One morning, Dean pulls his body out of a pool of fire. The flames simmer over black oil, like the surface of a lake, and Dean pushes away his chains and peels himself out of the blaze.
Then he stumbles into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
When he looks at himself in the mirror, it's mostly the usual. He hates what he sees, and he could probably use a shower. From the bathroom window, Dean peers at the sky. Purple. Stars whirlpool into the moon like a gluey sludge, and their light is tinged with the iridescent afterimage of oil spots and filmy crud--the kind that environmentalists try to skim off lakes.
Also, the house is burning down.
Dean coughs. "Sammy?" he calls. Because if this is where Dean thinks it is, he's one miracle and a Pink Floyd EP short.
The smoke's getting thick, and when Dean turns the faucet, the handle warps, melts, and the water comes out as steam. Oh come on, he thinks. That doesn't even make sense. He breathes in paint chips and ashes and carbon monoxide and a little bit of residual oxygen.
He should probably get downstairs, he thinks. The house burning down.
Then the floor gives out and does that for him.
He plunges into a pool of fire that rushes his orifices hungrily, scorches his bones, and eats his boiling marrow from the inside out. And when his fat is clean and bubbling, liquid enough to float what's left of his marshmallow bones and tough gristle, Dean drifts back to the surface like filmy crud. He collects his bones like fish in a net and swims for shore. By the time he crawls out onto the reeds, he has hair again, and skin again, and fingernails that tear off when he scrambles at the shore and drags his body out of the lake.
Well, those were short-lived, he thinks of his fingernails, and makes fists. He groans. He stares at the purple sky, panting with new lungs already black with smoke, and eager for fire. The flames lick away from him, small silvery grunions of heat flipping from his body and back into the pool.
The reeds at his back are blue and glowing with spilled grace and in the sky above him Dean can see the blast shadows from angel wings, ashy and hanging in the still air, the way exhaust fumes from planes do. The way chemical clouds hang over factories. The smoke signals last over empty badlands, in a world with no wind.
Dean looks up at the sky in Heaven and thinks, "Fuck me."
The sky sings a mournful syncopated brass tune, out of time and out of tune. Cornets, horns, and flugelhorns.
He sits up, gropes in his pockets.
No car keys. No ID. Just a bottle of lighter fluid and a flask.
Not that any of that mattered in Heaven, but Dean kind of wants to know why he's so naked; not a switchblade or a paperclip on him. Then he remembers, kind of, and he's not as curious. He squirms in his jacket; everything's sticky with gasoline. He tries to shake the lightheadedness from himself and wonders if he shouldn't just dump his clothes. The fumes are killing him, and Heaven doesn't exactly have laundromats. Hell, if he could find a tree Dean bets he could wish some pants onto its branches and pick sock fruit. Because honestly, Heaven is a magical lollipop land, and fuck this place.
It's different than the last time though, roads ripped up and mountains decimated. It's Illinois flat and desert-empty, with dark oceans of what Dean assumes is grass. The ground is wet with fading grace. Every so often he walks through the burnt skeleton of an angel's wings, which cracks when he touches it. The remains hang at his shoulders.
He takes the path at a wary jog. It's dead and silent here in a way it never was the last time, but Dean's not gonna rule out spotlights and garrisons of multidimensional waves of light just yet. The last Dean heard from Cas, Heaven was at war.
He wonders--and it's a macabre curiosity, which he chalks up to being dead, and in Heaven, and in the company of a whole lot of cosmic carnage--he wonders if he'll find Castiel's wings here, too.
Dean's boots don't make any sound against the cracked earth, which is uncomfortable. He doesn't want to be a ghost.
"Sammy!" he shouts, testing his voice. It rings out loud and clear in the darkness.
Well, worth a shot. He kicks a stone. No skitter.
An airplane, bright and whale-like, passes overhead. Westward bound. Low enough to be landing soon. (So Heaven had airports now?) It only roars to life the moment Dean realizes its silence, the impossibility of it. The sound crackles belatedly overhead like thunder.
Experimentally, Dean kicks another rock, and wills a skitter. Wills sound. There is one.
Dean slows to walking and massages a stitch in his side. The sound of his footsteps keeps running. Once the footprints dash out of sight, the sound stops. And then the sound is walking. Dean stops. After some delay, the sound stops, too.
Dean hears horns again, closer now. Wheezing, watery horns.
This can't be good.
"How can you be so sure?" asks Castiel, who doesn't yet know these things about Dean.
"Heaven gave itself," he says, and he is rawer and wilder than Dean has ever seen him, the core of him bright and limpid under his skin (which in the end is only a vessel, a chalice). "Heaven gave all of itself for this war.
Just like that, Castiel draws a line in the sand.
"Like an undergrad," says Sam. "Who's an entire order of magnitude over twenty-two." His roommate is wearing a bright red shirt with the words "Class of 2011" screen-printed on it.
"That's a synonym for broke as shit and amenable to threesomes, right?"
"I think 'amenable to threesomes' is the only synonym for amenable to threesomes," says Sam. "You could put that on a shirt."
Sam's hold music is some kind of awful unsigned brass band, though to their credit all of the musicians seem at least vaguely acquainted with the idea of music. If not rhythm, harmony, or timbre.
"I don't know what you think you're going to accomplish up there." His roommate raises his eyebrows at the phone in Sam's hand.
"I don't know what I'm accomplishing here," Sam replies absently. But the hold music; it's awful. It sounds like they're trying to whistle with a knife.
"Fuckin' Stanford kids," his roommate sniffs. "Too good for the lower 48. I bet you won't even remember what my name is in a week."
If Sam's going to be perfectly honest, he's not sure he remembers what his roommate's name is now. Dave? "You're a floor aid at Apple," Sam says, as if to prove Dave wrong.
"They're called Geniuses. I'm a Genius."
"Yeah, you're a genius. Waitwaitwait, shut up--" Sam dives into the bathroom when the hold music lets up and slams the door on Dave's spirited deluge of irrelevance. "My future's riding on this phone call, Dave! SHUT UP--" Sam shouts from the other side of the door. He twists the lock and takes his phone off silent.
Dave's muffled reply, "Dude, my name's not even Dave!" sounds reasonably distant. Sam heaves a sigh of relief.
"Mr. Winchester," says the woman on the other end of the line.
"That's me," says Sam.
"You have a pretty infamous name."
"Yeah, it runs in the family." Sam adjusts his collar and tries to stuff his shirt down his pants one-handed. Phone interview or not, at least it makes him feel better. "Oh--oh god, that wasn't a snide joke, I promise. My mother's maiden name was--Nixon?"
"Right. And you say here your previous employment 'didn't work out.' I was wondering, could you elaborate on that for us?"
Jesus, it's dusty in here, Sam thinks, and tries not to sneeze. "You know, it really just wasn't my style. You know, you get sent somewhere because it's a make-or-break kind of deal, you come back, you realize that it's really not for you. That kind of thing. Big corporate mess."
"Okay. So, you're a law student at Stanford, with a... 2.4 GPA. And no classes in environmental law."
"Mr. Winchester, why do you want this internship?"
"Alaska is the only state I haven't been to."
"Wow, you're well-traveled."
"You have no idea."
"It's cold up here."
"That'd be a welcome change--you really have no idea."
"And...you've listed under your additional skills, 'bowhunting.'"
"Since I was a kid."
"All right, Mr. Winchester. I think we're just about--"
"Just Sam is fine."
"Sam, I just have one more question. Where did you hear about this internship?"
"Bobby Singer sent me."
"Well, Sam. The boss says welcome aboard."
When Sam swings the door open and Dave is waiting expectantly outside it, Sam says, "She wants me to forward me my travel info. You're cool with paying the utilities on your own this month, right?"
"You've got to be fucking shitting me." Dave's mouth drops. "I heard that interview--did one one else hear that interview?"
Dave rails. He hands Sam a duster and continues to rail. "You live a charmed life, Winchester," he mutters, finally.
"Do you hear music?" Because Sam does, and it's earsplitting.
Dave chuckles, and momentarily lapses out of his railing. "You like? 'Cause they're moving in upstairs. Call themselves Angel Radio. They're fucking awful. But wait, wait--oh hell no, Winchester, you come back here--!"
Because this is the deal, according to Dave. Sam's seen all the movies, right--the ones where study farm kids have a crisis of academic faith and break everything off for some life-changing adventure that results in book deals, motivational speaking tours, and sometimes even feature film documentaries that get picked up by Sundance. He's gotta realize that this is the plot of basically every Disney summer special, right? No? Okay, the point is, Sam's seen them, and he's memorized all the lines, and now he's living one. That's called a charmed life.
So when tomorrow comes, and Sam is still baking chocolate chip cookies through his Torts exam, Dave is surprised, is all.
"Were you expecting me to cut spontaneously to a musical montage or something? I booked a flight for last month."
"Oh, good. April's a pretty good flight month. I guess that means you missed Cinco de Mayo, though. That's too bad; your chili was fantastic. But I guess Winchester's off having life-changing adventures."
He already had one. He's had several. Alaska is the last frontier. Alaska is denouement. Alaska's going home.
Dave looks a little like he just took a bong hit, the prospect sounds to phenomenally foreign to him. Finally: "You're almost thirty. You have less than half of a law degree. And you're flying off for a denouement?"
"Or a reboot," says Sam. He's always liked that about Dave, the movie metaphors. "I haven't decided yet."
Sam glances up at the ceiling, and sees fire. Then it falls into his eyes as scabs of paint. There's a heavy thunk above them.
"Angel Radio," says Dave. He squints at the dust of paint gracing Sam's shoulders. "Get out while you still can."
There's a girl, blonde, maybe Mary's age, maybe older (she has a baby face); she jumps up from the arcade, has her hands on him before John's even done combing his fingers down Mary. "I told you sooner rather than later," she clamors.
Dean draws in a long, shuddering breath that wavers, gurgles at the top of his diaphragm before he pushes it out. Mary can see the tendons in his neck tense as he clenches his jaw. "Felt like later."
He won't look at the girl. Mary can see the oily guilt smudging their shadows where they meet. They twist and repel one another until they aren't shadows at all, they're just marbleized stains on the roadhouse floor. Jo sees. Dean doesn't, or won't. He's already looking past her. .
John runs his fingers along the waistband of her jeans, catching her hipbones. He slides his fingers down her pelvis. Mary grabs his shoulder to stabilize herself. "Shhhh," she says, giggling. "Not in front of our son." But Mary is twenty-two, and it's hard to stop being twenty-two when you've decided that's what you are. Another quick glance at Dean, and then at John, to make sure he's seen. John is staring at her thighs.
Suddenly he's older, thicker. His hair is graying and he smells of blood and hospital cleaner and sulfur. "It's been five years," he says.
"You don't have to talk to him." Though, Mary reasons, they probably should. Your boy comes home, and you welcome him. He dies, and you show up for the aftermath, even if you couldn't be there for the funeral. Because that's how these things go, isn't it. Mary feels a twinge of discomfort, the kind she associates with stocking runs and black dresses, the funerals of family she never knew. And in this type of situation, Mary's never known whether it was more respectful to cry for those who loved and lost, or not to cry at all--because she is a stranger, and she does not deserve that. This is the kind of stranger they are.
Mary wants to kiss John. She wants to pretend no one ever walked into the bar, nothing ever broke their trance; nothing happened. They can continue to be wenty-two and very much in love.
But Mary's dead. So when John says, "You don't understand, Mary," she replies: "Well, you've got plenty of time to explain."
Of course, John gives her platitudes.
But Mary at twenty-two was an unusual breed. She knows what to do with them. She knows how to make them real. At twenty-two, Mary's brothers were already dead; she'd cut all her hair off for them years before. She wasn't a hunter when she was with John, but she wasn't a cheerleader, either--hadn't been for years.
It was 1971 when Mary's brothers went to war and never came back. She'd been Varsity before that, in a way she'd never be again.
The oldest Campbell son was twenty-three; he'd deferred conscription until he'd finished up at KU. The younger was just shy of eighteen, like Mary. (And a cousin, in truth.) They'd been bred into the life like she had, kerosene and burning amaranth. Evil and gunsmoke was old hat; time came, of course they would serve their country. Serve it the same way they'd been doing since they were old enough to shoot, young enough they didn't need to be told why. Back home, they'd hunted ghosts and banshees; werewolves, sometimes. Tulpas, thoughtforms, monsters. They killed them all. In Quang Nam, they hunted Commies, who in the end were only people. And they killed a lot of people, until one person killed them, too. They came back in boxes, already burned.
The ocean, said Deanna. The ocean would be nice. But this was Kansas, so instead they got the Kaw. Mary added the salt.
Theirs is a large, complicated family but for every newborn child there's a lot more dead. It won't take more than a generation or two to kill them all; Sam and Dean are the last, and won't even leave headstones. Mary didn't go to war, but she knows the way it feels. The heady violence of it. The pain of loss. She knows the way it turns people. She's known it all her life.
Mary, ice those, will you? We'll splint them in the morning.
aren't you hot there? Up there on the ceiling.)
"It's been five long damn years," John repeats, once he's finished the lie Mary's been ignoring. "I don't want to see them on my son. I can't."
And Mary understands that; she does. It can be the most terrible thing in the world, watching people change. There are so many ways for it to go wrong. And Dean Winchester, her baby--their baby--is dead. That means something went wrong.
All the same. "It doesn't matter what you want," says Mary.
"This is Heaven." John pushes her off his lap, because she is twenty-two and he's past fifty, and they are strangers to each other now. "It does."
In the hospital, Mary cries and so does Samuel, and Deanna nods when the doctors tell her Mary, Mary who is so brave and who is only seven, will be fine. She will be fine and she will carry her scars forever.
If she were born forty years later, the world may never have known she'd burned at all; that is, until the day she died--until the fire came back to eat her alive.
As it does.
"Ellen, I haven't been carded in like twenty years."
"You ain't that old."
"Fine, fifteen," Dean concedes. "You know me, Ellen, come on."
"Heaven has rules, Dean."
"Not anymore." Dean arches his eyebrows and gestures toward the roadhouse's front windows. The sky is purple and sticky and filled with the carcasses of angels.
Ellen sighs. "If I tell you to come back in another fifty years, when you're good and old and I can't card you, that gonna send you back home breathing?"
Dean snorts, absently begins to build a castle out of Ellen's coasters.
Ellen knocks it flat. "You used to do that," she says.
Heaven. "Yeah, and I'm still me." He scowls at his ruined architecture.
"You're in Heaven."
Dean scoops the coasters into a pile and wills them into a pyre. No dice on that one either. "I'm in Heaven," Dean agrees. "Love what Cas has done with the place. All of that municipal funding he's drummed up is really going back to the community. And you know what we're not gonna talk about? Being in Heaven."
