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The Path of Fireflies

Chapter Text

 

I can’t stop this feelin’ in my heart
Gotta keep searchin’ for my baby.
I can’t find my bluebird.

- Ramble On, Led Zeppelin

 

It’s the best night of sleep Dean’s had in a long time—years, maybe.

There’s no one a.m. wake-up for another injection, no handcuffs tethering him to a restless night on concrete, just eight hours of uninterrupted, restorative bliss. He hadn’t even slept this well when he lived in Cicero, under that thick comforter Lisa insisted on using through the height of summer.

The blanket over him now isn’t heavy, but it’s warm. The mattress is like sleeping on a damned cloud. The sheets are smooth, pillow firm under his head and...lavender scented? He sniffs and cracks open an eye, takes in the bedside table: a couple of muscle car magazines, a half-drunk glass of water, someone’s cell phone in a black case. The walls are sky blue, and the pillow under his head is white. Someone next to him is breathing. He can make out the slow rhythm and rubs his forehead.

The last thing he remembers is Sam escorting him to bed, saying goodnight through the bedroom door. Christ, did he get out? Go somewhere? The detox has been rough; even weeks later, he often feels disconnected from reality. Angry. Frustrated. Mad at Sammy for refusing to let Dean stay damned, but grateful as hell for everything he’s done to make sure Dean became human again. Mad at Cas for wasting the last of the grace that wasn’t even his in the first place, trying to heal Dean’s dead body, then harvest his own blood.

Dean hasn’t been out of the bunker in weeks, not since Cas cornered him, terrified and elated, eyes hazy and red-rimmed due to his waning grace, swearing Dean could give up the Mark, that they could turn him back. (”You are a good man,” Cas insisted. “This isn’t you.”) Cas looked like a million beams of light exploding in all directions from his vessel; Dean’s eyes instinctively blackened against the glare. They wouldn’t risk using Sam. Cas’s blood was pure. He had been remade by God, so it would be through his blood that Dean would be saved.

Would, Cas said, not could, with finality in his voice, as if he dared anyone to tell him it might be possible to fail.

Stupid sons of bitches: They should’ve killed him the first time Cas tried to conceal his flinch at seeing Dean’s true face, when they both watched his eyes roll over black. But they didn’t kill him. They refused. And now he’s apparently escaping without any knowledge of how or where he went, all because Sam and Cas couldn’t let Dean go. Saved or not, he could still hurt someone. He could kill someone. He wears the memory of his demonic self like a second skin.

His head feels fine; at least he’s not hungover, but why can’t he remember anything? He probably headed straight for a bar. He doesn’t have any memory of going home with someone. Maybe the memory loss is just a side effect of the detox. Whatever happened, he’s got to slip out before she wakes up, avoid the inevitable awkward morning-after ritual where he’ll promise to call, then try to remember her name long enough to block her number in his phone (assuming he even got it in the first place).

He squints at the alarm clock—why won’t his eyes focus? It’s two minutes before 6:30. The person beside him shifts. Dean does a check of his own body: shit, totally naked, not even socks. A quick inventory of the floor turns up his jeans next to what’s probably a closet. Shirt, check. He sees it balled up at the base of the nightstand. Boots? Maybe they’re under the bed or downstairs. She wouldn’t be the first chick he banged with a thing about her carpets.

He gingerly lifts the blanket and sheet, slides his right leg out, lowers it to the floor. The air is cold, but he eases his hip to the edge and is an inch from escape when a solid arm snakes around his torso.

“Good morning, Dean,” a too-familiar voice says warmly, and yeah—that’s stubble rough against his shoulder, a strong leg nudging between his knees, and Castiel leaning in to kiss the corner of his mouth.

“Cas?” Dean chokes out as Cas presses forward against his ass. From the warm shock of skin, Dean knows Cas doesn’t have a stitch of clothing on. Dean scrambles upright to hold him at arm’s length.

“What the hell are we doing in bed?” he blurts out.

“It’s morning,” Cas says simply.

“So?” Dean counters, too confused to worry about the hysterical rise in his voice.

“What time did you go to sleep last night?” Cas asks with a bemused expression and reaches out for Dean again.

“Uh,” Dean replies, shaking him off and holding the sheet tight against his crotch. He thinks back on what he is able to remember. Sammy didn’t tell him the time, just said goodnight and closed the bedroom door. “Midnight?”

Cas sighs and smooths the hair on Dean’s forearm. Dean’s eyes widen at the intimacy, but he’s too shocked to move.

“Did you have a nightmare?” Cas asks gently. Dean glances at the sheet where it pools in Cas’s lap and swallows.

“Uh,” he mutters. “Think I’m still in one.”

“Ah. You’re teasing me,” Cas says knowingly. He grins and palms Dean’s thigh through the sheet.

“Wake up, buddy, just wake up,” Dean pleads with himself under his breath.

He squeezes his eyes closed, counts to three, and opens them to find Cas still looking at him. Cas has assumed a searching, worried expression. Dean’s seen that look way too often lately, every time Cas hovers over him with a syringe, when he adjusts Dean’s restraints, his fingers trailing over Dean’s wrists in a silent apology. Cas’s hand still rests on his leg.

“Shit,” Dean mutters.

He can’t handle Cas’s guilt right now, not on top of whatever else is going on, blinking instead and dropping his eyes to the bed. He calculates the distance to his jeans. He’ll be able to think a lot clearer when he’s not naked in bed with a naked Cas as a distraction.

A yawn escapes. He claps a hand over his mouth to stifle it, and exhales against a band on his ring finger. He thrusts it away from his face, holds it out to study it. It’s gleaming polished silver, like an angel blade. He stares at it dumbfounded.

Cas raises a hand to Dean’s forehead. It’s a feather-light pressure on his skin. Dean flinches away from it, but it’s just a touch to check his temperature, not angel hocus pocus. Cas has a ring on his left hand as well, a simple black lacquer band.

“You ever see The Hangover?” Dean asks weakly.

“I can assure you there is not a tiger in the bathroom, if that helps,” Cas offers. He smirks and kisses Dean’s temple.

Christ. What happened last night? He and Cas obviously got mind-voodooed and, what, got hitched? Is that even legal in Kansas? And now they’re holed up in some froufrou hotel that cost god-knows-what. It’s pretty obvious from Cas’s flirtatious behavior (and lack of any clothes) that they messed around, and Cas is unequivocally A-okay with that development. Dean can’t remember anything physical, but he’s gotta break it to Cas somehow: this was a big freaking mistake. With a sigh, he puts both feet on the floor and stands. The sheet falls away from his legs, leaving him cold and exposed.

“Um,” he says and rubs his knuckles over his lips. He looks back at Cas over his shoulder. Dean’s changed in front of him before, but this is different. In a rare show of modesty, he covers himself with his hands. “I need coffee.”

“I’ll start the machine,” Cas says and takes his phone from the opposite nightstand. With Cas’s attention averted, Dean scrambles for his jeans. Are these even his? The material feels too thin but they fit. He awkwardly hops into them. Cas taps his phone’s screen a few times—when did Cas upgrade to an iPhone?—before Dean hears a click and grinding sound in the next room. He cocks an eyebrow.

“You were right,” Cas admits. “This is easier first thing in the morning, but I’m still brewing it the old-fashioned way for the guests.”

“The...guests?” Dean repeats haltingly.

Cas looks at him strangely. “One and two don’t check out until this morning.” He says it like it’s a reminder.

Dean suppresses a shiver as a sick feeling pools in his gut. This isn’t right. Guests would mean they live here, which means Cas actually thinks they live here, which means...

“I need to get up,” Cas continues, throwing back the sheet. “It’s after six-thirty.”

Dean averts his gaze a second too late and gets a first-hand reminder that Cas uses a pretty attractive vessel. Dean has a split-second flashback to a naked Cas and half a damned beehive, and his cheeks are suddenly burning hot. He tries to think about baseball to counter his dick’s questionable reaction to Cas’s lily-white ass. Not the time, buddy, he counsels. Maybe he’s still drunk.

Cas pads naked into the bathroom. Dean locates his shirt and yanks it on, poking at his stomach, which feels too-soft and bloated. Maybe he’s still under the influence of whatever-it-is too, because everything’s blurry, like he’s got gunk in his eyes. He wipes them, blinks, but it’s like a permanent cling film stuck to his eyeballs. He can make out his own hands fine when he holds them up in front of his face (he lowers that frigging ring immediately), but everything from about twelve inches away is somewhat out of focus.

Dean’s pulse picks up; he can hear it roaring in both ears. A few possibilities come to mind. This could all be a dream. Or it could be real, and Cas is still under the influence of whatever they got exposed to last night. Or maybe they’ve been kidnapped and brainwashed by witches, or he’s trapped in a djinn’s illusion. Hell, maybe he’s hallucinating, and this is just a side-effect from being infused with so much of Cas’s not-quite-human blood. After all, Crowley was a hot mess as a blood junkie.

Dreams can be ruled out. The floor is solid and cold, but it doesn’t shift when he bounces a little. The clock reads three minutes later than the last time he looked; he glances away and back, but the time stays the same. He repeats the clock test twice for accuracy, then checks his hands: ten fingers.

Alright, he’s not dreaming. Probably.

Cas emerges from the bathroom with just a towel around his hips, smiling as he slips a pair of glasses onto Dean’s nose. Dean scowls and pointedly does not look at Cas’s chest. He focuses on a spot just behind Cas’s head and is alarmed that he can suddenly see exact details like a wisp of spiderweb in the corner above the closet.

