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1. Hastings, Nebraska - December 20


Predictably, WalMart is a zoo five days before Christmas.

It takes Dean thirty minutes to find a parking spot and another fifteen to hunt down a shopping cart. The parking spot is at the far end of the lot, wedged too tightly between an oversized SUV and an elderly pickup sagging under the weight of a live-in camper; the shopping cart is beached on the shrub median skirting the garden center. Three of its wheels are sunk into the mud. Sighing, Dean wrestles it away from the hedge and heads for the front door. On his way in, he's nearly bowled over by a group of teenagers scrambling out like amateur shoplifters. The security guard manning the exit doesn't seem to care; he just shrugs them off with his hands in his pockets and a middle-distance kind of look on his face.

The first thing inside the door is a table offering t-shirts for seventy-five percent off, and it's swarmed with people squabbling over the leftovers, their voices shrill enough to slice through the pop cover of White Christmas coming through the speakers. The heater is on full blast, chugging out stuffy, overbaked air. Dean tugs at his collar and wheels his cart toward the food aisles, veering around another crowded discount table and a Barbie car that's sitting in the middle of the floor. Its box is mangled on one side. A pair of toddlers cut in front of him, scream-laughing as they escape their mother; he white-knuckles the cart's handle and reminds himself that the bunker is completely out of salt. If he doesn't grab some now, they'll have to rob a diner on their way to the ghost hunt Sam has lined up for tomorrow.

The post-Darkness vacation Dean had wanted never really panned out. The archangels didn't send Amara packing until the early part of November. Dean had spent the next four or five days spinning his wheels at the bunker, ready to chew his leg off out of boredom but also jittery from the sudden absence inside his head. Her effect on him had built over the course of a year -- a soft whisper-hum in his ears, a dry tingle in his mouth, the smell of blood and myrrh constantly in his nose -- and having it ripped away in a furious rush had left him feeling like he'd landed badly in his own skin. Once he'd settled a little, he and Sam had worked a hidebehind gig with Jody that had dragged on for close to two weeks. Then it was December, and December has always been their busy salt-and-burn season. The holidays tend to dredge up nostalgia and personal feelings; good or bad, that's the kind of shit that stirs things up, even spirits that are content or dormant the rest of the year.

Dean grabs the supplies as quickly as he can and points his cart toward the check-out lines. He plans to head straight there, but a stampede moving between toys and electronics forces him to retreat into one of the kitchen aisles. He gets stuck there for a few minutes, trapped behind two guys digging through a stack of dishtowels as several people pass them going the other direction. At his shoulder, a whole barnyard of animal-shaped tchotchkes stares at him with glassy eyes. There's a black-and-white cow butter-dish, and a misshapen pig that holds napkins in its mouth, and a duck bristling with cheese knives, and a fat, ceramic chicken that's a foot tall and uglier than hell.

Cas would probably love them. On one of their last hunts before the Darkness showdown, they'd stopped at a truckstop outside Sheboygan and Cas had bought himself a coffee mug painted with cartoon bees. Dean almost reaches for the chicken. Almost. Then he remembers Cas is back in heaven and he curls his hand into a fist instead. He jerks his cart around the dishtowel dudes, mumbling, "Excuse me," under his breath with a cold weight gnawing at his gut.

A new register opens up just as he hits the check-out area; he ends up second in line, behind a man buying about a hundred toys and a woman with "dinner for twenty" amounts of food in her cart. Dean's bulk rock salt, jumbo butane bottles, and serrated hunting knifes seem really weird in comparison. He snatches a box of candy canes off the impulse rack and tosses it on the belt, but that feels even weirder, so he stuffs it back in its slot. Beside it are some decorations someone ditched at the last minute: a box of red glass balls, a bundle of fake pine garland, a crystal tree-topper that's more or less shaped like an angel.

Hey, Cas, Dean thinks, before he can stop himself. He prayed pretty much constantly in the days right after Cas disappeared, but it's been a month and a half without a word. I don't know if you can hear this, or -- I don't know. Maybe you just ain't listening. If that's the case, I -- I get it. You've been in heaven's doghouse for years 'cause of me, and all this shit with the Darkness was -- it was, um.

