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Every Man's Got A Right

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I woke up flat on my back, spread out like the Vitruvian Man on a hard surface that felt like concrete or asphalt. I blinked my eyes open and saw pale sky through leaves. Nothing hurt. I sat up, which didn’t make anything start hurting either. When I put my hand to my side where the big wound had been, there was nothing—no blood, no tenderness, not so much as an old scar. Hell, my shirt wasn't even torn.

Not that I was complaining, because the last thing I remembered was bracing myself against a wall to empty my last clip at Risa, hoping to catch her as she went down with three croats on her. I was pretty sure I'd hit her, but by then my aim was crap because of the blood loss and it might not've been a clean kill. I liked Risa, and she hadn't deserved to die slowly, feeling the teeth. I hadn't bothered saving a bullet for myself; when the clip ran empty I'd just dropped the gun and let my knees buckle. I didn't even remember hitting the floor.

A quick look around placed me in the middle of a street, small-town or really suburban, lined with trees and single-family houses. Everything was remarkably well-kept, even the lawns mowed, something I hadn't seen in two years or more. Maybe I'd ended up in one of the places where the US government still held sway, though I couldn't imagine how. And regardless I didn't see anyone outside which was, as they say, a bad sign.

I climbed to my feet and took stock. It didn't take long; I pretty much had my clothes. No pack—I'd dropped that before we went into the building anyway—no H&K, no Beretta (I spared a moment to mourn the loss; that was the gun Dean taught me to shoot with), not even a pill bottle. My hunting knife was still in its sheath at the small of my back, and that was all. “Fantastic,” I muttered. I don't remember when I picked up the human habit of talking to myself.

There didn't seem to be much difference between the two directions the street ran, so I picked one arbitrarily. As I walked I wondered idly if I was hallucinating as I bled out. If so it seemed like kind of a ripoff; I could think of things I'd much rather get visions of—Francine and her talented tongue, for example. A really good hamburger. The first time I realized that when I was stoned the place where my Grace used to be didn't hurt anymore.

So yeah. Lots of things that would've been better than waking up in suburbia, though I had to admit I preferred my current position to waiting to die while Dean went on a suicide run and wouldn't even let me stand with him—Sam was his brother, but Lucifer was mine, damn it. But Dean had needed a distraction, and it was one last thing I could give him, like he ever noticed I'd given him everything already. Of course I had no idea where Dean was, so for all I knew he was still trying to kill the Devil. Or, much more likely, he was dead.

I got about a block before I heard the sound of running footsteps, followed immediately by someone bursting around the corner maybe thirty feet ahead. He was a big guy, really big, a good six inches taller than me and broad to match, and he carried a shotgun. Not a croat, then, and I was pretty sure he was running from something. But then he glanced up and I got a good look at his face and adrenaline hit me like a fist as Lucifer pounded down the street straight at me.

“Run!” he panted, even as I fumbled for my useless knife. My brother skidded to a halt and reached for me. I flinched away and pulled the knife to slash it through the air between us. And Lucifer—dodged. As if my mere mortal steel could so much as inconvenience him. He danced back, holding his hands out placatingly.

“Whoa, whoa, I'm not one of them!” he exclaimed. “Look, my name's Sam, and we have to run.”

I couldn't make the words make sense. I almost dropped my knife. My ability to process what was happening just shut down, and he must have seen it in my face because he grabbed my arm and said sharply, “Freak later. Run now.” I tensed for the brush of his Grace but it didn’t come.

I could hear what sounded like a large group, approaching at speed, and it occurred to me that I could go where Lucifer led me or I could let a bunch of croats tear me apart for the second time in less than a waking hour, so I pulled together what wits I could muster and nodded. “Good,” he said, and took off. I followed.

I spend a lot of time following Winchesters.

Lucifer moved fast on Sam’s long legs. But by then I'd had five years of a life in which speed was often the only thing that kept me alive, and it wasn't as hard as I might have expected to keep up. As we ran I thought furiously, trying to work out just what the hell was going on—why did Lucifer feel the need to flee the croats, if it was croats? If he wanted to avoid them, why didn't he just fly away? Why did he care what happened to me, why didn't he seem to recognize me, why had he said his name was Sam?

Lucifer led me out of the open street almost immediately, which was probably a good plan if we were being chased. We ran flat-out for a minute or so, and then Lucifer ducked around a fence and put his back against it. He was breathing hard, almost like he needed to, and trying to control it to listen for whatever had been chasing him, and now us. After a few seconds it became clear that the croats weren't in hearing distance any longer, and his tense posture relaxed a little. He turned his head to look at me and mustered a grin that was mostly convincing. “You got a name?” he asked.

Once again I had the disconcerting feeling that some of the gears of my brain were slipping. I stared at him for a moment too long, and his expression turned serious again. “Come on, man, hold it together a little longer. What's your name?” He sounded patient, understanding—none of the mocking edge my older brother's voice had held the one time I'd talked to him (before I fell, before Sam said yes; Joanna and Ellen died that day because Lucifer tricked me into a trap, and we didn't even stop him from raising Death. Dean didn't speak to me civilly for two weeks afterward).

“Cas,” I said, right before the pause would have been too long again. “You can call me Cas.”

“OK, Cas,” he said, without even a flicker of recognition. “I'm Sam. Look, we have to get to the med center downtown. By now my brother should be back there, and there are a few other people too who aren't infected with whatever this is.”

“Brother,” I said dumbly, thinking Which one? And then, “What do you mean, whatever this is? It's Croatoan.”

Instead of looking terrified (like a normal person) or smug (like…well, Lucifer), he just seemed surprised. “You've seen it before?” he asked.

“Everyone has seen it before!” I burst out, probably louder than was wise. “Two years now it's been killing people, changing them, the whole world, of course I know what it is!”

Lucifer—or maybe, just maybe, Sam—made frantic shushing gestures and said, “OK! Just, calm down. I think we need to get somewhere safe, safer, before we discuss this. You can move?”

I grabbed the ragged remnants of my control and forced myself into what Dean sometimes called Tin Soldier Mode. I hardly ever did it anymore, because he hated it, but hey—Dean wasn't around to mock me, and if I let myself freak out I'd just get myself, and Sam's body, messily killed. “Yes, I can move,” I said. Lucifer-Sam studied me for a second and then nodded decisively.

It took us less than fifteen minutes to make it downtown; wherever we were, it wasn't a big place. When we turned cautiously onto the block that Lucifer-Sam said held the med center, I swayed and had to catch myself on the wall of the building we were skulking along. The Impala sat there in the street, dully gleaming in the diffuse overcast light, looking as pristine as the first time I saw it. I never did manage to make myself think of the car as “her”, no matter what Dean said.

“Cas, you OK?” Lucifer-Sam asked, sounding sincerely concerned.

“Yeah, I...that car, I know someone who used to have one just like it. It just caught me by surprise.”

“It's my brother's,” he said, and the note of genuine affection in his voice was what convinced me.

Somehow, this was Sam—Sam Winchester, the boy with the demon blood, polluted through no fault of his own as an infant. Sam who broke the last seal, Sam who always and only wanted to do the right thing, Sam who had been so delighted to meet an angel.

Sam, who was Lucifer's vessel, but I didn't think he was that, here, wherever here was.

I didn’t have time to think about it before Sam was knocking on the outer of a set of glass doors leading into a generic waiting area. And after a second…by then I expected it, really I did, but when Dean came into view I gasped. I could feel the blood leaving my face.

I didn’t quite faint, in the end, but the entire world went wavery and dim and far-away, and once Dean had the doors open he and Sam had to help me stumble inside. I could hear Sam talking, no doubt explaining my presence. When words finally started connecting into sentences again, I was sitting on a hard plastic chair, leaning forward with my face in my hands, with Sam next to me saying, “OK, just breathe, we’re OK here.” He had one big hand gently on my shoulder. I shuddered in a long breath and looked up, and he patted me and pulled back. “You back with us?” he asked.

“Yeah, OK. I’m good,” I said, not entirely truthfully. “Either of you got a drink?” Since I woke up I’d felt disgustingly sober, and my chest ached the way it always did when there was nothing to mask it. Drunk wasn’t as good a fix for that as high, but it was better than sobriety. Sam had said this place was a clinic, maybe I could pick something up if it hadn’t been cleaned out already.

From the short hallway that led to the rest of the clinic, Dean said, “Here.” He pulled a flask from his pocket as he came towards me—left pocket, so whiskey—and held it out. “Drink up, you look like you can use it.” I took the flask from him, careful not to touch his fingers with my own. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that. “Sam said you’re Cas?” Dean asked as I swallowed. It was decent booze, too, nothing homemade.

“Yeah,” I said, and took another swig. I really wanted to just drink the whole thing, but I wasn’t sure when I’d eaten last and if there were croats to deal with I had to be on the ball. That was the problem with alcohol—enough of it to fully calm the ache of my vanished Grace and I was too wasted to function.

“Great. I’m Dean. Come on, we should get out of sight of the street.” Dean...Dean grinned at me, and held out a hand to help me up. I pretended to misunderstand and put the flask in it instead as I stood. I could not stop staring at him; Father help me, he looked so young. He had a tiny scar over his right eye that he'd gotten falling off a bicycle when he was eleven.

I fixed that scar when I rebuilt his broken body to house his rescued soul; I smoothed away all of his scars, except for the mark my Grace left where I gripped him tight. But he had it now. I was suddenly sure that he'd have all the scars I erased—the faint one from the chupacabra on his right forearm, the twisting rope over his left kidney from a werewolf, all the mementos of a life spent hunting.

“Dude,” Dean said, and I realized I'd been looking at him for far too long. He threw a puzzled glance at Sam, who shrugged. “Are you stoned or something?”

It took a second before I could be sure I wouldn't laugh. “Generally, yes. But not right now.” Dean made an incredulous face, but said nothing.

“Let's get out of sight,” Sam said after a second. Dean and I trailed him; I remembered just in time not to fall into step with Dean. We came out in a central office area, with a desk and a receptionist's station and hallways leading, I assumed, to examination and storage rooms. There was a man there, dark-skinned and perhaps twenty years older than Dean. “Who's this?” he asked, sounding a little wary. I couldn't really blame him.

“I'm Cas,” I said. “I ran into Sam out in the street.”

Dean turned to look at me. “You're not from around here?” he asked.

“No. I'm just...just passing through,” I said. Or hallucinating while I bled out, but whatever.

“How do we know he isn't one of them?” the man asked, eyeing me.

I shrugged. “I'm not cut or bitten, you can check me,” I said. “Lock me in a spare room till you see if I flip. Whatever you want, I just don't want to go back out there. I'm not in the mood for dodging croats.”

“Croats,” Dean said skeptically.

“Cas has seen this before,” Sam said. Everyone looked at me; I looked at Sam.

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “But you haven't. Have you?” Come to think of it, Sam looked different, too, with the last faint traces of adolescence still lingering in his face. By the time I'd met him, those hints had vanished.

“No,” Sam replied. “All we've got is a word carved in a phone pole and people trying to kill us.”

I looked around the room. The lights were on, electric lights, and no one else seemed to find that remarkable. It obviously hadn't been looted. There was a paper Starbucks cup on one of the desks, with coffee still in it. Combine all of that with Dean, who had the scars from his life before Hell, who was so clearly not the man who'd spent us all on a blatant trap. I’d seen him smile.

Oh, fuck me senseless. I wanted to laugh, to shout, but if I did that I wouldn't stop for hours. Soldier up, Cas.

“It's a virus,” I said aloud. “Like...that movie, what was it called? It was set in England.” I had never seen it, but Dean told me about it when Croatoan started showing up. “28 Days Later. A friend of mine, he called them 'fast zombies' at first. It's incurable, efficient. Scary as hell. If someone's infected, all you can do is let them say their goodbyes if you have time before they flip.” We rarely did.

“And you know all this how?” a new voice asked. We all turned. It was a blond woman in a lab coat, which was clearly well-worn but clean and not even close to threadbare. She looked spooked, but determined, and wore a nametag that proclaimed her Doctor Lee.

I was opening my mouth to answer when another woman stepped into view behind the first one. She was younger, wearing a floral scrub top, and she was infected.

See, one of the reasons Dean puts up with me is that my departed Grace left me with some quirks. I'm a lot stronger than I look, for example. I have a great sense of direction, and fantastic aim. I don't get sick—I'm even immune to Croatoan itself. (Figuring that out? Not much fun.) And I can see it when certain things are wrong with people. When they're possessed, for example—though the angels could hide from me, or I'd have realized much sooner that Sam was only Sam. In any case, I can see it even before the infected start showing symptoms, hours before they flip.

This woman had already flipped. The infection floated in the air around her like a fog. And her eyes were narrowing at me. She could tell I wasn't just a guy, though she clearly didn't know what to make of me. It made sense, if this was before Dean went to Hell and the Host was permitted to return to Earth—not that I’m a typical angel these days anyway. I didn't understand why she wasn't raving and throwing herself at us, but she was a croat regardless.

I pulled my gaze away from her and made a show of reluctance, looking down at the floor. I'm still no good at lying, but I do better if I'm not looking straight at anyone, and it wasn't like this Dean knew my tells. “I used to be a soldier,” I said to the linoleum, skirting the truth as closely as I dared. “We weren't exactly official. We got sent in when there was an outbreak. I know all this because I lost friends to it.” Risa. Matt and Smitty and Francine. Yeager (who’d been minutes from flipping when Dean shot him). And that was just in the last twenty-four hours.

“That's crap,” the dark-skinned man said. “You were a soldier? Where'd you serve?”

“Lots of different places,” I said, grinning at him to hide irritation. “Does it really matter? I know a few things that can help you, no matter where I learned them, OK?”

“How do we know you're not one of them?” he asked stubbornly. Dean and Sam were watching us with interest; Dr. Lee looked perturbed. The croat was pretending to be frightened.

“You want to check my blood? If I'm a croat, there'll be sulfur in it.”

“It can't be that,” Dr. Lee said. Everyone looked at her, and she shook her head. “While you were out,” she said to Sam. “I examined Eric's body, Tanner's body. He had an elevated lymphocyte count, like someone fighting off an infection, and a weird residue in his blood, and if I didn't know better I'd swear it was sulfur.” She looked cautiously hopeful. “Whatever it really is, it might give us a way to check.”

“It doesn't show up till they flip,” I said, hating to crush her. “But maybe we should all get checked, just in case? Or lock ourselves in separate rooms for a few hours and then get checked. It takes four, maybe five hours.”

The croat was looking more and more pissed off under her fake fear. I had no idea what to say to convince Sam and Dean she was infected; they had no reason to trust my word on it. “I think you’re one of them,” she declared, with a hysterical note in her voice. Dr. Lee laid a reassuring hand on her arm and said, “Pam, just calm down. He’s not suggesting we shoot anyone, OK?”

“He’s with them, and they shot Mr. Tanner!” Pam waved a hand at Sam and Dean.

I was opening my mouth to reply when yet another woman burst out of the door behind the two civilians. This one was middle-aged and looked like a housewife, but she was infected too; she hit Dr. Lee hard and they both went over. Pam shrieked and jumped back.

The next several seconds went in the weird not-really-slow motion of fights. Dean, who was closest, grabbed the older Croat’s arm and yanked her up off the doctor the instant before her teeth connected. She snarled and twisted in his grip, her free hand coming up to claw at his face, and he dodged the blow by less than an inch.

Sam and I were both moving by then. He pulled his gun, the Taurus he favored, but the croat was struggling too hard for him to get a clean shot.

I drew my knife again as I went, wishing in the faint way I always did that I could just call it to my hand. The croat was focused on Dean, who looked a little startled at her strength. I stepped up behind her, clapped my left hand down on her shoulder for leverage and control, and slammed the blade into the knot of tendon at the base of her skull.

The blow was a little off-center and scraped bone, but it did the job. She went limp, dead even as her legs gave out, her collapse catching Dean off-guard enough that he almost followed her down. I let the momentum of her fall pull her off the knife and took a step back.

“Don't touch the blood,” I said, into the ringing silence that followed. “That's how it spreads, through the blood.” For a few more seconds no one said anything. They all alternated between staring at me and staring at the body, even Pam, though she seemed more angry than shocked. Dr. Lee just looked appalled; the dark-skinned man was shading quickly into outright hostility.

Dean and Sam shared a look I couldn't decipher, and then Dean spoke with false brightness. “OK, I like the lock ourselves in separate rooms plan. In a couple hours when we’re sure no one else is gonna Hulk out on us, we can work on getting the hell out of Dodge.”

I insisted on donning gloves to move the croat’s body; it didn’t matter for me, of course, but that was not a discussion I wanted to have and the place was a doctor’s office so latex gloves were easy. Dr. Lee actually backed me on that one, though she kept glancing at me like I was an unexploded bomb. The remaining croat continued to not attack anyone, though she put on a show of disgust when I cleaned my knife on the dead woman’s clothes before sheathing it. The dark-skinned man, who I discovered was called Mark, watched me narrowly the whole time. As he and Dr. Lee and Pam stepped into their chosen rooms I saw Dean and Sam in low-voiced conference. I didn’t stare; I had other concerns.

The solution was a locked cabinet and the key that I discovered dangling from a magnet stuck to the underside of Dr. Lee’s desk. My hands were faintly shaking as I fit the key into the cabinet’s catch and swung the door open to reveal shelves of bottled pills. The selection was limited and there wasn’t much of any one thing, but the relief was overwhelming and I had to prop myself up for a few seconds. As I straightened and reached for a bottle of Oxy—best to start with the basics—Dean said from behind me, “Stealing drugs? Classy.”

I made myself not pause, twisting the cap off. “We’ve got a town full of croats, oh Fearless Leader, I don’t think anyone’s gonna arrest me.” I pulled the cotton out of the bottle, shook two pills into my palm, and swallowed them dry. Only then did I turn enough to see Dean’s face, which was covered with confusion. I realized what I’d called him (Dean busting my ass about my pills set off some ingrained reflexes) and hastened to cover it. “Look, I have chronic pain, OK? I don’t know where my meds are; I lost my pack before I ran into Sam.”

Dean didn’t reply for a second, and when he did he said, “Dude, do you know me from somewhere?”

I tucked the Oxy bottle into my pocket, where it made a comforting weight, and turned back to the cabinet, combing over the contents for a few moments to think. Finally, right before Dean asked again, I said, “Sort of.”

“Sort of,” Dean repeated, and great, now he sounded suspicious. This at least was an emotion I knew how to deal with in him.

“You’re…well, OK, you might not think I’m crazy,” I said, picking up a few other bottles and stowing them. “I have dreams, Dean. About you and Sam. I know a lot about both of you, but no, we have never met.” I wanted to laugh at how true that was; I had never met this Dean, this before-Hell Dean who hadn’t spent ten years with Alastair guiding his every move. I hated lying to him, but there’d be time for full disclosure about the future when we were out of this town.

I knew the rustle was him drawing his gun again and taking a step away from me, to be out of easy lunging range, but I didn’t look at him until he growled, “Christo,” so he could see that my eyes didn’t flick black.

“I’m not a demon,” I said, and kept my hands still and where he could see them. “You’re Dean Winchester, and you save people. Your brother was at Stanford until his girlfriend Jessica was killed by the same yellow-eyed thing that killed your mother when Sam was a baby. Your father died sometime in the last year. I’m sorry if this is strange for you, Dean, but I can’t help it.”

Dean’s expression was hard and angry, a combination that was weirdly comforting in its familiarity. “You’re a psychic?” he demanded. “You’re too old to be—” and he cut off.

