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Sam brings it up as they're driving back from the steakhouse in Mankato.

Dean cuts him a sharp, sideways glance. "You think I should what?"

"I think you should try journaling."

They're cruising west on US 36, into an orange-gold smear of a sunset that's just bright enough to make Dean squint. As they pass the junction with Highway 112, he looks for the wrecked tractor he saw as he headed for the Chuck showdown. There's no sign of it now; Jack must've reset everyone to a time before the big disappearing act.

He asks, "Why the hell would I wanna do that?"

"It's a good way to process trauma," Sam explains. "We're writing our own story now, but we still have a bunch of stuff to work through. And it's not like we can dump monsters and angels and… God on a therapist."

Dean huffs under his breath. He's sure therapy works for some people, and that's great for them. But the idea of airing all his dirty laundry to a stranger makes something cold and uncomfortable squirm around in his gut.

"No thanks."

"Dean—"

"Look. I just had a fantastic porterhouse, and I'm driving down a road without a monster at the end of it. I don't need you doing—" Dean waves a hand in the air. "Whatever this is."

"Fine," Sam says, sighing. "Just—just think about it, yeah?"

Dean huffs again. "Yeah."

 

+

 

Dean doesn't think about it. Not really. Not until a couple days later, when he walks into the library and finds Sam at his favorite table, hunched over a blue Moleskine. He's scribbling furiously, using the kind of fancy pen that looks like a Rolex and sounds like birds pecking at the paper.

"Sammy," he singsongs. "You writing in your diary?"

Sam gives him the finger without even looking up.

 

+

 

Another week goes by before Dean thinks about it again. They're coming in from a job in Lubbock—what they thought was a haunting but turned out to be a cursed pocket watch that made people hallucinate their dead loved ones. Dean had mixed feelings about saddling up again, but this thing had already racked up two accidents and a suicide and Jody and the girls were busy working other gigs.

Once they figured out what they were dealing with, they grabbed it, bundled it up in layers of shop rags and newspaper, and stowed it in the Impala's trunk. Then they lead-footed it the nine hours back to Lebanon with the ghost of their mom in the backseat. She was less substantial than the apparitions witnesses described, nearly transparent in the sunlight streaming through the Impala's windows, but it was enough. Each flickering glimpse of her in the rearview mirror had been a knife-twist to the gut.

Carefully, Dean carries the pocket watch into the bunker. Even though it's all wrapped up, he moves like he's holding a bomb. Once he's down in the archive room, he pokes around the shelves until he finds an empty curse box. The only one left is pretty small, had probably been designed for jewelry. Stuffing the whole bundle in there is a tight fit, but after that bitch of a drive, Dean isn't going to risk touching it.

As he puts the curse box back, he notices a notebook on the shelf above it. It's bound in light brown leather, embossed with a pair of wings with a weird squiggle between them, and covered in a thick layer of dust. Its parchment pages feel grainy against his fingers; all of them are blank.

He stares at it for a second, then tucks it under his arm and heads back up the stairs.

 

+

 

Unsurprisingly, it ends up being a bad night. A sullen, restless ache burrows into the space behind Dean's ribs, and by ten-thirty, it's clear that nothing's going to put him to sleep but a two-by-four to the back of the head. By midnight, he's sitting on his bed with his back against the headboard and a bottle of Maker's Mark in his lap, waiting for his heartburn to settle so he can have another shot. At his knee, his laptop is open to an episode of Shameless—something about Frank faking his own death. He lost track of it about fifteen minutes in and never bothered turning it off.

He closes his eyes and tries to make himself breathe. All he sees is Cas in the moments before he died—Cas taking one last look at him before the Empty wrapped around him, Cas giving him one last trembling, watery smile. Dean has never understood the faith Cas had in him, and he doubts he ever will despite everything Cas said to him. But that smile—that smile destroyed something inside him, something he's not sure will ever heal.

His next shot of bourbon tastes like the acid burning in the back of his throat. He chokes it down, then sets the bottle on his nightstand and stumbles over to his desk. He opens the notebook, grabs the first pen he sees, and scrawls the date—November 28, 2020.

After a pause, he writes This is stupid and slams the notebook closed.

 

+

 

Three days later, Sam corners him in the kitchen. His hair is shower-damp at the temples, and he's holding their battered tablet in one hand, has it tucked up against his chest like he's carrying a baby.

