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A Beginner's Guide to Communing with the Dead

Chapter Text

“The court calls Detective Dean Winchester to the witness stand for questioning.”

Relax. He’s done this how many times by now? Dozens, sure. Armed robbery, riots, curses, home invasions—murder, even. Rape. Black magic. Some real nasty stuff. Things that have left him with nightmares. It’s an occupational hazard. And this? The trial? Boring, mostly. He says his bit, what he saw and what he did, and then the lawyers hash things out, all in their fancy clothes with their fancy words in this big fancy room. This part might not be fun, but it’s supposed to be easy.

He steps up to the stand, and finds a slight tremor developing in his legs. Not enough sleep, probably. Too much coffee. Something like that.

Yeah.

“Detective Dean Winchester?” asks the judge. Missouri. She’s fair. Not that it matters a whole lot, here, but right now it’s easier to deal with her than a stranger.

“Yes, ma’am.” He takes his badge out of his jacket pocket and nearly drops it, the sweat from his hands making the plastic slippery. No one laughs, but he can feel his face starting to itch with heat.

“You were the detective in charge of the Harvelle case, correct?”

Are. You are the detective in charge of the Harvelle case.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You found the body?”

There’s no—fuck, he can’t breathe, there’s no fucking air in here, and his heart is hammering fast enough to spin him dizzy just from standing—not here, not now, this is a court case, he needs to breathe, okay—

“Detective Winchester,” Missouri says sharply. “Did you hear the question?”

“Yes, ma’am, sorry. I—yeah, yes, I found her.”

“How?”

“I—we’d been looking for, for about a week, I think. There wasn’t much to go on. We had someone working with—with her old bear, you know, like a stuffed bear. Doing a tracking spell—”

Missouri raises her eyebrows. “It took you a week to do a tracking spell?”

“Yes, ma’am. It was a strong signal, but we were getting a lot of interference.”

“Interference? From what?”

“Hard to say, ma’am. It wasn’t too long after All Souls’ Night, though. I figured it was probably just residual magic getting in the way.”

“Hmm. Well, carry on.”

“I, uh.” His head’s going all fuzzy. Just the hangover, probably, and yeah, it’s not exactly professional to show up to a hearing feeling like you’ve been punched in the face by a fist made of whisky, but it was either that or—right, okay, the tracking. The case. “This spell, it was sending us all over the place—and finally it, uh, it locked on this house. Ellington Street, north of Caldwell. Belonged to a Mr. and Mrs. Remington, both retired, both away on vacation since the sixth of November. I went to check it out—”

“Just you?” Missouri cuts in. “Isn’t that against police protocol?”

“Technically, ma’am, but the neighbourhood was a good twenty minutes away from where the—where the child was last seen, and there was no personal connection between the families. The chances of finding anything seemed, uh, pretty low. So I went to check it out, and the doors were locked, no signs of forced entry, and none of the windows were broken. But I had to check anyways, so went over and got the spare key from one of the neighbours, just like Mrs. Remington had said to when we called their hotel, and I unlocked the door and I—and she—”

“We’ve all seen the pictures, Detective,” Missouri says. Kindly? But Missouri’s a judge, this is her job, and he’s a police witness, that’s his job, and this is a goddamned court proceeding, they’re not supposed to be nice—Christ, though, he thinks he might be sick—

“Could you identify the cause of death?” Missouri asks.

“No ma’am. Not till I got the coroner’s report. There was, uh. There was a lot of damage.”

“Were there, in your opinion, any signs of the use of black magic?”

How to describe it? No sigils, no candles, no animal bones. No bowl. The closest thing to a skull was on the mantle, one of those garish plastic souvenirs tourists picked up in places where hoodoo was still big.

But there was a feeling. An energy, sort of, that made his skin prickle until he wanted to scratch it right off and set a ringing in his ears so loud he could barely hear a thing Bobby said when he radioed the station for backup.

You can’t say that in court, though. It felt weird doesn’t count as viable evidence. Hell, even his friends—even Victor, even Bobby, even Sam—said it was probably nothing, just stress and shock and maybe you just need a few days off, hey?

So he just says, “No, ma’am. No signs of any magic. Nothing recognizable to me, anyways.”

And that’s it, basically. A few more questions, pretty mundane stuff, and then Missouri says he’s free to go, for now. Of course he can be called back at any time, if anyone else has questions—but this isn’t exactly a normal case. No defense, for one thing, mostly because there’s no one to defend, which leaves the prosecution kind of half-hearted. It’s just going through the details. Clearing things up for the sake of clearing them up.

Sam’s waiting for him outside the courtroom, sitting on one of the benches with his fingers flying across the keyboard of his phone, though he jams it in his pocket and rises to his feet as soon as he sees Dean.

“How’d it go?” he asks.

Dean shrugs. “Fine. The usual, I guess.”

“Uh huh,” says Sam, raising his eyebrows. He probably wants them to Talk It Out, maybe have some emotional hugging after Dean breaks down and starts sobbing into Sam’s shoulder; but that’s dumb, this is just another case and it’s his job. He’s fine.

He’s fine, but the trial? That’s not fine. Not right now. Maybe it’s been months, maybe they’ve hit dead end after dead end, but it was a little girl. Eight years old. You can’t just stop investigating. You can’t just let people get away with stuff like that.

“You got half an hour?”

“Sure.”

“Good. I need a drink.”

Sam looks pointedly at his watch, which at a guess reads eleven a.m. seeing as it is, in fact, eleven a.m., but since this constitutes extenuating circumstances he refrains from commenting. Instead he says, “Fine, but a drink, okay? I’ve got an interspecies divorce case at noon, and the soon-to-be-ex wife has a tendency to start breathing fire when she gets annoyed.”

“Sounds like a fun marriage,” says Dean, snorting.

“Yeah, well, not for much longer. I can drop you off at your place after—”

“Nah, the station’d be better.”

His brother sighs, though his face doesn’t register much surprise. “Dean, you’re allowed to take a day off once in a while, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t get paid to sit around at home all day.” Besides, Sam might mean well but the fact of the matter is that being alone in his house with nothing but the insides of his own mind to fill up the empty space is not exactly what he needs right now. Work—there’ll be something for him to do there, something to keep him busy until his thoughts have settled down again. Anything. It doesn’t have to be a new case. He’ll be happy with paperwork, even. There’s always mountains of the stuff lying around, thanks to his habitual procrastination. “Look, tell you what—I’ll leave early next Friday and you and Jess can come over for dinner, yeah? Now let’s go get that drink, my head’s pounding.”

Sam mutters something about aspirin and a nap being a far better solution to the problem than adding wood to the flames, but a few minutes later and they’re out of the courthouse, climbing into Sam’s vaguely beat-up, vaguely ancient car that requires a mysterious ritual of swearing and hitting things and praying to get it to start.

“Dude,” says Dean, shaking his head, as it finally sputters into what can only be called life in the loosest sense of the word. “You seriously need a new car.”

“Oh, it still works fine,” Sam says optimistically. Despite being labeled nearly from birth as the brains of the Winchester outfit and having mastered beginners’ witchcraft in approximately the same time it took Dean to learn how to tie his shoes, Sam seems to cling resolutely to the belief that if he says something enough times with enough determination, it’s bound to become true sooner or later.

Then he adds, somewhat mysteriously, “Besides, I’ve got bigger things to save for at the moment.”

“Like what, a haircut?”

“Ha ha. No. Do you want that drink or not?”

Thirty minutes later they’re pulling up in front of the station, Dean muttering a half-hearted thanks for the ride to his brother and sliding a stick of gum between his teeth in an effort to cover up the lingering smell of alcohol on his breath. Drinking on the job is, ah, discouraged, but it’s not like anyone’s actually going to notice. That idiot corporate witch getting hit with another misuse of magic charge is all anyone’s been talking about lately. Celebrity gossip, basically. All the guy did was party a little too hard and start messing around with his petunias, as if that actually matters

“Hey,” says Victor, stepping into Dean’s office before he’s had a chance to take his coat off. His eyes rake Dean in a quick once-over, which, if the way he crosses his arms is any indication, doesn’t exactly leave a favourable impression. “You look like shit, man.”

“No flirting in the workplace, Vic,” Dean shoots back. “Now piss off, I’ve got stuff to do.”

“You don’t, actually, because Bobby wants to see you in his office. Like, now.”

Shit.

So he spits his gum out in the garbage beside his desk and then it’s off down the hall to the door marked Chief Superintendent. Well, he asked for things to do, right? Looks like some god or other is in a prayer-granting kind of mood today. He loosens his tie, though, because this is Bobby, not the municipal courthouse judge. Kind of tough to look professional around a guy who’s known you since you were two years old and running around the backyard with no pants on.

He knocks, but doesn’t bother waiting for an answer before stepping inside with a brusque, “What’s up?”

Bobby huffs in annoyance, and Dean sighs and amends it to, “Sorry, what’s up, sir?”

“Sit down.” Oh, this looks serious. He hasn’t gotten a sit down since that whole thing with the banshee—which, by the way, was so not his fault; as if he were supposed to know she was in the mayor’s book-club. And before that, it was—well, the point is, the chair in front of Bobby’s desk has something of a reputation. But it’s not at if he can just walk right back out again, since having your oldest family friend as your boss doesn’t change the fact that he’s still your boss, so Dean sighs and heaves himself into the seat.

“Coffee?” Bobby asks.

Yeah, because the two-and-a-half cups it took to get his eyes open this morning definitely didn’t shoot him up with enough caffeine. “I’m good, thanks.”

There’s a long moment of Bobby just staring at Dean with his eyes narrowed in a way that could be a deep, soul-searching look or, equally likely, could just be the scowl that Bobby’s face tends to default to. Dean tries not to fidget, with limited success.

“How’re you doing?” Bobby asks abruptly.

Fucking hell. Why does everyone keep asking that? It’s just some dark circles under his eyes—he didn’t walk in missing a fucking limb or anything. So he didn’t sleep well—it happens. And as far as excuses go, standing as witness to the legal proceedings of a murdered child has to be pretty damn legitimate.

“I’m fine, okay?” he says, rolling his eyes. “And if that’s all you called me in for, well, I appreciate your concern, but—”

“I’ve reviewed your request.”

Ah. Okay. The chair’s starting to make sense now.

“And?” he says, trying to sound casual.

“And,” says Bobby, whose face has settled itself into a full-blown scowl by now, “I declined it.”

“Goddamnit, Bobby—”

“If you actually kidded yourself into thinking I might approve it then you need your head examined,” Bobby snaps. “I’m not going to re-open a case that’s in court right now.”

“But everyone knows the verdict’s going to be—“

“Abducted and killed by person or persons unknown, yeah, yeah, you don’t need to tell me. Look, Dean, you’ve been running yourself into the ground for months over this goddamned case, and you haven’t made a shred of progress.” Dean opens his mouth, protest already on the tip of his tongue, but Bobby holds up a hand for silence. “Not that I’m blaming you, okay? No one is. God knows you tried, but whatever son-of-a-bitch did this covered their tracks better than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“If you just give me a few more weeks—”

“Cut it out, Winchester,” says Bobby, and the glower he’s giving Dean over the desk is definitely more Chief Superintendent Singer than Uncle Bobby. “If new evidence comes up I’ll consider it, but until then my decision is final. Got it?”

Dean glares right back at him, teeth clenched so tight his jaw is starting to grind painfully. Chief Super he may be, but this isn’t right. There’s someone out there with a body bathed in big crimson stripes of a little girl’s blood, and maybe it’ll weigh their soul down when it comes to Judgment–that’s what’s meant to happen, anyways, and everyone says what the living call justice is just an echo of an archetype older than the stars—but sitting back and letting karma run its course has never really been Dean’s thing.

Got it?” Bobby repeats.

Dean drops his gaze and mutters, “Yeah, I got it.”

“Good. Now, I’ve got a new case for you. Some idiot’s been screwing with the Wall again. Just a bunch of kids messing around, I bet, but I need the damage repaired as soon as possible and the culprits tracked—”

“You’re putting me on the Wall? Seriously?”

“It ain’t gonna fix itself,” Bobby points out.

“Yeah, well, someone else can fix it,” Dean says. Taking him off the Harvelle case is one thing, but the Wall? That’s beginner’s stuff. Sure, it’s important to maintain and all, but a working that ancient, that enormous always has something going wrong with it. Another shingle sliding off the metaphorical roof, and when you’ve got a bunch of skittish new recruits it’s the perfect way to ease them into the job. “Give it to Victor. Charlie. I don’t care, anyone.”

“Victor’s tracking down that rogue skinwalker, and Charlie may be a whiz with a keyboard but she’s an even worse witch than you are,” says Bobby. “Besides, what if the printer breaks again? I need her on hand.”

It takes a great deal of effort not to bang his head against the edge of Bobby’s desk. “Bobby. It’s the paper tray. It’s always the goddamned paper tray. You just can’t fit that much paper in it, okay? So stop trying.”

“Whatever.” Bobby waves away his advice, and despite his own irritation Dean can’t help feeling a surge of sympathy for his co-worker. It’s a wonder she’s stuck around this long, messing around with crime under a boss who needs help to open the Internet when she could be making millions programming or, failing that, working elaborate hacking scams. “Anyways, quit your whining. You’re doing the Wall. Corner of Duke and Ursula, and you’ll need this”—he hands Dean a signed-and-stamped summoning form, which Dean accepts grudgingly—“a Grade C elemental, okay, nothing higher. Now get out of here, take the rest of the day off. Do the summoning tonight and I’ll expect you to start the case tomorrow. That’s an order, Winchester.”

“Yeah, well, you know what? Your beard is stupid,” says Dean, and he storms out of the office without bothering to turn back and watch Bobby roll his eyes.

The Wall. The Wall. Bobby’s put him on the Wall. Fucking fantastic. No need for a demotion—no need for a get your shit together, boy, because that pretty much says it all. Bobby doesn’t think he’s fit for regular detective duty. But how, exactly, is he supposed to prove otherwise when the old man won’t let him finish his stupid case?

Back at home, Dean sinks down onto his sofa and contemplates turning on the TV; but the remote is just beyond the reach of his fingertips so he ends up resting his head in his hands instead, pressing his palms into his eyes until supernovas start to pop in the darkness. She’ll be here soon, probably. Maybe not, but probably. It’s nice to have something reliable in his life. Only not really.

Bobby doesn’t think he’s fit for regular detective duty? Well, maybe he’s right.

The thing is, Dean’s going crazy.

Oh, sure, he’s a witch-detective and his brother’s a witch-lawyer and his best friend is—was a vampire. He even dated a selkie once—and no, he didn’t have to hide Lisa’s skin to get her to go out with him, okay? But all that, that’s normal around here. Species integration is, like, last century’s news. And yeah, he eats hummus on his hot-dogs and he does most of his spells in ancient Greek instead of Latin, but that’s eccentric, not crazy. Everyone’s got a few little quirks. Whereas not everyone is, not to put too fine a point on it, teetering on the verge of insanity.

“I haven’t given up, okay?” he says, without raising his head. He never looks, just in case he sees her—or, even worse, in case he doesn’t—but he can feel her beside him. That weird heaviness in the air, the half-imagined someone’s-in-the-room-with-you prickling at the back of his neck. “This is just a minor setback. I’m still trying.”

Right. Because if he couldn’t crack it with the full power of the police force at his disposal, he’s definitely going to be able to do it on his own behind everyone’s back.

If only he could—but he can’t, obviously. Even if it’s for a good cause, it’s still illegal, because who gets to decide what constitutes good? No, the law’s there for a reason. He’s a policeman. He of all people should know that.

But if—

No. Okay? No. Besides, even if he could pull it off without getting either himself or the rest of the world horribly killed—well, he’d never get away with it. It wouldn’t just mean the end of his career, it would mean a charge even Sam couldn’t get him out of. At best an enormous fine, which he wouldn’t be able to pay; at worst, prison. You can’t just go around doing inter-dimensional summonings left and right. Things get crowded, and messy, and sooner or later people start getting hurt. The law’s there for a reason, and so is the ridiculously complicated application process. Someone would notice within about five seconds.

Which leaves him with good old-fashioned detective work. And that’s a good method, deduction and all that, only it’s not working because there’s nothing to deduct.

“I’m working on it, I swear,” Dean insists. Then he gets up and goes to the kitchen to start making himself a sandwich, carefully not looking at space to left of the couch, and also carefully not wondering whether solving this awful case will even make a difference.

Now that he thinks on it it’s kind of insulting, actually, that Bobby already had the application approved and ready to go. The amount of ink-and-paper hoops you need to drag yourself through to get it all done officially means it can take a whole week for even priority to get processed; which means, of course, that Bobby’s been planning this for a while. Probably just waiting for something appropriate to come up—big enough to keep Dean busy for a while, but not so big it’ll be a challenge. Asshole. Dean might be crazy, but he doesn’t need to be babysat.

He puts the form on the kitchen counter, right beside his plate, and stares at it resentfully. Summonings—he hates summonings. Equal parts stressful and boring, and with his stupidly feeble magic even a grade C elemental is enough bring on a pounding headache. Maybe Sam should have become the policeman; this sort of thing is way more up his—

The knife he’s using to spread the mayo clatters to the floor.

It’s probably a dusty and gross down there, he really needs to vacuum, and in the meantime he should definitely pick it up and rinse it off; except instead he just sinks down to the floor beside it, staring unseeingly at the face of the stove across from him.

There’s no metaphorical light-bulb going off over his head. More like one of those industrial-strength fireworks ricocheting around inside his skull, shooting off enough sparks to temporarily fry a good half of his brain. It’s not having an idea, it’s an idea having him. It’s an idea sneaking up behind him in a dark alley and bashing his head in with a lead pipe before rifling through his pockets for loose change. It’s—

Crazy. Stupid. There’s no way he could pull it off.

Except…

But it’s dangerous. Never mind getting caught—if he gets something wrong—

He could ward the room, though. Keep everything contained. That way if he messes up, he’s the only one who’ll burn.

People will notice. There’s a difference between an elemental, any grade, and a—only would they, though? If Dean says it’s a grade C elemental, if he’s got the form approved and all, who’s going to question it? They say curiosity is a part of human nature, but if he’s learned anything from his years on the force it’s that accepting things that more-or-less make sense at face value is a part of human nature as well. And the Department of Interdimensional Affairs is strict, but Dean knows (because Bobby’s told him, off-the-record) that they’ve only figured out how to monitor fluctuation and convergence patterns between dimensions, not the stuff that actually comes through the breach…

Okay. So maybe it could work. Maybe. But he’s been skirting around the big question. The deciding question. The no-going-back-once-it’s-answered question.

Is it worth it?

Logically no. It’s one case. It’s not worth losing his job, his reputation, his life over one case. There’s just no way to balance this equation properly.

But someone killed a little girl. So what if they haven’t done it again? She was eight years old, she was eight years old and probably scared out of her mind, she had a family and friends and an upcoming decade of teenage angst to look forward to, and really he knew the answer even before he asked the question.

He sits for another few minutes, thinking.

This might not be the right choice, but it is my choice. I accept responsibility.

It’s not a spell, except inside his own head, but it gets him to heave himself up off the ground. His fingers seem to have developed a slight quiver, just like this morning—nerves, right? He’s fucking terrified. Determined, but terrified. Nerves. Not excitement. Not even a little bit of excitement.

Well. No time like the present, or whatever. Off to the attic. And possibly to his death. But it’s probably best not to think too hard about that part. Or about what’ll happen if Bobby finds out. Or if the binding breaks. Or any of the other million-and-one things that could go wrong here. Or what Sam would say, or Benny, or Mom or Dad. Actually, it might be best just to stop thinking altogether, for the time being.

Chapter Text

Midnight. It may be cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason. Beginnings and endings, those have power, and midnight is where one crosses over into the other. In the space of one second it goes from being today to being tomorrow and, at the same time, from being yesterday to being today. Just try to explain how that’s not magic.

Besides, it says midnight in the instructions, and maybe he has something of a tendency to wing it but there’s a time and a place, right? Such as when you’re not attempting to summon a god-like cosmic being to your attic using an outlawed form of magic. He’s been over each line of the spell at least five times, double- and triple-checking translations until the pages of ancient text float in front of his eyes every time he blinks. The candles are in place, appropriately anointed with the prescribed oil-and-herb-and-blood recipe, and he even got out the goddamned tape measure to make sure the spacing between them was exactly right. The walls are warded—perhaps a little too securely, since he’s not one-hundred-percent-sure he’ll be able to scrape the sigils off without ruining the paint job, but there’s a reason he’s cleared a space to do this in the attic instead of downstairs in the living room and anyway that’s about the least of his concerns at the moment.

He’s done with the binding, too. The dog collar is sitting on the table beside the skull he dug out of his mother’s old things (recently christened Rick by Dean, in an attempt to ease the tension). Same as usual, basically, except for the fact that the spell’s so strong it makes his eyes water furiously if he stands less than a foot away from it.

There’s water in the bowl, mixed with a little salt, with all the dust of years of disuse wiped carefully off. He picks up the athame beside it and presses the blade against his left forearm until a line of red appears, welling up and dripping into the bowl with a series of tiny splashes; then he clicks his fingers, trying three times before the magic twists right and flames leap up on the wicks of all the candles.

“Here we go,” he tells Rick. “No turning back now. Nice knowing you, buddy.”

Rick grins back silently, though Dean likes to think his empty eye-sockets have something of a sympathetic air about them.

Okay. Enough messing around. Open stance, weight balanced equally on each foot. Back straight, shoulders open. Breathe in right from the bottom of the stomach, up through the lower lungs into the upper lungs; expand the ribcage, feel the sternum rise. Breathe out with the entirety of both lungs. He holds his hands out over the bowl and, as the long-dead words of the recitation rumble huskily out of the back of his throat, lowers his palms until they dip into just the surface of the water. Now to the handles of the bowl, glinting a dull gold, and press down—firmly, but don’t squeeze, the pressure needs to be exactly right or it won’t work—there. Push forward, pull back. Forward, back. Steady, steady. His heartbeat seems to falter for a second before falling into the same rhythm as his hands, and the bowl starts to sing, throwing drops of water high enough to speckle his shirt as they dance across the surface. The words come easy now, tugged forward by the weight of those already spoken.

It kind of scares him, how natural this feels. More natural than witchcraft, where he has to struggle and shove and jostle the magic into the right shapes. The power running through him right now just seems to fit his body, like the best bespoke suit of all time worn on the inside of his skin.

It would be easier to ignore if it hadn’t felt like this last time he tried his hand at necromancy, too.

The room starts to buzz. Or, possibly, the room stays stationary and it’s just him, just the resonance of the bowl vibrating up through his hands until he has to close his eyes to keep from getting motion sickness. His teeth start to ache, sending spikes of pain shooting into his skull, and his muscles are tensing up—but it’s okay, he’s got it under control. This power bends with him, flows with him, opens him up, and the whole so good it should be illegal thing has never really made sense to him until now, because this was supposed to just be a means to an end but if he could feel this every day he wouldn’t care what—

The energy jerks, and if he’d been planted any less firmly on the ground he would have stumbled. Someone else’s magic is competing with his own, trying to wrestle control away from him. A metallic tang at the back of his throat, an alien hum that he feels more than hears. Lightning and comet-dust and dying stars. Colossal. Ancient.

Oh, no you don’t. He yanks the power back on course, dragging everything else along with it. The pain burrows right to the back of his head, an angry swarm of pissed-off bees digging their way through his brain, and the words, the words burn his throat, spilling out like acid; and his bones are pooling with white-hot lead and it hurts, it hurts everywhere, he’s so close but this is too much and he can’t—

There’s a moment, one brilliant, agoraphobic moment of utter blackness and a space too enormous to comprehend and a billion volts of electricity crackling through all of it, and someone’s screaming, possibly him—and then it’s over. His hands fall from the handles of the bowl, which is just a bowl now, nothing more; and the room is just an attic with a bunch of old boxes, and the candles that make up the ring are just weird-smelling rolls of beeswax that burn with a weird-coloured flame.

The boy in the middle of the ring, though, is not just a boy. Or man. Whatever. It’s hard to tell how old he is. Well. Billions of years old, if the stuff Dean’s read is right. But it’s hard to tell how old the body he’s wearing right now is supposed to be. Old enough to be the size of a fully-grown adult male, but the body—the body looks like it was built by someone who based their design off a trip to one of the sculpture galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The idea of a human. The idea of an ideal human. The skin is like marble, with no lines or scars or faults. Maybe you don’t always notice that stuff in real people, but it’s weird as hell to see it gone. It looks like you’d have to peel the skin away with a chisel, and underneath all you’d find would be more of the same, no bones or organs or any of the stuff that distinguishes a hunk of carved stone from a real person.

Dean’s not quite sure what to make of the dark, messy bed-head or the Sex Pistols t-shirt, either.

But hey, he’s got a binding to finish, and the shock of being jammed into a corporeal body in the middle of some cop’s attic isn’t going to last long, so Dean grabs the collar and steps into the circle.

The man hisses angrily, grabbing Dean’s wrist, and his eyes snap open. Blue. In fact, if Dean were to get all poetic about it, he might even say very blue. Eyes that give you vertigo, and he can’t tell if it’s because they’re so empty or because they’re too full. Dean has to look away or risk falling over, but he holds the gaze long enough to say, “I bind thee, Castiel,” and that’s it. The deal, such as it is, is sealed. He’s harnessed himself a memitim.

Also, on an unrelated note, he kinds of feels like he might pass out. Delving into high-level necromancy on about three hours of fitful sleep? Yeah, apparently not such a great idea. It’s not that late, in the grand scheme of things—not even one o’clock yet—but he’s fried. Bed sounds, frankly, amazing right now, despite the full-body gross feeling of being coated in mucky cobwebs he always gets after a big working.

“It won’t come off,” Dean says to Castiel, who’s tugging furiously at the collar. All he gets in return is a bad-tempered scowl.

Right, so sleeping would be really nice right now, but he’s just yanked this guy out of another dimension and crammed him into a human body, and sure Castiel looks all pissed-off and haughty now but there was a half-second, right after he materialized, when he looked kind of—well, kind of scared. And Dean can hardly blame him. It’s not like he went and asked permission, or even gave the guy a quick heads-up. But the memitim is here now, and regardless of his slightly alarming resemblance to an alt-punk porcelain doll, Dean’s going to do his best to play host.

Which, okay, it’s not like he has angels of destruction and death over every weekend for beer and poker, but there’s such a thing as common courtesy. And everyone smiles in the same language, right? Or whatever it says on that dumb poster Sam’s got up in his office.

“Hey,” says Dean, patting Castiel awkwardly on the back until the guy shoots him a not-so-friendly glare. “Uh. Sorry about. Yeah. I’m Dean, by the way.”

Dean holds his hand out, but the memitim just stares at it in bewilderment. Still without saying anything, and it’s getting kind of weird at this point—even low-grade elementals can manage an airy whisper most of the time, and this guy’s supposed to be packing more power than a nuclear reactor.

“Look, um… this isn’t a permanent thing, okay? I promise. I don’t want immortality or unrivalled power or any of that. I’ve just… there’s a job that needs doing. I need help. I need your help. But after that I’ll send you right back, Scout’s honour. Sound good?” No answer. Castiel just blinks at him silently, and this is going beyond awkward and right out the other side by now. Dean clears his throat and asks, “Uh, hello? Can you… can you speak? Or is it… can you understand what I’m saying?”

Castiel opens his mouth, and there’s a splintering sound from downstairs as at least one of the windows shatters.

“Jesus fuck,” says Dean, when his ears have stopped ringing and he’s managed to haul himself back to his feet. “Okay, just—just nod or something—”

But Castiel is frowning, shifting his mouth around like someone who’s just gone to the dentist for the first time in years, and when he opens it again all that comes out are a handful of squeaks and growls and choking sounds—muffled slightly by the hands Dean presses instinctively over his ears—that eventually settle out into a voice. Rough and oddly soft-spoken, but a basically regular human voice at decibel that isn’t threatening to burst Dean’s eardrums.

“Yes,” says Castiel. “I understand.”

“Uh. Good. Awesome. So. Do you, uh. Are you hungry?”

“No.”

“Right. Okay. Well, uh, the kitchen’s just downstairs, so help yourself if you change your mind.” He shifts his weight between his feet, and even though he knows the time already he glances down at his watch as an excuse to look away. This would be a hell of a lot less awkward if the guy would just stop staring at him. The way he’s tilting his head makes Dean feel like a museum specimen or something, one of those bugs with a pin stuck through the middle under a sheet of glass. “I can make up the futon in the study for you, if you—”

“No.”

“Uh. Okay.” He wracks his brain for something else to offer, anything else; but it’s late, and he’s tired, and what the hell are you supposed to offer someone like this, anyways? All Castiel probably wants is his freedom back, and Dean feels guilty about that, sure, but there’s a reason he risked his career (and his, you know, life) in a class A forbidden summoning ritual.

“Well,” Dean says firmly, “I’m going to bed. So just, I don’t know… hang out for a few hours, I guess. Try not to break anything.” He thinks of the windows downstairs and amends that to, “Anything else, I mean. Okay?”

Castiel looks at him. Again. He jerks his head slightly, in what could optimistically be interpreted as a nod of agreement, and Dean figures that’s probably as good as he’s going to get, so he says, “Well, goodnight, then,” and limps off down the stairs to collapse into bed.

He wakes up approximately three seconds later, and has a moment of absolute panic in which he seems to be experiencing some sort of full-body paralysis. But then he manages to flail himself halfway into a sitting position and ow, ow—not paralysis, just debilitating stiffness in apparently every single one of his muscles. Shit. He hasn’t felt this bad since he made the idiotic decision to take up jogging last year, and at least that pain came with the benefit of knowing his body would (hopefully) thank him for it later. The most he’s likely to get out of this is—

And then he has a second moment of panic, and this one has him tumbling out of bed to land in a heap of sore limbs on the floor, because holy shit it’s nearly ten thirty. Ten thirty. He ought to have been at the station an hour and a half ago—

“Cas?” he calls out, running down to the kitchen with his shirt unbuttoned and a tie flying loose where it’s flung across his shoulder, because ten-thirty or not there is no way in hell this day is getting started without coffee. “Castiel? We gotta leave in, like”—well, two hours ago—“soon, okay?”

The third moment of panic builds slowly, starting with memitim-free kitchen and growing as he checks the living room, the hall, the first-floor bathroom, even the laundry room, still without any sign of the creature he possibly just gave up his career to summon. The front door, at least, is still locked, and although some of the windows in the living room are smashed out, the broken glass looks undisturbed—but come on, this is a being with the power of all the souls that ever lived and died at his command. As if a flimsy old house is going to be a problem for him.

No sign of him upstairs, either, when Dean runs back up to check. Stupid, stupid, stupid—there’s a reason for all the ceremony, all the protective sigils and the candles and the sheer amount of raw power it takes for a summoning, and that reason is that these things don’t like to be summoned. Maybe Dean was totally drained last night but that’s no excuse for just letting the guy roam free—who knows where he is by now, what he’s done—

Well, no use beating himself up over it now. He will anyways, of course, that’s just the way he works, but he can do that later, after he’s sorted this mess out. He needs the book. There must be stuff about controlling these things, roping them in, banishing them even, anything. So where the hell—the attic, right, he left it in the attic, it’s right by the—

His socks slip against the attic’s wood floors as he skids to a halt, and he has to grab onto the table he used for the summoning to keep from wiping out. Castiel is right where Dean left him last night, the only notable difference being that he’s now sitting down. Shoulders hunched forward, with his head resting against one hand. He doesn’t look like he’s just been out terrorizing the city, either. Presumably that would have alleviated some of the boredom sketched across his face in the expressional equivalent of big red crayon letters.

“Oh,” says Dean. “Castiel.”

“Were you expecting someone else?” Cas asks acerbically.

“No, I just—I thought you—wait, were you here all night?”

Cas raises his eyebrows in a what-do-you-think sort of way, and Dean sighs, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “Listen, you can move around, okay? You don’t need to sit around waiting for instructions all the time. I know I summoned you and all but I’m not trying to be your—your jailer, or whatever. I just need your help with some stuff.”

“I highly doubt the rest of your house would be of any more interest to me than this room,” says Cas. “Or, for that matter, the rest of your world.”

“Your optimism is inspiring,” Dean tells him. And now that the crisis of two minutes ago has been averted, the fact that he’s beyond late for work is nudging its way insistently to the front of his mind once again. He starts buttoning up his shirt, gesturing for Cas to follow him back down the stairs before tucking the tails into his pants. Coffee can wait for the road, and he has a feeling the sooner he runs Cas through his paces and sends him off back where he came from the happier they’ll both be.

Chapter Text

Cas effectively hammers in the last nail on the coffin of a potentially not-too-horrible working relationship when they go out to the driveway, Dean now fully dressed in his usual suit and Cas still wearing his band t-shirt and jeans (without shoes, even though Dean offered him a pair before they left). And maybe it’s not exactly Cas’s fault—maybe it’s true what he said, that after existing free-form in another dimension for millennia the human world doesn’t seem like much to look at—but, well, this is Dean’s car. It’s his baby. That car represents the longest running relationship he’s had in his entire life; and regardless of whether or not you feel as strongly about the Impala as he does, regardless of whether you’re a car expert or someone who thinks a new Honda Civic is classy, there’s no denying that it’s just a nice car. Everyone graces its curves with at least a hint of admiration when they pass by. Everyone.

Cas barely looks at it as he climbs in and slams the door, slouching down in the passenger seat in a way that doesn’t really communicate the level an appropriate level of awe at being permitted to ride in such a graceful creature.

It’s practically sacrilegious.

And yes, okay, this is coming from a guy who spent his evening doing necromancy.

“This car was my dad’s,” he offers, because maybe there’s a logical explanation for this. Maybe Cas just got distracted by the plastic Christmas flamingo Dean’s next-door-neighbour keeps up in his front yard year-round. It definitely wouldn’t be the first time.

“Fascinating,” says Cas, staring aimlessly out the window.

Fine, then. Whatever. The guy obviously has no appreciation for art. Not that Dean cares. His loss.

Dean tries again when he pulls into the parking lot of a coffee shop on Lexington ten minutes later. The coffee here is shit and all the food is coated in enough grease for an oil change, but it’s cheap and it’s fast and, most importantly, it’s on the way to the station. “You want anything?” he asks, but Cas just shakes his head.

So it’s more heavy silence for the rest of the drive, though at least now Dean can distract himself by concentrating on attempting to balance his coffee without spilling it; but they pull into the parking lot and this part is business, not courtesy, so he turns into his usual spot and clears his throat.

“So, uh. Cas. Here’s the thing. Don’t read too much into this, it’s just a weird... uh… administrative thing, but if anyone asks I need you to pretend to be a, well, an elemental.”

Cas’s upper lip begins to curl.

“A Grade C elemental, specifically,” Dean says.

“It takes me more energy to blink than it would to suck the essence out of a Grade C elemental,” Cas says flatly.

“Right, yeah. I know it’s annoying. But it’s, you know. Like I said. An administrative thing.” Safe enough, right? Bureaucracy is a human invention. A thing like Cas might understand the physical world—hell, even some of the art-and-culture part, if Cas’s shirt is anything to go by, and after that first disastrous attempt he certainly seems to have grasped the English language well enough—but he probably doesn’t have to worry about filling out the appropriate paperwork before feasting on the souls of the dead.

“You weren’t supposed to summon me, were you?” asks Cas, and there’s a hint of triumph in his voice that’s none too comforting.

“It’s complicated,” Dean says brusquely. “Now come on. We’re late enough as it is.”

A fact which Charlie, Victor, Pam, and nearly every other person they pass on the way to Bobby’s office makes sure to draw attention to. Dean spends enough time around these guys that they’ve basically become a second, weirdly dysfunctional family, but the thing about families (even normal ones) is that one of their primary purposes is to get on your nerves. No one says much to Cas, though, which is a relief; he gets a few polite hello’s that he resolutely ignores and a couple of curious stares, but that’s pretty much it.

Bobby, though—Bobby will ask questions. Almost definitely. The old guy knows Dean better than anyone except maybe Sam. The court case was just yesterday and he might not be expecting Dean to do something crazy like this but that’s not to say he won’t be looking out for it just in case. Besides, you don’t get to the top of the food chain without a decent knowledge of magic, and even if this particular case isn’t quite as simple as two-and-two, well, Bobby’s always been pretty good at math. You have to be, if you’re running the show.

So he stops by Charlie’s desk after her mandatory Sleeping Beauty jibe and asks, “Babysit for five minutes? I need to talk to Bobby.”

“Sure,” she says, eyeing Cas with interest.

“Cool. I’ll be quick.” To Cas he says, “Behave,” with a silent please at the end. Cas rolls his eyes in response, which Dean figures is as good a promise as he’s going to get.

As he heads off to Bobby’s office, he hears Charlie ask, “How’s it going?” He winces sympathetically, and turns the corner before he has a chance to hear Cas’s withering reply.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says, once Bobby has answered his knock with a gruff come in. “Overslept.”

“Doesn’t look like it did you much good,” Bobby says, eyeing how gingerly Dean moves as he places the summoning form on the desk. “A low-level summoning really take that much out of you?”

“I guess I’m out of practice.” Dean shrugs, stifling a grimace as the muscles in his shoulders twinge in protest.

“Yeah, no kidding.”

Bobby shifts his attention from Dean to the form in front of him with one last shake of his head, and Dean holds his breath. Which is stupid, because it’s just a piece of paper—standard issue, even if they’re hell to come by, and anyways Bobby filed for it himself. There’s no way he could possibly tell that Dean, ah, stretched the rules a bit, not from a goddamned sheet full of administrative jargon while Cas himself is out in the front. Besides, how lame would it be to get caught this early on in the—

Bobby raises his eyebrows, and Dean’s heart thuds to a grating halt. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, this can’t be happening—

“You forgot to sign it, genius,” says Bobby, shoving the paper back towards him.

Oh. Right.

His heart resumes its usual rhythm, leaving him slightly lightheaded out of sheer, idiotic relief. He takes a pen from the mug on Bobby’s desk and scrawls his signature across the line in the bottom-right corner somewhat sheepishly.

“Where is the thing, anyways?” Bobby asks.

Dean looks at the form, which is right between them, and says blankly, “What?”

“Not the form, idjit, the elemental. Or did you forget to summon it as well?”

“Oh, no, h—it’s just out there”—he gestures vaguely out the door of Bobby’s office—“with Charlie. I would have brought it in only, uh… yeah.” Making a show of checking his watch, he clears his throat and adds hurriedly, “Well, better go get started, right? See you later.”

And he’s off before Bobby has a chance to protest, hurrying out of the office and praying silently that Cas hasn’t managed to mortally offend too many of his co-workers in the five minutes he’s been on his own.

As it happens, he finds Cas still with Charlie, who not only doesn’t seem to hate him yet but is actually letting him use her computer. All he’s doing is clicking test on the Arabesque screensaver and watching the circles bubble across the screen for a moment before shaking it away with the mouse and starting over again; Charlie’s watching him work (if that’s the word for it) with a somewhat bemused expression, and while it’s a relief that he hasn’t done anything worse, Dean’s kind of losing hope about the whole blending in thing.

“Pretty smart for a Grade C,” she remarks to Dean. “You know he solved my crossword, too? Took him maybe thirty seconds.”

Dean glances at the newspaper lying on her desk, filled in with an odd contrast of mostly obscure words written in the hand of a kindergartener.

“Okay, buddy,” he says, tugging on Cas’s arm. It’s the first time he’s actually on-purpose touched him, and he has to try not to flinch—his skin feels basically like Dean’s own flesh, except for the fact that it’s totally devoid of warmth. Like grabbing the arm of a pre-rigor mortis corpse. Ugh. “Time to go. We got work to do.” Cas scowls at him, but he lets Dean tug him out of the chair and follows back out to the parking lot.

“What happened to nothing in this world being of interest to you?” Dean asks.

“I was bored.”

“Right,” says Dean, raising his eyebrows. “So you were fine sitting in my attic for nine hours, but I leave you alone in the station for five minutes and suddenly you have ADHD?”

No answer, aside from Cas’s deepening scowl. How crushing.

God, this is going to be a long—what, week? Hopefully not more than that. This first day is bad enough. And if it’s more than two months he’ll have to renew the form; but the prospect of having Castiel hanging around projecting waves of hostility for the next two months is so shuddering-inducing he starts fiddling with the Impala’s radio as a distraction. On his usual classic rock station, the ending of a commercial for a phone company segues into an irritating jingle for some new pizza place downtown. Goddamned advertising. And yeah, okay, maybe he wouldn’t have to deal with it so much if he did like Sam’s always telling him and put in a CD player, or at least one of those satellite radio things, but—

There’s a moment of static, and then the station shifts to country. For a confusing second it seems like maybe thinking about Sam somehow channeled his little brother’s influence enough to change to station to his preferred twangy crap; but then there’s another burst of static that settles into something that sounds alarmingly Top Forty, and he glances over at the radio to see Cas’s pale fingers fiddling with the dial.

Static—eighties. Static—indie. Static—two people speaking rapid French, probably a foreign news channel. Static—more Top Forty. Static—

“Would you cut it out?” Dean asks in exasperation. “We’ll be there in, like, five minutes.”

“Sorry,” says Cas, sounding profoundly unapologetic; and, much to Dean’s annoyance, he leaves it tuned to a channel broadcasting live opera.

The intersection at Duke and Ursula is already closed off, with a bored-looking police constable in a highlighter-yellow vest directing traffic down a side street as a detour.

“No rush,” she says sarcastically, when Dean shows her his badge.

“He overslept,” Cas tells her.

She stares at Cas, one eyebrow creeping up as she takes the messy hair and bare feet. Dean laughs uncomfortably and drags him away.

The Wall is waiting ahead, gigantic and gently thrumming and not quite visible, a quiet shimmer at the corners of his vision like the rainbow sheen of an oil spill in midair. It stretches up at least a mile and even further out to either side, cutting across the middle of the street and right through buildings for blocks and blocks until it trails off by the river to the east and in the middle of a patch of farmland to the west.

This case may be a rookie’s job, but however you look at it there’s no denying that the Wall is impressive, even now. Physically, not so much—it’s just a glitter at the edge of your eye, just a soft background hum, and after all there are people in the buildings around here who have to cross through it just to get to the other side of their office. But the buzz in his skull, the ache at the back of his throat—the sharp, dusty smell of vervain and sage, tickling his nose in an infuriating almost-sneeze until his eyes start to water. This is old magic. Anyone who’s progressed past third grade history knows that, of course, but Dean can feel it too, in a way that makes him fidgety and jumpy and eager to get as far away as possible. Which is unusual, even in more powerful witches—even in Sam, who never seems quite as bothered by it as his older, lower-level brother. But hey, that’s the way it works. Trust him to get stuck with the shittiest special ability in the book.

He shakes it off, because the Wall may make his skin crawl but that doesn’t mean he gets out of fixing it, and turns to Cas, ready to answer the usual questions. What’s it made of, who built it, how can people just walk right through, what’s it for—all local history, all stuff anyone with an inner-city education would know already, but the city gets people from all over.

He’s forgetting, though, that as far as genetic structure goes, or whatever the higher being equivalent of genetic structure is, Cas is made of magic. High-grade magic, too, not just the diluted stuff Dean uses sometimes to get the stains out of his laundry. Cas’s hands are already hovering over the Wall’s fabric, with genuine interest shining through his surliness, and Dean is hit by an uneasy hunch that Cas knows more about the Wall from his five-second examination than any person on the planet has managed to hypothesize after centuries of study.

As if to prove his point, Cas huffs a breath out against the shimmer, which solidifies for an instant into something vaguely similar to glass before it shatters. The pieces freeze in midair, halfway to the ground, and speed back up to reform and settle seamlessly back into the glitter like someone pressed the rewind button.

“This is old,” Cas says to him, and he might not sound outright impressed but there’s definitely a note of intrigue in his tone.

“Older than you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Cas studies the Wall a moment longer. “Are we fixing it?”

Figures he’d know something was wrong. Granted, the hole’s less than ten feet away and aside from the glittery strands fluttering loose from the tear the whole section’s been fenced off with loud yellow police tape; but Cas hasn’t even glanced over there, and although it’s beyond weird even to consider, chances are that despite looking basically humanoid right now the guy probably has far more in common with this shapeless sheet of magic than he does with Dean.

Which is good, obviously. That’s the reason he needs Cas around in the first place. But it’s still… Well, he definitely can’t picture the Wall wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt, that’s for sure.

“Yeah,” Dean says, jerking his head to the taped-off hole. “Just there. University kids dicking around again, I bet.”

Cas makes an indistinct noise of agreement that indicates he’s not really listening and moves down to investigate, poking at the shredded edges and actually managing to catch a filament before it slides through his hands. He sticks one hand in, and where his arm should appear on the other side of the Wall it just disappears.

“I see why you summoned me,” he says, pulling his arm back out again and wiping his palm absently on the side of his jeans.

Uh. Well. First of all, that’s not exactly true. He’s got another, slightly more specialized job in mind for Cas, but perhaps now isn’t the best time to bring it up, not in public in the middle of a work day. Nor does it seem tactical to mention the fact that the police force tends to use the Grade C elementals Cas sneered at earlier to fix this, making him slightly overqualified, to say the least.

Instead Dean checks his watch and says, “Let’s get started.”

