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The Golden Apples of the Sun

Chapter Text

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

            The Song of Wandering Aengus
           
W. B. Yeats

 

 

The Silver Apples of the Moon

 

Gone, gone. He can’t feel his hands. Gone, gone.

Is there a word for the absence of an echo? When you call into a vast, dark space and expect an answer, even just a reflection of your own voice, but nothing will call back to you? These are Dean’s thoughts. This is the world.

Wall at his back. Shuddering. Gone. Hands numb, shaking. Bereft of tears. Cas gone. Which means love gone. Forever.

Wall at his back and he can’t stop trembling. Numb. It could be seconds, or minutes, or hours. It feels like years. Time dissolves around him, the world dissolves around him. Cas. Gone.

And only the absence of an echo of the world, left.

Shuddering gasps have evened out into a hollow kind of breathing. Dean realises with a strange swoop of his gut that the gasps were his own. And a stranger swoop that Cas is gone, and Dean is still here. If there were words for grief, there would be no grief to speak of. No. Loss is a soundless, gasping thing. And so Dean becomes a soundless, gasping thing. The room gapes around him. The world gapes around him. Dean gapes, and cannot stop. Shuddering. Trembling. Where is home, now?

He’d pray—he’s prayed before, that God would bring him back. What use could that be, now? He prays to Cas, shivering and winded prayers, but can Cas hear them? Will Cas ever hear them, again? Come back, come back, he begs, but nothing. Come back, come back, like a storm battering against thin windows, come back to me.

You bastard, come back. Don’t you hear? You son of a bitch. Can’t you hear? Couldn’t you tell? Me too. Come back to me. Me too.

He’s never had such a friend. He never will.

Everything is hollowed out. The world, the air, the ether.

Bricks rest upon bricks in the room around him. Everything is stable. Nothing changes. The floor is just a floor. There’s some kind of violence in the sanity and order of it all. Shouldn’t the world have been thrown off its axis? Dean’s has. Shouldn’t the ground quake and tremble, the sky rip open in lament? Dean’s does. Shouldn’t the world have reeled to a halt, stopped its indignant turning, moved backwards, as Dean feels like he is, now, or crumpled in on itself, as Dean’s chest, at Dean’s every breath does?

This isn’t real. Not real. It isn’t real because, and this is what cinches it, Cas could never love him. Not in that way. Not like that. Not something so good, loving something so bad. Love aches like loss. Nobody tells you that. Love is loss. Dean’s whole life has been a loss. Cas said he fought for love, that he loved the whole world. But what does that mean when to love is to lose, forever? Dean has fought for loss: everything he has fought for has been lost. He has loved the whole world: he has lost it, too.

His head is as much a storm as it is a void.

He doesn’t want the floor to steady him. He doesn’t want the wall to lean back against him, prop him upright. He wants it to disintegrate, he wants it all to disintegrate, he wants to disintegrate. Like fresh ash when touched. How is it that he can still exist when everything within him is an echo of nothingness?

Really? Me too. Always.

Please come home.

And I, you. I, you.

Dimly, over the tinnitus of grief which rings in his ears, will ring, now, forever, his phone buzzes.

He holds it up, it’s Sam.

He can barely think. He can’t answer. He drops it on the floor in front of him and it skitters against the ground with each ring. He can’t steady himself. He can’t steady himself. He can’t carry it—not this loss, not everything he has to do, now, still living with this loss. He can’t carry it—not the weight of Cas—Cas’s, Cas—not—not the weight of his own heart. He can’t carry it. It’s too heavy.

It’s too heavy.

Love—he can name it, now—and yes, rotted in the fear of knowing and not naming.

He presses his head into his hands. He can’t do this. Not without… His phone continues buzzing. He can’t do this. Cas is gone. It’s too heavy. He sobs.

The weight is too heavy.

How long does he stay there? Time dissolves around him. Dark peters out into light, night into day, but the sun doesn’t rise in Dean’s heart. Will it, ever again? All the light is gone. Dean, who thought his heart was wrong for longing, Dean, who broke his heart with longing. Now he finds—could it be true? Cas was longing, too. Cas was bruised with longing, too.

He’s been a damn fool. He’s been—he wants to disappear. He wants to go with Cas, he wishes he could’ve gone with Cas. Cas, who promised, would always promise, to go with Dean. I’ll go with you, every time, without fail. A promise, an answer to an unuttered prayer. Wherever Dean would go. Into hell. Back again. A thousand times over.

Death has never called him so loudly. All his life it has reverberated like an echo, rung out like a frosted bell, thrumming through the darkness of his soul, but now, now it calls out to him like a war drum, all dark and inevitable destruction.

Sobs wrack his body, will not stop wracking his body. Eventually they heave at him, dry, like a cough. His heart is a caged beast, beaten, which knows it is the last of its kind. It crawls about its bars, crying.

All his life, he’d thought, feared, he was wrong for what his heart wanted, wrong for his desires. Wrong for the straying of his thoughts, wrong for the heat which would sometimes prick him in the mornings, wrong for the way the curve of some men’s necks looked in his eyes, a sweep of muscle calling to be traced and touched, wrong for the way the pitch and kilter of some voices, deep and rough voices, sounded in his ears, wrong for the way his skin would pebble at it.

All his life he thought this was a wrong and poisoned thing; he was a wrong and poisoned thing.

Now he finds Cas felt it too. Now he finds Cas lo—

Now he finds Cas didn’t think him a wrong and poisoned thing.

His mind refuses to accompany this thought, refuses it entry, will not accommodate it. It won’t fit into his head. How? How could—

And now he’s gone. He said he loved him. Now he’s gone. Just like all of them. Just like everyone Dean—just like everyone who makes the mistake of—

No sunlight could ever thaw out the sorrow of his frosted, shivering heart.

It’s day when he goes to meet Sam and Jack.

He can’t tell the kid. He can’t do it.

He lets his heart freeze over again. It’s easier. Frozen things don’t bruise so easily.

He freezes it over.

Especially with how Jack looks.

Of course the whole world is emptied, of course Dean barely cares. What could make him care, now? He wasn’t worthy of Cas’s words, let alone the feeling which brought them forth.

“Where’s Cas?” Jack asks, hard and hurt. He sounds young. God dammit, the kid sounds so young, he sounds so helpless, Dean’s ears ring and sting with the question, his lip curls, his heart collapses in on itself a little more. Every moment, a little more. Every moment, there’s a little less of him.

Dean looks down. His chest is vein and bone, what chance could it have of containing what’s storming inside him?

“He saved me,” he hardens himself again, and looks at Jack’s hopeless eyes and feels jealous, and angry, and thinks, he was mine, mine before he was yours, your dad—he adopted you, but he saved me, every time, he saved me. In every way. “Billie was comin’ after us,” he lets the ice creep in again, harden him, put up thick walls of frost and cold to keep the raw heat of heartbreak out—no, not heartbreak, he tells himself. He doesn’t feel anything. He can’t feel anything. He won’t feel anything. “And Cas summoned the empty.” His chest trembles. No—no. “It took her,” he shudders the words out and his wounded heart bruises, is beaten about, with each syllable. No. He tries to keep his voice steady. “And it took him.”

He hates the face Sam pulls. The disbelieving shift in his feet. Almost indignant. He hates the world. How could Cas say he was more than the rage which simmers, always, in his chest? How could Cas say that, as if he knew…

Cas knew him. Cas knew him by every fibre and follicle, every piece if grit and gristle, and yet, and still, thought Dean worth…

He hates the world. He hates the world and the sting of his insides and the cold which runs through his corrupted veins. He hates his own corrupted veins.

“Cas is gone,” he says, and lets the ice re-freeze him before he looks at Jack. Jack, who shakes his head, pleading. Jack, who looks so young.

“This can’t be happening,” Sam says, after a silence which burns. Dean can’t let it burn away the walls of ice preserving his heart. The only things left, which preserve him.

“It is, Sam,” Dean says. How could it not be? What fucking use is disbelief, now? Dean has to continue treading through a world without Cas, and what would Sam know of this feeling? Except—Eileen—“I think everyone’s gone,” Dean pushes forward.

Sam looks to Jack. He isn’t processing. He’s indignant and refusing to let this be the truth. Can’t he just act like it is, in front of the kid? What good is this gonna do Jack?

Sam rummages in his jacket pockets for his phone and pulls it out, stepping away to call someone. Jody’s answerphone sounds dimly from Sam’s phone as Dean approaches Jack with legs too heavy, feet which want to refuse to walk forward. Every step is every heartbreak: ice is brittle. Sharp motions shatter it completely.

Dean’s arms swing numbly.

“Jack, I’m sorry,” he says, but can’t even look directly at the kid as he says it. Sorry is no good. Not now. Not ever again.

Jack’s throat constricts, he doesn’t say a word. Dean doesn’t wait for him to. He can’t face it. He walks away.

Jack gets bad. Jack gets worse. They wander a wasteland like the echo-absence of Dean’s heart, but Jack’s grief physicalises, actualises. Dean ignores the ashening of plants and flowers in the kid’s presence, his own head a stir, his own heart a stir—and angry at the fact that Jack is so worthy of his own sorrow, his grief can turn things into rot. What can Dean’s do? His heart was never strong enough for Cas’s.

Sam mourns too. Sam mourns like a widower but quietly, behind the scenes, all the quiet sweetness that he and Eileen were, were to each other. Dean thinks of the look in Sam’s eyes when Eileen would call, discreet soft excitement, like they’d known each other years, like there was still an eternity of each other to know and learn.

And Sam blames himself. Of course. For all of it. Not knowing how Cas’s absence, that resounding lack of an echo, is because of Dean. Not knowing how Cas’s fall, rebellion, everything that has, as it turns out, made all of this possible in the first place, was because of Dean.

The very touch of you corrupts.

Well. The words which rang true to the poison of Dean’s blood, at the time, ring truer now. What a mistake it is, to love, and long for, Dean. Even touching him debases.

And still, he can’t believe it.

The world empty, an appropriate void to match Dean’s soul, they wait for Chuck, on darkened streets.

“Think he’ll show?” Sam asks. He paces falteringly as they wait. His voice has rung unsteady ever since—

“He’d better,” Dean’s arms are knotted tightly across his chest. He’s aching for something, aching for something.

Silence.

Then,

“Hey guys,” Dean almost straightens. Almost. He rises slowly from where he’d been leaning, against the hood of the Impala.

“Alright Chuck,” he says, hardening every feeling which pulses and simmers inside, “you win.”

“Well, sure,” Chuck concedes. “I always do. Me being me.” He approaches them. God, God is some smarmy, self-assured little bastard. “Is that it, or…”

“We’ll give you what you want,” Sam says.

“That’s right. The whole Cain-and-Abel thing. Us, dead. Whatever.” The feelings Dean has been trying to harden into iron start melting, again, his thoughts board a train which picks up pace and intensity. What’s left in the world that could steady him, now? “I’ll kill Sam, Sam will kill me, we’ll kill each other. Okay? You pick.” Chuck seems surprised, or indignant, at this. “But first? You gotta put everything back the way it was. The people, the birds, Cas.”—He wonders if Chuck can sense the tremor in his heart as he says this. Can Chuck tell? Does Chuck know? Dean takes a sharp breath in, anger flaring. This bastard. “You gotta bring him back.”

“We’re surrendering,” Sam says, when Chuck says nothing. “We’re giving up.”

Silence. They watch Chuck, who seems… underwhelmed.

“Yeah, no,” he grimaces. Everything inside of Dean sinks. “I mean, I appreciate the white flag, but frankly? It’s too little, too late. I’m kind of enjoying this story, now,” he gestures to them. Being stolen from yourself. That’s what it is. Some strange sense of disconnect between your heart, or what you think you want your heart to be, and what you do, can do, can be.

“You can’t,” Dean says, lungs crumbling as he speaks.

“Oh, no, see,” Chuck corrects, “I’m the almighty. I really can.” Dean glares. “I mean picture it,” Chuck smiles, continuing, “the two of you, and your little lapdog Jack, rotting on a lifeless planet, knowing it’s this way because you wouldn’t take a knee,” these words are hissed, and maybe there is some anger simmering just below Chuck’s surface. Dean glances at Sam, who seems choked by this. “Eternal shame, suffering, and loneliness,” Chuck says heavily, then with obnoxious lightheartedness, “whew! That’s deep.” His face sets. “That’s sophisticated. That’s a page turner.”

Dean looks down. This is what condemnation means. A life not even of motions. A life, a world, without—

Chuck disappears.

 

Back in the bunker, he drinks. What is there left to do? And returning to it sets his head ringing, he feels faint and fuzzy like he’s in the depths of a fever. The words ring around his head, Cas’s last words, the haunted perfect mirror of so many of his first. Goodbye, Dean. Goodbye. How could Dean say it? How could Dean say it back? No word could contain the multitudes goodbye, Cas would be weighted with. Jack goes into hiding. Sam does his usual fucking obnoxious thing of coping, being healthy about all of this, and Dean, Dean, worthless Dean, worthless Dean unworthy of all that Castiel laid at his feet… Dean drinks. Amber and golden-brown liquid which burns away the ice walls around his heart as the evening sinks into night, sinks into early morning, and Dean takes out his knife and sets his shuddering jaw and carves out the name he was too afraid, for years, to set alongside his own.

Castiel.

Crying alone.

Come back. Come back, you bastard.

Why was Dean afraid? Why was Dean always so afraid to run this name alongside his own?

Cas was brave. Cas had always been brave.

I’m not here to perch on your shoulder—but in the end, what had Cas been, but a companion, an ally, a guardian more steadfast than stone?

This was the dream Dean didn’t dare to dream. And now he has wakened.

Is this how Dean is doomed to live, now? To dissect every look, every word, every syllable. The curl of those pink lips, the moments they’d play upward into a smile. It had made Dean radiant, when Cas had smiled. It had made him radiant, to be the cause. And nothing more radiant than Cas, himself, smiling.

God, Dean’s drunk.

A nebula of moments Dean is doomed to repeat, replay in his head, knowing he has loved Cas until his last, and Cas’s last was loving Dean.

Cas’s last was loving Dean.

Life is an empty road.

God, Dean’s drunk.

His hand is clumsy as it etches out the letters of Cas’s name, Cas’s name, Cas’s fucking name, beautiful and ethereal as a promise, and isn’t that what it was, in the end?

Shield. Protection. Shield of God became just shield, just shelter. Castiel became just Cas.

But Castiel. Dean carves it out in full because he wants to savour, repent, grieve every letter. Taste the shape of each consonant at the awkward carving and the shuddering steadiness of his drunken, determined hand. Castiel. What a beautiful name. Hadn’t he dreamt, hadn’t he dreamt of saying it, late at night, into the angel’s ear? Whispering it as they lay coiled together—God. This was a dream Dean refused himself. And now he finds, Cas was dreaming, too.

Gone. Gone Dean’s dreams. Gone, all dreaming. Gone all memory outside of regret. Gone the light of the stars. Dean is gone. Dean is drunk.

He wavers in his carving. The ruddy sheen of the table. The stubborn lines of that name. Here, now. The name will never go. The shadows in Dean’s mind, they will never go, either. Not the shadows. Not the ghosts. Castiel.

I love you.

And I, you.

Goodbye, Dean.

Nobody stays. Dean told Cas not to do it. Dean begged Cas not to go. He wanted him to stay. Nobody stays. Not with Dean, not for Dean, never either, never both together.

He passes out. He knows when it’s about to happen; the world swoons like a faint, like a breath, like a storm above a cresting wave. And Dean passes out.

He doesn’t dream. His thoughts, his mind, are void. No more dreams. Not even an echo of them.

He wakes up, nudged by Sam, who speaks way too loud for the pinpricks of white pain needling at his temples.

“Hey,” Sam says, as Dean comes to, clattering over the empty bottles which surround him. He lies, curled and tangled round himself, on the cold and brittle floor. His neck aches. His heart aches. The world aches. “You okay?”

“I feel terrific,” Dean answers, body creaking.

He sits up. Then he kneels. His closed fists rest on the table as he steadies himself. He looks at the letters he carved out last night. The needles no longer prick at his temples. They work at the raw skin of his heart.

