He opens the email, eager to see what’s been happening in Becky’s life. As he reads, his eyebrows climb towards his hairline. He finishes the email, and then reads it again, just in case he misunderstood. However, the second reading yields no better results than the first. 

Sam, he reads, 

Hope you’re doing okay. Everyone misses you and hopes that you’ll be back soon. Wish I could say that I was just writing to check in, but I need your help. I’m in St. Louis with my brother, Zach. He’s in trouble. A few days ago, his girlfriend was murdered. The police think he did it, but I KNOW he didn’t because he was with me at the time. I tried to tell the police that, but they think I’m lying to help him. They’ve got a video of him walking into his girlfriend’s house as well as witnesses who say they saw him there. 

We can’t afford a lawyer, and Zach’s public defender is absolute shit. I hate to ask you for anything while you’re going through something too, but I know you've done a lot of reading on criminal law, and maybe you could just give us some advice? I wouldn’t be asking if I had any other options. I don’t know what else to do. 

If you can, please help. 

Sam’s stomach churns sickly. Becky is proud, almost to the point of foolishness. Asking — begging — for help must have cost her every bit of her pride. She was a friend to him at Stanford when he desperately needed one, and never once has she asked for anything in return. Sam can’t ignore her plea for help. 

He reaches for his phone and dials Dean’s number. Even as the phone rings, he’s already wincing, trying to steel himself for the inevitable explosion. He’s so worried about what his brother will say that he misses the moment when Dean actually answers. 

“If you’re calling this early, there’d better be blood and lots of it.” Dean’s voice is sleep-thick and grouchy. 

“Can we push back the trip to Elkins’ place?” Sam finishes scanning the email yet again as he asks the question. It’s just as bad as he remembered, which means that the trip to pick up the Colt is no longer his highest priority.

Dean is quiet for a long second. Sam, having grown up with Dean, knows what to expect and holds the phone away from his ear. Sure enough, the explosion follows, and Dean, who sounds much more awake than he did thirty seconds ago, snaps, “What?” 

By now, Jess is awake too. She rolls over, her expression caught between irritated and quizzical. Though every atom of Sam’s existence strains towards her, he also has to deal with a brother who has no qualms about bursting into a room uninvited when he’s pissed. “I can’t go with you to find Elkins today. Can it wait for a few days?” 

Dean’s scoff is derisive, insulting, and everything that Sam sometimes hated about his big brother when he was growing up. “Yeah, Sammy, let me just push it off. You give me your calendar and let me know what dates work best for you.” Sarcasm drips off of Dean’s words, and Sam flinches. “What the hell is so important that you’re thinking about ditching this?”  

Sam answers, already knowing that it’s not going to be anywhere near enough to mollify Dean. “I got an email from one of my friends at Stanford. She's in St. Louis because her brother’s in trouble, and she needs help.” Jess’ eyebrow rises. She plucks the computer off Sam's lap, and he doesn’t bother to stop her. He’s too busy dealing with Dean to worry about Jess’ reading material. 

“One of your friends at…” Sam winces as Dean trails off. He knows that mentioning anything about Stanford is not only pouring salt in the wound, it’s taking sandpaper and scraping off the scab, but he couldn’t lie. Like Jess pointed out last night, there’s been enough lying from everyone. “Sam, you’re needed here. Not…” 

A clatter happens in the background (Sam’s guess is that Dean tosses the phone somewhere). So softly that Sam can guess he’s not meant to hear it, Dean mutters, “Goddammit.” After a few seconds, Dean picks the phone back up again. “I mean, you do what you’ve gotta do, I guess. I can’t put off this trip. Not when there’s demons around and people trying to kill us. I guess… God, I guess I’ll take Castiel and we’ll go.” 

“Take Jess,” Sam says. Jess’ head snaps up. “It was her intel that led us to the Colt and Elkins in the first place; she could definitely help.” 

“No, I’m going with you to St. Louis,” Jess interrupts. 

Sam stares at her for a full ten seconds. “Hold on a second,” he tells Dean, and ignores the subsequent annoyed huffs. He puts his hand over the speaker and turns to Jess. “Yesterday you were pissed because you weren’t going with Dean, and today you’re turning it down?” 

“I was pissed because you were cutting me out of the cool kids’ table to punish me,” Jess says smoothly. “Becky’s my friend too. Plus, have you read her email? Her brother was seen right outside his girlfriend’s house, got caught on camera, but he was with Becky the whole time? That’s not bad luck, that’s weird. Our kind of weird.” There’s a particular inflection she puts on the word our, but Sam doesn’t bother to call her out on it. 

Sam should argue. He and Jess are fighting, and discord amongst hunting partners spells disaster. He can’t shake the feeling that they’re walking into a bad situation, but the stubborn set of Jess’ jaw tells him that arguing is futile. 

“Okay, never mind,” Sam says, pulling his hand away from the speaker. “Jess is coming with me.” 

“Oh, for the love of…” Sam hangs up before Dean can get worked up again. He drops the phone in his lap and looks at Jess. 

“You’re sure you want to come?” A sharp jerk of Jess’ head is his answer. Even though it’s not smart, Sam decides to poke the bear. “That’s not much of a break.” 

In the span of a second, storm clouds move over Jess’ face. Her eyes turn dark, and her mouth twists in a sneer. She flings herself out of bed with sharp, jerky motions. She yanks her hair into a ponytail, hard enough to jerk out a few strands, before she turns to Sam. 

“It’s a job. I know how to be professional, even if my partners don’t.” 

She grabs her toiletries bag and stalks towards the bathroom. The door slams behind her, and the sound echoes in Sam’s skull. “Yeah, this is going to go swell,” Sam mutters. 

***

Breakfast is a tense affair. Ellen and Jo take the news of the change in plans with aplomb, but Dean won’t meet Sam's eyes, and the muscle in the corner of Castiel’s jaw starts ticking like a metronome. Both he and Dean look a little worse for wear, and Castiel’s razor-sharp defensiveness is back in full force. 

“We’re going to need a car,” Jess says, breaking the loaded silence in the kitchen. Ellen’s eyes rise over the rim of her coffee mug. 

Dean speaks for the first time that morning to croak, “You’re sure as fuck not taking the Impala.” 

“Helpful,” Sam can’t help but say. “Not like we can take the van. I think that's a little noticeable.” 

“You could take the Jeep,” Jo offers. Her grin splits like skin under a knife. “I’ll drive.” 

“I’ve got a truck you can borrow,” Ellen says suddenly. 

The words are simple enough, but they act like a stone dropped in a calm pond. Jo jerks back like she’s been struck, and Castiel’s hand freezes halfway to lifting a forkful of eggs to his mouth. With all the speed of a rusty gear, his eyes move to Ellen, who is carefully looking at Sam and ignoring her two children. 

“It’s in the back of the shed. Probably gonna need a jump, but everything works fine on it. It’s already tricked out for hunting too, so you just need to move your own supplies into it.” 

Jo gets up and rushes upstairs in a thunderous clatter. Castiel remains at the table, but he moves like each motion causes him physical pain. Ellen’s face is a little paler than normal, but her expression is steady as she walks to the door and plucks a pair of keys off of a hook. “Come on, I’ll show you.” 

She’s right: it does take a jump to get the old truck running, but after that, it sputters to life with a complaining growl and a cough of exhaust fumes. It’s definitely seen better days, but it’s serviceable, and like Ellen said, there’s already an equipment box in the bed that has all manner of hunting gear: salt, silver, several shotguns, ammunition, and holy water. There's even a police scanner on the dash. Sam sits in the driver’s seat while Jess goes to get her bag, and adjusts the seat to better fit his legs. When he reaches up to the visor, a photograph tumbles into his lap. 

Feeling like a voyeur, Sam examines it. He recognizes the laughing, sandy-haired man from the pictures in Ellen’s house. Bill Harvelle, his mind fills in, and then, It’s Dad’s fault he’s dead. He drags his eyes away from Bill and to Ellen, who looks years younger and lighter. Her wide grin takes over her face, and she only has eyes for the man next to her. Her arm is slung around a scrawny teenager with dark hair who’s giving the camera the same grin that all beleaguered teens give. Next to Castiel, because that’s who it is, Jo gives the camera a toothy grin, like she’s deliberately trying to goad Castiel into smiling wider. 

It’s a moment of perfection, snatched from the jaws of the world and already doomed to expire. Sam feels dirty even touching the picture. Part of him wants to give this to Ellen, and part of him wants to pretend like he never saw it. He settles for tucking the photo into the glovebox, but he can feel it sitting there, judging him. Before he can reconsider what he wants to do with it, Jess opens the passenger door and tosses her bag into the backseat. With that, they’re ready to go, and Sam eases the truck onto the road. 

  devils trap divider

Even after Ellen, Sam and Jess have been gone for several minutes, Jo doesn’t come back downstairs. Left alone, Castiel and Dean finish their breakfast in silence, Dean inhaling his so quickly that Castiel starts mentally rehearsing what he remembers about first aid for choking.

Dean is probably eager to get out of the house before Ellen returns. Even though he doesn’t know what the tension is about, he’s too smart not to be aware of its existence. Sure enough, as soon as his plate is clean, Dean mumbles something about wanting to make sure the Impala is road-ready and practically runs for the door.

About fifteen minutes later, Ellen walks in through the back door, toeing off her boots in the mudroom. Castiel ignores her for now, pretending he’s completely absorbed in washing the last few of the breakfast dishes. But all too soon, the last plate is in the dish drainer. When he turns, it’s to find Ellen sitting at the kitchen table, staring him down with a defiant tilt to her chin. Castiel sighs.

“Look, Ellen, I don’t… I don’t want to fight, but you know what I’m going to say, right?”

Ellen shakes her head, looking tired. “It’s just a truck, Cas.”

“Except you don’t let anyone drive that truck,” Castiel replies, his tone harsher than he intended. “Not ever. The farthest it’s gone in ten years is to the garage in town to keep it maintained, and you won’t even let me or Jo take it there for you.”

Ellen kicks back her chair and strolls over to the coffee maker, filling two mugs and pushing one at Castiel. “Look, you’re not wrong. But maybe I was being stupid, you know? I keep the damn thing in drivable condition, but ain’t nobody driving it. What’s the point?”

Castiel takes a deep breath, willing his voice to come out calm and steady this time. Reasonable. “Okay, so if you’re ready for somebody to drive it, make it me or Jo. But not… Ellen, you’re the one who always told me never to trust a Winchester.”

Ellen shakes her head, looking tired. “Cas, that was years ago. The grief of losing Bill was still so fresh, and I was just… so angry. Hell, I’m still angry at John Winchester. But Sam ain’t his father, so our grudge ain’t with him. You ought to remember that. I know you like those boys, Dean especially, no matter what you choose to tell yourself to the contrary.”

She steps up close to him and cups his cheek with her hand until he meets her eyes. “I know why you started helping them — I know it was about your family, and the score you think you’ve still got to settle for how they died. But I don’t think that’s what it’s about anymore. Not entirely. I think you’ve come to like these people, and you really just want to be of use to them. So don’t run from a good thing just because John Winchester is a goddamn asshole.”

Ellen stares him down in her direct, unflinching way, and Castiel never learned how to keep fighting with her when she gets this determined. “Yeah, okay,” he says softly. He pulls her into a hug, his still-wet hands leaving dark spots on her flannel. Ellen smells exactly the same as the first time she hugged him, when he was fifteen, half-mad with grief and angry at the entire world. He couldn’t put a name to the smell, but it has always meant comfort and safety to him.

“When Sam and Jess are back, that truck’s yours,” Ellen says, a grin in her voice. “Seeing as you managed to lose your Continental.”

Castiel tightens his arms around Ellen’s shoulders. “Thanks, Ellen.”

They step apart, each grabbing their mugs before they settle down at the kitchen table.

“So what about your trip to find Scott Carey?” Castiel asks. “Wasn’t Jess planning to go with you?”

“Yeah.” Ellen takes a sip of her coffee, eyes fixed on the stairs to the second floor, where Jo still hasn’t reappeared. “Jo’s bound to have some thoughts about that too.”

“She’ll insist that you take her along, now that Jess isn’t available.”

Ellen nods, looking equal parts fond and exasperated. “You ever notice she’s a whole lot like Bill? Same damn stubbornness.”

“Yes. She always used to ask if she could help clean his weapons, and he finally became so annoyed that he said he’d let her do it ‘when pigs fly.’ I don’t think Mr. Abbott’s pig ever quite recovered after she tried to put those wings on it.”

Castiel smiles at the memory of the incensed farmer showing up on their doorstep, brandishing a pair of paper wings tied together with string.

Ellen chuckles. “I still remember the time she was eight, and Bill tried to tell her she was too young to have a knife of her own. She called him a misogynist and wouldn’t talk to him for three days. When she finally got over it, Bill told her he’d bought her a knife, but she couldn’t have it for another month as a matter of principle.” Her expression flickers, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shadow of grief. “God, I miss him.”

It’s best to steer the conversation away from Bill when Ellen gets like this, so Castiel says, “You know if you don’t let Jo come with you, she’ll go anyway just to spite you, right? She’ll get Scott’s address out of Ash and hitchhike to his place if she has to.”

“I know.” Ellen blinks down at the mug that’s cradled between her hands. “I try so hard to talk her out of hunting, but it’s pointless. Might as well accept the inevitable.”

“So you’ll take her along?” Castiel asks, surprised.

“Yeah. If she’ll go anyway, I’d rather keep an eye on her. And who knows, maybe having a sweet young thing with me will make that Carey kid less likely to be jumpy.”

“Only until he realizes that Jo is as sweet as battery acid,” Castiel says, happy to see Ellen’s lips crinkle up at the joke.

“Yeah, s’pose so.” She finds his hand on the tabletop and squeezes it. “Now, go on. You’ve spent enough time being lazy this morning. Go find Dean and get on the road already.”

  devils trap divider

Dean has been sitting on Baby’s hood for the past fifteen minutes, locked in a staring contest with his phone as he tries to figure out what to do.

He still calls Dad’s cell every couple of days, even knowing it won’t do any good. He’s left messages, but hasn’t said much, other than to let Dad know that he and Sam are together and that they’re fine. He hasn’t been giving details about their location because he honestly isn’t sure who might be listening to the messages. But it didn’t feel right to stop communicating altogether. Felt too much like admitting that Dad might never come back to them, and they might not ever know why.

But now there’s this thing with the Colt. If there’s anything to it, then they’re talking about a weapon that could deliver the revenge Dad’s been after for more than twenty years. If there’s any chance Dad can be in on this, he deserves to be. Doesn’t he?

Dean blows out a deep breath through his nose and dials the number. As expected, it goes straight to voicemail.

“Hey, Dad. Um, it’s me. Dean. Thought you should know that we’ve got a lead about Mom. We… we think we know what killed her. Might even have a way to take it out. We’re going to see Elkins about it.” Hopefully dropping just the last name is vague enough that anyone other than John won’t be able to get anything from it. “Anyway, if you, uh. If you happen to be near that area, or if you can get there, give me a call?”

Dean trails off uncertainly, then bites down on his lip and ends the call before he can start to make even more of a fool of himself. If Dad does ever listen to the message, he won’t be too impressed with pointless stammering.

When Dean looks up, Castiel is striding towards him across the field that leads from the farmhouse to the Roadhouse parking lot, a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. He’s bundled up in a thick flannel and a canvas jacket, looking distinctly grumpy about being outside in the winter cold. Something shifts in Dean’s chest at the sight, and it feels dangerously close to fondness. He pushes it down.

“You ready to go, sunshine?”

“Sunshine? Really?” Castiel cocks his head at him, squinting like a confused owl. Dean tries and fails not to smile.

“Whatever, dude,” he says, turning away to hide his face. “Time to get this show on the road.”

They get in the front seat, and Dean’s heart thuds with anticipation, just as it always does when Baby starts up her familiar rumble, pulling him toward the open road. What he doesn’t expect is the small curl of regret at the thought that he won’t be having breakfast in the Harvelles’ kitchen tomorrow. Uncomfortable tension this morning notwithstanding, it’s a warm, cozy place. A home.

But a home isn’t something Dean gets to have, so he might as well paint on a smile and get this trip started.

“You ready for this?” Dean asks, slanting his eyes at Castiel, who’s tugging at his bag to make it fit in the footwell next to the box of tapes. “I ain’t stopping before lunch time, so if you need to pee, do it now.”

Castiel treats him to a full-body eye roll. “Just drive.”

So Dean does. Pretty soon, it turns out that being on the road with Castiel isn’t nearly as awkward as Dean expected it to be. (Certainly not as awkward as that time Castiel had him cuffed to his own damn car.)

Dean pushes a Zepp tape into the deck before they even get to the highway, and Castiel doesn’t complain, even bobs his head a little when “Kashmir” comes on. They don’t talk much, and Castiel mostly stares out the window at the bleak, brown winter landscape flashing past, but there’s none of the weird, angry tension that’s been a staple of their relationship.

About an hour into the drive, Castiel starts digging around in his duffle. He pulls out a couple of fake IDs, shuffling through them with an annoyed expression. “I brought these just in case we need to do interviews, but they aren’t very convincing,” he mutters. “All my good ones were in the glove box of the Continental, and it doesn’t look like I’ll ever get them back.”

“Let me see.” Dean makes a grabby motion with his hand, and Castiel holds up an ID for his inspection. It’s an FBI one, clearly out of date, and the picture on it looks a little lopsided. It definitely wouldn’t pass muster on close examination. Dean’s eyes snag on the name. “Agent Ford? Nice. I’ve got one of those. U.S. Wildlife Service. You a Harrison Ford fan?”

Castiel shrugs. “I don’t mind him, but that’s not why I picked the name.”

Taking one hand off the steering wheel, Dean grabs another ID off the stash and glances at it. This one’s for a DEA agent. “And Agent Carter! Awesome, man. I love Captain America.”

“I don’t, particularly,” Castiel says, doing his squinty owl impression again.

Dean glances back at the road, but there’s no one around for miles, and the tarmac stretches straight ahead of them as far as the eye can see. Nebraska really is a depressing place to drive through. “So you’re telling me this ain’t about Peggy Carter?” he asks.

Castiel snatches the ID out of Dean’s hand and puts it back on his stack. “I don’t know who that is.”

“You’ve got some kind of pattern to your aliases though, right? Every hunter I know does.”

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t,” Castiel says, sounding utterly indifferent, but there’s a small twinkle in his eye betraying his amusement.

“Okay, fine. I’ll bite. What’s your pattern?”

The twinkle grows, throwing sparks that seem to light up Castiel’s entire face, even though he isn’t smiling at all. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Fine,” Dean says, trying to match Castiel’s indifferent tone. “Don’t tell me. I don’t even care.”

“Yes, you do.” And there it is. Castiel’s lips are twitching. There’s a solid, steady warmth in Dean’s chest at the idea that he was the cause of that almost-smile.

“Do not,” he says, just to be an ass.

“You do, and you’re being childish.”

Dean grins, feeling almost giddy. He and Sam grew up bantering and bickering, and while they still fall into those familiar rhythms, nowadays, there’s a certain amount of caution to it, born of the knowledge that bickering could turn into a real fight between them at any second. It just doesn’t feel the same as this, this effortless back and forth. “C’mon, Cas. Caaaaaaaas.” He stretches the word obnoxiously, batting his eyelashes just to make Cas laugh. It works. It’s more of a short, dry chuckle, but Dean’s going to count it.

“Tell me about your aliases, and then we’ll see.”

Dean shrugs. “Ain’t much to it. I mostly use classic rock musicians, and a couple actors and movie characters I like. You know, like Harrison Ford. And Hicks from Aliens.”

Cas hums his acknowledgement and goes back to staring out the window. Dean bats at his shoulder with the back of his hand. “C’mon, Cas. Your turn.”

“I never said I’d tell,” Cas says, amusement clear in his voice, even though he never takes his eyes off the landscape outside. It’s still just a bunch of flat prairie, not even remotely interesting, so he’s clearly just being an asshole.

“Fine, be like that,” Dean says, with all the dignity he can muster (not much, but it’ll have to do). “I’ll figure it out. You just watch. When you least expect it, I’m coming back at you with the right answer.”

“I look forward to it,” Cas says, with considerably more dignity. Damn him.

“Can’t you at least give me a fucking hint?”

Cas inclines his head, like he’s giving the question some serious consideration. “Sure, I don’t see why not. When I was on the trip with Jess, I was Johnson.”

Dean gapes at him. “Dude. That’s the least helpful hint ever. Johnson could be anyone.”

Cas finally looks away from the landscape outside, eyes roaming over Dean’s face. “You’ll get there,” he says. “I believe in you.”

They’re supposed to be teasing each other, but Cas made it sound like he meant that. A little embarrassed by the sudden shift in mood, Dean makes a gruff sound in the back of his throat and focuses back on the road.

It takes him another twenty minutes of silence to realize he’s been calling Castiel “Cas,” and Cas let him.

***

By lunchtime, they’ve made it into Colorado and to the edge of the Pawnee Grassland. The landscape is still flat for the most part, but bizarre monoliths jut out of the prairie here and there.

“You think those two kinda look like boobs?” Dean asks, frowning at a pair of steep-sided rocks that rise up about three hundred yards away to their right.

Cas looks up from the sketchpad in his lap, where he’s been doodling various features of the landscape for the past half hour or so. He looks so appalled that Dean kind of wants to poke his face, just to see what he’d do. 

“These rock formations are millions of years old, Dean, witnesses to a time long before anything approaching modern man walked the Earth.”

“Alright, sure,” Dean concedes, “but they look like boobs.”

Cas is silent for a moment, then says, “Admittedly, my knowledge of women’s breasts is limited to movies and paintings, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be that far apart.”

Dean’s head swivels to face Cas so fast that his neck twinges unpleasantly. “Wait, what? You’ve never seen a chick naked?” Dean opens his mouth and closes it again twice before he adds, “Never?

Cas tips his head back and forth, thoughtful. “I suppose I must have when I was a small child. I don’t remember that though.”

“So you don’t— I mean, you never— I know you said you do with guys, so—” His tongue feels like it’s in knots. Why does it feel like that? He might not be great with words, but he can do better than this. Jesus.

Cas rolls his eyes, and Dean can’t blame him. “Dean, are you trying to ask me if I’m gay?”

Dean takes a hand off the steering wheel to rub self-consciously at the back of his neck. “I… yeah, I, maybe? Shit, that’s probably rude, huh? I don’t really know about that stuff.” He blows out a breath, but it does nothing for the tightness in his chest. At least he’s forming real sentences again. “You know what? Forget I said anything.”

“It’s fine,” Cas says, sounding amused. “Honestly, I’m not really sure what the answer is. I’m attracted to certain people once I’ve gotten to know them a bit. So far, that’s only happened with guys, but I think it could happen with women too. It just hasn’t yet.”

“Okay,” Dean says, wishing he could think of something a whole lot more interesting to say. “Okay. Right.”

He waits for the other shoe to drop, waits for Cas to ask, “What about you?” But Cas doesn’t, and Dean is immeasurably grateful, because he honestly doesn’t know what his answer would be. His default is usually “straight as an arrow” or some shit like that, but it’s not like he can’t appreciate when a guy is good-looking. And yeah, sometimes he wants to touch. Like when he saw Cas in his Fed suit back in Jericho. Or now, with the way the noon sun is making the lines of Cas’ face just a little softer around the edges.

But Dean likes girls. Always has. Cas seems to be perfectly fine with the idea that he could like both and, what’s even more alarming, with the idea that it’s okay not to know. But Dean never learned how to live with that kind of ambiguity. The way he grew up, it was always important to be able to pick out right and wrong, black and white, no in between. If you couldn’t figure out what something was or why it was happening, it might sneak up on you and stab you in the back.

So whenever his thoughts even strayed in the direction of questioning whether he might like guys too, he crammed that thought in a drawer at the back of his head and slapped three different locks on it.  

For one thing, he knew where Dad was likely to come down on the matter, and isn’t that just a new problem he hadn’t considered before? What if, by some miracle, Dad calls him back and asks to meet up with him and Cas? Would Dad look at Cas and somehow be able to tell he’s been with other guys?

Dad actually claimed once that he could, one night when he and Dean celebrated the end of a hunt at a bar, and they spotted two guys making eyes at each other by the jukebox. It was just a few years back, right after Sam had left for Stanford. Dean thought it was all talk then. He might not know a lot, but he sure as hell knows better than to think you can tell a man is gay just by looking at him.

Still, rational or not, he can’t help worrying. What if Dad figures it out and tries to pick a fight with Cas? The thought bothers Dean, but not just because he doesn’t like the idea of having to break up a fight. Most of all, it bothers him to realize that he can’t say for sure he wouldn’t take his Dad’s side against Cas.

What the hell is wrong with him?

Cas cuts through the tangled mess of Dean’s thoughts with a suggestion that they get lunch, so Dean pulls over at a little diner a few miles further west along the highway. He orders a double cheeseburger with bacon, and a vanilla milkshake, because Sam’s not here to lecture him about his eating habits. What he doesn’t expect is for Cas to order the same. Somehow, he’d figured the guy for a salad lover.

Conversation ebbs and flows while they wait for the food to arrive, the two of them reminiscing about hunts they’ve been on. Cas has mostly been after demons, and mostly without a partner, which seems damn stupid and dangerous, but Dean doesn’t say so. He’s not too eager to disturb this tentative peace they seem to have arrived at.

Around the time he chews on his third bite of burger, it occurs to Dean that if he were a better person, he’d apologize to Cas for some of the stuff he’s said. He made sure to tell Sam, growing up, that it was important to own up to your mistakes and say sorry, but Dean himself? Somehow, while he wasn’t paying attention, he absorbed the John Winchester mentality of “fight and claw and never give an inch.” And now that he’s got it, it turns out to be a hard thing to shake.

They don’t linger once they finish their food, wanting to get to Manning before it gets too late in the day. It doesn’t do to surprise a hunter at his house after dark. After another half hour, the prairie gives way to the outlying ranges of the Rocky Mountains, giant forested peaks rising up in the distance.

As they pass a sign that gives the distance to Manning as sixty miles, Cas says, “I don’t hate you.”

“Okay?” Dean slants his eyes at Cas to find him looking down at his lap. “That’s good, I guess. I don’t hate you either.”

Cas looks up and says, absolutely deadpan, “I don’t see why you would. I’m a delight to be around.”

They both sit there, just looking at each other in absolute silence for several seconds. Then Dean cracks up, shoulders shaking with the force of his laugh until he has to come up for air, wheezing.

“Holy shit, man. I haven’t laughed that hard in years.”

Cas is smiling back at him, a little puzzled, but definitely wide enough for his eyes to crinkle at the corners. They’re nice eyes, Dean notices, not for the first time.

Cas falls quiet again, but he seems to be working up to something, picking at the skin next to his thumbnail in a subtle tell of nerves.

“I just meant, I know it’s not your fault, what happened to Bill,” he says eventually. He looks like the words are costing him something to say. “I shouldn’t have been so harsh about it. You’re not your father. I know that.”

Dean nods, not trusting himself to speak. If he does, he might tell Cas what he’s been thinking lately: that he’s more like his father than he should be.

But Cas is looking at him sort of expectantly, like he wants Dean to respond with actual words. Which, really, is fair. Actually, an apology for the way he’s been treating Cas would probably be the way to go. The closest thing he can manage, past gritted teeth, is, “Listen, I... I know I can be a dick sometimes.”

Cas hums quietly, like he’s agreeing, but not trying to make anything of it. “So can I.”

Dean thinks about just letting the silence stretch this time, until it seems okay to move on to something else. But since they're talking anyway, he might as well mention something that’s been bothering him. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“I guess,” Cas says, eyes roaming over Dean’s face like he’s a particularly fascinating book.

“Why’re you helping us?”

Cas frowns. “Isn’t that what being a hunter is supposed to be about? Helping people?”

“Sure. But I have a feeling there’s more to it. Sam told me you have a score to settle too, with Azazel.”

From one instant to the next, Cas’ face shutters. A muscle ticks in his jaw.

“I don’t know anything more than that,” Dean says quickly. “But maybe I should. We’re about to walk into something together, and we don’t know what’s waiting for us once we get there. Guess I wanted to know what your endgame is.”

Cas is quiet for a moment, fingers on his thigh tapping out the rhythm of a song only he can hear. “My ‘endgame’ is the same as yours,” he says eventually. “Kill Azazel and stop him from unleashing Hell on Earth. I just might have a few questions to ask before we put an end to him.”

Dean knows he shouldn’t pry, but he never claimed to be particularly smart. Or good at self-preservation. “Do those questions have anything to do with why you’re living with the Harvelles?”

Cas’ expression goes from distant to dangerous in a split-second. “I don’t know what you think you know about that, but it’s none of your damn business. Do you seriously expect me to sit here and share and care about my childhood trauma with a stranger? You don’t see me asking you about your mother, do you?” The sharpness in Cas’ voice makes Dean flinch, and judging by Cas’ stunned expression, it took him a little by surprise too.

Dean’s muscles tense up, fingers clenching into fists around the steering wheel, gearing up for a confrontation. He never did figure out the “flight” part of the so-called “fight or flight” instinct. But before he can lash out, Cas’ expression smoothes, turning tired and subdued. “Sorry, I… didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just, I—”

“No, uh, it’s fine,” Dean says, although it most definitely isn’t. A stranger. And here he thought they were finally getting to be friends. So much for that. “Shouldn’t have sprung that on you out of nowhere.”

Cas nods, his throat bobbing with a heavy swallow. “Can we just listen to music for a while?”

“Yeah, sure.” Dean points down at the passenger footwell. “There’s a whole mess of tapes in that box there. Just pick whatever looks good.”

It’s not an apology, but it’s the best Dean has to offer right now. It seems to get the job done, because when Cas settles on a tape, and the opening riff of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burning for You” sounds through the speakers, Dean looks over to find a slow smile spreading across Cas’ face. Once or twice, he could swear he hears Cas singing along, ever so softly.

  devils trap divider

It’s a nine-hour drive to St. Louis, and the silence between Sam and Jess stretches to fill each and every one of those minutes. By the time they pull up at the address Becky gave them, Sam’s shoulders are aching, and he feels flayed alive. 

They both put on a good face when Becky opens the door. If she notices any strange tension between them, she doesn’t show it. She throws her arms around both of them, pulling them into a hug. Pressed this close to Jess, Sam can smell the clean, citrus scent of her shampoo. A wave of longing threatens to knock him over: he can remember that scent billowing out from the bathroom as Jess showered, can remember it clinging to his hands as he worked up the lather in Jess’ long hair. The foam would get on his nose when she turned around, laughing and naked and wet, to kiss him. 

He has to bring himself back to reality when Becky mentions a security tape. “The cops said they have video of Zach entering the scene of the crime, and the victim managed to identify him in a line-up, but I don’t care. I know he couldn’t have done this. I know my own brother,” Becky says fiercely. 

“We believe you. Look, Jess and I are going to check into our hotel, but we’ll call you first thing in the morning, alright?” 

They part, and Sam drives to the first hotel he can find. Jess pays in cash and she returns with the key to their room. A double, Sam sees, his chest cracking open with something close to despair. Jess tosses her bag on the bed furthest from the door with something like scorn. 

“Can you hack into the police server and get that video?” she asks. 

“It’ll take me a minute, but I should be able to,” Sam answers. Without bothering to kick off his shoes or take off his hoodie, he reaches for his laptop. The sound of his fingers clacking against the keys is loud in the otherwise quiet room. It takes him a little longer than he’d like, but not long enough to be embarrassing, before the database of the St. Louis Police Department yields to him. He searches through their case files until he finds Zach’s name. 

“Jess,” he says, giving her time to sit next to him as he hits "Play." 

The video has the same grainy quality of all security cameras. Sam has to squint for a second before the video resolves into any kind of sense. Jess points at the screen. “That must be Zach,” she says, meaning the young man who walks across the street. He pauses on the sidewalk in front of a house and looks around. He rotates in place, looking briefly at the camera before he turns away again. Seemingly satisfied, he jogs up the walkway and disappears inside. 

“Wind it back?” Jess asks. Sam obeys, stopping when she tells him to. He’s familiar with that tone in Jess’ voice: the one that says that her mind is working at a breakneck pace to keep up with the rush of ideas. 

“There. Pause it there,” she commands. Sam squints at the video, trying to see what’s caught Jess’ attention, but he sees nothing. Just a guy who’s on his way to murder his girlfriend. He shakes his head, and Jess plucks the laptop out of his grasp. 

“You kind of have to be looking for it, but once you see it…” she says. The tip of her tongue sticks out from between her lips as she concentrates. With a soft sound of triumph, she hands the laptop back to him. “See?” 

This time, Sam sees it. Just when Zach turns around and looks at the camera, there’s a strange flash of light. He rewinds the video and looks again. This time, he can tell that it’s coming from his eyes. “What the hell?” he asks, pausing just at the flash. “Laser eyes?” 

Jess’ look says very clearly that he’s being stupid, which Sam thinks isn’t fair. It’s not as though he was the most dedicated hunter to begin with, and for the past four years, he’s had other things on his mind. Thankfully, Jess doesn’t spend too much time making him feel stupid. “It’s a shapeshifter,” she explains. 

For the first time, Sam’s fingers itch for Dad's journal. What he remembers about shapeshifters is the very basic information: they can slip their skin and take on the appearance of almost anyone. When they do that, they get a basic smattering of the person’s memories and personality, and like a lot of supernatural creatures, they’re vulnerable to silver. The eyes are new, however. 

“Think of it like a dog’s or a cat’s eyes when you catch them in the flash. Same basic premise, except the shifter's eyes flare in cameras.” 

“It makes sense,” Sam muses. “Becky’s so sure that her brother would never do this, and she’s a pretty good judge of character. If it was a shifter wearing Zach’s appearance though… You get to do all the vile things most people only dream of, and you’re wearing your alibi.” 

“And some poor schmuck gets blamed for your fucked-up shit,” Jess finishes. “God, it’s bad enough when the monsters are monsters. When they’re the human kind of monsters…I want to kill them.” She looks at Sam and for a moment, it’s like their fight never happened. They’re both on the same page, ready to tear the world apart with their fingernails. 

Then reality settles in, and Jess pulls back in every sense of the word. “We’re not going to do anything now,” she says, her voice turning businesslike and crisp. “We’ll get some sleep and then we’ll start out tomorrow.” 

“What are we going to tell Becky?” Sam asks. “It’s not like we can say that a monster killed her brother’s girlfriend.” 

Jess turns her back to him as she goes through her bag. “I’m sure between the two of us, we can think of a good enough lie.” 

She walks to the bathroom to brush her teeth, and her words are left to hang in the room, as ugly and violent as a slap in the face. 

***

“A doppelganger,” Becky says the next morning. She blinks slowly, and her face is a roadmap of disbelief. “You think that my brother has a doppelganger who killed his girlfriend.” 

“If a witness identified him and the police have the video, then it’s a pretty good bet that someone who looks like him committed this crime. But we believe you when you say that your brother wouldn’t have done this, so that’s the only thing that it could be.” 

Sam is grateful for Jess. In her capable hands, the bullshit sounds almost plausible. She delivers the lines with such conviction and sincerity that Sam halfway believes her, despite the idiocy of the story. It’s something in the thoughtful crinkle of her forehead and the softness of her eyes that makes it truly credible. 

“Remember Doyle,” Sam tries, (perhaps stupidly) unwilling to be left out. “Once you eliminate the impossible…” 

“Whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Becky finishes the quote for him. Her voice is resigned, yet it still holds a wry note. “Fuck you for using my favorite author against me.” She squares her shoulders. “Okay. What happens next?” 

“We’re here for you,” Jess says, reaching out and resting her fingers on Becky’s wrist. “We’re just going to try and case the street to see if we can find any other witnesses. Maybe someone saw this guy and they would be willing to talk about it. If we can find someone to cast doubt on the identification, then that’s a big piece of the case that’s gone in our favor.” 

Becky nods. She doesn’t protest when they leave, and Sam is grateful. There’s a darker side to this case, one that he and Jess haven't discussed yet. No matter how successful they are at finding the shapeshifter, it’s not as though they’ll be able to get justice for Zach. I was impersonated by a monster isn’t a defense that will hold up in a court of law. Sam pushes that thought away as he climbs back into the truck. 

“Where to?” He doesn’t necessarily enjoy feeling like the second fiddle on this case, but it seems stupid to argue when Jess has had everything under control from the moment she joined him. 

Jess shrugs as she fiddles with the police scanner on top of the dashboard. “We might as well go to the neighborhood,” she says, tapping at the top of the scanner. “Who knows, something might come up.” She taps against the scanner one more time and then exclaims in satisfaction when it squawks to life. 

The regular chatter and static grinds against Sam’s nerves, but he shoves it aside, at least until it turns into something interesting. 

“...all units, be advised, we have reports of a possible homicide at 1764 Walnut Ave. Be advised, suspect is described as armed…” 

Jess’ eyes flash to his. “Could be nothing,” she says, though it doesn’t sound like she means it. 

“You wanna take that bet?” Sam asks, already yanking the steering wheel hard to the left. The tires squeal against the pavement as the truck wobbles precariously, but it rights itself and they’re tearing down the street. Jess punches at her phone, trying to look up the address while Sam weaves through traffic. 

“Turn left up here,” she snaps. “Left.” Sam pulls at the steering wheel again. Jess slams against the passenger-side door, and Sam tries to feel bad about that. In the distance, sirens wail and lights flash. Sam wants to avoid that, so he parks the truck far enough away that it shouldn't arouse suspicion. 

“Silver bullets?” Sam asks, tucking his own gun into the waistband of his jeans. A flick of his hoodie hides it and the silver knife, but he can still feel them resting against his skin. Jess’ chin jerks in a nod. 

They creep towards the house, careful to stay out of sight of any enterprising law enforcement. As they get closer, Sam’s stomach performs a neat little flip. The screen door hangs off a single hinge. It waves in the breeze, creaking softly and hitting the wall behind it with a quiet, pathetic thump. Smeared across the screen door is a long trail of blood. 

Sam might have been out of the game for a while, but it doesn’t take a professional to know that’s not a good sign. 

By now, three police cars ring the house, and a uniformed cop is unspooling yellow crime scene tape to block off the area. Off to the side, one officer cuffs a man who wouldn’t look out of place in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. He’s screaming and crying almost incoherently, but the officer doesn’t pay any attention to him as he puts him in the cruiser. Just before he disappears into the backseat, the man makes eye contact with Sam. The desperation and desolation in his eyes is enough to strike directly at Sam’s chest, and he knows when he falls asleep tonight, that’s the sight he’ll remember. 

The rest of the cops are in a small huddle with each other, and Sam already knows that there’s no point in trying to get more information out of them. The elderly neighbor clutching her tiny Pomeranian to her chest, however… She has the pinched, lemony look of someone who thrives on gossip and the misfortune of others. 

“What happened here?” Sam asks, sidling up next to Nosy Nancy. He puts the right amount of ghoulish curiosity, horror, and respect for her superior intelligence gathering into his voice. 

Nosy Nancy sniffs. “Oh, well he went after his wife, didn’t he? Always looking so smug, like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, always hanging off of her, and then he does this? He says that he wasn’t there, and that he was driving back from a business trip, but the truth will out, you’ll see. It’s always the happiest ones. They’re the ones that you have to look out for.” 

Sam nods and extracts himself from the conversation as swiftly as possible. Returning to Jess, he lays out what the woman told him. “It’s the same MO as Zach. Someone who was supposed to be gone comes home unexpectedly and hurts their significant other. This asshole’s killing women and setting up other people to take the fall.” 

“Well, they managed to catch this one pretty quickly. He can’t have gone far. Shifters tend to gravitate towards underground spaces: places where they can shed their skin and leave it behind without worrying about someone coming across it.” 

Jess doesn’t wait for him as she sets off back around the house. She looks at the bloody door and grimaces, before turning her attention to the alley close to the house. Several slats of the fence have blood spackled on them, and little dots decorate the pavement as they venture further into the alley. The blood spots are sporadic enough to feel accidental, but the hair on the back of Sam’s neck stands on end as they creep further into the darkness. Finally, the alley ends, but not before they find a manhole cover with a telltale bit of blood dashed across the top. 

Sam looks at Jess. Her face is grim and tells him everything he needs to know. Together, they bend down and yank the cover off. The smell hits them almost immediately, and Sam rears back, his hand flying up to cover his nose. 

“Underground?” he asks weakly, just before Jess disappears into the maw of the sewer. Grimacing, Sam grips the rusty rungs of the ladder and lowers himself into the darkness. 

The smell doesn’t improve upon being immersed in it. It grows thick and presses in around him. Sam fights back an instinctive gag and blinks to clear his vision. “Jess?” he hisses. He opens his eyes wide to encourage his pupils to expand, but it doesn’t seem to be helping. “Jess?” 

“Come on,” Jess says, materializing out of the darkness. Her golden hair is a single spot of brightness in an otherwise dim world. Sam follows her as they venture deeper into the sewers. The passageways are a labyrinth, and he can only hope that they eventually find their way out. 

Jess leads the way. The thin light from her small flashlight barely cracks the darkness pressing in around them, but its mere presence makes Sam feel better. At least, it does until they find the skin. 

It’s Jess who steps in it, and she recoils with a disgusted cry. “Oh, gross,” she moans, shaking her shoe to remove the gooey remnants. “God, I hate shifters so much.” 

Every instinct Sam possesses screams for him to leave the skin alone, but he can’t help himself. He leans closer to inspect it with a sort of horrified fascination. He stops just short of touching it, but he pulls Jess’ flashlight down to get a better look at it. The skin looks like melted plastic, almost shiny, with bits of viscera and hair clinging to its edges. 

“This is recent, but I don’t know how recent,” Jess says. “It’s possible that he slipped his skin again after the police showed up, so he could be any—” 

Sam has the light focused on the skin, so Jess’ sharp cry is his first warning that something might be amiss. The beam of the flashlight bobs wildly as he looks up, but he can’t make out much. Just Jess, grappling with a figure. 

Sam’s body is slow and clumsy as he moves forward. He reaches out for the figure, only to slip on the skin. He crashes to his knees and curses in disgust and frustration. When he looks up again, his flashlight lands on the figure’s face. The shifter, still wearing the guise of the businessman, ducks his — their? — head when the light catches their eyes, but the quick movement doesn’t quite manage to hide the wild flare. 

Sam lunges forward, but the shifter throws Jess back into him. Off-balance, they both stagger backwards. Only a hand against the slimy, mildew-encrusted wall keeps Sam from toppling over. By the time he and Jess have righted themselves, the shifter has vanished. 

“No you don’t,” Jess snarls. Without waiting for Sam, she takes off at a dead run through the narrow walkways of the sewers. Sam’s left to run after her, the flashlight a useless accessory in his hands. Within moments, Jess has disappeared into one of the side passages, and Sam doesn’t know where to start looking for her. 

“Jess?” he hisses, peering into an off-shoot of the main tunnel. “Jess!” 

Terror and fury grip him in dual chokeholds. He can’t get out of his mind the pictures of what Zach’s girlfriend looked like after the shifter got through with her, and the thought of that happening to Jess is… Sam thinks of her sunny smile torn to shreds and wants to vomit. Her words from yesterday echo back at him: I know how to be professional, even if my partners don’t. 

He can’t live like this, every second spent between worry and guilt and anger, and worse, feeling like he’s not entitled to any of it. No matter what happens with this hunt, win, lose or bust, he needs to tell Jess how he feels. He’ll apologize on his knees if that’s what it takes, but he needs her in his life. She’s too precious to him to go a day without cherishing. 

Behind him, there’s a scrape of a foot against stone. Sam whirls around, knife held high, but the light arcs across Jess’ face. She throws up her hand to block it, hissing in discomfort. “It’s me,” she says, a little unnecessarily. 

Sam lowers the flashlight. His eyes rove over Jess’ figure, looking for potential injury. There’s a scrape against her knuckles, and her clothes are filthy, but otherwise, she looks whole and healthy. “The shifter?” he asks. 

Frustration is clear in Jess’ voice when she says, “Managed to slip down one of the side tunnels. There was no telling which.” 

“And now there's no telling who they'll be wearing when they turn up again,” Sam can’t help but add. 

Jess sends him a look, but she doesn’t add anything else as they finally find an opening and climb once more towards the sun. 

***

Sam shoots Becky a few reassuring texts on their way to the hotel, telling her that they’re onto several good leads. He leaves it purposefully vague as to what those leads are and feels a little stab of guilt when she thanks him profusely for his help. Not only are they not really working to exonerate her brother, but they’re also sucking at finding the monster actually responsible for those crimes. 

“I need a shower,” Jess says brusquely, pushing past him once the door opens. She pauses to grab her bag and brings it into the bathroom with her. Without waiting for him to say anything else, she shuts the bathroom door behind her. Sam stares at the door for a minute. A few weeks ago, he would have thought nothing of going to join her. 

Sighing heavily, he strips off his shirt and jeans. Using a hand towel and water from the coffee maker, he manages to get the worst of the grime off of him. By that time, the shower shuts off. Jess emerges in fresh clothes. The ends of her damp hair create wet spots on her t-shirt, which Sam does his best to ignore. 

“So what now?” Jess asks, flopping down on her bed. “I guess we could go ask Becky for some more leads—” 

“Jess, I love you.” 

The words hang in the air for an obscene amount of time. Jess blinks slowly, her mouth gaping open in a perfect circle of surprise. A brilliant flush works its way over the back of Sam’s neck and spreads to the tips of his ears and across his cheeks. If it were anyone else in front of him, Sam would be humiliated, but it’s Jess. No matter how furious she might be with him, Jess would never be cruel. 

“I don’t want to take a break anymore. I could have lost you today, and it wasn’t even on a demon hunt. Any hunt could be our last, and I don’t want to waste what little time we have with being angry at each other. I know I messed up. I know that I hurt you and that I was a dick, and that I fucked up. Whatever it takes to make that up to you, I’ll do. I don’t care how long it takes for you to trust me again, but please just tell me we can try.” 

Something shifts behind Jess’ eyes. They almost glitter as she leans forward, but before she can respond, a knock sounds at the door. Sam looks at Jess, but the person knocking refuses to be ignored. Barely managing to muffle his cry of frustration, he storms to the door and yanks it open. 

Standing on the other side is a small woman dressed in a pair of jeans and a floral blouse. She plucks at her dark blonde hair as she looks up at him. She looks nervous, but Sam senses that the emotion isn’t directed at him. “Can I help you?” he asks, probably a little rudely. 

“I think I can help you,” the woman says in a rush. “Look, I know you’re going to think I’m insane — hell, I think I’m insane — but please just listen to me, alright? My name is Ava Wilson, and I’m from Peoria, and I think you’re in danger.” 

The biography is a little unexpected, but Sam being in danger is nothing new. His interest is sharpened, however, and he listens carefully when she says, “I know this sounds nuts, but I had a vision of you being killed. My vision showed you being murdered in this hotel, and I’ve come to try and stop it. Please don’t slam the door in my face; I’ve driven a long way and my fiance already thinks I’m nuts, but I couldn’t just stand by and let you die.” 

Ava opens her mouth, probably getting ready to launch into another long-winded rant, so Sam cuts her off before she can start. “I don’t think you’re crazy.” 

Whatever Ava was expecting, it wasn’t that. Her mouth opens and closes several times as she tries to work out what to say next. Sam still doesn’t give her the opportunity. “Why don’t you come in, and you can tell me about it? It’s just that this isn’t a conversation we should be having outside.” Sam points at his chest. “I’m Sam, and inside is Jess.” 

He moves to the side to let Ava into the room. She takes a step forward, peering cautiously past him. The tension escapes her frame for a second, and then she lets out a small shriek.

“Sam, it’s her! That’s the person I saw killing you, it’s her!” 

She’s pointing directly at Jess, who looks at them with a small amount of surprise. 

Sam’s brain is working at the speed of light, but it feels almost unforgivably sluggish as he puts the facts together. 

Jess disappearing when she went after the shapeshifter. Jess returning, looking surprisingly unruffled. Jess’ flinch away from the light, and how her hand shot up to shield her eyes. 

“Oh shit,” Sam has a chance to breathe before Jess, who’s not really Jess at all, launches herself at him. 

He shoves Ava out of the way. He’s not sure where she lands; there’s a sharp yelp, but he can’t care about that right now. Devoid of weapons, the shifter’s chosen to attack him using nothing more than their hands, which is bad enough. The shifter is miles stronger than him, and it’s all Sam can do to keep their hands from closing around his neck. 

“Ava, the knife! On the table!” he shouts. Somehow, he manages to get his hand free and land a glancing blow to the side of the shifter’s head. It snaps back with a cry of pain that sounds eerily similar to Jess’ voice. Sam freezes, a cold bolt of horror and guilt shooting through him. It’s enough for the shifter to land a much harder blow to his ribs. “The knife!” Sam repeats, this time a little desperately. If he doesn’t think of something quick, then he’s not going to have to worry about defeating a demon army. 

The blessedly cool hilt of his silver knife slides into his hand. Rejuvenated, Sam grips it and brings his arm up in a wild slice. Jess — the shifter — screams, and reels back, clutching their bleeding arm. Smoke curls from the edges of the wound, and their eyes are wild when they bare their teeth at Sam. 

Sam seizes the temporary weakness and lunges. He puts the knife to the shifter’s throat and presses hard enough to make them wince in pain. “Where’s Jess?” he bellows. 

“Fuck off,” the shifter sneers, twisting Jess’ face into something resembling a smile. “Like I’d ever tell you.” 

“If you want to live, you’ll tell me,” Sam threatens, using a bravado he doesn’t necessarily feel. He presses the knife harder against the shifter’s throat. 

“Like you’d cut me up while I’m wearing this face,” the shifter scoffs, but they sound a little uncertain. 

“You wanna fucking try me?” This time when Sam presses, a few drops of blood well to the surface. 

Gritting their teeth in pain, the shifter glares at Sam. “Blondie’s down in the sewers still, in one of the intersections. I left her tied to a pipe just in case I needed her for later.” 

“You’d better pray that she’s okay—” Sam begins, but he never gets a chance to finish his threat. 

The shifter brings a knee up to crash against his ribs. The blow drives all of the air out of Sam’s lungs, and he collapses to the ground, wheezing. While he’s trying to regain his breath, he watches the shifter scramble to their feet and bolt out the door. 

Ava is huddled in the corner, surveying the scene with wide eyes. “Okay,” she says, a minute later. “You are so much crazier than I ever thought I was.” 

  devils trap divider

Daniel Elkins’ house turns out to be high in the snow-covered mountains above Manning, at the top of a long gravel drive that snakes for almost two miles into the heart of the forest.

The road is slick with ice, and Baby struggles around some of the steeper curves, her tires slipping and sliding before they finally grip. Dean is half-prepared to snap at Cas for making a snide remark about his driving, but no such remark comes. Cas white-knuckles the dash a few times when it seems like they’re about to slide off the road, but he doesn’t say a thing, and Dean appreciates it.

When they finally get to the end of the road, they find a small clearing, and, at the far side of it, a decent-sized house with wooden siding, a gabled roof and diamond-paned windows. Dean has half a mind to call Sam and make sure there hasn’t been some mistake about the address, because a place this nice? It’s hardly your average hunter’s home. (Bobby’s house used to be pretty cozy, Dean suspects, back when Karen was alive, but with every passing year, it’s taken a few more steps along the road from “home” to “shack.”)

Dean pulls over at the side of the clearing and climbs out of the car, stretching his stiff limbs as he gets his bearings. It’s still the middle of the afternoon, but the low-hanging, snow-filled clouds are blocking a good bit of daylight. In fact, it’s dark enough that most people would probably turn on the lights. And yet, the house in front of them is completely dark.

“Maybe we should have called ahead after all,” Cas says, like his thoughts are running along similar lines.

Around them, snowflakes are starting to fall, drifting lazily through the air and landing in Cas’ dark, messy hair. Dean’s fingers itch with the desire to brush them off.

“Nah,” he says, a little more gruffly than he meant to. “Wouldn’t have wanted to give the guy time to skip town if he doesn’t want visitors. I’m sure he’s in there — just being careful. Besides, there’s a truck over there.”

Dean points to the far side of the house, where the flatbed of a white truck is just barely visible. “He’s probably got some kind of alarm system to let him know when people are coming. Had time to turn off the lights, but not to hide the car.”

Cas nods, then moves ahead of Dean, striding toward the front door. They agreed that Cas should take the lead on talking to Elkins, since they already know each other. The hope is that they can get the guy to relax a little before they bring the conversation around to the subject of the Colt.  

At the front door, Cas raises his hand to knock, but Dean stops him with a hand on his arm. “Remember what I said? If either of us sees something wrong and we need to get out, the code word is ‘Poughkeepsie.’”

“I haven’t forgotten. Ready?”

Dean nods, and Cas raps on the door. “Mr. Elkins? It’s Castiel Harvelle. I’m here with Dean Winchester. May we talk to you, please?”

For a few moments, there’s no sound at all. Dean starts to consider making a circuit of the house to check for open windows, or for a back door with a lock that’s easy to pick. (Unlikely at a hunter’s house, but it couldn’t hurt to make sure.) Before he can float the idea, there’s the sound of slow, careful steps, followed by the creak of a deadbolt. The door opens outward, a shotgun muzzle poking through the gap.

Utterly fearless, Cas steps right in front of the gun and holds up both hands, palms out.  “Hello, Mr. Elkins. Do you remember me?”

The door swings a little wider, and the porch light above Dean’s head blinks on. It illuminates a man in his sixties with unkempt, dirty blond hair that’s starting to turn white at the sides. Elkins looks like he might be almost as tall as Dean, but he’s a little stoop-shouldered, so it’s hard to tell. His face is heavily lined, and his eyes are the bloodshot hue of a habitual drinker. Dean tries not to consider that he might be staring his own future in the face.

“It’s Cas, you said? Cas Harvelle?” Elkins asks, squinting at them both with ill-concealed suspicion. “Haven’t seen you in a dog’s age. How’d you find me?”

“My dad, John Winchester,” Dean says, and Elkins’ eyes and gun swivel towards him. “He had your number in his journal. We used it to track your address.”

“Goddamn idiot,” Elkins growls, but Dean notices that his finger moves off the trigger. “Thought I taught him better than to keep people’s private numbers where others can find ‘em. You’re his son?” Elkins narrows his eyes at Dean, apparently scanning for a resemblance.

“Yes, sir,” Dean says, figuring it couldn’t hurt to defer to the guy a little. If he’s anything like Dad, it’ll help lower the temperature of the exchange. “Is it alright if we come in? We came to ask you a question.”

“You’re welcome to test us with silver and holy water first, of course,” Cas adds.

Elkins snorts, derisive. “You ain’t vamps, which is what I mostly hunt. And if you’re demons, you can’t get past my wards. Come on in, but leave your guns outside.”