Dean swallows the knot burning in his throat. It'd be good to see you again. If that ain't in the cards, then just -- just let me know you're all right. I'm --


"I," Dean says, blinking at the cashier. "I -- what?"

"Did you want that?" she asks, pointing at the angel.

Dean looks at it for a second; he doesn't remember picking it up. The ice in his gut shifts. "Yeah," he says, setting it on the belt. "Yeah, I want it."


2. Laramie, Wyoming - December 21


Dean pulls off the interstate in Laramie and turns into the Fuel & Go tucked in the curve of the off-ramp. A windswept Christmas tree is drooping between the two pumps, the kind of thing that comes out of the box decorated and flocked. The glare slicing through the store's window is so bright it washes out the twinkling blue-white lights trimming the ice machine and the propane cage. The ghost they're hunting is another three hundred miles down I-80 in Evanston, but the rain that's been chasing them since Pine Bluffs finally caught up with them. That means five and a half hours instead of four. It's already after eight, and Evanston is just small enough that two guys checking into a no-tell at two in the morning might attract unwanted attention.

"You want anything?" Sam asks, nodding toward the store. "I'm going to grab a sandwich."

"Nah, I'm good."

The Impala creaks and dips as they get out. It's a cold night, the air knife-sharp whenever the wind bothers to pick up. The rain is falling slightly sideways, glinting as it catches in the Impala's headlights. Dean zips his jacket as he walks over to the pump, and he stamps his feet a little as he swipes his best fake credit card and waits for the Impala to finish her drink. She still has about a third of a tank, so it shouldn't take long. Rain rattles against the pump island's corrugated roof. Dean hums Iron Maiden under his breath, watching the sound take shape in front of his face until the speakers over the store's front door startle him with a loud crackle. After an indecisive moment, they start coughing up the Bing Crosby version of The Christmas Song.

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," Dean mutters. He digs his phone out of his pocket and sends Sam a text: pie. "Jack Frost nipping at your nose."

An old truck rumbles up to the other pump, idling nose to nose with the Impala for a few moments before the driver kills the engine and climbs out. It's a farm shitkicker, all rust streaks and sunbleached paint; a crack is spidering along the bottom of the windshield and the bed is caged with split-rail slats. The driver frowns at Dean, then frowns at the pump, then heads inside, his boots sloshing across the wet tarmac. The dog riding shotgun starts to bark.

Dean sends Sam another text: hurry. cold. The gas nozzle clicks. As Dean is stowing it back on the pump, another car turns into the station, bouncing over the driveway bells before pulling into one of the three parking spots. It's a late 70s/early 80s sedan, broad and boatlike and a colorless, dishwater beige. The engine is knocking like it's ready to throw a rod.

Hey, Cas, Dean thinks, fumbling with the Impala's gas cap. His fingers are almost numb. I don't remember if I told you, but we found your car. It turned up in Missoula. Metadouche ditched it on some county highway out there. I ain't gonna lie: he slobbed her up a little. He had about a hundred McDonald's bags in the backseat. But I gave her a wash and an oil change, so she's running okay.

The store's door chimes clang. It's Sam, carrying a plastic bag and two cups of coffee. Dean ducks his head and thinks, I just wanted to tell you that. In case -- you know.

"Hey," Sam says.

Dean frowns at the coffee. "Is that decaf?"

"Yep," Sam says, without remorse. "If you drink regular this late you'll stay up all night cleaning your guns and watching infomercials."

"C'mon. Like I won't do that anyway."

The joke doesn't land. Sam studies him for a couple seconds, then asks, "You doing okay?"

It's an irritating question given how often it's come up recently, but it's also a fair one. Dean had been angry and withdrawn in the run-up to the Darkness showdown, terrified by how deeply he'd let Amara's claws dig in but too embarrassed to admit it after months of denial and lies. Afterward he'd been a flat-out wreck, hollowed out by the sudden silence inside his head and missing Cas in a way he couldn't put into words. Lost vacation aside, he'd been grateful when the hidebehind turned up in Sioux Falls. Hunting gave him a normal to fake until he figured out how to make it again.

