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The Breath Of All Things

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Dean thinks that even if he was knocked out, taken a thousand miles away and kept in a cellar for twenty years, he’d still be able to draw a complete diagram of his bedroom from memory.

He’d make the conservative estimate that he spends ninety-five percent of his life in here, and old habits die hard; his brain has yet to realise that it doesn’t need to memorise escape routes anymore. He knows the room in a near outlandish amount of detail, and- more currently speaking- he's mapped it out in its entirety four and a half times in the past hour.

“Well, it’s five,” Sam says, the first words either of them have spoken in just over seven minutes. “I guess I’d better go.”

Dean grunts.

“See you next week, yeah?” Sam says, getting up from his chair.

“Month,” Dean says, and Sam stops dead.

“What do you mean?” he asks, with a look on his face that’s already pleading ‘please don’t do this’. Dean pretends not to notice.

“Let’s make it next month,” he says.

“Dean-” Sam begins imploringly.

“If you turn up next week, I’ll refuse to see you,” Dean says, keeping his face hard and his eyes fixed on the wall in front of him. The silence returns, reinvented as a sort-of stand-off, and Dean’s sure as hell not gonna crack first.

“I’ll come back on the first,” Sam eventually yields. It’s the 4th today, so Dean could complain that it’s not quite a month, but he’s not that pedantic. Not yet, at least.

“Whatever,” he says.

“Okay,” Sam says with a relieved smile, forever finding silver linings in storm clouds. “Great! I’ll see you then.” He leans down and awkwardly hooks his arms around Dean. Dean stays sitting upright, stiff and unbending, arms by his sides. It’s nothing new to Sam, who hugs him as tightly as ever.

“Seeya,” Sam says. Dean doesn’t reply and, after casting one final look back, Sam leaves. As the door shuts, Dean lets himself relax a little. He’s made it through yet another visit without once making eye contact. Maybe he should get a prize.

Somebody knocks on his door, and Dean shoots it an annoyed glance.

“Dean?” a voice calls.

“S’open,” he says- like they’d let me lock it- and the door swings open. He glances over, acknowledges Jody with a nod, and looks away again.

“You ready for dinner?” she asks.

Dean shrugs.

“Come on, let’s hear that voice,” she says. He glares at her, but that rarely has any effect on Jody.

“Yeah,” he says grudgingly.

“Was that so hard?” she says, coming up behind him. Irritated, he bats her hands away from the handles.

“I can do it,” he snaps. Jody lifts her hands away instantly and steps back.

"Of course, sorry,” she says apologetically. “Lead the way.”

Jody stays by his side as they head for the dining room, matching her speed to his. His hands fumble on the chair’s wheels, but he’s damned if he’s going to acknowledge it.

“Hey Dean!” Becky smiles as he rolls in. “How are you today?”


“Don’t you ever get tired of being grumpy?” she replies affectionately. If there’s a way to aggravate Becky, Dean hasn’t found it yet- if anything, she gets cheerier to compensate for his bitterness.

Dean positions himself at the table and looks around. There are nineteen residents in the care home, but they don’t always eat at the same time, or in the same place. Not including the carers, there are eleven of them seated around the huge table today- three who have to avoid anything hard or sharp, four on a puree-only diet, and one who can’t eat anything at all but likes to feel included. That leaves three of them who can still eat what they want, a count which includes Dean.

Dean tries to eat in his own room as often as he can, both to protect his dignity and because he kind of hates people. He has an agreement with the staff that he’ll eat with the others at least once a week, but that doesn’t mean he has to be gracious about it.

“You’re a vegetarian?” Jo says when Dean’s food is set down in front of him, in the same kind of tone that a teenage girl might use to say ‘you’re wearing that?’. Jo’s one of the more able-bodied residents, a pretty young girl who’s only been here for a couple of weeks.

“Nope,” Dean answers.

“So you just don’t like burgers?” Dean doesn’t answer. “Your loss,” she shrugs.

Dean lets his eyes flicker from his own pasta to the cheeseburger Jo’s picking up, and he can’t help but scowl. He wants one- problem is, his hands don’t. Burgers are generally considered ‘disability-friendly’ food, because they’re big and pretty easy to hold, but Dean disagrees. To pick one up you need to use both hands at once, co-ordinating them for long enough to bring the sandwich to your mouth, bite it and put it down again, and that’s a hell of a lot easier said than done.

Ravioli is safer. If his hands decide to spasm and clench when he’s clutching a fork, he doesn’t end up crushing his meal and spilling crap down his front. If he suddenly gets caught in a coughing fit or if his grip randomly disappears altogether, then it’s easier to get new cutlery than a new burger. Sure, there are ways the meal could be made manageable, but there’s no friggin’ way that Dean’s about to ask someone to cut up his food like he’s five. He knows that nobody would actually make bib jokes, but they might offer him one seriously, and that’s about a thousand times worse. That means that unless the lumps of plasticine masquerading as his hands suddenly snap back into functionality, he’ll put up with whatever he can spear on a fork.

There have been a lot of phrases banded around regarding Dean’s condition in the seventeen months he’s been in the chair. He’s heard ‘spinal cord injury’ and ‘complete paralysis’ (or ‘incomplete paralysis’, depending on who you ask)- and the ever delightful ‘tetraplegic’ which, as far as he’s concerned, isn’t even true. He’s got sweet F.A in his legs, but his hands are still there. They shake and tighten and wilt, but they’re there, dammit.

“How was Sam?” Becky asks, and Dean smirks and checks his watch. Four minutes. Her self-control is improving.

“He’s fine.”

“Good! And how are he and Jess?”

“Still together.” Becky’s smile falters for a moment.

“Good for them!” she says, a little too brightly. She picks up the spoon, fumbles and drops it, and Dean really wishes he had the dexterity to applaud sarcastically.

“Sorry,” Becky apologises to Ava. “Give me a minute.”

“Here you go,” Jody says, passing a clean spoon over.

“Thanks,” Becky says apologetically. "You okay for more, Ava?” Ava blinks, and Becky carefully feeds her another spoonful of food.

“How was seeing Sam?” Jody asks, a slight rephrasing that creates a completely different question.

“Fine. Stressed about college.”

“Poor thing,” Becky says sympathetically. Dean’s pretty sure that, in her head, she’s already giving Sam backrubs and running him baths and probably playing out some kinky nurse fantasy. The sweet ones always were always the freakiest in bed.