Dean turns to look at Cas, who shrugs and pulls out the Beretta he had tucked into the waistband of his jeans, careful to keep it pointed at the ground. After a moment’s hesitation, Dean removes his Colt from behind his own back, and they place both weapons on the porch. Dean feels a little naked without his gun, but at least he’s still got his switchblade strapped to his ankle, and he’s pretty sure Cas has at least one knife and another, smaller gun concealed somewhere.

Elkins nods, satisfied, and walks away, into the dark interior of the house. As Dean steps over the threshold, he clocks a salt barrier on the floor.

About ten feet away, Elkins flicks on a light, and Dean finds himself in a surprisingly cozy living room, all wood-paneled walls and deep armchairs. There’s a woodland scene carved into the mantel above the fireplace. You could almost fool yourself into thinking the place was an ordinary family home, if it wasn’t for the cloaking sigils drawn underneath each window or the bulletin board on the nearest wall, which has graphic drawings of some kind of fanged creature pinned to it. “Are those vamps?” Dean asks when Elkins emerges from a doorway at the back of the room, no longer carrying his shotgun. 

Elkins nods. “Your daddy never take you vamp hunting?”

“Nah. I thought they were extinct, actually,” Dean says, trying to keep an eye on Elkins’ movements without letting on that he is.

“Not extinct. Just gotten better at hiding,” Elkins says as he walks over to a drinks cart by the fireplace. “You boys care for some whiskey? It’s awful cold out there.”

“Yes, thank you,” Cas says, and settles himself in one of the armchairs like he owns the place. Dean takes the chair next to him, which he can’t help but notice is considerably less well-cushioned than the one Cas picked. Guy’s still an asshole then. Maybe it’s just part of his programming.

Elkins comes over and offers them each a tumbler full of amber liquid. Dean takes a sip, and it goes down incredibly smooth. Not for the first time, Dean wonders where Elkins’ money comes from. It’s not like hunters make great bank. Or if they do, Dean’s been doing it wrong.

With a groan, Elkins settles himself on a small two-seater couch at the other side of the fireplace. He’s holding a tumbler with a much more generous allotment of whiskey than either Dean or Cas received. “How’s John Winchester these days?” he asks, eyes boring into Dean. He looks less suspicious than he did when they arrived, but there’s still a certain wariness just below the surface.

“I couldn’t say, sir,” Dean says. “Haven’t seen him in weeks.”

“He never was much of a father, was he?” Elkins says, sneering. “Liked him well enough to drink with and hunt with, even taught him a few tricks of the trade. But I always wondered what he was doing, spending his time with an old fool like me, when he had two little boys waiting for him to come home.”

Dean clenches his jaw to keep from reacting to the sting of the words. It’s not like he hasn’t had thoughts along those lines himself, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys having them thrown in his face.

Cas’ eyes are a brand on Dean’s profile. Whatever he finds there, it must encourage him to change the subject.

“You’re probably wondering why we came,” Cas says, turning to Elkins.

Elkins scoffs. “Don’t take much to figure it out. You’re here for the Colt.”

He says it with utter certainty, like there’s no way in hell he’d buy any other story they try to feed him. So much for bringing the conversation around to the Colt slowly.

Cas studies Elkins for a moment or two, then shrugs, obviously deciding to just go with it. “Yes.”

“Always figured you might come for it, one day,” Elkins says thoughtfully, sipping his whiskey. “Maybe that’s why I told you about it in the first place. You’d think it’s a great thing, having an unbeatable weapon. But it’s a burden more than anything else. You spend every day looking over your shoulder, and I got tired of it years ago.”

“So, wait a minute.” Dean leans forward in his seat, pointing a finger at Elkins. “Are you saying it’s true? You have a Colt that can kill any monster, and you’re actually trying to get rid of it?”

Elkins lets out a dry, scraped chuckle. “Tried, past tense, son. Succeeded, too. Sold it to a collector. Years ago now. Made a good profit.” He gestures around himself, at the spacious room and the thick Oriental rug on the floor.

Cas takes a slow sip of his drink, studying Elkins. “I don’t believe you,” he says flatly. “You’re hiding the Colt somewhere in this house.”

“Prove it.” Elkins’ calm tone matches Cas’, but Dean’s been around the block a few times. He doesn’t miss the way the old man shifts ever so slightly in his seat, planting both feet on the floor. If it comes to a fight, he won’t go down easy.

The sound of Dean’s phone cuts through the tension. He considers not answering it, but what if it’s Sam? What if he ran into trouble in St. Louis and needs help?

Dean pulls the phone out of his pocket and stares down at the caller ID, the world suddenly blurring at the edges.

Before he can talk himself out of it, he flips the phone open. “Dad?”

“Hey, son.” The voice at the other end of the line sounds calm as anything, no sign of distress or remorse. Dean, half-dazed, holds up a finger in the general direction of Cas and Elkins, then stumbles to the front door. He pulls it open and steps through, shivering as the cold night air hits him. He’s having trouble catching his breath.

“Dad, where are you?”

“Not too far from Elkins’ place. Got your message. You said you might know what killed your mom?”

Dad sounds eager, pleased. The old instinct to make his father proud kicks in, and Dean stands up a little straighter, even though no one can see. “Yes, sir. We think it was a demon. Or, something called a Prince of Hell, actually. The name’s Azazel.”

Lifelong habit tells him to pipe down now that he’s given his report, to let Dad digest the information until he’s ready to give an order. But there’s a voice in the back of his head that sounds like Sam, telling him he deserves some answers. It wins out. “Hey, listen, Dad, where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried. I’ve been trying to find you.”

“I’m sorry, son,” Dad says, sounding like he might even mean it. “I promise I’ll explain everything when I see you. We can meet up when I get to Manning, and we’ll trade stories.”

Dean wants to argue, wants to demand answers now, but he knows from painful experience that talking back to his dad won’t get him anywhere. “Alright. Where d’you want to meet?”

“Got an address. I’ll text it to you. I should be there in about an hour. Now, you said you got a lead on how to kill this thing too?”

“Yeah. There’s a Colt, specially made to kill any supernatural creature. We’re almost sure Elkins has it, which is why we came here.” Dean thinks about mentioning that ‘we’ doesn’t mean him and Sam, but him and Cas. But if John hears that, he might ask to meet Cas. Dean’s still not sure that would be a good idea. “Anyway, now he’s claiming he sold it and made a good profit off it. He lives in a pretty nice house, so it could be true.”

A humorless scoff sounds over the line. “He’s lying. I know Elkins pretty well. He comes from old money. Used to be a stockbroker until vamps killed his son. The place where you’re at, that’s his old vacation home. He doesn’t need to sell his stuff to get money. And I guarantee you, if he’s got a weapon like that, he’ll never give it up.”

“What do I do, Dad?” Dean hates how pathetic and helpless he sounds. He’s twenty-six years old, for fuck’s sake. He shouldn’t need his daddy to hold his hand. Tensing up, he waits for the speech about growing a pair.

Instead, he gets, “Let me talk to him, son. I’ll make him see reason.”

Dean almost freezes up from the sheer unexpectedness of being spoken to in a warm, reassuring tone. He clears his throat. “Um. Yeah, sure, Dad. Right now?”

“Yeah. Just pass him the phone,” John says, the smallest hint of impatience in his voice now. That’s more like it.

Dean goes back inside to find Cas and Elkins sitting stock-still in their seats, sizing each other up. They both turn to face him, and Dean holds out the phone to Elkins. “It’s my father. He’d like to talk to you.”

Elkins frowns, and for a few seconds, it looks like he’ll refuse. But then, he snatches the phone from Dean’s hand. “Make sure you don’t touch anything,” he snarls, then walks into the next room and slams the door.

“Your father called?” Cas asks as Dean sits down and drains his whiskey in a single gulp.

Dean nods, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. He’s shaking a little. “Yeah,” he croaks.

“What did he have to say?” Cas’ voice is steady, his expression stoic, but Dean knows him well enough by now to sense an undercurrent of anger. He can’t help but wonder if Cas is angry at the mere mention of John Winchester, or if he’s angry on Dean’s behalf. That second option doesn’t sound too bad, although Dean has a distant idea that he’s supposed to be annoyed with Cas for sticking his nose in Winchester business.

“He wants to meet up. He’s about an hour out from Manning.”

Cas’ mouth twists into a grimace. “Do you want to do it?”

Before Dean can answer, Elkins steps back into the room, tossing Dean’s phone back to him. “Alright, you two. Come on in here,” he says, gesturing for them to follow as he walks back through the doorway.

Dean trades a look with Cas, who nods. In a smooth, practiced motion, Dean bends down to remove his switchblade from the concealed holster right above his boot. As he gets up, he slips the knife into his back pocket. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Cas making a similar adjustment.

They find Elkins in the next room, a spacious study with a mahogany desk in the center. There’s a stuffed deer head on the wall, and large skylights in the ceiling reflect the thick, gray clouds outside. Elkins is fiddling with something behind one of the wooden wall panels. It must be some kind of hidden lock, because when he steps back, the panels swing away from the wall, revealing a display case of weapons and, just below it, a small safe.

Elkins keys in the combination of the safe, making sure to position himself so that neither Cas nor Dean can get a glimpse of the safe’s interior. There’s a heavy thud as the steel door closes, and then Elkins turns, an oblong wooden box cradled in his hands.

“Well, there it is,” he says, and sets the box down on the desk, flipping the lid.

Dean lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Inside the box is quite possibly the most beautiful gun Dean has ever seen. The walnut-brown handle is spotless except for a pentagram carved painstakingly into its base. The barrel is long and thin, incised with intricate designs and sigils as well as some words in Latin. Next to the gun, in the lower half of the box, are bullet-sized compartments. Thirteen in total, but only five of them contain bullets.  

Cas is the first one to recover. “You’re giving it to us?” he asks, eyes wide.

“Guess I am,” Elkins says, nodding. He doesn’t sound the least bit bothered or reluctant.

Dean clenches his hands at his sides to keep from grabbing the gun while he can. “What changed your mind?”

“John Winchester’s a persuasive guy when he wants to be,” Elkins says. Dean kind of wants to ask what he means by that, but this gun is one hell of a gift horse. Might be better not to look it in the mouth.

“You’re sure this gun can kill a demon? Any demon?” Cas asks. He looks like he’s just barely restraining himself from grabbing the Colt and running for the hills.

Elkins nods. “Never fought a demon myself, but the hunter I got it from, I saw him use the Colt to shoot down one of the black-eyed bastards like it was nothing. So yeah. It’ll do the job.”

Dean remembers Cas saying that Elkins took the Colt off a dead hunter and wonders how the guy ended up dead. He thinks better of asking though. Elkins might not have a gun pointed at them right now, but Dean isn’t fool enough to think he’s unarmed.

Cas reaches out slowly to take the box, telegraphing his moves. Dean keeps a close eye on Elkins, but the old man steps back to give Cas room, completely untroubled. Cas grabs the box, and when Elkins doesn’t move, Dean lets himself relax a fraction.

“Well… thank you,” Cas says uncertainly and starts backing away.

“Yeah yeah. Just get outta here,” Elkins mutters, waving them off, and Dean follows Cas out the door, hardly believing their luck.

Their guns are where they left them, and they make it all the way back to Baby without being stopped. Nevertheless, the back of Dean’s neck prickles with unease.

“That was too easy,” Cas says, putting Dean’s worries into words as they start the slow, slippery drive back down the mountain.

“Yeah. You think he gave us a fake?”

Cas purses his lips, thinking. “Unlikely. If he had a fake, he wouldn’t have bothered with the whole charade about having sold the gun.”

Dean nods, clutching the steering wheel tight to keep the car on course through a particularly narrow curve.

“What about your father?”

“What about him?” Dean asks, mostly to gain time. He can’t help but wonder what Dad told Elkins to make him change his mind.

“You said he wanted to meet up.” Cas shifts in his seat. If Dean didn’t know better, he’d think the guy was nervous. “Dean, I don’t think you should.”

In his surprise, Dean steps on the brakes a little too hard and Baby skids for a few yards on the icy road before he regains control. “What? Why not?”

“You and I both know that something isn’t right about all this.”

Dean doesn’t respond until they merge back onto the highway, which is clear of snow. When he turns to look at Cas, Cas is already staring back at him, a challenge in his eyes. “We need to get out of here as fast as we can and take the Colt to safety. We don’t have time for a family reunion.”

Anger surges up under Dean’s skin, inevitable as a rising tide. “Listen, I know you hate him, but he’s my dad, and he’s been missing,” he says through gritted teeth. “He finally wants to meet up and explain himself. I’m not just going to fucking ditch him!”

“Dean, this isn’t about hurt feelings or grudges,” Cas says, something pinched in his expression that suggests he’s working hard to stay calm. “And I think you know that it isn’t.”

Dean clenches his jaw, refusing to respond. He knows he’s being petulant, knows that Cas has a point about the whole thing being fishy, but he’s been taught all his life that you don’t just back down in a fight.

Cas makes a furious sound at the back of his throat. “This gun is an asset, but it also makes us vulnerable, Dean,” he says, eyes locked on Dean’s profile and refusing to look away. “For as long as we have it, there’s a target on our backs. And I don’t believe for a second that Elkins is happy to simply let us walk away. He kept this gun for decades. He didn’t give it up just because John Winchester said so. Something isn’t right.”

There’s a lookout point coming up, and Dean pulls into the parking lot, leaning back against the seat, hands bunching into fists on his thighs. Cas says nothing, apparently content to wait Dean out.

“Listen,” Dean says when his anger’s subsided enough that he trusts himself not to start throwing punches. “I’m not leaving here without seeing my dad and getting an explanation for why the hell he dropped off the radar for weeks. You’re under no obligation to come along. Hell, if you want to take the Colt and get out of town, I won’t stop you.”

Cas gapes at him. “You’d let me leave with the Colt?”

“Yeah,” Dean says, though he’s a little surprised himself. All he knew was that he wasn’t eager to bring Cas along to the meeting with Dad. But the more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense. Now that the red fog in his brain is clearing a little, he can admit to himself that getting the Colt back to the Roadhouse should be their top priority.

Cas’ eyes roam his face, like he’s seeing it for the first time. The moment feels too heavy, too intimate, so Dean grins and says, “You won’t get far anyway. I know where you live.”

Cas huffs out a breath, and it almost sounds like a laugh. “Alright,” he says. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll get a motel room in town and barricade myself inside with the Colt. I’ll wait for one hour. If you’re not back by then, I’ll hotwire the first car I find and leave town.”

“Thanks, Cas,” Dean says quietly, then quickly turns away from the soft smile he gets in response.

  devils trap divider

Castiel holds on tight to the wooden box in his lap as Dean drives into the center of Manning, searching for a motel. They choose the first one they pass, and Castiel makes sure to book a room that offers an unobstructed view of the entire parking lot. Anything to discourage an attack, or at least give him a chance to see it coming.

Before Dean leaves, he removes two shotguns and several boxes of shells from his trunk. He drops them on the table by the window, along with a note bearing the address where he’s going to meet his father. “Just in case,” he says. In case of what, neither one of them seems eager to discuss.

“I still don’t like this,” Castiel says as Dean turns to go.

Dean pauses, one hand already on the doorframe, his back turned to Castiel. “If you want to find a car to hotwire right now, I’ll help you load it up.”

Resigned, Castiel shakes his head, even though Dean can’t see. “It’s fine. Just remember: one hour.”

“One hour,” Dean repeats, and then he’s gone, too fast for Castiel to even wish him good luck.

It’s almost dinnertime by now, and Castiel really wishes they’d thought to stop for food on the way to the motel. Calling around for delivery seems like too big a risk, so he chokes down a protein bar from his duffel and keeps an eye on the windows. He really wants a cigarette, but it’s a non-smoking room and he doesn’t want to chance going outside.

His thoughts keep drifting to Dean. Is he with his father yet? If so, what are they talking about? Will John demand that they give him the Colt?

Every few minutes, Castiel peers through the curtains, scanning the parking lot for anyone who might be approaching. No one does.

Thirty-three minutes into the hour, Castiel’s phone buzzes with an incoming text. Castiel stares down at the screen, and the breath is knocked from his lungs.

From Dean (6:12 p.m.): Poughkeepsie

Chapter Text

Sam’s ribs ache sharply from the blow the shifter dealt him, and he’s having trouble catching his breath, but there’s no time to recover. He struggles to his feet. The shifter already has at least a twenty-second head start on him, so he can’t afford to waste time.

He barely has enough presence of mind to grab his knife and the gun with the silver bullets before he’s stumbling out the door. The sound of Ava's footsteps echoes in the corridor just a few paces behind him. Sam thinks he should try and talk her into staying behind, but he really doesn’t have the time or energy to spare just now.  

When he reaches the elevator, he glances at it, but the electronic display shows that the cabin is four floors down. The stairs it is.

Sam runs for the stairwell at the end of the corridor, taking the steps two at a time. Ava is still following, but clearly struggling to keep up. “What the hell was that thing?” she demands, voice high-pitched and strained with lack of oxygen. “It didn’t seem… God, this is insane, but it didn’t seem human.”

“Shapeshifter,” Sam grits out between heavy breaths. Two more flights of stairs to go till the ground floor. “They're born human, but they've got... powers. They can make themselves look like anyone.” One more flight of stairs. The air burns in Sam’s lungs.

“Why did—” Ava wheezes, even as Sam hits the bottom of the staircase and looks around. There’s a green emergency exit sign to his right. He sprints for it.

“Why did the skin… smoke like that… when you touched it with the knife?” Ava calls after him, panting.

Sam doesn’t respond as he pulls the door open and steps out into the alley behind the hotel. He frantically looks around, but there’s no sign of where the shifter could have gone. There’s only a yawning emptiness stretching on either side of him. He closes his eyes, trying to listen for the smallest clue — a rustle, a creak, a clank of metal. There’s nothing.

The door whines on its hinges as Ava steps through it. She looks about as one would expect — disheveled, out of breath, and thoroughly freaked out.

“Listen to me,” Sam says, ducking his head to catch Ava’s wide eyes. “I need you to go back to the hotel room and lock yourself in, and then—”

Ava snorts, fear taking a back seat to disbelief. “If you think I’m going back up there by myself, you’ve got another thing coming.”

***  

Ava, it turns out, is stubborn, and there’s no time to argue, so Sam throws up his hands and lets her tag along to where the truck is parked. He drives ten, sometimes twenty miles per hour above the speed limit as he navigates the city streets, trying to find his way back to the manhole where he and Jess descended into the sewer just a few hours ago.

Ava’s eyes keep darting back and forth between Sam’s face and the glove box, where Sam stashed his gun before they set off. “So these things… shapeshifters,” she says uncertainly. “Shooting them works?”

“Only if the gun’s loaded with silver bullets. Silver is the only thing that can hurt them,” Sam says absently as he tries to call to mind all the turns he took to get to the hotel earlier. Traveling the route in reverse is proving trickier than expected. He usually has an excellent sense of direction, but his thoughts are clouded with frantic worry about Jess.

“And this Jess we’re looking for, she’s… your girlfriend?”

I don’t know anymore. Sam clenches his jaw against the thought. “Close enough.”

Ava doesn’t say anything in response, and Sam is grateful for the silence as he navigates the last few blocks to their destination.

When Sam finally brings the car to a stop, half a block from the manhole he and Jess climbed down earlier, Ava puts a hand on his arm. “Sam? Why did you believe me? When I told you about my visions.”

Sam closes his eyes, forcing calm. No matter how urgent their current situation might be, it also has to be extremely confusing for Ava, and she’s owed some answers. “I’ll explain later, Ava,” he says, trying to make it sound reassuring. “Really. I promise I will. It’s… kind of an insane story though. Honestly, someone having visions about my death isn’t even in the top five weirdest things that have happened to me this month.”

Ava’s grip on his arm tightens. “You swear we’re going to talk about this?”

Sam meets her eyes. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“Okay,” Ava says, nodding. “Then let’s go.”

This time, Sam’s hand shoots out to hold Ava back. “Yeah, no. You’re staying here. I’ve got to look for Jess and make sure the shifter doesn’t jump me. I can’t watch out for you on top of all that.”

Ava’s eyes narrow. “Are you fucking kidding me? Have you seen a horror movie, like, ever? If we split up, I’m definitely going to get murdered. In the most gruesome possible way!”

Sam rubs at the bridge of his nose with his fingers, trying to keep from losing his patience. “Okay, but listen—”

“You’ve got a silver knife, right? I’ll take that. Oh, and here.” She reaches into her blouse and pulls out a cross pendant. “Silver. Now c’mon. Time’s a-wasting.”

Before Sam can say anything else, Ava is out of the car and walking down the street, in the opposite direction from where they need to go.

Giving up, Sam jogs to catch up with her. He passes her the knife and leads the way to the manhole cover. As soon as he’s pried it open, Ava wrinkles her nose in disgust. “Please tell me you have a flashlight? It’s darker than Satan’s asshole down there.”

Sam winces at the choice of words, but passes Ava his only remaining flashlight. He regrets now that he didn’t double back to retrieve the one Jess lost down there earlier. Maybe if he’d looked around, read the clues of the confrontation, he could’ve gotten the shifter to reveal themselves sooner, or even kept Jess from getting captured in the first place.

Or maybe you’d be dead by now.

“Are you coming or what? It’s freaking rank down here!”

Ava is nowhere to be seen, and her voice sounds from underground. Apparently, while Sam was busy regretting his choices, she climbed down the metal rungs into the sewer by herself. Sighing, he makes the descent, stepping off the bottom rung as softly as he can. Ava is just a few feet away, one arm pressed to her face to shield her mouth and nostrils. Sam can’t imagine it’s helping much. The stench of the place feels like a solid thing, making every breath a struggle.

“So you and Jess, what? Hunt monsters for a living? In sewers?” Ava asks, her appalled tone of voice unmistakable even through the cloth covering her face.

Instead of answering, Sam presses a finger to his lips. “Keep it down,” he whispers. “If the shifter’s down here, we want to try to keep the element of surprise.”

He pulls out his gun and motions for Ava to point the flashlight at the ground. The yellowish circle bounces erratically in front of them, illuminating the trail of blood he and Jess were following earlier. The drops have dried to a brownish copper now, but they’re still visible along the ground.

As they walk, Sam’s mind drifts back to Ava’s question. Is this really what he does now? Hunt monsters for a living? Sure seems like it, because here he is, on his third hunt in a matter of weeks.

This was never the plan. He was supposed to get out of the life and earn a degree from a well-respected school. He was supposed to have a beautiful girlfriend he’d marry one day, and a circle of friends who knew nothing about what goes bump in the night. He’d worked so hard, and given up so much, all for a shot at a normal life. He was so close to having it all.

Now his education is on hold, his girlfriend is quite possibly dead, and his best friend lost almost two years of his life to demonic possession. 

Sam is so stuck in his own head, he almost shoots Ava by reflex when she lets out a sound of supreme disgust that echoes loudly around the sewer tunnel. “What the hell is that, Sam?”

Sam’s eyes follow the beam of the flashlight, which is pointed at the pile of shed shifter skin Jess almost slipped in earlier. It doesn’t look like the amount of skin has grown. That could mean the shifter is still wearing Jess’ face, or it could mean they chose to shed their skin elsewhere this time.  

Sam pulls an apologetic grimace. “You don’t want to know. C’mon.”

The further they walk, the worse the sewer stench becomes. Panic beats a frantic rhythm inside Sam’s chest, and he speeds up his steps, tugging Ava along with him. Even if the shifter hasn’t killed Jess by now, she could asphyxiate if she spends too much time down here.  

They round another corner, and Sam almost wants to cry with relief. There’s Jess, hands tied to a pipe above her head, looking thoroughly angry and disgusted, but otherwise fine. The beam from the flashlight hits her face; her eyes don’t flare. 

“Jess.” Sam’s limbs barely obey him as he stumbles forward. His muscles feel slack with relief, and he’s probably grinning like an idiot as he wraps his arms around her middle. Her posture is stiff against him, and it occurs to him a little late that getting her hands free should probably have been his first step.

“Hey. You okay?” he asks, pulling back to retrieve his switchblade from his jacket pocket.

“Fine. How’d you find me?” She frowns when her eyes land on Ava. “And who’s that?”

“Hi,” Ava says, voice still muffled by her sleeve. “Ava Wilson. I’m from Peoria.”

“I’ll explain later,” Sam says. “Light over here, Ava.” Ava adjusts the flashlight to focus on the rope above Jess’ head. The rope is thick, but Sam was raised on the importance of keeping his knife sharp. It takes less than a minute to finish his task. Before Jess pulls down her sleeves to hide her wrists, Sam spots some angry scuff marks, but it doesn’t look like the skin has been broken. Small mercies.

“Did the shifter come back after they tied you up?” he asks.

Jess shakes her head. “I haven’t seen anyone. Do we know whose skin they might be wearing now?”

“Yours, last time we saw them,” Sam answers, meeting Jess’ eyes with difficulty. Memories flash through his mind, of holding a silver knife up to Jess’ throat, of seeing Jess’ beautiful face distorted with an angry snarl.

“Guess that makes sense,” Jess says, her voice carefully flat and emotionless. “I mean, I assumed you wouldn’t leave me down here unless you had the shifter confused for me, but…” She swallows hard and trails off, turning to Ava before Sam can get a read on her expression. “Hi. I’m Jess.”

Ava removes her arm from in front of her face for a second to wave at Jess. “Wish I could say it’s nice to meet you, but honestly, I kind of wish I’d never set eyes on either of you. This is not on my list of favorite days ever.”

Jess smiles at her. “Didn’t have a visit to a St. Louis sewer on your bucket list?”

“Can’t say I did,” Ava says, an answering grin spreading slowly across what’s visible of her face. One of the things Sam has always loved about Jess is her ability to put people at ease in any situation. Whatever she might have kept from him about who she is, this aspect of her personality is painfully familiar.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jess says, and they start retracing their steps through the sewer. It takes ten minutes to get back to the manhole, and Sam draws in big, grateful gulps of clean air as soon as he gets to the top.

“So what happened to the shifter?” Jess asks, already walking away in the direction of the truck.

“I confronted them in our hotel room, but they got away,” Sam admits. “Ava and I tried to chase after them, but…”

Irritation flashes across Jess’ face, quick and sharp. “So we’re back to square one. We don’t know where they are, and we can’t be sure whose skin they’re wearing.”

“We’ll find them again,” Sam says, trying to project a confidence he doesn’t feel.

They get back in the truck, Ava in the back seat this time. As Jess climbs through the passenger door, she picks up Sam’s phone off the seat. It’s flashing with a voicemail notification. “Looks like someone called.”

Sam takes the phone from her, trying not to chase the warmth of Jess’ fingers when they brush his. “It’s from Becky.”

He taps on the voicemail icon and puts the phone in speaker mode.

Two seconds later, frantic, heavy breathing echoes through the truck’s interior. “Sam! God, please pick up. Zach is here. He claims the police let him go, but he’s acting so strange and I… fuck, I’m scared.” A pause, and a rustle of fabric. Then, more quietly, “I thought the whole doppelganger idea was crazy, but—”

The sound of a door opening. “There you are, silly.” The voice is loud, sneering. “Was wondering where you’d wandered off to.” A panicked whimper. “Who’re you talking to, huh?” Sounds of a scuffle, and then the message breaks off.

Jess meets Sam’s eyes, looking horrified. “How long ago was this?”

Sam checks the time on the message. “Five minutes.”

A look of distress crosses Jess’ face, but she quickly schools it into an expression of determination. “Let’s go.”

As Sam starts the truck and floors it, Ava’s disgruntled voice sounds from the back seat. “Sure. Another thing. Why the hell not?”

  devils trap divider

Castiel is frozen. He stares down at his phone screen until it goes dark.

Poughkeepsie.

After what seems like a small eternity, but is probably only a few seconds, he types out, What’s wrong? Are you ok?

He grips his phone tight as he waits. Two minutes pass, and Castiel has just resigned himself to not getting a response when the screen lights up with another message.

Dean (6:16 p.m.): Demons found us

Castiel closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, trying to keep the flickering haze of panic at bay. He needs to think.

If demons are attacking Dean and his father, it’s most likely related to the Colt. The smart choice would be to get out of town and make sure the Colt is safe. It’s the only viable weapon against Azazel. Without it, they have no sure way of stopping him.

Castiel should leave. Dean told him the code word is a signal to get out.

But then Bill’s voice sounds in his head, a memory of words spoken after a particularly grueling hunt: the first time Castiel failed to save someone.

A hunter’s life… it ain’t easy. After a while, you might tell yourself that you’ve got to lock down your heart, or else you won’t be able to survive. But that’s no way to live, Cas. Sometimes, you’ve got to let your heart call the shots, or you might as well be dead already.

“Okay, Bill,” Castiel murmurs, and grabs his duffle off the bed. He roots around in it until he comes up with a flask of holy water, which he stows in his back pocket. Next, he grabs one of the shotguns off the table. When his eyes fall on the oblong wooden box next to it, he hesitates. Leaving the Colt here, unprotected, isn’t really an option. And if Castiel is heading into a confrontation with demons, it would be dangerous, possibly suicidal, not to bring the deadliest weapon at his disposal.

After another moment’s deliberation, Castiel takes out the Colt and loads three bullets into the chamber. He leaves the other two nestled in the box: one for Azazel, and one for the demon who killed Castiel’s family, should their paths ever cross.

Castiel sets off, the Colt shoved into the back of his waistband and the shotgun in his duffel. Night has fallen, and the streetlights along the highway blink to life as he walks across the motel parking lot, scanning it and the sidewalks for cars he might be able to break into. Car theft isn’t his favorite part of the job, but he’s come to accept that it’s sometimes necessary.

By sheer luck, he stumbles upon an old Ford Crown Victoria in an alley two blocks to the south. It has an actual keyhole on the driver’s side door, which is something that’s getting harder and harder to find. Castiel supposes it’s a good thing that cars are more difficult to steal than they used to be, but it’s rather inconvenient at the moment. He sends up a quick prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening, for sending him a clunker.  

Once he’s picked the lock, he works quickly to expose the wires below the steering column and twist them to start the engine. It takes a couple of tries, but eventually the wires connect and the spark catches, bringing the car to reluctant, sputtering life. 

A quick glance at his map tells Castiel that the place where Dean met his father is about three miles out of town, off a small track through the woods that’s used mostly by logging trucks. He misses the turnoff into the forest the first time he passes and has to double back.

Once he makes it onto the track, the unpaved surface is uneven and icy, causing the car to slip and slide at frustratingly frequent intervals. To make matters worse, it’s much darker among the trees than it was on the highway. The twin beams of the headlights bounce up and down with every dip and swell of the road, making it hard to form a clear impression of his surroundings.

After several minutes, Castiel spots lights. They’re a few hundred yards away and to the left of the track. As Castiel gets closer, the lights resolve into the windows of a small cabin. Dean’s Impala is parked in front, next to a large pickup truck. Castiel comes to a stop, still two hundred yards short of the cabin’s driveway, scanning the tree line in each direction through the car’s windows. His eyes don’t catch on any movement, but it would be all too easy for a demon to hide itself in the darkness. 

Inching forward, Castiel finally pulls up behind the truck. He picks up the Colt off the passenger seat and puts his thumb on the safety, ready to cock the gun at a moment’s notice.

When he steps out of the car, he expects to hear a commotion, or perhaps the sound of feet scurrying softly over dead leaves, but there's nothing. The silence is absolute.

Someone steps out of the cabin door, and a motion-activated floodlight flickers to life, blinding Castiel. When his eyes have adjusted, they fall on the silhouette of a man he hasn’t seen in ten years. But the passage of time hardly matters. Castiel would recognize this face anywhere; he’s had good cause to remember it.

“John Winchester,” he says, and suddenly feels an almost irresistible compulsion to hide the gun in his hand. That, or cock it and point it at John’s head.

John approaches down the driveway, an expression of vague confusion on his face. “Do we know each other? You’re the guy that’s been traveling with Dean, right?”

“Dean told me you two were being attacked by demons,” Castiel says, tracking John’s movement with his eyes. John has covered about half the distance between the cabin and Castiel, but he comes to a stop now, next to the flatbed of the pickup truck. “But you seem fine.”

“We drove ‘em off. They might come back though, so I’m glad you showed,” John says, relaxing his posture as he leans against the side of the pickup truck, hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “What’s your name, son?”

Drawing himself up straighter, Castiel says, “Castiel Harvelle.” He means the words to sound like a challenge, wants John to know he’s proud of the name and what it signifies. 

“I remember you now,” John says, seemingly unperturbed. “The kid Bill and Ellen adopted, right? Been a while.”

Castiel digs his nails into his palm and counts to five in his head. He needs to stay in control of his temper until he has a better idea of what’s going on. “Where’s Dean?”

“Walking the perimeter to make sure the black-eyed fuckers are well and truly gone,” John says, shrugging. “He’ll probably be back in a couple minutes. Wanna come in while we wait?” He jerks his chin at the cabin door, but Castiel doesn’t move.

“He’s out there by himself?”

“Yeah. Tried to talk him out of it, but he never was the sharpest tool in the shed.”

Castiel bristles. No father should speak of his child like that, even out of their hearing. Bill never would have, and nor would Castiel’s first father, James Novak.

He opens his mouth to say something to that effect, but John cuts him off. “C’mon. Let’s head inside.”

John turns his back on Castiel without hesitation, apparently not perceiving him as any kind of threat. Slowly, looking over his shoulder, Castiel follows John into the cabin.

Inside, the only source of illumination is a naked bulb, suspended from the center of the ceiling. There’s a wood stove, but no fire in it, even though the cabin’s interior is uncomfortably cold. A thin layer of dust covers a plain wooden table and a couple of chairs. A floorboard creaks under Castiel’s foot as he steps further into the room. He looks down. “There’s no salt line by the door,” he says.

John hums a vague acknowledgement, busying himself by the small stove in the back of the room. “Must’ve been disturbed during the fight earlier. I’ll put it back in a minute. You want any coffee while we wait for Dean?”

“No, thank you.” One of Castiel’s hands is still clutching the Colt, the handle digging into his skin hard enough to leave an imprint. “You didn’t check me for possession before you let me in.”

Castiel’s eyes trail across the floor. Between the gloom outside and the weak light provided by the single bulb, it’s hard to make out details, but there seems to be a dark spot on one of the wooden boards. It’s right next to a door that presumably leads to the cabin’s bedroom, and it looks wet. Recent. Castiel can almost smell the copper in the air.

“Figured it was alright,” John says. “You got an anti-possession charm.” He nods at Castiel’s chest, and Castiel’s eyes flick down. Sure enough, his charm, normally tucked inside his shirt, gleams on his chest. He doesn’t remember taking it out. In fact, he could have sworn he didn’t.

John’s shoulder jostles the bulb as he approaches the table. It swings wildly, painting bizarre shadows along the floor and walls. Castiel takes an instinctive step away from John, and John’s eyes fall to the gun in his hand. “That it, boy? The weapon Dean mentioned?” There’s a gleam in his eyes that’s almost greedy.

Castiel takes a step closer to the bedroom door, disguising the movement by bringing up his gun arm for inspection. “Yes,” he admits. “This is it. I didn’t know what I was walking into, so I decided to bring it along.”

“Smart,” John says, nodding approvingly. “Can I see?”

John takes a step forward, one hand outstretched.

“Christo.”

Castiel doesn’t wait to see the flinch before he flings himself at the bedroom door and tears it open, groping along the wall for a light switch. A ceiling lamp flares to life. His eyes fall on the bed first, dusty and moth-eaten and empty. But on the floor next to it—

“Dean,” Castiel breathes. Dean is slumped against the wall, his eyes closed, clearly unconscious. His shirt is wet with blood, and a small pool of it stains the floor next to him.

In one smooth movement, Castiel spins on his heel and cocks the gun. John Winchester stands in the doorway, a sneer on his face and his eyes gleaming yellow.  “Well, this is fun.”

“It’s you,” Castiel says. The certainty of it feels like cold fingers on the back of his neck. “Azazel.”

“In the borrowed flesh.” Azazel’s voice is a grating, cheerful sing-song. “Whatcha say, Castiel? You gonna shoot me? You got it in you?”

“Yes.” Castiel has never been more certain of anything in his life. “But I have a few questions first.”

“Oh?” Azazel leans against the doorframe. “Do tell.”

“How did you convince Elkins to give us the Colt?”

“I don’t have to possess people to make them do what I want,” Azazel says, studying Castiel with a disdain usually reserved for the pale, crawling things found under rocks. “Should’ve forced Dean to bring me the Colt once he had it, but I didn’t think I’d have to. I’ve been joyriding with good old John for weeks now, ever since California. Had plenty of time to peruse his mind. Dean here,” Azazel jerks John’s chin at Dean’s prone form, “is his little blunt instrument. His obedient soldier. John’s been shaping him like a lump of clay, in his own highly suspect image.”

“John underestimates him,” Castiel says between gritted teeth, willing his gun hand to remain steady. “And so did you.”

“Maybe so,” Azazel concedes, sounding unconcerned. “Didn’t realize he'd managed to send out an SOS before I jumped him. Not until I heard your reply come in.”

Castiel bites his lip, cursing himself inwardly. He should have set off as soon as he saw Dean’s text. He could have made it here faster.

“Knew you’d come, of course, if I made you think we were under attack.” Azazel laughs, the sound more disgust than mirth. “Hunters are so predictable.”

“I’m going to enjoy killing you,” Castiel says, proud of how even his voice sounds. “But I have a few more questions.”

“Thought I was the villain here. Aren’t I supposed to be the one monologuing?”

“The Novaks, of Pontiac, Illinois. June 21, 1990,” Castiel recites, the date branded into his memory. “Who killed them, and why?”

Azazel frowns, John Winchester’s dark, bushy eyebrows pulling closer together. “Never heard of ‘em.”

Castiel takes a step closer, tightening his grip on the Colt and pointing it right between John’s eyes. “You’re lying.”

Azazel shrugs. “Why would I?”

“You have to be.” Castiel’s voice is rising now, his hand starting to shake. He needs to pull the trigger, needs to put an end to this before he loses control of the situation, but he has to get answers. “Who killed them? Why did they die?” He’s almost screaming now, anger and fear coloring his voice.

“Cas?”

A split-second glance shows Castiel that Dean’s eyes are open, but he looks dazed, blinking slowly up at him. Castiel takes a step back to make sure both Dean and Azazel are in his sightline.

“I’m guessing they were your family?” Azazel asks sweetly, ignoring Dean to advance slowly on Castiel. “Sure sounds like it. But you’re not one of my psychics. I can tell. So, if you were to ask me why I killed young Dean’s mother? Well, she got in the way of my little appointment with her other son. Wrong place, wrong time.” A quiet gasp from the floor, and then a groan as Dean tries and fails to get his feet under him. “But your folks?” Azazel continues, unbothered by Dean’s feeble attempts to rise. “Never even heard of ‘em.”

“Then it’s time for you to die,” Castiel says, taking a deep breath, wrestling back his control by inches.

“Cas, no.” Dean’s voice is weak and shaky. He holds up a hand, then lowers it again, wincing. “Cas, don’t do it.”

“Oh, isn’t this interesting?” Azazel sneers, slanting his eyes at Dean. “Little blunt instrument is too much of a daddy’s boy to let his friend kill the big bad demon.”

Castiel blinks hard, trying to keep his focus on Azazel even as a cascade of images pushes at the edges of his consciousness.

Alfie’s small body on the kitchen floor, covered in their parents’ blood.

The work of one of Azazel’s minions.

Bill’s open casket at his funeral, his face an unrecognizable waxen mask.

The work of John Winchester.

“Don’t you do it, Cas,” Dean pleads, grimacing with the obvious effort it’s taking to speak at all. “Don’t you do it.”

Dean’s warm weight, leaning up against Castiel’s shoulder in Andy’s van. The small frown of concentration on his face as he bent over the pool table at the Roadhouse to line up the perfect shot. His carefree smile as he sat behind the wheel of his Impala, speeding down the open road.

With startling clarity, Castiel realizes he will never be on the receiving end of that smile again if he kills Dean’s father.

Castiel lowers his gun. Halfway through the motion, he squeezes the trigger. Something moves through him — more than the kickback he’d expect from a normal gun. A frisson of power, extending through his gun arm and flowing through his body as the bullet travels down the barrel.

It hits John Winchester square in the thigh and he buckles, electricity flashing under his skin, lighting him up in sickly yellow over and over again until he hits the floor, sprawled on his back. 

For a moment, there’s nothing but silence. Castiel meets Dean’s eyes. Neither of them dare to move. Then a roar starts up and John’s face tilts back, mouth opening and vomiting black smoke into the air above them. The cloud hisses and crackles, circling once before it spirals to the floor, slipping through the cracks between the boards and out of sight.

“Fuck,” Castiel mutters. He shakes his head once, twice, then strides to where Dean is slumped against the wall. He kneels and pulls up Dean’s shirt to check how badly he is injured. There are several ugly gashes across his chest, some of them still bleeding sluggishly. Judging by the puddle on the floor, Dean has already lost quite a lot of blood.

“We need to get you to a hospital,” Castiel mutters, surprised to feel a prickle of tears at the back of his eyes. Dean bats weakly at Castiel’s hand where it’s holding up his shirt.

“I’ll be fine. Check on my dad. Please?”

Castiel scowls, but nods. Still, before he moves, he takes off his jacket and flannel, then pulls off his undershirt. “Here,” he says, handing the shirt to Dean. “This should be more or less clean. Press it to the wounds to keep the bleeding to a minimum.”

A half-hearted smirk appears on Dean’s face. “Damn, Cas. Feel like I should be paying for the show.”

“Shut up,” Castiel says, and hastily pulls his flannel and jacket back on. He turns away to perform a cursory check of John, and to hide the blush he can feel spreading across his cheeks.

“How is he?” Dean’s voice sounds weaker than Castiel would like.

“Unconscious, and he’s bleeding, but I don’t think the bullet hit anything major. Let’s get you two to the ER.”

Dean nods and rises slowly off the floor, his legs shaking. “I’ll help you carry him.”

“You’ll do no such thing. You can barely stand.”

“I’m fine,” Dean grits out, but his knees choose that moment to buckle. Castiel moves in, just in time to catch him. Dean’s head lolls forward, and his face is suddenly inches from Castiel’s own.

As quickly as he dares, Castiel steps to the side, out of Dean’s space, so he can drape Dean’s arm across his back. Then, he half-carries, half-drags Dean outside, depositing him in the back seat of the Impala.

By the time Castiel gets back inside the cabin, John is sitting up, shaking his head and rubbing at his face. Castiel considers leaving him there, but he knows Dean would never forgive him. Revenge against John Winchester can wait for another day. In any case, Ellen is the one it rightfully belongs to. Taking John back to the Roadhouse suddenly seems like an excellent idea.

“Shoulda shot me in the fucking head,” John growls when he sees Castiel approach. “Put an end to that yellow-eyed bastard.”

“You’re welcome,” Castiel says, and holds out his hand. John eyes it suspiciously, but takes it, and Castiel pulls him up none too gently. John winces when his weight hits his injured leg, but declines any further assistance, limping outside and to the Impala’s passenger seat under his own steam.

A glance at the backseat shows that Dean has passed out again, and Castiel fails to push down the anxiety that gnaws at him. If Dean dies on this hunt because he walked into danger alone, Castiel will never forgive himself.

He floors the gas pedal as he backs up out of the cabin’s driveway, and John frowns as the tires spin uselessly for a few seconds before they grip. For the rest of the drive, John’s eyes fix on Castiel’s face now and again, studying him, but he doesn’t seem eager to start a conversation.

It suits Castiel just fine.

  devils trap divider

No matter how much Jess scrapes her tongue against the back of her teeth, she can’t get the taste of the sewer out of her mouth. Her stomach still churns with nausea, and she feels like she could shower for three hours and still not be satisfied. Her disgust is more than skin-deep; it settles in close to her chest and refuses to leave. 

It’s a stroke of strange luck that Jess has no time to worry about being filthy. Sam whips the truck through the narrow city streets, taking such quick hairpin turns that Jess is slammed into the passenger door. From the backseat, the newcomer, Ava, makes a low noise of complaint, but doesn’t voice any additional discomfort. 

Jess’ stomach is tight with anxiety. Her muscles and ribs remember well the strength of the shifter. She’s a hunter, but she was still unprepared for the ferocity of the shifter’s attack. When she thinks of that strength and malice turned on a defenseless civilian, on Becky, Jess wants to vomit. Her eyes bore a hole through the side of Sam’s skull, silently imploring him to drive faster. 

The truck screeches to a halt in front of Becky’s house. Sam slams on the brakes so sharply that Jess barely manages to catch herself against the dash. In the back, Ava isn’t so lucky, and Jess’ seat jolts forward with the impact of the other woman’s small body against the back of the seat. 

The truck has barely come to a stop before Jess and Sam start moving. They both tumble from the car, checking their weapons as they start towards the house. Jess’ trusty Smith & Wesson is already in her hand, the weight of it comforting. Sam tosses her a knife, and she easily catches it by the hilt. 

“Ava, stay by the truck,” Sam snaps, already heading towards the house. 

“I could—” 

“Stay by the truck!” Jess echoes, and with that, she has no more time to spare on Ava. Her entire focus turns to the house. For all intents and purposes, it looks empty: inside is dark, and there are no telltale shadows shifting over the windows. Jess, however, knows that appearances can be deceiving. 

She and Sam take positions on either side of the back door. Sam levels his gun at the door while his hand hovers a hair’s breadth above the knob. His eyes dart towards Jess, and she braces herself. Her finger rests on the trigger guard, prepared for anything. She catches Sam’s eyes and nods once, firmly. 

Her chin has barely touched her chest before Sam wrenches the door open. Against the sepulchral silence of the house, the gentle creak of the hinges sounds like a scream. Jess shares one last look with Sam before stepping inside. 

Her eyes take a few long seconds to adjust to the darkness of the house. Once they do, she’s still not sure what she’s looking at. The rooms, seemingly so normal in the daylight, have turned treacherous in the dark. Shelves loom over them, casting strange shadows across the floor. 

They find Becky in the living room, tied to a chair. Her eyes go wide when she spots them, and a muffled scream sounds from behind her gag. Tears and snot run down her face as she struggles against her bindings. It looks like her left eye is swelling, and there are a few cuts along her face, but she’s blessedly alive. 

“Hey, you’re okay,” Jess soothes. Sam keeps watch while she goes to free Becky. She cuts at the ropes around Becky’s wrist and makes sure to knick her with the edge of the silver knife. Other than a small flinch, Becky doesn’t react. 

The second her hands are free, Becky pulls the gag out of her mouth. Huge sobs burst from her chest, filling the once quiet space. “Becky,” Jess says, trying to keep the snap out of her voice. “Becky, this is really important. Where is he?” 

“I don’t know.” The words come out in a shuddering exhalation. “Oh my god, Jess, it was Zach, it was, but it couldn’t be…” 

“We’ll explain everything later, but for now, you need to get out of here. Go to the—” 

A snarl interrupts Jess before she can finish. A shadow detaches itself from the wall and launches towards Sam. Becky shrieks and clutches at Jess’ arm. Whether she’s trying to pull Jess back to protect her, or whether she’s trying to protect herself, Jess doesn’t know. Either way, she shakes Becky off her arm, pushing her towards the wall. “Stay here,” she says urgently. 

She trains her gun on the shifter, but it’s no use. The lighting is too poor, and Sam and the shifter are too close together for her to get a clear shot. The shifter’s fist draws back before descending in a vicious blow. Sam’s cry of pain follows almost immediately, and Jess tries to breathe around the unfamiliar clench of panic in her chest. 

Useless, she’s so damn useless. She got herself captured in the sewers, and she’s such a shitty person that her boyfriend didn’t even realize that a shifter had taken her place, and now that boyfriend is going to die because she can’t do something as elementary as get a clean shot off. 

Sam and the shifter’s bodies are entwined so closely in the scuffle that Jess misses the moment when it happens, but she hears it: the sickening, hollow thud of a skull striking against something hard. Almost immediately after, Sam’s body goes limp. 

“Sam!” Jess screams, her finger tightening on the trigger. The only thing that stops her is the sudden gleam of Sam’s gun, pointing directly at Becky. 

The shifter pulls Zach’s face into a parody of a smile. “You’re fast, but are you fast enough?” they mock. “I’ve been inside you, Blondie. You’re out of practice.” 

“You hurt her, you’re going to live long enough to regret it,” Jess snarls. In her head, despite her threats, she frantically works the odds. Can she squeeze off a shot deadly enough to kill the shifter before they shoot Becky? 

The horrific truth is, she’s not sure. Like the shifter said, she’s out of practice. It was hard fitting in target practice between study groups and classes. 

If Becky or Sam die because she forgot her roots, she’ll never forgive herself. 

“So, how about we do this, sweetheart?” the shifter sneers. 

Jess never gets to figure out what their plan is. A flurry of movement out of the corner of her eyes catches her attention. She turns, gun raised to take on the new threat, but it ignores her completely. Instead, Ava, a five-foot, four-inch whirlwind of fury from Peoria, launches herself straight at the shifter. 

Jess’ cry of alarm and fear dies an ignominious death somewhere in the back of her throat. It’s superseded by the howl of mingled rage and pain from the shifter. They fall backward, clutching their neck. When they stumble into a shaft of light coming in from one of the windows, Jess sees it: a tiny, silver cross sticking out of their neck. 

She doesn’t waste any time. Her finger moves smoothly on the trigger, unloading the entire magazine into the shifter’s chest. The shifter barely has time to look surprised before they drop to the ground. Their eyes remain open, fixed on the ceiling, as they stare at something beyond Jess’ understanding. 

Ava’s ragged pants are loud in the quiet of the room. Jess’ ears are ringing from the sound of the gunshots, and her arms are tingling, from her fingertips to her shoulders. Her eyes meet Ava’s, and she doesn’t know what she should say. Luckily, she’s spared from making that decision as Sam groans. 

Her gun ends up quickly tucked back into her waistband as she flies to his side. “Hey,” she says, hands gentle on Sam’s shoulders and back. “How are you feeling? Are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?” 

“Like I got the shit kicked out of me, fine, and three,” Sam answers. He sounds a little groggy, but otherwise lucid. “What happened?” His gaze falls a few feet to the side, taking in the shifter’s mangled corpse, and he recoils. “Shit! Are you okay? What happened?” 

Jess’ eyes flick towards Ava and Becky. Both of them look various degrees of shellshocked, though Ava’s expression is changing to a sort of understated pride. Becky just looks like she wants to throw up.

“We’re alive,” Jess finally says. 

***  

Things wrap up quickly after that. 

Sam manages to coach a mostly numb Becky through making a 911 call, where she sounds frantic about an intruder at her house. While she’s making the call, Jess runs out to the truck to find a pistol tucked away in the backseat. If Becky’s story is going to be that she shot the Zach look-alike, then she’s going to need a gun to back up her story. The ballistics won’t match, but St. Louis is a big city, filled with crime. The police have an open and shut case, with a sympathetic woman claiming self-defense, and a plausible culprit, now dead and saving them the burden of a trial. Jess doubts they’ll look too hard when the bullets turn out not to match the gun. 

She, Sam and Ava all leave before the police come. “We’ll stop by tomorrow before we head out,” Sam promises. Becky nods. The expression on her face says that she’s not so sure that’s a good thing, but she doesn’t tell them to get the fuck out, so Jess is going to take that as a win. 

On the way back to the hotel, they’re all quiet. Jess takes over driving, as Sam looks a little too dazed to be trusted with operating heavy machinery. When she looks at Ava in the rearview mirror, she catches her staring out the window. Her lower lip is caught between her teeth, and her fingers tap an idle rhythm against her knee. Whatever she’s thinking, she keeps it to herself as Jess pulls into the parking lot of the hotel. 

“Do you have anywhere to go?” Jess asks, breaking the silence in the truck. Sam jerks out of his stupor and looks between them. 

“I didn’t bother to get a room when I came here. I just, you know. Drove.” 

“We’ve got a spare bed,” Jess says, ignoring Sam’s small jerk of surprise. “You’re more than welcome to stay with us tonight.” 

When they get to the room, Jess can feel the stress of the day settling on her like a fine grit. Even though she’s still filthy from the sewers, Jess doesn’t bother showering. She doesn’t think she could manage to stay upright long enough to get a shower anyway, and it would be just her luck to face down a shifter and then die from breaking her neck because she passed out on a wet surface. 

She kicks off her shoes. Uncaring of modesty, she strips out of her jeans and bra and topples into bed. A few minutes later, the mattress dips behind her when Sam joins her. The bed is a double, and no matter how close to the edge of the mattress they shift, it’s impossible for them to avoid touching. Jess spares a moment to regret that each of their touches feels like an apology, and then she’s asleep. 

***

“The cops bought the story,” Becky tells them the next morning. “They’re letting Zach go.”

The bruise around her left eye has darkened to a vicious purple, and her cheeks are thinner than they ever were in college. Her hair hangs lank to her shoulders, and she’s still wearing last night’s clothes. A small spatter of blood is on the sleeve of her shirt, but if she hasn’t noticed, then Jess surely isn’t going to draw her attention to it. 

“That’s good,” Jess offers, when it becomes clear that Becky’s not going to continue. 

“Yeah.” A faint smile touches Becky’s lips. “They have to finish processing, and they said he should be home by this afternoon. All charges have been dropped. It’s not…” Her voice wavers, but she forces herself to continue. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.” 

There’s an awkward moment of silence as they all fail to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Finally, Becky looks at both of them. 

“So, were you doing this at Stanford? Hunting… monsters?” 

Both Jess and Sam shake their heads at the same time. “But it’s why you left Stanford,” Becky continues. 

“There’s a lot of things out in the world,” Jess begins. She doesn’t want to open Becky’s eyes to the true ugliness of the world, but after last night, she deserves the truth. “Some of these things came to Stanford and it wasn’t safe for us there anymore. It’s not going to be safe until we hunt those things down and make it so they can’t hurt anyone else.” 

“It’s good,” Becky says. A hint of her old self shines through her decisive tone. “What you do, I mean. You helped me, you helped Zach, and think about how many lives you saved. Thank you.” 

The look on Sam’s face is ten shades of complicated, so Jess leans forward. She gives Becky a quick hug, cognizant of both of their injuries. “Take care of yourself,” she says. “Invest in silver.” 

A quick flash of a smile is Jess’ reward. “Hey, if you guys ever manage to find yourselves back at Stanford again, drinks are on me.” 

Sam is quiet as they walk out of the door. If this were any other time, then Jess would know exactly how to draw him out of his shell. This isn’t like any other time. He’s still Sam, but she’s not sure whether she knows this new version of him. She keeps her silence for a few steps until Sam stops in his tracks. 

“Do you think she was right?” he asks. His hazel eyes are clouded. “That it’s good, what we do?” 

“Saving people? Hunting things? The family business?” Jess lifts a shoulder in a shrug. “An innocent guy is free from jail, and Becky’s not dead. I don’t think either of those is a bad thing.” 

“For so long, I thought hunting was just blood and horror, but…” Sam shrugs. “I don’t know. Being on that plane and knowing that they’re alive because of me, and seeing Becky… Like you said, none of those things are bad.” 

