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The Winchester Revision

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Chuck wonders, as he clutches the iron rim of the cafe table, body shaking, the swirling imprints of engraved vines sinking into his palms, how all the great writers of the last two thousand years managed to escape the paradox of beginnings? It may only be his extensive personal experience with beginnings that makes him ask the question, but he's been putting this one off for days now and he's starting to run out of time. He doesn't want it to feel artificial, he wants it to be real; he needs it to be a true beginning. But the more he thinks about it, the more he believes he may have to make due with in medias res.

He slaps one hand across the top of the table and drags a napkin up to his mouth, resting his forehead on the back of his knuckles while coughs wrack his spine and the familiar taste of nickels swells into his mouth. Finally, when he manages the first few stinging gasps through his nostrils—the sweet and heavy smell of ocean air—he spits and wipes his mouth. Throws the bloodied napkin into the garbage can behind him.

Gaeta is warm, at least.

Chuck slumps against the uncomfortable contours of the ornate iron chair. The sun burns his face and makes him sweat, adding a seeping, dangerous lethargy to his weakened limbs. His hands, when he curves it around his tiny mug (Italy has atrocious coffee traditions), tremble and he has to lean forward to keep from sloshing the espresso all down his chin and into his lap. He bangs it back like a shot to wash away the taste of blood.

He squanders away another fifteen minutes waffling between panic and sleepy resignation, drumming his fingertips rhythmically against the underside of the table.

The side effects of divine possession are a bitch. Apart from the physical symptoms, which consist more or less of his body falling apart from the inside, he's begun suffering from the sharp and sudden onset of acute existential uncertainty. His fingers are always tapping along to songs he doesn't know. He finds himself answering questions he hasn't been asked yet, or picking up the phone just before it rings. And he has a terrifying and inexplicable need to always know what is behind him, as if once before he had eyes in the back of his head, or into the fabric of creation.

If he'd been given the time it would have taken years to become accustomed to being just himself again; only Chuck. Not, ALL-THERE-IS-AND-CHUCK, or CHUCK-WHO-IS-ALL-THERE-IS or, GOD-CHUCK, or even, after so long with the entire universe crammed inside of him GODandchuck. Not that the recovery time matters, because as it turns out there is no recovery. He's dying now and not a doctor in Italy knows why, and since he's dying there are a couple of things he ought to sort out.

Like the ending. But first he needs to figure out the beginning.

So out he trudges, every morning, to this little sea-side cafe. He tucks his new laptop under his arm and lugs it with him, and sits in the sea breeze determined to bake to a crisp in the sun (maybe melanoma can be his own, personal, 'Fuck you' to God for hijacking this body, wringing it out like a ratty old towel, and then dumping it in Italy to finally decompose). He buys the same large cup of coffee every day and sips it, or spills it, while he procrastinates for one morning more.

This particular morning he is a little unbalanced, however. He's suffering from an uneven weight distribution that is more than the deadline hovering over his shoulder or the rasp of his disintegrating lungs.

Chuck has a poem in his pocket.

It is a brittle and yellowed page, torn in haste from the middle of an unsuspecting library book. One single page, front and back, two columns and tiny print. He'd gone in search of something that might help him learn Italian—because of the nice girl who lives in the chateau near his apartment who has smiled at him two days in a row now and for whom Chuck is hoping to have the time to learn a few key phrases like "you are very pretty," and "would you like to come in for coffee?" before his eyes fall out of his skull and his fingernails flake off or whatever happens in the final stages of this psuedo-numinous disease he's suffering from and had stumbled instead upon a collection of artfully arranged words that made his nervous system itch. It horrified him so badly he stole the thing and shoved it deep into his pocket, where it suffocates now, thundering away in his memory.

It reminds him of the few and scattered memories he still retains from his brief fling with eternity. Those memories he knows he was never meant to have, that he absolutely could do without. Chuck knows his classical literature, and the traditional consequence of sailing to the ends of the earth and looking into the infinite abyss is always some form of blubbering, wise insanity. And really, Chuck was happy being a blubbering pedantic idiot.

He should be thankful, he supposes, that he only remembers a little. He remembers the story and the characters...the poor people, his friends, who had never once actually known him. He remembers the headaches and the hangovers. And he remembers, in the way that old soldiers must remember limbs they've lost, a distant and prideful feeling associated with Sam and Dean and Cas. It isn't Chuck's feeling (he feels mostly cold regret and sadness when he thinks of his "friends"), it belongs to God, and hell if Chuck knows what it means.

He doesn't remember omnipotence. Or the zing of lightning cracking out from beneath his fingernails.

Ah, but Chuck does remember "the Thing."

Chuck hates "the Thing". If Chuck is pissed at God for anything, and he is, in a deep and living way that makes Chuck realize he never understood hate before, it is for "the Thing". There is nothing, to Chuck's knowledge (which is much greater now than it once was) that demonstrates the true nature of God better than this.

Dean Winchester's story had a happy ending. Yes, it did. It was obvious: it was the only ending possible, the entire sweeping arc from Mary's death to Sam's resurrection was leading up to it. It was foreshadowed better than Roderick Usher's death. And then, at the last minute, God changed the rules.

And now the chance will never come. Dean and Cas will always choose the needs of others over their own.

Chuck knows God better than anyone living, and God is a cruel and capricious chess player.

Chuck bought this new laptop a week ago for therapy. It weighs about a pound and has that sexy new convertible appeal. The screen is wide and flat and beautiful and the keyboard fits his fingers perfectly. Chuck sleeps with this thing at the foot of the bed and he carries it with him downstairs and out into the street.

He's going to fix the ending. Hell, he's going to fix the whole story. He is going to write the epic love story of Dean and Castiel, and he's going to do it the right way. How it would have been done if God wasn't such a mean motherfucker.

He opens his computer and waits with tapping fingers while it starts up.

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee,
Walled round with rocks as an inland island
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.

In a kinder world, where monsters really don't exist and America's biggest problem is institutional oppression and prejudice, Dean Winchester goes to the University of Delaware for physics and engineering. A strange twist of fate lands him in a Feminism and Literature class for one of his general electives and it's taught by a dark haired, blue-eyed professor named Castiel. Sam, meanwhile, is a boy genius who gets into college at sixteen and really is going to be a lawyer this time as soon as he finishes his English degree at UDel and gets into Stanford.

And then, because it is absolutely meant to be (despite the University's rules against the fraternization of students and teachers), Dean falls in love with his freaky professor and Cas falls in love with his obstinate student and they fuck the system and live happily ever fucking after and die of natural causes like weak immune systems and old age and too much happiness. In Chuck's version of the story, Dean and Cas and Sam live the lives a fangirl would have written for them.

Fuckin-A right they do.

He centers the cursor and types:

The Winchester Revision

It's a God-damned fairytale.

 

x0x

Here "bigynneth" the total and utter fucking tragedy of an older brother. As the sun was setting on a Friday in January it began. As it was snowing outside, and there were no birds except the crows on the power lines, and the trees were sleeping, and the whole state of Delaware was frozen solid, it began. A Doomed Man was marching down the basement hallways of UDel and his name was Dean Winchester.

His doom was crushing and absolute, and came to him by the impartial and unyielding hand of the lady who worked the registrar desk. She was a gray faced, mousy, middle-aged woman who still had not bothered to take down her Christmas tree, which leaned against the wall in the corner, casting its red and white lights on the carpet and upsetting Dean's sense of time. Her abject boredom with Dean and his disaster was displayed in the way she slumped against her fist and listened to his plea with all the attention a lion paid to starving mice. She was clearly unimpressed. Her name was Sunny.

Dean, for his part, wanted nothing more than to give Sunny an ugly piece of his mind (not the one that participated in things like Bruce Willis movies and porn, but the really ugly one that secretly sort of liked Keanu Reeves). But Sammy was standing right behind him and at a glance--by the round hazel eyes and chewed up bottom lip—Dean could see that Sammy was looking at the world through his rose colored panties today and would probably not stand for the demoralization Dean had planned for Sunny. So, because he was the kindest person on earth and the greatest brother ever, Dean took a deep breath, found his warm chocolately center, and tried to explain with patience how very screwed he was without this woman's help.

There were exactly two people in the world who gave a damn about Chaucer at eight thirty in the morning, and while Sam Winchester could have been one of them, Dean was not the other. Moreover, Dean had already over-shared his personal opinions on the necessity of translations for documents written before the U.S. Constitution (Middle English his ass) that were not going to work productively towards the 3.0 he needed to maintain in order to keep his scholarships. No, he hadn't thought about that when he'd signed up for the class because he'd been manhandled into it by his overly ambitious advisor.

Also the professor was a bitch, who wanted Dean to look up every single thing he didn't understand (all of it) before he came to class. Which was just ass-backwards as far as Dean comprehended higher education. He had come to college so that people who were smarter than he was could explain, patiently and with protractors, all the many things he didn't get. Dean did not have the time of day for that much Google. Dean had a job. And a life. And a powerful desire to sleep and get laid once in a while. Wasn't there anywhere else for him to go?

Sunny told him, again, to keep an eye on the Online Registration page for a spot to open up in one of the other classes.

"Why can't you just slip me into an afternoon class? Or any other class?"

Sunny shrugged as she shook her head.

"The department isn't allowing any more exceptions. I can't do anything for you, I'm sorry." Dean sensed that this was a speech she recited in her sleep, in her nightmares, by accident to the grocery clerk... "But look, it's only the first week and a lot of people drop the theme classes in the first month, so just keep checking the system."

It was nothing less than Dean's human imperative, in that moment, to inform Sunny that he was one of those people trying to drop a theme class. That people dropped the theme classes because they were impossible. Dean did not know shit about narrative devices or clever comma usage; he built things out of other, smaller things, and the engine in his Impala (which purred like a spoiled kitten, by the way) did not give a crap that he sometimes ended his sentences in a preposition. But the Chaucer bitch did, to levels that his intro classes had failed to prepare him for.

"Dean, just let it go," Sam's world-weary voice pleaded. Dean, in his darkest of hearts, knew then that his doom was inescapable. He scraped up a put-upon "Thank you" from the bottom of his stomach and rapped his knuckles against the wood of Sunny's desk before following Sammy's lead back down the maroon and oak hallway. The hallway was long and straight and the doors to the parking lot were all the way at the end. It was also empty because it was six o'clock on a Friday and everyone else was already out getting drunk or high.

Dean held the door for Sam, using his back to push against the metal bar, because Sam was carrying his weight in text books already. He noticed, as Sam smirked and slipped by, that the back of Sam's left sneaker was flapping. It was time for new shoes.

The parking lot was covered in a dusting of late January snow. The overcast sky was nearly dark and the asphalt was a slick terrain of black ice. Dean shrugged farther into his jacket and dug into his pocket for his keys, stepping carefully.

"She's probably right," said Sam, his voice the only other noise under the faraway hum of the highway, "like, three people have already dropped my Twain class and we've only met twice."

"I'm not taking Twain with you, man, if that's what you're suggesting." Dean unlocked the car and Sam dumped his books unceremoniously into the back seat. His arms were more filled out than they had been a year ago. Sam worked out now. He was beginning to look less and less like Dean's kid brother and more and more like some young man who might have, once, had a past as someone's kid brother, maybe.

"You're just afraid I'll make you look bad," he said.

Dean consoled himself by remembering that he would always be the one with the arsenal of embarrassing stories about Sam's childhood. Sam could get as tall and rock-like as he wanted, but Dean would have always been witness to the toilet bowl aquarium incident of '99. Dean caught a glimpse of his own smirk in the rearview when he slid into the Impala.

"I'll make your face look bad," he mumbled on principle and started the car. Sam rolled his eyes and began to explain (in what, no doubt, he believed were small words) the apparently fascinating paradox of philosophies that was Mark Twain's sense of humor.

Dean drove carefully, easing his baby around every turn while his spine vibrated like a tripwire, just waiting for the momentum to catch them and pull them sideways into a pole or a tree or a bottomless chasm. Sam nattered on beside him until Dean was forced to turn the headlights on and then he fell silent, and the world fell silent as they turned off the main road to the side streets where the sidewalks began. At the far end of the curving one-way streets was a little road called Wayward, which was small enough no one had bothered with sidewalks because everyone just walked down the road. It was lined with trees that had grown in their own places at their own times, with a few aging white picket fences squeezed between.

The apartment was at the end, the very end, and the road stopped at its front gate.

Dean had a decent part-time set up with the local mechanic, who paid him well on top of the money he received for his education from the state, and his apartment was therefore nothing so terrible as the rusted iron garden fence and the peeling paint of the building would suggest. It had two bedrooms (when Dean had moved in he'd made contingencies just in case Sam ever followed) and was mold free and mostly mice free with varying exceptions. There was a wrap-around porch for all the tenants to use and trellises—trellises—that enabled vines of an unknown nature to crawl all the way to the second floor windows.

However, because he was still a poor college student, the apartment itself had only four pieces of real furniture all together, apart from the beds: a bookshelf, a coffee table, a couch, and a free standing hat-rack that Dean had found sitting out on the side of the road that summer with a sign taped to it that read: "Free for the Taking." They used it to hang their coats and had dressed it up in white lights in lieu of a Christmas tree that December.

Dean parked the Impala on the side of the street, pulling her all the way up to the grass and the gate, and killed the engine with relief. He had the insane urge to turn to Sam and say, "We're here," like he used to when Sam was younger and would fall instantly asleep for a car ride of any duration. He didn't say anything. Sam was already getting out of the car, retrieving his books from where they had slid every which way in the back seat.

The apartment was dark when Dean opened the door, the sun was already down and there were no streetlamps outside the windows. He stepped inside and to the left to let Sam in behind him, kicked off his boots. While his hand groped along the wall for the light-switch, the room flashed red.

Dean felt his stomach twist like crumpled notebook paper. He flicked on the light and slid out of his jacket, shut and locked the door.

Sam was already standing shoeless above the answering machine (which was on the floor, since they had no real table.) The red "new message" light winked up at him and made him frown, his fringy hair falling into his face and now he looked like Dean's little brother again. Dean dropped backpack with a satisfying thump onto the floor and marched across the room with halved intentions.

On the one hand, he probably had just enough money in his emergency fund to replace the window after he put the answering machine through it. On the other, he was supposed to be the rational adult here.

Dean punched the "play messages" button with his toe.

Beep. "Goddamnit Dean! If you don't start answering this fucking thing I'm coming down myself. You had no right to sign those papers, and if I don't hear from your brother in—" BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. "Message erased."

"Fuck you very much, and tell it to the lawyer," snarled Dean and hurled his keys against the back of the couch on the other side of the room.

Every other day Dean woke up to an electronic ringing that sounded like it was straight out of the eighties. He would roll over and think about taking a cast iron frying pan to that thing and putting it out of its misery. Out of his misery. But he never did, he let it ring and then he listened to the messages before he erased them, just in case that one miracle call did come in, starting with: "Dean, I'm sorry."

"—sorry, Dean." Sam was saying.

"Shut up," Dean said automatically, shrugging out of his jacket. "And don't be." He should have said more than that. Told Sammy some shit about how Dad was just scared or something, that most parent's didn't know what to do when one of their kids turned out to be Doogie Houser and left for college at sixteen. He should have said it was okay for Sam to call Dad back, if he wanted. At the very least he should have said: "It's not your fault, man."

But those were not the words choked up in the back of his mouth. So he kept it shut and went into the kitchen to do the dishes, left Sammy standing in the living room in his backpack and his socks. The hot water scalded his cold hands. He squeezed the bejeezus out of the sponge and started scraping dried cheese out of a pan. He took deep breaths, smelling the dish detergent, and hummed The Four Horsemen to fill the silence. He also took a mental inventory of the cabinets so that when Sam, about ten minutes later, finally padded sadly into the kitchen Dean could ask:

"Wanna make pie?"

It was shit compensation and they both knew it. But when Dean looked over his shoulder, covered in suds up to his elbows, Sam's smile was small and understanding.

"Peach," he answered. Which was the one thing they didn't have. Dean made a grocery run and bought twenty peaches and two gallons of ice cream.

xxx

Saturday morning Dean was slamming his hand against the countertop and snarling a cuss-word when the browser updated itself and a blue number one showed up next to seats open on the English Department's online registration page. The class was at six in the evening on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, right after his Physics 315 lab. It was another theme class, but The Bitch was not teaching it and Dean had long ago decided that he did not need to be a chooser. He clicked and registered with his student number, then unregistered himself right out of Chaucer.

He read the class description only afterwards. He didn't want some other desperate jerk like him snatching it up while he was finding out what he was in for.

The class was called: English 335: Feminism and Literature.

"Well shit," said Dean. Sam looked over his shoulder curiously and then spilled his coffee all over the kitchen while he laughed and laughed.

Dena pulled up the book list and Amazon.com in a separate window. This was going to screw up his suggest items for you for months.

"Dude," Sam poked him the shoulder, he was still gasping, "can I have your Chaucer books?"

xxx

Sunday morning was quiet except for the sound of the state workers plowing the roads and putting rock salt down. Even the answering machine kept its trap shut. Dean was up early to go into the garage and get a few solid hours in to pay for Sam's new shoes. He sat on his floor, facing the window instead of the tv, and curled himself around his cup of coffee to ward off the chill of the apartment. In the vents the heat was slowly clicking back on. He could see, because dawn hadn't quite broken yet, the yellow flashing lights of the snowplow.

Dean rose and turned off the kitchen lights to cut the glare out of the glass. Then he resumed his seat and sat in the dark, drinking coffee, and trying to remember what childhood felt like. Because he thought that, maybe, it felt like this. It felt like slow sunrises in the middle of winter while your toes froze off and your hands were warm. It felt like your little brother snoring away down the hall. It felt like a voluntary silence, an empty, windy silence that was actually made of an absence of speaking and not things kept unsaid.

He was very careful, as he slipped into his coat and pulled the door shut behind him, to leave the silence of the apartment intact so that Sam would find it, warmer and brighter, when he woke up.

xxx

Sam sometimes thought that he might believe in ghosts.

It wasn't because anything specific had happened to him, necessarily. Though, like everyone, he did have a bizarre story or two about otherwise mundane places. Mostly it was just that the idea itself, given more credibility because it was one of very few myths that had been sustained literally throughout all of man's history (God was the other one), didn't seem so far-fetched when compared with other things Sam hadn't known or understood until recently. Or even with some things he was unlikely to ever understand; the human brain, quantum mechanics, Sudoku puzzles.

Three o'clock in the afternoon wasn't exactly the ideal time of day for such contemplations. But he was only thinking of ghosts at all because he happened to be wrapping up an Edgar Allen Poe anthology he'd been reading for the past week in his spare time. And there was something about The Fall of the House of Usher that required Sam pause and stare off over the wooden sill of the window and into the distance of the neighbor's garden (a thing not unlike a nightmare itself in the summer, the tulips were hideous and everywhere, mitigated only by the pungent odor of lilacs). He couldn't help but imagine, for instance, that there were parallels between that story and his own life. The Fall of the House of Winchester, it would have to be metaphorical of course, since Sam's childhood home was still standing soundly as far as he knew.

There were differences too. Madeline Usher was buried alive and Mary Winchester was buried with a hole in her skull. Madeline wasted away under some nameless disease and Mary didn't give herself the time to waste away. She didn't waste the time, you might say (Sam wouldn't, Dean would). Madeline clawed her way out of her own tomb to take revenge on her brother, Mary let herself be buried and didn't even say goodbye to her boys. Still, dead was dead and Sam sometimes had trouble differentiating between the different kinds. If a person ended up as scattered ashes, or rotting in a box, did it matter how they came to be there? It certainly couldn't matter to them.

He was finished with the book now, so Sam closed it and cradled it against his chest, resting his chin against the combined sharp edges of the pages. He was supposed to do the laundry before Dean came home, it was only fair, really, since Dean paid the rent and bought the groceries and paid for all of Sam's things. It would be a nice gesture for Sam to make dinner, too.

Sam pulled the blanket he'd swiped from his bed up over his belly and curled further into the couch, frowning at the frost covered window. He was drowsy and he let his eyes drift shut over the rumbling memory of the narrative.

During the whole of a dull dark and soundless day in the winter, miles south of Harrison and the old house with its eye like window, there was a father with window-like eyes all boarded up...

Sam opened his eyes and rolled onto his side, entrenched himself further into the blanket. It was only three in the afternoon still and time had that molasses quality that only ever existed on Saturdays. It was meant to snow again and the sun was pulling over his own sleepy blanket of clouds, so it was growing dank and gray. And the whole world, from Sam's vantage point in the corner of the couch, looked freezing and un-worth the hassle of getting up.

There was nothing particularly dark and lurid about Delaware. Nothing uncanny about the apartment or the University or the dreams Sam had at night. Harrison, New Jersey hadn't exactly leant itself to the maudlin atmosphere of Gothic literature either. Harrison had too many screaming streets and late night MacDonalds. Maybe Sam believed in ghosts, but he didn't really believe they were in Harrison.

Dean however—

Sam remembered startling awake in the middle of the night, when they were kids and shared a bedroom, because Dean had sat up in bed like a shot and wrenched himself from the blankets to pelt into the hallway after something. He came back a few minutes later, white in the face and crying softly. When Sam asked what it was Dean only said: "It looked like mom." Then he’d gone into the bathroom and, inexplicably, had washed his feet in the bathtub before returning to bed.

Until Dean was about twelve they had talked about it periodically, told the “ghost” story to kids at school, told it to themselves on nights when John didn't come home.