He asks, "Are you up for a job?"

Dean has a mouthful of bacon sandwich; he stops chewing long enough to grunt, "What kind of job?"

"Desecrated graves in—" Sam checks the tablet "—Douglas, Wyoming." When Dean just keeps chewing, he continues, "If you're not feeling it, I can text Eileen and have her meet me there. She just wrapped up a vamp nest in Pocatello, so she's in the neighborhood."

Dean's last bite of sandwich is mostly crust. He pops it in his mouth and washes it down with the dregs of his coffee. Then: "I thought you said we were gonna write our own story."

"I did."

"And this is all you got? Going back to the grind?"

After a pause, Sam says, "Maybe," and sets the tablet on the table. It's open to a bright-white online article from the Casper Star-Tribune; Dean squints at it as Sam continues, "I've been thinking about it, and this is what I'm good at. It's what I know. And now that Chuck's gone, it feels different. It's less—" He trails off and waves his hands like he can't find the words. "It's smaller. It's saving people, not the whole world."

That's more than Dean can deal with before noon, so he gets up and pours himself another cup of coffee. It's the bottom of the pot—tarry and slightly burnt—but drinking it gives him something to do with his mouth.

Sam asks, "What about you?"

Dean doesn't have an answer to that. Yeah, hunting's what he's good at. Yeah, it's what he knows. But it's worn him down over the years, and he's not sure he can bright-side it like Sam just because Chuck's out of the picture. At the same time, he's not sure what else he can do. He's legally dead, and he doesn't have that many marketable skills. He could work construction again until his back finally gives out; he knows enough about cars to maybe land work in a shop. But he—he doesn't know. He's never been good at wanting things for himself.

Cas was the only exception, and he got swallowed up by a mass of cosmic goo.

"No clue," Dean says finally.

"Then pack a bag," Sam says. " Maybe you can figure it out on the way to Wyoming."

 

+

 

Douglas isn't much, just six thousand people clustered around a slow curve in US 26. It hosts the Wyoming State Fair every year, so it has more motels than most towns its size. The cheapest one is the Budget Deluxe—a shapeless flop with badly-painted cinderblock walls and a mansard roof that was probably hot-rod red before it spent forty years out in the weather. Their room is halfway between the office and a bank of asthmatic vending machines, has shag carpet and sunflower wallpaper and reeks of stale cigarette smoke.

"I'll grab some grub," Sam volunteers, gesturing for the keys. "Any requests?"

"Anything but fucking McDonald's."

"Got it." Sam fishes their laptop out of his bag and tosses it on Dean's bed. "Check and see if there are any photos of the cemetery online."

Google Images is a bust; the first is an arty shot of an obelisk with the sun flaring into the camera and the other five just show the rusty front gate. Google Maps is a little better. The dirt track cutting through the cemetery isn't archived, so Dean slowly mouse-drives the road looping around it. From what he can tell, it doesn't have any vaults. Since ghouls need privacy, he makes a second trip and looks for any convenient garages or sheds.

Just as he's is finishing up, Sam comes back with Eileen and three bags of take-out from the truck stop up the street.

Dean says, "Hi, Eileen," out loud, then fumbles through the signs for, "It's good to see you."

Eileen smiles. "It's good to see you too."

"This is yours," Sam says, setting one bag on the pressboard dinette. "Country-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, pie. Eileen's got the room next door, so we're going to go catch up."

"Uh-huh," Dean says, dry. They've Skyped a few times since Jack reset everything, but they haven't seen each other in person. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"

"Asshole," Sam mutters. A faint flush starts crawling up his jaw. "What time do you want to do this?"

It's just after five; through the open door behind them, the sky is purple with the last hints of sunset. "I don't know. Nine?"

"Sounds good."

Once they're gone, Dean snags a beer and his food. He works his way through both while flipping through the motel's handful of channels. This early, it's mostly Wheel of Fortune and local news. A live car chase down in Laramie distracts him enough that he ends up spilling gravy down the front of his shirt. Cursing, he sets the food aside and digs through his bag. At the bottom, he finds the leather notebook. He's not sure why he brought it; he hasn't used it since that first night.

He grabs the motel pen off the nightstand and writes: December 1—I miss Cas

Admitting it—even on paper—makes him feel hollow and sick. He takes a few deep breaths, then rubs his stinging eyes and tosses the notebook on the bed.