“It’s okay to find good parts in it,” Jess finally says. 

“Yeah.” When Sam looks at her, his expression is softer and more open than it’s been in days. For a moment, Jess’ heart kicks in her chest. She’s so sure that Sam is about to say something magical to fix everything between them that it hurts all the more when his eyes finally slide away and towards the truck. “We’ve got a long drive. Better get started.” 

Ava pushes herself up from where she was leaning against the truck. In the light of day, she looks a little more uncertain, but her stance is strong when they come to stand in front of her. “You’re coming with us, right?” Sam asks.  

Ava’s mouth twists in an unhappy frown. “I don’t know. Psychics? Demons? What am I supposed to tell my fiance?” 

“You tell him whatever you need to, but we really think you should come,” Jess says. “Look, if you’re having visions of Sam, we think that means you’re both connected to this demon we were telling you about. But at the place where we’re going, there’s a psychic called Pamela who can tell us for sure. She might even be able to teach you how to use your powers to defend yourself.” 

Ava stares at Jess for a moment before her shoulder lifts in a shrug. “I’ve known you for two days, and I’ve already stabbed someone and been party to covering up some kind of crime. How much weirder does it get?” 

Her hand is already on the door handle.

Jess swings herself into the front seat and then turns around to look at Ava. “Wait until I tell you about the time my sister found the haunted kidney.”  

  devils trap divider

The scratchy sound of the PA system wakes Dean. 

His eyelids feel like the lashes are weighted down. When he finally opens them, he’s greeted by a sea of white. He blinks, and his blurry vision sharpens to reveal a blank white wall. A quick flick of his eyes around the room confirms his suspicion: he’s in a hospital. 

Hospitals are good, because they mean that he’s not dead. Hospitals are bad because they mean he was hurt badly enough to need an actual doctor, as opposed to his usual medical care of whiskey and dental floss. Plus, hospitals require insurance, and they’re generally a hell of a lot quicker to catch on than any ten law enforcement agencies that Dean’s come up against. 

The sooner he gets out of here, the better. 

Dean starts the process of wiggling his fingers and toes and tensing his muscles to discover just how badly he’s hurt. As he does, the memories start to filter back. 

The drive to the cabin had been treacherous enough to make Dean swear off driving in the Colorado mountains ever again. Relief flooded through him when he pulled up next to Dad’s truck, but anxiety nipped at his heels. His knuckles stung when he knocked on the door, and he was half prepared to find the cabin empty. 

The second Dad opened the door, Dean knew something was wrong. There was something off in the air, silence from the canary in the coal mine, but Dean walked in anyway. He thought he might be seeing things because he was tired. Or because he was still thrown off by the sudden softness in Cas’ eyes when they parted. Whatever the reason, Dean walked into the cabin. 

In the hospital, sour rage rises in his throat as he remembers how stupid he was. How trusting. The thing wearing his Dad had smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, and then asked about the Colt. When Dean revealed that he hadn’t brought the Colt with him, contrary to Dad’s expectations, the small smile on his face hadn’t faltered. 

“Well, that’s alright,” Dad said, drawling out the words a little. Dean blinked in disbelief. “I’m proud of you for getting it from Elkins. I know it wasn’t easy to track down.” A kind smile lit up Dad’s face. “This friend of yours, where’d you say he’s taking it?” 

Suspicion and fear seized Dean. For most of his life, he’d learned to weather the ebbs and flows of his father’s moods, and he’d never seen John Winchester accept a hitch in his plans with anything less than caustic anger. Upon hearing that Dean hadn’t brought the Colt, he wouldn’t have been accepting and proud. He would have been furious at best, dismissive at worst. 

Whatever was standing in front of him wasn’t his Dad. 

From there, Dean’s memories go a little fuzzy. He remembers the twist of pain in his chest, and the taste of copper, thick and salty on his tongue as he coughed up blood. He remembers seeing Dad’s face twisted in a cruel smirk, and, with a thrill of horror, he also remembers the sickly flash of yellow in his father’s eyes. 

“Oh, good, you’re awake.” A matronly nurse bustles into his room. She performs a swift check of the monitors hooked up to him, and then pokes and prods at him enough to test his patience. After every inch of him has been subjected to the nurse’s torturous attentions, she finally bothers to look at his face. “How are you feeling?” 

Dean’s glower should be answer enough, but it appears like she wants a verbal response. “Fine,” he says shortly. 

The answer doesn’t seem to mollify her. “Well, luckily, a lot of your injuries look worse than they actually are. No real internal damage or broken bones. Mostly just a few scrapes and bruises. I’ve got to tell you, you and your dad are lucky. I’ve seen some real doozies coming in off of muggings.” 

Dean blinks in surprise. “Mugging,” he says, turning the word over in his mouth. He barely spares a moment’s pity for Cas, who had to come up with that cover story, before the nurse’s words register. “My dad?” he asks, surprise and fear clogging his throat. “He’s… He’s okay?” 

The nurse offers him a smile. “He was awake before you were. Last I heard, they were just waiting on you to come around. If your vitals stay strong through the afternoon, you’ll be discharged.” 

Dean’s heart bangs against his ribs. “I need to see him,” he says. “My dad. I need…” 

He needs to make sure Dad is okay. He needs to ask him for advice. He needs to see, with his own eyes, that he’s alive, whole and unpossessed. To see the thing that killed his mom, glaring at him out of Dad’s face, to know that he was going to die at the hands of it, while it was puppeting his father… 

“I understand, but you need to rest.” The nurse’s voice brooks no disagreement. “I promise you, your father is fine. He’s just next door, and when I last looked in on him, he was just starting his lunch.” 

She throws a final, suspicious look at Dean over her shoulder as she walks out of the room. Her suspicions are well-founded. Dean waits until he’s sure that she’s not going to come back and surprise him, and then he swings his legs out of bed. The tile floor is frigid against his bare feet, but he pushes that discomfort aside. It’s the work of moments to figure out how to untangle his IV stand from the rest of the machines. After that, Dean pokes his head out of his room. The nurse’s station is at the end of the hallway, and no one’s attention is turned towards him. 

Dean’s certainly not going to win any prizes for stealth, but he manages to hobble towards the next room, dragging his IV stand behind him. No one stops him as he opens the door. Dean takes a deep breath, gathering up whatever courage and anything else he needs before he pushes open the door. 

Once inside the room, he blinks in confusion. The blankets are twisted at the foot of the bed and falling off the edge of it. A single Styrofoam cup lies forgotten on the floor. 

Dean’s heart knocks against the confines of his ribs. He stares at the bed as if, by sheer force of will, he could erase the evidence in front of him. His instincts (honed for years by John Winchester) scream at him to examine the room and try to find any clues, but the larger part of him remains caught in disbelief. Besides, the small, bitter part of his brain asks, what’s the point of looking? 

“What are you… Mr. Bonham, what are you doing out of bed?” A different nurse, her scrubs emblazoned with various Garfield faces, grabs Dean’s arm just above his elbow. Her grip is surprisingly strong for someone who only comes up to his collarbone. “You’re still recovering; you shouldn’t be up and walking around yet.” 

“My dad,” Dean says. His voice cracks, and he can’t be bothered to be embarrassed by it. “They said he was in this room…” 

The nurse’s face morphs into horrible pity. “I’m sorry…” she begins. The rest of her words wash over Dean in a wave of meaningless sound. The individual meanings are lost, but the truth remains the same: Dad left. 

He knew that Dean was in the room next to him, hurt. He knew, and he left anyway. 

After months of silence, demonic possession, and a near-death experience, John Winchester couldn’t be bothered to leave so much as a two-sentence message behind for his son. 

***

After discovering Dad’s disappearance, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to stay at the hospital. Against doctor’s orders, Dean checks himself out. The first nurse who checked on him glowers as he signs the paperwork, but Dean ignores her. He’s still numb, stung from a betrayal that runs deeper than any stranger’s opinion.  

Dean grits his teeth against the pain as he starts off towards the door. He’s dealt with worse, and he can’t bear to stay here any longer. The longer he moves, the smoother his steps become, and by the time he makes it out to the waiting room, only a sharp-eyed observer could find the hint of a hitch in his step. 

It only takes Dean a few moments to find Cas. He’s the only person in the room, tucked onto a chair in the furthest corner. His legs are stretched out in front of him, and his arms are crossed over his chest. His chin rests on his collarbone, and his chest rises and falls with steady breaths. 

Relief and something approaching fondness bursts in Dean’s chest. Seeing Cas there, waiting for him, soothes the still-raw wound of Dad’s departure, and for the first time since he encountered the empty room, he feels like he can finally breathe. A smile tugs at the corners of Dean’s lips, and he tries to suppress it. Cas lets out a little snore, his body jolting with the force of it. Dean’s smile spreads across his face, and after a moment’s futile battle, he allows it. It’s not as if anyone’s here to witness it.

Cas snores again, the sound low and caught in his throat. A helpless, warm feeling flutters in Dean’s chest. 

Before his brain can force him to consider what it means, Dean leans forward and shakes Cas’ shoulder. “Cas. Wake up, buddy.” 

True to his hunter’s training, Cas shakes himself awake at the merest stimulus. He snorts, one hand flying up to rub at his face. Bleary eyes blink at Dean through the fringe of hair falling across his forehead, and Cas tilts his head. “Dean?” he asks, his normally low voice raspy with lingering sleep. “What are you… They told me that you weren’t going to be released until later this afternoon.” 

The fluttery warmth turns white-hot. “Were you planning on staying here?” Dean asks, indicating the uncomfortable plastic chairs with a jerk of his head. 

“It was either here or the backseat of your car, and I figured here was more sanitary.” Despite the snark in the statement, the underlying message is clear: I wasn’t leaving you. 

Dean speaks around the lump in his throat. “That car’s clean enough to eat off of. Anyway, I’m free to leave, so let’s get the hell out of here. Hospitals creep me out.” 

Cas tilts his head in confusion. “Weren’t you going to wait for your dad? You spent all this time looking for him, I thought…” He trails off as he looks at Dean’s face. Dean doesn’t know exactly what his facial expressions are doing, but he can guess that it’s nothing good. 

“He’s gone,” Dean says shortly. “Left earlier.” 

There’s so much more that he wants to say, but Dean clenches his jaw and clamps his teeth down on the words. In his otherwise stoic face, the corners of Cas’ mouth twitch in a mad dance. It looks like he wants to say something, but before Cas can open his mouth and ruin everything, Dean speaks over him. 

“Anyway, we can head out of here. If we want to make it back to the Roadhouse with the cargo, then we need to get a head start. Otherwise, we’ll be driving through the night.” 

Don’t ask, his eyes plead and order in turns. Please, don’t ask. 

After a second, Cas’ face softens. He nods, and then his eyes flick up and down Dean’s frame. Standing in front of Cas with bruises littering his chest and arms, and scrapes marring his face, dressed in last night’s bloodied clothes, Dean fights the urge to cover himself up. 

“It might be better if I drive,” Cas finally says. His voice is low and almost soothing. “At least for the first few hours.” 

Dean tries to find a reason to fight against Cas, but his aching back, legs and chest all scream for him to take the out. He rummages in his pockets and finds the keys to the Impala, tossing them to Cas in a smooth movement. Cas’ hand snatches them out of the air, even though he looks a little surprised at Dean’s easy acquiescence. 

“You wreck her, and I’ll rip your balls off,” Dean grumbles, but even to his ears, the threat sounds lackluster. 

Cas’ eyes shine with poorly repressed mirth as they make their way out of the hospital and into the bright afternoon sun. 

***

Dean’s vow to watch Cas like a hawk is shot to hell less than thirty minutes into the trip. The sun is warm through the windshield, and the rumble of the engine is as soothing as it was when he was a child falling asleep in the backseat. Between those, and the lingering exhaustion from the previous night, Dean’s eyelids grow heavy and his head tips against the window. 

Hours later, he blinks himself awake. There’s no immediate way to know how much time has passed, but he knows it’s significant: the sun, which had been hanging heavy in the sky when he and Cas first set out, is now inching towards the horizon. Streaks of pink and orange light up the dusky, purple clouds in a riot of color. 

“Hey,” Cas says. “How are you feeling?” 

Dean grunts in answer, struggling to sit upright. He rubs the exhaustion from his eyes, but he doesn’t manage to erase the twilight zone feeling that deep naps always give him. His stomach growls loudly in complaint, and Dean winces at the empty ache in his belly. 

“We can stop for dinner,” Cas says. “I didn’t stop for lunch. We were making good time, and…” He trails off, his eyes darting from the road to Dean and back again. 

“And what?” Dean asks, feeling a little too discombobulated from his nap to sift through the layers of innuendo. 

“Well, I didn’t want to wake you up,” Cas admits. A smile that could be mocking, but instead comes off as endearing, hesitantly settles on his face. “You looked like you could use the rest.” 

Dean doesn’t have anything to say to that. Instead, he settles back in the passenger’s seat and watches Cas as he handles the Impala. Normally, a spark of white-hot rage sears through his chest at the thought of anyone else even daring to touch her, but he has to admit that Cas looks good like this. He has sturdy, capable hands, and they move lightly over the steering wheel as he takes them first through a drive-thru, and then a little ways down the road until they find a small rest stop. 

The rest stop overlooks a stunning view of the mountains. A tiny pond rests on the outskirts, with a few picnic tables along its banks. It’s there that Dean and Castiel take their bags. Against the backdrop of nature, their greasy fast food smells out of place, but Dean is too hungry to care about the juxtaposition. He tears into his bag, ripping the paper away from his cheeseburger and taking a giant bite. It’s only when he’s halfway through that he bothers to slow down. Taking a slurp from his drink, he finally looks around and takes in their surroundings. 

Normally, Dean’s not one to comment on the aesthetic qualities of a space, but he’s not blind. “It’s pretty here,” he says, hunching his shoulders as a sharp breeze twists through the trees. There’s a nipping edge at the end of it that reminds Dean that winter is just around the corner. 

Cas hums and picks at his fries. He stares at the small pile of food in front of him and speaks to it, rather than Dean, when he says, “It’s always pretty up here. My family came here for a skiing trip when I was younger.” 

Dean tries to suppress his noise of confusion, but he’s not quite successful. Somehow, he can’t see Ellen or Jo being big into skiing. 

Cas looks up to meet Dean’s eyes. “Not Ellen and Bill,” he answers. A shadow passes over his face. “James and Amelia Novak.” 

Dean hardly dares to chew for fear of interrupting. He’s not sure that it would matter — the look in Cas’ eyes is distant, his attention fixed on a point miles away — but this moment is gossamer delicate. The slightest shift would shatter it, and Dean knows that if that happens, whatever’s building between him and Cas would never recover. 

Call him stupid, but he wants this slender connection to become stronger. He holds his tongue, even though he’s almost desperate to hear what comes next. 

Cas' fingers worry at the wrapper of his straw. As he speaks, he shreds the paper into increasingly smaller bits. “I grew up in Pontiac, Illinois. Normal childhood. Mom, Dad.” Cas’ eyes flick towards Dean. “Younger brother.” 

Dean’s stomach lurches. For all of the times he saw Cas interacting with Jo, he never really thought of him as an older brother. To know that he and Cas are that similar… It makes something uncomfortable squirm in Dean’s stomach, and he doesn’t want to look too closely at it. 

Luckily, Cas doesn’t seem to have noticed Dean’s momentary lapse. All of his focus is on the tiny pile of paper in front of him, like if he looks away from it, he’ll lose himself. 

“His name was Alfie.” Cas’ voice is soft, almost reverent. “He was a pain in the ass most of the time, honestly. He could be whiny, and he was a tattletale, and I always hated when Mom and Dad made me watch him while they were doing other things. But he could be so sweet sometimes. ‘Tas’, he used to call me when he was really little. He couldn’t say the ‘C’.” 

Cas stares at the table, clearly lost in memories. Dean’s hand twitches against the rough wood grain. Cas’ hand is so close to him. If he wanted, he could reach out and take it. 

He tucks his hand between his knees just to remove the temptation. 

“It was a demon. For whatever reason, it decided… I don’t know why it thought that Mom and Dad had to die, but it did. And Alfie…” Cas swallows like it costs him everything he has. “I was at a friend’s house, and I came inside to find my baby brother sitting in a pool of my parents’ blood.” 

“Cas…” 

“It was Bill that saved me. If he hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have made it out alive. I was just a kid.” Cas tries to force some levity into his voice, but it comes off painfully flat. “The only thing he managed to get out of the demon was a name.” 

“Azazel,” Dean breathes. Cas’ eyes snap to him, almost like he forgot Dean was there. For a moment, his expression is hard, but it softens after only a few seconds. 

“The very same.” With effort, Cas picks up the shredded remains of the straw wrapper and dumps them into the bag. “Bill managed to exorcise the demon, but Alfie was… Demons aren’t known for taking good care of their hosts.” Naked pain crosses Cas’ face. “Within a single night, I lost everything. The demon was sent back to Hell, but there was still me to deal with. Long story short, Bill and Ellen took me in and performed some wizardry with social services. Castiel Novak became Castiel Harvelle, and I started bugging Bill to teach me about hunting. He didn’t want to, but…” 

“The son of a bitch who killed your family was still out there,” Dean finishes. 

This time when Cas looks at him, his eyes are soft with understanding. “Exactly,” he murmurs. 

“You’ve been trying to find Azazel for all these years,” Dean breathes. 

“I just need… I need answers. Mom and Dad and Alfie weren’t… Dad sold ad time for AM radio, for fuck’s sake. They weren’t anything important. They were… they were my family.” Cas’ voice cracks. “And I’m going to find the black-eyed bastard that killed them and put that motherfucker in the ground. I don’t care what it takes.” 

Cas’ voice turns hard, and his face turns harder. His eyes glint with a righteous, wrathful fire, and his mouth twists in a vicious snarl. For a moment, Dean’s not looking at Cas. He’s looking instead at John Winchester. 

“But you do,” he blurts, before he can stop himself. Cas’ gaze flickers. There’s anger in his eyes, but also curiosity. “I just mean… You can’t let revenge take you over, man. It’s…” 

A small voice at the back of Dean’s head screams at him to shut the fuck up. It sounds remarkably like his Dad, but it also sounds like himself, every time he told Sam to shut up about going to college. It sounds like the bored voices of the teachers at high school after high school when they dismissed him, assuming that he would never amount to anything more than an early casualty, and an abbreviated excerpt in the obituaries. It’s the voice that tells him not to spread Winchester business around and that the only people he can trust are his family. 

“Sometimes I wonder what Dad would have been like if Mom had lived,” Dean admits. 

Saying the words leaves his chest feeling empty, but Dean doesn’t mourn the loss. Instead, he feels clean. It gives him the courage to continue. “I barely remember her, honestly. I remember her staying home with me and taking me and Sam to the park. I remember her and Dad fighting, but to hear Dad talk about it, they had the perfect marriage. Sometimes, I wonder if that’s why he tried so hard to find the thing that killed her. Maybe he felt guilty about all the times he wasn’t there.” 

Dean’s laugh is full of bitterness. “Turns out that Dad’s never been really good at sticking around. When Sam and I were kids, he would take off for weeks at a time. Leave us about fifty bucks and a shotgun full of salt rounds.” 

Dean’s stomach twists as he thinks about what he had to do to keep him and Sam fed. He looks down at his knuckles, imagining that Cas can see the whole sordid truth in his eyes. It’s Cas’ soft voice that brings him back from the past. 

“You’re not responsible for his actions.” 

The words sit like a stone in Dean’s belly, but before he can protest, Cas continues. “You were a child. It wasn’t your responsibility to look after your brother, and it certainly shouldn’t have been your job to make your father stay.”

Supposedly, Cas is talking about Dean’s childhood, but the words soothe the raw place inside him that hasn’t stopped hurting since he found an empty hospital bed where his father was supposed to be. From where it’s clamped between his knees, Dean’s hand twitches again. He wants the comfort of skin to skin; he wants to feel the warmth of Cas’ hand against his. 

Dean curls his fingers in the rough denim of his jeans. “Yeah, well. Lucky it’s not, because I definitely screwed the pooch on that one. He didn’t even stick around to make sure that I woke up.” 

Cas’ mouth twists in an angry frown. A thunderstorm rages behind his eyes. Dean can tell that he’s furious, but Cas doesn’t release any of his anger in his direction. Instead, he lays his palms flat against the table and speaks deliberately slowly. 

“You’re not alone. We’re going to find Azazel and kill him, and we don’t need your Dad’s help to do it. We’re enough, Dean.” 

Cas’ mouth works like he wants to say something else. Like maybe he wants to say, You’re enough, Dean. The air between them grows thick with potential. For one wild moment, Dean thinks that Cas might be getting ready to do something earth-shattering. Terrified, he nonetheless longs for it, ready for Cas to take them careening off the cliff, Thelma and Louise style. His heart is thundering wildly against his chest, and Cas’ eyes are right in front of him, huge and blue like he’s never seen before…

Cas clears his throat and sits up straight. “We’d better keep moving,” he says, his voice a little gruffer than usual. His eyes seem incapable of resting in a single place for more than three seconds: they dart to the table, to the space over Dean’s shoulder, to Dean’s face before returning back to the table. “Since you spent so long sleeping, I assume you’re good to finish out the drive?” 

With that question, the strange atmosphere between them breaks. Dean can’t decide whether he’s thankful or sad. He licks his lips, testing the new confines of their friendship when he teases, “Need your beauty sleep?”  

Cas blinks. At first, Dean thinks that he’ll return to Captain Tightass mode, but then a wicked smile crosses his face. “Don’t need it if you’re already beautiful,” he says lightly, before balling up his wrapper and tossing it in the bag. Dean watches him go, mouth agape, as Cas takes the trash to a receptacle. “Are you coming?” Cas calls, jerking his head towards the car. “We’ve still got a few hours to go before we hit the Roadhouse, and I know I’ll rest easier with the Colt properly secured.” 

Dozens of words crowd at the tip of Dean’s tongue. He swallows them all down, and instead calls, “Keep your pants on, I’m coming. God, you nag worse than Sam on a bad day.” He keeps up his grumbling all the way to the Impala, where Cas tosses him the keys across the hood. Dean catches them and tries to ignore the fact that, out of all the words he never said to Cas, Stay is the one he most wishes he had.

Chapter Text

When Sam pulls into the Roadhouse parking lot, it contains quite a few more cars than it usually does before the bar opens. The Impala isn’t among them, though Ellen’s Jeep is. But one vehicle in particular catches Sam's eye: a rusty old Chevelle that he recognizes immediately.

Somehow, what with one thing and another, he forgot that Bobby was coming. Bobby has always felt like something of a surrogate father — more of a father, really, than Dad managed to be most days. It was Bobby, after all, who insisted Sam and Dean throw a ball around once in a while instead of doing target practice. But that was before Bobby knew that Sam is different. Contaminated.

“Fuck,” Sam mutters, and Jess’ head whips around.

“What is it?”

“Bobby’s here.”

Jess raises an eyebrow at him. “Bobby, as in Bobby Singer?”

“Yeah.” Sam takes a deep breath to dislodge the heavy weight squatting on his chest.

“He’s a pretty old school hunter, right? How do you think he’ll feel about…” Jess trails off, tilting her head at Ava, who’s passed out in the back seat of the truck, drooling on the upholstery. “The whole demon blood issue.”

“Honestly?” Sam shrugs, trying not to show that the same thing has been on his mind. “Wish I knew. I guess I’ll find out. For now, let’s just focus on getting Ava settled, alright?”

Jess nods, but concern flits across her face. Her hand twitches in her lap, almost as if she’s thinking about reaching out to offer comfort. Sam wants her to, so much it’s like a physical ache, but instead she turns away and climbs out of the cab. While Jess opens the back passenger door to wake Ava, Sam forces himself to get moving and grab their bags. He sets off towards the annex, not exactly trying to evade Bobby, but definitely hoping for a bit of peace before he has to deal with him.

A shout from the direction of the Roadhouse stops Sam in his tracks.

“Hey, boy!”

Sam flinches, but hitches on a smile before he turns around. “Hi, Bobby.”

Bobby is standing under the tin-roofed overhang that shields the entrance to the bar, looking just the same as always — surly and gruff, under a ball cap that’s held together mostly by hope and grit.

“Thought you could hide from me, did you?” Bobby growls, stepping forward, and Sam finds himself stammering as he approaches.

“No, I— I wasn’t—”

“Unclench, Sam. I ain’t about to bite your head off.” With that, Bobby closes the last bit of distance between them and pulls Sam into a rough hug. When he pulls back, his hands stay on Sam’s shoulders, and penetrating brown eyes fix on his face. “Wanna tell me why you’re looking so spooked?”

Sam grimaces. “I know Ellen told you about the… the visions and all that. Guess I wasn’t sure how you’d react to the news.”

Bobby squints at him, narrow-eyed under bushy eyebrows, but Sam learned years ago that Bobby’s squints and glares are a language all their own, and the words mostly spell affection. “It ain’t your fault, what happened to you, got that? No one here blames you for it or thinks you’re less of a person. And you shouldn’t think it either, if you can get that through your thick skull.”

“Yeah, Bobby. Alright,” Sam says, his voice a little thick. He didn’t know just how much he needed Bobby’s reassurance until he got it.

Blinking to clear his vision, Sam notices another man just behind Bobby, leaning against the wall next to the Roadhouse door. Either he wasn’t there before, or he’s stealthy enough that he managed to sneak up on them without Sam noticing. It’s not impossible, because everything about the man’s appearance screams veteran hunter — the deeply carved lines on his face, the wariness in his posture, the booze-reddened whites of his eyes — and stealth is a pretty essential quality for any hunter who wants to make it past the age of thirty. (An age this guy clearly passed some time ago.)

Noticing where Sam’s attention has gone, Bobby says, “That old fart there is Rufus.”

Rufus’ mouth twists in a disgruntled grimace. “Careful who you’re calling an old fart, or you’ll be picking salt rounds out of your ass.” Pointing a warning finger at them both, he adds, “And don’t you try any of that Dr. Phil crap on me. I ain’t in the business of talking about my feelings or, God forbid, giving hugs.”

With that, he grunts a vague greeting at Jess and Ava, who have just made their way over to the group, and stalks back through the Roadhouse door.

“Who’s this now?” Bobby asks, turning to Ava with a small twitch of his lips that could almost be described as a smile if Sam was feeling generous.

“Ava,” Sam says. “We met her in St. Louis. She’s… like me, we think.” He gestures at Jess. “And Jess, she’s my—”

Before Sam is forced to figure out how to finish that sentence, Jess steps forward, offering her hand. “You’re Mr. Singer?”

“Bobby’s fine,” Bobby says, taking Jess’ hand and giving it a sound shake. “Another newcomer, eh?” He eyes Ava shrewdly. “Having somebody else who’s just got here might help that poor kid who arrived a couple hours ago. Name’s Scott. Seems alright, but a bit twitchy maybe. Think Jo, Ash and Andy are busy mellowing him out at the annex if you wanna join.”

“Yeah, sure,” Sam says. “We’ll do that. It’s good to see you, Bobby,” he adds, hoping his expression conveys his profound gratitude.

“Yeah, yeah.” Bobby waves him off, looking almost embarrassed, and Sam, smiling, trails after Jess and Ava in the direction to the annex. As they pass the Chevelle in the parking lot, an enraged snarl sounds from the trunk, followed by loud thumping noises.

“What the fuck?” Ava flinches, bumping into Jess as she frantically tries to put distance between herself and the rusted hunk of metal.

“Oh, don’t be alarmed, kid,” Bobby calls. “It’s just the demon that Rufus and I brought for y’all to practice on.”

“Great.” Ava narrows her eyes at Sam. “Why am I not reassured?”

***

Jo, Ash, Andy and Pamela are all gathered around the table in the annex kitchen, sharing some beers, when Sam walks in. The only unfamiliar face is a pale, dark-haired young man, who looks up at Sam uncertainly.

“Hey, man. You must be Scott,” Sam says, stretching out his hand. Scott stares at it as though it’s a gaping maw that’s trying to swallow him up.

“Yeah, um, I am, but—”

“Scott, dude,” Andy says. “Just shake his hand. You said you can control it, right?”

“Control what?” Jess asks, walking up until she’s standing next to Sam. She smells like cheap soap and home. Sam barely stops himself from inching closer to her.

“His power is electrokinesis,” Pamela explains. “He can channel electricity through his hands.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like you do it at random,” Jo says, jostling Scott’s shoulder with her own. “You can shake people’s hands without, like, electrocuting them. You shook mine when we met.”

“Because I thought you’d find it suspicious if I refused,” Scott says, squirming in his chair. “But apparently you all believe me about this crazy stuff I can do, so I thought I should try to warn people before they touch me.”

Ava steps forward and grabs Scott’s hand off the table, shaking it firmly. “Hi, Scott. I’m Ava Wilson, and I’m from Peoria. I get scary, gory visions about people’s deaths. Your thing sounds a lot less crazy than mine.”

Scott looks at her for a moment, thunderstruck, his hand limp in Ava’s. Then he grips it tightly and shakes it, a small, pleased smile on his face. Sam notices that Jo’s mouth has fallen open, and she’s looking at Ava with a sort of awed wonder.

“Holy crap, dude,” Ash says, grinning at Ava. “You are fearless.”

“I’m really not, usually,” Ava says, withdrawing her hand. “But I’ve seen some stuff in the past twenty-four hours. Apparently, monsters are real, I’ve got psychic powers, and there’s a demon in the trunk of a car outside. So yeah, I think I might be beyond fear now. Also, what the hell is wrong with your hair?”

Ash looks profoundly affronted, but Jo snorts so hard, a little bit of the beer she’s been drinking dribbles down her chin. She wipes at it self-consciously, casting a furtive glance at Ava.

The rest of the introductions are made, and Sam and Jess catch everyone up on how the trip to St. Louis went. They gasp at all the appropriate points, especially when Sam relates how Ava arrived just in time to save him from the shifter.

“Dude!” Ash says. “You couldn’t tell she wasn’t your girlfriend? That’s messed up.”

Jess shifts uncomfortably in her chair, and Jo glares at Ash. “Like a bull in a china shop, I swear.”

“She’s right, sweetcheeks,” Pamela says, taking a swig from her bottle. “Learn to read the room.”

*** 

A few minutes later, Jess excuses herself. Still feeling worn out from the trip, Sam decides to follow her. When he gets to their room, it’s to find Jess not unpacking, but stuffing more things into her bag.

“What are you doing?” he asks, although he’s afraid he knows the answer already.

Jess sighs, her shoulders slumping. “I just… I thought, since we agreed to take a break and there’s still a couple of empty bedrooms, I should get my own.”

“Oh,” Sam says, hating how small his voice sounds. “We’re still doing that, huh?”

Jess looks at him, something hopeless in her expression. “Yeah, Sam. Unless you’ve suddenly figured out how to solve all our problems and go back to the version of our lives where we fit together?”

Sam tries not to flinch at the sharp sting the words cause. “I think we still could… fit, I mean. We just need to figure out how.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Jess concedes, but she doesn’t look like she genuinely believes it. “For now, I think we’re better off figuring it out in separate beds, don’t you think?”

Sam wants to disagree, wants to ask Jess to stay with him and kiss him until they’re both out of breath, but he doesn’t. Because maybe Jess is right. Being right on top of each other certainly hasn’t been working out well for them. And if the trip to St. Louis has taught him anything, it's that he can't magically wipe away all their problems with a love confession. He needs to trust that if they both want this relationship to work, they’ll somehow find their way back to each other. Of course, that doesn't make the sight of Jess packing her things any less painful.

“Okay,” he says quietly. Mostly for something to do, he grabs his shower supplies from his duffle and heads for the bathroom. By the time he comes back, Jess is gone.

Sam curls up on the bed with vague thoughts of taking a nap, but sleep won’t come, so he decides to give Dean a call. The last time Dean checked in, he and Cas were about an hour away from getting to Elkins’ place.

The phone rings four times before Dean’s familiar greeting picks up.

You’ve reached Dean’s other, other cell, so you must know what to do.”

Sam decides against leaving a message and types out a text instead.

Hey, man. Just checking in. Are you and Castiel doing ok? Did you see Elkins?

No response arrives, and Sam eventually does nod off, staring at his phone screen and waiting for it to light up.

When he wakes, it’s to a knock on the door. His limbs feel sluggish and heavy, but he forces himself upright. “Come in.”

The door opens to reveal Pamela. “Hey, sleeping beauty. We got the demon all set up for you and the others. You good for a little training session?”

Sam squints down at his phone. It’s late afternoon, which means about two hours have passed since he fell asleep, and there’s still no response from Dean. Sam tries not to worry about it. His brother’s a grown man, and he has Castiel to back him up if anything goes wrong.

“Yeah, sure,” he says, even though spending time with a bunch of other people and trying to exercise powers he didn’t ask for sounds like the last thing in the world he wants to do.

“That’s the spirit,” Pamela says.

They walk back to the kitchen, where the others are already assembled. Scott is touching the light bulb inside a small reading lamp by the couch, making it turn off and on again while Andy watches, open-mouthed.

“Woah, man. Your powers are freaking awesome.”

Scott shrugs, but there’s a small smile on his face when he turns to wave at Sam.

Ava is on the couch with Jo, wearing a long-sleeved black shirt with Harvelle’s Roadhouse emblazoned on the front in yellow letters.

“I see you got some new clothes,” Sam says, nodding a greeting at her.

“Yeah. I didn’t really bring a lot of stuff with me, so,” Ava shrugs. “Jo lent me a few things.” 

For some reason, Jo blushes at that. “Yeah, well, you’re welcome to anything you need,” she says gruffly. “Your fiancé is being a goddamn jerk.”

Ava grimaces at Sam, twisting the small silver engagement ring on her left hand. “Yeah. I called him earlier. He said he’d toss all my stuff unless I gave him the address where I was staying. Which, of course, I couldn’t.” She sighs. “And he didn’t exactly believe me about the vision thing either. Not that I can fault him for that. But anyway, we got into a pretty bad fight.”

“I’m sorry,” Sam says sincerely. “Believe me, I know how hard this kind of thing can be on a relationship.”

Ava chuckles weakly. “Yeah, I had a feeling you might.”

Before Sam can respond, the front door creaks open and Bobby steps through, squinting at them from under the brim of his cap. “What are y’all waiting for? A written invitation?”

He leads the way to a medium-sized shed behind the Harvelles’ house. The floor and ceiling have been painted with devil’s traps, and in the middle of the room sits a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties, hands tied to the arms of a chair. She’s glaring at them out of coal-black eyes, her long brown hair matted with blood.

“Aww, isn’t this sweet?” she simpers. “Baby hunters.” She turns to Andy, who looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Did you know that I like to eat babies? Their pituitary glands are just the sweetest bit of meat you’ve ever tasted.”

“I wouldn’t be so cocky, if I were you,” Pamela says, stepping between Andy and the demon. “These kids have got some tricks up their sleeves.”

The demon tilts its host’s head, studying Pamela with an unimpressed leer. “Oh look, a psychic. Scary.”

“Why don’t you shut the hell up,” Bobby says. Out of nowhere, he produces a flask and splashes the woman’s face with its contents. The demon snarls, tugging at its bindings. For a split-second, Sam flashes back to a dungeon in California: his best friend tied up in a chair, twisted beyond recognition by an evil, snarling thing just like this one. He shakes his head to clear it, blinking back to the present just as Pamela orders him to step up and try his luck first.

“Now, what you want to do is really, really focus your mind,” she says, resting her hand on Sam’s lower back. “Narrow it down until all you can feel is that woman’s consciousness. Find the demon’s essence, and try to take hold of it. Once you’ve done that, you should be able to pull it out.”

Sam blinks at her. “Yeah, I have no idea how to do any of that.”

“Baby steps, handsome,” Pamela says, with a smirk and a wink. “Start with focusing real hard.”

Blowing out a deep breath, Sam walks forward, stopping when he’s right at the edge of the devil’s trap on the floor.

The demon is watching him with a vague, detached curiosity. Sam forces himself to meet its eyes, trying to let himself sink into that zen state he can achieve sometimes when he’s studying or reading a good book.

He pushes all thoughts of Jess and shifters, radio-silent brothers and missing fathers to the side as he homes in on the demon’s inkwell eyes. After a few moments, he could swear he sees something moving beyond the impenetrable wall of black: dirty, viscous smoke, curling and winding around the woman’s skull, writhing through her veins. Abruptly, he becomes aware that one of his arms has risen, the hand reaching out towards the demon, fingers twisting as though he can physically yank the contamination from the woman’s body.

The sight of his fingers curling into a fist pushes a memory to the surface: his hand holding a silver knife. A monster wearing Jess’ face, a drop of blood welling up against the skin of her neck.

A bolt of pain lances through his head, and he clutches instinctively at his temple, trying to make it stop. After a few seconds, the agony subsides into a low pulse of discomfort.

The demon cackles. “Some trick, psychic,” it says, clicking the woman’s tongue at Pamela in mock disapproval. “What’s next, the power of love?”

“It’s alright, Sam,” Pamela says, giving him a small smile. “That was good for a first attempt.”

Sam grimaces at her. “No, it wasn’t. I’m sorry. I thought I had it, but then I couldn’t keep my focus.”

“Seriously, it’s nothing to worry about,” Pamela insists. “Let’s give someone else a turn now.”

Sam leans against the wall by the door and watches as Scott and Andy each step forward. Scott doesn’t have a whole lot more luck than Sam, but Andy manages to give both himself and the demon a nose bleed.

When it’s Ava’s turn, she looks nervous but determined. Jo hovers at her back like an anxious mother hen until Pamela gives her a look and she retreats to the wall opposite Sam, scowling.

“Now, remember—” Pamela starts, but Ava cuts her off.

“Yeah, yeah. Focus. Got it.”

With a world-weary sigh, Ava steps forward, to the edge of the devil’s trap. She takes one good look at the demon, and then, to Sam’s surprise, she closes her eyes. One of her hands reaches out, just as Sam’s did, fingers moving like they’re groping in the darkness. After a few breathless seconds, her hand clenches and pulls in towards her body, straining. The demon sways forward until it reaches the limits of its bindings, then gags and retches. A thin wisp of black smoke escapes from its mouth, and Ava’s eyes fly open.

“Holy crap!” she says, a smile on her face.

Pamela beams back at her. “You’re a natural, kiddo! That was amazing for your first time.”

“I want to try again,” Ava says, and before anyone can argue, she’s turned back to the demon, closing her eyes and raising her hand once more. Within seconds, the demon twists in its chair, vomiting up another wisp of black smoke.

After a few moments, the smoke curls in on itself and retreats back into the woman’s mouth. Ava slumps, looking exhausted but pleased. “I feel like I got so close that time.” She sways on her feet a little, and her knees start to buckle, but Jo is there, propping her up, before she can hit the ground. 

“Woah, now. You’re doing amazing, but let’s give your brain a bit of a break, alright?” Pamela says, looking amused as Jo pulls Ava into a hug, grinning. Andy and Sam move in for hugs too, and Scott nudges Ava shyly with his shoulder. Even Bobby looks pleased, standing in the far corner of the room with a flask of holy water still at the ready.

Pamela raises her voice to get everyone’s attention. “Listen, y'all. Why don’t we head inside for dinner, then try again tomorrow morning. And in the afternoon, we were thinking Rufus and Bobby would show you guys some other tricks of the hunting trade. Silver, holy water, salt, exorcisms, all that good stuff.”

“Also, you guys should learn how to use knives. I’m good with knives,” Jo says, darting a glance at Ava. “I can help out with that.”

“You mean you can throw knives and stuff?” Ava asks, looking interested as she hooks her arm through Jo’s. “You definitely have to teach me how to do that.”

As they walk past Sam and out of the shed, he could swear he sees a pink tinge on Jo’s cheeks.

*** 

Dinner is a rowdy affair with so many people around the table. In fact, there’s too many of them to fit, so a few people end up in the living room. Sam, being one of the first to arrive, gets a seat at the table, along with Scott, Ava, Rufus, Bobby, Pamela and Ellen. He tries not to dwell on the fact that, instead of sitting in the spot next to him, Jess chose to head to the living room with Jo, Ash, and Andy.

Sam wonders if this is just how it’s going to be between them now — careful to keep their distance at all times, walking on eggshells, overthinking every move and gesture.

He’s drawn out of his morose reflections when Ellen nudges him. “Cas called a little while ago. Said he and your brother are on their way back. They ran into a spot of trouble, but they’re okay, and they’ve got the Colt.”

“That’s great news,” Sam says, meaning it, but all the same wondering why Dean couldn’t be bothered to call or text to tell him that same information. “I’m glad.”

Ellen nods and they keep eating. Contented chewing and the scraping of cutlery are the only sounds filling the slightly over-warm room for several minutes.

Scott is the next one to break the silence. “Thank you for cooking, Ellen,” he says politely. “The steak is wonderful.”

Ellen smiles at him, something mischievous about the slant of her lips. “The compliment’s appreciated, Scott, but you’re giving it to the wrong person. Rufus made the steak.”

“Pack of lies,” Rufus growls. “I don’t cook.”

“Sure you don’t, princess,” Bobby says, cutting himself a particularly big bite of steak. “Must’ve been hallucinating that one time you brought me a casserole when I was laid up with a broken leg.”

“Wouldn’t be surprised if you were,” Rufus says, eyes narrowed. “You always were a bit feeble-minded.”

“Now, listen here—”

Ellen holds up a silencing hand. “Before y’all come to blows at my dinner table, I meant to tell you, you can’t keep that demon in the shed overnight. The door won’t lock. Any old critter could just wander in there and eat that poor woman’s face off while you’ve got her in restraints.”

“It’s not there anymore. It’s back in the trunk of the car in the parking lot,” Ava says.

They all swivel as one to face her. She looks just as surprised as any of them.

“How’d you know that?” Bobby asks, eyebrows halfway up his forehead. “I was keeping an eye out the whole time we were moving that demon, and I didn’t see you anyplace around.”

Ava frowns. “I don’t… know? It’s like I can… maybe ‘see it’ isn’t the right word, but I’m just kind of… aware of it.” She grimaces. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”

“Not crazy at all, sweetheart,” Pamela says, leaning forward excitedly. “But I’ve never heard of a psychic being able to home in on a demon’s location like this. We are definitely working on this tomorrow. Bobby and Rufus can keep moving the demon, and we’ll see if you can tell us where they took it.”  

“Oh, we can, can we?” Bobby mutters. “Sure, ain’t no skin off your back if the two of us pull something, lugging that abomination all over the place.”

“I don’t know who this ‘two of us’ is,” Rufus says, helping himself to a heaping spoonful of mashed potatoes. “It’s the Sabbath tomorrow. I can’t work on the Sabbath, as you all very well know. Moving demons counts as work.”

“Yeah, well, it ain’t the Sabbath till sundown,” Bobby says, the triumphant gleam of a winning argument in his eye. “You can help me out all morning and afternoon. Really earn that day of rest.”

Rufus launches into a convoluted explanation about how he likes to prepare for his day of rest with a day of rest, and Sam’s attention drifts to the living room. When his eyes land on Jess, he finds her looking back, but she turns away quickly, shifting her focus to whatever story Ash is telling that has everyone in stitches.

Sam keeps watching her for as long as he dares, but she doesn’t glance his way again.

  devils trap divider

It’s almost midnight by the time Dean stumbles out of Baby’s passenger seat in the Roadhouse parking lot.

Cas gets out too, handing Dean the keys. Their fingers brush a little, and that fragile moment of potential back at the pond hangs heavily between them again. On the drive back, it was always there, just waiting, taking up the spaces in between their occasional friendly teasing and snatches of idle conversation.

This time, Dean is the one who shatters it.

“Well, night, Cas,” he mutters and turns to go, stumbling his way to the annex just a little too fast to be casual.

“Dean.”

Dean stops, heart beating faster, wondering if this is it — Cas calling him back, asking him to stay, or at least to keep their night going a little longer.

He turns around, swallowing hard, lost at sea and completely unsure as to what he’d say or do if Cas— if he—

“The Colt.” Cas holds up the oblong wooden box, smiling a little. “I’ll take care of it if that’s alright. I figure the Death Star of guns deserves the Death Star of hiding places.”

“Oh.” Dean’s heart slows again, feeling suddenly cold and heavy in his chest. He’s not disappointed. He’s not. “Yeah, sure. That’s fine. Night, Cas.”

Cas nods, lips curling up in the smallest possible smile. As Dean walks away, he could swear he hears a quiet, “Good night, Dean.”

Ever since their conversation, he’s been unsettled. The mere memory of it makes him feel exposed, cut open in a way that has nothing to do with the raw slashes on his chest, throbbing away under their bandages.

He doesn’t share his family’s sob story with outsiders, not ever. The only people who know are people who saw it play out, like Bobby and other friends of his dad’s who came and went over the years. The one time he tried, with Cassie, it all went spectacularly wrong.

But Cas didn’t leave him behind at the hospital. Cas waited, and he didn’t push Dean to talk about his dad when he wasn’t ready. Instead, Cas shared some of the most deeply hidden, darkest parts of himself, when he didn’t have to. So yeah, Dean felt like he needed to give something back.

The weirdest thing is, he doesn’t regret talking about his childhood with Cas. Not really. He’d never have thought it before tonight, but if anyone could hear about Dean’s shit and not run for the hills, it’s Cas. Because he has a lot of the same shit, except as far as Dean can tell, Cas got a chance to have a real family again after his life was torn to shreds by a demon. Dean’s been trying to keep his own family together for decades now, and failing for just as long. But maybe Cas is right. Maybe it’s not actually his job to clean up every last one of his dad’s messes. The idea makes him feel a little off-balance, but not necessarily in a bad way.

The thought of Dad, though, leads to thoughts of Sam, whose missed call and text have been burning a hole in Dean’s pocket. He typed out a few different responses, but kept deleting them, unsure how much he wants to share with Sam just yet. He spent almost all his life shielding his little brother from the worst of Dad’s behavior. It’s a hard habit to shake.

Dad came by, Sammy. You just missed him, I swear. He had to head out again, but he didn’t wanna wake you.

Damn, how many times did he tell Sam some version of that story? If only he could tell himself some of those same lies and believe them.

Dad cares what happens to you. He cares that you’re okay. He probably checked with one of the nurses on how you were doing before he took off.

Except that story doesn’t add up any more than Dean’s old stories for Sam did. Because why would Dad take off in the first place? And without so much as trying to explain himself to Dean first?

Dean sighs as he unlocks the door to the annex and steps inside. Only the tired clanking of the building’s old pipes and the buzzing of the fluorescent light in the kitchen welcome him back.  

As he walks further into the building and down the line of bedrooms, he hears voices and snatches of laughter, light spilling out from under the doors in small golden puddles across the linoleum floor.

There’s light coming from Sam’s room too, and Dean prays to whoever the hell might be listening that Sam didn’t hear him come in. But today is really not his day, apparently, because just as he thinks he’s in the clear, Sam’s door opens and he peers into the corridor.

“Dean!” he says. “I thought that was the Impala I heard outside.”

Sam opens his door wide enough to step through. The light from inside the room hits Dean’s face, and Sam's eyes widen.

“What happened, man? You look like you went ten rounds with a meat grinder.”

Dean shrugs and steps back, just far enough to take the light off his face. “Got into a fight. Nothing serious. Cas was there to help out.”

Sam gets this kind of funny look on his face, and says, “Cas, huh? Don’t think I’ve ever heard you call him anything other than ‘Castiel’ or ‘that asshole.’ Oh, and ‘Captain Tightass.’”

“Yeah, well,” Dean says, itching to turn away and unlock his bedroom door. The words are on the tip of his tongue: I saw Dad. He was possessed. We got the demon out of him, but he took off again. Couldn’t be bothered to stick around, I guess.

He knows this is important information, knows that Sam has a right to it. But he also knows all too well where that talk is going to lead them: down a road of bickering and recriminations, of Why do you keep defending him, Dean? and Because he’s our Dad, Sam, that’s why. He just can’t tonight.

“Listen, Sammy, I’m beat,” he says. “I’ll tell you all about it some other time, alright?”

Sam looks like he wants to argue, but Dean doesn’t give him the chance. He turns away and heads for his room, closing the door firmly behind him.

He groans as he gingerly lowers himself down onto his bed and toes his shoes off. A shower would be awesome, but that would mean figuring out a way to keep his bandages from getting wet, and he really can’t be bothered right now.

Instead, he rolls over onto his side, trying to tune out the throbbing of his face, his chest and his arms where he raised them to defend himself against Dad’s — no, Azazel’s — blows.

Above all, he tries to tune out the small voice in the back of his head that says, I wish Cas was here.

  devils trap divider

By the time Castiel drags himself out of bed, the sun is already high in the sky. He fumbles through his drawers, wrinkling his nose when he comes up with nothing but his most uncomfortable boxers and worn-out shirts. Apparently all the time he's spent on the road lately has caused him to miss a laundry day or two.

After way too many tries to get his balls to sit right in his boxers, Castiel makes his way downstairs. At this time of day, he’s expecting the kitchen to be fairly deserted, which is why it’s surprising to find Ash sitting on the counter, tapping away at his laptop. He’s shirtless, as is his custom, but at least he’s wearing pants. The bitching Ellen delivered for a bare ass on her kitchen counter was fearsome and lengthy. 

“Ash,” Castiel greets, passing him on his way to the fridge. When he opens the door, he frowns in distaste. The pickings inside are meager, evidence of a full house. He finally finds one pathetic apple and bites into it, ignoring the sad grumble of his stomach. 

“Dr. Badass,” Ash corrects him, without looking up from his laptop. 

“Dr. Badass needs to get his ass off the counter before Ellen finds out,” Cas comments, raising one eyebrow when Ash finally looks up. 

“There’s no balls or crack touching; she’ll be fine.” 

“Why are you even here? Not that I mind, but I thought you normally liked your own place to work in.” 

“Too noisy, man.” A rare look of irritation crosses Ash’s face. “Between all the wayward psychics and Bobby and Rufus, you can’t think, much less get anything done. At least here it’s kind of quiet. Or it was, until you came along.” 

Castiel ignores the not-so-thinly veiled accusation and tries to look at Ash’s laptop. All he sees is a series of ones and zeroes zipping across the screen before Ash slams the laptop closed. He narrowly misses the tip of Castiel’s nose in the bargain. Offended, Castiel rears back. 

“That’s classified, bro.” 

“Hardly,” Castiel snaps. “Unless you’re playing war games with NATO again, you’re probably looking up something that I’m going to end up dealing with.”

Unconcerned with being caught in a lie, Ash shrugs in a languid motion. “Tracking the evil twin and trying to find your rust bucket. No luck on either account, but that doesn’t really mean much. Guy can just tell people not to remember him, so all eyewitness accounts are useless, and somehow I don’t think he’s going to do anything ridiculously stupid. I’ll keep looking, but trying to find this guy is like trying to find a needle in a stack of needles.” 

Castiel grunts, but has nothing constructive to offer. His expertise with computers is limited to the email address that he grudgingly submitted to, after months of badgering from both Jo and Ash. He checks it every few months just in case someone is stupid enough to ask for his help via that platform, though the last time he looked, his inbox seemed to be made up mostly of messages with subject lines such as Hot naughty singles in your area! Click to see more! XXX! Castiel wasn’t impressed. 

Since Ash isn’t an interesting diversion, Castiel seeks entertainment elsewhere. There’s enough commotion coming from outside to promise something at least a little fun. He goes around to the back of the annex and finds that his hunch was correct: a crowd is gathered, almost like there's a sporting event. Jo has managed to find a lawn chair from somewhere and she lounges on it like a throne. She’s flipping a knife between her fingers, but her attention is focused on the spectacle in front of her. 

The girl that Sam and Jess brought back from their hunt (Cas vaguely recalls her name as Evie or something along those lines) stands at the edge of a devil's trap. All of her focus is concentrated on the demon at the center. Far from the demons of his expectations and experience, this one wears a look of fear. 

Castiel soon discovers why. 

At a nod from Pamela, Eve (that’s not her name, but Castiel is damned if he can think of it) takes a deep breath. Her shoulders square and determination glints in her eyes. She stares at the demon and, for a second, nothing happens. Then, the demon coughs. To Castiel’s amazement, black smoke curls out of the vessel’s nose and mouth. At first, there are just a few wisps, but seconds later, a thick, black cloud vomits from the woman’s mouth.

Castiel thinks he can hear a scream in the background, but he’s unsure of where it comes from. The vessel? Ava (that’s her name!)? The rest of the bystanders? Or does it come from the demon itself? 

He never has a chance to find out. Ava’s hand extends with her fingers outstretched towards the demon. She makes a fist, and slowly, she pulls her hand back towards herself. Even from where he’s sitting, Castiel can see her arm shaking with exertion. Jo abandons her nonchalant posture and sits up straight. Her eyes are focused like a pointer hound’s on Ava. 

With a convulsive movement, Ava pulls her hand back. Smoke leaves the woman’s mouth in a huge rush to curl into the ground. Small tongues of flames rise from the grass, but they disappear in a few seconds. In her chair, the woman slumps, her head falling forward so that her chin rests on her chest. 

Bobby rushes forward from where he’s been watching. His fingers rest against the woman’s neck. The moment stretches for an eternity until Bobby shouts out, “She’s alive!” 

Castiel sags backward, while Jo surges forward. Ava wobbles, and if it weren’t for Jo’s quick action, she might have fallen. As it is, Jo manages to catch her with a swift and steady arm around her shoulders. “Are you okay?” Castiel hears Jo ask. He doesn’t hear Ava’s answer, but he notices the hand that rests on Jo’s arm. Ava doesn’t remove it, even when she’s standing steadily on her feet. 

Pamela’s grin is as broad as Castiel’s ever seen it. For once, it doesn’t contain a razor’s edge. No, this is delight, pure and simple. It’s evident in how she throws her arms around Ava, pulling her close. 

“She killed it,” Castiel breathes. “She pulled the demon out and she killed it.” His mind finally wraps around the idea and the larger implications. 

If Ava can use her powers to kill demons, there’s probably nothing stopping the other special children from doing the same. Which means that even if Azazel shows up at their doorstep with a black-eyed army, they can put up a fight.

Castiel’s knees go weak and he collapses into Jo’s abandoned lawn chair. He puts his head in his hands as the knowledge crashes into him: they might actually win. 

***

Jo volunteers to drive the formerly possessed woman to the nearest hospital. After that, there’s a small scattering of forces.

Pamela walks back into the house, still jubilant, but tired. The fine lines around her eyes are drawn tight with exhaustion and concentration. “I’m going to need a few days,” she says, dropping gracelessly onto the couch. “The kids are doing all the real work, but I’m providing a boost and it’s draining. I need some time to recharge.” 

“Well, that works out dandy because for the moment, we don’t have a demon to practice on anyway.” Rufus looks up from where he’s expertly dicing onions along the kitchen counter. (Castiel conveniently forgets to mention that Ash was sitting on that same countertop less than three hours ago.) 

“So what, you bag of bones?" Bobby growls. "Are you gonna get off your ass and do some work for a change?”

