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Stumble and Fall

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CHAPTER ONE
┅   ORIGINS   ┅
in which Dean is smol

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“Eight months old,” Ellen said proudly, tugging one juvenile dog out from the chaos of other puppies in the cage. “This one’s Sammy, he’s a good ‘un. Barks and attacks on command already, sits where he’s put. German Shepherd breeding at its best.”

Ellen heaved Sam up into her arms with a grunt, and Sam’s wriggling nose turned towards the dusty grass, bewildered by his sudden extra height. He was half Ellen’s size – he was still a puppy, but even with her strength, she strained under his bulk. His mid-toned fur and black face gleamed healthily in the sun, as did the black saddle-shape on his back.

“What about that one?” the other lady said, absently petting Sammy’s half-flopped ears. Dean noticed her looking at him through the criss-crossing movement of the other dogs, and when she crouched and beckoned to him, he bounded up to stand his front paws on her knee, yapping a greeting.

Ellen chuckled, crouching down so she could set Sam back on his feet. Sam trotted off to mingle with the others, and Ellen’s face came level with Dean’s. Dean was busy sniffing the new lady all over, tail wagging frantically. He tumbled against her, grumbling a set of happy noises.

When he was petted by a hand, Dean plonked his front paws down on the ground and enjoyed the touch. He already liked this new lady; she and Ellen both peered at Dean with smiles on their faces.

“His back legs are kind of dud,” Ellen said, rubbing Dean’s hips until he jabbered at the twinge he felt, and he hopped closer to the other woman, mildly offended. “I’d called him bowlegged – went bad in the womb maybe, shouldn’ta happened. His dam was healthy as a horse, his papa too.”

“I don’t mind having a defective animal, you know,” the new lady said, ruffling Dean’s head. “So long as he can do his job, who cares? I think he’s super cute.” She paused, gently squashing Dean’s furry cheeks between his hands so she could look at his face. “Hey... I recognise this marking pattern, the black stripe up the nose. Are these Bomber’s pups?”

Ellen nodded, “He’s still stationed out in Afghanistan. Nose like a vacuum, that dog. Sammy got Bomber’s build and strength, I’m pretty sure Deanie Weenie here got the sniffer.”

The new lady laughed. “Deanie Weenie?”

Ellen’s eyes crinkled with her smile, and Dean forgave her for making his hips hurt. He went up to her and accepted her cuddle, panting cheerfully. “He’s just a big ol’ teddy bear,” Ellen said, touching Dean’s soft, floppy ears. “I trained him from birth, tried my best to get him to work by his lonesome – he does fine, but he still can’t go a single night without someone to sleep beside him. He gets all sad and mopey. I let him snuggle up with his littermates. Aside from Sam, he’s the only one smart enough to even be considered for police training.”

The new lady stroked Dean’s scruff, looking over at Sam. “Sam’s big for eight months. He’s going to look full-grown before you can blink.”

“You can say that again,” Ellie sighed, standing up. “He keeps going at this rate, we’ll have a moose on the force for the first time ever.” The other lady laughed and followed Ellen’s lead as she turned away, and Dean whined, missing their petting hands already.

“I don’t think I could take a big dog,” the new lady mused, looking back at Sam, then down to Dean, who pawed at her leg. She gave him one last pat, then made to leave the big cage, walking behind Ellen. “I guess I’ll have to think about it. Re-evaluate once they’ve passed their tests. If they pass them.”

The ladies exited the cage. When Dean tried to follow them, the metal gate clipped shut in his face and he was left pawing at the chainlink fence.

“Do you think they’ll even let Deanie into the trials?” the new lady asked, her voice getting quieter as she headed back to the training building beside Ellen, hands in the pockets of her uniform jacket. “I mean, with those bowlegs...”

“Got no clue,” Ellen replied, opening the door for the new lady. “But from what I’ve seen before, chances are he’ll be up for adoption before the week is over.”

The door closed behind them. Dean howled for a good five seconds, but nobody came back for him. So, instead, he stood up and charged back into a playfight with the other puppies, getting over-excited all over again.

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Not too many days later, Dean watched from the cage under a singeing-hot sun, tongue lolling to keep him cool. He had trouble seeing past so many people’s legs, as they stood around with beer in their plastic cups, eyes trained on the dog trials going on in the field ahead.

Sam provided Dean’s proudest moment: he fetched, he sat on command, he stayed, and he bit the fake criminal through that giant protective sleeve, which the humans had to wear to shield their skin from dog teeth. Sam did everything the way it ought to be done, and when it was over, he got a pat on the head, a treat, and Dean heard someone say he’d made it big.

As Sam returned to the puppy cage, Dean jumped on him, tail wagging. “You did it!” he cheered, bumping and bustling around his younger brother. “Always knew you had it in you!”

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Sam said humbly, shrugging Dean off him. “You’re up next, you’d better show them what you’re made of.”

“Oh, I will,” Dean said dangerously, his theatrical malice ruined by his wagging tail.

When the gate opened for him, Dean zoomed out to meet the firm grip of Ellen, who would be serving as his handler today. She’d remain his handler until he got his own officer to care for him, and if Dean played this right, that could happen within a matter of days from now.

Ellen led him forward, keeping him close to her legs, and she took him to the middle of the field. Lots of people were watching, but that didn’t bother Dean at all.

A little itch in Dean’s mind reminded him that if he did well, he might not see Ellen for a long, long time – maybe never again. A second reminder trumped the first: if Dean didn’t do well, he’d be sent to an adoptive home, and Dean had heard that was where the broken, failure dogs went. Dean wasn’t one of those. He was going to be a soldier dog like his papa: saving lives, hunting bombs in foreign lands!

Dean sat on command. Hell, that was easy-peasy. He didn’t even flinch when someone shot a bullet into the grass only feet away from him. Well, maybe he flinched a little bit, but he didn’t run away.

He stayed when Ellen told him to stay. When the fake criminal came close with his dark glasses, hat, metal stick and protective arm gear, Dean resisted jumping to attack him until Ellen gave the signal. Then, at last – he clamped down his teeth around that arm protector, and didn’t let go for anything until the criminal was battled down on the grass, pulled along by Dean’s ferocious, toothy drag. The arm protector tasted kinda gross.

Then, someone else presented themselves to Dean: another person with an arm protector. But they weren’t wearing dark glasses or a hat, just a t-shirt and jeans, and there was no metal stick or a gun in sight. Dean hadn’t seen Sam do this test. He wasn’t sure what to do.

He waited for a command. After a whole minute of ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, Ellen gave the attack signal.

Attack? But that didn’t make sense, the guy wasn’t dangerous. He just stood there innocently, smiling. He had treats in his pocket, too – Dean could smell them.

Engaging his common sense, Dean padded over to the guy, wagging his tail experimentally. The guy still didn’t move, but started to grin. Dean heard laughter coming from the people all around, too.

He sniffed up to the guy’s pocket, tipping back onto his short rear legs so his nose could wriggle higher. The crowd really laughed now, and Dean thought it was great they were so amused. He must be doing something right. He wanted one of those treats!

The guy pushed Dean’s nose away, and Dean dropped back to the grass, waiting for his reward.

“Roll over,” the guy muttered, and Dean rolled over, tongue flopping over his nose. He showed the guy his belly, hoping for a belly rub. The guy chuckled, giving a head-shake and shooting a look towards the judge’s table. The crowd laughed so raucously now that the man couldn’t help but laugh too, and he reached into his pocket to get a treat.

Dean sat up, nose stretching to reach the food. He whined; he wasn’t a huge fan of being patient when food was so close.

“Dumb dog,” the guy said, and dropped the treat into Dean’s mouth.

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“Unsuited?!” Dean barked, pacing across the enclosure’s cold floor for the fifteenth time. “What does that even mean, ‘unsuited for police work’?!”

“It means you stuffed up pretty bad,” Sam said, in a rather withdrawn tone. “Honestly, Dean, you’re not two months old any more, you should be able to control your hunger urge by now.”

“It wasn’t an urge,” Dean snarled at his brother. “I couldn’t attack an unarmed man, okay? I don’t care what the command is, if it’s not right then I’m not doing it! That was the only thing that factored into my decision!”

“The treat sure helped, though,” Sam muttered, looking away. He didn’t need to state his feelings aloud, but Dean could read between the lines: Sam was disappointed in him.

“Fine! I get it, all right,” Dean huffed, going to flop down in his chewed-up bed, glaring across the concrete enclosure at Sam. “A police dog is meant to obey no matter what. We’re not meant to get distracted by anything. But what if a cop is wrong, Sam? What if they’ve judged someone to be dangerous when they’re not?”

Sam looked at him sternly. “Dean, they’re smarter than us. They tell us what we need to know, and no more. If they say someone’s dangerous, it means they’re dangerous! What about that is so hard to understand?”

Dean prepared to lay another sharp retort over Sam’s words, but a lack of a prepared reply held him back. He sulked for a while, and thought about why Sam was really upset.

“I get it,” Dean muttered quietly, resting his chin down in the floor. “You’re mad ‘cause I’m going to be sent away. That’s why you’re angry, isn’t it? I failed and now you won’t see me again.”

Sam didn’t respond, just looked out into the corridor between the other cages, and his silence was response enough.

Dogs barked and chatted in their own enclosures, and Dean wondered if adoption would be anything like this. Would he still get food and belly rubs in the kennel for failures? Or would it be quiet and cold, like the vet surgery?

No matter what adoption held for him, Dean’s biggest regret was that Sam wouldn’t be there too.

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Dean discovered that the new lady went by the name of Kathleen Hudak, and she worked as an officer of the law. She came in the very next day, holding a clipboard. Ellen followed her a few paces behind, tutting about something, carrying on a previous conversation.

Dean lifted his head from his bed at the sound of their voices and the smell of their shoes, smacking his lips together to break any dangling drool.

“Can’t be right,” Kathleen said, shaking her head. “I checked it twice, but it says the same on the computer.”

“Welp, someone screwed up the paperwork,” Ellen said, with a click of her cheek against her teeth. She went on talking while she used a hosepipe to fill up Dean and Sam’s water bowl, “It sticks in the memory, a waddle like his. They’ll take one look at him and realise they called the wrong dog in for a re-test. He’ll be right back here in ten seconds flat.”

“Notes say Sam’s going out to Bobby Singer’s place tomorrow, he requested a new mutt. Finally over Rumsfeld’s passing, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Ellen stood with her hands on her hips, hosepipe dripping onto the ground from where she held it. “This is could be the last time Deanie Weenie sees Sammy.” She pursed her lips. “Man... it sucks. They’re pretty close.” She gave Dean a sad smile when he perked his head up, ears pricked in alarm. “Yeah, the pup knows what I’m talking about.” She crouched, peering at Dean through the chainlink fence. “Say your goodbyes, Deanie. We’ll give you two a minute.”

Dean started to hyperventilate when the women left his sight. “Sam,” he whispered, hurrying over to Sam’s bed. He nosed his brother in the face. “Sam!”

One of Sam’s black eyebrows lifted to reveal a sliver of his shiny eye. He yawned hugely, showing off his teeth. “What? Is it outside time yet?”

“It’s leaving time,” Dean said under his breath. “I’m being taken away for re-testing!”

Sam’s head lifted until he sat up completely, looking down at Dean. “Re-testing?”

“Yeah!” Dean said with a quick tail-wag. He said nothing about the fact Ellen and Kathleen thought it was a mistake; a second chance was a second chance. “I’ll pass this time ‘round! I’ll pass, and I’ll come and train beside you. We’ll be the best police dogs the world has ever seen!”

Sam scoffed. “Well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Dean.” And by that, he meant, ‘You’ll never be very good at this’.

Dean backed up, affronted. “I can do this job, Sam. I can do it like Mom did, and Papa. I can learn.”

Sam tried to look encouraging, but he failed spectacularly. “Dean,” he said eventually. “Look, I just don’t want you setting yourself up for disappointment. With your legs—”

Dean snapped his jaws at Sam’s snout, growling with his hackles raised. Sam backed up against the fence, eyes wide in surprise rather than fear. Dean’s outburst had set off the other dogs, and now barks and yaps came from all around, alarmed and curious.

Dean let a determined human hand take him around the collar, and he allowed them to drag him out of the enclosure. He looked back, still tense from frustration, but he felt something else, too. Something sad and regretful.

Unless he succeeded in today’s re-test, he would never have a chance to make up with Sammy. Dean didn’t want that interaction to have been their last.

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This test turned out to be different to the last one. They drove for a while to get to a new location, and once there, they went inside.

It was a very particular kind of inside; there were people everywhere, going places, and the polished floor smelled like dirt from strange, distant lands. Voices sounded on an overhead speaker, echoing through miles and miles of interior walls. Through a window, Dean could see a giant metal bird touching down to the tarmac, and another taking off in the distance.

The cops gave him a weird-smelling package, and he sniffed it. Then, he was told to find other things that smelt the same.

He’d played this game when he was less than an hour old. Find Mom’s Milk, it was called. Now, he looked for something far more important. Ellen must have told someone in charge that he was really good at this game; she and Dean played it lots while he was growing up.

He sniffed around the floor, and he sniffed shoes and legs and walls. He could smell everything, and it was incredible. He’d never been anywhere so exciting. The only downside to all of this: he was held back on a short leash, so he couldn’t go up to people and ask for belly rubs.