Jack enters a little later, and says something wack about sensing ‘a presence’. What is there left to do, but follow the kid’s intuition? It’s maybe all they have left: the whole world is depleted of people, and hearts, and hope. They drive. They chase the scent of whatever it is Jack has. And stopping at some services, about to enter the men’s restroom, Dean is distracted by a soft whine behind him. When he turns—damn. It’s the first thing not to make his heart hurt with feeling, since…

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Dean almost marvels, almost rejoices. “Look at you,” he bends and approaches the dog—a tan coloured, long-haired, dole-eyed thing. He looks about him in wonder as he fusses over the dog gently. “Wow,” he sighs out. This dog, this fucking dog is the most hopeful thing he’s seen in days. “How did Chuck miss you?” He asks, and damn, it’s cute, this little being is adorable, some kind of soul-balm after everything and sure as shit coming home with them. “Who woulda thought finding a dog would feel like a miracle?” He asks, softly, to the air, to the dog, to himself. He smiles. “C’mon, Miracle,” he beckons the dog, who tentatively gets up—damn if it doesn’t pour a little sunlight into his heart. “C’mere.”

He’s carrying Miracle to the car when he shows what he’s found to Sam.

“Sammy,” he beams. “Check it out.”

“You found a dog?” Sam raises his eyebrows, bewildered. Well, what the hell does it look like?

“Yeah,” Dean beams. All his chest knows is wonder. “I guess Chuck didn’t get everything. I mean, maybe there’s people he missed, you know?”

And if Chuck didn’t get everything, if things aren’t as dire and echoing and empty as Dean thought, then maybe there’s a chance that they can bring—he can barely bring himself to tread out the thought in full, ‘cause damn, where does this kind of thinking, where does this kind of wishing, where does this kind of dreaming get you? But maybe dreams aren’t gone with Cas, maybe dreams are nearer than he thinks, maybe Cas is nearer than he thinks.

“Either way, this guy’s comin’ home with us,” Dean decides. Miracle is warm and weighted and soft in his arms. It feels good to hold something tight and know that it depends on you and cares for you.

“You’re gonna let a dog sit in the Impala?”

Sam’s unconvinced. Dean wrinkles his nose.

“Oh, relax, I’m not giving him shotgun,” Dean rolls his eyes. “Unless you’re cool with that…?”

Sam ignores him, obviously biting on a sigh.

“I’ll get Jack,” he says.

“Don’t worry about him, he’ll warm up to ya,” Dean murmurs to Miracle, him a squeeze. “Maybe we’ll let you sleep in his room, huh?” He asks, and laughs to himself as he lowers Miracle onto the backseat of the Impala. “Good boy,” he smiles, “hey, come here,” he ruffles at the dog’s ears—and damn, but Miracle sure does seem to beam at the attention. Maybe this dog needed something to love as much as Dean did. His heart is seeping with relief. God. He needed love. Needed something to give it to. “You know, believe it or not, you’re the best thing that’s happened in the last few days. Yeah you are,” Dean beams, because the dog seems to get it. “Good boy.” He pats Miracle’s head, and rising to stand again, chuckling warmly as he looks down at the fuzzy, soft haired dog, his heart lurches.

The dog vanishes. Miracle vanishes.

Dean’s face falls.

And his gaze moves to rest on a figure in the distance.

Chuck.

So there really is nothing left.

Chuck disappears in a second, too, before Dean can yell curses at him.

And Chuck only did this to fuck with him. To break him down further. Surely, there’ll reach a point where Dean is irreducible, is less than atoms, less than the particles which make them up. Will Chuck leave him alone, then?

They drive back in the dark.

“Can’t even save a friggin dog!” Dean glares at the road. Yeah, there it is, the anger and the rage which rotted at his insides for years, which Cas said he was more than. Cas was wrong. Of course, Cas was wrong.

“Maybe that’s the point,” Sam says, softly. “No one left to help, no one but us.”

A storm. Thunder lashes across the sky. They pull up beside a church, and get out of the Impala.

“You sure about this, Jack?” Sam asks, looking up at it. “Whatever you’re picking up on is in there?”

Jack peers at it, troubled, for a moment.

“In there, or very nearby,” he answers. “Guys,” he says, earnestly, “I have no idea what we’re walking into.”

Well, that makes a change.

They break in—although, is there any breaking in, when all the world has been robbed of itself, left gutted and bare?

They scan the insides of the church, a storm flashing grimly outside. Nothing, it seems. Stained glass ripples light across Dean’s features as he treads through the pews.

“So,” a voice sounds behind Dean, and he’d know the troubled firmness anywhere, the weight of an absent, expectant father bearing down upon it, even in a single syllable. “You survived.”

Dean turns.

“Michael,” Sam says.

He stands between the two columns of pews.

His expression is a heavy, troubled blank.

It’s funny—Adam’s body, and yet with Michael occupying it, there’s something in the expression that looks so much like Cas.

Lightning crackles and stings the air outside the church.

“When the rapture first began, I took refuge here,” he treads down the pews slowly, that quintessential angelic gravity, as though every gesture is as significant as it is curious. Dean hates it, hates that it reminds him so much of everything that’s left him, now. “It is St. Michael’s, you may have noticed.”

“Are you hidin’ out from your dad?” Dean asks.

“I’m sure he’s aware I took your side against him,” Michael continues his steady approach. “I’ve avoided using any powers that might… attract his attention.”

Again, thunder crackles.

“And Adam?” Sam asks.

Michael takes two more steps before stopping. His face, in the dark, is still unreadable. Except for some soft slope to his brows, some sadness singing in his eyes through the shadows.

“Gone,” he answers.

Gone.

“I’m sorry to say,” Michael says after a beat, voice evening with something Dean recognises, has seen in himself. “Exterminated by my father, like everyone else.”

“Poor bastard never caught a break,” Dean looks down.

“How did the three of you manage?” Michael asks.

“Apparently your old man has a sense of humour,” Dean answers. “He thought it’d be hilarious watching the three of us, on an empty planet.”

Sam glances down at the pile of open, wizened books on the alter.

“What are you, uh, doing some reading?”

Michael looks at them a moment.

“I never spent much time on earth,” he says. “I was… curious, about the perception of God and Heaven.”

“And?”

“Amazingly, the believers loved him,” Michael says, and seems exasperated, or as exasperated as someone as measured and steady as him can seem. He blinks, shaking his head. It’s weird, weird to see someone whose world was forged in faith and belief be riddled with so much disbelief, so much indignance. “They have, for thousands of years. I guess my efforts were more effective than I’d hoped.”

Dean thinks of the occasions he’d managed to persuade his brother that the food he’d stolen for them had been bought, specially, by their father. That the presents Dean had swiped, small, inconsequential things, were from John.

“Your—efforts?” Sam repeats.

“When God left Heaven, I was certain of his return. So I made sure all the angels and prophets burnished his image on earth,” Michael says. Lightning prances across the features of the iconography scattered around the church, Mary and an infant Jesus, the benign, divine, smiling faces of angels watching the pews in anticipation of people to seat themselves and worship there. “The all-knowing, all-seeing, all-caring God.” Michael seems tired.

“Daddy’s boy,” Dean comments, and smiles, half mockingly, half sympathetically. Yes, he knows this song.

“Hm,” Michael agrees, amused, troubled.

“And now?” Jack asks, harder than he usually speaks. “After seeing what Chuck’s done?”

Michael closes his eyes. Looks down.

“We reached out to you,” Dean says, voice roughening in his throat. “You ignored us.”

“That was then,” Michael says. “This is now.” A beat. Then he looks up, over at Dean, face set in resolution. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

 

Back in the yellow light of the bunker. Life ticks by in a new, weird motion. What is left, but duty? Dean, who had believed, for a limb-sweetened moment, that he was beyond, more than, obligations to bind him to the fringes of life. It isn’t true, any more. All that there is, is ahead. No more room to unravel, sprawl, unbind outwards. No room to blossom or stretch. Was it Cas, who provided that opportunity? The chance for life to vine around new untrodden paths, organically?

“Alright, Michael,” Sam says. “Here’s the book we’ve been telling you about,” dropping it down onto the table. It lands heavy as a heartbeat.

“That’s one of death’s books,” Michael frowns, walking round the table slowly.

“Yeah, but this one is about God,” Dean says. Michael’s gaze flicks back up to him. “And how to kill him.”

“As far as we know, only Death can open it,” Sam says. “But… um,” he smiles awkwardly. “We’re hoping, uh… maybe you can, too.”

Michael’s gaze travels over each of their expressions, his own largely inscrutable, but behind it is… some small glimmer of fear. Married to resolution.

He looks down at the book.

His eyes blaze silverblue as he holds a hand over it.

His hand quakes, he quakes, they watch and the book glows: it’s sustained for a long instant and then… Michael releases, the way you’d drop some great, heavy weight, after strained minutes of trying to lift it. His eyes avoid each of them directly, though he attempts to meet their gazes.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He bites his lip.

Great.

Now what?

 

Resigned, Dean sits back against the wall, adjacent to Sam. They’re either side of the doorway. Cold brick presses into Dean’s back and he tries not to think of the cold brick against his frame, how it was obnoxiously steady in a world which should’ve fallen apart, when Cas was taken.

Bereft, is that the word? All the world is all bereft.

“So where does this leave us?” Sam asks, fret edging at his voice. “We need that book open and we’re outta options.”

“Where’s it leave us?” Dean repeats dumbly. “Screwed.” Sam sighs as Dean speaks. “I’m sure Chuck’s ready to make a move.”

If Sam has a response, it’s cut off by Dean’s phone ringing in his pocket.

He pulls it out, and, holding it up, the world—the whole world, is a bird caught in the first motion of flight.

“What?” He blinks. His extremities go numb with disbelief and joy. Was this Job, when his arguing with God returned his family to him?

He picks up.

“Cas?” He asks.

It’s—some freak of technology. It has to be.

“Dean,”—that voice, that damn voice, sounds at the other end. Not a freak of technology. The world becomes a seed of hope. It takes root among the sinews of Dean’s heart. But Cas sounds desperate, he sounds like he’s in pain—Dean’s heart clamours around the hope rooted in it. “I’m here,”—his breath is laboured—“I’m hurt. Can you let me in?”

Dean is up. He springs up, phone still in hand, vision beating with it, with the power and seduction of dreaming, like a poisoned, desperate heartbeat. He’s running up the stairs, and his own poisoned, desperate heartbeat is clamouring in his ears. Cas. Cas. He’s hurt, but damn, if the first thing Dean’s gonna do when he opens the door to that asshole isn’t gonna be kissing him hard and telling him, always, me, too. This whole time. How could you think that you weren’t worth that?

Up, by the door, and opening it, the hope freezes.

Lucifer.

Fuck.

He slams the door shut as quickly as he opens it, barely steadying out his breath, when Lucifer’s voice sounds from within the bunker.

Dean wasn’t fast enough.

“Wow, way to treat a pal.”

“No, you’re not our pal,” Sam glares at Lucifer, who has appeared down in the crow’s nest.

“Okay, be honest with me, please. Would you have let me in if I said it was really me?” He asks, smug, with the slight nasal pitch of his voice.

“You’re dead,” Dean shakes his head, looking down at him from the top of the stairs. Lucifer was meant to be dead. Cas was meant to be here.

“Uh, yeah, not so much,” he replies. “Um… after Pop nutted out and murdered, pretty much everyone in the world, the Empty booted me. With orders to find the missing God book and use it on Chuck,” Lucifer squints and shrugs. Dean makes his way down the stairs to stand beside Sam. “Uh, normally I’m not too good at following orders, as you guys know, but, uh—you do not wanna mess with the empty, man. Total B—especially after Jack blew up all over her, and she killed Death. I mean guys,” Lucifer laughs, walking round the table, “never a dull moment. But that’s the past,” he smiles obnoxiously. “What’s up?! We’re a team again, guys.”

“Oh, that is not happening,” Dean growls, beside his brother.

“Mm,” Lucifer presses his lips together sadly, “yeah. Alright, Dean, I didn’t wanna bring ants to your picnic, but that ain’t gonna cut it. I mean think about it—if the Empty pulled me off the bench, then it’s ‘cause the Winchester charm ain’t enough. Alright? And I didn’t anticipate a little bit of,” he gestures vaguely, “pushback. So I did bring a token of good faith…” He snaps his fingers. “Voila!”

A woman, gagged and bound, appears beside him.

“Who is she?” Dean asks. She looks afraid.

“Aw, this is Betty,” Lucifer says. “Betty… Betty, say hi.”

She turns to him angrily, still restrained, and her speech is muffled completely by the gag.

“No, no, no,” Lucifer says. “Say hi to the boys.” He laughs over at Dean, who glares. “Oh, did I mention, Betty is a Reaper.” They both blink at the Archangel. “I’m doing a fly-by, right?” He laughs. “Okay, I’ll say that again. Betty is a Reaper.”

“Yes, we heard you,” Sam bites. “So what?”

“Watch,” Lucifer replies—and then—and then takes an angel blade to Betty. White light shoots out of her. She dies, collapsing, and Lucifer just watches.

“Wow,” Dean barks, “really?! Great.”

“Oh, no, this is,” Lucifer gestures down to Betty’s lifeless body, “this is the first reaper to check out since Billy. Right? So,” he looks down at her, “wait for it, wait for it… And,” Betty startles into life again, body lurching. She sits up into a kneel. “Meet the new Death.”

She glares at Dean, who startles into life himself, and makes his way around the table toward her. He bends slowly and gently unties the rag in her mouth.

She sighs in relief as he pulls it away. Looking at her, her looking at him, he’s about to ask if she’s okay, but then fuck, a flash and jolt of red-white pain at his skull, and he’s staggering back. She pulls the chains off herself.

“Wow,” Lucifer says. Dick.

“You okay?” Sam asks. Dean sighs.

“Yeah,” he frowns over at Lucifer and the new Death, into whose hand appears a scythe.

“Wow, look at that,” Lucifer says, “she’s got the whole Death starter kit goin’, I mean with the Decoder Ring—isn’t that awesome?—and that,” he gestures up and down the blade, “whatever that is. Yeah. I’m good, right?”

“So, do you have it?” She asks. Dean blinks. “The book!” She sighs. “Hand over the book.” Dean glances at Sammy. “Wow,” she looks over at Lucifer. “Slower than they look.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay,” she turns back to Dean and Sam. “The end of God is in the special book. And if you give Betty the book, Betty can read it. Understand?”

Dean’s cranes his mind back to think if he’s ever met a member of Cas’s family he didn’t think was a patronising asshole.

But they take Betty to the book. She says she needs to look at it alone. When they come back to the library, Michael has discovered Lucifer in the bunker.

“Are you seriously thinking about trusting him?” Michael asks, pointing over to Lucifer.

“Uh,” Dean frowns, “I wouldn’t exactly say trust.”

“Mikey, Mikey, c’mon, man,” Lucifer says, making some obnoxious fake plea, “I get the bitterness. For all you did for the old man, you got no better from him than me.” Michael gives Lucifer a hard look at this. “The son voted Most Likely to Suck, and that Sucks.”

For an angel who hates humans so much, Lucifer sure does know how to deliver punches like one.

“I did what I did because it was the right thing to do—not to get his love.”

“That’s a good thing,” Lucifer nods distractedly, “’cause the man had no love to give. Not to you, not to me, not to…” he gestures to Dean and Sam, “humanity… You see that now, right?”

Michael stares, setting his jaw.

Betty coughing startles all of them.

“Asshats,” she greets.

“And?”

“And?” She raises her eyebrows. “It’s in here. All that you want. I know how God ends.”

“Wait a second,” Sam falters, “you’re sure about this—”

“Of course I’m sure,” she squints. “I’m Death.”

“You’ve been Death for an hour,” Dean points out.

She sighs at him, but doesn’t rise, and opens the book.

“Behold,” she reads, “in the end, there is the end of Him who created the beginning,”

“Fascinating,” Lucifer says, but as Betty continues reading, and thus it will be, Lucifer snaps his fingers and turns her into—turns her—disintegrates her. She turns into ash, and crumples, like Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt which collapses in on itself, and he summons the book across the library. It lands, open, in his hands. He presses its pages to his chest and pats its spine. “Yeah,” he sighs happily, “this is what pop wanted to get his hands on. Ooh,” he presses a hand innocently to his mouth, feigning shock. “Did I say that… out loud? Yeah,” he laughs, “Pop was the one who let me out of the empty. I’m sort of the… new favourite, now.”

