Chuck Shurley had always had an overactive imagination. It forced him to slouch over his computer in his bathrobe for hours a day writing stories which, until this whole prophet revelation, he’d known would never be published. It set up elaborate fantasies about checkout girls at the grocery store - vast, sprawling ‘verses of material that started with longing looks over the Hot Pockets on the conveyer belt and ended with hand-holding on the porches of old folks’ homes. And when Chuck was upset, his imagination pounded the gas pedal and launched off, as far from reality as it could go.
So when Chuck’s vision spun into focus in his decimated living room, blood painting the walls and the angel Castiel spread-eagled on the upturned sofa with a softball-sized hole burned into his chest, it was only natural that Chuck thought of Lord of the Rings.
This was just like the battle of Helm’s Deep: the stronghold laid to waste by an army of too great a power, a should-be immortal being fallen in the chaos, and the heroes riding in to save the day when all hope seemed lost.
Chuck looked to the morning sun streaming in the hole in his kitchen ceiling. No last-minute heroes in sight, Riders of Rohan or otherwise.
Crap. Oh crap. Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.
The battle between Castiel and the Archangel had flooded his home in angelic light, far too bright for Chuck’s mortal eyes to adjust to. He hadn’t seen much. But he had heard Castiel’s scream, and a tearing, hissing sound that made his spine shiver. Something in the very feel of the room had shifted, like a tremendous loss suddenly weighing on him. He still felt an echo of it now, lingering with the science classroom chemical smell after the fight, and he knew what it had to be.
The Archangel had torn Castiel’s grace right out of him. Killed him pretty dead, too, by the looks of it.
Chuck was frozen. His head rang like someone had pounded it on the inside of the Liberty Bell, and it was starting to ache. He wanted to ask aloud, “What do I do?” but the last time he asked that, Dickface told him to write. Chuck was pretty sure that writing wasn’t the proper response to a dead angel on the floor. He was also pretty sure that doing a “Replace All” in The Winchester Gospel to substitute “Dickface” for Zachariah’s name wasn’t the proper response to being told he was Heaven’s butt monkey, but hey, everybody copes differently with stress.
The dead angel groaned, and Chuck almost jumped clear through the hole in the roof. Dead things didn’t groan. And angels, come to think of it, didn’t groan either, and hey—dead angel rolling over onto his smashed end table. That couldn’t be helping things. Chuck offered Castiel a shaking hand up, and the angel grasped it far too weakly for a being of semi-phenomenal, nearly-cosmic power.
And now his imagination was putting Castiel in genie pants and giving him a blue spray-on tan, which was—really, that wasn’t anything that Chuck needed to picture, oh, say, ever. He swallowed the thought. “Hey, so, we’re alive,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “Yay.”
“Dean,” the angel said with a cough. “Was he in time?”
Upbeatness over. “I—I don’t know. You guys’ve gone off the story. I don’t know where any of this is going, my outline’s trashed.”
Once he said it, Chuck realized that that particular idea scared him more than anything - more than blind Archangel vengeance, Lucifer rising, even more than trying to explain this mess to his insurance adjuster. He didn’t know what was going to happen. Much as he hated his lot in this screwed up morality play the angels had going, the certainty of his visions had been keeping him from going totally collecting-his-own-fingernails level crazy.
Swaying but upright, Castiel let go of Chuck and both his hands felt at his chest. His button-down shirt was singed open in a nearly perfect circle and his tie severed just below the knot. It wasn’t a good look, office wear and battle damage. Deep damage, too - at least four inches of nothing driven into his chest, the flesh blackened all the way in. “There’s a hole in me,” Castiel said, frowning. He sounded—well, not angelic. Dazed, sort of.
“That’s—” For the hundredth time since the archangel’s light had begun to shake his kitchen floor, Chuck Shurley, God’s wordsmith on retainer, failed at words. “That’s…weird,” he said.
“Yes,” Castiel said blankly, staring at the gap.
Words. There had to be words. Maybe something comforting? “It’s, uh, kinda Tony Stark. But without the power supply.” Dammit, why did he even talk.
“Or the shrapnel,” Castiel added, still staring, his voice still flat.
Chuck stared, shocked momentarily that an angel had any knowledge of the Marvel universe - thinking, for just a split second, that maybe this particular angel was some sort of nerd-angel, and that they’d bond over their comic book nostalgia during a zany road trip sequence. Then he reeled in the leash on his runaway imagination and remembered what he knew about angels. Key angel factiod #1: they were professional voyeurs. When you had eternity to sit and watch humanity between fights, you picked up more than the average bear.
