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Scheherazade of the Super Eight

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Dean never considered himself a storyteller. Sure, he figured himself for a good enough liar—that’s pretty much a requirement if you wanna be a halfway decent hunter—but they’re not quite the same thing. But any poor sonuvabitch who’s looked death in the eye will tell you that you can pull all sorts of skills from the air when your ass is on the line.

This is the story of a thousand stories.

Yeah, Dean doesn’t know how he pulled that off, either.

--

See, it doesn’t start with Dean. He’s come to learn that things rarely do. Except the falling of the sixty-six seals, maybe, but even then he had some help. Maybe that’s the biggest problem with his life—the story never starts with him, and he just has to hold on for the ride.

No, this story starts somewhere else. This story starts at the edges of time and space, in the dark places between the stars, or the blinding places at their cores, or between the layers of the atmosphere, or amidst the barbules on the wing of a passing crow. Or maybe a shady building in Des Moines? Nobody really knows where Heaven is located, and angels are tight-lipped dicks.

The story starts when Eremiel, a turncoat, misses his chance and only wounds Castiel instead of killing him. Castiel hemorrhages grace, a tenth of his million wings snapped and hanging by shining tendons, and howls out a sound of hurt and fury that shakes the firmament. Eremiel is destroyed instantly, winked out of existence by superior force. The remaining members of the rebellion cower in fear as their leader shudders and shakes and tries to heal.

Dean, meanwhile, is sitting in a motel room in Eighty-Four, Pennsylvania, eating a cheesesteak.

It’s pretty average, as cheesesteaks go.

--

Three weeks later, Dean is standing in a bathroom and shaving, which is a pretty normal start to a morning by anyone’s standards. He’s mindlessly humming “No Quarter” under his breath, imagining that the buzzing of the electric razor is in tune with him as he runs the blades over the lines of his jaw. He looks down to switch it off, looks back up, and there’s a guy behind him in the mirror.

“Shit,” Dean yelps, swinging around.

“Hello,” the man says, then presses his palm to the side of Dean’s head.

There’s a fuckton of pain, like all of his blood vessels are bursting at once, then Dean crumples.

All in all, though, it’s really not the worst way he’s been killed.

--

“Ow,” Dean says, from where he’s lying flat on his back.

The sky above him is blue and cloud-speckled, and the air is crisp and clean. Somewhere not too far off, someone is burning a wood fire, lending a welcome spiciness that’s so unlike the kerosene-and-human-remains smoke he’s been breathing for twenty-odd years.

It’s October 1996, and this is the day that he took Sam out to that park that had been a brickyard so the kid could do a social studies project. They’d eaten ham sandwiches with Miracle Whip and sipped warm sodas and spooked a whole herd of deer as they went digging through the woods for old bricks.

“Oh good, you made it,” says the guy from the bathroom, leaning into Dean’s range of vision. His face is unfamiliar, and he sounds like he’s from some non-city part of New England. His curly blond hair is haloed against the sky, and he almost kind of actually looks angelic.

“Fuck off,” Dean grunts. “You are ruining my fond memories. I don’t care if you’re Metatron or Beelzebub or Steve—I’m out of the angel-helping business.”

“What a shame that you don’t have a choice in the matter,” the guy says, bending down and pulling Dean up by his forearm. “And believe me, we’re far too busy to put up with the likes of you. But you know what they say about desperate times.”

“Raphael serving you guys up some quality whoopass on a platter?” Dean snorts, jerking his arm free and taking a step back.

“If only that were all,” the angel says, with the sort of grimace a guy makes when he knows he’s got a bombshell to drop. “Would you consider yourself Castiel’s...friend?”

“Depends,” Dean says warily. He doesn’t like the direction of this conversation, not a bit. Hell, he doesn’t like the fact that he was just murdered two minutes ago. This whole thing started pretty low and is just spiraling faster.

“This is serious. Are you his friend?”

Dean swallows. “Sure. Yeah, I’m his friend. He’s all right, for an angel. We, uh, we tend to get each other.”

“Good, okay,” the angel nods. “That’s good. Listen to me—he’s gone insane.”

Dean goes rigid. “What.”

“Long story. I need to be back before he is or I’m a dead man, so it’ll have to be the short version. We need you to reach him, because we can’t. So lose the slackjawed expression, because this isn’t just for you, it’s for the entire universe.”

“Look, man,” Dean starts. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about—”

“You will,” the angel promises, then he touches Dean’s sleeve and everything goes white.

--

Everything’s still white a few moments later, which is when Dean notices that he wasn’t knocked out, but rather was transported to a place of absolute nothingness.

He’s not even standing on anything, for fuck’s sake. He’s standing, okay, but on nothing. It’s like a surreal dream, except he’s pretty sure this is actually happening, which makes it infinitely worse. He’s afraid of heights, but this isn’t exactly like that, because to be afraid of a height you have to be afraid of the thing you could fall onto far below. There isn’t anything down below him, just the same emptiness that’s above him and beside him and, as of a few seconds ago, inside his lungs.

Well, at least he hasn’t exploded. That’s always a plus.

So he just stands there, afraid of moving, breathing shallowly and trying to repress the fuck out of some memories of a similar situation in hell.

Some time later (he’s not quite sure how long), something starts happening. At first it’s just a hum, a resonance in the nothing, then a long way in the distance the color changes. Something moves toward him through the white, something of indeterminate shape, and as it grows closer, the noise intensifies.

Dean squints, and he sees it: a swarm of locusts, millions strong, catching light on their wings from a nonexistent source, making a horrible grating, clicking noise. He thinks about a guy’s skull chewed open from the inside out and shudders.

Then, as he watches, he realizes he was wrong—it’s birds, more birds than he’s ever seen in his life, crying and filling the void with the sound of wind through feathers. But they never reach him, just disappear into a beam of light, and what comes out is a man, naked and tiny against the lack of a horizon. His shadow is long and twisting, growing away from the light at his back, and it contorts into strange shapes as it reaches for Dean. Then it splits, fragments, and what leaps out of it is locusts.

The man walks toward him, bringing with him the flocks and swarms, and all around Dean is noise like he can’t believe. The insects are shrill, the birds chaotic. A rush of water like waves hitting rocks, the sound of an amp malfunctioning, shattering glass.

There are words in the cacophony, barely coherent, shrieking things like why and how and who, not thoughts but pieces of questions, and Dean is crouching down, hands over his ears, as the locustsbirdslightnoisemanshadows twist toward him. Just when he is sure that he’s about to be trampled, or swallowed up, or maybe just obliterated—just when he thinks he’s about to find out what it’s like to die when you’re already dead—it all stops.

A long minute later, he cracks open his eyes. There, between his knees, he sees the bland and inoffensive carpet of a cheap motel. He looks up. There’s a TV, a desk, a sink, and two full beds. On the edge of one of them sits the blond angel from before.

What the fuck was that?” Dean hisses, springing to his feet.

“That,” the guy says, “was Castiel.”

--

It goes something like this, as far as Dean can figure out:

A member of Castiel’s resistance turned out to be a traitor, and almost succeeded in killing him. Except he missed the mark and only succeeded in fucking him up instead. Apparently it was a big cosmic to-do, and it was only due to the quick thinking of the rest of the angels that earth didn’t shake itself apart from the stress.

But Castiel wasn’t quite the same afterward. Apparently his faith in his followers was shaken, and that little intended hit was the one-ton weight that broke the camel’s back. Between the stress, the injury, and the betrayal, he kinda...snapped. Ever since, he’s been on a witchhunt for more betrayers, and he’s doing as much harm to his side as Raphael ever did.

According to Jegudiel—who officially has the stupidest angel name Dean’s heard yet—Cas has killed eight followers in the past three weeks, for offenses that range from “throwing” a battle to not answering his questions “correctly.” And ever since the post-archangel-showdown soup-up he received, the rest of his followers don’t really stand much of a chance against him. But they don’t really stand much of a chance against Raphael either, especially without Castiel, so they’re all feeling pretty fucked at the moment.

Which is apparently where Dean comes in. See, Dean is the last being any of them remember Castiel liking. So they figure, hey, why not bring him upstairs, see what happens?

“Okay, listen,” Dean says, at the end of Jegudiel’s info dump. “I am not a consenting party here. I like the guy—kinda. It’s complicated. But that doesn’t mean I wanna be the punching bag for you guys.”

“That’s a shame,” Jegudiel replies smoothly, in that angel way that Dean’s learned basically means tough shit. He looks comfortably detached from the situation, sitting on the opposite bed.

“Oh for—“ Dean hisses. “That thing back there? That wasn’t any Cas I know. What do you expect me to do?”

Jegudiel shrugs.

Dean realizes that there isn’t gonna be any way out of this. He scrubs a palm over his mouth and thinks for a minute. Finally he asks, “What, uh, what happens if he goes after me? If he tries to kill me? I’m already dead, right?”

For the first time, the angel across from him looks uneasy. “Just—try not to let that happen. Let’s err on the side of caution.”

“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Dean says in surprise, but he’s met with nothing but the sound of invisible wings flapping, and Jegudiel is gone.

Somewhere in the distance, it sounds like there’s a lock falling into place.

--

It turns out that the television shows nothing but static. A cursory glance shows that there are no windows in the room, and the door refuses to open. Dean tries ramming it with a desk chair, but it’s useless. Everything is indestructible, which makes sense—nothing is even real.

He doesn’t know how long he sits on one of the beds. He never gets hungry, never has to take a piss. He just sits and thinks. He thinks about Sam, alone downstairs, and how much trouble always seems to find him whenever he’s by himself. He thinks about Bobby, and about his dad, and about Ellen and Jo, and everybody he knew once. He lists all of the parts on his car, and he maps out the quickest routes from Chicago to Atlanta, and then he maps out the safest ones.

He’s starting to organize his favorite songs by release year when the doorknob turns. Just like that, he’s on full alert. All the muscles in his back tense up, and he reaches for a pistol that turns out to not be in his waistband at all. Fucking angels, of course they dream up a room without a window and a Dean without a gun. So he just has to sit there and wait to see what’ll come through the door.

