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“You sure we took the right junction?”

“You said Amara was sighted in Pomegranate, Louisiana. That’s where we’re headed.” Dean squinted at the winding road ahead and imagined the highway lines were a noose he was pulling more tightly around Crowley’s neck with every mile he drove. “What kind of question is that?”

Next to him, Crowley smirked. “You’re adorable when you get into a huff like that.” Less than a mile later, he added, because apparently he was determined to be insufferable, “You sure we’re not lost? It wouldn’t lessen your oh-so-masculine charm if you consulted a map once in a while.”

“I don’t need a map. I never get lost.”

“But we’ve been on the road for hours.”

“Welcome to the humble world of human transportation.”

“This is no fun. Can’t I just zap us there?”

Dean slammed his foot down on the brakes and pulled over to the side of the road. As soon as the car had come to a standstill, he spun around to face Crowley. “No, no, absolutely not! We agreed, remember? We do this together, we do it by my rules.”

“That’s what you said. I never agreed to it.”

“You didn’t need to. You’re the one who screwed up—” Dean punctuated his words with stabbing a finger at Crowley’s chest “—and I have to clean up your mess now. So shut up and let me drive.”

Mercifully, Crowley deigned to be relatively cooperative for once. With a challenging lift of his eyebrows that would have made any diva jealous, he mimed zipping his lips shut.

Shaking his head, Dean restarted the engine and steered the car back onto the highway. He had no idea how he was supposed to survive the rest of this journey without blowing his brains out.

*

With screeching tires Dean pulled out of the gas station. It cost him everything not to call off this joint enterprise right there and then. “What the hell, Crowley?”

For a moment, Crowley frowned at him, his expression caught somewhere between innocent and mildly interested. Then he shifted his entire focus to the Busty Asian Beauties magazine in his lap, occasionally humming in appreciation.

If possible, this latched up Dean’s anger to an even higher notch. There’s a bigger picture, he reminded himself, fists curling around the wheel like cuffs of steel. We need to capture Amara before she plunges the entire planet into darkness and chaos. But damn if it wasn’t hard. “First you cockblock me with the hot cashier, then you start talking about my porn preferences in front of her?”

“Just making friendly conversation,” Crowley replied absently.

“Fuck you.”

This time Crowley actually looked up at him. “Oh darling, all you had to do is ask.”

Dean huffed out a breath, annoyed. “I still don’t swing that way.”

“Please. Sexuality, schmexuality.”

“What are you, three?”

“More like three hundred. But that’s very flattering, thanks.”

Dean rolled his eyes and bit on his tongue to keep himself from answering. Knowing Crowley, once he was on a roll, determined to prove he was the king of snark, he’d never stop. Best to just ignore him.

Unfortunately, the silent treatment worked only for so long. Like a hyperactive toddler, Crowley always needed an audience.

“What do you think?” Crowley tilted the magazine towards him so that Dean could see the girl he’d been scrutinizing. Fuck, she was a bombshell! Dean’s pants tightened uncomfortably around his crotch. “Wouldn’t she make a persuasive crossroads demon?”

“So that’s how you recruit your meatsuits these days?” Dean sneered, trying to disguise how husky his voice had become. “In the sex trade? Tacky, even for you.”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist, squirrel. Our recruitment process is mostly Facebook ads and free ballpoint pens these days. Though if you weren’t too busy thinking with your downstairs brain, you’d have to admit that a crossroads career would be a dramatic improvement of these poor girls’ lives.”

“Thanks, Oprah—Hey, hands off the wheel.” He slapped Crowley’s hands away.

“You weren’t looking at the road.”

“You were distracting me with Miss November.”

“And here I thought all women were supposed to be good at multi-tasking.”

Dean barely refrained from rolling his eyes again. At this rate, they’d pop out of his head before the trip was finished. Lie down and think of England, wasn’t that what they said? In this case: Keep driving and think of the fate of the universe resting on your shoulders like a grimy wet sack of spuds. “I’m really not the chick in this gig, Crowlina.”

Crowley shot him an infuriating smirk. “Keep telling yourself that, lover.”

*

“Hi sugar,” the bartender greeted him. She was seriously hot. “What can I do for you?”

“Whiskey. Two shots.”

Honestly, after the day he’d had, he deserved all the whiskey in the world. And more.

When she set down the drinks in front of him a minute later, he put on his best smile. “Anything I can do for you in return, sweetheart?”

“Yeah,” she practically purred, because hell yeah, Dean was just that smooth.

She leaned over the bar, giving him a generous peek at her cleavage. A flirty smile stretched her lips. There was a cunning edge to it, something intimate and unsettlingly familiar.

