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The Heroes' Journey (or, There and Back Again)

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When Dean wakes up, his back doesn’t hurt.

He pulled a muscle weeks ago, hauling himself up the side of a fence to get away from a horde of rampaging croats, and he always feels it when he wakes up in the morning. He blames the crappy, barely-there mattress on the bed in his cabin. Bed is a pretty generous word for it, actually. It’s at best half a step up from a folding cot.

Whatever he’s waking up on right now feels very different. He’s being cradled by something soft and malleable; something that shapes itself around him.

Where the fuck is he?

Dean’s eyes snap open and he’s out of bed, crouched in a defensive stance, before his brain has even fully joined the waking world.

His eyes roam around the room, searching for the threat.

His first thought is that he’s somehow landed himself in jail, because the place is small and plain, and there are no windows.

Except there’s no formal law enforcement anymore, and a jail cell wouldn’t have a bunch of guns mounted on the wall, in pride of place above the bed.

Wait just a goddamn minute… he actually recognizes a couple of those guns. One of them definitely looks like his dad’s old sawed-off.

He scans the room some more. There’s an old-fashioned dresser, a closet, a small desk — a little scuffed, but otherwise in good shape — and a desk chair. A laptop’s sitting on the desk, right next to a picture of him and Sam.

What the hell is going on?

He walks over to inspect the bedside table and finds his own colt, customized mother-of-pearl grip and all, in the top drawer. It’s loaded, too.

From beyond the walls of the room, there’s a massive crash, followed by the sound of wood splintering. Dean damn near shoots himself in the foot.

Without another thought, he darts out the door. 

In the corridor outside, he finds Cas, emerging from a room two doors down from Dean's own. He's breathing heavily and poised to meet any and all threats with the mangled remains of a chair leg.

Putting voice to his earlier thought, Dean says, “What the hell is going on? Where are we?”

Cas shrugs, eyes darting up and down the vaguely dormitory-like corridor, with its long row of numbered doors. “Figured it was some kind of bad trip. But if you’re here too, that can’t be it. Unless…” Cas tilts his head, squinting, in the way that always opens something raw and gaping in Dean’s chest. The mannerism is one of the few reminders of Cas from life before Croatoan. “Did we get high together?”

Dean’s kneejerk reaction is to come back with the most hurtful possible retort; how, unlike some people, he’s not on a mission to melt his brain out of his skull. But Cas keeps talking, like he knows not to give Dean the rope to hang himself with. “No, that can’t be it. One, you’ve never agreed to do that before. And two, I feel disgustingly sober.”

Dean loses his chance for a comeback, because Cas spins away from him, looking down the corridor. Dean doesn’t even have to ask why, because he hears it too: footsteps, fast and heavy. They sound familiar.

Dean takes a breath, but it feels like dragging razor blades up his windpipe. This can’t be what he thinks it is. Or rather, who.

Someone rounds the corner of the corridor behind Cas, and it is.

It’s Sam.

He looks a little freaked out, just like the two of them, face flushed and hands clutching his old Taurus 9mm from before he said yes to fucking Lucifer. As soon as he spots them, he stops, something like six feet beyond Cas.

Dean meets Cas’ eyes for a split second and sees his own panic mirrored back at him.

Even knowing it won’t help a damn thing, Dean raises his gun and aims it squarely at his brother’s face.

Instead of the sneer or the cold, assessing look he’s expecting, he gets wide eyes and a worried frown that’s so Sam, Dean’s insides clench with the pain of it. Sam holds up one hand in a gesture of surrender, palm facing Dean and Cas in turn. The gun in his other hand is pointed down, at the floor.

“Hey, guys,” he says, carefully, quietly. “It’s me.”

“Enough with the fucking mind games,” Dean growls, letting anger take the wheel to hide how completely unsettled he is. “Where are we, and why the hell did you bring us here?”

