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Once upon a time in a magical kingdom know as Angelasia. …

"… there lived a beautiful princess named Claire –" A soft sob from the child in his arms made Castiel falter. He shifted his daughter so he could see her face and found it pale while tears brimmed in her eyes. "What's wrong, my little love?"

"You'll die," she whimpered and ice seemed to fill his veins. Gods, she was only five. She couldn't know the truth so soon. Could she? "The princess' parents always die. Like Mommy."

Apparently, she could. He felt a pang at the mention of his wife. Gone two years now this spring. Wasted away by the curse plaguing their lands. The same fate that had taken his twin and might well await him. But not, please, Gods, not their Claire. He wished he could lie to her, but she'd always been clever and now it seemed she had learned a truth he'd foolishly hoped she'd never know. "It … does not always happen that way."

The tears flowed and her lower lip quivered. "Yes, it does. First the mommy dies, then the daddy."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "No, I. …" How did he reassure her when she was right? He had not the temperament to travel the other path. There was far too much sorrow in his heart to become a jolly old man who embarrassed her at every turn. How he wished he could give her such a presence in her life, see her find her True Love and rule with wisdom and grace.

Lifting her up to rest against his shoulder, he walked onto the terrace and looked out over the sleeping kingdom. "It's not mine yet," he said, reminding her he was the crown prince, not king. "My Story has not come to an end."

She sniffed. "But, you said. …" she protested, no doubt about to remind him that he had slipped and begun to tell her Story, not his. As many now did. So many he had considered asking his uncle to step down as regent and finally take the throne himself. To accept his fate and do his duty until he faded away. Selfish. Foolish. While her first father – his brother James -- had died weeks before Claire was born, she had barely recovered from the loss of her mother, and yet he was contemplating an act of certain suicide?

"I'm sorry, sweet one," he soothed her. "I was thinking of you and misspoke. I shall not make the mistake again." He would ask Lucifer to forbid anyone to tell tales of Claire within her earshot. She was the hope of the kingdom, but not ready for such a burden to rest on her shoulders. "Shall I begin again?"

"Yes."

He kissed her damp cheek. "All right then." The words felt like ashes on his tongue, but he would force them out. His Story was over – had never truly begun. He would never live to see James and Amelia's daughter, the daughter of his heart, become a woman. Would never save his kingdom. But for Claire … for Claire, he would pretend for as long as he lived that there was a Happily Ever After waiting for him. That someday he would find his True Love. "Once upon a time in a magical kingdom known as Angelasia there lived a prince named Castiel. …"

*

Three Years Later

Dean Winchester threw himself down on the nearest bed and glared at the room's ceiling. He felt stiff and exhausted from driving for twelve hours straight. Not to mention hungry, cranky and … fuck, lonely as hell.

He pulled out his cell and brought up his contact list. For several moments he stared at his brother's name and ached to hit the call key. Been close to three months since they'd actually spoken to one another. Was that long enough for Sam to get his head out of his textbooks and talk for a few minutes? Dean worried his lip for a moment, then decided probably not. He sighed heavily and sent the usual arrived text. Every night until he left he'd send an ok before he went to bed. When he left, he'd text the name of his next destination. All things Sam had insisted on when Dean had dropped him off at Stanford.

Messages like test tomorrow or buried in homework periodically popped into his inbox, not so much in answer as telling him Sam was far too busy to shoot the breeze with his loser older brother. Tonight the brush off was at bar with friends. Five months. It had taken right around five freaking months to go from being with Sam almost every minute of a day to a four-word text looking almost chatty.

Dropping his cell on the table between the two beds, Dean tried to decide if this slow drifting apart had made things easier or if he preferred the cold turkey end of their family the first time Sam had headed off to freaking Stanford. Yeah, right. Like it was something about that place, not Dean himself, that made Sam decide he had better things to do than keep in touch. He should be so lucky.

Sometimes it was all Dean could do not to call and demand to know what he'd done wrong, but unlike the first Sammy-free years, this time around Dean sort of knew. He'd kept hunting. After they'd taken care of Dad's body, Sam had done exactly what he'd said he'd do before it all went to shit – he'd slept for a month then he'd returned to Stanford and gotten right back on track with the whole future-lawyer-Sam plan. Hell, this time Dean had even driven him to the front door of his dorm instead of the bus station, but despite all the reassurances, all the promises not to let history repeat itself, it had all been as inevitable as Dean had known it would be.

Sam didn't want to hear the details of Dean's latest hunt or his off-hours conquests – not that there had been many of those. Something about watching their father blow his brains out with the Colt to keep the demon possessing him from killing his sons had left Dean uninterested in the one-night stands he'd once enjoyed. But using past experience as his guide, Sam had assumed every time Dean mentioned a woman that Dean was about to go all 'porno' on him and had cut Dean off. Gotten so bad he'd not even tried to tell Sam about Madison. Instead he'd spent a couple of months listening to Sam go on about classes and the new friends he was making, and yeah, it was all kinds of boring, but it let him enjoy his brother sounding happy so he hadn't minded. Except Sam had.

Those hunts Dean wasn't allowed to talk about were the fucking elephant in the room, and every damned time he'd called the pretty one-sided conversations had gotten shorter and shorter until now all they had left were a few crappy texts. Yeah, he got Sam felt guilty about ditching his brother and the 'family business.' And yeah, it had hurt like hell when he'd done it, but Dean had been careful to keep it out of his voice, to never say anything to make Sammy feel like crap or let him know when Dean had gotten his ass handed to him because he had to work without back-up. It had still torn them apart. Be spring in another week and they hadn't spoken to each other since a brief call Christmas morning.

Couldn't even blame that one on Sam. Dean had been the one to ditch their plans to meet up at Bobby's for the holidays because he'd had to keep Sam from seeing what a mess he was in. He'd broken his arm tussling with a zombie chick, then gotten all banged up keeping a Crossroads demon from closing the deal on some poor sap who'd traded his soul to save his dying wife. He frowned at the memory. Case still didn't sit right with him.

Been the only demon he'd come across since Dad had offed himself, taking Azazel with him. And when Dean had forced the thing to break the deal, it, or rather the chick it had possessed, had gone up in a ball of flame. Fucking weird. And not in a 'business as usual' sort of weird way.

The door opened, derailing his thoughts. "Watch the salt lines," he said out of habit, then flinched at the withering glare it earned him.

"I think I heard you the first seventy-three times," shot back the beautiful woman carefully stepping over them.

"Sorry," he muttered, forcing his weary body to sit up. "Used to a more resistant apprentice." Messing up the salt every chance he got had been one of Sammy's stupider rebellious phases, but a long-assed one. Hadn't knocked it off until Dean hadn't caught it in time and had gotten thrown around by a murderous ghost. Guilt over nearly getting Dean killed had cured Sam of that nonsense, but had left Dean paranoid about anyone near his carefully drawn lines.

Madison rolled her eyes and dropped a Wal-Mart bag full of the girly things she'd needed to pick up on the dresser. "Sure thing, Obi-Wan." She held up the room service menu. "You hungry?"

He opened his mouth to say he just wanted some sleep, but his stomach growled.

She laughed. "I'll take that as a yes. The usual?"

"Sure," he answered then went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face while she ordered his cheeseburger and her chicken sandwich. Three weeks together and they already knew each other well enough to handle the other's routine. Could easily feel about her like a sister. Maybe even be smart enough to fall in love with her. Yeah, if for once in his fucking life something went right and he wouldn't have to kill her Sunday night.

Had to give her credit where credit was due, lady was counting down what could be the last days of her life with a grace no one had the right to expect. Fucking werewolves. He sighed. Azazel's death seemed to have pulled some sort of cosmic plug and a huge chunk of the supernatural shit he'd grown up dealing with had vanished down the proverbial drainpipe. But at least one werewolf had survived and had attacked her. Turned her. Lore said killing it might break her own curse, and Dean had managed to take it out the last night before the month slid into werewolf-free nights. Wouldn't know if it had worked until the full moon rolled around again. Although Bobby had already told him it probably hadn't. Ellen had agreed. But Dean had always been hope's bitch.

Madison had told him she couldn't kill herself, but couldn't live with killing anyone else even if the two assholes she'd ripped apart had sort of asked for it. They'd both known the next victim might be a completely innocent one, and she'd made him promise to kill her. He'd offered to come back before the moon went all judgment on her ass, but she'd said no. She'd killed her stalkery-ex and her douchebag of a boss, leaving her more than ready to get the hell out of Dodge. Next thing he'd known he'd agreed to let her come with him. Had sort of fallen into teaching her the tricks of the trade for lack of anything else to talk about. Classy lady. Far too good for him. Would have suited Sam though. God, he hoped he'd have a chance to introduce them some day.

He walked out of the bathroom as she was changing into the t-shirt she liked to sleep in. He caught a flash of bare breast and … nothing. Crap. "You know you could at least pretend I'm not some sort of impotent loser," he grumbled.

"You're not impotent, Dean," she assured him. And wait for it, "You're gay."

"Bitch."

She laughed. "You're just mad because I caught you checking out the same bartender I was." She sighed happily. "He had such a great ass."

Yeah, he had, but that was beside the point. "The term you're looking for, sweetheart, is bi and that means I can totally jump your bones." Even if the only pathetic stirrings of his downstairs brain had been around members of his own team. It totally had nothing to do with not needing to keep up appearances for Sam or Dad anymore. And why for fuck's sake did the universe hate him so much that the one Oprah she'd managed to catch was about repressed homosexuals?

"The term you're looking for, honey, is denial. Pyramids coming into to view time."

He almost snapped 'bite me,' but managed to stop himself in time. Feeling guilty, he settled for glaring. "Fine, after dinner we can paint each other's toenails and argue about who's the dreamiest Jonas Brother."

She laughed and he counted it as a win.

*

Lucifer glared at the charts scattered across his desk willing their message to change. But, of course, it did not. "No!" he raged, his arm sweeping out and dashing everything to the floor. He would not have this!

"I rule these lands," he hissed at the debris on the floor, his fists clenched in fury. For twenty-five years he had served as king in all but name and no omen, no star chart would convince him it would not remain so for another five hundred. Power surged within him and a wind ripped through the room, sending every false oracle into the fireplace. A further gesture of his hand set it all ablaze with a fire so hot not even ash remained.

As ever letting loose his power soothed him. How he hated having to hide the glory of all he was, and soon, oh, so soon, he would have the crown outright and would no longer need to hide. He scowled at the fireplace. But first he would have to rid himself of a few minor problems. But which one first?

Castiel seemed the more immediate threat. He was well beyond the age when he should have assumed Angelasia's throne, but the prince would soon reach his thirtieth year. Not only did the law demand he assume his throne by midnight of that day or lose all right to it, but no Story began at thirty. Lucifer smiled. Not even the most ardent of Castiel's would-be subjects held out hope any longer. He snorted. And long after time as well. Not in all the history of Angelasia had anyone ever found True Love as much as a single day after reaching twenty-two years. Yet Castiel was so beloved, so perfect a prince, a surprising number had clung to some fragment of hope. Lucifer found it most annoying.

Even now it was not Castiel's age crushing all hope, but Claire's own recent birthday. Her eighth. A vivacious child with a distinct personality, the people couldn't help but tell stories about her. And from stories the hope of a Story had grown until all dreams had turned to Castiel's precious daughter. The mourning for the crown prince quietly growing even as the excitement for the princess began to take center stage had amused Lucifer. It had not mattered to him. Every scrying, every omen, every star had assured him over and over again, a Story would not form around Claire. And Castiel would die soon. As had his parents before him. Of course, dear Michael had some help toward his own fate.

A smile settled onto Lucifer's face as he remembered his brother's agony in those final moments. No peaceful wasting away was good enough for Michael. No, he'd had to suffer for the great crime of being older than Lucifer and for resisting his fate long enough for James to reach an age where Lucifer could not claim the throne for himself.

He'd always warned his dear brother he would pay for his gluttonous fondness for apples. And he had. Oh, yes, he had. His smile slipped away. And now the stars dared tell him they had spoken false? That the kingdom would see their denied Happy Ending before midnight struck on the Crown Prince's birthday ball? No, no that would not do. He would have to rid himself of his nephew, but first? He was done playing the dutiful regent. With Castiel's death, the crown must become his. So first he must deal with his sweet, young grandniece.

A pity apples were out of season. Even if they were not, he knew she would never accept anything from him. Another smile snaked across his face. But her horse would. Yes, a very special lump of sugar would do nicely.

*

Dean hated witches. He absolutely, positively hated them. And yeah, yeah, that group of vampires he'd run into a while back had proven he had to be careful about assuming supernatural equaled kill-on-sight, but damnit, they were talking witches here!

He glared at Madison. "No."

"Dean," she said his name with the sort of inflection that implied he was being an unreasonable ass. But, hello, witches! A whole coven of them! And maybe they weren't all evil in the 'killing stuff is a convenient way to deal with shit we don't like' sort of way, but they were still pains in the asses and he was pissed!

"No." He folded his arms across his chest and upped the wattage of his glare to put a 'and that's final' stamp on things.

Madison and the freaking high priestess looked unimpressed. In fact, Madison had the nerve to glare back. "They just want to bestow a happiness blessing on us."

"Blessing, curse. You say tomato, I say hell no!"

Sally – and who the fuck ever heard of a high priestess named Sally? – gave him a squinty-eyed stare. "Look, you got rid of the poltergeist for us."

"Yeah, because one of your freaking spells went sideways and summoned the damned thing!" And how the hell was this making him the unreasonable one? Bunch of teenaged-witch wannabes had gotten hold of a spell book with juice and the usual 'mispronounced word' crap had twisted the whole 'summon a protector to take care of a serial rapist' (and yeah, Dean had dealt with him, too) magic and had called up a poltergeist with enough attitude to terrorize an entire apartment building instead.

She stamped her foot. "If we don't bless you with everlasting happiness, we'll owe you and things will be out of balance." She said it with the sort of warning tone that implied this would be a very, very bad thing.

So two hours later when the Impala slid off a perfectly dry road and into a lake that suddenly turned into a waterfall/tunnel leading to the blackest blackness he'd ever seen, Dean aimed an all-purpose 'I knew it!' glare at the universe, but mostly he thought, 'fucking witches.'

*

Claire's legs tightened around her horse and she held on with everything she had as the mare careened through the trees as if death itself were on their heels. Nothing she did seemed to calm or even slow the animal and they quickly out-distanced her escorts. All the pride she'd ever felt at Starling's swiftness twisted in her stomach. No help would come, she had to get control.

On and on the horse ran for what seemed like hours. Or seconds, then suddenly she stopped with a stumbling step that sent Claire flying from the saddle. By some miracle the girl landed in a pile of pine fronds that cushioned her landing. Safe, she thought, fighting to calm her pounding heart. Safe.

Slowly, mindful of how a fright could mask the signs of injury, she sat up. For a moment, Starling stared at her with eyes wider than Claire had ever seen on a horse, then she galloped off, leaving her rider alone. Where? Oh, Gods. Her heart began to pound wildly again as she looked around and saw how deep they'd gone into the forest, the twisted look of the trees. Her horse had carried her deep into the Dark Area, and as she tried to gather her thoughts enough to decide which way to run, she heard a shuffling step that made her blood run cold.

*

Peaceful oblivion slowly gave way to a nagging wetness on his face. Super. Another streaming head wound. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered patching the damned things up. Except this one seemed to be … lapping? He cracked one eye open in time to see a pink tongue narrowly miss his eyeball. What?

He scrambled backwards and found himself staring at a wolf. Oh, fuck. His hand darted toward the gun tucked in his waistband, but, "Relax, Dean, it's me."

The voice was familiar, but, "Madison?"

The wolf nodded and settled back on its … her haunches.

"What the fuck?"

There was a ripple of motion around the wolf's neck, and Dean guessed Madison had tried and failed to shrug her shoulders, but she did manage the trick of looking annoyed. Something in the eyes. "I woke up like this."

Dean groaned. "I told you we couldn't trust those freaking witches!" He pushed himself to his feet, intent on getting them back to the coven so they could deliver some well deserved ass kickings. Then he remembered he should be trapped in his baby at the bottom of the lake. Horrified, he whirled toward the water only to discover … a freaking fountain? "What the fuck?" Where was the freaking lake and all that freaking water he'd bail with his bare hands if it dared to stay between him and his beloved car? "Where the hell is my baby?"

There was a sound that made him nervous. It really shouldn't have given it held no obvious threat of dismemberment, death or worse, but, yeah, definite foreboding here as he slowly turned toward the soft whicker. And there at the edge of the clearing stood a beautiful black horse. His first thought was 'thank God it's not a damned antelope,' but no, it couldn't be. Could it? "Impala?" he asked in the most timid tone he'd ever heard escape from his lips. Talking serious loss of manly points here, but that inner rant to cover the panic came to a screeching halt as the horse nodded.

Dean exploded, "You've got to be fucking kidding me!" Then his eyes widened and he braced himself to hear his baby talk. Instead, she tossed her head again, then the strands of one of his favorite Aerosmith tunes filled the clearing.


Yeah, sing with me, sing for the year
Sing for the laugh, sing for the tear
Sing with me, if it's just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

Dream On, Dream On, Dream On
Dream until the dream come true
Dream On, Dream On, Dream On

Well, the chorus at least. And make that his former favorite tune because from now on the damned thing would just give him freaking nightmares.

"It sounds like it's coming from her ears."

Dean glared at Madison. He did not need a freaking talking wolf telling him his car had transformed into a horse-shaped … iPod. Dean shuddered at the very thought. "This is some sort of curse," he muttered. Or he'd lost his mind. Or he'd died and gone to Hell. All seemed like perfectly reasonable, not to mention preferable explanations to how he could be standing here listening to his car-gone-horse serenade him while his apprentice-gone-wolf decided it was karaoke night in crazytown and started singing along.

Shouting or curling up into a ball and whimpering seemed like equally great ideas, but a scream silenced both the music and his looming panic attack. Female, young by the sound of it, and terrified. Without thinking about it, Dean threw himself into Impala's saddle and the horse shot off, the wolf on her heels.

*

Castiel signed his name to the latest parchment, then set his quill aside. The dull headache pressing against his temples since breakfast had turned into something close to a roar. Too much paperwork, he told himself, rising on legs he refused to call weak.

His uncle enjoyed the power of the crown, but left most of the tedious paperwork to Castiel. He called it 'kingship' training. An almost cruel taunt given that everyone knew Castiel would never sit upon the throne.

His hand shook as he poured himself some water. Over worked and over tired. Nothing more. It didn't matter that James had complained of much the same problems as he began his slow slide toward death. Please, Gods, no. Castiel had accepted he would die young, but he needed to stay alive until Claire reached sixteen. She'd be considered old enough to rule then, and have no need of a regent. But if the wasting sickness had begun, he would have fewer than two years left.

He tried to tell himself it would be all right. All the great Stories began with someone too young to deal with destiny. It was where the … plot came from. He might have taken some comfort from this, even if it did mean years of unhappiness awaiting his daughter, but in his heart, Castiel knew no Story would form around her. No Story meant no Happy Ending, which made Claire the same sort of potential obstacle as Castiel. He shook his head.

It made no sense. James and Amelia had loved each other dearly. How could what they felt have not been True Love? He'd slowly come to doubt the very existence of it, but there was still magic in the Kingdom. "You feeling all right, your princeness?"

Case in point, the small animals could still talk, even if the larger ones hadn't done so in several lifetimes. "I'm fine, Pip," he told the chipmunk perched on the windowsill.

