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Broken Road

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In hindsight, Dean should've realized the whole thing was too good to be true.

Dean doesn't get easy victories. There's no such thing as a big win, not without some kind of cost. A new deal, another string, the other shoe. When you're dealing with devils, you can't be that surprised when they make off with your soul. And Dean's made a lot of pretty raw ones in his time: getting a single year instead of ten before his big trip downstairs, for starters. Saying yes to Michael, and becoming his living, breathing cage. So far, that beats stuffing himself—Michael and all—into the unbreakable Ma'lak Box and getting Sam to drop them both off into the Pacific. So far. Time's ticking on that one. Dean's got a black belt in repression, but even he can only keep an archangel buried for so long. Sooner or later, Michael's gonna bust out of Dean's head, and then take the rest of him for an apocalyptic joyride. Talk about your fine print, right?

But for all the shitty situations Dean's gotten himself into by turning today's little mishaps into tomorrow's hornet nests, this thing seemed harmless enough. Sam called it a Baozhu. It's a little pearl that looks like it came out of a secondhand prop shop, and he's very careful not to touch it as he hands the cloth it rests on to Dean. It seems pretty ordinary, but apparently, it'll grant Dean whatever his heart desires—without costing him a thing.

Stupid. He should've known better.

Dean tries to calm his nerves. Inside his head, Michael's always banging on that door, and any time he slips, the banging gets worse. When Dean gets too pissed, too sad, too scared, too drunk—and that last one's a real pain in his ass. Dean's got be on his toes 24/7. He's barely even sleeping. No rest for the wicked, after all.

But it's worth it. In a way, Dean even takes a vicious sort of pleasure in it, the same kind he got cutting into Alastair once they ran into each other topside. It can't last forever, but this is his revenge. Michael made Dean a helpless passenger in his own body for weeks, and trapped him so far underwater he was sure he'd never see light again. Let the bastard have a taste of his own medicine.

"So," Dean says, wetting his lips. "What do I...?"

Sam gives him half a little shrug. "I dunno. I guess you—you hold the pearl, and then concentrate on what your heart desires."

"Michael dead," Dean says. "Got it." His heart desires a lot of things, but right now, he can't think of anything he wants more than that. Because Sam might still think they can wriggle their way off the hook on this one, but Dean won't give up on Plan B. Worst comes to worst, he and Michael are going to take that swan dive, whether Sam likes it or not, and there'll be no coming back. Dean will drown with Michael forever. And he'd give just about anything not to have to do it.

Dean picks up the pearl, closes his fist around it, and shuts his eyes. He doesn't feel anything. It just feels like a pearl. But he thinks hard about how much he wants Michael not to be able to hurt anyone anymore, and how great it would be not to have to put Sam through the same hell Dean experienced when his brother dragged Lucifer's ass back into the Cage.

I want Michael to die, Dean thinks. I want Michael to die, and I want to be the one to kill him.

At first, nothing happens. Then the bunker lights start to flicker. Dean peeks one eye open—then everything goes black.

For just one moment, Dean's heart drops right out of his chest. He thinks that somehow this whole thing was rigged to fail, and this is it, Michael is back, and Dean's about to get shoved under for good. But it's just the power going off, and in a second, the emergency backup system floods the bunker with red light. He's not holding the pearl anymore; it's disappeared.

There's a shadow standing behind the column to Dean's left.

Michael, Dean thinks, but of the two of them, Sam's currently less sleep deprived, and he swings first. He gets his ass handed to him for his trouble—one hit to his chin to daze him, another to knock him back, and then he gets tossed into the bookshelves behind them. That's Dean's cue.

Part of Dean thinks he realized it right then, even before the lights came on. There's the smell, sure—gun oil and whiskey, hasn't changed a bit—and the way no one else but Sam could ever nail Dean right in the solar plexus like this, kick his ass and leave him breathless with so little effort. But mostly there's just some unnamable thing that's instantly recognizable about this man, even in the dark. Maybe it's his profile, or the way he moves: Dean always could detect his moods without even looking, feeling them from a distance like an oncoming storm. Maybe he knew when he saw him. Maybe he knew after he got close. Maybe that's what made him so slow, so shocked stupid, that he let himself get thrown into the bookshelves right behind Sam. Even when they were sparring, Dean always had trouble raising a hand against him.

A shotgun cocks. An old, familiar voice whispers, "Don't you move," and an older, more familiar weight settles itself around Dean's neck.

The lights come on. And most of Dean is shocked, but part of Dean already knew.

There's always strings attached. Nothing comes free, and nothing comes easy. It's the best thing that could have happened, and the worst.

John Winchester stares down at Dean along the barrel of his shotgun.

"Dad," says Dean.








What the hell. What the hell. This whole fucking thing was monkey's-paw cursed from the get-go. Dean's never trusting any magical object ever again.

Dad looks just like he did the day he crawled out of Hell and helped them put an end to old Yellow Eyes, and he looked then just like he did the day he died. Same dirty boots, same worn rolled-up shirt sleeves; he's even still got a fresh shiny pink scar on his eyebrow, from a cut from a car crash that happened more than a decade ago.

"What in the...?" Dad breathes, eyes darting back and forth between them. "Dean? Sam?"

Dean trades a look with Sam, gratified to see that Sam looks just as spooked as Dean feels. Slowly, they get to their feet, dislodging fallen books and shelf ornaments. Some of them got busted; there's a cut on Dean's cheek and broken glass shards in his hair. He swallows, trying to ignore Michael pounding in his head. He keeps his cool. "Yes sir," he says. "It's us. Really us. Is that—" His voice fails him, momentarily. He's still a little winded from the fight. "Is that really you?"

Dean's actually not sure what he wants the answer to be. Apparently the Baozhu is, though, because Dad says, "It's me. But how did I get here? Last thing I remember..." His face hardens. "Yellow Eyes. We finally got the son of a bitch. And then I..." He trails off, frowning.

"I think—I think we summoned you?" Sam says, but it comes out more like a question, because seriously, what the hell. Dean was supposed to be wishing for a version of Michael he could stab to death, not John Winchester rising from the grave. This isn't just a let-down on the Michael front; this is embarrassing.

"Summoned me," Dad repeats, blankly. Then thunderclouds darken his face. "Do you mean to say you boys made a deal?" For some reason, he levels his stare at Dean.

Sam's eyes dart back and forth between them in concern, and he finds his voice first. "Of course not, Dad. We know better than to—"

Well, that didn't take long. Force of habit: Dean leaps into action so fast he can hardly keep up with himself. "No deal," he assures Dad, hands out, placating. "A mix-up. We had some wish-granting mojo, that's all." He forces a smile. "Guess we got the wrong wish."

Dad narrows his eyes. Dean got that look a lot, growing up: he's being sized up. Dad knows he's lying. "You were fooling around with magic? What were you wishing for?"

Oh boy. "It was for a good cause," Dean says. "Why don't we get caught up over drinks?"

They get drinks. Dad still likes his whiskey neat. Dean has a little, but not too much. Gotta keep an eye on Michael. It's the most surreal feeling in the world. Half of him is focused on keeping himself grounded and keeping that door closed, and the other half feels like he's in outer space—he can't believe he's really sitting here, having this conversation. He can't even figure out how he feels about it, because it doesn't even feel real.

He and Sam do the usual tests—salt, silver, holy water, twenty questions, etc—then fill Dad in on the basics. Where they are: the Men of Letters bunker. How Henry Winchester didn't abandon his son on purpose, but instead traveled forward through time and never made it back, and left them this bunker in his stead. When it is: good old 2019, almost thirteen years after Dad's death. What they've been doing: saving people, hunting things.

That seems to surprise Dad. "But we finished the fight. It was supposed to be over. You never went back to school, Sammy?"

"What?" Sam's incredulous. "No. No, I couldn't just—we had work to do."

Dad squints at Dean. "And what about you?" he asks.

Dean's pulse jumps. "What about me?"

"Something I heard when I was downstairs." Dad says that part point blank, because he never did feel the need to dance around delicate subjects. Facts are facts: he went to Hell for Dean, and he expects his sons to know that by now, since they also saw him crawl back out. Doesn't stop the acknowledgement from rocking Dean back in his seat. "Someone told me you made a deal, Dean."

Dean's heart stutters in his chest. His vision goes a little blurry, the way it always does when Michael senses a chink in his armor. Thanks to his ears ringing, he misses the next few words out of Dad's mouth. He catches the end of a sentence that goes, "...and just what was so worth selling your soul over?"

Oh, shit. Dad doesn't know. He has no idea Dean let Sam get killed on his watch, and in order to make it right gave up the only thing he had left: one tarnished gutter soul.

Who the hell told him about that deal?

Dean's speechless. He glances over at Sam for backup, but Sam seems just as lost as he is. The two of them can have entire conversations with expressions alone. Sam's says You might as well just tell him, and Dean's says No fucking way, and then Sam shrugs, and that means I'll follow your lead on this, but what are you gonna say?

And then the front door of the bunker door opens.

Sam and Dean trade one more look, which is all they have time for, and on both ends this one means: I can't believe we forgot.

"Sam?" calls Mom, from atop the bunker stairs. "Dean?"

Dad's face crumples. It would've been more than twenty years since he last heard her voice, but he recognizes it in an instant. And for all the times Dean's seen him cry about his long-lost widow after he had one too many—he only ever really talked about Mom when he was drunk—this is different. Dad looks like someone just told him he won the lottery. Dad looks like someone just ripped his heart out of his chest. Dean would know.

