Title: Better Than One
Characters: Dean, Castiel, Lisa, Ben
Category: Gen, Mini Bang, Schmangst
Warning: Language, a bit of gore. It's pretty kid-safe, all told.
Spoilers: Through Season Five
Summary: Castiel and Dean both need a "vacation from normalcy." It's a post-apocalyptic road trip with grieving Dean, concerned Castiel, monsters, diner food, crazy motels, and historic downtown districts. No Sam, but he is very much on their minds.
Art Master Post: Here. Be sure to tell her how awesome she is!
Word Count: 10,000
Author's Note: A thousand thanks to hrymfaxe for the gorgeous, gorgeous art, far more amazing than I expected or deserved. And to my betas, quiddative and sparky_joe. You guys are awesome. On another note, I am sort of sorry to add yet another post-S5 road trip fic to the growing pile, but this is the story my heart wanted to tell.
FF.N Note: This was published on my Livejournal August 3, 2010, where there are also pictures, because this was a mini bang. Sorry it took so long to put it here. You didn't miss much-I haven't written very many stories in the last few years. I'm going to archive everything here, then I'll be posting new stuff.
Better Than One
Indiana was where he died, and Indiana was where he tried to live.
Dean tried to make a clean cut. Changed his name and his occupation. Sealed the false bottom of the Impala and parked it under a tree. Stopped laying salt in the windows and doors. Deleted Bobby's number from his cell phone and tried to forget it, too.
He didn't think about Sam. Much.
Lisa and Ben, they were great. They put up with a lot from him. He saw the circles around Lisa's eyes, though, after another night of nightmares, and when he went back to the couch she didn't try to stop him. The kid remembered him mostly as the awesome dude who saved him from a monster and taught him how to throw a punch, so he was confused when Dean wasn't the same awesome guy anymore. He didn't ask for more, though, and Dean didn't try to give more than he had. He was through with that shit, and Ben deserved better than pretending.
He never thought about Cas at all. Damn him, anyway, the feather-brained bastard.
Factory work sucked, but it was a living. There was a kind of satisfaction in putting things together and having them turn out the same way, over and over. To be able to look back at the end of the day and see exactly what he'd accomplished along with the rest of the assembly floor, his new team: this many brand-new chairs and sofas and loveseats with their crisp clean fabric and unmarred kick boards. He daydreamed, sometimes, about who might sit on the furniture after it left his hands, an old lady with her knitting, or a guy reading a book, or a kid laying on it upside-down watching TV and scuffing up the headrest with his sneakers. It wasn't like saving people from evil sons of bitches, but it was something.
He spent a lot of time not thinking about Sam, about that kid watching TV with his limbs akimbo and his mouth agape, that guy reading his book curled up over the page like a comma with his shaggy hair hanging around his face and his feet tucked beneath him. Sam was gone and Dean couldn't be thinking about him, he just couldn't.
He spent a lot of time not thinking about Sam, just in general.
Dean lasted almost two months before he broke. The fireflies were out that night, blinking their yellow-glow code as they drifted over the rich grass dark in the gloam after sunset. Ben had been out playing baseball with the neighbor kids while Dean watched, sitting on a lawn chair and drinking his after-work beers, one after the other. But Lisa had called the kid in, hadn't said a word to Dean, and there he sat, watching the fireflies and not thinking about Sam.
"Dammit, Cas." He blew the words out on a sigh, raising the cool glass to his lips for another swallow. "At least you could pop in once in a while to let me know you're okay, you dick."
He hadn't even finished that swallow before a crinkle of air brushed along his side, and he didn't have to look to know that Cas was standing there, just as cool-eyed and stoic as ever. Dean stared ahead, still watching the fireflies and refusing to turn and look. "You've been around this whole time, haven't you? Bastard."
"I respected your desire to begin anew here," Castiel said. His voice was not as smooth and unaffected as Dean expected it to be. He sounded almost...harried. Annoyed, yeah, that was par for the course with Cas and Dean. But harried? Really? "You didn't want to speak to Bobby Singer, so I assumed that the same applied to me."
"Well, you know what happens when you assume."
Brief silence. Then a low, careful growl, "No. I don't."
"It makes a... You know what, never mind."
Castiel huffed quietly.
The corner of Dean's mouth pulled up in a smile, and he finally stole a glance at his companion. Castiel stood in the pool of light from the fixture by the porch door. The light was hazy and vague, haloing around his body and casting his face in a chiaroscuro of pale yellow and deep black. His hair stuck up even more than usual, in even stupider spikes, and his coat was rumpled, creased, as if it had been put away for weeks and only recently pulled out. And not neatly packed away, either, but crumpled in a ball and buried under a mound of other things to be forgotten. As usual, his tie was loose and crooked.
It was all just a little too close to comfortably familiar for Dean's comfort, and he looked away to the fireflies again. "So. How's heaven?"
Castiel's voice lowered into a growl. "Discombobulated."
"That bad, huh?"
"That why you showed up the instant I mentioned your name aloud? You were just looking for any excuse to get out of there, weren't you."
Silence. It was so late now that even the fireflies were starting to pack it in. Dean drained his beer bottle and set it down with the other empties by his right foot. He could hear Cas breathing, short and frustrated, but he still didn't bother to look at him.
"You should...take a...vacation," Cas said slowly.
Well, that did it. Dean turned his head, inch by incredulous inch, and stared at Castiel with wide eyes.
"I think I should too," Cas continued in the same blank, matter-of-fact tone.
"Dude, you have said a lot of weird things to me in the time I've known you, but this..."
"We are needed," Castiel interrupted. "There is a supernatural danger menacing the citizens of a small town not far from here. We need to protect them."
Dean just stared. "Uh huh. Where?"
It might have been Dean's imagination, but he could have sworn that Cas hesitated for a second before lifting his hand and pointing off into the distance, apparently at random. "That way."
"Right." Dean shook his head. "I can't just up and leave, dude. I have responsibilities now."
"You can come back to them afterward."
"It doesn't work like that. I have a job. If I just stop showing up, I'll lose it. It'll be a black mark against my name here, and man, I just made this name. I can't up and change my name in the same community, either. It's...I have to be stable now if I'm going to make this work."