One minute the door is opening, and the next Castiel is standing in the room. He looks...like Cas. Trenchcoat, rumpled suit, crazy hair—everything Dean remembers from the last time he’d seen the guy, back when he was giving Dean shit for having the gall to put Sam’s soul back in its rightful place.

Only, Dean notices, his expression is really fucking different from that time.

Gone is the self-righteous anger and condescension, and in its place is something indefinable, something sharp and uncomfortable. He walks forward, three stiff steps, and Dean sees it in the way he carries himself. It’s powerful but defensive, like a bird that knows it rules the roost but still has to worry about the fox. Or something like that. All Dean knows it looks wrong on the guy, and he doesn’t like it at all.

“Hey,” Dean says, swinging his legs off the bed and letting his feet hit the floor. “Long time no see, huh?”

“Not the longest,” Castiel replies, and his voice is off—something indiscernible behind the normal tone comes off as too high, almost bordering on shrill. He stalks over, every movement clicking into place, as if he’s forgotten how to move smoothly.

Dean tilts his head up when Castiel reaches him. The angel just stands there, looking at him, for a long long moment. Then he brings his hand up near Dean’s face and Dean jerks instinctively away.

“Stay still,” Castiel says, in a tone that allows for no argument. It’s not like there’s really anywhere for Dean to go, either, what with being locked into a fake motel room somewhere in heaven’s belly. He grimaces as Castiel raises his hand again, but what can the guy really do? Dean’s already dead—and despite Jegudiel’s warning, he hopes that’s enough to keep him safe.

Castiel’s thumb comes to rest lightly on the cartilage of Dean’s ear, all of his fingers splaying out through Dean’s hair, so that the thick of his palm rests just over the temple. Dean breathes shallowly. Castiel’s skin is dry and cool, and he’d swear it has an electric tinge to it.

There’s a jolt, a hot spark of something, like something’s running along all the folds of his brain. It lasts a moment, then another, then another. It starts out just a little too warm, like the tap water in automatic sinks, but it gets worse. There’s no agony, not immediately, just the increasing sensation of hurt, stretching out over a small eternity. Somewhere in the back of his head Dean remembers reading that you can keep lobsters from fighting back in the kitchen by starting them in tepid water rather than just throwing them into a boiling pot. He sure as hell hopes he’s not the lobster in this scenario. Just when he thinks it’s getting to be too much, when he’s about to say something, Castiel pulls his hand away. Dean’s left dazed and too warm, and his mouth feels like he’s just touched his tongue to a nine-volt.

Castiel turns away and starts to pace. “Dean Winchester,” he says quietly, to himself.

“The fuck was that?” Dean asks, after taking a minute to recover.

“You’re you. I’d hoped you weren’t,” Castiel replies, and says nothing else. Dean tries about a hundred different questions, but the angel ignores him and just keeps walking. Every now and again, his lips move a little, like he’s saying something to himself. If he is, Dean sure as hell can’t hear it.

It’s a long, long time of just watching and waiting after that.

“There are no windows in here,” Dean states sometime later, just to say something.

“And?” Castiel replies, pacing back and forth in front of the television. It startles Dean a little—he hadn’t actually been expecting a reply.

Dean frowns. “And motel rooms have windows.”

Castiel stops and looks at him. His eyes twitch narrower then relax, and he shakes his head. Behind him, a window appears as if it had been there the whole time. The courtesy shades are drawn, cutting off any view of outside. “I forgot how needy you are, as a species.”

“Gee, thanks,” Dean scowls. “It’s not my fault you guys can’t pay attention to the details. But hell, I guess you know what they say about ‘em.”

“About what?”

“Details. You know.”

Castiel stares, contaminating the air with electricity.

Dean swallows thickly. “You know, the devil’s in ‘em?”

“Tell me something,” Castiel says, and from his tone of voice it’s clear that he’s ignoring the conversation they just had altogether.

Dean waits for the conclusion, but the angel doesn’t go on. Finally he prompts, “Tell you what?”

“Something. About you. Tell me one of your favorite things. I know you and remade you, and I will know if you are lying.”

“Bullshit,” Dean says. And it is. There’s no way Castiel knows him on that level. If he did, he wouldn’t need Dean to do a damn thing. His stupid angel-sensor thing would’ve told him everything he wanted to know. So this has gotta be one of his tests, the kind that he’s been putting his followers through.

Bullshit?” Castiel echoes, voice ratcheting up again.

“You heard me,” Dean counters.

The nature of the air changes, and that’s the first indication Dean has that things are about to go downhill. And when things go downhill when you’re already trapped and dead, you know you’re in for a world of shit.

Castiel seems to grow larger, angrier. Before Dean can even comprehend what’s happening, the whole room seems to be filled with wrathful angel. He makes a small noise of hurt as his vision splinters—he can see Castiel standing in the middle of the room, the size of a man; he can also see an energy, tense and dangerous and huge, like a beast with an unfamiliar shape and too many eyes, squeezed into the small room.

There’s a hotness to the surroundings, a mixture of chemical fumes and the breath from a huge maw, that sets all of the hairs on the back of Dean’s neck straight up. This isn’t any Cas he knows. This isn’t even in the same league of the old Castiel’s threat to toss him back into hell—this a wild thing that’s playing at civilized, a thing that has no use and no time for him. Jegudiel’s words come back to him like a slap—err on the side of caution. This? Probably not the side of caution. This is the side of being obliterated.

“Okay,” Dean says, placatingly. “You got it. Lemme, uh, lemme think.”

Slowly, Castiel seems to deflate, starts reigning himself back in. Dean licks his lips nervously as he watches the beast collapse in on itself, curling and twining its way inward, until it’s just a dim halo of madness that fuzzes around Castiel’s outline.

This, Dean decides, is not even close to his job description.

“So?” Castiel says, the high-pitched keen of his true voice muted again.

“Uh.”

Dean remembers being young, just a kid, and listening to the Louis L’Amour tapes his dad would pick up at truck stops and library sales. Sure, the men in those stories weren’t always perfect, but they had their wits and their strength and they always won, in the end. He’d liked listening to the tapes, the miles rolling past in the dark, just headlights and the odd flash of a roadsign outside the tiny world that was the interior of the car. He’d liked imagining that maybe Mr. L’Amour was writing about them, just a little bit.

“There was a guy,” Dean says suddenly. “And he was from out East. This is set in the Old West—or maybe it was Oklahoma, is that the West?”

Castiel sits down on the opposite bed and watches him intently now, eyes too bright, like glass marbles mounted in his face. He looks inhuman, like the thing inside the figment of an ad salesman’s body is resting just beneath the surface. “Oklahoma is central,” he says, a note of frustration coloring his tone. “Central isn’t west. Unless you meant west on a world scale, but even that is only a human convention.”

“Fuck,” Dean sighs to himself. He didn’t know why he thought this would be easy. “Look, I’m just trying to tell you the story, okay? Could you just...go with it?”

“You’re obviously not telling it right.”

“You know what? Bite me. This is just something we used to listen to on the road, okay? Between the hunts and the saving people and the nearly dying, sometimes we listened to some books. If I can’t remember every little detail—”

“Tell me that one,” Castiel interrupts.

Dean feels like Castiel’s stare is gonna bore right through him, like it’s a magnifying-glass focus. Hell, he thinks he’s starting to feel a slight singeing sensation. “What?”

“The one about the hunts and the saving people and the nearly dying.”

Dean balks. “That’s not really an, uh—”

Castiel doesn’t flinch. He’s not actually moving at all, not blinking, not breathing. It’s like he forgot how to pretend to be human.

Dean swallows thickly, and begins.

--

The First Tale

When I was fourteen, Dean says, my dad took me on a hunt. Normally, at the time, he woulda left me home. But he’d just had a bad fight with Bobby—they didn’t like each other much; nobody much liked my old man after Mom died, y’know—and he knew it was supposed to be a two-person job. Hell, it shoulda been a five-person job, but nobody ever gets five hunters together, outside a bar with cheap whiskey and salt in all the doorways.

So he takes me along, and because I’m along Sam has to come along, and it’s just a disaster waiting to happen. I’m not concentrating on the hunt because I can’t stop worrying about Sam, and I can’t keep an eye on Sam because I don’t wanna let my dad down. And what ends up happening is I go too far out, and my dad misses his opportunity, and Sammy gets thrown around and breaks his leg.

Well, we waste the sons of bitches in the end, but Sam’s got this compound fracture. I can remember, clear as day, the way the bone looked poking up outta his skin. They’re so white, fresh bones. I dunno if they’re always that way, or they only look it because of the red of a wound, but it’s startling. It makes you sick just looking at ‘em.

So we’re probably a couple of hours from a hospital—way out in the sticks, you know; it was Montana, you can drive for a day and not see more than three living things—so Dad lays Sammy down in the backseat and bandages his leg up as best he can, and then we hightail it out. And we’re just sitting there, quiet, for about ten minutes, then my dad reaches over and flicks on this Louis L’Amour tape he got from a truck stop.

And you know, I’m like cussing-mad, because Sam’s lying in the back seat with his leg busted up all funny, and every now and then, when we go over bumps, he makes these noises like—jesus. You know, I can live to be a hundred and I’ll never get used to hearing people make noises when they’re hurt. It does something to you, right? Well, I don’t know if it does something to you. But it does something to me. I’d give just about anything for nobody to make noises like that again.

So anyway, I’m mad as hell up in the passenger seat, because it’s obvious Sam’s in a lot of pain and my dad wants to listen to a fucking western? But y’know, I didn’t say anything, because he was holding onto the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles were white. You didn’t know my dad, but I can tell you that you just didn’t talk to him when he was like that.

We happened across a gas station before we found a hospital, and Dad got out to go ask for directions, and he left the tape playing. So I reach over and I flip it off so Sam doesn’t have to listen to it anymore, because he never really liked them the way Dad and I did.

But Sam, he goes, “I wanna know what happens next.” And I twist around, and I say, “you sure?” And Sam says yeah, he’s sure. He wants to know how the story ends.

So I turn it back on, and Dad gets back, and we go off down the dark highway again. And when the tape ended, Dad took it out and put in another one, full of horror stories from the civil war, the sort of stuff Sam liked back them. We hadn’t had it before, so he must’ve bought it at the gas station.

