A/N: And this is the final chapter! As with before, '***' represents the progression of time within a certain period, rather than flipping between a flashback and present day.
Thank you so much for reading, guys. I appreciate it more than I could ever say.
When James Novak was five, he had wanted to be an angel.
The kids in his grade said he was silly, and the older kids said he was stupid, and the even older kids cooed over him like he was precious. It didn't change his mind. He wanted it for reasons other than huge wings and a shiny halo.
He wanted to be able to help people. He wanted the human race to remember his name, to have it slip into their lexicon as a word for 'good', for 'help', for 'cure'. He wanted to matter.
His juvenile fantasies withered away and realistic, real-world goals filled the spaces left behind- but Jimmy never forgot, not really. When he was dozing through class or staring at his watch through another centuries-long shift, a part of him always still whispered 'why can't I be more?'
Under an open sky in Pontiac, Illinois, he does something similar; he becomes something else. It's not, he reflects later on, quite the same thing.
In the end, Jimmy makes it as close to 'angel' as a person can get, and it brings him nothing but pain. It's not what he wanted it to be, not what he dreamed about at night. And that's sad, but it's okay. Jimmy's okay.
He realises this, all of this, in the split second before Lucifer's fingers snap; realises that he never actually needed any of the things he thought he did. He never needed the love of thousands, he never needed to find himself in scripture and songs and stained glass windows.
Out there, hundreds of miles away, there is a beautiful woman and a beautiful girl, and they know his name and they will never let it go. In his late thirties, in a cemetery outside Lawrence, Jimmy finally realises the truth. He has had a family; he always will have his family. He has protected them, he has helped them and he has loved them, and they have done the same for him.
How could he ever want more?
Nobody ever thinks of the vessel. An angel or demon swoops in and says 'I'm taking this now', and then everybody just somehow forgets that there's a person still in there. Lucifer must have destroyed hundreds of demons- scum, Nick, nothing but scum- but he never gave the slightest thought to the people they were riding around in. It wasn't even that he didn't care; they just somehow failed to register.
Meatsuits, Nick's heard people slur, but even the word vessel tastes bitter on his lips. It implies an emptiness, a container worth nothing until it's filled. Well, every single 'container' had a mother and father and family, and maybe a mortgage they'd nearly paid off or a house they were re-decorating, or a song they'd played twenty times that day because they just couldn't get it out of their head, and then they were taken and then they were killed. Every angel pierced with a blade, every demon ended by a touch of the hand or the kiss of a knife, every single one was a double-murder and nobody ever stopped to just fucking think.
It was always just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, without having the ability to choose to go anywhere else.
And it's strange being handed back the keys to his own body. It's strange being alone in his head, and Nick doesn't need the demons' help to feel bad; he's already carrying around enough guilt to sink the Titanic.
When his thoughts start to re-order themselves and he manages to sit up, Nick tries to decide what to do next. He checks his pockets for inspiration and finds $5 and a cheap mobile phone instead. The phone just happens to have full charge, and doesn't that reek of angel? Then again, so does the fact that he's currently sat in Delaware when he definitely died in Michigan.
Nick scrolls through 'Contacts', still feeling like he's in a dream, and tries to remember the last time he talked to half the people on the list. He doesn't even know if they're all still alive- with all the chaos before the final song, it's anybody's guess.
He doesn't want to go back to his house. Hell, he doesn't even know if the thing is still there. It's been over a year since he left it; it might have been sold or rented or burned to the ground. He buries his face in his hands and just breathes, waiting for his body to stop shaking. At a loss for what else to do, he goes back the one thing he always does in a crisis.
'I don't know what to do'. After a moment's thought, he adds something on. 'Not in a bar.'
He hits send. The reply comes back within two minutes.
'My house, 5 mins. Bring coke.'