Castiel narrowed his eyes at him. "You feel trapped here."
"No! That's not what..." Dean cut short, looking away. Maybe he did. A little.
It was only natural, right? Trying to stick to one place after a lifetime of wandering, always a new town and new people every few days. Of course it would take some time to adjust. Of course he would be uncomfortable at first.
He shifted in his seat, a powerful wave of unease rippling through him. Suddenly a road trip didn't sound so bad.
"Let me speak to your supervisor," Castiel said. "I can be very...persuasive, now that my powers have been increased by God."
"Dude, you're gonna mojo my boss?"
"I will simply inform her that you are needed elsewhere, and that when you return your job should be waiting for you. She will believe me."
"It's that simple, huh?" Dean shook his head. He had to admit, though, that this idea was sounding more and more appealing with every moment. "I don't know, man. I promised... I promised I would try to make this work. Be normal. I'm trying."
Castiel's eyes were steady behind the shadows. "Yes, I know. I think you need a vacation from normalcy."
Dean looked ahead, suddenly blinking. The fireflies were all but gone, the night deep, the sky black between the stars. "Maybe you're right."
Castiel nodded like he knew it all along.
Lisa didn't have a problem with it at all. In fact, she seemed relieved. The next morning Castiel showed up at the door as if he came and carpooled with Dean every day, and while the angel spoke to Debbie at the factory on the phone, Lisa packed them sandwiches and iced tea. Ben was still sleeping—he stayed up late summer nights playing video games—and Dean went and hovered in the door for a minute, watching him. He considered just letting him sleep, but then thought how crappy that would have felt to be a kid like that, guy shows up, stays in your house for a couple months, sleeps with your mom, doesn't even say good-bye when he leaves. That would be a crappy thing to do.
He rapped his knuckles against the door jamb, watched Ben stir and groan, kicking the covers and flopping his arm over the edge of the bed. The light coming in the window was pale, early. Ben probably slept till noon every day, lucky kid. Dean knocked a little harder, and the kid yawned and knuckled his eyeballs, finally looking toward the door. He blinked then, obviously expecting his mom to be standing there. "Dean?"
Dean gave him a smile. "Mornin', kiddo."
"Why'd you wake me up? Somethin' going on?"
Dean turned sideways in the door, looking down and bumping his foot against the jamb. "Yeah, I..." He looked up, met Ben's eyes. "I'm taking off for a few days. Just wanted to let you know."
Ben pushed his head back into the pillow. Dean wasn't sure if that was disappointment or relief. "Are you coming back?"
"Yeah. Just...take care of your mom, okay?"
Ben rolled over, turning his back to Dean. It was a clear dismissal, and Dean stood for a moment longer in the doorway, resting his hand on the jamb, then stepped back and quietly closed the door. Maybe it would be better if he got out of this kid's life now, before he disappointed him permanently. Maybe they would all be better off without Dean and his issues burdening everything and everyone around him down like weights to the ankles.
He wandered back to the kitchen, found Castiel sitting at the table eating scrambled eggs and toast with raspberry jam. Lisa sat beside him, drinking her morning coffee. Dean poured himself a cup and joined them. Castiel ate in small, delicate bites, not at all like when he'd been devouring hamburgers at Famine's behest, nor the hesitance and resignation he had shown when he'd been briefly human and had to eat to survive. He didn't need this meal but he was eating it anyway, out of deference to Lisa, and he seemed to be enjoying it in his way.
"So... Where are you going?" Lisa asked.
Dean didn't answer, couldn't, he didn't know. Castiel lifted a hand and pointed off into a wall. It might or might not have been the same direction he pointed last night. "That way."
Lisa laughed, warm and lovely and coffee-scented. "You've got one thing to do and that's ramble on, huh?"
Castiel tilted his head, eyebrows bent at the curious phrasing, but Dean shook his head. "I want to come back. If that's okay."
"Yeah. It's okay." Lisa sat still for a moment, then reached across the table and rested her hand over his. "Anytime. Come back when you're ready."
Dean's eyes pricked and he had to look away. He didn't deserve this.
"We don't have to be..." Lisa hesitated over the words. "We can be friends, Dean. You can come to me and Ben because you need a friend, even if the rest doesn't work out. I mean it."
"Okay." He managed to look back at her, give her a crooked smile. "You're awesome. You know that, right?"
She grinned back, eyes crinkling up. "I know."
Dean hadn't driven the Impala to his average-joe job, just parked her under a tree and let her rest. He kept her maintained, checked her regularly, but driving that sleek black length to a factory just felt wrong, and he hadn't been able to do it. He carried Lisa's picnic basket over to the car, Castiel at his heels, and brushed the detritus of trees in early summer off the hood and roof—a few sticks and leaves, that puffy light green flower-like stuff that was basically tree sex. He set the basket with sandwiches and ice tea in the middle of the pristine back seat, the smell of warm vinyl and stale air surrounding him as he leaned into the car. She had been shut up alone too long, poor baby. Castiel didn't hesitate, just popped himself into the front seat without opening the door and sat ramrod straight, waiting for Dean to get in.
Dean slid behind the wheel, curled his fingers around it. Familiar grooves met him, soft and smooth. It was how his baby said hello.
He settled down into the worn cushions, letting out a long, slow sigh. "All right." He turned to look at Castiel, so totally the wrong companion. But at least he was someone. "Where are we going?"
Castiel pointed west.
And they rambled.
They rode with the windows down, summer air blowing in the car full of the smell of Indiana fields and hot concrete. Castiel looked a little more put together now, clothes still hanging on him as awkwardly as ever, but the suit was nearly free of wrinkles. Somehow Dean doubted that he'd done laundry. His hair looked a little less wild, too. Maybe the angel really did need a vacation from heaven. He definitely seemed more at ease than he had the night before.