“Dean, I’m serious.” Sam’s eyes are still wide and worried, like they used to be when he couldn’t find his favorite toy dinosaur and Dean had to turn the motel room upside down looking for it. “It’s me. Lucifer’s gone. I don’t know how, but he’s gone. And I don’t have any idea where we are, or how we got here.”

Dean swallows heavily, eyes fixed on Sam’s face. He looks like Sam, but so does Lucifer, these days. For a split second, Dean lets his gaze flick to Cas, trying to gauge his reaction, and he gets the latest surprise of the morning. He’s so used to Cas being miles away, he almost doesn’t recognize the look on his face now. Cas is strategizing. 

“If you’re really Sam and not just Lucifer’s meatsuit,” Cas says, frowning up at Sam’s face, “you won’t mind us making sure, right?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “We don’t even know where the hell we are, Cas. How the fuck are we supposed to test him?”

Cas huffs. “Oh ye of little faith.” To Sam, he adds, “Don’t. Move.”

With that, Cas disappears into the room closest to him. Dean keeps his gun firmly pointed at Sam, who looks back at him but doesn’t move.

Cas comes back a few moments later, clutching an angel blade. “Thought I felt something when I woke up in that room. Something familiar.” He spins the long, silver blade in his hand until it's point-down. "Turns out there were a few of these stashed in the closet." He extends his left hand towards Sam, blade still poised in his right. “Drop the gun. Let me see your arm.”

Slowly, glancing back and forth between Dean and Cas, Sam crouches down and lowers his Taurus. Dean’s jaw slackens a little when Sam kicks the gun to Cas, unprompted, but he snaps it shut with an audible click. Lucifer doesn’t need guns. He can pulverize them both with a snap of his fingers.

Sam inches forward, stretching out his palm. In one swift, sure motion, Cas grabs hold of his wrist and slices across his forearm. A thin sliver of red appears, and then a single drop wells up, running down the side of Sam’s arm and dropping to the floor. No blue light of grace escapes. Just plain human blood.

For a second or two, Dean wants to believe. But Lucifer is an archangel. He probably has tricks up his sleeves that a seraph like Cas doesn’t even know about. That’s what this is: a trick.

Sam bends his arm and raises it, just above the heart to slow the bleeding. Like Dad taught them.

“You didn’t by any chance get your healing mojo back, did you?” Sam asks, smiling crookedly at Cas.

“Can’t say I did,” Cas says flatly. The tightness in his expression is barely noticeable, but Dean can tell it’s there. Losing his grace has never stopped being a touchy subject for Cas.

Sam looks Cas up and down, taking in his unwashed hair, the long stubble always just on the verge of turning into an untidy beard, the ratty linen shirt.

“What happened to you, Cas?”

Sam’s forehead is creased in an expression of warm concern, and that seems to be all the proof Cas needs. He closes the distance between him and Sam in three quick strides and throws both arms around his neck. Sam looks surprised but pleased, and hugs right back with his uninjured arm.

Dean doesn’t so much as lower his gun. It’s better, safer, to wait for the other shoe to drop.

When Sam and Cas let go of each other, they’re wearing identical smiles. It’s not the smile Dean’s gotten used to seeing on Cas — the one that has a sharp, cynical edge and is about as far from happiness as you can get.

This is a real smile. Dean hasn’t seen that one in years. Not since the time they snuck away from Sam and Bobby to make out, surrounded by the old rust buckets in Bobby’s yard. When they stumbled into the house an hour later, still basking in the afterglow from trading hand jobs in Baby’s back seat, Bobby told them that Sam was gone. 

The next time Dean saw his brother, Lucifer was riding shotgun.

Cas takes another moment to look Sam up and down, shaking his head like he can’t believe any of this is happening. Then he aims that happy expression of his at Dean, and it gets really fucking hard to keep the lines of his own face stiff and cold. His lips try to twitch. His feet are itching to get closer and make sure this is real.

“Dean, it’s really Sam,” Cas says, his smile dimming when Dean doesn’t react, but those damn blue eyes of his still big and hopeful. “I can tell.”