“I don’t know, I always thought studying law would be pretty fun,” Jody says. “What about you, Channing? Isn’t that what Kevin wants to do?”

“No,” Channing says slowly, “politics.”

“Ahh yes, first Asian-American president. I remember now,” Jody says.

“He… never… lets me… forget,” Channing says, and Jody snorts. At the other end of the table, there’s a quiet thud as a cellar of salt is knocked off the table. A carer hurries over to clean it up, and Dean looks away from the man in the wheelchair, his body twisting and arms and legs jerking. Every now and again he lets out a yell or a cry. The first time Dean saw a resident have a fit it scared him, the second time, it depressed him, and now it’s just another part of life.

Some of the residents here are disabled because of accidents, and some have never known what it’s like to be healthy, and Dean can never decide who has it worse. He remembers what it was like to run a race and catch a ball and have sex, and there are some people in here who’ve never had those chances. Then again, that means they’ve got less to miss.

“You’re taking a degree too, right?” Jo asks Channing.

“Yes… Classics.”

“Oh man, that’s cool. All I ever did was tend bars,” Jo says. “Too dumb for college.”

“You’re not!” Jody protests.

“You should… take a degree… now,” Channing says. “Like me. There are… ways. They can… work… it out.”

It takes Channing about twenty seconds to finish her sentence, but everybody waits patiently. Dean’s not sure that Jo hears every word- Channing’s speech is slurred, and it can be difficult to tell what she’s saying if you don’t know how to listen- but she still gets the overall sentiment.

“Maybe,” Jo says. “We’ll see how bored I get. How about you, Dean? You hiding a degree in Oriental Studies or something?”

“If by that you mean a stash of anime porn, then yeah.” Becky drops the spoon again as Jody bites her lip to try and keep from laughing.

“Dean was in the FBI,” Jody supplies, because Jody is the worst kind of bitch; the kind who like to do things ‘for Dean’s own good’. As far as Dean can see, if he’s not concerned with his own good, there’s no reason why anybody else should be.

“Oh my God, really?” Jo says, eyes wide. “That is so cool. What was it like?”

“It was a job,” he says brusquely. “I had it. Now I don’t.” He spikes a piece of pasta and brings it to his mouth. Dean remembers being able to take on a double cheeseburger and large fries in four minutes flat. It takes him twenty minutes to finish a meal now, and that’s if he rushes.

Which he does. Because, you know, people.

Dean spends the evening watching TV in his room. As crappy as he feels for sucking all the life out of the family bank account, his TV is the one thing he’s not willing to feel guilty for- hell, the damn thing barely gets five channels. At eight, the night staff show up and the day staff go home, and about two hours later Dean figures it’s late enough that, if he goes to bed, he’ll sleep until morning. Just like that, another day has passed, identical to a hundred that have gone before.


 “Dean, do you want to come and do activities?”



"Nothing, you're just not usually this dumb.”

“Aww, c’mon, Garth’s in.”

“And that’s supposed to make me say yes?” Dean says incredulously.

“You like Garth!” Pamela protests.


“Well, okay- you don’t not like Garth.”

“Yeah, well. I’m okay in here, thanks,” he says. She gives a little smile and shrugs.

“Well, you know where we’ll be.”

Dean doesn’t think it’s worth trying to dignify that with an answer. His hands are playing up today- pain shooting through them sporadically, pain that won’t go away. Maybe they’ll get better as the day goes on, but he doubts it.

Mornings are always the worst time of day. He’s stiff and painful from lying in bed all night, and the day stretches ahead of him with no end in sight. If Dean goes to bed at ten, there’s another ten and a half hours to get through- so far, he’s only been up for two.

Residents can get up whenever they want, but once the staff realised that Dean’s preferred time was ‘never’, they started enforcing a Get Dean Winchester Out Of Bed initiative. There’s actually an on-going competition between the nurses to see who can persuade him up earliest- they’ve got their personal bests written up on a whiteboard in the staffroom. Ellen’s the current title-holder, with 9:02AM. Dean sometimes stays in bed later purely to piss off the carers he doesn’t like (the earliest Ruby has managed is 12.55PM, which she counted as success because it was ‘before we have to use 24 hour time’)- but, to be honest, it’s mostly because he doesn’t see all that much point in getting up. And even if he is out of bed, he’s sure as hell not doing ‘activities’. Nine times out of ten, it involves glitter glue or felt tip pens, and he really would rather die.

A carer wanders by every now and again to check Dean’s okay, but mostly they leave him to it. It’s halfway through the afternoon before somebody else knocks on his door.

“What?” he calls.

“Hey, sunshine,” Meg grins lazily. Not every carer works every day, but most prefer certain days. Thursdays bring a trio of women so putrid Dean’s pretty sure they clawed their way out of Hell itself: Meg, Ruby and Lilith. They’re manageable alone, but together? If Dean’s a loner, then on Thursdays he’s a downright hermit.

“What do you want?”

“Don’t get excited, I’m not even wearing the nice underwear today,” Meg dismisses. “You coming out?”

“No, obviously not.”

“You sure?”

Dean screws his face up. “Uh, yeah?” Meg rarely bothers asking, much less twice.

“Just thought I’d check,” she says. “On a completely unrelated note, we’ve got a new volunteer.”

“What, did one die?” The volunteers at the home can generally be split into two categories: kids trying to get badges, and women so old that they’re probably weaker than he is.

“Maybe,” Meg shrugs. “Either way, the replacement’s worth your attention.” She leaves before he can shoot any more insults at her, and he’s stuck in the dilemma of whether to go out and see what’s going on- knowing fully well that it may be a trick, and that even if it’s not, he'll have listened to Meg- or to stay in his room and drive himself insane with curiously.

It’s been a long time since Dean had anything worth getting curious about.

He rolls himself out, waiting in the doorway for a minute so that Pam can wheel a resident down the corridor- the hallways here are wide, but not that wide. Dean makes his way to the lounge, thinking all the while that even if it's fucking Bob Ross, he’s still not colouring in- and then the automatic door slides open and he goes in and mother of fuck, he is going to rip Meg apart with his teeth.

“Dean,” Meg says, with a smile that couldn’t scream ‘haha-fuck-you’ harder if it was wearing a sign with the words in flashing lights. “I’m so glad you came out to see us. Castiel, this is Dean, one of the residents here.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the new volunteer says.

