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The Lonely Souls

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Darkness had long since blanketed the small motel just east of Little Rock, insulating it from the workings of the outside world. A miniature paracosm behind a locked door, it seemingly existed outside of normal time. Ten miles away, beyond the tree line, vehicles zipped along a highway at the same pace as they would in the daylight, but here, off the beaten path, they existed in another reality.

Night had brought a chill to cut through the unseasonable heat wave smothering the area, a breeze whispering through the open window of the small room and billowing the white curtains. The pale sheets danced in the wind, following the beat of an unheard song. Castiel cocked his head at them, curious, and brushed his fingers against the threadbare fabric, feeling it catch on the callus of his borrowed thumb. They were fragile. Thin. Vulnerable. The coverings offered little protection from the elements—wind, sunlight, prying eyes—only the illusion of it, as if somehow a thin film between the occupants of the room and the rest of the world would keep trouble at bay. They were superficial at best.

It wasn’t that the curtains offered any sort of essential security but more that they allowed residents to believe that security existed. It was the basis of faith.

Sam and Dean had little use for faith, Castiel knew. At one point in their lives, they might have believed in something—the universe correcting itself somehow, the power of righteousness, even in the power of fathers, Heavenly or otherwise—but those ideals had long since been shattered, broken into scattered, tiny fragments like dropped porcelain dolls. Sam and Dean didn’t trust the empty promise that the curtains offered. They knew better.

It was out of character for the brothers to have left the window open, leaving the heaped lines of salt vulnerable to the whims of nature, but the artificial air had rumbled and creaked to a noisy death last night and the stifling heat had been too much for Dean to bear. He’d muttered a curse about ending up looking like the painted lizards of the motel walls as he’d opened the window. Sam had watched him do it. Castiel had watched them both.

A brief but no doubt welcome respite from the heat had come with night but its remnants could still be felt in the oppressive stillness of the area surrounding the small motel. The only thing that dared to move was the soft wind that tickled the curtains. Even the crickets were too exhausted to chirp.

Dean had surrendered to the heat last night, sprawled across his rented bed like a dog in the hot sun, limbs to the four corners. The beige sheets were still in place, but the outer blanket was wadded up under his feet, as even having it beneath him had been too much. From where he stood guard at the window, Castiel could still smell the faint scent of the sweat now dried on Dean’s skin and soaked into his clothes. It clung to the room like a shadow, a memory, and held in place by the stains on Dean’s shirt. The heat would have been more tolerable for the mortal condition if Dean had taken off his clothes but there was something inside of Dean that wouldn’t allow that. Something…broken.

If it was a physical wound—a scrape, a broken bone—Castiel could have wiped it away with only a thought. He wished he could—often thought about it. He’d wipe the slate clean as easily as he had the scars on Dean’s body—Tabula Rasa—but Dean’s wounds ran deeper than that. They weren’t so quick to wash away.

The brothers had driven into town just a little past seven, on the hunt for yet another creature. It was a front. For the past few weeks, Dean had been leaping at every shadow, real or imagined, chasing down oblivion. He wanted to pretend that nothing had been asked of him, wanted to remain ignorant of his destiny. So far, Sam was letting him.

As the clock had ticked away the hours, Castiel had watched the sleeping brothers, had watched Dean. Minute twitches feathered along Dean’s skin and Castiel wondered if they were shivers brought on by the night’s chill and Dean’s steadfast rejection of blankets, or if they were something more. Deeper. Castiel wouldn’t truly know about the temperature; he could guess, but it didn’t affect him the way that it did Dean. Castiel didn’t let the heat touch him. Sam, however, slept peacefully on, laid out on the other bed in soft, thin clothes, his own demons momentarily put to rest. Perhaps a dream, then. Dean had them often. Yet another symptom of Castiel’s failure.

Sam sighed in his sleep and turned his head, facing toward Dean but Castiel placed him out of mind, moving to Dean’s side. It wasn’t Sam Winchester that Castiel had come to see. That was a problem for another day.

To be completely truthful, there wasn’t any reason for him to be here at all. There was no pressing business with the Winchesters, no seals within reach, no pending battles. The Winchesters were caught up in the waiting game, so to say, with no urgent news that needed to be moved on—no instructions, no orders, nothing but a stark silence. Truth be told, Castiel was needed more in Heaven at this moment than he was in this small, quiet room painted with its manic, grinning lizards. Somehow, though, someway, there was no place that Castiel would rather be.

This was…inconvenient. He frowned at Dean’s sleeping face. Everything was inconvenient. Inconceivable. Improper. Unseemingly.

Castiel quieted the litany of words in his head and leaned over Dean’s form, willing peace inside of himself and using it to cover Dean like the blankets he had foresworn, wrapping him in serenity. The small furl that had been building between Dean’s eyebrows smoothed and his twitching ceased.

An unpleasant dream then, Castiel thought—Dean’s memories getting the better of him again. It was hard to deny those in the defenselessness of sleep. Castiel wished he had a more delicate hand. Some of his more skilled brethren might be able to scoop out the more disturbing parts of Dean’s experiences, remove them as if they’d never happened, but Castiel knew that he would be as subtle as a large four-legged creature in a metaphorical china shop. He wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors.

Once again, he railed at his relative uselessness. A physical wound was easily taken care of; none of Dean’s wounds were where Castiel dared to touch.

…Touch. Castiel feathered his fingertips across Dean’s short hair, the light brush sending a shiver through him that had nothing to do with temperature and everything to do with sensations. Physicality. Everything came down to touch lately, to a queer urge to reach out as he’d never done before. He rarely touched anyone out of anything less than necessity, let alone completely extraneously. And voluntarily.

There was something about Dean, though. Something outside the norm that made Castiel’s thoughts tangle around themselves until he was uncertain what he was thinking at all. They’d tie themselves into a knot fit for Alexander. It was unsettling. Balthazar would have most likely ignored the complications and simply termed it a ‘crush.’

Balthazar had always been crude.

Castiel was drawn to Dean’s lips, a memory of Anna ghosting through his mind. What would it be like to touch as she had done? Had she enjoyed it? Had Dean? To what purpose? Physical touch was not unknown to Castiel, but he had never been possessed with such a desire to…explore. To question.

Sam sighed again, rolling fully onto his side and Castiel froze as Dean responded. Dean was always responsive to Sam’s movements—whether he knew it or not. From echoing soft sighs to following into mortal peril, Dean couldn’t help but answer Sam. Whenever he tried to do otherwise, he would drawn in like gravity, unable to resist settling back into Sam’s orbit. Sam had never been and never would be far from Dean’s mind, included as he was in Dean’s very sense of being. Since Dean had been risen, the brothers’ relationship had become a minefield full of secrets and half-truths, but still it endured. Dean clung to his brother like others clung to faith—Sam was Dean’s faith, his hope and salvation—and Sam revered Dean for it. It was the deep bond that the brothers shared, coupled with Dean’s particular brand of Winchester stubbornness, that made Castiel’s mission occasionally unpleasant.

Castiel squashed a surge of irritation. The brothers’ bond, fractured though it was, was one of the few things that they had left in the world. It would be petty of him to resent it. It was what made them Winchesters and Dean’s devotion was what made him Dean—part of the overall puzzle that Castiel spent an inordinate amount of time fixated on with no solution in sight.

Dean was still breathing slow and deep as Castiel studied him. Someday, Castiel hoped, that with enough self-reflection on the matter, he might be able to shake this…inconvenience.

There were more important events crying out for Castiel’s attention, battles to be won and wars to be fought. Yet, Castiel was here, with questions he had no business asking.

Dean panted, squirming against the metal cuffs that held his arms pinned above his head, chains clanking with each panicked jerk of his body. He was trapped—he knew it, his body knew it, the whole damn world knew it—and it wouldn’t be long until he’d lose anything resembling common sense. His pained grunt as he pulled on his restraints again turned into a breathless whimper.

The room that he was in was new but that didn’t mean much. It was always a game, throwing him off by doing something unexpected. The walls were a gray stone, barely visible except to his right where he could just make out the texture of pebbles mixed with cement. A chill hung in the air, and a damp, musty smell permeated the darkness. A basement, he figured. Or, at least the illusion of a basement. In the corner, he could make out what looked to be a set of stairs, wooden and worn in a dim electronic glow. A white washing machine stood between him and the potential freedom offered by the stairs.

Dean glanced down at the cement floor and bit his lip. That was definitely laundry surrounding him—sorted into whites and colors and darks, shirts and pants and goddamned underwear. Somebody must have been going for major creativity points or they really wanted to fuck with him this time.

It was a familiar scenario. Dean would wake up chained up, tied down, or just plain bound in a room—new or familiar, it didn’t make a difference—and he’d be given enough time to stew and really work himself up before they’d finally join him to bask in the fear and the sweat. Each time, Dean told himself that he wasn’t going to play the game but yet, each time, he caved.

Sometimes, it was just Him. Other times, he brought friends. Playmates. Watchers. It depended on his mood if he’d let them join or not. Alastair was a possessive son of a bitch.

Dean snorted, curling upward as he tried to push the shrill edge of terror back. Nothing but the best for the torture victims. Alastair also liked to wait until just before Dean thought he actually had a chance. Maybe if Dean tried harder, he could speed this up a little.

Except…were those laundry piles moving? And laughing… Dean sucked in a harsh gulp of air as a shirt tumbled off the white pile. The laughter was the creepiest thing about this. It sounded like kids—like kids playing. Jesus. “Stop fucking with me!” he shouted and the giggling stopped. But the laundry kept moving.

Dean jerked on the chain that held him suspended from the dark ceiling and stretched until his foot brushed against the closest basket. He kicked it, knocking it over, spilling the bright colors onto the cement floor like clown vomit, the plastic basket rolling harmlessly to the side.

The giggling started again. “Fuckers,” Dean snarled, struggling. It was just another head game. Just another mindfuck. And he was buying right into it. Sell him the fucking Golden Gate Bridge because he was buying, damn it! Useless panic coated his better sense and he thrashed mindlessly—no rhyme or reason, just the simple animalistic need to escape when there was no escape to be had.

All he had was time, ticking away in small increments as he waited for the “fun” to start, to be taken apart, piece by agonizing piece and Alastair loved this fucking game. Dean was—Dean was—

—Not in the room anymore. Floating in a haze of white, Dean blinked, wondering if he’d somehow found himself in a fabric softener commercial of if this was just another one of Alastair’s tricks. The setting was just one creep-ass teddy bear short of airing during Martha Stewart. He rubbed at his sore wrists only to find that they weren’t sore at all—it was all in his mind. A strange, inner peace was flowing through him, pushing back the lingering fear, filling him with warmth. It was like being held. Comforted. Loved. Bemused, Dean let himself exist in it, floating through the hazy clouds. Time had no meaning.

Until reality interrupted.

Consciousness flooded back, snapping Dean’s eyes open and propelling him upward, bringing him face-to face with a set of wide blue eyes. “Cas?” Dean muttered before he realized that he was staring at nothing but air, Castiel’s face an illusion of the dark. Dean shook his head and scrubbed a hand over his face. What a fucked-up dream…

He swung his legs over the bed, easing the hard line of his jeans digging into his stomach and straightening his shirt as it stuck to his skin. Dean didn’t know what he found more disturbing: the dream itself or the fact that he seemed to be associating Castiel—an angel and therefore, contrary to what Christian churchgoers the world over assumed, a complete dick regardless of his occasional bouts of usefulness and caring—with comfort. Enough to evidently recall Cas’s face after the dream had ended.

Dean groaned and stood. He fumbled for the flask he kept hidden in his bag and took a swallow, grimacing as the cheap liquor seared his throat. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to deal with his issues. He’d been screwed up before but now… Now they could pretty much write a book on him. Hell, he was a lifetime study.

He scratched his head as he moved to the window. The heat had finally broken. He could have kicked in the AC last night—would have if Sam hadn’t reminded him that it would have been charged to the room. Yesterday had been hot enough to fry eggs on pavement and Dean had felt as if he were a side of bacon sizzling on the burner.

The salt lines were still in place, piled along the sill. Dean shut the window and the cheap curtains flattened to the wall. Hopefully he and Sam wouldn’t feel like they were trapped in an oven in the morning.

They had a case tomorrow, some fucked-up shit that had brought them down to this little Podunk town in Arkansas, and Dean knew that he should get some sleep while he could. He’d been sleeping in fits and starts since Cas had dragged him back up—fuck, since even before he’d been dragged down—and sleeping was pretty much a luxury nowadays. Normally when he woke up in the middle of the night, jitters and a deep rooted fear of the monsters that lived in his head would keep him up until dawn. Tonight, it was just habit. He could still feel the easy peace from his dream, wanted to sink back down into it, but he kept feeling like he shouldn’t. Pure habit.

It was habit that pulled him to Sam’s bed, too. To make sure that he was still there, in the room with Dean. He stared down at Sam’s sleeping face, retracing the familiar lines and he had to reach out and touch them, just to make sure that this was real. He couldn’t trust that it was anymore. Sam stirred. “Dean?”

“Scoot over.” Dean lifted the thin sheet that Sam had over his waist and slipped in beside him, forcing Sam to shift to accommodate him on the bed. He wiggled into place, aligning his body to Sam’s from his knees to his shoulders, on his side so that he could still keep Sam in sight, and felt a tension he hadn’t known he had start to ease. Sam was real and here.

Sam stretched an arm underneath him, a solid presence that curled up over Dean’s back, hand resting on his side. A promise. “You alright? Sam asked, his hand rubbing over Dean’s bare arm.

The answer was always no—they both knew it—but Sam had to ask anyway. “Yeah.” Dean pressed his forehead against Sam’s shoulder and closed his eyes. Dean wanted skin to skin—Sam would keep him safe; they’d keep each other safe—but that would mean moving away. Wasn’t going to happen. “Fucking heat finally broke.” As soon as they’d crossed the county line, they’d been slowly baking in their own skins.

“Mmm,” Sam replied. He shifted and his other hand pressed against Dean’s hip. “Should take these off.” His fingers ran over the denim of Dean’s jeans, following the side seam. “Be more comfortable.”