Ellen shoots him a glare that says that's the kind of mouth gets you sat outside.
Dean's talking too much. Or too fast; possibly both. That's his tip-off. When he builds another coaster castle, he sees now why it'd been so difficult to make the first; his heart's racing (and winning, seeing as it beat his brain cells by a considerable margin). He taps his fingers to Black Sabbath and hums along. And once he's settled into the pattern, he takes a deep breath and looks around the roadhouse.
Dean can't tell whether it's a busy or a slow night; beyond a certain depth it's difficult to tell what're people from lumps, and tarps, and whatever else the shapes might be. The room itself is hazy with forgetfulness. (What did the walls look like? Were there posters? Was there even a menu?)
He feels like he's on the brink of heart attack. Probably, it's finally occurring to him that he's dead. He's gone. It's happened so many times sometimes it takes a while to run through to the appropriate response.
He wipes a hand down his face. "Do you--d'you still do water?"
Ellen can materialize water just fine. "Drink slow," she advises.
Dean drinks slow. He puts the empty glass on one of the coasters, and the cardboard puffs up like a damp scar around the rim.
"They regulars?" Dean cocks his head toward Mary--and John, who's leaving her.
"They've been around," Ellen allows. "They'll be back."
Dean's not sure if he should be relieved about that. There's only so much mindfuck he can take at one time, and he's pretty sure he passed that point once the sky turned purple. Right now, he just wants to crawl inside a shot glass.
"Don't think they make 'em that big," says Ellen.
"You're not actually Ellen, are you."
"A little of Ellen, a little of you."
There's a rattling of off-beat drums, then the crash of a symbol. There's already a headache niggling at his left side, and Dean groans. "I hope you're not paying them."
Then the horns start in.
Ellen takes Dean's glass and drops it in the sink. "Call themselves Angel Radio. Showed up about an hour ago, said they were gonna play a gig."
"Yeah, I'll bet they did."
Ellen looks Dean over. "Sound like shit, but they're clean," she assures him, though this does nothing for him. "They're like us."
Dean's stomach churns. He needs to calm the fuck down, because aside from being dead, there's nothing to worry about.
A trombone wails.
And then there is. There's something to worry about--which is, for the briefest fraction of a second, a great relief.
Then it's worse.
Because when Angel Radio plays, the walls of the roadhouse thrum and the glasses explode, reform, and shatter again. The floorboards pound with the weight of a thousand dancers in boots and the lights keep time the way not even the music can manage. In the time Dean's been nursing his glass of water, Heaven's brass band has gained a rogue strings section, twanging guitars and a large cello that makes a deep, thick sound, like tendons plucked by iron fingers. The muscles in Dean's shoulders jump to attention.
The strings scream.
Dean massages his headache. The band hits a throbbing refrain and the french horn blares out sharp trills. The cello beats out an esophageal ricochet. Deltoid fifth, extensor third. Lumbrical lumbrical lumbrical, and then a serratus (double sharp).
Dean tugs at the collar of his shirt. The beat is dizzying, arrythmic pulse, and the walls run red with their music.
"You want another cup of water?" asks Ellen.
Dean shakes his head, which is a bad idea. "It's just, I-- Familiar song."
"I'm gonna--" Dean starts. "I'm gonna get some air, I guess. Uh."
The roadhouse flickers with the insinuation of flame as he leaves it.
Outside, Dean drops his hands to his thighs and his head to his belly and breathes. His lips purse like he's playing duet to the (coronary) cornet inside. He inhales sharply and feels fingers being threaded into his gut, pressing down one by one. Fingernails slice hairlines down his large intestine--not enough to kill, just enough to taste. It's a tasteful melody.
Dean's being played like a piccolo. His stomach is an accordion. His throat is a kazoo. He's a one man band, and he's playing in Alastair's House of Reds.
There's a beacon of light as the roadhouse door opens, and his peripheral vision goes dark when the door swings shut again.
"You wanna try?" someone asks above him. You have the hands for it, says Alastair.
The back of his throat squeals as he swallows hard and looks up. "You gotta be fucking kidding me." Dean screws his eyes shut and opens them again. "Walt here too, Roy?"
"No," says Roy stiffly. It seems Dean's hit a nerve.
Roy Meeker. That's a good point of focus. That's good. It's good. Dean thinks about Roy Meeker, stupid simpering asscrack of a hunter Roy Meeker, and leaves the rest behind.
Yeah, that's good.
Dean snaps upward, catching Roy in the gut with his elbow before slamming him against the wall, and pinning him there with this alto sax. "When'd you learn to play?" Dean pants. He's genuinely curious.
Roy considers spitting, Dean can see his tongue working behind his lips, and Dean slides the sax from Roy's chest to his throat, keys pressing penny bruises into Roy's skin.
"We're not actually a band!" Roy says, with all the bravado a man in his situation can believably command. And Dean's been in his shoes more than enough times to know there's an art to it, and Roy is a master. Roy surrenders well.
Still, Dean rolls his eyes. "Obviously. Where'd you learn to play?"
"We didn't learn to play," gasps Roy.
"And it shows. But here we are. So where'd you learn to play, Roy." Affect drops from his voice. Because if there's one thing Dean knows, it's that Hell's junior bandstand don't belong up here. And he'd know those songs anywhere. They're his lullabies at night, his bugle calls in the morning. They're his absent little ditties when he and Sam are on a job that has nothing whatsoever to do with Hell. They're a part of him, the way music is, and he'd know them anywhere.
"The angel," Roy croaks. "The angel, Castiel. He has a message for you."
Dean releases Roy, and thinks about throwing the alto sax into the dark. He shoves it into Roy's hands instead. Cas has a sick sense of humor, if this is meant to be some sort of secret code between them. Dean wonders if it wasn't supposed to be some kind of ridiculous dog whistle. "Yeah, I'll be he does," Dean says, when he realizes he's been staring at Roy, and Roy's been staring at him, wondering where he'd gone. "I've got a message for Cas, too. Where the fuck is he?"
"There's an, a war--"
"And we're on the frontline, here. This is Heaven. So where is he?"
Roy pokes at his bruising neck like he's playing a tune. C, D, E, F#.
"And where's Sam?" It's fast, a stabbing want, but the words make it to Dean's mouth anyway, and he's in no shape to stop them. He wants Sam.
Roy stares at him dumbly for a moment, probably curses the shit out of him, then surrenders in full. He ignores Dean's outbursts.
"The angel Castiel says--his message is--" Roy looks up at the purple sky, and recites from memory. "Why were you in that house?"
Dean regards him impassively. "That's all?"
Roy nods. "Why-were-you-in-that-house?"
Then the insinuation of flame pays up. The roadhouse burns bright from within, and goes up in a caustic cyclone. Dean swears and throws his arm up for a modicum of cover that's laughably insufficient. But when Dean opens his eyes, it's just Roy. The roadhouse is dark and standing. The muffled clank of glasses and the strained melody of--apparently--Castiel's string section purls through the shriveled window sealant.
Dean touches the door tentatively. It's there. Cold to the touch.
Roy stares at him.
"Oh, fuck you Roy," Dean snaps. He yanks the door open. "Ladies first."
Inside, Ellen is standing on a ladder above the door, with Jo on the other side. They're nailing up a large clock Dean can't remember whether it was there before or not. "The roadhouse just burned down," Ellen explains. "We're rebuilding it."
Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. Headache's still there. "I noticed."
"It's probably your fault," says Jo. There's no heat to her words, just the inured impassivity of Heaven.
"It burned down in like three seconds, and...in another three, you rebuilt it."
Jo grunts. "That's kinda how flashbulb memories work, Dean. This isn't Habitat for Humanity."
Which, no they don't, that has nothing to do with flashbulb memories, but he lets Jo slide on that one. Dean chalks it up to Heaven being one big son of a bitch.
"You think too much," says Jo. "Here, take this." Jo tosses something down to him.
Dean recoils. Sticky gray matter. "What the hell? Is this a-- Is this your hippocampus?"
Jo nods, and blows him a kiss. "I got blown to bits, remember? I wanted to give you a piece of my mind about coming upstairs so soon. Hold onto it."
Ellen whistles a warning to her daughter, and jumps down from her ladder. Once she's folded it up, she asks, "Wanna work for your whiskey, Dean? Could use a fry cook."
And you look like you need it, she doesn't say.
Dean squints. "What?" But then... whiskey. "Sure?"
Ellen slaps his shoulder. "Good. First question still stands, though."
"Why were you in that house?"
Great. So now everyone knew. This 'communal knowledge' thing blew.
Samuel fixes her bandages. "You are so beautiful," he says. And that's when it starts. "You are so beautiful," he says, as though it must be said. Her daddy's never told her that before. You are smart, you are strong, and now--you are beautiful.
This time, Dean takes care to leave no trace.
Then he realizes he went to bed with someone. Fuck. He's only been in the state for eight hours, tops. Fuck fuck fuck.
Sam knows one person who'd be pretty proud of him right now.
He wonders if he dresses fast enough, he'll hit a frequency that allows for retrogressive time travel. In the meantime, he tries to think about the positives to this situation.
1. Nanditha's a good lay. Because that's sort of what she has to be, doesn't she, Sam thinks, as he flosses his teeth. This mirror was designed with a much shorter person in mind. She hasn't even given him his orientation packet, or whatever it was he was promised over the phone. They weren't "lovers"; Sam barely remembers what she looks like with clothes on. He doesn't remember her voice, or the color of her eyes.
He's never slept with a woman the same day he met her. Or, he amends, not that he remembers. He's never slept with a co-worker before, either. He's also never been fired for sleeping with a co-worker before, and definitely not before orientation. Sam wants to stab himself. He tries to call her to mind and all she feels like is someone else's fantasy.
2. The mirror expands when he touches it. It's good to know that surreality was on the table, because that meant sex pollen and/or "I'm turning into the rest of my family" got knocked down a few pegs as far as the ddx was concerned.
"Fuck," he breathes, frowning at his reflection. It looks like he spent the better part of the day on an airplane and the rest of the night in someone else's bed. Funnily enough.
Nanditha is waiting for him in the co-op kitchen when he stumbles in. He pours himself some orange juice.
"So, environmental law," she says.
"Maybe I'm with the oil companies. Maybe I dig fracking," counters Sam, which is almost everything he knows about environmental law. Overfishing, maybe. Not dumping down storm drains?
"Right, because that's why you have"--and she looks down at the folder in front of her, which is apparently his bullshit resume--"seven years of experience with invasive species? What kind of experience, exactly?"
Sam swallows. It's exponentially more difficult to track his lies when there's an obviously sexual elephant in the room. "Uh, extermination, mostly. And--relocation. Sometimes. Mostly extermination."
He takes a gulp of orange juice.
"I don't believe you, you know," she says, and Sam gags.
"About the drugs," she clarifies.
He spits his orange juice back into his glass. After taking a moment to collect himself: "Why the hell wouldn't you believe me about that? Why would I lie about that?"
Nan wipes a droplet of orange juice from his resume. "I don't know. Diversionary tactic?"
"I'm not--" Sam sighs. "Okay, look. I don't actually have a BA. I am actually a law student, though the circumstances surrounding that… okay, it's complicated. And I haven't been entirely--myself--for a lot of the last three years, and--"
Another woman hustles through the front door, kid in tow. She's blonde, and both are bulky in their rain boots and windbreakers. "Hey," she says, as she helps her child shove his ski pants into his boots. "You must be the new policy intern."
"Sam was just telling me about his work on invasive species," says Nan.
"Great!" says the woman, who doesn't care. She won't even remember Sam's name. Which, frankly, is exactly the kind of work environment Sam came out here to find.
And now he has "lays."
He has a sneaking suspicion Nanditha Ramachandran is about to blow his cover wide open, and somehow that's what's going to keep him up at night.
The blonde woman--who's probably his boss, somewhere in the hierarchy of command out here, Sam realizes--stays at the door, strapping her child into an extreme amount of clothing, for longer than Nan seems comfortable with. So she pumps words into the silence between them. The deal with the rats is that there were these Russian fur traders, she says, folding his resume in half. As she rinses her dishes, she continues, They wanted to breed all these foxes for, you know, their fur trading, so they dumped a bunch of them on these uninhabitated islands. A lot of them died--think Survivor, only without emergency teams and a multi-million dollar television deal--but, you know, a population thrived.
"They ate the water fowl," says Nan.
"The water fowl. The foxes ate all the water fowl."
And that really fucked up the ecology of these stupid islands, is what Sam is gathering from this. See, his powers of deduction and extrapolation at work. He knows what he's doing; shame on Nan for doubting his credentials. Sam sighs.
"Now pretend all the foxes are demons, and the water fowl are--anything that's not Judeo-Christian, I guess. That's the situation we're riding into right now."
"So, a butterfly effect. Hell's gate closes, and it all goes to hell anyway."
"More like Butterfly Effect 3. So more incestuous and directly interrelated."
Sam scoffs. "Seriously? That's what you're going with?"
"Hey, at least it wasn't a Kutcher reference."
Finally, the woman and her child leave, and Nan breathes a sigh of relief. "Goddamn insurgents."
When Sam's expression invites further elaboration, Nan rolls her eyes. "Well, it sounds stupid when I say it. They have their timelines and we have ours. That was your mom, by the way, and your brother."
Sam spits out his orange juice.
"Sam, calm down. The sky is purple. Where did you think you were?"
"You're a useful prop. This isn't your world, Sam."
Sam's never actually had his ontology questioned before.
"What's Jessica's last name?" Nan asks. "Exactly. You don't know."
Well, jesus christ. Why bother existing, then? Sam feels papery and inconsequential. "We'd better at least go skydiving, then," he says, eventually.
"You're on a law internship, at a biological research station in the Aleutian Islands," says Nan. "Why the fuck would we go skydiving."
"Because it's something other people do," Sam reasons. "We're the other people."
"Exploring," says Mary.
Dean has a long knife in one hand and a book of matches in the other. "Where are you going?" she asks, fumbling for her lighter. She stops suddenly, when someone screams.
"Just remembering good times."
He unwraps an oilcloth and there are organs, clean and field-stripped.
It is 1973 and Mary and John are officially introduced by a pack of Camel cigarettes. She's known him for ages, obviously, but this is the first time they had anything to offer each other.
It's fitting somehow, that it should be a kind of oblivion they exchange that day, though much smaller, much easier to ignore than the one that ends them. It's 1973 and noir is all about the slow build.
