December 30 was waning – the sun was setting – when the sudden familiar roar of the Impala sounded outside the motel room door. Four minutes, then a coded knock.

Dad was home.

Relieved, Dean ran to the door and let him in.

But no sooner had he crossed the salt line than he grabbed Dean into a hug tighter than any Dean could remember past seven years old and that disaster of a night with the shtriga.

“... Dad?” he asked even as his arms automatically returned the hug.

“Where’s your brother?” John asked, even as he answered his own question on seeing the half-closed bathroom door. “Bathroom?”

“Yeah.” Dean looked John over, but nothing seemed out of place for his having finished a hunt; he smelled like he’d done a salt-and-burn as long ago as a day or two and driven straight back afterward. “Dad, are you okay?”

“More than okay.” John froze, seeing the open journal on Sam’s bed. “... he knows?”

Dean nodded miserably. “I’m sorry, Dad, I don’t know when he got into my stuff and snuck it out....”

“Well, that makes this a little easier.” He raised his voice. “Sammy, I’m back!”

Dean blinked as the toilet flushed and the water in the sink ran. They hadn’t wanted Sammy to know the truth at all... why would it make things easier for him to know now?

Sam came out of the bathroom and right into another tight hug. And a kiss dropped onto the brown waves.

Dad hadn’t kissed Sammy on the head in... in years. Something Was Up. “Dad, are you okay?” Dean asked.

“I’m fine. I need a shower and about a day’s sleep, but I’m fine.” With Sammy still in his arms, John moved to sit on the bed, closing the journal to do so. “I’ve got a lot to tell you boys—” He was interrupted by the very loud growl of a very empty stomach.

“Here.” Dean ran to the fridge and pulled out the still-warm remnants of supper.

John ate, smiling at both his boys with tear-filled eyes. He turned to Sammy at the end of it. “So you read it.”

“Yes, sir,” Sammy replied quietly, not giving much away.

“So I don’t need to explain what happened to your mother.”

Dean’s breath caught, but Sammy just shook his head. “No, sir.”

“And you know that’s why we move around all the time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll understand when I tell you this. Dean, sit down, this is for you, too.”

Dean swallowed hard and sat down.

A broad smile spread across John’s face. “Boys – I got him. I killed the yellow-eyed bastard. Your mother’s been avenged.”

Dean’s mouth fell open. “Y-y-you... seriously?!

“Seriously. Me an’ Bob an’ Jim.”

Dean didn’t know if he was supposed to cheer or cry or dance or what. He just sat there staring with his mouth open, shocked. It was over—he just didn’t know what that was supposed to mean.

“So.... we’ve got some decisions to make. We’re going to go spend New Year’s with Bob and Jim and then we’ll decide. Okay?”

Dean managed to nod. “O-okay. Yeah. Sure. S-sounds good.”

John looked at Sammy. “Okay?”

Sammy looked at Dean. “What am I supposed to say?”

John frowned at him and looked over at his oldest, visibly confused.

Dean pulled himself together. “We, um... had kind of a rough Christmas, Dad. I-it’s okay,” he added hurriedly. “I mean, you got the thing that killed Mom, so like, that’s probably the most awesome Christmas present ever, and it couldn’t wait, and I get it, Dad, I do, it’s just....”

“... just....” John prompted.

“I... kinda... didn’t have money to get Sammy anything for Christmas,” Dean confessed quietly, looking at the floor.

“Oh.” John’s lips pressed together and he looked at Sammy. “Then I tell you what. Tomorrow, on the way to Bob’s, we’ll get you a gift.”

“I didn’t WANT a dumb gift, Dad!” Sammy exploded. “I wanted YOU!”

“I see.” John took a breath. “... and I wasn’t here.”

Dean shook his head, not looking up.

“I’m sorry, boys. I forgot the day – I was so close...”

“It’s okay, Dad,” Dean sighed.

“It’s really not,” John said, eyes on Sammy.

“You got the thing that killed Mom,” Dean replied, trying to sound more enthusiastic. “That’s more important.”

“DEAN!” Sammy cried. “When’s the last time Dad remembered your birthday, huh?”

“Sammy....”

John held up a hand. “No, I want to hear this. Go on, Sammy.”

“You’re never here, Dad! I never get to do anything fun ’cause we never have enough money for more than groceries! Dean had to steal my Christmas presents, and then we found out they were for a girl! You missed the Christmas program, Dad, and I had a part and Dean even had a line! Why is hunting monsters so important, huh? WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?!”

“Okay, in reverse order – we were trying to protect you. We save lives, people like me. And I didn’t know you had a Christmas program. I didn’t hear it or didn’t register it. And as for money – that’s all on me. I didn’t leave enough and I’m truly sorry for that.”

“No, Dad,” Dean tried to object, hating that Sammy was so mad and feeling about two feet tall. “It’s my fault. I shoulda been more careful about how I shopped.”

“NO, Dean.” John fixed him with a hazel look. “That’s something you never should have had to do.”

“But you were busy.”

“Not supposed to be too busy for my family.”

Dean looked down at the floor again, unsure what to say.

John looked over at Sammy. “Anything else you wanna say? This is the time for it. Either of you.”

Dean kind of wished he could disappear.

“Dean....” John said. Suddenly a finger hooked under his chin and raised it. “What’s this about?”

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Dean whispered, and a tear escaped in spite of him. “I tried to make it better for him... tried to tell him you’re a hero and saving people’s more important than what’s on the calendar... I s-s-shoulda done better....”

But if he was expecting a yell, he got arms around him and he got tugged onto a lap that would soon be too small to hold him – should have been too small by now, but Dean was small for his age, and John just realized that with a horrible ache to his heart. “You did fine with what you had, Dean. Just fine.”

“But Sammy’s mad at you, and it’s my fault.” Dammit, there went another tear....

“No, Dean.” A callused thumb wiped away the tear. “Sammy’s mad at me. And it’s my fault.” He looked at Sammy, but his words were for Dean. “It’s not your fault. You did the best you could. Right, Sammy?”

There was a long pause before Sammy replied with a firm, “Dean’s the best big brother there ever was.”

Dean didn’t know if what came out was a laugh or a sob.

“There, you see?” John said. “It’s on me, Dean. Not you. Sammy’s mad at me, not you.”

“But I don’t want him to be mad,” Dean whispered, tucking his head into Dad’s chest. “I don’t want anybody to be mad.”

“Everyone gets mad now and again,” he whispered, rocking him slightly.