"Mary," Dad whispers, and shoves out of his chair, whirling around right as Mom appears in the doorway.

From his spot at the table, Dean can see it all: Mom freezing dead in her tracks. Dropping the bags of gas station snacks she brought home for them. The shock on her face as she drinks it all in. She only takes her eyes off of Dad for a split second, and that's to look at Dean.

She's asking if he's real. She's asking if it's okay.

Dean nods.

Mary rushes forward into John's waiting arms. He gathers her up and holds her close, pressing kiss after kiss into her hair, tears running down his face. "My girl," he says, in aching disbelief, drawing back to cup her face in his hands. "My girl." She laughs through her own tears, and when he smooths one gun-calloused thumb under her eye she turns her face into his hand, and then he draws her close and kisses her, like they're the only two people left in the whole wide world.

Well, there's not a dry eye in this house. Dean scrubs furiously at his face, and is gratified to hear Sam sniffling from beside him. Then Sam smacks his shoulder and jerks his head, because yeah, no, they've waited decades for this, and they're not gonna stop now. Time to beat it.

Dean closes the door behind them as quiet as he can. It was impossible to forget for even a moment how much Dad missed her, but sometimes he does forget how much Mom missed him back. They really were part of their own love story—and somehow, against every impossible odd, they've found each other again. Whatever other shit is about to hit the fan, they're still his mom and dad—Dean can't begrudge them that happiness.

As soon as they're a respectable distance away from where they left the folks, Sam stops and turns to Dean and says, "Dean, what."

Dean drags his hand down his face, mortified. "Look, man, I know," he says. "I mean, I don't know, obviously—I was thinking about Michael the whole time, I swear!"

"Maybe—maybe with Dad's face?" Sam tries. "You said he jumped in him, right, back when we traveled in time? Maybe your wires got crossed."

Dean chews his lip. "Yeah, maybe." Truth is, when Dean thinks of Michael, the face he sees is his own. Inside his head, Michael, sensing Dean's thoughts, rattles the bars of his cage, leaving a phantom ringing in Dean's ears. "That was a different Michael, though, not the bastard I've got locked up in my head. Doesn't make any sense."

"You think there's some kind of catch?" Sam asks. "Like—at midnight he turns back into a pumpkin, or something?"

Shit. Dean hadn't thought of that. He's been thinking of Dad being here as its own catch. "I don't know," he says again. "The pearl disappeared on us, so maybe—it's a one-time deal. We don't get to try again and get Michael out." God, he's fucked, he's fucked, he's fucked. One-way ticket to the bottom of the Pacific. Great job, Winchester.

"Speaking of Michael," Sam says, "how're you doing? And do not say fine. I saw you, Dean. You were totally spaced out for a second there."

Dean's jaw tightens. "I'm peachy."

Sam pulls his little bitchface. "Even with Dad here? I mean, it's Dad."

Dean cuts his eyes away. "Yeah. It sure is."

The thing is: Dean loved his dad with everything he had and then some, and he never, ever wanted to add to his burden. The last thing Dad needed was for Dean to bitch about how shitty and unfair their lives were, and how much they needed Dad to be there when he wasn't. Dean knows Dad did the best he could, and he never wanted to make Dad feel like his best wasn't good enough. Sammy did enough of that for both of them.

But Dad's been gone for a long, long time—and no matter how Dean fought and struggled with it, that immutable fact was impossible to change. Dad was gone, and Dean was here, without him. And over the years Dean realized that he didn't have to try so hard to defend Dad when Dad wasn't around to hear him do it. It was okay to say stuff like My father was an obsessed bastard! because he was an obsessed bastard, and that truth couldn't hurt him anymore. Dean never liked to get angry at his old man, exactly, but the plain and simple fact is that his best wasn't good enough—and that, Dean could get pissed about.

When Dad was gone, it was okay to get a little pissed. When Dad was gone, it was all right to admit that none of it was fair. That kind of anger is safer. It doesn't have any direction. Whose fault is it, anyway, that Dad just couldn't swing parenthood? The Yellow-Eyed Demon's? God's? Dean's? Didn't matter, as long as it wasn't Dad's. Dean could do things like talk to Sam about all those times Dad would send him away, or to tell Cas about what happened in Flagstaff when Sammy disappeared on his watch.

Now Dad's here again, and Dean doesn't know what to do. It took such a long goddamn time for him to be able to admit to himself that the way he and Sam grew up was—that it wasn't right. And of course none of that was Dad's fault. Hell, Dean's the one who brought the poor son of a bitch back; he doesn't get to start pointing fingers. But it's been thirteen years. Dean's had over a decade of time and distance to see it a little more clearly. He can't be angry anymore, but how is he supposed to just put away that much shit and act like he's the same stupid hero-worshipping kid that he was when Dad died?

Dean doesn't know what to do.

"Dean," Sam says, "why didn't you want to tell Dad about your deal? It's not like he isn't going to want to know what's happened since he's been gone."

Dean's throat clicks when he swallows. "How can I? Sam, I—" Inexplicably, he has to lower his voice. "I let him down, man. I let you die on my watch, and then we let Lucifer out of Hell. The devil, Sam."

"Yeah, and we put him back in," Sam says. "And then we killed him. Dad would be proud. Should be proud, anyway," he adds in a mutter.

Dean can't stop the laugh that escapes him. "Sammy, all we were doing was cleaning up our own messes."

Sam frowns. "So we cleaned them up," he says. He hesitates, and then grabs Dean's shoulder. "You don't have to be...worried. You know? You're too old to—to get in trouble. I mean, what do you think he's going to do?"

Yeah, no. That's about as much talking about this as Dean wants to do for the rest of his life, thanks. He shrugs Sam's hand away. "Listen, I'm gonna go and—" He can't make up a chore in time. "—take care of some stuff. Cas and the kid are due back any minute, so why don't you go ahead and text him the good news?"

Sam blinks. "Me? You want me to warn Cas about Dad?"

Dean shrugs; deliberately casual, deliberately misunderstanding the question. "Well, Mom did almost shoot him. I'd hate to see what Dad would do."

A little while later finds John and Mary Winchester in her personal bedroom in the Men of Letters underground bunker.

Sam and Dean explained that after John crawled out of Hell, his soul moved on. He supposed he must have gone to Heaven, if there is such a place, but he doesn't remember that. There was Hell, there was the fight and Yellow Eyes, and then he was here. So maybe this is Heaven, he thinks, looking down at the woman in his arms. How else could be he so lucky?

"How are you here?" he murmurs, stroking his thumb over Mary's shoulder in wonder. "How are you real?"

Mary's face is pressed into his chest. "Long story. It was sort of an accident. I've been back about two and a half years now."

"And you've been with the boys ever since?"

"Mm," Mary agrees. She sits up to look at him. "More or less. We do a lot of hunting."

Hunting. John found out years ago what Mary was, what her family did. But he could never imagine it. Seeing her here now, dressing in boots and button-downs instead of her white nightgown and sundresses, her long curls traded for a practical short bob above her shoulders, new scars on her body and no makeup on her face, makes it seem more real. John takes the end of one tapered lock between his fingers. "I like your hair." She smiles at him, eyes crinkling, and he adds in wonder, "You know, you still look just the same. Just like you did the night I lost you."

Of course, she doesn't look at all what she looked like then. She's different head to toe. But that's the miraculous part of it: for all that, she's the same in the way that matters. Her face, her voice—it's still his Mary. It's been so long, yet she looks like she hasn't aged a day. She could have stepped right out of his memories.

But of course Mary knows what he means. She says, a little sad, "I may look the same, but I've changed. It's been a rough couple of years."

Hm. "Maybe so," John allows. "That's not a bad thing. Just means I get to know you better. Fall in love with you all over again." He tucks Mary's hair tenderly behind her ear, and is rewarded with one of her rare charmed smiles. "You know, I still can't believe you're a hunter."

"I still can't believe you're a hunter." Pain crosses Mary's face. "I hated this life. I wouldn't have wished it on anyone."

"At least now it's something we all have in common. You, me—and our boys, too."

Mary's face tightens. She starts to speak and then hesitates, her eyes darting back and forth as she struggles around some unasked question.

"What?" John asks. "Sweetheart, what is it?"

John has memorized all of Mary's expressions; he kept them written on his heart for twenty-two years after she died. This one is pained and unhappy. "Nothing."

But he knows her better than that. "It's the boys, isn't it," he guesses.

Mary looks away.

John always wondered, over the long years, what Mary would think of the way he did things. Even before he knew what she and her family were, he still knew on some level she wouldn't approve. No children should have to live the way their boys did. But now he knows—he can see it in her face.

Slowly, John sits up, to be eye-level with her. "I wasn't always the best father," he admits. "But I kept them alive. I kept them safe, and prepared. Dean, he's almost as old as I am now. There were days I was scared to death that none of us would ever live that long. But here we all are, alive and together. You have to believe me, Mary—I did the best I could without you."

Mary's shoulders are stiff. "I know," she says. "It's not your fault. I'm the one who..." She swallows audibly. "You know about the deal?"

"Found out when Sammy was still in grade school," John says. "If you're waiting on me to get pissed, you'll be waiting a long time."