His childhood friend gave him a look saying he didn't buy it for a second. "You should get outside more. All this desk stuff is making you look pale."

There was truth to the words, but duty called. "Perhaps you should have gone with Claire."

"Nah, been too long since we hung out," Pip said leaping to Castiel's shoulder.

The familiar weight and warmth of the creature made him smile and his headache eased. Sign of looming death or not, some of his woes were indeed due to overwork and lack of time in the sun. "It can't be much fun for you to watch me read and sign documents." The two of them had been inseparable since the chipmunk had climbed into a few-days-old Castiel's crib, but as age and responsibility had cut into their playtime, Pip had begun to spend much of his day with Claire. Pip had made it clear that he adored the princess, but Castiel would always be his best human friend. Of course, the clever little con artist might say much the same to Claire.

The chipmunk shrugged. "Maybe not, but you have the best shoulder for naps."

Castiel chuckled and took a step back toward his desk when a cry of alarm filled the courtyard below. He ran to the window and looked down in time to see his daughter's horse stumble to a halt, then collapse.

*

Dean leaned low over his car … horse … whatever's neck as it galloped through a creepy, densely wooded forest. Dean's father had trained his boys to handle any weapon and available transportation, so he moved easily with each twist and turn of the powerful body. Might even have enjoyed the wild ride under other circumstances, but he heard the scream again and feared he wouldn't make it in time.

But in the next moment Impala broke into a clearing, and Dean saw a long-limbed mass of gray and blood dragging a child toward the far side. Something seemed vaguely familiar about the creature, and he had the horrible feeling his favorite .45 would let him down. He drew and fired anyway. Emptied the clip into a hide that looked like butchered stone. The bullets penetrated, but the thing simply swatted at them with all the annoyance of someone brushing away mosquitoes.

"Not good," he muttered, leaping off the horse and yanking a rapier from a scabbard at the back of the saddle. Nice weight, blade had a sharp glint to it, but not much hope it would penetrate where bullets hadn't. Still had to try.

He ran at the thing, raised the sword high, then swung down on the arm holding the child with all the force his strength and momentum could fuel. The impact jarred his teeth, but the blade cut the odd flesh. Not deep, but enough the creature roared in pain and let go of the girl.

A moment later Madison's weight barreled into the thing, knocking it backward. She staggered it. Dean had to give her that, but it stayed upright. "Get the girl out of here!" he snapped, shifting to put himself between his two charges and the creature.

"I can't leave you," she panted back, charging at its legs.

"The hell you can't! Go!" he shouted, blocking a swing of a gangly arm with the sword. Again metal bit into flesh and the thing bellowed, then kicked out, sending Madison flying twenty feet and into a tree. She yelped, then fell silent. Fuck!

"The horse," he snapped at the girl, who hadn't exercised the better part of valor and gotten out of here when the piss-poor cavalry had arrived. "Get on the horse and go!"

She ran out of his range of vision, back toward where he'd left Impala. Good enough. Now to survive this mess. He started swinging the sword. Hard and fast, blow after blow, hoping the thing would get sick of the pain and retreat. Except he only seemed to be making it mad.

*

Claire held on tight and sent the strange horse thundering through the forest in what she prayed was the direction home. She had to get help. She had to!

Salvation suddenly burst into sight as they rounded a bend. "Daddy!" she screamed and her father reigned in his stallion.

"Claire," he shouted, moving to take her in her arms, but she spun her own mount back around.

"We have to help him, Daddy," she called over her shoulder. "He'll die! He tried to help me and he'll die!"

"What is it?" he demanded, spurring his horse up along side her.

"Tommy! He's trying to fight Tommy!"

"Stop!" He roared, grabbing the reigns from her and halting both horses.

"Daddy! We have to-" she screamed as he yanked her from the saddle then onto his horse.

"Find the guardsmen, Claire," he snapped, swinging into the other saddle as he yanked his sword out. "They're searching for you, too. Find them, send them to me. It's our only chance."

She stared at him for a moment, then obeyed, hearing her father say, "Go to your master, beast. And may the Gods help us both."

*

An arm clothes-lined Dean and he felt at least two ribs give. He spat blood from his mouth, and backpedaled away from the next swing. Wrong member of this fight was wearing down fast. Worse, something felt wrong inside of him. Like 'get to the ER five minutes ago' wrong. Needed to get out of here. Run for it while he still had the strength, but he couldn't abandon Madison, so he kept trying to drive the creature away from them. Fucking stupid plan, but it was all he had.

He heard a crashing noise behind him, but couldn't look and dodge one grasping hand after another. He grunted with pain as he swung his sword with his rapidly fading strength. Metal bit deep, but not Dean's blade. Kind of bounced off in a pathetic display of defeat, but a second sword followed almost in its wake, striking the creature's neck.

"We must flee or die," a deep voice growled.

Duh, and pretty much a no go. "Can't leave the wolf," he groaned which sounded all brave, except for the moot point aspect as his own legs gave out and he collapsed to his knees.

A strong arm snaked around his waist and dragged him back. "Then I will stand with you," the owner of both the arm and sword said. "Though we cannot hope to defeat Tommy with blades alone."

Tommy? What was a freaking …? An old children's fable flashed through his mind. Tommy Rawhead. Not nearly the hulk Dean had faced before, but now he could see the similarities. "Fuck! I need a taser!"

Something that sounded a hell of a lot like his baby's trunk opening rang through the clearing, then the much needed weapon fell in front of him. Deciding to question this divine intervention later, he snatched it up, aimed and fired. Worked like a charm. The stench of extra freaking crispy fried rawhead filled the air, and the body thudded to the ground.

Miller time at last. Except Dean's vision had way too much black around the edges and one of his lungs stopped working. "Sammy's gonna be pissed," he muttered, all the strength in his limbs vanishing.

"Sir?" his companion asked, gently guiding him to the ground.

Dean had the impression of vivid blue eyes. "Damned rawhead got me after all," he whispered, then knew only blackness.

*

Sam Winchester glared at his cell phone willing it to deliver his nightly text from Dean. "It's midnight, damnit!" he hissed at it. Not once in five months had his brother failed to at least warn him of a late check-in. And as Sam watched the readout move to 12:01 his stomach twisted with worry.

"Don't do this, Dean," he pleaded. "All we need is six more weeks." Six more weeks and Sam could leave this place with a degree in hand. He no longer dreamed of three more years spent learning law from Stanford or anywhere else. Learned far too much about himself to cling to that illusion of a life. No, he needed his degree so he could get into a police academy. Maybe here in San Francisco. Or even back in Lawrence. Then he could put Dean through college and his own stint in an academy.

They were Winchesters. They had a calling to serve and protect. Sam got that now. Had since the splatter of their possessed father's blood and brains across his face had cooled Sam's rage and desperate need for vengeance. Dean was what mattered now. And Dean needed to help people. But they couldn't keep hunting.

Sam knew it. Knew Dean did, too, even if he'd never admitted it to anyone. The hunts were all drying up. Most hunters had given it up – some turning to crime, others doing menial jobs. These days Bobby spent more time running Singer Salvage than hunting or playing information broker on the supernatural. When he wasn't romancing Ellen Harvelle.

At 12:02, Sam tossed the phone aside and started packing up. He knew it would surprise Dean to know Sam had kept close tabs on him. Between Ellen and Bobby, Sam had learned the details of every hunt. And every injury his brother had suffered. More than once Sam had gotten this far – duffle packed and his eye on the front door ready to go to his brother's side. But Dean had always made it through, had always managed without him. So he'd stayed here, preparing for the one thing John Winchester had never taught his sons – how to live in a world that had no need of hunters.

He knew Dean had to accept their new reality on his own. That fighting with him about it, trying to get him to see it, would keep him on the trail of even the vaguest hunt until it all but destroyed him. So he'd not told his brother his plans. Sam sighed. No, wasn't being honest with himself. For a good two months or so, he'd clung to his idea of a normal life and had kept Dean at a distance for the crime of facing up to what Sam had tried to deny all of his life – they had a duty to others. That was normal for them. Been mid-term when he'd figured it out.

That was when he'd aced all his exams, but found he hadn't given a damned. He'd almost gone to Dean then, but he'd wanted a peace offering. A really juicy hunt to serve up on a silver plate. Except he hadn't found one. Hadn't found much of anything beyond a lot of things most hunters wouldn't have bothered to deal with. And even those cases were becoming rare.

The best at what he did, Dean had kept finding hunts after others had given up, but the down times were getting longer. Any day now Dean would look around, then text Sam I'm done. When that day came, Sam had been determined he'd have the pieces of their new lives ready to play. Except his damned phone wouldn't ping and tell him Dean was all right.

By 12:10 Sam was out the door. By 12:30 he hit the road in a hot-wired car. "I'm coming," he whispered into the darkness. Dean had taken care of him all of Sam's life. He could only pray he got the chance to return the favor.

*

Castiel and his guard thundered into the palace courtyard. "Gabriel!" he shouted as he reigned in the horse, doing his best not to jar the unconscious man cradled in the saddle before him.

"Daddy!" Claire shrieked rushing down the steps, her uncle at her side. Thank the Gods, she'd done as his captain of the guard had told her and road for home, not stopping until she reached Gabriel.

With a strength and grace that had filled many a tale about him, Castiel swung down off the saddle without jarring his mysterious charge, then eased him to the ground as Gabriel reached them.

"Gods, this one is a mess," his older brother said, kneeling beside him, "but one could expect little else given he took on Tommy Rawhead alone."

"Claire would have been lost to us if he had not," Castiel bit out, not liking at all the sudden rasping tone to the unconscious man's breathing. Almost like a rattle. Like James moments before. …

"And for that may the Gods grant me the power to do this," Gabriel answered placing his hands on his patient's torso. His eyes closed, his body stiffened, then Castiel could see the shimmers of power flowing between the two men.

The rattling sound stopped and for a moment Castiel feared it signaled death, but the chest continued to rise and fall while some color returned to an ashen face. "That should hold him for a moment," Gabriel announced, rising. "Get him to my chambers and I'll do a proper job of it."

He had looked at one of the guardsmen, but Castiel waved him off and reclaimed his charge. He rose easily despite lifting a larger man. "See to the wolf as well, brother. She is important to this one and allowing her to die would be a poor reward for his valor."

Balthazar dismounted and carried the wolf to the healer.

Gabriel laid hands on her before the captain of the guard could even set her down. Within moments she stirred. "This one will be fine now with a little rest, but bring her along," he said, turning toward the palace.

His worry eased, Castiel smiled fondly at his brother's back. "You heard the man, my friend."

"Yes, I'm afraid I did," Balthazar answered with a rueful smile. "I don't suppose the number of stairs between here and there have decreased?"

Castiel laughed and began the trip up the first set of stairs. A small effort really and an even smaller price given the one they could have paid this day. It could almost make him believe a Story stirred.

*

Lucifer watched the 'heart-warming' scene from the terrace outside the throne room. What an unfortunate time for his older nephew's magic to rise to the occasion. He would have to add Gabriel's name to the list of tragic deaths. A pity. He'd almost liked the little trickster. Ah, well, losing all his family would make his people look upon him with sympathy. By the time they knew better, he would have everything and everyone firmly under his control.

He turned, walked back into the throne room, then opened a hidden panel behind a tapestry depicting the last Happy Ending to grace the kingdom. Five hundred years ago. He smirked. Long overdue, but the next Happy Ending would be his or no one's.

A long winding staircase led him down into a chamber hidden deep within the mountainside upon which the castle sat. He murmured words of gentle power, coaxing candles to life. The flickering flames pushed back the natural darkness, leaving the more comforting echoes of his powers. Ah, much better, he thought drawing in a deep breath, cooling his anger.

He could not afford rash thought or emotion. Such weakness might cause him to slip and show some sign of his magic to unfriendly eyes. One day soon he would have no need for such vigilance, but for now the laws forbidding a wizard from ruling were firmly in place. Some nonsense dreamed up long ago in fear of too much power in the hands of one person. He would rid the kingdom of it as well as other laws he found inconvenient the moment he claimed the throne, but, for now, he must confine all his work to this place.

Calm once again, he reached out with his magic, seeking the fountain deep in the Dark Area, a fountain which concealed the portal created by an ancestor millennia ago. She had sought to rid their world of all dark magic, sending it out of their reality, never knowing she'd doomed another to suffer it. Lucifer had discover that detail when little more than a child and had used it to dispose of his enemies. His own private dumping ground.

He hadn't cared if Claire had fallen victim to it or one of the creatures who had returned. He frowned, touching the portal's energies with his own. Some five months ago, the magic had altered, turning a one-way opening into something more akin to a doorway. Much he had sought to dispose of had found its way home, but he had thought he had finally sealed the route here. Yet it stood wide-open and tainted with unfamiliar magic. Unfocused, but powerful. Felt more like a spell gone wrong than a deliberate attempt, but it had still brought the stranger into his palace. Not a comfortable occurrence when all oracles indicated change.

Frustration surged again. He'd not be able to seal the portal until the other energy faded which would take weeks. One tool in his arsenal rendered impotent, he'd have to rely on other, less gentle methods. He smiled. Not a problem.

*

Castiel stood at the foot of the large bed and watched his guests sleep. The wolf, Madison, had come around for a time and told him who they were. That they came from somewhere … else. It did not shock him given the strangeness of Dean Winchester's garb and what he'd seen the 'horse' do, but it was a great deal to absorb.

"Getting in touch with your inner stalker, little bro?"

"I am simply making certain you didn't let them slip into some sort of coma while you were stealing sweet cakes from the kitchen."

"Sure you were." Gabriel moved to his side, then offered one of the pilfered cakes. "Got nothing to do at all with how pretty he is."

Castiel glared, then took a cake to punish him. Gabriel squawked with dismay and clutched the remaining sweet close. Satisfied with his revenge Castiel said, "Perhaps I was admiring the wolf's fur. I've never seen such a deep brown tone."

"Probably her hair color and I ain't buying it. Guy is gorgeous, brave and mysterious. Be catnip for you even if it hadn't been months since you last enjoyed yourself."

He tried another glare, knowing it wouldn't do any good. "I find your knowledge of my sex life disturbing."

Gabriel smirked. "Giving you grief about it is part of being a big brother."

"You do the job well." He sighed. "He saved Claire's life and stood his ground to fight for his companion when all good sense demanded he flee." He meant it to explain his interest, but as ever, he could not fool Gabriel.

"Kind of makes you a little in love with him already, doesn't it?"

He thought maybe it did, but declined to answer. Instead he said, "I should check on Claire. She may have nightmares after the events of the day."

"Yeah, well, I'd go for the stables, not her room. Kid keeps sneaking out to see Starling."

Not a surprise. The two had grown up together. "The mare remains well?"

"Yep, she got over whatever was ailing her the moment her stallion nuzzled her."

"At least the power of True Love's Kiss is not completely lost." Even he heard the despair in his voice.

For a moment they stood in silence, then, to his dismay, Gabriel figured out what Castiel had not yet meant him to know and gripped his arm. "It's started then?"

Briefly he thought to deny it, but he would need his brother's help to survive for as long as possible, so he nodded. "Yes."

A soft sound of dismay slipped from Gabriel's lips, then his arms encircled Castiel and he held him close. Castiel allowed himself to cling to his brother, his eyes on the bed and regret heavy in his soul.

*

Dean seriously did not want to open his eyes. Until he did he could pretend everything he was doing his very best not to remember hadn't happened. But things kept intruding on his happy world of denial. First the bed beneath him. Sure Madison had been using her savings to treat them to better places to crash, but the soft firmness of the mattress and the sheets felt freaking expensive. Then there was the large, warm weight pressed up against his right side. The one his hand said was covered with fur. And finally there were a bunch of freaking birds singing up a storm outside of an obviously open window – something Dean would never allow – instead of the soothing sounds of traffic. "Freaking witches," he muttered, feeling it could really never be said often enough.

The weight shifted fast and upward like something getting to four feet, and fuck it anyway. He surrendered and opened his eyes to see Madison-wolf peering down at him and how the hell did a wolf manage to look anxious? "You okay, Dean?" she asked, and he was never gonna get used to that.

"Peachy." Really should have gone the alcoholic route. Then he could blame this shit on too much booze and have a lot more fun in the process. Yeah, really bore repeating, "Fr-"

"So help me if you say that one more time I'll bite you."

Well, that was different. He raised his eyebrows. "Since when are we joking about that?"

"Since I became 100 percent wolf. No 'were' prefix involved." Dean would have sworn she managed to smirk, but that was just crazy. "I bite you, you bleed. End of story."

Given Dean's luck and charming personality, he figured he stood a good chance of testing out her theory, so, purely in the interests of self-preservation he asked, "And you know this how?"

"I told her," a way too cheerful voice butted in.

Madison shifted to the side so he could see a … cheerful looking little guy standing near the window. "Dean, this is Gabriel."

"And he is …?"

"Advisor to the crown, resident healer and this kingdom's poor excuse for a wizard, at your service," he said with a bow.

Great, a 'Harry-Potter wanna be' in a brown tunic and freaking tights. A paw smacked him upside the head. "Be nice," Madison hissed at him. "He saved both of us."

Right, as he slowly sat up he had to give her that since he'd lost the squishy, broken feeling inside his chest. And hey, no major surgery or insurance fraud involved. "Thanks," he said. "You cure the were-curse, too?"

Gabriel sighed. "I wish I could. I would love to meet the lady behind those incredible eyes, but that level of magic has been gone from this land for generations. The Wolf Curse simply doesn't work here the way she suggests it does in your world. Although how a curse of this one ended up in yours is a mystery."

"Super." He pushed himself the rest of the way out of the bed. No pain, but tired still. "Guess that makes it one of our gigs."

"Not until you've rested up, handsome," she said, then her teeth closed around his wrist. Biting into the leather wrist band he wore instead of skin, she tried to pull him back down.

"Knock it off, furball," he muttered. "Been horizontal for hours."

"Day and a half actually," Gabriel said, taking hold of his other arm. "Healing trance – very effective, but draining. And I think my loving brother would have me thrown in the nastiest dungeon we have if I allow you to push yourself too hard too soon."

"Brother?"

"Prince Castiel. You saved his daughter and for that we are both deeply grateful." Gabriel gave his arm a little squeeze. "So reap the benefits and let us pamper you."

Dean surrendered, mostly because he was going to fall on his ass if he didn't, and let them guide him back to the mattress. Although he insisted, "Not ready for another nap. Wanna sit for awhile."

"Deal," Gabriel answered, and helped build a nest of pillows for him to sit back against.

He was just getting settled when the door opened, a young voice squealed, "You're awake!" then a blonde whirlwind launched itself at him. Instinctively he caught the girl, then didn't fight as she did her best to hug the stuffing out of him.

Dean couldn't help but smile and hug back. Always had been a sap for a kid. "Hey, sweetheart, you okay?"

"Yes, you saved me," she told him, then hugged him hard enough he squeaked. Darned kid was stronger than she looked.

"Claire, don't break the nice man," Gabriel chided her, although he sounded amused.

"I won't! But I need to go get Daddy," she said, then tore out of the room.

"Wow."

"Yep, she is that."

"The other guy getting all this attention?"

Gabriel gave him a puzzled look. "Other guy?"

"The one who helped me."

He laughed. "Oh, I assure you, he's getting the royal treatment."

Madison snorted. Did wolves snort? "You shouldn't tease him, Gabe."

Gabe? Okay, yeah, it fit.

"I'm sorry, my lady," he said with a bow. "I'll try to be good."

My lady? Whatever. "So about the other guy," Dean prompted. Couldn't remember much beyond a strong presence and a deep voice.