Castiel wasn't much of a conversationalist, but he listened. Dean didn't talk much for the first hour or so, but then it occurred to him that there were things Cas needed to know if he was going to be riding around as Dean's partner. Starting with what Lisa had been referencing over coffee. Dean pushed in the Led Zeppelin tape and introduced his feathered friend to "Ramble On." Gradually as the morning passed Castiel leaned back against the bench seat, shoulders falling loose and relaxed, face as light and open as it ever was. He watched Dean without blinking, listening to him talk about good music and the rules of the road and various other pop culture references that he had thrown at Castiel without explanation in the past.
At each small town they passed through along the country route, Dean slowed the car below the speed limit and looked around. He took in the little houses, the grimy gas stations, the three- or four-building commercial districts. At each one, he looked at Cas, expectant. "Is this the one?"
Having an angel for a hunting buddy was kinda nice, Dean had to admit. Before...before, he would have needed newspapers, stories from locals, a file from a fellow hunter, something to set him on the right track. Castiel was like supernatural radar, leading him directly to the source. The guy was mostly a big pain in Dean's ass, but this was convenient.
But at each small town, Castiel shook his head. "A little farther." Occasionally he directed Dean to make a turn or two, but they were still headed pretty much directly west of Cicero, west of Lisa and Ben and factory work.
They stopped by the side of the road around noon and ate the sandwiches, Dean sitting on the hood and watching the fields, Castiel leaning on the bumper beside him. Dean ate his lunch in big, appreciative bites, guzzling sun tea directly from the jug, cool and refreshing and just strong enough, just sweet enough. Castiel took his sandwich apart and inspected each component individually, giving it the laser-sharp attention he applied to all puzzles, all vagaries of human peculiarity. He ate the bread first, then the cheese, then the meat, and last the lettuce and tomato, unfortunately dripping red juice and seeds onto his shirt in the process. Dean stared at the stain, hoping to catch it disappearing, but he had to blink and when he opened his eyes again, it was gone.
Mid-afternoon, they passed through yet another tiny hamlet. New Berlin, Illinois, typical silly, vaguely pretentious Midwest America town name. They were driving on an old route that paralleled I-72 and it made Dean nervous, driving so near the realm of state troopers and all that that implied. Small town cops could be insular and prejudiced assholes when the mood struck them, but if you kept to the speed limit and were just passing through, you didn't have much to fear from them. State troopers were another kettle of fish, and Dean didn't like fish at all.
"Is this it?" Dean asked, and Cas shook his head and said, "A little farther" yet again, and Dean had had enough of this shit.
"What the hell, man?" he burst out, leaning on the gas a little too hard as they left the town in the rearview and the posted speed rose from watch for cats and old ladies to okay, it's just corn again, have at it. "Are we ever going to get where we're going? Or were you just yanking my chain with that whole 'there's a supernatural menace we must protect people from' thing, you creepy dickface?"
Castiel frowned at him, eyebrows lowering, and a demon would be pissing his pants about now because an angry Cas was freaking terrifying, thanks. But he wasn't terrifying to Dean, who just raised his eyebrows in response and dared Castiel to answer.
"I was not yanking your chain," Cas said. "We're quite close now."
Castiel looked out the window, pointed to a green information sign as they passed it. "The next town. Jacksonville."
"Really?" Dean turned his head to catch the miles as they passed the sign. Looked like they were about twenty minutes out. "You couldn'ta told me that an hour ago? Or heck, back in Cicero?"
Castiel huffed. "I didn't know the name then, nor the distance as you measure it. Your human measurements are so...imprecise. And your mode of transportation is slow."
"Well, I'm sorry I don't drive a golden chariot, Princess Pissypants. God, you are just as bad as..."
Dean swallowed and looked out the windshield. No. No. He was not thinking about him. He wasn't, he wasn't.
"I was not complaining, merely making an observation," Castiel said primly, and laughter tore out of Dean's mouth, startling him, distracting him.
"Dude, you sound just like Ben. He says exactly the same thing, all, 'Moooooom, I am not whining, I'm just saying...'" He raised his voice in a high-pitched imitation of Ben's whining tone, so grating and irritating, the words a blatant lie. "How old are you in angel years, anyway?"
"That is none of your business," Castiel said.
Dean laughed again. "Now you sound like a maiden aunt."
"It's impossible to describe, anyway," Cas said. "Time means nothing in heaven. Well, it means something, but not the same thing. As I said, your human measurements are so aggravatingly imprecise, so easily affected as they are by gravity and speed and several other factors that your scientists haven't even discovered, let alone understood, and... Dean, why are you still laughing? This is how I always sound, Dean! I don't appreciate that comparison. Maybe I'll just stop talking altogether, how would you like that?"
"Left," Castiel said, guiding Dean through the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois. "Right. Straight. Left. Stop! Stop here!"
Dean all but slammed on the brakes at Cas's sudden bellow, his gaze darting around frantically. "What, was there a monster? Where'd it go? What was it?"
Cas looked back at him impassively, eyes blue and cool. "We're here."
His voice was utterly calm. Dean stopped looking for some kind of beastie and leaned back in his seat, eyes finally falling on the building near where the Impala stood stopped in the street, rumbling in discontent. It was a motel.
"No. It's an ordinary hotel."
"Then...why are we here?"
"It's where we're staying tonight."
Dean leaned over his wheel to get a good look at the place. A kid on his bike rode past them, giving Dean the hairy eyeball. It looked pretty normal, two stories, brown wood siding, red chimneys that didn't really belong... And then he saw the sign.
"The Lincoln Log Cabin Experience? Who calls their motel an experience?"
"The owners of this motel do," Cas said reasonably.
Dean gave him a frown for that, but he pulled into the lot and up to the lobby. He'd been getting tired, anyway. Might as well stop here as anywhere.
Getting out of that lobby was in itself an "experience." The cheerful lady at the counter wouldn't let him leave unless he took at least five brochures about the delights of historic Jacksonville. Dean walked back to the car flipping through the glossy paper in his hands, mouth hanging open. The Voices of Jacksonville Audio Tour, Underground Railroad Driving Tour, Prairie Land Heritage Museum, and just what the hell was a Walldog, anyway?
Castiel stood by the car waiting for him, Dean's duffel already in hand. "Which room is ours?"
