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Second Chance Kid

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Author's note: This is my submission for the 2017 SPN Reverse Bang on LJ. (I highly encourage you to check out the amazing stories posted there.)  I had the great fortune to fill Kuwlshadow's incredible prompt.  Please stop by and give her some love. I'd also like to thank my fantastic betas jennytork  and jdl71. Whatever mistakes remain are my own.

Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural (sad) or make any money from these stories. I just like to play in their sandbox.

~~~~

 

 

Rachel doesn’t begrudge her position as a Guardian Angel. Her division is young, a mere four hundred years old. She and her brethren are but children in comparison to the other divisions of angels. She feels it is right for her to be assigned to a lesser role, until such time that she can take on a larger role in heavenly administration. And to be sure, she covets a much larger role. She’s capable of so much more than watching over a bunch of incident prone humans. She’s dedicated, ambitious and, more importantly, willing to take risks to secure her future. Her position here is a mere stepping stone; she bears it with no ill will. There are others, though, who are not here simply to gain experience, but who are here more as punishment. Those angels make her job difficult. They are stumbling blocks on the path to her future. None more so than the angel she currently assists, Castiel.

The Guardian Angel Bureau is Castiel’s very own Purgatory. Ejected from his unit for insubordination, he’s toiled as a GA to an ever-increasing army of humans for nearly 800 years. As the longest serving GA in the bureau’s history, he is the only one who can release her from her position. His approval of her is essential should she have any hope of realizing her ambitions. Rachel glances down at the folder in her hands. It’s taken time and a good deal of effort, but she’s convinced that she may finally have unearthed something which Castiel will find of enough value to warrant her ascension to the Lower Guard.

Rachel pauses in front of Castiel’s office, checking her file one more time. She straightens her suit jacket and takes a deep breath. There is nothing to fear. She is fully capable of handling this. She is handing Castiel the means to avenge himself. There is nothing that could possibly go wrong.

Rachel shoves the door open. Sunshine blinds her; a strong breeze dishevels her hair and blows sand into the hallway.

~~~

Castiel looks up into the cosmos, but doesn’t register its beauty. He’s too consumed with the news Rachel-enterprising, gifted Rachel- has brought him. Castiel had always suspected Zachariah played a role in his downfall, but this-this is beyond what Castiel would have ever considered Zachariah capable of. Helping to orchestrate the return of the Morningstar? Triggering the Apocalypse (ensuring the destruction of all of Father’s creatures, great and small)? It’s nearly beyond belief. Yet, it is so. The plan has been quietly in motion for years. Without intervention, it will not be long until the showdown between Michael and Lucifer destroys humankind. Billions of Father’s favorite creatures wiped out. Castiel cannot allow it.

But what to do? He’s sequestered himself so long in this self-imposed prison, doing only the bare minimum to fulfill his duty to his charges. He has been so long out of touch with his brothers and sisters. If he reached out now, would they even consider assisting him? How many among them side with Zachariah? No. Whatever he does, he must do alone.

Castiel considers the information presented to him. The plan hinges on Lucifer being set free of his prison. There can be no apocalypse without a battle between Lucifer and Michael and no battle without Lucifer’s release. Without that crucial first step, nothing more can happen. Key to Lucifer’s successful release is three humans, all that remains of the Winchester family. Fates are in place for each: the father, John will be manipulated into selling his soul in exchange for the life of his son, Dean. He is destined to break the first seal: to be the first righteous man to shed blood in Hell. The younger brother, Samuel, Lucifer’s true vessel, is already tainted, having been fed the blood of a demon in his infancy. He will be lured by the demon, Azazel to use his burgeoning powers. They will draft him to be their Boy King. Dean, the older brother and true vessel to Michael is the only unknown entity. How they plan to convince him to act as Michael's sword is unclear. What is clear is that if Castiel can disrupt any part of the Winchester’s fate, he can derail Zachariah’s plans.

All is not yet lost. Humans are capricious, unpredictable things. One may set plans in place for them, but there can never be a guarantee that they will be followed. Castiel needs no army to wreak havoc on Zachariah’s plans.  All he needs is the Winchesters. Remove them from the equation and it all falls to pieces.

Castiel tucks the folder into the innermost pocket of his suit, turns his back to the night sky, climbs the long beach head to his office door and rejoins the world.

~~~

Castiel is surprised to find his vessel, Jimmy Novak, a mild-mannered salesman, is more difficult to convince than his ancestors had been. This even though Jimmy Novak is devout, a believer with all his heart and soul. In the end, Castiel is forced to invoke God’s will in order to obtain permission to possess Jimmy’s body. It’s not an untruth; it would be his Father’s desire to have man be saved. Still, having to manipulate Jimmy disturbs him. He would have preferred to have Jimmy acquiesce to his request without the pretense. He can’t imagine Michael and Lucifer will be as patient with the Winchester’s as he was with Jimmy. It’s a realization that cements the urgency of his mission. He has no doubt that Lucifer will use any means of manipulation, of violence, to obtain Sam Winchesters’ consent. Nor does he doubt the strength of Michael’s resolve to secure his sword. Those are, of course, only the celestial threats against the Winchesters. There is still the demonic scourge working against them. It occurs to Castiel then that stopping Zachariah and his cohorts is only part of the mission. He must destroy the demons helping orchestrate Lucifer’s release or the threat to man will not end with the disruption of Zachariah’s plans.

~~~

The coven is stronger than John imagined, their leader much more deranged than her crimes indicated. He’s glad to have Dean with him on this hunt. He’s sure he couldn’t have handled it alone. John had been injured in the initial struggle and is a little unsteady as he stalks quietly into the sanctum of the abandoned church. Dean follows closely behind, his weapon at the ready. John peers through the doorway into the darkened room. He holds a closed fist up then makes a circling motion. Dean nods and moves to cover the side exit.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are.” The sorceress sign-songs, turning slowly towards John. “Why don’t you come out where I can see you, big guy?” She doesn’t sound afraid, in fact she sounds a bit amused. “I know you’re there, Johnny.”

John waits, from the safety of his perch. He watches as Dean approaches silently from the side door. The witch seems completely oblivious to Dean’s approach. He’s nearly at her side when she crouches down, screams at him and blasts Dean with a surge of energy that sends him flying into a row of ancient benches. John’s bullet pierces her skull before Dean even hits the ground.

John scrambles into the room; runs to Dean who is struggling to sit up.

“Damn witches.” Dean manages to mutter just before he howls in pain. His body seizes, his back bowing backwards at such a frightening angle that John worries he might break his spine. Dean folds into himself then flails wildly. His screams echo through the abandoned church.

“Dean!” John cries, but Dean is deaf to his words. Panic rips through John. He tries to roll Dean onto his side, but Dean continues to jerk and roll violently.

John curses himself and the witch. He watches helplessly as Dean’s body seizes with such force his bones crack as they slam into the stone floor.

“John Winchester.”

John whips around. He doesn’t think. He doesn’t question. Threats still abound and his son is hurt, vulnerable as he endures whatever the hell is happening to him. John aims for the stranger's heart and pulls the trigger, once, twice.

Except.

The stranger doesn’t fall. The man glances down, watching the blood spread across the white button-down shirt he wears with what John can only describe as curiosity. John shoots him again, aiming between the eyes this time. The man’s head snaps back violently, blood and brain matter spraying onto the ground behind him from his head wound. Still the man doesn’t drop to the ground. Instead, he straightens himself and levels an angry gaze at John. Terror shoots up John’s spine, as he scrambles to cover Dean’s now mostly still body with his own.

“Enough.” The man growls and with only a flick of his hand, snatches the gun out of John’s grip and flings it across the room. The man takes a deep breath, white light engulfing him as he does so. John raises his forearm, shielding himself from the blinding light. When the light fades, the man is as he was. No chest wounds. No blood. No gaping hole in his head. Large black wings protrude from the back of the man’s black suit jacket.