Dean shrugged. “Later,” he said and felt himself start to drift back into the soft haze of his former dream. It was easy with Sam there. Sam kept the nightmares away. If Dean were smarter, he’d just give in and start out the night in Sam’s bed but pride kept him from asking. And Dean was afraid that if he grew to depend on it, one day it might not work.

“Okay.” Dean let himself relax against the bed, floating in the darkness until his limbs felt heavy with the pull of sleep. Just as he was about to nod off, warm lips pressed against the side of his face and, instinctively, Dean turned his head to respond to the soft touch. Sam shifted, leaning over him, his mouth aligning with Dean’s, his tongue casually licking at Dean’s lips until Dean let it inside. Dean exhaled, a buzz of arousal radiating through his body and raised his hand, griping Sam’s shoulder, rubbing it through Sam’s thin T-shirt. The tactile sensations grounded him, bringing an easy contentment. This was familiar territory.

Fingers trailed down Dean’s body, tracing the cloth lines of his shirt and reaching the waistband of his jeans. They popped the top button and pushed down the zipper, slipping inside. Dean bucked upward, breathing harder, and shivered as Sam separated the folds of his boxers to touch bare skin. “Like that?” Sam asked, his voice triggering another shiver down Dean’s spine.

Dean tilted his head upward, catching Sam’s mouth in another kiss, this one harder than before. He didn’t want to talk. Words, lately, only messed things up, got between them. Right now, Dean just wanted to forget. He tucked his own hand into Sam’s boxers, fingers wrapping around Sam’s half-hard dick. He stroked it, pulling gently, encouraging a full erection, and Sam broke off the kiss to pant against Dean’s neck.

Sam hissed, sucking air in between clenched teeth, and his touch roughened. One hand, previously gentle, shoved underneath Dean’s shirt, nails scratching down Dean’s skin, digging in and leaving marks. The other wrapped around Dean’s dick with a firm grip, starting up a hard rhythm. Dean winced but relaxed into it, willing himself to enjoy this, to take whatever Sam was giving. Sam’s teeth nipped across Dean’s throat and Dean knew that they were leaving marks.

This, too, was familiar. Reassuring. Sam always did this, after a girl or after a fight. It was his way of reminding Dean, of reminding himself. Dean did the same right back. Right now, Sam was erasing her and Dean allowed it, expected it, wanted it. It meant that Sam was still Sam, that Sam was still his fucked-up little brother. That Sam was still here. They were both alive—bruised, battered, and broken but still alive.

Sam’s hands gentled and his teeth left Dean’s skin. “Sorry,” he muttered, giving Dean an apologetic lick. Dean frowned. It was out of character for Sam to rein himself back in once he let go. A rush of anger pulsed through Dean’s veins. He wasn’t made of glass. He wasn’t going to break like some little china doll from some rough handling and he didn’t want excuses from Sam. He just wanted Sam to take. Dean fisted his hand in Sam’s hair, yanking on it and forcing Sam back into place. He kissed Sam again, his teeth catching on Sam’s lower lip and pulling at it, as he tightened his grip on Sam’s dick, hard and demanding. “Fuck,” Sam whispered, his hips rolling into Dean’s hand, losing control again.

There was no more gentleness between them, no more apologies, and no more courtesy. Just hard and brutal as Sam pressed Dean into the bed, holding Dean down with just his weight. Kisses had turned into bites and caresses into holds strong enough to bruise and Dean felt alive. Greedy for more, he squirmed underneath of Sam, fighting Sam’s grip not because he wanted to escape but just because he wanted to feel how tightly Sam would hold him down, feel how much Sam wanted him. A strange kind of intimacy bound them together, fierce and bruising but familiar.

In a matter of minutes, Dean was shuddering into Sam’s hand, his moan muffled by Sam’s mouth and Sam was right behind. Pleasure washed over Dean like a tidal wave only to ebb away and leave him sweaty and gasping, feeling as if he’d been swept out to sea and drowned beneath the waves. His muscles went lax, sinking into the bed, and he listened to Sam struggle to get his breathing back under control.

Sleep once again made Dean’s eyes heavy. He was ready to drift back into unconsciousness but he opened his eyes when Sam rolled off the bed. “Be right back,” Sam muttered, striding off into the bathroom. Dean watched him go, his head against the pillow, squinting when the bathroom light flickered. Sam tossed a thin towel at him, compliments of the motel, and Dean sighed as he rubbed it over his sticky skin. When he was done, he dropped it onto the floor, ignoring Sam’s huff of irritation, and rebuttoned his jeans.

Sam kicked the towel towards the bathroom and climbed back into bed with Dean.

The nightmares stayed away.

Castiel was aware of what the Winchester brothers did behind closed doors. He preferred not to think about it.

Standing outside room eight of the Gilled Lizard Motel and ignoring the events transpiring within, Castiel stared straight ahead at the moonlit horizon. The parking lot spread out before him, an ocean of black pavement parted by white lines, framed by the tree line of the surrounding forest. There were five vehicles in the parking lot, though only four rooms were occupied. Room three’s occupants had arrived in two different cars. They would also be leaving in two different cars and one would likely depart before dawn. The first had slunk in as if he was being watched, keeping his head low and his shoulders hunched while the other had strode about without a care in the world, her long coat swirling around her bare legs.

They were currently seeking comfort in each other though Castiel knew that only one would walk away happy with the exchange. The other would sneak back to the family that his gold ring belonged to. He’d resembled Dean, just in the face for he was slighter than Dean was. His mouth formed the exact same shape and once again, Castiel was reminded of Anna, of how she had looked with her lips pressed against Dean’s for only a brief second. Unfamiliar emotions had surfaced inside of him—a tangled mess that he would never be able to sort out.

He wasn’t Anna. He would never be Anna. To disobey as she had done was unthinkable. Yet something inside of him, some small, dangerous part, yearned to know what she knew. Desired to walk her path. Anna had always been braver than most.

Castiel tried to put it from his mind. He tried to think of other things but time and time again, he ended right back where he started with no answers and only questions. And a more uncomfortable awareness of what was happening behind the locked door and open window of room eight. He could hear soft gasps and the rustling of sheets moving together but Castiel told himself that it was just the wind. Even if it wasn’t (it wasn’t), then it was no concern of his. Dean and Sam Winchester were a means to an end. They were the knights on the chess board, driven by the hand of fate to sweep those before them. If they knew their place and fulfilled the roles given to them, then Castiel need not trouble himself with the details.

It was the details, however, that gave him pause. It was blasphemy to even think it but still Castiel did. He would dearly like to claim that it was Anna’s sin that tormented him but he knew that to be a falsehood. Anna was no more to blame for this new direction in his thoughts than the wind. This was Castiel’s own faults coming into the light of day.

Castiel had never known them before and they vexed him but he hoped that with enough self-reflection he would once again right himself. There were more important things for him to attend to and he had no time for such idle and confusing thoughts.

Laughter echoed across the flat plain of the parking lot, seemingly adrift on the soft wind. Castiel gazed from side to side and saw nothing, just the blackness of night and the same five vehicles as before, though he could feel something coming closer—something that didn’t quite exist in the physical realm. He reached out with more than just sight, he felt the soft tendrils of power, slippery and vague when he tried to grab a hold of them. They slipped away before he could identify them, blinking out of existence as if they’d never been and giving him only the lingering sensation of something old. Something ancient. Something…empty.

The door to room seven creaked open and a tall man of about thirty stepped out, his feet catching on the jamb. His eyes stared out into the night, glassy and unseeing and Castiel watched him curiously. The man took a slowly, shaky step off the sidewalk and onto the black pavement and then stopped. He shook his head, like a dog emerging from underwater, and swung himself around to face Castiel. “Who are—”

Castiel stared straight ahead at a tree, a hundred miles west of the motel, and pressed his hand to its bark. The man’s question finished in his head. —you?

Castiel didn’t know if he knew anymore.

Dean returned to the world of the living with the uncomfortable knowledge that his underwear had lodged itself in his ass sometime during the night and it might take a crowbar to get it free. That was, if he could peel his jeans off first. He groaned as he opened his eyes, feeling the heat sink on top of him like a heavy quilt. When he found the ambition to sit up, he was going to take a hammer to the fucking AC. It wouldn’t help but it might make him feel better.

“You up?” Sam asked and Dean could hear him spit into the sink. In a very odd way, it was a reassuring sound. Even when things had gotten bad when they were kids, Sam had always seemed to find time to brush his teeth. “You were out like a light, man.”

The bed creaked as Dean rolled to his feet. “Yeah. Just a…” He scrubbed at his hair and glanced around to find his bag. The clock on the nightstand glowed 9:22 and his stomach growled.

Sam rolled his eyes and spit again, running the water for a moment. Dean stripped off his sweat-crusted T-shirt and tossed it to the floor, snagging a fresh one out of his bag and dragging it over his head. When Dean looked up, Sam was watching him, his mouth in the same small frown that Dean had been catching on his face all too often lately. Dean had no idea what it meant besides the fact that it was starting to get under his skin like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He tugged at the edge of his shirt, settling it into place.

“So, the front page this morning was talking about the thefts again,” Sam said, heading to the dinette set and flipping through the papers like Dean hadn’t just caught him staring.

“Yeah?” They needed to find a laundromat soon. Dean only had one pair of jeans left. “What was it this time? The local supply of nickels to go along with the prized penny collection?” The thefts were one of the reasons why he and Sam had driven to Arkansas. They were always accompanied with reports odd noises in the night and absolutely no sign of breaking and entering.

“Garden gnomes.” Sam laughed as Dean mouthed the phrase, trying to figure out if he’d heard that right, and tossed the paper at him.

“The Hawker,” Dean read aloud. “Bizarre String of Thefts Continue. Garden gnomes are the latest objects to be targeted in the ongoing rash of thefts. The gnomes have disappeared out of four separate yards in the past two days… Who the fuck wants garden gnomes?” Dean glanced up at Sam. “Little fuckers are creepy.” He didn’t think he’d ever quite get over the instant flood of dread whenever he caught sight of one of the pointy-hat little bastards sitting in somebody’s yard. It wasn’t that he was scared, per se, it was more than he treasured certain body parts that gnomes were fond of attacking first. Dean had learned that the hard way when he and Dad had unearthed an entire nest of them sitting in some little old lady’s flower patch. He’d never been able to look at the goofy figurines in quite the same light.

Sam shrugged. “Garden gnomes, clocks, pennies, crystal figurines… If there’s a connection can’t see it.”

“What about that guy that disappeared?” Dean refolded the paper and tossed it on the bed. “He have something for gnomes?”

“Paul Sutter?” Sam quirked an eyebrow. “Dean, he was 87. I think he’s a little old to be sneaking around people’s yards.”

“Just saying.” Old men could be surprisingly spry at times. Dean pushed his jeans down over his hips and let them fall to the floor to slide on his last clean pair. Sam’s attention dropped immediately to Dean’s waist and at another time, Dean might have taken that as an invitation. His stomach growled again. Breakfast couldn’t wait. “I’m fucking starving.”

Sam rolled his eyes and turned back towards the articles on the table. “I think there’s a diner across the street.”

Nan’s Country Grill, home of spicy grilled catfish and the best quarter pounder bacon cheeseburger in the tri-county area, was not only just across the street but, after a quick chat with Nan, it also was a block away from the latest bit of town gossip. “Bluer than Bobby Jenkins’s eyes, swear to Jesus,” Nan had said, patting at her fire engine red curls. She’d started filling them in after giving them an earful about how unusual the heat wave was and how global warming was to blame. “Serves Lester right, all the boasting and bragging he did and using all that water—in this heat, too! Why, he’s only making the global warming worse, I tell you. I wouldn’t blame somebody for doing it, no siree, but I can tell you that’s not paint. No, that’s just not right. Grass shouldn’t be that color. It’s global warming, I tell you. Remember what I was saying about this heat wave? Well it’s all related. I don’t know much but I sure as Sunday know that. Just sucked all the life right out!” Dean had raised his eyebrows at Sam and Sam had shrugged back and the little bells attached to the front door had jingled on the way out. As far as leads went, it was worth a look.

Dean picked at his teeth as he and Sam headed east towards Plumview Road. He had no idea just how blue Bobby Jenkins’s eyes were but they’d have to be pretty damn blue to match Nan’s enthusiasm for the topic. “Son of a bitch…” Dean stopped just to the side of what had to be Lester Ward’s once perfect lawn, one hand reaching out the grab the neighbor fence. “It’s a Smurf crime scene.”

The green grass that used to be Lester Ward’s pride and joy was now awash with a radioactive blue—and wilting. Kneeling down, Sam pursed his lips as he picked a blade and held it up to the light. “It’s blue alright,” Sam said.

“Ya think?” Dean asked. Off on the other side of the property, an old man was leaning against a fence, yelling at a middle-aged woman in a handkerchief. Dean nudged Sam and gestured to the scene. “And it looks like Lester’s not happy about it.”

“I know it was you!” the old man shouted, banging his fist against the wooden barrier. “Don’t try to deny it! I know that you’ve had your eye on my lawn for quite some time, Matilda Davis!”

“Is that why you stole my laundry?” Matilda demanded, back and Dean’s eyebrows furled. Laundry? “You know that my business will be ruined! What gives you the right to break into my house?”

Lester pointed a finger and shook it at Matilda. “You painted my lawn blue! You killed my goddamned lawn! I’ll sue you!”

“You crazy old man, you painted it yourself! For the insurance money!” Matilda jabbed a finger over the fence. “And I’m calling Sheriff Bailey! He’ll know what to do you with you, Lester Ward! You crazy, laundry-stealing codger!”

“Dean,” Sam said, elbowing Dean in the side. “I don’t think this is paint.” Dean glanced at the blade of grass that Sam had snapped in two. “It’s blue inside.”

Lester screamed something at his neighbor, the words too high a register to be intelligible and Matilda’s voice rose to meet Lester’s. “So, maybe Neighbor Lady fed it something that it soaked up?”

