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Young boy, who shines brighter than anyone else.

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It takes Sam all of ten minutes fiddling with Demian’s gear to find the radio station. A real station, on one of the old FM bands, which leads to a slap fight over the Impala’s radio as Sam attempts to tune it in.

“Hey! Hey!” Dean protests. “You know the rules. Driver pick the music—”

“Shotgun looks for survivors,” Sam bitches, as the blurred static begins to resolve into a voice. “Seriously, Dean. When we get to a place with a power socket to recharge the gear, then you can have your tapes back.”

Through the speakers, the last bars of a song fade out and a woman’s voice howls:

“Ce-ee-ee-ee Do-oo-oo-og! That’s me, kids. Coming to you taped from my fortified bunker in the middle of this Creature-ravaged hellhole. Ain’t life grand?”

The so-called “Cee Dog” runs what she calls KRFW, short for Radio Free Wasteland. It’s an eclectic mix of old-fashioned big band music, esoteric modern folk songs about time travel and elves, and—much to Dean’s relief—good wholesome guitar-heavy rock. The latter in particular Cee plays during what she calls The Impala Hour (“for all of you out there on that lonely road”), which gives Dean the creeps up until Sam points out she’s probably just one of Chuck’s fangirls. After which it still gives Dean the creeps, albeit for a different reason.

In between tracks there are news updates on Creature sightings, segments on “wasteland survival tips”, and even episodes of radio shows recorded, Dean assumes, before the Landing.

Every hour, on the hour, Cee dedicates a song from someone to their lost loved ones. Each of the little segments ends with a plea for anyone with information to radio into the station’s “contact frequency”, which Dean understands is a kind of open-mic conference call where fans of the show hang out and make small-talk. Sam tunes in for a while on the big kit and it’s like walking into someone else’s living room. The topic seems to be Breaking Bad, and people lamenting how they’ll never know how it ends.

Sam doesn’t join in the conversation, but he leaves it on, and they listen until the battery wears down.

It isn’t Zep, Dean thinks, but it’s nice.


They spend the night in an abandoned farmhouse. The occupants are long gone, and the Winchesters aren’t the first people who’ve squatted there, judging for the disarray in the rooms and the way mattresses have been dragged out into the den. There’s a huge stone fireplace, and Sam and Cas raid the woodpile by the side of the house while Dean tears up farming magazines for kindling.

For dinner, they eat Barnes’ hunter’s stew and drink warm beer while listening to chatter on the radio. Between the three of them, they could drive through the night and be at the address on Chuck’s note by mid-tomorrow, but there doesn’t seem to be a rush. It’s nice, anyway. Sitting here together in someone else’s house, eating off someone else’s plates. Almost like a real family, and not for the first time, Dean wonders if maybe they could try it. In this strange new world with no demons and no monsters. Maybe they could find a place, could settle down. Ward up a town somewhere and work on getting the power back on, learn how to grow food and raise chickens.

Not exactly an apple pie life, but something close enough.


Sam turns in sometime after ten, and Dean tries to follow but sleep just isn’t coming. His brain feels like it’s strapped to Baby’s hood, burning a hundred miles an hour down an empty highway, and every time Dean closes his eyes he’s slapped with visions of white picket fences and vegetable gardens and cooking dinner for a family. Burgers, in fact, Dean is teaching Ben how to press out the patties, nice and thin to get good caramelization on the surface. People make ‘me too thick or too sloppy, he’s saying. But trust me, this is how you want it. Better two of these than one of those tasteless bleeding slabs.

And it’s good, real good. Being a dad. Not like it was with Sammy, with Dean just a kid himself, trying desperately to get by. Because he’s an adult now, has a nice house instead of a motel, doesn’t need to steal in order to provide. Plus, this time, he’s not alone. Not when a warm presence presses itself against his back, long fingers curving around his hip.

Smells good.

Bacon’s in the oven, Dean will say, because they’re in a house and their house has an oven. There’s bacon in there alongside a tray of handmade fries. In a little while, Dean will put the buns in, too. Just enough to melt the cheese down. Then it’s patties and caramelized onions and tomato relish and pickles, even some salad shit in deference to Sam. And because he’d never say it but maybe Sam’s right. Dean has a kid to look after and isn’t getting any younger himself while he’s at it. So, salad it is.

Mm, says the warm voice in his ear. Close enough Dean can feel the scrape of stubble on his jaw.

Stubble and strong, muscular arms and a firm, solid body and two heavy weights that encircle him from the shoulders down, feathers rustling softly.

Ew, says a girl’s voice, because she’s just a kid and kids are like that. Not in the kitchen!

So they’ll laugh and pull away but there’s a promise there, a flare of grace behind eyes as blue as the endless heavens and—

“Shit.”

And now Dean’s really awake. Heart pounding and lying on someone else’s mattress on someone else’s floor, the ghost of warm-rough touch on his skin and, shit. Fuck. He’s so messed up.

Messed up, and not sleeping after that little nightmare on Stepford street. So he hauls ass out of bed and gets hunting. It takes him ten minutes of rummaging to find a mostly empty bottle of Talisker in the cupboard. Not his usual poison but it’ll do, and Dean grabs it and takes his own sorry ass out into the porch. Where he almost immediately trips over Cas.

Cas is sitting on the step, eyes closed and back straight. He looks like he’s meditating, or praying maybe, and Dean’s about to leave him to it when Cas says: “You should be sleeping.”

“Yeah, well. I couldn’t.”

Cas nods, then gestures briefly to the spot next to him. He still hasn’t opened his eyes. Dean can feel Cas’ grace, seething but… thin somehow. Spread out like a multi-dimensional pancake.

“Don’t wanna disturb you, man.”

“You won’t.”

So, after a moment, Dean sits.

There’s a chill in the air, enough for Dean to become cripplingly conscious of Cas’ warm, sold presence by his side. They’re sitting maybe a few good inches too close for friends, but Cas doesn’t seem to notice. Dean takes a swig of Talisker, the whiskey going down both sharper and smoother than he’s used to. He offers the bottle to Cas. “Drink?”

He doesn’t expect Cas to accept, so is surprised when the bottle is taken from his hand. Cas knocks back a mouthful then hands the rest back, all without opening his eyes.

“Wha’tcha doing?” Dean asks, when the curiosity gets too much.

“Searching,” is the answer. For all that his lids are closed, Cas’ eyeballs are flicking back and forth behind them. “I should… It shouldn’t be this difficult. Finding her.”

“Who? Amelia?”

“Claire,” Cas corrects. “Despite everything, she’s still my… my bloodline. I should feel her. I do feel her.”

“So she’s alive?”

“Yes.”

“That’s something,” Dean says because, nowadays, it is. “If you can’t find her, that’s mean she’s warded?”

Cas shakes his head, just slightly, his brow creasing in effort. “No, it’s not that. It’s just… it’s too loud.”

“‘Too loud’?”

“The voices of my brothers,” Cas admits, slowly. As if he’s not sure this is something he should be saying. “I used to hear them sing. Always. Praise to our Father, or news of the world…”

“Angel radio.”

The corner of Cas’ mouth quirks upwards, just briefly. “If you like. But since the Landing, they no longer sing. They… scream.”

“Oh,” says Dean. He takes another swig of whiskey, feels the hot burn of it going down his throat. Better that than to think about Cas locked inside the madhouse of his own mind.

“Sometimes,” Cas says, “I think I hear other voices. Angels, begging our brothers to please stop, to be calm.”

“Well… it could be, right? You can’t be the only sane angel on the planet.”

Cas sighs, opens his eyes and gestures for the whiskey bottle. Dean hands it over, watches Cas down a gulp big enough to make a mere mortal’s eyes water.

“The radio metaphor is apt,” Cas says. “The screaming, it drowns out everything else. The prayers.”

“Like static on the radio.”

“Mm.” Cas is silent for a little while, then: “I swore to Jimmy they’d be taken care of.”

“Yeah. I know.” Dean doesn’t have to ask who he means by that.

“We tell ourselves we’re so much better than demons,” Cas says. “Because we require consent.” He spits the words like a curse. “But how much ‘consent’ could a man like Jimmy Novak really give? Raised from birth to supplicate himself to the servants of God? How much could his daughter?”

“I dunno, man,” says Dean. Because Cas isn’t the angel, and the Novaks aren’t the vessels, he’s thinking of.