It's late afternoon, the city in a lazy haze of nothing. John had the cigs and Mary, of course, with the lighter. Mary and John smoke. In 1973 smoking is still very much in vogue, hardly rebellious at all, but they're young enough for that to be exciting. Mary's beauty is magnified by the grey stench in her hair, the husk of her voice if they smoke too much too often. She hated him for a while, which was exciting, too; and then there was a hot flat day in Kansas, and then she loved him. She's nineteen and it's the outskirts of town and this kind of flip-flop happens more often than it doesn't; for a brief, brief moment, they are even in a band together. By Thursday they're not.
Theirs is a love of many iniquities, infidelities. More than you might expect from the wedding toasts later, but sometimes it's impossible to pull away from that kind of stylized self-destruction.
It's easier just to hide it.
That's what Mary thinks, anyway.
There's an art to this.
"Were you working?" asks Jo. "Nah, longer than that. We do 'em crispy."
"This ain't Biggersons," Ellen criticizes. "Crispier--no, crispier--"
"Biggersons does the whole onion," says Mary. "You can't just copy them."
"Why are we all watching me fry an onion?"
Because Mary just found out that Bill Harvelle's girlfriend is actually Bill Harvelle's widow, because Jo's the only one actually knows how to cook, and Ellen's taken it upon herself to be posthumously concerned for Dean. Which is a great soap opera, Dean's not knocking the premise exactly, but Heaven has 300 channels as it is.
"The house burned down," Dean explains.
"That doesn't explain anything." And Dean doesn't care who said that. He concentrates on his onion.
"Should it have to? I mean, you're all basically me, right? Just afterimages, filled in by me. Shouldn't you already know?"
Dean sighs. Enough with the bullshitting. Dean's not a fan of cryptic, and he doesn't give much of a damn what ghosts think. The dead shouldn't have any use for shock factor. "I brought lighter fluid, and I brought matches, and I locked the door behind me. And then the house burned down," he says.
"Were you working a job?" Jo asks. She's holding a plateful of perfect onion rings. When he answers, she drops them back into the fryer and lets them burn. "I'm gonna go take some actual orders," she announces tersely.
Ellen goes to man the bar.
Mary stays. "They don't know what to say," she says, finally. She takes an onion in her hands and starts to pick away the skin, layer by layer.
Dean looks down at her, one eye on the onions, burning. She's just a kid; younger than Jo, even. Everyone else, they're here the way they died. And then there's Mary, still pretending she's twenty-two. And mother or not, Dean has nothing in common with a girl like that.
"You don't have anything to say, either."
"You weren't there," says Dean. This wasn't her problem. "Go on-- Go."
Mary won't budge, but Jo comes back in, so maybe they're all gonna end up in the back again, just staring at onions.
"I have an order for deep-fried mushrooms, coffee with cream, and a salad." Jo informs them.
Dean pauses. "A what?"
"Salad's easy; coffee depends on how the machine's feeling. You brave enough for mushrooms?"
"Does it matter?" Jo glowers. "Some girl. Paid with her boyfriend's card. Said they're up in Alaska, doing research."
"Heaven has an Alaska?"
Jo shrugs. "Apparently it's next to Heaven's Nebraska. I don't know, Dean. Also, can I have my hippocampus back?"
"No," snaps Dean, out of spite. He doesn't want to be here anymore. "What's her boyfriend's name?"
"I wanted you to be okay, Dean." But Jo looks at the receipt. "It says D. Hasselhoff."
"Well, play again next time, Jo; I don't know what else to tell you. Jo, fry mushrooms. Mary, find mushrooms."
"Who's D. Hasselhoff?"
"I don't work here," says Mary. "And you don't talk to me like that."
"And I'm your boss," says Jo. "Who's D. Hasselhoff?"
Dean throws his apron at Jo. "D. Hasselhoff is Mushroom's boyfriend's boyfriend."
Dean's handing the oil basket off to Mary when something cuts through him. It cuts him out at the knees. Mary yelps as hot oil spritzes into the air and makes a grab for him. She's stronger than she looks.
"Shit, Dean--" Jo drops the apron on the ground, but it seems to get caught in a current, float somewhere downstream. Dean feels a hand on his shoulder, and then
"Cas," he coughs. The back of his throat is salty and burning, like he's swallowed seawater. He tongues at the kelp between his teeth. They're not in Nebraska anymore--not even the Heaven kind. "Cas, you fucking bastard."
Sam stares blankly at the black building. A credit card?
When Nan catches his hesitation, she raps him on the chest and grins. "Shotgun always pays, Sammy."
"No one calls me Sammy," he says.
I'll marry the lionmaster, and our children will be fearless.
Dean takes his knife in hand and thinks about carving a flute.
It's not on fire yet.
"So, Sam's here," Dean says. "If you were looking for him, too. He has another girllfriend."
Dean's not sure if Sam's here and he hopes to god Sam's not here. But he's not stupid enough to believe that hope. Dean feels the walls of the house reach toward him and instinctively, he wipes the soot from his hands. He smells like onion rings.
"I wasn't looking for you." Castiel inspects the floors of the house, the empty rotting drawers. Dean rolls his eyes. No, Cas isn't looking for him; he's just looking for something Dean might have left behind. Cas is looking for clues.
His scrutiny belies that claim.
"That wasn't your serenade outside my window?"
"We once inhabited," says Castiel, at the blessed periphery of Dean's vision, just some shadow, some fabric, a host of unsolicited memories, unspoken dialogues. Dean feels his resentment draining away. "We once inhabited a more profound pond together, yes. But I have never understood your taste in music."
Dean refills with something a lot more violent. "Your lackeys, Cas. Your trumpet blowing choirboys. Or have they already outlived their usefulness?"
Castiel catches the accusation. "You didn't outlive your usefulness, Dean. But I noticed a considerable number of things outlived you."
And it's not even that Dean's angry at Castiel, exactly. He's angry at the idea of Castiel; he's angry at the idea of being abandoned, at Castiel's absence, at the broken pieces of rubble he and Sam either were or were fighting to protect; Dean could never be quite sure anymore. He's angry at Hell and he's fucking furious that it found his backdoor all the way up here and he's furious that Castiel unlocked the door and he's angry and he's angry and he hates Castiel because the Apocalypse is over and nothing, nothing has gotten anything but worse and he hates Roy Meeker and he hates how young everyone in Heaven died and he hates Heaven and he hates brass bands and he hates flesh bands even more and really, he'd rather everything burned to the ground.
Dean feels the heat at his back as the flames rip up the walls of the house, and breathes a ragged sigh of relief.
"So what do you want from me?"
"I wasn't looking for you," Castiel repeats. "I didn't think--"
Dean answers with fire. "You didn't think I'd notice if Heaven hired Alastair as their music teacher?"
Castiel cocks his head. Frowns.
"Do you have POWs you need to interrogate? Or do you just like knifeplay?"
"Dean," Castiel says carefully. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Dean waits for the floor to fall through beneath them, but Castiel chokes the flames and then it's all just darkness. Dean can't breathe for a moment either, feels the cool flood of Castiel in his lungs, the salt red in his throat. Then Castiel releases him.
Sedate, if sedated is a word for drowned, Dean continues. "I'm talking about your Jonas Brothers camped out in the roadhouse, Cas."
"They're very important."
"They're from Hell."
"Hell is gone. I sealed it. I led Heaven into battle and--"
Not all of it," Dean hisses. "Not in me. And I'm not gone. Believe me, I actually tried."
Castiel's expression darkens. "I'm aware."
"Is that what this is? Is it punishment? Because I can't--"
Castiel pulls away, like an ebbing tide. Dean feels it in his chest, against his legs, and feels seasick again. "I've only ever tried to help, Dean. I would never--" Then Cas stops. Maybe he sees something in Dean, maybe he just can't be assed to continue. Whatever the reason, Castiel stops.
"Hell would have learned music from Lucifer," he says instead, clipped and impersonal. "I suppose it makes sense that their aural traditions would be similar."
Dean takes a deep breath. He thinks about Hell and he thinks about Alastair and he thinks about the cruel, cruel irony that Cas, of all people, sent Dean back to them. He makes fists and tries to keep the tremor of fury from his voice. It'd be lost on his audience, anyway. Castiel's not even looking at him anymore. Another deep breath. He tries to think about how much he absolutely does not care about Hell's musical ontology.
His words come out strained and heat-bleached anyway. "You--" he says. "You wanna trip an alarm, don't default to red alert, Cas."
"I didn't know," says Castiel. Which Dean supposes could be an apology, if that's what he were after. "I thought their music was pleasant," he offers, when Dean does not respond.
Dean veers from Castiel and throws his hands wide in exasperation. He lets his body language shout YOU'RE FUCKING WITH ME, CAS. "What part of handing Roy Meeker a Heaven-volume saxophone sounded pleasant to you?"
"They were the last souls to come to Heaven, before--" Castiel stops. "They are Heaven's final souls, its swan song. I wasn't aware you were acquainted with the saxophonist."
Dean reigns in.
"I thought their music was pleasant," Castiel repeats. "They're--" He searches for the appropriate words. And in this case appropriate means, No one talks about those things, Cas.
"They're determined. And passionate. Both are marks of a worthy creation," Castiel continues, as though it were all very obvious, Dean. "Where did they falter?"
"Pitch, for one."
Really, what's important is not making cellos out of tendons. What's important is not having a percussion section that sounds like deep vein thrombosis. What's important is not having an entire brass band to mimic the voices of the moaning damned. But also pitch.
That's the only thing anyone else seems to have noticed, anyway. No one else can hear the bones.
Apparently that's Dean's private shit.
"Do you remember Hell, Cas?" Dean asks.
"I gripped you tight and raised you from perdition."
"Uh huh." He's not sure why this is so goddamn important to him. But Dean's always felt-- Cas was there. The angel of the Lord, Castiel, was there; he knows what Hell is like. He knows these things. But Dean looks at Cas, Dean speaks at Cas, and Cas speaks back at him, and all Dean can feel is alone and betrayed. Cas doesn't remember. He doesn't understand. He doesn't get it at all. If he did, this conversation wouldn't have happened. Cas wouldn't have bothered with a band. He'd have sent something tasteful and inoffensive.
Like a candygram. Or a some roses. And holy shit, Winchester, get a grip.
Castiel mistakes Dean's turmoil for--Dean's not sure what he mistook it for. But Castiel nods.
Then he repeats, "I gripped you tight and--"
Dean cuts him off. "So no, then."
Castiel pulses away, like he's pulling at Dean's insides with a magnet. Just a little tug. Like there's a string around his collarbone and Castiel's given it a little tug. "It was...incompatible."
Incompatible. Fucking figures. And you know, it's better this way--it is. Dean doesn't have any idea what use an angel would have for memories like that, but he can't imagine they'd be useful. Angels are dicks enough as it is. "So you've got some kind of angel firewall?" he asks.
"There's a firewall," Castiel says. "A net, really. You're supposed to pass through when you enter Heaven's gates."
Of course you do. "Well, apparently it's broken, Cas."
Castiel takes Dean in for a moment, gaze probing. He flashes through a thousand minute expressions, as though he were coming to terms with a minor disaster he was not personally equipped to deal with. His face settles on something unnamable, topped with a small helping of guilt. When he decides upon a solution--and Dean waits expectantly; he's a huge fan of people "solutions" so he can't imagine what Cas could possibly come up with--Castiel steps toward him.
"Do you remember leaving Hell?"
Dean's not even going to dignify that with a response.
Yes he is: "What."
"If Heaven has brought your memories of--" Castiel pauses, then continues reluctantly. "Hell--to the fore, do you remember leaving it? If I were you, I think that would be my memory of greatest import. Leaving."
Dean's had enough of this shit. "Cas, if you want to toot your own horn, steal a trumpet from your boy band."
"I didn't mean--"
"You know what you sound like right now?" Dean regards him sideways, with a skulking leer he's adopted from god knows where. Tigers, maybe. Some other large, predatory cat. You know, the Discovery Channel. But this is what it sounds like to Dean: Sure, you're brother's in a hole, a jillion feet under meta-dimensional ground, but hey, you're alive. That's something to be happy about, right? That kind of silver lining--and Dean's had plenty of time to grapple with this now--is bullshit. It is complete fucking bullshit.
But that's Cas. That's always been Cas. And you know what, fuck it. "Good talk, Cas."
"Cas," he says, because he can't think of anything else to say--as usual. The routine of it deflates him somewhat, and Dean accepts the rote indifference of this conversation.
"Dean," says Cas, as per the ritual. Dean kind of wants to say, "Sam," to go ahead and complete the trifecta, but Sam's not here.
Which is too bad. The place could use him.
Cas is going on about something.
"Like all of God's creations, Heaven is imperfect. Angels are imperfect," says Castiel, which is about as useless as generalities get. But Dean's at a point in his life (because if his brain's still ticking he's really not dead enough, is he) where he's remembering to lean on old crutches--and expecting less out of life and everyone in it can sometimes be very therapeutic.
"Heaven is resonance--God's first responsive system. A rough draft."
"Is this you 'resonating'?"
"Earth is a responsive system, too; it's a creative resonance. It allows for innovative, empathetic adaptation based on past mistakes."
Basically, Cas is an alien; that's his grand excuse. Which, whatever. Touche. "So what's Hell supposed to be?"
"Creativity. Memories aren't weapons"--and Castiel cuts off, lets Dean's harsh laughter subside before continuing. "But you might find some power in them. You might--"
"Cas," Dean interjects. And this, he can now say with deadly certainty: "You have no idea."
"Newsflash, Cas: I'm in Heaven. I'm dead. Careful's nowhere near the table anymore."
"Your existence here is liminal and unstable," says Castiel, which Dean thinks--is pretty sure--is Cas insinuating that Heaven's got fates worse than death hidden in its basement. This is 110% unsurprising, if Dean's gonna be honest with himself. But he's not really sure if he cares. It never ceases to amaze Dean how Cas can talk so much, and somehow manage to say nothing. So Heaven's fucked up; old news. It's Heaven.
Cas keeps going.
"Straddling peace and freedom as you are. Creativity can be dangerous. The freedom of a god can be dangerous; you remake the world in your image without meaning to."
"You speaking from personal experience, Cas?"
When he answers, he sounds irritated. Possibly contrite, though Dean's pretty sure Castiel has more pride than that. Castiel flickers into shapes, wide flat colors. He is briefly a fish, an explosion. Then he's Cas.
"Very nearly," he says.
"Well," says Dean. "My creativity and I are going to go deep-fry some onion rings. And then we're gonna get very uncreatively wasted. If you need anything, send a cake with a stripper in it this time."
"You look like an angel," he tells her, and scoops her into his lap. Somehow, this is always how they end up. But it's comfortable, and John breathes in the smell of her. She smells like Kansas, which smells like yellow, which in the end just smells like Mary.