“But bad things happen when families get mad. Y-you left... an’ M-m-mom....” Dammit, why was he crying? He was twelve, for Pete’s sake! He was too old for this!

“I left, but I came back. Mary’s death wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, it was! Everything’s my fault! I shoulda told her!”

John frowned. “... told her what, Dean?”

Dean hiccupped. “I... I had a nightmare....”

“Of what?”

Dean hiccupped again, but he couldn’t force the words out, even now.

Sam crawled up and put a hand on his arm. “What dream?”

With a major effort, Dean managed, “A-ab-b-bout the fire.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” John said.

“But she asked me! She asked me and I couldn’t tell her! I s-s-shoulda said... I-I should....” His words got all tangled up in his throat and choked out in a sob.

John rocked him. “I didn’t know....”

Dean couldn’t do anything but cry. And his father held him the entire time, while his brother rubbed his heaving back.

After he’d cried himself out, Dean sniffled a couple of times. “See? We shoulda been celebrating ’cause it’s over, an’ I messed it all up.”

“You didn’t mess anything up, Dean!” John looked at Sammy and couldn’t resist the smile. They’d said that in perfect unison.

I did, I do, I never do anything right, Dean thought miserably, but he didn’t say anything. He just hugged his dad a little tighter.

“Where did this come from, huh?” John asked his oldest.

“I couldn’t even steal Sammy some decent presents,” Dean confessed reluctantly. “I took ’em back.”

“You shouldn’t have had to steal them in the first place. And I’m proud of you for taking them back. You made some little girl’s Christmas very happy.”

Dean jerked back in shock. “Y-you’re... proud of me?”

“Of course I am! Why wouldn’t I be? You did the right thing!”

“See, Dad, that’s what I mean!” Sammy was off again. “You never say that! Dean does something awesome, and you act like it doesn’t matter or it’s a waste of time or he shoulda done one little thing different! Nothing we do is ever good enough!”

“What?” John looked visibly startled. “I... don’t?”

Dean cringed, but Sammy kept going. “Like that essay Dean wrote last month. It was really good, but all YOU said about it was he spelled something wrong! And he was so hurt, he didn’t even turn it in!!”

“Sammy,” Dean pleaded.

John took a deep breath. “I suppose I’ve been majoring in the minors and the negatives too long.”

Sammy huffed. “That’s an understatement.”

“I can’t change the past. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

“It’s okay, Dad,” Dean said, resigned.

“Do you still have the essay?”

“No,” Sammy answered for him. “He threw it away two states ago.”

John shook his head. “Okay. I can’t change anything but the way I smell. I still smell like smoke. I’m gonna shower and then we’ll head to Bob’s in the morning. Okay, boys?”

“Okay,” they chorused.

John hugged them both and headed for the shower.

“Why’d you have to tell him about the dumb essay, Sammy?” Dean asked wearily, going to get his pajamas.

“It made my point,” Sam said, climbing into his half of their bed. Dad was home now, so they’d share.

“It was just an essay. Not like the teacher thought I was gonna turn anything in anyway. Teachers don’t like me.”

“Why not?” Sam asked as the shower turned on. “You’re smart.”

Dean didn’t feel like answering that one. So he didn’t.

“You are!” Sam pushed. “You’re a lot smarter’n me!”

“Sammy... just let it go, okay?”

“No, I’m not gonna let this go!”

Dean couldn’t believe the way this evening was going. They should have been celebrating. It was over. But Sammy was mad at Dad, and Dad was apparently mad at himself, and Dean felt like dirt for not cheering the second Dad made his announcement.

“Dean, you’re really good at things, but you keep saying you’re not and it makes me mad!”

Dean felt a headache coming on. “Sammy, I’m not what’s important here. Dad got the thing that killed Mom. It’s not gonna hurt anyone else. You’re safe. It’s all over. That’s what matters. Now, can you stow it? Just for tonight?”

The shower turned off, but neither brother heard it because Sammy kept going. “You are what’s important here! You’re always important to me! That’s why I gave you that necklace – because you’re my brother and I LOVE YOU!”

Dean sighed. “Love you, too, Squirt, but seriously...” He grabbed the keys out of Dad’s jacket and went outside to sleep in the Impala. It was cold, but there were plenty of blankets in the back seat, and at least he could have some peace. At least the car didn’t care that he’d messed everything up again.

Fifteen minutes later, the door creaked open and a large body entered the car. Dean sighed heavily.

“Got somethin’ you wanna tell me?” John asked softly.

“No, sir,” Dean replied just as quietly.

“Then there’s no reason for you to be out here in the cold.”

“I’m okay.”

“Don’t recall makin’ it a suggestion.”

Dean sighed again. He’d just started to get warm. But an order was an order, so he sat up and started pushing the blankets back.

John got out of the car. “Go limp,” he ordered, and reached back in, picking up his too-light 12-year-old and the blankets.

Dean did as he was told. John carried him in and lay him down beside Sam, who was crying softly in his sleep.

Dean hadn’t thought he could feel any more miserable than he already did. “I’m sorry, Sammy,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around his little brother.

“So, I repeat,” John said softly, sitting on the end of the bed. “Got anything you wanna tell me?”

Dean shook his head.

“Now, why is it that I don’t believe you?”

Dean ducked his head, burying his nose in Sammy’s hair.

“Dean, come on.”

“What do you want me to say, Dad? I’m sorry I fail at everything?”

John’s eyes went huge. “Where did you hear that?”

“Nobody said it. Nobody had to.”

“Oh, Dean.” John ran a hand down his boy’s hair. Blond, so like his mother’s....

“I can’t even get mad at Sammy and go do something by myself without something trying to eat him.”

“Yeah... about that... I was wrong.”

Dean frowned and finally looked up at John. “What do you mean?”

“I shouldn’t have laid into you like that. I was furious because it got away and let my mouth get away from me. Every kid needs to get away from time to time.”

Dean’s frown deepened. “Dad, are you okay?”

“I am. I could use some sleep, but I’m okay.”

“’Cause... ’cause this....” Suddenly a horrible thought occurred to him, and his arms tightened around Sammy. “Isn’t like you,” he finished slowly, warily.

“What, admitting I was wrong?”

“And my dad would never say he was proud of me.” Dean reached for his knife.

“You make me sound like a horrible person. Maybe I am.”

Dean pulled his knife out from under his pillow, not attacking, but holding it ready to defend. “What are you? What have you done with our dad?!”

John just looked at him and the knife. “Well done, Dean. If I really were a creature, that would be the right move. But I swear to you, I am your dad. I’m trying to fix my mistakes.”

