“You’re not really going to keep going to that place, are you? I kinda thought—” Sam pauses mid-sentence to fold his arms across his chest and actually lean on the doorframe he’s lurking in, blocking out most of the light from the hall. “I thought you’d like, get over this whole—get a normal job, move on from hunting thing.”
Dean’s hands freeze where they’re busy styling his hair—just because his job is shitty, doesn’t mean he can’t look good—but only for a second. He shoots Sam a glare but otherwise doesn’t dignify that dumbass comment with a response.
Sam sighs. “You know what I mean, Dean.”
“No, I don’t.” He moves away from the mirror, pulling his work shirt over his head and tucking it into some seriously unattractive blue pants. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he pulls his boots on one at a time before standing up to smooth the whole shebang out.
“Look, I wasn’t trying to insult you or anything. I’m—I’m proud of you for, you know, living. After—after Chuck, all of that holing up in here with Miracle, the daily attempts to drain the entire country’s supply of whiskey, I wasn’t sure—Dean. Even you have to admit it was a little—I mean, it had me worried.”
Rolling his eyes, Dean picks up his work bag and slings it over his shoulder. “Yeah, I could tell by the way you tried so hard to help.”
“No, listen, it’s fine. If I was you, hot chick waiting for me, I would’ve been off shacking up with Eileen and bein’ careless kids in love, too.”
“I asked you to come with us. Could’ve used you on some of those hunts.”
“First of all,” Dean says, holding up a finger. “Dean Winchester is nobody’s third wheel, alright? Second, I’m done with hunting, Sammy. Didn’t go through everything we did just to die stupid on some mundane vamp hunt. If you and Eileen aren’t ready to leave it behind, though, that’s cool, I get it. You do you. Be Bobby: the Next Generation, or whatever. But you’re the one who told me that living is how we honor all the people who sacrificed for us. The people who got us here, where we even have the choice to do that. ”
Shifting the weight of the strap against his shoulder, Dean stands up a little straighter, looking Sam in the eye. “I’m choosing to go to work.”
Raising his eyebrows, Sam steps aside, hands up in surrender. “Alright,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to—”
“Yeah, you were,” Dean replies as he brushes past, steps echoing in the Bunker’s hallway and Miracle’s nails clicking in time as she jumps off of his bed to follow. “It’s fine, though. Today’s janitors are tomorrow’s CEOs. Or something.”
“You still moving out?” Sam calls after him, and Dean just shrugs.
“Soon as I find somewhere worth moving to,” he calls back. “No clue when that’ll be. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Thing is, for all of his proud blustering to Sam, Dean doesn’t really like his job. Doesn’t hate it, either, and cleaning has always been a zen activity for him, so the never-changing routine of scrubbing, sanitizing, rinsing and repeating over the entire restaurant from top to bottom helps. There’s definitely a quiet dignity to what he does, even when the job itself feels denigrating and humiliating, even when the world treats him like he’s less.
Apparently, being forty with virtually zero marketable job history doesn’t actually qualify a post-credits hero for much in the way of gainful employment. Luckily, Dean’s no quitter, and fast food custodianship is a stepping stone, not a landing point. Before he took the gig, he even talked to Lebanon’s local fire chief, who told Dean that if he held something down for at least six months, he’d give him a shot at the new Fire Academy class happening in Smith Center next year.
And Dean can do that. Play nice, work hard, scrub the toilets when some drunken townie pukes all over ‘em. It’s not glamorous, but Dean spent forty years in Hell—he can do six months of just about anything, especially with such a big reward dangling like a carrot at the end of the road. In fact, he’s already got the Academy application sitting on his desk, half filled out and waiting to be finished, waiting for Dean to turn it in when the time comes.
It’s close to midnight when Dean pulls into the McDonald’s parking lot, the place where he’s been working for the past three weeks or so. In all of the chaos with Sam, Dean forgot his normal uniform visor on his bureau, so he slaps on one of the paper hats that sits stacked in the back for that exact situation. He feels like a five-year-old at a birthday party, but whatever. No one is gonna see him.
And that’s how he likes it. Customer service isn’t exactly Dean’s thing, so the night shift—even with all of its deep cleaning expectations—suits him just fine. It’s quiet, peaceful, and most of the time, everyone leaves him be. Just him, his thoughts, some cleaning solution, and a mop—it’s fine, Dean’s fine.
Except, he’s not.
Sam wasn’t wrong about the way he acted in those first endless weeks after defeating Chuck. Dean was practically glued to his dirty sheets, drowning in alcohol and whatever leftovers his brother left first outside of the door—and then later, when they went untouched, on his nightstand. He was miserable and uninterested in hiding it, only wanting to wallow and fuck his brain up with substances until all his fantasies of “what could have been” felt as real as they’d ever have a chance to become.
