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What Is Twisted Cannot Be Straightened

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The autumn sun beats down on the back of Dean’s neck as he watches the brightly clad figures race up and down the soccer field. Next to him, Jimmy calls encouragement as Claire intercepts the ball, her blonde braid bouncing against her blue jersey, her mouth set in concentration.

 

Claire reminds him of Jimmy in that moment. She wears the same expression Jimmy does when he’s trying to shoot cans off a fence as she dodges defenders and kicks the ball in a high arc halfway down the field.

 

Dean glances at Jimmy, who’s grinning with pride, and looking pretty good for someone who’d been so close to death a few days ago. Jimmy still has dark circles under his eyes, but he’s not as pale, and he seems to be enjoying the game.

 

Although Dean has never pictured himself here, in this place, watching a soccer game from the sidelines of a sunny field, he’s content—as long as he doesn’t think about Sam.

 

The reminder causes a chill that has nothing to do with the weather, and Jimmy looks over at Dean, as though he senses Dean’s uneasiness.

 

“You okay?” Jimmy asks in an undertone.

 

“Just thinking,” Dean replies, side-stepping the question.

 

Jimmy grips Dean’s wrist. “About Sam?”

 

“It’s not important,” Dean insists, and changes the subject. “Claire is awesome.”

 

Jimmy’s eyes narrow, but he allows the change of subject; Jimmy has a hard time not talking about his kid. “She is, isn’t she?”

 

“Hey, look!” Dean says, pointing, and they both focus on the field just in time to see Claire accept a pass and score a goal.

 

Jimmy whistles loudly, surprising Dean, and he murmurs, “You’ve been holding out on me.”

 

Jimmy grins at him. “I have hidden talents.”

 

Dean tries not to let his mind go to the gutter, but it’s difficult. Jimmy always gets his engine revving.

 

He looks past Jimmy to Amelia, standing a few feet away. She seems to have relaxed some since their arrival, but Brad looks out of place standing next to her in starched khakis, with sharp creases in the sleeves of his polo.

 

Seriously, Dean wonders. Who irons a polo shirt?

 

Brad has been shooting them disapproving looks during the entire game, and Dean knows he wants them gone. Dean has no idea if it’s because Brad is just suspicious of his girlfriend’s ex-husband, or if it’s because Dean and Jimmy are together, or maybe Amelia has told Brad something else that has made him unhappy with their presence.

 

Dean doesn’t care, as long as Brad doesn’t make things difficult for Jimmy.

 

Claire’s team wins the game two to one, and Dean watches as Claire disappears into a mass of girls. The knot breaks up, and they form a more or less orderly line to slap hands with the other team.

 

Claire runs over to them after she’s done being a good sportsman, throwing herself at Jimmy. “You came!”

 

“You couldn’t keep us away,” Jimmy replies, holding her tightly. “You did great.”

 

“Hey, Dean!” Claire says brightly.

 

To his surprise, Claire hugs him, too, before she goes over to Amelia. Dean tries not to smirk when she pointedly ignores Brad. Dean’s pretty sure he’d be irritated as hell if he were Amelia, but he doesn’t care at the moment.

 

Dean likes Amelia, but Jimmy is his partner, and her chilly attitude hurts Jimmy, which means Dean isn’t inclined to cut her a break.

 

“We can go out to dinner, right?” Claire asks, looking at Jimmy and Dean. “To celebrate?”

 

Amelia frowns. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

 

Mom,” Claire protests. “I never get to see Dad.”

 

Amelia sighs, and her expression softens. “I know. Go, have fun.”

 

“Yes!” Claire says with a fist pump. “Awesome.”

 

They go to Olive Garden, because Claire insists that she hasn’t been back since the last time Dean and Cas came through town. “Brad doesn’t like it,” she says, her mouth twisting with disgust. “He says he’s had better Italian.”

 

Dean isn’t much of a connoisseur, but he likes Olive Garden, and he doesn’t mind taking Claire there. “Well, I think it’s good,” Dean says. “So, that’s where we’ll go.”

 

“See, that’s why you’re an awesome boyfriend,” Claire responds.

 

Claire’s definitely developing an attitude, and that she’s probably as hard to live with as Sam when he was a teenager. Lucky for Dean and Jimmy, she’s always perfectly pleasant around them.

 

And now that Dean thinks about it, that might be another reason why Amelia is pissed off, since Jimmy gets to play good parent when they come back through town. Not that there’s much Jimmy can do to change that, since neither of them are going to settle in Pontiac, and Dean suspects that Claire has always been a daddy’s girl.

 

Dean has a word with the host when they enter the restaurant, and he leads them to an out-of-the-way table. Maybe they’re not supposed to discuss hunting with Claire, but it comes up often enough that Dean doesn’t want to risk being overheard.

 

The padded chairs are comfortable, and the potted plants give some semblance of privacy as Claire fills the silence with her chatter, mostly about her soccer game and school, and the boy she likes, who might ask her to the winter formal.

 

Jimmy stiffens at the mention of the dance, and Dean wonders if there’s any way they can manage to scare the kid shitless. Jimmy must catch Dean’s murderous expression, because he relaxes back into his chair with a smile and an evil glint in his eyes.

 

“Can I spend Christmas with you guys?” Claire asks out of the blue. “I know Mom said you get to have me for some holidays.”

 

Jimmy throws an anxious look at Dean, his wide blue eyes hopeful, and Dean doesn’t know how to refuse him. “We could have Christmas at Bobby’s,” Dean suggests.

 

Honestly, Dean doesn’t know how he feels about the idea of celebrating Christmas—much less having a kid for the holiday—but he wants Jimmy to be happy, and Dean likes Claire.

 

Claire beams at them both. “Great! I’ll work on Mom. She’s been talking about visiting Brad’s family.”

 

“You’ll have to meet them sometime,” Jimmy points out, although his protest is lukewarm at best.

 

“I already met them,” Claire replies. “They’re just as starched as he is. I had to dress up for dinner.”

 

Dean grimaces, having no idea how to respond, but not wanting to encourage Claire’s dislike of Brad, since that will just make things more difficult for Jimmy. “Maybe things will get better,” he offers weakly.

 

Claire sniffs. “I’d rather go on a hunt with you guys than go visit Brad’s family again.”

 

“Over my dead body,” Jimmy mutters.

 

Dean covers his mouth to hide a smile, and he isn’t surprised when Claire ignores Jimmy’s words. He has a feeling that Claire is fully capable of ignoring anything that doesn’t fit into her plans.

 

On the other hand, it’s a good idea for Claire to learn some basics of self-defense and handling firearms. Dean suspects Claire will eat it up, but he doesn’t know how to approach Jimmy, since he won’t want to risk losing Claire, and he’s tentative around Amelia these days.

 

Then again, Dean knows Claire can keep a secret, considering he’d been communicating with her for the last few months without Amelia being the wiser.

 

“We’ll check with Bobby, and we’ll talk to your mom,” Dean says. “Maybe we can work something out for Christmas.”

 

That’s as much as they can promise, and dinner winds down. They drive Claire home, and Dean stays behind the wheel as Jimmy walks Claire up to the front door.

 

Dean watches as Amelia greets them, and from this vantage point, Dean thinks she seems marginally friendlier. At least, she smiles tentatively at Jimmy and puts an arm around Claire’s shoulders as they chat briefly. When Jimmy slides into the passenger seat, Dean looks over at him. “That looked like it went okay.”

 

“It did,” Jimmy agrees, sounding surprised. “But then, Amelia trusts me with Claire when you’re around.”

 

“She’ll realize Cas found another meat suit eventually,” Dean assures him. “It’s just going to take time.”

 

Jimmy shrugs. “Why should she trust me when my body isn’t my own? You know as well as I do that if Cas decides I suit him better, he can change his mind.”

 

Dean doesn’t reply, because he has no idea whether Cas will keep his promise. He hopes so; their friendship feels fragile right now, and Dean doesn’t think it will survive if Cas goes back on his word.

 

“We don’t have to do anything for Christmas,” Jimmy says suddenly, breaking the silence that has fallen. “I know you don’t like to celebrate it.”

 

Dean shakes his head. “It’s different this year.”

 

Granted, he and Jimmy had been hunting together last Christmas, but they hadn’t been together at the time. If Dean remembers correctly, he’d dropped Jimmy off to spend the day with Amelia and Claire and had drunk himself into a stupor.

 

This year is different because Dean has Jimmy and Claire, and Sam might be dangerous, but at least he’s not dead.

 

Jimmy hitches a shoulder. “Okay. I guess we’ll see.”