 

+

 

Sam and Eileen don't knock on his door until nearly ten. Judging by the hickey underneath Sam's ear, Dean doesn't need to ask why. Normally, he'd rib them a little, but he dozed off while he was waiting for them and woke up feeling like he didn't fit inside his skin. All he wants to do now is get the job done, have a couple of drinks, and go back to sleep.

He hustles them into the Impala and makes the five-minute drive up to the cemetery. He parks on the opposite end from the most likely shed so her engine doesn't spook the ghoul. They cut straight across the grass, which is wet enough from a recent round of sprinklers that Dean's jeans end up damp past his ankles. In the sodium flare of the security lights, the shed's aluminum frame is a dull, brownish-gray. Dean passes around the shotguns and Sam kicks down the door.

Three hunters is more hands on deck than one ghoul really needs, so they get the thing cornered and killed in less than ten minutes. The rough brick building next to the shed looks like an abandoned charnel house; they torch the ghoul and its corpse dinner in there instead of driving around all night looking for an open field. It's littered with old pallets, broken coffins, and empty mulch bags, which makes for more than enough kindling.

When they get back to the motel, Sam slinks off to bunk with Eileen. Dean grabs the Maker's Mark from his bag and slouches onto his bed.

Four shots and two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show later, he fumbles through the clothes strewn around him until he finds the notebook and pen.

December 1 December 2—I wish we'd had more time.

 

+

 

Eileen leaves them first thing in the morning; she wants to check on a hunting buddy she hasn't heard from since Jack put everything right.

"She's in St. George," Eileen explains, shivering in the cold light of a Wyoming sunrise. "After that, maybe I'll head toward you."

Dean takes the smile that splits Sam's face as his cue to make himself scarce. He shuffles into the office to see what the Budget Deluxe is offering for continental breakfast. It looks like garbage, and not just because he's hungover; it's one of the worst spreads he's seen in thirty-plus years on the road. Still, he figures he should give Sam and Eileen a few minutes, so he takes his time picking it over. He ends up with a cup of chicory that smells like motor oil and a bagel he hopes will soak up some of the leftover booze sloshing around in his gut.

When he walks back out to the parking lot, Sam is leaning against the Impala's hood, his feet crossed at the ankles. His cheeks are pink, either from Eileen or the cold.

He asks Dean, "You ready?"

"Yeah," Dean says, trying to find a smile. "Just waiting on you."

 

+

 

When they're about two hours in, pushing southeast on US 26 and closing in on the Wyoming-Nebraska line, Sam asks, "You alright?"

"Yep." Dean's gut wants a divorce, and a headache is jackhammering at the base of his skull. He hasn't slept much in the last week. He misses Cas like a phantom limb. "Just peachy."

"You sure? Because you look pretty green around the gills."

"I had a long night."

"Alone?" Sam asks, eyeing him sideways. "Don't you think you're getting a little old for that?"

If Dean's brain was firing on all cylinders, he could turn that into a fight. But it isn't, so he reaches for the radio. The cassette in the tape deck is Zeppelin, which he isn't sure he can listen to yet. He spins the FM dial past several obnoxious morning DJs until he finds a farm report.

"As of Saturday," the radio drones, "nine percent of beets are harvested."

Sighing, Sam says, "Maybe you should tell me what really happened."

"With what?"

"With Billie. And—" Sam's voice dips slightly. "Cas."

The lurch in Dean's gut has nothing to do with his hangover. He grunts, "I already told you what happened," and keeps his eyes on the road.

"Yeah, you told me that he had some crazy deal with the Empty, and that he cashed it in to keep Billie from icing you."

"Maybe 'cuz that's what happened."

"As of Saturday, eleven percent of cabbages are harvested."

Sam sighs again. He turns the volume down to a buzz and says, "Sure. But you didn't give me the whole story."

Dean says, "Sam," and stops. He thinks of Cas' crying. Cas' hand shaking as it touched his shoulder. Cas' mouth curving around that last fucking smile. The ache under his ribs is so restless and raw he barely has room to breathe. "I'm not—I can't—"

"Hey," Sam says carefully. "I know that Cas… meant a lot to you. It's going to be hard. But you're obviously carrying something pretty heavy."