Bright light. Pitch blackness. Pain. Ice. Icicles, jagged formations pushing at his body until they scratch his skin, break through the flesh, come out the other side. Fire and ash and dust and rain, flooding, filling his lungs with water and pain. Pressure that breaks his bones and then an unbearable nothingness that drives him to beg for the pain to come back and all the while, all the while, a ringing in his ears that just will not go away.
And then it does. With no reason, with no rhyme, it does.
Fresh sounds, sliding into his ears. Collisions somewhere deep within his brain. He doesn't understand.
"Nick, sweetheart," a demon sings. He blinks stupidly, and it slaps him across the face. "Wake up, silly boy. Are you ready for level two?"
He licks his lips, readying his voice to reply, but he hasn't thought the words through and they die before they complete their gestation. The demon slaps him again and grunts to another, by its side, "get him down".
Together, the two demons rip the bloodied nails from his hands, from his chest, and he hits the ground hard. It's a drop of ten feet or more, and he's been strung up for some time now- arms out, head up, legs dangling. Crucifixion. They thought it was funny.
"Walk," one demands. His legs tremble and crumple underneath him. He can't. "Walk!" it barks again. Something hits his back- a whip, he thinks. He whimpers. He can't.
"Drag him," the demon says in disgust. Two demons, huge and heavyset, emerge from nowhere. They loop their arms around his waist. The other demons wave at Nick jauntily as he is dragged out.
He tries to keep up at first, but the demons move too quickly and have no reservations against letting him smash into things, and soon he just gives in and gives up. His fingers scrape against the floor and his feet leave a spotted trail of blood behind them. Nick doesn't know how long they travel for. It feels like months. Maybe it is.
He doesn't know they've arrived until they spill him onto the ground. He has time to make out a blurry form, strung up in the same way he was, some distance away. He doesn't have the energy to lift his head and so he stays silent and still, jerking a little when whoever he's in the room with lets out a blood-curling scream. He hears a painful-sounding thud and guesses they've been cut down too.
"C'mon, boys," somebody calls. A demon, he supposes "Say hello, make friends."
It takes effort and strength and the ever-present threat of the whip sinking into his flesh to force Nick to his feet. It takes time, but he eventually stands and when he sees what's before him, he can't move. He can't. He's too afraid, too terrified, because whatever they've done so far, this is going to be worse.
"Something wrong?" a demon asks innocently.
No angels, Nick wants to cry. Please, no more angels. He can take any demon they have lurking in this sullen pit, can take them all, but he please, please, no angels.
"Please," Castiel whispers. "Please, leave me alone."
It's not an exaggeration to say that when Nick knocks on Brittany's front door, he can't see a way he could ever be happy again. As far as he's concerned, he's done this dance before. After the disaster with Banjo, he turned things around by turning them off. He gave the dog up for adoption, got a new job which required no brain power and focused on nothing but getting through the days. Feet moving forwards, brain stuck stubbornly in the past; lights on, nobody at home, front door hanging open. Simple.
But when Britt opens the door, she breaks the rhythm of the dance, screws up their routine. She's supposed to sigh heavily but wordlessly invite him in, and once he's back on his feet he'll slowly faze her out of his life again- for her sake. This plan goes wrong at step one, however. She opens the door and bursts into noisy tears the second she sees his face.
"You stupid, stupid fucking bastard," she says, words muffled by the fabric of his shirt as she clings to him. "I've been so fucking worried. I thought- fuck, Nick, I thought you were dead."
"Kinda was," he says in his shock, and luckily for him she dismisses this as nothing but personified grief. She takes the red plastic six-pack from his hands (there is comfort in consistency) and leads him inside.
In the hallway, he hears a noise which turns him into a statue. Britt smacks into him but he barely notices. A baby's cry. He wonders, with a detached kind of pain, if he's hallucinating again.
"Shit," Britt says. "I meant to warn you about that." And when she lays a hand on his arm, he finally notices the ring pushed on her finger.
"Ian?" he says in a daze. She nods.
"I proposed. He was taking too long about it."
"And the…" Fuck, he can't even say the word.
