Characters: Team Free Will
Spoilers: up to 5.22
Disclaimer: Written for entertainment purposes, not profit
Word Count: ~ 17850
Beta By: The ever wonderful auburnnothenna and eretria
Summary: With the apocalypse off the table and Sam returned from the pit, Team Free Will finds themselves at loose ends. When Sam suggests they take a holiday, Dean expects many things. Wearing flip-flops isn’t one of them.
AU: Set after 5.22, taking a different bend in the road than season six.
a/n: A very belated answer to nyoka’s prompt at the spn_foxhole schmoop meme. Sorry that there’s no car but it’s still a roadtrip. Of sorts.
music: Every roadtrip needs a tape
full file: download pdf at AO3
ILLUSTRATION by ammosart @ tumblr
no fixed plans
Ten miles out of Monarch, Sam and Dean hunted down an angel-turned-arsonist who saw his calling in burning churches. Ever since Michael vanished off the radar, they’d run into a number of rogue wings, trapped them and left the rest to Cas. So far Cas had been forced to kill one of his den-brothers, the other four he’d dragged back to Heaven.
That day, they’d summoned Cas for the clean-up but somehow the hunt segued into dinner, greasy pizza and a baseball game. Cas didn’t eat but he stuck around, shared a victory beer on Dean’s insistence and watched the game with them.
As they sprawled in their motel room, Sam explained the rules to Cas but Dean was content to stretch out on his bed, ankles crossed and a pillow at his back. He was dozing off when the game finished but snapped awake when Sam switched off the TV.
“’Time is it?” Dean mumbled.
“Long past your bedtime, apparently,” Sam quipped, rolling off the bed and brushing empty pizza boxes off the mattress. He scratched the back of his head and looked over at Cas who stared at the dark TV. Cas perched on the room’s only chair, hands on his knees.
“Cas, if you want to stay I’ll take the floor,” Sam offered. Dean almost added a ‘no need for that’ but caught himself just in time.
“No,” Cas answered and got to his feet. “I’m leaving.” Passing by Dean’s bed, he placed the empty beer bottle on the nightstand. Dean sat up just when Cas was close and caught a whiff of something green and lemony, some wild herb scent Dean couldn’t place. His gaze snapped to Cas’s face but Cas didn’t meet his eyes.
Hallucinating, Dean thought. Great. God, he needed sleep.
He heaved his body to the side off the bed – was it his imagination or were his legs heavier now that he’d aged past thirty?
“What, are the sheets softer in heaven?” Dean joked and hauled his duffel off the floor.
“As a matter of fact they are,” Cas shot back, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“I have to take your word for it, huh?” Dean said and felt his mouth twitch. Sam padded around the room, found the bag that held his clothes, pulled out a t-shirt and sniffed at it.
“It’s okay to flip him the bird,” Sam told Cas and discarded the t-shirt for another one.
Dean smirked and allowed himself to soak in the picture of Sam. Not that Sam digging through his dirty laundry would warm his heart, usually, but Dean got caught up in simple stuff, savoring the proof that Sam was back. He still woke up some nights, convinced that the bed next to him was empty.
It’d been three months since Sam showed up at Lisa’s doorstep, no forewarning, no fanfares. They still had no clue to why and how and with all his heart Dean didn’t care. He was ready to put all things Apocalypse behind them and roll with it.
“You’re such a one-night stand, Cas,” Dean continued. “Would it hurt your rep to stick around for breakfast?”
“I could be back in the morning,” Cas suggested and Dean had to give it to him. Nobody feigned oblivion as well as Cas. Or maybe he was serious.
“Hey, absolutely,” Sam said. “I wanted to ask you about an exorcism I found in Blumhardt’s.”
“Could you be more obsessed?” Dean asked and Sam threw a pair of socks at him.
“I leave you to it then,” Cas said and vanished, the draft from his wings pushing another wave of Herbal Essences into Dean’s face. On the far side of the beds, Sam skinned out of his shirt and started changing into his bed clothes.
“Did you smell that?” Dean asked before he could stop himself.
“What?” Sam mumbled before pulling a faded, probably un-smelly t-shirt down over his head.
“Cas,” Dean said, digging through his duffel in search of his toothbrush. “He smelled strange.”
“Smelled?” Sam echoed, staring at Dean like he’d grown a second head.
Dean felt his face flush, realizing how he sounded, quizzing Sam about Cas’ scent for godsake. “Not smelled smelled,” he grumbled, “Just, like, you know … Didn’t you notice something flowery?”
