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Tall Grass

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“I think we should have a garden,” Cas says.

Dean looks up from his beer. He hasn’t had that much to drink, but Cas still has a vague look of unreality about him, a splash of living color that doesn’t fit in the bunker’s echoing stillness. Dean didn’t hear him coming. A lot of the time, Cas is so unobtrusive it feels like Dean has the bunker to himself, with Sam away.

Dean shakes his head to clear it. “A — garden?” he repeats.

Cas raises his chin a fraction, that look that communicates his intent to be completely unreasonable and absolutely refuse to acknowledge it. “Yes,” he says. “A garden.”

“Why?” says Dean, at a loss. And then, as it occurs to him: “Where?”

“I like gardens,” Cas says. “Here. Outside.”

“You like gardens.” Sweet Jesus. “Cas, remember that whole thing where we live in a secret bunker? You think having a tidy row of — begonias by our front step won’t tip people off?”

“I never said it would be tidy,” Cas objects. “Or anything about begonias.”

Chuck, Dean thinks, if only you could see what your kids are up to now.

“Besides,” Cas adds, “all of our enemies already know exactly where we live.”

Which, point. They really should see about upgrading security.

“Whatever,” Dean says. “Knock yourself out.”

---

He promptly forgets about the garden thing.

Cas doesn’t bring it up again, either, and a hunt the next week in Wyoming brings them close enough by Jody’s that it would be dumb not to drive a couple hours out of their way to see everyone. Dean’s feeling a bit banged up, doesn’t want to bother Cas about it, and they’re both dusty and still sneezing from getting thrown around a hayloft by an angry ghost, but Jody embraces them both anyway before packing them off to the shower, and Sam grins, hand broad and warm on Dean’s back as he pulls him in for a hug.

Dean takes first shower, and changes into a more-or-less clean flannel he found in the Impala’s trunk before going back downstairs to mingle. He feels a little old and faded, surrounded by all these kids. Jody’s house is packed to the gills these days, and she’s the smiling center of the chaos, somehow extorting enough food out of the still-exactly-the-same-size kitchen to feed all of them and then some.

“I’ve had practice,” she says when he compliments her on the spread, shooting a meaningful look at his brother. Sam grins and drops his eyes, and Dean feels this weird surge of pride that leaves his chest uncomfortably full.

It’s not that it surprised him, exactly, when Sam started spending more time crashing at Jody’s. They’ve been rock solid since forever, and yeah, Dean’s thought a few times that if Sam ever did want to settle down, find himself a girl, he could do a lot worse. But it’s also — they’ve never actually been with a hunter before. Either of them. And Dean’s brain still can’t quite dissociate the idea of an actual relationship from the decision to leave the life behind, still can’t move “sex” over from something you do from time to time, when you have the chance and you’re in the mood, to somewhere important, permanent, central.

So it kind of threw him, when Sam announced, almost two months ago now, that he was headed up to Jody’s.

At first, Dean just blinked. “What about the hunt?” Cas had dug up what looked like another pack of werepires out in Maryland, and honestly, he was pretty excited about it.

“You and Cas got it locked down,” Sam said with a shrug.

Dean considered this. Something didn’t add up. “Jody got something she wants help with?”

Sam shifted uncomfortably. “No, I — look, Dean. I — think I might stay up there. Like, for a while.” At Dean’s nonplussed stare, he plunged on. “I mean, there’s a lot going on with the girls right now, right? And I think I can help them, especially Patience, get a better handle on her powers. If I get more than an afternoon with her here and there. And —” He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Well, we don’t really need three of us on every hunt.”

“Hang on,” Dean objected, “hang on. If you’re saying Cas is some kind of third wheel, then —”

“No,” Sam cut in quickly. He leaned in, earnest fucking puppy dog eyes turned up to the max, and continued, “No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying — I am.”

Dean stared. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” he said.

Sam raised his hands. “Just hear me out, okay? I think I could really do some good there. Something — more than just knocking out another hunt.”

And Dean remembered, as if from another lifetime, that conversation on dwindling oxygen and hope: Hunters on that scale, working together... how much good we can do. And I just followed, because it was easy. Easier than leading.

Dean’s throat felt unaccountably tight. “You and Jody,” he said.

Sam glanced up, startled. “Yeah?”

“It’s a thing, isn’t it?” He couldn’t quite meet Sam’s eyes. “I mean — it’s serious.”

And Sam’s lips curved in a smile Dean hadn’t seen in years, not since — since — he didn’t know. Jessica, maybe.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

---

After that, raising any objections would basically make Dean the world’s biggest asshole. And Sam was right, he and Cas still made a great team, and the werepire hunt was straight-up awesome, and he was still laughing so hard over Cas commanding a struggling, severed head to EAT LINCOLN, YOU — FUCKER, both because Cas was a nerd and because he’d never heard Cas swear properly before, that the bunker didn’t even feel empty when they got back and Sam was gone.

No, that sense of emptiness arrived over the following few days, and left a cold, miserable detachment in its wake. Dean’s not even sure whether he’s more bothered by Sam’s absence or by his own pathetic inability to get over it, but, hell, he basically raised the kid, and even after all these years, he figures there’s still some kind of a — Jesus, empty nest syndrome or some shit, and just thinking those words makes him kinda want to put a gun in his mouth.

He found them another hunt within the week, and that was good, they were off again, ganked a nasty shifter in Elko, Nevada and got back to the bunker and Dean drank half the liquor cabinet and that’s when Cas started getting weird.

There was the day he decided he wanted to play cards, culminating in the revelation that he had no idea how to play cards and spent most of the game analyzing the implications of Bicycle’s artwork. There was another day, even more bizarre, when he asked Dean to let him help work on the Impala.

Which just — didn’t work. Yeah, Dean’s taught Sam some stuff over the years, and if Cas had asked for help on an oil change for his own truck, that would’ve been fine, but the whole time, Cas was just — way too persistently eager to be useful, and constantly putting his tools in places they didn’t belong, and besides, Dean and the Impala, it’s — well. She’s his Baby, and he knows it sounds dumb, but it’s just not the same, with Cas there. He needs that time in the quiet of the garage, just him and his girl. There’s something meditative about it. Sometimes he thinks the safest he’s ever felt is flat on his back on a trolley, face to face with Baby’s engine, her wheels to his right and left like a sheltering embrace.

He ended up snapping at Cas so badly he left the garage in disgrace, and Dean felt bad about it for days. Though really, Cas didn’t have to wear that hangdog look of crippling guilt all that time.

And Dean gets it. This is weird for Cas, too; Sam gone, Jack spending most of his time off straightening out Heaven, feeling anchorless and rudderless in the face of the new world they’ve made. He’s not really sure why Cas doesn’t take off, too. But hell, Dean’s not proud enough to look a gift horse in the mouth, and as much as he’s been a shit friend, he’s grateful that Cas has chosen to hang around.

Now, watching Sammy’s smile, seeing how at home he looks here, how confident, he can’t help thinking that whatever bullshit his own brain wants to put him through about it, that look on his brother’s face is worth the world.

--- 

Cas makes it down in time for dessert — a tiramisu Alex brought over, and Dean remembers a time when that girl couldn’t cook a pancake — and leans on the arm of Dean’s chair, because there are more people here than there are seats. Something about his presence is calming, warm and immovable. It makes Dean feel less like his happiness for Sam is going to burn out his eyes and through the walls of his throat.

They stay for a while after dinner, catching up and sipping on whiskey, but when Jody offers Dean a spot on the couch he trades looks with Cas and says, “No, I think we’ll make the run back while the highways are clear.”

He’s always loved night driving. Can’t really explain it — or rather, he can, there’s less traffic, fewer cops, and hunters keep pretty nocturnal schedules anyway — but none of those are the real reason. There’s just something about speeding through the darkness with his music playing low, or just the hum of Baby’s engine to keep him company; his passenger, if there is one, sleeping beside him. Cas doesn’t sleep, but that’s okay, because Cas seems to understand that they, right now, are all that exists in the universe. A solitary pair of headlights tracking their way across a theoretical Nebraska. If they stopped, if those headlights flicked out, so would go the world.

They reach the bunker just after dawn, and okay, Dean will admit to another motivation: that he’s tired enough now for his own bed to look welcome, the oblivion of sleep ready at hand. But when he groans back into awareness, some hours later, he’s surprised to find himself in a good mood, the bunker not nearly as claustrophobic or as enormously empty as it has been.

Cas is nowhere to be found, so Dean turns on the radio and scrounges through the fridge to see what they have lying around. There’s not much, and he considers making do, but winds up driving into town for groceries. He puts some pasta sauce on and lets it simmer all afternoon, and when Cas reappears, Dean commands him to try some.

“And I don’t care about the molecules,” he adds sternly. “They’re molecules I made for you, and you’re going to damn well appreciate them.”

“Actually,” says Cas around a mouthful of spaghetti, “unless you burned it, the molecules would be largely unaltered from their original —”

Dean points his fork at him across the table. “No.”

Cas relents. “It’s very good, Dean.”

Dean smiles, and shovels another smug forkful into his mouth.

---

The next morning, Cas walks into the library and declares, “I’m going to Lawrence today.”

Dean squints at him. He got Cas to join him for some of the top-shelf Scotch last night, an endeavor that unfolded out of the molecules discussion and was actually pretty educational, but he’s hurting for his coffee a little more than usual this morning. He takes another sip. “Lawrence,” he repeats. “Uh — why?”

“To the University of Kansas,” Cas says. “I have a meeting there.”

Dean blinks. “Is this a case? Who are you meeting with?”

“Elizabeth Schuster,” says Cas, “and no. She’s a botanist. I want to ask her about the garden.”

It takes Dean a moment to even remember their previous conversation. “Okay,” he says, frowning. “Do you — want me to come?”

Cas inclines his head. “You’re welcome, of course,” he says, “but it’s not necessary.”

Something clenches in Dean’s gut. Cas hasn’t had a chick on his horizon in a long time; he shouldn’t interfere. “Nah, I’m good,” he says, trying to inject confidence into his own voice. “Have fun.”

He means to wink. He does. But when Cas nods and turns away, Dean’s still standing there motionless, grip tight on the back of his chair.

---

After Cas is gone, Dean does a circuit of the bunker, because he is pretty fucking sure they don’t have a garden.

There are no begonias out front. (Well. Dean doesn’t actually know what a begonia looks like. But he’s pretty sure the only flowers out front are dandelions, poking up through cracks in the derelict sidewalk.)

He hasn’t had much cause to venture up the hill to the west of the abandoned power plant that conceals the bunker’s entrance, or around back to the north, aside from standard security checks. He does now.

It’s late summer, verging into fall, and the sun is warm on his back. Behind the bunker is a weedy, overgrown yard, buzzing with grasshoppers loud enough to drown out the sound of a plane passing overhead, but no garden. Beyond to the north, farmland for miles, mantling the gentle swells and curves of the landscape. The sky is blindingly blue and empty.

Maybe Cas wants to ask about a garden he’s planning to start.

That’s pretty pathetic, Dean, he thinks. You’ll just tell yourself anything to believe your buddy might not want to see some chick more than he wants to hang out with you. You are a miserable sack of shit, aren’t you.

No wonder Sam left.

They’re stupid thoughts, angry thoughts, and he knows there’s no reason in them, but that doesn’t ease the bite. Back inside, he Googles Elizabeth Schuster. She’s a real person — head of the greenhouses at KU. There’s a photo of her on the staff page, but her face is hidden from view, buried in some plant. Cute, he thinks derisively.

Dean could do a full background check. Pull up her birth certificate, criminal record, academic transcripts, utility bills, vehicle registration. Check for social media. Make sure this floozy isn’t some witch with a bead on Cas.

With effort, he closes his laptop. Cas can handle himself.

Chapter Text

Fall is busy. They’re seldom at home for more than a few days at a time, criss-crossing the country on hunt after hunt. They meet up with mom for a werewolf hunt in Oregon, and the next week they’re in Maine on a ghost thing. The Impala develops a few new rattles from all that time on the road, so Dean calls a break after that and spends a few days at home, tuning her up. Cas is scarce during that time, though his truck’s still in the garage every day but one.

In early October, Claire tracks down a truly messed up vampire nest in east Tennessee. They’ve avoided hunters so long because they mostly feed on their own children, and don’t leave missing persons to report. No one wants to take a chance on vamps, with their history, but it still surprises Dean when Sam successfully convinces Claire to wait for backup. Dean and Cas drive out from Kansas and Sam and Jody down from Sioux Falls, and they go in as a five-man team and make impressively short work of the situation. It strikes Dean anew that they’re — well — really fucking good at this shit.

They somehow wind up spending the next day at Dollywood to celebrate. Dean’s not entirely sure whose idea it was, given that literally everyone seems to only be going along with it to humor everyone else, but he and Claire end up hitting all the biggest rides, and even drag a protesting Cas onto the Thunderhead on their second go. After that, Sam and Cas insist on going to the raptor show, which turns out to be way cooler than it sounds, especially when one of the hawks lands on Sam’s head. While the handler apologizes profusely and struggles to coax the bird back onto her arm, Dean laughs himself silly and gets a blurry picture on his phone, which he promptly texts to Mom.

Jody’s a bit banged up from getting thrown into a cabinet last night — Cas did what he could, but his grace has been on the fritz for a while now, and Jody says it doesn’t hurt much but there’s still the dark shadow of a bruise under the cut on her cheek. Over the course of the day, she’s coolly stared down more than one guy glancing between her and Sam with pity or outrage or condescension blooming on his face.

She and Sam stay earthbound when Dean and Claire bully Cas onto one last coaster. From the long ascent to the launch, Dean can see the two of them down below, lingering near a food stand, out of the way of traffic. They’re standing side by side, both looking off in the same direction, but still curved together somehow. Sam bends his head toward something Jody is saying. Their fingers are laced together; Jody brings Sam’s hand up to her lips and presses a brief kiss to his skin, like that’s nothing, keeps right on talking the next moment, the line of her shoulders all business.

“Why aren’t you afraid of rollercoasters?” Cas asks from Dean’s right. He’s gripping the padded bars over his shoulders, and he sounds a little sour about it.

Dean blinks. “Should I be?”

“You’re afraid of air travel,” Cas points out. “We are traveling. Through the air.”

“You’re afraid of air travel?” Claire demands, leaning forward to look at him past Cas. There’s delight on her face. “Seriously?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Only the kind that serves $8 cocktails and doesn’t want you to think you’re about to die,” he grumbles, and then they’ve reached the edge.

---

Dean’s already come around to Dollywood pretty well before the cowboys.

And, okay, they’ve got a few more sequins on than Samuel Colt did, and it’s interspersed with a hell of a lot of pageantry, but trick riding is fucking cool, no matter how you slice it. Add an entire rotisserie chicken to eat while you watch the show, and yeah, Dean’s not one to complain.

“I can’t believe you’re enjoying this,” says Claire.

Dean shrugs. “Hey,” he says, through a mouthful of food. “She’s hot.”

He says it mainly to get Claire to roll her eyes at him, which works, but it’s also true. The chick currently leaning off her horse backward at an absurd angle, hair brushing the dirt as she canters full tilt around the ring, is actually — wow, yeah.

And Dean hasn’t done this in a long, long time, so a part of him is just interested in whether he’s still got it — for science, Sammy, he’ll say if he gets one of his brother’s bitchfaces about it tomorrow morning. It’s easy enough to sidle up to her after the show — all the performers are signing autographs — and ask if she’d like to meet up later for a drink.

Her name’s Jaime, and between her evening performances and occasional road trips for barrel races, she’s a med student. Came back to it ten years out of a Bachelor’s in English, she explains, had to take a year of crash courses in science in order to get in, but she doesn’t mind all the studying and the long hours.

“Honestly,” she tells him frankly, at the door to her apartment, “I haven’t done this since my last boyfriend, and I haven’t really wanted to. So if I decide halfway through that I’m all set, thanks, don’t take it personally, okay?”

She doesn’t, which is reassuring, but she does kick him out afterward, laughing —  you’re too hot, I need this memory, no way I’m gonna let you snore on me all night and ruin it — and Dean swaggers back into the room he, Cas, and Sam are sharing wearing the shit-eating-est grin in his arsenal. Sam peers blearily at him from his bed — and yeah, this whole Jody-rooming-with-Claire arrangement kinda sucks for Sam, who most definitely is not getting laid, but hell, Dean’s earned it.

Cas is nowhere to be seen, which might be more interesting if Dean weren’t so exquisitely tired. Instead of asking, he goes to brush his teeth, ducking back out of the bathroom to gargle loudly at Sam. Sam throws a pillow at him, and Dean hurls it back, but Sam only tucks it over his head and turns his back ostentatiously on his brother. Chuckling, Dean crawls into his own bed, and clutches his pillow tight to his chest as he falls asleep.

---

He and Cas detour on the way home to check out a haunted waterfall in the Ouachita Mountains. It’s a story that’s crossed their radar more than a few times over the years: hikers at the base of the falls glimpsing a figure half hidden in the mist atop the cliff. None of the reports agree on what exactly she looks like, though, and there’s never been any deaths or other strange happenings — just an accident, nearly 70 years ago, when a little boy named Billy Jenkins died, and the one thing all the reports corroborate is that the figure in question is a woman, and an adult.

The country’s riddled with weird stories like this one, and Dean usually doesn’t set much stock in them without something more concrete. A few weeks ago, though, a pair of college students rock climbing on the cliff by the waterfall reported being attacked by a woman they could only describe as “pale.” One was knocked from the cliff and caught by his harness after a short drop, but bruised badly colliding with the rocks.

Interviewing the kids doesn’t provide much more information than the news story did.

“I was belaying Brandon,” says the girl, Marion, looking down at her hands as if she’s not sure they’re attached to her body. “And then — I look up and there’s like, this woman, with long hair, only she’s really pale and she’s leaning out over the cliff way further than a person should, you know? And I’m about to yell at her to be careful when she leans even further and just shoves Brandon. It’s the most scared I’ve been in my life.”

“Did you see any more detail?” Cas asks the boy. “Anything you can tell us about what she looked like?”

Brandon shakes his head. There’s still a vibrant bruise on his temple, faded to green. “I didn’t see her at all,” he says. “I was looking for a foothold.”

“It’s so weird,” Marion adds. “I didn’t see anything strange when I went up to set up the top rope.”

Dean glances at Cas, who looks equally confused. “The — what now?”

“Top rope,” Marion repeats, giving them an odd look. “Like, when you’re climbing something you can get to the top of and anchor a rope before you start.”

“So, you can get to the top without climbing it,” Dean repeats.

Marion shrugs, still looking confused. “Sure. It’s a longer way around, and it’s steep, but it’s easy enough.”

Cas is frowning, and Dean can tell he’s about to get them into philosophical questions about the purpose of climbing a cliff when you can just go around, and elbows him. The kids give them a funny look, like maybe this isn’t the usual park ranger behavior or something.

And Cas has perhaps developed better hunter’s instincts than he used to have, because he says, very formally, “Thank you. Your assistance will prove invaluable in enhancing our safety measures here at Ouachita National Forest,” and they’re out without any further humiliation.

They fill a duffel with weapons and hike out to the falls in late afternoon, sun slanting through the oaks and poplars. A butterfly drifts careless in the path ahead of them, and Cas pauses to watch it when it curves away as they pass.

There are still some people around when they arrive. The waterfall plunges forty feet or more off the cliff into the pool below, where children are laughing and playing. Dean and Cas stake out a spot on a boulder at a little remove from the water and wait for the civilians to clear out. They can see a faint game trail that will take them to the left of the steepest part of the cliff and around to the top. There’s nothing visible up there right now, but Dean keeps an eye out all the same.

“Any of them yours?” asks a smiling, dark-haired woman who picks her bare-footed way across the rocks to lay out three towels to dry on the boulder next to theirs.

She’s achingly pretty, with fashionable sunglasses pushed back on the top of her head and a C-section scar just visible above her bikini line, and Dean is still trying to figure out which of them she’s talking to when Cas replies, “No, not ours.”

Dean turns to stare at him, and the woman glances between them uncertainly, smile fading slightly. “We’re thinking of adopting, though,” Cas adds, utterly composed, and Dean nearly chokes, but the woman grins again and wishes them luck before returning to her own kid.

“Dude,” Dean hisses.

“She thought we were a couple, Dean,” Cas explains. His gaze is on the waterfall and his brow is ever so slightly furrowed, but his voice is perfectly calm.

A dozen indignant responses swell and deflate in Dean’s throat. He swallows, and returns to watching the cliff.

---

Turns out it’s not an ordinary spirit, but a woman in white.

They pick their way up to the cliff in half-light once all the families are finally gone, the woman from earlier giving them a conspiratorial smile as she picks up her towels and leaves them alone at the falls. Cas leads the way — he’s weirdly good at this, moving through the dense undergrowth with a graceful certainty while Dean splutters a spider web out of his mouth — and they approach the ledge above the falls cautiously, flashlights and shotguns out.

They get to the top, and nothing happens.

After a few tense moments, Dean gives Cas a rueful glance, and murmurs, “Split up?”

Cas nods and starts into the vegetation, moving slowly, flashlight beam sweeping from left to right.

Dean’s turned to look for the best route across the stream to the other side when something behind him says, “You.”

He turns around and she’s right there. She’s pale, yes — pale and old, face more wrinkles than flesh, long white hair dangling down to her waist, and it’s impossible to tell if her clothing is supposed to be a nightgown or a dress. She’s wearing a smile, but it’s a horrible one, and she lunges for him with her fingers flexed like claws.

Dean reacts on instinct. As her weight hits him, he throws himself flat and rolls them both. She screams and clamps her arms around him, hands scrabbling for his chest, his heart, and he gasps hard for breath, rolls again, and flips her over his shoulders and off the cliff.

He nearly follows her over. For a moment, he clings desperately to crumbling soil with his fingertips, hanging half off the precipice like the figurehead on a bow, and then Cas’s hands are grasping him by the jacket and hauling him to safety.

Brushing himself off and feeling more shaken than he’d like to admit, Dean peers over the cliff.

At first, he thinks she’s gone. Then he sees the much smaller figure, pearly and translucent, standing directly in the waterfall’s spray.

“Mommy?” the ghost of Billy Jenkins says.

The air over the pool flickers with static, and then there’s the woman again, hovering over the surface of the water like it’s solid ground. “Baby?” she breathes in a voice that quavers, with age or emotion or both.

“Mommy,” repeats Billy Jenkins. “You pushed me.”

And of course. This is Patty Jenkins, it must be — a name Dean saw in the obituaries when he was researching the case last week. A common last name; a peaceful, recent death in a nursing home bed fifteen miles from here. But here she is, and as she stares at her dead son, her whole form begins to vibrate.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she pleads. “I’m so sorry, Billy — I just looked at you and saw him, every time, and I don’t know how I got so angry —”

“It’s time for you to go, mommy.” Billy drifts infinitesimally forward out of the cascade. The flying droplets fall straight through him.

“Why didn’t you ever show yourself before?” Patty whispers. “I came here, baby. I waited for you. All these years —”

“It’s time for me to go too.”

Patty screams when he touches her, a heart cry that trembles the leaves on the trees around them and raises the hairs on Dean’s arm. And then with a crack and a flash like lightning, both of them are gone. Only the pool continues to glow for a few seconds, but maybe that’s just the spots in Dean’s eyes.

“Are you okay?” Cas asks quietly, hand still clenched in the back of Dean’s jacket.

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Yeah, I’m fine." He takes a deep breath. "Let's go home.”

---

It’s a few mornings later when Dean’s woken by Cas bursting into his room at the asscrack of dawn, exclaiming, “Dean! Dean, come see what’s happening in the garden!”

Dean’s rolled onto his back with a gun steadied in both hands before his sleep-fogged mind catches up with anything, but just as quickly, Cas’s fingers are wrapping around his, disarming him with a surprisingly gentle efficiency. Then Cas is drawing him to his feet and throwing the nearest jacket over his shoulders and catching him by the hand, pulling him down the corridor, past the kitchen — he spares a longing, bleary glance for the coffee pot — and up the stairs and outside.

Cas releases his hand once he’s out on the sidewalk, and it occurs to Dean that Cas has also at some point gotten him into his boots, though he seems to have judged socks unnecessary. It’s chilly out, and the wind bites through the loose flannel of his pants, but he threads his arms through the sleeves of his jacket and follows Cas when he disappears around the corner of the building.

When he makes it around to the back, Cas is on his knees in the middle of the overgrown yard. Dean glances around. He still can’t see a garden anywhere.

“Come on,” Cas says, gesturing to him, and Dean sighs, and follows.

Cas is kneeling beside a clump of weedy plants covered in clusters of tiny yellow flowers — goldenrod, maybe, Dean thinks. “Look,” he says, and Dean drops down beside him with a sigh, and that’s when he sees it.

Clinging to the underside of the flower closest to Cas is a bumblebee. The hair on its body is damp with dew, and it’s not moving, not even when he raises a tentative finger a hairsbreadth away, brushes its antenna with his nail.

“Is it —” he starts, but he finds he can’t finish. Is it dead?

“Sleeping,” Cas breathes. And, again: “Look.”

Dean looks, and sees.

There’s another bee on the next clump of flowers, and another, and another. Peering through the vegetation from this angle, it’s like he’s staring up into a miniature cathedral of arching golden ceilings, just beginning to light up in the morning sun. It seems to go on forever, and everywhere it’s studded with slumbering bees. There are dozens — a hundred — more.

He catches a breath, wanting to ask but unsure what to say, and Cas says, “They only do this for a week or two a year. It’s the males, the drones. They’re born in the fall, and they never have a home. They just sleep on flowers and look for mates until they die.”

“Woodstock for bugs,” Dean murmurs, and Cas smiles.

Honestly, Dean’s not big on things with six legs. He’s had some experiences. But these ones are so peaceful, so still, that just now he can’t find it in him to mind. “Do they sting?” he asks. “When they wake up, I mean?”

“They won’t sting you, Dean,” says Cas, which isn’t really the answer to his question, but okay. The dew on the ground is seeping through the knees of his pants, but when he glances over at Cas, he looks so radiantly happy that the discomfort seems very far away.

“When will they wake up?” he asks.

“When they’re warm enough,” Cas murmurs, as if unaware that he’s speaking. “When they do, they’ll have nectar right there. Food. Fuel to get them flying again.”

“What if we…” Dean reaches forward and gently breaks off the end of a flower cluster, bee along with it. He spares Cas a guilty glance after he does it, in case that bothers him, but Cas doesn’t seem perturbed. Careful not to disturb the bee, Dean cradles it gently and blows a stream of warm air into the cup of his hands.

It takes several minutes, and the morning chill is stinging at his fingers by the time the bee begins to stir. Its first movements are slow, robotic. It stretches one leg, then another, and tickles Dean’s palm. Cas is rapt, peering over the wall of Dean’s thumb, and when Dean lowers his face for another breath, their foreheads brush. And then the bee is clambering its slow way to a tiny flower and lowering its alien head to drink.

They watch it for a long minute in silence. Then Cas says, “Your fingers are turning colors.”

It’s true. They’re red and chapped, and tingling with the cold. “Want to —” he starts, but before he can finish, Cas has cupped his own hands around Dean’s, and he feels startling warmth flowing out of Cas’s palms and into his own skin.

The bee is moving more now, shivering its wings enthusiastically, and at first Dean thinks that means it’s cold, but Cas murmurs, “It’s warming up its thorax. It’s almost ready to fly,” and he shuts his mouth to watch. Another minute, maybe two; then the bee abruptly stills, raises its wings as if in a salute, and buzzes into motion.

It bumps into his hands twice on its way out, but Cas is right, it doesn’t sting him. Its ungainly path takes it only a few feet away before it collides with a brilliantly purple aster and stops again to feed.

“Won’t it just get cold again?” Dean asks as Cas slowly releases him. He lets the flower fall, rubbing his hands together before tucking them back in his pockets. He can still feel the tickle of the bee’s feet on his palm.

Cas shakes his head. “I think it’s warm enough now,” he says. “It’ll keep going until the air warms too. Look,” he adds, and Dean sees that he’s right — a few of the other bees are beginning to flex stiff joints, too.

His knees might be cold, but the heat of the sun feels good on his face, and Cas shows no inclination to move. So Dean stays and watches, Cas at his side, until every last bee has lifted off into the sunlight, leaving a dancing flower head behind.

Chapter Text

Later, over a long-overdue mug of coffee, Dean asks, “So that’s the garden, huh?”

Cas gives him that look he’s been getting more and more often lately — furrowed brow, distant expression, as if Cas is mildly perplexed not by what Dean’s asking but by something else that he isn’t. “Yes,” he says. 

“I expected it to be more…” Dean draws a blank, and gestures vaguely. “Garden-y.”

“I like it,” Cas says, unperturbed. He takes a sip of his own coffee — Cas has been eating and drinking more these days, and Dean’s not sure what that means — and adds, “I’ll give you the tour if you want.”

“Um.” Dean blinks. “Sure.”

So a few hours later, he’s back outside with Cas, wading an inch at a time through thigh-high weeds.

“It’s Indian-grass,” Cas says, trailing a hand through the tasseled seed head. “It used to be — everything, here. All these fields were just Indian-grass, and —” He turns slowly, searching. “Here. Big bluestem. And western wheatgrass.” He catches Dean’s hand and circles it around another stem, tall and slender, with plump, hard seeds pressed close to its sides. Dean runs it between thumb and palm and thinks of a rosary.

“The English names are clumsy,” Cas admits. “I like the Enochian ones better. But I suspect they would be difficult for you.”

Try me, Dean wants to say, but it doesn’t make it out of his throat. Instead, he merely nods.

“It grew taller than this,” Cas says. “In the summer, riding through the grass, the pollen would turn the horses’ chests gold.”

Dean looks down at the plant in his hand, and runs his thumb over it again. “And they plowed it all under.”

“Not quite all.” Cas smiles. “Come see.”

If you ask him, Dean will tell you Sam’s the smart one, every time. But when he’s being honest, he’ll admit he’s always had a decent head for names. Cas is throwing them out left and right, now, and for some reason, it seems vitally important to remember every single one.

“Buffalo grass,” he repeats, pointing at a small, elegant plant. “Lady’s tresses.” The two are twined together at the feet of the tall grasses, the latter spangled with tiny white flowers. “Blue sage. Rigid goldenrod.”

“That one’s Missouri goldenrod,” Cas says, sounding apologetic. “There are a lot of goldenrods. I’ve got about seven.”

“Christ,” says Dean. “All right, what’s this one?”

He’s pretty sure it’s a sunflower. Brilliantly yellow, and bobbing proudly above the surrounding grasses and flowers. In fact, he’s already feeling so smug about his knowledge, certain he’s right, that when Cas says, “It’s a Jerusalem artichoke,” he actually splutters.

“That,” he says, when he’s regained his ability to speak, “is not an artichoke.”

“No,” says Cas, looking at him closely in apparent concern. “It’s a Jerusalem artichoke.”

“I think Enochian would be simpler,” Dean mutters.

But Cas’s face lights up with a sudden smile. “Oh,” he says. “You thought it would be — of course. No, I believe the moniker alludes to the practice of eating the roots, and to their purported flavor. They’re actually a type of sunflower.”

Dean gapes. “You asshole,” he says.

Cas opens his mouth, brows knit in confusion, and Dean punches him, gently, on the shoulder. Cas sways with the blow, and doesn’t stop looking confused. “I knew it was a sunflower,” Dean says. “And then you have to go all — Jerusalem artichoke on me.”

Cas stares for another moment, then opens his mouth again. “Dean, I’m —”

“Nope,” says Dean. “No apologies. You just gotta let me try and cook one sometime now. Come on — what else we got?”

Cas still looks uncertain, but he leads the way again, and Dean can see the line of his shoulders shift to excitement. “All right,” he says, confidentially. “This is the one Elizabeth is really excited about.”

Elizabeth? Dean wants to say, but Cas is already pulling aside vegetation, bending low, and motioning Dean close.

It’s about knee height, and a lusher green than anything around it, stem wreathed in long leaves that are keeled like boats. Emerging from amongst them: a dozen nodding white flowers, elegant and showy. Each looks something like a cobra’s head, maybe, baring its fangs and flaring its hood, except that that hood is a wide frill, delicate and perfectly formed. They might remind Dean of Lizzie Borden’s doilies, but they lack any sense of self-conscious intricacy; they simply are.

“It shouldn’t be blooming now,” Cas confesses, guilty tone at odds with the blissed out look on his face. “I might have — helped a little.”

Dean swallows. “What is it?” he asks.

“Western fringed prairie orchid,” Cas recites. “Platanthera praeclara. Or, well — the Enochian’s pretty long. There are only a few left in Kansas. It’s endangered worldwide.”

Dean tilts his head. “Did you plant it?”

“I don’t think so,” Cas says carefully.

His gaze is fixed on the flowers, and his shoulders are hunched. Dean watches, and waits for him to speak again.

“Once,” says Cas, “flowers sprang from my footsteps wherever I walked.”

It’s literal, of course; Cas wouldn’t exaggerate about a thing like that. Dean’s mouth feels unaccountably dry. “That seems a bit dramatic,” he says.

Cas drops his head. “I know. I got over it. But I — I always liked making flowers, you know?”

Understanding settles like a weighted net on Dean’s chest. It hurts more than he thinks it should. “Did you make any here? Or try to?”

“No.” Cas shakes his head quickly, not looking up. “I just — I can help them. There are seeds here that have waited for generations; I helped them germinate. I brought a few things from elsewhere — Elizabeth gave me some seeds. We’ll see whether they come up in the spring. But I… I don’t know. It was just here. I just found it one day. I don’t know.”

Dean studies his own hands. “Cas,” he says, carefully casual past the lump in his throat. “Jack’s working on sorting out heaven. If you wanted to go — if you wanted to see about getting your wings back —” He swallows. “You shouldn’t stay down here for my sake, is all I’m sayin’.”

Cas doesn’t answer. He just stares fixedly at the orchid, then shakes his head again, that tight little jerk of a motion. He glances up at Dean quickly, then down again, but at the same time, he reaches out and lays a hand on Dean’s arm.

Dean doesn’t get it, not entirely. But he covers Cas’s hand with his own, and Cas’s grip tightens incrementally for a moment. Then he’s letting go and standing, smile laced tight on his lips.

Dean stays where he is for just a moment, squinting up into the sun and Cas’s inscrutable face. It yields him nothing. He stands too. Unsure what else to say, he asks, in a scratchy voice, “So. What else you got?”

---

For whatever reason, taking Dean to the garden once seems to have opened the floodgates for Cas.

He usually shows up around breakfast time already muddy and lit up from within, talking excitedly about side-oats grama or seedbed preparation or the latest behavior of the bees. After a while, Dean gathers that Cas often spends nighttime in the garden, too, watching what flowers the sphinx moths visit — though they’re about done, he says. Everything’s getting ready for the quiet season, and Cas is too.