John could never be angry with Mary when she wasn't even there to get angry at. His fury was for the demon, for himself for not being able to stop it from killing him and forcing Mary to barter for his life. He doesn't remember most of it: just Mary's father dragging her out of the car and shouting him down the night he proposed, and then waking up in her arms, with Samuel Campbell's still-warm corpse dead on the ground beside them. But he remembered enough to know he failed her. Even when John still thought it was just some guy who'd killed her parents and attacked him, and not an actual demon that murdered all three of them, he spent years feeling guilty and ashamed at his own weakness—here he was a seasoned combat veteran, and he still failed to protect her. Learning what she'd done broke John's heart, but how could he blame her when he'd have done the same for her?

Still—sometimes it was hard to look at Sammy the same way after that. Deliberately or not, Mary allowed their child to be infected with something evil and impure. And no matter which way you sliced it, Sam was always going to be part of the reason Mary was dead. John can't remember exactly, but he thinks they started fighting more after he found out what Sammy really was, what he had inside him. He tortured himself a lot with that fact, after Sammy left their family behind.

"I guess we've both made some mistakes," John offers at last. "Maybe we can leave it at that. We're all together again, Mary. You and me, and our boys. Isn't that the most important thing?"

"...maybe," Mary says quietly, though she doesn't sound entirely convinced. "I guess we have time. Now that you're here." She reaches for him, smoothing her hand over his face. "How are you here? What happened?"

John turns his face into her touch, eyes falling shut. He could drink this in forever and still never get enough. "The boys said they had some kind of power that granted wishes. They said it was for a good cause. But they were as surprised to see me as I was to see them, so I can't have been what they were expecting. Do you know what they were after?"

Silence. John opens his eyes to find Mary wearing an expression not unlike a deer in headlights. "Um," she says.

They're interrupted by a beeping from the bedside table.

John twists around. "What's that?"

Mary reaches across him to pick up her—good God, is that a phone? Is that what they look like now? "Dinner bell," says Mary. "We always try to eat as a family on Thursdays. Board games after."

A family dinner. It's almost literally too good to be true. John has a fond and distant memory of Mary's meatloaf—best he's ever had. "Do you still cook?" he asks, hopeful.

Mary ducks her head and laughs. "Ah, no. No, that'd be a disaster. Unless we're getting takeout, Dean usually makes dinner around here."

John's memories of Dean's dinners are less distant and certainly less fond. Pulling together leftovers and canned goods in the kitchen while John sat like a rock at the table, too hungover to even help Sammy with his homework. Dean never complained, but John isn't stupid. "Dean hates cooking."

"Dean?" Mary repeats. She presses a kiss to the side of John's head and climbs out of bed, picking her clothes up off the floor. "You're in for a surprise."

And in the bustle of getting themselves dressed and presentable, John forgets entirely that she never told him what, exactly, Sam and Dean were wishing for.

It's just before dinner when John meets Castiel.

The place smells fantastic—John opens the bedroom door and is greeted by the aroma of roasting meat and onions. It smells just like the meatloaf Mary used to make. "Is he trying to copy your recipe?"

"Something like that," says Mary wryly.

Dean's in the kitchen when they get out, standing at the stove, adding something to a pot. And now that John's got a chance to really look at him, it amazes him how different Dean is.

The Dean he left behind was all smack talk and swagger, a little too involved with his own reflection, a little too clean and clean-shaven, which made him just a little too pretty. He decorated himself with all those gaudy trinkets he used to wear for protection—the rings, the bracelets, that strange-looking necklace he was so stubbornly attached to—and kept his hair spiked with that godawful gel, swanning around in that oversized leather jacket with his collar popped like he was Steve McQueen or something. John always thought it was him overcompensating for the fact that he wasn't yet a true adult; how could he be, when their family had to stick together to hunt down Yellow Eyes? Dean never got to cut the apron strings and be his own man while John was alive, because the fight came first. The fight came before everything.

But the fight's over, and Dean's a real man now. His hair's buzzed shorter, and he's got a respectable amount of stubble on his chin. He's wearing a simple flannel, sleeves rolled up, and it's only too easy to picture him elbow-deep in the guts of their old Chevy instead of standing in this kitchen. And his clothes actually fit now. He's got meat on his bones, real muscle born of hard experience. John's boy wears most of his age in the wrinkles around his eyes, now, but there's not one inch of him the years haven't carved into a stronger, harder, more dangerous hunter than he was when they saw each other last.

It was everything John wanted for him, and everything he didn't. Dean's finally a man—but all these years later, he's still hunting. The fight is over. Dean should have gotten out.

Dean hums under his breath as he cooks, and after a few bars John recognizes Ramble On. As John watches, he grabs a spoon off the counter and tastes a little. He looks...cheerful, John realizes, and at the same time he realizes that he has never, not once, seen Dean enjoy himself in the kitchen.

Dean catches sight of them with the spoon in his mouth and jumps like a scalded cat. "Dad!"

"Hey, Dean." John walks over to the stove, peering down to see the pot is full of mashed potatoes. "I didn't know you could cook. Guess you picked up a few tricks while I was gone."

Dean leans away a little to let him see. "Yeah, well. Permanent kitchen. A man can't live on takeout forever."

Mary has taken a seat by a little table near the wall. "Come sit with me," she calls. "Dean's kitchen, Dean's rules—no loitering."

"Dean has kitchen rules?" John repeats. It feels like every sentence that has come out of his mouth since he got back has been a question.

"Nah, it's a free country," Dean dismisses. He's pretty intent on stirring his potatoes—like he doesn't notice or care if John stands next to him. "About fifteen more minutes and it's go-time."

Just then, there's the loud squeak of the bunker door opening—the same sound that heralded Mary's return to John's life. This time, though, Dean's head jerks up as if on a string. "Sam?" he calls.

From the opposite direction, Sam calls back, "Setting the table! Must be Cas and Jack."

Fast steps down the staircase. Dean abandons the potatoes and beats it for the door. A second after he vanishes John hears him say, in a low and terribly urgent tone, "Cas—"

Another voice, male, demands, "Where is he? Is he here?" A pause. "What happened to your face? Did he—"

"He's in the kitchen," Dean says, "but Cas, listen to me, it was just an accident—"

A man appears in the doorway.

At once, John corrects himself. It's not a man. It can't be. Something about him feels wrong, or unearthly. Blue tie, slacks, trench coat—nothing out of the ordinary except for how he carries himself. He looks like a man, but he feels like lightning in a bottle. His eyes raking John over make John feel like he's getting an x-ray of his soul.

"So you're John Winchester," says the stranger.

John bristles. "And who the hell are you?" What he really wants to ask is: What the hell are you?

Dean appears in the doorway behind the newcomer and shoulders his way through. "He's a friend," Dean says, and adds, "a friend," as though to make sure they both heard him. It's the same tense voice he used to use when he got between John and Sammy during a screaming match. "This is Castiel."

Can Dean not see this thing isn't human? What's wrong with him? John tries to catch his eye, but he's too busy looking back and forth between them, tensed up like he's ready to jump in the middle at a moment's notice. "Castiel," John says slowly. Even the name sounds foreign. John itches for his pistol. "What exactly are you, Castiel?"

Dean's eyes go wide, his head jerking in John's direction. "Dad," he starts, but when Castiel holds up a hand he falls silent.

"I'm an angel."

Is he serious? John looks back and forth between Castiel and Dean, uncertain. "There's no such thing as angels," he whispers. "Everybody knows that." It's a story you tell to children, like the way Mary used to tell the boys that angels were watching over them when she tucked them in at night.

"Is that so," Castiel says flatly. A sudden frisson of static charge makes the hair on John's arms stand on end. There's some kind of furious crackling tension rolling off of Castiel, like the air before a lightning strike. Until now Castiel's stare hasn't left John once, but he takes his eyes off of him completely—casually dismissing him as a threat, John notes—to turn to Dean, and lifts a hand to his face. "Here."

"Hey," John snaps, taking two fast steps forward, but he feels Mary's hand on his shoulder at the same time he sees, incredibly, Castiel's eyes glow, and the cut on Dean's face that he got from their fight earlier shrinks down to nothing and then vanishes. Castiel drops his hand.

"Angel," Mary says in John's ear. "Healing powers."

There's a very long pause. John has been shocked silent.



Looking at Castiel, nothing in John believes that this thing is some benevolent force for good, here to perch on their shoulders and protect them from harm. Castiel looks more than capable of inflicting harm, and like he'd be more than happy to do so. Fine, so he's an angel: that still means he's not human, and John doesn't trust what isn't human. You're either a person or a monster. End of story. There's no gray area there.

And John's family, they kill monsters. Him and the boys, and Mary too. Why in the hell are they living in an underground bunker with one?

Dean's the first to try and break the tension. "Crazy, right?" he says with forced lightness. "I couldn't believe it either. Turns out they're real after all. Wings, halos, harp—the whole damn nine."

He says it like he's waiting for Castiel to come in with some kind of punchline, but Castiel doesn't say anything. He's back to staring John down. It's unsettling.

"And that doesn't ring any of your alarm bells?" John asks, in disbelief. "He's not human. Why are you running around with—"

"Hey," says Mary, from behind John. "I know, John—but he's a friend. I've known him for years. He's on the level."

If anybody else said something like that to John, he would laugh in their face. But there's no one he trusts more than Mary. He doesn't understand it, but if she says so, he believes her. He tries to relax the hard set of his shoulders. "All right," he agrees, through his teeth.