Dean felt his pulse pick up. A shiver ran down his spine. Excitement? Dread? Both, probably. It was similar to the rush of anticipation he felt at the beginning of each new hunt, to the wild thrill that had overwhelmed him every time he picked up the Blade.

He should step back. Before it was too late, before he was in over his head. Hell, he was in over his head.

In his mind’s eye, he saw Sam shake his head in disappointment, saw Cas frown at him with those big blue eyes.

Nonetheless, he edged closer.

The bartender rewarded him with a flash of white, sharp teeth. “I recently bought a new mattress. Wanna help me break it in?”

*

“Had a good time?” Crowley asked him in a perfectly nonchalant tone when he climbed back into the car the next morning. He let his eyes travel down Dean’s torso, a predatory fire lurking behind them.

Dean merely grunted and gripped the steering wheel. After taking a deep breath, he put the key in the ignition and maneuvered the car back on the road.

He almost wished Crowley would continue the nerve-grating chatter that had made Dean want to strangle him the previous day. Yet for once Crowley seemed content to ride shotgun in silence, not even bothering to point out when Dean was speeding or overtaking a truck in the no passing zone. But Dean could feel Crowley’s cool, assessing gaze on his cheek the whole time.

“I knew it was you,” he said when the silence became oppressive and promptly winced at how scratchy his voice sounded.

Crowley inclined his head with a smug wink. “I did promise to take you apart atom by atom.”

Despite himself, Dean laughed. “And that’s the best you could do?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, darling.” Crowley waggled his fingers. “Last night was just foreplay. I haven’t even shown you half of my mad skills yet.”

“I don’t care. It won’t happen again,” Dean said. That should be obvious, a voice in his head stated which closely resembled Sam. Then why had he felt the need to clarify? Maybe because it wasn’t quite as obvious to him as it should have been.

He hated the conflicted emotions that festered in his chest—conflicted, when they should have been unequivocal.

In some ways, being with Crowley was too easy. In others, too hard. With Crowley, there were no expectations to be good, kind, true; expectations Dean found increasingly impossible to live up to. Better still, Crowley respected the parts of Dean that Sam or Cas averted their eyes from with shame and despondency, pretending they didn’t exist. It could have been liberating. No, who was he kidding? It was. Yet at the same time he experienced a strain he hadn’t known before, because he didn’t want it to be; a strain which only lifted when Sam smiled at him after a successfully closed hunt, with sparkling eyes and dimples, looking like the hopeful little boy who’d listened attentively when Dean explained to him how hunting meant making the world a better place.

Meanwhile, Crowley asked, “Is the meatsuit troubling your dainty conscience, Dean? Rest assured, there was no one inside that perky body but I.”

Dean couldn’t bring himself to ask how she’d died. Didn’t want to hear Don’t worry, I killed her gently.

“It won’t happen again,” he repeated and turned up the music.

*

By the time they arrived in Pomegranate, Dean had managed to shake off any residual awkwardness from the previous night and was firmly focused on their quest to find Amara.

He stepped into the motel room, deposited his duffel on the nearest bed and looked around.

Of the many cheap lodgings Dean had stayed in, this had to be one of the most chintzy. A faded painting hung on the wall opposite the door, oddly out of place in the otherwise lurid affair of oranges and reds. It featured a half-naked chick with a ripe, red fruit in her hands. Her wrist was clasped tightly in the hands of a white-faced dude who was even fuglier than most of the monsters Dean met on a daily basis. Hideous visages in the background leered at the pair of them. Through his research Dean had been exposed to enough mythological pictures to conclude that what he was looking at was supposed to be the underworld. Clearly, the painter with the unpronounceable Italian name had never been to Hell.

He told Crowley as much.

“If it’s any consolation,” Crowley replied, “he’s now roasting on a stick till the end of time.”

“For painting this monstrosity?”

Crowley clasped his hands together in front of his chest in mock outrage. “Heathen. This is late Renaissance at its finest.”

“Whatever you say. So he made a deal to be able to paint—” Dean couldn’t hide his sneer “—like this?”

“Not at all.” Crowley’s face took on a nostalgic tinge. “In the good old days, all it took was using the Lord’s name in vain…or painting something just a tad on the risqué side, and voilà—you were damned for all eternity. These days, even someone with a porn collection as impressive as yours doesn’t automatically get a ticket downstairs. It’s depressing.”

Dean scoffed. “I feel your pain. Now what? We’re here, how do we find Amara?”

“We’re going to summon her, and trap her.”

“How?”

“Like this.” Crowley crouched down and began to draw symbols on the linoleum-covered floor with a piece of chalk.