“There’s always laser surgery,” Cas says, like they’ve had this conversation before.

That makes Dean frown harder.

“Coffee’s probably ready,” Cas offers and steps away.

He disappears back into the bathroom. Dean hears the water start, so he follows the smell of coffee until he locates the coffee machine. The thing’s space aged: a glass cylinder filled with coffee grounds, some type of computer screen that looks straight out of an Apple store, a silver platform with two white mugs (they do not say His and His) steaming with a fresh brew.

Coffee’s good. Coffee’ll clear his head and allow him to think.

He takes one and sits roughly at the round table under a small window that looks out over some type of orchard. The trees, whatever they are, are planted in rows. Dean shudders at the scarecrow and drinks his coffee, which is pretty good, strong, delicious actually. A big step up from roadside diner. The kitchen is small but sexy for a kitchen: clean lines, white counter and simple cabinets, wide-plank wood floor. It opens up into a living room, with a staircase (okay, he’s up at least one floor) and a fireplace Dean can just see if he leans back.

He peers further out the window and sees his Baby, parked under a carport. His stomach plummets. He knows it’s her from the shape; he’s run his hands over her so many times, he could sculpt her blind. She’s protected by a silver cover that hugs her curves in the best way, custom by the looks of it, but her front right tire is flat.

Alright. If this isn’t a dream, and it’s not some form of brainwashing, then it’s gotta be a trickster or a djinn, possibly an angel. Dean just has to concentrate until he can figure out which one. If it’s a djinn, he can free himself with a well-placed bullet. If it’s a trickster, Dean will be ready with a stake. An angel? Fuck.

He gets to his feet, scouring the room for anything that’ll clue him into the parameters of this universe, but there aren’t any envelopes lying around or anything stuck to the refrigerator. On the mantle, he spots a photograph in a silver frame, next to a picture of Sam and a woman with two brats. The picture is of him and Cas. They’re in suits. Cas has a hand on Dean’s cheek and is kissing the side of his face. Dean’s smiling like a frigging idiot, a hand on Cas’s arm sporting the same ring he’s got on now.

“Dude, are you gay now?” he asks himself.

Behind him, Cas sighs heavily. “I thought you’d gotten over trying to label yourself.”

“Didn’t they teach you not to sneak up on people in Heaven?” Dean snaps.

“That would make it difficult to watch over people,” Cas says. He walks toward Dean slowly. He’s still wearing a towel, his face freshly shaved and pink from being scrubbed.

“Cas, buddy, I need you to think for a second,” Dean demands. “Does anything about this morning seem strange to you?”

“Apart from you turning down sex, no,” Cas huffs.

“So, you and me waking up in the same bed...that doesn’t raise any alarms?”

“Why should it?” Cas asks with a frown.

“That’s normal to you?”

“Dean, if this is a joke—”

“Answer the question,” Dean says pointedly.

Cas goes very still. He tilts his head, just barely, to the right. “What year do you think it is?” he asks slowly.

The question throws Dean. He’s about to spit something back when he pauses. With the glasses, he can see Cas clearly. He takes in his appearance: tanned skin with pronounced wrinkling at the corners of his eyes. Cas’s hair is a little longer than Dean is used to, curling gently at his neck. There are flecks of gray at his hairline. Dean’s never noticed that before. He recalls how bloated his stomach looked a couple minutes ago, too-rounded, too soft; how the jeans fit but didn’t feel like his. No way, he thinks. Dean pushes past Cas toward the bathroom and flicks on the light. He grips the edge of the counter and goes cold.

The face staring back at him from the glass is unmistakably his. It has the same haircut, the same green eyes, but it’s not his face. A crease bisects his forehead; another is etched vertically beside his left eyebrow. His cheeks are fuller, flushed with healthy color; this isn’t a man who lives on burgers and pie. He touches his nose, his cheek, rubs a hand over two days of stubble.

“I have gray hair,” he observes out loud.

“Only a little at your temples,” Cas corrects from the doorway. He watches Dean through concerned eyes.

“I didn’t have one gray hair on my head last night,” Dean insists. The old man in the mirror mouths along with Dean’s words. “Where am I?”

“Vermont,” Cas answers through a sigh.

“Vermont,” Dean repeats. “Why am I in Vermont?”

“We live here.”

“What?” Dean asks, incredulous, burning his gaze into Cas through the mirror. “What in hell are you talking about?”

Cas takes a breath and answers matter-of-factly, “We’ve lived in Vermont for over ten years.”

The grayed, slightly wrinkled version of himself in the mirror shifts and blurs as Dean sways on his feet. There’s no way. He holds the counter like a lifeline, the hard edge against his palms grounding him. A lifetime of hunting has honed his instincts. He knows when to trust his gut. This feels real, but it can’t be. At the back of his mind, he knows it can’t be.

“Tell me something only you would know,” he demands.

Cas’s arms hang neutrally at his sides. Dean watches him curl his hands into loose fists, his jaw tighten and relax as he forms an answer.

“Sometimes in dreams, you sit on a dock and fish,” he says, finally.

Dean starts, but Cas’s answer isn’t enough to completely assuage his suspicion. Cas has told him that dreams aren’t safe. Hell, if Cas could infiltrate Dean’s dreams, what’s to stop anyone else? And is the person standing in the doorway even Cas? Dean scowls and stares at the drain. Behind him, Cas heaves a sigh.

“There’s holy water in the vial on the top shelf in the living room, and the silver knife is with the rest of the cutlery,” he says plainly and offers his arm. “I can’t heal like I used to, so please cut cleanly.”

He vanishes from the doorway.

Dean stares at the altered version of his face for another few seconds, then goes to the kitchen, pulls out every drawer until he locates the knives and takes out the one with a silver blade. If this thing isn’t Cas, Dean’s sure as shit not letting it walk out of here alive. With Cas watching, Dean slides the blade over his own forearm as a precaution, watches the blood well up, inhales sharply at the sting. He repeats this on Cas’s arm, watches his eyes snap closed in pain, but Cas keeps still. He bleeds red and doesn’t heal himself.

“Are you satisfied?” Cas asks after Dean splashes him with holy water and stands back, biting the inside of his cheek. The water collects on the floor at Cas’s feet. Cas wraps a hand over the cut on his arm and holds it protectively against his bare chest.

“Well, you’re not a demon or a shapeshifter,” Dean grinds out. He loosens his grip on the knife but doesn’t set it down. “What’s the deal with the rings?”

Cas looks at him carefully and tilts his head. It reminds Dean of their first meeting in the barn, the way Cas’s expression has morphed to curiosity. “What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.

“You two assholes detoxing me, you pissing away your chance to get your wings back,” Dean answers. “Sammy mother henning me—dude won’t let me off the couch.”

“Dean,” Cas says, stepping closer. He gently rests a hand on Dean’s shoulder. Dean can feel the heat of his palm through his t-shirt, echoing the mark Cas seared into him in Hell. “That was twelve years ago.”

“Bull,” Dean spits out and shakes off Cas’s hand. He drops his eyes to his own forearm; there’s no sign the Mark was ever present, only an ache that stretches bone deep, spidery fingers of it underneath layers of skin and muscle. It sparks an urgency that recedes when he lifts his eyes. He heaves a breath.

“We should sit down,” Cas suggests.

“I’m fine standing,” Dean snaps, taking another step backwards. Cas holds up his hands in submission and sits down by himself. Dean approaches him cautiously, like Cas is a wild animal that might bear his teeth, turn on him at any moment. “Start talking,” he orders over the knife.

Cas is quiet for a moment and worries the edge of his towel.

“After everything that happened,” he begins, lowering his chin so he’s speaking to the floor, “after you were...you again, you needed time to adjust. I needed time to recover. We stayed at the bunker for a while, almost a year, but it was too familiar. There were too many memories. You weren’t improving.”

“So you locked me up someplace?” Dean guesses as he approaches the couch, so he can look Cas in the face.

“No,” Cas insists, lifting his head. His eyes are a shock of blue. “Sam didn’t want you in an institution, and I remembered something you told me.”

“What’s that?”

“When I returned from Purgatory,” Cas says, “you asked what I planned to do. You mentioned Vermont and made a joke about me running a bed and breakfast. I’ve observed that humans often make suggestions based on their own desires, so I proposed a vacation here. We ended up staying.”

Dean scoffs. “You expect me to believe that you and me moved to Vermont, just like that?”

Cas shakes his head. “It was never supposed to be permanent,” he says. “We sold a few insignificant items from the bunker for money. Sam was with us for a few months, until he met Susan. They live an hour away.”

“Oh,” Dean says.

Cas sighs and leans back, lets his hands fall limp on either side of his thighs. The towel parts just above his knees. He lolls his head backwards and shuts his eyes.

“We rented a small house in town for a few years,” he murmurs, “but this place came on the market, so we drove out to see it on a whim.”

Dean exhales and perches tentatively on the edge of the couch. Without opening his eyes, Cas reaches an arm toward him and takes a deep breath. Dean feels Cas’s fingers press into his leg momentarily, and Dean finds he can’t speak. He clenches his teeth and tries not to move, but his whole body goes rigid in response to Cas’s touch. Cas must sense his discomfort, because he removes his hand and folds both together on his lap.

“I’m sorry,” Cas says, staring at his fingers. “I know this is unfamiliar to you right now. This part is always difficult.”

“What do you mean ‘always’? This has happened before?”

Cas nods. “You have nightmares occasionally, though it’s been almost a year since the last time you lost your sense of time, three since you regressed to this degree.”

