There’s a scream, a dramatic puff of sickly green smoke, and a gunshot. A body hits the floor. Sam and Cas freeze in the doorway. Dean Blinks at them. His eyes feel hot – there’s green smoke flickering over them, clouding his vision. He stretches a hand out – trying to warn them away. They don’t listen. They run forward, Sam grabs his shoulder, Cas grabs his wrist. They begin to ask if he’s ok.
Then the set falls apart. The walls and furniture of the witch’s house flatten and collapse like cardboard. The audience blinks in confusion at the stage, then starts to clap. The audience is all Dean. A Dean in every seat (and crowded into the isles as well) all dressed the same, all looking about the same age, all bearing the same expression of good-humoured anticipation – as if excited by this latest twist.
“Uh,” Dean says.
Then things get really weird.
“Why does it always have to be me?” Dean says again.
“Huh?” Sam asks distractedly. They’ve been walking for what feels like hours, and for what feels like miles. But it’s impossible to tell if they’re even moving in the complete blackness. It feels as if their feet are touching something smooth and solid, which Sam hopes fervently, is at least a floor or ground and not just air. Then at least they’d be moving towards (or away) from something. Anything, surely, is better than nothing. “What do you mean?”
“Why can’t we get magicked into your brain for once?”
“Guess I’m not the protagonist of this episode,” Sam sighs, “maybe next week.”
“And maybe if you stopped running headfirst into danger,” Cas interjects from the side, voice strained, “you wouldn’t always be the first to get hit.”
“Yeah, if you weren’t such a reckless idiot then maybe less idiotic things would happen to you.”
“Hey, I don’t write the script: I just say my lines. Chuck’s the one who’s got it out for me.”
“Or whoever’s writing them now.”
“I just wanna know why they get off fucking me over: why don’t you two ever get turned into dogs or have your memories wiped? Or, while we’re on the subject, why has almost everything bad happened to me in the past few seasons? Purgatory, the mark, being a demon, Amara –”
“Hey that’s not true! Cas died. I was possessed.”
But Dean waves away their pain with a casual hand. “I’m not sayin you two haven’t suffered, I’m just sayin’, there’s an imbalance of suffering. And that’s just what’s canon.”
“I guess there’s something special about you,” Sam says sarcastically. “Maybe your character just has more untapped potential than ours? Or maybe you can be relied upon to react in a more entertaining manner?”
“Maybe,” Cas says acidly, the fraying ends of his patience clearly audible, “if you two stopped asking pointless meta questions we’d actually be able to make some progress out of here? Instead of just walking in circles?”
“How can you even tell it’s a circle?”
“Considering we’ve been having variations of this conversation for the past hour, I think we can infer.”
“Wait,” Sam stops, “are you saying that Dean’s state of mind while he’s in his own mind is affecting the state of the mind that his mind is in?”
The space around them turns a dirty red. “I think you gave me a headache,” Dean observes dryly.
“Yes,” Cas says irritably. “The spell was designed to trap us: it’s going to use anything it can find to distract or hinder us from finding the exit and to keep us from accessing it, including merging with you and reflecting your emotions. Soon, however, it should begin to manifest more…concretely: try to oppose us more directly. Fortunately, however,” he adds, looking at Dean, “since we’re in here with you, we should be able to figure out where in your subconscious the exit is located relatively easily.”
“How can we even be sure there is an exit?” Dean wants to know, sounding gloomy. “We might just be stuck in here forever.”
Sam shakes his head. “You can’t just go into someone’s mind without their permission – not this physically at least. Think about everything Crowley had to do to get in my brain when Gadreel possessed me,” he shudders slightly at the memory. “The spell had to make an opening, and we’ll be able to come out the way we came in.” Hopefully, he adds silently.
“An opening?” Dean sounds apprehensive.
“A vulnerability,” Cas explains. “It will have latched on to a particularly strong emotion. We just need to find the source of that emotion.”
“Huh,” Dean grunts, “so you’re saying that we’ll have to search through my memories and shit in order to find the door back to reality but that the spell is likely to try and throw up distractions and barriers in order to keep us trapped in here for as long as possible and cause as much pain and division as possible?”
“Yes, exactly so you need to –”
“And,” Dean cuts in, holding up a hand to silence him, “it’s likely that the spell will be able to access said memories as well as my dreams and desires to construct whatever it thinks will be most effective at achieving this end? And that it will likely hide the exit in the most private and painful part of my brain it can find? Forcing us to explore my most traumatic or most shameful experiences? ”
“Uh, yes,” Cas blinks in surprise. “I suppose so.”
“And, considering I’ve spent more or less my entire life constructing a careful façade of strength based on nobody (but especially Sam) knowing how I really feel, and that I’ve spent most of my adult life avoiding any attempts to talk about or share my feelings and traumas, it’s likely that both the spell and my own subconscious would conspire to keep you two away from anything that might give you insight into my mind and help us escape?”