Rufus narrows his eyes and points his knife in Bobby’s direction. “Just for that, you can go find the next demon all on your own. I'll stay here and hone my culinary skills for those that appreciate them."

“Now, wait just a second,” Bobby starts, before Ellen cuts in. 

“If old Piss and Vinegar won’t go with you, I will.” 

Bobby turns to Ellen with an almost comical expression of shock on his face. Even his trucker cap looks surprised. He recovers himself quickly, plastering an irritated look on his features. “A demon hunt ain’t a joyride,” he warns. “You come and you’ll be putting yourself into danger. You’re outta practice—” 

“Bobby Singer, are you suggesting that I’ve gone soft?” Though the words are phrased as a joke, the look in Ellen’s eyes makes them anything but. Even though it’s not directed at him, Castiel still shrinks back. 

Bobby is helpless underneath Ellen’s ferocity. “I ain’t saying that,” he blusters. “I’m just saying…” 

“So it’s all set,” Ellen says, with some satisfaction. She looks to Castiel. “Don’t tell Jo until after I’ve gone. Otherwise, we’ll never hear the end of it.” 

Castiel thinks of how quick Jo was to run to Ava’s side and how solicitously her hands moved over her. A tiny smirk pulls at the corners of his lips. “I think she’s got enough to keep her busy here, but yeah, I won’t mention it unless she asks.” 

Suspicion crosses Ellen’s face, but it quickly disappears as she and Bobby start to plan their trip. Despite swearing off the actual trip itself, Rufus interjects with plenty of advice, causing Bobby to finally snap at him, “No more backseat hunting, asshole! Either come or don’t, but don’t tell me how to do my job.” 

“Well, maybe if you knew how to do your job, I wouldn’t have to tell you how to do it,” Rufus counters, chopping at the remaining bits of onion with unwarranted savagery. 

"You’re the only person I’ve seen who doesn’t cry while cutting onions, you know that? You’re so bitter and sour, even the onions ain't a match for you.” 

Rufus slams his knife down onto the cutting board. “I tell you what, if you want any of what I’m cooking tonight or ever again, you’ll keep your trap shut."

Tired of the bickering, Castiel walks outside. His breath puffs in thin white clouds through his nose, and after a few minutes, his ears start to sting with the nip. Accustomed to Nebraska winters, Castiel just shivers and tucks his hands inside his jacket pocket. He finds a badly abused pack of cigarettes and draws one out, resting it between his lips as he searches his pockets for a light. 

“Thought you said you were trying to quit.” 

The sound of that voice sends a certain something drifting down his spine. A week ago, Castiel would have called it loathing. Now… it’s warm and uncertain, like the first bulbs peeking their heads out of the winter soil. Castiel turns around. The corner of Dean’s mouth turns up in a lopsided smile. 

“I am,” Castiel answers, and because that sounds short and peevish even to his ears, he adds, “You’re looking better.” 

“Yeah, what can I say? A night’s rest does wonders.” Dean shrugs. His hands disappear into his pockets. 

Castiel gives up his search for a lighter as a lost cause. “Have a light?” 

Dean’s eyes sparkle as he comes closer. “What kind of hunter are you? No lighter? What if there was a ghost that needed salting and burning right here?” 

“Guess you’d have to take care of it." Castiel ducks his head as Dean flicks his Zippo lighter. The flame wavers in the breeze and Dean’s free hand comes up to shield it. With the bottom half of his face almost cupped and hidden behind Dean’s hand, a sudden blaze of heat rips through Castiel, completely unconnected to the fire now glowing at the tip of his cigarette. He shudders and hopes Dean doesn’t see it. 

“So? What’s the plan for today?” Dean’s eyes land on Castiel briefly as he takes in that first, delicious drag, but he swiftly looks elsewhere. “Monsters to hunt, children to rescue?” 

“A whole lot of nothing,” Castiel mumbles. The previous euphoria of the morning has vanished, to be replaced with an irritated torpor. 

Dean hums his acknowledgement, and then they fall into a silence that’s not entirely comfortable but not entirely awful. Dean sighs and stretches his neck from side to side. Castiel is just about to snap at him and tell him to stop fidgeting when Dean suddenly pauses, his gaze caught on something in the distance. Castiel follows his eyes and sees that Dean is staring at the targets that he and Jo set up years ago at the edge of the tree line. 

“Bet I can hit more bullseyes than you,” Dean says. He catches Castiel’s eyes. A devilish grin tugs at his lips. 

“Seriously?” Despite the cold nipping at the tips of his ears and his nose, Castiel finds himself interested. 

“Yeah. Definitely.” 

“And what do I get once I kick your ass?” 

“Who’s kicking Dean’s ass?” 

Sam’s voice breaks through the atmosphere, and it’s only then that Castiel realizes how close he’s standing to Dean. He takes a step away, trying to make it look more natural and less like a retreat. The pink on his cheeks isn’t just from the cold, but thankfully, Sam doesn’t appear to notice what he’s interrupted. 

Dean puffs his chest out in a display reminiscent of a peacock. “Cas here says he’s a better shot than me.” 

“I think you’ll find that I said nothing of the sort,” Castiel murmurs as he takes a final drag of his cigarette before he stubs it out and tucks the evidence of his transgression away in his jacket pocket.

His quiet protest is ignored by both Winchesters, who are now busy insulting each other's aim. Instead of being annoyed by their antics, Castiel finds himself strangely pleased. He never had the chance to really enjoy having a brother, and he can’t help but wonder if he and Alfie would have been like this, if Alfie was allowed to mature. 

Dean’s voice breaks through the sudden fog of gloominess encompassing him. “What do you say, Cas? Person who hits the most bullseyes wins? Three rounds, fifty bucks to the winner?” 

“Make it seventy-five and you’ve got a deal.” Sam, Dean and Castiel all turn to see Jess striding towards them. She surveys them with a smug look on her face.

Next to Castiel, Sam flinches in surprise, but he doesn’t complain when Jess joins them. 

“I got bored in the annex,” she explains. “Plus, I think Ash, Andy and Scott are trying to give us all a contact high. I thought the dorms were bad, but god, I can almost taste it.” Castiel doesn’t miss the quick look she levels at Sam, but he also doesn’t call attention to it. It’s not his business, what’s going on between them. 

“So what you’re saying is that you’re pretty well baked, which means your aim is off.” Dean’s grin is all teeth. “Good to know. So my competition is… um… no one.” 

Castiel likes to think of himself as a pretty self-aware guy. He knows he has a competitive streak a mile wide. Jo likes to take advantage of it, as does Ash, and even Ellen has succumbed to the temptation. What he didn’t figure on, however, was the Winchesters and Jess managing to tap it so easily. 

“Big words,” he says, returning Dean's grin. "Hope you can back them up."

"Oh, it's on," Dean shoots back, pointing a warning finger at Castiel. "I'm getting my gun. Don't go anywhere."

After that, it takes the four of them less than five minutes to regroup by the tree line, guns in hand.

“Time to nut up or shut up, guys,” Jess taunts as she walks up to the firing line drawn in chalk on the ground. She holds her gun like it’s an extension of her arm, and when she swings around to face the targets, her body settles easily into her stance. 

Her shot splits through the still air, and a few birds in the distance take flight. Even from roughly ten paces away, Castiel can tell that Jess’ aim is good. The bullet landed a few inches from dead-center, but that shot would still get her into the final round of any professional sharp-shooter contests. 

"Your move, gentlemen," Jess says, looking smug.

Sam is the next person to take aim. While his shot is good, it's definitely shy of the bullseye. A smirk ghosts over Jess’ face, but she doesn’t gloat. Dean, however, has no such compunction. 

“That college life not leave you much time for target practice?” he asks, ruffling Sam's hair as he passes by on his way to the firing line.

Ignoring Sam’s irritated huffs in his direction, Dean reaches for the gun tucked at his own waistband. From his vantage point of standing behind Dean, Castiel is witness to the glimpse of pale skin revealed when Dean accidentally untucks his shirt. Feeling as though his mouth has been filled with sand, Castiel swallows, and tries not to notice how Dean’s stance reveals the bow in his legs to a truly obscene degree. Or how the slightly too-large leather jacket does nothing to diminish either the broadness of his shoulders or the narrowness of his hips. When he shifts, suddenly uncomfortable with his position behind Dean, Castiel then tries not to notice how Dean’s forehead furrows in concentration or how his lower lip pouts slightly until he squeezes the trigger. 

Dean’s shot lands cleanly in the bullseye, but Castiel hardly notices. A flame has been lit in the pit of his stomach and all he can think is Oh. Oh, no. 

Dean turns to him, crowing his delight. He doesn’t notice Castiel’s sudden crisis, which is all for the best. Castiel himself doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, so the thought of someone else discovering his turmoil is unthinkable. 

“C'mon, Cas,” Dean says. In the thin, wintery light, his eyes are the only vibrant thing. “Like the lady said, it’s time to nut up or shut up.” 

Dean Winchester discussing testicles, even peripherally, is enough to send Castiel’s crisis tailspinning out of control. In an attempt to regain his focus, he concentrates on the target that has been singled out as his. The weight of the gun in his hand, the tension of his trigger finger traveling all the way up to his shoulder, the catch and release of breath as he tightens his finger… Those are all familiar things, sensations that Castiel knows as intimately as he knows his own skin. 

It’s not a perfect shot, but it’s not terrible: his bullet lands on the edge of the bullseye circlet. It’s at least better than Sam’s. Castiel’s eyes find Dean. Far from looking sardonic, Dean instead is quiet. His eyes hold a strange heat as they stare at Castiel. Caught in Dean’s gaze, he feels himself swaying forward. What happens when the two of them meet, Castiel doesn’t know, nor does he ever get a chance to find out. 

“End of Round One,” Jess announces, and the sharp crack of her gun firing shatters whatever moment was building between Castiel and Dean. 

It feels almost like cold water dumped over his head. Castiel shudders and forces himself to concentrate on the second round. Jess and Sam’s shots land in much the same place as they did before, though in this round, Sam manages to get closer to the center of the target, while Jess’ shot goes just a little bit wide. 

Then, it’s Dean’s turn again, and Castiel is forced to witness everything: the strength in his stance, the clean lines from his shoulders down to his waist and hips, the small furrow of concentration. Castiel could lose himself in watching Dean, so it comes as a relief when Dean lands his shot perfectly in the center of the target and turns to him. 

It must be the cold making Dean’s eyes sparkle as he looks Castiel up and down. “Your turn. Show me what you’ve got.” 

Heat blossoms in Castiel’s belly as dozens of remarks that he doesn’t dare say rise to his lips. He swallows them all back and instead concentrates on the target. He tries to push all outside concerns away, though he can still feel the weight of Dean’s eyes resting on him. Without warning, the memory of Castiel’s last jerk-off session slams into him with all the delicacy of an anvil. 

Dean on his knees, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright, a smirk pulling at the corners of his lips as he looks up. The tip of Castiel’s cock resting on the swell of Dean’s lower lip, the exquisite, wet heat of Dean’s mouth

Castiel’s finger squeezes the trigger. Wincing, he looks at the target. While he hasn’t completely missed the bullseye, his shot has landed right on the line separating that from the next layer. It’s nothing like Dean’s perfect shot. 

“Oh, that’s painful. Better luck next time, Cas.” Castiel stares at Dean. When Dean actually winks at him, Castiel fears for his blood pressure. 

“Hope you saved the best for last, Cas,” Jess gently teases. Her eyes flick to Sam and a strange undercurrent passes between them. “You too, Winchester.” A brief smile flashes over her face, and then she turns back to the target. 

Jess’ last shot lands dead center in her target. Sam seems incapable of taking his eyes off of her, and Castiel wonders if that’s how he looks whenever he looks at Dean. It’s an uncomfortable, yet not entirely unwelcome, idea. 

Sam’s final shot is a split between his two shots. It’s not a bad showing, but it’s definitely not enough to win, as Dean so delightfully reminds him. “Looks like it’s down to me and Jess,” he tells Castiel. “You’ll have to pull a miracle out of your ass if you want to beat me.” 

Castiel’s brain races through possible solutions. Hitting the target, even at dead center, won’t be enough for him to beat Dean. No, Dean needs to make a bad shot, which he’s not going to do unless Castiel… helps him. A quick glance to the side reveals that Sam and Jess are too caught up in each other to worry about what he and Dean are doing. That observation gives Castiel the last push he needs to put his plan into motion. 

Castiel waits until Dean has settled into his stance. Dean sights down the barrel of his gun, putting all his concentration into his last shot. Because of that, he doesn’t notice when Castiel steps up behind him. He does notice when Castiel leans in close. 

The heat from Dean’s body courses through Castiel until he feels like he’s drowning in it. This close, Castiel can hear the rasp of Dean’s breathing, as well as the hitch when Dean realizes just how little space remains between them. “You’re a great shot when you can concentrate, but how do you do with distractions?” Castiel murmurs in Dean’s ear. 

Just as he sees Dean pull the trigger, Castiel makes possibly the worst decision of his life. He rests his hand flat against the dip of Dean’s waist. There’s no way to mistake the touch for either friendly or accidental, and Castiel thrills at his own daring. Dean’s warmth bleeds through his shirts and jacket to scorch Castiel’s palm. 

Dean’s finger tightens on the trigger. The blast of the gun that close to his ears is almost deafening, but Castiel is more interested in the trajectory of Dean’s shot. A quick look confirms that Dean’s bullet landed in the target, but only just. It’s in the last ring, miles away from the bullseye. 

Expecting some kind of retaliation, Castiel quickly steps away from Dean. His skin mourns the loss of Dean’s heat, but Castiel tamps down his regret. “Looks like that went a little to the left,” he says, forcing a grin. 

Before Dean has a chance to react, Castiel squeezes off his last shot. It lands in the center of the target — not quite as neatly as Jess’, but more than satisfactory. Castiel gives himself a moment to enjoy his triumph before he looks back at Dean. 

Far from looking angry, Dean looks dumbstruck. He stares at Castiel with a confusing mixture of emotions in his eyes. They’re tangled enough that Castiel doubts Dean knows everything he’s feeling. Sparks ignite in his belly when Dean licks his lips. Finally, Dean speaks. 

“You cheated.” 

A grin tugs at Castiel’s mouth. “We said the best shots win. We didn’t say anything about how we got there.” 

“Clever. Next thing you know, you’ll be wanting to join Sam at his fancy-schmancy law school.” 

Before Castiel can reply — maybe he would confess that he spent a year and a half at the local community college, but he never felt like he had a right to be there while there were demons left to hunt — Jess interrupts their conversation. “I think we all know who won this one,” she crows. “Pay up, gentlemen.” 

Dean and Castiel each pull a few bills out of their wallets and stuff them in Jess’ hand. 

Sam, meanwhile, looks like he’s mulling something over. Finally, he speaks. “My wallet's back at the annex if you want to come along."

Castiel might not be good with people, but even he can tell that Sam's offer is a thinly veiled excuse to get Jess alone. He looks at the distant targets, pretending like he can’t hear Jess’ little considering hum. “Alright,” she says, softer than Castiel has ever heard her. “That would be… alright.” 

Castiel looks back at Sam and Jess, only to see them disappearing in the direction of the annex. Their steps are in tandem, and while they don’t touch, their hands are close enough that it almost doesn’t matter. Castiel watches them for a few more seconds and then, feeling like he’s intruding, drops his eyes and turns to Dean instead. 

“Now that we're both seventy-five dollars poorer, want to go drink our sorrows away?" 

Dean nods and starts walking, hunching his shoulders against the breeze. “These drinks better be free. I think Ellen would skin me if I tried to hustle in her place, and it’s not like I can use my credit cards here.” 

“Oh, you can hustle here,” Castiel says, ducking inside the Roadhouse. “You just have to be careful about it. Look at the high scores on the games in the corner and then watch Jo one night. She’ll sweet-talk any ten hunters out of their money.” 

“What about you?” Dean asks, taking a seat at the bar. Surprisingly, there’s no sign of Jo and it’s instead Ash who slides two beers towards them. “You sweet-talk a lot of hunters out of their money too?” 

Heat floods Castiel’s cheeks at Dean’s low, insinuating tone. “Turns out that most hunters aren’t as good at poker as they think they are,” he says gruffly. His fingers find the edge of the El Sol label and pick at it. The paper peels from the bottle in damp, uneven strips. 

“Yeah,” Dean says, his voice far away. Castiel dares to chance a look at him just as he’s lifting the bottle to his lips. At the sight of Dean’s lips wrapping around the bottle in a perfect circle, Castiel’s cheeks flush, and he looks studiously at the wood grain between his hands. “Never much for poker myself. I was always more of a pool guy.” 

Castiel makes a low hum of acknowledgement, even as his brain decides to torture him with images of Dean bending low over a pool table, perhaps even his shirt riding up to reveal a stretch of his lower back. He takes a long sip of his beer to compensate, coughing slightly when it proves to be too much. 

“Good to know.” Judging from Dean’s raised eyebrows, the words don’t come out nearly as suave as Castiel would like them to. He scowls at the bar. For the first time, he curses his education. While most people were apparently learning how to talk to other humans, he was busy memorizing how to kill a siren. Now, at thirty, it’s a little too late for him to catch up, and he’s forced to sit in awkward silence with Dean until Dean finally comes to his senses and wanders off in search of better conversational partners. 

“So, uh… I didn’t want to ask Ellen, but what’s the deal with the Roadhouse?” Dean gestures around at their surroundings. “I just mean, it’s…” 

“Looking like the kindest thing to do would be to blow it up and start over again?” Castiel suggests dryly. 

“Um. Yeah. That.” Dean chuckles uneasily, as though he’s not sure whether or not he’s allowed. Castiel finds himself amazed at his own candor. If someone had told him a few months ago that not only would he allow a Winchester to be less than complimentary over the Roadhouse, but would actually agree with them, Castiel would have tested them for possession. But Dean’s done nothing more than point out the truth. 

“It wasn’t always like this.” Castiel lifts a single shoulder in a shrug. “I mean, it was never really a high-class establishment, but we used to have more business here. Not just hunters either. People coming off the highway, mostly. Bill did a lot of work to make sure that we were featured on the highway signs.” Castiel takes another long pull of his beer, putting off the inevitable end to his story. 

“After Bill… None of us were up to taking over the place. Jo was just a kid, Ellen was stretched to the limit trying to keep Jo from dropping out of school and going hunting, and I…” Castiel swallows. Of the many regrets he has in life, how he acted after Bill’s death ranks among the top. 

“I left,” he confessed. “I was taking classes at the community college — I had no idea what I wanted to do, but Bill and Ellen insisted that I take classes so I'd have something in my life other than hunting. But after Bill died, all I wanted to do was take out every evil son of a bitch that I could. I’d lost two fathers, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t just go to school and pretend like this all didn’t exist.” 

Emotion bubbles up in Castiel’s chest. He could tell Dean about those first awful years after Bill’s death: about how he'd come back to the Roadhouse broken and bloody, and how Ellen would stare at him with grief-dulled eyes. How Jo would alternately cling to him while begging him not to leave again, or scream at him and slam her bedroom door in his face. How he watched the Roadhouse start to stagnate, and how Ellen refused to change anything about it. How Bill’s truck lay dormant in the garage and was only driven to the mechanic’s for a routine oil-change to prevent anything from breaking. But those memories are too painful, even now. 

“Hey, I get it.” Dean’s elbow nudges at him, causing Castiel to pick his eyes up from where they’d been staring at his knees. “School was always Sam’s thing, not mine. I just couldn’t… I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t let someone else’s family end up like mine, not if I could do something about it.” Something shutters behind Dean’s eyes, and Castiel gets the feeling that he’s not getting the whole story. He doesn’t push, however, and Dean doesn’t offer. 

Dean raises his hand to beckon Ash over with another two beers, but he barely manages to lift his arm above his shoulder before he flinches. A soft grunt of pain escapes him as his hand flies to his chest. 

Castiel’s hands are on Dean’s chest and shoulders, supporting him, before he even realizes that he’s moved. Startled, his eyes fly to Dean’s face, and then he’s forced to meet Dean’s eyes, which are staring back at him, just as surprised as he is. Castiel doesn’t flinch back, but now he has to live with the knowledge of what Dean’s chest feels like underneath his palm (warm, firm, and he can feel the lift of his chest with every breath, along with the shift of muscles as Dean settles back onto his stool). 

“Still hurt?” The question is unnecessary, but Castiel asks it anyway. 

A grimace crashes over Dean’s face. “Only when I forget to move slow. But, you know, I’m fine.” 

“It’s okay if you’re not,” Castiel says. His voice is soft enough that it’s almost inaudible over the horrible, twangy country music that Ash seems to delight in piping through the Roadhouse, but Dean hears him. Castiel knows because he can feel the jolt of surprise that shudders through Dean. 

His hand is still resting on Dean’s chest. Castiel doesn’t move it. Dean doesn’t pull away. Their eyes remain locked, probably long past the point of politeness, but neither one of them complains. 

Finally, Dean forces a smile. “Gee, Cas, I didn’t know you cared,” he finally says, though his voice is a little strained. 

“Isn’t that what friends do?” Castiel asks. 

The words slip out, and it’s not until his hands reluctantly slip away from Dean’s chest that Castiel even realizes what he’s said. 

Friends. 

He finds, surprisingly, that he enjoys the sound of the word when applied to Dean Winchester. For a second, however, he wonders what it would be like if he and Dean could be even more.  

  devils trap divider

Something’s changed. 

If Jess had to put her finger on what it was, she couldn’t, but she knows that it has. She and Sam walk back towards the annex, and for the first time in weeks, their steps regain the old surety. Sam told her once that he enjoyed the fact that she was tall, because it meant he could use his natural stride without having to worry about her keeping up. They would travel the campus of Stanford, their legs moving in tandem, and Jess would marvel at how natural it felt to be next to Sam. She would think: Of course this means forever. It wouldn’t feel this easy if it wasn’t forever. 

Well. It stopped being easy. 

Sam opens the door to the annex for her, and Jess steps inside. She sighs with relief: living in California for the past four years has turned her soft, and she’s not able to handle chilly winters like she used to. She rubs her hands briskly together to get some kind of feeling back into her fingers. Sam lurks near the door, shuffling in a way that looks exquisitely awkward for his large body.

“I don’t have seventy-five dollars,” he says abruptly. 

Jess laughs, not unkindly. “I know,” she says simply. “I lived with you for two years, remember?” 

The reminder of happier days sits uncomfortably between them, though perhaps not as bad as it would have previously. Sam looks at her with a strange mixture of hope, longing and resentment in his eyes. 

“I don’t…” Jess swallows. “I don’t want to fight.” Just for a few minutes, she’d been so happy. It was almost like she and Sam were back at Stanford, albeit with guns instead of study groups.

“I don’t want to fight with you either. Can we just… Can we talk? Not about us,” Sam hastens to say. “Just about… whatever. I don’t care. Whatever you want to talk about.” 

She should say no. Continuing to stay this close to Sam is really only hurting both of them. The shapeshifter hunt proves that together they’re erratic and unsafe, but Jess is also weak. She can’t deny that she misses Sam, and that she craves some reminder of what her life used to be like before everything went so fantastically wrong. 

“Okay,” she says softly. “Your room is closer,” she adds. 

She doesn’t mean for the quick flash of pain to dart across Sam’s face, but at the reminder of the fact that they now have separate rooms, it does. He doesn’t say anything about it; just pulls out his key and heads down the corridor.

When they get to Sam's room, there’s no real discernible difference from when Jess used to stay there. She almost wishes there was. It would be tangible proof of how Sam felt, his outside environment reflecting the inner turmoil. That thought has just enough time to settle in her brain before she rejects it, horrified with herself for thinking such a terrible thing. 

Almost immediately, Jess realizes her mistake in suggesting they talk here: other than the small desk chair, the only seating area is the bed. She ignores all the implications and clambers onto it, settling against the pillows. Sam takes the foot of the bed, leaving a comfortable amount of space between them. 

Silence follows. 

“I don’t know what to say,” Jess admits. Saying the words is painful. More than her boyfriend, Sam was her best friend. Apart from her family’s business, there was nothing she felt like she couldn’t tell him about, from complaining about her professors to confessing her secret jealousy for one of the girls in the other apartment buildings. 

Sam’s shoulders hunch at her confession. Instead of collapsing in on himself, however, he lifts his chin and looks at her with all the bravery that Jess still loves. “Tell me about your family,” he says. “I want to hear about them.” 

Jess’ jaw doesn’t drop to her lap, but that’s only because a lifetime of hunting has given her exquisite control over her facial muscles. She can’t quite stop her hands from spasming in surprise, and she laces her fingers together tightly in her lap to prevent Sam from noticing. 

Not that it helps. His eyes catch everything. It’s part of what attracted her to Sam: the fact that hardly anything gets by him, even if he wants to pretend like it does. He looks down at her hands and smiles sadly. “I know I didn’t handle everything well, but I’m trying. I want to do better. So, please? Tell me about your family?” 

Jess takes a deep breath. If she unclasped her hands, they would be trembling. The one hard and fast rule in her family was to keep their secrets. Friends were allowed, outside interests were encouraged, but her family’s work was too important to be threatened by loose lips. In the entire time she and Sam were dating, she offered nothing more than oblique references to her family, and now she’s about to spill everything. 

But Sam asked. He wants to know, he wants to change, and that has to mean something. It could mean everything if she lets him. 

"I guess I should start with my older sister, Aggie,” Jess begins, and the words begin to pour out of her. Sam is an avid listener, his face changing with delight and disbelief as Jess recounts the adventures that she and Aggie had before she left for Stanford. Spurred on by Sam’s obvious interest, Jess keeps talking until her voice starts to crack. 

Sometime in the middle of her story, Jess’ feet wind up in Sam’s lap. Without prompting, his fingers dig into the arch of her foot, though his eyes remain focused on her. If Jess were to stop and think about it, she could remember countless evenings in Stanford that ended the same way: her telling Sam the story of her day while he patiently listened. 

When Jess’ eyelids grow heavy and she starts yawning, she excuses herself. Bolstered by the memories of Aggie and the feelings of better times, she feels a sharp pang of loss at leaving Sam’s room. She lingers at the door, looking at Sam, who looks back at her with sad acceptance. “Good night,” he says softly. He closes the door so that she doesn’t have to. 

It hurts, leaving Sam to find her way back to her own room. But for the first time in weeks, Jess thinks perhaps their relationship is something that can be saved.

Chapter Text

Screams. 

A woman bangs her fists against the upstairs window of a two-story house, her mouth open wide in a wail for help. A dead tree sits in the front yard, its branches reaching threateningly towards the woman. Skeletal twigs scrape against the window, screeching as the woman opens her mouth to scream yet again—

“Sam!” 

Sam jolts awake as hands grip his shoulders. Light immediately assaults his tender eyes, and he cries out. The heels of his hands dig into his sockets as he tries to shield himself from the light. Pain lances through his skull, white-hot and agonizing, and for one terrifying second, he thinks he might be ill. 

“Easy, Sammy. You’re okay.” 

Sam latches onto the deep, gruff voice. Even in his agony, he knows that voice and knows that it’s attached to the hands easing him back onto the mattress. As soon as his bare skin touches the sheets, Sam recoils. They’re damp with sweat, and the stink of it clings to his skin. Sam tries to struggle free, only to find that his feet and legs are tangled in the disgusting fabric. The need to be free provides the final impetus for him to open his eyes. 

The light still threatens to split his skull in half, but it’s at least bearable. Dean’s face swims into view, pale and drawn tight with concern. Once he sees Sam focus on him, he forces a smile. “Hey, there you are, bitch.” 

“Jerk.” Sam’s voice is raspy as he returns the volley, but his participation is enough to relax some of the tension in Dean’s face. “What… What happened?” 

“You tell me. Here we are, having a nice sleep, and all of a sudden, you’re screaming like someone’s murdering you.” 

Sam finally squints over Dean’s shoulder to see Jess standing in the doorway of his bedroom. She’s clearly just tumbled out of bed, her long, blonde hair tangled and tossed in a messy ponytail. She stares at him through puffy, concerned eyes. Beyond her, Sam sees various bodies milling outside his room. After staring at him for a moment more, Jess turns around and addresses them, presumably to tell them that he’s not actually hurt.

Now that Sam is alone with Dean, the memory of the dream slams into him. He grabs at Dean’s arm, dragging his brother’s attention back towards him. “Our house,” he says, stumbling over his words in his urgency. Dean frowns in confusion, and Sam forces himself to slow down. “In Lawrence… Something’s happening there.” 

His explanation is disjointed, but he and Dean have a lifetime’s worth of experience at reading each other. Sam sees the moment Dean understands. His eyes go wide, and he flinches back as though Sam’s hit him. 

Dean’s visceral reaction is to be expected. Sam doesn’t have any memories of the house where he was born, but Dean spent four years living there. Though he never talks about it, Sam knows that Dean had favorite rooms and toys in that house — things that were all forgotten when Dad took them away and started their life on the road. But Sam has seen the pictures, hoarded by both Dad and Dean. The images of the house, and of his Mom, have been imprinted into his brain, so much so that when he sees the house in his dreams, it’s almost instantly recognizable. 

“Vision?” Dean asks, his voice tight and business-like. 

Sam nods and then clutches his head, hissing, as his brain protests the action. “Wouldn’t hurt this much if it wasn’t,” he finally replies through gritted teeth. 

When he dares to open his eyes again, he finds Dean staring back at him, naked worry on his face. “Why are you having visions about our house?” he finally asks. 

***

Twenty minutes later, Sam is huddled on the couch in Ellen’s living room, clutching a cup of coffee between his hands, and wishing he were anywhere else. It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone’s eyes weren’t turned towards him in varying degrees of gawping and accusation.

Since Bobby and Ellen left earlier in the afternoon to hunt down another demon for psychic practice, Rufus and Pamela remain as the most senior members of their team. Pamela still looks exhausted from this afternoon, and Rufus looks like he’s preparing a variety of very painful deaths for everyone else in the room. The circles under Castiel’s eyes are pronounced and his hair is a rat’s nest atop his head.

Jess sits next to Sam, her knee inclined towards his as though she wants to touch but is afraid of the consequences. Less than five hours ago (has it really only been that short a time?), Sam had her feet in his lap. Now, with a single vision, everything has changed, and the fragile peace of the afternoon and evening has been shattered. 

“Can we get this thing started, or d'you need to do a roll call first?” Dean asks, glaring at Rufus.

Dean is the only person not sitting. Instead, he paces around the edges of the room like a trapped animal searching for a weakness in its cage. Just this afternoon, Sam marveled at how soft his brother was, how it seemed like his rougher edges were finally smoothing into something that would fit neatly against other people’s. Now those edges have returned, this time sharp enough to flay the unsuspecting person foolish enough to brush against them. 

“Cool your heels, boy,” Rufus says, without looking at Dean. “I’m still not convinced we need to do anything at all.” 

“Sam, so far your visions have been connected to either the other psychics or to something personal, right?” Pamela’s voice is a welcome oasis of calm in an otherwise tense room, and Sam gratefully latches onto her tone. “Which did this feel like?” 

Though he doesn’t want to, Sam considers his vision. “I don’t… The only thing, other than the house, that I could really see in the vision was a woman. She was too old to be someone like me, so I guess this is personal.” 

“That would make sense if it’s your childhood home. Even if you don’t really remember it, you’re still connected to it.” Jess rests her hand on Sam’s knee. Though he doesn’t say anything for fear of startling her away, Sam appreciates the slight weight of it. 

“Doesn’t explain what the hell's going on there,” Dean snaps. “We need to go now to see. Far as I can tell, these visions don't exactly have a long shelf life.” 

Castiel taps his chin. Even though exhaustion clings to his frame, his eyes are still bright as he says, “Okay, well, we can probably all fit in the Impala if you want to drive, but I think we should start out tomorrow—” 

“Sam and I are going. It’s our house.” 

Faced with the sharp finality in Dean’s voice, Castiel falls silent. His hands are white-knuckled fists on his thighs and he looks like he has quite a few things to say, but he voices none of them.

“Are you sure?” Jess addresses Sam instead of Dean, probably deeming him the safer option. “If this is bad enough to warrant a vision, then it really should be something that we all investigate—” 

“It’s our house,” Dean says again. Jess’ hand disappears from Sam’s knee, and in that moment Sam resents his brother a little. “It’s where Mom died, it’s… it’s our house,” he repeats. Something desperate shines through his voice, and when Dean steps into Sam’s vision once again, he sees a naked flash of emotion cross his brother’s face. 

Strangely enough, Dean addresses his plea to Castiel. Stranger still, his half-formed words seem to strike a nerve. Castiel’s eyes flick up to Dean, and whatever he sees in Dean's face causes him to relax. His fists uncurl to lay flat against his thighs, and Sam realizes with a start that Castiel isn't going to offer any objections.

Jess, however, wasn’t a recipient of whatever secret communication passed between Dean and Castiel. She glares at Dean, her lips pulling away from her teeth (she’s never at her best when she’s been woken up from a dead sleep). “Well, sorry that I’m not a Winchester,” she begins, “but I think I’ve got a pretty vested interest in this as well.” 

“Jess.” Castiel's low voice splits the tension in the room. Pamela turns to look at him, an indecipherable expression on her face. Meanwhile, Rufus is finally starting to look like this was worth waking up in the middle of the night for. “It’s okay. We still have Max Miller to find, and we know the clock is ticking on that account. It makes sense for us to split up. However,” Castiel continues, his eyes flicking to Dean, “we’ll stay in touch with each other. If we need backup, we’ll call.” 

Dean and Castiel stare at each other for a second before Dean jerks his head in agreement. Sam looks away to hide his expression of surprise. Getting Dean to agree to eat pizza instead of burgers constitutes a battle akin to the Tet Offensive, so seeing him agree so readily to something that he was diametrically opposed to less than five minutes ago is… Well, if there were time, Sam would be planning a trip to Vegas. 

Jess still doesn’t look thrilled about the turn the conversation has taken, but she recognizes when she’s fighting a losing battle. She turns to Sam. This time, she takes his hand and squeezes his fingers. “Anything goes wrong, anything at all, you call me,” she says fiercely. 

In that moment, Sam doesn’t doubt that Jess would move Heaven and Earth to come for him, and knowing that almost makes everything else worthwhile. 

***

Sam listens to the click of the Legos in the Impala's heater as he waits for the ancient system to finally pump warm air through the car. Beyond the windscreen, the sky is still pitch-black, and Dean's fingers flex around the steering wheel, probably just as stiff with cold as Sam's. Jess and Pamela had both voiced their concern at them starting the drive to Lawrence this late at night, but it wasn’t like anyone was going to get any more sleep. 

Dean is filled with a nervous energy that exhibits itself in the way he fires off questions at Sam every five minutes. By this time, Sam’s lost track of how many times he’s said, “I don’t know” in response to Dean’s questions. 

What else did you see? Did you see the demon? Did you smell sulfur? 

“It’s not a video that I can rewind!” Sam finally snaps at Dean. “I told you and Pamela everything I saw.” 

A moment of silence hangs heavy over the car. The passing streetlights cast strange shadows over Dean’s face, turning it forbidding. Finally, Dean asks, in a hoarse voice. “The woman you saw… was it Mom?” 

The question sits like a stone in Sam’s belly. “I don’t… I don’t think so,” he says. Then, knowing that it will upset Dean but needing to say it all the same, he admits, “It might have been. I don’t… Other than pictures, I don’t have any memories.” 

“Well, yeah. You were just a baby when she…” The click of Dean’s swallow is audible. “Sometimes, I wonder what she'd think if she could… If she could see us. Me, some kind of deadbeat hunter with twenty bucks to my name, and you, with your…” Dean waves his hand in Sam’s direction, and Sam can’t decide whether the gesture is meant to be complimentary or derogatory. 

Before he can get offended, Dean continues. “These visions. I’m still not—” 

“I didn’t ask for this,” Sam snaps. He curls his fingers protectively into his jacket, like he could clutch it close around himself and protect himself from every unkindness in the world. 

“I know.” Dean’s eyes are wide when he turns to him. “But, man, you didn’t hear what you sounded like tonight. You were screaming like someone was killing you, and after you woke up, I thought you were gonna yack in my lap. I mean… I worry, alright? I’m not wild that you’re getting these visions and we don’t know when they’ll come or what they’ll be about. And this idea of killing demons… You’ve gotta admit, that’s weird.” 

“We’ll find the demon,” Sam says, with a little more conviction than he feels. “We’ll find Azazel, and then we’ll stop it. The visions, the psychic powers… We’ll stop everything.”

Dean is silent for a long minute. When he finally speaks again, his voice is full of doubt. “I hope you’re right.”

Stars and streetlights streak into a long ribbon of light as the Impala hurtles forward into the night. 

devils trap divider

Castiel’s eyes glaze as he stares at the endless, monotonous stretch of interstate. Bill’s truck has been eating up the miles at a steady pace, but the distance it has traveled pales in comparison to what’s still to come: hours and hours of driving past flat, winter-brown prairie.

It’s very early morning, not too long past sunrise. Jess and Castiel ended up getting on the road around the same time Sam and Dean did, despite the early hour. After all, they were already awake, and Castiel rather enjoyed the idea of making Ash get up too so he could explain the details of his research on Max Miller. 

While Jess said her goodbyes to Sam, Castiel went to knock on Ash’s door, but to his abiding disappointment, Ash had already been awake — or, more likely, had yet to go to sleep. A few minutes later, Castiel left Ash’s room with a disturbing amount of new facts swirling around his brain and a thick file folder in his hand.

Jess frowns down at that folder now, sorting through the messy stack of papers inside. “So you were saying college scholarship is the best angle?”

Castiel nods. Before they left, he’d told Jess the outlines of what can barely even be called a plan, wanting to make sure her bag for the trip would include an outfit that could pass as professional. “Max has applied for several scholarships over the past few months. If we tell him we’re there to gather additional information to evaluate his application, we should be able to get in the door relatively easily.”

Jess pulls a piece of paper out of the folder, angling it towards Castiel. He slants his eyes at it just long enough to recognize Max’s birth certificate before returning his attention to the road. “He was born in 1983, just like all the others,” Jess says. “How come he’s getting such a late start on college?”

“Ash didn’t really have a conclusive answer,” Castiel admits. “Max’s grades in high school weren’t stellar, but they’re good enough for admission at one of the less competitive schools. His SAT scores were decent too.”

Jess grimaces at the pile of paper in her lap. “It’s seriously creepy that Ash can just track down all that information about someone.”

“I agree. I find it’s best not to dwell on it.”

They fall silent for a minute while Jess digs through the records in the folder some more. Castiel fiddles with the radio until he finds a classic rock station. He never used to spend much time listening to classic rock outside his shifts at the Roadhouse, and he tries not to think too hard about what’s changed. He fails so badly that he actually flinches when Jess addresses him again.

“What if Max is like Ansem?”

When Castiel looks over, Jess has the deliberately calm look of someone who’s trying not to let their fear show.

“He’s not.”

“How do you know?”

Castiel takes a deep breath as he prepares to lay out the argument he’s been using to reassure himself since they left. “Ansem was a totally unknown quantity. We didn’t even know he existed until we started working the case.” Jess nods, conceding the point, though the air of barely leashed anxiety remains. “But ever since our trip, Ash has been doing a lot of research on him. In the past four years, two different women have taken out restraining orders against Ansem — back in his old town, before he changed his name and moved to Guthrie.”

“He wouldn’t have had his powers yet,” Jess says thoughtfully.

“Right. And that’s not all. A neighbor tried to sue Ansem for damages, claiming Ansem killed his dog. The neighbor couldn’t prove it, and in the end, the case was dismissed.” Castiel tries to force his lips up into a reassuring smile, but judging by Jess’ raised eyebrows, it’s less than convincing. “It’s definitely safe to say that Ansem was strange and dangerous even before he developed the ability to control others with his mind.”

Jess blows out a deep breath, agitating the strands of hair that have come loose from her ponytail. She shuffles through the papers in the folder again. “Yeah, it doesn’t look like Max has any obvious red flags like that. So at least he’s probably not a psychopath. Guess I’ll take my good news where I can get it.”

She stretches her legs and rolls her shoulders, then digs out a bag of chips they picked up at their last rest stop, opening it and offering it to Castiel. Nodding his thanks, he pulls out a chip and pops it in his mouth, keeping his eyes on the road. The landscape outside is still the equivalent of watching paint dry.

“The only concerning thing I could find was a record of a visit to the ER that resulted in a report to child protective services when Max was twelve,” Castiel says, once he’s swallowed his bite. “The investigation was closed without any action being taken though. Could be nothing.”

“Yeah,” Jess says, looking out the window at a pair of grain silos flashing past. “Could be nothing.”

***

When Castiel isn’t busy worrying about what waits for them in Michigan, his thoughts invariably drift to Dean. More specifically, to the flash of distress on Dean’s face when he said, “It’s where our Mom died. It’s our house.”

About seven hours into their drive, they cross over into Illinois, and Castiel happens to spot a sign for Pontiac. A bolt of adrenaline flashes through him. His heartbeat is suddenly too loud in his ears and his hands clench tighter around the steering wheel to keep from shaking. He glances over at Jess, fast asleep in the passenger seat, Max’s folder still open in her lap.  

Castiel forces himself to take deep breaths, in and out, again and again until his heart rate finally slows. If this is how he reacts to seeing the name of his old hometown on a sign by the roadside, what would it be like to have to go back inside his family’s house? To see the kitchen floor where his parents bled out?

Just like that, the low simmer of worry about Dean becomes a rolling boil of anxiety deep in Castiel’s gut, and at the next rest stop, he pulls off the interstate. When he kills the truck’s engine, Jess blinks instantly awake.

“What’s going on?” she asks, rubbing at her eyes with the heel of her hand.

“Just, uh, need the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

Jess nods, and Castiel practically falls over his own feet as he scrambles to get out of the truck. Really, there’s no need for secrecy — friends text other friends, especially when those friends are engaged in a potentially dangerous hunt. But his coerced confession in Guthrie still comes back to haunt him sometimes.

Dean is really good with kids, and makes a good breakfast, and when the sunlight hits his freckles in just the right way, they’re beautiful…

Jess heard that confession, probably already suspects what Castiel is still reluctant to admit even to himself: that his feelings for Dean are neither strictly platonic nor strictly about physical attraction.

When Castiel is out of sight of the truck, he sits down at a nearby picnic table and takes out his phone. He pulls up his text thread with Dean, and his stomach turns at the sight of the most recent message.

Demons found us.

Castiel hurriedly deletes their conversation history, types out a new text and hits “send” before he can second-guess himself.

Just wanted to check in. You guys in Lawrence yet?

Castiel waits for as long as he dares — close to ten minutes, by his watch — but no answer comes. He considers calling, but almost immediately discards the thought. Dean will get back to him when he can. There’s no need to distract him from a hunt, just because Castiel’s imagination is running away with him.

A few hours later, Jess and Castiel cross the state line into Michigan and stop again, this time to have lunch and change into their professional look. As soon as they finish their depressing meal of greasy, lukewarm rest stop pizza, Jess leaves for the women’s room. The second the door closes behind her, Castiel pulls out his phone, letting out a sigh of relief when he sees the notification icon for a new text.

Dean (11:01 a.m.): Yup. Home sweet home.

Castiel frowns down at the screen, wondering how he can check on Dean’s well-being without making him retreat from the conversation altogether. He decides to go for bluntness.  

Sent (11:33 a.m.): You hate being there.

There is no reply while Castiel heads to the bathroom and locks himself in a stall to perform the awkward, hopping dance of changing out of his jeans and flannel and into slacks and a dress shirt. He tries to focus on lining up his shirt buttons, rather than his phone’s persistent and disquieting silence. When it finally does buzz, Castiel almost drops it in his haste to pull it out of the pocket of his slacks.

Dean (11:43 a.m.): Wish I didn’t.

Castiel reads and re-reads the message, wondering what his next move should be. If there’s anything he’s learned about Dean, it’s that it won’t do any good to push him to talk when he isn’t ready to. That’s something Castiel can relate to. He has plenty of trauma to spare, but he’s never felt the need to share it with anyone outside the Harvelle family. At least not until a few days ago, as he watched the sun set by a small pond in Colorado.

Before Castiel can formulate his reply, his phone buzzes again.

Dean (11:44 a.m.): How’s the drive to Michigan?

Castiel grimaces at the screen. Clearly, Dean is done talking about Lawrence. He types out a reply that he hopes will at least make Dean smile.

Sent (11:46 a.m.): Boring. Almost makes me miss your boob talk and stupid tapes.

The response is immediate.

Dean (11:46 a.m.): Call my tapes stupid again and you’re never getting another ride in Baby.

Dean (11:47 a.m.): Gotta go. Sam and I are about to check out the house.

Something suspiciously close to disappointment makes itself felt as Castiel reads Dean’s second message. For a brief moment, he’s tempted again to pick up the phone and call Dean, just to reassure himself that Dean is fine, or as fine as can be expected. Instead, he types out another text.

Sent (11:49 a.m.): Ok. Good luck.

A strange daring sweeps over Castiel as he types the words “Can I call you later?” His finger hovers over the “send” button for a good ten seconds before he deletes the message and goes to find Jess.

***

Max Miller has a nice home, in a nice neighborhood. The houses are painted in various inoffensive, neutral shades and bordered by lawns whose meticulous neatness is evident even in the early days of winter. With Thanksgiving just past (and largely unmarked in the Harvelle household as a result of, well, everything), the first Christmas decorations are starting to appear, from small strings of light along someone’s gutter to an entire inflatable sleigh pulled by twelve equally inflatable reindeer.

At the address listed for Max’s state ID, there’s a neat flagstone driveway leading up to a roomy-looking, two-story house that’s attached to a wide garage. Despite the chilly weather, the garage door is open, revealing a red jet ski and a Dodge Dynasty that’s at least ten years old. Castiel can’t help but think that Dean would approve of the jet ski and wrinkle his nose in disgust at the dull car.

Strangely, the thought steadies his nerves a little. Castiel casts a furtive glance at the passenger seat, where Jess is staring across the street at the Miller house. She looks immaculate and professional in a purple dress and a pearl necklace, her hair twisted into a bun at the back of her head. For a few seconds, Castiel indulges in a small fantasy, substituting the view of Jess with one of Dean in slacks and a nice shirt, maybe a tie that brings out his green eyes. As soon as the thought has taken shape, he feels guilty. Jess is his partner on this trip. She’s a good person and is fast becoming a good friend. He needs to keep it together — for her if not for himself.

With that resolution in mind, he makes himself step out of the truck.

As he walks up the driveway beside Jess, Castiel can’t help but wish it were summer — pops of color in the yards, the reassuring warmth of the sun on the back of his neck, children on break from school chasing each other down the sidewalk. As it is, the world is silent and grey, holding its breath, and a sense of gloom and foreboding curls around Castiel’s shoulders as he raises his hand to knock.

A few moments later, he hears the sound of footsteps approaching. A middle-aged blonde woman opens the door, drying her hands on a plain white apron. Castiel would assume she was Max’s mother, if he didn’t know that Sarah Miller died in a nursery fire when Max was six months old. “Hello,” she says, frowning. “What can I do for you?”

“We’re here to see Max Miller.” Jess’ face is the picture of wholesomeness, lit up with a sunny and white-toothed smile. “Is he home?”

Something almost like panic flits across the woman’s expression before she schools it into bland friendliness. “He is, but can I ask what this is about?”

“We work for a foundation that offers college scholarships to deserving prospective students,” Castiel says, intentionally withholding the name of the foundation. He’s prepared to name one of the organizations Max actually applied to if pressed, but the fewer details he gives this woman, the better. The best lies are simple ones. “Max applied to us for tuition assistance, and we’re here to ask him some questions to help us make our decision.”

“Oh.” The woman looks thunderstruck, her eyes wide, and Castiel realizes that while Max may have been applying to college, he certainly hasn’t shared that fact with his family. “I don’t really know,” the woman says, blinking uncertainly. “Jim, my husband, he isn’t here at the moment, and I’m sure he’ll want to—” 

“It’s fine, Alice. I’ll talk to them.”

A short, pale young man steps up behind the woman, greeting Castiel and Jess with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile and a nod. “I’m Max.”

Castiel returns Max’s smile. “Hello, Max. May we come in?”

After a second’s hesitation, Max nods, and Castiel gestures for Jess to precede him across the threshold into the house. The interior looks pleasant in the vacuous way of suburbia: walls painted in shades of grey, abstract art in colors that match the curtains.

“Is there somewhere we can talk privately?” Jess asks, keeping her attention on Max rather than Alice, who stands off to the side, fidgeting nervously with the strings of the apron.  

“We can go up to my room.” Max’s voice tilts up a little at the end, almost like a question, and Castiel gets the strange feeling that Max is trying to convince himself it’s a valid suggestion.

“I really don’t know, Max,” Alice says, eyes darting back to the front door. “Your father wouldn’t like you to—”

Something ignites at the back of Max’s eyes — a strange, dark emotion halfway between dull resignation and helpless anger. Trying to seize control of the conversation before it can go off the rails, Castiel turns to Alice. “Please don’t worry, ma’am. We won’t be taking up much of Max’s time.” To Max, he adds, “Your room sounds fine. Lead the way.”

Max’s face slackens with obvious relief at having the decision taken out of his hands. He leads the way up the stairs and through the first door on the left.

“Please take a seat,” he says, motioning to an office chair by a small desk and an armchair in one of the corners of the room. He takes a seat at the foot of his bed, back straight and shoulders squared. The posture sits uneasily on his frame, like an unfamiliar experiment.

Castiel perches on the edge of the office chair, adjusting its height slightly upwards to keep from having to fold his legs at an awkward angle. As Jess takes a seat in the armchair, Castiel looks around, noticing posters of constellations, building sets of space shuttles and even a large telescope next to one of the windows. “You’re interested in space exploration,” he says, smiling at Max in what he hopes is a reassuring way.

Max nods, a shy twitch of his lips the only sign of pride or interest. “Yeah, I— I always kind of wanted to work for NASA. Not sure I have the grades for that though.” He looks back and forth between Jess and Castiel, hands twisting nervously in his lap. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names.”

Castiel trades a significant look with Jess, who grimaces and nods before she turns to Max. “My name is Jess, and this is Castiel. But Max, first of all, we should come clean with you about something.”

Downstairs, the front door slams, and Max flinches. A man’s voice drifts up to them, disrupting the almost perfect stillness of the house. A woman’s voice — Alice’s — responds, and the man’s voice increases in volume.

“You should go,” Max says suddenly. His voice is a hoarse whisper, and his shoulders have curled forward in an obvious attempt to take up as little space as possible.

“What? Why?” Jess asks, light and pleasant with just a hint of confusion, though Castiel has a feeling she’s homed in on the source of Max’s distress already.

“My father,” Max says, above a whisper this time, but just barely. “Please. He doesn’t know I applied to colleges. He’ll— he’ll be—”

Footsteps stomp down the entrance hall and up the stairs, obviously quickened by anger, and Max springs up off the bed. “Please leave,” he says, eyes flitting between Jess and Castiel on one side and the door to his bedroom on the other.

The door opens, and both Castiel and Jess instinctively rise, squaring their stance in preparation for an attack.

Their opponent is a dark-haired man in his late forties or early fifties, eyebrows drawn together below a receding hairline. Jim Miller’s small, watery eyes flash as he takes in the occupants of the room.

“Max?” Jim’s voice is curt, demanding. “You care to explain what these strangers are doing in my house?”

Jess speaks first, her voice everything Jim’s isn’t: calm, pleasant, non-confrontational. “You must be Max’s father. My name is Jessica Lamarr. My colleague and I are here to have a private conversation with Max about an opportunity we’d like to offer him.”

Jim sneers at her, a vein throbbing away at the side of his neck. “Oh, that’s rich. A private conversation. You telling me it’s not my business what kind of bullcrap you’re filling my son’s head with?” He takes a step toward Jess, who, to her credit, doesn’t give an inch. “You get the fuck out of my house and you do it now before I call the police, understood?”

Castiel has seen enough in his thirty years of life to recognize a man who cannot be reasoned with. Instead, he turns to Max. “Max, we’re happy to leave, but I really think you should speak with us. You’re welcome to join us outside, or somewhere else we can talk.”

Max closes his eyes, as though to block out Castiel’s voice, and shakes his head frantically. “No. No, I… I don’t want that. You should go.”

“You heard him,” Jim growls, pointing at the door. “Out.”

Jess’ attention is caught by something to her right, out of Castiel’s line of sight. Before Castiel can shift his stance to investigate, her eyes flick back to Max. “Max,” she says, tentative in the way someone might be when addressing a spooked animal. “Are you sure?”

Max shuts his eyes tighter, hands clenched into fists at his sides. He stops shaking his head and then, with a clear effort, opens his eyes. Castiel’s breath hitches at the devastation he sees there. “Please leave,” Max says, more loudly than he’s spoken since his father entered the house.

The unspoken part of Max’s plea hangs in the air, leaden and inescapable. It’ll be worse for me if you don’t.

Jess nods and, with one last glance at Max, she heads for the door, neatly sidestepping the irate, red-faced man in the middle of the room. Castiel is severely tempted to bump into Jim on the way out just to provoke a fight, but he masters the impulse. What they need is a new, better plan, not a pointless confrontation.

Downstairs, halfway to the front door, they pass the kitchen. Castiel catches a glimpse of Alice bent over a cutting board, chopping vegetables. She gives no sign that she’s aware of anything amiss.

They make their way back to the truck, movements too fast and too jerky. Castiel feels thoroughly rattled, and it’s clear Jess is no better off. When Castiel slides into the driver’s seat, it’s to find her already sitting down, knuckling at the tears streaming down both her cheeks.

“Fuck, I’m so angry,” she chokes out. “And scared for him.”

“Me too,” Cas says, staring back at the house. “Should we call the police?”

“No,” Jess says immediately, and Castiel looks at her in surprise. “Did you see what Max can do?”

Castiel pushes down the instinctive flash of fear at the mention of Max’s powers. “No. What?”

“Telekinesis.” Jess leans back against the passenger headrest, chin tipped up to stare at the ceiling. “When his dad came in and started threatening us, I saw — there was a small pocket knife on his bedside table. I saw it flip open. It rose at least three inches off the table before Max calmed down.”

“You think he was going to attack his father.” Castiel doesn’t mean it as a question and Jess doesn’t take it as such.

“Imagine what could happen if he feels truly cornered. If police officers come to the house and start asking him questions.”

“Fuck.” In a fit of helpless rage, Castiel hits the steering wheel with his palm, again and again until the pain of it has shrunk the mess of feelings inside him down to a more manageable size. The craving for a cigarette itches under his skin. “We have to get him out before he gets hurt. Before he hurts someone else.”

“Yeah,” Jess agrees, reddened eyes searching Castiel’s face for answers. “But how?"

devils trap divider

Dean needs a drink. 

Fuck, he needs a drink. 

The four walls of the cheap motel room are pressing in around him and the persistent sounds of the highway right outside the window beat against his skull. He's too antsy to sit still, yet pacing the small confines of the room doesn’t bring him any peace either. 