Coat off, sleeves rolled up, tie loosened a bit—not a professional look, but there are exceptions to every rule and the best way to look professional in this particular situation is to fix up the Wall good as new. Usually they give the constables in this department special gear, lighter and looser than the ordinary uniform, and you rarely ever see someone in a suit working repairs, which just hammers home the fact that Bobby’s only stuck him on this as a sort of rehabilitation case.

“Alright,” he says, trying to roll some of last night’s stiffness out of his shoulders and choking back a little groan of pain at the result. “I’m ready to combine when you are.”

Cas raises his eyebrows. “You want to do a partial combination? With me?

“No, a full. C’mon, the sooner we get this done—”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

“It’s fine,” Dean says impatiently. “I’ve done this before, okay?”

When Cas shows no indication of moving, Dean grabs his arm and tries to pull him over. A bit of nervousness is fine, especially if this is Cas’s first time; but it’s standard procedure. He used to do this all the time, before he got transferred to the forensics department and promoted to detective, and just last summer a bunch of sunspots throwing the Wall out of whack had nearly the entire force working repairs. And repairs means combinations—that’s just how it goes. Some people can touch the Wall on their own, if they concentrate hard enough, but to really get anything done you need that extra plane of magic running through you.

Before he has a chance to say any of this, though, Cas twists himself out of Dean’s grip and grabs his wrist with far more force than Dean would have anticipated from his skinny arms. And clearly no one’s ever taught this guy about personal space, because a second later he’s right up in Dean’s face, his nose only about an inch from the tip of Dean’s. He tries to lean away, but Cas only follows him, staring him down with eyes that burn cold enough to make Dean’s stomach lurch with a primal, instinctive fear.

“You know the Chicxulub crater?” Cas says, and Dean can feel the words hiss across his mouth, quiet but terrifying.

“No,” Dean answers honestly, making an unsuccessful attempt to yank his arm free.

“Under the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The largest confirmed impact crater on your planet. I watched the asteroid hit, sixty-five million of your years ago. Ten kilometers across, and it hit your planet with enough force to trigger a mass extinction that wiped out three-quarters of all living species.” His eyes narrow, concentrating the force of his stare until Dean thinks his knees might give out. “That’s enough to power your entire planet for centuries. That’s eight billion times stronger than the little atomic bomb you dropped on Hiroshima. Understand?”

Not really, because unless you were there it’s mind-blowing enough to try to imagine one Hiroshima, much less eight billion of them, and anyways, he was always shit at physics in high school. It’s all just numbers to him—but this, the throb of pure energy beneath Castiel’s voice, the way the words seem to crackle across his tongue far sharper than the static on the radio—the statistics go right over his head, but the idea is hitting him loud and clear. He nods.

“Now picture all that power packed and compressed into a space the size of one tiny human body.” With his free arm he taps his chest, and his hand smacks against his body with the same solid thud as it would on Dean. “I built this from scratch specifically to contain it. You really want to try cramming that much raw magic inside you?”

Dean swallows.

“Maybe just a partial, then?” he suggests weakly.

Cas drags a hand through his hair and sighs in frustration, but he backs off enough to let Dean start breathing properly again. “Fine. I’ll try to limit it enough to keep you from burning up, but no promises.”

It’s not exactly a stunning endorsement, but the Wall isn’t going to fix itself. “Hands?” Dean suggests. “That should be all I need. Here, come in front of me.”

There’s a few minutes of awkward shuffling around as they try to find a position that will work. What they settle on, in the end, is far from ideal: pressed right together, kind of like a distressingly intimate two-person conga line, and even with Cas leaning his head to the left to let Dean see over his right shoulder Dean still ends up getting a mouthful of his hair every time he tries to speak. It looks ridiculous. He doesn’t need an outside view to figure out that much. And he refuses to turn around to check, but he’s about ninety-nine percent sure that indistinct coughing sound is the constable’s poorly covered sniggering from over where she’s directing traffic.

Dean grits his teeth and asks, “Ready?”

Cas nods in response, and ends up smacking his head against Dean’s nose so hard his eyes start to water in pain.

At this point, it’s hard to see how his day could get any better, really.

He whispers the spell for combination under his breath as quietly as possible, because this is a memitim, not an elemental, so the same rules don’t hold. Which means, yes, even more necromancy—low-level stuff, hardly enough to muster a vaguely coppery taste at the back of his tongue, but he’d still rather not get caught blatantly breaking the law in public while he’s meant to be performing his duty. Just like last night, though, the words slide out far more easily than any regular spell, and the small amount of magic flows more naturally, without his usual jostling and shoving to try to get it the right shape. He cups the back of Cas’s hands with his palms, watching as Cas’s skin morphs and twists into something not-quite-physical, something that wraps around Dean’s hands and sinks into them—and oh, this is weird, this is so fucking bizarre, having two bodies share one set of hands like this; though at least he doesn’t—

holy shit, holy fucking shit—fuck, Cas was right, he’s on fire, literally burning up, every cell in his body one tiny nuclear explosion, and it feels—oh, it burns, it fucking burns, he’d be screaming his head off if he hadn’t sunk his teeth into his lower lip to keep himself silent—there’s so much of it, like he’s got the entire city’s power grid laced through his bloodstream—and he could do anything, couldn’t he, raze an empire to the ground or vaporize an ocean—

Not quite anything, though. She breaks through the intoxicating haze of power entwined with pain. No words—there are never any words, not on her end—and if she has eyes, he can’t bring himself to meet them.

Someone else, from a very, very long ways away, says, “Hold on,” and the energy gets cranked down enough to let him settle back into his own body. The roar in his ears fades to a frantic buzz that lets the sounds of city life bleed through, and he blinks his streaming eyes until the tsunami of throbbing scarlet begins to dissipate. He’s still crackling with magic, but he knows where he is again, and what he’s meant to be doing. And she, wherever she was, if she was even there in the first place—she’s gone. Just him, and Cas pressed against him, and the Wall ahead and the irritable constable somewhere behind. Okay. Okay.

I’ll have time for you later. I promise. Just a little longer.

Cas shifts against his chest. Can he hear him? The privacy of Dean’s own head ought to be, well, private—but the word becomes somewhat ambiguous when he’s sharing a pair of hands with someone else. If his body doesn’t belong entirely to himself right now—

Well, then he’ll just have to watch what he thinks, is all. Just in case. Besides, Cas seems disinterested enough not to give a damn what Dean’s thinking, as long as he’s still planning on setting him free as promptly as possible.

Anyways. Right. The Wall.

He reaches forward and grasps a strand, now as solid in his fingers as the fabric of his own shirt. His other hand slides against the Wall on the opposite side of the hole, searching for another loose piece to patch back together; and it’s always odd, doing this, because while he hasn’t physically moved from where he was standing in the seconds before the combination took effect, the place he’s in now won’t let him walk through the Wall no matter how hard he tries. Here it’s solid, enough to act as an actual example of its namesake, and even the academics doing their PhDs in the fancier kinds of witchcraft up at the university can’t explain exactly why this happens except that it does, without fail. Combine with an inter-dimensional being—any inter-dimensional being, although elementals are about all the Department of Inter-Dimensional Affairs ever approves permission for—and, for the duration of the combination, the Wall becomes real. More real, at least.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy to fix. Straightforward, sure, but tedious, and none of the elementals he’s worked with have ever had enough juice to let him breeze through. By rights it ought to be better with Cas, given Dean’s shameful affinity for black magic and the fact that he nearly exploded just from taking in a fraction of the memitim’s full power; and he can definitely feel the energy flowing through him, but trying to mend this hole is like trying to swim against the current of the Mississpi. It’s the hands—every time he tries to move one way they end up sliding treacherously off in the opposite direction, and his fingers seem to have developed a case of early-onset arthritis that keeps them too stiff to pick up any of the strands properly.

“Stop fighting!” he hisses to Cas eventually.

“Stop trying to be in charge!” Cas snaps back. “You’re doing it wrong!”

“How the hell would you know?” Dean asks indignantly. “You’d never even seen this until, like, half an hour ago!”

“A combination is supposed to be a partnership, not just you bossing me around. Especially not if you’re going to do it wrong.”

Dean grits his teeth until his jaw starts to creak. He’s not doing it wrong. He hasn’t done it wrong in years, not since maybe his first gig on the Wall, and all he did then was forget to slap a stasis spell on the bit he’d patched. Half of it had unraveled by the time he showed up to finish the job the next morning and his supervisor had laughed her ass off, but it was a mistake, not a procedural problem, and that was ages ago.

And he doesn’t particularly care for the idea of handing over even half of the motor function in his hands to Cas, not when the collar and attached binding spell are within easy reach. Maybe it wouldn’t unbind properly anyways, with the hands currently only fifty percent Dean, but he’d rather not give Cas the chance to find out.

“No,” he says. “We’re doing it my way. I’ve got a different job for you back home, okay? This is just routine. Now cut it out.”

Cas grumbles, dragging his metaphorical heels so that there’s a moment when Dean can’t move his hands at all; but he clenches his teeth even harder and just shoves until Cas gives way. After that things pick up, with Cas reluctantly relinquishing control enough to let Dean patch strands of Wall fabric with only enough leftover resistance to make him to break a light sweat. It takes on a rhythmic quality, the repetitiveness of finding two strands and piecing them together with a patch of magic, then finding two more…

The light begins to fade, but he ignores it. A cloud across the sun, probably; with the sharpness Cas’s power lends to his eyes, it hardly makes a difference.

He glances down at the hole, and is somewhat surprised to find that there’s only a foot or two left, which means only a few hours of work to go before it’s done completely. They ought to be finished mid-to-late afternoon, actually, leaving the evening free for—

“You’re getting very hot,” Cas says suddenly.

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, ignoring a slight twinge from his hands as he grabs the next two fragments.

It takes his brain a few seconds to register what the actual words mean, and then he says, “Sorry, what?”

Cas twists his head around to look at him, bumping his nose against Dean’s cheek in the process, and actually, come to think of it, his skin feels far cooler against Dean’s than it ought to. Either Cas has been messing around with the internal thermostat as he settles into this new body of his, or—

There’s an unpleasant jolt, something like an electric shock, and Dean staggers backwards, sitting down heavily on the pavement when he fails to regain his balance and smacking his palms painfully against the ground in the process.

His palms. Not his-and-Cas’s palms. Cas has broken the combination.

“What’d you do that for?” he asks angrily.

Cas doesn’t bother to look at Dean, instead staring intently at his own reclaimed hands, rotating the wrists and clenching the fingers like he’s seeing them for the first time. “You needed to stop.”

“The hell I did! We were almost done—”

“Not really,” says Cas. “Besides, we should have stopped long ago. Check your pulse.”

Dean jams his fingers under his jaw, and jerks them away again even more quickly. His heart is racing alarmingly fast, fluttering like the pulse of the little brown jackelope Sam caught once when they were kids; and, now that he’s broken out of the rhythm, it seems like Cas was right about the heat as well. Beads of sweat are pooling at the base of his spine, soaking through his shirt, and when he moves a hand to his face it burns with the permanent blush of a fever. He tries to haul himself to his feet, and finds he has to stay crouched on his knees to wait for his head to stop spinning before he can rise any further.

“What did you do to me?” he asks, panic bubbling up inside him along with a growing sense of nausea.

Cas just shrugs. “I thought human bodies would be more durable. I didn’t notice how rapidly you were wearing out.”

“But—”

“You’ll be fine. Most likely. I’ve never actually done this before, but as long as your body doesn’t start shutting down tonight then I’m sure you’ll recover.”

“That’s really reassuring, thanks.”

Wait, though…

Tonight?

To either side of the closed-off intersection, the comfortable yellow glow of streetlights stretches along the sidewalk. The constable, when he checks, is gone, leaving only fluorescent sign declaring ROAD CLOSED—PLEASE FOLLOW DETOUR and an arrow pointing in the appropriate direction. Traffic has trickled off to the occasional car, with the sleepy rumble of other miscellaneous vehicles in the distance. And there are clouds, as he guessed earlier, but they’re splashed across an inky sky and covering the pale glow of a half-moon, with a few stars managing to shine through the city’s light pollution as well.

Dean stares at Cas, who seems oddly in-focus—a remnant of all that energy, because when he glances down at his watch the ticks that hold the place of actual numbers leap out at him even through the relative gloom. Nine thirty-three.

It’s not nausea twisting up his stomach, it’s hunger. He hasn’t eaten anything all day, nor has he had anything to drink since that cup of questionable coffee this morning.

Well, shit.

“Home,” he says weakly. Cas follows him to where he parked the Impala earlier, just outside the police boundary, with the air of someone who’s just completed a quick, mildly interesting arts-and-crafts project rather than slaving over reparations to an ancient working for more than nine hours straight.

The door of the car sparks when he tries to pull it open—more leftover power trying to ground itself—and, when he gets behind the wheel and tries to shift gears, he discovers yet another problem: hours of repeatedly pulling and twisting and splicing strands of Wall fabric together have rubbed his hands raw. Cas starts messing around with the radio again as soon as the engine’s on, but this time Dean’s too busy trying to hold the steering wheel properly to bitch at him. The act of pulling into his driveway, finally, is heralded by a mariachi band playing at full blast, since Cas has managed to discover the dial for the volume as well.

When Dean steps through the front door, he doesn’t know what to do. He knows, objectively, that he’s exhausted, and so an insistent part of him wants to curl up on the living room couch and pass out; but on the other hand, combining with Cas has left all his senses heightened and his whole body buzzing like he’s just ingested several gallons of coffee. The urge to sleep is, weirdly, clashing with the urge to run a marathon (or three).

The one thing he knows for sure, though, is that he’s hungry. Starving, actually. The walls of his stomach seem to be collapsing in on themselves from sheer emptiness.

“D’you want anything to eat?” he asks as he dumps his jacket on the ground by the door, yanking off his tie to join it.

“Stop offering me food,” Cas snaps. “I sustain myself on cosmic energy and the souls of the dead. I don’t need… pasta.” He follows Dean into the kitchen anyways, and leans against the counter to watch as Dean takes a frozen hunk of tomato sauce out of the freezer and sticks it in a pot on the stove to heat up.

“Suit yourself,” says Dean. He waits for a second pot full of water to come to a boil, then dumps half a package of penne in, adding the second half as well after a moment’s consideration. “So, are you just going to sit in the attic again all night, or what?”

Cas pokes at something on the counter, shrugging absently. “I suppose. There’s nothing else to do.”

“You could read a book,” Dean suggests. “Or find a new outfit. And could you not roll all of my onions onto the floor, please.” Cas scowls, and stops rolling vegetables across the counter to stoop and pick up the ones that have already fallen. “Seriously, what is it with you and touching stuff?”

“I told you, I’m bored,” says Cas, who has moved on to sticking his fingers into the slots of Dean’s toaster.

In the end, Dean plants him on the couch in the living room and shows him how to work the television, leaving him watching a game show with a dubious expression while Dean goes and inhales more pasta than he’s ever consumed in one sitting before.

She shows up as he’s finishing his beer, creeping out from the hall to hang around in the door to the kitchen. He can feel her there, burning a hole into the back of his neck with her accusing stare, and all at once the high from combining with Cas seems to wear off so that it’s all he can do to keep his head off the table. “I know,” he mumbles to her. “I mean to do it tonight, but we finished too late. And I need something of yours to work the spell.”

The stare doesn’t waver.

“This guy I’ve got, though, he’s good. He’ll be able to find you,” Dean promises. “As soon as we’re done with the Wall—”

From the other room, Cas asks, “Who are you talking to?” and Dean jumps slightly. He glances over his shoulder, but she’s disappeared, as usual.

“No one,” he says, feeling unreasonably cross. “I’m going to bed, okay? And don’t let me sleep through my alarm again.”

Chapter Text

The shriek of his alarm does, in fact, manage to haul Dean out of an uneasy nightmare of emptiness and too-open spaces at six-fifteen a.m.; and although his muscles are still sore from summoning Castiel two nights ago and the work they did yesterday has left him with a pounding headache, he drags himself out of bed and into running shorts and an old t-shirt. Cas is, once again, nowhere to be as he makes his way downstairs. Not that Dean looks particularly hard this time, given his complete lack of inclination to run away and wreak havoc on anything other than Dean’s sanity. He locks the door behind him and tucks the keys in his pocket, yawning so wide his jaw pops as he sets off down the street.

It’s not a fitness thing. That’s Sam’s department. Sure, Dean played soccer in high school, and there’s a certain standard of physical condition to maintain for his job, but Sam’s the one who’s all into organic food and maintaining his chakra and going to yoga classes with Jess. He claims it makes his witchcraft stronger, and who knows, maybe it does; regardless, though, there’s no getting past the fact that Sam is just a better witch than Dean, however many Sun Salutations Dean might twist himself into if he actual gave a shit.

It’s definitely not from a deep, inborn passion for jogging, because truthfully he absolutely loathes it. Jogging is like dying, only worse, and longer, and you have to do it every other day or so if you want to supposedly “stay in shape”. God. Anyone who actually claims to enjoy jogging is a sick-minded masochist, as far as he’s concerned.

So it’s more of a, a—well, a coping mechanism. Or at least that’s what Sam called it, when he made the suggestion last year after all that… stuff with Benny. Sam goes on about endorphins and norepinephrine and a whole bunch of other fantastic mental health benefits, but the main reason Dean’s stuck with it this far is that while he’s running the only thing he’s thinking about is how much he hates running. It’s a nice, strong, black-and-white hatred, guilt-free and no-strings-attached, and, most importantly, it doesn’t leave room for anything else. No thoughts about his dead best friend, or little Jo Harvelle, or what will happen to him if—oh, who’s he kidding, when—someone finds out what Cas really is, or, on a related note, the infinitely more terrifying prospect of the future in general.

He gets home drenched in sweat with his lungs trying to mutiny but feeling, if not actually better, than at least a tiny bit less horrible, and manages to drag himself upstairs and into the shower still without any sign of Cas. Weird, though, knowing the guy has to be around somewhere. The house feels… different. Fuller, kind of. Not that it usually feels empty, because he’s made himself enough of a home to give the place a distinctively lived-in aura; he’s got his friends, and he’s got Sam and Jess and Bobby, and whatever dumb jokes Victor makes about him being tragically single he really doesn’t mind living on his own.

Anyways, it’s not like Cas lives here. He just sort of hangs around, touching Dean’s stuff and complaining. It’s a business relationship. Well. As much as it’s possible to have a business relationship with an inter-dimensional being who manifests as Praxiteles’ High School Dropout, Whereabouts of Shoes Unknown.

Christ, he’s sore. That stupid summoning. It’s an effort of sheer willpower not to lie down with the hot water spilling soothingly over him and just doze for another fifteen minutes or so. Eventually, though, it comes down to a choice between dragging his already ridiculously long shower out even further or eating breakfast, and since he’s none too keen on having a repeat of yesterday he sighs and shuts the water off before throwing the curtain open.

“I need—” begins Cas, who is standing right outside the shower, and Dean shoves the curtain closed again with a yelp of surprise.

“Dude, I’m naked!”

“Yes,” Cas agrees.

“Go away!”

“I need to look at you for a second,” Cas says, ignoring him.

Go away!

Dean sticks his arm around the side of the curtain to fumble blindly for his towel, using his other hand to keep the plastic sheet firmly closed on the not inconceivable chance Cas tries to tug it open himself.

“That is sufficient,” says Cas, taking hold of his wrist, and Dean has to grab the handle of the faucet to keep from tumbling out of the shower altogether. “Oh. So… ah. Of course. I see.”

Without any warning he lets go, and the sound of water dripping against acrylic is accompanied by the quiet pad of Cas’s bare feet on tile as he leaves. Dean waits a moment longer, just to be on the safe side, before poking his head around the curtain again: the door is wide open, but the room is, thankfully, empty.

“You ever heard of boundaries?” Dean says when he walks into the kitchen ten minutes later, now fully dressed, and finds Cas sitting on a stool at the island.

“A line that marks the limits of an area, or a limit of a subject or sphere of activity,” Cas says, not bothering to look up from the plastic dome he’s currently investigating. He flips it upside down, and there’s a clatter as the seven jars inside bang against the top. “What is this?”

“Yogurt maker. Sam gave it to me after I split up with my last girlfriend and I haven’t gotten rid of it yet. And don’t change the subject.”

“What subject?”

Oh, come on. “Boundaries,” says Dean, jamming a piece of bread in the toaster before setting to work on the coffeemaker. “Personal space. Your lack of respect for.”

Cas wrinkles his nose in confusion. The capsized yogurt maker spins in a forlorn circle around the apex of its dome.

“Like when I was in the shower?” Dean prompts. “Just now? Remember?” Cas nods, somewhat dubiously. “Yeah—don’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because—because it’s weird, okay? And it just.” Christ, he shouldn’t have to explain this. It’s just—it’s something you don’t do. But Cas is staring at him, looking completely at a loss and even a tiny bit hurt, and Dean feels almost guilty as he tries to explain, “It just… made me… uncomfortable.”

“But we were more physically intimate during combination yesterday,” says Cas, and Dean tries not to cringe at his use of the I-word, “and spatially closer when we were in your car yesterday. I fail to see what the problem is.”

“It’s a context thing,” Dean says helplessly. “Sometimes being close to people is okay and sometimes it’s not. You just… you just need to be able to tell.”

“That’s a ridiculous rule.”

“Sorry.”

The toast leaps up with a metallic pop from the springs, smoking slightly and bearing a few black streaks because he never bothered getting a new one after the dial got permanently stuck on MAXIMUM two years ago. He picks it out and tosses it deftly on a plate before it can burn his fingers, frowning at it. There’s something, something he can’t quite put a finger on about Cas. Something new, or—maybe—

He uses getting the jam out of the fridge as an excuse to sneak another look at the man, who is glowering at the upturned yogurt maker as if holding it personally responsible for the intricacy of Western social norms; but no, the outfit is the same. The t-shirt’s a bit more wrinkled, maybe, after two days of wear, and if Cas were going to stay more than another day or so Dean would have to start plotting ways to get him out of the entire ensemble in order to run it through the laundry. Which leads him to the interesting question of does Cas wear underwear? And if so, what kind? And on a related note, just how anatomically correct—

Uh. But anyways. The point is, it’s not the outfit that’s changed.

Dean yanks the cutlery drawer open with slightly more force than is necessary, and there’s a heavy thunk as everything slides forward an inch or so to bang against the wooden front.

That’s the problem with having such an almost-human inter-dimensional being. He’s starting to think of him as an actual person, sometimes. And thinking about him as an actual person means… well.

Not that—

It’s not like that.

Just… it’s weird, is all.

Sure, he’s vaguely attractive, in an artistic way, but—

He spins around, brandishing a knife coated with a layer of strawberry jam, and demands, “Did you get a tan?”

Cas’s scowl melts away and he sits up a little straighter on his stool, puffing his skinny chest out like he’s preening, almost. “I made myself skin,” he says, presenting his arms for Dean’s inspection; and yeah, now that he’s taking a closer look he can see that the faux-marble that weirded him out so much when he first summoned Cas has morphed into… well, like Cas said, into skin. Slightly darker than Dean, and sporting the proper crinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth and on the insides of his elbows and probably all the other places skin ought to bend. And he’s got… arm-hair. Arm-hair. Looks like someone actually did his homework. Huh.

“Impressive,” says Dean, hoping that this is not only the first but also the last time he ever says that about anyone’s arm-hair (arm-hair, Christ, this is weird). “You do this all last night?”

Cas nods proudly, and it makes Dean feel kind of like a dad whose kid is showing off his latest macaroni-and-glitter-glue masterpiece (except, of course, that the macaroni is simulated human flesh and the glitter glue is enough cosmic energy to knock three-quarters of all life forms on the planet out of existence). “I felt it, when we combined. I felt what it was like having skin on top of…” He makes a face, clearly trying to think of the right word. “All the rest. The things inside.”

“Do you have that, then, too?” Dean asks, intrigued despite himself. “Internal organs and all that, I mean?”

“Well, no,” Cas admits. “But I blend in now.”

“Ah,” says Dean. “Right. Of course.”

It strikes him that as far as complete disinterest in the human world goes, Cas is doing a piss-poor job of keeping up the act. Dedicating several hours to building a believable suit of human skin doesn’t seem like the project of someone who’s just, as Cas has been claiming, bored. It’s far more like all that time Dean spent re-shelving books in the library when he was in grade eleven, supposedly because he “had nothing better to do” but in reality because he had a massive crush on the half-faerie librarian.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that Cas has a crush on the entire human race; firstly, because that would be weird, and secondly, because he doesn’t seem particularly enamored of humans or humanoids in general. Boredom, though? No way. There’s got to be something more.

The drive to the station is slightly less uncomfortable than that of the day before, but only because Cas is too preoccupied with messing around with the radio (again) to allow any awkward silence to settle. When the intermittent buzz of static between snatches of mostly awful music starts to grate on Dean’s nerves he asks, to try and distract Cas, “Are you looking for the Sex Pistols?”

“What?”

“The Sex Pistols? Like your t-shirt? I’m assuming you’re a fan?”

“No,” says Cas, giving him a strange look.

And Dean can’t really think of anything to say in response to that, so he lets him go back to fiddling with the radio without further comment.

Looks like that’s a no to conversation, then. But hey, at least he has the timeless genius of Britney Spears to console him.

What actually happens, though, is that when Dean pulls up to a red light part way through the drive, drumming his thumbs impatiently against the wheel as he waits for it to change, Cas drops his hand from the dial and asks, “What’s my job?”

“Hmm?” says Dean, who’s been focusing on the familiar purr of the Impala’s engine in an effort to block out the European disco hits channel Cas has managed to tune into.

“Yesterday you implied that you had summoned me for a purpose other than repairing the Wall. After which you proceeded to ignore me all night.”

Dean resists the urge to point out that what Cas calls ignoring was in fact sleeping and says, “It’s, uh.” And then he pauses, realizing he’s not quite sure how to go about explaining this. The thing about this whole plan is that even inside his own head it sounds completely, certifiably insane. In fact, just about the only thing reassuring him that he isn’t entirely non compos mentis is that he’s still lucid enough to identify this whole thing as a really, really terrible idea. Which leaves him absolutely no excuse for deciding, despite every shred of common sense and intelligence left in him, to go through with it anyways.

But this is Cas, right? This is the guy who struggles to comprehend why Dean might be uncomfortable with Cas almost getting in the shower with him because it’s a statistically illogical response. So just give him the rationale—whatever microscopic amount of it there is—and either it’ll make sense to him in some bizarre, convoluted way or he’ll just write it off as another weird human thing.

Besides, he’s not going to let himself be intimidated by someone who was playing with a yogurt maker less than an hour ago.

“I need to do a séance,” he tells Cas bluntly.

“Need?” says Cas. “You need to do a séance?”

“Yes,” he says, ignoring the implication. “I need to do a séance. That’s kind of your thing, right? Communing with the dead? Or eating their souls, or whatever it is you guys do?”

“We don’t—” Cas shakes his head in annoyance. “I don’t expect you to understand. But yes, séances fall under the realm of our thing, as you put it. Why do you need to perform one?”

Right. Okay. This is the crazy part.

Well, announcing his intention to perform a ritual from a branch of magic that’s been outlawed for more than a century isn’t exactly normal, either. Probably something, in fact, that you’d hesitate to label as the actions of a fully balanced officer of the law.

Still. This is the crazier part.

“There’s someone I need to see. Someone I need to talk to. This girl, Jo Harvelle, she—”

Cas groans and sinks dramatically down in his seat, saying, “You summoned me to speak with your dead girlfriend? Do you have any idea how disgustingly clichéd that is? And you certainly picked the wrong memitim, by the way. My brother Balthazar is far more—”

The light flicks to green, and Dean hits the gas so quickly that Cas slides down the leather seat another inch or so, and is forced to struggle back into a proper sitting position without a great deal of dignity or risk ending up right under the dashboard.

“I know,” says Dean shortly. “I did my research—I didn’t just summon one of you at random, okay?”

“I know,” says Cas, fingering his collar with an air of deep resentment. “You wrote my name right into the binding.”

Dean ignores him. “And she wasn’t my girlfriend. She was a kid, just eight last September.”

“Daughters and nieces et cetera fall under Anael’s area of expertise.”

“She’s—look, it’s not…I’m not related to her,” Dean says, focusing slightly harder than necessary on the road ahead of him. The cars start to blur into a mass of lumpy colours splashed across grey asphalt, and he has to blink hard to them to shift back into individual shapes. “I didn’t… I never met her, before she died. I just…” He swallows, feeling suddenly nauseous. “I just found her body.”

Silence.

They make through another intersection, with Dean shifting uncomfortably under the weight of Cas’s stare, before Cas says, “I don’t understand.”

“You know what I do, Cas?”

“You do a lot of things,” Cas says cautiously, like he thinks this might be a trick question.

“I mean for a job. You know what my job is?”

“Yes,” says Cas. “You fix things.”

It catches Dean off guard for a second. Fix things? He keeps the peace, or he’s supposed to; he upholds the law, though at the moment he’s not doing such a great job of that, either. He catches murderers and thieves and rapists and hags (a general catch-all for anyone practicing dark magic, including, yes, necromancers) and if he’s lucky he gets to prevent a few of those crimes from happening in the first place. Fix things, though? Fix things?

It makes sense, of course, for Cas to think that; all he’s seen Dean do is patch up the Wall. Fix things… well, he does, really, doesn’t he? In a way. That’s kind of what the police are for—fixing the holes in society. Not the big stuff, not the interspecies wage gaps or the poverty or, hell, reality TV, but weaving the loose ends back together wherever someone tries to start snipping away at the fabric.

Ideally, that is. There’s always something to go wrong, and patching a hole isn’t the same as never having had said hole in the first place. But… fixing things. That’s kind of a nice way to put it.

“Yeah, I guess,” Dean says. “When I can. And right now, there’s this girl, there’s Jo, and some evil sonofabitch took her away from her family and, and killed her. And I mean—if you’d seen, if you’d been there when—I mean, I’ve been dealing with this shit for years, people doing god-awful things to other people, but this girl… I had nightmares for weeks. Hell, I still do.”

“And…?” Cas prompts, when Dean doesn’t say anything else; he’s forgotten, honestly, what the point of saying all this to Cas was in the first place. “You want to talk to her why, exactly? To… apologize? Because—”

“No. I mean, yeah, I guess so, but mostly just…” What? Mostly just because he’s an incompetent detective? Mostly just because he couldn’t do his own goddamned job properly, so now he needs Cas to come do it for him? Mostly just because he wants a little girl, a little girl who died terrified and alone and in a hell of a lot of pain, to solve her own murder, since he’s too weak to do it himself?

“I just need to talk to her, okay?” he says brusquely. “There weren’t a lot of—there weren’t any witnesses. I need to know what’s going on.”

“It won’t bring her back, though. You’ll get to see her, of course, but she’s still dead. Neither of us can change that.”

“I know. I still need to do it.”

Cas shrugs and turns to look out the window, apparently bored of the conversation. “Well, suit yourself. It sounds crazy to me, but you’re the one in charge.”

Dean has to clench his fingers around the steering wheel until they start to ache to keep from slapping him.

He pulls into the station’s parking lot a few minutes later, where technically he doesn’t need to be; fieldwork, oddly enough, entails working in the field, and this job is so textbook standard procedure that the thought of needing to conference with Bobby about it is laughable. The real reason he’s here is out front, possibly in her office but most likely, at this time of day, either flirting with the cute new half-djinn constable or lurking around the coffeemaker nursing a gaming hangover.

Or at least, that’s where she ought to be. He loiters out front for a few minutes without any real purpose, on the off chance she’s just in the bathroom, but when Cas starts sighing pointedly he takes the hint and heads over to Victor’s office instead, hoping to catch him before he gets back to tracking his skinwalker.

Dean knocks on the door, more as an announcement of his presence than an actual request for permission. Even before Victor’s had a chance to say come in he’s sticking his head around to ask, “Hey, where’s Charlie?”

“Charlie?” Victor glances up from his computer screen, smirking. “It’s her time of the month.”

“What? But that’s—”

“The third month in a row she’s been early, I know. Bobby’s thrilled, as you can imagine.”

“Yeah, well,” says Dean, shaking his head. “Forget Bobby, if that girl doesn’t make an appointment with her goddamned lycanthrocologist I’m going to do it for her myself. No way that’s healthy.”

“Knock yourself out, but she’s still gone for at least the rest of today. What’d you need her for?”

“Archives,” says Dean, as casually as possible.

Victor raises his eyebrows. “Yeah? I heard you were working the Wall, Winchester. The hell you need the archives for?”

Ah. Well. Good question, as it happens. The answer to which is. Uh. Is.

Behind him, Cas snorts. Victor’s gaze snaps over to look at him, eyebrows inching higher as he takes in the t-shirt and the bare feet and the, well, the everything. Aside from the skin, that is. Cas did do a decent job on that, and anyway it seems mean to criticize it even in his own head after how proud the guy seemed.

“This your elemental?” Victor asks, and Dean nods. “What Grade? A? B?”

“C,” says Dean, crossing his fingers behind his back that Victor doesn’t pay any attention to Cas’s offended scowl.

“Yeah? That’s one hell of a binding for a Grade C.”

Shit. Victor and his fucking witch-sight. Dean forgets, sometimes, since it’s a talent for which he himself possesses exactly zero ability, that some people can see magic—not just the big stuff like the Wall, but spells to make coffee stay warm or stop shirts from wrinkling or help your clock keep time. You can tell if your witch-sight is twenty-twenty, so to speak, by how much of the little, everyday magic you can see; and Victor’s is about the sharpest of anyone Dean’s ever met.

Which means—shit, no, he would have said something, right? If he could see Cas’s true, non-elemental form? Hell, he probably would’ve gone blind the moment Cas walked into the station. If all he’s seeing is the binding (which, yeah, would be ridiculously strong for an actual elemental, of any Grade) then Cas must have his physical form solid enough to stop stuff from leaking out.

So he just does his best uncomfortable laugh and says, “Yeah, performance anxiety, I guess. It’s been a while.”

“No shit,” says Victor, and Dean doesn’t even have to fake the scowl in response. “You picked a kick-ass C, though. It’s practically corporeal.”

It has a name,” Cas snaps. Dean drags him out of Victor’s office with another forced laugh and a hurried see you later before Victor has a chance to recover.

“Is that really how you treat them?” Cas asks, shaking himself free of Dean’s grip before they’ve gotten halfway to Charlie’s vacant desk.

“Well… look, I mean,” says Dean, avoiding Cas’s accusing gaze, “most of the low-grade ones aren’t very talkative. They just sort of… hang around. And the ones that do talk are just, like, totally disinterested.”

I’m totally disinterested!”

“No, you’re antagonistic.” He gives a cursory glance around, smiling an I’m-totally-supposed-to-be-doing-this how’s it going at the one constable he catches watching him, and then starts rifling through Charlie’s desk. Technically the key to the archives is meant to be kept either on her person or in a locked drawer, but knowing Charlie—ah, right there, hanging off the horn of her unicorn-versus-zombie action figures. Bingo. “Elementals just really do not give a shit. At all. Ever. In my experience, anyways. C’mon, I need to find something.”

The archive room is cavernous and dusty and, as always, completely empty apart from the dozens of boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling wherever there’s room, and even wherever there isn’t. It used to be bigger—another two rooms, one on either side, now both converted to office space—but after the force digitalized, some industrious person went through and shredded most of the old files, and what with doing the majority of long-term work on the computer now there’s really no need for that much permanent archive space. Temporary storage down on the first floor is where everything for cases-in-progress is kept, and once those cases close anything confiscated as evidence either gets returned to the next of kin or sent over to city hall to be archived there.

These archives, then, are a sort of purgatory for cold cases and unlabeled (and therefore unfileable) boxes and various bits and pieces that no longer serve any purpose whatsoever but that, through some irritating loophole, can’t be officially discarded. Basically, it’s the police equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer, and—similar to a kitchen junk drawer—tends only to see any action in the rare event of a full-scale spring cleaning or, more commonly, when the door is opened for more stuff to be crammed in.

The stuff for the Harvelle case is near the front, sporting labels in almost pristine condition and relatively free of dust. Scene-of-the-crime would be fresher, and possibly more… connected, based on the bloodstains, but he… no. Okay? Something else will work fine. He’s not going back there unless he absolutely has to, and something else will work fine. Scene of the disappearance. The stuff they took from her room for tracking. Anything.

At the top of the box he ends up opening is the stuffed animal they found at the park, possibly a bear or possibly a dog or possibly neither but definitely well-loved. No bloodstains on this—just smudges of dirt from the ground where it was dropped and an unidentifiable stain from some previous adventure. He pulls it out of the box, still sealed in its plastic evidence bag, and tucks it into the inside pocket of his jacket, pressing his arm against his side to hide the bulge.

“Okay,” he says, putting on his best innocent expression in preparation for slipping back out the door. “Let’s go.”

“Good. This is boring.”

He hangs the key back on Charlie’s unicorn, but when he turns to leave she’s waiting for him. Right at the edge of his vision, over by the photocopier. There are people walking in front of her and around her and not a single one seems to notice her.

She’s never come here before. It’s always his house, or his car, or somewhere where he’s on his own. She’s usually quite considerate that way, letting him keep his crazy boxed off. It must be the animal. Maybe she doesn’t like him touching it. Or maybe she’s just glad he’s finally getting off his ass and doing something. Who knows.

Either way, he’s talking the back door out to the parking lot. Even if it is farther.

She follows him all the way to his car. She’d probably get in the front seat beside him if Cas hadn’t already claimed it, sliding into his usual resentful slouch, for which Dean finds himself inexplicably grateful. As it is she watches from the parking lot as he pulls back onto the street, and the feeling of her gaze honed in on him follows him all the way down to the Wall, where a nasty shock jerks him all the way back to reality.

Yesterday’s repairs are gone. As in gone. As in, not only is there absolutely no trace of their ever having existed, but also the hole, unless his eyes are fucking with him, seems to have gotten bigger.

“Maybe you should actually considering starting today,” the constable directing traffic offers sardonically.

Dean ignores her, slipping under the police tape for a closer look. He half expects it to be just a trick of the light, an optical illusion—hell, even a real illusion, except that he doesn’t know anyone vindictive enough to put that much time and effort into messing with him. But no, it’s exactly what it looks like: just a big, ragged, unpatched hole.

God-fucking-damnit. This is another two days’ work at least. They were meant to be finishing today.

How the hell could this even happen? He definitely slapped a stasis on before they left last night. Well… okay, maybe the actual act it is slipping his memory at the moment, but he’s pretty sure. Like, ninety percent sure. Uh. Maybe eighty. Definitely not less than sixty-five.

Whatever. Sure, it’s a stupid mistake, but combining with Cas for so long had him totally out-of-it; and anyways, that’s not the point. Even if he was dumb enough to forget the stasis—which, at this point, he is unwilling to either confirm or deny—some of their work ought to be left over from yesterday. Loose, maybe, or unraveled, but still there. This… there’s nothing. No sign anyone’s come near here since whoever taped off the area.

It’s infuriating, yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s just… wrong.

“Shall we get started?” asks Cas, not looking particularly surprised.

What the hell did you do?” Dean hisses.

“Exactly what you told me. We did it “your way”, remember?”

“Yeah, but this isn’t supposed to happen!”

“Well, I told you—”

“Just shut up and combine with me,” Dean snaps, too pissed off to bother listening. An entire day’s work, gone. Completely vanished. Practically the only proof he has that yesterday actually happened, in fact, is the weirdly electric ache in his bones that refuses to fade. And in the trunk of his car the mysterious rabbit-dog hybrid is flopped out forlornly in its plastic bag, forced to wait out another few days until he’s not totally drained from repairing the Wall. He refuses to turn and look, instead fitting his body against Cas’s form and muttering the combination spell, but the entire time he’s weaving strands of magic back together he’d be willing to bet there’s a little girl watching him from somewhere across the street.

Chapter Text

By the following Friday, people are starting to ask questions. Victor and Charlie and that irritable constable, and, most importantly, Bobby. Because it’s a minor incident on the Wall, and with Cas he’s been working unnaturally fast (not that they know about that), and by all rights he ought to have been done a week earlier. When Bobby calls him into his office again with a thunderous expression on his face Dean tries to explain what’s going on; except he himself doesn’t know what the hell is happening, only that it’s horribly wrong, and based on Bobby’s scowl by the time he’s finished all he’s managed to communicate is an astronomic level of incompetence.

Dean’s got his own questions, too. Lots of them. Like who did this and why won’t it stay fixed and a more general what the hell and, when he wakes up Friday morning, what is he going to feed Sam and Jess tonight?

He’s hardly surprised to find he’s forgotten all about his invitation after the trial. Right now he’s behind on just about every aspect of his life it’s possible to be behind on. Jo’s precious stuffed animal hasn’t moved from where he stuck it in the back of the hall closet the day he “borrowed” it from the archives; what with the late hours and the effects of repeatedly combining with such a powerful being (sleeping right through the weekend, a persistent tremor, and a slight fever that refuses to fade), the séance just keeps getting pushed back. If he’s honest, it’s kind of a relief—putting it off has become almost like a drug, a hit that loosens the knot twisted tight in his stomach whenever he tells himself tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow for sure.

And then there’s Cas. Who had to be cajoled and bullied and begged out of his clothes so that Dean could wash them, and then sat naked but wrapped in a blanket until they were clean, glowering at Dean every time he walked past. Who still refuses to wear shoes, even when it rains, and as a result has discovered that one of the downsides to human skin is how easily it tears. Who plucks at Dean’s sleeves and pokes him and prods him when he wants attention, regardless of the situation, like a goddamned cat, and insists on standing way too close to him the rest of the time (though at least he allows Dean to shower in relative privacy now). Who is exasperating and sulky and generally in-the-way and somehow, inexplicably, both driving Dean crazy and keeping him sane.

It’s not that he likes Cas, exactly. Well—maybe he does, kind of, or at least he’s starting to, as much as it’s possible to like someone whose moral compass points unwaveringly to the permanent north of his own interests. Living with Cas is a little like living with a two-year-old child who’s as snarky as your average rebellious teenager and, just to make things extra fun, is bursting with enough power to bring on decently sized Apocalypse. But regardless of all that, Cas is always… there. To the extent that Dean can hardly turn around without tripping over him most of the time; which is annoying, but also oddly reassuring, given that the rest of his life seems to be spiraling out of control at an alarming rate.

And he may not have figured out what the deal is with the Wall yet, but there is one mystery he’s managed to solve: when they were eating dinner three days ago (well, Dean was eating dinner and Cas was “reorganizing” his cutlery drawer), he slammed his hand down on the table hard enough to sting and exclaimed triumphantly, “You’re curious, aren’t you? That’s why you keep doing all this weird shit!”

Curious? I’m curious about your juvenile so-called culture? Don’t be ridiculous.” And Cas had rolled his eyes, but Dean saw him put down the knife he’d been holding just a little too quickly for it to be entirely believable. “I’m older than your entire galaxy. I can watch this stupid planet any time I want, including the blip of human existence.”

“No, that’s it, though! You show up knowing all this history, all this stuff about the universe—hell, you picked up my language in what, a minute?—but you’ve never seen a, you know, a fridge. And there’s all this stuff we do—like, we shake hands when we meet somebody new, here anyways, and that’s so weird, right? There’s all this stuff we’ve made, all these stupid rules and inventions, and you want to know how they work. You may not want to be human, buddy, but you want to know what it’s like. Because you’re curious.”

Cas had stormed off to sulk in the living room, muttering things like ludicrous and bored and I hate you, and that, really, was all the proof Dean needed.

Cas isn’t bored. Billions of years of just powerfully existing, or whatever the hell else it is memitim do for fun, and suddenly he’s bored after five minutes stuck on Earth? Yeah, okay. As far as Dean can tell, boredom is a human invention. The universe is a miracle, a marvel—the fact that you wake up every morning still alive is incredible, and then there’s the sun and rain and trees and witchcraft and wine and trillions of other crazy, impossible things—and yet you stick someone at a bus stop on a nice day and tell them they have to wait a quarter of an hour for the next bus, and they’ll groan like it’s the end of the world.

Anyway. Cas managed a day or so of feigned apathy in an attempt to prove his point, but he’s gradually slunk back his usual state of wanting to touch everything and everyone, and when Dean drags himself out of the shower after his run this Friday morning and down to the kitchen for breakfast, Cas has built himself a respiratory system.

Or so he claims, at least. If Dean could see it all for himself Cas would have gotten something badly wrong; but the man’s normally unnaturally still chest is rising and falling, and if that’s not enough of a giveaway his outrageously smug expression is a pretty strong hint that something’s up.

“Nice job,” he says, pouring himself a mug of coffee, “but, uh, if you don’t mind me asking… I mean, what does it actually do?

“Do?” asks Cas, looking vaguely perplexed. “It doesn’t do anything. It just breathes. It exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. Isn’t that—what does yours do?”

“Well, you know. Keeps me alive, for one.” It maybe doesn’t help that, as far as Dean can tell, Cas’s two main research sources for all these anatomical renovations he’s been doing are the feeling of being partially inside Dean’s body from all their combinations and late-night medical dramas. “I just feel like you might be kind of missing the point of all this stuff. Like, interconnectivity and all that.”

“I know how your bodies work,” Cas protests defensively. “But I can’t start putting things together properly until I have all the pieces.”