Sam opens his mouth to swear, but Dean has already vanished, leaving them alone in the black nothingness.
“Well shit,” he says to empty air instead.
“You know,” Dean says to himself, the only other himself on the otherwise bare stage. “It’s not like tricking Sam an’ Cas will actually do anything except piss them off. They’re gonna have to see it all eventually.”
“Yeah I get that,” he snaps. “I just need a bit of time, ok?” he sits cross-legged centre stage, refusing to meet the audiences’ (his) eyes. “It’s not like I asked for this.”
“We know,” he calls from the audience, “but tough shit. When has it ever been easy for us? When has hiding ever worked? Let’s just get it over with: rip the band aid off.”
“And take half my skin off with it? I don’t know about you but I feel like bleeding out in front of them today.” He rubs a hand over his face, wishing to be anywhere else. Wishing for some peace at least so he can think. He can feel a thousand pairs of eyes (his own eyes) on him. It’s making him itchy. “Can’t I just…ease them in? Keep them busy for a little while?” He says the last part quietly, more thinking out loud than anything – but of course, the other hims hear it.
He smiles to himself, “As you wish.” Then he vanishes, leaving Dean alone on the stage once more. The audience mutters: some seem annoyed, others seem scared, a few seem pleased. There’s rustling towards the back: and the crowd of Deans begins to part, their faces bearing expressions that seem equal parts surprise, respect and fear.
“Idjit,” says a gruff voice, and Dean looks up in surprise as Bobby elbows his way to the front. He’s greyer than he was in life, and slightly more wrinkled; trucker cap somehow more battered. He looks, Dean figures, how he thinks Bobby would look today. Or maybe he looks how Dean treated him as looking. “You know that’s exactly what the spell wants.”
“Bobby? What’re you doing here?”
“Well clearly someone has to talk sense to you, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna be you.”
“It’s nice to see you too.”
Bobby ignores him. “This spell you’re under is gonna do most everything it can to trap you. I know you know you gotta fight it.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“No: you’re hiding.”
“Oh yeah? Lockin’ yourself away, keeping Sam and Cas out? What kinda strategy is that?” Bobby crosses his arms.
“One that means I can walk outta this with some of my dignity still intact,” Dean snaps. “One that gives me a bit of time to find the way out of this shit show without anyone else gettin’ to rifle through my damn brain, Ok?”
“Well then you best start looking boy,” Bobby grunts, “cos the longer they’re in here, the more likely they are to find stuff you don’t want them to see. And the longer that spell has you all twisted up with it, the more control it’ll get.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Dean can’t keep the frustration from his voice – and it’s not like Bobby doesn’t already know exactly how he’s feeling anyway. “I can feel it inside me, Bobby, crawling through my head, putting itself inside me and I know I have to get it out before it eats me from the inside out. But…” he can’t finish his sentence but he doesn’t need to – he’s talking to himself after all.
Bobby seems to soften. “I know, son,” he says. “You’ve been through more than most of us, and now you’re going to have to through it all again. This whole situation is shitter than a gas station toilet – but at least it’s nothing you haven’t done before, and,” he looks directly into Dean’s eyes, “at least this time you don’t have to go through it alone.”
They stare at each other, and it’s Dean who breaks first. “I can’t, Bobby,” he whispers, ducking his head. “They’ll see everything. Everything I ever tried to hide or tried to lie about. They’ll know I’m not…they’ll see me for what I really am.”
“I know that you know that that’s bullshit.”
“Is it?” Dean demands. “Is it really? Yeah I know they probably won’t abandon me or anything but that doesn’t mean this won’t change everything does it?”
“Well, what can you do about it?” Bobby shakes his head. “You ain’t gonna be able to look through a whole damn life’s worth of memories on your own: not quickly at least.”
“I don’t need to do my whole life,” Dean points out. “Just the worst bits.”
Bobby rolls his eyes so hard Dean’s surprised they don’t get stuck. “Oh yeah,” he says in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “There’s a real winner of an idea: re-visit all your most traumatic and painful experiences one right after the other with no back-up and no support.”
“Like you said: It isn’t anything I haven’t done before, and I survived it all the first time round.”
“No you didn’t,” Bobby mutters darkly. “How many times’ve you died now?”
Dean ignores him. Dimly, he can already see the road ahead: just a re-run of the road so far, paved (he knows) with the best of intentions and leading straight too…
“Shit.” It’s as good as place as any to start. But how to get there? The moment he thinks it, the back wall of the theatre collapses into nothingness. Bright light – sunlight, floods the room as grass springs up between the seats – the dew gleaming slightly in the newly crisp air.
Dean walks off the edge of the stage, landing on the damp grass. The audience watches with mild interest as he walks past them, Bobby close behind, towards the trees that have begun to spring up at the back of the room – trunks stretching and widening, branches unfurling, leaves popping into existence.
“Nice effects,” one of him says, “we goin’ to Narnia or something?”
“Or somethin’,” Dean throws over his shoulder. “Just sit back and enjoy the show.”