The Fruit of the Tree of Life is a metaphor, turns out.
"It's more like a state of being," Sam tries to explain, referencing one of the less-dusty old books littered with fact-checking annotations by Cas that they keep on-hand in the library. "It's called the Fruit because it's, uh, 'borne by the Tree of Life,' but basically it's like a blessing or a ritual that they give to certain people at the Tree. Kinda like a djinn knighthood."
Dean mentally scraps all the fun heist plans he was gearing up for. Can't steal a title.
"It's still a real tree, though, yeah? We know where it is?"
"Most likely Syria," Cas supplies, smoothing his hand over the top of Jack's head where he's (unsteadily) sitting up on his blanket on the floor. This is their morning routine: play with the baby and try to break the walls between universes, mixing up who does what every so often.
Dean (also on Jack duty) doesn't look up from where he's stacking blocks on the baby's other side for him to knock over. "I ain't gettin' on a plane."
"Gah!" Plastic scatters off the fleece and onto the hardwood.
"You tell 'em, kiddo."
"But the djinn have emissaries in the United States," Cas continues as if no one had spoken. "I imagine it wouldn't be hard to get word to the right people."
"Then what do we gotta do? I mean, how the hell do we get it if there's not an it to get?"
"Uh..." Sam's eyes skim down the page. "Huh!"
"Marriage," Sam announces.
"Does it gotta be consummated? That might be an issue."
Cas glares at him over Jack's head, but Dean just smiles winningly. He knows he's too lovable.
Above them, Sam only sighs.
"It's a contract, Dean."
Out of sight, Dean mouths the same words with his best bitchy-Sam impression. Cas glares at him again, but it's less earnest, an unsuppressible smile underneath that shines out through his eyes.
"I don't care what it is, long as I get to be the best man."
It's been a good day, all things considered: Jack's been kicking ass at developing motor skills, so he's a lot more fun to hang around, endlessly fucking entertaining as he chucks blocks everywhere, and having all three of them in the same place always makes Dean feel settled deep in his bones. Sam's in high spirits too, as they've been making progress on getting Mary back, and Cas is happy to be along for the ride. For once, nobody's actively trying to end the world. All there is to do is raise a kid and get their mom out of an alternate universe. Y'know: baby shit.
With all of them in such high spirits, Sam lets Dean egg him into calling Rowena, who is more than happy to get them in contact with the right people and, in fact, forwards them her own copy of the current treaty between djinn and humankind, which outlines how marriage contracts regarding power transfers work, which she has for no particular reason, of course.
Sam gets cracking on it immediately while Cas supervises Rowena's lengthy and theatrical goodbye to her "favorite nephew" at the top of the stairs. (Jack loves her springy hair and Rowena loves the attention, which is apparently enough to erase any worries about his parentage.)
Only once she leaves, Sam starts to get into details. Sure, Rowena's cool enough to trust around Jack for brief bouts, but interdimensional portals are a skill they'd like to keep on lockdown for as long as they possibly can.
"There are tiers," he starts once Cas confirms the wards are back up. "Apparently stronger, more detailed contracts are required for more powerful artifacts. Only the most, uh, 'trustworthy allies' are allowed access to sacred relics."
"Well, the Fruit definitely qualifies," Cas says, beginning to read along. "The question is whether we will."
"So what, we gotta save up our tickets for the big panda?"
Sam rolls his eyes, but Cas thinks Dean's analogy through. "Assuming you're referring to the reward system in an arcade, then yes, the Tree of Life is a very big panda."
"Don't encourage him," Sam says, but Dean, already grinning, twists to kiss Cas's cheek before leaning too close over his shoulder to actually pay attention to the words on the page in front of them.
"Hell yeah I am. Alright, so what do we gotta do, kill a hydra, fight a lion, that kind of shit?"
"They're djinn, not Greek gods," Cas says flatly, but he's actually reading, despite Jack's best attempts to remove his ear.
They're still all standing in the middle of the library, which is cute but ridiculous, so Dean peels off and does what he does, taking Jack and picking up his toys while Sam and Cas do their nerd shit. He likes this part: putting every little thing back in its place so it's there when somebody goes looking for it. He'd've made a killer housewife in another life, he thinks. Baby on his hip, cleaning up while the menfolk do their thing, planning dinner. Oh yeah. Dean would kill it.
By the time he gets back from slapping together a marinade for the ribs he eventually remembered he moved to the fridge yesterday, Sam and Cas are fully in the deep end and about to go off it. Lore everywhere, Sam frantically texting someone, Cas on the phone with what can only be Rowena again, judging by the fluster on his face and the number of times he says, "No, you don't have to come all the way back here, just tell me—"
"Well I figured out dinner," Dean announces as he enters this fray. "What've you guys got?"
Sam shushes him, Cas doing the same with only a look. Tough crowd, but Dean doesn't let it phase him as he pokes through the even more scattered contents of their favorite table. There's an encyclopedia with drawings of trees in something Dean can't read, an email BCCed to a few of the more widely traveled hunters they know that are still pretty paranoid. Most of it is familiar from before he left the room, but Dean knows this song and dance enough to tell the difference. There are more details, now. A little more certainty in Sam's handwriting where he's jotted down notes in the margins of their pre-existing notes. A drive in his eyes as he looks up finally and addresses Dean's appearance.
"They're willing to meet with us," Sam announces, getting straight to the point. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean catches Cas finishing up his own phone call and rejoining the fray. It feels good, having them all on the same page. "Apparently, our reputations preceding us might actually be an asset for once."
"And Rowena said that in practice, agreements concerning the Tree of Life tend to be short-term and well-guarded to keep the Tree safe, so it would only be a temporary marriage."
"Man, we are killing it." Dean holds up a hang for a high five, turned down by Sam and Cas both before Jack helpfully rescues him with one fat baby palm. "Alright, Sammy, time to break out the lip gloss."
Sam gives him the expected bitchy look again, but it's Cas on Dean's other side that comes in with the crushing blow.
"Actually, it has to be me."
"The treaty stipulates that it has to be another supernatural entity," Cas explains, taking a seat in front of the document in question, "presumably because humans are fallible and easily killed."
"Rude," Dean mumbles.
"Whereas something with power is a more trustworthy caretaker." Continuing as if Dean never spoke, Cas points at another book when Sam leans his big head across the table. "The more powerful the being, the more likely they are to agree. They don't give access to the Tree of Life to just anyone."
Dean sighs and hoists Jack up on his hip again, dodging the grabby hand Jack makes at his ear now that it's in reach. Geez, the kid's got a fixation. Dean makes a note to ask Cas if that's normal according to his many readings, or if he's trying to tell them something.
"Alright, so what's Plan B?"
"What?" Sam's attention is pulled reluctantly from the page. "Why?"
"Well obviously he can't—" Dean turns to Cas for support and is bewildered to find none. "What?"