"Oh, I'm prettier than that." And Mary laughs. "Have you ever seen one?"
Well, what do they look like? asks John.
Sam starts pulling up the thermometer buoy. "Seriously?"
"Sammy," Nan admonishes, very seriously. "Up here, we don't mess around."
Under normal circumstances, they'd have to crunch the data, but in Heaven research is exceptionally streamlined. And if there were perks to being a figment of someone's imagination, that was definitely one of them. "Up a hundredth from the upper extreme."
"Bobby's right. You're good." Nan smiles at him. "Sam Winchester: Everything I wanted and more."
"Yeah," Sam snorts. "The world is saved."
"Have a heart, Sam, jesus." But Nan knows what the readings mean. "If it's any consolation, we probably won't ever see the ocean actually boiling. But the if the temp keeps raising like this, we're gonna have to start investing in Marine Wold sized freezers, because the entire ocean's gonna go belly up."
Sam dips the buoy back into the water. "Does that mean the Devil's responsible for global warming, too?"
"Nah, that's on Heaven," Nan replies. "They invented Big Business."
Their fishing boat rolls over the ocean and Sam thanks God for dramamine.
The purple in the sky blends to the horizon seemingly without interruption, like the water and the sky fold up into one another--as though they weren't on a globe, but in a large dome.
"If this is Dean's heaven," Sam asks, several buoys later, "No offense, but why am I with you? Why aren't I--"
"He's afraid of you. He's afraid of talking to you." Nan keeps her eyes on the horizon. "But he thinks about you often. So here we are. We're somewhere safe."
Nan winks. "He'd better be afraid of me. He thinks about be a lot, too."
Sam's boots squeak on the deck. Then why hasn't Sam ever heard of her? There's no damn way Dean's been keeping a secret biologist-hunter-pinup girlfriend somewhere. He'd had Lisa, and Sam's pretty sure this was 1) not possible in Dean's wildest fantasies, and 2) they'd been sort of busy with the Apocalypse's post-nuclear fallout, hadn't they? Besides--
"Busty Asian Beauties, cover spread, 2004. Nanditha Ramachandran. BS in Marine Biology from UC Santa Cruz, part-time model. I'm only a hunter in Dean's mind."
"Are you ready, Sam? The Other People need to figure out how to save the world."
The blood drips from the counter, keeping time as Dean drives nails into a man twice his age. The bones in his wrists--there are twelve--fracture and separate. His Achilles tendons snap and Dean watches the physiognomy of his calves shift subtly. They don't look so different. If the man forgets the pain, he imagine imagine he could run.
And that's always entertaining.
"So tell me," Dean says. "Were you expecting angels?"
Dean doesn't know who this man is, the poor bastard, and a couple years ago he might not have cared; but recently he's found a real taste for the art. As Alastair says, the art has found a taste for him. And they are very beautiful together.
When he leans in close, Dean can see the dark smudge his shadow leaves in the man's eyes. Dean watches the man's pupils dilate as his face swims into view, blocking out the light. Dean hopes he doesn't like what he sees.
"Jonah," says Dean. Jonah is so new to Hell he still smells canine. Wedding ring. Niceish shoes. Old tattoos, ink gone greenish and blurring. Amateur job. Prison, probably. "You got out," says Dean. "Didn't you. Family waiting for you on the other side. Still breathing. I'll bet that was nice."
Dean cups Jonah's cheek in his hand, taps his fingers against his temples in time with the dripping blood. He's so close his lips brush Jonah with every plosive.
Jonah's defense lawyer sits on the other side of a small table with rounded corners. He's in a gray suit.
"Well, make these charges disappear!" Jonah shouts, but he's cuffed, he's starved, and as far as brute crimes go, he's never been that good. He's no threat.
Certainly, says the defense lawyer, who has red eyes. We can do that, Jonah. We can make them disappear.
"Then do it," Dean mouths. Then do it, says Jonah.
All it's gonna cost is your soul.
Dean spent four hours standing outside of a Japanese steakhouse once. It was one of those fancy operations, decorated with colorful lanterns and pagoda roofs and personal chefs for each table. The tables sizzled and their knives danced and delicate slabs of meat simmered on plates and in the air and in the waiting mouths of the lucky bastards sitting inside.
It was December. Michigan. He'd been twenty-three, twenty-four, maybe. Hurting, but mostly too drunk and too dizzy with Percocet to hustle. Nothing had mixed well and now he was too tired and starving and thirsty to do anything but stand and wait. He remembers it hurt to close his eyes, like the skin around them was too tight to afford him the luxury.
That restaurant didn't throw out shit. But he'd see it fly through the air, seen it carved into intricate shapes.
"I'm gonna show you now, Jonah," says Dean. "Takes a long time to get that good, you know that? But I know my way around a knife."
Jonah's ribcage springs open like an onion flower. Dean punctures his lungs one at a time. "I know exactly what this feels like," Dean says, as he begins to squeeze the contents of Jonah's large intestine into a bowl. (For later.) "I'm in your head, dude, I got you."
He pats Jonah on the thigh. "Don't you worry."
He cleans his knife of refuse. "Are your daughters smart? Because they're daughters, aren't they. Your kids."
"Pork belly," the girl drops her container and kicks it toward him. She's shaking so much even Dean can see; and he's shaking so much, everything is shaking as it is. Her girlfriend grabs her shoulder and they run.
Dean groans, feeling something hot and wet seep between his fingers as he bends to accept her offering. He ends up crawling stiffly toward it, which is more than a little pathetic. Everything swims before him. How fucking terrifying could he be right, honestly. What could he have possibly fucking done to her? People.
Jonah's belly is a little rubbery. Dean should be using a sharper knife, but sometimes he just wants to put his shoulders into it and really saw. It makes him feel less like a doctor and more like a hunter.
"They'll find out what you did. Imagine that, Jonah. What do you think that'll do to your baby girls? The older one, she wanted to be a cop, didn't she. You think she's ever gonna clear the academy? Knowing her daddy went to Hell."
Jonah's not too talkative, but that's okay. Dean likes the brooding types; they break that much faster. They fuckin' implode. And anyway, Dean realizes. Jonah hasn't stopped screaming since they let Dean in the room. So that was that buzzing sound.
The lightbulb above them sputters and hisses.
And then they're alone in the dark.
"People aren't afraid of guys like you," Dean says to Jonah Westin's defense attorney. Then he turns to Jonah, in cuffs, but still very much whole on this day in history, some ten years ago. Dean's serves himself another piece of pork belly. It's slathered in a sesame sauce.
"They're afraid of monsters. They're afraid of people who've got nothing left to lose. Because people like me?
"We're fucking bulletproof."
Dean has his hand over Jonah's mouth. He can feel the hot prickle of Jonah's tongue struggling against his palm.
"Yes, that's blood," he says. He grips Jonah's face harder, pushing until Jonah's lips turn white and bloodless. Dean has never been happier. When he finally peels his hand away Jonah's mouth comes with it, spooling and spooling until most of his face is a doughy slick.
Dean drops it into a vat of oil, brewing steamily in the roadhouse kitchen, and breads his second onion. He's slow, but the roadhouse crew's not in any rush, either.
A light blinks on.
"Don't gotta work in the dark to make life interesting here, you know," she says.
There's blood all over the floor.
"What's with the mess?" she asks next.
"Nothin'," says Dean, and rubs his eye, then regrets it. Fucking onions. "Just, uh."
Jo hands him a paper towel.
"Just uh, you know; remembering good times." Dean shifts away from the boiling oil. He feels like he's walking on stilts, dizzy and weak-kneed.
"Ah," says Jo, who seems pacified. "I have a werewolf memory like that. Mom hates it when I walk into that one indoors. Also, you should probably come down from those." She raps her fingers against Dean's stilts. "You're plenty tall already, and uh… the ceiling's really not."
Mary has rock salt in her hoops and scars under her skirts and her feet pound the patio with the noise of a hundred spirits.
His deadpan is almost as good as Sam's. Dean'll make a comedian of him yet.
"We gotta stop meeting like this. Two dudes, an abandoned shack, an ocean of gasoline, and a couple dozen matches? That's Grade A anti-sexy." He's be confused by Castiel's presence here but he's beyond confusion already. He'd be more confused is something made sense.
"Dean, are you all right?"
Dean looks up. He's not sure what Cas means. He's dead; of course he's not all right. "Oh, you mean the blood? Just visiting old friends. How's the band?"
"That's good." Dean turns the lock and flips the deadbolt and unscrews the cap to his first can of gasoline. He thinks he lifted this one from a motorboat. There'd been a lake. It had been filled with water and everything. Dean can hardly see the slick of it as he waters the floorboards, but the smell of it provides a dizzying brand of comfort. Next is the lighter fluid from the cotillion. They'd left the carcasses of a hundred barbecues in their wake.
"Did you win your war, Cas?" Dean asks as he pushes past him on his way up the stairs. Castiel hasn't moved since Dean walked in, but he reaches for the bottle of lighter fluid and he doesn't let go.
"If you're here to stop me, you missed the boat on that one a long time ago." Dean lets him have the container. There's more where that came from. "What are you even doing here.? People don't bring plus ones to their suicide."
"You don't have to keep coming back to this. There are other memories you could--"
"Fireworks, Cas? Good times frying onions at the roadhouse? My parents fucking? What 'memories' do you think are out there? Heaven's dying. It's a wasteland."
Castiel looks at the container in his hand, and Dean heaves another can over his shoulder. The back wall is actually pretty new, Dean explains. Coated with a flame retardant.
Castiel gives everything a thorough inspection, notes the back wall. The width of the staircase. The crawlspace under the floorboards.
"Why are you taking notes?" Dean asks.
Castiel scuffs his boot over a sticky patch on the floor. The sticky patch is, or will be, what Dean leaves behind. "How long did you plan this?"
"I don't plan things. Destiny does, remember?"
"You know that's not true."
Dean takes a deep breath and wipes his hands down the thighs of his jeans. They smear black in anticipation of smoke and ash. He sighs. "We can have this talk, Cas. You can play detective. And you can wonder your little angel heart out. But I don't have to justify myself to you."
"Did Sam know?"
Dean doesn't want to think about Sam. Not here. Not in this house.
"He's not here, you know. I've looked. He's the one thing I--" He's not anywhere. He's a name on a receipt, and a stranger in the crowd. No memories, no ghosts. He's just gone. And Dean doesn't know if it's because--if something's happened to living, breathing, actual Sam, or if this is Heaven's deal, or Dean's, but Dean knows he's here somewhere--he's something almost seen, almost touched, almost realized. But he's not ever quite there.
"He's alive, right? He's okay?"
"I have no idea."
"If he's not here, that means he's okay."
"If he's not here, it means you don't want him here."
Dean scrounges for the matchbook in his pocket, grimy now from repeated use, though it seems to contain an infinite number of matches.
"I'm gonna light this match, this house is gonna go up like a torch, and I'll be dead in less than four minutes. And you can enjoy the snuff show, or you can leave. Either way I don't really care. But this is your one and only content warning."
"You didn't want Sam to see," says Castiel. "So you came here."
"And you're not Sam." Dean lights the match. It rips through the fumes in the air. Suddenly, Castiel is a fish and he swallows it. Then he's Cas.
"Many people cared about you."
But it's hard to feel satisfyingly past tense when he's still standing right here. Dean digs around in his pocket until his fingers hit gray matter. He tosses it to Cas. "A gift from Jo. I know they do.
"You don't. You don't know."
Dean doesn't expect Castiel to follow through, but it's as though Castiel's seized on those rare things he found expotentially more important than, you know, anything that really mattered. "Sometimes, when I'm in this body, I see the world in Jimmy's eyes. It's...disconcerting. Small."
"So how do angels see it?" Dean sighs. He doesn't need an angel to tell him that the world is small. Small and ever-shrinking. He doesn't need an angel to tell him there's more than what he sees. Sam could tell him that.
Castiel stares at him. "There is no translation." Which is Castiel's typical angelic mysticism crap, but Dean leaves it. He's beginning to realize that even from human to human, there's not a whole lot of translation going on. So maybe Castiel's onto something with that one.
"What I meant to say is," Castiel continues, "if you could conceive of the world the way an angel does, then you could conceive of it that way. But you can't."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Dean replies.
Dean scrutinizes the familiar khaki beige of Castiel's trenchcoat. Obviously angels didn't go around dressed like that. Like vessels. That would be stupid. He wonders absently what Castiel would look like if Dean didn't have any memory of him at all. How would he appear then? Like Olivia Wilde, Dean hopes. The alien version.
"Some have tried. The clerical men, of course," says Castiel. "The nuns and other figures of similar station. Messiahs. As you know, the prophets exist to translate the word of an angel, and of god, into a form that humans can understand, but you've seen what results." Castiel clearly had not been a fan of the Carver Edlund books. That was too bad. "The world's great artists have attempted. Giacomo Balla drew dogs with multiple legs, for instance."
"Is that how you see the world? With multiple legs?"
"No, that's just----" Castiel pauses. "Well, a trite example. But it was a great revelation for mankind."
Dean's not particularly impressed by the revelation, but he supposes that he can appreciate that someone was. He wonders if that's what Cas was ging for. Metaphysical distraction.
"I'm still gonna light this match."
"How many times have you been to this house, Dean?"
"It's the only game in town."
Castiel gently sets the contained of lighter fluid down. As though it were glass. Then he ungently asks Dean how many times he's actually lit that match. How many times has he truly made that choice, and followed through?
"Or do you come here, just looking for clues?" Dean feels ice as his nape.
He wants to light the match out of sheer defiance. But his fingers don't move. "I'm not you," he says, and he can hear the muscles in his throat writhe and shrink from the words. Of course he's going to light the match.
Castiel nods. "Of course."
"Dean, if you burn in Heaven--"
He's going to light this match.
Still Cas lingers. Dean's fingers tremble.
"I wish you could have seen, Dean. I wish you could have seen what I saw in you."
The matter is this.
Dean said, I'm going out, and Sam said, Sure thing, and then Dean got on a bus that took him to a house and then Dean set that house on fire. He did not leave a note. Hell, he didn't leave Sam anything but the car and a lot of fake IDs. He took their money with him. Dean is supposed to be dead enough to avoid an awkward confrontation over this. Heaven is supposed to be fucked enough to keep Sam from him, keep him safe and keep him definitely not within judging distance.
But Dean sees him, sometimes, still. Sam's D. Hasselhoff. Sam is, inexplicably, on a lot of boats.
