After the first spike, like a massive wave crashing ashore or against sharp rocks and splitting into individual streams that rushed him over, Dean found the pain manageable. One of his legs worked, and his arms were somewhat usable, so he dragged himself across the cold, dirty floor towards Sam's form, mind numb as he watched him draw breath so that his whole body was shaking and bending, and then rasping it out with a gurgling sound from the blood filling up his lungs. The few moments it took him to cross the floor to Sam were an eternity concentrated into and counted by the uneven beats of his heart, a forever trapped in his own breaths. He would make it. There was no other option. He wouldn't be late. Not for this.
Dean crashed against the structure behind him, uncaring what it was as long as it supported his weight. Carefully he reached out for Sam, hooked his arms underneath his little brother's body and pulled him forwards. There was a sound, a small, shocked whimper that was drowning in blood like Sam's breaths all were.
"Shhh, Sammy. It's okay. It's gonna be alright."
There wasn't hollowness in Dean's voice, not the kind he'd instinctively expected. No, his words were honest, full of warmth and heart; he brought Sam against his chest, held him tight and positioned his head so that the blood inside his mouth found a direction to flood for. It gushed over his hands but he was beyond caring. This was where he needed to be.
"Not so bad now?"
A weak smile decorated Sam's crimson-painted lips. He sighed, leaned his head down to Dean's shoulder and let it loll so that his forehead collided, as softly as it was, against Dean's chin. Dean adjusted again, pressing his chin against the top of Sam's head instead.
"Not gonna take long now, Sam. I'll be right here. It's okay."
Dying wasn't so bad when it was the two of them together. He could feel it spreading into his own veins just as he felt it take Sam over, ticking and clicking like a malfunctioning clock inside them both. It was cold, stiff and familiar, like an embrace after a long hunt, a reward. He wasn't scared of it, but he hurt for Sam's sake. How could he not? He'd gotten four years more - four years he would have given anything to hand over to the man trembling against him, shaking with pain and shock and his own approaching death. It wasn't the first time, however, and both of them had gotten more than they'd ever asked for. This time, Dean wouldn't have the time to go looking for an alternative. His turn would come right after, but he was decisive to make it to his end alone. Sam wouldn't have to bear him dying first. He could spare him that much. He'd be there right to the end, just like he'd promised.
A hand landed over his, wet with the sickeningly warm and sticky substance pouring out from the long, gaping open wound clawed deep into Sam's body. It had held him together this far: now he'd let go, resigned. Something was crawling out of him, but in the darkness Dean couldn't see what it was. He counted that as a blessing.
"S-... see - you. Soon. See... up... we'll - it'll co...me - together. We'll... be - right?"
"'Course. Don't step off the path and we'll meet at the end. I promise you, little brother. Promise. I'll be there. And if not - wait up for me, alright?"
The grip around his fingers grew tighter, if only slightly so, for a fleeting moment. Another sigh left Sam's lips and for a moment Dean felt as if he'd swallowed a block of ice - then, just when he was about to lose it to the grief he was holding imprisoned somewhere within him, Sam drew breath again. Not yet. Not quite yet.
He'd always been a fighter.
"Tell - tell... me. What... you think... it's gonna be - like."
Dean's time was trickling out. It was like a gentle river against his side, hidden beneath his soaked clothing. He smiled.
"I've got no idea. But that's the good part, right? The one thing we haven't been spoiled about yet. But it's gonna be good. It's going to be - home. I wonder if it's - if it's something we've been to here, or maybe we'll just make up something entirely new, something - maybe something we never got to have. As long as you're around, though, I don't mind too much. I know it'll be great. I'm kind of excited to find out, actually. Maybe that makes me weird."
Sam was growing heavy against him. His hand slipped down to his lap, but he was still drawing breaths. They were short, strained, each unlocked by a fierce fight, but Dean was glad for every last one that he could hear: at the same time, they all hurt him, twisted his gut worse than the wounds on his own body could ever manage to do.
"We'll get to sleep in, Sam. Nowhere to rush, nothing hanging on our shoulders anymore. Just a long, long vacation. And we - we've earned it. I think... we did what we could down here. We've had enough fights; we won some, lost some, screwed up pretty bad on more than a few occasions but overall... I think, I think this is a good time to go. And I bet there's pie in Heaven, too. Maybe there's a dog for you. I don't really know how the animal heaven thing works out, though, so don't take my word on it. At least there's one in your memories, right? Remember that?"
Dean held Sam tighter as his breathing turned more laboured and weak, but nothing else in him betrayed how devastated he felt, how lost and scared. And yet, somehow, he still believed his own words: the only thing he could hope for was that Sam did, too.
"And once we get bored, we can try to figure out how Ash did it - how he broke out of his own little slice of paradise and started sneaking around in everyone else's. We'll find Mom, Dad; Bobby, Charlie, Kev, and everyone else we owe an apology to. It's gonna take a while, I guess, but... we'll get there. We'll have time. And Cas will be around, of course, so there's that. It's like - like this big reunion waiting to happen. Everyone else went ahead of us, right? We're just... late, Sammy, we're..."
Dean closed his eyes and held his breath to keep the sound, the shriek that was climbing up, inside him. He brushed his hand into his brother's hair and gasped for air, shaking, listening to the freshly fallen, perfect silence surrounding him.
"... it's gonna be okay. It's - it'll be okay. I love you, Sam. I love you. I hope you know - I know you know - but I wish - I wish I could have said it. It's just - it's stupid, you know? I can't say - I don't know how to -"
His own breath was hitching, but death wasn't coming to him like it had come to Sam. His would be quieter, kinder. He'd lose consciousness first. His horizon was rocking slowly and his vision, the little the darkness allowed him, was fading out. As if it could have offered him some comfort, he held onto Sam's body and kept it close; even lifeless, it still smelled of him underneath the overwhelming stench of copper and all the unspeakable things that were never portrayed in films. It was the only comfort he had, the only thing for him to hold onto - but at least he'd spared Sam from this, from dying alone in an abandoned warehouse with no one there to tell him that it would turn out okay, no one to make sure he felt loved, leaving behind no one to miss him.