He didn’t know his handler this time, but they were nice. They gave him pats to keep him calm, and they let him go where his nose wanted to go.

It took him more than an hour, but he found something that smelt the same. It only smelled a little bit, coming from somebody’s bag. When the cops opened up the bag, they found a live snake buried deep within the confines of the case, hidden from sensors by clever materials. Apparently it was exactly what the cops had been looking for.

Dean got not one treat, not two treats, but five treats – and a belly rub.

They kept him doing the same thing all day, and he got more and more efficient at finding where the smelly thing was. Eventually he didn’t need to smell a sample first, he could just detect things which didn’t fit the norm from far away.

He was sent back to the training centre by the evening, and in the car, he overheard a cellphone call from today’s handler to their boss. Dean had impressed them. Boy, did that make him feel good!

He got to see Sam again that night. Sam didn’t apologise, but Dean assumed he’d forgotten what he’d said earlier about Dean’s legs. Dean didn’t want to bring it up again, so he let it slide.

He’d been letting comments about his legs slide all his life, and while he lay snuggled up beside Sam in the dark, he decided upon something which would have a great influence over the rest of his training and career. He decided that he wouldn’t let anyone’s negative opinion of his bowed legs get him down. He wouldn’t let anyone treat him like he was somehow not as good as them, or would surely fail just because he’d been made a little differently. Maybe he wouldn’t ever be as fast or as strong as others, but whatever he could do was just as valuable as anyone else’s efforts.

Perhaps the decision would be hard to put into practice, but the act of deciding felt like a good first step.

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Dean loved where his training took him.

Sam got to go on patrols around town, head poked out the window and his tongue flapping around in the breeze. He got to chase down burglars and sniff around in houses, looking for blood, but that was nothing like what Dean got to do.

That fun first test at the airport was repeated a myriad of times, and Dean completed those activities alongside a bunch of other nose-training tests – and soon enough, he became a fully-certified K9. Kathleen Hudak was happily assigned as Dean’s handler, and they built up a rapport over the year that followed. Every day, they returned to the sprawling marble maze, and Dean set his nose to the ground.

Good rapport became unwavering trust in their second year – Dean would lay his life in Kathleen’s hands, and Kathleen did the same with him on several occasions.

Come the third year, trust gave way to an unbreakable bond. They went on sharing a bed at night, and Dean couldn’t sleep without Kathleen’s warmth beside him. He would defend his handler to his dying breath, and he had tried a few times – airports were stressful places full of angry people – but Kathleen always stepped in and defused the situation.

In many ways, Dean’s unquestioning loyalty to Kathleen was the best thing to ever happen to him, besides being born. He learned to have faith: if she said someone was dangerous, even if they didn’t look, smell, or act dangerous, he knew without doubt that they’d done something wrong, he just hadn’t seen it himself. He attacked on command, but only on command.

He became good at his job. In fact, he became the best damn sniffer dog the world had ever seen – Kathleen told him so on a near-daily basis.

Basically, he got where he wanted to be. Top of the food chain, so to speak. He even got a medal, once.

But after three, then four, then five years hunting illegal drugs, saving smuggled turtles – the job started to take its toll on him. He loved his family and co-workers, Kathleen more than anybody (on par with Sam and Ellen, that is), but the pain in his back legs worsened, and worsened, and eventually became just a bit too much. He walked about like a hobbling frog nowadays, and getting older wasn’t helping at all.

He was on medication for his weak hips; small capsules of powder were sprinkled over his dinner every evening, and sometimes it got so bad he had to go to the vet for painkillers. He still received the occasional jeer from some other K9 who thought they were automatically dominant because they could stand with their spine straight, but usually a gruff snap in their direction shut them up.

On the subject of gruffness, there were little grey hairs around Dean’s chin, and it made him miserable. Life was too short. Sure, if all went well, he could still have another half of his life to go, but middle age had arrived far too soon for his liking. Three more years and he’d be retired. He wasn’t sure how that would go down. On the one paw, he’d love to get away from all the everyday demands. But on the other paw, if he wasn’t working, if he wasn’t out there padding alongside a runway or rummaging through suitcases, what was he meant to do?

Dean once tried to complain to Sam, but he made the mistake of confiding when he had an audience. Rufus was the training centre’s old Rottweiler, slumped in the corner of the outside run. He was a month away from retirement, and he was often viewed as the wisest of the police dogs. He’d made it through a full eight years, protecting his handler throughout thousands of confrontations with bad guys, and, remarkably, had only been seriously injured once.

He overheard Dean’s quiet laments, and he cocked an eyebrow. Dean only noticed he was being judged when the toughened drawl carried over across the summer-dry grass.

“Suck it up, princess,” Rufus said. “Ain’t none of us here who don’t hate the job at times. You try gettin’ yourself shot, then see how much you appreciate the little aches in comparison.”

Dean stayed quiet, giving a soft nod. He rested his chin down on his front paws, and looked sadly up at Sam.

Sam gave him a crooked smile, murmuring, “Oh, come on, Dean. Your pain is relative to your own experience, nobody else’s. If it hurts enough to bother you, your complaints are legitimate. Don’t listen to Rufus, he’s a crabby old grouch.”

Dean did feel ever so slightly mollified. Sam had only become wiser and kinder over the years, and those traits made him so easy to love.

All the frustration flooded back later that afternoon, as Dean stumbled while chasing down a man with blood on his shoes. But those few words of validation had made the aches far easier to deal with, and he wouldn’t be forgetting them anytime soon.

 

 


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CHAPTER TWO
┅   MISSION   ┅
in which Dean meets Cas

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Dean had heard helicopters before, but usually he was inside and didn’t get to watch when they touched down. This one’s bladed propeller spun so fast he couldn’t see any of its individual blades. Pushed by the helicopter’s rush, the grass on the field smoothed out in constant ripples, showing the paler sides of the grass stems so the field looked shinier than usual, reflecting the light in the clouds.

When the giant grey shape touched down to the ground, its propeller began to slow, and the sound of the engine turned from a rumble to a whine, sweeping the area in fading echoes. It looked a bit like a shark, with a pointed nose and fins at the back.

A door on its side opened and a bald, black man in a brightly-coloured jumpsuit hopped out, beckoning to Kathleen.

Kathleen took a firmer hold on Dean’s leash, her hand right up next to his collar. Her nervousness seemed obvious; she only gripped him that hard when she needed reassurance.

The pair of them approached the helicopter as a black dog jumped out. Dean’s tail started to wag, and he pulled on the leash, excited to meet a new friend. Kathleen held him back, muttering to him, “Easy. Easy, boy.”

The other dog wasn’t on a leash, but he sat by his handler’s feet without any instruction to do so. He was tall, his head up to the waist of his handler. That made him nearly as big as Dean – and about as fluffy, too, with streaks of lightness in his dark fur. He looked rather stern, and his posture reminded Dean that they were supposed to be on a mission; the other dog wasn’t here for a playdate.

Kathleen let Dean off his leash when they got close, and while she approached walking, ready to be debriefed by the other dog’s handler, Dean bounded ahead the last few feet to bury his nose in the other dog’s fur, sniffing madly, absorbing the smell of dried-up rain and grass and dead leaves and the inside of the helicopter and his handler, and a myriad of other more personal things which didn’t need detailing.

The other dog didn’t move to return the greeting; instead he peered down at Dean with a frown and an air of perplexed disdain. He had a strong jaw, a perfectly shiny black nose, and beady eyes which failed to express the slightest spark of joy. “What are you doing?” he asked, in a low, gruff grumble.

“Nothing,” Dean replied somewhat defensively, stepping back. He tried to look disgruntled, but his tail kept wagging. “I’m just saying hello. C’mon, aren’t you curious where I’ve been?”

“I can sense it on you already, I don’t need to thrust my nose into your orifices to find out.”

Well, if that wasn’t a subtle way to claim the dominant rank, Dean didn’t know what it was. It was like the mutt was trying to prove he could do just as good as Dean without even trying. In an attempt to deflect, Dean raised an eyebrow and chuckled carelessly. “Sure you don’t,” he said. “Bet you think there’s better things you could thrust into my orifices than your nose, huh?”

The other dog seemed mildly taken aback. However, Dean wasn’t sure if his quip had awarded him the upper paw or not, and didn’t have time to find out, because the other dog’s handler whistled and gestured his dog into the helicopter. Dean followed when Kathleen climbed in, and he leapt up onto thin, utilitarian carpet, two pawsteps behind the other dog. The dog sat primly on the floor beside the passenger seats, facing forward.

Inside the helicopter was similar to the inside of a car, with only one back seat, but more spacious: a cushioned bench extended the whole way across the cabin. Kathleen stored her bag under the seat, while the other handler moved to stand beside the second of two pilot seats, peering out through the windshield.

“All right,” called the first helicopter pilot, on the right. “Strap yourselves in and we’ll be ready for takeoff.”

The other dog’s handler reached over to pull the wide door shut, and Dean startled slightly when he was sealed in with the others. The space had shrunk, now filled with quiet, warm air and a faint whistling noise.

Kathleen did up her safety belt, as did the other dog’s handler, sitting beside her in the back. The pilot flicked at control buttons with his thumbs, chewing on mint gum, adjusting his bulbous helmet with a quick hand.

The two handlers began to talk as the engine started up, and the cabin got louder and louder as the propellers started spinning again. Dean could see big swipes darkening the top half of the windows, and his view of the training centre suddenly vanished: the helicopter had taken off. It was like being in an elevator that also went sideways; it barely wobbled at all.

“Snowbird?” Kathleen said, and Dean stopped paying attention to the helicopter to listen to his handler. “As in, the mountain skiing resort? Don’t they have real mountain rescue teams for that? No way they need us.”

“The ski instructors went up with the volunteer rescue teams, but they searched all of yesterday, and all of today, and still nothing. We sent out a helicopter with heat sensors, but that missing kid, she wandered out into uncharted territory. Fresh snow covered up her tracks during a storm. The whole mountain is powder snow, we wouldn’t see her if she’s buried in a drift or at the bottom of a ravine somewhere.”

Kathleen’s hand reached to tug on Dean’s soft ears, and he leaned against her knees, giving her a soft whine and a reassuring look. “Are you sure we’re the right team for this?” Kathleen asked. “I’ve never been skiing, and Dean—” she gave him an uneasy look, “his legs don’t do well in cold conditions.”

The other handler spared Dean a two-second glance, then scoffed, and it came out as a quiet booming noise. “Should’a put that on your reports, babe.”

“I did!” Kathleen argued. “Some higher-up must’ve decided that if Dean continues to work, his pain can’t be all that bad. I mean, they’re wrong, but Dean always gets a job done, regardless.” She shook her head. “Or... Or maybe the situation up there is bad enough that they need an expert. Dean’s nose is second to none.”

The other handler slumped back in his seat, lifting a boot to tighten the laces. “He’ll be fine, cop dogs are tough sons of bitches. Razor here trekked two days through a desert one time, and he’s no worse for wear.”

Dean’s eyes wandered to the other dog, who yawned and lay down on his belly, paws neatly crossed over each other. He didn’t seem to think his tale of survival was that interesting. Dean wanted to listen as Razor’s handler told the story, but the dog himself invited other questions. Dean sank down beside the other dog, wagging his tail once as Razor turned his head to look at him.

“So,” Dean said. “Razor, huh?”

Razor snorted. “My name is Castiel. Bellman calls me Razor.”

“Why?”

Castiel gave Dean an apathetic look. “What do they call you?”

“They call me Deanie Weenie,” Dean said, with a shy tilt of his head towards his paws. “But I’m just Dean.”

Castiel blinked, having made his point.

Dean huffed. “You’re not a big talker, are you?”

Castiel opened his mouth, gazed at Dean, then shut his mouth again. He rolled a shoulder in a shrug, momentarily displacing the tufty wreath of fur that draped in a V down his chest.

Dean’s attention drifted back to the handlers as they went on chatting, deep in discussion about the mission again.

“Chances are the girl’s deceased,” Bellman said, running a hand back over his shaven head. “That’s why we called in your mutt, stories say his nose works a real charm, sniffing out dead things.”

“Yeah,” Kathleen said with a proud smile. She leaned forward to scrunch her hand into Dean’s fur, and Dean lifted his head to smile at her, his tongue lolling.

“Razor’s speciality is rough terrain,” Bellman said. “He can do snowy mountains, easy as a treadmill. He’s drafted looking for the girl if she’s alive, Deanie’s set to find her if she’s dead. These two oughta make a good pair. We’ll find that kid.” Bellman reached down to ruffle Dean’s head, and Dean stood up, highly enthused, licking Bellman’s salty fingers and wagging his tail so hard he—

Oops, he whacked Castiel in the face.

“Sit, Deanie,” Kathleen said in a whisper. Dean sat on her boots, only remembering to stop wagging his tail when it got crumpled under his own legs.

Castiel stared at Dean in the disdainful way one might look at a rambunctious puppy. Dean’s smile fell, and he zoned out Kathleen’s petting hand so he could focus on Castiel. “What kind of thermometer got stuck up your ass, huh?”

Castiel frowned. “That only happens at the vet.”

Dean smirked. “You should get them to check they pulled it out right, buddy, ‘cause you’re about as stuck-up as a luau roast.”