 

~~~~~

 

There’s a rash of suicides in Calumet City, Illinois, which is only a couple of hours away from Pontiac, so they make that their first stop after a night spent at the Pontiac Motor Lodge. They leave early and eat a late breakfast in Calumet City as they discuss their plan of attack.

 

Jimmy seems more animated after a visit with Claire, but he still has dark circles under his eyes, and Dean watches closely as Jimmy lifts a cup of coffee to his lips, catching a slight tremor in Jimmy’s hand. Dean refrains from commenting, however, knowing how much Jimmy hates it when he hovers.

 

Jimmy suddenly freezes, his mug midway between his mouth and the mustard-yellow Formica of the booth. “Dean,” he says in a low voice, eyes wide with alarm. “Behind you.”

 

Dean turns to see Sam entering the diner, dressed in a suit and tie, and he sighs. He’d been hoping they wouldn’t run into Sam again so soon, and he’s tempted to ignore Sam’s presence, but that carries its own problems.

 

So, Dean raises a hand and waves Sam over.

 

Jimmy makes a small sound of protest, and then subsides, staring down into his coffee cup. Dean wants to reassure him, but he’s not sure how.

 

Sam approaches them confidently, as though they hadn’t fought bitterly the last time he’d seen Dean. “Hey, guys. I hadn’t expected to see you here,” Sam says cheerfully.

 

“There’s a hunt, and we were in the area,” Dean replies. “So, yeah, we’re here.”

 

“Maybe we can work together,” Sam suggests.

 

Jimmy frowns at his coffee, but stays quiet.

 

Dean clears his throat. “Sit down, Sam,” he invites. “We can talk about how we’re going to handle this.”

 

Sam sits next to Dean, and Dean catches him looking at Jimmy with some distrust. That’s probably not unexpected, given that Jimmy had threatened Sam with a gun not that long ago.

 

“When did you get into town? Sam asks, directing his question at Dean.

 

“Just this morning,” Dean replies. “You know, we’ve got this, Sam. You don’t have to stay.”

 

“I’m just here to work the case,” Sam says, holding his hands up in supplication.

 

Dean glances at Jimmy, who rises from the table abruptly. “I’ll be back,” he mutters.

 

When he’s gone, Dean rounds on Sam. “Do you think I would trust you with Jimmy again?” he demands.

 

Sam frowns. “I told you I was sorry.”

 

Dean wishes an apology were enough under the circumstances. Maybe, maybe, if it had just been his life on the line, Dean might have let it go, but Jimmy is his partner. Dean can’t let that slide.

 

“So you say,” Dean says. “Jimmy and I—we’re together, and I need to know that you’re not going to get him killed.”

 

Sam frowns. “Dean—”

 

“I mean it, Sam. If anything happens to Jimmy, I’m going to take it out of your hide.”

 

“I’ll watch out for him like I would for you,” Sam promises.

 

Dean shakes his head; that’s not good enough. “No, protect him like you would yourself.” He doesn’t add, “Because that seems to be all you care about.”

 

“Okay,” Sam agrees easily. “No problem.”

 

Dean still doesn’t believe him, but it seems he’s stuck with Sam for this hunt, and that means that he not only has the case to deal with, but he’s also going to have to watch Sam, to make sure Sam doesn’t get him or Jimmy killed.

 

Jimmy slides into the booth across from them again, his face a little damp. Dean has no idea how he’s going to explain that they’ll be working with Sam on this hunt, but Jimmy seems to already understand. “What do you want me to do?” he asks.

 

“You and I are going to question Jane Peterson’s sister,” Dean says. “And Sam is going to start researching the rest of the victims.”

 

Jimmy raises his eyebrows, but he doesn’t argue. “Okay. I guess that means we suit up.”

 

Olivia Peterson is distraught over her sister’s death, and it comes out that Olivia had told Jane to kill herself, although she insists she hadn’t intended to, and hadn’t meant it.

 

Her distress and confusion are obvious, and while Dean suspects that she might have thought Jane would be better off killing herself, she’s probably telling the truth about not intending to say as much.

 

By the time they finish talking to Olivia, there’s another victim: a dentist who killed a patient after he confessed to molesting the dentist’s daughter. They head to the jail, but the dentist has already hung himself.

 

“What do you want to do now?” Sam asks when he meets up with them outside the jail.

 

The only thing Dean knows for sure is that he needs to keep Sam and Jimmy apart, and that they have no idea what’s triggering the curse or whatever it is.

 

“Maybe you can review the autopsies,” Dean suggests. “We’ll keep interviewing witnesses.”

 

Since Jimmy still gets a little green around the gills during autopsies, it’s a smart division of labor, and maybe Sam knows that, because he smirks at Jimmy. “You have a problem with autopsies, Jimmy?”

 

Sam’s tone is mild enough, but Jimmy flushes, and Dean instinctively steps between them. “Jimmy does fine,” Dean insists. “He just prefers healing people to seeing them cut open. Do you have a problem dealing with the autopsies?”

 

Sam shakes his head. “No, not at all.”

 

“Good,” Dean says. “Call me if you find anything.”

 

After a couple of hours interviewing various witnesses, and running down leads, they find themselves at a local bar that a couple of the victims had patronized.

 

Dean wants answers, sure, but more than that, he wants a drink. Between the dead end they’ve hit on the case and Sam acting like a dick, Dean’s sick with worry.

 

All he can think about his father’s whispered words, warning Dean that he’ll have to kill Sam if he turns out to be a monster. Dean had thought they were past that, but now he’s not so sure.

 

The bartender pours them each a drink, and Jimmy says, “We should question the dentist’s family.”

 

“I think we know what happened,” Dean objects. “Why bother?”

 

“Because we’re here to work the case?” Jimmy asks.

 

Dean fiddles with the shot glass, dragging it through a ring of condensation on the bar. “Work the case, make sure Sam doesn’t stab me or you in the back for the sake of the case, and make sure you don’t kill yourself saving someone else.”

 

Jimmy leans against the bar, and his sleeve rides up to show the white gauze. Dean can already see the pink shadow that tells him Jimmy is still seeping blood a little faster than usual.

 

Great, Dean thinks. One more thing to worry about.

 

Jimmy puts a hand on Dean’s forearm. “We’ll keep digging, Dean. Don’t worry about Sam.”

 

Dean shakes his head. “Sorry. Occupational hazard. Look, maybe you should talk to the dentist’s family, figure out what happened. He doesn’t live far from here. I don’t think I’m going to be much use. I’m just—not in the right frame of mind.”

 

“You deserve a drink and a few hours off,” Jimmy says sympathetically, moving his hand to Dean’s shoulder. Dean can feel the heat of Jimmy’s hand, and the warm regard in Jimmy’s eyes lightens his burden a bit.

 

If Jimmy hadn’t been his partner, Dean doesn’t know how he would have handled Sam’s odd behavior.

 

Jimmy finishes the rest of his drink in one go and says, “I’ll meet you back at the motel later on. Call me if you need me.”

 

“Same here,” Dean replies.

 

The bartender sidles over to him after Jimmy leaves and holds up a bottle of Jack. “Can I get you anything?”

 

“I would take the truth,” Dean mutters, finishing his whiskey and nudging the glass towards her. “But since that’s not on the menu, I’ll have another one.”

 

Later, Dean will recognize that as the moment that things went pear-shaped, but at the time, he doesn’t know. He couldn’t have known.

 

But then, after the bartender tells Dean about her fertility and drug problems, he suspects that he’s put himself on the list of targets.

 

He barely acknowledges the woman who tells him she just bought her breasts; he’s too busy trying to figure out how to limit the fallout.

 

Dean wants the truth from Sam, no question, but he’s seen what happened to the other victims, who had all been blindsided by the truth from loved ones. Dean thinks he can handle whatever Sam might say; he’s not so sure about Jimmy, and he doesn’t want to risk it.

 

Just the thought of whatever truth Jimmy might deal out—probably something about how much he wishes he were back with Amelia and Claire, and how he regrets ever calling Dean—has Dean a little panicky.

 

The ringing of his phone short circuits Dean’s panicked thoughts, and because it’s Bobby’s name on the screen, Dean decides to risk it. “Before you say anything, I need you to look into what would make people tell you the truth,” he says.

 

“Why?” Bobby asks suspiciously. “Jimmy called and said you guys were working a case with Sam. What did you do?”

 

“Nothing,” Dean replies defensively. “A bunch of people are killing themselves, and it seems they’re are getting cursed with the truth. And, uh, maybe you can call Jimmy with whatever you find.”

 

“Dean,” Bobby growls. “Did you get yourself cursed?”

 

“Maybe,” Dean allows. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

 

“Not really,” Bobby replies. “But I’m going to have to let you go. Tori and Dean is going to be on.”

 

Dean blinks. “Tori?”

 

“Yeah, Tori Spelling,” Bobby replies. “I’m a big fan.”

 

It all goes downhill from there, and Dean listens in horror as Bobby spills his guts about getting pedicures and the Vietnamese girl with the magic hands; listening to him is a bit like watching a train wreck. Dean regains his sense of self-preservation about the time Bobby mentions an old girlfriend and hangs up.

 

Dean has no desire to be scarred for life any more than he already is.

 

There’s a limited amount of information that can be sent via text message, though, so Dean decides to risk it. I talked to Bobby. He’s supposed to tell you anything he finds out, he texts to Jimmy.

 

What are you going to be doing? Jimmy responds.

 

I have to talk to Sam. Dean hesitates before adding, Text. Don’t call.

 

What did you do?

 

Dean winces. Nothing.

 

WHAT DID YOU DO?

 

Truth sucks. Don’t call me.

 

Shit.

 

Sorry. I’m going to talk to Sam.

 

There’s a long pause, and then Jimmy texts, Be careful. Call me before you do anything stupid.

 

Dean smiles, and texts back confirmation. Will do.

 

He calls Sam next, hoping to get some truth out of him. “Yeah, Dean, what’s up?” Sam asks.

 

“Got anything you want to tell me?” Dean asks hopefully.

 

“Not particularly,” Sam replies. “I’m still working on the background for the other victims, but I haven’t found much yet.”

 

Dean waits, hoping Sam will continue, but there’s nothing. “Is there something else?” Sam asks impatiently.

 

Dean sighs, wondering if maybe there’s some trick to this truth thing that he doesn’t know about. “Maybe we should meet to discuss things.”

 

“So, you’re actually going to trust me in the same vicinity as Jimmy?” Sam asks snidely.

 

“Jimmy is working another angle right now,” Dean replies. “We’re at the Calumet City Inn, room 11.”

 

Dean hopes that Jimmy stays away long enough for him to get the truth out of Sam, and maybe end this curse.

 

He rubs his eyes. There’s no way he can avoid Jimmy that long.

 

Sam is waiting for him by the time Dean pulls up in front of the two-story motel, leaning against the hood of his Charger, still in a suit and tie, and wearing a bored expression. “Hey,” Sam says, as Dean climbs out of the Impala. “Where’s Jimmy?”

 

“Interviewing witnesses,” Dean replies shortly.

 

Sam smirks. “I didn’t know you let him out of your sight.”

 

Dean scowls. “Jimmy can handle himself. Bobby’s doing some research, too.”

 

“Good,” Sam says easily. “The sooner we solve this, the sooner you can ditch me.”

 

“I don’t want to ditch you,” Dean responds hotly. “I just want to know I can trust you. So, tell me again, what the hell happened out there?”

 

“I told you,” Sam replies. “I froze. I’m sorry. I wish I had a better answer, but I thought you were handling it, and then you weren’t, and—I’m sorry. I froze.”

 

Dean searches for any sign of deception. In spite of knowing that he’d somehow been affected by the curse, Dean still suspects that Sam is lying, but he doesn’t know how.

 

“Okay,” Dean finally says. “I just had to ask.”

 

Sam shrugs. “Sure. I did a little searching myself. It turns out that all the victims’ bodies are missing from the morgue, other than the latest one.”

 

“Who took them?”

 

“No idea,” Sam replies easily. “But I was on my way to check out the first victim. If you don’t have anything else—”

 

“Uh, no,” Dean replies, unable to think of a reason to continue questioning his brother. “No, I should check in with Jimmy, and see how he’s getting along.”

 

Sam raises his eyebrows. “I never thought I’d see the day you’d be whipped.”

 

“I told you, Jimmy’s my partner,” Dean replies, wondering if Sam’s comment is a part of the truth spell, or if he’s just being malicious.

 

“I didn’t think you batted for the other team,” Sam replies with a smile that has an edge of cruelty.

 

Dean shrugs. “Why put a label on it?”

 

“I just thought you were straight.”

 

Dean frowns, wondering why it matters so much. “I’m with Jimmy,” he says slowly, as though talking to someone who is very dense. “You were back for a year before you contacted me, Sam. I don’t think you get to make judgments about how I live my life.”

 

“And what about Cas?” Sam counters.

 

“What about him?” Dean demands. “He found a new meat suit.”

 

Sam shrugs. “Nothing. I just thought you’d be glad to have him back.”

 

Dean narrows his eyes. “I would have been if it hadn’t meant losing Jimmy. What’s your fucking point?”

 

Sam smiles. “Never mind. I can see you’re upset.” His tone suggests that he doesn’t think Dean’s reaction is justified.

 

Dean wants to argue; he wants to drive home exactly why Jimmy is so important to him, but he doesn’t think Sam will understand.

 

Sam seems disconnected from everything these days—from him, from the victims, from the job. Maybe that makes Sam a better hunter, but Dean isn’t sure about the long-term value.

 

“Forget it,” Dean says. “Just let me know what you find.”

 

“Sure thing.” Sam smiles and adds, “I’m not your enemy, Dean.”

 

That might be true, but Dean isn’t so sure that Sam is on his side either, and there seems to be a lot of room between those two ends of the continuum. “Yeah, I know. Call me.”

 

“Will do.”

 

And then Sam is gone without a backwards look, and Dean wonders what the hell just happened. He scrubs his hands over his face and considers his next move.

 

If Sam won’t tell him what’s going on, and if he can’t talk to Jimmy for fear of getting truths he’s not prepared to hear, that doesn’t leave Dean a lot of options.

 

Hell, Dean doesn’t even want to talk to a stranger, which means he’s stuck in their motel room, researching. That’s not his usual thing, but it’s better than any of the alternatives.

 

Dean is still sifting through information when the door opens, and Jimmy freezes in the doorway. “Hi.”

 

“Hey.” Dean takes a deep breath. “Maybe you should leave.”

 

Jimmy closes the door behind him. “I have to change.”

 

“Okay,” Dean mumbles, thinking that maybe he should be the one to leave, but not wanting to admit his fear. “Yeah, of course.”

 

The silence that falls between them is more uncomfortable than it’s been in a long time. Generally speaking, he and Jimmy are good together, whether they’re talking or not.

 

“I have to say something to you,” Jimmy says, turning to face Dean, his tie off and his shirt half unbuttoned. “I love you.”

 

Dean stiffens. “Don’t—” he chokes out.

 

“Don’t tell me that,” Jimmy responds furiously. “I love you. Most days, you’re the only reason I get out of bed. If you hadn’t come when I called, I would have hung myself in my motel room. You were my last chance.”

 

The naked devotion on Jimmy’s earnest face, scares Dean stupid. Whatever Dean had expected Jimmy to say while Dean’s under the curse—this isn’t it.

 

He’s never been the subject of this kind of love before. Dean has always known that his dad and Sam could get by just fine without him—or at least, he thought they could. He’s never met anyone who’s made him the center of his world.

 

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Jimmy says, when Dean doesn’t respond. “And I know you probably don’t feel the same way, but I need you to know that even if I could go back and change things—I wouldn’t.”

 

Dean wants to protest that Jimmy doesn’t mean it—that he can’t mean it when not saying yes would mean Jimmy would have that all-American dream, complete with a beautiful wife, a great kid, and a white picket fence.

 

But Jimmy can’t lie to Dean right now; he can’t even shade the truth. And it just figures that Jimmy would see this as an opportunity to share his feelings, rather a reason to avoid Dean for as long as it takes for them to figure this thing out.

 

Dean swallows, then asks roughly. “You got anything else?”

 

“I don’t know why you put up with me,” Jimmy admits. “I’m a burden. And now that Sam is back, I keep waiting for you to figure that out, because I’m not him, and I can never be him, and you two are so twisted up in each other, I don’t see how I can stay on with him around.”

 

Now is the time for Dean to reassure him, to tell Jimmy that he feels the same way, even if he can’t say the words. He’s told Jimmy that they’re partners, sure, but Jimmy’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

And maybe Jimmy has reason, Dean thinks. Because Sam isn’t really Sam right now, and if they can figure out what’s wrong with him and fix it, Dean will have his brother back. And if Dean can get his brother back, what need does he have for another partner?

 

Even though Dean needs Jimmy in ways he can’t quite explain.

 

Dean can’t find the words, though. They’re stuck in his throat, and Jimmy’s open expression shuts down, and he backs away. “I’ll come out when you’re gone,” Jimmy says, and disappears into the bathroom.

 

Dean stares down at the thin, blue carpet with its myriad stains, and up at the bedspread—blue and gold, stretched across the king-sized bed, because neither of them likes sleeping alone these days. For a moment, Dean toys with the idea of following Jimmy into the bathroom as he had months ago, telling Jimmy not to be stupid and kissing him silent.

 

But Dean doesn’t think he can handle any more truth right now, and so he leaves.

 