Dean leaned closer to squint at Crowley’s artwork. “What is that?”

“Pre-Enochian symbols to trap Amara.”

“Where did you find them?” Dean asked, trying to memorize what Crowley was drawing. He, Sam and Cas had checked every single lorebook in the bunker. There’d been nothing.

“Doodles on one of Shakespeare’s manuscripts. Except – not really doodles, obviously.”

“Obviously?”

Now entertain conjecture of a time when creeping murmur and the poring dark fills the wide vessel of the universe. Sound familiar?”

“But why would Shakespeare know anything about the Darkness?”

We are such stuff as dreams are made on.

“CliffsNotes version, Einstein?”

“Do try to keep up, Doctor Watson. We’re talking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare. The greatest illusionist of all time. Capiche?”

“Wait, what? Are you saying—No way. Shakespeare was the trickster?”

“The one and only. Beer, boys, breeches, the whole experience. Though personally I always preferred him as Marilyn.”

“Marilyn?” Dean repeated, eyebrows raised in disbelief until he remembered what Gabriel had been like. Sure, the dude had the nasty habit of playing with Sam and Dean’s lives, but he did have style. And Dean could relate. If he could fashion himself to be anyone he wanted, Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t be that far down his list below a hot blonde cheerleader and Clint Eastwood.

“…client. Over-eager English Lit professor, desperate to prove his theory that Shakespeare and Jonson were the same person.” It took Dean a moment to tune back in and realize Crowley was still talking about Shakespeare. Or well, the archangel Gabriel pretending to be Shakespeare. “So I took him back to the 1590s, and ta-dah, his shiny theory came crashing down. He then published a long monograph on how Shakespeare was secretly an archangel, and spent the rest of his ten years in an asylum.”

“I should really warn Sam that being a book geek is bad for your mental health.”

Speaking of the—well, not the devil, cause that’s who was standing right next to him in this room—his phone vibrated in his pocket. Sam.

“Yeah?” he grunted into the receiver.

“Just wanted to check in on you.”

“How’s Cas?”

“Haven’t seen him in hours. He’s discovered Dark Angel. Uh… I guess I should warn you. He thinks one of the characters looks like you.”

“Not the slimy milk face?”

On the other end, he could hear Sam’s tinny laugh. “Yep. Sorry.”

“I think it’s time to cancel your Netflix subscription.”

“No need. The next time Cas emerges from my room, I’m putting the TV on child lock. Because man, I really want my bed back. Your mattress is kind of…sagging.”

“Dude, never insult the magic of the memory foam.”

He could tell Sam was smiling. “Whatever. How’s it going?

“Spectaculacular.”

“Really?”

“I think I might be brain-dead from all the snarky chatter, but other than that, it’s fine. We’ve prepared a trap for Amara, and now we’re gonna summon her. Let’s hope we can end this thing tonight. And then we can take a nice long vacation on the beach, you and me, what do you say, Sammy?”

“You sure you don’t want me to come?”

“I’ve got this covered. You relax and…‘dig into the lore’.”

“Haha. I hate to tell you, but it stopped being funny after the first hundred times.” Dean could hear Sam blow out a breath. When he spoke next, there was an anxious undertone to his words. “You know you can’t trust Crowley, right?”

“Course I do.”

“He’s a dick. Given the chance, he can and will screw you over.”

“Yes, yes. Why don’t you go back to your Dahmer fan forum and let me work this case in peace?”

“I’m serious, Dean, watch your back.”

“Yes, mom,” Dean said and ended the call.

When he turned back to face Crowley, he was met with an expectant smirk. “How’s the nagging wifey?”

Dean glared at him and imagine carving that expression out of his face. With a butterknife. Slowly.

“Oh, allow me to rephrase.” Crowley let out a histrionic sigh. “How’s your moose, squirrel?”

“He’s great. Daydreaming of stabbing you in the brain. And honestly, I can relate.”

“I’m flattered. And impressed. I didn’t think he knew about our little adventure.”

“Shut your face.” Dean frowned at him. “We don’t do that anymore, keeping secrets.”

“And Donald Trump’s a frisky young woman. Keeping secrets is like breathing for you boys. It’s genetic. Seriously, darling, you want me to believe that you told Sam about our last meeting? How you had the chance to kill me and didn’t?”

“So I might have omitted some things. Sue me.”

A speculative gleam entered Crowley’s eyes. Dean didn’t like it one bit. “What about your connection with the Darkness, have you discussed that with Sam? And he still let you come, all on your own?”

Dean gritted his teeth. Don’t listen to him, he’s just trying to rile you up, he reminded himself. “Sam knows enough.”