"Our son," Britt says. Nick swallows a dry mouthful of air.
"Right," he says. "Okay. How… old is he?"
"A year. He turns one next week."
"Thought you didn't want kids," he says limply, lacking anything better to say.
"Neither did I," she says. "I never used to. But then you and Sarah… when you had Adam… I don't know, it made me think."
"Adam?" he says, not sure he can believe what he's hearing. "Seriously, Britt? You saw me lose everything I ever had, and that made you think 'yeah, good idea?"
"I saw you the happiest I've ever seen you."
"For six months!"
"And those six months were the happiest I've ever seen you," she snaps back. "You can't let tragedy define your life, Nick. It's pointless. The crap doesn't mean that the good never happened."
Nick has no idea what to think about that, much less how to respond. "What's his name?" he eventually asks.
"Jonathan Nicholas Taylor," she replies smoothly. He stares. "'Nicholas' is after you. Sorry to play the full name card, but we had to. Jonathan Nick sounded stupid."
It's too much. He turns away, yanking himself free of her touch.
"Why?" he rasps. Why him? Out of all the people in the world, why name such a precious thing after him?
"Because you were my best friend, because you still are, and because if Jon grows up to be anything like you I'll consider my job well done," Brittany replies, in her brisk, just-stating-the-facts manner. "So can we cut the sappy bullcrap already?"
"You're the one crying," he says, his shaking voice an indicator that he might follow suit pretty damn soon.
"I am not."
"The sun was too bright."
"It's three in the morning."
"Three fifteen. Don't exaggerate."
And she asks him where he's been but he won't say, and she offers him a space on their sofa and then shouts at him until he takes it. He's silent, but Britt doesn't leave his side.
Ian stumbles blearily out of bed at some stage but she wards him away with "Nick's having a crisis, fetch biscuits or be quiet". Ian does both of these things and then returns to bed, because apparently his wife has trained him well.
When the sun begins to rise, Nick is sat with his head in his hands, his mind replaying everything over and over like a nightmare he can't wake up from. He doesn't even notice Britt leave the room; starts in shock when she appears and presses something into his arms.
"Here," she says.
"No, no, no," he tries objecting, but she folds her arms and stands back.
"He's going to be your godson someday, so you might as well say hello."
Nick pushes that casually stated enormity aside to deal with later. For now, he just looks down at the small face looking up at him. He doesn't know what to do. He's afraid to even move his hands because all he can picture is the wounds he cut into Jimmy, the people he watched himself kill, Adam lying butchered in his crib-
And then Jon's face breaks into the widest grin Nick has ever seen, and he reaches out a grasping hand for Nick's face, and Nick brings him up to his shoulder. Suddenly, strangely, it's all simple again, all as natural as breathing.
It's slow, and it hurts, but maybe that's just life. All Nick can say is that as time goes on, it hurts less. He hadn't been expecting that, and when he realises one day that things are actually getting better, he's not all that sure what to think.
"Not sure I deserve to be happy," he tells the gravestone. Adam and Sarah listen, as they always have. Their bodies lie entwined under the dirt, at peace. "Not after you, and Jimmy, and all the people I…"
As Nick sits at the graveside, head down, something happens. It's the biggest fucking cliché in the world but it's a feather, small and white and perfectly formed, and it floats right into his lap.
He keeps it. It's kinda bizarre, kinda backwards and more than a little sappy, but apparently some things never change.
He moves out of Britt and Ian's house, finds a flat that's bare and blank. He doesn't want any colour or personality in it, doesn't want to feel like home. But in time, things sneak their way in. It's easy to ignore when it's just clothes, more difficult when books and DVDs join them, and by the time he's gotten signed baseball posters out of storage and hung up a picture Ian gave him for Christmas, he can safely say that he's somehow ended up getting attached to the place.