“We were so proud,” Cas says. “So full of our own righteousness. No wonder Father turned His back. To be created so perfect and to hav—”

Which is about where Dean’s had enough, his fist connecting with Cas’ bicep to make the point. It feels like punching a wall, but it shuts Cas up, bright blue eyes turning to regard Dean with startled hurt.

“Shut the hell up, Cas,” Dean says. “Listen, whatever else you blame yourself for, your dad walking out is not on that list. He wants to bail on his family, that’s his to own. Not you, got it?”

“Dean…” Cas is very close, his eyes very wide, his grace curling warm and gentle.

“No buts, Cas. I’m… I might not know much, but I know this. Trust me.”

“I do.” And, damn, but two little words shouldn’t hurt the way they do. Particularly not breathed with such reverence through soft, slightly parted lips.

Dean shakes Cas, just gently, because, yeah. Apparently he hasn’t let go of the guy’s bicep. It’s warm and firm beneath the thin cotton of Cas’ shirt, muscles smoothly defined hills. Dean shifts his grip, less bruising fingers and more caressing palm, the whiskey burning low and warm in his gut. It’s not that different, right? Sitting here with human Cas versus sitting in the palm of Big Cas’ giant hand. Cas certainly doesn’t seem to think so, if the way he leans closer is any indication.

“We’ll find them,” Dean says, meaning the Novaks. “You’re gonna keep your promise, Cas.”

Cas’ gaze dips, just a brief fan of dark lashes against his cheek. He’s close now, very close. Or, rather, Dean is very close, leaning all up in Cas’ personal space. Cas’ body language isn’t exactly receptive, he’s still kind of stiff and awkward, and in anyone else that’d have Dean backing right off. Except Cas is Cas and Cas’ vessel, Dean knows, isn’t the main thing he uses to emote. And Cas’ grace is anything but unwelcoming; surging around Dean like a warm, inviting sea, caressing his soul and urging him closer.

Well… fuck, thinks Dean.

Cas tastes like whiskey, which isn’t surprising. His lips are the too-soft too-smooth of something that doesn’t get windburn, his stubble just the right kind of rough against Dean’s cheek. Dean isn’t doing much, just soft brushes of lips, but it’s good. It’s so good. Kissing Cas, like touching lightning in a bottle, impossible and thrilling, and it’s easy, really, to thread his fingers up into the tangle of Cas’ hair, to slot another around the dip of his waist.

Dean slides closer, presses himself against the warm, firm line of Cas’ body, reveling in the strength of it. Not just the grace underneath—though that’s hard to ignore—but the raw physicality of firm muscle and thick limbs. Cas is kind of built. He hides it well, either through clothes or sheer Cas-ness, but it’s there, broad-shouldered and lithe, and fuck if that isn’t exactly the sort of thing that’s always gotten Dean hotter faster than anything else. Just imagining Cas’ weight between his thighs, pushing him down, holding him open… fuck. They’re still barely even kissing but the heat’s catching like sparks on dry straw, and Dean’s ready to go. Right here if he has to, to pull Cas down on the splintered old boards while Sammy snores in the other room.

Dean’s running kisses along Cas’ jaw, lips and tongue tingling from the rough drag of stubble. His hand has slipped under Cas’ shirt, is caressing the soft skin just above the waistband of his underwear.

God. Cas is wearing boxer-briefs with a waistband that peeks, just slightly, above his jeans. Dean shouldn’t find that as hot as he does.

When he goes in for another kiss, this time it’s not just an innocent brush. He licks his tongue against Cas’ lips, urging them open. When they part, it’s with a breathy, startled little gasp.

It’s the sound that brings Dean crashing back into himself, forces him to second-guess the situation. Because he’s practically sitting in Cas’ lap, rubbing his dick against the dude’s thigh, and Cas? Cas is…

Cas is frozen. Stock still. His hands are raised, held like he’s moments from pushing Dean away, and his eyes are wide open and very, very blue.

Shit. What the fuck is Dean doing?

He scrambles to his feet like Cas is on fire which, hah. Bad metaphor. Because seraph. Burning-with-divine-ardor seraph. Not some dude in some sleazy bar, something quick and dirty in between hunts when the itch gets too much and the soft thighs of a woman just won’t scratch it. Cas is an angel, for fuck’s sake. An angel who, despite everything, is Dean’s friend. And how does Dean repay that? By getting drunk and pawing at one of Heaven’s most holy. Fuck.

“I, um. Fuck.”

“Dean,” Cas starts. His eyes are softening, spine pulled straight and hands folding neatly in his lap. And Dean can see what comes next, the awful forgiveness of it. The compassion. Like it’s perfectly understandable something as broken and dirty as Dean would want to press itself against such glorious perfection.

“No!” Dean barks, before Cas can say anything. “I… this was, um. I shouldn’t’ve— Let’s just forget it, okay? Sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Cas tilts his head, expression settling into his most inscrutable frown. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but Dean’s already got his hand on the doorknob, ready to bolt into the house.

“It’s late, in tired. I just… yeah. Forget it.” Then he darts inside, slamming the door shut loud enough that Sammy grizzles and rolls over in his sleep.

Fuck.

Dean leans against the door for far too long, heart hammering, listening for movement from outside. He half expects—dreads, hopes—that Cas will try and follow him, but it doesn’t happen. There’s just a long, awful silence. Then the sound of flapping wings.

When Dean next dares look, Cas is gone.


Wherever Cas goes, he doesn’t stay there. Dean barely sleeps, just tosses and turns all night, the scene on the balcony replaying over and over like his own private Hell. Sometime it plays out like it did, sometimes Cas pushes him away. And sometimes, as exhaustion truly kicks in, Cas pulls Dean closer, returning the kiss and then some.

Those are the worst, the torturous little glimpses into something Dean can never have, something Cas could never want.

Dean passes out sometime just after dawn, the taste of Cas on his lips and the feel of stubble on his skin. He isn’t sure how long he sleeps, but it isn’t much, given the way his entire body feels like rusted iron by the time it’s next shaken awake, care of Sam’s socked foot.

“Hey, wake up. Your breakfast’s getting cold.”

Dean makes a deeply unsatisfied noise, arms lashing out in a fumbling strike Sam easily avoids.

Fuck off, Sammy, Dean mutters, or tries to. It comes out less like words and more an inarticulate groan.

“If you’re not up in ten seconds I’m eating your waffles. With fruit.”

“W’ffles?” Dean manages to pull himself upright, eyes coming into painful focus on Sam’s knees. Dean refuses to look up. Peering up at his unnecessarily giant brother is demeaning.

“Yeah. Cas brought waffles. From Bobby’s.”

“Bobby’s?” Dean says, because repeating words is about all he’s currently capable of.

Sam just rolls his eyes and wanders off. In the direction of the smell of waffles, in fact.

When Dean manages to haul ass into the kitchen, it’s to find Sam unloading plates and bowls of clingfilm-covered cream from a cooler. Dean recognizes the crockery.

“Good morning, Dean,” says Cas. He’s sitting at the rickety little kitchen table, neatly cutting squares of syrup-slathered waffle before putting them in his mouth.

Dean looks away, adamantly not thinking about Cas’ mouth and anything that may or may not go into it. “Mornin’,” he mutters. “When’d you go to Bobby’s?”

“Last night,” says Cas. He doesn’t elaborate, just gets to eating.

The waffles are good. Barnes’ doing, Dean suspects. He’s not entirely down with Cas jetting off to run errands while Creatures are on the loose. Not because Dean thinks Cas would ditch them if they were in trouble (despite everything, he doesn’t), but rather because he doesn’t want Cas to be low on mojo if it comes down to another beat-up, knock-down brawl. Dean’s still haunted by the memory of Cas sprawled limp across the landscape after that last fight, limbs curled up like a dead spider. He never wants to see anything like that again.

Dean spends most of the morning worried Cas is going to be… weird about last night. That he’s either going to avoid Dean or, worse, try and talk about what happened. In front of Sam, even. Except Cas does neither. Just acts like his usual, awkward self. He stands too close and stares too long, but that’s just Cas. By the time they’ve sent the plates back to Bobby’s (care of the Cas Express) and piled into the car, Cas is acting so normal that Dean’s seriously starting to think he hallucinated the entire kiss. Honestly, he isn’t sure which scenario he prefers least.

(He still remembers the taste of Cas’ lips, though. Plus the silky-softness of them, in stark contrast to the roughness of his jaw. Dean’s been drunk enough to scramble his memories more times than he’s comfortable admitting, but he doesn’t usually make up details like that.)