Sam doesn’t seem to feel any of Dean’s restlessness. He looks perfectly content as he sits on the bed and flips through the old photo album that Jenny, the woman who lives in the former Winchester house with her two kids, found in the basement. He flips the damp, mildew-encrusted pages with the reverence shown to sacred texts, and spends several minutes staring at each picture. 

“They’re so young here,” he murmurs, finally looking up from the page. Dean cranes his head to see the picture Sam means. 

The people staring at him are strangers. There are only faint shadows of his Dad in the handsome young man’s face. His mouth is pulled wide in a smile Dean’s never seen Dad wear, and his arm is tucked protectively around a pretty young woman. Her stomach is just beginning to swell underneath the floral fabric of her dress. Her head is tucked demurely to the side as she smiles at the camera. Behind them is the house where he spent the first four years of his life, with a sign proudly proclaiming "SOLD" in the background. 

“Mom was pregnant with you here,” Sam says. Dean ignores him. He’s too busy staring at Mom. He searches her youthful face to find a trace of the woman he resembles: the one who smelled always of laundry and flour, who sang to him, and who taped Band-Aids over his knees whenever he skinned them. But that woman clearly doesn’t exist yet. 

Unable to look anymore, Dean sits on the opposite bed. He wishes Sam would put away the book, but he doesn’t have the heart to say it out loud. It’s all well and good for Sam; he doesn’t remember what it was like that night. 

Dad never asked him what he remembered, and Dean never offered the information. Sam’s asked, but Dean always managed to put him off with a vague answer. In the end, what he remembers is both not enough and all too much. 

He remembers the stink and heat of the smoke, thick and acrid in his throat. It stung his eyes and made him cry and turned breathing into a torture. He remembers Sam, warm and wriggling in his arms, and how he cried when Dean ran down the stairs. He tripped and fell backward while he was trying to carry Sam from the house. He had a bruise on his hip for weeks afterward, but he never bothered to complain to Dad about it. 

But worst of all, he remembers her. Dean doesn’t know whether it actually happened, or if it’s just a detail his nightmares have added through the years, but he remembers the screams. His mother’s voice, so low when she sang to him, ripped raw and bleeding as the flames licked at her body. 

Dean wakes up sometimes in a cold sweat, with the sound of her screams echoing in his ears. 

“It’s really hard for you, isn’t it?” 

Dean’s head jerks up to look at Sam. He wishes he hadn’t. Sam’s brought out his soulful, puppy-dog eyes and is using them as a weapon. 

“What?” Dean asks, in an attempt to regain composure. 

“Being back home. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for you.” 

“I’m fine,” Dean says. The denial comes as a reflex, but Sam doesn’t seem to buy it. Though he frowns, he looks more disappointed than anything else.

“It’s just that we never came back,” Dean tries again. Sam’s expression never changes. 

“I get mad that I don’t remember more,” Dean finally confesses. He looks at his knuckles. “Today, I stepped into that house, and I know that we used to live there, but I can’t remember where the furniture sat. I can’t remember what our dishes looked like, or what Mom’s favorite shirt was. All I can remember is the bad stuff.” 

There’s nothing Sam can say to soften the blow, and Dean’s glad that he doesn’t even try. In fact, Dean thinks his brother has given up on communication altogether until Sam asks, so softly he can barely be heard, “Do you think we should call Dad?” 

The fact that Sam is suggesting they contact Dad says exactly how unsettled he is by the whole affair. He’s only thinking the way that they were taught to, since childhood: the Winchesters solve their problems without any outside help. He certainly doesn’t mean to grab the knife still sitting in Dean’s back and twist it. 

Dean’s jaw clenches. “Yeah, I’m not doing that.” 

Always attuned to the idea of drama, Sam looks up. “What happened?” 

Probably Dean should lie, but faced with the dual assault of Sam’s puppy-dog eyes and his own lingering bitterness, the story of Elkins, the Colt, Azazel and Dad spills out. He omits a few details (he’s still not sure what the fuck happened with him and Cas, and like hell he’ll offer that part up for Sam’s perusal), but he tells Sam enough. Sam’s face darkens as Dean recounts waking up in the hospital only to find that Dad had left. 

“I can’t… I mean…” Sam’s hands twist in his lap, and it’s obvious that he’s restraining his temper as best he can. “What the hell is he thinking?” 

“I don’t know.” Dean’s voice is hoarse, and he doesn’t want to have this conversation. His phone sits heavily in his hands, burning his palms. “I guess he wants to go it alone. He’ll call us when he wants our help.” 

From the look on Sam’s face, Dean’s answer is less than satisfactory. Dean understands. He can’t quite believe the words, even as he’s saying them. Although it’s been a few days, the sense of loss and abandonment still stings as sharply as it did in the hospital. After everything he’s done for Dad, after everything he gave up, Dad couldn’t even stick around to make sure he was awake.

Dean’s sure that his thoughts are written all over his face. In an effort to hide his expression from Sam, he glances down at his phone. His contacts list provides nothing more than a quick stab of pain (DAD sits at the top of his list and the number 6 after it to mark his outgoing calls, all of them unanswered), so Dean opens up his messages. 

Cas’ text thread is his most recent, and Dean opens it up. Cas’ last message (Ok. Good luck.) stares back at him. It feels like an ellipse at the end of a sentence. It feels like an invitation, one that Dean would take if only he weren’t terrified of fucking everything up. 

But who would have thought that Cas had a sense of humor? Dean smiles slightly as he reads through their conversation, especially when he gets to the part where Cas references their boob talk (no one ever accused him of being mature). Thinking about Cas’ unexpected sense of humor gets him thinking about everything else that’s unexpected about Cas: his sense of justice, his empathy and compassion, and the fact that he’s a dirty, rotten, cheating bastard. 

Dean still hasn’t stopped thinking about how Cas managed to beat him in their shooting contest. If he’d had some extra time, he might have done some extra thinking about how Cas beat him in their shooting contest. 

“Okay, now you just look weird.” Sam’s voice brings him crashing down to earth. Trust his baby brother to be a cockblock, even in Dean's thoughts.

You look weird,” Dean returns. 

Sam’s smirk speaks volumes. It doesn’t diminish, even when subjected to Dean’s fiercest scowl. “So who is she?” Sam indicates Dean’s phone with a jerk of his chin. “You don’t look that goofy unless you’re talking to someone you like.” 

Dean curses his fair complexion as his cheeks flame bright red. Sam’s words provide an unwelcome look into his psyche, one Dean tries to deny while at the same time reluctantly acknowledging it as truth. “It’s no one,” Dean says. His mouth works without his permission when he says, “It’s Cas.” 

If he meant to diminish Sam’s interest, he went about it the wrong way. Sam’s eyebrows shoot up his giant forehead like they’re trying to kiss his hairline. “Cas?” How Sam manages to pack so much disbelief into a single syllable is truly impressive, but Dean’s in no mood to appreciate his skills. 

“He wanted to know how the hunt was going,” Dean says gruffly, though in truth, the hunt was a small part of their conversation. 

Sam hums, but he’s clearly got something else on his mind. He spends several minutes looking at Dean out of the corner of his eyes before he finally speaks up. “You seem pretty friendly with Cas lately.” The words are careful, as though Sam senses he’s stepping into dangerous territory. 

Dean’s heart is beating entirely too quickly for the relatively tame conversation. “Yeah, well, it turns out that the stick up his ass is removable. Plus, you know. He fended off Yellow-Eyes while all I was doing was bleeding out. Gotta give him some credit for that.” 

Sam looks at him through his fringe. There’s something that Dean doesn’t trust in his eyes. “You know,” he begins, feeling his way around the words with the delicacy of a bomb technician, “it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to be friends with Cas, right?” 

It sounds like he wants to say something else. Dean’s flush spreads to the tips of his ears and down his neck. “No one’s saying that it would be,” Dean says roughly. “What, you think I’m some weirdo who can’t make friends?” 

“I mean, you’re definitely a weirdo, but no, you’ve made lots of friends.” Sam grins, and the tension between them splits. Dean breathes a sigh of relief, but at the same time, he feels a strange stab of loss. Like if Sam had just pushed a little bit harder, something extraordinary might have happened. 

He shakes the feeling off and returns to business. “So, what are you thinking for tomorrow?"

“I think we should work this like we would any other case,” Sam says, carefully mirroring Dean's business-like tone. “Jenny reported cold spots and weird noises. Her daughter saw an apparition in her closet. It's obviously some kind of haunting. Might be unrelated to what happened..." He hesitates for a barely-there moment. "What happened in 1983. But we can't discount the possibility that it is connected. So we should talk to some people who were around back then." 

There's nothing Dean hates more than the thought of prodding at the open wound of what happened to their family. But Sam is right: it's a case, and they have to treat it as such. 

With the plan of attack agreed upon, Dean and Sam begin their nightly routines. Dean waits until Sam is in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, before he pulls his phone out. He stares at Cas’ last message for a minute, and then his thumbs move over the buttons. Before he can think too deeply about it, he presses the "send" button. 

Sent (10:47 pm): Hunt going well so far. Be careful. Text if you need help. Or just to talk. 

Sent (10:48 pm): You know, if you want to. No big. 

Dean has just enough time to regret sending the message before his phone buzzes with a reply. 

Cas (10:48 pm): I really need someone to talk to actually. I fucking hate this hunt.

Dean hears Sam finishing up in the bathroom. He makes quick work of stripping down to a t-shirt and his boxers, sliding underneath the covers. He turns away so that Sam can’t see either his expression or the phone. Dean concentrates on his reply, pressing "send" and waiting. 

Sent (10:51 pm): Tell me about it. 

devils trap divider

The first rays of morning sunlight find Jess already awake, staring at the water-stained ceiling of a motel room on the depressing outskirts of Saginaw. Dread of the coming day weighs on her, keeping her pressed to the mattress while a near-constant refrain of just a few more minutes runs through her head.

Monsters are one thing — talons and teeth and mindless killing. The evil of a parent hurting their own child is a different beast altogether. It’s one of the few things Jess has never been able to stomach.

In the other bed, Cas is still lost to the world, lying on his side and snoring softly, which doesn’t come as a surprise. It took them both a long time to fall asleep, but when Jess finally did drift off, it was to the dim glow of Cas’ cell phone screen and the soft tapping of thumbs on keys. Jess has a shrewd suspicion about who Cas was texting. It was hard to miss how he drifted into Dean’s space during their shooting contest the other day. And judging by the way Dean reacted, Jess guessed that he didn’t mind.

Listening to Cas typing and chuckling quietly to himself, Jess’ chest ached with the temptation to check in with Sam. But in the end, she didn’t. They’ve agreed to give each other some space, and while things seem to be getting a little more comfortable between them, the terms of their relationship — what’s okay to do or say, what isn’t — still feel like a constant tightrope act.   

In the other bed, Cas stirs, burrowing deeper into the blankets, and Jess smiles fondly at the messy dark hair poking out of the covers. She’s reluctant to disturb whatever temporary peace Cas has managed to find, but they really do need to get the day started. Lying here and feeling sorry for herself isn’t going to help Max.

The plan she and Cas eventually agreed to isn’t really much of a plan at all. They’ll spend the day camped out near Max’s house, waiting for a chance to get him alone, however long that might take. If they can’t corner him today, they’ll try again tomorrow, rinse and repeat.

Before Jess can plot a strategy for how to wake Cas without getting punched in the face — something she learned the hard way is always a possibility when you startle a sleeping hunter — her phone rings on the bedside table. Sam’s name lights up the display.

Halfway between joy and apprehension, Jess sits up and puts the phone to her ear. “Sam?”

“Hey, Jess.” Sam probably meant to sound light and cheerful, but he falls horribly short. His voice is thin and strained, in the way Jess associates with someone being in considerable pain. She grips the phone tighter in a hand shaking from a sudden surge of adrenaline.

“Are you okay? Do you need help?”

In the other bed, Cas sits up, instantly alert. “Sam,” Jess mouths at him, and he nods, eyes wide.

A weak chuckle sounds down the line. “Should’ve known you’d see right through me. I’m alright, just — headache.”

“You had another vision,” Jess says, with dull certainty.

“Yeah.” There’s the telltale rushing sound of a breath blown out too close to the receiver. “I think it had to do with this kid you went to find.”

“Hang on, I’ll put you on speaker.” Jess deposits the phone on top of the covers, scooting over to the far side of the bed so Cas can take a seat next to her.

“Hello, Sam,” Cas says, once he’s settled. “I can hear you. Go ahead.”

“Hey, Cas.” Jess’ eyes flick to Cas at Sam’s use of the nickname, but Cas doesn’t seem bothered — a fact Jess files away to prod at later, when they’re not facing a potential emergency. “Anyway,” Sam continues, “it was at our old house again. I saw the dead tree, just like before, and then—” There’s a low grunt of pain and Sam breaks off. Dean’s voice sounds in the background, words inaudible, but the tone concerned and solicitous.

Jess trades a look with Cas, who grimaces sympathetically. “Sam?” she asks. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“The vision kinda took it out of me,” Sam says. “But I really am fine, Jess.” There’s an affectionate warmth in his voice now that Jess associates with small moments of intimacy stolen late at night, and her heart cracks open at hearing it when Sam is hours away and clearly in pain.

Jess takes a deep breath, forcing her brain back into problem-solving mode. “Okay. Good. Now, about that vision.”

For a moment, there’s silence on the line, and Jess would bet almost anything that Sam is smiling. But when he speaks again, his voice is all business. “Well, like I said, I saw the tree. But before I could figure out anything else, things just went… black around the edges, like I was passing out. And I couldn’t breathe.”

“So you’re saying the vision was about you being in danger?” Cas asks.

“I think so. It was hard to tell because I couldn’t get a breath in and I could barely see anything. And then...” Sam hesitates, and Jess moves instinctively closer to the phone, a futile and unseen gesture of support. “Then I heard a voice. Yours, Jess.” He clears his throat. “You shouted my name, and you sounded… You sounded scared.”

Jess’ hands curl tightly around the edge of the bedspread. She’s surprised it doesn’t rip under her hands. “Okay. Then what?”

“There seemed to be somebody with you. I couldn’t see who it was because everything had gone pretty dark by that point. I felt like I was about to die, you know? But I heard you say, ‘Max, please, help him.’ Then I saw someone move behind you, and I could suddenly breathe again. That’s when the vision cut off.”

There’s a rustling and shifting at the other end of the line, and then Dean’s voice emerges from the speaker. “I know you guys are having a hard time with this Max kid, but… we kinda need you to get him to Lawrence as soon as possible."

*** 

The drive back to Max’s house is tense. Cas doesn’t speak as he stares through the windshield with single-minded focus, clenching his jaw tightly enough that he must be in pain.

Jess wishes she could think of something innocuous to distract them both, but too much of her focus is taken up by anxiety about Sam and dread of returning to the Miller house.

Eventually, Cas is the one who breaks the silence. “You know what’s been driving me crazy?” he asks when they stop at a red light two blocks from Max’s neighborhood.

“What?”

“If Sam had a vision about Max being in Lawrence, does that mean Max is going to be in Lawrence? Or just that it’s a possibility?”

Jess is sufficiently distracted by her own thoughts that it takes her a moment to put the pieces together. “You’re trying to figure out if the vision is… like, a guarantee that we’ll be able to convince Max to come with us?”

Cas nods sharply as the light turns green and they start moving again.

“I’m not sure,” Jess admits. “I mean, Sam had a vision about… about me dying, but that didn’t happen. Or at least, not yet.” She grimaces. Usually, she tries not to think about the possibility that what they did back in Stanford didn’t prevent her death at the hands of Azazel or another demon — just delayed it. But she’d be lying if she said it hasn’t crossed her mind.

Cas’ face softens as he glances at her. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s— the stakes here already felt so high, and now they’re even higher. We don’t just have to save Max, and anyone he might hurt if he’s pushed too far. There’s also the possibility that—”

He breaks off abruptly, clearly thinking better of what he was about to say. Jess hears it anyway: There’s the possibility that Sam could die if we fail.

Silence descends once again as Cas makes a right turn onto Max’s street. When they pull up in front of the Miller house, it’s just as pleasant and unassuming as it was yesterday, the grey façade working overtime to conceal the horrors inside.

Cas closes his eyes as his hands drop from the steering wheel, visibly bracing himself. He leans over to open the glove box and get his gun, but Jess puts out an arm to stop him.

“Call me crazy, but I think we should leave our guns here.”

Cas meets her eyes, and his pinched, troubled expression makes it clear that he’s remembering the same thing as Jess: the two of them, standing on a dilapidated porch in Oklahoma, pointing their guns at each other’s heads. Max might not be able to control their minds the same way Ansem did, but he could certainly control their guns.

Cas nods, his throat bobbing with a heavy swallow, and they get out of the truck.

The first sign that something is wrong comes before they’ve even crossed the street. While the garage door is closed today, the front door is wide open.

Cas starts running immediately, Jess following close behind. Halfway to the house, they start to hear voices, drifting over to them on the wintry breeze off Lake Huron. When they reach the front door, the voices become distinguishable: Max’s, a harsh and broken thing, and Alice’s, small and pleading.

“I’m never going to be good enough, am I? You’ve... you’ve convinced yourself that Mom’s death was my fault, and you’ll never let me live it down. You—”

“Max, please, God, please, let him go —”

Cas stumbles as he crosses the threshold, and Jess stops just in time to avoid knocking them both off their feet. Hastily dropped grocery bags litter the floor of the entrance hall, their contents spilling all over the tasteful beige carpeting. When Cas takes another step, an eggshell cracks under his foot.

“I could’ve gotten out.” Max’s voice is rising with each word, pain lacing every syllable. “I could’ve gone to college. Those people who came, they could’ve—”

A third voice, the low growl of a cornered animal lashing out. “If you think you’ll amount to anything in this world, you’ve got another thing coming. You’re weak. And you’re damn right it was your fault. I always knew there was something wrong about you, ever since that goddamn fire started in your nursery.”

The words are vicious and meant to hurt. Jess and Cas round the corner into the kitchen at the same time, taking in the scene. Alice is by the door, sobbing, both hands help up in front of her — to stop Max or shield herself, or perhaps both. She’s wearing a thick winter coat, having clearly just returned to the house.

Jim is backed against the far wall, his expression incandescent with rage and fear. Max is standing a few feet away, next to a block of knives on the kitchen counter. One of the knives is missing. It hovers in mid-air, mere inches from Jim’s left eye.

Everyone’s heads whip around to face Jess and Cas, and Jess opens her mouth to say something, maybe about putting down the knife. But Cas’ voice cuts through the atmosphere of confusion and distress, sounding calm and in control in a way Jess knows he really isn’t.

“He’s wrong.”

Max blinks at Cas in confusion. A large bruise stretches over one side of his face, his left eye almost swollen shut. The other eye is reddened with the tears streaming down both his cheeks. “What—” Max stammers. “What do you— why are you here?”

“Your father is wrong, Max,” Cas repeats. “Your mother’s death was not your fault. There were other women like her. Ada Carey. Sadie Gallagher. Mary Winchester. All of them were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Cas takes a careful step closer, both hands clearly visible to show he’s not armed. “And there’s nothing strange or wrong about you. You were chosen for something without your consent. You’re not to blame for any of it.” Cas looks at the knife still hovering dangerously close to Jim’s face, then back at Max again. “Some people would call the things that you can do wrong or evil, but they don’t have to be. They can be used for good.” Jim lets out an incoherent sound, half scoff, half whimper, but Cas pays him no mind. “There are other men and women like you, whose mothers died the same way, who developed powers. They’re using their powers to fight evil things. They’re using them so other families never have to suffer like theirs did. Like your mother did.”

Max blinks slowly, processing. It’s Alice who breaks the silence. “But you said — aren’t you here about a scholarship?”

Jess catches Cas’ eye. Cas gives an almost imperceptible nod, and Jess zeroes in on Max, smiling apologetically. “We’re not. We’re sorry, Max. We didn’t mean to lie to you. We just needed a way to get in here so we could talk to you about your powers. If you’re willing to listen, we can explain where they came from. We’ll even take you with us to a place where you’ll get to meet those other people Cas mentioned.” Jess steps forward until she’s next to Cas, heart jackhammering in her chest. “But you have to trust us, Max. And you have to put the knife down.”

“You shouldn’t have lied.” Max’s voice shakes with emotion, but the raw anger from before is slowly fading from his expression. The knife starts to tremble, losing the fight against gravity as Max’s focus wavers. Jim’s eyes are wide, tracking the blade’s every motion. Alice looks pale and frightened, her lips drawn into a thin line of distress.

“We’re so sorry, Max,” Cas says, his face soft and earnest. “And we wish we had come to see you sooner. You’re bound to have a lot of questions, and that’s fine. We’re happy to answer every one of them, but first—”

“My — my very good friend, Sam,” Jess blurts out, unable to hold back any longer. “He’s like you. His mother, Mary, died in his nursery, and he started developing powers a few weeks ago. He gets visions. And he had a vision about you, Max. About you saving his life. Please, Max. We need you to help him.”

The knife shakes harder, echoing the tremor in Max’s frame as he turns to Jess. “You need my help?” There’s something uncertain about the question, confusion mixed with awe.

Several things happen at once. The knife clatters to the floor, Jim launches himself at Max, Alice shrieks. Jess’ feet move, and then she’s next to Jim, pulling him back by his shirtsleeve. Utterly unprepared to be challenged, Jim doesn’t fight against her grip. A sharp pain lances through Jess’ hand and up her arm, and Jim crumples to the floor.

A moment later, Max and Cas are next to her, Max looking at her wide-eyed and Cas cradling her right hand in his. “You punched him,” Max says, disbelief etched in every line of his face. “You punched my father.”

“I did.” Jess can’t quite remember making the decision or carrying it out, was too caught up in the anger of the moment, but her reddened and rapidly swelling knuckles tell the story just fine. “He really, really had it coming.”

Cas kneels down, giving Jim a disdainful once-over. “I think he hit his head as he fell. He’s out. Not dead though.” He sounds vaguely regretful about it.

A sharp, hysterical voice tears them out of the moment. “You attacked my husband! He’s hurt! I’m going to call the police!”

But Alice doesn’t make any move to charge at them or pull out her phone, so Jess decides to ignore her for now, turning to Max instead. “What do you say? Are you coming with us?”

An uncertain smile pulls at the corner of Max’s lip, and he wipes at his uninjured cheek with the back of his hand. “Why not, right? I didn’t get much of what you were saying, but wherever you’re planning to take me, I know it’s better than this.”

Jess’ exhale is almost a sob, relief punching the air out of her lungs. “It’s not perfect, but yeah. Definitely better than this.”

Cas rises off the floor, scowling down at the crumpled form of Jim Miller. “Max, you should pack a bag, and then we’ll get on the road as soon as possible.” He strides over to Alice, facing her down with an irresistible air of authority that, Sam or no Sam, Jess has to admit is extremely attractive. “Mrs. Miller, I think you’ll find that I have associates who can make your life hell if you or your husband choose to look for Max or otherwise bother him in any way ever again. What I need you to do right now is sit on the floor, exactly where you are, and count to one thousand. When you finish your count, you may call 911 and tell the dispatcher that you came home to find your husband unconscious. You didn’t see his attacker. If you deviate from this story in any way, you will find all your bank accounts mysteriously emptied by tomorrow morning. Do I make myself clear?”

Alice gives the barest approximation of a nod, mouth gaping open even as she sits and starts to count.

Before the count reaches five hundred, Max’s bag is packed and the three of them are speeding away in Bill’s truck, putting Saginaw in the rearview mirror.

Chapter Text

I went to Missouri and I learned the truth.

It’s the first sentence on the first page of Dad’s journal. Ever since Dean got his hands on that journal back in Jericho, he’d figured “Missouri” was a reference to the state. Turns out he was wrong.

After Jess called to say that she and Cas were on their way to Lawrence with the Max kid, Sam decided they might as well do some interviews while they waited. So they paid a visit to the only local friend of the family whose name Dean could remember: a guy called Mike, who used to co-own a garage with Dad. They found him still running the place, and he mentioned that after Mom died, Dad had gone to see every psychic in town. One of those psychics was a woman named Missouri Moseley.

So here they are, in a psychic’s goddamn waiting room, bumping elbows on a couch that’s much too small for two grown men. After five minutes of staring at the wall, Dean gives up and starts reading through back issues of Women’s Health while they wait for Missouri to come out from behind the bead curtain that separates the front and back of the house. Apparently, it’s never too late to establish a good skin care routine.

Another fifteen minutes pass before they finally get a glimpse of Missouri: a well-preserved woman of about fifty with an air of effortless authority about her. She’s all reassuring smiles as she walks a bald, middle-aged guy to the front door. “Alright, there,” she tells him. “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing now. Your wife is crazy about you.”

As soon as the front door closes, Missouri shakes her head, the motion expressing disapproval for the sorry state of humanity. “Whew. Poor bastard. His woman is cold banging the gardener.”

Dean bites back a smile. “Why didn’t you tell him?”

“People don’t come here for the truth. They come for good news.” With an impatient motion of her hand, she heads back toward the bead curtain. “Well? Come on already, I ain’t got all day.”

Dean and Sam follow her into a small sitting room, significantly cozier than the waiting area outside. There are potted plants and plenty of light streaming through a large bay window. The couch looks like it wouldn't be a hardship to spend a few hours on it, and the coffee table has just the right height for putting your feet up.

Missouri gives Dean a sharp look. “Boy, you put your feet on my coffee table, I’m gonna whack you with a spoon.”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Dean says, offended and more than a little confused.

Missouri narrows her eyes at him. “But you were thinking about it.”

She steps forward to take Dean’s hand. As soon as she does, her expression goes soft in a way that makes him kind of uncomfortable. “Oh, honey.” She steps closer still, cocking her head as though she’s trying to figure him out. It reminds Dean of the way Cas looks at him sometimes, and he has to fight hard to keep from squirming away.

Missouri breaks their eye contact and makes a thoughtful noise. “Dean Winchester, you’ve got some priorities that need rearranging.”

She lets go of Dean’s hand, and Dean lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “How— how d’you know my name?”

“Psychic, dear,” Missouri says, not actually rolling her eyes, but sounding like she’s doing it on the inside. “I can read thoughts and sense energies. As, for instance, I know you’re concerned about your father’s approval, and how to earn it. And I’m telling you, it ain’t worth losing sleep over. Now, that other person you were thinking of, just now? I’ve got a good feeling about them.”

With that, she turns to Sam, giving him the psychic X-ray treatment and saying something along the same lines Pamela did — dark power, good soul, etc. Dean is too shaken up to really pay attention.

That other person you were thinking of just now. I’ve got a good feeling about them.

He was thinking about Cas. But what the hell does that mean, she has a “good feeling”? It’s not like he can exactly start asking follow-ups, not with Sam right there.

Dean puts the entire issue aside to deal with later, or quite possibly never. When he blinks back to awareness, he realizes he’s sitting on the couch — when did that happen? — and Missouri is talking to him.

“Dean Winchester,” she says, obviously not for the first time, judging by her annoyed squint. “When you’re done having a crisis, how about you tell me what’s going wrong in your old house?”

Dean shakes off his unease and tells Missouri what they learned from Jenny — how there’s cold spots in some of the rooms, weird noises inside the walls, a burning apparition in her daughter’s closet.

Missouri shakes her head, concerned. “You know, it sounds like a malevolent spirit, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the place, and it’s been quiet for years. No sudden deaths, no freak accidents. Why is it acting up now?”

“I don’t know,” Sam says. “But I had a vision of a woman in that house, screaming for help, and now that I’ve met Jenny, I’m pretty sure it was her. I think whatever is in that house — it’s dangerous.”

***

In the end, they decide that Missouri should come with them to get a read on the house. They’ll introduce her as a family friend who’d like to see the place for old times’ sake. It’s admittedly a thin excuse, and it falls apart as soon as Jenny opens the door, looking freaked out and clutching her toddler son like a lifeline.

“You know, this isn’t really a good time for visitors,” she says, unimpressed by Dean’s most charming smile. “I’m kind of busy.”

Missouri pushes Dean aside none too gently. “Hon, this is going to sound a little crazy, but hear me out.”

“About what?” Jenny asks, absentmindedly rocking up and down to calm the small boy perched on her hip, who actually looks like he needs a lot less calming than Jenny does.

“The house,” Missouri says. “You think there’s something here that wants to hurt you and your family, and I believe you’re right. Now, Sam and Dean, they asked me to help them find out what that thing is, and how we can protect you from it. That’s why I’m here.”

Jenny backs up a step, looking lost and scared in the way people do when they’re seriously considering the existence of the supernatural for the first time. “Who are you?”

“We’re people who can help you,” Missouri says kindly. “People who can stop this thing. You just have to trust us a little.”

Dean fully expects Jenny to slam the door in their faces, but after a moment, the fight visibly drains out of her and she moves aside. Whatever’s happened since the last time they were here, it can’t be good. 

Missouri sits Jenny and her son down in the kitchen with a cup of tea for Jenny and some juice for the kid. Slowly, some of the events of the last twenty-four hours spill out: a handyman who came to fix the garbage disposal and got his hand mutilated for his troubles. Jenny’s son, stuck inside the fridge that he shouldn’t have been able to open because it’s got a safety lock on it. The longer Jenny talks, the more uneasy Dean feels. There’s a prickle at the back of his neck, like someone’s watching them. Listening.

After Jenny’s tale is told, Missouri leads Sam and Dean to the upper floor and through the second door on the left. It’s obviously a little girl’s room now, all glitter pens and unicorn notebooks. But it’s all too easy for Dean to picture the crib by the window, smell the reek of smoke in the air, feel the heat of fire. He swallows down a sudden wave of nausea.

“This used to be your nursery, Sam,” Missouri says. “This is where it all happened.” She moves to a small desk at the far end of the room, moving her fingers gently across the wooden surface like someone reading braille. “I don’t know if you boys should be disappointed or relieved, but the thing that’s haunting this place? It ain’t the thing that took your mom.”

Sam looks around the corners of the room, maybe trying to find whatever weird spirit vibrations Missouri is picking up. “Wait, are you sure? How do you know?”

“It isn’t the same energy I felt last time I was here. It’s something different.”

“What is it?” Dean chokes out. He’s still having a hard time breathing past the smell of singed hair and charred skin. It’s all in his head, he knows, but knowing something and believing it aren’t always the same thing.

“Not it,” Missouri says, opening the closet opposite the foot of the bed and stepping inside. Her eyes wander across the small space, taking in every nook and cranny. “Them. There’s more than one spirit in here.”

“What’re they doing here?” Sam asks.

“They’re here because of what happened to your family. You see, all those years ago, real evil came to you. It walked this house. That kind of evil leaves wounds.” Missouri steps out of the closet, closing the door gently behind her, in the careful way of someone trying to keep from disturbing a sleeper.

“How many spirits are we talking?”

Missouri comes to a halt in the middle of the room, eyes moving behind closed lids. “Two, I think. I can’t get a good read on the one, but the other?” She shudders. “It’s a poltergeist. A nasty one. It won’t rest until Jenny and her babies are dead.”

“Fuck.” Dean sits down on the nearest surface, which happens to be the bed. “We were hoping we could hold off on taking care of this thing until our backup got here.”

“Backup?”

“Yeah. Some friends of ours are coming to Lawrence to help us,” Sam says, giving Dean that concerned puppy look he gets when he thinks Dean’s handling something poorly. Frankly, Dean thinks he should be excused for handling shit poorly these days. 

When he’s done looking concerned, Sam explains to Missouri about his second vision, about Max being another psychic with powers similar to his own. Missouri listens, but shakes her head when Sam tells her that Cas, Jess and Max expect to get to Lawrence some time in the early evening.

“I’m sorry, hon,” she says. “I don’t think Jenny and her family have that kind of time.”

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Four hours out from Lawrence, Jess gets a text.

From Sam (1:32 p.m.): Met a psychic and took her to the house. She thinks it’s a poltergeist and we have to take care of it ASAP.

“For fuck’s sake, Sam,” Jess murmurs, prompting a raised eyebrow from Cas in the driver’s seat.

“Everything alright?”

Jess just shakes her head, thumbs flying over her phone’s keyboard.

Sent (1:33 p.m.): WAIT FOR US. You don’t know what could happen. We’ll be there in a few hours.

The response comes less than thirty seconds later.

From Sam (1:34 p.m.): There’s little kids living in the house. Can’t take chances with them. Sorry.

Jess slaps a hand down on the truck’s dashboard, making both Cas and Max flinch.

She gives them a vaguely apologetic look, which turns pleading when she catches Cas’ eye. “Drive faster?”

Cas nods, and the truck’s engine roars as he pushes it to its limit.

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Sam weighs Missouri’s hex bags in the palm of his hand. If he weren’t staring at them and if he couldn’t feel the coarse texture of the bags against his palm, he wouldn’t know they were there. They might as well be made of air, for all the weight they have. 

He keeps his doubts to himself (not that it matters with Missouri around; she seems to delight in embarrassing both him and Dean by speaking their innermost thoughts aloud). Dean is a little less circumspect.

“You’re sure these are gonna work?” He lowers his nose to smell them and immediately jerks back with a disgusted look. He snorts and rubs at his nose. “They smell like ass.” 

Missouri shoots Dean a dirty look. “You watch your mouth. There’s children around.”  

From behind Jenny’s legs, her daughter Sari blinks wide eyes at them. Sam shoots her a weak smile and focuses back on Missouri, who’s telling Jenny to take the kids out for a movie and dinner. “When you get back tonight, we’ll have everything taken care of," she says.

Jenny casts a dubious look at them. Even when Missouri ushers her and the children out of the house, she still doesn’t look convinced that they’re going to accomplish anything more than getting themselves killed. Sam has to admit, they don’t look like the typical saviors of women and children: Dean is still grumpy from being scolded, Sam himself looks every inch the college student he was until recently, and Missouri is one floury apron away from offering everyone cookies. Still, when Sam runs his thumb over the sigil painted on the hex bag, he can feel the faint tingle of power. 

Missouri looks at him. “You can feel it, can’t you?” 

Sam is fairly sure he knows what she’s talking about, but with Dean right there, he chooses to play dumb. “Sorry? Feel what?” 

“Don’t play dumb; it’s not attractive. You can feel the power in those bags, and you can feel the power in this house. It’s been burrowing under your skin all day, like an itch you can’t scratch or a song that you’ve forgotten the words to. The power whispers to me, but you… It screams at you.” 

Missouri’s words press directly on Sam’s tender spots. He tries to ignore Dean’s accusatory look; a difficult task when his brother’s suspicion is an almost tangible thing. “What does it mean?” Sam asks, his voice barely above a whisper. 

Missouri looks infuriatingly calm. “It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. The power doesn’t come from you, but it is yours. You can ignore it, or you can use it. That’s all you can do in life.” Missouri pauses and looks meaningfully at Sam. “You know, maybe instead of focusing on everything that's been taken from you, you could think on what you’ve gained. You might find that the scales balance out more than you think.” 

Missouri nods, pleased with herself, and turns her attention elsewhere. Sam stares at the hex bag in his hand and thinks. For the past few weeks, all he’s been able to think about are the negative tallies in his life: he’s lost his Stanford education, his chance at a normal life. Jess. 

But maybe he’s gained a little bit too. He has a relationship with Dean, something that had been lost. The Roadhouse crew has given him a larger support network than he ever thought he would have. And with the revelation of their secret lives, Sam has the chance to have an honest relationship with Jess. No more lies. 

He just has to fix what he’s broken. 

A floorboard creaks with ominous intent, and all thoughts beyond surviving through the night flee Sam’s head. A whisper trails through the house, stroking icy fingers along the back of his neck. He shudders and looks up at the ceiling. Next to him, he can see Missouri looking at the same place. 

“It’s time,” she says. Her voice, small at first, gains strength as she orders him and Dean to their places. Sam squares his shoulders and walks upstairs into Jenny’s bedroom, where he’s going to perform his part of the ritual. Earlier in the afternoon, they punched holes in the drywall big enough for them to drop the bags in. Jenny’s going to have to spend some money getting them plastered over, but it’ll be worth it to no longer have a murderous poltergeist in their house. 

Sam rolls the bag in his palm, mulling over Missouri’s words. So much has been taken from him, and it started in this house, with a fire in his nursery, and his mother screaming on the ceiling. He’s lost his childhood, his dreams for a normal life, and even his apartment. In a lifetime filled with losing, there’s one thing he’s found that he refuses to give up. 

He thinks of Jess’ smile and laugh, and how her hair shimmers in the late afternoon sunlight. He dreams of kissing down her tan belly, and how her legs spread wide to allow space for him. He thinks about her ferociously intelligent mind, and her stubbornness. 

He thinks of how Jess looks with a gun in her hand, or how easily she handles a knife. He thinks about the light in her eyes while she’s in a fight, and how her body moves, swift and sure, like a dancer on a forgotten stage. 

He’s so busy thinking about Jess that he doesn’t notice the lamp cord snaking its way toward him until it wraps around his throat.

devils trap divider

Night has just started to fall when Jess, Cas and Max cross the city line into Lawrence. They make good time on their way to the Winchesters’ old neighborhood, but then get lost twice in the maze of nondescript residential streets.

Jess is ready to vibrate out of her skin by the time they finally pull up in front of a two-story with pale green siding. The house looks perfectly ordinary from the outside — no sign of the fire that destroyed a family, and no sign of malevolent ghost activity. The only striking thing about it is a large dead tree in the front yard. The glow of the truck’s headlights hits it from below, throwing bizarre shapes against the side of the house — like misshapen arms, just waiting to reach out and slash at unsuspecting passersby.

When Cas kills the truck’s engine, Jess has already yanked her gun from the glove box. She jumps out of the cab and darts down the sidewalk, Cas and Max at her heels.

Anxiety makes her lightheaded as she runs up the steps to the porch. When she finally reaches the front door, she grabs the handle and pulls at it, but the door doesn’t give way.

“Sam? Dean?” she calls. There’s no response from inside the house.

“Door’s locked?” Cas asks as he hurries up the steps behind her.

Jess nods and raises her fist to pound on the door. “Sam? Dean?” she calls again, a little louder.

Cas takes his turn pulling at the handle, but the door still fails to budge.

“There’s something here,” Max says quietly from behind Cas, and Jess flinches. She’d almost forgotten he was there. “I don’t know how to explain it. But it feels… bad. Like it wants to hurt people.”

“Fuck.” Jess runs a shaking hand down her face, then takes a deep breath and tucks her gun into the back of her jeans. “Alright. Give me some room. I’m going to break down the door.”

“Should we do it together?” Cas asks, and Jess is grateful to him for supporting her instead of trying to take charge. “On three?”

Jess nods, and they back up as far as the width of the porch allows. Max steps out of the way to give them room. Cas catches Jess’ eye and counts down. “One, two, three.”

They dart forward, slamming into the door as one. A sharp pain shoots through Jess’ shoulder at the impact, but there isn’t so much as a tiny crack in the wood. She’s just about to suggest another attempt when they hear it. A startled yell, followed by the sound of something breaking.

“Sam!” Jess shouts desperately, so far past caring how it looks to anyone else. Sam is locked somewhere inside, beyond this infuriatingly solid door, and he could be dying as they speak. She can’t lose him. Not now; not before they’ve had a chance to work things out.

Max steps into her field of vision, raising a tentative hand. “I— I don’t think the door is just locked. I think it’s… whatever’s in there is trying to keep us out.”

Cas gives him an assessing look. “Can you help?”

For a second, Max looks terrified at the mere idea, but then he visibly steels himself. “I’ll try.”

With a monumental effort, Jess makes herself step aside. Cas does the same next to her. Max positions himself in front of the door and raises his arm, like he’s trying to feel something out. Then he closes his eyes, his outstretched hand clenching into a fist.

For a small eternity, there is nothing but silence. Max lowers his arm, and Jess’ heart sinks with it. But then he raises it again, screwing his eyes shut. Three more seconds tick by, and then it happens: a creak of metal hinges, a crack of wood.

“It’s working,” Cas whispers, obviously just as awed as Jess. She nods, eyes fixed on Max, whose face is distorted with strain, the knuckles of his fist white.

All at once, the door bursts open, banging against the wall inside. Jess sprints into the house, her attention on nothing but finding Sam.

She barely avoids certain death. As she passes an open doorway, Cas’ hand yanks at her shoulder, and something whizzes past her face, glinting and sharp. It speeds through another open doorway across the hall, into what Jess can now see is the kitchen. The object, a fireplace poker, embeds itself in a table that’s set up barricade-style at the far end of the room. The tabletop has already been pierced by an impressive collection of kitchen knives, but the poltergeist seems to be moving on to blunt objects now, having run out of sharps. Jess watches in disbelief as the pots and pans dangling from hooks above the stove take on a life of their own, throwing themselves at whoever is sheltering behind the table.

“Sam? Dean?” Cas calls out this time.

“Over here,” Dean’s voice shouts from behind the table. “Trying to place a hex bag, but the damn poltergeist’s attacking me.” A skillet flies at the table, knocking it back a few inches. Dean’s voice turns high and stressed as he shouts, “Could use a little help here!”

Jess’ eyes dart around until she finds a small satchel on the kitchen floor, halfway between the doorway and Dean’s hiding place. Cas has seen it too, and he runs towards it.

“Where does it need to go?” he asks, even as he scoops it up.

“Hole in the wall, behind the stove,” Dean calls. Now that Cas is holding the hex bag, the poltergeist’s attention switches to him, and he barely ducks out of the way of a heavy cast-iron pan flung his way.

Trusting that Dean and Cas have the kitchen situation in hand, Jess moves further into the house, dragging Max along with her. “Sam?” she calls again, her voice shaky with apprehension.

Next to them, a door flies open, revealing a set of basement stairs and a middle-aged black woman. “You’re Sam and Dean’s friends,” she says, and it’s not a question. “Hurry. Sam is upstairs, and I sense he’s in distress.”

Jess’ eyes dart to the end of the hall, where a set of stairs leads to the second floor. She takes the steps two at a time, running so fast that she almost falls on her face a few times, but it doesn’t matter. She needs to get to Sam. There’s a strange thumping noise coming from beyond the first door to the right of the landing, and Jess stumbles into the room to find Sam on the floor, the heels of his boots beating a frantic tattoo against the wooden boards. His hands are scrabbling at his own throat, trying to pull at the lamp cord wrapped tightly around it. His face is starting to turn blue.

“Sam? Sam!” Jess calls, mindless with fear. Before she can form a conscious thought, she’s on her knees next to him, their hands joining in a frantic struggle to dislodge the cord that’s choking Sam. It's no use: the cord is stretched too tight, and getting tighter by the second.

Out of the corner of her eye, Jess sees Missouri trying to grab a small satchel next to Sam’s feet, then ducking to safety behind the door as a picture comes off the wall and flies right at her.

It takes Jess too long to remember what she needs to do. She turns around, frantically searching for the only person who can save Sam now. “Max,” she calls. “Please, help him!”

Max is standing by the door, frozen in place. When Jess’ eyes meet his, a flash of fear crosses his expression. A particularly heavy thump draws Jess’ attention back to Sam. She experiences a moment of despair as she takes in the purplish color of his face, the way his legs have gone completely still.

And then Max is beside her, hand outstretched to hover just above Sam’s throat. As before, Max closes his eyes, grimacing and clenching his fist.

Within seconds, mercifully, miraculously, the cord slackens. It unwinds slowly from around Sam’s throat, then lets go altogether, falling limply to the floor. An incredulous, elated smile on his face, Max straightens up. He turns to face the abandoned hex bag and jerks his head at it. The small satchel lifts off the floor and flies straight into a small hole in the drywall next to the baseboard.

The bedside table that had just started to lift a few inches off the floor settles back down with a heavy thud, and Missouri straightens up from where she was crouched behind the door.

It’s all background noise to Jess. She bends down to focus on Sam, who’s taking obviously painful, gasping breaths and still clutching at his throat. It’s cut and bruised where the cord dug into it, but Sam’s face is already starting to regain its normal color. His eyes flutter open and land on Jess. A small, strained smile twitches at the corners of his mouth.

“Hey, you,” he croaks.

Unable to respond with actual words, Jess lets out a half-laugh, half-sob. Before she can second-guess herself, she bends down and presses her lips to Sam’s.

The kiss is chaste and over almost before it started. But Sam lets out a small sigh of relief against Jess’ lips before she pulls back, and Jess can’t help but think it’s the best idea she’s had in quite some time.

devils trap divider

Amidst the heavy sounds of impact as various kitchen utensils narrowly miss his head and torso, Castiel drops the hex bag into the wall. 

Almost immediately, silence drops on the house. 

In the still hush, Castiel’s breaths are too loud. He remains frozen, waiting for another attack. His wild eyes search the kitchen, looking for a projectile or an opponent. When neither is forthcoming, Castiel totters on unsteady legs towards the upraised table that Dean was using as cover. Knives and even a fireplace poker stick out of its underside, a testament to the poltergeist’s fury. 

He can’t see Dean.

Panic curls through Castiel’s throat and leaves an acrid aftertaste in his mouth. What if he wasn’t fast enough? What if he stopped the poltergeist but didn’t save Dean? 

“Dean?” To his dying day, Castiel will deny how his voice rises and cracks on Dean’s name, but when Dean pokes his head over the table, he forgets to be ashamed. 

“Cas.” The simple sound of his name in Dean’s mouth is like the shifting currents of the ocean, and Castiel has never wanted to drown himself in someone else until now. 

Dean unfolds himself out from behind the table. With a low hiss, he takes in the various weapons embedded in it, then turns to Castiel. The poltergeist’s activities have shattered every lightbulb in the kitchen, so Dean’s face is only lit by the thin slice of moonlight filtering in through the window. Castiel can’t catch the complexities of Dean’s expression, only the glint of his eyes and the flash of his teeth as he smiles. 

“You came.” There’s something tiny and vulnerable about Dean’s voice, and something correspondingly soft inside Castiel cracks open at the sound. 

“Of course.” A wealth of words remains caught in Castiel’s chest. 

Of course I came for you. 

I’ll always come for you. 

He licks at his suddenly dry lips. Something is swelling in his chest, uncomfortable but not quite painful, and the feeling only increases when Dean steps closer to him. Castiel has never felt like this before, like he’s the tides responding to the pull of the moon, but then again, he’s never seen anything like the green of Dean’s eyes turned silver by the moonlight. 

Dean stares at him like he’s never seen him before. Here, in the kitchen of his childhood, he looks younger. Castiel’s arms yearn to wrap him in an embrace. 

“You came,” Dean repeats. Castiel can pick out a note of awe, along with something else, deeper and more dangerous. 

Castiel sways forward, caught in Dean’s orbit, and he can feel the heat from Dean’s body, hear the rattle and rasp of his breath in the silence of the kitchen, smell the bitter tang of adrenaline left over from the hunt. His mouth falls open, and he thinks that he might finally—

“Dean! Cas!” 

Sam’s voice shatters him. It’s ice-cold water dumped over his head; it’s missing the last step and feeling gravity take hold. Dean jerks away, his wide eyes reflecting panic. It takes Castiel a second longer to react. For that second, he’s left straining towards Dean, who’s already jumped to the opposite side of the room.

Humiliation colors Castiel’s cheeks as he lurches backward. By the time Sam, Jess, Max, and an older black woman who can only be Missouri, join them in the kitchen, he and Dean are at practically opposite sides of the room. Neither of them look at the other, but no one seems to notice the odd tension between them. 

Dean’s attention is drawn to the livid purple marks on Sam’s neck, visible even in the poor lighting. “Holy shit!” he exclaims, rushing to his brother’s side. Sam, by contrast, doesn’t look distraught by his injuries. Even while Dean fusses over him, he can’t stop looking at Jess with shy, almost awestruck eyes. 

Castiel might not often indulge in romance himself, but he knows enough to recognize the signs. Something clearly happened between Sam and Jess. Whatever it is, it leaves Sam pliant enough to succumb to Dean’s mother-henning with fairly good humor. 

Meanwhile, Missouri is talking to Max. Their heads are bent close together, and Missouri’s voice is low enough that Castiel can only catch every other word. If he tilts his head then he can catch the tail end of her words. 

“You did a good thing here, Max, a real good thing. If you want, you can keep on doing good with the gift you have. You already know how.” 

Out of the corner of his eye, Castiel sees Max nod. He can’t catch anything of what Max says, only that Missouri seems pleased by it. “Good, honey. I can’t say for sure, but I think you’re making the right decision.” Missouri lays a soft hand on Max’s cheek, and he leans into it like he’s starved. “If you ever need anything, you just call me, alright?” 

Castiel turns away and stares determinedly at the door. The Winchesters are with one another, Missouri and Max have their moment, and he’s left alone. 

He should be used to the feeling by now.

The front door creaks, and Castiel, still primed for a fight, tenses. His adrenaline ebbs when a young woman steps cautiously through the carnage of the hallway and into the wreckage of the kitchen. Two children trail after her, a young girl and a younger boy. They look at the mess in the kitchen with wide, frightened eyes; an expression echoed by their mother.

“Is it safe?” the woman asks. Her eyes land on the table, and she looks seconds away from bolting out of the house. 

Thankfully, Missouri steps forward and lays a gentle hand on the woman’s elbow. “There was something evil here, but it’s gone. This house should rest easy now.” 

“You’ve got a few cracks in the drywall, but on the upside, your house ain't trying to kill you anymore,” Dean says. A crooked grin rests unsteadily on his face. The young mother looks caught between fainting and committing murder. 

“Ignore him,” Missouri orders, shooting a dirty look at Dean. “What’s important is that what we did tonight should lay any uneasy spirits to rest.” 

Missouri offers a few more pieces of advice, and then they file out of the house. The woman, Jenny, firmly closes the door behind them. She looks glad to see the back of them. No doubt, she’ll start fortifying herself against the unbelievable events of the past week, and in several years, she’ll have convinced herself that the poltergeist in her house was nothing more than her imagination. Meanwhile, if Castiel is still alive in several years, he’ll be approaching what passes for old age in a hunter. 

“Well, that’s done,” Dean says. Something undefinable is in his voice. He doesn’t face them as he speaks; his gaze is fixed firmly on one of the upstairs windows. 

Sam rubs his hands together. His gaze follows Dean’s to rest on the same window. His voice is thoughtful as he says, “You know, I’m not sure.” 

All eyes fall on Sam. “Did you have a vision?” Jess asks. To her credit, her voice barely stumbles over the last word. 

“No, I’ve just got a feeling. Like when you know that you’ve forgotten to do something, but you can’t remember what it was that you forgot? Kind of like that.” Sam turns to Jess, and Castiel doesn’t miss either how his pinky reaches out to hook around hers, or how Jess allows the contact. “Do you want to head to the motel with the others? Dean and I can stay here and make sure everything’s alright.”

Jess’ mouth dips downwards in a quick frown. Castiel braces himself for an argument, but surprisingly, none is forthcoming. As quickly as it appeared, Jess’ reluctance fades, to be replaced with determination. “Actually, Missouri invited us to use her spare rooms, so I guess I'll drive over there with Cas and Max. But if something comes up, you call me.” Her voice leaves no room for disagreement, and Sam doesn’t even try. A faint smile sweeps across Jess’ face. She squeezes Sam’s hand before ushering Missouri and Max towards the car. 

Castiel looks after them, hesitating.

“Go on, Cas.” Dean’s voice is gruff, far removed from the soft, fragile thing that stretched between them in the kitchen. “We’ll take care of this.” 

Hurt blooms in Castiel’s chest at the rejection. Harsh words instinctively rise to his lips, but he manages to stop himself from snapping at Dean. That reaction will only guarantee a correspondingly negative reaction from Dean, and once they've started riling each other up, they never seem to know how to stop.

“Dean,” Castiel says softly. “I got some sleep on the drive over, and you and Sam are exhausted. Let me stay and at least keep watch. I promise, if anything happens, I’ll wake you.” 

Despite his non-confrontational tone, Dean still looks like he wants to argue. He’s stopped by a huge yawn that stretches his jaw wide. 

Sam settles the matter when he yawns too. “Well, I’m not going to say no to a few hours of shut-eye.” Without waiting for either Dean or Castiel to say anything else, he folds himself into the backseat of the Impala. He arranges himself against the door and pulls his jacket off to rest over his torso. His eyes close, and though Castiel sincerely doubts that he’s managed to fall asleep in only a matter of seconds, Sam certainly gives every impression of it. 

Dean doesn’t look thrilled at the turn of events, but at least he doesn’t argue. He walks around to the driver’s side of the Impala while Castiel walks to the passenger’s side. Before they get in, they share a long look. Still feeling a little stung, Castiel wants to break the moment, but he can’t quite drag his eyes away from Dean’s. 

“Thanks,” Dean finally says. His voice is low and a little shaky. He sounds more unsure of himself than he ever has before. “For… For this. Sam and I aren’t used to having anyone else around, and you didn’t have to stay, but you did anyway, and… thanks,” Dean finishes. He seems embarrassed by his words, ducking his head before he gets into the car. He shuts the door quietly behind him, clearly not wanting to disturb Sam, who seems to have slipped into actual sleep now. 

Though the Impala is huge, the interior has never seemed so small. Dean doesn’t seem to be bothered by the slightly cramped quarters in the front seat as he wedges himself between the window and the steering wheel. He wraps his arms around his middle and tips his head back against the headrest. Within a few minutes, small snores are falling from his open mouth. 

Castiel should be watching the house. That’s the whole reason he’s here, sitting in the Impala, terrified to move for fear of disturbing Dean’s sleep.

Still, it's surprisingly difficult to turn away from Dean’s face. It softens while he’s asleep, making him look like any other young man. He looks like he could have a job at a mechanic’s shop, or be a college student, or have dozens of other futures. Castiel takes a second to think about those potential other Deans and what they might be like, before he discards them. 

As strange as it is to think, he quite likes the Dean he has. 

***

Castiel hasn’t been keeping an eye on the time, but he thinks he must have been watching the house for at least two hours by now. His brain has settled into the hazy fuzz of a stakeout, where his thoughts hum just beneath the surface. Boredom sits comfortably on his shoulders. For once, his fingers don’t itch for the bite and burn of a cigarette. He’s more than satisfied to listen to the soft rattle of the Winchesters’ breaths. Each rise and fall of Dean’s chest warms him from the inside out.

He’s so caught up in his contemplation of Dean that he almost fails to notice the movement at the bedroom window. Castiel’s breath catches in his chest as he lurches forward. 

He jostles Dean, who wakes with a start. He snarls something incomprehensible, though whether it’s because he’s been unceremoniously awakened or because Castiel is in his space and pressing him against the side of the door remains unclear. For his part, Castiel doesn’t care. He’s too caught in his own horror, watching Jenny bang against the window. Even from across the street, he can see the word she’s screaming, over and over again. 

Help. 

“Cas, what the hell—” 

“Jenny.” Castiel cuts Dean’s complaint off as he scrambles back to his side of the car. He fumbles for the door and hears Dean doing the same. Sam’s confused noises are lost in the rush to leave the car, but he must eventually realize what the problem is, because when Dean opens the trunk, Sam is right there next to them. 

