They blow out of New Eden before the sun rises. The town lies silent and sleepy behind them, lost in its state of shocked mourning. The wound is lanced and the rot drained, but they’re not needed for the healing, and so the Impala’s tires are chewing blacktop before anyone can even think to say goodbye.
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” Sam asks, watching the place disappear in the side mirror.
Dean shrugs, because he has no idea.
“I think they’ll be okay,” Sam adds. “Whatever you said to Cas last night really helped.”
Dean tenses up. “Huh?”
“You know.” Sam gestures vaguely above them, to where Cas is flying. Or… floating. Whatever. He’s not a particularly aerodynamic shape, but nonetheless undulates through the air more gracefully than anything that’s essentially a building-sized centipede made from humanoid arms really should.
“No, Sam, I don’t know.” Which is sort of a lie. Dean’s starting to get a queasy, clenching feeling in his gut.
Sam just rolls his eyes. “You know Cas, when he’s like that”—another gesture upwards—”he leaks his emotions out all over the place. He seemed kinda miserable after what happened, but he, um. Got a lot better after you went up to see him.”
“… Oh,” says Dean. The heat on his face is from the sun. It’s not a blush. Just the sun. That’s magically penetrating through Cas’ shadow.
“So thanks,” Sam says. “I think it helped the town, too. Calmed people down a lot. And I know you hate talking about feelings or whatever, but it’s… um. Thanks for trying. I think Cas really needs someone right now. Because of, you know. Everything. And your opinion has always been so important to him and—”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Right, sure. Shutting up.”
Dean just keeps his eyes fixed rigidly on the road, and works on convincing himself the red stain across his face is nothing but sunburn.
Dean’s about halfway across Nebraska and considering the merits of making Sam drive when Cas suddenly shouts, “STOP THE CAR!” so urgently into his brain that Dean ends up fishtailing Baby onto the shoulder. There’s the awful sound of gravel tearing up her paint and Sam swearing from where he’s been jostled awake, but Dean manages to get them stopped before they plough through a fence.
“What the fuck!” Sam says, but Dean doesn’t have time to answer. Not when the ground cracks and shakes as Cas lands right in front of them. He’s so close the interior of the Impala goes pitch black beneath the feathers of his rear wings, suspension jolting from the impact.
“Cas! What the fuck?” Dean yells, heart pounding and adrenalin flushing hot-cold through his body.
The sensation doesn’t get better when Cas says:
“The road was clear!” Dean protests, as if that means anything.
“AND NOW IT’S NOT.”
“Dean, what the hell is going on?”
Except the world shakes again as Cas launches himself forward, loosing an ear-piercing shriek that may or may not be words. As the feathers lift, Dean gets his first view of the other angel and: “Holy shit.”
The thing is even more nightmarish and less coherent than Cas is. It’s some kind of arrangement of constantly-shifting structures, like lightning poured from molten metal, complete with billowing clouds. Six bladed things that may-or-may not be wings are about the most identifiable parts.
The battle that follows is… confusing. And not just because it’s happening on such a scale that it’s hard to see every part at once. Cas has his blade—scaled up to the size of an airplane—in one hand and his feet-hands tear rents in the earth deep enough to strip-mine. He’s not attacking the other angel as such, just pacing around it, all four mouths opening to making more of the horrible screeching noises that, yeah, probably mean he’s trying to reason with it.
The other angel doesn’t seem very reasonable, though, instead lashing out with its own blade (which it’s holding how? Dean can’t even tell) and what looks like a whip made from a solar flare.
“This is some epic Michael Bay shit right here,” Dean mutters. He winces in sympathy as Cas takes a lashing to the face, then whoops as Cas’ eagle-head sinks its beak into the other angel’s… whatever.
As the beak bites down, there’s a flash of blue-white light that spurts and drips like silver lava. First blood to Cas, though there’s no time to celebrate as the other angel brings its blade around. What follows is sort of a sword fight, albeit with a lot more limbs. Cas gets in a few good hits, but he takes a few too, including a slash to what Dean would’ve normally called a “belly” if the structure immediately below it hadn’t been another torso. The slash from that one is deep enough to send an arc of glowing mercury grace flying out and splattering across both the road and the Impala’s windshield. Sammy shrieks a bit when it hits. Dean just turns on the wipers and mutters, “C’mon, Cas! Kick his ass!”
The other other angel doesn’t even have an ass, but it does have a glowing core, which Cas punches with his wing. Dean startles at that, because he’d always assumed wings were kind of… delicate. Even on building-sized celestials. But no, Cas just folds the pinions back and lets rip a left hook using the big joint at the top as if it’s a fist. Which it kind of is, Dean supposes, although he’d be the first to admit his knowledge of wing anatomy comes deep fried and covered in ranch dressing.
The angel responds to the punch by making a sound like a mountain of glass being flattened by a nuke. Dean’s got his fingers jammed in his ears but the sound still makes his eyeballs hurt and the bass is so deep his heartbeat stutters. He should get away, he knows; throw Baby in gear and scream off in the opposite direction as fast as she’ll take them. Except he’s not convinced his brain won’t melt if he unplugs his fingers.
The sword fighting has resumed, blades clashing like lightning. The fight is bloody, with liquid grace splashing all over the scenery, way too much of it coming out of Cas. Cas is tiring. The thought is terrifying, but he is, either because he’s still drained from yesterday or because the other angel is just straight-up stronger. Dean just keeps up a litany of muttered encouragement, because what else can he do? He knows Sam is doing the same and maybe it’s not much, but their prayers must mean something, right? Hell, Cas keeps saying Dean’s got some awesome strong soul or whatever; Dean would be more than happy to loan Cas some if it would help the battle.
Cas gets a good two slashes in with his blade, hard enough to send the other angel crashing to the ground. The impact rumples the highway like fabric and topples power lines with twanging guitar-string snaps, the cables lacerating through the air far too close to the Impala for comfort. Cas doesn’t waste time, though. Just launches himself at the downed angel, blade raised for a killing blow.
It’s close, so close, but Dean sees the feint before Cas does; sees the downed angel raise its own blade at the last minute. One awful arc that bites deep into Cas’ arms and sees him drop his blade in shock. The angel is back up again even as the blade falls, slamming into Cas and sending him over backwards, wings beating up a useless hurricane.
“DEAN! CLOSE YOUR EYES! TELL SAM!”
Dean doesn’t bother trying to shout above the noise. Just tears one hand from his ear and slaps it across Sammy’s eyes. Probably too hard, but there’s no time because Dean has a fraction of a heartbeat to see Cas begin to unfurl his lower wings—a tiny slice of a second to glimpse the raging star-silver flames beneath—before he slams his own eyes shut.
What happens next isn’t so much a sound as an un-sound. Not silence so much as it’s a deafening roar of something Dean’s puny human ears haven’t evolved to hear. He can feel it in his bones, though. In his heart, and not in a metaphorical way; in a way that makes him seriously worried about having a stroke.
The un-sound is accompanied by a light so blinding Dean turns away and tries to bury his face against the car seat. Sammy does the same, and by the time everything fades, they’re both clutching at each other, shivering against the leather like dogs terrified of a storm.
It takes a very long time before Dean dares to move. When he opens his eyes they burn, tears streaming down his cheek and sending everything into a blur. He tries to speak, to ask Sammy how he is, but his ears are ringing and his voice sounds muffled and weird. Sammy seems to be in a similar state, dazed and blinking and touching his face as if to check for damage.
He mouths something Dean thinks is Cas! and then both of them are scrabbling to look through the windshield.
The other angel is gone, and Dean sags with relief. Not much, though, because Cas is still lying on his back on the ground, neck-mouth slightly open and arms either limp or curled up like a dead bug. He isn’t moving. Dean hopes the fact that his vessel still physically exists is enough to mean he’s alive.
Dean kicks Baby into gear and gets her closer. The road is cracked and wrecked and everything is dripping in creepy glowing angel-blood. Dean has a growing clench of fear in his gut and isn’t taking the approach as slow as he could be, meaning Baby jolts and skids in a way that would normally make him wince. Today, he hopes she can forgive him as they hurry to check on the fourth member of their little family.
Dean pulls the car up next to Cas’ giant eagle head, which is about as close as he dares get. Cas is frighteningly still, every eye shut tight.
Sam is out of the car first, slipping in the blood as he runs to put his hands on the eagle head’s beak. Dean isn’t far behind, glowing silver splashing all up his jeans as he moves.
“Cas!” he yells, sounding panicked even through the hearing loss. “Cas!”
“Cas!” He collapses in relief against Cas’ beak, which parts very slightly beneath him. “Jesus, Cas. I… fuck. What… what—?” He doesn’t seem to be able to finish that sentence.