“Forget it,” Dean snapped, grabbed his toothbrush and fled into the bathroom.
Dean slept in the next morning, sprawling on his bed like a starfish. When he saw Sam had gone for breakfast he took his time in the shower, too. By the time he made his way to the diner across the street, Dean felt more rested than he had in weeks.
Sam sat in a booth at the back of the diner, his laptop open in front of him. Dean sighed, went to the counter and ordered his breakfast before joining his geek brother. As he slid onto the bench, he noticed the deep crease between Sam’s brows.
“It’s ten-thirty,” Sam remarked without looking up.
“You don’t say,” Dean shot back and stretched his legs under the table. Sam clucked his tongue and lifted his cup. Dean hoped there was at least some coffee under all those layers of frothy milk.
In between sips, Sam studied the laptop’s screen and two newspapers. Dean leaned back on his bench and waited for his breakfast. April had been monsoon season so far, but sunlight flooded the diner and promised a fine day. Closing his eyes, Dean soaked up the heat on his face. Someone had opened a window and a cool, fresh breeze mixed with the smell of strawberry syrup on hot waffles.
“There’s a report of a rabid black dog in Wyoming,” Sam said, flipping through the pages of newspaper one. “And something’s broke into a fish cannery in Portland. Ate two crates of sardines and a foreman.”
“Sam, come on,” Dean groaned and opened his eyes. “We just got off a job. Take it easy, why don’t you?”
The waitress came over with his coffee and Sam waited until she left before asking, “You don’t want to drive to Portland?”
“It’s not that,” Dean said and reached for the coffee. “But we’ve been working two weeks straight. A few days of R&R won’t hurt.”
“I could drop you off in Cicero,” Sam offered. “If you want a time out.”
“Dude,” Dean said and thudded his coffee mug back on the table. “We’re not having that conversation again.”
“I’m just saying… ”
It had been two months since they’d left Lisa’s place and Sam just couldn’t let it go. He’d been itching to get back in the game but he refused to accept that Dean felt the same way. The morning they’d driven off, Sam had stopped the car just outside Lisa’s driveway and said, You don’t have to come just for my sake. Dean had told him to shut up and drive.
He didn’t regret saying goodbye. Lisa and Ben had saved him in so many ways and he cared for them but all the time he’d stayed at their house, Dean had felt out of tune. He’d rather die than admit this out loud, but Cicero had made him feel like Alice in the rabbit hole. Everything was either too big or too small and he couldn’t find the potion that made him fit. Not even Sam’s return made much of a difference.
A place of his own, a settled life: He should want that, and part of him did, but the rest of him pulled in a different direction. The home idyll didn’t satisfy him. Dean didn’t know what would, but in the end he knew he couldn’t stay.
Lisa’s house had looked pretty in the rear-view mirror but the road had looked better. The sound of tires rolling over concrete had filled Dean with a relief so strong his skin had seemed to hum with it. Dean felt like he could grow to accept that.
Not Sam. He believed he’d robbed Dean of his happily ever after and no amount of arguing could convince him otherwise.
“You were the one who said he wanted some time off,” Sam muttered. “No need to bite my head off.” He hunched his shoulders and slumped behind his laptop.
“If you want to get rid of me,” Dean went on, “why don’t you tie me to a lamppost and drive off?”
Sam whipped up his head and flashed Dean a glare. “That’s not it and you know it.”
“Yeah?” Dean drawled. “You could’ve fooled me.”
“Drink your coffee,” Sam snapped. “You’re an asshole without caffeine.”
“Bitch,” Dean muttered and lifted his mug.
“Jerk,” Sam shot back but his mouth twitched into a grin.
While Sam returned his attention to his laptop, the waitress returned and set Dean’s breakfast on the table: a four-egg omelette with sausage, bacon, roasted peppers and onions, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, shredded Cheddar cheese and hashbrowns. Dean looked at the pile of neatly assorted food on his plate, reached for the ketchup bottle and started chugging. Sam watched him and folded his lips into a thin line.
“Sip your latte, Francis,” Dean grumbled and mashed the ketchup into his omelette.
Sam’s face pinched even tighter. “I didn’t say anything.”
Dean felt like they were gearing up for another hissy fit but before Sam could pick up the gauntlet, the diner’s door opened and Cas walked in. As usual, Cas stopped and looked around as if he was marking every single person in the room. Like John Wayne, Dean thought and grinned. He remembered one night at Lisa’s place, watching The Trail Beyond with Cas sitting in one corner of the sofa, Dean in the other and Ben munching popcorn between them. Lisa had taken one look at them, rolled her eyes and gone off to her yoga lessons.