Like Sam, I finished silently, and shook my head. “I don’t know what I am,” aside from fallen. “I just know what I know.” Dean's gun didn't waver, but his face did; I could read the uncertainty in the way I didn't recognize his expression at all. My Dean could be wrong, but he was never uncertain, at least not after Sam said yes. It had been more than two years since I'd seen Dean anything but determined and focused and sure. “Look—there are things I'm not telling you, but I will. Once we're away from this town, I'll tell you everything I can.” And that was when I realized.

If I told them everything, we could save Sam. If Sam lived, Dean wouldn't make his deal. He wouldn't go to Hell. He wouldn't break the first seal, so Sam wouldn't get the opportunity to break the last, and Lucifer would never rise and the Apocalypse would never start—and I wanted that to be the reason I felt suddenly lightheaded, but it wasn't.

I could save Dean from Hell.

Alastair would never touch him. He would never be offered the knife.

I could save him before he ever entered the Pit, before he was tormented for decades; he would not need to be raised from Perdition because he'd never go there in the first place.

I sat down on the floor, a barely-controlled collapse, and leaned my head back. The edge of a shelf dug into my scalp, and I didn't care in the least. Dean watched me for a silent moment, but he didn't track me with the gun. Finally he asked, “Cas, are you OK?”

I smiled at him. “Never better,” I said sincerely. He looked dubious, so I continued, “Just the Oxy kicking in. We should go lock ourselves up.”

He hesitated a moment, then tucked his gun away. “OK,” he said, and this time when he offered me a hand I took it. He helped me to my feet; I was so distracted by the feeling of his skin against mine that I forgot not to stare at him. “This time you’re stoned,” he said, not quite smiling. He still didn’t trust me, not the way he trusted Sam (the way he would have trusted me, years in the future), but he was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and that was enough for the time being.

It wasn’t just the first warm hints of the OxyContin that made my chest ease. I remembered Hell, better than I wanted to—of all the angelic memories to retain in perfect, bloody detail, why those?—and I remembered Dean, his soul dimmed with the tendrils of demonic black twisting through it. And I was going to spare him that.

“This isn’t stoned,” I protested mildly. I could have made a smart remark. Any other time I would have. But not just then.

“Looks like it to me,” Dean said.

“No, I just realized…I can’t explain it right now, but I just realized something good,” I said, still smiling. “Dean—”

I honestly don't know what else I was going to say, so it was just as well that someone started pounding on the front door of the clinic before I had to find out. It was muffled by two sets of doors; we might well not have heard it if we'd been in our isolation rooms. But Dean caught it, and he went back to being all business in a moment. “Let me in!” a man's voice called. “Please, hey, open up!”

I looked at Dean to see what he wanted to do, and discovered he was already on his way to the door. “Get Sam,” he threw over his shoulder as he went. I turned in the direction of Sam's room, but he didn't need to be told; he must have heard the calling as well. We both followed Dean towards the front of the clinic.

By the time we got there, Dean had the door open and was yanking a young man through. The kid was tallish, blond, with a scar on his temple that didn't detract from raw-boned good looks. But there was a problem.

He was possessed.

“Well the hits just keep coming,” I said, disgusted, and the demon's gaze landed on me. Like the croat, he could tell I wasn't normal. The smoke of the demon beneath the skin seethed restlessly, wary.

“What do you mean, Cas?” Dean said over his shoulder. The demon was leaning on him in a way guaranteed to inhibit his mobility if a fight broke out.

“He's got a wound,” I said. “He might be infected too, we're gonna have to get him a room of his own.” There was blood on the young man’s sturdy pants, staining his calf.

“Infected?” the demon asked. “What are you talking about?”

Mark chose that moment to make an appearance from the clinic, exclaiming, “Duane! Where you been?” The doctor and the croat hovered on the other side of the interior door as our little procession limped towards it.

“On a fishing trip up by Roslyn. I came back this afternoon,” the demon said. He sounded really convincingly distressed, I had to give him that, but he kept watching me even as we walked. “I…I saw Roger McGill being dragged out of his house by people we know! They started cutting him with knives! I ran, I've been hiding in the woods ever since. Has anybody seen my mom and dad?”

“Awkward,” Dean said under his breath, and Sam grimaced.

We got the demon settled on a stool in one of the exam rooms and Dr. Lee bent over his leg. I faded carefully out of the room and hurried over to the doctor's desk again. She had the usual litter of pens and pencils in a cup, but when I slid the top drawer open I hit paydirt, in the form of a Sharpie.

There's a reason Bobby had had the more complex devil's trap drawn on his ceiling; it's harder to break and holds more powerful demons. But the quick version works quite well for the lower ranks, which I thought this demon was, so I sketched as fast as I could.

I had one more sigil left to draw when the exam room door opened again and Dean came striding out. He was clearly looking for me, and nearly tripped in his surprise when he saw me crouching on the floor. “Dude,” he began, and I met his eyes, one finger over my lips. After a moment he nodded. “You gotta stay with the rest of us,” he went on, just a little too loud. “If we're not gonna be staying apart, we need to keep our eyes on each other.”

I finished my last sigil and stood, capping the marker again to slip it into my pocket next to the OxyContin. “Sorry,” I said. “Just a little crowded in there.”

“Yeah, I'll wait out here with you,” Dean said, moving away from the door. He beckoned me to join him and we both leaned on one of the desks, side by side so we could watch the exam room. It felt familiar.

“OK, what's the deal?” Dean asked, low-voiced. “You think we've got a demon?”

“The new guy, Duane,” I agreed.

“And you know this how?” Dean shot me a sideways glance.

I blew out a frustrated breath. “I can see it, Dean,” I said.

Castiel in profile against a background of glass-fronted cabinets

He thought it over for a second. “Uh-huh. OK. Let's say I believe that.”

“Well, it's easy to test,” I said. “When they come out, if he walks through the trap I'm wrong, and no one gets hurt. If he gets stuck in it, I'm right and we can exorcise him.” Dean shrugged in a way that meant the cost was low enough that he was willing to go along with my plan. “Thing is, Duane...isn't our only problem. The nurse, Pam, she's a croat.” Beside me Dean tensed.

“You're saying she's infected,” he said.

“I'm saying she's flipped. She's been a croat since I laid eyes on her. That's why I suggested testing everyone's blood.”

Dean took his attention away from the exam room door to look me up and down. “You know all this sounds crazy,” he said. “I'll buy you know about this Croatoan thing, but you can see when people are infected? That's one hell of a superpower.”

Compared to what I used to be able to do, it was nothing at all. I laughed and said, “Let's just wait and see what happens when Duane comes out.”

For a second Dean was quiet. “I got reason to think you're right about Duane,” he said. “So OK. We'll wait and see.”

We waited. Dean watched the door, but I could tell he was keeping some of his attention for me. This Dean was so different from my Dean, but I could read him just as well—better, even, because this Dean was so much less guarded than mine had been by the end. He was wary of me, yes, but inclined to believe me. I turned over my memories, trying to tease out anything that could help us here, but all I could recall was Dean's short summary of the events when Croatoan had appeared again. Sam and I ran into it once, I remembered. It makes people into fast zombies. They all disappeared after a while—too bad that's not happening now, huh? Sam was immune. He hadn't mentioned anything about a possessed man, implying he hadn't known of Duane's affliction; perhaps the demon was here to observe the action of the virus.

Out of absent habit I patted at my pockets. The pocket with the pill bottles rattled, at least, which was comforting. And then, in the tiny, useless interior pocket I never used, my fingers encountered something, a hard lump. It was walnut-sized, maybe, but through the fabric of the pocket it felt spiky. I paused for long enough that Dean glanced at me curiously before I stuck a careful finger into the pocket to encounter smooth metal.

I stopped myself before I pulled it out, because I really didn’t think Dean would react well to seeing his amulet in my hands. He’d lent it to me, two and a half years in his future, five years in my past; when I couldn’t fly anymore to search for my Father I tried to give it back but he wouldn’t take it. (I should have known then that he had given up on Sam, even though that was a long time before Sam said yes to Lucifer.) That amulet was the only thing I managed to keep through my fall, transferring it from pocket to backpack to footlocker. Even Jimmy Novak’s trenchcoat had fallen to expediency, but the amulet I preserved as a reminder of a time when Dean trusted me enough to trust me with his most precious possession. Last I knew it was in my cabin, still in the footlocker. I’d thought about taking it with me on that last run, but…when Dean gave it to me, he said not to lose it. Letting it sit on my forgotten corpse felt like losing it.

But now it was here, and I had no idea how or why.

I was spared thinking about it by everyone else emerging from the exam room. “—way of knowing in advance,” Dr. Lee was saying. “Beverly’s blood was fine when I first looked at it. It looks like he was right.” She nodded at me. “The residue doesn’t show up until the person changes.” Duane was in the lead, with Sam and Mark pointedly side-by-side behind him. So both of them ran into him when he hit the edge of the devil’s trap and couldn’t go any further. I pushed myself away from the desk so I was standing straight.

Duane looked at the floor as Sam and Mark sorted themselves out, and I saw the snarl spread over his face. Beside me, Dean nodded and called, “Christo.” Sam’s head snapped around in surprise as Duane’s eyes flicked black all over, and then Sam threw himself out of the trap, yanking Mark with him.

For a second everyone stood frozen. Sam and Dean were watching Duane, who was glaring at me. But I resisted the urge to stare back, instead keeping my attention on Pam, so I saw it when she launched herself at Sam. Reaching for a gun I didn’t have slowed me for a second, and then I dove for her, cursing.

Behind me Dean barked his brother’s name. I missed my grab for the croat by inches and she barreled into Sam, knocking him over. She had something bright in her hand, a scalpel I thought, and I caught a glimpse of blood running down her wrist. She was slashing at Sam even as they fell; when they hit the floor it was with her bloody hand pressed over the junction of Sam’s neck and shoulder. He threw her off, grunting with the effort, as I recovered my balance and turned. Pam went sprawling at my feet and I kicked the hand that held the scalpel; the blade skittered away. Sam twisted and drew his gun as Dean leveled his 1911. The shots were almost simultaneous. Pam jerked and collapsed, halfway through trying to shove herself up again.

Dean took a long careful step, his face set, until he was standing directly over the Croat, and shot her again, in the head this time. Sam clicked the Taurus's safety on, set the gun on the floor, and shoved it towards me. I met his eyes, perplexed, and he said hoarsely, “She bled on me.” Dean froze in the midst of holstering his gun. “I'm infected,” Sam went on, pulling his shirt collar away from a slash on his neck. It was bleeding, and the bloody print of Pam's hand was smeared over it. “So I guess I just need time to say my goodbyes.”

“Oh, kid,” Mark said. He actually sounded sympathetic, if a little numb. Dr. Lee pressed a hand over her mouth and groped her way to a chair to fall into it.

I picked up the Sam's gun. “You're not infected, Sam,” I said. Sam and Dean fixed me with identical looks of incredulous hope. Dr. Lee drew a breath to speak, but Duane's voice cut in before she could.

“OK, I have got to know,” the demon said. His eyes were still black, as if he didn't see the point of hiding, and he was actually leaning on the barrier that held him in the trap, a bizarre effect indeed; it looked like he was resting on empty air. “What is your deal, buddy? Because I have to tell you, you're a little more on the ball than Abbott and Costello here.”

I studied him, feeling the faint nausea that always came from watching a demon roil under the surface of a stolen body. It hadn't made me sick when I was an angel, of course. Then I'd felt disgust, but it was an intellectual thing and all but subsumed in the urge to smite. I forced a careless grin. “I'm just a guy,” I said. “I know a few tricks, that's all. Not that I had to use any on you. You just walked into it.” I made an expansive gesture that was meant to convey just walking into a trap, and the demon glared.

Demons hate it when you're snarky at them. It's like they think they have a monopoly or something.

The demon opened his mouth. I felt a physical desire to go and lay my hand on him, to burn him out, but my Grace had lost the strength for that even before it deserted me entirely. But fortunately, I had an alternative. “Ol sonuf voresagi, goho yad balt,” I said, and the demon jerked and fell to one knee with a grunt. “Karem, adapehaat,” and the demon shuddered, its grip on its host failing—I taught everyone in camp the Enochian because it was so much faster than the Latin exorcism. “Oksex doaipe yayad!” The smoke poured from Duane’s mouth and swirled in the air for just a moment before it vanished, and Duane collapsed.

I was getting used to shocked silences. This one was broken by Dr. Lee. “What in the ever-loving fuck was that?” she demanded. Suddenly I was tired, and trudged to the other desk to sit down, setting Sam’s gun on a pile of file folders. I didn't put my feet up, but only because it would have been too much effort.

“A demon,” Dean said at last. “It was a demon, and he just exorcised it.” He eyed me speculatively. “You're a hunter, aren't you?”

I shrugged. “Close enough.” Dean drew breath to continue—no doubt some version of And what the hell language was that?— but he was interrupted.

“A demon,” Dr. Lee said flatly. “A demon?” She kept looking between me and Dean and Sam as if she expected one of us to admit we were joking.

“Yes,” Sam said. He was still sitting on the floor, but he'd taken his ruined overshirt off to press it over his wound. As he spoke he began to get slowly to his feet. “Really a demon. And the stuff in the virus victims' blood really is sulfur.”

“This is nuts,” Mark said. “That's Duane Tanner, I've known him all his life.”

“It's Duane Tanner now,” I said. “Yesterday it was probably Duane Tanner. A few minutes ago? Demon.” Duane himself picked that moment to groan and try to sit up. He wasn't doing a very good job of it, which was not surprising; being possessed is draining. “Oh God, I feel like crap,” Duane muttered, as Mark hurried to his side.

“You'll be OK,” Dean said. He didn't sound like he cared much, one way or the other, and the callousness of it made me shiver. That was too much like my Dean. I knew it was just that he was frightened for Sam, but I hated it anyway. “Assuming we all survive the zombies.” Mark, Duane and Dr. Lee stared at him, and he shrugged. “What else you want to call them?” he asked, in a tone that suggested he was only being practical.

“We always called them croats,” I put in, just to be contrary. Dean frowned at me, and I was almost puzzled before I remembered this Dean still bothered to care about being needled.

“Speaking of, of croats,” Dr. Lee said, “shouldn’t we be worried about him turning into one?” She gestured at Sam, who was still holding his shirt to his neck. He winced. “You’re the one who said it spreads through blood.”

“Sam’s not infected.” I was kind of hoping the baldness of the statement would carry some weight, but I wasn’t surprised when she looked skeptical and said, “One more time: how can you possibly know that?”

“I can just tell,” I said. “I can’t really explain how.” Or, well, I could, but it would just convince her I was insane. She might buy demons and croats, having seen them, but I had a feeling time-traveling fallen angel from the apocalyptic future would be a tougher sell. “None of us are infected. We just have to wait until we can make a break for it.”

“The bridge is out,” Dean said. “Or at least there are zombies with guns guarding it.”

“So we go out on foot,” I said. “You can always come back for your precious car later.” Sam’s forehead furrowed at that, and I realized it had been too teasing for someone who’d met Dean less than an hour ago. Dean stared at me for a second before visibly deciding to just let that go for now.

Dr. Lee shook her head. She sounded almost as tired as I felt when she said, “I’m sorry, but some random vagrant’s word is not good enough for me. If Sam’s infected, I can’t let him leave. This…whatever it is, I can’t let it spread further than it has already.”

Dean turned on her, clearly working up to fury, but Sam held out a pacifying hand. “No, Dean, she’s right. We have to be sure. I say we go back to the original plan, wait it out for a few hours. No harm done, right? We can all get some rest.” He offered his brother a shaky smile. “We just have to be sure.” He didn’t add that he had no reason to trust the random vagrant either, and I was obscurely thankful for that. Sam always was the tactful one, when he wasn’t angry.

There wasn’t much to hint at the depth of Sam’s capacity for anger just now, though that capacity was a great deal of what had made him Lucifer’s vessel. And I never knew Sam as a mortal; when he and Dean separated I was still an angel. My fall had begun, but it was not yet far enough advanced to really understand the many ways, good and bad, that humans could feel.

“OK, look,” I said, to break the moment. “I haven’t eaten all day, so if anyone’s got a candy bar or something that’d be great.”

As it turned out, Dr. Lee had some leftover Chinese in the clinic’s tiny break room and was willing to donate it. Sam went to shut himself in an exam room again while I heated up beef with broccoli and shrimp fried rice. The microwave nearly stumped me; it wasn’t the same model as Bobby’s had been, and we didn’t spare our limited electricity for mere cooking at Chitaqua. I figured it out moments before Dean wandered in, playing casual, to find out what I was doing. I leaned against the wall and watched the plate revolve, ridiculously pleased with myself for having remembered to take the food out of the cardboard containers with their wire handles. You can’t put metal in the microwave, dude, it’ll blow it up. I’d have happily eaten it cold, but it seemed churlish to refuse to take advantage of the modern amenities. Dean propped himself on the wall on the other side of the little table and watched me watch my dinner.

“You’re sure Sam doesn’t have it?” Dean asked abruptly, as the countdown blinked its way past thirty seconds.

“Positive,” I said. “He’s fine. He can’t catch it.” My toe tapped restlessly on the tile. The smell of hot food was maddeningly good.

Dean’s eyebrows quirked up and I had to fight down a twitch. My Dean didn’t do that anymore. Even the past Dean Zachariah sent to torment me had spent most of his time angry or morose or appalled, that latter mostly at me. I wondered if I could possibly find Zachariah’s vessel and scare him out of agreeing to house my erstwhile superior. Uriel’s too, for that matter. Not that it would matter if we kept Sam from dying.

Then it occurred to me that there was one vessel I could find unerringly, even now, and I was so engrossed in the possibilities that I almost missed it when Dean said, “I guess there are always some people who’re immune to anything.”

“What? No,” I said. The microwave beeped and I lunged for it, stabbing the door release with hasty fingers. The plate was hot enough to burn but it was only a few feet to the table. “No, Sam’s immune because of the blood.” I let the plate clatter onto the table and dropped into the uncomfortable chair. Dean was staring at me again, but his questions were going to have to wait because I could not remember the last time I'd had beef that wasn't dried. I stabbed two pieces of meat and a stalk of broccoli and shoved the forkful into my mouth.

It was not, in fact, better than sex. But it was pretty damn good. I rolled my eyes in reaction, and Dean hesitated for the barest second, his mouth open to demand what I knew about Sam. In someone else I might have thought I was imagining that pause, but not in Dean. Hell, I knew his expressions better than I knew my own. Then he got back to business.

“Because of what blood?” he asked, clearly suppressing the urge to shake me. I stopped mid-chew, surprised, and he made a get-on-with-it gesture. I chewed and swallowed my mouthful as quickly as I could.

“You don’t know about that yet? What’s the date, anyway?”

“Eighth of December, 2006,” he replied with heavy patience.

“Damn. OK, there’s a thing with Sam. I’ll fill you in, I promise, but I’d rather wait till I can tell you both at once.”

Dean put his hands down on the table in fists and said tightly, “How about you tell me right the hell now, buddy? If there’s something wrong with my brother—”

“Dean.” Wonder of wonders, he stopped talking. “Sam is not in danger right now. I swear. Well, aside from the croats.” I desperately hoped things were still happening close enough to the way they had originally that the croats would be vanishing soon.

I scooped some fried rice into my mouth as Dean regarded me thoughtfully. He was still keyed up, set off by the mere possibility of a threat to Sam, and it was kind of throwing me; even when I first knew him, Dean had not been quite this protective. I had never understood how Dean had come to sell his soul to Hell for Sam’s sake, but watching him now it made more sense. “Look, don’t worry,” I said with my mouth still half full. Dean didn’t look reassured. I gestured at my plate and said, “This is pretty good for small-town Chinese.”