Dean didn't look up from the brochure he was currently reading. "Uh, 32B."
Mistake. Castiel grabbed his arm and popped them into the room, and Dean gasped and almost fell over, brochures flying from his fingers like startled birds. Only Castiel's grip on him kept him from landing flat on his ass. "What the hell, dude! I thought the point of letting me drive was to not make me constipated for a month!"
Castiel let go of him and backed about a foot away. "My apologies."
Then Dean got a good look at the room. Faux log cabin walls, Emancipation Proclamation lampshade, cannon light switch, big oil painting of Abe Lincoln over the beds, sepia photos and framed letters from Civil War soldiers... Yep, they were serious about Lincoln here. Well, that was Illinois for ya.
When he looked back to Castiel, though, he was surprised to find the angel watching him earnestly.
"There a reason you're starin', Feather Breath?"
Cas didn't blink. "Are these accommodations acceptable to you?"
Dean glanced around the room again. God, even the ceiling was log-cabin patterned. Serious overkill, man. "Yeah, they're fine. Why? Don't you like it?"
Castiel looked away, and Dean got a weird but clear sense that he was somehow disappointed. "As long as you're satisfied, I have no objections."
"Well, great then. You're happy, I'm happy, we're all happy." Dean sat down on the nearest bed with gusty sigh, feet brushing through the brochures as he went. He had absolutely no interest in historic walking tours or "fascinating" landmarks from a century and half ago, but S...
Someone he knew would have loved it. He would have loved it to bits, and tried to force Dean to come along, and when Dean refused he would have gotten all big-eyed and pleading until Dean had to give in, and...
Dean wasn't thinking about it. He wasn't.
"So what's the case, Cas?" Dean said, and then said it again because he liked the sound of it. "The case, Cas, tell me about the case. The Cas case. the case of Cas. Cas and his case. Just the case, Cas."
Castiel rolled his eyes, but set the duffel neatly against a wall out of the way. "We can pursue that tomorrow. You're on vacation, remember? You should relax and rejuvenate this evening."
"Yeah, okay. Whatever." Dean flopped backward on the bed and reached for the remote on the nightstand. "You think they got the new Casa Erotica?"
Castiel's shoulders slumped, but he didn't object.
Yet another difference between this companion and the one Dean wasn't thinking about.
Dean didn't wake the next morning till at least nine o'clock. Then he just laid there, staring at the log cabin ceiling. Other people in the world, in this state, this town, were already up and at work right now. They had jobs and families and normal lives, time clocks and bosses and TV in the evenings. They made things, useful things; they provided services that kept the world running. Their lives weren't bad. They weren't heroic, but they weren't bad.
It could be Dean's life. It could. He just had to get this hero stuff out of his system. One last time, one more round before last call. He could do this.
Finally, he pushed himself out of bed and went looking for his angel. "Cas! Don't we have something to kill?"
Castiel was sitting on the curb outside the motel, watching the sky, and he looked up when Dean exited the room stretching and yawning. "Yes, something here is giving me...bad vibes."
Dean grinned. His pop cultural education was already paying off. "Good deal. Let's go burn the sucker."
They spent the day wandering around historic downtown Jacksonville despite Dean's strenuous objections. They didn't pay for any tourist crap, but Dean still saw enough history to give him hives. Statues, parks, placards. Walldogs were apparently...guys who painted on walls. Okay. Some of it was kind of cool.
It was the height of summer, so there were plenty of people around, but they were all strangers here themselves, so talking to the guy on the street wasn't very helpful. Dean chatted with a few shopkeepers, but couldn't get much on local legends or ghost stories, probably because they didn't want to scare the tourists.
Tourist towns sucked.
Still, Cas seemed pretty sure that something dangerous was going on, so Dean stuck with it. He was just about to suggest heading back to the motel so he could don his black suit and FBI badge when Castiel's head snapped up like a bird dog's. "That way."
He didn't even point, just started walking. Dean stared at him for a second, watching him go, then snapped to and hurried after him.
His feet hurt. This was a sucky vacation.
Castiel walked away from the historical downtown into a residential neighborhood where the two-story houses all crowded close together, elbow to elbow, with their minuscule front lawns and impossibly steep driveways. It made Dean think of the Huxtables, so God-damn wholesome and normal and sweet. Castiel kept going, beeline-straight, and Dean followed him gamely.
Then Cas started heading up the steps of one of those crowded little houses, and that was maybe a bit much. "Whoa, whoa," Dean said, catching up and reaching out to grab his sleeve. "Maybe we should go back so I can get one of my IDs."
Castiel paused, though he gave the impression that it was only out of a quaint desire to humor Dean, silly as he was. "Why?"
"People don't usually just let strangers into their house. You need some kind of reason, some kind of story that they'll believe. That's why we pretended to be FBI when we were looking for Raphael, remember?"
"Because that's how you become president," Castiel repeated, doubt clear in every syllable.
"Right, yeah, you remember! So let's go back, huh?"
Castiel shook his head, slow and certain. "I appreciate your input, but I prefer not to lie anymore. It's unnecessary now."
With one small, firm movement, he pulled his sleeve out of Dean's fingers and continued walking up the steps. Dean growled in frustration, but hurried up behind him. "What, you'll mojo random civilians like you did my supervisor? You can't keep doing that, Cas, it's..."
Castiel had already rung the doorbell. And someone had already answered, a sweet mom-looking lady sticking her head out the door with a welcoming grin.
"...wrong," Dean finished. He let his hand fall by his side.
As soon as they got away from here, he was going to slap Castiel silly. Or something. Some kind of revenge that would work on an angel. Dean was a resourceful guy. He would figure something out.
"Hello, there! Can I help you?" the lady asked. "Are you lost, fellas?"
Dean opened his mouth, but Castiel was faster. "No, ma'am. My friend and I were looking for something, and we have reason to believe that it's here. Do you mind if we come in?"
She hesitated, and Dean moaned in the back of his throat and moved his foot back to start backing down the steps. But she stood there, staring into Castiel's face, and then she nodded. "Of course, hon. Come on in."