Cas spotted Dean and Sam, walked across the diner and sat down next to Dean. He folded his hands on the table and just sat.
“Good morning to you,” Dean mumbled around a mouthful of eggs and peppers and Sam rolled his eyes.
“You want to order something, Cas?” Sam asked, ready to wave the waitress over to their table. Cas shook his head, though.
“I already had a cup of coffee, thank you,” he said and studied the mess on Dean’s plate. Dean dug his fork into the drenched eggs and chewed defiantly.
“Yeah?” Sam asked, sounding curious. “Where?”
“Come again?” Dean choked.
“It’s the capital of Corfu,” Cas supplied. Meeting Sam and Dean’s blank stare, he added: “That’s an island in Greece.”
“I know,” Dean said, ignoring the twitch of Sam’s eyebrows. “What were you doing in Corfu?”
Cas shrugged. “Back last year, I thought God might be there. It’s a nice place.” He looked at them as if this explained everything. “The coffee is very good.”
“The coffee is… ” Dean echoed but Sam overrode him.
“How often have you been back there?” Sam asked and shut his laptop.
“A few times,” Cas admitted. “After everything that happened I find Heaven a little… restricting.”
“Wait a minute,” Dean said. “Are you telling us you’ve been hanging out on some Greek island for a holiday?”
“It’s a good place to rest,” Cas argued.
“Yeah,” Dean laughed. “That’s what they call a holiday. I swear, every time I think I’ve got you figured out... ” Still chuckling, he was ready to return to his eggs when he caught Sam staring at Cas. Dean froze, fork in his mouth because Sam had that look. Like he would love to take off your face, scoop out your brain and find out how it worked. Cas shifted and unfolded his hands on the table.
“You can zap everywhere, right, Cas?” Sam asked and Cas nodded carefully.
“Distance is not an issue?”
“You can take people, too?”
“You know I can,” Cas replied, raising a brow.
“So you could take us to Greece?” Sam went on.
“You want to go to Greece?” Dean asked and dribbled omelet on the plate.
“Shush,” Sam said and flapped a hand at him. Dean was so surprised he didn’t even stab him with his fork.
“You could?” Sam repeated, shoved his laptop aside and bent closer to Cas.
“Yes,” Cas said and leaned back on his bench.
“Awesome,” Sam cried and slapped his hand on the table. “Why didn’t we think of that before?”
“Think of what?” Dean asked. He missed something here, he knew he did.
“Greece, Italy, Thailand,” Sam said and grinned. “Shit. We could go to the Chatham Islands if we wanted to.” By then, he seemed one step short of bouncing on his seat.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dean demanded.
“I don’t understand either,” Cas agreed, watching Sam as though he’d sprouted a pair of blue horns.
“I’m talking about a vacation, guys,” Sam said brightly. “I’m talking about us three trotting the globe.”
“Are you nuts?” Dean asked. “Why would we do that?”
“Why wouldn’t we?” Sam countered. “Hell, I've wanted to go to Europe since prep school. I just never thought we'd get the chance. Don’t tell me you never thought about going out of state? And I don’t mean Tijuana for a stupid donkey show.”
“What’s wrong with Mexico?” Dean began but Sam didn’t let him finish.
“Think about it,” he continued, excited. “It’s perfect. You wouldn’t even have to fly.”
“Sam. Come on.”
“Why not?” Sam insisted. “What’s so fucking important here that can’t wait a week or two?”
You wanted to hunt, Dean thought but didn’t say. Ten minutes ago, Sam had been stacking up their to-do list ten cases high, and now he wanted to kick back on Bacardi island? Dean didn’t get it but Sam’s grin made him bite his tongue.
“Cas, what do you think?” Sam wanted to know.
Cas looked at him and Dean. “It is possible,” he allowed but his tone suggested he still had no clue what had gotten into Sam. That made two of them.
“Awesome,” Sam repeated and grabbed a napkin. He fumbled in his pockets for a pen and found one, of course. “Where do you guys want to go?”
all roads lead to
Rome. Of course Sam wanted to go to Rome.
When Sam had mentioned Europe, Dean had thought of the Riviera coast, French girls and monokinis. He should’ve known better. They’d been in town for three days and Sam had them running all over the place, visiting the Colosseum, dragging Cas to Vatican City of all places. Cas didn’t complain, though, he stoked the fire, waxing about history Sam didn’t find in his guidebook and Sam soaked it up like a sponge.