Nothing happens. Castiel continues to stare right through John. Dean continues not to move.

"Son," John says finally, "you're going to burn your dinner."

Dean turns around, so he's facing Castiel and not John, and John can't see his expression. There's a moment of silence, and then Dean says, "Where's Jack? Don't tell me you let that kid park your truck by himself."

John has no idea who Jack is—another angel?—but Castiel finally steps backwards. "I won't be gone long," he says. He gives John one last scorching look.

And that's what's so unsettling about him, John realizes. It isn't just that he's not human. It's that he's the only one here who seems unhappy that John is back.

The table gets set for six people: John, Mary, Dean, Sam, Castiel, and Jack. Jack is, in fact, another angel, at least by half. He breezes into the library where the table is set, oblivious to the tension still lingering in the air, lifts his hand in an awkward sort of wave, and cheerfully introduces himself as a nephilim—half-angel, half-human—and Castiel's son.

John, now seated at the table with Mary to his right, gives her a skeptical look. "Angels have kids?" What kind of human being would get busy with one of those things?

"No, it's not allowed," says Jack. "But Cas does anyway. It wasn't his fault, though. I'm not his son biologically—just in all the ways that matter."

It takes a moment for John to process all of this. He has so many questions he barely knows where to begin. No other guests seem forthcoming, so cautiously, he settles on, "Where's your mother?"

Mary elbows him at the same time that Jack's face falls. "She's in Heaven."

Dead, then. John wonders who, or what, killed her. "Sorry," he says roughly. He'd like to know who exactly Jack's biological father is, but with Mary giving him that look he can't bring himself to press it right now.

Jack forges on. "I can't believe I'm actually getting to meet Sam and Dean's father," he says bravely. "I've heard so much about you."

Dean walks into the room with Castiel on his heels, both of them carrying pots and trays of the dinner Dean made. "Don't worry," says Dean. "We only told him the good stuff."

"Jack and Cas have saved our necks more times than I can count," Mary says warmly. Just the sound of her voice makes something in John relent, relax; this is a strange situation, and he's wary of these so-called angels, and he has so, so many questions—but how much can it really matter if Mary is finally here beside him again? "Just a few weeks ago we were working on a rugaru case up in Michigan, and I thought we were finished—then out of nowhere comes Jack in Castiel's truck. Sent 'em all flying into an electric fence."

Jack grins at the memory. "Just trying to stay useful—powers or not."

Mary nudges John's shoulder. "They're on the level," she says again, and even after all these years he can still read her expression: she sees his suspicion, and wants to ease it. "You don't have to worry."

John lets it drop, for now. The last time he saw his boys he was fighting with them, and he's been back for less than a day; the last thing he wants to do is fight now. "Pass the potatoes," he says instead, by way of a subject change. Nobody says grace at this table; instead, they all dig in. And as it turns out, Mary was right: John was in for a surprise. Dean really can cook. Dinner is meatloaf almost exactly like Mary used to make, and the best loaded mashed potatoes John's ever had. Silence falls over the table, the kind only brought about by everyone being busy with eating at the same time.

Normally this kind of quiet doesn't bother John, but today it makes him uneasy. "It's good meatloaf," he tells Dean. "Reminds me of your mom's."

"About that," Mary says. "I, uh, don't cook. Never learned how."

What? "Mary, you fed me dinner every night for almost ten years," John says, scandalized.

Mary shrugs, apologetic. "I was a hunter. I didn't want to tell you about all of that, but—I guess the game is up now. You just don't learn homemaking in the school of hard-knocks."

"I do okay, though," Dean says. He's seated across from Mary, and they trade a little smile. "It may not have been Mom's, but this tastes just like Piggly Wiggly's."

"You should try his burgers," Sam says. He's sitting at the head of the table, to John's left. "I'm not normally a fan, but they're art."

"Definitely my favorite," Jack agrees.

"Okay, okay, knock it off," Dean says, but he sounds pleased. "Burgers next time. Quit yapping and eat before it gets cold."

To John's surprise, his throat is almost too tight to swallow. This is what he always wanted for Dean: a home, a family. He left his boys alone in the world, and all they had was each other. He lived every day scared to death something would be smart or dangerous enough to take them from him—or worse, that whatever sickness was inside Sam would get the better of him, and compel him to fall in line with all the plans the demons had for him, turning him into the very same kind of thing their family hunted. Dying hadn't alleviated his worries, but seeing his boys like this does. So they didn't get out—at least they're together. At least Mary is here. What could matter more than that? Maybe it's better this way. Their family is together again. John couldn't have even daydreamed of this. That's how incredible this is. More than incredible: it's perfect.

Or at least it would be, if not for the two interlopers sitting at his family's table.

Jack, seated at the other end of the table opposite from Sam, between Dean and Mary, has plenty to say. He eats like a toddler—or like Dean—talking with his mouth full and like every bite's the first he's had in days. He talks about the shows he's watching and the hunts he's researching and everything else under the sun. And Sam and Dean and Mary all respond in kind, at least when they aren't chewing themselves. But there's one person (or rather, non-person) at the table who has yet to speak at all.

Castiel, sitting to Dean's right and across from John, looks comfortable at this table, but he doesn't chow down like Jack does. In fact, there's something about the way he eats that suggests to John that he's doing it because he wants to, and not because he needs to, which is unsettling all on its own—like watching a werewolf play house. Castiel is also the only one at the table who didn't bother with a beer. John suspects it's because the alcohol wouldn't affect him one bit. If he doesn't bother to drink, then why bother to eat? John doesn't get it. It's creepy.

It's probably a bad idea to poke at it—for whatever reason, Castiel clearly doesn't care much for John—but it's only polite to bring him into the conversation, right?

And John does, maybe, want to poke at it. Just a little.

"So, Castiel," John says. "How long have you known Mary and the boys?"

There's a moment's pause where Castiel looks up, his expression a little incredulous, like he's surprised John spoke to him at all and would have rathered he didn't. But then he jerks oddly, almost as though someone kicked him under the table, and schools his features into something bland and disinterested. It happens so quickly it could almost have been John's imagination. "I met Mary almost immediately after she came back," Castiel says, a little too politely. "Sam and Dean I've known for more than a decade now."

John whistles. "Long time," he says. Almost the entire time he was gone. "How'd you two start running with angels, anyway?"

Sam and Dean trade one of those looks John hates. They've spent more time around each other than around him, and they can speak volumes with their facial expressions alone. They used to do that when they were kids, too. It always made John feel like they were talking over his head—like they got to decide whether or not he was allowed to be roped into their conversation. He never could break them of that habit, no matter how hard he tried.

Dean's busy shaking his head and giving Sam a pretty obvious look of NO when Jack puts down his beer bottle and says, "Oh, Cas is the one who pulled Dean out of Hell."

Everyone stills. John feels sick, suddenly. He can't have heard that right. "What?"

Dean wipes a deer-in-headlights expression from his face, and clears his throat. "Yeah, so—as it turns out I did spend a little time downstairs," he says. "It's not a big deal. Wasn't half a minute before Cas here sprang me."

"Not a big deal?" John repeats, incredulous. He's half-ready to stand up in his seat. He remembers Hell, every horrible second of it, and it's the last thing he'd wish on anyone, but especially his Dean. Just thinking about it makes his heart ache. "Dean."

"He did it for me," Sam snaps. Immediately Dean mutters, "don't you start," but Sam says over him, "It was my fault. I trusted the wrong people and got in trouble. Dean was just—watching out for me." Sam lifts his eyebrows. "You know, like you told him to?"

Is Sam goading him? Did Dean tell him what John said? "I never wanted you to sell your soul, Dean," John says. "Never. You know that, don't you?"

"I'm sorry," Dean says helplessly. "I'm sorry, Dad, but I didn't know what else to do—"

"And he's back now," Mary says firmly. "It's just like you said: we're all here together, and that's what's important."

Mary's right. They have time, don't they? Whatever happened while John was gone, they can figure it out together, as a family, because they finally are a family again. As long as Mary is here with him, the rest can be seen to.

And then Dean slumps forward, hissing through his teeth, clutching his head with both hands.

Sam and Castiel jump to their feet immediately. "Dean?" Sam asks. He looks scared—scared enough that John gets scared, too. He abandons his plate to hover anxiously at Dean's side. "Hey, Dean, you good? You in there?"

"I'm here," Dean grits out. "Don't have a coronary, Sam."

"What's wrong with him?" John asks. "Is he all right? Dean? Son?"

"Did you sleep at all last night?" Castiel murmurs, brow furrowed. It's the most human he's looked since John met him. "You promised me you'd try to rest."

"Yes," Dean answers through his teeth, like everyone at the table can't tell that's a lie. "I'm good, guys. Calm down. You're scaring the folks."

Castiel shoots John an annoyed look, like this is somehow all his fault. "Maybe you should get some air."

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. "Yeah," he admits, like it costs him. "Yeah, maybe."

Sam helps Dean up from the table, then jerks his head at Castiel. They're doing it too, John realizes, with no small amount of irritation. They don't need to speak aloud just to talk over his head. This guy, this angel, really has known both of his boys for a decade.

They seem to reach an agreement. "I'll go," Castiel says. "Please keep an eye on Jack." What John hears, though, is Don't leave my kid alone with John Winchester.