"That's the way the djinn do contracts," Cas explains. "It's—"
"You can't marry somebody else while we're—" Some complicated hand motions follow, raising the other two to Dean's level of bewilderment as well as catching Jack's wide-eyed rapture. "Seriously?"
"'Somebody else'?" Sam echoes with undisguised humor.
"Shut up," Dean tells him as Cas sighs.
"It's a diplomatic act. There's nothing romantic to it."
"Yeah, but..." Sam is definitely staring, which is still enough to derail any coherent train of thought connecting Cas and feelings and saying out loud. "Dude."
"Of course I wouldn't marry anyone else in the modern human sense," Cas continues as if Dean had finished that sentence. "But we need the Fruit to get to the other universe and rescue your mother."
"Well, technically that's not true," Sam interjects.
"Did you find another spell?"
"No, uh." He glances at Dean, who has an inkling of something, he can't remember what, that ignites the instinct to slap his hand over Sam's mouth before he can reveal— "I mean. Aren't you still technically married to that woman you met when you had amnesia?"
"I forgot about that..." Cas says, almost lost under Dean's blurted, "No."
If there weren't a table between them, he would've curb stomped Sam's toes too. They both know the only reason Sam knows about that (being, himself, occupied by Lucifer's trauma ghost at the time) is because Dean definitely brought it up a few too many times when dramatically catching Sam up on what happened, in addition to every time he mentioned it afterwards, moping guiltily about leaving Cas in the hospital. Yeah, it's not like it's a secret that Dean has smushy feelings, and it's not like Cas doesn't already know how long he's had them either, but it's the principle of the thing. Bros before hoes, or whatever.
"Well, that wasn't legally binding," Cas continues, "or even ethical, since I didn't exactly have an official identity, let alone any sense of self, so my point still stands. It's a piece of paper. Figuratively speaking."
Dean squints at that addition. "And literally?"
Cas hesitates for a second too long. "It's hard to explain in human terms—"
"Cas," Dean levels with a no bullshit tone, and the angel sighs.
"The ritual would involve a minor binding of my grace to their queen's soul," he starts again, but Dean's face is already set by the time he gets to "binding."
"Sammy. Take the kid."
"Oh, come on. Seriously?"
Dean is already settling Jack in Sam's arms, though, and abandoning them to push Cas out the door with a hand on the small of his back.
"Give us a sec!"
Sighing, Sam shuffles the baby awkwardly, trying to get the best hold on him (i.e. the one that least feels like he's gonna drop Jack the second he moves) and failing to find anything that feels natural, because, duh. Jack is oblivious to all this, reaching for Sam's hair as Dean and Cas's steps echo down the hallway.
As their muffled voices start up, Sam mutters to the baby, "I mean, I'm glad somebody around here gets to have two parents who love each other. I'm just sorry you're stuck with those two."
Jack blinks up at him, gnawing on a fistful of Sam's split ends. Sighing again, Sam sits at the table, idly flipping pages in the hopes of distracting the baby. Hopefully they won't take too long.
"Gah!" Jack slaps a wet hand down on an illustration of a djinn.
Sam grimaces and peels him off. They can't come back soon enough.
It comes first as a tug. All entreaties do—prayers, summons, whatever you want to call them—but few do so with this kind of earnest power. Most people are less open about wanting or needing help, so even when they do not speak the words aloud, they are still filtered somewhat to preserve the ego, the pride, the sense of propriety of the petitioner. This one is not, and so, even though she does not usually handle these requests directly, the queen stands in her chambers and answers.
The second they've turned enough of the corner to be out of sight, Dean feels the tension in his shoulders... not disappear, but shift: away from the too many eyes on me feeling of having an audience and back to the normal amount of stress he feels whenever Cas is about to do something stupid. It's not even about the whole "Cas being someone else's husband" thing anymore (mostly) but the actual logistics of the process. Soul tying together, that sounds dangerous and complicated and... irreversible.
"It's fine, Dean," Cas is already saying.
"The hell it is." They stop in the entrance of the kitchen, though they don't go in—just out of sight, the artificial closeness of fitting in the doorway together, snug and out of the way. "You're gonna leverage your soul in a deal with the most powerful djinn in existence?"
"My grace," Cas corrects, "but yes, in this case it's functionally the same. The point is it's a contract leveraged against someone's immutable essence, whether that's a soul or some other animating force. We make the deal, get the Fruit, do the spell, and return to normal."
"Yeah, but what if—" What if we wanted to get married, what if I wanted to be the one tied up in all that angel-ness, what, you don't wanna soul marry me? "Is it reversible? I mean, or are you stuck forever tied to some djinn schmuck."
"She's the queen," Cas points out. "And I'm not sure. As far as I know, no angel has ever taken part in such a pact. But I'll be fine, Dean. There's no physiological effects, it's still words on paper."
"Sure, except it's words on your 'immutable whatever,' which feels like it might be a bigger deal."
"And it's most likely temporary."
"'Most likely' ain't as reassuring as you think it is," Dean counters. "Come on, Cas, how good things have been going? There's no way this isn't going to bite us in the ass."
"And you want that to happen with Sam on the other side of the deal?"
"Dean." Cas sets his hand on Dean's shoulder to get his attention, despite already having it. "Do you trust me?"
It's a more loaded question for them than it is for most people, but that only makes it that much more meaningful how easily Dean's response comes out. "Yeah."
"Then let me handle this."
Dean tries to pry his shoulders from around his ears, though most of the stress he was carrying there doesn't really dissipate so much as migrate elsewhere. "Okay."
"I trust you."
It's not agreeing to the plan so much as agreeing with Cas as a whole, but they both know what it means. Cas smiles ever so slightly, but it works wonders.
"Thank you," he says after a moment of this, suddenly almost bashful. "I know I haven't always deserved that trust but—"
"Hey. Quit it with the low self esteem."
"And I will handle it," Cas continues. "If anything, it's better that it's me. The influence a djinn can have on the human soul even while controlled is unpredictable."
"Still don't like the idea of you bargaining your essence or whatever. At least souls we know you can survive without. What if you try to get divorced and poof out of existence, huh? Can djinn even get divorced?"
Though he doesn't mean to, Dean must say something behind the words he puts out there, because Cas squints at him like he's hearing some far off music, just faint enough to know he could recognize if he got closer.
"Is that what's bothering you?"
"The terminology." Marriage, he leaves unsaid.
"Yeah, I get a little twitchy around people I care about making deals," Dean fires back petulantly. "Sue me."
Though he fools absolutely no one, Cas nods. "At least this time it's not behind anyone's back."
"Yeah," Dean huffs. "Small fucking wonders."
The fight has all but drained out of him, but he still offers, after a bit of quiet, "Sure we can't tell her you're already taken so she's gotta find some other kind of contract?"
Cas tilts Dean's head down to kiss his forehead.
"Djinn are incredibly perceptive," he explains, staring deeply into Dean's eyes like always, "especially when it comes to humans, so she'd take one look at your soul and think we're up to something. But thank you for offering."