Obviously. Sam waits for her to continue. If lying on the ground is Nan's version of some kind of obscure brainstorming process, Sam supposes he's seen worse. Dean's liked to combine doodling with finger food.
"If all the souls in Heaven--angel, human, whatever--fell, it'd blow the planet off the map," says Sam. "There's no way. You wouldn't have boiling oceans. You wouldn't have a planet anymore."
"Fuck." Nan motions for him. "C'mon, Sam. It's a smart rug. Join me."
Sam eyes his father's journal. He doesn't know what he'd sketch, but he's not sure that it would matter. He's pretty sure Dean's artistic ability was limited to runes and glyphs that actually did things, so absentminded artwork really didn't seem like that great and idea. He has no idea how it worked. "They'd have to be spread out over time and space. Like a bunch of microexplosions."
"That's what I was thinking. I meant about the faiths--I meant that a lot of them believe in reincarnation. If we needed all the souls in Heaven to exist, here in 2011, any energy that got dropped in 1925 or whatever would eventually filter down to us. It's conservation of energy."
"We'd just need to figure out how to organize microexplosions."
"I have a contact."
Sam's about to comment on Nan's various, nameless "contacts" when a figure in the window makes him jump. He swears.
Nan peers up at him, waiting for some explanation with the patience of the resolutely disinterested.
"Dean," Sam says. "Is on the boat again."
"Marry him, Sam."
"Either he lost you in a bet or he's trying to propose do you. There are very few viable explanations for this kind of behavior, dude."
Sam chuffs. Yeah. On earth, maybe. In Dean's head, this kind of thing needed no justification at all.
"So, we clean Heaven out," Sam continues. "How do we keep the souls from, I dunno--floating?"
"We lock the door behind us," says Nan. "Who do we know who's good at that?"
Sometimes, Dean dreams about kidneys. His own kidneys. He dreams about lungs. Sometimes, he thinks, it'd be fucking great if he could take all of his organs and lay them out--like some kind of fieldstriptease. He'd put them all back, he's pretty sure. The number of times he's seen them outside of his body, he'd know a gallbladder when he saw one. And he's had a lot of practice. It's one of those things times where Dean understands the world one way, and realizes that that's probably not the sane way to go. It happens. When he dreams about kidneys, he wraps them in his hands and lays them out on a piece of oilcloth, just like Dad used to do with the weapons.
He's not sure why he thinks of his father. Out of all the thousands of times he and Sam have done the same damn thing (though admittedly, toward the end there it wasn't quite the same. After a while, the things they were fighting couldn't be ended with weapons--not with anything they had. Everything they'd ever learned wasn't worth shit. Either that or they'd just forgotten it. When you put it like that, Dean figures it's probably a little of both.
But that might be the Heaven talking. Heaven feels like a lobotomy and is probably worse.
But then maybe that's just his pessimism speaking. It's a pessimism that probably shouldn't have got him past the pearly gates in the first place, but Dean's never been known to be in the right place at the right time. If he were, he's pretty sure he could've avoided a lot of his life).
He's not sure why he thinks of his father, no. But after a point, the memories stop forming, the way you stop registering the things you do by rote. So he's already sweeping the mucosal gunk from Jonah's gallbladder and arranging it neatly beside his kidney (singular) before Dean realizes what he's doing at all. He'd been doing receipts at the roadhouse, or so he thought.
"You're my favorite, Jonah," Dean says conversationally. He's hooked Jonah's tongue and splinted his mouth open, making wire his favorite tool tonight. Jonah has such a regular scream, when you adjust his tongue you can make music with it.
It's not so different from singing when you clean your guns, which, Dean thinks, is something his father used to do. A low tuneless hum that not even Sam's slammed door could silence.
And it's clear for a moment. Because this is happiness--the ease of this. Dean is in pieces, and his pieces are in neat piles, and nothing needs to fit together. Nothing needs to make sense. He is not a person, but a collection. There's no cohesion and there doesn't need to be.
Dean wants to fly apart completely and never look back.
He looks at Jonah.
"We could rip a hole in the universe, Jonah," says Dean. "We could let it bleed out and lock the door behind us." And wrap ourselves in the skin until we rotted into madness.
The prospect is only half appealing. But Dean shrugs.
"Well, we can't turn back now," says Dean, wiping the drool and blood and vomit from Jonah's cracked lips.
Dean lights a match, and holds it over Jonah's chest cavity. His ribcage has an impressive wingspan. "Have you ever seen a fire eater, Jonah?" Fire to ash and ash to annihilation.
Ash to annihilation.
Dean holds the match over Jonah's chest, so close the weak light from the flame makes his fat shine.
And he holds it.
And holds it.
Sam rolls up his feet like a sleeping bag and pushes his head under the covers. He lies so flat it's like there's nothing there at all. Nan has either done the same, or truly she is nothing.
Tomorrow they're going skydiving. Their plan is to be torn apart by the wind.
The sophomore girls gaggle past her, tittering and exchanging furtive glances. They know her; of course they do. High school was years ago, but who doesn't remember the legendary Mary Winchester. (No one remembers Mary Winchester--she was a Campbell then, and that fame will always belong to the Campbells. But they're all dead now.) She watches their long thin legs and their neat bobs and hates the thin, stringy, wet way her hair is growing back in. Her barber assures her it will be beautiful again, she will be beautiful again, but Mary would rather let her vanity scar over than nurse it back to health.
It's a part of her, that vanity. And she wants it to burn well before she does.
Mary limps home, jelly-legged and top-heavy. She can't stand the web of spider veins on her upper thighs. The pouch to her belly (even though you can still see her ribs when she stretches). She can't stand being broken. She was supposed to be better than this. They were all supposed to be better than this. Looking back, she's a child. But it had been very important then. It seemed like the most important thing in the world. Mary Campbell has always been pretty, will always be young, will always be strong.
Then Mary falls in love with a baby. A lot of girls as pretty as Mary and as loosely-supervised as Mary and as war-torn as Mary end up with babies by accident, too early or too unexpectedly to be entirely miraculous. But in Mary's case, she thinks, Dean could have happened sooner. If her babies were stripped of their childhoods, Mary only wasted hers. If she'd known what was coming, then--
And she does regret that. Just not enough to say goodbye. It had been a very stupid, very effortless age. So in Heaven, Mary is twenty-two, is almost always twenty-two.
Death has always been a vivid part of Mary, and her own is no exception. From the vantage point of Heaven, it's hard to remember anything past twenty-two as more than an extended wake. The moment she has a family to lose, she knows she's dead. Deep down, she knows what's coming. It's not every girl with a deathwish signed in crossroads dirt, but she knows. She just doesn't want to.
In 1978, Mary is pregnant and elephant-like, but very beautiful. She doesn't miss cigarettes. But maybe she's just used to that all-consuming want. She's used to being consumed by the fire of that all consuming want.
"Do you need anything?" John asks, even as he's cheating on her. She's pregnant and he's already cheating on her.
"I need you to be here for Dean," she says.
"Your father and I were in a band for four days," Mary explains, and drags her bow across waxy strings. Roy's sax carries the melody as well as it can, and Mary fills in the rest. She plays a ferocious, chopping violin that in no way resembles the way it was meant to be played--even Dean can see that. But this is Heaven, and that kind of thing doesn't matter. And this is the end of the world, which means all bets are off anyway. You have the freedom to play however you want, and Mary's chosen to play dirty.
Why are you in a band now? Dean means to ask. He means to do a lot of things, but instead he stares at the brass band (and strings), and twists an unused match between his fingers. He could fry some onions. He could rip someone apart. He could light a match. But in the end, he doesn't think he can do any of those things. He closes his eyes, feels a dizzying emptiness that's too familiar, and stumbles to the bar instead.
"Well, you look like hell warmed over," says Ellen.
"If you ever need leftovers, I know where you can find some." Dean lays his head on the table, fingers woven together behind his neck. He groans and forces himself upright again before the thought turns literal. He doesn't want to deal with all the thread.
"Can I get you anything?"
He stares blankly at Ellen. If there's anything Dean wants most in the world right now, it's to be able to act like a normal fucking son of a bitch and only die once. People aren't supposed to survive this kind of shit. It fucks with your head.
"Some soup?" asks Mary, whose violin is gone. She's sitting too close to him. "I can make tomato rice."
"I don't even want to go there." When a beer again fails to appear in front of him, his only conclusion is that Heaven must be well and truly out of service.
"I fixed the band," says Mary. "I can make you soup."
"And what's that going to fix?"
"It's going to feed you."
This must be one of those rare moments where Heaven's decided it's going to make a very plain kind of baseline sense. There aren't any stilts, or puppets, or any experiments in madcap mayhem.
It's just Mary.
Dean snorts. "In Heaven, everything's fucking bad for you. I don't want anything."
Ellen volleys the shot. "Some people have a purer self-concept. It works for them. You're just irascible, Dean."
"Dean." Mary is fitting her violin into its case. Her hands are very loving. They're worn and scarred and her fingers are red and raw from playing, but they are very loving. "Can I meet your friend?"
Dean is afraid he'll cough up a lung and he won't know how to stuff it back, so he swallows it all, the surprise, the disgust, the guilt, the burst of pleasure (what kid wasn't want to show his mom his handiwork?), and chokes back the smoke that came up with it.
Screw Castiel to hell. He's ending this. "I'm busy today," says Dean, fingering the match. He has some unfinished business to take care of.
"Dean, wait." Mary jumps off her stool in pursuit of him. "I need to come."
"What am I, a sideshow?" he says.
"I am more than your memory, Dean. I'm your mother, and I need to come."
Dean shrugs. "If you want." He means please, yes. Please.
That is her son.
She doesn't know what to say to him. She thought she'd know once they left the roadhouse, once push came to shove, but she doesn't. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry about--"
"Nah," says Dean automatically, and shoves his hands in his pockets. It's frosty in Heaven tonight. It's obvious he's not in the mood for conversation.
"We should have been there for you," Mary insists.
When they left the roadhouse, she was twenty-two again, twenty-two still, but her hair is growing back in now. She's wearing one of her favorite dresses, navy blue with small white flowers. She remembers being pregnant in this dress. Her heart swells for Dean.
"You died," says Dean. His voice is tight. He coughs, and when he speaks again his voice is raspy. "Dead people get a free pass."
Mary laughs, but she's nervous. She doesn't know how to read Dean, doesn't know where he's at with this. "I hated everyone," she says. Mary Winchester: The Lost Years. "I was a mess. I thought the whole world had betrayed me."
"No, you didn't."
"Sometimes I did." She is a child to him, Mary knows. She's a child to herself. She puts her hands over her stomach, and tries to walk with the memory of Dean inside her. "I'm trying to do right by you, Dean. I really am," she whispers. "I'm just saying, John should have been here for you, too."
"That's actually my fault." Dean walks faster.
Mary, pregnant now, struggles to keep up. The orange warmth of pregnancy, of family, had been short-lived; now Mary remembers where they are, and where they're going, and she remembers being terrified. Terrified of not being able to protect her family. "No, it's not, Dean. John, he just--"
Dean turns sharply. "No, no," he says. "This isn't some kind of--" And he looks at Mary. And after coughing into his sleeve, he says, "It's on me." He barks, "This is my snow globe, and that's just how it is. I can't--make it any different. So don't--don't fuck with it. Not you."
When Mary doesn't speak, and doesn't move, Dean sighs. "Look, I'm sorry. But this is how it is." And then he rolls his eyes, as though he doesn't quite believe himself. "An angel told me."
An angel told him.
They walk. They walk much further than the house, if it's the one Mary could see from the roadhouse window, could possibly be. But the road shows no sign of ending. Dean's feet drag.
"I think about how much he must have changed," Mary says. It's a sudden eruption, that cuts through the tinny background of Castiel's band, far, far behind them. They could walk forever and never reach the house, if that's what Dean wanted. "Sometimes we're just kids here, you know? Happy. But sometimes he's different, and I just--I don't know who he is anymore."
Dean sways a little. At this rate, he'll have actually died from anticipation. Of his death.
"I know that feeling," he says. Then he coughs, hands digging into his thighs, bent double. "This is, uh," and his throat volunteers a strained chuckle. "This is probably the last thing you want to know, but Sam didn't have his, uh, his soul. For a while."
"So that means you got it back for him."
Dean winces, coughs a few itchy, dribbling coughs. "Sure, he got it back. I just--"
He's not making any sense--to Mary, in any case. This dramatic segue into all things Sam. It didn't make any sense to her. And it hurts, because she should understand her son. She should know her son.
"I've seen so many different versions of that kid, you know? And I just." Dean covers his mouth with his hand. "And I just, I can't. I can't look at him and know him anymore."
"People are versions, Dean. We grow up, that's who we are," Mary offers.
"Not like this." Dean's stare is cold, uncompromising. "People aren't like this. Not like us. You may have noticed."
"I burned to death on the ceiling of my baby's nursery, Dean. I noticed."
He looks at her, all guilt and pity and strange, strange love. "You weren't there for what came next. None of you were. All I had was Sam, and if I--" Dean looks pale, faintly nauseated.
"I can't," Dean finishes. "I couldn't."
Mary sits down on the retaining wall that separates the road from the wide, black fields all around them. The concrete bites into the back of her knees, crusty and cold. She motions for Dean.
"You need to sit down."
Obligingly, Dean palms the wall, and all but crashes into it sideways, leans his back against it as he slides into a sitting position. He's breathing harder than Mary realized. She watches his shirt sink and expand with his breaths. He'd come here expecting to die, and so he was.
Mary's not sure what came before, but Dean's still talking about Sam: "I can't trust him like that anymore. I can't. I can't--"
"I wish you could have known the father John meant to be," Mary answers. The moonlight catches the sweat at his hairline, the pique to his cheeks. There's an irritated redness about his eyes.
"I was four, not fucking blind."
"He meant to be something different," says Mary. "We all do. We're always less than we mean to be."
But Dean knows all of this, and says as much. He knows. But Mary's not sure that he understands.
"When you were two," Mary begins, "Your father slept with another woman. Again."
Dean's head sinks into his arms. "Don't," he warns, strangled. "I can't-- I can't carry--"
"This isn't about John. This is about me. You know at that point, I wasn't even sure why we were married. It was just one of those things--John and Mary, they were married. That's the way things were. You know?"
"The next time he didn't come home, the only reason I stayed, the only reason there weren't divorce papers waiting on the kitchen table, was because I didn't want to raise you alone. I didn't want to be a single mother. I didn't think I could do it."
Dean looks like he's going to throw up again. He wipes a hand down his face. "Look," he says. "I realize you're in--bouncing baby--new parent mode right now, but no kid wants to hear this shit. The thirty-whatever years in between do not change that."