After two hours walking around the ruins of the Roman Forum (They’re just stones, Sam), Dean quit. While Sam and Cas went on to the Da Vinci museum, Dean took himself to the dingy part of town far away from the tour groups. Big cities made him nervous: He didn’t like pushing through a crowd, feeling people’s breath on his neck and their elbows in his ribs.
The backstreets were better. Dean passed bars that wouldn’t open during the day and a few second-hand clothes shops displaying their merchandise on the house-walls.
Back at the Forum, Dean had picked up a piece of cypress wood out of sheer boredom. It was still in his pocket. He liked the feel of it, the flaking bark, the bulk that warmed quickly in his palm. It reminded him of the hardwood grip of his first semi-automatic and the scarred desk-top in Bobby’s library. He wondered how it would feel if smoothed. When he passed a hardware store, he went inside and bought a few sheets of sandpaper on a whim. Sanding down the wood would keep his hands busy and prevent him from throwing Sam’s guidebook into the Tiber.
Afternoon found Dean outside a nameless café, feeding cookie crumbs to stray cats. He was on his second cup of coffee, licking crema from a spoon. Ever since they got here, Sam was in Latte Macciamoccaccino Heaven but Dean had to admit the Italians cooked a strong brew.
He stretched his legs out onto the cobbled stones and tried to digest that they were on shore leave. God, he didn’t remember the last time he went on a vacation. The only memory that sprang to mind reached back to a trip to Florida he had to endure when he was ten. That had been one of the summers John left his sons with his sister-in-law. Dean still remembered Aunt Pam telling them how nice it would be to spend a week in a hotel by the sea. Even John had approved, deciding his sons deserved a normal summer.
Dean hadn’t known why staying in a hotel instead of a motel should be so special. The only difference was he had to sit up straight at the table. He remembered the old people in Hawaiian shirts and the lounge music. Perry Como and The Blow Monkeys, what the hell. Dancing classes in the afternoon because everybody wanted to be Patrick Swayze.
Even then Dean hadn’t understood the attraction of normal.
This time might be better, though. At least no-one expected him to tuck a napkin into the collar of his shirt.
One of the cats, a thin, grey kitten, put its paws against Dean’s leg and stretched to lick at his fingertips. Dean smiled and rubbed his thumb over the kitten’s head. When his cell phone started buzzing, Dean picked it off the table top and the kitten scampered off.
“Hey, where are you?” Sam’s voice came to him from the phone.
“Stretched out in bed with Giorgia Palmas,” Dean replied. “You?”
“We’re just outside Castel Sant’Angelo,” Sam answered, ignoring the jibe. “You want to come?”
“Let me think,” Dean drawled. “No.”
Sam didn’t react to the sarcasm, either. Dean figured he was too entranced by the prospect of wearing yet another audio guide. “’Kay,” Sam said. “We’re heading to this bar later on. It’s just off the Spanish Steps, you can’t miss it. Meet you there?”
“You bet,” Dean said. “Hey, I just bought this ‘I love Rome’ t-shirt. You want one, too?”
“Wait a sec,” Sam cut him short and spoke to someone on his side of the phone. “What? No, Cas, I think that was da Montelupo. Dean, listen, I got to go. See you later.”
“In a while, crocodile,” Dean muttered and switched off his cell phone. He imagined Sam and Cas whizzing around Castel Sant’Angelo (Angel Castle… was he the only one to notice the irony?), pointing out the architecture and poring over info plates. He sighed, shook his head and drained the rest of his coffee.
Dean walked to the bar at sunset, figuring Sam and Cas had finished sightseeing by then. The place Sam had mentioned seemed to be a jazz club; the front door was papered over with posters and gig announcements. A lantern with the bar’s name hung above the door. “Il Museo,” Dean read. “Come on.”
Pushing through the velvet curtain just behind the door, he walked down into the cellar where people happily ignored the European-wide smoking ban. A haze of blue smoke hung under the cellar’s ceiling and obscured the blue neon sign above the bar. No-one used the stage but Miles Davis drifted from the speakers.
Cas and Sam sat at a table, a city map spread between them. Dean noticed with relief that they had parked their drinks on the map and weren’t finger-tracing the next stretch of their Grand Tour.
“Dean,” Cas greeted him and Dean tossed his jacket over the chair next to him. One of the waiters, a tall guy in a t-shirt with the bar’s name on it, came over to take his order. Dean ordered a beer and a round of shots.
“We were just talking about where to go next,” Sam informed Dean and shoved a handful of peanuts into his mouth.
“And?” Dean asked, sitting down.