"Could always just actually get married," he mumbles back, a token attempt at mutiny.
"I wouldn't want you to marry me out of spite."
"It wouldn't be..." Dean trails off so his cheek is still enough for Cas to kiss that too, as he's obviously aiming to do. "Not totally."
Cas's eyes are bigger than usual when he pulls away to look at Dean, boring deep. "Well. Still."
As he lets their heads fall together, Dean sighs, long and loud. Unseen, Cas winces but doesn't move away. The things we do for love.
When Dean's found whatever reassurance in stillness he needs, he straightens and looks straight at Cas, where they have one more silent conversation.
"Guess we should at least call that emissary dude," he says, nodding back towards the library.
Cas accepts this and puts his hand on Dean's cheek one more time. It's his left hand, for once, and Dean imagines what it would feel like with a ring on it.
Of course, that's when Sam's voice comes down the hall.
Whatever they were expecting to see upon returning to the library, it wasn't a throne.
"How'd that even get here..." Dean says as he takes a squirming Jack from Sam's arms, Cas busy inspecting the throne from all angles.
"I don't know," Sam says, "I left for a second to get Jack a snack and when we came back it was sitting there."
"And that's it?"
It's a huge thing to appear out of thin air. Though the design is sleek and effortless, it still must weigh a ton, the thick cantilever base made of crystalline intersecting patterns of some kind of silver metal. Though it's mostly metal, there are bits and pieces here where the geometric shapes are filled with shades of blue, stone or ceramic or enamel or some else.
"I can't quite tell," Cas reports. "It just appeared?"
"It— Yeah, it just 'appeared,' I don't know what else to tell you, I wasn't in the room."
"Okay," Dean counters, "but why would it do that? With nobody in it?"
"I don't know," Sam snipes back. "Maybe there was somebody but they—"
Everyone freezes, though not because of the implication (that there was someone who's now loose in the bunker) but because there suddenly is someone. Everyone pulls their weapons, including Dean, who has to juggle Jack into one arm but does so relatively smoothly.
"Greetings," whoever she is begins, but she's quickly cut off by Jack's loud cry at all the commotion. "I am— What is this?"
Cas, who had been closest to the throne when the woman appeared in it, completely turns his back on her and heads straight for Jack, who fusses until he's in Cas's arms, where he's much more stable with the same amount of grip.
While all this is happening, Dean and Sam keep their eyes on the woman. Not that that's hard; there's something unsettling about her, even excluding the fact that they saw her appear out of nowhere in the middle of a bunker they were pretty sure was warded against everything it could possibly be. Her eyes are a bit too big, too brightly blue, and her dark hair moves a bit too fluid;y as she tilts her head a bit too far at Jack's outburst.
"Who the hell are you?" Dean counters.
She keeps blinking at Jack. "Is this the one that summoned me?"
"The one that— Wait." Sam's gun lowers a tick. "Are you a djinn?"
"'A djinn'?" She echoes, incredulous. "I am Queen Niloufar. I am the djinn."
When she stands, their eyes cannot quite follow the movement. At least, the humans among them can't; somewhere between the movement of her hands on the throne's arms and her stepping forward across the floor, something flickers, dreamlike, like a film reel missing frames. In that second, there is something towering over them, inky black and fluorescent blue, accompanied by the unreal echo of clopping hooves. But then it's gone, leaving a very tall woman and a throne.
"So it wasn't one of you," she says, eyeing Sam and Dean with flat disdain. "One of the angels, then."
Cas trails off when Jack's hand fists in his coat collar. He doesn't have time to say anything more before something hums in the air, low and clear. Pulsing, like prayer.
Both humans wince at the piercing edge of it, but Cas and the queen simply turn to Jack with looks of surprise and recognition respectively.
Sam is still tapping his ears like they've got water in them, but Dean has recovered enough to squint at the trio of supernatural beings, all of whom are staring silently at each other until Dean's voice pulls Cas's eyes away.
Jack, for his part, flaps a hand at the queen.
"Intriguing," Queen Niloufar says, holding out a single finger as if she expects a bird to land on it. Instead, Jack latches on. "I've never received a summons from anything preverbal before, which may have been why it was so compelling. You have an extraordinarily powerful child."
"Thank you," Cas says and takes a step back towards Sam and Dean, "but please don't touch him."
Queen Niloufar looks at him oddly for a moment before coming to some conclusion. "Ah. I imagine you have had to guard this child from many who are after his power."
"Yeah," Dean interjects, "and it hasn't ended well for any of them, so don't try anything."
He doesn't react to Sam's harsh nudge of warning, other than to lessen his glare, but Niloufar only nods as if in respect for the threat—or at least, Dean's audacity in attempting to threaten her, the most powerful djinn in existence.
"Sorry," Cas says, ignoring the offended sound Dean makes, "but we weren't exactly expecting you so soon."
"I should have assumed when I came in contact with this place's warding. Luckily, whatever magicians enchanted this place were narrow-minded and neglected to guard specifically against my kind, so I was able to navigate my way through eventually."
"That why your tricked out La-Z-Boy got through before you?" Dean asks.
Niloufar fixes her hair imperiously. "Standard ceremonial practice. Count yourselves lucky that I discouraged the entire entourage from attending as well."
The queen sweeps past them, taking a slow tour of the library and all the crap scattered around it, magical and infantile both. She seems to find it all equally interesting, though it doesn't set anyone at ease. Sam tucks his gun in his waistband, but Dean is less quick to give up, and all their eyes stay on her as she flips through their assorted notes and texts on the table.
When she starts to actually read one of Jack's picture books with the same seriousness, Dean interrupts, "So did you just break into our house to read Jubal's Wish or what?"
"I did not break into your house," Niloufar says slowly, the only hint of her discontent at being interrupted a brief glint of electric blue in her eyes. "I was invited by your child. And as I did not get any specifics from him and the speaking parties here are less than forthcoming, I was trying to discern the reason. Judging by the materials assembled here, I gather you're inquiring about the Fruit of the Tree of Life?"
Sam steps in before Dean can put his foot in his mouth again. He has his hands up in the way that he often does when trying to seem less intimidating than his height and size may imply, but Queen Niloufar seems to find this more amusing than anything—which is probably fair, considering the shambling black-and-blueness they glimpsed earlier.
"And what is your... pitch?" She takes a pinch of the ground star anise that they'd tried using in a location spell earlier, just to check if it would work. When no one replies, she meets Sam's confused but amused look. "I spend much of my time in Silicon Valley. Despite best efforts, I've absorbed some of the local vernacular."
Tension loosens from Sam as he laughs.
"Right. Fair enough," he concedes. "Well, to get straight to the point, there are two very powerful and vengeful archangels in a parallel universe who are trying very hard to get over to this one and raze it. We know that they're trying to open a portal here and are possibly working together, but either way, it'll mean the end of the world for everyone. All we're asking for is for the blessing of the Tree of Life to help us get over there and stop this before they can amass any more power. Catch them off-guard and take them out before they even set foot in this world."