Dread coils in John’s belly. He shakes his head not understanding what he’s seeing. He wonders whether this man is It, the demon that killed Mary, the thing that shredded their lives, his soul, and his children’s future to pieces. He spares a brief glance down at Dean. He’s mercifully unconscious and for now, still alive. John hopes he gets to stay that way. John grabs the knife strapped to his calf and brandishes it in the man’s direction. Part of him understands the knife will do nothing to protect him, but he finds it doesn’t matter. He needs the sense of purpose and safety a weapon in his hand brings, even if it’s only an illusion.

“What the fuck are you?”

“I’m an angel of the Lord,” the man says, his tone laced with more boredom than menace. “You, John Winchester, may call me Castiel.”

“Angels don’t exist,” John scoffs. He rests his hand on Dean’s chest. It’s a protective gesture, but also an opportunity to see if Dean has a second gun on him.

“No weapon you possess will cause me injury and while I am easily able to repair this vessel, I would prefer to not waste time or energy doing so.” Castiel’s icy stare bores into him. It makes John feel helpless and small; anger flares through him.

“Fuck you,” John hisses, lunging at Castiel, using his entire weight and momentum to plunge the knife into the man’s side. A grunt escapes the man lips, as he stumbles back a step. John steps back, his anger and helplessness mollified by his actions, to find Castiel glowering at him.

“Whether you believe or not, does not have any bearing on what is so.” Castiel pulls the knife out of his side. He inspects it, watching the blood drip down the blade onto the handle. He drops it before the blood touches his hand. “Are you through?”

“What the hell?” John whispers.

“There is much to discuss and much to do. Time is of the essence. My presence here will not remain undetected for long.”

John gapes at the man, the angel. The memory of Mary sitting in a rocking chair in what would be Sammy’s room, eight months pregnant, but still allowing Dean to clamor on her lap best he could- Mary pressing her one hand to her belly, the other smoothing back Dean’s bangs as she promised him he and the baby would always be safe- surges forward. He can remember every detail of that afternoon, of that sweet, innocent moment. Remembers how when Dean asked how she knew, she’d tapped his nose and told him angels were watching over them. Unwanted emotion burns in his throat.

“She was not wrong, John.” The man says and John wonders if he can read his mind.

“Then why is she dead?” John demands.

To John’s surprise, the angel looks away, abashed. “Some of us were not watching as closely as we should have been.”

John can’t contain the grief in his voice. “If you’re an angel…then bring her back.” He pleads.

Castiel shakes his head. “I cannot.”

John falls to his knees as the weight of the past twenty years, of every death he’s caused, every failure, of all he still has to do, threatens to crush his resolve completely.

Castiel rests a hand on John’s shoulder. “I cannot bring her back, but I can help you save yourself. Help you save your sons.”

John’s head snaps up, the mention of his boys snapping him back to the present.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

The man looks past John. His face shifts from concern to surprise. “But, for now, I think that perhaps you have a more immediate problem.”

John spares a glance backward to see a four year-old Dean sitting on the floor, rocking himself and sucking his thumb.

~~~

Sam stands up, plucking his backpack from where it sits on the floor beside him. His “Law and the Media” professor reminds the class there will be no extensions on their term papers, but everyone's too busy exiting the classroom to pay much attention. Sam hitches his backpack onto his right shoulder, fishing his phone out of his left pocket with his free hand. He flips the phone open. No calls. No new messages. He shoves the phone back in his pocket. He doesn’t know why he still bothers checking. Doesn’t know why he’s still foolishly holding out hope. He shakes his head and sighs. It’s stupid really. It’s not like he ever expected to hear from his father again, but Dean? He was certain Dean would, at the very least, stay in touch. Two years and still no word from either. He thought maybe today, of all days that might change.

Jess nudges him with her elbow. “You ready to celebrate, birthday boy?”

He smiles at her. This is his life now. Stanford. Jess. No monsters. No demons. Safety. Normality. This is what he wanted. This is who he is now. Just another guy with a sad story about a transient childhood and a parent he doesn’t talk to anymore.

He kisses her softly on the lips. “Yeah.”

She beams up at him. “So, eight o’clock, my place and remember you don’t know anything about the party.”

“What party?” He calls out as she walks away.

 

Sam pushes past the crowd of students rushing from one class to another and exits onto the quay. It’s another gorgeous day. Sam tilts his face up the sky, reveling for a moment in the warmth of the sun on his face then begins making his way to his next class. He’s only take a few steps when he hears his name being called by a voice he never thought he’d hear again. He pauses, not turning to look in the direction of the person who called him, then shakes it off and quickens his pace. His name is called again, louder and more firmly. Suddenly there is no doubt who is calling him. Fear flutters in Sam’s chest. If his father is here, it can’t be for any good reason. It takes everything in him not to run.

“Sam,” the voice is much closer now and threaded with familiar impatience.

Sam takes a deep breath, willing his heart to stop pounding, and turns around to find the father he hasn’t seen in two years standing right in front of him, looking exhausted and much older than the last time Sam saw him.

 

Sam means to say something casual, something neutral like ‘Hi, Dad’, but what comes out is a half growled, “What the hell are you doing here?”

John’s jaw clenches and pulses the way it always does when he’s trying hard to control his temper. He shoves his clenched hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Sam doesn’t question why his father is wearing a jacket in eighty-degree weather; he knows he’s hiding a gun underneath there.

“Guess they don’t teach manners at this fancy school of yours.”

Sam’s bristles at his father’s words, but refuses to let him get the better of him. “What do you want, Dad?” he asks, pleasantly surprised at how cold and unaffected he sounds.

John shakes his head, considers Sam for a moment then sighs sadly. “It was a mistake coming here. Good luck with school, son.”

He doesn’t offer to shake Sam’s hand, let alone hug him goodbye. John nods, giving Sam a look he doesn’t quite understand, and walks away.

All Sam can do is stand there, dumbfounded, and watch his father cross the small square to where the Impala is very illegally parked. A pang of regret runs through him. Why do things have to be so difficult between them? Sam considers going after him, knowing his father would not have chosen to come if he’d had any other choice. He wonders why Dean isn’t with him. Wonders if maybe Dean decided to wait in the car, rather than have to play peacemaker if things got bad. The idea stings; Dean has always had his back.

 

Sam watches as John makes his way back to the Impala, torn between chasing after him and turning his back on his father for good, half expecting to see his brother in the passenger seat. It’s too far to know with 100% percent certainty, but he is almost sure the man in the passenger seat is not his brother. The hair is too dark; the body shape not quite right. His suspicions are confirmed when the man steps out of the car as John approaches. The man is slightly shorter than John, wearing a tan overcoat and black slacks. Sam wonders if he’s another hunter. His father routinely pretended to be a government official. Is that what this man is doing? They talk beside the car for a few minutes, the stranger glancing over John’s shoulder toward Sam. Just two people having a discussion, except for the way Sam can tell the discussion is turning into an argument. John is shaking his head vehemently and his hands are clenched at his side. The man moves forward, but his father blocks his way. The man seems utterly unmoved by John’s threatening body language.

That’s it. Whatever is happening Sam can’t just stand by and watch. He jogs over to the car in time to hear his father say, “I’m not leaving him here. Bobby can take care of him.”

“Leaving who here?” Sam interrupts, before the man can respond.

The man settles his icy blue eyes on him. It sends a tendril of fear through him. His gaze is unsettling. It makes Sam feel like an ant under a magnifying glass.

John lets out an annoyed sigh, then turns toward him. “No one. It’s not your concern.”

The irritation Sam worked so hard to quell flares right back to life. “Then why are you here, if not because you need something? Not like you came here just to check on me.”

John steps into Sam’s personal space, so they’re uncomfortably close. “What the hell would you know? You think I got some crystal ball that led me here. You’re not wondering how I know your class schedule or where you’d be?”

The questions take Sam by surprise. He hadn’t actually thought about that.

“No, guess you didn’t. You may have turned your back on this family, but I never turned my back on you.”

“That’s rich!” Sam scoffs. “Guess you’ve forgotten all about kicking me out. About telling me to never come back.”

Johns face turns bright red. He’s right in Sam’s face. He’s gearing up to unload on him, Sam can tell, but he doesn’t get the chance. The stranger appears at their side and pushes them apart. Sam tries to hold his ground, but finds it impossible. The man pushes him back easily.

“We do not have time for this.” He states flatly. “Get in the vehicle. We will discuss this further at a more secure location.”

John shoots Sam an angry glare, but does as the stranger asks. Sam stands his ground; he doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows he’s not going anywhere.

“You too, Samuel Winchester,” the man orders.

“Who the fuck are you?” Sam demands, losing all patience with the situation.

“I am Castiel. My presence here will be explained shortly.”

“I’m not going anywhere with him.”

Castiel’s eyes lock with Sam’s. The blue in them swirls the way clouds do on windy days. It’s unnerving, frightening.

“It is not a request.” The man says evenly.

“Just get in the fucking car, Sam.” John orders, from where he stands at the driver’s side door of the car.

Sam looks from his father to Castiel, unsure and unhappy about being ordered around, but decides it’s not worth the fight. The last thing he wants to do is draw any more attention to themselves. He doesn’t want to risk someone he knows seeing him arguing with his father. His family is not something he’s discussed with anyone, not even Jess. He sidesteps Castiel, yanks the backseat passenger door open, tosses his backpack in to the car and then slides in himself. He has to sit sideways to be even remotely comfortable. It seems completely apropos; he outgrew this life a long time ago.