“MALACHI,” Cas answers anyway. “HE ALWAYS WAS… RUTHLESS.” A pause, then. “I NEVER LIKED HIM. BUT I DIDN’T WANT THIS, EITHER.”
Dean has nothing to say to that; just pats Cas on the beak in what he hopes is a reassuring manner. “You, um. You gonna be okay?”
“YES. I JUST NEED… SOME TIME BEFORE I CAN RESUME MY OTHER VESSEL.”
“Take all the time you need, big guy.”
Dean ends up sitting with Sam on Baby’s hood while they wait for Cas to do whatever it is he’s doing. Sam is fascinated by the angel blood and wants to collect some in an old water bottle. Dean gives him the side-eye pretty hard, for obvious reasons, until Cas gives the spiritual all-clear.
“IT SHOULD BE… INERT,” he says. “MALACHI’S GRACE IS… I TOOK IT. THE BLOOD IS SIMPLY BLOOD.”
“If we run out of batteries it’d make a pretty good night-light,” Sam says, studying his creepy blood bottle. The stuff looks sort of like mercury until shaken, whereupon it bursts back into a blue-white glow.
“That is so wrong I don’t even know where to start.” Dean wonders just how long it’s going to take for Cas’ definition of “inert” to come back and bite them on the ass.
It takes Cas about twenty minutes to feel up to moving. They have to do the eyes-closed thing again while he re-vessels, but it’s just a bit of light and wind, then the sound of knees hitting the muddy earth.
Cas in… injured. Like, badly injured; one eye is nearly swollen shut and he’s covered in scratches and straight-up scabbed-over knife wounds. Dean swears and rushes to help Cas back to his feet before he face-plants completely.
Between Dean and Sam, they manage to get Cas sprawled out in the back of the Impala. Dean’s about to crack open the first aid kit and get to stitching, but Cas holds out a hand to stop him.
“I’m not… the wounds are allegorical,” he says. “Of the injuries sustained in my grace. They’ll fade when I’ve recovered. In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do.”
“Yeah, well. I want to do something.” Cas is fucking injured. If that wasn’t one of the six-hundred seals then Dean doesn’t know what the hell else could’ve been.
Cas’ eyes flutter shut but his mouth turns up at the corner, just slightly. “You are,” he says. “Don’t underestimate the value of a safe place to roost.”
(Non. Stop. Angel. Orgy, Dean’s mind supplies, which. No. Absolutely not. Cas is injured for fuck’s sake.)
Driving through the aftermath of a Creature battle is really not something the Impala was designed to do. Dean winces every time her tires skid in the pools of blood or her undercarriage scrapes against the fractured remains of the road. In places the blacktop is so gouged-out they have to take detours through the adjacent fields, which leads to three near-misses on getting bogged, including one bad enough that Sam has to get out and push.
“Good thing we’re headed to Bobby’s,” Sam says, even as Dean coos apologies over Baby’s dash. Dean doesn’t care if Lucifer himself is lurking in Sioux Falls, looking for a rumble along with every single one of Hell’s misplaced demons. They’ll all just have to wait until Dean’s had the time to treat Baby right before getting any attention of their own.
In the back, meanwhile, Cas just sleeps, dead to the world and drooling on the leather.
They find a Walmart on the edge of Norfolk that looks surprisingly intact, even if the city itself is a smoking ruin. Cas blinks himself awake when the car stops and insists on accompanying them inside, despite suggestions he keep resting.
“I’m fine,” he eventually snaps. Then seems to flinch away from the harshness of his own words as he adds, “I… would prefer not to be alone right now.”
“I get that, man,” says Dean, who totally does. It’s the same reason he practically has to be dead to prefer staying in the hotel room rather than out with Sam on a hunt. Alone, he’s vulnerable. With Sam, he has someone to watch his back.
Cas gives a small, appreciative sigh and Dean claps him on the shoulder. Gently. More of a soft cupping than a clasp. Because Cas is injured, that’s all. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the flare of warmth Dean gets from the idea that Cas—thousand-foot-tall, wing-laser-blasting, mega-badass Cas—would consider hanging around them to be some kind of protection.
As it turns out, there are people living in the Walmart. A few families from the town, who’ve created their own little commune with things scavenged from the Home and the Camping departments. They’re wary when they see newcomers, clearly armed and ready to protect the children they’ve ushered inside various tents and gazebos.
“I’m Sam,” says Sam, giving his best harmless grin and standing a non-threatening distance behind the checkout lanes. “This is my brother Dean, and our friend Cas. We’re just after some stuff, clothes mostly.”
“Jaqui,” says the woman at the head of the group that came to greet them. “The food and ammo is ours. But clothes we can share.” The suspicious look doesn’t fade, though, and she and her goons keep watch while Sam goes to grab a duffle and Dean leads Cas into menswear.
Cas, as it turns out, is completely hopeless at choosing clothes. Dean keeps saying things like, “Grab whatever you like,” and earning completely earnest, sex-and-smoke-voiced, “What would you like, Dean?”s in reply. Which is all kinds of not fair. Like, should-be-illegal-levels of not fair.
By the time Sam comes back with not just a duffle, but a bunch of other things like a comb and toothbrush and razor (protests that Cas didn’t need said items being met with a shrug and a, “Maybe he wants to try?”), Dean has a pile of basics like socks and underwear and has sent Cas in the direction of the changing rooms to try on pants. Because, yeah. Dean is in no way going to stand in the middle of a not-quite-abandoned Walmart and watch Cas strip. Nuh-uh.
“You know,” Sam muses, “next time, we should loot somewhere nicer. Like a Nordstrom.”
Dean gives his brother A Look. “Yeah, sure Sammy. In case we need to look good for the paps at the end of the world.”
Sam just shrugs, though it devolves quickly into a sly sort of expression that Dean doesn’t like at all. “I dunno,” he says. “Maybe Cas wants a new suit. Bit of Italian wool, Givenchy tailoring…”
Dean rolls his eyes. Because no, he is not now imagining it. Not at all. The way a nice suit would broaden Cas’ shoulders and trim his waist and—
No. Absolutely not. These are not Dean Winchester thoughts. These are thought that need an immediate return to the Fucknope Warehouse. Like, yesterday.
Though These Thoughts do give Dean an (appropriate) idea, and he starts rummaging racks until:
He uncovers an ugly, too-big, tan trench coat.
He brandishes it at Sam, who just rolls his eyes. Even so, though Dean notes Sam’s also surreptitiously stuffing a dark blue tie into Cas’ new duffle.
Since they’re here, they also loot new stuff for themselves. Particularly given their current clothes are both road-rank and covered in Creature blood that’s dried out to a kind of stiff, dull gray.
Dean’s halfway through wriggling into a new pair of jeans when he realizes Cas has been gone for way, way too long. Even for an angel with a poor grasp of buttons.
Communicating this suspicion to Sam is achieved via eye movements, because Sammy isn’t an idiot, and seems to’ve had the same idea. Dean leaves his brother stomping around as the distraction, while he himself grabs a few pairs of shorts and starts heading to the changing rooms himself. As soon as he’s out of sight of the main floor, he drops the shorts and pulls his gun.
From one of the stalls, he hears:
“—we don’t look like much, but we’re strong. Those two out there, they can’t take us all, and we aren’t afraid. We—”
“Are fucking busted, asshole.”
Because, yeah. One of Jaqui’s goons has cornered Cas, and now he has the barrel of Dean’s gun beneath his jaw. Fucking amateur hour.
“Dean—” Cas starts, though he’s cut off by the douchebag, who snarls:
“Fuck you! You won’t get away with this! We won’t let you!”
“The fuck you talking about?”
Douchebag tries an elbow in Dean’s ribs, but Dean is ready for it and, also, knows what he’s fucking doing. Half a second later, Douchebag is on the floor, gun against his skull and Dean’s knee on his spine and, “Listen to me you fucking asshole. We’re just here to do some fucking shopping and if you assburgers think your little neighborhood watch can—”
“Stop this right now!” Cas looks… actually, he looks kind of mad. At Dean.
“Fuck you!” snarls Douchebag, and Dean slams his head into the floor almost on reflex.
Or tries to. It’s sort of difficult with the follow-through when he’s suddenly thrown up against the wall by one exasperated angel.
Cas makes a disgusted noise, and lets Dean go. He’s also, somehow, holding Dean’s gun. Which he returns with a disapproving scowl.
“Tyler was attempting to be kind,” Cas says. “He doesn’t deserve violence.”
“He— what?” Dean’s eyes dart between Cas and Douch— er. Tyler, who’s currently picking himself off the floor.
“He believes you’re keeping me hostage,” Cas explains. “He was offering rescue.”
“What!” Dean is… actually legitimately offended. He turns to Tyler. “What?”
