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As Free as It Wants to Be

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There’s something Dean’s missing.

He feels like he does sometimes when there’s a word on the tip of his tongue, when a smell calls up a memory he can’t quite place, when he sees a familiar-looking side character in a genre show and has to stop to find out what else the actor has been in on IMDB. He feels like that, but like it matters. Like he’s missing something important. He thinks that if he could just have a minute to sit still and think about it, if the end of the world could stop happening for one goddamn minute, he might be able to figure out what it is.

They’re home just for a night—tomorrow they’ll need to be back on the road, chasing down another lead. He’ll barely have time to rest, let alone think. He tells himself it’ll have to wait.

He stops in his room just long enough to change into his around-the-house clothes, but as he slips out of his flannel, something on his shelf catches his eye and everything clicks into place.

A lot of things in his life have been manufactured by an asshole God, current apocalypse included, and now he’s gonna manufacture a little scenario of his own.

He waits until they get through dinner, until Sam and Jack have cleared their plates and wandered off to turn in for the night. He moves to stand and Cas starts to open his mouth, probably to say something about how he’ll let Dean go, he must be tired.

Instead, Dean cuts him short. He nods at Cas’ empty bottle and says, “Another round while I bounce something off you?”

Cas’ aborted excuse turns into a small smile—puzzled, but not unpleasantly so. “Sure.”

“You know,” Dean says as he grabs a couple beers from the fridge, “back during the first apocalypse, when Chuck was still pretending he was just a prophet and not the literal actual God, I had this conversation with him, right?” Cas shifts in his seat, sits a little straighter, while Dean opens the bottles and slides one over to him. “I don’t remember all of it, but the part that matters is he said how the latest stuff he wrote about us got weird, like, Vonnegut weird. And I asked him, Cat’s Cradle Vonnegut or Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut? And he says, Kilgore Trout Vonnegut. He was talking about writing himself into the story. But I think he was really dodging the question.”

“Oh?” Cas says, as though only politely interested, as though the quiet, intent way he looks at Dean hasn’t always given him away.

“Yeah.” Dean pulls a book from the pocket of his robe—already old and worn when he got it from the library sale with some pocket change, now nearly falling apart at the spine from his own reading and rereading. He sets it on the table between them, taps a finger on the cover. “It’s Sirens of Titan Vonnegut.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Okay, well, did you get this one when Metatron dumped all that media on you?”

“Yes.”

“So you remember what happens in it?”

“As I recall, humanity’s entire existence was manufactured for the sole purpose of completing an inane task in service of more powerful beings.” Cas sighs, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “So I guess I see what you’re saying.”

“No, no. Well, I mean, yes. That’s what the book is about. But it’s not the point.

Cas raises an eyebrow. “So what’s the point, then?”

“Well,” Dean says, picking at the label of his beer bottle, “a lot of people like to quote that one line about loving whoever is around to be loved, but even that always seemed pretty cynical to me. It’s still about the lack of free will, about just taking whatever life throws in your path and making the best of it. But I think that kind of misses the mark. And you know, it’s really frustrating, actually, because you’d think you could just search for it. You’d think you could Google ‘Sirens of Titan quotes’ and it would pop right up, but it doesn’t. The whole goddamn point of the book and nobody seems to have bothered to put it up on Goodreads or whatever—”

“Dean,” Cas says. He sounds exasperated, but his small, indulgent smile says otherwise. “The point?”

“Right. So. I had to get my book down off the shelf and search for it.” He wipes his hands on his jeans, picks up the book and opens it to the page he’s dog-eared, clears his throat, and reads:

“‘I would be the last to deny,’” said Beatrice, reading her own work out loud, “‘that the forces of Tralfamadore have had something to do with the affairs of Earth. However, those persons who have served the interests of Tralfamadore have served them in such highly personalized ways that Tralfamadore can be said to have had practically nothing to do with the case.’”