“Can’t be,” Dean says, as coolly as he can manage. “My brother’s dead in all the ways that matter.” He finally lowers his gun, but he doesn’t tuck it away. “So you two have fun being fucking delusional. I’ll be working on figuring out how to get out of this hell hole.”

He stalks back into the room where he woke up and grabs as many weapons as he can carry. On closer inspection, he finds not just the guns he saw earlier, but also a bunch of knives, carefully sharpened and polished, tucked away in a drawer. Once again, he recognizes a few of them.

It’s a good thing he’s slept in street clothes for years now, in case the camp’s attacked during the night. All he’s missing is a pair of boots.

When he opens the closet, some of the shirts look familiar, and the pair of boots stashed at the bottom fits him perfectly. He shakes his head, determined not to be distracted by the pointless weirdness of it all. Instead, he pulls a duffle bag out from under the desk and stuffs it with weapons and clothes.

Rifling through the desk drawers, he finds a small pile of photos, including some he knows have been lost or destroyed. The picture of him and his mom, just a couple of days before she died. The picture of Sam’s high-school graduation that he got one of Sam’s teachers to take and print for him.

The next picture in the pile stops Dean in his tracks. It shows him, sitting on the hood of the Impala. He’s got a small, fond smile on his face, and more crow’s feet than he ever remembers seeing in the mirror. Cas is sitting to his left, looking back at him, nose crinkled in that damn smile Dean just left behind in the hallway. The weirdest thing, though, is that he’s wearing his angel clothes: Jimmy’s old, navy-blue suit, and that stupid flasher coat Dean always secretly loved.

He doesn’t remember that picture being taken, or ever seeing it before.

His lungs feel tight, and it occurs to him that he’s been holding his breath. Carefully, he sucks air back into his chest and zips up the duffle. He grabs the stack of photos and stows it in the pocket of a black denim jacket that was draped over the back of the desk chair. Like the boots, it’s a perfect fit.

By the time Dean walks back into the corridor, duffle slung over his shoulder and colt in hand, Cas and Sam have apparently moved on. 

He finds them in a large kitchen with several long tables and benches, and appliances that look like something out of I Love Lucy with a side of school cafeteria.

They both have their heads stuck in the same industrial-sized fridge, and they’re pulling things out of it. When Cas turns to face Dean, that stupid smile is back on his face. “Dean, there’s fresh produce here. Stuff we haven’t seen in years. There’s a pineapple!”

Sam chimes right in, looking just as happy. “Don’t worry, there’s stuff you’ll like too. Beer, and bacon.”

Dean swallows down the traitorous prickling at the back of his eyes. He needs to keep reminding himself this is all some kind of weird fever dream. Maybe he finally got turned, and this is what it’s like being a croat. His brain’s mostly shut off, but it’s generating this weird hallucination of everything he’s ever wanted so he doesn’t have to watch himself tearing other people to shreds.

Cas and Sam’s faces fall as they take in the gun in his hand, and the duffel in the other, all ready to go.

“Where are you going?” Cas asks, genuinely confused.

Dean glares. “You think this is real? You believe for even one second that we fell asleep and woke up in some kind of magical land filled with weapons and food and clothes that fit us perfectly?”

Cas frowns. “I didn’t see any clothes in my room.”

“There were quite a few in mine though,” Sam says, still sounding so much like himself that Dean wants to punch him. “They all fit me. A few things even looked familiar.” His eyes slide over to Dean, voice carefully low. “Dean, I have no idea what’s happening either, but please stay until we can work it out?”

Dean snorts. “Figures you’d want me to stay. I don’t know how you pulled the trick with the angel blade, but I’m getting out of here if it kills me, Lucifer.”

“Dean,” Cas says, trying hard to suppress the undertone of impatience in his voice, but Dean knows him too well. He can tell it’s there. “C’mon, think about this. If there’s the first sign that we’re in over our head, you can leave, and I’ll be right behind you. But…” Cas’ eyes flick to Sam, and he nods, like he’s confirming something to himself. “But I believe Sam when he says he isn’t possessed anymore, because whatever the hell happened here, I think it did something to me too.”