The reason that Meg’s dragged Dean out, of course, is that Castiel is probably the single most attractive human being who has ever walked God’s green Earth. There was a guy volunteering here when Dean first rocked up last February who looked kinda similar (in the sense that a scribble looks like a Van Gough, that is), and Dean had stared and Meg had noticed. And he knows, he friggin’ well knows from the way she’s looking at him now that she remembers, because Meg is every conceivable kind of awful. The stupidly attractive man smiles while Dean treats Meg to the visual equivalent of a shower of acid.

“Dean can talk,” Pam throws out from across the room. “Don’t let him try and convince you otherwise.”

“That’s a pretty key part of the welcome pack now,” Ruby adds without looking up from her magazine. “It was two months before I realised he could speak.”

“Yeah,” Dean says to Castiel, determinedly ignoring every other person in the room. “Same.” He starts to wheel himself away.

“Are you going to stay?” Castiel calls, and Dean’s hands pause on the wheels of his chair. Coming into the lounge and then immediately leaving probably does look kinda weird. Plus, if he goes now, Meg will know that this guy’s gotten to him- which, by proxy, means that she got to him. Dean’s not about to let that happen.

“I’m gonna watch TV for a while,” he says with a tight smile, nodding at the screen hung up on the wall.

Castiel nods and turns back to the table they’ve got set up. Dean looks over casually as he rolls past, just waiting for the fucking colouring books, but Castiel’s avoided that particular horror. Easter is only a few days away, so Dean will begrudge him the craft. He might not want to have decorations around, but some of the other residents do, and who is he to spoil their fun?

“Hey, can I change the channel?” he asks Ava, who stares at him. It takes great skill to say ‘don’t even think about it’ using only your eyes, but Ava’s something of an expert, so Dean ends up watching some fucking cake show (why are there so many goddamn cake shows?) when he could be back in his room with actual decent television.

After five or so minutes, the annoyance (and increasingly hysterical focus on the diameter of frosting roses) gets the better of him. Dean has nothing to prove- not to this guy, or to anybody else. Meg can go fuck herself.

He spins his wheelchair around, ready to escape, but he somehow ends up accidentally locking eyes with Castiel. At least the new volunteer is sitting down, so there’s none of the usual awkwardness that comes from your eyes being a few feet below where people expect them to be.

“Somehow I doubt you’ve decided to make Easter baskets,” Castiel deadpans. Dean snorts.

“You catch on quickly, I’ll give you that.” He scoots himself forwards a few feet to where Castiel is cutting out pieces of ribbon. “What do you even do with an Easter basket?”

“Put things in it, I suppose.” Castiel rotates the basket in his hands. “I’m not really sure. Could you hand me the glue?” A beat passes before Dean realises Castiel is addressing him.

“Sure,” he says, and his hands behave themselves for long enough to pass the glue stick over.

“Thank you.” Castiel neatly smears glue over the back of the ribbon and then sticks it on. Holding the basket up to show the woman next to him, he frowns. “Lenore, I’m not entirely sure we’ve done this correctly.”

Dean snorts. “I’ll say," he says before he can stop himself.

“It’s not that bad,” Castiel argues. Lenore might not be able to say it, but Dean’s pretty sure she’s thinking the same thing he is. The ribbon, which was supposed to run parallel, is so askew that it starts out lining the top and ends halfway down the basket.

“No offence, but it kind of is.”

“Maybe it’s slightly off-centre-"

“Yeah, and I have a slight limp,” Dean scoffs. Dean’s expecting Castiel to squirm or wince, but he doesn’t even blink.

“It isn’t easy to do,” Castiel defends, changing tack. “The ribbon slips.”

“Oh, right, sure.”

“It does.” Castiel peels the ribbon off and glares at it like it’s personally offended him. “That's the second time I’ve tried now. I don’t believe it can be done.”

“Dude, it’s gluing ribbon onto wicker. You don’t need to be Damien Hirst.”

“I’m telling you, it’s not possible.”

“Ten bucks says it is.”

Castiel looks at him out of the corner of his eye. “Five,” he counters.

An hour and a half later, after Dean’s glued ribbon onto ten baskets (“Don’t,” he says warningly after screwing the first one up, and Castiel’s perfectly straight face is actually more annoying than laughter would have been), everyone’s called for dinner. Dean breathes a silent sigh of relief, because his hands are minutes away at best from turning to lead. Gluing ribbon might not be taxing for most people, but he’s not ‘most people’ anymore, as his aching joints are determined to remind him.

Dean sets down the final basket, grins, and turns his hand over on the table. Glowering, Castiel drops a crumpled $5 bill into the upturned palm.

“Thanks for dropping by, Castiel,” Pam says as he stands up to go.

“My pleasure,” he says, in that gravelly voice that would be better matched to a dollar-per-minute sex line than a crappy adult care home. “I’ll be back next week at the same time, if that’s alright?”

“Perfect,” Pam nods. “I’ll see you then.”

“Yes, okay. Goodbye, Lenore. Goodbye, Dean.”

"Seeya," Dean says as he wheels himself out. He refuses to eat with the others two nights in a row, retreating instead to the sanctuary of his room. He’s halfway through his meal when he realises that he just took part in a group activity for the first time in at least five months, and that Castiel tricked him into doing so.

Sneaky fucker.  Dean doesn’t know whether to scowl or smile.


Easter itself arrives a few days later. The whole place is dripping with decorations and the staff are determined to celebrate, hiding foil-wrapped eggs around the home and staging a hunt to find them. Dean doesn’t leave his room.

“I’m guessing you don’t want yours,” Ellen calls from the doorway, holding up a gold-wrapped egg.

“Throw it on the bed,” he says. She does, but lingers for a moment.

“Heard you helped make some of those baskets,” she says. Dean groans.

"I stuck some ribbon down because the volunteer screwed up. That was all.”

Ellen loops her thumbs through her belt hooks and leans back against the door. “They look nice,” she says mildly.

“What’s it to you?”

“The world's not out to get you, boy,” Ellen sighs. “It was nice to hear you were getting involved, that’s all. You know we like getting to see you.”


“No, not bull.” She waits for Dean to reply. He lets her.

“Talked to Sam a few days back,” she says. Ellen wasn’t even working when Sam came in to visit, but somehow the news doesn’t surprise Dean at all. Out of all the carers at the home, Sam’s probably closest to Ellen- and if Dean’s being honest, so is he. “Told me you don’t want him coming so often.”