A horn blares somewhere behind them. Dean says, "Fine. You really wanna know?"

"Yeah."

"He—he, uh." Dean stops again and clears his throat. "Right before it took him, he—he told me he loved me."

After a short, awful silence, Sam says, "Oh."

"Oh?" Dean mimics. His headache is a living thing now—pounding in his temples, throbbing behind his ears. "Is that all you got?"

"I—I'm just surprised he finally told you."

"What?" Dean hisses. "You, uh. You knew?"

"Yeah."

"Shit."

"Are you—oh." Sam makes a noise in the back of his throat. "You didn't know."

It isn't really a question, but Dean mutters, "No," anyway. "I—how the hell would I have known?"

"He wasn't exactly subtle." Sam shifts in his seat as he continues, "Neither were you."

Hearing it out loud makes Dean tighten his grip on the wheel. He'd spent so long burying it that he figured no one else had noticed. But Sam is Sam. He's always been too smart for his own good.

"Guess not," he admits. Cas deserves that much, at least. "You—when'd you work it out?"

Sam is quiet for a couple of miles. Then: "After that thing with the leviathan, when we thought he was dead. You were a mess while he was gone, and you were still a mess after he came back."

And that—yeah. It’s so close to the truth it's nearly a bullseye. Dean had always wanted Cas. Wanted. From that first night, when they were standing in that barn, the air between them had arced and snapped like a live wire. But it had been visceral. Ugly. Dean had wanted to bruise Cas' skin, bite Cas' lips, slam Cas up against a wall. He'd wanted to fuck Cas, be fucked. He'd wanted to vent his anger at Heaven on one of its immovable objects.

At least that's what he'd thought. Then Cas walked into that river and didn't come out, and Dean had felt empty. Alone. He realized that the constant ache in his chest wasn't about getting his hand down Cas' pants or shoving his dick in Cas' mouth. It was about love. It was about Cas.

He mutters, "Whatever," and jerks the wheel a little. He doesn't want to talk about this anymore. "He's gone now. And I didn't know."

"If you had," Sam ventures, "would it have changed anything?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Oh, gee, I don't know… maybe because he was a fucking angel? You heard what Chuck said. In every other universe, he pulled me outta Hell and walked away."

"But not in this one."

Dean lets out an ugly laugh. "Nope. In this one, I ruined everything for him."

"Don't think about it like that."

Dean's eyes are stinging. He barks, "He's dead," and swipes at them with his sleeve. "He told me that I'd changed him. That I'd taught him how to care about things. All it did was get him killed."

"He made his own choices."

"Yeah, and he chose me. Stupid fucking choice."

"Either way, it was his," Sam insists. "Isn't that what we've been fighting for these last few years? Free will?"

"Not like this."

 

+

 

As they're rolling past Oshkosh, Sam says, "Maybe we can get him out."

"Ain't gonna happen."

"Why not? He's busted out of there before. More than once."

"That—it was part of the deal," Dean says. "This time, it's forever."

"Like that's ever stopped us."

Dean just leans on the gas.

 

+

 

December 2 (again)—I wish he was here.

 

+

 

The next morning, Dean wakes up tired and achy from two days of hunting and driving. Still, he makes himself get up and put on something besides a dead-guy robe. He shuffles into the kitchen, then starts a pot of coffee and waits for it to brew. When its finished, he pours it into a table carafe he snagged from a haunted IHOP in Brainerd and heads into the library.

He starts grabbing books on subjects that might tell him something about Cas—the nature of death, the mechanics of the afterlife, the physiology of angels, the design of the cosmos. The first one—Living, Dying, and Crossing Over—was published in 1912 and reads like the worst kind of science textbook. But Dean keeps at it. He takes notes on a mint-green steno pad he found in Cas' room.

He's on his third cup of coffee when Sam comes back from his run, red-faced and dripping sweat on a white t-shirt so old it's gray at the armpits and shapeless around the neck. Sam watches him for a second, still catching his breath, then asks, "What's all this?" and gets a bottle of water from the minifridge. "Research?"

"Yeah."

"For a job?"

"No. Its—" Dean ducks his head a little. "It's for Cas."

Sam chugs some of his water, the wet sound of it loud in the library's stillness. Then: "I thought you said this time was forever."

"Yeah, I did. But he's—" Dean sighs and rubs his hand over his face. "I don't know what else to do."