Now that Sam was older he understood that maybe it had been a comforting game of pretend for Dean. He'd told it to himself until he'd believed it and then, as he had grown older, untold it to himself until he believed that too.

Sam drifted off not knowing what to believe while the dark crept back through the window.

xxx

Do I dare disturb the Universe?

Castiel stood in the doorway Monday morning and considered this age-old conundrum for some time before answering out loud to the empty room, "Very probably," and dropping his bag onto the second of two desks. If he were wise (or sane) that poster would be the first thing he would disturb, violently and with a fire accelerant.

He put down his shoulder bag and pulled out his own contribution to the corkboard. The adjunct office was windowless, a small ten by eight box with two desks and three chairs shared between four people, and so Castiel and his fellow inmates had agreed to bring in one piece of scenery each. However, they had failed to coordinate any further, and as a result their eastern view now overlooked Mr. Erebus in Antarctica, the Serengeti, a beach (with the T.S. Eliot quote inscribed across it) and the Martian landscape (courtesy of Castiel).

It might have been worse. They might have hung Shakespearian sonnets on the walls, or some of the more esoteric Romantic poets.

The old clock, hanging akimbo on the opposite wall, said it was three thirty. He had two and a half hours before his last class. Castiel pulled out the folder with Dr. Mosley's class notes and began to go over them again. There was a pink post-it stuck to the inside of the folder that read:

Late addition:
Dean Winchester. Forwarded you his email. Monday will be his first day.

Dean Winchester, who, according to the student information system, was a Physics and Engineering major, had no doubt been cursing his luck since Saturday morning when he had registered for Feminism and Literature. Castiel was only part time, but he knew the type, kids who bounced around from class to class looking for an easy way to fill their English requirements. He counted on them, in fact, and he planned to call on Dean, frequently and with impunity, until he either found the intelligent being underneath or chased him away to other metaphorical pastures.

He managed one straight hour of wading through Mary Wollenstonecraft before thunder beat down his door and a sunflower yellow shirt and purple tie came banging through in its wake.

"Knock-knock!" Said the grinning man. Castiel's first impression was of a short and fey man in his thirties. And, for no reason he could later account for, he was hit was a general underlying instinct of dangerous from the twinkling brown eyes. The man was holding a handful of M&M's and popped a few in his mouth as he leaned against the door jam. "Candy?" the M&M's were proffered in a rainbow stained palm.

"No, thank you," said Castiel softly, but closed his book having hopelessly lost his spot.

The man looked at him, chewing.

"You're the band-aid Crowley slapped onto Missouri's classes while she's in England, right?" He wiped his hand on a handkerchief he pulled from his pocket and moved forward to extend it. Castiel accepted the gesture and shook his hand, it was warm and dry. "Gabriel," the man said. "Philosophy department. I teach dead people."

Castiel smiled, torn between amusement and self-defense.

"Castiel," he answered. "So do I, sometimes." Gabriel shifted his weight and put his handkerchief away, moving idly over to the adjunct bookshelf. Castiel had already perused its contents a few days before and had found it a medley of leftovers; old course books and free instruction books sent over by publishing companies. Nine different Norton Anthologies, at least one on each shelf, a few battered Victorian novels (the basics: Austen, Auden, and the Brontes), a few new looking popular novels, the Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes, Volume I, and a copy of Dante's Inferno, recognizable only by its title page as the back and the spine were so worn they couldn't be read and the cover was torn off.

"Yuk," Gabriel was saying, reaching up to tap his finger spitefully against the picture of the serene ocean shore. "Eliot. What a wanker." A real laugh forced itself from Castiel's stomach. The department secretary, Joshua, had been the friendliest acquaintance of Castiel's so far, but, watching Gabriel leaf spitefully through a Norton Anthology, Castiel thought he might here have found some entertaining company.

Gabriel stuffed the anthology back in its place and whirled around. "What do you say to a coffee and a tour?"

"Do you always make a point of befriending the English adjuncts?" Castiel asked. He could not place Gabriel's motivations for seeking him out, and, interested as he was in finding some allies on campus, there was still something behind Gabriel's smile that unnerved him. Some feeling that Gabriel was playing by different rules.

"Of course not," sniffed Gabriel, then winked. "We have a mutual acquaintance." Castiel didn't know who on earth that could have been and Gabriel didn't expound, but when Castiel's gaze flickered down to his class notes Gabriel added: "It's the second week of classes, they could probably learn whatever you're teaching them from a rhesus monkey." Offensive, but true.

"Besides," Gabriel was going on, "there are dark secrets to this University you need to be privy too if you're going to survive the semester." Castiel was already pushing his stuff into the corner of the desk where it wouldn't bother anyone else who needed the space.

"Such as?" he prompted, following Gabriel out into the hallway.

"Such as: the snack machine on the fourth floor," Gabriel said, pointing at the elevator as they passed it, "is the devil. Nothing but pretzels and crackers."

And so passed the rest of the afternoon. Gabriel showed him the philosophy department and the cafeteria (which was best avoided on Tuesdays for reasons that were not explained). He also pointed the way to the campus bookstore and walked them briefly through the library.

"Great for the ancient and classical scholars," he said, "but you'll have to use the inter-library thing for contemporary stuff. And there's supposed to be a rather good video and DVD collection here somewhere, but I believe it can only be found by those who already know where it is. Which is no one, naturally. " There was cafe on the main floor of the library where they grabbed their coffee and then moved outside. The cold air made the hot drinks steam. They paused there, at the top of the steps, and looked out over the frozen and miserable landscape of brick buildings and ice and coniferous trees that had thrown in the towel and were turning brown.

Gabriel waved his hand in a sweeping, horizontal gesture.

"That's the rest of the campus," he said and sipped his coffee.

"Which is the science building?" Castiel asked, partly out of curiosity and partly to keep the conversation from withering. Gabriel pointed to gap between two buildings that were away to their left. "Back there, bit of a walk from our neck of the woods. You can always tell the science students by how out of breath or how late they are." He smiled. "Generally those kids are quiet, but they usually pass the class. They need a certain GPA for their scholarships."

Gabriel reached into his pocket and flipped open his phone.

"We have another thirty minutes before the last torture of the day begins. I'll walk you back and we'll do the 'How are you finding your experience here so far?' thing."

Castiel shrugged, tipped some hot coffee into his mouth. It was dark and watery, enjoyable mostly for its extreme contrast to the freezing wind. Castiel went with the "Everything is mostly fine," answer and shook the snow from his hair gratefully when they were back in the warmth of the Liberal Arts building.

"No unexpected bumps?" The conversation was trailing down to a comfortable automatic place.

"Not really. Just a late enrollment. He's a Physics major." Castiel's mind had wandered back to his class notes. Mary Wollenstonecraft was easy enough to teach, and she was a major, necessary stepping block for the rest of Feminist literature, but she was also one of those authors that never made anyone's list of favorites. He wondered if the anecdote about her breastfeeding puppies would work to engender interest or just come off as inappropriate?

"Oh yeah? I love the Physics majors, they're always so surprised when they learn that my 'boring old shit' is where their boring new shit came from. What's his name?"

"Winchester." Gabriel's eyebrows were moved by this information. The question of bored sophomores was pushed away and Castiel watched the emotion flicker and then go out of Gabriel's face.

"I know his little brother, Sam." And then, in a softer register, "He's a good kid."

Castiel held Gabriel's gaze and tried to ask "What is wrong with Sam?" with his eyes because he couldn't ask it tactfully with his words. At the end of some minor struggle, Gabriel let the moment slip by.

"If he's anything like Sam he'll be an easy student," he said instead. "Sam's pretty sharp." And that was it, they were at Castiel's office. Castiel paused with his hand on the doorknob, thinking that there was still a chance for him to call back the strange expression on Gabriel's face and ask, directly, the question on his tongue. He was put in mind of the Romantic poets again, could hear the rolling meters in his mind.

Gabriel punched him in the shoulder. "I’ve got a meeting with our esteemed President, you don’t know him much yet but Crowley doesn’t like to be kept waiting. I promised him scones, he pops in for some occasionally. I'll see you around, good luck."

"Yeah, you too," Castiel answered awkwardly.

Gabriel floated down the hallway, pulling a lollipop out of his pocket.

In the end, Castiel did tell the anecdote about Wollenstonecraft breastfeeding puppies, and it was received with wide-eyed looks of shock and amusement. In the end, he felt he managed to get across the importance of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" as the bedrock for the rest of feminist literature. In the end, he didn't think he was boring the hell out of his new students after all.

But, in the end, Dean Winchester did not show up for class.

He should have been annoyed with that development. He had received an email from Dean that weekend where the young man had expressed his noble intentions to do his best in the class, etc, etc. But when he slipped the roster back in his bag as he reminded the class of their assignment for Wednesday, and his eyes passed over the empty, unchecked space beside Winchester's handwritten name, he felt a flash of apprehension. Gabriel's reaction to the name hadn't been one of annoyance, and his opinion of Sam was obviously a good one, but tinged with something...uncomfortable. Was it worry? Knowledge of some rumor?

Castiel smiled at his class and told them to have a good evening, gathered his books while they filtered out. He still had half of his coffee from earlier and some work to do, so he picked up the now cool cup carefully, balancing it on top of his books beneath his chin. When he reached the door the light switch brought him some consternation, he shuffled over sideways and tried to knock it down with his elbow.

"Wait, let me," said a rough and torn open voice. Castiel looked into the hallway and saw a young man pushing himself away from the wall where he had been leaning. He was just an inch or so taller than Castiel, short brown hair and a leather jacket, with a face made of symmetrical angles. Although these things came to Castiel second, his first impression was of the drawn in shoulders, the hands closed subconsciously into fists, and the blood drying on the side of his face and neck. A bruise was blooming like a rose around his left eye.

The young man flipped off the light switch and smiled with the unswollen half of his face.

"So, um..." he said.

"You are Dean," Castiel interrupted. He knew it from the empty spot on the roster, the memory of Gabriel's expression and the knot in his own stomach.

"Yeah. I, uh—"

"You look like you've had some trouble, Dean." Castiel moved aside so Dean could step into the dark classroom. Castiel walked back to the desk and put his things down and turned to find Dean standing uncomfortably behind him, scratching the back of his neck. Dean's face was lit up in profile now, his eye lashes, his stubble and the swelling were highlighted by the shadows. His eyes had a stunned, glassy look. "Are you alright?" Castiel asked softly, keeping a small distance between them as he would between himself and a shy child or a recently kicked animal.

Dean's forehead wrinkled and then smoothed itself. He swayed, very slightly, and held himself straighter, made deliberate eye contact.

"Yeah. I'm sorry I missed class, my father showed up out of the blue just before class because my aunt is in the hosp—"

"I was speaking of your eye," Castiel tapped his own, and realized his mistake too late. He recognized the lie that he had interrupted and saw Dean shuffle through a quick litany of his own connections. Surprise, understanding, embarrassment, fear.

He doesn't know he's bleeding. Or hadn't known. Dean was trying to protect someone, or perhaps he was trying to protect himself. His hand had come up to his temple and his face had gone red, he was looking askance at the shadowed wall now.

He'd accidentally given too much away. "My father showed up out of the blue..." And had then done what? Knocked him good naturedly in the temple, cracked open the wound along Dean's hairline, explained the importance of tough love?

"I won't push," Castiel assured Dean gently. Then he made a quick and surprising decision. "But I won't accept lies either." Dean's eyes snapped back up to him. They were suddenly painfully present behind the haze of his injury and Castiel hoped he'd done the right thing here. Dean's hands curled into fists again and slipped into the pockets of his jacket. He looked searchingly at Castiel.

Whatever Dean was afraid of it was balanced against the intelligence and the uncommon maturity of his eyes.

"I'll be in class on Wednesday," he promised hoarsely. Castiel nodded his acceptance.

"Go home. Get cleaned up. I'll email you the material you missed."

Dean left quickly and Castiel watched him go. Then he stood in the dark classroom, leaning against the desk with a cold cup of coffee in his hands, alone with his suspicions and decisions and uncertainty.

He tapped his finger against the Styrofoam and bowed his head, giving in at last to the cadence that had been clawing its way up into his consciousness since his first unanswered question with Gabriel that afternoon.

The thorns he spares when the rose is taken;
The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.
The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,
These remain.

There was more than a victim in Dean Winchester's name.

 


2


Chuck wakes up the next morning to a feeling of displacement. He feels battered and wrung out, like a man washed up on a foreign shore. It takes him thirty frightened seconds to realize the breath on his face is the fan and the gray, fractured sky above him is his ceiling, the paint cracked and peeling from the moist ocean air. After he stands shivering for ten minutes under the scalding hot water of the shower he decides not to go to the cafe after all, but shuffles down to his own kitchen and throws all the windows wide. His computer is still open, screen dark, on small table beside the salt and pepper shakers. Chuck gets the coffee pot going and plugs in the laptop behind the refrigerator. When he sits down something brown and yellow flutters off the keyboard.

His hand meets it halfway to the floor and lifts it gently back to the table.

It’s the poem.

Chuck swallows and slaps it upside down his before traitorous eyes try to read the damn thing. He pins it under the pepper while he shuffles around his kitchen and roots around the more mysterious drawers he doesn’t usually bother with until he finds a thumbtack. Then he sits back down and picks the poem back up and holds it flat against the wall beside his head. He spears the tack viciously through the middle of the poem’s title and hammers it deep into the wall with the pepper shaker. It whispers pathetically at him in the breeze; he turns his face away and doesn’t listen.

While the coffee percolates Chuck rereads what he wrote the day before and wonders how it went to shit so fast? This was supposed to be an ideal: it was supposed to be composed of lucky breaks and people hugging each other and the academic system miraculously working as it was intended to for once. What had he written instead? The tale of two brothers, haunted by their past, struggling with their present, while a lonely third party becomes mysteriously entangled in their affairs.

Right. Because that didn’t sound familiar.

Chuck yanks his curtains open to let the morning in and then immediately regrets it. His kitchen walls are a dark goldenrod color and light up like Chernobyl when the sunlight hits them. Chuck sits in his kitchen chair and rubs the bridge of his nose. He can smell that the coffee is done but it seems a whole world away, the mug is farther because it must be washed before it can be used. His stomach is cramping with a pain that is much more than simple hunger. And he hates, hates, hates his walls. They hurt his eyes and remind him of the early years of the earth when the air was still full of poison (a memory he knows isn't supposed to have). Chuck holds his poor head in his hands.

Maybe there will never be a happy ending for the Winchesters. Maybe Dean and Sam and Cas are the scapegoats of the Universe; of every universe. Maybe they're the pre-determined martyrs of all stories, molded to a uniform purpose of suffering so that other people can fall in love and ride off into sunsets. And maybe Chuck can't even save them that destiny in fiction.

His fingers are achy and itchy. He flexes them, curls them into his hair, pulls his hair, and pops his knuckles, but the feeling persists. His ankles are sore for no reason, so are his knees.

"Fuck," says Chuck. He forces himself to his feet and crosses the huge expanse of his tiny kitchen to wash his damn mug, pour himself some damn coffee and then he goes back to his wooden chair.

This is his revision. They are his friends. And these words are his words.

Chuck leans forward and starts typing like he's firing a machine gun.

x0x

The parking lot was slippery, a vast desert of black ice and snow. Dean stepped slowly across it, his hand held out in front of him, propping him against the few other cars for balance. He was dizzy and he was cold and his head was pounding. The snow was swirling and the streetlight was glaring off the harsh white of everything and making his eyes water. When he reached the Impala he needed both hands to hold the key steady enough to unlock the car door. He crawled into the driver’s seat and curled against the steering wheel, slamming out the wind. All but his face was freezing. His face was aching and burning dully.

"I was talking about your eye," the man had said (what was his name? Dean had known it that morning—something that sounded centuries old… Castiel). Your obvious, black and blue eye that certainly didn't result from the hospitalization of the aunt you do not have.

Dean had always prided himself on being a good liar. He’d lied his way out of being arrested and expelled, lied is way into things that were significantly worse for him than jail or expulsion. And somehow he’d been tongue-tied because a clever professor had called him out on it.

He was pissed.

"My father,"

Of course his father. All shit storms had their ground zero and its name was John Winchester. But Dean could have easily explained away the back eye (he’d been in a fight, you should see the other guy), instead the silence had descended, or bubbled up from inside him and sucked away all his words. Left him dry and defenseless, without a single lie.

His face was killing him. The adrenaline was wearing down and he was starting to feel sleepy and beat up. Dean started the car and turned on the wipers to brush away the thin film of snow on the windshield. Led Zeppelin slammed into his ears. He winced and turned it down. The parking lot was almost empty, the streetlights had come on. It was fully dark.

Dean leaned his head against the back of the seat while the heater blew cold air in his face. It would take a minute for the engine to heat up again. It clicked and clunked and with the drums in the music sounded like a fist pounding down a door.

He’d been trying not to think about it. But it was evening now and the memory had been simmering in his chest all afternoon; it was made of vapor and rose easily into his consciousness; impossible to push away. Dean was usually better at this sort of thing. Authority figures and memories, he’d had years of practice avoiding both. He was losing his touch.

He was losing something.

Usually Dean wasn’t at home on Monday afternoons, his class schedule afforded him some free time between three and six, but Dean was inclined to spend them on campus since it was a thirty minute drive from UDel to his own little patch of nowhere. But early that morning it had been windy, and a tree in the neighbor’s yard had given up the fight. It had cracked in half and leaned over and put its branch though the living room window.

Dean really could have been rid of that answering machine.

He’d come home to let the repair man and the landlord in so a new window could be installed. After they’d left—mission accomplished, but hey Dean this is your apartment have fun getting the broken glass out of the carpet—Dean had stood with his arms folded and considered the unlikely confluence of events he’d been subject to that past weekend.

A fist tried to split apart his door.

Dean had known from his instinctual visceral reaction, the way his shoulders caved in and his stomach knotted, that it wasn’t the landlord coming back. He didn’t even wonder what the hell John was doing in Delaware because ‘unlikely’ wasn’t a label for strange events in Dean’s life, it was a prerequisite. The sharp smell of whisky greeted him when he opened the door and his first thought was Thank fuck Sammy’s at school. John was swaying like a dizzy willow tree. Fuck this shit, was Dean’s second thought when John grabbed him by the shoulder and punched him in the face.

It was the deliberate violence of the act, more than the pain, that stunned Dean stupid and left him open for the second hit. He stumbled back under the black flash of the percussion and dropped to his knee, found that he was kneeling on the remains of the old window. John had followed him in and was snarling and shouting about Dean’s worthlessness and cruelty, he stumbled forward and towered over Dean, bent over like he might have taken another swing.

Dean had lunged forward and jammed his shoulder into John’s stomach.

John had gone down wheezing. Dean, standing over him, had barely controlled the vicious urge to slam his heel into John’s face. There was a red kind of fury flashing up his spine, monstrous and unforgiving. It had always been in him, curled up at the bottom of his bad attitude, and John had surprised it into the light of day. This was years of anger and resentment, unacknowledged, now suddenly free to take revenge. And Dean wasn’t inclined to temper it, it was, he realized, his right to feel this anger and his right to express it and he was done ignoring the damage. He was going to wreak some of his own, he was going to give back what had been done to him.

And then John had begun to cry.

He just curled up like child and sobbed his heart out. John's shoulders shook like his whole world was coming down around him, his hands scraped at his face. Snot ran down his nose and into his beard, tears ran down his ruddy cheeks. Dean’s hands fell open.

"Why you gotta take everything from me, Dean?" John had gasped, leaned against his knees. "Why you gotta ruin me?"

In the white noise of his confusion Dean had almost answered: "I don't know."

Only his anger saved him. He looked down at John and reminded himself that this, this slobbering, childish embarrassment, was the man who was supposed to have been Dean’s father. Who was supposed to have protected Dean from terrible things and uncouth television shows.

"I never took anything from you didn't deserve to lose," Dean rasped, not nearly as loudly as he’d intended. He’d grabbed a box of tissues from the coffee table and stuffed them into John's hand. He'd pulled John to his feet by the collar of his jacket and dragged him physically to the door. The stench of whisky and sweat made the back of his throat burn. "Get the fuck out," Dean said and shoved John out the door.

John had stood unsteadily in the hallway, still sobbing, clutching the tissues like they were some kind of benediction. He looked weak and vulnerable and pathetic. Dean wanted to hit him again, badly.

"You could have left me Sammy," John had mumbled, avoiding eye contact. "I fucked up, but—" unclear words lost to history and then, "you could have left me my son."

A ringing non-sound, like silenced bells in Dean’s ears.

"You have two sons," he'd answered.

John hadn't heard, he was already shuffling, crab-like, down the stairs. Dean had gripped the door and leaned out, "I'm calling you a cab, don't you dare fucking drive!" and slammed the door closed as hard as he could.

Dean drew in a shaky breath that smelled like burning dust. The warm air was hushing him into a dreamy state. He turned the heater down and shifted the car into drive.

When Dean pulled into the driveway he could see that Sam was back already (Dean had texted him at about four to tell him to take the bus home) from the light spilling out of the second floor windows. Dean cut the comforting rumble of the Impala and waited in the car for a few minutes, the key turned to accessories while Immigrant Song played itself out. Sam was going to have a shit fit. Dean pulled out the key and slouched the freezing distance to the front door.

Upstairs Sam was sitting on the floor with his back against the couch and his legs stretched out underneath the coffee table so his big feet poked out the other side. He was staring, glassy eyed, at the television.

Dean dropped his coat on the floor, dropped his keys on top of it, and locked the door behind him.

He said, "You saw him, didn't you?"