~~~~~

 

The last thing Dean wants to do is deal with more people while he’s under this curse, and he knows that Sam is on the case. Considering that Sam is some badass hunter now, Dean figures he can handle it.

 

He picks up a bottle of Jack at the liquor store, tossing down a twenty and a five without waiting for the change to avoid more uncomfortable confessions from the young man behind the counter. He drives out of town and finds a back road where he can park and drink undisturbed.

 

Although Dean half-expects Jimmy to call, the phone stays silent through the afternoon and evening. He finishes off the bottle around midnight, finally crawling into the backseat to sleep it off.

 

When he wakes up, the sun is high in the sky, and his head is pounding. There are no messages on his phone, so Dean figures Sam and Jimmy are in good shape. Given Sam’s recent attitude, Dean doubts his brother has even noticed that he’s absent, and Jimmy probably wants the space.

 

Dean starts to worry when he gets back to the motel room only to find it empty, with no message from Jimmy. He tries calling Sam, since that seems like the safest option, but there’s no answer. When he sucks it up and calls Jimmy, it goes straight to voice mail.

 

“Fuck,” Dean curses. He never should have left. He should have just dealt with whatever truth Jimmy wanted to dish out.

 

He rubs his eyes and considers his options, but there aren’t many. He’d track Jimmy by the GPS in his phone, but if it’s going straight to voice mail, Jimmy’s phone is either turned off or too badly damaged for him to answer, and the GPS won’t work in either case.

 

And Dean has no idea where to start looking. He calls Bobby on the off chance he’s heard from Jimmy or Sam. As soon as Bobby picks up, Dean says, “Just tell me yes or no—have you heard from Jimmy or Sam in the last twelve hours?”

 

“No, but—”

 

“Thanks, Bobby. I’ll call you when this is over.” Dean hangs up before Bobby can tell him something else Dean doesn’t want to know.

 

He’s about ready to start climbing the walls when Jimmy finally calls. Dean picks up on the first ring, as soon as he sees Jimmy’s name on the screen. “Where the hell are you?” he demands.

 

“I need you to come,” Jimmy replies, sounding tired. “I’m with Sam, but he’s in no shape to move under his own power.”