"Alright," Sam says, nodding. "Let me grab a shower and then I'll give you a hand."

 

+

 

The books end up being pretty useless. Everything on death is about humans or monsters. Everything on the afterlife is about Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory—the authors either didn't know about the Empty or didn't believe it exists. The Men of Letters' lore on angels is pretty thin; only one book mentions death at all, and it insists that angels who 'meet their demise' simply return to stardust.

By dinnertime, Dean's jittery from drinking a pot and a half of coffee and Sam's steadily working his way through their collection of dusty grimoires. Unfortunately, the spells aren't much better than the books. Anything close requires a body and sounds like Frankenstein levels of necromancy.

At midnight, Dean gives up and pours himself two fingers of bourbon. When Sam huffs about it, he grabs the glass and the bottle and heads back his room.

 

+

 

December 4—I want Cas back. I want him back. I never should've let him sacrifice himself like that. I should've said something before he got swallowed up. I should've told him how I feel. I should've Fuck. Just bring him back.

 

+

 

Dean jerks awake to his phone ringing. He's slumped on his bed, fully dressed and drooling into his pillow. His room is dark; Sam must have turned off the lights after he passed out.

The phone keeps ringing. Groaning, Dean sits up and gropes through the blankets until he finds it. His vision is blurry, his eyes sticky with sleep. He puts the phone to his ear without really looking at it.

"Yeah?"

"Dean."

"Cas?" Dean asks. His pulse picks up, beating like a drum underneath his jaw. "You—are you—?"

"I'm outside. I need you to open the door."

Dean's on his feet before he has a chance to second-guess it. And that's stupid, probably, but that doesn't stop him from hoofing it down the hall. Chuck is powerless now, and Michael and Lucifer are dead; there's no one left who'd want to screw with his head like this. He hip-checks the map table hard enough to leave a bruise. He takes the stairs two at time, then sucks in a breath and yanks open the door.

"Cas." Dean can barely see him; he's standing to the side and hidden by a heavy cut of shadow. "Jesus Christ."

There are protocols for this—salt, iron, holy water, silver. Dean just reaches out and grabs his arm.

Cas says, "Dean, don't," but it's too late. Dean gets slapped with a bone-deep chill so violent a wounded noise punches out of his throat. It feels like falling into a tub of ice water, like he's being frozen alive from the inside. He stumbles back, cracking his shoulder against the door frame.

He asks, "What the fuck?" through shivers and a mouthful of chattering teeth.

Instead of answering, Cas steps out of the shadows. And he—he's not all there. The bunker's lights are shining through him.

"You—" Dean blinks at him and rubs his eyes. "Are you a ghost?"

Cas hesitates before saying, "I'm not really sure."

"Okay," Dean says slowly. He can't stop staring. "Okay. You—just, get in here."

They take the stairs single-file—Cas in front, Dean right behind. Cas' feet hover a good inch off the floor. He nearly disappears in the war room, speckling yellow and white as the flare from the emergency lights fractures through him and casts shadows on the walls. In the library, he lingers in the doorway like he isn't sure what to do.

"Think you can sit?" Dean asks.

Cas' hand passes through the closest chair. "Apparently not."

"Alright, well… just stand tight for a second. I'll get some coffee going and then we'll figure this out."

"Dean." Cas shifts slightly, rippling in front of the bookcase behind him like a mirage. "We don't even know who did this. Or why. Or—"

"I don't care," Dean cuts in. "You're back. That's the only thing that matters."

Even translucent, the way Cas' face lights up in unmistakable. His eyes crinkle, and his mouth curves with a smile. Suddenly, Dean hates himself for not squaring up to this sooner, for never having the courage to tell Cas how he feels.

Before he can find it, he hears footsteps in the hall and Sam's voice asking, "What's going on?" He has bedhead and a pillow crease on his cheek. "Are you—Cas? Is that you?"

"Partially."

Dean looks at Sam and asks, "Why are you up?"

Sam snips, "I woke up thirsty and heard voices," then points at Cas. "Did you do this?"

"No."

"You think Jack did?"

Dean shakes his head. "Hands off, remember? Besides, with the juice he's got now, he wouldn’t've left the job half done."

"Is that how it feels?" Sam asks Cas. "Like only half of you is here?"

"Yes."