He'd always known he'd go out like that, but it was harder now than ever as he sat there in an ever-expanding pool of his own blood mixing with that of his brother's. In his last thoughts, he wondered if it was symbolic somehow, but even if it was, his fading mind could no longer latch onto the meaning.
He woke up after sunset. There was silence all around him, and the leathery, warm embrace of the Impala's seat surrounded him: he shifted, and his shifting broke the silence with a soft sound that stemmed from his jeans grinding together with the leather underneath him. He swallowed, eyes moving about the road ahead of him, and there was a peculiar sensation buried deep inside him that implied he'd been here before - it wasn't the same path that he remembered, but somehow he knew that this wasn't the first death that had brought him along this roadside.
He reached his hand across the seat and laid it where Sam's warmth should have rested, but there was nothing there. Of course not. His path was his own, and Sam wouldn't share it with him. But the destination... Dean closed his eyes again. He'd never been through this road yet. He didn't know what lay at the end of the path he was set to follow.
The night felt appropriate as he started the car and rolled forwards through the forest. It wasn't that he felt particularly sad that he was dead, but there was a sense of loss that defined his whole existence. It surprised him: he should have felt elated, or at least relieved. His fight was over and this had been a good death, a hunter's death, much like he'd always expected for himself. Nothing dramatic about it. They'd taken the monster down with them. Case closed. Chapter over. The last page of the book turned to a blank, covers shut. His life was over, and his soul was free to move on - nothing tied him to earth, nothing tied him to hell, there was no fight left to fight that would have demanded him to stay. Yet... somehow, dying still felt like, well, dying.
The drive through the woods felt like his own funeral march, and he wondered who'd find them - how he would be buried. Would it be next to his brother? They would be found together, Sam in his lap, his arms around the man's body. Surely the message was clear enough. The alternative bothered him, even though in all truth it shouldn't have mattered that much. If he had to rot in a wooden box six feet under, he would at least have preferred it to be beside Sam. They'd lived that way: side by side, attached at the hip, and death shouldn't separate them. Dean closed his eyes for a moment, imagined his bones resting next to his brother's, and the thought gave him an odd sense of solace and comfort. Yeah, he'd have to see to that somehow. It would be a few days, anyway; nobody would miss them, and nobody had checked up on that factory for years. If some urban explorer would decide to take the tour today, that'd be it, but Cas might still stand a chance to make sure the burial would be proper - but for now, there was nothing Dean could do about it. He set it aside in his mind and breathed in deep, easily directing the course of his thoughts elsewhere.
How strange was it that even as a soul, he was still drawing breath to calm himself.
The road changed. He parked in front of his first good memory, turned off the engine and prepared himself. A small smile lingered upon his lips at the recognition of their Lawrence home: even if it was just a memory, he was still happy to know that Mary would wait for him inside. Perhaps some day soon, he'd find the real her inside here somewhere - for now, however, it was time to let go and walk the road up to his new home, the road paved with... well, memories. The best of the best; the Dean Winchester highlights reel.
A shiver crossed through him. He wouldn't come more prepared than this.
The bunker's entrance greeted Dean with the usual toned-down smell of an underground base stacked full of old books. The scent of freshly brewed coffee lingered in the stairway as he made his way down, but he didn't hear an answer. Maybe Sam just wasn't there yet? Dean knew he'd taken a full forever wandering through his memories, but who was he to tell how long Sam would take, how many memories he would have to dig through. An odd emptiness lingered within him despite the best reassurance he could offer himself. This place was empty without Sam - and he didn't feel like a whole person alone either, he'd never really learned how to become one. But surely, certainly, Sam belonged here with him. There was no other way. There had never been; they were brothers, they'd shared their whole lives with each other right from the beginning. Everything they'd done had been for each other, with each other.
Dean's steps echoed through the library hall. His hair was standing on end and something about the whole deal just felt off: after the warmth that had wrapped itself around his chest and heart during his stay in his memories, he would have expected the arrival to be something of a climax, a fulfillment, yet without Sam... what was it?
It felt more like a ghost, and uncertainty had already made its home at Dean's core. He wandered into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee and made a plan: he'd wait in the hall. Sam would be there, sooner or later. And once he'd be there, Dean would punch him. He'd earned it, first off. No one should take this damn long wading through dusty re-enactments of their favourite moments. Secondly, there were a few things that needed clarification - could one, in practice, punch another person inside their own heaven? If not, what kind of a heaven would that be... and if yes, then how the hell could it be heaven at all?
(But Sam would dodge it, as he always did. Dean would never know the answer.)
The coffee was never gone. There was always one more cup left, and Dean drank a cup after cup after cup. Just when he was starting to feel like it was all too perfect, he discovered a burnt taste in his drink, and enjoyed it much more than he'd ever enjoyed the taste of slowly ruining coffee before. When he went looking for more, the coffee was gone. Just like that, there was no more left for him.
With a distinct, yet hollow smile on him, he set out to make more.
And he drank.
3:17 in the morning, and Sam still wasn't there.
The internet connected just fine, but Dean found himself suspicious of its contents. Was it the heaven network? Was this html content created and upheld by dead people? Was out there somewhere the real George Washington keeping a blog on American ideals? Or did it suck information directly out of the real internet on earth - and if so, could he seek up information on everything he was missing out on, the new deaths resulting from easily preventable tragedies that weren't being taken care of now that he was dead and couldn't hunt down a pesky poltergeist, the wars that would end up sending thousands upon thousands of new souls to power up heaven alongside his own? Could he use it torture himself in this place that was supposed to be perfect and without suffering?