“Yeah. So?”

“How come?”

“Kid’s got a life. He should be out living it.”

“And you don’t count as a part of that life?” Ellen challenges.

Dean turns his head away with a smile that’s more of a grimace. “Okay, we're not talking about this.”

“What a shock,” Ellen mutters.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry, Dean, that was rude,” she says, shaking her head in apology. “I just… I wish you’d let us in.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that it don’t take a genius to see that you’re hurting, but it’d take a psychic to find out why.”

Dean wants to hit something. He wants to tell her that if she wants to know what’s wrong, she just has to look. Read the section in his folder marked ‘history’, listen to him try and fail to cough like a normal human being, look at his damn dead legs and his fucked-up wooden arms.

“Thanks for the candy,” he says instead. “I’ll see you around.”

“You’re still coming out for dinner, right?” she says.

Dean should say yes. They’ll be making a big deal of the holiday and if he says no, he’ll be the seven year old throwing a tantrum at a party, ruining it for everyone else.

“We’ll see,” he says- which, as they both knew it would, ends up meaning ‘no’. 

Tangled metal, sharp and vicious against his flesh, with pain that burns so very hot against the cold glass trickling through his hair. And it hurts, how it hurts, his head and his arms and his back all lacerated and mutilated but no, don’t think about that. Have to focus, have to find Sam. His legs don’t hurt; small blessings. Find Sammy, all that matters, find Sammy. Ignore the pain. Left leg, move. No, nothing, still shocked, too shocked. Dad seems okay, can leave him for now but Sam, have to find Sam, look after your brother, you fucking screw-up, look after Sam. Left leg, move. Nothing. Legs don’t hurt. Blood soaking his hair, blood coating everything everything coated in blood, but whose blood is it? It could be Sam’s, could be Sam find Sam find Sam left leg move move MOVE-

Dean jolts awake. Sweat sticking his shirt to the back of his neck, his eyes find the blurry numbers of his clock: 3:11. His panic begins to fade away and he lets his head fall back onto the pillow. He closes his eyes and takes a slow, deep breath. Fucking nightmares.

It takes Dean a few hours to get back to sleep, but eventually he manages it. He never used to sleep anywhere near this much. He had worked alongside his father, and they shared a philosophy of ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’. With John dead and Dean as good as, they’re both making up for all those sleepless nights.

The staff send Lilith in to wake Dean up- which, most mornings, would work. Dean gets up for Ellen because he respects her; he gets up for Lilith because she terrifies him. Ruby is grating and Meg is repellent, but Lilith, for some reason he can’t name, is downright scary.

“Dean?” she calls. Dean’s always hated it when women talk with that simpering, little girl’s voice. Lilith’s the master of it, but she’s less Raggedy-Anne and more Samara. “Are you going to get up now?”

And most mornings, it works.

“No,” Dean says, from deep below the duvet.

“But it’s already half-past nine, silly!” Lilith sings. “You’re going to miss breakfast.”

“Don’t care.”

“Dean,” she says, her sweet tone gaining an edge to it. “I really think you should get up now, don’t you?”

“Hey, remember all that bull about ‘catering to my needs’ and ‘respecting my choices’?" he says. "Respect this choice: go fuck yourself.”

After a few moments of silence, Dean hears the door close. Good. He’s not ready to face the world just yet.

Lilith doesn’t come back, but a few hours later, Pam wanders in. “Afternoon, gorgeous.”

“Until I’m up, it’s technically still morning.”

“Time doesn’t revolve around you, sweetheart,” she says easily. “If you want food, you need to make a move. Everyone else has already eaten.”

“Can’t I eat in bed?”

“Sure, if you want the cleaners to hunt you down and skin you. No, come on, up, it’s good for you.”

“Right, ‘cause I need to stretch my legs,” he mutters. “What’s the time?”

“Ten past one.” Dean nods, and reaches for the bar on his wall. Curling both hands around it, he drags himself upright. Pam waits silently, knowing better than to offer him help.

“So, food,” Pam says. “We got soup, baked potato or quiche.”

That’d be okay- Dean could do the potato- except that his hands have spent the whole morning shuddering and spasming. His usual tactic of choosing things he can get onto a fork easily doesn’t work on days like this, because he can’t even keep the fork still for long enough.

“You know, I’m not all that hungry,” he says. Pam’s eyes follow his arms down to where he’s hiding his hands under the duvet, ashamed of the gnarled fists. Her eyes turn sad with understanding.


“Not hungry, Pam,” he repeats. She nods once and leaves.

Dean sits up in bed and feels the familiar, horrible sensation in his throat that means hey, time to cough. He leans forwards, pressing an arm below his ribcage and forcing himself through the motions. He feels exhausted by the time he’d done, but the idea of having to deal with Pam all over again is enough to make him transfer to his chair.

He pulls on a loose t-shirt and an oversized hoodie, then painstakingly manoeuvres himself into clean boxers and sweatpants. It takes a long time and as well as shaking like a kid on caffeine, his hands hurt. They really, really fucking hurt, but he’s determined not to show it. When he did FBI work he used to get injured on pretty much a daily basis, and he never took painkillers then.

Dean’s just picked up the TV remote when someone knocks on his door.

“What?” he says, annoyed.

And because God’s proven on multiple occasions that, if he does exist, he has a serious thing against Dean, it’s Ruby. “Hey. You coming out?”


“You sure? ‘cause the piece of tail you spent an hour making pretty baskets with is here again.”

Sometimes, Dean thinks that it’s probably a good thing he doesn’t get to carry a gun anymore. “Bite me.”

“I’m sorry, did you want that message relayed to him?”

Dean pretends she doesn’t exist until she gets the message and leaves. Half an hour later, though, he gets another knock on the door.

“Ruby, get lost.”

“Try again,” Pam calls back.

“Pam, get lost.”

“Try again,” she says, opening the door. “You okay?”

“I’d be better if people would quit bugging me,” he grumbles. “You don’t bother any of the other residents like this.”

“That’s because they leave their rooms more than once a month,” Pam explains. “C’mon, sugar, come spend some time with us. You did last week.”

“I- no, okay? I don’t want to make any crappy baskets, I don’t want to come out and talk to anyone. I want to stay in here, and do nothing, and have people stop bothering me for five goddamn minutes. What the hell is everyone’s problem today?”