“Over night? The entire lawn?” Sam leveled an eyebrow. “And I think it’s dying…” Sam held up the twin halves of grass. They were slowly curling in his fingers, the edges turning brown and Sam let them flutter to the ground, wiping his hands on his jeans. The grass was still shriveling as they hit the sidewalk.

“Okay, point,” Dean admitted, glancing between the dead grass and Sam’s hands. Sam would say something if he was, oh, being burned by radioactive Smurf blood, wouldn’t he? “But how does blue grass of the distinctively non-Kentucky variety fit in with missing gnomes?” Lester and his neighbor had apparently decided to agree that they hated each other because they were both stalking back to their houses. “Besides being friggin’ weird?” A front door slammed.

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. Trickster, maybe? Ward did take a lot of pride in his lawn.”

“But why gnomes? Little crystal statues of unicorns?” Dean pinched his fingers together to emphasis the small scale of the equine figurines. “Fucking pennies? There some asshole jerk in town that took pride in depriving the Federal Reserve?”

“Okay, maybe something else.” Sam glanced around, checking out the surrounding houses. “A…ghost with a sense of humor. Maybe.” Sam froze, pulling a face and then turned back to Dean. “Guy across the road.”

Dean blinked and turned to look across the street at the houses lined the sidewalk. A man was kneeling in the yard, seemingly bending over to inspect a line of flowers—except the flowers appeared to have been involved in the non-flower-related task of hanging the wash out to dry. The man held up a small scrap of lace that Dean sincerely hoped did not belong to him—though, the way that he was staring at it, Dean sincerely hoped that it didn’t belong to anyone else, either. “Oh, that’s not suspicious at all.”

Sam nodded as the guy hurriedly stuffed the lacey underwear into his pocket and made for his front door. “Look at the name,” Sam said, jerking his head at the mailbox. ‘Sutter’ was written down the side of the black box in silver letters.

The screen door banged shut behind the man as Dean trotted across the street, Sam following along behind him. In six steps, Dean was on the other side of the road and in twelve, he was taking the porch steps two at a time. He came to a stop on the deck and rapped sharply on the screen door, banging it against its frame. He glanced through the etched glass of the entry door behind the screen and listened to the panicked skittering inside the house. “Mr. Sutter?” he called, knocking again before digging in his pockets for a badge.

“Yes?” The steel entrance door opened and the man from outside appeared behind the screen, wiping at his mouth and a few days worth of graying stubble. Still wearing his pajamas, he hunched his shoulders and met Dean’s eyes for only a few brief seconds before flicking his gaze away. His hair stuck up at odd, random angles like he’d been encouraging it to defy gravity any way it could and didn’t own a comb.

Dean plastered on a perfunctory smile and flashed a badge at the man before pocketing it again. “My partner and I were hoping that we could ask you a few questions?” The man stared blankly at the space Dean’s badge had just occupied.

“Are you Dale Sutter?” Sam asked over Dean’s shoulder and the man swung his gaze to the left and up to see Sam.

“Uh…um, yeah,” Sutter replied, wiping at his mouth again.

“We’ve got a few questions about the disappearance of your grandfather?” Sam continued, wearing his best ‘we’re here to help’ face. “May we come in?”

“Oh, uh…sure.” Sutter stepped back away from the door, moving to the side as Dean grabbed the screen door, hearing it squeal on its hinges. “I’ve, uh, already gone over it with the sheriff…”

“We’re just recanvasing,” Dean said. “Trying to make sure nothing was missed.”

“Your grandfather disappeared five days ago?” Sam asked.

“Yeah.” Sutter scrubbed at his hair, pulling a few more tuffs out of place and sighed. “Uh, would you like to sit down?” He gestured at a red recliner and brown couch and inched towards them.

Following the prompting, Dean perched on the edge of the couch and leaned forward, his hands folded between his knees. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Sutter,” Sam said, sitting next to Dean, “could you please repeat what you told the police about Paul Sutter’s disappearance?”

“Well, uh…” Sutter sank into the recliner and wiped his palms on his pajama bottoms. “It was five nights ago. I’ve been, uh, living with Granddad, you know, just until I get back on my feet?” He glanced up at Dean again before his eyes skittered away to the mantle. A large vase, gray and decorated with streaks of blue sat in the center, surrounded by few pictures of Sutter when he was younger and others who had to have been of his parents and grandparents. “My wife, she took everything when we… And Granddad, well, he’s hasn’t been… He’s needed me around, you know? He could have wandered off or… Some days, he didn’t know where he was…”

“Alzheimer’s?” Dean asked and Sutter nodded, still staring at the vase. “It’s nice,” he said. Sutter jumped. “Antique?” Dean couldn’t have given a shit less about the vase, of course, but people tended to react well when you complemented their décor. It built a measure of trust despite being strangers with even stranger questions.

“Do you collect?” Sutter asked quietly, rubbing his palms on his thighs.

“Nah,” Dean answered and jabbed a thumb at Sam. “But this guy here, he’s just crazy about them. Aren’t you?” Sam swatted him away, his mouth firming to a thin line.

“Oh. It’s a family heirloom,” Sutter said, oblivious to Sam’s look of disapproval for putting him on the spot. “It’s been in the family for generations. My grandfather’s had it ever since I can remember… He got it from his father. I…suppose it might be mine now.” Sutter’s voice constricted. “I’m glad that it didn’t break. That night, it was on the floor when I… I thought it might have been broken, that he’d accidentally broken it, knocked it off the shelf during a fit or something, but no.”

“This was the night that your grandfather disappeared?” Dean asked.

“Yes.” Sutter rubbed his palms again. “That night, I heard some noises coming from downstairs so I’d thought that maybe he’d gotten up and had wandered away. He did that every now and then so I went down to check. But…”

“But?” Sam prompted.

“He wasn’t there,” Sutter finished on a rush. “When I found the vase on the rug, I went into the kitchen and the back door was open but he wasn’t there.” He dropped his eyes to the floor.

“You said you heard noises?” Sam asked. “Something that made you think that this wasn’t just your grandfather wandering away?” Sutter took a deep breath and Sam’s face slipped into an understanding frown. “Take your time, Mr. Sutter.”

“Bailey already thinks I’m crazy…” Sutter muttered. “Granddad wasn’t there but things were moving.” He met Dean in a head-on stare, the first bit of prolonged eye contact since he’d opened the door. “Pots, pans, cupboard doors…by themselves.”

“What, you mean like a Mary Poppins-thing?” Dean asked, visions of the kitchen cleaning up itself flashing through his mind.

“Except instead of music, there was laughing.” Sutter closed his eyes. “I can still hear it. In my head.”

Dean stabbed a french fry into the mound of ketchup on his plate, globbing it up and happily chewing. Sam watched him, envious over his salad but, hey, it wasn’t Dean that decided to order the rabbit food. Sam was once again on a healthy eating kick and Dean gave him about two days before he broke. As stubborn as Sam was, Dean knew that the allure of a thick, greasy burger would win him over. In the meantime… Dean shoved three fries into his mouth and smiled.

Sam dropped his eyes back to his salad. “The only real connection between the victims so far,” Sam said, “is the fact that they’re all located in the same area.”

“And the fact that they have some pretty bizarre hobbies,” Dean added. He still couldn’t get over the gnome thing. With their ceramic smiles and pointy little hats… He hated Travelocity on pure principle.

Sam let the jab go. “We need to check out the local lore see if there’s been anything in the area like this before. Tomorrow, we can talk with the other three victims.” Dean nodded, taking a bite out of his burger. After interviewing Dale Sutter, he and Sam had knocked on the doors of some of the victims and spent a lot of time sitting on various couches. “People’s possessions disappearing or possibly being vandalized… That’s, like, a karma thing.” Mrs. Lugera, former owner of the crystal unicorns, had been particularly broken up. She’d spent her life collecting them.

Dean chewed slowly, thinking. “Plus, there’s the creeptastic laughing.” Two more of the victims besides Sutter had mentioned that, giving them three for four at the moment and making it too much of a coincidence to ignore. Something was pushing at the back of Dean’s brain about the laughing but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what. It just seemed as if he should know.

“Right.” Sam swirled his fork in the lettuce and stabbed a tomato. He was still eyeing Dean’s fries the way that other men sometimes viewed porn.

“Lacey, now, you come and sit right over here.” A little redheaded girl, her hair a straight blaze down her back, swung into the blue vinyl booth that Nan was pointing at, dropping her pink backpack on the floor. “And we’ll fix you up with a nice piece of apple pie, how about that?”

The little girl smiled sadly, her freckles curving around her cheeks. “Thanks, Grandma.”

Dean grinned as Nan headed towards the kitchen, waving a hand to catch her attention. “Hey, can I get one of those, too?” he asked.

“Sure thing, sugar.” Nan stopped with her hand on the double swinging doors. “Two?”

“Nah,” Dean said, turning his grin on Sam. “Sammy here’s on a diet. Just the one.” Sam rolled his eyes and stole one of Dean’s fries. “Hey!”

“You’re getting pie,” Sam retorted and shoved the fry into his mouth. He dropped his eyes pointedly to where the table was hiding Dean’s gut. “You don’t need it.”

The town itself was cut out of the wilderness, the forest beaten back by mankind’s determination, pushed beyond the original battle lines. Some day, the trees might regain their ground, but it would take winning the war to do so. The highway cut through the landscape like an ugly scar, traffic flowing without end, everyone needing to be somewhere else. Castiel glided across the night sky, surveying the long stretch of highway and the small town that grew off of it like a knot on a tree. Without the highway, the town wouldn’t survive but without the town, the highway would just go on.

There was no reason for him to be here, just as there hadn’t been the previous night or all the nights before that. There was just something inside of him that compelled him to keep coming back. It was a weakness, he knew, a flaw, and one that should not be able to exist. In a little while, he’d attempt to will it away, to think heavily and reject the sins that tempted him—but for now, he couldn’t deny the emptiness inside of him. It had been a long time since he had felt fulfilled, since he had thought his duty was enough. It was a step down a dangerous path. It only took a few steps to fall, to move from the light. He still couldn’t stop himself from giving up that ground. Dean Winchester made him feel…something. It wasn’t fulfillment in the Lord; it wasn’t satisfaction, but it was something—something besides the emptiness.

There was something out in the woods surrounding this town that echoed that emptiness. Something hollow. Something…lonely.

Castiel plunged out of the sky and dissipated, reappearing on the ground, standing before the surrounding woods. The branches of the trees arched toward the stars, interweaving with each other, casting faint shadows in the moonlight. The tall grass clung to his clothes, wet strands winding around his borrowed corporeal body. The loneliness that he had felt before called to him, bidding him closer, promising him an end to the feeling. Castiel shook it off, but felt it buzz around him like a fly.

There was something in the woods, and it was something that he had felt before. The emptiness was old, a wound that had never healed, and on the wind, was the faint sound of laughter. He tilted his head curiously. Theoretically, there could be some children playing in the woods but Castiel was certain that there wasn’t. There was something playing but it certainly wasn’t children.

The grass whispered as a small form moved through the field towards the edge of the woods, heading out of town and Castiel studied it. A young redheaded child emerged into the moonlight, her steps laden and stumbling. She walked in a straight line, always coming back to center when she tripped, as if she were being led. In a moment, Castiel was standing beside her, watching her plod her way to the trees, the same blank look on her face as the man from room seven.

He felt the pull again, heard the beckoning, and recognized it for the ancient magic it was. He shrugged it off like water off a duck and dropped a hand onto the girl’s shoulder. She snapped awake with a gasp, waking up from her dream, and stared around in panic before centering in on him. With a fearful whimper, she backed away and Castiel bid her peace. “You,” he said, “should not be here.”

When his hand lifted from her shoulder, the girl took flight, darting back through the grass towards town as quick as a robin. Castiel watched her go until she was a speck on the horizon, emerging onto a lit town road, and turned his attention back to the trees.

The call was stronger now, as if he’d been merely feeling the edges of it before. With the girl gone, he was at its epicenter. Castiel flickered to another plane and reappeared, this time just inside of the forest. It smelled of dust and incense and old magic. Pagans. The laughter from before was louder, surrounding him with a cackling mirth.

“Be silent,” Castiel ordered and the waves of laughter ceased, rippling outward. In the dead quiet, Castiel moved forward, stepping into the sway of the siren call. It served as a thought and nothing more. Perhaps it was curiosity that bid him closer. Or perhaps it was something much more complicated. He would merely see what was lurking in the trees and then he would return to Heaven. He would make sure that the brothers could handle it.

Castiel stepped over the sprawling roots of an oak. And pitched forward into blackness.

Dean popped a chip into his mouth as he walked back along the covered sidewalk to the room. The old vending machine at the far end of the motel hadn’t wanted to surrender the bag of Lays after eating Dean’s sixty-five cents, catching the bag on a spiral two rows down, but Dean had been able to persuade it using a little bit of muscle. Dean smiled. It had even given him a bag of Fritos and a Snickers as concessions after the battle. Not a bad haul if he did say so himself.

The sun had set, darkness blanketing the motel and the flickering outside lights collecting swarms of bugs. The night, though, only slightly eased the heat that had been pouring off the blacktop earlier in the day. The good news was that Mo the motel owner doubled as the local handyman and had managed to fix the air conditioner after swinging around his wrench for an hour or two. Dean didn’t know how long the cool air was going to hold up against the ‘melt off your face’ temperatures, but he’d take what he could get.

Mo had apparently moved on to other projects because he was banging on the door to number nine, the little brass numeral jumping with each hit. Dean gave Mo a quick smile as he neared, just in case Mo was watching. “Come on, lady,” Mo said. “If you’re gonna stay an extra day, you gotta pay for it. This ain’t a charity service! I got bills, you know?” After a moment of silence, Mo sighed and pulled out his chain of keys, flipping through them.

“Yikes,” Dean mouthed and trotted the next few steps to number eight, knocking for Sam to let him in.

Sam opened the door with a scowl, filling up the doorway. His wet hair curled around his neck, still dripping from his shower and his shirt clung to his stomach, hinting that he hadn’t been dry when he’d put it on. “You left.”

