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He didn't even know their names.

Dean shifted his grip on the body and began to drag it up the stairs of the war room. This one was a large man, bald, terry-cloth green shirt with streaks of sticky red on the front and black, burned holes where his eyes should have been. His heavy, military-style boots clunked and caught on each step as Dean tried to angle him to make for easier carrying. His back and arms screamed with the effort, that all-too-human bunch and seize of muscles that he'd never thought he'd live to experience. It sucked. In multiple ways, it sucked.

This was the fourth body Dean had dragged to the waiting pyre outside. Sam had carried Maggie up first and spent a few minutes just saying a private goodbye before coming back to help clear the rest. Dean had helped build the pyre too, wordlessly chopping wood and arranging it in a way that had almost become rote by now. Salting and burning a body in its coffin was one thing, but building a pyre meant a hunter's funeral, it meant the loss of a friend, and Dean had already had to build more than he liked to think about.

Cas had bundled Jack to his room for a long talk and an assessment of the damage that had been done. Despite Jack's proclamation that he was himself again and the show of those magnificent wings, there was something in the boy's glowing eyes that he didn't like, a coldness that hadn't been there before, an emptiness he was all too familiar with. He, Sam and Cas had exchanged looks, clearly they had all seen the same thing. So Cas was the one left to try and figure things out while he and Sam cleaned up the mess that Michael had made.

That Dean had made.

Rowena had made herself scarce pretty quickly after coming around, barely glancing at the bodies on her way out, exiting with a shaky farewell in an attempt of her trademark airy trill. Dean figured she'd be back soon enough, she might not have feared death at the hands of Michael but she had feared something, and Dean would bet his favourite knife that she'd be back to check whether or not Michael was truly dead.

Dean couldn't blame her for that one.

Dean dropped the body in order to wedge open the heavy door with one leg before grabbing it under its arms again and pulling it through and up the next few steps outside and laying it out on the gravel over the blood-smear where he had placed the last one.

He heard the sniff and swallow click in Sam's throat before he spoke, rounding the pyre where he'd been adding on a few more twigs.

"How many more?"

Dean shrugged. He hadn't counted and he didn't know them well enough to know off the top of his head but it didn't matter. Sam probably knew exactly how many more there were, he probably knew all of their names and counted them friends, he'd probably joined them at meals and laughed with them, he'd been 'Chief' after all; he'd known these people, cared about them, and now they were all dead.

"I just thought, we might need another pyre. Gerry's a big guy, and this one's already..." Sam trailed off and cleared his throat, that scraping little half-cough that sounded like a realignment of his thoughts. "We need another pyre," he concluded.

Dean nodded and went to pick up his axe. He doubted two pyres would be enough either.

Cas joined them about an hour later which considerably sped up the process; he could carry even the largest of bodies with ease and his angel strength made chopping down trees a one or two swing job.

They worked in silence while Sam rattled off his checklist of now many logs they needed and how many trees that would take and how to arrange the bodies, making sure to place close friends and family members together where he could. He stayed outside though, didn't retrieve any of the others himself. Dean wasn't surprised, he knew Sam well enough to know that right now, even the act of stepping in a direction he had not previously catalogued could cause the paperclips, rubber bands and will holding him up to snap, he was definitely not ready to confront the carnage that awaited him inside yet.

 

***

 

They'd needed six pyres in the end. There were way more bodies than just those in the war room and the library. Michael had been thorough; there were bodies in the kitchen, bodies in the corridors, in the bathrooms, storage rooms, archives. It sounded like a bad nursery rhyme:

 

A mother in the war room,

Her daughter by the door,

Her brother in the kitchen,

Sprawled out on the floor.

 

Each pyre had at least four corpses on it in an undignified, squashed half-pile. Sam's eyes were sunken and dark as he lit the first match, tossing it to the gasoline-soaked wood.

Dean watched on in silence. He hadn't known these people like his brother had, they'd felt more like invaders than guests to him and he'd avoided them when he could, choosing to stick to his room with a crate of beer and Netflix. But seeing that pain on his brother's face, knowing he was the cause of it… well that hurt something deeper than muscle fatigue.

Cas sidled up beside him and touched him on the shoulder,

"Are you all right?" He muttered quietly, barely audible over the crackle of flames and popping wood.

Dean scoffed and shrugged him off, jerking his chin over to Jack, who had emerged from the bunker and stood next to Sam now, his expression sombre.

"I don't know," Cas answered as though Dean had asked him a direct question, his own eyes sliding over to the boy, face creased with worry, his voice like a tensed string, "his body is as healthy as we could wish it, Michael's grace seemed to fix the physical damage but his soul… I just don't know, Dean, and I'm not sure Jack does either."

The smell of burning meat, which at any other time Dean would consider delicious, turned his stomach as it crawled over them, sickly and smothering. Sam stepped back, away from the flames, gagging a little and pulling Jack with him. This was the largest burning they'd ever done at once. Dean wondered if they'd have people in town worried about a forest fire or something, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Having more than one funeral would only drag out the process and Dean at least just wanted it done.

He turned for the bunker after only a few minutes. It wasn't right that he was there. He had killed those people. Good as slit their throats himself.

He hadn't had more than a single beer at a time since locking Michael in his mind-bar, had been too scared he'd get sloppy, lose concentration, let Michael out. But that hardly mattered any more, so he snagged a six-pack of beers and two unopened fifths of Johnnie Walker Black from the kitchen and stowed them in his room before re-emerging with a bottle of Borax and some heavy-duty cleaning gear. By the time Sam came back in, he planned to make sure there was no trace of what he'd done. If only it could be erased from their minds that easily.

Still, he set to work; stairs first, methodically working his way back from the door, attacking every little smear of blood, every speck of red, every loose fibre from a shirt or pair of pants. Removing the drag marks, the fine specks of dirt he'd tracked in from the multiple trips and all the evidence of the past few months of foot traffic. Water and soap sloshed in his bucket, the mop slapped onto the stone with each pass. He mopped the whole staircase first, and then he got a thick brush and set to scrubbing. Sam would want to stay outside until the pyres had finished their work, which would take hours, what with the sheer amount of heat it would take to burn all those corpses. At least he wouldn't freeze.

Dean ignored the ache in his arms and the quake of his knees as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He had a lot more than one staircase to get through before Sam came back in. It would take him several days to clean the entirety of the bunker, but he could at least make a path for Sam. The war room, the kitchen and the main corridor he could do. He could do this one good thing for his brother. Sam didn't need to see the blood of his friends half-curdled in sticky pools winking back at him in the low light, he didn't need to risk stepping in one on the way to his room. Dean had the power to spare him that at least. So he scrubbed. He scrubbed for hours, until his hands were red-raw and starting to bleed themselves. He found a pair of marigold gloves and kept cleaning, mopping the floors, scrubbing at the stains, mopping again with a dry mop to make sure he'd gotten everything.

He didn't keep track of how many buckets of foamy, red-thickened water he poured down the industrial-sized sink in the kitchen, how many tacky puddles there were to scrape away with his brush, how many times he had to pause just to breathe, lolling his head to the side, away from the bucket. His head began to pound from the fumes of the cleaner and his throat was scratchy and dry, but he couldn't stop. Sam could be back at any moment. He'd heard Jack and Cas come back in a bare two hours after lighting the first pyre, the heavy door groaning their approach. Dean had been in the kitchen at the time re-filling his bucket and luckily, neither of them had wanted a snack. Because snacking was something that Cas did now. He said it all still tasted of molecules, but the physical act of chewing and swallowing was a comforting habit that he sometimes liked to indulge in. Trying not to analyse his relief that his family wouldn't see him in the midst of a frantic clean, Dean added a liberal amount of Borax to the water and swirled it around with his brush before lugging it back to the war room. He was glad they'd stocked up on the stuff back when leviathan were a problem or he would have run out several bottles ago.

It took almost five hours of non-stop cleaning before Sam's path was clear. He'd even managed to scrub the library, just in case Sam wanted a late-night book-a-thon, though he doubted Sam would be able to even look at the door without feeling queasy.

While he'd heard Cas pass in and out of the main door several times, Dean had managed to avoid detection by ducking into cupboards and spare rooms. Never before had he been so grateful at the size of the bunker. With so many places to hide it had taken him months after they'd moved in to double- and triple-check each one of the rooms to make sure nothing lurked in the shadows that shouldn't be there, but it worked to his advantage now. He told himself that it wasn't deliberate, but the knot of anxiety in his gut had loosened considerably once the war room was done and Dean could more slip between the corridors whenever he heard Cas' steady pace beating the hallways.

He used a dry cloth to buff the brass handle of Sam's door, cleaning it of a couple of spots where some poor son of a bitch had clearly tried to turn it, though why someone had made their way to Sam's room he didn't know, a place to hide perhaps? Or looking for help from their fearless leader, either not knowing or not being able to form the thought that Sam wasn't there?

He inspected the handle and nodded to himself. Clean. Now he just had to empty out the last of the bloody water and clean the sink as thoroughly as he could manage. They prepared meals in that room, washed their vegetables in that sink, it needed to be spotless before he could even think about using it again. He straightened up with grim satisfaction and gathered up his cleaning equipment before turning to hobble to the kitchen, his knees crunching with every step. He gritted his teeth and powered through; he wasn't twenty-five anymore, he'd pushed his body past exhaustion and the fumes hadn't helped. And screw Michael, his head felt like there was entire marching band in there.

He would clean the rest tomorrow, he promised himself as he tipped the bucket, letting the water slough into the sink, using the last of it to scrub the bucket out for good measure before throwing it into a cupboard, he'd clean in order of all the places that Sam was most likely to go: the laundry room, the pantry, the communal bathrooms, the gym, the garage, the remaining couple of hallways. The rest could wait until the day after. He'd leave the dungeon for last, they'd found two bodies in there, sisters according to Sam. One of them had probably thought that the extra warding would help. A smart instinct, but a wrong one. He wondered how long they'd crouched in the centre of the devil's trap knowing that it was a creature of Heaven hunting them, holding each other, whispering comfort.

His eyes burned, and not from the Borax. He shucked the gloves and threw them into the trash, then he rubbed a chalky hand down his face. That was everything, he'd done all he could. Hopefully Sam would sleep easier than he was going to. He had to keep a hand on the wall to balance himself as he made his way to his room. Get through the day, wake up tomorrow, get through the next one. That was all he had to do. He could do that, he had to do that. For Sam. Because there had been a massacre in their home, because Jack may have lost his humanity, because Dean had fucked everything up. Again.

He fell forwards onto his memory foam mattress almost immediately after closing the door, barely taking the time to kick off his boots. Got through the day, wake up tomorrow, get through the next one.

 

***

 

He was awakened less than two hours later to the sound of panicked footsteps and Sam bursting through the door, flipping the light switch and calling his name. Dean jerked back into consciousness, groggy and exhausted, light exploding in his eyeballs, shooting pain into his head, to see his brother dropping to his knees on the bed next to him, terror in his face.

"Dean, Dean?! Oh, thank God." Sam let out a shallow breath when Dean groaned and blinked, scowling his confusion, he slid the .45 from under his pillow, do I need to use this?

Sam tugged it away from him and dropped it to the floor, grabbing his hand instead. Dean hissed as his brother's icy skin made contact with his own.

"What the hell did you do?" Sam asked, his voice softer now, some of the panic fading as he inspected Dean's hand. Dean blinked, shook his head, blinked again and the room finally snapped into full technicolour, though everything was slightly fuzzy at the edges. Sam was turning his hand over carefully, moving his fingers, his thumb, plucking back his shirt to manoeuvre his wrist. Now that at least two of Dean's brain cells had woken up, it was actually easy to understand why, his hand was stained with red. The skin was cracked and peeling, scabbed over in parts, and now that he knew what he was looking at, he saw he'd managed to smear it all over the sheets too. He shifted himself into a sitting position, which was tricky when Sam wouldn't give him his damn hand back, and winced as his back protested. Wow, age really was catching up to him.

"Gimme the other one," Sam said, finally placing Dean's left hand down onto the ruined sheets. Dean extended it and Sam performed the same ritual, checking for broken bones, signs of infection, swelling, any deeper problem than first appeared. Dean passed with only a displeased huff, and Sam told him not to move while he went to get a washcloth. Dean rolled his eyes but complied, though he did shift his pillow around so he could relax against the headboard. Had Sam just got in? No wonder his hands were cold. He hadn't even been wearing a coat.

