You'd think he'd be used to dying by now. God knows he's done it enough. But the truth is it surprises him every time.
For one thing, it hurts like hell, and he can actually say that and have it mean something. For another, it really fucking sucks: the gasping for breath, the sticky warmth of blood pooling beneath him, and the fact that, this time, someone has pierced his bladder and he's got piss leaking all over the damned place.
"Sammy," he tries to say, but it comes out a gurgle. He can see Sam out of the corner of his eye. He looks about as good as Dean feels. It figures they'd go together at some point, without anyone left to resurrect either of their asses.
Damn it, Cas, he thinks, because if ever he was in need of a guardian angel, this was it. Except Cas died closing the hell gate and he seemed to think if that happened it was going to stick this time, so...
Story of Dean's life, really.
Dean comes to in a bright room that practically screams hospital. The only reason he knows it's not a hospital is because he feels fantastic. Not morphine fantastic--which is pretty damned fantastic--but all-over, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head, fantastic.
He actually can't remember the last time he felt so good.
Also, he's standing, and for a guy that just bled out on the concrete floor of a suburban basement--and honestly, the places people put those damned gates--that is something of an accomplishment. It doesn't take a genius to put two and two together and come up with four. But just in case it does, Sammy's standing in the corner, looking about as awed as Dean feels. He's practically glowing.
"Dude, you're glowing," Sam says.
Dean offers his best I can't believe we survived another apocalypse grin. "I hate to say it, Sammy, but I think we might have weaseled our way into heaven."
As if to emphasize the point, a long table appears against the wall. It's laden with sandwiches and beer and about fifty different kinds of pie. Dean's grin grows, exponentially. Sam shakes his head.
"You're okay with this? Us dying and ending up here, wherever here is?"
Dean wants to answer, he really does, but he's already shoved a sandwich into his mouth and is far too busy chewing. It's hard to focus on philosophical questions when there's a buffet spread out before him--actually scratch that, it's hard to focus on philosophical questions as a general rule, but especially when he's faced with a smorgasbord of pie. Eating the pie first is just common sense.
"Here's what I'm thinking," Dean says after he's finished the sandwich, and a piece of apple pie, and half a piece of cherry--and man, the pies are still warm! He takes a drag off his beer. "We both know this ain't hell, and I've done the whole purgatory thing, so I can tell you it ain't that either. And this room looks a lot like the green room they stuck me while you were getting your freak on with Lilith, so my money's on heaven."
"Of course it's heaven," an achingly familiar voice says over Dean's shoulder. It startles him so bad he almost drops his beer--and that would be a shame--but it's worth it to turn and find Cas, whole and newly made, standing in the corner like he's been there the whole time and was only waiting for them to notice.
And heck if Dean knows, maybe he was.
"Cas," he says, drinking in the sight of him. His stomach flutters nervously, because damn if Cas doesn't turn him into the biggest girl on the planet. Last few years Dean's mostly come to terms with that, but it doesn't stop heat from spreading across his cheeks, or his heart from clenching painfully when Cas offers that soft, knowing smile of his. "Damn, it's good to see you."
Cas doesn't say anything, but his smile widens into the genuine one that he only ever lets Dean see. Dean's well aware that he's now staring at Cas like a love-struck teenager, but given that he's literally died and gone to heaven, he's pretty sure Cas will forgive him.
So that's how it starts. Sam and Dean die on the floor in some yuppie's basement, wake up in heaven and begin life ever after. It should probably go a lot smoother than it actually does, but then, when has anything in either of their lives been easy?
Apparently, every single person they have ever known received a gilded invitation in the mail--or whatever the angelic equivalent of the postal service is--announcing Sam and Dean's arrival. So when they step out of the "green room" and into a domed hall that looks straight out of a renaissance painting--and thank you, Sam, for pointing that out--there are a lot of people waiting for them.
Dean's a little taken aback by it, actually.
There's Bobby, which okay, yeah, painful, but in a good way, and then Ellen and Jo, which kind of makes it hard to breathe for a few minutes, but they all look so happy that Dean manages to get through it without too much trouble--aka breaking down into a fit of not-very-manly hysteria. The trouble really starts when he spots his mom, but she's his mom, damn it, so Dean feels perfectly entitled to the handful of tears tracing their way down his cheek. At his side, Sam is practically bawling, big loud snuffles that start Dean thinking about bodily functions and exactly how the hell that's supposed to work in heaven. Does this dimension even have working plumbing? Either way, Sam's bawling so Dean doesn't feel too bad about the occasional sniffle that gets through.
By the time John Winchester shows up, Dean's barely clinging to the whole stoic, strong thing, because this is pretty much everything he wanted from the time he was five.