Sam nodded and cleared his throat.

"Yeah, he didn't see me though. He was getting into a cab down the street." Sam looked up, mouth open, ready to ask the same question he always asked when things like this happened. His face went white. "Holy shit!" He scrambled to his feet, knocking his knees against the coffee table. He moved like he might rush over to Dean, aborted the thought and moved back and sideways to the threshold of the kitchen. "Did—holy fuck—did Dad hit you?"

Dean supposed the only reason the rest of the world found that so surprising was because they didn't know Dean’s shitty luck was well as Dean did.

The light was off in the kitchen and Sam was framed by the soft square shadows of the counters and cupboards and the refrigerator. He took a step forward, wide hazel eyes and slack shoulders, and then a step back, shaking his head.

"No," he said softly to himself. "Ice." He slapped on the kitchen light and flung open the freezer. "Let me get you ice," he began to dig and said, in a slightly more hysterical voice, "Fuck, we don't keep ice." A deep breath. "Peas," he amended while Dean moved forward slowly, trying to figure out how to get a hold on Sam when he was a whirlwind of motion like this "we've got frozen peas, I know we do." Dean put a hand against Sam’s back just as Sam spun with a bag of peas in his hand, inadvertently flinging Dean’s gesture harmlessly to the side.

"Hey,” he said it because he knew it was what he was supposed to say, “I’m okay.” He even believed it. After all, there were worse things than having a psycho for a father. Dean might have been an only child. He might have been born into this horror story alone. "It's just a bruise."

Sam looked at him, incredulous.

"Dean," he said, suddenly breathless, "have you seen your face?" Dean hadn't. He'd been busy trying and failing to control the damage. "Cuz you look...you look, Jesus." Sam pulled away and wiped at his eyes as they welled up. "How could he...he might have...you..." and then Sam must have given up on language because he just snarled and threw the peas at the floor.

They burst and scattered everywhere. A thousand little frozen green pods of Sam Winchester's anger.

Dean watched them skitter to the four walls and the corners and under the cabinets and the sink. They came to rest like a universe settling into stillness, clustered and spread apart. Sam was breathing hard.

"I'm never—I just don’t understand!" He strangled out. “But I don’t think,” he looked hard at Dean’s face, “I don’t think I’m forgiving him this time.”

Dean was a selfish creature at heart. He sort of believed that to be true of all people, even those with the best intentions. Dean wouldn’t think twice about taking a bullet for Sammy, but that was mostly because he couldn’t stand the thought of alone. He was unwilling to entertain the possibility of life sans Sammy.

For instance, Dean did understand, to a small degree at least, the source of John’s violence. Because Dean had taken Sam away, made John face the exact situation Dean would never himself accept. Sam was John’s reason, and that Dean understood entirely. Sam was why there had been days when John had come home sober and taught them how to work a grill. Dean should have reminded Sam of the time Dad had come up beat up and bloody from a bar fight and then marched right back out the door to go buy ice pops because Sam was throwing up and Dean was out of money. He should have handed Sam the phone and said: “Give him a call first.”

But Dean's face hurt, and his chest hurt, and he also thought that maybe they should have stopped trying years ago. They should have cut and run. He didn't have the will to look up from the ruined peas, so he spoke, eyes peeled heavily open, to the Rorschach map across his kitchen.

"I'm gonna go clean myself up." His voice sounded like a stranger’s. A hand pushed on his shoulder.

"Let me do it," said Sam's gentle voice at his ear. And Sam’s voice sounded like Sam, so Dean allowed himself to be pushed and persuaded into the bathroom. He's getting tall, Dean thought feeling the looming warmth of his little brother at his back. He was pushed down onto the toilet seat and there he sat, passively, hands hanging between his knees while Sam pulled things out of the medicine cabinet and muttered to himself.

The sink ran for a minute and then a giant wet wad of paper towels was wiped along the side of Dean's face and forehead.

It came away red. A temperate rivulet of water tickled down his sore cheek and dripped off Dean's chin and onto the white tile, a tiny pink splash.

Dean stared from the droplet to the stained towels in Sam's hand and then plucked at the sleeve of his shirt where some of the blood had dried. Holy shit. Holy—he tried taking a deep breath and forgot the mechanics of breathing, the air stuttered into his lungs. His head felt empty and filled with air. He closed his eyes and turned his face away, opened them against and started counting the tiles in the shower. Have you seen your face?

Sam, in light of Dean's freaking out, became placid and calm. He was zen. He was a monk with the constitution of a sunlit rock. Warm. Unmovable.

"Head wounds always bleed a lot," Sam said steadily.

"Yeah," said Dean, and let everything happen.

He was shaking, freezing cold, by the time Sam was done. He let himself check out, lost count of the tiles, couldn't have done a third grade multiplication if his life depended on it.

"Dean," said Sam from far above. When Dean mustered up the energy to look up at his baby brother he saw a haggard young man standing over him, hair grown long and shaggy, eyes rimmed with sleeplessness and nightmares and all those other clichés that ruined men’s lives. "I think you're in shock," Sam was saying, "why don't you go sit on the couch under a blanket and I'll make you soup or something." He helped Dean to his feet and Dean saw in the mirror that Sam’s hair was still cropped neatly just above the ears, like it always was, and his eyes, though tired, were still clear. Dean powered through the hallway to the living room where all his power left him and he collapsed on the couch.

He watched Sammy pad into the kitchen with wary eyes. Somewhere, that other, darker Sammy was real, or maybe it was sometime. And Dean knew that any Sam with long hair and scars, dark eyes and rough hands, was a Sam that Dean had failed to protect somehow.

Soup arrived, carried in Sam's soft hands, handed over with the practical warning: "Careful, it's hot."

Dean took the bowl and set it carefully on the coffee table, shifted forward to sit on the floor so he could eat it. He reached up and grabbed Sam’s arm. "Leave the peas for now," he said. Sam settled next to him, close enough that Dean could be grateful for his body heat.

When Dean was done panicking, when he found his worthless voice, he turned to Sam and said:

"This shit is not your fault."

Sam tore his thoughts into the present with what appeared to be no small amount of effort and looked at Dean, or at Dean's very impressive fucked up eye. Dean looked back and waited.

"No," Sam agreed after a moment. "But it sucks anyway."

Dean shrugged because he couldn't argue with that.

xxx

Eventually Dean fell asleep. He slumped over slowly, in drifting increments, to become a strangely angled lump with a half-eaten bowl of soup growing cold in front of him. He appeared pale and distorted against the blue and maroon paisley, lit up by the yellow glow of the kitchen light, tangled in the waves of Sam’s red comforter. Though, he didn’t look particularly comforted.

Sam knew he ought to wake him up and send him to bed. And somebody had to clean up the peas.

The bruise on Dean's face was blooming like a rose. Blood had seeped out of the split along his hairline, despite Sam's best efforts, and had caked there, black and nasty. Sam pulled a corner of the blanket over and stuck his cold feet beneath it. Asleep, Dean always appeared sad and solemn, vulnerable. Sam hated seeing Dean when he was sleeping.

Dean was the closest thing to a mother Sam ever remembered having (not that he would tell Dean, but sometimes Sam really thought Dean was two kissed booboos and a cake pan away from growing tits and a minivan). And he appreciated all of it. Sam would claw his way into Hell and back if Dean needed him to. Dean had always been the one to pick a fight with John to cover up the horrible family silence while Sam hid upstairs. In fact, until Dean had left, Sam had never really given a thought to what a quiet family they were underneath the screaming.

Other’s families talked over dinner, or at least leaned into the hallway in their underwear to catch up every now and then. Sam and Dean had never needed to catch up and they never talked about much. They never had to. All the important things were understood implicitly. A glance, a shrug, a brush of elbows, every gesture in the Winchester family had a meaning.

Sometimes, Sam had gotten the feeling that the silence was hereditary, that it was always eating away at the things in the background, and Dean had spent so much time yelling so that Sam wouldn’t notice it and start asking questions. Dean was just Sam’s big brother as far as other people were concerned. But to Sam he was also the wall that had stood between Sam and John.

Sam was grateful in ways he couldn’t express. Dean had been the one to find a lawyer when Sam got into college early, he’d filed all the paper-work, drove up to New Jersey every weekend to spend his time in a drafty conference room so that Sam could be declared an emancipated teen and move to Delaware on his own. And Dean had driven back up at two in the morning the night Sam actually moved out.

But Sam was older now. He was capable of taking his own hits and this, Dean beaten up and bloody because John though Dean had taken Sam away? As if Sam hadn’t clearly, of his own volition chosen Dean.

Sam could not fathom raising a hand against his own family. Not like that.

Sam got up and swept up the peas. Then he went to bed.

The next day, just before lunch, Sam went to see Gabriel. He had a severe need for some philosophizing and a nonpartisan listening ear and Gabriel had been incredibly candid about his own life with Sam over the past few months. Dean had been up early to make them eggs and bacon, a guilty slope in his spine. And Sam had stolen furtive glances at the black and blue mess of his brother’s face and needed to understand. What could drive a father to beat his own son?

The philosophy department was nearly empty in the afternoons. It was a small department anyway, located in the corner of the Liberal Arts building, on the far end of a hallway whose only purpose was to house snack machines and act as a conduit between the Philosophers of UDel and the rest of the world. Gabriel's door was wide open.

Sam leaned himself silently against the door until his presence was noticed and acknowledged. This office was the biggest (which was saying something about the other offices), since Gabriel was the head of the department. Books, puppets, and candy took up most of the space, spread about in haphazard piles on the floor and the shelves. There were Kandinsky prints hung on the walls, giving the entire room a motley and slapdash appearance. A stringed jester sat in the corner atop the largest bookcase.

Gabriel himself was leaned close to his monitor, typing and squinting and mumbling to himself. His tie was the pattern of a snowy television screen. He looked up, fingers still moving, and nodded Sam into the office.

"My favorite psuedo philosopher," he said distractedly, "have you come to finally swear fealty to the cause and join our noble ranks? Or are you merely here to waste more of my very important time?"

Sam took a seat and smiled, nudging the door shut with his foot.

"I was thinking about people," said Sam.

"The latter then," said Gabriel and clicked something definitively with his mouse before swiveling his attention to Sam. He gestured widely with his hand for Sam to continue, and then sat still, limbs lying in a position to mimic the jester.

“What is the best way to understand a specific individual?” Sam asked after considering the best way to phrase his question.

Gabriel stuck out his bottom lip and pulled on it with his forefinger and thumb.

“That’s not a small question. Personally I’m in the ‘each individual is an unfathomable mystery’ camp. Parents don’t even understand their children and that’s like a Dr. Frankenstein situation. You made that monster, if you don’t understand him no one will. But, as far as practical applications go, I suppose there is also ‘walk a mile in his shoes.’ Do you have a specific individual in mind?”

Sam hesitated and then told Gabriel about the silence. He told Gabriel about Dean and John. Finally, he told Gabriel about his curiosity, about his inability to understand. It was that final thing that drew Gabriel's eyebrows together and disturbed the sardonic peace of his face. Sam found himself on the receiving end of a solemn expression, Gabriel steepled his fingers together and frowned.

"Sometimes you have to be content with the armchair, Sam," he said seriously.

Sam threw his foot over his knee, trying to make himself look more confident than he felt. His heart was pounding and it made his voice tremble, but he wasn't going to back down, because somewhere at the end of this road was the truth, and he needed it. Gabriel was his only source of aid.

"Bullshit," he returned and made sure not to blink.

Gabriel kicked his foot against the desk out of sight, creating a balancing thud to the clamoring in Sam’s chest. It relaxed Sam, brought his rising anxiety under control. He could not, in this instance, be content to sit and think about abstractions, be content with ‘the armchair’, as Gabriel put it. He needed the praxis, the experience. Gabriel was chewing his cheek and then he grinned suddenly. A flash of white teeth and twinkling brown eyes.

"True enough," he said. "And who am I to interfere with another intellect's experimentation?" he leaned forward to push the candy dish towards Sam. "Have a tootsie roll and come see me on Wednesday." He crinkled his forehead knowingly. "You don't looked relieved."

"I don't feel relieved," Sam admitted. He felt...twisted up, buzzed, nervous as hell, though he was getting no more than exactly what he'd asked for.

"I can only empathize and say that I doubt it will be as bad as you're expecting. People make up all kinds of horror stories. In the meantime, I brought this for you to read after you asked me about reality and perception last week." Gabriel pulled a book out of his backpack and handed it to Sam. It was old, the yellowed pages filled with marginalia: Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.

Gabriel was grinning again, a less toothy, more benevolent grin this time.

"Don't read it before bed is my only advice. It's not worth the nightmares about brains in jars. As an additional assignment, watch The Matrix."

Sam chewed his tootsie roll and tucked the book under his arm with a thankful nod. He left Gabriel to his emails and went off to the library to read while he waited for Dean's classes to end.

xxx

The orphanage was an ancient building that had held some pricey apartments when the hotel went out of business after it was renovated from an old mansion built in haste by a newly wealthy family sometime just after the California gold rush. At one point in its gestation it had also been a church, but only for a very brief period because it was far too large a house for the pulpit and had been at the lonely end of a town that was, at the time, far too small for God. The building, in all its manifestations, had retained the same title, having been named after the town in which it was built: Paradise.

Castiel had no photos of the orphanage, but to his memory it was lopsided sort of building, constructed internally out of a-symmetrical hallways that all ran in different directions and converged at unexpected points after brief detours through cramped and hushed rooms. The staircases, of which there were about a thousand, interrupted the hallways all over the place and could always be relied upon to lead one all the way up to the attic, somehow bypassing the second and third floors.

In reality the building had only four staircases, two of which lead to the higher floors, and three of which extended all the way up to the attic. One staircase, in the northwestern corner of the house, lead only to the attic, and it was this one which often waylaid visitors and children up past curfew. The fourth went to the finished basement; a place of considerably less mystery than was appropriate for such a house and, while the walls had been replaced at least once due to small fire in the 1940's, no bodies had ever been uncovered from within.

The bodies, Castiel had been assured time and time again by the older boys, were all piled up and mummified in the desert heat of the attic. Why else would it be forbidden?

Castiel's bedroom had been right beneath the attic on the third floor and was not actually a bedroom at all so much as a largish walk in closet with a twin bed mashed inside. Not that Castiel had minded, he was just a boy then and a small one even by other children's standards. He had room enough beneath the bed for the books he took from the library and there was a yellow, uncovered light bulb with a pull string above his head that allowed him to read long into the night if he could keep awake.

He was given, at the age of eight, a decrepit book of poetry as a gift because the librarian thought Castiel was a clever kid and the book was becoming too well-used even for the library. It was called Everyman’s Poetry, but only had the poems of one man printed throughout; Charles Algernon Swinburne.

In the precise middle of the book was a poem called ‘The Forsaken Garden’ that was morbid enough to catch a boy’s imagination and cryptic enough to catch Castiel’s. However, at the ages of eight to eleven, Castiel had been faced with the small problem of inadequate reading comprehension and had found that, by whispering the poem out loud to himself, he could understand it much better.

He was very careful, of course, to be quiet when he whispered to himself. His closet was part of a larger room and there were other whispers that often happened at night on the other side of his door. He did not know, for a long time, who the older girl waited up for or why she was dancing, but the tapping and banging sounds of her movements were more or less rhythmic and Castiel often found himself reading along in time.

The sounds would begin, usually, about an hour after bedtime. And Castiel, his back curved against the wood of the closet wall, lap swathed in the blankets that were too large for his bed, yellow light casting the shadows of his shirts and jackets where they hung above him, would frown against the interruption. The walls of the house were old and the shadows would sway, flashing across his pages and making it hard to read. So Castiel would bend closer to the page, lips moving, and whisper the words gently, in the stilted cadence of counting.

A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
The steep square slop of the blossomless bed
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses
Now lie dead.

He once made the mistake of asking the girl who she was dancing with and she’d snapped: "Shut up, about it. Christ," and shoved him into a wall.

So he'd shut up about it and continued to read through the nightly annoyance of the bangs and hisses and whispers.

He was much older, sixteen or seventeen, and living in northern California with his adoptive family before he had ever came to a clear understanding of what was actually happening in that room at night. He still could call back the cold horror of the revelation, the coos of his mother through the bathroom door as he sat on the floor beside the toilet and waited to be sick, trying like hell to remember the girl’s name because it had never seemed important until now. How he’d clutched the sides of the bowl, leaning his head against the blissfully cold porcelain, and prayed to throw up the horrible feeling.

After twenty minutes he’d given up and locked himself in his room. It was very different beast from his old closet, with every wall miles away from his bed, leaving him open and exposed to the moonlight and the cold chill of the window glass. He'd unplugged the night light and covered the windows and still light found its way, all the shadows grew darker, but didn’t go away. Castiel had drawn his covers up over his head and waited in the stuffy heat of his own breath for morning. He’d never done that as a child. Until that point there'd been no need; he'd never believed in monsters.

The nightmares he'd been unknowingly storing up for years came belatedly. They rode in like waves, like storms, like old pagan war stories with blood and battle drums, drowning out the songs of free peoples.

The fields fall southward, abrupt and broken,
To the low last edge of the long lone land.
If a step should sound or a word be spoken
Would a ghost not rise at the strange guest's hand?

His mother kept him home from school the next morning because she thought he had a fever.

xxx

Dean Winchester, during his first official attendance of Castiel's class, proved to be a young man with thoughts happening in his head.

He was already sitting in the back of the classroom, wearing his black eye as casually as anyone could, his leather jacket draped over his shoulders, when Castiel walked into the room. His feet were propped up on the empty seat in front of him and his eyes were frowning at the stapled packet of paper in his hand. He was thinking, not reading, but he looked up and smiled, just a little smile, when Castiel read his name off the roster.

He took notes on everything anyone said and watched the backs of his peers' heads with careful scrutiny while they spoke. His peers, in turn, would cast curious glances back at Dean and his spectacular bruise, looking away again when Dean only grinned dementedly at them. Castiel, for his today at least, decided to take the part of mercy and did not call on Dean or invite (force) him to share his own opinions.

Near the end of class, to Castiel's great surprised, Dean shared them anyway.

They were talking about Virginia Wolfe and the conversation took a tangential turn into whether a woman's identity as a mother had to take precedence over her identity as a writer. Castiel sat on his desk and prudently kept his mouth closed, except to ask a few thought provoking questions, and let the argument play itself out among the students. Dean, he noticed, had taken his feet down and was leaning on his forearms, pen forgotten in his left hand, mouth parted in something like confusion. At length, he shook his head and leaned back in his desk again, displeased, and one of the girls stopped her argument mid sentence to roll her eyes and address him.

"You have any verbal input to go with that negative body language, James Dean?" she snapped.

Dean, clearly caught off his guard, raised an eyebrow and shrugged. A moment of expectant silence ensued.

"I just think it's a stupid question," said Dean at last. And when he continued to receive the undivided (albeit hostile) attention of the room, elaborated: "Look, I'm not a mother and I'm not a writer either, but if I was, I doubt the first question in my mind would be 'Dude, which should I be first?' It'd probably be, like: 'Why the fuck do I have to choose?' No one ever goes around asking Jon Bon Jovi whether he's a father or a rock star first."

Because it was the beginning of February, it was already nearly fully dark outside. The snow was still sticking around, white and heavy, but Dean had a brisk and dying quality like fall. Like winter was only around the bend and not slowly fading away to spring. Castiel listened with a tight chest and curled his hands into fists so they wouldn't tap against the desk.

"That's because Bon Jovi's a man," snarled the girl.

Dean licked his lips.

"Yeah, that's sort of what I'm saying. If you're a dude you can have as many identities as you want and the one you like the best is the one you are first. If you're a chick, especially if you have a kid, other people are gonna pick your identity for you, right? If you sleep with a lot of people, you're a slut. If you have kids, you're a mom. If Billy Joel is writing a song about you, you're an un-corrupted virgin or whatever." Dean made a complicated hand gesture and then gave up and waved it in submission. His eyes caught Castiel's and then looked quickly away, embarrassed.

He shrugged and clicked his pen, huddled protectively over his notes.

“That’s a very astute observation, Dean,” said Castiel and refrained from saying more. Dean, it was very clear, was a student of the practical. He learned through experience and experimentation, so what had happened to him that he’d put so much thought into gender roles?

It was seven o'clock. Castiel let the class go, and scribbled a note to himself on the corner of a manila folder to make a trip to the library. He was surreptitiously watching Dean gather his things out of the corner of his eye as he did so. As Dean made to walk by his desk he murmured:

"You made an excellent argument today, Dean," and when Dean stopped and looked at him like he was a lunatic, he smiled.

"Thanks," said Dean in a voice that seemed more like silence than sound. He slipped out with the last of the others.

Castiel picked up his own things, his books and notes and weighty ideas, and went home.

 


3


His face is fused to the pillow with dried tears and muddy blood from another nosebleed. Chuck groans and pries himself away from the mess, crawling to the edge of the bed with cracking joints to stumble down the hallway to the bathroom. He plunges his face under the sink and turns on the cold water, lets it drown him, growing colder every second. He waits until he can’t feel his nose and forehead before pulling himself free. He gropes blindly for the soap until he finds it, lathers up his hands and sets about scrubbing the evidence of another bad night from his face.

The same nightmare had woken him up. The one where he looks at his face in the mirror and, even though it's all the same stubble and teeth and eyebrows, sees someone he doesn't recognize. Not because he's changed but because he's suddenly realized that he doesn't exist, that he never existed. That all his embarrassing memories and human flaws are just a cleverly written back story by the biggest writer in the business.