Dean made to take the cloth but Sam waved him away and sat on the bed instead, dragging the cloth gently over his face, Dean flinched back in surprise,

"Just- let me, okay? You've got blood all over your face. You must've touched yourself. Don't-" He warned when Dean's face automatically twisted into a lewd grin, though he chuckled at the unsaid joke all the same. "You really freaking scared me there, Dean. There was a trail of blood on the walls, fresh blood, leading right to your room. I thought… well, I was scared."

He swiped the cloth across his forehead one last time, careful of the cut the gorgon had slammed into him, before dipping it into the small tupperware box that he used as a soap dish. Now with a light layer of water that Sam used to dampen the cloth with before wringing it out, tingeing the water a soft pink, far too pretty a colour for its gruesome meaning. Sam took his hand again and started cleaning him up. Dean noticed the tremble in Sam's fingers as he took the weight of his hand, either he was colder than he appeared, or his burst of adrenaline had left him crashing. Dean suspected the latter but knew better than to address it. Sam would clean him up because he needed to, because Dean had made him worry by leaving a fucking trail of blood right to his door; after all that effort, one simple act of penance to make things even slightly easier for Sam had only caused him to lose his freaking mind thinking Dean was mortally wounded or something.

Turns out he left things worse than he found them. Who knew?

"Why do you smell like bleach?" Sam's question dragged him back; Dean clenched his jaw and looked away, couldn't bring himself to answer, but Sam didn't get into Stanford for nothing and after a moment there was a soft 'Oh,' and then suddenly he was wrapped up in a huge, sasquatch hug.

"Thanks, Dean."

Dean gently pushed his brother away, eyes still toying with the edge of his bedsheet.

"Hey, you tried, okay? You gave me one less thing to think about. I think the moral here is to not forget to look after yourself too."

Dean levelled a look at him, and it said all that needed saying. Sam smiled at him, patted his cheek and fetched a fresh set of bedsheets and some bandages. Dean allowed Sam to wrap his hands but when he picked up the sheets Dean growled and batted him away, steering him instead towards the door. Sam was probably as tired as he was, he shouldn't have to be mother-henning Dean when he was the one who had lost over twenty people today. People who admired him and looked up to him, people who had counted on him to keep them safe. That was a hell of a heavy burden and Sam didn't need Dean adding to the load.

He changed the sheets awkwardly, it was hard with his finger movement restricted by the bandages, so they weren't quite military-neat by the time he got in them, but they were clean, and they smelled faintly of lavender because Cas had shoved a couple of sprigs into all the laundry closets he could find, ignoring Dean's protest that he didn't want to smell like an old lady. He replaced them every few weeks, though Dean had never caught him at it. He inhaled deeply and shuffled himself deeper into the covers. He'd also changed into a pair of sleep sweats and a clean t-shirt, one of his favourites. A ratty thing that had been washed so many times it was almost brown rather than black, the AC/DC logo practically gone, holes where the seams has split, but it felt like comfort, and it smelled like lavender.

 

***

 

When he woke this time, it was slow. Not quite peaceful, his dreams had left him with a hollow ache in his abdomen, but they hadn't been true nightmares, so for that he was grateful.

His eyes were tacky with sleep and he rubbed them clear, the rough cloth of the bandages helping to kick-start his brain again. He stretched, bones popping, muscles complaining, and rolled out of bed, heading for the shower. So priorities had changed, he would clean his own blood off the walls first, and then he could get back on track.

Only, when he exited his room, feeling clean and more awake, there was no blood trail. Confused, he headed to the kitchen. He should probably eat something. Hell, he should probably cook something. Something nice for Sam and Jack. Yesterday had been shitty, so maybe bacon and pancakes would make things less shitty today. Also, it might be good to get his own read on how the kid was doing. He trusted Cas' assessment of course, but 'I don't know' wasn't the most helpful diagnosis.

Cas was sat in the kitchen when he walked in, a mug of coffee clasped in his hands, though he didn't seem to be drinking it, just inhaling the steam.

"Morning," He greeted, "The pot's still hot if you want some."

Dean grunted in affirmation and ambled over to the coffee pot, grabbing a mug; the Batman one Sam had gotten him after that whole rabbit's foot ordeal, chipped with years of use and rough handling. It was his favourite mug. Once it was full of the brown, caffeine-filled sludge, he sat opposite Cas, shifting uncomfortably as he did so. He wasn't looking for conversation, but it would only worry the angel if he just took the mug and left. He sighed with pleasure as he took his first sip of the coffee, it was strong enough to bend a tea spoon and only took half the mug before it kicked in like a brain reboot, he could practically hear the Windows 95 start up sound. It burned his scratchy throat on the way down but that was all part of the experience.

"Better?" Cas asked, amused. As though his own caffeine addiction was tempered by the fact that he didn't actually need to drink the stuff to get his fix.

Dean just glared at him and Cas' lips twitched.

"You're right. It will probably take more than coffee for any of us to feel better." He said, taking a small sip from his own mug (a hideous pink and neon green striped thing) and grimacing at presumably the disappointing molecule flavour. "I could help with the..." he gestured to Dean's head before glancing down and frowning slightly, "and your hands."

Dean shrugged and sat back, bringing the mug with him, he'd pulled the bandages off before his shower because wet bandages were just uncomfortable, and the mug warmed his hands nicely. Cas looked at him, stared him down as though assessing him. Then he half-stood and reached forward with two fingers raised, and paused there, waiting, a clear invitation. Dean hesitated a moment before leaning forward to accept, placing the mug back on the table and mirroring Cas' position to meet him halfway. Cas' fingers touched his forehead and that warm tingle of grace flooded through him, his head felt clearer and stopped pounding, his muscle pain eased and his hands stopped stinging.

He inhaled deep, and took in a breath of Cas and coffee, lavender and ozone and thick steam and the cleaning products he'd scoured the kitchen with yesterday, and more of the same on Cas himself—he guessed the mystery of who had cleaned his blood off the wall was solved—It was an odd mix of scents, but when he flopped back into the chair he felt much calmer. Although he doubted very much that he would stay that way, but for now, he could make it through his coffee before starting on the pancakes. Get through the next task, and then the next one. It was a comforting mantra. Sam and Cas were more 'big picture' people and that worked for them, but Dean never could think about more than the problem directly in front of him; that was how he liked it, keeping things as simple as he could make them, though it hadn't always worked in his favour.

Cas watched him over the lip of his mug thoughtfully, his head titled in that confused owl way he had. Dean tried to keep his eyes averted but found himself being drawn in at intervals. Cas was worried, about Jack, about him and Sam; he was also grieving, he had come to know the Apocalypse World survivors too while Michael had been joyriding around in Dean's meat. Not as well as Sam maybe, but the loss seemed to weigh heavy on him all the same. The creases of his face seemed a little deeper, creases that he hadn't had when they'd met, creases that by all rights should never have formed. Guess Dean had managed to screw that up too.

"Stop it." Cas said eventually, thunking the mug down on the table and causing coffee to slosh over and onto the table, "Stop blaming yourself. It's not your fault, none of it. You didn't lower your guard, you got hurt on a hunt, it happens. And you weren't in that coffin because Sam and I convinced you not to be. And I don't regret that, Dean, even after everything, I don't regret it." Those blue eyes burned hotter than the coffee, earnest and fierce and good and so, so wrong. Dean looked away again, staring into his stained mug, only the dregs left now. Dean downed it anyway.

Cas might believe what he was saying, but that didn't make it true; sure, he and Sam had stepped in to try to get him to hold off on the Mal'ak box but ultimately it had been Dean's decision to turn back. And he shouldn't have been hunting in the first place. What had he been thinking? With an extremely powerful, extremely pissed off archangel in his head he should have just stayed home and let the others handle the hunting. Okay, it would have driven him insane to stay locked up, but seeing as that was plan B anyway it really made no difference, at least his room had a TV. Like Cas had said, the fact that he'd even been able to sit in a diner and drink coffee had taken way more effort than he thought he had, let alone holding conversations and trying to work a case; of course the gorgon had gotten the drop on him, he shouldn't have expected anything else. Had his ego grown so large that he'd thought he could arm wrestle with an archangel and win? Just because he was Dean Winchester and he did stupid, crazy shit all the time, and he could justify it because the consequences hadn't happened to him personally so what did it matter? What did anyone else matter? Cas was far too forgiving, always had been. Far too kind for his own good, far kinder than Dean deserved.

"You agreed with me that what you were doing, how you were keeping him locked up, it wasn't sustainable. That you even held out as long as you did was nothing short of miraculous. It was only getting your head slammed repeatedly into a wall that loosened your hold enough for Michael to get out. And that's the thing, Dean, even unconscious you were fighting him. His walls didn't disappear, he had to break through. You did everything that you could and more. If it had been Sam in this exact same position, you wouldn't have blamed him for a moment. How can you expect more of yourself?"

Dean said nothing, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He felt those eyes on him and couldn't stand it, so he got up and made his way over to the counter, gathering the ingredients for pancakes.

"Sam already ate," Cas said quietly from behind him, "He went out for a run, you just missed him. I could ask Jack if he wants any?"

Dean gave a jerky nod and Cas stood and left the room. Dean put one of the burners on low to heat up the pan while he mixed the batter. He made more than he needed to, much more, he was just flipping the last one when Jack popped his head in.

"Cas said there were pancakes?"

Dean forced a chuckle and gestured him in, Cas followed, looking slightly nervous. Dean slid two plates stacked high with pancakes and looked askance at Cas before plating up a single pancake and plonking it in front of the angel. He grabbed a bottle of syrup and proceeded to drench his pancakes in the stuff, Jack followed suit, the kid had a major sweet tooth. Cas however, only dribbled a thin swirl on top of his own before cutting into it.

"Thanks," Jack said, cutting out a large chunk of his stack and shoving it in his mouth, getting sticky syrup all over his chin.

Dean grunted, his own mouth full.

"So what are we going to do now?" Jack asked, looking up at Dean with those large blue eyes, paler than Cas' but no less intense. "With Michael dead, that's it, right? Do we just go back to hunting?"

Dean kept chewing and gestured to his mouth to show he couldn't answer. Cas came to his rescue.

"Well, yes, I think so." Cas said, diverting the boy's attention from Dean, who quickly swallowed the mush and replaced it with more syrupy goodness. "But I think we could all benefit from a break. We lost a lot of people, Jack. There were less than a dozen who weren't in the bunker when Michael laid it to waste. We need time to mourn."

Dean flinched at that, wondering if it was Sam or Cas who had called around the rest of the community to tell them what had happened, to tell them of the deaths of their friends, their siblings, their partners. One of them would have done it by now, it was part of the process, informing the family when a hunt goes bad, only… these people were in the bunker, they were supposed to be the ones receiving the calls if any had to be made. But Dean supposed wards were useless if the monster was already inside.

He eyed Jack as the boy's head dropped. "Yes," he said, "you're right. Maggie especially, she was a good friend."

Cas patted Jack on the shoulder with an understanding smile.

"But I got to know them, and that's what counts, right?"

Dean narrowed his eyes, confused at the suddenly guilty look on Cas' face as his eyes flicked to Dean before re-focusing on Jack. "Yes," he said softly, the bass in his voice wavering slightly, "that's what counts."

Jack nodded. Dean watched him carefully, trying to figure out if the kid was actually sad or just playing human. It looked genuine but it was hard to tell; in some ways, Jack wore every emotion on his face, but sometimes it felt static, like the mask of what he thought he was expected to feel. It made Dean a little uneasy, no matter how he felt about the kid he couldn't ignore the reasons he'd been suspicious in the first place. Sure, parentage wasn't everything, but Jack had identified himself as Lucifer's son, which, while technically true, was no less troubling, even if he had also dubbed himself a Winchester in the same sentence. How much of Jack had burned away with Michael? How much of the sweet, candy-loving, curious child was gone forever? He had taken in what remained of Michael's grace, had that just juiced up his powers and fixed his body like Cas seemed to think, or was it gonna have consequences for Jack-the-person? If his soul was diminished, would something step in to replace it? Something more Lucifer-esque that Jack had previously been able to overpower with his mother's influence?

He didn't know, and he wasn't going to find out over one breakfast, but the worries churned in his mind all the same.