Dean doesn’t respond because, he tells himself, he doesn’t care what Cas has to say. Not after all the shit he’s pulled, smoking up before supply runs and almost getting people killed with his fucking recklessness more than once.

Apparently, Cas takes his silence as permission to continue.

“You know what I’ve been like,” Cas says, and there’s a challenge in his eyes now, like he’s daring Dean to make something of that knowledge. “I don’t remember the last time I wasn’t high on something. But I… I’m pretty sure everything’s out of my system. I don’t feel so much as buzzed. And if I’m not high, I should be in withdrawal. I should be climbing the walls or trying to scratch off my own skin, but… I’m not.”

Dean feels a sudden, insane urge to laugh. His brother back, Cas sober and smiling, and beer in the fridge. If that’s not confirmation this whole thing is all in his head, he doesn’t know what could be.

“Believe what you want,” he says, already turning to go. “I’m out.”

***

The place turns out to be some kind of underground bunker. The heavy metal door creaks when he opens it, revealing a staircase that leads up to another door, hidden away in the side of a hill. At the top of the hill sits what looks like a power station.

Dean stands still for a minute, waiting for someone to come after him, or for a croat to jump out, but nothing like that happens.

So eventually, he sets off down the dirt road away from the bunker. As he rounds the first corner, he almost falls back on his ass, because there’s his Baby, pulled into a small wooden shelter by the side of the road and looking just like she used to before everything went to shit. She’s gleaming with how well she’s been taken care of.

Hoping his freaky streak of good luck isn’t about to run out yet, he searches through the pockets of the jacket he took and, sure enough, finds her keys. He’s more convinced than ever that this is all some kind of weirdly specific hallucination, but he slides into the front seat and turns the key.

Baby’s engine gives a throaty purr, and he’s home, like no time has passed. With the duffle by his side and Zeppelin blaring from the tape deck, he backs up down the overgrown path that leads away from the bunker and the two figments of his imagination geeking out over fruit in the kitchen.

After a minute or two, he hits a paved road that lands him in a little town called Lebanon. According to a sign he passes on the way, it’s the geographic center of the continental U.S. Dean vaguely remembers driving through here once or twice, but he never lingered.

As he gets to the outskirts of town, he notices something. Sure, there’s a couple of shops and houses that are obviously empty and boarded up, but most of the houses he passes have trim front lawns and a few even have toys stacked next to the front door.

He sees people too, just strolling along the sidewalk, driving past him in their cars, walking their dogs.

No one’s carrying a weapon. There aren’t any barricades. No one looks scared to be out. They just look like… people.

When he gets downtown, the best word to describe it is… quaint. There’s a small movie theater and a fucking dog-grooming place next to it.

Across the street from the theater, he spots a liquor store. This, he can work with.

He pulls up to the curb and goes through the glove box, coming up with a twenty-dollar bill. There's a gaggle of teenagers hanging out on a bench in front of the theater, and Dean glares at them. They look sort of intimidated by him. 

Good. They should be.

He stalks across the street and into the store. There’s a small bar to the left of the entrance, and a bald guy, fifty-ish, in an ugly-ass Hawaiian shirt, straightens up behind it when Dean walks through the door. 

“Dean.” The guy grins conspiratorially. “Went through the last batch already, huh? Trouble at home?”

Not knowing what to do with the fact that this stranger apparently knows him, Dean just nods and lets his eyes sweep over the whiskey selection.

“Got your usual back here if you want it,” the guy says, pulling out a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel, and Dean almost tackles him right then and there to get to it. He used to love this stuff. He can’t remember the last time he had it.

But you don’t get that kind of quality for twenty bucks, so he pulls a bottle of Jack off the shelf instead. “Nah, man. Just need it cheap today.” He tries for a wink, and he thinks he pulls it off.