“If you say so,” Crowley said. His shrug carried enough disbelief to be discernable from another galaxy.

Dean threw up his hands. “Why should I make him worry about all that when we don’t even know what’s gonna happen? She said we’re bound, we’d always help each other. But what in the friggin’ hell does that mean? Until we know more, it matters fuck-all.” He took a deep breath. This was an argument he should have with Sam, not Crowley, if at all. “Back to Amara. We’ve got the magic mousetrap, how do we lure her into it?”

“A simple summoning spell.”

“Hit me!”

“In a minute. All we need is one very specific ingredient.”

“Well, why don’t you zap out of here and bring back whatever it is.”

“Everything we need is already here. Like I said, there’s only one specific ingredient to the spell.”

“I heard you the first time.”

Crowley stepped closer towards him, a lazy smile forming around the corners of his mouth. “I don’t think you did—” he raised a hand and flung Dean against the wall behind him, pinning him there “—Dean. It’s you.”

“Bastard,” Dean growled, struggling against his invisible bonds. He couldn’t believe that Crowley had tricked him yet again. He should have listened to Sam.

Then his right shoulder exploded into pain. What the—He took in the smoking gun in Crowley’s hand. Son of a bitch.

Crowley looked unbearably smug. “Dean, Dean, Dean… you really shouldn’t advertize your connection to the Darkness like that. Anyone might use you as a speed dial to Amara.”

Dean coughed, choked down the taste of bile and blood, then opened his mouth to unleash a string of curses—when suddenly all screaming anger and betrayal left him, with peacefulness and quiet following in their wake.

Amara had arrived.

Since the last time he’d seen her back at Jenna’s house, she’d had grown into an adult. Damn Crowley for interfering! They could have taken care of the problem so much more easily back when she was still a baby. Now she looked almost exactly like the vision he’d seen in the black smoke. Did that mean it was too late, that the Darkness was already there? The thought was terrifying. Yet Dean couldn’t muster up any terror. Instead he watched her, entranced, feeling more at ease than he had ever since Crowley called him and said he had a lead on Amara.

She glided towards them with the air of a gentle breeze calming the storming ocean—and halted in mid-motion, realizing she’d been trapped.

“Amara, sweetie,” Crowley turned around to greet her, lowering his gun, “you gave your Uncle Crowley a good scare when you vanished just like that.”

Amara wrinkled her nose. “I did not like your curfew.”

“You made that clear. Until you’ve seen the error of your ways, my child, you’re grounded.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Amara said levelly. She lowered herself to the floor and spread her hands, her fingers tracing the symbols that kept her confined. Crowley watched her with detached curiosity. Dean, however, found himself enthralled. It almost looked like an oriental posture of prayer. He remembered what Sidney had said, how she could sense Amara’s presence and felt compelled to pray. Much as Dean hated to admit it, facing Amara, feeling the ethereal calm she exuded, that no longer seemed all too absurd.

Then Amara’s right hand darted forward. As if waking up from a trance, Dean spotted something metallic glinting between her fingers.

Before Crowley could react, she’d broken the lines trapping her. With an elegant flick of her wrist, the gun in Crowley’s hand evaporated into smoke and the force pinning Dean to the wall vanished.

Crowley tried to seize her by the arm, but she merely shrugged him off, sending him crashing into the opposite wall. The impact knocked the atrocious painting off its hook. It pounded down on Crowley’s head, then ripped right in the middle, leaving Crowley wearing the canvas around his neck like an ill-fitted ruff. The sight filled Dean with vicious satisfaction.

Turning back to face him, Amara gave Dean a serene smile. “Thank you, Dean. I’ll see you soon.”

Whatever she’d been holding between her fingers she now tossed at him and disappeared into thin air.

Bewildered, Dean gawked at the safety pin that had landed in his hand.

Why had she thanked him? He hadn’t given it to her, and if he’d seen it lying on the floor when Crowley drew the trap he would have picked it up… After all, he wanted her trapped, right?

He’d studied the symbols and committed them to memory. He could recall every last detail. No, he was certain the pin hadn’t been on the floor when they’d created the trap.

Then how had it ended up there? And why had she thanked him for it? That didn’t make sense unless—Christ, was it one of his? He always kept a couple safety pins in his jeans for lock-picking purposes. How had Amara gotten hold of it, though? She hadn’t touched him, not once.

With mounting dread, his hands went to his pockets. The right front pocket was torn. Crap.

Dean felt sick. Even without knowing it, he’d once again helped the Darkness.

A thud brought him back to the present. Crowley had ripped off the ruined painting. A moment later he plucked the safety pin out of Dean’s fingers.