“Cas says the Chinese Wall is good,” Sam answered and licked peanut salt from his fingers.
“One of the seven world wonders,” Dean said. “Kind of cliché, don’t you think?”
“They call them that for a reason,” Cas remarked.
“Excuse me Mr. Lonely Planet.”
The waiter returned with Dean’s beer and a round of Tequila. He placed the drinks on the table and eyed the near-empty bowl of snacks with a frown. He made no move to refill it. As soon as he was gone, Sam decimated the remaining peanuts and sucked the crumbs from his palm.
“Dude,” Dean said. “What’s with the munchies?”
Sam looked up in surprise. “Huh? Nothing. I’m just hungry.”
“Don’t tell me,” Dean drawled and leaned back in his chair. “Between all the excitement you plain forgot to eat?”
“It’s the birth-place of pizza, Sammy. You should be ashamed.”
“You want to pull pigtails, or do you want to drink?”
“Tough decision,” Dean said, but he lifted his Tequila and chinked glasses with Sam and Cas. Cas knocked back the booze without turning a hair. Sam drank too fast but that’s what happened when you crunched salty peanuts by the handful.
“One round feels awfully lonely,” Dean remarked and put his empty glass upside down on the table.
Across the table, Sam turned the salt-shaker between his fingers. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“We need lemons,” Dean decided.
“Why?” Cas asked and frowned.
“Trust me,” Dean said. “We? Need lemons.” He put a hand on Cas’s shoulder and pointed to the bar. “So why don’t you go over there and ask them to give us some? And bring the bottle of Tequila while you’re at it.”
“Why me?” Cas asked, eyeing Dean with suspicion.
“Because if you want to profligate with humans you need training,” Dean said, gave him a wad of money and clapped him on the shoulder. “Ask nicely.” Cas huffed but left the table, heading for the bar.
In the meantime, Sam took out his bucket-list napkin and smoothed it out on the table. Back in the U.S., Sam had scribbled down a number of places and Cas had suggested a few, as well. So far Dean hadn’t contributed, deciding Sam’s enthusiasm would be enough for two.
“Easter Islands,” Sam read out loud; then sniggered. “You think that would be good?”
Dean shrugged, watching Cas talk to the bartender before he turned to his beer. “I don’t care, Sam, you choose.”
“Come on, there’ve got to be places you want to go,” Sam urged but Dean meant what he said. He didn’t mind if they stayed in Rome or went some place else. He was just getting used to the small pleasures of taking each day as it came. No deadlines, no Lucifer rising, no apocalypse. The horizon stretched clear before them and it did feel like freedom.
“This here’s just fine,” Dean said and lifted his beer to his mouth.
When he put down his bottle he caught Sam staring at his napkin with a clenched jaw. All the elation had gone from his face as if he’d flipped a switch.
“What?” Dean asked, choking on his last swig of beer.
“I don’t know,” Sam said. “There've got to be things you want.”
Sam looked at him and Dean could feel the frustration rolling off him in waves.
“What do you want me to say?” Dean demanded, honestly puzzled.
“Nothing,” Sam said, then added more firmly, “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Dean had a feeling it mattered a hell of a lot except Sam preferred to close up like a clam. Which fit the pattern: Lately, talking to Sam was about as easy as pulling teeth from a mother grizzly. Before Dean could pry, however, Cas returned to the table with the Tequila and a bowl full of lemon slices.
“The people here are very friendly,” Cas announced.
“Yeah?” Dean asked. “Why?”
“A woman offered to buy me a drink.”
“A woman?” Sam echoed and grinned. “And?”
Cas put down the lemons and looked at him, uncomprehending.
“Did you let her?” Sam specified.
“We already have drinks,” Cas pointed out.
Sam shook his head and began to pour them a round of shots. “How you can stick around my brother and be that innocent is a mystery to me.”
Dean quickly swallowed his beer before he could splutter. Innocent, he thought. My ass. An image of Cas unbuttoning his slacks flashed through his mind so clearly, his cock jerked in response.
As Sam handed out the shots, Dean turned and spotted a long-legged brunette by the bar. She had a nice dress on, something flowery with a bit of lace. She was also smiling their way but her attention seemed fixed on Cas’s back.
Before he could stop himself, Dean stretched his arm along the backrest of Cas’s chair. The girl noticed and her gaze slipped to Dean’s face. She hesitated, then lifted her drink in salute. Dean nodded at her and felt a stupid wash of pride. When he turned back to the table, Sam was busy showing Cas how to salt the back of his hand.
“Is this a hunter thing?” Cas asked and Sam laughed.