There were still plenty of pancakes and Jack had the appetite of a teenager so he refilled their plates with smaller stacks while Cas stood to commence the washing up, continuing a stream of small-talk with Jack while he did so, leaving Dean to eat in silence and observe. Jack kept trying to draw him into the conversation but he waved the boy off with smiles and grunts and strategic mouthfuls of pancakes. He didn't really feel like talking and he didn't have anything to say anyway. What could he possibly offer that would do the situation justice? That he was sorry? That he hated to see Sam's pain? That he was worried Jack was going to turn into their next hunt? That if he'd already been at the bottom of the Pacific then none of this would have happened? None of that was helpful and it wouldn't make any of them feel better. But it was all he had right now, so it was safer if he just didn't say anything at all. He'd already caused Sam unnecessary worry this morning.

"I'm glad you're okay, Dean." Jack said with a crooked smile, breaking Dean from his reverie. "We were all really worried when you wouldn't wake up. I wanted to use my powers but-" He glanced at Cas, whose expression had hardened. Jack scowled in response, "Look, I know you're all worried about me but I'm fine. I'm better than fine. I still feel emotions, okay? And I feel like you in particular have more important things to worry about, Castiel!" And with that he pushed himself up from the table and stormed out, leaving Dean thoroughly confused and Cas with that guilty look on him again. Dean turned his head towards the angel and cocked an eyebrow – what was that about?

Cas sighed and dropped back into his seat, hands still wet where he hadn't dried them properly before Jack's outburst. He flicked the droplets of moisture off as though they were offensive, eyes trained on the door Jack had just vanished through.

"I can't say I blame him for being frustrated," he said eventually, his expression pinched and worried, eyes still trained on the doorway, "it's hard to treat him as though nothing is wrong when nothing feels right. We don't know what another archangel's grace does to a nephilim, let alone the grace of an archangel from another world. Plus we don't know how much of his soul is left. I can't see it anymore. His grace is shielding it like it did before Lucifer drained him. It's a good defence mechanism but highly unhelpful in this case. At least he shouldn't lose any more of it, but I don't know what effect even a diminished soul will have. On a human it's different, but if Jack loses his soul completely, will he become pure archangel, or will the balance shift in his body trigger another illness or… or any number of things? I don't know how to monitor it, or how to help him or-"

Dean placed his hand on Cas' arm, effectively shutting him up mid-sentence. He blinked and turned to look at Dean gratefully.

"I know, I'm overthinking," he said with a small, apologetic smile. "I think Sam needs us most right now."

Dean nodded and stood, making his way over to the sink and squatting to retrieve his bucket from yesterday. It wasn't there.

"Oh, I left it in the storage room." Cas responded to Dean's puzzled expression, "I figured I might as well finish the job you started. It was very kind of you to do that for Sam. I know it can't have been easy for you either."

Dean huffed and straightened, knocking the cupboard closed with his knee, relieved that he wouldn't have to go elbow deep in blood today. Well, if there was no cleaning for him to do then he might as well get some laundry done, though he'd daresay that all the clothes they'd been wearing yesterday (minus Cas' mojoed suit of course) would probably need to be trashed. None of them had gotten particularly bloody, but it was a ritual of sorts: after a bad day, a really bad day, they binned the clothes they'd been wearing, like the garments were cursed in the way that children thought of curses, like bad luck magnets rather than the far more real eyeball melting, skin bubbling, throwing up pins kind of curses that they dealt with on the daily.

"Dean?"

He paused in the doorway.

"After everything that we have overcome together, please don't let this be the thing that breaks you. I'll say it as many times as it takes for you to believe it: This wasn't your fault."

 

***

 

As per their tradition, yesterday's clothes had been dumped in a pile by the door, ready to be disposed of. Dean wondered why Sam hadn't taken them out to the dumpster himself on his way out this morning, but then he shook himself, Sam probably hadn't been able to bring himself to touch them after taking them off. Their little ritual had apparently become full-blown superstition. Whatever, Sam had at least two other pairs of jeans and more shirts than he could stuff into three drawers, if getting rid of these ones would help ease his brother's mind then it was hardly out of his way. He retrieved his own clothes from the previous day and a black trash bag. He thought about going to Jack's room to request the same thing but wasn't sure how, or even if the kid would be interested, he had far fewer clothes than either of the brothers.

After dumping the clothes he tackled laundry, Sam's first; with their industrial-sized washing machine and dryer, he managed to get three quarters of Sammy's overflowing laundry basket in one load. Sometimes, when he was feeling petty, he'd deliberately leave out all the socks and underwear, dramatically proclaiming that the stench would burn him if he touched them, but today was no day to pretend to be squeamish. Once the washer was safely rumbling away he rocked back. He had an hour and a half to kill before he could load up the dryer and nothing to do seeing as Cas had messed up his plan to clean. He swung his arms as he thought, his fists balling and relaxing, balling and relaxing. He suddenly felt too hot, panicky, as though inactivity was the worst possible fate he could think of.

There was something that needed to be done, though he didn't relish the thought of doing it, and if he could get it done before Sam got back from his run then so much the better. Sam's runs were at least an hour or two long. Even longer when he was running to forget. He'd jog all the way into town sometimes and stop for coffee before making his way back, but Dean suspected today his path would be strictly relegated to the woods. Like Cas, the guy sometimes needed a hit of nature.

So Dean set a timer on his phone, went to grab a shovel and a trash bag and made his way outside, not bothering to put on a jacket. The chill air was nice on his damp, overheated skin, as long as he stayed mobile. Dumping his tools, he skirted the outside of the bunker to the garage and started to lug the large bag of fresh gravel that they used when it got icy out. He probably should have asked Cas for help with this thing, he thought as he grunted with the effort. Inch by painful inch, he dragged it out front, where the driveway was marred with blackened piles of ash and charcoal. He stared at them a moment before getting to work, scooping up several burned out logs and a small pile of ash and shoving it into the trash bag. There was no point in keeping the ashes, even if a family member wanted them, the pyres had been loaded up, there was no way to guarantee that they'd get the ashes of the person they wanted. Besides, hunters knew better than to keep remains. Still, it felt… disrespectful to just shovel up people and chuck them in the trash. Usually they did this part together in solemn camaraderie, the company of another person enough to keep the grim thoughts at bay.

He'd erased the memory of four of the pyres from the driveway and was nearly done with the fifth before Sam came jogging into view, covered with sweat, his hair tied back. He faltered at the sight of his brother cleaning up the driveway, then without a word he walked over and took the trash bag from Dean, holding it open so that Dean could put the shovel in more easily, rather than having to struggle to contend with the light wind making the lip of the bag flap unpredictably.

Dean accepted the help but secretly cursed himself, he'd failed again. It was supposed to have been done before Sam got back so he wouldn't have to see the reminder of what Dean had done.

"I'm glad you're here," Sam said after a few minutes, his voice tight like a coiled spring, "I didn't wanna have to do this alone."

Dean jerked his chin in a nod and patted down the fresh gravel with his shovel, smoothing it over and blending it into the edges of the oblong patch so it didn't look so out of place. They moved on to the final burn mark and were done quickly and Dean, after seeing the flash of hesitation in Sam's eyes, snatched the trash bag from him and went to dump it himself.

He was just making his way back over when his phone began to bleep obnoxiously at him, making him jump; he pulled it out and silenced the alarm with a growl. Stupid thing, he kept meaning to turn the default volume down but always forgot by the time he'd done the task the alarm was reminding him to do.

Sam raised an eyebrow, "you got someplace to be?"

Dean just plucked at his own shirt in response and Sam nodded in understanding, picking up the shovel and sticking it in the gravel bag. Dean helped Sam drag the thing all the way back to the garage and he had to admit it was much easier with two.

"I should probably do a load too," Sam said conversationally, "I think some of the stuff at the bottom is starting to grow mould."

Dean pulled a face and Sam laughed. Considering how Sam was the more socially acceptable of the two brothers it was amazing how bad he was at everyday household chores. Didn't matter how many times he'd saved the world, he still couldn't figure out how to work the vacuum cleaner.

They walked to the laundry room together in companionable silence. Sam seemed way more relaxed than he had when he'd left Dean's room the night before. Running almost always calmed him down. It was kind of nice just to share space with the guy, all of their exchanges lately had been angry or upset or worried. Concerns about Michael, about Jack, about whatever case they were on overriding their ability to just be. Sam picked a spot on the wall to lean against while Dean transferred the damp clothing to the dryer.

"Is that all my stuff?"

Dean kicked at Sam's mostly empty laundry basket in response.

"You didn't have to."

Dean just huffed and emptied Sam's basket into the washing machine, and some of his own stuff for good measure, if the washing machine was big, the dryer was huge, it could definitely fit two full loads with room to spare for a couple of those spiky softening ball things. He re-set the timer and waited for the initial shudder and gush of water from the thing before he turned to his brother, arms out in a so what now gesture.

Sam sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, seemingly forgetting that it was tied back and all he did was get his hand stuck and pull a bunch of his hair out from the hair tie. Dean smirked while Sam shot him a glare, though it softened immediately.

"Look, these things you're doing, cleaning up, doing my laundry, they're sweet and I really appreciate them, I do. I get that you're trying to make things easier on me. And honestly, I kinda need it, I'm not… I'm not doing so good. But that doesn't mean I want you to burn yourself out. These things, they're kindnesses to help me out, okay? They're not an apology, and if that's what you're trying to make them be then you can stop right now because I won't accept an apology from you, Dean. You have nothing to apologise for, you hear me?"

Dean nodded, averting his eyes.

Sam's voice shook slightly as he continued. "Yesterday was real bad, but we all did the best we could and assigning blame to ourselves isn't gonna help anyone. You got hurt because your attention was on keeping Michael trapped, we brought you back to the bunker to try to contain any damage, Jack saved us. Twice, he killed the gorgon too. I don't think that there was anything we could've done differently. And I'm worried too, I'm goddamn terrified of what happens next, but whatever consequences we made, they're better than at least some of the alternatives. Michael's dead, and he didn't destroy cities. Jack's alive and still has at least part of his soul and you no longer have that damn box looming over you. Things could be way worse, right?"

His eyes focused on Dean properly then, desperate and shiny with tears.

"But then again, we lost a lot of people, they were supposed to be safe from Michael here, I was supposed to protect them, I was supposed to lead them. And even though I know that I did the best I could, I still feel like I failed them all."

How a man of six-foot-four could look so small was beyond Dean, but he stepped towards his brother and pulled him down into a hug anyway, their second in as many days, the world had gone wonky. Sam wasted no time in clinging to him, folding himself up to that he was practically buried in Dean's chest. Dean let him sob and rocked him gently from side to side like he had when Sam was little, running a soothing hand across his back and humming some Zeppelin deep in his chest so that Sam could feel it, even if he probably couldn't identify the fractured tune. Tears pricked at his own eyes at the sound of Sam's pain. He'd been through so much, clawed his way from the boy with the demon blood to the guy who saved the world, finally been ready to step up, accept the role of lover, and father, and leader, only to have the woman he loved—or at least, the woman he could have loved—murdered by the Brits, to have his son die and come back only to lose most of the human part of himself, and to have all the people he'd tried so hard to guide and protect butchered by the archangel that was only still around because he'd tried to save his brother.

What was that saying about old habits?

Dean was so immensely proud of the man Sam had become. He was fierce and strong and smart, just and compassionate but ever since losing Jessica, Dean had also watched him build up walls, refuse to get too invested or attached to people who weren't Dean. He cared of course, deeply, but he never really put himself out there. He always left wiggle-room just in case the worst happened, which it nearly always did. But with Jack those walls had come crashing down. He'd invested in the kid, wholly, which led to him investing in the community Jack had helped save; no more distance, Sam was in, his thin film of protection had been stripped back, exposing wire, he'd never been more vulnerable, and then Michael had come in just to flick the dominoes down.

So Dean held his brother while he broke down, allowed himself to feel the years of repressed loss and disappointment, everything shut away came tumbling into the glaring light and could no longer be ignored.

Dean's own throat clenched tight as he rocked and hummed and waited patiently until Sam was ready to unbury himself. He didn't know how long it took, but the washing machine behind them was whirring in its final cycle by the time Sam pulled back, rubbed a hand down his face and mumbled something about taking a shower before ducking out, embarrassed.