“Interesting,” Crowley drawled, holding it up to the light. He sounded intrigued. “Didn’t see that coming.”

Taking advantage of Crowley’s distraction, Dean drew out Ruby’s knife. In one smooth motion he rammed it into Crowley’s thigh, ignoring the searing pain that spread through his shoulder at the action.

“Ouch!” Crowley protested. “What was that for?”

“You shot me!”

“You just ruined one of my favorite suits.”

“Your suits all look the same. And you shot me, you son of a bitch.”

“No need to be so butthurt, darling, I barely grazed you. Besides, it was all part of my brilliant plan.”

“It was a stupid plan. You shot me. And Amara escaped.”

*

When Dean blinked his eyes open, he was lying on one of the motel beds and everything hurt like a bitch.

“Welcome back to the living, sleeping beauty,” Crowley murmured from where he was bent over Dean’s shoulder. Which stung even more than everything else. Because he’d been shot, and Crowley was stitching the wound back together with the ferocity of a butcher. Awesome.

Dean suppressed a pained groan and glared at Crowley.

“I didn’t know you faint.” Crowley sounded way too gleeful.

“I don’t faint. I… black out.”

“And that makes all the difference.” Crowley underscored his retort with a cruel stab of the needle—

Dean forced his eyes open again. He hadn’t noticed closing them.

Crowley leered down at him, no needle in his hands this time. “Still not fainting?”

“Oh screw you,” Dean bit out, too exhausted to defend his masculine honor. “I hate needles.”

“That’s cute.” Crowley patted the bandage he’d placed over Dean’s injured shoulder. “Want me to kiss it better?”

Dean made an effort to roll his eyes, though the room was spinning dangerously enough as it were. “No, thanks.”

His eyes still fixed on Dean’s shoulder, Crowley raised himself from the bed.

“Human flesh, it’s so… pathetic, don’t you think? You remember the time when that wound would have closed again in a minute, no pain, no scar, no nothing?”

“I had the demon sucked out of me, not my brain.”

Crowley smirked. “That’s not an answer.”

“It’s all the answer you’re gonna get,” Dean said and on an impulse pulled Crowley down for a bruising kiss. He’d lost a lot of blood. So what the hell.

The action evidently caught Crowley by surprise, though he quickly tried to compensate for it by sucking on Dean’s tongue like it was a fifty-year-old Craig. Dean couldn’t find anything wrong with that.

When they drew back, both were panting harshly.

Dean licked his lips. “You’re good.”

“Had a lot of practice.”

Dean let his eyes flicker over Crowley’s face, took in the near invisible cracks in his sarcastic façade. “You ever miss being a simple crossroads demon?”

Crowley narrowed his eyes at him and shuddered. “So many stupid little people with their stupid little needs—ghastly.”

A giddiness spread inside Dean that probably had very little to do with his shoulder injury. He smiled. “That’s not an answer.”

For a moment Crowley could only gape at him, and damn if that didn’t feel good. “Touché.”

*

The next time Dean woke up, the motel room was empty. Figured Crowley would just ditch him.

“Bastard,” he muttered and leveraged himself off his bed.

“Yes?”

“Jeez! Warn a guy!” Dean exclaimed, startled by Crowley’s sudden reappearance.

“Good morning to you too, sweetheart,” was all Crowley replied as he handed him a steaming mug of coffee.

Warily, Dean eyed the drink. “This don’t make us square. You shot me.”

“Don’t be such a wuss. We had fun, didn’t we?”

Dean flipped him off. He took a cautious sip from his mug—and mewled shamelessly, unable to contain his pleasure. “Wow. Best coffee I’ve ever tasted. Where did you get that?”

“A daring adventure involving a hamster and an immortal Polish globetrotter…”

Dean snorted. “This has to be the most truthful thing that’s ever come out of your mouth.”

“Don’t get used to it, pumpkin.”

“Don’t pumpkin me, pumpkin.”

“And that has to be the single most original thing that’s ever come out of your mouth, dear.”

Dean cradled the mug against his chest and glared at him. “Next time I see you, I’m not just gonna stab your leg, just so you know.”

A grin spread over Crowley’s face. “I’m delighted to hear it.” He bounced up and down on his heels like an overexcited puppy. “Can’t wait to see you wield that plucky little dagger of yours again.” And with a wolfish wink at Dean’s crotch he was gone.

Dean stared at the empty space he’d left behind. He wondered what he was feeling. Regret? Relief? Did it even matter?

Mentally shaking himself, he raised the mug back to his lips and drained the remainder of his coffee.

“Good riddance,” he then said to no one in particular, and started packing his bag.