~~~

The ride to the motel where Castiel and his father are staying is a short one-thank God, for small mercies. Sam doesn’t think he could have borne another five minutes of the suffocating silence that had enveloped them the minute John got in and started the car. The moment John stops the car, Sam scrambles out, making sure to grab his bag. He wants to be able to bolt if he needs to. He stands there waiting for both men to exit.

“Your door locked?” John asks. Sam rolls his eyes, not deigning to provide a response to such a stupid question. The man, Castiel appears beside him, startling Sam. He hadn’t heard the man get out of the car.

They move a few feet to the motel door; his father stopping abruptly before opening the door.

“It means a lot to me that you came,” John says to the door.

Sam bites the urge to point out that he didn’t have much of choice.

John lets them in, followed quickly by Castiel. As Sam crosses the threshold, he swears he feels an electric current skitter across his skin. No one else seems to sense it, so he ignores it. He drops his bag near the door and takes in the room. It’s as decrepit as any other room they’ve ever stayed in. It has garish green and orange wallpaper that was probably in vogue in the early 70’s. The two beds have sienna colored coverlets that remind Sam of burnt butterscotch pudding. Sam wonders how his father even finds these places, suddenly wishing he’d kept his pack on rather than setting it down on ratty shag carpet.

“Well, now that we’re here. Do you mind telling me what this is all about?”

John pulls a wobbly looking chair from a round table shoved in the corner of the room. Castiel remains standing beside him, scrutinizing Sam with that same intense stare from earlier. The intensity of that stare makes Sam turn away from him, though he can still feel it pressing down on him like a weight. He focuses on his father instead.

John presses the fingers of one hand to the middle of his forehead. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Allow me,” Castiel says, his voice laced with mild irritation.

Before Sam can respond, Castiel is suddenly before him, pressing his index and middle finger to Sam’s forehead. A series of images flash through his mind: Dean’s body slamming into benches, John shooting a woman standing at an altar, a child huddled in a puddle of clothing, Castiel framed by large, black wings, a man with yellow eyes, Sam beating Dean in an open field.

“No!” Sam gasps; he scrambles back, desperate to get away from Castiel. “No! I’d never hurt Dean.”

“It will not be you.” Castiel says flatly.

“I don’t understand,” Sam whimpers. He feels nauseous and weak. He plops down onto the nearest bed. He closes his eyes, fighting the urge to vomit as the images somehow coalesce into a narrative. Instantly, he understands everything. The demon isn’t just some monster their father created to deal with his grief. There are things more dangerous in existence than just the monster in Sam’s closet: angels, demons, the Apocalypse. And Dean, he shoves to his feet, “Where is he?! Where’s my brother?!”

“Calm down, Sam.” John entreats. He stands, approaching Sam as if he were a feral animal, which if Sam is honest, isn’t too far off the mark. He feels unhinged.

Sam rushes his father, grabbing him by the shoulders, giving him a hard shake. “Did you know? Did you know what they did to me? What they had planned?”

He shakes John, repeating the questions over and over, until the questions dissolve into sobs. Sam collapses against his father. John wraps him in a nearly unbearable tight hug.

“I didn’t know, son. I didn’t know.”

Eventually, Sam runs out of tears. He feels shredded, raw. He pulls back from his father, wiping the tears and snot off his face with the forearm of his long sleeved t-shirt. He catches a glimpse of John blinking back his own tears as he does so.

“John.”

Sam turns to find Castiel--an angel, this man is an angel-- standing beside them. He regards them both impassively. “Time is short.”

“What’s going on, Dad? Where’s Dean?”

John scrubs his face with his open palm. “I’m going to stop this, son. I’m going to kill the bastard that killed your Mom. I’m not letting anyone get their hooks in you or Dean,” he pauses, emotion getting the best of him. “What that thing did to you...it doesn’t mean...”

“What? That I’m evil? I have demon blood in me.” Sam is doing his best to be strong, but knows he’s failing. There’s no disguising the fear in his voice.

“That is what they would like for you to believe,” Castiel interjects. “Your fate is not sealed. You still have the power to exercise the gift Father gave to only your kind.”

Sam shakes head. This can’t be happening.

“Only man can exercise the right of free will. You will always have a choice.”

Sam must look as confused as he feels. Another look of aggravation crosses Castiel’s face, but he presses on. “Angels cannot inhabit a vessel without consent. Lucifer may rule Hell, but he is still an archangel. You have the choice to deny him the right to possess you, though I will not pretend that will be an easy task. If it comes to that,” he adds quickly.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re going to stop this before it even gets a chance to start.” John says with renewed resolve.

“We?”

“The destruction of mankind is not Father’s plan. This is an affront to him and to the heavenly host. I will assist your father, for as long as is necessary, in his endeavor to destroy the threat against mankind.” Castiel glances at his father. “To you and your brother.”

Sam looks from Castiel to his father and back again. He can’t accept their words; it’s all too fantastic. It can’t possibly be real. Is this a nightmare? A trick?

“Christo!” Sam barks and John smirks approvingly.

Castiel mutters something under his breath. “We do not have time for this.” He turns to John. “You seek the demon that killed your wife, yet you have not protected your sons or yourself against possession. Nor do you know how to protect yourselves from the angelic threat against you. These are forces that you cannot hope to best alone and yet, we are standing here wasting valuable time. Tell your son what he must do and let us be done with this.”

“Dad?”

“Sam, I need you to take Dean.” John blurts out.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“Rachel.” Castiel calls out. The space behind them shimmers and what was previously an empty space is suddenly occupied by Latin-American woman with a child in her arms. She whispers in the child’s ear and pushes him gently towards them.

“Take your brother, Samuel.” Castiel orders him.

“What? What the hell are you talking about? Dad? I thought he was just hurt.”

John slumps back into the chair. “The witch attacked him. I killed her, but it was too late.”

The image of the small child flashes in his mind. It’s all too much. Sam backs away from them until he hits the motel door. He’s glad for its support; he doesn’t think he could stand otherwise. He closes his eyes against the reality in front of him.

“No. No,” he mutters. This madness isn’t his life anymore. He has school, a future, maybe if things keep going the way they have, he can maybe even have something more with Jess.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” John offers, sounding as overwhelmed as Sam feels.

“Are you shitting me?! A lot to take in?!”

“Lower your voice, Samuel.” Castiel growls.

Resentment rushes through Sam’s body, like a flame. He opens his eyes, stands quickly, ready to rage at the angel. Ready to rail against the injustice of everything that’s been laid at his feet during their conversation, but is stopped short by the sight of Dean clinging to Castiel’s leg, hiding his face in the angel’s pant leg.