Dean watched him go, mind churning, but when the washing machine beeped a few seconds later he dragged his eyes away from the now-empty hallway and continued with his task. Sure, there were some things about yesterday that weren't his fault at the time, but there was no changing the fact that he could have stopped all of this by sneaking out and paying a fisherman as planned. Prevention was nine tenths of the cure or something after all. He shouldn't have caved to Sam's puppy-eyes and Cas' steely glare, he shouldn't have thought about their faces when they emerged from their respective rooms to find him gone, shouldn't have let that image prevent him from even opening his door. Because he knew they cared about him, hell, if there was one goddamn thing he could be certain of it was that they cared about him. He'd never let that stop him before, never hesitated, always having the argument on hand that he was saving them, that what they faced was just too big to have second thoughts, that they'd be better off without him anyway. Thing was, he wasn't sure he believed that last part anymore.

He set the dryer spinning and set another timer on his phone, wincing as he came up empty on how he was going to spend the next two hours. It was still way too early for lunch and there was no way he was gonna go searching for a hunt while they were all still licking their wounds, plus there was nothing else to clean and he was far too antsy to settle down for a movie. After a few restless minutes of his anxiety level increasing the longer he stayed still, he decided to go and hit the gym. Grabbing a change of clothes from his room on the way, he felt a calm descend over him as he followed a plan, albeit a hastily constructed one. It was unusual really, as a general rule he much preferred to wing it, but his improv skills had been lacking lately so maybe a solid course of action was what he needed. He would work out until the just before the drying was done, then he would shower and finish off the laundry, separating and folding the items into two baskets, drop Sam's off at his room and then head back to his room, have a beer and finally pick up that Vonnegut novel he'd been halfway through for about three months now. He'd power through two chapters of that and then it would be time to make lunch.

His mind flicking through possible lunch options like a food rolodex, Dean changed and sat down on the multi-gym, preparing to get his jock on… and almost tore his arms off trying to pull the handlebar down.

Son of a bitch!

He let go quickly and checked the weight set on the machine, 185. Come on! What the hell was in Sam's smoothies?

He yanked out the pin and put it in a more manageable 160. Rubbing his hands he puffed his cheeks out a couple of times before trying again. At least he actually lifted it this time, albeit with a lot more groaning and sweating than should have been necessary. He managed five of those before admitting defeat and dropping it back to 145. That he knew he could do. He'd carried bodies heavier than that just the previous day. It was still way less satisfying than he'd imagined it to be. Okay, so he didn't work out often, but it's not like he was inactive; he was always running away for his life, climbing fences, digging graves, carrying stuff, this should be easy. But after barely ten minutes his arms were shaking, he was drenched in sweat and he felt like a split garbage bag left out on the road in the middle of summer. Gross and useless and possibly run over by a truck.

So he gave up on the weights and hopped onto the treadmill instead; he was good at running, darting through trees, flat-out sprinting away from hellhounds, he knew he was faster than Sam.

He managed fifteen minutes on the treadmill before his knees started crunching in protest, gritting his teeth he tried to power through but the ominous crunching turned into outright pain and he dropped with a cry, barely managing to slam his hand down on the button to stop the thing before he was propelled backwards into the wall of dumbbells. He managed to crawl over to the bench and just sat there, breathing hard as shame started to curdle within him. He was a grown-ass man but he couldn't do a simple freaking workout? Sam sometimes spent hours in the gym and he came out freaking glowing, while Dean hadn't even managed thirty minutes and he was a gasping, aching, embarrassed mess. He really was getting old. Sure, maybe he hadn't kept up a rigorous training schedule like Sam had and maybe he ate way more snack food than he should, and maybe he'd noticed a little bit of extra pudge on his belly in the past few years, but he'd still thought he was capable.

He suddenly felt very stupid. Of course Sam was right about this. He needed to stay in shape. Knowing his limitations was one thing but getting lax about his physical upkeep was another. They were in fights constantly, always having to run away from or towards a big, bad monster. If he overestimated his speed by even a tiny amount it could mean life or death for any poor schmuck caught in the crossfire. When had he forgotten that?

He knew that his reflexes were slower than they used to be, that just because his gut screamed danger didn't mean his body could react just as fast. Experience and ability were two things that used to be in sync, but now they were starting to pull in opposite directions. How many people had died this past year alone because Dean had been too slow or not strong enough? How could he justify the junk food and the beer and the laziness when people's lives depended on him?

Logically, he knew that this was just what happened, it was the natural way of things, but he'd just never thought it would happen to him. 40 wasn't old, but even this had seemed an impossible goal from when he'd first started hunting. Hunters just didn't often make it this far, and what with how screwed up their lives were even getting to 30 had been a struggle. And technically he hadn't made it, what with going to Hell and being resurrected and all. Hell, they'd bounced around the afterlife so often by this point that it was a running joke, so he'd figured it didn't matter if he didn't convert to Sam's health-nut ways, something would probably bring him back.

He scoffed and pushed himself to his feet again, groaning at the effort; wobbling slightly on his exhausted legs, he made his way to the adjacent shower room, shimmied his pants down his hips to avoid moving his legs too much and gritted his teeth through pulling his shirt over his head before slapping the water on. Stepping under the spray he took a few seconds to just breathe and let the hot water soak into the meat of his neck, loosening the bunched muscle. Okay, so his original plan had fallen apart, he still had over an hour before the laundry was done. But that was okay, he could adapt, he was adaptable. He ran a hand through his hair, scraping his nails across his scalp in a half-hearted attempt at massage.

It was just weird. Only the day before time had been rushing out from under him, like a stupid treadmill, and he was having to run full sprint just to keep up. But then Jack slammed the emergency stop button, killed Michael, and now an hour felt like an eternity that he didn't know what to do with. While before he'd been scrambling for every second, now the minutes stretched out in front of him and all of the things he'd been angry about losing, all the things he'd been resigned to never having became maybes once again and the possibilities were suddenly far more terrifying than the one, narrow path he had chosen, even if that path had ended at the bottom of the sea in a metal coffin.

He emerged from the shower a little while later, his skin scrubbed pink but his mind as tangled as ever. He didn't have a plan, or a next task to get through. His arms started to feel itchy, restlessness gnawed at him as he scratched at them. The itch continued, like there were loose bees in his bones. He didn't much fancy wandering the corridors until Cas or Sam found him and tried to talk. Like they didn't already have stuff going on. Sam especially. So he went back to his room to hide—not that he would ever admit that that was what he was doing—and seeing as Dean's weak-ass impulse control seemed to be the issue of the day, he twisted open a beer and drank deep. He dropped onto the bed, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand, holding the bottle in the other. He stared at the familiar brown glass, the way the label was already peeling at the corners, the line of liquid that flopped around whenever he moved. It was comforting in a way. Even when the rest of his life had gone to shit there was always beer. Like the throwing out of Bad Day Clothes, beer had become another superstition of his. Even if it had stopped making him feel better a long time ago he still couldn't kick the feeling that he needed it. Whiskey was to forget, beer was to drown. And goddamn if he wasn't used to drowning by now.

He'd made it to four beers by the time his alarm went off, and was absurdly proud of the fact, as though he was achieving something rather than failing more and more with every sip. He silenced his phone and headed back in the direction of the laundry room, his head just as clear as it was when he started, a side-effect of his crazy high tolerance level. While it was a good thing right now, and usually on hunts too, it only made that tug that beer wasn't enough more insistent. On his worse days, he skipped the beer entirely.

He collected Sam's now-empty basket from outside his room and reflected gloomily that he was an asshole, drinking just to pass the time while his brother was suffering a kind of loss that Dean had no frame of reference for in understanding, and he had lost plenty.

He felt instantly better the second he opened the dryer and a blast of warm, fresh-scented air blasted him in the face. He smiled as he pulled the clothes out and dumped them on top of the machine, picking up the first t-shirt and shaking it out before laying it in his own basket. It was the little things sometimes. Warm cloth in his hands, a clean smell, the pleasant brain-fuzz of a repetitive task. Get through this task, wake up tomorrow, get through the day. It was simple and comforting. He could do this. He couldn't take away Sam's pain, or fix Jack's soul, or get Cas to open up about whatever was going on with him lately, or even talk right now, but he could sort and fold clothes.

He chucked a sock into Sam's basket and then reconsidered and moved it to his own. Who the hell knew whose it was anyway? He came across the matching one a few shirts later and balled them together before tossing them back into Sam's basket… or were they his? What did it matter, right? Socks were socks. It's not like they were distinctive, they were black with one grey stripe across the top. Still, he switched them back to his own basket and finished up the rest.

He hesitated before picking up Sam's basket in both hands. Right. Laundry, done. Now he just had to drop these back outside Sam's room and then take his own back to his, put the stuff away and then he'd make lunch. He wasn't sure what he was going to do yet. Sam probably wouldn't appreciate greasy comfort food and he wasn't really feeling it either to be honest, but they all needed something more than whatever the hell kale was to actually make them feel better. He pondered his options and dropped the basket outside Sam's door with enough noise to alert him that something was happening but not enough to make him think it was urgent if he didn't wanna come out right away.

He went to grab his own basket and dug out the socks, staring at the ball of cotton for a long moment. He could've sworn he'd seen Sammy wearing these at some point, or were they just similar to the ones Sam wore? He worried at his lip. Well it's not like he was desperately lacking in socks himself, Sam could have them. But what if they weren't his and he realised that Dean couldn't even get himself through something as simple as laundry without screwing up? Or what if they were his and Dean kept them and he thought Dean had stolen them as some kind of immature prank, as though he wasn't fully aware of how much Sam needed to not think about stupid stuff like socks right now?

This was ridiculous, he was being ridiculous. They were just socks. Still, he dropped them in Sam's basket on the way back to his room. Better to be thought of as incompetent than insensitive. Right?

He dumped his basket on his bed and set about putting away the now-clean clothes, though now he was jittery and anxious and the normally soothing task felt much larger than it had any right to.

He suddenly remembered the Johnnie Walker Black that was still sitting pretty in the cupboard by his bed. Abandoning the laundry for a moment, he pulled out one of the bottles and cracked the lid, Taking a hit of sharp oak and heat before even tasting it. He tilted the bottle back and swallowed, sucking air through his teeth at the familiar burn. Then he replaced the bottle and waited for his shaking hands to steady again before continuing with the rest of the laundry. After stuffing the last of his underwear into the chest of drawers he unceremoniously shoved the basket to the floor and pulled the bottle back out, taking two more fingers before standing and leaving the room again. Lunch. He had to make lunch.

The kitchen was empty when he got there and he was grateful. He knew Sam probably wouldn't come out of his room without the promise of food and Cas was probably off doing research or something angel-y. Honestly, what Cas did in his spare time was still a mystery unless you caught him doing something weird like reading the refrigerator manual or returning from the store with nothing but a rubber duck and a small birdhouse, but he had never begged off a movie night like the others did sometimes, even Jack. Kid just didn't appreciate the classics.

He smiled slightly as he riffled through the food they had available. They were pretty well-stocked. Hunters needed feeding after all, and the past few weeks there had been a lot of 'em to feed. He figured they should use up as much as they could before it started to go off, even if there was way more than the four—well three—of them could eat. He hated throwing food away. It took him back to dingy motel rooms and Sammy whining that he was hungry even though Dean had given up his last three meals to make sure Sam got something, even if it was only a slice of toast and half a can of baked beans.

He shook himself; he wasn't that kid anymore, he had the means to make sure neither he or Sam went hungry again. Though that didn't stop Sam from trying when things got really rough; when he was grieving he just straight-up forgot to eat sometimes, or decided that the effort of leaving his room to make food wasn't worth the payoff of something that he wouldn't even be able to enjoy. Dean did his best, leaving snacks and full-on meals outside his room at odd intervals during the day. Usually they vanished within the hour but every time Dean could barely contain his relief. Before he had learned the trick of giving Sam his own space while taking care of his needs, hell, before they'd had the option of their own space Sam had made himself sick more than once that way, unable to sleep and not feeding himself, lashing out at Dean when he tried to help, Dean lashing back, unable to understand that his own worry only made things worse, smothering Sam with questions and instructions that he wasn't in the frame of mind to deal with.