“Look at him!” Tyler gestures to Cas. Or Cas’ wounds, Dean supposes. “And he has no shoes! What were we supposed to think?”
A quick glance down reveals that, yes, Cas is indeed still barefoot, and Dean feels a brief flash of guilt. Shit.
“As I said,” Cas says, “Neither Dean nor Sam are responsible for my state. And I don’t need shoes.”
“Dude,” Dean says. “You can… you can have my boots? Shit. I didn’t even think—”
“Dean. It’s fine.”
“We can get you shoes, Cas. It’s no big deal. You should’ve said, man, we’ve got spares in—”
Cas holds up his hands for silence, and Dean obliges. “I… the feeling of the earth is… a pleasant reminder of who I am,” he says. Because, yeah. Big Cas doesn’t wear, well, anything. Fuck. Cas continues, softer: “But thank you.” His eyes are blue and kind and, shit. Dean’s a mess. A total fucking mess.
“Uh…” says Tyler, who hasn’t spontaneously failed to exist while Dean was having A Moment. “I, um… I think we might’ve read this wrong?” Then, to Dean: “Sorry, man. It’s just… you and the big guy are kinda fucking scary? And you came from the south, y’know? We hear stories…”
“Yeah,” Dean says. He drags his eyes away from Cas to actually study Tyler who, fuck. Is really just a kid. A scrawny, over-earnest kid. “We met those douchebags,” Dean adds. “They shouldn’t be a problem any more.”
Tyler’s eyes go extremely wide. “Holy shit,” he says. “What—” He looks between Dean and Cas, who sighs and pulls himself back into his usual stern, implacable facade.
“Holy shit,” Tyler reiterates. “Who… who the fuck are you?”
Dean shrugs. “No one important,” he lies. “Just some assholes after new jeans.” He tries a smirk and a wink, and Tyler shakes his head.
“Jesus, man. I… Take all the fucking jeans you need.” A breathless little laugh. “Fuck.”
Cas looks between Tyler and Dean, then back again, then:
“Dean. I put on these like you wanted. I believe they are too large?”
Dean laughs, watching Tyler visibly sag against the wall as he does.
“Okay, man,” says Dean. “We’ll try a size down.”
“There seems to’ve been a bit of a misunderstanding,” he manages to say, before being forcibly shushed by Jaqui.
To say Cas is less than impressed would be an understatement.
It’s that, plus Tyler’s frantic testimony, that has Jaqui relenting on her Winchesters-are-the-worst stance.
“They sorted out The Problem Down South,” Tyler confesses, capital letters evident.
“Did they really?”
“A man calling himself Brother Justin was taking slaves in a town he called New Eden,” Cas explains, matter-of-fact. “I stopped him.”
“I see. And how did you do that, exactly?”
Cas pauses for a moment, seemingly to consider his story. Then he says: “I placed my hand upon his soul and consumed it.” Which… interesting.
Jaqui stares at Cas for a while after that, as if trying to determine his sincerity. Cas, of course, is impervious to such things and simply returns Jaqui’s gaze, unblinking and unfazed.
Eventually, Jaqui huffs. “You’re crazy, mister,” she says. “But whatever. Sorry we thought badly of your friends.”
“It’s fine,” says Dean, who’s surprised to find he really means it. “It’s just… it’s nice to know someone still gives a shit.”
And Jaqui-of-Walmart, who’d risked herself and her people to help a man she’d thought needed it, simply nods.
“Jesus,” Sam breathes, looking at the piles of rubble that used to be South Broadband Lane. “That’s… not good.”
“Keep faith. There are people here,” Cas says from the back seat. “Quite a number. Some pray to me by name.”
“Bobby?” Dean asks. Cas isn’t exactly a super-famous angel, theology-wise. If people are praying to him directly, it’s almost a given they’re someone known.
In the rear-view, Dean sees Cas scowl, eyes still closed. “I’m sorry,” Cas says after a while. “It’s not… clear.”
Deans nods. He’s disappointed—he won’t deny that—but: “You’re doing the best you can, man. Don’t worry about it.”
Cas makes a frustrated little noise that suggests he may, in fact, be worrying about it, but otherwise stays silent.
The town is wrecked. They keep following I-29 but it doesn’t get better; just avenues of debris either side cut with the occasional scorched groove bisecting part of the highway. Sioux Falls was always flat and sort of desolate, but now it’s capital-f for the former and post-apocalyptic for the latter; just cracked concrete and shattered board as far as the eye can see. Even the trees have been reduced to rotting wood chips.
Half of East 11th is jutting out of the Big Sioux River, which means they have to backtrack to find another way across. Cutting through South 2nd Avenue they see their first sign that maybe there’s still someone alive in this hellscape; a beat-up old piece-of-shit Continental someone’s ditched just beneath the ugly white pretzel across from Fawick Park. The car’s intact, though, not flattened beneath a giant Creature hand, which makes it different from every other burnt-out shell they’ve seen so far.
Something about the car tugs at Dean’s memory, and he squints at it as they drive past, finally saying:
“Didn’t you have a car like that once?”
“What car?” says Sam, but by then they’ve already passed.
“Guess they really are just wrecking human shit,” Deans says.
Sam makes a noncommittal noise then, after a moment: “So if it’s just that, why did we get ambushed?” They’re keeping their voices low, so as not to wake Cas.
“Think about it. That stretch of road was already destroyed. Why would one of the Creatures go back there? Oh, wait. Because we were there. And that story out of Lawrence, about the other Impala. That doesn’t sound suspicious to you?”
“Cas said it was, y’know. Not like that. When he was…” Dean trails off, makes a kind of abortive gesture with his hand. “Also, how would they find us?”
Sam shrugs. “I don’t know. But maybe we’re still thinking about this wrong. Okay. So there’re the Creatures. Say they’re… mad, or dreaming, or whatever. Not rational. They don’t really mean to do what they’re doing. Cas snapped out of it, he said we woke him up by praying to him. We’ve been assuming he’s the only one.”
“You been praying to any Mala-whatevers, lately?”
“We’re not the only people who pray to angels, Dean.”
“Okay, sure. You even heard of Mala-whatever? If it were, I dunno. Raf or someone, sure. He’s famous. But not some rank-and-file nobody.” Dean tries not to think of the other celebrity angels they know. There really is no good way any of that ends. Again.
“Hey, I’m just putting it out there. There’s something going on here, man.”
“What, like, the destruction of all life as we knew it? Yeah, I kinda noticed.”
“No. I mean, yes. But… this isn’t something that just happened. Nothing ever ‘just happens’, especially not stuff like this.”
Dean just tightens his grip on Baby’s wheel, and says nothing in reply.
“Holy shit, would you look at that.”
It’s like someone drew some kind of line in world; on this side, chaos and destruction, on the other… nothing. Or, well. The opposite of nothing. Houses. Standing houses. And people. People in bright orange hi-vis vest and hard-hats and—
“Are they building?”
Dean nods in reply, something unclenching in his heart. Like the healing of a pain he didn’t even know he was holding.
The area around Bobby’s never was very populated, but now it’s like some kind of strange, hap-hazard city has sprung up. A ramshackle shanty-town of scavenged materials, people working in little clusters to build a brand new village out of the scraps of the old. Not just new buildings, either; bigger, taller, sturdier homes loom above the cottages, remnants of before the Landing. Like a tiny bubble of Sioux Falls was spared the destruction of the—
Dean slams on the brakes, hard enough to send Baby into a spin and Sam jolting against the dash. Dean tries to use the momentum, tries to turn the car around but inertia isn’t his friend and they’re fast sliding sideways, tires screaming and shredding across the road. It isn’t enough, and the Impala goes careening through the strange boundary between the destruction and non-destruction at a good thirty miles an hour.
As they cross the barrier, Dean’s ears pop and something like static electricity crackles across his skin. From the backseat, Cas manages to get out half a panicked shout before vanishing in a burst of silver light and the sound of frantic wingbeats. He’s only gone a fraction of an instant, and when he reappears it’s in the rear-view mirror, bouncing along like a ragdoll behind the car.
“Fuck!” Sam shouts. “Fuck, Cas! Dean! Stop the car!”
“Bitch, what do you think I’m doing!”
Sam is out the door even before the Impala stops, Dean following not long after. The sensation of pushing through some kind of force-field is even more intense on the cross back over, the wards flaring and crackling angrily now that they’ve finally come in contact with the thing they were designed to keep out.
Anti-angel wards. Fuck.
“Cas! Cas, are you okay!” Dean shreds his knees and tears his new jeans dropping next to Cas’ prone form on the road. There’s no blood—human or angel—that he can see, which is a good sign, but Cas is face-down and his limbs are bent at angles they probably shouldn’t be, which isn’t.