Castiel managed to frown even more deeply, squinting until his bright eyes were narrow slits. “I don’t... understand that reference,” he said.

“Pig on a stick, dude,” Dean chuckled. “You never had a party before?”

Castiel shook his head, appearing interested. Dean didn’t have a reply to give him, because the other dog’s admission was enough to render him speechless. Never had a party? Dean’s life could be miserable at times, but he couldn’t imagine what it would be like without the occasional bout of celebration.

Actually... he could. He’d basically be like Castiel here. Robotic and dull, with no interest in new things whatsoever.

“Sucks,” Dean said eventually. “You’d benefit from having a little fun.”

Castiel harrumphed, turning away. He sat up and put his front paws on the helicopter’s inner wall, looking out of the window. Clouds whooshed past, grabbing Dean’s attention. He got up and stood beside Castiel, panting fog on the glass as he peered out excitedly.

“Oh, man! We’re so far up!” Dean exclaimed in sudden worry. But he’d barked aloud by mistake; Kathleen had to hush him.

Bellman didn’t look very impressed; even Dean could see that compared to Castiel, he came across as an overgrown, disobedient puppy. Dean would have to try extra hard to win Bellman over. Perhaps with Bellman’s approval, Castiel might view Dean in a better light and allow him to sniff him properly.

Sitting down tidily like a proper police dog, Dean waited for the trip to be over.

But even with the blurring noise of the propellers and the grumbling engine, without voices, the helicopter seemed quiet, and the trip would surely take an eternity. Dean sank down and rested his chin on his paws, heaving a bored sigh.

Castiel turned back from the window, eyeing Dean’s tail with caution while he made a place to lie beside him. His eyes shifted to meet Dean’s – and noticing this, Dean’s chin shot up from his paws. Castiel cocked his head curiously, observing Dean’s reaction. Dean interpreted his curiosity as definite interest, and he panted at his new friend, thumping his tail on Kathleen’s boots.

“Are you always this... rampant?” Castiel asked, triangular ears pricked up to hear the answer.

“Rampant? Me? Try normal,” Dean huffed. “You, on the other hand... I’ve never met a dog who didn’t sniff.”

“I told you,” Castiel said testily, turning his head away. “I can discover plenty about you without invading your privacy.”

Dean blinked, stunned by that. “My privacy concerns you? Seriously? That’s weird.” He licked his nose, then nudged his way closer to the other dog. “So? What do you know about me?”

“You are physically flawed,” Castiel said, still not looking at Dean. “Your physique is only suited to sedentary work, your undercoat is thin, making you unable to withstand cold climates for extended periods, and you suffer from unabating compulsions of gluttony. That is to say, you eat too much.”

Dean had been told all of those things by others before, but he didn’t try and bark Castiel’s ears off in retaliation this time. Funny thing was, Dean heard not one trace of malice in the way Castiel stated facts. He didn’t intend them as insults. Facts were all they were to him. And, if Dean were honest with himself, they were facts to him too – he just preferred to think of them as trifling issues that never needed to be acknowledged.

Dean’s tail had long ago stopped wagging. He lay his chin on his paws again, staring at the luggage rack on the other side of the cabin. “Am I gonna die up there, in the mountains?” he asked Castiel. “I overheard Ellen saying the other search dog died looking for this little girl. And that dog knew how to handle the terrain. I don’t.”

“She,” Castiel corrected. He turned to look back at Dean, a mournful shine in his eyes. “Her name is Billie. She is – was a good ally.” He paused. “She might not be dead. We just can’t find her.”

“You’ve been up there?”

“I thought you could smell everything,” Castiel said, almost jokingly. “Don’t you smell the snow?”

“What’s snow?”

It was Castiel’s turn to stare at Dean like he’d missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. Maybe he had; Dean didn’t know. “Very cold rain,” Castiel said after a moment. “You’ll see when we get up there.” He smiled and looked towards the window once more. He wagged his tail once, anticipating the mission.

Dean looked forward to the new experience as much as he dreaded it: he was seriously considering the possibility that it might be his last mission.

“I never said goodbye to Sammy,” Dean realised aloud. “He was on call when I got assigned to this case. If I die, or get lost, he might never be told what happened.”

Castiel didn’t look over at him, but Dean knew he was listening. Castiel replied, “Sammy’s your mate?”

Dean almost laughed, despite his anxiety. “No. Sammy’s my littermate.” He waited a beat, then asked, “You think I like male dogs?”

“I know you do,” Castiel replied. “No other dog gets that excited when they meet me.”

Dean laughed for real this time. “You’re basing your theory on the fact I was excited to see another dog pop out of the helicopter? And— And, what, you assume I find you handsome? Or funny, or just enough of a freak to make you interesting? No way, Cas. Your sniff-free powers failed you this time, buddy.”

He turned his face away, staring out the opposite window at the sky.

Castiel’s low voice broke the silence not too long later. “Humans aren’t as smart as most dogs think they are, Dean.”

“What?”

Castiel looked back at Dean with an understanding expression. “Your brother won’t be informed if you go missing in action, because the humans think we don’t understand loss. Here we are, having a full conversation at their feet, and yet they don’t realise we know more than sign language and basic vocal cues. They’ve worked with our kind for millennia and still haven’t realised.”

“Kathleen talks to me,” Dean said. “We have real conversations.”

Castiel shook his head. “She thinks you’re responding but not comprehending.”

Dean shook his head right back. “You’re underestimating them, dude. Maybe your handler’s as stuck-up as you, maybe he doesn’t think you’re as smart as you really are. But he still trusts you. He knows you’re clever enough to know how to save him if he needs saving. If he doesn’t think you’re as good as another human, why doesn’t he request a human partner instead of a canine?”

Dean went on before Castiel could say anything: “The answer is, he likes that you don’t talk back. He knows you’re listening, he knows you’re his second heartbeat. You gotta get over wanting to be noticed, Cas, and accept that you’re needed, regardless of how he perceives you.”

Castiel was looking at Dean strangely. “Are you saying you don’t care if Sammy never finds out?”

“Of course I care. But I don’t blame the humans for not thinking to tell him.”

“So you admit I’m right. They’re not that smart. You tolerate their ignorance like it’s unavoidable.”

Dean tried to argue, but Castiel had him beat. He pressed his mouth closed and tipped his head acceptingly. When Castiel smiled, Dean smiled back.

He could tell Castiel’s smiles were rare. Precious.

Felt kinda good to make him smile.

It went quiet after that, and it stayed quiet. Lost in thought, Dean let the silence reign.

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The helicopter touched down gently. As the door swept open, Dean followed Kathleen down to the ground, only to leap a foot into the air, a yelp escaping his throat.

He landed with a paff, crunching knee-deep into white fluff. He sniff-sniff-sniffed it, then jerked his head back when it stung him.

Kathleen laughed, setting a warm hand on Dean’s head. “Come on, pup. It’s snow.”

Snow?

Dean looked questioningly at Castiel, who came down from the helicopter with Bellman’s hand on the back of his collar. Dean began to pant in excitement, and he leapt forward, tail waving violently, chest down into the snow. He wiggled, baiting Castiel into a game of chase.

Castiel stared.

Dean yapped and leapt along, then rummaged through the snow, emerging bright and happy. He danced closer to Castiel on cold paws, butting him with his whole body.

Though Castiel seemed unresponsive, Dean tried one more time, giving the biggest smile and a fast shake of his hips.

And Castiel darted for him, laughing. Dean jumped away, pouncing from place to place, waiting for Castiel. Castiel pulled hard enough that Bellman let him go, and the handlers laughed in surprise as their well-trained search dogs reverted back to puppy mode, nipping at each other, mirroring each other’s bodies as they scampered through the snow.

Dean barked, kicking a puff of white into Castiel’s fur. Castiel snapped after him, making Dean laugh out loud as they bounded ten feet ahead, closer to the log cabin the humans were headed for. Castiel leapt straight at Dean, and, feeling tumbly, Dean let himself be pushed onto his back, throat gently chewed. He grumbled like he was complaining, but he couldn’t help smiling, too.

They rolled through the snowbanks, gleaming sparkles rushing all around them as they displaced everything below them. Down it pressed, staggering below their weight; Dean wriggled through the mush, coming up with his muzzle speckled in white.

Castiel surged forward to shove Dean back down, making Dean cry out – “Dude!” – but when he rolled over and saw Castiel bright-eyed and perky-eared, Dean felt his heart melting. He squirmed on his back, soft-mouthed and playful.

Castiel bent and licked snow from Dean’s nose.

And from that moment on, Dean’s entire conscious mind consisted only of extreme happiness. He loved snow. He loved it.

A sharp rising whistle echoed from nearer the cabin. “Razor! Quit messing around, already! Heel!”

Castiel got to his feet, looking a little embarrassed. His dark fur was covered in flakes, and when he shook, it all flurried into Dean’s face. Castiel shot Dean one quick look, then bolted away to Bellman’s side. Dean got up too, still smiling to himself as he followed.

All excited, he sniffed Castiel’s tail and belly and face, then looked expectantly at Kathleen.

The humans led the dogs inside, past heavy glass doors that clapped shut behind them. Inside they discovered a different world: warm, nice hard-wearing carpet, the smell of new t-shirts, coffee, and money.

Several minutes vanished to a second mission briefing, this one given by a sullen, sunken-browed instructor in bug-eyed glasses – and then, in a blur of activity, Kathleen was given equipment, a helmet, supplies – and Dean was wrapped up in a reflective padded coat, and dressed in velcro booties.

Booties! He walked around the room in an uncomfortable march, unsure how to use his paws.

Castiel wandered out from behind a billiard table, his tail swaying gently. He looked at Dean with an expression set halfway between disdain and amusement. “They keep your feet from freezing off. You’re going to need them, city dog.”

Dean harrumphed, sitting with his tail underneath him, still wagging.

“There’s a storm coming in,” Castiel said warily, eyes and ears turned to the door they’d entered by. “Either we’ll be back here within the hour, or they mean for us to search overnight.”

Dean sniffed. He did smell the clouds. Only they weren’t rainclouds... They had to be snowclouds, darkening the horizon. Even as he and Castiel watched, the glass doors rattled on their hinges, wind pushing their insulation strips apart with a scuff. In rushed a hard, icy draft, which made Dean shiver.

Kathleen took his ears in her hands, stroking them. Dean looked up at her, and saw her grim smile. He smiled back reassuringly, and was glad to see her relax, just a bit.

This was going to be a hard mission. But Dean was ready.

 

 


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CHAPTER THREE
┅   MOUNTAIN   ┅
in which Dean and Cas encounter gravity

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Although the sky remained clear and bright like the plainest of summer days, and the sunshine offered a constant blanket of pure white warmth, the air hissed and hushed with the rush of snow, as the wind pulled it into plumes and sent it sweeping from the mountain peaks.

As the two humans and two dogs trudged across the crystal mounds, black rocks appeared and disappeared below the scattering glitter. Dean’s ears went numb within minutes, stung and battered by fast-moving shards of ice.

The view before them was glorious. All the way up one side of the mountain, a mechanism that looked like a dragon’s head bit down onto cables, the bottom of its long neck holding a portable glass cabin. Of course, the lift remained stationary for now. Empty. Waiting to carry someone down, if anyone could be found.

Kathleen and Bellman walked with metal sticks in their hands, the base of each fitted with a wide ring so the sticks didn’t sink all the way down into the snow each time they took weight. The humans’ faces were covered by cloth, their eyes barred by reflective glasses that showed only a starburst when the sun caught them.

They walked in silence. Over ridges, down into small gulleys. They’d left the marked-out path long ago, heading towards where the little girl had last been seen.

Dean kept his head down, sniffing for a human scent. Kathleen had given him some of the girl’s clothing to sniff, so he knew what to sniff for. Castiel kept his head up, ears pricked for any sound, eyes watching for movement.

Adult humans left scent markers all over the place, all the time. They dropped skin cells constantly, and their bodies were full of gases that escaped when they did so much as breathe. Perspiration and other odors made them easy to track, at least for Dean. Dead or alive, he could find them. Children were harder. They were smaller, and didn’t sweat nearly as much. But the moment Dean found a day-old handprint on an exposed rock, he knew he was heading the right way.

The sun went behind the clouds, plunging the mountain into deep shadow, lit only in patches. The wind soon picked up; the sound of it howling along the rocks made Dean all jittery. In his heart he knew it was not the call of a mourning dog, but he couldn’t help howling back.

“What is it, boy?” Kathleen asked, shouting over the wind. “Do you smell something?”

Dean gave another soft howl, but bowed his head and kept sniffing. Kathleen followed expectantly.

Castiel matched Dean’s pace, trotting out ahead of their handlers, confident without a leash. When Castiel paused and made a turn, Dean followed. When Dean stopped to snuffle at a rock, sensing something, Castiel waited, then let Dean lead on.

The humans stayed close, but they couldn’t keep up on this terrain. Dean was onto something, and he surged ahead quickly, desperate to chase the trail before the wind carried it away. Castiel dared not fall behind; he and Dean stuck together, paws trotting fast in their booties, crunching into snow that was not fresh, but newly settled.

The sun emerged, exploding in a sudden burst. All around them, the world blazed white, and the temperature soared beneath Dean’s coat. He began to pant, scents mingling in the back of his throat. He licked his jowls, then carried on sniffing, breathing hard.