Cas looked to Dean, raising his eyebrows in an expression that was his version of "I told you so." Dean sighed and reversed the motion of his foot, stepping back up the steep porch stairs. "Thank you kindly, ma'am. We won't be long."
They weren't, either. The woman, Catherine Gray, led them around the house in that tour thing some people did, showing off their nice things and new remodeling, only in her case it was completely lacking in the usual materialistic arrogance. More along the lines of, "Oh, that's where my son scuffed up the wall riding his rollerskates in the house," and "My grandfather painted that saw, isn't it lovely?" than "Aren't these curtains just to die for." Dean liked her a lot.
They passed through a room that seemed positively packed with knick-knacks—a study, Dean thought she'd said, or maybe a den—and Catherine moved on in front of them, still talking about this and that. Castiel held up a hand and Dean paused next to him. Castiel reached out to a shelf of odds and ends and picked up a glass paperweight, the kind you could use to bash someone's head in without much trouble. He held it in his hand, between their two bodies by accident or design, and Dean stared down at it, saw the kaleidoscope-like markings etched in the glass. It was pretty, he guessed. Nothing remarkable.
Then a glow started inside the glass, red at first, the kind of white-red light that existed nowhere in nature. Castiel grunted, his fingers tightening around the smooth, round weight, knuckles going pale with effort. Dean stared, completely unable to take his eyes away.
Castiel's hand shook, just a little, a tremble like the trunk of a tree in a heavy wind. Then white light pulsed in the glass, quick as a camera flash, and the red light was devoured. Castiel breathed out, relaxed his hand, and set the paperweight back on the shelf.
"We're done now."
Dean blinked at him.
Catherine was still talking in another part of the house, apparently oblivious to their absence. Castiel gave Dean a nod and moved to join her again.
After a moment, Dean followed.
When they left the house, Dean demanded bacon cheeseburgers. Castiel didn't object. So they found an awesome greasy spoon diner, the kind where everything felt just a little slick with fat, even the air, and Dean ordered the biggest burger they had.
"That was it?" he demanded of Castiel as they sat waiting for their food. "That was the supernatural menace? A freaking paperweight?"
"It was a cursed object," Castiel said. "If we had not found it, it would have harmed an innocent in that household, perhaps Catherine herself. I removed the curse."
"Yeah, I get what it was." Dean threw his hands up in a parody of surrender. "Hunter since I was nine here, hello? But you took care of the thing without the slightest problem. Why did you say you needed me if you didn't...you know...need me?"
Castiel frowned. "I didn't say I needed you. I said you needed a vacation. And so do I." There was a heavy implication of duh in his words, as if this should be entirely reasonable and understandable.
"You didn't say..." Dean gaped at him, then shook his head in disgust. "Well, you implied it, then. A lot. You said, 'we need a vacation...'" He raised his voice to a mocking pitch, waving his hands as he talked. "...and 'supernatural menace we must protect people from,' and blah blah blah, and you know what that says? That says we. We are needed. Not just an angel but a hunter too. Both of us. You know how this feels? It feels like you lied to me."
Castiel's frown deepened. "By no means did I intend to lie to you, Dean. It's true that I was able to deal with this menace on my own. But I didn't know that when we set out."
"Yeah? Did you even know that we were coming here, specifically? This town, this particular cursed object? Or are you just making this up as you go, using it to lure me away from the life I'm trying to build? What's your game, Dick-for-Brains? 'Cause it still feels like you're playing me, and I don't like it, man. I don't like it one bit."
Spent, Dean slumped back in the vinyl booth. He flung an arm over the top of the bench seat and looked away out the window, watching the cars pass by on the road. He didn't know if he wanted to be in one of them or not, if he really wanted to escape, or stay and try again, and... God, this was what he'd been trying to get away from. Why did his problems always keep following him around?
He heard that stupid trenchcoat rustle as Castiel shuffled his feet, cleared his throat. Then he spoke again. "I... Yes, Dean, I am making this up as I go along. I thought you appreciated that kind of plan. Or lack thereof. You seemed to before."
Dean held onto his anger for a moment longer, then finally turned back to Cas. The guy looked sheepish, for once, head down, eyes on his hands folded in front of him on the plasticized table. "Yeah. I kinda got the feeling." He waited till Castiel looked up to meet his eyes. "Whenever you pointed off and said, 'That way.' Seemed kinda made-up. Did you even know that there was something in this town before we got here?"
Castiel shook his head. "I could have picked any direction. Any town. This country has just been through a great period of upheaval, and supernatural menace is everywhere."
Dean snorted something that wasn't quite a laugh and pressed a hand to his forehead. "So you were playing me. God, Cas, I thought we were past this period in our relationship. Remember back when you called me pretending to be Bobby? Yeah, it sucked then, too. I thought you were through with lying to me."
Castiel lowered his eyes again, faint rose spreading along his cheeks. He seemed... Wow. He seemed honestly contrite. Dean had seen a lot of things from his familiar angel, but never quite this before. "I truly apologize, Dean. It was wrong of me to manipulate you, even if I wasn't aware I was doing it. It's a bad habit and I should stop. I will endeavor to refrain in the future. Perhaps I'll be better at recognizing it now."
Dean looked at him, an inexplicable lump rising in his throat. Aw. The guy was really trying. "Well... You had bad examples growing up," Dean said. He waved a hand, leaning forward, and Castiel looked up and met his eyes again. "All those dick angel brothers, it's no wonder you picked up some bad habits. We'll just...watch out for it from now on, okay?"
Cas nodded gratefully, his blue eyes full. "Okay."
"What were you trying to accomplish, anyway? Why so much effort to get me away from Cicero?"
Castiel stared helplessly. "Dean...you were, you are so unhappy. I couldn't...I couldn't just leave you there. I had to try something."
It was Dean's turn to look away. "I..." He had to swallow again, forcing down the lump. "That's sweet of you, Cas. But I don't think it was Cicero that was making me unhappy."
"Yes, I know. But you always so enjoyed being on the road, traveling from town to town and staying in motel rooms with strange themes. I thought it would help."
Dean rubbed his chin, his eyes on the greasy table.