And that’s when I figured out that Dad wasn’t playing them for himself. He was playing them for Sam. There wasn’t much else he could do but help distract him for a little while, but he was trying to make a bad thing just a little bit better.

My dad, he wasn’t always a very good one. And he and Sam, they didn’t always like each other. But I’ve never forgotten that he played some tapes and never yelled at me for that incident. I dunno if Sam even remembers. But I never forgot it.

--

Castiel startles suddenly, eyes going wide and bright. “I need to go,” he says, and just like that—bam. He’s gone.

Dean is left alone in the room for the second time, wondering what the hell just happened. He stands and paces through the room. He can still sense Castiel in the room—not like he’s there, but like there’s some sort of residue of him around. Everything Dean touches shocks him, little zaps of electricity that make his fingertips hum.

He goes over to the window that Castiel had put in and pulls back the courtesy shade.

For a long time afterward, he’ll wish he hadn’t done that.

There’s nothing beyond the window.

Not nothing like “an empty expanse” or “a brick wall,” but a pervasive, gnawing nothingness that’s like the evil twin of the white place Jegudiel sent him earlier. It’s like there’s no world outside the window, like he’s looking out not on forever, but rather never. It’s almost physical, like anger and a vacuum of noise pressing against the glass of the window, feeling out the seals that keeps the pane in place, sending out tendrils that try to work their way past. Dean gets the awful feeling that if he were to press his hand against the window, he’d feel a pressure on the other side, the same as you would when there’s a hard wind blowing against the side of a house. There’s a painful sensation in his midsection, like his insides are trying to curl away from the window, back to the relative safety of the motel room proper. It’s hard to breathe, and he can hear his pulse slowing down.

He’s never seen anything like it, not on earth or in hell. An awful thought occurs to him, and he starts to wonder if that’s where he’d end up if Castiel killed him again. He knows, instinctively, that he can’t handle that.

Finally, finally, he manages to pull the shade back closed. He doesn’t know how long he stood there, looking at the blackness, but the minute he can’t see it anymore he can suddenly breathe. He feels giddy and lightheaded, like he just surfaced from too long underwater. His throat hurts and his chest aches.

He goes and he sits back down on the bed that’s farthest away from the window, his elbows on his knees, and he watches the curtains. They’re inert and quiet, looking as innocent as courtesy shades in a cookie-cutter motel room can.

Dean realizes that he doesn’t want to watch them, because he doesn’t want to think about what’s behind. But this is what his dad taught him to do, to keep an eye on the enemy. Being scared is the best reason to be vigilant, the old man had said.

So he sits there, mind carefully blank, and he watches.

--

Castiel comes back sometime later, bringing with him the stench of burning plastic and fear. The hot chemical smell floods the room and makes Dean want to gag.

“What’s up?” he says, willing himself to sound normal. He thinks it probably works, too, because Castiel walks stiffly over to the opposite bed and sits.

“We’re losing,” he says, bluntly. “We’re losing and he’s winning and everything you’ve ever known hangs by a frailer thread than you could possibly imagine.”

“Oh,” Dean replies, because he’s not sure what the proper response is to something like that. Frankly, he’s pretty sick of apocalypse talk. There’s only so much panic about the world’s continued existence one can produce before it all just kinda runs together. And it’s not exactly like he has much agency up here, locked in a fake motel room with some kind of base hell outside.

“What am I going to do with you,” Castiel says after a moment. It’s not a question Dean’s supposed to answer, he can tell. It makes him uncomfortable, knowing he’s at the mercy of something that’s now more enemy than friend.

“Hey,” he says quickly, before Castiel can muse too long, “you kinda blinked outta here before I could finish earlier. You wanna hear the rest?”

For a moment, Dean’s sure that Castiel can see through the ruse—there was no more to the story, but damned if he isn’t gonna try.

“Certainly,” Castiel replies, after a moment of silence.

“Okay, cool,” Dean swallows. “So, uh, we listened to that tape all the way to the hospital, me and Dad in the front and Sam laid out in the back. And Sam, he just listened all the way there, quiet and content, far as I could tell. But me, I was a mess. I barely remember anything from the drive at all, but there was this one short story...”

--

The Tape’s Tale
(as retold by Dean Winchester from an imperfect memory of Ambrose Bierce’s “Killed at Resaca”)

So there was this guy, a lieutenant. Wait, no, there’s the narrator, and there’s the lieutenant. And the lieutenant, he’s the bravest sonuvabitch you’ve ever seen. This is during the Civil War, and he fights for the North. And he’s always the first into a charge, and the last to leave the battlefield, and he never takes cover.

So all of the guys in his regiment, they’re inspired by him. But in that way where they think he’s damned idiot, but really brave. So they fight harder when he’s there, because that’s the sort of effect he has. And man, he’s lucky as shit, too. But everybody knows the odds will catch up with him sooner or later.

Well, one day they’re down at a place called Resaca—it’s in Georgia, I think—and the general tells this lieutenant to carry a message across the battlefield to another officer. And instead of taking the long way around, through the woods, the guy rides straight out into the open. And of course the Confederate soldiers just open fire on him. Well, all of his comrades charge before they’re supposed to so they can defend him. And there’s gunfire everywhere, and the cannons start in, and the lieutenant is just caught in the middle of this whole mess.

And his luck runs out.

They shoot him down, and after that the battle just peters out, and the Union soldiers come out to bring his body back, and some Confederates go to help them, out of respect. And afterward the narrator gets this pocketbook of his, and inside is a love letter. And the letter says this: “a man from your old company came home injured and told me he saw you crouching behind a tree. I didn’t believe it, because I could bear you dying bravely, but never word of your cowardice.” Or something like that.

So the narrator decides he’s gonna go see this girl, tell her what her words did to the guy she supposedly loved. So he shows up at her house and presents her with the love letter.

She reads it and blushes, but then notices a little bloodstain on it—the lieutenant’s blood from where he was shot and killed. And she goes green and tosses the letter straight into the fire, saying “I can’t stand the sight of blood.”

And the narrator, he’s pissed. Because this woman, she’d goaded his friend into all this reckless behavior, and gotten tons of men killed because of it, and she can’t even stand to see the outcome. He’s not gonna give her the satisfaction of knowing what sort of man she made. So when she asks how her love had died, all he says is this:

“He was bitten by a snake.”

The end.

“So what’s the point?” Castiel asks flatly.

“The, uh, the point is that bad shit happens if people are pushed too far and have too many expectations placed on them.”

Castiel seems to think about that for a moment, sitting uncannily still. “Like you and Sam,” he says at last.

Dean nearly swallows his tongue. “What?”

“You felt so pressured to keep your brother safe that you sold your soul for him, starting the chain of events that led us here.”

“What?” Dean repeats. “No, that’s not—”

But Castiel just looks at him, looks at him, and there’s nothing human there, nothing that will bend or reconsider.

“Shit,” Dean intones softly, rubbing at his brow with calloused fingers, “shit.”

“That was a good story. Informative,” Castiel says, then vanishes before Dean can respond.

--

Dean just wants to sleep. That’s all he wants to do. But he can’t. He lies in bed for hours, staring at the spackled ceiling and willing tiredness to come to him. He lies on his stomach, face pressed into the slightly flat motel pillow, and imagines that he’ll start dreaming at any moment.

But no, he’s awake, trapped awake, and he can feel every moment.

At some point, a long while later, the door swings open. Just a little, enough to catch but not enough to see outside.

At first Dean is expecting Castiel to come through it, but then nothing happens. The longer he sits there, though, the more he starts to worry that the blackness is on the other side of the door, like it is through the window, and if he waits too long it’ll creep in and get him.

Yeah, it’s not a rational fear, he knows. But you try being locked in a static room for fuck knows how long, and then watching the door swing open on its own. It does things to a guy.

But eventually he can’t stand knowing that the door is ajar but not knowing why or how or what’s on the other side. So he gets up, and he walks gingerly over, and he licks his lips.

Then he pushes open the door, his heart going a million miles a minute.

On the other side is a parking lot. Nice, normal parking lot. Plenty of spaces, trees at the back, looks just like every one attached to every motel Dean’s ever stayed in.

It’s morning outside, in the parking lot. Well, Dean thinks, almost morning. The sun’s not up yet, but it’s light enough for the orange glow of the sodium lights to have switched off. It’s cool and damp, and somewhere there’s a bird calling. It’s the same cheee-chit-chit-chit that he’s heard his entire life at this time of day, from Maine to California, and he realizes that he’s never known what kind of bird makes that call.

“Hello,” a voice says, just to his left.

Jegudiel is leaning against the night-damp wall of the motel block, looking out at the trees.

“What,” Dean replies, with what he feels is a great deal of calmness, given the situation, “the fuck.”

“Thought I’d do a little check in, see if you still existed. Fearless leader is freaking out, but hasn’t mentioned you to the ranks yet. I think he’s trying to ferret me out.” Jegudiel pats his pockets while he’s saying this, until finally he comes away with a crushed pack of Lucky Strikes and a Bic lighter. He makes an offering gesture to Dean and shrugs when it’s rebuffed.

“There’s something not right about him,” Dean says, slowly. “Sometimes there’s this thing in the room...”

“Mm,” Jegudiel murmurs, cupping his hand around the flame as he lights his cigarette. He shakes it out, and after a deep inhale continues, “That’d be his grace, I’d wager. Not enough is real up here, for you. I just cobbled this whole thing together, and it’s not as watertight as, say, an individual heaven would be. Reality keeps seeping through, but you humans don’t know how to process it, so it’ll be sounds and smells, weird feelings and phantoms. Something familiar, if not exactly pleasant. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem, but like I said—it’s kind of a shit job, you know? And Castiel, he’s not being careful enough right now. Be grateful we’re up here instead of back on earth. He’d fry you like an egg.”

“Like an...” Dean echoes. He thinks about Pamela and her seared-out eyes and swallows thickly. “Well, what do you want me to do?”

“Keeping him from killing us would be a good start,” Jegudiel smirks. “And if you can wrangle a little of that human creativity back into him, that would be great.”

“Creativity?”

“Castiel,” he says, with the grim amusement of someone who doesn’t actually find the situation funny at all, “has no imagination.”