Dean was quiet for long enough that I was afraid he wasn't going to accept the blatant subject change, but then he sighed and sat back a bit in his chair. “It smells OK,” he said.

“Hard to screw up beef with broccoli. It's not a hit-or-miss like General Tso's.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dean said. “With that you're always rollin' the dice.”

“I got spoiled, too,” I said around another mouthful. “First time I had it, it was spectacular. It was this little town in Maine, Waterville of all damn places. But the takeout Chinese was great.”

“What were you doing in Maine?”

“Something really, really stupid,” I said cheerfully, and waved my fork. Summoning an archangel could wait—forever, as far as I was concerned. “So it's the night before, right, and my friend finds out I think I'm not gonna make it through the next day. He asks me what I plan to do with my last night on Earth, and I say I just thought I'd sit here quietly.” I made my voice sound more like it had then, a little slower, more measured. “Well, he wasn't having any of that. He's all, What about booze? Women? And...he knew me pretty well by then and he figured out I was a virgin.”

Dean blinked and looked me up and down incredulously. “Yeah...when was this?”

“'Bout five years ago,” I said, and he choked on, apparently, thin air. “Doesn't matter,” I continued. “So he decides that what he really needs to do is take me to a whorehouse. Which Waterville also has, in addition to great Chinese. We go to this place. You have to understand, I had no clue. I mean I actually used the phrase den of iniquity.” Dean let out a startled chuckle, the sound of it like a knife to my gut. The last time Dean had laughed, my God. I forced my voice to stay casual. “So one of the girls comes up to the table where we're drinking our overpriced beers. She was calling herself Chastity, which, you know, actually pretty funny. He practically had to shove me at her, gives me some money and tells me not to 'order off the menu', and I had no idea what that meant but we go off to her room. And then...sometimes I get flashes about people.” I didn't any more, but I had then, which was close enough. “And we're standing there in her cheap little room, and she's sorta trying to take my tie off, and I tell her that it wasn't her fault her father ran away from her family.”

Dean laughed again, louder this time, and my heart clenched in my chest like a fist. “Did you get thrown out?”

“Not exactly—we ran first,” I said, smiling at him because I was afraid of what my face would do otherwise. “We went and got Chinese food and took it back to where we were staying. Got about three bites into the General Tso's before...well.”

“Before what?” Dean prompted, and I let my smile turn into a grin. “Let's just say he made sure I wasn't gonna die a virgin.”

The next few seconds were frankly fascinating. Dean's face went from slight confusion to understanding to speculation at a rate I was pretty sure no one else (except Sam) would have been able to register. Still, his voice held nothing but mild curiosity when he said, “I thought the Army didn't like that kind of stuff.”

“We weren't in the Army, and besides they would've had to find out.” If I hadn't already been anathema to the Host, they would have shunned me had they known, but not for having sex with a man so much as for having sex. The fact that both our bodies had the same genitalia would have mattered not at all; Heaven is utterly indifferent to sexual orientation no matter what the Baptists say. But it’s very concerned about angels fraternizing with the mud monkeys.

Dean thought that over for a second. “Hope you had a good time.”

I grinned wider. “Oh, he was very skilled.” And I had been in no way prepared. Angels feel physical sensations, as a rule, only when they choose to; I had had absolutely no context that would have allowed me to understand what my body (at the time I still thought of it as my vessel) was feeling. There had been several points when I'd honestly thought I was dying. Those memories were as vivid as Hell, if less well-organized. I could replay Dean's voice at will, the way he'd murmured Just let go, Cas, it'll be OK. I got you.

It had been a long time since he'd said that. These days he barely spoke when we fucked. And I would never hear him say anything again, because on the extraordinarily slim chance that he hadn't been dead already when whatever happened to me happened, my Dean was most certainly beyond my reach. If I had my way, he'd never really exist at all.

I must have been quiet for too long, because Dean—this Dean, now Dean, before-Hell Dean—said softly, “Doesn't look like it's that great a memory.”

“The memory's fine,” I said, shorter than I intended, and he nodded as if I had confirmed something.

“When did he die?”


“That's not a simple question,” I said. “He...lost a lot. It changed him.”

Dean looked at the table, his eyes hooded, and said, “I know a lot of people like that. Kind of goes with my line of work.” He smiled, but it was a small and bitter thing. “First one was my dad.” He paused, and I picked up my cooling plate and leaned back in my chair. “Anyway, you don't strike me as a tie kind of guy,” Dean said. Apparently it was his turn to blatantly change the subject.

I made a questioning eyebrow at him and he waved a hand up and down. “You said the hooker was trying to take your tie off. Having a tough time picturing you with one on.”

“Oh, yeah. Used to wear a suit practically 24-7,” I said, collecting another forkful of the fried rice. “Tell you what, the number of times I got tied up with that tie, it's a miracle the damn thing stayed in one piece.” An assisted miracle, in fact.

“Kinky,” Dean said, smirking, and a memory hit me like lightning; he'd said that, in precisely the same tone, the first time he noticed I liked it when he ordered me around in bed. That was back when he still had a sense of humor.

I was saved from trying to think of a response by Mark's voice, calling, “Hey—you guys need to see this.” Dean and I exchanged glances and got up. I took my plate with me, because there was still food on it, and the primary thing I’d learned about food in my time as a mortal was that you didn’t waste it.

As we emerged from the break room Sam was coming from his room as well. He had put a bandage over his cut, with remarkable neatness given where it was located. Sam had always been that kind of guy.

“What's up?” Dean asked.

“I went to check out the situation outside, just looked out the window. There were, I dunno, five or six people standing around?” Mark said. “All watching the building, pretty clear they were all turned. Except I looked away and looked back and they were all gone. Too fast to have walked. But they're still gone. I stood there for five minutes and nothing moved.”

The six of us exchanged looks for a second, me trying to conceal cautious optimism. Maybe all the croats were gone after all. They'd gotten whatever information they wanted, or maybe the loss of the demon informant had made them abort the test. We could get the surviving civilians out, and then I could tell Dean and Sam about the future.

“Are you sure?” Dr. Lee asked Mark, and he shrugged.

“No, but I'm hoping. If there aren't any left outside, maybe there aren't any at the bridge either. We can drive outta here.” He paused, and met Sam's eyes. “And you're still here, so I guess your buddy was right about you not being one of 'em.”

“My car's right outside,” said Dr. Lee. Dean nodded. “Ours too.”

“We should go pick up my truck,” Mark said.

From there it took moments to make our plans. We exited the clinic on high alert, Dean and Sam with guns drawn and Mark carrying his shotgun, and went to Dr. Lee's car. She and Mark and Duane got in it, and paced me and Dean and Sam back to the Impala. Dean looked mildly surprised when I climbed into the back seat without comment, but didn't say anything about it, which was good; I was busy trying not to hyperventilate. I read once that smell is the sense that most vividly recalls memories to mind, and the scent of the Impala was burned into my brain like the list of the prophets. As soon as the door opened I was practically assaulted by memories of sitting in this car while Dean drove. I had ridden in it a few times when I was an angel, but once I couldn't fly any longer I became very familiar with it. Dean taught me to drive in it in a series of mall parking lots, late at night. I'd slept in it, eaten in it, had sex in it, spent endless hours in it driving from here to there.

Eventually I'd even learned to sleep through the rattling whenever Dean turned the heat on.

We trailed Dr. Lee to Mark's house, where he went inside to pack a bag. The rest of us got out of our cars and stood uneasily in the street.

“We'll go check the bridge,” Dean offered. “If it's still guarded, we can try to get the cars out another way, I guess. It'll only take us a few minutes to go take a look.” We hadn't seen anyone during the short drive, though the brothers had kept their guns ready to hand.

“If it's open, just keep going,” Dr. Lee said. “We'll be OK to get out.”

Dean and Sam exchanged a dubious look, and Sam said, “We don't want to leave you here.”

“Mark has his gun,” Duane said. “Got another one in the house, too, and I know how to shoot. If there aren't any bad guys in town anymore, we're OK, and if there are you're coming back anyway.” He moved a half-step closer to Dr. Lee, and I realized what was happening; they were uneasy with us because we were outsiders. I couldn't blame them for the reaction; from what I'd gathered, Dean and Sam had killed at least two of the townsfolk, and I'd killed another.

After several minutes of argument, which continued even after Mark emerged from his house, Dean finally agreed. He wasn't happy about it, but it was clear the natives of River Grove wanted to see the last of us as quickly as possible. And there was still no sign of any remaining croats.

The three of us got back in the car as Dr. Lee and Mark formed up their tiny caravan to head for Duane's house to collect some of his things. We drove towards the bridge; they headed in the opposite direction, turned a corner and were gone.

No one spoke until we got near the bridge. “Around this curve is where they had their roadblock set up,” Dean said tightly. He slowed, and we went around at a crawl. There wasn't anyone there. He sped up until he was moving at the speed limit (which was to say, very slowly for him), and in a few moments we were at the bridge and over it. I watched the tension in Dean’s shoulders ease a notch as the Impala’s wheels moved off the bridge and onto regular pavement, and Sam broke into a smile. He half-turned in his seat to address me. “So where are we dropping you, Cas?” All Sam knew was that Dean had offered to give me a ride out of town.

Dean said tightly, “We’re not. At least not until Cas here tells us a few things.”

“What? Dean—”

“No, Sam, it’s fine,” I said. “But I think we should find a place to stop for the night. Some of this stuff is startling.”

“OK,” Sam said slowly, glancing from me to his brother and back. “Sounds like you two know something I don’t.”

“Cas,” Dean announced, “has dreams. About us.”

Sam went still for a long second. “Dreams,” he repeated. “Dreams like…”

“No, actually. It isn’t really dreams.” Dean’s eyes flicked up to glare at me in the rear-view mirror and I hurried on to forestall his objection. “I’m sorry, Dean, but it was easier to say that than try to get into how I really know what I know. We didn’t have enough privacy then.”

“Then how about you get into it now,” Dean said, in a perfectly flat voice that I knew far too well. Interesting that he did it even this early; I’d always kind of thought that voice was a product of the Apocalypse.

“Are you sure you want me to do this while you’re driving?” I tried. He glanced at me in the mirror again and I shrugged. “OK, fine. If I understand correctly, my line is Come with me if you want to live.” I paused. “I’m from the future.”

At first neither of them spoke, but I could see enough of Dean’s expression to realize he didn’t believe me, and Sam looked frankly incredulous. “Right,” Dean said heavily. “I’ve seen that one and you don’t look like Arnie.”

“He does kinda look like Reese,” Sam said. He was still turned in his seat, and he moved his hand from the seat-back down to where I couldn’t see it. Closer to a weapon, in case I turned out to be dangerous after all.

“Is he the good guy? You never did show me those movies.”

Dean’s hands twisted on the steering wheel. “You keep talking like you know me. Know us. So, what, we’re friends in the future?”

I sat back in my seat. “That…that’s not a simple question,” I said, and watched until I saw him get it. “The story I told you, that was five years ago for me. For you, it’s about three years in the future—a little less.”

“You’re saying you’re from 2014,” Sam said. He sounded extremely skeptical, and I couldn’t blame him.

“October second,” I agreed.

They thought that over briefly. “So how did you get here?” Sam asked.

I tipped my head back, looking out the rear window at the stars visible through the patchy clouds. “I have no idea. I woke up in the middle of the street maybe a minute before you ran into me.” The list of things that could have done that was very, very short, and I couldn’t think of a being on it that would have any interest in saving me. Unless it was Lucifer, trying to punish me by making me live through his triumph again, but if so why had he sent me back to before he was out of his cage? (He had been so angry with me when I’d refused to help him. I’ll die first, I said, and he replied, I suppose you will, and smiled while his Grace crackled with fury.) “I was…there was a fight. It was a trap—the place should have been crawling with croats, and it was once we were too far in to escape. Everyone was dead or dying. I passed out, and when I woke up I was here. I’m still not sure this isn’t what I’m dreaming while I bleed to death.”

“So you know all this stuff about Croatoan because…” Sam trailed off, looking appalled.

“Because where I came from, it’s taken over the world,” I confirmed. I was so fucking tired, and it wasn’t the usual tired of watching the world end while Dean died by inches. “Look, it’s a long story, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell it while we’re on the road. I swear to you I’m not trying to be cryptic, here, but some of this stuff is gonna freak you out and I don’t want to die if Dean drives into a tree.”

“Cas,” Dean began, warning clear in his tone, but Sam overrode him. “Dean, come on. We can wait an hour.” I gave the younger Winchester a grateful look.

“Get a room at the first motel you see,” I said. “Once we’re there you can, I don’t know, handcuff me to the bed till I talk.”

“Don’t think I won’t,” Dean muttered. Kinky, I thought, but all things considered it was probably best I didn’t say it.

After that I got as comfortable as I could in the back seat and dozed off. I wasn’t properly asleep, but I couldn’t make sense of Sam and Dean’s low voices in the front and my sense of time lurched erratically; it might have been five minutes later or several hours when the comforting rumble of the Impala’s engine cut off and Sam said my name. I struggled back to full awareness with some effort and climbed out of the car.

Sam and Dean pulled their duffel bags out of the trunk and I trailed them into the room, which had both a kitchenette and a tiny seating area with a couch. Dean dropped his bag on the bed nearest the door and started rummaging through it; after a second he came up with a pair of handcuffs. “OK, Cas, you gotta hit the head?”

“Seriously?” Sam asked. I just rolled my eyes.

“I’m good for now,” I said. “You’re lucky these beds have headboards.”

Dean jangled the cuffs meaningfully. I sat on the other bed and held out my left hand so he could snap the bracelet around it. He threaded the other one around one of the uprights and clicked it shut. “Now you're going to talk,” he said briskly, and sat on the other bed with a bounce and an expression of expectant attention. Sam pulled over one of the kitchenette chairs and leaned back in it with his feet on the edge of Dean's bed. I took a second to arrange myself against the headboard, my free hand on the back of my neck and my legs crossed at the ankles, and drew a deep breath.

“The entity you call Yellow Eyes is the demon Azazel,” I began. “In 1973, he killed your father and made a deal with your mother for John's return.”

I sketched out the details of Mary Winchester's deal, and why Azazel had wanted access to Sam's nursery. At that Sam looked sick; Dean was quietly furious. I told them about Samuel Colt's gigantic devil's trap and the gun that was the key. I told them that Azazel was planning to open the gate to Hell at the center of the trap, and how he would take Sam and the other special children to Cold Oak to fight each other.

“One of them is a boy named Jake. He's the one who stabs Sam.”

Dean held up a hand. “Wait. Stabs Sam? When is this supposed to happen again?”

“I don't know for certain. You make your deal on May second, so it's a few days before that. Do you know about the crossroads demons yet?”

“A deal—I make a crossroads deal?” Dean said. I nodded. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“Because it's the only way to get Sam back,” I said, as gently as I could manage. “Jake stabs him to death, Dean.”

Sam drew a sharp breath that wasn't quite a gasp, and Dean turned to him. “Come on, Sam, are we buying this?”

I sighed and said, “Look, just let me finish, OK? There'll be time for believing me later.” Dean hesitated, then nodded. “You figure out where the devil’s gate is in time to get to it, but Jake opens it anyway. Demons escape, hundreds of them, but so does your father.” At that, Dean froze where he sat and I cocked my head at him curiously. Sam got out of his chair in a hurry and went to sit next to his brother, one hand on Dean's shoulder. After a second Dean collected himself, but he sounded winded when he asked, “My dad gets out of Hell?”


“Oh man,” Dean said. “Oh, God.”

“Dean,” Sam began, but Dean got to his feet and took a few steps away. “Just give me a second, Sam,” he said roughly. He was deliberately standing so that neither of us could see his face. He stayed that way for most of a minute, his hands in fists at his sides. Sam didn’t seem to be quite as stunned, but then he hadn’t been the one John condemned himself for.

When Dean turned, his eyes were bright with tears he was barely holding back. Sam and I both carefully ignored it.

“Azazel comes to the opening of the gate to gloat.” I let myself smile, though I was sure it wasn’t a pretty expression. “Putting himself near the Colt, well, it turns out bad for him.”

Sam leaned forward where he sat, his face suddenly intent. “We get him. You mean we get him.”

“Dean shoots him,” I said. This time it was Dean who sat and put a reassuring hand on his brother’s back and Sam’s turn to look overwhelmed. “Your father moves on, since he’s free to. And after that…after that doesn’t matter, because we’re going to change it.” Both of them looked at me, protest forming on their faces. “We have to let the gate open or your father can’t escape. But that is all that has to happen. I know where the special kids will be taken; we can save Sam and Dean won’t have to make a deal.” I rubbed my chest absently and fished in my pocket for the pill bottle. Dean and Sam watched me with identical looks of skepticism as I tapped a single pill out.

“OK, look, Cas,” Sam said, clearly searching for a phrasing that wouldn’t offend. “This is a little much to deal with.”

“You mean you think I’m nuts,” I said, and shrugged as I tossed the pill into my mouth. The bitter coating made me grimace. “That’s OK. I know a couple of things you can check out, if that’ll convince you. I’m not asking for your faith yet, but Sam, Dean…” I took a deep breath. Sincerity was not something I did much anymore; cynicism and snark were so much easier. But for this, I needed all the sincerity I could muster. I could hear my voice changing, falling into its old cadences. “If you don’t believe anything else about me, believe this: I want to help. I watched the world end once because I waited too long to do the right thing. I will not do that twice. Before I go through it again I’ll—”

I stopped, closed my mouth, opened it again. “You’ll what?” Dean asked.

“I’ll eat a bullet,” I said, hearing the words as if I hadn’t known I was going to say them. I didn’t want to die—but I wanted to watch a repeat of Dean’s slow destruction even less.

They didn’t say anything. Really, what do you say to that?

Finally, Sam said, “You’re not going to tell us that story right now, are you?”

“Yeah, no. It’s not gonna happen, no reason to worry about it.”

“Why do I get the feeling this ain’t gonna be as easy as you want us to think, Cas?” Dean said sharply.

I could not help it; I laughed in his face. “Who said anything about easy, Dean? Simple, sure, we just need to keep Sam alive. But this isn't just changing the past, it's changing destiny.” The only reason I had any hope was because of Zachariah; by sending Dean from 2009 to my future, he’d rendered it…invalid, and me a variable capable of making changes that would stick. I couldn’t understand time travel anymore, not really, but some concepts were still within my grasp, and that was one. “It isn't going to be easy. You two are important to some very powerful beings, and they will do anything they can to make sure you play your parts.” I tried to run my hands through my hair and my left came up short against the handcuff. I'd almost forgotten it was there. “Will you take this damn thing off me? I want to take a shower.”

There was a brief pause, and then Sam said, “Sure.” Dean's expression was annoyed, but he didn't protest as Sam dug a handcuff key out of his own duffel and unlocked me. “You want to wash your stuff?” Sam asked. “We're about due for a laundry run, but Dean's got a pair of sweatpants that you can wear to sleep in.” He smiled a little. “I'd lend you something of mine but I think my stuff would fall right off you.”

“Sounds great,” I said, and I even meant it. I pulled my boots off and stood, dropping my jacket on the bed, while Dean pulled the pants out of his bag. He handed them to me without a word and I nodded in return.

In the bathroom I locked the door behind me and started the water running as I stripped. Dean liked lukewarm showers, but I always turned mine up as hot as whatever motel we were in could provide, until motels became a thing of the past. This place had the thermostat set pretty high, and even decent water pressure, and I stood under the spray motionless for at least five minutes before I realized I was crying.