“I don’t believe it,” Dean says and keeps his eyes on Cas to avoid looking at the fireplace. He feels the snapshot eyes boring into him anyway and stabs a finger toward the picture. “That? It ain’t real.”

Cas’s eyes dart to the mantle, then skitter to his lap. He stands up and secures the towel around his waist, rubbing a palm over his collarbone.

“I have to serve breakfast,” he says finally. His voice is quiet and rings with defeat. “Stay here until the guests check out. Then we can talk more.”

“Fine,” Dean agrees.

Cas retreats to the bedroom. Dean can hear him opening drawers and pulling out clothes, hears the slide of skin against fabric. He imagines the familiar trench coat and suit. When Cas reappears in khakis and a plain blue shirt, Dean frowns at the reminder of Cas’s fall.

“I’ll be back soon,” Cas promises and grasps Dean’s arms gently. He pauses like he’s considering his next move, then kisses Dean firmly, thoroughly, hovers at his mouth. Dean’s breath catches. Cas parts his lips, pressing in closer. He shaved just now, so his skin is smoother than it was this morning, but it’s still Cas. Cas is kissing him. Dean doesn’t move, and he doesn’t kiss back. A handful of seconds later, Cas exhales in defeat, strokes the side of Dean’s face once.

“It was worth a try,” he says. His hand is large and warm, alien, and then at his side once more. He heads down the staircase, the steps creaking under his weight. Dean raises a hand to his lips. His heart is pounding.

He stays where he is until Cas reaches the first floor and walks away from the base of the stairs. Dean moves closer, leans into the stairwell. He listens for several minutes, makes out the sound of a coffee grinder, of mugs being placed on a counter. There is the satisfying crack of eggshells, then Cas whisking something against the low cadence of his voice. Dean can’t make out any words, but Cas is talking to someone.

Focus. He’s got to focus.

If this is a djinn, he can force his way out of the illusion, force himself to wake up—he doesn’t want to think about what it means that his dick brain decided he should be married to Cas in the first place—but if he runs himself through with a knife and it turns out this place is legit, he’s going to be pissed. Maybe he can think his way back into his reality, bend the space around him just enough to be able to tell. With one hand on the wall to steady himself, he takes a deep breath and fists the silver knife.

He makes a second cut on his forearm, about two inches long, just deep enough that it wells up red. He concentrates on that line of pain, mentally tracing its edges, but nothing happens. His eyes fall closed. He imagines himself strung up in a warehouse somewhere, wrists bound and chafed, but nothing happens. He presses harder with the knife into the cut, sucking in a breath through his teeth, and waits.

Nothing.

He positions the blade over his chest, tip pressing just below his sternum, and begins to push. The pain is sharp and absolute.

“Come on, you bastard,” he grates out, but Cas doesn’t come to stop him, doesn’t tell him to put the knife down. The djinn doesn’t manifest. The blood is a hot and slick truth on his chest.

When he opens his eyes, he’s still in the living room, gripping the knife, blood visible through his t-shirt and dripping from his forearm. He faces the happy visage of himself grinning stupidly from the mantle and starts to sweat. The new cuts begin to throb.

“Shit,” he swears and goes to wash them in the sink, then digs up a couple bandages and tube of antiseptic.

So this place isn’t in his head, he considers as he applies pressure to his chest to slow the bleeding. Djinns are a pain in the ass, but they’re a lot easier to handle than trickster gods and frigging angels. Maybe Zachariah was brought back and this is his idea of a joke. Last time, Zach had also been the one to push him forward and pull him back out. But Cas isn’t acting like the Cas did in that ruined future universe, hasn’t picked up that Dean seems out of place. And there’s not a second version of himself walking around like a freaky carnival mirror.

Cas had lost his grace then, and it was only five years into the future. How long did he say they’ve been living here, over a decade? If this place is real, at the rate the stolen grace was burning through Cas’s vessel, there’s no way he’s got any left. Dean thinks of Castiel as he was when Dean emerged from his demon fog: strung out and unsteady, like a dying star. There’s no way Cas recovered from that on his own; Cas told him it wasn’t possible. The angels must have intervened.

Dean paws through a dresser for a shirt and pulls on a loose, gray cotton tee. He pushes the drawer closed with his knee and begins to pace the bedroom. The bed’s unmade, sheets balled up at the base; Cas’s pillow is on the floor. It must’ve fallen off the bed when Cas got up this morning. Dean picks it up and throws it in place, tugs the sheets until they’re smooth, folds the blanket, and thinks.

This is right up Gabriel’s alley. Dean doesn’t know for certain that Gabriel is really dead. He’s seen Cas die plenty of times before; you never can tell with angels. If Gabriel is the one behind this, Dean is going to stake him where the sun don’t shine, just for the heck of it. Every time angels mess with his life, it’s through emotional manipulation, but this is a whole new level of fucked up. In the past they separated him and—

“Sammy,” Dean exclaims, snatching the phone that must be his by default. He sits on the edge of the bed and switches it on.

The home screen is an animated picture of Cas with two kids, a boy and a girl, scaling him as he sits on the couch. He’s laughing; it’s a good look on him. The girl is maybe eight, with shoulder-length hair and Sam’s eyes. The boy is younger with dark hair. Dean scowls at the picture (video? what is this, Harry Potter?) and looks for anything that resembles a call button. Nothing. On a whim, he says, “Call Sam” and a smiling shot of Sam holding a baby fills the center of the screen. It reads “Calling Sam Winchester.”

“Hey, Dean,” Sam says after two rings.

“Hey,” Dean says, relieved at the sound of Sam’s voice.

“Cas just called me,” Sam says. “You okay?”

“There’s something going on here, Sammy,” Dean confides, dropping his voice so it doesn’t carry. Who knows how good Cas’s hearing is nowadays?

“Listen,” Sam says. “The kids are in school, so I’m heading up your way. I should be there in about thirty-five minutes. We’ll talk then.”

“Yeah,” Dean agrees, exhales hard. “Yeah, okay.”

“Want me to bring you anything for breakfast?”

“Uh, I think Cas is cooking...something.”

Sam chuckles, sonorous and happy. It’s amazing and disconcerting to hear that emotion in Sam’s voice, something Dean has wished for him for so long. He’d sell his soul again if it meant that Sam would be happy like that forever.

“He usually is,” Sam finishes. “See you soon.”

They hang up after Dean’s mumbled goodbye, leaving Dean again trapped within unfamiliar walls. Cas said he should stay inside, so Dean fishes in the closet for a jacket and finds a plaid one with a dark collar. He tugs it on but doesn’t zip it, then descends the staircase with as much stealth as creaky stairs allow. At the base of the steps is another kitchen, larger than the one upstairs, with a commercial-grade oven and copper apron sink. He remembers the name from childhood, a style his mom always said she liked.

“One day, we’ll renovate this whole place,” she’d say with a hand on Dean’s shoulder as she supervised his three-year-old’s attempt at dish washing.

He knows instantly, instinctively, that his mom would approve of this kitchen: the large window over the sink that looks out on a tidy vegetable garden, the central island with two stools on the end. He wonders if he sits there a lot, maybe brings his coffee downstairs and does something domestic like read a newspaper. He shakes off the thought and scans for a way out.

There’s a hallway that appears to lead further within the house, so he opts for the door to the left of the counter. It opens out onto a cramped porch with rocking chairs but a view of the sky framed by trees. They’re leafy green, full and rustling in the breeze. He runs a hand over the spindles of one chair, watches it rock back and forth, back and forth, then still. The house’s clapboard siding is a sun-bleached red with white shutters. They’ve been recently touched up. He jumps off the steps (note to self: no jumping, his knee freakin’ hurts) and limps across the patchy lawn, past the kitchen garden, to the carport. It’s actually a walk-through garage, he amends as he gets close, with the doors lifted and secured on either end.

“Baby, how long’s it been?” he murmurs and rests a hand on her hood. The cover is high quality vinyl, thick and waterproof, the kind meant for long-term storage. He sighs and lifts a corner to peer underneath. Paint’s fine. At least she’s not on blocks. He scans the garage for a pump and finds one hanging conveniently on a well-organized pegboard.

“Nice,” he compliments.

He’s on his back, running his hands soothingly over rust spots on her underside, when he hears the crunch of gravel that signals a car pulling up. An engine shuts off and footsteps replace the roll of tires, ending where his legs stick out from the Impala.

“Haven’t seen you out here in a while,” Sam says. He sounds genuinely surprised, but he doesn’t say anything else while Dean scoots out from under the car, stands and wipes his hands on his jeans.

“Sammy,” he breathes, part relief, part disbelief, because Sam’s no kid anymore. He’s wearing dark-washed jeans and leather shoes with a blazer. He’s still got that awful, floppy hair, but there are laugh lines on his face, which is a little wider and a little softer than Dean’s used to. He’s smiling and looks so damned normal that Dean has to speak around a lump in his throat.

“Hey.” He has no idea what to say. “How was the drive?”

“Quick,” Sam says, rocking forward on his toes. “Not much traffic. Did you eat yet?”

“Just coffee,” Dean answers.

“I could use a cup,” Sam says and motions to the house. Dean grudgingly accompanies him back inside. He watches, fascinated, as Sam opens the cupboard, takes out two mugs, then opens a drawer for a spoon. He knows the kitchen well, moves with knowledge rather than intuition. He pours them both a mug, adds cream and sugar to Dean’s, nothing to his own. Dean cocks an eyebrow at him.

“Susie’s got me watching my sugar intake,” Sam replies and pats his stomach.