Cas groans, struggling weakly against the road. Between Dean and Sam, they get him flipped over without too many gasps of pain. On his back, Cas blinks up at the sky, dazed and unfocused.
“That…” he eventually manages to gasp. “I could’ve done without.”
“Sorry,” Dean is saying. “I… fuck, man. I didn’t think. Bobby must’ve put wards up. I—”
Cas opens his mouth as if to say something, but is interrupted by the sound of fast-approaching boots.
“Jesus! What the hell happened? Is he okay?”
Dean looks up. A cluster of the guys in hard hats have come running. They’re unarmed, bar the odd shovel or pickaxe, and don’t look threatening so much as panicked.
“He’ll be fine,” says Sam. “He, um… it’s just…” He glances as Dean, wide-eyed, and Dean thinks, Shit. Because how do they explain this? Angels aren’t exactly popular right now, and Cas is far from up to a fight, if it comes to that.
And then, someone else says:
“Boss? Boss, look at the car. I think it’s them.”
Everyone looks at the car. There’s a moment of what seems like stunned silence, then the Boss guy turns back and says:
“You the Winchester boys?”
Dean and Sam exchange looks.
“It’s just,” said Boss continues, “guy named Bobby Singer said you might show up.” His eyes flick unmistakably to where Cas is busy hauling himself up mostly via climbing Dean’s jacket. “Hell, even said you might bring an angel with you. Thought he was full of shit at the time, but…” He shrugs. “Name’s Jackson. Head of construction in New Falls.”
“Sam,” says Sam after a while. “My brother Dean. And, um. Yeah. Cas. Castiel. Our, um. The angel.”
Oh god, please don’t kill us, Dean thinks.
Instead, Jackson brings out cups of coffee and sits with them by the side of the road while one of his boys radios Bobby to fix the wards.
While they wait, Jackson gives the story of New Falls, although there isn’t much to tell.
“Singer says he started putting the wards up as soon as he saw the Landing,” Jackson explained. “Made ‘em as big as he could, but didn’t manage to get the whole town before the first Creature hit us.”
“I’m sorry,” says Sam.
Jackson just shrugs. “Is what it is. Lot of us noticed the Creature was avoiding this part of town. Word spread fast and everyone that could get here, got here. Reckon half of Sioux Falls owes Singer their lives. Was intense for a while. Lot a people, not much space, no power or running water. Some folks kept waiting for the government to send help, but nothing ever came.”
“Last I heard, D.C. is just a giant crater,” Sam says. “They hit that hard. Plus the state capitals. Think by the time people realized someone needed to be making decisions, all the decision-makers were dead.”
Jackson scoffs. “Doin’ fine making our own decisions, boy,” he says. “We got water now, and law. Power even, in some parts. Lot of people had family to get to elsewhere, so Singer taught ‘em the wards and they took ‘em. Got a few other towns set up because of it. It’s a start.”
“It’s good,” Dean says. “I… Yeah. It’s good.” He feels proud. Of Bobby, of the people of Sioux Falls. Not his hometown, exactly, but maybe the closest thing to a home-of-choice he’s ever had.
“Emergent behavior,” Cas says into his coffee, smiling a small, sad smile.
Fifteen minutes later, they’re back in Bobby’s library. The place looks so familiar it’s almost as if the Landing never happened, right down to the smell of it; wood and motor oil and book dust. Dean closes his eyes and just breathes for a moment, lost in the daydream that maybe this never happened, maybe none of this ever happened, and it’s just a normal day in a normal world where they’re about to have a normal conversation. Like normal people.
“I encountered one of my brothers in Nebraska.”
Normal. Yeah. Right.
“Yeah?” Bobby says. “What’s he look like, then?”
“Dead.” Cas is collapsed on the couch, head thrown back and eyes closed. He looks terrible, even aside from the bruising; pale and clammy and in desperate need of a shave and a hairbrush. Wherever healing he’d managed in the car seems to’ve been slammed out of him with his encounter with the road, and Dean feels a pang of guilt so intense and physical he has to lean against Bobby’s desk to keep from keeling over.
Cas killed his brother. To keep them safe. And Dean repaid him by slamming him into a wall. So much for a “safe place to roost”.
Because it’s not that Dean’s never heard the angels refer to each other as siblings before. He’s just… usually tried to ignore it, especially with everything that went down with Michael and Lucifer. And maybe especially with Cas, because Cas is Cas and Cas is theirs, damnit—Team Free Will, forever and ever, amen—but Cas is also Castiel, soldier of God and wayward sibling to the Heavenly Host. Dean doesn’t even know why Cas bothers with him half the time. Surely he has better things to be doing—better places to be, even now—than wasting time with an alcoholic drop-out reject.
And yet, somehow, here they both are.
Between them, Sam and Dean fill Bobby in on what they know, which isn’t much. Cas is quiet—Dean thinks he may have passed out again—and so misses Bobby’s expression when Sam tries to describe Cas’ true form. (“How many arms?”)
They’re halfway through the part where Cas is plucking missiles out of the air in Hawaii when the back door bursts open and a voice calls, “Mr. Singer? I’ve fixed the generator, but it’s going to need some more— oh my God you’re alive.”
The newcomer freezes in the doorway, eyes flicking between Sam and Dean. He’s unremarkable—just some guy, on the heavy side, carrying a toolbox and with a smear of grease across one cheek—but there’s something familiar about him all the same.
“How many times I have to tell you, call me Bobby,” growls Bobby, at the same time as Dean says:
“Do we… know you?”
The guy blushes—actually full-on blushes—and when he speaks, his voice has a kind of awed stammer.
“I… you, um. Y-you probably don’t remember. I wouldn’t expect you to, it was—”
“From the convention, right?” says Sam, and suddenly it clicks.
“You helped us with the ghosts,” Dean adds. God, the stupid fucking Supernatural convention. It seems like a million fucking years ago.
The dude straightens up a little, obviously pleased with being remembered. “Oh. Um, yeah. That was us. I’m, um. Demian?” He phrases it as a question, as if unsure if they’ve forgotten.
“I remember,” lies Dean. Because, hell. If it makes the guy feel better, why not? “Where’s your, um…?” he starts, then abruptly stops. It’s not just his tongue tripping over the word boyfriend, either. The way things have gone, it’s entirely possible the guy’s dead.
Except Demian brightens, not the opposite, and says, “Oh. Barnes is out helping with the community garden.”
“Everyone ‘round here contributes,” Bobby says. “Demian’s been getting the power back on.”
“It’s not photocopiers,” Demian adds. “But I do okay.” Bobby just snorts.
“How’d you end up here?” Sam asks. Not accusatory, just curious. “It’s a bit of a coincidence…”
Demian laughs, self-conscious and anxious. “Oh, no. Not at all. I mean, after the con… we started talking. I know we didn’t, um. Believe you? At the time. About who you were.”
Sam just shrugs. “It’s fine. I wouldn’t have believed us either.”
Which earns him another soft huff of laughter, and: “Um, well. There was this, this girl, right? In the fandom. A bit of a MNF but, like, total tin-hatter.”
“Uh-huh,” says Dean, because, he’s found, sometimes pretending to understand is easier than asking for clarity.
“She used to insist it was all real. Supernatural, y’know? That, um. That pretending it wasn’t was just, like. A conspiracy. Most people though she was nuts—she would also tell people she was Carver Edlund’s girlfriend, that sort of thing—but, like I said, she was a MNF and she had some of the AO3’s most popular Winc—” He stops himself, seems to reconsider his audience, then laughing awkwardly. “Anyway. We didn’t realize at the time—not always easy to recognize people IRL, you know—but we’d seen her. At the con. Hanging out with, um. With Edlund. And you guys.”
“Becky,” Sam says, because who else?
“Oh.” Demian’s eyes go kind of round, like he’s just been handed the last missing piece from a jigsaw he’s otherwise assembled. “Yeah. Anyway, after we noticed that, we started checking some other things out as well, and… they did.”
“So… what?” Dean says. “You decided to go on a sightseeing tour?”
“N-no, it wasn’t like that. It’s just, um. When the Landing happened… I mean. We knew this place was real; it’s in the phone book. And we though, if anywhere was gonna be safe? It’d be here.”
“Did anyone else?” Sam asks. “Did Becky?”
“You’re, um, you’re looking for her?”
“We think she’s the last person who spoke to Chuck, to ‘Carver’, before someone strung him up in his own own study like a piñata.”
And, okay. Maybe that was tactless—Sam certainly seems to think so, judging by the bitchface he’s currently projecting Dean’s way—but Dean doesn’t think it warrants the way Demian just crumples. The dude’s fanning his face like a chick in one of those period dramas Dean has never watched ever late at night while drunk shut up.