He heard a deep rumble, felt a slight vibration under his paws. Probably the wind.

“This way,” Castiel said with caution in his bark, leaping up onto a platform of rock. A rivulet of snow spilled from under his paws, catching on the wind and dancing away. Dean grumbled and didn’t follow; the scent was down here, it was senseless to leave the path.

“Dean!” came a concerned shout from Kathleen, as she spotted Dean. “Dean, heel!”

Dean looked over his shoulder. He looked back at the scent path, but turned, heading back to Kathleen. The rumble grew deeper, louder, but the wind didn’t seem to blow any harder...

Castiel barked from his higher ledge, a harsh yap of warning. Dean froze, looking at Castiel. Castiel barked again, looking straight at Dean. “Quickly!” he yelped. “Up here!”

“Dean!” Kathleen shouted. “Oh, God, the mountain— Dean, here! Now!”

Dean looked at Castiel. Then Kathleen. He went to Kathleen, moving in eager leaps.

The rumble doubled, then doubled again. Dean wasn’t sure what happened – he was about to land for the third time, only he never did. A ferocious white beast bit him in his side, and all at once he was falling, twisting, snapped at by a thousand ice prickles. They needled his nose and fell in his ears and wrapped him in a turning, turning tumble of movement. Only when he saw through the white mist and saw the skyline shifting did he realise he was plummeting. Down. Down. The whole mountain had been blasted from under his paws.

A yelp of terror escaped him as he saw the ground approach. A white wall hit his back and he got lost in the swirl. He was winded, disoriented. He didn’t know which way was up or down.

He lay for a minute. Breathing.

Soon the rumble stopped, and he heard silence.

He’d never heard that much silence in his life.

With one hard breath out, Dean gave a wriggle. He felt snow shifting around him; he backed up, thinking he’d emerge upright, but instead his legs kicked out into the air, and he realised he lay on his back. He accidentally did a somersault getting up. Even once upright, the world spun in circles; he’d been thoroughly dizzied by the fall.

And boy, what a fall. He saw the top of the mountain shift into focus, majestic and mighty. He’d come from up there.

He barked.

His bark echoed, and came back to him.

He barked again.

Along with his echo came the indistinct sound of Kathleen’s voice. So far away.

Dee...annnn...

Dean barked!

A...re... you... oka...y?

Dean barked. “Yes!”

We...’ll... fiii...nd .... yooooou...

Panting, Dean shook himself down. A flurry of white fell from his body, padded coat shaking around his middle but remaining secure. He took a careful step, and realised he’d lost two of his four booties; back left and front right. Damn. Two of his paws remained toasty, the other two, not so much.

Dean set his nose to the snow, sniffing around to see if he could find anything. Hmm. Nothing here.

Nothing here, either.

Or here. He’d lost the scent of the girl. Dammit. What was he meant to do now, just wait? Like hell! He was going to—

Faintly, Dean heard a whimper.

Head turned, tongue secured behind his jaw, Dean listened.

Wheeef.

Wheeeeeef.

“Cas?”

Silence.

Then— A bark!

A weak bark, but a bark nonetheless. Dean pounced down off the rock he’d climbed on, and began a frantic sniffathon to find where Cas had fallen. Pawstep, pawstep, sniffsniffsniff. Pawstep.

“Talk to me, Cas,” Dean urged, nose going wild. “Where are you?”

Dean?” came a faint, confused voice.

“I’m here, buddy,” Dean assured the blank ground, unsure where to look. “You got caught up too?”

Castiel didn’t reply, just whimpered.

“Can you even breathe under all that snow?” Dean asked, hastening his sniffing. “Cas...?”

No answer.

Dean began to panic. He scuffed around with his paws, making marks, trying to dislodge any weak snow. Maybe Cas was close to the surface. He had to be, if Dean could hear him.

“Come on, come on,” Dean uttered to himself, digging here, digging there. Snow rushed up from under his belly as he scooped pawfuls of ice-cold fluff away. “CAS!”

Castiel must’ve summoned the energy or the breath from somewhere – the quietest little whimper escaped the snow.

There!

Dean pounced on the smooth surface and dug like mad. His front legs worked hard while his weaker back legs stuck down into a sturdy drift, sinking lower as Dean dug deeper. He panted, overheating around his belly, and freezing his paws off at the same time. He lost another bootie, and all sensation in his pawpads, but kept going for Cas’ sake.

“I’m comin’, buddy,” Dean called. “Hang in there. Hang on.”

Dig dig dig dig dig.

Dig dig.

Deeper. Deeper. Snow kept caving into the space Dean had already dug, and it came in glops and flumps, landing on Dean’s face and the space below his fast-moving paws. He dug with both feet together, then alternated, then stuck his entire face in and bit.

Castiel yelped.

“Gotcha,” Dean grinned. He pulled Castiel by the paw until the paw kicked him. Then Dean turned his attention to digging around, shoving snowpiles away, nosing about to find Castiel’s shape.

At last, he found a sodden black hip, and all the brindled speckles in his fur. Castiel gave an assuring wriggle, and Dean helped him lift his head. Up he rose, snowflakes spilling from him until he blinked the last ones away.

“Finder’s keepers,” Dean panted, giving Castiel’s icy nose a good ‘ol lick. Castiel sneezed. He quickly came alive again, alarmed by the bright light and the warmth of the sun. His tail gave a feeble wag, and Dean wagged his own, glad to see Cas was responsive.

“Anything broken?” Dean asked.

Castiel got to his feet, giving himself a hefty shake-down. He’d lost his coat, and was shivering terribly, but he answered, “I’m okay. I’m... okay.”

Now who’s the search-and-rescue dog,” Dean said proudly. “Never seen snow before today and I still figured out how to find you and dig you out.”

“Hmh,” Castiel said, blinking tiredly. He was all droopy and wet and exhausted.

“The humans are still up there,” Dean said, nosing towards the mountain peak, where a gust of wind carried a line of white up and over the point. “They’ll come looking for us before they go looking for the kid. We oughta track them down.”

“No,” Castiel said. “We stay put.”

“But—”

“If they come down here and we’re gone, what good does that do anyone?” Castiel said. “We stay. If you hadn’t questioned my command I would’ve led us both out of the path of danger before the avalanche hit us,” Castiel snapped, startling Dean a step backwards. “Don’t try and pin this on me. Which of us is out of our depth here, Dean? I know this world, you don’t. You have to trust me. We stay.”

“If I hadn’t been down here you would’ve frozen to death, or suffocated,” Dean growled right back. “Out of my depth I may be, but you better thank the Kibble Bag I can dig to whatever depth I need to. We stay, fine. But that’s the last order of yours I take.”

Castiel’s lip drew back in distaste. “Then we dig. We need shelter.”

“You dig,” Dean said. “I’ve dug enough.”

“Fine.” Castiel turned his back. “You can sleep outside in the cold.”

He began to dig under an overhanging rock, which sheltered the area from the sky. Snow gushed out from under him, the way it had for Dean only two minutes before. Dean watched. His drive to play kinda made him want to join in, but he didn’t want to admit how badly he ached. His paws were burning with cold. His back had began to sear with pain, particularly above the root of his tail. His hips were screaming at him, and his back legs... they didn’t want to move ever again. Dean lay down with his covered belly to the snow, and he watched Castiel dig.

But when Castiel got tired, Dean got up without a word, passed Castiel, and carried on.

He felt Castiel watching him, but Dean didn’t look. He didn’t want to see gratitude, or smugness, or fatigue on Castiel’s face. He could smell all three on him already, and he didn’t want to give the other dog any opportunity to comment.

“What are we even making?” Dean asked, as Castiel took over the work again.

“Igloo,” Castiel said.

“A what?”

“Snow house,” Castiel explained, out of breath.

“Isn’t that cold?”

“Warmer when you’re inside.”

Dean took Castiel’s word for it, and helped him dig the last bit. They made the opening wide enough that they could wriggle in, and wriggle in they did.

Castiel curled up in a ball like a cat, his fluffy, wet tail tucked over his nose. In the dark space, Dean only had room to sneak in, curling around the other dog in tight, tiny steps. He flopped down beside Castiel, and stayed there. They kept their faces near the entrance, so they could breathe.

Even through his padded coat and fur, Dean felt Castiel’s warmth. It radiated inside their little den, and made the space feel safe.

Dean licked his front paws clean. Then he licked Castiel’s tail, since that was all he could reach, and he needed the comfort of fur-cleaning.

Castiel watched him through half-closed, lazy eyes.

Dean accidentally licked Castiel’s nose through his tail fluff. Castiel raised his head, alarmed. But Dean licked him on purpose, and Castiel relaxed.

He lay his chin on Dean’s shoulders. Dean set his own chin on Castiel’s paws, keeping them warm.

It was hard to say when Dean fell asleep, exactly, but it was sometime between when Castiel fell asleep, and the hour in which dusk fell, bringing with it a storm.

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Hooooooooooo...

Whooooooooooo...

Dean whimpered, nuzzling into Castiel’s chest. He never liked storms at home, hidden under Kathleen’s blankets, but this was worse. This was a thousand times worse. Cold, wet, lost in the middle of nowhere.

Thank Kibble he could hear Castiel’s heartbeat, and could smell his scent, or Dean would be convinced he was alone. Everything looked pitch-black. Just like he’d never known a daytime world so quiet, he’d never known a night so dark. Not even starlight peeked through the thick clouds and the lashing snow that coursed along the snowbanks, skittering and scattering like grains of sand.

Castiel panted hot air into Dean’s ear. Dean lapped at his own nose and whimpered, showing his nervousness.

Castiel nosed at him, trying to offer comfort. Dean accepted it, and he was thankful, but it was all too much. He ached so badly; his spine felt like it was slowly breaking. Each hour that passed left his muscles further aggravated. He trembled in fear, in cold, in pain. All Castiel could do was lick him but it only helped a tiny bit.

Dean needed his painkillers. “At home Kathleen w-w-would give me medicine with my food,” he mumbled sadly. “It stops the pain and helps m-me sleep.”

“Doesn’t help that you haven’t eaten dinner, I suppose,” Castiel said understandingly.

Dean whined and buried his face in Castiel’s half-dry fluff, face turned away from the howling night. A sharp blast of snowy air infiltrated the igloo’s opening, bringing with it fragmented ice and a fierce awakening from the almost-cosy feeling Dean had managed to achieve.

“I sleep in a kennel outside,” Castiel remarked. “I don’t often get... cuddles.”

With a sorry smile, Dean replied, “Every dog deserves cuddles.”

Castiel went quiet for a while.

Not long later, he squirmed in place so he was wholly and completely snuggled up to Dean; their legs crooked together like the teeth of a zipper; their warm, fuzzy faces pressed cheek-to-cheek. There, once comfortable, Castiel relaxed, letting go of a contented sigh.

After half an hour like that, Dean became aware he was no longer shivering. As Castiel’s pressing body kept his hips warm, and the pain... receded. Just slightly. But enough that he noticed.

Despite the raging, howling sky and a mountain surface outside that wouldn’t stay put, Dean fell back asleep.

This time, he slept through the night.

 

 


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CHAPTER FOUR
┅   CREVASSE   ┅
in which Dean saves, and is saved

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Dawn rose, misty and delicate. The wind never ceased its hoooing and whoooing, but as the sun’s first rays touched matte black rocks and turned them into faceted metallic gems, peace reigned at Dean’s core, at least for a while. He sat upon the overhanging ledge, eyes closed as the sunlight warmed his frozen ears. Wet tufty fur at their tips began to ruffle, messing up his whiskers too.

He opened his eyes as he saw Castiel emerge from their den, giving a big yawn and showing all his teeth. Out his front legs stretched; his lithe body juddered, haunches rising, tail a-swish.

“Mornin’, sunshine,” Dean drawled.

Castiel looked up, startled to see Dean above him. “Oh. Hello, Dean.”

“Trail goes that way,” Dean said, looking off to his left, towards the rocky horizon, where stars still twinkled in the dark sky. “Some dog left a scent marker. Guessin’ they thought someone would come looking.”

“You didn’t wake me?” Castiel frowned, leaping up a snow bank and moving to join Dean on his lookout rock.

Dean shrugged a stiff shoulder. “What difference would it make? We’re staying put.”

“Not if there’s a chance we could complete our mission!” Castiel barked, light on his feet, ready to go. “If we find Billie and the child, we could wait together. Find shelter again. Come on.”

With that, he leapt back down and waited for Dean to join him.

Dean’s body creaked in complaint as he got up. He moved slowly, waddling on his back legs, each step careful. Once he left the rock and stepped onto snow, he slipped, tumbling down and rolling until he flopped at Castiel’s feet, struggling to roll over.

“Good thing you’re still wearing your coat, or you’d have frozen already,” Castiel said with a sigh.

“I’m fine,” Dean grumped, forcing himself upright. “This way.”

A strong scent carried on the wind, coiling around the mountain in eddies. It was fresh; they had to be close. “I’m guessin’ your friend took an impromptu ride down the mountain too,” Dean mused, leading Castiel in a slow advance, up and down miniature alpine slopes. “Maybe the kid got hurt and couldn’t walk, so they stayed.”

“Which way now?” Castiel asked, paws up on a dark crag. He listened each way, then looked at Dean for guidance.