“Don’t know,” Pam says, completely unfazed. “Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re so darn pretty. But I hear you, don't worry. I’ll ask one more time, then I swear I’ll let it go: come out for a little while, Dean. Just ten minutes. You might enjoy yourself.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

Pam nods; she’d been anticipating the reply. “Suit yourself.”

And he does, and ‘suiting himself’ involves staying in his room reading magazines. At five, he gets yet another knock on his door (maybe he should hire a butler), and assumes it’s yet another carer- one who’s drawn the short straw of trying to persuade him to eat with the others. Good luck to them; today is not a ‘tolerate the presence of other human beings’ kind of day.

“Yeah?” Dean says, not looking up from the magazine.

“Hello, Dean,” a very male voice says from the door. There are far fewer male carers than there are female, and Dean knows them all well enough to recognise that this guy isn't staff. Besides, that voice really isn’t easy to forget. He looks up and, sure enough, it’s Castiel.

“Uh… can I help you?” Dean asks.

“It’s no matter,” Castiel dismisses. “I asked after you and a carer told me your room number. I thought I’d stop by and ask how you are.”

“Same as ever, I guess,” Dean says. He leaves an awkward gap, which Castiel makes no attempt to fill. “You?” Dean eventually adds.

“Fine,” Castiel replies. “We were making jewellery.”

“Well, that sounds like something I’d hate.”

“Almost certainly.”

Dean chuckles at that. “You know, you’re not selling your services very well.”

“I’m not trying to,” Castiel says simply.

“Yeah, well,” Dean says, expecting Castiel to smile or crack a joke. Castiel does neither. His eyes are fixed on Dean’s face, roaming over his features like they’re something worth remembering. Dean makes eye contact, breaks it, makes it again. He tries to think of something to say and fails. His hands hurt.

“Well, goodbye,” Castiel eventually says, and leaves before Dean can say anything in return. Dean stares at the space left and shakes his head, letting out a breath that turns into a sigh. Once upon a time, he thinks, people would have described him as ‘charming’.

The home has at least twenty different volunteers, and only three know Dean by name; only about six know he even exists. They’ve certainly never come to his goddamn room before. What the hell is making Castiel take such an interest? It’s annoying. Dean’s established his routine, his pattern of existence here, and he doesn’t appreciate this guy coming in and screwing things up.

Plus, he's pretty sure that the carers aren’t supposed to tell strangers (because Castiel is a stranger) where individual residents’ rooms are. It’s almost certainly the work of one of the more demonic members of staff, because no matter how much Pam likes to wind him up, she respects him. Dean doesn’t really care that Castiel knows where his room is, but he doesn't like how Castiel found out. That’s Dean's information, about his life, and it pisses him off that they gave it away just like that. More to the point, it pisses him off that they can, that the information is not his own anymore.

Dean spends the rest of the day pretending to be deaf and mute whenever any of the three say anything. They don’t seem to care- though, in all fairness, he’s not sure they notice the difference.


On Tuesday, Dean goes for his obligatory monthly check-up. The home has a big team of medical personnel, but as Dean’s not a ‘high dependency’ patient, he doesn’t see them all that much. The offer is always there, but Dean doesn’t see the point. His legs are not going to spring back into life.

“How’re you doing, boy?”

“Life’s candy.”

Bobby grunts. “Shirt off.”

“Can’t you buy me a drink first?” Dean retorts, but he obligingly pulls off his sweatshirt and drops it on the ground. Bobby gives him a despairing look.

“There’s a table right there.

“Yeah, but there’s a floor right here too.” Dean pulls off his t-shirt and lets it fall.

Bobby pulls up a stool and starts to feel at Dean’s chest. His gloved hands are cold, but as they move down to gently palpate his abdomen, Dean starts to lose the sensation.

Bobby pulls his stethoscope on. “Gonna listen to your lungs now.”

“I’ll try and make ‘em sound pretty.” Bobby listens carefully, and then checks his heart.

“Everything’s sounding good to me. You feelin’ okay?”


“Any chest pain or difficulty breathing?”


“Problems coughing?”

Coughing is an interesting thing for Dean, as it turns out that the muscles you see aren’t the only ones that matter. Persuading anything out of his chest and throat is never an easy task when his insides aren’t interested in playing along.

“No worse than usual,” Dean answers.

“Any abdominal pain?”


“Everything okay downstairs? Still workin' out your waterworks'?”

“You are one dirty old man, doctor. But yeah, I'm managing.” Catheters aren't exactly Dean's idea of of fun, but the fact that he can still sort himself out without assistance features pretty heavily on his meagre list of ‘reasons to be grateful’.

Bobby hands him his t-shirt. “Put that back on and we’ll weigh you.”

“Aww, Bobby, do we have to?”

“That’s Dr. Singer to you,” Bobby says, scribbling notes on his clipboard. “And yep. You know the drill.”

Sighing, Dean obeys. The transfer into the weighing chair is awkward but he manages it, revealing that he’s gained two pounds in a month. It’s probably just water or something, and he’s nowhere near overweight, but it still freaks him out. He’s already lost a ridiculous amount of muscle in his legs; looks like he’s making up for it with fat.

Bobby takes his blood pressure and checks a few other things. Dean passes all the tests with flying colours, and Bobby says they’ll have the results of his blood test in a few days. Dean doesn’t much care, but he nods along anyway.

“And how are you?” Bobby asks once Dean’s pulled his sweatshirt back on.

“You know that’s the third time you’ve asked that question? Maybe you need a check-up. Aging minds and all that.”

“You know what I’m asking, boy,” Bobby retorts, “and it ain’t about your arteries. How’s your head?”

“No change," Dean shrugs.

“You ain’t tried…” Bobby trails off. This isn’t really his domain.

“Pretty sure my notes would say if I had,” Dean points out dryly, and Bobby nods.

“Fair enough. Keep it that way, wouldya?”

“I’ll do my best,” Dean says, with a tight smile that’s got no sincerity to it. Bobby glowers with the rough affection he’s famed for.

“Go on, get outta here,” he says, shooing Dean with his clipboard.

 The organisers and coordinators high up on the chain of command would probably have a heart attack if they heard the way that some of the staff here speak to Dean, but that’s what he wants. The good carers treat every person differently, and Dean wants them to act like they would if they met outside of this goddamn place. If that means they treat him like an annoying little shit, then that's fine. At least it’s genuine.