His head is pounding. He needs coffee.

Chuck dries his face and, after a quick and deep inhale, dares to open his eyes.

There he is, staring back at himself. White faced and terrified, dark circles under his eyes, soppy bangs hanging over his forehead and dripping down his collar.

How can he really know if what he is writing is what he wants to write? If God could possess a writer, maybe make a writer, who was to say he couldn't do so in just such a way that would precipitate the post-possession freak out Chuck is currently having? If God constructed you to the purpose of acting as a sentient pen, did you have any rights to free will?

Chuck plunks down on the toilet seat and sits, hands hanging between his knees. He plucks at the corner of his t-shirt sleeve where some of the blood has dried.

He's just a sock puppet then, button eyes popped on with a hot-glue gun, and without the hand up his ass he's falling apart.

And the story? His desires? What are they? If he is nothing but a tool that has served its purpose, why does he still feel the need to leave something behind? Why not just collapse immediately into a pile of excess organs and bones and ideas?

Eventually, when he feels so tired from slogging through the quagmire of his own thoughts that he can't bear to sit still anymore, Chuck rises and goes downstairs to his kitchen and his hideous walls. He makes coffee; it tastes like soggy ashes and asparagus. He sits at the computer; the screen looks like an opaque window that his eyes keep trying to see through. He rests his hands on the keyboard; they feel like heavy leaden gloves and it's hard to make his fingers move the way he wants them.

Why keep writing?

Just in case he does have a say, he supposes. Just in case it matters.

x0x

Mary Winchester, when she spoke at all, used to tell her boys that angels were watching over them.

Dean was seven when she went away forever. And the way she went, abrupt, self-imposed and without any goodbyes, made Dean re-evaluate his own ideas about angels. He was against them, for one thing. And if they were watching, if they were, then it only stood to reason that other things were watching as well. For years this bothered him, drove him out of his bed in the twilight hours to sit in the dark hallway watching the front door with a kitchen knife in his hand. On nights when his father didn’t come home he would be up all night.

It was a precaution at first: Dean believed one hundred and ten percent in ghosts and monsters until he was eleven and a half. But by the time he was nine his nightly vigils had mutated from just in case to I’ll wait until

He fully expected that one night something wrong was going to come through that door. Because Harrison, New Jersey was a terrible place and Dean was smart enough to know that terrible things were hiding there.

Eventually Dean got sick of waiting and went out to find the monsters himself. He took his kitchen knife with him. He thought about taking his mother's gun but it was heavy and he was afraid of it (he always imagined it twisting like a snake in his hands, blowing his head off—things like that happened sometimes).

Dean kept the knife under his jacket and just kept walking until his feet were sore. He was looking for the "bad" end of Harrison, (that he always heard his teachers and people in the supermarket talking about whenever there was a shooting or a robbery on the news) but in the dark all of Harrison looked bad, so he just walked down every alley he found. It was chilly and his hands grew cold and the contrast between the night and the streetlights made all the roads look twisty.

He was just beginning to realize, with a sharp, shivery feeling, that he was very, very lost when he heard the click of high heels coming toward him. Monsters, he'd known, probably didn't wear high heels. But he'd mashed himself up against a wall anyway.

The lady who came sighing around the corner— nails raking through her mussed hair, her shoulders curving inwards—stopped when she saw him. She was blonde but it looked dirty in the half-light and both of her eyes were bruised. Her fingers absently checked the buttons on her short skirt before she flashed a grin through red lips. She clicked over. Dean double checked that his knife was out of sight.

The lady leaned against the wall next to him and lit a cigarette.

"You got a home, hun?" Her voice was ash and honey.

"Yeah," said Dean, thinking it was a stupid question to ask anyone.

She looked down at him, smoke curling out of her mouth. Her eyes weren’t bruised after all, just circled with dark make-up that had smeared. She was probably, Dean decided, pretty. As pretty Mom had been.

"You should be there, then." She crouched down and tipped Dean's chin up with her long fingers, toward the street light on the corner. "You don't look beaten," she said, pulled on his pant leg, smoothed the shoulders of his jacket, "you're clothes fit and you don't look starved." She took another drag. "However bad you think it is, kid, it's worse out here. Go home."

She thought he was running away. And then Dean remembered he didn't know where he was. He cleared his throat.

"I don't know how," he admitted. "But I'm not running away, I'm hunting monsters, I think there must be some out here," he showed her his knife.

Her forehead crinkled in surprise. Dean noticed for the first time how impossibly big the knife was in his small fingers.

"Yeah," the woman said softly, "yeah there are. Come on," she stood up and took Dean's free hand.

They walked until they came to a pay phone, and then Dean sat on the curb while the woman made a phone call. He watched her while she tapped her toes and spoke into the receiver.

"Hi, I got a lost kid here, need someone to take him home. Lakeland and Ashmont...No, I'll wait with him."

Dean knew from the way she was dressed and what he'd seen on TV that she was a hooker. She was nicer than he'd always imagined a hooker would be though. And she didn't look so distorted and haunted like the ones from the movies. She looked like somebody's mother dressed up to go partying. She didn't smell so bad either, he noticed when she hung up the phone and came over to sit beside him.

"You know you're address, right?" she asked him. Dean nodded.

He only sort of knew what hookers did. He knew they had sex for money, what he didn't understand was why? On TV they cried all the time and talked about how painful it was…

Dean couldn't imagine this lady crying.

"Does it hurt?" he asked her without thinking.

She had been in the process of digging another cigarette out of her purse, but she froze and stared at him when he spoke. Dean knew he wasn't supposed to ask questions like that, but he'd always wondered because Mom had to have done it at least twice, and if that was why she'd been upset all the time...

The lady closed her purse, her face open and strange. She wrapped her arm around Dean's shoulders and squeezed him into a one armed hug.

"No, honey," she'd whispered into his hair. "Not like you're thinking." Dean hadn’t been hugged like that in two years. He was tired and hungry and confused and sick to death of being scared, because he was but he couldn’t tell Sammy about it. Tear crept into his eyes. He turned his face into the lady’s jacket and balled his fists. She rubbed his back with mom hands.

She talked to him until his nose dried up. And then he'd told her about Sammy and realized that he couldn't even go monster hunting again, because if he got eaten Sammy would be alone.

A cop car had pulled up after a while, and a police officer got out and asked Dean where he lived. He thanked the lady and told her to get on home too.

"Sure thing, chief," she answered amiably, helping Dean into the front seat. "What's your name, honey?" she asked him.

"Dean."

"Nice to meet you, Dean. I'm Ellen," she messed up his hair, shut the door and then was gone from Dean's life forever.

Dean left his knife on curb for her when the cop wasn't looking though, since she seemed to know where the monsters were and he got the impression that she even saw them sometimes.

xxx

"Who uglied you up?" Were Bobby's first words to Dean on Thursday morning. Dean took a swig of his coffee and didn't answer because it was seven in the morning and he had a strict policy about mornings and heart-to-heart chats (other than the one that stipulated there were no heart-to-heart chats in the life of Dean Winchester, there was another which forbid them between the hours of midnight and eleven fifty-nine p.m.). Fortunately, Bobby was the most perceptive asshole Dean knew and had already worked out the not very difficult mental calculations while Dean was giving him the finger.

"John," Bobby concluded on his own, in the same voice he used for phrases like "fire hazard" and "new Mazda models". Dean shrugged.

Bobby handed him the keys to the garage and told him that the new engine block had come in for the Subaru and it was up to Dean to screw his way through 497 shims, twice, to get the old one off and put the new one in. He took the keys and his coffee and went off to the cool dusty smell of the garage, where he flipped on the lights and cranked on the radio.

The station hadn't been changed since Dean had started working here a year ago. It was always the same.

Today, Bob Seger was feeling like a number. Dean couldn't really sympathize, could only wish for that kind of anonymity, personally he felt like he had big ass target on his back.

Dean put his hands on his hips and faced the Subaru. She was school-bus yellow with a sporty black strip running along the bottom. Some asshat had put sports tires on her and rearranged the silver letters that were supposed to say Subaru to say buS. This guy, whoever he was, did not deserve a new engine block. And Dean did not deserve to be the guy who had to spend 497 shims, twice, to get the damn thing in. But he was getting paid. And it wasn't the cars fault.

"Baby," he said as he raised her on the lift and sat himself on a wheeled toolbox, "your life is harder than mine." He had two hours of peace commiserating with the poor, abused Outback before Bobby slouched in and parked himself on a jack-stand.

"How did Sam take that shiner of yours?" he asked. Dean dropped a handful of shims noisily into a bucket. Bobby also had a rule about heart-to-heart's. It required that they take place, grudgingly, at least once a month, this rule extended to all those in his employ and anyone else unlucky enough to be considered 'family'.

Dean itched his nose on the sleeve of his t-shirt. He looked up to the clock and the wall and pretended to muse about the time, and then he bent over and pretended to muse at the underbelly of the Subaru. When he had wasted as much time with that as he could, he pretended to look around for an imaginary shim he knew he hadn't dropped. When Bobby's waiting silence began sound like a punch waiting to be thrown Dean finally said:

"He said he's never gonna forgive Dad."

"And you think forgivin's a bad habit."

Dean gave up on the shim he wasn't looking for anyway and glared at Bobby because was he fucking kidding?

"He wants forgiveness he can start apologizing any time," he said. Then he turned away and bent back to the Subaru. He was done encouraging this train-wreck of a conversation. Bobby knew all of his sad shit and he always took Dean's side in the end. Bobby reached over to pull the bucket away, arresting Dean's progress.

"Look," he growled, "I'm not trying to appeal to your overdeveloped sense of martyrdom, but you gotta know you are the only person who can help John. I know it ain't up to you to fix his problems, and you don't even owe it to him, things he's done to you and Sammy, but you're in a position now to either save the man's life or put the nail in his coffin."

"What the hell do I look like, Bobby?"

"You look like a kid with troubles."

Bullshit. Dean hadn't been a kid in years. Maybe Dean had never been a kid, just a twisted grown up in a smaller body.

"Fuck you, Bobby."

"You got reasons enough to hate your old man, I know," Bobby pressed on, his famous temper disturbingly absent. "But you're old man's got more personal issues than a bear's got shit, Dean, and he aint gonna be able to shovel himself out alone."

Bobby was a real poet.

Dean's first instinct was to reply, "I don't hate him," which was why he didn't say anything. Because maybe he did, and maybe that was fucked up. John was an asshole, and borderline abusive (although, perhaps he'd crossed that border, Dean's eye still twinged) but he was family and there were rules about that. Or there should have been. Bobby took Dean's silence as some kind of tacit agreement and said, carefully:

"He's not a bad man. Not really. He's just been drowning in his own demons for too long. And he's been punishing himself for what he's done to you kids all these years, even if you can't see it that way."

Dean was suddenly remembering the time he had walked into the kitchen after school one afternoon when he was fifteen. John had been sitting in the living room on a kitchen stool, stone cold sober and sobbing awfully into his glass of orange juice. One of Mom's old forty-fives was playing. Dean had stood frozen in the doorway and then backed out silently before John could see him. He took Sammy to the mall, and when they came home John was in the garage and there was an empty bag from the liquor store on the kitchen counter.

"Where'd you pick that crap up?" Dean wondered out loud.

"Read it in some damn book about Buddhism," said Bobby, he kicked the bucket back. "Doesn't mean it's not true, wise ass."

On some fey malfunction of the brain, Dean went home and suggested something similar to Sam over reheated, reconstituted macaroni and cheese.

"Bullshit," said Sam in a voice that Dean thought sounded bizarrely like his own. "If he felt that way he would stop. Or he would at least try."

Dean didn't know shit about Buddhism so he let the subject drop.

xxx

And yet—and yet, people said it was a disease. Which implied a victim, some form of helplessness, of requiring help or medication.

Who would choose to become such a person?

Gabriel's door was closed but not latched and the sound of a violin concerto was coming from within. All Sam had to do was knock, lift up his hand and let his presence be known. It was late in the afternoon, nearly five, and Dean was off in the library catching up on all the reading he'd missed for his Feminism class. And Sam was here, standing at a crossroads.

"As soon as you're done second guessing yourself I have a question about the correct usage of the m-dash, because I have a feeling the author of this email does not clearly understand it," said Gabriel, loudly and suddenly. Sam jumped and felt his face heat up. He sighed and pushed the door open and promised himself, for the hundredth time: It's just this once.

Gabriel was frowning expressively at his computer and made a frustrated gesture as Sam walked in.

"This student seems to believe she is Emily Dickinson," he muttered and pounded something out on his keyboard. Sam sat down and studied the bookshelf nervously while Gabriel finished. The jester had toppled sideways over the weekend and his face was hidden against the pile of loose-leaf papers he'd fallen on. The strings on his left side were tangled.

"Why do you keep him here?" Sam asked when the typing stopped. Gabriel looked over his shoulder, following Sam's gaze. He smiled at the puppet and reached up to set the little effigy to rights.

"Because he is the best expression of myself," said Gabriel, manipulating the knots away.

Sam didn’t quite know what that meant.

"I have asked a friend for a favor, by the way, and he’s agreed to help.” Gabriel continued, placing the jester gently back in his customary vantage point. And then he asked, casually, as if they were talking of nothing at all: "Do you still want it?"

Sam didn’t know. But, he reasoned, if he changed his mind he could always just throw it away.

"Yes," he answered softly.

Gabriel pulled open the top drawer of his desk.

"Close the door," he requested. Sam obliged and shifted forward to the edge of his seat. "I asked him to get you something smoother than I usually use but he said he wanted to make sure he got it right,” Gabriel rooted through the drawer and produced a plain, white, unmarked envelope. It had been unsealed already. “He’s stopping by here on Friday, come by again around three. He asked me to give this to you in the meantime.” Gabriel pushed the envelope across the top of the desk, putting a Hershey kiss on the top as an afterthought.

Sam picked it up. His mouth was dry.

The envelope might have been empty except for a dark slip of something that showed through the white paper. Though Gabriel had already done the honors and the envelope was cut wide open along the top, Sam didn’t look inside.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s…” Gabriel paused, “research. He thought it might ‘bring some light to your murky questions.’” Gabriel waited while Sam tried to sort that out and then shrugged before Sam could open his mouth. “I don’t get it either, and I peeked.”

“Right.” Sam put the envelope in the pocket of his jacket. He thought he could feel its extra weight, insubstantial but undeniable, pressing against the muscles of his chest.

xxx

Castiel’s apartment was on the second floor, at the top of a squeaky set of stairs and at the end of a dirty, ocean-spray hallway. He checked his mailbox, which was empty, and shouldered his way through the front door with his bag slung over his shoulder.

She was sitting on the third step up from the bottom, wearing a pink and white princess dress.

Castiel froze when he saw her, his right foot resting on the first step, his letter opener clutched in his right hand. His heart dropped right out of his chest, like the spring falling out of a pocket watch, and everything went still inside him. She couldn't have been older than eleven.

She looked up at him with dark brown eyes, alarmed, and brushed her dark brown curls from her pale face with a trembling hand. Her feet were bare and dirty but the rest of her was clean. Her hair was brushed, her dress was only a little stained. She stood up slowly, trailing her hand along the blue-gray wall as she skirted around him to her own door. Castiel saw, as she turned and ducked inside, the blue and black marks, like wide bracelets on her wrists.

The door clicked shut.

He'd meant to say "Hello."

Castiel walked up the stairs and let himself into his apartment, pausing over the dilemma of the deadbolt on his door. Some small things required a great deal of consideration, and it was minutes that he stood standing, his finger closed over the chilly brass.

In the end he left it unlocked.

He didn't bother to turn on the light of his own hallway, but made his way along the dim hallway by the cloudy light from the windows to the kitchen and turned that light on. The three caddy corner windows there were drawn and shut and might as well have been solid wall for all that he'd used them so far. He put water on to boil and pulled a mug down from the cupboard. And then he just stood, tired and tense, staring at the old bible propped up between the microwave and his toaster. A gift from Paradise after he’d been adopted, his friends had all written him notes in the back. He kept it out of nostalgia and a keen sense of irony rather than faith.

God, Castiel thought, had very little to do with a person's day to day life. Or if he did he was just an observer, either powerless or unconcerned with the tiny sufferings of tiny individuals.

Beneath his feet, after the ominous sound of a door slamming, a false silence began. And now Castiel could recognize it exactly for what it was. He’d been hearing it for two weeks, digging up guilty memories while he listened, asking vague questions of the neighbors.

Yes, they knew the family he meant, and wasn’t she a beautiful little girl? But the mother was hardly ever home and the father had some problems. Still, it was best if everyone minded their own affairs. The girl seemed alright, didn’t she? And the few times the cops had come they hadn’t done any good. Yes, best to just mind your own and leave everyone to their business.

Castiel turned off the burner and poured steaming water into his mug. He dropped a teabag in to steep and carried it over to the table. The tapping that drummed out the end of his fingers was an extension of the ticking, the rhythm that was spilling out from inside him. He cupped his hand over the top of the mug, let the steam coalesce and burn under his palm, and then he took his hand back and left the tea behind.

He turned off the kitchen light and wandered through his apartment, spent five minutes staring into his linen closet, eyes fixed on a useless box of Band-Aids and a bottle of Aspirin on the top shelf. Then he wrote three names for girls in the frost on his window, wondering if any of them were right? He didn't go near the bedroom, didn't even look in through the door. Eventually he ended up in the bathroom, standing before the mirror and the sink, just looking at his own face.

He studied the shadows beneath his chin and wondered how to break the silence? Because it wasn’t silence, the sounds were only too quiet to hear. But he suspected they were there, a caged, boxy tempo.

If he struck out hard enough, would it fall apart like glass?

Not a flower to be pressed of the foot that falls not;
As the heart of a dead man the seed-plots are dry;
From the thicket of thorns whence the nightingale calls not,
Could she call, there were never a rose to reply.

No.

He was sitting on the seat of the toilet, hiding from the image of his fractured visage and cradling his hand, a familiar sensation of horror clotting inside his stomach, when the pretend quiet ended. Someone turned on a TV in the apartment below.

 


4


There are monsters thundering at his door like the knuckles of the devil himself (if it had been the case that the devil ever knocked, which he didn't, as Chuck well knew) and clouds gathering blackly on the horizon.

Chuck lifts his pounding head up from the haven of his arms and glares out the storm door where the sun is shining as it's been shining for the past four days, warm and unstoppable. They'd been experiencing seasonally appropriate and delightful weather in Italy for a week now and the forecasts hadn’t yet foreshadowed a single drop of rain. If Chuck ventures out of his front door (he hadn't in twenty-four hours because the sun hurts his eyes and burns his skin) he can hear the crowds down at the beach. Tourists and ambitious locals and screaming children.

The monsters are all beneath this peaceful clamor, they are smiling and chattering and belching out the black mist that begins to fog up Chuck's mind. And Chuck, who wants nothing more than to curl up under a blanket somewhere and close his eyes and let himself be taken by the beasts, knows he isn't writing fast enough. The ending is still so far away it's practically unreachable.

It was foolish of him to think he could write the monsters away. Only a writer could be capable of such destructive pride. A world with no monsters was a world full of defenseless people. He doesn't know why, cannot find the core of the argument, but he is watching his revision as it is shaped and his conclusion is undeniable. The world is better, somehow, with monsters in it. It is brighter; it has a chance to be saved. But that is not why he cannot get rid of them.

And there is still the question of the love story.

Chuck sucks summer air in through his nostrils, (it's so heavy his lungs have trouble moving it) and drains his coffee mug. It's cold, black sludge, unsweetened because he's been making it himself and he can't remember where he put the sugar. He only drinks it for the caffeine buzz to say awake. Without it he begins to drift off and his impossible dreams try to take him away. He has to fight his way out of sleep like it’s a closed coffin.

Chuck starts up his computer and, while he waits, shuffles his way into the bathroom. It is the one room he hates more than his yellow walls because the mirror is there, reminding him that he looks like shit and is only going to look shittier before the end. Today his eyebrows, of all things, are nearly gone. As if they crawled away in the middle of the night. And when Chuck reaches up to brush a hand through his hair his fingers come away with clumps of hair between them.

He throws away his comb and goes wandering around the house until he finds a pair of scissors. He grabs his shaving cream and his razor. Then, shivering in the sterile box of tiles, leaning over the sink, Chuck shaves his head. He isn’t inclined to wait until it all falls out on his own, stuck to his pillow or floated to the kitchen floor.

There are only two real endings for lovers in fairytales: Either they live happily ever after, or they are eaten alive.

x0x

Dean had his Math a Troglodyte Could Do class at ten a.m. on Mondays, Wednesday's and Fridays and his Physics that would Make Neils Bohr Weep, class right after it. On Wednesday's they were followed by the three hour encore, The Agony of Neil's Bohr, in Practicum, which was his physics lab. This meant that there was one day out of every week where Dean Winchester was grumpy, confused, and hungry as hell by three in the afternoon because there was no other window for lunch.

In retrospect, that didn't make him feel any better when his feminist professor caught him swearing up a perfect storm at a mostly innocent ATM machine at three fifteen. Really the ATM was little more than a bystander to the entire predetermined fuck-parade that was Dean's day to day existence and it probably didn't deserve the laundry list of lewd things Dean called it. However, even with the universe and all its own attendant complications (black holes, expansion, certain death for everyone) in perspective, Dean was unable to react rationally to the vicious dashing of all his turkey sandwich dreams.

The hallway swallowed up his hisses and spat them back out as shouts that went rebounding into every corner like cries for help.

