For Dean, the weeks and months following Chuck’s defeat went by in a dizzying, unrecognizable blur. Despite Sam and Eileen’s best efforts to take care of Dean, he spent the majority of his time buried deep in the bunker’s archive. A lot of the time Jack is with him.
There was an ache in his chest that feared what stupid things he might have done by now if the kid wasn’t right there. Helping him. Talking to him. Actually getting to bond with him without Chuck’s interference. It was the one good thing in this fucked up situation right now.
So far their search for anything about the Empty was a disaster. There was virtually nothing. More and more often Jack would apologize. With his new position as God, yes, he could make a doorway into the Empty. That much they did know for a fact. But could he put them to sleep? Could he kill them? What would be the consequences of that?
The only other thing that they knew for certain was that the Empty could claw their way into Heaven and tear it all down. That was the only thing that was keeping Jack from snapping his fingers and restoring Cas right then and there.
It was tearing them both apart, but regardless, they continued their search.
Today, Dean opened his eyes and rolled onto his back. It was his birthday. Most years he spent it like any other normal day, but this one….after the Mrs. Butters incident…Sam and him had decided they should be throwing real celebrations. It was one thing when they were living out of motel rooms and the impala. It was completely understandable. But now they have a permanent home. So why not?
He knew now why not…..there was no point in celebrating a man that’s only half here.
Dean closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep the day away. He didn’t realize that he had fallen back asleep until he was startled awake by a pounding on his bedroom door. He shot up to a sitting position in bed, chest pounding and eyes wide with fear. It was a moment before he realized that he was in his room and not….
“Hey Dean? You up yet?”
His heart rate was still slowing, but he recognized the voice. Sam.
“I’m awake now. What’d you want?”
“Lunch is ready. I figured you’d wanna eat by now.”
“Fine. Be up soon.”
When Dean was dressed and ready as he would ever be, he opened his bedroom door. He stood there blinking in confusion for several moments. There were balloons tied to the doors of every room down the hallway.
His stomach twisted uncomfortably as he followed the balloons into the kitchen where the party decorations looked like they threw up. There was a happy birthday banner over the kitchen doorway and balloons….so many goddamn balloons everywhere.
“Surprise!” Jack popped up out of his chair and crossed the kitchen to hug him. “Sam let me decorate for your birthday. He told me I had to contain it to one room though.”
Jack took a step back with a look of concern. “Is that okay?”
“What about the hallway?”
Jack’s eyebrows furrowed. “A hallway by definition isn’t a room.”
That set Dean off in a fit of belly deep laughter. He slapped a reassuring hand onto Jack’s shoulder. “You did awesome kid.”
Jack’s mouth pulled into a beaming smile. He went back to where he was sitting, and Sam came into the kitchen.
“Good. I didn’t think you were ever getting up.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Good to see your face too, Sammy.”
Sam rolled his eyes and started pulling plates out. Dean went and sat by Jack.
“So what’s for lunch? I’m not seeing anything.”
Sam brought the plates over. “Well, you slept through the pancakes Jack helped me make this morning. Eileen should be here any minute with lunch.”
Dean shot Jack a look. “Sorry kid.”
“It’s okay. They were really good.”
“What’s Eileen bringing?” Dean turned his attention to Sam, but before he could answer Eileen came walking through the door.
“I hope everyone’s hungry.” She placed a stack of three white boxes on the table.
The familiar bakery smell hit him instantly. He pointed at the boxes. “Is that?”
Eileen grinned and crossed her arms. “Sam told me you liked pie.”
“Thank you, you majestic, wonderful being.” He turned his gaze to Sam. “You better marry her.”
That got Eileen laughing while Sam ran a hand through his hair, embarrassed.
Dean grinned and made eye contact with Eileen. “I’m so sorry, I know you can do so much better than Sam too.”
She laughed again, and then her mouth curled into a teasing smile. “I know, Dean. I know.”
“OKAY.” Sam clapped his hands together. “Can we move on from the embarrassing Sam portion of today?”