“So, that’s—that’s something,” Chuck said, scratching the back of his neck as he failed at not staring at the hole.
Castiel only squinted, testing a finger inside it - and hey, that was kind of gross. But not nearly as much so as Chuck had been expecting.
“You could, like, put things in it, I guess,” Chuck said, trying to find an upside.
“Sandwiches,” Castiel said, sounding definitely dazed now. “Biscuits. Pasta salad.” He gave Chuck the kind of very serious look usually reserved for imparting the Lord’s so-called plans and said, “Pack a picnic.”
Chuck wasn’t sure whether to laugh. He’d never known Castiel to make a joke. It was unnerving, to say the least - especially with that stare.
He’d also never known Castiel to tip to one side and faint across the arm of his couch, though, which was the next thing the guy did.
Chuck was making a mental list of things he’d never thought he’d do. It went like this:
1. Be confronted by Supernatural characters in real life
2. Be asked to play the hero and save the day
3. Get drafted for Team God
4. Play taxi driver for a bloody unconscious angel
5. Bone Elizabeth Hurley
He took his attention off the stretch of deserted highway long enough to glance over his shoulder. Castiel was propped up awkwardly in the back seat, buckled in with one of those travel pillow things circled around his neck (Chuck had thought that was a nice touch). The entire Carver Edlund collection sat beside him in a post office crate, along with the hard drive from his slightly charred computer and a blank notebook in case of visions.
Chuck swallowed. Okay. So maybe, the way things were going, Elizabeth Hurley would be manning the next gas station - like, researching for a role as a slutty gas station attendant - and he’d get to cross that one last thing off his list.
Castiel made a small sound in his throat, and Chuck looked back again to see the angel coming around, blinking his eyes widely at the car’s interior as if it were some sort of unexpected trap.
“Morning,” Chuck said, because what else do you say to a recently fallen angel who passed out in your living room and still has a great big hole where his grace should be? And besides, it was morning, almost. Chuck’s watch had stopped when the Archangel arrived, and the station wagon’s clock display hadn’t worked since 1992, but by the dim orange rim on the eastern horizon, he guessed it was around five a.m. He’d been driving for awhile.
Castiel groaned slightly, slipping his shoulders back down against the seat. “Dean’s not here.” His voice had lost its agent of God power, and instead of sounding commanding, it merely seemed scratchy, like his vessel’s vocal cords were rubbing raw from speaking in such a low voice.
“Yeah,” Chuck said awkwardly, trying to sound consoling. “I—I know, buddy.”
“I sent him to be with Sam too late. He failed.”
Chuck knew that, too. He hadn’t predicted the angel’s disobedience, but he’d seen Sam and Dean quaking under the gaze of the newly risen Lucifer. He’d seen all of it weeks ago, spent four days straight scrawling it all down without sleep in the hopes that once it was out of him, it wouldn’t happen. But he knew better.
“What’s around my neck?” the angel asked, frowning at him in the rearview mirror.
“Travel pillow. It’s to, uh, support your head while you sleep.”
“Oh. Was I…asleep?”
“More like out cold,” Chuck answered, the eyes in the rearview boring into him like spotlights. Under their watch, he suddenly felt like he was being interrogated. “You fainted—which I guess you’re probably not used to, fainting not being high on the angelic behavior list, but, y’know, it’s not like it’s unmanly or anything, and—I mean, you’re not really a man anyway, more of a big screaming ball of holy light—or maybe not so much with the screaming and the holy anymore, since the Archangel—”
“Prophet?” Castiel said.
“Hm?” Chuck answered, hinging his jaw shut.
“Where are we going?”
“Oh.” Chuck cleared his throat, focusing on the road. “Bobby’s.”
“We’re going to see Robert Singer?”
“It’s where Sam and Dean go to regroup. I thought we might meet them there.” If they’re not dead, filled in a part of his brain he wanted to kick. Chuck forced a smile. “I’ve never been there, but I’ve written Sam and Dean driving there so many times I know all the landmarks. I think I could get there from just about anywhere in the country.”
“Useful,” Castiel muttered, and fabric rustled in the back seat. “You dressed my—my injury?”
“Sort of. They didn’t exactly cover gaping chest wounds in first aid training, so I just stuffed it with gauze and taped over it. Is that okay?”