“I don’t believe you!” He shook Sammy awake. “Sammy, call Uncle Bobby, now!”

Sammy frowned, but did as he was told.

Dean took the phone from him. “Uncle Bobby? I gotta know—did you help Dad with a hunt this week?”

Bobby sounded a little confused. “I sure did. Why?”

“Was... was Dad okay at the end of it? Acting normal, I mean?”

“Well, he was crying a lot and we had us a long talk about you boys....”

Dean swallowed hard. “So it—it really was the thing that killed Mom?”

“It certainly was. A demon named Azazel. There’s some loose ends to tie up but the thing that killed Mary? Is deader than dead.”

“And... and Dad was Dad. I mean, nothing... could have... happened to him.”

“Dean, what’s going on?”

“Just... please, Uncle Bobby.”

“Yes, your dad was your dad. We left him at the driveway of the motel.”

Dean drew in a shaky breath, let it out again, and set the knife down. “O-okay. Thanks. We’ll... we’ll see you soon.”

“Dean. We talked about you boys and how your dad had done wrong and needed to make it up to you. If he’s doing that, then good. If not, you let me know and I’ll get the buckshot out.”

“No, it’s—we’re okay. Honest. We’ll be heading your way in the morning. Thanks.” He handed the phone back to Sammy and folded in on himself, shaking in shame and relief.

Sam hung up the phone and rubbed his back.

“’M sorry, Dad,” Dean said into his knees. “I don’t think you’re a horrible person.”

John ran a hand over his hair. “I know. Good night, boys.”

“Night, Dad,” said Sammy.

But Dean couldn’t move, couldn’t say anything. He just wanted to disappear.

John curled up in the other bed and was asleep in seconds.

Sammy tugged on Dean’s sleeve, and Dean finally managed to put his knife back and lie down. But he didn’t feel like any less of an idiot or a failure.

He woke to find Sammy half on top of him and to hear the familiar sounds of breakfast being made. He tried to stir, but Sammy was determined to use him for a teddy bear.

John chuckled from the kitchen. “Is he a kid or an octopus?” he teased.

Dean chuckled in spite of himself. “Little of both, I guess.”

“Good. You still like sausage and eggs?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Noticed there was just enough in there for the three of us.”

He sounded relatively pleased, so Dean went with a neutral “Yes, sir.”

“Can you wake your brother?”

As if on cue, Sammy raised his head, eyes fluttering open.

“Mornin’,” Dean said to him, managing to smile a little.

“I thought you were cookin’,” Sammy said. “Smells good.”

“Dad’s got it.”

Sam frowned. “Doesn’t he burn Pop Tarts?”

“I heard that,” John said from the kitchen.

Dean couldn’t stop a laugh from bubbling up. “I seem to recall you scorching a few Eggos in your time, Justin Wilson.”

“Aaaah, hush,” Sammy grinned.

Dean tickled him. He laughed.

As the tickling wound down, they looked up to find John smiling at them. “Let’s eat and pack up.”

“Yes, sir!” they chorused and ran to the table.

As the boys cleaned up, John called Bobby. “Hey, old man.”

“You ain’t no spring chicken yourself,” Bobby grumbled good-naturedly. “What the hell was Dean so shook up over yesterday?”

“I told him I was proud of him and he acted like I was possessed – or a shifter.”

Bobby’s blink was almost audible.

“Oh, no, you too?”

“Whaddaya mean, me too, idjit? I know you ain’t possessed.”

“But your reaction to it...”

“Reactin’ to Dean’s reaction, knothead. But I suppose it oughta tell you something.”

“What?”

“Well, the both of us, really. If I’d known the boy’d even let the thought cross his mind, I’da lit into you a lot sooner.”

“He’s a good boy.”

“He is, and he loves you. Boy’s got two goals in life: keepin’ Sammy safe and makin’ you proud.”

“He needs to have more.”

“He can, now. But you got to talk to ’im, John. He can’t read your mind. Pretty sure he knows you love him, but sometimes I don’t think he thinks he deserves it. I know he don’t think he deserves to be a kid.”

John froze. “... what?”

“That day I took him out to throw a ball around ’stead of target practice? Took half an hour for him to actually let loose and enjoy himself.”

“... half an hour?”

“Somethin’ like that, yeah. He was all worried you’d be mad—and it sounded to me like he thought you had a right to be mad ’cause he let you down over the shtriga.”

John groaned.

“I ain’t yellin’, John. Like I said, even I didn’t know he’d think somethin’ was off about you tryin’ to do better. But it just proves to both of us that we’ve all got to start doin’ better by that boy. It ain’t too late yet.”

“We’re loadin’ up. Gonna head your way.”

“All right. You know you can stay as long as you want.”

“Trouble is... don’t know what to do now.”

“That’s why I invited you up here, genius. We can talk it over when you get here.”

“Thanks, old man. See you around suppertime.”

“See you then, Jarhead.” And Bobby hung up.

Sammy came up and hugged John.

John hugged him back. “Hey, kiddo. Ready to go?”

“Ready!”

“Okay. Where’s your brother?”

“In the bathroom.”

“All right. Soon as he’s through, we’ll head out.”

“I don’t think he’s coming out.”

John frowned. “What?”

“I heard crying.”

“Aw, hell, what did I do now?”

“I don’t know, Dad.”

John sighed, walked over to the bathroom door, and knocked. “Dean? You all right, son?”

A distinct sniffle. “Yeah, just... gimme a second.”

“Dean, if... if it’s something I said...”

“No, no.”

John looked down at Sammy, at a loss.

Sam shrugged. “He gets like this sometimes.”

“Like...”

“Just upset at himself.”

“What for?!”

“He just never thinks he’s good enough.”

“Oh, Dean. Come on out, son.”

After a long moment, the door unlocked and his son drifted out. “’M a girl, I know,” he growled.

John pulled Dean around in front of him. “Now, did I say that?”

“No, but you gotta be thinkin’ it.”

“And why would I think that?”

Dean let his sniffle and the sleeve he slid across his eyes speak for itself.

“Dean. I meant what I said last night. I can’t change the past, but I am sorry that I’ve been so hard on you.”

“You weren’t hard on me.”

John could almost hear Sammy rolling his eyes.

“Yes, I was. I’ve been treating you like you were a Marine. And you’d be a damn good one—but you’re not 18. I shouldn’t forget that.”

“I still say you’re possessed,” Dean groused.