So they drive. The morning is spent chewing blacktop and looting a gas station that, for once, is legitimately empty. Sam keeps the radio tuned to KRFW and, while Dean bitches, it’s mostly for show. Cee Dog’s taste in music isn’t that terrible, and there’s something comforting about listening to news updates from the surviving towns; who’s growing what crops and where to go to find gas or shelter, what roads are drivable, what places are known Creature haunts. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the “Cee Dog” persona is an act, some kind of reference to some pop culture thing Dean doesn’t understand. He could take or leave the histrionics, but the girl whose voice peeks out underneath sounds kind of cool all the same. Annoying little sister cool, but her playlist is heavy on the Zep and the stories she tells about life before the Landing make Dean laugh out loud in a world where humor’s getting as rare as working cell phones.

He’s two hours into driving and busy humming along to the Stones when everything goes to shit. Because they’re Winchesters, and that’s their life. The last guitar riff fades out and Cee Dog’s voice fades in, and because it’s just after the o’clock she says:

“You’re listening to KRFW with me, Cee Dog, and this is Missed Connections care of the gyratin’ stylings of mister Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones there with ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, sent out by one Miss Claire Novak to Mommy and Daddy. If you’re out there, Mom and Dad, your baby girl says she’s waiting for you back home. That’s life in the Wasteland, folks, so here’s a big shout-out to the Novaks, and let’s hope they do, in fact, get what they want. Coming up next we’ve got—”

By which point Dean’s turned out. He’s tuned out because Cas is sitting bolt upright in the back, eyes very wide.

“Claire,” he says.

“Cas…” Dean counters, just shy of a warning. Because Cas is about to do something stupid. Dean can just tell, can practically see the idiot unfurling his wings, and—

“I’ll be back.”

—and flapping off. By himself.

“Goddamnit, Cas!”

Silence, of course, bar the radio.

“Fuck!”

“He’ll be back,” Sam says, though he doesn’t quite manage not to make it sound like a question.

“Yeah. Doesn’t mean he isn’t a friggin’ idiot. Going off alone.” Cas, get your feathery ass back here I swear to god… Dean adds in the loudest prayer he can possibly think.

“Give him an hour?”

“Twenty minutes,” Dean growls. “Max.”


Sixteen minutes later, Dean does a three-point turn fast enough to tilt the Impala, and starts screaming down the highway in the direction of whatever’s left of Pontiac, Illinois.

Waiting for you back home, the message had said, and Pontiac was the last place the Novaks called home, at least as far as Dean knows. Or as far as Dean knows Cas knows, maybe more to the point.

“She said ‘mom and dad’,” Sam muses. “What do you think happened to Amelia?”

“No idea.” Honestly, Dean’s trying not to think about it. Except: “Maybe nothing.”

“You think it’s a trap?”

“I’m thinking it could be.”

“For Cas?”

“Dude had enemies.” Fighting wars does that sort of thing. Cas had always been a bit cagey about the whole war-in-Heaven thing, but Dean had the impression Cas had been more of the upstart Princess-Leia-Rebel-Alliance-impossible-odds kind of freedom fighter rather than the Captain-Kirk-Starfleet-commander-of-armies type.

“Who that’s left, though?” Sam asks. “All the angels are… you know.” He makes a vague gesture Dean interprets as meaning giant mindless weapons of destruction.

“Cas said… he said sometimes he thinks he hears others,” Dean admits. Slowly, because it feels like sharing something Cas told him in confidence. “Others like him. Sane angels. But the screaming of the Creatures drowns them out.”

A pause while Sam digests this, then: “Jesus.”

“Yeah,” says Dean, and steps on the gas.


It takes them eighteen hours, more-or-less, to get to Pontiac. They drive in shifts and eat in the car, only stopping when they need to piss or haul another can of gas out of the trunk. By the time they hit the Super 8 on South Deerfield Road, they’re stiff-necked from sleeping on the back seat and twitchy from too many cans of warm Red Bull because, go figure, no roadside diners mean no coffee.

The Super 8 is still standing. So is the strip beyond it; the gas stations and the Burger King and the Arby’s. Even the car dealer, neat rows of Chevys lined up outside as if it’s any other dawn on any other day.

“Huh,” says Dean, as they pass by.

Pontiac isn’t exactly the big smoke; about eleven thousand souls pre-Landing, if Dean’s remembering his trivia right. Which mean it wouldn’t have been high up on the Creature hit-list. But it should still be a crushed ruin, not this odd ghost-town of empty streets and untouched bungalows sleeping behind timber fences and neat lines of road-screening pines.

“Dean…” Sam starts, sitting up straighter and squinting through the windows. Trying to catch sight of something living, maybe.

“Yeah,” says Dean, because he gets it.

He takes a left on 66, then a right on West Howard, trying to remember where the hell Jimmy kept his house. The last time they came through this way feels like it happened to someone else, in some other life. Something he saw on some flickering motel TV screen, not lived in his own hi-def Technicolor.

“You remember where we’re going?” Sam asks when they pass the Kupferschmid.

(“PLUMBING HEATING COOLING” boast the decals on the glass. Dean only remembers the place because he’d thought the name sounded like some kind of kinky German sex act.)

“Yes.” Snapped maybe a touch too fast to be believable. But this town, man. This town is creepy.

“This place is abandoned,” Sam says.

“No shit.”

“And still standing.”

“You’re on a roll, Sammy, I swear.” Which earns him a punch in the arm, though it’s half-hearted.

“I can keep going. My next line was going to be, ‘This looks like a trap.’”

“If it springs like a trap, and snaps like a trap…”

“Maybe we should stop,” Sam says, slowly, like he expects to be shot down. “Before we get to Jimmy’s, I mean. Try and figure out what happened.”

“Try and find the big, bloodied clue scrawled on the wall?” God. It better not be Croatoan. Dean is so fucking sick of Croatoan.

“Something like that.”

He doesn’t think it’s Croatoan. Everything is too… neat. No tire fires or ominous bloodstains. Just the pinking sun, crawling slowly into the cloudless sky.

“I know you’re worried about Cas,” Sam adds. “But I really think… if there’s something going on here, if he’s in trouble, it’s not going to help him running in without knowing what it is.”

“… Goddamnit,” Dean mutters, because Sam’s right. Of course Sam’s right. Either Cas is entirely fine, just distracted (for nearly twenty hours), or some angel-level bad shit has gone down. If it’s the former, then a walk in downtown Pontiac won’t make a difference. If it’s the latter, then running in half-cocked is probably just going to get them killed. For real this time, given what Cas has said about Heaven and Hell.

Dean pulls the Impala to a stop just outside St. Mary’s, not even bothering to park, just letting Baby sprawl her big black self across the middle of the street. The church sits at some approximation of what could be considered the centre of town; across from the offices of the local paper and kitty-corner to the Route 66 Hall of Fame. It’s just short of ass-crack o’clock so Dean has no idea which building is more likely to contain people and/or the remains thereof. Back before the Landing he would’ve guessed the paper or the church, but right now they all seem equally likely.

In the end, he heads towards the museum, mostly because New Eden has put him off the idea of church for the foreseeable future. The door opens easily when he tries it.

They move in, guns drawn and silent. The place is eerily similar to Chuck’s, in the “darkness and dust” sense, and seemingly just as abandoned. Just roaches and rats and Winchesters, alone at the end of the world.

They scope the space. The museum is a kitsch assortment of 1950s roadside diner ephemera and highway junk; license plates and gas station signs and displaced red vinyl booths with checkered tablecloths. Like some carefully curated, magazine-glossy version of Dean’s torn and faded life on the road. There’s even an old VW bus in trench-coat tan, sitting dusty and forgotten under a sign for Lil’ Jimmy’s Diner.

Maybe they should’ve gone with the church, instead.

“Hey. Come look at this.”

Sam is standing between two rows of glass display cases, staring intently at the floor. Or, rather, at a large pile of dust.

“What?”

Sam hunches over, trying to peer around the pile. Maybe pillar is a better word. It’s about four feet tall and there’s something undefinably structural about it. Something crumbled, but nonetheless discernible.

“Does this…” Sam starts, then stops. He reaches out, hesitates, then seems to come to a decision as he flicks the pile.

“Jesus, Sammy!”