Privately he thinks Cas might not be quite as knowledgeable as he pretends, because (speaking from experience) humans seem fairly simple if you don’t think too hard about how they work, and then suddenly get a whole lot more complicated when you, say, find yourself in the middle of eleventh grade biology. That feels like the beginning of an argument he doesn’t especially want to get into right now, though, so all he does is shrug and say, “Whatever works for you, I guess.”

While he’s brushing his teeth ten minutes later, Dean makes a mental note to go the grocery store on the way home from the Wall tonight. He’s approaching the upcoming dinner with an uncomfortable sense of apprehension, but it’s not so much his own complete lack of preparation that’s worrying him—this is just his dumb little brother and Sam’s way-too-good-for-him girlfriend, after all, not the goddamned Queen of England.

No, it’s more his new, ah, housemate. Because back when he issued the invitation after that court session, this whole idiotic plan of his didn’t even exist; and then when it did, and after he stupidly decided to go through with it, the idea was for Cas to be gone long before Sam had the chance to stick his unnaturally perfect triangle of a nose anywhere near Dean’s own personal (and more-than-slightly-illegal) business. And sure, everyone at work accepts his “Grade C” elemental at face value—but none of them have ever been subjected to sitting through an entire meal with the guy. At this point, it’s not so much getting found out that worries him so much as the prospect the of vast levels of awkwardness Cas’s wobbly grasp of social norms forebodes.

Maybe he’s being too harsh, though. He and Cas… well, get along is a bit of a stretch, but they tolerate each other pretty well by now, right? And the guy is usually relatively well-behaved whenever Dean has to drag him over to the station. It’s just one evening with Sam and Jess, after all. Maybe it won’t be so bad.

When they get out to the car, Cas looks between the Impala and Dean as Dean pauses to polish a smudge off the driver’s side door and then asks, “Are you so attached to your car because you lack meaningful emotional connections with real people?”

The flicker of hope that had been beginning to bloom cautiously in his chest shrivels back into nonexistence.

“I have friends, you know,” he says. “And a brother who, by the way, is coming over tonight for dinner—so behave.”

“I always behave.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, sighing. “That’s kind of what I was afraid of.”

The problem with the Wall, he reflects later on as his-and-Cas’s hands are attempting yet another tried-and-tested knot to patch the hole back together, is that it feels productive. Every day he powers through strand after strand until his body is buzzing with Cas’s weird flavour of magic and his palms are raw; and they break the combination, and he looks at what they’ve done, and he thinks this time it’s going to hold. This time for sure. And then, every day, he shows up again to find it hasn’t. He’s done all the knots he’s ever learned, and a few more besides, and he’s slapped on the strongest possible stasis, the high-security kind they use in nuclear power plants—and still, every goddamned morning, it’s all come unraveled again.

It’s like that story about the guy pushing the rock up the hill over and over again. Except Dean’s pretty sure he didn’t have his grouchy old boss on his back hinting not-so-subtly that he better get his lazy ass in gear, and fast; or, for that matter, Curious fucking George telling him it’s never going to work anyways because he’s doing it all wrong.

And speaking of grouchy old bosses—

“The hell you think you’re doing?” says someone who sounds uncomfortably like Bobby, and Dean breaks the combination so quickly Cas staggers right through the Wall with an indignant “ow!

“Why are you here?” Dean asks, too surprised to remember to fake formality. He winces and rubs his neck, left with the painful sensation of having just sustained a sort of full-body whiplash.

“Why d’you think?” Bobby snaps back. “To see why the guy who used to be my best detective suddenly can’t fix a goddamned hole in the Wall—and I show up, and you’re just snuggling your elemental like it’s your high school girlfriend!”

His face starts to flush, and he runs a hand angrily through his hair in an effort to cover his embarrassment. Idiot, idiot, idiot—a partial with Cas may be like being electrocuted by the entire city’s worth of electricity, but a partial with the Grade C elemental that Cas is supposed to be would barely give enough juice to fry an egg. He needs an excuse—something, anything, just to prove he’s not completely incompetent, come on—

“That’s my fault,” says Cas. “I have a disability.”

Bobby stares at Cas the way someone would stare at a piece of furniture that had suddenly developed a vocabulary, but he recovers himself enough to say gruffly, “Yeah? Didn’t know your kind could have those.”

“Well, obviously we can,” says Cas, scathingly enough to make Bobby shift his weight uncomfortably and turn his gaze back to Dean.

“So, what, you summoned a gimpy elemental? That’s why this is taking so long?”

“Uh, yeah,” says Dean. “I guess. You know, equal opportunities and all. But, look, Bobby—I mean, sir—it’s not Cas. Even with a partial we can patch the hole up easy, but then it just—”

“Cas? You gave it a name? What, does it sleep on your bed, too? It’s a tool, Dean, not a goddamned pet.”

“I chose my own name,” says Cas, and the frozen heat of his tone makes Dean’s stomach squirm nervously, “and I am no one’s pet, human. I serve Dean Winchester until we reach the end of our agreement, as you people seem to like to call it, and he unbinds me. And for your own sake, please do not make the mistake of believing that we are tools ever again.”

For one wild moment, Dean thinks the we is him and Cas, and he feels an irrational surge of pride; they are something of a team, aren’t they? A little dysfunctional at times, but really—ah, but of course the we Cas is talking about is his own family, himself and all his soul-eating siblings. Obviously. Like he said, he and Dean have an agreement. Nothing more. And, come to think of it, from Cas’s point of view the agreement probably isn’t going all that well, considering that what was meant to last a few days has stretched out into almost two weeks without the definite promise of ending any time soon. Maybe he likes having a chance to poke around the human world a little, however much he denies it, and Dean wouldn’t exactly describe him as seeming homesick; but he’d be hard-pressed to kid himself into thinking Cas actually enjoys being here.

Which makes it kind of weird, then, that the guy was covering for him a minute ago.

Huh.

But that brings him back to the fact that Bobby and Cas are staring each other down in a way that makes the precarious position his career is in right now stand out with alarming clarity, and so he clears throat in an attempt to ease the tension while wracking his brains for something to say—and for the second time in less than five minutes his mind is blanking on him, come on, come on—talk about the goddamned weather if you have to, as long as—

This time it’s Bobby who steps up to the plate for him, surprisingly enough. Or maybe not so surprisingly, because while he may be a crusty old grouch he’s not actually a bad person, much as he may try to hide the fact. “Sorry,” Bobby says gruffly. He narrows his eyes slightly, more in confusion than outright suspicion. “You’re not what we’re used to, uh—Cas. No offense meant.”

Cas huffs an irritated breath with his brand-new respiratory system, but the pre-thunderstorm crackle that’s been hovering around him seems to recede.

“Anyways,” adds Bobby, “it’s not you I’ve got a problem with. A word, Dean.”

“Sure,” says Dean.

Alone.”

Shit.

“You mind waiting by the car?” he asks Cas. “I think we’re pretty much done for the day anyways.”

When he’s out of earshot (though, come to thing of it, what is earshot for a memitim?) Dean braces himself for a verbal beating, ready to stand his ground with the whole Wall thing even if, from where Bobby’s standing now, the job looks as standard as any other; but Bobby just hisses, “What the hell is wrong with you, Dean?”

“What? Nothing, I’m—it’s this job, I swear, there’s something not—”

“I’m not talking about the goddamned job,” Bobby snaps. “I’m talking about all of it. You ain’t been right since the start of that fucking Harvelle case, I know, but I’m starting to think you weren’t right since before that, either. Look—loosing Benny was hard on all of us, but—”

“Oh, Jesus,” mutters Dean.

“Don’t you oh Jesus me, boy. Benny was a good man and a good officer, and I miss having him around as much as the next guy but he was your best friend. You don’t just get over something like that.”

“Yeah, well, I did,” Dean says stubbornly.

Bobby looks like he can’t decide whether to punch him or give him an I’m-here-for-you hug. He does neither, luckily, instead just sighing heavily. “So what, then? ‘Cause it’s not just me, you know—your brother’s worried too.”

Dean stares at Bobby and, for a moment, considers actually telling the truth. About Jo, always hanging around and waiting for him to get his act together; about Cas, and how he knows summoning him was against the law but he had to, and surely Bobby will understand? After dealing with John Winchester’s crazy family for three decades, surely he knows that right and wrong get flipped around sometimes, and you can’t do one without doing the other?

 

Except Bobby might be like family but he’s Dean’s boss, too, and he’s also the city’s chief of police, and what Dean’s done goes so, so far past bending the rules. How is that fair, putting him in that position? Maybe—maybe—it would make Dean feel a little better, unloading some of this shit on someone else, but Bobby’s done a hell of a lot for Dean over the years. Making him choose between family and the law is no way to repay him. Besides, it would hardly be much of a choice. Not for Bobby.

So he just shrugs, and Bobby sighs again. “Fine, if that’s how you want it. But as your friend, I just gotta tell you—there’s a whole lot of people want to help you, Dean, but you need to ask for it, okay?”

“And as my boss?”

“As your boss,” Bobby says, rolling his eyes, “get your ass in gear before the whole goddamned Wall falls apart. And keep an eye on that elemental of yours. He’s weird.”

“You don’t need to tell me that.” Dean eyes the Wall gloomily and says, “I guess I’ll be in on the weekend, huh?”

“You got it.”

Cas gives him an inscrutable look when Dean joins him by the Impala a minute later, and Dean can’t tell whether that means he overheard the entire thing or he didn’t hear any of it. Either way, neither of them mentions it, and soon enough Dean’s got a bigger problem on his hands: stopping Cas from touching every fucking thing they pass in the grocery store. It’s like shopping with a preschooler. And Cas doesn’t even eat, so where the hell his fascination with Jell-O powder comes from Dean has no idea.

By the time the doorbell rings he’s behind schedule and pretty much out of patience and really, really wishing he could order takeout and watch bad TV all evening rather than play host, even if it just for his brother. “I’ll get it!” he shouts to Cas, who is doing God-knows-what in the living room rather than, you know, actually helping him with these fucking pepper steaks or anything.

Over the sizzle of sautéing onions he hears the springs of the couch creak from the other room, followed by the ominous almost-silence of bare feet padding across hardwood floor.

“Cas!” he yells again. “I said I’d get it!”

There’s a brief silence, in which he can practically picture Cas considering the request—God-fucking-damnit, the idiot doesn’t even like people; there’s curiosity and then there’s deliberately wanting to piss someone off—and then the quiet click of the lock on the front door sliding open. “Fucking hell,” he mutters, throwing his wooden spoon at the counter and shooting the onions a glare that says don’t you dare burn before running out of the kitchen.

He makes it to the hall just in time to see a bewildered Sam standing in the doorway with Jess and saying, “Um, hi. Is Dean… around?”

“Dean is busy,” says Cas and oh, Christ, he can hear him narrowing his eyes.

“No I’m not,” says Dean, shoving Cas out of the way with enough force to send him staggering into the hall closet. “Hi, come on in. Hi Jess, you look great. Just making dinner. Okay. Yeah.”

Sam hands Dean a bottle of wine distractedly and peers over Dean’s shoulder at the closet. “Uh, who is that?”

“Just an elemental,” says Dean, “who will not be eating with us.”

Cas pushes his way back out of the closet, ignoring Sam’s curious stare in favour of scowling at Dean.

“Oh, we don’t mind,” says Jess.

That’s an elemental?” says Sam. “But—wow! I’ve never seen one with such a realistic corporeal form! What—it must be a Grade A, right? Or a Special Class? How the hell’d you manage to get clearance for something so powerful?”

It’s kind of embarrassing, actually. Not just his brother geeking out, which Dean’s been rolling his eyes over practically since Sam learned how to talk, but the fact that he’s geeking out like Cas isn’t right there in front of him listening to every word he says. It’s not Sam’s fault, because if Cas actually were an elemental chances are he’d be as vacant and apathetic a son-of-a-bitch as the rest of them, and Dean’s the one lying through his teeth here—but it doesn’t make the sullen glare Cas is shooting him any easier to take.

He shouldn’t feel guilty. He shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s unavoidable, right? And Cas might be thin-skinned, but that’s only because he’s packed to the bursting with alien magic underneath. His self-esteem is nonexistent—who needs self-esteem when you’ve got an innate understanding of your overwhelming superiority?

Still, though. Maybe it gets tiring after a while.

“He’s a Grade C,” says Dean, putting slightly more emphasis on the he than is strictly necessary. “We’ve been doing Wall maintenance, just standard stuff. And, uh, I really don’t think—”

But what he doesn’t think no one ever gets to find out, because then he remembers about the onions that are probably starting to whimper in agony on the stovetop, and he ends up cursing under his breath as he races back into the kitchen. The other three follow him at a more sedate pace, and he can hear Sam stumbling over his own figurative feet as he tries to apologize and introduce himself and ask more questions all at once, with Jess doing a proper it’s-nice-to-meet-you like a normal person in between.

“Wine?” Dean offers once he’s managed to get the onions out of immediate danger. “Or, uh… shit, I don’t know what else I have… there might be beer in the basement, I can check—”

“Just water for me,” says Jess.

“Me too,” says Sam. “I’ll get it, don’t worry—”

Jesus. One of Sam’s new health kicks, probably. It’s a good thing they’re brothers, so Dean won’t have to feel guilty about kicking this one in the balls—he’s not even certain he can make it to the start of dinner without a drink.

For a while the kitchen is a mess of noise as everyone talks over each other, Dean brushing off offers of help as he flops the steaks into the frying pan and Cas, for his part, standing over by the fridge out of everyone’s way and looking incredibly uncomfortable, which serves him right. He looks like he might be contemplating an escape when Dean announces that dinner is finally ready, but in a moment of uncharacteristic spite, Dean hands him the bowl of salad and tells him to go put it on the table, whereupon he gestures meaningfully for Cas to take the seat across from his own.

Which is how, against all odds, he finds himself having dinner with his brother, his brother’s sweet-as-sugar girlfriend, and a memitim whose mind-blowing power resources don’t stop him from sulking.

“You sure you guys don’t want a drink?” asks Dean, pouring himself a substantial glass of Sam’s freshly opened wine.

“No, thanks,” says Sam. Dean doesn’t miss the conspiratorial look that passes between them, but before he has a chance to ask what’s going on Jess asks, “Can I pass you anything, Cas?”

Early on they’d agreed—well, Dean had firmly suggested, and Cas had said, “Fine, I don’t care”—that it would be… safer for Cas not to go by his full name. Outside of niche academia and certain highly specialized, probably illegal secret societies, the general public doesn’t have much use for a thorough knowledge of the aptly named angels of destruction; they live on in a few old ghost stories, the occasional fairy tale, but even then Castiel is hardly the best-known of his family. He has siblings who govern over love, and lust, and jealousy, and nightmares, all elements that have an uncanny knack of turning up in stories over and over again. No one wants to read about the thing that sits back and weighs the souls, the keeper of the scales—Lady Justice herself, but not the way people like to picture her. Colder, and harder, and clinical, almost, and—uh—wearing the t-shirt of a punk band from the seventies. Um.

The point is, Dean hadn’t heard of the guy until he found him in the same ancient, obscure book that provided the summoning spell, and he has a feeling that probably goes for the majority of the rest of the population as well. And even if someone did make the connection, well, what? Who’s going to accuse a well-respected detective of high-level necromancy based on a name and an elemental that doesn’t seem quite right?

But just to be on the safe side, just so that no one starts thinking this might be something to look into, Dean calls him Cas, and introduces him as Cas, and just generally shies away from all use of his full name. He is Cas, to Dean. Castiel is the being he summoned, the shapeless, formless presence that made his throat go dry with fear as he dragged him down into the attic. Cas is the guy with the weird eyes who accidentally blew up a potato in Dean’s microwave yesterday.

So it shouldn’t be weird to hear someone else say his name. It shouldn’t be weird to see Jess’s pretty mouth shaping that word with the same casualness as the rest of her sentence, the same way she says hi, Dean when he calls their house and she picks up the phone. Like Cas is just a normal person, if a little on the strange side. Like he’s just one of Dean’s friends.

Though, come to think of it, maybe he kind of is, right here and right now. Just for this one evening.

Cas looks at Dean uncertainly, and Dean pulls himself back together in time to say, “He doesn’t eat, actually.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” says Jess. “Dean’s a fantastic cook, you know.” Sam nods his head in vigorous agreement, mouth too full to speak, and Dean can’t quite hide a grin as he waves the compliment away. Damn straight. He may be a shitty person and an even shittier cop, but at least he can fry the hell out of a slab of steak.

“I suppose I could… try,” Cas says.

“Dude, you don’t even have a digestive system,” Dean points out.

“Replicating your form is just a mental exercise,” says Cas, fixing him with a glare that has Dean turning his disbelieving laugh into an unconvincing cough. “I can still do anything you can do.” There’s an unsaid but better at the end, and judging by the grin Sam’s struggling to cover Dean isn’t the only one at the table who catches it.

Dean shrugs. “Whatever you say, Cas. Help yourself.”

He starts to reach across the table for Dean’s plate and oh, come on, Cas—Dean shakes his head almost imperceptibly and Cas freezes, staring at him in alarm until Dean glances pointedly at the cutlery he’s set aside momentarily.

“I’ll… go get… a fork,” Cas says slowly.

“Good idea,” says Dean.

As it turns out, Cas does not like pepper steak. At all. He looks like he’s about to spit the mouthful Dean cut for him right back out onto Dean’s plate until Dean gives him a Meaningful Look, and settles for making a series of faces that suggest he’s just been force-fed a hunk of cyanide as he chokes it down.

After he says, in a cautiously diplomatic manner, “That was—interesting.” Dean laughs, because the guy’s goddamned eyes are watering from the experience (just “replicating your form” his ass); but at the same time he’s kind of wondering, what the hell? Because Cas and diplomacy? Yeah, a little like oil and water, as far as he’s been able to tell. Despite all he’s said about creating a body that can pass as realistically human, Cas doesn’t seems to bother much with the idea of fitting in, not because he’s above it all or anything like that but because he legitimately doesn’t care. So this, this eating and trying to be polite and looking uncomfortable at not knowing exactly how to do that, is… out of character, to say the least.

Dean thinks that maybe Cas has managed to get himself a bit of a crush on Jess who, come to think of it, does seem to be glowing even more than usual tonight. Poor guy. It’s cute, in a kind of weird and creepy way.

Conversation moves on, and when Dean remembers to glance over at Cas a while later he’s fiddling quietly with the salt-and-pepper shakers, seeming quite relieved to have faded into the background.

Eventually Dean gets up to clear the table and make coffee, which spurs another wave of do-you-need-any-help’s and oh-let-me-get-that’s from Sam and Jess that he firmly refuses. He loves the pair of them to bits, honestly, but there’s… well, okay, there’s something about having Jess around that puts a weird spin on the Winchester dynamic. It’s bizarre, after growing up as pretty much the most important person in Sam’s life, to see someone else filling that role. After years of them being together the edge has worn off, but it’s still exhausting, somehow, being with the two of them for too long. It drains him in a way that being with just Sam never seems to do. It’s nice to have a few minutes to himself, a quick break from smiling and laughing and talking.

Except that after maybe two minutes Cas slouches into the kitchen and starts plucking at his shirt. “You have to come back,” Cas mutters, glancing anxiously towards the dining room where he can hear Sam and Jess talking quietly.

“In a minute.” Dean tries to elbow him out of the way. “But I’m kind of busy right now, okay?”

“No, now,” Cas urges. “They keep looking at me and I can’t think of things to say. It’s making me uncomfortable.”

Jesus. And Sam says he’s antisocial. “You know you don’t have to stay, right? You can just go hang out upstairs until they leave.”

But Cas just shakes his head and repeats, “Come back.”

“Look,” says Dean, sighing. “Just—go in there, and sit down, and ask Sam about his job, and pretend to laugh when he starts talking about a guy named Ash, because as far as Sam’s concerned that story’s a fucking comedic gold mine. Got it?”

Cas nods somewhat skeptically, and Dean gives him a shove towards the door to get him moving. He listens for a minute—Sam and Jess’s conversation breaking off; some awkward silence; a question worded even more awkwardly by Cas; Sam, after a startled pause, saying, “Well, I’m a lawyer…”—and rolls his eyes. Of all the times for Cas to be suddenly overcome with social anxiety… well, okay, it’s definitely better than if he had kept up his usual charming I-don’t-give-a-fuck demeanour and just spent the entire evening indifferently insulting all three of them. Anyway, if he’s being honest with himself, it’s kind of endearing. If you ignore the fact that the only thing keeping Cas from burning the entire city to the ground (hell, the entire country, probably) is a flimsy faux-leather dog collar doused in Dean’s questionable magic, that is.

Cas still doesn’t look too comfortable when Dean walks in with coffee ten minutes later, though he seems to have made it through the terrifying ordeal of solo interaction with Dean’s family intact; but it takes Dean about three seconds to forget all about him, because Sam takes Jess’s hand and they look at each in that way and Dean thinks oh, shit.

“So, uh, Dean,” says Sam, and Dean’s mind rewinds frantically to his brother picking him up that day after the court session and saying I’ve got bigger things to save for at the moment. Okay. So. Bigger things. That’s what this is.

He looks from Sam to Jess and teases (in an actually-dead-serious way), “Don’t tell me you two are finally getting hitched.”

Sam laughs and shakes his head, and there’s an instant of guilt-filled, overwhelming relief. They’re getting a new house, maybe. Or renovating the ugly-as-sin basement of their old one, finally. Or, hey, maybe they’re going on vacation—skipping the wedding and just heading off for the honeymoon. He could deal with that. Even Sam talking Jess into getting another dog—he’s got a deep-seated, irrational fear of those goddamned animals, especially the big ones, leftover from a half-remembered childhood trauma, but even that wouldn’t be—

“We’re pregnant,” says Jess, and it looks like she and her boyfriend are competing to see who can crank up the electricity bill higher with their smiles.

It takes a minute for the words to sink in. Kind of ridiculous, really, how much trouble he’s having deciphering such a short sentence.

Finally he says, “Holy shit,” which probably isn’t the best possible response, but it feels a little like he’s just been punched in the stomach.

Sam’s smile wavers slightly.

“I mean,” Dean adds hurriedly, “I mean, shit, that’s fucking—Jesus. Congratulations. Wow. I don’t. Wow.”

“That’s pretty much what he said, too,” says Jess, giving Sam’s hand an affectionate squeeze.

“When did you—I mean, how long—”

“Three weeks, yeah, we’d been talking about it for a few months now, but—”

They leave a little after eleven, and Dean waits till he’s closed the door behind them to let his aching face relax out of its smile. The manic energy that fueled him through the latter half of the evening fades abruptly, and although he eyes the dishes in the sink wearily all he manages to do is ditch the bottle of wine in favour of a very, very generous glass of whisky before collapsing on the couch.

He swirls the amber liquid around, watching it moodily; and then he looks up and Cas is standing right fucking in front of him and he nearly dumps the goddamned drink all over his crotch in surprise.

“Don’t fucking do that,” he snaps.

Cas crosses his arms, and for one terrifying moment he looks kind of like the ex-military fourth grade teacher that forced Dean to recite all his not-quite-as-memorized-as-they-should-have-been times tables in front of the class until he started crying.

“You’re upset,” says Cas. The way he’s narrowing his eyes makes it almost an accusation.

Dean sighs, because this is so not something he wants to deal with right now, and says, “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“No, you acted like you were excited when you actually weren’t. Why are you upset? You were supposed to be happy, right? That’s what they expected. And they were happy. Do you not think they’ll be good parents? Or do you not like kids and you think this will—”

I’m not upset!

“Well, now you’re raising your voice, so clearly you are.”

“Yeah, because you’re being a fucking—” He grits his teeth, biting back the insult, and takes a deep breath. In from the stomach, up through the lungs, open the ribcage—the same meditative breathing he did when he summoned Cas, because if there’s one thing that’s more terrifying than highly dangerous, highly illegal dark magic rituals it’s people trying to talk to him about his feelings. “Kids are great, okay? Sam and Jess are going to be fantastic parents. I’m not upset, I’ve just been working all week and I’m going to be working tomorrow too and I’m tired. Okay?”

Cas keeps on staring at him until Dean finds himself starting to fidget uncomfortably with his glass and then says finally, “No, I think you’re upset.”

“I already told you,” says Dean, who is starting to seriously consider the question of whether or not Cas’s anatomic construction has extended to the addition of testicles because he really wants something to kick right now, “that I’m not.”

“I think you’re lying, though.”

“I’m not—”

“Probably because you don’t want to talk about it.”

“You figure that out all by yourself, Cas?” He laughs, even though there’s nothing particularly funny about any of this, and tosses back the remainder of his drink. Any vaguely tender feelings he might have been harbouring towards Cas after all his awkwardness at dinner have rapidly evaporated.

Sam and Jess are having a baby. It’s fantastic. And Dean’s going to be an uncle, which is also fantastic. Building a family and all. It’s about time, huh? Certainly he hasn’t been making any progress on that front. Awesome.

Cas makes an annoyed noise and says, “I just don’t understand what—”

“You don’t have to fucking understand everything, okay? I should be fucking thrilled and I’m not, and what can I say? I’m just fucked up.”

There’s a long moment where neither of them says anything, and Dean nudges his temper slightly to the side to wonder if storming off to bed right now would constitute winning or losing this argument, if that’s what this is, and whether he even cares either way.

“You’re very confusing,” Cas says at last. Then he sits down at the other end of the couch and turns on the television in a clear indication that the conversation is over, leaving Dean to sit in shock for a moment. He still storms off to bed in the end, though the effect is somewhat spoiled by the fact that Cas is clearly paying him no attention whatsoever, and anyway he only manages to make it up the first few stairs before his storming turns into more of an exhausted drag.

Sam and Jess are having a baby, and he’s still cleaning up the messy ends of other people’s lives. He and Cas really are quite the team, if you think about it—an efficient little disposal unit for the waste produced by human lives, him tidying up the physical aftershock and Cas dealing out justice by eating their souls. Fucking fantastic.

He starts brushing his teeth, because no matter what’s going on inside your head there are some habits too ingrained into your body to break, and she’s there in the corner, watching him. It’s not funny at all, except that right now it kind of is, and he almost starts laughing—Sam and Jess are having a baby? Well, he’s had his own kid for months now, and look how great that’s been going. Christ. Clearly he’s not cut out for being a single father.

“Sorry,” he tells her half-heartedly. “I mean, you’re probably sick of hearing that by now, but I don’t know what else to say.”

The next morning he wakes up before his alarm, before it’s even all the way light out, and goes running until his stomach cramps up so bad he nearly pukes on his driveway; and she doesn’t follow him, doesn’t come into the kitchen when Cas tries a sip of Dean’s coffee and spends the next half-hour bitching about how much he hates it, but she’s there at the back of his mind, hovering with the awful patience that seems to strip his sanity even through the mind-numbing exhaustion of running his body ragged.

Chapter Text

“Okay,” says Dean, putting his hands on his hips as he surveys the ever-growing hole in the Wall in an effort to keep Cas from seeing the slight nervous tremor they’ve developed. “We need a new strategy.”

“Perhaps you should stare at it meaningfully until you die of old age,” suggests Cas. “It would be more effective than what you’re doing now.”

Dean scowls at him. “I’m serious. Apart from Bobby being on my ass about it, if the whole thing starts unraveling we’re in serious shit.”

“You’re in charge,” Cas says with a disinterested shrug. “And whatever you do won’t work anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”

“I know. That’s why you’re going to do it.”

It’s almost worth it, regardless of anything that might be about to go horribly wrong, just to see the expression on Cas’s face.

“Excuse me?”

“First day you said I was doing it wrong and, well, obviously you were right or this goddamned hole would be fixed by now. I’m out of ideas and I’m sick of redoing this every day, so we’re going to combine and then you’re going to do your thing. Got it?”

“Yes,” says Cas, who still looks like he’s busy trying to get back his figurative balance in the conversation.

“Just to be clear,” Dean adds when they’ve gotten into their usual position, Cas in front with the backs of his hands pressed against Dean’s palms, “in case you were thinking of using this as an opportunity to escape and wreak havoc on my city, if you so much as touch that collar I’ll break the combination so fast your cosmic ass’ll be stinging for weeks.”

It’s difficult to make eye contact in their current position, but Cas still goes to the effort of twisting his neck around until his nose is practically pressed against Dean’s to shoot him a withering glare. “I didn’t intend to, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“Yeah, well,” says Dean, turning his head away and focusing a slightly-larger-than-necessary amount of his attention on making sure their hands are properly aligned instead, “just checking. Anyways. Ready?”

“Yes.”

After running through the spell so many times for their repeated combinations, the words—already simpler for him than any regular bit of witchcraft—slide out as easy as breathing. He tries not to think about it too much. You can get used to anything, right? And God knows he’s done this enough over the past two weeks. It’s only natural.

Except that he still struggled with regular combinations last time he did one, and he’s been doing those for years. Just like he’s been summoning witch-light for years, the way everyone does because it’s the simplest spell in the book, and yet he still elects to keep a flashlight on hand whenever possible; or how he plugs his phone into a charger for an hour or two rather than doing a quick transfer of energy to amp it back up; or, on the flip side, how he sat on the grimy floor last year cradling Benny’s head in his lap, and felt without even having to focus how easy it would be to

But it’s better not to think about that, all things considered. So he’s a shitty witch and a sort-of-maybe-kind-of natural necromancer, so what? He’s been dealing with what basically boils down to magical dyslexia all his life, and he’s a goddamned adult. He’s not going to go all dark-side after this just to keep the taste of being good for once in his mouth. He’ll let Cas go when this is all done, and put the skull and the bowl and the book back in the far corners of his attic, and he’ll bite his newfound gift back down and suck it the hell up. And anyway, maybe now isn’t the best time to be fretting over this, because speaking of necromancy he’s just given over full motor control his hands (and hell, who knows, Cas could probably commandeer the rest of his body too if he really wanted) over to a goddamned memitim.

He realizes, vaguely, that nothing is happening. His hands have dissolved into Cas’s, but Cas has made no move to start doing whatever-it-is he thinks he needs to do to the Wall. “Well?” he says, somewhat more gruffly than is strictly necessary over nerves he doesn’t want to admit to having. “Aren’t you going to start?”

“You need to relax,” says Cas. Gently, almost, which is… uh. Okay. Hmm. Relax—he doesn’t need to relax, he’s perfectly relaxed already, maybe Cas needs to—

There’s a dull ache in his arms, made slightly distant by the strangeness of the combination, that’s just registering in the back of his mind. The muscles are frozen in place, tight enough to be on the verge of cramping up.

Oh.

“Sorry.” He relaxes, slowly, but then tightens up again instinctively when Cas tries to move his hands. “Sorry, sorry! I’m just not used to—okay. There. I’ll just—okay. Go ahead.”

And his arms may be relaxed now, enough for Cas to start carefully tracing the edges of the hole, but his jaw is clenched so hard he’s pretty sure Cas must be able to hear Dean’s teeth grinding. Fuck. This is—it’s fucking terrifying, having someone else controlling even a part of his body, and it’s only been a few seconds but his heart is already racing and his breath is short and shallow. And it’s frustrating, too, because they keep—well, stalling out, basically, since anytime Cas moves just a tiny bit too fast Dean freezes up, and even though Cas is being surprisingly patient with him it’s annoying and it’s embarrassing. Usually Dean prides himself on his somewhat superior fight-or-flight instincts—there’s no use being modest about the only thing that’s kept him alive this many years—but right here and right now neither is a viable option, and so he just holds what’s meant to be split-second tension in his body until it starts to hurt.

To anchor himself he focuses on the feeling of Cas’s back against his chest: the changes in pressure as his brand-new lungs cycle through breaths that are much slower, much more even than his own; the slide of shoulder-blades under skin as his arms move, arms, don’t think about his arms; the strange stillness of no heart beat, because he hasn’t gotten around to building a circulatory system (and he’d wonder, in that case, what the hell the lungs are doing, but it’s probably better not to think too hard about, unless he wants to top off his current discomfort with a pounding headache). He keeps his eyes squeezed shut for most of the time, which is probably really stupid but hey, Cas seems to know what he’s doing and if he wanted to stage a sudden coup he probably would have done it by now, right? Watching his own hands do something Dean’s not telling them to do is just really, really not working very well for him.

The little he does see, though, from the few times he manages to pry his eyelids open enough to sneak a peak, is that Cas is… well. Uh. Honestly, Dean has no idea what he’s doing, except that it’s definitely not normal. He’s made no attempt to start weaving loose strands back together, or to stretch the unbroken fabric over the hole—he’s doing nothing, in fact, that would give a casual observer the slightest clue that repairs were theoretically meant to be underway. Instead Cas feels around the edges of the tear—carefully, like a doctor inspecting a jagged wound. Touches the empty air in the middle. Lays his (Dean’s, oh, fuck) palms against the undamaged Wall above and to the sides.

Dean’s managed to build up a space in his head—a temporary safety, an if-I-don’t-look-at-it-or-think-about-it-or-move-even-a-little-I-can-kind-of-pretend-it’s-not-happening—when Cas jerks forward suddenly, thrusting one arm up into the hole and right into the Wall itself, right into the tangle of magic in the space between this side and that side. Dean stumbles forward after him, not that he has much choice; there’s a jolt of strange, ancient energy that nearly shocks him into breaking the combination, but he manages to grasp at its fluttering ends just before it evaporates entirely. The hum of the Wall echoes down his arm, leaving that dusty, earthy herb taste as strong in his mouth as if he’d just taken a bite of it. Ugh. Bad enough spending all this time pressed right up against the Wall without having to be inside it as well—

But he hardly has time to mull it over before Cas’s (his) fingers seize on something, and the taste abruptly goes acrid and sour enough that he almost gags, buzzing painfully in the corner of his skull and stirring a terrible, throbbing ache that goes right down to the marrow of his bones; and the Wall may be old and different and creepy, but this, whatever the hell this is, this shouldn’t exist at all, ever—

Cas makes a little noise of triumph in the back of his throat and yanks, and his-and-Dean’s hand emerges from the Wall clutching—something.

“Urgh!” says Dean, and this time he really does break the combination, more in an effort to get his hand away from it than anything else. Cas staggers a little at the abrupt snapping of the spell, but his grip stays firm. And thank fucking God for that, Jesus Christ

It’s like. It’s like. It’s like—

It’s like a ball the size of a dinner plate composed entirely of oily black worms, all squirming and writhing in a way that makes Dean feel urgently, violently ill, and there’s a—not a smell, but more of an overall aura, sort of distorting the air around it. He drags his hand frantically against his pants, trying to wipe off any tiny bit that might still be clinging to him, which is totally neurotic because the rational part of him knows there’s nothing there; and, okay, combined with his less-than-dignified shudder of revulsion he’s pretty sure he looks like a kid freaking out over a tiny little spider (and he starts to think of Benny and the way Dean would always laugh at him for his uneasiness around rats and no, not now).

This goddamned thing—it makes him itch on the inside of his skin where he can’t scratch, and that’s by its mere presence. Cas has his fucking fingers dug into it, deep enough that aside from the occasional flash of tan as the black mass undulates Dean can hardly see his hand at all, and he just looks interested. Intrigued. Ready to sit down in a lab and start running tests on it, whereas Dean’s trying to fight the instinct to shove it right back into the Wall and start sprinting as fast as he can in the other direction until his lungs give out.

“What the fuck is that?” Dean demands.

“I’m not sure,” says Cas. “It’s difficult to get a good look without—”

Don’t let it go!

“I wasn’t going to, I was just saying—”

“Well, don’t!”

“I have a firm grip on it, see? Would you please calm down?” He brandishes it pointedly, and Dean flinches.

“I’m calm!”

“I don’t think you are—”

They end up back in the Impala, once Dean’s called the station to tell them to get the Tank ready; there is possibly nothing Dean wants less than to have Cas bring that thing into his car, but their options are kind of limited. He spends the entire ride with the half of his attention that isn’t focused on the road worrying what if I hit a bump and is that likely to stain my upholstery. And even Cas, though he seems far less perturbed by the wrongness of the worm-glove currently encasing his hand, is preoccupied enough not to mess with the radio like he usually does.

After white-knuckling it to the station, it’s almost a relief to see the crowds of officers who’ve gathered around to greet the new arrival (although, of course, without making it look like that’s actually what they’re doing). You can get used to pretty much anything working in a police force like theirs, but once in a while something really unusual comes along, and everyone reverts to the uncontainable curiosity most often seen in hyperactive five-year-olds; and apparently Dean’s phone call was stressed enough (stressed, not frantic) to start their state-of-the-art gossip mill running at full speed.

He and Cas have no trouble making it through the crowd, though, oddly enough. Everyone who was so eager to see what Detective Winchester yanked out of the Wall a minute ago seems mysteriously reluctant to get within more than about five feet of the still-squirming mass Cas is clutching in front of him.

Which makes sense, yeah? Whatever the hell this thing is, Dean doesn’t need to wait for the results from forensics to know how completely, horribly wrong it is, and he doesn’t even need to be touching it (thank God) to pick up on that; but he glances at one of the constables as he passes, and catches her staring not at Cas’s black-drenched hand but at his not-quite-human face.

Strange, isn’t it. A bit of exceptionally dark magic brought in by the detective’s exceptionally odd elemental. Dean’s been careful to keep Cas out of the spotlight as much as possible but it’s kind of unavoidable now, and the looks Cas is getting right now are a little too thoughtful for Dean’s liking.

Even though it means getting closer than he’d like to the wormy thing, he can’t help putting a protective arm around Cas’s back and pressing him into a slightly faster pace.

The Tank is exactly that, with a few minor advantages over the kind of thing you’d use to house your pet fish. Bulletproof glass, for starters, provided with additional reinforcements in the form of stasis spells potent enough to make anyone who passes by too closely slow down unintentionally. It’s used for anything particularly dangerous—heavily cursed objects, lethal poisons, weird weapons, that sort of thing—not to render them inert but to figure them out, which is exactly what Dean needs right now. There’s a pair of gloves for handling built right in, kind of like an incubator; like the rest of the Tank they’re designed to withstand just about anything, but Dean can’t help feeling irrationally grateful that he’s not the one who’ll have to use them.

“Will it hold?” he asks.

“Of course,” says Constable Tran, though he eyes the black goo uneasily; and no offence to Kevin, who’s a fantastic forensics officer (if unsettlingly young), but the question wasn’t actually meant for him.

Cas touches the glass case with his free hand. There’s the spark of two colliding magics, which Dean hopes fervently that Kevin doesn’t notice. Inside, the blackness squirms furiously, oozing itself over every inch of glass in the hopes of finding an escape route. “I believe so. For now, at least.”

Great. Really reassuring.

Kevin stares at Cas. “Who’s—”

“Elemental,” Dean says gruffly.

Really? But he looks—”

“How about we try to stay on task, Kevin, huh?”

“Right. Sorry,” says Kevin, though he can’t seem to bring himself to look away. Cas crosses his arms and hunches his shoulders forward, and Dean wonders for a moment if all the attention is actually making him self-conscious. “So I’ll, uh, try to get a reading on composition, origin, properties, all the usual stuff… you want anything else?”

“No. Wait, yeah—can you run a trace? I want to know if there’s any more of this stuff floating around.”

“Sure. Perimeter?”

“Is city-wide too big?”

“I can do city-wide.”

“Cool. Thanks. And as soon as you find anything you report straight to me, okay? I don’t care how scientifically exciting it is, you can write a paper on it after we’re sure it’s not going to kill anyone.”

“Yes, sir,” says Kevin, looking mildly offended at the implication. “I’ll get right on it.”

“Good. I’ll be in my office. C’mon, Cas.”

There is, for the first time in quite a while, nothing that urgently needs doing. Oh, they’re in the middle of a top-priority case, sure, and failing that there’s always that séance Dean’s been putting off; but he needs Kevin’s lab results for the prior, and several guaranteed interruption-free hours for the latter, and so right now all he can do is sit in his office and wait. He eats lunch, for want of anything better to do, and tries not to dwell too much on the fact that they could have been a week and a half ahead of where they are now if he hadn’t been so stubborn about doing the repairs his way.

Cas, for his part, seems to be having trouble with the whole sitting down aspect of the situation. He takes the chair Dean offers him, but within about two seconds he’s up again—studying the detritus of papers permanently littering Dean’s desk, pulling all the books halfway off his bookshelf to look at their covers, rifling through the drawers (“This one’s locked,” he says when he comes to the one where Dean keeps his gun, staring meaningfully at Dean until Deam sighs and unlocks it for him).

“That’s me and Sam when we were younger,” Dean tells him when Cas touches one of the photographs pinned in the bottom corner of Dean’s bulletin board. “Only baseball game our dad ever took us to. Sam was a brat ‘cause Dad wouldn’t get him ice cream.”

“And this?” Cas points to the picture beside it.

“Me and my mom. Dad took it, I think. Sam wasn’t born yet—see, she’s still pregnant with him. And the one beside it, that’s from about two years later, on my mom’s birthday.” And he adds, because he can never seem to stop himself, “She died a few weeks after that was taken.”

Cas narrows his eyes at the picture, like if he squints hard enough he’ll find the appropriate social etiquette for the situation written in tiny letters on Mary’s sundress, and then manages, “That’s unfortunate.”

“Yeah.” It’s actually kind of nice, talking about his family with Cas, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that he seems to view Dean’s family with the same impersonal curiosity as Dean’s unused yogurt-maker. There’s always Sam to talk to, of course, but even though Sam’s his brother and the two of them are the last living remnants of the Winchester-Campbell bloodline, talking with Sam about their family always ends up oddly tense.

The thing is that Sam doesn’t really remember Mary, and Dean does. When Sam talks about her it’s like he’s talking about a stranger, and Dean would take a bullet for his little brother any day but when Sam talks about their mom Dean usually ends up wanting to strangle him. Sam doesn’t really remember what John was like before Mary died, and Dean does. Sam and John were always too similar to get along, and by now even Dean can admit that John-after-Mary was a pretty shitty father; but Sam talks about John like that’s all he ever was, and Dean wants to scream you didn’t even know him! Not true, obviously, because Mary’s death may have changed their father but both versions were one-hundred-percent John Winchester. But then people aren’t always very logical when it comes to their families.

Anyway. He likes talking about his family, and he certainly doesn’t expect anything less than complete detachment from Cas. Benny used to listen, with the sort of affection you feel for the people your very close friend talks about on a regular basis; but that’s… well, yeah. Not anymore.

“This one looks like the man who came and yelled at you yesterday,” says Cas, tapping a fourth photo, and Dean grins.

“Bobby? Don’t flatter him—that picture’s got to be, like, twenty-five years old. But yeah, that’s him.” With a much younger Dean riding on his shoulders, and honestly he’s never been entirely sure that it’s a workplace appropriate picture, given the circumstances, but what the hell.

Cas goes through them all, one by one—Sam looking dorky at his high school graduation, Sam looking slightly less dorky at his college graduation, him and Sam and Jess out for dinner to celebrate Sam taking the bar, him and Benny and Bobby and Charlie and Charlie’s at-the-time girlfriend at the station’s Christmas party three years ago. Cas listens without interruption as Dean explains them all, and way far back in the corner of his mind Dean wonders if all this effort Cas has put into building a believable human body is making his spirit or soul or whatever (if he even has one) a little bit more human as well.

Eventually the photographs run out, and there’s still no word from Kevin, so Dean goes to get himself a coffee and Cas plucks Police and Law Enforcement Services Policy and Procedure Manual 11th Edition off the bookshelf and settles down to read it (not in the chair but on the floor, sprawled out like Dean’s running a fucking kindergarten here).

Dean takes a sip of coffee and watches him surreptitiously. Bare feet, as ever, and aside from a layer of street grime the skin doesn’t seem to have hardened up much. Maybe Cas doesn’t know it’s supposed to. Maybe he just likes having soft feet. He really has done quite a good job with that body, though, even if the eyes are still kind of unsettling; he’ll never be on the cover of Men’s Health, but he’s managed to beef himself up enough to look more like a normal person and less like an albino stick insect. And he fills out his clothes better, too, instead of the whole I’m-wearing-my-big-brother’s-hand-me-downs thing he was rocking before. His hair’s still messy, but hey, lots of people have messy hair. Besides, it’s like… stylishly messy. Attractively messy. Photo-shoot messy.

Dean runs a hand through his own hair absentmindedly and wonders where Cas picked it up. Not from him, obviously. Maybe from someone on TV.

Come to that, where did he get any of this? Is it all modeled off one person? Is there a Cas-lookalike running around somewhere, maybe in this city or maybe on the other side of the world, whose appearance Cas just happened to take a liking to? After Cas has… left, gone back, could Dean walk around the corner and right into someone who looks exactly like him but maybe has a wife and a mortgage and wears a suit to work everyday?

Or Cas could be a patchwork—more effort than doing one exact replica, but easier than starting right from scratch. The hair from the shade of some soul Cas ate, stored as a memory somewhere in the back of his planet-sized mind; the hands, bigger and less spindly than when he first arrived, from one of the station’s constables chosen on a whim. That little white starburst of a scar on his lower back, visible where his shirt has ridden up to show a strip of skin, could have been the crucial clue to a murder on one of those countless crime shows; who knows why Cas wanted it, but clearly he hasn’t quite grasped the concept of how scars work, how you have to earn your own.