Niloufar takes this all in as placidly as any of the Sharks, parked on the edge of the table with her arms folded over her chest. The blue in her eyes has faded to a more human color, but the memory lingers. "And you have nothing personally to gain from that."
"To be honest? Yeah, our mom is stuck there too," Sam shrugs, "and we'd really like to get her and as many of that world's remaining survivors over here where it's safe before Michael and Lucifer kill them all. But it's just as much about saving this world, and I promise you, we take that very seriously."
The djinn queen nods slowly, eyes wandering the array on the table. Her hand drifts over the papers beside her, the black bell sleeve of her high-necked shirt rucking up to show hints of tattoos that wind up and around her arms in the same patterns as her throne, all in an ink so deeply blue it appears black until her hand passes under the whiter glow of the laptop. The rest of them hold their breath—even Jack, it seems, who fusses once but goes silent once Cas resettles him against his shoulder where he can watch Niloufar's consideration comfortably with everyone else.
"I have heard of you, you know," she begins eventually. "The Winchesters. It seems that you end up saving the world as often as you do damn it, often all in the same breath."
"Not on purpose?" Dean tries, but it's a weak excuse and they all know it.
"The worst things rarely are," Niloufar replies. "And yet... You persevere. The three—I suppose, now, four—of you seem immune to worsening odds. Every time an apocalypse comes around, the chances that this perpetually doomed planet makes it through again get worse and worse, and yet you continue to try."
"And we'll keep trying," Sam vows, "with your help. All we need is the blessing."
For a moment, Niloufar simply studies them, one by one, giving each face enough piercing consideration that there's no doubt she's looking at something behind their surfaces, ascertaining somehow their merits as if everything she needs is written on their bodies.
Her eyes linger the longest on Jack, who stares back placidly but somehow knowing. It's not that out of the ordinary for him, the whole all-knowing Care Bear Stare thing, but it's not usually met on equal footing when directed at strangers. Whatever she sees, he sees too, it seems.
Sam lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "Good. Great, that— Yes. Thank you so much, really, we'll—"
"Yes." Niloufar stalks back to her throne and sits. She reaches one hand under the seat and pulls, somehow, a scroll from thin air. It flickers through many shapes—reed thin papyrus wrapped around an actual reed, a bound folio with the seams showing, an accordion folded ream of dot matrix paper—before settling on a simple leather folder, embossed in one corner with a simple geometric star that matches that which hangs around her neck. "Now to the terms."
Her hand hangs in the air until Sam steps forward to take the folder. He opens and tilts it to show Dean and Cas the contents: a neatly typed contract in a tasteful sans serif font, turquoise sticky flags littered throughout ready for the signature of whoever's name goes in the blank below...
"Her Highness, Queen of Queens, High Empress Niloufar of the Many Planes..."
"You don't have to read the entire thing aloud," she interrupts, crossing her legs neatly, "least of all my titles. This is a more up to date copy than the one you have in your possession."
Dean looks over Sam's shoulder skeptically. "Okay, well, we're still gonna wanna—"
"For the most part, it is the same. All that is asked of you is unswerving loyalty to safeguarding the Tree and its location, so long as you retain the knowledge of it, allowing neither harm nor publicity to come to it. There is a clause to break the contract, with the allowance that the djinn party be allowed to erase all trace of said knowledge from the other party's mind, but while the wording there has changed, it is for the most part for the benefit of the non-djinn spouse. You'll want to review it yourself, of course, but I am bringing it to your attention upfront."
"We appreciate it," Sam and Cas say in unison, much to Dean's disgruntledness.
Sam continues, "Is it alright if we take some time to go over it?"
"Of course." Niloufar nods (somehow) slyly. "I wouldn't want to be married to someone too short-sighted to know what they were agreeing to. I'd just like to know who it is—to alert my people, before they sense someone new being brought into the fold."
"Yes." Cas steps forward, leaving Dean holding Jack so he doesn't reflexively drag him back. "I am ready and willing to sign the contract."
Niloufar considers it.
Dean's eyes snap to Cas to confirm what he thought he heard, and yes, Cas, for some reason, looks as offended as he sounds. "Dude."
"The boy king will do." Niloufar waves at Sam, though her eyes stay trained vaguely around Cas and Dean. "No essence as entwined as these two will be able to sustain a trustworthy bond, and the child, though by far the most powerful, is not autonomous enough to consent to any contract."
While Cas puts his thinking face on and Dean hikes Jack closer, wary, she turns back to Sam. "With the reputation that precedes you and the myriad of supernatural influences I can sense mingling in your soul, the spirit of the law will be preserved, if not strictly the letter."
"Hang on, what's entwined?"
"Your souls," Niloufar says, leveling first Dean, then Cas with her seering blue gaze. "The point of the ritual is to insure the other party will be sworn to keep the Tree of Life's location secret above all other priorities. That is what the binding is for. However, even one glance at you two makes it obvious enough that even should the magic hold, it would still fall below the other in the hierarchy of concern."
"Uh." Dean turns to Cas as she starts to squint, considering them again. Cas is no help, though, as he's staring into the distance like he's doing some particularly hard math.
"In fact," she muses seemingly to herself, "the ritual might not even take hold. Something very strange has happened here. I've never seen anything like it, angelic grace and soul..."
"Sam?" Cas jumps in; Sam, trying not to laugh, startles. "Are you okay with doing this?"
"Dude, what did you do to my soul?" Dean asks.
"Uh, yeah." Sam glances down at the contract Niloufar holds out propitiously. "I mean, I should look over it first, but I've always been okay with it being me."
"Okay." Cas nods, ignoring Dean's eyeroll and indignant repetition of his name and turning to address her highness properly again. "If you'll give us a minute to do that."
"Of course." Queen Niloufar folds herself into her traveling throne, at complete ease. "You may wish to explain to your consort what—"
"Okay." Cas grabs Dean's elbow and steers him out of the room, Sam making an apologetic face at Jack's wide-eyed look back to the rest of the library's occupants.
Sam trails behind them, pausing for a moment as he tries to think of something to tell the djinn queen. When their eyes meet, however, there's a sense of transcendental understanding. Apparently, bickering couples are a timeless, universal thing.
Niloufar nods; he nods back; Dean and Cas get to the hallway and start bickering; Sam gets to reading.
As they turn into the kitchen, Dean blurts, "Does the djinn queen think I'm your baby mama?"
He's pretty sure he's never seen Cas blush before (and trust him, he's been paying plenty attention), but his face is a steady, noticeable pink right now. Holy shit.
If that weren't proof enough, Cas deflects obviously, "Sam. Does the contract say anything about the duration of the spell?"
"Holy shit, she totally does," Dean says. Suddenly he couldn't care less about the soul magic; like, he does, but he trusts Sam to know what he's getting into and the ease with which the djinn queen relaxed the no-human rule makes him think it's not as dire as it first sounded, which leaves Dean's mind free to way more fun activities. He sets Jack in his bouncer in preparation.