"Did it help?" Castiel asked in a small voice. "Even a portion?"
Dean kinda melted. The waitress brought him his burger and Castiel's shake, and Dean stared down at his food while he tried to figure out how to answer. God, Cas was going to so much trouble for him, leaving heaven, which probably still needed a ton of clean-up, and coming down here to take Dean on a road trip to cheer him up. The idea that anyone would go to such lengths for him, let alone an angel of the freaking Lord...
Well. That was what made him realize that Cas was right. It had worked. He felt a little better just knowing that someone cared that much about him. Because, dude. Angel of the freaking Lord. Came down to earth for the sole purpose of making Dean Winchester feel better about his life. That was kinda cool, wasn't it?
"Yeah, Cas," he said. And he grinned. "It did help. Thank you."
Castiel gave him one of those brief, confused smiles, like the one in the alley outside the cathouse in Maine, happy that he'd made Dean happy even though he didn't understand how it had happened.
Dean picked up his burger and took a big, delicious bite. Perfectly greasy, perfectly cheese-and-bacony, perfectly hot and moist and tasty. He grinned around the mouthful and nodded toward the shake he'd ordered for Cas, a chocolate one. It looked nice and thick and homemade, would probably all but choke the guy going down. "Drink up, man. We got a trip ahead of us."
Cas picked up the tall glass in one hand and stuck the straw in his mouth with the other. "We do?"
"Yeah. But you know what makes me really happy? Killing evil sons of bitches. Try to find us a hunt with one of those, okay?"
Castiel smiled again, broader and more easy than before, and sucked at his shake. "I will do so."
Maybe it was a dumb plan, but at least Dean was in on it now.
So they went, hopping around the Midwest, just a guy and his angel. Cas picked a direction and they set off, the angel on the scent like a bloodhound. He picked the motels, too, each one crazier than the last. Sometimes he bamfed them in with a hand over Dean's eyes, trying to surprise him. Dean resigned himself to never pooping again. There was the tropical fish motel, the bigfoot motel, the rollercoaster motel, and, most disturbingly, the John Travolta hotel. They ate terrible food and stayed up too late watching monster movies, vaulted fences and ran from the cops (well, Dean did—Cas just teleported himself out of trouble, the lucky bastard), and all sorts of other things that Dean was getting too old for. It was pretty awesome.
Castiel tried to find them hunts with evil sons of bitches for Dean to kill, as requested. It never seemed to work quite right, though. Cas could exorcise demons with a hand to the forehead again, ghosts stayed away from him so digging up graves was way easier, and the usual menagerie of monsters, beasts, and supernatural freaks didn't have much on an angel of the Lord. Dean hated to say it, but it was almost...too easy.
After yet another monster—a shtriga, and you'd better believe Dean was glad to see it go down—fell to Castie's two-finger Kung Fu thing instead of Dean's bullets, Dean threw a little bit of a fit.
"Dude, you know I like you, but you aren't letting me kill anything! Sometimes when the monster comes straight at me, you have to just let it come instead of stepping in front of me and killing it every time. I have a gun! I know how to use it! Just let me do my thing. And you know what else? You're too powerful now. It's a buzz killer, man. Everything is too easy. Do you think you could...just...turn off the mojo? For one hunt? Please? That would be so awesome, dude, I can't even tell you how awesome that would be."
Castiel tilted his head and frowned at him, deep and hard. "Can you just turn off your hunter's instincts? It's not that easy."
"Can you do it, though? Can you try? Please, just one hunt, that's all I'm asking. I want to kill something and not feel like it's a cop out."
While he talked—or ranted, rather, Dean had been going about disposing of the body, dragging it away into a patch of woods where the smell wouldn't bother anyone, dumping lighter fluid, lighting a match. The thing went up with a satisfying foom of heat and smoke, and Dean stepped back to watch it burn and make sure nothing else in the summer-dry woods caught on fire.
Cas sighed as gustily as...someone Dean wasn't thinking about...ever had. But he nodded reluctantly. "Very well. I will try to isolate myself from my grace."
He bowed his head, as if he was going to do it right then and there, and Dean grabbed his arm. "Whoa, dude, find us a hunt first! That little hunt-dar of yours is way convenient."
Castiel gave him a pissy look. "Any other specifications?"
"Well...turn it off after you find the hunt, okay? We can go around and talk to people for once instead of heading straight for the thing. It might be kind of fun, doing detective work again."
"Very well, Dean. I will do as you ask."
Of course it all went horribly wrong. Dean should have caught a clue when Cas did his little meditation thing after he pointed them to a small town in Ohio with "bad vibes." He sat very still in the front seat of the Impala while Dean drove, his eyes closed and his hands folded neatly in his lap. Then there was a rush of wind in the car, something not coming in from the windows, and when Cas opened his eyes, he looked...different. There were bags under his eyes, stubble on his cheeks. He seemed...thin, worn out, too old for his years. It reminded Dean disturbingly of the Castiel right before they ended the Apocalypse, the one who was all too human and vulnerable and tired.
"You did it?" Dean asked, awed despite himself.
Castiel nodded wearily and folded himself down in the seat, then promptly fell asleep with his head on the window.
Dean felt kinda bad.
He soon forgot it, though, in the heat of the hunt. There were people to talk to, library books to check out, connections to call in. Castiel was still entirely himself even without his heavenly power-ups, persuasive and odd and geeky. People who probably wouldn't have talked to Dean talked to Cas, and Dean just had to put it down to curiosity in the strange man who acted like a foreigner but looked like a native, and maybe just the open guilelessness of Castiel's blue eyes. He certainly didn't have the way with people that someone Dean wasn't thinking about used to have, but he possessed a certain idiosyncratic charisma, even so. Dean started to wonder whether Castiel had really used the Jedi mind trick on Debbie and Catherine Gray, or if it was just Castiel himself.
Cas was good with the books, too. The right ones just seemed to fall off the shelf and into his hands, to open directly to the right page, the right passage to tell them exactly what they needed to know. And even though he'd cut himself off from heaven for the moment, he'd still forgotten more about monsters than Dean had ever known.