The pile, of course, disintegrates into a mushroom cloud of dust that has them both coughing and staggering backwards. Dean manages to dodge most of the destruction, but Sam ends up looking like he fell asleep in an ash bucket.

“Fuck!”

“Oh, shit, dude. It’s the Ghost of Winchesters Past!”

“Har har.” Sam spits, shucking out of his flannel and using it to clean his face and arms. Kind of… aggressively clean his face and arms. While cursing the entire time.

“Uh… Sammy?”

“Ugh, Jesus. Gross.”

“It’s just a bit of dust, Samantha. You’ll live.”

“It’s not ‘just dust’,” Sam snaps. “It’s people.”

“What?”

“Think, Dean. When was the last time we saw piles like that? I mean, these ones have been here longer, yeah, but…”

“Oh,” says Dean, when it all suddenly clicks. “Shit.”

Because, yeah. They have seen piles like that before. In New Eden, in fact. Just after Cas had gotten through nuking half the congregation with his grace.

“I guess we know what happened to the town.” Sam gives himself one last brush-off, then looks at his ash-smeared flannel, face contorting into a grimace. In the end, the flannel gets pitched into a corner with a sigh.

Now that they know what to look for, they find it everywhere: more piles of people behind the counters, in the back rooms, scattered as ashy smears across the vinyl booth and the inside of the bus. There are two more floors in the museum, a labyrinthine warren that folds into some kind of civil war museum without warning. And dead people. Literal piles of dead people.

They bail out and check a few of the other buildings; the police station, a bakery, and (because why not) an auto museum. The latter is the sort of place Dean might’ve enjoyed, back before the Landing; all polished wood floors and gleaming classic cars. Rows of Firebirds and GTOs, once lovingly restored and now rusting and covered in a thin film of the people who’d last been in here to enjoy them.

Dean sighs, something bitter and crushing and lost curling under his heart. It’s all gone. All these cars—the people who made them, who drove them, who restored them, who admired them—nothing more than rust and dust, forever and ever amen.

“Let’s get outta here,” he says, into the silence. “This ain’t getting us anywhere.” More importantly, the crushing feeling is spreading; up his throat and into his limbs. He needs to be outside, needs to see the sun, breathe in something that isn’t some poor sonovabitch’s ground-down bones.

Sam doesn’t argue, just tears himself away from a display of old oil cans and follows Dean back into the light. Outside is… better. There are no piles outside. Blown away in the wind, Dean supposes.

“I don’t get why there’re no cars,” Sam says, eyeing up and down North Mill Street. “On the road, I mean.”

There are cars in driveways and parking lots (and auto museums), but Sam’s right. The road’s deserted. Not at all like what they’d expect if the town suddenly got blasted by an angel.

“I got nothing,” says Dean. “Maybe whatever got the people got them, too.”

“Yeah. Maybe. It’s messed up either way. The people… I don’t think this happened after the Landing. There’re too many, um. Bodies.”

“Nothing’s looted,” Dean points out. The bakery had been kind of rank from it, in fact.

“Yeah.” It’s not like Pontiac is some out-of-the-way backwater, with Route 66 running through the middle and I-55 bypassing on the west. People should’ve come through here. Maybe whatever nuked the locals and the cars nuked the refugees, too. Maybe that’s a lot of maybes, all slowly circling nothing good.

The drive to Jimmy’s is silent bar the sound of Sam in the back, checking weapons and assembling kit. They’re guessing today’s Big Bad is angels, so “kit” is mostly the Colt, holy oil Molotovs, and their single stolen angel blade. Dean wonders, not for the first time, if they can melt the latter down into something like bullets. Getting close enough to an angel to stab it with a blade is a bitch—the fuckers recognize their own weapons—but they’re arrogant and don’t dodge guns they think can’t hurt them.

There are few things Dean finds more satisfying than replacing looks of angelic smugness with ones of horrified surprise. Cas not exempt, in that oh-Father-how-do-you-love-these-things-so kind of way.

Three wrong turns later, they end up outside the Novaks’ old house. The place looks exactly like Dean remembers it, all apple pie suburbia, a false facade of normality plastered over the shitshow of Heavenly meddling beneath. He doesn’t blame Cas for what happened to the Novaks, not exactly. But it’s one hell of a mental knife’s edge to balance on.

He and Sam don’t talk when they approach the house, Dean with the Colt and Sam with the blade. Maybe they bust in on nothing, or on Cas sitting down to awkward conversation with Jimmy’s wife. Maybe. Knowing Winchester luck, probably not.

Cas, if you’re in there, we’re coming buddy.

The front door isn’t locked, and swings open easily. And while outside might be all systems normal, inside? Inside definitely is not.

The house is dark and musty, the smell of something that’s been closed up for far too long. The furniture is all still there but it’s buried under dust covers and tarps, curtains drawn and rugs rolled up and propped against the wall. In the kitchen, the pantry is empty and the fridge has been turned off and propped open with a wadded hand towel.

Whoever left this place last did it seriously. Like they knew they weren’t going to be coming back any time soon.

There’s a calendar on the wall near the microwave; a big picture of some overwrought European cathedral hung above a grid for the month of April, 2009.

Sam’s seen the calendar, too, gives it a meaningful look. Dean gets it; that would’ve been about the time they were here last, about the time Cas walked James Novak out of his family’s life for good.

And left behind a suddenly single parent, one who’d just watched her life get torn apart by Sunday school monsters. Yeah, Dean knows how this one goes.

They’ve scoped most of the first floor before they notice the rank smell coming from the basement. It’s a combination of burnt flesh and decaying corpse, that old hunting stalwart Dean’s been able to identify since before his balls dropped. It never bodes anything good, and he tries not to feel nauseous as he descends the stairs into the basement proper.

It’s not a large space; cool and concrete-floored and stacked with boxes and tubs and, apparently, what had once been the Novaks’ wine collection. There are thin strips of windows near the ceiling, and the light from outside is enough to illuminate the body lying in the centre of the space.

Dean recognizes the shirt; a white button-down with a mandarin collar.

“Shit!”

He’s holstering the Colt and lunging forward even as another part is screaming at him not to be so fucking stupid. Two decades a hunter and he knows better, he should know better, but oh God it’s Cas, lying face-down and unmoving on the concrete.

The smell is enough to let Dean know the thing in his arms is nothing more than slowly rotting meat. He still has to check, though. To be sure. So he rolls the body over—it’s oddly light, the chest caved-in strangely—and has to choke back a cry.

The body is definitely dead; the skin is pale and mottled, mouth and eyes grotesquely open and burnt black. Escaping grace, Dean assumes, and there’s one panicked second where he looks wildly around, searching for two arcs of awful, tell-tale ash.

Looks, but doesn’t find. There are markings on the floor but they’re sigils which, yeah. Dean really shouldn’t have run blindly into. But no wing-shaped burns.

“It’s not… it’s just his vessel,” Dean says. “It’s not him.”

“Dean…”

Dean looks up at the broken sound of Sammy’s voice and, yeah. He looks wrecked. They’ve both seen a lot of death—too much, and too young—but it never gets easier when it’s one of your own. Except:

“No. He’s still… I can feel him. In here.” Dean taps the side of his head. It’s true. The connection—whatever weird mojo Cas wrought with his mouthful of squirming black—is faint, but it’s still there.

Sam bites his lip, not quite meeting Dean’s eyes. “Okay,” he says eventually. “Okay.”

Dean lowers the burnt-out shell of Cas’ vessel to the ground. He’ll do something for it later; burn it or bury it. Even if it’s the equivalent of angelic toenail clippings, they shouldn’t just leave it here, rotting in Jimmy’s old basement.

“What do you think happened?” Sam is crouched down, studying the sigils on the ground. Enochian, painted in blood. But there’s something shaky about the lines. Like the person who drew them was copying with an unsure hand. Dean stares at it for a long time, an awful thought beginning to coalesce in the back of his mind.

He’s about the voice it when he hears the whimper.

Sam has been pacing the basement, and he’s stopped dead in front of a ratty old couch. There’s a pile of blankets on the cushions, mussed and lived-in in a way that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the packed-up house.

Very carefully, Dean stands, and draws the Colt.

“We know you’re there,” Sam says. “Come out quietly and no one has to get hurt.”

Dean thinks of the discarded vessel and isn’t so sure, but says nothing.

Something behind the couch moves, just a faint scuffing against the concrete. Then a sob, and another.