"If there's anything about fluid—"
Sam's eyebrows tilt wryly, parallel to his smile. "Cas, man, I've got it. Go do your weird you-and-Dean thing."
"There's not—" Cas starts, but when Dean tugs his sleeve to get Cas to look at him, the angel caves like a house of cards.
This time, they end up in their room, though given that the conversation is less antagonistic and more embarrassing, Cas will allow that. He's been trying to— It's ridiculous, probably, but he read on the internet that humans associate strong feelings with the spaces in which they feel them, so one tactic for a healthy relationship is to keep arguments outside the safe space of the bedroom. Or, as he now understands Dean's colloquialism, never go to bed angry.
Now, Cas is the only one uncomfortable, and for a much more ridiculous reason, so it's probably fine that they do this here. He's the only one at risk of creating negative-trending associations with this space, and being allowed in Dean's innermost sanctum, most personal of spaces, is already enough to preclude any such associations.
It's not even that bad. Cas sits on the edge of the bed, his heavy sigh only partly for Dean's benefit, but it doesn't matter much when Dean looks so goddamn chipper. He leans against the desk, tapping happily at the surface under his palms, and smiling at Cas in the way that means he's trying not to but not trying too hard.
"So....." He drawls, obnoxious, adorable, and very pleased with himself. "What was that about no shotgun wedding?"
"Okay," Cas sighs. "Yes. It's possible that our bond being what it is looks similar to an ancient marriage custom—"
"Does it count as eloping if one of us didn't know that's what it was?"
It's a joke—he's just poking at Cas, no harm meant, no manipulation felt—but Cas fires back, "Do you want to know exactly how long ago that elopement would have taken place?"
Dean pushes off the desk with a huff, but his face is a lovely pink as he watches his own feet approach Cas. "So, what, you just... loved me too much?"
"I could never," Cas says seriously.
"No, I know, I meant—"
"But yes, a bond such as ours usually results from a specific moment of profound, emotional connection."
With that, Dean's forehead falls into Cas's as he laughs, hands landing on Cas's shoulders as planned. He doesn't do anything more, fully aware that climbing onto Cas's lap while there's a super powerful supernatural monarch down the hall is asking for trouble. He wants to, but he doesn't. See? Dean can control himself.
Despite this, Cas settles his own hands low on Dean's hips, pulling him closer by instinct. Their knees knock together like their skulls, a bunch of bones and meat that love each other so much, apparently, that it's written on their eternal whatevers.
"When was it?"
"Hm?" Cas's nose slots into alignment along Dean's, the rest of him in the ethereal plane drifting around Dean like a weather system.
"When our— Hang on, did she say souls plural?" When Cas starts to pull away, Dean senses the incoming existential crisis and pulls him back in. "Doesn't matter. So when did we get all tangled up?"
"Cosmically, you mean."
"Yeah, dude," Dean squeezes Cas's shoulders, leaning into the hands on his hips, "pretty sure I remember the rest."
"Well. If I had to pick a specific moment," he starts, "it would be when you trusted me to help you stop Sam opening the cage."
Dean's head jerks back enough to look Cas in the eye, the rest of his body staying still so as not to dislodge Cas's hands. "Wait, when you smacked Zachariah out of the beautiful room? That's our moment?"
Cas nods until Dean touches their foreheads together again, at which point he adds, to be clear, "Yes."
"It was the first moment you trusted me, really trusted me," Cas explains, calm and deliberate the way the words deserve. "The first time you opened yourself to me fully, and I to you. It might not have seemed like much, but that was a pivotal moment for me."
"It did," Dean mumbles, quiet but meaning it completely. When Cas reaches up to touch his cheek, he tilts even further into it.
"Thank you." He brushes his thumb along Dean's cheekbone. "That was the first time I deliberately and unforgivably defied Heaven. And it was for you. Because I believed in you, and the things you stood for—the love you had, for all humanity. So, with both of us there and trusting and aligned in our desires and beliefs, with each other and seemingly only each other, we resonated. We overlapped. And that union is the kind that leaves its mark forever."
Then Cas fiddles with the edge of Dean's shirt.
"Also, being as that room was partially a cosmic construction, both your soul and my grace were— Closer to the surface," he finishes, uncertain of the metaphor but not of the concept. "Which made it easier."
"So you're saying if we wanted to get soul married on Earth, you'd need a little more advance warning?" His voice gets wobbly and dramatic. "I could always wait til the full moon, when the veil between worlds is thin..."
"I'll also require a better proposal than that," Cas says flatly.
Dean kisses his eyebrow. "Can do, babe."
They don't have enough time to get lost in the kiss that follows before there's a shadow in the open doorway.
"Knock knock," Sam says. Jack, awkward but secure in his arms, adds in his own greeting once Dean steps back and he can see both his and Cas's faces, flapping his stuffed animal at them. "Hey. I've read the contract through and it looks alright to me, but Cas, I figured you probably want to take a look yourself."
"Thank you, Sam." Cas stands but he only takes Jack, listening intently to his baby babbled update before finishing, "But— No, I see, Jack, thank you for the rabbit. But I trust your judgment. You're the one signing it."
Sam blinks. "Alright. Then let's go. If you guys are done with your... thing."
"Oh, so now you've got a problem with open communication," Dean quips as he slides past Sam and out the door. "You're the almost-lawyer, dude. If you can't find a problem, how the hell am I?"
"You have great creative problem-solving skills and often offer a unique perspective on things that ends up being the very solution needed," Cas says, leading them back down the hall, "but I see your point."
Niloufar is right where they left her, having also manifested a phone from somewhere that she's scrolling lazily.
"You've found the terms satisfactory," she says without looking up. It's not a question, but her eyes aren't cold when she finally looks at them. She's just a businesswoman. No more, no less.
Dean, for his part, finds that weirdly reassuring, enough to actually (i.e. not as a deflection) joke, "So how does this work? You gonna ask me for my brother's hand in holy matrimony? We need to get a public notary in here?"
Queen Niloufar doesn't exert the energy to roll her eyes but the gesture comes across regardless. "No. As the contract outlines, we sign and initial where needed before the binding ceremony can take place."
"Right," Dean says slowly, starting to have second thoughts about not looking it over himself. Still, he's trusting Sam and Cas. Trusting Sam and Cas. "You sure about this, Sam?"
"Yes, Dean." Unlike the queen, Sam has no problem rolling his eyes; they're kind of a perfect match, actually.
Then he seems to realize something.
"Seriously?" Dean asks as Sam runs back to the table where the other pages of the contract are. "You're getting cold feet?"
Sam takes a second to glare back at him. "No, I just—"
"What do you require, my betrothed?"
Though Dean snorts, Sam stutters to a stop. In his defense, she's very beautiful.
"Um. So, we still have a few more ingredients to track down. For the spell we're doing."