"Yeah, Sammy. I'm good."

"They didn't have pie," Sam says, opening his door. "I got you one of those nasty Hostess fruit pocket things."

"Hey, that's almost pie. I'll take it."


3. Evanston, Wyoming - December 22


They get back to the motel just before eleven. Finding Richard Showalter's grave had been easy enough, but digging it up had been a nightmare. It's cold tonight -- colder than it had been last night -- and the rain had kept up until sundown, turning the older part of the cemetery into a swamp. Dean's sleeves are soaked and his jeans are muddy and damp to his knees. He has graveyard dirt on his hands and face, gritty under his fingernails and in creases of his nose. His shoulders ache. He shivers as Sam fishes the key out of his pocket.

"Hurry up," he says, gritting his teeth so they don't chatter. "There's a shower in there with my name on it."

Sam snorts. The keys jangle in his hand. "Who says you're getting the first shower?"

"I do."

"As slow as you were digging?" Sam asks, snorting again. His hair is stringy from the rain and clinging to his forehead. "No way."


"I moved twice as much dirt."

"In your dreams."

They stare at each other for a minute. Sam has graveyard dirt caked over one shoulder and halfway down his arm; the sodium lights stain it black instead of mud-brown. A gust of wind whips through the motel's parking lot, rattling the fake shutters framing their window and rustling the plastic Christmas wreath nailed to their door.

Eventually, Dean sighs. "Okay, okay. We can settle this like men --" he holds out his fist "-- or we can fight for it."

"You won't win," Sam says, fitting the key in the lock and opening the door. "I mean, come on. You throw scissors every time."

Dean starts to argue with that as they walk inside -- he doesn't always throw scissors -- but he cuts off as the stench of sulfur slaps him in the face. It's so strong it makes his eyes water. So strong he can practically taste it. He can't believe he didn't smell it outside, even with the wind and the graveyard dirt in his nose.

Every light in the room flares on at once. There are two demons, both wearing college girls: a tall blonde sitting cross-legged on Sam's bed and a freckled brunette leaning back against the kitchen counter. After a short, tight silence, the brunette slams the door with a lazy flick of her wrist.

"Finally," she says, sighing. "We were starting to think you'd be out playing body-snatchers all night."

Dean's angel blade is in his pocket, but it's the wrong pocket. He'd have to shift is bag to get it, and sudden moves aren't feeling like a good bet right now. Sneering, he asks, "What do you want?"

The blonde huffs. "Really? Straight to business? I always figured you were more the foreplay type."

"Not in the mood."

"What are you doing here?" Sam asks. His hand almost twitches toward his back pocket. Almost, but not quite. "I thought Crowley was keeping everyone downstairs."

"Yeah," Dean says. Lucifer had scared Crowley shitless, but Michael peeling Lucifer like an orange, shredding the rest of him down to atoms, then grinding those atoms into celestial star particles had scared Crowley even more. Once the post-Darkness dust settled, Crowley had slunk back into hell like he planned to stay there for the next century or two. "I mean, heaven is still pretty jumpy. I'm surprised he wants to poke the bears so soon."

The brunette scoffs, saying, "Crowley," like it's a dirty word, her voice scorched around the edges. "What makes you think we're his?"

And -- fuck. Of course they'd bump into two of the last surviving Lucifer loyalists on a salt-and-burn in Fuckall, Wyoming.

"You got our father killed," the blonde says. Her eyes burn black in the split-second before she flings Dean back against the wall. "You and your fucking angels. They destroyed him completely."

Dean hears Sam grunt in pain. He fumbles his angel blade out of his pocket, breathing in the dust on the threadbare carpet as he heaves himself to his knees. The back of his head is throbbing. When he looks up the brunette is standing in front of him; she yanks him to his feet by the collar and slams her fist into his jaw.