Dean’s eyebrows hike at the sound, and he exchanges glances with an equally unsettled Sam. That’s not an adult’s voice, and it’s not male, either.

“… Claire?” Sam calls. “Claire, is that you? It’s, um. Sam and Dean. Do you remember us? We, um. We knew your dad?”

That’s a generous assessment of the relationship, Dean thinks, but the sobbing is louder now. Like the person making it knows there’s no point trying to hide.

“Claire, we’re coming over, okay?” Sam gestures to Dean with his chin then tucks the angel blade into his belt. Dean moves into position on the other side of the couch, Colt ready, just in case.

“Claire?” Sam takes one step towards the couch, then another. Then there’s a burst of movement, blankets vanishing over the back cushions and into the gap beyond. Then, very quietly:

“P-please. Don’t hu-hurt me. I wasn’t trying… I just w-wanted to see Daddy. H-he said if I d-did it right, th-that… that…” The voice chokes off into sobs.

“Aw, jeeze,” Dean says. Dealing with kids is the worst.

It takes some coaxing to get Claire out into the open. She’s thinner than Dean remembers, with hollow-cheeks and stringy, greasy hair. Her clothes are a mishmash collection of hand-me-downs that hang much too big on her tiny frame, and she has the kind of sour-milk reek of someone in dire need of a clean bath. She looks like a runaway, and Dean knows—just knows—that the answer to his next question isn’t going to be a good one.

“Where’s your mom?”

Claire just shrugs, eyes darting about until they land on Cas’ discarded vessel. Then they go very wide, and the sobbing starts again in earnest.

Dean goes to grab a blanket to throw over the body—honestly, he doesn’t like looking at it either—while Sam steers Claire up the stairs. She goes with the resigned shuffle of a doomed inmate, shoulders hunched and head bowed.

“How long have you been on your own?” Dean guesses, and gets a shrug in reply.

“Okay. You hungry?”

Half a shrug, like it’s an automated response. After a moment’s hesitation, it turns into a nod. “M-may I please have a glass of water?” Very formal, very quiet.

“Sure, sweetheart. Sink not working?”

Claire shakes her head. “The water’s brown and smells funny. I… I tried some. I didn’t feel so good after.”

Crap. Not good. “Yeah, you gotta boil that sh— er, boil it first. It’s no good otherwise.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for.” Except the body in the basement. “We’ve got some bottles in the car. You be good for Sammy while I go grab some?”

Claire glances, not quite at Sam but definitely in his direction. Big giant shaggy asshole might fancy himself the sensitive modern type, but Dean knows most people peg Sam as the Scary Brother. The whole demon-blooded-vessel-of-Satan thing leaves a mark, Dean supposes. That, and being twelve thousand feet tall.

If nothing else, Dean hopes it’s enough to mean Claire won’t try anything while he ducks out to grab things from the car. Because that’s their life; worrying about getting ganked by a pre-pubescent girl.

Then again, Cas obviously hadn’t. And look where that got him.

By the time he returns to the house, Dean’s carrying a bottle of water, a can of Coke, and paper bags of jerky and chips. Sam has Claire at the dining table. In the light, she looks even worse than she did in the basement, body wracking with shivers despite the blanket thrown over her shoulders.

Dean lays out the food and gestures. “Eat up.”

Claire’s hands shake as she opens the bags, eyes glistening in hunger. When she sees the contents, her face crumples into a look of pure misery. “I’m not s’posed to eat junk food,” she says, almost a whisper.

“Well,” says Dean, “lucky for you this isn’t junk food. It’s home cooked gourmet potato slices made by our friend. Watched him pull them out of the oven myself.” Dean even has the recipe, in Barnes’ too-neat comic book word-bubble handwriting, tucked in Baby’s glove compartment.

Claire looks at the chips, then at Dean, then at Sam. Then, very hesitantly, she reaches into the bag.

The poor kid is definitely starving. Once she gets started, she chomps through the chips and the jerky, then half the water, then gets started on the Coke. Dean has a vague idea that maybe they should tell her to take things slow, but somehow he doubts it’ll go down well. So instead he watches as Sam slowly and carefully tries to piece together what the hell happened in the basement.

The start of the story is a familiar one: the angel walks out in Daddy’s skin and Mommy can’t deal. Drops Claire off with Grandma and hits the road. Things are okay for a while, then the Landing, and devout Catholic Granny drops dead right there in front of the TV.

Claire stays put until the body starts to stink and one of the Creatures shows up on their doorstep. After that it’s running and the road and refugee camps, shivering on the margins of the ruined world.

And then, a stranger.

“He knew,” Claire says. Her voice is steadier now, but she still won’t look them in the eye. “About Daddy. He said… he said he’d help me get him back.”

“Who? Who said that? Did he give you a name?”

Claire nods. “It was funny. A funny name. Carver. Carver, um, Ed—”

“Carver Edlund?” Sam asks.

Another nod, and Dean feels his blood run cold. Just for a moment.

“What did he look like?”

A shrug. “A guy.”

“Anything you can remember about him? Anything at all? What was he wearing?”

“Clothes, I dunno.” A pause, then. “Like yours, maybe?” Which, great. Narrows it down to literally just about everyone, nowadays.

“Glasses?” Sam presses. “A beard?” A head shake. “What color was his hair?”

“Brown, I guess?” Which, again, could be anyone from Dean to Sam to Jimmy goddamn Novak himself.

“Okay,” says Sam, exhaling. “Okay. What did, um. Did ‘Carver’ tell you?”

“He knew about… about Daddy,” Claire says, mostly to the tabletop. “He said I could help Daddy. That… that I had to get the angel out. That it was a bad angel, and had disobeyed Heaven.”

Which, Jesus. Technically isn’t even a lie. Also: still not exactly helpful on the narrowing-down-the-suspects front.

“Is Carver the one who showed you the symbols in the basement?” Sam asks.

Claire nods, rummaging around in a filthy pocket until she pulls out a tattered, folded piece of paper. She hands it to Sam, who studies it. Dean, meanwhile, is more interested in the writing on the back. It looks like some kind of title deed.

“Did… did I do it wrong?” Claire’s voice is very small and very frightened. “He was supposed to wake up. I put the light in the jar, like Mister Carver wanted. He said… said Daddy would wake up, I just had to have faith. So I prayed. I prayed all the time. But he didn’t wake up. A-and… and th-then he st-started to sm-ell bad a-and I was so sc-cared and—”

“Hey. Hey, it’s okay.” And it’s easy, maybe too easy, to fold the shaking girl into a hug. She smells bad enough to set Dean’s eyes watering but he presses a kiss to the top of her rank hair anyway.

“Is Daddy…? The angel, he s-said… he said Daddy…”

“I’m sorry, kiddo.” Understatement, but what else can he say? “But it’s not your dad down there. Your, um. Jimmy. He… died. A while back. Cas, Castiel, he told us about it. It, um. Cas didn’t mean for it to happen. It was an accident.” Close enough.

“He said he-he’d look after m-me. That w-we could fi-find Mom together.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what he wanted. Cas promised your dad he’d take care of you, remember?”

A small nod, then: “Is… is he really a bad angel?”

There are so many ways to answer that, and Dean’s trying to think of one a twelve-year-old would understand when Sam beats him to it.

“Heaven wanted Cas to do something,” Sam says slowly. “Something that would have hurt a lot of innocent people. He refused. He thought Heaven was acting against God by hurting people. A lot of angels got angry at him for that, but he isn’t bad. He’s our friend.”

“I put him in the jar,” Claire whispers. “The light came out and… and it went in the jar.”

“What jar?” Sam asks.

“Mister Carver’s jar.”

“What did it look like?”

“Big. It smelt funny and said ‘pickles’ on the lid.”

Dean won’t laugh, because it’s not funny. Except for how it kind of is. Or would be. If they could find the jar. The pickle jar. With Cas in it. And get to it without the grace burning their eyes out.

“Where’s the jar now?”

“Mister Carver took it.”

Dean shares a look with Sam over Claire’s head. “And where’s ‘Mister Carver’?”

Claire shrugs.

“He took the jar and he, what? Left you here? By yourself?”

“He said Daddy would wake up.” Small and thready again, and Claire’s hands fist in Dean’s shirt. “I’m sorry,” she blurts. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I didn’t mean to I’m sorry—”

“Hey. Hey, ssh.” Dean starts rocking, back and forth, arms still folded around Claire. “Hey, it’s okay. We’re here now. We’ll fix it. It’s what we do.”