One day, sliding into his spot across the table from Dean, he seems unaccountably nervous. “Dean,” he says, twisting his hands. “I wanted to ask you if Elizabeth could come see the garden.”

Dean lowers his coffee in open-mouthed surprise.

“She’s really excited about the Platanthera,” Cas rushes on. “And I’m saving some seeds for her, and she’d — really like to see it, before everything dies off for the year.”

No, snaps an irrational part of Dean’s brain. Absolutely not.

He could say it, too. He could tell Cas that for security reasons, there’s absolutely no way they can bring an outsider to the bunker. Problem is, it rings a little hollow after he himself has brought everyone from Crowley to Lucifer over to play.

“She doesn’t know it’s where we live,” Cas adds, anxious. “I haven’t told her anything like that. Just that — I’m rehabilitating some tallgrass prairie behind an abandoned power plant. That’s all.”

Dean finds his voice. “Yeah,” he says, and it doesn’t quite come out as a croak. “Yeah, sure. Do what you want, Cas.”

---

He kind of plans to be away, or else hidden inside, when Cas’s lady friend comes to see the garden. But as it happens, his errand to the auto parts store takes exactly the wrong amount of time, and he arrives home just moments behind them.

“And this is my friend Dean,” Cas announces happily as Dean gets slowly out of the Impala, gritting his teeth. “Dean, this is Elizabeth.”

“It’s great to meet you,” says Elizabeth, reaching to shake his hand. She’s got a wide smile framed by rectangular glasses and several cubic feet of hair.

It’s not, Dean decides, that her hair is entirely unruly; it’s that Elizabeth has chosen not to rule it. It falls past her shoulders, but it’s so curly and bushy that Dean suspects that if every fully straightened, it would reach to her hips. Her glasses are attached to a chain around the back of her neck, and there’s some stupid high school part of Dean that wants to sneer, but he stomps it out.

Her grip is firm and warm, though, and Dean can’t help but note the calluses on her hands. She smiles at him like she means it, like it truly is great to meet him, and he makes an effort to echo it. It feels more like a tight-lipped grimace.

“Dean,” says Cas, “I was just about to take Elizabeth around, if you’d like to join us.”

And, okay. It’s not like Dean can say no to that, now; he can’t let this chick on that he’s got any reason to be here other than Cas’s garden. Maybe I do property inspections, he argues with himself. Maybe I’m here for the owner. Loads of reasons to be at an abandoned power plant.

“You and Castiel live together, right?” Elizabeth says brightly.

Dean shoots Cas a glare. “Yeah,” he grunts.

Elizabeth glances between the two of them. For a moment, she looks like she’s about to say something. Instead, she merely nods, which Dean takes as tacit approval to lead the way. Cas apparently reads it the same.

If Dean thought Cas’s love for the garden was in any way disproportionate, Elizabeth promptly lays that notion to rest. She stops in her tracks the moment they round the corner, turns, eyes shining, and breathes, “Castiel.

Cas seems to grow a couple inches in the light of her regard. It occurs to Dean that his friend almost always stands a little hunched over; that when his spine straightens, you can still almost see the insubstantial glimmer of wings at his shoulders, like a trick of the wind and the sun.

Elizabeth doesn’t see it, or if she does, it’s immaterial beside her excitement. By the time Dean looks back at her, she’s twenty yards away and crouched among the grasses, peering through a little pocket hand lens at the nearest goldenrod. Cas gives Dean a little smile like a shared joke, and follows. For a long minute, Dean’s too busy trying to figure out whether he gets it to move.

They stay outside for hours, until Dean’s cold and fidgeting and wishing he could abandon the premise that he doesn’t live here and go inside to make himself a damn cup of coffee. Instead, he trails Cas and Elizabeth through the dense vegetation, juggling a growing armload of Ziploc bags full of seed. Every time they happen on another plant that makes Elizabeth gasp in exclamation, his job is to locate the correct bag — or label a fresh one — and hold it open for the two botanical nutjobs as they carefully harvest some unknown number of seeds and deposit them with him. Sometimes it’s only half a dozen, other times hundreds, but Cas and Elizabeth always seem to know they’re done while Dean is still crouching there waiting like an idiot, eyes unfocused on the toes of his boots and mind wandering to other things.

They spend the most time with the orchid. It doesn’t take long to harvest its seeds — Elizabeth just pinches off the round green capsule left by each dying flower and drops it in the bag. “Each of these contains millions of seeds,” she says, apparently to Dean, who barely stops himself from checking behind him to see who else she might be talking to. “Each has only a small chance of successfully germinating — it depends on finding the right mycorrhizal symbiont. That's why I'm leaving half of them on the plant.”

Which — okay. If this lady gets off on calling him stupid, that’s her own damn business and he’s happy enough to let her crash and burn. But Cas likes her, and Cas is giving him this hopeful look right now, like Sam’s been giving him lessons, and Dean relents. He lifts his eyebrows, shakes his head like he’s got water in his ear, and says, “Sorry, what?”

Elizabeth laughs, a great joyous peal that takes Dean off-guard, and reaches out to briefly pat his cheek. He’s still deciding whether to be affronted by that when she says, “I’m so sorry, Dean. What I mean to say is — orchids’ roots grow intertangled with the hyphae of certain types of fungi, sort of the equivalent of their roots, and they both help each other survive. We botanists call those associations mycorrhizae, and we often try to inoculate the soil for new seedlings with beneficial fungal spores. But orchids tend to have highly specific requirements, and be highly reliant on growing with the right fungal partner. They produce so many seeds in the hopes that some of them will land in places that already have the fungus they need to grow, but it’s a real crapshoot, and most of them don’t make it.”

“So,” says Dean, “if you want to grow more of this orchid, you don’t just need the seeds, you need the fungus.”

“Exactly,” says Elizabeth. “Which seems like it might be easy — just look for mushrooms, right? — except that not all fungi produce mushrooms, and even those that do might not do it for years. There are probably thousands of species of fungi growing invisibly in the soil here.”

“So — you just collect some of the soil, then,” Dean ventures. “Or — can you take some of the adult plant’s roots?”

Elizabeth beams at him. “Exactly! Both would be ideal, honestly — sometimes different fungi are more different important at different stages in the plant’s life. But soil is a good place to start, especially if Castiel would rather not disturb this one’s roots.” She turns to look at Cas, the question on her face. It’s open and frank, and Dean discovers that he likes her.

Cas takes a moment to respond. He’s got his hands in his pockets, and he squints past them both like his answer is a sign on the horizon. “All right,” he says. “But let me.”

Something about how he says it makes Dean thinks he needs space, so he stands, swaying slightly on stiff knees. He deposits a couple bags next to Cas and retreats, hands in his jacket pockets and feigning interest in one of the goldenrods that’s gone to seed. It looks like a candelabra decked in tiny gray-brown pom-poms.

Elizabeth joins him a moment later, and Dean glances over his shoulder to see Cas on his knees, an expression of intense concentration on his face as he runs his fingers over the ground, then picks up the trowel to dig.

Dean is startled into looking up when Elizabeth squeezes his hand. She lets it go almost as quickly, smiling at him. “He’s really something, isn’t he?” she says.

Dean swallows, uncomfortable meeting her gaze, and looks down at her hands. They’re long-boned and creased with use, and there’s dirt under her fingernails.

“His way with plants,” Elizabeth adds, gazing past Dean’s shoulder again at Cas. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years. It’s almost like magic, I could swear.”

Watching Cas carefully, lovingly, unearth a length of the orchid's root, disentangle it gently from its neighbors — close his eyes as he severs it with a quick, short jerk of the knife — Dean finds it's not quite in him to answer.

---

Back at her car, once they’ve got everything loaded up, Elizabeth gives them both a long, tight hug. “You’re taking half of these, come spring,” she tells Cas, gesturing at the box full of Ziplocs. “I’ll bet you’ll germinate more of them than my three million dollars’ worth of greenhouse facilities can.”

Cas looks flustered but pleased. His hands are dirt-stained and clasped together in front of him, like a child with something to apologize for. The corners of his eyes crease when he smiles.

“Oh!” says Elizabeth, and smacks herself on the forehead, knocking her glasses askew. “I almost forgot!”

She turns and leans into the hatchback again. The seat of her pants is muddy, and she has no ass to speak of, but maybe that doesn’t matter to Cas. She turns back a moment later with a small green pot in her hand.

“Dancing bones,” she says, beaming. “I was dividing it last week, and I remembered you liked it when you were visiting.”

The plant she’s holding looks like nothing Dean’s ever seen. Dancing bones isn’t a bad name for it — its knobbly branches sway erratically in the gentle breeze, arching over the pot’s edges where they’re not strong enough to stand up straight. A few tiny yellow flowers cling to the ends of a few, but it’s got nothing that resembles real leaves, just thicker segments of green stem.

“Thank you,” says Cas, all startled and touched, like the plant Elizabeth is giving him isn’t the sad bastard child of an aging rock star and a bent-to-hell old broom.

Another round of hugs — Dean nearly suffocates in the cloud of her hair — and she’s climbing into her car at last. They must make an odd sight in her rearview mirror as she pulls away with a friendly double-honk of farewell: Dean leaning against his Baby, the only out of the lot of them who still has a modicum of dignity; Cas standing there awkward and angelic in his trenchcoat, with the dancing bones swaying forlornly in his hand.

Dean nudges his shoulder as Elizabeth disappears around the corner that will point her back to the highway. “Come on,” he says. “I’m making coffee.”

Cas turns with a smile on his face; just as suddenly, it falls.

“The plant,” he says, looking crushed. “It needs natural light. The bunker —”

And Dean can’t help himself; he laughs. There’s a warm, funny feeling in his chest, and he claps Cas on the shoulder, grinning at his look of confusion. “All right,” he says, “you’re making coffee. And I’ll be back to drink it just as soon as I’m done finding out just how weird Ralph at the Ace Hardware looks at me when I ask him where he keeps the grow lights.”

Chapter Text

By Thanksgiving, Cas’s plant collection has grown from a single weirdo cactus (that’s what dancing bones is, Dean finds out later) to a whole table in the bunker’s library. 

It was in his bedroom, to start with, then in the kitchen once it outgrew that. Dean laid down an ultimatum once he was down to less than half of his god-given counter space, and now the whole setup — enshrined among an increasingly expensive array of “natural light” lamps — has its very own surface. Dean has taken to naming them, a habit Cas seems to find touching and distressing in almost equal measure. The latter presents itself mostly when Dean corrects him when he tries to use the plants’ actual names.

“I think the dancing bones needs repotting soon,” Cas says one evening, lounging against the kitchen counter while Dean tends to a stir fry.

Dean points the spatula at him, sending errant drops of sauce flying. “You mean Mick Jagger.”

Cas rolls his eyes, and looks delightfully petulant. “Mick Jagger,” he concedes. “I think Mick Jagger might need repotting soon. But I’m wondering if I can also move — Freddie Mercury while I’m at it, and use its old pot for the — for Mick Jagger.”

“Better,” Dean says. “And I say use as many pots as you want, so long as you get it done by Wednesday.”

Cas looks startled. “What’s on Wednesday?”

Dean stares at him, then gets distracted by the pressing issue of the sauce about to drip off his spatula. He licks it hastily, then self-consciously wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and says, “Everyone’s getting here for Thanksgiving on Wednesday. Remember?”

Cas’s forehead furrows. “Yes,” he says, after a moment. “I forgot it was this week. I wonder…”

He trails off. Dean raises his eyebrows. “Wonder what?”

“Nothing.” Cas shakes his head, but he doesn’t move, and after a moment he asks, “Is it usual to begin Thanksgiving festivities the day before?”

“I don’t know about festivities,” Dean says slowly, unsure where Cas is going with this. “I guess it’s pretty normal for people to arrive on Wednesday, if they’re traveling far? I honestly don’t know. It’s — kind of a first for me.”

It’s been weighing on his mind for a while, and he says it as casually as he can, but Cas’s focus snaps to him instantly. “Dean,” he says, and his tone is warm. “I didn’t realize.”

“It’s no big deal,” Dean says quickly, but he blushes anyway, just a little, feeling oddly pleased.

“I’ll take care to finish my repotting well in advance,” Cas says gravely, and Dean smiles like an idiot at his broccoli.

---

Cas is as good as his word. Not only does he repot nearly half his plants, he goes out and buys decorative ceramic ones, and vacuums the floor himself when he’s done, which will never cease to look comical. He also disassembles his mad-scientist table in favor of distributing the plants tastefully around their living area on Tuesday that week, explaining to Dean that they can get by on normal artificial light for a few days. He seems to take special pride in selecting a single plant for each of the guest bedrooms, apparently calibrated by some impenetrable dark art to the personalities of its intended occupants.

“I’m almost offended that I don’t get one,” Dean comments, which is how he ends up with Mick Jagger on top of his dresser. It casts weird shadows on his wall that night as he tries to fall asleep. He scowls at it. It sways innocuously back.

On Wednesday morning, wringing his hands, Cas explains that he hopes to be back in time for dinner, but that he promised Elizabeth to help her with a project today, and he hadn’t realized it might be a conflict, and would Dean mind terribly if he went? Which confuses Dean, because yeah, he’s kind of annoyed about it, but he’s also perfectly aware that he has no right to be annoyed about it, and he’s not sure why Cas is acting as if he does.

“Of course,” he says, a little gruffly. He’d been kind of looking forward to teaching Cas how to make pie crust. “Have fun.”

He spends the day in the kitchen. Ten people might not be a big crowd by some standards, but when’s the next time Dean will have the excuse to bake more than one kind of pie? Cherry, pumpkin, and apple are non-negotiable, but he kind of wants to try pecan, too, and it’s hard to argue with blueberry. He winds up spending an enjoyable half hour chatting with Martha at the grocery store about his options, and adding a cream pie to the list at her encouragement.

“No such thing,” she tells him wisely, “as too much pie.” She speaks slowly, inviting him to weigh every word’s significance, like some kind of checkout line Yoda. “Everyone loves pie for breakfast. And you should always make an extra pumpkin. Are you making an extra pumpkin?”

Dean considers. She’s right. He makes some mental calculations about the amount of dough he’ll need, and returns to the aisle for extra butter.

He’s now approaching a pie per head. It might seem excessive, but honestly, Dean’s probably good for an entire one by himself, so maybe not. He adds another carton of vanilla ice cream to his cart, and calls it good.

Once the dough is made, he takes a break from pies to tackle the cranberry sauce. He’s flagged a couple different recipes he wants to try, and three of them are simmering on the stove when the bunker’s klaxon of a doorbell sounds and nearly makes him knock one onto the floor with alarm.

“Christ,” he says when he opens the door, “there’s a reason we don’t use that thing,” and Patience looks mortified, but Sam is bent over with barely-contained laughter. Jody rolls her eyes at both of them and pulls him in for a hug, and by the time he’s made the rounds — Jody, Sam, Alex, Patience — Donna is pulling up with Claire and Kaia, too.

Dean shepherds them in as efficiently as he can and immediately flees back to his stove, where, miraculously, nothing catastrophic has happened. Sam seems to have the guests situation well in hand, orienting the girls to their rooms, and Dean can hear them exclaiming over the telescope and the map table. It’s weird, he thinks, that most of them have never been here.

He sort of expects to let them do their own thing while he cooks — Sam can play host just as well as he can — but within twenty minutes, most of them have crowded into the kitchen, and before he knows it, they’re lining up for cranberry sauce taste tests. He adds more orange zest to one of them on Donna’s advice, and soon she, Patience, and Alex have taken over the crust side of the pie operation while Dean works on the fillings.

When they’re finished, he has to admit that their handiwork is impressive: he’d been planning on some basic lattices, but the cherry pie’s is now in the shape of an anti-possession tattoo — he’s not even sure how they did it — and the blueberry has the Men of Letters symbol. Donna seems to have let Alex and Patience take the lead, but at Dean’s go-ahead, she starts carefully perforating the apple’s crust in the shape of a Devil’s trap.

There’s not enough oven space to put everything in at once, so Dean sets a timer, dusts flour off his hands, and turns to see what else needs doing. It’s only then that he realizes he’s completely forgotten to cook them an actual dinner.

He’s worked himself halfway into a panic when Sam pokes his head into the kitchen and says, “Hey, you seemed like you had enough to be getting on with, so we went and picked up enough burgers for everyone. Cas around?”

Dean could kiss him in relief. “He had a thing. Said he’d try to be back by dinner, but who knows.”

“Cool.” Sam grins suddenly, surveying him. “You look ridiculous, man.”

Dean looks down. He’s pretty much coated in flour, and his shirt is spotted with cranberry sauce stains; he guesses there’s a reason people wear aprons, but damn it, some bridges he will not cross. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, straight-faced, and ruffles Sam’s hair with a floury hand as he passes. Sam yelps and bats his arm away, but despite his efforts, his hair is still dusted with white by the time he sits down at the table.

“I think a little gray suits you,” Jody says serenely, studying him. “Besides, it matches mine.”

Dinner passes companionably. Kaia and Claire reappear from wherever they got off to, and “wherever they got off to” becomes a little more clear when Dean notices the lingering touches, the way they’ve scooted their chairs a couple inches closer and their eyes frequently dart to each other as if sharing a private joke. He raises his eyebrows at Jody, who gives him an expressive shrug in response.

“Hm,” Dean mutters, and reaches for a second burger.

For dessert, they have hot pie scraps, fresh from the oven. Those are Donna’s introduction, a memory from her own childhood, and Dean’s a little embarrassed to realize all over again how much of this he’s missing. He can fake his way through the big things, can look up recipes for fillings and why you need vodka for the best crust, but he never had a mother who would sprinkle the odds and ends with cinnamon and sugar and roll them up to bake in their own little pan.

The very thought seems uncharitable, and he does his best to banish it. Mom’s not getting in until tomorrow morning — it’s a long haul from California, where she’s mostly based these days — but she’s never been the apple-pie kind of mother anyway. And that’s okay, he tells himself. He’s made his peace.

Still, the melancholy won’t quite leave him. He finds some things to fuss at around the kitchen, and starts assembling the stuffing, even though he won’t bake it until tomorrow. The cranberry sauces are all done, safely sealed and in the fridge, and the pies line the counter that used to host Cas’s plants, steaming invitingly. From the footsteps he hears in the hall, he thinks more people than not have drifted toward bed.

Cas doesn’t get home until well after 10. He looks weary but content, and he comes to lounge on the kitchen stool as is his habit while Dean finishes up. A few times when Dean glances at him out of the corner of his eye, he sees a small smile playing at Cas’s mouth. His breath smells of beer, even though he hasn’t taken one from the fridge.

Some distant part of Dean feels like he ought to be irritated about this, like the space between his shoulderblades should feel itchy and tense. Instead, he just feels hollowed-out. Good, he thinks. It’s good that he’s happy.

Another, tiny voice, one that he usually does his best to pretend could never exist, adds, If he falls in love with her, maybe he really will stay.

---

The next morning is when he needs to get serious about cooking.

There’s the stuffing, and the mashed potatoes, and a couple other sides he wants to try, but the biggest task, of course, is the turkey. He ordered it from a local farmer two whole months ago, and it’s been in brine since yesterday morning, but he should have some time to get other things ready before it needs to go into the oven. He’s just starting to get organized when Jody enters the kitchen, rolling up her sleeves, and asks, “How can I help?”

“No way,” Dean protests. “You feed this circus all the time. Half the point of this is giving you a break.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not feeding this circus, anymore,” Jody counters. “Come on, I want to help. Not having to plan every damn thing is vacation enough.”

That’s fair, so Dean sets her on potato duty while he scares up some breakfast and coffee to get them going. Kaia is the only one up so far, curled on an armchair in the library and ensconced in a blanket, so Dean delivers her coffee and eggs personally and asks, “Sleep all right?”

He knows it’s a loaded question, and that Kaia’s got her reasons to distrust him. But she just grins up at him in a way that bares her teeth and says, “Pretty good, actually.”

Dean straightens, a little taken aback. Goddamnit. Kids; he can’t get used to them.

For all that he’s been stressing about choreographing the morning’s cooking, it goes off without a hitch. They get the bird in the oven right on time, Mom says she’s half an hour out, and everything else is already coming together. Dean’s starting to feel like in four hours, they might actually be able to feed their family a goddamn Thanksgiving dinner.

He’s washing his hands in the sink when Cas bursts into the kitchen, face white and phone clutched to his ear. “ It’s Elizabeth, ” he mouths, gesturing frantically for Dean to come listen, and he hits the button for speaker.

“Castiel?” Elizabeth’s voice is quavering over the line, quite unlike her usual buoyant tone, and she ends Cas’s name in almost a sob. “Cas, it’s — oh GOD.” It’s not quite a scream, but Dean hears a loud crash in the background, and Elizabeth’s voice hiccups with fear.

“Elizabeth,” Dean says loudly, and he wills his voice to exude calm, decisiveness, reassurance. “It’s Dean Winchester. Can you tell us what’s going on?”

He can tell it’s an act of sheer will for Elizabeth to calm her breathing enough to speak. “My sister and I were cleaning out my mom’s storage locker,” she gasps. “Things started flying — Lisa hit the wall, she’s not moving — and then the door slammed shut and it’s dark, it’s so dark, and there’s something in here with us, I know it sounds crazy but I swear to God —”

“I believe you,” Dean says, over the rising panic in her voice. “We’re coming to get you. You’re going to be okay. Elizabeth, can you tell us where you are?”

She rattles off the address and the number of the locker, and Dean feels a surge of pride for her. Jody’s already got it written down and holds it out to him. Dean nods his thanks.

“All right,” he says. “Elizabeth, listen to me carefully. Does the place you’re in contain anything made of iron, or any salt?”

“There’s — definitely some iron,” Elizabeth hiccups. “My mother’s old fireplace stuff — I’m not sure where — but no salt, I don’t think —”

She stops abruptly, and Dean’s heart clenches painfully in his chest. “Elizabeth?”

“One of those lamps that’s inside a big salt crystal,” she says. “She hated it. Put it in storage the moment she got it. I’d just taken it down when everything started.”

Dean feels a surge of hope. “That’s perfect, Liz, that’s perfect,” he says, the abbreviation of her name slipping over his tongue without him telling it too. “Iron’s good if something comes at you — swing it with all your might — but the most important thing you can do, the best thing, is smash that lamp. Okay? Smash it into pieces, small enough to make a circle around you and your sister. Get in that circle and she can’t touch you. Can you do that for me?”

A shaky breath. “Yes,” says Elizabeth. “Yes. I can do that.”

“I’m gonna give the phone back to Cas,” says Dean. “If you want, he’ll stay on the line. We’re coming as fast as we can.”

“I need my phone light,” says Elizabeth. “To make the salt circle.”

Dean nods, even though she can’t see. “All right,” he says. “Call back if you want to. We’ll be there before you know it.”

---

The moment she hangs up, Dean’s moving. “You thinking ghost?” he says, to no one and everyone, and to his surprise, it’s Sam who answers, “Yeah.”

He’s standing in the doorway, boots and jacket on, and he adds, “I heard you talking. Impala’s running. Let’s go.”

Cas is still looking shaken, but he gives a determined nod, and Dean turns to look at Jody. “Jody, you’re always welcome on a hunt, but I don’t know if we need a full cavalry on this one, and it might be good to —”

Jody raises her hands. “Say no more. You boys go save that girl. Bring her home for some turkey, won’t you?”

“Jody,” says Dean, “you’re awesome.” He spares a glance apiece for Cas and Sam. “We good? All right. Let’s move.”

---

It’s one of those dirt cheap storage businesses way out in the middle of nowhere on some piece of land no one else wanted, and it should be nearly two hours of driving, but they do it in an hour fifteen. Sam’s ready with the locker number before Dean can dig in his pocket for the piece of paper, and they tear down the row of faceless metal doors to stop, panting, at number 57.

“We’re here,” Cas is saying quickly over the phone. “We’re right outside, Elizabeth, we just need to get in to you, can you —”

Dean tries the door once, hauling on it; it won’t budge. “Elizabeth?” he yells through the metal. “I’m going to shoot this thing. Keep your head down.”

He jerks his head at Sam and cocks his pistol. Sam’s ready with the shotgun; if it’s just supernatural power holding the door shut, a bullet won’t do much, but salt will.

No sense wasting time with trial and error. They fire in the same instant, Dean whipping his head away from the salt that sprays back at him, and then he’s kicking the door and it’s giving, hauling upward to let sunlight spill in and illuminate the scene inside.

Elizabeth is huddled in the far corner, behind a pair of stacked chairs she clearly shoved out of the way to get there. In her arms is another woman, a few years younger than her but clearly related, who’s bleeding sluggishly from her temple. Elizabeth’s face is streaked with tears, knees pulled close to her chest. Around her is a jagged quarter-circle of salt, powder mixed in with chunks the size of a child’s fist.

The other wall of the storage locker is packed: furniture, boxes, old dolls, random odds and ends. And in the scant open space between Elizabeth and the door, a woman flickers into form, so hunched and contorted with age that if she were human, she’d barely be able to stand.

NO!” she screams, and flies at them. Dean’s got the wrong angle, can’t shoot her without risking Elizabeth and her sister in the line of fire, and he’s groping for iron when Cas fires off a single shotgun blast from his left. The ghost vanishes, and the boxes behind her are peppered with holes. Dean doesn’t think twice. He signals Sam to cover them and sprints forward, Cas beside him.

Cas is already reaching for Elizabeth’s hands, so Dean scoops up the sister. Her head lolls against his arm, and there’s no time to check for a pulse. A heavy box above him trembles and tilts, and he ducks out of the way just before it falls; something else flies across the room and hits the wall with a bang.

“I can’t get a clear shot!” Sam yells, and Dean turns to see that she’s back, crackling in the air right before his nose; he staggers back under the weight of the woman in his arms, nearly toppling. Then, from behind him, Elizabeth lets out an inhuman shriek, and hurls a chunk of salt straight through the ghost’s head.

It works. She’s gone, if only for an instant. “Come on!” Dean yells, and they bolt for the sunlight. The moment they’re out, Sam’s moving, pouring a thick line of salt across the locker’s entrance, and when the ghost reappears, she can seethe and tear her hair at them, but she can’t cross.

“Your mother,” says Dean to Elizabeth, who seems to have crumpled in Castiel’s arms. “That is your mother, right?”

“I don’t,” Elizabeth gasps, “I don’t understand, how —”

“Say for a minute ghosts are real and you believe in them,” Dean interrupts, impatient. “Is that your mother?”

Elizabeth gasps for one breath, another. “Yes,” she says.

“Where’s she buried?”

“She’s not,” says Elizabeth. “She — we cremated her. The urn’s still in there.” She points to the locker.

Dean and Sam exchange glances. Could be the ashes, somehow; more likely, there’s something else in the storage locker she’s attached to, and it’s going to be hell finding it.

“Elizabeth,” Sam says gently, “your mother is a ghost, and a malevolent one. To stop her, we’ll need to burn the physical object that’s linking her to Earth. If you can think — anything in that storage locker that was especially important to her, or that might have a piece of her hair, something else of hers?”

“Oh God, I don’t know,” Elizabeth hiccups, shaking her head. “I haven’t — I don’t even want to — there’s nothing here I want to save. Can’t you just burn it all?”

Another exchange of glances. “That works,” says Dean.

He goes to get the gasoline.

---

They take Elizabeth’s sister — Lisa — to the nearest emergency room, and Elizabeth winds up getting treated, too, for a cut on her hand she got breaking the salt crystal. It’s not bad, and as it turns out, Lisa’s not, either, just a concussion, and Elizabeth pulls herself together enough to call her husband Kent to come pick her up.

They don’t live far away, apparently, and Kent stands with both hands on Lisa’s shoulders when she sniffs down at the four of them, arms wrapped tightly around herself. “You’re crazy,” she says flatly. “There’s no such thing as ghosts, and you burned all of Mother’s things.”

Elizabeth gapes up at her, and Dean can see she’s trembling.

“I’ve had enough of this,” Lisa snaps. “I should press charges. You can go fuck yourself, Lizzie, and fuck Thanksgiving and Christmas too. As far as I’m concerned, you’re no part of my family anymore.”

She saved your life, Dean thinks hotly, but Elizabeth just nods sadly and looks down at the floor.

When they’re gone, Sam, who’s been hovering awkwardly, waves his phone and says, “Jody says there’s plenty of dinner left. If you’d like to join us…?”

Elizabeth gives no detectable response, but Cas nods and takes her gently by the hand, drawing her to her feet. “She’ll come,” he says.

---

To Dean’s surprise, Elizabeth comes back to herself in the car. Pulling out of the parking lot, she she looks hunched over and miserable, eyes staring blankly into the dashboard. Fifteen minutes later, she’s straight-backed and alert when she meets his eyes in the rearview mirror and says, “So ghosts are real.”

“Ghosts are real,” Dean confirms, hiding his surprise. “Monsters, things that go bump in the night — all of it. And me, Sam, Cas — we hunt them.”

“I see,” says Elizabeth, and she spends the rest of the ride grilling them for every last detail they can think of about the precise workings of the Veil.

When they pull up at the bunker, she makes no comment of surprise, just follows them inside and down the stairs. She does seem to tense a little in the face of the crowd of women waiting for them — Jody and Donna and the girls and also Mom, who hugs all four of them tightly, wearing a smile that glows with sympathy and holding for an extra minute to Elizabeth's shoulders.

The turkey looks awesome, and expertly carved, and Dean heaps it on his plate with a pile of mashed potatoes before dousing the whole thing in gravy. “I should make you cook my Thanksgiving dinner every year,” he tells Jody around a mouthful, and she rolls her eyes and smiles.

Elizabeth is picking over a plate looks destitute in comparison, and Dean is starting to work himself into another fit of concern when Cas murmurs in his ear, “She’s a vegetarian.” Which brings about its own type of chagrin, but hell, it could be worse.

The pies have all taken some damage already, except the banana cream. Dean berates himself silently — it was a weird choice, it doesn’t go with Thanksgiving, he was stupid to add it — and serves himself a slice anyway, along with one of each of the others. Kaia gapes at him, and he gives her a warning look, and digs in.

Goddamn, but he did good. He closes his eyes and makes such an obscene noise of pleasure that Sam promptly stabs his knee with a fork. Grinning through their sudden wordless, under-the-table sparring match, Dean wrests the offending implement away and almost misses Elizabeth dispensing with her dinner plate to return with a large slice of banana cream pie.

She demolishes it. Five minutes later, she’s back with another. Then a third. On her fourth trip, Dean gets up and intercepts her in the kitchen.

“Take the pie,” he says. “It’s yours. It’s for you.”

Elizabeth looks up and meets his eyes. She looks simultaneously fragile and indomitable, manic and exhausted. There’s a smudge of banana cream on her upper lip.

“All right,” she says, and does.

---

He sort of expects that means she’ll take it home with her when she goes, but she doesn’t. She carries the whole damn tin into the library and sits there eating until she’s finished it, migrating methodical forkfuls from plate to mouth at an unflagging pace.

“It’s my favorite,” she says when she finishes, catching Dean’s eye with a guilty smile. And then, glancing up at the clock: “I should — I don’t have my car.”

“It’s all right,” says Sam, before Dean can. “Stay the night.” He gives Dean a belatedly guilty look, remembering that he doesn’t really live here anymore, but Dean waves him off.

“We’ve got plenty of room,” he assures her. “Cas, you wanna fix her up?”

He says it casually, and he’s proud of that. Leave it to them to figure out whether she shacks up with Cas or gets her own room. Dean can butt out of things that aren’t his business.

Or, well. He can butt out for about thirty minutes, and then innocently walk down the hallway and observe that another guest room doorway is closed, and Cas’s is still open and empty.

Cas is sitting in Kaia’s abandoned armchair, idly studying the spine of a book. Dean drops into a chair beside him, and for a long, companionable while, neither of them speaks.

Eventually, Cas sighs, and puts down his book. “Her family is horrible,” he says.

Dean leans back. “Yeah?”

“Not horrible in the way your family is horrible,” Cas continues, “or mine. No destiny or revenge or demon deals or cosmic consequences. Just — horrible.” He gives Dean a helpless look. “She spent the last five years taking care of her mother, who hated her and everyone else, because her sister couldn’t be bothered, and this — is the thanks she gets.”

Dean looks down. “I’m sorry,” he says in a low voice, even though Cas isn’t really the one he should be saying it to.

“That’s why she wanted company yesterday,” Cas adds. “Wanted to — take her mind off things, I suppose. A friend.” He looks suddenly up at Dean, blue eyes piercing and intent. “Is it okay, that she’s here? That she knows about all this now?”

Dean has never been able to refuse Cas anything, when he looks at him like that. “Of course it’s okay,” he says, and it comes out softer than he intends. He fishes for a joking smile and adds, “She ate my entire banana cream pie. That makes her practically family.”

Chapter Text

They drive Elizabeth back to her car the next morning. She’s quiet on the way, but Dean doesn’t really know her well enough to say whether that means anything. Her hand trembles a little at the sight of the burned-out storage locker, and she spins abruptly on her heel to fold Cas in a tight embrace, and then Dean, and when she releases him, she’s wiping moisture from the corners of her eyes and offering him a brave smile. 

“I don’t,” she says, and looks fixedly off at the bird circling over distant trees, long wings teetering in the wind. “I’m glad.”

She says it fiercely, and Dean nods, because he thinks he understands. Elizabeth takes Cas’s hand briefly and squeezes it, and he says, “I’ll come by next week,” and she nods, and gets in her car.

“Sure you don’t want to go with her?” Dean asks over his shoulder as he leads the way back to the Impala.

Cas takes a moment to answer. When Dean turns, his gaze drops swiftly, like he’s been staring at Dean’s back. “No,” he says, and Dean leaves it at that.

---

Mom takes off later that day on some kind of call from Michigan. Dean offers to go with her, but she’s already lined up some help; Mom is better than anyone he knows, even Jody, at keeping tabs on the shifting landscape of American hunters.

Sam and the rest of them stay through the weekend, driving back up on Sunday. They eat pie for breakfast three days in a row and go out to the movies twice, and they nearly clean Martha out of her supply of Margiekugels. On the way out of the store on Saturday, Martha takes him by the arm and says, in her pondering way, “I always worried about you boys. It’s good to see you with family.” She pats him twice on the cheek before she lets him go, and he makes it out to the car with a blush on his face and Sam ribbing him mercilessly on his stellar record with singles over seventy.

He stops when Jody elbows him, but she gets him in a headlock anyway, and asks Dean blithely, “Noogie or wet willy?”

Mom,” says Claire from the front seat, disgusted. “Dealer’s choice,” Dean tells her, and Sam yelps, then straightens up into the rearview mirror a moment later. He flips Dean off, and Dean cackles.