"And the rest of you is where? In the Empty?"

After a pause, Cas says, "I think so. Somewhere inside me, I feel a stillness. A void."

"What about your mojo?" Dean asks.

"It's intact," Cas replies. He shifts again, and the lamp behind him sunbursts through his shoulder. "But I can't touch it."

"Huh," Sam says, scratching his jaw. "I guess we're hitting the books."

 

+

 

Dean heads into his room to grab the books he's been hoarding. He doesn't realize Cas has followed him until he turns back toward his dresser and plants his elbow in Cas' side. Cas tries to move out of the way, but the damage is already done. A jolt of pure ice screams up to Dean's shoulder.

He hisses, "Fuck," between his teeth and shakes out his arm. "That didn't feel better a second time."

"I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," Dean says. He gathers up the books on the bed and adds them to the pile on the nightstand. "What do you remember?"

"I remember being here," Cas says, his eyes skipping away. "Then I was in the Empty. The entity put me to sleep right away."

"It didn't want anymore trouble outta you?"

A smile tugs at Cas' mouth. "I guess not."

"And then what?"

"Then I was here." Cas flickers as he drifts toward Dean's desk. After a pause, he says, "Tell me about Jack."

"He took out Chuck," Dean explains. "Absorbed all his mojo. He saved us, and he brought back all the people Chuck zapped. You would've been proud of him." He clears his throat and sets a pair of books on the dresser. "You raised a good kid."

"We did," Cas corrects. "The three of us. We—" He stops short and gestures at Dean's notebook. "What's this?"

Dean flushes a little. "Sam—he's been trying to get me to keep a journal. He thinks it'll help with—you know." He taps his temple. "All the messy stuff up here."

"You've been writing in here?"

"Yeah. Why?

"I recognize this symbol," Cas says. He sketches the wings and squiggle in the air, his finger just above the journal's cover. "It represents Caerus, the Greek god of fortune and opportunity."

Dean just stares at him. "What?"

"Caerus is depicted with wings at his shoulders and feet."

"And the weird squiggle thing?"'

"His hair. He is bald, save for a single forelock that was difficult to grasp in battle. Together, these things signify the fleeting nature of luck." Cas turns toward Dean, backlit by the orange glow of the desk lamp. "Dean, did you write in here about wanting me to return to earth?'

"Yeah," Dean says, flushing again. "Yeah, I did."

 

+

 

"Hold on," Sam says tiredly. "Are you telling me that Cas is back because you wrote about him in a magic diary?"

"In Dean's defense," Cas offers, "he didn't realize it was a magic diary."

"Not helping, Cas."

"A magic diary." Sam sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Where did you even get it?"

"Downstairs," Dean admits. "I found it when I was packing up that pocket watch."

"And you didn't think maybe it was down there for a reason?"

"It's not like I took it out of a curse box! It was just sitting on the shelf, and I—" Dean shrugs. It was careless, and he knows it, but now that Cas is standing next to him again, he isn't going to sit around regretting it. "I wasn't thinking, alright?"

"Yeah," Sam says, softening. "Hey, if it's here, there are probably notes on it somewhere. That'll give us a place to start."

 

+

 

An hour after trekking down to the basement, Sam comes into the library with dust in his hair and a folder in his hand. He drops the latter on the table and asks, "Do you want the good, the bad, or the ugly?"

Dean huffs. "Dealer's choice."

Sitting, Sam says, "The good news is, Cas was right about Caerus, so we at least know what we're dealing with. The bad news is, he's dead. The Men of Letters took him out in 1949."

"Why?" Cas asks.

"He was running a fortune-for-hire racket. You paid him a fee, and he floated you a few hours of good luck."

"Lemme guess," Dean ventures. "It went sideways."

"Big time," Sam says, leaning back in his chair. "Most people wanted mundane stuff—landing a job, passing a test, going on a first date without feeling awkward. But enough tried using it to commit the perfect crime."

"Robberies with no witnesses?

"Yeah, and murders with no evidence. And then, a man named Morris Brockton decided to talk to his dead wife. Only, his wish wasn't specific enough. Instead of coming to him as a ghost, she crawled out of her grave." Sam sips his coffee before continuing, "The whole town was in an uproar. That's when the Men of Letters stepped in."