He gets a job which he doesn't love, but which he doesn't hate- basic IT work, nothing too taxing. After four months he finally agrees to go out for a drink with a co-worker, though he makes sure he specifies he won't be having alcohol. They don't stay long- two hours felt like the maximum Nick could handle in one go- but it's good. It quickly becomes a weekly ritual, Nick cautiously nudging how long he stays until he can spend five, six hours in the company of others and not feel like he's about to have a breakdown.
He doesn't have much energy for anything, but he's learned whose playthings idle hands become, so he forces himself to stay busy. He starts volunteering at the local animal shelter, the one he took Banjo to. He enquires after the dog, and whilst the staff can't give up any information about who adopted him, they offer to pass on any message Nick might have.
Nick just says that he'd like to know how Banjo's doing, and a week later he gets a letter from the family with photos attached. Banjo fast asleep on his back, Banjo looking absolutely blissed-out paddling in a large inflatable pool, Banjo with a toddler's sticky arms wrapped around his shoulder. Nick was right- they write that he's great with kids.
He sticks the pool picture up on his wall alongside one of Sarah and Adam, taken at the hospital when Adam was born. Sarah's hair is in a 'style' more commonly seen in electrocution victims, and she's red and sweaty with eyeliner forming long black streaks down her face, and he thinks she looks every inch as beautiful as she did on their wedding day.
He wants to cover the whole wall with pictures of Sarah and their son and the life he left behind, but he manages to stop himself at just one. He puts up a shot of himself and Britt from a few years ago instead, then one of him and Sandra from even further back, and then new pictures slowly start accumulating. Nights out, days with friends, visiting Sandra, a Thanksgiving, a Christmas.
One year passes. The days when he wakes up and feels okay are starting to outnumber the ones where he wakes up and everything hurts. The nightmares go from three times a night to once a night to a few times a week. Nick's not interested in dating anybody, but he makes a small cluster of very good friends. He's determined to never, ever let them find out the truth about angels or demons or just where Nick went in that year where he fell off the radar, but they know about Sarah and Adam and they're there for him. Not that he talks about it often- or at all- but he knows they'll be there if he ever wants to. That's good. That's enough.
A litter of puppies are brought into the shelter one day, found dumped on the side of the road and left to die. Nick pushes away bitter thoughts about humanity to focus on settling the new dogs in- cleaning them, checking them over, talking to them in gentle, soothing voices. They gentle under his hands, looking at him with wide, trusting eyes. They trust him not to hurt them.
He places the final puppy into the basket- the smallest one, with an eye infection and a lame paw- and it looks at him. He looks back helplessly.
"I don't need a dog," he tries, but he doesn't get very far with it.
Another year passes. One night, he's fast asleep when, halfway through one a mundane dream about something or other, a familiar face appears. Though it's actually one of two, when he thinks about it, and at first he's not sure which particular isomer is standing in front of him.
"Who are you?" he asks warily.
"It's me. Jimmy," the man says.
His face breaks into a grin- and yes, that's definitely Jimmy. "It's good to see you, man."
And Nick can't help but throw an arm around him, pull him into a brief hug, because he's right. It is good to see him. It makes no sense, considering the nature of their relationship, but Nick misses Jimmy. He sometimes finds himself chatting to Jimmy in much the same way he talks to Sarah or Adam. He tells him about things on TV, or shit happening in the news, or crap going down which he vaguely suspects is supernatural but is sure as hell not looking into.
"So, uh- how's Heaven?" Nick asks.
"Good. Castiel wasn't lying," Jimmy says. "Where I am, at least, it's good."
Nick nods. "How's Earth?" Jimmy asks.
"Same as ever."
Nick thinks about it. "No," he admits. "Things are… getting better. I think."
"That's good, isn't it?"
"I don't know." He stares out into the distance, into what might be a beach but might just as easily be a wood. His dreams rarely make sense. "I feel guilty, y'know?"
"No, not like that! Normal guilt. Natural."
"Oh. Oh, good."
"I just meant that… I was happy. With Sarah and Adam, I mean. Feels wrong to be happy without them."