 

Dean frowns, and repeats, “You’re with Sam?”

 

“Don’t,” Jimmy says. “Just get here.”

 

“Text me the address,” Dean replies. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He pauses, then asks, “You okay?”

 

“I’m fine, Dean. Just come.” Jimmy hangs up on him, and Dean pinches the bridge of his nose, knowing that he’s going to have some damage control to do on this one.

 

The text message comes through immediately, and Dean races over to the address, which is a swanky, modern house that doesn’t look as though it’s been lived in. Dean is a little put off by all the cats he sees when he enters, but he calls out, “Jimmy? Sam?”

 

“Downstairs,” Jimmy calls.

 

Dean takes the stairs two at a time and is relieved to see Jimmy in one piece, although he has a split lip. “Hey, what happened?”

 

“Sam and I decided to work together,” Jimmy replies briefly. “Veritas is dead, but she said Sam wasn’t human, because he could lie to her, so I knocked him out as soon as we killed her.”

 

Dean has no idea who “Veritas” is, but his immediate concern is for Jimmy. Once Dean knows he’s in one piece, Dean looks around and spots a woman’s body on the floor, although her face doesn’t look entirely human. Sam lies nearby, unconscious, a thin trickle of blood running down his temple.

 

“Well, if we’re going to find out what’s wrong with him, we’d better tie him up,” Dean says.

 

“And how are we going to get that information?” Jimmy asks wearily.

 

“We’re going to call Cas.” Dean looks around for something to secure Sam with, and finding nothing, he pulls off his belt and secures Sam’s hands behind his back. “Even if I have to do the binding ritual.”

 

Jimmy has apparently clocked Sam but good, because Sam doesn’t even stir as they haul his ass to the car, or when they shove him into the backseat. Dean’s not sure what he’s supposed to say, but he knows he needs to breach the sullen silence that hangs between them.

 

“I’m not good at this,” Dean admits, blurting out the words.

 

Jimmy leans his forehead against the window. “It’s fine, Dean.”

 

Dean can’t help but spit out, “Look, what you said—about not changing anything? I can’t say that, because I’ve fucked up way too many things, but I wouldn’t change this.” He motions between them, unable to define “this” any other way.

 

The corner of Jimmy’s mouth twitches upward. “Wow. You really are bad at this, aren’t you?”

 

“Shut up,” Dean replies, but there’s no heat to the words, and he’s smiling now, too. “We okay?”

 

Jimmy nods. “Yeah, we’re okay. It’s—it’s not like I didn’t know. You just told me I shouldn’t mention that conversation again.”

 

Dean blinks and realizes that Jimmy had heard what Dean had said while Jimmy had lain nearly comatose after healing Dean after Dean had nearly been turned. “Okay. So, Sam?”

 

“He figured out what happened,” Jimmy says as Dean pulls up in front of their motel. “And I didn’t feel inclined to sit around and wait for you to come back, so I tagged along.”

 

Dean sighs. “That was stupid. Sam could have gotten you killed.”

 

Jimmy shrugs. “And maybe I could have saved his life.” Their conversation is momentarily interrupted while they haul Sam into the motel room and drop him unceremoniously on the bed. “Anyway, Veritas wanted us to tell her the truth. I couldn’t stop talking, and Sam—he lied to her. She said he wasn’t human. Sam and I got free, we killed her, and I knocked him out. You know the rest.”

 

Dean stares at Jimmy, a little in awe. He hadn’t thought Jimmy, of all people, would be able to get the drop on his gigantic brother. “Dude.”

 

Jimmy shifts uncomfortably. “Maybe you should try calling Castiel first, before you do the binding ritual.”

 

Dean knows that this is mostly his plan, but he still isn’t sure he trusts Cas. And from what he’s heard, Cas is kind of pissed at him, too.

 

Still, Jimmy has a point, and it’s possible that Cas will come willingly if Dean asks, even if that means Dean will owe him—or is it her now?—a favor in the future.

 

“All right,” Dean says, and looks up at the water-stained ceiling. “Castiel, this is me praying. We need your help to figure out what exactly Sam is.”

 

Jimmy clears his throat.

 

“What?”

 

“You could say please.”

 

Dean rolls his eyes but adds, “Please.” There’s nothing, and Dean looks at Jimmy. “See? Maybe you should ask. I think he’s still pissed at me.”

 

Jimmy grimaces and mutters something that sounds a hell of a lot like, “The things I do for love,” although Dean can’t be sure. He figures that if Jimmy can joke about it, they’re probably okay.

 

“Castiel,” Jimmy calls. “I think you owe it to me to show up and at least take a look at Sam.”

 

Dean notices that Jimmy does not say please, but maybe that’s to be expected, given what Cas has put him through.

 

There’s the sound like the faint rustle of wings, and then—

 

Dean knows that it’s Castiel, because there’s no one else it can be, unless some other angel has answered the summons. Maybe it’s a human thing, though, because what Dean sees is a middle-aged woman with graying hair and deep lines on her face, wearing a dress that’s probably her Sunday best—he doesn’t see Cas, even though her eyes are the same deep blue as Jimmy’s.

 

“What do you want, Dean?” The words are spoken in a pleasant, husky voice, as though she’s smoked a few too many cigarettes over the years, but the tone, the inflection, is all Castiel.

 

Not for the first time, Dean wonders how much the vessel influences the angel—if at all. How much of the Castiel he’d known had been because Cas had been wearing Jimmy, and what does it mean for his relationship with Castiel? Can he even call Castiel his friend these days?

 

Because Jimmy is Dean’s partner, and Cas had been Dean’s friend, but he can’t reconcile those two facts with the face of the woman Castiel is wearing.

 

“I need to know what’s wrong with Sam,” Dean replies. “Veritas, the goddess—”

 

Castiel cuts him off. “I know who Veritas is.” And now she—he?—sounds a lot like one of his fourth grade teachers, the one who hadn’t been charmed by his grin.

 

“Sam was able to lie to her,” Jimmy inserts. “She said he wasn’t human.”

 

Castiel frowns, her thick, dark brows drawing together. “I see. That is interesting.” She glances at Sam, who is still unconscious on the bed. “What did you hit him with?”

 

“A metal tray,” Jimmy replies without a trace of apology. “So, do you know what’s wrong with him?”

 

Castiel still appears thoughtful. “Is there anything else that’s odd about his behavior?”

 

“He doesn’t sleep,” Jimmy inserts.

 

That’s news to Dean, and he asks, “How do you know?”

 

“It came up while we were watching news footage,” Jimmy replies absently. “And he didn’t care that Dean got turned by the vampire,” he adds, addressing it to Cas.

 

Castiel nods, as though this has given her an idea, and she says, “This is going to hurt. You might want to gag him.”

 

Dean looks at Jimmy, who shrugs to show he doesn’t care. “What are you going to do?” Dean asks.

 

“I’m going to look for a soul. It won’t cause any permanent damage,” Castiel says with absolutely no inflection.

 

“Maybe you should wake him up first,” Dean suggests. “It might be a good idea for Sam to know we’re not killing him when he comes to.”

 

Castiel shrugs and touches Sam on the forehead with two fingers. Jimmy takes a step back, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the wall, well out of Sam’s line-of-sight.

 

Sam’s eyes snap open, and he starts squirming immediately. “What? Dean—what happened?”

 

“Cas is going to figure out what’s wrong with you,” Dean replies, figuring that the simplest—and most vague—explanation would be best under the circumstances.

 

Sam’s eyes dart to Castiel’s new vessel, and Dean can see that Sam recognizes her where he hadn’t. “Cas?”

 

“Hold still,” she cautions. “This may be unpleasant.”

 

Castiel takes off Sam’s belt, folds it in half, and shoves it in Sam’s mouth before he can protest.

 

Dean winces and has to look away as Castiel thrusts her hand inside Sam’s chest, although Dean can still hear Sam’s muffled screams. He might have tried to stop Castiel at that point, but he remembers having to do mouth-to-mouth on Jimmy, and how many bags of blood they’d had to pump back into him.

 

The truth is, Dean wants his brother back. He wants to be able to trust Sam to watch his back and Jimmy’s, and he can’t. Anything that brings Dean closer to an answer, he’ll take, as long as it doesn’t do long-term damage.

 

Finally, after long seconds, Castiel withdraws her hand and removes the belt from Sam’s mouth. “He doesn’t have a soul,” is the verdict.

 

“What does that mean?” Dean demands. “Where is it?”

 

“It’s probably still down in the cage with Lucifer and Michael,” Castiel replies. “Whatever or whoever brought him back left his soul behind.”

 

Dean ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, so what does that mean?”

 

Castiel shrugs. “The soul is what makes a person human, it’s the seat of the conscience. It’s complicated.”

 

“Can’t you get it back?” Dean asks desperately.

 

Castiel shakes her head. “No. It’s in the cage, Dean. And even if I could bring back Sam’s soul, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. It’s has been alone with Michael and Lucifer for a year. Whatever is left of it—it’s probably not even recognizable as your brother anymore.”

 

Castiel straightens. “I have to go. I have an urgent matter to attend to.”

 

And then Castiel is gone, and even though Dean now has more answers, he’s still stuck in the same place.

 

“Untie me, Dean,” Sam says, his voice a little hoarse. It appears as though he’s recovered from Castiel’s rummaging around. “Please. I promise I won’t hurt you or Jimmy.”