"And the book?" Cas asks. He's standing at Dean's shoulder, bleeding cold in a way Dean can feel at the back of his neck. "Some kind of ledger?"

"Yeah," Sam says, nodding. "Caerus used it to log his clients' names, and what they wanted, and the amount of time they'd paid for."

Dean's face flushes. "So, when I, uh—when I—"

"Yeah," Sam cuts in. "The book treated it like an official entry. But you're not Caerus, so you only got it halfway off the ground."

"Great," Dean mutters.

Cas shifts a little, a flicker of light and shadow at the corner of Dean's eye. He says, "I assume the ugly part is that I'm only here temporarily."

Dean freezes. Sam gives him a long, worried look before admitting, "Yeah. Caerus granted luck, not wishes. It never lasted more than a day or two."

"No," Dean barks. His hands are shaking. "No way. No fucking way."

"Dean—"

"No." Dean brushes Cas wrist with two fingers; the chill that rocks through him makes him grit his teeth. "I can't—I'm not losing you again."

Cas' mouth parts. He brings his hand up, stops just short of touching Dean's cheek.

Concentrate. Dean needs to concentrate. He takes a breath and says, "If there's a clock on this, we'd better get moving."

"Yeah," Sam says, reaching for a grimoire. "Our best bet's probably a spell. Something that will sever his connection with the Empty, or reunite the part of him that's stuck there with the part that's here."

"You got something like that on deck?"

Before Sam can voice the 'no' written all over his face, Cas says, "Rowena might."

 

+

 

"Boys," Rowena coos, her voice prickly and thin over speakerphone. "I'm a career woman now, I can't just jaunt topside because you have a problem."

"It's not like that," Sam says. "You don't even need to leave your throne. We're looking for a spell and figured you'd be the best person to ask."

"Fine, Samuel. Tell me all about it."

So Sam explains—Cas going to the Empty, Dean writing about him in Caerus' book, Cas coming back as cloudy as a ghost. It sounds ridiculous all laid out like that, but that's just par for the course in their lives.

When he's done, Rowena makes a soft, thoughtful noise that's nearly lost to static. Then: "The answer is obvious. Summon Caerus and have him finish the job."

"He's dead," Cas points out.

"Oh. I suppose that does complicate things." After a long pause—long enough that Dean worries they got disconnected—she says, "There is a spell that should work. But it requires intent, and sacrifice. May I speak with Dean alone?"

"Uh, yeah." Dean can feel Cas and Sam watching him. He hesitates for a second before switching off the speaker and putting the phone to his year. "What's up?"

"Have you told him how you feel?"

"What?"

It isn't a question this time. "Have you told him how you feel."

Dean clears his throat. "I, uh. I—no."

"Try that. If it doesn't work, call me back."

"Really?" Dean asks. Heat is burning in his cheeks, underneath his jaw. "You think that's gonna do it?"

"I'm almost certain," she replies. "I can devise something for you, if you really need to light fifty pink candles and bleed into a bowl of rose petals and sorrel. I just don't think it's necessary. Sometimes, the simplest spells are the strongest. Remember, I drew thousands of demons back to Hell with nothing but my blood and breath."

Cas and Sam are still staring at him, but Dean manages to mumble, "Yeah, I—I'll give it a shot."

"Good boy," Rowena says. "I really believe this is the trick. But you should do it sooner rather than later. Strike while the Empty is still weak."

"Weak?"

"I chose not to involve myself in your little row with Chuck, but that doesn't mean I don't hear things. Lucifer's wee boy exploding in the Empty's face didn't do it any favors." She sighs as she continues, "You're not a god, Dean. Writing that you miss your boyfriend in a magic book never would've worked if the Empty was at full strength."

"You—" Dean's voice dips. "You said something about a sacrifice."

"Just your fear, my dear. Just your fear."

 

+

 

Dean's room feels stuffy. It seems smaller than it was a couple hours ago. He strips off his flannel and tugs at the collar of his t-shirt.

Cas says, "Dean," in a voice like rock salt. "You don't have to do this. You shouldn't feel obligated—"

"No," Dean cuts in. Fucking obligated. "That ain't what this is."

"Rowena mentioned a sacrifice."

"Not like you think." Dean sits on his bed and tips his head to the side. "C'mere, will ya?"