Jimmy is silent for a few moments, but then he begins to speak. "My family, you know, we used to have this album. I started it- stupid thing, really, but each year we took a photo. Of me and my wife and our daughter, in the same spot, so you could flick through and watch us change."
"Sounds nice," Nick comments.
"It was. But I was only there up until photo number twelve. After that, I became… you know." He gestures to his chest in a gesture Nick can only assume means 'angel fodder'.
"And?" Nick says, admittedly not sure where this is going.
"And they still kept that album going. Every year, there's been a picture of Amelia and Claire, stood together. They've moved so there's not a gap where I was, and whilst they look way too sad in the first few, they seem brighter again in the more recent ones. Claire smiles. She has braces now." Jimmy lets his words linger for a moment, lost somewhere in the past. "Sorry. What I was saying is that none of that means they don't miss me. It doesn't mean they never loved me. It just means things are different now. Not worse, not better, just… different."
Nick absorbs this. After a few minutes, he says "how have you even seen that? The album, I mean."
"Castiel. Don't ask, it's… confusing. To say the least."
"Castiel?" Nick says. "Dammit, the stuff I've heard… he killed a lot of people, Jimmy. I mean, I get that I can hardly tal-"
"Nick," Jimmy says firmly.
"Fine, whatever," Nick says, because the Lucifer/Nick definition is one he still struggles with, self-blame clinging like blood to a blade. "But you're still in contact with him? Is that safe?"
"It's not so much that he visits as much as he… flickers in and out. It's weird. He says he's still in my body, but he's not. He's himself, but he isn't. He mentions the name Emmanuel sometimes."
"No idea. But I doknow that those killings… they weren't him. Not really."
Nick thinks of those low voices hissing, of the shapes bulging from the angel's skin, and finds that he can accept this as truth.
"He still feels guilty, though," Jimmy comments.
"Don't we all?" Nick mutters. If somebody ever drew up a 'vessel' contract, 'intense guilt' would definitely be in the small print. But some days, it feels like he's nearly halfway to forgiving himself and if Nick can manage that, then he can definitely forgive Castiel.
They talk a little longer.
"One more thing," Nick says, right before he wakes up. "None of this is real, right? You're not actually you?"
"No, of course not," Jimmy says.
"Humans can't dreamwalk."
"Not unless you know an angel with a history of disobedience and the inclination to take stupid risks to make a human smile, that is."
As he says the words, an angel matching his description suspiciously well is sleeping soundly next to a woman named Daphne, his grace flickering frustratedly between Heaven and the naïve body lying in the bed. One day, he will put the pieces back together and things… won't go so well after that, but they'll keep on going. So will he, because the people he cares about want him to, and whenever he looks in the mirror he sees the face of the man who taught him just what family can mean to a person.
In Pile Creek, Delaware, Nick keeps on going too. Sometimes it's kind of hard and sometimes it's fucking awful, but sometimes it's good and sometimes it's downright great. Jimmy doesn't show up again, but Nick almost thinks he prefers it that way. Leave the dead behind and let the living live on.
In Pontiac, Illinois, time passes as time tends to do, and an album steadily fills up. In picture twenty-one, another man appears in the photo alongside Amelia. She does not love him more or less than Jimmy; he is neither a replacement nor a substitute. In picture twenty-seven, both Amelia and the new man move to the back of the photo to make way for Claire, her husband, and the baby girl snuggled in her arms.
Things aren't better and things aren't worse- they're just different. It turns out that there's more than one kind of good, and you even if you've lost one, you can gain another. That's allowed.
From time to time, Nick thinks of the love he was lucky enough to have- if only for a limited time- and of the friends he still has around him, and Jimmy recalls the peace he found with his family and the peace they're finally finding again without him, and Castiel looks at the two boys loudly arguing as they drive their father's car down long, dusty roads, and all any of them can think is that if they were ever 'vessels' then surely they've been filled, because nothing, nothing is empty here.