(Where was Sam? He'd died - Dean had felt him pass. He'd held him, and he'd felt life drip out of him, slither from his torn-up body like mist through an open window. He'd felt his soul there one moment and the next it had been gone, as if his weight had changed, as if his essence had gone out light a visible light enveloping him until that moment. He'd felt his own brother, his little brother, die in his arms and there was nothing uncertain about that. So where the hell was he now?)
Dean wasn't interested in finding Washington's blog, and neither did he care about the news. He tried to entertain himself on a comedy website and ignore the feeling that it was comedy by and for cadavers, but the unsettling feeling, the cold within him wasn't letting him, so he closed the laptop and slid it on the table.
The laptop. Whose was it? His, Sam's? For the past years, they'd shared. It had been Sam's, but it had become Dean's just as much. What else of Sam's was there? Was there something Dean would undeniably recognise as Sam's that in no manner could or would belong to him? With cold feet, Dean moved up from his seat. He took his steaming cup of coffee along with him, as if to hold onto it for support, and headed off towards the corridor. Even though his toes felt as if they were made of ice, they were now also slippery and sweaty inside his shoes; he concentrated upon that as he made a stop by his own room and opened the door.
Inside, everything was in perfect order. His stuff was there, all of it and, it seemed, then some. Dean nodded stiffly to nothing in particular, kicked off his shoes and left them sitting by the wall.
(Was the mattress new or was it the same old one from his time on earth, the one that shifted just the right way for him? He didn't have the mind to try it out, but just like the coffee had eventually ran out, he was almost certain he would find the bumps on this mattress that he was so used to feeling every night, the mildest of discomforts that truly made his bed his own.)
The door creaked quietly as Dean exited the room again. He didn't close it completely. He hadn't done so for years. The corridor ran forwards, across a bend and then, there it was: Sam's door. Closed, as always. Determinedly Dean made his way to it, but when he should have just opened it and peered inside, he stopped. His non-heart was beating frantically inside his chest and a voice within his mind was screaming for him to turn around.
Nothing to see here nothing to see here turn around walk back your coffee is going cold
Dean drank some and shifted weight from his leg to the other. What was he expecting to find here? Sam? Sam's room? Sam's stuff? Nothing at all?
He laid his hand over the handle and jumped to the cold feel of it. He eyed the keyhole nervously, realising that if it was locked, he didn't have the means to open it; Sam had the only key to it. His hand pressed the handle. His mind kept screaming. His feet shifted, his body leaned forwards and he pushed.
His shoulder hit the wood.
The door was locked.
"Sammy? You in there?" he called, his voice echoing in the corridor.
No answer. He hadn't waited for one, either; he was already bending down, setting his eye to the hole. What he saw chilled his heart, and his blood froze inside his veins, travelling through his perceived body suddenly thick and slow making his head spin.
He could see the room inside.
It was empty.
Inside the storage room, ingredients of all kinds were neatly organized into their own boxes by type. There were tens of boxes lining up the shelves, boxes that Dean had spent hours tending to with Sam at his side, and then years of refining and filling and refilling and emptying and filling up again. Spellwork had become something of a norm for them - there were many enchantments that had always been useful, spells such as summoning spells or protective spells, but they'd grown much more skilled and varied at using them after discovering the supplies and spellbooks stored away by the Men of Letters before them. Those same items had carried over with Dean's soul, and he now gathered up a bunch, each movement smooth and determined as only a man's who knew exactly what he was looking for.
His fingers grasped at the ingredients firmly and need and urgency burned within him, and he didn't bother moving away from the room before he was already setting up the circle in the middle of the floor with white chalk. He drew the lines, set the altar, mixed the ingredients and stepped aside.
"I can't believe I need to do this," he muttered before the incantation.
Thunder roared somewhere above him, and its rumbling sound made the underground floor tremble. Something cracked. A flash of light behind Dean's closed eyes spoke of the cup upon the altar setting to flames: he opened his eyes and waited.
In a blink of an eye, a man manifested before him. His hair was standing up, messy, and his tie was flipped upside down; the tan coat on him was pristine, however, as were his white shirt and his black pants all. Dean wanted to smile, but his smiles had frozen inside him with his slowly thawing blood and his rabbit heart was giving in.
"I can't find Sam. Cas, I can't find Sam."
It took a moment for Castiel to speak. First, he looked around the room with a disturbed look on his face - trying to make sense of what he was seeing. Then, he looked at Dean instead, and a new expression took over: he seemed pained, shocked... devastated.
Yeah. Right. He was a dead man now. And of course, Castiel - Castiel hadn't known.
"Uh," he vocalized next, shifting.
What was he meant to say? That he was sorry? Was he supposed to be consoling Castiel for the loss of not only one but two of his dearest friends even though he was right there and felt about as alive as ever? His mind buzzed uselessly.
"Dean. I - I had... no idea. I'm..."
"Yeah, I - could have been more - I could have given you a warning, something. But we need to talk. Right now, Cas. Sam is not here. I can't find him. His room is empty. He's not here, Cas."
Even though he was still clearly mourning, the angel's expression shifted to concerned, baffled. He didn't point out the obvious, even though Dean was sure that his heart was breaking - that Sam was dead, too - but instead set his mind to the matter, to the reason why Dean had called him, or rather why he'd roughly dragged him back home.
"How long has it been?" he asked, voice barely breaking.
"Hours, maybe a day. I took long enough on my trip, I could swear it was right around the clock but it's hard to say; I was here around nine in the evening. I waited for him but something just felt off the whole time - like he wasn't coming. So I went to his room and I couldn't open the door, but I could see in and there's nothing in there, Cas. The place is empty. My room is just fine but his - there has to be something wrong. I watched him die, Cas. He's dead. So where the hell is he?"
Something in Castiel shifted. It didn't seem physical before he straightened up, slowly and looking more and more as if he was in discomfort. His expression changed again just the same, but Dean refused to read into the compassion in it.