The door slammed open again admitting Claire as she tugged on the arm of a man dressed in blue stuff a lot like Gabe's. "See Daddy, I told you."

"So you did," said the voice he remembered. "Hello, Dean."

Bright blue eyes, dark hair, good smile, better body, deep voice all added up and hit Dean harder than the freaking rawhead had. Gorgeous. Absolutely freaking gorgeous. He didn't think his jaw dropped open, but if felt like such a close thing that the heat of a blush spread over his cheeks. Which only made him blush harder as he squeaked out, "Hey."

"Real smooth," Madison whispered into his ear, her fur tickling him enough he recovered and scowled at her.

"Personal space, flea bag," he snapped, giving her an annoyingly ineffective shove. He blamed it on how tired he was, not all the lupine muscle braced against him.

"Overrated," she said cheerfully and flopped down over his legs, effectively pinning him against his impulse to get up and play all well for his handsome visitor. He glared 'bitch' at her.

She snickered.

Gabe outright laughed.

Dean decided he hated them both and went back to staring at Castiel. Probably impolite or something, but he decided he could get away with it since the prince was doing the same to him as his daughter chattered on about how brave and wonderful Dean had been.

Gabriel chuckled again, then said, "Much as I hate to break up the party, this young man needs at least three more hours in dreamland before I let him out of here."

Dean opened his mouth to protest, but Castiel headed him off, "Perhaps I could return and take you on a short stroll around the palace?"

Knowing he wasn't going to win this one or get a better offer, he said, "Deal." He fixed a warning glare on Gabe, who held up his hands up in surrender.

"Hey, I'm just a lowly court physician. Wouldn’t dream of contradicting a royal."

"Gabriel," Castiel muttered, but the smaller man slung an arm around his brother's shoulders.

"Come on, kid, I've got to give you some tips about what to do if you ever want to do more than stare," he said leading the prince out of the room.

Dean heard "Gabriel!" then Claire shook her head.

"Adults are so strange sometimes." She leaned over and kissed Dean on the cheek. "Bye."

He smiled at her. "Bye." He watched her skip out of the room then turned his attention to the pesky wolf using his body as a pillow. "Don't you have sheep to scare or something?"

"Someone has to guard your virtue," she said, shifting up so he could lie down, then plopping right back onto him.

He snorted. "Haven't had any of that since I was thirteen."

"Braggart, now go to sleep. You need all the beauty rest you can get."

"Bitch."

He only felt a little twinge when she answered, "Jerk."

*

Sam picked himself up off the forest floor and looked around in amazement. The lake and road had vanished, leaving only woods and a beautiful fountain. He supposed he must have come out of that, but he'd blacked out for at least a second or two when he'd jumped into the lake lake like High Priestess Sally had suggested. Adding to the weirdness factor, he wasn't wet at all. Didn't even feel like he'd gotten wet then been unconscious long enough to dry out. Right, weird covered it nicely.

"Dean!" he called out in case his brother had stayed in the area. The lack of answer didn't surprise him. Things were never that easy when a Winchester was involved, and Sam was almost two full days behind Dean. Time for a more practical approach, he thought, his eyes turning to the ground. Their father had made certain they could track and he didn't like the signs he saw. He could easily make out Dean-sized tracks, but could see no indication of the woman the coven had said was traveling with him. Instead he could make out the paw prints of a large dog or wolf, and the hooves of a horse. From the looks of it, the horse had gone from wandering around the clearing to a fast gallop with the wolf on its heels.

No, Sam didn't like the look of that at all. He shouldered his backpack – gone with it instead of a less practical duffle – pulled the gun from his waistband and started following what he hoped was a horse carrying his brother to safety.

It took him an hour to reach a second clearing. One occupied by something big, gray, ugly and … fried. He kicked the rotting corpse over and could see the distinct signs of contact points left by taser electrodes. Had to have been shot by Dean, but the only thing they hunted that could be killed by a taser blast was … Oh, fuck.

A rawhead. Yes, the body structure had differences, but the similarities were strong enough to make him think it was some sort of variation on the creature that had almost killed Dean last year. Blood signs made his stomach churn and he wondered how much better his brother had faired this time. Several horses had been here, moving to and from the clearing at speed. He tried to find it reassuring. Nothing he could do, but keep walking.

*

Dean glowered at the clothes on the bed. Bad enough a shower around here involved tapping a rock that looked hilariously like soapstone. Somehow the thing made a guy feel clean head to toe, including the teeth. Saved time and all that, but cut way down on the private time and the stupid wolf would not give him some space. Speaking of which, "Damnit, where are my jeans?" He got that his shirts had been ripped to shreds in the battle, but there had been nothing wrong with his jeans or his boots.

"Didn't see where they put them," the miserable fuzzball lied through her snout. "Maybe you should go like that. You look so cute in your boxers."

Before he could give that the proper scathing response it required another voice said, "Yeah, he kind of does. At least Cassie'll like it."

Dean jumped, then whirled around to face the window. For a moment he saw nothing, then his brain registered something small, furry and, "What the fuck?"

"Hey, Pip," Madison offered a friendly greeting as the … chipmunk hopped over to the bed, then settled on her head.

Christ, this place did not compute. "Aren't you supposed to be eating him?" he asked.

Madison made a face. "Eww, besides, he talks. That'd just be creepy."

"Yeah, way creepy," Pip agreed. "Nobody eats anybody else around here."

Right. Dean could see how … creepy that would be. Which explained why the meal he'd been brought, while quite tasty, hadn't contained any meat. The cheeseburger lover in his soul whimpered pathetically, but no, he seriously didn't want one if all the animals talked.

"Big ones can't," Pip cut into his thoughts.

"What?"

"Talk. Lost the ability somewhere along the line. But they still communicate just fine. So no eating them either." The chipmunk puffed himself up like he was determined to get into a fist fight over the matter, and Dean held up his hands in a 'calm down' gesture.

"Hey, color me a vegan," he said, then returned to his problem. "Now where are my freaking clothes?"

Pip tilted his head. "Um, right there?" he said, his paw gesturing toward the offensive stack, then he looked down at Madison. "He okay? Should I get Gabe?"

"No," Madison snickered. "He's just being stubborn."

Dean glared at her. "I am not wearing tights!"

And fuck Dean's life anyway, now he knew what a confused chipmunk looked like. "Why not? All you two-legs do."

His brain got caught in a loop of 'it's too girly' – except it hadn't looked that way on Castiel – and 'don't have the legs for it' – because they worked fine and all, but Dean had always hated his freaking bowed legs. Yeah, okay, partly because of vanity and his 'big brother' need to get the extra inches straight legs would have given him toward Sammy's height, but mostly because he'd once overheard a pediatrician tell his dad that they put him at risk for arthritis and Dean couldn't keep hunting if he couldn’t move fast. Stupid really. Nothing hid them, but emphasizing them with shorts or freaking tights made him anxious. Like he was more vulnerable or something. Deciding to play dirty, he drew on that and gave them his best woeful look.

Fortunately Madison huffed before he had to resort to an artful tear or two. "They're under the bed, spoil sport."

With a cry of triumph he found the stash and pulled out his jeans, socks and biker boots. All nice and clean like his boxers. He pulled them on, then a light brown tunic similar to the one Gabriel had worn. Soft and silky, really felt nice against his skin. Almost made him reconsider the tights. Almost.

"And for the record, you would have looked great in them," Madison grumbled.

Dean snorted. "You just like checking out my ass," he said, smoothing out his hair.

"Well, it is a nice one," she admitted, not looking at all repentant. "Even if it has that 'look, but don't touch' vibe." She gave a dramatic sigh. "Ah, the sad loss to womankind everywhere."

He rolled his eyes. "Give it a rest, shaggy. Now do I look presentable? To a prince?" Wait. When had he turned into an insecure twelve-year old girl?

"Sure thing, Deano." Pip scurried toward the window. "I'll tell Cassie you're ready."

*

Castiel's stomach refused to settle down. It wasn't that he felt nauseous, but no matter how much he'd tired to relax since he'd met Dean, it kept fluttering. Most disconcerting. It had turned the entire afternoon into a waste. He simply had been unable to concentrate or keep his gaze from straying to the clock and willing it to move swiftly through those three hours of sleep.

When the time had finally arrived, he'd needed to force himself not to go rushing off to the guest chambers. Dean would need time to eat, to dress. So Castiel had endured another hour's wait before sending Pip to check on things.

After several long minutes his friend came bounding back into his office, then leapt onto his shoulder. "You're good to go, Cassie. And for a human, I'd have to say, he's looking fine."

"I'm getting quite enough grief from Gabriel on that front," he muttered, heading out the door.

"Yeah, well, he ain't buyin' the whole 'I'm just grateful' stuff neither. You know you don't need to lie to me, right?" The chipmunk sounded hurt.

Castiel sighed in exasperation. "Fine, he's beautiful and it's been a long time, but there's nothing more than that. There can't be. At least not yet."

"Yeah? Maybe not, but I got a good feelin' about this."

So did he. It made no sense, but so did he.

*

Sam had walked for three hours before he'd lost the trail on rocky ground. He'd kept going for another two miles before moving back into a forested area. This one had a less foreboding feel to it, but not much comfort when he had no idea what direction to go. "Damnit, Dean, where are you?"

"What's a Damnit Dean?" asked what sounded like a child in the tree above him.

But when his head jerked upward he couldn't see anything but three bluebirds. "Where are you?" he demanded, his hand tightening on his gun.

"There's no one here but us," a slightly different voice said. And shit, it seemed to be coming from the bird on the far left. "Are you feeling all right?"

Sam took a moment to remind himself weird stuff came with the job, and he'd fallen into another reality. Not to mention that dismissing talking birds as a hallucination wouldn't help him find Dean. "I'm fine, thank you." Okay, he could do this. "I'm looking for someone."

"Oh, well, we know someone who's lost!" The bird in the middle chimed in. "This way!" She – Sam was pretty sure it was a she, but the voices were toddler register so he couldn't be certain – flew off the branch, then down the path to the right. Her friends followed in her wake, and Sam saw no choice, but to do so himself.

*

The freaking castle was pink. Okay, Dean had to admit it wasn't pink, pink. Sort of like the light mauve in Sammy's old box of 64 crayons. But still … pink. And everyone kept singing. As Castiel showed him around, Dean could swear not a chore or an errand got done without someone 'whistling while they worked' or going for the 'spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down' approach to making work fun. Made a guy feel surly for walking along without so much as humming. Was nuts!

And yeah, it was gorgeous. Not at all some dingy, drafty European castle of old. No, this one was bright, comfortable, even somehow cozy at times despite its immense size. It was like he'd fallen into someone's Barbie's Enchanted Kingdom fantasy game, and he kind of felt the need to punch something or spit or do other manly shit to make sure someone didn't come along and try to give him a 'Ken' makeover.

Of course his freakout/amazement/outrage – pink – might have something to do with distracting himself from how damned tired he felt. Because Castiel had promised to take him for a stroll and to Dean's utter annoyance, he found that he couldn't manage more than that. Damnit, he'd slept for almost thirty hours.

"You must be patient with yourself, Dean," the prince said as he led the way into an inner courtyard filled with flowers and marble benches. "You came very near death before we reached Gabriel. In truth I feared we would not do so in time."

Dean frowned. Not about the almost-dying thing. That sort of shit happened to him all the time, but, "Can you read my mind?"

"No, of course not," Castiel said, looking surprised. Then he tilted his head to one side as if he were considering something. Probably where the stupid chipmunk picked up the gesture. "Although I do seem to understand your moods far better than I normally do." He smiled. "I guess I like paying attention to you."

Dean might hate the 'p' word, but he knew he was pretty. And all his life others had sung the praises of his looks – sometimes with near poetry, but more often buried in crude propositions about what to do with his cocksucker lips or the temptations of his fuckable ass. So yeah, no stranger here to compliments, dubious or otherwise, but no one had ever said 'you' like they really meant him. Not his face or his ass or the rest of his body, but him. It made him feel weak in the knees and his next step faltered.

Castiel steadied him, then frowned. "Dean, either you take my arm or we return to your room," he said, then gentled his ultimatum with, "You should be completely recovered by morning. And I will make the time. I promise."

"Jus a while longer. Please?" he said, slipping his arm through Castiel's. Should have felt ridiculous, but it felt … nice.

"Very well," he relented, then smiled. "But you must tell me when we need to go back. Unless you intend to push yourself so far that I must carry you there once again."

Dean blinked. "You carried me?" He wasn't huge compared to the prince, but he was bigger, and Sam, who hulked over both of them, bitched up a storm when Dean got too bashed up to walk. "Oh, over your shoulders."

"No," Castiel said with a frown. "You were too injured for such conveyance. I did so like this." He swooped Dean up into his arms and stood there, holding him as if carrying a bride over the threshold. Without the slightest sign of strain.

He should have been mortified, but he liked being held like this and … wow. "You're a lot stronger than you look." Then he stiffened, realizing for this world he must be far weaker than he looked. "Shit, am I even stronger than Claire?"

"Yes. Gabriel judged your strength around the level of an average twelve-year old. But he believes the longer you stay here the stronger you will become."

Not certain if he should be comforted by the future or pout over the present, Dean resorted to his usual standby – sarcasm. "So one day I'll grow up to be big and strong like you."

Castiel didn't even flinch. Instead he smiled. "Unlikely. I am indeed much stronger than my size would indicate. Most who serve the people, including the royal line, are."

"Magic again?"

"Yes. Much is gone, but some remains. Although in time, all will vanish." He looked so sad, Dean's hold on his shoulders shifted into a hug. It brought a small smile to Castiel's face.

Small and sad, but such a beautiful sight, Dean couldn't help but lean close and their lips met. A light, affectionate touch, nice. Very nice. But as they drew back something seemed sad. Not between the two of them – Castiel acted as charmed by the kiss as Dean – but all around them. "What?"

His prince seemed as puzzled as him, then frowned. "Darn it, Pip, I told you to leave us in peace."

The chipmunk as well as several other small creatures came out of hiding. "Sorry, but we thought. …"

"I know what you thought. And you should know better."

"Well, I don't," Dean protested, shifting to give Castiel a hint it was time to set him down. He did, leaving Dean free to cross his arms and glare. "What did they think?" Cause his best guess was way too kinky for a freaking pink castle and a prince out of some damned Disney tale.

Castiel hesitated, but Pip leaped into the breech. "True Love's Kiss. Way you two was mooning over each other we figured it'd finally happen."

Dean could hear the capital letters. "True Love's Kiss? Is he kidding?"

"It's a … legend."

Right. "You mean curse, don't you?"

He sighed. "One believed to have started as a blessing, but yes." Castiel shook his head. "In either case, it has not happened in 500 years."

"What's it supposed to do?"

Pip snorted. "It's only the most powerful thing in the world. Come on, Cassie, tell him." He gestured at the other woeful looking animals. "Cheer everyone up."

He rolled his eyes, then shook his head, but it clearly said surrender versus no and the animals cheered. He pointed from Dean to a bench, "You should sit down. This takes a few minutes."

"Ooookay." Dean did as he was told and soon had birds and squirrels and freaking bunny rabbits all clustered around him.

"Gods, I'd thought I'd out grown this."

Then the weirdest thing Dean had ever gone through happened – and given his life that was saying a hell of a lot. Music started playing. An honest to God freaking orchestra without a single musician, speaker or remote in sight. Suddenly Dean thought of all those working songs they'd heard during his walk and wondered if his first weird impression had been right and the rabbit hole had landed them in the middle of Karaoke Land.

The deep swell settled into gentle violins, then he saw the prince take on a manner much like he'd expect to see when he was with his daughter, and Castiel began to sing.


When you meet the someone who was meant for you
Before two can become one there's something you must do

One of the rabbits chimed in, Do you pull each other's tails?

Then a bird asked, Do you feed each other seeds?

Castiel laughed, then sang again.


No, There is something sweeter everybody needs.
I've been dreaming of a True Love's Kiss
And a prince, I'm hoping, comes with this
That's what brings Ever-Aftering so happy
That's the reason we need lips so much
For lips are the only things that touch
So to spend a life of endless bliss
Just find who you love through True Love's Kiss

The song filled the courtyard until it almost vibrated with the hope of it, then Castiel looked straight into his eyes, and finished, Since first we knew love through True Love's Kiss!

Dean had never wanted anything more in his life than for it to be true.

*

The birds led Sam deep into the breath-taking woods. Flowers of every color he could imagine decorated the most perfectly shaped trees he'd ever seen. It almost overwhelmed his senses. Then he heard the singing. A woman's voice. Clear and beautiful like nothing he'd ever even hoped to hear.


I wonder, I wonder
If my heart keeps singing
Will my song go winging
To someone who'll find me
And bring back a love song to me?

He wanted to sit down on the nearest rock and listen, all thought gone beyond the beauty of her voice. Vaguely he wondered if the mythical version of a siren had him in her thrall, then she screamed.

Shoving off the backpack as he ran, he quickly reached a clearing with a house nestled in the midst of a tree. He could see a woman scrambling among the branches, her red hair flashing in the sunlight as the biggest damned nightmare Sam had ever seen grabbed for her.

Green and bigger than the house itself, it crawled after her. Sam fired at the hand a moment before it caught hold. The creature bellowed, then glared at him. "Get your own lunch," it rumbled, then reached for the girl again.

Gun with an empty clip in his hand and nothing he could even use in the discarded backpack, Sam started running. Toward her. Because even if he had to beat the damned monster with his bare fists, he had to save her. Then the gigantic brain Dean always teased him about kicked in and he saw how the branch bent beneath the weight of prey and hunter. That'd work. He skidded to a stop below her and shouted, "Jump."

She gave him a horrified 'are you kidding me?' stare, looked over her shoulder at the thing trying to eat her, then let go of the branch. Sam caught her, sending them both crashing to the ground at the same moment the branch whipped back at the loss of her weight. Like an old-fashioned catapult it hurled the creature far over the tree tops and out of sight, but toward the mountains. Landing would not be pretty.

"You okay?" he asked, easing her off his body and looking for any damage.

"Oh, yes, are you?" she asked. She was pretty in an almost ethereal sort of way. Pale skin with a glow to her cheeks, large wide green eyes and cascades of long, red hair. Very pretty.

"I'm fine," he said, getting them both to his feet. "What the heck was that thing?"

"A troll, silly. Everyone knows that."

"Oh." A troll. God, he missed Dean. His brother would say something sarcastic enough to put all the weird into perspective. Dean. Crap. He'd gotten so caught up in her singing, he'd forgotten all about Dean. "If you're sure you're all right, I should get going."

"So soon?" She said with obvious dismay and caught hold of his hand. She stood close to a foot shorter than him which must be the reason an urge to protect her surged through him. "It might come back."

He looked at her. "Is that really likely?"

"Well, it's not impossible. Besides, it'll be dark in a few hours. You must let me repay you by fixing you dinner."

He remembered the blood and wanted to go on, but knew he wouldn't be able to find his way through woods this thick at night. "All right. Thank you."

"Oh, good." She smiled and her face grew even prettier.

"I'm Sam."

"Pleased to meet you, Sam," she said with a small courtesy. Somehow it fit with the enchanted woods, the singing and the troll.

He waited, but she just smiled happily at him. Okay. "And you are?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I have no idea," she admitted with a strange degree of cheer, then she frowned. "Will that be a problem?"

*

Castiel led the way into the stable. He would have preferred to return Dean to Gabriel's care, but the man had insisted the song had given him a burst of energy and he wanted to check on his horse. Although he'd said, '… horse.' Strange. But then much about Dean was, yet somehow it only charmed Castiel all the more.