“It seems sufficient.” A pause. “I’d like to take off the travel pillow now.”
For most of the ride, Castiel sat board-stiff in the back seat, staring at his reflection in the rearview and not saying anything. Before the angel had woken up, Chuck could at least dream up story plots or sing Joss Whedon musical numbers under his breath. With Castiel awake and staring, though, it was different. It was like silent judgement breathing down his neck. This was worse than that year he’d had a cat. The station wagon’s radio hadn’t worked since 1987, and the only cassette he had was Ace of Base - which he was fairly certain would earn him an even more intent stare, possibly with a head tilt included - so Chuck opted to go without music.
He stopped at a WalMart around the midway point and led Castiel into the store, sure to keep that trench coat firmly buttoned. The angel strode purposefully beside him while Chuck slouched along, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, trying to imagine he wasn’t walking through the Men’s department with a fallen angel.
It was funny how drastically adding the phrase “a fallen angel” into sentences changed everything. Browsing the clearance section with a fallen angel. Picking out jeans and t-shirts for a fallen angel. Going to the men’s dressing rooms with a fallen angel. Listening outside the door as a fallen angel awkwardly learned to pull his limbs into clothing for the first time. Chuck could play the same game with “in the midst of the apocalypse” tagged onto the end of every sentence, but he’d decided early on that one of his goals for the day would be to limit his panic attacks to three or less, so he didn’t.
“What do you think?” he asked when Castiel pulled open the dressing room door.
The fallen angel furrowed his brow, handing the pile of de-hangered clothing gingerly over to him. His tie hung loose around his neck, but it had been seared in half anyway, so no big loss. “What do I think of what?”
“This,” Chuck said, nodding to the pile of clothing. “You need something that doesn’t have blood and burns on it. Come on, man, it’s my treat for you trying to save us from Lucifer. What do you want?”
The teenage boy at the dressing room check-in desk glanced over at them, frowning.
Castiel echoed the teenager’s expression. “What do I want?” he repeated, and the corners of his frown deepened. “Wanting is what got me into this,” he said, almost growling. “Wanting is what got my grace ripped from within me.”
“O-kay,” Chuck said, lowering his voice and raising a finger. “Right now, I’m just asking about the clothes.”
Castiel blew a breath out his nostrils, his hand crossing his chest absently. “The three on top fit.”
“Good.” Chuck nodded, sorting out the unwanted clothes and pushing them across the counter to the teenage employee. “That’s really good, Castiel. This here? Progress.”
The fallen angel kept a hand curled almost protectively over his chest the entire time they waited in the checkout line, only dropping it once they were back in the station wagon.
After a long stretch of silence, Castiel spoke out, scaring Chuck so badly he nearly veered off the road into a cow pen: “My stomach rumbles.”
Once Chuck regained control of the station wagon and his breathing (panic attack number two, he noted, keeping to his goal), he made a stop at the next McDonald’s. It wasn’t the best way to introduce an angel to food, he guessed, but it was better than letting him make sudden pronouncements about his digestive status for the rest of the trip, and besides, Chuck was hungry, too. He hadn’t realized it until he saw the garish yellow M rising along the interstate, but it had been nearly a day since he’d last eaten. Castiel had changed into a plain black t-shirt and jeans in the back seat in the WalMart parking lot, so walking inside this time, the two of them looked almost normal, if you squinted - except that Chuck probably looked like he hadn’t slept in eons and his stiff-backed pal wouldn’t drop the stare of non-blinking judgement. Chuck just hoped he wouldn’t direct it at the kids in the Play Land.
Rather than risk another rant on wanting, Chuck ordered for both of them. He sat in the plastic booth opposite Castiel, watching the former soldier of God disassemble his burger wrapper. The process was actually kind of fascinating - Castiel unwrapped his food so carefully it was like he might be saving the wrapper for a scrapbook or something.
Chuck briefly flashed to a mental scrapbook layout on floral patterned paper with the words “My First Road Trip” spelled out in calligraphy, a double cheeseburger wrapper folded into an origami crane in one corner, and a photo of the two of them waving peace signs in front of the Play Land ball pit.
Castiel ate quickly, at least. Once the burger met his lips, it was as if his body remembered what it was missing and leapt into action. The whole meal was gone in minutes, except for the chocolate shake - that Castiel savored. His eyes closed, his eyebrows bunched up, and all the hard lines on his face went slack as he sucked at the straw.