Castiel accepts the shotgun Dean tosses at him. His hands easily settle into the weight of it, fingers working over the faint grooves in the wood grain. There’s no discussion as they sprint towards the door, other than Dean’s quick, “Sam and I'll get the kids. Cas, you get Jenny.” 

As they run up the porch stairs, the front door bursts open wide to admit them. It almost makes Castiel think twice about entering the house. Almost.

The second he crosses the threshold, malice slams into him. It takes his breath away and makes him stagger. For a second, all he wants to do is crawl into a tiny ball and whimper, but there’s no time to cower. Castiel forces his feet up the stairs, listening to the thundering echo of Sam and Dean behind him. When they get upstairs, cries for help echo from behind doors. Horrifyingly, the acrid scent of smoke hangs thick and heavy in the air. 

Castiel runs to the master bedroom. The flimsy particle board of the door stands no chance against his shoulder, and he crashes into the room. Jenny is in her pajamas, staring at him with wide, wild eyes. “The bed,” she yells, gesturing towards the thick, heavy bed frame that's rocking from side to side like the deck of a pitching ship. Just when Castiel has managed to come to terms with that sight, a piercing scream echoes through the house, and Jenny's face turns white. “The kids,” she whispers. 

They race to the door, but thankfully, Sam and Dean have both the children in hand. The girl’s arms are wrapped around Dean’s neck as he hurtles down the stairs. Castiel and Jenny are first out of the house, followed swiftly by Sam and Jenny’s son. Dean is last, with Jenny’s daughter, but when Castiel checks over his shoulder, he notices something wrong. Dean’s steps slow, almost like he’s moving against an unseen force. His arms stretch out, pushing Jenny’s daughter through the door. Horror wraps icy fingers around Castiel’s heart as the door slams shut, locking Dean inside the house. The last thing he sees is Dean’s stricken expression. 

Castiel doesn’t think before he runs towards the door. His shoulder slams into it, but he just bounces off the solid wood. Frantic, he lines himself up to try again — Dean is inside, Dean who draws with children, Dean who laughs at stupid jokes, Dean who got the girl out when he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to get out himself — but Sam’s hand on his arm stops him. 

“Jess said Max got the door open earlier."

“Yes,” Castiel answers, distracted. With difficulty, he tears his eyes off the door. “He used his powers.”

“Huh.” Sam’s face is a strange mix of serene and determined that Castiel has never seen before. “Worth a try, right?”

Sam faces the door, his shoulders square to the frame. He takes in a deep breath and reaches out with an open palm. As Castiel watches, Sam’s muscles tense and become rigid. His fingers curl into a fist, almost like they’re wrapping around an invisible doorknob. Though Sam never moves, his arm starts to shake with the strain. A single bead of sweat trickles down from just underneath his hairline to fall off his jaw. Castiel’s heart thunders in his chest. They don’t have time, Dean doesn’t have time, but the door is still an impenetrable barrier. 

With a single, convulsive movement, Sam pushes his hand towards the door. His fingers flick out and away from his palm. 

The door shatters, and Sam makes a sound of choked relief.

After a cursory glance to make sure Sam isn’t about to collapse, Castiel rushes into the house, with Sam hot on his heels. His sawed-off shotgun is heavy in his hand, and his finger is already itching to pull the trigger. “Dean!” His voice sounds rough and desperate. Behind him, Sam sounds worse. 

“In here! I’m in here!” 

Castiel doesn’t bother to examine the swift joy coursing through him at the sound of Dean’s voice. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that Dean is alive, even if Castiel does find him pinned to a wall. Other than looking a little breathless, Dean isn’t outwardly hurt. 

That doesn’t mean he’s going to stay that way. 

Heat billows through the room. Smoke stings Castiel’s eyes, and he tries to blink the tears away. He can’t afford for his vision to be impaired, not while Dean is pinned and helpless. 

Fear grips Castiel’s chest as he watches fire lick across the ceiling. The house is about to go up in flames, just like it did so many years ago, and Dean can’t move. Castiel glances over to Sam and sees terror shining in his eyes. That fear only grows when a dark figure billows up through the smoke and starts walking towards him. 

Castiel lifts his shotgun in an automatic reaction, but Sam’s sharp shout arrests his movement. “Cas, wait!” 

Castiel’s hesitation gives Sam an opportunity to push the barrel of his shotgun towards the ground. “Just wait,” Sam orders, his eyes on the dark figure. “I… I know who that is.” 

An impossible breeze sweeps through the house, and the smoke blows away, revealing a tall woman with blonde hair. She’s dressed in a white nightgown, and Castiel knows, without having to be told, who this is. 

Mary Winchester smiles as she looks at her two sons. Behind him, Castiel hears the soft thump of Dean’s boots hitting the ground. He hardly dares to breathe, certain that the slightest movement will disturb this moment. 

A soft smile graces her face. She was a beautiful woman. Her eyes rest on her sons, and warmth floods into her expression. “Sam. Dean.” In her voice, Castiel hears all the undying devotion and love of a mother for her children. 

Then her eyes shift to rest on him. Castiel feels suddenly small in her gaze, yet oddly comforted. It’s a strange feeling, there and gone before he can put a finger on it. Unbidden, his eyes find Dean, who stands next to him with tears in his eyes. 

“Mom?” he asks, his voice thick and choked. “Is that…” 

Mary reaches out and brushes her hand over Dean’s cheek. Dean chases the touch, a tear slipping from his eye to trail down his cheek. “You’ve done so well,” she says, her voice quiet. She turns to Sam, and her smile grows. “I’m so proud of you.” 

Sam sniffles, his lower lip quivering. Castiel knows that he’s witnessing an intensely private moment. He shouldn’t even be here, but he can’t make his feet move. Mary’s eyes turn to him, and Castiel forgets why he wanted to run. 

Mary's spectral hand brushes across his. Castiel gasps as a wealth of emotion and memory flood through him. He sees a flash of a red, squalling baby, and then a chubby toddler just beginning to walk. He senses loss and loneliness, but above all else, the love, the kind of love that only a mother can possess. Fierce. Primal. Absolute. 

He’s been alone for so long. Though Mary’s mouth never moves, Castiel hears the words clearly in his head. Thank you. 

Goosebumps rise on his arms as Mary looks at her sons one last time. “I love you,” she says. 

A dry sob bursts from Dean’s throat. Castiel wonders when someone last told him that. Or if anyone has ever bothered to tell him that. 

“And you,” Mary says, turning towards the fire still belligerently licking at the ceiling of her house. Her voice turns hard and threatening as she glares at the fire. “You get out of my house.” 

The world holds its breath. Castiel’s gasp is lost in the roar of fire as Mary’s figure goes up in flames. Before he can cry out or even move, the flames on the ceiling disappear, leaving the paint and structure unmarred. 

Silence falls on the house. But this is the true silence of peace, not the tense quiet of a gathering storm. Sam lifts his head and looks around at the house. “It’s over,” he whispers. “It’s gone.” 

***

Dean and Castiel totter towards the car while Jenny takes her family and walks back into the house. Sam goes with her, reassuring her that this time, her house is truly unoccupied by any but the living. Castiel would worry about how Jenny is going to make the necessary repairs to her house, or even what she’s going to do without a front door, but he can barely manage enough brainpower to put one foot in front of another. 

He can’t stop himself from sneaking a glance at Dean. He can’t erase the memory of Dean’s lost, almost desperate voice as he saw his mother for the first time in over twenty years. He wants to address that, wants maybe to talk about what he saw when Mary touched him, but he has no idea how to broach the topic. 

Mary’s words echo in his head. He’s been alone for so long. 

Maybe it’s time for them both to stop being alone. 

“Dean,” Castiel begins. “If you want—” 

“Save it.” Dean’s voice is cold like it hasn’t been in weeks. “It’s been a hell of a long day, and I just wanna get back to the motel and pass out for two hours, alright?” 

Stung, Castiel recoils. Hurt bubbles in his chest, hot and vicious, and he silently folds himself into the back of the Impala. He doesn’t talk as Sam joins them, or even when Dean starts the car and drives away. Castiel looks out the window, determined not to meet Dean’s eyes, even by accident. 

He’d thought perhaps there was something between him and Dean. Those moments in the kitchen and then earlier in the Impala had led him to believe that something fragile was flourishing between them. Foolishly, Castiel had allowed himself to hope that perhaps he and Dean could be more. 

Dean might respect him as a hunter. He might value him as an ally. Perhaps, he might even consider him a friend. 

But that’s all. Nothing more. 

Chapter Text

On the way back to Jenny’s house the next morning, Sam can’t stop replaying the moment in his head: the pressure around his throat loosening, his lungs drawing their first, painful breath, the black spots in his vision clearing, and then…

Jess kissed him.

Before he left for Lawrence with Dean, he’d felt like maybe he and Jess were working their way up to something, but the kiss still caught him off guard. Of course, he knows better than to think one kiss is going to magically solve every issue between them.

It sure feels like a start though.

It also happens to be a very nice distraction from the tension in the car. Last night, Cas insisted on getting a room to himself, and he’s barely spoken to either of them since they left the motel. Now he’s slouching in the back seat, morose and distant as he stares out the window.

Dean looks outwardly calm as he steers the Impala through the streets of Lawrence, but Sam spent most of his life living in his big brother’s pocket, and he can tell that Dean is miles away from calm. If he had to guess, he’d say his brother is barely holding it together. 

This would all be so much easier if Dean were the type of person who’s willing to talk about what’s bothering him. But that’s not how they were raised. They both grew up watching their father keep going and going in the face of pain and grief until he fell to pieces in a mess of cursing, yelling and whiskey-stained breath. Dean was always the one who absorbed the worst of their father’s temper; somewhere along the way, he absorbed the shitty coping mechanisms too. 

When they finally arrive at the house, Jess, Max and Missouri are already there. It only takes Missouri a few minutes to confirm that the place is now definitely cleansed of any evil presence. Jenny looks sort of grateful, but in the slightly panicked way that suggests she’s already erasing the events of the past forty-eight hours from her mind.

As they say their goodbyes to Missouri outside, she hugs each of them tight — especially Max, who clings on to her with a fierceness that, considering the shortness of their acquaintance, surprises Sam. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t. Based on what little he’s been able to glean of Max’s story so far, Max probably isn’t used to the sort of kindness that seems to emanate naturally from Missouri.

Sam watches from a distance as Missouri walks up to Dean next and speaks to him. Dean nods in response, but his face is stoic and cold as a marble statue. After Missouri hugs him goodbye, he pulls away quickly and walks off in the direction of the Impala.

“You’re worried about him.”

The sound of Jess’ voice from right beside him catches Sam off guard. He likes to think he’s attuned to Jess’ whereabouts as a general rule, and especially after their kiss. Yet, she somehow managed to sneak up on him anyway — not to mention, read his thoughts on his face. 

“Yeah,” he admits, the smile he wants to give Jess turning into a grimace halfway through. “I think being here in Lawrence again hit him pretty hard.” He darts a cautious glance at her. “Maybe you should stick with Cas and Max for the drive back. If you don’t mind.”

Jess nods easily. She doesn’t look the least bit offended. “You think he’ll want to talk if it’s just the two of you?”

Sam chuckles ruefully. “I was thinking it was worth a try, you know? But honestly, probably not.”

That assessment turns out to be correct. The first time Sam tries to broach the subject, Dean’s only reaction is to turn up the volume on the tape deck so far that Sam starts to genuinely worry about the structural integrity of both their eardrums.

The second time, about an hour out from the Roadhouse, doesn’t go much better.

“Hey, I really feel like we should talk about what happened back at—”

“Not gonna happen, Sam.”

Dean’s curt, final tone is a clear warning: Don’t push me. You might not like what happens when I break.

So Sam accepts defeat for the time being, and goes back to dwelling on yesterday’s kiss.

When the Impala finally pulls into the Roadhouse parking lot in the early evening, Cas’ truck is already there. As Sam gets out of the car and grabs his duffle, he takes one last look back at Dean, but Dean refuses to meet his eye. With a bone-deep sigh, Sam slings the duffle over his shoulder and heads for the annex alone.

Inside, it’s busy — Ellen's voice rumbles out of one of the previously unoccupied bedrooms, where she seems to be giving Max a tour. In the corridor, Ava and Scott are hovering near the doorway, trying and failing to look casual.

Sam grins at them. “Checking out the newbie?”

Ava flaps her hands at him to be quiet and Scott looks deeply embarrassed to be caught out. Sam chuckles.

Craning his neck further down the corridor, he sees that the door of Jess’ bedroom is open. More than anything, he hopes it’s meant as an invitation for him, and after dropping his duffle in his own room, he decides to put that theory to the test.

He finds Jess standing next to the bed, unpacking her own bag. When she spots him, her face lights up. “Hey.”

“Hi,” he says, suddenly unsure of what to do next. Another kiss seems presumptuous, and a hug might be weird, considering it’s only been a few hours since they’ve seen each other. He settles for sitting on the bed and asking, “How was the drive?”

Jess shrugs, moving her bag to the floor to make room so she can sit as well. “Fine. Cas was kind of moody, but what else is new? And Max seemed a lot more cheerful than I’ve seen him so far. Missouri really took him under her wing. I think the two of them sat up for a long time talking last night.”

“That’s great,” Sam says, his voice coming out just a tad too cheerful in an effort to paper over his initial awkwardness. “I’m glad he’s doing better. I know he was in a pretty bad situation.”

“Yeah. How’s Dean?”

Sam shakes his head. “Still not talking.”

With the obvious topics exhausted, silence falls between them. Sam shifts uncomfortably, while Jess appears extremely focused on picking at a loose thread in the bedspread.

“Do you—”

“Should we—”

They both break off, chuckling nervously. “You first,” Sam says, gesturing at Jess. For a moment, he considers letting his hand settle on Jess’ knee, which is inches away from his own, but in the end, he thinks better of it. When in doubt, don’t push the boundaries.

There’s something defiant in Jess’ expression when she says, “I don’t regret kissing you.”

“I don’t regret it either,” Sam answers, almost too quickly, because he doesn’t want there to be any room for uncertainty on that point. They exchange small smiles, glad to be on the same page for once. “So… where do we go from here?”

Jess exhales something soft, halfway between a sigh and a chuckle. “I don’t really know. There’s so much going on, and I—”

“Yeah.” Sam swallows hard, his emotions a confusing tangle of hope and disappointment. “We’re in the middle of trying to save the world from a demon apocalypse. Not a great time to be…” He weighs the word carefully on his tongue before he speaks it, but decides to take the leap. “Dating.”

Jess nods, and Sam notices her gaze is caught on his hand, which is now resting loosely atop his thigh. Emboldened, he lifts it and lets it hover for a moment before he makes any move to close the distance between them. Once he does move, Jess doesn’t pull away. In fact, she inches her own hand a little closer too, until their fingers meet halfway across and wrap tentatively around each other.

This is it: the moment of truth. If Sam can’t stop his brother from falling apart because he won’t let people in, maybe he can at least do better for himself. His next breath comes out a little shaky.

“You know, when I found out about… about you being a hunter—”

Jess gives his fingers a barely-there squeeze. “Sam, you don’t have to—”

“No, I… I really do,” Sam says, meeting Jess’ eyes. They’re the most beautiful color — a hazelnut brown that looks even deeper and darker in the low light of sunset streaming through the window at her back. “When I found out, I was already freaked out, because I was having these dreams. Visions. I didn’t get what was happening to me, you know? It was terrifying. And I wanted to tell you, but I—”

“You were scared,” Jess says, her expression vacillating between remembered pain and reluctant understanding.

“Yeah.” Sam looks down at their joined hands, where Jess’ thumb is now rubbing a soothing circle into his skin. “And then finding out about you, and that Brady was possessed, and where my visions were coming from… it just felt like my entire life was falling apart. I’d worked so hard to build something of my own, and it felt like I couldn’t keep it because I was carrying… I don’t know, some kind of disease. Something that made me a danger to everyone who was supposed to be good or kind or wholesome.” He clears his throat, trying and failing to dislodge the lump forming there. “It was awful,” he chokes out.

For a moment, Jess sits in silence. Then, she starts tugging on his hand.

“Hey, come on,” she says, scooting up towards the head of the bed. After some awkward shuffling, Sam manages to follow and settle in next to her without letting go of her hand. Their sides are touching, shoulder to knee.

“Brady lost a few years of his life, and that sucks, but he’s still alive. I’m still alive,” Jess says as she pulls Sam’s hand into her lap, cradling it between both of hers. There’s a fire and determination in her tone that Sam knows well, and he’s just as helplessly in love with her now as he was the first time he heard it. “I’m still here, and I don’t plan on going anywhere until Azazel is a bloody smear on the wall.”

Warmth rises in Sam’s chest, and his fingers twitch with the impulse to pull Jess even closer and kiss her again. He thinks she might actually let him.

Instead, he sits and waits, letting the moment pass. They’re both exhausted and emotional, and this fragile, new connection between them isn’t something he’s prepared to risk by moving too fast.

Still, he can’t stop himself from asking, “And after?”

“And after,” Jess says, letting their eyes catch and hold, “I was thinking we could both go back to Stanford and finish what we started.”

Sam tries a smile, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Jess returns it with a shaky one of her own.

“I’d like that,” he tells her.

devils trap divider

Dean feels like he’s been flayed open and his innermost core stripped bare. It was hard enough putting himself back together after Dad left him behind at the hospital. But how is he supposed to deal with seeing his mother for the first time since he was four, only to watch her go up in flames, again, without being able to do a damn thing to stop it? 

It’s been a while since he’s felt this hopeless and hollow. Over time, he’s gotten better at papering over the jagged edges inside him with jokes and bravado. But it hasn’t been so long that he’s forgotten what needs to happen next. If he wants to claw his way back from the brink, he needs to fight, drink, or fuck.  

On the drive back from Lawrence, he copes by staying focused on making it to their destination, knowing it’s the only way he can escape Sam’s infuriating puppy look; the one that urges him to “just talk about it, Dean.”

Dean shakes his head as he watches Sam stalk off in the direction of the annex, his duffel bag swinging wildly against his shoulder. A Hallmark moment isn’t going to help a damn thing.

Instead, Dean makes his way straight to the Roadhouse. Starting a fight is right out, because Ellen would tear him a new one. That leaves two other options.

Quite a few cars are parked out front of the bar, so maybe there’s enough customers inside that he can get drunk without having to put up with well-meaning advice from Ellen or Jo. Hell, maybe he could go two for two and pick up some hot chick who’s looking for a good time.

For the briefest of moments, he considers trying to find Cas, but he shuts that shit right down. Thinking about Cas can only lead to wondering how much he’s managed to fuck up whatever small, tentative thing was starting to grow between them, and he doesn’t need more reasons to feel like hell. It’s just a fact: he fails every godforsaken person he cares about. Sooner or later, he’ll fail Cas too. They’re both better off if he keeps his distance.

When he steps through the door, the place is busier than he’s ever seen it. Must be a Saturday night; who knows anymore. A lot of the customers are probably hunters, judging by the obvious mileage on their faces. But there’s also a few college-aged kids who seem delighted with their own daring for going to a seedy backwater bar. Poor idiots. At least they’ve picked the one place where they won’t fall victim to any creatures prowling for easy prey.

Jo is the one slinging drinks tonight, but Dean figures he’ll scope out the scene before he approaches her. Once he starts drinking, he might not be able to stop.

His eyes land on the jukebox, where Pamela is bent over the list of songs — a position that shows off an extremely fine ass accentuated by tight jeans. Her black t-shirt has ridden up just enough to reveal a tantalizing strip of ink. Perfect.

Dean paints on his best flirtatious smile and saunters closer. “Hey.”

Pamela half-turns, but doesn’t straighten up right away, her assets still very much on display. “Hey yourself.”

“Nice ink,” Dean says, letting his smile drift into leer territory.

“Saw that, did you?” Pamela settles in with one hip propped against the front of the jukebox. Her eyes rake over Dean in frank appreciation, and she doesn’t look one bit embarrassed about it. 

“Wouldn’t mind seeing more of it,” Dean says easily, mirroring Pamela’s posture. He’s standing close enough that she could touch him if she wanted.

Pamela hums, a small, amused sound that barely reaches Dean over the opening chords of REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” which are now emerging from the jukebox’s speakers.

“REO Speedwagon?” Dean asks, a little incredulous. He didn’t exactly take Pamela for the type who likes sappy chart rock.

Pamela smirks at him. “Damn right, REO. Kevin Cronin sings it from the heart." 

“He sings it from the hair,” Dean tosses back, something loosening inside him as they get their flirtatious banter into gear. This, he can do. Talking his way into someone’s pants is as natural as breathing, even when breathing itself feels like too much effort. “There’s a difference.”

That earns him a chuckle and another once-over. This time, it’s less sexy and more considering. It’s like Pamela’s trying to get a read on him, and that’s something Dean doesn’t appreciate at all right now. “I see what you’re trying to do here,” she says, her smirk dropping into a gentle smile. “And trust me, I’d jump those pretty bones in a heartbeat if the offer was sincere, but I don’t take somebody else’s sloppy seconds.”

Dean’s world comes to a record-scratching halt. “Wait, what?”

“I’m not the one you want. And I think deep down…” She squints at him, probably checking the color of his aura. “Very, very deep down, you know that.”

It’s okay. It’s fine. Dean can still save this. He switches his smile back into full-on flirty mode again. “Hey, you got me all wrong, I—”

Pamela crosses her arms, unimpressed, and jerks her chin at the bar, where Cas is now working alongside Jo, because Dean can never catch a fucking break.

With a final glare at Pamela, Dean stalks off, not willing to stick around and be humiliated any more than he already has been. He keeps his eyes off Cas as he moves, which takes more effort than he’d like, but he manages it. When he gets close to the bar, he reaches across it and snatches the first full bottle of whiskey his eyes land on.

“Put it on my tab,” he growls, then practically trips in his haste to get out the door, because if he waits around for Cas to say something, there’s a chance that a fight’s going to happen after all. The two of them have a history of riling each other up, and Dean is self-aware enough to know that he’s on a hair trigger right now.

Mercifully, no one stops him as he makes his way back to the annex and into his bedroom, where he shuts and locks the door behind him. He doesn’t bother turning on the light — just toes off his boots and sits on the bed. He unscrews the cap of the whiskey bottle and takes a sip. The stuff tastes expensive, and that fact gives him a weird sort of satisfaction. If he’s going to be letting people down, might as well go all the way and get sloppy drunk off Ellen’s best whiskey.

He didn’t close the curtains, and it’s a clear night with an almost full moon, so thin beams of silvery light sneak into the room at his back, illuminating the scuffed, leather-bound journal on his nightstand. He reaches out to run his fingers over its soft cover as he takes another swig. It’s the only tangible thing he has of Dad’s. That, and the phone number he’s got memorized.

He could call it now. He could call, and if Dad by some miracle picks up, he could demand answers. Maybe, if he liked the answers he got, he’d tell Dad what happened; what he saw at their old house, and how it made him feel like his insides were being scraped out of him with a dull, rusty blade.

But truth be told, he doesn’t want to talk to Dad. The only person he really wants to talk to is the one whose spirit burned up in front of him less than twenty-four hours ago.

She’s in a better place. She sacrificed herself so her boys could live, and she’s gone to her reward, Missouri told him as they said their goodbyes.

I didn’t ask her to do that, Dean wanted to answer. For once in my life, I want a reward too. I want people to stop leaving me.

He didn’t say any of that, and he doesn’t say it out loud now. Instead, he keeps taking swigs from his bottle until the world goes pleasantly hazy at the edges and an awful, stupid idea occurs to him.

She’s in a better place. That means Heaven, right? Dean doesn’t believe in Heaven or God or angels, or any of that other crap people cling to so they don’t live in constant fear of death. But his mom did believe, and if there’s even a tiny sliver of a chance that she could’ve been right…

Dean takes another drag from the bottle and sets it down heavily on the floor next to his bed. He never did get around to lying down, because even letting himself have that small comfort doesn’t feel right. If he keeps tension in his body, maybe he can keep holding on to the tattered, fraying edges of his self-control.

Leaning forward, he clasps his hands together, because he has a vague idea that that’s how you’re supposed to do this.

“Mom?” There’s no response, of course. No sound at all but a low rumble of voices and a snatch of laughter drifting over from one of the other bedrooms. Wherever Dean isn’t, life goes on as it always has.

“Mom, you always used to tell me that angels were watching over me. And I don’t… I don’t really believe in any of that. Not since I was four years old. But if I’m wrong—” He breaks off. His chest feels too tight, and he takes a couple of deep breaths, just to prove to himself that he still can. “If I’m wrong, if angels are real and if there’s any justice in the world, I know you are one.”

It feels ludicrous, the idea that his mom is sitting on a cloud somewhere with a harp and halo listening to Dean lose it in a dark bedroom in Nebraska, but he doesn’t let himself dwell on that. Instead, he keeps going. 

“There’s one thing I know for sure: if there are angels up there listening, you’re the only one who gives a damn about what happens to me. I just… I just keep failing, Mom.” His voice cracks, and there’s a prickling at the back of his eyes. “I tried so hard to be the son Dad wanted, but I guess I didn’t do it right. I tried to be the brother Sam needed, but I didn’t do that right either, because he left, and he’d still be gone if it weren’t for…” He breaks off, swiping angrily at the tears spilling down his cheeks. “God, that’s another thing, you know? I’m scared, Mom. I’m scared of what’s inside Sam and what it might be doing to him. I’m scared there might be a fight coming that we can’t win, and that I can’t protect him from. I—” A sob pushes its way out of his throat, tearing and slashing at him as it goes. “I failed Cas too. He was there for me when nobody else was, but every time he tries to get close, I just… I can’t stop pushing him away. Because there’s only two ways this goes: I fail him worse than I already did, or he sees me for the goddamn fuckup I am and leaves me in the dust.” He looks up at the ceiling, even knowing there’s nothing there to see, and no one to see him. “But I’m so tired, Mom. I’m just so fucking tired.”

He runs out of words, then, and picks up the bottle again. When it’s given all it can, he drops it on the floor and rolls over onto his side. He goes to sleep on top of the covers.

devils trap divider

“Fuck.” 

Sam clutches at his head, but the searing pain that has lodged itself behind his left eye socket isn’t impressed. It’s made worse by the bright morning sun streaming in through the windows of the shed. He turns away from it, blinking hard.

When the pain finally lets up, he feels a trickle of something warm roll down his upper lip, just before he tastes copper. The outlines of the shed’s interior swim and waver like a desert mirage. After a few moments, the nosebleed stops and his surroundings refocus. The first thing he notices is the unimpressed leer of the demon he very much failed to kill.

“Don’t sweat it, Sam. You’ll get there,” Andy says, with a reassuring clap on Sam’s shoulder. “The rest of us have been training for days, and you had other stuff on your plate.”

Scott grimaces sympathetically. “I’ve been practicing all this time, and I only just got the hang of how to do this yesterday.”

“Well, I wasn’t gonna bring it up, Elektra. But you’ve got a point,” Andy shoots back, grinning. Scott flips him off, but returns the grin.

Now that he’s starting to recover from his latest unsuccessful attempt at psychic exorcism, Sam can appreciate the easy banter between these two. He still remembers the deep shadows under Scott’s eyes when he first arrived, the way he constantly seemed to curl in on himself. He looks better now. There’s more color in his cheeks, and his smiles come easier.

“They’re right, you know?” Pamela says, nudging Sam’s shoulder. “You’ve got some catching up to do, but there’s no shame in that.”

“Aww, are we having a moment?” the demon sneers. This particular one has possessed a slightly overweight guy in his early twenties who’s wearing hunting camos and has a mottled, pimply complexion that speaks of too much red meat and rotgut. “How ‘bout you untie me so I can give you some privacy?”

“Oh, shut up,” Ava snaps from her perch on a crate next to the door. She’s been sitting there ever since they started their practice session, arms folded over her chest, legs crossed and one foot jiggling, the very picture of tension and come-at-me attitude. The only thing missing is a storm cloud hovering over her head.

Andy grimaces at Sam. “Fought with her fiancé again,” he mouths.

“I heard that,” Ava snarls, and Andy turns to her, looking embarrassed but covering it with annoyance.

“How could you possibly have?”

“Psychic, remember?” Ava says, tapping the side of her head.

Andy frowns at her. “Yeah, but you’re, like, Vision Girl, not… Mind-Reading Girl.”

“Oh, great comeback, Evil Twin Boy,” Ava snarls.

Sam winces. There’s still no trace of Ansem, and Andy is taking it particularly hard because he still blames himself for letting Ansem go in the first place.

So, predictably, Andy immediately flares up. “Hey, that was totally uncalled for!”

Pamela puts up both hands, palms out. “Alright, kiddos, before this escalates to playground levels of childishness, why don’t we give Sam’s brain a break and let Max have a go?”

Max has been trying his best to melt into the wall this whole time, watching the proceedings with an intimidated expression. Now he steps forward on slightly shaky legs.

“C’mon, hon,” Pamela says kindly, putting one hand on his shoulder. “You saw how it’s done, right? Focus on the contamination and visualize tearing it out.”

Max nods and takes a deep breath, then stares, unblinking, at the demon.

“Alright, Babyface,” it snarls, eyes flashing to black. “You wanna dance? Let’s dance.”

Sam rolls his eyes. He’s beginning to see why this particular demon felt drawn to a less-than-sharp host.

Something in Max’s expression tightens. He brings up his arm and closes his eyes, fingers curling into a fist. Sam swears he can feel the temperature in the shed rising, everyone holding their breath as Max twists his wrist and yanks.

Black smoke pours from the demon in a torrent, vomiting out of not just the vessel’s mouth, but its nostrils and ears. An inhuman shriek fills the air, and the smoke rises to the ceiling, swirling there for a second before it plunges to the floor and burns up, leaving behind nothing but a scorch mark on the wooden boards and the stink of sulfur. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Pamela says, staring at Max in disbelief. “Don’t take this personally, Sam, but you’ve really got some catching up to do.”  

***

Dean spends most of the morning avoiding people whenever he can and speaking only when spoken to. It turns out that even good whiskey gives you a hell of a hangover when you drink most of a bottle by yourself.

Over lunch, there’s a strategy session that Dean barely participates in. Ash reports he’s been scanning every database he knows for signs and omens that could tip them off to Azazel’s whereabouts, but he hasn’t been able to find anything. Ansem is still in the wind as well.

Sam says they’ve been playing defense too much, hiding behind the wards and protections of the Roadhouse and hoping for the best. Ellen disagrees, pointing out that Bobby and Rufus are planning to work with the psychics on knife and gun skills. Between that and Pamela’s training, she thinks the day is getting closer when they might be able to take the fight to Azazel. Dean might have been excited about that if his brother and every other person he cares about wasn’t planning to march into that fight. 

In the end, it’s decided that they should escalate the psychics' training. It’s been getting harder to locate demons within an easy drive of the Roadhouse, but Bobby and Rufus have managed to find one more, and they’re going to let this latest one loose in the woods behind Ellen’s house. The psychics will try to find it and kill it while the hunters patrol the perimeter with holy water and salt rounds to keep the demon from escaping.

When it comes time to pick patrol teams, Dean immediately volunteers to pair up with Bobby before anyone can get any crazy ideas that he should be paired with Cas. Or anyone else who might want to ask questions he isn’t prepared to answer.

It turns out to be impossible to avoid interacting with Cas altogether though, because he’s the one handing out guns and salt rounds before they all set off to take their positions. Dean very much doesn’t look at him when he accepts the loaded shotgun he’s given, and turns away as soon as he’s grunted a vague “thanks.”

Pretty soon, though, he realizes his mistake in teaming up with Bobby. The old man might not be much of a talker, but he sees through Dean’s bullshit like almost nobody else can.

“What the hell’s going on with you and Cas?” Bobby asks, almost as soon as they’ve walked out of earshot of the other teams. “Thought you two were starting to be friends. Now you’re acting like he killed your firstborn.”

“We’re fine,” he says, wishing it were true even though he knows it’s better for Cas if they’re not.

“Uh-huh,” Bobby says, clearly not buying it. “I know how the Winchester definition of ‘fine’ goes.”

“Yeah, well, either way, I ain’t in the mood for a heart-to-heart." Dean speeds up his steps to underline the point.

Bobby lets out an ill-tempered grunt, but they walk in silence after that, shivering and watching their breath curl into clouds of steam in front of them while they keep an eye out for any movement in the tree line. Dean is grateful for the excuse to focus on something other than the mess inside his own head.

After about twenty minutes of this, there’s a shout from the edge of the woods, just out of sight around a bend. Dean sets off at a run, Bobby wheezing along behind him. When Dean rounds the corner, it’s to find Sam with a grin on his face and blood dripping from his left nostril.

“I did it! I cornered the demon, I focused, and I pulled it out,” Sam says, looking so damn proud of himself, but Dean can’t take his eyes off the trail of red on his face.

“What the fuck is this, Sammy?” He moves in close, right up in Sam’s space, and swipes at his brother’s upper lip with his thumb, waving the reddened digit at Sam in accusation. “You give yourself a goddamn aneurysm doing this psychic exorcism shit?”

“It’s just a nosebleed, Dean,” Sam says, the smile sliding off his face. “And it isn’t nearly as bad as the one I got yesterday.”

Dean’s skin feels too tight, too hot, and he knows he’s going to say something bad, something he can’t take back, but then he feels Bobby’s hand on his shoulder, and the rage drains away.

“You done good, Sam,” Bobby says, calm and certain. “Go find the others and let ‘em know it’s done. Where’s the host?”

“Still in the woods, by a fallen log about fifty feet to the right. He’s alive. Ava's with him. I came out here to find you guys and let you know.”

Bobby nods grimly and stalks off into the woods. When Dean doesn’t immediately follow, he calls over his shoulder, “What’re you waiting for, idjit? A personal invitation?”

As he turns to follow Bobby, Dean claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder — the closest thing he can manage to an apology right now. Sam looks like keeping quiet is the worst kind of struggle. Something fierce and determined moves across his face, and then he’s hugging Dean, hands clutching at the back of his jacket.

Just for a moment, Dean gives in to the relief and lets himself be held.

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Castiel frowns as he scrubs at a persistent stain on the Roadhouse’s bar. His shoulders and arms ache from working tirelessly all day, but he can’t stop. If he stops, he’ll start thinking, and that’s the last thing he wants. 

The stain isn’t coming out. He didn’t expect it to, but it would have been nice. Castiel remembers when the Roadhouse bar used to gleam in the low light, but those days are long since past. Now, it’s all he can do to make the stain of cigarette ash mingling with the stain of the wood into something a little less offensive. 

Finally, he gives up, tossing the rag on the bar with a low curse. He’s never going to get that spot clean. He’s never going to be able to restore the Roadhouse to anything more than a sad echo of what it used to be. He’s never going to be able to get Dean to meet his eyes again. 

Castiel bangs his fist onto the counter. This time, his curse is louder. No matter how hard he tries, no matter what he does, his thoughts always seem to circle back around to Dean. 

He’s been so stupid. Don’t hit on the straight guy. How many times was that lesson driven home to him, sometimes with the added impetus of knuckles to aid the delivery?

Damn Ash and his repeated assertions that "the guy's just closeted, man. He wants to jump your bones, trust me." Closeted or straight, what does it matter? The end result is the same, and it all adds up to the fact that he needs to forget about Dean Winchester.

He knows this, but he can't seem to erase the mingled shame, hurt and anger that churns in his stomach whenever he thinks about the quick turn of Dean’s eyes away from him, or how Dean sidled up to Pamela the other night. Dean was all easy charm, like he’s never been around Castiel, and the flirtatious grin he flashed at Pamela was the final twist of the knife in Castiel’s chest. 

“You having some trouble there, boy?” 

The gruff voice of Bobby Singer tosses Castiel out of his melancholy thoughts. He rearranges his face to hide some of his inner turmoil, though if the look on Bobby’s face is anything to judge by, he doesn’t do a good job. 

“I’m fine,” Castiel says shortly. Bobby’s expression doesn’t change. Even his ball cap appears doubtful. 

“'Course you are. That’s why you’re cussing at nothing in a bar in the middle of the afternoon.” 

Castiel’s jaw clenches. He knows Bobby by reputation, but hasn’t had much opportunity to speak with him, even though he’s been staying at the house off and on for the past few weeks (and getting a little close to Ellen, if Jo’s reports are to be believed). Now, faced with Bobby’s deadpan stare, Castiel feels like he could have continued to not speak to Bobby. 

“It’s a stressful time,” he bites out. “Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be hunting a demon?” 

Bobby’s beard twitches. “Sam took care of it, and Rufus already left to try and pick up another one. Asshole said he ‘couldn’t be around that many teenage hormones without puking.’ Hope he trips and breaks his leg.” 

Castiel frowns. “None of the psychics are teenagers.” Thank god for that small mercy: housing twenty-two-year-old young adults is difficult enough. Housing teenagers would be worse. Not to mention illegal. “What was he—” 

Bobby shifts and ducks his head in a decidedly guilty way. Castiel stares, and then the pieces click together in his head. “Oh. Oh.” He grimaces. “I didn’t know that you and Ellen were—” 

Bobby clears his throat, loudly and emphatically. Castiel might not be great at reading nonverbal cues, but that one is clear enough even for him. He snaps his mouth shut, turning back to his rag and scrubbing the bar with renewed vigor. Great. Now, in addition to the twenty other things that he has to avoid thinking about, he also has to avoid thinking about Ellen with Bobby. 

Bobby sighs. Without waiting for an invitation, he settles on a stool and raps his knuckles against the bar. “No chance of a drink in this place?” 

Castiel debates not serving Bobby, but eventually he slides a bottle of beer across the bar towards him. He does make sure that it’s the cheapest brand they sell. Bobby’s frown tells him that his pettiness hasn’t gone unnoticed, but he doesn’t say anything about it. 

“So, I never bothered to ask you how you’re dealing with all of this.” Bobby waves his hand, encompassing the bar. “Everything. Having a bunch of psychics and hunters crash your home.” 

Castiel shrugs. “I’m the one who invited them here. There’s a few more people than I first counted on, but that’s the life, right? You make your sacrifices?” 

“Right.” Bobby sips at his beer. “Sacrifices. I guess you’d know something about that.” 

Castiel gets the feeling that Bobby is hedging towards a specific point. He also gets the feeling that he doesn’t want to be sober for this conversation. Even though Ellen would bitch at him, he reaches under the bar and grabs a beer of his own. Bobby doesn’t say anything as he pops the cap and takes a quick drink. 

“No more than anyone else.” Castiel doesn’t know Bobby’s full story, but he knows the shadowy outline of it: tragedy, death and revenge. The three motivating factors behind almost every hunter. He doesn’t want to dip into either of their pasts; besides, he doubts that Bobby cornered him to talk about their respective sob stories. 

Bobby finishes his beer. Without really thinking about it, Castiel passes him another one. He’s only halfway through his drink, but he already wishes he’d picked something stronger. The glass bottles above the bar beckon him with their soothing, amber liquid. 

“Sometimes those sacrifices become a part of who we are,” Bobby begins. “Sometimes, they’re so huge that we can’t see around them to anything else in our life.” 

Castiel starts to see the edge of the conversation that Bobby is tiptoeing around. He wants no part of it, but he also can’t figure out a way to excuse himself that doesn’t involve burning down the bar. As a last-ditch resort, he grabs one of the top-shelf bottles of whiskey and puts it down on the counter like a challenge. He pours Bobby a generous three fingers of whiskey and passes the glass across the bar. As an afterthought, he pours a smaller one for himself. 

Bobby tosses his shot back and holds the glass out for more, never taking his eyes off of Castiel. Castiel refills Bobby’s glass, and under the old hunter’s watchful eyes, he drinks his shot. He’s not a lightweight, by any means (a naturally high tolerance and growing up in a bar both contribute heavily to that fact), but the whiskey is strong, and he can already feel a telltale tingling in the tips of his fingers. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Castiel says thickly. He refills Bobby’s glass on autopilot. His mind is so consumed with everything that he shouldn’t say, he barely notices the burn of the whiskey as it roars down his gullet. “You deal with it. That’s all you can do.” 

“Weird you should say that.” This time, Castiel refreshes his own drink first. His hand is a little less than steady when he reaches out to pour more into Bobby’s glass. The lip of the bottle clinks against the rim of the cup. For Castiel, it’s a huge lapse of control, but Bobby is kind enough not to mention it. 

Either that, or he’s working an angle, and Castiel’s clumsiness isn’t an obstacle. 

“I know someone else who thinks just like that. Weird, how much you and Dean think alike.” Bobby blithely continues, like he didn’t catch Castiel’s obvious flinch. “I know that boy would walk through the fires of Hell itself if he thought it would keep someone that he cared about safe.” 

A lump builds in Castiel’s throat, and the only thing that makes it better is taking another shot. He’s reached the point where he doesn’t even notice the burn of the whiskey. He should be more bothered about that than he actually is, but all of his concentration is taken up by Bobby. 

In the futile hope that it’ll shut the old man up, Castiel slides a full glass across the bar. Bobby takes it and swallows the drink with demure politeness. If he’s affected by the copious amounts of alcohol he’s drunk, he gives no sign of it. 

“Thing about Dean that you have to know,” Bobby says, as easily as if he and Castiel were having a real conversation, “is that he doesn’t know what he’s feeling half the time.” Finally deciding to skip the middleman, Bobby takes the whiskey bottle out of Castiel’s limp fingers and pours himself another drink. 

Dumbfounded, Castiel watches him. Though he’s standing, he can’t actually feel his legs. It’s only by leaning across the bar that he’s managing to remain upright at all. If he were to move the slightest inch in either direction, he would topple to the floor. 

“Thing is, John Winchester might have been a good dad at one point, but that all died when Mary Winchester did. After that, he was raising soldiers, not sons, and Dean bore the brunt of it.” 

“Thought he was your friend,” Castiel says. He enunciates each word carefully and slowly, trying to keep Bobby from realizing how drunk he is. He fails to consider that speaking so deliberately only makes him appear more inebriated. 

“Maybe once upon a time, but John Winchester is a mean son of a bitch who drove away anyone who was ever stupid enough to care for him.” There’s rancor in Bobby’s voice, but it’s old, like a wound long since scabbed over. “But you knew that. You met him.” 

“Sort of. He was possessed by a demon.” 

“Probably an improvement on his temperament.” Bobby taps his fingers on the counter. “Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that being raised like that, with a Dad who cared more about how many times you could hit the target with a shotgun than what you brought home on your report cards… It damages you.” 

Castiel swallows another two fingers of whiskey. This time, he feels every bit of the burn as the whiskey crawls down his throat. He slams the glass down on the counter, not caring when liquid slops out to splash over his knuckles. 

“I watched my possessed little brother murder my parents and play with their entrails.” 

The words hang, stark and ugly, in the air. Castiel hadn’t meant to say them; having said them, he’s not quite sure why he did. Perhaps he wanted to shock Bobby. Maybe he just wants this conversation to be over. Either way, he’s disappointed. Bobby’s eyes widen, but he absorbs the words like a blow, taking another sip of his whiskey. 

“Just…” Castiel grips the edge of the counter. His legs, untrustworthy to begin with, are wobbling. He feels, suddenly, like he might vomit. “We all have our stuff,” he finishes lamely. 

“I ain’t saying you’re not fucked in the head too, but it ain’t a competition,” Bobby says calmly. “Just maybe think you could understand how growing up like that might make you a little hesitant to get close to people, when all you’ve known is people leaving.” 

Something about Bobby’s words penetrates through the haze surrounding Castiel’s mind and strikes at a particular memory. He bites his lip as he thinks back to that afternoon in the hospital, when Dean tottered out into the waiting room and told him that John had already left. He’d hidden it well, but there was anger and confusion in his eyes. Worse, however, was the resignation, like Dean had never expected anything different. 

When all you’ve known is people leaving. 

“He deserves more,” Castiel finds himself saying. “He deserves…” He manages to stop before he embarrasses himself further, but the damage has already been done. 

Bobby looks over him again. There’s a shrewdness in his eyes that wasn’t present before, but it’s tempered with something gentle. “He deserves someone who understands that sometimes, he’s a damned idiot, but is still willing to stick around anyway.” 

Castiel’s stomach clenches uncomfortably. He chooses to think that it’s because of the distillery churning in his stomach rather than any other reason. 

Bobby stands. If there’s any unsteadiness to his movements, Castiel’s muddled eyes certainly can’t find it. Bobby finishes off the drink in front of him. He deliberately sets the glass down and looks at Castiel. 

“Just don’t give up. God knows, he’s had enough of that.” 

Castiel tries to nod, but moving his head proves to be a bad decision as the world spins alarmingly. The floor and ceiling switch places while the walls start swirling. Colors blend together in a dizzying twist, and Castiel thinks that gravity is about to take its toll on his body before a rough hand on his cheek brings him back down to earth. 

Bobby pats his cheek again, violence and comfort both in the gesture. Castiel looks at him with helpless, lost eyes, and Bobby doesn’t blink for several long minutes. He must be satisfied with whatever he sees as he delivers one final pat before walking towards the door. Castiel thinks that he hears him mutter, “Two idjits deserve one another,” but he’s not sure. 

Jo enters the Roadhouse as Bobby’s leaving. Castiel doesn’t catch what passes between them, but when Jo comes to stand beside him, she’s prepared to deal with him listing to the side. She easily props him up with her hip and reaches over to take the mostly empty bottle of whiskey. 

“What do you think?” she asks, her voice reaching a grating pitch that seems genetically engineered to cause him the maximum amount of pain and irritation. “Do you wanna finish this off or call it a night?” 

Castiel winces. He would walk away, but he’s not wholly sure he could make it out under his own power at the moment. “Fuck off,” he grumbles, dropping his head forward. He’s just aware enough to know that he’s going to be miserable tomorrow. 

“Oh, it speaks.” Jo bumps his hips with hers, and Castiel clutches at the bar to keep himself from toppling over. 

“How the fuck is Bobby still walking?” he grumbles. “He had as much as I had. More, probably.” 

“Oh, he’s three sheets to the wind,” Jo says cheerfully. “He’s just a lot better at hiding it than you. Probably has a hollow leg where all the alcohol goes.” 

“Great.” Castiel makes a clumsy reach for the bottle, but Jo easily jerks it out of his fingers. 

“You’ve had enough, dumbass. Anyway, Bobby’s annoying, but that doesn’t explain why you’re trying to murder your liver at four in the afternoon.” 

“Because I have to live with assholes,” Castiel mutters. He’s punished by sharp fingers digging in between his ribs. He tries to wriggle away in a manner that doesn't compromise his grip on the counter. 

“Well, you’re an asshole, so you fit in well.” 

Castiel glares at Jo through the fringe of his hair. He can’t keep it up for long, however, especially not when he’s feeling miserable. 

Jo grins and drops her head to his shoulder. “Cheer up, sourpuss. Go get yourself laid. You’re always a little bit nicer when that happens.” 

Castiel jerks his head up. His glare is back in full force as he says, “Not sure that I actually want you thinking about that.” Defeat weighs heavy on his shoulders and his head lolls forward once more. “Besides, I’m never going to get laid again.” 

“Not with that attitude you’re not.” Jo ruffles his hair, which wouldn’t be excruciating, except it feels like his skull is painfully tight on his brain. “Just your luck that you pick the one person on this earth who’s just as emotionally stunted as you.” 

She wedges her shoulder into his armpit and starts towards the door. Castiel leans against her, more than he would like to admit, as she guides him out of the Roadhouse and towards the farmhouse. On their way there, they pass Jess, who looks after them with mingled amusement and concern. Jo turns her head, probably to mouth something worrying at Jess, but Castiel is trying to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, so he misses whatever she says. 

The stairs prove to be his undoing. Jo, always good at improvisation, dumps him on the couch in the living room. Castiel, by now accustomed to the room spinning around him, doesn’t even bother to complain about the spring that seems determined to escape the confines of the cushion and poke him right in the small of his back. 

“Who knows,” Jo says, mock tenderness in her voice as she comes back from the kitchen with a glass of water and a few aspirin, “maybe one of you can manage to pull your head out of your ass sometime this century.” 

Castiel cracks an eye open. He hopes his expression is sufficiently terrifying to warn Jo against making any other jokes, but Jo hasn’t been intimidated by him in years. Instead, Castiel chooses to hit below the belt. 

“Tough words for someone who’s been nursing a crush for weeks. Tell you what: you can ride my ass about my crush after you make a move on Ava. Until then, get off my dick about it.” 

“Isn’t that the problem?” Jo asks, a little too innocently. “No one’s on your dick?” 

Even though both his head and his stomach regret it, Castiel doesn’t feel the least bit bad about seizing one of the throw pillows on the couch and swinging it at Jo’s head. 

devils trap divider

The Roadhouse is empty when Jess enters, stomping her feet to get rid of both the cold and the persistent bit of mud clinging to the edge of her boot. She finds the thermostat and cranks up the heat, wincing when the ancient furnace rattles to life. If she breaks anything, Ellen is probably going to kill her, but it’s so cold in the Roadhouse that she can literally see her breath. 

The door creaks open and a blast of cold air bursts in along with Jo. She shakes her long hair out from underneath the collar of her jacket before slipping behind the bar. 

“Is Cas okay?” Jess asks. He didn’t look hurt, more like he tried to drink a liquor store by himself, but that does raise the question of what could have driven Cas to drink so early in the afternoon. 

“He’s fine. Just stupid.” Jess’ eyebrow rises in question, and Jo explains. “He’s pining after the less-tall drink of water, but you didn’t hear it from me.” 

Jess is just about to offer her sympathies — if anyone knows how frustrating the Winchesters can be it’s her — but she’s interrupted by the sound of the Roadhouse door banging open. On reflex, her hand drops to her waistband, where she has a knife stashed, but she relaxes when she sees Ava. She doesn’t relax completely, however, because Ava looks like she’s sincerely considering murder. Jess has seen Ava pull demons out of hosts and move rusting steel drums around the backyard without breaking a sweat, so the thought of her contemplating violence is a little terrifying. 

Jo, however, doesn’t look phased in the slightest. “Hey, sunshine,” she says, leaning over the bar counter. “You’re looking a little tense.” 

Tense is not how Jess would describe Ava’s mood. Homicidal might be a better adjective. When Ava doesn’t crack a smile, Jo’s expression falls. “Hey, what happened?” she asks. Her hand twitches, like she wants to reach out towards Ava, but she thinks better of it. 

In answer, Ava wrenches at the ring on her left hand. It hits the counter and ricochets off it, to be lost in the shadows of the Roadhouse. 

“Oh,” Jess says. 

“Apparently, he couldn’t wait for me anymore,” Ava says tightly. “He told me that if I didn't come back to Peoria by next weekend, we were through. So, I said, we’re through, and that’s the end. Not really a complicated story.” 

Jo’s face goes through an interesting journey before she offers, “You know, if you wanted to go back home…” 

“No.” Ava’s voice is harsh, but she softens it when she looks at Jo. “Truth be told, this was probably always going to happen. This just… accelerated the process. I’m not even really that sad, I’m just…” She tosses up her hands. “Anyway, that’s why I came here. I want to get super drunk, and the wine coolers in the annex fridge are so not going to cut it.”

Jo’s forehead furrows in concentration and then she nods decisively. “Alright, that’s it.” She turns to Jess. “Go get Pamela. The two sad sacks who come in on Sunday nights can drink someplace else. We’re closing down and having a girls' night. All booze, no testosterone.” 

When Jess entered the Roadhouse, she thought she might help out at the bar to keep busy, but as alternatives go, a girls' night doesn't sound too bad. Girls' nights at Stanford were giggly, squealing affairs, filled with too many brightly colored shots and too much body glitter. Somehow, Jess doesn’t think that Jo's version will be like that. If they’re lucky, they’ll still have all their fingers by the end of the night. 

“Hurry, or we’ll start drinking without you,” Jo orders. She pours a shot for Ava and then takes a quick slug for herself. Clearly, putting poor Cas to sleep earlier didn't warn her off the perils of alcohol.

Though Jess isn't wild about venturing outside, especially after she’s just managed to get warmed up, there’s no arguing with Jo’s expression. Jess steels herself and pulls on her coat. The cold makes her cover the distance from the Roadhouse to the farmhouse in record time. 

She finds Cas on the living room couch. A small puddle of drool collects underneath his cheek, and tiny snores rumble through his chest. A waste bin is stuck close to the couch, and Jess winces. 

“Pamela?” she calls, pitching her voice low to avoid waking Cas. 

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about him,” Ellen says as she sidles up next to Jess. While the look she gives Cas is a little judgmental, there’s still fondness in her eyes. “Trust me, he won't be waking up for at least another few hours.” She rolls her eyes. “I just got through putting the other idiot to bed." At Jess' questioning glance, she adds, "Bobby. Damn fools got themselves into some kind of pissing contest. I guess the goal was to see who could obliterate their liver faster.” A rueful smile tugs at her lips when she looks back at Jess. “What did you want, sweetie?” 

“Um, well…” Though the rules weren’t clearly laid out, Jess is almost positive that Jo doesn’t want her mother invited to girls' night. “I was actually looking for Pamela. Jo wanted to see her.” 

Ellen frowns slightly. “Well, Pam’s upstairs, but I’m not sure why Jo wants…” 

“It’s girls’ night!” Pamela’s boots echo on the stairs as she comes downstairs. Her outfit is all black leather and heavy boots, like she’s planning to go out clubbing or possibly commit murder in a dark alley. “Come on, Ellen, they’re waiting for us.” 

Ellen looks a little less than convinced, but Pamela is a force of nature not to be ignored. She leads the way towards the Roadhouse, with Ellen and Jess in tow. When they enter, Jo looks towards them. Her expression is thunderous as she meets Jess’ eyes. 

“You invited my mom?” 

Ellen scowls. “Who taught you how to drink in the first place?” She walks to the bar and neatly plucks the shot glass out of Jo’s fingers. Without missing a beat, she tosses the shot back. “Besides, if you're gonna be closing down my bar for the night, the least you can do is let me embarrass you in front of your friends."

Jo scowls, but doesn’t say anything else. She does look towards Ava several times, which leads Jess to suspect there were multiple reasons why Jo didn’t want Ellen here tonight. Jess feels a little guilty and accepts the beer that Jo passes her with some anxiety. 

“It’s not poisoned, is it?” She’s only partially joking. 

Jo lifts a shoulder in a begrudging shrug. “No. She was probably gonna get wind of this and show up sooner or later anyway."

Ellen and Pamela take a bottle of tequila and set up shop at one of the tables. They seem intent on their own conversation and inclined to ignore what Jo, Ava and Jess are doing, which is probably for the best. Jess and Jo are immersed in teaching Ava how to handle a butterfly knife, and it’s entirely possible that someone is going to end up bleeding by the end of the demonstration. 

This is a realization that Ava comes to fairly quickly. “I don’t think I want to do this right now,” she says, handing the blade back to Jo. Jess pretends not to notice how dramatically Jo’s expression drops. “Not that I'm not interested in learning about knives,” Jo’s expression perks right back up, “but maybe some other time. When I'm not in such a shitty mood."