“Seeya next month, Bobby,” Dean calls as he leaves.

“Dr. Singer!” Bobby shouts after him, but his heart isn’t in it. They both know fully well that Dean’s never going to call him that and that- more importantly- Bobby doesn’t want him to.


Pam persuades Dean up at eleven on Thursday, which is considered impressive by everybody involved. Thursdays are the days when Castiel volunteers, but that doesn’t matter, because there’s no way Dean’s taking part. He probably won’t even see the guy.

“Hey, Pam, can I have a shower?”

“Sure thing, sweetness,” Pam says breezily, and Dean has a temporary flush of affection for her. He showers every few days, usually as the result of excessive nagging. He changes his clothes about as often, sleeping in what he wears during the day, because he’s not doing anything or seeing anyone, so why does it matter? He’d thank Pam for not making a big thing of it, but that’d mean admitting it is a thing, so a quick grin will have to do.

Showering’s never fun (even the phrase ‘shower chair’ embarrasses him), but Dean has to admit that he feels better afterwards. He spends the morning aimlessly channel-surfing, and at half-past twelve Pam makes her usual valiant attempt to get him to eat lunch with the others. She fails, but does so good-naturedly.

“Oh hey, I meant to tell you,” she says. “Shopping trip this afternoon, if you’re interested?”

“Not even a little bit.”

“Aww, but you’re all nice and clean.”

“Don’t need anything.” More specifically, he doesn’t need to go out in public and have people look at him in pity and disgust and ugh. The whole thing is very ugh.

“Fair enough,” she says. “Ruby and Meg are going at about two, so you’ve got time to change your mind.”

Ruby and Meg leaving is an unexpected bonus, and whilst Lilith’s still around, she’s stuck in an office doing paperwork. Dean does most certainly not change his mind, but by three o’clock, he’s so bored that he’s narrowed his options down to staring at the ceiling, colour-coordinating his clothes or leaving the room. Usually option three wouldn’t even be an option, but with the demons otherwise occupied, he decides to chance it.

“Hey,” Jo grins when he enters the lounge. She’s sitting at a table with Channing, and he makes his way over to them.

“What, you didn’t feel like shopping?” he asks.

“Do I look like a ‘shopping’ kind of girl?” Jo demands.

“I am so not answering that,” he says. He takes a look at the art supplies piled in front of her. "Looks like you're an arty kind of girl, though."

"Hardly,” she dismisses. “We're making cards. It’s my grandma’s birthday soon, and Channing’s making Kevin a ‘good luck’ one. He’s got exams coming up.”

Dean glances casually around, but other than a few residents watching TV, there’s no one around. “This a ghost-led activity?”

“Nah, some volunteer called… something. Nice eyes. Wears a trench coat.”

“Castiel,” Dean supplies.

“Something like that,” she agrees. Irritation prickles at the back of Dean’s skull- he isn’t wrong, the guy’s name is definitely Castiel- but he ignores it and pulls himself up next to Channing.

“I thought Kevin just had exams,” Dean frowns.

“He… always… has exams,” Channing replies. “And I… always… make cards.”

“That’s sweet,” Dean says, though it sounds kind of pointless to him. “You should switch to a yearly edition.”

Channing laughs softly. “Maybe.”

“You got anything to make a card for?” Jo asks.

“Nah,” Dean replies- but then, for some reason, says “It’s my brother’s birthday in two weeks, I guess.”

“That counts. Get gluing.”

“Uh, no.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t do cards.”

“Aww, come on, it’s fun!”

“That's a vicious lie.”

“You won’t know unless you try it,” a new voice says from behind, causing Dean to jump a little. “Hello, Dean.”

“They haven’t got you doing ribbon again, have they?” he says, twisting around to look at Castiel.

“I’ve been reassigned to artwork,” Castiel says, sitting down next to Channing. “What do you think?”

So far it’s just the words ‘GOOD LUCK’, outlined in black pen. “Pretty difficult to get that wrong,” Dean remarks.

“I’m sure I could find a way,” Castiel says, so seriously that Dean nearly misses the joke. “Are you making a card?”


“It’s his brother’s birthday soon,” Jo interrupts. “So he should.”

“You have a brother?” Castiel asks.

“Yeah. Name’s Sam,” Dean says.

“Older or younger?” Jo asks.

“Four years younger. He’ll be twenty-four in May.”

“Making you twenty-eight,” Castiel says.

“Yeah. So?”

“It was just an observation,” Castiel shrugs. “Here.” He hands Dean a plain white card before he can protest.

“I- no, listen, I don’t-”

“There’s pink if you’d prefer,” Jo offers. Dean scowls and she whacks him with her half-finished card.

“What colour do you want the words to be, Channing?” Castiel asks.

“… red, please.”

“Is this one okay?” he asks, holding up a marker pen. She nods.

“So you got family?” Jo asks as she sketches something out.

“Me?” Castiel says, looking up. The pen stills and for a moment, Dean thinks he sees sadness taint Castiel’s eyes (‘nice eyes’, Jo had called them. Dean hadn’t noticed before, but he guesses they are kind of nice. If, you know, you’re into that). Whatever the look was, it disappears almost instantly, and Castiel continues colouring.

“Yes. An older brother and three younger siblings.”

Jo whistles. “Big family.”

Castiel looks like he wants to say something more, but he doesn’t.

“I’m an only child,” Jo offers. “Does it show?”

“That depends. You gonna hit me with the card again?” Dean checks. Jo responds by hitting him with the card again.

Ow,” he complains pointedly. Channing giggles, and Dean looks down at the blank sheet in front of him.

“What am I even supposed to do?” he whines.

“You could start with ‘happy birthday’,” Jo says dryly.

“What does Sam like?” Castiel asks.

“Um. Girly stuff.” Jo looks at him threateningly, so he quickly moves on. “Books. He digs reading. Mythology and the classics mostly, but he’s a sci-fi freak.” Dean frowns as he sifts through facts. “I think he likes dogs.”

“Great, so draw a robot dog,” Jo says. Dean scowls at her.

“I’m too old for this,” he complains.

“Just write ‘happy birthday’,” Castiel suggests, having moved onto blocking in the ‘O’. “You can always add more later.”