"I just want you to know who I am," says Mary. "I want you to really know."
Dean says nothing at first. "So this is what, blanket permission to fuck up? To be fucked up? 'Cause it's okay, everyone's that way these days?"
"You're not alone," says Mary. "I wanted to say, you're not alone."
She looks over her shoulder.
"Is this the house?" It's colorless in the moonlight, just dark and wooden, with a sharp roof and an old door. Their retaining wall is now a stone fence surrounding a scraggly yard.
Dean's response gets lost in a series of hacking coughs, and Mary eases herself off the wall to help him to his feet. She catches a whiff of acrid smoke on him.
She's not pregnant any more. "Up we go," she croons--lost, momentarily, in some older time. He's heavier than he was as a toddling baby, and there is in fact nothing at all about his feel that Mary can honestly say she remembers.
She squats beside him and draws his closest arm over her shoulder, pushes off from her knees. In another life, her partner might have done a handstand, made a twirling dismount. Dean doesn't. He just coughs. But he rises with her, and shambles dizzily toward the front door of the small dark house. He smells like gasoline and smoke.
It's on fire when they step inside. Mary can't immediately tell, but she can feel the heat of it. The flames flicker into view once Dean shuts the door behind them. She'd come to be with him but she's only jsut now realizing where they are. What was going to happen.
This was not a happy memory; it was only a lingering obsession. This was death, in a place beyond death. This was her baby's death in Heaven. And what happened then?
"Is this the house?" she asks again. "Whose--whose house is it," she revises. There's nothing inside, just some papers and empty bottles and flame.
"No one's house, I don't know whose house it was. It doesn't matter," Dean says faintly. He swallows hard and turns in a circle, is met on all sides by fire. The expression Mary reads on his face is "trapped."
"Why here, then?" she asks. She can still feel the weight of Dean against her shoulders. She thinks about his feet dangling over her shoulders, catching her in the jaw when he kicks. His small, chubby fingers weave into her hair and pull. He drools onto the top of her head.
"To be away," says Dean. "To be alone."
Mary brings her hands up to where she might feel Dean's feet, soft and new and unworn, but they're not there. Her baby grew up a long time ago. Her baby grew up, and then her baby ended.
She reaches for his small, ghostly feet again, and again, her hands press through them.
"Did you leave a note?" is all Mary can think to ask. Was there someone to receive the note? But there was, there had to be. Sam?
"Most people just ask 'why,'" Dean volunteers. Poorly repressed panic sloughs from him like the paint on the walls. Then panic sloughs from the walls, and paint from Dean.
"Would you have an answer for me?"
Dean wipes at his eyes with the back of his sleeve. Shakes his head stiffly.
Suddenly Mary has the urge to sneeze. The pressure wells up behind her nose and her eyes water. She sneezes, and then she cries, and she takes Dean's hand in hers. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she says, because, she realizes, she is probably a stranger to him. As he should be to her, but he's Dean, he's hers. And tonight, he kills himself. She takes a series of deep breaths but ends up coughing up smoke instead. The fire burns around them and Mary doesn't care why, doesn't care when; all she can think about is Dean, her baby, Dean, in this house alone.
"I fucked up, I just--I didn't--" His hand is limp in hers. She squeezes tighter, and hiccups. She takes a congested breath and wipes away itchy tears.
We all fucked up, Dean, whispers Mary. If he wants a direct line of cause and effect he is not the source of the Campbell-Winchester collection of fuck-ups. He is welcome, she thinks, to blame the Apocalypse. Blame cosmic responsibility. Neglect. Betrayal. Blame bad habits, family traditions, a legacy of bad luck and quick, young deaths. Blame genetics. Blame brain chemistry. "If you want to blame yourself, at least blame all of that too."
But he doesn't. He didn't. He didn't want to blame anything. He just wanted it to stop.
And Mary is helpless. Helpless because she was not alive to save her son, but also because if she had been, she's not sure what difference it would have made. Because standing here, in this house, in this moments with Dean, all over again, she doesn't know what she could possibly say, what she could do.
The house burns, and Mary holds Dean's hand, and he doesn't hold her back. Eventually Dean slips to all fours, coughing as the smoke thickens. The fire's roaring; it shouldn't take more than a few minutes to suffocate in here.
She kneels beside him, strokes his back. She tries to wish the smoke away. It's a stupid gesture, and stupider here in Heaven; it billows right through her. In the end she is only a ghost.
Is there anything I can do? Mary asks, just before they leave the roadhouse. They bring nothing.
"Not really," Dean says grimly. "I die. That's it."
Which Mary is disappointed to find is true. She'd hoped-- She'd hoped that somehow, if she could be there with him, then… But what she feels pressing in with the walls and the smoke and the flames, what she feels is trapped. She feels some dark place, where there's no exit, there is no way out. It took a long, long road to get there but this is the only place, and the only way, it ever could have ended. Mary knows.
"Up we go," says Mary, as she guides a teething Dean across the full expanse of their living room, one blocky step at a time. If there were anything wrong, it wasn't anything a lullaby, a burp, a breastfeeding, a kiss or a car ride couldn't cure. (And once, a trip to the ER and intravenous fluids, because what infancy would be complete without one. But even that is easy by comparison.) It was so easy to save him, then. Now there are so many pieces to Dean Mary wouldn't even know where to find them all. She couldn't hold them all in her hands. She couldn't possibly kiss them all good night. Dean's her baby, will always be her baby, but there are parts of him that will forever be strangers to her, and she can't save them all.
"I'm here, baby," Mary says. She wraps her arms around his back and hold him tight. "I'm here now."
You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone.
Maybe you don't save people. You save pieces of them, whatever you can find and touch. They save pieces of themselves. And when the time runs out, either everything was right, or one thing was wrong.
And one day, they don't come home.
"You're not alone."
Dean shudders under her, and his fingers close around her hand. He knows. It just doesn't matter.
"Sometimes things burn."
Be careful not to miss the flats. It is an unusual key.
Dean burns, and so does Heaven. Heaven is gold and red and fire and brass, warm with steam and foil-glitter, and hot breath inside closed spaces. Dean is primarily steam and sublimating fat.
The ashes fall through the ground and on earth, they're pushed out with volcanic ash as the ranges in Kamchatka and Alaska come alive. In Hell, the demons, atomized, listen to the tectonic roar. They rise in frenetic, kinetic fervor and Hell burns hotter than it ever has before. The walls expand. Entropy increases. And the gates to Hell, holding fast, glow red.
The brass instruments shudder to contain their altered scales, the trumpet and sax give chase bar after bar, measure for measure. They've inverted all the standards, everything is played in 16/16 time, riff tripping over riff tripping over riff. The strings scream, and even the percussion has started on a warpath.
The Campbell boys are whistling bastardized Chet Baker when they burn. John Winchester's company is in the middle of a marching drill.
Mary's flying through the air, white and gold and full of grace, finishing an MVAL routine that will take home a Regional Silver for her squad. The pep band blares without discipline and without much polished skill. But they play with passion and determination and it is beautiful.
When they put away their instruments and everyone heads home, in cars or in pine boxes, the world's ears are ringing with music.
Dean Winchester strokes Jonah's face and understands that this is probably the truest Heaven he is ever going to get. The roadhouse is gone, Ellen and Jo are gone, even Mary who is more than memory Mary is gone, but here's Dean, and here's Jonah, and here's to the last memory left in Heaven.
He makes a toast with blood and bile.
And then he's interrupted.
"I knew I'd find you here." It's Castiel, more or less. He has a lot of legs--is, in fact, mostly legs. He pulses and flouders in a non-Euclidean space.
"This the only memory Heaven could pull out of the slop bucket?" Dean drinks. "How did you ever guess?"
"It would have been the fireworks," says Castiel. "In Sam's absence, this is--"
It's loud, almost too loud to hear him, which is almost laughable; Castiel, a towering Picasso of Heavenly intent, being drowned out by a brass band. But it is their swan song, Dean supposes. Heaven's farewell tour. Of course the encore would turn it up to 11.
"So this is it," Dean says, and runs a knife through his fingers. Sharp. It's painless until his fingers peel back like overstuffed sandwiches and the blood spills over. "This is happiness."
Firing pins and spleens and slides and sliding muscle. Pins and needles and pituitaries.
"It isn't," says Castiel. "This is titillation."
Dean opens his mouth to speak but he can't hear himself, either. What's the difference? he wants to ask. Does it matter?
"This memory is not about Hell, Dean. You last memory in Heaven is not about Hell."
Which is where Castiel is wrong. It's about Hell. Dean knows Hell. Jonah knows Hell. And this is Hell.
Castiel shakes his body, and his many legs. No.
"This is the day you're raised from Hell."
Castiel extends his hand. Or in essence, that is what he does. Dean can't figure out from what direction it's coming, doesn't even know how he could possibly know it's Castiel, but it's at his shoulder, and the pressure is gone. Rather, the pressure is different. The smell is different. Jonah is gone. Everything smells green and salty, like the bottom of a lake.
Dean takes a deep breath in and tries to remember Castiel's smell. Which is, if Dean's going to be completely honest, probably not something he should be familiar with. But Hell smells like sulfur and Heaven smells like nothing. To Dean, Castiel smells a little like Maine. When Dean thinks about things that are great about life, Maine isn't exactly one of them. But that's the kind of thing you need to hold onto when you start getting too used to the smell of blood.
Dean gags, but holds on tight.
"This is the day I grip you tight and raise you from perdition."
Oh, Dean thinks. Well, that's a relief. Then he thinks, Castiel you lying son of a bitch.
You remember. It is significantly more than a relief, and there is significantly more he'd like to say to Cas, but Heaven is falling, and Castiel who is probably not strictly an angel of the Lord any longer has business to attend to.
In one moment the world is topsy turvy with red and gold and glitter and fire and the next, Dean is sitting on the steps of a small, austere building, and the world is silent.
"Cas?" Dean tests the air. Sees orange in the sky, far off in the distance.
On this day in history, Sam Winchester goes skydiving, and Alaska catches fire.
Maybe they should have seen it coming; the winds were dry, brush drier. But it's Alaska. There's ice on the streets back home. It doesn't matter whether it's July or not. They hopped on a train and ended up in Talkeetna for the weekend, and they're going to skydive whether it kills them or not.
Sam doesn't know anything more about the equipment required than he did the first time; he's relied on his natural ability to guess correctly ever since. His cool under pressure, maybe. Maybe that's what it is. Whatever the case, Sam knows jack shit about skydiving and Nan knows jack shit about skydiving, because she looked it up on the Internet and read all 20 tabs and still wouldn't know the sky from the ocean if it slapped her in the face. She misses her rats, she says when Sam asks her. She misses terrestrial species.
"Man invented flight specifically so he could transcend being a terrestrial species," Sam noted, which isn't true, really.
They go high, high up. And they're ready, finally. They hold hands, wait for the cue, and fall from the sky like a ring of fire, orange suits marking their place like a beacon until the fire erupts below them.
It's quick after that; everything goes up just like that, with Sam and Nan plummeting toward it. Sam makes some hurried calculations, thinking about the blaze spreading like soup beneath them. There's a chance they will land outside the blaze. And then they'll have to run. There's a chance they'll land inside the blaze, and then they're doing to have to hope to hell the skydiving copter also belongs to the forest service. As it turns out, the copter is exactly as legit as Sam is, and leaves them. Leaves them in the sky, cuts is losses with the gear, and vanishes from sight. There are no radio beacons.
The fire itself, well. No one really tries to put it out, because fire is rejuvenating, an essential part of the ecosystem just like plants, just like water, just like Heaven and Hell. The Department of the Interior is monitoring the blaze, making sure it doesn't get too close to civilization, but otherwise it's a course of nature and it's a crucial one. It stays.
Sam and Nan fall and fall and fall. Their hands fall away from each other, and Sam loses track of his flying partner. Sam loses track of everything. There's a hard metal panic in his lungs, and he releases his chute. Nan is gone.
He floats all the way back home.
A FIFTEEN MINUTE INTERMISSION is all he asks of Heaven, Heaven and its interminable, unmusical death throes, brass and strings and drums. One fifteen minute intermission from the frenzy, on behalf of a syncopated conversation in Alaska.
"Do you want to fuck me, Dean?" Sam calls out, just before he disappears in a flush of parachute.
Yeah, this is definitely a fantasy. He's still dead and he's still in Heaven, a country where everyone's rejoinders are Dean's rejoinders.
But that's okay.
Dean snaps back.
"Whoa there, partner." He'll play along. It only works if Dean plays along. He squints against the sun and a blossoming headache (he smells gasoline). He's sitting on the steps--and he looks up--of a church. A black, twice-crossed crucifix looms above him. "Hallowed ground."
"Do you even know any biologists?" Sam folds his hands across his chest. He's on a mission. "Do you even know any biology?"
"Relax, Sam. I could've done you a lot worse; I could've let you pick." And of course he knows biology, how has Sam never heard of the Discovery Channel. Honestly.
"She reminded me of you," says Sam.
"Well, that might be something you should take up with your pastor." Dean gestures behind him. "Are we going in?"
"They're Orthodox. I don't think they do that kind of thing." Sam takes a seat next to Dean on the steps. "And you have to stand in there, anyway. You wouldn't like it."
Dean shudders. "Religion."
"This church is my favorite place out here," says Sam.
"Whatever floats your boat, dude. Just out of curiosity, where the hell are we?"
"The Church of St. Nicholas," says Sam. And Dean waits. "In Nikolski, Alaska. The Aleutian Islands."
"That explains the temperature. It's fucking cold out here." Though honestly, the cold was more than okay.
"I have an extra hoodie if you want one."
Dean massages his temples. "No, you don't. Don't give me that frou frou bullshit."
"Hey, it's your bullshit. I thought you liked believing in that," Sam volleys back.
Dean lets him win. His mind feels leaden. All this time, he's been wishing for this moment, but he doesn't have anything to say to Sam but snarky bullshit; he doesn't even really want to be sitting here with Sam. It's like he's holding his breath, waiting for the moment to pass.
But he doesn't want to let Sam go.
"I miss what we had, Dean."
Dean does too, he's pretty sure. He misses something, at least. He misses Sam like a sharp edge. He assumes. But he couldn't really remember the feel of that, not in a million years; and really, this whole electric Heaven acid experiment has been an endless testament to that. He doesn't remember enough, doesn't feel it enough, to really get what was so important about all of that. There's a callus that's grown over it, something hard and repetitive and maybe mocking. Something gray and echoless. And it's only worse in Heaven. It's like he sees the mess and tangle surrounding everyone he ever thought he loved and it's too much; it all flat lines and Dean walks past it like it doesn't even matter. Like if you ignore it it'll fade right out of existence, new skin will scar over it. That's always been his MO. But it doesn't actually work like that, has never actually worked like that. He just gets caught up in the rote mechanization and never finds his way out.