When the guy rings him up, Dean can’t help asking anymore. “Hey, man, what happened to all the croats?”

The guy frowns at Dean as he hands over his change. “Croats? What is that, some kind of slang?”

Dean swallows heavily, his muscles weak, like they might not support his weight anymore if he keeps standing here too long.

He stumbles back out to the car and drives until he reaches the other end of town. When he spots a logging track at the edge of a patch of woods, he drives down it a little ways and turns off the engine.

The first swig from the bottle burns going down, but the second and third feel better.

Somehow, he’s in a place where Croatoan never got out of control. A place where Cas is apparently clean, and Sam… he shakes his head so hard, it starts to swim. No. He’s not going there.

He takes a good, long look at the bottle in his hand, suddenly realizing he hasn’t eaten anything since he got up. If he drinks any more, he definitely won’t be good to drive for a while.

He could hit the road and keep going until he can’t anymore. Or maybe, if this really is some kind of elaborate dream, he could drink himself into a stupor and hope that when he wakes up, he’ll be back at camp.

But why the hell would he hope that? There’s nothing for him back there. It doesn’t matter if this is a dream. For now, it’s real enough that he can fool himself into living inside it.

He starts up the engine and points Baby back the way he came.

***

When Dean walks through the bunker’s front door, the place seems deserted. He considers calling out, but instinct honed from years of dodging croats tells him not to draw attention to himself like that.

Instead, he goes down the metal staircase and walks the corridors, searching for signs of life. He lucks out, eventually, in what looks like an old-timey hospital room, with two rows of plain, metal-frame beds lining the walls. 

Cas sits on one of the beds, his back turned to the door and shoulders hunched. He’s looking down at his lap. There’s something twitchy about him that’s so different from the smiling, excited Cas he left behind. 

Dean crosses the room to sit next to him without a thought.

“Oh, look. It’s our Fearless Leader, come crawling back,” Cas says tonelessly, and Dean follows Cas’ line of sight down to his hands. They’re in his lap, restless, pulling at each other.

Not really sure how to read the mood in the room, Dean looks at Cas some more. “You’re wearing different clothes.”

Cas nods, still staring at his fidgeting fingers. “There’s a shower room, down on the bottom floor. It didn’t seem like a stellar idea to put my filthy clothes back on after.” His eyes flash briefly to Dean’s face, then down again. “The ones I’m wearing are yours. From the room where you woke up, I mean. Sorry if that’s weird, but unless you want me to walk around buck naked, you’ll have to deal.”

Dean takes him in. He’s seen Cas in jeans a lot, but never in flannel. It’s a good look for him. “Coulda worn the ones from Sam’s room.”

Cas huffs. “That’d be a laugh, at least.”

Dean scuffs his boot at a stain on the floor. Something’s obviously bothering Cas, and it seems like he might want to talk about it. But Dean was never good at the talking thing, even at the best of times. “What’s got you so jumpy?” he asks, figuring at least he’s put it out there for discussion.

Jumpy is an understatement. Cas has started to scratch at the skin of his thumb with the nail of his index finger. He looks like he’s about ready to fly out of this skin.

“Sam left to explore some more,” Cas tells the floor. “Thought I’d do the same. Came down here and found…” He tilts his head at the room in general. “This place.”

His eyes flick to Dean’s again, but he looks right back down. Dean still doesn’t really know what to say, so he figures he’ll wait Cas out instead.

After a minute, Cas says, “There’s a medicine cabinet back in that corner.”

Cas doesn’t look at it, doesn’t so much as point, but Dean knows what he’s talking about right away. It’s a tall, glass-fronted cabinet, and it’s full of bottle after bottle of pills.

Dean almost opens his mouth to lash out at Cas for starting with this shit, again. The first time he ever saw Cas dry-swallowing a pill, the glassy stare and vacant grin after — it broke something in him that he’s not sure he can ever put back together.