Dean tries communicating his derision to Sam with a roll of his eyes, but Sam is too busy trying to calm Demian down. Like, hand-on-the-shoulder-totally-sincere calming down. Even Bobby’s looking reproachful in Dean’s direction, which. Fuck that. Captain Vapors didn’t even know Chuck. He has no business bleeding emotions all over Bobby’s carpet for an asshole he never knew. Right?
“Y-you think Becky—?” Demian is saying.
“No,” Sam assures him. “No, we don’t. We’re just looking for her. In case she knows something, anything. We want to find out who, um. Did that. To Chuck, Carver I mean.”
Demian nods. “I wish I could help you, but she’s not here. I… oh, God. Poor guy.”
Dean leaves them to it. If there’s anything more to get, Sam can handle it. Dean, meanwhile, needs a drink. He also needs Bobby to stop giving him the Disappointed Patriarch Face. Dean loathes that face.
“What?” he snaps.
But Bobby just shakes his head and sighs and says: “You should know, those two weren’t the only ones who came to town looking for you.”
And then, the real kick in the gut:
“Lisa’s here, too.”
So that’s how Dean ends up standing outside a piecemeal little cottage, feeling dirty and awkward and uncertain. He gets halfway through knocking on the door when his mind screams BAD IDEA so loudly it might as well be Cas’ voice, but by the time he’s half-turned to bolt and run the door is opening and:
“Um,” says Dean. “Hi? Um. Hey, um. Lis. I was just, um…”
“Oh, God. Dean!” says Lisa, and throws her arms around his waist in a deep and sincere hug. “I thought you were dead.”
“Um. Well. You know me,” says Dean, trying a laugh. Jesus, where does he put his hands? Hips? Waist? Shoulders. Shoulders is safe, right? Jesus, the last time he spoke to Lisa was… fuck. Was when he was a vampire.
This was such a terrible idea.
The asshole’s name is Chad Arnold, and he is, was, a New York derivatives trader. Dean has legitimately no idea what that is, exactly (some kind of math thing?), but he does know Chad is the sort of asshole who owns a BMW and wears cream chinos and fashionable button-downs in colors he probably describes as “salmon”. He greets Dean with a huge smile and a, “Dean! Dean Winchester! Oh, gosh. Lisa has told me so much about you” in the sort of voice that makes Dean want to throw holy water over the guy, just in case.
It occurs to him, his hand being pumped enthusiastically by Chad, fingers crushed by the Harvard class ring, that maybe throwing holy water isn’t the first instinct of normal people.
Chad is very definitely Normal People. He offers Dean a beer (“Warm, sorry. We’re still working on the whole power situation.”), then spends a good twenty minutes asking rapid-fire questions about where Dean’s been since the Landing and how he’s survived.
Thirty seconds in, and Dean is one hundred percent positive he loathes Chad Arnold from the bottom of his tattered soul. Ivy-league educated, Wall Street-employed, king of the mundanes Chad. Who looks at Lisa like she’s the sun and the moon all at one, and calls Ben “champ” and talks about his test scores with the most sincere, gushing enthusiasm.
(“Really good, man. Really good. A little behind in Math but we’re not worried. His English, man. I tell you. He wrote this poem, they were gonna put in a magazine. I mean, before the Landing… you know how it was. But still. A magazine!”)
“We, um. We met on the road,” Lisa says, eyes not quite able to meet Dean’s, fingernail scratching at the label on her warm beer. “After the Landing, I thought…”
“You thought Bobby’s would be safe.” It’s the sort of thing they’d talked about. Because Dean was the kind of asshole who lived the kind of life were that was a conversation they’d had to have. In case of apocalypse, turn to page 182.
“Right. And Chad… he helped me out of an, um. A tough spot.”
Dean nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.” The last time he’d seen Lisa he’d been trying desperately not to drain her blood like a junkie chasing the last sniff of cocaine. Hers and Ben’s.
Dean pretty sure the only blood Chad Arnold’s ever tried to drain has been both green and of the metaphorical sort.
“He… he’s good for me, Dean,” Lisa says. “And for Ben.”
Chad is currently halfway across the little lawn outside the shack, mock-fencing Ben with a pair of BBQ tongs as they grill homemade sausages over an open fire. Giving Dean and Lisa privacy to talk. Because fuck that asshole, basically. Fuck him and his emotional ma-fucking-turity. Seriously. So much for Lisa having “a type”.
“Yeah,” is what Dean says out loud. “Okay.”
Dean shrugs. “Me too.” Because what else can he say? Apple fucking pie fucking life. For all the things the universe has in store for Dean Winchester, that is not fucking one of them. He knows that. He should know it.
Doesn’t mean seeing it doesn’t hurt.
He hugs Lisa and tells her, entirely sincerely, he’s glad she’s okay. Ben is more reluctant, and that hurts, it does, but Dean’s not gonna blame the kid. Not with what happened the last time. And he definitely doesn’t tear up when he finally does get a hug and a whispered, “I forgive you. Mom said you we sick.”
You shouldn’t have to forgive me, Dean thinks but doesn’t say. You deserve someone you never, ever have reason to forgive in the first place.
And Chad? Chad gives Dean another crushing, over-enthusiastic handshake and a completely earnest, “It was such an honor to meet you. And I just… I mean. I know it’s not exactly traditional, but… thank you. For your service.”
“Um. Yeah,” says Dean. “Thanks.”
Chad beams like the fucking sun and, fuck. Dean hates him. Chad’s going to make Lisa so fucking happy. Going to be such a great fucking dad to Ben. Fuck. Probably gonna spawn Ben a whole gaggle of brothers and sisters, and they’ll settle somewhere nice and safe and he’ll make homemade apple fucking pie while Lisa hand-carves and paints a fucking white fucking picket fucking fence. Fuck.
“I’m really glad you’re okay,” is all Dean says.
Then he gives Lisa another brief hug, and walks away.
Cas watches with that stupid fucking head-tilt, but otherwise says nothing.
Eventually, Dean’s arms ache too much to lift the hammer and his eyes are too blurred to see what he’s hitting. So he drops to his knees in the mess of smashing glass and twisted metal and sobs. Big, hard, ugly fucking sobs. Because, fuck. Who was he fucking kidding? Thinking he could be Mr. Housewife, with the cream chinos, knife-edged crease still pressed down the centre despite the fucking end of the fucking world. Thinking he could ever be the kind of a guy the kind of girl like Lisa could ever want. Thinking he could be a fucking father, a real one, as if he’d even know what that looked like.
“He doesn’t even fucking drink,” Dean snarls, to no one in particular, though he supposes Cas is there to catch it.
Eventually, even crying seems self-indulgent, so Dean stops. Packs the whole damn thing up—Lisa and Ben and Chad and the whole nine yards—and tapes it shut and sends it courier to the Fucknope Warehouse. Tried that, didn’t work. Time to move on. No point dwelling. Dwelling gets you killed. Dean should know.
Eventually, in the silence, he hears the sound of bare feet, crunching over glass.
A warm hand descends on Dean’s shoulder, and the soft brush of grace soothes over his ragged soul.
“Come on,” Cas says. “Barnes made chicken schnitzel.” He pronounces the word carefully, as if tasting it for the first time. Despite everything, Dean laughs. The sound is ugly and wet, but it’s there.
“Yeah,” he says. “Sure. Why not.”
So they go back to Bobby’s, and eat schnitzel.
They stay at Bobby’s for three days. Dean spends most of the time caring for Baby and for the various other vehicles used around New Falls, mostly trucks and jeeps the inhabitants take out on supply runs. The ruined roads are hell on wheels and undercarriages, and Dean does what he can with the supplies he has.
Most of the vehicles are older, 1990s and earlier sort of models. The newer ones are too computerized, which works out great for exactly as long as they take to break down the first time. The line of scrap-metal Audis and and Lexuses makes Dean feel a smug sort of vindication until Demian points out that mileage on the old vehicles is shit, and that the gas isn’t going to last forever and they have no way of replacing it once it’s gone.
“After that,” he says, “we’re either going to need to raid a Tesla dealership, or someone’s gonna have to start breeding horses.”
Demian has a trailer at the edge of Bobby’s yard filled with computers and radios and odd devices people have scavenged out of car dealerships and fancy mechanic workshops. Turns out the guy’s an electrical engineer by training, and is currently taking a necessity-based crash-course in building solar panels and jury-rigging a DIY electrical grid. His hands and arms are constantly covered in burns and welts from molten solder, and he’s set fire to the dinner table at least once trying to do something with a circuit board while they were all eating.
“They’re good kids,” Bobby says one evening, voice emerging from somewhere between the brim of his cap and the rim of his beer. “Work hard, don’t complain. Damn sight less trouble than you two idiots.”