Taken aback by the accusing tone of Sam’s voice, Dean frowned and held up his trophies. “And came back with food. What’s the problem?” Dean had been gone for five minutes, tops.

“Nothing,” Sam said, his little huff implying anything but, and stepped back to let Dean in.

Dean shot a glance to his left where Mo had left the door to number nine open, buying himself some time, and then followed Sam into the room. He closed the door behind him and took a deep breath, relaxing in the cooler air. “Look, I’m sorry, man.” He hadn’t even thought about telling Sam where he was going when he left because he hadn’t left the motel. He had, however, left the room and Sam was paranoid now about Dean going missing, ever since the whole ‘Tuesday’ thing and Hell… Guilt prickled through Dean. “I just went to go get some chips. You were in the shower… I’ll make sure next time.” Dean wrapped his finger in the belt loop of Sam’s jeans, jerking Sam off balance. “Maybe I’ll just join you in the shower?” he added with a wink.

Sam snorted. “That shower?” he asked and Dean chuckled, relieved to be off the hook.

“Well, maybe not that shower,” Dean said. The motel’s shower stall was barely big enough for one. He didn’t know if two would even fit, not without a whole lot of togetherness and someone willing to have the plumbing jabbing him in the ass.

Letting go of Sam’s belt loop, Dean skirted around the nearest bed where he had left a series of books scattered on the sheets. He popped another chip into his mouth and wiped the grease off on his jeans before turning one around to face Sam. “So, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing in particular about the area. Nothing about weird thefts, no past abductions, no local monsters… Closest we’ve got is the White River monster. I’ve got nothing, man.”

Sam took the book and flipped a couple of pages. “White River monster?”

“Some kind of crocodile thing,” Dean said with a wave. “We’re about a hundred miles west of the White River.”

“So we’re dealing with something new to the area.”

“Looks like it. But, I mean, far as I can tell…” Dean snatched the laptop off a pillow and dragged it toward him. “…There haven’t even been any suspicious deaths in town in years. Last guy to die was…” Dean scrolled down. “Joe Stranger. Used to co-own one of the local restaurants with his wife until he died two years ago. Cancer.”

Sam closed the book and dropped it back on the bed. “So we’ve got…”


Castiel floated in a void of nothingness, drifting along like flotsam. There was nothing below him, nothing above, and nothing around. This, he surmised, was a problem. He couldn’t even be certain which plane he was on besides the fact that it was not the physical. The sheer emptiness of his surroundings didn’t exist on the physical plane.

Inside, he felt just as empty, as if he’d been cut off from the rest of the world, from his brothers, from his Father. He was hollow, with nothing to fill him—just an empty shell about to crumble. It was disconcerting.

He reached out with his mind, attempting to feel the edges of this existence, and could feel no cracks, no edges. Putting more force into the effort, he slammed his thoughts outward, bidding the space to bend to his will. The nothingness flickered, existence momentarily asserting itself, and Castiel caught sight of a cavern, its rough-hewn walls closing in over his head before they were covered by long fingers of darkness clawing their way over the stone. “Full of life, full of grace…” a voice hissed, joined in unison by a multitude of others, forming a chorus of whispers. Castiel turned his head and saw the blackness closing in, faces forming in the spreading dark. Small bodies split off from the dark, turning into creatures that crept forward, their grinning mouths full of sharp, pointed teeth and their eyes bright with hunger. They climbed over a human woman’s body—unconscious but still alive—as they reach out for him. “We would have you.”

Castiel willed himself to be elsewhere but as he moved, he felt something holding him back. It twanged tightly, like a rope tied around him, and Castiel gasped in panic, calling out to his brothers for help before the darkness embraced him, closing over him like a vast, empty sea. He struggled to escape and found himself pulled deeper and deeper into the void.

Around him, the emptiness started to laugh.

Fingertips ghosted over Dean’s lips and he turned towards them, flicking his tongue out to wet the pads, encouraging them closer. They dipped inside his mouth, just an inch, and pulled back, pushing at his bottom lip. Dean sighed and followed them up, awash in contentment, a buzz of pleasure rippling through him. He could happily stay like this for the rest of his life, indulging in a little oral fixation.

Recapturing a finger with his mouth, he sucked, feeling a thrill at the small gasp that accompanied the motion, a quiet intake of air that reverberated: the lazy power of the hedonist. Dean reached outward with his hands, exploring with touch, and felt solid flesh underneath his palms. Moaning, he moved closer, sliding the fingers of one hand under a cuff while his other wrapped around a smooth thigh.

It used to always be like this with them. Easy, natural, a lifetime of experience and intimate knowledge packed into each touch, each kiss. They’d been doing this for years before Dad chased Sammy off, picked up right where they left off not long after Sammy came back.

It was the distance that hurt Dean the most—the secrets, the lies. Sam never used to kept secrets, not from Dean. Sam used to tell Dean everything and he never lied. They were the only people in the world that they could trust. There was no reason to tell lies and there were no secrets to keep.

Things had started falling apart a long time ago. There were things that Dean had decided that Sam was better off not knowing. Little did he know that Sam thought the same thing about him. Since he’d come back, it was even worse—a deep divide that ran through the middle of their relationship, obvious and unavoidable. Dean had yet to figure out how to cross it.

He’d come back from the dead. He’d come back from Hell. It was a motherfucking miracle, straight out of the Bible, complete with angels, and it’d only seemed to make things worse. Then again, Dean knew that he had no right to be topside anymore. He knew that he belonged down below. He might have been unsure when Lilith had dragged him kicking and screaming into the pit but after forty years, after all the things he’d done, there was no denying it. And yet fucking angels had dragged him out.

“Sammy,” Dean whispered, pulling the body in his arms close to him. He had no idea if this was a dream—too perfect, too easy—or not, but he’d take it either way. The skin underneath his fingers was hot, almost too hot, burning bright, but it felt good. Clothes melted away—settled the question, but reality was overrated anyway—and Dean ran his hands up Sam’s arm, over his shoulder and cradled his neck. He leaned in for a kiss.

“Dean.” The voice was strangled, dying in the throat before it barely had a chance to live, and Dean frowned. That wasn’t Sam’s voice. No, that was…

“Cas.” Dean opened his eyes and came face to face with Castiel. Dean swallowed, instinctive panic coating his nerves but as scared as he felt, Castiel looked worse. Dean didn’t think that he’d ever seen an angel—any of them—look quite so terrified. It was Castiel’s wide-eyed stare that stopped Dean from shoving him away and backpedaling for the wall. Castiel looked ready to bolt at the drop of a hat as Dean untangled himself, his breathing quick and sudden. Either Dean was having a sex dream about Castiel—which was fucked-up—or Castiel… Castiel was really there, standing smack dab in another one of Dean’s dreams.

Castiel’s skin blazed where Dean’s hands had been, ebbing back into a normal color. The heavy trench coat reappeared like it had never been missing, and Castiel trained his eyes downward. “I…”

“Don’t even say it,” Dean warned. He had no idea what the fuck Castiel had been thinking not only turning up in one of Dean’s dreams but casually invading a sex dream and casting himself in the starring role but Dean was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. It was disturbing enough to know that he’d been feeling up an angel when he’d thought that he’d been making out with his brother. The fact that most people would have been disturbed by his original thought was barely a blip on his radar anymore.

“Dean,” Castiel said, his voice more like himself. The sheer terror in his eyes was gone but it was replaced by an urgency that made Dean’s hair want to stand on end. “I…” He glanced behind him, at the blank wall, seeing something that Dean evidently didn’t, and finished in a rush. “I need your help.”

“What? Are you fucking kidding—”

“I don’t have much time,” Castiel interrupted, his face set in stone. “I barely escaped them. They’ve been blocking my attempts and they’re already—”

Laughter filled the room, drowning out Castiel’s words and everything else. Dean covered his ears as it swelled to a crescendo, shouting through the noise. “They’re what?” Around him, long claws were scraping into his dreams, shredding the façade as they pulled themselves into his mind. Pain lanced through his skull and Dean curled in on himself. “Fuck!”

A hand wrapped around Dean’s ankle, grasping and climbing upward, and a head took shape out of nothing, all bright slitted eyes and sharp fangs. “So alone…” the thing hissed. “So afraid… Come with us…” Dean screamed and kicked his leg, shaking the creature off. It sailed through the air before disappearing in a puff of smoke but others were taking its place.

“Jar!” Castiel yelled. “Find the—” The dream slipped away like falling water, the room, Cas, the noise sloshing downward in a steady gush. Dean jerked awake, staring at the pockmarked ceiling, panting, his lower brain running a few short laps before the rest of him managed to catch up. He shot upwards, glancing wildly around the room, looking for any trace of angels secretly creeping on him in the night, ready to fight if any were still hanging around, but besides Sam, the room was empty. “Fuck,” Dean breathed. What the fuck were those things?

He took a deep breath, slowing his breathing and scrambled off the bed, his boots hitting the floor. In two short strides, he was kneeling on top of Sam’s bed and checking for a pulse. Sam snapped awake, his hands batting at Dean’s arms, instinctively reaching for a hold before Sam’s brain was even fully online. “Dean?” Dean rememorized Sam’s face and then turned away, sitting down on the bed, his feet back on the floor. “Dean?” Sam rolled over onto his side and pushed himself upward. His hand ghosted over Dean’s back. “What’s going on?”

“I just got dreamjacked,” Dean said. “Touched by an Angel.” Literally, but Dean wasn’t quite ready to confess to that just yet. And they had bigger things to worry about than some creepy, potential blasphemy.

“What?” The bed sheet rustled as Sam tossed it off of him. “By who?”

“Castiel,” Dean admitted. “And I think he might be in trouble.”

“This is crazy, Dean.” Sam stopped his pacing beside the TV, turning to face Dean.

“You think I don’t know that?” Dean asked, sitting on the bed. “I mean, come on, he’s a friggin’ angel.”

“Exactly. So why wouldn’t he go to the other angels for help?” Dean had to give Sam that. It was a pretty good point. “What can we do that they can’t?”

“Look, I don’t know.” Dean shrugged. “Maybe he couldn’t. He did say that he’s being blocked. All I know, Sam, was that he was asking for our help. I mean, I don’t even know if we should. Like I said, he’s a friggin’ angel. You know what kind of dicks those guys are. It could be another one of their mindfucks.”

“Okay.” Sam crossed his arms and sighed. “So assuming that it’s not a trick, did he say what he expects us to do?”

Dean frowned, trying to recall the bits and pieces of the dream. All he was really getting, beyond the sheer terror at the end, was how damn warm Cas had felt when Dean had been touching him. Anna hadn’t felt that way but, then again, Anna hadn’t been all angeled up when he’d slept with her, either. He wondered if sleeping with her now would be like sinking into a nuclear reactor. “Something about a jar.”

“A jar,” Sam repeated, deadpan. “What kind of jar?”

“How should I know? Maybe he just needs help opening the fucking pickles.” Dean didn’t need any reminders of just how crazy he was.

Sam quirked a smile. “Okay, so a jar. We need to figure out what kind of jar.”

“Probably could call Bobby. See if he’s ever heard anything about angels having a fetish for jars.” Dean snapped his finger as another thought occurred to him. “It probably has something to do with the creatures that were after him. Man, those were creepy fuckers. You should have seen the teeth. Friggin’ Jaws.”

Sam was back to being concerned. “You said that there was a lot of them?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “I mean they were just ripping into the dream and I got the feeling that there were a lot more trying to get in.”

“Could you tell what they were?”

Dean shook his head. “Never seen ‘em before in my life. They were coming out of the darkness, though.” Dean slid his eyes away from Sam to focus on the maniacally grinning lizard painted on the wall. “I think they wanted me to go with ‘em,” he added. “That’s what one told me.”

“With them?”

“Yeah. And they were laughing.” It had sounded familiar as well, like Dean had already heard it before. “Like, full on horror movie soundtrack with the creepy kids laughing.”

Sam paused, frowning. “Laughing, like the same that we keep hearing about?”

Dean slapped his forehead, ashamed that he’d needed Sam to connect the dots on that one. “Yeah. So whatever it is we’re hunting has got Cas right now.”

“And are managing to hold him,” Sam added.

“So, they are potentially some badass motherfuckers.” Dean leaned across the bed and grabbed the cell phone off the nightstand. “Badass motherfuckers that like snatching angels and gnomes. And clocks and little crystal unicorns…” Dean stared at the cell’s screen. “Fuck. Cas got snatched by some kind of twisted, black flea market vendors.”

“Whatever got Cas, probably got Paul Sutter, too.” Sam sat down on the opposite bed and dragged the laptop toward him.

Dean scrolled through his contacts, selecting Bobby’s number. “Yeah. I hope we don’t find Old Man Sutter being sold out of the back of a station wagon. Hey, Bobby.”

“Do I even want to know?” Bobby asked, sounding weary.

“Probably not,” Dean said and switched the phone to his other ear. “So Sam and I were hoping that you could help us out…”

Castiel opened his eyes, taking in the void of his makeshift prison once again. The creatures were battering at his defenses but there was little he could do to fend them off. They wanted inside of him, wanted to possess him inside and out, but Castiel knew that they had no chance of that. They’d be incinerated if they tried but that didn’t stop them from wanting. They were ruled completely by their hunger for more, having been locked away from the world for far too long to retain any sense of sanity. They’d been twisted in their captivity, whispering to him stories of their loneliness and how for centuries they’d only wished to be set free and be part of the world once again. In between their tales and their desperate attacks upon his person, they’d offer soft, sweet promises of companionship and camaraderie, if only he’d let them in. Castiel ignored them.

Outside of his mind was a maze, purely of the creatures’ construct and one that kept Castiel trapped inside the emptiness like a locked box. He tried multiple ways to escape, only to find the creatures a step ahead of him, their multiple minds joining together to compensate for their relative weakness. He’d evaded their trap one last time after his contact with Dean, returned to himself, only to catch a glimpse of yet another body deeper in the cave before he’d been sucked back into the void. It had looked like it had been there for days. Castiel hoped that it would not be days before he was found.