"Just tell me he's here, Cas. I need to know he got in. That he's not stuck on earth or - or worse. Cas, I need to know that he's coming."
Castiel fell silent again. Then he sighed and turned his gaze somewhere else.
"If Sam is dead," he stated quietly, and Dean hated the gentleness in his voice, "and he didn't choose to linger, he is in Heaven. Would there be any reason for him to stay behind?"
"Not that I know of," Dean growled, his fingertips so cold that he was now pressing them into his palms.
His nails dug into his non-skin, and he was certain they were leaving marks.
"I will find out," Castiel promised, "but - Dean -"
Dean felt like he wouldn't like whatever was coming out of Castiel's mouth next, but he couldn't argue with it before he'd heard it. He held his breath and his lips pressed together. There was something big, rough and solid climbing up his throat and he felt like gagging.
This wasn't what heaven was supposed to feel like.
He'd promised Sam. Promised they would find each other at the end of the route. Promised he would be there, as always.
This wasn't right.
"What?" he asked, when Castiel didn't seem to find the words to go on.
The angel shook his head.
"I will find your bodies and see if Sam needs help moving on."
"I'll give you the location. Cas - a favour?"
The look in Castiel's eyes softened again as he looked back at Dean, somehow relieved. He nodded.
"Anything," he promised.
"Bury us together. One pyre. Scatter the ashes in Kansas. I don't care where, as long as we're within a day's ride back home."
"And take care of my wheels, Cas."
Finally, a smile visited Castiel's lips. He nodded.
9:34 in the morning. Dean was drinking coffee again - his restless mind wouldn't bend to anything else, not the whiskey nor the beer that he'd found trying to work something out in his spare time. He'd paced around the bunker, certain he was going mad, after Castiel had disappeared with the fluttering sound of wings about him again. A part of him wished the other would have stayed but it was better for him to be out there, looking. If Sam was stuck, he needed help, and burning his bones would send him on again. It was that easy, so a part of Dean hoped it was just that, a glitch, some kind of a longing or a sense of duty that was keeping his brother back on earth. Because if it wasn't - if Sam wasn't there and Sam wasn't here and Sam wasn't in hell, then where was he? How could Dean find him when his soul was bound to this place? Could Castiel find him, when Castiel hadn't found their parents, when they both knew that Heaven was so large it would be next to impossible to find a given person inside it without knowing where to start looking?
And why, why would Sam be anywhere else?
In his frustration, Dean turned to the internet again, but wherever it was coming from, there was no information on how to navigate heavens that he could find. He knew that Ash had found the way, but Ash had a brilliant mind that he'd never really been able to follow; the way he thought was so unique and ran half on the brand of insanity that Dean didn't subscribe to that figuring out how he had done it would take forever. It didn't matter that technically, Dean had a forever to find out - he didn't need to find Sam a thousand years from now. He needed Sam right now, right here, beside him. Not knowing where he was was torture unlike any other that Dean had been through. They were meant to be together here. They'd lived together, they'd died together, and without him there was an emptiness within Dean that kept growing like a void the longer he wandered around his supposed paradise alone.
Once or twice he considered taking another run through his memories, but he couldn't even begin from the worry that was taking over him. It was consuming him, turning his coffee bitter, and he didn't even care about the vastness that surrounded the bunker outside that he could have ventured into if only to find the limits of his lot, but rather turned and walked back inside when he finally had the mind to go and breathe in some fresh air.
Nothing helped, and the longer it went on, the more trapped and asphyxiated he felt.
No, this wasn't heaven. Not without Sam, not without knowing that Sam was alright and that he'd see him again soon.
"I couldn't find him."
Dean's posture fell apart. His jaw was tense, his eyes wide like from a lack of sleep, and his shoulders crawled up until he forced them down and let out a shaky breath to drive away the growing pressure inside him. Castiel looked sorry, but more than that he seemed to share the one feeling that Dean now felt in a torturous magnitude: confusion.
"I'm sorry, Dean. His soul was not there. The body - I gave you both the burial you deserve, but Sam was not there."
The beating of Dean's non-heart marked seconds, half-seconds, then seemingly minutes. A weight spread into his body and his face was blank from expression, weary.
"... not your fault, Cas. But I still need your help. I don't know where or how I can start looking. He's got to be here, right? In heaven. Just - lost."
"Heaven hasn't been designed for that, Dean."
The gentleness was back in Castiel's voice. He sighed, uncomfortable, but this time did not look away from Dean, and Dean looked right back at him, his chest aching with fear and longing and throbbing with the sensation of lacking a half of what made him whole.
"You have to consider - that - perhaps Sam was... never meant to be here."
"The hell are you talking about?"
"I was surprised as well, I thought it was obvious that you two... out of anyone, you two would share the same heaven. But souls don't get lost on the way in, Dean. Upon death, each projects its own paradise and that is where it is drawn, where it will find its way through its own path. You found yours easily enough."
"I just friggin' lived through a set of memories, and then I was here. So yeah, wouldn't call that complicated. Get to the point, Cas."
The weight upon Dean's shoulders was crushing his ribcage. The fear, the worry, the dawning understanding and the outright denial of it. Castiel shifted, and his eyes showed the full count of his years, the countless centuries of depth behind the mask that he was wearing.
"Perhaps... Dean, perhaps Sam has his own heaven," he said and by his expression, Dean felt like he was mirroring the hurt that flashed to life within him at the words, "Perhaps he was never meant to be here to begin with."
To his surprise, in the midst of the crashing, devastating flood of everything he'd held at bay so far, Dean found himself calm and only slightly annoyed at the suggestion. The overtone of his voice was confident, certain, and when he looked Castiel in the eye, he didn't falter.