Cas, he thinks desperately. He knows better, but blood is filling his mouth and old habits die hard. Cas, if you got your ears on, we really need some help. Fucking demons. Why is it always fucking demons?

Sam grunts again. The brunette grabs Dean by the throat, digging her fingers in hard enough that he sucks in a breath on reflex. He swings at her with the angel blade, but he barely nicks her arm before she's tossing him back against the wall. Cas. Cas, please. The blonde clocks Sam square in the face. He hits the floor with a spray of blood; as he's rolling over he thumbs a button in his phone and wings it under the nightstand.

"Exorcizamus te," Siri says placidly. "Omnis immundus spiritus."

The blonde shrieks. The brunette starts to shake.

"Omnis satanica potestas, omnis incuriso."

Smoke is puffing from the brunette's nose and mouth, but she makes another grab for Dean's throat.

"Infernalis adversarii," Siri says. Dean's vision starts to swim. "Omnis legio. Omnis congregatio et secta diabolica --"


4. Kimball, Nebraska - December 23


Dean wakes up achy and cottonmouthed and harder than a rock.

He just lies there for a few minutes, his eyes still closed, his shoulder and jaw throbbing and the taste of blood still hiding in the corners of his mouth. Nothing's broken, but it'll be another week before he feels somewhat human. His throat hurts. A semi rattles down the interstate, blaring its horn. Dean listens for the familiar sound of Sam's almost-snores. When he doesn't hear it, he figures Sam went out for coffee. Then he remembers that Sam is next door.

The demon fight had completely trashed their room in Evanston and stuck them with two unconscious meatsuits. A quick internet search showed that the girls were missing persons cases. Hanging around until morning had been too risky. So had been taking the girls to the hospital. As soon as Dean could see straight again, he'd packed Sam into the car, called 911 about the girls, and hit the road. His adrenaline rush had crashed just over the Wyoming-Nebraska line, leaving him too shaky to drive; he'd pushed through to Kimball, but the only game in town had been a motor court with single rooms.

Another semi blares its horn. Dean opens his eyes and rubs his hand over his face. It must be close to noon; the sunlight pushing through a gap in the curtains is yellow-white and bright. Dean rolls over to get away from it, choking out a moan when his dick ruts against the bed. He does it again; heat sparks under his skin, and he buries his face in the pillow to muffle the noise he makes.

He doesn't mean to think about Cas -- he doesn't -- but the image is there before his hand is really inside his boxer-briefs. He thinks about the night he spent in Rexford -- how he'd driven away from Nora's with his heart in his throat, how he'd bandaged Cas' hand in his motel's tiny, blue and green bathroom, how they'd sprawled out on Dean's bed and watched crap TV until Cas finally conked out around three. He'd smelled like cheap shampoo and Gas & Sip deodorant. A human pulse had thrummed under his jaw, and Dean had wanted to put his mouth there, feel it underneath his lips.

"Fuck," Dean hisses, rocking into his hand. "Fuck."

He should've kissed Cas that night. He should've curled his hand into Cas' hair and fit their mouths together. Should've teased Cas' lips with his tongue until Cas opened up and let him in. Cas could've called in sick to work. They could've spent two or three days in that room, in that bed, just touching and tasting each other. Dean could've peeled Cas out of that stupid white shirt. He could've kissed Cas' jaw and the hollow of his throat. He could've kissed a slow trail down Cas' chest, and he could've sucked bruises into the insides of Cas' thighs. He could've sucked Cas' dick into his mouth.

"Cas," Dean says, fisting his free hand in the sheets. His orgasm is curled at the base of his spine like a snake. "Cas, I -- fuck. Fuck. Cas."

He comes and comes and comes, his thighs shaking and his blood rushing in his ears.


5. Lebanon, Kansas - December 24


They get back to the bunker late. Dean is sore all over -- from digging up a grave, from fighting with demons, from the lumpy, single mattress in Kimball, from driving for the better part of two days -- but even after he strips off his clothes and kicks off his boots, he can't make himself settle. His room is too cold. Too empty. Too... something. He doesn't know.