Sam and Patience bully them all into eating salad for lunch and take over Dean’s kitchen to make it, and he grumbles about it all day but it’s honestly not half bad. They make plans to do this for Christmas, too, and by the time they’re all gone on Sunday morning and it’s just him and Cas, Dean has a stupid grin on his face that lingers all day.

As it turns out, Cas doesn’t need to stop by Elizabeth’s the next week, because she comes to them. The back of her car is crammed with plants — no, Dean amends, a plant, and she crawls half into the station wagon in her efforts to gently ease it out.

“It hasn’t been doing well,” she admits, “and we’ve got no room for it. I thought — given how good you are with them, and how much space you have — I brought a bunch of lights for you, too.”

Once unbent, it’s about as tall as Dean’s chest, with long drooping limbs that come off its stem in whorls of six, feathered with tiny needles. It looks sort of like a small, green Yeti, and Elizabeth calls it a Norfolk Island pine. Dean calls it David Allan Coe.

“You don’t like David Allan Coe,” Cas reprimands him later.

“I don’t like that thing!” Dean says. “I feel like it’s watching me.”

It’s true, to honest. The Yeti plant gives him the creeps; he keeps thinking it moves around when he’s not looking. He doesn’t tell Cas that.

Elizabeth also brings Dean something. “It’s an orchid,” she says, smiling at him. “To go with Cas’s. A different kind, though — I crossed it myself. Keep it watered, and in a humid place, and it should send up some tiny burgundy flowers in a month or two. I hope you don’t mind — I named it Robert Plant.”

Dean sort of minds, but he also feels oddly touched, and he doesn’t say anything. Elizabeth explains that Robert Plant is adapted to live in a rainforest, but that Dean can just mist it with water every day, or keep it in the bathroom, or somewhere with a humidifier.

Elizabeth stays for lunch — they’re still on the leftover turkey — and Dean means to make himself scarce, but instead he somehow winds up telling her about the time Cas tried to learn to play cards, and her eyes widen and she pulls a pack out of her pocket and from there it’s on to Hearts, at which she destroys them both comprehensively.

“My mom and I used to play every day at the nursing home,” she says, shuffling briskly for another hand. “Cribbage — you need three for Hearts. It was — the one thing we both still shared. Sometimes it made me think she actually enjoyed my company, but I guess…” She trails off, shrugs.

Dean glances at Cas, uncomfortable. This is definitely more Cas’s turf than his, but Cas isn’t saying anything, so Dean opens his mouth, uncertain.

“I know,” says Elizabeth quickly, a little loudly, “that being dead changes people. That a decent person can still become an angry ghost. Not my mom. She was angry her whole life.”

Dean bites down on the words he was going to say. “Okay,” he offers instead.

Elizabeth nods once, decisively, as if closing the book on the topic, and deals another hand.

---

Jack arrives almost two weeks before Christmas. “Castiel told me you’re celebrating with everyone,” he says cheerfully as Dean blinks at him in the doorway. “I thought I’d come stay for a while.”

“O-kay,” Dean agrees, standing aside to let him pass. “What about Heaven?”

Jack waves a dismissive hand. “They’ll be all right. You’re my family too.”

The look on his face is so goddamn sunny that Dean can’t really bring himself to mutter about chick flick moments. Instead, he follows Jack down into the bunker, where he becomes immediately fascinated by the preponderance of plants. Dean looks around, seeing it as if from an outsider’s eyes; it’s turning into a fucking jungle in here.

“We were gonna go get a Christmas tree today,” says Dean. “If you want to come.”

Jack tilts his head. “I can get you one right now if you like.”

Dean snorts. “Thanks, but I think we’ll do it the old-fashioned way.”

They end up not doing it the entirely old-fashioned way — Dean’s ready to get a normal-sized Christmas tree and strap it to the roof of the Impala, but then he sees this gorgeous sixteen-footer, and it smells exactly the way Christmas is supposed to smell, and they do have that tall open space in the war room, he can move the map table out of the way. Jack offers to zap them all right back with it, but Dean refuses — he wants to do at least some of this right. He gives Cas an apologetic glance as he pulls out the bow saw. “You all right with this?”

Cas nods, and Jack blinks and says, “Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Dean knows I’ve become… attached to plants, lately,” Cas says, with a small shrug. “Humans have difficulty conceptualizing the beauty in the balance of the carbon cycle. They take killing things personally.”

“Ookay, cosmos boy,” Dean says, and claps him on the shoulder. “I’ll get to it.”

He saws the trunk cleanly, though he does have Cas and Jack pull on it to keep the blade from binding. The guy who runs the place eyes them doubtfully when they pull it up, but he takes their money, and they haul the tree over to the Impala and consider their next move.

“I could just take it home,” says Jack.

“No,” Dean says, “too conspicuous. We’ll have to tie it to the roof and — can you, y’know, levitate it a little maybe? Make sure Baby’s all right?”

Once they’ve got everything arranged, the weight of the tree is actually hovering above the Impala, its branches just brushing her paint. They tie the ropes for show, and start off down the highway. Dean’s a little unsure about Jack maintaining control at speed, but when he mutters this to Cas, he gets brushed off with something about inertial frames of reference and how it’s all very simple, really, just take the corners gently, so he decides to leave well enough alone.

After all that, they get home and study the size of the bunker’s doorway and decide to let Jack pop it inside his way after all.

He reappears smiling at the foot of the stairs, the map table already out of the way and tree upright in its stand, and if there’s a part of Dean that wanted to do that himself, too, he figures the holidays mean sharing or something. He goes to find some spare sheets to use as a skirt while Cas fills up the water, and then they’re off again to town in search of decorations.

Martha is beside herself to help, and they wind up buying four different kinds of lights and a couple boxes of multi-colored ball ornaments. She also darts into her office and returns with something else — another ornament. It’s a delicate-looking bell, painted deep blue, with a golden angel blowing its horn on the side. “You should get ornaments from friends,” she tells them firmly, “and I can’t hang this one anymore, with all the little ones. Take it; it’s a gift.”

Martha’s six-year-old grandson Tavon is usually at the store with her on Saturdays, and as she talks, he comes up behind her. When she’s done — it takes a while — he suddenly jolts forward and reaches out with a sticky hand to press something into Dean’s. It’s an ornament, too, made of yellow and red and green clay, and Dean thinks it’s maybe supposed to be a bird. “Thank you,” he says, and Tavon hides his head shyly and wraps both arms around Martha’s legs.

“You should have an angel,” Martha says regretfully, “or a star, for the top. But everything they send me now is far too tacky to sell to you boys. Try somewhere else, and come back to me if you can’t find anything you like.”

Back at the bunker, they wind the lights around the tree, and do their best to distribute the ornaments evenly. Jack helps with reaching the highest branches, but Dean does his part too, leaning over the railing. He hangs the bird near the top, and the bell where he can ring it on his sway down the stairs. It makes a delicate, tinkling sound.

“It looks good,” he says when they’ve finished, surveying it. “A little bare bones, but good.”

Cas nods, but Jack frowns. “Hang on,” he says. “Let me —”

And he points at the top of the tree, closing his eyes, forehead furrowed with concentration.

When he opens them, there’s a globe of light shining from the highest tip of the tree. It’s just a shade warmer than the lamps Cas uses for his plants, and bright enough that it hurts to look at directly for too long. It bathes the whole room in a soft light. The hairs on Dean’s arm stand up.

“I made a star,” Jack says happily.

Cas steps forward, lips parted, wonder on his face. “Jack,” he said, “is that —”

“Sort of a miniature sun,” Jack says over him, excited. “But I made it a bit like an angel, too. So it won’t burn.”

Dean’s alarm bells are ringing. “What do you mean, so it won’t burn,” he says. “If this sets my bunker on fire —”

Jack’s face falls. “It won’t,” he says. “But I’ll take it away, if you like.”

“Jack, no,” says Cas, reaching for him. “It’s perfect. Leave it, please.” Out of Jack’s view, he jerks his chin meaningfully at Dean.

Dean sighs. “It’s great, kid. You did good.”

Jack lifts his head. “Really?”

“Really,” Dean tells him, and smiles.

---

Jack and Cas spend a lot of time together, over the next few days, often outside or shut up in the lab or some other weird corner of the bunker. Dean feels a little excluded, but he guesses Cas is still the closest thing Jack has to a father, and he shouldn’t butt in. Still, it feels sort of weird to be sitting by himself with other people in the bunker, toying with an empty beer bottle and trying to convince himself it’s not pathetic to go get another. The light of Jack’s star makes the bottle glow amber, and there’s enough dregs at the bottom to flow from side to side when he tilts it.

He’s shaken out of his thoughts by a clunk on the table, and looks up to see Cas sliding a fresh bottle across to him. He’s got one of his own, too, and he twists off the top and sits heavily as he says, “Elizabeth called.”

Dean opens his own beer; it’s not pathetic when you’re not alone. “What’s up?”

“She wants me to take another plant,” says Cas. “It’s dying. A welwitschia.”

Dean blinks. “A — what now?”

“Welwitschia,” Cas repeats. “Here.” He pulls out his phone and taps into it, then holds it across the table for Dean to see.

The thing in the picture hardly looks like a plant at all. It’s greenish, yeah, but that’s where the resemblance ends — it looks more like a strange tentacled creature, something out of the ocean, and staring at it, Dean realizes after a minute that the tentacles are an unruly pile of long, curling leaves. The photo looks like it’s in some kind of desert, just sand all around. Cas glances at the photo and swipes to the next one; it’s another plant, with a person standing next to it, some middle-aged tourist grinning under a white visor. The plant is as tall as her waist, leaves spilling over an area that must be ten feet in diameter, and Dean wants someone to warn her before it grabs her ankle.

“We’re going to have one of those in here,” he says flatly.

“Much smaller,” says Cas. “It’s a young one; they grow slowly. It shouldn’t take up much more space than an ordinary potted plant. If I say yes.”

Dean stares. “If you say yes,” he repeats. “Cas, when have you ever said no to a plant?”

Cas stares down at his beer bottle. And it occurs to Dean suddenly that maybe Cas feels guilty about this, takes Dean’s grumbling too seriously and thinks he actually doesn’t like having the plants all over the place, which isn’t it at all, and he’s about to open his mouth to say so when Cas says, “I’m scared I can’t save it.”

Dean swallows. Cas keeps his eyes studiously on the table. “I thought there was beauty in the balance of the carbon cycle,” Dean says.

Cas shrugs.

Dean has honestly no clue how to deal with this. He casts about for something to say, floundering. Half of his brain is still in disbelief that he’s actually making the case to bring something into his home that looks like a monster out of Star Wars.

“Look,” he says, “Elizabeth is really fucking good at her job, right?”

Cas looks up. “Yes.”

“So, she wouldn’t be calling you in without doing everything she could for it first. Right?”

“No,” says Cas. “She wouldn’t.”

“So…” Dean shrugs, and takes a thoughtful pull of his beer. “I think to her it’s like it’s already dead. She’s got no hope for it, and she’s hoping you can maybe pull a miracle out of your ass and save it anyway.” He thinks of himself, begging Chuck for Cas’s life; of Cas stubborning his way out of the Empty. “You’re good at that, y’know.”

Cas’s mouth twists. “I’m really not.”

Something knobbly and uncomfortable squeezes in Dean’s chest. “Yeah,” he says, “you are.”

Cas glances sidelong at him, and doesn’t answer.

---

Elizabeth brings the welwitschia a few days later, and it does look pretty sad. It’s just got two long leaves that split from where the plant pokes up out of the soil, and they’re a sickly green, almost yellow, and dead along half their length. They’re also splitting and fraying at the ends, and Dean can’t help but make an alarmed exclamation when Elizabeth bumps the pot against the car door getting out and one of the leaves tears further.

“It’s all right,” Cas says to him quickly. “That’s natural, the leaves splitting. They only grow two leaves their entire life. Everything you saw in the pictures was just pieces of those splitting and curling.”

That doesn’t entirely make Dean feel better, but Elizabeth is beaming at them, and she juggles the pot to cradle against her left hip when Jack sticks out his hand and says, “Hello!”

“Hi!” she says, mouth quirking with laughter as she shakes his hand. “I’m Elizabeth.”

“I’m Jack,” says Jack. Then, confidingly: “Castiel told me about you. You’re helping him with his garden.”

“And he’s helping me with almost everything else,” Elizabeth says with a smile. “How do you know Cas and Dean?”

“Castiel is my father,” Jack announces proudly, and Cas makes a startled noise, looking both pleased and embarrassed. Elizabeth glances quickly between Cas and Dean, clearly surprised, but her smile holds.

“It’s complicated,” says Dean. Then, because they all seem unaccountably awkward all of a sudden: “What kind of a name is welwitschia , anyway?”

“It’s the genus name,” says Elizabeth easily, leading the way into the bunker. “After the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, who — well, I shouldn’t say discovered it, but you know. Brought it to the attention of European botanists. The full scientific name is Welwitschia mirabilis, which I rather —”

She stops short on the stairs and gasps audibly. Dean’s hand darts automatically for the gun at his back, but then Elizabeth breathes, “Speaking of mirabilis, ” and he realizes she’s just seen Jack’s star.

“Jack made it,” says Cas.

“It’s lovely, ” murmurs Elizabeth, descending more slowly now. “Jack, you’re — the plants must love it.”

“It’s a miniature sun,” says Jack, clearly buoyed by the praise. “That’s also like an angel. That’s what you put on Christmas trees.”

The corners of Elizabeth’s eyes crinkle. “So it is,” she agrees.

---

They set up the welwitschia in a corner near the old radio setup, because Elizabeth thinks the light might be exactly what it needs. “Though it does need some hours of darkness,” she adds, frowning. “Does the star dim overnight?”

Jack frowns, squints at it. “It does now,” he says.

“Perfect,” Elizabeth agrees, apparently unperturbed by this proclamation. “It loves light, though, and heat; the winter’s hard for it, even with everything we have in the greenhouse. Its conditions are so specific. I certainly don’t expect you to be able to replicate them perfectly here, but I thought maybe —” She sighs.

“Where does it live?” Dean asks. “In the real world, I mean?”

It’s Cas who answers. “Namibia. In the coastal deserts. It almost never rains there; it gets its water from fog and can live for thousands of years.” He pauses, considering the plant. There’s a deep sadness in his face, Dean thinks, and wonders whether the others can see it, what he can possibly do to lift it away. “I’ve always been fond of them.”

Dean looks at Jack. “Can you just — fix it?” he asks, since clearly they’ve abandoned any kind of pretense with Elizabeth. “I mean, I know it needs the right environment, but won’t it help if you — y’know?”

Jack purses his lips and steps forward. He lays his hands gently on the two leaves, right near the base of the plant, and closes his eyes. After a moment, he opens them again.

The plant’s leaves look like they’ve flushed greener, maybe, a little. Dean glances at Jack. “Well?”

Jack shakes his head. “It’s not always… that easy,” he says. “It’s like angels, or humans. Bodies are easy to change, but…” He shakes his head again. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“During the apocalypse,” Cas says softly. “They could — do a lot to you. But they couldn’t make you Michael’s vessel, not without your consent.”

Dean jerks slightly, not sure how to deal with something that weird and personal out there in the air between them all. “Are you telling me,” he says, “that this plant is depressed?”

“No,” says Cas, at the same time that Jack says, “Yes.” They look at each other and conclude, together, “Sort of.”

“Great,” Dean mutters, he’s running a halfway house for plants with mental health issues now, but he stops himself from saying it, because he still doesn’t want Cas thinking he actually minds.

Elizabeth has been watching this whole interaction with saintlike forbearance, and Dean turns to her, thinking he should include her somehow, but draws a blank on what to say. To his surprise, it’s Jack who pipes up instead.

“So,” he says, cheer restored as if it had never left. “Elizabeth, are you coming for Christmas?”

Elizabeth opens her mouth, and flushes, and Dean could hit himself over the head. Cas glances up at him, sharply.

“Of course she is,” he says into the silence. Then, to Elizabeth: “You will, won’t you?”

Her smile flashes a blinding array of teeth. She says, “I’d be honored.”

---

Mom comes down a few days ahead of the holiday. Dean felt kind of hurt when she said she wouldn’t be there for Christmas itself, that she’s spending it with this new boyfriend of hers, and doubly so when he found out that boyfriend wouldn’t be making the trip down with her, though he’s also kind of relieved. He’s not too sure how to deal with his mom — who is, after all, younger than him in this bizarre timeline they’ve found themselves in — dating.

“Eamon was the sperm donor for his sister and her wife,” Mom explains over the phone. “He’s not the girls’ dad, but they’re close, and they always do Christmas together. I — they asked me to join them, and I’d like to, but I wanted to check with you first.”

And okay, Dean could do with not ever hearing the word “sperm” about his mom’s new boyfriend again, but he kind of gets that. “Wait,” he deadpans. “I’m hoping it was the wife who carried the kids, ‘cause if it’s the sister, I hate to tell you this, but —”

He can practically hear Mom’s mock scowl over the phone. “Dean Winchester,” she says, “when I get down there, I’m going to kick your ass.”

She doesn’t, but they do spend some quality time in the shooting gallery, and when they decide to keep score on accuracy, it takes everything Dean’s got to eke out a narrow win. Then Mom decides that they need more ornaments and she’s going to embroider some, of all things, and she gets Dean stabbing his own finger about nine times with the tiny needle before he finally consents to put on a thimble. He feels ridiculous.

“How do you know how to do this,” he asks, “but not make a meatloaf?”

Mom shrugs. “I grew up a hunter. I had a weakness for pretty, impractical things.”

Her eyes twinkle, a little, and Dean glares at her. “If you say ‘like your father,’” he tells her, “I will throw this pincushion at you.”

Mom throws back her head laughing, and shuts her mouth with a grin. When they’re done, they have two weird little cushions — Dean’s is an owl, and Mom’s is a dove — and they actually look kind of okay. He hangs them by the loops from their heads, selecting their placement carefully, as Mom looks on and approves.

Sam only overlaps with Mom for a day, which Dean sort of hates, though he tries to tell himself not to. “It’s so warm here,” says Alex when she gets out of the car, loosening her scarf as they go through the round of hugs. Dean fists his hand briefly in Sam’s jacket, inexplicably grateful for his brother’s broad frame, and Patience says, “I come from Georgia. Forty degrees is not warm.”

Jody and Donna arrive the next day, once they’re both off work, and Kaia and Claire the day after that from their most recent hunt, somewhere down in New Mexico. Once they’re inside, Claire shuffles her feet and gives everyone a death glare and declares, “We have a present for you, and you have to promise not to laugh.”

Jody stifles a snort, and whispers something to Donna, who wrinkles her nose, fighting a smile. Claire flounces a little as she turns to open the cardboard box behind her. “These are for — all of us,” she declares, and shoves it at Dean.

It’s full of stockings. Knitted and misshapen, in all different colors, some of them changing halfway through; a few of them have patterns, and on one or two they even look like holly or candy canes or reindeer. Claire glares at Dean like she’d like nothing better than to put a needle through his eye and says, “Donna taught us to knit.”

There’s enough for everyone — one for Mom, too, and Dean decides it’ll be okay if they appropriate it for Elizabeth this year. The bunker doesn’t have a fireplace, and after some discussion, they decide to hang them on the telescope, instead.

Dean actually accomplishes his own cooking this time without dumping it on anyone else last-minute, though Patience does take over the kitchen for a morning to ringmaster the baking of five different types of cookies. Dean’s highly skeptical of the ricotta ones, but she waves him off scornfully with some assurance about her mom being half Italian, and when he tries them he finds that she’s right, they’re fucking magical. For most of the baking, Alex is a willing assistant, but Claire and Kaia eventually surface from wherever and help with the last two batches.

He and Cas buy a bunch of candy for the stockings on Christmas Eve, nothing fancy, but Cas makes sure they get Milky Ways and Three Musketeers, and Dean learns that whatever you might say about Cas’s time as a Gas ‘n’ Sip employee, it did give him a comprehensive knowledge of the current offerings in candy bars. They also make a liquor store run, because they’ve got all this fancy Men of Letters glassware and they might as well use it. They mostly buy the usual stuff, but Cas expresses an out-of-the-blue fondness for amaretto, and Dean figures hell, he’ll find something to put it in.

The gift-giving is pretty low-key, which is how Dean likes it, mostly gags and little things — he gives Cas a bag of potting soil, and Jack a King Size Fast Break, which he’s never tried but Cas heartily endorsed as a source of both peanut butter and nougat. Dean has been going through the Men of Letters storage, though, and coming across some pretty cool protective amulets and other shit like that; thinking of Bobby, he selects one for each of the girls. He’s vetted them pretty thoroughly, made sure they work like they say they do and, more importantly, don’t have untoward side effects. All the same, he thinks the reactions he gets are a little out of proportion for just giving out some old junk he found lying around.

Jack’s been helping him with his gift for Sam. Dean’s pretty sure that the library is what Sam misses about living in the bunker most, and he’s been thinking for a while about trying to scan some of the books, get some digital copies going on — for Sam, yeah, but for their whole network too, though Sam will be able to organize that far better than he will. Every time he thinks about starting on it, though, the whole task seems just way too fucking daunting, and he mentioned it to Jack over a beer a few nights before everyone arrived.

The next day, Jack spent about three hours in the library, walking around with his hand on Dean’s laptop and doing his freaky yellow eyeball thing at shelf after shelf, and at the end of it, they had the entire fucking body of Men of Letters knowledge in a secure digital archive.

“Don’t thank us yet,” he warns Sam, who’s staring speechless at the screen. “It is not even a little bit organized.”

Jack squirms beside him, and yes, Dean knows that he could probably catalogue the whole thing in a couple hours too if you just gave me time to figure out how the computer works, Dean.

Sam’s expression offers full confirmation that Dean was right, though, and the organizing is half the fun. “Let him have something to beat his head against for a while,” he mutters to Jack. “When he finally gets frustrated, you got next year’s gift all lined up.”

Elizabeth gets a protective amulet, too, and he’s happy to see that everyone else is treating her presence there like it’s obvious, natural. He doesn’t see if Cas gets her something — maybe they exchanged gifts in private — but after everyone’s dispersed a little, Cas follows Dean into the kitchen and says, with evident distress, “I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything, Dean. I looked, but — nothing seemed right.”

Dean studies him, unsure why this is bothering him; they’ve never taken care to exchange Christmas gifts before. “I got you potting soil, Cas,” he says finally. “Probably the wrong kind. You’re fine, I promise.”

Cas makes a quiet noise of dissent. “You gave me much more than that,” he says. “You — have given me so much, and I —” He cuts himself off, looking miserable, and Dean reaches for him, compelled by something he doesn’t understand.

“Cas, buddy,” he says softly, squeezing his shoulder to make him look up. “Don’t be like that, okay? It’s —” But he doesn’t know what it is, so he swallows and says, “We’re family.”

Cas gives a jerk of a nod, but his eyes slide away from Dean’s again; then he’s slipping away from Dean’s fingers and back out the door without looking back. Dean stares after him for a full thirty seconds after he’s gone, before laughter and running steps in the hall remind him he looks like an idiot and needs to get back to work.

The amaretto turns out to go really well with bourbon and a little splash of lemon juice; Google calls it a stiletto, but Dean chooses to interpret that as the dagger, not the heel. He mixes up those and some rounds of old-fashioneds, and only Sam is ungrateful enough to stick to beer, rendered dead to the world by his love of reams of data. He’s muttering something about a rethinking the Men of Letters filing scheme, and Dean is torn between feeling smug his gift is such a success and aggrieved that his brother is now going to develop eye strain from a day that’s supposed to be spent with family.

“If I knocked him over the head with a chair,” says Donna, who’s sipping with appreciation at one of the old-fashioneds, “do you think that would count as a mercy killing?”

“Definitely,” Dean says. He’s always liked Donna; he’s glad she makes the trip down to these things, even without the obligation of being practically married to Dean’s brother or one of their far-flung semi-foster kids. Donna drains her glass, and he offers, “Make you another?”

They wind up getting inventive, something Dean generally supports. When you’re being inventive with hard liquor, though, the only way to solve your mistakes is to balance the wrong liquor with more of the right liquor, and they both wind up with — rather a lot of booze in their glasses, and a vested interest in not revealing to the others just how horrifyingly wrong their experiments have gone. There’s nothing for it but to drink them in the kitchen, destroying the evidence, and make another round of something more socially acceptable. By the time Dean returns to the war room, he’s feeling rather unsteadier on his feet than before.

Claire and Kaia are upstairs on the mezzanine, making use of the long-ignored chess board. Each of them is curled in an armchair, and though they’re across from each other, they’re both leaning in, and their fingers seem to brush on every move. Watching them, Dean sees Kaia knock over one of Claire’s pieces and then, laughing, pull her in for a kiss.

“Lesbians,” he mutters, thinking of Mom’s boyfriend’s sister; they’re everywhere these days. He looks over at Alex and Patience, evaluating; he’s pretty sure they’re not hiding a secret love. He considers Donna. “You’re not a lesbian, are you?”

Donna hiccups. “Not to my knowledge,” she admits cheerfully, “but I’ll try anything once.”

Dean blinks, then nods. That’s fair.

Cas and Jack are sitting with Elizabeth, and Jack is talking, gesturing animatedly and leaving glowing trails through the air. Dean’s not sure if he’s doing it on purpose; maybe he should check how much Jack’s had to drink. He takes a step to consider it, and decides he’s better off sitting down.

Donna wanders off, but the chair is comfortable, so Dean stays, watching the conversations unfold. Jody comes up next to Elizabeth and leans against her armchair to listen to Jack’s story. When he reaches a lull, she smiles down at Elizabeth and reaches to squeeze her hand. Dean can’t hear her words from across the room, but their gist is clear enough: How are you doing?

It strikes Dean as odd, for a moment, that Cas doesn’t do the same. Eilzabeth is his — something, after all, but he’s never seen him reach out to touch her, never noticed that casual intimacy like with Claire and Kaia, or even Jody and Sam. Maybe Cas doesn’t like that stuff, he thinks. Or maybe Elizabeth doesn’t. Though, neither of those things seem right; both of them seem to touch him all the time.

Dean puts it out of his mind. They’re happy, he thinks, and that alone is something worth everything; he’s seen Cas go through too much shit, put himself through too much shit, to ever begrudge him this. And Elizabeth — well. He hasn’t known her for too long, but she’s clearly had some crap to take on, and she’s good people. She’s good for Cas. He’s glad for her too.

He tells her that later, or tries to. She comes to squat next to his chair, and he feels sort of like the chivalrous thing to do would be let her take it, but when he says that she laughs, and reminds him that she’s a gardener, she’s used to squatting and kneeling everywhere she goes. He’d like to contest the point, but his head is a little fuzzy, and he has something more important to say.

“I’m happy for you,” he says, enunciating carefully. She looks at him uncertainly, so he repeats it again, separating each word with a considerable pause. “You and Cas,” he adds belatedly, in case it wasn’t clear.

She still looks unsettled, eyebrows taut with confusion. “Dean,” she says slowly. “When you say — do you? — Cas and I aren’t — um.”

This is taking too long. “Say thank you,” Dean tells her. He’s going for severe, but he’s not sure that he makes it. “That’s what you do.”

“Thank you,” Elizabeth agrees, and her mouth still looks unconvinced, but her eyes are smiling.

Dean tilts his head back against the wall of the bunker, floating in a sense of benevolent accomplishment. It feels sort of like the light from Jack’s star. “Tha’s good,” he tells her, and closes his eyes on the day.

Chapter Text

Everyone’s been gone a little over a week when Claire calls for help on a hunt.

“Sam thinks we’ve got a pair of vetala,” she says. “He says you’ve got more experience with them than he does, and, well, we could use the backup.”

She and Kaia took care of a werewolf in Española just before Christmas, she explains, who tipped them off to something “much nastier” working its way through the tourist spots near Santa Fe. Upon investigation, the “something” turned out to be two somethings, and ones with expensive tastes: they most recently took out an oil baron’s son on a midwinter ski trip to Taos, feeding on him for days in his private chalet before setting the whole thing ablaze to destroy the evidence.

The newspapers are reporting it as a tragic accident. Neighbors noticed “two beautiful women” coming and going in the days before the fire but considered this unremarkable, and only one body was recovered. The whole place had an enormous central wood-burning fireplace, clearly the start of the blaze. Firefighters couldn’t get there in time to save anything but the ashes.

“They’re good,” Claire tells him quietly. “We got close — Kaia got just a quick look inside, which is the only reason we even have to suspect they’re vetalas, we had no idea what we were hunting ‘til then. She got burned pretty badly getting out, but we don’t think they saw her.”

“So now you’re waiting for them to pop up again,” Dean repeats, confirming.

“Yeah,” Claire says, “and resting up. Sam’s monitoring their plates and known aliases from Sioux Falls, but nothing yet.”

“How are you for silver knives?” Dean asks, mentally cataloguing his arsenal.

“We’ve both got one,” Claire tells him, “but backups wouldn’t hurt.”

“You got it.” Dean sucks his lip against his teeth and asks, more quietly, “Kaia okay?”

Claire gives him a strangled little laugh. “She will be. It was —” She stops, and Dean can hear her take a deep, steadying breath. “I just — when I found her, in the snow, she looked —” She breaks off again. “But she’s fine. She just needs a little time. She doesn’t even seem to mind much, honestly.”

“Sounds about right,” Dean agrees. “Are you okay?”

That laugh again. “I will be,” Claire says, and it seems like more of a question than before. Dean lets her breathe: in, out, taking control. “I will be,” she repeats, more soundly. Then, swiftly: “Thanks.”

“No problem. Be there tomorrow.”

He goes looking for Cas when he hangs up. He’s in the bathroom, which Dean would love to say is unusual. It’s not.

“You know,” Dean tells him, “some of us actually need to use this place.”

Cas is sitting on a chair beside David Allan Coe. He dragged it in here a few days ago, convinced it needed more moisture in the air; he’s been running the shower on and off at full heat, and the room feels like a fucking sauna. Dean gave up the ghost this morning and put Robert Plant in here, too, since Cas is apparently dead set on turning their bathroom into a rainforest anyway.

Cas closes the book he’s been reading. “I’m sorry, Dean. I’ll —”

Dean waves him off. “Not why I came in, actually. How do you feel about a trip to the desert?”

Cas squints at him. “A — which desert?”

“New Mexico. Claire and Kaia want an assist. Vetalas, looks like.”

“I see.” Cas glances up at him, then at David Allan Coe, and back again. “When are we leaving?”

“Tomorrow, early. Could be a bit. They’ve gone to ground.”

Cas looks uncertain. “I — all right, I’ll get packed, I just — need to figure out some way of keeping the plants watered while we…”

He’s speaking vaguely, eyes on the pine, and Dean watches him carefully. Cas has seemed a little off ever since Christmas; maybe before, it’s hard to say. He’s unfocused, and tired all the time, and Dean’s not entirely sure he’d be at his best in the field. They haven’t been on any kind of prolonged hunt together since October, just a few local cleanup jobs.

“You know what,” he says, “you’re right, you can’t just take off like that. Gotta figure out a system for the plants before you go vetala-chasing. Why don’t you hang out here, take some time off? Maybe work on a plan for next time; Elizabeth can probably help.”

Cas sags gratefully back in his chair. And honestly, that should be Dean’s first sign; Cas should be insisting that no, he can figure something out, he wants to help. “That makes sense,” he says instead, closing his eyes.

Dean stares at him for a second, feeling like the thing he’s missing might be something big. “Why this one?” he blurts, and when Cas opens his eyes, he nods at the Norfolk Island pine. “I mean, of all the plants, why sit with this one?”

Cas frowns. “I don’t know,” he says slowly. “There’s just something… I don’t know. There’s something wrong with this plant that I don’t know how to fix.”

Dean nods mutely, pushing away the thought that he knows how that feels.

---

Claire and Kaia are holed up in a room at a seedy motel back in Española, and Dean gets there around 9 the next night. Kaia’s ensconced in bed, one arm and half her head swathed in bandages, and Claire’s a jangling wire of tension, remote in one hand when she comes to open the door. The TV’s on static, buzzing loudly behind her.

“She’s been flipping channels for the last half hour,” Kaia says from her cocoon. “Can you shoot her, please?”

Dean smiles, and deftly removes the remote from Claire’s hand when he pulls her in for a hug. He turns the TV off over her shoulder and pulls back to look at her. “How you holding up?”

Claire gives him a weak smile, but her limbs look a little looser. “All right,” she says. “Still no word from Sam.”

“Don’t lose faith in my nerd of a brother yet,” Dean tells her. “He’ll get us there. Hey, Kaia.”

“Hey,” says Kaia. Her words are slightly distorted by the stiffness on one side of her face, but she looks alert. “No Cas?”

“He’s riding the pine for this one,” Dean says, and grins a little at his private pun.

Kaia drifts off to sleep not long after, but Dean and Claire stay up an hour or two with a couple beers, talking over the details of the case. Both women are tall, she says, with sleek, short hair: one brunette, one blonde. Both deck themselves in jewelry, silver rings and earrings, and dress impeccably — not that Dean would really know what that means. Their last victim was a hiker near Jemez Springs, body so worried by animals by the time search and rescue recovered him that any evidence of vetala bites was long gone.

“Honestly,” Claire says, “I don’t think we’d have ever found them, without the tip, and we still don’t know for sure. They cover their tracks damn near perfectly. Now we just have to hope they haven’t figured out we’re on their trail.”

Dean returns to his own room around midnight, and as he settles his face against the pillow, just barely remembers to roll over and text Cas that he’s safely arrived before dropping into sleep.

---

The next day passes quietly. Dean and Claire compare arsenals, and he helps her tune up a couple things on her car; she learns quickly, and already has her own socket wrench set. When they get back upstairs, Kaia is moving around on her own, microwaving some leftover takeout, and she gives them the finger the moment Claire takes in a breath to disapprove.

Sam calls them that evening. “Got them,” he says. “They just registered for a silversmithing workshop at this desert retreat center about an hour northwest of you. It starts tomorrow. There’s one slot left; I can get one of you in.”

“I’ll do it,” Dean says immediately.

Claire and Kaia snort simultaneously. “No,” says Kaia, “you won’t.”

Dean glares at her. “Why not?”

“What would you make in a silversmithing workshop?” Claire challenges him.

“Uh,” says Dean. The answer seems pretty obvious. “A knife?”

Claire rolls her eyes, shaking her head in mock pity. Over the phone, Sam chuckles. “Well, everyone else there will be making jewelry,” Claire tells him severely. “And even if you weren’t clueless about girly things, you’re way too well known. Monsters have heard of Dean Winchester. Plenty of them know what you look like.”

Dean’s about to protest that that is not fair, and that he hunts monsters all the time, but he closes his mouth. Between Purgatory and the Men of Letters and all the rest of it, he’s honestly getting recognized more than he likes these days.