Dean double-takes at him subtly, thinks back on all the times Cas had gotten them out of scrapes, then shakes his head. “Wouldn’t say that. Maybe you don’t know him as well as you thought.”

The cigarette hangs from the corner of the angel’s mouth, softening his consonants but not his tone. “Never mistake craftiness for imagination, Dean Winchester.”

“What do you mean?”

Jegudiel inhales deeply, then releases curls of smoke that dissipate into the morning mist. “Craftiness means you can see a situation’s possible outcomes, and hopefully manipulate them to your benefit. Creating a whole new solution, on the other hand? That takes imagination. And that’s what our mutual friend lacks.”

“I still don’t think—”

“No, you don’t. But believe me, we don’t have it on our own. That’s something we have to pick up from you lot. Some of us take to it better than others, of course.”

Dean thinks for a moment of the colorful, flowing cruelty of Gabriel, the flippancy of Balthazar, the smug scenarios dreamed up by Zachariah, the choices and mistakes of Anna. Then the single-minded purpose of Uriel, Michael, of Raphael himself, despite the imagination he claimed on their first meeting.

“What are you saying?” he asks, uneasily. He hates being uneasy, and it always makes him defensive, so the question comes out a lot sharper than he intends.

The angel drops his unfinished cigarette and crushes it out with a heel. “Castiel thinks like Raphael these days. Only Raphael has the better force. You can imagine how that’s going for us.”

Without warning, Dean’s back in the motel room. He’s alone, and the door is shut tight.

There’s nothing else to do anymore, so he sits back down on the bed he’s started considering his, and he thinks, and he waits.

--

“Hey, Castiel,” Dean says, looking up when he hears the door swing open.

The angel slips inside, then stops in the doorway. For a long moment, he stands there. If there’s any kind of setting outside the door, Dean can’t tell. It’s like his eyes slip away from the doorframe back onto Castiel. He thinks, maybe, that Castiel forgot to make an outside, and his brain just isn’t able to accept the void.

It’s not a good sign, as far as Dean is concerned.

“Who was here?”

“Huh?” Dean replies, trying for nonchalant. His mouth has suddenly gone dry. Castiel’s tone is calm, but that kind of calm that means something awful is arriving hot on its heels.

“I can sense them. On the door. Who was here?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dean says adamantly.

It’s the wrong response, because in a flash Castiel is across the room and lunging at Dean.

Castiel’s fingers close over his throat, and up up up Dean goes, sliding against the wall until his feet can’t touch. He’s choking, which is bullshit, because he’s already dead, but there it is. He can’t breathe, and he tries to tell Castiel to stop, to put him down, but all that he can manage are gasps and retches.

“Why,” Castiel moans, and behind his voice is the other one, higher pitched, a shriek just on the edge of Dean’s hearing. “Why are you here? What are you doing here?”

Dean coughs and scratches at Castiel’s hand with blunt nails, heels kicking uselessly against the wall.

“Just tell me what you want!”

Just when Dean thinks he’s gonna black out, that maybe Castiel is going to kill him and he’ll find out if heaven really is the final stop, he’s dropped. His knees buckle at the unexpected weight placed upon them, and he collapses. Castiel wrenches him back up by an arm.

“I just wanna help,” Dean gasps. “I just wanna help.”

Liar!” Castiel spits, and the accompanying shriek threatens to burst Dean’s eardrums. “Who brought you? Raphael brought you!

“No! Fuck!” Dean yelps, as Castiel shakes his entire body. Even if this hadn’t been home turf, the angel still totally outclasses him, power-wise.

Castiel stares, his eyes wild and bright. “Who? Tell me who it was!”

“You’ll kill him!” Dean grunts, pitch going up at the end in pain as Castiel twists his shoulder at an unnatural angle. He doesn’t know if that is necessarily true, but he sure as hell believes it at the moment.

Castiel sinks down onto his bed, slowly loosening his grip on Dean’s arm. Slowly, gently, Dean pulls away.

“I will,” Castiel says quietly. “I will kill him, whoever it is. I don’t want to, I don’t want to, but I will.”

“Why?” Dean rasps, throat tender.

“Because I don’t have time for you.”

Castiel sits on the opposite bed for a long time, and finally Dean says tentatively, “But you seem to be making the time.”

“It’s not easy,” Castiel replies. “Why do they hate me? They want me dead, all of them. Everyone.”

“Not everyone,” Dean counters. “But if you keep killing the people who wanna help, that’s all that’s gonna be left. Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Castiel makes a noise deep in his throat, and then he breathes. Dean notices, because up until that point he hadn’t been bothering to. Maybe, he figured, that was a good sign?

“Hey, lemme tell you a story,” Dean says.

“Fine,” Cas says, staring down at his hands like he’s thinking.

--

The Tale of Three Brickmakers

“Okay,” Dean says, “tell me if you’ve heard this one before.”

“I will,” Castiel replies. He’s started rolling his tie around his wrist, watching the way the fabric leaves marks on his skin, but he seems to be paying attention well enough.

Dean swallows thickly, feeling the soreness where he’d been choked not moments before.

Once, there were three guys who made bricks. One made his bricks from the red clay he found down near the river—really quality material, like the sort of stuff professionals would use—and his bricks came out heavy and pretty.

Another made his from yellow clay he dug outta the woods. It was sandier and crumbled some, but it made bricks that were lighter and less expensive than the river guy’s.

The third one, he made his from grey clay that he dug out from around a pond. It was the ugliest stuff—really thick, nasty stuff, the kinda stuff that won’t come off your clothes if you get dragged through it by a spirit—but when he’d baked his bricks, they were like rocks. Nothing could break one of those fuckers.

So one day these dudes, they’re sitting around and drinking beers, and they get to talking about their bricks. And of course, they all think that the bricks they make are the best bricks, so one of them says, “fine, let’s put some money on it.”

And they go out and—

“Which one said that?”

“Huh?” Dean blinks.

Castiel is staring at him intently, his tie threaded through his fingers. “Which one offered the bet? Is this another parable of foolhardiness?”

“What?” Dean says. “No. It doesn’t matter who.”

“It always matters who.”

“No,” Dean says. “Sometimes, when people are friends, it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just something that a group does, and they just...agree. Like no one person has to come up with it, just somebody voices what they were all thinking.”

Castiel does not reply.

So they go out and they all pick up a stack of their best bricks. You know, the ones they’re most proud of.

So the first guy, he says, “Let’s judge them by how they look.”

And they lay a brick out apiece, and the red bricks totally look the best. They look like you could build a courthouse out of them tomorrow and everybody would be impressed. The yellow bricks crumble a bit and look shoddy, and the grey bricks are just ugly fuckers.

And the second guy’s not happy with this, so he says, “No, let’s judge them by portability.”

So they go and get a local boy, and they make him carry as many of their bricks as he can in one go. And he can carry ten of the red bricks, and fifteen of the yellow, but only six of the big grey ones.

“You see?” the second guy says. “Mine are much more practical for the average man.”

But the third guy, he’s tired of his bricks coming in last. So he says, “No no no, we gotta measure them by strength.”

So they each put a brick down on the ground, and the third guy fetches a hammer. The red brick cracks right down the center when it gets hit. The yellow brick shatters into sandy crap. But the grey brick? The hammer just bounces right off, with barely a chip to show where it had hit.

“Mine are made to last,” the third guy says. “They’ll still be standing when yours are rubble.”

So they start to fighting, and each of ‘em thinks that his is the best. And they’re getting madder and madder, and finally one of the guys takes the red brick and just chucks it. It sails through the air and lands at the bottom of the nearby creek. So the maker of the brick gets all up in arms and grabs the grey brick, and he sends that one sailing straight into a ravine. So the grey brickmaker, he’s furious. He fights the yellow brick away from the second guy, and he plans to throw it into the woods. But he’s a big guy, and he’s so used to his own heavy bricks that when he launches the light yellow brick, it goes flying up, up, up away from all of them. It gets smaller and smaller above their heads, and then it just...disappears.

The three of them just stand there, with their mouths hanging open, ‘cause they can’t believe that just happened.

“Well,” one of them says finally. “Wanna go get a beer?”

And they agree that yeah, they do.

So they go and get a beer.

The end.

Castiel waits for a while, then says, “That’s it?”

Dean shrugs. “They decided that they all made bricks with perks. It was a win-win.”

“That is a completely unrealistic finish,” Castiel insists irritably.

“Dude! It’s a story. Not, like, a documentary.”

Castiel makes a noise of deep dissatisfaction, and Dean winces. Maybe that one hadn’t been such a good idea. He’s nervous. Well, honestly? Honestly, he’s scared. He’s scared of Castiel. He doesn’t know what will happen to him if he oversteps a boundary again.

“Uh,” he starts. “Have I told you the one about...”

And Castiel stops frowning and leans closer to hear whatever story Dean can pull out of his ass this time, and Dean just prays that it’s enough.

--

When I was a kid, Dad would go off hunting and leave me and Sammy alone. Not at first. At first he would put us in daycare, or take us to family. We had family back then. We had a grandma on Dad’s side and an uncle on Mom’s side. But Mom didn’t have any brothers, so maybe he was her cousin and we just called him an uncle. Anyway, after Mom died, Dad didn’t want to see her family, because he was afraid that they’d ask questions about how she died. I guess at the time the police thought he mighta had something to do with it, I dunno. Personally I think that him keeping away from ‘em did more damage than good. Except now we know about Samuel and all that, so maybe my uncle woulda believed Dad after all. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I only remember him a little bit. My uncle, I mean. He had a house someplace far away, at least someplace that wasn’t Lawrence, so we didn’t visit him much. But he had this house, and it was blue, and it had a wrap-around porch. His wife, she used to hang ferns from the porch in the summertime. And they had this big mastiff, and I used to play with him, and he’d drool all over my hands and my face and my shirt. He was chocolate brown, and I loved him. I don’t even remember what my uncle looked like, but I loved that damn dog.

Anyway, after Mom died, Dad took us out to Indiana and kept us with Grandma for a while. But she passed away in ‘85 from some kinda cancer, and after that there was nobody but a string of babysitters and daycare centers. And by the time that Sammy reached preschool, there wasn’t even that usually. He’d just tell me to watch out for Sam, and then he’d leave.