"Here she is," he said, stopping in front of the stall sheltering the black mare. He'd given up on trying for a more accurate description.

"Hey, baby," Dean said, his arm slipping from Castiel's, so he could stroke both hands over her muzzle. "Wow, you are something."

"Indeed, she is. I thought her a live creature until she revealed her secrets."

"What?" Dean looked from the horse to him. "She's not alive?"

"No. You didn't know?"

Dean shook his head. "She … looked a lot different where I come from. Something we call a car. Type of machine."

He did not know what the word car meant, but he understood machine easily enough. "Ah, well, she still is. There is some sort of compartment to the rear."

"Whoa, sweetheart, do you still have your trunk?"

The horse nodded, then there was that sound of a lock disengaging again and a seam appeared along her back hindquarter. She turned so they could look into the small, dark compartment. Empty. "Okay, I guess that's where the taser came from." Another toss of the horse's head answered. "Weird for that to be the only thing to make it through, but I'm not complaining. Sure saved my ass."

She whickered happily, obviously fond of the human she served. Truly beyond this opening, she was indistinguishable from the other horses in the stable.

"I wonder," Castiel murmured. Gabriel always chided him for failing to see beyond his eyes. "You called for the taser. Ask for something else you had stored within her."

"Um, okay, I need Dad's Journal."

A thick book with a clasp rose out of the horse as if lifted by an invisible hand. A relieved smile crossed Dean's face as he took it. Apparently a precious object. "Thanks, baby."

"Impressive. Whatever magics my lands lack, the fountain has much. We will have to try to find it. Perhaps it can delay the inevitable."

"Sure. Bet she can find the way back, can't you, girl?"

Another nod.

"Excellent. A quest then for another day." He took hold of Dean's elbow, his grasp firm, but gentle. "But for now it is long past time for you to return to your bed."

Dean pouted for a moment, but nodded when Castiel showed no sign of giving in. Not that it was easy. He wanted very much to comfort him despite knowing the expression was mostly feigned. "'kay. Guess I am a little tired. Here, baby, take good care of this for me." He put the book back into the 'trunk,' then it slid closed, sealing without a sign of its existence. The horse turned back round to nuzzle Dean, and he laughed. "Thanks, sweetheart, I love you, too."

And so stood the Crown Prince of Angelasia envying a horse. And not a real one at that. Ah, the twists and turns of life. "You've called her many things. Has she an actual name?"

"Impala."

"I'll have it stenciled on her stall door." One other thing to make this one think of the castle as his home.

"Cool," he said, taking Castiel's arm again. "Speaking of names, Pip calls you Cassie."

"Yes, as does Gabriel and a few close friends," he answered as they walked. "You are welcome to do so as well."

Dean made a face that was less endearing than previous ones. "Dated a girl by that name once." He said it in a wistful sort of way that suggested she might have once been special to him. "Don't want to call you the same."

Castiel didn't want him using a name that would invoke the memory of someone else either. "That's fine. I have an even greater number of friends who call me by my proper name."

"But I like nicknames," Dean pouted, thought a moment, then asked, "Can I call you Cas?"

Cas. Yes, he liked it. Especially the way it rolled off of Dean's tongue. "It would please me greatly."

"'kay." Dean seemed happy with a sleepy contentment. Perhaps now would be an excellent time to bring up the subject Madison had indicated might not please him.

"You saved my daughter."

"Mmm," Dean leaned against him, close to snuggling.

"I'm the crown prince."

"Mmm hm."

"That means you saved a princess."

"Mmm."

"It is standard practice to knight someone for that."

"Mmm," Dean sighed and Castiel lifted him up into his arms. Dean fell asleep the moment his head came to rest on Castiel's shoulder. Ah, that went well.

*

"He wants to knight me, too? Why? All I did was get myself knocked out!" Madison sounded kind of upset, so Claire stroked her fur, then looked up at Gabriel. She never called him Uncle Gabriel. She'd never wanted to use the same title for him as Uncle Lucifer and Gabriel allowed her to get away with it.

He gave her a smile. "I believe he feels the effort was well worth the honor. And for the record, so do I."

The wolf stopped, then turned so she faced the two humans. "You aren't giving Dean a choice, are you?"

"Nope. Save a princess, get knighted. No negotiations allowed."

"So why give me one?"

He knelt in front of her. "Because, beautiful lady, right now only my brother, my niece and I know you are a cursed human. If you are knighted everyone will know the truth and that must be your choice."

Claire watched Madison staring into her uncle's eyes and thought the two of them looked at each other a lot like the way Dean and Daddy did. Which meant they were falling in love, too, and they had no hope of ever being together.

"Is it shameful? What I am?"

Gabriel stroked the fur of her neck. "No, not here, but we did not want to presume how things are in your world."

She laughed a sound without humor that made Claire's hot eyes water with tears. "I'm nothing in my world. A myth at best, the ravings of a lunatic at worse, and … I've killed at least three people who didn't deserve it."

Gabriel's hand did not draw away. "The curse robbed you of control?"

"Yes. Dean thinks my subconscious must have seen them as a threat, but I –" she stopped suddenly, her gaze shifting to Claire. "Give us a moment, sweetie, okay?"

Claire nodded, then hurried ahead and into the throne room. Fortunately it was empty. She wasn't a baby anymore. She knew what her great-uncle did helped keep Daddy alive, but she'd never managed to like the regent. Sometime about him always made her feel a little sick and scared. And she thought maybe Daddy and Gabriel felt the same way and they might be worried about what could happen if they were gone.

"Hey, kiddo, how's it going?"

"Fine, Pip," she said, wiping away the tears before the chipmunk settled on her shoulder.

"Yeah, I figured." His little paw patted her cheek. "Lots of grownup drama out there. Hidin' out in here is the best place for us."

She looked around at all the tapestries. Millennia's worth of great deeds and Happily Ever Afters, but nothing for centuries. "Pip?"

"Yeah?"

"Did Mommy love my first daddy? I mean really love him?"

She felt the chipmunk droop and assumed he'd give her the same 'yes, of course, let's go do something fun' everyone else did. He even had before, but everything felt different now.

"Yeah, sweetheart he did," Pip admitted in the saddest voice she'd heard from him. "Loved her like crazy."

"The way Daddy's falling in love with Dean. And Gabriel with Madison."

"Yeah, I think so."

Surrounded by monuments to generations of True Love, her voice fell to a whisper, "It doesn't make any difference, does it? It won't change anything." Her daddy would die. Like she'd feared he would since he'd tried to tell a Story about her. "Love can't save him."

The little choked sound he made was answer enough.

*

Through the lens of the waters swirling in his caldron, Lucifer watched his nephews falling in love, watched the first kiss between the prince and the weak human a malfunctioning spell had brought to his doorstep. And for one brief moment, the regent knew … fear? No, far too strong a word. He had spent his life serving the very dark magic that had turned blessing to curse and ensured love would never threaten one such as him.

Yet he'd dared to challenge the oracles and knew such attempts could bring the very ruin he sought to avoid down on his head. So in the moment when lips met with a potential not seen within his castle walls since James had first kissed Amelia, his stomach fluttered with the tiniest ember of doubt. And when dark magic once again blocked destiny making the very air shudder with disappointment, relief twisted within him. It infuriated him.

Twice now this insect had disturbed him. Unthinkable. And yet on the morrow, custom demanded he knight the man for the very offense he'd committed against him. Unendurable. Yet it must be borne. Like so many other annoyances forced upon him by his tenuous hold on the throne. Well, no more. The oracles had decreed change, but was not this the very thing he desired?

He'd erred in focusing his magic on prevention instead of using the gathering energy to fulfill his own ambitions. Well, no more. The time had come to take the throne and to rid himself of all who stood in his way.

Murmuring words in a language unknown by all but him, he gathered his power, then fed his rage and hatred into the waters showing the image of his hated nephew carrying Winchester from the stables. Such a tender sight. It made him sick. And he screamed in fury. The water boiled, obscuring all, then three perfect apples floated to the surface. Lucifer laughed.

*

Sam quickly figured out the limits of Anna's condition. He called her Anna because it was the name engraved on a bracelet she wore. A pity her life's history couldn't fit on a piece of jewelry. Sure it was nice to call her something beyond 'hey, you' or to have to make up something at random, but he didn't like not knowing things. God, he missed his laptop. Probably could have found out everything about her in an hour tops if he'd brought it instead of weapons. Then he rolled his eyes at himself. He'd left it behind because the charge wouldn't have lasted more than three hours. Not to mention the lack of Internet.

So no computer wizardry to the rescues. Instead he had to rely on observation. For instance she looked and moved like a young person, but not one still growing so he figured they were roughly the same age. No wedding ring, so maybe no husband? He frowned watching her dip out bowels of a vegetable stew while trying to keep him in her line of sight.

That was the big twist on her amnesia. If she looked away from him for more than a few moments, she forgot who he was. Fortunately she had a cheat sheet for such occasions. The moment he'd agreed to stay, she'd dragged him inside and had drawn his picture, putting the troll attack in the background. She was quite good at it. She was also very fast, completing it within a few minutes. "I'll just put it here," she'd said, laying it on top of a stack of drawings, "with the pictures of all my other friends. That way I'll know I can trust you."

She'd let him look through them. Mostly, as she'd said, drawings of woodland friends. But toward the bottom he found her dream images. "Sometimes when I wake up I have a picture stuck in my head, so I draw it." A castle, a girl with light hair standing with a man and woman in medieval finery – royal family? Her family? The girl again, this time with two boys – twins with dark hair and blue eyes. Again dressed like royalty. If Anna wasn't a princess, she hung out with one. But Sam added up the pictures, the talking animals and the enchanted woods and decided she was not only a princess, but one under a curse.

As the evening wore on he became certain of it. Never seen a head trauma cause amnesia this weird or this on-going. She seemed to have an excellent memory for general information and remembered things he'd told her even after she forgot who he was when he'd needed to step out to deal with a full bladder. No, the curse seemed designed to keep her confused about who to trust – something she'd overcome to some extent with the pictures – and prevent her from forging anything deeper than the most superficial relationship.

He actually considered the merits of kissing her at one point. Stories always revolved around the handsome prince rescuing the princess (or maid soon to be one), then breaking the spell/curse with a kiss. Trouble was Sam wasn't a prince (and Dean would certainly have a few things to say about the handsome part), plus he felt like he was on shaky ground with the whole 'rescue.' Sure, he'd caught her, but she would have fallen from the branch and out of the troll's reach with much the same results even if he hadn't shown. Most he'd saved her from was a broken bone or two. Not really the stuff of an epic fairy tale.

Worse, what if it worked? They could end up with some sort of bond when she was already married. Maybe even had children – perhaps even the ones in her drawings. No, much as Sam felt drawn to her, he couldn't, wouldn't do anything, until he had some answers. But as the evening wore on and they talked, he found himself thinking it felt a lot like the day he'd met Jessica, and whatever those answers were, they were going to hurt.

*

At dawn Lucifer summoned Raphael and Uriel to his chambers. While technically under the command of Balthazar, the two had always owed their loyalty to Lucifer, not the crown prince and his faithful captain. He studied them for a moment. He trusted them most of all, but they were far from the only ones to understand the glory Angelasia would achieve with Lucifer as king.

"Our time is near," he told them, then assigned their tasks. Within minutes Uriel departed with the apples, while Raphael made for the stables and a swift horse. Yes, very near.

*

Dean woke up and reality set in. Not the 'holy shit, witches have been messing with me and somebody's got to die' sort of reality he might have expected to explain exactly why he was currently staying in a castle. A pink one for fuck's sake. No, it was more the usual, 'yesterday was great, but time to move on.' Not so much because of the next hunt. Dean might be stubborn, but he got that the 'family business' would soon need to hold a 'going out of business' sale. Make it all easier if he could blame it all on his life's work. But he couldn't. No, he knew he had to leave because he was Dean Winchester and that meant he was very good at two things – killing every evil thing that crossed his path and wearing out his welcome. Hey, anyone with doubts on that front could just ask his brother. Sammy was supposed to love him, put up with him because he was family, but he couldn't do it. So why would someone like Cas?

"Nothing more than gratitude," he muttered, forcing himself to get out of bed like he did most mornings. Depression. Reality. Mostly the same thing for him. Especially since Dad had died, killing not only himself, but the only reason Sam had tolerated Dean's company for almost a year. Sam. He was short two 'okay' texts. Had Sam even noticed? And what would he do if did? Come looking? When he might have a freaking paper due? Not likely.

He wandered into the bathroom and got cleaned up with the same two-second touch to the soapstone. Not very satisfying when he needed the pounding of water against his skin to center him. Had a decision to make. Go back home, hunt as long as he could, then come up with what to do with the rest of his life all while taking the hint and letting Sam get on with his 'brother? What brother?' version of happiness. Or he could stay here.

Well, not here. Not in the castle, but in this reality with the sort of nasty evil underbelly only a world devoted to fairy tales could truly possess. Plus side there, Madison might stay with him for a few more months. She sure as hell couldn't go back to the 'real world' and the death sentence the full moon had waiting for her. Then again, maybe she'd want to stay here. He'd seen the chummy looks she and Gabriel shared. Probably with the little wizard now. Maybe another hint he should take? After all, why come with him? Wasn't like their partnership was based on friendship or anything. She didn't need him to kill her anymore, so she didn't need him period. So, yeah, on his own again.

When he came out of the bathroom he found a clean set of clothes waiting and breakfast on the table. Some sort of veggie omelet and fruit. Looked pretty, but he didn't feel all that hungry. Still needed to eat his inner voice nagged at him. Sounded annoyingly like Sam. And at least hey, there was something that would please Sam. No junk food, no red meat, nothing but healthy fresh food. Sammy paradise.

Once again he ignored the tights in favor of his own jeans, then pulled on an even fancier tunic than yesterday's -- black with silver thread woven through it. Felt smooth and silky against his skin. Nice, but he'd have to remember to get his duffle from Impala. No need to mooch clothes when he had a bag of them tucked away in his baby's magical trunk. Yeah, and there was another reason to stay in Angelasia. Impala. He didn't even know if he could get her home, but if did wouldn't it be like killing her? Sure he loved his car, but a Chevy, even a classic one, couldn’t communicate like Impala could now. Was like she was alive and turning her back into a car? Not cool. And going back without her? Even less so. Except he would. He knew it. Could think it all through, weigh the pros and cons as carefully as he could, but in the end he'd go back because Sam was on the other side. Even if Sam was done with him.

God, he was such a loser. Furious with himself, he snatched up the apple he knew Sam would tell him to eat and threw it into the fireplace with all of his strength. The wet fruit hitting the flames made them roar with enough force it shocked him out of his anger. God, he could have started a fire. He needed to go. Even if he didn't ride straight for the fountain, he had to get out of here before he ended up getting told to leave.

*

From her bedroom window Claire saw Dean walking toward the stables and hurried downstairs to join him. "Dean!" she called, running to him, then squealed in delight as he caught hold of her and spun her up and around.

"Morning, Princess," he said, setting her back on her feet. He was smiling, but his eyes looked sad.

"What's wrong?" she asked, grabbing hold of his hand.

"Nothing," he said with another half-smile that didn't fool her at all. She'd seen them way too many times on her father's face.

"We should go talk to Daddy," she decided since he wouldn't tell her and tried to tug him back the way she'd come. "He can fix whatever it is."

Something that suggested pain touched his face then vanished so quickly she couldn't be certain she'd seen it and her alarm grew. It made her pull even harder, but he managed to hold his ground. "Claire, no. You're father's been bothered by me way too much already. Last thing he'd want is me barging in on him."

She frowned. "He never minds when I interrupt him." Most of the time he even looked glad.

"That's because he loves you, sweetheart."

It was such a strange thing to say. "Of course he does. So come on."

Dean's eyes shimmered a little like her own did when she was trying not to cry. "No, I'm going for a ride. That'll make me feel better, I promise."

"Okay," she agreed because riding Starling always made her feel good. "But I'm coming with you." She used her 'and I'm the princess so you have to agree' voice.

It made him smile again and even chased the shimmer from his eyes. "Okay."

*

Somehow a simple 'okay' turned into a production of major proportions because the princess couldn't just ride off on a lark. Nope, no way. There were people to tell and the 'oh, can we back a picnic?' plea to deal with, too. And then there was. …

"You want to what?" Because he couldn't have heard that right.

"Save a princess, get knighted," Gabe chimed in when Cas got real interested in the wallpaper.

Dean scowled. "No." He heard chuckling from the corner and made certain to level some wattage toward the wolf and the chipmunk watching with such amusement he expected them to start passing out the popcorn at any moment.

Gabe actually snickered. The bitch. "Sorry, Deano, not an option. We already sent the invitations."

He was pretty sure that part was a joke, but just to be clear, "No."

"Dean," Cas finally spoke up in that deep sexy rumble of a voice of his and Dean's toes curled, but only a little, because, uh huh, no way. "You already agreed."

"What? I did not!" he protested, then noticed the shifty look in those gorgeous blue eyes, and his own narrowed. "When?"

"Last night."

Dean stared at him, then snorted. "What? You asked, and I was unconscious so you took it as a yes?"

"He's the prince, he can do that," Gabe pointed out.

Cas glared at him. "Stop helping."

Dean wished they'd gotten to the having sex part so he could threaten to withhold it for a month if this nonsense didn't go away. Then he remembered he'd be long gone by the time the month was over and went back to, "No."

It was Cas' turn to scowl because apparently people didn't say 'no' to princes. Well, he could consider it a growing experience. "Dean-"

Claire's hand touched his arm and he looked down into big pleading eyes. "Please, Dean? Daddy said I could do it."

Cas had a very 'I did?' sort of twitch while Gabe looked utterly thrilled, and damn it to Hell. "Fine, but no freaking tights!"

"Of course not," the whole sneaky, manipulative group chorused. Except for Madison. She muttered, "But they'd look so good on your –"

"Finish that sentence and I'll drown you in Nair."

She shut up.

*

Having known from the beginning that Dean would be uncomfortable with the knighting ceremony let alone a huge celebration, Castiel had arranged for something small and private. Not to say he wouldn't make a fuss with the proclamation during his birthday ball, but Dean would have an entire day and a half to get used to being Sir Winchester.

"He's going to kill me, isn't he?" Castiel muttered to Gabriel as Madison walked Dean up the carpet to the throne – she'd promised a judicious nip or two to get him moving. If necessary. Given the glares the man was shooting toward the wolf, Castiel guessed it had been.

"Be my guess," Gabriel answered, giving him a consoling pat on his back that was totally at odds with the mirth in his voice. "But Claire will save you."

"Daddy, Gabriel, shhh," Claire hissed at them. Apparently their antics were interfering with her attempts to look solemn and dignified. God, had he ever been that young?

"Sorry, sweetheart," Castiel murmured.

"And where's Uncle Lucifer?" she asked in an equally soft voice. "Will it count if he's not here?"

"Yes, you have my authority." Technically, only the king of Angelasia could knight someone, but there was no king which left both the regent and the crown prince with the authority. Claire could act in Castiel's behalf with his permission, but it was a slight on his uncle's part to miss the ceremony. Before Castiel could allow principle to overcome dislike, trumpets sounded.

"Oh, joy," Gabriel muttered as a herald entered.

"Presenting his royal highness, Regent Lucifer," the man announced with a sweeping bow, then the trumpets sounded again as the bane of Castiel's existence strode into the room. Had to give him credit though – it had been one of his uncle's more subtle entrances.