It wasn't something I'd done often. Angels don't cry, and once I was mortal I preferred to laugh at everything. (It pissed Dean off, which was kind of the point; at least when he was pissed he was reacting.) But I stood in the little motel bathtub, hot water pounding on my face, and cried.

After a while I had to lean on the wall, cheap white tile slick under my hands. Then that wasn't enough so I sat and drew up my knees and buried my face in my hands while the water pounded on the top of my head. Dean was dead, I knew he was dead, and at the same time he was here, and all I had to do was make sure that this Dean, in all his flawed perfection, never became my Dean. All I had to do was defy the plans of Heaven and Hell at once—me, Cas, the useless, drugged-out, sex-addled fuckup, who spent two months benched by mere broken bones. Who Dean couldn't rely on anymore, even though he did, and damn him for asking if I was coming, as if I'd have let him go on that last run alone.

Dean's last run, not mine, when it should have been both or neither. I had never intended to come back from that trip any more than Dean had; I knew what he was doing from the moment he told us his “plan”. He'd meant to kill his little brother, and then turn the Colt on himself. And if he had to spend my life, and Risa's life, and the lives of everyone we took, well, my Dean did what was necessary. I didn't even know if he'd gotten his shot, and I didn't care, because he was dead and I wasn't, he had died without me.

I didn't know if I could forgive him for that. Everything else, but not that.

I could feel my pulse pounding in my wrists and neck and face. I couldn’t get enough air. Dean called my name over and over and it had to be my imagination because he sounded concerned. I leaned on the side of the bathtub and pressed my face into the wall, beating my fist against the bottom of the tub until it began to feel bruised. My own voice rang in my ears, whining between sobs.

On the very fringes of my awareness, something splintered. I didn’t care. It could be croats or demons or Lucifer himself, so long as whatever it was killed me before I fucked things up again. “Jesus Christ,” Dean said in breathless shock at the disgusting spectacle I was presenting; I wanted to sit up, grin at him, provoke him until he pinned me to the wall, but I couldn’t and it didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t really Dean; he wasn't there, I just wanted him to be, and if he were there he wouldn't have time to wait around for me to get my act together.

Except then a hand fell onto my shoulder. I jerked in surprise. “Cas,” Dean said, sounding very calm. “You're boiling yourself like a lobster, dude. You need to get out. OK?”

Frame 1: Looking past Dean at Cas sitting in the bathtub with his face hidden.  Frame 2: Cas looking up, startled, at a hand on his shoulder.

“Fuck off,” I snarled, or tried to, but the effect was ruined when my voice broke in the middle. The water ran into my eyes and I screwed them tight shut. I couldn't look at him.

“You can't sit in the bathtub all night. Sam's gonna be back with food soon and he'll need to take a shower too. Maybe not so hot, though, it's like July in Mississippi in here.” I heard him move, and the squeak of metal on metal, and the water cut off. The sound of my panting echoed off the tiles, almost covering Dean shifting again.

“C'mon, Cas. At least put pants on, huh? You'll feel better.”

I choked on a laugh that hurt more than the tears had and opened my eyes to glare at him. “If you think pants are going to solve my problems,” I started, but the look on his face was too much. He was worried about me. Trying to hide it, because my Father forbid Dean Winchester care about anyone who wasn't Sam, but worried.

About me.

I closed my eyes again and slumped against the wall, trying to at least get control of my breathing. He let me for a little while, quiet, but as soon as my breaths started to even out Dean said, “OK. Now you're gonna get up and dry off and put the damn pants on. Got it?”

“Yes,” I said, an automatic response, and then I was stuck with it.

Dean pulled a towel off the rack for me while I climbed to my feet, feeling like I'd been beaten all over. He handed me the terrycloth over his shoulder and edged out of the bathroom with his back carefully turned while I dried off. My boxers were just as threadbare as they'd been when I took them off, but clean enough to be wearable, so I put them back on and pulled Dean's sweatpants over them. I toweled my hair till it stopped actively dripping and stuffed the towel back into the rack. Then I leaned on the counter for a second, head bowed. Soldier up, Cas, I thought again, bleakly. I could do this. I had to.

When I came out of the bathroom Dean was sitting at the kitchenette table, elaborately pretending to be interested in something on Sam's laptop. “Feeling better?” he asked, and then looked at me and stopped cold, staring at my chest. I glanced down but didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

“What?” I asked.

Dean waved a hand at me. “What's that? A ward or something?”

“Oh,” I said, padding over to the other chair. “No, this is banishes...well, beings you will hopefully never meet.”

Dean raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That doesn't explain why someone carved it into your chest, Cas.”

“It has to be drawn in blood.” He just stared at me, and I sighed. “They had you—him—future you. There were five of them guarding you, and I knew going in I couldn't get them all. I couldn't think of a better way to carry the sigil with me. One of my team had to do the cutting, the angle was all wrong to do it myself. I killed one and the rest ganged up on me. Once they were all close enough I hit the sigil and poof. Worked like a charm.” Of course I'd gone poof too, and spent six days in a Louisiana hospital in a coma so deep they thought I was brain-dead, but Dean didn't need to know that. My team had been Bobby. He'd carved the sigil with a steady hand and a grimace of distaste.

Waking up to discover I couldn't fly had been unpleasant, but at least Dean had been happy to hear from me when I managed to get my hands on a phone.

“Your guys let you go in alone?” Dean sounded deeply disapproving.

“I had the best shot at it,” I said, shrugging. The only shot; even in his prime and walking, Bobby Singer could never have been anything but a very small speed bump for an angel in hand-to-hand.

“They still could’ve given you some backup.”

“They did. They went in and got you out once I dealt with the guards.” I leaned back in the chair and contemplated putting my feet on the table, but there wasn’t much room for it. “You got a drink in this place?”

Dean gave me a level stare and said, “Oxy and liquor ain’t exactly the breakfast of champions.”

“And if I were trying to be a champion that would be relevant,” I said, faking ease. “Plus? Not breakfast time. Unless Sam’s bringing back pancakes.”

“He’s not,” Dean said. “Look, it's none of my business what you drink—”

“Damn right it isn’t.”

“—but if we’re gonna work together I have to be able to count on you,” Dean went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Bad enough you’re on heavy pain meds. You can’t have our backs if you’re wasted.”

I’ve got no use for guys I can’t trust to have my back. I couldn’t count how many times he’d said that to me, one way or another. I tsked and snapped my fingers. “Didn't realize you were planning on killing something tonight! My bad. Maybe I should get dressed.”

“Don't be a dick,” Dean said, scowling. “You know what I mean.”

I stood, a little more abruptly that I meant to, and stretched. “I'm gonna turn in,” I said.

“Cas, dammit. Sam'll be back with the food any minute.” Dean's eyes flicked over my torso. “You look like you could use it.”

“Yeah, you know, short rations in the zombie apocalypse,” I said brightly. As if on cue, the doorknob rattled and Sam pushed into the room, carrying a pizza box in one hand and a bag with a couple of two-liters in the other. He looked between me and Dean uncertainly; the tension in the room was all but palpable.

“Uh...Cas, I hope you like pepperoni and sausage?” Sam said. “Or you can have some from my half.”

I dropped back into my chair and smiled at Sam. “Thanks. So nice of you to take my preferences into account.”

He looked even more puzzled, but all he said was, “No problem.” Dean yanked the pizza box out of his brother's hand and slapped it onto the table as if it had offended him.

I ate two pieces of pizza, fending off Sam's conversational gambits as well as I could. Dean sulked. When I was done eating, feeling more full than I had in quite a while, I stripped the blanket off of the bed Dean had claimed—he protested, but it was halfhearted so I ignored it—and headed for the sofa.

“You can take the bed,” Sam offered.

“I'm the shortest,” I said, arranging the blanket. “This couch would kill you, not much better for Dean. Besides—I've had worse.” The thing actually wasn't as comfortable as my bed (I invested a lot of effort in that bed), but I cocooned myself in the blanket and it was comfortable enough.

I pulled a fold over my head to block the light and fell asleep almost instantly, real deep sleep. If I dreamed, I don't remember. That's about all I hope for anymore.

I woke in the morning to an empty room and for a second I almost panicked. I clawed one arm free of my blanket before I focused on Sam's laptop, still sitting on the kitchenette table.

Sam came back, bearing coffee and pastries, while I was in the bathroom rediscovering the joys of modern plumbing. When I came out he handed me a cup and watched without comment while I doctored it with all the sugar he'd brought—I don't like coffee very much, really, but I’ve endured more unpleasantness for a useful chemical. As I stirred it occurred to me that I'd neglected to snag any uppers from the doctor's office, having concentrated on painkillers, so I'd have to rely on caffeine pills and coffee for the foreseeable future. Not a fatal mistake, but annoying.

Ever concerned with his manners, Sam waited until I'd drunk some of the coffee before he spoke. “Dean's doing the laundry,” he said, settling himself in one of the kitchenette chairs. “He'll be a few hours. I was thinking you might run over things for me while he's gone. You said you knew some things we could check, to verify your story.”

I sat back on the couch, the blanket draped over my shoulders, and wrapped my hands around the comforting heat of the coffee cup. “Making sure I’m not crazy after all,” I said, and grinned when Sam looked uncomfortable. “It’s fine, Sam. I’m well aware I’m improbable.” He shrugged and said, “You kind of are. I mean, no offense.”

“None taken, I assure you. I assume you called Bobby.” Bobby was another person I hadn’t failed yet. Him and Ellen and Joanna; I was even pretty sure the Roadhouse was still standing.

Sam took a second to process that. “Last night,” he said. “You really do know us.”

I shrugged one shoulder and drank more of my coffee. “I know Dean better, but yes.  Bobby's never heard of me, of course.”

Sam studied me for long enough that most people would have been uncomfortable with it. I don’t do uncomfortable, at least not over eye contact, so I just worked on the coffee and let him stare. “I get the feeling there’s a lot you haven’t told us,” he said when he was bored with that. “Or rather, that you’re not planning to tell us.”

“You’re right,” I said affably. “There are a whole lot of things that you don’t need to know. They aren’t going to happen, they’d only make you unhappy to hear, and frankly I don’t want to think about them. So no, I’m not going to tell you.”

“Maybe you should let us decide what makes us unhappy,” Sam said, sounding a little sharp.

I sighed and swirled the coffee around in my cup. “OK, here’s one: did you know time in Hell runs a hundred times faster than it does here? So your father's been in Hell for...what, ten months? For him it's been a hundred years, give or take.” Sam paled; he and his father had never gotten along well, but they'd loved each other nonetheless. I almost felt bad about springing that piece of information on him. “If it becomes relevant, I’ll tell you. But not otherwise. Now do you want to take notes?”

Sam eyed me. I gazed back through the last wisps of steam from my cup. Finally he shrugged, though I could tell the argument wasn’t actually over. He’d bring it up again. Well, let him. I can be stubborn too.

I talked for nearly three hours, giving Sam everything I could remember of things that had happened to them, and would happen between now and the disaster at Cold Oak. Even when I was still an angel I hadn’t known everything, only those events that were directly relevant to Sam’s death and Dean’s deal, and much of what I did know I couldn’t explain—couldn’t even properly remember anymore, without my Grace to help me comprehend it. But for the first year or so after Lucifer rose, Dean had spent a lot of time talking about hunts he and Sam had taken as long as those hunts didn’t involve Azazel, or Lilith, or Lucifer.

Sam played me like I was a witness. I didn't mind; it drew out details I hadn't realized I still knew, and letting him pry and question every little thing helped make the story solidify in his mind. Every time he thought he caught a logical inconsistency that I was able to answer, it got him that much closer to believing me. Dean came back as we neared the end of the process; he dumped the bags of clean clothes and sat on the other end of the sofa to listen silently. I tried not to watch for his reactions but I kept being distracted.

Finally Sam’s fingers stilled on his keyboard. He stared at the screen like it was going to give him the answer to everything.

“I could still be crazy,” I said, and grinned at him when he looked at me sharply. “I’m not, but if a few more days of thinking it will make you feel better, be my guest.”

“Yeah, no,” Sam said. “You know too much about us. Time travel's still kind of hard to buy, but you have something going on.”

“Something creepy,” Dean said, in a tone of helpful explanation. He leaned back and draped his arm over the back of the couch. “So what now?” His fingers were inches from my shoulder.

“I think we should try tracking down the other kids like me,” Sam said. “We have some more names now, some better idea what to look for. We might actually be able to work up something useful.”

“Whoa, Sam, no,” Dean said. “I've been thinking about this, I think we should just lay low. You know? At least for a while. It'd be safer.”

“Safer?” Sam repeated incredulously. “Since when do we care about safe, Dean? This is our chance to get ahead of the bastard instead of playing catch-up!”

“This whole thing is spinning out of control. All right? You're immune to some weirdo demon virus, we've got Mr. Come-With-Me-If-You-Want-To-Live here telling us about the freakin' future, and I don't even know what the hell anymore.”

“Speaking of me,” I said, before Sam could reply, “I assume my clothes are clean?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, but he was still staring at his brother. “In the green bag.”

“Great.” I dug my clothes out and went into the bathroom to change. I had to lean on the door to keep it closed; Dean had splintered the latch breaking in the night before. So I caught snatches of the conversation (or argument) Sam and Dean were having, Sam advocating for trying to find and warn the rest of the special children and Dean stubbornly repeating that we needed to get under cover for a little while. I stayed in there as long as I reasonably could, but then I heard Dean say something about their father and decided I needed to be further away.

When I came out, Sam stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. They both stared at me. I grinned. “Thought I'd take a walk,” I said.

“Great idea,” Dean said tightly. “You got a watch? No, of course not. Just...give us an hour or so, OK? My brother and I need to talk.”

Sam pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and lobbed it to me. “We'll call you.” He didn't sound any happier. They both watched me in silence as I shrugged my jacket on and headed for the exit.

For just a moment I was tempted to lurk outside with my ear to the door, but I shook off the urge; my feelings about John Winchester were mixed, at best, and if they were going to discuss him I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear it. John had never meant to damage his sons, but he’d done it nonetheless. (I know something about deadbeat dads, Dean said, and tossed me the bottle of aspirin. He didn’t often mention his father to me, and even through my hangover I could tell the memory pained him.)

Outside it was only cool, the mild winter of the Pacific Northwest. Lacking the money to go in search of coffee, or anything stronger, I just wandered down to the end of the motel building; there was a collection of ancient picnic tables, their wood grey with age like the rafters of my cabin. I climbed onto one and arranged myself in lotus position, on the off-chance that meditation would help me decide what to do next.

It very rarely works that way, but I live in hope.

I did manage to actually meditate, which was nice, but when the shrill of Sam's phone startled me back to awareness I was no closer to a good plan. I had no idea how Azazel had stolen Sam to take him to Cold Oak, and thus no good strategy to prevent it; the best I was coming up with was locking Sam in Bobby's panic room for a few weeks, and I had a feeling Sam wouldn't appreciate that. I'd talk him into it if I didn't have a better idea by then.

“We're done,” Dean said when I answered the phone, and for a second I heard the words in another context entirely, until he continued, “You can come back.” He sounded unhappily triumphant, as if he'd made his point but not in a way he liked.

I was generally of the opinion that a victory was a victory, but Dean had always been a little more complex than that.

“Be right there,” I said, and a minute later knocked on the door, having neglected to take a key with me. It had been a long time since I had to worry about keys.

Sam opened the door for me, looking pissed and more than a little freaked out. Dean clapped his hands together and said, “OK! Who wants lunch?”

Sam made a face and muttered something about hollow legs, but nonetheless we went to lunch. The town, which I learned was called Sidewinder, had a diner I would have sworn I'd been in before; even the waitress seemed familiar. On the other hand, I ate at a lot of diners with Dean, before the concept of a restaurant vanished. It had been long enough since I was actually in one that my sense of familiarity could be way off.

The waitress in question was young, and cute if not stunning. Dean flirted with her relentlessly from the moment she came to the table. I tried not to care. He was just letting off the tension of his fight with Sam, and it wasn't like the two of us were remotely exclusive, and besides this was not a Dean I had any claim on. That much got me through ordering, at least. After that I just sort of gritted my teeth and talked as little as possible. Sam wasn’t contributing much to the conversation either, though, so it ended up being Dean monologuing about the food and occasionally trying to draw one or the other of us out.

Then we went back to the motel. Sam sat and sullenly flipped open his laptop; Dean turned on the TV and started browsing through channels in search of something to watch that he didn’t hate. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “Cas, come over here.” I drifted over until I could see the screen, on which a man was muttering “What the hell?” while he tried to start a stalled truck.

“You said you never saw this, right?”

“It doesn’t look familiar.” Wind blew, and electricity arced into the side of the vehicle.

“Great. They’re doing a marathon, but we only need to watch the first two. The third one sucks.”

On the television the man got out of his truck and ran, as another man, naked and heavily muscled, rose slowly from a crouch. “Sit down,” Dean demanded, and I did, carefully not right next to him.

I finally figured out what film we were watching about half an hour in, when Kyle Reese looked at Sarah Connor and said, “Come with me if you want to live.” I turned to stare at Dean and he smirked at me. “Sammy was right, you look way more like him than like Schwarzenegger,” he said.

“Thanks, I think,” I said.

“Don't mention it,” Dean said, still smirking.

“Yeah, I won't.”

That said, it was a pretty good movie, even with Dean next to me making fun of it—OK, especially with Dean making fun of it. Depressing, though; I wasn't in the mood for being told that I couldn't change the future. As the credits rolled and commercials played over them, I said, “So if I'm Reese, and Sam's John, I think that makes you Sarah.”

From his place at his computer, Sam choked on surprised laughter. Dean turned a wounded look on me that was only half-faked. “Come on!” he said. “Sam's way more of a girl than I am. I mean the hair alone.”

“Sam's the one we're going to save. That makes him John Connor.” At the word “save”, Dean winced, just barely. (Dad told me once I’d have to either save Sam or kill him. Guess we know which one it's gonna be, huh? He paused. I got a lead on the Colt. A good lead. I'm going tomorrow. A longer pause and then, You’d better stay here.) I ignored the look on his face and continued, “Sorry, Dean, but you're Sarah.”

For a second Dean looked mutinous, but then his expression shifted and he grinned. “Whatever. She killed the Terminator and in the second one she's a total badass. I could do worse.”

So we watched the second one, Sam unbending enough to put in the occasional comment of his own. I liked the ending much better, even with the Terminator being melted down. It allowed the possibility of change. No fate but what we make—that’s a message I can get behind, these days. Considering what fate did to the world, I have to say I don’t care for it.

When the second movie was over, Dean leaned back and craned his neck to address his brother. “Hey, what d’you say we go find a bar with a pool table?”

“I’m right in the middle of something, Dean, can you wait an hour?”

“It’s better to get going early if we’re gonna hustle, Sammy.”

“Don’t call me that,” Sam said, though it sounded automatic. “Take Cas. He can hold down the fort, right?” He glanced at me and I shrugged and nodded, trying not to smile. Dean turned and scanned me dubiously. “It’s easier with someone to be the sober guy,” Dean said, clearly still talking to Sam.

“Seriously, stuff to do here. We’ve got a couple days of cash yet if you don’t want to go alone,” Sam said. Dean sighed.

“No, fine, I’ll take Cas. I can hustle some small-towners by myself.”

“You did teach me how to do this,” I put in as Dean got to his feet. He stopped for a second and then sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Of course I did,” he said.