"I believe our friend here lacks the necessary orifices for what you're suggesting," said the voice from behind him.

Somewhere, in another life, Dean was a really cool spy, or a badass cowboy who threw punches at things that spooked him first and asked questions later. In this life he was a college student with low blood sugar who jumped and smacked his elbow off the wall.

"DUDE! Ow—" Dean's bank card made a slapping sound as it hit the ground and vanished beneath the ATM. "Damn," he stooped to fish it out, cringing as he felt the dust work its way under his fingernails. He glared up at Castiel.

"You sound thwarted, Dean." Castiel observed.

Thwarted was Dean's position exactly. Also, frustrated, doomed, cursed and damned.

Not to be dramatic.

"I was just about to grab a late lunch, but—" Dean made a short gesture to the fluttering, pink out of order sign.

"I see," a pause as Dean barked a triumphant HAH and emerged from the shadow of the ATM with cobwebs and his debit card in his fist, "I was actually on my way to do the same when I heard you shouting. Why don't you join me?" Castiel had a smile that was made of gentle understandings and cozy afternoons. His eyes, however, were made of something sharper and more crystalline. Something that could cut.

Dean had been assiduously avoiding this particular professor as a necessary self-defense and those eyes were the reason. But now that he was standing right in front of the man, alone in the cavernous hallway of the library basement, he found he couldn’t quite put a name to the threat. There was only a vague feeling that came with Castiel’s presence, it felt like learning that rocks were mutable and oceans were static. Dean found himself answering,

"Sure,” even though he knew that, somehow, Castiel was a trap door. That was almost part of why he did it, for the sheer perversion of acting against his best interests, of walking along that precipice. Besides, he absolutely could not go on to face Virginia Wolfe in two hours without so much as a Snickers in his system.

As Castiel reached out for a doorknob Dean the angry red network of scabs over the knuckles on Castiel's right hand. They were crisscrossing, dipping to the webbing between his fingers and splitting a across the back of his hand; like the dude had played bloody knuckles with a cactus and lost.

Dean flexed his own hand and felt the pulling of the skin. He wondered what part of Castiel's apartment had a fist shaped hole in it.

Castiel had seen him looking, had paused, and was watching Dean watch him. In that moment his eyes lost their edged quality and became concave, like little wells or little wounds, and Dean forgot that he was supposed to be the misfortuned and mysterious one. He reached out to take Castiel's hand and pull it closer for inspection.

The longest scab ripped down like a comet tail over the middle finger and was red and puffy.

"Did you even disinfect this?" Dean asked. The old phosphorescent light above their head cast down a sickly yellow light that was not quite enough to see reliably by. Dean ran his fingertips, very gently, over the surface of the scabs and followed their progress thoughtfully.

"I washed it," Castiel said, petulant like Sam. His fingers twitched but he didn't take his hand back.

"Cas," Dean began and felt a shift in the air. Cas gazed at him, startled and Dean changed his direction at the last second: "Is it family?"

A shot in the dark. But if he was on the mark Cas would understand his meaning.

A pensive silence followed where Cas looked down at their joined hands and scraped the pads of his fingers tips over the terrain of Dean's palm.

"No," Cas answered softly. It didn't make Dean feel any better, he'd been privy to lots of "not family" before and it didn't make it any less terrible. "It's the family that lives below me, there's a little girl. She's eleven or twelve I think, but..." Cas made a motion that wasn't really a shrug because shit like this wasn't something you could shrug about.

"Sometimes there's nothing you can do," Dean said and wondered who the hell had told him that before. He'd never bought that bullshit.

Cas didn't buy it either.

"I don't think you believe that, Dean." His eyes were sharp again, boring down, invasive. In most instances Dean would have pushed back, but he was still holding Cas' hand and despite the proximity of their bodies and the loneliness of the hall he felt like he was in the presence of an old friend he'd somehow forgotten about.

Or, well...

Cas' other hand was coming up, reaching directly, fingers resting lightly on Dean's sternum while his mouth said Dean's name, not a question, a gentle command.

Perhaps not a friend.

Dean swallowed the dust gathering on his tongue. "No," he said, and then thought he might as well speak the truth while he was here. "But sometimes you can't help."

Cas frowned at him, and then exhaled. The gust pushed them apart and they were standing on their own sides of the conversation again, a student and a professor.

"I guess that's the difference," said Castiel and pushed open the door with a gesture for Dean to proceed him.

xxx

Behind the apartment building where Dean lived there was a thick looking patch of woods. It rose up on the other side of a stone wall, tall and dark, making promises about lost travelers and wolves. Lichen grew on the north facing roots and thorns and Azalea bushes clustered and made even the conception of a path impossible. But all that was just bluster and illusion, really the trees stretched back for about a hundred yards and then cut off in a straight line at the edge of a grassy knoll that was the far, forgotten corner of a graveyard.

Dean went out the back door and through the woods and stood in the un-kept grass among the headstones in the dusty mist of a gray Thursday. Graveyards were quiet places, undisturbed and unconcerned. Dean liked to share the unburdened hush of dead people.

He had a book in his hand. It was a library book from the school. The cover was stained and it was a little thing, about eighty or so thick-papered yellow pages. But in the cold air of February and the chilling damp of the afternoon his fingers could barely support the its weight. Castiel had given it to him yesterday at the end of class, just as Dean was about to walk safely by.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, by Dorothy Allison.

Dean took it home with him and then, when nothing was on TV, he’d actually sat down to read it.

And he'd read it. The whole thing.

Not only was this unheard of in the annals of Dean Winchester’s Giving a Shit, but now—fuck Castiel and his deep blue eyes like a deep blue sea and fuck you very much too, Elton John—he couldn't stop thinking about it and he was asking questions he'd never thought to ask before and there were, just maybe, thoughts happening inside him. There were also, perhaps, tears breaking at the corners of his eyes because of all the implications of his newly acquired information and because he didn't know what to do. He didn’t know if there was action he should be taking. And worst of all he didn’t know, anymore, if he was capable of find the resolution.

Dean sat down, the grass was damp with melted snow and freezing but he was wearing an old pair of jeans and he didn't really give a shit. He needed to be further down, closer to the earth and tree roots and bones.

He opened the book, let it fall open to any page.

Behind my carefully buttoned collar is my nakedness, the struggle to find clean clothes, food, meaning, and money. Behind sex is rage, behind anger is love, behind this moment is silence, years of silence.

Basically it said that Dean was wrong, that Dean was a coward.

It also said that Dean wasn’t alone.

xxx

Dean's worst nightmare was actually a memory of one week during his sixteenth summer. It was the first time Dean understood just how inadequate he was for the job that had been handed to him.

John Winchester walked out of the house on a Monday night in June and didn't come back the next morning. After the second day, Dean had been convinced he was never going to come home at all.

Sammy had loved the whole week. Dean could remember how Sam had slammed his way down the stairs every morning, whammed shut every cabinet or door he closed, how he'd reveled in the noise. Dean let him listen to whatever radio station he wanted and he showed Sam how to use the turntable and they'd spent every evening listening to CCR and Led Zepplin, over and over again, with the volume turned up just enough as they sat on the floor next to the speakers and drank soda.

"I wish he would be gone more," Sam had said, grinning dementedly on his sugar high, drumming out Have you Ever Seen the Rain with a pencil and an empty soda bottle. Dean had been careful not to look up from where he was sorting through the other albums because Sam didn’t know how close they were.

Dean never told Sam how close they’d come, what a near miss it was. That was the point, Sam had a big brother so he didn’t have to know. And so he that would never have to be alone.

They were nearly out of food by Wednesday, and Dean had begun to worry about money in a serious way as he stood in the kitchen making the first of a marathon of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He'd had job applications out, but he was sixteen and all his jeans had holes in the knees and he'd blown off half of the interviews for various disasters of the Winchester nature. Dean had no real skill sets anyway other than cars and cussing, and he wasn't really a people person. He had a bad habit of using his sense of humor as a defense mechanism and tended to laugh at the wrong jokes and smile at the wrong times.

He couldn’t have called that cops, though John Winchester had officially been a missing person for at least twenty-four hours by them. If Dean had gotten official assholes involved, then they would have wanted to know, officially, who was taking care of Sam and Dean while John was gone. And if they had discovered the answer was: Sam and Dean then they would have taken Sammy away.

He was licking stray peanut butter off his thumb, trying to screw the lid back on the jar with one hand, when he suddenly thought of a woman named Ellen. Who had a kind smile and hands like a mother, who gave up one kind of shame for another, and who wasn’t ashamed at all.

Dean thought about her until they ran out of bread and Dean had to use some old and questionable tortillas that were in the back of the fridge. And then, by Saturday night, he’d had to be done waiting. He waited until Sam passed out on the couch a little after ten and he went upstairs and dressed himself carefully. Put on a tight, black t-shirt and his best pair of jeans, left his belt on his bed so they would ride low on his hips. And then he slipped into his leather jacket, put it on like a thick second skin, and walked out of the house.

Dean didn't glance back as he walked, he knew what he would see. The curtain was open to the living room, and Sam a dark shape on the couch, slumped over like jelly fish, face flickering different colors in the light of the television. Dean went down the streets and passed all the bars he'd frequented for the pool tables and kept walking down until the streetlights grew farther apart and he reached a place with parking meters and closed bistros and long dark alleys.

The bar was called Crossroads.

It was a clean establishment, with high, polished barstools and beautiful men and women working behind the bar and an honest-to-god piano man in the corner. The sign was carved and seared wood, with the same dark stain as the rest of the bar. The window was wide and clean and expensive. Dean didn't go inside. The bars he’d been to in the past never asked for an ID and so Dean had never bothered to procure one.

The street was busier than he'd expected, cars buzzing by, people walking.

Dean leaned against the lamppost by the bar window, his hands in his pockets, and tried to look bored. He ignored the glances and ignored the hammering of his insides. But it was hard, with nothing but a black sky to look at.

At least an hour passed. Dean's pounding heart was beginning to slow with the dwindling traffic of the street.

Dean let his head fall to rest against the cold metal of the pole.

"Are you waiting for someone in particular?"

Dean’s spine snapped him upright.

They were well dressed, standing arm in arm. He was tall and handsome with careless blond hair and long fingers and she was draped in black, her dark hair twisted artfully on top of her head. Together they were striking, side by side. They weren’t dressed for the bar.

Dean shrugged. His heart was hammering again. The woman was smiled at him, the fingers of her left hand twisting and pulling idly at the strap of her dress as if even its inconsequential material was an annoyance.

"Because," the man continued, "we were thinking you might be waiting for us." He walked closer, the woman standing behind him, and put a hand under Dean's chin. "You'd be a good fit," the man looked over his shoulder at his—the brush of cold metal on the finger against Dean's neck—wife. She smiled, white teeth behind her sunrise lips, and sucked the pad of her thumb into her mouth.

Her eyes were yellow in the lamplight. She looked at Dean like she might like to eat him alive and it made Dean's heart strain in his throat against the soft brushing hand of the husband. The man had easy, soft blue eyes, the kind that were easily lied to. But he was watching his wife, and it wasn’t until she nodded that he drew Dean away from the shadow of the pole.

"It's a five minute walk to our hotel,” he said. He took his hands off of Dean and stood with his hands in his pockets. The woman stood beside him. They were waiting for Dean to accept or decline. It was a very civilized deal.

Dean flashed them a lightning grin.

"Let's go," he said, and walked back under the waiting umbrella of the husband's arm. The wife's soft hand ushered him forward at the small of his back. They strolled down the street with Dean between them until they came to the parking lot of the hotel. It was shaded from the streetlamps, covered in shadows and black BMW's. As they stepped over the flower garden and made to move around the building to the front door, the husband leaned in to trail his fingers over Dean's face and dip them into Dean's mouth.

Dean was startled at first by the invasion. But he reminded himself what his part was here, and he stopped walking to suck the taste of almonds off the man's finger and back him up against the wall. The man smiled as Dean reached out and pushed a palm against the dip of his hipbone. Dean bit gently at the knuckle between his teeth and moved deliberately, careful not to let the trembling in his stomach show.

"Bold," said the husband appreciatively.

Dean shrugged and then froze at the warm gust, like a tiger's careful breath, on his neck. He felt the heat of a warm body behind him and caught the scent of vanilla and strawberries. She didn't say a word, she didn't even touch him, but slipped in close and blew on the bottom of his ear. Dean could feel her toothy smile in the shape of his sudden, irrational, panic.

He was hunted. The shiver that crept up Dean's spine washed his mind blank with cold terror. The husband's hands, tracing down Dean's chest, were unfamiliar and strange and there were things he would take away from Dean if Dean allowed it. The husband had changes in store for Dean. But the woman, her breath trailing to his shoulder, her nails gentle and teasing on the back of his neck, would break Dean apart just to see what was inside.

Dean couldn't breathe, he stumbled sideways, out into the free air away from her mint mouth and sweet wine lungs.

The husband frown, something like concern peaked under his arousal and pushed himself away from the wall. His face, though shadowed, betrayed his humanity.

"Are you alright, kid?" he asked.

Dean shook his head, his wooden tongue rattling in his mouth. I'm not—he thought to say, I'm not—it was as if a hand had closed around his throat.

The woman tipped her head, her eyes were an icy hazel, but they flashed yellow again under the influence of a passing car. She opened her mouth, hand outstretched, a small frown marring her features. What would she say? Dean back away and ran before she could speak. If her scent, her breath put so much weight on him, what power would her words have?

He ran all the way home.

I'm not a whore. He couldn't even gasp the words out to the lonely trashcans of his home street.

Sam woke up at the sound of the front door. He sat up and looked over the back of the couch while Dean shrugged out of his jacket and into the warmth of his own house.

"Dean?" he asked, "where'd you go?"

“Nowhere,” said Dean. And in a way it was true. In the end he’d run right back to where he’d started.

John came home the next morning. Just strolled in the door like he was a father again; sober, arms full of grocery bags and wordless apologies.

Dean cried in the shower he was so shaken and relieved. He understood how lucky he’d been this time, that it was all just a game of numbers and there was no way he could always keep ahead. Someday he was going to hesitate. Someday he was going to be too late.

xxx

In the envelope was a newspaper clipping (it was impossible to tell what newspaper) but Sam knew right away what month and year it was from: May, 2000.

Mother of Two Shoots Herself in Harrison, was the title of the article.

Sam closed his door and sat down on the edge of his bed to read it.

Mary Winchester, 35, took her own life this past Tuesday with a .45 colt revolver while her husband and youngest son were out shopping. Her body was found first, tragically, by her nine year old son, as testified by a neighbor (Mr. Reginald Gamble), who saw the boy standing at the window when he ran outside after hearing the shot. Mr. Gamble told reporters that he was in his kitchen already when he heard the gun go off and went immediately outside. “I was near the door when it happened so I knew right away where the sound had come from. And as I was running across the lawn I saw the back of the kid’s head in the window. The door was locked when I got there, I had to kick it in.”
Upon entering the house and running to the bedroom Mr. Gamble found Mary Winchester, dead, on the floor of her bedroom. “The kid wasn’t there anymore. I think he must’ve run and hid when he heard the door breaking open, but he stepped in some of the blood and I just followed the footprints. He was hiding in the closet.”
John Winchester was unavailable for comment. A funeral will be held for Mary this Friday.

Sam folded the article back up and slipped it back inside the envelope as a numbing sensation spread up along the back of his neck. It had never occurred to him that Mary’s death would have made the papers (though it seemed obvious now), and while the article held no new information the black and white nature of it, just facts spilled across a gray page, seemed…unreal.

This had happened. And here was real proof that all of Sam’s sleepless nights and Dean’s brooding silences weren’t rooted in some intangible horror. But merely a tragic event, recorded, read, and never revisited.

Sam put the envelope inside his Poe anthology. He couldn’t say why he was hiding it, only that Gabriel had given it to him with a specific purpose and it made him paranoid. If Dean found it and somehow divined Sam’s plan… Sam stood in his doorway and stared at the black and gold binding.

It wasn't going to hurt him. What did he have to lose? A little bit of his naivety maybe, but what was that next to truth? Even if it only gave him the key to John Winchester and nothing else, wasn't a little bit of time spent out of his mind worth it?

Yes. Some answers had to be worth the bad decisions.

He backed into the hallway, lip between his teeth, and turned to go to the bathroom. Whether he was mid-existential crisis or not he really had to pee. Sam bumped the door open with his hip and stopped with his hand on the light switch because Dean was sitting on the couch.

No, curled on the couch really. It gave Sam pause because there were some things Dean did not do, like curl, for instance. Not because he had anything against it, just because Dean was a sprawler, he sprawled, took charge of whatever space he was occupying by spreading his limbs all over the place. But there he was, shoeless, knees tucked up, head cradled in his hand, reading a beat-up looking library book, and wearing a face like a landmine.

When Sam came out of the bathroom a few minutes later the couch was empty and he was alone in the apartment. Dean's leather jacket and boots were gone.

The book, he noticed, was gone too.

xxx

Sam's favorite childhood memory was an ugly, guilty thing that came back to him whenever he heard Have You Ever Seen the Rain on the radio or caught the cloying scent of strawberry vanilla.

When Sam was twelve his father had disappeared for a week in the middle of June. Sam could remember the freedom from the silence, how he'd stomped down the stairs, the visceral pleasure of being able to slam doors and turn up the television as loud as wanted. It was the loudest quiet week of his childhood and that was why it was also the best.

Sam sometimes though that Dean and John had yelled and fought all the time just to keep from saying all the unsaid things that John kept in empty bottles and Dean hid under his bed with his porn magazines.

The last night before John had come home Sam fell asleep on the couch watching an old movie. Dean had been sitting beside him as he drifted off, a warm weight on the other end of the couch, smelling like laundry and Dean's deodorant.

And then the front door was closing and Dean was walking through it, slipping out of his leather jacket, looking white-faced and weary.

"Where did you go?" Sam had asked, his own voice still scratchy with sleep and his head fuzzy. He'd turned off the TV because suddenly the noise was too noisy, too unfamiliar, and Dean was standing over on the other side of the room with his silence wrapped around him like a blanket.

"Nowhere," Dean had kicked off his shoes, he was dressed strangely, provocatively (not that Dean wasn't always being provacative somehow but this...)

"Dean?"

"You ready for bed man?" Dean leaned against the door jam to the living room, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. "I'm beat, you must be beat. Let's call it a day."

Sam had recognized the misdirection for what it was. But the wall between Dean's unspoken things and the rest of the world was impenetrable—what he needed to hide so badly was something Sam had been trying to solve for years— it was the only secret left between them, and it was, Sam had a feeling, the source of many of Dean’s philosophies.

"Okay," he’d said. And Dean nodded and walked by to climb the stairs.

Sam had caught the scent of strawberry vanilla perfume. It clawed after Dean like a stain and hung in the living room for a minute even after Dean had gone.

Sam was twelve, but he also knew money had to come from somewhere, and he knew Dean wasn't having any luck with his job applications. It was only a suspicion, but Sam never got over the look on Dean's face or the scent of the perfume, the way Dean had hugged his arms around himself like he was trying to keep himself from spilling out all over the place. Or like he was covering up a wound.

Sam never found out for sure what had happened. He was always too terrified of the answer to ask.

xxx

Castiel picked at the scabs across his knuckles with his thumbnail and considered the brand new interruption in his life. It was peering suspiciously at him from across the desk, licking whipped cream from its bottom lip and leaning back against the cushion of its leather jacket, which it shed and donned like a second, optional skin.

Dean had appeared in the doorway of Castiel’s office, huddled deep into that thick leather skin, twenty minutes ago that Friday with two cups of Cocoa in his hands. He walked right in when Castiel caught his eyes and handed one over, taking a seat on the other side. “For lunch the other day,” he explained and shrugged out of his jacket. His legs stretched out beneath the desk and his ankles came to rest against Castiel’s thigh, chilled still from the cold winter air outside.

Castiel should have sat forward and pulled his legs back under him. But he didn’t, he sipped his Cocoa and waited, while the ankles against his leg grew warm, for Dean to speak. Because, clearly, there were words on his tongue, or under it maybe, and Dean was trying to dig them out.

There was a library book in Dean’s lap. Castiel had a feeling that the book was where the crisis had broken. Clearly it had not begun there. Dean’s eye was still tinged yellow and green and blue, though the swelling was gone.

After five minutes of silence, Castiel thought it might be up to him to open the conversation.
“Is there something you wished to speak with me about?”

Dean looked at him, his green eyes flickered down and Castiel self-consciously stopped scratching at his scabs.

“No,” said Dean. “Well, yes…I just,” he put his Cocoa down and waved the book through the air like it was a white flag, then put it gently down on the desk, “Why give me this? Why this book?”

Castiel had a feeling there was actually a whole other question behind there somewhere and he just didn’t have the skill to hear it.

Why Dorothy Allison? Because she spoke to the people who most needed speaking to, because she had been raped and then had spoken alone and she was speaking now so other people didn’t have to. Because he secretly hoped there was another girl in the world, with red hair and brown eyes who’d grown up in a Californian group home named Paradise, who was reading Dorothy Allison instead of remembering the faces of all the people who hadn’t spoken up for her.

Castiel said: “Why not that book?” instead, and watched Dean’s face carefully.

Dean’s green eyes flashed.

“That’s a crap answer,” he said.

Castiel inhaled, there was electricity under his skin, it began in his thigh and buzzed up to his hair follicles. He pushed himself forward in his chair to reach across the desk, his knees brushed Dean’s, and he flipped to the front of the book, to the second page, and then pushed it back towards Dean, keeping his finger wedged in the binding to hold it open.