Michael’s jaw is set, hard and heavy. Dean knows the look. He knows the hurt it hides.

“What did dad say about you?” Lucifer asks, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “Oh, yeah—Mikey’s a cuck!”

Michael’s eyes blaze.

When Dean and Sam lung towards him, Lucifer flicks his hand out, and both fly backwards, hitting the wall and a bookcase respectively.

Michael flashes across the room to Lucifer, but he bolts and appears at the other side of the library.

“Wow, you are really getting rusty at this, buddy,” Lucifer shakes his head sadly. “Bye,” and shoots a bolt of silvery light at him, and Michael flies back, hitting the ground. “So,” Lucifer smiles, turning to Jack, “Bu-uddy… You’re gonna have to make a decision, now. Uh, dump the losers,” he gestures to Sam and Dean, scrambling up, “and join gramps and me on the winning team,” he makes a small noise of applause. “Of course, this is the only way you’re getting out of here alive, ‘cause, you’re not strong enough to fight me now, so…” Jack closes his eyes. “Whattya say, kid, whattya say? C’mon.”

Jack’s jaw hardens.

But Michael has stood again, and shoots a ball of light at Lucifer. It hits—just—but Michael shoots another which misses completely. Or doesn’t: it flashes white and like lightning behind the cover of cloud, clarifies the outline of the wing it strikes, hard, and seems to fracture.

Lucifer stumbles out, but Michael shoots after him—all of them do: he has the book. At the top of the stairs, they spot him—Michael shoots another bolt, sparks shower down from above them—Dean shouts at Sam to duck, takes hold of Jack’s shoulders and forces the kid down, away from the line of fire. Jack is shuddering—with what—fear? Dean can’t blame him, but then, it’s not the first time Jack’s seen this kind of power—ordinarily he possesses it—so what’s got him like this? His temperature is soaring, it’s less like touching someone’s shoulders and more like touching a mug of boiling water. But Lucifer is out the bunker—Dean’s heart drops into his stomach.

Fuck. Was all this for nothing?

If Lucifer—if Chuck—gets Death’s book, then all of it—all this work, and pain, and Cas’s fucking sacrifice, was for nothing.

They bolt up the stairs—Dean, Sam, and Jack—but Michael is already there, and hot on Lucifer’s trail. Lucifer seems injured—two hits, neither square on target, and one more hitting his wing, are slowing him down. Michael is hurt, too.

They’re up, out of the bunker, and in the night air lances of light and grace are shot out, shot around.

“Jack, get inside,” Dean says, as Jack begins shuddering again. “Jack, get inside!” Dean says, louder this time—why the fuck is the kid ignoring him?! But Jack doesn’t seem able to hear. Is it—is it seeing his father locked in a fight to the death? Is that what’s doing this? But Dean thought he and Cas were Jack’s—

Lightning sparks down to earth as Michael’s fist connects with Lucifer’s jaw.

The book has gone flying, lies face-down among the grit and dampened dust. Michael has pulled an Archangel blade out, but neither seem concerned with it, this is a fight pulsing fury which will not be appeased by a quick death. Lucifer picks Michael up and fucking throws him forty, fifty, a hundred metres—his spine connects to a rock in the far distance with a sickening crunch which Dean, Sam, and Jack can all hear and wince at, even by the bunker door.

Lucifer turns to them and smirks.

“Well, boys,” he says, and Dean thinks to dart toward the book but again, Lucifer holds up a hand and Dean is thrown back against the wall of the bunker, head connecting to concrete. He groans sharply at the lurch of pain, vision white then red, as Lucifer takes a step toward Jack—no. Will Lucifer ask Jack to join him, a second time? Or just hurt him? And will Jack say yes?—This thought tastes bitter, kind and innocent Jack filled with a self-doubt and fear to parallel even Dean’s. And all this in a three year old.

Jack steps back, on instinct, Dean staggers forward and reaches out a hand to the kid’s arm, but it’s startlingly hot, now, and he pulls it back, his skin red and flowering in blisters.

But Dean barely has time to question this—Michael has picked up the boulder he was thrown onto, and hurled it at Lucifer. Dean only has time to push Jack away from this, and cover him, but by this point the kid is searing hot, still shuddering, and Dean wrenches his hand back as soon as he has time to process the whiteheat at his palm, clutching at his wrist and crying out, but the boulder has hit Lucifer square and there’s no time to think on Dean’s scorched flesh; the rock has split in two, the sky quakes in something flavoured red with catastrophe. Lucifer has collapsed beneath it and Michael paces, injured, forward, dodging the two bolts Lucifer sends his way.

Lightning rains down to the earth. Dean yells at Jack to get inside, but the kid doesn’t, won’t, can’t listen.

“I never wanted it to end like this. But I always had to fight you—it was destiny—” thunder crackles in Michael’s voice. In the sky above them, the sky has turned half a dark, furious blue, half a deep, resentful red. The two shades meet at loggerheads as Michael paces towards his brother, earth splintering beneath his feet.

“I thought you were over that bullshit Pop tried to hammer into us,” Lucifer smirks, but his split mouth can’t fit can’t fit around the gesture, he looks like a cracking vase unable to contain whatever fluid sits within. Michael swings another bolt of light at Lucifer and electricity singes the air. Lucifer rolls to avoid it, stands clumsily, aims one at Michael. Above them, the red of the sky lunges at the blue, and shadows dance like monsters in the thick of a nightmare. The blow hits Michael’s shoulder, the ground quakes at his cry of pain. Orange light is almost radiating off of Jack—the hell is happening?!

White fire bursts all around them; it lashes out of Michael’s eyes, and javelins of ice start raining down from the red of the sky.

“Jack!” Dean shouts, but the kid tremors too much to be able to hear it, “get inside! Sammy!” He turns to his brother, but Sam’s gaze is trauma-shot; he can’t register or hear anything, either.

Michael’s jaw sets; in spite of the hit, he doesn’t stop his approach. When he’s close enough, he swings a punch at Lucifer which knocks him back several feet, but Lucifer is ready again, and the earth around Michael quakes, and tremors, and some great rift forms between them as the ground itself splits.

Dean tries to shake his brother’s arm, to prompt him into action and retreat, but Sam looks young, younger than he has in years, and afraid. Dean thinks of Lucifer and the cage. Dean thinks of Jess on a burning ceiling.

“You’re not so different to him, you know,” Michael spits, something arterial in his voice. “Another obsessed bastard.” Dean blinks at the familiarity of the descriptor. The words are an open wound. They lob out plasma. “You always flattered yourself, that in your rebellion, you were proving yourself—setting yourself apart—”

Lucifer laughs. The sky rolls and cracks.

“It hurts, doesn’t it, Mikey,” he says, blood lobbing from his mouth. “You sound bitter. It hurts, doesn’t it?”

“What?”

“Knowing you’ll die unwept. I did, for millennia. You only just started wising up. I wonder which is worse—to live with that knowledge, or live an eternity denying it. And it only broke you, when you found out, didn’t it? How does it feel, Mikey? An eternity, sitting in your own darkness. How does that feel?”

Michael’s jaw hardens. They stare. The sky rolls and shudders above them. The line where red and blue meet intensifies, fizzes, stills.

“Catastrophic,” he answers, and surprises Dean with the fact he answers, seems to surprise Lucifer with the fact he answers, perhaps even surprises himself. “Unredeemed,” he continues. “Doomed.”

Catastrophic.

Unredeemed.

Doomed.

Now that’s a familiar song.

Lucifer laughs for a single, sad, beat.

“I’ll bet.” His lip curls. “You beat me down. Called me freak. All because I had a mind of my own. What now?”

Michael looks at him heavily.

“No one has a mind of their own.”

And he lunges forward, off the separated pillar of earth, to Lucifer. He hits him with a crack and bolt of lighting—the white fire surges and flashes and the javelins of ice raining from the sky glance off their bodies. Michael aims a punch to a pinned Lucifer which cracks them into the earth but somehow leaves Lucifer barely scathed.

Lucifer lunges back, kicks and Michael is flung upward, disappearing into the low cloud. Dean looks up in wonder and terror. Lucifer stands, unsteadily—each time he stumbles, the ground shudders. It’s a good thirty seconds before Michael lands again, hitting the earth about a half-mile in the distance, kicking up a dust storm which blusters about. Lucifer turns to them, his staggering steps like the jarring motions of a mind caught in nightmare.

But Michael half flies, half crashes, about ten metres from Lucifer.

“Give it up, Mikey,” Lucifer snarls. “You haven’t got it in you! You could’ve killed me. You haven’t. You’re not what daddy thought you were. Hurts, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe,” Michael admits. Lucifer ignores him. He’s about ten metres from Sam. He turns to him with a smile.

“Pop’s given me special orders not to kill you and your bro,” he sighs, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a little fun. Whattaya say, Sammy? For old time’s sake?”

Sam blinks. Lucifer is too close, now—Dean tries to jump to Sam’s defence, but Lucifer, again, throws him back with no more than a gesture. Michael’s face darkens.

“I said I couldn’t kill you,” he calls to his brother. The Archangel blade is still in his hand. But only for a second. He throws it to Sam, who lurches into reality, catching it. Lucifer only has time to blink. It’s driven into Lucifer’s chest before he has time to react, to recoil, to respond in kind.

Sam removes the blade, gasping, shocked, and Lucifer stumbles, staggers, still upright on a now uneven earth, on now unsteady legs. His mouth hangs open. He stares at Sam. Then at Michael.

And then beams of Orange-white light shoot out from his mouth and eyes and the knife wound Sam has struck in him—and Jack nearly collapses, and Dean reaches out to help the kid, but even holding his hands near Jack is like touching an open flame.

Lucifer explodes in ash and ember.

The air around them is dark and hot and electric.

All of them stand, dumbly.

Michael looks up, over to Sam.

“Thanks for the blade,” he says, flat with disbelief. Sam nods in acknowledgement.

“Thanks for throwin’ it back to me.”

He’s shocked. They’re all shocked.

Dean looks back at Jack.

He’s steadied out but damn if he looks terrified—and Dean’s palms are still singed by the fury of whatever it was that happened to Jack, just then. He can’t flex them without the burns threatening to rip; skin turned paper thin and petal delicate, like his palms are made of the red skin of poppies.

They re-enter the bunker, Dean grimly half-expecting it to be collapsed in on itself what with the fissure Lucifer created on the earth outside, and the ground shaking and lightning flashing each time either angel exchanged so much as a hit.

Luckily, it’s standing—Men of Letters, if nothing else, don’t scrimp on quality—but the lights are out, half the bulbs are blown, and the other half do nothing when Dean knocks the switches back and forth.

“Great,” Dean grumbles, flicking at the switches, to no avail. “Power’s blown out. Wonder whose fault that is.”

Michael rolls his eyes and limps past him.

“Yeah, that’s mature,” Dean mutters. “How many millennia old are you, again?”

“Dude,” Sam sighs. He’s got his phone torch on. Dean turns to him.

“We got candles?” He asks.

“Sure. Usually we don’t use them for light, but…”

“Hey, it’ll be nice to use them for something other than friggin’ summoning spells.”

Sam huffs in agreement.

“You okay, kid?” Dean asks a still jittery Jack, who wanders past them.

“I’m going to bed,” Jack says shortly.

“Okay,” Dean frowns, “but are you okay?”

Jack ignores him.

“Hey!” Dean calls after him.

“Dude,” Sam says, pressing a hand to Dean’s arm. “Let him be. He just watched—”

“Lucifer was not his father,” Dean hisses under his breath. Not when he and Cas were—not when Cas was—not after everything. Not where it counted. He knows he’s been unsteady, wavering with the kid, flickering about like a flame in the wind, but… He regains himself. “And I don’t think it was about that. Out there—during the fight—and when Lucifer died—”

Dean cuts himself off when Jack appears at the door again, walking through toward the galley.

“Look,” Dean holds up his palms to Sam. With Sam’s phone torchlight on them, they look worse than they did outside, a fracture of angry skin blooming into white and red knots. Sam hisses.

“What…”

“That’s what I wanna know,” Dean shakes his head.

He washes the burns and puts a little petroleum jelly on them, on Sam’s insistence. He heads into the kitchen for some beer to wash down his aspirin. He doesn’t tell Sam that this is what he’s gonna wash it down with.

But in the kitchen, Michael sits at the table, head tilted down. He’s troubled, his brow burrows down and carves into the rest of his features.

“How you doin’, you okay?” Dean asks, heading over to the fridge to pull out a beer.

“A bit winded,” Michael answers as Dean does so. “I haven’t been in a battle like that for… several centuries.”

Dean closes the refrigerator door and moves to sit opposite the Archangel.

“Yeah, well,” he opens his beer, “glad you were here. Chuck’s gettin’ desperate—he knows something’s up. Wouldn’t take the chance of showin’ up himself.”

“Yes,” Michael says softly, voice frayed with responsible worry and hurt. “He sent Lucifer. Brought him back from the dead… He didn’t even reach out to me.”

Michael’s gaze is away, on some middle-distant point to Dean’s right.

“Did you want him to?” Dean asks, peering steadily at Michael with a frown. Michael’s gaze snaps back over to Dean and he replies, quickly.

“Of course not,” his eyes almost seem to blaze that angelic silver-blue, at this. But no—now, he seems more human than ever. This ferocity—it’s humanising. Shame flickers at his features, then self-consciousness. “I mean, he clearly knows, the God Book could be lethal to him. But it’s actually fairly useless without Death to read it.”

“Yeah, well,” Dean sighs. “At least we took Lucifer out.” Michael looks at Dean. Dean continues. “Sam taking him down… seems kinda poetic, after everythin’.”

“I didn’t have it in me,” Michae says, troubled.

“Well, that hardly matters, now. All it means is that we’re one step closer to the end,” Dean answers. “And by that I mean, The End.”

Michael looks down.

“I doubt that I’ll survive this, Dean,” he admits, and Dean falters, frowning. “’The End’ might be my end, too.”

“What do you mean?” Dean watches the Archangel steadily.

“The road behind me is… battered. I cannot return down it. The one ahead is… misted.”

“Uh-huh,” Dean continues frowning, still not understanding.

“My father doesn’t… didn’t love me.” He looks up. “I’ll admit—I still—I still—”

“I get it,” Dean says. He thinks of John. He thinks of welts on his back. He thinks of lying about them to whoever might ask, even when one of his schools dragged in a motherfucking social worker to talk to him. It was fine, they left town a day after that anyways, new lead to follow and all that usual crap. Still, even now, Dean hasn’t uprooted all the thorned vines his upbringing—his dad—left knotted and choking at his own heart.

“And yet you still trust me,” Michael looks up at him. Dean presses his mouth together. “You shouldn’t,” the Archangel shakes his head. His look is more heavy, more troubled, even than usual. “I considered… there was a moment where I considered, back there…”

“I get it,” Dean says again. Silence. Michael’s lip almost, almost, turns down. His eyes wash with sorrow. “But why do you think you’re not gonna make it?”

“What is ahead is… very dim. I cannot return to what is behind. My father doesn’t love me, perhaps could never. I was his… tin soldier, his…”

“Blunt instrument,” Dean says for him. Michael looks at him.

“…Yes,” he replies, and his throat tightens with the word. “I cannot return to what was, with him. Though I want to. Does it worry you to hear that?”

For the third time, Dean answers, “I get it.”

“He expects me to betray you,” Michael says, and gives Dean a firm, purposeful look. “You know that, I suppose?”

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

“That’s why he sent Lucifer. Either way, he believed he’d come out of it with a loyal son.”

“Lucifer was never loyal,” Dean rolls his eyes. “Just… opportunistic.”

“In my blind loyalty, I was nearly opportunistic, too.”

“I guess…” Dean admits, uneasily.

“But if God expects me to be unfaithful to the new corridors of my heart, perhaps,” Michael’s brow is knotted, concerned, thoughtful, intense as ever, “we ought to give him what he wants.”