Still, he keeps it mostly in check throughout the extended reunion, clinging a little tighter to his mom than is probably necessary, but he's still pretty proud of himself for getting through the entire ordeal without losing his shit completely.
Of course, that all goes right out the window when he spots his baby.
In the course of hugging and kissing and getting patted on the back, he somehow ends up shuffled out the front doors of the hall, which oddly don't open onto fluffy white clouds and tall pillars of marble. No, heaven looks surprisingly like the American Midwest, complete with wheat fields. That trips Dean up for half a second before his gaze is drawn to the Impala, because there she is, parked out front in all her glory. She looks in mint condition too--and since this is heaven, he bets she is. He stares at her, dumbfounded, for what must be ten straight minutes--mouth open, drool sliding over his chin, eyes sparkling in the way they only ever do when Cas is in the room.
"Hello, baby, did you miss me?" he asks, and he swears she preens under the attention. He runs a loving hand over her hood. She's warm to the touch. By the time he's slid into the driver's seat, hands curling around the leather of the wheel, he's bawling like a baby and doesn't much care who sees.
So that's his introduction to heaven. Dean rather thinks he's going to like it.
He reassess the thought a few days--weeks? months? it's hard to say--later.
It's not terrible--of course it's not. In fact, from what he's gathered, it's whatever he wants it to be, which is apparently a tiny little house in a small Midwestern town, with a perfectly manicured lawn and garden gnomes. Dean tries not to examine that too closely.
The house has a large garage to house the Impala, with enough room for him to work on it--not that it ever needs work--along with space to store a fairly extensive weapons collection because heaven or not Dean knows the value of being prepared.
Besides, it's not like he hasn't had run ins with angels before.
He sees Sam and Jessica--which will never not be weird--fairly often, though since time doesn't exactly progress here in the normal order of things, he has no idea how often fairly is. He sees mom and dad--and that will also never not be weird--a bit more infrequently, but still enough that it satisfies that itch inside, the one that's a little paranoid about this all being a dream, like the time he got taken in by that Djinn. And he sees his friends, though it's actually a little alarming getting them all into one place and suddenly understanding just how many of them have died over the years. But no matter how perfect everything seems, something is missing.
Before his stint in purgatory, Dean might have been in denial about what that something was. He's not so lucky these days.
"It is heaven, Dean. Cas is probably just busy," Sam tells him when he complains about it for the umpteenth time.
"Dude can't even check in?" Dean snipes, because, yeah, it smarts just a bit knowing Dean's finally made it up to the big leagues and now Cas doesn't have time for him.
Stupid angels with their ridiculously fluffy hair and all-too blue eyes.
"Have you tried, you know," Sam says, gesturing vaguely in what Dean thinks is meant to be the universal symbol for prayer. Dean shakes off the question without really answering it.
Because of course he's prayed, every single what he thinks is supposed to be night. The problem is he doesn't know if prayer even works up here, or if it's reserved for those actually living and breathing and paying their taxes--not that Dean ever paid taxes, mind you. He hasn't even seen Cas since that first day, but Dean's not sure that means much, because aside from friends and family, he hasn't seen anyone.
Heaven is a bit of a ghost town, which is a little weird and pings all sorts of hunting instincts, but so far it seems he's the only one who notices. He tried mentioning it to Sam once, but all he got was an exasperated shake of Sam's head along with a can't you ever be happy? before Sam went home to Jessica and the idyllic life he's carving out here on the other side.
Not that Dean begrudges him it, because if anyone deserves to be happy it's Sam, he just wants some answers. Basically, he wants Cas to stop acting like a grade-A dick and talk to him, and until that happens he's going to take his frustration out on Sam.
How anyone thought Dean worthy of heaven is a complete mystery.
The thing is, it's easy to fill the days--weeks? months? he still can't tell--with routine. Dean mows his lawn what feels like twice a day--and that will never not be awesome--and prunes his hedges to look like fierce dinosaurs. He buffs the Impala and gives it regular oil changes. He paints rooms and builds a new set of cabinets for the kitchen out of cherry wood that appears as soon as he thinks of it. He visits friends and family and eats pie without ever gaining weight--incidentally, plumbing is apparently completely unnecessary in heaven--and mostly just sits back and relaxes in a way he never, ever had time for before.
And he prays to Cas. He prays to Cas a lot, actually, probably more than is healthy.
He wonders sometimes if maybe Cas got resurrected and is planetside. Maybe he's got some new human he's following around, fighting next to and flirting with. The thought is so infuriating Dean actually crushes a beer bottle with his bare hand. It shatters, beer spilling all over the asphalt of his driveway, the glass cutting into his hand. He watches a single pearl of blood drip to the ground, where it mingles with the spilled beer.
Huh, he thinks, and just like that the beer and blood are gone, the broken bottle restored, his hand perfectly healed.