“There you go,” Sam said, still intent on his computer. “Go on. Call me when you find a place and if I get done early enough I’ll join you.”


Dean grumbled some more, but a few minutes later we set out. We could see neon from the room door and headed for it. As soon as we were inside I could see we'd hit paydirt; the place had three tables, none of which were in use. Dean went to the bar while I staked out a booth. He came back with beers and set them down with a flourish.

“OK, how do you want to play this?” he asked. I blinked in mild surprise before I realized—he was testing me.

“Drink a beer or two,” I said promptly. “Then play each other. I'll go for the high end of mediocre and you play just well enough to beat me. Once we get some decent prospects in here, I'll get sick of being beaten and you can rope them in. Let me know if you need me to come be the sober one.”

Dean took a long pull from his beer. “If you're gonna do that, you have to actually be sober,” he said.

I rolled my eyes at him. “I know that. Don't worry. I know where my limits are.”

“Yeah, I'll bet.” He eyed me, and then shrugged. “We'll get some food, that'll help.”

We drank our beers and ate the onion rings Dean ordered. A pair of women—girls, really, barely old enough to get into the bar—had started playing casually and not very well at the far pool table, so Dean and I left the center one empty for our setup game.

It's a challenge, doing something you're good at but not as well as you could do it. And I am very good at pool; I learned the skill before I was fully fallen, and it stuck. It's not just a matter of failing to make the shots. You have to miss them in the same way that you would if you weren't as good as you are.

Dean let me break for the first game. Tempting as it was, I didn't just run the table; there'd be time for showing off later. Instead I just made my first two shots and muffed the easy third, making sure to give Dean a significant glance before I did. He cocked an eyebrow but bent to his own shot without comment.

Halfway through our third game, three guys wandered up to claim the middle pool table. One of them had his own cue in a case, and Dean and I shared a look that translated best to Yahtzee. Guys with their own cues either are very, very good...or just think they are, and I knew where my money would go if I had to bet. I missed another easy shot and muttered, “Fuck,” not quite under my breath. 

“Chill out, Cas,” Dean said easily. “It's just a game.”

I glared at him, backing away from the table, and said, “Screw you.” The three guys glanced at us and away. Dean took his next few shots rapidly and a little carelessly, making it look like one of them went in through sheer luck. As he sank the eight I huffed in exasperation and went to put my cue in the rack. “OK, I'm done having my ass kicked,” I said.

“Hey, it's not my fault you suck at this,” Dean said, in a tone that would have been sweet if not for the words. I shoved the cue into place with slightly more force than was necessary.

“I'm done,” I said shortly.

“Come on! I don't wanna play solo,” Dean protested.

“Well I don't want to play at all,” I said, and stomped over to our table. My half-finished beer was warm by then. I drank it anyway.

“Cas,” Dean began. One of the pool players overrode him.

“Wanna join us?” It was the guy with the cue. He sounded eager. Dean's lips quirked before he turned around.

From there it might as well have been scripted. Dean lost a game, then won one with a series of “lucky” shots. I could see Cue Guy getting more confident as Dean started putting on the first hints of a slur in his words—he wasn't drinking as much as he appeared to be.

“Good game,” Cue Guy said, which was bullshit. Dean shrugged, blatantly faking modesty. “You want to go again, make things a little more interesting this time?” Before replying Dean looked over at me and I shook my head, making the expression that belonged to phrases like Stop it or we will. Dean smirked at me and turned back to Cue Guy, who had one eyebrow hiked at the byplay.

“How interesting?”

“Well, I got a hundred bucks,” Cue Guy said.

Dean pretended to think it over before he grinned and said, “Sure.”

Cue Guy was just breaking when someone slid into the booth next to me. It was one of the girls from the far pool table. She was shortish and cute, with a pleasantly oval face and large green eyes that reminded me of Dean's. She set a shot on the table in front of me; I looked down at it and back at her inquiringly. She smiled and said, “Figured you deserved something for the evening's entertainment. I'd buy your buddy one too but he probably doesn't want to throw off his game.” She was speaking just loud enough for me to hear her over the buzz of conversation in the room.

“What entertainment would that be?”

She shrugged. “Watching Cliff get suckered,” she said casually.

“And you'd be OK with that?”

“Oh, you bet. Cliff's a jerk, he deserves it.” She picked up her own drink, which was violently pink and had an umbrella and a skewer of fruit in it and sugar crusted around the rim of the glass; I was mildly impressed that she’d talked the bartender of a place like this into making it for her. “Just drink it. I'm not gonna take it as confirmation if you'd rather I didn't.”

I considered only briefly before picking up the shot. It was whiskey—pretty good whiskey. It made me wonder if Chuck would find the stashed bottle I'd been saving for Dean's birthday, and then how long the camp would last, without Dean or me or Risa. I carefully stopped wondering.

“Thanks,” I said when the burn faded. “I'm Cas.”

“Angie,” she replied. “You two in town long?”

“Tonight, maybe tomorrow.” I didn't have any solid idea of how long Dean and Sam planned to stay here, but they'd want to find a new job sooner rather than later.

“Too bad,” Angie said, and leaned into my side. “Have to take my entertainment while I can get it, I guess.” We watched in companionable silence while Dean narrowly lost by screwing up a shot he should have made. “Nice one,” Angie murmured, and I nodded. Dean deliberately didn't look at me as he and Cliff negotiated a second game. I fidgeted and glared as my part required. They were well underway when Angie sat up, twisted on the bench seat, and said seriously, “How about I distract you so you don't notice till it's too late?” Her face was solemn but there was a hint of amusement around her eyes.

“That depends on how you were planning to distract me,” I said, with equal gravity. She put her hand on my shoulder.

“Is your friend gonna punch me if I kiss you?”

I laughed and said, “No.”

She cocked her head and said, “Huh. But you kind of wish he would, looks like.” I shrugged, because I was not going to get into that. She studied me for another second, and then said, “What the hell,” and leaned in.

Her lips were soft and tasted sweet, from her drink or her lip-color or both, and though the kiss was almost chaste she ran one hand under the hem of my shirt and skated her fingers over my ribs, finding the sensitive spot as if she knew it was there. I drew a sharp breath that wasn’t quite a gasp and wrapped one arm around her waist.

In truth, it hadn’t exactly been a long time, even by my standards. The arrival of past-Dean had disrupted my plans, that last day before we went to Jackson County, but my Dean had been spending more time than usual in my cabin the last few weeks. Even now, he always made sure I got off too, one of his few remaining points of honor. So it wasn’t like I was looking at any kind of long dry spell.

On the other hand I’d almost died since the last time I’d looked up to find Dean leaning silently in the doorway. And Angie was a very good kisser; it took some effort to pay enough attention to the pool players to catch it when Dean said loudly, “Come on, man, gimme a shot—double or nothing!”

I pulled away from Angie and scrambled over her out of the booth. She pouted convincingly. I got to Dean’s side in a couple of long steps and took him by the arm. “What are you doing?” I demanded, with my voice low enough for Cliff to believe I didn’t want him to hear it. “We don’t even have a room yet, dammit.”

“Cas, cut it out, I got this,” Dean said. The slur was much more evident now and he squinted at me as if he were having trouble focusing.

“For fuck’s sake, Dean, you’re weaving.” I looked at Cliff, who was wearing a lazy grin I took an instant dislike to. “Come on, don’t you think he’s a little out of it to be making bets?”

“Hey, it was his idea,” Cliff said. “And we already shook on it, so I’m afraid I’m gonna have to insist.” The grin had a nasty edge that made me think Angie was right—it wasn’t just that Cliff was willing to take Dean’s money, he was ready to enjoy it.

“Damn it,” I muttered. “Look, you’ve got, what, two hundred bucks already? I will buy you a drink, whatever, just let this go.”

Dean shook off my hold and said, too loud, “Screw off, Cas. Tell ya what, buddy, let’s go for five hundred.” As he spoke he fished cash out of his pocket and slapped it down on the table.

“Done,” Cliff said, and smirked at me.

I grabbed Dean again as he picked up his cue and wrenched it out of his hand. He met my eyes, startled and questioning, and I dropped a hint of a wink before I turned to face Cliff. “I’ll play,” I said.

“Huh? Cas, you can’t—”

I rounded on Dean and snarled, “You got us into this, now go sit down before you fall.” I pushed him in the direction of the booth and he went with it. He was dubious, I could see it in the set of his shoulders, but he was trusting me.

Cliff’s grin hadn’t dimmed; if anything he looked a little more pleased. But for form’s sake he protested, “Hey, I was playing with him.” It didn’t matter; he’d seen my dismal performance earlier. He was going to play me, he just had to pretend.

“He’s drunk off his ass,” I said. “I’ll play.” Cliff flicked his eyes over me contemptuously and shrugged.

“Guess it’s your money.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me see yours or this deal is off.” He rolled his eyes but extracted cash and set it on Dean’s.

“Whose break?” I asked.

Cliff laughed, low and snide, and said, “Mine, but what the hell. You can break.”

I nodded at him and racked the balls.

The break is the least predictable part of any pool game. This one was nearly perfect. I surveyed the lie of the balls and smiled, looked up to catch Cliff’s eyes and watched his confident expression waver. “The one,” I said. “In the side.” It was an easy shot, with a good setup for the two.

I ran through the low balls in order, calling each shot. By the time I was up to five, Cliff wasn’t smiling any more. I called the six and sank it. I was lining up for the seven when he said, “You bastards are hustling me.” I made my shot. The ball thunked solidly into the pocket.

Cas leaning over a pool table, grinning, while Dean watches from the background.

“Eight in the far corner,” I said, calmly, grinning at him. He glared. The shot was tricky; the side pocket would have been easier. So I was showing off a little. I bent and drew the cue back, and as I moved to make the shot one of Cliff’s friends clapped his hands sharply, trying to startle me.

I could’ve laughed. If only he knew. I could feel that the shot was good, sweet and perfect, as soon as I hit the ball, and the eight dropped into the pocket neatly. I straightened and turned, just in time to catch Cliff reaching for the pile of cash. I grabbed him by the wrist. “I think that’s mine,” I said, still grinning.

“The hell it is,” Cliff growled. “You hustled me.”

“That’s why you shouldn’t play pool with strangers,” I said sweetly. Cliff was fighting my grip and beginning to be confused about why he couldn’t break it. “You never know who’s going to have hidden talents.” With my free hand I gathered up the money and shoved it into my pocket. Cliff tried to twist away, but he didn't know what he was doing; it was trivial to shift until I could put pressure on a couple of the more delicate joints of his hand. His eyes widened and I smiled at him with more teeth than were strictly necessary. “Let it go,” I said gently.

Cliff's eyes flicked over my shoulder and back to my face. No one spoke for a long, tense second, the noise of the bar irrelevant to our little group. Finally, one of Cliff's friends spoke, sounding wary if not quite nervous. “Come on, man, he's right, you shoulda known better,” he said.

“See? Even your friend agrees with me,” I said. Cliff glanced behind me again, and I saw the fight go out of him.

“You better watch your back,” he said. He was trying for tough but not quite making it.

“Let me buy you a round,” I replied. I let go, careful not to twist his fingers painfully, and he snatched his hand away.

“Whatever,” he muttered with ill grace. I turned towards the bar and nearly ran into Dean, who’d come up behind me while I was dealing with Cliff. “Personal space,” I told him, straight-faced. “Look into it.”

Dean looked very confused. I laughed all the way to the bar, handed the bartender cash, and told him to give Cliff and his friends their drinks and keep the change. Then I got two shots, the best the guy had, and took them back to our table. Dean watched me all the way there, bemused and a little pissed off.

“You could've told me you were gonna play it like that,” he said as I set his drink down.

I shrugged. “Next time you'll know,” I said, and held my glass out in invitation; Dean hesitated for only a second before he picked his up and clinked it on mine. We drank, and this time I turned the shot glass down when it was empty. (I think I'm beginning to feel something, I said, and Ellen tried to mask her surprise. It would be most of a year later before I really got drunk.)

Dean leaned back and asked, “What was your friend's name?”

“Friend? Oh. Angie,” I said. “She was cute, wasn't she?” She and her friend were gone.

“Thought you, uh.” He clearly had no idea how to finish the sentence—this Dean was less closed-off than mine had been, but no more articulate when it came to anything that didn’t involve killing monsters.

“I like women,” I said, taking pity. “Not men so much. Except you.”

If I hadn't known to look for it, I wouldn't have seen the flash of surprise move over his face. I'd have bet all the money in my pocket that his next thought was, Me? Why me? I’d never once been able to answer that particular question in any way he understood, so I just pulled the cash out and slid it across the table. Dean's eyebrows rose. “Pretty sure I’m OK with you holding on to that till we get back to the room,” he said.

I shook my head and replied, “I'd really rather not.” I’d never gotten into the habit of thinking of money as important, so I tended to lose it. He shrugged and took the cash, stowing it in an interior pocket, and then leaned back in his seat.

“I guess I did teach you to hustle pool,” Dean said.

“Yep. I wasn't any good at it at first. I couldn't make it look natural when I was faking being bad.”

Dean snorted. “You got over that. I thought you really sucked when we were playing.”

I sketched a bow and he laughed. “I can count cards, too,” I said. “We made, oh, six hundred bucks at blackjack once, before the dealer caught on and the place threw us out.”

“You seem to have a lot of stories about us getting thrown out of places.”

“Just the two,” I said.

“OK, tell me one of the other ones.”

I thought about it for a few seconds. “Well, there was this one time when we were in New Mexico, and there were these girls, twins, their names were Rosa and Esmeralda...”

After that things got to be fun. Dean insisted on swapping me story for story, and though I'd heard most of them already it was interesting to get them again with less of a filter; these were the versions of Dean's stories he told when he had not spent forty years in Hell, and when he could mention Sam without bitterness coloring his tone. We ended up not leaving the bar until nearly closing (Cliff and his two buddies having slunk out some hours earlier); neither of us was exactly weaving, but we were also feeling no pain. The walk back to the motel was short enough that we weren’t fazed by the chilly air, cold enough that our breath fogged.

Dean kept his voice down as we entered, mindful of Sam's sleeping form. I sat on Dean's empty bed to take off my boots while he ducked into the bathroom; I had the laces untied and one boot off when I realized there was something wrong.

For a second I couldn't put my finger on it. I stopped moving, listening for whatever it was that had caught my attention, and when Dean shut off the sink and silence fell I got it.

I couldn't hear Sam breathing.

I stood and moved to his bedside, clicking on the lamp on the table. Better light made it immediately clear that the shape on the bed wasn't Sam; it was pillows and blankets and sheets, wadded up to resemble a body.

“Dean,” I said, sharp.

He emerged from the bathroom with gratifying speed, toothbrush in hand. As soon as he saw the bed he snarled, “Son of a bitch,” and came to stand beside me in a few quick strides. He yanked the top blanket back to reveal a note sitting on the pillow, weighed down by Sam's copy of the room key. Dean snatched the paper up.

Dean, it read. I’m not in trouble, but I’m going to get to the bottom of this. We can’t just let it go. I’ll call you in a couple days. I took the laptop, but there’s a thumb drive with all the current research in your bag. Take care. Sam

Dean crumpled the note in his fist and swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Goddammit,” he said. “I shoulda known he backed down too quick.” He pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial. I was close enough that I could hear it when the automated voice answered after half a ring; Sam had turned the phone off, if not removed the battery entirely. “I am gonna kick your ass when I catch up with you,” Dean growled after the beep, and hung up.

“It's possible he is in trouble,” I said. “Someone could've made him write that note.”

Dean shook his head and said, “If he had a gun to his head it would've been a few days, not a couple.” I nodded as he turned his attention back to his phone. He and I had had similar codes, when we'd been hunting together after he and Sam parted, though they had clearly not used the same words. He hesitated with his finger over the call button and then snapped the phone shut.

“Bobby'll be pissed if I call him this late,” Dean said reluctantly. “Sam left on his own. If I don't warn Bobby we're split up maybe Sam'll talk to him, let something slip.” He looked longingly at his duffel bag, but shook his head. “I try to drive like this I really will wrap my baby around a tree,” he said, and I thought he wasn't really talking to me anymore. “Don't know what he's driving or which way he went—hey, wait. Do you know where he went?” His gaze fixed on me with sudden hope, and I hated to crush it.

“This all happened before I met you, the first time,” I said. “You never told me about it.” And that, almost certainly, meant it had something to do with the demon blood. Sam had been talking about trying to contact the other special children.

“Well that’s useful,” Dean said, sounding like he wanted to be vicious but was too tired. “Fine. OK. You might as well take the other bed, get some sleep. We’ll ask around in the morning. Damn it.”

After that we didn’t say much; Dean threw me his spare sweatpants again without being asked, though he muttered something about getting me my own things. He went into the bathroom to change; I contented myself with rinsing my mouth at the kitchenette sink and swallowing a few mouthfuls of water along with one of my weaker painkillers. By the time Dean came out I was in bed. It was a little better than the couch, though still not as good as my bed had been. But at least I didn't have to worry about rolling off; Dean told me once that I'm an active sleeper. (Actually what he said was that I beat him up in my sleep and would I cut it the hell out. I told him I had no control over what I did while unconscious but we could sleep in separate beds if he preferred. He called me a smartass and let the matter drop.)

I fell asleep to the familiar sound of Dean's breathing. It was strange to be in the same room with him but not the same bed, but he was close enough to be comforting; I didn't expect bad dreams. That's what sucks about being human, I find: you can never be sure of your own mind. Being with Dean—with Dean as he was before Hell tried to destroy him—should have given me good dreams. Instead I fought and fought and couldn't reach him; sometimes my opponents were the hosts of Hell and sometimes they were croats and sometimes they were just monsters, but there were always too many of them and I never got any closer. He screamed for me, but in my dreams I can never save him.

My subconscious is not always subtle.

I pulled myself out of the dreams an hour or so after dawn, feeling physically rested but wrung out. Dean was still asleep, his face mashed into the pillow; it always amazed me he could breathe like that. I got dressed as quietly as I could and pulled some cash from our winnings, wrote a quick note and went in search of coffee.

When I got back, Dean was on his phone. “--me know if you hear from him, that's all,” he was saying as I pushed the door open. “Yeah. Yeah, I know, but he's my little brother.” He eyed me as I set his coffee down within easy reach and went on, “Hey, before we hang up, do you know a hunter named Cas?” He paused. “No, I dunno Cas what. He's an inch or two shorter than me, skinny, pale, dark hair and blue eyes.” Another pause while the person on the other end spoke. “We ran into him the other day. He seems to know his stuff but he's got a pretty wild story going and I just want to know if he's been around. You know more hunters than we do. Yeah. Yeah, sure, just a sec.” He held the phone out to me. “Here, she wants to see if she knows your voice.”

As I brought the phone to my ear, I could hear a woman's voice saying, “--really say all that while he's standing right there? Dean?” The voice was husky, smoky, and familiar. Ellen.

“Of course he did,” I said. “I'm sure you know Dean doesn't do tact.” Dean glared at me, but I ignored him.

There was a brief, awkward pause, and then she said, “Well, OK. I take it you're Cas.”


“Hi there, Cas, I'm Ellen. Say something else.”

“Like what?”

“I don't know, your life story,” she replied briskly.

“I think that would take longer than we have,” I said. “How about: Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus—”

Ellen chuckled. “All right, I think that'll do it. Give the phone back to Dean, willya?”