“I didn’t m-mean to hurt anyone. I just… I miss Daddy.”

Dean sighs. “I know, sweetheart.” Jeeze, this is messed up. He’s always hated the shit with kids. Too close to home.

“Claire,” Sam says, after a moment. “We need to find Mister Carver. Do you know where he went?”

Claire shakes her head, little sobbing hiccoughs muffled against Dean’s shoulder.

“Or where he might’ve gone? Anything. Anything at all you could remember, we—”

“Sammy.” Dean puts just enough warning into the tone to shut Sam up. And he gets it, he really does; he wants to find Cas more than anything right now. But Claire needs a bath and some proper food and some clothes that don’t reek. Not a full-tilt interrogation.

Sam’s mouth clicks shut with the sound of tooth on tooth, and he sits back in his chair.

“We gotta find this guy,” he says, to Dean this time.

With his free hand, Dean reaches out and flips over the piece of paper with the sigil. On the back, the words WARRANTY DEED scroll across the top in blackletter calligraphy, right underneath a banner reading A SQUARE INCH OF HELL ON EARTH.

“What the hell?” Sam says, apropos. Then, after further squinting: “This is… a title deed. For one square inch of land in Hell, Michigan. Made out to Carver Edlund.”

“Pretty sure there was a Stephen King novel about this.”

“Yeah, but I thought the evil twin was supposed to be the one with the beard.” A pause, then: “You think we’re really looking for, what? Evil Chuck?”

“Not a chance in hell,” Dean says.

Sam just looks back down at the deed to Hell.

“Well,” he says. “Guess we’re going to find out.”


They get Claire cleaned up first.

Her old room is stripped bare, so Dean sends Sam on a scrounging mission to find some new clothes in town. He, meanwhile, runs the water in the bathroom until it’s mostly clear, then leaves Claire to wash up as best she can.

“Try not to get it in your mouth, okay squirt?”

“It’s cold.”

“I know. Just do your best.” He hands her a towel and an old Iron Maiden shirt to wear when she’s done.

The shirt earns a scrunched-up look. “It has demons on it.”

“Uh…” On the front of the shirt, Eddie the Head dangles a little cartoon devil like a puppet. “That’s not a demon,” Dean says. “That’s Eddie, he’s, like. A zombie? He fights the Devil. See? The Devil thinks he’s controlling Eddie”—he points to where the Devil dangles a little Eddie on puppet strings—”but really it’s Eddie who controls the Devil.”

“You can’t control the Devil.”

Dean smirks, though there’s a bleakness to it. “Not for long,” he agrees. “But long enough to kick that asshole back into his Cage.”

“You said a bad word.”

“It’s the Devil, kiddo. You’re allowed to call the Devil an asshole. Because he is one.” Understatement of the ages.

Claire absorbs this with the seriousness of a kid receiving wisdom from an elder, so Dean leaves her to it, small fingers tracing over Eddie’s shriveled, leering face. She has shampoo and conditioner (care of Sam), and a toothbrush and toothpaste (Cas’ unused set), and a plastic bag to stash her current clothes in once she’s done. It’s been a while since Dean’s looked after a kid on the road, but it’s not something he can forget.

While he waits for Claire, he deals with the body in the basement. He figures a hunter’s “funeral”, given it’s Cas, and goes looking for whatever he can find to build a proper pyre. The Novaks’ old furniture gets sacrificed to the cause, and he’s busy chopping up their dining table with an axe when Claire reemerges, t-shirt converted to a makeshift dress by what looks like a dog’s leash fastened around her waist. She looks like a such a tiny little metalhead that Dean doesn’t even bother hiding his grin.

She’s trying to untangle the mess of her hair while she watches him work, silent until finally asking, “What’s that?”

She doesn’t mean the slowly forming pyre. Instead, she’s pointing at Dean. At where his tattoo sits dark against his bare chest, in fact.

“Anti-possession tattoo,” he says. “Keeps demons outta here.” He taps the side of his head.

Claire nods. “I want one,” she says, voice urgent and earnest. “Can I get one? Please?”

“Well, dunno how useful it’ll be any more, squirt. Think all the demons got nuked in the Landing.”

“Oh.” She looks so defeated, though, and Dean has a sudden awful memory of a black-eyed Amelia.

“Tell you what,” he says. “When Sam gets back, we might just have something for you.”

They hear the Impala’s roar just as Claire is helping assemble the last parts of the pyre. Sam hops out with a new duffle of stuff for her, and she grabs a few things and runs back into the house to change. When she reemerges, she’s added leggings and boots but is still wearing Dean’s old shirt, which make him grin and Sam roll his eyes.

“Here,” Dean says when Claire approaches. He holds out a hand, the charm he retrieved from the Impala’s boot dangling from his fingers. “It’s not a tattoo, but wear it and it’ll work the same.” He tells himself the clench in his chest at the gratitude in her expression is probably just heartburn.

Sam, meanwhile, is examining the pyre. “For, uh, the vessel?”

“Yup.”

“Won’t Cas need it back?”

“Burnt-out and rotting?”

“Good point.”

They grab one of the white drop-sheets from upstairs and get to work wrapping and moving the body. There’s not much left of it; just a shell of skin and bone stretched over a charred void filled with the ash of grace-incinerated organs. They do their best not to damage what’s left; the body might not be Jimmy, but Claire still doesn’t deserve to see a caved-in mass of gore with her dead dad’s face.

She watches them, stoic and silent, as they lay the body out. Then:

“Can… can I see him?”

So Dean rolls down the sheet, just a little, then puts an arm around Claire’s shoulder as she cries.

It’s the closest thing she’s probably ever going to get to a funeral for her dad, so they let her have it. She sprinkles the salt and holy water while Sam recites something in Latin, and while none of it is strictly necessary—it’s not like Cas’ soulless, vegan-substitute meatbag is going to go ghost on them—it seems to give the kid some closure. So whatever.

They watch the pyre burn for a while after.

“It smells funny,” Claire says at one point, burying her face against Dean’s side.

“Yup,” he replies, fingers catching on the tangles in her hair. “Wanna to go inside?” The smell of a burning human body is both unforgettable and not something Dean feels the need to inflict on a kid.

But Claire shakes her head. “Is Daddy with God?” she asks.

“Dunno, kid,” says Dean, honestly. Because Jimmy’s not in Heaven and neither is God, so for all Dean knows they could both be on a beach together in Australia, laughing it up with boardshorts and umbrella drinks. “Your dad, though. He was a good guy. If he’s anywhere, it’d better be somewhere nice.”

Claire just watches the flames.


It’s about a four hour drive between Pontiac and Hell, Michigan, but they do it in three, Claire sitting in the back with her knees drawn up under her chin. They leave her to guard Baby just outside of town, tucked into someone else’s now-abandoned home. Dean can tell she’s terrified of being left alone again, so he sets her up with the radio and shows her how to tune in to Bobby. He and Sam leave her on someone else’s porch, listening to Barnes explain how to home-bake potato chips.

The Impala’s too recognizable, so they swap her for a red Jeep they find sitting in a nearby driveway. They’re re-packing weapons when Sam starts uncoiling a thick, black wire rope from what looks like one of Chuck’s ugly-ass pillow cases.

“Is that…?” Dean asks, choking down a wave of nausea.

“You remember what it did to Cas,” Sam says. “If we’re up against angels…”

The rope they’d pulled from Chuck’s bloated, too-stretched neck. Dean had no idea Sam had kept it.

“That thing gives me the creeps.” Not in any way he can define, which is worse. The coil just feels wrong in some fundamental way. Tainted. “Leave it. We don’t need it.”

“Dean—”

“I said leave it! Or better yet, toss it. Why did you even keep it?”

Sam gives massive bitchface, looking between Dean and the coil. “Um. Because it messes with angels? Why the hell do you think?”

“Yeah, because it’s evil.”

“It’s not evil, Dean, Jesus. It’s just a rope.”

“Yeah, and demon blood is just an energy drink.”

Which, okay. Low blow, and Sam reels back like he’s been hit. “Fuck you,” he snarls, but dumps the rope back into the Impala’s trunk. Dean tries to think of it as a victory.


It’s the trees they notice first. It’s hard not to, with the way they close in on either side of the narrow, two-lane road. Dean’s glad they swapped out Baby the first time they jostle across a patch of root-warped asphalt and underneath branches hanging low enough to scrape the Jeep’s roof.