“No, man,” Sam said and held out a slice of lemon. “But it sure kills demons.”
Sam had always been a lightweight drinker and some things didn’t change, even if you went to Hell and back. By the time the bar closed, Dean had to hold Sam up so he wouldn’t keel over. His own head felt somewhat fuzzy and he couldn’t stop giggling over Sam’s clumsy attempts to walk.
Cas, who had drunk as much as the two of them or more, seemed unaffected, of course. He took most of Sam’s weight when they staggered up the stairs from the cellar and Sam slung his arm around Cas’s shoulder, slurring, “You’re alright, Cas, you’re alright.”
As soon as they were out of sight from the remaining patrons, Cas zapped them to their bathroom back at the hotel.
“I’m fine,” Sam protested as his feet hit the floor tiles. The next second, he was on his knees and doubled over the rim of the bath tub.
“Saw that coming,” Dean announced and peeled his jacket off his shoulders. Sam lost the Tequila and approximately one gallon of café latte in the tub.
“Yes,” Cas agreed and copied Dean, taking off his trenchcoat and folding it on a chair. Together, they managed to haul Sam onto his bed.
Dean went over to the window and pushed open one of the shutters to let in some air. The room smelled stale, like damp laundry. They’d debated bunking at the Westin, but people at a multi-star hotel would frown at their scuffed denims and washed-out shirts. They’d be quicker to sniff out a fake credit card, too. This was alright, though. The room had high walls and fancy stucco on the ceiling. Cobwebs, too, but they’d never been picky. Besides, the state he was in, Sam wouldn’t appreciate a chandelier and a two storey suite anyway.
“Scoot over, peanut breath,” Dean ordered, sat down on the edge of Sam’s bed and began to pull off his brother’s shoes. Sam squirmed and watched him with half-lidded eyes. Passing them by, Cas retreated to the balcony to give them some privacy.
“Why can’t you be happy?” Sam mumbled and pushed up on his elbows.
“What?” Dean asked, startled.
“You didn’t stay with Lisa,” Sam began and Dean tried to head him off at the pass.
“She was your way out, man,” Sam insisted and clutched Dean’s sleeve in his fist.
“Who says I want out?” Dean blurted and clenched his jaw the moment the words were out. Truth was, he’d had it up to here with Sam’s either/or choices. It was either suffer the Winchester way or amputate their past.
Dean knew where his brother came from, of course. They’d both grown up with the weight of their father’s loss pressing on their shoulders. John had lived his life like a punishment, as if he’d known happiness once and nothing would bring it back. Nothing compared, not even his sons.
Following his Dad’s example, Dean had accepted that their job was hard but necessary. He also grew up to suspect that no one in their right mind would choose a life on the road. Peace and a white picket fence had to be the ideal; everyone around him seemed to think so and it made Dean feel guilty and freakish for all the times he enjoyed the life they led.
For Sam and John both, normal equaled happiness and since the Winchesters never came within spitting distance of the first, the latter was out of the question.
Dean had never realized how far his Dad’s grief had torn him apart, but he felt it now like a crack in his heart and for a moment he was so angry with John he clenched his fists, dug his nails into his palms.
Up on the bed, Sam shook his head and sat up more fully.
“You said you were tired,” Sam reminded him and tried to pull off his over-shirt with the buttons closed. Somehow he wriggled free, dropped the shirt on the floor and stared at Dean with his hair sticking up every which way.
Dean breathed out and uncurled his hands. “Yeah, I was tired of being pushed around like a chess piece,” he agreed. “Of being hauled in and out of hell every other day. Not… ” He trailed off, pressing his lips into a line. He couldn’t explain. Sure, the last three years had been torture and Dean didn’t want to go back to that. But to give up hunting entirely, to scrap everything he was and everyone that mattered to him, just to have a shot at a company car and a pension scheme? That didn’t seem right either.
He realized he couldn’t say any of this to Sam, though, because he’d just be listing things he didn’t want. If he searched his heart, he’d find a wish or two, but he couldn’t admit to these either, because the things Dean longed for didn’t hold a candle to the blazing domestic bliss Sam had in mind.
Dean thought of the easy silences he used to share with Sam, the beers they drank on Bobby’s porch. He looked ahead, and his goals were just as simple. He wanted to teach Cas blackjack and he wanted to drive by Lisa’s place and help her and Ben paint the garage. He hoped for mornings when he would wake up in new places, climbing out of the Impala to watch the sky turn from grey to pale blue over a barren field.