“I mean, I guess that’s cool.”

Jo does a terrible job at sounding anything other than grumpy, but Ava doesn’t notice. She hisses as she bends over and presses her fingers into her temples. Jo is immediately at her side, supporting Ava as she leans back into the seat. 

“Are you alright?” Jess asks. “Do you need me to get you anything? Water? Aspirin?” 

“No, it’ll pass.” Ava’s face is pale, but her voice is still strong. “I just get headaches sometimes. Pamela says it’s from the psychic stuff. It’s a lot of work for my brain and sometimes it just gets angry. Kind of like a muscle cramp, but, you know. In my brain.” 

“Here. Let me.” More tenderly than Jess would have thought possible, Jo sweeps Ava’s hair aside and starts to work her fingers into the tense muscles of her neck. A tiny smile plays over Ava’s lips and her eyes drift closed after just a few seconds. 

“Oh,” she murmurs, leaning back into Jo’s touch. “Oh, you’re good at this.” 

Jo’s fingers drift over Ava’s skin. Feeling like a third wheel, Jess quickly grabs a bottle of rum and makes her escape. Whatever’s happening between Jo and Ava, they certainly don’t need Jessica Moore being a voyeur. 

She makes her way to Ellen and Pamela’s table, pulling up a spare chair and dropping into it. Neither woman seems surprised to see her. Ellen picks up the bottle of tequila and offers it as a toast. “To drinking too much and making bad decisions. If the men in our lives can do it, then why can’t we?” 

Pamela takes a drink directly from the bottle and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “So, what brings you over here, Blondie? You want a palm reading?” Pamela snickers at a joke Jess isn’t privy to. 

“Are you going to charge me?” 

“Free for friends and family,” Pamela says breezily. 

If she were a little drunker, Jess might accept. However, she’s just sober enough to know that it’s never a good idea to start poking into your own fate. 

“Have to turn you down on that one.” Jess carefully lays her hand palm down on the table, just to ward off temptation. Pamela shrugs — she probably anticipated that answer. “Must be nice sometimes though,” Jess muses. “Being able to see the future,” she explains. “Or at least the possibilities."

“Not as nice as you think,” Pamela says. Her voice is uncharacteristically serious. “Whoever said ‘ignorance is bliss’ was on to something.” 

Before Jess can figure out what to say to that, her attention is caught by the scrape of a chair against the floor. Ellen stands up, flicking tequila towards the opposite side of the room. 

Jess follows Ellen’s gaze to find her vision overtaken with the image of Jo kissing Ava. For someone whose engagement ended just a few hours ago, Ava certainly looks happy. There’s no hesitation in her kiss, and her arms wind easily around Jo’s neck, pulling her closer. 

Good for them, Jess thinks. 

Jo snarls in displeasure as tequila splashes her face. She pulls away from Ava and glares at her mother. “Mom, what the hell?"

“Joanna Beth, if you think that I raised you to make out with someone in public, then—” 

“Relax, would you? At least you don’t have to worry about me getting pregnant.” 

Ellen gives the tequila bottle that's still in her hand a threatening shake. “Oh, so you think you don’t have to bother being safe? You want genital herpes on your mouth? Ava, honey, I’m not saying you've got anything, but if anyone's mouth is going on anyone’s genitals—” 

“Oh god. Oh god. My mom just said ‘genitals’. Girls’ night is over. Goodbye.” With almost superhuman speed, Jo hustles both herself and Ava out of the Roadhouse. Jess blinks at the space where they used to be. Clearly, she isn't drunk enough for this. 

“Aw, Ellen, didja have to chase them out? Young love is so precious.” 

“Like hell I’m gonna watch my daughter suck face right in front of me. I don’t care who she does it with, but there’s some things that a mom just doesn’t need to see.” Ellen stretches. Though she tries to hide it, there’s a pleased smile to her face. “Anyway, I’d better clean up. Between the boys and the girls, this place is a mess.” 

“Well, if you’re cleaning, that’s my cue to leave. I’ll just take my good friend Jose and head on to bed.” Pamela lifts her tequila bottle in a silent salute and vanishes into the cold night air. She leaves only Jess and Ellen in the bar, alone with the twanging music blasting from the jukebox. Feeling useless, Jess grabs one of the bar cloths and starts to wipe off the tables. 

“Jess, sweetie, you don’t have to stay and help,” Ellen says. 

Jess shrugs. “It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do.” 

“I’m sure you have plenty of better things to do.” 

Jess wipes the counter. “I was thinking I’d give my sister a call later tonight just to check in. I know she worries.” 

“It’s hard,” Ellen says, her voice soft. “To know that someone you love is out there, facing all of the things that go bump in the night, and that there’s no guarantee they’ll come back alive.” 

Jess thinks about Ellen, trying to keep a household running while her husband was off hunting, then left alone to raise two children. She thinks of her parents and how they would pace around the house every time Aggie went on a hunt. She thinks of the emails she gets from her parents and Aggie, like clockwork, every week. She thinks of how she feels every time Sam goes out for a hunt without her, the persistent worry that gnaws at her chest and that’s only satisfied when she sees him again. 

Ellen goes behind the bar and pulls out two beers. She pops the top off of the bottles with a single, easy motion before passing one to Jess. She keeps the other for herself and kills the neck in a single gulp. Feeling a little woozy, Jess just sips at her beer. She’s already crossed the line from "tipsy" into "drunk" and she suspects that Ellen is rapidly approaching that line. Her eyes are unfocused as one fingernail picks at the label of her beer, peeling the paper off in tiny strips. The jukebox whirs and switches to another song. 

“I’m happy for her.” Ellen’s voice is gentler than Jess has ever heard it before, and she gets the sense that she’s seeing a side of her that not many people see: the soft underbelly underneath the fierce defenses. “Jo likes to pretend she’s big and bad, and god knows she’s got enough bite to back up her bark, but she’s soft too. I remember how she used to follow Bill around his workshop, always wanting to know what he was doing.” 

Jess doesn’t say anything, sensing that Ellen doesn’t need either her support or input. 

“It’s nice to see her smile and laugh again. After Bill… Well, I knew that I’d lost Cas to hunting, but I was so terrified of losing Jo as well. She was so angry. And now, she’s laughing, she’s making friends, she’s…” Ellen looks up at Jess. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to keep her smiling. We’ve got to find this demon and end it, because it’s all so damn fragile. One hunt… One bad night, and everything can be snatched away.” 

Jess nods. Her mouth goes dry as she thinks back to Sam’s visions: her, burning on the ceiling; Sam, left alone… She’s tried not to think about how close she came, how she and Sam almost had their one bad night. 

“I don’t know much about life or anything like that,” Ellen says, finishing off her beer, “but what I’ve learned is simple. You take the people that you love, and you stay with them. You keep them safe for as long as you can, and you enjoy every second of it.” 

Dozens of emotions bubble in Jess’ chest. She’ll blame Ellen’s words for some, alcohol for others. She wants to go to bed, but most of all, she wants to curl up in Sam’s arms and bury her nose in the center of his chest so she can smell the cheap laundry detergent he favors. 

It can all disappear in an instant. Jess knows this, but she’s taken both herself and Sam for granted these past weeks.

Watching Ellen take another deep gulp of her beer, she vows to do better. 

Chapter Text

A strange peace settles over Sam as he makes his way down the hall of the annex, his laundry basket propped on his hip.

Though he’s currently living in a tiny space, shoved together with a bunch of psychics and hunters, he’s content. The last time he felt like this, he’d just gotten the results from his mid-term exams and had a professor tell him that she thought his chances of getting into Stanford Law were pretty good. 

His life has changed so much since then, but for the past few days or so, it feels like everything’s been going his way. He finally managed to gank his first demon, and seeing the black smoke curl out of the man’s mouth was one of the best sights of his life. It felt like Sam was drawing something out of himself, sucking poison from the wound. Better yet, the host was still alive. Seeing the man's tearful face and accepting his quiet thanks imbued Sam with a sense of purpose; a certain knowledge that the work they're all doing here is worthwhile. 

Meanwhile, things with Jess are the best they’ve been since Stanford. While they’re still sleeping in separate rooms, they’ve been sharing their meals, and their conversation has been close to effortless. Their fingers have tangled as they’ve relaxed and watched shows on Sam’s laptop, and one memorable night, Jess’ head even fell on his shoulder as her eyes grew heavy. 

So, yeah. He’s content.

As he passes Dean’s room, a sound draws his attention. He pauses, his laundry basket growing heavy as he cocks his ear towards the door and listens. That’s definitely Dean’s ringtone, but his brother isn’t answering the phone. Sam’s forehead furrows in concern. It’s not like Dean to leave his cell phone unattended, but then again, Dean’s been weird the past few days. As much as Sam feels like his life is finally taking a turn for the better, Dean seems to be going in the opposite direction. Ever since they got back from Lawrence, he’s been moody and withdrawn, snappish when confronted, and downright unpleasant when he’s been drinking. 

Another jangle of Dean’s ringtone shakes Sam out of his thoughts. He raps on Dean’s door with the knuckles of his free hand. “Dean?” 

The door swings open, revealing an empty room. Dean’s phone is on the desk, and Sam can see it lighting up with the call. A quick glance at the display shows that the number calling is a blocked one, which isn’t entirely unusual for their lifestyle (quite a lot of hunters end up on law enforcement watch lists), but it also sends another little squirm of foreboding through Sam’s stomach. 

Despite his disquiet, Sam picks up the phone and answers. “Hello?” 

The hiss and click of static is the only answer. Sam contemplates hanging up before the line finally clears. 

“Dean?” 

The voice is raspy and thinner than he’s ever heard it, but it’s unmistakable. Sam’s knees go weak as eighteen years of hearing that voice slam into him. The laundry basket falls to the ground, clothes spilling out around Sam’s feet. Just like that, Sam isn’t twenty-two years old and a promising pre-law student with his future ahead of him. He isn’t even an aspiring hunter and demon killer. He’s seven years old, terrified, and tiny with it.

“Dad?”

A pause follows. “Sam?” 

At that vague confirmation, Sam sees red. “If you’re calling Dean, I hope it’s to apologize for the shit you pulled at the hospital.” Another pause, and Sam can almost hear Dad trying to figure out what he’s talking about. The fact that John doesn’t already know sends another flare of righteous rage through Sam. “You know, the part where Dean was unconscious and had almost died the night before, and you just left without even speaking to him?”

“I checked in on him before I left. He was going to be fine.” There’s no reason why Dad’s casual dismissal should cut Sam to the quick, but it does. “I did what was best for Dean. It’s not safe for us to all be in the same place. These things, demons, they'll take what you love and use it against you, and that’s what they’d do to us. We’re not safer together, Sam. We’re vulnerable.” 

For a second, the old instincts rise: to accept the sharp note of censure in Dad’s voice, to quietly seethe, to submit rather than provoke another explosion of rage and derision. But Sam isn’t a child anymore, and at this point, he’s done more for his family than John Winchester ever did. 

“I’m not Dean, so don’t try that bullshit on me,” he spits, and he’s surprised at how a weight lifts off his shoulders. “You did what was best for you, same as always.” 

There’s more that Sam could say, twenty-two years of pent-up anger that just begs to be released. But there's no point trying to get Dad to own up to his mistakes, so instead, he mumbles, “What do you want anyway? Clearly, you’re not calling to check up on us.” 

Dad doesn’t skip a beat, and the briskness in his voice says that this is what he was waiting for all along. “There’s a stretch of road outside Burkittsville, Indiana that’s haunted. Every year, a couple goes missing from that area, always at the same time. This is a time-sensitive hunt, and there’s no way I can make it there, so if you and Dean are closer, I need you to work it.”

The rising wave of rage in Sam’s chest is doused by the sound of Dean’s door opening. Startled, Sam turns towards the sound. Ellen stares back at him, one eyebrow cocked in surprise. 

“Wasn’t expecting to find you here. I was looking for your brother; do you know where he is?” 

Ignoring the voice that emerges from the phone (Is that Ellen Harvelle?), Sam swallows and shrugs. “I think he was out with Bobby?”

Ellen looks at the phone for just a second too long. Something complicated passes over her face, and when she looks back at Sam, her expression is carefully blank. “Okay, thanks for letting me know. I’ll look outside.” 

She withdraws, closing the door behind her. The click of the latch feels oddly accusatory. Swallowing down the bitter taste in his mouth, Sam turns his attention back to the phone. 

“Are you at the Roadhouse? What’s Bobby doing there?”

A frisson of fear shudders through Sam. He remembers the last time they had any contact with Dad: how Dean was lured someplace and found only a monster waiting for him. And now, inadvertently, Sam’s given Dad their exact location. 

“Christo,” he spits into the phone. Though he won’t be able to see any physical effects, he should be able to hear the demon’s distress. 

Only silence follows the words. Then, Dad says, much softer than before, “I’m not possessed, Sam.” 

“Well, you taught us to be cautious,” Sam spits. “And the last time any of us heard from you, you were possessed. That was right before you left your son in the hospital without even bothering to leave him a message. You think you can call whenever you want and we’ll just obey? We’re not your soldiers, sir, and we’ve got other things to do.” 

Sam viciously punches at the red button to end the call. He tosses Dean’s phone onto the bed as though it’s scalded him and spends long seconds staring at it. His hands are shaking as he bends over to gather the clothes back into the laundry basket. They’re probably dirty from having been on the floor, but there’s no way in hell that he’s going to wash them again. 

He manages to make it back to his room without suffering any major disasters. Once there, he collapses onto his bed. Sharp pain tugs at his scalp as he runs his fingers through his hair. He’d thought he was over it, that instinct to be in awe of his dad, but one conversation has the ability to strip away everything he’s gained and make him nothing more than a puny pre-teen. 

Worse, now he has to figure out how to tell Dean about this. 

***

As anticipated, Dean is less than pleased. 

“What the fuck?” he snaps, his fingers tightening around the counter. He looks like he wants to take a swing, and Sam’s glad for the kitchen island separating them. “Dad finally calls and you didn’t think to get me?” 

“I’m not your secretary. Plus, if you’d bothered to keep your phone on you, you would've gotten the call yourself. Don’t blame me because you forgot it.” 

Dean’s face turns a deep shade of pink. If it weren’t for Bobby’s presence, Sam doesn’t know what his brother would do, but the sharp clap of a hand against Dean’s shoulder has the effect of deflating him. The tight set of his shoulders says that he’s still furious, but he looks a little less like he wants to jump across the counter and start throwing punches. At the opposite end of the kitchen, Ellen is doing a good job of pretending as though she’s not there, but Sam can see, by the tilt of her head, that she’s listening to every word.

“What did he say?” Dean finally mumbles. “Dad. What did he want?” 

Sam recounts the information and then watches as Dean’s spine straightens. With instructions from their father, no matter how paltry, Dean looks a little more like he’s regained a sense of himself. “Well, how soon can you be packed? If we leave in the next hour, it’ll be after dark by the time we get into town, but we’ll be ready to start the next morning.”

Sam narrows his eyes. “Hold on, you’re thinking about actually going on this hunt?” 

Dean lifts his chin. Defiance sparks in his eyes. “And you’re not? People are dying — people will die, according to Dad — and you’re just going to let them?” Dean’s lip curls, but then something seems to soften in him. His shoulders return to their normal stance as he says, “Sammy, it doesn’t matter how we found out about this hunt. We can’t let people die when there’s something we can do about it.” 

“He’s right, you know,” Ellen says, shattering the illusion that she wasn’t listening to their every word. 

“Yeah, but Bobby can call someone,” Sam argues. He can’t escape the feeling that he’s caught in an elaborate trap. The feeling is only worsened by the silent conversation Ellen and Bobby are carrying on with nothing more than their eyebrows. “There are plenty of hunters out there, and probably some that are closer. It doesn’t mean that we need to go. I’ve got training with the rest of the psychics, and Dean has…” Sam trails off lamely. He’s not actually sure what Dean has to do, but there has to be something that’s keeping Dean away from the rest of humanity. 

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about the psychics,” Bobby says. He sounds as cheerful as Sam’s ever heard him. “Pamela's giving them a couple days from demon training so us veterans can kick their ass with weapons training. You definitely don’t need any help in figuring out how to load a pistol, and you’d probably just make 'em feel bad.” 

“I think I heard Jess say the other day how much she'd enjoy stretching her legs. It’s been a while since you two have gone anywhere by yourselves.” There's a mischievous gleam in Ellen's eyes, and Sam is almost certain Jess hasn’t said anything of the sort. 

“Nah, I’ll go with Sam. In and out, it won’t even take a weekend.” There’s something almost desperate in Dean’s tone as he argues with Ellen, like he can’t bear the thought of being stuck at the Roadhouse for another day. 

Sam’s willing to sacrifice time with Jess if it's that important to Dean, but Bobby is less sympathetic. “No, I’m gonna need you here. You’ve been doing a hell of a good job maintaining the salt lines around the Roadhouse, and Rufus is due back any minute with another black-eyed bastard, so we'll need to keep them in good condition.” 

“Take Jess with you on that hunt, Sam,” Ellen says. Though she’s smiling, she reminds Sam of nothing so much as a predator, closing in for the kill. “You two have been miserable, dancing around each other all this time. This might help.”

Sam glares at Ellen. Not even the sound of the door opening and closing and Rufus’ shout of “Is someone gonna help me with the hell spawn stuck in my trunk or not?” shakes his concentration. 

“Ellen’s right," Bobby says, flat and final. "You two idjits need to get off your ass and stop pining after each other. Ain’t no better aphrodisiac in the world than pulling off a good hunt together.” 

“We'd be the ones to know,” Ellen says, a little saucily. 

Dead silence follows her words. Sam puts the pieces together a fraction of a second before Dean, but it’s Dean who pulls back from the counter with a short cry of revulsion. 

“Oh, gross!” His ire seems mostly focused on Bobby. “You… You’re…” 

What exactly Bobby is will remain a mystery, as Rufus’ exclamation of disgust is louder, if possible, than Dean’s. “Oh, what the hell did I walk into, hearing y'all talk about bumping nasties. Why I didn’t just get ripped to shreds so I didn’t have to endure that, I don’t know—”

Rufus’ complaints echo through the house as he leaves. The door slams behind him, but they can still hear the faint rise and fall of his voice as he demands that someone help him haul the demon out of his trunk and to the heavily warded shed. 

Ellen’s smile is a little forced, but she still manages to chirp, “So, have fun on your hunt, Sam!” 

devils trap divider

By mid-afternoon, Sam and Jess are on the road to Indiana, leaving Dean to face the fact that he doesn’t have an excuse to escape the Roadhouse and the uncomfortable tension between him and Cas for the foreseeable future.

So he does the next-best thing: he retreats to his bedroom with a six-pack swiped from the Roadhouse’s storeroom and the old, battered copy of True Grit that he keeps in his trunk, along with other old favorites like Slaughterhouse-Five and On the Road.

It’s a little early in the day to get drunk even by Dean’s standards, but in the privacy of his room, there’s no one to judge him. He kills the neck of the first bottle in a single gulp, trying not to think about the fact that the book he picked to pass the time is the same one Cas was reading when they first met.

He’s still on his first beer and hasn’t read further than the third page when his fragile peace is disturbed by a knock and a gruff, “You decent, boy?”

Bobby doesn’t actually wait for an answer — not that Dean was going to give him one — before he stomps into the room, settling down in the chair by Dean’s bed with a disgruntled huff.

“How much longer d’you plan on hiding out in your room like some sulky teenager?”

“What do you care? Shouldn’t you be spending time with your gal pal?” Dean snaps, then regrets it immediately. Bobby might be a surly bastard, but he was there for him and Sam when no one else was. 

“Sorry,” he mutters, clutching the condensation-slick beer bottle between his hands like a lifeline. “Don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

Bobby scoffs. “I do. Being back in Lawrence messed with your head." He leans back in his chair and stretches out his legs with a groan and a painful-sounding pop of joints. “I don’t blame you for that. What I do blame you for is taking it out on everybody else. Sam, for one. Who, by the way, has a good head on his shoulders that’s capable of making its own decisions. Even if that weren’t the case, he has plenty of people looking out for his well-being. Me, Ellen, Jess, Pamela — we all care about him.” Bobby’s eyes take on a steely glint, and Dean knows whatever he plans to say next will be too insightful for comfort. “He ain’t that helpless baby anymore, who had no one in the world but you.” 

Dean glares at Bobby, clenching his jaw to muzzle the defensive reaction that’s trying to spill out. He’s already had to apologize to Bobby once, and he might not be let off the hook so easily a second time.

“Don’t look at me like that, boy. You know I’m right. Your little brother’s all grown up, and it’s time to let him live his own life. Hell, if you can manage that, you might even get to live yours for once, too.”

When Dean trusts himself to speak, he says, “Don’t know if I can do that.” He looks down at his thumbs where they’re worrying at the soggy edges of the bottle’s label. And then it just spills out: the question that’s nagged at him for weeks now. “If I’m not looking out for Sam or helping Dad with his hunts, what am I good for?”

Bobby studies Dean’s face, something heavy and meaningful about his scrutiny. “Might be a good idea to ask Cas that question.”

Dean’s breath hitches, and the world tilts on its axis.

Bobby knows, a nasty voice hisses in the back of his head. He can tell. Dad was right after all: people can tell just by looking at you.

Right on cue, there’s that old memory again: two guys holding hands, just walking down the street, and a slur, hissed between his dad’s teeth: deviants.

Dean rubs at the three-day stubble on his cheek with the palm of his hand, trying to hide his reaction. When it feels safe to uncover his face and look at Bobby, the old man’s expression is dangerously close to pity.

“Dean, listen to me,” he says, leaning forward. “There is nothing wrong with you.”

Dean feels like the bottle should be shattering in his hand from how tightly he’s clutching it.

“You’re fine just as you are,” Bobby continues, refusing to look away, his stare pinning Dean in place. “You’re a good man, and you deserve to have the things you want.”

Bobby pauses, the silence between them stretching and expanding like spun glass, but Dean can’t think of a damn thing to say.

Apparently realizing this, Bobby rises off his chair and steps up to the bed, his hand landing heavily on Dean’s shoulder. Their eyes meet and hold until Dean finds that he has to look away.

With another disgruntled huff, Bobby leaves, and Dean spends a long time staring at the rest of the six-pack sitting on his bedside table. In the end, he grabs it and puts it in the annex fridge.

You deserve to have the things you want.

They’re nice words, and Dean wishes he could make himself believe them. Just for the sake of argument, he entertains the thought: what is it that he wants?

He wants a lot of things — some that are so big, he can’t stand to look at them head-on. But there’s one thing that seems manageable: he wants to be on good terms with Cas again; wants to see those blue eyes sparkle and that wry mouth quirk up at him.

He heads back to his room to bundle up in two flannels and his warmest jacket — which, honestly, isn’t all that warm — and braces himself to head out into the whistling winter wind.

As soon as he steps out of the annex’s front door, he bumps into someone going the other way. He mumbles a quick apology before he looks up, only to find himself inches from the very person he was trying to find.

Apparently just as aware as Dean of their sudden proximity, Cas takes a step back and ducks his head. “Hello. I, um. I was coming to look for you.”

“Yeah?” Dean says, unable to think of anything more eloquent.

Cas nods curtly, his eyes drifting off somewhere over Dean’s shoulder. “I’m working with Bobby and Rufus on teaching the psychics how to handle weapons properly. Bobby thought you might like to help us.” Cas tips his head, grimacing apologetically. “Well, he put it much less politely.”

“Did he tell you to get me off my lazy ass or there’d be hell to pay?” Dean asks. He grins and ducks his head to catch Cas’ eye, maybe get a small smile out of him. They haven’t properly looked at each other in days, and Dean didn’t quite realize how much he missed it until just now.

Cas doesn’t look back at Dean, but he makes a small noise in the back of his throat. It might not sound like much to the untrained observer, but Dean recognizes it as a laugh. “Something like that."

Apologies aren’t Dean’s strong suit, but for once, he finds himself wanting to make the effort.

“Hey,” Dean says, shuffling his feet like some nervous fifteen-year-old. “I’ve been kind of an asshole lately. Sorry.”

When Dean takes his eyes off his shoes, it’s to find that Cas is finally looking at him. God, he always forgets just how stunning the blue of his eyes is until he’s right in front of it. The relief in Cas’ expression puts the lie to his airy tone when he says, “I’ve learned to expect it as an inevitability. Death, taxes, and Dean Winchester being an asshole.”

“Yeah, well. That’s what you get for hanging around me, I guess.”

“And yet I keep doing it,” Cas says, moving a little closer so he can bump Dean’s shin with the side of his boot. “What does that make me?”

“That question’s a trap if I ever saw one." Dean tries to ignore how his leg is tingling where Cas touched it. God, he’s pathetic. “But I guess we better add Cas Harvelle being a fool to that list you made.”

Cas gives him a flat, deadpan sort of look. “Takes one to know one,” he says, and starts walking in the general direction of the farmhouse. “Just come on.”

As Cas moves past, he hunches his shoulders to hide his smile, but Dean can see the edges of it peeking out.

“Alright then. Lead the way, I guess."

Dean falls into step beside Cas as they head to the backyard of the farmhouse, where Bobby and Rufus have laid out an impressive arsenal of guns and knives. Ava, Scott, Max and Andy are eyeing it with expressions ranging from eager to wary. Jo is there too, arms wound around Ava’s waist from behind, chin tucked over her shoulder. Dean wonders vaguely when the hell that happened. Probably sometime over the several days he mostly spent sulking, checking salt lines, or getting drunk in his room.

Cas seems to catch the direction of Dean’s gaze. “Yeah, those two are attached at the everything these days.”

“Good for them, I guess,” Dean says vaguely, unsure whether or not Cas’ sister’s PDA is a safe subject to pursue. He’s saved from hearing Cas’ reply when the others notice them approaching.

“Hey, look who came out of hibernation,” Jo says, grinning.

“Long time no see, man,” Andy chimes in. “We were halfway convinced you either took off or died. Glad to see the rumors were greatly exaggerated.”

“Hey, rugrats!” Rufus barks at the group. “Are we here for training or to be Dean Winchester’s welcoming committee?”

“Can’t it be both?” Dean asks, to a couple of appreciative chuckles, but the only thing he’s focused on is the twitch at the corner of Cas’ mouth.

A sharp clap draws everyone’s attention to Bobby. “Alright, everybody, listen up. We’ve got four people who don’t know the business end of a gun from the seat of their pants, four experienced hunters, and one interloper who should be off at the Roadhouse helping her mom open up.”

Jo scowls at him and doesn't relinquish her hold on Ava’s waist. “I still think I should get to train Ava.”

“I’m not sure we’d get much training done,” Ava says, grinning as she twists to give Jo a peck on the cheek.

“Point,” Jo admits, but leans in for another, lingering kiss, this time on the mouth, before she extricates herself. She walks backward and holds eye contact with Ava until the corner of the farmhouse puts her out of sight, ignoring Bobby and Rufus’ grumbling. Dean catches Cas rolling his eyes at Jo’s antics, but his expression is fond.

Bobby splits them all into pairs, and Dean ends up working with Scott. He hasn’t really had much time to interact with the guy, but he seems nice enough.

“Do we start with those?” Scott asks, as he eyes the line of cans set up on a plank of wood about ten paces away.

“Ah, yeah, no,” Dean says, walking Scott over to the table where the guns are laid out. “Gotta walk before you can run. First of all, let’s talk about the rules for safe carrying.”

Dean goes over the basics — always assume a gun is loaded, keep the safety on until you’re ready to shoot, make sure your muzzle is pointed at the ground or straight up unless you’re actively aiming at something — while next to him, Bobby does the same with Ava.

It’s stuff Dean could explain in his sleep, so every once in a while, his attention drifts to the next table over, where Cas and Rufus are busy showing Max and Andy some of the basics of safe knife handling. Cas picks up a large silver dagger, blade up, and spins it with a lightning-fast twirl of his wrist until it’s pointed down. It’s an impressive trick, and it’s not until Scott nudges Dean that he realizes he’s staring.

After they cover the safety basics and get the psychics comfortable having their hand on a weapon, they move on to target shooting. Scott misses his first shot pretty badly, but does a little better on the second, after Dean shows him how to adjust his stance for a steadier aim. Next to them, Cas is doing the same thing for Max, who’s looking at Cas like he’s the most amazing person on the face of the earth. Dean tries to tell himself it’s just because Cas helped the kid out of a bad situation, but the sight still stirs something ugly and sour in Dean’s stomach. He refuses to call it jealousy.

When Cas bends down to touch Max’s leg, helping him plant his feet better, Dean is surprised by the intense longing that stabs through him, and the thought that goes hand in hand with it: Wish he was touching me.

You deserve to have the things you want, Bobby’s voice says in his head.

About half an hour later, everybody’s fingers are starting to get clumsy and numb with cold, and that’s when Bobby finally lets everybody call it quits. Bobby heads off in the direction of the Roadhouse with Rufus and Ava, while Scott, Max and Andy ask Dean and Cas to come hang out at the annex.

“Maybe later,” Cas replies and waves his goodbyes as he heads back to the farmhouse by himself.

Before he can think too much about it, Dean starts to follow. When he catches up by the back door, Cas looks up, surprised.

“Hey, um." Dean stuffs his hands in his pockets to stop them from shaking. “You got any plans?”

“Big plans,” Cas says, the amused twinkle in his eyes making them gleam darkly in the low sunlight of early evening. “Involving a frozen pizza and some DVR.”

“You gonna eat that whole pizza all by yourself?” Dean asks, hoping to God he’s not pushing his luck.

Cas raises an eyebrow at him, the single upward tick more eloquent than a world of emotions on any other face. “Are you asking to be invited?”

Dean shrugs and pulls a face like he doesn’t much care either way. “I can always eat. You might say I have a big mouth.” He blows up his cheeks, chipmunk-style, holding for a couple of seconds before he lets them deflate.

That startles an honest-to-God chuckle out of Cas. “I’ve heard that about you.”

They head into the house in companionable silence. An inspection of the freezer turns up not just one, but two pepperoni pizzas. Dean starts preheating the oven while Cas dashes upstairs. He comes back holding two bottles of beer. They’re short and thick, the labels featuring a drawing of a lush prairie landscape. Cas holds one out to Dean. Their fingers brush around the neck, and Dean’s impression of a guy who doesn’t care whether he’s here or somewhere else suddenly gets a whole lot harder to maintain.

“It’s an IPA from a microbrewery out of Lincoln,” Cas explains, taking a swallow. Dean watches his throat bob, then hastily redirects his eyes down to his bottle. “I sometimes pick them up when I pass through there, but Jo steals them, so I keep them in a cooler in my room.”

“Huh.” Dean can’t usually afford this kind of fancy booze. Hell, he doesn’t tend to stop at the kinds of bars that would serve it. He takes a swig, prepared to pretend he doesn’t hate it, just to humor Cas, but he finds he doesn’t have to pretend at all. There’s an unusually bitter tang of hops in the aftertaste, but it adds depth to the flavor rather than being unpleasant. “That’s pretty good, actually.”

Dean rubs his thumb across the label. Something about the style of the drawing is familiar — the bold lines, the details conveyed in a couple of strong strokes of charcoal.

“The brewery had a… a competition,” Cas says quietly. His cheeks look a little pink. “For the design of their label. I sent something in. I never thought I’d hear back, but they ended up picking my submission.”

“You drew this?” Dean asks, feeling embarrassed all of a sudden by the way his thumb has been practically caressing the drawing. “It’s beautiful,” he says before he can stop himself.

When he looks up, it’s to find that Cas’ blush has deepened and he’s smiling softly. “Glad you like it.”

They both fall silent, leaning against the counter next to each other, but far enough apart that their sides don’t brush. Dean isn’t really sure what he wants, beyond the idea of touching Cas in whatever way he'll allow. So for once, he doesn’t actively try to fight the urge to get closer. In fact, he shuffles a little nearer to Cas along the counter, under the pretext of adjusting his stance.

“You were saying something about DVR?”

“Yeah,” Cas says. There’s still a slight trace of color on his face, and it’s very distracting. “There’s this thing I wanted to watch, but it’s probably not something you’d enjoy, so—”

“Anything,” Dean blurts out. “Anything you want is fine." 

Cas’ face lights up. “Great. I’ll go pull it up. Can you keep an eye on the pizzas?”

Dean nods. As Cas grabs their beers and walks out of the kitchen, Dean’s eyes catch on the snug fit of Cas’ jeans before he remembers to look away.

When the pizzas are done, Dean plates them and carries them over to the living room, where Cas is perched on one side of the two-seater couch, fiddling with the buttons on the remote. Dean debates briefly whether he should go sit in one of the armchairs, but ultimately decides to stick with the theme of the evening: to give up pretending he doesn’t want to get close to Cas.

It turns out the thing Cas DVR’d is some PBS documentary about the Cold War. Dean gapes at him, his slice of pizza halfway to his mouth. “You’re kidding me.”

Cas shrugs, looking a little defensive. “I like history. It’s not really Jo or Ellen’s thing, so I usually watch this stuff when they’re both working. That way, I don’t have to put up with Ellen’s grumbling or Jo’s snide remarks. Am I about to have to put up with your snide remarks?” He narrows his eyes, all focused and intense, and Dean suddenly has to work hard to suppress a shiver. 

“Nah, man." The words come out a little strangled, so Dean clears his throat. "I invited myself, so you’re in charge of picking what we watch. ‘s just how it works," he adds, around his first bite.

“Swallow your food, Dean,” Cas says, looking kind of fond even as he’s pretending to be disgusted by Dean’s (lack of) table manners. 

Once they’ve finished their pizzas, Cas dims the lights in the living room until they’re pretty much in the dark — just the two of them, in their own little bubble. It’s nice.

Dean settles in to watch the documentary. It really isn’t his kind of thing, but it’s also not as boring as he thought it might be, so his attention doesn’t drift too much. The whole time, something snags at his brain, and when the narrator says something about “the Ford administration,” it finally clicks into place.

“Presidents,” he says, turning to Cas. “Your aliases. They’re all presidents.”

Cas shifts around on the couch to face him, his face lighting up in the biggest smile Dean thinks he’s ever seen there. “You remembered about my aliases?”

“Yeah, I, uh—” I remember everything you tell me, he almost says. It feels like too much and not enough all at the same time. “I did.”

They sit, looking at each other. Dean realizes they moved a little closer together while they were watching, but Cas is still almost at the other end of the couch from Dean, and suddenly that’s just too far away.

A wave of adrenaline crashes into him, and he lets it sweep him forward until he’s right up in Cas’ space. Before he can second-guess himself, he ducks his head, and then…

He’s kissing Cas.

His lips are touching Cas’, moving against them, swallowing the small noise of surprise Cas makes, and his fingers are curled in that dark mess of hair. It’s just as soft as he always thought it would be.

For one delicate, glorious moment, everything is right with the world. They’re pressed together, Cas’ hand is fisted in his shirt, and there’s nothing that could possibly be better than this. Cas smells like citrus shampoo, laundry detergent, warm, clean skin, and a little like the cigarettes he claims he doesn’t smoke anymore.

And then Cas pulls back.

Dean’s hand slides off the back of Cas’ neck, down his shoulder and back into his own lap. It takes a moment for him to blink back to full awareness and catch his breath. When he does, he searches Cas’ face for disgust or anger, but all he finds is a quiet kind of sadness.

“Can I ask you a question?” Cas’ voice is almost whisper-low.

Dean clears his throat. In the background, the narrator is still droning on; something about mutually assured destruction. “Yeah,” he says.

“If I asked you to kiss me again tomorrow, or to hold my hand, where other people could see…” Cas meets Dean’s eyes, and it almost hurts how beautiful he looks, even in the anemic, flickering light of a TV screen. “Would you?”

Dean swallows. He already knows that the answer he wants to give and the answer he’s going to give are two separate things. No matter how much he wishes it were otherwise. “What kind of people?” he asks, mostly to gain time.

A melancholy little smile flits across Cas’ face, there and gone again before Dean can truly appreciate it. “I’m not talking about gay PDA in some shop or bar in rural Nebraska, Dean. I’m talking about people we know. Bobby, Ellen, Jo, Sam.” He falters, and Dean knows what Cas is going to say before the words are spoken. “Your father.”

“I can’t, Cas,” Dean breathes, his mouth answering the question before his brain catches up. “You can’t ask that of me.”

There’s a barely visible tremor in Cas’ bottom lip when he responds. Dean only catches it because of how closely he’s watching. “Maybe not. But I…” Cas breaks off, looking frustrated. He takes a deep breath. “I care about you a lot, Dean, and I’ve thought about doing what we just did… God, more times than I can count.”

“I… yeah,” Dean croaks, wishing he were the kind of guy who carries his feelings on the tip of his tongue, could shape them into a song or a poem, or even just say them out loud.

Cas’ hand finds Dean’s, and warm, strong fingers wrap around him, a thumb soothing across his scarred knuckles. “But I feel like you keep pushing me away, and I’ve… I’ve had a lot of time to think, these past couple of days." The naked vulnerability in Cas' expression is almost impossible to look at directly. “I’ve been through a lot; more than most people. And I know that’s true of you as well. So I think we both deserve any bit of peace we can find, but… there’s no peace in a lie. Not for me.”

“What are you saying?” Dean asks, swallowing past the taste of defeat and disappointment.

“I’m saying that if we do this, I need you to be all in,” Cas says, point-blank, meeting Dean’s eyes without so much as the courtesy of a blink. “I can’t be with someone who doesn’t want me all the way. I’m not cut out to be a… a fuck buddy, or a dirty secret. If that’s all you can give me…”

He trails off, and Dean knows this is it: the moment that was always going to come. Cas has seen all of Dean’s bullshit for what it is, and he’s going to leave.

“Listen, I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t me walking away from you,” Cas says. The words strike at the innermost part of Dean; the part he keeps locked away for no one to see. “If you can give me what I’m asking for, then I’m all in too.” Cas’ fingers wrap impossibly tight around Dean’s, pressing devotion into his joints. “If not,” Cas continues, hesitantly. “I’ll still be your friend, and I’ll stay by your side for as long as you’ll have me. But I’ll never be anything more than your friend.”

It feels like the entire world should be standing still in the silence that follows those words, but the quiet hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen, the monotonous drone and flicker of the TV in the background, prove that it isn’t.

“Dean,” Cas says, his voice something both fragile and terrible, “can you be all in for me?”

Dean closes his eyes, tries to listen to the inside of his head. You deserve to have the things you want, he hears, but also the words he spoke to his mother in the darkness, not so long ago: I failed Cas. He was there for me when nobody else was. I just… I can’t stop pushing him away.  

And finally, the devastating echo of Cas’ own words: I feel like you keep pushing me away.

There’s no peace in a lie. Not for me.

Deviant.

Dean’s breath is knocked out of him, and the words he wishes he didn’t have to say come tumbling right along with it. “I can’t, Cas.” He clings on to Cas’ hand, knowing this might be the last time he gets to hold it like this. “I don’t know how.”

Cas’ expression cracks along the edges, fragmenting there before it rearranges into something a little different than before; a little less hopeful.

“So, friends?” Cas asks.

“Friends,” Dean repeats, dully, and the word might as well be coming from the bottom of an ocean, for all the connection he feels to it.

Cas nods, one corner of his lips quirked up in a brittle smile, and withdraws his hand from Dean’s grasp. Then, Cas turns his attention back to the documentary. Dean pretends to watch too, but he’s not taking in a single thing.

All the while, he’s painfully aware of every inch of Cas — next to him, but out of reach.

devils trap divider

Ava allows Jess and Sam the use of her car, and within short order, the small sedan is packed and driving towards Indiana. It’s a little boring, actually: long highway miles of staring at nothing but corn and soybean fields, interspersed with the view of occasional livestock. But Jess doesn’t mind. Boring usually means that no one is dying or fighting for their lives, which is a change for the better. 

Though neither she nor Sam is willing or able to maintain a twelve-hour-long conversation, the atmosphere in the car is comfortable. Jess spends some of her time flipping through Sam’s hastily researched case notes, which nonetheless establish a pattern of disturbingly regular disappearances. After that, she starts in on a paperback novel that she found lingering in the annex, remnants of a past occupant. 

An hour in, Sam hooks his iPod up to the jack in Ava’s car and the car fills with the rousing twang of Carrie Underwood. Jess hides her smile behind her book. Sam hates Carrie Underwood, which means this gesture is meant for her. 

She can feel Sam look at her, but Jess keeps her eyes firmly fixed on her book. After a few seconds, Sam’s attention wanders back to the road, and it’s then that Jess reaches across the console. She takes Sam’s hand, where it’s resting on his thigh, and laces their fingers together. Sam’s fingers twitch in surprise against hers before he gently squeezes her hand. 

Even though their palms swiftly turn clammy, Jess isn’t willing to let go. They spend long miles like that, with Sam steering one-handed, while Jess pretends to pay attention to her book. Her thoughts drift — what’s happening in Stanford, why did Dean look so weird when she and Sam left for this hunt, she should probably text Aggie and let her know what’s been going on — until an insistent beeping interrupts them. 

Jess’ hand falls out of Sam’s as he looks around. “You hear that too, right?” he asks. 

Jess nods, listening intently. A few seconds enable her to identify the direction of the sound, and she unbuckles her seatbelt so that she can rummage around in the backseat. She sifts through Sam’s bag until she comes up with an EMF meter. It’s buzzing steadily, the red lights at the top waxing and waning in tandem with the sound. 

“What the hell?” Sam slows and pulls over on the side of the road. No other cars are visible, which enables them to both examine the EMF meter. 

“Is this homemade?” Jess takes a closer look. “Wait… is that a Walkman?” 

“Yeah, Dean gave it to me. He likes doing stuff like this. I don’t get it… None of the other stuff he’s made malfunctions, so I don’t know why this would be going off.” 

Jess looks around at the empty stretch of highway. “Maybe it’s not malfunctioning.” The only sign of life is a reminder that the Burkittsville Orchard is the next right. “Go there.” Jess points to make her meaning clear. 

“Any reason why?” Sam asks, easing the car back onto the road. 

Jess lifts a single shoulder in a shrug. The previous ease of the drive is gone, and Jess’ leg jiggles up and down with uneasy energy. “Just a hunch,” she answers, her eyes fixed on the EMF meter. 

As they get closer to the turn, the meter’s squeals become louder. By the time they’re in the orchard itself, Jess has to turn the machine off. It's pretty clear now: whatever supernatural thing is haunting this town, it’s in the orchard. 

The road turns to gravel, and Sam shuts the car off. At first glance, the orchard appears normal, even quaint: trees are planted in neat rows, and baskets rest underneath several of them. Despite winter’s touch, it’s clear that this place is well-cared for and tended. In the late summer of the harvest, it must be an idyllic place, and Jess feels a stab of regret that they’re not going to be able to see it.

Jess slings her backpack on, and both she and Sam tuck guns into their waistbands before venturing away from the car. Jess doesn’t know exactly what they’ll find here, and it’s best to be prepared. While a bullet might not kill everything, Jess has found that a punctured kneecap pretty effectively stops most creatures. 

Dead leaves crunch under their shoes as they venture deeper into the trees. Jess’ breath puffs out in front of her in white clouds, and she shivers from the chill in the air. If any creatures, supernatural or otherwise, are in this orchard, they’re hiding themselves well. From what Jess has seen, she and Sam are the only living things around. 

Jess takes another step forward and freezes as she catches sight of a person out of the corner of her eye. Her hand flies to her gun as she spins, and then she stops. Adrenaline pounds through her veins, but there’s no need for it. The figure, which Jess had taken for a human, turns out to be a scarecrow fixed to a stake at the center of the orchard. 

“That is the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” she declares, stepping closer to inspect it. The scarecrow’s mouth is twisted in a rictus grin and its eyes are two black holes glaring out at the world. Instead of the traditional straw, this scarecrow appears to be stuffed with something more rigid. 

Sam stands beside her. Even though he doesn’t critique the scarecrow’s appearance, Jess can feel his revulsion. In the midst of the pretty orchard, the scarecrow’s ugliness is almost obscene. 

“What is it made of?” Sam asks. He stands on his tiptoes and stretches out to tug at the scarecrow’s sleeve. The fabric falls away from the gloved hand, revealing a thin, almost desiccated arm. 

“Oh, that’s disgusting,” Jess breathes. Though she doesn’t want to look at the arm, she can’t drag her eyes away. There’s a dark mottle on the forearm. Something about it sparks at Jess’ memory, until, with sickening clarity, recognition slams into her. 

She scrabbles through her backpack until she comes up with the case file. Inside the folder is a picture of the last missing couple, the Parkers. Jess’ eyes fall on Vince Parker. Specifically, the tattoo on the inside of his forearm. 

It’s the same tattoo that’s staring at her now from the scarecrow’s arm. 

Jess’ stomach turns as she looks at the face — the face that, she now realizes, isn’t sculpted at all, but rather, mummified skin worn thin by the sun and wind. “Well,” she says, swallowing back the bile rising in her throat, “guess we found Vince.” 

***

Getting a motel in town is almost too easy. The clerk behind the desk is eager and helpful, even offering to carry their bags to their room. Sam and Jess both decline the offer: there are too many weapons in their bags to easily explain away. As they walk out of the office, the skin on the back of Jess’ neck crawls. 

“Is she still watching us?” she mutters. 

Sam twists under the pretense of wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “Like a hawk,” he murmurs back. 

Jess doesn’t feel comfortable until they’re in their room and the doors are locked. Even then, she doesn’t fully relax until she shoves a chair underneath the door. The clerk has the keys, after all, and Jess doesn’t trust her not to barge in. 

“Okay, so we know what happened to Vince Parker,” Sam begins, sitting on one of the beds. “I guess we can assume that his wife is also dead.” 

Jess nods. “We don’t know what killed them, but it probably has something to do with that orchard.” She fights back the shudder crawling over her skin. Ever since finding Vince’s body, she hasn’t been able to shake off her feeling of revulsion. 

“We should head to the library and see what the research says on the orchard. We could probably find out if there’s anything special about the land or when it was developed.” 

Jess frowns at Sam’s suggestion. “I was thinking we could talk to the locals. They’ve lived here their whole lives, and they could probably tell us more about the orchard than a book written fifty years ago.” Though Jess adores Sam’s dogged pursuit of knowledge, sometimes he can’t see the forest for all the trees in his way. Talking to people is always better, at least when it comes to getting information about a particular place. 

A tiny frown knits itself between Sam’s eyebrows. Jess recognizes the stubborn set of his shoulders and prepares herself for a struggle. “I still think that going to the library is the best idea. The waitress at the diner isn't going to be able to help us destroy a supernatural creature, and if something was around before the founding of the town, then no one living here is going to know about it.” 

“But if something moved in after the town was founded, people are going to know about it,” Jess insists. “People have a sense of when the atmosphere of a town changes, when things start to go wrong. A musty book won’t be able to tell us that. A waitress might."

“I like musty books,” Sam insists, his voice petulant. 

The complaint is so unexpected that it startles Jess into laughter. Sam looks surprised for a moment before he recognizes the ludicrousness of the situation. He laughs as well, rolling his eyes. 

“What if we split up?” 

All laughter flees from Sam’s face. “Split up?” he asks incredulously. “Did you forget what happened the last time we did that?” As though Jess could ever forget the ordeal of being shackled to a sewer pipe and breathing in nothing but filth. “You almost died, I almost died, and Becky almost died. Why would you want to split up?” 

“That was different.” Ignoring the instinct to immediately snap, Jess tries to keep her voice calm and steady. “That was a dumbass move on our parts, splitting up while we were chasing a shifter. We shouldn’t have done it. But this is a trip to the library and to the diner. You saw what this place was like as we were driving through it. It’s practically Mayberry."

Sam still doesn’t look convinced. “Three hours,” Jess tries, hoping to soften him up. “Three hours, and then we’ll meet back up. And I promise, I’ll be armed the whole time.” Sam is wavering, but he’s still not there, so Jess tries her last tactic. “I know we’re on a time crunch. Based on the pattern, another couple is due to disappear from this area in less than a week’s time. Every second counts, and we can't afford not to investigate every lead or waste time on dead ends. If we split up, we can get double the work done in half the time.” 

Sam’s mouth turns down at the edges. It’s a sign that he recognizes the logic behind her argument, but is unwilling to concede just yet. Jess doesn’t push. 

“Two hours,” Sam says finally. “And we’ll call or text each other every thirty minutes to check in.” Something softens around his eyes as he looks at her. “I know this is just a routine hunt, but so was the last one, and I almost lost you that time.” Sam reaches out, taking Jess’ hand in his. “You mean so much to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” 

Emotion rises in Jess’ throat. Before she can second-guess her actions, she moves across the room, sliding into Sam’s lap. She wraps her arms around Sam’s neck and hugs him tightly, pressing her nose into the crook of his neck. This close, Sam just smells like soap, but Jess wouldn’t want him any other way. 

***

“Two hours,” Sam says, before he drops her off outside the town’s diner. “And text me every thirty minutes, otherwise I’m coming for you.” 

“Yes, dear,” Jess teases. She almost leans in through the open car window to drop a kiss to Sam’s cheek, but she stops herself. While it feels natural, she’s not sure how the gesture will be received. No matter how far she and Sam have come, there’s still that slight bit of disconnect, and now doesn’t feel like the right time to push those boundaries. She settles instead for an awkward wave. “I’ll talk to you in thirty minutes, then.” 

Sam looks a little disappointed, but he just waves before driving off. Jess watches the car disappear down the road before turning and walking into the diner. 

The interior is fairly deserted, which isn’t unusual for one o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. The only employees seem to be an older couple and a girl around Jess’ age. It’s the girl, labeled "Emily" by her name tag, who seats and serves Jess. 

“So, what brings you to Burkittsville?” she asks, dropping off Jess’ sweet tea. 

“I guess it’s pretty obvious that I'm not from around here,” Jess laughs. The sweet tea is perfect: still a little warm, but cooled by the ice, and rich and sweet as it hits her tongue. 

Emily returns her chuckle. “It’s a small town. We tend to notice visitors pretty quickly.” 

Never one to pass up an opportunity, Jess reaches into her book bag. “Hey, maybe you can help me. My boyfriend Sam and I are on a road trip, and we’re actually retracing the stops that some friends of ours made. We’re pretty sure that they stopped here around a year ago, but we’re not sure. Do you recognize them?” Jess shows Emily the picture of the Parkers, and Emily’s forehead wrinkles. 

“You know, I think I do recognize them. Wait, yeah.” Emily’s finger lands unerringly on Vince’s tattoo. “I remember his tattoo. Their car broke down just outside of town and they were here for a day while it was being fixed. They were nice. Good tippers,” she admits, with a sly smile. 

“Okay, cool.” Jess tucks the picture away and tries to hide her interest. There’s no better way to tip people off that something is wrong than to pay attention to unimportant details. “Thanks for your help.” 

“No problem. Tell you the truth, it’s nice to be helpful for something other than coffee refills.” 

The older woman drops off Jess’ sandwich and salad combo. “Thanks, Aunt Stacey,” Emily says. 

Jess’ stomach rumbles. Quite apart from her investigating, she actually is hungry, and the sandwich looks delectable. She takes a large bite, closing her eyes in bliss as the ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon all blend together in her mouth. Emily hovers close as she cleans one of the other tables.

“So, you work here with your aunt and uncle?” Jess asks. 

Emily nods. “My parents died a few years ago, so I came to Burkittsville to live with Aunt Stacey and Uncle Harley. As much as I miss my parents, sometimes I think I was lucky. A few years ago, all the towns around here started collapsing. The industries pulled out, and the agriculture wasn’t enough to keep the economy afloat. Burkittsville is... kind of immune. Everyone here has a decent job, the schools are good, and the orchard keeps people coming.” 

Jess doesn’t quite manage to hide her flinch at the mention of the orchard. Luckily, before Emily can question her about it, her phone buzzes. “Sorry, I’m not trying to be rude,” Jess says, flipping her phone open. “It’s just my boyfriend, and if I don’t answer him, he’ll go insane.” 

“No problem,” Emily says easily. “I’ve got tables to clean.” 

She walks away, which allows Jess to check her phone in relative peace. She quickly brings up the text conversation with Sam, scanning through what he sent her. 

From Sam (1:23 p.m.): This is your first thirty minute check-in. 

From Sam (1:25 p.m.): So get this. Found a lore book that had a section about pagan gods and one of them is supposed to resemble what we know as a scarecrow. Its power source is supposed to be some kind of tree. Sound like something your locals could help with? 

Jess fires off a text to Sam. 

Sent (1:27 p.m.): See, and you made fun of me for wanting to talk to the locals. 

Sent (1:29 p.m.): Kidding. I’ll ask around and see what I can find out. Talk to you in thirty minutes. 

Jess makes sure that the slurp of her sweet tea is obnoxiously loud. Sure enough, the sound summons Emily, who brings a fresh pitcher to refill her glass. 

“So, other than your road trip, what brings you through here?” 

Jess tries not to exult too much at the obvious opening. She rolls her eyes and offers Emily a conspiratorial smile. “My boyfriend is a huge nerd about history, especially when it comes to local urban legends and mythology. He’d heard there was a story about this town, and he was hoping to learn a little more about it.” 

She’s taking a stab in the dark here, but she’s fairly convinced this will work. Almost every small town in America has at least one strange origin story or local legend, and it seems like Burkittsville is no exception. Almost immediately, Emily’s face lights up, her eagerness to promote her adopted hometown shining through her excited eyes. 

“Oh, there’s this really cool story about the First Tree.” Completely forgetting her job, Emily slides into the chair across from Jess. “We all learned about it when we were younger. The teachers in the school even had stories and activities about it. Something like a hundred and fifty years ago, whenever the town was founded, the first settlers planted the First Tree. They revered this tree because they said that it brought them peace and prosperity. They planted the tree in the orchard and every fall, they would have a festival celebrating it.” 

Jess tries to feign the intellectual interest of a scholar instead of the intent curiosity of a hunter. She nods along with Emily’s story, even as she repeats every detail in her head, a trick that Aggie taught her to remember witness statements without taking notes. 

“Yeah, that sounds like a story that would be right up Sam’s alley,” Jess says. “You wouldn’t happen to know where this First Tree was located, would you?” 

“Oh, everyone knows. The schools take the kids on trips there every year. It’s at the center of the orchard. There’s a scarecrow there too; that’s how you know you’re getting close.” 

Jess smiles, even as ice flows through her veins. She finishes her sandwich in several huge bites. The tangy mayonnaise and rich cheese might as well be made of ash for all Jess cares. All she can taste is the adrenaline bubbling in the back of her throat.

She fumbles for her wallet and tosses down a twenty-dollar bill. Emily blinks several times, obviously startled by her sudden haste. “I’ve got to run,” Jess explains, tugging her backpack on. “I just realized that I’m late.” Because it never pays to burn a bridge, and also because she genuinely enjoyed talking to Emily, Jess makes herself slow down for a moment. “It was really nice talking to you. Thanks for your help. Hopefully I’ll see you around before we have to go.” 

