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Mary Winchester is ladling soup into a child-sized bowl, and her son sighs because this means he is dead. So it goes.

Dean has died enough times to become familiar with the process, though this is only the third such occasion he remembers. The first time, remembering was a punishment. The second, it was so he could convey a message. And now the third, for what purpose he knows not. But he knows - or is at least fairly certain - that he will be brought back to life soon enough, so he doesn't worry overmuch about being dead. Instead, he enjoys a (somewhat small) bowl of his mother's homemade (or so he believes) soup.

He knows - or is at least fairly certain - that the soup is homemade, because nothing he's eaten out of a can has tasted anything like it in the nearly thirty years since she was last alive to make it. So it goes.

After he's finished the bowl, he brings it to his mother, who ruffles his hair and tells him what a good boy he is. His eyes shut as he relishes the sensation: warm, loving human contact. It would be a lie to say he hasn't had that in nearly thirty years along with the soup, but there is something different about mothers. Their love feels more tangible, more real. And why shouldn't it be? It carried you for nine months just as surely as her body did.

But the sensation fades, and when he opens his eyes Dean is elsewhere: another memory, of another, happier time.

He is maybe fourteen or fifteen, told he is a good size for his age, and Sam is a very small ten. He's also a very sick, very feverish ten, and Dad has been gone on a hunt for nearly a week. Dean has been running low on cash since day four, and has resorted to giving Sam too-watered-down Campbell's Condensed Chicken Noodle. The noodles look soggy, and the tiny cubes of carrot and chicken seem sad, floating in their watery, off-yellow broth. But Sam can hardly complain.

It takes Dean a while to figure out what qualifies this moment for Heaven's Grand Tour, but a quick press of hand to forehead confirms that Sam's fever has just broken. He remembers, now: relieved beyond measure that he hasn't killed his brother, Dean will curl up on the bed next to him and let him pick the channel to leave the TV on for the next day straight. It's a moment of happy peace he so rarely got. They got less common a year or so after this, once Dad decided Dean was old enough to help him on hunts. They stopped altogether once Sam decided he didn't want what Dad wanted him to want, and Dean got caught between them.

After that, he didn't get much of a chance for simple happiness, because Sam was gone, and there was the hunt. And then Dad was gone, so Dean pulled Sam in on the hunt. And then Dad really was gone. So it goes. Wasn't long after Dad was gone that Sam - but Dean refused.

That's why Dean died the first time he can remember, so Sam wouldn't have to.

So it goes.

He doesn't know how many other times he's died. He doesn't remember most of them, and neither does whatever (or whoever) killed him. Except for Sam, that one day. He's never said exactly how many times it was, but the estimate he gave, and the fact that he lost count, is pretty telling.

So it goes, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

Plus or minus another dozen agains, maybe.

And Dean knows how that sounds, but he swears, dying so many times hasn't made him blasé about death. Being resurrected so often, though? That does things to a man's sense of the permanence of death, especially when the only other person in the whole world that really matters keeps coming back too.

Heaven's changed memories on him again. Now he's in a school library - he thinks he's maybe sixteen? he's not sure - and the librarian, a thin, sharp woman with horn-rimmed glasses straight out of a book on stereotypes is frowning at him. Nodding decisively, she drags him with her sharp, bony hands to a table in the back and makes him sit down, plops a book in front of him. Slaughterhouse-Five.

Man, that takes him back.

The Slaughterhouse-Five Tralfamadorians aren't quite right about death. Well, it's fiction, why the hell should he expect it to be right? Just because his life's been sold as fiction... but anyway.

There's a life after death, but not the kind Vonnegut imagined fourth-dimensional aliens could see: looking back at the life before death, dwelling on the good moments and ignoring the bad. Though... that does sound a bit like Heaven, so maybe Vonnegut wasn't so far off. He imagines Cas's true form as a green toilet plunger and laughs out loud; the librarian shushes him. He nearly laughs again at the cliche she makes, but he's grateful to her, in his way. This is a good book.

But anyway.

There's a life after death, and if you're good it's just the good parts of the life before death. If you're not - if you do bad things, or you sell your soul - then it's just... pain. Nothing but pain so bad that eventually you want to make other people feel it, if only so it won't feel quite so bad to you. Besides, you tell yourself, if they're here, they must've done something bad before they died. So it goes. So you cause them pain, not knowing you're starting the end of the world as you do it.

He didn't know, that time, that when he died he'd be coming back. He thought it was going to be pain and torture forever, so it might as well be someone else's pain and his torture. But then he got brought back. But he only got brought back, you see, because he decided to torture people. If he'd decided to live with the pain, he would've been stuck down there forever! Isn't that something?

It's something fucked up, is what is it.

But that's Heaven in a nutshell, Dean thinks, idly thumbing through the book. This was his first Vonnegut novel, and while he'd liked most of them it was true what they said: you never forgot your first. He pauses over a page, confused by a line of dialogue he doesn't remember being there before. Then the text below it flickers, vanishes to be replaced with:

"Dean?"

Dean squints at the words, hardly believing his own eyes. But then again... this is a library. No TV or radio for Cas to hijack like he did last time.

"Cas? That you?"

"Dean, have you found Sam yet?"

Dean averts his eyes and starts squirming in his seat before he realizes how extremely dumb that is. He's talking to a book here, after all. Not that that in itself isn't extremely dumb, but Cas can hardly see him through it. "I haven't exactly been looking." The book sits there unchanging for a time, and Dean feels the distinct, unpleasant sensation of being judged by an angel and found wanting. Eventually:

"Why not?"

"I dunno, it's not like we're in a rush or anything." Dean shrugs as the memory comes back to him. "We died in a car accident, not on a hunt. And it's not like the angels are gonna come gunning for us like last time." Dean knows - or is at least fairly certain - of that. At least, he thinks he is. "They aren't, right?"

"You are very lucky Raphael is distracted by an attack I had already sent my forces on before I heard of your deaths. If he were not - "

"Yeah, yeah, pooch screwed, Apocalypse Now, dead for real, I get it. But, Cas..." Dean bites his lip, hesitating. Should he...? Eh, might as well. "Do we have to leave now? Heaven's kinda... nice, when it isn't being overrun by enormous douchebags." All he gets in reply is an abrupt "Sooner would be better." and then the text of the book returns to normal. Dean stares blankly at the page for a moment, barely taking in the words.

"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment."

He sighs, snaps the book shut, and starts looking for the Axis Mundi.

He finds Sam pretty quickly - one of the advantages of being soulmates, whatever else that might mean - and they hang out for a few minutes in a bar near Sam and Jess's apartment before Cas drags them back to Earth. He doesn't waste any time on goodbyes, just stays around long enough to make sure everything seems to be working properly and then vanishes. Probably going to join his forces, however many of them are left now. Cas doesn't say, hasn't for weeks, but something strained about his posture and voice makes Dean think it isn't many. So it goes.

He and Sam exchange a glance and hold a conversation without words: a raised eyebrow means "Beer?", a tilt of the head for "Bar?", a slow shake for "Not tonight man, I'm beat." A nod for "Me too," and the twitch of a hand towards the phone means "Dinner?" Waving an arm means "Whatever, man," and after that Sam's too busy raking through the motel's take-out menus to talk.

Dean flops back on the bed, weirdly exhausted for only having died and been brought back today. He rolls over until his duffel bag's in arm's reach, pulls it over and rummages around inside until he finds a small, worn paperback. He rubs a thumb thoughtfully against the plastic lamination over the library's filing code on the spine, then cracks it open.

All this happened, more or less.

Dean smirks. No kidding, Vonnegut, he thinks, and reads on.