But Dean looks again, really looks, and he sees the tense set of Cas’ jaw, the way his knuckles stand out white where he’s made a fist that’s busy rubbing up and down his thigh.

“So no withdrawal, but the craving’s still there, huh?” he settles on. It comes out rougher than he meant it to. 

Cas doesn’t even notice. He just nods.

“Hey.” To Dean’s surprise as much as anyone’s, he reaches for Cas’ shoulder and squeezes briefly. The gesture feels awkward, but it’s there. “What d’you say we keep exploring, huh? There’s gotta be lots of places around here you haven’t found yet, and I didn’t even tell you what I saw outside.”

Cas looks up and, for the first time, he faces Dean fully. “What?”

“People, Cas,” he says, and there it is, that note of warmth he wasn’t sure he was capable of anymore. “Normal people, going for walks, going shopping. Wherever the hell we are… I don’t think they have croats here.”

He can hear the hopeful inflection at the end of his sentence, and he knows Cas hears it too when the corner of his mouth twitches a little. 

“Good,” Cas says. “That’s good.” He lets out a deep breath and unclenches his fists.

“C’mon.” Dean rises off the bed and, feeling reckless, offers his hand to Cas to help him up. Cas looks unsure, but he takes it, and suddenly they’re standing right up close to each other, their faces inches apart.

Cas is supposed to smell like weed these days. Instead, he smells a little like cheap soap, but mostly like Cas. Dean couldn’t put a name to that smell if he tried, but he could pick it out of any crowd. He almost forgot what it was like.

An old instinct rises up inside him: to lean forward and nuzzle at the place where Cas’ neck meets his shoulder. Instead, he takes a step back and tries to smile, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

“I think someone mentioned bacon before?” he tries. It’s a weak deflection, but Cas grins, so it’ll do for now.

***

They head to the kitchen for sandwiches: BLT with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, and Dean actually does manage a smile that time because of how damn good it tastes. After, they keep exploring and find more bedrooms, a gym, a gun range and an actual fucking dungeon, complete with manacles and a devil’s trap on the floor.

There’s dozens of storage rooms stacked to the ceiling with weird-looking objects and dusty boxes. They don’t touch anything, just in case.

Dean’s refusal to believe his brother is really back starts to crumble when he follows Cas into yet another storage room, only to find Sam at a desk, poring over a pile of leather-bound books.

“Research, huh? Once a nerd, always a nerd, I guess,” he croaks, failing to hit the light, teasing tone they used to use around each other. But if he’s going to run with whatever the hell’s going on, he’ll just have to fake it until he makes it.

Sam looks up, and the bitchface he aims at Dean is another nail in the coffin of the “Lucifer is screwing with us” theory.

“So you’re back,” Sam says, unimpressed. “Decided to make yourself useful after all?”

Before Dean can flare up, Cas cuts him off, crossing his arms as he leans against the doorframe. “Dean went for a drive and confirmed they don’t have croats here. Which fits with the theory we talked about: alternate universe.”

Dean’s head snaps around to look at Cas. “What?”

Cas ignores him.

“Huh.” Sam turns back to his book, but closes it after another few seconds of staring at it. “Well, that’s good to know,” he admits. “And I found out what this place is too. It turns out this bunker used to house members of a secret society called the Men of Letters. They researched and chronicled the supernatural.”

“Researched and chronicled?” Cas frowns. “Did they hunt?”

Sam shakes his head. “No. They did work with hunters, but only a few, carefully chosen ones. From what I can tell, they were pretty dismissive of hunters as a whole. Thought they were beneath them.”

Dean hunches his shoulders, annoyed. “Well, I say we go pee in their showers.” 

Sam rolls his eyes, but Cas’ lips are twitching.

“Fuck, Dean,” Cas says. “Was that an actual joke?”

Dean just shrugs, but the banter feels so familiar and natural that his mood lifts just a little more.

“You said these Men of Letters used to be based here, but obviously they aren’t anymore,” Cas points out. “What happened?”