“So that’s settled,” Claire declares. “I’m doing it.”

“Hang on!” says Kaia.

Claire gives her a death glare. “You’re injured.”

“I’m fine, ” Kaia hisses. “Look, I can —”

Dean stops her short with a hand. “Claire’s right,” he says. “Not because you can’t do it, but because you might be recognized. I know, ” he says, forestalling her protests, “that they probably didn’t see you, but still — they’re good, right? You think they won’t notice a girl showing up with a bunch of burns when they just used fire to hide their trail?”

Kaia glares at him. “Claire’s a bad liar,” she says. “I’m not.”

“Sorry, kid,” Dean tells her. “You’re overruled on this one.”

“Besides,” says Claire smugly, “I clean up nice.”

---

The retreat center is out in real desert: towering red and gold mesas and pinnacles of rock, little juniper-lined canyons winding their way into a thousand hidey-holes. Everything’s dusted white from last night’s snowfall, though the day’s supposed to warm enough for it to melt. Dean hopes the vetala won’t try to go to ground — they’d never find them, out here.

Claire’s stylishly dressed, in all black with big hoops in her ears, her hair loose in soft waves and eyeliner more understated than Dean’s ever seen it. Instead, she’s wearing bold red lipstick that makes her teeth flash white when she smiles. Their biggest expense, outside of the registration itself, is the rental car, a Lexus that offends Dean on principle, but Claire’s station wagon is too beat up for her persona, and Dean flat out refused to part with Baby.

“I don’t need babysitting,” she hisses to both of them. “It wouldn’t kill you to hole up back in town.”

“Oh, hell no,” say Dean and Kaia together. They’re pulled off the highway half a mile past the entrance to the ranch, and it’s truly the middle of nowhere — the nearest town is fifteen miles behind them and doesn’t have a motel to speak of, but registering as guests at the resort would blow their cover. “You do this alone, we’re staying close by,” Dean adds. “If you need us, we’ll be there in three minutes, tops.”

“It’s a week-long workshop,” Claire snaps. “You’re really going to camp on this godforsaken patch of pavement for seven days?”

It is a weird one, Dean will admit. Not half a mile down the highway from the resort, an unmarked road on the left leads to an abandoned old airstrip. It’s hidden from the highway behind a gentle rise, and the entrance is gated and padlocked — quick work to pick. Dean dummy-locked it behind them; if they need to, it’ll take hardly a second to get back out and roar to Claire’s rescue, just up the road.

“Yes,” he says, and Kaia folds her arms and sets her jaw. She’s out of the bandages today, and while part of her face is shiny and red, she’s combed her curly hair to cover enough of it so that looks almost normal.

Claire huffs a sigh. “ Fine, ” she says. “Have fun freezing your asses off.”

Kaia smiles sweetly at her, tilting her head. “Thank you. We will.”

---

Claire checks in a few hours later, when the two of them are sitting around a small fire Kaia built. The wood’s so dry here it burns almost without smoke, and they cooked up some stew on it in a Dutch oven Claire and Kaia are apparently hauling around. Dean’s never done much cooking on the road, but it wound up pretty fucking delicious.

“I’ve scoped out the other guests,” Claire says, “and the staff. No one’s missing yet. I listened at their door and haven’t heard anything weird, but I’ll see if I can get a look in their window tomorrow when it’s light. Everything’s ground floor here, modeled after pueblos and stuff.”

Dean frowns. “Be careful. If they get a sense you’re snooping around —”

“I know what I’m doing,” Claire scoffs, and he and Kaia share a look.

Claire bitches about the food — “they’re going for some kind of rustic vibe or something, like all their guests aren’t paying out the nose to get weird stone massages, but their cornbread is fucking bullshit” — and Dean winds up telling them both about the case where he and Sam met Donna, which they’ve apparently never heard. It leaves both of them in stitches, and Kaia straight-up snorts when he gets to the part with the pudding.

He leaves the two of them to talk privately after that, wandering down the old runway with his hands in his pockets. It’s a clear night, and his breath mists in the chilly air. Overhead, the sky seems more stars than darkness, and the Milky Way draws a wide road from horizon to horizon. Dean’s seen brighter stars than this, but not often. He glances back at the fire behind him, a different, warmer glow.

His fingers are stiff on the screen of his phone, and he’s not wearing gloves, but he dials anyway, puffing warm air into his free hand as he holds the phone to his ear. “Hey, Cas,” he says at the answer. “Got a little down time, figured I’d call and check in. You ever visit the Milky Way?”

“We’re in the Milky Way, Dean,” says Cas, a little waspishly, and for some reason that makes Dean’s chest warm with a laugh. “It would make more sense to ask if I’ve visited other galaxies. Andromeda, for instance.”

“All right, then,” Dean says, smiling. “How ‘bout Andromeda?”

“Well, yes,” Cas admits. “But it’s not as exciting as it sounds. It’s a lot like being in this galaxy. These things only look different from a distance.”

“Can I see Andromeda?” Dean interrupts. “If I’m looking up at the stars from New Mexico? They’re fucking phenomenal here, Cas.”

“Maybe,” says Cas, and heaves a sigh. Dean hears shuffling, and then the clatter of feet on stairs and the bang of a door. “All right,” says Cas. “Let me — okay. Your eyes might be able to pick up on it, if you’re in a dark enough place. Can you see the constellation Cassiopeia?”

“That’s the W, right?”

“Yes, the W. All right, if you’ve got that, go down from the right side…”

Dean leans back against the Impala for a better view and follows his directions, hopping from star to star across the sky. They locate Andromeda — it looks like nothing more than a fuzzy, indistinct star — and then Cas is reminding him of the story the Greeks told about her, one that has hunters and monsters like so many stories, though it strikes Dean that the Greeks didn’t give Andromeda herself much credit.

Then it’s on to Chinese constellation myths, old Babylonian astronomy, the origins of the zodiac; celestial navigation by Polynesian cultures that passed on their star maps as songs. Dean rests his head against Baby’s roof and listens to the warm, scratchy rhythm of Cas’s voice until the fire burns to embers and Kaia is long gone to bed, smiling in spite of the cold. When he finally settles himself under three blankets across the Impala’s backseat, stars wheel slowly behind his eyelids to accompany him into sleep.

---

Claire texts them the next morning that she snooped around the vetalas’ window before breakfast and didn’t find anything notable; she’ll check in again around lunch. Dean and Kaia settle in for a long morning of waiting.

It isn’t one.

Kaia’s phone rings just before 10am, and when she puts it on speaker it’s to Claire gasping out, “I think they made me. I don’t know how but —”

“Are you okay?” Dean interrupts. “Are they after you?”

“I think they took off,” Claire says. She’s breathing hard, but not with fear. “Damn it! Their car’s gone. Dark blue Audi convertible. Still had the California plates last I checked, but we know they switch them out, Sam’s got some of the alternate numbers. They might’ve gone past you.”

“How long ago was this?” Dean asks. He’s got his keys out already, silver knife holstered at his hip where it has been for the last 24 hours.

“Ten minutes,” says Claire, “maybe less. Not more. There’s only one highway out of here; I figure if you go one direction and I take the other, we might catch them —”

“No,” says Kaia, cutting her off. “If they circle back, or if they haven’t really left, you can’t blow your cover. We’ll do it.”

There’s a brief silence from Claire’s end. “Fuck,” she says vehemently, and Dean glances up at Kaia in alarm, but there’s a tiny smile on her face. That means we’re right, she mouths, catching his eye.

“Fine,” snaps Claire. “Better hurry. If we lose them —”

“We’re gone,” says Dean.

He peels left when they hit the highway, westward bound, and Kaia goes right, back toward Española, the tires of Claire’s station wagon squealing on the turn. Claire’s patched all three of them together on a phone call, and Dean flips his phone to speaker and drops it on the dashboard, fiddling with his police scanner as he accelerates toward 100.

The highway’s two lanes and all but empty, spiderwebbed with generations of cheaply patched cracks like graffiti in a language no one understands. It scrolls out beneath his tires as he drives. He flushes a cawing trio of ravens from the carcass of a road-killed deer, and the road turns north, climbing into denser juniper. The Impala is humming in Dean’s hands, let off her leash for the first time in months. His own pulse sings in time, fast and steady, and he flexes his knuckles on her steering wheel, every instinct awake.

He sees them from the crest of the ridge.

They’re nearly half a mile ahead, down in the next valley, and they’re out of sight a moment later around a turn, but it’s enough. “Got ‘em,” he says to his phone.

“You’re sure?” Claire demands. “Have they spotted you?”

“Don’t think so,” says Dean. “I can tail them from a distance until they make a stop, unless you’ve got a better idea.”

“I’ll catch up with you,” says Kaia, and he can hear the screech of her U-turn over the line.

“Me too,” Claire agrees.

“No,” Dean tells her. “You need to stay put — this could all be a decoy. If one of them’s still in the neighborhood or circles back, we need you in place to deal with that, got it? In the meantime —” He rubs his forehead, considering. “Double check that everyone else is still accounted for. If they’ve got a hostage, we want to know about it. And keep in touch.”

Claire sighs. He knows she wants to argue, but she doesn’t. “Yes, mom.”

“Hey,” Dean tells her. “I know Jody. I’m taking that as a compliment.”

He settles down to a more reasonable 70-mile-per-hour pace that lets him catch occasional glimpses of the Audi out ahead, drawing closer whenever his GPS shows an upcoming intersection. There aren’t many, out here. Mostly just tiny dirt roads with cattle grates that point off into nothing but scrubland.

Kaia catches up to him just short of Chama. “They’re turning,” he says over the phone. “Left on 64, still a two-lane highway.”

“I know,” Kaia replies. “I can see you.”

From a bird’s eye view, Dean imagines, they would make a strange parade: Audi, Impala, and the beat-up red wagon, crawling across northern New Mexico like magnetically repelled beads on a string. Never too close, never too far away. They’re heading west now, winding their way up and over mesas where the juniper turns to pine and the snow’s in soft banks by the road, then back down to sun-baked scrubland, and up again, and down. His brain’s settled into that quantum state where it’s perfectly still and furiously alert; he can do this for hours, if he has to. Days.

“This is boring,” says Claire over the shared line. She’s already cased the resort again thoroughly; nothing’s out of order, and she’s pleaded a stomachache to get out of the morning workshop — serves them right for having shitty food.

“Yup,” Dean agrees. “Car chases. Not as fun as they’re cracked up to be.”

Still, it can’t be long now. Dean’s fuel gauge is sinking down toward past a quarter of a tank, and he doubts the Audi carries more. If they need to, he and Kaia can take turns fueling up, but they’re coming up on Farmington — the first town in a while. “All quiet on the home front?” he asks Claire.

“All quiet,” she echoes gloomily.

“All right, we’ll — shit.” Dean drops his voice as he slows. There it is, the first roadside gas pump in miles, on a dusty pulloff by the side of the highway. The listing old farmhouse behind it says “STORE” on its wall in fading paint, and there’s an old Coca Cola sign in the window. The convertible is pulled off beside it, top down. It’s empty. There’s no one in sight.

“It’s go time,” Dean murmurs. “Follow my lead.”

He pulls off well ahead of the building, cuts the rumble of his engine and coasts in neutral to a stop. Kaia rolls up behind him moments later, and closes her door softly, mimicking Dean. She’s got her gun in her hands and a knife at her hip, and she gives him a grim nod when he gestures.

They move quietly, crouched low, and make it to the corner of the building without incident. There isn’t a sound from inside. Dean signals at Kaia to check the curtained window beside her, and she squirms her back up the wall, twists her neck for a glimpse, then drops back next to him.

“No one I could see,” she murmurs.

Dean nods. “Take the back.”

Kaia doesn’t wait to confirm before she’s off again, running low and out of sight. Dean creeps forward around the front of the store, and finally straightens once he’s beside the door, back to the wall and gun against his chest. He places a light hand on the knob; it’s unlocked. Give Kaia another few seconds to make it around to her side — he counts in his head. Then, slowly, soundlessly, he twists the knob.

He’s through the door the moment he throws it open, and there’s an answering bang from the back of the house, a rattle of windowpanes. Two rooms, probably, between him and Kaia, but Dean has to clear this one first. He pivots around it, gun at the ready; there’s aisles full of sad-looking snacks and a cooler that rumbles furiously along one wall, but no movement anywhere.

He’s about to start for the next room when he sees the body. It’s half sticking out from behind the counter — the clerk. His arm lies limp on the floor, hand stretched out, and there’s a line of blood on his neck.

From the back of the house, there’s a crash, then Kaia’s yell of fury. Dean’s already on the move, sprinting to help, when the vetala steps into the doorway and blocks his way. He comes skidding to a halt.

She’s tall and thin — lithe, Dean thinks. Predatory. She wears leather like it’s what she was born to do, skin-tight pants and a badass rocker jacket, and yeah, if Dean weren’t trying to kill her, he’d probably ask to buy her a drink. Her dark hair is combed back ruthlessly, severe, and she’s wearing a cool smile. Her hands are empty.

“Hey there,” she says.

Dean raises his gun.

“Hunter, right?” She steps closer, thumbs hooked in her pockets. From the depths of the house, there’s another crash. “I haven’t seen a hunter in decades.” She halts a scant two feet from his outstretched gun, aimed straight at her heart, and smiles wider. “But I think you know this won’t hurt me.”

She reaches out for his hand. Her fingers are cool on his, rings clinking as they circle the barrel. Dean holds his breath, forcing himself to hold still, to let her think she’s terrified him utterly, pulling his Beretta from his nerveless grip. Just hold still, until — yes. As she draws it away, her eyes drop, just for an instant, to the weapon in her hand.

“No,” he says, “but this will,” and he lunges knife-first for her heart.

Her scream of fury is almost inhuman. She lashes out with the gun still in her hand, and he feels it collide hard with his cheekbone, pain exploding in stars across his vision. He keeps his feet, but barely, staggering backward, and she’s after him instantly, aiming a blow he barely has time to block. He needs to regain his senses just enough for one good blow, just enough — he has to see if Kaia’s all right —

Her next blow sends him sprawling against the shelves, potato chip bags raining down on him, head banging hard against the metal. And he’s already woozy, vision doubling, when she steps down hard on his wrist, and kicks his knife away.

He sees, as through rippling water, another figure appear behind her, a fair-haired mirror. “I took care of the girl,” it says. “Are you about done in here?”

“Almost,” says the first vetala. And then her pupils are turning to slits, fangs sliding out of her gums, and she’s bending toward him, wrenching his head back, face floating closer. Her eyes only leave his when she bends the last few inches to his bared throat.

The prick of her teeth on his skin is the last thing Dean knows for a while.

---

He wakes to Claire’s hands on his shoulders.

Dean,” she hisses. “Come on, Dean, wake up.”

Dean groans and turns over, shielding his eyes from the light. “Kaia?” he mumbles.

“I’m Claire,” says Claire, “and Kaia’s fine. Didn’t get as much poison as you did. Guess they kicked your asses, huh?”

“Muh,” Dean tells her, intelligently.

“Here,” Claire tells him, “sit up — God damn you, you’re heavy — look, I’ll get you some water.”

She does, from the thundering cooler. Swallowing it helps settle Dean’s dizzy head. “Gas station guy all right?” he asks; it’s the next thing on his mental list of checks. “Why’d they leave us alive?”

“What gas station guy?”

“He was — behind the counter,” Dean tries. “Paralyzed.”

Claire keeps her gun at the ready as she checks, and that makes him proud.. When she turns back to him, though, she shakes her head. “Gone.”

“God damn it,” says Dean.

---

When he makes it out to his car, still a little unsteady on his feet but less dizzy than before, he promptly freezes, rooted to the spot. “Oh, come on,” he says. “Really?”

They’ve shot out his Baby’s tires.

His phone lies mangled beside her in the dirt, clearly also the victim of a bullet. They’ve taken his gun but not his keys, which at least means they probably didn’t get in the trunk. When Dean checks the glove box for a spare phone, though, he finds that they’re all gone. Down to the last unopened prepaid.

Claire lets him borrow hers while she and Kaia go to buy tires — they need two for the station wagon, too, and Dean might be admiring the vetalas’ attention to detail if he weren’t so fucking pissed. He sits in the dirt and toys with the phone for a minute, then gives in to temptation and dials his backup number.

It rings three times. Then a warm, female voice says, “Hello.”

Dean rubs at the back of his neck. “Hey,” he says. “Nice work back there.”

She laughs, and he can hear wind whipping in the background; the highway. “Thank you, Dean.”

Figures she’d know his name now if she didn’t already. “I gotta ask,” he says. “Why leave us alive? You could’ve killed us both, easy. Why didn’t you?”

The vetala’s distaste bleeds into her tone, even through the shitty connection. “We don’t make unnecessary kills. And we don’t mess with hunters. There are too many of you. Kill one, and a dozen others will be swearing revenge. Dedicating their lives to tracking us down.” She pauses, and he can picture her smile. “I’ve been alive for a long time, Dean. I’ve found we’re best left alone.”

Dean swallows. “And the guy from the store?”

He can hear her clothing rustle with a shrug. “Not ideal. But a girl’s gotta eat.”

Anger pulses black behind his eyes. This guy’s death is his fault; his debt to pay. “You listen to me,” he says, pitching his voice low. “You think you’re out of this, think we won’t chase you down? I’m telling you right now: we will. And when we do, we will end you.”

She laughs, at that, but doesn’t answer, and then the laughter is replaced by howling wind. A staccato clatter, and the call goes dead. Discarded, somewhere in a roadside ditch.

He figured as much. He doesn’t have any of the prepaids’ numbers. They wouldn’t do him any good anyway.

He calls Sam next. “Hey, uh,” he says, rubbing his temples against a burgeoning headache. “A vetala shot my phone.”

“Claire said,” Sam answers, and Dean can hear the stifled note of humor in his sympathetic tone. “Baby’s tires too, huh?”

“Don’t make me think about it." Goddamnit, he thinks he's earned a little feeling sorry for himself, with all this shit. "I had to put her on blocks, Sam. It’ll take hours to get this sorted.” He sighs. “They’re in the wind for sure.”

Again, he can tell that Sam’s smiling down a laugh. “Don’t you have a backup phone, dude?”

“They took ‘em,” Dean tells him. “All five, out of the glove box.”

There’s silence on the other end of the line. Dean frowns, and waits a moment; nothing. “Sam,” he says.

“They took your phones,” Sam whispers. “Dean, that’s — that’s perfect.”

A tumbleweed rolls across the road and collides with Dean’s feet. He stares down balefully at it. “I fail to see how this is perfect, Sam.”

“It’s perfect,” says Sam, voice wound tight with excitement, “because I planted a tracker in one of those phones, ages ago. The prepaid, the one that’s the kind you don’t like.”

Dean blinks. “You — what now?”

“Hang on,” says Sam, “let me see if I — yes! I don’t believe it.”

The headache’s getting worse. “The fuck are you doing tracking my phone, Sam?”

“I wanted to pilot a hunter dispatch system,” says Sam breezily, “with geographic inputs. Figured you wouldn’t like it. I’ve been using it for months, actually. Dean, I know where they are.”

Chapter Text

They’ve lost time. A lot of time.

It took Claire a while after they both dropped out of contact to come after them, and another while to get them both back on their feet. Between dealing with the tires and everything else, it’s nearly midnight before they’re ready to hit the road again.

Only upside is, the vetalas clearly think they’ve lost them, too. As the three of them work on getting functioning wheels back on everyone’s car, Sam narrates the progress of his GPS tracker: “They are taking back roads, wow. Guess they don’t want to to hit the highways with a, uh, a body in the car. It’s slowing them down, though, so there’s that at least.”

Half an hour later, Baby finally looks like herself again and Dean is putting away the tire iron when Sam says, “I think they’ve stopped for the night.”

Dean slams the trunk shut. “Where?”

“Yampai, Arizona,” Sam tells them. “I’ll keep watching, but it looks like they’re at a motel. It’s about a... six hour drive from you, if you take the interstate.”

They liberate some extra prepaid phones from the store — Dean figures it’s the least of the proprietor’s concerns — and drop Claire’s rental off in Farmington so she and Kaia can spell each other for the all-night drive. Dean figures he already had a nice long venom-induced nap this afternoon; he’ll be fine.

He does make them all coffee at the store before they leave, and he’s grateful for it on the lonely, pitch-black run to Gallup. He means to call Cas to let him know what’s up, but there’s no service out here, just desolate reservation roads and turn after turn deeper into blackness. Occasionally, a jackrabbit darts through his headlights, or bat wings flash like ghosts across their beams.

Gallup’s handful of neon-signed businesses loom like a welcome beacon in the night, a reassurance that they have not, in fact, driven onto another, lightless plane. Dean even gets a few minutes of service, but Cas doesn’t pick up, so he makes his voice a mail: “Hey, Cas. Uh. It’s me, been a bit of a shitshow over here and now we’re off to Arizona after these vetalas, but I figured I’d let you know, they shot my phone. So, I’m at this number for now. Hope you’re doing all right.”

Then it’s I-40 and off again. There aren’t even many semis, never mind other cars, at this hour of the night, and Dean feels powerful behind his steering wheel, devouring the miles, watching reflective green markers flick by, haloed in the glare of their headlights. Claire keeps pace behind him, and switches off with Kaia the next time they stop for gas.

The horizon is only a faint streak of pink the rearview mirror when Sam calls to say that the vetala are on the move.

Damn it,” says Dean, “we were close.”

“I know,” Sam answers. He must be tired, too, up all night watching a screen, but he doesn’t sound it. “Looks like they’re still heading west, sticking to this two-lane blacktop through Hualapai country, but — they’ll be forced back toward the interstate eventually. They can’t drive across the Grand Canyon.”

“Wouldn’t put a Thelma and Louise past them,” Dean mutters, but he doesn’t really mean it. If there’s one thing he’s learned about these vetalas, it’s that they’re damn invested in self-preservation. He sighs heavily, and shakes his head to clear it. “Shit. We should still check the motel. If there’s any chance they left the guy alive…”

He assigns Claire and Kaia to it, and watches in his side mirror as they curve onto the ramp off the interstate; there’s something in him that still hates letting them go it alone. He sets his jaw to put it out of his mind, shifts his back against the seat, and drives.

The vetalas’ motel room is spotless, Claire and Kaia report. In the one next door, they find the body: dangling purple-faced from the ceiling, noose around his neck and chair kicked across the floor. Under the bruising, the delicate fang marks are almost invisible; nothing more than a couple of shaving cuts, to anyone who isn’t looking for them. Just a suicide. They even left a note.

And it’s just Dean and the vetalas now, speeding a converging course across the high desert, Claire and Kaia far behind them. Sam narrates their progress tensely over the phone. There’s one real turn they could take, a gravel road that would point them north toward Lake Mead and maybe, eventually, Las Vegas; they pass it by, and then they’re on the straight path to Kingman, Arizona, and to Dean.

Goosebumps run up his arms. It has the inevitability of an old western, for all that they’re still hours shy of high noon. There’s a reckoning coming. The vetalas just don’t know it yet.

Dean’s got the lead now, driving the faster highway, so he goes one exit past town and doubles back, pulling over on the frontage road to wait. They’re close, so close, and then they hit the pivotal intersection, go through it, and Sam says in a nervous rush, “They’re coming your way, Dean, we guessed right, they’re heading straight for you.”

Dean sucks in a breath. He waits ten seconds, fifteen, counting in his head. Then he eases into first and rolls out onto the blacktop.

There’s a dance to this, not too slow, not too fast. A lot of people think that his girl’s three-speed slows her down; they don’t know shit about cars. He lets her build to a slow crescendo before she shifts. On second, he opens her up, and on third, he lets her rip.

They’re screaming down the highway when the Audi appears on the far horizon, shimmering on the heat off the road. Transmission lines and fence posts blur by on Dean’s left, and there’s no time for thought now, no time for anything but action, instinct. He knows his girl’s muscle, her give; knows it like the sigh of blood in his own veins. Just how hard they can push. Just how much they can take.

The Audi doesn’t slow.

If anything, she’s accelerated. Shooting toward him like a bat out of hell, and Dean’s riding the center line now, they both are, no way to miss colliding; not until one of them blinks, twists out and goes spinning into the ditch. It’ll be the Audi. He knows it will. Still speeding toward him, faster than ever, but it’ll be the Audi, Dean can’t break now, he —

He can see their faces. The blonde one is driving, arm like an arrow in front of her, fingers clenched tight on the apex of the wheel. The dark one’s grinning, feral, wider than a shark.

The world around his ears is strangely quiet. They’re not going to blink.

He hits the brake with both feet, hard, and yanks the wheel left. Baby shrieks beneath him, but she goes, spinning out across the road, and Dean’s hurled against the window. The Audi sails by, a heartbeat away, tightly choreographed as a pair of dancers, surging toward each other but never quite touching. Then she’s gone, a flash of blue and a hand raised in mocking farewell, and Dean’s sitting butt end in a ditch.

---

He takes a second — only a second — to slam his fist into the leather of the seat beside him.

Then he’s running a hand over the steering wheel in apology, turning the key in the ignition. “I’m sorry, girl,” he murmurs. “You did perfect. Gorgeous. That one’s all on me.”

“Dean.” Sam’s voice sounds shaky, and Dean had forgotten he’s still on speaker. “When you’re done sweet-talking your car, want to tell us what happened?”

Dean tests the accelerator; he’s got traction. One wheel spins briefly on him, but she pulls out smooth onto the asphalt after that, and he pats her dashboard again gratefully before answering, “I blinked. They got away.”

He makes the turn onto the highway on-ramp and accelerates straight into the left lane, cutting off a semi that blares its horn at him. Dean ignores it. He wishes the road were less busy, though he knows it’s only busy for middle-of-nowhere Arizona; he has to weave back and forth a few times to get by vacationers cruising cheerfully along at the speed limit in the passing lane.

It takes only minutes to find them. They’re in the right lane, driving a perfect 75. When he pulls up alongside them, the blonde one grins at him, and they both give him a cheery wave. He rolls his eyes and fades back, then pulls into the lane behind them.

“Caught up to them,” he tells Sam glumly. “They’re driving the limit. In tourist traffic.”

Sam groans. “Makes sense. Hard to run them off a busy road in broad daylight. I can see if Jody has any law enforcement contacts in the area, but — you know that’s a risky game.”

Dean does. “It’s easy enough to stick to them for now. They can’t keep going forever.”

“Neither can you,” Sam mutters, but he doesn’t challenge it. “Listen, I’m gonna make some calls. I’ll check back in with you in a little bit; guess you don’t need me tracking them if you’re right on their ass.”

“Too late for that anyway,” says Dean, watching as a handful of debris flies backward from the car ahead of him, skidding across the pavement and crunching under his tires. “They just ditched the phones.”

---

It doesn’t take long for Claire and Kaia to catch up with them, at this pace. They’ve dipped down off the plateau and into the Mojave desert, and the landscape around them is washed out and barren, occasional dark mountains rising like sawteeth from the valley floor. Every now and then, they pass bizarre trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book and make Dean think of Cas. He watches dust devils dance across the horizon and says to the phone, “I don’t know how they plan to lose us.”

“I think it’ll be easier than you expect,” Sam says grimly. “You’re only a few hours from LA now. If they can get somewhere that densely populated, I bet they can slip away easy, now that we don’t have a way to track them.”

Dean grits his teeth. “So what’s our move? Run ‘em off the road before then? We’re still in traffic, Sam.”

“I know,” says Sam. “I’m working on it.”

“Dean,” comes Kaia’s voice suddenly over the speaker. “Sam. I — think I’ve got something.”

Dean tenses, instantly alert. “What is it?”

“I was just checking the drive time to LA,” Kaia says in a rush, “and I saw — there’s a new traffic alert ahead of us.” She pauses to scroll, then breathes, “Oh, God . It’s a cattle truck. It jackknifed across the highway, it’s blocking the westbound lanes completely. Cars at a dead stop. They’re saying it might take hours to get it clear.”

Sam sucks in a breath. “If you can catch them at a standstill, then maybe —”

“Yes,” says Kaia, cutting him off urgently, “but there’s another way. An exit just two miles ahead. Looks like a dirt road, middle of nowhere, but it would get us around — everything. Them, too, if they see it.”

For a moment, none of them speak. Then Claire whoops over the line, and Sam breathes, “Kaia, you’re wonderful.”

“No time for celebrating,” Dean warns them. “Stick close. If this is happening, it’s happening now.

---

The vetala make the turn.

For a moment, Dean thinks he might have them, slaloming around the corner off the exit ramp and onto gravel; it’s not what the convertible is made for. Then they’ve straightened and shot forward again, under the highway overpass and past the little cluster of buildings that someone might squint and charitably call a town. The way beyond it is marked as a county road, straight and flat and corrugated with washboards that make Dean’s jaw rattle and Baby’s steering wheel shiver in his hands.

The Audi raises a plume of dust so thick he can barely see, but Dean keeps his foot on the accelerator; if he’s in their dust, he’s also on their tail. The road curves broadly left, then right again, and Dean glimpses a playa off to one side, shimmering with heat haze. He occasionally hits the kind of pothole that makes him flinch, then close his eyes and briefly thank his girl for being the unshakeable badass she is.

They rocket across the valley and hit the flank of a mountain, and if the convertible has to slow for that, Dean does too — the road’s rocky and rutted and barely meant for a truck with clearance, never mind either of their cars. Cell service dropped out a few miles off the highway; Dean’s flying blind, no idea if this will get worse or better, if the Audi will hit a point where she just can’t run anymore. His hopes are punctured when they crest a rise and start to descend again — there’s another road off in the distance, a long straight scar across the alien landscape, but it looks flat, even. Paved.

He’s had to give the Audi a little room, can’t see the rocky road in front of him in the dust they’re throwing up, but he accelerates back toward them once they’re on the flat. Claire and Kaia are still right behind him; he’s glad to see they’ve made it through. The three of them thunder across the valley floor in tight formation, and the miles vanish quickly, too quickly; then they’re at the highway and the Audi’s skidding right, gunning her engine, shooting clear like an arrow from a bow.

“Shit fucking damnit,” Dean breathes, even as he makes the turn. They’ve lost their chance; it’ll be nearly impossible to catch them now.

A part of him wonders if he’s not okay with that.

They’re monsters; he knows that. They kill people — they killed someone today, an innocent, just some guy trying to run a gas station. This is why Dean is a hunter. To protect people from things like them.

Still, there’s a part of him that looks at the last few days and wants to shake his head in admiration. They’ve taken them all for one hell of a ride. They could have killed Dean and Kaia; they didn’t. And the way they drive that car —

He’s jolted from his thoughts by a cloud-splitting screech. There’s a car barreling towards them, in the oncoming lane, but it’s swerved, suddenly, spinning sideways to block both lanes, smoke pouring from its tires, and the Audi —

The Audi does the same.

Smoke is everywhere, and through it, Dean can just barely see the curving tracks of rubber on the road, the two cars alongside each other, noses pointed in opposite directions, each brought to an unlikely rest. The sun through the smoke gives it an eerie white glow as it billows around them, and for a moment, everything is still.

Dean brakes to a stop some twenty yards away, Claire following suit beside him. The vetalas are hemmed in; no way forward, no way back. Dean squints at the other car through the clearing smoke; it’s bright blue, a sedan. He knows it.

It’s Mom. Somehow, it’s Mom.

Make some calls, Dean thinks wryly. Sammy, you little bitch.

There’s a weird hush on the scene as he slides cautiously out of his seat. He can’t see if the vetala are still in the car; he palms the hilt of his knife, and keeps the Impala’s door in front of him, crouching low. Beside him, Claire and Kaia are doing the same. The smoke of burning rubber drifts clear.

Mom’s out of her car and crouched in a fighting stance, silver blade in each hand, but she’s motionless, waiting. From the convertible between them, the two vetala rise, sinuous, sliding up onto their seatbacks. They move like snakes — muscular, hypnotic. They’re not looking at Mom, or at Dean. They’re looking at each other.

“It was coming sooner or later,” the blonde one murmurs, and Dean barely catches her words on a breath of wind.

The brunette inclines her head. “Catch you on the other side.”

For a brief moment, their fingers twine. Then they’re releasing them, turning away from each other, swinging long legs out of the car. The brunette lands wide-stanced on the pavement to face them, Dean’s gun in one hand. She smiles, baring fangs, and her eyes flash in the sun.

“Cover me,” murmurs Dean.

He doesn’t give Claire or Kaia a chance to argue, just darts out from behind his door and rolls immediately, gunfire rattling over his head and pinging off Baby’s metal. He hears Claire and Kaia open covering fire; it won’t help, not really, but it might serve as a distraction. He rises into a crouch and immediately dives left — the vetala’s striding forward, pointing his own gun straight at him, pulling the trigger again and again and again.

A bullet flies past his ear, and another thuds into the asphalt two inches from his knee. But she’s a terrible shot, Dean realizes, and feels absurdly like laughing; she’s probably never used a gun before, never needed one. Bullets pepper her shoulders, her chest, but she just keeps advancing, firing on Dean, and he’s forced to roll again.

He comes up on his feet, crouched low, and sprints forward. She pivots, aims, and he drops, but only long enough to feel her shot ruffle his hair as it passes. Then he’s running again, and she pulls the trigger one last time, he feels a dull thud in the meat of his shoulder, spreading pain, but it doesn’t matter because he’s on her, he’s got her, comes up hard underneath and sends the gun flying across the road.

She snarls her outrage right in his face and catches his wrist in a tight grip when he tries to bring up the knife. It’s the same one she stomped on yesterday, still sore, and he yells with pain but manages to keep his grip. She’s twisting his arm down, though, she’s stronger than him, and when he tries to drop out of her hold, she grabs him bodily by his shirt, whirls, and flings him back against her car.

He’s saved the blow to his head this time, but she’s still got his wrist in one hand, pinned back against the metal; he’s got no leverage, nothing to work with, and the pain in his shoulder is building, blood soaking down his sleeve. He struggles futilely, and the vetala’s eyes flare with triumph. As she lowers her fangs, he knows she’s got no plans to leave survivors this time.

I did all right, you know, he thinks vaguely. He’s been in this spot so many times, over the years; done the life-before-your-eyes thing so often he’s bored of it, maybe stopped paying attention a little too soon. It’s not a bad way to go. Not a bad time.

He’s got his family here, someone to tell Sam what happened. He’s in his right mind, knows what he has and how lucky he was to get it. He isn’t leaving the world in some apocalyptic lurch. Isn’t headed to an unknown, unmarked grave; isn’t abandoning any of them without each other. Sam will be fine. Cas will be fine. He just wishes — wishes…

The hilt of Claire’s knife hits the vetala so hard that her head snaps back on her neck. She spins away, reeling — straight into Kaia’s arms.