“Cas…” he says slowly, still staring at the scar, and wondering something that’s been hovering around the back of his mind practically since they met.

“Mm?” says Cas, looking up from his book.

“What’s on the other side of the Wall?”

Cas tilts his head to the side, in what Dean is somewhat surprised to realize has become a familiar gesture. “You don’t know? You spend all this time guarding it and you don’t know?”

“Well, I mean, the alternative was tearing it down, and since we didn’t know what it might be keeping out…” Dean shrugs.

“What if it’s not keeping anything out? What if it’s keeping you in?”

Dean has the disorienting feeling of having the metaphorical rug of his accepted understanding of the world yanked out from under him, like the moment psychological dizziness when your mind finally registers the alternate image in one of those optical illusion things. “Is… uh, is it?”

“No,” Cas admits. “But it might have been, and you never would have known.”

The world snaps back into place, though—now that the possibility has been suggested—with an uneasy looseness allowing for a potential relapse.

Cas sighs, pulling himself up to sit cross-legged on the floor, and says, “It’s not actually a wall, though. Not really.”

“What? Of course it—if it’s not a wall then what the hell is it?”

“More like a… I suppose like when you cut yourself, and the wound scabs over.”

“What, so, the world scraped its knee a couple thousand years ago and the Wall popped up to keep all the germs out?”

“More or less,” says Cas. “I don’t know what happened exactly, but a long time ago”—and here the whole human-ish memitim thing gets confusing, because with Cas a long time can mean anything from fifteen minutes to a few billion years—“something powerful ripped a hole in your world, all the way through to… to a space. Another dimension, only… well, regardless, something else stitched it back up, and set the Wall on top to make sure it would stick. And it has, so far.”

Dean chooses to ignore, for now, the two mysterious somethings and the ominous “for now”, and says instead, “Okay but what’s actually in this, uh, space? How come someone wanted to close it up again?”

Cas chews his lip. He’s got stubble, Dean notices for the first time—just a shadow, not a full-out beard or anything, but enough to land his vessel’s ambiguous age solidly on Dean’s side of twenty. How he’s managed to come by it Dean has no idea, since as far as he knows Cas doesn’t shave (although maybe he should give him a quick lesson on not stealing other people’s razors when they get home, just to be on the safe side). Then again, if the guy can build himself a fully functional pair of lungs, a little detail like stubble probably isn’t too much trouble. And what the hell, why is he even thinking about this right now, anyways—

“Monsters,” says Cas finally. “Beyond the Wall there are monsters.”

The words send an inexplicable shudder down Dean’s spine that he tries to hide by adjusting his position. “You mean, like, vampires and djinn and stuff?” Hardly anyone calls them monsters anymore; it’s kind of difficult, when the monster is your neighbour or your coworker or your daughter’s boyfriend or the woman who always gives you a free crème-puff whenever you buy bread from her bakery. Those with a special kink of magic in their gene code are no more and no less monstrous than humans. By now bloodlines have been scrambled up and interbred and mutated so much that there’s really no such thing as a pureblooded werewolf or faerie or selkie—but there’s an idea, mostly just academic speculation, that the ancestors of Charlie and Benny and Dean’s old librarian crush may have come from somewhere else, originally. There’s no hard evidence to prove it, of course, but it’s also almost entirely impossible to disprove, given a possibly infinite number of dimensions and limited knowledge of all but their own.

Cas shakes his head, though, and says, “Those aren’t monsters, those are just people.”

Just people. “Yeah, well,” says Dean, “I could tell you some stories about people.”

“No, you don’t understand,” says Cas. He heaves a frustrated sigh. “It’s not—people have the potential for what you’d call good and evil, correct? There’s no such thing as an evil person, just a person who does evil things and maybe thinks evil thoughts.”

“Isn’t that just semantics, though? I mean, okay, I guess you could argue that your actions mostly define what people see of you—but your own thoughts?

“Well, exactly. When a soul is weighed the scales measure every single moment of their life, from birth to death. Some of it is what’s been done, but the actions of even the most energetic soul are only a tiny portion of their history. Impulses. Guilt. Desires. Remorse. Self-vindication. But mostly what there is,” says Cas, with the resigned expression of someone who’s been doing a job long enough for the reality of the work to overshadow any lingering romance, “is a whole lot of chaff.”

“Chaff?”

“Neutral stuff. Your philosophers debate whether people are inherently good or inherently evil, but if there’s anything inherent about humans it’s your mind-numbing neutrality. In between plotting world domination and spearheading movements for social equality, people end up doing a lot of stuff that, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that important. It’s impossible to go through life without making hundreds of mundane little decisions and thinking hundreds of mundane little thoughts every day—and as long as that’s the case, which it always has been and probably always will be, then neutrality is the most fundamental, basic state of the existence of humanity. Some do more good than others and some do more evil, but it’s not a dichotomy. It’s impossible to have a single person be purely good or evil,” Cas finishes, looking moderately smug at having just led an impromptu metaphysics lecture.

Dean stares him right in his too-deep blue eyes until he feels like he’s reeling in his chair. Nicely put, Cas, but that’s not quite right, is it? It takes a clinically objective mind to deal out something so subjective as justice, and probably Cas believes what he says after millennia of serving as judge, jury, and executioner; but the thing about judges is that they aren’t the first ones on the crime scene, or the ones trying to talk to shell-shocked witnesses, or the ones who might have to live with the knowledge that if they’d solved that case just a few hours faster that last victim might not have ended up choking on their own blood as a curse liquefied their insides. Neutral isn’t killing people because it turns you on. Neutral isn’t driving people to kill themselves because they’re a tiny bit different from you. Neutral isn’t deciding that human rights only belong to those who can afford them, although that’s more Sam’s area of expertise than it is Dean’s.

Neutral isn’t stealing a little girl from her own neighbourhood and ripping her apart in a stranger’s house.

But Cas has already indicated his lack of sympathy towards that particular issue, and Dean doesn’t see the point in bringing it up again when right now they’re getting along pretty well, so he just says, “Okay, so what? What does this have to do with the stuff on the other side of the Wall?”

“Your language doesn’t really have the words to describe it, because you’ve never needed them,” says Cas. There’s an ominous luckily implied at the end, and Dean’s a grown-ass man in a career that takes no small amount of guts, but he’s suddenly, irrationally glad that they’re having this conversation in a bland, well-lit office with dozens of people outside the door rather than alone in his house at night. “The things on the other side of the Wall are the rejects. The mistakes. The scrap heap leftover from the creation of the universe, put together so wrongly that the only place they fit is in their own awful dimension, and the sole driving force behind their existence is a powerful, burning hatred. They don’t kill because they enjoy it. They destroy, and maim, and taint because it is their purpose, and one day their furious thrashing will burst the walls of their dimension and they will spill out to tear everything apart, and when there is nothing left to destroy they will destroy each other, and all that will remain will be empty space and silence. Armageddon, I think you call it. But bigger.”

Dean says, when he manages to tug himself back together enough to speak, “Oh.” It comes out small and quiet and terribly insignificant.

“What kind of things, though?” he finds himself asking, because whatever else his mind may be it is above all painfully, hopelessly human. And then, before he can stop himself: “Things like you?”

The air in the room, which seemed tolerably comfortable a moment earlier, freezes.

Static electricity collects around the metal handles of some of Dean’s desk drawers, crackling alarmingly; and Cas, who is sitting impossibly still, hits Dean with the most brutally offended blank expression he’s ever had the misfortune to receive.

“I’m not a monster,” says Cas.

This, right now, would be a really good moment to apologize and back off, and maybe say a silent prayer that the binding on that collar is as strong as Dean thinks it is. The ideal time, in fact. If he’s fast enough, maybe he won’t even die. Uh. Christ, Cas’s goddamned hair is practically sparking—

“But it says in the book that you eat souls,” says Dean, whose survival instinct is clearly not as fantastic as he likes to think. “And you even said—”

“What book? Where did it say that?”

Cas glares at the bookshelf with an air of great betrayal, already half on his feet when Dean says hurriedly, “Not here, it’s at my house. The one I used to summon you. It said your name meant, uh, you know. Like. Destroying angel. Soul-eater. Uh.”

“Well, that’s obviously a mistranslation,” Cas snaps. “Neither I nor any of my siblings would ever partake in anything so primitive.”

Primitive? Dean’s about ninety-percent sure he wouldn’t even be able to find his soul, or anyone else’s, with both hands and a powerful tracking spell. If eating the goddamned things is primitive, then what the hell does that make him?

Though apparently he just mortally insulted Cas, so it might not be a good idea to start complaining.

“Okay, but I swear you said you consume—”

Cas makes a noise of great annoyance and says, “Yes, but it’s the energy they give off, not the actual souls! That wouldn’t be very sustainable, you know! We don’t harvest them. It’s more like—like your, what do you call them, with the sheep?”

“Sheep? What sheep?”

“The sheep, the people with the sheep! Shepherds!”

“Are you saying,” Dean says, “that you guys put our souls out every day to watch us eat grass?”

Cas gives him a bitch-face that could almost (almost) give Sam a run for his money, but he admits, “Analogically speaking, I suppose so.”

“And you, like, knit little sweaters out of—”

“No! Forget it! Forget I said anything.”

And Cas turns his back on Dean, hunching his shoulders sullenly as he buries himself back in his book. For the sake of Cas’s remaining dignity Dean does his best to turn his laugh into a violent coughing fit.

Someone knocks on the door about five minutes later, and Kevin pokes his head into Dean’s office. He stares at Cas for a moment, still sulking on the floor, and only thanks to what looks like a great effort of willpower does he manage to drag his eyes back to Dean to say, “We’ve got the results of the trace, sir.”

“What about comp?” Dean asks, sliding back into Relatively Professional Police Officer mode. “Any idea what it is?”

“I’m still working on it. But it’s definitely nothing we’ve seen before.”

No shit. Dean could have told Kevin that much himself. But hey, the guy’s doing his best, and a trace is sure as hell better than just sitting around here for the rest of the day. “Fine—so, the trace, you get anything?”

“Yeah, take a look,” Kevin says, handing Dean a printed-out map of the end of the city where downtown gradually morphs into a slightly sketchy, largely disused area. A few seedy bars, two still-running factories, a rock-climbing gym, some fast-food joints, and a whole lot of places that have been “for lease” for just about as long as Dean can remember. There are a few red dots drawn on, forming (if you narrow your eyes a little) a vague sort of line. Kevin points to the ones closer to downtown—closer to the Wall—and explains, “There were faint matches here, here, here, and here—”

“Faint as in faded, or faint as in minimal initial exposure?” Cas still has his back to him, but from the way he’s gone all still Dean can tell he’s listening.

“Hard to tell, but I’d say faded. Either way, probably not worth investigating—especially since the matches started picking up in intensity here, and then keep getting stronger all the way to right here.” Kevin taps a big rectangle off one of the side streets labeled Crowley’s Emporium.

“So this is a trail, basically.”

“Looks like it, yeah.”

“Awesome. I’ll go check it out. Keep working on the rest, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“C’mon, buddy,” says Dean, ruffling Cas’s hair as he walks by to get his jacket. Cas scowls and swats his hand away. “Time to find out what the hell is going on around here.”

Chapter Text

Over the mellow growl of jazz (for which Cas seems to have developed an inexplicable affinity) on the car ride over to Crowley’s Emporium, Cas asks, “What’s a trace? What are we actually doing?”

“It’s like a magic thing,” Dean explains. “I don’t know how it works exactly, but if you have a bit of someone, like a DNA sample or a bit of their magic or even just something they use a lot, you can do a spell and it’ll show you where they are, or where they’ve done a big working, or anything else like that. It scans for the unique signature people and their magic leave behind, and it traces the connections. So I got Kevin to run a trace on that black shit you yanked out of the Wall, and now we’re going to see whose it is.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” says Cas.

“It’s fine,” says Dean, shrugging off his concern. Tracing is great in theory, but half the time it ends up leading not to where the person they’re looking for is but where they were fifteen minutes or three hours or a day ago, by the time Kevin and the rest of the team have had a chance to interpret the results. Anyways, provided he does find whoever belongs to the magical oil spill in the Wall, the most he can do right now is bring them in for questioning. It’s not, as far as his work goes, a particularly high-risk activity. “I have done this before, you know.”

“Exactly like this?”

“Well, okay, the creepy worm ball is new,” Dean admits. “But seriously, it’s no big deal.”

He almost misses the turn, since the road sign has a large dent in the middle that warps the name; the Emporium, however, is difficult not to see. A huge, hulking brick-and-concrete building, looming over the row of shops-for-lease that separate it from the main road. Several of the windows are boarded up with plywood, while further along the owners seem to have given up and just left gaping holes where the glass is smashed in. The letters painted on the side of the building, each at least as tall as Dean himself, are peeling and faded and weathered almost to the point of invisibility, but the tired red-brown C at the front of the name still stands out enough to leave no question about this being the right place.

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Cas grumbles as he follows Dean out of the car and towards the rusted metal side-door.

“I thought you were only supposed to shepherd me after I’d died,” says Dean, giving Cas a lighthearted shove.

“I wish I’d never told you that,” says Cas, shoving him back, and Dean grins.

The door is easy enough to deal with—a few solid kicks and it pops open, hinges shrieking in protest. Inside is… well, big is about all that can be said for it. And gloomy. Not pitch black, because the broken windows let in shafts of watery afternoon sunlight (bonus points if they can get this wrapped up one way or another before it starts to rain), but dim enough that his takes a minute for his eyes to adjust.

Dean steps inside, and his foot skids slightly on the floor. Dust, making his throat itch something terrible. He coughs until his eyes stop watering before calling, “Hello? Anyone home?”

His words echo around the cavernous room, bouncing back from shadowy corners and a roof that looks like it skipped class on the day health and safety regulations were covered. The only response is an ominous creak from the grate of the catwalk running around the walls above his head as the old metal settles—no birds flying off in a huff at the interruption, no small furry creatures squeaking from the mouse equivalent of ancestral homes (and that makes him think of rats, which makes him think again of Benny and how if he were here he’d be shifting his weight uncomfortably right behind Dean but staying dutifully tight-lipped about how much he doesn’t want to be here and, and, no, concentrate).

“Police!” Depending on the situation and the people involved, the word can be kind of a double-edged blade, so just to be on the safe side he adds, “We just want to ask you a few questions, okay? Hello?”

“I really think we should go,” says Cas, and after straining his ears for any hint of sound in the silence Dean does an embarrassingly twitchy sort of jump in surprise. If only the guy didn’t insist on standing so goddamned close all the time—

“Why, you scared, Cas? Want me to hold your hand?”

“I don’t think that would make the situation any safer.”

“Dude, relax.” Christ. People watch one fucking crime show and they think every case features at least two dramatic life-or-death fight montages. “I’m, like, ninety percent sure this place is empty. Just give me five minutes to look around and we can leave. Hell, wait outside, if you’re so freaked.”

“I’m not freaked,” Cas says peevishly, and, to Dean’s exasperation, he proceeds to follow him around the warehouse at a distance of about one foot, getting in his way every time Dean tries to turn around.

It really is empty, though. There’s a faint buzz from traffic on the main street that carries all the way in here, and a few more pops and creaks from the catwalk as they move around the room, but other than that… nothing. Just a lot of shadows, and the perpetual cloud of dust their feet kick up, and great, he just got this goddamned suit back from the dry cleaner’s.

He’s just about to give in and tell Cas they might as well go, already, when what’s meant to be one final scan has his eye catching on another door. Not the big bay doors that back onto the parking lot, but a regular-sized door like the one they came in. Another entrance, or…? He tries to match it up with his memory of the exterior. There was an extension, wasn’t there? It looked about the size of a closet in comparison with the rest of the building, but probably it was big enough to house the Emporium’s office staff when the place was still in business.

He drags Cas over and pounds on the door, not really expecting an answer, and then kicks it in when he doesn’t get one. Inside is dark—not just dim, but black enough that it’s impossible to see beyond the four feet or so of weak light spilling in from the warehouse. His flashlight is, of course, safely in the trunk of his car. If he were on his own he might go all the way back just to get it, but with Cas lurking right behind him (right behind) that would be, um, a little embarrassing. Here’s this smug asshole with more power crammed into him than a nuclear bomb, and his so-called master can’t even summon a handful of witch-light? Pathetic.

Anyway, he can do witch-light. Everyone can—it’s the first thing they’re taught, practically before they can even read. Dean just can’t do it very well.

He snaps his fingers and prays, and his magic pools sluggishly into a dim glow in the palm of his hand that flares for a moment before flickering out. At least it’s too dark for Cas to see his blush, but he can feel the heat prickling across his cheeks, and he can feel Cas watching him. Not saying anything, just fucking watching, and yeah, that’s really not helping.

His second try barely glimmers to life before going out, and he curses under his breath. Fuck. One-hundred-percent Cas’s fault that time, okay? It’s hard to concentrate with a fucking memitim breathing down his neck (even if it is one who’s been living with him for the past two weeks, okay, that’s not the point). Maybe it’s kind of pathetic that as both an adult and a vaguely well-respected detective he still has to do a test run to ease into a witch-light, but it’s only ever one test run. Not two. Well. Almost always.

“Do you need help?” Cas asks.

“No!” Dean snaps. His concentration breaks, and the flow of magic he’s managed to coax almost all the way to his hand for the third time slides backwards like an elastic band, jolting his arm into pins-and-needles.

It would almost be easier if Cas would laugh at him, or make some bitchy, superior comment; then at least Dean could maybe feed his irritation into getting the goddamned spell right. Instead he’s just getting distracted and flustered, and—

Cas’s hand brushes down his arm, and Dean can feel the energy unfurling inside him—slowly, reluctantly, but nonetheless following the trace of Cas’s fingers until his hand cups Dean’s. It spills out into his palm, not the feeble flicker he’s been struggling to coax into something resembling life or even the dull yet solid glow he can manage on a good day, but something bright and warm and alive that blazes away the shadows and sets a pleasant tingle running through him. The kind of witch-light he’s been jealously watching Sam summon with a simple click of his fingers since he was fourteen.

He turns around and looks at Cas, grinning so hard his face hurts and for once senselessly, overwhelming glad to have Cas standing too close; and Cas smiles back, just a little quirking up at the corners of his mouth but still enough to reach those strange eyes of his.

Inside Dean something twists, sharp and painful and wonderful, and he thinks oh, shit.

“Thanks,” he says gruffly, turning away to stare through the open door. There’s a hallway lined with a bunch more doors, some of which are still clinging on to rusted name placards—offices, like he guessed. “I didn’t think you could, uh, do magic, though. With the binding. Outside of combination, I mean.”

“It wasn’t my magic,” says Cas. “All I did was untangle yours. You make yourself work unnecessarily hard for easy things, you know.”

“Easy for other people, maybe. I’ve always been an exceptionally shitty witch.” He tries the first door—unlocked, and empty right to the corners, as his excellent witch-light shows very clearly.

“You’re not, though. You just go at things sort of… sideways. Trust me, I know your body pretty well by now.”

And thank God no one was around to hear that.

The next room is empty as well, and the one after; Dean spares a quick glance for the name plates, but most are faded beyond legibility, and the few letters he manages to make out don’t mean anything to him. In one of the offices there’s a chair, the uncomfortable plastic kind most school have in abundance, facing the door in a way that seems almost forlorn. Forgotten, maybe, or just insignificant enough to abandon. He gives it a sympathetic pat before closing the door gently behind him.

And then, behind the second-to-last door:

“It looks like someone’s been living here,” says Dean, staring around in bemusement. Or working here, at least; there are books, and paper, and a veritable spell-caster’s arsenal of dried herbs and bits of dead animals and unidentifiable liquids. Which means, probably, that whoever is hiding out here is either an old-school witch who doesn’t hold with the “vegan” witchcraft most people do nowadays, or else it’s someone who’s gone a bit to the left of witchcraft.

Hopefully, though, not left enough to be working necromancy.

Um.

There’s also a sweater, not a regular fleece hoodie but one of the big, lazy-chic knitted ones Dean imagines rich people wear around their mansions in the winter to look stylish while simultaneously showing off how environmentally friendly they are by not cranking the heat, and a half-finished box of protein bars. And, when he turns around, writing on the walls. Protective sigils, it looks like, though not in any language he’s ever seen before—not Greek, not Latin, not even the strange, guttural language of summoning the dead and their guardians. He has no idea what the hell any of it says, or what it’s meant to do, but the shapes of the letters—the way they bend and curve and fit together—leave the hint of a familiar acrid tang creeping along his tongue.

“Okay,” says Dean, whose feet seem to carry him backwards out of the room of their own accord. “I have no clue what the hell this is, but I’ve got a feeling I’d better call forensics in here.”

“Call them from outside,” Cas urges, plucking at the back of his coat.

“Why, do you know—”

“I’m not saying anything until we’re outside!”

Dean stares at him, fighting back the sudden surge of rising panic; because those sigils, those are weird, but this? Cas looks and sounds and just feels uneasy, and if Cas—if a memitim is uneasy, then there’s some sort of primal instinct at the back of his mind telling him he ought to be fucking terrified.

“Just—” Dean’s voice cracks, and he has to clear his throat and try again. “Just one second, I swear. I need to get a few pictures—”

He pulls out his phone and tries to stop his hand from blurring every shot with its shaking. The view from the door. Each wall with its mosaic of sigils. The apothecary. The books, with as clear a shot of the titles as possible without actually touching them—any visible pieces of paper with their impossibly neat handwriting—the sweater, the pens on the floor, the candles, the singing bowl (made of a dark, unsettling metal he doesn’t recognize), even the protein bars—

There’s a distant, heavy thud, and Dean freezes. In the silence the click of his phone’s camera seems particularly thunderous.

Maybe time to go, yeah? Not that he’s scared, but he’s got his pictures and he can’t do anything else without forensics and breathing in all this dust can’t be good for his lungs and it’s just a really good idea to get outside right now.

Cas is grim-faced and silent as they hurry back along the hall, and that freaks him out more than anything.

Relax. He’s just out of practice. He and Benny, they used to run themselves into near-death experiences on practically a weekly basis. There was the Visyak case, and that thing with the kitsunes, and, ha, that hippie succubus, and—

Cas’s bare feet slide on the grimy floor as he pulls up short at the door back into the warehouse, and Dean nearly slams right into him. He opens his mouth to tell Cas to get a move on, you’re the one who said we had to get out of here, but the words seem to die in his throat.

The darkness in the warehouse is… heavier. Thicker. Like he could reach out and touch it, if the idea didn’t scare the shit out of him. And that’s… that’s not right, is it? It ought to be lighter out here. It was before. And there are the windows letting in their pillars of watery sunlight, there’s still the chinks in the big bay door, there’s still the…

“Where the hell’s our door?” Dean whispers to Cas. No one here, no one here, he doesn’t need to whisper—only his voice doesn’t seem to be working properly…

“Probably where we left it,” Cas mutters back.

“Yeah, but it was… shouldn’t it be…” He swallows. “I guess maybe the wind blew it shut, huh?”

The wind. Yes. The gale-force wind that abruptly picked up out of the dead pre-thunderstorm air that’s been weighing down the city all day, reached inside an empty warehouse, and slammed a metal door. Cas doesn’t even bother to say anything, only deigning to shoot him a scornful look in response.

The witch-light flickers out. Probably his concentration broke. Except somehow he doesn’t really believe that.

“Well, no use hanging around here,” he says firmly and, trying to ignore the fact that his heart is pounding so furiously it’s making him feel slightly ill, he takes a step forward into the warehouse’s gloom.

Nothing happens.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The darkness seems to push back at him, spreading over his skin and slipping under his clothes and curling itself into his ears and nose and mouth—greasy like oil, warm and subtly pulsating like a living creature. It gets into his head, insinuating itself into the parts of him that still take a split second to check for monsters when he opens the closet door, and Dean feels like a little boy again, a little boy in the senseless, terrifying seconds after waking from a nightmare when all he could do was huddle down under the covers and scream for his parents.

But his parents are dead, his parents are dead and he knows, now, that becoming an adult doesn’t give you superpowers, and that flicking on a light switch and having your mom sing you back to sleep don’t burn up the monsters in the shadows.

He knows too, though, that nightmares are just nightmares. This darkness is a nightmare—a terrible nightmare, a keep-you-on-edge-for-days nightmare, but ultimately ethereal. It can scare him—it does scare him, in a way that makes his entire body tremble and colours the inside of his mind an ugly, terrified yellow. But fear isn’t deadly. Fear, sometimes, is what keeps you alive.

For the second time that day Dean focuses on Cas: his breathing, his quiet footsteps, just his presence beside Dean as they push onwards across the warehouse. Are you scared, Cas? Can you even feel fear? Or do you just know what it looks like from digging around the lives of all those souls?

Do you wish your brothers and sisters were with you right now, instead of a flimsy falling-apart human?

The light spilling in through the broken windows seems so far off now, as if the warehouse has stretched out to fill a space ten times its previous size; air bubbles in an ocean of roiling black, and the pressure of the depth is beginning to squeeze his chest—there is air here, he has to remind himself, he can breathe—

And then he’s out of the shadows, Cas choking in a startled breath beside him, and the darkness is behind them and the door is maybe ten feet in front of him and he can see and his lungs are working properly again and the fear is leaking out of the spaces it filled in his mind. Kind of silly, now that he’s free, him nearly going into cardiac arrest over being stuck in the dark.

“That what you were so worried about?” Dean asks, laughing breathlessly. “’Cause I—Cas? Hello? Are you even listening?”

The door is ahead, hanging a little crooked on its hinges from where Dean kicked it in, and waiting on the other side is the parking lot and the Impala and real people and the real world; but Cas is staring back the way they’ve come, back across the empty warehouse into that living darkness, and Dean’s heart (still racing from the terror of crossing that inexplicable abyss) gives a nervous flutter. The instinct to run is thrumming through him—the door is right there, it’s right there, all he has to do is make it ten feet and he can lock the shadows back inside—but he suppresses it, because that’s his job. He doesn’t run when he gets scared. Other people run when they get scared, as they should, and then they call him.

So he fights off the nameless dread, and he turns back towards the darkness.

Chapter Text

He wakes up, and the room is white and the bed is white and there’s something pressing down over his face—

He rips it off and his arm screams at him in agony and his head starts to spin and the whiteness is suddenly spotted with shadows—shadows

He wakes up again. The oxygen mask is back in place. There’s someone touching him, a pair of hands that tingle with the cool, lemongrass feel of healing magic against his bare skin, and inside he can feel bruising fade and bone knit back together. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, but as always it feels… odd. Unpleasant. The sound of nails on a chalkboard made into a sensation. A moan slips out of his raw throat, muffled by the mask, and he tries to sit up; but someone says, “Oh, he’s awake… just put him back under for now, this will take better if he’s unconscious…” Hands rest on either side of his face, pressing fingers soothingly against his temples, and the whiteness goes fuzzy grey…

He wakes up for the third time, and the mask is gone and it kind of feels like he’s been hit by a truck. Everything hurts. And it hurts even more when he tries to sit up, but he does it anyways. He grits his teeth and waits for the dizziness to pass, and eventually his vision clears enough for the hospital room to slide into proper focus.

A nurse walks in with a clipboard. “Nice to see you back among the living, Mr. Winchester,” she says with a friendly smile. She checks some of the machines clustered around his bed and then, somewhat to his discomfort, lifts up his hospital gown to press two professional fingers against the sides of his thighs, his abdomen, a few places on his chest—her magic stretches into him, gently poking and prodding and testing, before drawing back out. “Now, let’s take a look at that shoulder…”

“What?” Dean croaks.

The nurse smiles apologetically and lifts the cotton sleeve covering his left shoulder. The flesh there is cherry red and swollen—like a burn, like a brand, but no brand Dean’s ever seen before. A handprint. The kind they did in kindergarten, but seared into his skin instead of finger-paint on paper.

Her fingers brush against it, and Dean hisses and pulls away because it hurts, it fucking stings, and—well, he’s heard of pressure points before, the stuff they use in acupuncture, and it’s like that. The burn smarts, but touching the surface wound makes something deep inside him twinge as well.

“You’re healing up nicely, but that’s going to scar, I’m sorry to tell you. If you want we can put you in touch with a cosmetic surgeon when you’re feeling up to it—”

Dean shakes his head. No more medical stuff than is absolutely necessary, thank-you-very-much.

There are voices out in the hall and then Sam’s in the room, his face breaking into a grin when he sees Dean sitting up in bed.

“He’s doing fine,” the nurse tells Sam. “There’s another half hour to go before he’s due for the next dose of his pain medication, if you want to visit for a bit. But try not to wear him out.”

She leaves the two of them alone, and they look at each other for a long moment without speaking.

“How’s it going,” Dean says eventually. It stills hurts to speak, and his voice comes out all raspy like he’s got a bad cold.

Sam gives a weak laugh and says, “Jesus Christ, Dean, you really need to stop doing this.”

“Occupational hazard, Sammy.” A thought occurs to him, and he adds urgently, “Where’s Cas?”

“Outside with Bobby, driving all the nurses crazy.”

“So he’s not—he’s—”

An odd look crosses over Sam’s face. “He’s fine.”

Fine? Well, that’s… good. Dean was more going for has he killed anyone—but fine works too. Fine isn’t the kind of word you would use to describe someone who’s just laid waste to an entire neighbourhood.

Not that—because the collar, Dean put the collar back on, right? It’s all sort of…

“What happened?”

“You tell me,” says Sam, shrugging. “By the time I showed up the paramedics were already hauling your unconscious ass out of that godforsaken warehouse.”

Right. The Emporium. The black stuff in the Wall, and then—and then Kevin with the trace, and the room at the back and the darkness and the, the…

“How’d you find me?” Dean asks. There’s a hole in his memory—or not a hole exactly, more like an open wound, like someone’s gone and twisted a nail in there and it needs to come out but he has to psych himself up for it first. Later. He’ll remember later. “Did Kevin call you?”

“No—Cas did, actually, and I told him to get an ambulance. Who’s Kevin?”

“Guy at work, with the… in forensics, he… sorry, Cas called you? On, what, on my phone?”

“He gave it back, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s with the rest of your stuff.”

“What? No, I… just, I didn’t think he knew how to use it…”

“Hmm,” says Sam.

They don’t say much more. It’s enough for Sam to know that Dean’s okay, more or less, and for Dean to know that Sam’s there; and then Sam asks, in that same carefully neutral tone, if he wants to see Cas, and Dean finds himself inexplicably balking at the suggestion.

“Later,” he says, filing the reaction under things I don’t want to deal with right now. “You said Bobby’s here?”

So Bobby huffs in and gives Dean another, gruffer what-the-hell-did-you-think-you-were-doing lecture, which Dean knows by now to take as Bobby’s way of saying you scared the shit out of me, boy. “I definitely wasn’t slacking, though,” Dean points out when Bobby pauses to draw breath. “And I did tell you there was something weird going on with this case.”

“No shit,” says Bobby, rolling his eyes. “Next time you strap me down and make me listen, got it? You know no one on the team’s been able to figure out what that black stuff you pulled out of the Wall is yet?”

“What about the hole?”

“Same size it was when you finished with it yesterday. I put Charlie on repairs—”

“But it’s my case! And,” Dean adds quickly, recalling a conversation that seems to have taken place a very long time ago, “what if the printer breaks again?”

“Look, officially it’s still your case, but that hole ain’t gonna patch itself,” says Bobby, ignoring the question. “So for now, Charlie’s in charge—repairs, investigations, all of it. I’m giving you two weeks sick leave, no arguments—I said no arguments—and if the doctors say you’re fit for duty after that you can start up again.”

“But—”

“No. I’ll get Charlie to keep you updated, and if this whole mess isn’t wrapped up by the time you’re back then you’re welcome to it. Deal?”

“Deal,” Dean grumbles, since he doesn’t really have a choice. The world, unfortunately, is rarely considerate enough to put itself on pause while he recovers.

“Good. So. How’re you feeling?”

“Sore,” Dean admits.

“I bet.” Bobby looks away, and starts fiddling with a loose thread from his shirt cuff. He tugs, and the fabric bunches up around it. “Ah… that elemental of yours…”

Dean stays warily silent.

“It—he’s kind of… unusual, wouldn’t you say?” Bobby presses.

“He’s got a very realistic corporeal form,” Dean answers automatically. “Or so I’ve been told. By about twenty different people. So yeah, I guess.”

What are the chances Bobby’s noticed how Cas breathes? Or how he’s fixed up his musculature—Dean would hardly have noticed it himself if he weren’t fucking living with the guy. Or, hell, his arm hair? What are the chances Bobby’s looked at all that and wondered exactly how much power it takes to build a human body from scratch, and compared that to the standard energy readings of an elemental?

More importantly—what are the chances that Bobby’s picked up on all of that, some of that, any of that, and will actually have the balls to come right out and say that’s no elemental, boy? To his well-respected, experienced employee, and practically his adopted son? Without hard evidence?

“Very chatty, too,” adds Bobby. “For one of its—his kind.”

“You should try living with him.”

“You, uh… you’re sure he’s only a Grade C? I’m not trying to accuse you of anything,” Bobby adds quickly, “but I know summonings aren’t exactly your strong point, and—”

It’s kind of sad, how easy he finds it to put on embarrassment the way he does now. “I might have… I mean, I did the ritual for a Grade C, but I don’t…”

“’Course. I understand.” And that’s against the rules, technically; just shy of breaking the law, and Bobby ought to report it but Dean’s one-hundred-percent certain he won’t. “Everyone makes mistakes.”

So now Bobby feels good, because he thinks Dean’s confided in him and he’s going to do the kid he helped raise a favour by keeping it on the down-low; and, in a convenient double-stroke, his suspicion ought to fade as well, since he thinks he knows the truth. Which leaves Dean feeling a little safer, and also a whole lot shittier.

“Charlie and Victor came to see you earlier,” says Bobby, tactfully changing the subject.

“Yeah?”

“You were still asleep, though. Not too exciting. So I kicked their lazy asses out and told them to get back to work.”

“Not that I’m not thrilled you’re here, but aren’t you kind of supposed to be doing the same?”

Bobby snorts and waves away the question. “If the station can’t survive five minutes without me I think I’ve got bigger problems on my hands. Anyways, I had to personally deliver the orders for your sick leave or you would have gone right ahead and ignored them, you pig-headed idjit.”

Fair enough.

The nurse comes back not long after and shoos Bobby out of the room, which provides Dean with a convenient escape for avoiding the inevitable but-you-must-remember-something question. And, now that he’s more lucid, he gets the full low-down of his injuries: some cracked ribs and internal bleeding, mostly healed thanks to the doctors here but still tender and fragile while the magic sets; bruising, which is painful but not serious; a raging fever that, by now, has mostly burned itself out; and of course the handprint seared into his shoulder, which continues to give painful, unwarranted twinges every so often.

There’s also the fact, more serious than any of his physical injuries, that his body is crammed full of magic. In a city like this it’s inevitable that everyone will pick up low-level traces of power—kind of like background radiation, or like breathing in the smog that’s a by-product of any major urban centre. A little bit over a long time doesn’t do much damage, but cram a whole bunch of power into a human body all at once and things start to go wrong fast.

“You experienced high exposure to alien magic,” the nurse tells him frankly. “Extremely high exposure. You’re lucky you weren’t fried right on the spot, honestly. As it is there could be unforeseen long-term effects—I’d advise regular medical exams, even more so than usual. For now your body is still flushing out excess energy, but you seem to be doing fine.”

She doses him up with some pain meds that do, in fact, successfully numb the pain, but also numb everything else as well, leaving him vacant and fuzzy-headed. People come and go without him paying much attention to anything other than the ceiling tiles, which seem, like, really fancy. Like weirdly fancy. Like they’re kind of, they’re kind of white, but then there’s these… spots. And they might be, it might be, like, random dispersion, but it might also be a pattern? And the lighting on them is, like… whoa. They’re just so fancy. Whoa.

An indeterminable amount of time later he realizes there’s a crick in his neck from staring up for so long, and also he’s kind of drooling. Ugh. Hospitals. There’s no one around to see, luckily; unluckily, though, the clock on the wall across from him reads two-thirty, and the fact that the lights are dimmed gives a solid hint that this is a.m. rather than p.m.

It shouldn’t matter. He’s stuck in this goddamned bed until they let him go—what difference does it make whether it’s the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night? But he knows, after squeezing his eyes shut and counting backwards from three hundred and reciting definitions he remembers from when he helped Sam study for his law exams, that sleep isn’t coming; the meds wearing off mean he’s not drugged up enough to be artificially sleepy anymore, and the pain is starting to poke through again, dull but insistently uncomfortable.

Being awake during the day is one thing, but at night—at night there’s no one around to talk to, and nothing to do but lie in bed trying (and failing) to pass out, and the hours that seem to breeze by during the day grind to a halt the later it gets. The distance between one and two is maybe a day, two to three a full week, three to four at least a year; and then somewhere between four and five, probably around four-seventeen, time gives up entirely. Centuries can pass between minutes, if they pass at all. Danger Dean can deal with—heart-pounding fear, no problem, bring it on—but it’s that four-seventeen a.m. purgatory that really gets to him.

With years to go before morning, then, now’s as good a time as ever to look back.

So. What does he remember?

Darkness…

No. After that. Or was it before?

There was crossing the warehouse—that he remembers. Even here, even now, it makes him shudder, and he can’t help glancing anxiously around the room. No hospital ever seems to be truly dark—there are always the blinking machines, and the glow spilling in from the hall—but what was in the warehouse, that’s the kind of darkness that can follow you into broad daylight.

There was the door, right ahead of him. A few more steps and he would have been out, he would have—though maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe that rusted door wouldn’t have stopped it from following them—out into the city, and then who would stop it…

There was Cas beside him, frozen in place. Scared, or horrified, or just caught off guard—who knows? Weighing his chances, maybe. Planning how best to capitalize on the potential destruction of the entire universe. And all his looking at the photographs earlier, and trying to fit in at dinner, and helping Dean with his magic—Christ. What an idiot, thinking he could actually—that Cas was actually—

He remembers turning around. But he wishes he didn’t.

There was a thing in the gloom. A thing, a thing, a… monster. He understands, now, what Cas meant by that, when they were talking about it in Dean’s office. A vampire can suck your body into a withered corpse, a werewolf can tear out your heart with its teeth; they don’t, usually, and when they do it gets treated the same as any dumb human sticking a knife into another human in the back of an alley. Because, like Cas said, the potential to do something bad doesn’t make them anything but people.

And the monsters under your bed when you’re a kid, the monsters you’re certain are lurking in the closet—they’re not people. That’s the point. There’s a reason you have to tell kids don’t talk to strangers, because strangers are just people, and kids don’t develop an inherent distrust of people until they grow up a little, however long that takes. Instead, kids have a natural gift for the secret that no horror-movie director can ever quite seem to master: the scariest monsters are the ones you can’t see. The ones you never see. The ones lurking right at the edges of the shadows, shapeless and formless and nameless. They exist only in the waves of mindless, irrational terror that accompany them and in the knowledge of a gaping mouth somewhere right behind you; and yet somehow the combination is far worse than any number of claws or fangs or mutilations.

And that. In the warehouse. It brought the darkness of under-the-bed along with it as a cloak, the way Dean wears his parka in the winter to keep warm.

He tries to picture it now, here in the not-quite-dark hospital room, but this seems to be the root of the hole in his memory. Like a bad tooth it’s gone and rotted through everything nearby, and all the rest can be cleared away without too much trouble but this part is ugly and sore. The more he pokes at it the more it festers until his body is prickling with a nightmarish fear all over again. What he does manage to gouge out, through the pain and the panic, is an overwhelming sense of something flawed. Something that didn’t fit, and never ever would—an abscess in the universe, swollen and stinking and rotten.

His hands clench in the sheets involuntarily, and he remembers something else: clutching at Cas, grabbing a fistful of his shirt and holding on. Because he was scared, and the world was tilting crazily around him; and Cas grabbed at his wrist and held it too tight, and in the miraculous, useless part of his mind that somehow stays calm no matter what’s going on, he remembers thinking thank-fucking-God, I could not do this alone.

Which is what it all boils down to, isn’t it? Dean can’t do anything alone. Oh, he pretends, he fakes it as good as anyone else; but the fact of the matter is that if he weren’t so desperate for someone to latch on to—if Sam and Jess weren’t having a baby, if Benny weren’t fucking dead

The ghost-hand around his wrist clenches even tighter, and Dean thinks of the fighting. Useless from the start, of course—he threw everything he had at that thrashing beast in the darkness, but even Sam—even a team of a hundred Sams—wouldn’t have done more than piss it off. His own shitty, panicked witchcraft was worse than useless. The fighting—that’s where most of the bruises come from, the broken bones, the internal bleeding, from being hit again and again, battered by something infuriatingly intangible. Some of the magic is from that, too; every time that thing lashed out at him his body would ache with that terrible under-the-skin itch until he wanted to just tear it all off and leaves his bones bare.

And Cas, trying to—ha, trying to help him. Trying to untangle Dean’s magic some more, just like he did with the witch-light, and screaming at him to unbind me, you need to unbind me, your magic isn’t enough!

Dean had wanted to shout back are you crazy? Because unbinding a memitim on the outskirts of downtown, with no wards and no banishing pre-prepared, well—if there was a higher-speed route to disaster, he really didn’t want to know what it was. But he’d tried to speak and ended up choking on a mouthful of blood of unidentifiable origin instead; and the oily, shadowy beast had punched through the back of his neck and up into his brain until it grinned back at him with the mangled face of his mom, his dad, his little brother; and it wasn’t just a memitim, it was Cas, it was Cas who always stands too close and sulks when Dean makes fun of him and asked about the pictures in Dean’s office—

He remembers scrabbling at Cas’s neck, fingers clumsy with fear, while Cas stayed tense but perfectly still until the collar fell away.

A part of him wants to blame Cas. It would be easier that way, right? To figure Cas had been scheming away this whole time, just waiting for the right opportunity? Betrayal might burn, but an unjustified sense of betrayal leaves nowhere for the burn to go except inwards. The problem with blaming this on Cas, though, is that for it to work he has to go on the assumption that they were actually friends. And, okay, maybe they were, in a way; but it was a situational friendship, the kind that used to happen sometimes in school when he’d get stuck with a complete stranger for a group project and they’d end up getting along okay but would never actually hang out outside of class. Which Dean desperately tried to stretch out to cover the big gaping hole left by his dead best friend, and that’s his own fault. Cas might be a curious son-of-a-bitch, but two weeks living with Dean isn’t enough to undo millennia of being himself. And Dean shouldn’t want it to be, either. What the hell kind of friend thinks like that?

Castiel’s true form was...

Incredible. Terrible. Beautiful. Awful. Any of those. All of those. Language had never felt so inadequate as it did inside that warehouse; words haven’t been invented that can describe Castiel, not even close.

Objectively, he was big. Huge. Massive. Ball-bearing-on-the-rubber-sheet-of-space-and-time big—the kind of big that bends everything else around it by virtue of sheer size (and if Sam were there he’d say you know, it’s mass and density that really counts, not size, and Dean would tell him no, I don’t think you understand). Cas stretched the warehouse around him, warping the dimensions until the space that took Dean less than five minutes to cross not too long ago was a vast, open plain with neither walls nor roof anywhere in sight.

And he was white. Well, kind of. White enough to be almost black, which doesn’t make any sense but it just, he just was. But Dean’s pretty sure he was white—because that’s how light works, isn’t it? Black is the absence of colour, and white is all the colours happening at once, and inside that white there were ghosts of greens and blues and dark reds and burnt yellows until after a while the bits of his eyes that pick up colour just overloaded and everything went to sepia. Even then the colours were still there, though, a rough ache in his vision.

Other than that Cas was just… shapes. Wings and feathers and tails and claws and arms and rows of staring eyes and heads, three that he can count—something with horns and something with a beak and in between the two something calm and blank with a pair of familiar blue eyes, a pair of far-off galaxies glowing like holes in a mask.

When Dean summoned Cas all that time ago to his attic, he felt a bit of this. A tiny bit. The distance, and the depth, and the thrum of ancient energy. Like brushing against the tip of an iceberg composed of sheer power. Like dipping a hand into the swell of a star. This—

Cas cupped the shadows in one colossal hand, and the monster that had dwarfed Dean a minute earlier was suddenly no bigger than a mouse. A snapping, snarling, vicious mouse, sure, but unable to do much more than nip and scrabble at Cas’s skin, if you could even call it that; and then Cas’s hand closed, fingers and claws folding over themselves carefully, and when it opened again his palm was empty.

Which left Dean alone in an empty warehouse (was it still the warehouse? Hard to tell) with an unbound, true-form memitim.

He remembers spitting out a mouthful of blood mixed with saliva and saying—nervously, but don’t let it show, it’s still Cas, it has to be still Cas—“Thanks, buddy… maybe you could just, uh…”

Turn back. Please turn back. Let me bind you again. Please, please, please, Cas, come back

He remembers the thing-that-was-Cas tilting its head to look at him, staring impassively with those bottomless eyes for an eternity; and inside the blue—

Worlds came into existence and crumbled apart in the space of seconds. Giants larger even than Cas, so large their size could only be measured as distance and the distance in light-years, so large their hearts beat only once every million years, slept under a cloak of stars and suns and planets. And souls, so many souls, everywhere and everyone and always, good and bad and pure and maimed and glowing.