"No. He's meant to be here. If he's somewhere else, there's a reason for it, and the reason isn't that he belongs there. And even then - I don't care why he's gone. What I care about is how I can get to him. We know there's a way out of here, and I already located the exit; there's a brick in the wall of the storage corridor that doesn't belong there, and I know that if I push it, it'll open a door through which I can get out of here. That's not an issue. The issue is that that pathway is essentially out of question; I can't leave through the front door, because the front door is under scrutiny. If I leave here, every goddamn angel on watch will be on my ass and I won't make it far unless I know exactly where I'm heading. So I need to know, what's the secret to the back entrance? How do I get from my heaven to someone else's without sounding the alarm? Ash did it. I can do it, too. I just need to know how."
Dean expected Castiel to look conflicted, unwilling as always to aid him in what he felt was akin to a prison break, not an escape from paradise. Instead, the angel broke into a tired smile and sighed.
"I would have expected it would take you a little bit longer to start stirring trouble in heaven," Castiel noted, "but you still surprise me every time."
It came as a surprise to Dean as well when he returned the smile; it warmed him to the bone and finally shook some life into his still body.
"I wouldn't be stirring any trouble whatsoever if things for once weren't screwed up from the get-go. I need my brother, and I know he needs me too. I can't sit back and enjoy a damn thing before I know he's alright. I don't think that's news to you, or anyone, for that matter. So I've got to find him, and he's going to try and find me, too. Once it's done, I promise we'll both sit back and relax, Cas. But not a moment before then."
"I can try to locate Ash for you. At least we know where to start there."
"So you'll help me?"
The angel's expression was serious, perhaps a little offended.
"Of course I'll help you."
Despite Castiel's promise, Dean's non-heart kept pounding through the day. His restlessness was only ever growing worse, and the hollowness inside him matched it: there was a never-ending ache that was shaking him hour after an hour, an emptiness and a sense of incompleteness that was as if someone had taken an axe to his body and started hacking away. He'd never felt quite like it, but he knew it from before; it was related to the devastating grief he'd felt upon losing Sam before in life, the loss he'd felt when he'd held his still body in his arms the first time, then the second, then the third. There was no grief now, only the undertones of it, and the fear that kept gnawing at him underneath it all. What if he'd never find Sam? What if he'd never see his little brother again?
What if Sam was out there somewhere, content to be separated from him, happy as he was?
What if he didn't need Dean like Dean needed him - what if he felt none of this agony, but peace and calm instead like he was meant to feel? What if his paradise truly was one away from Dean?
The same old questions lingered like ghosts inside Dean's mind, even though he'd denied them entry and forbidden them to stay. In his unease, he walked through the bunker again, located the stone in the storage corridor and laid his hand upon it, half of the mind to press it down, but he couldn't. He couldn't rush this. Perhaps he'd only ever have one chance to find Sam - he'd have to make it count, and if that meant suffering for a little while longer, then he could do it. The call of the exit didn't leave him alone, however, so he stayed for a while just keeping his palm flat against the painted brick.
No, Sam missed him. He'd miss him different, but he'd still miss him. Dean knew it - underneath the insecurity, he knew that the voice that doubted Sam was his own selfishness and nothing more. It wasn't Sam's fault he wasn't there. He'd held onto Dean's words as he'd lain there dying in Dean's arms, dreaming up the same kind of forever for them as Dean had been painting in speech. Something had gone wrong, but they'd fix it.
Dean's palm slid off the brick and he shuddered with cold. The way back up was much longer than the way down had been.
He took a walk through his memories again. Not for the comfort of it, although he lingered in moments with the memory of Sam a little longer this time (and the stay did not ease his mind, only made it burn harder) and chose to sit with his mother for a full hour, just watching her go about her daily chores, humming quietly in a voice that made Dean's body relax and grow warmer. No, he was there to find another way out, a winding road instead of the straight course that he remembered, and something inside him kept telling him that if he'd look hard enough, he would find one eventually. They'd done it before: instead of leading Dean to his heaven, his path had taken him to Sam and then led them both to the Garden. But it had been a different route altogether, one hidden in the details, not the highway that opened whenever he was ready to move on from a memory, and now he couldn't find it anymore. No matter how long he stared at the race cars stuck in an eternally looping plastic track, the way did not open for him and it didn't swallow him in any more than the greetings card showing a roadside diner did.
This wasn't the way out. Not this time. He wasn't looking for the Axis Mundi, so expecting it to open for him like any ordinary strip of road was ridiculous. But something, somewhere, had to get him where he was going now.
He was still trapped in his golden memories when Castiel, unexpectedly, popped in to interrupt his unproductive yet desperate gazing out of the grimy windows at Bobby's old place. Dean looked at him, non-lungs collapsing quietly inside him to the sheer weight of expectation, hope and worry; Castiel laid a hand over his shoulder and smiled in the subtle, soft way that was so characteristic for him.
"For a moment," he spoke with a hint of relief in his voice, "I thought I lost you, too."
"Nah," Dean huffed, and for some reason he was shivering to the touch of another real living thing beside him, "I'm still here, just working through my slideshow trying to figure the puzzle out on my own. Did you find anything?"
"I did, and you're not far off. Ash was reluctant to share his secret with me, and I suppose I do not blame him given how many of my brothers and sisters would love nothing more than to put an end to his freedom - to... take away his 'skeleton key', as one put it before - but your name and your story made him a little less unwilling to assist me. He seemed... entertained by the thought of you 'wreaking havoc' in Heaven."
Dean chuckled. It made him feel better. Company did.
"Get to the best part, Cas."
"He instructed you to linger in transition. Whatever that means, he stated, was up to you to figure out."
"Linger in transition?"
A light was dawning inside Dean somewhere.
"That was the idea," Castiel agreed.
Dean nodded. His smile grew warmer, deeper.
"Thanks, Cas. I can take this from here."
"Is there anything else I can do?" Castiel asked, his voice sincere, unbothered.
For a moment, Dean thought. Then he nodded, confident again and full of newly renewed hope.