"Sorry, Dad," Dean says, eyes still shut. "I'll be back. We'll talk."

But before he can say anything else, Castiel has put a gentle hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the room. Their footsteps echo on the stairs—then the bunker door slams shut, leaving silence in its wake.

John wheels around. "Are we just going to let him walk out of here like that? With that thing? What the hell's the matter with him?"

Jack's face screws up. "Thing? Do you mean Cas?"

"Of course not," Mary tells him.

"We trust Cas," Sam says firmly. He doesn't shout like he used to, but his tone brooks no argument. "Dean's safer with him than just about anybody."

"Oh, because Cas pulled Dean out of Hell." John sneers out their little nickname. "And by the way, when were you gonna tell me—"

"John," Mary says, and lays a hand on his arm.

John sags, the fight taken out of him in an instant. He can't bring himself to shout with Mary standing right here next to him. They fought a lot, in the old days. He wants to do better this time.

"Dean's all right," Mary tells him, though her concerned look at the bunker door leaves him less than convinced. "Let's just clean up."

"I'm sorry," Jack says suddenly. "Did I say something wrong?"

Mary sighs. "No, sweetheart. It's just been a long time since we've all seen each other. We have a lot to talk about." With this last sentence she pins John with a dark look that he doesn't understand—like somehow whatever's wrong with Dean is his fault. That's not fair. He should be angry with her. She kept her entire life from him, and now this too. But John missed her too much. She was gone for too long. He couldn't be angry even if he tried—not at his Mary. Whatever protests John had been ready to make about Dean and Castiel have been silenced, at least for now.

"You could lay off Dean a little," Sam says, throwing John a sour look. "That would help."

"Help what?" John demands.

"Later," Mary says, and Mary is the only person in the world who could make him settle before he got answers. "Jack and I will clean up the table. You two do the dishes. And don't fight," she adds, mostly to John. "Do not fight."

John starts, helpless, "Mary—"

She puts a finger to his lips. "Listen to me, John Winchester. You're my husband, and I love you. You don't trust the angels, fine. But I need you to trust me. Dean's okay. I wouldn't send our son away with someone who'd hurt him."

John's jaw clamps shut around his protest. She already let harm come to one of their sons. She didn't mean to, but she did. Who's to say it couldn't happen again?

"We're together again," Mary reminds him. "We have a second chance. So don't blow it, okay?"

John can't quite meet her eye. "Okay," he agrees, and retreats to the kitchen—but not without one last look over his shoulder at the shut bunker door.

And so, John and Sam do dishes. John washes, Sam dries.

John can't remember the last time he did a basic household chore like this—their family never stayed anywhere long enough to build up dirty dishes, if they had dishes at all. Sometimes they'd rent a house when Sam and Dean were kids, so they could stay a month or two at a time for school, but even then John was usually out hunting. He'd have to leave his boys for days or even weeks at a time, and get in at all hours. Times like that, the sink was always empty, because Dean was something of a neat freak. Weapons obsessively clean, motel rooms and rented houses picked up, beds made with hospital corners tight enough to bounce a penny off of. He'd have made any drill sergeant proud.

And John probably didn't say so often enough, but he always appreciated not having to come home to a mess. Two whole years over in Vietnam couldn't hold a candle to some of the shit he saw on the job: mangled bodies, dead kids, people you were so close to saving and failed. When the boys were still very young, John would always get home to find his kids living in squalor, and something in him would just about break, because he couldn't do it all—hunt the Yellow-Eyed Demon, and keep his family safe, and clean up after a couple of kids.

Sometimes when John got in real late, and he couldn't stand to look at the mess, he'd guilt-clean the entire place top to bottom, intent on surprising the boys when they woke up. He'd do it even if he was bruised and banged up, even once when he had stitches in. It never worked. Dean woke up right away whenever John came through their door, and he always helped with the mess. So, by the time Dean hit thirteen or fourteen, he got to where he was anal about keeping things clean, and he's been that way ever since. No matter where they stayed, the place was always spotless when John walked in. John supposed since no one ever knew when he'd get in, that meant Dean kept them spotless all the time. It's such a little thing, but it was one less weight on his shoulders.

The last time John did dishes must've been when Sam and Dean were still little. John almost never actually saw Dean cleaning, but when he did, he washed, and Sam dried. John strongly suspects nothing has changed in that regard, except that now he's elbow-deep in dishwater instead of Dean because Dean isn't here. He's outside with someone who's not even human.

John and Sam are mostly silent while they work. There's nothing but the clinking of dishes, and the murmur of Mary speaking with Jack in the other room. At first John doesn't mind; his Mary, oh, he could never tire of her sweet voice. But after a while Sam's silence starts to become more pronounced. Is this the only way he can not fight with John, by not saying anything at all?

"Is there a reason," John says at last, scrubbing at Dean's potato pot, "that nobody wants to tell me what the hell is going on around here?"

Sam shrugs, which is a far cry from what John was expecting. Used to be, Sam would take any opportunity he could to get up in John's face. He walked through this world like it owed him something, always with a chip on his shoulder. He was tall and wiry and every bit as scrappy as Dean was, but the pit of anger he threw those punches from ran a hell of a lot deeper. He used to aim that anger at John: about hunting, about their lives, about their quest to find the thing that killed Mary, long before he believed in the necessity of any of it. Maybe it was something about being the second son, maybe it was the demon in him, but John never could figure out where he went wrong with that boy. Dean he raised right, brought to heel, but Sam was the most pissed-off stubborn sonuvabitch John ever met, besides himself. Trying to reason with him—well, you might as well wrestle angels.

The grownup Sam of today seems different. He's slower and quieter—thoughtful, John would say, deliberate in a way that seems to preclude just flying off the handle like he used to. And more solemn, like he's aged well beyond just thirteen years. He's gotten a little taller, and much broader in the shoulders, though there's a new weight upon them that John doesn't recognize. Still, it's an imposing figure he cuts now. John used to be a little wary of Sam because of the demon blood. Now his wariness has more to do with the way Sam looks like he could lift a car off somebody without breaking a sweat. John isn't used to either of his boys being a bigger man than he is.

And there's an uneasy, nagging familiarity that catches John sometimes, when Sam is at just the right angle. It's taken him until now to realize what it is. Dean always favored Mary, but oh, now that Sam's older, John can see it: he looks a little bit more like his father.

His sons really are grown men now—Dean only a decade younger than him, and older than his mom was when she died. John's been gone such a long time.

But grown or not, it doesn't mean they can keep things from him.

"Is he sick?" John presses. "Is he cursed? Does it have something to do with him going to Hell?"

Sam sighs, taking the pot from John to dry it. "It's Dean's place to decide what to tell you, Dad. Not mine. And I'm not gonna fight with you about that, especially not after—I'm just not."

Is he thinking of how they left things before Stanford? John thinks about that all the time. But he can't afford not to push this. "Dean's my son. You're both my boys. I've got a right to know if you're in trouble."

And John doesn't know what he was expecting—for Sammy to get up in his face, maybe, like old times—but it certainly wasn't the skeptical, disappointed look that he gets. "Nah," Sam says, easy. "You don't. Especially not if you're gonna give us a hard time about it." It's different from the way he used to fight with John, pissed as hell and shouting the house down. This Sam seems older, and more tired. Like the wind has been taken out of his sails—but that's all right, because he's already got to wherever he was going. Everything he says is matter-of-fact, brook-no-argument. He's really not going to fight with John, and John isn't sure if he knows what to do with that.

"Look," Sam says, "you've been gone a long time. Dean and me, we're adults now. This isn't like you—you coming in from a job, and busting our chops if we hadn't been doing our homework and staying out of trouble. You weren't away, Dad. You were dead."

John swallows around the lump in his throat. "I get that," he says. He stares down at the dirty plates in the dishwater. He remembers being dead, all hundred-odd years of it. That's why he can't let this go. "I get that, I do, but Sammy, this is Hell we're talking about here. You don't know how serious this is—"

For some reason that makes Sam laugh, but it's little more than a disbelieving puff of air and jerk of his shoulders, and his smile is brittle as it crosses his face. "I think I have some idea," Sam says. "I've been to Hell myself."

That draws John up short. "What?"

Sam shrugs. "Long time ago. Dean and Cas got me out. But it's like Mom said—we're here now." He nods at the plate in John's hand. "You gonna finish that?"

John stares at him, speechless with horror. "Sam..." He can't imagine his boys down there. What could have been so important? Did Sam sell his soul too, or was it because of the demon blood Yellow Eyes fed him in the cradle? Or what if it was even worse, something Sam did after John was gone? John knows a little something about the plans Yellow Eyes had for his special kids, and he doesn't like any of it. "Son, I'm so—"

"Don't," Sam says. "Just don't." He takes the plate out of John's hands and turns on the water to wash it himself. "You know, uh—it didn't have anything to do with you. I made my own choices. I don't regret doing what I had to do. And I don't really wanna talk about it. I don't think Dean wants to talk about it. I mean, would you? Do you?"

"No," John agrees immediately. His memories of Hell aren't like the ones he has of his time of being alive. He remembers the demon, the way it crooned and sang as he lay flayed open on the rack—but it's all so ephemeral, every wretched day bleeding one into the next. The pain, though, every second of that is crystal-clear. Worse still is the complete and total despair. Even now that John's out, it threatens to choke him if he dwells on it long enough. "No," he says again. "I don't."