 

Dean doesn’t want to untie Sam, but he knows he can’t keep Sam tied up forever, and even without a soul, Sam still wears his brother’s face. He may not be able to trust Sam, but he can’t kill him, and they’re not in a position to keep Sam a prisoner.

 

Sam rubs his wrists and sits up, glancing at Jimmy. “You got me good.”

 

Jimmy smiles thinly. “I wasn’t going to take any chances.”

 

Dean notices that Jimmy doesn’t apologize, and he’s beginning to wonder if Jimmy has turned some kind of corner, because he’s been a little scary recently.

 

Sam nods, and Dean can read a grudging sort of respect in his eyes. “So, what now?” Sam asks.

 

Dean rubs his eyes. “I don’t know. I guess we find a way to get your soul back. I should call Bobby and let him know I found you guys anyway. Maybe he’ll have some idea for how to get your soul out of the cage.”

 

“What if I don’t want it back?” Sam challenges. “You heard Cas.”

 

Dean frowns. “I came out of Hell okay, didn’t I?” Sam opens his mouth, probably to argue that Dean definitely did not come out “okay,” but Dean barrels forward. “You can’t keep going without your soul, Sam. You’re going to get someone killed, and you won’t care.”

 

Something flickers in Sam’s eyes, but Dean can’t quite put his finger on what it is—and that’s the real problem. Dean can usually read Sam like a book, but these days Sam is inscrutable. “All right, Dean,” Sam says, in an almost patronizing tone. “We’ll try to get my soul back.”

 

Dean considers their options. He doesn’t want to keep Sam with them, but he’s not prepared to let Sam go out on his own either, not when Sam doesn’t have any sort of moral compass. He’s between a rock and a hard place.

 

There’s only one solution Dean can see. “Are you going to meet up with Samuel again?” he asks.

 

Sam shrugs. “Maybe. I hadn’t thought about it.”

 

“Maybe you should,” Dean suggests. “I don’t think you should be hunting on your own.”

 

“And you don’t want me with you,” Sam replies.

 

Dean shrugs uncomfortably. The harsh truth is that Dean doesn’t think he can keep an eye on Sam and watch Jimmy’s back and make sure Jimmy doesn’t get himself killed trying to heal someone who’s too far gone.

 

Of course, he’s not sure Samuel can be trusted to keep Sam on a short leash either, but there are no good choices here.

 

“Call us if Samuel can’t go on a hunt with you,” Dean directs. “Please, Sam.”

 

Sam shrugs. “Sure, Dean.”

 

And then Sam is gone, leaving him alone with Jimmy.

 

“You should call Bobby,” Jimmy says.

 

Dean opens his mouth to argue, but he knows Jimmy is right. He calls Bobby and tells him the news—that he’s found Jimmy and Sam, and that Sam apparently doesn’t have a soul. “We’re going to look around for another case,” Dean tells him. “We’ll call as soon as we can.”

 

“What about Sam?” Bobby asks.

 

“What about him?” Dean counters wearily. “He’ll call if he needs us, or we’ll call if we need him. Hopefully, Samuel will keep him from doing something stupid.”

 

“Don’t you do anything stupid,” Bobby warns him.

 

Dean snorts. “Yeah, I’ll try.”

 

“Good. I know that Jimmy has a good head on his shoulders,” Bobby replies, and hangs up before Dean can formulate a decent comeback.

 

Dean rolls his eyes, and then turns to Jimmy, who’s staring out the window with his arms crossed over his chest. Dean doesn’t let himself study Jimmy often, but he does so now—the stubborn, stubbled chin, the deep-set eyes, and the lines of pain around his mouth.

 

“How’s the pain?” Dean asks, realizing that it’s been awhile since he’s asked.

 

“About a three,” Jimmy replies. “Not too bad.”

 

Dean isn’t sure he believes Jimmy, but he doesn’t argue. “I notice you didn’t heal Sam.”

 

“Since I was the one to cause the injury, what would be the point?” Jimmy asks with a smile.

 

Dean smiles. “Yeah, I guess. Jimmy—” He doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say—that Jimmy is important to him, that Jimmy’s keeping him sane in the midst of this madness with Sam.

 

There aren’t words, though, and so Dean settles for kissing Jimmy, putting his hands on either side of Jimmy’s face, and pushing his tongue inside Jimmy’s mouth.

 

Jimmy’s mouth opens under his, and he tucks his hands in Dean’s back pockets, pulling their hips flush.

 

When Dean finally pulls back, he’s a bit breathless, and Jimmy’s breathing hard, too. Dean strokes Jimmy’s cheekbones with his thumbs and raises his eyebrows.

 

Jimmy smiles, and says, “Okay.”

 

And it is, at least for that moment.