"Find out why this happened, Cas."
"I'll do my best."
Linger in transition.
The Impala looked sadly upon Dean's vanishing figure as the man took off on his own towards the edge of the memory. He spun around before entering the wavering wall before him, a smirk on his face, and called back; "I'll come get you, don't worry, Baby. Just gotta find Sam first. It's not home without him."
The thundering inside his chest was growing normal in his mind, and he barely noticed the excitement or the anxiety as he entered the veil and bit his teeth together. His fists had barely closed when he found himself on the other side - in the next memory. Disappointed, he turned to look back towards the wall: it had moved back by a long shot, lingering somewhere at the edge of his vision now that he stood in front of the bunker again. He swallowed, casting a glance towards the doorway. Sam was inside there, but not the Sam he was looking for; this Sam was alive and eating his home-made burger, smiling bright just before they had to head out on a case. The memory made him feel warm, but he couldn't stay, not even for that one moment.
Instead, he headed forwards towards the next wall: it seemed logical to walk on, even though the wall, the transition, he'd just failed lingering inside was closer than the one leading onto the next memory. It felt like a fresh start and made the hope within him clutch tighter to his chest, and he carried it within him to what looked like a thin waterfall in stasis before him. He drew breath, held his eyes open instead of closing them as he'd done before, and he balled his fists before he entered. The waterfall sucked him in, engulfed him with its dry warmth, and just as it was pushing him through, he told it no. It struggled against his unnatural command, but his whole soul was hanging onto it, repeating it in his mind like a drumbeat until the push failed and he was stuck, literally stuck, inside the flash show. Bits and pieces of both realms, the bunker and the house in which he would spend an afternoon with John, flared alive around him like shattered shards of a mirror, both showing a different reality to them. Claustrophobia hit him next, the overwhelming panic at the realisation that he couldn't move at all, and Dean struggled as if against a giant web holding onto him, just waiting for a massive spider to enter from the flashing, broken world around him to feast on whatever it was that bound his soul together. He opened his mouth to yell - for what or to whom, he didn't know - but there was no air to breathe and finally, finally he closed his eyes in a sad attempt at escaping the trap he'd walked into.
And then, just like that, the web disappeared. He fell on his hands and knees onto dirt, gasping for air; when he opened his eyes, it was night time, and he was on an unpaved road looking directly into the green masses of corn stalks in front of him. When he looked around, eyes wide and adrenaline still driving him on like a human machine on the verge of an explosion, he realised he'd never been here before - not in his death and not in his lifetime, either. A typical colonial farmhouse sat at the end of the road, and an old seaweed-green pickup truck was standing in front of it. The lights were on, and in the sky above, a crescent moon was shining through a thin filter of clouds.
This was not his heaven. This was someone else's.
Slowly - quietly - Dean picked himself up. He dusted off his jeans, as if it mattered what he looked like, and wondered which way he should be heading for next. He'd never thought about that before, as if the only thing that mattered was breaking out instead of finding his way when he was out there for real, and now that he stood there on foreign land completely unaware of where he was meant to go or even how to get back to his own heaven, it seemed like the stupidest thing he'd ever left unaccounted for. But he couldn't stay here either, just waiting to get busted by whoever inhabited this place. He knew that if it was his heaven that some bypassing stranger had invaded, it'd take some convincing to get him to invite them in for a cup of hot coffee - and he didn't have the time for any convincing at all, much less for coffee.
With that in mind, he set off to walk the road away from the house and its inviting lights. The path underneath him felt real, as did the cool air of a harvest season night; the scents of what looked like Nebraskan countryside but could have been anywhere at all in that region filled his every breath, and a strange sense of longing set within him. A part of him knew that he'd never be content staying inside his own heaven again: he was meant for the open road, for adventure, for exploration. That was the way he'd lived - it wouldn't leave him just because he was dead now. But he could worry about that later; for now, he had to keep his mind on the task at hand... if only he'd known where to start looking.
He dreaded walking into another wall, dreaded being trapped inside someone else's heaven more than he dreaded being trapped in his own: after all, who would have found him here? Who would have reached in to free him, if closing his eyes and waiting did nothing this time? To his surprise and relief, however, there was no wall to be seen. Instead, upon walking further, he found the realm around him changing, and when he looked back, the ocean of corn fields was no more. He was now walking along an asphalt road, and there was a cat staring right at him at the side of what looked like a camping area - a single white trailer was parked in the midst of it. Sun was shining here, and the season had turned for late spring; flowers bloomed, filling the air with their sweet scents, and further away a lake was glittering like a veil of diamonds was floating upon its surface. To his horror, Dean noticed a figure walking further away: he ducked and started moving, each step silent on the road. He didn't have time to figure out where he was going, so he just moved forwards instead, towards the edge of the forest in which he hoped he could hide from the inhabitant of this place. It didn't take him long to be where he wanted to be, and he slipped behind a tree to breathe. Ash had never mentioned how difficult it was to skulk around realms that were both relatively small and inhabited by a soul that more than just owned the place. Dean didn't need to know what would happen if he'd be discovered, and once the figure had disappeared from sight, he began to map his surroundings again. He needed a direction, a direction that was better and more to the point than just 'forwards' until he'd reach the edge of the world, but he had no idea where to look for one. Everywhere here was just forest, grass... even the road along which Dean had thought he'd arrived was now suddenly as good as gone, as if it had never existed in the first place. Flowers grew in its wake, and the ground was uneven like it wanted to further convince Dean that no machine or shovel had ever even attempted to build a path upon it. There was nothing here, and in the silence of hidden birds singing in the trees everywhere around him, Dean understood well what made it a paradise.
But it wasn't his, and he didn't want to stay.