He hadn’t thought that the creatures would be able to silence him so effectively. They shouldn’t have been able to do so, but they reeked of otherness, existing on a separate plane that Castiel seemed unable to fully grasp. It was frustrating. There were too many twists and knots in the distortion of reality and it made even the simplest of things unpredictable. It had taken the creatures some time but they’d severed the tentative connection that Castiel had made.

He should have communicated more efficiently. He’d thought that he’d have time, though, that the creatures wouldn’t be able to sense the small hole he’d made in their barrier—and he hadn’t been prepared for what he’d found inside of Dean’s mind. When he entered a sleeper’s dreams, the option was always open to him if he would construct a new reality or merely enter into the current scenario. This one had been…compelling.

Castiel felt a surge of irritation at the direction of his thoughts. He would forbid himself from thinking such things, but there wasn’t much else for him to do besides wait and they, at least, kept him occupied. After his unanswered call for help, he’d already attempted to bridge a connection to Uriel or anyone that was listening and had found it blocked as surely as if a wall had been built in his mind. It was like static on a radio, an impenetrable haze. Somehow, the creatures that surrounded him were interfering with his natural pathways.

Inserting himself into Dean’s dreams had been a desperate last attempt. He felt that even that was blocked now, though not as surely as the connection with his brothers. He didn’t dare try again, however. There was something inside of Dean that the creatures craved. When they’d followed Castiel into Dean’s dream, Castiel knew that they had been after more than just retrieving Castiel. They’d been drawn to Dean like a moth to a flame, and they would have stayed if Castiel had not made sure to drag them back with him.

If he made contact with Dean again, there was no guarantee that he’d be able to protect Dean’s subconscious again. He’d only just barely managed to pull them out of Dean’s mind when he had exited. No, he had to hope that Dean would be able to piece together what he needed from what Castiel had given him.

After all, the brothers had already been on the creatures’ trail. It was just a matter now if them picking up the right scent.

The creatures circled around him in the darkness, unseen but felt. He could feel their hunger, their desire to touch him. He could feel their emptiness, how they sought to fill their vacant souls with the light of others. They craved him. Every now and then, one would muster its courage and reach its hand towards him only to snatch it back again with a hiss when Castiel rebuffed it. It would silently slink back into the shadows and hours would pass before another one tried again.

With nothing else to occupy his time, Castiel was left to his thoughts as they careened wildly through self-recriminations and detailed remembrances of the touch of another upon him before detouring into the dangerous territory of the countless what-ifs. What if Castiel had let Dean do as he had intended? What if…

Such thoughts were for the sinners and the fallen. They had no place in the mind of the righteous. Castiel blamed it on the presence of the creatures. They must have been affecting him more than he had guessed.

“The unseasonable heat wave that is gripping the area has many local residents worried,” the blonde on the TV announced. Dean turned the page of the book of incantations and spells in front of him, skimming down the words. On his side on the bed, he was curved around so that he could still look up at Sam sitting against the other headboard and see the TV flicker at the same time. He wasn’t really paying attention but the bright, moving lights just beyond his field of vision stopped him from drifting as he read.

“It’s unusual to be this warm at this time of year,” a male voice said, probably one of the ‘many local residents.’ “The growing season is going to be cut short.”

“We’re going to cut over to Dan, the Weather Man,” the woman said. “Dan is there any chance of this heat wave breaking soon?”

“Well, Lori, many are puzzled as to why this particular area of the state is receiving record highs. Now, as you can see here on the map, in this red zone here, this is only an area a couple miles wide. Outside of this perimeter, the rest of Arkansas is having normal temperatures in the fifties and sixties. It’s only here, in this area, where we’re reaching ninety and better. It is a temperature pocket—”

Dean placed his finger over a small, scrawled paragraph on the ancient page. …enchanted. They will find the jar irresistible and climb inside only to be trapped until summoned again… “Hey, Sam?”

“Mmm?” Sam turned away from the TV as Lori and Dan bantered back and forth.

“You think Cas needed a jar in order to catch those things? I’ve got an incantation here for catching creepy crawlies with one.”

Sam pushed away his own pile of books and leaned forward. “What kind of creepy crawlies?”

Dean shook his head, reading both the passage before the incantation and flipping the page the read the notes on the back side. “Doesn’t say. Something small. In groups. Some kind of magical beings.” The book stuck to its topic with a focus that a See Spot Run author would find envious and, unfortunately, that didn’t include detailing the exact types of monsters that could be affected. It was typical of the books in the time period; it had just been assumed that you would be already familiar with the various monsters. “It’s something at least.”

“Bookmark it,” Sam said, nodding. He pushed himself to the edge of the bed and stretched, his arms reaching out to the side. “I think I could use some coffee. It’s eight. The diner’s probably open. You hungry?”

Dean slid his eyes over to the clock and then back up at Sam. “Starved.”

The bells jingled overhead as Dean entered the diner, holding the door open for Sam. Two customers sat in a back booth and Dean saw Lacey’s red hair spilled over one of the front center tables, the girl leaning forward and concentrating hard on the pad of paper in front of her. A rainbow of colored pencils fanned out around her, the empty box discarded in the corner.

“Mornin’,” Nan greeted, coming out from around the counter, a pot of coffee in her hands. “I knew you boys would be back. Can I get you some coffee?”

“That’d be great,” Sam said, pushing Dean toward a booth.

Dean swung around the table and slid across the vinyl seat. “Some bacon, too,” he added.

Nan dropped two white cups onto the table, filling each one to the brim. “Maybe add some hashbrowns to that?” she asked. “Some eggs? I’ll get you boys the Hungry Man’s breakfast. It comes with everything you need right down to the grits. Bacon, hashbrowns, eggs, two pancakes and then biscuits, grits and gravy. That sound good? Dead cheap.”

Dean grinned across the table at Sam. “Sammy here does love his grits.”

“Yeah,” Sam deadpanned.

“Well then you’re in for a treat,” Nan said. “’Cause Sal makes the best grits in Arkansas.” She turned, her blue skirt swishing around her legs, and headed for the kitchen. She tapped Lacey’s shoulder on her way by, letting the girl know that she was there.

“Your arteries are going to be screaming for mercy,” Dean teased.

Sam tilted his head in acknowledgement, his eyebrows briefly rising, and took a swallow of coffee. “Yours already are,” he shot back and then launched into a new topic. “I think that the heat wave might be connected.” The sun had only peeked up over the horizon about an hour ago, but already the boggy heat from the past two days was starting to set in. “These temperatures are pretty normal for summer but this is supposed to be the middle of winter. So we’re possibly looking for something with an affinity for high temperatures.”

“Something else to add to the list,” Dean said. “Shady flea market vendors with a fetish for high thermostats.”

“Is that the man you saw last night?” Nan asked. Dean glanced over Sam’s shoulder to see Nan’s red curls bowed over Lacey’s shoulder, pointing to the paper on the table.

“Yeah,” Lacey said quietly. “I remember him.”

“He’s got awfully blue eyes.” Nan’s finger traced a section of the paper. “Give Bobby Jenkins a run for his money. But I don’t know who would be wearing a trench coat in this heat. He’d expire from heat stroke out there.” Dean cut his eyes back over to Sam who’d turned his head to the side, listening carefully while pretending that he wasn’t. “We can give this to Sheriff Bailey, Honey,” Nan said, picking up the paper. “Have him keep a look out for a drifter?”

Lacey snatched the paper back, staring down at it. “I…don’t think he meant to hurt me, Grandma. I think he was protecting me.”

“Protecting you from what, Sweetie?” Nan asked gently. “You don’t really think that there was something out in the woods, do you?”

“They were laughing, Grandma, I heard them.”

“Honey, there’s nothing out in those woods besides squirrels. If you heard anyone laughing, it was probably this drifter here and that’s why you shouldn’t go outside late at night on your own. When you were with Sarah and her daddy, it was different. I know you miss her, sweetie. We all miss her. But her daddy had to take that job up north and there’s just nothing any of us can do about that but stay in touch.” Nan ran her hand softly over Lacey’s hair. “And Lord knows that I like to look at the stars, too, but your Mama and Daddy were terrified last night when they found out that you were gone. You need to promise me that you’ll stay inside.”

Lacey dropped her eyes to the table, picking at a spot with her fingernail. “Okay.”

Nan patted Lacey’s shoulder and took the paper again. “Now, I’m going to tell Sheriff Bailey what to look for, okay? I’ll be right back.” Looking down at the drawing, Nan headed back behind the counter and opened a hidden door, closing it behind her.

“Be right back,” Dean said, sliding out of the booth. Lacey was still glaring at the table top when Dean dropped down into chair opposite her. She flicked her eyes up at him, still pulling at a loose piece of Formica.

“Grandma says that I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“That’s good advice,” he told her, putting a smile on his face. “Your grandma’s pretty smart.”

Lacey sighed, glancing towards the office. She crossed her arms and sank farther into her chair. “Yeah but she doesn’t believe me.” Her voice implied that the oversight was a good indication that her grandmother wasn’t as smart as previously thought.

“What doesn’t she believe?” Dean asked. Lacey threw him a wary look and he held his hands up defensively. “I’ve heard some pretty weird things. Maybe I’d be more likely to believe it.”

Lacey rolled her eyes. “No one believes it. Mama says I’m grounded until I tell the truth.”

Dean winced. “That’s pretty harsh.” He leaned forward, his hand flat on the table. “What if I tell you that I’ve seen the man in the trench coat, too?”

Lacey locked on him with a laser focus and Dean mentally chalked up a victory. “You have?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, lowering his voice into a whisper. “And I don’t think he’s all that bad, either.” It was the truth, mostly. After all, Cas had yanked him out of Hell so Dean could afford to give the guy a little bit of goodwill. “I think that he’s trying to protect people, too. Like…a guardian angel.”

“He didn’t look like an angel,” Lacey told him. “He didn’t have any wings.”

Dean had to give her the point. “But he’s still a good guy.” Lacey nodded in agreement. “Where did you see this guy?”

Lacey went back to staring at the table. “He was out in the woods. Behind my house. I wasn’t supposed to be out there.” She nudged a couple of colored pencils. “I don’t know why I was out there…”

“You don’t remember?”

“No,” Lacey said, quietly. “Everyone thinks that I was out looking at the stars like Sarah and I used to. But I wasn’t. I was sleeping. And I heard them.”

Dean’s heart constricted. “Heard who?” The laughter from his dream echoed in his head.

“The kids,” Lacey said. The light blue rolled away and she stopped it with a finger. “They were laughing. They wanted me to come play with them.”

“They were in the woods?”

“Yeah. I didn’t want to be out there but they told me I had to. Daddy thinks I just made it all up. Mama thinks that maybe it was the Galpis boys out in the woods but it wasn’t. It wasn’t them. I would have known.” She met Dean head-on again, willing him to believe her. Dean nodded slowly.

“I don’t think it was, either,” he said. “The man in the trench coat, what did he do?”

“He stopped me from going in the woods. I think that whoever was in the woods, I don’t think that they were very nice.”

“Probably not. So, the guy in the trench coat, did he do anything else?”

Lacey shook her head. “No, I only saw him for a few seconds before I ran home. Grandma thinks that he’s a ‘no account drifter’ looking to steal away little girls. She says that we get those. But I don’t think the man wanted to steal me. But I still shouldn’t talk to strangers.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Dean said and pushed himself to his feet. “Me and my brother are going to go find the man in the trench coat because we need to talk to him. So you make sure that you’re good for your grandma, alright? But don’t worry, because I know that the man didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Alright,” Lacey said, picking up another pencil. “But you’d better not hurt him. Grandma wants to throw him in jail, she says. You should probably find him before she does.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Lacey went back to her drawing after Dean left, sketching out another shape on the paper. It looked suspiciously like Cas’s hair. Dean heard the office door open again and Nan start chatting with the cook as he made his way back to the table. Sam raised his eyebrows when Dean sat down across from him again.

“Well,” Dean said, leaning forward. “At least we know where Cas was. We can start there.”

Sam moved his head closer, lowering his voice to a whisper. “So something lured that girl out of her house?”

“Sounds like it. Remind you of anyone?”

“Whatever it is we’re hunting may have taken more people than Paul Sutter and Castiel.”

Dean nodded. “We’re a few missing person reports away from a panic.” Dean sipped at his coffee. They needed to figure this out and find Cas fast.

“Okay, are you boys ready?” Three large plates dropped onto the table, followed swiftly by two more. “Two Hungry Man specials, all for you,” Nan said with a smile.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Dean said.

“Enjoy. Here, let me give you a little warm up on that coffee.” Nan refilled both of their cups with a quick little dollop each. “I think I should have myself a cup, too. Didn’t get much sleep last night, you know. What with the drama and the bad dreams. I hardly got a wink.” Nan frowned. “Kept dreaming that somebody was trying to get me to leave the house so that they could steal me away. Darnedest thing. Thought that somebody was laughing at me the whole time.”

“Oh?” Sam asked, his eyebrows raised.

“Yeah…” Nan shook her head. “Brought on by that one’s antics, no doubt.” She pointed at Lacey. “She tells a story and gets me all wound up. I think it’s just the loneliness eatin’ away at her. Poor thing. She doesn’t make friends easily, you know, and her and that Sarah Rhoads she used to run around with were thick as thieves. I know how lonely it can get. My husband of forty three years died two years ago and it gets hard, let me tell you. Oh, here, let me take that for you.” Nan grabbed up the plate that Sam had scraped his hashbrowns off of. “But, anyway, you boys be careful out and about, now. I’ve heard that there’s a drifter in town and he’s up to no good. You never know what those drifters are going to do. They go from town to town like tumbleweeds, always looking to do something bad. Oh, me and my mouth. Look at me, talking away when you want to be enjoying your breakfast. You boys dig in and I’ll be back around with some more coffee for you if you need it. Lord, but it is going to be another scorcher today, I can already feel it.” Nan and her coffee pot moved on to the table in the back, carrying on a constant conversation that other people just happened to be a part of.

Both Dean and Sam watched her go before turning back to each other. “The dreams,” Sam said. “They’re in the dreams.”