I remember the feeling of sitting in a motel room or one of those by-the-month apartments and knowing that my dad was out there fighting monsters. You wanna be outside with him, to watch over him and know he’s all right. But at the same time, he’s got you scared so shitless of what those monsters could do to a kid that you just wanna hide under the covers and pray he comes back in one piece.

There’s nothing worse than that, the waiting. You feel useless and alone. Nothing puts you in your place like being made to wait, being made to wonder.

Nothing worse than that.

--

Castiel comes and goes as he pleases, and every time he returns he has news to share of just how completely fucked things are outside of Dean’s four walls. So-and-so died yesterday, such-and-such scattering of dimensions have fallen. Dean can’t really understand most of it—he feels like a 2D character who’s being asked to imagine a cube. But he gets the gist well enough: things are bad and getting worse, and his fortunes are tethered to the losing side.

But still Castiel comes to him, makes the time for him, and at this point there’s this uneasy familiarity between them again, like in the early days when Dean was suspicious and Castiel was still Heaven’s bitch, back before they were friends.

Dean reminds himself that he can’t forget who’s really in power here.

“So,” he says, when Castiel has finished his current doomsday report, going through his mental list of story topics, “what do you know about Dracula?”

“Dracula is a fictional vampire,” Castiel replies instantly. “The character’s defining characteristics are a cape and a thick but generic eastern European accent.”

Dean makes a noise that can only begin to express his dismay and disappointment. “Okay, sit back, seems like today’s agenda is a crash course in Stoker.”

 

The Tale of a Group of Idiots Versus a Vampire
(adapted from Bram Stoker’s Dracula with more than a little amusement)

So this story starts with a guy named Jonathan, okay? And he gets sent to Transylvania to advise this count about land purchases or whatever. Except the whole way there, all of these people are like ‘dude, don’t go to that castle, the count is evil’ but Jonathan’s all stiff and British and everything and totally ignores them. And when he gets there, the count is totally evil, and there are wolves, and then three vampire chicks basically try to rape and/or kill him, and he finally realizes that oh hey, he’s in deep shit. Anyway, the count—who’s Dracula, by the way—saves Jonathan because he still needs help securing land in London. But at the first chance, Jonathan escapes, and that’s the last we hear of him for a while, so you’re all like “oh, is he dead?” and stuff. He’s not dead, I’ll spare you the suspense. But by the time this thing is over, you kinda wish he was, because he’s ridiculously boring.

Anyway, back in jolly old England, this ship washes up on shore with everybody missing or dead, so you know bad shit is going down. Apparently the only thing this ship was carrying is some silver—oh, and some big crates of dirt from Transylvania. So enter our villain.

In less interesting news, we meet Mina and Lucy, who are friends. Apparently Mina and Jonathan are engaged, and Lucy is crazy popular or something. Three different dudes propose to her on the same day. The first one is Dr. Seward, who takes care of an asylum that houses this crazy Dracula fan. More on him in a minute. The second is Quincey Morris, who is the most stereotypical American ever. And the third is Arthur...something. I don’t remember. He becomes Lord Goldsomething later, too. He beats Jonathan Harker for sheer boringness. So obviously Lucy chooses to marry him.

Except, dun dun dun, Dracula has gotten to her first. So she starts wasting away, and everybody is all freaked out, so Seward calls in his old friend Van Helsing. Yes, that Van Helsing. And he’s all “oh, let’s hang garlic everywhere” and shit. So, basically, we get all of the bogus crap about vampires from Stoker, and to this day we have to deal with idiots waving crucifixes around.

Anyway.

So Lucy wastes away, but just when it looks like she maybe might not die horrifically, a wolf—who is also supposed to be Dracula, by the way, because apparently Stoker thought vampires could shapeshift—attacks her and her mom, and they both die. So yeah. And everybody mourns and all, then they stick her in this mausoleum with basically no protections whatsoever, and yet everybody’s surprised when suddenly kids start going missing or turning up all anemic. My god, they say, could it be that our Lucy is doing this? Dumbasses.

So the suitors and Van Helsing go and stake her and cut her head off (they got that right at least), and it’s all very traumatic for them. And the good doctor reveals that there had to be somebody who turns the dearly re-departed Lucy into a bloodsucking hellbeast, so they form this “let’s kill Dracula” club.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Harker’s back, having not only escaped but also recovered and married Mina since the last time we saw him. Which means that our protagonist is so boring that the author couldn’t even be bothered to write about his life-changing events, so I’m not going to spend any more time on him.

Dracula finds out about the plot to murder him, and since he has a thing for sexually repressed 19th century Englishwomen anyway, he retaliates by starting to turn Mina. This is very disturbing for all the menfolk, especially since there are heaving bosoms involved, and everybody knows that sexiness equals evil.

Okay, so, for the whole novel, Dr. Seward has been keeping tabs on this guy named Renfield, who’s a patient at the asylum he runs. Renfield’s secretly working for Dracula, but apart from that he’s got this thing where he tries to accumulate, like, life force. He captures flies and feeds them to spiders, then the spiders to birds, and he wants to feed the birds to a cat, but they won’t give him a cat, so he eats the birds himself. It’s creepy. But he’s working for Dracula, but when he meets Mina and learns that she’s the new target, he has a magical bout of conscience! Thus he foils Dracula’s plans and gets offed for it.

So the gang clears out all of Dracula’s nests using a variety of tactics that don’t actually work in the real world, and the vampire flees back to Transylvania to avoid biting the dust. Except now Mina has a telepathic connection to him via the whole vampire blood thing, so they’re able to follow him. In a only somewhat climactic battle, they chase Dracula’s coffin down at sunset and kill him and a bunch of gypsies that are transporting him, losing Quincey Morris in the process.

Then everybody lives happily ever after, because Mina’s free from the curse and pops out a kid which they name after everybody--which means the kid has like six names--and Dracula is dead. Which is the end.

Castiel is silent for a moment, then says slowly, “I don’t feel like I know much more now than I did earlier.”

Dean scowls. “Whatever, that was all anyone needs to know about Dracula. Except when played by Bela Lugosi. That guy was classic.”

“You’re not a fan, I take it.”

“That was the worst quarter of high school lit ever. The teacher called my paper on why the story was wrong imaginative and gave me a D.”

Castiel makes a noise in his throat that almost seems amused, and Dean has to duck his head to hide a sudden smile.

“So what’s the point of this one?” Castiel asks.

“Pop culture?” Dean guesses. He’s still not sure why Castiel thinks that all of the things Dean tells him have to have morals. “Oh, oh, wait, I got it. ‘Do your homework.’”

“And try not to make it imaginative?” Castiel asks, and somewhere in the flat question Dean thinks he hears that amusement again.

“I was talking about Stoker, not me,” he counters, prickled.

“As you say.”

--

“Okay,” Dean says, “I think you’ll like this one.”

“If you say so,” Castiel replies, amiably enough. He’s noticed that lately the angel’s manner has softened. It’s like the incident after Jegudiel’s visit was the climax of his hostility. As time goes by, Dean finds himself slipping into more comfortable language, easier motions. Even as Heaven crumbles around them, things within the room start getting just a little easier each time.

 

The Tale of the Joke

Okay, so, this guy gets onto this plane, right? And he’s looking for a seat, and he sees that he’s been put on the inside of the aisle, next to the window. But he’s a big guy, okay, and he knows he’s gonna be cramped and miserable the whole way. So he sees who his aisle mates are—it’s a lady and her dog. The lady’s in the middle, and the dog’s the aisle. And it’s not just any dog, either. It’s this fluffy poodle, manicured within an inch of its life. You know the kind, the ones that eat better than most people.

So the guy, he say, “Hey lady, would you mind switching me seats so I can sit on the aisle?”

And she looks him up and down and sniffs, “My poor little Fifi becomes airsick if he doesn’t sit on the aisle.”

The guy splutters at that, but what can he do? The lady bought a ticket for the dog, which makes it a passenger, and he has to take his seat.

They take off, and the guy’s miserable, just as he thought. It doesn’t help that he and the lady next to him, they’re at each other’s throats immediately. Her purse is under his feet, his knees touch hers, she wants the armrest down and he wants it up—they’re just made to fight. So he takes out this cigar and lights it up, trying to settle himself down—

“Smoking isn’t permitted on commercial aircraft,” Castiel interrupts.

“It used to be,” Dean counters. “Work with me here.”

—anyway. So he lights up this cigar, and takes one puff, and the lady next to him gives him a look that could curdle milk.

“Put out that cigar,” she says. “Can’t you see it’s making my Fifi ill?”

The guy takes a look at her, long and slow, and he says, “I’ll get rid of my cigar if you’ll get rid of the dog.” He thinks he has her, see? Because he figures there’s no way she’ll ditch the dog.

But, to his surprise, the lady reaches over him, opens up the window—”

Castiel shifts and frowns. “Windows on aircraft aren’t made to open.”

Dean throws him a dark look. “It’s a fucking joke, okay? And anyway, how the hell would you know that? You don’t even know a sedan from an SUV, but now you’re some sort of expert on planes?”

“A hole that large would cause injury or fatality inside a pressurized cabin,” Castiel insists obstinately. “Rapid decompression could lead to hypoxia—”

Dean looks at him for a long moment before saying what in a flat tone of voice.

“There was a program last May, at Bobby’s, while you all slept. It was about British Airways Flight 5390. A cockpit window malfunctioned, leading to rapid decompression. The pilot was partially sucked from the aircraft. To let ignorant passengers control such a dangerous aspect of flight would be foolish.”

As if Dean needed another reason to be terrified of flying.

“Okay, look,” he said. “This is not based on real events. It’s supposed to be comedy. Go with it.”

“Go with it,” Castiel echoes, but Dean thinks he hears a trace of derision in the tone.

So the lady, she opens the window, reaches over, and chucks Fifi right out of the plane.

The guy, he can’t believe what he just saw. But he’s as good as his word, so he kinda dumbfoundedly tosses his cigar right out after the dog.

But then the lady, she gives this wicked little smile and holds up her hand. She’s clutching a leash.