After that he starts looking for cracks in this whole so-called heaven thing. Experience has shown him that if something is too good to be true it's usually too good to be true. Sure, everyone he talks to is happy and at peace--even his dad and if anyone was going to believe him it was John Winchester--but Dean can't seem to shake that uneasy feeling itching between his shoulder blades.
Sam calls it boredom.
"You're not a sit around guy. It's no wonder you're going stir crazy. You created the life you thought you wanted, but heaven can be anything you want it to be, so why not stop clinging to the dream of what you think you want and actually build the life you really want?"
"Not helpful, Sammy," Dean says, and that's the end of that conversation.
The problem is Sam's kind of right. He is bored. Bored and antsy and itching for a good fight, but that doesn't mean something isn't amiss, and if there's anything Dean's good at its finding life's imperfections.
He starts by tearing down the illusion. This involves imagining a sledge hammer in his hands and then using it to smash holes in the walls of his tiny house. It comes down fairly easily, and soon enough Dean's left standing on a pile of rubble, fresh sheen of sweat--first time that's happen and man does it feel good--beading against his brow.
Knocking down the house doesn't change anything, and for one brief, insane moment he contemplates smashing the Impala. Fortunately common sense prevails, Dean choosing to hop into the driver's seat instead. He guns the engine, points the car north and starts driving.
And keeps driving, which ends up being the weirdest thing he's done since he got here.
Not unpleasant weird, but it still takes his brain a few minutes to catch up with the program. The landscape continually shifts around him, a bend in the road triggering a memory from one of his and Sam's many--many--cross-country road trips and suddenly he's on that road, slick with rain from the times it was raining, or icy with snow from the times it was snowing. It's like he's literally driving down memory lane, which is so damned creepy he comes dangerously close to crashing the car. Twice.
He does once hit the brakes so hard that the car fishtails, threatening to spin out of control save that some heavenly force sets the car right before that can happen. Dean turns to glare at the figure he spotted in his rear view mirror, only to find that Cas has moved to the front seat.
"Only you, Dean Winchester, would find heaven wanting," he says.
Dean can be forgiven for flipping his lid.
"Where the hell have you been? I'm finally on your turf and you cast me aside like yesterday's trash? Not cool, Cas."
Cas makes that face of his, the exasperated one that doesn't quite rival Sam's, but comes pretty damned close. Righteous indignation swells in Dean's breast.
He's about to tear Cas a new one, because he's been praying, damn it, and he's pretty sure ignoring someone's prayers is about the douchiest thing an angel can do to a guy, but it's then that Cas winces, like sitting in the Impala and having this argument is about the most painful thing he can imagine.
Dean tries very hard not to panic at that.
"My apologies," Cas says when he's recovered, and it sounds like he's apologizing for a hell of a lot more than just a momentary lapse. Dean reluctantly deflates. Cas continues. "I'm having a hard time maintaining this form."
It's pretty much the last thing Dean was expecting him to say, especially because it doesn't make any kind of sense. "You manage fine downstairs," he says.
Cas kind of chuckles. It's not as pleasant a sound as Dean wants it to be.
"This isn't my vessel, Dean. It's a projection, and it requires a good deal of energy to maintain. I don't need my vessel in heaven, because here I exist in my true form."
Dean goes from incredulous to shocked so fast it leaves him gapping like a fish. The worst part is he can't bring himself to mind how stupid he must look, because until now he hasn't actually considered what it must mean for Cas to be an angel in heaven.
He forgets sometimes--often--that Cas is anything other than his best friend and the would-be love of his life--and there, he said it. He forgets that beneath the crooked ties and oversized trench coat is this being that eclipses him in ways he can't even begin to imagine. Frankly the thought is terrifying, which is probably why he tends to focus on the colour of Cas' eyes or the way his nose crinkles when he's confused.
Except, that's not Cas. That's the late Jimmy Novak.
Dean's not sure he's quite ready to process that.
"So you can't maintain the illusion for extended periods, and since I can't see your true form, you decided the solution was avoiding me?"
It's marginally reassuring that when push comes to shove he can count on anger to get him past an awkward situation. Cas' expression has gone flat, the way he used to wear it back when they first met and he hadn't quite figured out how to use his vessel to mimic human expressions--and oh did Dean have fun teaching him those. Dean's trying very hard not to think about what it will mean to never see one of Cas' head tilts again.
"Not exactly. Here you are permitted to see my true form, though you are right when you say I have been avoiding the issue. I wasn't sure you'd want to see it."
That stops Dean short, not because he hasn't wondered about Cas' true form--of course he has--or because he ever thought he'd get a chance to see it, but because Cas sounds honest-to-god nervous about the idea, like the second Dean sees him as he truly is Dean's going to reject him.