"Okay." Sam dries his plate. "Okay, so—no reason to pick at it. I've been back from Hell for almost a decade now. For Dean it's even longer. For us, that's ancient history."

Sam's hands are empty. John has to remind himself to start washing again. "Ancient history, huh?" he echoes. It sits wrong, Sam telling him how things are going to be, instead of the other way around. But he hears Mary laugh from the library, and his nerves settle. She's here. They're all here.

Sam looked up at the sound. "We do board games, normally," he says. "If we're not on a case. Mom's probably teaching Jack about Connect Four right now."

Playing a mother to some half-angel kid. John's mouth twists unpleasantly as he scrapes dried potato off the last plate. "Why is that?" he says. "What are these angels to you? This Castiel—do you owe him for springing you? Is that why he's here? Son, we're supposed to hunt things that aren't human. Not have dinner with them." He hands the plate to Sam, pulls the plug on the dishwater, and goes to dry his hands.

Sam dries the plate. John can't believe his son's grown so quiet. "They're family," Sam says at last. "They might be strangers to you, but Cas and Jack are my family. They're Dean's family. Mom's family. You know, uh—when she came back, she really struggled. It'd been a really long time for her, and she missed her kids being kids. She wanted to be a mother to us, she wanted to so badly, you know, but we grew up without her. But Jack—I know he doesn't look it, but he's still a few months off from his second birthday. And his mom's gone. Cas, and me and Dean, we did the best we could. But they needed each other."

John paces, quiet, to the doorway of the kitchen. From here he can see Mary and Jack in the library—sure enough, it's Connect Four. It's the cruelest kind of irony. He ached for this for twenty-two years. To see Mary play games with their kids, love their kids. And now she's here, but she's mothering someone else's son. "And Castiel?" he asks finally. "Who needed him?"

Sam turns the last plate over. "Dean did," he says. "And I did. I told you—Cas got us out of Hell. We wouldn't be here if not for him. Cas has gone to bat for us more times than I can count."

Sam dries his own hands while John chews that over. It's still not right. John didn't even think angels were real. How is he just supposed to be okay with them in his family's home? How is he supposed to play nice and trust something that's not even human? Every monster he's ever met has gone bad. What makes these two so damn special?

Paranoia that has long dogged John's footsteps reminds him that if it isn't his own instincts that are off, it's Sam and Dean's. No self-respecting hunter, no son of John Winchester's, would shelter monsters if there wasn't something deeper going on. He taught them better than that. Unless—


Sam has demon blood. He was born human, but now he might be something else, was well on his way to becoming something else when John died. John wouldn't know what he is now, because nobody will tell him a damn thing. What the demons wanted Sam to do was worse than either of his boys ever knew—John did his best to protect them from that. Sam's fate always balanced on a razor's edge. If he fell the wrong way, would Dean do what John asked him to, all those years ago? Or would he follow Sam down that same dark road? And if Dean could be made to love one monster, could he be made to love more?

John remembers enough of Hell to remember the offer the demon gave him every night: that it would put down its blade if John picked one up. And John said no. That demon never could break him, because John was already broken, broke for good the night he saw his wife burn. But what about Sam and Dean? Are his sons the kind of men who'd pick up that blade—or worse?

No. Sam can't be a monster. For God's sake, he's still Mary's child—that's got to count for something. He's standing right here in front of John, cleaning up the kitchen after a family dinner. He doesn't even fight with John anymore. Whatever happened to the boys while John was gone, it couldn't have involved demon blood, right? If you can count on anything in this world, it's that Dean always takes care of his brother. John's being ridiculous. The voice his paranoia speaks in sounds only too similar to the demon that tortured him in Hell, and even though John's out now, it's torturing him still, with this kind of doubt. If something was wrong with Sammy, Dean would know. Mary would know.

At the same time, John can't bring himself to ask: What happened with those visions of yours, son? Have you had any more since I was gone? Did you ever use your powers?

"You're gonna need a few things," Sam says suddenly. "Extra toothbrush, a few sets of clothes. Uh, we—I kept your wedding ring." The wistful expression he wears now is anything but demonic. "I'm sure you'll want that back."

"Yeah," John agrees, throwing one last glance back over his shoulder at Mary in the library before following Sam out of the kitchen. Here at last is a safe topic to broach. "What about you? I don't see any rings on yours or Dean's fingers. Neither of you ever...?"

Sam doesn't answer. This bunker is a maze. John's used to paying attention to his surroundings, mapping out all the exits, but he feels like he could never learn his way around this place. At last, when the silence has gone on so long John thinks of moving on, Sam says, "There was someone, for me. Another hunter. She didn't make it."

That's twice now, for Sam. The first time, part of John had been secretly glad—not that the girl had died, not that his son was suffering, but that Sammy would at least finally understand the kind of feeling that drove their quest against Yellow Eyes, and understand why it was important enough to give up things like school. But twice? John can't imagine finding anyone he loves as much as Mary, only to experience that kind of loss all over again. "I'm so sorry."

This time, Sam accepts John's condolences, albeit with a shrug. Their footsteps echo in the empty hallways. Something in John itches to see the sky.

"What about Dean?" John asks finally.

"Oh," says Sam, like he'd forgotten. "I wouldn't expect to see a girl on Dean's arm anytime soon. Or ever. That's just—something he struggles with."

Sam makes an abrupt turn right and opens a door marked 5B - STORAGE. "Here we go," he says. He flips on the lights and John sees a room lined with metal shelving, except for the section of the wall at the back covered glass paneling. There are all sorts of odds and ends poking out of old plastic totes and cardboard boxes. Most of it looks like weapons and ammo. There's a desk and card catalogue by the door, and a very large metal box covered in some kind of warding rests on a coffee table pushed against the back wall, an odd, spiral-shaped gold blade lying on top of it.

"This place," John says, in amazement.

Sam's smile is quick but genuine. "Yeah. We've been living here for years, and I'm still not used to it."

John nods at the metal box. The sigils on it look naggingly familiar, but he can't place them. "What's this, some kind of devil's trap?"

Sam glances at it, his features smoothing until they're indecipherable. "Something like that," he says, easy, and reaches up to the shelf next to it to yank down a tarp. The box and blade disappear from view, and Sam says, "Goodwill grabs are to your right. First come first serve. You know how we go through clothes."

"Oh, yeah," John agrees. "I can't even remember the last time I had a shirt that lasted longer than a month." He casts a last look at the now-covered box before wandering over to pick out a few things. They spend another fifteen minutes like that, Sam digging through boxes and pausing to send a few texts, and in short order they've gotten John a duffel of the essentials and a few of his old things—a couple of shirts, half a dozen old burner phones, and his old wristwatch.

And then, at last, with a small reluctant sigh, Sam reaches in his pocket and produces John's wedding ring.

That ring used to be John's touchstone. For two decades and change he'd worry it and twist it around his finger whenever he needed to feel close to Mary, or needed to strengthen his resolve. It was a hard, bitter quest, their vow to avenge her by killing Yellow Eyes. So many times he thought about just throwing in the towel, and letting Sam and Dean lead normal lives. But deep down he knew normal was never a possibility, not when that demon could walk right back into their lives and upend everything they held dear, just the way it did to Sam at Stanford. They might have a year, five years, ten years—but like a deal come due, sooner or later it would all be ripped out of their hands, again, unless they found the demon and killed it. He wasn't just doing it for Mary—he was doing it for her boys. This ring was just his reminder.

John slides it on his finger and has to close his eyes against the sudden wave of emotion. This ring was the first thing he missed when he got brought back. He felt practically naked without it.

"Better?" Sam asks.

"Better," John agrees.

But there's still one thing he needs.

Unfortunately, Mary and the boys aren't his only family. For better or worse, there are the Milligans to think about—it's been so long, John doesn't even know if Kate is still alive, and by now she and Adam must think he's dropped off of the face of the earth. He just needs to check on them, to make sure they're okay—then he can get back to being here, and making things right with his boys.

John casts a look around the room. "I don't guess you have the white pages in here? No—you'd look folks up online, now, huh?"

"Mom's got a computer." Sam starts picking up boxes and shoving them back onto shelves. "She basically never touches it. Trust me, you don't want to use Dean's."

"Not Mom's," John says, perhaps a little too sharply, because Sam pauses in his packing. "That's okay. I can run out to the library in the morning."

Sam crosses his arms, examining John with—not suspicion, exactly, but in a way that makes John feel as though he's being figured out and sized up. Sam's never looked at him like that before. It's a little unnerving. "Who do you need to look up?"

John's first instinct is to dismiss Sam—this is none of Sam's business, and certainly nothing John wants to discuss with anyone, let alone his sons. If Sam and Dean want to keep secrets from him, they sure as hell don't get to throw tantrums about John doing the same. Then his eyes drift to the tarp-covered box against the back wall.

"Tell me one true thing," he says. "You and Dean have been talking over my head all night, and I'm sick of it. So give me something honest. Tell me something you and Dean did while I was gone. Make it something you know I'd hate. And we'll trade." Sam's smart as a whip, but surely even he can't put the whole thing together with just one woman's name.

Sam considers this for a moment, eyes darting back and forth. Then he seems to make a grim decision, and says, resigned, "Kate Milligan."

John's heart stutters. What?