It came to Dean that what they had could be enough, that they didn’t need to chase happiness like a button that had rolled under the counter.
You, me, Cas, it could be enough for me, Dean thought but he’d feel weird saying that out loud. Also, he didn’t want to pressure Sam. He’d twist it around, thinking it was his job to keep Dean happy and that way waited disaster.
“Dean?” Sam asked, waiting for him to go on.
Sam groaned and dropped back to the mattress with a thump. Dean grinned, he couldn’t help it. Sam drunk had no time for tact or polite silences.
“Our luck should change, man,” Sam muttered. “It should balance.”
It was useless; Sam was like a dog with a bone. “Why are you so fixated on this?” Dean asked.
“Because I need to believe we’re not cursed anymore.”
“We’re not cursed.”
“How do you know?” Sam asked softly and he sounded so frigging young, Dean’s heart turned over in his chest. He had a flash of Sam in Stull, standing at the edge of Hell and then dropping, falling backward out of Dean’s reach.
Sam turned his face into his pillow and Dean figured that was it. He pulled off Sam’s second shoe when Sam suddenly rolled over and flung his arm down the side of the bed. Dean expected him to puke on the floor but Sam only rummaged through the pockets of his discarded shirt and dived back up.
“Hey,” he said and held up Dean’s old amulet. “Look what I kept.”
Dean sat frozen, staring at the necklace in Sam’s hand. The hopeful look on Sam’s face said he wanted Dean to take it but for a moment, Dean was terrified to reach out.
For a long time the amulet had symbolized everything Dean cherished about their childhood. Later it had represented the whole weight of his crushed illusions. What could it be to him now? If he closed his hand around the necklace, would he restart the whole circle of dependence, of caring too much and getting too little?
He wished Sam hadn’t sprung it on him like that.
In the end, Dean took the amulet. What other choice did he have, with Sam hunching his shoulders like a puppy that expected to be kicked?
For a moment, it was as Dean had feared: touching the amulet felt like a hot lick over fresh burns. He remembered the day Sam had first given him the talisman and it made him grieve for the boys they’d been. He wished that wound would finally scar over and heal.
Sam watched him take the necklace, then nodded and sank back on the mattress. He shifted around, pulled one corner of the top-sheet over his hip and closed his eyes. Dean sat stupefied, listening as Sam’s breathing first slowed then bubbled out of him in snorts.
Only Sam. Only Sam could pick him apart at the seams and then lie down snoring like a rhino with a head cold.
Dean scrubbed a hand down his face and watched Sam’s body go slack, the shadow from the window shutter cutting him in half. The amulet’s pointy horns dug into his palm and he ran his thumb over the ridges of the miniature face. Shoving the necklace into his pocket, Dean tugged the top sheet loose from under Sam’s butt and spread it over him.
“You’re such a pain in the ass,” Dean muttered.
After Sam had fallen asleep, Dean detoured to the bathroom, splashing cold water into his face before he joined Cas on the balcony. His back to the room, Cas stood with his hands on the railing. Down below, the city spread like a blanket made of Christmas lights, staining the night sky with an orange glow. Dean moved over to Cas’s side, feeling goosebumps rise on his arms. The nights were still chilly.
“How is Sam?” Cas asked.
“Sleeping the sleep of the really drunk,” Dean replied and leaned on the railing. From up here, he could see the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Basilica. He could also hear the noise of a nightclub pumping up from between buildings and cars rushing by on the main streets.
Dean gripped the railing and hung his head, feeling woozy with drink and Sam’s emotional rollercoaster.
“I swear that kid’s a walking existential crisis,” Dean said and came back up. “I just wish I knew what’s nagging him.”
“He feels lost,” Cas supplied and Dean looked at him, surprised.
“How do you know?”
“You did,” Dean marveled but maybe he shouldn’t be surprised. “About what?”
“Your short attention span, for one,” Cas quipped. “Sam said you’d be more engaged if we visited Italy’s largest meatball.”
“They have that?”
The corner of Cas’s mouth twitched and Dean knew he’d scored. Making Cas smile was always a treat.
When Cas continued, he slowly ran his hand over the railing and peeled off flakes of varnish. “Sam wanted to discuss the principles of redemption.”
“Redemption?” Dean echoed and Cas looked at him sideways.
“He thinks God let him off too easy.”
“Come on.” Easy? Dean thought. How did jumping into Hell with Lucifer wrapped around your bones define as easy?
Cas shrugged and flicked varnish off his fingers. “It would be easier for him if he knew he’d come back for a reason.”