Flashes of another half-forgotten dream echoed through Dean’s head but he pushed it to the side. “But why are some just shaking it off while others are following it like rats after a Pied Piper?”

Sam shrugged. “You got me. But whatever these things are, they’re working fast.”

The slate slab was cold underneath Dean’s back. Dean groaned as he came to, blinking against the surrounding twilight darkness. A haze of red coated the world, flames flickering just beyond his sight line and leaving just enough room for a little bit of imagination to flare up, guessing what it was: a torch, an Aztec ritual, a fucking Boy Scout campfire… It could be anything and Dean knew better than to underestimate Alastair’s creativity.

His arms were stretched out to the side, bound by rope, leaving him vulnerable and bare. He glanced down at his naked body and then let his head settle back against the stone and closed his eyes. The soft parts would go first. They always went first.

Dean wondered if he’d be eating his intestines later in the day, choking on his own blood, or if Alastair had something even more pleasant planned. Maybe he’d just rip Dean’s heart out of his chest to watch it beat. Of course then, Dean would have to listen to the bastard wax poetic about heroes, spitting out some iambic pentameter or some such shit. A demon who liked poetry was its own special brand of torture, Dean thought. Maybe he’d just sing some show tune.

“Come on out, you Shakespeare-loving freak!” Dean yelled, covering his lingering fear with bluster. Alastair would see right through him but that wasn’t the point. His voice echoed in the darkness. “Read me some fucking poetry and get on with it because I feel like that fucking lion in the wardrobe!” When silence greeted him, Dean growled and yanked against his bonds. “Fuck!”

Laughter quietly echoed around Dean, growing louder. Dean curled his upper lip. “You think some kind of mindfuck is going to—” Long fingers trailed over Dean’s leg, tickling his skin. He jerked away from the touch and lifted his head up. “What the fuck…?” A tiny black head popped up into his vision, covered with shaggy black hair and a wide smile full of white pointed teeth. The creature’s slender fingers drifted over Dean’s knee, keeping on course despite how Dean struggled. “Get off me!”

“So lonely,” it rasped, its voice a sibilant whisper. “So empty…” It crawled upward onto his torso and Dean flattened himself to the slab, sucking in his stomach. “Come play with us…” the creature said, still grinning. “Never be lonely…”

“Us?” Dean asked and two more sets of hands wrapped around his arms. “Don’t touch me!”

“We’ve been lonely for so long…” one said, followed by another’s “So empty…”

“Stay with us,” a third said, climbing up Dean’s shoulder. “Whatever you want…” It held out its black hands, spindly fingers curving upwards. Gold coins, glinting in the fire light spilled out of its cupped palms.

“We will stay with you…” another offered, rubbing Dean’s bicep. “Never leave you…”

“Stay with you forever…”

“Get away from me!” Dean yelled, fighting against his restraints. He rocked upward, trying to unseat the creatures crawling over him.

“So empty. So lonely.”

“It calls to us…”

“Want to touch… Need to feel…” The maniacal grins faltered. “Never leave us…” They moved closer, leaning over him, their dark hair combining as they mashed their heads together overtop of Dean’s face. “You can’t leave…”

“Make sure he never leaves…”

“Yes,” another agreed. “Never leave…” It hissed, baring its teeth again and darted downward, heading for Dean’s throat.

Dean jerked upward, his breath coming hard and fast as he glanced around the motel room, disoriented. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he whispered, tugging at the sheet that had wrapped around his legs and untangling himself. He stumbled to his feet, books tumbling off the bed around him.

Sitting on the other bed, Sam raised his eyebrows in a question that he knew better than to ask. Dean shrugged it off. “Gotta piss,” he said and shut himself in the bathroom.

The man that stared back at Dean in the mirror wasn’t someone Dean wanted to see. The eyes held knowledge that Dean wanted to forget. He turned away and moved to the toilet, figuring that since he was already there, he should at least try. It would keep up the pretense between him and Sam even though they both knew the lie.

He supposed that he should be grateful. As far as the dreams went, the last one had been pretty mild. Alastair hadn’t even made an appearance nor had Dean been holding a knife. He hated to sleep nowadays because Alastair and those damned knives were waiting for him whenever he closed his eyes. They lived inside his head and try as he might, he couldn’t get them out. The laughing creatures, disturbing as they were, couldn’t hold a candle to either one of those options. Dean frowned. Laughing creatures?

Memories of another dream slammed into him, flashes of being hung up in a basement, surrounded by laundry and fucking laughter. “Son of bitch…” Dean zipped himself up. “Sam!”

Sam stared at him, laptop sitting on his thighs, and finally asked the question. “Are you alright?”

“Those fuckers were trying to get me,” Dean said, feeling outraged.

Sam shoved the laptop to the side and stood up, moving towards Dean. “Are you alright? What did they do?” His hands hovered over Dean’s shoulders like he wasn’t sure if he should touch Dean or not but wanting to.

“Laughing, ‘Come play with us, Danny!’ bullshit, the whole shebang.”

“Why you?” Sam asked and Dean shrugged.

“How should I know?” Sam’s hands finally settled on Dean’s shoulders and Dean slid out from under them, eyeing the mess that he’d made of the books. He hadn’t been getting anywhere fast, seeing as how he’d been up most the night and had decided that when faced with the choice reading the same paragraph five times over or getting in a few winks, the nap was much more of a time saver. “Maybe they followed Cas back or something.”

“Was he there?” Sam asked. “In your dream?” Dean shook his head, his thoughts heading towards what Cas had been doing in his last dream with the guy before he shut them down. Sam eyed him like he was trying to decide if Dean was telling the truth or not and then his face slipped into the familiar, odd look that Dean had caught him wearing all too often lately. Sam turned away before Dean could call him on it, turning to the laptop on the bed. “Mo stopped by while you were out.”

“Okay,” Dean said, trying to figure out how that bit of information placed into their conversation.

“The woman in the room next door is missing.”

“Son of a bitch…” Dean swore and Sam nodded.

“So, that’s at least two victims.” Sam held up two fingers.

“That we know of. How many more don’t we know about?” Besides Nan and her little granddaughter, how many other people had the creatures tried luring away?

“Right.” Sam grabbed the laptop off the bed. “And I think I found something. Check this out,” he said and angled the screen towards Dean as he began to read. “’Enchanted jars were usually thought to capture fairies, gnomes, imps, and other spirits. The owners would recite an incantation over the jar and the captured spirits were presumed to confer good luck. Some, however, claim that it’s not so much good luck that was gained but instead the absence of bad luck such as the kind that fairies and imps were said to bring.’”

Dean peered over Sam’s shoulder at the preserved wood carving of a man holding up a large jar with tiny, deformed hands reaching out of it, their long black fingers curling along the outside. “Fairies don’t exist,” Dean said. “Do they?”

Sam shrugged. “You got me. But we know that gnomes do and look at this.” Sam clicked to another tab. “‘Imps were notorious for their practical jokes, all in the hopes of gaining human attention. Often lonely creatures, they craved interaction and would often steal away prized possessions or lure away human individuals to join them. They preyed on the lonely, perhaps seeing an echo of themselves. Imps often had an affinity for high temperatures and so seemed a natural fit for early Christians’ idea of demons and hellspawn. They were often associated with witches though earlier fables place them as more akin to fairies than demons.’”

“So, you’re saying that we’ve got a bad imp infestation?” Preyed on the lonely?

“It’s certainly possible,” Sam said. “’Prized possessions’? ‘Lure away humans’? ‘Affinity for high temperatures’? We’ve got an unnatural heat wave and people and objects missing. It’s a pretty good chance that they are imps.”

“Okay.” Dean skimmed down the screen. “So how do we stop them?”

“It says here that you need to ‘banish’ the imps which I don’t think that we have time to wait until the next full moon.”

“What’s Plan B?” Dean read past the required list for the banishment spell and hit the edge of the screen.

Sam scrolled downward, displaying another picture of a monk holding out a jar. “It also says that imps can be captured in one of these enchanted objects. Jars, vases, boxes… Basically they’re irresistible to imps and they crawl inside and get stuck.”

“…Like a supernatural roach motel.”

“Well…yeah.” Sam shrugged.

“Great,” Dean said. “So, all we need is one, big, irresistible imp motel. Where can we find one? Do we make it? How?”

Sam shook his head. “I’m still working on—” He cut off as Dean’s phone started to ring. Dean fished the phone out of his pocket and snapped it open.


“I think you’ve got an imp infestation,” Bobby said across the line.

“That’s what Sam thinks, too.”

“Well if you knew that,” Bobby grumbled, sounding disgusted, “why did you call me?”

“Just figured it out.” Dean pulled back the motel room curtain, glancing outside and checking the salt lines. He clutched the phone tighter to his ear. “Hey, Bobby, so how do we stop these things? You ever dealt with them?”

“No, but I know a few who have. Imps like dark places. Natural. They’re probably holed up in some cave or even a basement. As for how to catch them, the simplest thing to do is to just find their original container.”

“Original container?” Dean caught Sam’s eyes from across the room and Sam’s eyebrows rose, getting the vibe if not the exact message.

“Those things didn’t just pop up out of the earth like a spring well, Dean,” Bobby continued. “They had to have arrived in something and if you find out what, you can use it to lure them all back in again. Whoever set them free has got to have it lying around.”

“So you’re saying that we’ve got to find whoever let the imps out of the bottle and steal it from them.”

“Basically, yeah.”

“Thanks, Bobby.” Dean flipped the phone closed and turned to Sam. “Hey, what was the first incident?” he asked.

Sam took a moment to think, flipping through a couple of the print outs. “Uh…Sutter disappeared? I think?” A few papers fluttered to the floor and Sam stooped to pick them up.

Dean grinned, pocketing his phone. “’Cause I think I just might now where to find us an enchanted jar.”

Lester Ward’s lawn was nothing more than a rotting dirt pile, the grass having completely died out. Dale Sutter was standing at his fence line, pensively staring across the road at Ward’s house. He hadn’t apparently bothered to get dressed all day, wearing an old bathrobe and pajama pants. “Mr. Sutter?” Sam called as they approached the gate. Sutter whirled, his eyes darting to either side before focusing on Sam. “Could we have a—”

“I didn’t do it,” Sutter gushed.

Sam glanced at Dean. “Sorry?”

Dropping his eyes, Sutter gripped the ends of his bathrobe tie. “I mean… How can I help you?”

“Well…” Dean drawled, “how about you tell us what you didn’t do and we’ll start from there.”

Sutter flushed. “That’s what you came to ask about, right? Lester’s yard? I mean, I know me and Lester didn’t get along but I wouldn’t do that.”

Sam nodded in sympathetic understanding while Dean plastered on a fake smile. “You wouldn’t have happened to have come across any laundry, would you?”

Fidgeting with his bathrobe, Sutter stared at the ground. “Laundry?”

“Yeah. Little lacey things?”

Sutter paled and then flushed again. “I don’t do anything like that.”

“Find stuff?” Dean asked dryly. “When we were over here the other day, you looked like you found something. Or was that yours?”

“Okay!” Sutter said, waving his hands as he broke. “Not so loud. Look, I didn’t take it and I made sure that I returned it. I don’t know how it got in my yard, I don’t! Just like the—”

“The?” Dean prompted.

“If this has happened before, Mr. Sutter,” Sam added, “it would be better if you told us.”

Sutter sighed and hung his head. “Ever since the night that Granddad disappeared. I don’t know. There’ll just be things sometimes.”

“Things?” Dean asked. “Like…little crystal unicorns? Clocks? Pennies?”

“Not the unicorns but…yeah.”

Sam furled his brow. “Do you remember when you told us that there was somebody laughing in your kitchen the night that your grandfather disappeared? Have you heard anything like that since then?”

Sutter closed his eyes. “I don’t sleep,” he said quietly. “Whenever I sleep, they’re there. Waiting for me.”

“Who?” Sam asked.

“The little men. The little men with the long black fingers that want me to come with them. I know I’m crazy. I’ve just been hoping that…”

Sam nodded in understanding again. It was something that he did so well. Sam had always been the best in the family at projecting sincerity and concern. “What if I—we,” Sam pointed to Dean and himself, “told you that you weren’t crazy?”

“But I know I’m crazy,” Sutter said, squinting at Sam.

“I don’t think you are,” Sam told him.

“You see,” Dean cut in, “those little things you’re seeing in your dreams? We think that they’re an infestation. Like roaches.” Sutter stared in disbelief.

“And,” Sam added, “we think we know how to get rid of them and find your grandfather.”

“You know where Granddad is?”

“Not exactly,” Sam said. “But we have a pretty good hunch.”

“We just need to borrow something from you,” Dean said, trying out his most winning smile. Sutter eyed him suspiciously.

For a family heirloom that seemed to have a lot of sentimental value, Sutter had handed over the jar quick. “Here,” he’d said, shoving it at them. “Just get them out of my head.”

The Impala rumbled to a stop on the side of the dirt road, her tires flattening the tall grass. Dean put her in park and killed the headlights while Sam skimmed through a spell book. The jar was sitting between his legs. “So, what’s it say? We just point that at the imps like Ghostbusters and save the day before the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man shows up?”

Sam hummed and flipped a page, his flashlight moving across the text. “I guess,” he said.

“You guess?”

“It talks a lot about how to make a jar, but not how to use it,” Sam said, tossing Dean a look. “Apparently, it was self-explanatory.”

“Awesome.” Dean pulled the keys from the ignition. “Well, according to Lacey, this is the last place that Cas was seen, so I guess we give it a try.” Behind them, a few lights from town scattered through the darkness, little beacons warning of civilization. A darkened barn, tin roof dull in the moonlight, stood about a half mile from them, marking the edge of Lacey Thompson’s yard. The Impala’s door squealed as he opened it.

Sam snapped the book closed and dumped it onto the floorboard as Dean popped the trunk, rummaging through the back for anything that might possibly be of use. Lead was supposedly a weakness so he packed a few extra mags and he figured that Ruby’s knife would kill damn near anything so it was worth bringing. Next to him, Sam leaned over the open trunk and Dean handed him the knife. The Look as Dean was taking to calling it was on Sam’s face again but Dean ignored it. They had a job to do.