And then, with the slow-fast-too-fast building of a tidal wave, he remembers Castiel rushing down towards him. He remembers stumbling backwards, tripping over his own feet to sprawl on the grimy floor, as if he could actually outrun this thing—knowing, in a way he’s never known anything before, that I am going to die—and feeling that first touch, a whisper of full-body contact, laughably gentle. A caress, almost.

And then the second touch, and screaming until things inside his throat started to tear, because something icy cold and jaggedly sharp was stabbing deep into him, and the agony echoed throughout his body—

Back in the hospital, back in real time, the scar on his shoulder throbs at the memory.

He remembers the pain withdrawing. Being right on the verge of blacking out and thinking this is it

He remembers Cas pausing. Inexplicably. Not ripping him to shreds, not squashing him like that great shadowy beast, but pausing for one brief second to just look at him.

And Dean reached back, his fractured body screaming at him to stop, just stop already, give it up, please—and his hand groped in the dirt until his fingers met a strip of faux-leather. And somehow, in the tiny, impossible, insignificant space of that pause, he managed to reach up and fling it around Castiel, his own magic stretching that piece of cheap plastic out to fit all the way—his fingers fumbling with the buckle—

And now, here he is. Stuck in a hospital bed, dosed up on painkillers and shoved full of alien magic. Well—alien to all the nurses and doctors that have examined him, maybe. By now, he’s done enough combinations with the source for it to be very familiar.

He opens his eyes, and somehow he isn’t surprised to find Cas standing beside his bed, even though visiting hours must have ended ages ago. This is the Cas he knows, with horrendous bed-head and weird clothes and a pair of lungs but no heart.

“Hey,” says Dean.

“Hi,” says Cas.

The low hum of hospital machines seems to raise itself to a roar in the silence.

“How are you feeling?” Cas asks eventually.

“Shitty.”

Cas reaches out, maybe to touch his arm or something, the way he used to without explanation, and Dean flinches away instinctively. Cas’s hand drops back to his side, and he says, “Sorry. I don’t suppose it means anything, but I am. And, you know, this wasn’t all me.”

“I know.”

More silence, stretching out thick and heavy between them until Dean’s ears feel like they’re about to pop from the pressure. Cas is looking at him, he knows, but Dean just stares down at the sheets of his bed and tries, for once in his goddamned life, to think in a fucking straight line.

Finally he sighs and says, “I’m sending you back.”

Cas doesn’t say anything. Dean’s not even sure he’s heard, except that they’re alone in a quiet hospital room.

“I should never have summoned you in the first place,” Dean says to the sheets, because he still can’t quite bring himself to look up and see those eyes back in that face. “I thought I—it was stupid. It was too dangerous.”

“You know what it is you saw in the warehouse,” says Cas. Not a question but a statement—Dean thinks a part of him knew, honestly, the minute Cas yanked that ball of black goo out of the Wall.

“Something tried to get through the Wall. From its—from the place you talked about, before,” says Dean.

“No. Something did get through the Wall, and it was small and weak and alone”—uh, okay—“but there are more coming.”

“You can’t know that for sure.”

“I know,” Cas insists.

And it ought to freak him out, right? More darkness, more monsters—maybe what Cas talked about that afternoon in his office, even. Armageddon. The end of the world. The end of the universe. It ought to scare the shit out of him. But somehow the warehouse seems to have burned up all his fear; even all that remembering just now, it was like the him in the Emporium and the him right here in the hospital bed were two different people, like he was watching a movie about someone else. He just feels… tired.

“Okay, Cas.”

Cas makes an irritated noise in the back of his throat, like Dean’s not getting the point here. “You won’t be able to stop this on your own. You couldn’t even stop one of them.”

“I’m not sure I can stop this at all,” says Dean, and he shrugs. Let someone else babysit the world, for once. He’s on sick leave. It’s not his fucking problem. “And what the hell are you trying to accomplish here, anyways? I’m sending you home, okay? I thought you’d be happy. Isn’t this what you’ve wanted from the second I dragged your ass down here?”

At the corner of his vision he can see Cas’s hands twisting together, the way some people do when they’re nervous or uncomfortable or whatever. Not Dean, though. He’s never done that. Maybe Cas copied it from someone else. Or maybe not. But it’s weird to think of him picking up his own mannerisms.

“I don’t know what I want,” Cas says.

Yeah? Well, join the fucking club.

Dean watches the hands of the clock on the wall creep forward, until the big hand rests on the six and the little hand sits solidly between the three and the four. It’s only three-thirty. Only an hour later than when he woke up. Christ, time moves slowly in here.

“You kept talking,” says Cas. “When they brought you in, before you really woke up. To her. You were talking to that girl Jo.”

Dean’s heart seems to stand still for a moment in between beats. “I don’t remember that,” he says.

“You weren’t…” Cas hesitates, probably trying to think of the right words. That’s the problem with learning a new language—for something like Cas it’s easy, objectively, to memorize the words and the rules about how they fit together, even English with its weird spellings and exceptions all over the place; but then you find that people break the rules all the time, and use words to say something other than what they actually mean, and that there are situations where not a single one of the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language says what you need to be able to say. “You weren’t all here.”

“Sam and Bobby didn’t mention it. Or any of the nurses.” They wouldn’t, though, would they? The nurses don’t know who Jo is and probably don’t care—and Sam and Bobby, well, digging her up all over again wouldn’t exactly help him get past it, like they want him to.

“I’m not lying.”

“Okay.” Shit. He was hoping to keep Jo to himself.

“If you send me back,” says Cas, “you won’t get to talk to her.”

Which is true.

But he won’t get to talk to her anyways. Not really. The real Jo died months ago. All Cas could bring him would be a shadow, an echo. Enough to put together a few more pieces of the puzzle, maybe, but still not really her.

And even if he does solve the case, well, then what? Will she leave him alone? Will an eight-year-old think it’s fair, that the person who killed her just gets locked up in prison for the rest of his life? And that’s the best-case scenario, assuming there’s enough evidence for a conviction and no mistrial and the sentencing is at least half as harsh as it ought to be and a whole host of other little details, any one of which could throw the rest off entirely. Is that really just retribution? Because it doesn’t seem like it to him—and unlike Jo, he knows the law and how it works and why it’s there. Why it can’t always be perfect.

And there’s Cas. Even if talking to Jo would make a difference—well, Cas is dangerous. He’s taken care to illustrate that very clearly. Oh, he seems harmless enough right now; but that’s the problem, really. He seems almost like a person sometimes, and you start thinking hey, look at this, I’m starting to change him. And then you start to kind of like having him around, you start to trust him, and—

Well. It doesn’t matter. Dean’s sending him back. It’s the right thing to do. For both of them, and for the rest of the world.

Yeah.

But he looks up at Cas, who is doing a very bad job of pretending not to care what happens next, and it’s three thirty in the morning and his head is still fuzzy from medicine and magic and somehow he just really, really does not have the energy to deal with this right now. So—even though he’s already made up his mind, of course, this isn’t just stalling for time or anything—he sighs and says, “Let me sleep on it, okay?”

“Sleep on what?” asks Cas, glancing uncertainly at the bed.

“I mean just—give me some time. We can talk about it in the morning.”

“Technically it is—”

“You know what I mean.”

Dean’s not sure he does, actually, since he stands beside Dean’s bed for a while longer just staring at him; but eventually he nods and says, “I’ll let you sleep, Dean,” and then he’s gone.

Dean doesn’t sleep, though. He lies in bed and stares at the clock, and while his eyes are watching the seconds crawl sluggishly past his mind is set on a loop, replaying that pause, that brief moment of hesitation that let him snap the collar back on. That tiny, inexplicable window between absolute agony and certain death. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I want I don’t know what I want I don’t know what I want—

“You know he helped me with my magic?” he tells Jo, sometime close to five. “It was cool. I’ve never been able to summon a witch-light that strong before.”

Jo listens politely.

“And all this necromancy stuff… man, I don’t know. It’s bad, right? That’s why it’s against the law. But it doesn’t… when I summoned Cas, or when I combine with him, it doesn’t feel bad. Just different. Easier, honestly. Kind of natural.” He laughs. “How weird is that, right? Christ. Maybe I was just born to be a super-villain.”

Jo radiates an air of great skepticism.

Dean rolls his eyes and says, “Hey, isn’t it past your bedtime?”

At some point after that he must pass out for a bit, because the next time he remembers looking at the clock it reads nine-twenty-three and there’s daylight shining through the windows. He half expects Cas to come barging right in and demanding to know if he’s made up his mind—but what he gets instead is an orderly bringing him a bland hospital breakfast, and then a nurse coming in to check on him, and then a doctor coming in to do the same, and then another nurse; and then Sam, bearing a fresh set of clothes because they kept Dean overnight for observation but he’s healing up okay so they’re letting him go home. Dean gets dressed and signs a bunch of papers and winces because even the slightest movement still hurts, and Sam drives him home in his piece-of-shit car with Cas sitting quietly in the back seat.

“You sure you don’t want me to stay over for a day or two?” Sam asks as he pulls into Dean’s driveway. “It’s no trouble—”

“I’m fine,” Dean insists. “Seriously. I’ve had worse.”

“You say that every time—”

“Yeah, and sometimes it’s even true. Look, I just—I just need some sleep, okay? Besides, I don’t want to cut into your time too much when you’re already busy trying to read every parenting book ever written.”

“Not all of them, I mean, it’s good to have a broad range of ideas, but there some I just really don’t agree—” Sam sees him roll his eyes and scowls. “Whatever. Fine. But—call me if you need anything?”

“Sure,” says Dean.

His house, when he gets inside, looks exactly the same as it did when he and Cas left for work on Saturday morning. The closet’s still a mess from where Dean shoved Cas into it the previous night, and—ugh—there are still dishes by the sink that he never got around to washing. Which is… it makes sense. No one’s been in here since he left, so yeah, everything should be the same. But it still feels kind of weird.

He stands in the kitchen, staring at the fridge and thinking in a detached way about how maybe he ought to ask Sam to get him some groceries, and Cas creeps in behind him. No lounging against the counter or sprawling on one of the stools or fiddling with Dean’s coffeemaker—just standing there, in the middle of the room, like he knows he probably shouldn’t get too comfortable.

What are the chances the bread’s gone moldy? It’s probably okay, right? Well—he can’t actually remember how old it is. Maybe it’s not okay.

And those tomatoes. Oh, man. They were already going squishy on Friday.

Milk? Better not to think about that right now, probably.

He’s trying to avoid thinking about those dishes, too—everything’s going to be all caked on and crusty, and—

Dean sighs and says, “I need to run your clothes through the laundry again, Cas. And you might want to consider taking a bath.”

Chapter Text

Historians, Dean knows from the Classical Civilizations elective he took back in high school, have a great propinquity for dividing time up into chunks. Ancient Greece isn’t just Ancient Greece—it’s Minoan Age Greece, or Mycenaean Age Greece, or Classical Greece or Hellenistic Greece or whatever. And although at the time it just seemed like historians were sadistic assholes who wanted Dean to fail all of his tests, thinking about it now the idea makes a little more sense: a couple of centuries is a lot of time to deal with all at once. A lot of time, a lot of changes, a lot of cultural evolution.

Likewise, Dean’s two weeks of sick leave can be divided up into various periods. Maybe two weeks is kind of insignificant compared to the time it took an entire civilization to rise and fall, but there’s definitely some cultural evolution going on. If you can call one messed-up human, one human-shaped memitim, and one dead little girl cooped up in a house together a culture, that is.

There is the ESL (Early Sick Leave), which lasts for about three days. Dean sleeps through most of it. When he’s not sleeping, he and Cas spend the majority of their time skirting awkwardly around each other and not really talking.

There is the Thaw, which as a transitional period has no definitive beginning or end; but Dean would say it probably starts around the time he comes back from a grocery run to find Cas freshly showered and wearing one of his old t-shirts.

“You don’t mind, do you?” Cas asks, when Dean can’t seem to stop staring. “You don’t wear this one very often, and mine is getting kind of—”

“No, no,” Dean says quickly. “I mean, yeah, it’s fine. Uh. Yeah. Okay.”

And it is fine. Seriously. It makes sense. Cas has one shirt. Dean’s got who-knows-how-many, and it’s not like he wears them all at once. Hell, he and Sam used to borrow each other’s clothes all the time when they were kids—before Sam hit his outrageous growth spurt, anyways. It’s fine. It’s normal.

And then, a day or two later when cabin fever nudges Dean into his running shorts, Cas intercepts him at the door and says, “I want to come too.”

“Uh… okay,” says Dean. “D’you want, uh, shorts? Or, you know… shoes?”

“No, thank you,” says Cas.

“Your funeral,” says Dean, shrugging.

When Sam shows up later that morning to see how Dean’s doing, Cas is sprawled out on the kitchen floor moaning. Sam’s eyebrows arch so high they nearly disappear into his hair and he rounds on Dean to ask, “What the hell did you do to him?”

“Exercise,” says Dean, who is freshly showered and for once feeling pretty good about his own physical condition. “I told him he didn’t have to try and keep up with me, but no-o-o—”

There is the aptly named Charlie’s Visit, which involves, yes, Charlie visiting.

“That hole’s coming along okay,” she tells him, while Cas lurks in the background and glowers at the spectral elemental she’s brought with her. “We’ve nearly patched it up—but there are a bunch more opening all along the Wall.”

A certain amount of wear-and-tear can be expected with any working that enormous and ancient, and “a bunch” is a pretty subjective measurement; but right now things are weird enough to make Dean frown and ask, “More sunspot activity, you think?”

“No idea. If it’s sunspots, though, our astronomer ought to hand in his doctorate, because I haven’t heard anything from him. Anyways, we’ve got it under control. What I really came to tell you”—and here she leans forward conspiratorially, as if there might be someone hiding in Dean’s refrigerator for the sole purpose of listening in on their very important conversation, “is that I’ve been doing some digging into that whole thing at the Emporium.”

“And?”

“Well, no leads on whatever fucked you over”—Dean shifts uncomfortably in his seat and tries to pretend he can’t feel Cas looking at him—“and forensics are still stumped by your weird black goop—but I took a peak at some of the city’s property deeds, and guess who owns that warehouse?”

“Someone named Crowley?” Dean hazards, but Charlie shakes her head.

“Maybe when it was still in business, but that place shut down ages ago. And then for a while it was municipally owned, until about a year ago—“ Charlie slaps a photocopy of a property deed down on the table and then sits back, crossing her arms and looking immensely pleased with herself. “Bam. Suck my dick, Winchester.”

“Later,” Dean promises absently, staring down at the name on the deed.

“Who’s Bela Talbot?” Cas asks, reading over Dean’s shoulder.

“Only the biggest con artist in the entire city, probably the entire state, possibly the entire country,” says Charlie. “Our file on her back at the station is nearly as big as her swanky East Side house.”

“Why is she allowed to buy property if she’s a criminal? Shouldn’t she be in prison?” Cas asks, frowning.

“Oh, she’s way too smart to get caught,” says Dean. “We’ve questioned her in relation to five separate murders and thirty-six unrelated robberies—and that’s just our station, mind you—but the evidence is never anything more than circumstantial. There’s never enough for a conviction.”

“So—are things starting to come together now?” Charlie asks eagerly.

“Honestly? No,” says Dean, and her triumphant smile wilts slightly. As far as police officers go, she’s kind of a unique specimen; she’s the only person Dean knows who joined up because detective work looked cool on TV and then actually stuck with it—and not only that, but the years she’s spent with the force somehow haven’t managed to erase that geeky enthusiasm, no matter how many times the job proves itself to be mostly procedural shit and paperwork. “I mean, this doesn’t exactly seem like her usual gig, does it? I wouldn’t put dark magic past he, but… there’s no gain for her here. Nothing I can see, anyhow. It’s just... destructive.”

“Maybe someone’s paying her?”

“I guess,” says Dean, but it still doesn’t fit quite right. Just like the rest of this fucking mess, huh? Fantastic. “So, what, are you going to talk to her? If you’re too busy with the Wall I could—”

“Oh no, I can do it,” Charlie cuts in quickly. “It’s no trouble.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “You do know it’s against regulations to sleep with anyone under suspicion in an ongoing investigation, right? Which makes Bela Talbot pretty much permanently off limits.”

“I know!” Charlie protests, glaring at him. “Anyways, I never said I wanted to fuck her. I just like to look, you know? Mmm.”

Cas looks at Dean after she’s gone and says, “I like her.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” says Dean, grinning.

Not too long after Charlie’s Visit, there comes the Reappearance of Jo. She’s been keeping an unusual radio silence all week long, after their last conversation in the hospital; Dean had almost started to think that hey, maybe she’d given up on him for good. Which would be… great, obviously, since it would mean maybe he wasn’t quite as crazy as he’d thought after all, but also… well, weird. Not that—well, yeah, it’s just… it’s weird. Without Jo around the house seems a whole lot emptier; though Cas, oddly enough, seems to have a remarkable gift for filling up the silence, even when he isn’t talking.

But of course she does show up again, and very suddenly; Dean and Cas are watching some bizarre sci-fi show one evening, Cas with his legs kicked up across Dean’s lap in an effort to claim as much of the couch for himself as possible, when she just strolls down the stairs like she’s never been away.

“What?” Cas asks when Dean jumps. “What is it?”

This dead girl won’t leave me alone, Cas. Maybe if I’d have found her sooner she’d still be alive, maybe it’s kind of my fault, but there were no leads and I’m not the one who killed her anyways and it’s not fair—

“Nothing,” he says gruffly, because he’s kept it to himself for this long and besides, she’s right, she’s right, they’re just sitting here—

And so there comes the Séance.

Finally.

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, which seems to Dean like an odd time to summon the dead; but Cas says the time of day doesn’t really matter, and this way they’ve got a solid two hours or so before people (specifically, Sam) get off work and potentially decide to pay an unexpected visit.

Cas helps him push all the furniture against the living room walls and they set up there, with candles and salt and earth and the skull and the book and the bowl and, right in the middle of it all, looking forlorn and out-of-place, Jo’s little stuffed bear. The spell, such as it is, is actually pretty simple: tougher than a combination but a far cry from everything it took to summon Cas, and based on the way all his past forays into necromancy have gone he has a sneaking suspicion it’ll come fairly easily.

The memitim himself vanishes into the kitchen before Dean’s even finished setting out all the candles, and doesn’t deign to reappear until everything’s ready to go and Dean starts hollering for him to get your ass in here, I’m not gonna do all the work myself!

“You ready?” Dean asks as Cas slinks back into the living room.

“Yes,” says Cas.

But he’s hovering just outside the circle Dean’s marked with the candles and the little bowls of salt and earth, and he’s eyeing the whole thing with an odd, distant expression, and if Dean didn’t know better—well, if he didn’t know better he’d say Cas was nervous. Which is ridiculous. Cas doesn’t get nervous, and certainly not about doing magic.

He rests a hand briefly on Cas’s shoulder, in what he hopes is a vaguely reassuring gesture, and says, “Everything okay?”

Cas tears his gaze away from the circle to glance at Dean, and a tiny bit of the tension seems to ebb away. “Yes,” he says again. “I—yes. Begin, please.”

So he lights the candles, and gets the water dancing in the bowl with a heavy hum, and reads the words from the book in that harsh, uncomfortably familiar language, and Cas… walks.

He’s about halfway across the circle when everything opens up, and they’re still here in Dean’s living room but there’s another place taking up the same space, somewhere thick as black velvet and studded with little diamonds of stars, swirling together in galaxies and constellations to form a glittering path under Cas’s feet. It stretches away into the distance until Dean, sitting cross-legged on his own hardwood floor, is struck by a dizzying sense of vertigo, and he thinks: this place is Cas’s home.

The dark seems almost liquid, tangible, like the dark in the warehouse yet at the same time completely the opposite; and in the dark, there are… entitites. Lights, softer than the stars, glowing off in the distance, never near enough to make out the source. Creatures like Cas, like Cas in his true form, that watch him as he passes, though Cas keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead; and the shape of Cas himself seems to waver, his edges blurring as if, despite the binding still firmly in place, his true form is starting to leak out.

And there are others, great beasts and shapeless forms and magic, so much magic, such ancient magic, spiraling up in pillars and arches and vast, open seas, thrumming with the power of dead stars and old bones; and Dean knows that big old book of his inside and out by now, but watching Cas walk down that path he feels like a first grader glowing with pride at mastering addition only to walk in on a fourth-year linear algebra lecture. A gut-clenching terror writhes inside him: this place is beyond human comprehension. This is standing on the very edge of a bottomless, unknowable abyss. This is what the universe looks like from the outside.

Cas walks until he shrinks to a figure the size of Jo’s bear and then walks further still, and eventually he disappears entirely. Dean keeps rubbing the handles of the bowl because that’s his job, palms itching at first before going numb altogether from the repetitive motion. He squints along the starlit road for hours, minutes, days, until his eyes ache and his knees cramp up and his arms are about to fall off—nothing. Starlight and darkness, and the city is just outside his door but the more he watches the heavier he’s struck down by an aching, cosmic loneliness.

This place is Cas’s home.

Just when he feels as if he is starting to come apart at the seams—a speck in the distance, growing larger as it approaches until it forms itself into a discernable figure. No, wait—two figures, hand-in-hand. Cas, inexplicably back in his Sex Pistols t-shirt and stooping slightly to compensate for the difference in height, and…

And Jo.

Little Jo. Little eight-year-old Jo, all picked out in a ghostly golden glow, with those brown eyes that always smile out at him from the photographs replaced by empty golden orbs staring ahead unseeingly.

“You can stop now,” Cas tells Dean, and Dean lifts his palms from the handles to let the water calm.

Dean looks at Jo. The point of a séance is to communicate with the dead, ergo he ought to maybe try saying something; but his chest, unfortunately, seems to be collapsing in on itself.

“Hello,” he manages to choke out eventually.

Jo doesn’t respond. As usual.

“It only works if you ask her a question,” Cas prompts gently.

Right. Okay. Questions.

Dean clears his throat. “Do you know where you are, Jo?”

“I’m dead,” says Jo. Her voice echoes strangely, reverberating her words around Dean’s living room long after she’s stopped speaking.

“Yeah. Uh, yes. I’m. Uh. I’m really sorry.”

Dean hesitates.

He wants to ask do you know who I am? But the answer is yes, obviously, of course she does, because she’s been the background to his life for the better part of a year. She’s been haunting the shit out of him.

He wants to ask anyways, and really what’s the harm, except—

—except what if she says no?

So he just tells her, instead. He says, “Jo, I’m Dean. I’m the… I’m the detective in charge of investigating your, uh. Your… death. Do you know how you died, Jo?”

“Someone killed me.”

“Do you know who?”

Jo shakes her head. Okay. So, not friends or family, then. Not a familiar face.

“Can you describe them to me? Was it a man or a woman?”

“A woman.” A woman? Huh. Unusual, statistically. “A woman with nice blonde hair, and she told me we were going on an adventure.”

Right. So he should put out a bulletin on fucking Cinderella. “Can you tell me anything else about her, Jo? Did she look human?”

Shrug. “Kinda. She had funny eyes. They were all white. Like she was blind except no because she didn’t have a dog or anything.”

Blonde hair and white eyes, but not blind. It’s not a whole lot to go on, but it’s a start. More than he had before, at least. More than months of by-the-book detective work got him.

And now. Now the part he’s been trying not to think about.

“Can you… can you tell me what happened to you, Jo?”

“I was playing outside and she came up to me. I know I’m not supposed to talk to strangers but she was nice and she listened when I told her about my game, and then she said maybe we could go on our own little adventure and would I like that. I told her yes but I should ask my mom first, but she said that no, we had to go right now, it was a really great adventure and heroes can’t go asking their mothers for permission all the time. I told her no, I really had to ask my mom first, but the woman did something with her eyes that made me feel sleepy and when she took my hand I just walked with her. And then we were somewhere and there was another woman but with dark hair and she talked funny, and she was really angry, she kept shouting at the blonde woman why did you bring her here, and the blonde woman said they had a deal so the other woman would do as she was told. And then both of them left and I was alone for a long time.”

“Did you know where you were?”

“No. They left me in the basement. There were nice couches and a TV that I couldn’t turn on and a scribbly painting on the wall.” Doesn’t sound like the Remington’s house—by now he knows their home practically as well as he knows his own, and the only basement they have is unfinished and filled with old junk. “The woman with the funny voice came down sometimes at night and brought me food. I don’t think she wanted me there but then she didn’t want me to leave, either, because the last time I saw her she came down and she was crying and she hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe.

“Then the blonde woman came back and took me to another house. The thing with her eyes made me not scared while I was in the basement, just sleepy the whole time, but when we got to this new house it was like waking up and I was really, really scared and I tried to fight her, I tried to scream but she covered my mouth—”

I don’t want to hear this I don’t want to hear this I don’t want to hear—

“—and took a knife and cut my throat open, and when I opened my eyes everything was dark.”

The last word echoes until her voice fades into silence. She stares at him calmly, like she’s just told him about a not-very-interesting day at school; and he wants to look away but he can’t, he can’t—if he’d been better, if he’d found her sooner—

“It’s time to go,” Cas says gently. Jo nods. Together they turn, walking back down the road, back into the darkness; and there’s no goodbye from Jo, not even a slight acknowledgement of Dean’s presence, but as they’re walking Cas glances over his shoulder at Dean. Just once, just quickly.

The words I’m sorry are stuck inside Dean, rattling around his heard, thudding through his veins, caught in his throat until he feels like he’s choking. He wants to shout it after her. He wants her to smile and say it’s okay, really it’s okay, I’m happy here, it’s not your fault. But this Jo doesn’t smile and anyway it’s not okay, it won’t ever be okay—

He holds out until Cas comes back, alone this time, and the stars and the creatures and the infinite emptiness fade back into his boring old living room. He manages to spit out the final words to break the spell before he bolts to the bathroom and heaves up what feels like everything he’s eaten in the past week.

When the world stops spinning he slides down onto the floor and wonders if he can will himself to stop living right now; and then he hears footsteps, bare feet on hardwood, and he looks up and Cas is holding out a glass of water. Which is. Which is. Uh. Wow.

It’s just a glass of water. It’s not his mom rubbing his back and bringing him chicken noodle soup in bed and singing him back to sleep. But it’s Cas, and it’s a glass of water. Just. Yeah. Wow.

Cas helps him to his feet and Dean rinses the acidic taste out of his mouth, and then he takes a swallow from the glass that hurts his raw throat but stays settled in his stomach. “Thanks,” he croaks.

“Are you okay?” Cas is still gripping his arm, like he’s worried Dean might collapse. “Are you sick? Do you need to go back to the hospital?”

Dean gives a shaky laugh and says, “Dude, no, I’m fine.” Which is a lie, but not in the way Cas means it. “It was just… seeing her, hearing her… it’s like, you know, it’s like sometimes there’s stuff in our heads that makes us sick.”

Cas stares at Dean for a long moment and it strikes him—well, first it strikes him that he really wants to brush his teeth, but it also strikes him that Cas is standing way way way too close right now—

“I know,” says Cas. And Dean remembers that, oh yeah, maybe this guy nearly came down with hypothermia the other day because he didn’t know how to work the hot water in the shower—but he’s seen the insides of more souls than Dean could ever hope to imagine, he’s seen their thoughts and dreams and instincts and the parts that are broken, and he never quite manages to come off as indifferent as he pretends.

“I need a drink,” says Dean, which leads to the period he likes to think of as the After-Party.

It’s a short period, and most of it is kind of hazy, but basically what happens is that Cas finally finds a food he likes. Namely, bourbon. And, okay, the legitimacy of classifying whiskey as food kind of depends on which Winchester brother you ask, but whatever. The point is. The point is.

“The point is,” says Dean, only slurring his words slightly, “I mean, you know… you know, when it rains?”

Cas squints at him, lips moving slightly as he repeats the last three words to himself. “Yeah?”

“Well, it’s like, if you’re in the car, if you speed up it’s like it rains more. You know? Like there’s more rain. But then you slow down and… no. It’s just normal again. Normal rain.”

“Yeah.”

“So, like, if you’re just, if you’re walking… if you’re walking outside and it’s, you know, raining… but if you run, d’you get more wet?

There’s a moment of intellectual silence as Cas contemplates the question. Then he says, “Whoa.”

Right? ‘Cause, no but listen, ‘cause if you run, there’s more water ahead that you’re getting, ‘cause you’re, like, you’re running forward into it. So there’s… there’s the water on top of you, but also the water ahead of you.”

“The universe,” says Cas, nodding his head sagely, “is a mysterious place.”

They end up, somehow, with Cas sprawled out on the couch, hanging his head over the edge to look at Dean, who’s lived here for years but never realized how fucking comfy the floor is, holy shit.

“You know,” Cas mumbles.

“I know what?”

“You know I almost killed you. In the, whatdoyoucallit. In the Emporium.”

“Yeah, and fuck you very much.”

“No, no, but I didn’t.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I put the… the thing, the collar. I put it back on.” The still-vaguely-sober part of his brain is telling him that hey, maybe the fact that both of them are wasted off their asses makes this not the best time to talk about something they’ve avoided discussing since that night at the hospital.

No,” Cas insists. “I mean yes, but no. Because I was, I was going to, but then… I was curious.”

“About what? Human pain threshold?”

“About the—about, when we combine, did you know that, did you know I can feel your… thing?”

What?” says Dean, wrinkling his nose.

“Your… I can feel your soul. Just… not all of it. But it’s… there. At the edges.” Cas has the grace to look faintly embarrassed as he adds, “And I… I wanted to see the rest. I want to touch it.”

“Duuuuuude,” says Dean. “You touched my soul? You touched my soul?”

“Instead of killing you,” Cas points out, which, okay, yeah.

“You touched my soul.”

“Yeah.”

“What, uh… what was it, you know… like?”

Cas bites his lip, like he’s thinking, and Dean catches himself staring at how Cas’s teeth dig into the skin, how when he opens his mouth again to speak there are two tiny grooves etched into his lower lip, fading fast. “It was… nice. Warm. There were cracks. But it glowed very brightly. You have a nice soul. You have a beautiful soul.”

Cas slings an arm over the side of the couch and makes a few passes at Dean before managing to touch the scar on Dean’s shoulder, still prominent but no longer sore, and the touch aches in a different way from how it felt in the hospital, all the way down to its roots deep inside him. “It hurt you, though. My hands. I’m sorry.”

“’S’okay,” says Dean.

They’re both silent for a minute. You have a beautiful soul. Ha. Now that’s a pickup line Dean can honestly say he’s never thought of before.

Then Cas says, in a very small voice, “I want one.”

Dean fumbles around until he finds his own shoulder, which is way harder than it ought to be, and he puts his hand on top of Cas’s and squeezes his fingers, and it’s kind of an awkward position to hold but Cas squeezes back.

“Y’know,” says Dean. “I think you owe me. For the almost killing thing. And the, the soul-touching. I’m not, like, I’m not a hooker. I’m not a soul-hooker. But I think you owe me.”

“What do I owe you, then?”

“Dunno. Like. A blowjob. Or a soda.”

“Okay,” says Cas.

Dean wakes up a few hours later with a weird kink in his back from sleeping on the floor and the unpleasant feeling of some small animal having burrowed inside his skull, died, and proceeded to start decomposing. He crawls into the kitchen because fuck it, Cas is asleep and anyways he’s certainly in no state to pass judgment, and starts to feel slightly more human after making and downing a cup of revoltingly strong coffee. A few Alka-Seltzers and a shower later and he can actually confirm that yes, he is in fact still alive. Technically.

He comes back downstairs partially dressed, which is about as good as it’s going to get today, to find Cas curled up in a ball on the couch groaning pitifully. “Hey,” says Dean, poking him in the back. “You want breakfast?”

“Nooooo,” Cas moans into the cushion he’s got his face mashed against. “Leave me alone. I’m dying.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “You’re not dying, Cas, you’re hungover.”

“This is all your fault! I hate you!”

“Listen, buddy, I wasn’t exactly force-feeding you bourbon last night. In fact, if I recall, you were the one who convinced me to—”

Cas aims a feeble kick at him, which Dean sidesteps easily, and says, “I’m going to smite you!”

“As long as you don’t throw up on my couch, okay?” Dean tells him. He feels a little better himself already, actually. The best cure for a bad hangover is seeing someone else with one that’s worse.

The rest of Dean’s sick leave passes remarkably fast. Having Cas around makes it easier, for some reason, to put Jo and all the things she told him far back in the corners of his mind; a temporary solution, of course, and she never really leaves him alone, but he figures there’s not much he can do until he gets back to work anyways, so why lose sleep over it until then?

There’s a weird bit when Sam visits again—Dean says hey, I’ll make pizza and Cas decides to help, which mostly just ends with them shoving each other around and cracking up and generally acting like the type of third-grade boys who teachers deliberately stick in separate classes, while Sam kind of stands on the sidelines and keeps giving Cas these Looks.

“Everyone’s talking about you two,” Sam says when they’re saying goodbye and Dean finally demands to know what the hell his brother’s problem is. Cas is still in the kitchen, supposedly washing the dishes and making far more noise than Dean is entirely comfortable with. “I mean, even people at my office. Cas isn’t… he’s not normal.”

“Dude, you’re the one who eats sultanas on your pizza.”

“I’m serious, Dean. Whatever you summoned, it definitely wasn’t a Grade C elemental, and I’m just—people are starting to ask questions, okay? And that’s a pretty serious offense, abusing written permission from the Department like that.”

“Uh, yeah—I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I kind of work as a police officer sometimes. I know the law.”

Sam hits Dean with a fairly spectacular bitch-face, even by his standards; and then, out of nowhere, he says, “He’s not going to be around forever, you know. You’re going to have to send him back eventually.”

“I know, Sammy,” he says, giving his brother a slightly-harder-than-necessary shove out the door. “Jesus, we’re not fucking married.”

Sam just raises his eyebrows and leaves without saying another word.

The night after he’s gone to the doctor and been declared fit for duty, with his alarm set to kick him out of bed in time for his first day back on the job, he gets shaken awake in the middle of the night by Cas nudging his shoulder.

“C’mon, man,” Dean says groggily, trying to burrow back down in the blankets. “It’s, like, two in the morning. I have to work tomorrow.”

Cas just takes Dean’s hand and places it against his chest, and underneath the rise-and-fall of Cas’s lungs there’s something else, a steady thud-thud. A heartbeat. Dean grins at him, and even in the dark he thinks he can see Cas smiling back.

Chapter Text

Back in the real world, things are starting to unravel.

It starts out small. Dean shows up at work with Cas in tow, for once feeling cautiously optimistic about his job—and Bobby doesn’t look happy to see him, he looks relieved.

“Thank God,” he says, with a tightness underneath his usual gruff manner that sets Dean on edge. “Great to see you’re feeling better and all, Dean, but I’m kicking you out again—get your ass down to the Wall.”

“What? But I thought Charlie—”

“I’m keeping her on the case. You guys are partnering up. Got it?”

“Okay, but—”

“Good. Get on it.”

“Hang on,” says Dean, grabbing Bobby’s arm as he turns to leave. He makes an effort to sound as Mature and Reasonable as possible in an attempt to cover up the fact that he’s really just whining as he says, “No offense to Detective Bradbury, sir, but I’d rather she handle the Wall while w—I do the investigating.”

“Tough luck,” says Bobby. “Right now neither of you is going to be doing any investigating. The Wall needs all hands on deck—now get going.”

Dean looks at Cas, who’s wearing that blank expression Dean has come to recognize as the one that means something is on the verge of being horribly wrong, which for once he can figure out all too well on his own. Two higher-ranking officers working repairs on the Wall isn’t unheard of, no way—those sunspots last year, remember? Every officer available worked on that. And ages ago, when he was still a constable, there was that accident in the testing labs at the university that shredded a solid block’s worth of the Wall; even Bobby rolled up his sleeves and pitched in on that one. The Wall, it really cannot be said too many times, is old. It’s been in a controlled state of decay longer than Dean’s been alive, so yeah, sometimes stuff goes more wrong than usual.

But there seem to be a hell of a lot of coincidences starting to pile up. And somehow, at the centre of this whole tangled mess, there’s someone trying—deliberately trying, not just dicking around or having weird magical accidents—to crack right through the Wall to the other side.

He catches Charlie on her break, sitting on the curb with her elemental drifting aimlessly around behind her and looking remarkably hairy, the way she does when she’s too exhausted to regulate her lupine gland properly. “Oh, hey,” she says when Dean sits down next to her. “You’re still alive. Cool.”

“You look like shit, Charlie.”

“It’s not all bad. My armpit hair’s almost long enough to braid.”

“Impressive.”

“Right?” She groans and drops her head onto her knees, sitting up again a minute later and shaking her head. “Man, I am so not cut out for this. Though I gotta say, my so-called partner isn’t bringing a whole lot to the table, either. Between us we’re probably about as potent as one of those potato-powered alarm clocks. You got any hot sisters who might want to team up with me, Cas?”

“Very hot,” says Cas. “Most of my siblings have an internal body temperature similar to the surface of your Sun. In their true forms you would be incinerated on contact.”

Charlie laughs, which is lucky because the way Cas is wrinkling his nose in confusion tells Dean he was probably dead serious. He changes the subject before things get awkward: “So—you talked to Bela?”

“Yeah, for all the difference it made,” says Charlie, rolling her eyes. “You know her. Rarely visited the warehouse, planned to develop it, since when is owning property a crime, blah blah blah. She claimed not to know anything about that room you found in the back—but forensics is still going over it for fingerprints and stuff, so we’ll see.”

So nothing, basically. Great. Not, of course, that he’d have time to investigate, anyway.

“Okay, well, let me know.” And then, on a whim, he adds, “Hey, this might seem kind of random, but have you ever heard of anything that has white eyes?”

“Um, my grandma used to have really bad cataracts.”

Hmm. Not exactly what he’s looking for.

When they leave Charlie and head over to start working, Dean says to Cas, “When you were unbound you didn’t incinerate me on contact.”

“I was going to, though.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t.”

“But I was going to.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t, and you know why?”

“Well, yes, because you put—”

“I think,” says Dean, elbowing him in the ribs to shut him up, “it’s because you like me.”

Cas doesn’t smile. “Maybe we should talk about this later,” he says. For a second Dean thinks he’s actually pissed; but then he looks where Cas is deliberately not looking and sees the rest of the team that Bobby’s assigned to the Wall staring at them.

His grin slides right off his face. Sam was right, then. People have been talking. Not just Bobby being observant, not just Sam being paranoid—actual people, people he doesn’t know, have been talking. About him. And Cas, obviously. About both of them. Which is, uh, flattering, but also kind of really bad news. Regardless of the fact that Cas has pretty much settled in here, his presence is still, technically, breaking the law; and settling in doesn’t make it any less broken, just increases the duration of its broken-ness.

But Dean doesn’t spend too much time worrying about that, because then he looks past all the staring people to the Wall itself, and suddenly it’s a struggle not to puke.

The Wall looks sick. Infected. Festering. The hole Dean and Cas slaved over for so long, that’s been all patched up (though the magic bulges and twists lopsidedly, not assimilated into the rest of the fabric like usual)—but now there are other holes, some the size of a quarter and some bigger than the tires on Dean’s car, and radiating out around the original patch like whatever tore that first gash is starting to spread. Oozing out of all of them is some sort of pus, not quite as creepy as that worm-ball Cas found but with the same oily black colour.

The Wall has always kind of freaked him out. It just—it feels weird. It makes his skin crawl. He still gets a bit of that now, when he stands right next to it—that ancient, alien thrum of magic, the spicy, dusty taste in the back of his throat. But it’s fainter than usual, and behind it there’s something sour, something rotten. The Wall is weird, but it’s as much a part of this city as the schools and the libraries and the stores and the houses and the roads; and he’s suddenly finding, despite how much trouble it’s caused him over the years, that he’s wishing desperately for it to go back to normal.

There’s nothing to do but work—and so he does, ignoring how everyone stares even harder when he and Cas do their odd partial combination. They knot strands of magic back together again and again until Cas has to pump a little extra energy into Dean’s arms to stop them from trembling with exhaustion.

Eventually Charlie taps him on the shoulder and orders him to go home, dude, you’re going to put yourself right back on sick leave, and he says right back at you, Charlie because she looks like shit from God-knows-how-many days of overwork. He and Cas drive back to his house in a worn-out silence, only broken when they pull into the driveway and Dean says, “I call showering first,” because they’re both coated in a slimy layer of that black shit.

He’s busy scrubbing his skin a raw pink and hoping all the black goo swirling around the drain isn’t going to clog the plumbing when he hears the door open. The door to the bathroom. The door to the bathroom that he specifically instructed Cas not to touch when he was inside, because boundaries.

And Cas had been doing so well since that first time. Although—well, okay, maybe the boundaries have shifted around a little since then. Dean definitely can’t picture the Cas he knew a month ago going jogging with him, or helping him make pizza, or getting totally shitfaced and telling Dean he has a beautiful soul. And Cas was always a little sketchy on the whole personal space concept to begin with so maybe…

Maybe he thinks—

—because after all Dean’s bedroom used to be kind of out-of-bounds, but Cas came in last night and woke him up and sat on the edge of his bed and smiled at him and it was fine, it was nice—

Maybe he’s curious (what else is new)—or, or maybe he’s calculating efficiency, and he thinks that it might be okay to—

Maybe Dean wouldn’t mind so much, actually. If Cas did decide to…

Um.

“Dean?” says Cas, and Dean realizes he’s been holding his breath.

He says, “Yeah?” and it’s a good thing the water’s running, because it covers the fact that his voice doesn’t seem to be working properly.

“Kevin Tran wants to talk to you.”

“What?”

“On your phone.”

Oh. Right. Phone call. Okay. Business. Yeah.

He grabs his towel and wraps it around his waist as he steps out of the shower, dragging one hand against the rough fabric to dry it off before taking the phone Cas is holding out to him. “All yours, buddy. Try to get that shit out of your hair before it dries. And just leave your clothes on the floor, I’ll run them through the washer later.”

Cas nods, and Dean steps out into the hall and tries not to sound annoyed when he says, “What’s up, Kevin?”

“Um,” says Kevin. “Was that… the guy who answered, was that…?”

“Cas? Yeah.” He adds meaningfully, “I was in the shower.”

“Your elemental uses your phone? Wow. You know, he sounded completely… I mean, that voice was a bang on imitation of responsive life. And his form is just incredible—the fact that he has the ability to hold it at all, much less the motivation, is just—I can’t believe he’s only a Grade C—”

“What,” says Dean, as coldly as possible, “are you implying, Constable?”

There are several seconds of uncomfortable silence.

“Nothing, sir. I just meant…”

More silence. Shit. He didn’t mean to scare the kid. It just—he panicked, okay? Yeah, it would have been better not to say anything, rather than fucking drawing attention to it, but he’s tired and hungry and dripping on the hall floor and he just said it without thinking.

Also, as a side-note that may or may not be related, it’s kind of difficult to concentrate given the inexplicable fact that he’s having to devote about eighty percent of his brain power to not picturing Cas naked in the shower.

Fuck.

“So, uh,” says Dean, for both their benefits. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your call? Specifically?”

“Oh, right, sorry—we, uh, we identified the unknown substance you removed from the Wall.”

“And?”

“No matches with anything on record, and the formation process doesn’t line up anything we’ve ever seen before.”

“So basically what you’re telling me,” says Dean, “is that it’s an unknown substance.”

“Um, well… yes, sir.”

“Awesome. That’s really helpful, Kevin. How about, is there anything you can tell me that I didn’t already know?”

“I was getting there, sir,” says Kevin, sounding mildly offended. “We managed to figure out some of the comp. The source magic was unidentifiable, same with most of the components—”

“Shocking.”

“—but our analysis did pick up traces of blood, sir. More than traces, actually.”

 

The air in his house, usually comfortable, seems to freeze against his still-damp skin, and it’s suddenly a whole lot easier to concentrate. His fingers itch, remembering the awful split-second of contact with the thing Kevin’s describing, the thing he-and-Cas pulled out of the Wall. “Blood magic?”

“That’s what it looks like. I can’t be definite—you know we don’t have a successful case of blood magic on record for the past two hundred years?—but, I mean… what else could it be?”

“Thanks, Kev,” says Dean, even though he’s not feeling particularly thankful. That whole ignorance is bliss thing is kind of hard to live by when you’re a detective, but… blood magic. Christ. As if this whole thing wasn’t terrible enough before. Blood magic.

“There’s one more thing, sir.”

Of course. As if finding out that some dickhead is using blood magic isn’t enough.

“We’ve… I ran a DNA test on what I could separate, just to… just to check, and we’ve got a match in our database.”

“Yeah? Who is it?”

Kevin doesn’t say anything for a moment, like he has to psych himself up to answering.

“It’s… it’s Jo Harvelle, sir.”

Dean doesn’t remember hanging up, or walking to his room, or getting dressed, or walking back down to the kitchen; but somehow, that’s where he finds himself, sitting on one of the stools at his counter with water dripping down the back of his shirt from his wet hair.

Jo. The thing Cas pulled out of the Wall, that’s Jo. The black stuff he just washed down the drain, that’s Jo too.