“There is no need to be afraid, Dean.” Castiel says to Dean, but Dean shakes his head. His little body shakes as he begins to cry. Sam looks at the angel imploringly, begging silently for him to make Dean stop, but Castiel only regards him impassively, waiting for Sam to act.

Sam kneels down and gently touches Dean’s shoulder. He jerks away from the touch and Sam’s heart lurches into his throat. His brother is afraid of him.

Kuwlshadow's Prompt

“It’s okay, Dean. It’s me; it’s Sammy.”

Dean presses his face even more firmly to Castiel’s leg.

Sam stands back up. He glances past the angel to his father, who looks as miserable as Sam feels. Suddenly, Dean lets Castiel go and runs back to the woman. She scoops him up and cradles him close. Golden wings materialize behind her and fold in, shielding Dean from them.

“Perhaps it is not wise to leave the child in his care.” She shoots Sam a disparaging glance. Sam is too awestruck to be insulted. It was one thing to see Castiel’s wings in the vision, seeing them with his own eyes is another matter entirely. Sam’s mind reels.

“Samuel.” Castiel snaps, bringing Sam’s attention back to him. “I apologize. I understand this is an overwhelming amount of information for you to process.”

Sam recoils at the man’s voice. His body trembles. Overwrought with emotion, Sam feels as if he will break apart with the weight of everything that’s been revealed to him.

“Breathe, Samuel.” Castiel commands, resting his fingers once again on Sam’s forehead. Calm washes over him. He feels grounded, safe. “I need you to focus on the task at hand.”

Sam takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly and nods. He takes a moment to gather his thoughts and finds his voice.

“What’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he,” Sam struggles to get the words out, but just can’t give voice to his fear that Dean doesn’t know who he is, doesn’t remember Sam is his little brother. “Dad?”

John swallows hard, a single tear tracking down his face. “I don’t think he remembers us.” His voice cracks, and he begins to cry in earnest. Strangely, it’s the sight of his father’s tears that frightens Sam the most. “It’s just like before. He won’t talk. He barely eats. He won’t let me touch him. Only Rachel or Castiel.”

“You’re an angel. Can’t you fix him?” Sam asks Castiel, not even bothering to mask his panic.

Castiel shakes his head. “I could restore his physical being, but could never recreate twenty-two years of knowledge, of memories. The human mind is a fragile and infinitely intricate instrument. It is better for him to remain as he is. He has, in a way, been reborn.”

“It’s a second chance, kid.” John offers, sounding as if he’s trying to convince himself as much as he is Sam.

“Oh, God.” Sam whimpers, falling to his knees as the reality of Castiel’s words sink in. He has lost his brother.

~~~

Castiel watches the Winchesters sleep. He had no choice but to force them into slumber. All three Winchesters were close to their emotional and physical limits. It is, he supposes, a great deal of knowledge for something as limited as the human mind to process. He hopes this respite will help center them. He needs John Winchester in full fighting form, something Castiel knows will not happen, unless John is assured of his children’s safety. Castiel understands that by human standards, John has been a less than perfect parent. John has made a great many mistakes in the care and raising of his children but has, Castiel can sense, always loved them fiercely. Dean rolls over in his sleep, turning his body towards Sam. Humans are complex, but ultimately frail creatures. The smallest things are capable of causing them irreparable harm. Castiel hopes his promise to keep Samuel and Dean safe will not turn out to be a lie.

 

Rachel returns from patrol, materializing in the small space between the beds. Castiel was prepared to move forward alone, but Rachel insisted she could offer her momentary assistance. It is a risk for her, but Castiel has no doubt that once he succeeds and Zachariah’s treason is revealed, her small act of loyalty will be handsomely rewarded.

Rachel takes the youngest Winchester into her arms, resting his head on her shoulder and begins rubbing his back.

“We are clear.” She informs him.

“You seem to have grown quite attached to the boy.”

Rachel affords him a cautious smile. “This one is special. I can feel it.”

Castiel considers the ethics of what he is about to do, but dismisses any qualms he might have about it. There are occasions when the results outweigh the means.

“He is. I feel it as well.” He pauses, making sure he has her attention. She pauses in her ministrations, waiting for him to continue. “It pains me to say so, but Samuel is out of his depth. He lacks the knowledge and strength to truly protect his brother. He is tainted, susceptible in his anger to the demonic forces that wish to manipulate him. With my attentions focused on assisting their father, I do not know that I will be able to protect Dean and help Samuel stay the course.”

He waits. Rachel is young, eager and -most importantly- so very ambitious. She considers his words for only a moment before offering her services until the battle is done. Just like that, they are an army of two.

They ward the Winchesters while they sleep. Enochian runes are etched into their ribs to hide them from their brethren. (Rachel balks at this, but Castiel assures her there are human ways for them to remain in contact with the Winchesters.) Invisible wards protecting them from demon possession are carved into their skin. They cannot cleanse Samuel fully of the demon blood, but mitigate it as best they can. It is the best they can do for now.

~~~

Sam wakes to find his father watching him from the opposite bed. Sam sits up slowly, his whole body aches and his head is pounding.

“What happened? I feel horrible.” He tells his father.

John nods. “It’s the wards.” He says this as if it were something Sam should know. Irritation sparks in Sam’s gut.

“They’re protection wards,” John adds quickly, as if sensing his annoyance. “Castiel placed them on us. They’ll keep the angels from finding us and keep the demons from being able to possess us.”

“That’s a thing?” Sam gapes.

John nods again. “I’ve been so reckless. The more I learn, the more I realize I had no idea what I was really dealing with. I thought I was prepared, but this.” He smiles sadly. “I’m sorry, Sam.” He pauses and takes a deep breath, as if seeking strength to do something he would rather not. “I’m sorry it’s so hard for us to get along, that I pushed you away. I never meant the silence between us to go on for so long. I just wanted you and your brother safe... I wish this hadn’t had to be the thing that finally got us to talk again.”

Sam fights the urge to roll his eyes. There are a lot of things left unaddressed in his apology, but it is one and one Sam never thought he’d get. He nods, not feeling it’s safe for him to say anything. He understands his father is extending him an olive branch and he’ll take it. They’ve got much larger problems to deal with than Sam’s hurt feelings.

“Anyway,” John says, standing up. “I know this wasn’t the best birthday surprise, but Happy Birthday, son.”

 

In the chaos of the day, Sam had forgotten all about his birthday. John hasn’t always been the best at remembering their birthdays. Sam wishes the fact John remembered didn’t please him quite so much. He stands and hugs his father, “Thanks, Dad.” And then it hits him. “Oh, God. What time is it?”

John glances at his watch. “2130.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Sam mutters, patting his jean pockets. Not finding his cell phone there, he rushes to the door and grabs his bag. He plucks his cellphone out of the side pocket and flicks it open. “Fuck.” There are a half a dozen missed calls and even more text messages, all from Jess. They start out annoyed then graduate to angry, but are eventually filled with concern for him.

“Jess?” His father asks and Sam is at a momentary loss for words. John laughs at Sam’s confused expression. “Like I said, just because you didn’t know I was checking up on you doesn’t mean I wasn’t.”

Sam types out a hurried text, apologizing, assuring her he is okay and promising to explain everything soon. She calls just seconds after he sends the text. He mutes his phone and shoves it in his pocket.

Just then Castiel and Rachel appear, startling Sam so badly he drops the phone. John has his gun out, but puts it away when he realizes it’s them.

“You’ve got to stop doing that,” John admonishes. “And next time you leave and take the kid, leave a damn note. I was worried.”

“He required sustenance,” Rachel tells them dismissively.

Hope blooms on John’s face. “He spoke to you?”

“He does not need to speak for me to know what he is thinking.” She sits Dean down at the table and sets a Happy Meal in front of him. “You must eat, little one.” She coos. Dean smiles at her and pops a fry in his mouth.