 

~~~~~

 

Their next couple of cases are routine, which gives them both a chance to get back into the swing of things, and better yet, Jimmy doesn’t have to heal anybody. And that gives Jimmy a chance to heal up as much as he ever does. The dark circles under his eyes aren’t quite so noticeable, his hands are steady, and his eyes are clear.

 

Sam gives them a call about the crop circles and the fairies, but claims he doesn’t need their help because he’s got Gwen with him. So, Dean and Jimmy head for Detroit, where rumors of a lamia are running wild in Greektown.

 

The lamia throws herself at Dean, and Jimmy shoots it and then cuts its head off with his hunting knife.

 

“Dude,” Dean murmurs. “When did you turn scary?”

 

Jimmy grins at him, his white teeth stark against the blood on his face. “About the time you nearly got turned. Do you have a problem with that?”

 

“Not at all,” Dean replies, accepting Jimmy’s hand up.

 

That night, Dean rides Jimmy until they’re both boneless and sated. Jimmy’s fucked up wrists make other positions difficult at best, but Dean doesn’t mind. He’s a master at working with what he’s got, and Jimmy uses his hands to good effect during their coupling.

 

Later, after they’ve both cleaned up, Dean hauls Jimmy close, spooning up behind him, burying his face in Jimmy’s neck. Jimmy closes his hand over Dean’s, and that’s all the assurance Dean needs.

 

The next day, they start following the trail of a pair of ghouls that have been causing all kinds of chaos. Dean hates ghouls, and with good reason—they can shapeshift, they’re immune to silver and holy water, and they’re a pain in the ass to kill.

 

Plus, there was that thing with Adam, and Dean still wishes that had turned out differently.

 

Of course, if his dad had just told them about Adam, maybe he and Sam could have done something to save him, although Dean doesn’t know what that would be.

 

When they come up against yet another dead end, Dean slams into the abandoned house where they’ve holed up. “We’ll find them,” Jimmy says, closing the door gently behind him. “It’s just a matter of time.”

 

“And meanwhile they kill more people,” Dean snaps. “This is the third town they’ve been in.”

 

Jimmy gives Dean a look, but he doesn’t argue. He just puts a grease-stained bag on the table and starts pulling out their burgers and fries. “We’ll eat and then start looking again.”

 

Dean slams his fist against the window sash. “We don’t even know where to start.”

 

“So, we’ll eat, and then we’ll get a drink,” Jimmy replies. “Maybe we’ll pick up some information there. You should eat before it gets cold.” He pauses. “Colder, anyway.”

 

Dean sits and picks up his burger, then puts it back down again. “Sorry.”

 

Jimmy smiles. “I’ve been angry, too, Dean.”

 

Dean takes a large bite and doesn’t bother replying. When he’s chewed and swallowed, he says, “I’ve been trying to come up with a way to get Sam his soul back, and I’m coming up empty.”

 

Jimmy chews thoughtfully. “If Castiel can’t do it, you’ll need the help of someone who can get in and out of Hell.”

 

Dean grimaces. “Which means we’ll either have to make a deal with a high-level demon, God, or something else entirely.”

 

A thought occurs to Dean then, of someone—something—that might be able to get Sam’s soul out of the cage. He’s just not sure how he’s going to manage it.

 

Jimmy’s eyes narrow. “You have an idea.”

 

“Maybe, but first we need to deal with these ghouls,” Dean replies. “I need to think about it a little longer.”

 

Jimmy nods, apparently content with that explanation for now.

 

They finish eating in companionable silence and stuff their trash back into the paper sack. “You still want to get that drink?” Dean asks.

 

“I could use a beer,” Jimmy allows.

 

They hit the nearest bar, which consists of a long, narrow room with a scarred wooden floor and wood-paneled walls. The floor is sticky, and both the tables and the bar have a film on them, but the glass that holds Dean’s whiskey is clean, and Jimmy’s beer comes in a bottle.

 

Dean sips slowly. For now, they’re on the job, and he’s still hoping to get some information on the ghouls. People talk in bars, and this one is no different.

 

He and Jimmy eavesdrop on various conversations and chat with the bartender, who talks willingly between drink orders. From her, they learn that one of the morticians who works at the main funeral home in town had drunkenly confessed that they’d been having some trouble with the bodies—specifically, they’ve been drained of blood before the mortician could embalm them.

 

Jimmy whips out his phone after the bartender shares that piece of information and looks up the local funeral homes. “I think I’ve got a candidate,” Jimmy says. “Do you want to check it out?”

 

“This is the best lead we’ve had yet,” Dean acknowledges. “Might as well follow up.”

 

Dean breaks into the funeral home with ease; the locks aren’t complicated, and there’s no alarm system to speak of. Thankfully, it’s not one of those old-fashioned funeral homes with the house attached, so they don’t have to worry about being caught out by some family member who hears a squeaky floorboard.

 

“No sign of a ghoul here,” Jimmy murmurs softly.

 

Dean walks over to the sheet-covered slab and peeks underneath the cloth. “Looks like there’s a relatively fresh body,” he replies. “We’ll stick around for a while to see if we get company.”

 

The room is chilly and smells of formaldehyde and decay, and they have to hide as best they can in a corner, hoping that the ghoul—or ghouls—doesn’t see them when it enters. Jimmy is shivering next to Dean, but he doesn’t voice a complaint. Dean has an impulse to wrap an arm around Jimmy, but he settles for pressing up against Jimmy.

 

There’s a noise from the next room, and Dean glances at Jimmy, alarmed, and they both rush out, machetes at the ready, only to find the viewing room filled with Campbells—including Sam.

 

It’s a curious tableau—the beige folding chairs set up in front of a raised platform that’s empty, although Dean can imagine a coffin sitting there all too easily. There are heavy drapes on the windows, and the smell of embalming fluid lingers here, too.

 

Sam, Samuel, Christian, and Gwen have already restrained two ghouls, and they all look surprised to see Dean and Jimmy there.

 

“Well, look who it is,” Christian says, recovering first. “It’s Dean and his boyfriend,” and he makes it sound like a curse.

 

“We were tracking a couple of ghouls,” Dean replies, not rising to the bait. “You want to tell me what you’re doing with them?”

 

“Nothing you need to worry your pretty little head over,” Christian sneers.

 

Sam shoots him a dirty look. “Christian, stop. They’re okay.”

 

“What are you going to do with them?” Dean asks insistently.

 

Samuel smiles, although the expression doesn’t reach his eyes. “We just want to make sure there aren’t any more of them around. Don’t worry about it, Dean. We’ve got this.”

 

Dean isn’t ready to let this go. In his experience, hunters killed monsters; they didn’t capture them alive. “Since we’ve been tracking those ghouls of a few days, you’ll understand why I am worried about it.”

 

Samuel jerks his head. “Christian, Gwen, get them loaded up.”

 

Dean wants to protest. He wants to demand to know where Samuel is taking them, but he feels Jimmy touch his back, the movement so unobtrusive that Dean doubts anyone sees it, and he subsides.

 

Samuel smiles at them. “It was good to see you boys again. Let us know if we can help you out with anything. Sam?”

 

“Right behind you,” Sam replies. “I want to talk with with Dean and Jimmy.”

 

“You probably don’t want to dawdle,” Samuel advises. “That scuffle caused some noise.”

 

“You can come back with us,” Dean says. “Our room has two beds.”

 

Sam nods. “I’ll follow you then.”

 

When they’re in the Impala, driving back to the motel with Sam following, Dean asks, “What was that back there?”

 

“We need to watch them,” Jimmy says quietly. “And for that, we need Sam.”

 

Dean nods slowly. “You caught that, too?”

 

“They didn’t kill the ghouls,” Jimmy replies. “And hunters kill things.”

 

“And you think Sam will help us?”

 

Jimmy shrugs. “I think there’s still a part of him that knows you’re his brother, and he’s not quite willing to let that go yet.”

 

When Sam joins them in their motel room, the digital clock reads 12:24, but it feels a lot later to Dean. He’s so tired right now, all he wants is to go to bed and not wake up for a year or two.

 

“What the hell, Sam?” Dean asks wearily.

 

Sam hesitates, his expression calculating, as though he’s trying to figure out how much he can get away with hiding. “I don’t know.”

 

“Try again,” Dean says.

 

“Seriously, Dean, I don’t know,” Sam insists. “Yeah, Samuel takes monsters alive when he can, but I never asked where he takes them.”

 

“Can you find out?” Dean counters.

 

“Why does it matter?” Sam asks. “You’re not going to work with him. You don’t trust any of them. You don’t trust me.”

 

“Why should I?” Dean demands, nearly shouting now. “Dammit, Sam!”

 

“Jimmy and I worked together okay last time!” Sam counters.

 

“And you don’t have a soul!” Dean closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Look, if I’m going to trust Samuel after what I just saw, I’m going to need to know where they’re taking those creatures they don’t kill.”

 

In truth, Dean doesn’t think he’ll ever trust Samuel or the other Campbells, but Jimmy’s right that they need Sam’s help to figure out what’s going on

 

Sam hesitates, and then appears to make a decision. “I can use one of the GPS trackers in their phones.”

 

“Do it.”

 

Sam has always been something of a whiz with computers, and he uses their laptop to log in and track Samuel’s cell phone. At Dean’s questioning look, Sam smiles, “I set up Samuel’s account for him.”

 

From there, it’s an easy matter to track Samuel and the others to Evergreen, Missouri, which is several hours away from Lancaster, where they’d found the ghouls.

 

Dean hadn’t expected to see Samuel handing over the ghouls to a couple of people with black eyes.

 

“Demons,” he hisses, mostly for Jimmy’s benefit, although he knows Jimmy can recognize a demon easily enough.

 

Even Sam looks a little surprised by this turn of events, and he shakes his head. “I didn’t know, Dean.”

 

Dean honestly isn’t sure that Sam cares whether Samuel is delivering monsters to demons, but he thinks Sam’s telling the truth about not knowing. “What would demons want with a couple of ghouls?”

 

Sam shakes his head. “Honestly, I don’t know. I knew Samuel was taking them somewhere to be interrogated, but that’s it.”

 

There’s the distinctive sound of a shotgun shell being chambered behind them, and Christian says, “Sam, I’m surprised at you.”

 

“You had to know I’d find out,” Sam replies mildly as he turns to face Christian. “So, what the hell are you doing?”

 

Christian smiles, his eyes black. “Well, I’m inclined to fill you all full of buckshot, but we’ll see what the boss has to say.”

 

Dean expects Christian to lead them to Samuel, and although he does, there’s someone else there who makes him stop cold.

 

“Crowley,” Dean growls.

 

“I see you met my friend,” Crowley replies with a smile. “The name was too much of an irony to pass up, you know.”

 

“You bastard,” Dean says. “What the hell are you doing?”

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Crowley taunts. “For now, though, all you need to know is that I can get Sam’s soul out of the cage, and you—well, you can’t. So, I expect you to be a good little boy and play by my rules.”

 

Dean does a rapid mental calculation—deals with demons have never worked very well for Winchesters, and he has no idea if Crowley is pushing his buttons, or if he can really do what he’s promised. “How do I know you can get Sam’s soul back?” he demands.

 

“Haven’t you heard?” Crowley asks with a smug smile. “I’m the King of Hell. I can do whatever I like.”

 

There’s a part of Dean that wants to agree. He wants to believe that Crowley can fulfill his promise, that they can get Sam’s soul out of the Cage.

 

But he remembers the lengths they had to go to in order to get Bobby’s soul back, and Dean isn’t willing to take that chance, not when he has another idea that might work—even if it is about ten times more dangerous.

 

The truth is, Dean still trusts Death a hell of a lot more than he trusts Crowley.

 

“So, get Sam’s soul back right now,” Dean counters. “And we’ll owe you one.”

 

“That’s not how this works,” Crowley replies, rolling his eyes. “The deal is, you do what I want first. If I’m satisfied with your work, then you get your brother’s soul back.”

 

Jimmy keeps his mouth shut, although his eyes are wide with alarm. Dean looks at Samuel. “So, what did he promise you?”

 

“He said he’d bring Mary back,” Samuel replies. “Just do what he wants, Dean.”

 

Dean doesn’t much like being told what to do by anybody, including a grandfather whose loyalties are divided to say the least. “No,” he replies simply. “We’ll find another way, and you can get somebody else to do your dirty work.”

 

Crowley offers a thin smile. “You really think it’s that easy? Let me put it another way—you do what I say, and not only will I get your brother’s soul back, I’ll refrain from possessing your friend there.”

 

Dean’s heart is in his throat, and he opens his mouth to make threats he knows he can’t carry out, but Castiel suddenly appears, standing between Dean and Crowley. “You’ll keep your hands off them,” Castiel says in her husky voice.

 

Crowley sneers. “Why should I?”

 

“Because I know where your bones are located,” Castiel replies, and then reaches back for Dean and Jimmy. In the next moment, they’re standing by the Impala.

 

“Thank you,” Jimmy says, looking unfazed.

 

Castiel nods. “I heard your call. Crowley knows better than to harm you, but I’d stay away from him for a while. I don’t have time to constantly be coming to your rescue.”

 

“What about Sam?” Dean demands.

 

“Crowley has no interest in Sam,” Castiel replies dismissively. “He has no soul to barter, and he’s been working with Samuel, and is therefore technically in Crowley’s employ. Stay away from Crowley, Dean. I mean it.” And then he’s gone.

 

After a long moment, Jimmy says, “I thought you’d take him up on it.”

 

“Crowley can’t be trusted,” Dean replies slowly, picking out the words he wants to use, and the explanation for his decision. “He said he’d give Bobby his soul back, and you saw the kind of blackmail we had to use to make him keep that promise. If I thought he’d keep his word, I might have taken the deal.” He pauses, then adds, “And I’m not putting your soul in jeopardy.”

 

“I don’t like the thought of yours being for sale either,” Jimmy says.

 

“How did you call Cas?” Dean asks.

 

“Very quietly,” Jimmy replies dryly. “Castiel seems more inclined to come when I call, and I think he—she’s got a certain proprietary interest.”

 

“Good call,” Dean admits.

 

They climb into the Impala, and Jimmy says, “I take it you’ve got another idea for getting Sam’s soul back.”

 

“Yeah, I do,” Dean admits. “But you’re not going to like it.”

 