Thankfully, Dean’s got a lifetime and a shit-ton of practice in pulling himself out of grief spirals. He and Sam have lost more friends and family than either of them can begin to count, but even still, this one nearly got him.
The overwhelming helplessness of the way things ended—the pure inability to do anything about Cas and the fact that loving Dean was what got him thrown into permanent midnight—it was too much. Dean checked every source, every piece of lore they had anywhere, and everything agreed—nothing that goes into the Empty comes back out, at least, not without the Entity’s say-so.
Or God, but that ship has fuckin’ sailed—both of ‘em.
So Dean wallowed. Cas’ shining eyes and pleading face as he spoke—confessed—his last words like a prayer, none of it was ever far from his mind. The entire night—from that unexpected “I love you,” to the hours he spent sobbing and ignoring Sam’s calls on the cold dungeon floor—in the days that followed, it haunted Dean’s every excruciating breath—awake and asleep, no escape.
For a while, it felt like there could be no coming back, because how? And what would be the point? What was even left for Dean, here on Earth, without Castiel?
Great that Sam seems to have bought the line that he’s over it, but this is the shit Dean thinks about every night as he cleans the McDonald’s. Struggling to reconcile, to believe, and to use Cas’ unearned faith in him to make the most of whatever time he has left. To build the life they should have been fuckin’ building together.
“God damn it, Cas,” Dean mutters under his breath in the privacy of the men’s bathroom. Wrinkling his nose, he splashes a bunch of bleach into the toilet boil, jerking away at the overwhelming smell that pervades the small space.
“Why’d you have to go and do that, huh?”
He just has to get over it.
The paper hat nearly falls in the toilet.
Cas isn’t coming back, Jack is off doing—whatever the fuck a “hands-off” diety does, and while Dean hates that—hates it, kid could’ve at least snapped the worst of the monsters over to Purgatory, or whatever—it’s not his choice to make. Free Will means exactly what it says on the label, and it’s not for him to tell Jack what the right thing to do with his life and the universe is. Just like it’s not Sam’s job to judge Dean for wanting out.
But if Dean’s a little bitter that the kid didn’t do them one tiny solid and save Cas from eternal languishing in an empty sea of loneliness, that’s his own fuckin’ business.
Either way, he looks like he’s got his shit together, and that’s what counts.
When Dean finally emerges from the bleach-sauna that is the men’s bathroom, it’s to a blast of fresh fry oil sizzling, the smell pervading the air. While it’s arguably better than bleach, after only three weeks of nightly exposure, Dean’s sick of it. Somehow, without ever handling any of the food, the grease from this place still seems to find a way to soak into Dean’s clothing, into the cells of his skin. It’s always there, the odor clinging to his hair and lingering long after washing, into the night on his off-days, making him feel like he never even left.
No matter how diligently he heads home to the Bunker and cleans it all off—the scent of it in his nostrils, a layer in his ears—it never fully leaves. It’s pretty disgusting, but Dean just keeps his head down, takes two showers a day, and focuses his eyes on the prize.
Somebody’s gotta do the job, might as well be him—and hasn’t that always been his motto?
Alright, maybe not always.
Dean thinks about Cas, newly human and working at the Gas’N’Sip, the shitty way he told the angel that the work was beneath him. Now here he is, arguably one step lower on the rat race ladder than refilling the nacho cheese. Shit, Cas did better as a forty-year-old burnout with no ID than he has. Now that’s some perspective Dean never really wanted but probably desperately needed. If only he could tell Cas he should’ve been proud of him all along.
The bathrooms are off to the side of the restaurant, tucked away towards the back, far from the main seating area and the ordering counter. Dean’s little closet with all of his supplies is off to the side there, too, so half of the time, he doesn’t even interact with the food service workers. They’re all half his age and constantly clicking away at their phones faster than Dean can even hold a conversation in person, and they look at him like he’s somebody’s lame dad.
Not exactly confidence-inspiring.
So he’ll pop on over to clean the grills and whatever appliance is on the list for the night, wipe down everything that’s not, but then skate off to his own corner. Sit on an overturned mop bucket to eat his free burger, or whatever. Text Sam at a normal speed.
And think about Cas.
That’s exactly what he sets off to do after dumping his suds, even when he catches a glimpse of some red and blue flashing lights outside, just in the corner of his eye. Police presence isn’t much in this town—actually, to Dean’s knowledge, it’s like, one eighty-year-old guy named Rusty with a cane who primarily holds down nightshift—but also Dean doesn’t really care about whatever bullshit the local teens are getting up to outside.