"My apologies," Lucifer announced, settling onto the throne versus standing to honor their guests. It all managed to convey an air of his having deigned to interrupt his busy schedule for this impromptu and oh, so trivial matter.

Gabriel touched Castiel's wrist, calming him and he turned his full attention back to Dean, who had fixed a curious look on the new arrival. Ah, yes, they had yet to meet. Castiel suppressed a sigh. He supposed Dean's luck had to run out sometime.

Dean reached them and knelt, his head properly bowed before the princess. But Castiel noticed him looking up through the veil of his eyelashes and never once did he completely take his eyes off the regent.

*

Sam held up the drawing Anna had made of him as she practically danced into the parlor of her cottage, an entourage of woodland creatures at her feet. "Oh!" She gave him a curious, but happy look, apparently all too familiar with having lost her memory of the prior day. "And you are?"

"Sam," he answered with a smile of his own. "We met yesterday." He handed her the paper and let it give her the details.

"You saved me from a troll. You must be very brave."

He couldn't help blushing at the admiration and wonder in her eyes. God, he loved her eyes. "More like lucky," he admitted, but her smile broadened.

"And modest, too." She touched his arm and it made him positively tingle. "Are you here to break my curse?"

With genuine regret, he shook his head. "No, I think there may be someone else out there who's waiting for you."

"Oh." She looked disappointed. "Well, perhaps he'll find me someday."

He almost asked why she didn't go looking herself, but caught himself in time. Her curse would keep her constantly lost, unaware of where she'd been or where she was trying to go from one day to the next. "Maybe I can help." Sam decided against mentioning Dean – he didn't want her to think his brother was who she was looking for, but the solution to her problem seemed to match up fairly well with his own … quest. "I have to be going, but you could come with me. See if we can find someone who knows you."

Anna smiled broadly. "Oh, yes! That is a wonderful idea. Let me gather some things and we can go."

It took Sam a few minutes to master the trick of staying in her line of sight while they prepared, but once they no longer needed to stop for him to explain yet again who he was and about their plan, they made fast work of it. Within an hour they set out. Dean would have called it a freaking parade with Sam and Anna leading a dozen small animals through the woods and hopefully toward some sort of civilization.

*

Lucifer. The freaking regent's name was Lucifer. Dean tried to tell himself it was an unfortunate coincidence, but the man gave him … the creeps. Guy was pleasant enough in a 'really full of himself' sort of way, but something about his eyes kept Dean on his guard. What was it with the eyes around here?

Making fast judgments about people came with the job, but he'd done more looking into eyes and trusting or not in the last two days than he had his entire life. It was like every chick-flick squealing about the eyes and souls come to life. And it was all slapping a 'danger, Will Robinson, danger' label on Castiel's uncle. Well, Dean had told his share of fairy tales to Sam when they were kids, and he'd liked the gory bits of history enough to know both suggested regents on the verge of losing power could be damned freaking dangerous. So, that was a big no on the leaving until he was certain Castiel, Claire and Gabriel would be safe.

Madison, bless her flea-bitten hide, seemed to have taken a similar dubious view of their newest acquaintance. "He's evil," she fairly growled as they retreated from 'the royal presence.'

Damn, Dean missed his brother. He wanted to be the one ranting and raving about royals with the same name as the fucking devil. Instead, fate, the bitch, forced him into the role of 'the calm, reasonable one.' "We don’t know that yet."

She gave him a look. "Seriously? You're saying he didn't make your skin crawl?"

Oh, fuck reason. "Big time. But we can't do anything without proof." Maybe not even then, but hey, Dean could be an optimist when it was convenient. "So don't get us thrown in the freaking dungeon or something."

She snorted. "Fine, but I've got a really bad feeling about this. Especially with a fancy ball tomorrow night."

He sighed. Yeah, want a disaster? Throw a fancy party. Never failed to make the brown stuff hit the fan. "Guess it's 'stay sharp and keep our friends close' time." Right. They were in a strange reality with rules they didn't quite understand, surrounded by people they couldn't be certain they could trust, and oh, yeah, they were out-muscled by anything older than a freaking pre-teen. Sir Dean and furball to the rescue? They were so screwed.

*

Castiel invited himself along on his daughter's excursion with Dean. Part of him wanted to give them bonding time, but between his growing unease and his enjoyment of his newest knight's company, he couldn't resist. So he had Archon readied as well as Starling, then the entire stable watched in amazement when with a whirl and a click, Impala went from barebacked to saddled in the blink of an eye.

For a moment everyone stared then Dean broke into a delighted grin that didn't make him at all even more handsome and announced, "Now there's a time saver." He patted his horse. "Baby, you're the greatest."

Impala nudged him with a soft whicker that sounded like pure affection, then gave him a stronger push toward her saddle. Dean laughed and swung up onto her back with a movement that made his jeans pull tight across his ass. Castiel found himself very much in agreement with the wolf over the potential merits of a snug pair of tights.

"Daddy? Aren't we going?" Claire asked, and he blushed as he realized he'd been staring. Worse, Dean gave him a knowing smirk. Well, two could play at this game.

"Of course," he said, mounting his own steed with an equally picturesque stretch and flex of the appropriate muscle.

Dean's smirk vanished into a bemused blush. Satisfied, Castiel watched his daughter settle into Starling's saddle, then they set off on their small adventure. The two men let Claire set the pace, putting her horse between them without conscious thought, but when he finally noticed it made Castiel smile. Dean cared about his daughter, and Claire obviously adored the knight. A warmth settled within him, pushing back the cold the stirrings of his illness had put into his bones.

"Cas?"

"Yes, Dean?"

"Why do you need a regent?"

"So he won't die," Claire chimed in.

Dean's face paled and his eyes widened. "Die?"

He could have, perhaps should have, silenced his daughter, but he took the coward's way out and let her explain Stories, blessings turned to curses and the price paid by James and Amelia. "So Daddy became my second daddy, and as long as he's not king, he can stay with me. Right, Daddy?"

Castiel didn't want to lie, but he couldn't admit to the truth. Not to either of the pair of eyes trained on him. "Of course. My uncle has been kind enough to assume enough of my responsibilities to keep the curse at bay." Or it had.

Claire smiled happily, but a shadow seemed to have entered Dean's eyes. Not a fool, but uncertain enough not to call him on his deception. Yes, please. He so wanted to enjoy things before too much truth got in the way.

After a time, Dean seemed to at least agree with the concept if not the information. "So James was king?"

Castiel nodded. Older by three minutes, James had assumed the throne after their father finally lost his long, painful battle with death. He could anticipate the next question. "A king must rule until the birth of his child in order for his issue to become his heir. Claire was born a month after he died, so the duty is mine, not hers."

"But she's your heir."

Another nod.

"And if something happens to you?"

"Lucifer will become her regent until her twenty-first year."

Another shadow flickered in green eyes, but different this time. More like suspicion than the earlier impression of worry. Not difficult to guess the reason. He looked Dean straight in the eye and willed the other man to understand Castiel was aware of the potential danger.

Dean nodded slightly and said nothing. Although Castiel assumed they would have a few unpleasant things to discuss once out of Claire's earshot. "You know something of us now. Perhaps you could share a story or two of your own?"

He saw a flash of pain, then the green-eyes turned to the front. "Pretty boring stuff. How about, I race you to that tree instead?" Without waiting for an answer, he sent Impala flying forward, galloping for a huge oak a mile in the distance.

Claire shrieked in delight and Starling shot off in pursuit. "Go!" he urged and Archon joined the fun.

A natural at parenting, Dean pulled back at the last moment, letting Starling reach their goal a few seconds before Impala, and Castiel couldn't help, but grin. 'Family,' the warmth whispered. Both of them.

*

"You failed me," Lucifer said, his voice laden with sad disappointment.

Uriel paled, and knelt in supplication. "I beg your forgiveness, sire. I did not consider the possibility that the stranger would pass up such a treat."

Hmm, yes, he did have to concede he might have made a similar error himself. Apples were not in season, and fresh ones would not grace anyone's table for another two months. The very idea his 'guest' would destroy it instead of eat it was … incredible. "Perhaps I can be lenient given the circumstances." While he had no tolerance for incompetence, he also saw the folly of executing one of his most trusted men so close to his own victory. "What steps have you taken to correct your error?"

Uriel smiled slightly. "The chef owed me a favor and prepared a lovely lunch for our princess and her knight."

One apple and two annoyances gone. "Excellent."

*

Flushed with her victory, Claire rode along with a grin on her face. No longer a baby, she knew Dean had let her win, but the victory rested not in reaching a silly tree first, but in his liking her well enough to allow it. Even better, Dean made Daddy happy. Really happy. And because she knew Daddy wanted to know more about Dean, she started asking him questions.

As he had with the knighthood, when faced with her pleas, Dean gave in. But his Story was a sad one. He'd lost his mommy and daddy, too. And he missed his brother, but something about the way he said it made Claire think that Dean felt like this Sam didn't miss him. She was certain that couldn't be right, but if it was, she decided two things then and there. First, she would never, ever like Sam. Second, she would make certain Dean always knew she would miss him. Very much.

They stopped and ate lunch. The basket that came out of Impala was huge, and full of so many goodies it made Claire's eyes widen. There was even an apple pie! Then they ate too much and didn't have room for it, but Daddy sat it aside for later.

Full and the sun of beautiful day warm on her skin, she felt tired and curled up between two of her favorite people. "Can you tell me a Story?" she asked with a small yawn, resting her head on Dean's thigh.

He thought a moment, then chuckled. "Probably not anything better than you tell here, but … well, when I was little, my mom used to sing to me a special song when I was tired."

She smiled. "Oh, sing it for me please."

"Okay," he agreed. "Close your eyes."

She obeyed, then felt his hand gently stroke her hair as he began to sing:


Hey Jude, don't make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don't be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don't carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Na na na, na na, na na na na

As she drifted off, Claire found herself humming along with the 'Na na na na.'

*

As the morning wore on and Sam managed to stay close enough to keep the curse from kicking in, the almost child-like quality to Anna's personality slipped away. To his delight, he found himself in the company of a very intelligent, witty young woman. Naturally, they hadn't read the same books, but in many ways their worlds weren’t dramatically different, letting them talk about almost any subject with compatible, if not shared knowledge.

They stopped at mid-day to eat fruit and some of the bread and cheese she'd packed. While they ate, they talked about magic and how it worked both here and at home. A lot seemed the same, but there were big differences, too. Worry churned in his stomach again. The rawhead had hurt Dean. Sam had no doubts of that, but something inside him refused to believe the worst. Fooling himself or the connection between them he'd always denied but had always felt with his brother? God, let it be the connection. He couldn't imagine a world without Dean in it. Didn't even want to be part of it.

"Sam?" Anna gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "What's wrong?"

No longer with a near-child, he saw no reason to keep Dean a secret, so he started talking about him. About how Dean had been brother, father, mother and best friend all rolled into one. How it hadn't saved his big brother from Sam's rebellions; how he'd let him down, left him time and time again; how he feared he might never see him again. His eyes shimmered with tears. "The worst thing is, I don't think he really knows how much I still need him."

Her delicate hands shifted up to cup his face. "Perhaps not, but we'll find him, Sam," she said with such conviction he almost believed. "Then you can tell him, and he'll know."

Sam thought Dean might be too damaged for a simple, but heart-felt declaration to reach him. But if he got the chance, he'd sure as hell try. As often as it took. He gave her soft smile. "Thank you."

Something deep inside him stirred and as she leaned up, his head bent down. But the moment before their lips touched, he remembered himself and pulled back. "Anna, no, we can't," he said, scrambling to his feet.

"Why?" she asked, looking very confused. "Our souls call to each other. Can't you feel it?"

He almost denied it, then stopped himself. She'd been nothing but open and honest. He owed her the same. "Yes, God, yes, but you could be married. Have children."

She shook her head. "There's no one waiting."

Her certainty made no sense. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because I've been waiting for you," she said with a smile.

"But-"

She reached up and pressed a finger to his lips. "I know you." The strangeness of this world stirred and music began to play as she sang:


I know you
I walked with you once upon a dream.
I know you
The gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam
Yes, I know it's true that visions are seldom all they seem
But if I know you, I know what you'll do
You'll love me at once the way you did once upon a dream

Her words filled an emptiness inside he'd had since he'd lost Jess, and he drew her close. It was almost as if an invisible hand guided him down to meet her lips, but he'd barely bent his head when he heard the sound of hooves pounding against the ground.

'Expect the worst' being the family motto, he straightened, pushing her behind him as he drew his gun a moment before a dark-complected man on a gray horse burst into the clearing. He jerked back on the reigns bringing his mount to an abrupt stop before leaping from its back. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword, but he did not draw it, almost as if he knew what Sam had pointed at him. "I mean you no harm," he said in a deep voice that set Sam's teeth on edge.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"Raphael. Knight in service of Angelasia. I have come to take Princess Ananchel to my liege and her betrothed."

*

Castiel had never seen a more beautiful sight than his daughter sleeping peacefully against Dean. "You have a wonderful voice," he murmured, his own rough in a throat tight with emotion.

Dean gave him a pleased smile. "Thanks."

Feeling he had no choice whatsoever, he leaned down and kissed Dean. Gods, the warmth of him. It made words he never thought he'd say stir, but before he could even understand what they were, let alone speak them, a deep low thunder rumbled through the clearing.

The two men drew apart and shared a questioning frown as the sound repeated. "Stay here," he muttered, getting to his feet and moving through a sparse stand of trees to peer down into the distant mountain valleys. Trolls. At least a dozen. On the road to the palace.

*

Lucifer smiled at the uproar coming from the central courtyard. Who had died? His hated nephew? The brat? The 'knight?' Any and all would please him, but when he focused on the words, his smile faded into a frown. Not cries for help, but a call to arms! What folly was this?

Uriel burst into the room. "Sire!" he cried. "An army of trolls is marching against us!"

An army of trolls? Lucifer stared at him.

*

Claire safely clutched in his arms, Dean leapt off of Impala and managed to stay no more than a pace behind Cas as they ran into the palace. No, not Cas. The Prince. Hell, the fucking King of this crazy ass world. Castiel.

Shouting orders that sent men of rank and power scurrying to obey, Castiel threw open the doors of what looked like a war room. Within seconds Balthazar and score of knights arrived, as well as Gabriel and Madison.

The words were thrown about fast furious -- trolls and mountain pass ambushes – an entire military campaign set up in the few minutes it took for Castiel to don chain mail and leather. "Mount your horses," he said when the last strap tightened.

Castiel started back the way they had come, then stopped for a precious moment when Dean handed Claire to Gabriel. "No," he said as if he had read Dean's intent to come along in the transfer of the frightened child to her uncle's arms. "Stay here," he ordered. "I need you all safe."

Stunned Dean … obeyed. He didn't move a muscle as Castiel and his knights swept from the room. Stood unmoving minutes later when the roar of horses galloping out the front gates sounded through the castle. When even the echo of both the order and charging horses had faded into nothing, his jaw dropped. "What the -?"

"Dean," Gabriel clutched his arm. "We should go. My rooms. I can strengthen the threshold until no one who would wish us harm can enter. No one."

Lucifer. Castiel and his guard had ridden off into battle, which meant Claire and Gabriel had lost any reliable protection. Dean drew his revolver. "Let's go." It took several tense minutes to reach safety, but it was almost disappointedly uneventful.

Gabriel set Claire on his bed. Madison and Pip quickly settled beside her, both of them alert for any sign of danger, while Dean prowled the room, looking for anything already inside that could do them harm. Not that it was likely he'd recognize it if he saw it. He felt useless. Not enough knowledge, weak as an overgrown child and left behind like one. It infuriated all the more so because he saw the wisdom of it.

The wizard began to chant, and the room crackled with energy. A safe barrier. Perhaps one not even a troll could breach. At least Dean hoped so. Otherwise it was down to a wizard without much power, a wolf, a chipmunk, a little girl and one waste of space knight. All trapped in the dubious safety of a freaking pink castle with the devil in charge.

Claire began to cry. "It'll be all right, sweetheart," Madison murmured, rubbing against her like a big cat to calm her.

"Daddy, he'll get hurt," she sobbed. "My daddy."

And she'd already lost one. What the hell was Dean doing? "No, he won't," he growled and headed for the door.

"Dean," Gabriel called. "Castiel said-"

Yeah, he had, but, no. Dean paused on his march out the door and looked the wizard in the eye. "My whole life is a freaking testament to taking on things more powerful than I am. And I'm supposed to stay here like some damsel-in-distress?" He shook his head. "Fuck that noise." His gaze leveled on the wolf. "Anything tries to get in here, rip its throat out."

"You got it. Good luck."

He nodded and leapt through the threshold the moment before Gabriel could slam it closed. Running through the halls, then out toward the stables, he tried to remember what he knew about trolls. Yeah, they grew 'em big around here, but what had worked for a rawhead at home had worked here, too, so whatever.

Trouble was Dean had never encountered a troll. Neither had his dad or Bobby. But there had to be something. … Sunlight? No, that was The Hobbit. Even if based on lore, not real helpful since it was broad daylight. He'd read Dad's journal from cover to cover more than once. What had it said? It came to him as he reached Impala. "Need the shotguns, sweetheart," he said, "and every consecrated iron shell we've got."

She armed him with the requested items, then a moment before he climbed aboard, he had another thought. No matter what, she'd been looking after something that could kill anything. If nothing else, he should start carrying it. "One more thing, baby." Even she seemed surprised by the request.

*

Castiel plunged his sword deep into the blood vessel running along the troll's neck, yanked the weapon free, then jumped to the next troll as the first one collapsed. Already four had fallen to his blade, and within moments another joined their number. All around him his men met with similar success. Highly skilled in the slaying of trolls and with surprise on their side, the battle should have ended swiftly. But such close-quarter fighting held a huge risk and took time. Already four of his own men had been hurtled unsurvivable distances or torn apart by huge hands.

Another troll reached for him, and he spun, swinging up, then down, severing the wrist. Howling in pain, it staggered back, then stumbled, leaving it vulnerable to Balthazar's lethal strike. Yet they found themselves cut off from the rest of the guard with three of the enemy closing in. Claire. Gods, his poor Claire. "You fought well, my friend," he said, standing back-to-back with Balthazar. They would take at least two with them, but the third would succeed in killing at least one of them.

"Been fun, Cassie," he answered, his presence a comfort despite the odds.

The lead troll tried to smash both of them between its hands, but they leapt apart. He couldn't see his captain, but Castiel somersaulted up and over the deadly hands, then slashed, catching the big artery running down the arm. Dying the troll thrashed, knocking him off balance and back toward another. He twisted, trying to bring the sword into play again, but knew he lacked the time and speed needed to prevent the massive hands from crushing him.

A boom roared through the valley, and the troll's chest blossomed with dozens of red spurts of blood. It fell backward and died as the noise eclipsed the battle over and over again. And with each ear-numbing clap of thunder a troll fell. His men dodged the bodies, getting clear as the last of the enemy dropped dead on the blood-soaked ground.

How…? What…? Impala suddenly came to a stop before him and startled, he looked up into green eyes. "For the record," Dean said, "I don't do the 'damsel in distress' gig."

*

The images in his caldron showed the past with crystal perfection, but left Lucifer unenlightened. Another stranger through the fountain. A weapon like Winchester possessed used on a troll, then an almost comedic catapult through the sky. Life lingered long enough to gasp 'human' to another. Call to arms and a march on the palace. Castiel fortune enough to see them coming. A pie forgotten and trampled in the dust in the race for home. Another undreamed of weapon and utter defeat. Threat ended. Yes, clear except who was this new source of interference? How had these … Earthers disrupted his plans time and time again? His oh, so carefully laid plans.