His eyes caught a pathway between the trees, and it was as if something inside him was calling him to follow it. He resisted: it was the same kind of a call that he would have expected from a siren, a tug at his insides that was nearly irresistible. But what danger could lurk in here? He was in Heaven, the most well-guarded realm of them all. No monster could lurk in here, or at least none that Dean knew of, and Ash had made his way around for a seemingly endless number of years by now without being caught by any guarding entity sent after wandering spirits.
He wanted to trust the feeling, so much that he was half-leaning towards that direction already. Every time he thought of Sam, however fleetingly, it seemed to call him more, but he'd been a hunter for much too long to head straight into the maws of the unknown. With that in mind, his first steps were careful and he longed for a good sawed-off at his side. From behind him somewhere, a cheerful whistling carried between the trees.
The pathway grew ahead of him. It turned more well-defined, like a corridor amongst the trunks with arched branches forming a natural ceiling above him - like an elven structure from an illustration to Lord of the Rings, only somehow more mundane, like it had a reason to be here and it was only serving its purpose by existing. It lacked the fantastical element, the awe-inspiring enchantment about it, and as Dean walked further into it it began collapsing slowly into yet another heaven. The trees turned to lamp posts and the grassy path underneath him to a dirty city street, and there he was, suddenly standing in another place and time. It was winter, and this city was New York. How he knew, Dean wasn't sure, but what confused him more was how and why would anyone choose this time as their paradise. It was biting cold.
Ahead lay a network of streets and alleys - all strangely empty for such a large city, but the usual hum of engines, the honking and the sounds of muffled speech and high-pitched screams of teenagers, children and car breaks was still ever present in the background. Dean leaned his back to the wall and breathed in; what came out was a fine white cloud of mist, and he closed his eyes to the sight of it.
"Fine. You win," he let out quietly, tucked his hands inside his flannel and looked around again.
He was looking for anything that would call him, sing to him in its quiet voice to lure him forwards, or twist at his heart like longing would - he found that sensation at a small alley across the street, and without waiting, he moved towards it. Before he reached it, he already knew it was leading him in the right way, and the scenery began to change again, taking away with it the cold and the smell of the urban cityscape. He walked along the alley until it turned wet and his feet sank to the bottom of a shallow stream, not all too suddenly but so that he had no choice but to follow it and wet his feet. Willows reached down towards him, their long whip-like branches whispering in a gentle breeze. He was wading in a river crossing a park, but there was no one around: when he climbed out and back to the dry ground, he noticed a silhouette inside a gazebo and made a point out of avoiding it. To his relief, the way that was calling him forwards was now taking him to the opposite direction, and he crossed this dream-like park with its deep golden sunset swiftly and soundlessly without hesitation.
The feeling inside him was growing stronger, like a drug - some kind of anesthesia - taking away the ache inside him. It made him walk faster, as if he could almost see home from where he was now, but when he thought of home, he suddenly felt the tug to the opposite direction. The realm was changing when he stopped, confused; he looked back towards where he'd come from, and concentrated upon the shape of the bunker, the memory of that one place he'd learned to return to and call his home. And there, in the midst of the fog where the previous heaven had disappeared, suddenly dawned the same profile he'd recalled in his mind - the bunker stood firm within that spiralling mist, calling him, and the sensation in his chest was almost overwhelming. He smiled, reached a hand towards it and closed his eyes. Not yet. He still had work to do.
Dean turned from the bunker and chased its memory from his mind. He opened his eyes towards the other direction he'd been chasing and thought of Sam instead. Immediately the feeling inside him shifted, adjusted; now it seemed to lead him a little bit more south than before, but the general direction remained the same. A shiver ran through Dean's shape as he stepped forwards and almost started running - wherever he was going, he couldn't be there soon enough. The scenery shifted, the broken shards of other places either disappeared or formed a new, uniform shape together, and he was suddenly standing on a cliff looking over a stormy grey ocean. There was no rain, but wind came in strong gusts that held onto Dean's clothes and pushed him back when he tried to move forwards before disappearing again: the sounds of waves crashing underneath him paced his steps. The grass here was wet and drooped heavy around his feet, and somewhere in the distance the form of a lighthouse could be seen, but it wasn't lit. Despite the dark clouds ahead, the landscape was still illuminated by the sun somewhere far behind the stormy front above.
At the edge of his vision, Dean spotted a familiar sight, one that he wouldn't have missed even in driving rain. A black Chevy Impala sat at the side of a road leading towards the lighthouse, his Impala, and not far from it he could see the figure of a man, standing, looking at him, half intent to move but still stunned in place. Dean's heart skipped a beat, and a rush of warmth landed in the midst of him at the same time as another blast of wind hit him from the front. He barely felt it upon him as he set forwards, unsure whether he was walking or jogging or downright running. There was silence where he'd felt a calling before, but he knew where he was meant to go from here even without it - he would have known even with his eyes closed and his ears covered.
Sam's hair was in his face when they finally stood in front of each other. His smile was wide, dimpled, full of laughter that wasn't bubbling out as if from fear that it would break something if he so much as made a sound. He stopped exactly when Dean did, uncertain how to react, and for a moment they both just watched each other, quiet, smiling, full of relief and more - then, always braver in this aspect than Dean had ever been, Sam stepped forwards and closed the distance between them. His arms wound around Dean's body, strong and determined and warm against the storm in this place, and Dean held onto him just the same, chin on his shoulder as Sam's was on his, head leaning to the comfort of having him there so close, and they held on for a long while without saying anything or even considering stepping back again. This was Sam, the real one, the one that existed in the here and now, not a memory, not a ghost, and holding him close felt as if finally putting together the last piece of a puzzle - his presence filled Dean, made him complete, and it drove away the ache and the fear and the hollowness that he'd felt ever since he'd arrived in Heaven.
"Where the hell were you?" Sam asked him, his voice broken and quiet and flooded with affection.
"Waiting for you. Just like I promised I would be. But no," Dean huffed, and they were finally parting now, "you had to make it difficult, didn't you."