“This is why,” he said, indicating the last two paragraphs on the second page. “Read it,”
Dean leaned forward, frowning.

--story can become a curtain drawn shut, a piece of insulation, a disguise, a razor, a tool that changes every time it is used and sometimes becomes something other than we intended.
The story becomes the thing needed,”

Dean’s legs, under the table, pushed against Castiel’s. He stared at the page for much longer than it took to read and reread and comprehend. Then he moved slowly, like a fly breaking away from molasses, and took the book back, slid it out from underneath Castiel’s fingers. When the book was back safely in his lap he reached out again and turned Castiel’s hand over to study the scabs again.

Dean didn’t speak. But his fingers whispered through, calluses gentle on the sensitive skin and Castiel, already leaning forward, steam coalescing under his chin from the cup between his elbows, used his free hand to pull himself further out over the expanse of the table. It was such a short space anyway, hardly a space at all, hardly a distance, or a foot, an inch.

He brushed his thumb over the blossomed blue and green on Dean’s face.

Castiel would have spoken for Dean, if he could have. But Castiel was a wordless poet, a blank past, always the one on the outside, watching other people hold their tongues, or have their tongues held for them. Castiel didn’t hold his silence because he was frightened or ashamed, or because circumstances had cut away his ability to speak, he was simply empty of stories. Dean, Castiel thought, held his silence because it was what he had seen others do.
Or perhaps he lacked the air? Dean was looking at him directly now, his fingers had found their way between Castiel’s own on the desk, and there were great voids in his eyes that wanted.

If Castiel were to tip the rest of the way, press his mouth to Dean’s and breathe all his wordless breath to Dean’s lungs, would all those stories come spilling out?

Dean was slowly rising out of his own seat, steady like the sun, taking the higher ground. Reaching as if to catch something about to fall.

The book fell to the floor. Loud, like a gavel.

Castiel jerked back and Dean, already out of his chair, stepped away, breathing heavily.
They stared at each other. Castiel knew his own bemusement was mirrored in Dean’s face. They must have been like two moons, risen from different horizons, stunned to find that they weren’t alone in the sky.

“I’ll see you in class,” said Dean. He grabbed his second skin and left with his question still unasked, left the book on the floor and his Cocoa half-finished and warm on the other side of the desk. Castiel sat heavily back in his borrowed chair, stretched his legs out beneath his borrowed desk and breathed the borrowed dust of the adjunct office.

Shall the dead take thought for the dead to love them?
What love was ever as deep as a grave?
They are loveless now as the grass above them
or the wave.

xxx

He needed some perspective. Forget Dean’s story, he’d been about to overstep an unforgivable boundary for the sake of the gravity in Dean’s green eyes. And this wasn’t some romance or Victorian novel where certain rules could be ignored for the sake of love. This was real life, there would be serious ramifications, his job not the least of those, if he had stepped over that line.

Castiel left his office to go seek some advice.

However Gabriel’s office was occupied already and he nearly crashed into the young man who floated out of the door with a dazed expression. He was tall and familiar, wearing a frown that looked sickly and a plaid buttoned shirt. He steadied them both with his long fingered hands and mumbled,

“Sorry, wasn’t looking.” Then he made to continue on his way. Castiel almost let him go. But his stride and the set of his shoulders and the way he shrugged into his canvas jacket made Castiel ask:

“Are you Sam?”

The young man stopped and turned.

“Yes?” he answered, and crossed his arms over his chest.

“I am Dean’s”—and somehow he stumbled over another word before he managed “professor,” though after the sentence he could not for the life of him imagine what other word he’d been about to say. Sam’s eyebrows did a complicated dance of thinking.

“Professor Novak,” he ventured eventually. Then he smiled, a wobbly and a distracted smile but it looked honest. Sam held out his hand. “Dean talks about you. Hell he reads for your class, which is miracle enough, but I think he’s actually learning from you.”

“Call me Castiel. Or Cas, if you prefer, it’s a moniker you’re brother blessed me with.” Sam’s hand was cold and trembling. “I do not wish to pry Sam, but are you alright?” It was an inappropriate question, brought up at an inappropriate time but Castiel was shaken still and unaccountable for his better judgment, which had apparently abandoned him days ago anyway.

“I…yes I’m alright.” Sam shrugged. “Just got things on the mind, y’know?” His second smile was much more convincing.

He learned that from Dean. That soothing charm, the Winchesters used their faces like armor. Castiel hadn’t yet figured out how to get past it, but he knew that Sam and Dean were close, so he took a risk.

“I only ask because Dean also seems unwell today.”

There was a real expression.

“Really?” Sam looked over his shoulder like he might find Dean standing behind him.

“Sam,” Castiel asked, about to push, maybe solve a mystery or two, but was cut off by the quiet entrance of a second party.

“Castiel!” purred Lucifer, “We were just coming to see you. Gabriel told me you teach here now and I thought I would say hello.” Gabriel himself was standing impassively in the background, smiling, his hands in his pockets. Lucifer pulled Castiel into a formal hug and let him go quickly, his hand lingering on Castiel’s shoulder.

Castiel, for his part, was struck dumb. He hadn’t seen Lucifer in years. And the few tales that had come through the feeble grapevine were disheartening. Even if he hadn’t heard the rumors, looking at Lucifer’s pale face and steady eyes, Castiel could tell he wasn’t the same person.

Or perhaps, more frighteningly, he was exactly the same. His role simply more clearly defined in adulthood.

“I…did not expect,” he cast a desperate, questioning glance to Gabriel. This was their mutual acquaintance? Gabriel was more dangerous than his instincts had originally informed him, but it was a vicarious peril. Gabriel only shrugged.

“Could I tempt you with some lunch?” Lucifer asked, finally removing his hand.

No, “I…” Sam, who Castiel had all but forgotten, was looking curiously between everyone now. Gabriel caught the boy’s gaze and, behind Lucifer’s back, took a deep breath.

“Sam,” he said suddenly “You should tell Castiel about the Usher house.” He winked and gestured widely with his arms, “I meant to tell him about it last week because when you told me I thought, ‘That is exactly the sort of story Castiel would be interested in,’ but then I plumb forgot. You tell it better anyway. Go on.”

It was a perplexing non-sequitur to say the least.

“The Usher House,” Sam echoed. Lucifer shot a bored stare at Gabriel.

“The story is not that interesting,” he said.

“The Poe story you mean?” Castiel prompted desperately, turning away to look at Sam and put some distance between himself and Lucifer.

“It’s not, I just can never remember the brother’s actual names and it’s on the edge of this swampy pond so I always though it looked like the house from the story. It’s an old abandoned farm house across from the cemetery by my apartment. It’s been condemned but kids go there to party or to get a good scare because it’s supposed to be haunted.” Sam, clearly, had not been prepared to play the raconteur. He shifted uncomfortably, his hand clutching something in his pocket.

“Right,” said Gabriel impatiently, “but tell him the reason. Tell him why it’s haunted.”

“Uh,” if anyone there present comprehended Gabriel’s motives it wasn’t Sam. He pulled his jacket closer around himself and decided to comply, he looked at Castiel and smiled ruefully before he began.

“It belonged to these two brothers who inherited the property from their father after he was killed in a hunting accident. They lived together for years, kept the family orchard going. But people thought they were weird because they didn’t have any friends and they never married. They were very close, apparently, and you never saw one without the other. Most of the versions I’ve heard or read suggest that they were…unnaturally close. But,” Sam twisted his mouth, “who knows?

“Anyway, eventually the little brother got sick, some wasting disease, the doctors didn’t know what to call it. But it ate away at the brother’s body and mind. He lost weight, couldn’t leave his bed because of the migraines, couldn’t stand the sight of the sun or certain sounds. He was dying and his older brother couldn’t stand to watch him suffer. So one night he loaded up his father’s old army Colt and shot his little brother. Then he killed himself.”

“That,” Castiel said slowly, “is horrifying. How did you find out about this?”

“One of our downstairs neighbors,” said Sam. “She made a crack about how close Dean and I were, called me a…see? I still can’t remember the name. And I’ve looked it up about three times.”

“Have you been to see it yet?” Gabriel asked casually. “You told me you’d been meaning to check it out.”

“I haven’t yet. It’s one of those things you keep putting off without really knowing why.” Sam checked the time on his cell phone. “I’ve really got to run. Thanks,” he said this in the general direction of both Lucifer and Gabriel, so Castiel couldn’t who was it was actually directed at. He said to Castiel, “See ya,” and then left, walking quickly, his hand fiddling with whatever was in his pocket again.

“Well,” said Lucifer, “now that story time is over. What are your plans for the rest afternoon Castiel? I understand you don’t have class for a while.”

“I don’t but one of my students is struggling with something. I should probably see if I can help out.” Castiel accepted another discomfiting hug from Lucifer and then he fled back to his office. When he glanced over his shoulder at the end of the hallway as he walked away, he saw Gabriel looking sharply after him.

 


5


The monsters are here.

Chuck trembles and keeps his face close to the computer screen, trying to ignore the shadows in the edge of his vision, creeping in behind the morning shafts of sunlight, because he knows they aren’t coming in the windows or through the door. And if he sees them, if he really sees them, he’ll never stop seeing them because they belong to him. They are his monsters, his creations, seeping in, finally, to the edges of his mind.

His madness has come later than he was expecting. Chuck runs a sweaty palm over the short fuzz that’s left on his head. As his eyesight begins to go, as his body prepares to shut him up inside, these figments arrive. They reach for him, curses beneath claws, truths behind their teeth, allusions dripping from their mouths. Poetry. On the wall, in the breeze of the monster’s breath (or perhaps it is still the ocean breeze?) the yellowed paper moves and brushes against Chuck’s ear, straining against the thumbtack that pins it down, traps it like a butterfly’s corpse.

Chuck spits out poison through the keyboards as fast as it can choke him. Every horror and pain, he pours it out into the story, hoping to drain his wound, to gain himself some time. His noble intentions have been twisted into a desperate and selfish endeavor. He writes like a drowning man swims, like a starving man eats; he writes like it could save his life.

This, he thinks, pressing closer still to the glowing screen, the muscles in his back pulling and cramping, is the downward turn. His neck and wrists are killing him. He feels like a car that was driven too far, too fast, by an engine he’d never been meant to run. At last, he’s close to the end. This is the heart of the maelstrom, here the story plummets, spirals down, and cascades into its final disasters.

Then there will be only the aftermath.

He has been an idiot. If he wanted to give his characters relief, if he wanted a happy ending, then he shouldn’t have written a fairytale. Fairytales are full of darkness, and Chuck doesn’t have the strength to write about the sun anymore.

He’s failed, already, in his revision. Now he’s like a fatally wounded soldier, morbidly pulling back his bandages just because he wants to see what the damage looks like.

x0x

The nightmare came at the tail end of a very good dream. There were blue eyes burning into him and black hair between his fingers, warm lips on his neck. He arched himself into the touch, seeking the heat and turned to bite the living body, to make his own need known.

And then he was alone in the bedroom. Or in a bedroom. The middle of the afternoon steamed in through the windows, curtains thrown wide. The room smelled like laundry. Dean was sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the open doorway to the hall and trying like hell to look at the floor, to identify what bright figure was occupying his peripheral vision, but he couldn’t seem to bring himself to do it.

And there was something stuck between his teeth.

He picked it out with his thumbnails and pulled it, feels the tug behind his tooth and running along the roof of his mouth. A small bloody knot emerged, pinned between his forefinger and his thumb. It was one end of a taut piece of thread, the other end was still stuck in his mouth. Dean pulled again and the thread kept coming, yanking out reluctantly as if there were a whole spool of it jammed in Dean’s mouth somewhere.

A tooth, suddenly relieved of a pressure Dean hadn’t been aware of, fell to the floor between Dean’s knees. Dean tried to look down at it, but the figure in the corner of his vision still prevented it. He let to tooth go and froze, the pile of bloody thread in his hands. The thread, Dean realized, was holding his mouth together and he was pulling it apart.

The roof of his mouth flapped down like loose wallpaper and Dean pinned it back up with the tip of his tongue. Another tooth fell out. He wanted to call out, to ask anyone for help, but if he made a noise everything would unravel. And he couldn’t know if it was only his mouth or, if the thread continued, what else would fall apart.

Dean woke up half out of bed already and sweating. He kicked the tangle of the sheets away and went shaking into the bathroom where he checked every single tooth, carefully, in the mirror.

Cas stared at him in horror when he recounted the dream two days later, on Tuesday, as they stood on the library steps, engaged in one of those conversations that was meant to last five minutes and instead had already gone on for an hour.

“Are your dreams always so vivid?”

Dean shrugged, thought only the bad ones and said: “Nah.”

Cas was leaned against the brass railing, arms tucked in close around his body, coffee cradled in his hands. Dean was leaned next to him so their arms were pressed together. And, though Cas was looking at Dean, Dean was watching the icicles melting on the eves of the library. He studied them like they were the only thing happening, like wasn’t seriously thinking of turning taking his professor’s face in his hands.

Dean sipped his coffee and waited for something to happen. At length, Cas exhaled beside him, as if coming to a decision, and leaned in closer.

“Dean, I am unsure how to ask this,” he said, soft and low. Dean could feel the rumble of his voice through in his shoulder, pressed up against him. “But you’re reaction to the book I assigned seemed…very personal.”

Dean had been waiting, he’d known the sharp edges of those eyes were going to cut him open eventually.

“Dean,” Cas pressed “were you—“ he left the question unfinished.

Raped? Dean wanted to supply for him. Molested? Victimized? He met Cas’ eyes and shook his head.

Cas didn’t look relieved. He looked, if anything, more horrified.

“It wasn’t Sam, was it?”

NO,” Dean’s voice jumped out of his chest. “Jesus…God, no. I would never let Sam—“ it trailed back into wordlessness, ending with a rasp. Castiel nodded and looked to the ground.
Dean’s pocket buzzed. He shifted his coffee to his left hand and dug his phone out of his pocket. Sam’s name was lit up on the little screen. Dean flipped the phone open.

“Yeah?”

Sammy’s voice, tinny and strained, bit out from the other end:

“Dad’s here.”

Dean straightened away from the railing and Cas. He had to push the next word out of his mouth like it was a boulder. He tried to reorient himself in the spinning world.

“Where?”

He hadn’t expected this so soon.

“Parking lot. He’s way out of it, Dean, talking about angels—”

The phone snapped closed in Dean’s hand and he was running already. He’d known since he was sixteen that this would happen, that one day he would be living his life and then he would turn around and there would be Sammy asking “Dean, where were you this time? Why weren’t you there?” They lived on each other’s precipices; it was only a matter of time before something knocked them down.

Dean hurtled across the campus, tearing through the dark to the back lot behind the science building. It was easy to move forward. He felt like he was following in his own footsteps, his boots landing in grooves perfectly molded to their size and shape. He felt like this road was paved exactly for him. This disaster, this failure, fit him like a glove.

He thought he heard footsteps following behind and ran faster, in case it was his own ghost coming up behind him. Snapping at his heels.

Too late-- As he’d always known he would be someday. The shouting reached his ears, two voices, amazing like each other, brazen across the little lot that was usually filled only with the sound of the crows. There were two or three other students, clustering on the top of the hill by the freshman dorm and looking down, pausing as they passed on the other side of the artificial line of trees.

Dean flew between the parked cars and saw that Sammy had John backed up against the hood of the Impala, his father’s arms gripped in his hands. They were both screaming like they needed heaven to hear them. Dean could see the sheen of sweat on John’s face as he approached and he could hear the tears on Sammy’s. Sammy was in John’s face, shaking him, tearing his voice apart with ugly words.

John wasn’t listening. He was spitting out Dean’s name, like it was a curse, and trying to push Sam away.

“Sam,” Dean barked as he slowed his pelting to a stride, the noise of two broken people shouting cut off at the sound of his voice. Sam stepped back automatically without even looking at Dean. But he was reaching out with his arms still, mouth pressed tight in a grimace, like if he just find a way to reach his father John would hear him and stop fucking up his life. John tried to straighten, he looked at Dean with a grave and twisted expression.

Dean expected the stale and crisp scent of booze but it was something else, something sweeter. He looked at the thick sweat and John’s heavy eyelids and his eyes fell to the rolled up sleeve of John’s left arm.

What’s he done to himself this time? Dean turned to look behind him.

What’s he done to Sammy?

Sammy was unmarked. Dean tried to catch his eye.

“Dean,” his father’s voice under Sam’s white face.

“Holy—“ Sam was saying as Dean turned around.

And then all the sound went out of the world. It just fuzzed out and stopped like a turntable coming to the end of a record.

John had leaned back against the hood of the Impala. He was looking up at Dean from under the hoods of his eyes and cradling a black .45 colt in his hand. Mary’s gun, Dean’s mother…

I’m too late. Dean thought again, and realized for the first time what he was too late for.

He’d spent his whole life with his eyes on Sammy, watching carefully, waiting on the balls of his feet for the second shoe to drop. Dean had made damn sure he was always there for Sammy, had always come every time he thought Sam would call. But, thinking back, Dean realized that Sam had never asked for help, had usually managed the big things on his own. It was something Dean was always proud of him for.

And in the meantime, John Winchester had been hanging on by the tips of his fingers, scraping through every day in desperation, screaming for help, while Dean just kept turning his back and walking out and slamming doors and not answering the phone.

John held the gun out to Dean like it was a rose.

“Is this what you want from me?” he asked.

No. Dean thought, but his voice was gone.

“Because I think I can give you this now,” his hand was steady on the hammer as he pulled it back. His shirt stained with sweat and his lips were quivering, but his hand was steady.

Never.

Sam was pulling desperately at Dean’s arm and shirt, tearing it at the seams, trying to get Dean out of the way. Dean didn’t move. The gun wasn’t for him.

“I’ve been a coward for a long time,” John turned the gun around so he was looking down the barrel. He smiled at it, tenderly, like it was his wife’s sleeping face. And hell, what did Dean know? Maybe that was what he saw. “But if this is what you need from me.”

It’s not. Dean tried to say. But his silence was absolute.

Stop. Don’t. The words wouldn’t come. Dean shook off Sam and rushed forward, put his fist into his father’s nose. It crunched under Dean’s knuckles, and John took the hit like a brick wall except for the blood that poured out. He lifted his hand, slowly, to catch the flow as it smeared into his beard and looked at Dean with the dazed expression of just another surprised drug addict. Dean yanked the gun away.

“We need a goddamned father you moron,” Dean snarled, using different words since the ones he needed were missing still. “We need you. We need you to stop fucking yourself up and fucking us up,” Dean wrestled with the gun until the chamber popped open and the bullets sprayed onto the ground. He dumped the last one out of the barrel and then shook the empty gun in his father’s face. “I mean what the fuck, Dad! At least when mom did it she did it quick! You’ve spent years dragging us down with you and now you wanna check out for good? Now you wanna act like a martyr? I don’t fucking think so!”

John Winchester was holding his nose and slowly sliding down the fender of the car to the asphalt. “She always said the angels come at the end,” he mumbled, shaking his head. Then he looked skyward, right through Dean. “No angels here,” he said, and Dean knew with a hollow pain that his own tirade hadn’t been heard.

“Dean,” said the interfering voice of someone who didn’t belong here. Dean looked over his shoulder, the raging inside his ribcage prepared for another fight, and recognized the empty battlefield of Cas’ face. “Perhaps,” Cas said calmly, though his voice shook, “we should put the gun away before the police are called.” He was holding out his hand, willingly, and Dean felt his fingers aching and cramping. He gave Cas the gun.

Sam was in the background on his knees picking bullets up off the ground.

“We should take him to the hospital too,” Dean managed after a minute. The blood was starting to soak into the front of John’s shirt. He seemed mindless of the pain and kept gazing into the sky. “I broke his nose and I don’t know what he took but when he comes off it…”

“I will drive you,” said Cas.

Dean was about to protest, but Cas was moving to the driver’s door of the Impala, slipping the gun into the pocket of his coat. The casual gesture was unfathomable to Dean, that Cas would carry the gun Mary Winchester killed herself with because Dean was too fucked up to carry it himself.

Sam got to his own feet while Dean pulled John off the ground.

xxx

The hospital smelled like formaldehyde and really stale coffee stains and lemons. Sam sat on the chair made of metal while Dean talked to the nurse behind the glass window on the other side of the room. John was swaying and sweating at Dean’s side, held up by his oldest son’s arm wrapped around his ribcage. He was muttering unintelligibly and kept trying to lie down and go to sleep on the floor. Dean was rambling off a list of John’s medical information by rote. Eventually the ER doors swung open and Dean half pushed, half dragged John through and disappeared into the hallway of ringing phones and hospital noises.

Cas was sitting next to Sam, a still and calming presence. Oddly at ease with all of his surroundings.

Sam was tired. He was tired from standing and tired of sitting and he felt used up and emptied out. He wanted to go home and curl up on the couch and watch terrible movies with Dean. Instead, he slumped forward over his knees.

A hand, palm up, offering support, appeared in the corner of his vision. Sam took it and held on. He closed his eyes and forced himself to take shallow breaths, fought back the mess of everything inside him. He tried to remember all the things he always told himself he’d do for Dean when things went to shit, as he’d known they would eventually. But all he had was the feeling of being suffocated by his own chest.

Once, only once (and it had fallen into the category of ‘Things Dean Never Needed to Know) Sam had skipped a class to go see his high-school guidance counselor. It was last year, the second week after Dean moved away, and Sam, without Dean’s wordless but comprehending presence, had wanted someone who could help him figure out all his messed up shit.

