Must've been Thanksgiving, because Dean could see through the window the oak table laden with mashed potatoes and stuffing and, to his delight, at least three different kinds of pie. Sam- of course Sam- answered the door, looking relaxed and healthy and a little less fit around the stomach where his wife had been feeding him up. A little girl poked her head around one of his giant legs and grinned at the sight of Dean before running forward to hug him around the waist, chirping, "Uncle Dean, Uncle Dean," and he tousled her dark hair before stepping forward to hug his brother, a "Good to see you, man,", his arms tight around a clean plaid shirt that wasn't ripped or stained with blood.
Dean could hear the sink working in the kitchen, a flurry of activity even in the small house, and for a moment it was Thanksgiving and everything was great.
When he looked out the window and saw the shadowy figure in the long coat silhouetted outside, he immediately tensed up and glanced from Sam to the window, the table of food suddenly seeming much farther away. "I'll be right back, Sammy," he muttered, backing back out of the door even as the little girl grabbed for the hem of his shirt, asking if she could ride in the "'pala" later.
Castiel was waiting on the bench in the cramped backyard, hands folded in front of him like he was praying, and when Dean sat beside him some part of the stress that had left him when he'd stepped in Sam's house flared up again.
Cas didn't say anything, but Dean was pretty sure. "I'm dreaming." The angel nodded, dusky shadows making his frown lines seem deeper, making him seem even older and sadder than he already was. And maybe there was a little regret in the pit of Dean's stomach, maybe he'd really just wanted that pie and that night with his brother and his brother's family, and maybe if circumstances were different he could've had time to be sad about that. There wasn't any time now. "What about you?"
"No, I'm- I'm projecting," said Cas, eyes wandering the sky and the scrubby lawn and anything but Dean's face. "I'm not anywhere near you, not really- I can't be."
"Cas," he said, but stopped because he didn't even know how to continue that sentence. He couldn't tell Cas to trust himself because he didn't even trust Cas right now. He couldn't say he forgave Cas because he wasn't entirely sure there was anything to forgive, just the standard possession and manipulation and destiny crap he'd been cutting through his whole life.
He didn't say anything, and Cas didn't say anything, so for awhile they just sat in the fading twilight, contemplating having to leave this suburban paradise and going back to the toil and trial of another tough year.
"I've been helping," said Cas, like a mantra now, like if he kept saying that one day it would be true. "I mean- I think. I hope. I've been spying on Crowley- invisible, and… well, I heard something." The uncertainty in his voice, in his eyes, made Dean want to kick down the gates of Heaven himself, storm in there, and find out who was doing this to Castiel; but again, there wasn't any time, and demons still trumped angels on his to-be-ganked list.
"Yeah?" he said, hoping he could convince Cas that he was helping. "What'd you find out?"
"His half of the demon tablet," said Cas. "He- I don't know how, but he figured out the third trial. And it's-" His mouth dropped open like he was going to say it, but then he clammed up, eyes returning resolutely to the sky. "Never mind."
"I don't- it's not true. It's a mistake, never mind."
"Cas," said Dean again, and it honestly scared him that he couldn't even tell if this was another one of Cas's episodes or if this was genuine Cas stubbornness. They'd been out for figuring out the third trial ever since Sam, albeit shakily, wrapped up the second by killing a witch with her own hex. "Cas, what is it? What does Sammy have to do?"
"No," said Castiel, low enough that Dean had to strain to hear him, "no, it's- no."
"He has to kill a blood relative." It came rushing out like Cas couldn't stop the words, and once they were out he gave Dean the same look he'd given him after smacking him in the face against his own will. "Okay?"
And Dean, Dean lived it all in his eyes, the realization, the worry and pain and dull confirmation, all in the span of two seconds before he reached a hand up to cover his mouth. And he nodded.
"I'm sorry," said Cas, like he'd made up the rules. "I mean, it's Hell, so I guess it had to be some sort of terrible sin, and that's… I mean…" He was babbling now, like if he said enough he could balance out what he'd told Dean. And again- "I'm sorry."
"Well," said Dean, his shoulders leveling with a bravado that didn't quite meet his eyes, "at least we know where to find one." He stood up.
"Dean-" Cas grabbed him by the sleeve, getting up off the bench with him. "Dean, you can't-"
"I'm going to wake up now," said Dean, jaw tight, and the last thing he saw before waking up in bed was Castiel's terrified expression.
When Dean woke up, he could tell it was morning before opening his eyes because he could hear Sam coughing up blood outside of his room. He kept his eyes shut, just for a little while longer, until after Sam was done hacking and the batcave was quiet. He told himself it was the last time he would ever wake up, and he told himself he would make it so no matter what Sam said, because there were bigger things than two brothers and a home and Thanksgiving and closing the gates of Hell was one of them. He told himself it was the last time he would ever wake up, and he gave himself a moment to cherish it before he got out of bed.
It was stupid, and maybe a little morbid, but Dean couldn't stop counting lasts throughout the day. His last breakfast (a protein bar and tap water), his last shower (the water pressure was still fantastic), the last time he listened to his favorite mix tape in the car ("Fight the Good Fight" kept skipping). Cas didn't try to contact him, and every time he tried to tell Sam what he'd have to do to slam the gates shut, he couldn't get the words around the ridiculous lump in his throat.
And really, the whole thing was ridiculous. He'd known this was a suicide mission from the start. It was just dying. He'd done it before. Maybe he was afraid that Sam wouldn't be able to do it. Or maybe he was afraid that it would be too easy for him.