So they found out what it was and how to kill it pretty quickly, all things considered. Which was for the good, Dean figured. If someone else had died while they were investigating just because he'd asked his angel buddy to cut off his powers on a whim... Well. Dean might have had to do something drastic out of guilt.
As it was, they waited down by the shore to ambush the hydrako—basically a baby hydra with two heads instead of seven, as far as Dean could tell. They waited in the moonlight for it to come out of the water, looking for something to feed on. Dean had procured a big bucket of butcher leavings as bait and scattered it along the rocks not far from where they crouched, gun and sword in hand. This was the part Dean had really been looking forward to. Killing a murderous monster with nothing but his weapon and the guy at his side. Yeah, it was gonna be sweet.
The sleek, gray-black body finally rose out of the waves around two in the morning, both heads turning in opposite directions to look for danger, faint steam rising in the air despite the heat of the July night. It immediately caught the scent of blood and offal and moved to check it out, seeking out the gobbets of flesh, catching them in its mouth and throwing back its head to swallow them down, long throat convulsing.
And that was where the ambush kind of fell apart, because while one head was busy eating, the other kept a look out. Sneaking up was not going to be an option.
Castiel started to rise, short angelic sword glinting in his hand, and Dean caught his arm. "Dude! You can't go out there."
He just tilted his head at him. "Why not? One of us must serve as a distraction. Your hollow-tip bullets have a better chance of causing significant damage than my sword, so I will go."
And he slipped out of Dean's grip and started out into the moonlight. Dean made an aborted move to rise and follow, then bit his lip and settled back into the crouch, gun resting on his thigh. Dammit, he had a bad feeling about this. Castiel wasn't awesome with the hand-to-hand in most cases, let alone when...
"Hello!" Castiel yelled. "Pay attention to me!"
He was good distraction material, Dean had to give him that, darting around the monster, jabbing it randomly with the sword and doing everything he could to get both heads to focus on him. He knew to stay out of the path of Dean's gun, too, trying to turn the monster to face him while simultaneously giving Dean a broadside shot. Dean tried to ignore the way his heart pounded and his palms sweated, knowing his buddy was out there and vulnerable to attack, while he drew a bead on one monstrous neck.
BLAM! The hollow-point exploded inside one of the hydrako's necks, making it flop backward, broken and useless. The other head let out a brief howl of agony, then darted forward at the bright figure zig-zagging in front of it. Dean saw the glint of teeth in the moonlight, a monstrous red tongue...
Castiel didn't dodge quite fast enough.
BLAM! The other neck was broken and it went down, massive crash shaking through the ground as Dean ran. He ignored the beast, went straight for Cas. Cas, who was down on the ground too, clutching his side and panting through gritted teeth.
"Cas!" Dean fell to his knees beside him, wrapped a hand under his neck to hold him steady. "Cas, stay still."
"I'm...all right," Castiel gritted out.
There was a lot of blood. There was too much blood.
"Cas!" Dean's voice was high with terror. "Turn your mojo back on! Heal, dammit! Heal!"
"Cas!" Dean couldn't say anything else, couldn't think anything else, just Cas Cas Cas Cas Cas. Oh, God, if Castiel died because of Dean's stupid freaking whim, his stupid freaking feelings of uselessness and powerlessness, the way he took advantage of Castiel's efforts to help him, cheer him up, make him feel better...
Oh God, oh God, if Dean had managed to kill his friend with his selfishness and neediness and general screwed-up-ness, killed him in Cas's heroic and futile effort to help out Dean's pansy-ass feelings, Dean would never forgive himself. Never. It was almost as bad as... It was almost as bad as...
Sam. It would be almost as bad as losing Sam. Not as bad, nothing could be that bad, nothing ever. But it would be close.
"Cas, no," Dean moaned. "No, you can't, you can't."
Castiel gasped, pressing his shaky hands against his bloody side, and Dean finally got the message. He got his hands down there, pushed Cas's weak, flailing hands out of the way, tore the shirt open and pushed fabric aside, and finally found the wound. A brief exploration with his fingers told him just how bad it was, puncture wounds in semi-circles on Castiel's front and back, a bite mark that hadn't fully penetrated. If it had... If it had, the monster would have torn a chunk out of the angel, just like the other poor sods who had been killed in this town. And Cas would be dead.
He wasn't though. He wasn't dead. He was in pain, gasping for air, shaking, going into shock with his eyes glassy in agony and sweat standing on his face suddenly far too pale in the moonlight. But he wasn't dead.
Dean rolled him up on his unwounded right side, crouched behind him with a knee in his back to support him, and held the wounds in his hands. "Cas, you gotta concentrate. Turn your mojo back on and heal from this. Right away, dude. You're gonna bleed out if you don't. I could call for help, but by the time they got here you woulda been dead for minutes already. Turn on your power."
Castiel's chest heaved for breath. Bloody fingers scrabbled in the rock, searching for something to hold on to. "My grace...is...isolated. I can't..."
"You can, Cas. You can. You have to. Come on."
Dean's voice was steady now, rock hard, firm as granite. There was no other choice. He had to be strong. He would be strong.
"I don't... Dean... It hurts."
God, did he know. Dean knew pain. He knew all about it.
"Dean, please..." Castiel's right hand searched upward, wrapping around his chest, fingers gripping at his sleeve to hold up the weight of his arm but still moving, questing. His left hand clutched only rocks, bloody and white-knuckled, but the other reached and stretched, wanting something else to hold. "Please help me."
Dean hesitated. He wanted to keep his hands where they were, holding in the blood. He knew it was futile, though, could feel it slipping out between his fingers, the wounds too many, too deep and jagged. And if this was what Castiel was asking for... If this was what he wanted, Dean could do it.
He settled down at Castiel's back, still propping him up with his knees, and reached out to hold his hand.
"I'm here, Cas. I got you."
Castiel released a weary sigh. It sounded way too much like a last breath. "Thank you."
"You gotta concentrate now, man. Reverse whatever you did. Reach inside and pull out your grace. You gotta do it now."