“Anyway,” he says, clearing his throat again as he closes the book, “when I was, uh. When I was wondering what was real. You said we are. You said it like you had never been more sure of anything.”

He glances up at Cas just in time to see his expression shift. Cas has always seemed interested in whatever he has to say, even on the many occasions he’s chosen to be intentionally ridiculous—but there’s something different there now, something beyond his usual care and curiosity. There’s something else there that Dean recognizes, and he tries not to shy away from it like he always has.

“Yes,” Cas says. “I did.”

“I think maybe you’re right,” Dean says. He takes a steadying breath, reaches for his beer and rolls the damp bottle between his hands. “I’m not saying that whatever God threw at us, all the big beats of the story, I’m not saying that didn’t impact our lives. But the whole point is for him to be entertained. If it was a hundred percent scripted, he wouldn’t have been interested. He’ll put a gun in my hand and give me every reason to use it, but he won’t actually make me pull the trigger. He’s reacting to our choices just as much as we’re reacting to his. We figure one thing out and he’s right there to throw another wrench in the plan. Anything he can do to draw out the tension and keep the story going.”

“Sure,” Cas says, “that makes sense.”

“Right, so. I’ve kind of—I’ve just been going back over everything, our whole history, and looking at it in a new way, I guess. Not as someone living a life but as an author writing a story, or—or—a screenplay. You read enough books and watch enough movies and you get a feel for how things are supposed to go, you know? And there are just—there are so many times when we—I dunno. Like when—when you let all those souls go, right, or when you got your memories back after—after everything with Sam, or when you came back from Purgatory, or when you were human for the first time and here in the bunker.”

He can picture it, even now, the way Cas looked each of those times—his earnest contrition, his regret. His quiet joy. And he remembers, too, what he had felt, all those times where it seemed like they were on the edge of something, where he had that sense he gets sometimes when he watches a movie or a show or a book, something where he recognizes the beats, where he can say, all right, the characters have been through enough hardship, now, and here comes the climax and the resolution. Here’s the payoff.

“All those times,” he says, “I just—it felt like we were right there, you know? Like maybe we were about to turn a corner. Like maybe everything was finally going to be okay, and we could just…” He raises a hand in a helpless gesture, lets it fall to the table with a thunk.

“But there was always something,” Cas says. “Leviathan, Sam’s memories, Naomi, Gadreel and his ultimatum.”

“Exactly. There was always some shit that seemed to come out of nowhere to fuck things up again.” There was always something stepping in, he knows now, to deny them their denouement, no matter what they might have done on our own. “You ever—you ever think about how things might have been different?”

“I did,” Cas says. After a moment, he amends, “I do.”

“There are so many times I thought we had, I dunno, come to some sort of understanding. So many times where if we could just have had time to breathe, maybe instead of being trapped in whatever fucked up cycle of pain and betrayal and reconciliation Chuck wanted to see, maybe—maybe whatever is this is”—he gestures between them—“maybe it could have—” He looks at Cas, pleading, willing him to understand.

Quietly, Cas says, “Maybe it’s happened anyway, in spite of that.”

“Yeah?” And there it is, that same feeling he’s grown so used to: the hope that wells up in his chest, imagining how things might go, picturing the next step in the story.

“Yeah.”

Dean steels himself—lets himself be steeled by Cas’ certainty, now and always. He presses his palms to the table. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“I think God is the biggest fucking cockblock imaginable.”

A slow smile spreads across Cas’ face, amused and hopeful. “Oh?”

“Yeah. And I’m done with it.” Dean slides his beer and book out of the way, starts to lean forward—

“Wait,” Cas says, stopping him with a hand held up between them. He looks up and away from Dean, squinting as though he’s trying to see straight through the bunker to the world outside. “Let’s give it a second to see if Chuck is going to bring the bunker down on top of us—No?—Okay, then.”

Dean is still in the middle of rolling his eyes when Cas leans the rest of the way across the table and kisses him.