"Well, I don't know how long the blessing, uh, lasts—you said it's temporary, but the contract doesn't stipulate how long. The other ingredients are kind of rare, I don't know how long it will take."
"And which ingredients are these?"
The three of them exchange a look, silently debating how much to tell her. For all the theatrics, she's agreed thus far and still has as much to lose if Lucifer and the other world's Michael come over, so at Cas's nod, Sam tells her.
After a pause, as if waiting for Sam to continue, Niloufar snorts.
"What?" Dean asks defensively, like he didn't have the same reaction when they found out how simple the spell ultimately was.
"That's it? The blood of a most holy man and the seal of Solomon?"
"...Yes?" Sam says, checking with Cas and Dean again. They silently agree to keep the last ingredient secret, at least while they're holding one of the two remaining repositories of archangel grace in the same room as her. "That and the Fruit."
"There's more to the spell," Cas adds in case that makes it more plausible, "but in terms of ingredients, we have the rest already."
Niloufar just laughs and holds her hand out to Cas. "Come."
"Now hold on—"
Dean lurches forward, turning Jack behind him but still trying to get in between Cas and Niloufar's outstretched hand.
Niloufar merely smiles, unbothered by whatever "threat" Dean poses. "Relax, hunter. I will return him to you in one piece."
"I'll be fine," Cas adds, far more convincing. It's still not enough until he grabs the hand Dean has left hanging in the air between them and squeezes before kissing the back of it. "Trust, right?"
And then, while Dean is still being stunned into blushing silence, Niloufar threads her arm through Cas's and they're gone before anyone can even blink.
Jack makes a small noise, but it isn't too distressed, and the brothers otherwise fall into silence, awkward and perfectly normal at the same time. Super casual. Just another day in the life of the Winchesters.
Dean breaks first to begrudgingly admit, "Smart thinking."
"Yeah. I know." Tidying up the research spread around the table, Sam leaves the contract in its folder front and center with a couple pens and chuckles before adding, "Your boyfriend's gonna be fine, by the way."
"I know he's gonna be fine," Dean snaps back, but his eyes stay firmly on Jack in his arms, despite the fact that the kid is doing nothing more interesting than gnawing on the ear of his rabbit the way he always fucking is. Dean takes it gently from his mouth. "Hey, come on. What'd we say about eating toys? You need more fiber in your diet, say the word."
Not knowing how long this will take, Sam and Dean are just starting to wander off to do whatever when Niloufar and Cas reappear.
It's more startling this time, not in the least because the first hint either of them has is Jack screeching in glee over Dean's shoulder.
"Done," Niloufar says to Sam. "Now may we sign?"
The first thing Cas does, meanwhile, is head for Jack, who has just enough time to lift his arms before Cas is swooping him up. The second thing he does, though, is turn to Dean, set his hand heavy but tender on the back of Dean's neck, and pull him in to kiss his forehead.
This, what Dean has internally dubbed his you are so beautiful to me kiss after what Cas said after the first time he did it, is enough to soothe any doubt he might still have. Ever, but specifically about the marriage thing. Like, duh. No way Cas would leave him for some random djinn, even if she was the queen. Is she the most precious thing Cas has ever seen in all creation? No, so there.
When Cas pulls away, he pulls a blue glass bottle out of one pocket and hands it to Sam before taking a ring out of the other which he hands to Dean.
"Moustafa Ahmed says that if the spell fails, we are welcome to visit again," he tells Sam before turning to Dean and adding, "and her highness took me to the location of Solomon's ring, which the djinn have been keeping an eye on it for millennia due to its use as a weapon against their kind. It doesn't work in ordinary human hands, though, so you're free to hold onto it."
"Gee, thanks," Dean says, turning the ring over in his palm. It's mottled bronze, inscribed with symbols familiar only to those in their line of work but smooth with time. There's some kind of... crud on it, though, and Dean drops it into his hand and rubs the stuff from his fingers. "So I don't gotta worry about this being an allergic reaction or something?"
"What?" Cas takes a flake from Dean's palm with one finger and, before anyone can say anything, tastes it. "Oh. It's salt. It was in a pile of calcified fish bones at the bottom of the Dead Sea, so that makes sense."
Dean almost drops the thing in his shock. "Sorry, it was what?"
"I didn't take the angel just to vex you." Queen Niloufar smirks at him. "It simply happened to be a delightful side effect."
While Dean glares at her, Cas reaches over and touches the ring with one finger, wiping it and Dean's hands clean.
"What is the phrase parents like yourselves often employ?" Niloufar asks impishly. "'And what do we say? Thank you?'"
Do not tell the djinn queen to go fuck herself, Cas's careful look says. If Dean concedes, it's only because drying out in the sea breeze apparently does great things for Cas's hair and he wants to get laid later. It looks so soft and swirly. He really wants to get his hands in there, which he can't if the djinn queen cuts them off for impudence.
Luckily for all of them, Niloufar's smirk remains in place as she once again reaches out with one hand, this time for Sam. "The time has come, betrothed."
This time, when her hand is taken, there's a blue flash from under her sleeves, bright enough that the distinct patterns are visible through the sheer fabric.
Dean holds Jack closer to keep himself from acting on the reflex to throw himself between Sam and anything resembling danger. The blue light surges down Niloufar's arm as Cas touches Dean's back, soothing and present, and the air tastes suddenly of the memory of dark red fruit and dry breezes, the smell of moonlight in the distance. When she squeezes, Sam squeezes back, the veins in his arms flexing in tandem with the pulse of light in hers. Her arm keeps glowing as she folds the other over their joined hands, letting the light pool there before removing them both to reveal a sleek, dark pen in Sam's open palm.
When she nods and he turns to the contract on the table, Sam finds his name printed in his own handwriting at the top of the page, right in the blank that had preceded the parenthetical "known hereafter as 'the Betrothed'" when she'd first offered it. It and the flourishing Old Aramaic in the other signature lines that Sam can partially recognize are all written in a deep purple ink. It suddenly explains the slight lightheadedness he felt when Niloufar's tattoos began to glow. Red (human blood) and blue (djinn blood) make purple. With a moment to wonder what color it would have been for Cas, Sam starts to sign.
As he goes through, the taste in the air shifts to something like morning air and fried rice, the breeze off a lake and clean laundry, mint gum, beer, bar soap. It's warm like a dog on your lap, like a blanket around your shoulders, reading books in the sun. It's a certain Sam-ness, and then they've reached the final page, and it's over with a little flash.
Sam hands over the pen and it dissipates from (or maybe into) Niloufar's palm, dissolving away on an unfelt wind. Though her eyes stay locked with Sam's, that same hand then goes palm down on the stack of paper and thin plumes of smoke rise from the surface as hot blue flames burn the purple ink neatly into a dark color almost indistinguishable from the black type of the surrounding terms of agreement.
"So it is," is all Niloufar says. She picks up the folder and shuts it, holding it out blindly to Cas and Dean, the former of whom takes it as Dean is still busy with Jack. "For your records."