The forest started out slowly, a few brush piles and saplings scattered among the grass for the first few hundred yards before breaking into the tall trees. Dean cocked his gun and kept his flashlight off but at the ready as he pushed into the woods, his eyes adjusting to the dim light. Leaves whispered above them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw Sam’s head tilt in puzzlement. Sam pointed a few feet away and Dean cocked his head like a dog, too. A ceramic gnome stood in front of a giant oak tree, its little shovel perched on its shoulder and its pointed red hat standing out against the bark. Something white fluttered in the wind and Dean whipped his gun upwards. A bra, caught on a tree limb, waved back. “Think we found it,” Dean said quietly.

The hairs on the back of Dean’s neck stood on end. On the wind, he could hear the faint sound of laughter. “Come and play with us,” the breeze whispered and something brushed against Dean’s mind.

Dean smiled tightly, shrugging off the odd sensation. “I don’t think so.” The laughing grew stronger, echoing through the trees and surrounding them. Dean edged closer to Sam, putting his back against Sam’s and scanned the trees, looking for a sign of the creatures from his dream.

A shadow stirred, drawing Dean’s attention, as a leaf brushed against the ground. When he looked back up again, a set of eyes stared at him from the darkness, narrow and amused. Dean nudged Sam and more eyes blinked into existence around them, like hundreds of small, pale flashlights. They filled the spaces between the trees, smoke curling out of the darkness to wrap around them, forming vague shapes, outlining small bodies. Dean tightened his grip on his gun as the imps separated themselves from the shadows. Their teeth formed next—rows of sharp, pointed teeth in Cheshire grins underneath their staring eyes—and lastly their bodies like Sam and Dean were lost in Wonderland looking for a damn white rabbit. The air seemed to shiver around them and Dean found it hard to breath, having to force himself to inhale.

There was a smell hanging in the air that hadn’t been in his dreams, a stench of brimstone and musk that grew stronger the closer that the imps came. Some walked upright on two legs, with creepy smiles and their hands held out greedily, while others crawled, pulling themselves along on all fours. “So lonely…”

“Come and stay with us.”

“Play with us.”


Dean turned his head, taking in a wide angle, cursing softly when he saw that the imps had them surrounded. “Creepy fuckers,” he said and the imps closest to him grinned bigger. “Now would be a good time to do whatever you’re going to do, Sam.”


Sam held up the jar and the creatures leaned backward, folding like a cheap deck of cards. “Where did you get that?” one hissed.

“It calls…” A few crept closer, pulled by an invisible force. “It calls…”

Sam stepped forward, holding the jar closer to some of the imps. They exploded, bursting into black smoke, and the jar sucked it up like a super-charged vacuum. Sam swung around, pointing the jar at more of the creatures. The imps broke and ran, screaming as they degenerated into chaos. A few more smoked out and were sucked into the jar like Sam’s own personal smog buster while others ran for an oak tree, disappearing into the grass right before they reached it. Still others leapt right at Sam, snarling as they attacked from the back.

“Sam!” Dean aimed his gun before realizing that he’d shoot Sam before he’d likely hit one of the imps. “Fuck!” He charged forward and swung his gun outward, braining the nearest creature with the handle. It tumbled to the ground, senseless, as others took its place, turning their sharp fangs onto Dean. Dean howled as the creature latched onto his forearm, its teeth breaking his skin. He banged his arm against a tree, trying to scrape the imp off. It dug in deeper, blood streaming out from around its fangs and then evaporated, leaving a scream hanging in the air.

“Dean!” Sam’s big hand came down on Dean’s shoulder and Dean didn’t bother to fight as he was spun around. “Dean, are you alright?” Sam’s hand fluttered down Dean’s arm, stopping at the cuff of his overshirt, just above the dripping wound. “You’re bleeding—”

“I’m fine!” Dean snapped, pushing Sam towards where the creatures were still disappearing. “Go get them!” He peeled off his flannel shirt and wrapped it around his arm. It wasn’t perfect but it would do for the short-term. He followed after Sam to cover his six.

Sam stood dead still in front of the oak, the only visible imps smoking into the jar hanging by his leg as he stared down at the ground. “Sam?” Dean hissed as he put more pressure on the bite to slow the bleeding. It was starting to soak through the shirt. Sam glanced up, concern crossing his face before he smothered it and pointed his flashlight down at the grass.

“They went in there,” he said. Just beyond Sam’s feet, at the base of the tree, the grass broke and a hole barely big enough for a human descended straight down into darkness. There were fresh scratches in the dirt, mostly likely from something that had been dragged through the opening.

Dean’s eye caught on a copper glint embedded in the grass and he stooped to pick it up, holding the penny out to Sam. “Well, fuck.” Who knew just how many more of the little fuckers were hiding in there, waiting for someone stupid enough to stick a toe in. Dean glanced down the hole, watching a few blades of grass float into the darkness. He couldn’t even tell how deep the damn thing was but it wasn’t like he and Sam had a choice. They had to follow. “I’ll flip ya for it,” he offered, nodding at the hole.

Sam’s lips thinned and he glanced pointedly at Dean’s arm. “You’re bleeding,” he said. “I’ll go.”

Like Hell was Dean letting Sam crawl down the black hole of death by himself. “I’m fine. We’ll both go.” He flipped the safety on his gun and tucked it into the back of his pants while Sam glared at him.


“I said we’ll both go, Sam,” Dean snapped.

Sam huffed but let the matter drop. “Fine. Here, take this.” He thrust the jar into Dean’s hands. Dean handled it gingerly, expecting it to feel warm or creepy, long-fingered hands to climb out of it or some such junk, and glanced up at Sam who was already turning away.

“Where are you going?”

“To get some rope,” Sam grumbled, still not happy with Dean’s decision but knowing there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. “And the first aid kit.”

“It’s just a flesh wound!” Dean yelled but it bounced off Sam’s back as he disappeared behind the trees. "Fuck." Alone, Dean flexed his arm and hissed as he could feel the torn edges of his skin move. He repeated the motion.

Cut-off and adrift, Castiel floated in the nothingness. He felt the creatures probing the outskirts of his mind, searching for cracks, for weaknesses in his defenses. They were rabid dogs, their desperation hanging off them like a stench. Ugliness and sin roiled inside them. They would be burned to ash in the light of God.

He was a mystery to him, a puzzle that they couldn’t solve. They’d offered him glittering jewels, power, and offers of companionship, all in return for his submission, confused and frustrated when none appealed to him. Castiel had no use for riches. He had no use for power. He had all the companionship he needed in his faith.

The shunned ones were searching for a way into his mind, a way to gain control of him. They held him captive in the hopes of gaining entrance. He’d smote them one by one, burning them with the inner light that they craved, and probed for cracks in the walls just as they. Their preoccupation was his distraction.

A creature hissed, dissipating into smoke as it reached too far past his wall and Castiel ignored it, his eyes opening to a weakness he had previously overlooked. Unnoticed in the creatures’ labyrinth was a small hole, a flickering in the fringe of reality. Castiel surged forward, ripping it apart, forcing his way into the physical plane. He crashed forward into a room of stone, bracing himself on his hands and knees.

And screamed as the creatures breached his defenses. They poured into him, their darkness infecting him, their fingers pawing through his mind, scraping past his outer thoughts and memories to dig deep into his psyche. They filled him to his core, gorging on his essence. The physical world flickered back out of existence, tossing him back into the void. Castiel writhed, fighting to reclaim himself from the inside out. The creatures burned inside him, laughing even as they perished for they had found what they’d wanted.

Shapes flashed in front of him, familiar and disturbing. Anna stood in front of him, not with her human visage but with her true form, full of grace and light. Powerful and beautiful, an inspiration to the garrison, and Castiel felt his heart wrench. Love and regret and admiration mingled together, overwhelming him. “Castiel.”

He hung in the void, staring at the sister he used to know. “Anna?”

She smiled. Beautiful, radiant, the same as she ever was before she fell. She was unbound in her glory, fit only for angelic eyes. “Yes, Castiel.”

Castiel shook his head. “But how…?” How was it possible for Anna to be standing before him? Surely the others…

“I came for you,” she said, still smiling as she drew closer. “To save you. So that we can be together.”

Castiel studied the visage in front of him, spotting its flaws as the puzzle pieces slotted into place. He understood. “You’re not here for me.” Anna, or rather the image of Anna, shook her head in disagreement and held out her hand but Castiel drew back. “You’re not really here. Begone,” he whispered, and Anna swirled away.

Uriel took her place, grinning as if a joke waited on his lips. “Castiel,” he said, holding his arms wide. “What are you doing here? Did you get yourself stuck? With these rockdwellers?” His whole body shook as he roared with laughter. It had been ages since Uriel had laughed so freely. Castiel missed the sound of it. It made him homesick to hear it.

Castiel closed his eyes. “Be gone.”

“Well, well, well, Castiel. Long time, no see!” Balthazar’s light-hearted tones made Castiel’s heart twist and anger curled inside him. These creatures. They had no shame. They would dredge up any memory that they could find, use whatever bond existed, in the hopes of turning him, no matter how many locks Castiel had around the doors.

“Begone!” Castiel shouted. He lashed out into the darkness and the visions withdrew, leaving him alone in the void once again. He drifted, with only his own wretched memories for company.

“Cas.” Castiel turned, seeing another face approaching in the dark. “Cas, wake up.” Dean? “Cas, come on, man….” Dean’s hands slid along Castiel’s shoulders, shaking him. “We need to get you out of here.” Dean kept glancing over his shoulder as if he expected to be attacked at any moment.

Castiel searched the face in front of him, unable to trust what his senses wanted him to believe. Hope sparked in him regardless, his heart giving a strangely painful lurch. “Dean?”

“Yeah, man.” Dean pulled him upward, smiling at him. “I came to rescue you. Remember?”

“You came for me.” These feelings were not natural.

Dean’s hands slipped up Castiel’s neck and cradled his face. “I’ll always come for you, Cas…” he said, his eyes sincere, his face kind. He leaned in, his lips soft and inviting and Castiel hesitated, not knowing what he should do. His nobler thoughts took flight, fluttering away, leaving him with just confused mutterings that ran in panicked circles. Dean pressed his lips to Castiel’s and the puzzle box that Castiel had been prodding with blundering, ignorant fingers since the moment he had met Dean Winchester clicked open. Castiel knew desire.

Just as surely as he knew that the man—the image—in front of him was not Dean. Rage burned away every other feeling and thought, leaving the clear cut landscape of vengeance. A snarl ripped from Castiel’s throat and he grabbed the visage of Dean with both hands, fingers locking behind its jaw. “Cas?” Dean asked, frightened, bringing a small kernel of doubt.

Begone,” Castiel ordered and summoned power from depths he hadn’t known he possessed to wipe away the abomination in front of him. Something snapped and twanged inside him, stretched too tight, and still Castiel pushed, forcing all that he was into the creature in front of him. If it wanted him, had gone so far, crossed so many lines to get to him, it would have him. And all that he was. The image of Dean’s face warped in terror and he screamed and screamed, burning from the inside out as the light filled him.

Too much for the fragile form, the light exploded outward, bathing the darkness and driving it back. It ate at the nothingness and Castiel’s ears rang with the power. The creatures that had been circling his cage like wolves, broke and ran, seeking to escape and he forced the light into the deepest nooks and crannies until all that was left was him.

Dean’s arm ached under the bandage Sam had wrapped around it. Sam had flatly told him that he’d need stitches and Dean had agreed but it wasn’t as if they had time to sit down and do that at the moment. So a quick-fix solution it was and Dean was trying his damnedest to pretend that everything was just happy hunky-dory and Sam needed to keep his attention focused on more important things like possible shadow creatures with sharp teeth, thanks. He kept pushing further into the cave, hunched over because the ceiling was so low but thankful that at least he didn’t have to crawl.

His arm hurt like a son of a bitch.

Sam swung his flashlight around, a glint of light catching his eye, and spotlighted a tiny unicorn. Reared back on its haunches, it had a prism-like glow. Dean blinked at it and then added his own light to Sam’s, finding a trail of pennies heading off into the darkness. A gnome stood guard in a corner, its chipper pointed hat held at an angle and a little bag thrown over its shoulder.

“Creepy,” Dean said and Sam ignored him, pushing deeper into the cave. The cave’s tunnel curved around, bending like a snake’s slither, forward then back again.

White light flashed into the cave, a supernova radiating off the stone. Dean threw his bad arm over his eyes to shield them, still clutching onto his gun with the other. Hands yanked him to the side and shoved him against the wall. For a moment, Dean fought, blindly thrashing against the hold. His elbow connected and Sam grunted just to his right as the hands slid down to wrap around his biceps.

Screams echoed through the cave, discordant and terror-filled. Dean’s skin attempted to peel off of his body and hightail it for the exit. His eyes popped open, the white light still searingly bright, and he saw the shadows move. They streamed out from around the curve of the tunnel and headed straight towards Sam and Dean, single-minded in their fixation. Dean struggled as he was pulled backward, away from the creatures and freed himself enough to bring up his gun. His vision fuzzed and he shook his head.

Tiny bodies were outlined in the light, grouped together like lemmings as they ran. In the tight confines of the cave there was nowhere to go except forward. Beside him, Dean saw Sam fumbling for his own gun, aiming it at the pack of imps. The jar that Sam had been holding was now on the ground a few feet in front of them, clattering against the stone.

The imps squealed and wailed as they rushed forward and Dean braced himself for the avalanche, expecting to be buried by sheer momentum. The first rows stretched like taffy, their bodies lengthening until they finally separated all together and dissolved into smoke, subsumed into the next row. The second row did the same and then the third, fourth, fifth, until Dean couldn’t see anything beyond a large black cloud bearing down on him. His mouth went dry.

The combined imps swirled around like an underground tornado, funneling downward into a tight point. The screaming joined together with a sound like air being sucked out of a room.

The jar shook and spun as hundreds of the imps shoved inside of it at once, smoke gushing through the open neck. The tornado whirled around—small faces appearing in the stream before they were pulled apart—and collapsed in on itself, disappearing into the jar.