“Right,” Dean says. Still now, free will, choice, the crack of Cas’s chassis and all that strange, soft viscera which means untrodden paths seems… unreachable. Is this a trap? In itself? Feathers of doubt trace at the skin of his heart. Cas was the only one of any of them who could live authentically, say and mean the song of his own heart—and look where it got him. No Cas here to guide them down the paths of choice. Right and wrong was always such a knotted riddle to Cas and, acting according to the lines of his broken heart, whether he did right or wrong, he always did it meaning such good. How did he achieve that?

No Cas. No Cas to glance over to, when fret gets a vice-grip on Dean’s lungs and chokes, no Cas to give him a steady, soft, quiet and concerned look back which drains the water out Dean’s lungs and sets his feet on steady ground again. No Cas to offer small sarcastic comments Dean loves to bite back at, but late at night think on and think about while a pierced red heat rolls quickly through him. No Cas to tease with references he’ll never get, no Cas to bore with movies he only watches because… because…

“Do you see what I’m suggesting?” Michael asks. Dean draws back to himself, staggering in a breath. Michael pretends not to notice the sting of tears at Dean’s eyes.

“You mean a trap,” Dean answers, around the bloodclot of his own heart.

“I mean a trap.”

 

*

 

They set up beside the waters of a bluegreen sheet of a lake: three bowls, one silver, one pewter, one gold.

Peaks crest up from every far off bank, covered in blankets of green forest. Jack watches them uneasily. He’s been quiet. Quiet since Cas died. Quiet and troubled since Lucifer died. Is it grief? Is it something else?

“Let’s light it up,” Dean says. Sam drops a match into the golden bowl, and whiteblue flames shoot up immediately, pillaring up to the sky in three sharp beams. All of them start back, but after an instant, the bowls are blown away from each other, toppling outwards.

Behind Michael, Chuck stands.

So, he really was expecting Michael to betray him. And Michael looks afraid with the veil of performance he must now wear. What matters is that he does wear it. Dean thinks to give him a steeling, steadfast look—the kind of look Cas would give—but with no more than a flicked out gesture, Chuck has brushed Sam and Dean backward as if they were no more than air.

He does the same to Jack when Jack makes to lunge at him.

“Father,” Michael says. His voice wavers.

“Son,” Chuck replies. He keeps Jack, Sam and Dean all pinned down—none of them can get up, no matter their struggle. “And listen, I appreciate the heads up about… All this.” He walks steadily forward.

“It’s always been my destiny to serve you,” Michael answers. His voice wavers. Dean wills him to keep up the performance, at least until him and Sam can—

“Yeah,” Chuck says, unimpressed, “the thing is, it’s kinda late in the game. And you did side with the Winchesters. I can’t forgive that.”

Dean still can’t get up. He remembers what Michael told him, and told him it would be okay—but if it’s true, if, in all of this, Michael really is just another sacrifice, another tool to be used until its breaking point, then what does that make Dean? Dean, whose life Chuck has carved himself to match that of the Archangel?

Michael glances back at Dean.

Dean shakes his head, as much as he can under the force of Chuck holding him into the grit and dust, but Michael’s jaw sets. He turns back to his dad.

“I have had my lapses of judgement, I admit,” he says. The sun hits his eyes so that they sting and shine. This is—this is another sacrifice: Dean knows this look, has worn this look, has seen this look on the damned face of everyone he has cared about. “But I know who I am loyal to, now.”

“Save it!” Chuck shouts.

Eyes flashing, he holds out a hand to Michael, whose body lurches. Dean shouts out and realises that even in doing this, he might ruin everything, might cause Chuck to falter and realise that something is wrong. But Chuck is too caught up in the fury and seduction of his own ability to birth death, to raise demise.

His hand wavers with the force cracking Michael apart.

Cold fragments of life lance and splinter out of Michael’s frame. But Michael holds out a hand to tries to do the same to him. Shards of light needle at Chuck’s skin as Michael tries to flake away the flesh to damn the God within. His eyes shine bright, like the crack of ice in sunlight. Jack begins to shudder, shudder even under the weight of Chuck crushing all of them into the dust—but the weight is wavering with the force of splintering an Archangel from existence.

“Trying to get back at me, huh, kid?” Chuck laughs, needles of light poking from his frame. He’s stronger than Michael by a mile. Michael doesn’t stand a chance but is—even in his final seconds—trying to give Jack more than a fighting one.

Jack’s eyes flash a heated orange to stay the cold knives of light gleaming from Michael’s fraying vessel, fraying by the second. It’s like watching a star collapse in on itself. Inward and outward force. He smokes and cinders and burns hot ice before, in a moment’s moment, after the agony of seeing oblivion open its arms, he’s wrenched into ash. A bright flash of that divine, angelic, silverblue light thrusts out on every side, launching the sheet of the lake into waves, billowing at the trees from their very trunks, which seem like poppy stems in the wind. Thunder seems to roar around them in applause but there are no clouds about to cause it. And Michael is gone. Another one, gone.

Finally, Sam and Dean are released, able to scramble up.

Dean almost shivers with what they’ve just witnessed.

“And you two,” Chuck turns to them. “You know, eternal suffering sounds good on paper, but as a viewing experience it’s just kinda…” He grimaces. “So, we’re done. I’m cancelling your show. But first,” he turns to Jack. How about we kill off the minor characters?” Dean lunges forward, heart hammering even at the thought, but Chuck turns and swing a punch at him that collapses his cheek inward. “And you’re gonna watch,” he spits at Dean, before swinging at Sam when he tries to stop him. He holds them both down again with nothing more than thought but still feels the need, apparently, to God-stomp Dean’s legs and shatter them. “Now this,” Chuck smiles, “this is my favourite scene.”

“Nah,” Dean barely manages to shake his head. He thinks his jaw is hanging off its hinges. “I think it’s kinda contrived.”

The words are slurred out. It still earns him a kick to the face. But it gives his kid time. Dean spits out blood into the sand. But as he does, he finds himself able to lift his body off of it—only a few inches, on account of his broken legs—but Sam is sitting, mopping at the blood pouring from his nose

Jack is stood a matter of feet away. Chuck turns to him slowly.

“Hey, Jack,” he says. Jack’s brow is heavy. “What’s the problem, kid?”

Jack takes a step forward.

Chuck reaches out a hand, as if to stay him, but Jack is closer. It doesn’t work. Chuck seems to realise this—in a panicked gesture, he holds out his fingers and snaps, but nothing. He snaps again—nothing. Jack takes another step forward as Chuck’s panic turns feverish. Jack starts glowing again, a fire of feeling, eyes ablaze, and with his veins and vessels literally embering, holds his hands to either side of Chuck’s skull. And it’s some strange, awful, divine thing to see God himself tremor and tremble.

Stranger still that the sky doesn’t darken, the trees continue upright, the lake stays vast and flat: the absurdity of the world, sustained without God, is the mirror of the senselessness of Dean’s world continuing after Cas left. The senselessness of sanity after loss.

Fire-like veins clench around the sinews of Chuck’s body. He seems to fracture like Michael did, but this is a new fracturing, too; a different kind of break. An axe to the rulebook of damage.

Chuck collapses. The embers still smoke across Jack’s veins and spark along his arteries.

Eyes two suns, he turns to Sam and Dean. Dean’s vision is fading, there’s a lot of blood on the sand beneath him. He remembers the feeling of Cas’s grace twisting bright warm electric coils around him, the taste and spice of whisky at the back of your throat, when he would press a hand to Dean and heal him. Yes, yes, Dean longed for that, longs for it still. Worries he would see the stars fall if only to feel Cas’s touch upon him, knitting up the sinews of his flesh and tacking his bones back together, forging them within him like they’re only iron and he their blacksmith.

But gone is that touch. Gone is the blacksmith of Dean’s soul.

Jack snaps, and Dean and Sam are healed. Dean blinks, stunned. His heart is still a hammer on the nail of his chest.

But he gets up, shakily, blinking at the sand. His blood covers it, but his wounds are gone. Looking back on the memory of trauma is like this.

They approach—Sam bends to pick up the discarded God Book.

Chuck, in the sand, stammers his next words out.

“Wh—what’d you do?”

Dean stands over him. He looks down.

Cas paced the caverns of Dean’s spirit and still was not repulsed. Saw in it something worth mending, each and every time. Saw in it something worth staying for and then, in the end, leaving for, if only in the hope that Dean could stay. How could Dean be worth all that? He has to try.

“We won,” he says. Jack moves beside Dean. Sam approaches, too, God Book open in hand.

“So this is how it ends,” Chuck looks up at them. “My book?”

“See for yourself,” Sam tosses it down to him. The sun gleams across its pages before it lands, blank, in the long stretch of their shadows.

“There’s nothing there,” Chuck fumbles through the pages.

“No, there is,” Sam shakes his head. “Only Death could read it.”

“That’s right. So we had to come up with a plan B. That wasn’t too hard, though. Your golden boy wasn’t what you thought he was. Maybe he learnt a thing or two from Cas.”

“What?”

“Sure is hard when they fly the nest, huh?”

“But he—”

“He lied, to you, for us. Maybe he found something new to love. Maybe he found something worth his loyalty.”

“This was a trap.”

“And you walked into it. Maybe Mike didn’t deserve all the crap you put on him.”

“But Jack—”

“After that cosmic bomb, he turned into a kind of power vacuum. I thought it was grief, at first. Grief for his real dad. So when Lucifer showed up to duke it out—that charged him right up.”

“You killed your own son for his loyalty to you.”

“But it turns out he sacrificed himself out of loyalty to us.”

“Not you,” Chuck squints, “he couldn’t stand you.”

“Fine. But not loyalty to you, either. And when you killed him, that released all kinds of power. God-power.”

“Jack absorbed it all,” Sam says.

“Made my boy unstoppable,” Dean’s voice frays with warmth.

Chuck begins to laugh.

“That—this—this is why you’re my favourites,” he says. “For the first time, I have no idea what happens, next. Is this where you kill me?” He looks uncertainly from Sam to Dean. “I mean, I could never think of an ending where I lose.” Silence. Dean looks down at him. He can’t find the words, or the thought to construct them. Yes, he’s lost everything. No, this doesn’t leave him with nothing. His tongue is a white and burning flag. “But this—after everything that I’ve done to you,” He looks over to Sam, “to die at the hands of Sam Winchester,” over to Dean, “of Dean Winchester,” Dean holds his gaze. Chuck holds his. Both awe and ice creep across the blazed blue of his eyes. “The ultimate killer,” he says. Dean looks away as Chuck laughs breathlessly. “It’s kind of glorious,” he says.

Dean looks back to him. Approaches slowly. Chuck cowers on the ground, and there’s some strange revulsion in the sight of God curled in the dust like a newborn. Pity and disgust coil through Dean, but pity wins out.

He gestures to Sam and Jack. They walk past Chuck, cowering in the sand, toward the Impala.

“What—what?!” Chuck looks up, over to them. Dean turns, face, voice, heart, heavy.

“See, that’s not who I am,” he says. “That’s not who we are.”

“What kind of an ending is this?!” Chuck spits, and Dean agrees. It’s anticlimactic as hell. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But sometimes you have to live with the loss.

“His power,” Sam says softly to Jack, “you’re sure it won’t come back?”

“It’s not his power anymore,” Jack answers. He sounds older than usual.

“Then I think it’s the ending where you’re just like us,” Sam says, looking back down at Chuck. “And like all the other humans you forgot about.”

“It’s the ending where you grow old, you get sick, and you just die.”

Isn’t that the ending everyone deserves?

Chuck’s lips trembles.

They turn and leave.

He calls after them as Dean starts up the car.

The sound of God’s pleas for them to remain catch on the wind even as Dean drives away. Dust and sand are kicked up by the wheels. Dean breathes it in on purpose.

They drive back toward civilisation. The road is long as life.

Stopping the car, they get out, and Dean turns to Jack.

“Alright, kid,” he says. “You really think you can pulls this off?”

Jack looks pretty calm about it. This sure isn’t a usual parenting experience. Most other dads of three-year-olds would be watching them—damn, try to tackle the big climbing frame in their local park? Trust them to use paints and not try to eat them, for the first time?

Jack closes his eyes and smiles.

And in an instant… they’re all back. Like the sun appearing from behind a cloud. Jack has reversed the damage caused by their sudden disappearance—no more cars smashed and mangled together on the road, planes lifted from the ground and undented in their projection up into the sky. Even the plates dropped as they were carried through restaurants the moment Chuck decided to vanish every living thing in the world are miraculously un-smashed, back in hands, stacked to be washed or handed, full of food, to hungry customers.

Conversations bubble and glimmer around them. The sun is a bright promise of life and tomorrow in the sky.

Miracle comes bounding over. Jack flashes a smile to Dean. Dean beams.

“Way to go,” he smiles. “I mean it. Way to go.”

“So,” Sam says, “does this mean you’re the new—I mean—what do we call you?”

“Who cares what we call him?” Dean asks, looking around in wonder. Everyone is back. Everyone is back. Which means—his heart takes flight within the cold bars of his chest. “Look all that matters is, he got us back online.”

Jack smiles modestly.

“Hey, what happened to Amara?” Sam asks. “When Chuck…”

“She’s with me,” Jack answers. “We’re in harmony.”

“You gonna come back with us to the bunker?” Sam asks. Dumb fucking question.

“Whattya mean?” Dean frowns, “of course he’s gonna come back to the bunker. He’s the man with the plan, he’s top dog, he can do whatever he wants, now!” Which includes, Dean allows his heart to sing at the thought, bringing Cas back. He turns, beckoning them back towards the car. “C’mon, we’ll spruce the place up, we’ll get some recliners, we’ll get you one of those big screen TVs.” He grins back to Jack. Two recliners side by side—one for Dean, one for Cas. Maybe they’ll reach out into the space between the chairs as they sit, and hold hands, late into the evening.

“Dean, I’m not coming back home,” Jack says, and Dean’s heart is snatched from flight. He stops short. “In a way, I’m already there.”

“Where?” Dean asks. It comes out hard and rude and defensive.

“Everywhere,” Jack answers. Dean doesn’t get it.

“So you are… Him,” Sam says. Dean steps slowly back toward Jack.

“I’m me,” Jack answers earnestly, innocently. He shrugs with the answer, frank and gentle. “But… I know what you mean.”

“Well, if we want to see you—y’know, have a beer, or whatever—”

“I’m around,” Jack smiles. Dean can’t speak. Dean can barely think. This isn’t fair. “I’ll be in… every drop of falling rain. Every speck of dust that the wind blows. And in the sand, in the rocks, and the sea.”

What kind of bullshit?

And what about Cas?

“Well, it’s a hell of a time to bail,” Dean glares. “There’re a lot of people counting on you, people with questions—they’re gonna need answers.”

Dean has questions. Dean needs answers.

“And those answers will be in each of them,” Jack answers. “Maybe not today,” he admits, though he still smiles, “but… someday.” He looks around them. “People don’t need to pray to me, or to sacrifice to me. They just need to know that… I’m already a part of them, and to trust in that.”

Dean frowns at the ground. It sounds like a load of New Age crap. He wants the kid back home. He wants the kid back home with Cas—so they can be a real family—Jack can go to school and learn about the world he’s saved so many times, Dean can get a job and get out of this game and start living, start looking forward to the weekend where he can play ball with Jack or help him with his homework, Cas can learn how to cook from Dean and Dean can hook his chin over Cas’s shoulder while the angel stands over the stove, frying bacon. Dean can wrap his arms round Cas’s waist and press kisses to his cheek and watch the way it slings a smile at Cas’s pale lips, Dean can bury his face in Cas’s warm neck and know that yes, Cas wants this too—and maybe these are ridiculous and far-fetched dreams but Dean is having them again, isn’t that what matters? Isn’t the dreaming the important thing, the pulse of life which keeps hope pushing through the arteries of existence?

“I won’t be hands-on,” Jack says, softly. “Chuck put himself in the story. That was his mistake.” Yeah, but doesn’t Jack see? Chuck wrote the story. Jack never had any say if he was in it, or not. What, so now characters are allowed to walk clean out of books, leave the remnants of their pages blank? Fuck, no. This isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair on Dean or on Cas, on everything he gave and thought he was giving when he sacrificed himself—“But, I learned from you, and my mother, and Castiel,” his face turns sad for a moment, “that when people have to be their best, they can be.”