John could tell he was trying to deflect his discomfort, though, so it didn’t smart so much this time. “Dean.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m serious. I’ve put burdens on your shoulders that you should never have had to bear.”

“It’s okay, Dad. Can we just go?”

John sighed. Baby steps. “Yeah, son. Let’s go.”

Dean loaded the car with the skill of one who’d done it too much.

Afraid of pushing the caring-and-sharing envelope too far, John gave him a smile and a squeeze to the back of the neck. “All set?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

“Gladly!”

They slid into the car and headed off to the safer solid ground of Sioux Falls.

Lunch presented a revelation: Dean would barely eat. He’d make sure Sam had everything he needed, but he would barely touch his own food. He even reloaded Sam’s plate.

“Dean,” John said, barely stopping it from being a bark.

Dean looked up.

John swallowed back the rebuke that came to mind first. “Son, we’re in a restaurant. If Sammy needs more food, I can order it. You need to eat, too.”

“Yes, sir.” And he ate.

Once his plate was clear, John hailed the waitress and ordered him a slice of pie.

Dean just gaped at him.

John ignored the stare and the sinking feeling in his own stomach and looked at Sammy. “How ’bout you? Room for dessert?”

“No, sir,” Sammy smiled. “Just my drink.”

John nodded and ordered a brownie a la mode for himself.

Sam drank and watched them eat once the desserts arrived.

Dean seemed hesitant to eat much at first, but one gentle “Eat up, son” from John was all it took to get him to devour the slice.

Sam did sneak a bite of crust. But he was comfortably full, and he let them know it.

As they were leaving, John decided not to ask where this behavior had come from; he could guess. Instead, he put a hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Son, you’re almost 13. You’ll be hitting some serious growth spurts soon. You need to eat. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, when it comes to Sammy having enough... that’s something I need to worry about. Not you.”

“But Sammy’s mine.

John’s eyebrows shot up at that.

“I’ve always taken care of him...”

“And you’ve done fine. But you’re twelve, and I’m his father. It’s time I step up to the plate, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want to be clear here, son. I’m the one falling down on the job, not you. But you can’t take care of Sammy if you don’t take care of yourself.”

“Yes, sir.” It sounded less like agreement and more like argument.

But argument was one thing John didn’t want right now, not while he still wasn’t sure where to go from here. So he didn’t push the issue. “Come on. Let’s get to Bobby’s.”

When they pulled up at the Salvage Yard, the boys were dozing. John almost hated to wake them, but he had promised.

So he reached back and shook each boy in turn. “Hey. We’re here.”

Dean instantly reached to help wake his brother, before his own eyes were even fully open.

Sammy groaned and rubbed his eyes. He perked up instantly when he heard the bark. “Is that Dulles?”

John smiled. “Yep.”

“We’re at Uncle Bobby’s!” Sammy rocketed out of the car and over to where Dulles was tethered. The Rottweiler practically knocked him over trying to smother him in doggy kisses.

John got out, smiling.

So did Dean. “C’mon, Sammy, smells like Uncle Bobby’s got chili cooking.”

They ran inside, John following at a more sedate pace. “Bob,” he called.

Bobby and Jim walked out of the kitchen, each giving the boys hugs as they passed. Bobby had his “Kiss the Cook” apron on. “Hey, John. Got here just in time.”

“Chili?”

“Plenty for everyone.”

John gave them both a shaky smile.

“C’mon and eat. We’ll have time to talk later.”

“What I’m dreadin’,” John muttered, but followed.

Jim clapped him on the shoulder. “You don’t need to fear the future, John. You’re not facing it alone.”

“Dean thinks I’m possessed....”

“Well, hell,” said Bobby. “I’ll dump a salt shaker in your beer if that’ll make ’im feel better.” And he looked at Dean.

Dean nodded.

“Ewwww!” said Sammy. “Salty beer? That sounds gross.”

“It is,” John sighed. “But I’ll do it.”

“I’ll add some holy water, just to make sure,” Bobby offered.

Dean nodded.

“All right, then.” Bobby led everyone into the kitchen and had Dean pick and open the beer. Then Bobby found an old stein in the back of a cabinet, had Sammy help him clean it, and poured the beer in. Finally, he added a generous helping of salt and a good quarter cup of holy water, stirred well, and set the stein in front of John. “Cheers.”

John’s nose wrinkled, but he drank the beer. Steadily.

The boys watched, Sammy becoming progressively more disgusted.

As John got close to finishing, Jim made the sign of the cross and said, “In nomine Jesu Christo, amen.

No reaction.

John then reached for the water bottle. It wasn’t until he’d taken a healthy swig, washed his mouth, and swallowed that he realized he’d grabbed the holy water.

But there was no reaction. No smoke. Only one miserable Dean.

“’M sorry, Dad,” he said so softly John could hardly hear him.

John nodded and held out his arm. Dean hugged him, and John rocked him like he was little.

“I... I just... th-the change was so sudden... I don’t think you’re awful, Dad, honest!”

“We talked to him, Dean,” Jim said.

“I d-didn’t know if the thing that killed Mom was the kind of thing that coulda taken Dad without anybody knowing,” Dean explained.

“We took it by surprise,” Jim said. “It’s dead.”

“Sorry. I’m a stupid girl, I know.”

John froze.

Jim rubbed Dean’s back. “No, you’re not stupid. If something had possessed or replaced John, a sudden personality change might be the only clue you’d have. I’m sorry we didn’t give you more warning.”

Dean looked up.

“Maybe if we’d called ahead, you’d have already known John was okay.”

“Maybe,” Dean said slowly.

“I know you want your family safe, Dean. That’s admirable.”

Dean looked down.

“And if John had been possessed, you would have done exactly the right thing.”

He smiled. It was slight, but it was there.

“Callin’ me was a smart move, too,” Bobby added. “Good to get confirmation from somebody else you can trust.”

Dean nodded. Sammy smiled.

John allowed himself to smile a little. “You heard ’em, son. You did good.”

“So... you’re not mad?”

“Only at myself.”

He frowned again. “You didn’t do anything.”

“It’s what I haven’t done. I haven’t been the kind of father I ought to be. And I haven’t been paying attention to how that hurts you.”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

John pulled him close again. “I’ll do better, Champ. I’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about Sammy having enough to eat. I’ll be here for you.”

“Wait,” Bobby said, jaw slamming open. “Sammy didn’t—”

“No, he did,” John said, looking up at him. “Always. Because Deano, here, gave it up for him.”

Sammy blinked. “But... but Dean said he wasn’t hungry!”