He’d spent the better part of the hour skirting around the truth, misleading the woman with incorrect insinuations and lies of omission—he was only fifteen and didn’t want to accidentally get Child Services involved, one more year and he’d be free after all—but he had also made it clear that things were bad and he wasn’t sure what to do. He’d wanted advice, not even a solution because he wasn’t sure there was one, but some helpful suggestions at least.

“It’s not your fault, Sam,” he’d been told instead. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but you’re still very young and it is simply not in your power to fix this.”

Sam had gone home depressed and disappointed.

What really sucked was that the stupid guidance counselor was right. Sam couldn’t fix anything because he was still just a kid. He could play grown-up all he wanted but in the end it was clear that Sam was still just Dean’s baby brother. Just some messed up little boy who was helpless without Dean.

He must have been squeezing Cas’ hand numb. But Cas only squeezed back, gave as good as he got, kept Sam grounded in the midst of all his striking memories and useless epiphanies. The surreal experience of sitting in the Emergency Room holding his brother’s, teacher’s hand was completely lost on Sam. It felt right even, that Cas should be there. It felt like he had always been there.

Why was Dean taking so long?

When Sam opened his eyes the off-white tiles were swimming in his vision. His shoes had melted into hazy blobs and it took a long, raggedy breath to keep it all down.

His head snapped up when the E.R. doors buzzed finally back open. Dean came trudging out, his hands in his pockets and his back bowed. He looked exhausted. Sam watched him plod across the floor, and look up and see Sam. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and straightened his back, took the rest of the distance in three long strides.

The thing inside Sam’s chest took a swing broke free, rushing out as a choked back sob. Dean crouched down in front of Sam, put his hands on either side of Sam’s arms.

“Hey,” he said.

Sam let go of Cas and wrapped his arms around Dean. He buried his whole face in Dean’s neck and collar and just let the tempest go, let it whirl out of him, uninhibited, unembarrassed, like he was nine again. His sobs echoed in the hush of the waiting room.

He tried to keep in mind that Dean was probably keeping all his own calamities contained so he could take care of Sam. But all Sam could remember clearly was that Dean was all he had, all he’d ever had, and that without Dean he would have been stuck trying to ford this horrible story alone. How, when Sam had called to say that he got into UDel he hadn’t even had to ask before Dean was already telling Sam what to pack and what to leave behind and flipping through the yellow pages to find a lawyer.

Sam cried himself hoarse. He cried himself empty, into a state of loose apathy and sleepiness while Dean soothed warm palms up and down his back.

“Easy, Sammy” Dean was rumbling somewhere in the general vicinity of Sam’s ear. “We got this. Everyone’s alright.”

Dean, twelve years old, pushing Sam towards the stairs. Easy, Sammy. I got this. John splitting the silence in the house with his shrieks and curses, while Dean barricaded the bottom step with his own pissy attitude. It’ll be alright.

It will be alright.

Sam pulled away, sucked up all his gross in one giant sniffle, and look his brother in the eye.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Dean looked surprised at the question. His eyes flickered from Sam to Cas and back to Sam.

“Course,” he said lowly.

Liar. Sam didn’t say. He was too tired for this mystery, it had been culminating all his life and he couldn’t deal with whatever secret Dean was keeping at the moment. He let Dean pull him to his feet and walk him back out to the car, Cas holding the doors and keeping close while keeping his keeping his distance at the same time.

Sam fell asleep in the car on the way home from the hospital and dreamed that Dean had been too late. He dreamed that John took Mary’s gun and shot himself in the head. But instead of an exploding mess of brain and blood and tissue, the bullet left a perfect circle in the back of John’s head, and out of it a black smoke poured forth and John collapsed to his knees like he was deflating, his irises swallowed into the dark caverns of his eyes. His teeth bared in a perfect, white grin.

Dean’s face in the darkness looked like a ghost when Sam was shaken awake. Professor Novak was standing behind him, a specter dressed in black. The gate of the apartment building clanged and pinged and broke out of its top hinge when Dean swung it open. There was an untimely warm wind blowing, making the stones slippery as the snow and the ice melted. The light in the stairwell flickered as they ascended to the second floor and the apartment was a hole of pitch midnight on the other side of the door.

Sam wandered immediately into the safety of his own room under the pretense of following Dean’s suggestion of: “Bed, man. Now.” He even turned out the light, choosing to sit in the darkness of his windowless room.

His nap had refreshed him. Or at least his nightmare was forcing him into a reconsideration of the wisdom of going back to sleep immediately. If such subconscious demons were waiting for him he wasn’t really in a rush to meet them.

Sam sat in the dark and thought about his helplessness in the parking lot and back at the hospital. Was he really so lacking in character? Was he really doomed to only fulfill his role of ‘Dean’s little brother’?

Unacceptable. And he did have at least one avenue. He had a path to understanding, to empathetic knowledge. If he could know, not only through intellectual investigation but first hand, the drugs that had John so entrapped.

It wouldn’t take much. He only needed a taste of self-destruction, he could extrapolate from there.

Sam opened his cell phone for light and went to his bookshelf, the third shelf up from the bottom, and scratched thoughtfully at the binding of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

xxx

Lucifer had come later than most of the kids. He was twelve and Castiel was ten and he was the first friend Castiel had that actually wanted to talk about things. Lucifer read a lot and talked even more and had come to Paradise with an arsenal of pretension and dangerous ideas. He was well read up on myths and the classical legends; Milton was his favorite.

Their friendship only lasted a year, because two weeks after his eleventh birthday Castiel was adopted by the Novak’s, a good, liberal, Irish Catholic family who were fine with Castel’s constant questions and did everything they could to encourage his curiosity.

That year, however, was full of firsts for Castiel. Lucifer somehow found ways to sneak cigarettes, liquor and dirty magazines into Paradise. He hid them all under Castiel’s bed. Lucifer was worldly, he didn’t talk about his past, but it was clear he knew about a lot of things. Castiel couldn’t imagine what he could see in a boy who’d spent his whole life tucked away in Paradise.

“Why me?” he’d pressed one afternoon, leaning close to the open window to take a drag of the cigarette Lucifer had offered him. They were in the attic, whispering plans to each other. Lucifer was very good at demystifying all the secrets of the grown up world. The door to the attic had never even been locked and there was nothing inside but old furniture, cobwebs and boxes. The smoke stung his lungs, but left him sharper and more relaxed at the same time.

“Because you’re like me,” Lucifer had answered. “You don’t just accept all the bullshit that people tell you. You think about things.” Lucifer looked out the window. “Most people just wanna tell other people what to do, or to do what they’re told. They don’t even think about what they’re doing.” He’d looked back at Castiel, patient and placid as he always was. “You think,” he’d concluded.

xxx

I have not thought this through. Castiel realized belatedly, standing awkwardly in the Winchester brothers’ living room while Dean ushered Sam off to bed. He couldn’t very well take Dean’s car back to the college, and Dean, however much of a show he put on for his brother, was obviously exhausted and swinging on the end of his tether. Castiel could call for a cab, but that would be tedious and expensive and it was already going on midnight.
Dean wandered back in, slipping out of that second skin of his and dropping it over the blinking red light of the answering machine.

“Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it in the morning,” he said and rubbed at his face. “Thanks for everything tonight, Cas. You’re going way above and beyond you’re call of duty here.”

Castiel shrugged. It didn’t really feel like he was going above and beyond his duty. He felt like he was exactly where he was supposed to be. Which only proved that he was in the wrong place, in the home of a student he’d nearly crossed a line with before, long after sunset with no way home.

This was an old house, with big, old windows that shuddered in the wind as it picked up outside. It made a whistling sound and snuck in through the gaps left by the aging wood at the corners of the window frame, bringing with it the faint smell of ionization and unlikely rain. An early, out of season storm. The walls of the apartment were the same eggshell white that nearly all apartments were. Castiel rather thought the room was too bright.

“Cas?” Dean’s uncertain voice brought him back to his own tenuous predicament, “Why are you here?”

Castiel had assumed his answer was obvious: I don’t know. But when he opened his mouth he found himself saying:

“I’m here for you.” His sleepy brain caught up with the accidental implications slowly when the shock showed on Dean’s face. “To help, I mean. I—“He pushed himself away from the wall, seeking his pocket blindly with his left hand. He would call a cab after all. Forget the cost, he was tangling himself in a web he wouldn’t be able to back out of if he didn’t run for it now.

The sound of Dean’s inhale was lost under the sound of the wind, but Castiel saw his chest expand, and then its forceful contraction as Dean wrestled out the words:

“Will you stay?”

Castiel paused. The improbability of such a request, the impossibility that Dean would ask such a question, not just in light of the dangerous attraction between them, but in light of all that Dean was, a reluctant hero, a victim, a grown up child. The suggestion was tantamount to a request for help, as express a plea as Dean was ever likely to issue, and made only one answer possible.

Castiel slipped out of his coat and hung it on the hat rack in the corner.

 


6


So here he is. He’s made it this far. There’s only one more piece.

Chuck says “I will not write gay porn,” out loud to his goldenrod walls in a voice that sounds like mountains crumbling and knows he is lying.

It is untrue that writers write. Writers don’t do shit except go back later and check for bad grammar. Stories write and writers just hold the fuck on until the rodeo is over. Stories are self-propelled and writers drink themselves stupid so they don’t have to know the feeling of hurdling on through the darkness while they ride that crazy train all the way to the end of the line. And when writers come back around, hung over and sick, they find themselves in a dense and unpleasant jungle full of tigers and pythons and monsters altogether less reasonable.

Like gay porn.

He bites his thumb in frustration and shouts in pain when he feels a sharp sting as the thumbnail splits apart. Chuck looks down at the fissure, white at first and then red as the blood begins to swell up and out. His body is turning on him, becoming fragile and brittle. He should be frightened out of his mind.

But, perhaps, there is too little of his mind left. The shadows are very close around him now. They frame his vision in black and make it easy to forget the weather. Make is easier to forget there is a whole world of heroes and villains and people in between who will go on living after tonight.

So this is the end. Whatever happens now, it’s all he has left.

Chuck just can’t believe his last act as a living man will be to write gay porn.

x0x

The hospital was keeping John for a period of at least twenty-four hours on suicide watch while he detoxed. Sammy had fallen face first into his mattress, still fully dressed, and Dean had closed the door so the kid could sleep. Cas was sitting on the couch and watching Dean like he was a tower about to topple down.

Outside a storm was breaking across the sky.

Inside…

Dean had a number crushed in his hand, it was scrawled in his own chicken scratched on the back of a receipt he’d had in his pocket with a pen that was only half working. It was the number he was supposed to call tomorrow to talk to John.

What the fuck was he supposed to say? What could he say that he hadn’t already been screaming at his father for fourteen years? Why would John suddenly start hearing him now? If anything he was farther away than ever and Dean’s voice, when it mattered, had never been very loud.

Cas shifted so that he was sitting on the very edge of the couch cushions, leaning in Dean’s direction with a gaze that could cut atoms apart. Dean turned out the light to get away from it. He was exhausted and pissed at himself and he needed an outlet, or a distraction. And Cas had stayed. He was the dark shape on the other side of the room, flashing into view and then away with the distant strikes of lightning, his hands folded between his knees. The shadows played tricks on Dean’s eyes, as the windows cast two shafts of distorted light, like severed wings, across the living room to Cas’ figure.

Dean’s shirt was still wet from where Sammy had cried into it.

“I think I fucked it up,” Dean whispered into the darkness. He crossed the room and stood over Cas.

There was no such thing as God. But people died anyway, some of them killed themselves, while other people had to go on living.

He felt like he was floating through this moment as a casual observer, everything was happening from the outside in. Cas reached up and added his own pull to the heavy tug of gravity. Dean crumbled apart quietly, slipped to his knees and bent his forehead forward to rest it on Cas’ thighs. Cas was present like a guide or a guardian, he threaded his fingers through Dean’s hair and warmed the back of Dean’s neck with warm palms.

“Tell me,” he said.

The future was supposed to be a lonely place. It was where people changed their minds and grew old and passed away. It was where global warming melted the earth and Spielberg fizzled out and Hollywood crumbled under its own bullshit. The future was the place where Rome fell, where the Buddha went to sleep, the future was a place Dean shuddered to think about.

He always thought Werner Heisenberg summed it up rather well.

Uncertainty.

But the past was worse. The past was certain and it could not be changed or rewritten.

Dean breathed in, his subjectivity smashing into sharp focus around him, the scrape of Cas’ jeans against his stubble, the tickle of Cas’ fingertips at the nape of his neck. The sound of the thunder outside. His feet were cold and his face was hot. The brush of Cas’ tie against the side of his face as the other man leaned over him like a shelter.

Life was not a story. Sam read his books and took from them, shaped his life and his ideas around those things, but monsters weren’t real and heroes died out quickly because they were the only people not running away. Time and space worked in conjunction so that, as far as the Universe was concerned, there was no such thing as ever after. If life were a story, then Dean would be reading his own ending in Cas’ touch and the racing of his blood, hot as Hell in his veins and surging in time with the tempest outside.

If life were a story, Dean would be realizing that this was an apex he’d been hurdling towards since the beginning. And the way he turned his face and pressed a kiss to Cas’ thigh would only be the culmination of his greater destiny or some shit, not a decision he was making against all his better judgment. The hitch he heard in the breathing above him would be only another confirmation of this is meant to be, and not Cas’ hesitation. The slow drag of Cas slipping off the couch to his knees, face to face with Dean, would be time memorizing each of their heartbeats for posterity, not a reflection of how wrong they both knew this was. The flippant, butterfly quality of the first kiss—hardly felt, barely there—would be the mutual consent of two people falling carefully in love and not the question: Are you sure?

If this were a story, as Dean slid his hands up Cas’ chest to his neck and Cas finally coaxed Dean’s mouth open with his tongue, they would both be thinking At last. But from the jittery fumbling of his own fingers and the careless scraping of Cas’ teeth, Dean could tell they were both actually thinking: Fuck it.

“Cas—“ Dean gasped at the hot mouth at his neck, the friction of Cas’ stubble sending the lightning down his chest to the bottom of his stomach and farther down still. There was a hand working it’s up under Dean’s t-shirt, pushing it up and over his head. Dean yanked on Cas’ tie until it came free and started on his buttons. One at a time.

“Dean?” Cas queried in a voice of heat and velvet smoke, pulling another lavish kiss out of him.

This was a future place. Somewhere Dean had never been before, and because it was in the dark it had yet to be observed, Dean knew that he could make it anything. Cas had a firm hand on his hip and was pushing a thumb beneath the waist of Dean’s jeans. Cas was pushing Dean’s boundaries and Dean was relinquishing them, one by one. In the flickering confusion of the noise and the light through the windows, Cas was unmistakably the brave one, leading the charge with his patient mouth and impatient hands. But it was Dean’s words that would determine the shape of this event.

Dean could have asked for forever, or for love, for understanding. But he was lit up like a pyre with need and when Cas’ hand smoothed forward and popped open the button on his jeans, Dean surged forward and sucked away all the remaining questions from Cas’ mouth. He trailed his tongue across to Cas’ ear and growled: “Fuck me,” in a voice that made it clear he wasn’t asking for anything.

Cas pushed Dean down onto his back and started stripping away layers until Dean was naked: “Fine,” he said. “But you must be quiet or you’ll wake Sam.” He licked a network of vines over Dean’s chest and traced an agonizing circle around Dean’s cock with his fingertips. Cas moved himself lower, flickered a passing taste of his tongue over Dean’s erection before he sucked his own fingers into this mouth and pressed one, wet and chilled into Dean’s ass. Dean arched his back away from the unforgiving scrape of the rug, pushed against the intrusion and closed his eyes against the dizzying movement of the shadows on his wall.

Cas was slow at first, working Dean open with the same endless patience he used to teach. Dean was spread out like an essay or a map before him, just an object of his careful scrutiny. He watched with a tipped head and a curious expression every squirm and twist of Dean’s body. A smile crept across his face when his fingers struck Dean’s prostate and Dean hissed and tried to find purchase on the rug. There was nothing, he was on a plane of friction with nothing to slow him down.

Until Cas stood up and left him, split apart and aching, alone in the room. Dean lay still, quivering, feeling the tickle of the wind squeezing in around the window. He kept his ear o the floor and listened for the returning thump of Cas’ footsteps. Because he was listening, he heard the first of the raindrops fall. They struck the window with immediate force, like individual but poorly aimed bullets, and the cascade of the storm followed.

Cas returned with a bottle of lotion from the bathroom. He put it down on the low coffee table and then removed his own clothes. One article at a time, dropping each one on the couch and out of the way, on top of the pile of Dean’s already discarded articles. When he was done, he settled himself on the rug over Dean and squeezed a generous amount of lotion into his hand.

“Remember,” he whispered, “silently.” Then he slipped his slick digits inside and trapped Dean’s grateful moan with his mouth.

Dean obediently kissed back and stifled the rest of his sounds. The storm outside was making them for him anyway. Battering moans and groans out of the tree limbs and bumps out of the shingles. Dean took the pleasurable burn of being stretched open with quiet grace and he bucked into the heat of Cas’ mouth with little more than a few ragged gasps. And when Cas pulled his hips up and pushed himself inside, Dean bit his lip and turned his face away and breathed through it.

But when Cas began moving, when he leaned closer, hips stuttering forward, and Dean saw in the incomplete light of the storm the desperation on Cas’ face, his control snapped, and little words and sighs began to trickled out of his mouth. Cas tried to hush him, murmuring soothing promises as reached down and used his hand to pull Dean right up to the edge. The windows were shuddering under the fury of the misplaced gale. Dean’s vision was just beginning to slide away into a sharp darkness that had nothing to do with the absence of light, the charge in his spine coalescing at the bottom, curling up to explode, when Cas grabbed his neck and put his lips to Dean’s ears so Dean could hear him.

“Dean,” he groaned lowly. “Shut up.” His hand twisted over the head of Dean’s cock and his thrusts became erratic. Dean, if he wasn’t being well and thoroughly fucked into incoherence, would have pointed out that it didn’t matter, the storm was making a louder racket than they were.

“No,” he gasped instead, and then moaned “Yes,” and “Oh fuck,” and came with the force of those first raindrops, as a tumbling catalyst to greater tremors. Cas made a noise oddly like a chuckle, and stumbled in his rhythm before freezing, following Dean’s down and collapsing slowly onto Dean’s chest.

The storm was still going, but all the strangeness had gone out of the room leaving a comfortable daze.

Dean waited until the pressure of Cas’ body on top of him turned into discomfort and then pushed at Cas’ shoulders.

“Bed,” he groused. They gathered up their piles of clothes and carried them to the bedroom where Cas put his boxers back on and Dean dumped all of his things onto the floor. They crawled into the bed and tangled themselves together.

Dean was exhausted, warm and loose, and sleep pulled him quickly out of the world.
In the last haze of his consciousness he thought he heard Cas rumble:

“I’m sorry.”

xxx

In the morning the storm was over and everything was frozen ice again and Sam was gone.

Dean stood in the doorway to Sam’s empty bedroom and told himself it would be stupid to
panic. Sam’s shoes were gone and his jacket was gone. His bed was made, except for the book with the black binding discarded on top of it. Dean picked it up, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe in gold on the binding; the title page had been ripped out. Dean let it fall back to the bed where it bounced heavily. Sam liked to get up early sometimes and go the library—The night after Dad tried to shoot himself?—or go for outdoorsy walks to think – before eight in the morning on a Wednesday? – Dean was imagining disasters where none existed yet.

When he called Sam’s cell the bookshelf rang.

Dean jammed on his boots and was halfway out the door before he realized he wasn’t alone in the apartment, Cas was standing half naked in the living room calling his name. Irritation he couldn’t explain flashed through him.

“Sam’s m—gone out. I’m just going to find him,” he said. Concern and something stranger (like knowledge?) crossed Cas’ face.

“Shall I—?”Dean didn’t let Cas finish the question.

“No. I’ll be back just…I got this.” He shut the door before Cas could reply and was down the stairs and out the door.

xxx

The ceiling was really quite hideous. The paint was peeling and the plaster behind it was stained with water marks and mildew.

Sam sniffed and rubbed at his eyes. He should have thought to bring some water; his throat was dry. The wind, creeping in between the decrepit walls and the busted out windows, had carried the empty plastic bag, traces of the white powder still sticking in its corners, to the far wall where it was trapped beside an old empty beer bottle. The wall was covered in black and red graffiti: song lyrics, misused pentagrams, proclamations like Meg wuz here. The title page of Sam’s favorite book was smeared with the remainder of the drugs and pinned underneath Sam’s elbow. A corner of it had been torn away and rolled up to make a tube.
He’d also brought the blank envelope and the newspaper cutting with him. He couldn’t say why.

There were supposed to be ghosts here: two tormented brothers that had trapped each other into eternity with love. Or maybe with love and something else altogether more unconventional.

“I’m sorry,” he said out loud to the empty house, “but I can never remember your names.” The wall paper was coming down in thick chunks shaped like continents. It was patterned with the paintings of a repetitive rustic country scene, horses and wagons and faceless women with parasols. The plaster behind it was brown and yellow.

Sam sniffed again and twiddled the rolled up scrap of paper between his fingers. He wasn’t going to be useless anymore, not just Dean’s little brother, he was going to find the truth in this haunted, run-down place and then he was going to go home and use it to rebuild his family. He’d start with the foundations, sick since he could remember, and expand upwards. Sam was going to make bridges with his bare hands, and he was going to dig right into the bottom of John Winchester until he found the poisonous center and he was going to suck the poison right out.