I did, and he put it back to his ear. “So? You don't. OK, no, that's good. Look, just...please let me know if you hear from Sammy. OK. Yeah, I'll give you a call. Thanks, Ellen.” He closed the phone. “Ellen doesn't know you, so that's a point in your favor. She knows most of the hunters, 'cept us until we wandered into her place. She owns a bar.”

“Yes, the Roadhouse, I know.” I sat and shoved the bag of doughnuts towards him. “I met Ellen and Joanna a few times. And I think I told Sam that the Roadhouse will come under attack in the next few months—were you here for that?”

“Missed it,” Dean said. “You got details on that? Ellen’s good people, so’s Jo.”

“Sam probably included it on the thumb drive,” I said.

Dean made a sour face at the reminder. “Great. OK. Well, we need to find somewhere to look at it, and you need some clothes, and we shouldn't hang around here anyway in case your pool buddy decides to grow a pair, so let's get packed up.”

It was mostly a matter of him packing, of course, since I could wear everything I owned. Dean had packing out down to a science, one of his father's many legacies; twenty minutes later we were shutting the door behind us, and that was with Dean having to get dressed. When I got back from running the key to the motel office Dean was already behind the wheel. He had his coffee in one hand and the doughnuts resting on the seat. I slid into the passenger seat with a feeling of déjà vu I somehow hadn't expected, though all I had to do was glance at Dean to ground myself. Still, when he told me to pick a tape I had to fight down a shiver.

We drove down out of the mountains and south; Dean was heading for Interstate 5. Since we had no idea which way Sam had gone, Dean intended to make for somewhere roughly central and wait for news. Not long after we crossed the border into California, though, he declared the need for a pit stop and took the next exit. I didn’t catch the name of the town, out of frankly not caring that much, but it was a decent-sized place. Dean put gas in the car, and then we went to lunch.

I didn’t actually need to scan the menu; there’d been a year or so between when I started needing to eat and when we stopped being able to find restaurants, and it wasn’t like there was much variety in what diners offered. But the experience of having choices again delighted me—I could pick something I wanted, rather than whatever had been salvaged on the latest supply run. Without Sam there, it was just like old times, and this time I wasn’t distracted by Dean flirting with the waitress. He didn’t say much at all, in fact, as he hadn’t in the car; I was pretty sure he was too busy worrying about Sam. He unbent enough to ask the waitress if there was a Goodwill in town, though, and when we were done eating we followed her directions rather than getting straight back on the highway.

Dean had taught me to shop for clothes just like he’d taught me to shoot and drive: quickly, efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. It took less than half an hour to find two pairs of jeans, several acceptable shirts, pajama pants, and a package each of socks and underwear, plus a duffel bag to carry everything in. We browsed through the limited selection of suits but nothing would’ve fit me so I didn’t try any on; apparently the men in this town, at least the ones who donated to Goodwill, ran to shorter than me. There was a blue tie on the rack that I put in my pile, though; it was the same shade as Jimmy’s had been, and it pleased my sense of closure. I was turning for the cash register, having reminded myself we actually needed to pay for things, when Dean said, “You should get a winter coat, too.”

“Oh. Right,” I said. “Maybe a hat.”

Dean shrugged and said, “Sure, if you want. But definitely a coat. You don’t wanna catch something.”

I didn’t mention that I never got sick; I was too busy fighting off the memory of Dean, before we realized that particular quirk of fallen angel physiology, telling me flatly that he wasn't going to deal with me getting pneumonia on top of everything else. And if I didn’t get sick, I did get cold, and disliked it, so a coat was a good idea; my jacket wasn't heavy enough for parts of the country that experienced real winter.

There wasn’t much in the way of men’s coats but I hit the jackpot anyway, a wool topcoat in charcoal grey that fit like it had been tailored to me and fell to my knees. As I settled it on my shoulders the feeling of a long coat, even a heavy one, was so familiar I had to stop and take a deep breath. Dean gave me a quizzical look, but limited his comment to, “Looks good on you. Let’s get out of here.”

We picked up a hat after all, and there was even a pair of leather gloves that fit. Then it was back to the car. I caught myself before offering to drive; Dean seemed to be assimilating the idea that I knew him a lot better than he knew me, but that was a far cry from letting me behind the wheel of his baby. (He'd locked the car up, when we climbed out of it the last time, and I didn't understand why until he tossed his keys from right hand to left to right again before winding up and throwing them out into the bushes. When he decided, later, to scavenge the doors for armor on another vehicle, we had to break a window to get in.) It might be that I'd be able to convince him if his itch to keep moving overpowered fatigue, but I wasn't going to push the point unless we had some pressing need to travel and he was completely out of it.

The second half of the day proceeded much like the first: lots of road, not much talking, and endless rock music from Dean's tapes. I got a few approving glances for knowing the words. Though some of it isn't to my taste, I do actually like most of Dean's music. It's hardly celestial choirs, but it's very human. Me being human myself these days, I can appreciate that.

We spent the night in northern Nevada in a town that nestled up to Route 80. Dean wasn't driving fast, though I had a feeling he might be making for Bobby's place in South Dakota. We didn't go out. I was OK with that. The next day was more driving, still east along 80, still slow but with more talking; Dean did his own version of Sam's interrogation, though he was less methodical about it and we often went off on tangents before winding around again—and I kept having to remind myself where, or when, I was and who I was talking to, which was surprisingly tiring. It was a gray day, and the clouds were low and threatening snow not long after dusk when Dean's phone rang. He broke off in the middle of a disquisition on the best burger he ever had (Delaware, and I’d turned my head so he wouldn’t see my expression at the thought of Zachariah’s green room) to answer it.

“Hello? …Hey, have you heard from Sam?” He paused for the other person to answer and annoyance flitted over his face. “Come on, Ellen, please—something bad could be going on here, and I swore I’d look after the kid.” Ellen spoke for several seconds. Dean broke into a smile, small but sincere. “Thanks. Yeah, I will. And Ellen, I owe you one. OK. Bye.” He closed his phone and said, in tones of deep satisfaction, “Lafayette, Indiana. We can get there by morning.”

“That’s a long drive for you to do by yourself,” I said cautiously.

“I got plenty of sleep last night,” he said. I could see the tension bleeding out of him at the relief of knowing where Sam was.

“You know, I have driven this car before.” I paused and thought about that. “Well, before for me anyway.”

Dean gave me an incredulous look that lasted long enough I would have objected had there been any taillights visible ahead of us. I shrugged at him finally and he turned his eyes back to the road. “Guess you and me were pretty tight,” he muttered.

“We were, for a while.” That was one way to describe the relationship, anyway. Desperate also worked, and only more so after Sam said yes.

“You said your friend lost a lot,” Dean said; he was tensing up again. “And your friend was me. So what happened?”

“Dean,” I said slowly, “I’m not sure you want to know this.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I do, but I think I need to.”

“It doesn't matter. We're changing it.”

Dean squeezed the steering wheel and said implacably, “I think it matters. So tell me what happened.” I hesitated long enough that he said, “Cas,” and that was kind of my last hope of avoiding the conversation. Now all I had to do was figure out what to tell him, without mentioning the angels. “In the summer of 2012, Sam went to Detroit on a job,” I said, though I actually didn't know exactly what had caused him to end up in the city; we never got that part of the story. “It turned out to be a trap and Sam...” I couldn't very well say Sam said yes without explaining what saying yes meant, and I didn't want to lie outright, but I didn't need to; Dean filled in the logical conclusion.

“Sam didn't make it,” he said tightly. “Why didn't I go with him?”

“You were hunting apart,” I said. True, if not exactly in the way Dean would take it. “There was an upswing in supernatural activity about that time, and two cars can cover more ground than one. A few months later, the Croatoan outbreaks started. And once that got going, everyone lost something.”

“What'd you lose?” Dean asked. I couldn't tell if it was genuine curiosity or trying to distract himself; either way it took too long to force myself to grin, my widest, least sincere grin.

“Take too long to list it all,” I said. My chest ached and I rubbed it absently. Dean's eyes flicked over to me and away.


Lafayette was not a very prepossessing town, in my opinion, and it had enough motels that I expected a long day. But we got lucky at our third stop; Dean was climbing out of the car to go check at the front office when I turned my head and caught a glimpse of Sam through a half-open curtain. “Dean,” I said, and jerked my head when he turned back to look at me.

“Thank God you’re OK,” Dean muttered. His relief was practically palpable. But after a second I saw Sam move and Dean broke into a grin. “Oh, you’re better than OK. Sam, you sly dog.” Dean had a slightly better angle and I had to lean to see what he was referring to.

Sam wasn’t alone; at first all I saw was a short, dark-haired female form, and for a wild moment I thought it was Ruby—impossible, of course, she hadn’t even escaped Hell for the first time yet. Then the woman turned and I could see her better. All she shared with Ruby’s stolen body was her build and hair color, but I still recognized her.

“That’s Ava Wilson,” I said. I was leaning close enough to Dean that I could feel his surprise. “She’s another of the special children—she's like Sam, Azazel fed her his blood. I didn’t know you met her so soon.” I knew she’d been dangerous, by the time Sam got to Cold Oak, but that was after months of killing to survive. Right now, she was probably a relatively ordinary young woman. She and Sam were leaning over something that sat on a table.

“What, you think Sam came here to meet her? This is about Yellow Eyes?”

I studied Sam, who was glancing at Ava now as she spoke. I couldn't make out what she was saying; I never picked up the trick of reading lips. “I don't know,” I replied. “I'd think so, but like I said, you never told—”

The shooter was close enough that the sound of the glass in Sam's window breaking was drowned under the crack of the shot itself. Dean and I both ducked, an instinct that John had instilled in him and I had learned through painful experience.

After a moment, Dean flung his door open. “Go get Sam out,” he barked over his shoulder at me, most of the way out of the car before I even began to reach for him. I wasted a good two seconds cursing him and then scrambled over the seat and out the driver's door myself; it was on the far side of the car from the direction of the shot. A glance showed me Dean, running for the building across the street that was the best candidate for the sniper’s position. “Goddammit, Dean,” I muttered. Of course he was heading straight for the shooter; this was not my Dean, who'd finally, finally been burned often enough by leaping before he looked that he sometimes took a second to think. And the shot had been meant for Sam.

There weren’t any more shots, which meant the odds were good the sniper was still focused on his scope, studying Sam’s room to see if he’d hit his target or lining up for another; likely he had no idea Dean was coming. In which case it would be perfectly safe for me to walk right up to Sam’s door. But breaking cover would leave me a sitting (walking?) duck if I was wrong. I turned and shuffled to the side so I could peer over the Impala’s trunk at the building.

Dean was out of sight, in search of a way onto the roof. My angle was bad, but the sniper wasn’t quite as good as he no doubt thought he was; I was pretty sure I could see the very end of the barrel of the rifle. He was just a little too close to the edge. I reached into the car and pulled out my hat, and waved it over the hood. The muzzle didn’t twitch. Good sign. I was just about to stand up when there was a surge of movement and the muzzle vanished. “Hah,” I said quietly. The movement had been the right color to be Dean, which meant the shooter was dealt with. I pulled the keys out of the ignition and shut the car door before heading for Sam’s room. Briskly, but not running; we’d done enough to attract attention. All the way there I waited for the skin-crawling feeling of someone drawing a bead on me, but it didn’t come. At the door I knocked and called, “Sam, it’s Cas.” The pause before Sam answered was long enough that I started to worry, but then Sam said, “Where’s Dean?”

“He went after the shooter,” I replied. “We should get out of here.” A moment later Sam opened the door, just far enough to let me get inside. “I have to pack,” he said. “Ava, this is Cas, he’s a friend.” Ava, who was standing carefully out of the line of sight from the window, turned her wide eyes on me. She was impressively calm, all things considered. I offered her a smile and she returned it tentatively.

Sam, meanwhile, was moving even as he spoke, packing his things with the same efficiency Dean used. I noticed that he was keeping an eye on me, and didn’t bother being insulted; from his point of view it was perfectly sensible to suspect me a little.

I went over to the window and edged an eye around the frame until I could see the building across the street. There was no sign of Dean, no movement at all. I must have made some noise because Sam said sharply, “What?”

“I don’t see Dean,” I said.

“OK, whoa, hold on a second,” Ava said. She took a step forward, threw a glance at the window, and retreated again. “Who’s Dean?”

“My brother,” Sam said as he slipped his laptop into its bag.

“And he just went after a guy with a sniper rifle? By himself?”

Sam and I exchanged glances. “Dean…used to be in the Army,” Sam said. “He can take care of himself.”

“I am so calling the cops,” she said.

“No!” Sam and I exclaimed in unison. Ava hesitated, her hand on her phone, and Sam added hastily, “The dreams and stuff? This is a little weird for the police, that’s all.”

“We should at least make sure Dean’s all right first,” I said. There still wasn’t any sign of activity on the roof, and it was beginning to worry me.

Ava sighed and said, “Fine. But don’t blame me if we get shot or something.”

Sam abandoned his packing and the three of us crossed the street. The shooter’s building was only two stories tall; between us it was simple to climb onto the flat roof. But there was no one up there.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t be talking to the cops?” Ava asked as we moved to the edge of the roof. She sounded plaintive and bewildered, and I felt bad for her.

“Trust me, that wouldn’t do much good,” Sam said, kneeling. He picked up something shiny and tossed it to me: a shell casing. I examined it.

“.223,” I said. “Subsonic?”

Sam nodded and replied, “Shooter must’ve put a suppressor on the rifle.”

“Dude. Who are you guys?” Ava asked.

Sam met my eyes for a second and shrugged. “Cas served with Dean, and our dad was in the Marines. You pick things up.” He got to his feet and pulled out his cell phone.

“Who are you calling?”

“Dean. He should be here,” Sam said. He hit the speed dial and waited, long enough that it was clear the call was going to voicemail. “Dean, it’s me—are you OK? Call me when you get this, or I’ll try again in half an hour.” He hung up, a deeply unhappy look on his face. “I should finish packing,” he said.


We were in the motel office returning Sam’s key when his phone rang. He smiled apologetically at the motel clerk and stabbed the answer button. “Dean!”

I could make out Dean’s voice, if not what he was saying, and I felt the least bit of tension go out of my shoulders. At least he was alive and talking.

“Yeah,” Sam said, continuing his transaction in pantomime. “Look, I’m in Indiana. Lafayette.” We’d had a brief discussion and decided it was better for Sam to play dumb in case someone was listening to Dean’s end of the call.

Dean spoke while Sam gave the clerk one last smile and turned away from the desk. He lowered his voice and we pushed out the office door. “Yeah, I’m sorry. But man, there’s someone after me.” He paused. “I don’t know, but we need to find out. Where are you?” He nodded, patting his pockets for a pen and a pad of the motel’s notepaper. “Sure, be there soon,” he said, and hung up.

Sam jotted something on the paper before he looked at me, his expression grim. “Someone’s got a gun on him,” he said. “He gave me a code word.”

“What?” Ava said. We crossed the parking lot, headed for the Impala. “You have code words for being kidnapped?” She shook her head. “I repeat: who are you guys?”

“It’s…hard to explain,” Sam said. We reached the car; I pulled the keys from my pocket and offered them to Sam.

“You’re some kind of, of secret agents or something, is that it?”

“Kind of?” Sam said. He unlocked the trunk and slung his duffel bag into it, and then turned to lean against the car. “Ava, look. You had your dreams, and you believed in them enough to come here. You have to have realized that's not all there is to it. There are a lot of things out there that most people don't believe in. with them.”

Ava shook her head sharply. “This is insane,” she said. Her tone suggested she’d said it before. Sam regarded her with some sympathy, but all he said was, “I think you need to go home.” She opened her mouth to protest, but Sam kept talking. “You need to get out of the line of fire, Ava—no one ever trained you for this kind of thing.”

And now I had a problem.

I had no solid idea of when Ava had disappeared, but it couldn’t be very long from now. Aside from wanting to save her, it could only be a good thing if she didn’t spend the next several months in Cold Oak, learning to control minor demons and developing a willingness to kill. I was very carefully believing that any changes I made would stick, because the other option was to eat a bullet.

But I didn’t know how to save her, not with any certainty, and it was possible that I could learn something about how Sam would be taken if I let Azazel have Ava. The Castiel Dean had first met would have done it, too. I would have done it. What really worried me was that I had no idea at all of how much I could change without drawing Heaven’s attention, though at least they weren’t monitoring constantly or someone would’ve noticed me by now; I was, after all, hanging out with the True Vessels.

“Leaving won't help, Sam,” I said reluctantly. They both turned to look at me. I returned Ava’s stare. “Things are coming to a head,” I told her. “You’re special, like Sam is special.” I flicked a glance at him to see if he’d picked up the implication; he looked grim. “The safest thing to do would be to run—preferably from here, without going home first. But if you can’t do that, there are some precautions you should take. Sam, give me a piece of that paper.” He did, without a word, and I fished out my Sharpie from the doctor’s office to draw the simple devil’s trap. As I sketched I kept talking; Ava was watching me with her eyes huge and round. “Draw this near the doors; on the bottom of a rug will do, or on the ceiling. If anyone comes to your house who can’t step out of the circle, call Sam. Line the windowsills with salt, any salt, even table salt will work. That way at least your home will be safe.”

“Safe from what?” Ava demanded. Sam and I shared a look. I finished the drawing and held the paper out to her, but she didn’t take it. “Look, you’re walking into my vision here! This is how you die.” And that, at least, explained how she’d run into Sam; she’d had one of the prophetic dreams and believed it enough to follow up.

Sam grimaced as he shut the trunk, but by the time he turned to Ava he’d conjured a smile. “Was Cas in your dream?” he asked. Ava shook her head. “Then things are different already. Ava, it’ll be fine. These visions can be changed, OK? They aren’t set in stone.” I was pretty sure the expression on his face was the one Dean referred to as Sam’s goddamn puppy dog eyes when he continued, “I have to do this—it’s my brother. I’ll have Cas to watch my back. But you shouldn’t get any closer to the guy with the gun than you already have.” Ava bit her lip.

“Please,” Sam said. She sighed.

“OK, but you have to be careful. I’m not kidding around here, Sam. I think there’s more than one wire, so look.”

Sam nodded. “I will. You too, OK? Draw this, for real.” He took the paper from me and presented it to her, and this time she took it. She looked down at the paper, then back up at Sam, and shook her head. “This really is insane,” she said. “I'm not special. I just had some weird dreams.”

Sam's smile twisted and he shrugged. “Just watch yourself,” he said. Ava nodded.

“You too. I...guess it was nice to meet you?”

Sam escorted Ava to her car, coaxed her into it, and sent her off; I leaned on the car and took a pill while I waited. When he got back I tilted my head at him and said, “Another wire?”

“Yeah,” Sam said, and sighed. “Apparently whoever’s got Dean has a grenade rigged up to a tripwire. Gotta give it points for originality, I guess.”

“Oh, that’s clever. You spot the first wire and feel smug about it, then the second one gets you.” It was the kind of gotcha we’d gotten good at in camp; croats weren’t smart enough to need that kind of measure, but fellow survivors were a different proposition altogether. Sam tossed me the keys so I could unlock my door.

“Yeah, I kind of hate it when the bad guys are clever,” Sam said sourly. I nodded.

Once we were both in the car I said, “We have to assume the kidnapper knows you’re coming in hot, but odds are he doesn’t even realize I exist. Or they, we should plan for they.”

“So first thing we do is a little recon,” Sam agreed. “You should probably do that. If you get spotted they’re less likely to recognize you.” For the rest of the short drive we tossed ideas back and forth. It wasn’t as smooth as planning with Dean, but Sam had a way of coming at things sideways that was enlightening.