It takes Cas about eighteen hours to heal up and look more-or-less like himself again. After that, he and Sam get to work on the wards. Both strengthening them and figuring out a way to expand them more into the old town proper. They spend hours clustered in the study, marking up a map of Sioux Falls, plotting what looks to Dean like a series of overlapping circles.
“The idea is rather than one big ward, we have multiple bubbles,” Sam explains. “That way, if one fails, we don’t risk losing the whole town.”
Barnes and Demian call this strategy the “anti-Artosis pylon”, a reference that makes them both giggle and leaves everyone else baffled. Nonetheless, the name sticks, and soon Sam is leading teams out in the city to get to work on the “AAP network”.
Cas, meanwhile, works with Barnes. Aside from gardening, Barnes is responsible for collecting and monitoring Creature sightings, both around Sioux Falls and any other town they’re in contact with. He has a huge map tacked up in the study, little color-coded push-pins marking sightings and corresponding to a giant ledger that records the date, physical characteristics, and veracity of the sighting. He gives all the different angels codes rather than names, all prefixed with “SCP-001” which, again, seems to be some kind of pre-Landing reference Dean doesn’t understand and which seems moot now anyway.
“What color do you use for… deaths?” Cas asks.
“W-what?” Barnes is jumpy, standing as physically far away from Cas as he can get without being in another room entirely. The body language pisses Dean off, but Cas ignores it, either because he doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, or is just being polite.
“Slain angels,” Cas explains. “From the descriptions given, I believe SCP-001-029 and 003 are both dead.”
“N-no can kill the Creatures,” Barnes says, which earns him a squint and a head-tilt.
“I can,” says Cas.
“Oh,” says Barnes, his hands shaking as he reaches for his box of colored pins.
“W-what?” Barnes startles at Dean’s voice, holding his ledger up between them like a shield.
“Cas,” Dean clarifies. “Stop acting like he’s gonna jump you the first chance he gets. He just wants to help.”
“I’m not…” Barnes starts, then huffs. “He’s an angel.” As if that explains everything.
Barnes is quiet for a moment, staring at Dean with his cornered-rabbit eyes and his twitchy fingers. Finally, he says, “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” Barnes turns, puts his book down and makes as if to organize his map pins. But he’s still watching Dean out of the corner of his eye. “Nothing. I’m sorry. Just— just forget it.”
“Like fuck. Look, chuckles, you might think you know me from those fucking books, but you don’t know shit. And you certainly don’t know Cas, so—”
“I’m Catholic,” Barnes suddenly blurts. Then stops. Then, softer: “I’m Catholic, okay? Growing up, mom and dad were… strict. Very conservative. When I was thirteen, they found me kissing another boy at school. Long and short of it, they freaked out, I got sent to… to one of those camps, you know. I got told I was an abomination, an affront to God. That I had the Devil in me and I had to pray to God for forgiveness—”
(“Aw, Jesus,” mutters Dean, thumb and forefinger pressing at the corner of each eye. Barnes was The Sam, he vaguely recalls. God, he hates it when shit makes sense in hindsight.)
“—or I’d get sent to Hell. Where I’d be— be r-raped by demons in hellfire for eternity, and—”
“Jesus,” Dean says, louder. “Dude, you don’t get sent to Hell for liking dick. Trust me.” Crowley excepted, Dean supposes, though technically that was for liking his own dick. (Also: scarred for life, Bobby, did not need sharing. Fuck you very much.)
“I know that now,” Barnes says, in the tone of voice that suggests “now” may, in fact, mean exactly that. “But I was thirteen, man! Thirteen. You know how much that sort of thing messes you up at age thirteen?”
“I’ve got some idea,” Dean says, not unkindly.
The confession seems to deflate Barnes a little, and he sags. Even gives a bitter sort of smirk. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, okay. I guess you probably do.”
“Look. I’m sorry your parents were dicks, okay? But that’s not Cas’ fault.”
“I know. I know, it’s… it’s not that. It’s just, I mean… he’s an angel. And I’m… I’m no one. I’m not special, or— or a hero you like and Sam. I’m just some pansy-ass twink with a deadbeat job. Or was. Now I’m not even that! What right does someone like me have to even look at an honest-to-God angel?” Barnes gives a rueful little snort, dropping his eyes to the desk. “Besides. I don’t think he likes me all that much.”
Okay, so. The other stuff? Dean is not nearly drunk enough to deal with. Feelings and theology, man. What is it about the apocalypse that gives everyone such a raging fucking hard-on for feelings and theology?
On the other hand, this last bit? He can answer.
“Look. There’s exactly two things Cas doesn’t like. One, demons. And two, assholes who use his dad’s name as an excuse to fuck each other over. You wouldn’t be in here if you were the former, and from what I’ve seen, you’re not the latter. So congratulations. You pass. You’re now certified and qualified to hang out with the angel.”
Barnes nods. Not quite agreement, but at least like he’s willing to consider the concept. “Okay,” he says. “I… okay. Thanks.”
“Yeah,” says Dean. “Whatever. I need a drink.” But he gives Barnes a good-natured thump on the shoulder as he goes.
He doesn’t think about the conversation until much later. It’s his turn on dinner shift. Barnes is usually Mr. Housewife but Dean’s happy enough to take over duties for one evening, even if he pretended to bitch about it at the time. In truth, he saw a thing on motel TV once about roasting a chicken with a beer can shoved up its ass for flavor or whatever, and thought it was both kinda funny and also looked pretty tasty. This is the first time he’s had an oven since then, so it’d basically be a waste not to give it a try.
They have a whole raw chicken, care of a lady with virulently pink hair who’d still had a smear of blood on her cheek when she’d traded it for a box of salad shit from Barnes’ garden. Dean’s spent way too long looking at the wings on the damn thing, stretching them out and studying the bones and muscle and the kind of almost scaly folds of skin where the feathers would’ve gone. It’s a chicken, so the wings are stumpy and meaty and probably not at all in the right proportion, which is about when Dean had to admit he was being a fucking creeper and needed to stop.
(The thing had thumbs, though. At least, he thinks they’re thumbs; kind of like a little mini-wing attached to the final joint above the main wing-tip part. Of course now he is totally not wondering at all if Cas also has wing-thumbs and also, if asked, would he let Dean see them. No way. That’d be fucking weird.)
So. Anyway. Cans of beer. To shove up a chicken’s butt. This meal is getting less advised the more Dean think about it, but he’s already peeled the potatoes so fuckit. It’s happening.
All the beer in Bobby’s fridge is in bottles, but Dean knows there’s usually a stash of extra somewhere outside. There are voices out on the porch but Dean doesn’t pay any attention until they stop dead as soon as he walks out the door. Demian and Barnes are sitting out there on the steps, Cas bracketed between them. Demian has his hand on Cas’ back, like he’s in the middle of offering comfort or some shit, and all three of them are looking at Dean with the sort of stare that has all the little hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.
“What?” he snaps.
“Hello, Dean,” says Cas, because it’s Cas.
“I thought you were working? Categorizing or whatever?”
Barnes sort of hunches down at the tone, and looks away, which makes Dean feel like the biggest asshole in the universe. But, of course, all Cas does is keep his voice completely neutral while he says, “We finished. Now I’m being assisted in a personal matter.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Like what’s so personal Cas couldn’t ask him, Dean doesn’t say. He tries viciously to stamp down the little spike of jealousy before Cas catches it, but from the angle of the head-tilt he isn’t exactly successful.
“It’s personal,” Cas repeats.
“Sure, okay. You girls have fun with that.” He’s already half way across the garden before it occurs to him maybe that’s also kind of an assholish thing to say to dudes who are actually, yanno. Like That. But, whatever. What’s said is said.
Dean storms his way over to where he knows Bobby keeps his Secret Stash. The beer in the house is mostly shit like Bud and Coors, but there’s a cupboard in the yard that’s devoted to the rest of it. Hipster shit from places with names like the “21st Amendment” and “Bierbitzch” and the “Spiteful Brewing Company”. Dean grabs a can of something called 11th Hour IPA, mostly because of the name (it’s a toss-up between that and the can of Back in Black ale, but he thinks the IPA will work better with the chicken), then heads back to the kitchen.
The voices are talking again, and Dean can pick out Cas’ low thunder rumble, even if he can’t hear what it’s saying. As before, the talking stops as soon as he rounds the corner and gets in view of the conspirators.
They’re staring at him again.
“Gonna give a guy a fucking complex,” he mutters as he walks past. He pretends he doesn’t notice they start up again as soon as the door slams shut.
He cracks the can and cooks the chicken. Everyone agrees it’s the best roast they’ve ever had, and Dean mutters out whatever while trying not to feel the soft flutter of warmth beneath his heart.