She flashes another smile at Emily and leaves the diner. The bell atop the door jangles brightly, signaling her departure. Instead of starting towards the sidewalk, Jess ducks around the side of the building. What she’s about to say shouldn’t be said within earshot of anyone — especially if her suspicions are true and the town is a little more sinister than it first appeared. 

Her fingers punch at Sam’s name and she listens to the phone ring several times. “Come on, Sam,” she curses, tapping her foot anxiously. “Pick up, pick up, pick up.” 

The phone rings twice more and then Sam’s voicemail greeting sounds over the line. Dread settles heavily in Jess’ chest. It’s possible that Sam is in the bathroom or that he has his phone on silent and hasn’t heard it go off. It’s possible, but his insistence on regular check-ins makes it unlikely. 

“Damn it,” Jess curses. The phone beeps, encouraging her to leave a message, and she bites out, “Call me back ASAP. I need to talk to you.” 

As she hangs up, she regrets her brusque tone, but she soothes herself by thinking that she can apologize to Sam later. Later is a hope that she holds in her heart until she rounds the corner and something crashes into the back of her skull. 

Sam, is Jess’ last thought before everything goes dark. 

devils trap divider

“Leaving already?”

Sam looks up from zipping his laptop bag to find the petite blonde grad student who helped him navigate the library’s section on occult lore. (Not that he particularly needed the help, but he’s found it’s usually better to feign ignorance than to seem suspiciously knowledgeable about all things pagan and monstrous.) 

“Yeah, found what I was looking for,” he says, slinging his bag over his shoulder and grabbing his stack of books to take it to the cart set aside for returns. “Thanks again for your help.”

The girl trails alongside Sam as he deposits his books and makes his way toward the exit. “Anytime. Name’s Meg, by the way.”

Sam wonders whether he should give her an alias, but his first name isn’t terribly unusual or memorable. Better to stick to the truth and keep things simple.

“Sam. Nice to meet you,” he says, friendly but sufficiently curt that he hopes he can dissuade any flirting, if that’s where this is going. He’d rather not leave Jess alone for longer than absolutely necessary, and he’s itching to check his phone. The librarian gave him a fierce glare and a lecture about the library’s cell phone policy earlier when she saw him texting Jess, so he was forced to silence his phone and tuck it away. Right now, it’s burning a hole in his pocket, and Meg is an obstacle to be overcome.

“You too, Sam,” Meg says, and Sam can’t help but notice that she’s walking just a little closer to him than is technically polite. “Hey, listen. I’m heading out too. You want to maybe get a cup of coffee together?”

“I’m supposed to be meeting up with my girlfriend, actually,” Sam says, lengthening his strides as he rounds the last corner on the way to the glass doors that lead from the library to the parking lot.

“Oh yeah? It’s true what they say, I guess. All the good ones are taken.” Meg smiles, but her eyes remain blank of emotion in a way Sam finds a little unnerving. “Do you guys live around here?”

Sam has finally reached the door and holds it open for Meg, waving her through to gain time as he weighs his answer. He decides to stick to telling as much of the truth as he can, without giving anything away. “Nah, we go to college on the West Coast, but we decided to take a break. We’ve been traveling across the country.”

As Sam turns away from the door and starts walking down the steps to the parking lot, he pulls out his phone and finds that he has a missed call from Jess. It looks like she called before their next check-in was due. A frisson of unease skitters down his spine. He almost jumps when Meg addresses him again.

“Huh. That sounds like fun. But traveling all the time must be stressful. You guys don’t even have a place where you camp out sometimes? Like a temporary home base?” 

“Not really,” Sam says distractedly, making a beeline for Ava’s car. There’s a small group of people in the parking lot that he’s forced to detour around, and every extra step grates on him. Splitting up was a stupid idea. Why did he agree to this?

When he opens the car door, Meg is still standing close by, eyes glittering with something Sam can’t decipher. There’s a vague feeling in his gut, telling him to take a closer look at her, to figure out what’s bothering him, but he’s too distracted by worry about Jess to focus on this pushy stranger.

“Listen, thanks and all,” he says, polite but firm, “but I should really be getting back to my girlfriend.”

“Shame,” Meg says, her eyes raking up and down Sam’s body in a way that dials up his unease several more levels. “Well, I hope to see you again some time, Sam.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Sam says, with the smallest possible version of a smile, as he slides into the driver’s seat and starts the car.

When he pulls out of the parking lot and checks the rearview mirror, Meg is still where he left her, looking after him.

***

The drive from the library back to the center of town takes only a few minutes, but Sam calls Jess’ phone three times as he drives. It goes straight to voicemail every time.

He pulls up opposite the diner, exactly where he dropped Jess off a little less than two hours ago. Anxiety simmers under his skin as he makes his way inside, the noise of the bell above the door jarringly cheerful.

There are no customers at any of the small tables — perhaps not surprising in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, but he can’t help feeling just that little bit more uneasy. He’d been hoping Jess might still be here, maybe just distracted by a conversation with one of the locals.

An older man behind the counter looks up at Sam’s approach, his smile open and friendly. “Well, hello there! A new face! What can I do for you?”

“I’m, uh, actually looking for my girlfriend? I had an errand to run, but I was supposed to meet her here after,” Sam says, pulling out his wallet and showing the man the picture he’s kept in there ever since he and Jess started dating: the two of them in front of the Cantor Arts Center in Stanford. Sam has his arm around Jess’ shoulders, and their smiles are big and sunny.

The man frowns down at the picture. “Sorry, son. Haven’t seen her.” A woman walks out of a doorway at the back of the diner to join the man behind the counter, and Sam holds out the picture to her. “What about you, Stace?” the man asks. “You seen this girl?”

It’s only because Sam is watching closely that he sees it: the tiniest flash of apprehension across the woman’s face before she shrugs apologetically. “She doesn’t look familiar.”

“You’re sure?” Sam tries, desperation creeping in at the edges. “I dropped her off right in front of this place a couple hours ago. She was planning to come inside and wait for me.”

"Sure," she says, the very picture of regret, and something about the emotion seems real enough to set frantic alarm bells clanging in Sam's head. “So sorry, dear. We haven’t had a customer all afternoon. She must’ve ended up stopping someplace else in town. Feel free to go and ask around.”

“I guess I will,” Sam says, mustering a half-hearted smile even as he surreptitiously takes in the layout of the room. There are two doors labeled “Restroom” and one labeled “Private”, which is the one the woman emerged from earlier. If Jess is being kept anywhere around here, it’ll be in the back, behind that door.

Sam says his goodbyes to the owners of the diner, then sets off down the street, looking over his shoulder. When he’s sure there’s no one watching, he doubles back and ducks down the alley between the diner and the next building over. He passes two large dumpsters before he comes in sight of an unmarked red door at the diner’s rear.

He’s just pulled out the lock-pick kit in his pocket when there’s a blinding pain at the back of his skull, and the world goes dark.

***

When Sam blinks back to awareness, the first thing he notices is trees, stretching bare branches into the leaden sky, as far as the eye can see.

That impression is swiftly followed by a painful throb of his head. When Sam tries to curl in against the pain, he notices that his hands are tied above him, to two separate branches of an apple tree, judging by the withered fruit littering the ground around him. The ties are tight and the branches don’t give an inch when he tugs at them.

“Sam?”

Sam blinks hard, trying to dispel the fog hovering in his vision, but it stays put, leading Sam to conclude that the fog is real. Also real is Jess, tied to the tree next to his. There’s a trail of dried blood down the side of her face, but her eyes are clear and full of concern for him.

“Jess,” Sam breathes, relief making him weak. “Thank God you’re okay.” 

“Well." Jess gives him a dim smile. “Okay being a relative term. I’m just glad you’re finally awake. You were out cold when they brought you here.”

“They?”

“The Jorgensons,” Jess says, between gritted teeth. “Harley and Stacey. They own the diner. They got the jump on me too. They were very apologetic about everything, but apparently sacrificing us is essential for the greater good of the town.”

Sam slumps against the tree. He regrets it immediately, the back of his head still tender from the impact of some kind of blunt object. He hisses and adjusts his position as best he can, until his left temple is leaning against the gritty bark. It’s not exactly comfortable, but at least he can look at Jess without pulling something. “Well, if we didn’t know before, we know now. We’re dealing with a vanir,” he says, trying to recall the details of the notes he took at the library. “Norse fertility gods. They bring peace and prosperity to their worshippers, but only at the cost of a human sacrifice: one man and one woman. The scarecrow is the vanir’s manifestation. It comes to life at sunset once a year and takes the sacrifice.”

Jess bites her lip, thoughtful. “You said its power is tied to a tree, right?” Without waiting for an answer, Jess continues, “Emily, the waitress I talked to, she said there’s a special tree called the First Tree, right here in this orchard. It was brought over by the original settlers of the town and was sacred to them. That’s got to be the one. If we burn it, that should break the vanir’s power. Not that we have any way of doing that right now.”

Jess grimaces and shifts uncomfortably against the tree at her back. Sam wonders how much time has passed since she was brought here. It’s hard to tell with the cloud cover, but it seems dark enough to be near nightfall.

“The whole town’s probably in on this. Not much chance of—”

“You were right,” Jess breaks in, surprising Sam. She looks furious with herself. “About splitting up. We shouldn’t have. We wouldn’t be in this situation if we’d stayed together.”

“Hey,” Sam says softly. “Don’t beat yourself up. Even two of us wouldn’t have stood much chance against a whole town of pagan worshippers.”

“I guess so.” Silence falls for a beat or two before Jess says, “You know what I wish?”

Sam makes an interrogative noise, letting his eyes roam over Jess’ long, wavy hair, which has escaped its usual braid, then down her long, graceful limbs and back up to her beautiful face. Who knows how much time is left for him to look at her like this?

“I wish I’d kissed you. Before you left for the library,” Jess says, her voice tender and affectionate in the way that, until recently, Sam wasn’t sure he’d ever hear again. “I was thinking about it, and I should have.”

A torrent of emotion sweeps through Sam, and he’s tired of resisting it, tired of keeping it all bottled up. What’s the point if they’re about to die anyway?

“I love you, Jess,” he says, putting every ounce of feeling he’s capable of into the words. “Still. I never stopped. I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I told you.”

Jess’ expression cracks open, mirroring a desperate mix of hope, love and sadness back at him. “I love you too, Sam. So much.”

Sam’s relief escapes in a sound halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Alright, that’s it. When we get out of here, I’m done being an idiot. I love you, and I want to be with you, and we’ll figure out the rest. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jess says, smiling.

Their quiet contemplation of each other is interrupted by a noise: something heavy making its way through the carpet of leaves at their back. Sam suddenly becomes aware that the entire time they’ve been here, there hasn’t been a single sound to indicate the presence of animals — no snatches of birdsong, no skittering of small paws among the trees.

But there is a sound now. Footsteps, heavy and urgent, as of someone running. Coming closer.

“Can you see the scarecrow from here?” Sam mouths at Jess.

Jess shakes her head. “Could be a deer or something,” she says, but she doesn’t look convinced.

Sam looks around at the spectral, winter-dead trees surrounding him, their roots lost to the fog hovering near the ground. Sometime in the past few minutes, low-light gloom has slid unnoticed into full-blown darkness.

This must be it. The scarecrow is coming for them.

He watches as Jess’ eyes widen, taking in something just to Sam’s left and behind his tree, out of his field of vision.

“Emily?”

A young blonde woman steps forward, looking terrified and holding a small knife in one hand. “I’m so sorry, you guys,” she says, her voice shaky. “I had no idea.”

She turns first to cut Jess’ restraints, then focuses her attention on Sam. When his hands are finally free, he rubs at his sore wrists, wincing as feeling returns, throbbing and needling, to his fingers.

“You really didn’t know anything about this?” Jess asks, incredulous.

Emily shakes her head. “Your boyfriend came to the diner looking for you. I was in the back, but I heard my aunt say there hadn’t been any customers, which was weird, because I remembered her being around when you were. So I went outside to see if I could find your boyfriend and talk to him, and I saw—” She swallows heavily. “I saw my uncle attack him with a wrench.”

“How’d you know they would bring us here?” Sam asks.

“Your girlfriend and I talked about the First Tree, and she wanted to know where to find it. It was a lucky guess,” Emily says. She looks genuinely shaken, and Sam finds that he believes her.

There’s another rustle of leaves. Suddenly, Sam is acutely aware that he doesn’t have any weapons at his disposal. “Guys, we should get out of here,” he whispers urgently. “We can come back and burn the damn tree when it’s light out.”

Jess nods and pulls Emily along by the sleeve of her sweater, only to freeze three steps later. A man in a sheriff’s uniform is pointing a shotgun at her face. Instinctively, Sam turns around, only to find Stacey and Harley Jorgenson staring him down from a few feet away. There’s a rifle in Harley’s right hand, held loosely and pointed at the ground, but its presence is sufficient warning.

The three of them search the trees frantically, only to discover that a whole crowd of townspeople is all around them, closing in.

“Uncle Harley, please,” Emily says, sounding desperate. “Just… just let them go.”

Harley falters for a split-second before his expression hardens back into determination.

“We can’t, Emily,” Stacey says, regretful. “It’ll be over quickly for them, I promise.”

“I’ll tell everyone what you’re doing here,” Emily shouts, shrill panic threading through her voice. “I’ll have you all arrested. I’ll—”

“I’m very sorry, Emily,” Harley says, raising his gun. “I can’t let you do that.”

Before Harley can even aim, his entire body jerks, and Sam hears Jess gasp as a sharp blade pierces through Harley’s gut. With an ugly gurgling from low in his throat, he falls to the ground, revealing the scarecrow that stands behind him. Its empty eye sockets are gaping and fathomless, a deeper black than the night air. Its hand is still raised, the sickle it holds dripping blood onto the ground.

Emily and Stacey scream in terror, but Stacey’s scream is cut off when the scarecrow slides its blade across her throat, blood gushing even as Stacey’s hands fly to the wound in a futile attempt to contain the flow.

Sam hears the sounds of frantic running all around him, and realizes the other townspeople have fled. He spares no further thought for them, eyes still fixed on the scarecrow, which gathers up Harley and Stacey’s lifeless bodies and drags them deeper into the orchard as though their weight is as insubstantial as the wisps of fog still swirling along the ground.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Sam says, taking in Emily and Jess’ twin expressions of horror. “Let’s burn the damn tree now.”

They look over their shoulders almost constantly as they make their way through the orchard, but there is no sign of the townspeople or the scarecrow. Soon, a gnarled, ancient tree looms up in front of them. The jagged lines of Nordic runes are etched into the bark of its trunk. The three of them gather whatever kindling they can find in the vicinity and pile it around the bottom of the tree. The wood is slow to catch in the wet, foggy night air, but with the help of some of the lighter fluid Jess habitually carries in her jacket pocket, Sam manages to set one of the branches alight, using it to ignite the others.

Soon enough, flames lick up the stem of the First Tree, the outlines of the runes flaring bright blue before they sputter out.

“The whole town’s going to die,” Jess says, pitching her voice to be heard above the furious crackling of the wood being consumed.

Something tightens in Emily’s face when she says, “Good.”

After, Emily takes them back to the diner, where Ava’s car is still parked, and then keeps on driving. As soon as she’s out of sight, Sam reaches for Jess. She comes easily, with a small sigh of relief, fitting herself against him in a tight hug. Sam clings to her jacket, his nose pressed into her hair, wanting to touch every part of her he can reach.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jess mumbles into his shoulder, so Sam makes himself let go and climbs into the car.

They retrieve their things from the motel, guns in hand, braced for a fight that doesn’t come. The entire town is plunged into darkness, and Sam thinks that perhaps the slow process of its demise might not be so slow after all.

Sam shivers with residual dread and relief when they cross the town limits. He doesn’t stop driving until they’ve put an hour between themselves and Burkittsville.

It’s then that Jess puts her hand on his leg, tentative fingers trailing up his thigh. Sam pulls into the first motel parking lot he finds and gets them a room with a nice, king-sized bed.

As soon as the door closes behind them, Jess is pressed up against him, licking into his mouth and tugging at his shirt.

They never even make it to the bed.

Chapter Text

Dean wants to be happy for Sam. He really, really does.

Hell, part of him is. It’s nice, seeing his brother grab a bit of happiness for himself, exchanging easy smiles and kisses with Jess at every opportunity, putting his arm around her waist like it’s nothing.

It’s just a lot to be around, especially when he still remembers what it felt like to have Cas’ thumb trace the scars on his knuckles, or to run his own fingers through Cas’ soft, messy hair.

Still, he tries to enjoy the relative peace that’s fallen over the Roadhouse. Ash has yet to find a solid lead on Azazel or Ansem, and they’ve secured all the psychics they know of, so the only thing to do is to train more and harder, for an attack that might come tomorrow or a year from now. Dean keeps helping Bobby, Rufus and Cas with weapons practice, and even moves a demon all over the place one afternoon, while Pamela tests whether anyone besides Ava can track it. Turns out they can’t.

He also tries harder to be social and spend time with the rest of the Roadhouse crew and the psychics. It’s actually fun sometimes. He smokes up with Ash and Andy, and he plays Mario Kart with Scott and Max at the annex. He even helps Ellen and Jo put up some Christmas decorations. 

Through it all, he does his damnedest to avoid spending time alone with Cas. It’s more or less essential for his sanity. If he finds himself with no buffer between them, he’s afraid the words that are always on the tip of his tongue will come spilling out: I don’t want to be just friends.

He knows he needs to keep those words locked up, because Cas deserves what he asked for: someone who is all in. The mere thought of holding Cas’ hand, of showing him any kind of affection where others can see, makes Dean break out in a cold sweat. He won’t inflict his own issues on Cas.

The nights are the worst. Dean finds himself lying in bed, hoping to drift off, and dreading it in equal measure. Because sometimes, he dreams of Cas.

One morning, he wakes up from a dream like that, hard and aching, the memories still skittering through his brain: of Cas’ mouth on his skin, Cas’ hard cock pushing against his thigh, Cas’ fingers inside him.

He’s never touched himself back there, feeling somehow that it was a wrong and dirty thing to do; almost as bad as if he let another guy do it. But dammit, he wants it. Wants so badly to know what it would feel like; why some guys seem to enjoy it.

Hands shaking, he reaches for his bedside table. He hasn’t jerked off a lot since he got here, but it’s happened enough times that his bottle of lube made it out of his duffle and found a more permanent home in the drawer. He pulls it out and coats his right hand with the liquid, hissing a little as he runs cool, slick fingers along his blood-hot cock.

This is fine. Good even. He’s used to this, and he lets himself relax into it, feeling the wet drag of his hand, fucking into it a little, and carefully keeping his mind blank of any incriminating fantasies about blue eyes and dark hair.

Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he takes his hand off his dick and picks up the bottle of lube again. He squirts some onto his left hand, spreads it across his fingertips.

He wraps his other hand around his cock again, stripping himself harder. A telltale curl of heat tightens in his balls, and it’s now or never. He touches his index finger to the side of his hole, prodding and massaging at it.

He can’t help it: his eyes flutter shut, and his grateful brain immediately supplies him with a fantasy: that finger circling his entrance isn’t his own at all. It’s Cas down there, getting ready to open him up so he can bend him over, and—

And Dean can’t wait anymore. He pushes the tip of his finger inside, and just the feeling of that, of being breached, entered, has him coming hard, all over his hand and stomach.

The high from his orgasm is slow to fade, but when it does, he immediately feels awful. He has no right to think of Cas like that. He had his chance, and he blew it because he can’t get over himself.

Before he can spiral much further, he’s dragged out of his thoughts by the sound of his phone, buzzing on his bedside table. Dean quickly wipes his hands as best he can on the t-shirt he wore to bed, then picks up the phone. When he sees the name flashing across the display, his heart almost stutters to a stop. It’s someone he never expected to talk to again.

Dean hesitates for another split-second before he realizes that ignoring the call isn’t an option. Chances that this person would get in touch with him for anything less than an emergency are basically zero. He flips the phone open and puts it to his ear.

“Cassie?” he asks, a little breathless, and not from his recent orgasm either.

“Dean?” Her voice sounds thin, unsure in a way he can’t ever remember hearing it before. “Thank God. Look, I know it’s been a while, but something’s happened. It’s my father, he… he was killed last night.”

Dean sits up properly, wishing he’d had a chance to wash his hands before having this conversation. It seems kind of disrespectful to talk to his grieving ex-girlfriend while his hand still smells like lube and come.

“Fuck,” he says quietly. “I’m really sorry, Cassie. What can I do?”

“I—” A heavy sigh ghosts across the line. “Dean, you know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think I really needed your help. It’s just… there’s something weird about the way he died, and a friend of his died the same way just a couple days ago, and—”

“You mean my kind of weird?” Dean asks, something cold settling into his chest.

A beat of silence, then, “Yeah. I think I do.”

In the months after Cassie broke up with him, Dean used to dream (and day-dream) about her calling him like this, to say that she believed him now about what he does for a living. In some of those dreams, she even asked if she could go on the road with him, living and hunting together. It’s been a while since he’s dreamed of that, but it still hurts, the memory of how he tried to trust her with all of him and she sent him packing. 

Cassie’s voice pulls him back to the present. “Dean… any chance you can come here and check it out?”

Dean worries at his bottom lip with his teeth. This is stupid, right? He shouldn’t go on another hunt. He should stay here. He should tell Cassie to leave him alone.

Except there’s no news on Azazel, and apparently he and Cas are just friends these days. Friends don’t need to live in each other’s pockets all the time.

“Can I think about it? I’ll get back to you within the hour.”

“Yeah. Yeah, alright,” she says, and the line goes dead.

Dean heads to the annex bathroom to take a shower, then gets dressed and pulls out his laptop. He remembers that Cassie lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, so he pulls up the website of the local paper, the Cape Gazette. Soon enough, he finds a report of a suspicious death three days earlier, on a lonely stretch of road. The byline says “Cassie Robinson.”

According to the article, the victim claimed he was being followed around by a large black truck for almost a week before the accident that killed him. Tire tracks belonging to a truck were found leading to the scene of the accident, but none led away from it. No one saw a trace of the truck.

Fuck. It could definitely be a case.

Dean runs a hand down his face, trying to think. He’s making himself useful here, but he’s not essential. He could take off for just a couple of days, get some distance from Cas and clear his head.

Hell, what better way to get distance from Cas than by spending some time with the last person he—

No, he won’t let himself go there.

Before he can think any more about it, Dean types out a quick text to Cassie: I can be there later today.

Then he packs up his duffel with a couple of changes of clothes, and the few weapons he stashes in his bedroom. The rest of his supplies are already in Baby’s trunk.

It’s still before nine in the morning, and a lot of the people staying at the annex aren’t exactly early risers. He might be able to sneak out without attracting too much notice. He’ll call Sam from the road and deal with any hurt feelings later.

That plan goes to shit as soon as he opens the door to his bedroom and runs right into Jess, who just emerged from Sam’s room, wearing a robe and clutching some shower supplies.

She takes one look at the duffle he’s holding and his presumably guilty expression, and her eyes narrow. Dean tenses as she stalks up to him, pushing him back into his room and slamming the door shut behind her.

“Were you about to sneak off?” she demands. “Again?”

Dean debates lying to her, but he doubts she’d buy it, and if he says the wrong thing, she’ll go get Sam, and then this will be a whole thing.

“Just for a couple days,” he bites out as he drops his duffel back on his bed. “A friend called. Her dad was killed last night, and I think it might be a case.”

Jess studies him, clearly trying to figure out whether he’s telling the truth. “Why go by yourself? You know we’re only supposed to be going out in pairs. Sam and I almost got ourselves killed just a few days ago, because I was an idiot who insisted on splitting up."

Dean turns away, shrugs. He knows Jess has a point, but he’s taken care of himself for years. It feels unnatural to allow for anything else.

“Why not take Cas?” Jess insists. “You guys are friends, right?”

It takes everything Dean’s got not to flinch at that. “I’m not taking Cas,” he says coolly, meeting Jess’ eyes to let her know he means it. “And before you ask, no, I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Jess glares at Dean, clearly done with his shit. “Fine. Then Sam and I will go with you. Where is this hunt?”

“I’m not going anywhere with you and Sam. You keep that gross, couple-y shit away from me,” Dean jokes weakly. Jess raises an annoyed eyebrow at him, and he adds, “Southern Missouri. Cape Girardeau.”

Jess gives him a thoughtful look, which shifts into determination, and Dean knows whatever she’s about to say is her final offer, and he’d better take it. “What if Sam didn’t come? What if it was just me?”

Dean opens his mouth a couple of times, trying to think of an objection. Eventually, he just asks what, to him, is the obvious question. “Why would you want to do that?”

Jess’ mouth ticks up almost imperceptibly. “Well, like it or not, Sam and I are back to doing the couple-y shit. Which makes me basically your sister-in-law, and we barely know each other. What better way to fix that than a long, dull road trip, right?”

Honestly? It’s not a terrible idea. Dean’s used to being alone, but he doesn’t actually like it, most of the time. It’s something that’s usually forced on him, either because there’s no one who wants him around, or because it’s the only way he can keep his issues from spilling out where others can see.

“Yeah, alright,” he says finally. “I guess that would be fine.”

Jess nods firmly, then points a warning finger at him. “I’m getting a shower, and then I’ll let Sam know what’s happening. You’re not allowed to sneak off while I’m gone. Understood?”

“Understood,” Dean says, smiling a little despite himself. This woman is definitely out of Sam’s league.

Jess leaves, and Dean settles back down on his bed with his copy of True Grit. He doesn’t sneak off.

devils trap divider

The first few hours of the drive pass in silence. Jess doesn’t mind: far from the last time she was in the Impala with Dean, the silence is comfortable. Dean’s clearly deep in thought, his forehead furrowed and lips pursed, but he’s not snappish. His fingers drum the beat of the songs against the steering wheel, and he even sings snatches of the chorus to several songs. 

“You’ve got a good voice,” Jess says, after Dean finishes up the chorus of "Simple Man." 

Startled, Dean jerks. The Impala swerves, but manages to stay on the road. “Jesus,” he curses softly. “I thought you were asleep.” 

“Nope.” Jess curls a strand of hair around her finger. “So, you’ve got an award-winning voice. Tell me something else about you.” 

Dean’s side-eye is dubious. “What the hell is this, Twenty Questions? You already know too damn much about me and my family. Tell me something about your family.” 

“Nothing much to tell,” Jess answers, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “Just a mom, dad, older sister, all raised in the middle of the Rockies in a warded ranch to keep demons and monsters from finding us.” 

Dean blinks slowly, like he’s not sure whether to laugh or not. When her expression doesn’t change, he seems to come to the conclusion that she’s telling the truth. “Wow,” he says softly. “So you were raised in the life.” 

“As much as any kid can be. Learned Latin right alongside my ABCs, my gym class usually consisted of learning how to shoot cans, and we had quizzes about the habits of werewolves, wendigos and shapeshifters. Mom and Dad were always open with us about the things that went bump in the night.” 

Dean stares fixedly ahead through the windshield, but Jess can still see how his face blanches. “But you’re…” He waves a distracted hand in her direction. “I don’t know. Normal and shit.” 

There’s a wealth of meaning held in that statement, more than Jess wants to unpack. Judging from the tick of Dean’s jaw, he doesn’t want her to either. Before either of them can say something they’ll regret, Dean continues, “I mean, you went to Stanford. Didn’t know hunters had that kind of money.” 

Jess shrugs. While Sam never really divulged a lot of his childhood stories, she knew that he was on a full scholarship, and he was the kind of obsessive about money that only comes from growing up without it. For most of their relationship, they neatly sidestepped the issue of money, but it wasn’t a secret that Jess wasn’t hurting for it. 

“It’s family money,” Jess says, which is what she always says when someone is gauche enough to bring up the topic. What she doesn’t usually add is, “My great-great-grandfather had a psychic owe him a favor, so they told him what investments would be a good idea.” 

The corner of Dean’s mouth lifts in a smile. “Think if I buy Pamela a few drinks, she’ll tell me which startups are going places?” 

“I think if you buy Pamela a few drinks, you’ll be a few dollars poorer,” Jess answers. 

That startles a laugh out of Dean before he turns pensive again. “Still, Stanford’s a long ways away from home. I bet your parents were pretty ticked off when you decided to go there.” 

“Not really. They wanted us to get an education. My sister Aggie went to UC Berkeley, but that was mostly because Mom and Dad wouldn’t stop nagging her about going to school. All she really wanted to do was help run our network and keep the lore straight, but they insisted. Joke’s on them: she ended up being an English major, so she’s at home now, running the network.” 

“And you didn’t want that?” 

“Not really,” Jess answers. “If she needed my help, then of course I’d go, but I always wanted something a little bit more than hunting. Plus, with a family of hunters, it doesn’t hurt to have a doctor in the mix. There’s plenty of pro bono work I can do for the family without ever hunting.” 

“Lots of stitches and broken bones to set,” Dean says sagely. “Probably better having you do it than someone in a motel bathroom with a fifth of whiskey and some dental floss.” 

Some of Sam’s scars make a lot more sense now. Jess tries not to wince. “It just got a little difficult when we were both at school, in terms of friends. Her sophomore year, Aggie made the mistake of telling her girlfriend about the supernatural. They were getting pretty serious, and she wanted to know why Aggie hadn’t brought her home yet. She…” Jess pauses as she remembers that Christmas, and how her sister had come back different. Hollow, haunted. “She didn’t take it well,” Jess finishes lamely. 

Jess had worried that she was speaking too much, but she sees how Dean’s fingers are clenched around the steering wheel, and she knows that he’s listening intently. “That’s why I didn’t tell Sam,” Jess says. She’s walking a little carefully around this topic: even though she and Sam have made their peace with their respective lies, she knows that the topic is still a little sensitive for Dean (for about a week, they were treated to snide remarks on the importance of being honest, courtesy of Dean Winchester). “I was going to, eventually, but I was scared of losing him. I figured… I don’t know. I always figured I’d tell him someday, but I probably would have kept him in the dark for as long as I could.” 

Jess wants to explain: the desperate desire to wrap Sam in her love and keep him safe, to protect this one, pure thing that she’s found, but she doesn’t. From Dean’s intent silence, she thinks he understands. 

“Yeah,” he finally says. His voice is rougher than normal. “What you were saying about your sister… I get that.” He drums his fingers on the steering wheel for a moment, clearly debating something in his head. Jess expects him to change the subject, so what he says next comes as a surprise. 

“I said that we were close, but Cassie was… She was the first person that I…” Dean swallows, and then continues like he didn't balk at saying the words. “Anyway, I was stupid, and I thought there might be some kind of future there, and I thought, ‘Hey, aren’t people in relationships honest? Don’t you want to be normal and healthy?’ And I fucking told her what I did.” 

“And she got upset,” Jess guesses. 

Dean’s laugh is a bitter, stunted thing. “Understatement. She started screaming at me, told me to get out. She thought that I made up some story because I wanted to break up.” 

“What did you—” 

“I fucking left,” Dean interrupts. The tone of his voice warns that he’s almost finished discussing this topic. “Never looked back, never thought about her until she called me the other day.” 

The lie is blatant, but it seems cruel to call him out on it, so Jess doesn't.

Still, she wants to help. Even if he weren’t so important to Sam, Dean’s managed to grow on her in these past weeks. She’s seen his kindness and his consideration, the way that he listens to Bobby and how he treats Jo. She’s seen how hard he works — most days, he’s the last one into the annex. If there’s anyone in the world who deserves good things, it’s Dean.

“Well, one thing I've learned is that it’s never too late," she says. "Maybe now that she’s called you, she’ll be a little more open to the idea of the supernatural and you guys can work things out.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” Dean’s terse tone is a clear warning, and this time, Jess listens. She lets the subject drop, and she and Dean complete the rest of the trip in relative silence. 

***

Main Street in Cape Girardeau is populated by old, dusty buildings. They sag in the middle and look like their best days happened well over a decade ago. The people are similar: they move down the sidewalks almost like they’re in slow motion. Jess gets the feeling that here, urgency isn’t a mainstay of life. 

The newspaper office is probably the best-looking building on the street. It looks like someone’s at least bothered to pressure-wash it sometime within the past five years, and the windows are clean. Several flower boxes are outside, though only the carcasses of the plants remain. 

A woman is standing outside the office. When she hears the sound of the Impala, her head picks up. From this far away, it’s impossible to see the expression on her face, but her arms cross in front of her chest, almost like she’s protecting herself. 

Or getting ready for battle. 

Somehow, Dean manages to slide the Impala into parallel parking. The feat becomes even more impressive when Jess realizes that he’s paying more attention to the woman than to his car. Jess doesn’t blame him for looking: she’s beautiful. Her tightly curled, dark hair forms a halo around her face, and even though they’re twisted into a frown, her features are striking. She looks like she’d be equally comfortable in a ballgown or tossing back a beer at a dive bar. Though Jess hasn’t spent much time thinking about it, if she were to pick Dean’s type, this woman would tick almost every box. 

Dean shuts the Impala off and gets out. He stays close to the car, almost like he’s drawing comfort from it. “Cassie,” he says, his voice carefully neutral. “It’s good to see you.” 

“Dean.” Cassie’s eyes flick over to Jess, and she can read the suspicion in them. 

“I’m Jess.” She raises her hand in a swift wave. “I’m here on a bonding trip with Dean. Figured I should get to know my almost brother-in-law better.” 

Jess watches Cassie’s shoulders slump slightly. The combative light fades from her eyes, and she jerks her chin in acknowledgment. “Good to meet you.” She pauses and then asks, “And you’re… You know about this?” 

Though she’s vague, the wave of her hand and the slice of her eyes towards Dean conveys her meaning well enough. “Dean and I are in the same line of work,” Jess says, still aware of the surrounding pedestrians. Most of them are doing a poor job of pretending that they’re not listening to the conversation. 

Dean’s seemed to pick up on the eavesdroppers as well. “Is there somewhere a little more private we can talk?” 

Cassie bites her lip. Now that she’s looking, Jess can see the red tinge around the whites of her eyes and the dark circles under her eyes. She’s reminded that Cassie just lost her father and was forced to acknowledge the existence of the supernatural for the first time. Anyone would be overwhelmed.

“We can go back to my place,” Cassie says. Her eyes dart furtively to Dean, but he’s busy checking his phone. He only looks at it for a second, but his frown tells Jess that he doesn't find what he's looking for. Jess is irresistibly reminded of someone who's waiting for their crush to text.

The second Dean looks up from his phone, Cassie’s eyes slide just past him. She addresses the space just over Dean’s left shoulder when she says, “Mom’s there too, so we’ll need to be careful, but it’s certainly more private than here.” 

“We’ll meet you there.” Dean doesn’t seem to notice how Cassie’s eyes follow him, but Jess does. 

The looks are more noticeable when they arrive at Cassie’s house, an attractive Victorian set on a nice parcel of land. The chill permeating Nebraska hasn’t yet arrived in southern Missouri, so they sit on the front porch to avoid disturbing Cassie’s mother. Rocking idly back and forth on a porch swing, Jess listens as Cassie lays out the facts of the case. 

“The police think the deaths were an accident, but I just don't buy it. The same kinds of tire tracks were found leading to the scene of both crashes, but nobody saw the truck that made them, and there's no tracks that show it leaving the scene either. It's not right."

Jess looks over the files that Cassie lays in front of them. They’re meticulously organized, with various papers clipped together, and she thinks she can see what appealed to Dean about her. 

Dean, however, doesn’t seem to appreciate Cassie’s commitment to the case. His gaze is stony as he looks at her. “So, you thought, what? Now that you need me, you believe what I told you? ‘Cause I seem to recall you calling me crazy when I tried to tell you the truth.”

“I didn’t… I thought that you wanted—” Cassie’s eyes cut to Jess. “I’m sorry,” she says, not sounding regretful in the slightest, “but would you mind if I spoke to Dean alone?” 

Jess is already rising to get up off the porch and give these two their space, but Dean’s harsh voice stops her. “Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of Jess.” 

Frozen in place, Jess glances between Dean and Cassie. The muscle at the corner of Dean’s jaw ticks, and his fingers twist in an endless dance around each other, but he doesn’t waver. Across from him, a mix of hurt and surprise dashes across Cassie’s face. 

Interesting, Jess thinks, sinking back into her seat. The rest of the afternoon, she watches carefully, but while Dean is for the most part polite and offers to help, she can’t catch any hints of hidden passion. Is it possible that he’s not really interested in reconnecting with an old flame? 

And if he’s not, then what could be the reason? 

devils trap divider

It’s only been two days since Jess left for Missouri, but it seems much longer than that. 

Sam was none too happy at first when Jess told him she wanted to go with Dean to investigate a potential case. But once she explained she saw the trip as an opportunity to get to know his brother better, it was hard to keep arguing with her. After all, he wants the two most important people in his life to get along, and it would seem that hunting is the one thing they have in common.

To distract himself from missing Jess, he's spent most of his time helping out with weapons training, which is still very much a mixed bag. Scott is a decent shot by now, but Ava and Andy are still struggling with their marksmanship. Max does well at using his telekinesis to aim guns or control knives, but he can’t seem to get the hang of it when his hands are involved. 

Just after nightfall on the second day, Bobby, Rufus, Pamela and Ellen let loose another demon in the woods, to help the psychics practice going up against an adversary in the dark. It was their first time working with an actual demon in about a week. After all, there are only so many demons to be found within a two-hundred mile radius of the Roadhouse, and Bobby is worried that capturing too many too quickly will eventually attract unfriendly notice — not just from other demons, but also from hunters, many of whom won’t see much difference between a demon and a person with demon blood in their veins. 

For the most part, the exercise went well. After about half an hour of tracking, Sam, Max and Andy cornered the demon together. Between the three of them, they made quick work of pulling the contamination out of the host. In the aftermath, Sam experienced his usual nosebleed and headache, both of which usually subside within a few minutes.

This time? Not so much. It’s several hours later now, and his head is still throbbing. The Advil he took hasn’t so much as put a dent in the pain. If Jess were here, Sam thinks regretfully, she’d retreat to their bedroom with him and massage the ache away.

Instead, he’s stuck blinking against the harsh light of the annex kitchen, trying to follow a conversation that’s played out in one form or another at least once a day lately. As the weeks have trickled by, there has been a growing sense of impatience and anxiety among the other psychics. What’s Azazel doing? Where is he? Will he attack them, and if so, when? Should they attack him?

Answers to all of those questions remain elusive, but it doesn’t stop people from asking.

“I just don’t understand,” Scott says. “If we’re so important to this demon, if he wants us to be his army, why isn’t he looking for us?”

Scott, Ava, Andy, Max, Ash and Jo are gathered around the kitchen table, having a few beers before they turn in for the night. Sam is the only one not drinking; he doesn’t think alcohol would help the incessant pounding in his skull.

“He might be,” Jo says, from where her head is leaning on Ava’s shoulder. “Our wardings are strong though, especially those against demons. I mean, Azazel is extra powerful, so he’s kind of a wildcard, but no demon should be able to find this place, or anyone who’s staying here.”

“Yeah, but we’ve got no idea when this plan of Azazel’s is supposed to go down. What if it’s not for another ten years?” Scott asks, frowning. “We can’t put our lives on hold forever.”

“We’ll figure something out, man.” Ash shrugs, tilting back in his chair and putting a single ratty sneaker on top of the table. Jo kicks it off with one of her boots. “I’ve been doing every search I can think of — demon omens, suspicious fires, and anything else that might be connected to Azazel. It’s been less than two months since all this shit started. I’ll find something soon. Once we know where Azazel’s holed up, we’ll figure out how to come at him.”

After a short silence, Andy says, a little wistfully, “You know, there’s this girl, Tracey? Back home in Oklahoma. I kinda had a thing for her. I was planning to ask her out before all this went down, but I bet she's moved on by now. Probably good that she has. Imagine trying to explain all of this.” He huffs a mirthless laugh and takes a sip from his bottle.

Ash pats Andy on the shoulder in a silent gesture of support, and Andy nods his thanks.

“Well, I’m glad we’re all here,” Ava says, eyes flashing with irritation. “Yeah, this whole situation sucks ass in so many different ways, but if I wasn’t here, I never would’ve met any of you, and I wouldn’t have found out my fiancé was a dickhead until after I married him.”

“And you wouldn’t be getting any of that sweet, sweet Jo lovin’.” Ash grins as he takes another swig from his bottle.

“Ugh, shut up,” Jo says, flipping him off. “You’re gross.”

“Sam, what do you think?” Max asks quietly from the chair at Sam’s right. Sam has noticed that while Max has opened up more, he’s still not too comfortable in large group settings, preferring to hang out with Scott or Cas one on one. “You’ve been a hunter for a long time, right? How long do you think we have to wait for Azazel to do something?”

“I’m really not sure, Max.” Every word out of Sam’s mouth prompts a corresponding throb in his skull, and he can’t suppress a hiss of pain. “Not long, I hope. Excuse me.”

He pushes away from the table and staggers to the front door. He’s starting to feel vaguely nauseous, and the headache is worse than ever, so maybe what he needs is some fresh, cold night air to clear his head. Then, he’ll lie down and hope the others don’t stay up too much longer, making noise.

When he steps outside, the air is clear and crisp, but his headache doesn’t subside. If anything, it gets worse, escalating from intermittent pounding to a constant, searing pain. Without warning, the world starts to swim at the edges.

“Oh, fuck,” Sam grits out as his knees hit the frozen ground.

John Winchester walks down a city street after dark, past a red awning that reads "Manny’s Delicatessen" in faded white letters.

A word rises to the surface of Sam’s mind. Chicago.

John looks over his shoulder, eyes wide, scanning for some kind of threat. His strides speed up and he ducks into an alley. Just visible at the end of an alley is a body of water and a Ferris wheel, turning sluggishly, pink and purple lights oscillating outward on its spokes.

John keeps walking, and suddenly another figure appears at the mouth of the alley, several paces behind John. Her build identifies her as a woman, but her face is in shadow. A knife glints in one of her hands, the blade sharp and jagged. John keeps walking, apparently unaware of the woman’s presence. The woman follows after him, and the Ferris wheel lights up, casting pink light across a face distorted with murderous intent.

It’s a face Sam has seen before.

“Sam? Sam!”

A voice, deep and rough, reaches Sam as if from underwater. He blinks to awareness and realizes he’s lying on his side on the ground, curled up in a fetal position. Cas is kneeling over him, eyes narrowed in concern.

“Sorry. Sorry. I’m alright,” Sam says, arms shaking a little as he tries to get them to bear his weight. Cas supports him with a hand under his arm until he manages to get himself sitting upright. “Just, um. Vision.”

“What about?” Cas asks, eyes glinting with barely concealed eagerness in the low light streaming from the annex windows. “Azazel?”

A shiver of foreboding passes through Sam when he remembers the face he saw, following John down a dark alley, but Cas seems to misinterpret it as a different kind of shiver. “C’mon. The Roadhouse just closed, but it should still be pretty warm. We can go there. I’ll keep the lights low. I can get you a drink too, if you want.”

Sam nods his thanks, and when he tries gingerly to rise to his feet, he finds that his legs support him. Still, he feels rattled, trying to make sense of what the vision showed him.

They walk in silence to the Roadhouse, and Sam is grateful for the quiet and the time to think. His headache is slowly subsiding, but he still winces when Cas turns on the lights in the bar.

“Sorry,” Cas says quickly and manipulates the line of switches along the wall until only a few low lights illuminate the space. “Better?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Sam slumps into the nearest chair, and Cas comes over a minute later. He sets down a large glass of water, which Sam gulps gratefully.

“So what did you see?” Cas asks.

“I… fuck.” Sam runs a hand down his face, pulling at the skin. He hasn’t shaved today, and a bit of stubble rasps under his fingers as he tries to think things through. Obviously, he has to tell Cas about the woman, but what about Dad? If he mentions Dad, will Cas insist on bringing Dean into the loop? Sam doesn’t think he wants that to happen; at least, not yet. There’s no doubt that any hint of their father’s whereabouts will make Dean want to hightail it to Chicago. But what if John is already gone by the time they get there? Or worse, what if he’s there and finds a way to get his claws back into Dean, when Dean is just starting to do better and feel more at ease in a life that doesn’t include their father?

No, better to keep that part to himself for now.

In the end, he says, “I saw… someone in an alley. In Chicago, I think. They were being followed by a woman with a knife.” He frowns down at his empty glass, spinning it between his fingers. “Weird thing is, it was a woman I’ve met before.”

Cas’ eyes widen in surprise. “Where did you meet her?”

“That hunt in Burkittsville. I ran into her at the library, and she got kind of… pushy, I guess? There was something off about her, but I couldn’t figure it out. I guess I was distracted because I was worried about Jess at the time.”

“What do you mean by ‘pushy’?” Cas asks, raising both hands to make air quotes and squinting in apparent irritation at Sam’s vague wording. Sam is forcefully reminded that the subtle, gentle approach required for witness interviews isn’t Cas’ strong suit.

“She was really interested in where Jess and I were staying. I didn’t tell her, of course,” Sam adds hastily when he sees Cas’ expression shift into alarm. 

Cas taps a finger on the table, forehead furrowed in thought. “Did you get any identifying details? What did she look like? Did she give a name?”

Sam closes his eyes, trying to remember. “She was just this small blonde woman with short hair and bangs. Said her name was Meg.” A gasp draws his attention to Cas. “What?”

“I’ve seen her too.”

What?” Sam leans forward, his headache and concerns about John briefly forgotten. “Where?”

“On the wendigo hunt,” Cas says, sounding dazed. “She was at the library, talking to Dean, when I got there.”

“Fuck.” Sam blows out a heavy breath to relieve the sudden clench of apprehension in his chest. “You think she might be connected to Azazel?”

Cas’ jaw works, eyes darting back and forth as he thinks. “It’s a strong possibility. Why else would she be checking up on us? Why else would she show up in one of your visions?”

Sam nods. “I have to check this out. As soon as possible.”

“I’m coming with you.”

Sam opens his mouth to argue, but Cas cuts him off immediately. “Your visions always have a little bit of urgency to them, right? You see things that are either happening currently or are going to happen shortly. So we can’t sit here and twiddle our thumbs, waiting for Dean and Jess to come back. Bobby, Ellen, Pamela and Rufus are busy with the psychics, and I’m not letting Jo walk into whatever this is.”

Sam tries once again to offer a counter-argument, though really, he has none. He does spare a moment to wish he could have just gone off on his own, unnoticed, to look for Dad. The irony isn’t lost on him: it’s been less than two months since he gave Dean a hard time for doing the same thing.

***

As soon as Cas has left to pack a bag and talk to Ellen, Sam heads for his bedroom and pulls out his phone.  

He grits his teeth as he dials the number he swore he’d never make use of again. It goes straight to voicemail.

This is John Winchester. I can’t be reached. If this is an emergency, call my son Dean, 866-907-3235. He can help.

Sam waits for the beep, then, making no effort to bite back his irritation, “John Winchester can’t be reached. Big fucking surprise. Listen, Dad, I think something big is about to go down, and you might be in danger. You need to get in touch with me ASAP.”

He ends the call and tosses the phone into his duffel, wincing when it clinks against the weapons already piled into it.

devils trap divider

They’re on the road in a matter of hours. Castiel takes the first shift driving his truck, since Sam is still drained from his vision.

Castiel didn’t stop to say goodbye to the psychics because he didn’t want to delay his and Sam's departure any more than necessary, or to get everyone's hopes up about the lead they're chasing. He also dodged Jo, who would undoubtedly have demanded that he take her along. He did tell Ellen where they were going, and Ellen gave him the same treatment she always does before he goes off on a hunt: she pulled him into a tight hug and whispered, “You come back to me, ya hear?” This time with the added request to try and make it back in time for Christmas, three days from now.

As always, Castiel promised to come back, and as always, he felt both warmed by her concern and a little uneasy, knowing it was impossible to promise such things with any sincerity in the life of a hunter.

Castiel tries to clear his mind as he drives, to focus on nothing but the road ahead and the pink of the slowly dawning sun. Instead, his thoughts keep drifting to Dean, and to his own stubbornly silent phone. The last time they were separated by hunts, they kept up a steady stream of text conversations. This time, he hasn’t heard from Dean at all. Of course, he could try to jumpstart a conversation himself, but every time he types out some innocuous check-in, thumb hovering over the “send” button, he chickens out.

He meant every word he said to Dean the night they kissed, but being friends is proving exceedingly difficult, now that he knows what Dean’s lips feel like against his own, how well their hands fit together. And he can’t help the hollow disappointment he carries with him at all times, because a part of him had been hopeful that perhaps, for him — for them — Dean might be willing to—

Castiel cuts off that train of thought with an angry shake of his head. He refuses to resent Dean for not being able to come out on someone else's timeline, and he can give Dean some space for now if that’s what he needs.

Still, every time he takes his eyes off the windscreen, he eyes his phone, willing it to light up with a new message notification.

Eventually, somewhere in eastern Iowa, Sam wakes up and takes his turn behind the wheel. Castiel tries to make himself comfortable against the passenger door, using his balled-up jacket as a pillow, but sleep proves elusive. Giving it up as a lost cause, Castiel decides they may as well plot strategy.

“So what else do you remember about the vision?” he asks. Sam flinches, the motion barely perceptible, but Castiel files it away for later investigation. “Any landmarks that might help us figure out where to start asking questions?”

“Yeah, there was, um… a place called Manny’s Delicatessen, and a Ferris wheel,” Sam says, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “I think it was right by the edge of the lake. It was kind of lit up, in pink and purple lights.”

“Must have been the wheel at Navy Pier.”

Sam looks over at Castiel, curiosity plain on his face. “You’ve been to Chicago before?”

“Yes, I… used to live not too far from there. Before I came to live with Bill and Ellen.” As always when he’s reminded of his early childhood, distress chokes him for a moment before he remembers how to breathe.

He must have done a poor job of hiding his instinctive reaction, because Sam’s face takes on what Castiel has heard Dean describe as his “kicked puppy” look. “If you ever wanted to, um, talk, you know—”

“I’m fine, Sam.” Castiel forces a smile onto his face. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t… like to talk about my first family with most people.”

“Oh.” Sam nods his understanding, but disappointment flashes across his expression, and Castiel feels strangely compelled to explain himself.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you. I trust you much more than I expected to when we first met. You know how I feel about… your father,” he says hesitantly, and Sam seems to grimace apologetically almost by reflex. “And, to be quite honest, I used to think your visions were a sign of… of evil; of demonic influence over your actions. But I want you to know that I don’t think that anymore. Your visions saved Jenny and her children, back in Lawrence.”

Sam nods, murmuring, “Thanks, Cas. I appreciate that.”

“I just want to make sure we understand each other, Sam,” Castiel says quietly. “I value yours and Dean’s friendship very much.”

Something crumples in Sam’s expression, and he curses quietly. “Cas, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Castiel’s heart speeds up as his thoughts immediately go to Dean again. Has Dean confided in his brother about their kiss and the subsequent conversation? Is Sam upset on Dean’s behalf?

“It’s about the vision. The other person in it, the one who was being followed?” Sam’s jaw works as he stares at the road ahead of them. “It was my dad.”

“What?” Castiel can’t help the anger that creeps into his voice; it’s an instinctive reaction where John Winchester is concerned. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Sam meets Castiel’s eyes for a moment before he focuses back at the road. He looks miserable. “I was afraid you’d tell Dean.”

“You mean you didn’t tell Dean?” Castiel’s voice is rising, anger dialing up. “Why on earth not, Sam? You know he would want to know about this.”

Sam is silent for a little while. When he speaks, it’s in a low voice, almost too quiet to hear above the roar of the truck’s engine. “You don’t know what it was like, growing up with our dad. Dean worked so hard to shield me from the worst of it, but he could only do so much. Dad left us alone for weeks at a time. Sometimes, we ran out of food before he came back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dean must’ve gone hungry a lot so I didn’t have to. Even when Dad was around, it was… he was drunk a lot, and trust me when I say that he was a mean drunk. More than once, I saw bruises on Dean that he refused to talk about, but I knew exactly where they came from.”

Sam inhales, a little wetly, and Castiel feels his fingernails digging into his palms hard enough to break the skin. “But the thing is, Dean always had this hope that he refused to let go of. He thought that maybe if he was good, if he did everything Dad asked of him, Dad would get his act together and stop leaving us. And then we’d get our lives in order, the three of us, and be a real family.”

“But then you left for Stanford,” Castiel says tonelessly, his head swirling. He knew some of this, of course, but Dean never mentioned physical abuse. He never mentioned why, despite everything his father had done, he couldn’t seem to let him go.

“Yeah,” Sam admits. “I used to talk to Dean about college all the time, try to convince him that we should both go together, but Dean would never hear of it. So eventually, I stopped mentioning it. I applied to colleges in secret and didn’t tell Dean or Dad I was leaving until the night before freshman orientation.”

Castiel swallows, hard. “Dean must have been devastated.”

“It’s probably my biggest regret, leaving him like that,” Sam says. “But I just… couldn’t anymore. I needed to get out. And I guess I hoped that Dean would follow eventually, you know? Use my example to get out from under Dad’s thumb. But that didn’t happen. Not until we met you.”

“Me?” Castiel breathes.

“Yeah. Living at the Roadhouse… I think he’s starting to figure out that he doesn’t always have to keep moving, you know? And that there might be people other than me and Dad who are capable of caring about him.” Hesitant, he asks, “You do care about him, don’t you, Cas?”

Castiel is at a loss as to how, precisely, to answer that question. He settles on the unvarnished truth. “Yes, I do. Very much.”

Sam nods, satisfied. “So you see now why I didn’t want to tell him about this, right? If I get his hopes up and we end up not finding Dad, it’ll be a setback. But it might almost be worse if we do find him. Because I’m afraid I might lose my brother to my father all over again.”

Cold fear curls around Castiel’s heart. He knows Dean isn’t his to have, not in the way he truly wants, but he’s grown so used to being able to see him and talk to him. The thought that, even now, Dean might choose John Winchester over him is devastating. And yet.

“I understand, Sam, but Dean has a right to this information. He has a right to his own decisions. And whatever those decisions are, if we lo—” He clears his throat. “If we care about him, we need to respect them.”

Sam gives him a soft smile. “You’ve sure changed your tune since that time Dean took off for Jericho.”

“I didn’t know him then,” Castiel admits. “I thought I did, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Silence stretches between them, and Castiel can practically hear the gears in Sam’s head turning. “Alright, how about this? We check out the neighborhood I saw in my vision. If we get any kind of lead suggesting Dad is still there, we call Dean immediately. If not, there’s nothing to tell anyway, and we’ve spared him a disappointment. Deal?”

Castiel still feels uneasy at the idea of keeping something from Dean, remembering all too well the bitter words Dean spat in his face, back in Blackwater Ridge.

You want me to trust you when you’re going to lie to me? We’re working with you because it’s convenient. The second that changes… I don’t care if you’re drowning. We’re done.

Castiel isn’t sure he could stand to hear such things from Dean now. But still, he values Dean’s peace of mind, and Sam’s plan is reasonable on the face of it.

“Deal,” he says.