So she bodily hauls Fifi back into the plane, but you know what the damn dog’s clutching in its mouth?

...a yellow brick.

Castiel stares at him blankly for a long moment. Dean desperately makes a “taa daa” gesture with his hands, waiting for the punchline to sink in. When he finally gets the feeling that maybe it’s not gonna sink in, he says, “A yellow brick, get it?”

After a minute, Castiel narrows his eyes. “The brick that never came down?”

“Yes!” Dean crows, relieved.

“You never mentioned that the stories could be linked,” Castiel says accusingly.

Dean sighs, then rubs at his forehead with the pads of his fingers. “What? No, it’s—it’s just supposed to be an element of surprise. That’s what makes it funny. You forget about the brick and then it reappears when you’re not expecting it to.”

Castiel is still staring skeptically. “Should I be expecting an upcoming housefire to have resulted from the cigar?”

“Oh for...” Dean mutters. “No. No, story’s over. No more. That was the payoff, for whatever it was worth.”

Castiel makes a noise low in his throat, but whether it’s annoyance or something else Dean just can’t tell.

That could have gone so much better.

--

Every so often, when Castiel isn’t around, Dean tries the door. He usually gives the window a wide berth, but the door has so far seemed safe enough. It’s always stuck, like the doorknob was never made to move at all, like the whole thing was made by somebody who’d seen a picture of a door once and never knew what it was supposed to be for.

But it’s a habit, something that breaks up the monotony of waiting for Castiel to reappear.

This time, though, when Dean shakes the handle, it twists loosely in his hand. Just like that. Of course, before he gets too excited—or hell, even too freaked out—he realizes that the door is leading out to the pre-dawn parking lot. Well, could be worse.

He doesn’t notice the fissure, not at first.

But when he steps outside, there’s a horrible, wrenching sensation. It feels like he’s falling at terminal velocity, or being ripped apart, or tumbling into fire. It’s like dying and being reborn and never living at all. There’s no air, he can’t breathe, and he has only enough time to realize that his lungs are a yard away from his face, tangling wetly with his intestines and his spinal cord before he comes crashing back together.

Then he’s standing on the sidewalk outside the motel room, and before he can help himself he looses a choked little sob.

“Mind the gap,” Jegudiel says dryly, from his spot to Dean’s left.

Dean scrubs a hand over his face and forces the rest of the hysterics down. Then he turns around and looks back at the door. Between the sidewalk and the threshold is a seam, an inch-wide black hole.

With as much sanity as he can muster, he hisses through a dry mouth, “What is that?”

“The cosmos,” Jegudiel replies. “The base matter of the universe. Actual heaven. I butted this place up against your room last time and Castiel could tell I’d been there. But if they don’t actually touch, well.”

“Oh my god,” Dean says, staring at the line across the ground. He notices that Jegudiel isn’t leaning against the wall this time, because the gap separates the ground from the building. Instead, he’s resting lightly against a post with a no smoking sign attached to it, casually lighting a cigarette. He stares back down at the gap and winces as he feels it scratching at him. It’s the same black from beyond the window, he’s sure of it. His skin is crawling just knowing that he went into it, even for a moment.

“Took you long enough,” Jegudiel breaks in, pocketing his Bic. “I’ve been waiting for you off and on for ages. Been doing a nice job, though, gotta say. Not a single one of us has bit it by the leader’s hand since you showed up.”

“Really?” Dean asks, his surprise taking the edge off his lingering horror.

“Really. As a special treat, I got you something.” Jegudiel pats his brown coat, then draws out a cell phone from an inner pocket and tosses it lightly over to Dean.

It’s ringing.

Without thinking, Dean presses the answer button and raises it to his ear.

“Dean?”

“Sam?” Dean asks, cupping his free hand over his other ear, trying to hear over the staticky connection.

“Oh thank god, Dean,” Sam’s voice rattles. “I thought maybe you weren’t still up there.”

Dean sags against a post himself. “Nah, I’m still here. I’m holding together. How’re you?”

Too quickly: “I’m okay.”

Dean snorts, then says, “You know that I’ve been able to tell when you’re lying since you were six, right?”

There’s the scrape of wood on wood—Sam pushing a chair away from the table. Footsteps—he’s pacing. Dean can almost see him, shoulders curled inward like he’s trying to keep himself together. “What do you want me to say, man? That I’m crashing in Bobby’s spare room, trying to come up with a way to jailbreak you outta heaven? That I had to come back to a dead brother, and it took almost a day before anybody showed up to tell me what happened? That I’ve got your body packed into the meat freezer in Bobby’s back shed? Is that what you wanna hear?”

Dean laughs mirthlessly. “Do I at least get the freezer to myself, or do you go and grab a bag of peas off my face every so often?”

“This isn’t funny.”

“I know,” Dean sighs. “I know. I’m working on it. He’s getting better, Sam. I think he really is.”

“Just promise me that if you get the chance, you’ll come back. Don’t stick around thinking you can fix him if you’ve got a shot to get back here. Promise me.”

He hesitates, just a moment too long.

“Oh, Dean.”

“I. I promise I’ll be careful,” he says, walking in tiny, frustrated circles.

“Jesus. Okay. Okay, as long as you promise. We miss you down here, man. I miss you like crazy. It feels like so long since I’ve really seen you.”

“I’ll be back,” Dean grits out, then the connection dies on him. “Shit. Shit.”

Jegudiel plucks the phone from him. “Can’t let you take this back with you.”

Dean cups his hand over his mouth and nods, replaying the conversation in his mind. Yeah, he didn’t say nearly as many things as he should’ve. Shit.

“Well, gotta go, battles to fight, archangels to usurp,” Jegudiel says leadingly. “Keep up the good work and all. Great representative for your species and so on.”

“Wait,” Dean says, actively not looking at the gap. “I can’t go back through that.”

But the parking lot’s already fading, melting at the edges into the same blackness.

“It’s better if you take a run at it,” Jegudiel advises, already looking insubstantial. “Makes the trip shorter.”

So Dean runs at it, and it’s worse than hell, worse than when Sam died that first time, worse than anything. But it is shorter, and there’s a bed for him on the other side, at least. That’s better than the outcome of most horrible things he’s experienced, he thinks, and for that split second it’s like his kidneys are nodding in agreement.

--

“So tell me,” Dean says casually, the next time that Castiel walks into the room. “You always come in through the door, but then you just poof away. Why not just miracle your way in, too?”

Castiel circles around the end of the bed and sits down opposite Dean. “This place is warded off. The only way in is through what you see as the door. Getting out is easier. This room wasn’t made to keep anyone in, just to keep them out.”

“Keeps me in well enough.”

Castiel smiles at that, just a faint tightening of his lips. “You know I wasn’t talking about someone like you.”

“So it keeps angels out?”

“Everyone but me,” Castiel confirms. “It would have been just as easy to leave an entrance for the room’s creator, whoever he is, but it would’ve have given him away.” At Dean’s look, he continues, “The sigils. The name would be in the sigils. And I searched them all, earlier on. No distinguishing characteristics, and certainly no names.”

So Jegudiel isn’t allowed in, Dean thinks. That made sense of why he had been making Dean come outside to talk. He must have put the last seal in place after he vanished from the room after the white place, leaving Dean alone and waiting.

It makes Dean feel lonelier than ever, knowing that probably only two creatures in all of existence even know where he’s being kept, and that of those two only Castiel could ever come to see him.

“And what’s outside?”

“Outside?” Castiel repeats, a frown forming.

“The window. There’s, uh, a blackness.” The base matter of the universe, Jegudiel had said. Actual heaven.

Castiel stands and walks over to the window. Dean flinches as he pulls back the curtain, but beyond the pane is a light grey fog. The tendrils are pressing up against the window, leaving condensation on the glass.

“What is that?” Dean demands. “That’s not what it was before.”

“No,” Castiel replies, and from his tone it sounds like an admission of guilt. “What it was before was a punishment, perhaps, or spite. I was...angry with you. For being here. For asking things of me. I changed it a while ago. I should’ve told you.”

Dean nods slowly. Truth be told, it makes him breathe a little easier, knowing that blackness is gone. But that’s only a tiny part of his worries, he tells himself. Can’t lose sight of the big picture.

“Could you, uh, could you take me out of here? If you wanted to?”

Castiel looks at him, expression betraying nothing. “I told you, it’s easy to get out. Do you want to leave, Dean?”

“No, no,” Dean replies quickly, cursing himself afterward. There’re few things in the world he wants more than to escape this 10’x16’ prison, to see daylight and nighttime again, watch TV, drive his car, eat something, sleep, see Sam.

Oh god, Sam...

But still, he can feel the end coming, the bone-weariness that’s boiling back up for the final assault. He can taste it in the air whenever Castiel visits, the stench of a battlefield and the staleness of every possible strategy compared and dissected until one of them is brought back to life and set into motion. Castiel may not be carrying the electrical haze of madness around with him anymore, but sometimes Dean thinks he can still see the beast in the angel’s shadow, circling and circling.

“Hey, lemme tell you a story,” he says, and the words are as familiar to him now as any exorcism used to be.

--

Days, years, or eons go by. Dean livens up the plots of B-grade horror movies, expounds upon the lyrics of rock songs, and talks for hours about growing up on the road. He finally gets to tell some westerns. He turns thirty-second commercials into two-hour narrative epics.

He thinks sometimes, he really does, that the Cas he knew during the apocalypse might be almost back. Sometimes the tone of voice is right, or the posture loosens, or a joke falls flat in just the right way. Sometimes, he thinks, he might just have gotten through.

He’s already miles and miles away from the birds and the locusts, he can tell. The person who sits across from him may not be human, but he’s easier to comprehend, and easier to deal with.

And it’s nice, too, he thinks, to have someone to talk to. He looks forward to seeing Castiel these days, instead of dreading it. Sometimes he worries that something has happened to him mentally, that he’s got that Stockholm thing. He goes long stretches at times when he doesn’t even think about getting out of here, just lies on his bed and ponders the next story, the next joke, the next introduction to pop culture. He wonders if he’s getting worse while Castiel is getting better, if they’re on some kind of sick seesaw of mental health.