Either way, as midnight neared Dean and Sam ended up cornered in a back room on Garth's safe house boat with a frazzled Kevin Tran struggling over the same tablet he'd been trying to read for months and swarms of demons decking it out on deck amongst the platoon of hunters Garth had managed to call. Cas was still keeping his distance. Sam still didn't know the third trial.
"We should be up there," Dean said, jaw set as he heard a thud above them that was almost definitely one of their own. "Helping."
"We have to keep Kevin away from them," Sam insisted, stress and sickness built up into an almost permanent grimace on his brow. "Where the hell is Cas?"
"Dean!" called Meg, swinging through the door on the opposite side of the room, angel blade in her hand sticky with demon blood, because for whatever reason, Cas or Crowley or just 'cause, she was on their side for this fight. "We're holding them back, but there's more coming. You need to get the prophet out of here. Where the hell is Castiel?" Sam gestured to her agitatedly in agreement.
A wave passed under the boat and rocked it. Meg slid closer to them and Sam hung onto Kevin and Dean made a decision in a split second as the world tilted around him. "We can send them all back," he said, turning to look at Sam and only Sam. "We can send all the demons back to Hell, right now."
"What?" said Sam, confused and irritated and still trying to keep Kevin from falling over. "Dean, I'm not ready. We don't even know what the third trial is."
"I do," said Dean, that same ridiculous lump in his throat. He talked around it (his last confession, he thought). "It's me. You have to kill me, Sam."
"What?" said Sam again, still confused but scared now, something ice-cold terrifying and familiar rising in his voice, that same old constant fear that he would turn into a monster, throwing Dean across the room while Meg stretched inside of him, throwing Dean against the car while Lucifer roared in his veins and head and heart.
"Cas told me," said Dean. "It's the third trial, you have to kill your blood." It was all too fast and he should've told Sam in the car, should've told him when he got up this morning. Tears gathered at the creases by his eyes that he didn't bother to wipe away. Instead, he tossed Sam his gun, like Sam didn't already have his own, like it would be somehow better if it were Dean's gun. "It's okay, Sammy. Just do it. Save all those people up there." He nodded, at Sam, at the gun, a single tear angling down his face. Kevin seemed not to be paying attention, consumed with the tablet like he could finish in what little time they had what he hadn't been able to for half a year. Meg was just looking back and forth from Sam to Dean, for once actually stunned into silence. "It's okay."
"Please," said Dean, voice lower. This wasn't for Kevin or Meg, this was just for Sam, a plea and a goodbye. "I'm sorry," he said, remembering Cas saying it over and over in his dream, "I'm sorry, Sammy."All that realization and worry and pain chased itself across Sam's face until there was nothing left but a blank determination, and he was really going to do it, and Dean thought he might have to shut his eyes so he didn't have to see it, to see Sam kill him after everything they'd said and done and been through.
And then suddenly Sam had Ruby's knife in his hand, and he moved in one of the fast fluid movements he'd been using to hunt monsters since he was thirteen and suddenly Meg was dead on the floor and the knife in Sam's hand was sticky with demon blood too and Sam was panting.
"Sam!" said Dean at the same time Sam said, "I'm sorry," to Meg or to Dean he didn't know. And then Sam was kneeling down, still reeling, panic and fear and a fierce need to do what had to be done glowing in his eyes. He held his hand out and spoke the spell from memorization and his arm lit up yellow like a lightning bug.
All this in the space of less than a minute, and Dean's single tear hadn't even dried yet. "Sam, what are you doing?" he said, finding his voice finally. Kevin seemed forgotten, a distant corner of another world. "You have to kill me."
"No," said Sam, voice breathy and pained. "No, it's- you said blood. And she's- she was…" He took a deep breath that didn't seem to do much. His arm glowed brighter. "She was the Yellow Eyed Demon's daughter. Remember? He said so, and- and I have his blood. From when he- we have- had- the same blood."
Dean stared at him, names and events falling into place in his head, trying to work through the intricacies of what had just happened and how he was still alive and what was happening as Sam placed a palm flat on the side of the boat and took the paper that Kevin thrust into his other hand, because yes, Kevin wasn't in another world he was there, with them, alive, but Meg wasn't, would never be, and Sam's arm was glowing yellow and maybe Dean would listen to "Fight the Good Fight" again after all.
When Sam finished reading the spell, the whole wall lit up yellow and seemed to curl in on itself, reminding Dean too much of another hole curling into Lucifer's Cage, Sam-not-Sam turning around to laugh at him.
But no, this was actual-Sam standing in front of him, actual-Sam who had just killed Meg and that was a good thing, wasn't it? It was good because she was bad, because she was a demon just as surely as were the clouds of black smoke circling them now, flying into the hole in the wall like dust up a vacuum cleaner. Meg was a demon, they killed demons, and it was simple, simple like Sam pulling Kevin away from the hole and grabbing a stunned Dean by the arm to hang on in the bathroom, simple like a dead blonde on the floor who Dean realizes with a jolt he knows nothing about and he never asked, and now he never could.
The gates of Hell closed with considerably less hurrah than had Lucifer's Cage, and there was a lifetime of hunting demons finished, Crowley's plans and all the exorcisms they'd painstakingly memorized and the vials of holy water stashed in the trunk now nothing but dust in the wind.
Now they could focus on Cas, and Heaven, and it would all be so much simpler. Maybe the only spot of complexity was what to tell Cas about Meg, and whether her meatsuit deserves a hunter's funeral.
It's not until they get off the boat that Dean realizes he never knew the name of the girl Meg had been possessing for the past three years. It's not until they get back to the batcave that it hits him he never knew Meg's real name either.