“Dude,” Dean says in reply.

“So,” Sam says, settling into one of the stools with his mediocre coffee. Dean falls onto the other. They’re tall, but Sam dominates his because of his height, legs barely folded under the counter. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“That’s what Cas asked me earlier,” Dean says, frowning into his coffee. He dips his face into it and inhales greedily, drinks despite it being too hot. He hisses at the sting. “He said this happened before,” he adds.

Sam has the sense to blow on his coffee before he drinks. He nods slowly, pressing his lips into a line as he swallows, and stares at his hands. They dwarf the mug. Dean notes the gold wedding band and sniffs.

“A few times,” Sam says. “Especially at first.”

“Nothing feels right,” Dean confides. He rakes his hands through his hair, lets them hold up the weight of his head. “How do I know this is even real?”

Sam shrugs. He lifts his mug closer to his mouth and stares at the twist of steam.

“You don’t,” he says and takes another sip.

“What’s Poughkeepsie mean?”

“Drop everything and run,” Sam recites. “I could list them all: Five-O. First motel in the phone book. But Dean, if this is all in your head—or inspired by something from your head—then I’m really you, so of course I’d know all of that.”

Dean’s frustration boils to rage that surges in his gut, but he forces it down.

“So you’re married?” he asks instead and grits his teeth.

“Nine years,” Sam says with a chuckle. “Can you believe it?”

“I’m having a hard time believing any of this.”

“I know,” Sam says consolingly.

“So what do you do?” Dean asks.

“I raise my kids,” Sam answers with a smile and leans back, letting his right hand fall to his lap.

“You’re Mr. Mom?”

“I’m a parent, Dean. That’s what you do when you’re a parent, take care of your kids.”

“So, your wife?”

“Susan,” Sam supplies. “She’s an RN, works the day shift in a nursing home. I watch the kids, write in my spare time.”

“You’re a writer? Of what, the continuing adventures of Supernatural?”

“Smart ass,” Sam says, swatting his arm. “No, I run a blog for people who have dealt with the paranormal, especially people who are having a hard time coping.”

“You actually get paid to do that?” Dean asks. He lifts both eyebrows.

“People pay to sleep in your guest room,” Sam reminds him. “And for Cas’s cooking.”

Dean takes an appreciative sniff. Whatever’s in the oven smells like oranges and cinnamon. Imaginary or not, he’s hungry, and he’s claiming the first piece.

“Can’t believe Cas can cook something other than taquitos,” Dean says, chewing the inside of his lip.

“He still can’t rival you for burgers,” Sam says consolingly, “though the kids like his grilled cheese.”

“Wow, kids,” Dean repeats with shades of disbelief. “So you’ve got two?”

“John and Mary,” Sam says and immediately holds up his hands. “I know, but Susie really liked the idea, and it feels nice to honor them somehow.”

“I found a picture of them on my phone,” Dean says and stirs his coffee with a fingertip, sucks it clean. “She looks like you.”

“She does,” Sam agrees. “It’s her eyes. Tell you what, we’ll all come up next weekend, if you feel up to it.”

“I feel fine,” Dean says automatically. “Just...out of time.”

“Cas is pretty worried. You didn’t forget so many years, last time.”

“That’s another thing,” Dean says, casting a quick glance down the hallway. It’s clear. “Me and Cas?”

Sam bites back a laugh. “Is it really that surprising?”

“I like women,” Dean says emphatically, miming a pair of breasts.

“You also like women,” Sam says thoughtfully. “Dean, not everyone’s a zero on the Kinsey scale.”

“I’ve never wanted to see a dick except my own.”

“Two words: Dr. Sexy.”

“Fuck you,” Dean spits out.

Sam is an asshole and laughs.

“It was the boots,” Dean defends. “They had the power to transcend sexuality.”

“And this is Cas,” Sam says. “Whatever your sexuality is, he transcended it a long time ago.”

“Have you stopped crying during sex yet?”

“I know you don’t believe me right now, but you love him.”

“So he’s human?” Dean changes the subject. Sam nods slowly.

“It was his choice,” he says.

“That son of a bitch,” Dean mutters.

“It’s what he wanted.”

“Bull.”

“You know he was prepared to die when he thought you were dead?”

Dean doesn’t answer, so Sam continues.

“I didn’t really understand what it was between the two of you until all that happened.” Sam takes a sip of coffee and pushes the hair back from his face. “He’s happy as a human, okay? Trust me for once, jerk.”

“Bitch,” Dean says.

For an instant, everything is right. Dean takes a deep breath and relaxes minutely, but the moment is broken when the door at the end of the hallway opens, and Cas walks toward them carrying a coffee carafe. Dean pulls up into his shoulders and drops his eyes to the counter.

“Need to refill,” Cas explains. Dean spots the bandage on his arm, jutting out from beneath a rolled-up sleeve. He looks away from it.

“Morning, Cas,” Sam offers cheerfully.

“How are you, Sam?” Cas replies.

“I’m good,” Sam says. “You?”

“Relieved we don’t have any check-ins until Friday,” Cas confides as he sets the coffee machine to brew, then grinds a fresh measure of beans.

“What do we do all week,” Dean asks, “sit around and make googly-eyes at each other?”

“Are you hungry?” Cas asks instead of acknowledging Dean’s sarcasm. He switches on the oven light.

“Starved,” Dean answers.

“I made your favorite,” Cas says and takes out a pair of oven mitts. “To be fair,” he amends, “I had planned on making this today, but it’s still your favorite.”

He stares at Dean for a second too long, hopefully, before turning back to the oven. Sam gives Dean an annoyed look that means he’s supposed to respond.

“Sure it’ll be great,” Dean mumbles, trying to placate him. “Smells awesome.”

“Thank you,” Cas says, opening the oven to reveal a long glass dish filled with...bread? Dude. Dean’s a man. He requires a hearty breakfast, bacon and sausage. His mouth waters traitorously.

“Baked french toast,” Sam says, leaning in to whisper. “Maple bacon.”

“French toast?” Dean mourns under his breath. Cas places the dish on a large black trivet and gets out a knife. Dean half expects him to angel-ninja the bread, but he slices it methodically into rows.

“I should let it cool, but I know you two won’t mind if it falls apart.” He takes down three plates and serves them each a square, then covers the dish in foil. “They opted for cereal this morning, so there will be leftovers for tomorrow. There are eggs, too.”

Cas must be talking about the guests. He takes his own plate and holds it, leaning a hip against the sink to eat. Behind him, the coffee drips into the pot with a satisfying hiss and gurgle.

“Their loss,” Sam says before he digs in.

Dean follows suit, blowing on the first forkful, chewing slowly and skeptically. It’s—oh, man, it’s perfect: sweet, salty, buttery, with a crunch of bacon.

“Damn,” he says reverently. He can’t think of the right compliment, but Cas appears satisfied with his reaction, quietly eating his own portion with a smile.

Maybe this being-married-to-Cas thing isn’t the end of the world, not if he can cook like this. Dean can hang out in this universe for a while. But he thinks about Cas kissing him not quite an hour ago and his contentment dims. He can’t let himself get used to stuff like that. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair, cramming in another mouthful to avoid being the one to break the awkward silence that has descended on the kitchen.

“Bathroom renovations go okay?” Sam asks Cas, who nods several times and wipes his mouth on a paper towel.

“We had one issue with the structure under room three. It was necessary to reinforce the floor to carry the weight of the tub, but it only set us back two weeks.”

“Glad you got to open for the season.”

“It’s slow,” Cas admits. “Of course, Dean prefers it that way.”

“I don’t like a lot of people in my business,” Dean says defensively, even though he’s not even sure if that’s the reason that future domestic!Dean likes the slow mid-week.

“If it were up to you, you’d live in your car.” Sam punctuates the sentence with a fork jab in Dean’s direction.

“From the looks of it, I haven’t driven her in a while.”

“You had other priorities,” Sam says.

“What, fucking Heaven’s reject?” Dean suggests. Sam shoots him a sharp, narrow look that has Dean snapping his mouth shut. He crushes a piece of bread with the tines of his fork.

Cas busies himself pouring coffee into the carafe. “Excuse me,” he says and walks it back down the hallway, out of hearing range.

“Don’t be a dick,” Sam says once Cas is gone. “This is hard on him.”

“This is a lot to take in, okay?” Dean gripes. “A few weeks ago, we’re taking down Metatron, fighting the big bad. Today I wake up to find I’m married to freaking Cas and run a bed and breakfast, while my Baby’s out there rusting in a dirty garage.”

“The garage isn’t dirty.”

“Rusting, Sammy. She’s rusting.”

“Did you ever consider that your obsession with that car was just a substitute for real intimacy?”

“No,” Dean says stubbornly.

“And that maybe you don’t spend every waking hour with it because you’re, I don’t know, in love with someone?”

Dean scoffs. “With Cas, you mean.”

“Yes, with Cas,” Sam says firmly. “Don’t pull that ‘I’ve never thought about it’ act with me. We both know that’s not true. Even the Colt couldn’t have cut the tension between the two of you. I’m just glad you finally did something about it.”

Sam draws in a long, deep breath and exhales through his nose. Dean picks at a stubborn nub of cotton on his sleeve.

“Sorry,” Sam continues after a minute. “I know this sucks for you. Look, just try to get back into your routine, okay? And please be civil with him until your memories come back.”

“What if they don’t?”

“They always have,” Sam assures him.

“But what if they don’t?” Dean stresses. Sam shrugs half-heartedly.