But always in the back of his head is Sam, and Sam is about as close to home as he’s ever known, and just about true north on his life’s compass, so maybe he’s not quite as fucked up as he fears.

--

“Get up,” a voice says, urgent but faint.

Dean opens his eyes and looks around. The noise came from the door. He heaves himself to his feet and slips over to it. When he opens it and peers out, Jegudiel is waiting on the other side.

He looks strange, Dean thinks, like he hasn’t manifested his vessel’s shape quite right. All of his features are smudged and soft, his clothing nondescript. He looks like a bad photograph, complete with blurred background. It’s not the parking lot; it’s not anything. Dean can’t even make himself focus on it, because there’s nothing to focus on.

The gap separates them.

“Come on,” Jegudiel says, and even his voice sounds odd, muffled and far-away. “We need to get you out of here. It’s time. Shit, the whole thing’s falling apart. Come on.”

“What’s going on?”

“The last battle in the war,” Jegudiel hisses, his mouth a dark pink slash in his soft face. “It’s going to start any minute now, and if we don’t get you out of here, you’ll be obliterated.”

Dean licks his lips. “Why do you look like that?”

“You think it’s easy to conjure up a vessel you don’t currently live in? So I forgot to put on my foundation this morning, sue me. Come on.”

Dean hesitates, sparing a glance down at the gap.

Jegudiel’s face grows darker, angry. “We don’t have time for this! Get over here!”

“Where’s Castiel?” Dean asks.

“In a few minutes, it won’t matter. He doesn’t need you anymore. Come on.”

There’s something in Dean’s gut that tells him that this isn’t true. He just feels it. And what’d he told Sam? He’d try to stay safe, but if this was supposed to be it...

“No,” Dean says, finally. “I think I’ll wait for him here.”

“You’ll die.”

Dean scoffs. “I’m already dead, remember? I’ll risk it.”

That’s when it happens. Suddenly Jegudiel ceases to look anything at all like Jegudiel, and instead starts to look like some kind of horrific creature, slimy and wet, silvery and murk-green in the dim light. The pink slit of mouth widens and darkens, becoming huge and gasping, and behind the rubbery lips lie rows upon rows of sharp teeth. Only the very faintest traces of a human face remain, but what’s left opens its eyes and screams.

Dean stumbles backward in horror, heels catching on carpet, and he goes down on his ass.

The thing in front of him flaps its huge mouth in gasping, choking motions, but the voice that comes out is angel-high and powerful. “Come out! Dean Winchester, come out!”

Head ringing and adrenaline pumping, Dean watches as the beast throws itself up against the doorway. But it’s too big, awkwardly shaped, and it can’t get in. Dean lunges forward and slams the door shut.

“Dean Winchester!” the voice screeches, threatening to burst his eardrums, even through the door.

Without thinking, Dean throws the deadbolt on the door, and as soon as it clicks into place, the noise diminishes. It’s still there, but muted, almost silenced entirely.

What you see as the door, Castiel had said. The door was really a protected gateway. Maybe what he saw as the deadbolt was really just another protection set up to keep angels out. God, he hopes that’s true.

He slumps to the floor with his back against the cool metal of the door, and he listens to his heart race.

--

Not too much later—maybe half a day, but Dean’s sense of time is screwed all to hell—the door handle turns. Dean has a split second to panic, but the deadbolt holds and nothing happens.

After a moment, he hears Castiel’s voice from the other side. “Dean?”

Dean sucks in a breath and holds it, watching the door handle turn again.

“Dean?” comes the voice. “Are you all right? Open the door.”

“Who are you?” Dean asks the crack between the door and the frame, voice quiet and deadly serious. “Who are you really?”

A pause. “It’s Castiel. Open the door, Dean.”

“Prove it.” Dean’s shaking a little. It’s ridiculous, he knows it is. He’s looked death in the face more times than he can count, and he’s done it with a devil-may-care attitude more often than not. But there’s no one to impress here, and he hasn’t seen more than two faces in longer than he cares to know. And he finds that he’s afraid. He feels tiny, and alone, and afraid of what might be on the other side of a door that isn’t even real.

A heartbeat, then two, then a dozen. Finally, at long last, the voice on the other side says, “You’ve been on the road your whole life and you still don’t know if Oklahoma is west or not.”

Dean stands and unlocks the deadbolt. As he opens the door, he says, “You bastard, I meant I don’t know if it counts as the Old West.”

Castiel slips inside and shuts the door behind him. “It does.”

“Sure it’s not the Old Central? Unless we’re talking a world scale, of course.”

“Hm,” Castiel responds, which Dean figures is about as much of a laugh as he could expect. He moves to sit on the bed closer to the door, and Dean perches on the one opposite him. When they’re both seated, Castiel adds, “I came to say goodbye.”

Dean had just started to calm down, and suddenly his heart is back in his mouth. “Goodbye?”

“It’s coming faster than I expected—the last battle in the war,” Castiel says distantly, and that jogs Dean’s memory. It’s exactly what the thing that had looked like Jegudiel had said.

“Hey, speaking of that—have you, uh, have you seen an angel named Jegudiel lately?” Dean asks haltingly, worried about the consequences of asking.

Castiel tilts his head. “Was he the one who brought you here? I might have known.”

“Uh.”

“He’s dead,” Castiel murmurs, looking away. “For a while now. Raphael himself did it. He crushed two of Jegudiel’s faces with a blow from his sword, and the fire of his wrath consumed what was left. We could see him as torchlight across half the battlefield.”

“Oh fuck,” Dean breathes, against a sudden tightening in his chest. He’d barely known the guy, and yeah, he kinda thought he was a dick, but still... “How long ago?”

Castiel frowns. “Some small time. A week or two, maybe? It’s hard to tell, sometimes. Things are different here.”

That confirms Dean’s suspicions. “Somebody tried to get me to leave the room,” he says quietly. “They showed up acting like they were Jegudiel, but he looked wrong. When I wouldn’t come, he started to look...I don’t know. There were teeth and shit. Jesus. I think it was one of Raphael’s guys.”

Castiel’s eyebrows draw together and stares down at his hands. “So they know you’re here. That’s...not ideal.”

“But I’m safe in here, right?” Dean presses.

“If Heaven fell?” Castiel asks with the sort of grimness that lets Dean know exactly how safe he actually is.

“Shit. Can’t you just, uh, send me home? Before things get too hairy?”

Castiel makes a coughing noise that could be a dead man’s laugh. “We crossed that river a long time ago. If I tried to send you back now, Raphael would be waiting to ambush us both. The shift between the planes is a vulnerable place for us, especially when carrying a soul.”

“Great,” Dean says. He hates feeling helpless, hates it so goddamn much. “So I guess I just have to root for your side, then?”

Castiel makes a small noise, noncommittal. Dean wonders what it means. Would he be trapped here forever if Castiel bit it? Or would the protections fall away? They obviously stood up to Jegudiel’s death. But the thought of spending eternity trapped here, perfectly conscious and absolutely alone, it does something to him. It makes him want to scream, or cry, or—

“I loved you,” Castiel says, breaking through his thoughts.

“What?” Dean asks, because he’s sure he misheard.

Castiel isn’t looking at him. He’s staring at the dark television screen, frowning. “I loved you, last year. You and Sam were the only friends I had in the whole of creation. We weren’t always...kind to each other, I know.”

“Understatement.”

Castiel looks at him then, and Dean is startled by his expression. It’s different from a lot of what he’s looked like lately—there’s a lucidity, a humanity to his eyes that Dean almost finds unnerving.

“I’m sorry,” he says, turning away again. “I’m sorry that I did this to you.”

Dean swallows and stares intently at the dark screen too. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. But thank you. You’ve helping. More than I thought you could help.”

“Cas—”

The angel laughs dryly. “I missed that. No one calls me that but you.”

“Sam does.”

“I miss Sam,” Castiel says suddenly. “You must miss him so much more. He’s a good man, you know. Better than the sum of his parts.”

“I know,” Dean says simply. He’s always known that, even during the dark times. That’s why they always hurt so much.

“You help him, too.”

“Sam’s always helped himself,” Dean counters. “Even when I didn’t wanna let him.”

Castiel mmms under his breath, like he doesn’t quite believe it.

They sit there for a while, looking at the television and the wall behind it. It’s the most comfortable Dean’s been since this whole thing started. It’s an easy silence, or as easy as a silence gets in a place like this with a guy like Cas.

“It’s the end,” Castiel says eventually. “One way or another.”

Dean doesn’t reply.

“Tell me one last story,” he adds, but it’s a request rather than a demand.

“All right.”

--

The Last Tale

When I was twenty-five, Dean starts, lying back on his bed and drawing up one knee, I was all alone. Now, I don’t mind it so much for short bursts. I don’t need somebody holding my hand, y’know. But when it goes on for a while, you get kinda lonely. You listen to the radio, or you call somebody, but the voices are all far away and fake-sounding. You miss people, and the road seems too long.

My dad was neck-deep in something he wasn’t sharing—turned out to be the yellow-eyes stuff, of course—and Sammy was off at college being happy and normal, so I was just drifting around, taking on the odd hunt or whatever.

I’d just left Richie’s—don’t think you ever met Richie; he’s dead now, got wasted by a demon, it was pretty awful—and I got a call from Caleb about a haunting the next state over.

Only it turned out to be not a haunting at all, but a nest of hags. I was fucked. Man, they threw me around like a rag doll. I thought, at one point, that I was toast. But then I remembered Sam, and Dad, and I figured, this ain’t how I’m supposed to go. I’m not gonna let them get me, and have somebody find my body all bloated and wasted, and make my dad burn me.

So I said fuck this, you bitches can’t have me. There was nowhere to go, just a window that was cut off by one of ‘em. But I figure, okay, better a small chance than no chance. So I lunge forward, and you know what?

Castiel gives a nearly imperceptible shake of his head, just the faintest encouragement to show that he’s an active listener.

Dean can’t help smiling. The floor gave way. I tumbled down to the first floor of the house, not even a sprained ankle from the fall. The damn hags never knew what happened. I just went down, then I was running for the car like my life depended on it. Which, y’know, it did.

So I torched the place, and here I stand.

The end.