Sam bristles at her manner. He doesn’t like the proprietary way Rachel handles his brother. It’s as if he and John don’t even matter anymore. What right does she have? Dean is his brother. If anyone is going to take care of Dean, it’s Sam.

The fundamental truth of that sentiment slams into him. Whatever doubts or fears he has don’t matter. Dean took care of him his entire life, was there when his father wasn’t. He was the one who encouraged Sam with school. He made sure Sam had whatever he needed, even if it meant Dean went without. Tears well in his eyes. He’ll never get that Dean back; he knows that now. He bites back the urge to cry. He’ll have time to mourn, but for now, this Dean is here and it’s not going to be some angel who watches over his brother. It’s going to be him. He looks to his father then Castiel.

“All right, what do you want me to do?”

~~~

What they do is talk. They’ve been at it most of the night, avoiding any discussion of the past and focusing instead of the logistics of Sam becoming Dean’s primary care giver. (Sam asks about what John plans to do about the demon, but thinks better of it. Maybe it’s best if he doesn’t know details.) Sam is tired and only half listening to John tell him he’s asked Bobby to secure documents for Dean, a birth certificate and social security number, when it occurs to him that he has class in less than six hours. Sam has no idea what he’s supposed to do with Dean while in class, let alone what he’ll do about the remainder of the quarter, which doesn’t end until mid-June. He’s living in the dorms and even though his course load is lighter than it was last quarter, he still has to work. He supposes he could ask for a leave of absence, but he’s unsure how that would impact his financial aid and his work-study position. Would he be eligible for a refund? Would he have to pay back his tuition? He’s managed to not have to take out a student loan and would prefer not to, but…

“Sam, you with me?”

John’s words snap Sam back to the conversation at hand.

“How am I supposed to do this, Dad? I have classes and work. I live in the damn dorm.” It feels petty to bring up school when they’re talking about averting the Apocalypse, but he can’t pretend it doesn’t matter to him.

They’re seated at the small table in the motel room. Castiel and Rachel had left hours before at John’s request, telling them he needed time to talk to Sam alone. Sam has no idea where they’ve gone. Dean is still fast asleep. Part of Sam still can’t believe it’s really him.

John takes a moment, as if he’s searching for just the right words. “Shit,” he whispers, then says to Sam, “there’s just no good way to say this.”

Sam’s gut clenches.

“You can’t stay here.”

John steamrolls past Sam’s outraged objection. He tells Sam Palo Alto is too dangerous then shatters Sam’s sense of safety by informing Sam that Castiel has learned his roommate, Brady, is possessed. John shares his theory that Brady is part of the plan to manipulate Sam into turning against his family, against Dean. Sam’s instinct is to deny the possibility, but considering all he’s learned, that seems foolish. He thinks back to his interactions with Brady this quarter, but doesn’t waste time thinking about it too much. He doesn’t imagine a demon would be stupid enough to advertise his intent. But there’s still Jess, whom he thinks he might actually be ready to be serious with, whom he only recently realized he loves. How can he leave her?

“It’s a lot to give up, I know, but I’m not asking you to give up school. I’m just asking you do it somewhere else, somewhere we can protect you and Dean.”

Sam can’t handle the grief rushing through him, so he shuts down. He listens to his father’s plan, agreeing to it all, (even being listed as Dean’s father instead of his brother on Dean’s new paperwork), knowing deep down that he’s not going to choose Stanford or Jess over Dean. He’s not going to imperil the world to become a goddamn lawyer.

~~~

Jess arrives at the diner early. She hasn’t forgiven Sam for missing his own birthday party, but she’s willing to hear him out. She’d spent half the night trying to decipher his one cryptic text, vacillating between anger and fear. She’d crafted so many scenarios in her head- an accident, another girl- by morning she hadn’t known what to think. She’d been relieved to receive his call but was instantly on alert when she heard how distant and broken he’d sounded during their short phone conversation this morning.

She fiddles with her cutlery and does her best to tamp down her anxiety. She can’t help but feel something horrible has happened. For a horrifying moment, she wonders if he’s decided to break up with her, but immediately chastises herself. She reminds herself she’s not that type of girl. She’s not going to lose her shit because the guy she’s dating is acting cagey all of a sudden. Except where Sam is concerned, she’s never quite been herself. She hasn’t said it, not to him or to anyone, but she loves Sam. Loves his determination, his strength. He’s beautiful and sweet and so committed to making the world a better place. He makes her laugh and his touch, God, it makes her want to burn.

The waitress arrives and she orders coffee. Her stomach is in knots; she doesn’t know if she’ll even be able to drink it. The waitress leaves, unblocking Jess’s view of the doorway and revealing Sam, standing at the hostess table, holding a little boy in his arms. He sees her. He points in her direction and the hostess gestures for him to go ahead. Jess tries to school her expression, tries to remain calm and nonchalant. She’s not sure she succeeds. Sam approaches her with a pained expression; he looks almost ashamed.

“Hey, Jess.”

She nods a greeting, unable to tear her gaze away from the little boy. She can’t really see his face for the way his arms are wrapped around Sam’s neck. What the hell is going on, she wonders.

Sam whispers something in the boy’s ear; the boy shakes his head. Sam shifts him onto his hip and carefully slides into the booth, then settles the boy in his lap. The boy doesn’t look at Jess once.

The waitress returns with menus, a paper place mat and a cup with a few crayons in it. The boy takes the paper and crayons and busies himself with coloring.  Sam orders a coffee and chocolate milk in a kid’s cup.

“I’m so sorry about yesterday,” he says the moment the waitress leaves.

Jess couldn’t care less about his damn birthday party. “Do you want to me introduce me to your friend?” She asks.

Sam grimaces at her tone. “About that.” He pauses as the waitress drops off their drinks. She asks if they’re ready to order, but perhaps sensing the tension between them, she retreats, saying she’ll give them a few minutes.

Sam sighs. He looks exhausted and defeated. Jess fights the urge to demand answers. It’s obvious, something monumental has happened in Sam’s life. She hopes whatever it is, it’s something their burgeoning relationship can survive.

 

She listens to his carefully edited story. It has to be, little ears and all that. She didn’t think Sam was the type of man to use a child as a shield, but that’s what he’s done. He’s brought her to a public place to have a conversation that by all standards of common decency should be had in private and ensured her quiet acceptance by bringing along his son. HIS.SON.  How could he do that to her? To him! She has so many questions, but she can’t ask them here. She could have forgiven him anything. He was young. He made a mistake. They could have worked it all out. They could have figured out a way for him to remain in school. How could he doubt she would help him? Wouldn’t want to be with him? But he took the opportunity to do so away from her. He’s removing himself from her life without even giving her a choice. How could he have so little respect for her?

Sam watches her, waiting. She doesn’t know what the hell for, for her to flip out? Say it’s okay? What? What does he expect? She can feel her face is hot with anger. She wants to scream; she wants to bash his sad, beautiful face in with her bare fist. She doesn’t say a word. She can’t. She feels like she is losing her fucking mind. Who is this person?  She’s furious and heartbroken. Tears well up in her eyes, threatening to spill over and she knows she has to get away. She slips out of the booth. He doesn’t acknowledge she’s leaving and neither does Dean. Sam continues to stare at the table top with that stupid, sheepish expression of his. For a moment, rage manages to obliterate every emotion, every thought. It gives the strength to at least have the last word.