Blood magic—no wonder they couldn’t find any signs of witchcraft in the Remington’s living room. It’s not witchcraft. It’s hardly even magic, despite the name. More like gravity, or the laws of motion, or the causality principle—one of the fundamental aspects of the universe, the background rules upon which everything else is built. And the rule is this: you can throw all the ingredients of life in a bucket, but all you will end up with is a bucket full of ingredients. You can string together all the tissues and organs and other bits and pieces, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, but all you’ll get is a realistic-to-unrecognizable (depending on the quality of the materials and your artistic skill) corpse. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, ergo there must be one part missing. Life—the breathing, the moving, the thinking—takes a spark; and if you can steal that spark, if you can capture it and harness it and twist it to your own bidding—well. It’s not magic. It goes beyond that.

“I’m sorry,” he mutters, tracing a finger absently over a whorl in his not-really-marble counter. “I’m—it didn’t have to be you. It shouldn’t have been you. I’m so fucking sorry.”

It had to be someone, though. How does it go in physics? Power equals the change in work over the change in time; so to maximize power—and if you’re desperate enough to try blood magic then yes, you want to maximize power—you need as large a change in work as possible and as small a change in time. Well, it’s easy enough to kill someone fast, but as for the other—innocence has power only because there’s more to corrupt. It had to be someone. If it hadn’t been Jo it would have been some other kid, and they wouldn’t have deserved it any more than she did.

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

She was just a piece in someone’s fucking puzzle

“Is that why you’re here?” he asks her. “Huh? Is part of you stuck in that spell? Or, what, you just want vengeance, or justice, or whatever you want to call it?”

Jo stares at him silently.

A woman with white eyes, she said, and princess hair. Well, that’s great—that’s fucking great—except right now, it’s the only piece of evidence he’s got to go on, and this is a big, busy, irritatingly diverse city; not that it matters anyways, because he’s stuck throwing everything he’s got into keeping the Wall from crumbling—

He says, only it comes out more as a shout punctuated by his fist slamming against the counter, “What do you want me to do?

The silence that follows is different. Not Jo’s silence, heavy with anger and fear and judgment, but the incredibly loud silence of someone (someone here, someone real) trying very hard not to make any noise whatsoever. Belatedly, Dean realizes the sound of running water has been absent for the past several minutes.

“Blood magic,” he says to Cas, who is frozen in the doorway to the kitchen wearing an impossibly neutral expression. “That’s how they’ve been doing all this shit.” He laughs. “And you know what the craziest part is? Guess. It’s fucking hilarious. You guys have a pretty fucked up sense of humour. Take a guess. Go on. Take a fucking guess!

“I don’t know,” Cas says. His voice seems carefully pitched to match his face.

Dean doesn’t remember lashing out, but his hand is throbbing and the coffeemaker is lying on the floor in pieces, so yeah. That must have happened.

He squeezes his eyes shut, because the lights in the kitchen are suddenly far too bright and he can’t stand looking at Cas or not looking at Jo, and he says—maybe to Cas, maybe to himself, who knows anymore—“There’s something wrong with me.”

“Yes,” Cas agrees. “You’re human.”

His laugh comes out embarrassingly choked. “No, I mean—I mean more than that. I mean really wrong.”

“You see a girl you know can’t be real, because she died a year ago,” says Cas, and somehow Dean’s not surprised that he’s managed to figure it out. “And you think you’re going crazy.”

Ha. Well, the “going” part is kind of superfluous, at this point. “Am I?”

He wants Cas to say no, no you’re not, there’s an explanation behind this, see? To reassure him that he’s okay, even though he won’t be able to believe it entirely.

He wants Cas to say yes, you are crazy. To give him permission to fall apart the rest of the way, and have someone else take charge for once the way no one really has since his mom was alive.

Cas doesn’t say anything.

Instead, Dean feels a pair of hands wrapping around his own. Heat unfurls in his chest, flowing through his arms, and when he opens his eyes his fingers are pooling with witch-light. Here in the kitchen, with the lights on and the dusk spilling in the windows, the glow is gentler than in the darkness of the warehouse. It doesn’t make him feel better—he’s not sure it’s possible to feel better anymore—but it calms the hurricane raging inside his head a little.

“In your old folklore, they used to believe that people born on the hours of monastic prayer—the chime hours, they were called—could see ghosts,” says Cas.

“Is that… is it true?” asks Dean, even though he’s not sure he wants to know the answer. “Are you saying…?”

“I’m saying that truth is relative.”

Dean looks at Cas, who is standing right there, who is cupping Dean’s hands and guiding his magic, who is telling him something Dean doesn’t quite understand but that somehow helps anyway, who is standing right fucking there, and thinks I could kiss you right now, God, I want to kiss you.

Without thinking he blurts out, “Stay.”

Cas’s eyebrows arch up in surprise. His lips part like he’s about to speak, and then he presses them together again and squints at Dean. “You mean… in the kitchen?”

“No, I mean, I mean”—and suddenly the words are tripping over themselves in their haste to be spoken, and he really should stop and think about what he’s saying before he fucks everything up—“when this is all done, if it’s ever done, you could—you could stay. Here. With me. Or, or you could get your own place, if you wanted—I’d help you out, you could—I’d just, I’d really like it if you stayed. There’s still—there’s so much stuff for you to see. And I… look, okay, what I’m saying is… don’t leave just because you think I want you to leave. Because I, well, I mean, obviously it’s your choice, but… yeah.”

Cas stares at him, and stares at him, and then stares at him some more, and Dean starts to wonder if maybe none of those words actually made it out of his head and instead he just made a whole bunch of unintelligible noises or something and now Cas is trying to think of a diplomatic way to revoke truth-is-relative and replace it with actually-you-are-crazy, and—

Though of course, what he’s just said (or what he thinks he’s just said) isn’t necessarily any saner. At all.

“I want to go home,” Cas says finally, and the panic that’s been building in Dean’s chest implodes, leaving a dull, blank hole. “But…”

Dean waits, and tries to pretend he’s not holding his breath.

“I’m not sure I know where that is anymore.”

Cas drops his hands from Dean’s and looks away, and the witch-light starts to fade.

He doesn’t know whether to say you’re welcome or I’m sorry, so he doesn’t say anything. Instead he picks up the pieces of the coffeemaker from the kitchen floor, getting the vacuum to suck up all the little glass fragments from the shattered carafe; and then, for want of anything better to do, he makes grilled cheese, even though it kind of gives him traumatic flashbacks to his years in college.

“This cheese tastes like plastic,” Cas says, who has started taking most of Dean’s meals with him despite frequent complaints about the food. He picks apart the two pieces of bread and watches the yellow-orange glob stretch between them with a look of great distaste.

“I’m pretty sure it is plastic,” says Dean. “I mean, not all the way. Like maybe, I don’t know, fifty percent or so.”

“Then why are we eating it? I’ve seen your fridge. You have better cheese.”

“Yeah, but this is… it’s just… tradition, you know? This is the way you make grilled cheese.”

“Well, I don’t like it.”

“You’re not supposed to like it. You just. I don’t know. It’s grilled cheese.”

“You don’t make very much sense most of the time,” says Cas.

You don’t…” Dean begins, and then, when no withering comeback presents itself, he settles for just, “… yeah.” Cas rolls his eyes, but he takes another bite anyway.

Sometime around 3:00 a.m., Dean sits up in bed wide-awake and stares unseeingly at the wall across from him. His head is a mess of weird modern art, scribbling itself menacingly at him in a remnant from the dream he’s just snapped out of, and Jo’s voice echoing and there was another woman but with dark hair and she talked funny and Charlie, Charlie sitting in his kitchen looking smug—and somewhere in that crazy mix there’s his own voice, shouting to be heard above the clamour. Make the connection, idiot, make the connection!

“She wouldn’t,” he mutters. “That’s—she wouldn’t, she fucking wouldn’t—”

The disorientation of waking after a dream passes, but his heart refuses to slow its thundering. It roars in his ears, reverberating through his body until the room itself seems to be trembling.

Then he throws back the covers and stumbles out of bed, bellowing, “Cas!” as he makes a blind grab for yesterday’s pants in the dark.

Chapter Text

It’s twenty after three in the morning and Dean dressed quickly enough that for once he just about matches Cas, and he left his badge on the kitchen counter in the hurry and he definitely doesn’t have a warrant; but Bela opens the door, fully dressed, and does nothing more than raise her perfect eyebrows at him.

“Well,” she says, making no move to let him in, “this is… unexpected.”

“I have some questions for you.” He still can’t quite believe… sure, she’s a criminal, there’s no denying that—but a professional criminal, one who does it for money, and where’s the profit in bringing on the Apocalypse?

And a child… to murder a child… that’s…

Look. It’s not that he’s trying to defend her or anything. But this is. It doesn’t make sense.

“One of you already came by to talk to me about that warehouse—which, as I explained to her, was absolutely nothing to do with me, and I should point out that you’re lucky I’m not pressing trespassing charges, considering you have yet to present me with a valid warrant for entering my property,” says Bela. Her eyes, though, are on Cas, roving over him in a way that makes Dean’s hackles rise instinctively (and, okay, maybe it doesn’t help that Cas is staring right back at her with that stupid curious head-tilt of his). “Is this the supposed elemental I’ve been hearing so much about?” Dean nods reluctantly, and she laughs. “Really, Dean? Any idiot can tell he’s no more an elemental than I am. And people have actually been buying your story? Incredible.”

“I’m not here to talk about Cas. I’m not here to talk about the warehouse, either.”

“What is this, then—a courtesy call?” Bela smiles that infuriatingly patronizing smile of hers and says, “I’d be flattered, if it weren’t three in the morning and I didn’t know you despised me.”

Dean looks at her, and somehow doesn’t want to slap her. Weird. Usually he’s allergic to Bela in the way other people are allergic to certain laundry detergents—just being in her presence makes him itch, only instead of breaking out in a rash he gets a mounting urge to commit homicide. But right now—

Right now, for once, he’s actually hoping to see her prove him wrong. Really wrong. Not her standard it’s-only-circumstantial-evidence wrong.

He says, “Jo Harvelle.”

There’s a long, spinning moment of inscrutable silence, of him looking at her and her looking back at him and everything else fading into nonexistence, of the universe narrowing to just the two of them.

The corner of her mouth twitches up slightly in an expression that’s impossible to read.

“Took you long enough,” she says.

And then he’s got her pinned up against the wall, even though he doesn’t remember moving, and her hands are scrabbling instinctively at the arm he’s pressing across her throat—but other than that she’s not fighting, not kicking or biting or slipping out of his hold the way she’s done with dozens of people dozens of times before because this is Bela Talbot, after all—this is Bela Talbot, and she’s trying to speak but right now he wants to—

—and then someone’s pulling him away, digging their fingers into his arms and holding him back to keep him from lashing out again.

“Stop it,” Cas hisses in his ear, tightening his grip when Dean tries to fight back. “Dean. Dean!

Fuck off—”

Cas’s fingers pinch hard enough to bruise, almost hard enough to break skin. “We need to hear what she has to say. You know we do. I know you’re angry but this isn’t about you, Dean. So cut it out and do your job.”

If he’d done his fucking job Cas wouldn’t be here in the first place. Maybe he wouldn’t be here either, because maybe Jo would be at home in bed with her mom in the next bedroom instead of bleeding into the Wall—

The Wall, which is sick, which is crumbling.

His fucking asshole of a memitim is right, obviously. Revenge won’t bring Jo back, but what it might do is get the whole of the universe destroyed. What they need is answers. What they need is justice.

He shakes Cas off and zones out.

It’s something you have to do, sometimes. When you get there just a little too late. When the crime is too gruesome to look, but you need all the details. Zone out, and go on autopilot. Sure, it’s cold. But it also lets you keep living.

“Bela Talbot,” he says, in a voice that seems somehow detached from the rest of him. “In lieu of your confession, I’m arresting you on suspicion of the following charges: one, acting as accomplice to the abduction and murder of a minor.”

“Wait—” Bela rasps, but Dean ignores her.

“Two, using Class VI forbidden magic with intent to cause loss of life. Three, destruction of public property, also with intent to cause loss of life and further destruction of public and private property.

“Let me explain, it’s not—”

“Four, deliberately misleading and providing false information to officers of the law,” Dean ploughs on robotically. “Upon reviewing your case, other charges may be added at the discretion of the overseeing officers. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to remain silent. Please note, however, that should you refuse to answer questions posed to you by officers or lawyers, your silence may be used against you. Additionally, note that anything you do choose to say from this point forward will be considered valid evidence in a court of law.”

Iron handcuffs, which rust easy but block magic far more effectively than any power-sapping spell, and which he just so happens to have in his pocket—his badge might be at home in his kitchen, but he’s got the handcuffs, oh yes. Funny how some habits stick harder than others. He leads her out to his car, with Cas trailing silently behind; technically he ought to call for backup, wait for the constables and their police-issue vehicles to get here, but he doesn’t trust himself to be around her for the time it would take, and anyways he knows, somehow, that she’s not going to fight.

It’s three thirty in the morning. The streets are empty. He sees a single car in his rear-view mirror, following him down King for a few blocks before peeling off into one of the residential areas. Must be nice. Hey, Sam lives not too far from here. Probably he ought to start thinking about baby shower presents, or whatever.

They get to the station, which is running on its usual early-early-morning skeleton crew—no Bobby, no Victor, no Charlie, no Kevin, just a constable covering jaw-cracking yawns at the front desk and a few others hanging around in the back in case of emergency calls.

All of them stare. He’s kind of used to that by now; this time, though, Cas seems to have faded into the background, and it’s him they’re staring at. Well—his hand on Bela’s shoulder, and Bela in handcuffs. Dean takes her to the interrogation room, and locks the handcuffs to the desk, and one of the constables on duty steps inside the room to keep an eye on her until someone (Dean) is ready to question her.

And then, because it needs to be done, Dean goes to his office and starts filling out the paperwork.

Cas sits in the corner—doesn’t flop around on the floor or poke through all Dean’s stuff but actually sits this time, and doesn’t say anything, and lets Dean shut off his brain completely. There’s something numbingly therapeutic about the monotony of police paperwork. Checking off boxes, signing on the designated line, filling out date, time, place over and over. It’s boring. But right now boring is better than the alternative.

He wakes up at seven-thirty with a half-filled-out form stuck to his face. Cas is still sitting in the corner, reading Police and Law Enforcement Services Policy and Procedure Manual 11th Edition again, but Dean’s pretty sure he’s responsible for the mug of black coffee steaming on the desk in front of him.

“Thanks,” he mumbles, trying to unstick his eyelids properly. “I didn’t know you could make coffee.”

“I asked the woman with blue skin to make it for me.”

“Yeah. I mean, cool. Thanks.” He blinks. “Did I already say that?”

“Yes.”

“Ugh.”

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

Dean.”

He takes a swallow of the coffee, wincing as it scalds his tongue, and stares down at the mess of papers on his desk. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

This is his job. Bela is his job. The Wall is his job. Jo is his job. Cas—

Well. Him and Cas, that’s complicated. But right now what counts is that Dean won’t be on his own.

The Bela Talbot sitting in the interrogation room is far less put-together than usual after spending the last quarter of the night here; but she straightens her posture when he and Cas walk in, staring at him levelly across the table. No arched eyebrows, no I’m-so-much-better-you’ll-never-even-comprehend-how-inferior-you-are-to-me smirk, but she holds her head high and sets her chin proud.

“In about an hour my boss is going to get in and I’m going to do a formal interview,” says Dean, taking a seat and staring resolutely at the wall just to the right of her head, “in which you are going to officially confess to the charges presented to you, with or without a lawyer present.”

“I don’t want a lawyer.”

“Fine. In the meantime, off the record, I need answers. Your current charges”—and here he grinds his teeth, because this is one time when the policeman part of him, the part that’s speaking, is cold and inhuman and horribly right—“are severe, but addressing these charges in a court of law is not… urgent.”

“Whereas stopping a horde of ancient, bloodthirsty monster from breaking through into our dimension is?” Bela asks. Dean inclines his head in reluctant agreement. “Fair enough. But before we start I have a favour to ask.”

Dean closes his eyes, clenching his fists until his fingernails start digging painful grooves into the flesh of his palms. “Let me remind you that the only reason your head is still attached to your body is because my friend here stopped me from ripping it off. I’m not bargaining with you. Got it?”

But Bela just shakes her head and says, “Not from you, Dean. From him.”

Dean looks at Cas, who stares back at him blankly. Behind the confusion there’s a subtle what do you want me to do? Which is…

Um.

Well, this whole thing is just ten kinds of awful. There’s absolutely no getting around that. It’s pushed everything else right out of Dean’s mind, or at least crowded it all back into the corners—but the fact is that whatever Dean may have insisted when Cas first showed up, they’ve kind of ended up as a team, and so Cas doesn’t have to wait for him to make a decision right now.

But he is anyways, and Dean can’t think of any reason why except that Cas knows this whole mess is kind of a big fucking deal for him; and he thinks, in those little corners of his mind that aren’t on fire, that maybe having a soul is more complicated than either of them would have guessed.

Dean jerks his head in a barely perceptible nod, and Cas asks, “What do you want?”

“I know what you are, Castiel,” says Bela. “And when this is all over, I want you to kill me.”

“Deal,” says Dean, before Cas has a chance to respond. “Okay, so moving on.”

He can feel Cas’s gaze on him, but this time he refuses to meet it. He’s just… prioritizing, is all.

“The woman with white eyes,” he prompts. “Who is she? And how do I find her?”

Bela’s eyebrows arch into two perfect curves. “How did you—”

“I ask, you answer.”

Bela watches him silently for a moment, chewing on her lip as if she’s trying to decide how much to say. He’s been here God-knows-how-many-times with her before, of course—the questioning from him, the weighing of information on her part, with her always managing to dance just far enough out of his reach to sidestep any charges. It’s an art, honestly. Like watching a fucking ballerina. Except this time she’s just stamped and signed her own death warrant. And yeah, everyone’s got those take-it-to-your-grave-secrets (he, for instance, will never, ever, ever admit to harbouring a massive crush on the lead singer of a certain boy-band in his early teens, mostly because it is not at all a thing that happened)—but this is just, this is different. Secrets keep Bela alive, and now that she’s conceded—no, requested—to give that up, what the hell has she got left to protect?

“Her name is Lilith,” Bela says finally. “And she’s as much a woman as your friend here is a man.”

Beside him, Cas goes very, very still.

“You know her?” Dean mutters to him.

“I know of her. Lilith, the first of her kind.” His voice, still kept at a whisper, goes all weird and detached, and Dean has a sudden flashback to being in story-time as a child with the stranger sort of librarian. “In the beginning there was nothing, and then there was light, and from the light came the First, who looked on as the universe created itself and grew alongside it; but the presence of the light created shadows where none had been before, filling the spaces in between, and the shadows hungered for the universe in the way that fire hungers for fuel; and even as the First watched the cosmos, their light pooled in the darkness and the shadows coated it with their seething fury, and from the shadows Lilith was formed. She shaped the shadows as her children and slipped them into the cracks in the universe, whereupon they devoured all that they touched until they were locked away. At least, that’s the story I heard.”

“Christ,” says Dean. “My mom just read me Winnie the Pooh.”

“What?”

“Never mind.” He turns back to Bela, who is watching the pair of them with a half-smile that he might almost say was sad, if he didn’t already know her to be incapable of emotion. “So, Lilith. Where’d you guys meet? Book club?”

“Hardly. It was a long time ago, and it’s not important. She… helped me with something, when I was very young, on the condition that I help her in return in the future when she came to me and asked. We had a deal. You see? I didn’t… there wasn’t a choice.”

“Right. Because obviously you’ve never broken a deal before.”

Her jawline stands out as her teeth clench. “This was different. I think by now you ought to have an idea of how powerful she is. I couldn’t break it.”

“Well, I’m sure Jo Harvelle appreciated your integrity.” Or would have, if she’d been old enough to know what the word integrity meant. “What was this deal, then? A pony for your birthday? Naturally perfect hair?”

“It’s not important,” Bela repeats stiffly.

“I think I’ll be the judge of that,” says Dean. “No offense, but it seems like your definition of important might be a little bit different from mine.”

He’s pretty sure Bela would slap him if she weren’t handcuffed to the table. The chains, at least, give an ominous rattle. “Look, you idiot, I’m trying to help you—but we’re running out of time, okay? It won’t take her long to figure out I’m here, and when she does—”

“Better talk fast, then.”

Her eyes flick between him and Cas, and some of the pride seems to ebb away to be replaced by something that reminds him of a small animal backed into a corner. “Lilith, um… she… got rid of my parents.”

A heavy silence settles between the three of them. Cas, after a moment, leans over and whispers to him hesitantly, “That’s not… usual, is it?”

“Uh, no.” Dean shakes his head in disbelief. “Jesus Christ, Bela. And I thought I was fucked up.”

“You don’t—”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t understand, and honestly I don’t really care, either. Little eight-year-old you bumping off your parents doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already—”

“God,” says Bela, and she almost laughs. “I am so sick of your bullshit, Dean. I’m not asking to be fucking forgiven—you think I’d be bargaining for assisted suicide if I thought this was something I could live with?”

Dean shrugs.

Bela slams her fist down on the table so hard he can feel it rattle on his end. “It’s because she’s a kid, right? She’s a kid, and you’re being so goddamned noble tracking down her killer because everyone else has given up, and it’s shitty having your childhood cut off like that, isn’t it? I get it. I get it. But you weren’t around on your fucking white horse when I was a kid. None of you were. I was on my own. So just tell me, if you don’t mind, what the fuck makes eight-year-old Jo so much more fucking important than eight-year-old me?”

He can’t think of an answer, which is probably what she intended. “Do me a favour, Dean,” she says, when he stays silent, “and fuck off.”

And she turns her head deliberately away and refuses to say another word.

Bobby shows up not long after Dean’s stormed out of the interrogation room with Cas silently in tow, and it’s obvious that he’s already been briefed on the situation because it looks like he’s not sure whether to hug Dean or strangle him.

“When exactly did you pick Talbot up?” he asks.

“Dunno,” says Dean. It seems to take an unreasonable amount of effort just to shrug. “Around three thirty, I guess.”

“Then you’re done for the day.” There’s a protest right on the tip of Dean’s tongue—this is Jo, this is Bela, this is a demon older than his illegally summoned memitim—but Bobby cuts him off. “That’s a full shift, and you’re no use to anyone if you keep running yourself into the ground like this, idjit. I hear she’s already confessed, so she’ll be here when you get back.” Then, to both his and Cas’s evident astonishment, Bobby turns to Cas and says, “Get him home, and don’t let him come back here until tomorrow, got it? That’s an order.”

“Yes, sir,” says Cas automatically.

Which is a nice thought, but it’s not like Cas could actually do anything about it if Dean decided not to listen. Cas still knows as much about driving as he does about baking pie—which is to say, as evidenced by the cherry-flavoured splatters Dean is still finding in various places around his kitchen, nothing at all, though recently he’s caught Cas eyeing the steering wheel in a thoughtful way he isn’t entirely comfortable with.

Skipping out on work this early, even if it is under strict orders—oh, Charlie’s going to kill him. He and Cas are hands down the fastest repair team they’ve got at the moment and boy, do they need fast repairs. If only Bela had actually told him something useful

Hell. Just. Bela. It still seems…

Well, it doesn’t matter. She’s guilty. She’s as good as admitted that much herself. Maybe she didn’t take Jo herself, maybe she didn’t hold the knife, but she as good as killed Jo anyways.

It’s just—

God, Jo died nearly a year ago. Who knows how many times Bela’s been into the station between then and now, for any of those charges that are dropped on lack of evidence just as often as they crop up? Playing it cool, squirming her way out of convictions for B-and-E or grand theft or use of forbidden magic, while Dean’s driving himself crazy trying to catch a ghost that’s right fucking in front of him.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Cas says abruptly when they’re about halfway home, breaking Dean out of his own head.

“Do what? Make that left? Dude, I’ve been driving this route for, like, ten years. I’m pretty sure I don’t need you to give me directions.”

“I meant with Bela,” says Cas.

Dean’s fingers tighten around the steering wheel. “Yeah? What did you want me to do, then, Cas? Give her a slap on the wrist and tell her not to do it again?”

“Of course not, but your cruelty was both unwarranted and unproductive. I would remind you that whatever your personal feelings towards her are, she’s our best hope of figuring out what exactly is going on here in time to do something about it. If we don’t, I doubt Jo will be the only casualty. Besides, you heard what she said—”

“Yeah, yeah, she had a shitty childhood. Cry me a river. You know, mine wasn’t so fantastic either, but you don’t see me trying to fuck the universe over. Whatever happened twenty years ago, it sure as hell doesn’t justify what she did.”

“Are you really going to lecture me about justice, Dean Winchester?” Cas asks coldly, and despite Dean’s irritation he has to clench up his shoulder muscles to stop himself from shivering at the crackle of power in Cas’s voice. “Bela’s past experiences do not justify her present actions, but you can’t deny the causal relationship between the two. Your complete lack of empathy—”

Dean laughs and says, “That’s pretty rich coming from you, pal.”

Cas doesn’t speak to him for the rest of the ride home.

Or, as it turns out, the rest of the day.

It stings more than he might have expected. The first hour or so he’s too furious to think straight—for want of a better outlet he grabs an old rag and a bucket of soapy water and violently scrubs every inch of his kitchen spotless. He doesn’t know where Cas is. He doesn’t care. The anger—not just at Cas but at Bela, at the faceless Lilith, at Jo watching him from the corner, at Sam and Bobby and his mom and dad and everyone he knows—has taken on a mind of its own, pushing everything else out of the way and leaving him just a human body coursing with undiluted rage.

But that kind of anger is exhausting to keep up (besides which, the soap is starting to irritate his skin), and so it deteriorates into a sort of uncontrollable edginess. He deals with that by going running—the kind of running that lets him sweat it all out, the kind that has him so wiped by the time he gets home that he barely remembers his own name. He drags himself up the stairs to his room, ignoring Cas’s thunderous silence as he passes the living room, and flops down on his bed with the intention of resting for just a minute or two.

When he wakes up five hours later his back has a weird kink in it from falling asleep in such a weird position and, also, he’s kind of starving. Which is weird, right? There’s so much shit going on his life right now his stomach ought to be way too knotted up for him to be hungry. And it is, kind of, but on the other hand he hasn’t eaten since his college-style grilled cheese last night and he’s just, well, he is hungry.

“Cas?” he calls tentatively when he’s back down in the kitchen. “You want anything to eat?”

Silence.

“I was going to make burgers.” He wasn’t until he said that, actually, but a fairly recent mutual discovery is that Cas like burgers even more than he likes bourbon.

The only answer is a heavier, more pointed silence.

Of course, silence is nothing new. He’s been living on his own for ages. Silence is normal. It’s nice. Peaceful.

Yeah. Just like the good old days.

Except this is different, because it’s not the calm of an empty house; it’s the silence of someone deliberately ignoring him. Someone who has, despite fairly constant bickering, been consistently on his side (unwilling at first, maybe, but on his side nonetheless, and it’s amazing how few other people like that he seems to have had recently). Someone, as well, whom he’s told quite a lot of things he probably shouldn’t have, and whom—not to put too fine a point on it—he’s been thinking about kissing an awful lot lately.

Fuck. He’s going to have to apologize.

And, okay, maybe Cas was kind of right. About some stuff. Maybe Dean didn’t handle the situation all that well—not that he’s feeling guilty, but the whole running-out-of-time thing is kind of more serious than he bothered to consider. And maybe—maybe—doing what he did wasn’t exactly… the nicest. Well. Definitely it wasn’t the nicest. And Bela… well, he’s just… it’s kind of confusing, everything that’s going on in his head right now.

But it’s really, really, high-quality crystal clear to him that what he said to Cas was, um, not okay. At all.

He touches his shoulder, where the handprint burned into his flesh is now only a little tender under his fingers. Nearly healed, or as close as a scar ever gets to healing properly. The evening after the séance is kind of fuzzy in his memory—but souls, oh yes, he remembers talking about souls. And Cas…

Yeah, this is going to have to be one hell of an apology. Shit.

It takes a solid hour and a half of procrastinating—doing the dishes, cooking himself an unnecessarily elaborate dinner, eating said dinner, doing some more dishes, reorganizing half of his fridge because why not, it has to get done sometime—before he manages to work up the courage to make it out of the kitchen, across the hall and into the living room. He stands in the doorway and watches Cas, who is sitting on the couch reading Dean’s necromancy tome in a very deliberate your-existence-completely-escaped-my-attention sort of way.

Okay. Deep breath. Just say it, yeah? It’s only a fight. People have fights all the time. Think of—think of Sam and Jess, they can’t have always gotten along perfectly, or—hell, even his parents used to argue when his mom was still alive, and no irresolvable rifts cropped up there. Not that—obviously him and Cas are just, well, they’re not like that. They’re just—um. Friend type people. Or, like, a domestic partnership. Wait, no, that sounds kind of—

Just fucking say it, dumbass. Spit it out.

He clears his throat. Cas’s eyes stay resolutely fixed on the page in front of him.

He takes an audible breath. Slowly and deliberately, Cas turns the page.

“Um—” he begins—

The doorbell rings.

It catches them both off guard, enough that Cas looks up and accidentally makes eye contact with Dean, who says intelligently, “That’s the door.”

“Yes,” Cas agrees.

“Sam, probably.”

“Probably.”

“I’ll, uh. I’ll go check.”

“Good idea.”

Dean takes a step towards the door, then hesitates. “Cas, uh—”

The doorbell rings again. He grinds his teeth and yells, “I’m coming, okay? Give me a goddamned second!”

It’s Sam. Shocking. He’s still wearing his work clothes, and he’s leaning against the doorframe in an overly casual manner that immediately makes Dean uneasy.

“Hey,” Sam says. “How’re you doing?”

Dean sighs and says, “Bobby called you, didn’t he?”

“What? No, I just happened to be in the neighbourhood, and I thought, uh… I figured I could come get the, uh, you know that book I lent you? I figured I could pick it up, if you’re done with it.”

“Book? What—oh, you mean the one about, um… “balancing your chakra”?”

“Yeah.”

“The one you lent me three years ago?”

“That’s it!” Sam says cheerfully.

Dean rolls his eyes, but he stands aside to let Sam into the house anyways.

“So, how’s work going?” Sam asks transparently. And then, gaze fixing somewhere over Dean’s shoulder, he adds with a somewhat cool politeness, “Hey, Cas.”

“Hello,” says Cas from where’s he followed Dean into the hall.

Can Sam tell something’s off between them? Maybe—Sam’s always been good at that, when it comes to Dean—but then again, all Cas is really doing right now is showing some respect for Dean’s personal bubble for once.

“Oh, you know,” says Dean, shrugging. “Just the usual.”

Ha.

“Nothing, uh, new?”

“Not really, no.”

Sam shifts his weight around awkwardly, looking like he wants to pursue the topic but not quite knowing how. In the end he settles for nodding and saying, “Cool, that’s… yeah, that’s cool.”

“So, it’s probably in the living room,” Dean prompts.

“What?”

“The book?”

“Oh. Right, yeah, I’ll… take a look, thanks…”

Sam wanders off into the living room with a vaguely disgruntled expression; for a guy so incredibly smart, his brother’s got about the same level of subtlety as an air horn.

On a side note, Sam’s departure into the living room leaves Dean and Cas alone together in the hall. Not that he’s thinking about it, obviously. Not that he’s even noticed. Except for noticing a little bit. Because he and Cas are alone in the hall.

He studies the skirting board, which he’s never really paid much attention to but suddenly finds incredibly fascinating, and says quietly, “What I said earlier, I didn’t—”

“It’s fine,” Cas says stiffly.

“No, look, it wasn’t, and I wasn’t—I was just—”

But he never gets to finish that sentence, either, because then Sam steps back into the hall.

“Wow, that was fast,” says Dean, hoping the subtext of how he kind of wants to throttle Sam right now for interrupting doesn’t carry through. “Did you find it?”

It takes a moment for it to click with him that hey, something here doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s the unsettling familiarity of the book tucked beneath Sam’s arm. Possibly also the fact that Sam’s staring at him in a way that suggests he’s just unearthed a mutilated corpse behind Dean’s couch. Alternatively, there’s the plummeting sensation currently going on somewhere in the vicinity of Dean’s stomach telling him he’s forgotten something really, really important, only he can’t quite remember—

“What the hell,” Sam says in a dangerously quiet tone, “is this?”

Sam holds out the book, and the illusion Dean’s been clinging to by its last fraying threads starts to slip with the certainty of an avalanche.

“Just a book,” he lies, because there’s still some hope, right? It’s an avalanche, but maybe you can outrun an avalanche if you go fast enough—not forever, but he doesn’t need forever; all he needs is a few more days, a little more time—“One of Mom’s. I found it when I was going through some of her old stuff.” And that, oddly enough, isn’t a lie at all. The book, the bowl, the skull—he didn’t go out and buy any of that himself. It was just… there, in the attic. Actually, it made him feel a little better about his own messed-up talent—clearly the family has a history of magical deviance. Could be he’s just a throwback. “You know, she’s got the craziest heirlooms, they’re all—”

“Necromantic?” Sam supplies coldly.

“Yeah—well, I mean, no, she’s got all her storybooks and some old silverware and stuff, but then there’s a whole bunch of old—they’re really interesting, you should take a look sometime…”

“Interest. Right. That’s why you had this out? Pure, hypothetical interest?”

“Yeah,” says Dean, grinning uncomfortably. “I guess I’m becoming academic in my old age, huh?”

Sam gives him a long, hard stare that makes Dean’s skin crawl guiltily. Then he turns back to the book and reads loudly, “Of the hierarchy of angels we shall say little but that there is one creature who exists outside their ranks yet bears their name: the memitim, also called the Angels of Death, also called the Bringers of Justice, also called the Devourers of Souls.

“That’s actually a mistranslation—”

To summon one of these creatures is necromancy at its truest form as they are the Envoys of the Dead and hold all the wisdom and the memories and the images of those who have passed, and yet again command the cosmic power of Death Itself in the very nature of their being; but to bind one is a great feat of will, and risks invoking their Wrathful Fury, and so he who fails in the attempt will burn in the agony of their eternal displeasure.” Sam pauses long enough to raise his eyebrows at Dean and say, “Pretty heavy stuff, huh? You know, I bet one of these fuckers would be able to build an incredibly realistic corporeal human form if they set their mind to it—hypothetically speaking, of course.”

“Sam—”

“It gets better, though,” says Sam, ignoring him. “They’ve got a handy little list here, so you can shop around a little before irreversibly corrupting your soul. Anael, the Recorder of Kinship. Ahriman, the Destructive Spirit. Azrael, the Reaper. Balthazar, the Recorder of Passion. Camael—

“Sam, just let me explain—”

“—the Watcher. Oh, and here we go, listen to this next one—Castiel, the Keeper of the Scales. Almost the same as your elemental. Isn’t that weird, Dean? Isn’t that crazy?

Dean rubs a hand across his face and pushes back the deep-rooted instinct to run to the nearest liquor store. Honestly? Cas (who, out of the corner of his eye, he can see slinking back into the living room) has been here, what—a month? Almost two? Way longer than the few days Dean had originally anticipated, at least, and he’d been pretty sketchy about making it even that long without getting caught. The fact that Sam’s just found him out isn’t a disaster, it’s a fucking miracle.

Except, as miracles go, it’s kind of a shitty one.

“I was going to tell you,” he mumbles. “Shit, I—it’s all, everything just got really fucked up—”

Sam laughs like he can’t believe what he’s hearing and says, “No shit, Dean. You do realize that the charge just for summoning him is equivalent in severity to murder? First degree murder? This is Class VI forbidden magic, you can’t just—”

“I know the fucking law,” Dean snaps. “I’m a goddamned police officer, for Christ’s sake.”

“I know! Which is why this doesn’t make any sense to me! So just—explain it. Please. I want to listen. Because from where I’m standing right now—”

Sam doesn’t have to finish his sentence. From where I’m standing right now, you look crazy. Worse than that, because this is Sam, Sam who he grew up with, Sam who he had to play mother, father, and brother to all at once growing up. From where I’m standing, you don’t look like the person who raised me. You don’t look like my brother.

Dean wants to say I didn’t have a choice. He wants to say that, and to explain about the Wall and Jo and the blood-magic, and for Sam to say I understand—not just I understand but you’re doing the right thing, you’re my brother and you’re doing the right thing and I’m on your side.

But there are words echoing around his skull, words from a lifetime ago when he was on the kitchen floor and Missouri’s pronouncement of abducted and murdered by person or persons unknown was still ringing in his ears: This might not be the right choice, but it is my choice. I accept responsibility.

“It was after the trial,” he says, dropping his gaze away from Sam’s eyes. “That was—I mean, I’d been thinking about it for a while. We just, we weren’t getting anywhere. We hadn’t gotten anywhere for months. And everyone was giving up, calling it a cold case, and I just—I couldn’t deal with that. So I figured, if anything was going to happen… it wasn’t about the power, okay? You know I wouldn’t… it was, I needed a way to talk to her.” The image of Jo springs to mind, not the little girl he’s seen smiling in the pictures her mother gave the police, the ones they printed in the newspaper, but Jo standing on that path of stars and staring blankly ahead with those glowing gold eyes. “What was left of her, anyways.”

For a long time Sam doesn’t say anything. Which is, maybe that’s good, right? If he’s taking the time to think about it, maybe he understands, or at least—

“Is this about Benny?” Sam asks.

Dean’s head snaps up in disbelief. “What? No! Why would you even—where the hell did that come from?”

“Dean, come on. You seriously expect me to believe you were willing to throw your entire life away for this girl? For just the chance of figuring out who killed her, when you never even met her before?” Sam shakes his head, and the sympathy Dean reads in his eyes turns Dean’s stomach. “I get it, okay? You miss him. I know how close you guys were. And if you’re already doing one séance in the line of duty, what’s the harm in throwing in one more as well, huh?”

Right. Right. So that’s what this is about, according to Sam. About his best friend who died long before anyone at the station had even heard the name Harvelle. About the fact that Dean still dreams about him sometimes, and sees that day in the farmhouse as vividly in his mind’s eye as if it’s still happening, and feels the bright blooms of fear and pain that flowed through Dean’s fingers as he grasped at the edges of his friend’s life. Not about Jo. Of course not. It’s funny, really, how little time people tend to spend thinking about people like her. The crime, now that’s newsworthy stuff, but victims are just bodies, and unless you’re a pathologist those tend not to be particularly exciting.

It’s surprisingly difficult to move, what with the way every line in his body seems to have gone rigid, but he finds himself stepping towards his brother anyways, almost involuntarily. He says, in a tone that comes out as oddly conversational, “You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”

Sam makes a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. “Would you try listening to your own bullshit for two seconds? If you got this attached to every fucking case you worked—what happened to Jo was really bad, okay, but—”

“You didn’t find her,” says Dean.

Silence settles between them, heavy and prickly and charged. They stare at each other. The muscles in Sam’s jaw jump a few times, like he wants to say something, and buried under layers and layers of tight-coiled fury Dean can feel hot, crippling panic beginning to pool in his chest, threatening to drown him the moment he lets it in. For an eternity that lasts all of perhaps two seconds they stand there, and they stare, and they don’t speak.

Then his brother looks away and says, “I’m leaving.”

Dean doesn’t reply.

“I just—I can’t be around you right now. I need to…”

Sam moves towards the door—slowly, deliberately, like he has to reassure himself this is actually real, this is actually happening—and Dean bites his tongue.

Sam turns once more, one foot already on the front step, to say, “Don’t call me, okay? Just… I need time. I don’t know how much. Maybe a lot.”

Dean nods curtly. Sam doesn’t say goodbye.

The door clicks quietly closed behind him.

Chapter Text

Dean’s never been anything close to what you could describe as an art connoisseur, but he knows the artists and the paintings and the sculptures that are obligatory knowledge for anyone wishing not to be labeled an uncultured savage, and right now the inside of his head feels a little like Guernica.

Kind of flat, in a way. Empty. No colours in Guernica, the sort of thing you could easily walk by without noticing if not for the fact that it’s so goddamned huge. Empty but full at the same time, full to the bursting of things screaming and violent and misshapen; Sam and Jo and Bela and Lilith’s white, faceless eyes, and Jo’s eyes squinting in the sun in last year’s soccer team photo and shining gold in the light of ancient stars and it’s, there’s just, there’s too much. He’s bursting at the seams, with bits already spilling out the cracks and the ragged threads that hold him together threatening to snap—

Someone lays a hand tentatively on his shoulder, right over the scar, and without thinking he grabs it and holds it in place, gripping way too tight. It’s not a hug. Even a hug wouldn’t be a hug right now. But it’s something, and something is what he needs; and so he holds on for a while, just breathing, until his hand starts to ache, and then he lets go.

Cas, though. Cas’s fingers trail down his arm, brush against the back of his hand until he aches in a different way altogether, lace between his own in a gesture that’s far more intimate than Cas probably intends. They’re always touching, huh? It’s the whole context thing again. Getting all handsy is okay when you’re jostling for control of the radio or tugging at a sleeve in a silent pay attention to me or, hell, working an improvised partial combination; but doing this, holding hands, this is… different. Not okay. Well, it shouldn’t be okay, except that it actually kind of is. And it would be even more okay if Cas knew what it meant, and meant it too—not just in his usual curious way but really meant it—

“I’m sorry for leaving the book out,” Cas says quietly.

“’S fine.” It’s not fine. It was an accident, and it only came to anything by chance, but it’s still not fine at all, and part of him wants to lash out at Cas because of it. That angry instinct, though, is overwhelmed by the rest of him, which would just really like one person on the planet to not hate him right now. “He was always going to find out eventually.”

“Who’s Benny?” Cas asks.

Dean hesitates, because in general his dead best friend is a topic of conversation he avoids At All Costs; but hell, what’s the point? By now Cas knows about eighty percent of his other dirty little secrets—one more won’t exactly break the bank. Anyways, thus far he’s shown a remarkable (almost unprecedented) talent for not giving advice. Dean likes that. Dean likes a lot of things about Cas, actually. Which is kind of unfortunate.

“Benny was, um. He was my partner,” says Dean.

“Partner?”

“Not—we worked together, I mean. We were a team, you know? A fucking good one, too. And we were… he was my… we were friends. And then he, uh, he died.”

Cas takes Dean’s other hand, almost absently, and starts to swing their arms. Probably he thinks he’s being friendly. Or something. Who knows, with Cas?

Dean nearly laughs, but that would take more explaining than he cares to get into.

“It was before Jo… I don’t know, maybe six months before, maybe a year? We were working on cracking this ring of traffickers… you know, people selling dragon’s blood, manticore poison, unicorn horns, stuff like that. Real amateurs, though. They just had the one checkpoint, this place out in the country.” And he and Benny had joked, on the way out, about how there would probably be a big billboard advertising the route, and the door would probably be unlocked, and there would be a cabinet with complete personal information about all clients and so-called employees filed in alphabetical order. As it turned out, the last was more-or-less true, but it didn’t seem quite so funny at the time. “So Benny and I headed out—it was just a cleanup, we’d nabbed most of them already, and so we thought it would be…”

“But you miscalculated?” Cas guesses, when Dean trails off.

This time he really does grin because it’s funny, in a complete unfunny sort of way, and says, “No, actually. Not exactly. There were only two of them, and we caught them off guard, and it ought to have been easy.” Hell, they’d been making plans to head over to the bar afterwards during the drive up—although, as Benny astutely pointed out, why the hell d’ we even bother makin’ plans anymore when we do the same damn thing every time? “But, um. The one guy, he…panicked. Just lost it. Started shooting at us, and his buddy was screaming at him to stop, but he just…and one of bullets, lucky shot, got Benny right in the head. I mean, vamps are resilient as hell, pretty damn tough to kill unless you get their heads clean off on the first try—but an iron bullet lodged in your brain’ll do it for anyone. Well. Probably not you. But it did for him. Except he didn’t die right away. His body was trying to heal itself, but there was too much damage, and I could… I could feel it. All the pain, and the fear, and the…”

Dean raises his eye to meet Cas, for the first time in several minutes, and finds that familiar sense of vertigo pulling at him as Cas stares impassively back. “I could feel his life flickering. You’re note supposed to be able to feel that, but I could. He was going to die anyways, and he was hurting so much, and so I… I just…”

“You extinguished him.”

He tries to speak, but finds his throat seems to have closed up, and has to settle for nodding curtly instead. There it is, then. His first foray into necromancy—the so-called darkest of the dark arts. Is it still evil, when you’re not doing it for power but to try to help someone you love? Euthanasia, that’s the word. Not murder. Not guilt. But it’s still… to have to do that to a friend, to have to choose between snuffing them out with your own darkness or letting them suffer…

It’s a relief, in way, to finally articulate it.

“You did the right thing,” says Cas. “The… good thing. You helped him.”

“I know,” Dean mumbles. “But it still sucks.”

It hurts with the usual dull ache to say any of this, to think about any of this; but then it turns out that part never really goes away. Oh, Benny’s only been gone a year or two—funny, how the event replays itself over and over with nightmarish clarity, but the actual date has somehow slipped his mind—and there might be hope yet, of that wound healing over eventually. Except beside the hole left by Benny, which is slowly, slowly starting to knit itself back together, there’s a whole load of scar tissue: for his dad, for his mom. There’s rarely the crushing, choking, body-wrenching pain of their loss anymore, but it turns out that what people like to call closure is basically just building up those. The kind that aches sometimes just out of the blue, and makes it painful (maybe even impossible) to move that limb in that particular way.