“Don’t tell me you can’t smell it,” Dean said in disbelief, pattering down towards an icy valley. “It’s the strongest thing I’ve smelled since you yawned on me earlier.”

Castiel seemed ruffled. “I’m simply acknowledging that you have a stronger sense of direction.”

“Sure, buddy. I think you’re takin’ the politeness to a whole other level. No other dog cares that you’re sniffing their crap.”

Castiel’s sole response: silence.

They came to a ridge at the bottom of the valley; a short rise of rock gave way to a massive slice through the mountain. Dean peered over, saw a steep drop with water at the bottom, and he hastily stepped back. He looked ahead, glad to see the jump was only a foot wide. Even on these frozen legs of his, he could make that.

“Where now?” Castiel asked.

Dean lifted his head and sniffed the air, turning his face. “Hm.” He spun around and sniffed again. “Not sure. Somewhere around here.”

“Over there?”

When Dean looked where Castiel looked, he saw a cavernous shadow: a natural shelter had been carved by the wind, looming in a jagged wall of rock, half-buried behind a snowpile. “Sharp eyes,” Dean smiled. “I never would’ve seen that.”

“It’s a gift,” Castiel said humbly. “We’ll need to jump. Can you make it?”

“What, this little thing?” Dean scoffed. “I’ve made jumps three times this big. ‘Course I can. You first.”

Castiel’s wry smile morphed into an expression of concentration. He wound up, then scampered up the rise – back paws thrust down, front paws stretching, his body elongated, and he pattered down to the other side of the ravine with a showjumper’s precision.

He smiled back. “Now you.”

“Right,” Dean said, feigning confidence. He licked his teeth, backing up slowly. One step, two steps. He gave his back legs a stretch, pretending not to feel his hips twinge. He breathed out, ready.

He took a running start, galloping up to the jump. Just like Castiel had, he set all his push into his back legs and leapt!

His front feet touched snow – his back legs touched nothing. His back end dropped, fast, the ravine’s edge hitting his chest. With a yelp, he scrabbled at rock, desperate to cling to the top. Castiel’s paws slammed onto Dean’s, eyes wide, both using all their strength to keep Dean from falling – but he was slipping... slipping...

“Cas—”

“Dean!”

Dean saw the sky shrink and the edge of the ravine shot up past him. With a thump, he collapsed, well before he hit the river water. Stunned, he looked around and realised he’d dropped onto a ledge. Over the side, he saw the sparkling black water. It was so loud. Gushing. Gushing. Rolling up the walls with thunder.

Castiel barked from above.

Dean whined upwards, seeing his companion stick his head over to see. Castiel pattered from side to side, unable to get closer.

“My legs...” Dean looked down, and saw that they looked fine. But he tried to move them, and they wouldn’t budge. Looking back up, he shook his head. “I’m done for.”

Castiel huffed brutishly. “No. No, you’re not. You can jump back up here.”

Dean almost laughed. “That’s what you think? You think I slipped? Cas, I got nothing left. My back half’s given up. My legs were bowed before I left my mom’s womb. Ain’t a thing that could fix it now, six years, an avalanche, and a rough night in the snow later.”

“But...” Castiel’s stony expression softened, now aching and worried.

“But nothing,” Dean said firmly. “You’re close. Go find that little girl, Cas. You take her back down the mountain. And—” Dean trembled, voice breaking. “And I know she won’t understand, but you tell Kathleen how I went in the end, all right? Tell her I made it this far. Tell her I never gave up, it was just my legs that did.”

“I’m not telling her anything!” Castiel yapped. “Tell her yourself. This isn’t over, Dean. I’m not leaving you here.”

“How’d you expect me to get out?” Dean said carelessly. “This ain’t a snow blanket, Cas, you can’t just dig me free. You can’t lift me out. Either you leave me, or you die here too, and I’m not—”

Castiel jumped down, landing with a four-pawed slam either side of Dean’s body.

“Cas!”

“You’re not the only one who’s gone your whole life disabled,” Castiel said firmly. “I have no sense of smell. I was never a good candidate to become a search-and-rescue dog. The worst, in fact. I am average in almost every way, except for determination. I have no special powers – no super hearing, or sharp eyes. I simply pay better attention than most. I make those traits outstanding so I’m not left behind. Or I would be left behind, Dean. Like you’re expecting to be. But I will not allow it.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Castiel stated. “No, you’re right, I can’t lift you. But up isn’t the only way to leave.”

“Then... what—?” Dean’s eyes widened. He glanced warily to the edge of the ledge, then back to Castiel. “No...”

“That much water has to go somewhere. It would tear holes big enough for a dog to fit through.” With steely determination in his eyes, Castiel set his head down and licked Dean’s cheek. “I hope you can hold your breath.”

Dean gulped. Then nodded.

Carefully – gently, Castiel bent his head and bit down on Dean’s collar, taking it firmly in his jaw.

“Don’t let go,” Dean whispered. “I can’t paddle.”

Castiel simply nosed at Dean’s cheek. He knew.

“R’dy?” Castiel asked.

Dean nodded. “Three. Two...” He took a deep breath.

Castiel didn’t wait for one. He rolled over and pulled Dean over the edge – and down they dropped, smacking the water with a smash. At once they were caught up in the furious current, black ice lashing at their sides, getting in their noses and ears. Dean shut his eyes and curled his body up small, feeling his movement pull Castiel down too. They remained close, spinning through a tide, losing body heat in waves by the second. Dean felt his heartbeat soar, then... start to slow. Air deprived. Too cold. He dared not breathe in. Pounding heartbeats became quieter. The tightness on his throat became unnoticable. Pain receded. Then grew – his chest ached more than it had ever ached before. He was desperate to breathe, he only wanted to draw in a gulp of whatever was there, water or oxygen – he’d take anything. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t.

Five more seconds. Come on.

Five. Four.

Three.

Two.

One more.

One more.

One more.

One... more...

Dean’s body slammed into something, hard. Despite all his trying, he gasped for breath automatically – only to realise it was bitter and sweet at once. Though it felt humid, it was not liquid.

Dean opened his eyes. Darkness.

He heard and felt the rush of the water around his body, but he wasn’t moving. Ice water sloshed at his chest but his head floated over the surface. He’d lost his coat.

Looking around, Dean saw the faintest outline... He sniffed about, and realised it was Castiel collapsed beside him, a crumpled mess of sodden fur and limbs, all splayed out on a rocky floor.

“Cas,” Dean grunted, squirming out of the water, back legs trailing. “Cas...”

Castiel still held his breath.

Dean licked Castiel’s nose, making him jump, every limb spreading out in surprise. He took his first deep breath.

“Hey,” Dean grinned, voice weak, breaths uneven. “Y-You made it. Sorta.”

Panting hard, Castiel looked about, but undoubtedly saw as little as Dean. “Wh-where are we?”

Dean kept sniffing, trying to find out.

After a moment, someone answered... but it wasn’t him.

“This is the Underworld,” said a smooth, easy voice. “Welcome.”

“Dammit.” Dean sagged. “We’re... dead, aren’t we? I thought we made it.”

Castiel looked into the darkness, head turning back and forth. “Show yourself!”

“I’m right here, Castiel,” said the inky black. “Can’t you see me?”

Dean sighed. “And there I was, hoping I might actually make it to retirement. Hang out on the ranch Kathleen planned to buy, watch the horses. We were so damn close, too!”

Though battered, Castiel got to his feet, attention set on their invisible greeter. “Don’t give up on that dream just yet, Dean,” he said, more lightly than Dean expected. “Hello, Billie.”

At last, out of the shadows, came a humongous black dog, with eyes of coal and velvet jowls. She walked with an extreme limp.

“Not dead,” Dean realised. “You’re not dead. We’re not dead—!”

“The child?” Castiel urged.

Billie turned her face, peering into the nothingness. “Not dead.”

“Yes!” Dean barked. “We made it!”

“Patience,” Castiel assured Dean. “We still need to get out of here.”

“There’s an exit from here, through the darkness,” Billie said. “A tunnel leads up to a cave. We’ve been sheltering here – I leave twice a day to check the perimeter and leave markers. But I can’t find a path down, and the child cannot be left alone as she’s small, starving, and can’t see well...”

“Great,” Dean chuckled. “Is any of us fully-functioning?”

“We’ll make it,” Castiel said. “Show us the way, Billie.”

Billie turned, and led them away from the water.

Castiel started forward, but then stilled, and remained by Dean’s side. “I shall carry you,” he said, bowing to nuzzle Dean’s cheek. “Lift yourself onto my back, if you can.”

Dean managed to get himself to sit upright. From there, he lifted a paw over Castiel’s shoulders, and squirmed and squiggled until Castiel could shuck him on like a backpack.

“Now look who’s alpha,” Dean said smugly, as Castiel took a first unsteady step, legs straining under the extra weight. “Here you are, lettin’ me mount you without a fuss.”

Castiel huffed. “If this weren’t our current predicament, believe me, Dean – you would not be the one mounting me.”

“Yeah? What say we... test that theory sometime.”

Dean heard the grin in Castiel’s reply: “Let’s get out of here first. Then, perhaps.”

“Left a little,” Dean said, before Castiel bumped into a rock. “Jeez, dude, you almost gave yourself concussion.”

Castiel grunted, adjusting his course.

“Guess you can’t smell the fresh air,” Dean said, steering Castiel with a pawswipe on his right. “Right. Left— Left! Ow, got my ear.”

“Apologies.”

“The ground rises here. Billie’s got the kid, they’re walking together. Urgh. Don’t tell her I said this, but she needs a bath. I wonder what we smell like.”

“Like each other, probably,” Castiel panted, carrying Dean up into a slightly brighter tunnel. Faint daylight tickled the edges of the rockfaces.

“Sharp right,” Dean said, head turning as he sniffed the air. “Ooh, musty.”

Castiel tripped over a rock, but kept going. Dean gave him smell-inspired directions, and they made their steady way forward. Billie led them into a proper cave, with dripping ice chandeliers and everything.

Now Dean could see the silhouette of the child, walking in stumbles beside Billie, who was twice her size. This child couldn’t be more than four years old. As more light infiltrated the cave, Dean saw she wore dungarees with floral embroidery on the back pockets, and she’d lost a buckled snow shoe.

“That’ll be no good for walking in snow,” Dean said, mostly to himself. “Cas, you got a bootie goin’ spare? I lost my last one in the water.”

“One,” Castiel said.

“I think the girl needs it.”

They reached the mouth of the cave, where morning daylight bathed one side of the opening in warmth. Dean felt its touch on his side, and he sighed, blissful. He and Cas were still dripping wet, but as Castiel lowered Dean off him, Dean had the chance to shake down. Castiel did the same, getting Dean wet all over again.

The child sat on a rock, looking curiously at Dean and Cas. She wore round eyeglasses, but they weren’t shiny, they were empty frames, bent and broken. Though she had naturally narrow eyes, she squinted a great deal, unable to see. She was clearly starving; her skin looked dull, her lips were tight and badly chapped.

Dean wriggled closer to her, panting on her hand. “Hi,” he said quietly, so as not to startle her. He gave her a lick.

“Nice doggy?” she said tentatively. “Wha’s your name?”

“Dean,” Dean said, not expecting her to understand.

“Are you lost too,” she said flatly.

“Not for long, m’lady,” Dean assured her.

She patted him, pulling on his ears. He let her, happy to be petted.

Castiel placed his last bootie on the girl’s lap with his mouth. “For you, small child,” he said.

“Is this for me?” she asked.

Castiel nodded.

First, she hesitated. But then she realised Castiel’s dog shoe would fit her tiny foot, and she put it on, strapping down the velcro. She smiled, wriggling her toes in her new gear.

“Look,” Dean said, pointing with his nose. “Cas, that’s where I fell in.”

There was the ravine, a deep scar cut by water through one of the mountain’s many snowy valleys. They’d emerged from the cave they’d originally been trying to reach.

“Say,” Dean said, thinking aloud, “Water goes downhill, right? And we’re trying to get down to the bottom of the mountain. What if...?”

“We follow the river,” Billie said, with a bold smile.

“We follow the river,” Castiel confirmed. “Dean, up.”

Dean gave a light-hearted sigh, but did as he was told.

The child followed behind, guided by Billie’s careful steps, traipsing over rocks and snow. Castiel travelled at a gradual pace, carrying Dean, preventing him from succumbing to his weakness. And as Dean’s nose led the way, Dean helped Castiel evade his own vulnerability.

With each of them helping each other, maybe everything would turn out fine. But until that moment, all they could do was try.

 

 


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CHAPTER FIVE
┅   DOWNHILL   ┅
in which Dean and Cas are v. good dogs

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The river ran underground most of the way. But Dean could smell the water from above, and track where it went; he was the only one that could.

It was not an easy decline. At one steeper cliff, Castiel tried to descend with Dean on his back, only for them to topple together, rolling and crashing into snow. Dean lay dazed for a full minute.

Castiel licked his nose, and Dean blinked back into existence.

“Makin’ a habit of this, I guess,” Dean mumbled, letting Cas push him upright. “Urrgh, I don’t wannaaaa. Just leave me here already. You’re slowing yourself down.”

“Almost there,” Castiel whispered. “We’re almost there, Dean. Almost home.”

Dean whined, holding back when Castiel tried to lift him.

Confused by this, Castiel looked back at him.