Still looking at Sam, she adds, "I would brace yourself for the travel."
"Hold on," Dean hops in, "what travel?"
He can't exactly do anything with his arms full of baby, but that's not stop him from stepping forward like he's gonna try.
"For the final ceremony," Niloufar says, simultaneous with Sam's, "It's fine, Dean."
"The contract simply sets terms for the marriage," she continues, "after which the actual blessing may take place. In private."
"Private?" Dean's mind goes two directions at once, neither of which he wants to imagine with regards to his brother.
As if she knows exactly what he's thinking, Niloufar smiles. "Some secrets must be kept in the family. Another reason for the marriage."
Dean still doesn't like it, but for some reason the blush on Sam's face there is both reassuring and disgusting. On one hand, it cements which of those two possibilities she meant, which was the... less dangerous of the two. On the other...
"Oh. Ew." He grimaces first at Cas, who looks back at him in confusion, and then down at the baby in his arms. He covers Jack's ear with one hand. "Come on, not in front of the kid."
Sam doesn't say anything, but the smile on Niloufar's face gets (if possible) more sly. "Not something as mundane as that, poor human, but regardless, we will have to step out momentarily."
"Yeah, yeah, go." Dean waves them off. "I'll be here, bleaching my brain."
"What are you talking about?" Cas asks.
"I'll tell you when you're older."
As they start up again, Niloufar slips her arm through Sam's and they disappear.
As long as there have been djinn to be married, such contracts have been sealed out of the public eye. What happens in the delicate moments when a djinn and their betrothed are formally tied to each other is too personal, too intimate to be shared beyond the boundary of the duo (or trio, or any other number of intended spouses).
Luckily for both Sam and Cas, this means that Dean doesn't know exactly what his partner offered himself up for and brother actually followed through with doing. If he had, neither would ever live it down.
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
"You know, you basically got all the pieces, just in the wrong order," Dean says.
"I don't think Niloufar will let you keep the seal of Solomon as an engagement ring, Dean," Castiel says.
Jack gnaws on his bunny, watching the morphing fractal patterns of his fathers' thoughts and feelings hanging over him. Where other children have mobiles or moving night light projectors to soothe them to sleep, keep them enraptured long enough to lie still and drift off, Jack has this. In the daylight (or at least, the bunker's approximation thereof), they're his favorite perpetual source of entertainment, and he watches them shift against the ceiling as he stares up at his fathers from his bouncing chair.
"So what, you got a ring for the gesture and now you're gonna return it? Cheapskate."
They're a lot better than a mobile, too. They're happier. They feel good, like bubble bath and hugs and his sheepie blanket, which is the softest thing Jack has ever felt in his whole life. Actually, the colors are even softer. And they're fun to play with: when Jack laughs, they get brighter, the colors glowing, teal and green and purple and yellowpinkwhite.
Overhead and out of sight, Castiel sighs, ruffling Jack's hair. "Do you want me to ask if we can keep it?"
"No, you gotta buy it yourself or else it doesn't count."
"I thought we decided you were going to propose. Frankly, Dean, I think I deserve that much."
The glow around Dean pulses and Jack reaches out with the hand not holding his rabbit, which is the third softest thing.
"Alright, Grumpy Dad." Jack's head swims through the colors as Dean lifts him out of the chair until his face is close enough to see in detail. "Ain't that right, Jackie? Meanwhile I'm Smart Dad."
He lets the rabbit's fleecy ear fall from his mouth to respond, correcting him that Sam is the most smart dad, but it's okay because Jack prefers all of them being together.
"Exactly. 'Ayayaba'." When Dean clearly doesn't get it, Jack smacks him with the wet rabbit. "Alright, thanks for that, kid."
Jack sighs and tips his head against Dean's shoulder. Dean doesn't get lots of things, but that's okay. They love him anyway.
The senses around them pulse with something that tastes like thunderclouds, which he doesn't have to look to know is coming from Castiel. Still, Jack sends back what he hopes is the same feeling. It works, he's pretty sure: Castiel is the easiest dad to communicate with, and also the nicest cuddler.
And Dean is the fun dad who does the best voices. They balance each other out. That's why Jack prefers having all of them together. He hopes Sam comes back from the blue dream he's in soon.
The Tree of Life is shorter than one might expect, but its shade is sweet, and the cracked bark of it seems to exude coolness in the midday heat.
"Technically, it is an oak shrub," Niloufar says, reaching up to pluck an acorn from amidst the waxy, pointed leaves. Here, the shine of her eyes and the aqueous smooth movement of her hair doesn't look strange: just beautiful. She tosses the cap aside and peels the green skin back more easily than her long nails should be able to before scratching the soft insides into curling strips she collects in her palm. "The acorns are very bitter."
As she mashes the pulp together, Sam looks around. They're in a desert, somewhere hilly and scrubbish, but there aren't any signs anywhere to be found or anything like that. Still, Sam knows innately where they are in the world. Not a name, not an address. Only a sense of what is around them, exactly how far they are from home. It's a bone deep thing, and it's kind of funny, because Sam's never felt like he belongs someplace, felt deep inside that he's meant to be where he is, or even really thought of the bunker as home, but now that he's not there, he knows.
"Too bad it didn't happen to be one of those myrtle trees over there," Niloufar says she works the soft pulp into a paste with some water that came from... somewhere, "or the Fruit might be more literal, and much more simple. Alright. Here."
As she paints on the back of Sam's hands and begins to chant, he thinks about how far away he is and savors the novel feeling of wanting to run home, not away. Somewhere, an unfamiliar bird sings.
They're gone longer this time around, but Dean waits in the library anyway. Jack gets bored with it easily, having exhausted all the toys he has out there and directing Cas to get more from his room, where Dean can still hear them playing. Dean, in the meantime, keeps flipping through Sam's notes on the spell. The seal of Solomon sits next to the bottle of blood in front of him, two boxes checked off, nothing to it. It seems way too easy, but considering the end they're the means to, his cynical side is satisfied. Even if this one thing is easy, they won't stay that way for long.
So, while the newlyweds' return is as silent as their departure, it doesn't go as unnoticed. Dean hops up immediately, scanning Sam for any visible difference and finding none. It's kind of funny: this is the second time he's watched Sam get married, and yet despite the fact that a binding agreement with a powerful monster is, on paper, the far weirder of the two, the whole Becky thing still ranks higher. Hopefully one day Sam'll have a normal, planned out wedding that Dean can do an embarrassing speech at. Oh well. Third time's a charm.
"All good?" He asks, looking Sam dead in the eye. The question is more serious than his tone belies, but so is the nod Sam gives him in answer. Dean wants to pull him aside and ask more to be safe, but then he remembers Cas's reminder. New ethos: trust. Sammy's a big boy. He can handle himself.
Before he can change his mind and start overstepping, Cas and Jack return, the latter letting out a pleased bit of babble when he sees Sam and the queen.
"Hello again, young one," Niloufar says. "Or should I say stepson?"