So no, he’s not going to cry on Cas’s shoulder, which is good because he’s pretty sure neither of them would have any idea what to do about it. The pain is manageable. But pain is pain, and it hurts, and for the millionth, billionth, trillionth time he thinks uselessly if we’d just been a little more careful

Cas kisses him.

It’s kind of a shitty kiss, honestly. Neither Dean nor Dean’s mouth are expecting it at all, and Cas, although determined, doesn’t seem to know much about kissing beyond that it involves putting your mouth against someone else’s. Which, well, to be fair he’s only had a human body for a couple of months, and there’s only so much you can learn from watching TV. Still, there aren’t exactly fireworks popping inside Dean’s head. More like a bunch of size eighteen Arial Bold question marks, with the occasional size sixteen exclamation point thrown in there, too, and the fact that he’s thinking in font probably means he ought to—

—ought to focus on the fact that, holy shit, Cas is kissing him.

Or was kissing him a second ago, anyways. They’re just kind of staring at each other now. It’s hard to tell who’s more surprised.

“That wasn’t what I was expecting,” says Cas.

“Um,” Dean agrees weakly.

And then Cas kisses him again, like he’s just double-checking; and this time Dean’s prepared enough to soften his mouth a little and show Cas no, not like that, do this instead, yes, that’s better—

It occurs to him a few minutes later that hey, maybe it’s kind of weird how him talking about killing his best friend somehow segued into him making out with a mind-blowingly powerful inter-dimensional being in his front hall. Or maybe it’s not so weird, all things considered. There seem to be a lot of exceptions in his life when it comes to Cas—who, on an unrelated note, has really fantastic hair, kind of soft, and long enough for him to dig his fingers into properly, and he doesn’t remembers moving but this wall is actually pretty handy for pinning Cas up against—and if the sound Cas just made is anything to go by, he’s sort of pleased with it as well—

“I like this,” Cas says, somewhat breathlessly, when they come up for air. Dean presses his lips against Cas’s neck, and Cas seems to slide down the wall an inch or so. “Mmm. Do that again—”

Somewhere between Cas grabbing Dean’s ass (he’s a fast learner, apparently) and Dean unbuttoning Cas’s jeans, Dean’s brain comes back online, and the wonderfully thoughtless tingle of lust racing through his body is obscured by a nauseous feeling somewhere in the pit of his stomach. He pulls back—as much as he can pull back, with Cas’s arms still wrapped firmly around his waist—and turns his head away when Cas tries to kiss him again, muttering, “Maybe we should stop.”

“What?” says Cas, frowning. “Why? Aren’t you enjoying it?”

Dean shrugs, sort of wishing he’d had the foresight to take his hand out of the front of Cas’s pants before starting this conversation. “Yeah, I mean, it’s great, but doesn’t it… I don’t know, doesn’t it feel weird to you?”

“Weird? Am I doing something wrong?”

“No, it’s just… look, I know you’re curious about human stuff and all, but I… for me this is… I just don’t think it’s a good idea, for us.”

He doesn’t really know how to explain to Cas that where they are now—not just this but the talking, the touching, the everything—is a hell of a lot more than he’s had with anyone he’s dated in the last, say, five years. Possibly ten. Possibly ever. And some of those are people he’s really, really liked. In the I-might-be-a-little-(or-a-lot)-in-love-with-you kind of way. The whole dating thing just never really worked out for him, apparently, which is why (as Victor likes to remind him) he basically just gave it up entirely in exasperation.

Him and Cas, though—whatever they’ve reached now, they got here through a weird, convoluted detour that ought to have taken them in a completely different direction. Which is fine. Unexpected, yeah, but fine.

But Cas is going to leave. Cas is a lightning storm, an atomic bomb, a supernova wrapped in human skin, with a thousand faces and eyes full of long-dead souls, almost as terrifying as he is beautiful; and he is going to leave. Which is as it should be, but not as Dean wants it to be. And this—

It’s just sex. Or whatever. It’s fun, yeah? And as one of the more notorious perks of humanity, who can blame Cas for wanting to give it a shot?

Just. Not with Dean.

He can’t explain it, not when it doesn’t even make sense inside his own head; all he knows is that doing this would be asking something of Cas that he’s pretty sure Cas isn’t able to give. The trouble with stardust is, as glittery as it might seem from a distance, if you get close enough to grab a handful it turns out just to be crumbled up bits of ancient rock.

Dean touches the red collar around Cas’s throat. The faux-leather is cracking, and there are places where it’s started to peel, but there’s enough of his magic in there to hold the thing together indefinitely.

“I’m not curious about human stuff,” Cas corrects. He still hasn’t taken his hands off Dean, and it’s driving him nuts in two different directions at once. “Not only, that is. But more just about… you, I suppose. You’re… I like you. You’re worth more than you think.”

And behind those words are others, slurred and hazy and accompanied by the ghost of a headache from too much bourbon: there were cracks, but it glowed very brightly. You have a nice soul. You have a beautiful soul.

And, even fainter: I want one.

Objectively, what Dean wants to know is kind of a tricky question to answer. Does Cas have a soul? Is it even possible for him to have a soul? Cas, obviously, thinks it isn’t—and shouldn’t he know? Considering the effort he’s put into building this wonderful human body it stands to reason that if constructing a soul from scratch were possible, he would have figured it out by now.

On the other hand…

On the other hand, there are certain immutable facts that raise a few questions. Such as, for instance, that there Cas likes jazz music, and hamburgers, and bourbon, but hates pepper steak. And that’s not part of his body. That’s… something else.

And Dean, well, he’s had years to fill his soul up with people and things and thoughts and feelings and memories, and yet here he is with a place all carved out for someone he met two months ago; so it’s possible, isn’t it—not definite, but possible—that Cas, with whatever the bit is that makes him Cas, has managed to do the same for him?

You have a beautiful soul. It’s not exactly a marriage proposal. But it’ll do.

And, hey. There’s a chance, already pretty high and only rising by the minute, that their world is on the brink of being ripped to shreds by ravenous, incandescent monsters as old as the universe. Probably not tonight, but maybe tomorrow or the next day or the next week. So this may be, as it turns out, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Christ, he’s pathetic.

But Cas’s hands are still gripping his ass, and his hair is all messy and his face is flushed and open and fucking gorgeous and he’s running his tongue absently over his lips (red and swollen and slick from kissing) like he’s still tasting Dean, and—

Fuck. Fuck.

Dean grabs the back of his head and yanks him forward into another kiss, deep and sloppy, and thrusts his hand further down the front of Cas’s jeans until he can squeeze his crotch. Cas makes a noise of surprise, going completely limp for a moment and sliding another few inches down the wall, and if it weren’t for Dean pinning him he’d probably be on the floor by now. Regardless of the fact that Cas is several billion years older than Dean his human body is still pretty new and he definitely hasn’t done this with it before, so really Dean should be going slow, easing him through it gently—but that would give him too much time to think, too much time to fall in love even more, so if this is going to happen (and at this point, it’s going to happen) it’s going to be rough and hard and dirty. Enough to fool himself into thinking that it’s just the stress, it’s just everything that’s happening making him a little crazy.

Anyways. Cas doesn’t seem to mind. Kind of the opposite, actually.

What he definitely does mind, though, is when Dean takes his hand out of his pants. He practically whines into Dean’s mouth, trying to grind against him in an attempt to get the friction back, and Dean has to bite back a moan as Cas’s hard-on rubs against his own through his jeans. “In a minute,” Dean says gruffly, grabbing his ass and yanking him all the way upright. “Bedroom. C’mon.”

It would be faster, probably, if they could get it together for long enough to make it upstairs; but keeping his body busy on Cas is pretty much the only way Dean’s stopping himself from panicking completely, and Cas just doesn’t seem particularly inclined to detach himself, aside from the one hand he’s got hooked through his belt-loop to keep his unbuttoned jeans from falling down. Finally Dean gives a growl of annoyance and just picks him up, Cas instinctively wrapping his legs around Dean’s waist and clinging to his neck while Dean carries him up the remaining stairs and down the hall, kicking open the door to his room before dumping Cas unceremoniously on his bed.

He tugs off Cas’s pants and strips off his own shirt in record time, adding his jeans to the pile on the floor and muttering a curse under his breath when he stumbles over one of the pant-legs and nearly falls in his haste. Cas watches him with a slightly dazed expression, like he’s not quite sure what he’s gotten himself into but he thinks he likes it. And then Dean’s climbing on top of him, pressing Cas’s head down into the mattress in a fierce kiss and grabbing at his hair, grinding down against him (underwear, he should have taken care of their underwear, stupid) until Cas is gasping for breath underneath him.

Okay. Okay, get on with it, yeah? Shouldn’t take too long, not if it’s Cas’s first time, and Dean can just… well, maybe Cas will jerk him off after, or, who cares, he’ll just do it himself. And God, stop tensing up so much, this is supposed to be—

What? What is this supposed to be, exactly?

If his mouth weren’t on Cas, he’d be screaming. So much for not panicking, huh? Great. Fantastic. He wants Cas out of here—out of his room, out of his house, far away in the memitim’s weird, vast home among the stars—nearly as much as he wants to keep touching him, tasting him, hearing him panting and wrecked while Dean’s got him pinned down like this.

If Cas were anyone else, anyone at all—

But then, of course, he wouldn’t be Cas.

Dean kisses down his chest, at the same time slipping Cas’s underwear deftly down over his hips. Cas’s cock is hot and flushed and wet, and fuck, the noise he makes when Dean touches him—Dean’s own hard-on throbs urgently, and he has to take a moment to palm himself through the thin fabric of the underwear he hasn’t managed to get off yet—and then he’s back, pressing his mouth against Cas’s bony hips, the insides of his thighs, and finally—

“Whoa,” says Cas, pushing himself up onto his elbows and scrambling backwards on the bed. “What are you doing?”

“Uh, sucking you off.” He leaves the duh unsaid, and settles for just rolling his eyes instead while he crawls forward and grabs Cas’s waist again.

Cas, though, seizes a handful of Dean’s hair, holding his head up at a safe distance from between his legs. “What does that mean?”

Dean stares at him. “Are you kidding me?”

Cas shrugs.

“What exactly did you think we were going to do? The Macarena?”

“I don’t really like pasta, actually.”

“What?”

“What?”

There’s the kind of stressful silence that happens when two confused people are trying (and failing) to see the situation from the other’s point of view.

“How much do you know about sex, Cas?” Dean asks.

“I have a fairly firm grasp of the logistics of reproductive sex,” says Cas. “Well, theoretically.”

“Okay, but… all those soul you’ve weighed… you seriously telling me not one of them ever gave a blowjob?” Because. Just. That’s not even… it’s just not possible. If the keeper of the scales weighs every single soul by experiencing every single one of their thoughts and feelings and memories, then at least one of them (at least) ought to have had a penis in their mouth, or their penis in someone else’s mouth, or just thought about the general idea of putting a penis in a mouth, at some point in their life. It’s not like it’s a recent invention. Is it? Come to think of it, who the hell’s idea was it to—

“I suppose they must have,” says Cas doubtfully, and Dean lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “I never paid much attention—it usually isn’t directly relevant to my purpose. And they don’t usually show much more than kissing on the television.”

“You watch all that late night TV, and you’re telling me you’ve never seen anyone suck a dick before?”

“I mostly watch the home improvement channel,” Cas tells him, shrugging. “They don’t show a lot of sexual content, but I could probably wet-sand some drywall if you ever need that done.”

Drywall. Right. Wet-sanding drywall. Well, that’s just…

“Measure twice, cut once,” Cas adds wisely.

And that is the last fucking straw. Dean slides off the bed with a thud that jars his tailbone and laughs until he thinks he might puke because drywall, what the hell, drywall—Cas doesn’t know what a goddamned blowjob is, but hey, if you ever need some drywall wet-sanded, he’s your man.

“Oh my God,” he wheezes when he’s finally, finally managed to get his shit together enough to speak. “Cas, you’re killing me. Not literally,” he says quickly, when Cas looks somewhat alarmed. “I just mean—look, buddy, I’ll tell you what. I’ll show you what a blowjob is, and you can be in charge next time I decide to do any major home renovations. Deal?”

“Okay,” says Cas.

Things kind of slow down after that. It’s hard to keep yourself on the verge of overwhelming panic when your stomach hurts from laughing; and anyway, after what probably qualifies as the dumbest conversation of his entire life none of the stuff he was freaking out over before seems quite as serious as it did at the time. Whatever it is they’ve got, it’s pretty good—well, aside from the whole part where the destruction of the universe might be imminent. No need to get into the details, yeah? If it works, let it work.

It’s kind of fun, actually. Which is. Which is. Well, okay, on the very rare occasions he may have sort of pictured sex with Cas, there was a lot more desperate passion and a lot less snorting. So this, um, doesn’t exactly live up to expectations. But it’s still… nice.

Except for the part where Cas, who decides pretty quickly that this whole getting-sucked-off thing is actually a fantastic idea, comes for the first time, messy and clumsy and ecstatic, and the sound of shattering glass can be heard all over the house in the split second between the lights flaring and going out entirely.

“Sorry,” says Cas belatedly, after he’s had a moment to recover. “I think that was. Whoa. I think that was me.”

“There’s your first job, Mr. Handyman,” says Dean, who somehow can’t bring himself to care too much about the fact that Cas just came so hard he violently blew out Dean’s electricity in face of the far more urgent fact that yeah, Cas had a great time and all, but he’s still rock hard. “Well, second job, I guess. Time to share what you learned with the class.”

“We’re the only ones—” Cas begins, but Dean’s mouth gets in the way before he has a chance to finish.

Cas touches him, and Dean grabs the sheets and tries not to arch off the bed too much and, miraculously, doesn’t lose his mind. When he closes his eyes he feels himself, himself here on the bed, himself here inside his own body, filling his skin in a way that squeezes out all the empty spaces; himself with Cas’s mouth around him, laughably inept but fiercely enthusiastic. The warmth seems to radiate through his body in waves until he’s burning up in the most beautiful way. On Cas’s tongue and lips and the tips of his fingers, Dean thinks he can feels the heat of the stars.

According to the glowing red numbers on the alarm clock beside his bed (battery powered, or it would just be showing a blank screen like every other goddamned electronic in his house, thanks a lot, Cas), it’s not quite four thirty in the morning when something wakes him up. Which is fantastic, obviously, because if there’s anything better than getting woken up at an ungodly hour of the morning it’s getting woken up at an ungodly hour of the morning two mornings in a row.

His first instinct is to scowl sleepily over at Cas—

(the word stay is a Herculean task he seems to ask of Cas a lot, occasionally even out loud. At the end of the evening with them both sweaty and boneless and lazy, sprawled in a tangle of limbs in the dark, he’d told himself this was enough and managed to bite it back, because they’d had fun but probably Cas would get bored just watching him sleep; but Cas stayed on Dean’s bed, took it for granted almost, and only bothered moving when Dean started climbing under the covers, wriggling in alongside him)

—but Cas is still fast asleep. Well, or whatever it is he’s been doing for the past several hours, because while Dean’s almost certain memitim don’t need seven-on-average-recommended hours the guy’s been doing a pretty convincing impression—face down beside him, with one arm mysteriously under Dean’s pillow and the rest of his body positioned in a way that obtains maximum coverage of the available mattress space. Which, okay, is a little irritating when you’re trying to share (share, yeah?) a bed with someone, but after assuming a pose that hogs as much of the bed as possible Cas has been blissfully still; anyways, Dean’s slept with worse. So, okay, not Cas, then.

In the space it takes his sleep-fogged mind to deduce that much, the noise (because that, apparently, is what it is) comes again, a bunch of electronic tones organized in the most infuriating so-called melody achievable. His phone. Someone’s calling his phone. Which, by the way, he used to have a way better ring tone, but it turns out classic rock riffs aren’t fucking “professional” enough, so—

Anyway. His phone. He fumbles for it on the nightstand, but all he succeeds in doing is knocking his alarm clock onto the floor. Great. Where…? Oh, still in his pants pocket, probably. He pushes the covers back and crawls over Cas, whose groan of displeasure is somewhat muffled by the pillow mashed against his face, and feels around for it in the dark amongst the mess of clothing left on the floor until his hand closes around something hard and rectangular.

He can only think of one person who would call him at not-quite-four-thirty in the morning. Ordinarily he’d be concerned, but now, after this evening… well, things really have turned around for him, haven’t they?

“Hello?” he says, stifling a yawn.

“Hi,” says someone who isn’t Sam. It’s stupid to be disappointed, but of course he is anyways.

“This better be fucking important, Pam.”

“Oh, it is,” Pam reassures him. “I think. Well. It might be.”

Fuck off, Pam.

“Who is it?” asks Cas, propping himself up on his elbows. The covers slide down to his waist, and without thinking Dean reaches out to touch the shadow made by the dip of Cas’s spine in the tiny bit of light that’s managed to seep into the room between the crack in his curtains. And there’s that little scar, the tiny starburst half-hidden by the blankets that Dean never quite got around to asking about.

“Just Pam,” he says. “Go back to sleep.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” says Cas, sounding deeply offended. “I was meditating. I don’t sleep.”

“Well, you meditate like a drunk starfish,” Dean tells him, rolling his eyes. “What’s the deal, Pam?”

For a moment the phone is silent against his ear, and he thinks maybe one of them accidentally hung up, except that there’s no dial tone and—

In a carefully calm tone that tells him she’s grinning like a maniac on the other end of the line, Pam asks, “Are you with someone?”

Dean scowls. “No.”

“Then who were you talking to?”

“Myself.”

“You’re totally with someone, aren’t you? Oh my God. Dude or chick? Are they cute? Are they human? Is it someone I know? Holy shit, no one’s going to believe—I’m not, ah, interrupting anything, am I?”

“Well you kind of are, actually,” Dean snaps, “because it’s four in the fucking morning and I’m trying to fucking sleep. So either tell me someone’s just found a dismembered corpse on the steps of city hall or fuck off.”

“Geez, touchy. And sorry, no dismembered corpses today, but I’ll keep that in mind for this year’s Secret Santa. It’s just your, uh, arrestee.”

“Bela? What’s she done?”

“Nothing, really. I mean, no one’s dead. She’s kicking up one hell of a fuss, though. Demanding to see you ASAP, on “urgent business” apparently.”

“Yeah, well, she can take her “urgent business” and shove it up her—”

“She said,” Pam cuts across him, “she said to tell you that she loathes you with a burning passion and hopes you feel the same, but that—hang on, what… oh, right. That “it’s starting”. Yeah. That mean anything to you?”

Dean stares at Cas who, only having heard half of the conversation, is looking back at him with a blank expression tinged with disapproval. “I, uh… yeah, that sounds… tell her, uh, tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Sure thing. And say hi to your, ah, friend for me.”

Dean hangs up without bothering to reply.

So it’s out of bed and into a fresh set of clothes, made too stiff and too cold by the early morning, and out the door without even stopping for coffee. The Impala, too, seems chilly, and he’s wishing partly that he’d thought to bring a sweater and mostly that he was still grappling for mattress space with his bed-hogging echinoderm of a memitim.

And the whole time he’s driving through the glowing, deserted streets fighting back yawn after shuddering yawn, those two words are echoing in his head. It’s starting. Oddly at contrast, of course, with how they were spoken in Pam’s what-the-hell-is-that-supposed-to-mean tone. Christ. This is—it’s starting. If Bela’s not fucking around, then… fuck, there’s still so many questions, so many things he doesn’t know. It’s like exam time at college all over again, except a billion times worse.

When they’re the only car at a major four-way intersection waiting stupidly for the light to change because it’s the fucking law, Dean asks, “Cas, what happens if you die?”

“I have full confidence in your driving abilities,” says Cas. “Besides, there’s not much traffic.”

“No, I mean… not right now, but just… ever. What happens to the souls, and the scales, and all that? Come to think of it, who’s looking after all of that now? Do they get backlogged, or what?”

Cas sighs in a way that pretty much destroys all hope of getting a straightforward answer. “No, they’re still being weighed. It’s… well, no offense, but I don’t think you’d be able to understand it, even if your language was advanced enough for me to explain it properly.”

“You really know how to make a guy feel special, huh, Cas?”

“Essentially,” says Cas, ignoring him, “for the weighing of the souls to happen, I just have to… exist.”

“So, what… like, you’re in two places at once?” asks Dean. He adjusts his grip on the steering wheel uncomfortably. It doesn’t matter, does it? There’s enough of him here for whatever-the-hell’s managed to develop between them. Dean doesn’t need all of him. That’s just being greedy.

“I suppose… although no, not really.”

“That clears things up, thanks.”

“My siblings and I, we’re not as… apart as you are. Our connections are ancient, and they run very, very deep, from a time when we were one being and one mind. I am the scales, in a way. I exist, therefore the souls are weighed. A lesser sibling stands in for me in my absence, but the actual process is me. My mind.”

“And if you died?” asks Dean, who is trying extremely hard not to wonder whether what Cas just told him means he not only blew Cas last night but also his entire celestial family as well. “If you stop existing? What happens then?”

“I don’t know,” Cas admits. “I’ve never really considered it as a possibility. Perhaps one of my siblings would step up and take my place; though I suspect that if anything powerful enough to kill one of my kind ever strikes against me, the rest of the universe won’t last much longer.”

Well. That’s just. Hell, it’s so pessimistic it nearly comes all the way out the other side in a sort of morbid optimism. Which isn’t exactly the boost he was looking for, but it’ll have to do.

It’s starting. Christ.

He wishes his brother were speaking to him. Dying is one thing, but dying with Sam still mad at him—

But it’s out of his hands, and there’s no use agonizing over something he can’t control when there are things he might actually be able to do. It’s starting—how stupid is it that he doesn’t even know what it is? Something to do with the Wall, and monsters that make his skin try to crawl right off his body, and a demon with white eyes who’s hell-bent on categorical destruction, and somehow a little girl who died nearly a year ago.

At the station Pam tries to talk to him, probably intent on trying to pry out as much information about his recent bedmate (ha) as possible, but he brushes past her and heads straight for the interrogation room. Someone’s already put Bela there; she looks sleep-deprived but not tired, and despite her calm demeanour there’s a certain terror visible in her too-wide eyes that seems to be infectious.

He folds his hands in his lap under the table so that neither she nor Cas will be able to see them shaking and says, “Tell me what I need to know.”

Bela shakes her head, and Dean’s already halfway out of his chair before she says quickly, “I can’t just tell you. It needs to be a question. That’s the loophole in my contract.”

“Fine. What do I need to know?”

“The deal I had with Lilith,” she says, fast and low and urgent. “She helped me when I was a child, in return for which I would grant any favour she asked of me whenever she chose to ask it. That was twenty years ago. I saw her for the first time again last year, when she came to me with a different face but those same white eyes, and she said she needed to free her family. She needed a hiding place, somewhere big, where a strange flavour of magic could go unnoticed for some time. I got her the warehouse. She needed ingredients for a spell, all rare and most illegal. No problem for me, as you can probably guess. She wanted me to do the magic—well, I was hesitant, but I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“So that room in the warehouse…?”

“Essentially my workshop, yes. There were other spells, too, you know, for warding the building and staying unnoticed and all sorts of odd stuff, and—anyway, it doesn’t matter. I did the magic, before and during and after. The spell, the one she needed all the weird ingredients for, that one I just prepared for her; and that was fine, I thought she was almost done with me, except she said she needed one more thing. A child. I refused. I’m not that heartless. She just laughed and said fine, she’d do it herself then, and she—and she did. But she—I told her I didn’t want anything to do with it, but she brought the girl, she brought Jo to my house to keep her while she… prepared her. It was the spell, the one I’d assembled, and Lilith had to get it inside Jo because Jo was the final ingredient. And then she—”

“I know this part,” Dean says quickly, swallowing back his rising nausea. Jo, from her corner (he doesn’t remember seeing her when he came in but she’s here now, of course she’s here now) stares at him scornfully. “But I don’t—this spell, this thing she did, was for cracking open the Wall, right?”

“Yes.”

“So how come… I mean, the damage only started showing up a couple of months ago. Jo’s been, uh, Jo’s been dead nearly a year now.”

Bela shrugs, and to his surprise it’s Cas who has the answer this time. “Blood magic is complex, even the relatively easy stuff, and a working this big… it would take time to sink in and spread. Similar to blood poisoning. It doesn’t hit you all at once. If you slow that down enough to compensate for the Wall’s sheer size and concentration of power, a year is actually quite impressive.”

“Remind me to ask for her autograph.”

“I just meant—”

“I know. Sorry.”

Bela’s eyes flick between them and Dean, for no reason whatsoever, feels his face start to flush; but all she does is incline her head towards Cas in acknowledgment of his answer and lean forward over the table slightly, handcuffs rattling, to say, “You understand what this means? What I’m telling you?”

“I… I’m not sure.”

Under the table, Cas’s fingers brush against his leg. “She’s in the Wall, Dean,” he says. “What’s left of her, at least. She’s what’s making it sick. Wearing it down.”

Dean swallows, and swallows again, and his mouth ought to be dry as the Sahara by now except that there’s a horrible coppery tang on his tongue, there’s blood sliding down his throat from where he’s bitten down too hard on his cheek.

He knows this already—that it’s her, inside the Wall. That it’s her blood. All her. Or whatever you end up with after dragging a little girl through hell and back. It’s Jo, twisted and corrupted and terrified but still, somewhere, her. An eight-year-old mind ripping apart something older than written history. He knows this already, but it’s still—

—God, he needs to get out of here, he’s going to be sick—

But there’s a hand on his leg under the table, a light weight but solid and warm and familiar. He focuses on that, on that and nothing else, until his breathing steadies and stomach ceases its churning.

“You said,” he says, when he finds himself able to speak again, “you said it’s starting. What does that mean?”

“She’s broken through. I felt it. And I—Lilith, she knows where I am. I can’t explain how I can tell, but I just—I felt that as well, I suppose. Her finding me.”

“So how come you’re still alive?”

“Exactly,” says Bela.

Oh, this is—taking all this in, all these months of theories and frustration and confusion—it’s too much. His head is bursting, crowding with new information, and his overtired mind itches to take a time out for long enough to sit down and put everything together properly; but he can’t, he can’t because it’s starting, and there’s too much already but he needs more.

He asks, “How do we stop her?”

Bela shrugs. “I’ve told you everything I know. You know where to find her, I think. If you’ve got any fucking clue what to do, well, I wish you the best of luck. Now pay up.”

They both look at Cas. He nods.

“I need your help,” he tells Dean matter-of-factly. “As long as I’m bound I need to work my magic through you. It will be more peaceful than your… previous experience, I promise.” To Bela he says, “I’m extracting your soul. It’s a painless death, practically. But I’ll need to enchant your body—a simple glamour should be fine, just something to maintain the semblance of life long enough to alleviate suspicion from Dean and myself. Tomorrow afternoon, provided there is someone alive to find you—and provided, as well, that there is in fact a tomorrow afternoon—you will appear to die of a previously unidentified aneurism.”

“Alright,” says Bela, sitting back in her chair. “Ready when you are.”

The procedure, if that’s what it is, is eerily calm. Cas takes Dean’s hand, and then he leans across the table to touch two fingers to her forehead. He feels the magic—a tug deep inside him, not sharp but still almost painful in its intensity; a twinge in the scar on his shoulder as that bit it connects to seems to sing with resonance. A glow at Cas’s fingertips, soft gold like the colour of Jo’s sightless eyes, and the fierce, burning sensation of having swallowed a droplet of molten metal, sliding down into him and spreading throughout his body. Cas flicks his fingers in a quick, smooth motion that flips the glow into the palm of his hand. He closes his fingers around the light and when he opens his hand again it is utterly, starkly empty.

Bela gives a soft sigh, and for a second he thinks he sees her slump forward with her head sinking gently against the table; but her figure flickers, and when he blinks to clear his eyes she’s sitting upright again, watching him with the imperious expression that seems to be as close as she can get to neutral.

And just like that, it’s over. None of the overwhelming vicarious agony, none of the clumsy wrenching and scrabbling of Dean’s last attempt. Still horribly unsettling—but peaceful, like Cas promised. She’s just… gone.

Jo, in the corner, seems curiously unaffected. And notably, she’s still there. Bela’s dead but Jo is still there, watching and judging and haunting, and Dean feels a desperate sense of hopelessness yawning inside him, eating its way through his body.

Cas keeps ahold of his hand, sitting beside him silently until, after a few moments, Dean manages to clear his throat and say, “We should go.”

“Yes,” Cas agrees. “There is much to be done.”

Chapter Text

Dean has a tendency to freeze up when he gets too stressed out. Like last night with Cas, or that day in court all that time ago, or even oral presentations in front of his terrifying eleventh-grade French teacher. But what makes him a good policeman is that, oddly enough, it never, ever happens on the job. Things start getting tight, and the adrenaline just kick-starts the part of his brain that jumps when someone slams a door suddenly. People—that’s what freaks him out. On the job he can think, he can act in a split second, and yeah, he’s good at it.

So heading over to the Wall? Sure, he’s scared out of his mind. There’s about a ninety-five percent chance he’s going to die, and at least a seventy-five percent chance of everyone else dying as well, and to top it all off he doesn’t have the faintest clue what he’s going to actually do. This is so, so far beyond him—but it’s been dumped on his plate, and he might not be a match for Lilith but he’s got Cas with him and, well, he’s ready. Time to go.

Cas, luckily, is less eager to dive into this head-on. “How long until the sun comes up?” he asks Dean as they leave the interrogation room.

“This time of year? At least another hour, I’d say. Maybe more.”

“Good. We’ve still got time. Trust me,” he adds, when Dean wrinkles his nose at him in confusion.

Okay. Sure. If it means they have time to get coffee before saving the world, Dean’s willing to believe just about anything.

“So,” he says five minutes later, leaning against the desk in his office with, yes, a cup of coffee that’s strong enough to warrant a hazardous substance label. “What’s the plan? We just going to ride in there with all guns blazing and hope for the best?”

“That sounds like a good idea,” says Cas, nodding, “if you want us to be annihilated as efficiently as possible.”

“Well, what, then?” Dean slams his mug down on his desk hard enough to make Cas jump. “Because it’s really fantastic, you know, that we’re stuck with this huge-ass mission to slam Hell’s fucking gates before they’ve got a chance to open all the way, it’s really heroic and all—but I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m supposed to do about it!”

Bela, he knows, would be curling her lip scornfully if she were alive to hear him right now. This is the guy who barely scraped passes in every single magic class he was ever forced to take, who can’t even summon a goddamned witch-light properly on his own—and suddenly he’s in charge of facing off against something far older than his entire planet, trying to shut down the magic she’s been busily putting in place for more than a year now? Not just for his own sake, either, but on behalf of the entire fucking universe, and he’s just sitting around in his office drinking coffee because guess what, even if he had a doctorate in practical witchcraft he wouldn’t have the faintest fucking idea where to begin with this. Power is important, but it’s next to useless without knowledge, and he’s got neither.

What he does have, though, is Cas, whose head snaps around to stare at Dean ten minutes later so fast that Dean is almost too busy mentally compiling whiplash remedies to hear him utter the most gorgeous, wonderful, poetic sentence in the entire history of gorgeous, wonderful, poetic sentences:

“I’ve got an idea.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“If you’re fucking around, Cas, I swear to God I will fuck you up so hard—”

“I’m not fucking around,” says Cas, glowering at him. “I’m not an idiot, Dean. I understand the gravity of the situation far better than you do.”

“Okay, so what’s your idea?”

“You remember the séance?”

“Vaguely,” Dean says dryly. His throat still burns at the memory. The image of Cas’s home, that vast void of stares and impossible, illogical shapes, seems to be seared into his unconscious mind, so that he hardly wakes from sleeping anymore without a split second of horrifying vertigo.

“Without getting too much into the thaumaturgical relativity of the spell”—oh, but that’s his favourite part—“I can tell you that essentially what we did was unravel enough of what you would call your space-time continuum to reach through into my continuum, which of course surrounds yours in a semi-permeable state and shares several specific points of contact that, in specific circumstances, allow material—such as myself—to pass between dimensions. Stonehenge, for example, or the Bermuda Triangle, to name a few of the better-known ones.”

“Of course,” Dean agrees, hoping fervently that an understanding of anything Cas just said won’t be essential to their success.

“In conducting the séance you shifted these points, bringing one to your own location in order to facilitate the spell—everything will have shifted back by now, considering they behave elastically, but the point is that one of the critical components of the spell is the plasticity of these points of intersection. They move, they open, they close, they open somewhere else. You understand?”

“We… have to… do another séance?”

“What? No, that’s not—don’t think of it as a séance. Think of it as a two-part operation—the opening of the portal, that’s the part I’ve been talking about, and the invocation. The second part doesn’t matter. We’re not doing post-mortem communication this time. But the first part—consider the Wall. What is it?” Cas is getting animated now, eyes lighting up with the same manic spark that Dean recognizes from years of watching his brother geek out over the cool, science-y parts of magic. It tends to leave him bored at best, completely nonplussed at worst, but there is an undeniable attraction about seeing someone else so intensely interested about something. The part of his brain that is inappropriately ignoring their potential-Armageddon-at-sunrise situation thinks God, I would fuck him senseless while he talked like that. “We don’t know the specifics, but we do know that the Wall acts like a set of stitches, a scab, holding together the wound where two dimensions came together and split at the contact point; or, in other words—”

“The point of intersection!”

“Yes!”

“So all we need to do is—”

“The inverse of the portal-opening segment of the séance, exactly! If we can alter it to connect—or rather disconnect—with Lilith’s dimension instead of mine, then we ought to be able to artificially close the point of intersection within the Wall for a short period of time. Manually taking over for the Wall, so to speak, and holding the fissure closed on our own. It’s incredibly dangerous, of course.” Wow, there’s something new. “By essentially pulling the base out from under the Wall, we’ll destabilize it considerably. But that’s what we need it to do—I’m acting on the assumption that despite the obvious power of Lilith’s blood-magic, the fact that it’s been added to the Wall’s magical makeup so recently won’t have allowed it enough time to properly assimilate, and it should drain out before the entire thing collapses. If it doesn’t—and there’s Lilith to think about to, because I’m sure she won’t just sit by idly as we—”

“It’s better than nothing,” says Dean. “So, okay. What do we need?”

The shopping list, as it were, turns out to be pretty simple. As Cas explains, most major workings are; when it comes down to it, the most important part of magic is the magic itself. The energy, the willpower, the concentration—just about nothing that gets used in spells is more than a stepping stone, a way to ease the magic along and slide it properly into place. Herbs and athames, books and bells and candles are just ordinary bits and pieces until someone takes the time to make them magical.

What they need is this: Cas (check), Dean (check), and three of Dean’s most trusted friends. He checks that one off his mental checklist as well almost without thinking, then has to backtrack when he remembers Sam’s not speaking to him and Benny’s dead. After some deliberation he settles on Bobby, Charlie, and Victor, and weathers three irritable phone conversations in order to convey that yes, he really does need them to meet him at the station, yes, right now, no I’m not kidding, no, I really, really can’t explain it over the phone but seriously, hurry up.

In the time it takes for the three of them to (grumpily) arrive, Dean and Cas sit down and, working from memory, try to come up with the best possible way to reverse a portal-opening. Dean says they ought to say the spell backwards; Cas agrees, but thinks they ought to say each individual word of the spell backwards as well. Dean figures the opposite of earth is water, so that’s what they ought to fill the bowls with rather than dirt; Cas gets all quantum on him and argues that dirt is simply representative of matter and therefore the true opposite is antimatter, but he eventually caves when Dean points out that the half-hour they have left probably isn’t enough time for them to build a functioning particle accelerator, and anyways, Mr. Physics, how are we supposed to stick antimatter in a bowl? The candles, Cas says, are mostly for the invocation and therefore unnecessary, but the salt stumps both of them.

“Sugar?” Dean suggests, but Cas shakes his head and says no, they’re both granular crystalline substances. “Pepper, then.” But Cas hasn’t been raised with salt-and-pepper shakers as a staple of every semi-respectable table, and points out that it’s mostly a Western culinary practice anyways. “Okay, marmalade. Mustard. Mayonnaise. Or what about tofu? That shit’s bland as hell.”

“You’re just listing off condiments!”

“Tofu isn’t a condiment, moron. Anyways, I don’t see you making any suggestions.”

In the end, mostly due to the fact that they’re running out of time, they just agree that the salt is probably the fulcrum of the spell. The up-ness and down-ness of the metaphorical teeter-totter go right through it without actually making any changes. So the salt stays the same.

Bobby arrives first, wearing a murderous scowl, and says, “You know what a huge pain-in-the-ass you are, Dean? This better be the end of the fucking world or I’m firing your goddamned ass faster than you can blink.”

“I wouldn’t drag you out of bed for anything less, Bobby,” Dean reassures him.

Victor shows up a few minutes later, sparking pretty much an exact repetition of his conversation with Bobby and gulping down the tepid coffee abandoned on Dean’s desk before Dean has a chance to protest; and then, finally, in walks Charlie, looking disgustingly wide-awake and prompting general complaints about how gross morning people are.

She ignores them and says, to Dean’s utter horror, “So Pam told me you got laid last night, Winchester.”

Bobby makes a face that screams I don’t want to know! Victor’s eyebrows shoot practically off his bald head as he says, “Are you shitting me?”

Dean shifts his weight between his feet, trying desperately not to look at (or anywhere near) Cas and uncomfortably aware of how close together they’re standing. “Let’s, um, try and keep this workplace appropriate, okay?”

“But—”

“Charlie, I swear to God I will give you a play-by-play of my entire sexual history in excruciating detail if you just shut up for five minutes.”

Victor grimaces and says, “Man, I can’t tell if that’s supposed to be a bribe or a threat.”

“Okay,” says Dean, ignoring him. “We don’t have much time, so I’m just going to go over this real quick. Someone—er—something is trying to break down the Wall. In case you couldn’t tell from all that weird black shit that’s been leaking out of it. And, um. I need you guys to help me fix it. Like, right now. It’s kind of one of those all-or-nothing deals. The good news is, if we get it right we’ll all pretty much be superheroes, which would be, you know, cool. And if we don’t, well, we’ll probably all die—but, uh, the other good news is that everyone else will, too, because on the other side of the Wall there are these big monsters that—uh. I realize I’m not explaining this very well.”

“I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about,” says Victor, shrugging, “but I’m in.”

“You had me at “big monsters”,” Charlie agrees.

“Hell, boy, you know I’m in,” says Bobby.

Dean stares at them with his mouth hanging part way open until Cas nudges him pointedly. Right. That urgent saving-the-world thing they have to do.

It’s just kind of weird, sometimes, to remember he actually has friends.

“We’ll take my car,” Dean decides. It seems fitting, somehow. That car isn’t his life, but his life is in it nonetheless, all the way from his earliest childhood memories to right here, right now. The musty scent of leather and gasoline means safety and family and, most importantly, home. Besides, there’s no finer chariot than his baby for riding into battle. “Charlie, grab a bag of salt from the storeroom on the way out. Victor, I need water. Maybe like one of those two-litre bottles. Or, I don’t know, three of those individual bottles. Actually, two would probably be enough. Or—”

Victor rolls his eyes and heads out before Dean has a chance to finish, which is probably for the best.

“Bobby, Cas—you guys help me find bowls. Bowl-shaped dishes are fine too. Just anything that’ll hold a bit of water and salt without spilling too easily.”

Cas nods and disappears out Dean’s office door on the heels of Victor and Charlie; Dean’s just about to follow him, but just before he reaches the doorway Bobby grabs his arm and says quietly, “If this is so important, how come Sam’s not here?”

Dean shuffles his feet, staring at his scuffed-up shoes rather than meeting Bobby’s eyes, and says, “He won’t come.”

“He won’t—are you out of your mind? That boy’d take a bullet for you just as fast as you’d take one for him, and you think he won’t come?

Well, the thing is, Bobby, you probably wouldn’t either, if you knew all the stuff I haven’t told you.

“Trust me,” is all he snaps. “And c’mon, the sun’ll be coming up soon. We need to be ready before it starts.”

“I call shotgun!” says Charlie when they get out to the parking lot.

“No,” says Cas.

The plan, which Dean explains on the way over, is this: they are the compass points. Bobby, north; Charlie, south; Victor, east; Dean, west. Arbitrary assignments, mostly, except for Dean, who as the leader of the spell takes the direction associated with death and the netherworld, since technically what they’re doing is still some convoluted form of necromancy. Looks like his freaky talent may end up being kind of useful, after all. Also, he kind of feels bad about tricking everyone into breaking the law with him, but it’s not really one of his top priorities at the moment. So what if everyone he knows is going to hate him after this is all over. It’ll be worth it, right? And that’s what being a hero is all about. Making sacrifices.

Anyway. The four of them will hold the compass points, holding this so-called portal shut—because it turns out, as Cas explains, that the membrane between dimensions is actually quite delicate, while the universes on either side tend to bulge. Easy to tear open, in other words, but it’s a four-person job to try and hold it shut. And Cas—well, Cas gets the fun job. Cas distracts Lilith long enough for them to get in position, wrestling her into submission, and then Dean, Charlie, Victor, and Bobby open the portal just long enough to cram Lilith deep down inside it, safely out of the way. The spell gets released, and the portal snaps right back under the Wall’s control; and then, after all that, Cas slaps some magic on the Wall to patch up all the holes. Easy. Straightforward.

The chances of it working are microscopic.

He glances over at Cas and wants to say something, only he can’t think of the words.

Cas meets his eyes, and that turns out to be enough.

They park a block away behind the dumpster in an empty parking lot, as if hiding is any use at this point. What Bela said before, about knowing Lilith had found her—there’s an alien consciousness hovering in the back of his mind, cold and amused, and judging by the uncomfortable expressions Bobby, Victor, and Charlie are wearing they can feel it too. She knows. She knows, but she doesn’t particularly care, because she’s older than the stars and the four of them are puny, miniscule, insignificant.

“Do you feel her too?” Dean mutters to Cas.

Cas shakes his head, lips pursed tight with concentration. “I’m blocking her out, for now. Though I don’t suppose it’ll make much difference.”

Finally, when there is a single building between them and the part of the Wall Dean’s become so painfully familiar with recently, he holds up a hand for the party to halt. “Everyone ready? Okay, get your bowls ready. We won’t be able to get the circle exact, but give it your best shot. You remember the words? Good. Cas—”

“I’m ready.”

It’s easy to forget, for a moment, that the others are there, as the two of them look at each other. All that time together, come down to this. It wasn’t exactly in Cas’s job description, huh? And yet here he is, eyes roving over Dean’s face almost hungrily, like he’s trying to memorize every detail.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cas tells him quietly, “but if we don’t see each other again—”

“I know,” says Dean, forcing a smile. “Me too. Nice knowing you, buddy.”

Cas reaches up and clasps one hand against the back of Dean’s neck, bringing their foreheads together to rest against each other for a moment. Dean grabs Cas’s wrist, closing his eyes and hanging on tight. It’s not a graceful goodbye. But it counts—oh, it counts.

Then Cas lets him go, nods curtly to the rest of them, and bares his own neck to allow Dean to slip off his collar. There’s a muffled yelp from Victor as the binding falls away and his magic-sensitive eyes pick up Cas’s true form for the first time. Cas’s shape flickers for a moment, overflowing its edges, but the last Dean sees of him as he steps around the corner, Cas has settled back into his usual form.

“Dean…” says Bobby—the start of a careful question, but it goes unfinished. Perhaps out of respect for Dean, who is blinking rapidly to clear his vision; more likely, though, there’s just too much to ask.

He’ll explain later, if he can. If there is a later.

It’s an effort to keep his voice steady as he says, “On my mark, then.”

A few slow, silent seconds tick by. Then—

The shriek that rends the air makes them all flinch, Victor nearly dropping his bowl as he instinctively reaches to cover his ears. Ungodly would be an unfair compliment. It’s nails on a chalkboard, it’s the tearing and twisting of metal, it’s an itch that worms itself in through their eardrums and pokes around in their brains with razor-sharp claws before shredding down their spines.

Go!” says Dean, and they take off.

The Wall appears before them, sagging and ragged and oozing blackish-grey stuff that gives off an evil almost-scent of rotting meat and mold. Dean shudders as he runs through it, slopping a tiny bit of the water-salt mixture in one of the pencil cups he’d pilfered from some unknowing constable’s desk—careful, careful—they measured the proportions exactly, and if anything messes up the circle—but don’t think about that right now. He sets one cup down as delicately as he can, in the place he imagines will end up being halfway between himself and Bobby. No time for measuring, not like in the attic forever ago for the summoning; he’ll just have to hope the circle’s okay, please let it be okay

West. He holds the west. Get into position and start the spell, that’s all that matters, because everything else is outside his control. Don’t look at Lilith. Don’t look at Cas. Don’t—

Someone screams, a very human scream, and his head jerks up just in time to duck as an enormous, leathery wing sweeps over his head. Don’t look, don’t look—but who—shit—“Keep going!” Charlie yells at him, wiping blood out of her eyes from an ugly gash across her forehead. “I’m fine, just keep going!”

West, okay, west, he needs the sun right in his eyes—there, it’s just barely starting to peak up over the horizon. He steadies himself, feet a solid shoulder-width apart and weight balanced as best as he can, and places the second mug on the ground very slightly in front of the toes of his shoes. “I’m in position!”