Dean lapped at his black lips, ashamed. “She won’t want me any more,” he said. “I’m... broken, now. Defective. If I go home—” He turned his face to the side, unable to meet Castiel’s eyes.

Castiel let out a low growl. “Dean, if your human only values you for your ability to work, she does not truly value you.”

“I’m a working dog, Cas. That’s the only value I have. All these years I’ve kept myself goin’, even when it hurts, because – what happens otherwise? What do I do when it’s all over? Kathleen talks about early retirement, but I know she can’t mean that. When dogs get old they get looked after. When they break, they get put to sleep.”

Castiel’s snout wrinkled, and he spoke with knowing determination: “Bellman adopted me from a shelter. I was already discarded, already considered ‘broken’, and ‘defective’. I could have been put to sleep, but Bellman...” Castiel smiled a little. “He decided to care for me. I began my training months after my peers. Bellman knows I’m not as able as the other dogs. I’m second-best at everything, but he keeps me. He keeps me, because—”

He glanced down. “You were right, yesterday,” Castiel said, interrupting himself. “They need us. But they want us, too. They love us, Dean. Your human wants you home, safe. No matter what shape you’re in.”

Dean started to argue, but Castiel barked in his face. “You told me it upset you that Sam might never find out what happened to you, if you died out here!” Softer now, with a lick to Dean’s cheek, Castiel asked, “Would it not hurt just as badly for Kathleen, if she never understood what had become of you?”

When Dean could not find the words to reply, Castiel nodded.

“You are still worthy of love, Dean. No matter what state you’re in. If your human loves you the way Bellman loves me, she will make space for your needs.”

With that, Castiel forced his nose under Dean’s belly, and shuff-shuff-shuffled him up onto his back. Dean allowed himself to be lifted once again. He went with thoughts brooding, every part of him desperate for the safety and comfort of home, but wondering, in the back of his mind, whether he would be welcome.

They travelled on.

Billie carried the child on her back, little hands clinging to her collar. Castiel walked in front; Dean murmured directions, half-awake, drooping helplessly over his friend. Even in a pain-induced stupor, it was easy to follow the river. Thankfully Castiel could hear its rumble; when Dean slipped from consciousness, Castiel continued on.

On. And on.

The sun lifted to the highest point of the sky. Whenever Dean peeked open his eyes, the light was blinding, radiating off pure white snow and glazing everything in uncomfortable luminescence. He looked around, seeing nothing but rocks and unbroken expanses of frost in the valleys.

Castiel fell more than once. Stumbled twice as often.

But every time, he got back up. And he took Dean with him.

“Almost there,” Dean said to him, each and every time. He didn’t know if it was true. Yet, it helped. “We’re nearly home. We can make it.”

They kept going.

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Only once the sky began to dim did they see where their journey ended. A single speck of light shone from far away, a grounded star guiding their way in the dark. A little cabin, halfway down.

Though they were distant, every step took them closer.

Billie gained a new burst of energy, and with a bark she set off running, even though she limped. The child clung to her, and they flew ahead in leaps and bounds.

Castiel watched them go, and trudged on, sinking into snow up to his chest, wading and swimming through it.

Dean could feel him shivering. His muscles had seized in the cold; he walked with impossible stiffness, like he was made of unoiled metal rather than flesh.

“You’re a good dog,” Dean said quietly, knowing Cas could hear him. “The best dog.”

“You’re just saying that because I carried you down a mountain,” Castiel panted.

“Well... yeah,” Dean grinned. He gave Castiel’s shoulder a small nuzzle. “You rank above average in every way, far as I’m concerned. Strength. Perseverance. Kindness. Good smell; could be improved by a roll in the dirt.”

Castiel snorted.

And then he collapsed. Flump. Face-down into a snowdrift.

“Cas—!” Dean pawed at the surrounding snow, trying to dig Castiel’s face out. “Hey, buddy!”

Castiel groaned, eyes closed in his exhaustion. As dusk consumed the sky and darkened it, the light in Castiel’s eyes faded too.

“Don’t you give up,” Dean growled, nipping at Castiel’s frozen ear. “C’mon. We’re almost there. Ten more minutes and we’ll be flopped in front of a warm fire. Full bellies. Tummy rubs.”

Castiel just sighed. “I... I’ve gone as far as I can go. I’m staying here.”

“And what about me, huh?” Dean demanded. “You gonna let me die here too?” He wriggled violently in place, all his legs figuring out how to work again. Even his back legs gave a feeble twitch; they were strong enough that he could put some weight on them. He stood up.

“Listen here, Cas,” Dean said, biting Castiel’s collar and tugging it. “I ain’t got your rough-terrain build, or your fluffy winter undercoat. I ain’t got your built-in determination, or years of training in the snow. I’m bent outta shape and I’m tireder than I’ve ever been in my life. But dammit, Cas, you know what I have got?”

He chomped Castiel’s collar and hauled him up, forcing him to his feet. With a bold shoulder, Dean bolstered Castiel into a standing position, and shoved him forward.

“What I got,” Dean panted, stomping ahead, taking it one step, then another, “is an empty stomach. And a food drive stronger than just about any dog’s you’ve ever met. And you know what I can smell, comin’ from that lil’ house down there?”

Through his exhaustion, Castiel took one step after Dean and asked, “What?”

Dean gave his companion his biggest grin yet. “I smell bacon.

And with that, he surged onward, and Castiel followed.

They went slowly. Steadily. Making sure the other was okay before moving ahead.

But not once did they stop. Not once.

They’d made it halfway when they heard barking; Billie had reached the cabin and kicked up a hell of a fuss. Out of the cabin burst a woman with a flashlight, and Dean watched her tall silhouette reach for the child, acknowledge the dog, then turn the light towards the mountain.

The light flashed in Dean’s eyes, and he barked.

Castiel barked too.

“We’re here!” Dean shouted. “We’re here!”

Castiel just laughed in relief, looking at Dean. “Almost home.”

Dean swerved towards him and gave him a nose lick, as was traditional by now. “We are home, Cas. We made it.”

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The dogs were told to wait, while the lady took care of the girl. Blankets, cookies, a glass of milk. A hug, and soft, soft words. Dean smiled, feebly wagging his tail, glad to see the girl smile.

Dean waited his turn. He wanted blankets and food too. Castiel and Billie sat up, while Dean lay down. All their eyes watched the woman, as she returned to her cupboard and shuffled out a pile of towels.

Those warm, dry towels came down upon the dogs like great swaddling blankets, and rub-rub-rub they went upon their backs, strong hands holding them in place. The woman’s mumbling provided a soothing background noise, though she grumbled things like, “Damn rookies, always losing their dogs,” and “Mountain’s no place for a mutt like you. You need a quiet house and flat terrain, that’s what you need. And a bath. All of you! Getting pawprints everywhere.”

Dean smiled happily, even while he panted with exhaustion. He first watched Billie and Castiel shake themselves down, and when the lady got to Dean to dry him off, his legs collapsed in her grip, and he went with it, lying down on the terracotta tiles, eyes shut as the fireplace heat washed over him.

“Ohh, you’re a tired, tired dog, aren’t you,” the lady sighed, drying his ears, and Dean agreed.

In the minutes that followed, Dean watched through half-open eyes as the lady went straight to the telephone and dialled out. She sounded both cross and worried, one hand jabbing a demanding finger down in mid-air. “I need to speak with the search-and-rescue team. Jody Mills, stationed at Lookout Post Four in the southern valley. I’ve got the girl, and three dogs. A big black one, a speckly one, and a German Shepherd with crooked back legs. Send the chopper, there’s no reason this girl needs to wait another minute to see her parents.”

She sent a concerned look the girl’s way. Dean looked too, and saw the child had fallen asleep on Jody’s couch, wrapped in a plaid blanket.

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The helicopter landed in a nearby field, and before the propellers even stilled, a team of people approached the house with noisy boots and forthright, jubilant voices. Billie barked, but Dean was too sleepy to bark. He’d flopped over by the fire, his back pressed all along Castiel’s side. Although his belly felt far from full, the delicious taste of fried bacon remained fresh in his mouth, and reliving the memory of eating it was enough to make him smile.

Kathleen entered the house along with five other people, removing her thick wool hat, uttering a word of heartfelt thanks to Jody. A group of people hurried to the girl to check she was okay – Dean heard a man weeping, crying, “Maeve! Maeve, you’re all right!”

Papa!” The guttural relief in the child’s cry snatched Dean’s overworked heart between gentle jaws, making him ache in the best possible way.

While a ruckus happened over there, Kathleen went to the dogs, kneeling, wrapping her arms tight around Dean. Her familiar, beloved scent, and her warmth and closeness gave Dean’s body a moment completely without pain. Everything was... okay.

Dean nuzzled her shoulder. “I’m fine,” he told her quietly. “Cas saved me. And he carried me home.”

Kathleen breathed out. When she pulled back, she sank a hand into Castiel’s fur too. She looked at him, then Billie, and she nodded.

She looked back at Dean, and her eyes were full of tears. “Good dogs,” she said to them all. “You’re all heroes. Each and every one of you.”

Dean peered between the forest of legs and first aid bags, and he saw the child, tears of solace shining in tracks behind her broken glasses. Beside her, her father comforted her, holding her close. Dean then turned to Castiel, and Billie, who were greeted by their respective handlers, with hugs and kisses and big body squeezes. He saw Castiel smile under Bellman’s arm. Castiel’s eyes moved to Dean, and he smiled even more.

“Hear that?” Dean asked. “You’re a hero, Cas. World’s best dog.”

Castiel shut his eyes, and savoured the moment.

 

 


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CHAPTER SIX
┅   RETIREMENT   ┅
in which Dean gets a rest, but is restless

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Kathleen’s ranch wasn’t the fancy kind, with a manicured lawn mown in stripes. The flowerbeds weren’t decorated with lush, flowering bushes, and the paint on the house wasn’t pristine and gleaming white. The whole place was a little dirty, a little wonky, a little overgrown. The rooftop drainage had a tendency to flood the driveway when it rained, and the fireplace chimney would spit smoke back into the living room if the wind turned eastwards.

But as Dean lay on the fenced porch, chin down to the unvarnished wood, he imagined his experience of this place had the potential to be perfect. Beyond his porch, the grass hissed with insects enjoying the last weeks of summer. Bees came to inspect the wisteria branches that climbed the supports for the overhanging roof, each twist and tangle laden with trailing blooms. From here, Dean had a good view of the apple trees, just now bearing fruit, and the faint mountains beyond, shimmering in the heat.

Beyond the far fences, the whole valley was full of life – boisterous, overwhelming life – and after years rooting around, only to find dead animals in boxes, Dean’s dreams were finally fulfilled.

All except for one.

And here that dream came now: dust bloomed from the very end of the driveway as a beat-up old truck came trundling towards the house.

Dean creaked up on his aching back legs, tail wagging. He barked, announcing visitors.

He hoped it was Cas. He hoped it was Cas so badly. Every car that ever pulled up, he wished with all his heart for Cas to hop out. He prayed to the Kibble Bag that this time it would really happen, and Cas’ dark shape and lithe paws would drop down to the driveway.

Kathleen came out of the house in her uniform – an unusual choice, as today was definitely Sunday. Dean knew the days of the week, and she wasn’t going to work until tomorrow...

As the vehicle got closer, Dean sniffed the air, and his tail wagged faster. Bobby! Sam!

Not Cas – but still awesome!

The truck pulled up to the house, and when Bobby popped open the door, out leapt Sammy. Dean bounded across the sandy driveway, panting happily, not even noticing how badly he hobbled. He bumped into Sam and sniffed frantically while Sam sniffed back, each of them absorbing information and becoming happier by the second.

“Missed you,” Sam said.

“Not as bad as I missed you, little brother,” Dean smiled, tongue lolling. “C’mon, I gotta show you my tree.”

“What tree?”

“Quick!” Dean scampered away, not moving especially fast.

Sam walked along beside him, staying excited while Dean went as speedily as he could.

“So, how’s early retirement treating you?” Sam asked.

“There’s food and horses and birds and rabbits, what more could a dog want?” Dean answered, forgetting for the moment how Sam’s presence wasn’t a usual occurrence. Right now he felt perfectly content, so the loneliness of yesterday didn’t matter.

Dean led Sam around the back of the house, and under a stile that stuck through the fence. One after the other, they swooped down low under the border. Sam had to wiggle to get through; even with his thin summer fur, he was massive.

In this field, the ground sloped upward. Dean padded along a stretch of the field, which his paws had turned into a path over the last few weeks. At the peak of the slope grew a beautiful apple tree, leaning crooked against a rotten fence. Its branches flexed like the arms of the world’s oldest strongman; every angle was wrinkled and wiry, but remained sturdy enough to support the glorious, gleaming leaves that sprouted from its fingers. Now the tree was swollen with unpicked fruit, and drooped with their weight.

Dean took Sam to the base of the tree, where the grass was all dried up and sandy, and here and there, fallen bird-pecked apples dotted the ground.

With a content, happy grin, Dean flopped into the dust and began to roll around.

Sam watched for a moment.

Dean laughed, delighted as dust flew around him, twinkling in the slanted sun.

Sam began to understand. He lay down too, and together he and Dean laughed as they cooled themselves in the dirt.