Jim ran a hand over his hair. “Let’s go for a walk, Sammy.”

“But...”

“Let’s let them talk this out.”

“’M sorry, Dean,” Sammy said as Jim ushered him out of the room.

The last thing they heard him say was, “Sammy, no need to be sorry—” Then the door closed, and Dean was left alone with John and Bobby. “You made him feel bad,” he accused them.

“We’ll fix that later,” Bobby said, “if Jim doesn’t fix it while they’re out there. And you didn’t do nothin’ wrong here, either, y’hear me?”

“I know I didn’t. Dad’s just makin’ too big a deal outta nothin’.”

“It’s not nothing,” John retorted. “I should have made sure there was enough for both of you, every time I left. I never wanted you to go hungry for even one meal.”

Dean shook his head. “I didn’t do anything but take care of Sammy.”

“I’m your father. I should have been taking care of you.”

“You were out there being a hero – like you should have been.”

John’s heart sank. “What kind of hero runs out on his sons? What kind of hero leaves his sidekick to starve, huh? The hunt was important—but it should never have been more important to me than you were. And Dean, I am so sorry, I can’t even begin to say.”

Bobby smiled at him. “You get it now.”

John nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I get it now.”

Then there was nothing more to say until Jim and Sammy came back. John looked over at Sammy. “You okay now?”

“Yes, sir,” Sammy replied, though he still looked pretty glum.

John nodded. “So... Dean and I talked about it.”

Sammy shot Dean a worried look. “I didn’t mean to be selfish, Dean, promise.”

Dean nodded. “You weren’t, you’re just a hungry little kid. Now they say I gotta eat more. Apparently I’m too small for my age.”

Sammy frowned. “But... you’re not small, Dean. You’re bigger than that kid who tried to beat me up the other day.”

“I know I’m bigger than that, but I shouldn’t be able to fit on Dad’s lap still.”

“But Dad’s a giant!”

“No, he’s not. We’re just small.”

Sammy looked up at Jim for backup.

Jim nodded.

“Tell you what,” Bobby cut in. “Why don’t we can the who’s-smaller’n-who and just eat?”

Jim grinned. “Now that is the best idea yet.”

Bobby grinned and went back to the stove to dish up chili for everyone. And if Dean noticed that his helping was the same size as John’s, he was very careful not to show it. He couldn’t finish it, though; he wound up pushing the last few bites across the bowl. Sammy shot John an uncertain look, then snitched a bite—having of course cleaned his own bowl first. But John didn’t say anything. He’d been watching Dean – and Dean truly did eat until his stomach couldn’t hold anymore.

“As my mother would say,” said Jim with a smile, “it does my heart good to see you boys eat like that.”

The next two days were a blur, with mealtimes being the focus and Dean learning he could eat without censure. Even if that censure had only been in his own head.

The weather was perfect for the time of year, and Sammy and Dean spent most of their days outside playing in the snow. They even managed to get the adults into a snowball fight.

After the boys were in bed for that night, Bobby and Jim approached John in the kitchen. “Got a minute?”

John shrugged. “Sure. What’s up?”

“So it’s over,” Jim said. “Do you have anything for the future?”

John sighed. “No. Not yet. I just... guess I can’t believe it’s really over. Can’t figure out what’s best for the boys now. I... I don’t... I can’t keep going like I was, only giving them half my attention unless something was wrong. I can’t keep relying on Dean to take up the slack.”

“No, you can’t,” Bobby said. “You and the boys need a home. You’re welcome to stay close.”

John nodded. “Thanks, Bob. You, um... think there’s enough work I could do here, make a good enough living?”

“Both kinds,” Bobby said. “I’m a coordinator now – I’m a researcher for hunts as well as a mechanic. I could use a hand with both.”

“Mechanic work, sure. I’m not exactly a bookworm.”

Jim grinned. “No, but you’re a fine actor and can pull off authority figures on a dime. You can help with the phone work.”

John’s eyebrows went up. “Hadn’t thought of that. Yeah, I could do that.”

“And we can get the kids enrolled in one school,” Bobby said. “Or find tutors if we have to.”

“Sammy would love that. Dean... I don’t know. We might need a tutor for him until he decides teachers aren’t the enemy.”

Jim frowned. “The enemy?”

“Yeah, somehow he’s got it in his head that all teachers see in him is a problem. Thinks he’s stupid.” John grimaced. “Guess I haven’t exactly been helping him there, either.”

Jim rubbed his back.

“So many things I thought they knew... so many things I thought I’d said but they never heard....”

“Now you have time to make it right,” Jim said softly.

John drew a deep, ragged breath and let it out again. “Yeah. I do.”

“Make what right?” came a sleepy question from the doorway.

“Hey, Champ,” John called. “We were just talkin’ about you. C’mere.”

“What did I do now?” Dean asked, but came.

“Nothing, promise. We were just talking about school, what to do for you. I’m thinking we should stay here in Sioux Falls for a while—as in a few years.”

His eyes widened. “YEARS?”

John nodded. “Maybe until you and Sammy both graduate. Maybe for good.”

“We can’t!”

John frowned. “Why not?”

“The teachers will notice and they’ll call CPS and we’ll be –”

John’s frown deepened. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down. Notice what?”

“That we’re poor!”

“Oh.” John pulled him into a hug. “Bobby’s got a job for me. We won’t be poor much longer. I mean, we won’t be rich, but at least we’ll have a roof over our heads and food on the table.”

But Jim was frowning. “Dean... did someone threaten to call CPS recently?”

Dean suddenly put his head into John’s shoulder.

“Dean?” John prompted gently. “What happened, buddy?”

“Sammy’s teacher saw the bruises where he slipped in the shower and wanted to see you. When I couldn’t put her off, she said she would be calling over Christmas.”

John’s arms tightened around Dean. “Oh, son. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. From now on, I will be. I promise.”

“’S not your fault.”

John wanted to contradict him, but there was the chance that the teacher wouldn’t have accepted the truth in any case. So he just sighed and rubbed Dean’s back. “At least we’re out of there now, huh?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

“So. I’ll be home, bringing in a steady income, and helping Bobby with phone support for other hunters. That sound like it’ll work?”

Dean thought about that for a few moments, leaning against his shoulder. “... how can I help?”

This kid. “We can figure that out as we get settled. But one thing I for sure want you to do is get a good education.”

“I will. Uncle Bobby’s got a library that puts any local one to shame!”

Bobby chuckled at that. “You still gotta go to school, though, Dean.”

“Why?”