“Same here!” calls Victor. They’ve got it easiest, with the sun coming up, but Victor’s tone is tight, almost pained; sheer panic has narrowed Dean’s own vision to the area immediately in front of him, a little bubble almost free from chaos, but between the Wall and the blood-magic and Lilith and Cas, Victor’s witch-sight must be going crazy.

He looks straight ahead and cringes, because the Wall separates him and Bobby from Charlie and Viktor (and Cas and Lilith, too, but don’t think about them, you can’t think about them right now), and instead of its usual transparent glitter he can barely see through it. The magic’s gone all mucky, like stagnant swamp water; all he can see are occasional flashes from above of talons and teeth and spikes and tentacles as Cas and Lilith’s furious shrieking drives their battle onwards. The collar weighs heavy in Dean’s pocket, and for a second he wonders what will happen if they win, if Cas is no longer fighting for his own existence as well as Dean’s; if it’ll be a repeat of the warehouse, or perhaps he likes Dean enough now to leave him intact and just—

In front of him the Wall bulges, bubbling grotesquely like an awful, living blister, and Dean pulls himself together in time to start spitting out the spell.

The words are rough and unfamiliar in his mouth, a long-dead language reversed into something that never quite existed, and yet the spell comes as easily to him as everything else from that shameful book his mother kept hidden in their attic for so many years. The words flow, tumbling out from his throat as if linked together and tugged forward by the weight of those before them. He closes his eyes and holds out his hands, palms facing down, until he can feel the handles of a singing bowl that isn’t really there underneath. Slowly he starts to rub, backwards and forwards—hesitantly at first, but with growing confidence as he feels the not-bowl start to resonate beneath his hands. It sings, but rather than the clear, leaping notes of the one he uses at home, the music of this bowl is composed of silence: the vibrations suck up sounds, leaving careful patterns of empty space behind.

At the edges of his mind he can feel his friends struggling, stumbling over words and tripping up on their own clumsy tongues; but it doesn’t matter, not really. They’re holding the points but he’s leading the charge, and it feels fantastic. The power pools in him, sinking down through his stomach, bone-deep and so raw it almost hurts; but it’s electric, it’s beautiful, and they can do this, he can actually do this—

The points waver, and then stick. They click into place inside his mind, three pillars of energy meeting with his own in the centre, right in the middle of the Wall. The bowls of water, set in a lopsided parallelogram of power rather than an actual circle, hum unsteadily, but they work well enough to hold the magic in, to concentrate it where it needs to go. There’s a low whine emanating from the Wall now, the skin-crawling, distant shriek of a thousand million things, creatures made of leftover bits that are the wrong shape to fit into the universe, cooped up and starving and raging but finally, finally, free—so close, at least, the Wall is crumbling, and they’re so, so hungry

Push! Dean thinks as loudly as possible, hoping desperately that the others can hear him; and the he heaves, shoving at that point in the middle with what feels like every cell in his body straining at maximum. The Wall is slipping, letting the crack it’s meant to seal sag open, but the fingers of his magic grasp at the edge of the crack and start to pinch it back together. Stars pop in front of his eyes, the edges of his vision start to blur black, his head seems about to explode with the pressure—but there, the other three are pushing as well, thank fucking God for friends, and the point starts to slide. Up, up, a little to the side—keep it straight he thinks at Viktor, who sends him a jumble of bolded black curses on a blotchy red background but gives an extra shove until the point is back on course.

The Wall shudders. Black stuff spews out, soaking Dean halfway to his knees and spattering the rest of him as it tries to cleanse itself. Cas was right—they’re holding the point steady, even if his muscles are already beginning to tremble with exhaustion, and Lilith’s blood-magic is pouring out. He can feel the portal twitching as horrible, shadowy shapes mill around in furious confusion, trying to push their way out, and it’s burning all four of them up to keep holding it closed up here, but that’s okay, Cas should—Cas—c’mon, Cas

From the other side of the Wall Charlie prods at his mind, flooding him with images of what she’s seeing. Two… energies, twisting and morphing and crashing together over and over again, and the world seems to distort and stretch around them. His stomach lurches with conditioned fear as he recognizes Cas’s true form: that unsettling opalescent white, those heads and wings and tendrils now thrust out in combat—and the eyes, the familiar eyes in that terrifyingly inhuman face, not focused on him this time but on the violent red-yellow-coal mass in front of him. Lilith. A smallish woman, almost unremarkable if it weren’t for her sightless eyes watching Cas with unnerving perception. She stands in the centre of a storm, the boiling clouds of claws and teeth and electricity simply an extension of her human form, and she smiles.

So, this is what it comes down to. All of it—not just the Wall, not just their spell but Jo and Cas and even his fight with Sam—all of it because of her. It feels oddly detached, fighting her without even being able to see her through his own eyes, without striking a single blow against her himself. Just like the rest of this goddamned case, circling around her again and again without ever making contact. Through Charlie’s eyes he can see Cas tearing into her; he can hear the unholy screech of talons striking against each other as they struggle, and the buffeting of wings as each tries to pin the other down.

His own flesh-and-blood body would be useless against her, would be consumed in half of an insignificant second, but he still can’t help itching to dig into her. To make her hurt, because she deserves it. To lock himself away with her forever, inflicting agony beyond imagination for all eternity. There’s a rage seething inside Dean that scares him in its intensity—and Lilith knows. The surprise, for an instant, is palpable, and the teeth of one of Cas’s heads sink into an oily crimson wing with a satisfying crunch as her concentration breaks. But she just shakes it off, seeming more annoyed than hurt, and rakes a thorny tendril through Cas’s form to send him staggering backwards. And then, through Charlie, Lilith looks at Dean—or not at him, but rather inside him, stirring up that terrifying fury until his world seems to be pulsing red—and she laughs.

The portal starts to slip open. Something squirms through before the four of them manage to hike it shut again, something dark and wriggly and awful, and the horrifying anger fades as the same irrational terror wells up inside Dean that struck him back at the warehouse all that time ago. Just like the warehouse, Cas squashes the monster in one long, spindly hand; this time, though, it leaves a dark smear on his glow, and Cas falters enough for Lilith to get in a vicious strike that sends him crumpling back into his human form for an instant on the ground before exploding outwards again. The building nearest him shudders, sending down a sprinkling of brick dust.

Cas isn’t losing. At least, it doesn’t look like it. But he’s definitely not winning, either. Stalemate. Which might be okay, kind of, if not for the fact that Dean and Charlie and Victor and Bobby all have a very definitely limited warranty. Cas is keeping Lilith away of from them, which is fantastic—but he’s also keeping himself away from them, and more importantly, away from the portal.

If there were someone else here, someone to hold the west while he went and helped—not that he’d be able to do a damn thing, if Cas is struggling, but it would be better than just sitting tight here—and anyway, he and Cas make a fucking good pair, okay? Even if their last team effort is just him getting himself killed as slowly as possible to give Cas enough of a distraction to finish the job. A fifth person—Dean’s still leading the spell, technically, but now that the initial tricky part’s done, all it takes is a heaping spoonful of willpower to keep this thing going. How about you put that on your Secret Santa list, huh, Pam?

Dean grits his teeth and thinks hold on at the others. Cas will work it out. He has to. They just need to hold up their end of the job long enough to give him a chance.

He can feel them fading, each pillar of power losing its electric hue in favour of something closer to pastel. Doesn’t matter. They were bound to tire quickly. They’re all still here, though, and that’s all that counts at the moment.

There’s a spark of surprise from Charlie’s mind, and she shows him Cas again, almost engulfing the screaming, gruesome mass of Lilith—yes, Cas, c’mon—push a little harder, just get her over here and cram her through that portal—and there, yes, he’s struggling forwards with her—slowly, but they’re moving, and Lilith is howling in rage, surging uselessly against him—

The Wall starts to crumble.

It starts at the top, already swaying unsteadily in the gale-force winds produced by Cas and Lilith’s ceaseless thrashing; there’s a horrible grating sound that has all four of them flinching, and a block the size of Dean’s car crashes down from the upper edge to spatter heavily not three feet away from Bobby (who, to his credit, hardly wavers in his support). The magic buzzes for a moment, as if amazed to find itself actually free after centuries, millennia of imprisonment; then it seems to evaporate, scattering into the atmosphere with a jubilant puff of old, old vervain-scent.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck

A bit of surgery on the Wall, that’s risky enough—but if the whole thing falls apart, as it shows clear signs of wanting to do, they’re fucking screwed. They can’t rebuild it. There’s not enough power in the world for them to do that, even with Cas (on a good day) providing a helping hand; this magic is different. He’s not sure it even exists anymore, outside of relics like this. It’s like running a bulldozer through the Valley of the Kings—once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t go back in time and ask for it to be fixed.

There’s another chunk slipping already, the threads of magic that hold it together with the rest of the Wall snapping and blowing loose, and this time it’s right over Charlie’s head—move, she needs to move, except if she moves they lose the south and their hold on the portal slips—he can feel her panic, flavouring her magic with a sharp tang, but she’s got her muscles locked in place. The south isn’t going anywhere. I’m sorry, Charlie, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have—

But her pillar stays strong, unwavering, and the panic melts into a tingle of astonishment. He looks up to see the Wall suddenly standing steady—well, steadier. Still swaying precariously, but it’s holding together. Underneath its usual glimmer there’s now another colour, something that doesn’t quite belong. A glow, a white glow filled with secret almost-colours.

Cas.

Show me, Charlie—I need to see—

Cas has sunk back to the ground, one skeletal arm still curled around Lilith but weakening by the second as he concentrates himself into the Wall instead. Which is. Which is great, obviously, he’s holding the Wall together, he’s holding the fucking Wall together—but Lilith is struggling free again, laughing as she strikes out against him again and again; almost lazily now, because what does it matter? Cas is pushing back weakly but he’s stretched himself too far to fight back—he’ll hold, of course he’ll hold, he has to hold, but all Lilith has to do is wait until the pillars weaken enough to release the portal, and her monstrous children will come pouring through as it opens. Cas can hold the Wall, or he can fight Lilith, or he can crush those creatures, but he can’t do all three at once.

This is it, then.

They’ve lost.

Oh, they’re not dead yet, but it’s only a matter of time. A few more seconds, minutes, hours, who knows? They can’t keep this up forever. There’s the story of Atlas, holding up the universe on his enormous shoulders, back permanently hunched under the literal weight of the world; but he was immortal, he was a titan, and anyway, it seems like the world was a whole lot smaller in those days.

Someone’s hand grips his shoulder, and he nearly jumps out of his skin. The portal wavers, his concentration slipping enough to let another one of those horrible creatures slide through. Cas catches this one too, but it takes time to squash it, and as he does Lilith lashes at him with one whip-like tentacle, etching a line of darkness into his form.

“Go away!” he shouts frantically, not bothered to turn and see who it is. “Go away, go away, we’re barely holding this—”

“I know,” the person behind him says, and Dean nearly lets the portal slip again in shock when the voice slides easily into its familiar place in his mind. “Let me help.”

“What—how the hell are you here?”

“Bobby called. I came as fast as I could,” says Sam. “Jesus Christ, Dean, why the hell didn’t you—if I’d known how serious—”

“You told me not to call you!”

“Yeah, well, this is me giving you spoken, honest-to-God permission to never listen to a fucking word I say ever again, okay? Now tell me what to do.”

Dean’s pillar surges, strengthened by a sudden rush of overwhelming gratitude. That’s about as sappy as it gets, though—no time for anything else. Sam is here, and that’s beyond fantastic, and Dean’s going to use him as best as he possibly can. “I need to get to Cas,” he says. Considering their recent argument, those are probably the exact words Sam doesn’t want to hear, but his brother just nods. “Can you hold my pillar?” Sam nods again, and Dean grits his teeth; it’s getting hard, keeping this thing going, and trying to have a conversation at the same time isn’t helping. “Spell’s in place, just needs—energy—come here, by me—”

“Count of three, we switch places?” Sam guesses, already stepping up beside him.

Dean jerks his head in what he hopes is discernible as a nod, thinking at the others as loudly as he can hold your positions!, and Sam says, “Ready when you are. One—two—”

He heaves the magic over to his brother, who staggers under the weight of it; for a moment the portal wavers, yawning a few inches wider, but Dean sees the muscles in Sam’s jaw tighten as he steadies himself and then there, it’s done, it’s holding. For a while, anyway.

“Thanks,” he gasps. “Sam, I—”

Sam nods in acknowledgment, not looking at him. It’s not a fantastic goodbye. But he came, he’s here, and that’s sort of enough for Dean.

Now go.

His body seems to expand slightly, without the magic compressing him, and blood roars confusingly in his ears as he tries to reorient himself to the normal force of gravity. And then he’s running, a staggering, unsteady run but a run nonetheless, through the Wall with a stinging full-body slap from its confused magic and past Charlie to the roiling white cloud that is Cas.

As usual, space seems to bend around him the closer he gets to his friend’s true form; but the distortion is weaker this time, and there are ribbons of gold leaking out of the whiteness. Blood, or as close to blood as Cas can get. His essence. He’s hurt.

Dean dodges a spike longer than his entire body from Lilith, who is too intent on ripping Cas to shreds to notice one tiny human racing around her.

“Combine with me!” Dean screams at Cas, throwing a hand up over his face to stop the clouds of gravel billowing about like dust from getting in his eyes. His voice is almost lost in the wind, but of course Cas doesn’t use ears the way normal people do. Cas’s shape turns to look at Dean, eyes burning with the fire of a creature in immense, mind-altering agony, and for a moment Dean thinks Cas is going to crush him.

He stands his ground. “C’mon, Cas!”

Lilith’s claws rakes across Cas’s middle, leaving a fresh set of oozing golden lines, and Cas writhes in pain; but his grip on the Wall stays firm, and for a split second those eerie blue eyes meet Dean’s. He doesn’t say anything, but Dean hears the yes all the same.

The words of the combination pour out of him, though he’s never said them before—not like this, at least. They’ve never done a full combination. They’ve never tried to fit the entire nuclear powerhouse that is Cas inside Dean’s flimsy human shell.

Oh, well. First time for everything, huh?

And a last. This is probably both.

The last word of the combination slips out. He reaches forward, hand sinking into the glowing mass of shapes before him, and his body explodes.

It’s pain like he’s never experience it before, the pain of his entire existence burning up on a subatomic level, flooding with the amount of energy it took to wipe out three-quarters of life on earth millions of years ago—in his mind he can’t think anymore, except in harsh, bright colours that bloom in front of his eyes, and are they really in his head or is this what he’s seeing, is this himself coming apart at the seams, not just unraveling but ripping, tearing, bursting

—he’s screaming, probably, God, he must be screaming and he can’t stop—who’s inside who now? Is his own shape on fire with Cas’s ancient energy inside its feeble human lines, or is he dissolving inside of Cas? This is—he can’t, this is too much, he needs to stop, he needs to break the combination or he’ll die—he’s dying right now, isn’t he—

And then, quite suddenly, the pain calms.

It’s still there, but it’s being held at bay, pushing at the edges of this tiny bubble of peace. The eye of the storm. His own body, aching furiously but intact, and in front of him—

“Cut it out!” he barks. “You’re wasting energy on this, Cas!”

In front of him, Cas—his Cas, in those gross old jeans and that 80s punk t-shirt—flickers tiredly. “Just for a minute,” Cas says. The words don’t line up with the movement of his lips. “Just for… the Wall. Hold the Wall. Can you do that? I need you to do that. Hold the Wall.” Cas touches Dean’s forehead, and Dean’s mind sort of slides until he can feel the Wall, thrumming worryingly underneath his mental palms.

No. No, he can’t hold it. This is—oh, this is bad. There’s hardly anything to hold anymore. Just a jumble of loose threads, strung together with bits of Cas that Cas can’t spare. Even if somehow they get rid of Lilith, the Wall is gone. Without Cas standing here, pouring himself into it for the rest of eternity, it will crumble to nothing before the portal’s even slid back in place.

He looks at Cas, and realizes Cas knows. But Dean nods anyways, and braces himself, and then Cas is gone.

The pain pours back in, but this time Dean is ready. He breathes, and directs all that overwhelming agony through his body and into the Wall. It’s wearing him out, and fast—even without holding it all in, no human body can withstand this volume of energy pouring continuously through it—

What the hell?

How can—it’s not, it shouldn’t be possible. How can she be here?

She looks at him, and he thinks ah, right. Of course. Blood-magic. Jo is in the Wall—the blood-magic itself is gone, drained out, but the essence of a soul takes longer to fade. She’s still here, clinging onto the edges.

“Sorry,” he says. “Sorry it took me so long.”

Jo accepts his apology with a gracious incline of her head.

“You can let go, you know. You’re free.”

She looks at him, meeting his eyes for the first time—well, the first time ever, really. There are no words, but suddenly he understands.

“This is what you want, then? You’re sure?”

She nods.

“There’s no backing out, once you’re in. I mean, who knows how long this thing will hold, if it’s fixed?”

She raises her eyebrows at him in a way that looks far too old for such a young face, and despite everything he can’t help grinning.

“Alright, then. Suit yourself. But if you think you’re doing this quietly, you’re wrong as hell, sweetheart. I’m telling every goddamned person I know. No one’s going to forget your name for a million years.”

She smiles, and Dean lets go.

Without a direct connection to Wall it’s harder to feel, but the part of him that seems to have latched onto her from the day he started working her case shows him how she spreads herself out, dissolving into the fabric, strengthening each fibre to its old fullness. The trembling grinds to a halt, and there’s almost a sense of surprise from the Wall; and then slowly, slowly it reverses, holes sealing over and threads knitting together, until it’s standing as strong as the day it was first built—or, at any rate, stronger than Dean’s ever seen it. The police force may have to find a different way to introduce new recruits to the job, because what’s standing before Dean now doesn’t look like it’ll be needing maintenance any time soon.

Which is great and all, but it still leaves him stuck in the middle of a combination that is starting to blister his skin all over from the intensity and he wants to break it, he needs to break it right now—but Cas is weak, even without having to hold onto the Wall; all those hits, those slashes from Lilith have left him bleeding and injured. On top of Dean’s own body starting to shut down from a sheer overload of power Dean is carrying Cas’s wounds as well, the pain layering over top of his body’s trauma until his vision starts to darken around the edges. Not red with anger this time, though he can feel that part of him simmering away where he’s locked it up deep inside; knowing it’s there, knowing it won’t go away ever because it’s a part of him, would be a terrible thing to bear if he weren’t going to die.

He can feel Cas pushing at him, trying to nudge him out of their shared body—get out, get out, you’re burning up, you’re going to die—but he grinds his teeth together, hanging grimly onto consciousness by sheer willpower. Just a minute more. That’s all he needs. One more minute and then they can break apart, if there’s anything left of him, or he can just die if there isn’t—God, dying would be such a relief right now, he wants to die, please

Cas pushes him harder, and in their shared body they scream as Lilith’s teeth sink into their form, ripping out a chunk that starts a fresh flood of gold pouring forth.

Stop worrying about me! Dean thinks at him furiously. Stop it! You’re letting your guard down!

You’re dying—get out, I don’t want you to die—

Well, tough.

Dean slips into control, flattening their form to the ground in time to avoid another swipe, and punches back with all the force he can muster between the two of them—which, as it turns out, isn’t very much. Dean’s had some close calls, but this—he’s never found himself in worse shape for a fight, and this is the one fight that really matters. But here they are, and Dean’s going to goddamned drag them through this. His body can wait, it can fucking wait—no falling apart until he gives the fucking word.

C’mon, Cas.

Power, they don’t have that, but one of the benefits of sharing a mind is that ideas spread fast, and Cas catches on to what he’s thinking before he’s had a chance to start them moving. They shrink, concentrating their form into something lithe and agile and with lots and lots of sharp little teeth; granted, they move with a limp, and whatever Cas does that passes for breathing is coming in shallow, ragged gasps, but they move. Around and around Lilith, sliding out of the way before she has a chance to strike and nipping at her until the gold-slick ground between them is spattered with greasy red-black as well.

Lilith lets loose a ground-shaking roar of fury, but her swipes are becoming clumsy—she’s hurt, she’s bleeding out, they’ve leveled the playing field. One final push, that’s all they need. One last burst of energy, long enough for Cas to grab her and cram her back through that hole—at the edges of his awareness he can tell his friends are still holding it, Sam and Bobby and Charlie and Victor all probably shaking with exhaustion by now but ready to tug it open at a moment’s notice, and fuck, how fantastic are they? Oh, he’s going to miss them, he’s going to miss them like hell—he would have liked to meet Sam and Jess’s kid, yeah, and be a real uncle, how cool would that be?

On the bright side, of course, he’ll be spared the trauma of explaining all things Cas-related. Which is. Well. Actually, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

His lungs have stopped working. A fair number of his other organs, too, but who the hell can even tell when their pancreas is working and when it’s not? Lungs, though, those are pretty noticeable; and he’s running on Cas, essentially, with the same electric current that’s shutting him down bit by bit keeping an extra spurt of life flowing through a body that’s little more than a collection of broken pieces. How long’s he got? Thirty seconds, maybe? A minute?

He fills their shared mind with colours—the sunset at the cottage when they were kids, the juicy red of his mom’s cherry pie, Bobby’s worn leather baseball glove from back when he still had hair, Fourth-of-July fireworks, the sleekness of his car after it’s just been washed, Sam’s freckles, Cas’s own blue eyes. A glimpse of the things Dean didn’t get a chance to show him properly. A last goodbye.

Cas responds with a swell of jazz, slow and relaxed and a little melancholic, that hits Dean right in the pit of his stomach, warming the body he can barely feel anymore as it spreads.

Dean needs help, though, to move his arm. The muscles aren’t responding properly, shuddering and twitching as they start to shut down, and Cas has to surge in to help him, guiding Dean’s hand gently to rest over top of the handprint-shaped scar on the opposite shoulder. And there’s that familiar twinge, fainter than usual but still there; Cas, of course, knows the route already, but he waits for Dean to guide him down, deep inside.

A human soul. Not enough to power a city on, but probably enough juice to blow out the electricity, and right now that one boost is all they need.

Cas bursts outward, looming huge over Lilith and rushing downwards onto her. He engulfs her—whatever’s left of Dean can feel a vague, detached pulsing somewhere in the vicinity of where his stomach used to be, raging and struggling in vain to get free. Drops of gold spatter across nearby building as Cas drags her up with him, up, up to the Wall, which Jo holds open for them. Forward to that one point held steady by his excellent family, who immediately prove themselves to be even more than that by tugging the portal open exactly in time for Cas to thrust Lilith through.

And then, with an immeasurable sense of relief, Dean lets himself die.

Chapter Text

“You ready?” asks Sam. One of his arms hovers protectively around Dean’s back, ready to catch him if he stumbles. He won’t—it’s been months, and aside from a bit of lingering shakiness he’s fine—but it’s no use telling Sam that.

“Yeah,” he says, biting back a wince as his chest gives another twinge. “I’m ready. C’mon.”

Sam doesn’t move. “You know, if you’re not, I’m sure we can get another extension. Severe illness or injury is legitimate grounds for—”

Sam.”

“Okay, okay. Just checking.”

He’s been here, oh, who knows how many times? But it’s weird—beyond weird—to be doing it this way, from the other side of the room. With his own lawyer and everything—not a witness, but the defendant. Definitely a first.

“How do you plead in response to these charges?” asks Missouri, and he thinks of the last time he saw her, all those months ago, asking you found the body? Fitting, really. There’s probably some sort of irony here. Regardless—she’s a good judge. She’s fair. And she knows him, which he’s hoping will work in his favour. Maybe.

Speaking of fairness, though, how unfair is this whole goddamned thing in the first place? Between him and Cas (and, yeah, Bobby and Sam and Charlie and Victor had something to do with it as well) they solved Jo’s case, and renewed the Wall, and oh, yeah, stopped the fucking Apocalypse. And now Dean’s on trial for it.

But he stands up, fighting the wave of dizziness that still washes over him sometimes, and says, “I plead guilty to all charges, ma’am.”

You can scream yourself hoarse, complaining about how it’s completely backwards and it’s not fair, but unfortunately that’s not the way the law works. The law doesn’t operate on fair and unfair, it goes by legal and illegal, and everyone just has to cross their fingers and hope that once in a while the two work out to the same thing.

Not here, though. Not for him. You serve the law for ten years, you uphold the law, and this is what happens. No exceptions. Which, of course, is how it should be. No special treatment.

There’s an empty seat beside him. Anyone guilty and rich enough to pay more than one legal fee will cram the defendant’s booth with as many lawyers as they can fit, but right now it’s just him and Sam and a lot of empty space. He rubs his shoulder absently, and wishes Cas were here.

They don’t even get to the first witness until the next day. It’s going to be a long trial, that much is clear. It wouldn’t matter so much if Jess’s stomach weren’t the size of a small planet by now—that’s where Sam should be. A baby. A real, live, miniature human being, crammed full of genetic stuff from the two most fantastic people in the world. Jess has been to see him God-knows-how-many-times during the recovery, each visit seeming a little bigger and a little brighter. She’s taken his hand and laid it across her stomach and Dean hasn’t been around a whole lot of pregnant women in his life but it’s true, it’s true that you can actually feel the baby kick, which might not seem that exciting until you realize there’s a little tiny person only a few inches beneath your hand. His niece (Sam’s pretty sure) or nephew (Jess is even more sure). Incredible.

Cas thought so, too. He didn’t say as much, but it was in his face when Jess took his hand. Surprise, mostly. There’s a difference between the theoretical knowledge of the continuation of the species and the physical evidence kicking against someone’s stomach under your fingers. And it would be interesting to see, wouldn’t it, whether Cas would be good with kids, whether he’d like having them around…

The point is, Sam should be with Jess. But he’s not, or not all the time, and Dean’s irrationally grateful, without (for once) managing to feel too guilty about it as well.

The first witness, when the prosecution finally calls him in on the second day of the trial, is someone Dean’s never seen before in his life. His gaze drifts over Dean with a sort of impersonal curiosity as the lawyer leading the prosecution says, “Mr. Talley, did you process an Inter-Dimensional Summoning form commissioned by Chief Superintendent Singer and completed by Detective Winchester?”

“I did.”

“What level of Inter-Dimensional Being did the form permit to be summoned?”

“A Grade C elemental, for use in repairing the Wall and to be banished within two months except in the case of a renewal form being requested and accepted,” Talley rattles off, in the tone of someone who has seen the sentence on paper all too many times. Christ, what a boring job. Court dates are—well, used to be—the low points of Dean’s career, but for anyone stuck in the mindless bureaucracy of an official government department this stuff must actually be exciting, compared with the rest of the work.

Dean zones out somewhere around the time when the lawyer for the prosecution starts citing articles with enough letters attached to them for a decent game of Scrabble. They’ve been dialing down the medication bit by bit as he claws his way back to relative health, but the stuff they’ve given him to help him sleep tends to carry over into the day, leaving his head dull and kind of fuzzy until early afternoon. What really used to help was Cas, massaging his mind into unconsciousness at night and sharing a bit of his infinite energy whenever Dean started to fade—but of course with Cas gone, he’s had to stick to the pills.

He drags himself back to the present when Sam gets up to do his cross-examination, shooting off departmental processing time statistics and emergency response protocol fast enough to leave Dean’s head reeling and everyone with any legal background looking grudgingly impressed.

“In the event of an officer of the law identifying an urgent emergency situation with limited response time,” says Sam, “that officer is required by law to take whatever action they deem necessary to ensure public safety, and if necessary to bypass official channels of authorization in order to react to the situation in a timely and maximally efficient manner. I submit to you that my client identified such a situation upon his assignation to the recent damage to the Wall and, understanding the level of power needed to effect repairs and ensure public safety to be higher than any legally sanctioned summoning could offer, determined his duty to the people to be higher than his duty to the law.”

Nice one, Sam. Some of it is even almost true.

Although it’s going to be tough to try and swing the two months of Dean and Cas’s, um, partnership as reacting to the situation in a timely and maximally efficient manner. Especially considering all the TV-watching and the getting drunk and the, you know, the sex. Sam, in his wisdom, decided early on that most of that stuff probably ought to be left out of their defense.

There’s a lot of talking in the courtroom after that, a lot of arguing and debating semantics and fighting over the particular use and meaning of particular words in particular clauses as they relate to the particular details of Dean’s case, and Dean thinks Cas, you should have just let me die, man. It’s not worth it.

He touches his chest, a few inches beneath his sternum. The skin is covered by several layers of fabric, his shirt and his tie and his jacket all neatly pressed in honour of the occasion; but he can still feel the wound, a slight tenderness under the push of his fingers. Nearly healed, or as much as it ever will. The second scar Cas has given him—not a swollen, splotchy handprint this time but a little sunburst, no larger than a quarter. It bled at first, sluggish but insistent, until it scabbed over; and then the scab fell off and left only a patch of discolouration, darker than the rest of his skin. A single point of contact, the earthly and the divine (not so different after all, as it turns out), and Cas’s fingers shaking impossibly as he retaught Dean’s body how to function. He knows most of this only because people told him when he woke up in the hospital—Sam, all suspicion miraculously erased as he told Dean Cas saved your life. An understatement, of course; Cas gave him life, and if Dean concentrates he can feel the rhythm of his friend’s magic flowing quietly inside him. The memory itself is vague, dreamlike; but then, he wasn’t technically alive to remember it.

Back in the courtroom, they eventually get around to calling the second witness. Bobby stomps his way up into the witness stand, scowling at the court as if they’re the ones on trial here. Not glowering at Sam, of course. Not Dean, either, which is incredible. First thing Bobby did when Dean was conscious and no longer at risk of imminent death was slap him upside the head and say, “Idjit! You ever keep something this big from me again and I’ll fire your ass so fast you won’t know what hit you, got it? The whole world ain’t yours to babysit, boy!” And then, leaning in for a hug that threw stabbing pains through Dean’s entire body, he’d muttered gruffly, “Thank God you’re alright.”

Through the haze of a mind flooded with drugs and pain and magic and shock, it had occurred to Dean that this was wrong, somehow. That Bobby ought to have been furious. But hey, he wasn’t. Which was really, really fantastic, as far as Dean was concerned, so maybe it was okay to just go with it.

So the court gets Bobby’s side of the story, told in the impersonal formality of what apparently counts as “the truth”. The events of the case mixed in with the actions of some mysterious stranger he refers to as “Detective Winchester”. All the way back to Jo Harvelle, which is fitting. And then the summoning form. The Wall. The stuff inside the Wall, under observation and experimentation by the forensics department. Dean’s sick leave. The Wall again, and how the situation was reaching emergency levels. Dean bringing in Bela. Dean calling him way too early in the morning and dragging him out of bed to save the world. All of it.

And at the end, the prosecution asks, somewhat coolly, “Someone of your experience would have extensive knowledge of practical magic, correct?”

Bobby narrows his eyes at her. “I don’t know if I’d say extensive, ma’am. I’m no academic. But yeah, I know a fair bit.”

“And yet you participated in a magical ritual, under the recommendation of a subordinate officer, without suspecting it to be necromancy?”

“No, ma’am. Not exactly. I knew it wasn’t witchcraft right from the start. Wrong language, for one. Felt different, too.”

“But you proceeded anyway.”

“I did. Detective Winchester is an experienced officer and I agreed with his classification of the situation as an emergency. Seeing as he’d been the one working the case, not me, I deferred to his good judgment—protocol fifteen A of the Emergency Response and Procedure guideline clearly states that—”

“Yes, yes,” says the lawyer, cutting him off. She shoots an irritated glare at Sam. “We’ve already had that cited at us, thank you. On a related note, however—the being known as”—she makes a show of shuffling her notes, and Dean grinds his teeth—“Castiel. You must have noticed almost immediately its extreme deviation from the form of a Grade C elemental.”

Bobby shrugs. “Didn’t see much of him, at first. Detective Winchester was in the field.”

“But when you did?” she presses.

“I guess he seemed a little weird. I didn’t think much of it—figured Detective Winchester knew what he was doing.”

The lawyer purses her lips. It’s a fine line Bobby’s treading, not just where Dean’s job is concerned but his own as well; because it’s true, about Dean being in the field for the first bit, but it’s also true that—off-the-record, apparently—Bobby said to him in the hospital after the warehouse he’s kind of… unusual, isn’t he? And if Dean’s on trial for using forbidden magic, and the forbidden magic in question was facilitated with a summoning form provided by Bobby and done on-the-job under Bobby’s command… well.

Further proof he doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but there you go.

Anyways, they’ve got one thing in their favour. Fast thinking on Sam’s part—tricky to execute, what with Dean being stuck in the hospital forever, but in all the confusion after the Wall’s almost-collapse Sam (who is, by the way, some kind of superhero) managed to set things up anyways. The lawyer for the prosecution turns to Missouri and says, “Your honour, once again I request that the being known as Castiel be provided for examination as evidence—”

“Overruled,” says Missouri.

“But—”

“As mandated in police protocol, my client unbound Castiel upon completion of their work together,” Sam says, crossing his arms smugly. “Based on the termination of their contract, Castiel can no longer be used as valid evidence.”

Ha.

Her scowl only lingers for a moment before she hitches her lawyer-face back up and whirls on Bobby once more. “Regardless. In terms of the coverage of protocol fifteen A, I hardly think the two-month period of the being’s presence before report, including a two-week period of sick leave, could be considered an ‘emergency situation’. Certainly not one that justified the illegal actions of Detective Winchester in circumventing your authority based on, as you put it, ‘his good judgment.’”

“I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you there, ma’am. In my professional opinion, Detective Winchester’s actions were not only justified, but also the only reason we’re alive here debating this issue at all.”

Sam’s coached him (extensively, because Sam has first-hand experience of how much of an idiot his older brother can be) on appropriate in-court behaviour, but he can’t help shooting Bobby a quick grin, acknowledged only by a tiny twitch of an eyebrow. What Bobby just said—well, that’s the goddamned kicker, isn’t it? Sure, he knew when he signed up for this that there was a good chance of ending up where he is right now—but that was before, when it was just Jo, just one little cold case in a city where people live and die and go missing every day. It was never supposed to get so big. And now Bela’s dead and Lilith’s locked away and the Wall’s back together, and basically it seems like he’s on trial for saving the world.

Not on his own, of course. But the summoning, the combining, leading the final push, that was all him—and all the other stuff too, the séance and the warehouse and the things Dean decided were probably better left out. That was all him and Cas.

God, it would really nice to have Cas here right now. Or even just to know he was waiting at home—how long’s it been? A few weeks, at least. Sam, very reasonably, decided it would probably be better that way, better with Cas out of Dean’s life and, more importantly, out of the court’s reach.

It’s weird, though. His house hasn’t felt this empty since Benny died.

Which—this is different, obviously. Completely different. Well, mostly different. Him and Benny weren’t… They never…

Or maybe he just never admitted it. Maybe neither of them ever did.

Oh, but Bobby’s talking again—it’s just so hard for Dean to get his mind organized these days. Something scrambled his brain, that morning at the Wall. It’s better than it was, but he’s beginning to suspect the damage may be permanent. It’s a good thing his career as a detective is completely shot.

“If we could focus for a moment, ma’am,” says Bobby, “on what Detective Winchester actually managed to accomplish. And I’m not just talking about the Wall here, but about the Harvelle case. I’ve got a fantastic team, but we still run up cold cases—about a hundred a year, with maybe five of those being major. Some get solved eventually, some don’t—but the point is, that’s five major crimes unsolved. Which, I think you’ll agree, is unacceptable, though there’s not much we can do about it. But Detective Winchester—he did do something about it. He opened a previously unconsidered channel, and yes it was dangerous, yes it was against the law, but you gotta admit he got results.”

“So you’re saying that we should overlook his extensive list of charges because he got lucky? Chief Superintendent, this is completely—”

Bobby glares her into silence. “I’m saying that maybe it’s not Detective Winchester who’s wrong here, it’s the law. Just because a job’s dangerous doesn’t mean it can be ignored—you just need to teach people how to do it right, and keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t start messing around. Maybe it’s time we gave necromancy a place in the force.”

It’s only when Dean leaves the courtroom in the evening that he realizes his face is sore from grinning.

And then there are more witnesses, for days and days and days afterwards—some of them his friends, who all stick stubbornly on his side by telling more or less the same story as Bobby, and some of them are strangers. Faces he recognizes but can’t put a name to, and faces he’s never seen before in his life; and soon enough they all blur together, a mass of mouths spitting out jargon and official technicalities. At night he goes home—Sam fought hard for that privilege, because apparently spending time in custody would endanger Dean’s already “fragile” health—and the faces are still there in his mind, jabbering themselves into incoherence as his exhausted brain struggles to make sense of his life.

If he’s honest with himself, it’s not just Cas’s absence that’s bothering him. He misses Cas with a dull ache that refuses to fade, but at least that’s a feeling he can solidly identify. Justify. Whatever. No, what really gets to him, oddly enough, is Jo. She’s gone, well and truly gone—which is good, obviously. You’re not supposed to like being haunted. That’s kind of the point. It’s just strange, after a year of constant ghostly company, to find himself utterly on his own.

One evening when Sam’s taking him home, when Dean’s lost track of the days despite the dosage of his pain meds lightening up, Sam says, “I’m calling our last witness tomorrow.”

Dean fiddles with the iron-studded leather band around his wrist. Not quite as stylish as Cas’s red collar, but essentially the same function: he can’t take it off, he can’t do any magic, and he can’t leave the designated boundaries of his confinement. Just as effective as a prison sentence, really.

“Okay,” Dean says.

“We’re going to get you out of this. What you’ve done—the researchers at the university picked up on the energy signatures of the portal, and your spell, and everything. Missouri looked pretty impressed when that professor went through all those stats yesterday, did you notice? And anyone with eyes can see how much better the Wall’s doing. They’ve got a good case against you but we’ve got the moral high ground, everyone knows it, and with the argument Bobby’s put forward—well, there’s no way the jury’ll convict you. You’ve done too much for us.”

“I don’t think the world works that way, Sam.”

“It does if you make it,” says Sam, in a tone leaves no room for disagreement. Sometimes, Dean’s really glad to have his brother on his side. The alternative is, frankly, terrifying.

He can’t help getting a little jittery the next day, fidgeting in his seat as the court heaves itself through the usual preamble until Sam elbows him pointedly under the table. Our last witness. It’s not a good plan, what he and Sam have come up with. It’s probably actually a very bad plan. But it’s also a plan that has a tiny, million-to-one chance of working—of giving the court that last little nudge in Dean’s favour.

Sam stands up, straightens his tie, and says, “Your honour, I would like to call one final witness to the stand for questioning.”

The prosecution covers a yawn, but raises no objections. Missouri agrees, and an epidemic of whispers breaks out in the courtroom as Castiel steps up to the stand.

He’s dressed nice, for once. Slacks and a button-down shirt—not a full-out suit, because the world would probably end all over again if Cas ever made it into one of those, but the scruffiness factor has definitely been toned down. Even his hair looks neater, like maybe Bobby actually convinced him to brush it.

Dean’s heart gives an embarrassing stutter, which he puts down to residual medical issues; and Cas is being careful not to look at him, surveying the court placidly, but he meets Dean’s eyes for just a split second and the familiar dizziness of his gaze is the best thing Dean’s ever felt.

“Objection!” the prosecution sputters, when she’s had a chance to recover from the shock. “As a being under the control of the defendant this… being is not an acceptable witness! If anything it constitutes evidence—more importantly, evidence which you led us to believe—”

“I’m no longer under Dean Winchester’s control,” says Cas.

The woman stares at him in bewilderment, and Dean can’t help exchanging a smug look with Sam. “I… I beg your pardon? We were led to believe… er… regardless, as a being under the control of a potentially biased third party—”

“I’m not under anyone’s control.”

“I’m afraid I don’t—”

Cas pulls down the collar of his shirt to reveal his neck, strangely bare without the familiar collar, and the whispers in the courtroom crescendo into a roar. As if to prove the point, Cas’s human form flickers slightly; for a moment a pair of enormous, shadowy wings seem to flare behind him, distorting the air around them the way asphalt does in summer heat.

It scares Dean, to see him unbound. There’s no use denying it. Tossing that collar into Sam’s fireplace, watching the faux-leather shrivel and blacken in the flames as the binding spell vanished with the smoke, was maybe the hardest thing Dean’s ever done. Any moment now, Cas can burst into his true form, or lay waste to the city, or—perhaps worst of all—take off back to his home without so much as a goodbye. He’s free, in other words. Uncontained. Or rather, only contained by his own choosing; and yes, it sends Dean into a cold sweat just thinking about it for too long. But it was the only way this could work—and, more than that, it was the only way anything could work. Dean doesn’t just want Cas to stay, he wants Cas to want to stay. And, hopefully, to not kill him. Or any of his friends. And—

Well, anyway. If nothing else, Cas has certainly earned his freedom. What happens next is up to him.

Cas doesn’t wait for Sam to start questioning him. He says, “Quiet, please,” and the roar collapses into dead silence.

“I am not a tool. I am not evidence. Your attempts to invalidate my autonomy are offensive and entirely unjustified. The only crime Dean Winchester has committed is enslaving me against my will, which—under the circumstances—I have chosen to forgive; and yet you hold this trial not for my sake, but for the sake of your silly abstract laws. I, of course, have no dealings with your, ah, legal system”—and the scorn with which Cas spits out the term makes even Dean cringe a little in shame—“but I will tell you this much: when the scales weigh the soul of Dean Winchester, they will not find it burdened with guilt. I leave this information in your questionably capable hands.” Cas nods curtly and steps down, leaving the room in a stunned silence.

The trial, somehow, doesn’t last much longer after that. Even the prosecution seems to struggle to find a way to argue against Justice himself, and so the entire case burns itself out in an embarrassed fizzle.

As soon as the leather bracelet has been cut off his wrist, Dean heads over to Bobby’s house. Bobby answers the door and, without even a nice to see you or a congratulations on not getting sent to jail, grumbles, “I hope you’re here to pick up your goddamned boyfriend. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

And then Cas is there, squeezing in front of Bobby in the doorway to stare at Dean. Not speaking, not doing anything, just… staring. Which is kind of unfortunate, because suddenly Dean can’t think what to say, either. Cas bites his lip, and Dean fights back the urge to kiss him—partly it’s because Bobby’s right there and he’s still not sure how much Bobby knows (or suspects, at least) about what’s going on between the two of them, but mostly he’s just not sure he knows anymore himself.

“Walk with me?” he suggests.

“Alright,” says Cas.

They make it to the end of the street in silence, at which point Dean’s head seems to be on the verge of exploding from all the things he needs to say but can’t; so he kicks absently at an empty chip-bag on the sidewalk and mutters, “Um, thanks. For. Well, you know. Everything.”

“Your so-called judicial system can use the occasional reminder of its roots,” says Cas, shrugging.

“Right. Yeah. So, I don’t know if Bobby mentioned this, but he’s letting me go back to work. Crazy, right? Last place I thought I’d end up, after all of this.”

“Congratulations.”

“Yeah, thanks, it’s really… yeah. But, uh, the thing is… well, he meant what he said in court. About necromancy, I mean. So there’s a job for you, too. A job with me. Or with someone else, if you… I mean, it’s only if you’re interested, I know this isn’t…” He trails off.

“Maybe,” says Cas, which tells Dean exactly nothing about what he’s thinking. Fantastic. “I think right now I’d like to go home.”

“Oh. Yeah, okay. I get it.”

“To your house, I mean.”

“Oh.”

“If you don’t mind,” Cas adds hurriedly, and for the first time it kind of clicks that maybe Dean’s not the only one out of his comfort zone here.

“Yeah, no, that’d be. Um. That’d be great,” says Dean. He scuffs his shoe against the pavement, not wanting to ask the next question but needing to know the answer. “And… after that?”

“Does it matter?”

“I guess not,” says Dean, but something in his stomach seems to tighten unpleasantly. Whatever. It’s fine, right? Like Dean said to Sam, they’re not fucking married.

They walk a little ways further, until Dean has to stop to catch his breath—another side effect. No running for a while, even though it’s been months already; and if Cas doesn’t end up coming back to work with him, he’ll probably end up stuck in a desk job for the foreseeable future. That’s not what this is about, of course. The job matters, but it’s just a job, in the end.

“Actually,” Dean says, leaning into the arm Cas offers as support, “it kind of does matter. I can’t wake up every morning wondering if… you know, if this is the day you’re going to take off, without any… or if I’ll go downstairs and you’ll be gone already. If we’re going to do this, whatever this is, I need to know you’re going to be there.”

He feels Cas’s nose press against his cheek, not quite a kiss but keeping all the important parts. “I’ll be there as long as you want me to be there,” he says.

“It might be a while. Just so you know.”

“I’m not in a hurry.”

“Well… great, then. Okay.”

“Okay.”

They walk the rest of the way home in silence. They don’t hold hands, because that would be dumb, and anyway Dean doesn’t do that; but Cas walks close enough for the backs of their hands to brush occasionally, and it’s… nice. Nice to know, too—even though he’s always been a little skeptical about the whole idea of soul-mates—that souls exist, in a variety of comfortingly complicated shapes.

By chance, their route takes them past the Wall. Dean lays a palm against it, and for the split second before his hand slides right through the not-quite-there magic, he feels a familiar buzz; quieter than usual, but calm and peaceful and reassuringly there.