He looks over to Dean. Dean’s eyes sting, he hangs his head. He’s angry. He’s hurt. Another person is leaving him. And Dean has to be strong and kind about it because damn, if Jack isn’t being strong and kind about it, himself. He wants to yell but you’re a kid! You’re only a kid! Can’t they survive in heaven without you—at least until you turn eighteen?! But only a small part of it is care for Jack. Is this how parents feel, when their kid is leaving home? Like all their love for their child has been, so far, entirely selfish?

“And that’s what to believe in,” Jack says, nodding to himself. “Well,” he smiles softly, sadly to them both, “I’m really as close as this,” he presses a hand to his heart. And Dean presses his lips together. Jack raises his same hand in the simplest, sweetest gesture. A gesture of—“Goodbye,” he smiles. And they watch him turn, and walk, and fade, away.

“See ya, Jack,” Sam says, in his wake. Dean says nothing. His mouth is a knot.

So this is Jack’s final message to them. Build well.

They return to the bunker and Dean—what can he say?—He runs in, ahead of Sam, ahead of Miracle, who they’ve taken with them. He runs through the crow’s nest, the library—no Cas, but that’s okay, he’ll be here somewhere—but he isn’t, he isn’t, he isn’t. His feet hammer at the floor like a pulse—down, down to the dungeon because—because that was where he saw Cas last, that was where Cas was taken. If Cas was to return, it’d be here, right?

The room is empty.

Cas’s blood is still on the door. Dean’s insides curdle at the sight.

He stares at the wall which the Empty appeared at.

Sam appears at the door. Miracle is right behind him.

“Dean,” he frowns softly. “What’re you—what’re you doing here?”

Dean looks up and over at him.

Where does the sea go, without the tide to tether it to the earth? To keep its motions, circular as the seasons?

“He—he should be back,” Dean says, and is surprised that he even says it. “He should be back.”

Sam falters.

“Maybe he—maybe he went out looking for us.”

He has his phone in-hand.

Dean looks at it.

“Eileen just called,” Sam says, and silver twists across his eyes to turn them glassy with relief.

“She’s—she’s back?”

“Yeah,” Sam nods, mouth loose with a smile Dean knows, has felt clinging to his features every time he’s thought Cas dead and seen him alive. “She’s okay. They’re all okay. Jack brought them back.”

But not Cas.

Did—did Jack forget? Choose not to?

“Dude, are you okay?” Sam asks, ducking his head to meet Dean’s gaze, obviously catching the worried tremor of his thoughts.

“Yeah,” Dean nods.

“He’s—he’s gonna be fine,” Sam reassures. “Jack’s probably just catching him up on what happened.”

“Right,” Dean frets. “But if Jack…” He looks up at Sam. “Who’s he gonna choose?” He asks. Sam frowns, not understanding. “Cas,” Dean clarifies. “Jack says he’s not coming back. So—so who’s Cas gonna choose?”

Sam presses his lips together a moment.

“It’s not gonna come to that,” Sam shakes his head. “Cas is an angel, remember? It won’t be like it is for us, for him.”

“Right,” Dean looks down. He wonders, not for the first time, if Sam knows. If he can tell. “So,” he looks back up, steeling himself, “Eileen.”

“Right,” Sam slips back into his smile. “I’m going to—I’m gonna drive to her, pick her up, now.”  He seeps with relief and—jealousy pinches at Dean to see—excitement.

“What’re you… are you gonna do anything? Something nice?”

“I don’t know,” Sam shakes his head. “I guess we’ll figure it out.” His features twist, concerned. “Unless—you need me to stay?”

“Nah,” Dean waves a hand dismissively. “You go—go get ‘em, tiger. Tell Eileen I’m glad she’s safe. Send her my love.”

Sam flashes a smile. Dean turns back to the wall. At the sound of Sam’s retreating steps, Dean moves across the room to sit cross-legged on the floor. He stares at the wall all night, waiting for it to open, for Cas to appear at it again. It doesn’t. He doesn’t.

He wakes in the afternoon the next day. Miracle has found him, sniffs at his face, wagging his tail. Dean reaches out a weary hand to ruffle at the dog’s fur. He watched the wall all through the night, but around 6AM his body must’ve given in. He passed out on the floor. He wonders when it is he’s gonna be able to sleep in a bed again. How would it have felt, to share a bed with Cas? Arms bound around the warm frames of each other’s bodies, breath sweet and hot on skin, noses grazing necks, words whispered like prayer in the air between them… Different, worlds removed, from waking up on the cold floor, body cramping from the hard surface, neck cricked, heart heavy as ever. Sometimes grief is like dread. He retains this dim sense of anxiety, irrepressible, that something’s about to go wrong—but something already has gone wrong, Cas is gone—and so the feeling will stick forever.

He gets up, slowly, from the floor, groaning quietly at the pain. His mouth is turned down, face heavy. He tries to shut his heart, close it to the world. Even as he approaches the wall, runs a hand over the roughened bricks. He remembers the insult of the sanity of it all: that the room didn’t collapse around him when Cas left.

“Where are you, man?” He asks, eyes stung. “Why haven’t you come back?”

He breathes in deep a moment, mouth closed, hand trembling at the wall, before he balls it into a fist. Anger rises within him at the silent sting of the room. It’s like the place mocks him with the heavy hanging of quiet.

“Where are you?!” He asks, loud. “Where are you! Where the hell are you!”

He’s punched the wall with his balled fist. He keeps it there, pressed up against the wall, presses his forehead up against it, too, hissing and breathing through the pain. His tears are hot on his face. When he wrenches himself from the wall, from the room, he realises he’s broken several of his fingers.

Eileen sits in the kitchen, smiling at Sam over a pile of pancakes they’re both sharing.

“Dean,” Sam turns, surprised. “You weren’t in your room—I thought you’d gone out.”

“Nope,” Dean frowns. He heads to the fridge, pulls out a beer.

“Dude—” Sam frowns at the sight of Dean’s crumpled, bleeding knuckles on the handle. “What the hell happened to your hand?”

“Nothin’,” Dean’s lip curls. “Accident.”

He leaves quickly with his beer, before Sam or Eileen are able to see that his eyes have started bleeding tears. His heartbeat is the sound of love’s funeral march.

He goes to his room, blasts music, drinks his crate of beers. He hasn’t eaten in—shit, he’s can’t even remember… More that twenty-four hours, judging by the angry noise his stomach makes, but at least the beer will fill him up… probably.

He picks up the bottle of scotch he stashes under his bed for nights when his head is too much of a clamour for sleep, or nights when he wakes, startled by nightmares. The nights when Cas was near… these were the nights his mind would still in sleep, not trill over guilt and shame, not toll over and over the memories of hell, of horror, of the skull beneath the skin…

He takes a long swig. The burn is good, purifying.

Where would Cas have liked to be kissed? Beneath his jaw? Dean has longed to trace it, first with the pad of his thumb, then with his lips, then with his tongue. He takes another swig. Or maybe on his forehead, while they watched TV together, as Dean got up to grab them some more snacks? Would Cas close his eyes as a ghost-smile danced at his features, leaning forward to the press of Dean’s lips? His throat is tight as he takes another swig. Maybe, he thinks, mouth playing upwards in a clumsy, absent smile, Cas would like warm, sweet kisses brushed against his neck. Maybe he’d laugh distractedly at the soft, vaguely ticklish sensation, fingers threading through Dean’s hair. Dean would like that. He’d like all of it.

Another swig.

Dean is stabbed with longing.

Sometimes, when Dean got drunk in the past, he would let himself think this way, the thoughts of desperate want pressing off the corners of his skull and making his mind reel. Love and longing for Cas… Yes, it always made his head spin. He’s languishing in love and loss.

He curls over the corner of his bed, plants his feet on the ground, hands tight around his bottle. He prays because—well—what else is there to do?

Another swig before he starts.

Cas.

Dammit Cas, come back.

I know I’m being paranoid. I know it’s only been a day. But—come back and visit, just to let me know. That you’re okay. That’s—it’s all I can think about, Cas. I want you safe. I want you here. Don’t ignore me. Please don’t ignore me.

Another swig. He winces and sighs at the sting it sets down his throat, smouldering the furnace in his stomach.

Cas. Asshole. Listen to me. I’m talkin’ to you. Where are you? What, you turned chicken? You think it’s cool to offload all that shit and then jump ship? Yeah, well, that’s not how you should do things, that’s not how we do things. Not anymore. I wanna talk to you. Give me a sign. Show me you’re listening. Something.

Anything?

Please.

Another swig. He’s crying, tears making two hot trails on his face. He hadn’t even realised. No answer from Cas. What about his kid?

Jack. Buddy. It’s Dean.

I know you said we’d find the answers inside us. But how am I meant to do that? Mine isn’t a question—this isn’t a question. I need Cas back. You know—you know what it’s like, missing him. Don’t I deserve a shot at happiness, too?

He did all of it, for us. He deserves to be happy. Happiness. I think—I think I could—I think I could be the one to give it to him.

Another swig.

He must pass out.

He wakes up to Sam bitching at him about how he needs to get his hand looked at.

He glances down at the blood on it.

Blood—blood—through the brainfog of a hangover, he thinks—blood. That was what Nick needed, from Jack, to bring Lucifer back from the Empty. And Dean has Cas’s blood, on the door he warded, warded with his blood, his blood, to keep Billie at bay.

Dean can get him back. God, why did it take him so long to figure it out? Hopefully Cas won’t be annoyed at Dean for being such a dumb sonofabitch—he got there eventually, that’s what matters, right? And he’ll get there, eventually.

But fuck—he’ll need a vessel, won’t he?

What does that matter? Dean could be the vessel for him—Dean would happily—Adam and Michael managed just fine, didn’t they?

He pushes past Sam, who’s still talking at him, and paces down to the room where the world ended.

Yes—there it is, on the wall. What else does he need? What else did Nick use?

He races through the bunker. Sam gives up on bugging him, asking what’s wrong. Dean pulls out piles of books and racks his brain for anything Jack might’ve said he saw in the cabin.

It takes days. Days of drinking and unanswered prayer. Dean’s head is a fog and Sam won’t stop asking annoying fucking questions. Dean hates it, hates life, needs Cas back. What’s the purpose of anything, if he can’t enjoy it with Cas?

Sam’s out, on another date with Eileen, when Dean sets up for the spell. It’s better this way: Sam might try to stop him, otherwise.

He thinks he’s got everything, now. Salt ring. Bowl. He does it down in the last room he saw Cas in, because—it’s appropriate, right? When he sees Cas, he can tell him that it all, all of it, was requited, returned, a thousand times over. And then he can offer himself up, a sacrifice for Cas’s sacrifice, live with him, be with him, forever. Sure, it’s impulsive, sure, it’s a big jump to go from best friends to romantic body-roommates—but Dean’s always been impulsive, always been able to ride the high of his gut reactions and intuition to bring about the best result. It’s when he overthinks that things get messy. It’s why he’s not good for anything, except hunting.

His blood. He draws a knife across his palm, waits for the drops of blood at his hand to swell, crimson, before dropping down into the bowl below. Next, Cas’s blood, scraped from the wall. It’ll still work if it’s dry, right? His heart rings like a bell in his throat. His breath is staggered. He’s not good with spells. Sammy always was. But he can do this—has to do this.

He begins the recitation.

Tu qui dormiunt, ad dominum formosum. Nexus noster, restitutus est. Surgas ex abysso, in lumine existas!

His heart clamours, his breath scrapes his lungs raw.

He waits.

He blinks.

He—he waits.

What—is—did he miss something? Did he miss something out?

His hands start to tremble. He hasn’t been eating much, has been drinking, drinking like a fish, his poisoned blood is angry with him and now with the fear and desperation riding high at his insides he… he can’t do it, he might pass out. Has he done something wrong? Did he mess the spell up?

He recites the incantation again.

Tu qui dormiunt, ad dominum formosum. Nexus noster, restitutus est. Surgas ex abysso, in lumine existas!

He waits, his breath loud in his ears, rattling from his core to his lips. He stares blankly at the wall he, like the idiot he is, had expected to see Cas appear it. He’d know him by the shape and shimmer of his grace, that grace which has curled around Dean’s veins and woven and rewoven them every time Dean got himself hurt.

He waits. Still nothing. His head is shrouded by white and buzzing mists.

He recites again, louder this time.

He recites again, and shouts.

He recites again, and yells the words.

“Dammit, Cas! You fucking coward! Come back here! Come back here!” He shouts, shouts into the void, shouts into the void which is the absence of an echo, shouts into the dread in his heart, the grief like worry, the grief like worry which whispers this is how it is, this is how it will be, forever. Didn’t you know? Didn’t you realise? You were never worthy of his sacred adoration, and he was never worthy of your shallow love.

He slashes his hand, pours the blood into the bowl. Was it blood? Was it that the spell required more of his blood? He’d spill it all.

Tu qui—tu qui dormiunt! He shouts, palm still held over the bowl. Tu qui dormiunt, ad dominum formosum. Nexus noster, restitutus est. Surgas ex abysso, in lumine existas! Nexus noster, restitutus est! He squeezes more blood from his palm, wrings it out. Surgas ex abysso, in lumine existas! He cries out, tears like plasma on his face.

“Cas!” He shouts. “CAS!”

He carves into his wrist, blood flows like a river. He cries out Cas’s name, cries out a hundred desperate prayers blown about like ash in the wind, cries out as his vision fades and he hits the floor.

He comes to in his bed. He blinks groggily. He’s nursing a hangover and it seems he’s lost a lot of blood. Damn. He needed all the blood he could get to dilute all the ethanol swimming in his system.

His wrist is dressed with gauze.

Eileen enters and seeps with relief to see him awake.

“Dean,” she says, and paces over to place the water and toast she’d been carrying in on the table beside his bed. “You’re awake.”

“Damn, just about…” Dean blinks. Shards of light pierce his vision. “Sorry for…”

He rubs his eyes and trails off. Eileen sighs above him.

“We were worried sick,” she says. “Sam was…”

“I’ll bet,” Dean’s lips turn down. Shame clouds his thoughts. “Sorry… Next time—”

“Next time?” Eileen raises her eyebrows. “Next time, don’t be an idiot.”

“Sorry,” Dean says, again, and his wrist sparks pain as he signs it. He hisses. Eileen sighs again.

“There’s some food for you. We figured you’d need it. Drink the water slowly.”

“Thanks,” Dean says.

“I’ll get Sam.”

Dean sips the water tentatively. It’s a double edged sword—he’s dehydrated as all hell, but what little of his blood there is left, it’s thin as hell. He’s lightheaded.

“Yeah, that’s salted butter on the toast,” Sam says, at the door, as if reading Dean’s mind or maybe detecting the wooziness of his manner. “Eat up. I want you to be alert when I start yelling at you.”

“Ass,” Dean mutters under his breath, but takes an unsteady bite of the bread. As if remembering what food is, his stomach growls loudly the moment it hits his lips. Sam smirks. He takes a seat at the foot of Dean’s bed and watches him slowly. Dean pointedly avoids his gaze.

“What the hell were you thinking, Dean?” Sam asks, shaking his head. “What the hell were you doing?”

“What, like you’re so perfect,” Dean grumbles under his breath.

“I found you passed out, in a pool of your own blood, man,” Sam shakes his head, expression stung with worry and sadness. Dean swallows thickly. The toast goes dry in his mouth, doesn’t want to go down his throat. “When things go wrong—we need to talk to each other. You’ve been weird for days. Shouldn’t you be happy? We saved the world. We have a chance to build our own fate, carve a new life. You nearly—you could’ve died. What if you’d bled out? What if I hadn’t thought to look for you, down there?”

Dean stares at his sheets.

“What were you thinking?” Sam asks again. “What were you trying to do?”

“Get Cas back,” Dean says. He looks up accusingly. “And you forgot him, soon enough. He was your friend, too. What—you got Eileen back, and now you don’t give a shit that Cas is there, trapped in the Empty, forever?”