“You’re a bastard for doing this this way. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive you for that.”

~~~

Rachel watches from the back seat of their vehicle as Samuel stalks out of the diner, Dean clinging to his neck. He looks murderous. If Samuel were ever to fully realize his powers, he could burn down the world with that look, she thinks. She wants to ask Castiel his opinion, but he is not present. (His vessel has sat empty beside her for several minutes.)  Perhaps she should wait to ask, but she is curious. There is so much more about Samuel she needs to know. Of all the Winchesters, she understands his motivations, his value, the least. Why does Castiel refuse to remove him from the equation? If Samuel ceases to exist, there will be no vessel for Lucifer to occupy. Their mission would be complete. But that course of action is out of the question. Castiel had not held back from sharing his displeasure with her, when she inquired about it. She senses he is more fond of these three humans than he would like for them or her to know. Part of her wishes she shared Castiel’s affinity for the elder Winchesters.

If she were more skilled, she could perhaps understand John and Samuel better. In her experience, though, humans have proven themselves difficult to decipher. Their words so often contradict their thoughts, which in turn are, more often than not, directly in conflict with their actual needs. So, despite the fact it is against protocol to delve into a human’s thoughts, Rachel has found doing so incredibly helpful. She thinks nothing of allowing herself into Samuel’s mind, but immediately wishes she hadn’t. His thoughts are a swirling morass of emotion; they are like blades,cutting into her.

She feels Castiel return to his vessel and quickly pulls away from Samuel. Castiel glowers at her in disapproval.  She’s saved from his rebuke by Samuel yanking the door of their vehicle, Baby, as John continues to refer to it, open.

“I hate you for making me do that,” Samuel spits at Castiel, as he and Dean slide into the front seat of the Impala.

“I am sorry you feel that way.” Castiel says cooly. “It is for the best. ”

“Best for who?” Sam growls. His face contorted with sorrow.  Dean, silent as ever, crawls over the front seat, Rachel helps him into her lap.

“They would have used her against you. She would have suffered.” Castiel continues.

Samuel ignores him and turns to his father. “We could have told her! I could have asked her to come with us!”

Before John can respond, Castiel answers, irritation hardening his words. “Do you imagine she would understand? Do you, as a human, who has spent a lifetime knowing of the existence of supernatural forces, truly comprehend the scope of all that has been revealed to you? As untethered and helpless as you feel, you imagine she would somehow accept these truths more easily?”

Samuel bites his lip, tears track down his cheeks. Rachel wishes Castiel would not be so stern. She wonders, if she should intervene, but thinks better of it. Castiel is her superior. She must trust he knows the best path for them to follow. Dean burrows into her crook of her arm and shoves his thumb in his mouth. She reaches for Dean, assessing his emotions. He is feeling confused and insecure, but seems to understand no harm will come to him while she is with him.

“You feel the weight of the world on you Samuel; are you truly so eager to have her join you in being crushed beneath it?” Castiel says, softening his tone.

Samuel looks again to his father, who says nothing, but gestures for Samuel to come to him. Surprisingly, Sam does.

They sit in the vehicle and listen to Samuel weep.

~~~

The tall man, Sam, keeps telling everyone Dean is his son. The old ladies were they eat and the girls at the gas stations they stop at seem to think that’s ‘just adorable’. Dean’s not sure what to think. It feels like Sam is important, but  at the same time feels like maybe what he says isn’t true. It’s confusing. Dean doesn’t remember Sam from before. He only remembers waking up in the dark place with Cas-ti-el and the other man, John. Sam says John is his gran-fa-der. Dean’s not so sure about that either, like Sam, he doesn’t remember him and anyway, Dean’s not sure he wants them to be his family. They’re big and scary. They get angry or sad a lot, sometimes they fight with each other, sometimes with Cas and Rachel. (Cas and Rachel aren’t here now, but Rachel promised they’d been back soon.) Sometimes, Dean wishes Cas and Rachel were his mommy and daddy instead. He asked Rachel if she was his mommy once -he knows all boys and girls have one, though he doesn’t know how he knows that-she said no, but promised she would always watch over him, so it’s okay.

Dean doesn’t know how to make words yet. He can spell his name-D-E-A-N and he knows his letters. He copies words from the picture books Sam got for him into his coloring books, but it’s just letters all put together. He doesn’t know what the letters all put together mean. Maybe, Rachel can teach him, then he can write Sam and ask where his mommy is. He doesn’t want to ask out loud. He doesn’t know why, but using his words feels wrong, like bad things will happen if he does. Sam says it’s okay if he doesn’t talk. Dean’s been quiet ever since the dark place. Maybe his mouth doesn’t even work anymore. Every night before they go to bed, Sam shows Dean videos on his computer of people talking with their hands, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

So far, the best thing about being with Sam and John is the big, black car they ride in. They spend A LOT of time in the car. Her name is Baby and John says she is the best car in the world. Dean likes her. She’s strong, like a tank. He feels safe, all bundled up in the backseat with his new toys and books all around him. Sam made John buy a special seat for Dean. It sits right in the middle of backseat and when sitting in it he can see everything. He likes to watch the trees and lights and places they drive through fly by. It makes him feel really good. He loves the car. He hopes one day, she’ll get to be his baby too.

 

“You okay, back there big guy?” John asks, “You hungry? Need to use the potty?”

Sam turns around to look at him; he looks sad again. He tries to hide it, but Dean knows. He wants to ask if it’s because of him, but he’s afraid of what Sam will say.

“What do you think, buddy?” John asks.

Dean can see John’s eyes in the mirror. He can tell by all the crinkles around them, he’s smiling. Dean likes it when John is happy. Being John’s family doesn’t feel bad when he’s happy. It fills Dean up inside to know he’s behaved good.  Maybe when Dean can write words or make the right words with his hands, he’ll ask John about calling him something else, not gran-fa-der, that’s too hard, but something like that.  

Dean thinks about nodding yes, he kind of does need to go, but he shakes his head. He knows John doesn’t like to stop too much. Sam makes a funny face at that, that Dean doesn’t understand and tells John to stop at the next rest area. John makes a grunty noise and it makes Dean mad. He can’t help himself, he makes a grunty sound too. He wants Sam to know that’s not what Dean wanted.

Sam grins and then scrunches his face and crosses his eyes. “Maybe you can hold it, but I can’t.”