In his bewildered fury he almost slew Uriel, but a trickle of reason stayed his hand. Castiel's victory could sway those undecided in the doomed prince's favor. He could not afford to lose one of his own followers. No matter how incompetent.

He looked at his cowering minion and thought, no. One apple left. He must take matters into his own hands. A risk, but he thought of the pain it would cause his nephew, and smiled. Yes, a risk. But a delicious one.

*

Contrary to popular belief, Dean did know when to keep his mouth shut. So after his well-justified remark about 'so not the damsel of this freaking Story,' he clamped his jaws shut and swallowed every pity remark that snaked into his mind. After all, the dude looking daggers at him was not only his … something, but the guy who could snap 'off with his head' and have way too many people carry it out. So, yeah. Not talking. Not a single word. Made the ride back to the castle more fun than taking on a wendigo with his bare hands, but at least Cas didn't call for his guard to throw Dean's ass in the darkest dungeon they could find. Awesome.

And okay, it really was when Claire ran to her father, then threw herself into his arms, her body shaking with sobs of relief and joy. Even sweeter, after she'd finished with Cas, she demanded equal attention from Dean. Didn't even mind he was rapidly becoming the designated 'hauler of the princess through the hallways.'

"So what'd ya do?" Pip asked, jumping onto Dean's shoulder.

"Pumped the fuguglies full of every consecrated iron shell I had," he muttered. That would be the other reason he wasn't smirking and strutting around like the all-conquering hero – even though he so was. He'd needed it all to save the day. Nothing left. At least he hadn't had to resort to-.

"Deano," Gabriel clapped his hand on Dean's unoccupied shoulder, "I'm not sure what you did, but from the sour look on my baby bro's face, I owe you one."

"Me, too," Claire said, clinging tightly to his torso while Madison bumped against his leg. Yeah, warm welcomes all around, except for the ice-cold front radiating off of Cas. He watched the prince turn down a hallway, then vanish with the ranking members of his guard. Damn.

Dean sighed. Hurt, but worth the price paid. And hell, would have hurt more if things had gone further before Cas … Castiel got his bellyful of Dean Winchester and said good riddance to that headache. Guess he'd gotten off easy. Only felt like someone had pulled his spleen out through his belly button. Sort of business as usual. Fuck his life anyway.

*

The three of them walked alongside Raphel's mount. Anna had refused to ride when Sam couldn't, so none of them did. Sam could tell Raphel didn't like it. He couldn't imagine many being pleased by the situation, but something about the knight set his teeth on edge and he found himself keeping his body between him and Anna.

As the sun dropped low on the horizon, they reached a clearing with a large hallowed out oak tree. A cozy space for two to spend the night. Raphael seemed to have the same idea as he turned to Anna and said, "Your highness, if you would remain here, I can ride to the nearest village and fetch mounts for all of us."

"Very well."

He gave her a courtly, but stiff bow, then rode off. Thank God.

She sighed. "I don't like him very much."

Neither did Sam, but in fairness the man hadn't done anything other than interrupt a moment. Not to mention delivering some really bad news. News neither bothered to discuss as they ate, then settled down for the night. The animals that had accompanied them had drifted off once Raphael had arrived, but now they returned. Between their warmth and the soft pine needles lining the tree, it was a comfortable refuge. But sleep did not come easily.

*

"You're an idiot," Gabriel announced from the doorway.

Castiel sighed. "I'm not in the mood, brother."

"Tough," he said, walking into the room. "Do you know what your young man asked me after we got Claire tucked in?"

"No, but I suppose you're here to tell me."

"He asked me if I could find a way to hide him so he could keep an eye on you after you kicked him out of the palace."

What? Castiel stared at him, certain he'd heard wrong, but Gabriel continued to give him his best 'you heard me, you moron' glare. "Why would he think I would send him away?"

"Oh, I dunno, might have something to do with the fact you refused to even look at him before you disappeared."

Gods, he closed his eyes and clenched his fists. "Do you have any idea what it did to me to see him there? To know what he'd risked. I … Gods, I could have lost him."

His brother rested his hands on Castiel's shoulders. "But you didn't. And thanks to him, I didn't lose you." He pulled Castiel into his arms and held him tightly. "I don't know what I would have done if you'd been killed."

"Don't you?" Castiel answered, holding tight. "Surely, you know how the Story goes. The beloved uncle flees with the princess into the forest. …"

"Shut up, you damned fool," he hissed into Castiel's hair. "I'm not cut out to play the wise guardian. That's your job and don't you try to get out of it."

He clung to the smaller man, drawing strength from him. "If I had a choice. …"

Gabriel drew back and pressed a kiss against his forehead. "I know, but today, bro, you do. He's in pain. Go fix it."

Castiel nodded, and moved toward the door, but he stopped for a moment. He looked back over his shoulder and said, "A fine pair we are. Me falling for a man who doesn't have the sense to stay out of harm's way, and you for a woman trapped in a wolf's form."

Gabriel shrugged. "It is what it is, Cassie. And somewhere, it's all making one heck of a Story."

Castiel managed a small smile. "Yes, I guess it is." Somewhere.

*

Dean sat in the chair beside Claire's bed and watched her sleeping with Madison and Pip nestled against her. She'd insisted he sing to her again, then had added a request for him to read to her from one of her books. Plot read like that Disney flick with the chick and the frog which he would deny sort of liking with his last breath. Had startled him when he'd realized it wasn't a kid's book, but a chronicle of the last Story to grace the kingdom. Sort of. It was full of unicorns, dragons and no, he really didn't want to think about all of it being real. At least the fondness for wings on all the tapestries made sense now. Angelasia. Angels. He wondered which of their worlds had picked up the lore of the other on that one.

The door opened and the faint glow from the crystals in the hallway spilled gently into the room. Alarm surged, then vanished into sorrow as he looked up to see Castiel standing in the doorway. Time was up he guessed. God, he hoped Gabriel would come through on his promise. He had to keep them safe. He had to.

To his surprise, the prince favored him with a faint smile, then held out his hand.

Madison lifted her head as he rose, and Dean mouthed, 'Stay with her.' She nodded and settled back down.

As he approached Castiel, he kept waiting for the hand to drop and banish the growing hope inside him. But the prince merely took Dean's hand in his and led him from the room. Without a word, they moved down the hall and into what Dean assumed was Castiel's chambers.

Once aside, the prince pulled him close. "I am not a fool," he whispered into Dean's ear. "And I have experienced the terror certain death brings many times, but never has it been so strong as when I saw you. Knew what you had risked."

"Shotgun is a distance weapon," Dean protested. "You were the one all up-close and personal with a sword."

"Such peril is part of my duty. Not yours," he insisted pressing his forehead lightly against Dean's.

The pain was heavy in Cas' voice, and it hurt to know he'd caused it, but. … "I'm not the type to stay behind, and what kind of man would I be if I did nothing when there was something I could do?"

"Gods, Dean. …" he faltered and Dean could almost see the burden pressing down on him.

He tried to think of something to say, but he wasn't good with words. At least not the non-lies type. Kind of made a guy appreciate this whole burst into song thing Angelasia had going. Song. Yeah, wasn't a perfect fit, but maybe Cas would get it anyway. His voice unsteady at first, he began to sing:


I pulled into Nazareth
I was feelin' 'bout a half past dead
I just need some place
Where I can lay my head
"Hey mister can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"

Cas lifted his head and gave him a puzzled look. Yeah, not the best of fits, but it got better:


Take a load off Fannie
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fannie
Then hey-yea-yea
Put the weight right on me

He made it through the whole song, didn't miss a single word despite not being his usual classic rock stuff, and when he finished, he gave Cas a questioning look.

The prince smiled sadly. "The weight on my shoulders is a heavy one, Dean. I'm not sure I'm worth sharing the burden."

"I am," Dean whispered. So very, very certain.

"Perhaps." His lips pressed against Dean. "What I do know is that I would very much like to make love to you."

"Yes, God, please, yes." Closest he'd ever come to begging, but Cas drew him to the bed before he could even utter the second word. Hands explored, pushing away clothing and caressing skin, then the mattress pressed against his back.

Lips devoured him as he did his best to devour in turn. Somewhere in the haze of cherishing caresses came a slick, intimate touch to prepare the way. "Now," he murmured into Cas' mouth. "Please, now."

A firm, but slow push and Dean finally knew the difference between having sex and making love.

*

Raphael returned before dawn with two horses in tow. Once again the animals faded away while Anna hummed a sad goodbye to them. She'd obviously not slept at all because she still knew who Sam was. It might have been easier if she didn't, but they mounted up, and set off.

Despite the darkness, the horses' steps never faltered. Sam guessed enchanted woods' must consider it impolite to litter trails with miscellaneous roots and holes. As the sun finally crested on the horizon, they saw the gleam of castle spires. And not once did Anna allow him to move out of her sight.

*

The first rays of the morning sun woke Castiel. Even before he opened his eyes he smiled at the warm weight against him. They'd moved together twice more during the night and his heart felt so full of joy it seemed destined to burst. He would have happily remained in the bed with Dean, but he had much to do before the evening's celebration. And much to decide. Perhaps he would take last night's song to heart and even let Dean help him. But for now, he looked far too peaceful, too beautiful to wake.

He slipped from Dean's arms and the bed. With a frown, Dean stirred and reached for him. "Hush, my love," he whispered, brushing his lips against Dean's temple. "Sleep, then join me later."

Dean made a whining sound, but settled back into sleep at another brush of Castiel's lips. So beautiful. He dressed quietly before easing out the door, then slowly walked through the halls.

He found he couldn't stop smiling. Not difficult to understand why. Hadn't he said it? His love. Gods, his love. He couldn't stop himself from humming, then softly singing:


So this is love
So this is what makes life divine
I'm all aglow, mmmmm
And now I know
The key to all heaven is mine
My heart has wings, mmmmm
And I can fly

Fly. Yes, for the first time in his life Castiel could believe in even that.

*

Ah, sweet success. Despite the debacle of yesterday, Lucifer stared into his cauldron and watched Raphael drawing ever nearer. "Well done, my knight," he whispered at the waters. "You will be reward richly for your service." Perhaps he would even give him the honor of slaying Uriel once the fool had outlived his meager usefulness. But for now, he had glad tidings to bring his nephew.

He smiled. At least he considered them glad.

*

Sam dismounted, then helped Anna down. She gripped him tightly, almost as if she knew what he was going to say. But there was no way out of it. He managed a smile for her. "You're safe now, and I have to go on with my search for Dean."

She opened her mouth and he couldn't bear to hear her ask to come along, so he touched a finger to her lips. "You have a future husband to meet again."

"I don't know him," she protested. "I know you. And I don't want to forget you. Please."

He shook his head. "I'll remember for both of us. Now close your eyes."

"Will you promise me something first?"

He wanted to say 'anything,' but knew it would not be wise. "What?"

"The ball tonight." The one honoring her finance's birthday – Raphael had told them all about it with much the same sort of attitude of a child pulling wings off a fly. "Promise me, you'll dance with me. I know I won't remember you." Won't care anymore. "But promise me."

"I promise. Goodbye, Anna."

"Goodbye, Sam." She stepped back from him, then closed her eyes for several moments longer than a mere blink. He had a flash of hope when she opened them again, but then that curious, child-like smile lit up her face again. "Hello, who are you?"

"No one important," he told her, and did nothing to stop Raphael from leading her away. Something burned inside him and for the first time music began for him. He ignored it, but found himself whispering the first line, "How can I just let you walk away?" But he already knew the answer. Because he had to. Just like he had to find Dean. Had to find him and get as far away from this place as quickly as they could.

*

Dean woke up alone, but remembered the soft words and the loving touches. Never had a morning after he didn't feel like running from before. Not even with Cassie. Sex had been great, had even thought he might have loved her, but the drama had kept each morning of their two-week affair laced with tension. And not the good kind. But then, he hadn't really loved her. Hadn't even known what love was until he'd met Cas. Dozens of love songs buzzed through his mind, but he wasn't really a burst into song kind of guy despite last night. But he hummed a few of them as he dressed. Even the ones he'd die before admitting he'd ever heard them, let alone knew all the words.

*

Castiel looked up from his desk hoping to see Dean walking into his office. Instead his uncle entered. Damn, and it had been such a good morning. "Can I do something for you?"

"Nothing, but I have good news. After eleven long years Princess Ananchel has been found," he announced with a malicious gleam in his eye at odds with the wondrous words he spoke. "In fact she is here in the castle."

Castiel stared at him. He would have assumed it was some sort of joke, except his uncle had no sense of humor. At least not one Castiel cared to explore. "Anna is alive?" Could it even be possible?

"Yes, very much so. Apparently she'd been living deep in the woods and Raphael happened upon her."

Alive. Her memories cursed into non-existence, she'd wandered off shortly after her sixteenth birthday despite all efforts by her parents to keep her close. None had dared hope she could survive. "That is joyous news. Thank you." Anna had been his best friend before the curse stole her from everyone on her tenth birthday. Her parents had barely survived her loss, then faded away shortly after their younger daughter's death. Amelia. How he wished he could tell her the sister she'd mourned for so long lived.

Again Lucifer smiled. "You may announce the wedding date at the ball tonight."

What? "Are you mad? Anna and I were never destined to wed." She had been James' fiancée, while Amelia had been Castiel's. The two older siblings and two younger paired off. In a realm that valued True Love above all else, such an arrangement was merely a symbolic gesture of fellowship between the kingdoms of Angelasia and Elyasia. Certainly all had been delighted when the friendship of those early years had led to James and Amelia falling in love, but Castiel had never desired a woman as other than a friend. "And you seized her kingdom long ago." A bitter point between them, but Castiel had been forced to concede that there was no one else to rule there. Even now that Anna had returned. "There is no need for such theatricality."

"Ah, but it will give me such great joy to see you wed."

"No."

"Oh, I must insist." Lucifer smirked. "Of course, you can refuse, but to overrule my direct order you would have to assume the throne." His eyes positively sparkled. "Tell me, nephew, which do you think with kill you faster? A loveless marriage or the crown? The disgrace of denying love or destiny? Quite the choice. I'll leave you to contemplate it."

Lucifer chuckled as he left. A cold sound that seemed to rip the heart from Castiel's chest. What now? Gods, what now?

*

Practically humming, Lucifer strode out of Castiel's office in time to see Dean round the corner. Better and better. Time to have a chat with his nephew's annoying love.

*

Sam didn't get far. The sadness pressed down on him like a heavy weight and he found himself sinking to sit at the base of one of the trees lining the courtyard. Stupid. He'd known her for less than two days. How could he feel gutted almost as badly as he had when he'd lost Jess? Made no sense, but God, it hurt.

"Are you all right?" a woman's voice asked, but he'd been here long enough to not feel much surprise when he looked up to see a wolf sitting a few feet away.

Embarrassed he got up, her gaze following him, as he muttered, "Fine, thanks, I-"

"Gigantor," she murmured, snorted, then said, "You're Sam."

He blinked. "Yeah."

"Hmmm, so should I bite your ungrateful ass or take you to Dean?"

*

Shaking Dean leaned against a cold stone wall to steady himself. He'd gone from the heights of joy to the biggest crash and burn in his life. Couldn't even think. God, why couldn't he think? Cas. He wanted Cas. But he couldn't go to him. He could never be with him again.

A sob tore at his throat, but he forced it back. Couldn't lose it now. Not here. Had to get away. Clinging to the only thing resembling a plan his spinning thoughts could manage, he stumbled down the hall back toward … no, not the way to his room. Not wanting to even see the doorway to Cas' bedchamber ever again, he started making random turns. Couldn't orient himself. Had to think. Needed to think. Hurt so much. No. Cas. Please, no.

Lying. His mind screamed at him Lucifer had lied. The devil. Couldn't tell the truth. Probably didn't know how. Except … demons lie, but sometimes, when it will mess with your head, they tell the truth. Cas. Dean couldn't handle this. He needed it to stop. He couldn't. … God, he just couldn't.

"Dean!" a voice out of place, but one he needed badly. Lost his mind.

He stared, trying to process what he was seeing as the huge man ran toward him, then the word ripped from his throat, "Sam!" He didn't care how it had happened or even if he was real. He needed … Dean threw himself into his brother's arms and sobbed. It was that or scream.

*

Castiel leaned against his brother and fought to stay calm, but he couldn't stop trembling.

Gabriel's arms tightened around him. "How do I help? What can I do?"

Nothing. Nothing anyone could do. Matter of months at the most. He didn't even care anymore. He hurt too much. No, couldn't think that way. Claire. He was her father. He had to. Claire. "Tonight," he managed to get the words out. "After the ball when he's celebrating, take Claire away. Do it tonight."

"No, not without you. We'll all go."

Castiel shook his head. "I have to stay. Keep his attention on me until you're safe."

"Cassie, no. I can't leave you here. He'll kill you."

He looked into his brother's eyes and said what they both knew, "I'm already dead. My body just hasn't caught up with reality yet."

The last color drained from his brother's face. "Gods, Cassie, you're my baby brother. I have to-"

"Protect Claire. You're her only hope. Swear it, Gabriel. Swear you'll take her and find a way to give her a happy life. Swear it."

"I will. You know I will."

The door slammed open and Claire burst into the room, tears streaming from her eyes. "Daddy!" she wailed, "Dean's leaving!"

And somehow Castiel found he could hurt even more.

*

"You can carry us both, can't you, baby?" Dean asked, his voice raw from his … breakdown.

Impala nodded and he pressed his face into her neck. Sam's hands gripped his shoulders. Right. Dean and Sam together again. Wasn't it just yesterday when this was his fondest dream? "God, Sammy, it hurts."

"I know," he answered, and there was something more than sympathy in his voice, but Dean couldn't manage his usual trick of burying his own pain in worries for Sam.

"So where are we going?" Madison asked.

Dean didn't have an answer. Resting against Impala he knew he couldn't go back home, but he couldn't stay here. "Away," was the only thing he could think to say. No, that wasn't right. "Sam and me, but you're staying."

She made a growling sound. "No way I'm letting –"

"Yeah, you are," he said turning to face her. His heart was shattered and with each passing moment something told him so was Sam's, but she could stay with Gabriel. He knew her situation held its own pain, but it didn't have to include never seeing the man she loved again. "You have to stay."

"But you-"

He knelt in front of her. "Didn't do anything except let you park your ass in my car for a few weeks. But if you think you owe me anything, then stay. Keep Claire safe. She's …" Tears flooded his eyes again and he had to bite his lower lip to keep them at bay. "She's my daughter, too. Please."

She nuzzled his cheek. "Okay, but I kind of love you, and I'll miss you like crazy."

"Me, too." He forced a smile and murmured, "Bitch."

Whether she merely matched the tone or sensed he didn't want Sammy to hear the exchange, she whispered back, "Jerk."

"That I am." He gave her a last hug, then stood up to see-

"So it's true. You were going to leave without so much as a single word of farewell." Cas stood in the doorway, Gabriel a pace behind him, and Claire clinging to his hand.

Dean shuddered at the pain he heard, wanted to reach out and banish it. Wanted to brush the tears from Claire's face. Make her tomato rice soup and sing Hey Jude one last time. No, he could do this. He had to do this. He forced a coldness into his voice and asked, "Did you want me to stay for the wedding? Or would the humiliation of you making the announcement in front of me have been enough?"

Cas jerked his head back as if Dean had struck him across the face. He saw the protest building, could almost see the words forming, then a veil of defeat enfolded the prince like a shroud. "No, you're right, of course."