"2009," Sam continues. "Dean and I answered a call on one of your old phones from someone we thought was Adam Milligan, who asked for our help finding her. He told us—you know, who he was. And we drove out to Windom, Minnesota, and we tried to work the case—but it wasn't Adam." Sam softens his tone. "It was a ghoul."

John tries to make himself absorb this. "But a ghoul—a ghoul can only impersonate someone they..." He's seized by a sudden wave of nausea, and presses a fist to his mouth. "Adam?" he asks, struggling not to let his voice break. He already knows the answer.

"I'm sorry," Sam says, quiet but matter-of-fact. "Kate too. The ghoul you bagged in 1990—it had kids, and they wanted revenge. Kate and Adam, they never saw it coming. Most we could do was kill the ghouls ourselves, make sure they couldn't hurt anyone else."

John leans back against the wall, mute, too shocked even to weep. Baseball games. Birthday parties. He tried to do right by Adam in a way that he felt like he couldn't do right by Sam and Dean, and for what? At last he gathers enough courage to ask, "Does Mary know?"

Sam drops his chin in a nod. "Came up last year, when Dean—well. We weren't going to lie to her. She took it better than I expected, actually."

God. John closes his eyes, remembering the hot sick jealousy he felt just a few minutes ago, watching her play board games with another man's son.

His next question is even harder to ask. "And you boys?" he asks. "How did you take it?"

There is a long and thoughtful silence. Sam searches John's face. "I think," he says at last, "that Windom was the first time I ever really understood you. Dean and I fought over it, you know? Dean said the best way to protect Adam, or the thing we thought was Adam, was to keep him as far away from all this as we could. But all I saw was danger. How could we let Adam go on to live a normal life, when anything could come after him—for revenge, to use him as bait to get to us, or to you? I thought the only way to protect him was to train him, because we couldn't watch him all the time. And I finally got it—why we grew up as soldiers. Because the biggest difference between us and Adam wasn't who went to shooting practice and who went to baseball games. It was that we were the ones left alive, and he wasn't."

Sam says it as though Adam is still the one better off. It doesn't feel like absolution.

"The training I understood," Sam murmurs, grim. "After all those years, I finally got it. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you, right? But Dad, the rest of it..."

What? John narrows his eyes. "What rest of it?"

And he can see the moment Sam decides not to fight about it. There's a hard, considering look in his eyes, like he's deliberating some decision—then his shoulders drop, and he backs down.

"You asked me before if I ever went back to school," he says. "The answer is no. Because once that kind of evil touches you, you don't get to get out. You don't get to go back to normal life. There was never gonna be an ending where we killed Yellow Eyes, and I got to go to college, and Dean got to settle down with a white picket fence. Because Yellow Eyes isn't the worst evil in the world. He's not even close. I mean, come on, Dad—one more job, one last fight? You could do that forever. You did it for twenty years. This is normal life for us, and I accepted that a long time ago. And even though the job sucks, what I do matters. Because what I do is protect people. And that includes my brother."

John has lost the thread of this conversation. Protect Dean from who—or what? "Son, just what are you trying to say to me?"

Sam lifts his eyebrows. "You put us on this road," he says easily. "For better or worse. So you don't get to backseat drive. When you died you left things to Dean, just like you always did. So leave them to Dean. Trust me—he's got both hands on the wheel."

Now John understands. Sam is warning him away. Whatever happened to Dean at the table earlier, Sam's telling John that it's none of his business, that the boys have it handled—like John's not their father, and shouldn't try and protect them. That's the reason they're talking over his head and behind his back. "And you expect me to buy that bullshit?"

"Well, this is your second chance," Sam points out. "Might not be the worst thing to just sit back and enjoy the ride." He ducks his head a little to meet John's eye. "And in the meantime, you might want to be more careful about the questions you ask. You might not like all the answers."

Right. The tarp-covered box, Dean's mysterious headache—John still hasn't learned a thing. He was poking around in all the wrong places.

Sam straightens back up. "Right hand on the wall will get you back to the kitchen, whenever you're ready," he says. "For what it's worth, I am sorry about Adam. Losing a kid is never easy." He says it like he'd know.

Sam starts towards the door, and pauses as he passes John. There's a moment of hesitation, and he opens his mouth as if considering some last word—

But then Sam checks himself and goes, and John is alone with his sins.

It wasn't very dignified, as exits go, but Dean's never been more glad to get out of the bunker's front door.

Still: "We can't leave Sam and Dad alone," he tells Cas urgently. "I'll be okay in a minute but those two will tear each other to shreds."

Cas's hand touches Dean's shoulder lightly, a grounding point against the earthquake rattling around inside Dean's skull. "They have your mother with them."

"That does not make me feel better," Dean groans.

"You can't watch everyone all the time, and keep an eye on Michael too," Cas says. "Let us take care of each other. You've got more than enough to deal with."

It's a cold night, and their breath fogs in the outdoors. Dean didn't think to grab a coat—it was all he could do to keep that door in his head from giving way—but that's all right. The cold shocks him awake, keeps him in the here and now. No moments of weakness for Michael to take advantage over. No archangel using him as a sword. Not today.

Not today.

Dean lets out a slow and shaking sigh. This is a clusterfuck.

"This is a clusterfuck," Dean tells Cas. He scrubs a hand through his hair. "What was Jack thinking, bringin' up Hell like that? He should know better!"

Cas gives Dean a strange look. "He's a child, Dean."

"Kids still have common sense," Dean snaps. "I knew better at his age. That call I just had was way too close. He could have set Michael loose on us right there! "

"Don't blame Jack," Cas says quietly. "Your father was the one who overreacted. He's the one who upset you—"

"Don't you start either," Dean warns. He's pretty sure the only good thing Cas ever had to say about John Winchester was that he had beautiful handwriting, and Dean's head still hurts way too much to fight about it right now.

Cas is silent for a long while. Finally he says, "You didn't rest at all last night." It's not a question.

Dean barks out a laugh. "Sue me," he says. "I wasn't exactly expecting my dad to show up to Family Game Night. I wanted to wait until you got back."

With Michael pounding away in his head, Dean has trouble sleeping—and even if he didn't, the idea would still scare him shitless. In the week between caging Michael and Sam and Cas talking him out of the Ma'lak Box plan, Dean lived on energy drinks and catnaps, setting his phone alarm to keep him awake, terrified that the first time he slept too deeply it would all be over. A dream is just a mental projection, after all, just like the one Michael trapped him in. What if his guard being down while he's asleep is how Michael gets out? What if Michael shows up in his dreams to push him underwater again?

To that end: Cas. Cas doesn't need sleep, and he has perfect time-keeping abilities. So after everyone else goes to bed—because, hello, embarrassing—Cas sneaks into Dean's room and sits with him while he rests, waking him every half hour, to make sure Dean can't sleep deeply enough to get within arm's reach of Michael. It makes the whole "watching over" business a bit too literal for Dean, but hey, desperate times. It sure as hell beats the alternative.

It's mostly dark out here, illuminated by one distant orange streetlight out where their weird little driveway meets the road. Dean uses that light to climb the stairs and up the steep little hill of dirt that covers the bunker's main entrance. There's a railing on both sides and above it, and he leans on that as he looks up at the sky.

His phone buzzes. It's Sam. OK? the text reads.

OK, Dean texts back, even though he's not. He knows what Sam is really asking: if it's still Dean behind the wheel, and not Michael. Don't fight with Dad, he adds, though he knows that's probably a lost cause.

Cas joins Dean up by the railing. Dean can see that he's texting Sam too, quicker than Dean ever thought possible when he'd first been teaching Cas to use a smartphone, and switching back and forth, rapidfire, to also text Mom. "You guys gossiping about me?"

Cas can't seem to stop a small, fond smile. "Of course," he says warmly, without looking up from his phone. "Who else would I gossip about?"

Yeah. Dean smiles back, but his heart sinks. This is just another snag—him and Cas.

Used to be, Cas would clam up when Dean said shit like that. He's an awkward, nerdy dude, but a decade-plus among humanity taught him where the line was between being Dean's friend and being—something else. Cas hadn't fessed up about his massive fucking crush on Dean until, literally, a couple of weeks ago in the hospital parking lot, right before Dean was planning to take that swan dive with Michael. And Dean, thinking it was probably his last and only chance, kind of lost his mind and kissed him. He meant for it to be a goodbye. He thought he was counting his time left topside in hours. But damn if Sam didn't come along and break Dean's resolve about the whole Michael thing five minutes later.

Now, for better or worse, Dean and Cas are stuck living with his little moment of impulse; it's not like you can walk back using tongue in a semi-public area.

If circumstances were different, though, Dean might've tried. As a rule he's not into dudes, or at least he didn't think he was, not until Cas came along—and wasn't that a whole clusterfuck he worked every day not to think about. Dean doesn't know how he can be sorta-kinda into Cas if he's not into men, but it is what it is.

And it's not like he's knocking something he ain't tried, either. Once he was old enough to stay with Sam while their dad was working, Dad stopped leaving them at places like Bobby's and Pastor Jim's, and that meant no safety net if food money ran out early, which it usually did. Dean learned quick how to ration and beg and borrow and steal, but when he was sixteen or so he learned the fastest money came from a wink and a smile at the wrong kind of guy in the wrong kind of place. The fastest money came from being on your knees in a truck stop bathroom or bent over some anonymous motel bed.