“Good stuff, right?” Chuck ventured.
“Mm,” his companion answered, gulping down shake. Then he stopped suddenly, his eyes flashing open, and drew both palms to his forehead. “Aaah!”
“Castiel?” Chuck said, leaning forward.
Castiel breathed raggedly, leaning back hard in his seat. “It—it hurts—”
Oh. “It’s just an ice cream headache, buddy. It’ll pass.”
“No, it—” Castiel took a deep breath, slowly slumping forward with his elbows on the table. One hand remained planted on his forehead, and from beneath it, he gave Chuck a look thick with meaning. “Chuck,” he said, quieter and slower, “it hurts.” His eyes were slick with sudden tears, and as he blinked them back, the realization dawned on Chuck.
The prophet leaned in closer over their trays. “You’ve never hurt before? I mean, the Archangel…with the tearing? That didn’t hurt?”
Castiel shook his head, his eyes trained on Chuck. “How do you cope with it?”
“Well, in this particular situation, you pinch the bridge of your nose and hiss about how it hurts, and then you drink more of your shake and repeat the process.” Chuck eyed his companion. Castiel’s hand was resting across his chest again, the fingers curled reflexively inward and his knuckles hard white. “How’s your, uh—” a large woman with a tray full of apple pies passed by, and Chuck searched for a euphemism for archangel-induced gaping chest wound “—arc reactor?”
Castiel assessed him for a moment before catching the reference and leaning back. He glanced down as if seeing his hand for the first time. “It is…” He pressed his lips in a thin line. “Not a physical pain.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“It’s my punishment for the choice I made,” Castiel answered. “There is no ‘helping’ it.”
“Doesn’t seem fair,” Chuck muttered into a handful of fries.
“We’re facing the apocalypse. What about this world is fair?” Avoiding Chuck’s eyes, he took the straw into his mouth again and sipped. When the pain hit this time, the hand at his chest rose to the bridge of his nose and pinched carefully, as if testing out the gesture.
They stopped for the night at a motel off the interstate that couldn’t decide whether it was cowboy or fishing themed.
Chuck sat down at the table in the corner once Castiel was asleep, his notebook open in front of him. He stared at the page for a long time, willing something true to come to him - a flash of Sam and Dean wherever they might be, an update on the last seal, hell, he’d even take a vision of Dickface right now. Anything to prove he still had a grasp on the damn story.
Nothing came. His head hurt worse the harder he stared, but he was still sober, awake, and without a clue.
And it dawned on Chuck, with a sick weight in his stomach: he didn’t have it anymore. Maybe he was too close to the story now to see it properly; maybe everything had just careened too far off plot for visions to be relevant; maybe God had just realized that He was commissioning the most important religious text since the New Testament from a guy who ate spray cheese out of the can while watching Xena: Warrior Princess reruns. Whatever the reason, the story wasn’t in him anymore.
Chuck screwed up his face and pounded his fist against the notebook. The hard surface beneath it reverberated on impact, making him fling his hand back to his mouth to press his lips against the sore spot. Shaking out his hand, he realized he was still holding the pen.
And okay, maybe now still wasn’t the time to follow Dickface’s advice, but in the middle of the night, with a hole-punched fallen angel sleeping five feet away and the world being sucked into Hell, it was all Chuck could think to do. He put the pen to paper. Without the visions to guide him, he’d just be writing plain fiction, but hey, he could do that. So what if it wasn’t accurate? He could write a better story - a happier story. He could write events the way they ought to happen.
He started with the one thing he’d always wanted to write:
Realizing how much they needed one another, Sam and Dean hugged.
“I love you, Sammy,” Dean said gruffly into his brother’s collar.
“I love you, too, Dean,” Sam answered, squeezing his eyes shut so he didn’t cry.
In that eternal moment, they knew that no force in this plane or any other could break the bond of brotherhood between them.
Chuck stared at the scene for a moment, a weight settling into his stomach. He had so many weights digging into him today he almost didn’t notice the addition. Castiel was right: this world wasn’t fair. It was pointlessly cruel and lacked proper plot structure, and he was fairly certain there wouldn’t be a proper denouement at the end. Chuck reread the last few words. Unrealistic as they were, it felt good to write them. In this tangle of fallen grace and rising evil and supernatural Dickfaces, it felt like adding a little bit of light. Although…it seemed like something was missing.
And then they went out for pie, he wrote.
Nodding at the scene, he tucked his notebook away for the night.