Cas. No, no longer his Cas. The memory of last night tried to rise up to torment him, but Dean refused to acknowledge it. Instead he looked at Sam and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

Sam gave him a doubtful look, but moved to mount Impala.

"No!" Claire shouted, running to Dean and throwing her arms around him. "You can't go! You can't! You promised to dance with me tonight, and tell me stories and sing to me. You have to!"

Gently he pried her away and Madison, thank God, pushed between the two of them. "I'm sorry," he whispered and turned to his horse.

"Stop!" the prince snapped. "No horse should have to bear the burden of carrying both of you. Take Archon."

"We don't need-"

"It wasn't a request," he said, then turned on his heel and walked out of Dean's life. Cas.

*

Lucifer watched the Winchester brothers ride out and smiled at the sound of Claire's tears. The moment the two men vanished into the trees an oppressive gloom settled over the palace. Such a lovely atmosphere for a party.

He smiled. Tonight at midnight he would be king. And if his nephew surprised him and claimed the throne? Well, he still had one apple left.

*

They rode for more than an hour in silence, but Sam's worried gaze kept shifting from the trail they'd randomly chosen to follow to Dean's back. Sam hurt inside, too, but he'd lost Jess to death. Knowing Anna was alive and not suffering from his loss helped him keep some control. But Dean? His brother was still reeling from the death of the father Dean had worshiped, and Sam feared this would break him.

Finally he couldn't stand it any longer and he urged Archon up alongside Impala. "Dean, come on, man, I know it's hard to know he's going to marry someone else, but-"

Laughter cut him off, shrill and full of pain. It made his skin crawl. "Dean?" He reached out and grasped his brother's arm. The touch silenced the horrible laughter, but stricken eyes turned to him.

"It's not about that, Sammy. Not thrilled with it, but that's not it at all."

"Then what?"

"He's dying."

"What? How?"

"Fell for a loser who can't love him enough to break a 'True Love's Kiss' curse." The bitterness of the words nearly choked Sam.

"Dean, that can't be true." Sam knew this place was messed up, but he knew his brother, too. And somehow, Dean had fallen deeply in love in three days. "Even only seeing you with him for a few minutes I could tell how much you love him."

"Not enough," he said, shaking his head. "We've kissed. Hell, we kissed so much last night alone my lips are still tingling, and he's still dying!" The tears were falling again, and Sam had never felt more helpless. Not even when the demon inside Dad was torturing Dean, because he'd known, somehow, Dad would find a way to save them.

"Who told you this? Who told you it was your fault?"

"Lucifer. Got off on it, too."

Lucifer? "Who the hell is Lucifer?"

"Regent." Brushing angrily at his tears, Dean told him all about the curse keeping Castiel from the throne. How he was doing it all to stay alive as long as he could for Claire's sake. "Cas and Claire had told me all that." But they'd left out the part about it not working forever, about Cas already showing signs of the curse setting in for the last slow, but inevitably fatal push. Lucifer had done nothing to conceal the great joy he'd felt as he'd told Dean every detail of Cas' looming death. Had sounded a lot like cancer. "And he said, if I stayed, Cas would die even faster."

"Dean," he said when his brother finally finished, "demon's lie."

"Except sometimes they tell the truth. Besides, something about this place. … I know he wasn't lying, Sammy."

They rode on for another mile or so, then rounded a bend to find themselves looking out over the valley and the castle in the far distance. Dean visibly shuddered, then reigned in Impala. He dropped to the ground and walked over to the edge of the overhang and stared so intently Sam thought he must be trying to see Castiel despite the miles between them. "Dean, you okay?"

There was a long silence, then Sam's jaw dropped as Dean began to sing:


I played the fool today
And I just dream of vanishing into the crowd
Longing for home again
But home is a feeling I buried in you.

I'm all right, I'm all right
It only hurts when I breathe.

The music and Dean's voice trailed away, then he said, "I watched Dad kill himself to save us." Alarmed by the defeat in his brother's voice, Sam dismounted and moved quickly within grabbing distance of him. "Barely held it together then. I can't … Cas. I'm not strong enough to watch him waste away."

"I call bullshit," Sam said, his hands settling on Dean's shoulders. "You're the strongest man I've ever known." He turned him and looked into tear-bright eyes. "You can do anything."

Dean searched Sam's face and he didn't know what his older brother was seeing, but some of the tension in his shoulders eased. "You're wrong, Sammy. There's one thing I can't do."

"What's that?"

"Leave Cas. At least not with that son of the bitch plotting against him," he growled, then strode back to his horse.

Sam followed. "So what's the plan?" he asked settling into his own saddle.

"Do what I always do – 'kill every evil thing that crosses my path.' No reason to let the bastard hurt anyone else if keeping him alive isn't going to save Cas."

Right. Killing a reigning regent. Big step even for them, but, "Let's do it."

"Oh, no. You're going home. Go be a lawyer, Sammy. Get on with that life you've always wanted."

Sam snorted. "As if. I go where you go."

"Sam, I'm probably going to get my ass thrown in a dungeon, then executed. If I don't get offed in the trying. You don't need a piece of that."

"Oh, yeah, like 'so long, I'm off to die' is gonna get me to leave." He reached between the horses and gripped Dean's arm as he looked into his brother's eyes and willed him to believe what he said, "No one in my whole damned life is or ever has been more important to me than you, big brother. And if that isn't a good enough reason for you, you aren't the only one who fell hard and fast this side of the rainbow."

"Ananchel?"

"Anna," he corrected, but nodded.

"Christ, we're a pair."

"That we are."

"You get yourself killed and I will so kick your ass."

"Same. So what's the plan?"

"We've got a chipmunk to find and a party to crash."

*

Claire lay on her bed, snuggled close to her father, while her uncle rested on her other side and did his best to hold both of them. She'd run out of tears, and it sounded like Daddy had, too. She wanted to hate Dean for leaving them, for hurting her daddy, but every time she'd tried to say it, one of the two men would hush her, tell her things happened as they must and she should forgive. But she didn't want to.

Pip stirred against the top of her head. Probably nuzzling Daddy's cheek again. Sometimes she would forget the chipmunk had been his friend first or she'd get a little jealous when she did remember, but today she was glad. Because somehow she knew, no matter what, Pip would make certain Daddy was never alone.

The sun shining into her window had changed a lot since they'd all collapsed together, and Daddy sighed. "I have things to attend to," he murmured into her hair. He gave her a squeeze, then stood up.

She sniffed, knowing he meant party stuff. She'd been looking forward to it. Dean had even promised to dance with her, but now she didn't want to go. She doubted anyone did, but she was old enough to understand being a princess sometimes meant doing things she'd rather not. "Okay."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I love you, so much."

"Love you lots, too," she said and felt the need to hug him again. Something inside of her felt more than sad. Kind of scared. Made her want to go with Daddy, but he always asked her to come along when she could, so she stayed with her uncle as he left.

Gabriel sighed after a few more minutes, and she said, "You have to go, too, don't you?"

He hugged her. "For a little while. Will you be all right?"

She decided to be brave and nodded. Felt an awful lot like a lie.

Madison jumped down from where she'd been curled up against Gabriel's back. "I'll stay. We can play a game. Or you could show me some of your favorite things?"

Her uncle and the wolf exchanged a look that made the fear inside of her grow. And she felt like there was some special reason why Madison might want to know what she liked most. Made her want to say no, but if she made her mad Madison might leave her, too. "Okay."

*

Castiel left his daughter's chambers and made his way to the guest quarters. For a moment he touched his hand to the door of Dean's former room and let himself think all he had to do to see him again was push it open. Foolish. And painful.

He shook himself and turned to another set of rooms. One of the ladies of the court opened the door at his knock. She gave him a sad smile and an informal curtsy, before steeping aside.

"Thank you," he said, moving into the room. A lovely woman with the same red hair as a girl he'd once known looked up as he entered. "Anna," he said, "I know you can't remember me, but once, long ago, you and I were friends. I am Castiel."

She smiled at him. "Are you in my pictures then?" she asked, gesturing to a stack of papers.

He looked through them and his heart ached. "Yes." He pointed to the drawing of three children. "That's me with my brother, James, and your sister, Amelia," he told her. Had they ever been so young? So certain life held Happy Endings for all?

"Sister?"

He nodded. "Would you like to hear about one of our adventures?"

"Oh, yes, please!"

He managed a smile and began to tell her of the time they all snuck off to a local watering hole. She listened with rapt attention, but he knew all too soon every detail would be lost. Like Amelia. And James. And … him.

*

The castle almost reeked with some sort of dark funk. Put Sam on edge, but between it and the dimness of twilight, he and Dean slipped back into the castle without anyone seeing them. After that the hustle of last minute preparations for the ball kept them as hidden as the shadows.

No one even glanced their way as Dean led him through the halls, up to a room off a plush enough hallway to make Sam think they were going to Castiel's quarters. But when Dean knocked softly on the door, a low growl answered them. "Who is it?"

"Me, open up, furball."

The door opened, and the little girl from the stables – Claire – looked up at them, the wolf close beside her. "I hate you!" she sniffed, her small foot slamming into Dean's shin.

He flinched, but scooped her up and moved inside. Sam followed and sort of kept out of the way while an eight-year-old did her best to punch the shit out of his brother.

Dean took the abuse, doing nothing more than evading the blows aimed at his face while he did his best to hold the squirming whirlwind close. "I'm sorry," he kept whispering over and over again. That and, "I love you."

"Hey ya," a voice said from the bed. Chipmunk. So step one accomplished. Not that he knew what that meant. His brother could be a closed-mouthed bastard at times.

"Hi," he answered, sitting down on the bed near the small creature. "I'm Sam."

"Pip. You the brother?"

He nodded, then winced when Claire's foot connected all too close to Dean's favorite part. Pip seemed to share the sentiment. "Yikes."

"Payback is a bitch," Madison chimed in as she settled near Sam's feet.

"Aren't you supposed to be on our side?" Sam asked.

She did something close to a shrug. "Left me, too."

"Oh, for –" Dean glared at the wolf, then caught hold of both of the girl's arms and ordered, "Enough!" Impressive. Stern with an adequate level of 'ignore me at your peril' while not heavy with anger. Dean always had been good with kids.

The girl went limp in his hold, but glared at him with wounded eyes. "You made Daddy cry."

"I know, I'm sorry," Dean answered leaving out the whole 'he made me cry, too' part.

"I … missed you."

"Missed you, too, baby girl." He enfolded her in his arms again and this time she clung to him instead of fighting.

"You won't go again?"

Pain flashed across Dean's face, but he didn't take the easy way out and lie. "Not if I can help it."

She sniffled and tightened her grip, but didn't ask for more reassuring promises. Sam hated it when kids had to be that wise.

When she let her hold ease, Dean drew back enough to look at her. "You okay, now?"

"I'm better," she answered her own words heavy with unspoken, but understood truth.

Dean kissed her cheek. "Good. Now, I want to surprise your daddy at the party, but I need the clothes he had made for me. And I don't know what we're going to do about Sam."

Claire turned her attention to him. "When I outgrew my favorite dress, Gabriel used magic to make it bigger. Maybe he can do something?"

"Super. Go tell him we'll be there in a minute?"

"Okay." Dean sat her down, and the girl hurried off, the wolf on her heels.

"Hey, wait for-" Pip protested, but Dean snatched him up before he could follow.

"Got a special mission for you," Dean said, ignoring the creature's attempts to punch him in the thumb.

"Yeah?" Pip stopped thrashing around and looked interested. "What?"

Dean sat him back on the bed. "I need you to get something into the ballroom for me."

"Your arms broken?"

"No, but they'll probably search us."

Pip nodded. "Makes sense, what with you using that fancy hunk of metal all the time."

Sam was glad it made sense to someone. Even with a full clip, he couldn't see much use for one gun between the two of them. Then Dean reached inside his jacket to pull out what he wanted Pip to hide. The Colt. Sam's eyes widened and his stomach lurched at the weapon he'd last seen clutched in their dead father's hand. But Pip seemed fascinated.

"Fancy," he said running a tiny paw over the long barrel. "What's the weird writing?"

Sam whispered the Latin phrase he knew by heart. "Non timebo mala."

Dean glanced at him. "Means 'I will fear no evil.'"

*

"Any reason I shouldn't turn you into a frog?" Gabriel asked as Dean slipped into the wizard's front room.

Dean glanced at Claire and resisted the urge to snap back 'any reason you didn't tell me Cas was dying?' Instead he quipped, "Slime?"

"Hmm, I suppose." He turned to give Sam a long, assessing look. "Claire was right. He is a big one."

"Yeah," Dean agreed, clapping his brother on the back. "And he looks just yummy in pink."

Gabriel snorted while Sam turned his best 'you are so funny – not' look on him. Better known as bitchface number 12. Claire even giggled in that 'adults are weird' sort of way. So score all around. "I should be able to come up with something." He turned to his niece. "Sweetheart, I'm sure your ladies-in-waiting are looking for you. Running out of time to get ready."

She nodded, but insisted on kisses and hugs all around. When she got to Dean, he whispered, "Won't get to the party until after your bedtime, sweetheart. Have to save our dance for another time."

Claire gave him a long look, then nodded. "You can dance with me when you and Daddy get married."

Took a lot out of Dean to smile instead of cry. "You got it. I love you," he kissed her temple, then her forehead as he hugged her one last time. "Bye, baby."

"Bye," She looked sad, she left, Madison once again in her wake.

Dean waited until the door was firmly closed behind them before he said, "You taking her away?"

Gabriel looked startled, "How did you-?"

He shrugged. "'s what I'd do. Figured Cas would go for it, too."

Sam asked, "Are you taking Anna with you?"

Gabriel nodded. "Once …" He swallowed hard. "Lucifer might decide to marry her himself."

Dean bit his lip. Once she's widowed. No, he couldn't give into the pain right now. Focus. "We'll do what we can to help." Pretty certain that translated as 'our deaths should make a peachy distraction.'

"Of course." He gestured toward his bedroom. "Your clothes are in there. As for you, Sam, let's take a look in my wardrobe and see what I can …"

"Super-size," Dean offered.

Gabriel smirked. "Yes, super-size for you."

"Ha ha," Sam muttered, glaring at his brother, but Dean was okay with that. In this job a man had to get his grins and giggles when he could.

Dean walked into the bedroom and stared at the clothes lying on the bed. Cas had insisted on greens, saying it would bring out his eyes. But it wasn't the vest and fancy coat that drew his attention. Instead he focused on the cream tights and soft, almost knee-high leather boots. Both felt butter-soft and rich beneath his touch. "Oh, what the hell." Might as well give the wolf something to remember him by.

*

Lucifer sat on his throne watching the rich and beautiful of Angelasia glide around the grand ballroom while the clock moved steadily toward the stroke of midnight and the beginning of his reign.

The trumpets sounded, cutting into his thoughts. Yet another 'fashionably late' arrival. Annoying. He might just make such presumption a 'punishable by death' offense. The idea made him smile as yet another brightly clad couple whirled by. Or do away with such nonsense all together.

"Presenting Sir Dean Winchester and his brother, Sam," the herald's voice boomed through the room. And everything stopped.

*

Dean's precautions had been well considered. Their unexpected arrival had led to a very thorough search of both of them. "Hey, easy on the goods, Chuckles," he growled at a fairly aggressive grope by some asshole someone called Uriel. And what a crock. Not as if the damned tights left much to the imagination or anything.

"Let them pass, Uriel," an amused voice drawled.

"Balthazar," Dean nodded a greeting to the captain of the guard.

"Dean," he returned. "Enjoy the party. I'm sure it will be an interesting one. … Now."

"I'll do my best. Come on, Sam."

Dean hated the whole 'make a huge freaking deal about walking down the stairs' thing, but the herald was determined to do his job, and talk about a show stopper. Music, voices, movement, everything. Stopped while everyone stared at them. Hell, if he'd had a damned zipper to check he'd have been sweating it. Then he spotted Cas and nothing else mattered.

Dean moved down the stairs and to the center of the room where Cas had stopped mid-dance with Anna. Dressed in blue even richer and deeper than normal, he was the most beautiful sight Dean had ever seen. He tried to think of something to say, even something sappy like that, but the words wouldn't come.

Cas came to his rescue, holding out his hand in invitation. Dean didn't think about it, he simply moved into his arms, then the music started again. Something about it told him how to move even when playing 'the girl' and he never missed a step as Cas guided him around the room. Cas even gave him a few twirls and a shallow dip toward the end. As the last note sounded, he felt utterly incapable of doing anything, but whisper, "I love you."

"As I do you." Their lips met, right in the middle of the freaking ballroom with a huge crowd watching every move. He expected the same communal disappoint that had accompanied their first kiss, but when their lips parted all he could feel was a tension so thick it reminded him a humid summer day in New Orleans.

He smiled, but had to move away or … start at Cas' clothes. Might give the locals something to gossip about besides another 'no cigar' kiss, but not really Dean's thing.

*

The push of ancient magic trying to burst free, snapping at his heels, Lucifer ran to his chambers. He snatched up the final apple, then let his own magic surge within him. Bid it to change him from slender strength, to a balding, stocky form that suggested someone several years older. One last attempt at subtlety, he decided. And if it failed, he would take far more direct action.

*

Sam returned Anna to Castiel. One promised fulfilled, but he'd been careful not to even hint they'd once known each other. Instead he'd offered his hand when Castiel had swept Dean away. She'd accepted with the same sweet smile she gave him now.

It hurt. Made him feel off-balance. He glanced at the clock as he moved back up the staircase to where Dean was waiting, his eyes searching. Probably for Lucifer. "Give me a second," Sam whispered.

Dean gave him a sympathetic smile and squeezed his arm as he nodded. Sam slipped out onto one of the terraces on either side of the entryway. He drew in a deep breath trying to center himself, but the very air felt so heavy it almost hurt.

*

Dean saw a very average looking man approach him. Had an almost kind face, in a smarmy sort of way. Put him on edge. Or more so. Fuck what was going on?

"How sad," the man said, in a voice that perfectly matched his appearance. "To never be with the one you love."

Lucifer. Every instinct Dean had screamed it, but he didn't move. "Doomed to be alone for all eternity. Does anything hold a greater terror for you?"

Power behind the words. He could feel them almost flowing through his veins. Stop listening. Move. But he couldn't. All he could do was stand there, watching Cas dance with Anna and letting the words wash through him.

A soft sympathetic sound, "But it doesn't have to be that way. I can stop the hurt. I can make all those bad memories disappear."

Bad memories gone? Nothing of his mother burning? His father's brains splattering over everything? Sam leaving again and again. And Cas. Cas, who, even if they won, Dean would have to watch waste away and die. Forget. Memories disappear.

The man shifted and held out an apple. He was getting the 'Snow White' treatment? Seriously? The absurdity and indignity of sharing the fate of his least favorite Disney princess jolted through him. Hell, he'd always called her Stupid White and had used her as an example for Sammy of what happened to idiots who took treats from evil-looking strangers.

"Just one bite. And all of this will go away," the voice promised.

Yeah, death tended to do that. Or would it be the sleep Disney had used to soften things for the kids? Did it even matter?

"All the pain of your life gone. All the sorrows filling your heart at end. Just one bite."

True Love's Kiss always saved the day. But Dean wasn't Cas' True Love. They'd proven it time and time again. He drew in a shuddering breath and once again the heavy … potential in the air filled him.

What if he was? What if he just needed to do something to prove it? Some … leap of faith.

"You won't remember anything. Just sweet dreams. And Happy Endings."