We passed the address Dean had given Sam without slowing. The neighborhood was bad, most of the houses dilapidated and the yards unkempt—a lot more familiar than the well-maintained suburbia of River Grove. A hundred yards down, Sam pulled over and we got out. Sam opened the trunk and dug through the gun bag, pulling out his Taurus and loading it. He eyed me for a moment as he went through the motions and said, “You know guns?”

“Yeah,” I said. He jerked his chin at the bag and said, “Help yourself.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “You’ve had plenty of chance to kill me,” he said frankly, looking at me over his gun. I acknowledged the point and pulled the mouth of the bag open.

It seemed politic to pass over Dean’s favorite Colt 1911, but the gun next to it made me smirk—it was a Beretta, and I’d last seen it four days ago, falling from my hand as I passed out in the conviction I’d never wake up. (Four days ago on my timeline, anyway; to the rest of the world none of that had happened yet.) There were even two full clips for it. I shoved one into my jacket pocket and slid the other into place. It made a satisfying click. “Let me get my bag, too,” I said as I tucked the gun into my waistband. “If I have stuff I can claim I was checking the place out to crash there.”

“Good idea,” Sam said. “You want a sleeping bag?”

“Nah. It got ruined last time I had to sleep outside,” I said, and Sam smirked.

My duffel bag could be rigged as a backpack, so I did, and slung my overcoat over my arm for good measure. Thus prepared, Sam and I walked back towards the house. There was no sign of any guards, and only one car parked near the porch.

The house was in bad shape. It was probably still sound enough, but it was clear there’d been no maintenance in years. The windows were boarded over and the front door wasn’t square in its frame; the white paint on the wooden siding was peeling and filthy. Trash littered the lot.

“Gonna see if I can get a look inside,” I said. Sam nodded, and I moved away from him as quietly as I could. The dead grass of the lawn was too damp to rustle, but I placed my feet carefully to avoid tripping over any of the flotsam.

As I approached the house I caught a voice. It was muffled by the wall and I didn't recognize it. “...what he was going to turn into someday. You'd take him out, no questions, am I right?” it said. A man.

“That's not Sam,” Dean said. His voice was almost too low to make out and I could hear the strain lacing it, but I felt myself relaxing a little nonetheless at the confirmation that he was alive.

“Yes it is. You just can't see it yet. Dean, it's his destiny. Look, I'm sympathetic.” He actually sounded it, too. “He's your brother, you love the guy. This has got to hurt like hell for you. But here's the thing.” Dean grunted, but said nothing. I slid one eye around the edge of the window, slowly so as not to catch attention with sudden motion. The interior of the house was just as cluttered and dirty as the outside. I was looking into the large front room; in the middle of it, near the front door, Dean sat in a chair. His wrists were tied to the arms and his ankles to the chair's legs. A man stood behind him, in the process of tying a bandana into a gag, talking as he did. “It woulda wrecked him. But your dad? If it really came right down to it, he would have had the stones to do the right thing here. But you're telling me you're not the man he is?” He finished his knot and stood back. Dean shook his head furiously.

The other man went over to the only other useable chair and sat in it. “Won't be long now,” he said. “At least then it'll be over.” Dean glared at him. I edged back from the window to circle the house. There was a back door—probably where Dean's captor had his grenade rigged, since he and Dean were so close to the front entrance. There were no other doors and it didn't seem likely I'd be picking up much more conversation, so I made my way back to Sam. He was waiting impatiently just out of sight of the house, leaning on the far side of a garage that looked like it hadn't been opened in years.

“OK, as far as I can tell there's only one guy,” I said, settling against the wall next to him. “It sounded to me like he knew you two, or at least Dean.”

“What's he look like?”

“He's black, very short hair, a mustache and goatee. About Dean's height, athletic build, moved like he could handle himself; if I had to guess I'd say he's a hunter.”

Sam's eyes narrowed in thought for a moment. “And he knew us—Gordon. Damn, that's Gordon Walker.” He sighed while I considered the name, which was faintly familiar.

“He…had a sister who was turned into a vampire?” I said after a second. Sam shot me a startled look. “Dean told me a lot of stories when we were hunting together,” I reminded him.

“Right,” he said. “Right, yeah. We ran into him because there was a nest of vamps who were eating cattle instead of people, and Gordon still wanted them all dead. They were monsters, so they had to die.” Sam was trying to be matter-of-fact, but there was a tinge of frustration in his tone that puzzled me until I considered Dean’s very similar stance.

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “Sam…from what I heard, Gordon knows something about the demon blood.”

Sam froze for a long moment. “Crap,” he said. “That’s going to make this tough. He’s not gonna want to get talked down.”

“I think we just go in and get Dean out. Gordon’s not important.”

“Maybe not, but he’s pretty determined,” Sam said. “We have to do something to keep him off our backs or he’ll keep coming after us. Or me.”

“I don’t think we should kill him,” I said. From what I could remember, Gordon had been a vampire himself when he died, and I was wary of changing anything I didn’t have to.

“What? No, of course not,” Sam said, sounding startled. “But that doesn’t mean we have to let him come after us…oh, I know.” A smile spread over his face, full of the simple joy of having out-thought someone. “OK, here’s the plan.”

A few minutes later, I waited while Sam picked the lock on the back door; I could have done it, but it would have taken me several times as long. Once that was done he pocketed his tools and hurried around to the front of the house. I eased the door open.

The first tripwire was right inside the door, where you’d be hard pressed to miss stepping on it if you just walked in. I reached out and yanked it; the pin from a grenade flew towards me. I stepped back fast and swung the door almost shut, counting down in my head. I even remembered to cover my ears; the explosion was loud but not painfully so.

After a second I peered in. Nothing moved. I drew my gun, just in case, and moved in just far enough to be standing on the limp tripwire. The second one was easy enough to spot since I was looking for it, though it might have caught me if I’d been congratulating myself on my cleverness. I picked up a chunk of two-by-four and used it to repeat the yanking-and-backing-off procedure, but this time I didn’t wait; as soon as the debris from the explosion hit the floor I hurried back inside to lurk against the wall that separated my room from the one where Gordon was keeping Dean.

He came through the arch cautiously with his rifle ready, but he didn’t actually expect me—or Sam—to still be standing. I waited until he passed me and paused, looking for the body that should have been on the floor.

The 92FS is a semi-automatic so, sadly, I couldn't dramatically thumb the hammer back. Instead I settled for touching the end of the barrel to the base of his skull and then pulling it away—no sense in giving him a clue as to exactly where the weapon was—before I said conversationally, “Put the gun down.”

Gordon went still with the waiting tension of a man looking for an opening and said, “Wish I could say it was nice to see you, Sammy.”

“Put. It. Down,” I said.

Moving slowly, Gordon bent to do as I said, speaking as he went. “You wouldn’t shoot me, would you? Because your brother, he thinks you’re some kind of saint.”

I laughed—between his blatant manipulation and the way I could see him tensing to swing around and hit me, Gordon was making it a little too easy to not take him seriously. There was an edge to his voice when he asked, “What’s funny, Sammy?” as he straightened and turned—and stopped dead at the sight of me. “Who the hell are you?” I grinned at him.

“Someone who wants to know why you’ve got a guy tied up in the front room,” I said, and swung my improvised club. Gordon ducked enough that he wasn’t knocked unconscious outright, but he went down and seemed likely to stay that way for a little while, so I backed away until I could get a look at Dean. Sam was working on untying Dean’s feet; as I watched Dean reached for the gag and pulled it out of his mouth. The last rope fell away and Dean gave his brother a hand up. I glanced back at Gordon, who wasn’t stirring.

“That son of a—” Dean began, turning towards me and the back room, but Sam said, “Dean, no.”

Dean stopped to give Sam an incredulous, furious look. “I let him live once,” he said. “I’m not making the same mistake twice.”

“Trust me,” Sam said, smiling a little. “Gordon is taken care of. Let’s get out of here.”

Dean wavered and looked at me. I shrugged. “He’s down for now,” I said. “We might want to hurry, though.”

“Fine,” Dean said after a moment’s pause, and followed Sam’s tug on his arm. I went after them, tucking my gun away as I did.

We were about halfway across the lawn when I heard the door swing open behind us and looked back to see Gordon, a gun in each hand, striding across the porch. “Run,” I said. The brothers turned to look and Dean said, “Crap,” in a casual way I would have found hilarious under other circumstances. We ran as Gordon started shooting after us.

No matter what anyone tells you, it’s actually pretty hard to hit something the size of a person with a handgun at any significant distance. I mean, I can do it, but I’m special; Dean and Sam can because they practice a lot. Gordon probably practiced too, but he’d been hit in the head recently. Most of the shots went wide, though a few were worryingly close through luck or pure stubbornness.

“Oh, come on,” Dean said. “You two morons call this taken care of?” There was a drainage ditch on the far side of the road; Sam tumbled into it first, with Dean and me after him neck-and-neck. Dean gathered himself to jump up and keep running, but Sam grabbed him by the jacket and hauled him back down under cover as Gordon shot into the dirt near us. “Sam, what the hell?” Dean demanded.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught movement that wasn’t Gordon and turned my head to watch as Sam said, “Just trust me on this one, OK?” Dean was opening his mouth to object when suddenly sirens blared and the night filled with flashing lights. We were nicely concealed, but Gordon was in full view of anyone with eyes when the three police cars pulled up and cops started piling out.

“Drop your weapons, down on your knees!” one of them yelled, followed by another. Dean grinned at Sam as Gordon, his face blank, dropped his guns and went to his knees. Sam smiled back. “Anonymous tip,” he said, and ducked his head to hide the laughter.

“You’re a fine upstanding citizen, Sam,” Dean said, and glanced at me. “You too, Cas. I heard what you said to him. You were just passing by, happened to notice the kidnapped guy?” I smirked and shrugged, and Dean’s smile got wider.

It wasn’t difficult to get away without the police seeing us; they were far more interested in the guy they’d caught walking across a residential street firing a pair of handguns than in looking around for us. Plus they found the weapons cache in his car. Dean chuckled most of the way back to the Impala, but by the time we got there he'd sobered. We climbed in and Dean started driving.

He didn't go far, though. Maybe ten minutes down the road, he pulled over. Sam and I both stared as he put the car in park and opened the door. “Gotta make a call,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Dean,” Sam began, but Dean was most of the way out of the car and said, “Back in a second, Sam, OK?” And then he was out, and swinging the door closed behind him. Sam turned enough that he could look at me, and we exchanged shrugs.

After a second Sam said, “OK.” He pulled out his own phone as Dean walked up to the front of the Impala, which rocked a little as he leaned against it. Sam eyed his brother for a moment longer before he turned his attention back to his phone. He waited as it rang, and then through whatever message was on the voicemail. “Ava, it's Sam. I just wanted to let you know Dean and I are both OK, Cas too. Guess you don't want to pick up while you're driving, so give me a call to let me know you made it home. Thanks, later.”

We settled into silence after that, waiting while Dean finished his conversation. It was short, but when he got back into the car he didn't look happy. “Bad news?” Sam asked mildly. Dean shot him an annoyed glance as he started the engine again.

“Gordon got some of his intel at the Roadhouse,” he said. “I just wanted to ask Ellen if she knew anything about that.”

Sam sat back in his seat, looking worried and thoughtful. “Ellen wouldn't do that, Jo either. Not even Ash.”

Dean's hands twisted restlessly on the steering wheel. “Yeah,” he said. “That's what she said too. But someone's been talking, and I think we should find out who.”

“What are you going to do, Dean, walk in and start beating people up?”

“If I have to,” Dean said. I had a flash of what my Dean would have done, given a target pool and something he thought he needed to know, and cold fingers crept up my spine. (Goddammit, Cas, you weren't so picky about it when you had Alastair! We need the intel. Now are you gonna help me set up or not?)

“Yeah, right,” Sam said, a laugh in his voice.

“I'm not screwing around,” Dean said tightly. “We need to know who's talking and what they're saying.”

“OK,” Sam said. “Not tonight, though. I’m about to fall over and I bet you guys aren’t much better.” I agreed with him; coming off a high is never fun, and adrenaline highs are no exception. It tended to make me shaky, though at least I didn’t get actively sick any more.

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean said. His jaw was set. I was wondering idly how much effort it was going to take to get him alone so I could goad him into shouting to let off some steam when Sam said, “Well at least we don’t have to worry about Gordon for a while. Man, did you see the look on his face?”

There was half a second when I thought it wasn’t going to work, but then one corner of Dean’s mouth quirked up. “He didn’t know what hit him, that’s for sure,” he said. “Calling the cops, kinda the nuclear option there, Sammy.”

“You use the tools you have,” Sam said easily. “How else was I supposed to keep him off our backs?”

“Bullets work,” Dean grumbled, but his heart wasn’t really in it. I studied Sam’s profile from my place in the back seat, considering how nice it was to have an ally.

Dean seemed intent on putting some distance between us and Lafayette, which neither Sam nor I felt like objecting to. We spent the time catching everyone up on exactly what had happened; an hour in, Sam tried Ava again, and still got no reply. He left another message and ended the call with a disturbed expression.

“Everything all right?” Dean asked, glancing at him.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I hope so.”

“Well, Gordon’s gonna have to be careful reaching for the soap for the next few years at least,” Dean said.

“Yeah. If they pin Scott Carey’s murder on him. And if he doesn’t bust out.”

Dean thought that over for a second. “Dude, you ever take off like that again…” he said.

Sam rolled his eyes and said, “What? You’ll kill me?”

I shifted in my seat, half trying to get more comfortable and half attempting to remind them that I was there; I wasn’t in the mood for listening to brotherly bickering. For one thing, most of my pills were in my bag, in the trunk, and my chest was starting up again.

“That is so not funny,” Dean said.

Sam laughed. “All right, all right. So where to next, then?”

“How’s Amsterdam sound?” Dean asked, in the kind of joking tone that wasn’t really.

“Dean,” Sam said.

“Come on, man, I hear the coffeeshops don’t even serve coffee.”

I puzzled over that one for a second before interjecting, “Then what do they serve?”

Sam, who had opened his mouth to reply, stopped in the middle of whatever he was going to say and turned to look at me as if he’d forgotten I was in the car. After a second he said, “Dean means Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Cas.”

“That doesn’t actually answer my question,” I pointed out. Sam blinked at me, then turned to his brother. Dean was staring at me in the rear view mirror, his eyebrows high.

“Dude, seriously, you don’t know this?”

“If I knew I wouldn’t have asked,” I said, a little annoyed.

“Pot,” Dean said, with the air of explaining something to a small child. “It’s legal there. They sell it in coffeeshops.” He paused. “How do you not know this?”

“I’ve never had occasion to find out,” I said, cursing mentally. It was always things like this that caught me out, movies and music and cultural references, experiences that any adult would have had. Jimmy would have known. “I…had a very sheltered upbringing.”

“No kidding,” Dean said. “Anyway, it sounds great to me. Lots of tall blondes in Holland, right?”

“Yeah, like you’d give up on the job,” Sam said.

“Screw the job,” Dean said with surprising vehemence. “Seriously, screw it, I’m sick of the job anyway. We don’t get paid, we don’t get thanked, the only thing we get is bad luck.”

I tried not to visibly gape at him. Fortunately, Sam wasn’t paying attention to me anymore. “Come on, dude, you’re a hunter. I mean, it’s what you were meant to do.”

“I wasn’t meant to do anything,” Dean said, still intent. “I don’t believe in that destiny crap.” That, at least, I’d heard before, if phrased rather more profanely and usually including a reference to what a dick Zachariah was.

“You mean you don’t believe in my destiny,” Sam said bluntly.

Dean hunched a little and muttered, “Yeah, whatever.”

Sam sighed and said, “Look, Dean—I’ve tried running. I ran all the way to Stanford and look how that turned out. We can’t run from this, and you can’t protect me from the whole world.”

“I can try,” Dean said, like he was swearing an oath.

Quietly, Sam said, “Thanks for that.” Dean nodded. “Dean…I’m gonna keep hunting. Whatever’s coming, I’m taking it head-on, so if you really wanna watch my back, then I guess you’re gonna have to stick around.”

“Bitch,” Dean said, and Sam grinned and responded, “Jerk.” After a second Sam went on, “Anyway, we’ve got a jump on the opposition, right? We’ve got Cas to tell us what not to do.”

“Right. Ace in the hole,” Dean said. He grinned at me in the mirror; I tried to return it.

“Yeah,” Sam said, running his thumb over the keys of his phone.

“You calling that Ava girl again? You sweet on her or something?”

“She’s engaged, Dean,” Sam said.

“So? What’s the point of saving the world if you can’t get a little nookie once in a while?” Sam shook his head, distracted, and Dean said, “What?”

“Just a feeling.” Sam stared out the window for a few seconds. “How far is it to Peoria?”

Dean didn’t answer for a second. “I thought you said you were beat.”

“I am, I just…I don’t know, I have a bad feeling about this.” Sam made a helpless gesture.

Dean huffed and said, “OK, fine. Peoria it is. Find her address for me and then take a nap.”

It took nearly three hours to get to Ava's house. Sam made Dean sleep for the second half of the trip; I lay in the back seat with my eyes closed, but couldn't drop off. I ached, despite the ibuprofen I swallowed, and I couldn't stop replaying Dean's outburst. I'd never heard him express a dislike for hunting in quite that way. He'd complain about it being difficult or dangerous or even unremunerative, certainly, but he'd always talked as if those were quirks to be tolerated rather than serious problems.

Of course, Dean had recently learned that his chosen career would kill Sam if things didn't change, so perhaps he was still in shock.

Ava's house was small and neatly kept. There were no lights on, unsurprisingly, but her car sat in the driveway. “So how we doing this?” Dean asked, as we sat in the car by the curb. “You gonna knock at this hour?”

Sam grimaced, but said, “Yeah. Her fiancé can punch me or something if I'm wrong.”

Dean and I leaned on the car while Sam went up to the door. He knocked and rang the doorbell, and waited. No one answered. He repeated the process, with similar results. Dean sighed and went to the trunk as Sam started his third round of knocking. By the time Sam turned away from the door Dean had pulled out an assortment of flashlights and shotguns, and handed me one of each.

“Better hope they don't have an alarm,” Dean said, giving Sam his own flashlight as he got back to the car. Sam nodded, his mouth in a grim line. The lock wasn't any more sophisticated than the last one he'd picked, and he popped it in less than a minute.

Once we were through the door we swept the ground floor. There was no one there, and no answer when Sam called out. The house made me uneasy, and only more so as we mounted the stairs.

Only a few steps up, I smelled it, heavy and metallic; a moment later, Dean and Sam did too. Blood, and to be smelling it this far away there had to be a lot of it—more than anyone could lose and live.

We found the body in the bedroom, lying on the bed with its eyes wide and fixed. It was a man, I assumed Ava's fiancé. “Oh my God,” Sam said, sounding angry and more than a little sick. To be honest I was a trifle sickened myself; croats killed people, and it was usually messy, but this was a step beyond anything I usually encountered. He'd essentially been gutted, his chest torn open. Dean had no expression at all as he stepped over to the window and ran a finger along the sill. “Sulfur,” he said. “Demon's been here.” Sam knelt and picked something from the floor, holding it up into the beam from his flashlight: a diamond ring.

“Ava,” he said.

A patch of white caught my eye and I bent in my turn to pick it up. It was the paper I'd drawn the devil's trap on. Sam looked at it and his lips thinned.

“She never got a chance to use it,” I said.

I called the police, setting the phone down when the operator started asking for my name. Sam wiped Ava's ring and left it on the bedside table; I put the paper in my little interior pocket along with Dean’s amulet. We got away clean; didn't even hear the sirens.