So he ignores the jangling of the doors that indicates someone is entering the restaurant and heads back to his closet. Rinsing out his mop and hanging it up, Dean dries his hands and considers getting nuggets instead of a burger tonight. Even the Meatman’s gotta have some variety, at some point. Or so Sam keeps insisting, but hell if he’s wasting his free meal on salad.
As Dean tidies his space, there’s a low murmur of voices carrying over the sound of the quiet background music that plays overhead. Nothing out of the ordinary, but for whatever reason, Dean starts to feel funny.
It’s that old itch—the one he’d always get on a hunt when something was off, when things just weren’t right. Instinctively, he rubs his right ankle against where his gun is discretely strapped to his left, touching his fingers to the knife that’s tucked into the holder in his waistband, beneath his shirt.
Dean looks down, and the hairs on the back of his bare forearm are standing straight up. There’s some kind of tension in the air, and Dean finds himself blinking dumbly at the ceiling lights, as if he expected them to be flickering. They don’t.
Letting out a breath, Dean has to mentally talk himself down, remind both his mind and his body that he doesn’t live in that world anymore. That the most supernatural thing in this McDonalds is the lifespan of the fries—seriously, Dean found one beneath a bunch of supply boxes one day, not a speck of mold in sight. He was so weirded out he almost didn’t eat a bunch of them for dinner. Almost—and the rest is in his head.
But old habits die hard.
The second Dean feels a presence appear behind him—and virtually trapped in a closet the way that he is—the knife is in his hand, raised and ready to strike as he whirls around.
Still got it, Dean thinks numbly, completely frozen in place.
What’s standing there, staring back at him definitely isn’t natural, and for a very long minute, the gears in Dean’s brain turn and click, absolutely refusing to align.
Because the thing that was creeping up on him both looks and feels like Castiel, right down to the crinkles of his ocean-blue eyes and the kicked-puppy way he’s looking at Dean. Belatedly, Dean realizes he’s still holding the knife up like he’s trying to recreate their first meeting, and hastily, he stuffs it away—whether or not this is Cas, Dean already knows one thing, feels it in the depths of his soul—no fucking way he’s gonna be able to take out a monster wearing Cas’ face.
He opens his mouth to say something—anything—but nothing comes out.
In the silence, Dean has a second to register that they’re not alone—nor does Cas look exactly the way Dean remembers. His suit is tighter, better fitting, red tie instead of blue, and instead of the familiar trench, he’s wearing a dark peacoat that makes him look devastatingly human and touchable. On the coat’s left lapel, a tiny American flag is pinned.
The only coherent thought Dean can come up with is, what the fuck?
Compounding his confusion would be the handful of uptight-lookin’ dudes lurking a respectable distance behind Cas. They’re all in dark suits, sunglasses (it’s like, 2 a.m?!), they’re strapped and wearing wired earpieces, each standing stiff as the corpse at a funeral and looking equally solemn. A glance out the wide wall of windows reveals that the lights Dean saw earlier belong to the cavalcade of dark SUVs now lined up next to the restaurant.
He focuses his attention back on maybe-Cas, who hasn’t looked away from him once. The guy smiles a little, and it’s painful.
“Hello, Dean,” he says softly, almost shyly. “It’s—it’s so good to see you.”
Dean vaguely wonders if he’s losing his mind—if he inhaled too much bleach or maybe just experienced the culmination of fifteen years of extreme mental stress, the way the mop wouldn’t go easily back on its hook the final straw for what he could take. Maybe he’s hallucinating, or hell, maybe all the burgers got to him and he dropped over next to the mop—is this Heaven?!
Weird, Dean kind of always figured it’d be the Roadhouse, but this seems better, somehow.
“Dean?” Castiel’s saying, starting to look uncomfortable, even worried.
“My hat has a clown,” Dean replies somewhat blankly, pointing to his head with one finger.
“I see that,” Castiel says warmly. “It looks good on you.”
Dean’s eyes widen, and it’s at that moment Cas seems to realize the enormity of the situation, taking a step back and visibly faltering. “I should have—I should have called to warn you, I know. Given you a choice—perhaps it was unfair to spring this—
“Cas,” Dean croaks, cutting him off with the swiftly rising fear that his friend might panic enough to leave. “Cas—it’s you? How? I mean...no, that’s definitely what I mean. How? Jack said—”
Ducking his head, Castiel looks somewhat abashed. “Jack did not want to burden you with the details of cleaning up the universe, repairing all the damage Chuck and his stories have done to Free Will. It was more far-reaching than he initially realized.”