“So it’s a story about a lucky escape?” Castiel asks thoughtfully.

“No, it’s about willpower. I wasn’t gonna die. Not then, not there,” Dean replies.

“You didn’t really have much control over the situation,” Castiel points out. “It was luck that the floor gave out like that.”

Dean snorts. “You don’t get it, do you? If I hadn’t kept going, I never woulda got to that part of the floor. And if it hadn’t collapsed, then I was gonna fight for the nearest window. If three years with us hasn’t taught you that you control your own fate, I don’t know what will. Honestly, dude.”

Castiel is hunched over himself on the opposite bed. “I still don’t—”

“You’d be amazed how far a good healthy chunk of rage can get you. Hell, last year rage and whiskey were the only things that kept me going.”

“Sounds healthy.”

Dean laughs at the unexpected reply, then sits up suddenly when Castiel tenses.

“Goodbye, Dean,” he says immediately, blue eyes wide. Dean can see that he’s already losing the angel, that battle plans and orders are pushing him to a distant and dusty corner of Castiel’s mind.

“Hey,” he snaps quickly, “back here a second.”

Castiel refocuses for a moment, and Dean leans forward and grabs his hand in a firm shake. “Give ‘em hell.”

There’s a warm feeling that goes up the ridge of Dean’s spine, a pleasant electric feeling like touching a plasma globe.

Then Castiel’s gone, and Dean wonders how much longer his afterlife will last.

--

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Dean hisses. He’s hiding in the closet, just bracing his shoulders and palms against the walls. He remembers vaguely that if there’s an earthquake, you’re supposed to head for a closet or something. He’s not really sure how applicable that is when a) he’s already dead, b) it’s not an earthquake, it’s heavenly warfare, and c) the closet is just a construct added in to make him feel better about a) and b).

He has no idea how long he stays there. There’s not really any concept of time in heaven. Not like there is on earth, or even in hell. This could be the end, he tells himself, the end of the world and everything ever. Then he starts to wonder if heaven is only heaven for earth--what if there are other planets, and there are heavens for them too? Or is it just the universal? Everybody’s pretty vague on that, he thinks. Then another explosion rocks his motel-shaped construct and every philosophical thought flees his mind to be replaced with fuck fuck fuck fuck oh my god fuck.

Such is war.

--

The explosions have stopped for a good long while before Dean realizes that it must be over. He still exists, which is better than he was expecting, so he chalks that up as a win.

He starts contemplating opening the door back to the room proper, going through a mental list of rebuttals (the most prominent of which is “what if this is the only thing left in existence and I tumble out into that black stuff?”).

A clatter-clang from the room proper draws him out before the mental checklist is done. Dean cracks open the door and peers around the jamb. He has no idea what the fuck he’s going to do if it’s one of Raphael’s guys, but a bit of cautiousness in situations like this never hurt anybody.

Castiel is standing by the table, looking like a mess. Blood and ichor is splattered across his tattered clothing, and the blade he’s just dropped on the table looks even worse.

“Dean?” he says.

“Yo,” Dean replies, quickly stepping out. “You’re alive. That’s awesome.” And he really means that.

“I’m—yes.” He collapses onto his bed, looking more world-weary than Dean has ever seen him. “Raphael is dead.”

Dean swallows. “Dead? Like, dead-dead?”

The ghost of a smile tips up the corner of Castiel’s mouth. “As a doornail.”

“How...?” Dean starts, before he remembers that there are some things you don’t ask, some skin-of-the-teeth results you don’t question.

“You,” Castiel replies, without a hint of shame.

“Me?” Dean asks, a hint of panic in his chest. He doesn’t understand, and he hates not understanding.

“I was broken--I let them break me--and you didn’t give up on me.”

“It’s not like I had much of a choice,” Dean feels compelled to point out. “I was locked in a room.”

“But you never asked to go home, not until the very end. You could’ve, you know. You stayed, and you told me about your life, yours and Sam’s and everyone you ever loved, and I remembered loving, too. It brought me back, and I remembered how to refuse to give up. It’s a very human thing, you know.”

Dean coughs, the back of his neck hot. This is way too touchy-feely for him. Hell, he’s spent a small eternity locked in a room with just this guy, spilling his guts, and this is still too touchy-feely. He doesn’t want to hear how his love saved the world.

Even if it is the second time that’s happened.

Is that a good pick-up line?

Yeah, maybe it is.

“What are you thinking about?” Castiel asks, tilting his head a little as he stares up at Dean.

“Nothing,” Dean replies quickly, sitting down across from him. “So what now?”

“Now I get to rest, for a moment,” Cas replies. “And then I have to try to restore heaven to something that approaches order. I thought that would be difficult a year ago—now it seems nearly impossible.”

“But only nearly, right?” Dean smirks.

“Only nearly,” Cas agrees. He stands then, taking the half-step the separated him from Dean. “Thank you,” he adds in that low growl of his. It’s a familiar tone, deceptively human. Then he presses his lips to Dean’s forehead, lips dry but not unpleasant. The same electric feeling from before tingles through Dean’s blood and muscles, warming him.

Dean is surprised to find that it’s not even weird, the forehead kiss. Honestly, after everything else? It’s practically damn nice.

“Go home, Dean,” Cas says, a moment later, and before Dean can respond, the world falls away.

--

The first thing that registers with him is cold. A deep, aching, paralyzing cold. The second is darkness, then stiffness, then claustrophobia. He kicks out, instinctively, and one leg hits something immovable, but the other finds some give, and a sliver of light explodes briefly across Dean’s vision. He kicks upward again, and the lid to the meat freezer bangs open, hitting the side of Bobby’s shed.

Of course Cas would let him wake up in the fucking freezer. Of course he would.

Dean clambers out and hits the ground, too cold to shiver. He’s glad he’s not frozen solid.

He makes it halfway across Bobby’s backyard before one of the junkyard dogs gets wind of him and starts barking up a storm. After that, it’s an explosion of sound and movement. Bobby comes out with a shotgun, nearly drops it in shock, then Sam’s loping out of the house, using those freakishly long legs of his to eat the ground between them.

Sam crashes into him with enough force that Dean thinks he might shatter, then he’s caught in the crushing sort of hug that it seems they reserve for resurrections, his shoulders folding in and his face pressed to the wear-soft cotton of Sam’s shirt.

“Oh my god, Dean, Dean,” Sam’s saying softly, followed by that sharp intake of air that means Sam suddenly realized he could breathe again. Dean knows how that feels. God, does he know.

Sam’s skin is fire-hot on Dean’s cheek and neck, and all it takes is that spark of warmth for him to fully realize how very cold he actually is. Suddenly he’s a mass of shivers, all his muscles contracting in agony as his body tries to raise its core temperature.

Fucking freezer, jesus.

They get him inside and wrap him up with half a dozen hot water bottles and force him to eat some Campbell’s chicken and noodle soup. He has to tell them everything twice because Bobby’s always getting up to answer his phone bank or Sam spends too much time fussing over reheating the water bottles, and one or the other of them’s always missing some crucial detail that they demand he repeat.

It’s ridiculous, Dean thinks. A guy’s dead for three months and they can’t even let him settle back into being corporeal in peace.

They settle down finally in the late hours of the night, and they leave Dean the couch for sleeping. Sam had offered the guest bed again and again, but Dean hasn’t seen a couch in months and he just wants to savor the feeling—even if it is Bobby’s swaybacked old relic.

As Sam heads upstairs for the night, Dean has a thought. “Hey,” he says, just loud enough to get Sam’s attention. “Do you, uh, do you remember when you were ten, and you broke your leg on that hunt in Montana?”

Sam tilts his head in that way he does when he’s trying to puzzle out your motives. God, Dean thinks suddenly, he’s missed the kid. The year after the showdown, and the months without Sam’s soul, and then the whole being dead thing—feels like forever since it’s been him and Sam, together. He has his brother back, and it makes something ache in his chest. He hopes it’s for good, this time. Nothing’s ever really permanent in their lives, he knows

“Montana?” Sam replies after a moment. “You mean the time Dad got that Ambrose Bierce tape for me so I wouldn’t have to think about my leg?”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “That time.”

“I remember,” Sam replies.

“You were a good kid,” Dean mumbles.

Sam’s eyes go soft, and his face takes on that earnest quality it gets when he says something mushy. “I’m glad you’re back, Dean. I’m really glad.”

“Yeah yeah. Sleep now, heartfelt speeches later,” Dean snorts, but there’s no heat.

Sam goes upstairs, and Dean finally, finally sleeps.

--

“Hello,” Castiel says. His clothes have been mended, and he seems slack and comfortable sitting on the other end of the couch.

Dean wonders if he actually looks that relaxed, or if it’s just a contrast to the raptor-like sharpness that had been haunting his posture up in heaven.

It looks to be early morning outside, and neither Sam not Bobby are up. Dean himself only snapped awake when he heard the rustle of wings.

“Hey,” he replies. “How’s it going?”

“Not terrible,” Cas replies.

They sit there in comfortable silence. Outside birds are chirping, and Dean can hear a dog thumping around under the porch. It’s a glorious contrast to the inert quietness of the motel room. It’s even a welcome change from the parking lot, where the birdsong rang hollow and false. Everything here seems so much more real, more actual. Right now Dean can hear the rumble of the refrigerator, the clicking of the ancient ceiling fan in the hallway, Cas’s breathing and his own.

“I’m going to miss you,” Cas says after a moment. “It’s been nice, seeing you again.”

“Hnn,” Dean murmurs. “Well, you know, there are ways to see people that don’t involve one party being locked in a metaphysical prison.”

Cas snorts in a way that could be a laugh.

Dean thinks about the second to last conversation they’d had, up in heaven. I loved you, Cas had said. Dean wonders if it was true, and if the past tense still held. It’s a strange and uncomfortable thing, but not the worst.

“You should stay for breakfast,” Dean says, after a moment. “I’m sure Sam would be happy to see you.”

Cas looks at him, mouth open just slightly. It looks like he’s trying to decide what to make of Dean’s statement. “All right,” he says, eventually. “I think I’d enjoy that.”

“Good,” Dean says.

“Good,” Cas echoes.

They sit for a while longer as the sun comes up, then the day begins.