“I never said that—”

“You never tried to get him back,” Dean scowls. “You just wanted to live out your happy little life, with the love of your life, but what about—”

Dean wrenches the words from his mouth, cuts himself off. He clenches his jaw. Sam stares at him sadly.

“I miss Cas—of course I miss Cas—of course I want him back. I’ve prayed to Jack—” Dean looks up, surprised, at this. “—But I guess what he said about us having to figure it out ourselves was true.”

“You haven’t gotten an answer, either,” Dean says.

“Nada,” Sam answers. He watches Dean a moment, eyes sad, brows pinched. “You know, Dean, you could’ve just asked for help.”

“I thought you wouldn’t want to.”

“Of course—Dean,” Sam sighs. “Why wouldn’t I want to?” Dean’s mouth clamps. “Dean?” Sam asks.

“The spell needed—the spell wouldn’t provide a vessel for Cas, once the portal to the Empty was opened,” Dean answers eventually, mostly because the grating silence starts rubbing his skin raw. “One would have to be provided.”

“Right…” Sam frowns. “And…”

“And I was gonna volunteer myself, as the vessel.”

Sam’s head slips into his hands.

“Don’t you see how dumb that is.”

“What, like you have a better plan for getting Cas back?!” Dean bites. “It would’ve—it would’ve been hard, maybe, at first—but we’d adjust to it, I know—”

“It’s easy to say that when you aren’t sharing your body, your life, with a cosmic being,” Sam reminds. “You’ve been possessed before—”

“But with Cas it’d be different,” Dean denies. “You know it would.”

“Maybe… but that doesn’t mean it’d be good, that it’d work…”

“I just thought, after everything, we’d earnt our happy ending,” Dean says. His gaze is hollow and pleading as it falls on Sam. “After everything.”

“We’re out of the story,” Sam reminds. “Maybe things don’t work that way, any more.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Dean’s lip curls. “You have Eileen.”

“I didn’t mean—”

“I know what you meant,” Dean’s mouth tastes bitter. Sam sighs.

“Dean..”—He knows that tone. He clamps up at it. “You can’t just do anything, to get Cas back. You have to live.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Dean repeats.

“No, it’s not,” Sam presses. “I miss him, too.”

Dean’s blood heats. He breathes deep.

“Okay then,” he looks up, brow heavy, glaring at his brother, “then help me get him back.”

“Huh?”

“You want him back, you miss him too?” Dean asks. “Help me find another way to the Empty. Help me find another way in, help me find Cas another way out.”

“Dean—”

“If you want Cas back—”

“Fine,” Sam sighs. “But you have to—you have to try, Dean, without him. Don’t just shut down again. I know… I know it’s…” He trails off, probably noting Dean’s scowl. “Don’t give up the fight. We didn’t die. We made it. You’re alive. You need to live.”

Sam gets up to leave. Dean watches his back as he exits. He huffs.

Dean knows all about undying things. Love is one of them.

But Sam helps, Eileen helps. They read and read—over weeks and weeks. Dean starts looking for work—motivated, if nothing else, by the prospect of impressing Cas when he comes back, comes home. Miracle starts sleeping in his bed, pawing at him to wake him up when nightmares hit, which they do, they do increasingly. Now, alongside the nightmares of hell, the nightmares of purgatory, the nightmares of Alastair and the nightmares of what the Mark of Cain turned him into, the nightmares of hunts gone wrong and losing Sammy, now there are nightmares of the moment Cas confessed, the moment he was taken. Dean already had nightmares about the various times he’d lost his best friend, but these ones are different. These ones hurt more. Even more. Now he knows everything he could’ve had. Now he knows everything he lost included a universe of possibility he never even had the guts to pursue.

Miracle wakes him, pawing and whining softly, most nights. Dean trembles in the darkness and holds onto the dog, tight. He goes on long walks with the dog and starts seeing Cas’s face in the sky.

And none of their attempts to open the Empty work. They try everything. It’s clamped up like a locked jaw. Dean uses so much of his blood in spells that he becomes perpetually lightheaded, gets addicted to the feeling because it means he’s trying, and it means the sour sting of his own thoughts are dimmed.

He sinks into functional desperation: he drinks every night, alcohol to burn away his sorrows, wakes every morning, head a dull and thrumming ache, and beats his way through the day. He hugs Miracle tight at every opportunity. He fills out job applications. He misses Jack. He misses Cas. He cooks dinner for Sam and Eileen and barely eats.

One drunken night he gives himself a stick-and-poke on his forearm, where the scar he gave himself, trying to pour out enough blood to appease the Empty, sits. Along the ugly, jagged line.

Knowing you has changed me.

His prayers pile up like crumpled paper around the fringes of his life. He prays like a murderer on his deathbed, which is what he is, or where he feels, at least.

Cas. I know you’re out there. You’ve gotta be out there. We can’t open the Empty, which means it’s closed for good, which means you’re out there. Jack wouldn’t just let you rot in there. So why are you ignoring me?

Is it fear? ‘Cause that’s nothin’ on what I’m feelin’, having to do this without you.

Please give me a sign.

 

Cas, please talk to me.

Cas. Man, you’ve gotta come back. This was your home, we were your home. Doesn’t that mean anything to you, any more?

 

I guess you didn’t mean what you said.

 

Cas. You’re out there. You have to be.

 

You never even gave me a chance.

 

What? You want me to give up on you?

Well I won’t.

I can’t.

 

Cas,

You asshole. I hate you—you—you say you—you say all this shit, man. And then what? You just leave? The hell kind of love is that?

Probably the only kind of love I deserve.

I need to know if… if you feel—that you still feel—feel everything. I still feel it for you. Whatever you want, that’s what I want, too. Isn’t that what love is? Not leaving. It’s not leaving. My love for you isn’t leaving me, so why did you leave me?

Cas. You bastard.

Come home.

The days, then weeks, drone by. He goes on long drives, to the places he and Cas used to visit, hoping to find him there. Nothing. He goes to the barn where they met, breaks down on the ground, golden threads of straw battered about when he hammers his fists on to floor.

There’s nothing left to punctuate his time. Yes, he continues living, continues hunting with Sammy, starts cooking and eating meals with him and Eileen, and tries to be worthy of the love Cas expressed for him, caught in the tangle of disbelief that Cas could ever feel it in the first place. For Dean? Every day marks the crucifixion of Dean’s repulsive heart.

Dean holds on to too much. Carries too much. But where could he put it down? Where could he leave it, lay it to rest?

He prays. He prays with anger, with fire. He gets nothing back. He starts throwing his body around recklessly on hunts, hoping to get hurt, hoping that it’ll be the end of him and not even able to admit to himself that this is what he hopes for.

But slowly, they’re getting less and less cases to work, as if the world is cleaning itself up, and so Dean starts getting more and more reckless. No Cas to heal him up, his body is a battered, bruised thing, just like his heart. He misses the purified singe that would set in his mouth and tighten around his teeth whenever Cas used his grace to heal him up. Like if someone sugared chemical electricity. He misses someone believing he was worth healing.

Cas becomes Dean’s thoughts of purest light. Some kind of unwavering star to the lost ship of his soul. He presses images of Cas’s face on everything he lays his eyes upon because it means he won’t lament alone. His mind isn’t his own property, not anymore, but dammit, if he doesn’t try to reclaim it, to grow into the words Cas said to him, of him. Words insisting on his own impossible worthiness.

When he’s at his best, it’s because he thinks of Cas. When he’s at his worst, it’s because he thinks of Cas.

Six months pass like a life sentence. It’s the curious thing about uncertainty, that it stretches out time as much as it condenses it. Dean gets offered a job as a firefighter. Like he wanted when he was a kid. Still saving people just—more conventionally.

Sam and Eileen continue seeing one another, until she’s practically living in the bunker. Dean feels like some awkward, embarrassing third wheel. He’s lonely. Dammit, he’s lonely. Longing for Cas was okay, when Cas was around. Being friends with him was enough. Sure, Dean had to bite on the pain of belief that Cas didn’t, couldn’t love him back the way Dean loved the angel—but it was bearable, he could carry it. That weight of unspoken rejection. Or what he thought was rejection, would be rejection. He could carry it and was glad to: being friends with Cas was a happiness enough. His awkward gestures, his coarse voice, his sparking bluefire eyes, the way he’d look at Dean like he was a riddle, the way he’d look at Dean like he was exhausting, the way he’d look at Dean like he wanted something from him… it turns out it was love.

And he had it. He always had it. How could neither of them have realised?

He sits in the library, nursing a bourbon, thinking of the drinks he used to share with Cas. His head is foggy. Foggy with drink, foggy with sorrow.

Sam enters and sits down opposite. Dean takes a long drink and says nothing. Something in his gait and air lets Dean know he wants to talk about something heavy and serious—probably Dean’s drinking—and Dean doesn’t want to talk about it. So he doesn’t open the space for this conversation.

Sam sighs at Dean’s locked frame and jaw.

“Dean,” he says, leaning forward. “I know things aren’t alright…”

“What gave it away?” Dean looks up, dead-eyed, to his brother. Sam’s lips are pressed together sadly.

“You want me to run through the list?” Sam raises an eyebrow. Dean glares. “You’re supposed to start a new job, putting out fires. You’re drinking so much, the moment you stand near an open flame, you’re gonna eviscerate everything in a one mile radius.”

“Eviscerate,” Dean repeats.

“I know you don’t wanna talk about this.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“There obviously is,” Sam shakes his head. Dean takes another sip of his drink. He says nothing. “And you’re gonna have to open up, eventually,” Sam states.

“And why’s that?”

“Because it’s been half a year.”

“I’ve bitten down on shit for a lot longer than that.”

“And it’s done you a lot of good,” Sam rolls his eyes. Dean scowls. “I’m serious,” Sam leans forward. “I know you’re desperate to get Cas back, but—”

“We are not giving up,” Dean snarls.

“I didn’t say we were.”

“You were about to.”

“I was gonna say that you won’t even talk about him. Why are we trying so hard, if you won’t even talk about him? Talk about what happened? I mean—why did the Empty take him, in the first place? I thought it was Billie who was pissed at you.”

Dean’s eyes prickle.

“It was.”

Silence.

Sam sighs.

“And you still won’t talk.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“How are you coping, without your best friend?” Sam asks. “Really? Start there.”

Dean shrugs, slumps back. Sam watches.

“This isn’t my home. This world. This life. It’s not my home.”

Sam looks sad.

“Why do you say that?”

Dean swallows. His spit tastes like booze.

“I… I never had a friend like him…”

Sam blinks, eyes singing sorrow.

“I know,” he says, softly. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know,” Dean rolls his eyes, cradles his drink, tips it back bitterly. “You don’t know…”

“And why’s that?”

“You don’t know,” Dean looks at his brother, grief-stung, drunken, heart rotten to its core. “You don’t know, when I’m lying awake at night, what it’s like—what it’s like to see him—over and over—his last moments here, and he died because of me. You don’t know,” Dean opens the bottle resting on the table and tips the rest of its contents into his glass. Sam watches: his jaw has locked, frustrated, as Dean speaks, but his eyes are melancholic as Dean pours himself another drink, “you don’t know what it’s like to know that, to know that you’re the poisoned thing, that all your—everything you—”

“I don’t know?” Sam repeats, resentful.

“You don’t know,” Dean knocks back half his glass, it gets easier to do so as he gets drunker, “you don’t know, what it’s like, to long, and hurt with longing—to hope and hate yourself for hoping—to—to sit alone in the dark and wish—and wish you could be worthy. You don’t know, you don’t know, you’ll never know,” Dean tips the rest of his drink down his throat and grimaces at the good-burn it flames along his nerves, “nobody will ever know, so why bother talking about it?”

Sam shakes his head, looking away. His eyes are tearstung.

“I watched Jess die,” he says. “You forget that. You always choose to forget that. I—I watched her die. I’ve watched it over and over, since. In my dreams. In my head. No, it never leaves you. No, it never could.” He looks back over at Dean. “I watched Jess die,” he repeats. “It was because of me. It wasn’t my fault, but it was because of me. I know what it’s like.”

Dean opens his lips to take an unsteady breath. He rubs at his eyes with his forearm and sniffs.

“Right…”

“I know… I know we’re not good at talking about stuff. Maybe we should try and be better. We’ve got a lifetime of trauma to process…”

“Yeah, but you were always the healthy one, out of the two of us,” Dean shakes his head bitterly. He picks up the bottle and pours himself another drink. Sam watches sadly.

“What have you eaten today?” He asks, instead of rising to this.

“See?”

Sam huffs.

“So, nothing?”

“Beer is a carb.”

“You’re not even a functional alcoholic, anymore.”

“Oh what, like that’s helpful.”

“Like you want help?!” Sam squints. Dean huffs at this, and almost smiles.

“Maybe…” He murmurs, admitting defeat. “Maybe I do. But maybe I don’t know where help would leave me, when it’s done with me.”

“You’re so hard to unknot,” Sam sighs. He puts his face in his hands.

“And see, this is why I don’t want people trying to help.”

“That’s not why,” Sam says, and looks up. Dean gives him a hard look. “I’ve known you all my life, Dean,” Sam says. “I wish you felt that you could talk to me.”

Dean thinks about their dad. He thinks about the danger of speech and honesty and authenticity. He thinks about Cas, ripped from the world, only seconds after telling Dean the truth. If Dean has learnt anything from this life which has pressed him up against a cold hard wall, it’s that no, the truth does nothing good.

But that’s not what Cas would say.

Cas would say Dean deserved to live as himself, to unclamp and relax his jaw. To settle into the steady softness which is living in the truth. Lying ties you around yourself. Even if the lies are just omitting the truth. Cas said happiness was in being. Not a destination. Well, that gives Dean some hope: he’d worried he’d be driving at the weary road of life forever, never seeing the end-point of peace or joy. But Cas didn’t say it was in the journey, either. It’s something less tangible and knowable than that. So what is it? If it isn’t a where?

Damn, he misses his best friend. Misses all those aeons of wisdom bound up in an awkward, dorky, perfect frame. Misses Cas’s steady soft and certain reassurances, the promise of companionship, every I’ll go with you, every no you’re not, every that’s not true.

Cas was his last faith. That was his religion, his new religion, the last remnant of an old one. Cas’s name his liturgy. Working cases with Cas, those were his holy days. Sharing his rock music with Cas, those were his hymns.

Cas’s face, the moments he had an excuse to tap or squeeze Cas’s shoulder, squeeze Cas’s frame to his in a hug—Dean could barely admit it to himself, at the time—that was his temple. Cas’s body was some small chapel Dean wanted to live in, with, alongside. Cas the only altar Dean could worship at.

He looks at his brother. It’s been a long stretch of silence. Dean sniffs.

“I don’t know, man,” he says, cheeks heating, “I guess I just miss him.”

“Yeah, I mean,” Sam frowns, “of course. But what else?”

Dean sips his drink.

“I guess…” He looks down. “I guess I thought we’d earnt a happy ending,” he says again. “I know that’s not… I know you don’t think life works that way. But I’m tired. I wanted a happy ending.”

“What would a happy ending look like?” Sam asks. Dean reddens.

“Cas alive, I guess…”

“You said you’ve hurt with longing.”

“What?” Dean raises his gaze, panicked, to Sam’s calm, even features. “No—when—”

“When you were saying I couldn’t understand. You said that I didn’t know what it was like to hurt with longing. To hate myself for hoping, to feel unworthy. What are you hoping for? Were you hoping for? What do you think you were unworthy of?”

Dean takes a sip of his drink, but his hands tremble. He swallows thickly.

“You said,” Sam continues softly “That you wished you could be worthy. What did you think you were unworthy of?” Dean is silent. Sam huffs gently. “I don’t wanna push you for answers. But I want you to know: I want to hear them. It’s—it’s been years, of silence. I thought the silence was okay, but maybe it’s not. Not after these six months.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Of course,” Sam rolls his eyes, shaking his head a moment. “Dean,” he sighs, “I want to hear it. What you need to say. I want to hear it.”

Dean looks down. His ears buzz faintly with Sam’s words. What is speech, but a vulnerability? Saying anything is like holding out your palm to a stranger with a knife.

“You said nobody would ever know. What did you mean about that?”