After a particularly bad few months, years back, when Dean was practically tearing his hair out and Sam was grey from exhaustion and gaunt from weeks of barely eating, Sam was able to explain that what he really needed was space and reassurance; he'd been on the edge of tears telling Dean this, too tired to figure out how he could know Dean was still there for him without him constantly watching his every move. Dean had compromised, getting a separate motel room and buying his own hot plate so he could make at least a couple of decent meals to take in several times a day. He'd check on Sam before leaving the food rather than hovering to watch him eat it like he wanted to. After a few days, Sam seemed to be improving so he'd left the meals and snacks outside instead, knocking twice on the door to let him know there was food. He even left notes under the plate sometimes, stupid jokes he'd found on the internet, an interesting piece of lore he thought Sam might like, even just the drawing of a smiley face. Eventually, after over a week of Dean going stir-crazy, watching the food and notes disappear, desperate to see for himself that Sam was okay, Sam had come to him, looking a hell of a lot better and ready for the next hunt. It had been a hard road back but damn, when Dean managed to coax the first genuine smile in weeks from his brother, the extra effort was worth it.

He wasn't sure that alone time was what Sam needed right now though. He didn't need the space and silence to remind him of how empty the bunker was now, he needed to be reminded that there was sill life here, even if one of those lives was the brother who should have been strong enough to stop all this from happening.

He rubbed at his chin, considering, before snapping his fingers with an idea. He then headed for the pantry, he knew he'd seen just the thing…

 

 

***

 

Sam opened the door after the third knock. He still looked tired and his eyes were still stained with shadows, but he looked a little lighter than he had that morning which Dean counted as a win. He noticed the basket immediately and his eyebrows shot up into his hair,

"What's that for, are you planning a picnic or something?"

Dean just grinned and beckoned him out, stepping back to give him room. Sam followed cautiously, "Seriously? A picnic? That's what's happening?"

Dean nodded and a smile bloomed beautiful across his little brother's face, he let out an expulsion of breath that was half disbelief, half unintentional laughter, bouncing a little on his next step,

"Like… outside of the bunker?"

Dean nodded again and Sam's smile widened.

"Are Jack and Cas coming too?" he asked, a small light sparking in his eyes. Dean shrugged and shuffled his feet. He knew Cas would be game but had no idea about Jack and didn't even know how to go about asking. Besides, maybe Sam would just want this to be a brother thing.

"I'll ask them." Sam declared brightly, turning to stride down the hallway towards Jack's room. "Go put the stuff in the car!"

Dean saluted Sam's back and went to do as he was bid, feeling a small bubble of pride lodge itself somewhere between his ribs. This was a good idea, this was going to help all of them. It was a clear day and warm for this time of year, though Dean was going to make sure they had spare jackets in the car and a blanket or two. It was also cool enough that they should be able to avoid the seven trillion insects that inevitably swarmed to picnics in the peak of summer, so… bonus.

He placed the overflowing basket in Baby's trunk and headed back inside to grab some paper plates, plastic cups and the kind of shitty picnic cutlery that always left you with bits of plastic fork in the potato sala,—presumably the Men of Letters had used this stuff to feed any prisoners trapped in the dungeon, he doubted they'd been big on day trips—he also brought out a couple of beers, some strange blue soda that was supposed to taste like bubblegum that Jack had been intrigued by at the store and even a few water bottles. He slid into the driver's seat of Baby and clenched his jaw as the tug told him to bring Johnnie Walker along too, just in case. He managed to ignore it long enough that Sam, Cas and Jack emerged from the bunker, bright-eyed and curious, and then there was no reason to linger, so he started up Baby and pushed in a cassette tape, letting the music mingle with Jack's excitable questions and Cas and Sam's patient replies. He didn't need to drive far and he took it slow, winding through town with extra care and out the other side.

There was a rough dirt road that he and Sam had only been through a handful of times, it led further into the forest than even the bunker, albeit round the other side, and at the very end and a little bit further was a small lake. It was rubbish for fishing and there was no beach or anyplace to camp and one side backed onto a cliff wall so it was always deserted, he doubted that many of the townsfolk even knew it was there, but on a nice day the sun spat rainbows onto the water's surface and the rock dust from the cliff floated down in swirling patterns, dancing in the wind, and there was a piece of grassy earth that jutted out over the water, the perfect place to lay down a blanket and set up for what was probably the strangest picnic party of all time. He parked Baby just before the site and Sam was out of the car immediately, tugging Jack from his seat in the back to help him get the stuff from the trunk before the kid had even registered they'd stopped. Cas chuckled and patted Dean on the shoulder before getting out to help. Dean sat there a moment after killing the engine, listening to Baby settle around him with the gentle pops and crackles that he knew by heart at this point.

Sam had brought a portable speaker and an iPod which he set up quickly and they soon had an indie band that Dean didn't know strumming soft notes in the background.

"Holy crap, Dean, you really went all out. I'm not sure we'll be able to get through all of this." Sam said, pulling tupperware after tupperware out of the basket.

"If there's one thing I've learned since living at the bunker, it's not to underestimate the amount that Dean can eat." Cas said, smiling fondly at him, setting off a warm buzz in his stomach as he grinned back, bending to snatch up a handful of cocktail sausages and stuffing three in his mouth at once, chewing loudly, letting his jaw hang open. Sam made a disgusted noise and flapped a hand at Dean to tell him to put it away. Jack laughed but agreed that it was very gross to look at. Cas just rolled his eyes and passed out plates and cutlery.

Dean swallowed the sausage mush and rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the sheer amount of food laid out in front of him he supposed he had gone a little overboard. He'd figured a picnic was a good way to make a smörgåsbord out of the random stuff left in the fridge and cupboards. Sandwiches with various fillings, chips and dip, potato salad, some little pots of various pasta salads, a dish of avocado, tomatoes and cubes of mozzarella mixed together and smothered in balsamic vinegar, cheeses and meats and half-empty packets of cookies that were on the verge of going stale, a tub of grapes, a fruit salad, coleslaw. None of it had taken long to prepare but he had managed to clean out most of the fridge. Hopefully, things would feel more normal when they were no longer staring at enough food to feed an army of hunters every time they opened a cupboard, just a normal family-of-three-and-an-angel-who-occasionally-snacks amount.

He watched his family dig in in the early afternoon sun, joking and laughing and pointing out interesting trees and cloud shapes and shook his head, smiling, what a bunch of nerds. He joined them then, loading his plate up with a bit of everything, twisting the top off a beer and watching carefully for any sign that this had actually been a terrible idea and Sam was stressing himself out, pretending that he was enjoying this to make Dean happy, but he found none; Sam kept shooting him grateful looks, throwing himself into the conversation with abandon, breathing deep and easy and even shucking his shoes and socks, rolling his pants above his calves and letting them dangle in the water, taking a few moments to close his eyes and tip his head back, soaking in the sun's rays as they hit him, catching sparks of auburn in his ridiculous hair.

Once they had all eaten as much as physically possible, stuffed and sun-warm and comfortable, Dean lay back, tucking his hands behind his head and listening to one of Cas' story-lessons about how clouds were formed. It was basic middle-school stuff but Jack was held rapt and the way that Cas described it had him and Sam listening attentively too. Cas made the natural world sound far more beautiful and interesting than anything he'd seen of it. Sure, he appreciated a nice view, but when he looked around now, he didn't see anything like what Cas described. He saw trees that would provide good cover for anything trying to sneak up on them, he saw a cliff which they could put their backs to if necessary, he felt the solid ground under him, firm enough to run on, though there had been rain a few days ago so it might suck at his boots, slowing him down; and he saw a lake that reminded him too closely of his most recent nightmares. But as Cas talked he began to notice other things too: the way the water's surface ruffled in the breeze, the flowers dotted around that were pretty pops of colour in the earthy tones of everything else, how the air tasted clean and calming, the trill of birds mixing with the delicate notes still coming from the speaker. He looked around and he admired the trees for the shapes of their leaves and the shadows they cast, he felt the ground give slightly under his weight, cradling him, the cliff was speckled with orange moss and blooms of creeping plants, perfectly complimenting the blue-grey stone, looking old and patient and solid in the corner of his vision; the sky hung overhead in a beautiful gradient of blue and white.

Cas' voice wrapped around him and Dean wished that he could see the world like Cas did, the intricacies of each blade of grass laid bare for him to examine, able to witness the water vapour rising to coalesce into cloud and a hundred million other things that were just beyond his perception; maybe then he wouldn't be so cynical or dismissive all the time. Only Cas could draw this out of him him, cracking open the shutters and letting him see without the caveats of possible danger or tactical advantage getting in the way, if only until the story ended and Jack peppered Cas with further questions, bouncing around topics, Sam adding in odd facts or questions of his own, debate and deep discussion, the sounds of his family, comfortable and well-fed and unhurried and safe. Dean closed his eyes and just listened.

 

***

 

He woke up sometime later; the sky had softened to warmer colours in the setting sun, taking with it the last of the day's heat, leaving a chill behind. He sat up, rubbing at his eyes and looked around. Jack was skimming stones on the surface of the lake. Sam and Cas were sat on the hood of the impala watching him. Sam was nodding along to something Cas was saying, both their expressions were pained and there were tear tracks on Sam's face but in the kind of way that made Dean certain that Cas was offering the kind of comfort that sunk deep. Another story-lesson, a living example from before Cas had met them, probably. Cas had commanded armies after all, he had to have taken some losses over the centuries. Maybe he was the only one who could truly understand what Sam was going through.

He watched as Sam tilted his head to rest on Cas' shoulder for a minute before raising it again and Dean couldn't help but smile, that was a rare thing. Sam did those little head boops sometimes, when he was trying to say 'thank you' but didn't know how. When a hug would be awkward or the words wouldn't come. It was sweet, he'd never seen him give one to Cas before. For his part, Cas look startled, but then his expression melted fond and he patted Sam on the shoulder. It looked like their conversation was over so he didn't feel bad about stretching out with a groan, feeling his joints strain and pop and settle.

"Hey there, Rip Van Winkle," Sam teased, "It's been three hundred years and we're all robot people now. You know, no amount of sleep is gonna make you pretty."

Dean stuck his tongue out by way of a retort and Sam laughed.

"I think Dean is already pretty," Jack said, turning around with an innocent smile, still not quite understanding the concept of banter, "There are people in magazines who don't look as nice, and they try very hard."

Dean didn't quite know how to react to that, sarcasm he could deal with, make a joke out of, but genuine compliments? He felt himself turning red.

"And Cas? What are your thoughts on Dean's prettiness?" Sam asked impishly, grinning wide, turning to the angel.

Cas looked like he'd been very much hoping to stay out of this conversation and cleared his throat awkwardly.

"Dean is… very aesthetically pleasant." He said in that stilted, angel way of his that hadn't been natural for years now.

Dean's cheeks were now on fire so he flipped Sam the bird and hurriedly turned away to start clearing up. The uneaten food had been sealed back into the containers, though there was a lot less than he'd thought, nothing that couldn't be eaten as snack food in the next day or two. Still, he stacked it all back in the basket, and picked up the blanket and shook it out, meaning to wrap it around himself before realising that it was damp from the cooling grass, so he folded it neatly and placed it on top of the closed basket instead.

"Here," Sam said, tossing him the spare jacket he'd packed into the trunk, Sam and Jack were already wearing theirs. Dean shrugged it on and made his way over to the impala, flapping his arms to indicate that they should shove up and make room on the hood. They did. It was very squashed with the three of them, poor Cas sandwiched in the middle, but Dean didn't mind and, seeing as the others stayed where they were, neither did they. Jack went to put the blanket/basket combo back in the trunk and then came around to join them. There was no room on the hood for him to recline against the windshield, but Dean shifted his legs so that Jack had a corner he could perch on. Together they watched the sunset in silence. Dean felt Cas' hand where it was pressed against his own, warm and solid and was overcome with the urge to threat their fingers together. He bit his lip instead, watching colours merge and deepen and darken and, probably because they were watching the sunset without waiting for a monster to jump out of the shadows, the voice of Mildred came back to him, the crazy silver fox in the old folks' home on the case where they'd first met Eileen.

Follow your heart. You do that, all the rest just figures itself out.

So he did.