His hand didn't even shake as he took the perfect apple. He let love fill his heart. Love for everyone he'd lost. Everyone this monster wanted to take from him. And Cas. It hurt to feel something so big. Like one body, one heart was never meant to handle it. But he let it come. Let it come until nothing existed inside him but love. True Love. And he took a bite.

*

"Dean!" the horrified shout silenced the room as effectively as had the Winchesters' arrival. Castiel looked up to see Sam lifting Dean up into his arms. Heard him calling for help.

Castiel ran to him, reaching the brothers as Balthazar and three of his guard, brought over a chaise for Sam to lay down Dean's … body? No, no, no.

Gabriel dropped to his knees beside them, his hands settling on Dean's chest. Gabriel could fix it. Gabriel could fix anything, but no, his brother shook his head, then looked up at him with sorrow-filled eyes. "He's fading."

"There's got to be something you can do!" Castiel said his throat too tight to shout.

"It's some sort of dark magic. I'm not strong enough. Gods, I'm not strong enough!"

"Magic?" Sam shifted his feet and a wet, crunch sounded. He looked down, then back up with hope in his eyes. "Kiss him, Cas. You have to kiss him. It's the only thing that will save him."

Gods, not this. "I have! Over and over again. We've even made love. It doesn't work!"

"It has to!" Sam insisted. "That's what the damned Story is about!"

"He's right," Gabriel stood and gripped his brother's shoulders. "Cassie, he's right."

How could he be so cruel? "You of all people know –"

"No! Remember Starling. Her mate saved her. Sometimes magic, even ancient magic gets too clever, too specific. If it was cast with our people in mind –"

"It might not apply to Dean." Castiel understood, "But I'm-"

"Not a believer. But you must believe now!" Gabriel stared into his eyes as if willing him to understand and Castiel could feel the magic straining within his brother, longing to flare to life again. The magic shimmering all around them. "Believe, my brother. Believe in your love for him. Believe in your True Love!"

Yes, he believed he loved Dean. No more than believed. He knew no one had ever loved anyone more than he loved this man. A calmness swept through him, and he knelt beside the chaise. He slipped a surprisingly steady hand beneath Dean's, then he leaned forward and their lips touched.

For several long heartbeats nothing happened, then green eyes flickered open and all the tension flooded from the room. "Hey," Dean whispered and his beautiful mouth quirked into a gentle smile. "Guess it worked."

Dizzy with relief, Castiel pulled Dean into his arms and held him close. "My love," he whispered, the sound lost in the thunderous cheers shaking the room. Their Story. Their Happy Ending. Oh, thank the Gods.

Sam's hand smacked down on Dean's thigh with a jolting force, and Dean yelped. "You bastard!" Sam yelled. "If you ever do something that stupid again, I'll kill you myself!"

"Damnit, Sammy!" Dean shot back, rubbing his leg. "It worked."

Worked? Do something? "Dean, what did you do?" Castiel demanded.

Sam kicked at something. "Bit into a fucking poisoned apple! That's what he did!"

Apple? Not the time of year for apples. Yet one here, and … suddenly the unexpected treat at their picnic took on a sinister aspect. Poisoned no doubt. An attempt to kill Dean and Claire, with himself as an unexpected bonus. While he already knew the answer, he demanded, "Who gave you this apple?"

"Lucifer."

Castiel released him, and spun toward the throne.

Empty before Dean had fallen, but now Lucifer sat in it. Outrage twisted across the regent's face, "The poor man's trauma has damaged his mind! The very idea is absurd!"

"Is it, Uncle? An out of season delicacy. Last seen during this time of year when you gave them to my father to brighten his dying days."

"Brother," Gabriel caught hold of his arm. "The time!"

Lucifer glared. "I warn you-"

The first chime of midnight began, but this was done. "Hear me, everyone. I, Castiel, son of Michael, do claim the throne of Angelasia as is my duty and privilege!"

"As it is proclaimed, so it is done!" Gabriel announced on the last chime. "Long live the King!"

The crowd cheered, then screamed in terror as lightning crackled around Lucifer's hands. "Long live the King?" He said, gliding to the center of the room. "Oh, I don't think that is going to happen. Not all."

Energy crackled, light and fire burst through the room and seemed to consume Lucifer, but darkness filled the center of the conflagration, a shape that grew and grew. The flames vanished and a huge, dark dragon laughed. "No, not at all. Come here, little king," he snapped, seizing Castiel in his claws.

The sharp talons didn't cut into his skin, but the touch of Lucifer's massive hand sent agony blazing through him. Almost as if his back had caught fire. He cried out, heard Dean scream his name, then things spun into darkness.

*

"Son of a bitch!" Dean shouted and forced himself to run in the opposite direction of the dragon bursting through the far terrace doors and into the night. He shoved his hand into the loose soil of a large potted plant and pulled out the gun Pip had hidden for him. He turned, then thought to grab one of the rapier's decorating the wall. The blade edge didn't look promising, but the Colt only had one bullet left, so he needed something else.

Armed as well as the freaking ball security had made possible, he raced after the dragon. No way, he was losing Cas now.

*

Sam, with Madison and Gabriel a step behind him, moved to follow his brother, but Raphael suddenly stood in the way. Along with a dozen well-armed guardsmen. "Get out of my way!" he hissed more than ready to tear apart anyone stupid enough to keep him from helping Dean.

Raphael smirked. "No, I don't think so."

"Winchester!" Sam's head jerked toward the shout and he managed to catch a spear tossed his way. He nodded his thanks to the one Dean had called Balthazar.

"Any preferences?" the captain of the guard asked, falling into fighting stance next to Sam.

"Raphael."

"Good enough. Come, Uriel, let's dance." And swords met with a loud crash of metal.

*

"Ah, there you are," the dragon rumbled as Dean skidded to a stop at the edge of the terrace. Damn, the fucker was big. Face filled most of Dean's field of vision while talons larger than Dean's body tipped its hands. Fuck.

To make it extra awesome, the ballroom sat on the freaking side of the castle overlooking one hell of a drop. Lots of room for a dragon to maneuver. And all he had was one fucking bullet and a dull rapier. Lightning flashed and absolutely fucking perfect, a storm popped up out of nowhere, soaking him in an instant and making the stone beneath his feet slick. Peachy. "Hang on, Cas!" he shouted, refusing to even think about how limp his prince looked dangling in one of the massive hands.

"How touching," Lucifer chuckled. He grabbed at Dean, but Dean leapt to one side and brought the blade down on the join of hand and arm. Didn't cut, but Lucifer hissed and drew back. "Well, if you're going to be uncooperative, I think I'll relocate."

The dragon began to climb, up to the top of the highest tower. Dean scrambled to follow. Not that Lucifer made it all that difficult. Killing Dean, after all, had to be high on his list of things to do.

"Keep up now. Look alive or I might get so bored I nod off and lose my hold on poor Castiel here." He looked at his nephew, then clucked in disappointment. "Such a daring prince, but what sort of king allows himself to become the helpless damsel of the story?"

"Put him down, you bastard!" Dean shouted, managing another bruising blow with the rapier.

Lucifer growled. "Be careful, little man, or I will." Reaching the very top of the castle, he curled around the tower.

Cas stirred, and Dean felt a flicker of hope. Together they couldn't lose. Could they? "Ah, the fair damsel awakes. How fortunate. We wouldn't want our dear Castiel to miss anything, would we?"

"I will fucking end you!"

"Oh, so foolish. You see, we're coming to the end of our Story now. Are you on the edge of your seat, Dean? Just dying to know how it ends?" He laughed. "How about this? And they all lived Happily Ever After. Well, at least I did!" With a roar of laughter to match the storm raging around him, he drew back his massive arm and hurtled Cas into the darkness.

"No!" Dean screamed, then let his grief and rage give him the strength to drive the rapier point first into Lucifer's foot.

Roaring in agony, the dragon reared back, his arms spread wide. Dean drew the fucking Colt and fired. Bullet shouldn't even have penetrated, but it struck the scales over the heart and light flashed.

Lucifer didn't make a sound. Instead he froze, looking down at the crackling white light coming from his chest. Lightning rushed to join it, striking over and over again as he shrieked in rage and agony, then began to fall.

His tale swept out. Dean leapt away from the crushing blow, but his feet slipped on the slick tiles, and he tumbled after the dying dragon. "Sorry, Sammy," he whispered, but closed his eyes and gave himself over to the rush of wind. "I'm coming, Cas."

*

Sam swung the spear, knocking aside yet another thrust of Raphael's blade. Metal cut into wood, but his weapon didn't quite snap. Wouldn't last much longer though.

The knight chuckled. "Soon my master will be rid of you, and paradise will begin."

No, it wouldn't. Sam knew Dean would take out Lucifer, but he needed to do his part. And it didn't include trying to out fight someone who had used these weapons all his life. Or at least, not on his terms. "Ever fight a vampire?" he asked, jumping backward out of his opponent's reach.

"A what?" he asked, hesitating a moment instead of closing the distance between them.

Sam brought his foot down on his own weapon, breaking it at the damaged spot. A shorten spear in one hand, and a make-shift stake in the other, he felt more in his comfort zone.

Bright, almost continuous flashes of light from outside disoriented Raphael on his next thrust, but Sam had helped destroy a nest of ghouls to the strobe of a disco ball. "Vampire," he said. Using his long arms to his advantage, he slashed at Raphael's sword arm with the spear point. The knight blocked it, but missed the stake shoved upward, into his belly. "Lore says stake them." Not deep enough to kill, but it hurt enough to make him stagger.

Sam grabbed a sword from a fallen guardsmen's hand. "Doesn't work," he said. "Only one way to get the job done." He swung the sword and parted head from shoulders before Raphael could parry the blow.

*

Agony tore at Castiel. His back felt ripped to shreds, but he couldn’t feel the coldness of the wind through shredded cloth. Strange thing to think of when falling to his death, but something screamed in his mind to focus on it.

Useless, but he'd die knowing they'd broken the curse. Claire would be safe. Dean and Gabriel would guide her. Curses broken. True Love's Kiss. Lost to time. Not the only thing lost. His eyes opened wide. Gods! Curses broken.

His back. The pain. Birth pains not destruction. Magic crackled in the air around him. Not a wizard, but a magic possessed by all, lost by all after the last Happy Ending. Focus. Feel it. Let it come. Focus!

*

Dean tumbled through the air. The fall long and lonely. He wanted it over. Wanted peace. At least the rain had finally stopped. He almost laughed at himself. Wouldn't want to catch a freaking cold while he fell to his death.

He heard the rustle of wings and his eyes shot opened as arms wrapped around him. "Hang on, my love," Cas murmured into his ear, great wings fluttering to slow their descent.

"Cas? What?" He'd never believed in angels, but – "Did I miss hitting the ground? Are we dead?" He couldn't have missed that. Could he?

"I don't understand the reference," he answered, curving skyward to send them back up into the air and away from the ground.

"You have wings?"

"Ah, another curse broken and the gift of flight restored after generations." His lips brushed against Dean's temple. "You are quite a remarkable man."

"Um, yeah, right about that, thrilled and everything, but could we maybe land?" he asked, really getting with the whole 'hold on' part of the program, because damn, they were high.

"Is something wrong?" Cas asked, stopping to hover in mid-air like some sort of freaking humming bird.

Dean looked down, then kind of yelped and decided holding on with his legs as well as his arms was a good plan. "I kind of have this thing with flying," he muttered, and no, admitting that never got easier, because it was freaking embarrassing.

Cas didn't even smile. Instead he kissed him, then whispered, "Oh, my love, you have nothing to fear. I have you."

At the words and the gentle brush of lips along his jaw something inside Dean kind of shattered. Something of loneliness and fear and self-loathing. A curse long ago cast against him or one of his own making, he didn't know, but he felt it break.

"I love you," Cas whispered. "I will never let you fall." And Dean believed.

*

Sam whirled around to take on a new foe and found the job already done. "Sometimes one simply can't wait for the hero to do all the work," Balthazar said, sheathing his sword. "Hope you don't mind."

"No, not at all," Sam answered weakly.

"Excellent. And you'll have to teach me that trick with the stake," he said, then turned to his men. "Let's get this mess cleaned up, shall we?" Sam noticed he seemed to be favoring one side.

Apparently so did Gabriel because he stalked over to them. "Very macho, Balth, but do you think you might do me the favor of not bleeding all over the floor?"

"If you insist," he answered, but color returned to his face as Gabriel's hand settled on a dark stain over his left ribs.

"Idiot."

"You know you love me, Gabe."

He snorted. "Hardly, but you saved my wolf, so I owe you."

"Hmm, I take what I can get." Fixed up, he headed off shouting orders.

"Your wolf, am I?" Madison asked, padding over to them, Anna behind her. The three of them had done their best to protect the princess – the only 'civilian' who hadn't had the sense to run for her life -- but they'd been lucky all around.

Gabriel blushed. "Well, I –"

"Oh, what the hell," she said, stood up on her back paws, then gave Gabriel a big sloppy lick across the lips. The air crackled and she stepped back, a woman once more. She looked down at herself in amazement. "Wow, this True Love thing is good stuff."

"That it is, gorgeous," Gabriel said, enfolding her naked body in both a fallen tapestry and his arms. "That it is."

Sam took a step toward the terrace, worried about Dean. But then he stopped, a sense of distant happiness and peace tickling the back of his mind. Didn't know how it worked, but he'd always trusted the sixth sense he'd had about his brother, and he relaxed, knowing Dean was fine. He turned back to his friends, but found Anna watching them with a sad smile and tears shimmering in her eyes.

"What's wrong?" Sam asked moving to her side.

"Something very important has happened and I can't remember what it was." She sounded so lost, so sad, it hurt to hear.

He ached to comfort her. To … kiss her. Could it be possible? Could a man know True Love twice in his lifetime? Winchester luck said no, but all around him the impossible thrived. "Maybe I can help?" he offered, and leaned down.

She turned her head up to meet his kiss. The same crackle of energy sounded through the room and when their lips parted, a huge smile lit up her face. "I know you," she whispered in wonder. "Gods, Sam, I remember everything!"

Laughing, he caught her up in his arms, and swung her around. Right out of a storybook ending -- until he almost dropped her as he caught sight of Dean and Castiel flying through the sky. Then everyone in the room -- except Sam and Madison -- sprouted wings.

*

Dean walked out onto the balcony of his room, unconcerned by the long drop below it. Kind of pretty actually. And quiet. Nice and quiet. Could really appreciate that these days. Dean loved the people, but damn, did they get loud when they were happy. Whole damned kingdom was one big ode to joy these days. Especially after three royal weddings in as many weeks.

He shook his head. Sam and Anna had married first. All of two weeks after they'd all met. Incredible, but his baby brother had practically glowed when he watched Castiel escort Anna down the aisle. Bobby, Ellen, Jo and Ash had even made it for the ceremony. With Lucifer's dark magic gone, the fountain was an easier ride from one reality to the next, and they'd insisted on coming. Given everything they'd all used to hunt in their world had either vanished or pretty much ended up here, they'd decided to stay, too. Ellen had taken over a local tavern, with Balthazar lining up to be her number one customer. Dean thought it had more to do with Jo than the ale, although it was damned good.

Madison had made an honest man out of Gabe last week. Turned out she could change from wolf to woman at will these days, but she hadn't gone-wolf during the ceremony. Had saved it up for the cake cutting. Never had two people's senses of humor more deserved each other.

And this week? He smiled still unable to believe it had happened. Or that he'd let it. "Poppa?" a beloved voice pulled his attention from the view.

"Hey, sweetheart," he said, lifting his daughter into his arms. Yeah, his daughter. One of the best parts of the most awesome deal of all times. She nestled against him, then yawned. He chuckled. "That you're way of telling me it's 'Hey Jude' time?"

She nodded. "Sleepy." She scowled obviously not pleased with needing to go to bed before the sun had set.

Pip jumped onto Dean's shoulder. "Been a busy day. I'm tired, too."

Claire smiled. "You just like to hear Poppa sing, too."

"Eh, maybe."

"Pip, mind your manners," Cas said from the doorway, and the sight of him nearly took Dean's breath away. All of them still wore their matching white satin and gold finery, but Cas looked every inch the king in his crown and flowing cape. Fortunately, like Madison's wolf-form, the wings came and went on command so they didn't ruin the line of his wedding clothes. Wedding clothes. This king was his husband of six hours, twelve minutes and roughly ten seconds.

"Aw, Deano knows I'm just teasin', right your princeness?"

Dean rolled his eyes. Prince Consort came with the gig, so he'd have to get used to it, and, hey, he'd been a good sport about playing the 'bride,' so he figured he'd earned a little eye action. "Whatever. Hang on, hairball. We've got a princess to put to bed."

Claire was fading fast, so Dean sang as he carried her to her room, and Cas got her into her pajamas. Always loved how Cas did that himself instead of palming his daughter off on servants. All in all, he ran a fairly casual castle which made it a lot easier on Dean, who might have had to hurt someone if anyone tried to dress him or something. Unless it was Cas, of course. Although he preferred it when the man undressed him.

He drew out the 'na na na na's until they had her tucked in, with Pip settling down on her pillow. She sighed happily, her nose nuzzling Pip's belly, then fell asleep.

"Come," Cas whispered, drawing him from the room, then into a kiss.

Dean sighed happily. "Ready to have your way with your blushing bride, majesty?"

Cas smiled and shook his head. "Very, even if 'she' does have an unfortunate sense of humor."

"I prefer unique."

"I'm sure you do, but before I can whisk you off and show you how much I appreciate it, we have to-"

Dean groaned, already knowing what was coming. "Another freaking appearance? We've already done twenty since the 'I do's."

"I know, my love, and they've all promised to go home if we appear one last time."

He sighed, "I'll believe it when I see it." But he took Cas' arm and let him lead them through the halls to the front of the palace.

"If you weren't so wonderful-"

"Laying it on a bit thick there, handsome," he muttered, as two pages opened the big doors.

Cas' answer got lost in the wild cheering, and Dean played nice, smiling and waving like a good Prince Consort should. At least Sam had taken the plunge into that role first. Let Dean take a few notes. Wasn't thrilled with Sammy living a whole kingdom away, but Anna had her own ruling to do, and wings-express courtesy of their respective spouses made staying in touch easier. And for some reason their freaking cell phones worked here. Never even lost a charge.

The inevitable chant began. "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"

Cas drew him into his arms, then looked into his eyes. "I have no need to 'lay it on thick," he said, leaning close. "You are wonderful."

Dean felt a blush heating his cheeks, then Cas kissed him to another deafening cheer. He felt the caress of wings beginning to manifest as Cas shifted to brush his lips against Dean's neck. Happiness swelled within Dean, and he threw his head back, laughing with the pure joy of it. Magic shimmered and carried the sound throughout all of Angelasia, bringing a smile to the faces of all who heard it.

Naturally they all lived happily ever after.


Storybook endings, fairy tales coming true
Deep down inside we want to believe they still do
In our secretest heart, it's our favorite part of the story
Let's just admit we all want to make it too

Ever ever after
If we just don't get it our own way
Ever ever after
It may only be a wish away

Start a new fashion, wear your heart on your sleeve
Sometimes you reach what's real just by making believe
Unafraid, unashamed
There is joy to be claimed in this world
You even might wind up being glad to be you
Ever ever after
Though the world will tell you it's not smart

Ever ever after
The world can be yours if you let your heart
Believe in ever after

No wonder your heart feels it's flying
Your head feels it's spinning
Each happy ending's a brand new beginning
Let yourself be enchanted, you just might break through

To ever ever after
Forever could even start today
Ever ever after
Maybe it's just one wish away
Your ever ever after

The End