When everyone looks awkward, she adds, "Joke. Settle down."
"I would ask if things went well," Cas changes the subject, "but I can sense they did. Your aura has changed."
Jack shouts in agreement, waving his hands at Sam until he gives one a shake.
"So we're good, then? You'll be alright to do the spell?"
"Yeah," Sam says to Dean, though he's still playing with Jack until the baby gets bored and drops him in favor of sucking on his own thumb. "We don't have to worry about the timing, either. It's a state of being, as I understand it."
Niloufar nods. "Correct."
"So we're good?" Dean repeats. This time, it's a general thing (not in the least because he gets antsy with having strangers in his house and also has to get started on dinner soon).
"I have a final question," Niloufar says, a phrase that never bodes well. "What do you plan, exactly, to do with Solomon's ring?"
"We're not really sure," Sam hedges. They have an idea, but nothing he's willing to share right now, even to his new, uh, wife.
"I only ask because you cannot destroy or consume it in any way. It is a holy relic of immense power. There are some in my family who would be irate for me even lending it to you. We wouldn't want it falling into the wrong hands, especially those that you're trying to fend off."
"I don't think we'll have to take it with us," Sam says. "The spell isn't very specific, though."
"May I see it?"
Cas takes it out of his pocket and hands it back over, half his attention still on Jack. Niloufar holds the ring in both hands, palms cupped around it with care, and hums in interest before deciding something.
"Alright. The power you need from it can be gotten from the caster wearing it, but it would be wise to leave it behind with the other components, lest something happen to it in this other universe you mean to travel to. If you need any help with that..."
She's already looking aside at Dean as she trails off, though, so he doesn't have to voice his objection. They seem to know each other enough, now, and she respects the need to keep power private. She wouldn't let anyone from the outside in on an endeavor such as this.
"We'll let you know," he says.
Niloufar nods and gives him the ring back.
"Then I will be back in due time to retrieve it," she says before turning to Sam. "In the meantime, good luck, husband. I wish you all the best in your endeavors to save our world. If it should come to pass that you need my assistance again, the djinn are your people now too. You know how to contact me."
She doesn't explain that, but Sam seems to get it as he clears his throat and nods. Niloufar kisses both his cheeks—though she's still only as tall as Dean, neither of them seem to move for that coordination—before offering her hand to Dean, who awkwardly shakes it, ducks like he's gonna kiss her ring, and then drops it. "You, brother in law: be careful in your actions. You have much to lose here."
Dean blinks. Her gaze is unwavering, but the blue of her eyes is no longer uncannily bright. Now, it only underscores what she's telling him: those things he has to lose.
"I know," he says. "Thanks for helping out."
"And for you, angel."
Cas looks up with mild surprise from where Jack's now taking interest in the sea salt on his fingers to see Niloufar's hand extended, two fingers out with a business card between them.
"I would like to continue our earlier conversation," she says as he looks over the series of international phone numbers listed in curling script, "on manifests of metaphysical intent. Once you're all finished saving the world again."
"Of course." Cas smiles and, without looking back at the consternated look on Dean's face over his shoulder, adds, "Though I feel I should state upfront that because of my 'consort,' this will be a purely professional acquaintance."
Still unseen, Dean ducks and flushes like he's been caught eavesdropping, though he still mutters to his shoes, "Damn right it will."
"Ah well." Niloufar, also ignoring Dean, gives Cas a wicked smile. "It's a shame. My harem would have loved you. Perhaps in another life."
She and her throne disappear in a final wisp as Dean demands, "Dude, are you blushing?"
"I am not," Cas insists, "I am just—"
"Maybe you should've asked her to be your consort—"
Their bickering gives Sam cover to compose himself and learn to live with the tugging sense of distance from the Tree and Niloufar both. It's very unsettling, something so literal. He's glad he thought to ask about the divorce proceedings, though he doesn't know, maybe he could get used to it someday. There's still all the other things that the contract included. He's still intrigued about the dreamwalking clause.
But that's a question for another day. Today, the rift spell. Today, they work on getting their mom back, back home. They work on saving the world. They always do, but it feels more personal this time. Niloufar was right, after all: they all have a lot to lose, not just Dean. This time, though, they stand to gain something too, and it turns out that's a hell of a motivator.
Though Dean ducks the shot Cas takes at his own past consorting with certain supernatural royalty that shall not be named by saying he has to start making dinner soon, he doesn't leave the room right away, lurking over Sam's shoulder and feigning interest in what Sam's adding to their notes. He knew this was coming, but Sam still sighs for effect before turning around.
"I am fine, you know."
"I didn't ask," Dean says defensively. He makes it a whole one second before adding, "But—"
"Not about you, just—"
"Oh right, not about me." Sam goes back to scribbling notes about the Tree of Life, making sure not to mention where it is but other details, what the ritual entailed. He stands to get something from the other side of the table, getting things in order. "Dude, when are you ever not worried about me?"
"I just mean it seemed kind of easy."
"We still don't know if we'll be able to find Gabriel and convince him to help, or if Jack is archangel enough that Cas channeling his powers counts."
"Sure, but I mean, we could head over there now, basically," Dean continues. "Now the hardest part's tracking down an incredibly conspicuous angel. I mean, that's basically a piece of cake compared to how long we thought we were gonna be at this."
Sam snorts at that and they exchange a wry smile. "And all we had to do was ask..."
"Guess it pays to be a Winchester, huh?"
He leans his elbow on Sam's shoulder, at first exerting force to make him shorter (it's his shorter-big-brotherly duty, alright) but eventually settling into the gesture.
"Yeah," Sam says as he swats at him, "as long as that Winchester's me, apparently. You two are on your own, but I guess you like it that wa— Hey!"
It takes a second to realize what's coming, but as soon as he does, Sam runs out from under Dean's arm. He's a second too late, though, and doesn't manage to totally escape the wet willy.
"Come on, man, what are you, five?!"
"Talk shit about my hubby again, see what happens," Dean calls after him.
"Oh, sorry, you're married now? Cuz last I checked you were just his consort—"
The word runs off with Sam as he skitters all his limbs to get away from Dean's renewed affronts, warping into laughter and fuck you, Dean as the brothers chase each other out of the room. Jack, in the library, replies to the laughter in kind, but makes no movement to follow, content to "help" Cas at the table in finding a way to track down Gabriel.
For his part, Cas stays in the aftermath, idly turning pages with one hand while Jack gnaws on the other, having decided that there's nothing more appealing than Dead Sea salt. The smile on his face is due to many things: the suddenly much closer possibility that they might save Mary and finally defeat Lucifer for good, the happy thrum of Jack's soul in his lap, the rare sound of Sam's laughter, the idea of Dean referring to him even jokingly as his husband. Any one of these would be a bigger blessing than anything the djinn queen could have bestowed upon them.
...Not that he's complaining. Another thing you learn from being a Winchester: don't look a gift bloodless win in the mouth. That, and trust your family. Even if they are acting like children.