“Whatever.” Dean grabs hold of one of the giant markers they keep around- that’ll do, Sam likes blue- and begins to write. He’s writing the second ‘P’ when his hand judders suddenly and drags a jagged line across the page. “Motherf-”

Castiel passes him another piece of card without commenting, without even looking up from the letter he’s shading in. Dean refrains from commenting and tries again. He gets all the way to the first ‘Y’ this time.

“Don’t think it’s meant to be,” he says, trying to sound light as he sets the thing aside. It’s not a big deal. It’s not. He didn’t want to make a dumbass card anyway. What is he, five years old?

“Aww, come on,” Jo says. “Last go?”

Dean breathes out. “Fine. One last go.” He picks up the pen, focuses, does it slowly, and this time he only makes it to the fucking ‘A’ when his hand screws it up.

“Dean?” Castiel says, looking over at where Dean’s sitting- his head down, his hands gripping onto his wheels. He wants to dig his nails in until the damn tyres burst, wants to unplug the TV and hurl it through the window, wants to feel things break, feel them break because of him-

“Didn’t work out so well,” Dean says through gritted teeth. There’s a pause, as there is usually is when people have no idea what to say. When Dean looks over at Castiel, though, the usual look of pity and confusion is absent. Instead, Castiel is frowning down at the card in front of him. As Dean watches, Castiel lifts it up to show them.

“I don’t think this is right,” he says, sounding genuinely perplexed. He’s accidentally coloured in the entirety of the letter ‘D’, so that the card reads ‘goo’ followed by a random half-circle. Dean can’t help it. He starts to laugh.

“Oh my God,” he manages to choke out. “You don’t even have an excuse.” Jo's cackling, and even Channing is giggling weakly.

“I’m sorry, Channing,” Castiel says. “I lost my focus. I’ll start again.”

“No,” she says, still with a small smile on her face. “It’s… fine. I like… this… one.”

“You could cut the middle bit out,” Dean suggests.

“But that would look strange,” Castiel objects.

“Not if you do another colour inside,” Dean says. “So it’s like, two-tone.”

“Totally,” Jo agrees. “It’d look bitchin’.”

Castiel looks highly doubtful that he can handle that level of creative dexterity, but he turns to Channing all the same.

“I’d… like that,” she says, and Dean can tell that that immediately settles any doubt in Castiel’s mind. He picks up a pair of scissors and his gaze on the card becomes so intense that Dean thinks he could probably burn the hole into existence. Halfway through the process, Castiel looks up and blinks as he realises he's the focus of everybody’s attention.

“No pressure,” Dean grins. Castiel visibly swallows.

Working slowly and carefully, Castiel manages to cut out the half-circle. Dean and Jo applaud (Dean claps twice), and he fixes them with a glare that Dean can tell right away is more amused than annoyed. Whilst Castiel can talk, that doesn’t mean he can’t use the same kind of non-verbal communication Dean sees every day; it’s the stationary equivalent of how Dean used to whack Sam around the head with a magazine for making some wise-ass comment.

They work a while longer, Castiel finishing off Channing’s card and occasionally asking soft questions about how she wants certain parts of the design. Jo works on her own project, humming to herself, and Dean watches TV. It’s that goddamn cake show again. If he ends up getting into baking, he’s going to blame Ava.

“How’s this?” Jo asks after a while, holding her own card up. It’s… a card. Dean’s not sure what else to say about it.

“Not bad,” he acknowledges.

“Your grandmother will love it,” Castiel says. “Is this okay, Channing?” He holds the card up for her to see.

“Yes,” she says, sounding content. “… thank you.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Castiel says with a little smile, the first Dean’s seen him show. The puzzled looks and fierce frowns are one thing, but this expression transforms his face. Castiel’s eyes soften and all at once he becomes infinitely more human, more reachable. Dean finds that he’s staring and has to force himself to look away before it gets creepy. Well, creepier.

Jo dismisses herself with a “See ya later, guys” and wheels herself back to her room. At Channing’s request, Castiel turns her chair around to face the television. Dean hangs around, thinking that if everyone else is done he’ll help clean up. Only seems fair.

“Did you do another card?” Castiel asks Dean.

“Nah,” Dean says. “I’ll get someone to buy him one or something. No big deal.”

Castiel looks at him with eyes that are both curious and sad, like he can’t understand why something like that would have to happen. “Let me help you.”

If Dean had to collate his least favourite phrases in the whole damn world, then those four words might just top the list. “Thanks, but it’s fine.”

“It wouldn’t be-”

“I said it was fine, okay?” Dean snaps, his rare good mood shattered by the reminder of reality. He can laugh over Castiel’s inability to cut out paper, but the fact remains that if Dean tried he’d more than likely cut his own fingers off.

Most people would either back off or snap right back, but Castiel does neither. After he’s looked at Dean for a fraction of a second too long, he speaks.

“You gave Channing and I the idea of how to fix her card. I owe you.”

“What? No, seriously-”

“I am being serious,” Castiel insists. “I would have had to throw it away otherwise, and I don’t like being in debt. Let me help you.”

Dean knows that the guy is playing some stupid mind game, just like he did before with the five bucks- but damn, it’s a convincing mind game. The deep-seated guilt regarding how he treats Sam sharpens into a barb and flicks at the walls of Dean’s chest, reminding him that he didn’t even tell the kid ‘happy birthday’ last year. A crappy handmade card won’t do much- but if what little it does can go towards making up for everything else, then he owes Sammy that much.

And well, if Dean’s being honest, then the idea of making Castiel happy isn’t exactly unpleasant.

“Whatever,” he grumbles, reaching for a plain piece of card. Castiel rises from his chair and stands behind Dean. Dean holds the pen up for him to take, but Castiel shakes his head.

"I said I’d help you, not do it for you. Keep the pen.”

Dean does as he’s asked, without really knowing what’s going on. He nearly jumps out of his skin when Castiel moves closer behind him and closes a hand around Dean’s. His grip stabilises Dean’s hand, counteracting the effect of the tremor as he brings it down to rest on the page. Dean twists to look at him, blinking like an idiot.

“Write,” Castiel says simply.

Oh right, that. Slowly, Dean starts to move his hand, and the action takes Castiel’s with it. It’s kind of clunky, and takes much longer than it would if Castiel did it himself, but it works. Castiel’s grip is warm and firm, and when they finish the outline and Castiel lets go, Dean feels a fleeting sensation of loss. He snaps himself out of that as fast as he can.