“Don’t know,” Sam says. He gets up, stretches and starts reshelving the books. “Their records stop in the 1950s. But the bunker has clearly been inhabited since then. And based on everything we’ve seen, I’m thinking another version of the three of us lived here.”

Cas nods thoughtfully, then turns to Dean. “That’s where the alternate-universe theory comes in.”

Dean pulls up a rickety old chair from a nearby corner, head spinning. “You think we’re in an alternate universe.”

“It would explain a lot,” Cas says, shrugging, “such as why there aren’t any croats. And why all the clothes in your room fit you.”

“Right,” Sam agrees.

Dean runs a hand down his face, pulling the skin taut to try to stave off a massive headache. “So you think the other versions of us got zapped somewhere else too? To another universe or whatever?”

“Seems likely,” Sam says. “I found my wallet on the desk in my room. I don’t think I’d leave without it, unless I was forced.”

Dean blows out a heavy breath. “Yeah, and I found Baby outside. Wouldn’t be caught dead going anywhere without her if I had a choice.”

“I think,” Cas says slowly, “the version of me in this universe is still an angel. That would explain why I didn’t have a lot of personal stuff in my room. Also, the lack of spare clothes.”

Remembering something, Dean reaches into the pocket of his jacket and fishes out the picture of Cas and him. “This was in my room.” He passes it to Cas. “Look, it’s your angel clothes.”

Cas smiles a little wistfully as he looks down at the picture. “You look older.”

Dean scoffs. “Fuck you very much.”

“I just meant, older than you are now,” Cas says, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, I did notice that,” Dean admits. “Weird, huh?”

“Not that weird,” Sam says, carefully replacing the last book on the shelf. “Even if there’s other versions of you in different universes, you might not have been born the same year. Or time might not move the same way.”

“Sam’s right,” Cas says, nodding, and he’s got that nerdy gleam in his eye that Dean has missed a lot more than he wants to admit. “A day in our universe could be the equivalent of years in another. In quantum theory-”

“Yeah, yeah, Einstein. It’s all relative. We get it.” At Cas’ affronted look, Dean dusts off the flirtatious grin he hasn’t used in God knows how long. “Honestly, it’s been a day, and apparently this is a universe where restaurants and bars exist. Wanna go grab a beer and a burger?”

Cas grins, and even Sam looks pleased as he trots after them.

***

They stop at the first place they find, a small dive off the highway that’s halfway between the bunker and the town.

It’s not that busy, so it’s probably a weeknight, but as they drink their beers and eat their burgers — which aren’t half bad — they get so caught up in watching the other people in the room, they barely even talk.

After years of living a nightmare, it takes some getting used to, being surrounded by strangers just going about their lives and having a good time. Dean’s so busy people-watching, he actually forgets about his original plan of getting wasted. Cas and Sam seem to be having similar issues, nursing their beers while they stare at every little thing around them.

Honestly, all he really wants is to get back to the bunker and lie on that amazing mattress again, so when they do finally get around to finishing the first round, he suggests they just head back. Cas and Sam both look surprised, but they don’t argue.

When Dean finally slides into bed, it’s exactly as comfortable as he remembers. Old habits die hard, so he keeps his shirt on and his boots close by, but he does take off his jeans. He forgot how much more comfortable it is to sleep in his underwear.

As he lies there, trying to will himself asleep, his brain has other ideas.

Maybe it’s because changing up his sleepwear routine reminds him of his first kiss with Cas.

It was around the time they figured out Croatoan was going to devastate everything around them, and they couldn’t stop it. At that point, it seemed stupid to cling to his old hang-ups about being with guys openly, especially with a guy like Cas, who wouldn’t be fooled by any of the walls he was used to putting up before he let anyone into his bed.  

They were squatting in a vacant house in Nebraska, on their way to Bobby’s, and Sam had turned in early. Cas had only been fully human for a couple of weeks, and he was going through his duffle, ranting grumpily about how he hated going to sleep because he couldn’t figure out what to wear to bed that wouldn’t ride up in all the wrong places or make him sweat. It was so damn cute that Dean walked over, grabbed his wrist and pulled him in for a soft, lingering kiss.