Cas gives him a narrow, dubious look before walking closer to the bed. He catches the light from the desk lamp again, flaring as orange and bright as a sunset. Dean can't decide if that'll make this easier or harder. Without thinking, he reaches up and touches Cas' hip.

A chill rocks through him; he hisses, "Fuck," and jerks his hand away. "What is that?"

"My grace. My flesh isn't substantial enough to create a barrier."

"Flesh," Dean mutters, wrinkling his nose. As the last of the shivers pass, he rubs his sweaty palms on his knees. "So, I—uh. I gotta tell you something. But it might take me a minute, so don't—"

"Dean," Cas says quietly. "You don't have to."

"I want to," Dean insists. "I just—I don't really ever say this kind of thing." He looks at Cas' face, at the light shining behind it like a halo. "I love you. I have for a long time. Since the leviathan, at least. Maybe before that. I probably shoulda told you."

"Why didn't you?"

"I—" Dean ducks his head. "It just felt too big. I figured you'd fuck off back to Heaven some day. And I didn't—I wasn't sure you'd understand it."

"I didn't at first," Cas admits. "I've loved you for years, but I didn't recognize it for what it was until I lost my grace. When I was human, it was unmistakable. I ached with it constantly."

"Cas," Dean says, hoarse. His tongue keeps tripping him up, like it's too big for his mouth. But he can't write his own stories if he can't get the words out. "I love you, and I want you here. With me."

"Yes," Cas says. He's still shimmering with light. "I want that too."

Dean touches Cas' hip again. Another chill jolts through him, but he just closes his eyes. He grits his teeth and breathes hard through his nose.

I love him. I want him back. Want him here. I want him to live in the bunker and sleep in my bed. I want to watch TV with him. Take drives with him. Hunt with him. I want—

"Dean. Dean, open your eyes."

Cas—Cas is all there. His dumb coat and his crooked tie and his messy hair.

"Are—are you—?"

"Yes."

Dean surges up and kisses him.

 

+

 

They tumble to the bed still kissing, end up sprawled across it sideways with Dean half on top of Cas, the flannel he shed earlier underneath Cas' hip. Dean used to be good at this, but now he's clumsy as hell. He scrabbles at Cas' coat, his shirt. He sinks a hand into Cas' hair and then can't make himself move it. When he tries to unknot Cas' tie with the other, his fingers bump and skip over the material.

Cas pulls Dean closer, shifting them onto their sides. He shoves at Dean's t-shirt and palms the arc of Dean's ribs. The headboard creaks; Dean hooks his leg over Cas' thigh and runs his hand down Cas' chest. His skin is warm, the little bit Dean can touch through the unbuttoned front of his shirt. He skims his hand down to Cas' waist, teases his fingers over the trail of dark hair under Cas' navel. Cas rolls them again; he pins Dean back against the pillows and makes a dark, desperate noise against Dean's mouth.

Dean loves it—the weight of him, the heat. He gasps, "Cas, fuck," and hitches up, ruts his dick against Cas' hip.

He should slow this down. Take his time, spread Cas out like he deserves. But Cas is biting at his throat, and then his jeans are open and Cas' huge hand is wrapped around his dick. He slides his lips up the line of Cas' throat and down the curve of his jaw. He tips his head up as he tugs on Cas' fly, gets his hand inside and pushes his tongue into Cas' mouth. They find a rhythm somehow—graceless and awkward, but enough.

Dean wants this too much, has wanted it too long. He comes easily, his thighs shaking, his mouth open and wet at the hollow of Cas' throat. When Cas follows, the desk lamp flickers and his eyes flare blue-white.

 

+

 

The notebook is gone, so Dean scrawls it on a scrap of paper he finds in his desk drawer.

December 4 (again)—I'm glad he's back.

 

+

 

When they finally make it back out to the library, Sam is sitting there with the laptop and a beer. The laptop is open to an online article with the headline BLOODLESS BODIES FOUND ON REMOTE HIKING TRAIL.

Dean asks, "Is that a job?"

"Maybe," Sam replies. Dean doesn't appreciate the smirk tugging at his mouth. "Eileen texted earlier; she's on her way to Hastings to check out some funky deaths. If you and Cas want this, I'll head up there and give her a hand.

Dean looks at Cas—the curve of his mouth, the line of his jaw. "What do you say? You wanna kill some vampires?"

"With you?" Cas asks. "Always."