~~~~~

 

 Jimmy doesn’t like it. He wants to exhaust all other avenues first—he wants to try wringing a promise out of Crowley—but Dean’s insistent. Crowley can’t be trusted, but Dean knows that Death has a kind of honor that means Dean can trust him. Sort of. Dean isn’t so foolish as to believe that Death has any agenda but his own.

 

Still, Dean believes that Death will do exactly as he promises, while Crowley will lie his ass off in order to get exactly what he wants—and Dean can make this deal on his own. Crowley’s already threatened Jimmy, and Dean isn’t about to put him in the line of fire.

 

Jimmy argues against Dean’s plan fiercely, finally saying, “And what if you don’t come back? What if Death decides to keep you?”

 

Dean’s faced death—and Death—too often to be as scared by the prospect as he probably should be, but he understands Jimmy’s fear.

 

That year of being without Sam has taught Dean what it means to be the one left behind; he’d certainly prefer his own death to Jimmy’s at this point.

 

“I don’t know,” Dean has to reply. “I know it’s risky, but this is my best chance of getting Sam’s soul out of the cage, other than working for Crowley.”

 

“I’m not sure that isn’t the better option,” Jimmy mutters.

 

Dean sits back in the rickety chair of their motel room. They’re in Omaha tonight, on their way back to Sioux Falls, and the room is decorated with a white bedspread with black splotches, like those on a cow, and there are pictures of cows on the wall.

 

It’s not the worst decorating job Dean has seen in his years on the road, but Dean keeps getting distracted, thinking that the splotches on the wall are moving.

 

“Crowley’s out of the question,” Dean insists. “He threatened you. You had to call Castiel in to save our hides!”

 

“And you think you can trust Death?” Jimmy counters.

 

“In a sense,” Dean replies. “He’s a straight shooter, at least. If he can help, he will. If he can’t, he’ll say so. Besides, you’ll be safe this way.”

 

“But you’re willing to throw away your own life!” Jimmy shoots back, his voice growing louder. “Did you ever stop to think that you’re just as important to me as I am to you?”

 

Dean grins; he can’t help it. “Yeah, I think I got that memo, Jimmy.”

 

Jimmy sighs and smiles reluctantly. “You’re suggesting that this guy, a friend of your father’s, kills you, then revives you. You know how insane that is, right?”

 

“Very,” Dean agrees readily. “But it’s also our best shot at getting Sam’s soul back, and I don’t know about you, but we can’t leave Sam’s soul in the Cage.”

 

“Agreed,” Jimmy says. “But Death?”

 

“The doctor is going to bring me back,” Dean replies with confidence he doesn’t exactly feel.

 

“And if he can’t, I’ll have to heal you, and you know how far I’ll go,” Jimmy says grimly.

 

Dean shakes his head. “I know you’re a miracle worker, Jimmy, but even you can’t bring someone back from the dead. Even with the vampire thing, I wasn’t exactly dead.”

 

Jimmy narrows his eyes. “Fine. Then I’ll kill the doctor, and make a deal with Crowley to bring you back. And when I get you back, I’ll kick your ass into next week.”

 

Dean winces, but promises, “That’s not going to happen.” He only hopes he can keep that promise, because if Jimmy has to sell his soul to get Dean back, Dean will never forgive himself.

 

~~~~~

 

Later, much later, Dean will privately admit that making a deal with Death is not his brightest idea. He’ll even wonder if he’d made the right decision, going after Sam’s soul, knowing how far Jimmy would have gone to get him back. At the time, though, right up until Death agrees to make a wager, Dean believes he’s doing the right thing.

 

The problem is that Dean isn’t used to having a partner other than his brother. When it was just Sam Dean had to worry about, he just did whatever it took to keep Sam safe. When it was just Jimmy, Dean focused on him. Now, he has to somehow balance keeping them both safe.

 

And while Sam doesn’t have his soul, Dean isn’t sure he can strike that balance.

 

Dr. Robert is creepy as hell, as is his assistant, but they do as they promise—Dean dies, and they bring him back, even if he’s dead four minutes longer than expected.

 

The first thing Dean sees when he opens his eyes is Jimmy’s panicked expression.

 

“I told you,” Jimmy says furiously, as soon as they leave the doctor’s office. “That was four minutes too long, Dean!”

 

“He brought me back,” Dean replies. “I’m okay.”

 

Jimmy frowns. “And what did Death want?”

 

“He wants me to take his place for a day,” Dean admits reluctantly. “I put the ring on for 24 hours. If I take it off before that, Sam doesn’t get his soul back. If I make it a full day, Sam gets his soul back, and Death puts a wall up that prevents Sam from going completely nuts.”

 

“Forever?” Jimmy asks.

 

Dean winces. “No, probably not, but this is our best shot.”

 

“Are you going to tell Sam what you’re doing?” Jimmy asks.

 

“We’re going to have to corral him,” Dean admits. “Death can go anywhere, but I think we probably need to keep an eye on Sam before and after.”

 

Jimmy rubs his eyes, but then he says, “Bobby and I will deal with Sam. You focus on this deal with Death.”

 

Dean hands Jimmy the car keys. “You’d probably better drive. I’m not sure I’m steady yet.” When Jimmy frowns, Dean adds, “And no, I don’t need you to heal me. I need you to conserve your strength.”

 

“I came close to trying to bring you back,” Jimmy admits. “I would have tried if the doctor hadn’t succeeded.”

 

Dean slides into the passenger seat and waits for Jimmy to start the car before he says, “I’m glad you didn’t try. I don’t know what Death would do if he thought you were challenging him.”

 

“I guess we’ll never know,” Jimmy replies. He’s quiet for a moment before he says, “If you do this, I don’t think I can help you.”

 

Dean nods and glances out the window at the passing scenery. Most of the trees are bare now, and the fields are stubbled with mown-over cornstalks. Winter is coming, and Dean wonders what his life will look like when Christmas comes around. “I know you can’t. I’ll be okay.”

 

He wants to believe that; Dean wants to believe that he’s going to get Sam’s soul back, that he’ll have his brother and Jimmy.

 

“I meant what I said, Dean,” Jimmy says quietly. “I can’t do this without you.”

 

Dean reaches over and curls a hand around the back of Jimmy’s neck. “I’ll get through this. I promise.”

 

“I’m holding you to that,” Jimmy replies.

 

~~~~~

 

Bobby has a similar reaction when Dean tells him about the plan. “I think you’re an idjit,” he says, “but I think it’s a good idea to get that ring back where it belongs. I haven’t felt comfortable having it in the salvage yard.”

 

“I need you and Jimmy to get Sam here,” Dean says.

 

Bobby waves a hand. “You leave that to us, boy. You just deal with Death.”

 

Dean is honestly torn. He doesn’t like the idea of starting the clock without knowing where Sam is, but at the same time, he doesn’t know how Sam is going to react to having his soul shoved back inside him.

 

Dean thinks it might be better if Sam doesn’t know what’s coming.

 

“Thanks, Bobby,” Dean replies.

 

Jimmy accompanies Dean when he digs up Death’s ring. Dean holds it in his hand, and it feels heavier than he remembers. Jimmy grabs Dean’s jacket, hauling him close, kissing Dean roughly, insistently. “I’ll see you later,” Jimmy promises.

 

“Yeah, you will,” Dean agrees. “Hold that thought for me.”

 

“Remember what I said,” Jimmy says.

 

“Don’t worry about me,” Dean replies, and slides the ring on his finger.

 

And then he’s Death, and Tessa is antagonistic and clearly impatient. Where Dean would have tried to charm her once, now he just wants to get through the next twenty-four hours—he wants to get Sam’s soul back and return to Jimmy and that unfulfilled promise. He wants to know if Bobby—and Jimmy—managed to get Sam to come to Sioux Falls, and how that went down.

 

He doesn’t want to kill a kid.

 

In the end, though, Dean doesn’t have a choice. He takes the ring off to save the nurse’s husband, because that’s his fault, and he has to make it right, even if it means losing his chance to save Sam. And he has to play Death to the little girl, because to do otherwise means Dean will have more blood on his hands.

 

At least he’s still got Jimmy, Dean thinks as he removes the ring for the last time. He remembers another girl, running down a sun-washed field, and supposes he ought to be grateful that he hadn’t needed to kill someone he knew. He has no idea what he’d have done if Jimmy or Claire or Bobby had been one of the victims.

 

Dean walks into Bobby’s house to find Jimmy and Bobby sitting in the study. Jimmy’s face is bruised, and they’re both nursing drinks. “What happened?” he demands.

 

Jimmy grimaces and takes a sip, leaving Bobby to reply, “Your brother decided he didn’t want his soul back. We persuaded him to stick around.”

 

“Where is he?” Dean asks.

 

“In the panic room,” Bobby replies. “Unconscious. I hate to say it, Dean, but Sam’s a damn menace right now.”

 

“I know,” Dean replies.

 

Jimmy meets Dean’s eyes for the first time since Dean had arrived. “You’re back early,” Jimmy observes.

 

“Yeah, well, it was a little tougher than I thought it would be,” Dean admits. “I’ll tell you about it sometime. Just—not now, huh?”

 

Jimmy pours another couple of fingers of Jim Beam and hands the glass to Dean. “Here.”