“Thirsty?” Dean leapt up, crawling over to the base of the tree, where a water trough had been set down for the horses. He lap-lap-lapped, then turned to Sam, sparkling drips on his face. “Free drinks!”

Sam grinned and lapped at the water too.

“See?” Dean sat, walking his front paws forward until he lay with his belly to the dust. “This place is awesome. What more could a dog want?”

He wondered for a moment.

Yes, he was happy. Life was good, and Sam’s company was the absolute best.

But Dean knew in his heart that he still ached.

┅┅┅┅┅┅ ┅┅┅┅┅┅

As his afternoon visit came to an end, Sergeant Bobby Singer gave Dean a good pat on the head, an ear-waggle, and a blissfully firm chin scratch. “See ya around, boy. You look after Kathleen for me, won’t ya.”

Kathleen gave her friend a salute, then touched Dean’s head too. “We look after each other, sir. Always have, always will.”

Bobby nodded. “C’mon, Sammy. Car.”

Sam pattered off, hopping off the porch. But he paused, looking back.

Dean got up to follow, but Kathleen gripped his collar. “Oh, no, you’re staying here, pup.”

Dean whined.

Sam tried to go back, but Bobby whistled, opening up the car door.

Sam hesitated, looking between Dean and Bobby. But Bobby whistled again, then called, gruffly, “Sam!” and Sam had no choice. He turned and went to his master, leaving Dean.

Dean howled, just briefly. “Noooo. Come baaaack.”

Sam waited before he got into the truck. Maybe...

No.

In he got. The door closed. Bobby started the engine, waved to Kathleen, then backed up a few yards before turning around.

Away they drove, and Dean’s world went back to being not-quite-right.

He howled at the roof, feeling loneliness hug at his throat. “Come baaaaaaack,” he cried, knowing Sam was too far away now.

Kathleen let go of his collar, touching his ears. “It’s okay,” she said gently, with a slightly confused tone. “I’m still here. Everything’s all right.”

“But Sam’s not heeeeere,” Dean whined, flopping forward and sulking with his chin on his paws. “And my best friend Cas isn’t here...” He pouted, and whimpered gently. “I’m all alone.”

The dust on the driveway settled. Dean could still hear the truck’s engine, but it only grew quieter.

Eventually he couldn’t hear it at all.

Kathleen sighed, leaving the porch and going back inside. She started to make dinner, clattering around in the kitchen. She went to get dressed out of her uniform, and she put on her slippers. Dean listened to her footsteps inside the house.

But he kept his eyes on the horizon, ears pricked, waiting for any sign of an engine. Listening. Watching.

The sun made its descent behind the hills, and Dean was still waiting.

Kathleen opened the screen door, leaning out to call to him. “Deanie! You wanna go walkies?”

Dean considered it. But he was too tired to get up. Didn’t want to. Cas wasn’t here.

So he stayed.

“Maybe later, yeah?” Kathleen went back inside.

Soon she leaned out again. “You want some dinner, pup?”

Dean did not. Cas wasn’t here.

“Huh,” Kathleen murmured to herself, going back in. “Weird.”

She brought out Dean’s food bowl, and some water, and set it down beside him, stroking his head. “There. You don’t gotta get up.”

Dean’s eyes were trained on the end of the driveway. He didn’t even look at Kathleen.

Kathleen stayed for a while, sitting on the wicker chair beside him, stroking his fur. They watched the sunset, and listened to the birds singing their evening lullaby. But when Sam did not return, and Cas did not come to visit, Dean thought it best if he kept waiting. Maybe now someone would come.

Maybe now.

Or now...?

Once it got dark, Kathleen called Dean for bed – but Dean was already asleep.

For the first time in his life, he slept without a companion beside him.

At dawn, he woke up, nibbled his leftover dinner, but left most of it untouched before he fell back asleep.

┅┅┅┅┅┅ ┅┅┅┅┅┅

“I don’t know if I should call the vee-ee-tee, or what,” Kathleen said, her tone of voice all abother. She held her cordless phone in one hand, petting Dean with her other hand. “He hasn’t eaten a full meal in days. And you know as well as I do, he’s a good dog. But...”

Ellen’s voice bled through the phone’s speaker, cautious. “What? What did he do?

Kathleen scooted her wicker chair an inch closer to Dean, looking out at the wrecked landscape. “I came back home from work this afternoon and he’d gone and chewed up the garden. You remember those old chairs that came with the place – you said they’d make good firewood, and I said—”

They’d be fine with a lick’a varnish and a new cushion top—?

“All over the place. In splinters. The drainpipe’s bent out of its bracket, the grass is all dug up— And I know it was him, there’s his toothmarks everywhere. And there was mud on his muzzle. He must’ve spent the whole day tearing things up, given the speed he works these days.”

Reckon he’s antsy, huh. Gettin’ bored. No cases to work, way out there.

“Lonely’s more like it,” Kathleen said wearily. She scrunched her fist in the wiry tufts behind Dean’s ears. “Bobby came to visit on Sunday, and the moment he and his moose left, Deanie howled the whole house down. You’d’ve thought the sky was about to fall with the noise he made.”

Maybe he just needs some company during the day, y’know? He retired early. His legs aren’t too good but his brain’s still as active as ever. Poor thing’s probably losing his mind all alone.

“Yeah,” Kathleen sighed. “He’s too smart for puzzle toys. He figures them out in thirty seconds and then chews them into pulp. And it’s not like hiding treats around the place is much use, when he won’t eat.” She pondered in silence for a while, then asked, “They got any good puppies up for adoption at your shelter? Or do the cops nab all the clever ones?”

There’s a few, but—” Ellen seemed wary. “Frankly... I think most puppies annoy the heck out of older dogs. And knowing Dean... Where the fun if he can’t chase after it? Besides, Kath, you don’t have time to train the thing, do ya? Puppies always cause more problems than they solve.

“So what do you suggest? Vet? What’s the vet gonna do anyway? Shove a thermometer up his ass and tell me what I already know? Or...” Solemnly, Kathleen wondered, “Maybe it’s time. I mean, he can barely walk, and it’s not like he’d complain if he was in pain...”

Dean lifted his head, making a sound of discontent. He didn’t want to go to the vet.

“Shh,” Kathleen said, rubbing her thumb down Dean’s fuzzy face, wiping away tear stains. “No, it’s not your time. We’ll find a friend for you, Deanie. You won’t be lonely for long, pup.”

Hey... There is someone...

“Hm?” Kathleen tickled Dean under the chin, making him smile, just a bit.

You remember, uh... what was his name— Bellman?

Kathleen sat up straighter. “Oh! From our Snowbird adventure, yeah. Why, what’s happened?”

Nothing’s happened. He’s just on leave for a few weeks. He got married, he’s off on his honeymoon a couple days from now.

“Oh, nice,” Kathleen smiled. “So his dog—”

Hanging out here, from tomorrow,” Ellen said brightly. “I mean, no promises, but I could call him. See if we could get Razor down at your place. He’d be happier there, I’d bet anything.

“That would be incredible,” Kathleen impressed to her friend. “Just for a couple weeks, right?”

Yeah-yeah. But see how it goes. Maybe Deanie will settle down after seeing another old buddy. Just so he knows he won’t always be alone.

Kathleen looked at Dean cautiously. “Sure,” she wait, without much confidence. But she added, “Better to have a good time that ends, right? Rather than not having it at all.”

She gave Dean a hug with one hand, squeezing his shape to her leg. Dean looked at her, not quite convinced of her smile. But he smiled back, regardless.

 

 


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CHAPTER SEVEN
┅   SNUGGLE   ┅
in which Dean and Cas are happy

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Dean recognised the sound of the engine from miles away, and knew Ellen was on her way long before she pulled up. But a familiar scent approached on the breeze, coming from the car as it slowed on the driveway. Dean’s heart began to pound, his tail wagging in time, excited without being sure why. Surely it wasn’t... It couldn’t be...?

It was! Cas!

“CAS!” Dean barked, leaping off his porch and trotting up to the car. Happiness radiated from him in aggressive tail-wags, in fast puffpuffpuff breaths, tongue out, black lips drawn back in a delighted grin. Cas jumped down, and he smelled of the car and dust and sadness, but once he saw Dean, he smelled of excitement and joy! Joy! Joy!

Castiel didn’t sniff, but his tail wagged faster than Dean’s, and he bounced his front legs up, barking in celebration. He barked and barked and ran around in circles, chasing his tail, then stood in front of Dean and said, softly, “Hello, Dean.”

“Hey.” Dean licked Castiel’s nose.

Castiel ducked his face, shy but pleased. He began orbiting Dean, brushing his entire body against Dean’s. “I missed you. I missed you so horribly,” Castiel said, easing side-to-side with Dean, stroking his cheek all the way under Dean’s chin. “If I had my way, Dean...”

“What?” Dean asked, nosing at Castiel’s throat affectionately.

Castiel just shut his eyes and nuzzled Dean.

Behind them, Ellen and Kathleen chuckled, talking about them. “Ain’t ever seen Razor so worked up about anyone,” Ellen commented. “God knows what these two went through together, up on that mountain. Forged a pretty... profound kinda bond, huh.”

“Can say that again,” Kathleen laughed, as Dean went off past the house, in a hurry to show Castiel his favourite apple tree. “Guess we’ll see them by dinnertime. Now, you! Come inside and have some tea, I haven’t seen you in days!”

┅┅┅┅┅┅ ┅┅┅┅┅┅

They rolled around in the dust, and shared a drink from the horse trough. They laughed, and chased each other between rabbit warrens, and had a damn good time. Dean soon got tired, so he lay down in the dirt, content to rest belly-up. Castiel flopped beside him, grumbling a happy, happy noise as he snuggled his face against Dean.

Dean pricked up his ears as he heard a horse approach.

Curious, Castiel lifted his head. He promptly yelped and leapt a foot in the air. “What’s that! What’s that!” he barked.

Dean guffawed, rolling into his front. “Dude, it’s a horse!”

The horse came closer on tall, slow legs, head bent down to greet Castiel. Castiel, highly alarmed, backed up until he tripped into a rabbit hole. Dean fearlessly passed him, approaching the horse with a wagging tail. The horse sniffed him nose-to-nose, then snorted hot air in his face. Dean panted, then looked back at Cas.

“See. Just a big, weird dog. They hang out here and eat grass all day. Sometimes they play chase.”

Castiel crept forward on unsure paws, head down, eyes up. He scooted closer. Closer. His tail wagged faintly as he slunk up alongside Dean.

The horse bowed its head again, sniffing Castiel. Castiel froze in place until the horse had satisfied its curiosity.

The beast soon lost interest, blinking its long lashes and lowering its teeth to a patch of grass. Castiel began to pant, relaxing.

Dean smiled. “Can’t believe you never met a horse.”

“I met a camel once,” Castiel said, turning away, heading for the shade of the tree.

“Well, you gotta tell me about that,” Dean said, settling into the dust to listen.

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When night fell, Dean retreated to the dog bed on the porch, since the nighttime temperatures were mellow outside. Round and round and round he went, paws tangling up in the blankets as he tried to get a good position. Eventually he dropped into a donut shape, then sighed as he relaxed.

Kathleen stood nearby, smiling as she picked up the food bowl Dean had emptied for the first time all week. “What about you?” she asked Castiel, who was just finishing up his dinner. “Do you like to sleep inside?”

Castiel lapped his tongue around his mouth, swiping away crumbs of kibble. Then he padded over to Dean’s bed, climbed inside, and padded around until he sank down comfortably, his body bracketed around Dean. Their faces were close; Dean licked Castiel’s face, and Castiel smiled, licking back.

“Night, Cas,” Dean said fondly.

Castiel gave Dean one more lick, then replied, “Goodnight.”

Kathleen watched, bewildered, as the dogs snuggled a tiny bit closer before settling down to sleep.

“Well, okay, then,” she exclaimed in both surprise and delight. “That’s that problem sorted.”

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“Look,” Kathleen said into the phone, “I know it’s only been a week-and-a-half, but I’m telling you, this is the happiest I’ve even seen him. Two Saturdays ago, he barely had the energy to hobble between his food bowl and the garden to do his business. Now – I’m not saying he’s any faster, or he struggles any less – but heck, he goes in and out all day. All he wants to do is play with his friend.”

What are we gonna do?” Ellen asked, a tinge of worry in her voice. “Bellman’s back in three days. Razor can’t stay with you. He’s still got three years of service until retirement; search-and-rescue dogs stick it out longer than the ones on the front line. And that’s not even saying Bellman would be happy to let you take him after retirement, like Bobby would with Sammy.

“I know, I know,” Kathleen said, pulling her muddy gardening glove off so she could palm at her forehead. She gazed beside her at the dogs, who lounged on the grass together, keeping her company while she dug up weeds from the flowerbeds. “It’s just...”

What?

Kathleen sighed. “Last night...” she grinned, “I was gonna give them a hard chew each, get their teeth clean. The packet wrinkles, and in comes Razor, all hyped for the treat. So I handed him one, and he takes it gently in his mouth and runs off. I’m about to take Deanie one, and I leave the house with it in my hand, when I... Ugh, it’s too cute! I looked to my left, where Dean was lying in his porch bed. And Razor passes him the chew right from his mouth. Then he comes back to me, to get his own.”

Wow. Good dog.