“I don’t know. Worse comes to worse, I guess you get a divorce. Or maybe you’ll figure out why you liked the guy in the first place.”

Dean gives a short, mirthless laugh and rubs a hand over his face, bites down hard on his index finger.

“I really own a freakin’ B&B?” he mutters.

Sam shakes his head and swats Dean’s shoulder affectionately.

+

Cas doesn’t come back around until the guests have checked out and left the property. Then, he pops in to say he’s going to strip the beds and start a load of laundry.

“Need any help?” Sam offers, elbowing Dean in the ribs. They’re crashed out on the couch upstairs watching a documentary on bullfrogs because Sam is apparently still a huge nerd even though he’s in his forties. Dean’s never going to admit he finds it fascinating.

“Yeah, need any help?” he parrots.

Cas gives an aborted head shake, then appears to change his mind.

“Thank you,” he says. “It’s easier to carry everything with two people.”

Sam gives Dean a wide-eyed go face, so Dean peels himself off the couch (a shame, it’s comfortable, and how awesome that he owns a leather couch?) and falls into step with Cas, who leads the way downstairs, through the kitchen, into the shared part of the house.

It doesn’t look the way Dean expected, stuffy or full of dust-collecting knick-knacks no one cares about. It’s sparse, kinda masculine with rough-hewn wood beams overhead, another wide-plank floor, a round wood table just inside the entrance. The table is strewn with fitness magazines, hunting guides, classic car magazines and books. He lingers over the selection for a minute. Cas watches him patiently.

Where the welcome mat should be, there’s a familiar pattern. He gives Cas an eyebrow.

“Devil’s trap?” he asks.

“Custom wood inlay,” Cas confirms. “It’s an inside joke, but it came in handy once. There’s actually a removable piece to free the demon, so we don’t have to damage the floor.”

“Huh,” Dean says. “What’s the name of this place, anyway?”

“Hotel California,” Cas replies. There’s a warmth in his voice that makes Dean feel guilty.

“Wow. That’s…” Dean searches for the right word but comes up short. “Different,” he settles on.

“That was the idea,” Cas tells him, pointing to the first door on the left. “It’s just rooms one and two today.”

Cas unlocks the door with an old-fashioned metal key, none of that plastic card bullshit (assuming they still exist) and pushes the door inward. Dean expects a floral nightmare, maybe a faded yard sale painting over a creaky brass bed frame. What he sees is retro, like those crappy motel rooms he and Sam put up with for so many years, except this is high-end.

The light fixture over the bed is a monstrous white thing, like a pineapple blown open, illuminated and attention grabbing. The headboard is four dark-stained wood planks affixed horizontally to the wall, which is painted a deep midnight blue. The wall opposite the bed is covered floor-to-ceiling with license plates from all over the country. Dean pinpoints three that he’s used on the Impala. Cas begins stripping the bed of its sheets, pillowcases, comforter, rolling them into a ball that he sets outside the door. He gathers the towels.

“Kevin will clean in here later,” he says, “but I like to take care of the laundry immediately.”

“Kevin?” Dean says hopefully, but Cas shakes his head.

“It’s just a coincidence,” he says.

Room two is similar but black and white, with a huge photo mural of the Impala that takes up the entire wall behind the bed.

“You decorated this room,” Cas supplies, nodding to the pair of yellow lamps on black night stands, the only pop of color in the room. “I didn’t think they’d fit,” he admits.

Dean is reluctant to admit he feels a little smug. After all, this is his work. Technically.

“How long did this take?” he asks.

“A few months,” Cas says. There’s a fondness in his voice. “We did most of the work ourselves. We had to strip a lot of wallpaper.”

“Good thing Sam’s so tall,” Dean says.

“His height was an advantage,” Cas agrees and pulls the covers from the bed while Dean studies the windowsill beneath the bay window. It’s chrome.

“Is this...a bumper?” he asks, smoothing a hand over it.

Cas smiles and comes to stand at his shoulder. “It took some engineering.”

“No shit,” Dean murmurs. “We’re pretty good decorators.”

“We’ve been featured in magazines,” Cas confides.

“Here, let me carry those,” Dean says, feeling like a jerk for standing around while Cas works. He points to the bedroll.

“Get the one in the hallway?” Cas asks, scooping up the pile. “And pull the door closed behind you. It sticks.”

Dean does, trailing after Cas who walks back through the main room to the kitchen. There’s a laundry closet at the far end, past the pantry. Cas opens the top of the machine and feeds the sheets in first.

“This will take four loads,” he explains as he places an orange detergent tablet in a tray and slides it in, presses a button that glows blue.”That’s why I like to get a head start.”

“You could skip washing the comforter,” Dean suggests, but Cas gives him a knowing look.

“You would be surprised what people do on them,” he says in classic Serious Cas Tone.

“Oh,” Dean says. He’s had a good time on top of a hotel bed or ten himself, but decides to keep that information confidential. Something tells him Cas is the jealous type. The washing machine begins to spin and spray water on the sheets.

“Is Sam staying for lunch?” Cas asks.

“I’ll ask him,” Dean says. He yells up the staircase. “Hey, Sammy. You staying for lunch?”

Sam’s heavy footsteps echo down the stairs. He shoots Dean a glare that Dean’s pretty sure means Sam thinks he’s a heathen for yelling indoors. Dean opens both eyes wider in challenge, awaiting his answer.

“Sure,” Sam agrees, glancing sideways at Cas, who nods his consent. “The bus won’t drop the kids off for a couple hours.”

+

Cas makes sandwiches. They sit on the porch to eat them, swatting away flies and the occasional curious bee that ventures over from the garden. Dean will never see a bee and not think of Cas, of how broken and fragile he was after he absorbed Sam’s memories of the pit, of Lucifer. He rubs the back of his neck and focuses on his surroundings.

Cas’s eyes are trained on the sky. It’s almost clear blue, with just a smear of clouds above the tree line. The hardness is gone from Cas’s face, even the lines around his mouth and eyes from the pain he carried: Sam’s pain, Dean’s pain, his own stemming from what he did to Heaven. Cas looks peaceful. He looks at peace—with himself, with humanity, maybe even with God.

It’s strange to eat so leisurely, to see Sam stretched out, chewing slowly, not shoveling last night’s takeout into his mouth because it’s almost check-out time. Or because the diner just discovered their credit card is no good (second time in a week). Or because they’re planning to dine and ditch since the last activated card Dean had in his wallet got cut up thirteen miles down the road at a crappy Shell station without a working bathroom.

An airplane crosses overhead; Dean clears his throat and takes his first bite. It’s ham and swiss cheese, with lettuce and tomato on toasted rye bread. He allows himself the small luxury of chewing his food instead of housing it. It feels a little indulgent, like a sin on Sunday.

“So, do we still gank the occasional demon?” he asks.

“Sometimes,” Cas answers.

“We consult more than we’re in the field,” Sam adds. “Especially you. And it’s not so much demons these days as angry spirits, occasional vamp. Sometimes something a little more sinister. There was a siren last year outside of Omaha, so we took a vacation.”

“Was it awesome?” Dean guesses.

“Awful,” Sam says and grins. “I was sore for a week from the way that thing threw me around. I’m not used to that anymore.”

“Wuss,” Dean scolds through a full mouth. “Bet that was a fun car ride back.”

“I was never so glad to get out of that thing,” Sam confides.

“You come along for that one?” Dean asks, leaning over Sam to speak to Cas, who politely wipes his mouth before answering. Dean has mustard on his face and doesn’t care.

“Yes,” Cas says, “though I’m not as helpful without my powers.”

“You were plenty helpful,” Sam assures him. “You just can’t fly anymore. But hey, at least you can’t get zapped if we ever have to use a sigil.”

“True,” Cas agrees. He looks to the sky wistfully. Sam knocks him on the shoulder in a brotherly fashion, which makes Dean scowl. It’s off putting to see them acting so familiar. Sam and Cas have always gotten along fine, but Cas was always closer with Dean. Dean doesn’t care, but it’s just...weird.

“We’re glad you’re here,” Sam is saying to Cas in a soothing tone, which makes Dean bite his lip to keep from appending something tasteless, like as long as you’ve got pants on.

“Thank you,” Cas says.

They fall into silence again, set their plates on the deck railing, and soak up the sun. They’ve never done this, the three of them, just relax in each other’s company because they can. Someone was always recovering from injuries, or they were in hiding, or Cas was adjusting to life as a human, or they were simply killing downtime until the next hunt.

But this, right now? Sitting together on rocking chairs, waiting for nothing in particular, because nothing’s happening? This is a choice. Dean’s not sure how he feels about it. He shifts in his chair and frowns. He folds his hands on his stomach and slouches until his head rests comfortably on the honey-stained wood, pushes gently with his right foot to ease the chair into motion. He shuts his eyes. The breeze slides over his face and ruffles his hair.

“Man,” he says, inhaling. The air is fresh and restorative, invigorating. “Bobby woulda loved this.”

“I’m sure he approves,” Cas says.

“D’you hear from him?” Dean asks, opening one eye.

“I lost my signal,” Cas answers—it’s not melancholy, just a statement, but Dean feels thoughtless for asking.

“Bet my mom would love the kitchen sink,” he offers.

Cas’s mouth twitches. “That’s what you said when we picked it out.”

“Huh,” Dean says.

“I have an idea,” Sam interjects. “Why don’t we look through photos, see if we can jog your memory?”

“Can’t hurt,” Dean agrees, then pauses. “Right?”

“It helped last time,” Sam says with a shrug.