Dean attempted to start conversation a few times as he searched for a motel, but Sam answered in monosyllables or not at all, and eventually Dean gave up. Sam maintained his silence until we’d found a motel, gotten a room (specifically with a couch in it, Dean assured me), and taken our bags inside. Then, with Dean digging through his bag in search of his toiletries, Sam turned to me and demanded, “Where is she?”

I gritted my teeth. “Where is she?” Sam repeated, more forcefully this time. Dean slowly straightened, watching his brother with wary eyes.

“I can’t tell you,” I said finally, reluctantly. Sam’s eyes went wide and furious, and he took a step in my direction that I didn’t like the look of.

“Ava was taken by a demon,” he said, impressively calm but with anger roiling under the surface. “You know where she is. I think you can tell me.”

“I can’t risk it, Sam,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I’m changing things enough already, just by being here. Hell, I shouldn’t have given her the devil’s trap. Anything could be the thing that gets noticed, and if that happens—”

“I get stabbed?” Sam asked sharply. “I’ll watch my back! I run risks all the time. Ava doesn’t.” He was still moving towards me, trying to intimidate with his height and bulk. He was even standing up straight, something he rarely did.

“It’s not that simple,” I protested, hoping desperately that Sam wasn’t angry enough to actually take a swing. I could handle him—he wouldn’t be expecting my strength, for one thing—but there was only so much I could do without risking hurting him, and he’d have fewer inhibitions about hurting me.

“You practically told me our life stories for the next few months already! Why is this any different?”

“Because Ava’s one of the special children,” I said, willing him to understand. “No one cares about the girl in San Francisco who gets turned into a werewolf, or the shapeshifter in Milwaukee, but if we get anywhere near the place where Ava is, it will be noticed. At that it would have been better for me to tell you as little as I could get away with, but I think that ship has sailed.” I took a deliberate step back from Sam, forcing my body language to be calm. “Regardless, we can’t touch anything Azazel does. We can’t risk catching his attention. If he changes what he’s doing, that’s the end of our advantage.”

Dean stepped to Sam’s side and put a hand on his shoulder. Sam stared at me for another second. “Sam,” Dean said, and Sam let out a breath.

“Damn it,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Sam nodded, his eyes on the floor, and turned to his bag. Neither Dean nor I spoke until Sam had shut the bathroom door behind himself.

After a second, Dean said, “Sam gets attached.” He kept his voice low enough not to be heard through the door.

“I know. But I can't let him...”

I trailed off as Dean held up his hands, shaking his head. “No, dude, I'm right with you. Anything that keeps Sam from gettin' stabbed, I'm on board.” He considered for a second. “Guess this means we should our thing, right? Look for cases like you aren't even here.”

“Yeah,” I said. I sat down on the closest bed. It was well after midnight and I just wanted to rest. “Before that, though, I have a request.”

Dean made a questioning face, and I took a deep breath. This wasn't, perhaps, the best of ideas, but on the other one would be watching him, not even my present-day, angelic self. I'd had no need to; I could have found Jimmy Novak, or Claire, anywhere.

“I need to go to Pontiac,” I said.

Dean drummed his fingers on the wheel. “You sure he’s gonna be alone?” he asked.

“Positive,” I said. “He has the house to himself.” Amelia and Claire went for ‘girls day out’ on Saturdays. We turned the corner and Dean drew up to the curb. “Get some coffee or something,” I said, waving at the café. “I’ll call when I’m on my way back.”

He turned the car off and stared out the windshield. I had my hand on the door when he said abruptly, “Why don’t you want backup on this, Cas?”

I turned back to him. His jaw was set. I said, “I don’t need backup. This is just a guy. Completely vanilla. The closest he gets to the supernatural is going to church on Sundays. I owe him, that’s all.” In the end I’d killed Jimmy Novak. Raphael had done the smiting, but it was my choices that had gotten us smitten.

“You’re not letting me drop you at his house,” Dean protested. “You won’t even tell us his name.”

Because with a name they could find a face, and that was not a can of worms I wanted to deal with. “Dean,” I sighed. “It’s private, all right? Nothing to do with you or Sam.”

For a second he didn’t reply, and when he did his voice was tight. “Fine,” he said. “Go do your thing.”


“Go do your thing, Cas.”

“It’ll only be an hour, maybe less.”

Dean nodded. I hesitated, but I could tell that was the best I was going to get so I pulled myself out of the car.

I was most of the way to Jimmy’s house when my phone rang. I fumbled it out of my pocket, clumsy in my gloves, and managed to hit the talk button before it dropped to voicemail. (Though I'd been tempted I had not, in the end, set up my voicemail with Why do you want me to say my name?; I wore out my appetite for jokes no one but me would ever get a long time ago.) “Dean,” I said in greeting.

“Weirdest thing just happened, Cas,” Dean said, in a tone that pretended to be casual but wasn’t. “There I am with my overpriced coffee, and who should walk into the place but you.”

I stopped cold.

Dean continued, “I noticed in time you were wearing different clothes. You looked straight at me a couple times, too. Bought coffee to go, left again.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was not ready to explain to Dean about the angels, about vessels, about how casually (and unknowingly, though that didn't excuse me) I had ruined a man's life.

“Cas,” Dean said.

“I’m here,” I said through numb lips, and when he spoke again he sounded a little gentler. “You should’ve just told me you wanted to talk to…I guess your past self. Right? That’s got to be what he is.”

“I thought you’d try to stop me,” I said carefully, around a rush of relief so strong it left me lightheaded. The conclusion was perfectly sensible from Dean’s point of view—and only half-wrong.

“Pretty sure if you were gonna screw up the space-time whatever, you'd have done it already,” Dean said. “Besides, no DeLorean.”

“I don't under—never mind. I need to hang up if I'm going to meet him.”

“Yeah, fine. Look, Cas. You have a wedding ring on.”

“I'll explain later,” I said, and snapped my phone shut. In a show of uncharacteristic tact, Dean did not call me back.

So I was waiting when Jimmy turned onto his block. I sat on the edge of the porch, on the theory that I’d look less threatening that way. I kept my head down. Jimmy sounded firm but sympathetic when he spoke.

“Hey, buddy, the bus stop’s down at the corner,” he said. “You shouldn’t wait here.”

I looked up and he froze in the middle of a step, his mouth still open to speak. He was wearing the coat, my coat. His breath steamed in the air. I ignored the first twinges in my chest.

“My name is Cas,” I said. “We need to talk.”

I chivvied him into the house by speaking firmly whenever he stopped to stare at me. Once we were inside he dropped his net bag of groceries on the floor as if he had forgotten why he was holding it. He set his mug of coffee on the hall table, at least.

“It's probably simplest if you think of me as a future version of yourself,” I said, and Jimmy gaped at me.

“ did you...” he managed.

I started to pull my gloves off. “It's the obvious question,” I said. “No special powers required. Look, you might feel better if you have something to drink.” He stared at me for long enough that I thought I might have to repeat the suggestion, but before I could Jimmy literally shook himself.

“Prove it,” he said, in a voice that was impressively level.

“James Edward Novak,” I said, tucking the gloves into a pocket. “Your wife, Amelia Pearl Emerson, but she hates her middle name; she goes by Amelia E. Novak these days. Claire Elizabeth—Amelia's grandmother and your mother.” I removed my hat and stuffed it after the gloves.

“You could get that off the Internet,” Jimmy said. He was pulling my coat from his shoulders, which I took as a good sign; he'd gotten past enough of the shock for routine to kick in, at least.

I shrugged to acknowledge the point. “You met Amelia at a costume party; you were dressed as Rick and she was Ilsa. You knew what she sounded like having an orgasm before she told you her real name. It's why you always make sure to have a trenchcoat. You told your friends and parents about the costumes, but not about the orgasm.” He stared at me. I sighed. “The first time you prayed you were six years old. You wanted to know why your dog died.”

“Jesus,” Jimmy said, invoking rather than just exclaiming. “How is this even possible?”

That was a damn good question. I still had no idea how any of this had happened. “To be perfectly honest, I don't know,” I replied.

“You traveled in time accidentally?”

“It's more like something carried me than that I traveled,” I said. “I didn't mean to do it and I don't know how it happened, but I'm here—now. Whatever. You're taking this surprisingly well.”

Jimmy snorted and turned to open the hall closet. “I can't imagine this situation would be improved if I freaked out. So I'll freak out later.” He watched his own hands intently as he pulled out a hanger and slid the coat onto it. “Coffee. Do you want coffee? I'll make some coffee.”

“You already have coffee,” I said, waving at it. Jimmy looked at the mug like he'd never seen it before.

“Fine,” he said. “I can still make some for you.”

“I don't think I should stay that long.”

“Just let me make you some damn coffee,” Jimmy said sharply. He pushed a hand back through his hair, closed his eyes, and sighed. “Sorry. Just…this is a little much, OK?”

“Coffee it is,” I said. He opened his eyes and gave me a wan smile.

“Science fiction has never been my thing,” he said as we walked to the kitchen. “But I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to ask what year you’re from.”

“Not that it’s terribly relevant, but 2014,” I said. Jimmy threw a glance over his shoulder and asked, “How is it not relevant?”

“Because it’s not gonna happen,” I said. “It’s. Let’s go with ‘It’s not good’. So I’m going to change it.”

Jimmy stopped, one hand on a cabinet door, and glanced at me skeptically. “How does that work? Exactly.”

“I’m here. I know the things that have to happen. I’m going to make sure they don’t.”

“And that’s why you’re talking to me? I’ve got some big role in whatever’s supposed to happen?” He pulled the door open and got out a tin of coffee. “I mean, I’m just a guy. I sell advertising. I’m no one important—you should know.” He sounded bitter about it.

I leaned on the center island. “That’s the problem,” I said. “You think you’re just a guy, and you want some higher purpose. But James—Amelia and Claire, they are your higher purpose. If you let me take you, you’ll lose them, and you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”

Jimmy, looking confused, speaks to Cas.

Jimmy’s hands stilled in the middle of scooping coffee grounds and he turned to look at me. “Wait, what? Take me? What are you talking about?”

“I said you should think of me as a future version of yourself, but that’s not strictly accurate,” I said, trying not to sound grim. “I’m not you, James. I’m the thing that’s possessing you.”

“Possessing,” he repeated. Then the implication hit and his eyes widened. “You’re telling me you’re a demon?”

“Exactly the opposite. I’m an angel of the Lord.” I smiled, though I was sure it didn't look sincere. “Or to be precise I used to be.”

Jimmy dropped the plastic scoop back into the tin and abandoned the coffee entirely. His eyes swept over me. “You. Are an angel.” He sounded skeptical, but mostly, I thought, because he thought he ought to be. And really, I couldn't blame him; I hardly looked the part.

“Was an angel. Now, I’m just Cas.”

“What kind of name is that for an angel?” he demanded, as if that were the sticking point here.

“It’s not. It’s a great name for me.” I drummed my fingers on the countertop. “If he comes to you, he’ll still be Castiel. Angel of Thursday.”

“I was born on Thursday,” Jimmy said, and looked surprised at himself. I wasn't; his soul knew Castiel already.

“Yeah, I know. So was Claire. There’s a reason for that.”

“You’re serious.”

I shrugged and said, “I don’t care if you believe me right now, James, OK? Just keep it in mind. I’m going to change things, but…it’s probably better to say I’m going to try. The past doesn’t like to be changed. So if I fail, you have to remember. If Castiel comes to you, say no. Tell Claire to say no.”

Jimmy’s eyes narrowed at me. “What about Claire?”

“She’s like you—she got it from you, it's hereditary. You both can house Castiel, and if you won’t take him he’ll ask her.” I caught his eyes and held them. “You have to understand, he’s…he’s an angel. He is light. His Grace, it’s the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, and he will promise you that you’re special, that you’re chosen. Don’t listen to him.” I closed my eyes for a second against the faulty memory of Grace, and when I opened them Jimmy was staring at me. He very clearly didn’t want to believe me, and just as clearly did anyway. “He will take you away from them, James, with no explanation, and the last words your little girl hears from your lips for most of a year will be I'm not your father.” Jimmy jerked as if I'd struck him. “I didn't know. I swear I didn't know what I was taking you away from,” I said. Silence filled the kitchen. A bar of sunlight fell through the window, touching both of us, Jimmy backed against the counter and me on the far side of the island.

“What happened to you?” Jimmy asked at last, and I couldn't help but laugh.

“Life,” I said, and he shook his head angrily.

“Come on. You were an angel, now you're not, how does that happen?”

“Someone told me that my orders were the wrong thing to do, and I listened,” I said. “Everything else followed from that.” I dug into my pocket for the piece of paper and held it out. After a second Jimmy took it. “If I fail, you'll hear from him first next December,” I said. “He'll come to you, tell you he needs to test your faith. September 2008 is when he'll need to take a vessel. So if he talks to you, as soon as you can call those numbers until one of them answers. The first one's me. If I'm alive, I'll take him.”

“And what if you're not?” Jimmy said, flat.

“He has to have your consent. You can set conditions—a time limit.” Castiel wouldn't be bound by anything but his word, but if he agreed to conditions at all he'd honor least, as long as they didn't endanger Dean. But there was nothing I could do about that.

Jimmy studied the paper, smoothing it between his fingers. “I should be telling you you're nuts,” he said thoughtfully. I grinned.

“I have a friend who would say, search your feelings, you know it to be true.”

Jimmy gave me a rueful smile. “I didn't say I was telling you you're nuts.”

“I'm not, James. I kind of wish I were.”

“Why are you calling me that? You have to know I go by Jimmy.”

I shrugged. “Pretty sure Jimmy's what your friends call you, and I...I took you from your family. In the end I got you killed.” Jimmy blinked at me, startled. “I don't think I have the right to pretend to be your friend.” He didn't reply. After a moment I continued, “I should go. I just...” I tried for a self-deprecating smirk, but I didn't think it took. “I thought it was my duty to warn you.”

Jimmy just watched me, and the expression on his face almost broke my control. He should have been angry, but he wasn't; he just looked sad. “Don't feel sorry for me,” I said, more harshly than I wanted to. “I made all my choices with my eyes open. I owed you the chance to do the same.” I pulled my gloves and hat from my pockets.

“Cas,” Jimmy said. I didn't look at him. “Cas, just let me help.” He sounded so sympathetic, compassionate even, and I didn't deserve it, not from him.

“If there's something you can do, I'll let you know,” I said to my hat. “Just be happy.” I started for the front door, but he stopped me with a word.


“That's not my name anymore.” It had been years since anyone called me Castiel, even Chuck. I'll grant that a lot of that was because I yelled at him until he stopped.

“I think it is,” Jimmy said, and came to my side in a few steps. “Tell me you're doing the right thing,” he said, soft but firm. I made myself meet his eyes.

“The other option is for things to happen...the way they happened to me. So yes. I'm doing the right thing.”

He studied me for a second, and then nodded. “All right. Be careful. You're not doing this alone, are you?”

At that I managed a real smile. “Not this time,” I said.

Jimmy let me go.

On the walk back to the coffee shop I took three of my Vicodin. The hollow of my Grace ached fiercely, as if it had tried to reach for the part of Jimmy that knew Castiel—knew me; I should have realized that being close to him would set it off. I'd been ignoring it while we talked, but I couldn't anymore. By the time I pushed through the café door I was gritting my teeth against it, so bad that it was physical, cramps skittering across my shoulders and down my arms and settling in the long muscles of my thighs. Dean was leaning back in his booth, trying to look as if he didn't feel utterly out of place in the deliberately tattered luxury of the décor.

I got a drink and a huge, sticky pastry meant to amend my blood sugar. Dean eyed my mug dubiously, but didn't make any comments about it not even being coffee; I must have looked rattled. He let me get a couple bites in before he asked, “So, how'd it go?”

“You mean once he got over staring at me?” I shrugged. “Not bad. He didn't want to believe it, but...” I gestured at my face. Dean huffed a laugh. “And you know, I know things about him.”

Dean nodded, playing with his coffee cup. “What did you tell him?”

“As little as I could get away with,” I said, half-muffled by another bite of pastry. With food in my stomach it was at least easier to think around my aches. “Pretty much what not to do.”

Dean seemed to think that over before he asked, “What happened to his...your wife and kid, Cas?”

I could tell that my smile was twisted. “Nothing.” Dean raised his eyebrows at me. “No, really. At least not before everything went bad. After...we tried to find them, but we never did.” I had felt it was my duty to Jimmy, but their house had been long abandoned by the time Dean and I got to it.

“If nothing happened to them,” Dean began.

“I didn't become a hunter because something happened to them.” Unlike the vast majority of hunters Dean knew. “I just...someone told me I was special, that I could make a difference.” I watched uncertainty flit over Dean's face and said, “Not you. But I believed it.” Jimmy had believed it, anyway. Though he had not actually understood what was being asked of him; the vessels rarely did. Even Dean and Sam hadn’t really comprehended, and they’d had far more information than most.

“So you just, what, left them?” Dean sounded incredulous. Of course he did; it was family.

“Yes,” I said simply.

Dean shook his head. “Jesus, Cas.”

“It wasn't the best decision I ever made,” I said. I was trying for wry, but only managed tired.

“You just left them, knowing what was out there?”

I set my teeth, stung on Jimmy's behalf. “No, I did not,” I said. “One, when I left I didn't know, and two, part of the deal was that they'd be taken care of.” (You promised me my family would be OK. You promised you were gonna take care of them! Angels do not feel guilt; if they err, they’re punished, and nothing more is required. But those words made me guilty, and for the first time I consciously realized how much I was changing.)

Dean looked slightly mollified, but persisted, “Yeah, how'd that work out?”

“Everything went to hell by the end,” I said, wrapping my hands around my mug. The heat soothed my cramping fingers. “But it doesn't matter now. Saving Sam will change it all, and the version of me I saw today will never have to make that choice.”

Dean hesitated. I could see him considering. “If we change things,” he said at last, slowly, “is something gonna happen to you?”

I smiled at him. “No. At least, I don't think so.” I knew so, but the rules of time travel, insofar as I could still comprehend them, were another subject I couldn't discuss without explaining how I knew. “I'm here. If I could change things to erase myself, I wouldn't be able to come back and change them. It's called—”

“The grandfather paradox, yeah,” Dean said, and smirked at me. “What? I read sci-fi.”

I laughed, and it almost made me forget how much I hurt.

By that evening I felt better, though the number of pills I'd taken no doubt had something to do with it. I had, at least, managed to make sure Dean didn't see me take them. We went to a diner for dinner because Dean said he needed real food after spending the afternoon “drinking chick coffee”.

Sam waited until we'd ordered before he said, “So according to what I have, we have downtime.”

“How so?” Dean asked. He glanced around the restaurant idly, playing with his spoon.

“The original schedule was to spend a month looking for Ava,” Sam replied evenly. To his credit he didn't give me a dirty look, but it wasn't as if I couldn't tell he was unhappy. “But no dice. Since we're not going to be doing that, sounds like downtime to me.”

Dean eyed his brother and said, “Well, we could head to Vegas, it's about that time. It’s even after Christmas, rooms’ll be cheap.”

Sam made an exasperated face. “Actually, I was thinking about something Cas said earlier. He said no one cares about the, I don't know, the regular cases, the ones that aren't connected to my...thing. So what if we get ahead of the game for once?”

I quirked an eyebrow at him and he said, “If no one cares about the werewolf girl in San Francisco, how about we save her before she gets turned into a werewolf?”

Dean thought that over. “Huh,” he said. “OK. Vegas after.”