Castiel stared away, then slowly let his eyes fall shut. His bloody fingers twined in Dean's, gripping tight. Dean rested his other hand against Castiel's wound, not trying to stop the bleeding, but letting his friend know that he was there. That he understood. That he was sorry.
The heaving chest slowly settled to a normal rhythm, and then Dean couldn't tell if it was moving at all. He held his breath, held Castiel's hand. If he'd had it in him, he would have prayed.
He wished Sam was here. But he always wished Sam was here.
Again came that strange gush of wind, blowing the scent of blood and offal and dead stinking lake monster all around them. The hairs on Dean's neck prickled, and he couldn't help gripping Castiel's hand just that little bit tighter. The angel's fingers were loose in his, limp, but Dean could still feel his back moving as he breathed.
There was no flash of white light this time. But suddenly the flesh under Dean's left hand was smooth, free of wounds. He didn't feel them closing, healing up—they were just gone, just like that. Blood still slicked down Castiel's side, slipped between their entwined fingers, but then suddenly that was gone, too. He was whole again, pristine out of the package. Healed.
Castiel released a slow breath and opened his eyes. Dean saw it, watching with bated breath as he was, and he clutched Castiel's hand without meaning to. He was okay. He was really okay.
"Dude." Dean laughed shakily, lifted his left hand and shoved it through his hair. His other hand still gripped Castiel's. "Dude. From now on, ignore me when I make stupid suggestions, okay?"
Castiel squeezed Dean's hand. For a moment longer, they just stayed there. The water sluiced over the rocks and the moon shone above, and everything was still.
They burned the hydrako in a bonfire by the lake and left that town behind them. Didn't take time to find a motel—Cas wasn't up to doing his weird-motel-dar, anyway. They just parked off a little two-lane backroad and sat on the hood. Dean watched the stars, and Castiel watched them too, but mostly he watched Dean.
"I miss him," Dean said.
"I miss him all the time."
Castiel gave him a painful stare.
"Thanks for trying," Dean said. "But it's not the same. I appreciate you coming down out of heaven just to make me feel better, finding all those crazy motels, watching out for me on hunts. But it's not the same. And you shouldn't be wasting your time on me when you have better things to do."
Cas sighed. "It wasn't all for you, Dean Winchester. I told you that I needed a vacation as much as you did. Did you think I was lying about that? I...enjoy...spending time with you. I came on this trip for my own benefit as well."
Dean stared at him for a moment, incredulous. But Castiel's face was open and honest, aimed at the stars. "Huh."
"Besides, Sam told me to take care of you. So it was for him, too."
Dean blinked up at the stars, suddenly as blurred and bright and beautiful as that Van Gogh painting.
"Did you not enjoy this journey? At all?"
"I did enjoy it," Dean said. It came out of his mouth without thought, instant and unstudied, so he knew was true. "I like spending time with you, too. It's not the same, but it's something. All you did trying to make me feel better wasn't completely wasted, I guess."
"Nothing I do for you, no time I spend with you is ever wasted. You need to stop believing yourself to be unworthy of anyone's effort. It isn't true."
Dean had nothing to say to that.
Eventually they climbed off the hood, back around to the car doors to spend the night. Dean opened the back driver's side door to get in and stuck there, staring at the green army man jammed in the ash tray. Castiel stood beside him, looking with him. The grief was a heavy weight around Dean's neck, pulling him down, piling his chest with rocks until it hurt even to breathe, to exist.
"I don't think I'll ever stop missing him."
Castiel held still for a moment, then pulled him into a hug. He buried his nose in Dean's shoulder, wrapped his upper body tight and warm. And he just stood there, holding on. Dean trembled, but he stayed where he was.
He guessed Cas was finally figuring out how to act human, after all.
It was a good hug.
Cicero lay between the cornfields, warm and small and sleepy. They'd only been gone for a couple of weeks, but still, Dean was somehow surprised that it hadn't changed a bit. Because it seemed different to him now, somehow, and he didn't know why.
Maybe it was just Dean who had done the changing.
Castiel still rode beside him. He was still the wrong companion, still no replacement for Sam. He didn't belong riding in cars, trapped in steel and glass—he was supposed to be out there flying somewhere in the clear blue sky, and Dean knew it. But he came down here to visit Dean and claimed to like it, so who was Dean to argue with an angel? It wasn't the right pair of hunters, but it was better than one.
It was late afternoon when they drove through the town, home to Lisa and Ben and ordinary life. The air smelled of green fields and hot concrete, and trees rustled in the breeze, dropping twigs and leaves. Tonight the fireflies would come out and dance, and tomorrow Dean would make furniture with his hands for other people to use and enjoy.
Castiel walked beside Dean, carrying Lisa's picnic basket with the jug long empty of tea. Dean saw her car in the driveway, knew she was home from work. He moved to the door, raised his hand to knock, then stopped. You didn't knock on the door of your own house. You just went inside.
After a moment he put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it, and walked in.
Ben sat on the floor next to the couch, playing his video games. He looked up as Dean stepped inside, young face opening in a big, uncomplicatedly happy grin. "Hey, you're home!"
"Yeah," Dean said. "I guess I am."
He was pretty touched when Ben took the time to pause his game so he could jump up and give Dean a hug.
Lisa was doing laundry in the utility room. He stood in the doorway watching for a moment, letting the astringent smells of lemon and soap and bleach flow over him. Motel rooms never smelled like laundry, not even right after they'd brought back a load from the laundromat. But the utility room always smelled like this, domestic and lived in, well used and loved.
She saw him watching, smiled over her shoulder at him. "You have a good trip, Dean?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I really did."
"We're having pot roast for supper. There's plenty for three. Want to check the crockpot, see if it needs turned down?"
In the kitchen, Lisa's picnic basket and jug already rested on the table. Dean glanced out the window, saw the Impala parked under her tree. Castiel wasn't there. He knew without looking that he wasn't anywhere in the house, either.
But that was all right. He knew Cas would come back the second he called his name.
Two are better than one;
because they have a good reward for their labour.
For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow:
but woe to him that is alone when he falleth;
for he hath not another to help him up.
Again, if two lie together, then they have heat:
but how can one be warm alone?
And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him;
and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.