The next morning, Cas and has decided he needs to shave. “Maintaining a vessel by grace is considered to be… respectful to the host,” he’d explained, although with the sort of pause the indicated it wasn’t quite that simple. “As this form is no longer a ‘vessel’ as such, it seems vain to continue squandering grace on its upkeep when there are manual methods for doing so.”
“Uh-huh,” Dean had said into his cereal.
Which is how they got to now, with Cas rummaging in his duffle for the first time.
“What?” This time, Dean does look; turning from the sink where he’s washing the morning’s dishes.
Cas has his duffle on the kitchen table, and is busy pulling something out of it, expression contorted into a squinty frown.
“I said, what’s this?”
“Oh.” Dean goes back to the washing. “Trench coat,” he says. “I know it’s not as good as your old one, but…” He shrugs. Jimmy had not been a Walmart sort of guy, but he also hadn’t been living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
There’s more rustling that indicates Cas has pulled the coat fully from the bag, and is studying it. “I thought you found the coat ugly,” he says after a while.
“Dude,” Dean laughs. “It is ugly. But it’s so… I dunno. You.” Which is as close as he’s ever going to get to admitting he maybe kinda sorta has a teeny bit of A Thing for that coat. The coat that means the cavalry has arrived, that things are going to be okay, that Dean is worth saving. Because for all the coat is ugly as hell, the feelings Dean has about it? Anything but.
Except then Cas says, voice very small an uncertain:
“Do… are you saying you think I’m ugly?”
Dean actually drops the plate he’s holding. It splashes dishwater all over his side as he whips around to say, “Dude! The fuck?”
And Cas is… Cas looks hurt. Like, legitimately offended, all soft sad eyes and crinkled brow and, shit. Fuck.
“No!” Dean barks, maybe harsher than he intends. “No, Cas, I…” He takes a deep breath. “Look,” he starts again. “I didn’t mean… You lucked out, don’t worry about that, okay? I mean, Jimmy was a good-looking guy. You could’ve done a lot worse.”
Cas nods, but he’s still looking between Dean and the coat as if he can’t quite make up his mind.
“Besides,” Dean mouth says, before his brain can stop it. “That’s not really you, right? You’re really the other guy. With the heads.”
“That’s… closer, I suppose,” Cas says. “But it’s still a vessel.”
“Well, it’s badass, whatever it is.” Dean does mean this. Saying Cas’ Creature-self is attractive would be a stretch—it’s just too alien, for one—but Dean can certainly appreciate it in an “awesome things to put on an album cover” sort of way.
And as for Cas’ current self? Well. Like Dean said: Jimmy had been an attractive guy. Nothing weird about admitting that. It’s just… an empirical fact.
“Thank you,” Cas finally says, and there’s even a small smile curving the edge of his mouth. “Vanity is, was, considered shameful by Heaven. Our forms were crafted by God to be perfect and our vessels were… temporary. But that no longer applies. So there are some… adjustments.”
Dean gets he, he thinks. Because if Cas is just Cas now, not Cas-in-Jimmy, then he can suddenly do things like change his clothes or get a tattoo or grow a ridiculous mustache without feeling like he’s pimping someone else’s ride. It must be a strange sort of freedom, for something that’s existed in a completely fixed form for most of eternity.
“Yeah, well.” Dean turns back to the dishes. The plate he dropped has a tiny chip on the edge he’s almost certain wasn’t there before. Hopefully Bobby won’t notice. “Wear the coat or don’t wear it. It’s not like it cost us anything. Just thought it might be nice to have something familiar, is all.”
“Thank you,” Cas says, and goes back to rummaging.
“Hey.” A thought occurs to Dean. “Do you even know how to shave?”
“Is this like you ‘know’ how to drive?”
This earns Dean a frustrated noise that is one hundred percent pure Cas. “Human men have been shaving for thousands of years, Dean.”
“Fine, whatever. Sorry for trying to help.” It’s not like Dean was imagining sitting in the bathroom, carefully dragging a razor down the pale column of Cas’ exposed, trusting throat. That would be… weird.
“Besides,” Cas adds. “I very much doubt this device”—a razor, Dean assumes—“could truly injure me no matter how fast it goes.”
Cas has long since left the room by the time Dean gets the joke.
It’s buried under a bunch of cookbooks and circuit board diagrams, and something about it’s familiar enough to leave Dean scowling.
Bobby is with Sammy in the library when Dean wanders in, brandishing the plate and asking, “Any reason this was in the kitchen?”
“The boys brought it with them,” Bobby says. “Forgot it was even there.”
Sam is staring at the plate, brow drawn down and creased in concentration. Dean’s just about to ask him when Sam says, “Shit!” and darts out of the room.
He comes back not long later, going through the pockets of Dean’s jacket. Dean’s protests—not going through each other’s stuff is, like, Rule #1 and has been since forever—are overruled when Sam produces a piece of paper, glances at it quickly, and announces, “A-hah! I knew I’d seen that before. Look.”
Dean has already snatched back his jacket but now he takes the offered piece of paper, too. It’s the nonsense note they found at Chuck’s place. The first seven characters, IA B2676, match those on the plate.
Between the three of them they spend a good twenty minutes studying the thing, turning it over, running under a variety of different lights and devices, both magic and mundane. They throw holy water on it (result: it gets wet), cut it with at least six different knives (result: light scratching), and are in the middle talking about divination circles when Dean notices (a freshly cleaned, changed, and shaven) Cas has returned and is studying them with the confusion he reserves for particularly baffling human rituals.
Dean explains the situation and presents the plate to Cas, who stares at it so hard the window panes rattle, before handing it back and announcing that it is, “An embossed plate of aluminum painted with alphanumeric characters and used to identify a motor vehicle.” Then, after another squinty stare: “I know what a license plate is, Dean. I’ve helped you change them on your car.” Because apparently teaching angels to commit felony license fraud is part of Dean’s life.
“So it’s just a plate?” he asks. “Nothing… weird about it?”
“I can’t verify its legality or origin.” Cas pauses, then: “But if you’re asking whether it’s magic, cursed, possessed, warded, or otherwise enchanted, then no.”
“So maybe it’s not the plate,” Sam suggests. “Maybe we need to find the car.”
To find the car they need to find the owners, who turn out to be making out in the back corner of Demian’s trailer. They’re… kind of into it, so much that they don’t notice four other dudes barging in until Dean bangs loudly on the metal siding and says, “Ahem!”
Barnes actually shrieks, and falls into a stack of folders in his haste to suddenly not be in Demian’s lap, which is one of those things that would kinda maybe be funny in some other context that wasn’t hideously embarrassing. Dean has half a second with which to determine his response, and settles on aggressive ignoring being the better part of pretending he isn’t blushing hard enough to roast a chicken.
“You know anything about this?” he asks, brandishing the plate.
“Oh! It’s Selendis’! I thought we’d lost it.” Demian seems pleased enough to see the plate that Dean takes a moment to feel slightly bad for stabbing it as he hands it over.
“‘Selendis’?” asks Sam.
“Our car,” Barnes says. “Well. It was our car, I guess.”
“She was a great car.”
“She was a heap of crap, man.”
“Excuse you. That car came to me in a vision! I won’t have—”
“Wait, wait.” Dean knows that edge in Sam’s voice. That’s a hunter’s voice, down to the bone. “What vision?”
“It wasn’t really a vision,” Barnes says, earning himself a mock-gasp and a light shoulder-slap from Demian.
“Okay, Scully. What else would you call it?” Then, without waiting for an answer: “I had a dream. Of being the captain of a great, big golden starship. It was just… pure freedom. You know, sometimes you get those dreams? And they don’t really make a lot of sense, but they leave you with a feeling?”
“I guess,” says Dean, who both, a) absolutely does get those dreams, and b) absolutely doesn’t want to talk about them. Ever.
“So, anyway, the next day, I’m walking home from work. And I see this ‘for sale’ sign on a car. And I know, I just know, that it’s my starship. So I bought it, then and there.”
“You paid a guy three grand for a piece of crap,” says Barnes, in the voice of someone who’s had this argument a lot.
“He originally wanted four, but I bargained him down because it was theft recovered,” retorts Demian, with ditto. “Besides. Say whatever you want about Selendis but you know you love going through the asteroid field.”
“The… what?” asks Sam, before Dean can stop him.
“You know,” Demian says. “When the cars go like this.” He makes a bouncing motion with his hand, miming a lowrider.
“That is pretty fun,” Barnes admits, obviously trying to repress a grin.
Every part of this conversation makes my teeth hurt, Dean does not say, because he is A Professional. Instead, he asks:
“What happened to the car?”
“Ran out of gas in town.” Demian sighs, wistful. “But by then we were close enough we figured it would be easier to walk rather than try and find more gas. Then, when we got here…” He shrugs. “I kept meaning to go back for it, but it never seemed that important.”