After one last spin, the jar tipped onto its side and rolled in an oblong circle, coming to a rest beside Dean’s feet. Dean stared down at it, wondering if he dared to breathe, and tapped it with a toe. Nothing happened.

Sam was already on the move, heading around the bend to the source of the light, finding out whatever it was that had made the imps flee in terror, accepting re-imprisonment rather than face it. Dean darted after him, making sure he was only a few steps behind. The light grew brighter the closer they came before it sputtered and dimmed to a small glow. Dean wheeled around the corner and nearly tripped over the corpse on the ground. “Jesus!” He caught himself on the wall and skipped a step to land on the other side of the shriveled remains. It still wore a flannel shirt, like maybe it was going to go out later. Sutter, Dean guessed. Poor bastard.

The light winked out of existence entirely, leaving Dean in pitch blackness. He scrambled for his flashlight, checking his pockets and wondering if he’d dropped it back in the tunnel. Before he could find it, the white light flashed again, sputtering to life and illuminating the cave.

Castiel stood in the center of a round room, the ceiling domed above his head. He stared at the floor as the light wrapped around him, licking at him like flames, and radiated outward.

“Cas?” Dean asked. The walls of the cavern were now blacker than pitch, stained to the ceiling and the imps were nowhere to be found. Just beyond Castiel, on the far side of the room, a woman stirred, her hands fluttering against the ground. Dean took a step towards her and then paused as the light surrounded Castiel pulsed.

Castiel turned his head towards Dean, light radiating from all around him, exploding past his skin, and his eyes were like stars. Dean held his breath, feeling as if Castiel wasn’t just seeing him but instead seeing in him—everything that Dean had ever thought, said, or done laid bare in front of him. In just a glance, Castiel had ripped out everything that Dean was and held it up to the light. Instinctively seeking protection, Dean retreated, his hand rising to Sam’s arm, ready to yank Sam behind him. In a blink, Castiel was gone, leaving nothing but scorch marks.

“Cas?” Dean said to the air, glancing around the cavern. Sam pushed past him to kneel beside the unconscious woman, his fingers pressing against her neck. “She alive?”

Sam nodded. He moved to pick her up, sliding his arms underneath her. Dean gave the cavern once last look around as Sam walked past him carrying the woman. Cas was no where to be found. Dean didn’t know if he should be pissed that he and Sam didn’t even so much as get a thank you or be relieved that Cas had took his glowing beams of death elsewhere. Wherever Cas was, it didn’t matter much. With the imps blasted to oblivion, their remnants cowering inside the jar, the problem was solved. Dean had other things to worry about.

Dean winced as the needle dug into his skin and took a pull of whiskey. He fucking hated this part. “Stop moving,” Sam murmured. Dean sighed and held his arm dead still in Sam’s lap as Sam finished the stitch, tugging the needle and thread through Dean’s flesh. Sam’s fingers were gentle as they prodded his skin, shifting it to better close the wound. Dean glanced down at the angry gash the imp had made of his forearm and then focused on Sam’s bent head. Sam’s hair tickled along his jaw line, long enough that it was a miracle it wasn’t in his eyes and still damp from the rain. Banishing the imps—or whatever the fuck it was that Cas had done to them—had been like breaking a dam on the weather. The temperature outside was dropping fast and it had started to pour before Sam and Dean had even reached the exit of the cave.

The local news anchors, brightly colored and mute on the screen, appeared to be giddy to have something so bizarre to report on. They shuffled their papers back and forth and kept flipping back to the baffled but game weatherman, who waved his hands around the map like he was trying to cast a spell. The needle sank in again, quick and precise and annoying as fuck because of it.

Two more stitches and Dean’s arm was Frankensteined back together, Sam carefully wrapping it to keep it clean. Following the urge he’d been having ever since Sam had pushed him down on the bed, Dean reached up and pushed Sam’s hair back behind his ear. Sam’s eyes traveled up to meet his. There was that look again. “What?”

“Hmm?” Sam turned away to close the med kit and rose to his feet.

“You keep…looking at me.” Sam raised an eyebrow and Dean gave him the point. Putting it that way, it did sound kind of silly. “Like I’m some sort of freak or something.” Like he was a guy that had been yanked out of Hell and put back on solid ground again.

Sam shoved the med kit back into his duffle and zipped it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dean stared at the TV. The weatherman was once again trying to explain the heat wave and its sudden departure. He’d worn the wrong color tie because it kept fading into the map, like he was slowly being absorbed and didn’t know it. When Dean looked back up, Sam was standing beside him. “What?” Dean tried again.

“You should be more careful.” Sam gave Dean’s bandaged arm a meaningful glance.

Fuck. Were they still stuck on that? “Let it go, Sam.” Back to the local anchors. Apparently, they’d finally decided to move on with life and were covering a story about a gas station. Now if only Sam would move on, too.

Sam crossed his arms. “You were hurt.”

“I’ll live,” Dean growled.

“Yeah. This time.”

“What do you want me to do, Sam?” Dean snapped, turning on him. Sam jerked backward and braced himself. “Do you want me to apologize for saving you? ‘Cause if you do, you’d better have a goddamned seat because it’s going to be awhile!”

Silence hung between them as Sam visibly ate his words, swallowing them back. There was a tick in his jaw, beating away his frustration. “I want you to be more careful,” he said finally, his words carefully measured.

“Fine,” Dean replied, turning back to the TV. He grabbed up the remote and mashed the buttons, not caring which channel he landed on. “We done?”

“Yeah.” Sam huffed and Dean pressed the channel button. He’d landed on an infomercial.

“Good.” Typical that there were 150 different choices and they were all pretty much shit. He was going to end up watching Animal Planet again, he knew it.

“No, you know what? No, we’re not.” A hand snaked around under Dean’s chin, twisting his face away from the TV and Dean only had half a second of surprise before Sam’s lips were mashed against his. They pressed and demanded, with Sam’s tongue outright ordering as it invaded Dean’s open mouth.

Dean shoved against Sam’s shoulder. “What the fuck—” Sam slammed him to the bed and climbed on top of him, hands grabbing Dean’s wrists and pulling them out and away. The muscle of Dean’s wounded arm twinged and he hissed as he arched upward, trying to dislodge Sam’s heavy body. Kneeing Dean’s legs apart, Sam situated himself between them. Dean struggled underneath of him, fighting the hold until Sam finally broke the kiss and sat up, leaving Dean gasping and confused and half-aroused despite himself.

Sam stared down at him, face unreadable. “Now we’re done,” he said and slid off the bed.

Dean pushed himself up onto an elbow. “What the Hell was that, Sam?”

The bathroom door slammed behind Sam’s retreating back, leaving Dean staring at the blank surface. He blinked then swung his gaze over to the brightly lit TV screen. A redhead was hawking Tupperware, shoving whatever she could find in the small containers. Shrugging, Dean reached for the remote again. Whatever. He hadn’t figured Sam out in nearly thirty years and he didn’t think he’d be breaking that streak anytime soon. Sam would stew by himself for awhile and in a few hours, the whole damn thing would blow over.

He gave his crotch a squeeze, stroking the filling length because no one had ever accused dicks of being smart, and flipped the channel again.

Dean slowly opened his eyes. He felt the cheap cotton sheets underneath of him, the flattened pillow his head rested on, the weight of the comforter over top of him. Just across the room, Sam was facing Dean, his breathing deep and slow. For a brief moment, something red flickered across Dean’s vision, soaking into the sheets but after a blink, it was gone. Dean groaned and rolled over.


Castiel was standing beside the window, in profile, framed by the curtains. He turned his head and looked over at Dean and then turned back. Dean frowned, pushing himself to his feet. He glanced over at Sam again, just to make sure that he was still there, and padded over to where Castiel was standing. “I dreaming right now, aren’t I?” Dean asked.

Castiel nodded. “It was easier.” It’s been three days and seven hundred miles since Dean’s seen Cas. The angel looked like he’d been dragged the entire way. “I needed to thank you. I should have done it then. I was…preoccupied.”

Dean folded his arms across his chest. “Preoccupied, huh.” Dean didn’t want to ask what that meant. It would either get him a silent stare or an explanation that would go so far over his head, he’d need wings to catch it. “You’re welcome, I guess.”

Cas’s eyes flicked towards Dean and then back again. “I should also apologize. For when I…” He licked his lips, his expression far away for a moment, and then he stared at Dean with a razor-sharp focus. “I was ill-prepared.”

A memory of panic and frightened blue eyes crossed Dean’s mind, chased by heat. “Don’t mention it,” he said. He wondered if Cas would feel fire-hot again. “Ever.”

“Right.” Castiel bowed his head and stood silent for a moment, awkwardness hanging between them. “I—”

Dean didn’t know what pushed him forward: curiosity, boredom, a burning desire to stop living. Probably a combination of all three. His fingers wrapped in the fabric of Cas’s trench coat—the dream facsimile of it—and he leaned in. Cas let him do it, wide-eyed and unmoving. Dean pressed his lips to Cas’s and held them there. Cas’s lips were warm and soft, when Dean half-expected to be incinerated—a spark instead of an inferno.

He didn’t feel like Anna but Dean hadn’t expected him to. Anna had been eager and accepting where Castiel stood frozen like a stone, but there was a tingle racing through Dean’s nerves, a soft shiver down his spine, from the way that Cas’s skin was starting to heat as Castiel thawed. Dean pushed his bottom lip forward and Castiel hesitantly responded, shifting to accommodate. When Dean moved again, Castiel was quicker to follow, learning from Dean’s lead. Dean’s lips tingled, burned, hinting at power hiding just below Castiel’s surface and there was no way for Dean to avoid the fact that this wasn’t a human he was kissing.

Dean leaned back, breaking the kiss, his lips hot from where they had been pressed against Castiel’s. Castiel followed him for a brief moment, his eyes open and piercing like he wasn’t just looking at Dean but through him. Like he was looking at Dean’s soul. Dean’s stained, dirty, broken soul. Dean took a sharp breath and stepped back, breaking the connection and Castiel dropped his head, allowing him the space.

“Uh…” Dean scraped his teeth over his bottom lip, not knowing what to say. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, Castiel was gone and Dean was back in bed, staring across the room at Sam.

Dean sat up, glancing around the room. “Cas?” he whispered quietly and listened to the hum of the old radiator in the corner. He waited for a few more minutes before he sighed and shook his head, tossing off the unsettling feeling that curled in the back of his mind. He didn’t want to think about Castiel anymore. Whatever Castiel’s problems were, they weren’t Dean’s and Dean had enough of his own to worry about because even dying wasn’t enough to please the world. He threw the blankets back and got to his feet. In three steps, he was crawling into Sam’s bed, lifting the covers and slipping beneath them.

He pressed a hand against Sam’s chest, feeling the rhythmic beat of Sam’s heart, and curled himself around Sam’s body. Without a word, Sam moved, wrapping his arms around Dean and pulling him in close, making him safe. Sam’s eyes glittered in the faint light, The Look flashing across his face. Dean ducked his head, not wanting to fight and Sam drifted back to sleep.

Dean spread his fingers. Even this close, there was still space between him and Sam, but Dean wanted to keep on pretending that there wasn’t. And he would. For as long as Sam and the angels and the rest of the world would let him, Dean was going to keep on pretending that the world was the same as it had been before he’d gone down. It was all he had left.

Sam was all he had left.

Dean wondered what he’d ever done to deserve a ticket out of Hell—on the Angel Express, no less. He wondered if they’d eventually toss him back in. He wondered what Sam would think if he knew all the things that Dean had done.

That last one, at least, wasn’t going to happen. If Dean had his way, Sam would never know. He wouldn’t be able bear to see Sam looking at him the same way that Dean looked at himself. It was one more secret to toss into the gulfing void between them.

For all of their secrets, though, they were still here, still bound together by blood and history and the fact that neither did well without the other. Dean stared at Sam’s sleeping face, rememorizing familiar lines. If this was all he had, then he would take it and not ask for more.

The night was cool and still. Frost painted the windows, swirling in intricate designs, highlighting the difference between the chill outside and the pleasant warm of the motel’s interior. The heating system buzzed low and steady along the wall, pumping out hot air.

Dean was sprawled across the bed that wasn’t his, naked save for the few sheets that covered his lower half. His limbs were tangled with Sam’s, forming a design almost as intricate as the frost’s. The brothers had wrapped around each other in the night, protecting each other from the unknown even as they slept. It was a habit as old as they were.

Castiel stood beside the bed, staring downward. Dean’s shoulder was upturned and Castiel could see his own handprint branded on Dean’s skin, could see his mark. Slowly, Castiel held his hand out and matched up the lines, finger to finger, palm to palm. He hovered above Dean’s skin, feeling the heat from his body, the heat from the brand. The handprint was from his true form; his borrowed body’s extremity didn’t quite align. But the thought was there. His mark. Castiel wanted to join Dean in his bed, to curl around him, to know him as Sam just had a few hours previous. The temptation to do so whispered in his ear, calling to him louder than a trumpet’s chorus.

Castiel closed his eyes and willed himself to be strong. Nothing good would come from walking that path, no matter how sweet the Siren’s song.

Dean had kissed him. Had knowingly kissed him. Something had shivered inside of Castiel in that moment and a part of him had changed forever. He’d slipped, plunging down a rocky cliff and had only managed to catch himself because of duty. He hoped that it would hold.

Castiel shouldn’t be here. He was needed elsewhere. A thousand miles away, a seal was about to break and his brothers and sisters were preparing for the battle. He would join them in a little while. He had just…needed one more look before he did.

Dean stirred, shifting onto his side and Castiel yanked his hand away before he managed to touch. Sam, in typical fashion, responded and the brothers settled into a new position, this one with Sam’s arm wrapped around Dean, his forearm obscuring the mark on Dean’s shoulder—hiding Dean from Castiel.

Castiel stepped back and shook his head. He shouldn’t be here. But yet he was.

He dissipated, slipping through reality to join his brethren. He now knew the question that Dean Winchester posed—but he wasn’t yet ready to face the answer.

He was an angel of the Lord. That should be enough.

It would be enough.