“You two go in,” Cas says. “I’ll clean up and meet you upstairs.”

“Dean will help you with the dishes,” Sam says, slapping his thighs before getting up. He pushes the hair back from his face. Dean is too warm and sun-happy to protest being assigned chores. “I have to call Susie. Where are the albums?”

“On the bookshelf next to the TV,” Cas answers. “We’ll be right up.”

“See you in five,” Sam says and goes inside.

Subtle, Dean thinks, but Sam obviously believes they need time alone. It’s not that Cas is making him uncomfortable, but he doesn’t...he just can’t think about that right now, about them, about the ring on his hand he’s trying not to look at. Cas doesn’t immediately stand up, so neither does he. He continues to rock himself with one foot, then locks his leg muscles, stilling the chair mid-sway backward.

“Cas?”

“Yes?”

“If this—if you sensed something was off about me, you’d tell me, right?”

“Yes, Dean,” Cas says.

Dean nods slowly, relaxes his leg. The chair creaks forward and comes to a rest.

“So. Twelve years into the future,” Dean says with a shake of his head. He gathers the plates, reaches across Cas to snatch his from the railing. Cas looks down. “There’d better have been some major technological advances in dishwashing.”

“The sponge is new,” Cas offers.

“You’re gonna make me hand wash the dishes?” Dean asks.

“There are only three plates, a cutting board, and a knife,” Cas points out.

Dean nods his defeat and leans against the railing. “Sorry for freaking out on you this morning,” he says. It slips out. He’s not sure why he said it.

Cas takes a moment to reply, tilting his head to the right in thought, the way he often does. “I’ve been trying to put myself into your shoes,” he says. “Not literally, of course.”

“Course.”

“I understand your reaction. I don’t blame you for it.”

“It’s just, where I’m from, you and me—we aren’t...”

He doesn’t finish, but Cas nods to the distant treeline. Dean feels a tug of panic.

“You’d have the same reaction if things were reversed,” he hurries to add. He forces a smile, tries to sound light, just friendly banter. “Can you imagine if I’d laid one on you after you refused to kill me in front of your angel pals?”

Dean waits for Cas to dip his chin in resignation, maybe even laugh at the idea, only he doesn’t. He looks at Dean sadly, longingly, for several seconds and doesn’t blink. Cas’s eyes are so, so blue, as blue as they were when Cas lowered the knife and said, “I can’t.” Dean thinks of them sitting across from one another in the bunker afterwards, the way Cas’s face softened when Dean said, “you just gave up an entire army for one guy.”

Not Sam and Dean, not humanity, just him. Dean had understood the implication of his own words, but he didn’t think Cas had. Dude was still an angel, even if he was running on stolen batteries. It wasn’t fair to judge his actions by human standards. He probably would’ve done the same for Sam.

Cas sighs, and the sound of it is overlain by the memory of Balthazar’s voice:

The one in the dirty trench coat who’s in love with you?

But people harassed Dean like that all the time: Sam, Bobby, Meg, even Crowley. They all made jokes about his angel boyfriend. Hell, sometimes Dean even joked about the uncharted thing between them, but he never let it go beyond that, never put words to it. People said the same kind of shit about him and Sam over the years, because people are idiots. It didn’t mean anything; it was better that it didn’t mean anything.

He rubs at goosebumps despite the sun.

“We—we should go inside,” he mutters, unable to look at Cas right then. He turns away sharply and drops a plate. It doesn’t break, just rolls to the edge of the deck and spins to a rest. The sound is dizzying.

Cas stoops to pick it up but doesn’t meet Dean’s eyes again. They wash the dishes in silence, with lemon-ginger scented soap. Cas dries each plate on a striped dish towel and places them in the cabinet. Together, they climb the stairs.

Sam’s got photo albums spread over the coffee table.

“Cas and I made these the last time,” he says, motioning to the books of various sizes and colors. “Thought we could start earlier, see if we can figure out exactly where your memories stop, then go forward from there. Hopefully jog something.” He turns the pages in an album that has a brown cover, purses his mouth, then looms over another selection.

“Okay,” Dean agrees and flops down onto the couch next to him. Cas pulls up a chair and sits on the other side of the table. He’s back to a neutral expression, but he hasn’t spoken since they were outside and doesn’t look up. Dean feels like he should apologize but isn’t sure exactly what for.

He didn’t know. Cas never said anything about feelings. He’d always been a weird guy, getting all up in Dean’s personal space, staring way longer than a normal person would; and there was that thing he did, showing up when Dean was asleep. He didn’t pull that shit with Sam. But Cas wasn’t human. Dean always marked it down to that, never let himself read more into it. Cas was an angel, and there wasn’t a damned thing in his dad’s journal about recognizing when an angel fell for you—hell, there wasn’t anything about angels.

Couldn’t anyone have tipped him off? That’s probably what they all thought they were doing, informing him through provocation rather than telling him outright, so he’d figure things out on his own. And if they had told him directly, would he have believed them? If Bobby had sat him down, Dean probably would’ve nursed his ambivalence with a bottle. He would’ve cursed at Sammy. Balthazar and Gabriel were asshole angels—what did they know?—and Meg was a demon. He wouldn’t have believed her either.

If it’d been Cas to say something...Dean doesn’t even want to think about what his reaction would be. If he hadn’t woken up this morning, felt Cas’s arms around him, he might not believe Cas, even now.

“Dean?” Sam is saying. Dean blinks and drops his eyes to Sam’s hands, which frame a photograph of Dean flipping off the camera.

“Nice,” he compliments. Cas leans forward slightly and peers at the photograph upside down.

“Do you remember this?” Sam asks.

It was the first day Sam let Dean out of the devil’s trap, satisfied his soul was no longer corrupted. Cas was asleep somewhere, recovering. He slept a lot that first week. Dean was nursing what felt like one mother of a hangover, but Sam refused to let him sulk alone in his bedroom. He dragged Dean out into the main room for breakfast, only there wasn’t any bacon, so Dean flipped him off. Sam gleefully snapped the picture with his phone and was smug as hell about it afterward.

“Yeah,” Dean says noncommittally. “That was about two weeks ago.”

“Okay,” Sam says and turns the page. Dean is asleep on Cas’s shoulder on the couch. In the photograph, Cas looks happy. He feels Cas’s eyes settle on him, but he doesn’t look up.

“No,” Dean says. “Not that one.”

Sam flips forward a few pages to a picture of Dean and Cas on the couch in a video game battle. Their backs are to the camera, but Cas has turned to look at Dean, who faces forward. Cas’s face is silhouetted against the TV screen. The photo isn’t great quality, it’s pretty blurry, but the expression on Cas’s face is adoration.

“Uh...I think so,” Dean says and looks back at Sam. “I mean, I don’t remember you taking this, but it looks familiar.”

“Hm.” Sam flips through the rest of the album, then selects the one next to it. He thumbs through the pages and presents Dean with a holiday scene. It’s Cas and Dean in the bunker, next to a short Christmas tree. Dean has on reindeer antlers and a scowl. Cas wears a Santa hat and is holding a wrapped gift on his lap. Dean’s mouth is frozen mid-shout; he’s focused on the camera, but Cas is focused on him. His expression is the same as in the last picture: sincere, sweet, like he’s looking at someone he—

Dean swallows.

“Nope,” he says.

It’s present in every picture Sam shows him, that same look on Cas’s face, right there in the open where anyone could see it. He missed it this whole time, but now that he knows, he can’t un-see it, hardly notices anything else in the photographs. He begins turning the pages himself, time traveling through the years.

They leave the bunker and begin the long drive to Vermont. There are more photographs of Dean asleep on Cas’s shoulder, except Cas’s arm moves positions: at first, it’s wrapped carefully around Dean’s shoulder to support him. Later, Dean is curled into his side, and Cas’s other hand rests with Dean’s on his leg. Their fingers are entwined. In a photo of Dean sleeping with his head on Cas’s lap, Cas is petting his hair.

“Dude, what’s with the selfie addiction?” Dean asks Cas to distract himself from the flush he can feel creeping over his neck and cheeks, the funny twinge in his stomach. Cas just shrugs.

They’re always touching. In every photo taken in Vermont, Cas is a constant presence at his side, like they exist in tandem. Dean sits next to him on a park bench, at a restaurant, on the hood of the Impala. He never smiles, but he begins to encroach on Cas’s personal space. At first, it’s a hand on his coat sleeve, an arm draped over Cas’s shoulders, fingers curled into the hair at the nape of Cas’s neck. Beside a lake, he’s holding Cas’s hand and pulling him toward the water. In a photo Dean’s sure Sam probably never meant for him to see, let alone know Sam even took, Cas has Dean’s face framed between his hands, foreheads pressed together. Their eyes are closed.

There’s a shift in the photos after that, several pages of a beautiful woman with short, dark hair and a smirk. Dean likes her immediately, recognizes her as a younger version of Sam’s wife.

“She’s gorgeous, man,” Dean says honestly.

“Yeah,” Sam agrees. “She is.”

The next photo of him and Cas is in front of a white and pink house, with dormer windows and a covered porch. Cas holds up a “sold” sign. Following it is a series of renovation photos: nightmarish wallpaper (it was floral, he was right), outdated bathrooms with visible water damage on the ceilings, dark and cramped bedrooms the Ghostfacers would envy. Cas is covered in paint frequently. It’s on his face, streaked through his hair, all over his clothes, but he looks happy.