Dean just stares blankly as Castiel fiddles with his fingers and rambles on. “He did—did rescue me from the Empty. The Entity is no longer in control there. I would have visited you sooner, but there was a timeline—there was work to be done.” He gestures around, towards the men behind him and the cars outside, like Dean should be putting two plus two together, when in Dean’s opinion, whatever’s going on is fuckin’ advanced calculus.
To his relief, Cas keeps talking.
“Ah—the United States government, in particular, was in quite a bit of trouble, especially after Lucifer’s little stunt a few years prior and the reality star that subsequently came into power as a result of his actions. Jack simply took advantage of the recent election to install me as the new President and prevent a swift descent of the free world into fascism. It was necessary, however, I intend to gracefully retire at the end of my four years. Things should be relatively stabilized by then.”
Mouth still hanging open, Dean tries his best to come up with something to reply to that, but all he has are more questions, and somehow, launching into those doesn’t feel right. He’s gotta—
“No,” he says. “No way. This is—a trick or somethin’. The President is some T.V. star from Washington—Mish—Misha, something? Not—” Dean cuts himself off abruptly, a lightbulb clicking on in his head. “Misha Collins. The actor from Supernatural, from that weirdo alternate universe. You named your political alter-ego after that douche?”
Castiel just shrugs, unbothered. “He is me, in a sense. Another version of me, the same way that Jensen is another version of you. It’s not so strange.”
Dragging a hand over his mouth, Dean shakes his head in disbelief. “I mean, you got me there. You’re right, that is not the strangest thing about all of this. Cas—” He edges closer, peering around Cas at the bodyguard brigade and lowering his voice to a whisper. “You’re the President?”
It shouldn’t be surprising when Cas frowns, like he’s offended. “If Lucifer can hold down the job, surely it’s not so ludicrous—”
Dean starts to laugh, his emotions beginning to shift from disbelieving and skeptical over the peak of the rollercoaster and into the freefall of something better. He stops suddenly, though, the almost manic happiness at seeing Cas alive still interspersed with fear and so many unanswered questions, none of them about politics.
Also, they have witnesses, because as hard as the suits might try to pretend they aren’t listening, it’s pretty damn clear that they are.
“They’re angels,” Castiel says quietly. “Newly minted by our son. Don’t worry.”
Dean pulls a hand down over his face. Every single thing Cas says drops a million more questions onto the sky-high pile already clogging up his head. “Buddy,” Dean says, “You’re really giving me whiplash, here. Can we just—two goddamn minutes of—you know what? I should know better than to expect anything approaching sanity with you and the kid. Look, why don’t we start with something simple. You’ve been back this whole time and—Cas, I’ve—I really missed you, man.”
Castiel at least has the decency to look guilty at that, dropping his gaze to his shoes and nodding. “That’s my fault, of course. I didn’t think—I thought, perhaps, some space would be—”
“What changed your mind?”
Squinting and tipping his head to the side, Cas smiles. “Rowena,” he says, after a pause. “She and I meet regularly to discuss various matters relevant to our respective domains.”
“Makes sense, D.C. is basically a Hellscape.”
“She keeps tabs on you and Sam.”
“Not sure whether to be flattered or worried.”
“Both, probably,” Castiel admits. As they exchange words, the two of them drift closer, as they’ve always been wont to do, but Dean instinctively knows that it’s different this time. The page has already been turned, the can opened, and there’s no going back. Whatever happens next changes everything—for better or worse, nothing will ever be the same.
“Regardless, at our last tête-à-tête—her words—in the Oval, Rowena let me know that you were...not coping well.” Castiel tiptoes around that description, the words rolling almost painfully careful off of his tongue, and he seems unable to meet Dean’s eyes. It’s like he thinks he was mislead, that Rowena was lying, that Dean was perfectly hunky-dory after losing him. Dean can practically feel the apology for bothering him waiting at the back of Cas’ mouth, and he’s goddamn sick of it.
“Are you kidding me with this?”
Castiel’s head snaps up, eyes narrowing as they finally find Dean’s angry ones. “Excuse me?”
“You—Cas, fuck,” Dean bursts out, burying his hands in his hair and pacing a little, between two crappy formica tables and their equally low-budget plastic chairs. He stops, turning on his heel to face Castiel, who’s barely moved. The framing is so ridiculous—they’re in a fucking McDonalds, Cas is President of the United States, and the Secret Service—who are also angels—are watching the whole thing like this is a peep show—yeah, of course this is the way this thing goes down.