They give her no time to recover. Kaia’s grip is strong on her shoulders, yanking her backward, heels scrabbling on the pavement. There’s a snarl on Claire’s face as she lunges forward, and her knife strikes true.

“You leave my family alone,” she breathes, leaning close as she twists the blade. The vetala chokes, gasps, and turns ashen, skin shriveling on her bones. Her eyes roll blindly to the blazing sky.

Dean’s ears are buzzing with blood loss, and he wants nothing more than to sink down onto the pavement, tip his head back, and breathe. Instead, he grips his shoulder, and staggers as he turns to look for Mom.

She’s right there across the convertible, pulling her knife from her own vetala and letting her desiccated body fall. She wipes the knife on her pants. Her nose is bloody and her sleeve is torn, but she doesn’t look concerned. “Hey, Dean,” she says.

Dean presses hard on the wound in his shoulder, and his stomach heaves with pain. “Hey, Mom,” he returns.

In the passenger seat of Mom’s car is an unfamiliar man. He has golden-brown skin and kinked black hair that he wears cut close to his scalp, and he looks to be in his late thirties. Behind rectangular glasses in black frames, his eyes are wide and staring. There’s blood splattered across the windshield in front of his face.

“Oh my God,” he says.

---

“Dean,” says Mom later, “meet Eamon. Eamon, my son Dean.”

She’s just finished stitching Dean’s shoulder, and he tests it warily. The bullet went straight through muscle, no bone; he’ll be in a sling for a while, but there’s no lasting damage.

“You really weren’t kidding,” Eamon says faintly. “About — any of it.”

“Nope,” agrees Mom.

“Mom,” says Dean, glancing between them. “Did you just — bring a civvie in on all this? Doesn’t that seem like a, uh — a bit much?”

“He’s not a civvie,” says Mom, at the same time as Eamon insists, “I’m not a civilian!”

“Okay,” Dean agrees slowly. “Then, uh. No offense, but you’re clearly not a hunter. So what are you?”

“I’m a researcher,” says Eamon, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I’ve become — extensively familiar with occult phenomena in the United States and their cultural origins, and while I keep the wilder details out of my published work, there’s certainly fertile ground for hunters to learn from scholars and vice versa.”

“I know,” says Dean, “my brother’s both.” He looks up at Mom, fighting a grin. “Found yourself a regular Men of Letters, huh?”

Mom seems unperturbed. “Eamon helped me with some info for a case. Then he asked me if I was a hunter. When I said yes, he told me he’d never gotten one to talk to him before, and asked me about five hundred questions.”

“In retrospect, I’m surprised she stuck around,” admits Eamon. “I was somewhat annoying.”

Mom looks at him fondly. “You were,” she says. Christ, Dean thinks.

“Anyway,” says Mom loudly, moving to wash Dean’s blood off her hands in the sink. “I figured, hiding what I do hasn’t worked out well for me in the past, and Eamon wanted to come on a hunt, so when Sam called —” She shrugs.

Dean eyes Eamon. “What do you think? Gonna drop everything and start hunting now?”

Eamon swallows. “I — may prefer to stay on the sidelines,” he admits.

They’ve holed up in the first motel they found to clean up. The AC barely works and the water tastes like sawdust, but Dean drinks a glass down gratefully anyway. His bullet hole was the worst injury, but Mom’s a little roughed up too, and for all that Eamon still seems fluttery with the aftershocks of the fight, he follows her instructions carefully as he cleans the cut on her arm. Claire and Kaia stayed back to deal with the cleanup in spite of Dean’s protests that he should take care of it himself, wound or no wound.

“You’re being sexist,” Kaia told him flatly, hands on both hips, and Dean was so taken aback that he failed to protest as Mom forced him into the passenger seat of his own damn car, hint of a smile on her lips, and slid behind the wheel.

Now, he glances at the two of them and slips back outside. It’s late afternoon and even more sweltering than it is in the motel room, January be damned, and Baby’s interior feels like an oven. He has to feel around under the seats to locate his substitute phone; he thinks it slid down there sometime on the dirt road. He turns it on to see four missed calls from Cas.

Dean swallows, and dials him back.

Cas doesn’t bother with any niceties. “What the fuck do you mean,” he snaps, “a vetala shot your phone?”

“Uh,” Dean answers.

“How exactly did a vetala get your phone? Did it shoot you?

“Not at the time,” Dean answers honestly.

Cas breathes an angry sound through his teeth. “What does that mean.”

Dean’s a little taken aback, but he explains, gives Cas the bare-bones outline of the last two days. Cas listens without interrupting, and when Dean’s done, he says, “Fine.”

“I’m, uh.” Dean glances up and down the parking lot. “Mom and Eamon asked if I wanted to come by San Bernardino, stay for a few days. I thought I might.”

“Okay,” says Cas.

Dean shifts uneasily on his feet. “You okay back there? How’s the, uh — how are the plants?”

“They’re fine. I’m fine.”

Well, there’s not much he can work with there. “Okay. I guess I’ll, uh, I’ll talk to you later,” Dean tries.

His only answer is Cas disconnecting the call.

---

He picks up a new phone in San Bernardino, and texts Cas that he’s back on his regular number. He doesn’t get an answer, but he doesn’t really expect one.

Claire and Kaia stop by for a night and take off again, leaving Dean with Mom and Eamon for company. They live in a little ranch house up on a hill, far enough out of the city that there are horses on the yard next door, and they nose over the fence and let Dean scratch their foreheads when he brings them carrots. He spends a lot of time with the horses, honestly; he’s not quite sure how to interact with Mom or Eamon just now.

Eamon’s a good guy. He’s smart, and he’s damned good-looking; Dean can see why Mom’s interested. At least from that angle. The others are a little weirder to think about, so most of the time, Dean doesn’t.

Cas calls late on his third night there. It’s after eleven, and the half-moon is heavy over the ridgeline behind the house, throwing its scattered oak trees into silhouette. Dean’s alone on the porch swing, Mom and Eamon already departed for bed, and he rocks it idly as he finishes his margarita, in no particular rush to be done.

He’s not particularly sure how to answer Cas, after last time, but he’s also a little drunk and not too fussed about it, so he just lifts the phone to his ear and says, “Hey,” just like normal, and waits for Cas’s reply.

“Dean,” says Cas, and there’s warmth in it, but trepidation too. “I wanted to apologize for the last time we talked. I was having a bad day, and I — well, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to be rude to you. How’s your shoulder?”

Dean rolls it gingerly. “All right. How are you?” He can’t help his concern; Cas has been so odd. I miss you, he almost says, but holds it back.

Cas sighs. “I’m all right. I’m — sorry, again.”

Dean takes another sip of his drink and looks up at the moon; it seems to be regarding him back. He considers for a moment, then asks, quietly, “What’s up, Cas?”

His instinct is to keep talking, lay out all the ways Cas has been weird lately, but he doesn’t think that will work. Instead he just waits, and Cas waits too, silent, until Dean thinks maybe he’s only made another mistake.

“I — last hunt we were on,” says Cas softly, “last real hunt, I mean, you were almost pushed off a cliff by a woman in white. And I —” He laughs. “I know you’ve been doing this your whole life, and I know how much danger you’ve faced. And there’s not even anything big right now, just the everyday hunts, but —” He stops short, and for a moment Dean can’t even hear his breath on the other end of the call. He’s about to say his name, probing, when Cas continues, “I can’t stop thinking, what if something happened to you on one of those everyday hunts, and I wasn’t there. And what if I was, and couldn’t help —”

“Cas,” says Dean, sitting forward on the swing. “Cas, it’s all right. I’m just fine.”

“You were shot,” Cas reminds him.

Dean doesn’t really have an answer for that. He was; it’s part of the job, and he got lucky, this time. Like he’s gotten lucky so many times before. He’s also gotten unlucky, though, and he knows that; knows just how quickly you can be gone. Dean’s never been one to take divine intervention for granted, and he gets it if Cas — Cas, who raised him from hell, who’s saved his life so many times, whose powers have just about never been weaker — takes it even less.

He doesn’t know how to say any of that. He’s saved from trying when Cas asks, lightly, “What do you think of your mother’s new partner?”

Dean shoots a glance behind him; he’s still alone. “He’s good,” he answers cautiously. “I mean, he’s great. He just seems — I don’t know. Young.”

Cas is silent for a minute, as if he’s waiting for Dean to continue. Or — not waiting, really, just giving him the space for it. If he wants to. When he doesn’t, Cas says, as if picking right up from what they were saying, “You must have driven through the Mojave Desert.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Weird place. Kept seeing all these crazy cactus-looking tree things.”

“Joshua trees,” Cas agrees happily. “You know, it rained twice in Death Valley this October.”

Death Valley; that’s not that far north of the interstate, Dean remembers seeing a sign. More desert. “Yeah? That a lot?”

“Very much so. The flowers should grow this year. They don’t, often, but when they do, it’s something see. Your newspapers call it a superbloom.”

“Yeah?” Dean rolls his neck back on the swing. “When do they come up?”

Cas smiles. Dean can’t see it, but he knows it anyway; knows the sound of a smile in his friend’s voice. Cas says, “Soon.”

---

Dean doesn’t tell Cas he’s going. He doesn’t tell anyone, actually, and it’s odd to realize how long it’s been since he’s done that — just him and the Impala, pointed their own way, no copilot, no check-ins, no GPSed phone. (He still means to give Sam hell for that, when he gets the chance.)

The way north takes him through more groves of Joshua trees, past mountains that rear high enough to be crowned in forest that looks as far away as another world. The valley floors remain flat and white and alien, fringed by immense gravel fans where canyons spill out of the hills. Some are gray and some are tan and some are almost red, the same as the mountains they come from, but when he crosses the pass and starts descending into Death Valley — the lowest place, the hottest place in the whole entire country — he sees the first gravel fan that’s gold.

It’s the flowers, of course. It’s not like that, where he is — yeah, there are small purple blossoms in the roadside ditches, but nothing on the sea of yellow below. As he descends closer, he can make out more and more.

Tourists’ cars are pulled off everywhere on the side of the road. It traverses the toe of the fan, arcing gently around its margin; off to the right, nothing grows in the dazzling salt flat. But on the left, the desert is transformed.

The flowers are up to his knee or higher, growing on spindly, branching stems that blow frantically in the wind. They look almost like they could pull up their roots and walk, if they wanted to. He wades through them, turning on his heel to gaze around; all around him is yellow, but a few white flowers stand higher than the rest, bobbing even more crazily on their stems. Every here and there is a round pink globe of a blossom, petals cupped like they’re hiding a secret. When he looks inside, each bears a brilliant red spot, ringing the flower’s center.

There are tourists everywhere. None in Dean’s own space, but he still feels compelled to keep moving, to get away. He walks upslope, trying not to step on any plants, surprised to find it as tiring as it is, and thinks of what Cas said about his prairie; how once the grass came up to the horses’ chests.

There are different flowers at the canyon mouth. Small white ones that look like daisies, and more of the purple ones he saw from the road, unfurling on stems that curl like the neck of a violin. There are large orange-red ones that hang heavy on a bush by the canyon wall, and tiny pink painted ones like the faces of clowns. Dean takes pictures on his new phone, or tries to; none of them seem quite to show how it looks in his own eyes.

He can’t spare too much time for this; he needs to be back on the road. Still, he returns to his car slowly, attention drawn at every step by a thousand tiny things, and he wonders if this is how it feels to be Cas, anytime, everywhere.

He takes one last picture when he’s nearing the road, crouches down to catch the landscape’s blanket of yellow. You can see the Impala beyond it, black and gleaming, with the road rolled out before her; behind her, white salt flat, blue mountains.

He keeps looking at it as he drives, turning the face of his phone to sneak quick glances and see if it’s still as breathtaking as he thought. It is. It doesn’t stop him looking.

That’s the picture he texts to Cas, when he makes his motel that night. Then he turns his phone facedown on the nightstand and rolls the other way, and forces himself not to stay awake waiting for an answer.

Chapter Text

When Dean pulls up to the bunker, Cas and Elizabeth are out front, scrubbing at some fresh graffiti on the door.

They get that, from time to time; local kids who think the power plant’s just a perfect canvas for their “art.” Dean doesn’t really mind, and some of it’s actually pretty cool-looking, except when it’s on their goddamn front door. He’s never been able to stop himself from cleaning it off, even knowing that it would be better camouflage to leave it as it is.

Sometimes he thinks the people of Lebanon might already view him as some crazy old caretaker for this place. Fucking Boo Radley or whatever. Even if he is, Cas has clearly embraced the role too. He turns at the sound of Dean’s engine, face breaking out in a dazzling smile. There’s a smudge of pink paint on his cheek, and his hands are soapy, but he comes up the stairs to embrace Dean anyway.

Folded carefully in Cas’s arms — his shoulder’s still not at a hundred, and Cas clearly hasn’t forgotten — Dean can’t quite fight off his smile, even as he rolls his eyes. “All right,” he says, “all right. Hey, Elizabeth.”

“Dean,” she says, “welcome home.” She hugs him too, more briefly, and kisses his cheek. “There’s sandwiches inside, if you want one.”

He parks the Impala in the garage and grabs a sandwich before rejoining them outside. It’s good, loaded with some kind of Cuban-spiced meat and pickled onions and pepperoncini, and when he says as much, Elizabeth blushes and answers, “I’m kind of a sandwich nut. I’m glad you like it.”

Dean takes another bite and studies the graffiti. “You guys are gonna be at this a while with soap and water,” he points out. “Didn’t you find the power washer?”

It’s kind of his pride and joy; outside the Impala, anyway. Sam made fun of him for days after he bought it, but he shut up when the bathroom tiles were suddenly two shades brighter than ever before. Dean takes the last bite of his sandwich, licks mayo off his thumb, and heads back to the garage to track it down.

It doesn’t take too long for the three of them to get things cleaned up. It’s a bright, sunny day, warm for winter in Kansas, though still far chillier than the desert. They sit outside for a bit to catch up, until Dean asks after the welwitschia — he hasn’t named it yet — and Elizabeth jumps to her feet and says it’s doing much better, won’t he come and see.

Dean can’t honestly detect much of a difference, but he’ll take Cas and Elizabeth’s word for it. They’ve moved it, along with a few more plants, into the bathroom, and Jack’s star is in there now, too, floating against the ceiling in one corner like a forgotten balloon. Dean reaches out, curious, to touch it, and finds that he can’t really feel anything solid, just a tingling electricity in his fingers that subsides when he releases it again.

Elizabeth leaves not long after, citing the drive back to Lawrence. There are some signs that she’s been around the kitchen, sandwich makings but also things put back in places they don’t usually go, and Dean wonders how much she’s been around; if there’s been any change in the status of Elizabeth and Cas.

He remembers, if a little hazily, her telling him at Christmas that there’s nothing between them. He’s thought about it rather a lot, actually, and he thinks he might believe her — but that’s not to say there isn’t going to be. Cas is still pretty new at this, after all. As far as Dean can tell, his handful of previous conquests have more or less thrown themselves at him, and Elizabeth seems a little more reserved. Besides, she’s been dealing with a lot. It only stands to reason that it’d take them both some time to sort their situation out.

He studies Cas, who’s washing the dishes now, having insisted that Dean rest his shoulder and that they’re not his dishes, anyway. He’s looking a little threadbare — weary lines etched into his  skin, dark shadows under his eyes — but it doesn’t make that much of a difference. He’s an attractive guy. Elizabeth would have to be blind if she’s not looking, too.

Dean’s hit without warning by a surge of miserable loneliness. It goes straight to his gut, so sudden and blinding that he sucks in a breath, blinking at the intensity of it. It’s just that — Sam’s got Jody, now, and Cas has Elizabeth, or he will, and hell, even Mom has Eamon. And Dean’s never really wanted anything like that, certainly not since Lisa; hasn’t looked for it in a long, long time. But now, suddenly at home again, with Cas washing the damn dishes —

He always used to think it wouldn’t matter. He’s a hunter; there’s only one way that ends. Go down bloody. Go down swinging. But — fuck, he’s in his goddamn forties now, and he’s been chasing that blaze of glory his whole life. He remembers what that one vetala said: It was coming sooner or later. He’s always lived like that, embraced the inevitability of his own end, only… he’s got something, now. He’s got family, and a home, and he’s found his measure of peace. He’s still a hunter, he’ll never not be a hunter, but — he’s not ready to turn his back on all the other stuff. On living. Not yet, not yet.

If Cas notices his sudden mood, he doesn’t comment, and Dean’s grateful for it. He sort of hopes it’ll be gone in the morning, but it isn’t. It persists all through that day, and the next, too, Dean just walking around like he’s nothing but a vessel for his own personal pit of misery. His jaw is tight and his back is tense and he keeps looking down to find his fingernails digging half-moons in his palm, and every time he thinks of Sam, or Elizabeth, or Mom, his blood just pounds this angry rhythm of Why not me? Why not me?

It’s at a point where it’s getting fucking ridiculous when, that Saturday, he throws up his hands and makes the drive to Hastings.

He doesn’t really have a plan. If he does, he’d never confess it to anyone, but it’s a jacked plan anyway because he drives down Main Street past all the bars where you could feasibly go to Meet People and hates each one more than the last, and he winds up at the strip club at the edge of town anyway, because Dean Winchester is nothing if not a self-sabotaging piece of shit.

That’s honestly not even it. Dean gets along with strippers; he likes people who do what they do and call it what it is and aren’t ashamed to admit it. He’s never felt particularly exploitative about the whole thing, for all that he’s joked about dates that end when you run out of singles. He even had a couple — well, not relationships , really, with strippers, only yeah, that’s pretty much what they were. They were cool chicks; these ones probably are too.

He sits at the bar and watches the dancers from a distance. The bartender gives him a slow smile when she takes his order, but after that she seems to realize he’d rather be left alone, which, isn’t that pathetic? He came out here for the express purpose of not being left alone, and here he is, so obvious even the people he’s tipping know to give him space.

He toys with his phone, flicking between screens. He hasn’t downloaded a dating app on this one, hasn’t even used one since that whole situation with the demon-run prostitution ring, which sort of puts you off the concept for good. Maybe that’s what you have to do now, though. Maybe he should just fucking suck it up and act like a normal person, fill out his profile or whatever, see what happens. That’s got to be what real people who don’t want to sit around bumming out their friends for the rest of their given lives do.

He looks down the list of questions. About me, hobbies, occupation. What the fuck can he say? I’m technically unemployed. I live in an underground bunker with a bathroom full of plants and a broken angel. All my money comes from some seriously shady off-shore accounts belonging to a defunct secret society, and occasionally from hustling pool. I hunt monsters.

This is stupid; this is all so fucking stupid. Dean leaves a twenty to cover his tab and points his wheel back to Lebanon.

---

The itch under his skin hasn’t subsided an hour later, when he rolls into town, and suddenly the idea of being back in the bunker, under the lights of the library and Cas’s incessant, too-understanding stares, seems just fucking intolerable. It’s not even late, so he goes to Donnie’s instead, slides into his customary stool at the end of the bar and toys with a coaster while he waits.

Donnie finishes with the couple a few seats down and slides an El Sol to him without even asking. “What’s up with your shoulder?” he asks.

Dean almost laughs. He’s not wearing a sling anymore, and he doesn’t think it’s that obvious, but these injuries come with their ripple effects; the way he holds himself, the way he moves. Donnie was an army medic, in Iraq. He’d know.

“Bullet hole,” Dean admits. “I was being stupid. Thanks.”

Donnie raises his eyebrows like he knows better than to ask what kind of stupid puts a bullet through your shoulder, which is fair. That’s one of the things Dean likes about Donnie, that he knows when to leave well enough alone. And he saw some shit, back when Dean was wrestling with the Mark of Cain. Dean’s pretty sure he doesn’t remember Rowena’s attack, but even so — Donnie notices a hell of a lot more than he usually lets on.

There was one day at the bar, Dean staring down at his steak knife, smooth and bright and mesmerizing, trying to break free of its snare on his conscious mind. Donnie just put down his beer with a clunk and said, “For me it was heroin.” Didn’t even flinch when Dean dropped the knife with a clatter, just cocked his head and added, “Y’know. If you ever want to talk.”

Dean didn’t, obviously — you can’t exactly tell people you’re addicted to killing without raising some serious red flags — but Donnie never pressed him on it, either, and maybe that’s what’s got Dean saying now, “I’ll take a whiskey, too,” and, “you ever feel like life’s just fucking passed you by?”

“I think a lotta military guys feel that way,” Donnie answers. He’s always seemed to assume that Dean was something along those lines, special ops or something. He’s never asked outright, and Dean’s never contradicted him. “Sure.”

“I mean,” Dean plunges along, since apparently he’s doing this, “everyone else in my — everyone else I’ve got, they’re all shacking up, settling down. It’s been a long fucking time coming, but now it’s here, and I’m just the — one guy who hasn’t. Who probably never will, though they’re all too polite to say it. And I just —” He sighs heavily, bringing himself under control. “You got a girl, Donnie?”

He already knows the answer, though he’s not really sure how. Regardless, it doesn’t come as a surprise when Donnie smiles thinly and answers, “Nah, no girl.”

“Say you wanted one,” Dean forges on. “How do you — would you do the fucking dating app thing? Doesn’t it make you want to put a gun in your mouth? How do you even meet women, these days?”

There’s a subtle shift in the air around the bar. Donnie’s watching him like he’s deciding something, arms crossed and gaze sharp. Dean tilts his head in invitation: Go on, say it.

“Actually,” says Donnie, “I’m more into dudes.”

He lays the words down deliberately, like he’s placing a bomb on the bar between them, then standing back to see what Dean will do. His eyes flash with warning, jaw set, and Dean feels his own mouth drop open in surprise. He shuts it as quick as he can, but he’s already lost his chance, can see Donnie shifting into easier reach of the shotgun under the bar, see his face shuttering as he asks, “That a problem for you?”

“No,” says Dean, still staring. “No, it’s — really not.”

He hadn’t even thought about that.

It’s been a long fucking time since Dean had sex with a guy. And that’s what it always was, a sex thing; the reasons might’ve varied, but yeah, he’s been into guys, it’s not like it was a fucking chore. He sort of figured that by the time his jaw squared up and his shoulders muscled out and the lines of his face hardened, no one would really be interested in him anymore, that way, and — it’s not like he’s had the time to find out. What was he supposed to do? Hey Sammy, have a fun night with your research, I’m gonna go scope out the local gay bar and find out if anyone still wants me to blow them?

He knows, intellectually, that it’s not just sex. That gay couples are a thing — Cesar and Jesse, say, from that hunt in Gunnison. There was that time he got all turned around by Aaron Bass, and there have been other — well, moments. When he’s thought about it. It’s just always seemed like something outside of his life, like how beaches and babies and gym memberships are outside his life. Those are for other people, not Dean Winchester.

But — say, for a moment, it wasn’t. He studies Donnie. He’s tall and lean, got a slightly crooked nose and sandy stubble on his jaw and nice eyes, and he’s no Cas, but he’s all right. More than all right. He lives in Dean’s hometown, knows Dean, likes Dean, has shit in common with him and stuff to talk about and yeah, maybe he doesn’t know all the details of Dean’s life, but he’s a hell of a lot closer to getting it than most civilians.

If Dean fucked it up, he’d have to find a new bar.

Donnie coughs, and Dean realizes just how blatantly he’s been appraising him. He flushes and looks away, face sliding into an automatic grin like he can put this off with a joke, but that’s not actually what he wants to do. He looks back at Donnie, sidelong, anxiety twisting in his chest.

“Dean, uh.” Donnie’s looking at him with something in his expression Dean’s never seen on him before, and his eyes are flicking over Dean’s face, his mouth. “If you’re — shit.”

“I might be,” Dean says, as evenly as he can.

“Shit,” says Donnie again, and runs a hand through his hair, glancing nervously down the bar. No one else is waiting for his attention, though, the one other couple utterly absorbed in one another. “Look, I — I would be very into that, if I thought I was in any way your first choice.”

Dean frowns. He opens his mouth, shuts it.

“Jesus,” says Donnie. He laughs and shakes his head, letting it drop. “I’m an idiot. I can’t believe you’re — Dean fucking Winchester is sitting at my bar looking at me like that, and I’m turning him down. Do you want my honest opinion?”

Christ. Dean drains his whiskey glass. “Why not?”

“All right. And you better pay attention,” says Donnie, collecting himself, “‘cause this is the most sympathetic-bartender advice I’m ever going to give. I think that you’re bad at meeting people because you don’t want to meet people. Maybe you’re pretty happy with the life you’ve already got. Or maybe you know what you want but not how to get it — I don’t know, man. I just think — whether it’s me or some chick, no one’s gonna really get your attention who doesn’t already have it.” He breathes out a shaky laugh. “And I can’t believe I just said any of that shit. Round of whiskeys on the house.”

His hand wavers a little as he pours, and Dean toasts him with a lopsided smile. “To rejection.”

“Amen to that,” says Donnie, shaking his head, and drains his glass in one long swallow.

---

When he gets home, Dean pours himself another drink, because if he’s going to get trashed over being a lonely, sad old fuck, he might as well do it properly.

Cas discovers him when he’s on his third, and blinks at him from the threshold of the library before stepping inside. “Dean,” he says, his voice warm with worry. “What’s wrong?”

Dean should be the one who’s worried. Cas looks like shit, like someone rubbed charcoal in all the lines of his face and forgot to wipe it off. “Nothing,” he mumbles.

Cas slides into the chair across from him. He studies the bourbon bottle, turning it to read the label, but doesn’t drink. He doesn’t speak, either, just sits there until Dean lets out an angry sigh and says, “I guess this hunt just — got me to a point, you know?”

“What kind of a point?” asks Cas, and Dean sort of hates him for it, for asking the logical fucking question that Dean really, really doesn’t want to answer.

“I don’t know,” he rasps, reaching for more whiskey. Cas looks for a moment like he’d like to jerk it away, but he doesn’t, just watches Dean pour it into his glass. “I guess just — seeing Mom with Eamon, and all that, and then you’ve got Elizabeth now —”

Cas’s face does something funny. Or maybe it’s just that Dean’s drunk. “Dean,” he says carefully, “I don’t have Elizabeth. Not like that. She’s a friend.” He’s looking at Dean like he wants to say something else, do something else, but he doesn’t, just keeps watching and finally asks, “Will you tell me about Eamon?”

Dean shrugs. He’s vaguely aware that he’s acting like a pouty kid, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. “What’s there to tell? He’s just some university guy, doesn’t know anything about anything, and Mom fusses over him like he’s her —”

He stops himself there, but Cas’s eyebrows are already drawing together in sympathy. “It must be hard,” he says gently, “to see her give someone else the kind of care and affection that she never offered to you.”

“Yeah, well.” Dean shoves his chair back, abruptly disinterested in the rest of his drink. “What am I gonna do, cry about it?”

Cas looks up at him as he stands, face open and caring, and Dean feels suddenly like the giant asshole he is. “‘M sorry, Cas,” he mumbles. “I’m being a dick. You don’t deserve to deal with this shit.”

“Dean,” says Cas. He rises, and reaches for him.

Dean steps away. He’s sick of Cas seeing him like this; sick of being this maudlin fucking drunk. “I’m gonna — go shower, okay? I, uh.” He shakes his head, as much to clear it as anything. “Thanks, Cas. You’re great. I just…”

He shakes his head again, and goes. He can feel Cas’s eyes on him all the way across the war room, until he disappears down the corridor beyond.

---

The hot water feels good on his back, and Dean closes his eyes, breathing in steam. It’s still a little weird to shower with a room full of plants, kind of feels like they’re watching him, but he’s gotten over it, mostly. He hadn’t realized, until now, just how tense he’s been — lines of iron in his back, his neck. They relax incrementally under the spray, and he groans, tipping his head back to let the water run through his hair.

Fucking Donnie. Jesus. Dean hasn’t thought about that kind of shit in a long time, but now that he’s started, it’s hard to stop. What if that had gone differently? He imagines Donnie — no, he wouldn’t do anything right at the bar, this is rural fucking Kansas, you’d have to be suicidal — but tilting his chin, maybe, back toward the kitchen. Dean following him, crowding him, and Donnie’s hands on his hips, leaning back on his counter, drawing Dean in — this fantasy does not meet the standards of the Kansas Food Safety Board, but that’s okay —

Dean trails a hand down over his belly to his cock. It’s already half hard, and it only takes a few strokes to get it the rest of the way there. He sighs and burrows into the pleasure, building it slow, while in his head Donnie strips off his shirt and pushes him down to his knees, reaching for the button on his own jeans, undoing it with long fingers, inches away from Dean’s face —

And that image sends a spike of arousal through Dean that almost makes him gasp. He wets his lips, thrusting harder into his hand now, and reaches experimentally around with his free hand. He hasn’t fingered himself in a long time, isn’t even sure if he can manage it with the angle and his injured shoulder, but fuck, fuck, he’s gotta try.

There’s an ear-splitting bang, and Dean’s eyes fly open just as he loses his balance and slips on the tile floor. His legs fly out from under him and he lands hard on his ass, shielding his head at the last second from cracking against the wall.

Cas’s metal chair has flown across the room, and landed on the floor beside him. There’s a cracked tile where it hit the wall. A few feet to the left, and it would have struck Dean instead.

Across the room, standing out of the pot of the Norfolk Island pine, his figure half merged with its branches, is a ghost. He’s just a kid, nineteen maybe, with dark hair that curls around his ears and a pointed nose and chin, and he’s scowling at Dean with tears in his eyes, he’s crying. He casts around for something else to throw, and then Robert Plant is sailing through the air, right at Dean’s head.

He ducks, and the pot cracks as it hits the wall, showering him in dirt and leaves. And then the bathroom door bangs open and Cas is there, shouting, “Dean? Dean!

He sees him on the floor and is there in two strides, heedless of the still-running shower. Then he’s grabbing Dean’s shoulders and hauling him up. His feet scrabble briefly against the tile as Cas pulls him to safety, diving out into the hallway as another pot shatters against the wall, and the bathroom door bangs loudly shut behind them.

For a moment, they just stare at each other, in their pile on the floor. Cas with dripping hair and his shirt plastered to his shoulders, Dean ass-naked and soaking wet, flecked everywhere with potting soil and thankfully — very thankfully — no longer remotely hard.

It’s all too fucking ridiculous. “I think David Allan Coe is haunted,” says Dean, and he throws back his head and he laughs.

---

Dean thinks they need to burn the tree. Cas pinches his mouth into a tight little line and doesn’t say anything at all.

“Look,” Dean says reasonably. He’s dressed again, and still a little more drunk than he’d like to be when dealing with a ghost that apparently really hates watching him jerk off, but what’s his other option, just let it tear his bathroom apart? “I know you care about the plant, Cas; believe me, I do. But we have to do something, and it seems pretty clear what it’s attached itself to, so —”

Cas closes his eyes. “It’s not my plant,” he says. “Let me talk to Elizabeth.”

She picks up her phone, even though it’s after midnight, and Dean thinks Cas might step out to talk to her privately, but he puts her on speaker instead. “Elizabeth,” he says heavily, and Dean chimes in, “Hey, Elizabeth,” and waits for Cas to explain the situation.

Elizabeth listens carefully, apparently not bothered by being called up about a ghost plant in the middle of the night. “And you’ve never seen him before?” she asks, fascinated. “This is the first time?”

Dean would think as someone who was nearly killed by the ghost of her own mother, Elizabeth would be a little more freaked out about the whole thing, but apparently after that you’re pretty unflappable. “Never,” he confirms. “He was standing right in the pot, like he and the tree were the same. Mousy-looking kid, couldn’t’ve been twenty. Old-fashioned clothes,” he adds, remembering them for the first time. “You know, puffy sleeves and shit.”

“Hm.” Elizabeth is quiet for a moment. “Isn’t it strange, that he would react like this, so suddenly? The plant’s been in your shower for months, hasn’t it? Was anything different this time?”

Dean coughs, and turns red. Cas looks up at him sharply. Ears burning, he admits, “I might’ve been, well — you know.”

“I see,” says Elizabeth. “And you don’t usually?”

This is the most humiliating night of his life. Dean shrugs, not daring to look at Cas. But Elizabeth can’t see him, so he forces himself to say, “I guess not.”

“Interesting,” says Elizabeth. “Can I talk to him?”

“Who — the ghost?” Dean frowns, momentarily distracted from his own embarrassment. “Do you honestly think that will help?”

She sighs. “I don’t know. I just — if he’s really attached to that pine, then I’ve had him in my care for years. And he’s never done anything. If — you have my permission to burn it, I guess, if that’s what you need to do. But let me talk to him first?”

“All right,” says Dean skeptically. “You’re really going to drive all the way out here to do that?”

Elizabeth laughs. “I think speakerphone should be fine.”

---

Per Elizabeth’s instructions, they put her on speaker, slide the phone into the bathroom, and leave her be.

They give her half an hour. When Dean goes to retrieve the phone, the bathroom is quiet. He still moves cautiously, retreating the moment he’s swiped it up from the floor. 

“Well?” he asks, back at the kitchen table. He took advantage of the interval of quiet to make a pot of coffee, and he sips it now, feeling steadier than before.

“It’s pretty horrible,” says Elizabeth. She sounds drained, and sad. “He was a convict on Norfolk Island — it was a penal colony, far off the coast of Australia, in the nineteenth century. It was supposed to be where they sent the very worst criminals, but a lot of petty thieves got shipped there too, like Richard.”

“So his name isn’t really David,” Dean says, with a twinge of disappointment.

“No,” says Elizabeth, “it’s Richard Dwight. Dean, he — he was gay. They murdered him for being gay, the other convicts, and buried his body on the island. Eventually a tree grew there, and a seed from that tree grew this tree, but that’s — they killed him for being gay. That’s why you upset him.” She sounds close to tears.

Jesus. This is just Dean’s fucking luck. “So, would burning the tree even work? If the body was never burned. Are there just other trees out there that he’d jump to instead, if we did?”

“He’s not sure,” says Elizabeth, “but he thinks there might be.”

“Great,” mutters Dean. “Just fucking great.”

“He wants to go,” says Elizabeth softly. “He says he doesn’t want to be a ghost anymore.”

Dean frowns. “Well — perfect. Can’t he just — y’know?”

“He says he doesn’t know how. I think he’s afraid.”

Dean sighs. “All right. We’ll figure something out. Thanks, Elizabeth.”

“Call if you need me,” she says, “and burn the tree if you have to. But — thanks for giving me the chance.”

---

When he hangs up the phone, Dean scrubs a hand over his face. “You know any ways of helping ghosts move on without burning the bones?” he asks.

“The Men of Letters might,” Cas ventures. “We could look through the archives.”

Dean sighs. “Cas, the archives are — do you have any idea how much info is built up in here? It’s not organized.”

“Maybe Sam’s found something,” Cas offers, massaging his forehead with both hands. Dean can’t see his face behind them, and that distracts him for a minute, so he startles when Cas looks up.