Dean gets the impression Heaven is the exact opposite of a useful Heavenly intervention. "I forgive you for everything," Dean says, instead of attempting to explain. He says a lot of things he doesn't mean enough. But not even fake-Sam bites.
"No you don't," says Sam. He's busied himself by making a quarter dance over his knuckles--a trick he'd perfected at age seven. He flips the quarter into the reeds. "You don't blame me for anything. You feel betrayed by me--and you're always gonna feel betrayed by me, no matter what I do, or what you say. But you don't blame me for anything."
"You can't what, Dean. We're in the middle of nowhere, Alaska. You brought us to the middle of nowhere Alaska. What in the world can you not do?"
"I'll forget you," Dean spits out. "I'll forget who you really were. I'll forget you and you'll just be this fucking talking head who, who--stands in Orthodox churches and fucks biologists and--"
"Well, remembering how I used to be isn't going to help you," Sam reasons. "We grew up, Dean."
"But I don't know who you are anymore."
"And you don't need to tell me who I am, so we're cool. We're okay."
"You're fucking with me."
"You'll be okay, Dean."
"You're seriously tapping out of this? You're just gonna--"
Sam stiffens. "You know what I wish, Dean? Because I do wish I knew you better. I wish I were one step ahead of you. I wish I knew what you were thinking, all the time. I wish I knew how to ask you what you were thinking. I wish you trusted me enough to tell me. I wish I could always--" He draws in a shuddering breath. "But we ran out of time."
Fuck, Dean sounds like a ghost.
"And that's it?" he asks. "You're just gone?"
"You're gone, Dean." Sam steeples his fingers over his nose and mouth and breathes like a storm. His jaw shivers. "And it's not the memory of me you want. You don't want any of your memories. You just want me."
Dean half-expects an innuendo. But when it doesn't come, he doesn't force it. Sam hyperventilates silently, and Dean does nothing. He hates himself for doing nothing. When Sam cries, Dean generally tries to give him the dignity of ignoring it, and vice versa. But they're sitting right fucking next to each other, in Nikolski, Alaska, in Heaven, and Dean's the one who put them both there. He doesn't have that option.
"I couldn't, anymore," Dean says vaguely, finally, carefully. He feels like he's been slashed open, and if he moves too much, his heart will come tumbling out. And he's not sure if he could find it again in the tall grass. "You couldn't have done anything, Sammy."
"Yeah, I'm sure that makes everyone feel better," Sam snaps, puffy-eyed and livid. "But now we'll never know."
"No, shut up Dean. That's the reality of it. You can't just tuck that away." Now we'll never know, says Sam, because the world is a complete piece of shit there's no easy way to put this together, to know anything for sure. "So I'm sorry," says Sam. "And I wish things were neater."
"You always did," says Dean. Dean's not sure if he wants things to be neater anymore. That's what all of this was supposed to be. Neat.
Right now, Dean just wants things, period.
Dean relaxes his posture until their knees touch. Sam leans into his shoulder; he's warm. There's a solid weight to him that Heaven, for a lot of things, doesn't get quite right.
They could stay like this forever.
"You know who I am, Dean. You just can't--"
They could say like this forever. "Shut up, Sam."
"You just can't look me in the eye and know: you let me down."
If Sam would shut up, they could stay like this forever.
"And I'm sorry you feel that way, Dean. Because from where I'm sitting--" Sam hits a note bordering on shrill.
Sam's right; Dean doesn't want to have this conversation.
"Why, Alaska, Sam?" he asks, because it's the best non sequitur Dean can think of.
"Isn't that something you should be asking yourself?" Stonewalled, Sam forgets. He is distracted and silenced and, for all intents and purposes, terminated. He'll be gone, soon. Dean's broken it, he knows. But this is what he chose.
"You used to write those dumb stories," Dean continues. "When we were kids. They were always in Alaska."
"You liked Jack London," says Sam. "So I'd write about Alaska."
"Why would you think I liked Jack London?"
"Because," Sam says, voice less shaky now. "You gave me that book. You stole some book for the library, and you gave it to me. You'd checked it out like 13 times."
"I never actually read it," Dean confesses.
"But you stole it for me, why would you--"
"Because you liked dogs. It had a dog on the cover."
"The dog dies, Dean. He's a ghost at the end."
"Good book, though."
"Well, mystery solved. Happy endings all around." He doesn't want Sam to go.
"There's something else I've been wondering, actually," says Sam. He stops leaning. "How the hell'd you get me into Stanford Law? There's no way."
Dean laughs, a half-hearted palpitation in his chest. He can feel Sam leaving. Sam is leaving. He is leaving. Dean tries to push his focus elsewhere: "This might come as a complete surprise to you, but I have no fucking idea how all of that works. Plus you're a wanted criminal. And dead. And stuff. Figure you slept with the dean or something."
"Adcomm," says Sam, with a competitive leer. He only looks a little like he's been crying. "Dream big, Dean. I slept with the entire goddamn admissions committee."
Dean smiles at Sam. Cheeky bastard. "Attaboy, Sammy."
There's a cool rush as Sam pulls away.
"Nah, they just really liked my essay. Dream big, though." Sam slaps him on the back as he rises to his feet.
"It's time to stand up, Dean. You'll be okay."
Sam takes him in one last time, then jogs up the rest of the steps and slips inside the small church. And Dean almost, almost follows him. He takes a deep breath and tries to imagine living in Nikolski, Alaska. Maybe it wouldn't be that bad. Sam would be there. And the mainland wasn't that far; the Yukon was supposed to be rugged and awesome. They could hunt ice monsters. If he rode with fake Sam long enough, this time maybe he could convince himself he was real. They could stay like that forever.
"He's not real," says Castiel, who appears at his side without even making a charade of arriving, as Sam had. Dean looks straight ahead. Oh right, the end of the world. This is the angel who raised him from perdition, and for whom he's going to save the world.
"I know." Dean looks down at his hands and misses his car keys anyway. He misses loose change and the way Sam hoarded quarters. He misses the sound of gravel underfoot and the creak of shifting wood. He misses Earth logic. It's so tempting.
"If you knew, then why would you need to speak to him?"
"Same reason I used to pray to you, Cas." Dean sighs. He can almost feel the weight of them, his car keys, as he swings them around his fingers and catches them in his palm, teeth first. They could drive out to the Yukon.
"Did it help?"
Dean snaps his hand shut around nothing but air.
Cas shifts at his left. The energy of it rides through him like a surging tide, and Dean watches a school of fish swim through the air in Castiel's wake.
"It won't take much time," says Castiel. "Heaven is," he hesitates, "much diminished."
Dean tries to leave Sam in some other church, on some other steps. He can't think about that anymore. So instead, he thinks about saving the world.
"It's happening now? With the fire and the music and." Dean trails off.
"What about this place? Where does it go?"
"You won't be able to sustain it. It will twist and vanish."
Castiel explained it differently at some point, but Dean imagines it like the drain in a bathtub. It will spin, it will gurgle, and it'll be gone. "And nothing's going to explode. Heaven's gonna go nuclear, but nothing's gonna explode."
"The artist, Giacomo Balla--"
Dean misses whiskey. He misses books about dogs. He fucking hates dogs. "Enough with the fucking dog, Cas! It has a lot of legs, I get it--"
"You don't," says Castiel. He relieves himself of an exasperated sigh. If he notices Dean's agitation, he doesn't comment. Dean does his best to swallow it.
"What you will perceive here as a single instant will happen over millennia on Earth," Castiel explains. "They will fall alone, into different moments in time and space. Individually their effects will be almost imperceptible."
(Just put it away, Dean.)
"And then the world gets saved," he manages.
Castiel nods. "The ocean temperatures will drop several degrees."
"All the souls and angels and magic fairy dust in Heaven, and the ocean gets colder." Dean snorts. "Glad we're fighting the good fight, Cas."
"It's very important," says Castiel.
(Just focus on Cas.)
And Castiel must parse Dean's silence as an invitation to justify this point, because he launches into an explanation of global warming. It's a tender explanation, though, and Dean can almost get it. It's obvious enough, at least, that Cas gives a damn. Cas cares about the fish and the beachcombers and the big-ass sharks and the sand whatever else beaches are supposed to have. Once Heaven plays out its many-legged, multidimensional harmony or whatever, people take over. People take over, and they choose whether the world stays saved. Cas cares enough to see that they do.
Dean closes his eyes and tries to think about sand. He tastes smoke.
"Dean, when Heaven falls--"
"--I lock the door behind it. I got this."
Castiel doesn't answer.
"I've had a lot of practice. Really, Cas. I got this."
"How many times have you visited that house?"
Dean tastes smoke and thinks about releasing his slide and coming apart. He thinks about firing pins and recoil springs. He's let go of Sam, but this isn't where he meant to end up.
Dean leans back, groans as his pieces shift. He thinks about firing pins and recoil springs. "You and me've been running in completely opposite fucking directions this entire time, Cas. How'd we both fuck up this bad?"
Castiel doesn't answer.
Dean watches a fox drop through the rushes, chasing a rat.
"Dean, is this what you want?" Castiel asks, finally.
"Does it matter?" Dean turns to look at Castiel for the first time. To his surprise, Castiel is neither a lightshow nor a freaky spider dog. He's just Cas, with an unnamable expression on his face.
It makes Dean feel naked.
"I doesn't matter, no," admits Castiel. "The universe doesn't tend to quantify intent."
Dean misses his car keys. He misses the weight of them in his hand, the way the Impala's ignition sometimes caught. He misses being a few stitches short on dental floss. He misses the way Sam could say the dumbest thing, and it could matter more than the Bible, it could matter more than seasons 2-4 of Dr. Sexy (and those were the best ones), because Sam meant it, really meant it.
(Don't think about Sam.)
"Will you be happy?" asks Castiel.
"Does it matter?" Dean repeats. "I chose this. This isn't something I made up, or picked up on a whim. I chose this a long time ago. You're the one who told me that, remember?
"And anyway, someone needs to lock the door."
"But will you--"
"Cas," Dean interjects. He feels himself unspooling; they can't be doing this right now. "What I want, and what I want, are sometimes--are usually--completely different fucking things. Get over it."
"I want to trust you," says Castiel. "I want you to be happy."
"Thanks for being a pal," says Dean.
"You're misunderstanding the dichotomy."
Dean really, really misses whiskey. "I'll be happy, Cas. Fuck, I'll be happy. I'll be the king of Heaven, how could I not be happy? And I promise I won't put up any strip malls."
"It will be a kingdom of one."
(Don't think about Cas, either.)
"Then I'll make some friends. --I'll build some friends," Dean amends. "Look, I'll make sure they come in packs of six. I'll have plenty of company."
(Don't think about Cas.)
"It's time," Castiel's attention leaps to some far-flung piece of Heaven. Then he looks back at Dean.
"Heaven raised you from Hell to be a soldier." Dean nods. He's ready. Fuck it; this is the end. Bring it on.
"I raised you from Hell to bring you peace."
"I'll be fine," Dean insists. "I promise. I made it this far, didn't I?"
Castiel stares at Dean with that same unnamable expression.
And he says, with blistering honesty, "You didn't."
Dean burns from the inside out. "Cas, trust me on this. Please."
Castiel stands. "You're the one who taught me doubt, Dean. I will always be grateful for that."
Flowers bloom in Detroit.
In Quang Nam an angel hurtles toward a small boat with a tin roof, like a napalm strike. She bounces off the flimsy roof like light, and disappears into the river, the boating family none the wiser. Marcus Campbell sees.
In Nagasaki, a schoolgirl sees the pika flash of an angel falling toward her, and she disappears thirteen seconds before her cram school is leveled by the United States. When she wakes up she is with her parents, on vacation in Frankfurt.
In Beirut, a little boy says his morning prayers, and a tree, heavy and sagging with jararang, bursts from the ground outside his window.
The miracle in Benin City is well documented on Twitter.
The Washington Territory builds a church to theirs, and a nomadic tribe in Siberia crates a new language to speak to angels.
Before all earth's languages, a salmon struggles up an old, old river that will one day be newly christened Stjørdalselva. The fog skates off the water's surface like gunsmoke. This fish is the first of God's children to conceive of Darwinian advantage. She will die fighting for it.
On this day in Heaven, every miracle on Earth falls from the sky and into place. 4.5 billion years of grace bleed from the sky like ash and rain. Two trumpets, and alto sax, and nine french horns scream an allegretto introduction in F sharp minor.
And on the San Diego coast, a silvery fish arcs and flips its way up the fine black beach. It's white in the darkness, then a milky orange under the dock lights. Don't step on that fish, Castiel, someone warns.
We have big plans for that fish.
Dean watches himself clear the distance to the front door. He turns the lock, throws the dead bolt, and the fire rushes up the seam, warping the door knob as the air superheats, becomes like glass or water. No second thoughts tonight.
Dean's had enough practice, now, to know what death by fire feels like. His throat aches, and his lips feel burnt off. His lungs carry on in the syncopated rhythms of Heaven's very own garage band. He doesn't think his heart would remember how to beat, but for the music.
But they're gone, he thinks. The Roadhouse is gone, and everyone in it. The band is gone. If he looks outside, he knows the flat white that'll be staring back. He wouldn't mind a look, he thinks. If he weren't alone, if there were some oasis out there, an oasis of dead friends and skeletal half-remembered family, he thinks--he might--
He knows he is alone. The tinny reverberations of Castiel's brass band sound out across his memory.
He is alone.
He wipes a hand down his face and doesn't know if he's wiping away the soot from his fingers or the skin from his face. His head spins. His knees ache. Maybe, if he doesn't pass out first, he'll watch his patellas pop like corn kernels. Suddenly, his legs give out beneath him. Maybe it's the thought of becoming Heaven's hottest movie snack. Maybe it's the smoke. He smacks against the flooring gracelessly, and his palms blister red. His clothes don't burn as quickly as he'd hoped.
He coughs, and coughs, and coughs, like something's being ripped out of him; but Dean knows, with almost as much certainty as he knows he is alone, that he has nothing more to give. There is nothing left to rip away.
He's watching himself burn a house to the ground and lock the door behind him. This is how he dies. So what the fuck more do you want, he screams, and coughs, cannot stop coughing. He can feel his heart beating, frenetic against the fat under his skin. It's a deep dull sound. (The heat is bad for the drums.)
He wonders how many more times he will burn alive before he stops understanding that is what this is.
He hopes that for the love of god, this was worth it.