“You’re an idiot,” Dean declares, shaking a finger. “You—you think you can’t have me, you think I don’t love you, you think I’m fine when you die on me, practically in my arms or right in front of me, like it’s not the lowest moment of my entire life—and I’m counting being Alastair’s chew toy on the Rack, Cas. Worst. Moment,” he repeats. “Every time.”
Still cautious, like he can’t trust his own ears, Castiel admits, “Rowena did tell me that you were—how did she put it? Searching for me at the bottom of a bottle.”
Dean throws his hands in the air before resting them on his hips. He shrugs and shakes his head a little like, duh, blinking at Castiel pointedly.
“Well, I didn’t know that, Dean,” Cas says, a note of frustration working its way into his tone. “How could I know? It’s not like you told me anything.”
“Did too,” Dean says defensively. “Told you lots of times that you were family. That I need you. I—I told you ‘welcome home,’ when we were in the middle of nowhere, a thousand miles from the Bunker. The hell other way can you even interpret that? I’m your goddamn home, Cas.”
Stalking forward, Castiel pokes him in the chest. “Sam is also your family,” he challenges, eyes sharp. “You called me your brother.”
Dean huffs a dismissive noise. “I—that was a compliment. Fine, I was scared! I also got down on my forty-year-old knees in Purgatory, looked for you for hours while our ticket home got smaller and smaller, just so your dumb, kidnapped ass wouldn’t get left behind.”
“I single-handedly fought off our attackers and retrieved the flower—”
“And I’m grateful!” Dean practically shouts. He frowns and pokes Castiel back after he calms. “You’re stupid,” he says. “You should’ve known you could have me. Have me any goddamn way you want. If anything, I was the one who didn’t know about knowing. Angels aren’t supposed to—to feel that way. I’m the one who gets to not know that shit, not you, dude who senses longing.” He raises his eyebrows and folds his hands across his chest, check and mate.
“My powers have been both fading and unpredictable in recent years,” Castiel grumbles. “I wasn’t positive—”
“You totally knew!”
Castiel practically growls his displeasure, hands flexing by his sides. “My entire goodbye speech was about how you taught me to love. You. A little understanding for how confusing my feelings about you and the entire situation might be, not to mention how much was at stake—that’s apparently too much to ask from the Righteous Man. You do know that moniker doesn’t mean that you’re always right?”
“You stopped me,” Dean presses, moving forward until Cas takes a step back. “In Purgatory. I was going to tell you that I loved you and you stopped me, because of that stupid, selfish deal—you knew if I said it, you’d be fuckin’ happy and oh, no, Jack forbid Castiel admit happiness is in the having! You piss me off.”
“You piss me off,” Castiel replies immediately. “You taught me that emotion, also.”
“I love you,” Dean says sharply, almost angrily.
“Well, I love you, too,” Castiel retorts, equally annoyed. “I apologize for not telling you that I was back, and also for existing, which apparently, is irritating to you.”
Dean grins and Cas softens almost immediately, expression melting into a smile. “Sam tells me you’re looking to move out of the Bunker.”
Throwing his hands up in the air once more, Dean practically yells, “Sam?! You went to see Sam and not me?”
Castiel raises one eyebrow, like Dean is an idiot. “I stopped by the Bunker first. Who do you think directed me here?”
“I knew that. I absolutely knew that.”
Rolling his eyes, Castiel takes a step forward, until their elbows are bumping, and Dean thrills. “D.C. is rather nice this time of year, and there are many janitorial positions, if you think you’ve found your calling. A bit of nepotism could have you cleaning the Capitol Building.”
Dean scowls. “You know what was fun? When you were in the Empty. So quiet around here.”
“Sam told me about the week-old pizza hoarding.”
“He’s dead to me.”
“You missed me.”
“God, I really fucking did.” As much as Dean would love to continue to be flip and sarcastic and hide behind humor the way that he does, Castiel staring up at him with so much love and emotion written all over his face makes a lump rise in his throat. Very suddenly, he couldn’t make a joke if he tried. “I really fucking did,” he repeats, voice thick. Dean reaches out, grasps the front of Cas’ coat and tugs him in hard so that they’re pressed together, faces only inches apart. “Don’t ever leave me again, you hear me? I’m serious, Cas, I can’t do this anymore. You gotta stay, man.”
Castiel leans in so that their foreheads touch, tips of their noses brushing gently. “All you ever had to do was ask.”
If this was a movie, it’d be the part where the camera pans up towards the ceiling, some awesome classic rock song like, “Carry on Wayward Son,” kicking in as the two of them kiss until the scene fades to black. Dean can practically hear the notes playing in his head as Cas smiles, and closes the space between them.
That’s how you carry on.