“Uh, thanks,” he says, not really sure where to look. He hasn’t decided yet if that was more or less embarrassing than Castiel writing the words himself.

“It’s no problem,” Castiel says. “Are you going to colour it in?” Dean very nearly manages to repress his smirk, and Castiel tilts his head in confusion.

“Nothing, just… colouring,” Dean says. Castiel clearly doesn’t understand, but that’s half the fun of it. Dean focuses on blocking in the letters with that same blue, a task easier than drawing the lines themselves. As long as he sticks to small, carefully measured movements, nothing too catastrophic can happen. If he goes over the line a bit, then whatever- artistic license, right?

“When are you going to give it to him?” Castiel asks.

“The first,” Dean says as he works. “His birthday’s the day after, so it works out pretty well.”

“Does he visit often?”

“Not as often as he’d like,” Dean says before he can fully consider how much information he wants to tell a near-stranger.

“You don’t like him coming?”

“It’s not that,” Dean says, keeping his eyes trained on the paper. “I like seeing the kid. I just don’t like him seeing me.”

There’s a pause, in which Dean continues colouring. “You’re ashamed,” Castiel says.

“Wouldn’t you be?” Dean says.

“No,” Castiel replies straightaway, simply, like it’s obvious. Dean stops colouring for a second and makes brief eye contact.

“Yeah?” He returns to the card. "Good for you."

“Tell me about him,” Castiel says.

“About Sam?”

“Yes. You said he studies law?”

“Yeah, wants to be a lawyer. Aces every test- scary good. Always was smart, though.”


“You should’ve seen his report cards,” Dean laughs. “I was so friggin’ proud. Still am.”

The conversation threatens to dip back into melancholy, but Castiel pushes it along before it has the chance. “Did he like school?”

“Happiest I’ve ever seen him. We moved around a lot when he was a kid, and I think he loved every damn school we went to. As long as the place had a library, he was set.”

“Yes, you said he liked reading- mythology, I think?”

“Oh, hell yeah. Greek, Norse, Christian, the older the better. Even when he was a kid he knew more than most adults. Seriously, there was this one time when he was eight-”

And just like that, Castiel has Dean telling stories about Sam- talking about him as a kid, as an awkward teen (“I swear, he definitely had a dungeons and dragons phase,” Dean says, carefully omitting that it was him who got Sam into the game in the first place), about Jess and the career he wants to go into and  all the things he wants to do. Dean talks about things he didn’t even know he knew, things he’s picked up from conversations where Sam talks and Dean maps out the structure of his room to try and forget there's anyone inside it.

It takes Dean a while to finish the letters, and yeah, there are a few mistakes, but nothing so bad that it ruins the card. He doesn’t even realise when he finishes the word ‘Sam’, automatically trying to move onto the next letter and finding there isn’t one. Looking down at the finished thing, Dean feels almost proud- a stupid sensation, considering it’s over three crappy, wavy words that someone else helped him do.

Dean opens the card and picks up a pen. He looks at the paper, looks at his hand, and then sets the pen back down again.

“It’s not like it really needs a message inside,” he reasons. “I mean, it says it all right there on the front.”

“I don’t think it’s technically a card unless you write something inside.”

“Gee, I didn’t realise you were the card police.”

“Can I write it?”

“You don’t need to do that.”

“I know. I want to.”

Castiel doesn’t look ready to give up without a fight, so Dean sighs and shoves the card over.

“To Sam, Happy birthday, Dean,” he dictates flatly, and Castiel writes it down carefully. After a moment’s thought, Dean decides to add something else.

“Hey, could you write ‘bitch’ after his name?”

“Bitch?” Castiel says, the word sounding strange on his lips; Castiel tends to talk like he swallowed a dictionary with everything marked ‘slang’ neatly cut out. It’s kind of weird, sure, but Dean doesn’t really care. Living in a place like this teaches you not to take any kind of speech for granted.

“Inside joke,” Dean explains. Or rather, it had been, when they spent their days together and conversation flowed like breath rather than spluttering like a failing engine.

“I see,” Castiel says, though Dean has no idea whether he does or not. Castiel amends the message and pushes the card back over for Dean’s examination. Nice writing, Dean thinks, before chastising himself for being so damn soft. Castiel stands up and starts to gather up the scraps of paper, pushing lids onto pens and tipping them into pots. Dean lends a hand where he can, dropping things into bags and boxes.

“Thank you,” Castiel says once he’s finished, and it’s like someone’s lit a firework in Dean’s chest. Stop it, he tells himself, but he can’t help it. He can’t remember the last time he got to do something worth being thanked for.

“No problem, Cas,” he says, a little more warmly than he’d intended. Castiel blinks, but then that small smile flickers over his face again.

“I’ll be back next week,” he says, stacking his chair at the side of the room. “Any chance you’ll supress your loathing of craft for a third time?”

“Doubt it,” Dean says. He tries to imagine what Meg would do if she saw Castiel lean over Dean and join their hands, then decides against it for his own mental well-being. “There are people around on Thursdays that I… how can I put this? We don’t always see eye-to-eye.”

Castiel considers this. “How well do you match up with people on Mondays?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s nothing, I was just… thinking of changing my visits here to fall on Mondays,” Castiel says. “Scheduling reasons. It would be easier.”

“Oh, okay,” Dean says. “Yeah, I can do Mondays.”

“I’ll email Chuck and let him know.”

“Don’t expect a reply,” Dean warns. Chuck’s a good guy, but he’s near-impossible to track down. He carries himself with a pitiful kind of stress, like he’s been contracted to recreate Seaworld shows using only goldfish and jelly bracelets. Chuck finds washing machines suspicious and confusing, and Dean once watched him nearly have a breakdown after pushing a ‘pull’ door for a solid eight minutes. Women go crazy for it.

“Try Ellen or Jody,” Dean advises. “They know Chuck’s schedule way better than he does.”

“Okay, I’ll try,” Castiel says. He crosses over to where Channing is sitting. “Goodbye, Channing. I’ll be back on Monday. See you then.”

“See… you,” she says faintly. Castiel says goodbye to the other residents, and then, last of all, pauses by Dean’s shoulder. “Goodbye, Dean,” he says.

“Seeya, Cas,” Dean replies. He watches Castiel go, running a finger across the card in his hand. He catches sight of Ava, watching him with a look which needs no words.

“Oh, shut up,” he scowls.