He felt Cas tense next to him as he pushed his fingers along Cas' palm until they reached the gaps that they would slot into so perfectly. He kept his movements slow, careful, giving Cas plenty of time and opportunity to move his hand away if he wanted. But he didn't. Cas' gaze was hot on his face but he didn't turn to look, keeping his eyes trained on the sunset, swallowing hard. Sam and Jack were right there, if Cas decided to say something…

But after a moment their hands were locked together and Cas squeezed his fingers gently before turning his head back to the sky, and the only sounds were their combined breathing, the slight rustle of jeans as Jack shifted his weight, the buzz of insects and the low thrum of wind through leaves.

Dean could feel his palm start to sweat where Cas' hand was warm and dry but he still didn't pull away and neither did Cas. This was a new sensation for him and he was trying to figure it out. He'd held hands with people before. Sammy when he still needed help crossing the street, pulling or getting pulled by a girl into a supply closet to make out. Walking hand in hand with Cassie or Lisa when they'd been a thing. Those last two were the closest match he could think of for what he felt now, but they were hardly a worthy comparison; he felt grounded, safe, and important. It was a little bit possessive and a little bit scary and at the same time completely comfortable. With that touch the sunset became a little more beautiful, the water less terrifying, the shadows less ominous, the feeling of belonging was less alien. Cas was here and so was he and they were both good things.

 

***

 

The first stars were fading into view when Sam sat up, rubbing at his arms. Dean yanked his hand back from Cas' as casually as he could, turning the movement into a belly scratch in case Sam glanced over. Cas let him go easily, though he could practically feel the frown.

"We should head back," Sam was saying, spurring all of them into movement, "it's getting cold and we should probably get those leftovers in the fridge."

"I like it out here." Jack said placidly, taking one last look towards the lake before opening the car door and sliding in, "We should come back again soon."

The others followed suit and Dean flipped on the headlights, sending twin beams of yellow firing out towards the cliff. Sam cranked up the heater as Dean carefully swung them around, back towards the dirt road and the way they had come.

"Yeah," Sam said, turning to look at Dean, his eyes smiling bigger than his face, "this was just what I needed."

Dean nodded back, glad he'd been able to help, even if it was just a picnic.

 

***

 

Jack was yawning by the time they got back to the bunker, even though it wasn't that late and he insisted that he wasn't tired.

"I'm tired," Sam said conspiratorially from the passenger seat, "we did walk around the whole lake."

Dean frowned, they had? Probably while he'd been napping. Another example of his laziness taking over when he should be keeping up the training his father had started. He used to be so good at it, much better than bookish, uninterested Sam. He used to run laps while Sam was at the library, used to spend two hours a day working to make his body the best it could be. He'd even eaten better in some ways, making sure Sammy ate his vegetables was usually a lead-by-example venture and he'd been teaching himself to cook when he could buy or shoplift the right ingredients so while some of his concoctions were resounding failures, others were actually healthy, decent meals.

"Your body ain't for you." John's voice came back to him from a time they'd been spotting each other on weights, "Your body is for all of those poor saps out there who need saving; it's for all the sons of bitches who need to get got; it's for Sammy, you hear?

Dean shook himself and pulled the impala in to park, tucking her up in her regular parking spot in the garage and twisting the key. He patted the dash goodnight before climbing out of the car and moving around to her trunk to fish out the picnic stuff, waving the others away when they tried to help, shooing them off to bed. They laughed and Sam flung an arm around Jack's shoulders as they headed in, Jack chattering excitedly about a cool grass snake he'd seen and how he'd managed to skip a stone six times without even using his powers.

Dean shook his head fondly at the boy's enthusiasm. He really can't have lost that much of his soul if he still cared about stuff like grass snakes. Either that or he was pretending for their sake, which was more concerning but still meant that he cared enough to lie. Either way it dampened his concern a little. Dean flung the blankets over his shoulder, snatched up the basket and awkwardly closed the trunk, only to start when he saw Cas still standing by the rear door, twisting his hands together nervously.

Oh crap.

"Sam's right," Cas said, "this was a great idea, Dean. It was nice to get out of the bunker for a little while and just have some fun," his smile was faint and sweet and it caught in Dean's chest. More than ever, Dean regretted falling asleep and missing out on their first family picnic; even though it had been his idea in the first place he'd just conked out as though he hadn't actually wanted to spend time with his family in a situation that didn't involve killing something or avoiding being killed, as though it didn't actually matter to him whether or not they had a good time, as though he didn't care enough to want to be involved, no, he'd just snored on through while someone taught Jack how to skip stones and while they all went for a walk together and while Cas told Sam something profound and comforting.

"I'm also glad you managed to get some sleep. I know you haven't exactly felt comfortable sleeping in weeks, it was nice to see you relaxed enough to get some rest."

Okay, either he was completely transparent or Cas was reading his mind. Which… rude. He folded his arms and huffed, which probably looked far more ridiculous than defensive, what with the basket and blankets and all. He walked past Cas in the direction of the kitchen and Cas trailed after him, silently watching until all the tupperware containers were in the fridge and the basket was back in the pantry, then he followed and watched some more as Dean threw the damp blanket into the laundry room and placed the unused ones back into the lavender-infused cupboard he'd found them in. He was passing by Sam's room on the way to his own when Sam opened the door,

"Hey, Dean?" he said, poking his head out, shaking his head slightly when he saw Cas hovering too, he chucked something Dean's way and it was only through years of finely-honed instinct that he caught it without missing a beat. "I think those are yours. Night guys." He retreated back into his room and the door shut with a snap. Dean looked down at the ball of fabric in his hands. Socks. Black with a single grey stripe. He stared at them for far longer than necessary, so long in fact that Cas actually stepped forward to see what he was holding,

"Dean?" He asked, confused.

Dean briefly glanced at him and shook his head before striding to his own room, then, before Cas could slip in behind him, he deliberately leaned his weight against the door, pressing it closed. Cas got the message and he didn't knock, though it was several minutes before Dean heard his footsteps walking away.

Dean threw the ball of socks across the room with force, although the ball of cotton bouncing ineffectually off the wall was less than satisfying, and headed straight for the cupboard by his bed.

One thing. He couldn't do one thing without fucking it up. Clean the bunker so Sam won't see any trace of the massacre that occurred in his home? Leave a blood trail on the wall for Sam to see and freak out about; work out in an attempt to start getting back in shape? Manage ten minutes before becoming a puddle of unfit sweat; do laundry? Not even be able to recognise his own freaking socks; take everyone out for a picnic to have a nice time and relax? Sleep through it;finally do something about his feelings for Cas? Immediately freak out and then refuse to acknowledge it, literally shutting the guy out.

It was like he'd taken one step forward only to start sprinting backwards, trip over something and crack his skull open. What the hell was wrong with him?

He twisted the cap off the bottle of Johnnie Walker and flicked it across the room, the constant thrumming tug in his gut calming as he took a long, hearty swig, swallowing through the burn, suppressing the need to cough until he was done drinking, then feeling the whiskey heat claw its way back up his throat like smoke. He still remembered that sensation, he didn't think he'd ever forget it. Maybe that was why he drank whiskey, trying to replace one with the other.

What had he just done? Damaged his friendship with Cas for sure, if not destroyed it completely, all because he'd been weak and had just wanted to know what it felt like to hold Cas' hand. The fact that it had felt pretty damn great didn't help. Now Cas was probably really confused and grossed out at the very idea, only not pulling away because he hadn't wanted to hurt Dean's feelings. But he had wanted to talk and Dean had denied him even that dignity. Yep, he had definitely done some damage there. Idiot.

He also hadn't made his mind up about Jack yet. Sure, he seemed normal enough, his usual naive, inquisitive self, aside from that one outburst of teenage/toddler-rage, but how much of that was put on to keep the adults off his back and how much was real?

He was also getting old and slow and useless, a just-over-the-borderline alcoholic with too much space in his head, a new case of thalassophobia and a tendency to ruin everything he tried to fix. He'd told Sam that he was good with who he was, and that had been true then, at least mostly. Or maybe it had just been John's presence making him want to dig his heels in. Either way, that had been before he'd let his own fear and Sam's puppy-eyes stop him from making sure that the murderous archangel playing the angry conga in his head would never hurt anyone again.

He took another drink, more than one, he drank until his head was swimming. It wasn't a nice feeling, almost nauseating, but it was better than his thoughts lining up in an orderly fashion just to punch him in the face.

Stupid fucking socks.

Was he really so pathetic that he let the goddamn laundry dictate his mood now? His next pull at the bottle answered that question. Yes. Yes he was.

He paced the room, taking swigs at intervals. He wasn't sure why, only that inactivity was grating on him. He needed to move, to do something. To try and make things better, to make himself better. Otherwise, why was he still here?

He was supposed to die in that coffin. Billie's book had stated it. 143,086 years Michael would have kept him there before finally burning out all of his grace in an attempt to escape, his sanity long gone and Dean would have welcomed the death.

That had been his fate and he had accepted it as much as he could, choosing to push down the terror, living it only in his nightmares. There was no point in doing otherwise, it was gonna happen whether he wanted it or not, written in Death's book in neat lines, the only version of the future that said Michael didn't tear down the world along with him.

He wasn't like Sam, capable of using that knowledge to strategically squeeze the most out of every moment like a game of life-tetris. No. Give Dean a blade and a mission and send him into the murky field of maybe today, that was how he rolled. Having a date and a time and a two sentence description felt like telling a joke punchline first, what was the point? What was he supposed to do? What did Death's books say now? Had they re-written themselves again or were they just pulsing static because once again the Winchesters had defied what was meant to be? There were no other options, no alleyways of choice, that had been it.

And now it wasn't. Now he was off-script and flailing.

Years ago, Dean would have been proud at the idea. Free will, right? Open up all the options, burn the books that state the future as fact and dance on the ashes. But now… now it felt different. Was he glad that he didn't have to bunk with Michael for the next 140,000 years? Absolutely, but the idea that there was no written end left him surprisingly uneasy. It was a strange thing, knowing your death; seeing it coming was one thing, starting on a path that only had one end, he'd done that many a time, but holding it in his hands, reading the words written by the freaking universe, that was something else entirely.

For once, he didn't like the idea of going off-script. And he especially didn't like how he'd screwed up every good thing he'd tried since Jack fried the pages. It had been a fitting end for him, he'd thought, even if he didn't like it; like going back to Hell, it was a fate well-deserved. Plus, blaze of glory, saving the world in the process, there were worse reasons to go out, and he could've rested easy (or as easy as possible with an archangel slamming you around a metal coffin) knowing that Michael would never escape.

But if they ended up having to stop Jack instead? That wrenched at something in his gut, stronger than the whiskey-tug and about eight times more painful.

So he drank, and he paced, and he drank until he could no longer pace because his legs gave out from under him, sending him sprawling onto the bed, somehow managing to not spill any whiskey. The mattress didn't bounce so instead he sank into it before struggling up to sit against the headboard like he was wading through quicksand, kicking off his boots as he shuffled awkwardly backwards. Once he was settled he let out a huff, holding his bottle aloft in triumph like he was toasting the room before taking another swig.

He was getting on his way to being well and truly drunk now, though he knew from experience it would take more than one bottle to really get him to the blackout stage he was chasing. His thoughts were sluggish and losing their sting, though there were still far too many of them cramped in his brain.

He couldn't believe he'd actually grabbed Cas' hand, was horrified at his own sloppiness. Ten years of carefully crafted friendship, loyalty earned and trust built and quirks embedded and faults accepted, ten years of having someone who wasn't his brother that he could go to when he needed to unwind with a movie or a 'bitch about Sam' session or even to express his concerns about the bigger stuff when he didn't want to worry Sam. Thoughts exchanged in dim rooms, nightmares, experiences, hopes and worries, Cas had become a load-bearing beam of his life. As pissy and impatient and sarcastic as the angel could be, he was also unfailingly understanding and kind and funny in his own, sand-dry way.

Sure, Dean had known for years that what he felt for the angel was different to friendship, even if he didn't have a lot of friends to compare it with, it was definitely different from the brotherly feelings he'd told Cas he had. But that didn't give him the right to go acting on it. Who knew if Cas was even interested in that kind of thing? Sure, he'd slept with April, but he'd been human and probably just wanted to try it out seeing as Dean was always cracking stupid jokes about how great sex was. He'd certainly expressed no interest in anyone before or since (unless he counted Meg, which Dean was still trying to scrub from his memory so no, he wasn't counting Meg) and was incredibly uncomfortable whenever he got hit on, his eyes getting all big and scared in what Dean called his den of iniquity face. And even if that wasn't the issue, there was no way he would be interested in Dean specifically. Dean was Dean, he was an asshole and a fuckup and Cas knew too much about what went on behind his 'aesthetically pleasant' face to ever see him that way. Honestly, most days he was amazed that Cas even called him friend, let alone all the extra lengths he had gone to time and again, favours called in, choosing the Winchesters over the other angels, just being here.