“So why’d you keep the plate?”
“Well, we thought we could use it to prove we owned the car. In case, you know. It ever came up.” Demian pauses, then pulls a face. “You know, now that I say that out loud, it does sound sort of stupid.”
“What’s with the interrogation?” Barnes asks. “Are you… is this a… a hunt?” He almost whispers it, frightened and reverent all at once.
“Chuck left us a note,” Sam explains. “We think it’s a book cipher, and your car’s plate is the key. We’re hoping if we can find the car, we can solve it.”
“Oh,” says Demian. “Well, that’s easy, assuming it’s still there.”
And then he gives them the address. And, somehow, Dean isn’t the least fucking bit surprised.
“‘Theft recovered’,” Dean quotes at his brother, who growls a shut up and goes to unlock the door, this time with Demian’s key.
(The keychain is a jagged pewter thing that looks like a bad tribal tattoo and, completely inexplicably, has the words “PRO TOSS” embossed on the back. Dean decides he doesn’t want to know.)
The inside of the Continental has been turned into a luxury condo for spiders, who aren’t enthusiastic about being disturbed. Dean and Sam toss the car but all that’s left are used candy wrappers, an empty soda cup, and a CD of indeterminate contents.
“If only we had some way to access such advanced technology,” Sam says melodramatically, gesturing at the Impala’s tape deck.
Dean mutters “shut up, bitch” and pops the Continental’s hood. The thing has been left idle for too long and it wasn’t in great shape to start with, but twenty minutes, a can of gas, and a jump-start later (Dean apologizes to Baby, profusely, for making her kiss such a rotting hooptie), the car is running. So is its aftermarket CD player.
The CD is a confusing mish-mash of terrible folk songs about science and zombies, intercut with even more awful ambient electronica. It’s very obviously the musical tastes of two different people, spliced together in a way Dean wouldn’t admit to finding romantic even under pain of torture.
Sam has Chuck’s note with him, but is scowling at it. “If this is referring to the music on the CD,” he says, “it’s going to take me a while to decode.”
There’s enough gas in the Continental that Sam ends up driving it back to Bobby’s, Dean and Cas following along behind. Dean takes the opportunity to check out Cas, at first surreptitiously, then blatantly when it occurs to him there’s probably no need to be shy about staring at a guy who could win gold for Heaven at the Unblinking Olympics.
Cas is looking much better, although he’s still mottled with the green smears of faded bruises, and there’s an angry burn across his left forearm that doesn’t seem to be healing. His knuckles are busted-up and scabbed over like he’s been punching walls, and Dean probably shouldn’t find that as awesome as he does, especially on a guy who otherwise looks like the hottest DILF on the PTA.
Dean suppresses a wince. On second thoughts, maybe that’s not the best analogy.
“How, um. How’s the new outfit?”
Cas looks down at himself. He’s wearing jeans and a cream button-down with a Mandarin collar, and is still rocking the no-shoes aesthetic. It gives him a kind of hippie guru vibe—the sort of guy who’d talk earnestly about yoga and juice cleanses—and it should bother Dean because it’s just a hair too close to the burnt-out shell Dean met in the Little Future That Couldn’t.
Should, but doesn’t. Because Cas’ eyes are midsummer sharp and he still radiates grace in that awkward, patiently standoffish way. And even if there’s a lost and longing edge there, it’s of someone hoping to carve out something new, not nihilistically severing everything old.
“Light,” is Cas’ eventual answer about his outfit.
Dean laughs. “Yeah, man,” he says. “Bet it’s a bit different to the twelve layers you were wearing before.”
“Is it… acceptable?”
“Looks good,” Dean says. It makes Cas look approachable in a way the suit and coat didn’t. Like Cas is just some guy Dean could reach out and touch, maybe. Like some guy who’d maybe want something like that.
“Did you do something to your hair?” Dean asks, because he’s very well aware his thoughts are verging on dangerous territory. He’s still raw and messed up over Lisa, suddenly devoid of his usual coping mechanism of killing things and horny from not getting laid since, Jesus. That doctor on the cruise ship.
“Barnes suggested it,” Cas says. “It feels… odd.”
“Is that what you were talking about last night? Fashion tips?” Dean’s immediate sneering reaction about neither Demian nor Barnes being fashion icons themselves is tempered by the realization that the only times Dean has encountered them have been either post-apocalyptic or when the pair were intentionally imitating his own wardrobe.
“In part,” Cas says, then doesn’t elaborate.
Two hours later. Dean in on his back underneath the Continental, trying to get the damn thing in working order. It’s giving him a headache but, so sue him, Demian just looked so fucking happy to see it. And maybe Dean can sympathize with a man who loves his car. Just a little.
“Huh?” He rolls himself out from underneath, to find his giant of a brother looming over him looking frustrated.
“The cipher,” Sam explains. “I don’t think it’s referring to the CD. I’ve tried track titles, song lyrics… the only other thing that might make sense is— is trying to make words out of the notes. But I can’t exactly download the sheet music and I can’t do it by ear.”
Dean sits himself up, the manual on his chest falling into his lap with a papery thump.
“Well. I dunno, man,” he says, at the same time Sam points to the book and says:
“This?” Dean brandishes the wad of poorly-stapled, grease-stained printer paper. “Service manual. Why?”
“Where’d you get it? It wasn’t in the car.”
Dean shrugs. “Bobby has a stash of ‘em. Figured I’d try and get this hunk of junk working again.”
“Give it to me.” Sam makes a grabby hand.
Dean makes a frustrated noise but hands the manual over as requested. Sam starts flicking through it, opening pages seemingly at random and muttering under his breath until he finally groans something that’s either “fuck” or “Chuck” or maybe both.
“This is it,” he says. “It’s the fucking manual.”
“For the cipher. This is the book it’s referring too. I need to borrow this.”
He’s walking off before Dean can even snap out, “Hey! I’m using that!”
“I’ll bring it right back, promise!” says Sam, already bolting out of sight on his obnoxiously long legs. Dean just huffs in irritation, and goes back to doing what he can.
With the right text, Sam has the note decided in a little under fifteen minutes. If they were hoping for something big—some last will and testament, some clue to what’s going on—they’re disappointed. What do end up with, however, is an address.
They stare down at it for a while, but nothing about it looks familiar or extraordinary. Eventually, Dean huffs.
“Guess we’re going on another trip,” he says.
They spend one final night at Bobby’s, enjoying the relative comforts of New Falls, like electricity and running water. Bobby’s reaction to the announcement that they’re leaving is to huff and say, “Don’t get dead, you hear?”
They don’t hug, but Dean slaps Bobby on the back then shakes his shoulder and says, “Same to you, old man.”
On the morning of the fourth day Dean’s halfway through packing the Impala when Demian emerges holding a large plastic tub. He holds it out in offering and says, “Here.”
“What is it?”
“Radio equipment,” Demian says. “Since the phones don’t work. There’s a manual and I’ve written down all the bands I know are in use. And”—when Dean opens his mouth—”solar and rechargeable batteries for the power. A big one for the radio, but I threw in some smaller ones, too. For the new phones.”
“You just said the phones don’t work.”
“Not the cell towers, but these are jailbroken and so long as you have an antenna—corded headphones should do—they’ll pick up radio, too. There’s an app on the home screen. It won’t give you the distance like the bigger kit will, but it might be enough. Also, don’t lose the bigger box. I, um. Made a few tweaks to it. Not strictly legal but I guess spectrum licensing isn’t everyone’s biggest problem right now. Point is, it should be able to get military and government frequencies, too. If anyone’s broadcasting. And it’s not encrypted.”
Dean must spend too much time staring as the mass of equipment in the tub, because Demian shifts, awkwardly.
“I know it’s not much,” he starts. “Just. Um. Just geeky stuff, but I though, um—”
“No,” Dean blurts. “No, it’s great. Thank you.” He takes the box, still staring at the contents. “Thanks,” he says again. “I mean it, man. This is… this is great.”
A radio, phones that work… not the same as the old world, but it’s a start.
They’re packed and ready, have enjoyed their last use of a flushing toilet, given manly back-slaps to Bobby and Barnes and even endured a hug from Demian. Dean’s gone through the angst of whether to say goodbye to Lisa and stumbled out the other side resigned to the knowledge she and Ben will be better off the further away he gets. Now, there’s only one piece missing.
Dean finds Cas around back staring at, of all things, Selendis (Dean might not get the reference, but he knows the importance of respecting the name of another man’s baby).
Cas is giving the car his soul-squint, unblinking and alien. He tilts his head to acknowledge Dean’s presence but otherwise says nothing.
“Cas? Something up with the car?”
Cas seems to consider this for a while. Then he blinks, and turns away.
“No,” he says. “Not any more.”