The house goes from white to red, and one-by-one, the guest rooms emerge. There’s a page devoted to the kitchen sink. And there, finally, when the renovations are nearly complete, it happens: In the bottom right corner of a right-hand page, there’s a smile on Dean’s face. He’s got black paint on his nose and is laughing at someone off camera. And whoever that someone is has Dean lit up like he’s—

Yeah, shit. Like he’s in love.

So it’s not surprising when Sam hands him the next album and he’s in a suit, and Sam’s in a suit. They’re on the deck, flashing matching thumbs up at the camera. Sam straightens Dean’s tie; Dean messes up Sam’s hair. Charlie’s there in an emerald green dress (appropriate) with Dorothy in tow. Jody is talking with Sam’s wife beneath a tree. And there’s Cas, waiting in front of the garage, because Dean would joke that Baby should be at the ceremony (and Cas would take him seriously and insist on it).

Dean holds his breath as he turns the pages, watches Cas take his hands, hold them between their chests. He bites his lip as they laugh through the vows. It’s Dean who takes Cas’s face this time, kisses him soundly, fist pumps in victory. In the background, Baby glints her approval, decked out with a sign that reads “They finally did it” in her back window, in Sam’s chicken scratch.

Dean’s throat is tight and his eyes sting when he closes the album, but he doesn’t hand it back to Sam, just lets it rest on his knee.

He’s never thought seriously about getting married. Lisa brought it up once or twice, trying to gauge Dean’s plans for the future. They had talked about it in generalities, agreed to revisit the topic within a year, but Dean couldn’t envision himself actually going through with it. It wasn’t because he had an issue with commitment or settling down, but because he feared exactly what happened with Lisa: that his life, his real life, would catch up with him and hurt the people he loved.

Cas is still watching him silently, patiently, across the coffee table. The worry is in his eyes, in the way they’ve narrowed, the way the skin pinches together between his eyebrows. His mouth is drawn. Dean dips his chin and pinches the bridge of his nose, hard.

“You okay?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Dean lies. He rubs the back of his neck and forces a smile.

Sam looks hopeful. “Anything?”

Dean shakes his head. “Nope.”

Sam sighs and takes the album from him, sets it with the rest on the table. Cas exhales quietly.

“Listen,” Sam says, checking his watch, “I hate to do this, but if the kids get home and I’m not there—”

“You go,” Dean says quickly. “Me and Cas’ll be fine.”

“You can call me,” Sam says, “any time. I can be here in under an hour.”

“Thanks for coming.”

“Let me know about next weekend.”

“I will.”

They stand up, and Sam pulls Dean into a hug before he can protest. Sam’s always given the quintessential bear hug; this is practically suffocating, but Dean squeezes him back tightly.

“See ya, Cas,” Sam offers with an outstretched hand. They shake.

“Thank you, Sam,” Cas says.

Sam bounds down the stairs and out the back door. Dean hears the engine start, the crunch of gravel under tires again as Sam eases backwards out of the driveway—he would buy a station wagon. The sound reminds Dean that he’s alone with Cas again, just the two of them in this big house for the next seventy-two hours, give or take. Dean feels unbalanced and confused. He watches Sam’s car slip from the driveway, make its way down the main road and out of sight. He rubs his arms against a sudden chill.

“I have to switch over the laundry,” Cas says.

It’s an opening, and Dean promised Sammy he’d try to play nice. He extends his arm in an “after you” gesture and follows Cas inside. His willing presence in the laundry room plants a hopeful look on Cas’s face, a twist in his mouth that’s just this side of too soft. He transfers a load of sheets to the dryer and shoves a comforter into the washing machine, elbow deep.

“Hand me a detergent tablet,” he instructs. Cas is close enough to reach the jar, but Dean grabs it, twists the top, plops the orange thing in Cas’s palm. “And the fabric softener.”

When he forks over the bottle, Cas’s fingers brush his.

“Thank you,” Cas says with sustained eye contact. He smiles. Cas’s gaze is intense even without his mojo, boring into Dean like Cas thinks he can burn Dean’s memories into him if he stares long enough. Their fingers still touch around the bottle, and Dean’s brain makes the traitorous leap into illegal waters, wonders how many ways those hands have touched him. He yanks his own away, watches as Cas scrambles to catch the bottle.

He scowls as he unscrews the cap, measures the fabric softener, pours it into the tray with a practiced wrist flick. He puts the bottle away.

“What was that?” Cas demands.

“I didn’t sign up for this gay shit,” Dean snaps. It comes out meaner than he intended, but if Cas stops touching him, well, good. It doesn’t matter that they’re supposedly together in this reality. This isn’t Dean’s life, and Dean isn’t Castiel’s to handle, no matter what he’s thought about. He expects Cas to glare at him, offer a logical retort—in this place, he clearly did sign up for it. He doesn’t expect Cas to grab him by the shirt, shove him against the wall. His voice is a snarl.

“I didn’t ask for you to lose your memory every other year, but I deal with it.”

Dean shoves him off with both hands. It’s weird that Cas possesses about the same strength now. He glowers, heaves a breath, and Dean prepares for a blow that never comes. The anger surrounding Cas’s eyes shifts into something defeated. He rubs his hands over his face and doesn’t come any closer.

It’s a common gesture, something he’d do himself, but on Cas it’s another a reminder of his humanity, of the cold fact that Castiel gave up everything he was to save Dean. And here Dean is, giving him crap about something that isn’t his fault, something that isn’t even that big of a deal. So they touched hands. Is Dean really that insecure that he can’t touch Cas’s hand and keep his shit together? It’s not like Cas was grappling at his fly and trying to grab his dick, or whatever it is they do.

Dean swallows but doesn’t apologize, doesn’t inch off the wall. It’s uncomfortable against his back, but he stays where he is, afraid the movement might snap Cas back into pissed-off angel mode. After all, he’s only been human for a few years.

“I have to prepare the dish for tomorrow morning,” Cas says without looking up. He walks out of the room and doesn’t close the door. Dean hears him moving items around in the pantry, the soft thud of a cabinet.

He stays in the laundry room until the phone rings, and he hears Cas answer in a tired voice, “Thank you for calling Hotel California. This is Castiel speaking. How may I help you?”

Dean switches off the light and leans in the doorway, watching Cas from behind. He’s stretching plastic wrap over a casserole dish that he carries to the refrigerator and slides onto a low shelf. Cas answers some bullshit question about minimum age for children (five and up) and whether the B&B is close enough to the lake to walk (no). He hangs up, washes his hands, and leans against the sink.

“Thought I’d take a walk,” Dean says after a while. He doesn’t phrase it as a question, but he pauses, hoping Cas will take the implied invitation as a peace offering. He doesn’t respond. Dean watches the rise and fall of his shoulders. He can’t tell if it’s anger or frustration or both. Probably both. Dean rubs the back of his neck, sniffs, and edges toward the door.

Cas lets out a breath. “I’ll go with you,” he says.

They amble through the orchard. There’s no fruit yet; it’s too early in the season. Dean’s hands are thrust into his jacket pockets. His fingers curl around a pack of gum, a scrap of slippery paper (probably a receipt), a loose thread. He pushes his glasses further up his nose as three Canada geese bleat overhead. Cas quirks his chin up to look at them.

Everything about him—his quick head movements, how he shrugs, his facial expressions, even the way he trips and steadies himself—is human. It pulls at a place deep in Dean’s gut.

“Was that too much earlier?” Cas asks after a while.

“What, the pictures?” Dean replies. Cas nods in his habitually slow manner. “I would’ve found all that out anyway.”

“Last time, we waited a few days. Sam thought it might shock you, even stunt the return of your memories. I was surprised he suggested it.”

“Don’t hide stuff from me,” Dean orders.

“I don’t,” Cas assures him. He holds Dean’s gaze for a beat and drops it.

They shuffle through the grass, past the scarecrow Dean spotted from the window. He squints at its flour-sack face and painted eyes.

“No one goes missing once a year around these parts, do they?” he asks.

“Ah,” Cas says with a knowing grin. “I recall that incident.”

“You weren’t even around then.”

Cas gives him a funny look and slows his steps. He kneels to pluck a dandelion.

“I watched you sometimes,” he says, snapping the stem. Dean stops next to him and focuses on the crown of Cas’s head, watches his hair move with the breeze.

“Before I was in Hell?”

Cas nods seriously. He turns the dandelion in his hands as he rises and resumes walking, examines the layers upon layers of spiked yellow petals. Dean stares at him.

“It’s a shame this is considered a weed,” Cas says, holding it out for Dean to see. “It’s beautiful.”

“How come I never saw you until after you pulled me out?” Dean asks.

“Our orders at the time were not to interfere,” Cas replies.

“Like the Angelic Prime Directive? How come you changed your mind?” he asks.

“You had questions,” Cas states, focusing on the ground. “I knew you wouldn’t stop looking for answers, that you wouldn’t stop looking for me once you learned my name. I deemed it...necessary.”

Dean grins at the implication that Cas broke ranks for him, right from the start. “Still can’t believe you blew out the windows of a gas station just trying to say hello,” he says lightly.

“It had been a while since I visited Earth,” Cas confesses, letting the flower tumble to his feet. He steps over it. “I’d grown used to speaking in my own voice.”

“Well, you can kiss that singing career goodbye,” Dean advises.

“It’s a shame your ears aren’t capable of rendering angelic voices,” Cas says. “I was praised for mine.”

The idea of hearing Cas’s actual voice consumes Dean momentarily. He remembers the piercing whine that about made his eardrums burst, and winces in memory.