“You gotta learn the basics. School’s the best place for that.”

“I know the basics.”

“Not as well as you will once you finish high school.”

“And there are activities you can join at school,” Jim added. “You’re almost to the age where you can play baseball for the school team, not just Little League. In fact, you’re almost too old for Little League.”

“I can’t join anything. Gotta watch.” His eyes were closing.

“No, Sport,” said John, rocking him slightly. “I gotta watch. It’s okay for you to have fun, too.”

“But ’s my job...”

“Hey. Shh. Stand down, kiddo. Let me help you. Can’t take care of Sammy if you’re worryin’ yourself sick over him.”

Dean looked up at his father. “But without that job... who am I?”

“Not sayin’ you can’t still do your job. I’m sayin’ there can be more to life than that. You can be who you want to be and still be my son and Sammy’s big brother.”

Christo,” Dean said seriously.

“Dean.”

“Had to.”

John snorted, and Dean smiled. “We can talk some more tomorrow. But I want you to think about it, okay? Think about what you want for yourself out of life. You don’t have to be a hunter.”

“What if I wanna be?”

“Well, I won’t stop you. But you don’t need to decide that right now. Another thing about school is, you can see what else is out there. You could be a cop, a fireman, a Marine... even a lawyer or a college professor. And I’d still be proud of you.”

Dean looked at Bobby. “You’re sure he’s not possessed?”

“To bed with you,” Bobby laughed.

John chuckled, gave Dean one last squeeze, and let him go. “And make that an order.”

“Yes, sir.” He moved to the sink instead and filled a glass, heading to bed.

“Night, Champ.”

“Night, Dad. Uncle Bobby. Pastor Jim.”

“Night, Dean,” the other men chorused.

John yawned.

Bobby waited until Dean was mostly out of earshot to add, “Good night, John Boy.”

They heard his laughter.

John chuckled, too. “I need to make sure we hear that more often,” he confided to the others quietly.

“Well, you gentlemen can do it. Keep me informed.” Jim stood. “I need to head out tomorrow.”

“Thanks for everything, Jim. We needed your input.”

Jim nodded. “I won’t leave without saying goodbye.

“Good. Thanks. The boys will appreciate that.”

The next day at breakfast, Jim announced, “Well, my congregation is probably casting lots to see who’ll replace me...”

Both boys giggled.

“So I need to get back to them.”

“Aww, man,” Sammy whined.

Dean kicked him under the table. “It was good to see you, Pastor Jim.”

He hugged both boys.

“Jim,” said John, offering his hand. “We’ll keep you posted.”

“Do that, or I’ll hunt you down.”

John laughed, and Jim drove away happy.

“So we’re staying,” John said, still getting used to the idea. “Wish we could afford a house, but I guess that’s out of the question until I can save up for a down payment.”

“Can you do a fixer-upper?” Bobby asked.

“Depends how much there is to fix.”

“Boys, stay here for a bit. Come with me, John.”

John followed.

Bobby took him to the back of the property, where there was a cabin. It wasn’t huge, but it would do for three people. There was one big room in front that served as living, dining, and kitchen space, a three-quarter-bath and a hall closet of about the same size, and one big bedroom at the back that would be easy enough to screen off into two or maybe three “rooms” so the boys could have their own sleeping space. They’d lived in worse, for sure.

John let his smile say it all.

“It’ll need a good scrub-down ’fore we find you some furniture,” said Bobby.

“It’s perfect.”

Bobby nodded once and smiled. “All right, then. Let’s show the boys.”

John trekked back to the house and called the boys to come look. When they got to the cabin, they looked around, stunned.

“Think there’s even enough space back here that we could get you a racetrack for some model cars,” John told Dean in the bedroom. “Remember that one you used to have, back... before?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Think you’d like that?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“We could share,” Sammy offered. “I think it sounds awesome.”

Dean smiled at him. And just like that, it was set.

They were home.

In a TV show, this would be where the happy ending lay. All is solved, fade to black, roll credits.

But in life, things are never so easy.

Sam was still very young and was able to bounce back from having his world whiplashed twice in two weeks, first finding out what was really out there in the dark, and then by the news that the quest that had lasted most of his life was done. He became the new boy in the third grade at the elementary school closest to Singer Salvage, only to be moved to the fourth grade in February when the teachers realized he needed a challenge.

Dean had a much harder time. He kept having nightmares and sleepwalking. The new amulet never left his neck, and he rallied hard when his father asked to have it – only to relax and acquiesce when John assured him it was only to shorten the cord so it wouldn’t bash him in the mouth. Once that was done and the bronze head was back in place, John observed how Dean relaxed and realized that Dean had precious few things of his own.

It was another knife in John’s heart.

School was a giant issue for Dean. The distrust of authority, the ‘don’t notice me’, the instinct to hide, to fight, to run – all of it was too deeply ingrained to be solved by a few talks and hugs.

After one fight too many, John withdrew Dean from school, and he and Bobby set him up with private tutors that they vetted personally. Dean thrived in the one-on-one attention, and his education took great strides forward. He had a great knack with mechanics and electronics that John encouraged him to develop.

Dean worked side-by-side with his father to renovate the cabin, and soon they had the first real home he had known since his mother’s death.

John thrived with the stable schedule. He had thought he would chafe in one place, but to his shock he found himself enjoying his full life. He worked hard at the salvage yard, and soon it became “BJ’S SALVAGE” when John bought in as a partner.

As for hunting, John’s acting ability was marvelous and he worked the phones like a pro. He had learned to read a little bit of Vietnamese in-country, and Bobby encouraged that development. John ended up having a bit of a flair for languages, which Bobby stroked until it was a skill.

Sam, it was soon revealed, had inherited that skill and soon, between the three of them, there was no book that couldn’t be roughly deciphered.

From somewhere, Dean had picked up a talent for the arcane work that a Hunter’s job required. He was the best of the four at diagrams, rituals, spells and sigils.

The Winchesters and Bobby Singer became the go-to guys for hunters nationwide. When needed, John and Bobby would go for backup on hard cases.

But again, something had changed. When they were out, every day they would check in with the boys. Sheriff Jody Mills would occasionally visit, to see about the boys while their father was out. But there was no CPS threat, as Dean was taking very good care of Sam.

And there was always enough food and money for both boys.

They settled into a life that was busy and happy.

Dean went to a local college for a couple of years, until he felt safe enough to leave home. He graduated from MIT in 2001, tenth in his class.

Nobody was surprised when he returned home to use his skills to work in both of the family businesses, though.