And now, because he was too polite (Chuck only knew where he got that trait from) to tell him to back the hell off, instead he was gonna start making excuses to spend less and less time at the bunker, avoid being alone with Dean at all costs, trying to extract himself slowly, maybe stop showing up to movie nights or any other family outings they had, all because Dean couldn't keep his damn hands to himself.

He swallowed the last few fingers in the bottle and pulled out the second. Maybe if he drank enough he could erase the whole freaking thing, maybe if he drank enough Cas would no longer hate him for putting him in that uncomfortable position, maybe Jack's soul would re-grow, maybe Cas would stay, maybe Sam would be able to go into the damn library. He had been supposed to drown anyway, right? In the ocean or in a bottle, what difference did it make?

He felt tears hot on his burning face; ashamed of himself he brought his knees up and pressed his face into them, the denim rubbed rough on his skin.

God, he was pathetic. Sat on his bed, hugging his knees, a bottle deep in Johnnie Walker Black. All he'd wanted was to project a little normalcy. But since when was it normal for them to go out for picnics like Snow freaking White? Since when was it normal to hold Cas' hand and screw up the only friendship he'd been able to let himself rely on? He should've started cleaning up the pyres earlier so that Sam hadn't come back to find him burying the last evidence that his friends had ever existed, like he could just pile enough gravel on top and make everything okay again. He should've washed his damn hands after cleaning the evidence so he hadn't shifted all of Sam's worry onto him, like he was the one who needed care and attention, he should never have started slacking off John's training regimen, and he shouldn't be getting drunk right now in case Sam needed him.

Still, he followed the tug and took another drink, hating himself more and more the longer the whiskey taste stayed tacky on his tongue. He never should have started drinking. Years ago, he'd known that it would become a problem. He'd seen what drinking did to John, experienced it fist first, and he'd known that he was destined to follow. It should have stopped him, like it had stopped Sam, but Dean had wanted to be like his father, he'd forgotten that that meant embodying all the bad that John was, along with the hero that his son had idolised.

So Dean drank and slowly developed the same taste for it that John had. The pull of the bottle was strong, it helped when Sammy was stitching him up after a hunt, it helped him sleep, it had helped him forget, if only for a few hours. All in all, it helped with pain, all kinds of pain, and Chuck knew Dean needed a crutch.

He clutched at the neck of the bottle like a lifeline, the glass warming beneath his fingers. What else could he do to help Sam out of this? Something that he couldn't screw up. He could cook a good breakfast, one of those egg-white omelettes with some sweet peppers and chunks of ham maybe? Sam had begged him to make one of those right after they'd returned from Apocalypse World. No, bad idea, Sam didn't need the reminder of that place… or did he? After all, he couldn't act like it had never happened; plus, those that hadn't been in the bunker at the time would probably be converging on this place in a matter of days so it's not like Sam could take all the time he might need to heal.

He would probably need to make a supply run to get all that stuff anyway, he'd mostly cleared out the fridge making all the picnic food and he was pretty sure he'd used the last of the eggs. That was something he could have done now, if he wasn't about six times over the limit.

Dean capped the bottle and shoved it away, suddenly furious. It landed with a dull thunk. Dean shifted over to get his feet on the solid floor and pushed himself up, fell, and tried again until he was standing, albeit swaying. His vision was like a flickering laptop screen, everything jumping all over the place, unable to settle. He stumbled over to the wall and leaned on it heavily, breathing hard at the small movement. He closed his eyes and waited for the darkness to become still before opening his eyes again.

His stomach lurched, nope, no way was he gonna make it to the kitchen to get coffee, even the thought of it made his guts twist. He felt around, taking minute steps until he got to the bathroom, then he fell on his knees in front of the toilet bowl and ejected everything that he had eaten at the picnic.

His shoulders heaved with the effort, tears streamed down his face, the stench of vomit was thick in his nose, but he coughed and spat and then he would throw up again. It was noisy and disgusting but when he finally fell back against the tiled wall, cool against his cheek, he felt better, his head clearer. He pushed himself up to stand on shaky legs and flushed, then he got back on his knees and scrubbed until the toilet was sparkling. The added smell of cleaning fluid wasn't helping to settle his stomach but when it was done he brushed his teeth and then went in search of a glass of water.

He had to stop several times on the way to the kitchen, using the wall again. When he stopped a little down from Sam's room, however, he heard voices.

He shuffled forward as quietly as he could manage.

"-I know, you're right. It's just worrying."

"Jack isn't exactly a typical child..." Cas' voice was careful and measured.

"In some ways, that's exactly what he is," Sam said with a sigh, "he needs guidance and security and a safe place to learn and grow and people who accept him for who he is and-"

"He has those things."

"He has some of those things," Sam argued, "what security can we offer him, Cas? Everything we do the stakes are high and the losses are real. I mean… he's barely two years old and think of everything he's already been through."

"He's half-archangel," Cas reasoned, "I don't think a normal life was ever really an option. We've done our best, Sam. And I'm as worried about him as you are, but he's a good person… he's just so young and so powerful and like you said, we can give him a safe place and a family who accept him."

"Can we even give him that anymore? This place hardly feels safe, and he was the one protecting us. He shouldn't need to feel like he's the responsible one. As for accepting him… I'm trying, Cas, I really am, but if I'm being totally honest, I'm a little afraid of him. Especially lately. I mean, he seems fine but then sometimes he'll get this look… like he's wondering what would happen if just opened a portal in the middle of the kitchen or turned me to dust or something."

"Well, I've seen Dean get that look if there's no coffee in the machine when he wakes up, so I wouldn't take it personally."

They both chuckled at that. Cas' quip succeeding in lightening the mood.

"I guess there's no point in talking in circles about Jack. How are you doing, Cas? Really? All you ever do is worry about us but God knows you've been through it too."

Dean shifted a little closer to the door. He shouldn't be eavesdropping, he knew he shouldn't, this was a private conversation and he had no right to be a part of it, but Sam was right, Cas never really let on when he was struggling too, at least not until after he'd done something stupid to try and fix whatever misplaced guilt he was feeling.

"I'm sure He's aware, yes," Cas said dryly, then he sighed, "I don't know, Sam. I don't know what I'm doing here right now. Jack won't talk to me about what happened and that's concerning, Dean is acting… differently and that's confusing, and I know you in particular need time to heal before we even consider hunting again, but everything feels… impermanent. We're between hunts and between crises and I can't fix anything but I don't have any other purpose."

Dean grimaced, of course he was only adding to the angel's already screwed sense of belonging in this family. Figuring he'd lingered more than long enough already, he continued on towards the kitchen, leaving the two to their talk.

"You don't need to have a purpose, Cas" Sam was saying kindly, just before he got out of hearing range, "You're here, and that's enough."

Dean smiled. Of course, his dork brother was great at that kind of comfort. That was probably exactly what Cas needed to hear.

 

***

 

Fifteen minutes later, Dean was nursing his fourth glass of water but still couldn't bring himself to make the return journey to his room. He contemplated food. There were plenty of leftovers in the fridge, all he'd need would be to pick a tub and grab a fork. His stomach didn't immediately reject the idea but neither did it sound too appealing, so instead he did nothing at all, staring at a bead of condensation on the side of his glass as it wormed its way towards the table. He'd distantly heard Sam's door open and shut a few minutes ago, and what he assumed where Cas' retreating footsteps. He was probably tired enough to sleep, but was unsure what his dreams would be without the cushioning of alcohol to dull them. His last one hadn't been great: flashes of light, gold and blue-white, screaming, the sound of laughter, low and cruel, in his own voice but not; more light, the floor jostling as bodies dropped and that was it. Not his worst, but still not something he really wanted a repeat of.

He sat there, knowing the longer he stayed the greater the risk of being found by either Cas or Jack, who had taken up late-night snacking as a pastime seeing as he only seemed to need around two or three hours of sleep on any given day. He wasn't really up for dealing with either angelic being at the moment though so with a groan and another refill of his glass he returned to his room, counting it as a win that he only needed to stop for a breather once on the way.

 

***

 

He woke just before nine am, surprisingly alert; his head no longer felt like it had been doused in cement and his stomach was tentatively still. He yawned and stretched, grateful for the lack of hangover, though he supposed he'd paid for it the previous night. Shame crashed into him as he swung his legs out of bed and one of his bare feet landed on the cold glass bottle. He kicked it away in disgust, hating himself for how little there was left in it.

Just get through the day, he told himself, wake up and get through the next one. That was all he had to do. Trouble was, he had no plan for today, and sure, he could probably come up with something but there was a fine line between keeping Sam too busy to dwell on his pain and not letting him process it. But now Cas was feeling purposeless and he had no clue how Jack was. How could he give Sam space while also giving Cas sense of purpose and making sure Jack had someone keeping an eye or two on him at all times?

He found Jack at the kitchen table, spooning cereal into his mouth and reading the back of the box. Sam had the tub of leftover fruit salad and was sat across from him, scrolling through his phone with one hand.

"Morning," Sam said, glancing up. Jack echoed the sentiment without the eye contact but didn't protest when Dean slowly pulled the box from his view to pour himself a bowl before sliding it back over. He did, however, turn his head to watch as Dean started to eat. Dean tried his best to ignore it, the kid didn't mean to be creepy; it was like with Cas, only it had been so long since Dean actually considered any of the staring Cas did as creepy that this felt different.

"So you don't talk anymore," Jack said a minute later, out of freaking nowhere, "and we're not supposed to worry."

Dean coughed around the spoon of cereal he'd just put in his mouth and shot wide, panicked eyes to Sam; Jack hadn't sounded worried, he'd said the words as a statement of fact, but it was still something that probably required more of an answer than a shrug and a grunt. Luckily, Sam jumped in. He played it calm too, even as Dean gaped at him like a terrified fish he carefully placed his fork and phone down on the table and leaned towards Jack to show he had his full attention, smiling the same smile that had put dozens of concerned family members at ease.

"Not talking for a while is something Dean does sometimes." He began awkwardly, glancing at Dean, who looked away, already hating this entire conversation. "It's a way for some people to… to process when they've been through something big. But he's still the same Dean and he'll talk when he's ready. Right, Dean?"

Dean pressed his lips together and nodded, avoiding his brother's and Jack's eyes, feeling heat climb up his face.

"But he's never stopped talking before, even though a lot has happened." Jack said, frowning, "Wouldn't you count getting stuck in an alternate universe as 'big'?"

Sam huffed a laugh and cleared his throat, "Yeah," he said, "that was a lot, and we've all been through stuff. But some stuff hits differently than others, I guess. I mean, the Bad Place wasn't great but Michael… Michael was in Dean's head, Jack. It's a different kind of- of 'big', if that makes sense."

Jack popped another spoonful of cereal into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully, "I suppose so. It must feel strange, to have somebody else trapped inside your mind, fighting to get out."

Dean's tongue rolled over his tightly closed lips and gave a curt nod, as though that would be sufficient to stop Jack's words from entering his brain, eliciting memories and feelings that he would rather remain buried. Michael trapped in his head, being trapped inside his own head while Michael was in control, remembering enough to feel disgust every time he saw his own hands but not enough to actually be of any use. Feeling Michael take him over a second time, without his consent, a split second of understanding that Michael had played him, toyed with him like a cat letting mouse run while fully intending to rip it apart anyway.

How could he have been so stupid to believe that it was over, that Michael would just let him go, that there would be no consequences to talking freely when Michael had been listening and planning and it was all Dean's fault and they were lucky Garth hadn't been killed, that Cas had been right there with the handcuffs, that Michael hadn't gotten Sam, that Jack had been strong enough to take him out. But the cost of that last one was steep, even if they didn't know just how steep yet. And that was his fault too. And he couldn't put any of it right. How could he fix the lives lost? How could he fix Jack's soul or Sam's pain or any of it? There wasn't enough bleach in the world to scour away the stains he'd made.