“Just that… just that…” Dean squirms. He swallows thickly.

Silence a moment.

“Sometimes love gets caught up with shame, doesn’t it?” Sam asks.

“Yeah,” Dean sighs out, then his head sparks back up to Sam’s face. “Wait—what?”

“Love and shame,” Sam says, “sometimes they get planted in us, and grow alongside each other.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I said.”

“Well, why do you say it to me?” Dean grates out.

“Because you love hard,” Sam says, “and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Dean thinks of Cas’s last words to him. His mouth turns down.

“I love hard,” he says, “and it hurts people.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone I’ve loved, Sammy,” Dean shakes his head, “all of them. It’s like a curse. Like whatever I set my heart on, they end up hurt, or worse. And Cas—” and Cas…

“Your love isn’t a curse—”

“Yes it is,” Dean shakes his head, eyes stung, “my love is a curse, to me, and to whatever unlucky bastard falls victim of it.”

“I think you’re wrong.”

“Yeah? I’ve got a lifetime of evidence,” Dean’s words are bitter, “to suggest otherwise.”

“You’ve got a lifetime of trauma, and a shitty upbringing, you’re confusing for what you deserve, what you’re worth. Like I said, love and shame. It’s hard to uproot one without the other. I get it.”

“How did you know about the shame?” Dean asks, face hot.

“I see you, Dean,” Sam says softly. “I thought seeing you was enough, for a while. But maybe it’s not. Seeing is only half of it. Maybe speaking it—maybe speaking it is the other. You can’t live your life in silence. You don’t deserve that.”

“Then what do I deserve?”

“To live with yourself.”

“Whatever the hell that means.”

“I mean,” Sam smiles, obviously tired, “you can’t bite your tongue forever. Don’t you get sick of the taste of your own blood?”

“Maybe,” Dean says. But his jaw is locked. How could he begin to unclamp it? The truth is a seed which is planted in earthen clay, and trusted to grow something worthy of the pain of parting with it. Truth and trust. They’re hand in hand. If Dean could trust anyone with it, now, it’d be his asshole little brother. He finishes his drink. He looks down at the table. Still, Sam says nothing.

And Dean’s crying with it, with the weight of all of it, before he even realises.

“I loved him,” he looks up, looks up at Sam and cries with the words, cries with the weight of them slipping from him, the stretch of his exhausted muscles at relinquishing it, the unwinding of his clamped jaw, the soil swept over the seed of truth and trusted, there, to grow. “I loved him, Sammy, I still do. I wish I could stop. I can’t.”

“Why do you want to stop?” Sam asks, brows a soft tangle of quiet concern.

“It hurts,” Dean shakes his head. “This love—I—I don’t want it, not any more. And now he’s gone… I don’t know what to do with it, where to put it. I had nowhere to put it—for years. ‘Cause I thought he didn’t… And then I found out—all that time—I could’ve just given it to him, that he would’ve—that he wanted it, too,” Dean shakes his head, blinks out tears. “I don’t want it, Sammy,” he says, and means it, with every drop of his blood, every drop of his tears. “I don’t want it.”

“You’re talking like you—like you—you say that he felt—”

“The dumb son-of-a-bitch made a deal with the Empty. The moment he felt real happiness, he’d get taken by it. He said—he told me he hadn’t thought it’d ever happen, just before he was taken. He made that deal thinkin’ he could never be happy. Not with me. You know how that makes me feel?”

“He—what?”

“He made that deal and believed—and believed—that he could never be happy. Never with me. You know how that feels?!”

“I—”

“It feels like this,” Dean holds up his wrist which, from the amount of blood he has let from it in summoning spells, attempting to open the Empty and retrieve Cas from it, has been scrawled with scars. He pulls down the collar of his tee to show a long, jagged cut he earned from a werewolf, last week. Yes, he wished at the time it had cut deeper, longer, harsher. Yes, he still wishes this, in the moments where ugly thoughts overpower him. He pulls back his sleeve to show the angry scorch-mark left from a witch’s spell which again, he let hit him. So many wounds over the hunts since Cas left. No Cas to heal them. “It feels like this.”

“I’m sorry, Dean—”

“And the Empty only came, ‘cause of me,” Dean shakes his head bitterly. “It was on me. Again, it was on me. Cas wouldn’t have started talking, if Billie hadn’t been about to kill me—and that was my fault. And Cas—the reason he could feel happy in the first place—was ‘cause of me,” Dean shudders out. “Was ‘cause of me.”

Sam frowns, confused.

“He told me—Sammy—he told me he loved me. Loved me.”

“You say that like it’s… surprising?”

“It is!” Dean raises his voice, slamming his hand down on the table. “Me, Sam. I’m broken. He knew better than anyone. He was the one who had to fix me, most times, and he still…”

“That’s why you’ve been so self-destructive,” Sam says, a statement, not a question. “So careless.”

“Love can rot at you. Love can eat you,” Dean says, instead of answering this—but realises that this answer’s Sam, anyway. “It’s eaten me. It’s eating me, still.”

“And you loved him, too,” Sam says.

What can Dean do, now the memories are crowding in, so close? He wants to shove them away, has tried shoving them away, for half a year. How many more months, how many more years? Is memory a life-sentence, or a death-sentence?

“It was the only thing,” Dean murmurs, “for a long time, which kept me dreaming.”

Sam raises his eyebrows sadly.

“I knew it was ridiculous,” Dean shakes his head, “the life we have, the things we’ve seen, to hope for… to hope for the sight of dawn, on the horizon. The things I’ve done, I knew I didn’t deserve it. But God, I wanted a life with him.”

Dean is a living ghost.

“He wanted a life with you,” Sam says, softly. “He wanted that, too. Isn’t that a sign? That you deserved it.”

Dean shakes his head, bitterly, pulling back.

“Just Cas?” Sam asks. “Or other—other guys?”

Dean’s face heats.

“I don’t know, man…” He looks down, ears prickling. “I guess… I guess it never mattered with anyone, before Cas. Anyone, I mean. I could count on one hand… Cassie? And that’s about it. But… it’s, it’s this life, you know?”

“Yeah…”

“And I—” he looks down. “Maybe there were times, dad knew. Or suspected. I didn’t—I never—you know how if you keep a plant out of sunlight, it turns yellow and sickly and this gnarled, weird thing that looks wrong, it doesn’t know what direction to grow so it cranes itself up and in all directions and gets stretched and mutilated—that’s—that’s me.”

“So, what,” Sam smiles gently, “we go to a gay bar, you can get a little sunlight?”

Dean laughs, and rolls his eyes.

“Past few years… my sunlight was Cas.”

“I’m sorry, Dean.”

“I loved him,” he sighs. “I miss him.” He shakes his head. “I never thought I’d be able to say it.”

“But you have…”

“Cas said there was happiness in saying…”

“Uh-huh?”

“Happiness in being…”

“And do you think he was right?” Sam asks. Dean looks up at him, the sad hazel press of his eyes.

He touches blindly around the knot inside his chest, the knot Sam described: shame and love, bound up together. It seems to have loosened. Even by a fraction.

“Maybe.”

“That’s something,” Sam smiles softly. Dean twitches a small smile. A tear, bright and hot as the sun, streaks down his cheek.

“Maybe.”

He offers to make dinner. Eileen helps him out, teases him with sparking eyes, pours out a big bag of chips into a bowl for him to snack on while he cooks. His body seems relieved at the salt and starch. His hands still shake a little, constantly, with the weight of what he’s just shared with Sam. Sam comes in and notices, and gives Dean an obnoxious, mammoth hug.

Unspoken truths are funny things. They’re like a grief, in themselves. Present and lingering, some pillar to your life, whether you look at them squarely, or not. And Dean has had a lot to grieve, unspeaking, all his life. His mom, his childhood, his youth, his innocence, himself, his truth, his dad, his future, his trauma, Sam, his friends—countless friends—his best friend, and his son.

His son, who, Dean nearly shits himself out of shock, is stood in the crow’s nest smiling benignly as Dean makes his way to the library to pick up the sweater he left there.

“What—what the—” Dean blanches, stopping short.

“Hello,” Jack smiles, raising a hand in greeting. “I let myself in. I hope that’s okay.”

“Jack,” Dean shakes his head, approaching him cautiously, “Jack.”

“Hello,” Jack repeats.

“You’re—”

“I’m back,” Jack smiles. “It’s nice to see you!”

“Yeah,” Dean murmurs, floored. “You too.”

He reaches out an arm and pulls Jack into a hug, but still can’t bring himself to smile.

“So, what? Heaven had a day off?”

“Heaven doesn’t have days off,” Jack shakes his head as Dean pulls back. Dean frowns.

“So what are you—”

“Is Castiel not here?” Jack asks. “I sent him just before me.”

“What?”

“He isn’t here?”

Cas.

“He—” Dean’s heart jolts into his throat. “He’s okay?”

“Of course,” Jack smiles. “But maybe we should talk.”

“Sure,” Dean fumbles. He can’t process it. Jack is back. Cas should be back, too—where’s Cas? He’s on his way? “We’re—we were just about to eat—why don’t you—how long are you here for?”

“I’ll join you for dinner, if that’s okay,” Jack smiles. Dean nods, numb, dumb. He squeezes Jack’s arm before heading back to the galley. Eileen frowns at Dean as he enters.

“I thought you were getting a sweater—” but she cuts off at the sight of Jack. Sam turns around from the stove and stops short.

“Jack—” he stumbles the name out, and Jack smiles again.

“Hello,” he greets. “It smells good. Mind if I join you?”

“You’re—you’re—”

“Castiel isn’t back?” Jack asks, frowning thoughtfully.

“Cas?” Sam repeats. “He’s—he’s alright?”

Everyone gapes at Jack.

“I think you probably deserve to be caught up with everything,” Jack says, nodding to himself.

Yeah, no shit.

They set up for dinner, laying out a place for Jack. Does he even need to eat, now?

Well, he eats, anyway, while Sam, Eileen and Dean all watch him, worried and expectant.

“I’ve been very busy,” Jack says, conversationally, around his mouthful of dinner.

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Dean says with a frown. His heart refuses to stop jackhammering in his chest. “But I thought you said you were gonna be hands off?”

“Right,” Jack smiles. “I did. Well, I was busy with Castiel and Amara. We were fixing heaven. And then hell, and purgatory.”

“What?” Dean asks, mouth open.

“Jo and Ellen say hi,” Jack smiles to Dean. “So does Bobby. And Rufus, and—you guys know a lot of dead people,” he sighs, shaking his head.

“Guess that’s the thing about our line of work,” Dean deadpans. But what about Cas?

“So you fixed heaven, hell, and purgatory,” Sam frowns, encouraging Jack to continue.

“Yes,” Jack nods, squeezing a load more ketchup onto his plate. “But it took a lot—Michael’s back, by the way,” he looks up, smiling.

“Huh?”

“Okay,” Jack sighs, taking a drink of water. “There’s a lot to fill you in on.” He takes another mouthful of food, apparently not in any kind of rush, in spite of this. “Me and Amara brought Cas back from the Empty. Castiel, Amara and I started rebuilding heaven. It’s different, now. Nicer! You can see people, it’s sort of—” he waves a hand, vaguely, “open plan. Now you can visit people! And make new lives, not just live in your old ones.” He smiles at them. “You’ll love it. But not yet. Anyway, who cooked dinner? It’s delicious.”

“We all did,” Dean blinks, still staring at Jack. Sam flickers his gaze over to Dean for a moment.

“Well, Dean kind of led the way.”

“It’s delicious,” Jack smiles at Dean.

“So I thought you were God, now,” Dean frowns, “and wouldn’t—y’know—need to—” he gestures down to the plate in front of Jack.

“Oh, right,” Jack nods, glancing down, then back up to Dean. He sighs. “I’ve still got a lot to tell you.”

“Kid, we’re all ears.”

“So we brought Michael back. He’s okay, by the way! He and Adam decided to stay up in heaven, to help out. But Castiel was frustrated—he said I was too young, that I didn’t deserve the burden which I had, on me. He also said you were probably worrying about me, and I said, they’re probably worrying about you, too, but he didn’t seem too sure.”

“Yeah, well, thanks for ignoring all our prayers, on that note.”

“Oh,” Jack frowns, “I killed the line to heaven. I meant what I said. I wasn’t going to be hands on. I’m sorry—if you prayed, I wouldn’t have heard it.”

“Huh?” Dean frowns.

“We couldn’t hear your prayers,” Jack answers. “Sorry. Not any of us, not—”

“Not Cas?” Dean asks, leaning forward. Sam’s gaze falls on him for a second.

“Not Cas,” Jack confirms. “Anyway, he kept on trying to persuade me to go back, live out a normal life, then return to heaven and pick up—”

“Management? Again?”

“Right,” Jack confirms. “I thought he was just being… a dad, for a while. But then I thought about what he said, about you missing me. So I tuned in to what you were saying, down here. Reconnected the line, if you like.” He looks at Dean. “And I realised the only way to get Cas back, here, was to come back, too. And… I realised he was probably right. I’m only three.”

“You picked up the line?” Dean asks, with a worried frown. “What did you—what did—”

“He already told me how and why the Empty took him,” Jack shrugs. “I suppose I hadn’t realised exactly what that meant. Not until I heard from you. And he was only so easy to get from the Empty in the first place, because he was making it so loud.”

“Loud?”

“He wasn’t,” Jack corrects. “You were.” Dean flushes at the accusation.

“Huh?”

“I think you’re prayers to him—or your grief?—made it through to the Empty. He couldn’t hear it, but… Anyway, because of that, the Empty pretty much threw him out, when I came to get him. So it’s funny—Dean. Telling the truth took Cas to the Empty. And you telling the truth, that took him from there, to heaven, and from heaven, to earth.”

“But where is he?” Dean blinks, eyes stung, heart fluttering, panicked.

“Good question.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m not sure. I sent him down, before I came to join him. He should’ve arrived here before me.”

“What, you’re God, and you don’t know?!”

“Oh,” Jack laughs, shaking his head. “No.”

“Then figure it out!”

Jack blinks patiently at Dean.

“I mean, I’m not God,” he says. “Not anymore. Or—you know, if I ever was God. God’s a big word. I was always me.” Dean shakes his head, lip trembling. He doesn’t get it. “I sort of—ceded my powers, to Amara and Michael, until I come back. But I’m going to live, down here, first. I am half human. And three. It only seems fair.”

“Totally fair,” Sam nods earnestly.

“But—but what about Cas?” Dean stammers out. Eileen glances at him worriedly.

“He would’ve arrived a little before me,” Jack frowns. “I don’t know… I assumed he’d be here, but maybe… I don’t know. I landed right outside.”

“Where would he have wanted to go?”

“I don’t know,” Jack frowns. Dean feels sick. Of course, of course Cas doesn’t want to see him. Loving means leaving. It always has, when it comes to Dean. “I don’t know where he could’ve gone…”

“Well,” Dean tries not to choke out the word, clapping Jack on the shoulder, “we’re just glad you’re back, buddy. You gonna stay here, with us?”

“If you’ll let me,” Jack says. He looks at Dean nervously.

Dean manages to genuinely smile again.

“Of course, man. We’ll get you that flatscreen TV I promised. How does that sound, huh? We’ll be a real family.”

Jack smiles.

But Dean worries. Where’s Cas?

Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting. Sam says it’s just a matter of waiting. Jack says the same thing. So Dean waits.

Eileen teaches Jack how to play chess and Dean watches, worrying with his hands, before he gets up, sighing, and announces that he’s going to bed. He gives Jack one last hug before leaving.

“It’s good to have you back, bud.”

Yeah, he doesn’t sleep.

And Cas isn’t around the next day, either. Dean spends the whole day, primed and ready to run to the door, filled with nasty flashbacks of Lucifer tricking him into opening it with Cas’s voice. He springs to his feet more than once, saying he’s sure he heard a knock. Sam wiles away the hours doing some homeschooling with Jack, and looking at local highschools in the area.

By the evening, Dean’s given up.

“I guess he’s not coming, then,” his lips turn down. He kicks at one of the chairs in the library. Sam watches him sadly.