“This feel right to you?” he asks, trying to peer up above them. The branches are dense enough to blot out the sun.

Sam doesn’t answer, because Sam is still being a pissy little bitch from before. And driving fit to match, taking another protruding root fast enough to bounce the car and send Dean’s head slamming into the window.

“Fuck! Sammy!”

“Sorry,” says Sam, in a voice that suggests otherwise.

“Whatever, bitch.”

He waits for Sam’s response, but it never comes.

The strange forest closes in but never quite swallows the road. At points, Dean thinks he can see the remains of houses, reclaimed by the trees. It could be natural, he supposes; something that started long before the Landing.

Yeah, right. And maybe his parents are just hiding in the bushes with a film crew, ready to tell him he’s been punk’d.

He knows they’ve hit the town when the ruined shell of the Hell Saloon appears on their right. There are trees growing through the parking lot and ferns spilling out the windows, and what looks like a stream of silvery water flowing through what had once been a gutter. The “water” glistens enough that it could very well be glowing, and Dean tries not to feel sick.

And then, quite abruptly, the trees clear, and they see the corpse.

It’s a Creature. Or was. Now it’s a mess of rotting flesh and jagged bones. It’s crumpled at an odd angle, ribs reaching to the sky but central head turned one-eighty, like it’s biting into the dirt, noonday sun filtering through its filigree crest, oozing flows of sickly silver blood cascading from half-rotted eyes. Two more skulls—one toothed, one beaked—lie to either side, flesh stripped hollowed and converted to houses with the judicious application of canvas tarps and what looks like scavenged feathers.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Dean says. There are people. Living in the body of the rotting angel.

“Is that—?”

“No.” It’s not Cas. Same type of angel—three heads, lots of arms and torsos—but the eyes are red, not bright-sky blue, and the crest isn’t the right shape.

Plus, of it were Cas, Dean would just know.

They pull the car to a stop. The people watch them, crouching low in the forest and peering out from behind the bones. Most of them are covered in what look like Enochian letters, hastily traced in the dull metallic sheen of drying angel blood. The symbols are easy to make out because almost everyone is naked. Naked and wild-haired and dirt-smeared. Like some creepy, post-apocalyptic hippie commune.

Dean unholsters the Colt, and steps out of the car, Sam following not far behind.

The naked people don’t approach—most look fearful, in fact—but someone in what looks like a frat-party sheet toga does. Dean thinks it’s a he but it’s hard to tell, even though the toga isn’t doing much to cover the… person’s chest. There’s something aggressively androgynous about “him”, head shaved bald and skin and skin so bronze it shimmers in the light and looks green in the shadow. When the thing looks at them, its eyes are pure silver orbs.

“Greetings,” it says, voice unnaturally melodious even as its teeth glint silver with smeared blood. “I am Iadoiasmomar. Your coming was foretold.”

“Great,” says Dean, raises the Colt, and shoots the thing straight through the forehead. Like hell he’s going to sit around chatting with some… angel blood vampire. Or whatever the hell that thing was.

“We are the ishim,” says a voice to their right. Another bald, metallic-skinned asshole, approaching slowly with its hands open in submission. “Servants of the Lord.”

This one, Sam shoots.

“We are Legion, we are the Host,” says another, approaching from the left. “Destroying one part will not damage the whole.”

Dean decides to give it a try anyway.

No more of the self-proclaimed “ishim” come forward to make more speeches, and none of the naked humans move closer either.

“We’re here for the angel,” Dean announces. “Hand him over and no one needs to get hurt.”

There’s movement near the base of the big skull; another ishim, holding aside a curtain and gesturing them through a crack in what would’ve been the toothless upper jaw.

“Oh, right. That’s not ominous at all,” Sam growls.

“Your coming was foretold,” the ishim repeats placidly as they approach. “We mean you no harm.”

“Yeah, right,” says Dean, and shoots it for good measure. He is so totally not here for angel vampires. And maybe his trigger finger is feeling a bit itchy, what with the lack of hunts since the Landing.

The inside of the angel skull is… awful, is really the only word to describe it. It stinks, like thunderstorms and orchids, and somehow the soft perfume of it is worse than if it’d been the meat-rot smell Dean’s used to. It reminds him of the rose-stink in Chuck’s house, a huge flaring signal that they’re approaching something sacred, something beloved of God. Something that should no more be hollowed-out and rotting in Hell, Michigan, than Chuck should’ve been swinging by his neck in a dingy, mildew-infested study.

The interior of the skull has been converted into a room, floor dug down and covered in damp carpets and pillows, space divided by silk curtains and illuminated by clear plastic air tubing filled with the flowing silver glow of angel grace. It’s like some kind of awful opium den, and even Dean—the guy who takes angels whoring and who wouldn’t think twice about calling God a dick to His face—feels his skin crawling with the violation of it. The perversion. He spent forty years in the real-deal Hell and that had nothing on what’s going on here, this flagrant disrespect for the corpse of one of God’s first creations.

The curtains obscure the room but they don’t muffle the labored breathing echoing off the bone. It’s an awful sound; the too-fast too-shallow, hitched little half-whimpers of something in utter agony. Something that’s already screamed itself hoarse and is desperately trying not to be pulled into a second round. Dean knows that sound, and—God help him—but he knows the voice that’s making it, too.

“Cas? Cas!”

He pushes his way through the silks, trying to get to the back of the skull. His blood feels like ice and his skin feels like fire, body caught between terror and fury so strong that they churn in him as physical things. And it’s stupid, because Dean knows pain, knows torture—intimately, and from both sides—and he still isn’t prepared for what he sees nailed up against the bleached-ivory of the skull’s inner surface.

“Oh, God no,” Sammy breathes, hand over his mouth as if he’s going to be sick.

Cas is… alive. He’s alive and embodied, but it’s not the first vessel he’s been forced to create. Not judging by the… pile beneath his feet. Dismembered limbs and flayed skulls and, yeah. He’s been worked over by a pro. Someone trained on the racks of Hell. Dean knows the style.

Cas’ current body is nailed to the wall like a display case butterfly. He’s naked but intact, mostly, with the exception of his wings, and Dean has to bite back a hysterical giggle because, yeah. Yeah, Cas does have the chicken thumbs, and Dean can see them because someone’s spent a lot of time pulling and burning those incredible black feathers, snapping the bones, flaying the muscle. Reworking Cas’ limbs into their own perverse work of art and there’s s part of Dean—a dark, awful, hated part—that is envious of the skill.

He shoves that part down, striding forward and trying to keep his voice steady as he says: “Cas, it’s us. We’re here, buddy. We’ll get you down.”

Cas’ entire body goes taught, or as much as it can when hanging off nails. There’s blood running from his ears and his eye sockets are just empty holes, but he must still be able to sense them and he shrieks when Dean approaches. It’s not articulate—Dean’s pretty sure Cas doesn’t have a tongue right now—but it does make the lights flare because, shit. Shit. Fuck. The angel blood flowing through those tubes is Cas’. Cas’ living, circulating blood; and now that he’s looking for it, Dean can see where the start and end of the tube has been stitched in beneath Cas’ ribs and… and, oh God. He’s going to be sick.

“Sammy,” he says, grabbing a fistful of his brother’s flannel. “Sammy we have… we have to…”

Except Sam doesn’t reply. Doesn’t even move. He’s making a sound, though, Dean realizes. A sort of high-pitched whine, one long, endless, thready breath. When Dean can tear his eyes away from Cas (one second just one Cas I’m sorry oh God), he sees Sam is rigidly still, skin ashen and eyes wide and terrified and staring off somewhere to their left.

Very slowly, Dean follows his brother’s gaze.

“So. Here’s how it’s going to go.”

And there, standing next to a… a water cooler, a water cooler that’s hooked up to the pipes coming out of Cas, that’s being used to pour himself wine glass of drained grace through a little silver spigot, is:

“Adam?”

The… man makes a little tsking sound. “What, this ol’ thing? Oh, no. This is just… think of it as our Get-Along Shirt.”

The sound of the Colt rings out before Dean’s even had time to process that he’s raised it and fired. The… not-Adam doesn’t even blink, doesn’t even bother pretending the bullet even hit him.

“I think I’ve told you before that won’t work,” the thing says. There’s something different about its voice when it does, like it’s playing on a guitar with half the strings pulled out.