Dean doesn’t want to, but he smiles, because Sam is being silly and John is laughing softly and Baby is flying down the highway and right now, everything is good. If this is what being a Win-ches-er is, then maybe it’s not too bad.

~~~

Sam had two days to take care of his personal matters. It wasn’t nearly enough time, but John couldn’t be convinced to delay their drive to South Dakota any longer than that. Castiel considered the delay an utter waste of time. Sam had a few choice words for him when he’d told Sam that. He withdrew from school, quit his job, closed out his bank account, packed his meager belongings and fled his dorm without saying a word to anyone about his leaving. He itched to text or call Jess, to try to explain, but knew it wasn’t safe. It was only his frenzied departure that kept him from thinking too much about her or about the fact he was letting go of his dream. They’d driven out of Palo Alto less than 48 hours after John had first approached him on the quad. He watched Stanford disappear in the mirror and with it all of his hopes for the future.

Two weeks later, they’re still no closer to Sioux Falls. John had promised to get them there as quickly as possible, but between the circuitous route John chose, the meetings with John’s contacts and their shortened driving times, it’s taking much longer than it ever did when he was a kid. Sam supposes he could subject Dean to the sixteen hour car rides they used to endure, but Sam won’t let his Dad treat Dean the same way he did the first time around. If Sam is going to fill the role of Dean’s father then he’s going to do things his way.

Not that he’s finding that charade easy to pull off. Logically, he understands why it’s simpler for Dean to be his. It draws less attention for Dean to be his son than his brother. It’s an easier story to tell, one that will draw less questions. One that affords Sam legal rights and privileges that legal guardianship over Dean wouldn’t. It will even give Sam access to more funding opportunities when he does re-enroll in school.  He gets it; he does, but it’s still difficult to let go of the idea that this is his brother. This is the Dean who taught him how to ride a bike and make spaghetti. Except, the more time he spends with the kid, the more he realizes that no, this child isn’t that person. There are glimpses of the Dean he knew, his mischievousness, his stubborn nature, but this person is a clean slate. Sam thinks about what his brother endured, the burden of responsibility he was forced to carry, and knows he would do anything to keep Dean from having to experience that again. So, even if it is not what Sam would have chosen, (he would have chosen for his Dean to be here now, helping him and his father fight Heaven and Hell), he decides to embrace it. What better way to honor the man Dean was than to helping this child become as smart and resourceful as his brother was?

Sam glances back at Dean. He’s still not speaking, but isn’t as standoffish or afraid as he was those first few days. Castiel and Rachel left just before they departed Palo Alto. They check in every few days, but have remained tight lipped about what it is they’re doing. Sam’s sure his father knows all the details, more and more Sam is happy to be left out of it. For the past two weeks it’s been just the three of them; Sam thinks that’s probably a good thing. Dean has slowly warmed to them. He’s less shy with them, more affectionate and more demanding of their attention.

When their inability to communicate with Dean, causes Dean to have a meltdown in the middle of a supermarket, Sam decides he’s had enough of waiting for Dean’s muteness to resolve itself. Dean is his now. He can’t force Dean to talk. (He knows from what his father’s told him that Dean didn’t speak for six months after their mother died. Sam has no idea how their father managed.) But Dean needs a voice and Sam is determined to give him one.  He begins teaching Dean sign language, watching the videos with him and demanding John practice with them. Dean takes it all in, just watching at first, but eventually joins Sam and John in making the signs. It’s frustrating and difficult for Sam to tell if it’s doing any good, but Sam keeps working with him.

They’re in a convenience store the first time Dean opens his hand and taps his thumb to his forehead “dad” then quickly cups his hand in an upside down C shape and pulls it down in front of his chest “hungry”. It takes a moment for Sam to realize Dean is addressing him and not John. He’s elated for little Dean and full of yearning for his adult brother. Sam doesn’t have time to dwell on his conflicting feelings though. Dean is hungry and tugging insistently on his sleeve with one hand while making the sign for hungry with other.

“Guess you better feed the kid,” John says. Sam can’t imagine John feels about Sam being called Dad. His expression is impossible to interpret.

Dean tugs on his sleeves again, when he has Sam’s attention, cups his hand behind his ear (hear) then with his open hand taps his thumb to his forehead once before bouncing his open hand forward (grandad). John’s eyes go wide at Dean referring to him that way. He frowns, but quickly gathers himself.

“I’m going to wait outside,” he says then rushes outside.

Dean glances up at Sam confused by John’s departure. He makes the sign for grandad, scrunches his face like he’s angry and brings a claw shaped hand to his face (mad) then points to himself (me).

Sometimes Sam thinks, it’s alarming how this Dean is so much like his former self. He scoops Dean up, resting him on his hip. “No, of course not.”

Dean eases back, looking at Sam as if he’s not sure.

“I promise.” Sam assures him and tries not to be pissed off that John has managed to take away from Dean’s moment of triumph. Dean nods and makes the sign for hungry one more time. Sam can’t help but laugh at Dean’s hopeful expression, the same expression he’d shoot Sam when it was Dean behind the wheel rather their father. “How about some burgers, Sammy?”

Sam squeezes Dean tightly until he begins to squirm.

The extended road trip, along with giving Sam time to bond with Dean, has the bonus benefit of giving him and his dad an opportunity to talk. It’s difficult at first, neither used to interacting with each other as anything other than adversaries. There are arguments and silent stand-offs, but eventually things settle. For the first time in Sam’s life, it feels like John and Sam are on the same page. It fills Sam with more satisfaction and guilt than he’d like to admit. For as much as he’s glad to reconcile with John, he realizes that it’s Dean’s absence that makes it possible. Sam had always felt like an outsider in his own family, somehow apart from their small unit. John and Dean were a team. Dean was his father’s perfect soldier, a believer, while Sam questioned everything, demanded more, not satisfied to just take his father’s word as law. There was no role for Sam to fill, if he wasn’t willing to toe the line. Back then, John’s refusal to listen, to consider Sam’s opinions had felt like a rejection of who Sam was. He wasn’t good enough; he didn’t belong. He doesn’t think John or Dean saw it that way, but that’s certainly the way it felt. Though Dean tried hard to act as an intermediary, Sam wonders whether it did more harm than good. Both John and Sam relied on Dean to be the bridge between them rather than forming their own relationship. With the old Dean gone, John has no choice but to make his relationship with Sam work. He’s been forced to see Sam for who Sam is rather than the idea of Sam- petulant, disrespectful, taciturn- he’s carried around in his head for so long. For Sam’s part, he has a much better understanding of his father. He still doesn’t agree with a lot of his methods and he hasn’t forgiven him for all he put them through growing up, but he can at least appreciate John’s perspective. He’s not sure he ever would have had the opportunity to do that with Dean acting as interpreter between them. Sam glances at Dean sitting in the backseat and wishes their new found relationship hadn’t come at such a high price.

 

It startles Sam how quickly their new lives begins to feel normal to him. Sam still mourns his life and Jess. He’s almost called her more times than he cares to count, but hasn’t. He wishes he hadn’t had to dump his phone, he could have held onto the hope she’d one day call him if he hadn’t. He grieves her and the loss of his dream, but it’s easy to shove those feelings aside. One day, when this is all over, the enormity of all that’s happened will crash down on him. But they have work to do , so he focuses on Dean, making sure he has books and toys to keep him occupied. That he keeps learning. Sam studies the different devil traps and wards Castiel showed him and John and runs through their newly learned exorcisms. He reviews his father’s journal and studies the information Castiel imparted to John. The more he learns, the more he’s astounded that John managed to survive as long as he has. If the demon hasn’t come for John or them, it’s only because it’s been biding its time, waiting for the right time to strike. It could have taken any of them at any time; John wouldn’t have been able to protect them. It’s frightening to realize just how vulnerable they’ve all been. If there is anything good to come out of this, it’s the knowledge that they will never be exposed like that again. They’re a team now and nothing is ever going to come between the three of them again.

~~~

John watches as Sam works with Dean on his signs. Sam found a website for teaching young children sign language and has been using that and a book on signing to teach Dean ASL. He makes John follow along, insisting he learn as well. While John is better about it now, initially, he’d resisted Sam’s efforts to involve him, in part he thinks because he’d failed to do anything for Dean the first time this happened. John didn’t have the internet back then but he did have the option to settle down and get Dean the help he needed or at least, get help for himself. Maybe if he had his shit more together back then, he could have helped Dean deal with everything that happened. John wishes things had been different, wishes he hadn’t been so rash, so consumed with grief and fear. Hunting the demon that killed Mary down was never not an option, but he could have been so much smarter about everything. It’s difficult to accept that he’s been a less than stellar father, ( he doesn’t even want to consider what Mary would say if she could see what’s he’s put their kids through). He’s been his kids’ drill sergeant more than he’s been their dad, but it’s not because he doesn’t love his boys. The mission wasn’t just about revenge. It was also about ensuring their safety...except that while he was keeping them safe from the thing that killed Mary, he exposed them to all other kinds of dangers. Hell, he couldn’t protect in Dean in the end.

Dean finishes his signs and Sam high-fives him, telling him what a good job he’s done and then giving him a tight squeeze. Dean giggles and shoves out of Sam’s arms, but doesn’t move off him. Instead he points to his small backpack and makes a writing motion with his hand.

Sam takes Dean’s practice book and a fat pencil out of the bag. He closes the laptop, so Dean can use it as a writing surface and begins helping Dean practice his writing. Dean looks to Sam for his approval after finishing each letter.

Regret and shame burn in John’s chest, remembering the times John’s misdirected anxiety or frustration had wiped that same hopeful look off older Dean’s face. John has spent years rationalizing his actions, but the more he watches Sam with Dean, the less he’s able to believe in any of the stories he’s told himself.  Sam glances at John and smiles, pride in his brother evident. Dean looks up, following Sam’s gaze. He watches John expectantly. John shoves aside his guilt and worry.  He’s made a lot of mistakes, but maybe this is his chance to right those wrongs.

John nods and signs good. Dean’s smile widens, impossibly big and contagious. He looks back to Sam as if to confirm that he saw John say Dean did good then turns back to his notebook.

John makes a silent promise to never fail his sons again.