“Who knows, maybe I’m on the guest list for Heaven,” he says casually. “You can sing for me then.”

But he won’t, because Cas doesn’t possess that voice anymore.

The restless sense of guilt returns. Dean’s always been selfish where Cas is concerned: calling when Dean or Sam needed help or guidance, but never for Cas’s sake, never to see if Cas was okay, if Cas needed anything. Not until Purgatory, when Dean found himself unwilling to leave Cas behind, slashing his way through every creature in that unholy place until he pulled Cas safely against him.

He’d been too scared for Cas’s safety to ask himself what that meant, at the time, that he’d willingly remained in Purgatory for a year to make sure Cas was freed, that he allied himself with a monster in order to ensure their escape. His thoughts drift to Benny, and Dean wonders if he still exists somewhere in the gray.

The wind blows and pulls him back to the present. Dean crosses his arms over his chest and sniffs. Cas angles his face toward the sun and closes his eyes. Dean wonders if Cas is praying. His eyelashes are long and dark. The sunlight strikes his face, illuminating it. He is bright and beautiful and otherworldly.

It stirs something in Dean that makes his hands itch, the way they itched when Dean watched Cas holding the baby in Idaho, when they saw each other again after so many weeks apart. He moves his fingers over his palms but doesn’t reach for Cas.

“I shouldn’t have been physical with you,” Cas says after a while.

Dean shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it,” he says.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Cas,” Dean offers. He nods toward the house. “Come on. Let’s head back.”

+

It turns out they have four cats that live outdoors and only come into the house when they’re hungry or want attention.

“They’re never allowed upstairs,” Cas assures him as Dean proactively fumbles a box of tissues. “And you take allergy medication.”

He sets a bowl of food just outside the screen door and closes it behind him. It’s a little like looking at Cas through a confessional window, his face broken up by tiny squares. Dean watches a slim, gray cat with a long tail approach, then bend her head to eat. Cas kneels beside her, rests a hand on her back and strokes twice.

“This is Kansas,” he says and stands when she raises her hair in irritation.

She eats a few bites of food, performs a serpentine around Cas’s legs, then scampers to the edge of the deck before darting across the lawn.

“She’s the friendliest,” Cas explains. “The others will come up after I go inside.”

Dean holds the door open for Cas, feels him brush past his shoulder, but a feeling of unease creeps up on him. He remembers what Sam told him about that Tuesday, the one Sam lived for the better part of a year. It had felt real, Sam said. For Sam, it had been real. He’d watched Dean die a hundred different ways. Despite all efforts to break the cycle, Sam had been at the mercy of that angel-in-hiding jack off, helpless to do anything but suffer Dean’s loss again and again and again.

That had been Gabriel’s intention, for Sam to experience the loss of a brother, for him to intimately know that pain. But this place isn’t...well, it’s not exactly like he’s suffering here. Sammy is happy. Cas isn’t on the run. They’re financially stable, and demons aren’t lined up around the block to kick in the front door. Despite being disquieting, the universe isn’t immediately harmful. There’s no way of predicting how long he’s going to be stuck here, if he can’t piece together why he’s here in the first place.

They do two more loads of laundry, then drape the comforters over a taut line in the yard to finish drying. Cas says he’s got to check if any midweek reservations have come in last minute. It’s rare this time of the year, he says, but it happens. There’s a home office carved into the downstairs kitchen, a drop-down touchscreen. Cas breezes through his messages.

“Nothing,” he announces, then blocks the rest of the week as taken. “We don’t need the stress,” he explains.

Dean goes upstairs while Cas makes dinner a couple hours later and paces the living room. The photo albums form a leaning stack on the coffee table where Sam left them. Dean can hear Cas moving around downstairs, and, satisfied he won’t come upstairs just yet, switches on a lamp.

He thumbs back through the album of renovation pictures and remembers Cas saying something about being featured in magazines. He purses his mouth and scans the shelf, noting a couple magazines tucked in alongside the albums. Sure enough, the first brags about “a different kind of B&B” on the front cover. He covers his mouth as he flips to it, an actual feature article that opens on a two-page spread of the Impala bedroom. There’s a small picture of him and Cas on the third page, leaning against Baby’s hood. The second article is an interview with the two of them, “A new breed of innkeepers.”

“We bought it on a whim,” Dean reads about himself. Cas countered with, “It was Dean’s idea.”

Dean laughs and puts the magazines back, then selects another album out of curiosity. The pictures in this one look different from the ones Sam and Cas took; they’ve got a blue-green hue, probably taken with a different camera.

The first couple pages are standard vacation fare: the ocean, a close-up of his feet in the waves, a row of old-fashioned houses, a horse and carriage. There’s one of Dean giving a death-glare to a valet parking ticket. Cas is solo in the next few pictures: eating ice cream on a blue bench facing the ocean, tying his shoes while sitting on a hotel bed, sampling something that’s delicious judging by the look on his face (and bag from the store in the next picture), spread out on a beach towel in patterned board shorts and sunglasses.

There’s a shot of them under a red and white striped cabana. Dean’s holding the camera at arm’s length, leaning into Cas’s side. He’s got a tan, ocean-tousled hair, and a shit-eating grin. In another, Cas gives a thumbs down in front of a white roller coaster built out over a pier, but he gives a thumbs up to a carousel and a bucket of boardwalk fries. He eats in front of an audience of seagulls.

The next few look like they were taken back in the hotel, of the two of them kissing lazily against white sheets. He rubs at the warmth spreading over his cheeks, but he doesn’t turn the page right away. He’s never admitted it to anyone, but he’s thought about kissing Cas ever since the Leviathans, ever since discovering him alive in Colorado. He’s thought about it a lot.

Seeing him with Daphne, knowing that Cas was married to someone else...it didn’t sit right. Dean felt like he’d been sucker punched, but he wasn’t sure why, at the time. All of the jokes about him and Cas had been just that, up until that moment: jokes. He’d never thought about them together seriously. The idea was ridiculous. But he couldn’t rationalize the hurt he felt when Cas didn’t recognize him, the knee jerk reaction that Cas being married to anyone else was just wrong.

He spent that long, tense car ride back to Indiana staring at Cas from the corner of his eye in disbelief. He’d never been more angry with anyone, never wanted to slug anyone so hard, never wanted to kiss anyone this badly—the brutal, selfish type that draw blood—to communicate through touch all of the roiling, nameless emotions in his gut.

For once, it didn’t matter what Cas was, just that he was here, alive, an arm’s length away, but Dean never acted on the realization.

He’d gone on thinking about the two of them long after they left Cas in the hospital, half-crazy with Sam’s memories of hell; after Dean found him kneeling by the river in Purgatory; after he appeared behind Dean in the bathroom mirror, and Dean momentarily lost the ability to breathe.

He’s imagined kissing Castiel a thousand different ways, but he never thought he’d actually do it.

They look good together. Comfortable. Happy. There’s a magnetism that practically vibrates off the page. He flushes deeper at an image of Cas biting his neck, and flips quickly to the end of the book, grinding the heel of his palm hard against his crotch.

The last picture is of Dean asleep. Cas undoubtedly took it. Dean’s head is on a pillow, facing the camera. There’s a smattering of stubble along his jaw, mouth slack. Dean stares at his own face for a long time, like he’s waiting for the eyes to snap open black, for the mouth to twist maliciously and whisper, “Gotcha!”

It remains a photograph.

He tosses the book to the other end of the couch and sucks on his lower lip. This is just a trick. There’s no way he’s honestly married to Cas. Things like this—they just don’t happen, not to him. He’s in the bunker recovering, and this is a fucked-up game some asshole’s playing with his head. Dean’s just gotta roll with it, suck it up until he figures out how to gank the sonofabitch.

+

He and Cas dance around each other through the evening, until Dean starts to blink with increasing frequency and Cas repeatedly scratches at his scalp. He’s yawning gape-mouthed like a cat, lazily sucking in a breath. Dean drills his eyes with a fist. They take turns in the bathroom (apply forehead to cold tile wall, add pressure, repeat) and meet again on opposite sides of the mattress.

Dean stares at it, then up at Cas.

“I’ll sleep on the couch,” Cas offers, lifting the pillow from his side of the bed.

Dean should protest. It’s a king-sized mattress. There’s plenty of room for both of them to just sleep. It feels wrong to banish Cas to the couch in his own home, but he’s relieved by Cas’s suggestion.

“Thanks,” he mutters. “Appreciate it.”

Cas gives him a tight-lipped smile and closes the door between the bedroom and living room. He switches on the television; the light flashes strobe-like in the gap above the floor. Dean lies on his side, bunches a pillow underneath his head, and watches it. The volume must be next to mute. He can’t make out much above a mumble, the lull of mindless chatter he could understand if he got a little closer. Is that what angel radio used to be like for Cas, a constant hum of indiscernible voices? What’s it gotta be like to exist for millions of years connected to your fellow angels, only to have that part amputated?

Cas isn’t fully human yet, not in the real world. If Dean can just get back, maybe he can convince Cas that being human’s not worth it, that even though the angels can’t restore his full grace, maybe they can give him back a part of it. He deserves better than this.

It’s a long time before Dean sees the back of his eyelids. He lies awake and listens, yawning, rolling onto his opposite side. His mind won’t settle. It’s quiet here, the nighttime sounds foreign: the rustle of tree branches overhead, a lone owl hooting, the sporadic whoosh of a passing car. Underneath the door, the light from the TV continues to dance. Dean listens and listens, minutes ticking into one another, until the sounds are no longer sounds, and he’s dreaming.