He’d been here since five, waiting for the first of the sun to see by.

After a time Sam realized how cold the wind was and how hard the floor. His clothes, insufficiently wrapped around his body, were scraping and corrosive. Sam sat up and began to strip them off. The chill was delicious on his naked shoulders and back.

Sam sat in the House of Usher in his underwear, legs folded. He could see all the grains of the floor, he could hear all the holes in the walls, and if he tried, he could imagine all the histories of this house. He was very good with stories and details and holding them inside of himself.
That was him. Sam Winchester. Receptacle of other peoples’ stories.

Sam began to giggle. There was a wonderful fountain of mirth rising inside him, a grand appreciation of the humor in his life that he had somehow missed previously. How funny was disaster? How unlikely and misunderstood and…beautiful somehow.

The brother’s had died beautifully. So had Mary.

Mary Winchester, who had pretended she believed in angels just so her eldest son could sleep at night after she was gone.

Sam lay back onto the dirt, the wonderful dirt, of the floor and laughed. It was so difficult to see how things were connected when you were bogged down by morbid perceptions of reality. How could anybody come to reliable conclusions looking though a glass that skewed everything into its worst possible manifestation? Mary talked about angels to give Dean Winchester peace and John talked about angels because he’d known they didn’t exist and Dean never talked about angels because maybe he knew they did. Perhaps he’d met them, perhaps they were everywhere and Dean was frightened by them.

Maybe Cas was an angel. Or Gabriel. They were angel’s names.

Sam heard his name from somewhere in the house. He didn’t answer them, the ghosts would find him on their own, here in his sunlit haven on the dusty floor, beside the old cigarettes and dead leaves and the corroded belly of a cast iron woodstove behind his head.

The problem was becoming clear. It was all about perception, about what people saw and what people thought they saw and what other people thought those people saw. So it was only a matter of Sam seeing what John saw, and then teaching him to see it different. The difficulty was that John had seen a lot of things. John had seen his sons growing up without under his own demonic influence. He’d seen his wife buried at thirty five. He’d come home in the middle of a summer day to see her sprawled across her bedroom floor with a hole in her skull and a gun in her hand, his son refusing to be coaxed from the closet.

And these looked like ugly things. But they weren’t, not really, because—

“Sam?” Hands on his face, wonderfully frozen hands. Blue eyes and dark hair and kindness. It wasn’t the ghosts after all, but Cas.

Sam hadn’t expected to see him and it derailed his epiphany for a moment. He smiled and patted Cas on the arm. The blue eyes—they were rather the color of the sea weren’t they? Or usually were, today they were the color of the bruise fading on Dean’s face—flickered around the room and landed on the far wall by the beer bottle and the plastic bag.

“Sam, what did you take?” Cas asked hoarsely. “What did Lucifer give you?”

Sam handed him the envelope. Mother of Two Shoots Herself in Harrison. Castiel read it and frowned.

“This is not what I meant,” he said, but he looked alarmed.

John had seen the last expression on Mary’s face and the inexplicable one on Dean’s. He’d seen the broken front door, the bloody footprints. He’d seen what he’d done to Dean by leaving him alone with his mother on just that day.

Even the neighbor had seen Dean at the window.

Wait.

“Sam,” Cas was saying with more urgency.

Dean had been standing at the window almost right after the shot. The window on the far side of the room, standing in the window right after the shot. There was no way Dean, seven years old, had made it down the hall and across that room, strewn with blood as it was, with his dead mother in it, all the way to the window to be seen seconds after the shot, unless…

“Sam, talk to me,”

“He was there already,” Sam said and tried to push himself upright. “Dean was watching when it happened,” He looked up at Cas to see if the gravity this was being understood. That Mary had killed herself with her son in the room, that after all of her precautions and soothing angel stories, she had taken a gun to her head while Dean

“Why didn’t he ever say anything?” Sam asked. Cas’ frightened and sad blue eyes looked like they might have the answer, but they didn’t give it away.

xxx

Castiel found him in the back foyer of the old house, almost naked on the floor, wearing nothing but his boxers and a wide smile, his face turned into the sunlight. He laughed when he saw his visitor and gave Castiel’s arm a comforting pat while he muttered to himself. His gaze followed the dust motes in the sunbeam and the ghosts of abstractions that were not apparent to Castiel.

“He was there already,” Sam said, hazel eyes snapping into focus and boring into Castiel.

“Dean was watching when it happened. Why didn’t he ever say anything?” The newspaper article was crumpled in Castiel’s hand. He let it fall to the ground as he tried to think an answer. Sam’s pupils were dilated and the lucidity dripped away from his expression.

Then he was laughing again.

“Why can’t I remember their names?”

Of the brothers? How could that possibly matter?

“Sam, we should get you dressed and get you home.”

Sam shook his head.

“No, no,” he said though his mania, “you should stay here with me.”

Cas had been helping Sam hold his head up, he let it rest softly back down on the floor.

“You must wait,” he said. “I will return soon.” Sam shrugged and turned his face back into the sunlight. He palms drummed a familiar rhythm that Castiel couldn’t place on the floor boards, something slow and patient. Whatever it was it made Castiel’s hair stand on end.
Castiel walked, his footsteps echoing, to the front door where he’d first entered and called Dean from the front porch. His exhales crystalized whitely in front of him. Dean picked up
after the first ring.

“Cas, what--?”

“I found Sam.”

“What? Where is he?”

“The old haunted house across the street from the cemetery.”

“Yeah, I know the one you mean. Is he--?”

“He is…on something. But doesn’t appear to be in any immediate danger.”

A pause so sharp it was painful. “On my way,” Dean said roughly and then ended the call. Castiel put his phone back in his pocket and considered the lonely one-way road. The unlikely isolation of this place was chilling, exiled by tall trees and thick grass, with only the graveyard to watch over it. He thought about the brothers who had lived and died here, undisturbed.

From within the shuffling sound of a chuckle, followed by a wavering song.

Castiel went back inside to the youngest Winchester. The singing stopped when he entered the room.

Sam’s lips were blue and his fingernails were white. His face looked drawn with the contrast of sun and shadow. From his stillness no one could have guess that he’d been so jovial a minute before. He appeared to be wasting away. Castiel knelt beside him and reached for his scattered clothes.

“Sam,” he said gently. “Dress yourself.”

Sam sat up, dirty old leaves were stuck in his hair. He licked his blue lips. He seemed to be on his way down.

“Do you think Dean would take his own life if I died?” Sam asked seriously. Sam was only sixteen, but he was fiercely intelligent and thoughtful, and there was a certain wisdom in him, something very different from Dean’s practical acceptance of the world, that made all his questions seem big.

Castiel didn’t have to think about it long.

“I don’t think he would need to Sam. I think your death would kill him.”

Sam’s nodded.

“I know,” he took his shirt when Castiel handed it to him and pulled it on. “Do you think that’s what happened to Dad?”

“I don’t understand.” His socks were next.

“When Mom killed herself. Do you think it killed him too?”

The heavy sound of rumbling suddenly ended outside. Castiel hadn’t even noticed it’s presence until it was gone. Sam turned his head to watch the doorway, lied back down so that his head was in Castiel’s lap. The sound of a car door slamming. Castiel had the urge to put his hand on Sam’s forehead and he didn’t stifle it. He was part of this tangle now, the Winchester’s had him wrapped into their conjoined destinies.

Dean came running in, his boots strangely quiet on the old wood when they should have been shaking the whole house down. He stopped when he saw Sam, half frozen and not yet fully clothed in the early spring sunlight.

Sam was done smiling. His face was pale as his big brother approached. Castiel wanted to withdraw, but he was helping Sam sit upright, giving him something to grip and lean against. Dean didn’t say a word, but he hauled Sam to his feet and helped him back into his clothes. Then he drove them all home.

Castiel stood, a stranger again, in Dean’s living room and waited while Dean put Sam back into his bed. Dean ignored him when he came back out and made straight for the kitchen, forcing Castiel to follow.

“Dean—“

“How did you know where to find him?” Dean asked without turning around. The faint smell of propane drifted over as he lit a burner on the stove.

“Sam told me about it, two days ago. I saw him in Gabriel’s office.”

“Who did this to him?”

There were at least four answers to that question, and all of them were true. Castiel went with the last in the list, the most obvious one.

“He did it to himself, Dean. You saw the—“

“Did you know, Cas?”

He hadn’t, how could he have known?

But, the furtive guilt on Sam’s face Friday afternoon. Gabriel’s hands in his pockets, asking Sam to tell Castiel the story about the brothers. Lucifer’s pleased greeting and fond farewell.

“Yes.”

Dean didn’t ask him why he hadn’t spoken up about it. It was because he’d been pulled into the curse of the Winchesters. The silence and uncertainty that had bound Sam and Dean together their whole lives was a huge thing, sweeping and encompassing. It had swallowed Castiel whole and muffled him. It even censored him now, when he could have been apologizing or telling Dean the words that were all clogged up in the back of his throat.
Like that Castiel had not gone into last night with wild abandon, had not been throwing them both off the deep end. He’s slipped to his knees and taken Dean, rode through that storm with him, because it felt like that was where he was supposed to be.

But the choices were all Dean’s.

“You should leave,” Dean said lowly.

“Yes,” said Castiel. No.

It was Wednesday morning. He had classes to teach. Castiel called a cab and went to school, feeling drained and bruised.

He should have just gone to his office and prepared his lessons. But the minute his foot was on campus he was furious. He went to Gabriel’s office, he practically ran there, every footstep a count of his heart. How quickly he’d become protective of a boy he barely knew. But then, Sam Winchester wasn’t just a kid, he was Dean’s kid brother. And Dean was—

“Gabriel,” Castiel forced his way through the door.

Two figures looked up at him.

“Castiel,” said the president of the college. Crowley smiled graciously and waved Castiel inside. “We’re having coffee and scones, would you like some?”

Castiel looked at the white pastry box on Gabriel’s desk. Could a person eat scones in the middle of a crisis? Could I really teach class? He was forgetting something.

Crowely stood up.

“Come now, don’t just hang about in the doorway. Take off your coat,” he reached out and assisted Castiel with the coats removal, ushering Castiel towards a chair. Gabriel’s jester, seated primly on a pile of books, was watching him closely. Castiel was suddenly overcome with a dizzying sensation of apprehension. When he turned, Crowley was frowning at his coat, hefting it up and down in one hand.

“What on earth do you keep in this thing?” Crowley put his hand into the inner pocket and Castiel remembered too late what he’d forgotten.

In Crowley’s steady hand the black colt appeared, drawn out of the pocket like a sword from a sheath. Castiel met Gabriel’s silent eyes first.

“Ah,” said Crowley. He opened the chamber, closed it, and handed the gun to Castiel. “I can’t imagine what that is for, but I imagine it means you’re fired.”

Gabriel rose slowly from his desk, a half-eaten scone in his hand. He was drawn, mournful, as if the gun had been a practical joke he’d misplayed.

“Cas—“ he started.

“Of course,” said Castiel numbly, meeting Crowley’s gaze. “Shall I--?”

Crowley considered the gun.

“I won’t report it, it’s unloaded. Reasons for termination classified, etcetera, or however the board wants to phrase it.” He tossed Castiel the coat. “Just bugger off for now. I’ll work out the details after I finish my coffee.”

So Castiel went home. He walked up the long steps to his apartment and through the door he never locked. And then he stood in the kitchen and picked off all his scabs while the clock crashed on through time.

Downstairs, the silence began. He recognized it at once, felt the goose bumps rise on his arms. And Castiel realized, for the first time, whose silence it was. It didn't belong to the girl, nor was it an extension of Dean’s. It didn’t belong to the other tenants of the building or to the neighbors, or the spaces between the walls.

Castiel had been given a chance to break it and he broke a mirror instead.

And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened,
Love was dead.

The silence was his.

x0x

Chuck stops writing.

There are tears in his eyes. Monsters in his house. Madness in his mind.

On another continent, he knows, Sam and Dean are struggling with their day to day. In another plane of existence Castiel is fighting a war alone. Chuck could predict every lie they were all going to tell each other, he knew them down to their guilty pleasures, to their futures, and they had never known Chuck at all.

Still, he should have said goodbye. He could have at least sent them a postcard.

I’ve revised your story, he could have said, and it isn’t what you think it is.

They all think he is a prophet, when they think of him at all. Did they ever think of him as a friend?

Listen, I know what the monsters are.

They aren’t hell, or a coming war. They aren’t evil spilling out from some primordial wound in the skin of the universe, they’re just the other side of the coin. That’s it. And without them people are the monsters.

Listen, there is still time for you.

That’s the one he should have sent. Un-signed, no real goodbye. Just a little friendly advice from the writer they thought they knew.

Take care.

He’s so tired. Chuck pushes the laptop weakly to the side and puts his head down on the table. He faces the horizontal plane of his keyboard levelly, from the perspective of a forgotten spoon on the tabletop. The key are like a jagged horizon smudged with the natural oil of his fingertips. And each mountain, immovable now as night falls and his power leaves him, is one twenty-six of the alphabet, one small percentage of his language, his bridge to the entire world.

Even God uses language, it turns out.

So maybe words aren’t the mess, maybe they’re not the problem. Maybe it’s the people who read them.

Listen,

The shore is roaring outside, half a mile away and distant with the cries of gulls. The heavy warmth has gone out of the wind, replaced with a glassy chill.

He’s at the end. The story is over, both of them, and since he was only the writer there’s no use for him anymore.

Chuck closes his eyes and thinks that this is what dying is. It’s going to sleep without the answers to your questions, listening to your own internal metronome running out of momentum. Slowing down. Stopping.

Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
Of the flowers or lovers that laugh now or weep,
When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter,
We shall sleep

And on the other side are all the stories he ever had, filed away encyclopedically, and he could reread them forever, but he could never revise them again.

 


7


Some endings are never told.

Writers will die before their time or realize they have a higher calling in social justice or just go back read what they wrote the day before and reach immediately for a match. In this way beginnings too, counter-intuitively, grow old and die, or are forgotten, or go up and fall down in flames.

It’s a shame. Because while all stories are not created equal, all stories certainly deserve at least one full telling.

Chuck’s fucking kitchen walls look like God-damned El Dorado in the morning. Golden like hope, like the sun, like the future of unstained children. Chuck squints at them, he hates these walls. When he pulls himself upright and turns his head, against all the protestation of the muscles in his neck, to look at the clock he discovers that it is seven thirty. He is being blinded by a brand new sun, the day is in its infancy.

He wants coffee. His throat is dry. Chuck inhales deeply and sneezes.

He rubs his face and finds a night and a day’s worth of stubble. His stomach is cramping but he thinks it’s hunger and when he flexes his fingers and his knuckles pop he thinks it’s the chill in the air.

He’s not dying after all. Not today.

God must still need his storytellers.

Chuck gets up and takes the stairs two at a time to the bathroom. When he’s there he closes the door and locks it, even though he lives alone. He takes a much needed piss, and then looks closely at his face while he washes his hands. His eyes are bloodshot and tired and his face is shined with dried sweat, but he only looks like a guy who slept at his kitchen table. He doesn’t look like a corpse or like a phantasm manifested out of some omnipotent imagination. He looks like Chuck.

Chuck cleans himself up and puts on clean clothes and takes a walk to the beach. He leaves his lap top on the kitchen table and the poem tacked to the wall. He goes to his seaside café, where he hasn’t been in almost a week, and gets a tiny white cup on a tiny white saucer. He sips his espresso and can’t believe how noisy it is.

When it begins to rain he goes home.

After he is safe behind his front door, he looks around at the house he never bothered to grow comfortable with and asks the obvious question.

“Why am I alive?”

And he has no idea. Unless it really is because of the story. Unless the only real proof of living is a voice.

He imagines a silent world, a world with no stories. A place where people walk around and bump into their neighbors and fall in love but who, when they close their eyes, cannot find who they are looking for.
Chuck shrugs, and gives up, and makes breakfast.

It is October and the leaves are going or gone and the wind is frigid off the sea and everything falling asleep or getting ready to die before Chuck sits down a last at his kitchen and rips the poem from the wall. Being one of the lucky few who isn’t dying before his time, who lacks the personality for social justice issues, and who can’t be assed to find his matches, Chuck rereads the story he’s written with the intention of finding it an ending. He has spent the last two months being alive again and figuring out a thing or two and now he just needs to wrap up the business of this revision before he can move on.

He discovers, as he reads, that he hasn’t written a story at all, but a beginning. It is a real beginning and it, absolutely, a fairytale.

Because that is what fairytales are exactly, the preludes to the greater adventure. All the climaxes and falls and monsters are misdirections, red herrings; fairytales don’t tell whole stories at all, they set up a blank page for new ones to start or old ones to begin again.

Chuck began three new lives. Now all he has to do is set them in motion.

The moral is not: They lived happily ever after—someone else must have added the flourish along the way—but just:

They lived.

He has coffee percolating on the other side of the room and it smells like creation (bitter and sweet, at odds with itself). Chuck sighs and the poem flutters away under the gust to hide itself beneath the refrigerator. Chuck lets it go, barely notices its loss. He raises his strong hands.

His fingers on the keys make the same soft tapping sound as rain in the gutter or mice in the walls.

x0x

Castiel leaned against his window and looked out while a family was split apart and a mother cried and the Social Services people filled out paper work. He also listened. He made sure to hear every word said until he heard the little girl’s name.

“Ruby!” The mother cried it as the police held her back and her baby girl was ushered into a stranger’s car. Ruby was crying silently, she didn’t say a word, but waved at her mother though the glass as the car door closed.

Castiel closed the shades and tried to breathe. He wasn’t an observer anymore. His phone was still clutched in his hand. He’d been holding it for hours, ever since he took the mirror off the wall and dialed 9-1-1. There was an empty cup he’d meant to fill with tea on the table. The deadbolt on his front door was locked.

Outside an engine started and they took Ruby away. He hoped it would be enough.
Castiel went into his bedroom to sit down, he was feeling sick and dizzy, a little beat up. He took off his clothes to shower and discovered bruises on his hips in the shape of Dean Winchester’s hands. He aborted the idea of the shower and moved into the middle of his bed, his books and teaching notes were piled all over it. Each folder was carefully labeled. There was still a light green post-it note stuck to one of them. An old library book was buried beneath the papers.

And there was a gun, on top, that didn’t belong to him. He was going to have to return it very soon.

xxx

The back of Sam’s throat tasted like a chemistry set and his legs were a wobbling mess and his tongue felt like a rolled up papyrus. He was standing in a loud hallway, full of beeps and electronic voices paging doctors. Dean was standing in front of him hesitating outside the door to room three twenty-two. Dean hadn’t said anything since he’d woken Sam up an hour ago, face dark and speaking all the things he wasn’t going to say out loud:
disappointment, anger, betrayal… he’d just bundled Sam up and into the car to drive them to the hospital where John was waiting.

Dean turned suddenly, looked Sam right in the eye and asked: “What do I say?” And the unsaid things fell away because this was bigger. And maybe because Dean understood, even if he didn’t approve. Dean had always been good at understanding Sam.

Sam took his big brothers hand.

“Tell him…what you saw.” Confusion flickered across Dean’s face followed by the white wash of awful revelation.

“Sam,” he said hoarsely,

“I don’t blame you, Dean. And I don’t think he will either.” He squeezed Dean’s hand. Dean swallowed and shook his head. He mumbled son of a bitch, under his breath and finally pushed open the door.

xxx

Dean Winchester felt fucking ridiculous. His face was flushed with embarrassment and his hands were shaking and he was sure this whole idea of Sam’s was going to go wrong for all of them. But Sam was sitting behind him, over by the window where he could pretend to be invisible, and John was looking at him in confused expectancy because when Sam walked in the door he hadn’t even waited for John to speak, had just said: “Dean has something to tell you,” and had gone to sit down.

And now, Dean had to find something to tell.

He was sitting in a chair he had pulled up to John’s bedside. The room was warm and unoccupied except for Dean and his very fucked up family. Across the hall someone else was watching a movie that was apparently all about people screaming at each other.

“You gonna spit it out, Dean?” John asked, soft and broken, barely a trace of the man Dean almost remembered from his childhood. He was waiting for the blame to fall.

Dean thought about what Sam said in the hallway. What Cas said the night before. What he had been unsaying for fourteen years.

“I saw it happen,” he said. It was unbelievable how easily the words rolled off his tongue.

John frowned.

“Saw what happen?”

“I saw mom…I was playing behind the curtain when she came in. I don’t think she knew I was there, but I saw…”

“Dean,” John reached out and grabbed Dean’s hand, “stop.” His eyes were welling up, filling with tears. John pushed himself upright on unsteady arms, he was mashing all of Dean’s finger’s painfully together in his grip. “Why are you telling me this?”

Dean was cold without his jacket. It was folded carefully across the room in Sam’s lap. The chair next to Sam looked empty and Dean found himself wishing Cas was sitting in it. His sharp blue eyes would have cut Dean’s mouth open for him, and his hands would have caught all the words before they spilled to the ground.

“Because,… I knew what she was going to do. I tried to, I wanted to tell her…I tried to scream but…she just. I tried, Dad.” Dean closed his eyes and ground out: “But I couldn’t make a sound.”

x0x

The very bottom of the aged and yellowed paper peeks out from beneath the refrigerator door. It has settled safely out of the way of the breeze and as it begins the long process of becoming lost forever, the raindrops stop, and the typing stops, and the only sound left is that of a writer breathing.

Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.