“Yeah,” he says, “yeah, maybe. I’ll give him a call.”

Sam answers in spite of the hour, because he’s a far better brother than Dean deserves, though he sounds completely exhausted.

“Hey, man,” says Dean, pacing across the war room, “sorry to wake you up.”

“Nah, you’re okay,” Sam answers groggily. “I actually just —” he yawns hugely — “finished working with Patience on something, we ran pretty late. What’s up?”

Dean asks him if he’s seen any rituals for banishing ghosts, and Sam thinks and admits that nothing comes to mind. “I can start looking, though. I bet there’s something somewhere.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean says. “You’re beat. Get some rest, we’ve got this. Just wanted to check if there was a shortcut in that big brain of yours.”

“All right.” Sam yawns again. He sounds even more tired than Cas looks. “Let me know if you’re still stuck in the morning.”

“Will do. Sleep well, bitch.”

“Jerk,” Sam responds, but there’s a smile in his voice when he hangs up.

Dean tucks his phone back in his pocket and turns to Cas. He’s already got a file out of the shelves and is leafing through pages, though his eyes have a bit of a glazed look to them. “Well,” says Dean. “Coffee’s up. Looks like we’re in for a long night of reading.”

---

They find the ritual around 6:30 in the morning.

Dean’s nearly dozed off about five times, and he didn’t actually get any drool on irreplaceable, handwritten Men of Letters documents, but it was a near thing. Cas looks like he’s even worse for the wear, but he’s never faltered, just keeps turning page after page until finally he says, in a wooden voice, “I’ve got it.”

It’s actually fairly simple. Greek incantation, silver vessel, draw a few symbols in lamb’s blood on the floor, and it might be weird, but yeah, Dean totally has some lamb’s blood in the freezer. Aside from that, they need a couple herbs Dean has in his kit and one he’s never heard of but is apparently growing in Cas’s bedroom, and something the text calls agape.

“Agape?” says Dean. “Like, when you’re gaping at something?”

“Ah-guh-pay,” Cas corrects him. “It’s Greek. It means… family. The family you choose. Our blood should work.”

Dean’s the one who knocks on the bathroom door. “Richard?” he says, inching past it.

A pot instantly flies at him, and he ducks behind the door to let it smash. “Whoa, whoa, hey,” he says. “Hold up there. We’re friends of Elizabeth’s. Remember her? She talked to you on the phone. We want to help you.”

When he opens the door wider, there’s carnage everywhere, pots and plants dashed against every wall, and the welwitschia is floating in the middle of the room, apparently arrested mid-flight. Richard is standing in his own pot, arms folded tight around him, and this time Dean can see the horrible wound on his head, like a dent in his skull. “No one can help me,” he says. “I’m stuck this way.”

“Elizabeth says you want to move on,” Dean says, inching the door open further. From behind him, Cas gets a glimpse of the carnage, of the floating welwitschia, and gasps. “To stop being a ghost.”

“Yes, but I CAN’T,” says Richard, pulling at his hair. “Tell her I don’t know how, tell her it’s too — it’s too —”

The welwitschia’s pot is circling now, spinning faster in the air, leaves belling out like a skirt. Dean raises his hands higher and says, “Hey, hey, whoa. It’s all right. We found a way to help you, okay? You just have to trust us. Can you do that, Richard?”

A lock of hair falls across his eyes when he looks up at them, and Dean realizes it’s damp with blood. “Will it hurt?” he asks, and his voice sounds like that of a child.

Dean glances at Cas, unsure. He’s about to make something up, say it totally won’t, not at all, when Cas says, “You will feel yourself become one with divine light. There may be some pain, but it will feel as nothing beside the bliss. That tide will carry you to your personal heaven.”

He’s utterly straight-faced. Dean gives him a look. Cas looks back at him, and shrugs. “Reapers have to keep it a secret. I don’t.”

“All right, then.” Dean clears his throat. “What do you say, Richard? Ready to give it a whirl?”

It’s maybe not the best choice of words, given the spinning plant in the air between them. But gradually, it slows, and gently drops to a rest. “All right,” says the ghost of Richard Dwight.

---

The ritual, after that, is pretty easy.

There are a couple touch-and-go moments when Richard doesn’t like what they’re doing, but he always backs down, lets Dean finish drawing the symbols on the floor while Cas combines the herbs. It’s Cas who reads the incantation — Dean’s never really put in the effort with Greek — and they cut their palms and join their hands to let their blood drip onto the mixture in the silver bowl.

There’s a flash of light from the bowl, and an instant later, Richard gasps. When they turn to him, his whole body is suffused with light, blossoming out from within. He opens his mouth, and light pours out of it; the look on his face might be pain, but Dean would like to think it’s joy.

Then he’s gone. The star in the corner of the room is humming loudly, glowing a little brighter than before. After a moment, it seems to settle to its usual state.

“Well,” says Dean. “I guess that worked.”

Cas makes a fumbling noise of agreement. He looks even worse than before, and his attention’s not on Dean; he steps toward the welwitschia, shoulders tight with concern. He reaches out, bending over to lay his hand on its pot.

Instead, he leaves a bloody smear on the terracotta and topples headfirst to the floor.

---

“Cas? Cas!”

The table they used for the ritual gets in his way. By the time Dean’s around it and on his knees next to Cas, he’s already turning back over with a tiny groan. There’s a fresh cut on his forehead, and Dean reaches for it, cradles the back of Cas’s head against his thigh and dabs at the blood with his sleeve. “Jesus, dude, you scared me. You all right?”

“I’m fine,” Cas mumbles. His eyelids drift like he’s having a hard time keeping them open. With one arm, he tries to push himself up off the floor, but he misses his mark wildly, and his palm skates out from under his weight. Dean catches him, and Cas sags limply in his arms.

“No,” says Dean, “I’m pretty sure you’re not.” He pulls Cas close, rubbing absent circles on his back, the way he used to do for Sam, when he was just a little kid running a fever.

Cas doesn’t feel feverish, though. His face is turned against Dean’s good shoulder, and Dean can feel his breath feather across his neck. “Yeah,” he admits. “I’m… tired.”

Dean’s hand stills. Cas is tired; he could have told you that. Only —

Cas doesn’t get tired. Cas doesn’t sleep or eat or fail to heal Dean’s wounds, and he hasn’t even tried with the one in Dean’s shoulder, hasn’t said a single thing about it. Which Dean’s been ignoring because it would be fucking entitled of him to expect that, but — it’s not like Cas. It’s not at all like Cas.

“Tired like how?” he asks, pressing his palm flat to Cas’s back.

Cas turns his face tighter against Dean and mumbles, “Like I have to sleep.”

It’s so muffled by his flannel that Dean almost doesn’t catch it. And yeah, that gives him some disquiet, but it could honestly be worse; sleep is normal, lots of people sleep. “All right,” he says, “let’s get you to bed then.”

He thinks he might have to carry Cas, but Cas gets his feet under him when Dean lifts him up, stumbles against Dean’s shoulder but makes it down the corridor mostly bearing his own weight. The bed in his room is covered in plants and gardening equipment, and Dean props him carefully against the doorframe, watching to see if he’ll fall again, before going to move it all over to the floor.

When he finishes, there’s a little dirt on the bed, but nothing he can’t shake out as he draws back the sheets. “Come on, then,” he says, offering his hands to Cas. “Bed.”

He pulls off Cas’s boots for him once he’s sitting on the edge of the bed; that done, Cas seems to realize what’s called for and squirms himself under the covers. He’s still holding Dean’s hand as he does it, and his grip tightens when Dean starts to draw away.

“I’ll be right back,” Dean tells him. “Gotta get some stuff to clean your cuts, okay?”

Cas lets him, and Dean half expects him to be asleep by the time he gets back, but he’s not, just lying flat on his back and staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. He doesn’t flinch when Dean cleans his palm with alcohol, or even at the cut above his eye. Neither is deep enough to need stitching, so Dean bandages them both and then sees to his own hand.

Cas’s eyes are still open when he finishes, red-rimmed and miserable-looking. Dean hesitates. “Think you can get some rest?”

Cas makes a tiny, miserable sound in his throat, and closes his eyes only to open them again. “I don’t know,” he says.

Dean has no idea what his next move is. Leaving seems wrong, but he’s not sure what to do if he stays; not sure what’s wrong with Cas, not sure what Cas needs. He reaches for his hand again, the uninjured one, and Cas clutches at it like a lifeline, letting out a ragged breath.

Dean’s still searching for something to say, the right question to ask, when Cas says, “I haven’t, since the Empty.”

Understanding rushes like ice water through Dean’s veins. “Since Jack woke you up there.”

“Yes,” mumbles Cas. “And the — thing I met there, it wanted me to, it wanted me to so badly. It tormented me, and showed me things to make me feel despair, but it also — I don’t know. It felt like this, like all your limbs are heavy and your eyes don’t know how to stay open, and I knew if I gave in, I’d — be trapped there. And I’d never see you again.”

“I’ll be here,” says Dean. His mouth is incredibly dry. “I’ll be here, when you wake up.”

“I don’t know that,” Cas says, and it comes out as almost a sob.

When Dean was four years old and the world he knew went up in smoke, it took days before he managed to sleep again. He doesn’t remember much about that time, but he remembers that: sitting awake in the motel bed, fists clenched in the sheets, terrified and certain that if he fell asleep it would all happen again, the flames, Dad’s face: Take your brother outside as fast as you can. Now, Dean, go!

He remembers, also, thinking that if Mom had been there, she’d know what to do. That she’d hold his hand and sit beside him and tell him it would all be okay, that she’d stroke his hair until he fell asleep like that, sure, for the moment, that he was safe and loved. And he remembers watching Dad and wishing like an ache in his chest that Dad would do that — notice that Dean wasn’t sleeping. Come sit with him with gentle words and comfort until the coils of fear in his muscles could unwind, ease his son to sleep.

But Dad wasn’t sleeping, either, out half the night searching for answers or oblivion, and he never seemed to notice, even when Sammy spent the whole night screaming from his borrowed crib and Dean lay awake shaking in the motel bed, digging his nails into his palms, searching for words and a voice to comfort his baby brother and never finding either.

Eventually, he’d given up on Dad. The old crib their neighbor had loaned them wasn’t as big as the one at home, and Dean couldn’t climb into it with Sammy, but he got up one night with the baby crying and John away and pushed it with all his might across the floor to rest next to his bed. When he crawled back under the sheets, he could squirm his way down, pulling his pillow with him, until he could reach Sam’s little baby fist, flailing outside of the bars.

That’s how Dean slept that night, and many nights after, holding onto Sam’s tiny sticky hand, and it seemed to make Sam drift off easier, too. Dad never noticed, or if he did he never said anything, and that was when Dean learned that maybe parents weren’t always there to offer comfort, but that giving it yourself could help a little, too.

“Would it help,” he asks Cas, “if I sit with you?”

Cas opens his eyes. They look gummy and exhausted, blue irises even brighter against the red around them, and he seems to be studying Dean as if to be sure that he means it. He says, “It might.”

“All right,” says Dean, and settles back in his chair, reaching with his free hand to turn off the bedside light. He squeezes Cas’s hand with the other. “Then I’m here.”

The bunker is quiet. Somewhere outside, it’s morning, but the golden line of light under the door is the only indication that there’s any other world than this room. Several minutes pass before he feels Cas start to relax, grip loosening slightly on his hand, shoulders settling against his pillow. Then Cas’s other hand snakes out to find Dean’s, and pulls it to rest against his heart.

Three times, Dean feels Cas’s breath go slow and steady, his hands slackening with the onset of sleep. Each one, he lurches awake a moment later, heart hammering and fingers tight on Dean’s, and Dean just sits there feeling shittier and shittier about his inability to solve a goddamn thing. “Are you sure this is helping?” he asks, the third time. “Me being here, I mean?”

Cas doesn’t open his eyes. “It’s helping,” he says vaguely.

Dean shifts a little in his seat. His shoulders are starting to cramp, and he’s not exactly well rested himself. “Uh,” he says. “Would it be ok if I — lay next to you? It’s fine if it’s not. I’m not gonna leave.”

Cas doesn’t answer, but he releases Dean and scoots over, making room on the bed. Dean hesitates, then unlaces his own boots and slides onto the mattress, over the covers. They’re still warm from Cas’s body, and Dean turns on his side, keeping his limbs carefully in his own space. He reaches for Cas’s nearest hand, though, because he thinks that’s what Cas wants. Cas takes it, and the other one too, one in his hand and one against his heart, and sighs and settles down again.

That’s how Dean falls asleep, long before Cas’s restless shifting finally subsides. When he wakes up, though, some indeterminate time later, Cas is snoring gently beside him, body finally lax with sleep. Dean smiles, and drifts off again into dreams.

---

Cas sleeps for almost sixteen hours.

When Dean wakes up again, it’s early evening, and his head feels fuzzy, mouth dry and woollen. He frees himself gently from Cas, holding his breath as he slides off the bed, but Cas doesn’t stir.

Once he’s poured a glass of water down his throat and scrounged up food from the fridge, Dean attends to the business of cleaning up the bathroom. It’s a disaster in there, dirt and blood and pot fragments everywhere, but he takes care of it pretty well; the power washer helps.

The pine and the welwitschia are the only plants that survived the night unscathed. Dean finds Cas’s stash of old plastic pots and collects the plants strewn on the floor as best he can, tucking potting soil around them until they more or less stand upright; he figures Cas will do it again, better, anyway, but none of them look totally dead. He’s just standing back to admire his handiwork when he hears the scream.

When he bursts into Cas’s room, he’s sitting upright and shaking so hard it’s making the bedframe squeak. His hands are tangled in the covers, face sweaty and terrified, and Dean drops to his knees by the bed and says, “Hey, Cas, Cas, it’s okay, I’m here, you’re just fine, it was only a dream.” Cas grips both his hands and bows his head and just keeps shaking for long minutes, until Dean’s fingers are numb and his heart is a wretched lump of helpless misery in his throat.

He talks aimlessly, trying to bring Cas back to the present; tells him how he cleaned up the bathroom, how he thinks the plants are okay, but he’s sure he used the wrong soil and all the wrong pots. When Cas finally steadies, he swings his legs out of the bed and shuffles to the bathroom without speaking. Dean drifts behind him and watches as he crouches low, reaching to turn back leaves with a gentle hand, fingers probing soil.

Dean swallows, and gives him his space. He retreats to the kitchen with vague thoughts of cooking up some kind of breakfast or dinner, something Cas would like — what does Cas even like? Peanut butter and jelly, his brain supplies, and he shuts his eyes and thinks of the time when Cas was human, of his commentaries on emotions and molecules and sleep.

Jack, he thinks, keeping his eyes shut tight. Jack, I — Cas needs you, man. He’s falling apart and he’s scared to sleep and he needs to sleep and I don’t know how to fix it, and — would you just get here and help him? Please?

He waits for a moment like that, head bowed, both hands clenched on the edge of the sink, but he doesn’t get an answer. He doesn’t expect one.

Dean nods and stands upright, blinking back tears, and goes to find the sliced bread.

Chapter Text

Around four in the morning, Dean makes an excuse about being tired and retreats to his room.

It’s a lie. His internal clock is utterly fucked, and he’s not even remotely sleepy. But Cas isn’t talking, just trading sullen looks with the tabletop, and if Dean spends any more time sitting there with anxious inquiries he can’t express foaming up inside his throat, he’s going to choke.

Instead, he seals his headphones firmly over his ears and searches for the soundtrack to fit his mood. He can’t settle on anything, too restless to even be in the bunker, but there’s no way he’s leaving, not with Cas like this. He contemplates falling into the meditation of the firing range, but his mood is too jittery even for that, and besides, Cas thinks he’s asleep.

He winds up on Pink Floyd, as much out of the inability to think of anything better as conscious desire. Over the static fuzz of the intro to “Wish You Were Here,” he almost dismisses the new voice in his ears as just another radio effect.

Then he sits up straight. Dean? says the voice in his head. Dean!

Dean pulls off his headphones. “Jack?” he murmurs, glancing warily at his bedroom door.

Dean, I’m so sorry I missed you earlier. I was tied up in another cosmos.

“Right,” mutters Dean. “Of course. That’s — normal.”

I’m sorry, says Jack again. About Castiel. I’ll be there as soon as I can, but — it may be a couple days, on your timeline.

“Uh,” says Dean. “Yeah, okay. Uh. Could you always do the telepathic thing?”

I’ll see you soon, Dean.

The connection cuts off — Dean wasn’t aware of it until now, an odd absence of sound rather than the hum of a phone line. He shakes his head vigorously, as if there’s water in his ear.

A couple days. They can do a couple days. Then Jack will — fix this, and Dean can go back to worrying about normal things and not about this sensation that the entire world is spinning apart beneath his feet.

A couple days.

---

Jack arrives in the middle of a rainstorm.

The weather’s been unsettled all week, snow yesterday and downpour today, and it took him three days, not two. He knocks on the door like a civilized person, but it opens before Dean’s even half out of his seat.

“Dean,” he says, steam rising from the shoulders of his jacket as the rainwater evaporates. “I’m sorry I’m late. Where is Castiel?”

Cas has taken to locking himself in his room for long hours at a time, emerging only to eat and water the plants. Dean isn’t sure if he’s sleeping or not; Cas hasn’t asked for his company, and Dean hasn’t felt brave enough to offer, but the shadows under his eyes are heavy.

Dean, in turn, has taken to loitering in the kitchen with something on the stove, just in case Cas makes an appearance and can be persuaded to put something hot in his belly. It shouldn’t matter at all, but it’s all Dean can think of, and he sticks to it with a devotion that’s starting to sap his own reserves.

When Jack knocks on the door of Cas’s room, he actually waits for the answer. Cas pulls the door half open looking disheveled, eyes bloodshot and shirt rumpled, and his eyes slide between Jack and Dean before he pulls the door slightly wider and steps back to let Jack inside.

He’s still looking at Dean when Jack turns around, hand on the doorknob, to smile gently at him. In his tan jacket, he looks almost like a fresh-faced, well-groomed Cas. The real thing stares over his shoulder with a strange intensity in his blue eyes.

Dean swallows. Jack shuts the door.

---

He reemerges a few hours later and finds Dean, as usual, in the kitchen. He’s not cooking this time, just wiping down already gleaming counters, and he stills and turns at the sound of footsteps behind him.

“This is likely to take some time,” Jack says. “Days, possibly. I would suggest you get some rest.”

Dean tightens his grip on the counter and nods, feeling like a bobblehead doll. “Would it be — is there anything I can make, for him? Or you?”

Jack tilts his head, and crosses the room to the refrigerator. He opens the door on a solid wall of Tupperware: soups, stews, mac and cheese, meatloaf. Every comfort food Dean has been able to think of. He hasn’t had the stomach for much of it.

“I can heat these up,” says Jack. “Thank you.”

“Right,” says Dean.

Jack nods at him pleasantly, and half-turns before he stops to ask, “I might need some rest while I’m here. May I use my usual room?”

Dean stares hard at the tile. “Course,” he says, and his voice is only a little rough.

---

He gets some rest of his own, because Jack told him to, and is sort of ashamed at how quickly he drops off. He sleeps long and well, and when he wakes up, the bunker is quiet.

Dean checks and reorganizes the fridge. He reads a couple pages of a treatise in the library, and stares at the third page for a good half hour, unable to remember a single paragraph. He peruses Netflix. He checks all the plants, realizes he has no idea what he’s looking for, and doesn’t water any of them.

The door to Jack’s room is open, but his bed looks slept in. Dean paces up and down the hallway twice before pausing next to Cas’s door.

He’s not meaning to spy, he really isn’t. He just hears Cas grating out, “Just go ahead,” and then he can’t step away.

Jack’s voice, when he answers, has a rising pitch, the cadence of frustration, or maybe of fear. “You’re asking me to put you in danger,” he says. “You do know I don’t want to hurt you, right?”

Dean steps back. He shouldn’t be here.

His feet carry him blindly back to the kitchen, but he doesn’t want to be there, either. He stumbles on to the war room and stops, looking around desperately. He wants to throw something, to destroy something, to hurt. He has to — go.

He makes it out the front door before collapsing back against it, chest shaking and hands clenching into fists. It’s tacky with a fresh coat of graffiti. Dean jolts away again and walks, shoulders hunched.

He doesn’t know where he’s going, except that he does. His feet carry him around the south wall and on to the west, fingers trailing along the brick. It’s tagged over here, too; the kids have been busy.

The garden is brown and dismal-looking. The ground, at least, has dried out, or maybe it’s just frozen. Either way, Dean’s not boot-deep in mud.

He strides into it and keeps walking, wishing the grass were as tall as Cas once said. He wants to vanish, to just slip between the stems and be gone, nothing but wind-bleached leaves rustling around his face.

They’re nowhere near that high. Buffeted by wind and flattened by snow, the grass rolls in silver-brown waves across the ground. Stems of goldenrod stand out amongst it, the soft puffs of their seeds long gone. Everything is brown-branched and bare.

He makes it to somewhere near the middle before he sinks to his knees. The ground isn’t wholly frozen, after all; he can feel the damp seeping its way into his jeans. He’s still too tall. The sky yawns empty around him, dust blue and indifferent.

He can’t live in a world without Cas.

The thought hits him like a bird of prey, stooping out of the fearless sky and knocking the breath from his lungs. He can’t live in a world without Cas, without this ridiculous beautiful patch of weeds that all mean something to him now, without a bathroom full of plants worth bleeding for, without this sense that wherever he is, wherever he goes, it is richer for sharing an atmosphere with an angel wearing a trenchcoat and the brightest smile Dean thinks he’s maybe ever seen.

He doesn’t cry. After a few minutes, even his jagged breathing evens out, but he stays where he is. He feels strangely like the earth is spinning on an anchor that is his knees, that the curling stems of grass locked in each of his hands are the only reins he has to hold. He is fused to this earth, this sky. The chill worms its way under his jacket and through his ribs, and it feels like peace.

Cas isn’t going anywhere. He never has. Not for any reason short of Lucifer himself; even then, he fought his way out of the Empty, found his way back to Dean. A little sleep deprivation’s not going to take down Cas. Not even —

He won’t think about what he overheard.

He should go back inside. It’s cold out here; Dean might not care now, but he’ll regret it if he gets himself sick somehow, if he can’t take proper care of Cas. He can’t move.

The sun sets early, this time of year. Little fanfare — a few scattered clouds brighten gold and blue through the trees to the west, but it’s not much, just that and the shifting of the light on the grass. It looks ghostly in the gathering dusk, pale against the dark earth.

Dean goes in when he can no longer tell trees from sky, and meets Jack on the stairs.

His mouth is a tight, furious slash across his face. He doesn’t meet Dean’s eyes, just shoulders past him. “It’s done,” he says.

Dean halts on the staircase and turns to look up. Jack pauses for just an instant at the door.

“You should go help Castiel,” he says. “He’ll need it.”

Then he slips into the night and is gone.

---

Dean’s in such a rush to get to Cas’s room that he almost misses the light spilling out from the bathroom door. It’s half a foot ajar. Dean skids to a halt.

Cas is bent over the toilet, both arms wrapped around the bowl, legs splayed across the floor. His cheek is resting on the toilet seat.

He lifts his head at the sound of his name, and the relief makes Dean so dizzy his own knees almost cut out from under him on his way across the room. He stumbles through it and cradles Cas’s shoulders in one arm just in time for Cas to slump back against him. His face is pale and sweaty, eyes unfocused; they flick across Dean’s face with barely a glimmer of awareness.

Cas stirs feebly, struggling to bring his legs under him, and for a minute Dean thinks he’s trying to stand. “Whoa, buddy,” he murmurs, helping anyway with an easy hand, but Cas just pushes himself back against the wall and hugs his knees to his chest.

He drops his head between them, so Dean can’t see his face. After a moment of sitting there useless with his hand on Cas’s shoulder, Dean spares a glance for the toilet. There’s a mess of vomit inside it; stretching, he can just reach the handle to flush it away.

In the silence that the rushing water leaves behind, Cas mumbles, “Head feels like bees.”

Dean almost laughs. He hadn’t realized, until this instant, how terrified he was by Cas’s silence. The relief fades almost immediately, but he does his best to skate over the yawning fear it leaves behind. “That’ll happen,” he says gently, rubbing his thumb over Cas’s collarbone. “Think you can make it back to bed?”

“I’ll only throw up again,” says Cas. Then, more quietly, “I’m sick of bed.”

Dean’s instincts are to cajole him back to it anyway. Find a big metal bowl to keep there at the ready, and clean it whenever Cas needs him to. He’s been there with Sammy’s stomach bugs. But he thinks that Cas is maybe more like him than like Sam, that way — that if he wants to help him, he’s going to do it on Cas’s own terms or not at all.

“All right,” he says. “Anything I can get you? Water, pillow, Netflix?”

Cas shakes his head, but after a moment he concedes, “A pillow would be all right.”

Dean gets it, and a glass of water, too. Cas sips on it carefully, once he’s arranged the pillow behind his back, and shudders. He swishes some in his mouth and leans forward to spit into the toilet bowl, then settles back into position, head half-buried between his knees.

Dean stays with him. Cas throws up again an hour later, and Dean braces him through it, babbling quiet words that he hopes are soothing in a nonsensical stream. “I hate this,” Cas breathes when he’s done, “I hate this,” and Dean can’t help himself from getting both arms around him and rocking him against his chest.

Cas goes with it for a minute, but then he mutters, “Get off,” and Dean does. Cas reaches again for the water glass, not meeting Dean’s eyes. He empties it this time, and holds it out mutely for Dean to refill.

After that, Dean leaves him alone for a while. He doesn’t really want to, but Cas seems to be asking for it, and Dean can take a hint. He forces himself to eat something, and checks back in more often than Cas would probably like.

It’s a few hours later when Cas lifts his head to look blearily at Dean and says, “I’d like to go back to my room now.”

Dean helps him get there — he’s weak and shaky, skin burning up, legs nearly folding out from under him even with Dean’s support — and settles him back in his bed. There’s a stale, sour odor about the room, and to Cas himself, and his shirt is clammy with cold sweat. Dean almost suggests relocating him — they have clean beds — but thinks better of it when Cas lies back with a weary sigh.

Instead, he retrieves a bowl from the kitchen and pulls up a chair next to Cas’s bed. It doesn’t matter what Cas has to say about it. Dean’s not leaving his side.

---

The night passes restlessly. Dean’s not sure if Cas gets any sleep. He dozes off himself at some point, and wakes around three to the sound of Cas vomiting into his bowl. Dean goes to clean it out and returns to Cas staring at the ceiling, hands laced across his chest. They spend the small hours of the morning talking quietly. Cas relates the stories Jack told him from Heaven — names and places that are no doubt familiar to him, though Dean has trouble keeping track. They come out in fits and starts, with little context and less coherency, but telling them seems to be doing Cas some good, so Dean sits back and listens.

When he goes to refill Cas’s water glass a few hours later, the smell of body odor and illness hits him so hard on his return that he flinches at the threshold.

He can feel Cas watching him. He doesn’t comment until after Dean’s set down the water on the nightstand, but then he says, “I think I could use some fresh clothes.”

Dean swallows. “Course,” he says. Cas has never had changes of clothing; never needed them. “I — should probably run to the store sometime anyway. I could pick some up for you?"

There’s no good reason not to just let Cas borrow his own. It’s not like he minds, or wants to get out of the bunker. It’s just —

It’s just that he and Sam had to wear castoffs sometimes, growing up. It was one of the few things they both comprehensively hated. Dad’s old jacket was one thing, but baggy pants, ill-fitting shirts, shit out of the goddamn charity bin — it all left them floating around looking about as unwanted as the clothes themselves, and Dean hated it. Hated that he had to do it, hated how Sam would whine his way through getting dressed in the morning and the teachers at a new school would look them up and down and raise their eyebrows; how Dad would come home from a hunt and see Sam swimming in some massive new thrift-store T-shirt and look away again in shame. That’s the first thing Dean ever shoplifted, clothes that actually fucking fit, and he can buy them now, and he’s not putting Cas in anything else.

Lebanon’s fine for groceries, but Martha doesn’t sell much by way of clothing. Dean might feel bad about taking his custom elsewhere if she hadn’t once spent fifteen solid minutes with a vice grip on his elbow, explaining just how terrible the quality of the stitching is in the junk the franchise sends her. Hastings has the nearest department store, so that’s where he goes.

He’s not sure what Cas wants, so he winds up buying a selection. Some hunter-style flannels and a canvas jacket, but some sleeker button-downs too, more Cas’s usual style. He finds one in a soft green that he likes, and another that’s blue with stripes, sort of like Cas’s latest choice of tie. Considering, he adds a couple Henleys to the pile, plus jeans and slacks and two pairs of soft flannel pants, in case Cas really just wants to be comfortable. He almost makes it to checkout before going back to add a warm zip-up hoodie with a lining that’s softer than anything, and he returns to the Impala laden with bags.

He does want some fresh produce, and all his aimless cooking has made a sizeable dent in his pantry, so he makes a grocery run, as well. He forgets half the things he should buy, but the itch of being away from Cas is getting worse, so he speeds through checkout and dumps the fresh set of bags in the car, then slides behind the wheel again.

When he gets home, he finds the things that need refrigeration and carries them inside first. But he can’t help himself from walking straight down the hallway past the kitchen, and stopping at Cas’s room.

Cas is curled on his side in bed, asleep, breathing deeply. His breath whistles ever so slightly through his nose.

Dean watches for a moment, not quite able to move, and finds that he’s smiling. He shakes his head at himself and returns to the kitchen to put his groceries away.

---

Cas sleeps for most of the day.

Dean wanders by from time to time to check. It’s nearly 6 when he looks in the door to see Cas sitting up in bed, palms flat on his thighs and eyes staring vaguely at the bedspread.

“Hey,” Dean says, pushing the door further open. He’s got a fork in one hand, and a mouthful of mac and cheese; he swallows it. “Sleep okay?”

Cas’s eyes dart up to him. He still looks bad, but not as bad as he did. He shrugs, and looks away.

“I got you some stuff to wear,” Dean tells him, taking a step into the room. “Figured I’d let you choose. It’s all in the bags, but I can take them out for you if you like.”

Cas shakes his head, a little stiffly. “That’s fine,” he says. His voice is light, quiet; heartbreakingly normal.

Dean pauses there, not sure what else to say. He’s just opening his mouth to try when Cas adds, “I think I’d like to take a shower.”

Dean swallows. “Do you need help?”

He’s not sure if he imagines the way Cas’s shoulders shift incrementally higher. “No,” Cas says. “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”

---

It goes against all of Dean’s instincts to let Cas shuffle down the hallway to the bathroom without support, but he does it anyway, hovering close behind. For a long minute after Cas closes the door behind him, Dean can’t quite make himself walk away. Finally, he hears the sound of the shower starting, frowns at himself, and goes to strip the sheets from Cas’s bed.

Laundry started, he returns to the kitchen, and nukes his mac and cheese to warm it up again. It’s not as good as it would be fresh, but he eats it anyway, mind wandering, nodding his head vaguely to a Metallica song in his head.

He’s not sure if it’s a symptom of anxiety or of relief. Either way, he lets himself hum along to it, then start singing badly under his breath as he washes his bowl.

He doesn’t think he’s all that distracted, but he misses the sound of the shower turning off, and of the bathroom door opening. Misses everything, in fact, until the sound of a crash in the hallway, and Cas’s voice gasping, “ Fuck, ” and then Dean’s running to find him.

Cas is slumped against the wall, legs spread-eagled in front of him. He’s wearing jeans and the blue striped shirt, and his hair is damp but tidy. He looks good, except for the naked fury on his face. Except for the way he pounds his fist against the floor and brings it away bloody.

“I didn’t fall,” he says without looking at Dean. His voice is angry, confrontational. “I just had to sit down.”

“Okay,” says Dean, awkward. He crouches next to Cas and reaches for his hand — he’s split his knuckles. When Dean tries to turn his hand over to look, Cas jerks it away.

“I’m fine,” he snaps.

Dean swallows. “Cas,” he tries, “I know how much this sucks. I know you hate it. But you’re clearly not fine. If you just let me help you, maybe we can figure out what’s wrong and —”

Cas makes an awful, wounded noise in his throat. An awful, wounded, incredulous noise, and he rolls his eyes to the ceiling, like he’s asking some higher power how exactly he got saddled with such a stupid fucking dead weight of a human.

And Dean feels the solid ground drop out from underneath him. He hasn’t asked. Not once, in all of this. He’s never asked, never thought Cas might already have the answer.

“Cas,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

It comes out as a whisper. Cas tips his head back against the wall and emits a barking, mirthless laugh. His hand reaches out to fist in the front of Dean’s shirt. His eyes are closed, as if he can’t stand to look Dean in the face.

“It’s gone, okay?” he says. “My grace is gone. I’m human.”

And he pulls Dean in and kisses him.

---

Cas’s mouth tastes like toothpaste.

That’s Dean’s first thought: when did Cas start brushing his teeth? Not that he doesn’t appreciate it, given the recent vomiting, it’s really pretty considerate of Cas to find his way to a toothbrush before he goes around kissing —

Kissing him.

Dean jolts to his feet with a strangled yell, breaking Cas’s hold on his shirt. Cas’s hand falls, and he stays where he is, looking up at Dean through eyes that glitter strangely in the hallway’s half-dark. His lips are parted. Dean stares.

“I,” he says. He runs a desperate hand through his hair. “I don’t —”

Cas’s face tightens. And Dean can’t do this, he can’t, he can’t, he can’t.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and he flees.

---

He returns only a minute later.

He can’t leave Cas like that, lying helpless on the floor; no matter what, he can’t be that big of a dick. But Cas is already gone under his own power. Down the corridor, around the corner that leads to Cas’s room, Dean hears a door slam shut.

Cas doesn’t even have sheets on his bed. Dean doesn’t have it in him to disturb him now, though. He takes a shaky breath and goes to the laundry room to check on the load. It’s got five minutes left, shaking under the force of the spin cycle, and rumbling loud enough to almost drown out his thoughts.

Cas kissed him. Cas has no grace left, and he kissed him.

And God, how much of a shithead is Dean to be focused on the kissing part? Cas has no grace left, and Dean just doesn’t fucking understand — what have all these visits from Jack been about, then? Shouldn’t he have been able to fucking help? What the hell does Cas think he’s doing?

He almost calls out to Jack, but stops himself, barely. He’s too raw, right now, too overflowing with hurt and fear and confusion. Is that what Jack meant when he said, it’s done? And why didn’t he stop it? Was he just — here to help Cas through it, to ease the transition somehow?

Why in the hell did neither of them tell him?

He lets out a great, gasping sob. Just one, nearly inaudible over the clamor of the washing machine.