Dean turned and leaned his back against the railing. “You’d think being back would be enough,” he grumbled.
“Is that your experience?” Cas asked.
“No,” Dean admitted. He remembered the months after Cas had raised him from Hell, the long stretches of disbelief and guilt, because why should he be saved and not others? Now Sam had to go through the exact same bullshit. Dean understood. He wished he could help but he knew his brother hadn’t found his way home yet. In truth, Dean didn’t know if he’d come home himself, not even after all this time.
“The way I understand it,” Cas continued, “Sam had the burden of fate hanging on him all his life and now that it’s gone, it left a void.”
No more reason for revenge, Dean thought. No demons, no devils to beat off. Yeah, it might leave a guy at loose ends.
“I think he doesn’t know what his purpose is anymore,” Cas said and Dean looked from Cas’s hands closing around the railing up to his face.
“You can relate, huh?”
Dean noticed the resignation in Cas’s voice and sympathized. He knew Heaven’s politics frustrated Cas and his reformation didn’t go the way he planned. Angels were stubborn bastards and Cas, who’d licked blood and couldn’t stop questioning, ran his head against brick walls trying to shake them up. Dean remembered one night when Cas had asked him head on, Why did he bring me back if I can’t change anything?
Improved or not, Cas floundered just as much as Dean and Sam did. None of them had expected to survive the Apocalypse and now that they had, they didn’t know how to go on.
It came to Dean that they were all looking for directions. He chuckled, realizing how much and how little their problems had changed. Same shit, different pile.
“What?” Cas demanded.
“We’re so damaged,” Dean explained. “We spent all this time raging over the reins they put on us and now that they’re off, we miss them?”
Cas turned to him and his mouth twitched. “It’s human.”
“Yeah? What does that make you?”
Dean snorted, dipped his head and ran his hand back through his hair. He looked at Cas almost-smiling at him and something that had curled tight inside Dean eased. Suddenly he wanted to lean in, find out if Cas still smelled like wild lemons.
“There are worse things to be,” Dean said. He reached out to scuff Cas’s shoulder but closed his hand around Cas’s arm instead. He could feel the warmth of Cas’s skin through the folds of his dress shirt.
“I agree,” Cas said. When Dean leaned over, Cas made a pleased sound, like a cat rolling belly-side up on a sunny carpet.
Sam picked that exact same moment to snore so loud he cracked a five on the Richter scale and Dean just burst out laughing. Cas chuckled, too, actually showing some teeth with his grin this time. Dean shook his head, squeezed Cas’s arm and went to go back into the room.
“Are you coming inside?”
The next morning, Dean and Cas stood on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, watching the early morning sun glitter on the river. Dean had two duffels by his feet; the full extent of Winchester luggage. The piece of cypress wood was in his pocket and he kept rubbing off bits of flaky bark.
Sam had told them to meet him on the bridge before he went off on his own. He seemed ashamed about last night but then again, his grey face could just be a side effect of his hangover. When Sam had got up, he didn’t talk, he whispered. Dean had acknowledged his pain and yelled for Cas to come in from the balcony and help pack already.
Up on the bridge, Dean took in the view of riverside Rome, then turned to study the inscription on the nearest angel statue. Angel with the Sudarium, it read. What in heck was a Sudarium? Dean looked at the sandstone angel, the swirling folds of his toga, the curls and fluffed wings. Then he looked at Cas at the statue’s feet, his rumpled trenchcoat and five o’clock shadow. Dean grinned and opened his mouth.
“Don’t,” Cas rumbled without even looking at Dean.
Before Dean could point out that a toga would look good on Cas, he should show a little leg, Sam walked up onto the bridge. He carried a paper tray with three coffees and a bakery bag with a promising bulge.
“Breakfast?” Dean asked hopefully as Sam reached them.
“Yes,” Sam said. “It’s the least I can do.” He looked a little healthier. At least he didn’t retch anymore. Sam gave Dean the paper bag and Cas a cup of coffee.
“Listen, guys,” he began. “I’m sorry about last night. I’ve been in a funk lately.”
“You can say that again,” Dean agreed and pulled a miniature croissant from the bag. It smelled of chocolate. Dean approved.
“So,” Sam ventured, put Dean’s coffee on the bridge’s balustrade and tapped one of the duffels with his shoe. “Where to?”
“I have some ideas,” Cas offered and Sam’s face brightened.
“Okay,” he said, “Okay, that’s fine with me.”
“Dean?” Cas asked.
“Whatever,” Dean said and bit into his croissant. It was filled with a hazelnut-chocolate spread.