Clearly Dean hasn't stressed Cas' importance enough. He can't think of anything that would change his opinion of Cas.
But it will change things. That he's sure of. How can it not? He's never really been worthy of Cas, no matter how many times he tried to convince himself otherwise, and Dean is pretty sure he won't be able to pretend once he's seen Cas as he truly is. Not quite ready to deal with that either, Dean quips a smile.
"Size of the Chrysler Building, huh?"
That his first instinct is flippancy probably says more about him than he's willing to admit. He'll say one thing about heaven, it certain makes a person self-aware. Sam would be so proud.
Still, it seems the right thing to say, because some of Cas' nervousness shifts to confusion. He tilts his--Jimmy Novak's--head. Dean doesn't miss the irony.
"On Earth, yes, but scale is unimportant here. I can maintain my current dimensions."
Dean doesn't have an answer to that, but something must show on his features, because Cas' confusion vanishes, replaced by something Dean thinks might be awe. A brief flash of hope flares in his eyes. It rather makes Dean's decision for him, because Cas is still Cas, regardless of his form, and Dean has loved Cas for far longer than he probably realizes.
"I want to see you," he says, surprised by how calm he sounds. Cas' eyes grow wide.
He has half a second to reconsider the idea, because it's probably still going to change everything. Then again, he is dead, which kind of changes everything anyway, and, besides, it's fucking Cas and Cas has been pretty much everything to him that Sammy isn't for far longer than Dean has had any rights to him. He's sure as hell not going to back off now. He might be a coward in a lot of ways, but never when it counted.
"Show me, Cas," he says again, just in case Cas hasn't figured out that Dean is his for pretty much eternity at this point.
There's a long, awkward moment while Cas simply stares at him, hesitation and uncertainty playing across Jimmy' features. Then he nods, slowly, like he's surprised by the decision. Dean inhales sharply and ends up holding his breath, because this is it, the biggest leap of faith he's ever taken.
There isn't a gradual change. Cas doesn't slowly morph into something not human. One minute they're sitting in the car at the side of the road, staring across at each other--nothing new there--and the next Dean is standing on the far end of a hotel room--which feels a hell of a lot more like home than that tiny house with the cherry wood cabinets ever did--with Cas standing before him.
Except, this isn't vessel-Cas. Dean's not staring into the familiar features of Jimmy Novak. For the first time since they met, Dean is seeing Castiel, Angel of Thursdays, in all his Seraph glory.
Some distant, primitive part of his brain is telling him that he should be overwhelmed; that he should fall to his knees and prostrate himself before this angelic creature because clearly he is not worthy. That same part of his brain is marvelling over the fact that Cas is a blazing ball of fiery light, giving off so much warmth and energy that Dean can barely see for it. All of that, however, is overridden by such overwhelming familiarity that Dean feels like he's known this Cas, not just the entire time, but his entire life. He'd recognize him anywhere.
And okay, maybe he's fixating a bit on the wings, but they're just cool, damn it.
Either way, it's not at all as weird as he was expecting. Cas isn't some new, alien thing. He's just Cas, and Dean knows him completely.
"Hey, Cas," he says, smile lighting his features, and for the first time since arriving Dean feels a little of that peace Sam's always talking about.
Cas beams at him--quite literally.
After that heaven goes like this:
Dean doesn't go back to the tiny house with the cherry wood cabinets. Instead he gets himself a divey motel room with a bed that has magic fingers and a mini bar that's constantly stocked. He shows up at his parents on Sundays--or whenever the heavenly equivalent of Sundays is--for pot roast and pie, and then heads over to Sammy and Jessica's on Wednesdays to watch Sam attempt the art of barbequing--which despite the whole heaven thing he can never really get the hang of. He spends Saturday mornings with Bobby fixing an endless pile of cars, and takes the piss from Ellen for getting Jo's hopes up every Friday when he turns up in their bar.
The rest of the time he spends with Cas.
They go road tripping, which is pretty hilarious when he thinks about it for any length of time, an angel riding shotgun while Dean bitches about the sudden accumulation of feathers in his car. Every so often, when Dean gets too twitchy in paradise--which happens far more than he'd like to admit--Cas works his mojo and they somehow end up back on earth, packed together in Cas' vessel, which is kind of hard to steer with two people vying for the controls, but a hell of a lot of fun at the same time, especially when they get to smite some demons.
It's even more fun when they get back to whatever flee-bag motel they've checked Cas into and Dean gets to teach Cas all the fun things he can do with his vessel--all the fun things Dean should have taught him when he was still alive and thinking Cas was nothing more than a feathery pain in his ass.
He knows better than that now, and fortunately for him--for them--they've got an eternity to make up for lost time.