Sighing, Dean shuffles into the bathroom to slap some water on his face. His reflection looks rough; his jaw is swollen and his lip is bruised and the shadows under his eyes are practically purple. He should go back in his room and lie down on his bed and sleep for two or three solid days. Instead, he stares at himself for a few moments and takes a couple deep breaths.

"You gotta get over it," he says, his voice cracking off the tile like a gunshot. "He ain't coming back. You gotta let it go."

It would be easier if there wasn't such an obvious, Cas-shaped hole in the bunker. If the books Cas brought back from Gaza weren't still sitting in the war room. If the DVDs Cas ordered weren't still stacked on top of the TV, shows he'd wanted to watch but couldn't find on Netflix. If a pound of that organic, dark roast coffee he likes wasn't waiting beside the ancient percolator in the kitchen. If there weren't two six-packs of El Sol in the fridge, the only beer he's been willing to drink since he got his grace back. If his tie wasn't looped over the back of a chair in the library. If that stupid glass angel Dean bought at WalMart wasn't sitting on his nightstand.

Dean throws his robe over his t-shirt and boxer-briefs and heads into the library to pour himself a drink. He doesn't look at Cas' tie. He doesn't look at Sam when Sam walks in because he already knows that Sam is going to say.

Sam says it anyway. "Really?"

Dean just shrugs and drains the glass. Then he pours himself another and takes it into his room.

It would be easier if he hadn't had to watch Cas leave. If Cas hadn't said goodbye to him like that.

The final fight against Amara had taken place on a different plane. The archangels had insisted Dean be there; they'd wanted to be certain that Dean was free of her, and that every last bit of her was gone. But that plane wasn't meant for humans, so being there had given Dean a skull-splitting migraine. He doesn't remember much, just the bone-deep pain in his head, and the way the angels' voices had shrieked too loudly in his ears, and constantly feeling like he was going to puke.

He also remembers what happened right before he came back to earth. Cas had held his face in both hands, and he'd said, "It's over. She's gone. You're safe." Then he'd kissed Dean's forehead. And then he'd fucking disappeared.

At least, that's what Dean thinks happened. He doesn't exactly trust his memory. Not after purgatory.

Dean finishes his drink and sets the glass on the nightstand, right beside that stupid glass angel.

Cas, I miss you. I just -- I need you, okay? I -- I want you to come home.


+1. Lebanon, Kansas - December 25


Dean wakes up achy and cottonmouthed and harder than a rock. This time, someone is brushing their fingers through his hair. When he opens his eyes, he finds Cas staring down at him with a soft smile on his face.

"Hello, Dean," he says quietly.

Dean just stares at him for a second. He has to clear his throat twice before he can get any words out. "You -- are you -- I'm -- damn it." He rubs his hand over his face and tries again. "Are you really here?"

"Yes," Cas says, smiling again. "I'm really here. I wanted to come sooner. I would've come as soon as I heard you pray, but Michael -- negotiating with him isn't easy. He's accustomed to dealing in absolutes."

"Negotiating?" The hope blooming in Dean's chest starts to turn cold. "How long've you got?"

"Before what?"

"Before they drag you back upstairs."

Cas is quiet for a moment. Then he strokes Dean's hair again and says, "They won't be... dragging me back upstairs. I convinced Michael to let me go."

"What --?" Dean's throat feels tight. He -- fuck. There's no way he's hearing this right. "You --"

Cas kisses him, soft and slow. When he pulls back, he touches Dean's bruised lip with his thumb. "Let me heal you."

"Yeah, okay."

Cas takes Dean's face in both hands, just like he had the night he went back to heaven. He kisses Dean's forehead, and all of Dean's pain and exhaustion floods away in an cold-hot rush. Dean shivers through it, then tugs Cas closer. He wraps his arm around Cas' waist and kisses the corner of Cas' jaw. Cas breathes into Dean's hair. He feels solid and warm where he's pressed against Dean's side.

Cas, I -- um. I just -- I --

"I know," Cas says, kissing him again. "I love you too."