“They’re kind of obsessed with each other,” Kathleen laughed, petting Castiel’s dark ears while Dean watched lazily, his whole body warm in the sun. “They go up to the apple tree and spend hours there, just hanging out. I swear there’s more holes in the dirt than the rabbits ever made. They come back home with their coats all thickened up with dust, huge smiles on their faces.”

Which one’s alpha?” Ellen asked. “I know they’re both alpha when they’re apart, but...?

“I actually don’t know,” Kathleen raised her eyebrows. “Razor’s doting aside, they both mount each other, so I don’t—”

Wait, what?” Ellen laughed.

Kathleen grinned too, shaking her head. “I don’t think they’re actually doing anything. Messing about, that’s all. They’ll roll over and let each other chew their throats like puppies when they play-fight.”

They know,” Ellen said thoughtfully. “They know which of them’s in charge. Us humans can’t tell as easy. That’s why they sniff; they figure that stuff out.

“Yeah,” Kathleen said, narrowing her eyes at Castiel. “Yeah, I’m sure there’s a hundred things they know that we don’t know. Bet they’re talking to each other right now and we can’t even tell.”

Dean rolled his eyes.

Castiel chuckled, giving Dean a secretive wink.

┅┅┅┅┅┅ ┅┅┅┅┅┅

A car approached that Dean didn’t recognise. He barked and barked, alerting Kathleen to its presence. Castiel joined him, barking too – but Dean stopped barking abruptly, looking at Castiel.

Castiel wagged his tail. “It’s him!” he smiled. “I missed him!”

Bellman stepped out of the car, dressed in an army-green jacket and tough jeans. He wore a huge grin, which only widened as he spread his arms and crouched, greeting Castiel as Cas ran to him.

Castiel licked Bellman’s face, was told “No,” but still his tail wagged, front feet lifting from the ground as he bounced in place.

Kathleen exited the house, still wearing her slippers. “Afternoon,” she smiled, taking Bellman’s hand to shake it as they met on the front step. “Congratulations on the wedding, how was the honeymoon?”

“Totally bomb,” Bellman grinned, holding up a hand with his thumb and first finger connected. “My girl’s waitin’ at home, I promised I’d be back, pick up dinner on the way. Hope you don’t mind me rushin’ off.”

“Naw, go for it. I grabbed all of Razor’s stuff already – here.” She tapped her hand to a box of toys and food, set on the porch breakfast table. “I gotta warn you... your dog’s taken a real liking to Deanie. Razor might, uh... sleep a little restless these next few nights, once they’re apart. Call me if you have any trouble, won’t you?”

“Will do.” Bellman reached down to give Castiel a little ear-waggle, then moved his hand to do the same for Dean, who was busy sniffing the guy’s jeans. “Thanks a million for taking care of him. Sure he had the time of his life out here. How was he with the horses? He behave himself?”

“Took a real shine to one of them,” Kathleen laughed, pulling out her cellphone. “I got a picture. Here... Oh, look. That’s Razor and Dean, that’s how they’ve been sleeping this whole time. Like a pair of ellipses, nose-to-nose. Cute, huh. And that’s – ha – that’s them digging up the back yard. Helping with the gardening, according to them.”

Bellman laughed, apparently charmed. Dean tried licking his hand, and Bellman responded by petting him.

“Ah. That’s them and my oldest horse, Coco Cake. She’s a big fan of dogs.” Kathleen showed Bellman the photo, and Bellman smirked.

“Gotta email me these snaps, man. Wife’d love to see. Me and her actually had a couple behaviour issues with Razor here since the Snowbird incident. Yooou wanna know, or—?”

“Was he howling, by any chance?” Kathleen asked, slipping her phone back into her pocket. “Skipping meals? Generally unsettled and sad-lookin’?”

Bellman gaped silently, then shut his mouth. “Um. Yeah. How’d you...?”

Kathleen tipped her head towards Dean. “Dean ain’t been the same ever since that avalanche.”

“No,” Bellman said, fretting with his belt loop. He glanced down at Dean, then Castiel, watching them patter away into the garden, Dean’s nose following Castiel’s wagging tail. “No, my baby ain’t either.”

Glumly, Kathleen folded her arms. “Can’t be helped, though. You and your mutt got duties to do. Saving people, tracking folks down. His place is the desert, and mountains, and storms. Not a plush dog bed on the porch of a ranch house. That’s just how it is.”

Bellman stayed quiet.

Soon he bowed his chin to his chest, running a hand over his shaven head. “I... uh. Better get going. Thanks again, for looking after my baby. Appreciate it. We’ll talk payment over the phone, I ain’t got cash with me—”

“Oh, no-no-no, it’s on me,” Kathleen insisted warmly, patting Bellman away. “You saved us a pointless trip to the vet. Medicine can’t fix a broken heart, y’know? At least, not the right way.”

Bellman stuck his hands in his pockets. Then he pulled them out, and grabbed the box of dog paraphernalia. In silence, he gave Kathleen a nod, and stepped down off the porch. He whistled. “Razor!”

Castiel lifted his head, letting the bumblebee he’d been chasing fly away. He began to pant, excited to be called. He left Dean investigating a butterfly, and rounded the flowerbed to approach his master.

“Good booyy,” Bellman praised, grinning. “Come on, let’s go home.”

He went to his car and opened the back door, bending to slide in the box. “In.”

Castiel hesitated, then went back around the other side of the car to see Dean.

Dean padded closer, questioning.

“C’mon, we’re going,” Castiel said.

“Where?” Dean asked, waddling across the grass.

“Home, I think,” Castiel said, approaching Bellman again.

Kathleen called, “Dean! Heel.”

Dean stopped where he was. He whined. “Noooo. Not this agaaaain.”

Castiel realised what was going on. “Nooo,” he complained, looking Bellman in the eye.

Bellman frowned, glancing back at Kathleen. “Is it just me, or did he just say ‘no’?”

Kathleen wasn’t sure. “Uh. I dunno.”

Bellman bent forward and patted his thighs with both hands. “Come on! Let’s go!”

Castiel sat down on the grass. Then he got right back up and went over to Dean. He sat down next to him, staring defiantly at Bellman.

Bellman clapped his hands. “Razor! Here! Now!”

Castiel stood up and barked.

Dean stood up and began making his way back to the house. Kathleen beckoned, reaching to pet him as he reached the steps. Dean, puffing and panting, went to his bed, turned in a circle, then flopped down.

Bellman went up to Castiel, taking his collar in his hand. Castiel began to physically struggle, making sad noises. “Ow ow ow ow owwwww,” Castiel cried, head tipped back.

Bellman let him go, looking at Kathleen in distress. “He’s... he’s never done this before,” he said. “I’ve never had any real trouble with him, not like this.”

“I believe you,” Kathleen said, raising her eyebrows.

Castiel sat, crying out loud. “Owwwwwww. Owwwwww. Ow-ow-owwwww.

Dean whined from his bed. Castiel heard, and abandoned Bellman, rushing for the house. He passed Kathleen on the porch step, panting, and Kathleen watched as Castiel went straight for Dean, climbed into his bed, stumbled around to find somewhere to sit, then went plop! Right beside Dean.

When Castiel was sure both humans were watching, he lay his head on Dean’s shoulders and closed his eyes.

Kathleen looked at Bellman. Bellman gulped.

“We... could still...” Kathleen said, but Dean could tell by her tone of voice that she didn’t believe it. She didn’t want them to be separated any more than Dean and Cas did.

Bellman turned away, stroking the back of his neck, drawing his hand over his scalp in distress. When he turned back to Kathleen, there were tears in his eyes.

He said nothing.

He went back to his car, retrieving the box of Castiel’s things. He went up to Kathleen and handed it all to her.

“Six years, I’ve worked with Razor,” he said lowly, eyes on Castiel. “When that dog needs somethin’ – really needs it – he makes it inescapably clear.” With a grim smile, he shook his head. “I been telling him what I want from him all this time, and he does it. What kinda dog owner turns a blind eye when your buddy asks for somethin’ in return?”

Kathleen put down the box and hugged her own middle, unable to speak. She watched her two dogs, then she watched Bellman approach them.

Dean lifted his head and growled gently as Bellman came close. Was he taking Cas away—?

No.

Bellman knelt down, and gave Castiel a big hug, burying his face in his fur, exhaling. He stayed like that for a long, long time.

When Bellman pulled back, Castiel gave him a sorry, sad look, eyebrows turned outwards. A small whine let the man know how much it broke his heart to say goodbye. But this was... important. For Dean, and for Cas.

“I just don’t want to leave,” Castiel said simply. “I’m sorry. I still love you.”

“I know,” Bellman said, face shattered with grief. “I know, Razor. You can stay.” He bent down and kissed Castiel’s forehead. “I’ll never forget you. You did your country proud, soldier.”

When Bellman stood up to leave, Castiel began to cry. He whimpered and whined and yapped unhappy noises, but he didn’t stand to chase his master.

Dean licked Castiel’s cheek and nuzzled his fur, comforting him as Bellman got in his car and turned it around to go.

With a wave from his car window, Bellman hit the gas and drove.

This time, both Dean and Cas watched the dust settle, and listened as the engine faded. But neither of them expected to hear it return.

┅┅┅┅┅┅ ┅┅┅┅┅┅

Life with Kathleen and Castiel was so good, and so right, and so very, very fun. Dean spent hours rolling in dirt, and watching horses, and sticking his snout down rabbit holes, then inviting Castiel to do the same.

Every weekday, Kathleen would leave for work, and Dean was alone with Castiel for hours. They’d talk, and play, and lick each other sparkling clean before getting all muddy again for fun. Castiel soon learned about bee stings, and angry mother ducks.

Mornings and evenings, Kathleen took them out for walkies down the road, letting Dean trail behind, sniffing everything, while Castiel wandered back and forth on his leash, curious about new sights and sounds.

In the evenings, they’d get treats, and belly rubs, and sometimes a bath with the hose if they’d been especially naughty on their walk. They’d get dinner on the porch as the light of day faded, and then they’d spend five minutes rearranging their bed, Dean circling around and around and around until he found a comfy position. Then Castiel would join him, plopping down and staying there.

Dean’s heart was full of love for Cas, and Kathleen, and their sunny ranch home. But sometimes, he couldn’t help but feel like a piece was missing...

It was only when the summer began to grow crisp and cool, and the leaves on the trees all around started to crackle rather than gush, that things changed.

Kathleen got in the habit of moving the dog bed inside at night, then back out during the day. And one Saturday morning, when the sun spread itself like butter on fallen leaves, just as Kathleen dropped the bed onto the porch, a car came up the valley, dust clouding in its wake.

Dean barked. Castiel barked.

And from the car came a third bark.

When the wheels halted and the grumbling engine went silent, Bobby stepped out along with Ellen. And then came a galumphing great beast, the sight of whom sent Dean into a delighted barking frenzy.

Sam bounded up to the house, barrelling into his brother with immense enthusiasm. Sniff-sniff-sniff they went, around each other, nosing around and wagging their tails. Sam turned to Castiel and sniffed him too, while Castiel simply let him.

“You must be Sam,” Castiel smiled. “Nice to meet you after so long.”

Sam chuckled. “You know, you’re exactly how Dean described.”

“So are you,” Castiel said, looking up at Sam’s massive form.

“I’m retiring today,” Sam told Dean. “Bobby said I can come live here!”

“Aw YEAH,” Dean barked, chest to the floor, haunches raised to wiggle. “Awesome. Let’s go chase rabbits! And then roll in the dirt, and lie in the sun, and torture the squeaky rubber duck, and then—!”

He waddled off, hopping off the porch, on his way to begin a day of fun.

Sam and Castiel looked at each other, then smiled, turning to follow Dean. They caught up quickly, and walked slowly beside him so he didn’t get left behind.

“—And chew leaves, and take all the mud inside so Kathleen makes that squawky noise – it’s hilarious, I promise – and dude, I dunno where you’re sleeping, Sammy, but I’m telling you right now, there is zero space left in mine and Cas’ bed. Hey! A squirrel!”

The three of them went to chase the squirrel. The squirrel freaked out and vanished immediately. Dean, Cas, and Sam were left barking up three different trees, all hoping they had the right one.

In the evening, in the hour before the sun went down, Kathleen went to sit out on the porch. From inside the house, a record player turned, crooning out some old music. Through the open windows and the screen door, languid electric guitar chords echoed out across sun-bronzed fields. Lazy insects twirled in waltzes down the driveway, shining bright as the daylight drifted.

At the foot of Kathleen’s wicker chair, beside her empty slippers, Dean and Castiel lay curled up together, bodies snug and cozy. While Dean sniffed the distant scent of woodsmoke, Castiel simply listened. He listened to bird song, sweet and elegant, fused with the twangs of some geezer’s old strings.

Only inches to the left, Sam’s huge dog bed squashed out under his shape. He kept his ears pricked, his smile wide, and his eyes closed.

As Sam was content, and Castiel was content, and Kathleen was too, Dean was easily the most content of all of them.

At last. He’d done his duty. He’d spent all his life completing missions. Whether or not his parents would be proud, he couldn’t say, but Dean himself was proud. Each and every member of his family deserved to be called a hero, he supposed. And that included him.

The music played on, the birds sang their songs, the wicker chair creaked, and three happy dogs rested after a long, joyful day; the soldiers were finally at ease.

 


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┅   the end   ┅

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