When Sam got the letter the month after Dean’s graduation that he’d got a full ride to Stanford, his family threw him a party. John and Dean drove him to Palo Alto themselves, and visited often. Sam majored in pre-law for the first two years, then realized his interests were being pulled somewhere else. After a series of long phone calls home – and a pair of visits where all they did was talk about it – Sam shifted his major to something he was slightly more skilled at than arguing points of law: pre-med.

Around Halloween, 2005, Sam brought his girlfriend Jessica home to Sioux Falls. He fully intended to propose to her while they were there.

When he did, on the date and – unknowingly – the exact time of his mother’s death 22 years earlier and she said yes, the entire family whooped their joy and John found himself looking toward the ceiling and whispering, “You’d like her, Mary.”

“What’s the matter?” Sam asked suddenly, as Jessica trembled violently in his arms for a second.

“I’m not sure,” she said, looking up at him and chuckling softly. “Just got a chill from somewhere. Must have been somebody walking over my grave.”

Unnoticed on the counter, the digital clock clicked over as it hit midnight.

It was now November 3.

And Now, the Rest of the Story

Castiel was confused. Zachariah was sending him to Earth to make sure a demon didn’t die? He thought killing demons, especially major ones like Azazel, was generally a good thing. But Zachariah had insisted, and Castiel knew better than to question orders. So here he was, headed to intercept John Winchester.

Suddenly a black tornado whirled in front of him.

He pulled up short. “Out of my way, demon.”

A strangely female voice hissed, “You’re not going anywhere, angel.”

“I don’t have time for this.” He tried to go around it.

It blocked his path. “No! You’re not going to kill my father!”

He dodged again, or tried to. “You would do well not to hinder me!”

“You would do better to leave us ALONE!”

Back and forth they bobbed and weaved and spat at each other until:

“Hey, muttonheads.”

Light and smoke both spun to face the new voice, but the speaker was hidden from their sight.

“You’re too late.” And a split second later, they felt the shockwave of Azazel’s death.

Angel and demon both cried out in distress.

“Now, this is interesting,” said the new voice, which Castiel thought sounded like Gabriel but couldn’t quite be sure. “Why did you both react the same way?”

“My father!” the demon wailed.

“Yeah, yeah, you, I get. Castiel, what the hells were you doing here?”

“I was sent to prevent its death!” he cried out.

“Prevent?!” the demon echoed. “Then—then I—” It let out a wordless shriek of grief and self-loathing.

“Wait a minute,” said the other voice, which really was starting to sound like Gabriel. “Castiel, who sent you to save a demon’s life?”

“My superior.”

“For Cthulhu’s sake, why?”

“I was ordered....”

“Yeah, I got that part. Why would one angel send another to rescue a demon?”

“I was ordered....” was all Castiel could say.

There was a pause, and then the mystery speaker revealed himself. It was Gabriel. “Talk to me, little brother. Which superior sent you here?”

Castiel felt his head bow. “Zachariah.”

“Zachariah? But ol’ Lion-breath’s charged with—wait a minute. Wait. A. Minute. Who pulled that trigger just now?”

“John Winchester.”

Gabriel’s wings flared out in anger. “Mike’s latest vessel. Zach’s exceeding his authority—he’s trying to make sure the Apocalypse starts, not stopping it!”

“But that’s impossible!”

Gabriel turned to the demon. “Your father’s orders from Lucifer. What were they?”

“Father!” it wailed. “Father!”

“SPEAK!”

She whimpered. “I don’t know what you mean! Lucifer is imprisoned!”

“But Azazel spoke to him in ’72. He got orders—orders about children, right?”

“Yes, to infect them, empower them, fight to the death!”

“And who was his favorite?”

“Sam Winchester!”

Castiel recoiled in shock. “But if—I—I don’t understand, Gabriel! If this is Father’s will—”

“Dad’s will,” Gabriel interrupted in a quiet tone that meant he was furious, “is for the Winchesters to be left alone.”

“But then... why would I be...”

“Because Zach’s decided he knows better than Dad, that’s why! I can’t imagine Michael giving his blessing to this, but even if he did, Zach’s the immediate threat. We need to teach him a lesson.”

“How?” the she-demon hissed.

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “Why should I tell you?”

“Because if he was trying to save my father, I owe him!”

“Owe him what?”

“Owe him news of what his brothers are trying to do to him!” She then went off into vulgarity and it was plain that she hadn’t meant to blurt that out. Something was making her truthful and she hated it!

“Now, after an outburst like that, what makes you think I’m letting you live?”

“Your kind doesn’t kill!”

Gabriel’s sword shimmered into his hand. “Oh, really?”

She tried to flee, but her smoke wouldn’t move. “RELEASE ME!”

“No. Here’s the score, cupcake. You keep your mitts off Sam Winchester, help us take down Zachariah, and you can live. If you don’t...” He rested the tip of his sword against the smoke.

She roared in pain.

“What’s it gonna be?”

“I want to live!”

Gabriel backed away. “Castiel, find her an empty vessel—and bind her in it.”

Castiel vanished to complete his task. Twenty minutes later, she spat real spit at him as she healed her new body’s stab wounds.

Castiel only rolled his eyes. “How should we proceed, Gabriel?”

The demoness tried twice to smoke out. But she was doubly bound; even if she managed to break the binding link on her skin, the sigils Castiel had carved on her ribs would keep her confined. “I hate you!” she finally growled.

“I was trying to save your father,” Castiel pointed out in a reasonable tone he knew demons found maddening. “You were the one who prevented me. But then, if Zachariah hadn’t sent me, you wouldn’t have been so focused on me as to ignore John Winchester.”

She curled in on herself, trembling.

“So you see, in a way... this is all Zachariah’s fault.”

Gabriel grinned at him.

“Yes... I agree,” she growled.

“So leaving Sam Winchester alone is fair repayment for being allowed to help us take revenge, isn’t it?”

“Fair enough.”

Castiel nodded and looked at Gabriel.

Before Gabriel could respond, though, they both heard Zachariah calling, Castiel? What happened? Why is Azazel dead?

Castiel looked wide-eyed at Gabriel.

Gabriel held up a hand. “Don’t answer.”

“But...”

“Shh.”

Castiel went silent.

Zachariah called again, but again Gabriel shushed Castiel. “We want to draw him out. This is as good a way as any.”

The demoness snarled, “And what am I to do?”

Gabriel thought for a moment, then grabbed a branch from a nearby tree and turned it into what looked like an angel sword. “Hold that,” he said, handing it to her. “Castiel, lie down.”