Fast money doesn't necessarily mean easy money. It wasn't much fun, to understate the situation. But Dean did what he had to do to make sure he and his brother saw the next sunrise with food in their bellies and a place to lay their heads. Always did.

And if Dean ever had any very secret, very furtive, very confusing half-fantasies about maybe someday making a move on Cas? Well, the memory of finger-shaped bruises on his wrists and bite marks on his thighs always put an end to that real quick. All roads lead to the same destination, or whatever. Yeah, Dean spent a lot longer looking at Cas than he ought to have and yeah, Cas meant a hell of a lot more to him than anybody on earth, except of course for Sam. Dean suspected for a long time that Cas might even have the hots for him. But whatever weird, unnamed tension they had between them had to stay where it was. If he and Cas ever put things into drive—well, sooner or later, Dean would have to put them back into reverse. And then where would they be? Broke down by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, with no tools to fix it and no tow in sight. Cas is Dean's best friend. Dean couldn't do that to him.

When Dean kissed Cas he thought it would be the only one, because they were at the end of the road, and there was nowhere left to go. Life is so short and so joyless and Dean was so goddamn tired—he thought, if he didn't have to deal with the consequences, he could let himself have just this one thing.

But to Dean's everlasting surprise, he is still alive and topside, and right now, thanks to Michael, he and Cas are firmly in park. No good getting busy with a Peeping Tom archangel riding shotgun, after all. But Dean doesn't know what to do with a parked car (at least in the metaphorical sense). They've kissed a few times now, which Dean is into, but Cas never touches Dean below the belt, literally or metaphorically. Cas isn't trying to pretend he's not totally gone for Dean anymore, sure, but it's actually scary how little that changed things. It's like he barely wants anything Dean wasn't already giving him.

Sooner or later, if Dean somehow survives this thing with Michael, they'll have to figure out which road they're taking, and Dean's never done anything like this with a guy before—he's driving blind, with no headlights and no map, and it's way too late to put things in reverse now. He's been dreading what comes next almost as much as he's been dreading spending the rest of eternity in the Pacific. Dean likes having Cas like this, while he can have him, but no car stays parked forever.

Story of Dean's life: either way, they lose.

Dean's phone buzzes again.

Me? Fight with Dad? Sam's text reads. Don't worry, not worth it.

Dean rolls his eyes. Yeah, sure. No reason to grace that with a reply; Sam's probably busy. He hopes they at least got out of Jack and Mom's earshot first.

Cas puts his phone away. "How are you holding up? Is it still bad?"

Dean shakes his head. "I got him," he says, "for now." He blows out a long sigh, watching the fog of his breath disappear in the dark. He misses smoking. Took it up for just a hot second back when he was seventeen, but the first time Dad caught him with cigarettes he tore Dean a new one—that was a lecture for the books. Dean's body was his most important weapon, he said, and weapons are something you have to take care of, or they won't protect you, and they sure as hell won't protect Sammy. Dean didn't get to fuck up his body for something so stupid.

Dean hasn't had one since, not even after he died. Dad's right, after all. Alastair knew it, even Michael knows it. Dean's body is a weapon.

"Listen," Dean says to Cas. "You gotta lay off my dad, man. I know you ain't his biggest fan, especially not with—some of the stuff you know." Dean told Cas some of it, like Flagstaff, a long time ago. But he's got a sneaking suspicion that Cas saw a whole lot more than that, when he and Sam were in Dean's head trying to help him cast Michael out. They just haven't talked about it. Dean doesn't even want to think about it. "But he's still my dad. It wasn't his fault he got dealt a shit hand. And we can't have any more accidents like we did today with Jack. We piss off my old man and Michael's gonna bust that door in my head to pieces. Is that what you want?"

Cas gives Dean a deeply unimpressed look, usually reserved for people he's fantasizing about smiting. Dean's still not into dudes, but it's actually kind of hot—at least when it's not aimed at Dean. "Dean, I've been on my best behavior."

"Oh, your best behavior!" Dean echoes, in disbelief. "Cas, I thought you were gonna clock the guy right in my kitchen."

"I'm certain that would have violated the kitchen rules."

Dean fails to bite back a smile. "Okay," he says, "like you wanted to clock him right in my kitchen."

"I did," Cas says, very seriously, and turns to face Dean. "It's not just what he did back then. It's what he's doing right now. It's not fair of him to treat you and Sam like you're still children when you've accomplished more together than he ever did for you. He has no right to demand answers and explanations from you or lecture you about the choices you've made when he's the one who left you with no other options."

"Wow," Dean deadpans. "You sound exactly like Sam. It's actually creeping me out a little. You should stop."

Annoyed, Cas says, "Sam is right."

"I don't care! Nobody's punching my dad, Cas. Final answer. Everyone has the right to worry about family."

"Fine," Cas huffs. "But you don't have to defend his behavior. Not then, not now. Not from me."

Whatever witty thing Dean planned to say next dies on his lips. "Yeah," he mutters. "If you say so." He doesn't know how to tell Cas that he can't help it. Dean's always taken care of his family, and that includes Dad, whether Cas likes it or not. He knew how much Dad was hurting, and with Mom gone, Dad didn't have anyone else. So it fell to Dean to pull Dad's boots off and lay a blanket over his shoulders when he passed out drunk, make him hangover breakfasts in the morning and keep the ibuprofen handy by the bedside table. It was Dean's job to remind him to do things like eat and rest, to stitch him up after a bad hunt, wake him up when he had bad dreams, pull the bottle out of his hands when he had one too many, send Sammy to bed early when it looked like the night was shaping up to go sideways.

His dad's pain was a phantom limb: invisible, but still hurting and aching, even after Dad was gone. It was something Dean was aware of all the time, kind of like the way he always feels Michael rattling the bars of that cage in his head. And it hurt Dad, that he couldn't give his kids the life they deserved. That's not his fault. So, yeah—if Sam or Cas starts in on John Winchester being a shit father, Dean'll have to jump in the middle. Easing that phantom-limb pain is something that's hardwired into his DNA. That's never gonna change.

"You know what the funniest part about all this is?" Dean says. "I was doing okay without them. Mom and Dad. They were gone, and that hurt. I can't tell you how much that hurt. But I made my peace with it. Now, if something happened to Mom—I don't know what I'd do. And now that Dad's here too—" He gives his head a firm little shake. "I'm fucked. Cas, if you think you and Sam hated Plan B, you don't know my old man. He'll never let me go through with it. If I can't keep Michael in, if he busts out of my head, you and Sam are gonna have to go behind his back."

"It won't come to that," Cas says firmly.

"It might," Dean snaps. "You have to accept that, Cas! You think this is easy on me? You think I want to be shoved into a box with Michael for the rest of—ever? Especially now that Mom and Dad are here, and you and me are—?" Whatever they are. "But that's reality. I let Sam go, when he put Lucifer back in Hell. It was the hardest thing I ever did, and I regretted it every second, but I did it because I had to. Someday, you and Sam might have to let me go too."


"I'm serious, man." Dean meets his eyes and doesn't let him look away. "You know, you're—you're right. I can't fight you and Sam and Dad and Michael too. I just can't. I need you to back me up on this."

Cas's mouth twists down, unhappy. "I understand," he says, not a promise but close enough. It took Dean a long time to realize, but Cas puts him first before everything, the way Dean puts Sam before everything. That's why he wants to give Dad a black eye for what happened in Flagstaff. It's weird, and a little scary, but not exactly unwelcome. If Dean asks Cas for his support, he trusts that he'll have it, no matter how much Cas has to fight with it first.

A breeze blows through the trees, kicking up dead leaves, and Dean shivers. The cold has gone from bracing to unpleasant. He tries not to think about how much worse it's gonna be at the bottom of the ocean.

Cas notices, because of course he does. "Come on," he says. "If we go back in through the garage, we can avoid your father."

"Who said I wanted to avoid my father?" Dean asks lightly.

Cas quirks his eyebrows. "Well, do you?"

"Yes," Dean admits, so they go back in through the long tunnel that leads into the garage and take the much more scenic route around to his bedroom. Maybe this is what Cas was texting Sam about; they don't run into a single soul. "We really should check on 'em," Dean says, as the door closes behind them. He tests it twice to make sure it's locked. "I don't like leaving Sam and Dad alone."

Cas holds up his phone. "I'm keeping an eye on things," he says. "Lie down."

This arrangement was more than awkward the first few times. But they've been at it for almost two weeks now and they've got the routine down pat. Cas sits on one side of the bed, Dean hits the lights, pulls off his boots, and collapses on the other, turning on his side so that his forehead touches the outside of Cas's thigh. He sees the momentary glow of Cas's eyes in the dark as Cas rests one hand on Dean's shoulder.

And, with the other, Cas laces Dean's fingers through his own.

Dean could never have done it with the lights on. But he was scared, that first night. He was afraid Michael would find him in his sleep, and in a moment of weakness, he reached for Cas first. Cas was kind enough not to make him do it again.

And Dean's still scared, but not as much. Not so scared that he can't sleep. Because Cas is keeping watch on Dean's head. He's looking out for Michael, just for a little while, so Dean can get some rest. Not even Sam could do that.

"Thirty minutes," Dean mumbles, eyes already slipping shut. He reminds himself again: the door is locked. Cas is here. "If anything happens, out there or in here—"

"I'll wake you," Cas promises. "Sleep, Dean. I'll be right here."