“I don’t think that’s true—”

“Aw, yeah, it looks like it, doesn’t it,” Dean spits. He swallows thickly, ripping his gaze away from his brother.

“He missed you,” Jack says, words tearing at the thick silence in the air. “He told me.”

“Don’t fucking lie,” Dean wills the tears stinging at his eyes away. “If he did, he’d be here.”

“Dean,” Sam sighs softly, but Dean swallows, not wanting to be patronised.

“Listen,” he says, “it’s fine. I’m fine.”

“I thought you’d just gotten over lying.”

“Sure, I wanted him around,” Dean shakes his head. “But if he—if he didn’t mean what he said, then fine. I loved him. That’s what matters.”

“Maybe you need a little more faith,” Jack says, in that tone that always made Dean’s insides shiver, the tone way too wise and thoughtful for someone as young as Jack.

Dean sighs.

“Even saints must’ve had lapses…”

He turns and heads toward his room. Inside, something calls to him. Maybe it’s only a call to lament, a call to mourn Cas properly, which he has yet to do. He hasn’t even leant into his sorrows, has only leant into self-destruction. What kind of monument is that, to the figure Cas was in his life?

He sits on his bed cross-legged. How could he honour Cas? Is it that he hasn’t honoured him, enough? Wasn’t loving him enough? Dean’s heart is a broken, barely beating thing, but it loves… couldn’t that be enough? He presses his face into his hands, chest splintering apart into the air around him like the dust in sunbeams. He shudders out his sobs. He misses his friend. He misses his best friend. If Cas is afraid, then he should know that Dean is, too. He’s anchorless. Is there any fear bigger than the eternity and infinity implicit in being adrift?

Dean’s head is ablaze. A forest fire rages in it.

But God, isn’t that fair? After everything? Dean’s entitled to his sorrows. He misses his friend. Loss thunders through him. Whether he acknowledges it, or not. Loss of himself, too—what Cas saw in him, the Dean he believed in: that was a Dean only made possible because of Cas. Because of Cas knitting his body back together, because of Cas blasting through the doors of the barn and making it rain electricity and light in the grayblue darkness. Because of Cas’s grace, figurative and literal, every moment of it. Dean mourns the self that was himself with Cas. Dean mourns the self that he repressed, the self that John repressed, the self that sat scared in bed as a teen worried about the plains of longing stretching, sweeping through him, the prickle of desire at the sight of stubble or bend of a heavy brow.

He wanted love. Didn’t he deserve it?

Cas thought he did.

The barn, where Cas burst in. That was the start of it all. The possibility of building, building well, rebuilding the cracked remnants of his soul. Dean wonders how many nights Cas pressed his middle and forefinger to Dean’s temple to still his nightmares. He always slept better when the angel was around; it wasn’t coincidence, could never be coincidence. Cas cared. Cared even in the barn, some strange and recontextualised creature, with all the grace of the alien, the mystery of the fugitive, the migrant on a new plane of life. The flash and spark of his stretching, shadowed wings. The barn.

A pang of longing. Dean gets up.

He’ll go there, now.

He hasn’t grieved. Not—not like Cas would want.

And where better to start? The place where, in the end, it all started?

Cas was it, for him. Cas was Dean’s full stop. The final punctuation of Dean’s life. After a love like that…

He picks up his car keys. He paces out of his room. Sam raises his eyebrows at Dean as he approaches the stairs.

“Goin’ out for a drive,” Dean says shortly.

“Oh?” Sam asks. “Where?”

“Wherever my heart is,” Dean answers, swinging round the handrail and up the stairs.

“Right—” Sam blinks. “Have you got your phone?” He calls after Dean, but he’s at the top of the stairs, and couldn’t give less of a shit. He swings open the bunker door.

Outside, it’s raining. Something purifying, some great storm to turn the forest fire in his head to cinder and smoke. The syllables of rain plash around him. He closes his eyes to it, takes a shuddering breath. Stretches his hands and arms out in surrender, or crucifixion—which is surrender—and hasn’t the past six months marked the crucifixion of Dean’s heart, anyway? It’s time he gave himself up, not gave up on himself. That electric smell of rain, the tang of dust agitated and risen in the air like pollen in summer: he breathes it in, it means renewal: hell and heaven both must know he needs it.

The sky opens like a promise kept.

Dean turns his face up to it.

He doesn’t get into his car, which is a black sheen of light in the crack of rain.

Instead he turns. Turns toward the dirt track of road and follows whatever it is that calls him down it. He shivers in the cold, wet air: ass that he is, he stepped out only wearing a tee. It doesn’t matter.

Cas would be proud of him, for where he is: still fighting, fighting with everything he has, even through the hurt, even through the hate. He has to hold on to that. Wherever Cas is—if he could see Dean—in spite of the drinking, in spite of the destruction, he’d be proud. Dean’s kept on going. Through every moment he didn’t want to. Every moment he was sure he couldn’t. Cas would be proud of him. That means everything. That is everything. If only Dean had been given a chance to thank him for it all.

Down the track, beaten by rain. The only light is the light of the moon and stars, a cold, removed light, the light of memory. Dean is led into the future by memory. Maybe this is how you walk with loss. It’s possible to be happy and sad. Dean has been, all his life. He’s still trying to understand it, but, at least lamenting himself and the man he loved is… purifying. Heated silver.

Pinpricks settle on his arms. The rain is like stars shaved into ice against his skin. It shines silver on the air around him. He keeps on walking. And then he stops. And then he stops short.

He’s hallucinated before. He’s been here before. He’s seen Cas’s face in crowds in the centres of towns, seen flashes of his eyes in strangers on the street, seen the curve of his wrists in the gestures of the person at the checkout in the fucking grocery store, this is the fucking banality of trauma, Dean has learnt throughout his life: it doesn’t arise in earthquakes, it arises in the ticking of the clock and the hum of words intended inconsequentially, and the sight of a concrete wall through which…

So surely this is—

Surely this is—

The rain is like the chiming of music around him. The fire in his head billows smoke and flashes light but Cas—Cas, the thought of purest light, has entered it. Dean takes a fearful step forward, like Moses at the burning bush, like a man remembering his faith. His voice ekes out like a drop of water. A drop of water, compared to the hurricane within him.

“Ca—Cas?”

Through the dark, through the flashes of rain, dark and sodden—he’s there, he’s here. Or Dean is dreaming. And what’s wrong with dreaming? It’s the bright husk of this cold life.

But no—if this is a dream—this… It can’t be a dream.

Dean is landing on the banks of hope.

The rain. The rain flashes around them.

“Cas,” he says, nothing but violent disbelief and the coarse persistent flame of faith, now. “Cas,” and his steps forward are like the fall of rain: certain and inevitable. They match the pulse of the sky.

Dean’s shuttered heart opens. Opens into rain, into grief, into joy, like the clouds.

“Cas,” steps half faith, half doubt drive Dean forward and yes, yes, it is Cas’s face through the storm and dark.

“Hello, Dean,” comes Cas’s reply, the sound and song of love lost and its return.

Dean’s reply is a broken hymn of a sob into the rain-streaked air. Cas sounds scared, of all things. Of all things, in all places, here in a rain which washes Dean of shame and doubt.

“Cas—it’s—it’s really you—” he staggers out again and staggers toward the angel, wrenches fearful arms around him and yes, the frame beneath them is solid, a steady physicality of existence and not of wishing, only dreaming. Cas’s arms come to, tentatively, cradle Dean’s body back. Dean can barely breathe.

“It’s really me,” Castiel confirms, and Dean shudders at the sound of that voice, body ringing in a crescendo of relief and delight, and the awe of a man kneeling at an altar. God, it feels like he’s waited for eternity.

“God,” he chokes.

“No,” Cas shakes his head against Dean, “just me.”

Dean stutters out a laugh. The rain falls down on both of them. It’s the only thing stopping Dean from floating away.

“You’re—you’re—”

“Back,” Cas says, and seems confused that Dean hasn’t let go of him, yet. But Dean can’t. He curls his face into Cas’s rain-damp neck and breathes in, a deep and stammering breath.

“You’re back,” Dean laughs and sobs the words out. “Asshole, asshole—”

“What?”

“Where were you?” Dean asks, pulling back only a fraction, to look at Cas as he asks the questions. In the silvery and wet night air his hair is soaked, messed up beautifully, raindrops catch like moonlight on his eyelashes. The light from the stars makes the pierce of his features all the more ethereal, sharp, alien.

“Where was I?” Cas frowns. “In heaven—”

“No, I mean,” Dean nearly cries, “Jack’s been back for over a day, where were you—”

“Something must’ve happened,” Cas says thoughtfully. He sounds vaguely embarrassed. “I landed—if landed is the word—some way away.”

“Where?”

“The—where we first met,” Cas answers. Dean’s breath catches. “The barn.”

Dean buries his face in Cas’s shoulder and starts laughing and shivering in the downpour. He rocks their bodies slowly to the beat of the rain, and of his heart.

“Is that—funny?”

“Yeah,” Dean confirms, voice rough with wonder. I—Cas, I was—I was headed there, now.”

The hands on Dean’s back falter.

“Oh…” Cas says, all beautiful and hopeful uncertainty. “…Why?”

“Why do you think?” Dean chokes. “Or—I don’t know, I—I felt like something was calling to me.” Silence, for a moment, and only the waters around them. “Maybe it was you,” Dean says. “Maybe it was you.”

Cas’s hands move with disbelief and wonder—Dean knows the feeling—from his back up to his hair. They cradle the back of his head and squeeze the rain-soaked tufts, softly.

“Oh…”

“Jack’s in there,” Dean chokes out, gesturing back down the road to the bunker. He pulls back again, only by a margin, to look at Cas. Are neither of them gonna mention how their bodies are pressed together, sealed like fate, steaming in the cold air? Dean blinks out the rain in his eyes. “He—he told us everything about—about how—”

“And he told me everything, about how you defeated Chuck, how you wouldn’t kill him—Dean, I’m proud of you—”

“It’s only ‘cause of you,” Dean huffs out, unable to stop the smile at his features. “And we only made it, ‘cause of you. You have to know. You—you impossible—you selfless, impossible son-of-a-bitch—”

“This is a funny kind of thank you—”

“You’re gonna let me process, dammit,” Dean shakes his head, blinking out tears. “You never fuckin’ let me process.”

“Well, then,” Cas resolves patiently, “take as much time as you need.”

But Dean can’t think what to say, next. His eyes are as watery as the sky. He’s stabbed with longing. His soul has stopped being the absence of an echo. Now it’s the chorus of a hymn, at its highest point of joy, of religious ecstasy. He shakes his head.

“I didn’t know that it would hurt you, like this,” Cas says, sorry and sad. Dean shakes his head, blinks, wills away the stinging at his eyes.

“Losing you, Cas—I died with your death—every one of them.”

“Dean…” Cas’s word comes out soft with recognition and refusal.

“You saved me,” Dean says, trembles the words out into the shimmering, cool air.

“You deserved it,” is Cas’s answer, and Dean’s chest clenches with adoration.

“You really think it was worth it,” Dean shakes his head, hope and disbelief. “You really think I could be worth that? You were happy spending eternity in the Empty, for me—”

“I’d do it again.”

“You can’t mean that.”

“But I do.”

“You—you had no hope of reward—”

“No,” Castiel admits.

“Take me,” Dean pleads. “Am I enough? Could I be enough for you?”

“Always,” Cas says, and Dean buries his face into the angel’s neck. “Always,” he murmurs into his skin, a new kind of prayer: a prayer of thanks. “Always.”

“An eternity,” Dean shakes his head. “You could’ve—you thought you would spend—”

“But I didn’t.”

“Cas,”

“Dean.”

Dean presses a string of kisses up Cas’s neck. He doesn’t even think about it—but Cas stills beneath him, out of shock. When Dean gazes into his eyes Cas burns him with wordless questions and speechless hope.

“So you’re back,” Dean stammers out, terrified.

“Right…” Castiel says, slowly. He blinks, obviously confused, obviously as scared as Dean. They stand at the edge of something. Something beautiful. Something profound. Something frightening.

“For good?” Dean asks, a prayer of petition.

“If… if you’ll have me…”

“Forever,” Dean says, “don’t—please don’t—all I want, is—wait,” he frowns. “Don’t you—won’t you have to, I don’t know, do your angel business, help out in the new heaven?”

Castiel twitches an uncertain smile.

“Well—working with Jack meant… meant that much of the grace I had—it burnt out. By the time I landed in the barn, called down by—what I mean is,” he says, uncertain, huffing out an awkward laugh. Neither of them have stopped holding each other. Neither of them mention it. Dean watches the raindrops trace down the ridges of Cas’s cheekbones and he sighs with a pull, not a stab, of desperate longing. Like being anchored. “It cured me,” Castiel says, soft amusement fraying his words, “of my angelic weakness.”

“What?” Dean repeats. He’s shrouded with guilt in an instant.

“I’m human, now,” Cas says. “Completely.”

“No,” Dean shakes his head.

“You seem disappointed,” Cas tries to pull away from Dean’s arms, but Dean, stubbornly, holds on tight.

“It’s because of me,” Dean shakes his head. “It wouldn’t have burnt out, if you hadn’t come down, and you only came down, ‘cause—”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters to me,” Dean says. “You can’t just give it up because of me.”

“I think you more than worthy.”

“I’m not.”

“How many seconds do you think there are?” Castiel asks, with a frown. “How many seconds in eternity?”

“Cas, I don’t—”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “They stop mattering. That’s the point, that’s the thing. It all becomes meaningless. But not my time with you. Not one second, when it’s with you.”

Dean’s heart aches. It sings. It’s knitted back together.

“You meant everything you said,” Dean states, and Cas’s brows twitch. “Down there, in the bunker,” Dean clarifies, “just before the Empty took you. You meant everything you said.”

“Of… course…”

“I barely—I barely got the chance to reply,” Dean shakes his head, tearfully.

“You don’t—”

“I want to,” Dean grinds out. “I want to say it. I wanna tell you. You have to let me,” he shakes his head. No more silence. He’s done with silence. He has something to say and he wants, he deserves, to say it. Sentences beat out of him like a pulse. “Yes I love you, yes I love you, I will love you until the last, the end—I never wanted to but I did, I thought you were too good to be loved by someone, something like me—to hear you talk about—as though you were someone unworthy—” he sighs. “Cas… you’re somethin’ damn impossible.”

Cas licks his lips, eyes sparking with shy amusement.

“That’s what I would have said,” Dean shivers out. A hard mallet of longing and hurt and love and healing, all bound up into a heated one, hits his stomach. “That I thought I didn’t deserve you. All that time. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d been braver.”

“You’ve been brave, now…”

“You taught me a lot,” Dean smiles out tears. Cas smiles back, something so small Dean only registers because of how fucking close the two of them are, now. Silence. The beat of the rain. The beat of their hearts.

“So…” Cas says softly.

“So,” Dean repeats, and breathless, tips his head forward to rest it against Cas’s.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” Cas asks with a complaining frown. “It’s cold, and I’m tired—”

“I got somethin’ I wanna do, first.”

“And what’s that?”

Dean bumps his nose against Cas’s. His stomach flips. Cas’s seems to do the same.

“Take a wild guess,” Dean laughs softly. Cas does the same, his breath hot against Dean’s lips, smoky in the cold and rainy ether.

“I’ve not been a human for very long,” Cas says. “Perhaps you should just show me.”

Dean laughs. He beams. His eyes crease up, pure and silver tears wrung out of them like the starlight rain around them, two figures woven together in the downpour.

And then they’re kissing. Bodies pressed flush together, rain-soaked, pain-cleansed, they’re kissing. Dean’s head reels with it, even as it stills. It’s tentative at first, like the first days of spring, like each of them expect the other to disappear into mist. Then they kiss like the other is wine, heady wine: first they sip, then they drink deep. Deep, deeper. A cup that won’t run dry.

Dean pulls back, drunk and giddy with it. His stomach is rolling, his head whirling on his too-thin neck. Cas blinks at him with wonder. Cas blinks at him with wonder.

“Welcome home, Cas,” he exhales. His fingers are woven with Cas’s soaked, soft hair. Cas’s pale lips are darker than usual. Both of them shiver. Only half of it’s with cold. “Welcome home.”