Cas froze — probably the longest five seconds of Dean’s life — before he started kissing back.

They had a great couple of weeks after that, whenever Sam was off somewhere else, as he was more and more often. Dean didn’t think anything of it, too busy enjoying the feel of Cas’ skin under his hands, the sounds he made when he lost control and fell apart with Dean’s mouth around his cock.

Shortly after they got to Bobby’s, Sam disappeared for good, and Dean became obsessed with finding him. He couldn’t focus on anything else — not even Cas, who started following him around the country like a lost puppy.

They found Sam and nearly got themselves killed trying to expel Lucifer. When it didn’t work, they went on the run, until Bobby got a message to them about setting up a survivors’ camp.

After they got the camp started, Cas tried for a while to keep Dean interested in being together. But Dean found that he couldn’t be with Cas that way anymore, not with all the formerly soft pieces of him shattered and slicing at the inside of his chest. 

He broke it off.

Around that time, Cas started smoking up and popping pills, and Dean convinced himself there was nothing left of the Cas he knew. Whenever there was evidence to the contrary, like the fact that Cas still had a gift for planning and strategy, Dean pushed it to the far corner of his mind.

So what now? He’s still trying to keep the thought at a distance, but all evidence seems to suggest that, through some miracle, his brother is back, alive and as well as can be expected.

But what does that mean for him and Cas?

Dean forces himself to shut that thought down. Things between the two of them are too broken. It’s his fault Cas turned from a flawed, sarcastic, but surprisingly hopeful person into a strung-out wreck. Even if the drugs are out of his system now, there’s no coming back from that.

Dean’s so busy thinking of everything that could have been, he barely even hears the soft knock on his door. Acting on instinct, his hand slides out from under the covers and to the colt in the bedside drawer. But before he can close his fingers around the weapon, a low, rumbling voice sounds from out in the corridor.

“Dean, it’s me.”

Dean clears his throat, hoping his voice won’t give away what’s been on his mind. “Come in.”

Cas slinks inside and closes the door. Dean can’t see him too well in the dark of the underground room, but the mattress dips next to him as Cas sits.

For a long while, Cas doesn’t say anything. Around the time Dean starts to get impatient and open his mouth to ask what the hell Cas is doing in his room, Cas whispers, “I don’t want to go down there. To the infirmary.”

Something cold clenches around Dean’s heart, and it’s a struggle to breathe past it. “So don’t,” he growls.

Cas huffs. “It’s not that easy. I know myself, Dean.” After another beat of silence, he adds, “I need someone to keep an eye on me.”

“Why don’t you ask Sam?” Dean asks, keeping his voice gruff, but half-hoping Cas ignores him and stays.

“Sam would stay up with me and distract me if I asked him, but that’s not what I want. I want to sleep. I want…” He pauses, and when he speaks again, his voice is weirdly thick. “I just want some damn comfort. I always used to have that when we shared a bed.”

“I’m not having sex with you.” Dean rolls over, turning his back to Cas, in case he has enough angel left in him to read Dean’s expression in the dark.

“I’m not asking for that. I want to sleep and be close to another person. Do you think you can do that?”

The request is so blunt, so straightforward, so Cas. Dean swallows down the lump in his throat, but he doesn’t move.

With a resigned sigh, Cas rises off the bed. 

Before he can second-guess himself, Dean turns over and his hand shoots out, fingers closing around Cas’ wrist. “Come over here,” he mumbles, then lets go of Cas and lies flat on his back.

The mattress dips again, and Cas — wearing the combination of boxers and a t-shirt that he eventually settled on as the most comfortable thing to wear in bed — slots himself against Dean’s side, slinging an arm over his chest.

Dean lies still, counting Cas’ breaths against his neck. When he’s sure Cas is asleep, Dean rolls to face him and pulls him closer.