He obeyed, a wary eye on the nameless demon.

Castiel!

He kept silent.

Gabriel snapped his fingers, and suddenly the stench of burned feathers filled the air. “Don’t move,” he told Castiel. “You’re dead. Cutie-pie here just killed you.”

He blanked his eyes, half-masting them.

“Think you know what to do when Zach shows up?” Gabriel asked the demon.

“Tell me,” she snarked.

Gabriel rolled his eyes and twirled his own sword. “If you can’t fill in the blanks, you’re on your own.” Then he hid himself again.

She stood over Castiel like she was the victor.

And moments later, they heard Zachariah’s lion’s-head roar. “What is the meaning of this?” his human head thundered.

“Well, well,” she sing-songed. “Another of the God Squad come to play....”

“You damned little fool! You’ve wrecked everything!”

“I’ve killed one of yours... you’ve killed hundreds of mine... I fail to see how that’s ruined everything.”

“If I tell Lilith that you’ve interfered...”

“I’m not afraid of her.”

“You should be. This angel was going to save Azazel’s life so that Azazel could continue preparing Lucifer’s vessel for his role in the Apocalypse!”

She laughed. “Right, like that’s not just a legend told to give my kind false hope!”

“Don’t tell me you don’t know of the Boy King.”

“I know of him. I – DON’T – CARE!”

“You should care, damn you! I saw to his mother’s deal myself! I made sure Mary Winchester would die!”

She just glared at him. “You. Do not. Tell me how I should feel.”

“I forget.” Zachariah’s sword flashed into his hand. “Scum like you feel only pain.”

She spun and brought up her own ‘sword.’

Zachariah swung—and Castiel rolled into his legs, knocking him down. He hit the ground with a gasp. And before he could rise, Gabriel appeared and ran him through, pinning him to the ground.

“Glad you confessed of your own free will,” Gabriel growled. “And you’re clearly unrepentant up to now. So here’s your last chance, kid. Do you repent of what you’ve done to the Winchesters?”

“I AM BLAMELESS!” he swore. “I HAVE DONE ONLY WHAT WAS NECESSARY!”

“That’s not what Dad says.”

“Father is GONE!”

“Not as gone as you are.” Gabriel twisted the sword and jerked it out.

Zachariah’s eyes lit and his body flared and wings erupted and burned. Then his grace exploded—and the shock made the ground shake so much, the demoness fell.

Gabriel sighed. “Those hunters can’t have missed that. Here, brother.” He snapped his fingers—and suddenly both angels were in mortal form.

Castiel looked at himself. “What is this?”

“Do-it-yourself vessel. Can’t risk hurting the humans. Hang tight.”

“What about me?” the demoness demanded.

“You stay put, too.”

She growled, but obeyed.

Moments later, John Winchester ran into view, with Bobby Singer and Jim Murphy hard on his heels. All three had shotguns at the ready.

“What the hell happened here?” John asked.

Her hand tightened on her fake sword, but she didn’t move.

“John Winchester?” Gabriel asked.

“What about him?” John demanded.

“Name’s Loki. This is Castiel, and...” He paused to let the demoness introduce herself.

“Megara,” she said. “Call me Meg.”

“We’re here to finish what you started,” Gabriel continued.

John just frowned at him.

“How much do you know about why Azazel killed Mary?”

“He killed her because he’s a demon and that’s what demons do.”

Meg’s lip curled.

“No, I mean... do you know why he was in Sammy’s bedroom?”

“He wanted my son – and my wife walked in. She stopped him from carrying my boy away.”

“Carrying him away,” Meg scoffed. “If Mary hadn’t walked into that room that night, none of you would even have known Azazel was there. Sammy would have stayed right where he was... a perfect little cuckoo egg in your happy little nest.”

“What are you saying?” John demanded.

“Azazel fed Sammy his blood. Once he came into his powers, he would have been groomed to take his rightful place... as the Boy King of Hell.”

Jim stepped forward. “Not going to happen.”

“No,” Castiel replied. “It’s not. Not now.”

“You took out Azazel,” Gabriel added. “And we...” Here he revealed Zachariah’s remains. “Just took down the fallen angel who was working with him.”

“Now,” Meg said, disappointment lacing her voice. “When he comes into his powers – if he comes into his powers – he’ll just be another powerful human.”

“And Hell has renounced all claim to him,” Castiel concluded with a pointed look at Meg.

“All claim,” Meg repeated with a nod.

John was clearly having trouble getting his head around what he’d just heard. “Wait. He’s a Trickster. She’s a demon. Why should I believe any of you?”

“Because we didn’t kill you.”

John bristled, but Castiel stepped forward. “You don’t have to believe them. Believe me. I’m an angel of the Lord.” And he allowed the humans to see the shadows of his wings.

Jim crossed himself.

John stared wide-eyed for a moment, but then his face twisted in fury, and he fired at Castiel—to no avail. “Where the hell were you when Mary died?!” he bellowed.

Castiel looked impassively at John and – though he didn’t have to – answered him. “We were making sure your oldest could carry your baby out of the house without harming either of them.”

John blinked and faltered. “But... But Mary....”

“—is in Heaven, John. It was her time.”

“Yeah,” Meg said. “She got what she wanted – her family intact, even without her there.”

Bobby caught John’s shotgun as he crumpled under the weight of his grief.

Castiel flew over to put a hand on John’s shoulder. “John. It’s over. Your wife is avenged, and your sons are safe.”

“... over?”

“Over. You don’t have to fight anymore.”

“I don’t –”

“Your future will be of your own choosing now. No destiny. No interference. Just your free will.”

John took a deep breath.

“Choose well.” And Castiel went back to the others.

John looked at his friends.

“C’mon, John,” Bobby said. “Let’s head back—think we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

John nodded and waked away as if in a daze. His friends flanked him, though Jim looked back and gave Castiel a solemn nod of thanks.

Castiel returned it, and the hunters walked into their future.

Castiel looked over at Gabriel. “Now what?”

Meg snorted. “Now I’m outta here.” She tried to move, and couldn’t. “Let me go.”

Gabriel looked at her. “Remember your promise. Break it –”

“And I’m dead. I know. I wanna live.”

Gabriel nodded and suddenly she could move – and she did, vanishing in a sulfuric stink.

“I... don’t suppose you expect me to trust her,” said Castiel.

“No. But keep an eye on her as well as on the Winchesters. I’ll help.” He put his hand on Castiel’s shoulder. “We’ve got work to do.”

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