He doesn't even care if it was right; he's pretty sure that kind of luxury played itself out a long time ago. But if there aren't any more happy endings left to take, he hopes the universe has it in him to let Dean get damn close. He just wants to be close enough to feel that ache. Catch its shadow in the corner of his eye.
He hopes that the oceans are cool and the wind isn't dry-heaving ash and that Castiel is getting laid, that being a refugee is sexy and that the same B movies stay in theaters forty years at a time. He hopes a dozen stupid things, but mostly he hopes that Sam, wherever and whoever he is, is safe, and that Cas will even find him maybe. In a moment of weakness he hopes that when the ceiling caves and the house chokes out the last piece of him that's identifiably Dean, he'll wake up; and all of this will settle into the cramped, gut-wrenching pain that nightmares leave behind; and Sam will greet him, voice tight with frustration or worry or hatred or all of them; and they will pack up, hit the road, and limp onward, uneasy in each other's company and never quite happy, toward their dank, miserable little sunset. Dean would sell his soul to have half a chance at that again.
He did, once.
But that's gone now. That's done. This time is different. He lit the match and locked the door--a thousand matches, and a thousand different doors--behind him, and there is no coming back.
He glares moodily at the floorboards at the periphery of his vision, as they shrink and twist in the heat, let in white creases from the nothingness outside. He hears the lap of watery flames beneath him.
He chose all of this.
And there's nothing that makes any of it worth shit. In the end, maybe that's why he's here, in this house, lying on the ground like the aftermath of Heaven's last and greatest vanishing act. If it (pick a noun, any noun) were worth it, Dean would still be living for it.
His breaths, shallow and quick, crush to whispers as the black smoke settles over him.
He chose this. This is the second time today he's felt Heaven tipping into, well, ending, and he actually chose this.
He chose this.
Dean's brain flips the signal from one synapse to the next, like a sluggish, smoked-out relay team, and he registers sound. A voice, an exclamation, panic-laced--his name. Then hands at his shoulders, a dizzying ascent as he's pulled up and all but thrown against the wall. He coughs up a backdraft.
"Sam," he says. "--y, Sammy." He tastes coppery relief at the back of his throat. "You're here--you're here."
Sam holds him.
Why aren't you saving us? Dean wants to ask. Why aren't you heroically throwing us through a window? Why aren't you--
Sam, sweaty and soot-smeared appeared-from-nowhere Sammy, grips his hand. "I told you to wait for me," he says.
"Then you shouldn't get cold feet," Dean hears himself say. You can't survive this, he thinks. If you're here, you die, too. But maybe not. Maybe Sam's here, and that saves them both. Maybe Sam saves them both.
Sam can save them both.
"What are we going to do if we--if when we wake up, we can't remember the plan?" Sam asks.
Which is a relevant question, even taking into consideration their imminent death. Because Dean doesn't actually remember the plan. He likes the idea, though; of having one. "Usually have to go with Plan C anyway," Dean wheezes. "We'll think of something on the fly."
Sam is distracted by something. Dean's not sure by what, though he has the unsettling impression that it's probably his dying that Sam can't quite ignore. Figures.
"We'll meet at the roadhouse," says Sam, with a certainty he can't possibly have; you can't MapQuest Heaven. "We'll only be--it will only be for a little while." Sam is beet red and his hand is slimy over Dean's knuckles.
I'm just glad you're here, Dean wants to say. It's a visceral, salmon-tinged relief, he's so glad. His organs jiggle in their casings and his bones bloat and split and burn, he's so glad. He's a veritable piñata of joy, he's so glad. He is so glad that Sam is here, and they have a plan, and that neither of them will die alone. Sam peels Dean's body from against the wall and lets him smother against his shoulder. He smells green. Salty.
"I've got something I need to tell you." But if Sam's here, if Sam's here and they have a plan and Dean didn't--didn't, then, Dean supposes, he doesn't.
And he is heart-stoppingly glad that he doesn't. But then, "I'm trusting you on this, Dean," Sam says above him. And it's wrong, Dean knows it's wrong.
This is something Sam reminds him of only when Dean cannot be trusted. "I trust you," Sam repeats. He means, "I am going to trust you." It's an invitation, more than a statement of fact. Please don't let me down. And if Sam feels the need to say that, something's wrong.
Something is very wrong.
"Then where were you," Dean asks. Because this isn't the first time he's died. This isn't even the first time he's died in this room. He knows how this goes, and he knows a lie when he sees one. "All that time, where were you?"
"I was looking for you," Sam promises. He's even a little teary. Which is touching, Dean supposes. "I'm here now, Dean. I trust you."
If Dean could leave it at that, just let himself die in Sam's arms like a normal motherfucker, he wouldn't mind that so much. He really wouldn't. But instead he asks, "Fucking hell, Sam. What happened to--"
"We sealed Hell," Sam whispers into Dean's hair, the timbre of his voice taking a smoky nosedive. "We sealed it, and we're gonna seal Heaven, and we're gonna be okay, Dean. You said we were gonna be okay--"
"And I trust you."
Dean would push him away if had the strength, but he can barely breathe. Consciousness itself is more like a sludgy, bubbling plate of glass than anything else at the moment. "An angel sealed Hell, Sam. Not us." Dean takes a sharp breath. Sam still smells green and salty. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees a flash of scales, white when he blinks and milky orange as it navigates the flames. The fish smacks against Dean's back, and he feels his vertebrae lock into place.
Then it jumps over his shoulder, pushing Sam back, and it vanishes into the fire. Sam drops like a downed kite, papery and slow.
Castiel, though, treats Sam like a coat. He drapes Sam neatly over his arm, stroking out his creases and jammed corners.
He's a valuable prop, Dean thinks.
"Yes," says Castiel. And once Castiel has folded Sam away, he regards Dean plainly. There is no remorse there, no bilingually drafted letters of apology. No ruse which, in its foiled execution, Castiel saw fit to explain.
"You gonna explain?" Dean asks, because he doesn't give a damn about what Castiel sees fit.
"An angel sealed Hell," agrees Castiel, belatedly.
There's a croak as the roof's support beam splits, fire tonguing out. Castiel's image shudders, light projected onto smoke. He is briefly a fish again. Then he's Cas. Castiel.
"What are you doing here?"
Dean sucks in air, far past what he knows his body should be capable of. He needs to run, and knows he can't; but he also knows, in Heaven, that might not matter. Because when Dean looks at Castiel, there's something dark there. Or deep, Dean's not sure. It's not guilt, not pity; whatever's going on in Cas, it's unnamable. Powerful and all-consuming. And Dean probably needs to run.
In that moment, Dean's everything turns to black tar inside him. His throat whistles and his hearts valves smack against each other, a sloppy percussion. His lungs become bagpipes. They play a tune called fear. They play a tune called "Cas--"
Castiel casts his eyes toward the floorboards, the pool of fire below them. "I'm sorry," he repeats. The words vibrate at an unfamiliar amplitude. "I can't." Because Castiel raised in from Hell and he will not see him suffer here.
He reaches toward Dean.
He brushes his teeth and shoves nothing down his throat. His spittle is only faintly pink. He guides the floss past his lips--he will need no stitches this morning--and counts his teeth. They're all there.
"Morning," Says sam. He has coffee. He says this or that piece of information, some usual, characteristically innocuous thing that doesn't register to Dean at all. It's Sam; it's Sam and that's all that matters.
Dean looks down and sees that his fingernails haven't peeled away the way he thought they might have. Also comforting. Then he looks back at Sam.
"What's up with you?"
Sam is wearing a strange red flannel shirt that doesn't suit the jacket he pulled out of god knows where. It's not really Sam's style, but Dean can't admit to knowing that without taking a hit to his rugged manhood, so he shrugs.
"Hey, Dean?" says Sam.
"Hey Sam," says Dean, absently. He can't remember how much of Sam's coffee he's actually downed but he supposes it must have been a lot because he can't find it anywhere. He'd come in with coffee, hadn't he? Dean doesn't feel it on his breath, though, doesn't taste it.
"Dean? Is there something going on? Should I know about it?" Sam's tone is no longer casually exploratory; there's a fermata of concern leveled over Dean's name. But they're not questions, in the truly inquisitive sense. They're invitations.
"I'm fine." And indeed, the world seems to gain some definition when he says it. He blinks his eyes, and there's a spatial integrity to the motel room that there hadn't been before. A reality to it that persists beyond Dean's line of sight. It's alarming, sometimes, how long it takes him to wake up. "I just--"
Dean touches his shoulder, and half expects his hand to close on invisible fingers. There's only air.
He takes a deep, full breath. Enough of that.
"You ready to ride into this sunset, partner?" He winks at Sam, and his grin is armed to the teeth with shameless hokey bravado.
Sam chuffs. Because it's Dean, and Sam trusts him. Because when push comes to shove, he trusts that Dean will trust him, too. "Yeah, sure, whatever. First let's try riding into 9AM, Bonanza."
He shouldn't. But Dean can roll with that. He flips the lock and slides the deadbolt back and he opens the door into
You hear them before anything, her feet. Scratching against the pavement as her sandals scuff lines into the ground with the small pieces gravel underfoot. She's dancing. Her legs are tan and fire-scarred. She's wearing a white sundress, the way she likes to. She likes the way it compliments her hair. She doesn't mind color but she likes white best. You know that on her wedding day she will be beautiful. You know that she will have a wedding day.
Little Mary is sixteen today, hips swerving with the hoop around her middle. It swings around and around, faster and faster, then sumptuously slow. Hula hoops, they're called. Yesterday's fad already, but Mary who is sixteen Mary loves it. She spins and spins and spins inside her little ring of rock salt.
Because inside this hoop, her daddy's filled it with salt--an instant ring of protection. It was Deanna's idea. It swirls around her body like a hidden protective charm and it's difficult to say how well it stands to save her. It is, indeed, a ring of salt. And unbreakable ring of salt, compared to the kind they've grown accustomed to pouring on the ground. What's most important, though, is that Mary loves it, Mary who is sixteen and beautiful and unappeasable is head over in heels in love with it.
One day, she will fall in love with a boy, you know. His name will be something simple and plain, and no name will ever mean quite as much to you. Mary who is sixteen Mary hasn't met him yet, you don't think; she's too busy jumping around in a skort, holding pompoms high above her head. She's too busy cleaning rifles, shooting buckshot into the hills with her old man on the weekends. She doesn't mind yet. But someday she will. Someday, there will be a school dance, Sadie Hawkins or Homecoming or Prom, and it will interfere with the other side of her life. You're so familiar with the pattern. And you know that choosing right just then will be a matter of life or death. It won't just feel like one--it will be one. On that day, metaphors will have outlived their usefulness. And Mary will make a choice.
You cannot make it for her.
You can only hope she'll be strong and smart and capable enough to choose right. Because Mary sixteen Mary has that chance today. She's standing on the driveway, avoiding the grease oil spots, dancing her heart out as her sandals scratch scratch scratch at the pavement. The scars don't make any design, just small little swirls as her body shifts one direction, then the next, but dance she will. She is so talented. She is so talented she probably wouldn't stop if you gave her the chance.
You're sorry about her legs. You're sorrier than she is, wearing her sundresses and tanning the parts that aren't scarred over. Maybe it's because of the scars that she dances so hard and so furiously. Maybe it will be because of the scars that she will meet that special boy one day. Maybe it's because of the scars that she'll be strong enough to choose right.
You don't even know what the right answer is, though you've wondered for quite some time. You've seen Mary choose right and cry her body weight into the bathtub; you know free will is a difficult weapon to wield--even more than crossbows and hidden knives.
Maybe Mary sixteen Mary will wake up one day and leave.
Maybe she'll leave you.
And maybe you'll be happy. Maybe you'll be proud of her. Because Mary who is sixteen Mary, she is strong and brave and capable, and maybe that's all she's ever needed from you. Maybe that's all she'll choose to take with her when she gets ready for that dance, and her boy brings her a corsage his mother made, and they come back fifteen minutes after weekend curfew.
You tried to teach her a song, once. An important song. But she preferred The Beatles. She probably doesn't even remember your song, and she will never sing it to her sons. But that's not important.
You watch Mary dressed in white Mary, Mary who is sixteen Mary, swing back and forth in her hula hoop of rock salt, and smile. You smile because she is protected. You smile because she's alive. She is free.
You smile because today, the world is bright and shining and it feels so pregnant with the future and with prospects beyond your wildest imagination you can't imagine anything but happy endings.
When the sky grows dark, and the mosquitoes come out, you remember your place. It is not, has never been, your place to promise happy endings. But still, you are in love with the idea of it, of taking that happiness without asking questions and stretching it across a long, long life, like skin over a drum.
Mary swings her hips one last time, and lets the hoop fall around her ankles. She rubs her legs. The skin is tight. It still hurts her. She stares up at you with a solemn sort of understanding that is something akin to trust. Still, she limps back inside without speaking to you.
She doesn't speak to her father, either. You both let that fire happen to her. It's hard for her to understand, that something like that could happen with you both watching. But she trusts you still. Perhaps it is because of that, she trusts you.
Because she knows, she is free. Mary is free and light and beautiful. And part of that is knowing that sometimes, freedom burns. It jumps away from you like a crazy uncontrollable thing, gets wrapped up in responsibility and risk and sometimes, desperate hopelessness, and you burn. Sometimes you burn. At some point or another, you will always burn. But that is the worthy price of free will. And Mary, listen well, dear girl: You will always be free.
You promise her that, you say to the crest of autumn leaves that whips over her driveway. Freedom is an act of faith called bravery, and it will always be hers. It will be her children's. It would be her grandchildren's, if she were to have them. You know she won't.
For forty more years, you will keep this promise. You will watch her and her family burn to the ground. You will watch her die. You will watch her children smolder slowly.
But your promise will burn faster.
"I'm sorry," you repeat, because you know what this will cost him, too. "I want you to be at peace." And you don't trust him. You don't trust him at all.
"I want you to be at peace, Dean."
ENDNOTES Holy paraffin, Batman.
+ the aleutian islands Introduced rats indirectly change marine rocky intertidal communities from algae- to invertebrate-dominated (Kurle et al, 2008)
+ the church St. Nicholas Church, Nikolski, Alaska
+ heaven “One funeral goer falls onto her knees, falls into blindsight and chokes up a necklace.” Death is strange. Remember that. (Nick Ripatrazone's "25 Points" about Burial, by Claire Donato.)
+ BLUETEAINFUSION is a god among artists, and a total sweetheart to boot. Special thanks for all of her hard work, patience, and, of course, her inspirational artwork. <3
& many thanks to the Italian and Russian Futurists, my flist, and Dean, Castiel, Mary, and Sam et al.
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