Jack's smile was a little too innocent, just a hint of forced, which only solidified that idea. Jack was just a kid, barely even a toddler by actual alive-time standards, but here he was, missing part of his soul and a possible danger to over seven billion people, sitting at their kitchen table, eating cereal with the kind of overwhelming sugar content that made Dean's teeth feel like they'd grown fur. There was no way in hell that he deserved that kind of pressure, just because he had access to immeasurable power didn't mean that he didn't deserve the chance to grow and make mistakes and learn from them like any child should.

"Yeah," Sam put in, clearly whatever was showing on Dean's face warranted a distraction, "being possessed, it's… well, it sucks. But what Dean did was a step further. Just goes to show how strong he is, right?"

Dean looked up at that, and seeing the warm, encouraging smile on Sam's face both made him feel better and more guilty.

"Yeah," Jack agreed, "I suppose so. It's just strange, him being so quiet."

Sam laughed at that, "Enjoy it while you can, Jack," he teased, winking at Dean.

Dean smirked back. His little brother always knew how to pull him back from a spiral if he saw one coming. Cas too. He didn't even need to speak, they just knew him so well. He still didn't know what he'd done to deserve them, especially with the way he treated them sometimes, but maybe it didn't matter, 'deserve' didn't mean shit. But sometimes, just sometimes, that worked out in his favour. Because whatever was going on with Jack they would face it together, as a family.

Cas chose that moment to walk in too and Dean felt a genuine smile tug at his lips, even though the angel squinted a suspicious frown at him in return. Okay, so maybe he'd fucked things up with Cas, sending him crazy mixed signals or whatever, but judging by the way their eyes held for just a heartbeat too long, that damage wasn't irreparable. At the very least they could get back to where they'd always been and Dean could bury the rest.

"Good morning," Cas greeted, pouring himself a half-mug of coffee that he would just sit and sniff at until it was cold.

"Hiya Cas," Sam said, leaning back in his chair and taking the tub of fruit salad with him, spearing a piece of melon and popping it in his mouth. It was the most relaxed Dean had seen him in a week. His face was less haggard, his eyes less sunken and he'd actually showered this morning rather than a quick rub over with a washcloth (yes, Dean could tell) and he'd shaved the stubble that had started to form a full beard. Dean rubbed at his own spiky chin, his own shower had been one of necessity, to wash away whatever smell of alcohol and vomit clung to his skin after last night. It was nice to see Sam so calm. There was still a deep grief etched into the lines of his face but it looked lighter than it had and for that Dean was grateful.

"Do we have a plan of action for today?" Cas asked mildly, glancing around at them all before settling into his seat with the steaming mug.

Sam shook his head, "I was going to maybe pick out a book to settle in with," he said quietly, his eyes flicking away.

Dean would have beamed if that reaction wouldn't have made Sam feel even more self-conscious than he clearly already did.

Cas nodded solemnly, picking up on what Sam meant, "if you need help choosing one, I could show you a few that I think you might enjoy. I've been working my way through the section on mythology."

Sam smiled gratefully, "Thanks Cas, but I think I'll be okay. I'll actually take this with me if that's alright. Might as well get started."

He stood and nodded at them, taking the fruit in its container and heading out of the kitchen.

"Sam reads a lot," Jack said slowly, once Sam's footsteps had faded from hearing, "why do you both look so happy that he's going to read?"

"It's not the reading, Jack," Cas explained, looking at the boy fondly, "he's going to the library, he hasn't been near the place since Michael… anyway, it's something that he feels like he needs to do alone so we should respect that and leave him be. It's going to be difficult for him."

Jack frowned, "why would it be difficult?"

Cas glanced over to Dean, who shrugged, as though at least three alarm bells hadn't suddenly begun ringing in his head.

"Because some places can trigger bad memories when a person has been through trauma. Sam always felt safe here, in the bunker but in the library in particular, for that to be the site of Michael's wrath might feel like a betrayal of sorts."

Jack chewed over those words as though faced with one of Sam's genuis-level crossword puzzles. Again, Cas met Dean's eyes, the concern in them clear. Dean didn't bother trying to hide his own worry. Sure, grief was a tricky thing for a kid to understand, especially the way it affected everyone differently, but considering the fact that Jack had lost his friends too and that he had before said that he never wanted to go back to Dodge City, there should have been at least a spark of empathy there.

After several long seconds, Jack's expression smoothed and he looked up at the two of them, "Okay," he said, smiling his usual bland smile, his eyes flat.

Dean swallowed and took another mouthful of cereal to cover it up. Cas forced a smile back at the boy, though it was tense.

Jack lifted his bowl to drink the remaining milk and then stood to place it and his spoon in the sink before turning back to them,

"So, what are you going to do today?" He asked Cas, pointedly, "research the Empty perhaps?"

"No." Cas said firmly, shooting Jack a sharp look, "I am incurious about such a creature, it's not worth wasting time on."

Jack was clearly not pleased with that answer. He pursed his lips and his eyes narrowed,

"The more you know, the happier you'll be." He argued.

"Unlikely. There are more useful ways to spend my time." Cas' voice was calm but there was a hint of fear in his eyes as he glanced back at Dean.

Dean resisted the urge to roll his eyes, there Cas went again, so worried about being useful, what would it take for him to see that they wanted him here, just 'cause?

"Fine," Jack snapped, "Then I'll be in my room if you need me," then his head swivelled to the door in the strange way that Jack moved and he too left, without looking back.

"Well that's concerning." Cas muttered when Jack was out of earshot. Dean widened his eyes in a ya think? expression but Cas was too busy staring into his mug to see it. "I don't want to lose him, Dean," he said mournfully. "I promised Kelly that I would protect him, but I don't know if we saved him by bringing him back. How much of himself did he burn away to save us from Michael? How can we be sure there's any left at all?"

Dean reached forward and placed his hand on the arm that was wrapped almost protectively around the coffee mug. He hated seeing Cas so defeated, it was a far cry from the steely determination that he usually forced himself into, not that that was a particularly healthy way to be either.

Cas looked up at the pressure and followed the line of Dean's hand back to his face.

"And that's another thing," he said, smiling gently as he extracted himself from Dean's hand and glanced at the door as if to make sure they really were alone. His eyes were as firm as his tone and it immediately set Dean on edge. Cas opened his mouth and took a breath like he was going to talk, but then didn't, he did that a few times before finally:

"Don't experiment with me, Dean. I'm happy that you finally feel comfortable enough to explore your sexuality but adding that element to our relationship would make things… complicated. I don't want to lose you either and I can't stand the thought of being that close to you and it not meaning anything."

Cas' eyes darted away then, pale pink blooming across his cheeks and Dean was frozen, trying to muddle out a meaning from Cas' words, one that makes more sense than the apparent admission that Cas wanted something between them to mean something. As though it wouldn't, as though Dean didn't have to force himself to let go every time they hugged, as though he didn't pull himself from eye contact when the urge to surge across the room and kiss the angel senseless became too much, as though he hadn't fantasised about them together, about taking Cas' face in his hands and telling him how important he was, how vital to Team Free Will and to Dean personally, how great a father he was to Jack, how there was no one bar Sam he'd rather have at his back in a fight, how Dean treasured every variation of his I'm pissed at you, Dean, face and how his smile was the most beautiful thing Dean could think of. How he trusted Cas not to leave, to call him out on his bullshit, to be there when things got bad, even when they got very damn bad. He trusted him implicitly and sometimes that scared the crap out of him.

And here Cas was, telling him that even after all these years of bullshit posturing and pointed looks from Sam and ignoring and burying and hiding what he felt that it would mean something to him. Dean swallowed, feeling his throat bob with the motion. Cas sighed, his eyes flicking up apologetically before settling back in his mug.

"We should probably talk about this when you can actually talk about this," he said, more to himself that to Dean. "I'm sorry for bringing it up now with so much else going on, I just needed you to know that I won't be a 'trial run' for you. I can't do that to myself. I want more than that and it wouldn't be fair on either of us if I pretended I didn't."

He looked up then, his eyes so big and earnest that it made Dean's heart ache, "But I am so proud of you, Dean. You've come so far and you deserve the opportunity to explore in that regard... just not with me."

He made to rise from the table but Dean scrambled up after him, catching his arm again and knocking his bowl in his haste so it splashed sugary milk onto the table.

Cas frowned at him, not an angry frown, but curious. Cas had a lot of frowns.

"You're not an experiment." He said, his voice raspy from lack of use, he felt the blush raging across his face but refused to look away, "You're the answer."

It took half a heartbeat for his confession to sink into Cas' face, when it did, those blue eyes widened in surprise, his chapped lips parted to form an 'o' and that frown stayed put, it was such a ridiculously Cas expression that Dean almost laughed, almost, because his courage was draining away fast and he used the last of it to skirt around the table and press himself into Cas' space, sliding a hand around the back of the angel's neck and up into his hair, gently holding him in place while he leaned forward to claim a kiss. His other hand was still grasping at Cas' sleeve, but before he could worry that this was too much, that he'd crossed a boundary he could never undo, that he'd just ruined everything, Cas let out a small noise and there was a hand on his hip and another on his back and they were pulling him in closer. Cas' lips were soft and textured with lines from all the pursing he did, and they were moving against his own and Dean's stomach exploded into butterflies but he had never felt so safe. He pushed everything he had into that kiss and Cas accepted it all.

After an amount of time that Dean couldn't even begin to guess at, they pulled apart. Dean was breathing heavily, Cas wasn't breathing at all. Dean bounced his gaze from those kiss-swollen lips to the even-wilder-than-usual sex hair before settling on the eyes, those huge goddamn eyes that were just as much a weapon as his angel blade. They blinked back at him for a few moments before raising a hand to stroke down Dean's cheek with the backs of his knuckles. Dean shivered at the gentle touch, his eyes falling shut for a second.

"This had better not be a lie." Cas said, hints of a growl rumbling in his voice, "If you are lying to me about this-" the growl broke, painful and soul-deep.

Dean shook his head, "I want this," he muttered, taking Cas' hand in his own, "the whole thing, all of it. I want it. Have done for longer than I could admit to myself. Because when crap hits the fan, you're always right next to me. And we've made mistakes and we've let each other down but we find a way back, and when you're around it makes me feel like things can be okay; no matter what we're facing, it'll be okay because you're here facing it down with me. And you know me better than anyone else. You've seen me at my worst but you've never run from me. You keep savin' me, you keep pulling out of the fire because you love me and I-"

He stopped then, fear clenching around his heart, his throat, something primal, something etched into his very bones, something that John Winchester had carved into him years ago and Alastair had reinforced; he'd never been able to sand it away, might never be able to. He tried to force the words out all the same, he needed to say them, Cas might think that Dean was lying, he might leave. They were only words and he meant them so it shouldn't hurt so bad, it shouldn't be so hard. Tears formed in his eyes as he strained against his closed throat before slumping and dropping his head and Cas' hand, defeated.

His one chance and he'd blown it.

Calloused fingertips under his chin tilted his head up, though he couldn't meet Cas' eyes, couldn't look at the disappointment and hurt that was probably swimming around in there. Maybe Cas would punch him; he'd deserve it, and it'd hurt less than watching Cas quietly learn to hate him. He kept his focus on the collar of Cas' white dress shirt, the top button was undone so the collar was loose. Somewhere along the way, Cas had learned what it was to be comfortable.

"You don't have to say it." Cas said, bobbing his head so that those blue eyes caught his attention, despite his better judgement. That was the way it had always been, he supposed. He was drawn to Cas, his dry wit, the way he could be pissy and sarcastic and impatient in the same moment he was showing his loyalty and his kindness. "You don't need to say it because you made me feel it. You make me feel it every time you look at me. Even when we're fighting or when you're making fun of me, I know that you love me. I just didn't dare hope that it would be in the same way."

A thumb brushed across his cheekbone, wiping away a tear that had somehow fallen without Dean noticing. Dean reached up to press Cas' hand to his face, turning into the touch. So he couldn't say it, but like Cas had said, he could show it. Maybe that would be enough. And maybe they could do the same for Jack; show him what love is, how good it can be, even if the kid can't feel it so much anymore. Maybe it would be enough to keep him from indulging in that disturbing curiosity Sam had mentioned, at least until they found a way to restore his soul. So many maybes… All he knew for certain was that they would try, and they would do it together.