He can’t — focus on the kissing thing. Not now. Cas is disoriented and in pain and he needs Dean, he needs him, to be there and to be on top of his shit and not to be having a fucking meltdown in the laundry room over his — stupid gay crisis.

Dean takes a long, shuddering breath. The washing machine spins to a stop. He squares his shoulders and goes to move Cas’s bedding to the dryer.

---

His arms are full of fresh, folded sheets when he knocks on Cas’s door.

The folding was probably unnecessary. So was the laundry, for that matter — they do have spare bedding somewhere, plenty of it, he could’ve made up Cas’s room when he was in the shower. He’s been a dick, leaving Cas with a bare mattress while he lets the dryer run, folding precise corners on even the fitted sheet, dragging his heels, trying to muster his courage.

The actual knocking is anticlimactic. He hears quick strides across the room. Cas pulls the door sharply open, and meets Dean’s eyes for only a second. Dean opens his mouth to speak.

Cas pulls the stack of laundry from his arms and shuts the door in his face.

---

Dean doesn’t go to bed that night.

His sleep schedule is already so fucked that there’s really no point. He stalks around the bunker like a wolf he once saw in a zoo, wearing a trail along the perimeter of its enclosure from its ceaseless revolutions. He hypnotizes his brain to the rhythm of the hours. He doesn’t think.

When Cas appears in the kitchen at breakfast time, it startles him so badly that he hiccups out an inarticulate gasp. Cas looks at him levelly, says, “Good morning, Dean,” and goes to pour some cereal in a bowl.

He looks — pretty good. He looks unfairly good, moving like his body almost knows how to again, in jeans and a soft gray Henley. The color should wash his eyes out, Dean thinks, maybe, but it doesn’t; they’re blindingly blue. Everything fits. Too well. It is not fucking okay.

Dean spends Cas’s entire breakfast trying to figure out what to say to him, and breathes a humiliating sigh of relief when Cas finishes and leaves again, the words still all unspoken.

---

By lunch, he’s found something to talk about.

It wasn’t easy to call Sam and catch up without clueing him into how utterly spun out Dean is, but he managed it. He’s got all the little updates on Jody and the girls; he even called Elizabeth to tell her, yeah, Cas has been a little under the weather, think he’s on the mend, though, how are things with you?

Cas listens politely to his news, and sucks a stray bit of peanut butter off his thumb. Then he’s gone again.

Fuck this, Dean thinks. He’s dead on his feet. He goes to bed.

---

He sleeps in fitful snatches, dozing off only to wake again gasping, an obscure dread creeping up his spine. He can’t run from this shit forever.

For dinner, he reheats some soup, because the fridge is too full already for more cooking. He could microwave it, but he’s not sure when Cas will reappear, so he gets it to a simmer on the stovetop instead, stirring idly, breathing in fragrant steam.

He’s turning to reach for the radio when he sees Cas. He’s leaning in the doorway. Watching him. Dean drops his spoon.

There’s a beat of startled silence between them. By the time Dean crouches to pick up the offending utensil, Cas is crossing the room, bending to reach for it too. Their fingers brush, and Dean retreats as if burned. Cas’s knuckles are scabbed over where he split them last night. He stands, and sets the spoon on the counter.

He’s close, too close. Dean can’t look past the quiet focus in his eyes, the beginnings of stubble on his jaw, the way his new shirt clings to the muscles of his chest, skims loose over his hips.

Dean takes a deep breath, and turns to twist the dial on the burner off. “I wanted to talk to you,” he says.

When he turns back, Cas is just as close as before, just as invasively, alarmingly intent. He’s frowning slightly, watching Dean.

“All right, listen,” says Dean, wiping his hands on his jeans. “We’ve just got to get Jack back here, right? There’s gotta be something he can do. I mean, the dude can create angels, there’s no way he can’t find you some grace somewhere. We’ll get you back on your feet in no time —”

He falters. Cas’s face has shifted as he spoke, nostrils flaring, mouth tightening, contours drawn in hard white lines of fury. He turns on his heel and strides away from Dean, vibrating like a plucked wire. The anger pours off him so hot it almost shimmers in the air, and Dean doesn’t understand.

“Cas?” he tries.

Cas wheels and strides back toward him, then brings himself up short. He breathes in, out, clearly wrestling himself under control. “You fucking asshole,” he says, "Jack’s been helping me lose it.

Dean’s brain is falling through space.

It feels like that moment on a rollercoaster, when your stomach swoops and physics lets go. Except that Dean's falling, not out of his body, but out of his own mind, his world as he built it. He grasps for words, for meaning. “What,” he says.

“Why would you,” he says.

He stops. He swallows. The world slams back into focus around him. Cas’s face, still terrible, the soup still bubbling on the stove. He turns to shift it to an unused burner, and then he faces Cas.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

The tension breaks. Cas’s shoulders slump, as suddenly, as utterly, as if someone cut the strings that were holding them up. He looks away. His words come out quiet, and dejected. “I didn’t want you to think it hinged on your choice.”

Dean stares, and shakes his head. “What choice?”

And Cas makes this noise, in his throat. This tiny, pained, despairing noise, and Dean gets it.

He gets it, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever breathe again. He gets what he’s been refusing to get for weeks, for months, for years, what he’s been too afraid to ever think about, to ever look in the eye, in case — in case it ruins things, in case it’s just him, in case he’s not brave enough to say the words in his mind and keep living on the other side, in case he can’t shake the knowing, in every cell, under every inch of his skin —

And Cas just. Just — did.

“Cas,” he says. It comes out as a strangled, broken, horrifying little whisper. Cas is just standing there, staring at the floor, all the tension that bled from him spiraling back up, shoulders high and taut and furious. And Dean doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know what to do, but he reaches out with a trembling hand to touch his fingers, to take them in his, and he drops to his knees and he says, again, “Cas.

There a hundred things he can’t say. A thousand — I’m sorry, I’m an idiot, I should have, I can’t — but there’s this dam and it’s been breached and the words don’t matter, and he bows his head and kisses Cas’s fingers, and touches his forehead to the back of his hand, and he’s shaking. Cas is, too, both of them shaking so fucking hard, and he says, “Dean,” his voice raw and desperate, “Dean, if you go along with this now, if you say you want this and you don’t, if you do a goddamn thing out of pity for me I am going to — I’ll —”

“I’m not,” says Dean. “Cas, I’m the world’s biggest idiot, but I’m not.”

And Cas says, “Oh, thank God,” and hauls him to his feet and crushes him against the counter and kisses him.

He shouldn’t be this strong, not without his grace, not after days of illness, but he is somehow, he is, or maybe Dean’s just light-headed and out of balance from it all. Cas takes his face in both hands and kisses him like he owns him, like Dean’s mouth has always been his and always will be, and Dean makes a strangled noise in his throat and his cock pulses in answer and Cas draws back, lips parted and shining, eyes darting over Dean’s face, intent, and says, “Are you —”

Christ, Cas,” says Dean, and hauls him forward by his new shirt.

Cas stumbles a little, almost stepping on Dean’s foot, but he doesn’t apologize or draw back like Dean would think he might. He just shifts in, forward, sliding his leg between Dean’s until Dean’s erection brushes his thigh, and buries Dean’s gasp of surprise in his mouth. His right hand curls around Dean’s hip and his left around the back of Dean’s neck, thumb raising goosebumps across his hairline, and Dean’s liquid, he’s just fucking liquid, Cas is kissing him like it’s what his mouth was made to do.

“Are you,” Dean gasps, the next time Cas breaks for air. “Have you been practicing, ‘cause, uh —” He falters, words fleeing under the intensity of the look in Cas’s eyes.

“I’ve always known what I want to do with you, Dean,” he says, and it should be the cheesiest fucking line, something out of a goddamn porno, only the way Cas says it, matter-of-fact, like it’s air or light or gravity, like I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition.

“Oh,” Dean says weakly. “That’s. Should we, um. Bedroom?”

And Cas has given him that measuring look a thousand times before, it’s never made Dean’s knees wobble under his weight, it shouldn’t, only suddenly it absolutely does. “Would you like to?” he asks, courteous as anything, and Dean’s mouth is dryer than the Sahara.

He licks his lips to counter it, and Cas’s eyes track the motion. “Yeah,” he says. “Yes. Please.”

He half expects Cas to pick him up and carry him there, the way he’s been acting, but Cas draws back instead, and the loss of contact between them is an aching absence. He lets Dean lead the way, feeling self-conscious beyond belief, wondering if Cas is watching his ass as he walks, wondering if he’s — God —

He turns into his own room because it’s the first one and shuts the door behind them, even though there’s no one else in the bunker. When he turns to face Cas, the bed seems impossibly far away.

“What now?” he says, striving for a tone resembling normalcy, and thinks he sort of manages it. It’s stupid, so stupid, because he should be the one who knows what he’s doing here, not Cas, Cas who the last time he was human had sex for the first time and nearly got murdered for his troubles, did get murdered, fuck, Dean is so in over his head right now —

“You could take off your shirt,” Cas suggests, and reaches out a hand to touch Dean’s cheek.

It shouldn’t make Dean jump, but it does. He’s so fucking oversensitized right now, and it doesn’t help that Cas is still staring right into him, that he watches baldly as Dean’s hands rise to his collar, knuckles brushing his Adam’s apple when he swallows, and undoes the first button.

Dean drops his own eyes as he moves to the second, unable for the moment to bear the look on Cas’s face, and when he reaches the third, Cas’s thumb drags across his lips.

Dean freezes. Cas’s fingers curl under his chin, lifting it, and he meets his gaze.

Cas is staring at his mouth, naked want in his eyes. He runs his thumb over Dean’s lower lip, and Dean makes a strangled noise and latches onto it, sucking it into his mouth. He swirls his tongue around it, eyes slipping half-closed.

Cas’s breath catches, then, and he whispers, “Don’t stop,” and Dean unfastens his third button.

By the time his shirt is hanging open, he’s got three of Cas’s fingers deep in his mouth, pumping against his tongue, and it’s not even a thing, but he’s practically writhing, wishing for more. Cas slides the shirt back over his shoulders with his left hand, and Dean’s never been so glad he didn’t wear a T-shirt under his flannel, never felt the slight chill of the air so welcome on his bare skin. Then Cas’s hand is gone from his mouth, and before Dean can orient himself or feel properly bereft, wet fingers are rolling circles around his nipple, tugging it, and when Dean gasps, open-mouthed, Cas steps in for a kiss.

From there, the trip to the bed is somehow easy, Cas guiding his hips and Dean just following, making way, until the backs of his knees hit the mattress and he falls with a tiny ooph of surprise. Cas follows him down more gracefully, hand braced beside Dean’s head, and sinks down to kiss him again, and flicks his nipple.

“Castiel,” gasps Dean, “if you don’t — I swear to God —”

Cas breaks from his lips but doesn’t retreat, forehead still pressed to Dean’s. “If I don’t what?”

Dean doesn’t know. “Fucking,” he gasps, and there’s his answer, clear as day, “fuck me, Cas, if you don’t —”

“Do you want that?” Cas asks, just like he did before, and it should be fucking obvious, shouldn’t it, but something about the question makes Dean realize that — yeah. He really, really does.

“Yes,” he says, and Castiel nods.

“Show me how,” he says.

Before, when Cas stepped back and let Dean lead the way, it left him feeling — terrified. Overexposed, about ready to jump out of his skin. Now it feels like something else.

“All right,” Dean breathes, a little dizzy with it, with the trust Cas is putting in him. “All right — here, let’s — you lie back, okay? Let me — here.” He starts to work on Cas’s shirt as he slides up the bed, eyes on Dean, watching. The atmosphere between them has changed, from that crackling, too-much-to-fit-in-one-body intensity to something warmer, familiar. Just as electric, but he can hold it in his skin now, can feel it leaping between them with every touch, and when he rucks Cas’s shirt up over his ribs, he can’t help himself but bend his head and dart his tongue across that expanse of skin, kiss his way down the trail of hair to the waist of Cas’s jeans, while Cas makes an incoherent noise above him.

Dean follows the sound up, pulling Cas’s shirt over his shoulders. When he falls back against the pillow, Dean sucks at his throat, making him gasp, before finally sealing their mouths together again.

Something about that seems to remind Cas that he has hands, and then they’re running over Dean’s body, across his shoulders, down his back, fastening onto his ass. It makes Dean suck in a breath and grind forward, cock rubbing against Cas’s, and they both groan.

“You have a job,” Dean pants. “Let me — think you can get me out of these?” He means his jeans, and Cas clearly understands, fingers leaping to his belt and brushing his cock through the denim on the way, and Dean could practically pass out at the tantalizing flash of pleasure. Instead, he stretches an arm for the bedside table, pulling open the drawer and searching briefly inside for what he needs.

Cas working his jeans down his hips is distracting, and Dean helps him finish the job before swinging a leg back over to straddle him, naked. He feels a little stupid, but Cas sucks in a breath at the sight, trailing a hand down Dean’s chest, and when Cas’s hips jerk his erection presses through its layer of denim against the bare cleft of Dean’s ass.

“Easy there,” Dean smiles, reaching for Cas’s hand. “Here, let me show you what to do.”

Cas watches carefully as Dean squirts lube onto his right hand, and he doesn’t grind upward again, though his body is practically shaking from the effort of holding still. Dean guides his hand around to his ass, slips it down, until Cas’s fingers brush the tight ring of muscle and he sucks in a sharp breath and Dean murmurs, “Yeah, right there, just like before, just like my mouth,” even though it’s really not, and the tip of Cas’s first finger presses in.

Dean’s whole body shudders at the sensation — he hasn’t done this in a fucking while — and his cock twitches against his belly. He sees Cas’s gaze drop to it, entranced, and then Cas is burying his finger to the second knuckle and slipping his left thumb between Dean’s lips again and Dean lets out an incoherent moan.

Cas doesn’t require much instruction. From there, he’s basically off to the races, working Dean from both ends like he’s been doing this for years. It doesn’t take him long to find Dean’s prostate, and by the time he’s up to two fingers, he’s hitting it on every other thrust, and Dean is quivering and cursing and fisting his hands in the sheets, in Cas’s hair. When Cas’s hand slips free of his mouth, he sinks down hungrily to kiss him, and then Cas’s slick fingers are on his cock, circling it, sliding down, and Dean nearly bites off his tongue.

“Stop,” he begs a minute later, “stop, or I’ll come,” and Cas relents immediately, stills, fingers still buried deep in Dean’s ass.

He hates to lose them, but he wants Cas, all of him, and so he slides down his body, hands nimble on the button of Cas’s jeans. Cas props himself on his elbows to watch him, and that makes heat rush to Dean’s belly, his cock, so when he gets Cas’s jeans worked down over his hips and draws his underwear after them, when Cas’s cock springs free, he stops — just for a moment, just long enough to meet Cas’s eyes and smile, and Cas inhales sharply and Dean takes him in his mouth and buries him to the back of his throat.

Cas lets out an actual yell, hips twisting, and Dean follows them smoothly as Cas’s arm flies out helplessly across the bedspread, then down to Dean’s head. His touch is trembling and delicate, cradling Dean’s skull, running a thumb over the shell of Dean’s ear as Dean works, and Dean slides his own hand up Cas’s thigh to cradle his balls, strokes them with his thumb, and Cas makes a choking sound and says, “Dean, if you don’t —”

Dean pulls free with a wet pop, obscene in the quiet, and slides up Cas’s body again, thumbing his nipples as he goes. He kisses Cas softly, and Cas surges up to meet him, undeterred by the salty taste on Dean’s tongue.

“We can use a condom if you want,” Dean mumbles into his mouth, “but I’m clean, and you until recently had magical angel healing mojo, so —”

“I’m clean,” says Cas, and kisses him. “I checked.”

“You —” Dean pauses, briefly floored by the idea of Cas at a clinic.

“I wanted to be sure,” says Cas, and Dean shakes his head, can’t believe this is even happening, this ridiculous man — angel — man is in his bed and got STD testing for him and wants Dean, wants him, this fucking much.

His ass still feels gloriously wet and sloppy and open, and Cas’s cock is practically dripping too, but Dean reaches for the lube anyway, squirts some onto his own palm and reaches behind him to work it over Cas’s cock. Cas makes a mumbling sort of growl of a noise, eyes sliding shut, and then Dean lines him up and lets him go and Cas’s eyes fly open and hook, pleading, on his own.

Dean sinks downward by degrees. He wants more, harder, faster — oh, fuck does he want it — but he’s savoring this too, the sensation of Cas stretching him open, filling him up. Underneath him, Cas is sweating, arching, reaching to tangle his fingers with Dean’s and then turning his face with a broken noise as they bottom out, locked together, Cas buried inside him just about as deep as he’ll go. Dean wants to lean down and kiss him but he’s not sure he can, not without shifting the angle and breaking this incredible contact, so he reaches for Cas’s face instead, runs a hand over Cas’s cheek.

Cas kisses his palm, and rolls his hips.

It’s just a tiny motion, experimental, but Dean was wrong, Cas wasn’t quite as deep as he could go, and now he is, now — this —

Cas does it again, and Dean thinks his head will explode. He takes in a great shuddering breath, eyes sliding closed, head tipping back, and the next moment Cas’s fingers are sliding down his throat and he’s murmuring, “So beautiful,” and, “Would you like me to —”

He doesn’t have to say what. “Yes,” Dean chokes out, and then Cas is drawing out and slamming back in, hands hard on Dean’s shoulders, his hips, and Dean sees white behind his eyelids. Again, twice more, and he’s not even sure he can hold himself up like this, but Cas is ahead of him, rolling them both, and he barely breaks rhythm but then he’s on top of Dean, folding him in half, kissing him hungrily, pumping idle half-thrusts that just graze the edge of Dean’s prostate and have him shaking, chanting, begging for more.

“Please,” he’s saying, “please, please,” the words just streaming out without him knowing what they are, hands fluttering uselessly at Cas’s face, his chest, and Cas takes both his wrists in one hand and pins them over his head and begins to fuck him in earnest.

Dean would like to say that he never knew being pinned down by Cas would be this fucking hot, but yeah, no, he knew. That doesn’t change when Cas releases his wrists, presses them briefly into the pillow as if to say stay, and Dean does, even against the longing to reach out and touch, to run his fingers down Cas’s ribs and thighs as Cas is doing to him. Cas leans down to kiss him, messily, and Dean catches his lip in his teeth for an instant as he goes, and then Cas is sitting back and pressing his legs still wider and fucking into Dean like his life depends on it, and his hand finds Dean’s cock and strokes, pulls. And Dean is coming white-hot, curses streaming from his lips, Castiel, Castiel, and Cas shudders and drives deep inside him and collapses, shaking, against his chest.

They lie there for long minutes, both sticky and trembling with exhaustion and revelation, Cas still buried in Dean and rolling his hips, from time to time, as if he can’t quite stop, until he slips out and Dean starts laughing and Cas is laughing, too, burying his head in Dean’s shoulder. Then he bites Dean’s collarbone, and Dean yelps and flips him and sinks down to kiss him, long and deep and dirty, tongues tangling and fingers running through each other’s hair.

When Dean pulls back, Cas looks mussed and bright and beautiful, and he groans and tucks an arm around him and nestles in beside him, skin sticking together everywhere they touch, chin on Cas’s shoulder and nose tickling his ear.

When Cas turns to look at him, their noses bump, and Dean kisses him swiftly, before he can react. Cas huffs out a breath of laughter and lies back, smiling. His arm comes up around Dean’s shoulder, and Dean smiles, and closes his eyes.

---

They emerge a little over an hour later. Neither of them really slept, though there was some contented dozing, and some more kissing and touching and other things that would have Dean ready to go for round two if he were as young as he used to be. Instead, he ducks into the shower while Cas tries to find his clothes, cleans himself off and makes a beeline for the kitchen.

When Cas finds him, he’s standing naked at the stove, eating warm soup straight out of the pot. Cas stares at him for several long seconds, groans, and turns around and leaves.

He returns only a few seconds later, when Dean is still licking his spoon and trying to work out whether he’s supposed to follow. He thrusts Dean’s bathrobe at him and says, “Please. I’m human now; my heart can’t take this. If you love me, put this on.”

The words hook Dean somewhere under his sternum, and he stills. He sets the pot aside and takes the robe, feeling suddenly shy. “Yeah,” he says, and meets Cas’s eyes, a smile he doesn’t intend curling, tentative, at his lips.

Cas looks at him, wide-eyed. After a moment, Dean has to break the eye contact; he steps away, shouldering on the robe, not looking at Cas. But Cas’s hands catch his on the cord, and when Dean drops it, Cas uses it to pull him in, stepping in close to kiss Dean long and hard.

When he finally breaks off, he drops his forehead against Dean’s, carefully smoothing the robe across his chest, looping a knot into the cord at his waist, pulling it snug. “Dean Winchester,” he says, “of all the true things in the world, you must know that I love you.”

It makes Dean laugh. Cas’s hands stay on his hips, head bowed, and when he tips his own back, he can plant a kiss on Cas’s forehead. “Yeah.” He shivers, and threads his arms around Cas’s waist, holding him close.

“Yeah,” he says, again. “I do.”

Chapter Text

It sort of takes some getting used to: Cas and Dean.

They mostly start sleeping in Dean’s room, which always gives him this weird, primal, possessive rush of embarrassed pleasure — that Cas is in his place, his, sleeping in Dean’s bed. Because he wants to be. Because he’s — Dean’s, Dean’s something, the words are where his brain kind of shies away from the whole thing, but they both get what it means.

The sleeping itself is still a problem. Dean’s grateful sometimes that Cas’s humanity means he has to sleep — he’s pretty sure Cas would try to push it for weeks at a time, still, if he didn’t know he’d simply run out of gas. Instead, he makes an attempt almost every night, and lets Dean wrap him up in his arms and kiss his neck, right behind the ear, when he wakes up trembling and gasping for air.

There are also nights when Cas is rigid as a board in bed beside him, and when Dean’s attempts to distract him send him fleeing instead to his own room, or to check on the plants, as if they might have moved in the space of hours. After the pine incident, Dean supposes he shouldn’t discount the idea.

Still, it — sucks, honestly. Not that it doesn’t suck worse for Cas. It’s just hard, having no game plan, no way to really make things better. When he admits as much, Cas sucks bruising kisses into his neck and down Dean’s chest, murmuring praise and gratitude all the while, and gives Dean such a comprehensively mind-melting blow job that his self-doubt dissolves into formless, blissful awe.

And there are also the times when Cas drifts off like a contented sloth, curled against Dean, and sleeps through the night without screaming even once. There are times when he stays in bed well into the day, and distracts Dean diabolically every time he tries to leave, and Dean thinks that maybe this is new to Cas, this spending-the-day-in-bed experience, in a way that isn’t miserable. He wouldn’t dream of depriving Cas of that.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there last time,” he murmurs one night, Cas tucked under one arm and nestled against one shoulder, lax and sleepy and post-coital. “Last time you went human, I mean.”

Cas raises his head. He studies Dean for a minute, then drops back onto his shoulder, apparently satisfied. His left arm loops around Dean’s waist, pulling him closer. “It was different last time,” he says. “I was different.”

Still. Dean regards the ceiling, and asks, “Metatron took it all at once, right? No drawing it down over time?”

Cas nuzzles closer, as if he can’t talk about this without making his living, physical presence altogether known. “We didn’t think my vessel could survive another shock like that. It’s been through a lot.”

And Dean can’t help it. He wraps both arms tight around Cas, pulling him hard to his chest and resting his chin on the top of his head. He stares fixedly at the ceiling. He can feel Cas’s ribs rise and fall beneath his fingers, can feel his warmth and the beat of his heart and the tickle of his breath. “You’re not a vessel,” he says, even though he thinks Cas might correct him. “Or an it. You’re — Cas, all right? Not anyone or anything else.”

He thinks, but doesn’t say, you’re mine.

Cas doesn’t answer. After a moment, though, he worms his hand between their bodies to lace his fingers with Dean’s, and squeezes them tight.

---

They let the better part of a week pass before they tell anyone anything, and then it’s only because Elizabeth nearly pounds down their door.

“Castiel I-don’t-know-your-last-name,” she says, when they open it. “Answer your goddamn phone.”

Cas opens his mouth in surprise, then feels his pockets. It’s almost theatrical; they come up empty, and he blushes.

Blushing is one of Dean’s favorite characteristics of human Castiel, so he gets a little distracted by that for a moment, and then Elizabeth’s swiping open her own phone and shoving it in both their faces.

Dean looks at it and winces. The texts are from almost two weeks ago.

Elizabeth : Let me know how it went, ok? Good luck! <3

And then, nearly twenty-four hours later:

Castiel : It’s fine.

“Right,” says Dean. “The, um. The pine thing.”

“Yes, the pine thing, ” snaps Elizabeth. “The thing where you both risked your stupid lives to save my plant and then didn’t bother to tell me if you were even not dead. That thing.”

It’s Dean’s turn to blush. “We, uh,” he tries. “I’m sorry. We’ve been a little —”

“Distracted,” Cas supplies.

Elizabeth turns on him, eyebrows shooting up, and then she — stops.

Dean can see her taking him in. The mussed hair and the misbuttoned shirt, the — oh, Christ — the shadow of a lovebite at his collar. The way he holds himself, different somehow, taller, or maybe that’s just the absence of months and months of pain.

Her mouth falls open. “You didn’t,” she says.

Cas grins, a little, and she flies forward to hug him. “Cas, I thought it wasn’t supposed to happen until next month!” Her words are slightly muffled against his neck, but she pulls back again to look at him, holding him at an arm’s length, and adds, “And you — have been busy.

She grins at that last word, and slides a look over to Dean. He opens his mouth indignantly, and finds he has nothing to say.

“Congratulations,” says Elizabeth, and turns to hug him too.

“What, did everyone know about Cas’s secret timeline for seducing me?” he grouses, but hugs her back anyway, startled by his gratitude for her easy acceptance.

“It wasn’t for —” Cas objects, but Elizabeth says over him, “More or less. He was convinced he couldn’t make his feelings clear until after he and Jack had completed their process.” She squints at Dean. “So they did it early, I imagine. Unless you got your act together on your own?”

It’s Dean’s turn to blush. “I, uh. Nope, still an idiot.”

“That’s all right,” says Elizabeth, and pats his shoulder fondly before turning back to Cas. “I brought sandwich stuff. Come on, you haven’t really tasted anything yet.”

---

Elizabeth makes them grilled cheeses with some kind of mouth-watering mustard that’s just spectacularly good, and Dean groans appreciatively as he bites into his, closing his eyes. He needs to step up his sandwich game; just because they're simple doesn’t mean they can't be fucking phenomenal.

“I’m glad you like it,” Elizabeth says, eyes crinkling in a smile.

Cas has disappeared to the bathroom. It’s one of the things he’s still not entirely used to, as a human: paying attention to his bladder’s gentle reminders before it announces itself with blaring urgency. Maybe it’s a sign that Dean’s pretty far gone that he finds it hopelessly endearing when Cas has to sprint off in the middle of the night or halfway through a sentence to pee.

“‘S delicious,” says Dean, swallowing his mouthful. He spares a glance at the doorway, and then asks, in a lower voice, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

Elizabeth’s face softens. “Dean,” she says, “I’ve never known what to make of your — interpretation of me and Castiel. I always thought I must be misreading it; it’s so obvious he has eyes for no one but you.”

Dean feels himself going red. “Oh.” He looks down at his plate. “But you’re not —?”

“Jealous?” She smiles. “I’m tremendously glad of Castiel’s friendship — and of yours, if you’re offering it. But no, it’s only a friendship. Incidentally, I’m asexual.”

“A — oh.” Dean squints at her. “So you don’t, um.” He sort of hopes she’ll pick up from there, but she doesn’t, so he attempts, “Don’t do, uh, relationships?”

“I’m not sure,” she admits placidly. “Maybe I will someday. It took me a long time to figure out, though, and right now I’m enjoying just — knowing myself. I thought for so many years that I was undesirable, or not trying hard enough; I didn’t stop to think about what I wanted. Castiel is the first close friendship I’ve had that I didn’t try to challenge myself to make something more.”

Dean considers this. It makes a surprising amount of sense, actually. He sort of wishes he could go back in time and tell a younger Elizabeth that it’s okay; he’d rather like to say a few things to her mother while he’s at it. Once upon a time, Cas could have made it happen.

Dean doesn’t miss those days.

“I am,” he says, belatedly remembering her question. “Offering my friendship, I mean.”

Elizabeth grins. It lights up the kitchen. “Thank you.”

---

Elizabeth leaves with the Norfolk Island pine, having determined through a long discussion with Cas that it no longer requires his care.

Cas tried to return other plants, too, including the welwitschia, but Elizabeth wouldn’t hear of it. “I don’t care if you no longer have mysterious angel forces on your side,” she tells him, “you’re still better at this than anyone else I know, and I know a lot of plant people. Look, it’s even got new growth.”

She’s right; the bases of the leaves are bright green and fresh-looking, like the undyed roots in a woman’s parted hair. If anyone had naturally bright-green hair, that is. Dean’s distracted thinking about this, and gets startled when Elizabeth pulls him into an abrupt hug. “Take care of him,” she says fiercely.

“I will,” says Dean, still feeling vaguely stunned by the entire afternoon. Cas has the grace to look slightly embarrassed.

“Same goes for you,” Elizabeth tells him sternly, hugging him in turn.

She gives them a fond wave from the stairwell, and then she’s gone. After a beat of silence, Dean swallows, and turns to Cas.

“So, uh,” he says. “We should probably tell Sam, right?”

---

Telling Sam is among the most humiliating experiences of Dean’s life. He starts out the phone call with forced casualness and fumbles his way around it for several minutes, shut up in the lab where Cas can’t witness him flailing. Then he chickens out and nearly spends the whole call debating silver bullet manufacturing techniques before finally dropping, as casually as he can, “Oh, and, uh. Cas and I are — together.”

“Fucking FINALLY!” whoops a voice that is definitely not Sam, and crackling laughter fills the line.

Dean groans. “Hey, Jody,” he says. “You been on speaker the whole time?”

“Most of it,” Jody admits cheerfully. “Seriously, congratulations. I know how long you’ve been wanting to tap that ass — or is it he who’s —”

Jody,” says Sam, and there’s the sound of a scuffle on the other end of the call, then Sam wailing, “that’s my brother’s sex life you’re talking about!”

“I could tell him a thing or two about ours,” Jody interjects, and then there’s Sam saying, “out, out,” and the sound of a door slamming.

When Sam returns to the phone, he sounds a little breathless. “Sorry about that. I, uh.” Dean can practically hear him grinning. “But, speaking of out — congratulations.”

Dean groans. “I’m dead of embarrassment,” he tells Sam, factually. “You’ve killed me.”

“If it makes you feel better,” says Sam, “I had no idea. Jody’s been trying to convince me, but I didn’t really believe it ‘til just now.”

That actually does make Dean feel better; if he’s terminally oblivious, at least it runs in the family. “He, uh,” he says. “He lost his grace. On purpose, I mean. Jack helped him out with it.”

Sam takes a moment to answer that, and his next words are sober. “That’s big, Dean.” He pauses. “How are you handling it?”

The question alone makes Dean laugh tensely, and scrub the heel of his hand across his eyes. “It was fucking terrifying, you know? I didn’t even — know what was going on, and it was — so fucking bad, Sammy, you have no idea. I —” He hesitates, not sure if he can say I’m still not sure he made the right decision, or for the right reasons; I’m not sure I’m worth this. I am at the center of this person’s finite life and that is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever known.

“We talked about it, a bit,” says Sam hesitantly, “during the whole — aftermath of Gadreel.”

That’s not a time that Dean and Sam have ever revisited much, for reasons that are fairly obvious. “Yeah?” he asks hoarsely.

“He seemed to miss it,” says Sam. “Being human, I mean. I’m not saying it’s not about you, but I don’t think it’s — only about you.”

“Yeah.” It’s suddenly difficult to speak past the lump in his throat. “Thanks, Sammy.”

“It’s Sam,” his brother corrects him automatically, and Dean cackles as he hangs up the call.

---

He’s been planning to call Mom next, which is sort of the one he’s dreading most of all, but instead he slips his phone back in his pocket and goes to find Cas where he’s sitting at the library table. When Cas gets half to his feet, face lined with concern, Dean spins him carefully around and bends him back over the table and kisses him for all he’s worth.

It takes several minutes. When he breaks off, Cas is flushed and breathing hard, lips swollen, and he says, “Did talking to Sam go okay?”

“Yes,” says Dean. “I’m gonna go call Mom. Wait here.”

He expects Cas to arch his eyebrows and tell Dean he is not in any world going to lie on a table waiting for him while Dean has a heart-to-heart with his goddamn mother. Instead, Cas glares at him impatiently and says, “Then go.

Talking to Mom is — hard, honestly. Dean can’t actually tell if she’s surprised or not; if she always figured he liked men, or at least Castiel, or if the whole thing is a shock to her still-1980s-calibrated system. She just says, “Thank you for telling me, Dean,” and then, “I’m sorry, I have to run, I’ve got this —”

“Yeah, sure,” says Dean, cutting off whatever it is. “Thanks, Mom.”

When Dean gets back to the library, Cas is right where he left him — propped on his elbows on the table, bulge of his erection obvious through his jeans. And Dean should be so fucking turned on by that, by Cas waiting for him like this, except that —

Except that suddenly the weight of the last weeks lands on him like a ton of bricks. All the worry and the questioning, all his fumbling attempts to take care of Cas and the various ways he’s failed at them, all the — Christ, it wasn’t that long ago he thought he was going to die, and that’s Dean’s life, he’s got more of those moments built up in his mental archives than he can count, but he didn’t — he’s never had something to live for, not like now, not like this. He’s never had someone else who is so terrifyingly fragile, whose blood beats delicate and blue in his veins and whose breath could stop, could stop, and Dean could never even really know why.

The sob hits him on the stairstep at the library’s threshold, and he buckles under its weight. But an instant later Cas is there, catching him, pulling him into his arms. Dean heaves another sob into his shirt, trying and failing to regain his balance, but Cas will have none of it, just pulls Dean down until they’re both sitting on the floor and Dean’s bent half double in Cas’s embrace, face pressed to the fabric over Cas’s chest, and Cas is just stroking his back and murmuring, “It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.”

“I don’t,” hiccups Dean. He’s not sure he’s ever cried like this, not since he was a little kid; not even when Sam died, not telling Sam about hell, and that thought makes him sob even harder. “I don’t deserve this, Cas, I’m not good enough to protect you, I fuck up everything I ever try —”

Cas pulls him up abruptly and kisses him, hard. He must get snot and tears in his mouth, but he doesn’t seem to care, just holds Dean up to meet his eyes and says, “You do not need to protect me, Dean. You never have, and you never will.” He kisses him again. “What I ask of you is a harder task. That you love me —” another kiss — “though I do not deserve it, that you give me your days on this earth — as I give you mine —”

Cas.” Dean’s shaking.