 

Dean swallows it in one go and returns the glass. “I’m going to check on Sam. I’ll be right back.”

 

When he peers through the opening in the door, Sam is unconscious and handcuffed to the bed. Dean closes it up and pats his pocket, feeling the outline of Death’s ring through the denim, wondering when he can expect Death to show up to retrieve it.

 

He heads to the kitchen, hoping to find something to eat before he has to share the whole story with the others. The last thing Dean expects is to find Death eating a bacon dog at the table in Bobby’s study.

 

“Dean. Join me.” He slides a foil-wrapped package across the table towards Dean. “Brought you one from a little stand in Los Angeles known for their bacon dogs.”

 

Dean blinks. “What’s it with you and cheap food?”

 

“I could ask you the same thing,” Death replies evenly. “Thought I’d have a treat before I put the ring back on. Heavier than it looks, isn’t it? Sometimes you just want the thing off—but you know that.”

 

Dean stares down at the floor sullenly, feeling the sting of his failure and hating Death’s knowing words. He has no idea what to say.

 

Death sighs impatiently. “Sit down, Dean.”

 

Dean does as he’s asked, a bitter taste in his mouth as he prepares to admit defeat. He doesn’t touch the bacon dog; instead, he sets the ring on the table and nudges it towards Death. “I think you know that I sucked at being you,” he begins.

 

Death listens to Dean’s confession with an absolutely implacable expression. When Dean is done, Death asks, “So, if you could go back, would you simply kill the little girl, no fuss, no stomping your feet?”

 

“Knowing what I know now, yeah,” Dean replies, and once again is thankful that he hadn’t been asked to kill someone he knew.

 

“I’m surprised to hear that. Surprised, and glad.” Dean doesn’t reply, and Death says, “Today you got a look behind the curtain. Wrecking the natural order isn’t so much fun when you have to mop up the mess, is it?”

 

Dean swallows, a sudden fear overtaking him. “What about Jimmy?” he blurts out, and curses himself in the next breath. He hadn’t meant to throw Jimmy under the bus, but if Death will be coming after Jimmy because he’s fucking up fate or destiny or the natural order, or what-the-fuck-ever, Dean wants to know now.

 

Not that there’s much Dean can do about it. He can’t stop Death; he knows that now. But maybe he can convince Death to leave Jimmy alone if Jimmy stops healing the dying.

 

Death raises an eyebrow. “What’s this? Are you concerned about someone other than your brother?”

 

“That’s low,” Dean spits out before he can think better of the words. “Jimmy’s my friend.”

 

Death gives him a sharp look, and Dean glances away uncomfortably. “You were willing to wreck the natural order for Sam,” he begins. “What if I were to tell you that Jimmy is doing the same? What then?”

 

Dean swallows. “I’d say take me instead.”

 

“You throw away your life because you believe it will bounce back into your lap,” Death observes. “As it turns out, however, your Mr. Novak is a special case. There is a place within the natural order for miracles, even if they are uncommon these days.”

 

Dean shakes his head. “I don’t understand.”

 

“No, you wouldn’t,” Death replies cryptically. “Do you know what the stigmata are?”

 

“They’re a religious thing, right?”

 

“At one point, they were considered a mark of great favor. Mr. Novak might dispute that distinction, but it is still true.” Death leans back in his chair and regards Dean steadily. “When Mr. Novak heals someone, he acts in accordance with the natural order, much the same way one of the creatures you hunt acts within the natural order when it kills someone, or as you do when you save someone.”

 

Dean has a feeling that Jimmy isn’t going to like that explanation if Dean ever passes it along. “You’re saying God did this to him?”

 

Death shrugs. “So it would seem. Unlike you, Dean, he has accepted his place in the world. You could learn a thing or two from him.”

 

“I already have,” Dean replies.

 

“Not enough,” Death says coldly. “The soul is not a rubber ball. It’s vulnerable, impermanent, but stronger than you know. It’s more valuable than you can imagine. So, I think you’ve learned something today.”

 

Dean shakes his head, but he doesn’t argue, because he can’t find a way to dispute Death’s statement without admitting he would have still tried to save Jimmy, or even Claire. He’d still try to cheat Death; he’s just less likely to believe he’ll get away with it.

 

Death nods, as though he’s reading Dean’s mind and he doesn’t care. “Now, I’m off to hell to get your brother’s soul.”

 

Dean’s head comes up, and he stares at Death. “Wait, why?”

 

“Because right now, you’re digging at something. The intrepid detective,” Death replies. “I want you to keep digging, Dean.”

 

“So you’re just going to be cryptic, or—”

 

“It’s about the souls,” Death says. “You’ll understand when you need to.”

 

Death picks up his ring and begins to slide it on his finger.

 

“Wait,” Dean objects. “What about Sam? Is this wall thing really going to work?”

 

Death smiles thinly. “Call it 75%,” he says, just before he slides the ring on the rest of the way and disappears.

 

Before Dean can call for Bobby to check on Sam, Jimmy enters the study. “Hey, I thought I heard you here. What’s up?”

 

“Death is going to put Sam’s soul back in him,” Dean explains briefly. “I need to see Bobby.”

 

“He went to check on Sam,” Jimmy replies.

 

Dean heads for the panic room, calling Bobby’s name. “Bobby! Death is putting Sam’s soul back in!”

 

By the time Bobby gets the door open, Sam is thrashing on the bed, saying, “No, please don’t do this.”

 

Dean steels himself, knowing that he can’t break, that Sam has to get his soul back, no matter how much it hurts, no matter the risks.

 

Because the risks associated with Sam being without his soul are a lot greater.

 

“Dean, no!” Sam shouts. “Please! Dean!”

 

When he screams, Dean makes himself watch, because it’s his duty, and he owes Sam that much.

 

Sam goes limp, and Dean moves forward to check Sam’s pulse; it’s strong and steady under his fingers. “Sam?” Dean calls softly. “Hey, Sammy.”

 

There’s no response, and Bobby says gently, “We don’t know what happened when his soul got shoved back inside him. Maybe we’d better let him sleep it off. If he doesn’t wake up soon, we’ll call in reinforcements.”

 

Dean doesn’t see another option, and he’s not sure who they’d call besides. “Yeah, okay.”

 

“He hasn’t slept in over a year,” Jimmy points out from the doorway. “He might need to do some catching up.”

 

The explanation makes a certain kind of sense, and Dean wants to believe it, which is probably more to the point.

 

“Go,” Bobby insists. “I’ll take first watch down here.”

 

Dean can’t find it in himself to argue, and he follows Jimmy back up to the kitchen. “Are you hungry?” Jimmy asks. “There are leftovers.”

 

Dean nods. “Yeah, that would be great.”

 

“Sit.” Jimmy nudges Dean toward a chair. “I’ve got it.”

 

The silence that hangs between them is heavy with the information that Death doled out. Dean doesn’t want to say anything, but at the same time, he’s tried to keep secrets in the past, and it’s never turned out well.

 

“Death told me something about your stigmata,” Dean says. “Do you want to hear it?”

 

Jimmy freezes, and then says, “Might as well.”

 

“He said you’re a part of the natural order.” Dean hesitates and adds, “He said the stigmata were from God.”

 

Jimmy still has his back to Dean, facing the microwave, where Dean’s meal is heating up. He laughs, but the sound is mirthless. “So, I guess the nun was right.”

 

Dean doesn’t know what Jimmy’s referring to at first, and then he remembers the nun in Kansas, who was the first to call the stigmata a blessing to Jimmy’s face. “I don’t know,” Dean admits. “Maybe she was.”

 

“Kind of makes you wonder what sort of a god would do this, and not just—” Jimmy stops, seeming to catch himself, and the microwave beeps. “The chili is good.”

 

“I’m sure it is,” Dean says, and accepts the bowl. He stares down into it. “I don’t suppose you talked to Bobby about having Claire here for Christmas.”

 

Jimmy frowns. “I didn’t think you’d still want to. With everything that’s been going on—”

 

“All the more reason to do it,” Dean counters. “If Amelia agrees, we should try it. Maybe we could even get a tree.”

 

Jimmy smiles. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Dean insists. “Jimmy—” He wants to tell Jimmy about the girl, about killing her, because there had been no other choice. Dean wants to say that he has no idea what he would have done if it had been Jimmy whose number had been up, or Claire in that hospital bed.

 

Dean wants to say how grateful he is to have Jimmy here, sitting across from him, and in one piece right now.

 

Any of that might change tomorrow; all of it might change. And the day that Jimmy finally buys it because he’s tried to heal one person too many, or the day Dean throws his life away and it sticks—

 

Well, Dean knows that will pretty much be the end of the other.

 

He doesn’t know how to say any of that, though.

 

Instead, Dean reaches across the table and grips Jimmy’s hand tightly, as though he’s hanging on to a lifeline.

 

Jimmy smiles and puts his free hand over Dean’s. “Thanks for coming back,” he says quietly.

 

Dean smiles. “Thanks for being here when I did.”

 

“Always,” Jimmy promises, squeezing tightly.

 

Dean thinks about that unfulfilled promise, about Jimmy’s warm mouth. He thinks about how hard Jimmy tries, every day, and how empty his world had been when Jimmy wasn’t there. Dean asks, “Remember that promise?”

 

Jimmy smiles, relief in his eyes. “Absolutely.”

 

And for the moment, Dean thinks, that promise is enough.