His hand lingered over Sam's arm, and Sam's fingers wrapped tightly around his sleeve to hold right back. Dean felt like he couldn't take his eyes off of him, but finally he turned and looked at the Impala instead. The ground was shaking - he could hear bits of the cliff falling into the raging ocean underneath. Something was shifting, but he didn't fear it; a part of him felt the change, the merging that was happening and had been from the very moment they'd first touched each other.
"It's freaking cold in here," he finally breathed out and looked at Sam again, then at the Impala, "How about I drive us back home?"
"Yeah. I... like that plan."
Dean tugged at his brother's shirt and motioned him to follow. Sam settled right beside him, his long legs in perfect sync with Dean's own.
"So - what was your heaven like?" Dean asked, even though he was almost certain he knew the answer already.
The missing bedroom... the missing folders and books in the library. The vanishing collection of teas in the kitchen cupboards, the salad that wasn't in the fridge. All of what didn't belong to Dean and belonged to Sam, one half of a whole, misplaced.
"Home," Sam replied indifferently, "Just without the parts that count."
The scent of fresh coffee greeted them at the doorway. There were books open on the table, many more than Dean had had the mind to open, all of the scattered around, some of them on top of each other. There were two cups on the table, each by its own seat, and those same two chairs had been drawn out from underneath the table. The books and papers mostly surrounded one of the two, but the laptop was turned towards the one Dean had left from before, and looking at the mess they'd made on their own accounts yet separatedly and without knowing about the other made him feel oddly at home, more so than the coffee alone could ever have done.
Without a word, they both skipped the entryway to the kitchen, and instead headed towards their bedrooms: Sam stayed by Dean's, pushed the door open and sighed in relief when it was full and lived-in. Dean stopped by Sam's, and even though he was certain he'd find it just as it was supposed to be, his heart still skipped a beat when the door opened before him and revealed a fully decorated space behind it. He closed the door and his eyes at the same time, unable to keep from smiling, yet it was Sam's hand on his shoulder that made him chuckle out loud and he could feel himself changing as he looked at the man beside him.
"I could use a snack," he said, a strange but welcome sense of calm within him.
"That makes two of us."
As they headed back towards the hall, the questions finally started pouring in.
"Have you seen Cas?" Sam asked as they walked.
"Seen him, put him to good use. He should drop by later - I'm still waiting to hear whose bright idea it was to cut our heaven in half."
"I was wondering the same thing. Did he find you?"
"No, I summoned him."
"So you got the ingredients."
"And you didn't?"
"I didn't, no," Sam confirmed, grimacing, "the storage was pretty much useless to me."
"How did you break out?" Dean asked, taking the final turn into the kitchen.
"I tried everything twice. When I couldn't get on Axis Mundi - I figured you'd be there, since that's how we found each other before - I just thought there had to be some other way to part from the road. I took a hammer to one of my memories, but that did nothing; I tried dying in another, but that didn't work out any better. Then I got stuck between the realms by accident; I guess I just wanted out badly enough."
"Wow. Way to make me feel like I didn't even want to find you."
"What did you do?"
"I asked Ash."
"I wish I'd had an Ash to ask from."
"Yeah, well. You figured it out anyway, which doesn't surprise me at all."
Dean poured a cup from the miraculously filled coffee pot for each of them and watched Sam fetch the milk from the fridge; there hadn't been any milk in there before. Only one of them used it in their coffee, and it wasn't Dean.
"Speaking of, we should go and see Ash sometime. Thank him, for one. I think it took us exactly half the time to find each other with both of us out there, and I owe him for the tip."
"Yeah. I'm looking forwards to that."
"Man, the three of us will end up majorly pissing some angels off. But, hey, it's not my fault that Heaven fucked up. I wouldn't have had to go anywhere at all if my little brother hadn't gotten lost on the way in," Dean noted, ending the sentence in a long gulp of coffee.
He loved the crooked smile on Sam's lips - loved having him there, loved the whole of heaven at that very moment. He hadn't expected to meet Sam in the middle. He should have, he'd known right from the beginning that Sam would want to find him just as desperately, but a seed of doubt inside him had blinded him to what he'd known and made him question his own brother - and not for the first time. And all that time... all that time, Sam had been driving himself just as hard as Dean had, if not harder, to find his brother.
"I'm just happy that we're both here," Sam said, his voice content and full.
Castiel pulled Sam into an embrace, and Sam held him close and patted him on the back with his eyes closed, lips turned to a warm smile. Dean sat on the table and watched them, a sandwich balanced on his knee and a beer in his hand, feeling happier than he remembered feeling in years, perhaps decades. This was all he wanted: his family together under the same roof, safe and sound, with nowhere to rush.
"It's good to see you, Sam," Castiel said as they parted, his lips mirroring the smile on Sam's.
"You too, man."
"Dean sent me to find out why you were gone in the first place," the angel continued, casting a look in Dean's direction; Dean nodded and lifted his beer, mouth full of food and unable to spare room for a comment.
"I think I know enough to put together the full picture. I was speaking with a sister of mine when your heavens merged - all of Heaven felt it happen. It seems that it was intentional; someone thought that the two of you would cause less trouble if you were contained separately. Of course, if anyone had bothered to ask me, I could have told them how that will end."
Sam was still holding his hand on Castiel's shoulder - he laughed as he slid it down along the male's arm and headed to find himself a seat.
"Should have guessed," Dean grunted, patting the table beside him, "Do you have a moment to sit down with us, Cas? It's been a while since we last bonded. Now's as good time as ever. I mean, we're both dead, so we're not in a hurry. You should catch us up on our funeral and everything."
Sam lifted his brows.
"We had a funeral?"
"Yeah, and you missed it."
"I have time. But only if you tell me your side of the story," he promised, smiling.
"We'll tell you twice," Sam laughed, pulling out a chair for him, "take a seat."