“That you trust me,” Cas says softly, drawing their foreheads together. “To not take your sacrifice lightly, that you choose to let your heart live in another human body. Just as I trust you to care for mine.”

Dean laughs. He can’t help it; breathless, disbelieving laughter bubbles out of him, thick with tears, and he thinks of Elizabeth, Castiel I-don’t-know-your-last-name, and says again, “Cas,” and then, “you could say Winchester. If you wanted.”

Cas stills. Slowly, carefully, he kisses Dean again. He cradles the back of his head in one hand, rocking them gently together. He says, “I do.”

---

They don’t have sex that night.

Somewhere between the resurfacing of a decade or more of emotional repression and the fact that Cas just basically married him in a puddle of snot on the library floor, Dean’s system goes into some kind of shock. He knows it’s not cold in the bunker, but he can’t stop shaking, and even when Cas has him under the covers, still fully clothed and wrapped in his arms, he still feels cold, so cold.

Cas pulls him tighter and murmurs things Dean won’t remember into his skin. By the time he finally starts to feel warm again, he’s also half-asleep, lulled by the security of Cas’s embrace.

He wakes up sometime after three. He’s far too hot under the covers, and his throat feels like a hooked fish. He manages to slide out of bed without waking Cas and pads to the kitchen for a drink of water.

When he flicks on the fluorescent lights, everything seems abruptly overbright. He blinks at it owlishly, swaying — his eyes are swollen and achy from last night — and makes his way to the sink.

He sucks down his first glass of water without pausing.

It’s when he’s halfway through the second that he smells the smoke.

He drops the glass. It cracks loudly against the metal of the sink; chips, but doesn’t shatter. He’s in the war room the moment the alarms start wailing and the emergency lighting flicks to red.

There’s smoke pouring under their front door. It’s so thick Dean nearly chokes on it, spilling down the stairs like a living thing, and for a moment he thinks demon but no, it’s real smoke, that campfire-smelling, life-upending smoke like Dean’s seen, tasted, too many times before.

He staggers as he turns, and sprints back down the hallway.

Cas is already out of bed, wide-eyed, and Dean doesn’t pause, just grabs him by the jacket and yells, “Go! Front door’s fucked, we gotta head for the garage!”

The hallway already looks gray with it, and Dean can’t tell if it’s that the smoke is spreading that fast or it’s just his own vision playing tricks on him. His breath is coming in gasps that he knows aren’t entirely from exertion, but Cas grips his arm and runs with him, skidding down the corridor, faster and faster.

They’re just outside the door to the garage when Cas twists to a halt, a sudden look of anguish on his face, and breaks free of Dean’s hold. “Dean,” he says, “the welwitschia — my plants —”

He takes a step back down the hallway.

Dean’s whole body has broken out in a cold sweat. “Cas,” he says, “please.

Cas stops. He looks up the corridor, and back at Dean. The alarms echo deafeningly in Dean’s ears.

He can see the tears on Cas’s face. Cas nods, once, and follows him through the door.

---

The garage is largely free of smoke, Baby sitting unharmed at its center, and Dean almost hesitates to take her — it feels unfair, given what he just did to Cas — but Cas gives him a tight nod and slides into the passenger seat, and Dean turns the key and the garage door rumbles open and they’re going, they’re out, they’re free.

The garage exits onto a steep service road by the bank of the river. On their right, the power plant looms into the night; on their left, the ground falls away to the water. Dean can see flames spitting out of the windows high above them, and his lungs still feel strange, vision jolting oddly, but he drives anyway, out onto the road and up the hill.

He stops there. His fingers are shaking as he dials 911, and he only dares to look back once the phone is actually ringing.

The whole place is on fire.

The whole place can’t be on fire — it’s made of brick — but whatever’s inside it can burn, sure enough, and it is. Sparks are flying high in the air, and larger things too, whole pieces of wood and cardboard blown out of the windows by the heat of what’s inside, and Dean can hardly believe how calm his tone is when he says, “I’d like to report a fire. At the old Lebanon power plant.”

He wades numbly through whatever else they ask him. He flexes his feet on the Impala’s pedals; he never put on shoes. Cas, beside him, is silent.

It’s only a few minutes between the end of the phone call and the first sirens’ wail.

Lebanon has one fire truck — just one. It pulls up with flashing lights, and then there are people moving around, pulling large hoses, radios crackling, but they’re not accomplishing much of anything, not as far as Dean can tell. They don’t pay any mind to the Impala, parked above them on the hill, and after a few minutes, it becomes too much to bear.

Dean kills her engine and looks over at Cas. He’s still silent, staring numbly at the flames, and Dean stops halfway out of his seat to say, softly, “You okay?”

Cas’s head jerks sharply, as if he’s surprised. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, of course.”

“I’m gonna go —” Dean nods to the scene below. “See if there’s anyone to talk to. Wanna come?”

Cas shakes his head. He’s still wide-eyed, clearly only half listening to Dean, but then he abruptly turns to focus his gaze on Dean and says, “I’m sorry, yes, I — please.”

They walk down the road in stocking feet, Dean’s hand hovering in the small of Cas’s back. Some part of him is still terrified that Cas will dart back into the flames.

Dean forces himself to wait for the guy who seems to be in charge to turn around. “What’s the plan?” he asks, nodding toward the building.

The guy looks up at it, and back at him. He’s got deep jowls and Dean thinks he’s seen him around town, at the grocery store maybe, but never stopped to talk. “Place like this?” he says. “Exterior operations only. We’re setting up to dump water on it, but beyond that — no way I’m sending my guys in there.” He sighs, rubbing a hand over his face. “I just hope that whatever foolass kids started it are well out. I got some guys calling the moms of the usual suspects, make sure they’re home in bed.” He looks sharply up at Dean. “You got any notion who it might’ve been?”

Dean shakes his head past the lump in his throat. “No, I — we just live nearby. Saw the smoke.” On the last word, something in his chest curls in on itself, twisting with terror. Smoke in the bunker’s hallways, smoke in the kitchen, his room —

“My money’s on AJ Benson,” says the guy. “His mom says he got home late, but he’s there. He’s the one keeps graffitiing this place, not that she’d ever believe you if you told her. Caught him last year selling her prescription pills at the high school, and she tried to tell me he needed them for an old wrestling injury. I ask you.” He shakes his head. “Anyway, someone keeps scrubbing the graffiti off that door there, but I’m still pretty sure it’s AJ doing it.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, struggling to ride the tide of panic in his chest. “Yeah, that’s me. Cleaning it up, I mean.”

The guy looks at him sharply, as if he’s seeing him for the first time, and then at Cas, where his gaze lingers. “Well, you do a good job,” he says, slowly. “Listen, I gotta —”

“Yeah,”says Dean. “Yeah, of course.”

As he says it, flashing lights appear around the corner, and then another fire engine is pulling up. This one says Smith Center on the side — twenty minutes down the road. “You got other departments coming in?”

The guy snorts. “Son,” he says, “we got Hastings coming in. Stay back, now.”

He and Cas retreat halfway to the car. The narrow road in front of the bunker is filling up; the Smith Center truck is followed by two more. Not long after their arrival, they finally finish setting up their water supply — they’re pumping it from the river, no hydrants out here — and the first wide spray begins its counterassault against the flames. More join it, but Dean can’t help but think they’re not doing much. They can’t even get around the west side of the building, never mind down into the bunker, and he shies away from that thought.

He’s not sure how much time has passed before a car pulls up beside them. It’s a nondescript sedan, with a small pair of flashing lights at the top of the windshield, and the driver gets out, and it’s Donnie.

“Dean,” he says urgently, and that’s right, Dean remembers vaguely that Donnie’s on the Lebanon volunteers. “Dean, is there anyone inside?”

There’s a quiet, fierce intensity in his eyes; they reflect the orange flames. “I —” says Dean, sure he’s heard wrong, waiting for his brain to catch up.

“They don’t know what this place is,” Donnie interrupts him, jerking his head toward the out-of-town crews. “I don’t either. Not really. But I’m asking: is there anyone inside?”

Beside him, he hears Cas’s sharp intake of breath. “No,” he says. “No, we — got out okay.”

Donnie’s shoulders slump with relief. “Good,” he says, and he turns and is gone.

Dean feels obscurely like he should be helping. He knows his way around an emergency, even if he doesn’t really know his way around a fire crew. Maybe he should join one, after this. Maybe —

He’s distracted by the arrival of another car, an old red Ford pickup he recognizes as Martha’s.

It takes her a minute to slide out of the driver’s seat, and Dean moves automatically to help her, leaving Cas standing awkwardly in his socks at the side of the road. “Thank you, dear,” she tells him, patting his shoulder fondly. She looks at Cas. “Now. I suppose you boys will be needing a place to stay.”

She starts around the hood of the truck as she says it. The sky is just beginning to grow light, enough that when Dean glances at Cas, he can see they’re both equally confounded. “My guest room,” says Martha, ignoring them, “is always open, but you’ll say you want a motel anyway, so —” She wrestles with the passenger door of the truck briefly, but wrenches it open before Dean can think to help. “I brought a casserole. If you can’t be at home, you should at least have some home-cooked food.”

Dean feels, abruptly, like he might need to sit down in the dirt. “Martha,” he says weakly.

“Take it, now,” she tells him patiently, holding out the wide, foil-covered pan. “You’ll give this back when you’re done.”

Dean obeys, because that’s what he knows how to do. “Does everyone know about this place?”

“Oh, Lord, no,” says Martha, her entire face crinkling with a smile. “Just the old rumors. But I used to date a Man of Letters.” She  smiles almost impishly, and taps the side of her nose. “Very handsome. But, oh — dreadfully dull. I like you boys much better.”

Cas makes a strangled noise in his throat. Dean’s too shocked to help as she makes her way back around the cab and pulls herself back in. “Take care now,” she tells them, and rolls away.

Cas looks at Dean. Dean looks at Cas. The pan in his hands is still oven-warm, and Dean has no idea if Martha was woken by the sirens, or simply spends her early morning hours baking emergency comfort dishes as a matter of course.

There’s nothing else for it, so he holds out the pan. “Casserole?” he says.

---

They eat it in the Impala. Dean thinks he’s only hungry for a little, but once he gets started, the warmth in his belly feels so shockingly necessary that he can’t stop. Outside, the sky grows steadily lighter, leaden gray, and rain begins to fleck Baby’s windshield.

The flames look smaller by daylight — sadder. Dean’s not sure if it’s because the firefighters have finally got it under control or it’s merely the difference in the light. The hoses pump steadily away, but it’s only around 10am, when the sky opens up and starts to ladle out a soaking rain, that the fire finally begins to give way.

The hammer of raindrops on the Impala’s roof is soothing, somehow. In the passenger seat, Cas is dozing, head tipped back and arm stretched out along the seatback. It’s starting to lull Dean too when he glances in the rearview mirror to see a familiar station wagon pulling up behind them.

“Cas,” he says, shaking his shoulder. “Cas, it’s Elizabeth.”

He forgets he’s not wearing shoes as he slides out of the car, and winces when cold water soaks his socks. But Elizabeth is already out of her car, and she gasps in relief, and flies forward to pull him into a hug.

“Hey,” he murmurs into her hair. “Hey, it’s all right. We’re just fine.”

“I heard it on the morning news,” she says. Her words trip over each other, and she’s wide-eyed behind her glasses. “I was driving to work, I turned right around — you weren’t answering your phones, again —”

“Forgot ‘em inside,” Dean admits, feeling suddenly guilty. But then she’s releasing him and turning to look at Cas.

He’s come around the Impala’s hood, hands in his pockets and hair flattened down over his forehead, dripping. He looks about as forlorn and bereft as Dean’s ever seen him, standing there in the rain, and Dean wants to go to him, to make it better, but Elizabeth gets there first.

Cas,” she says, and pulls him into a tearful hug.

He stands there like a board. “Elizabeth, the welwitschia,” he says, “your plants — I left them inside —”

“You think that matters? I care about you, you asshole,” she sniffs, hugging him tighter. “They can burn to ash, for all I care, if you’re all right.”

Cas makes a small, wounded noise. He closes his eyes. But his arms finally come up to hug her back.

---

Elizabeth’s presence reminds Dean that they probably need to tell some people they’re alive, so he calls Sam from his spare phone and leaves it up to him to pass the info on to Mom. Then they go to find a room at the motel in Smith Center, and leave the firefighters to their cleanup job.

He and Cas spend most of the day in bed, their wet clothes spread over the heating unit to dry. Elizabeth insisted on getting them shoes before she left, and Martha insisted on not taking payment when they came by the store. She also pressed fresh clothes on them, and for all his reservations, Dean’s honestly grateful. He’s beat, though, Cas maybe even more so; both of them are happy to relegate questions of investigating the damage and salvaging what they can for some indeterminate Later.

Dean hasn’t really been letting himself think about it. He touched base with Sam long enough to ascertain there haven’t been any omens in the area, though Sam says he’ll follow up with a more in-depth search. Dean even dangled a few innocuous questions to Martha, just a Weird, huh? This and those cattle deaths, but Martha looked at him sharply and pointed out that to her knowledge no one in the county had lost a cow in weeks.

The fire chief’s theory probably makes more sense, anyway. Just a kid making trouble, and biting off more than he bargained for. Dean’s not sure it makes him any less uneasy than the thought of a vengeance-bent demon dogging their steps, and that maybe should tell him that he’s a little fucked in the head.

There’s part of him that keeps wanting to rationalize. He’s never fully understood all the mechanisms that make the bunker tick, but he knows it can seal itself in an emergency; he’s been on the wrong end of that one before. Yeah, there was smoke coming in, and they could get out, but maybe it managed it later. Maybe, even if the fire did get in, it wasn’t that bad. Maybe —

It’s not worth thinking about.

They order pizza for dinner, and Dean answers the door wrapped in a towel; they still haven’t opened Martha’s bag of clothes. The delivery girl blushes and stutters, and he gives her his most charming smile and tips her as well as he can. He demolishes four slices, and Cas eats three. When he’s done, there’s a smudge of sauce on his chest, and he laughs when Dean leans over to lick it clean.

“I’m sorry,” Dean murmurs. He keeps his eyes on Cas’s skin, too close even to focus, and runs his fingers down the dips between his ribs. “I made you leave the plants.”

“Dean,” says Cas, a gentle reproach. “I’m sorry I made you make me.” His fingers curl in Dean’s hair. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” says Dean, lifting his head in mild surprise. Why wouldn’t I be is on the tip of his tongue, and then he remembers the terror that nearly cripples him every time he thinks about the smoke, and the fact that he’s pulled Sam twice from buildings that burned his world to ashes, and he thinks maybe Cas has a point.

“It’s all right if you’re not,” says Cas. “It’s —”

Dean cuts him off with a kiss. He gets it, he does; he just doesn’t need Cas to keep saying it.

It’s a weird limbo of a day and night. They don’t talk about the bunker, or the fire. They don’t talk much, honestly, but every time Dean needs Cas, he finds that he’s there — curled around him in bed, slipping with him into the shower, touching each other like no closeness is too close, like the way to seal their bodies wholly together remains undiscovered, like there is no higher purpose than seeking it out.

They sleep a lot, but not with any rhythm. They fuck once. The rest of the time is spent simply exploring each other, learning the ley lines of each other’s bodies, navigating by lips and hands and losing all sense of concrete time and space. Around dawn, by some unspoken agreement, they get dressed and pack up their things.

It’s not a long drive back to the bunker. It might be too short, for the weight of the moment. Dean drives slowly, takes the corners so gently you barely feel them, but still, he’s not ready when they come to the stop.

The power plant looks like a burned out shell. It looked like a shell already, yes, but different — the windows now are like gaping holes left by missing teeth, black streaks of soot down the walls. The ground everywhere is littered with ash and debris.

Dean remembers the ash in Sam and Jess’s apartment. He never went back to the house in Lawrence, but he did in Palo Alto. The ash was thick on the ground then like it is now. It puffs around his boots as he descends the stairs to the front door.

The surface of the door itself is charred and blackened, no trace of the graffiti he and Cas and Elizabeth cleaned off a few weeks ago. While Dean steels himself, Cas reaches over his shoulder and runs a finger down the surface of the door. It comes away black.

Dean remembers their first time here, him and Sam with the key. He remembers wrenching this door open, one leg like a dead weight at his side, to see Sam staggering, half-collapsed on the war room floor. He turns to Cas. “Whatever it is,” he says, “we got what’s important, okay?”

Cas nods. Dean opens the door.

For a moment, he can see nothing but black. The smell of smoke and damp almost chokes him. He reaches for the flashlight in his belt.

Then, as he takes another step, a whirring sounds, and the lights hum on.

There are puddles everywhere. A thin scum of ash floats on top of them like pollen. The rest of the floor is coated with ash, too, washed into rings and eddies by water that must have already drained elsewhere. A Men of Letters report lies facedown on the war room floor, pages plastered to the concrete. The smell of smoke is overwhelming.

But there are no char marks on the columns or the frieze. No soot. Beyond the steps, the library glows in the lamplight, warm and serene as ever.

They descend without speaking, as if in a dream.

There’s more ash in the bunker’s lower levels, and more water. One corridor holds a long, still pool so dark as to look bottomless, but it’s only an inch, at most. There are bathtub rings along the walls. On the floor of Dean’s room, his boots are wet and ash-encrusted, but when he picks up his phone from the bedside table, it turns on instantly, showing him a dozen missed calls.

He swipes the one with Sam’s name out of instinct. Sam answers on the second ring. “Hey,” says Dean, his voice coming out strange and shaky and smiling, “it’s all right. It’s a mess, but it’s all right.”

Sam doesn’t have to ask; he laughs, instead, with startled relief, and Dean finds himself laughing too. He turns to look at Cas — to share the giddy incredulity — and discovers instead that he’s gone.

Dean finds him in the bathroom, down on one knee on the dirty floor. There’s no standing water here, but it’s left debris behind it, more than in other rooms — random detritus accumulated around the shower drain. The ash has settled into the grooves between the tiles, making the whole floor look chalky and strange.

It’s also dusted one of the welwitschia’s leaves, where it dangles nearly to the floor. Cas rubs it off absently, and runs his fingers down the leaf’s veins. His eyebrows are drawn together, lips slightly parted, and Dean can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“Is it okay?” he asks finally, hovering at Cas’s shoulder. Cas ducks his head, and Dean can suddenly see that he’s smiling, a startled flush on his cheeks.

“Yeah,” says Cas. “Yeah. It is.”

---

Dean switches into full cleanup mode after that. The smell of smoke is still pervasive, so the first thing he does is spend some time with the bunker’s systems overrides, figuring out how to run a full air replacement cycle. Once that’s going, he goes to help Cas with the mopping.

They work in companionable silence for an hour or so, working their way from the war room to the kitchen and down the hallway, following the path of the water’s flow. When Dean calls a break for a late morning snack, Cas leans his mop against the wall with a small smile. His face is bright under a faint sheen of sweat, and he holds his shoulders back, head tall, despite the strain of bending over to work.

“I learned to mop last time I was human,” he comments casually as he follows Dean down the corridor to the kitchen, with such ill-concealed pride that it lodges a funny lump of feeling in Dean’s chest, too big for him to know what to do with. He leads the way through the door and over to the fridge.

Their food is in surprisingly good shape — sealed against the smoke, and everything inside was still cold despite the bunker’s short-term electrical shutdown — and Dean spends a moment studying the array of options before turning sharply, closing the door, and kissing Cas hard on the mouth.

Cas makes a startled, pleased, encouraging sound, answering him enthusiastically, and Dean draws back enough to murmur, “You make a very sexy human” against Cas’s lips. With a small, frustrated growl, Cas grabs Dean’s hips to jerk him close.

Dean will probably never get over this about Cas — the utterly unabashed way he goes after what he wants, like no one ever taught him not to, and Dean’s sure as hell not going to be the one to do it. He goes with it willingly, and hears a stifled, needy noise that must come from his own throat. Cas catches his mouth with his own again, though, fingers sliding under Dean’s jaw and over his pulse, tongue diving into his mouth, and Cas cants his hips into Dean’s and Dean makes the noise again and a voice from the door says, “Uh. I guess I should have knocked.”

Dean falls back coughing in surprise, and nearly lands on his ass on the kitchen floor. Sam, standing in the threshold, looks equal parts mortified and diabolically amused.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard you make that noise, Dean,” he says, taking a step inside and stifling a grin. “Would you call it more of a whimper or a whine? ‘Cause —”

“Screw you,” says Dean, but he thinks it’s Cas crossing his arms and fixing Sam with a distinctly unfriendly look that actually shuts him up.

“Anyway,” he says, “I figured I’d come down to help with the cleanup, but if you guys want to get on with — ah —”

“Get scrubbing, asshole,” says Dean, and flings a sponge at his brother’s head.

---

Sam dedicates himself to finding and salvaging the water-damaged Men of Letters files. The library got away largely untouched, but the lower shelves in the storage room took some damage, and soon Sam’s set up a ridiculous spiderweb of clotheslines with delicate pages dangling off them and a space heater he took from his own room blasting away underneath. He’s mumbling something about curatorial techniques he wishes he had access to when Dean checks in on him around lunchtime.

Dean is opening his mouth to ask him if he’s hungry when he feels Cas’s hand on his arm, squeezing lightly. Dean looks over at him in confusion, and Cas shakes his head infinitesimally, eyes boring into Dean’s, then releases him and turns away. Oblivious, Sam mutters on.

Dean isn’t an idiot. He spares one more glance for the back of his brother’s head, and follows Cas to their room.

The smoky smell’s not entirely gone — Dean thinks, falling back on them, that it might be clinging to the sheets — but it doesn’t matter. Cas fucks him with one hand over his mouth, takes him apart slow, slower than he should dare to, with Sam in the other room. Only it’s hard to remember about Sam when Cas is doing things like that and shushing Dean in a loving whisper that pours over his skin like liquid and raises goosebumps on his arms.

When Dean can’t help but release an audible “Cas,” ragged and muffled and wrung out of his lungs, Cas stills inside him with a look of reproach. Dean writhes beneath him, desperate for friction, too far gone for any sense of shame, but Cas pins his hips back against the bed and kisses him into submission, devouring the desperate noise that escapes from Dean’s throat. Somehow, Dean forces his own limbs to relax in acquiescence, and he feels Cas’s cock stiffen still further inside him and barely chokes down a sudden sob of need.

But then Cas is moving again, drilling every last thought out of Dean’s skull, and he flings his head back and forces himself to breathe, just breathe, while Cas’s teeth graze his throat and clench gently on his pulse and Dean’s brain melts into white-hot static. He’s so focused on not making noise that his orgasm takes him almost by surprise, roaring up like a rip tide to pull him under whole, and he’s still helpless to control the shudders of residual pleasure when Cas pulls out a long minute later. He just groans and turns facedown on the bed, and Cas leans down over him, pressing the length of their bodies together again, and kisses the side of Dean’s neck and murmurs, “Come on. We should help your brother.”

Sam. Dean’s almost forgotten why he needed to be quiet in the first place, and he feels his face heat at the thought. Cas chuckles and pulls him to his feet, steadying Dean’s hips when he sways. “Come on,” he says again, and presses Dean’s clothes into his hands.

For the rest of the day, Dean never manages to quite banish the flush that stains his cheeks, and he avoids both Sam and Cas for long hours but can’t do it forever. Sam comes to help him finish checking and cleaning the weapons, and he keeps looking over at Dean and chuckling quietly to himself until Dean rolls his eyes to the ceiling and says, loudly, “What?”

“Nothing.” Sam quickly schools his face into a poor rendition of solemnity; just as quickly, he’s fighting another smile. “Just — you’re pretty disgustingly in love.”

Dean opens his mouth automatically to deny it, only he can’t. He looks down at the gun he’s cleaning in consternation, and Sam laughs softly, like he really is happy for Dean, like all of this is about not mockery but joy. That revelation catches him so startlingly out of left field that he forgets to say anything at all, and Sam just smiles wider, grin dimpling his cheeks, and he ducks his head and returns to his own work.

That’s mine, Dean thinks suddenly. I raised that kid. I did that.

At this rate, he’s going to get all teary-eyed or something, so he coughs loudly to settle himself before he tests the gun’s action. Satisfied, he returns it to its place, excuses himself vaguely, and flees.

He can’t find Cas in any of the places he checks inside the bunker, which is looking more and more like itself as the small things return to their places. He tries to keep his footsteps quiet on the way up the stairs and shoulders on his coat as he turns the doorknob to slip outside.

Things look less normal out here. Dean’s boots crunch on broken glass as he follows the faint, familiar track around the corner of the building and north along its wall.

It’s nearly sunset. The sky is quilted with high wisps and ridges of cloud, beginning to blush a muted pink. Dean stubs his boot against a charred bit of wood, and stirs up a small eddy of ash. His vision darkens briefly, the whole world in the half-light looking suddenly gray, but he nods his way through the gut-swoop of terror and keeps walking.

He rounds the corner and sees Cas.

He’s wearing his old trenchcoat, hands in his pockets. It flaps around his legs in the light breeze. He’s facing away from Dean, utterly still, dead center under the arching dome of sky.

Around him, the garden is black and lifeless. Every last blade of grass has burned away.

Dean doesn’t realize he’s made a sound until Cas turns to face him, eyes are narrowed against the sudden glare of the setting sun. It lights his face up golden and gilds the blackened earth as if it were something beautiful. Cas’s expression is inscrutable.

“Cas,” says Dean. “Cas, I’m — so sorry.”

The words are wholly inadequate. Cas takes a step toward him, and another, closing the distance between them, and Dean sees that there’s a smile on his face. Some people do that, he thinks, smile when they think they’re about to cry, like that can hold it in, though Cas has always been more of a poker face kind of guy.

Cas, he almost says again, but the name sticks in his throat.

Cas stops an arm’s length away from him. He’s still smiling, and he doesn’t look like he’s holding back tears. Dean opens his mouth to say something — what, he has no idea — but Cas pivots on his heel, sweeping his arm out in a grand gesture that takes in the whole desolate scene.

“You want to see real tallgrass?” he asks, and the happiness in his voice is unmistakable. “You’ll get to now.”

Dean stares. “I — don’t understand.”

Cas turns back to him, and it’s more than the sunset lighting up his face. “Prairie fire, Dean. It’s the only reason these ecosystems ever existed in the first place.” Seeing Dean’s confusion, he steps closer, expression softening. Just as he gets close enough for Dean to reach out and touch, he crouches suddenly, scooping a handful of scorched earth from the ground at his feet. When he straightens, he reaches for Dean’s hands, cupping them into a shallow bowl, and pours the dirt between them.

“Remember all the dead grass we had here?” he asks, running light fingers through the soil in Dean’s hands and brushing against his palm. “It would have decayed slowly, returning its nutrients to the ground. In the meantime, it would have shaded the new year’s growth, and kept the soil cold long into spring. Now —” He shakes his head in wonder. “All of that nitrogen and phosphorus is feeding right back into the living roots. The soil will warm quickly when spring returns. The new shoots will have plenty of light.”

“It’ll grow back,” Dean says slowly. He might sound stupid. It doesn’t matter. He has to make sure he understands.

“It’ll grow back,” Cas echoes, his smile splitting his face now with delight. “Green and lush and — so much better than before, Dean, I wish I could show you now, I wish I could — once I would only have to touch you to give you everything I know. All those thousands of years of destruction and renewal, the bison that grazed here, with grass above their heads and orchids at their feet —” He breaks off, dropping his head, but he’s still smiling. “I used to think it was a fair trade. Millennia and light-years of knowledge, of beauty, for — this.” He reaches out suddenly and rests his palm against Dean’s heart. “For the depths of human emotion. Love. The intensity of experience. I —” He shakes his head. “I do not know how I got so lucky as to live a life with both.”

Dean wants to reach out and touch him; to place his own palm over Cas’s hand on his heart. But his hands are full of soil, and he feels, somehow, as though he should not let it fall. Instead, he says hoarsely, “Cas.”

“It isn’t fair,” says Cas, “that I should have both, and you only one. I wish I could give you that. I wish —”

He breaks off, and Dean thinks of another day in this garden, of a bee’s slow feet tickling the palm of his hand. He thinks of Cas warming his hands in his. He thinks of Andromeda, and of the stars, and he thinks of their rumpled bedsheets and the breathless sounds Cas makes that he’s only just discovering; he thinks of Cas in the front seat of the Impala, of how Cas is stitched through his life and his heart. He thinks of Cas by his side at a campfire in Purgatory, of Cas battling his way through all the ranks of hell to pull Dean out. He thinks of Cas flinging him through space and time at a moment’s notice, of Cas donning a cheesy tourist’s cowboy hat, of Cas asleep in Dean’s own bed, mumbling faintly through his dreams.

He opens his hands and lets the soil fall. It runs smoothly through his fingers, but it doesn’t feel like a loss. Empty-handed, he meets Cas’s gaze.

He says, “You have.”

Chapter Text

A blade of grass is tickling Dean’s nose.

He bats at it without opening his eyes, and earns himself a momentary reprieve before it settles on his eyelid. Dean grumbles vaguely and props himself up on his elbows, opening his eyes.

“You should be resting,” says Cas.

“I am resting,” Dean counters. “I’ve been resting for the last hour. I’m fine, Cas.”

He’s not entirely fine. Last week’s werewolf opened a big enough gash in his side to land him at the ER, for the first time in a while. Now, the stitches carve a neat half moon above his left hip. They pull painfully when he tenses his abs to sit up. Cas doesn’t like it. Dean does it anyway.

“Lie back down,” says Cas without looking at him.

He’s focused, to be fair, on his task. He and Elizabeth planted fifty orchid seedlings here this spring — all successfully germinated in Elizabeth’s greenhouse — and are experimenting with different shade and moisture regimes. That’s what Cas says they’re doing, anyway. In reality, it means that Cas is carefully counting leaves on each of a tidy little row of plants half-hidden under the towering grass stems, and making little notes in a journal. He does it every week. Dean usually doesn’t lie here and watch him, because he usually feels like there are other things he should be doing, but just now Cas is aggressively cooking for him and helping him walk everywhere and bullying him into bed rest, and there’s not much of anything for Dean to do.

It’s making him kind of stir crazy, so today he wouldn’t take no for an answer, quarreled Cas into agreeing that leaving Dean alone inside would be a surefire way to let him do something stupid, and leaned heavily on him the whole way around the building. Once, he had to stop and put his head against the wall for a long minute, dizzy, while Cas hovered and fretted and proposed going back inside, but he felt better after that, and forced Cas to keep helping him or let him continue on his own.

Granted, in this particular instance, he should take Cas’s advice. The effort of sitting half up is starting to send spikes of pain through his muscles, which is just fucking pathetic, so instead of doing as Cas says, he shoots back, “Make me.”

Cas turns to look at him.

His dark hair is messy this morning, and his face is just a little pinched in that look of irritated forbearance that Dean inexplicably loves. The day is shaping up to be a hot one, even for June, and Cas is already down to his T-shirt. He has nice arms. He never used to reveal his arms, and the thought makes Dean grin, it’s not like arms are a scandalous body part, though hell, they could be with Cas, so maybe that makes sense.

Cas sets down his notebook and pencil on the ground and moves toward Dean. He’s on his hands and knees, entirely ungraceful, but Dean’s heart still catches in his throat at the intensity of Cas’s gaze. They haven’t had sex since before the hunt, and Dean’s practically crawling out of his skin with the frustration of it. He feels his pulse speed as Cas draws near, lips parting and breath coming shallower, and Cas must notice, because he draws up next to Dean on his knees and cocks his head at him, looking amused. Then he reaches out with one hand and lightly shoves Dean’s shoulder.

“Ow!” says Dean. Pain flares in his belly, and he drops onto his back again without ceremony, gasping to recover. Cas doesn’t move, just keeps watching him.

“That,” he says, “is why you need to rest.”

“Didn’t need to be a dick about it,” Dean mutters, regarding the sky. At least this time he’s somehow avoided a faceful of grass blade.

“I really did,” says Cas, but he stretches out beside Dean anyway, settling himself carefully in the grass, and tilts his head back to rest gently against Dean’s chest.

He’s on the good side, but he still murmurs, “That ok?”, and Dean nods and brings his arm around to circle Cas’s hips. He finds the hem of his shirt and hitches it up to graze his fingertips over the warm skin beneath, and Cas shivers happily and lets him.

The view of the sky above them is almost obscured by a bower of waving grasses. Behind their lattice, white clouds drift busily from west to east, reinventing themselves as they go. Dean’s never been great at naming cloud animals, used to make the effort for Sammy’s sake, and he’s just about to open his mouth to point out the view of an incipient mongoose when a butterfly blocks his view.

It’s an actual butterfly, not a cloud one. It banks sharply between the grass stems, teetering on its wings. They’re patterned in red-orange and a brown that’s nearly black, all jeweled in shining silver spots that flash in the sun.

Cas raises his arm to vertical, stretching out his fingers invitingly, like he expects the butterfly to land. Instead, it veers hastily away, fluttering higher and out of reach. Cas drops his arm with an irritated noise of discontent.

“Oh my God,” says Dean, in a flash of insight. “You used to have animals go moony on you whenever you reached out a hand, didn’t you. You did.

He can’t see all of Cas’s face, but he can see that he’s blushing. “Shut up.”

Dean laughs. He can’t help it, even though it hurts. “You seriously — I can’t believe I landed myself an actual fucking Disney princess —” and he’s off again. Every laugh he tries to suppress just bursts out harder, until his whole body is shaking with it, and the pain is bringing tears to his eyes but he honestly can’t stop, it’s just too fucking funny.

He wonders if Cas would expect birds to come serenade him when he wakes up, if the bunker had actual windows. And that puts him over the edge. He has to roll away onto his side, curling around the wound, as his shoulders shake and his lungs heave with mirth. “Sorry,” he gasps, “sorry, I —”

Cas is propped up on one arm, looking down at him with unbearable fondness. “Dean,” he says, and bends down to kiss him into silence.

It works. Dean’s focus transfers instantly and entirely to Cas’s lips on his, Cas’s fingers curling gently against his neck. He tilts his head back, lips parting, inviting, and Cas follows, kisses him like it’ll make Dean forget his laughter, forget his own name, and Dean can’t say it won’t.

Then Cas pulls back, and Sam was right, Dean does love chick flicks, he thinks he’s probably in one, and it’s the corniest fucking thing in the world but he says anyway, “I shouldn’t be surprised. It worked on me.”

Cas considers him. “Actually,” he says, “I think it was the other way around.”

Dean blinks. He files the information away for future consideration: he is a complete romantic sap who apparently doesn’t mind being compared to fucking Ariel or whatever.

It doesn’t bother him as much as he thinks it should.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, and pulls Cas down for another kiss.