“Lucifer,” Dean says. It explains Sam’s reaction.

“And…?” There’s the full-chord voice again.

Dean swallows, thickly. It’s something he doesn’t even want to consider, something too unprecedented and too awful, but…

“Michael.”

“Good boy,” says… says Micifer. With Adam’s mouth and, fuck. Oh fuck but this is fucked. They’re all fucked.

“How?” Dean says, because he has to say something. And as long as Micifer is talking, it isn’t exploding them all with the power of its mind.

“We admit, it took us a while to work through our differences,” Micifer says. “Time in the Cage is even more… relative than time in Hell. But you should be proud of your little brother. He’s the one who finally taught us how much stronger two brothers could be. He never kept reaching out to Adam, did he tell you? Not that there was anything to find. But he tried. Even after his body was torn away, even when all that was left was his plush, pliant little soul, he—”

It takes a moment to realize the roar isn’t even coming from him. It’s coming from Sam. Sam, who’s lunging forward in panic and desperation, arms extended, fingers curled like claws.

“Sammy!”

He doesn’t even get close. Micifer just waves a dismissive hand and it’s like a wrecking-ball hits Sam in mid-air. He’s thrown halfway across the space, limp as a ragdoll, and crashes into the dirt with a dull thud and a sharp cry.

Dean tries to lunge after him but his body won’t respond, like every single muscle is on lockdown. He can barely even move his eyes, move them away from where Micifer is stalking towards Sam.

“Don’t you go near him! I swear to God, if you—”

What?” Micifer snarls, a sound like two dozen wings unfolding inside a space only built for two. “In the name of our absent, pathetic excuse for a Father, you’ll do what, exactly?” He kicks Sam as he says it, hard enough to flip the unresisting body. Sam whimpers. He’s moving, but his eyes don’t seem to be able to to focus.

“This is what is going to happen,” Micifer says, grabbing Sam by the hair and hauling him to his knees. “You want your grubby little family back, you’re going to do us a little favor. While you do, we’re going to keep your brother and your pet angel here for collateral. When you’ve brought us what we want, we’ll give you back whatever’s left.”

“Fuck you!” Dean snarls.

Micifer makes the tsk sound again, changing his grip on Sam’s hair, pulling Sam’s head back exposing his throat and… No. No, not the throat. Opening Sam’s mouth. Opening Sam’s mouth and tilting the wine glass of Cas’ blood precariously above it.

Sam whimpers, tear tracks streaking down his cheeks, and—

“Stop!”

—and that’s enough. Jesus, that’s enough. The thought of Sam as one of those… those things outside…

“What… what do you want?”

Micifer lets go and Sam crumples to the floor.

“Good boy. For all your pretense to freedom you animals really are quite trainable.” Micifer walks back to the water cooler, leaves the wine glass on top of it, then: “Before his soul burnt out in a haze of its own filth, that useless excuse for a ‘Prophet’ gave you something. You’re going to go and get it for us.”

“You. You killed Chuck.”

Micifer scoffs, waving a hand dismissively. “Oh, please. Dear old Dad killed ‘Chuck’ the second He thought He could put such an obvious play on the board. That always was Daddy Dearest’s biggest problem, though, wasn’t it? For someone who’s supposed to work in mysterious ways, the ol’ man just never had any subtlety.”

“Says the guy holed up in a giant angel skull. In a town called Hell.” Dean shifts his weight from foot-to-foot. Micifer is still holding him still but seemingly only for conscious movements. Dean can still blink, can still breathe. Can still speak. And he can still fidget. He can use that. He has to be able to use that.

Micifer is laughing, an over-exaggerated, head-thrown-back, arms-open howl. Whatever happened to him, whatever happened to them in the Cage, it’s pretty clear Mick and Luci have lost it.

“What can we say? We’re all our Father’s sons.”

“Yeah, well. You didn’t inherit the omniscience,” Dean says. “Chuck was long dead by the time we found him. He didn’t give us shit.”

Micifer sighs, the condescending exhalation of a parent dealing with a particularly obstinate child. “Don’t bother. We know what he left for you and we know what it is. Castiel may not be the prettiest angel in the Host these days, but he can still sing as sweet as ever.”

Dean’s finger twitches on the Colt’s trigger. If he shoots Cas, will that just kick the guy out of his vessel? Cas being free is something they can work with. Cas being dead, not so much. Probably shouldn’t use the Colt, then. Just in case.

“If you know what this thing is,” Dean is saying. “Why don’t you just go get it yourself?”

“Oh, we tried. But there’s a certain lock on what we need and it seems, as always, it needs a Winchester as a key.”

“Of course it does,” Dean mutters, and earns what is disturbingly close to an amicable laugh from Micifer.

“There’s even a extra incentive for you,” he says. “The… item in question, it’s very, very powerful.”

“Let me guess,” Dean says. “Powerful enough to kill two asshole archangels.”

“Assuming you knew how to use it,” Micifer confirms. “Which you don’t. But, good luck trying. You have seventy-two hours. After that, your little brother gets a free transfusion from—”

And then, completely inexplicably, Micifer doubles over, as if in pain, and begins to scream.

“The fuck…?”

It’s not just Micifer that’s screaming. It’s Sam as well. He’s on his knees, one hand held out in front of him like Dean hasn’t seen in years and never wanted to see again. There’s… something happening in his hand, some gathering of power. Dean can feel it, like some kind of cold-bright wind, a vortex swirling straight from Micifer and into Sam.

Dean takes a stumbling step towards Sam, realizes he can move again, and takes two more. “S-Sammy?”

“Get. Cas,” Sam growls. “I can’t… Get him now!” Then he’s howling again, struggling to his feet as the blinding blue-white light of grace begins to swirl around him.

Dean doesn’t waste more time, just lunges over to where Cas is pinned. He has no idea how to start extracting Cas from the… from whatever. The hoses are going to be the worst, and Dean pulls out his knife, tries to get it in to cut the stitching. Fuck. Micifer is one sick fuck, and Cas is making horrible, muffled shrieking sounds again, struggling against the huge, brutal rail-spikes pinning him to the wall. Dean gets the first hose unpicked enough to pull it free, and a good foot slides out of Cas’ body in a gush of silvery blood. There’s no way that was buried up inside organs, and not to mention Cas’ human vessel bleeds human red. The celestial fuckery will have to wait, though, because Dean’s busy pulling out the second hose, praying to whatever god feels like listening that Cas can’t bleed out.

Getting the spikes out is harder than unpicking the hoses, mostly because Dean’s hands are smeared in quicksilver grace and his grip keeps slipping on the metal. Behind him, he can hear Micifer howling variations on “how dare you!” and going up against it with Sam, which is even more kinds of fucked up than what’s happening with Cas. If Sam did what Dean thinks—what Dean dreads—he did, then there might not even be much of a Sam left.

It’s something Dean can’t think about. Not when the last spike clatters free and Cas’ body drops like a corpse. Dean manages to catch him, but barely, staggering under the weight.

“Sammy, let’s go!” he yells, and turns and…

And he has no idea who he’s looking at. Sam’s body but Lucifer’s posture, Lucifer’s expression and Dean freezes, mind blanking in a primal, humiliating fear. Whatever’s left of Michael is curled over on the ground, shivering and gasping.

“S-Sam?”

But it’s Michael that moves, lunging for Dean faster than human eyes can follow. The thing Dean is desperately hoping is still Sam roars, and there’s the sound of wings and an eye blink later he’s slugging Michael across the jaw hard enough to send the archangel sprawling.

Dean has no time to process, not when Sam’s hand lands on his shoulder and a voice that is absolutely not Dean’s brother except for every way it is says:

“Brace yourself.”

And then more wings, and the world turns inside out, and—


—and Dean is rolling over and over on the grass.

He comes to a stop, groans, and pulls himself upright. It’s only a moment of reprieve because: “Cas! Cas?”

The world won’t quite focus when Dean lunges to his feet. There are two big blurs nearby and he thinks one might be Cas because it seems to have the wrong number of limbs to be anything else. It’s being held up by the throat by the other, taller blur.

“Cas!” Dean calls, urgently. “Sam! Sammy, no!”

He lunges at the not-Sam but the figure just flicks its fingers and Dean’s legs suddenly no longer hold his weight. The last thing he sees as he sprawls on the grass is the Sam-thing fastening its mouth over Cas’ in a mockery of a kiss.

And then blinding light.

And then nothing.