 

The harsh ringing of his phone startles John out of sleep. He grabs it quickly off the nightstand and glances over at Sam’s bed, both Sam and Dean are awake and watching him intently. He glances at the screen.

“It’s Castiel,” he tells them as he answers the phone.

“What is your location?” Castiel asks as way of a greeting. John tells him, immediately afterwards there is a knock on the door.  “Open the door, John.” Castiel voices echoes in John’s ear, as Castiel calls from the other side of the door.

John hangs up and moves to let them in. He glances through the small peep hole and then opens the door. Castiel and Rachel stand in dim light cast by the outdoor light fixture.

“It is time.”

 

John checks his duffel for the last time then prepares to go. Castiel and Rachel have a lead on the demon. They have to act quickly before the opportunity to attack disappears. Sam sits on the edge of the bed and looks on as he prepares to go. His expression is as grave as it was when it was Dean who John was leaving in charge. Dean is busy with Rachel. He’s showing her the signs he’s learned and finger spelling her name. John checks his weapon then stows it. He knows it won’t do any good against the demon, but can’t be without it. Everyone needs their good luck charms. He zips up the duffel bag and lets Castiel know he’s ready.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you soon, son.” He tells Sam. Sam nods in acknowledgement and John hesitates. God knows, the last thing he wants is a protracted goodbye, but even more than that he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to say what he needs to in case this is the last time he and Sam speak. “I know I haven’t been the best at proving it to you, but I love you, son. You’re a good man and I’m proud of you. I want you to know that.”

Sam nods again, looking a bit shell-shocked.

“Take care of Dean, all right?”

“Always,” Sam manages to croak out.

John hugs Sam, holding on for longer than he should. He pulls away, clearing his throat loudly and takes Dean from Rachel. He smiles, doing his best to mask his anxiety.

“You be good for Daddy, all right?” He omits the “your” allowing himself the illusion that this Dean is still his.

Dean nods excitedly. John presses a kiss to his cheek, wishing he hadn’t wasted so much time not showing his children the affection they needed. “I love you, buddy.”

He squeezes Dean tightly, not wanting to ever let him go. When he finally pulls away, Dean signs “I love you” then “grandad”.

“John.” Castiel interrupts. “Time is of the essence.”

John sighs impatiently. “I just need a minute,” he tells the angels then turns back to Sam. “I want you to have these.” He lifts the duffel to reveal his journal. Dean’s Colt and the amulet Sam gave Dean sit on top of it. He hands all three to Sam. He plucks the keys to the Impala from the nightstand and hands those to Sam as well.

Sam, who already looked nervous and pale, now looks downright horrified. “No, Dad.”

John presses the keys into Sam’s palm and wraps Sam’s fingers around them firmly. “Take good care of her too.”

John gives his sons one last, long look. He hopes this isn’t the last time he’ll ever see them, but wants to take in every detail just in case it is. Castiel settles a heavy hand on his shoulder and the world disappears.

~~~~

Epilogue

Sam helps Dean to bed, turning on the lamp on his nightstand as Dean climbs in. He sits on the edge of Dean’s bed and pulls the blankets over him. “What do you want to read tonight?”

“My Father’s Dragon,” Dean says without hesitation. Sam doesn’t think he’ll ever tire of hearing Dean’s voice. It took months, but eventually, Dean did finally feel secure enough to speak again. He still signs when he’s tired or feeling shy, but relies on it less and less every day.

Sam plucks the book Dean’s small bookcase.

“You gotta do the voices, Daddy.”

Daddy. It’s been over a year and it still takes Sam aback sometimes to hear Dean address him that way.  Sam opens the book to where they’d left off the night before and begins to read.

“Wait!” Dean interrupts. “We forgot to say good night.”

“Right, sorry.”

Dean sits up and waits for Sam to begin. “Good night, Castiel.  Good night, Dad. Good night, Rachel.”

Dean recites the words along with Sam, exchanging Sam’s “Dad” for “Grandad”.  The ritual is a remembrance and a prayer for their eventual return. The demon has been dead for months, but there is still clean up to do, on Earth and in Heaven. Sam hopes that one day soon his dad will feel he’s done enough and come back to them.

“Ok. I’m ready.” Dean say, when they finish. He scoots back under the bed sheets and pulls the blankets up to his chin.

 

The original plan had been to get, with Bobby’s help, set up in his own apartment, a place of their own where Sam and Dean could build their new lives but that plan quickly fell by the wayside. After the first month, there didn’t seem to be much point in looking for his own place. Sam was still trying to come to terms with everything that had happened and Bobby was more than happy to have them continue to live with him.  Sam was grateful for the shelter (there isn’t any place more well secured against the supernatural than Singer Salvage) and the help with Dean, especially when the emotional breakdown Sam knew would come, finally did. Sam tries not to think too much about what would have happened if he’d been alone with Dean during those debilitating weeks of depression. He’s not sure either of them would have survived it if it hadn’t been for Bobby’s care.

 

Sam glances around Dean’s bedroom, filled with toys and books, all the comforts he and Dean never had. For the first time since his Dad showed up in Stanford, Sam allows himself to feel truly hopeful for their future.  Dean is speaking again. Sam is back in school. He even has Jess back. He tips his head back, momentarily overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to build a new life and for all Bobby has done for them.

Sam sets the book back on the bookcase, turns off Dean’s light and kisses his forehead then turns on Dean’s nightlight, before heading back down stairs.

“He asleep?”  Bobby asks, looking up from the tome on his lap.

“Out like a light,” Sam answers, picking up one of the reference books stacked on the coffee table. “What’s this?”

“Doing some research on hell hounds for Rufus.”

“Where’s Jess?”

“In the panic room.” Bobby nods in the direction of the basement stairs. “Best let her be. She’s on a tear.”

Sam grins. He understands well that it’s best to leave Jess alone when inspiration strikes.

 

Jess arrived in Sioux Falls, less than six months after Sam and Dean, with a suitcase case full of her art supplies, a duffel full of clothes, a demand for an apology and a promise that she wasn’t going to let Sam run her off again.  Sam managed to stammer out an apology, not quite able to believe she’d come for him, and did his best to ignore Bobby’s barely contained laughter.  Bobby and Dean took to her immediately. After the first two weeks, there was never even a question that she’d be living somewhere else. And though Sam never got the full story of how she found them, from the recurring angelic themes of her work he can just well imagine.

 

Sam sets the book down, grabs his school bag from where it sits beside the couch. “Well, I’d love to help you with that, but.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bobby waves him off. “Go do your work. Always some excuse not to research.” Bobby grumbles. “The sooner you finish with your schooling the better.”

Sam laughs and squeezes his shoulder, as he heads to the kitchen.

 

Later that night, Sam’s reading and Bobby and Jess’ playful bickering over who is a bigger cheat at cards (Bobby, without question) is interrupted when Dean comes back down stairs. He’s not tired and he’s thirsty and didn’t get to say goodnight to Jess. He’s in Jess’ arms before Sam can insist he go back to bed. She wraps Dean in a tight hug, rocking him side to side, as she bombards him with kisses his forehead and then his cheeks. Dean giggles at her antics.

“Jess,” Sam warns, knowing it will be impossible to get Dean back to sleep once he gets too wound up. She grins and stands, setting Dean on her hip. “Okay, water and then bed.” She tells him.

Dean starts to protest, but she stops him with a shake of her head. “It’s way past your bedtime.”

Dean scowls unconvinced.

“But I’ll tell you what, since I didn’t get to read to your earlier, I’ll read to you now, okay?”

 

They return from the kitchen a few moments later and there is another round of goodnight hugs and kisses, before Jess hoists Dean back into her arms. She kisses his nose and asks if he’s ready to go and Dean loops his arms around her neck in response. Looking at them together, Sam can see why everyone thinks Jess is Dean’s mom. (They don’t say it to his face, but he’s heard the rumors.)  He wonders, if, maybe, one day that will be the case.

It occurs to him then that his dad had been more right than he could have possibly imagined the night he’d told Sam his plan. This was a second chance-not just for Dean- but for all of them.