They eventually did. For a long time the three of them sat in the kitchen laughing, telling stories, and eating way too much pie. At one point Sam handed a big gift bag to Dean.
“It’s…from Jack and I.” Sam sounded unsure.
“I hope you like it,” Jack added.
Dean opened it to find several wrapped in tissue paper objects. Soon enough he found out that they were all various framed pictures. Silently, he spread them all out over the table so he could stare at them all.
There were pictures going back a decade. Easily. There were so many smiles and glares and candid shots. Fuck they were all so young looking.
Charlie in her Queen of Moondoor costume. Mom with a bowl of popcorn. Kevin and Sam asleep surrounded by piles of books. Claire on her 18th birthday with the ugly stuffed cat doll. Rowena moments before she hexed the camera. Jack looking amazed at the giant multi-scoop ice cream cone Dean bought him against Sam’s wishes. Kevin and Linda at Garth’s safe-houseboat. Dean, Sam, and Bobby at one of the cabins fishing. The hectic attempt at a family photo from Jody’s. Garth and his family. And Cas…..there were so many just of Cas or ones with him present or ones of just the two of them.
Sam coughed awkwardly. “I know you’ve been saying for a couple years now that you wanted to start printing some of the pictures we’ve been dumping onto one of the old laptops. So I thought….”
“Thank you, Sammy.” He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the pictures. Especially the candid he’d never seen before. It was of him and Cas leaning against the side of the impala, completely lost in their own bubble of conversation. Dean felt like there was a cinder block dropped into his stomach. “You did good.”
And he meant it. Still, it hurt to remember everyone he lost.
“Oh, I think you missed one,” Jack said poking at the bag.
He was right, Dean realized when he reached a hand in and pulled out a smaller wrapped frame.
Sam laughed. “I forgot about that one.”
Dean opened it and burst into uncontrollable laughter. It was a picture from his mark of cain days of him and Crowley in matching cowboy hats. As much as he didn’t want to remember those days, he still couldn’t bring himself to delete the picture. “I miss that dumb son of a bitch.”
“Hey!” Sam chimed in. “That’s insulting to Rowena.”
That had Dean laughing again. “Well, she can take a number kicking my ass. You know the moment Cas sees this he’s gonna use it and me as his personal dartboard.”
The words slipped out before he could even process it. Sam’s smile faded. Dean’s laughter turned into crying. It was like a wave he never saw coming dragged him under. No one said anything while Dean fought to compose himself. He was grateful for that.
When Dean’s face was dry and he dared lift his head up, Jack asked him about the people in the photos. And that’s how they spent the rest of the afternoon. It was hard to imagine his life without Jack being present somewhere so he was happy to indulge the technically toddler in what the people in the pictures were like. All the stories Dean could pull from his memory. It hurt initially, but after a while he felt lighter.
Later that day Dean was taking a break in his room when Sam peeked in the ajar door. “What’d you need, Sam?”
“I-uh…” He stepped into the room. A neatly wrapped in green box with a card on top was in his hands. “I have one last thing to give you.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but isn’t another present going overboard? What gives?”
“It’s not from me.”
“Oh. Hand it here then.” Excited, Dean sat on the edge of his bed and held his hands out.
Sam stepped forward, but he didn’t hand the box over. “It’s from Cas.”
Dean’s hands fell down, and Sam was happy he waited. “What’s in the box?”
Sam placed it on the bed next to Dean. He shrugged. “I don’t know. He asked me quite a while ago to hang onto it.” Sam rubbed the back of his neck. “I figure he thought you’d be least likely to find it if it was in my room.”
Dean cracked a small smile at that. His chest felt like it split open just to ache again. He knew why Cas asked Sam to hold onto it. “Thanks Sammy.”
Sam left the room, closing the door behind him. It took a while before Dean could muster up the courage to open the card.
His hands shook as he pulled the folded over pieces of paper out of the envelope. Turns out instead of a generic store bought card, Cas wrote him a letter. It was a bittersweet sight. Despite how devastated he normally felt whenever he thought about Cas, he was good seeing his handwriting. In his hands was actually a new message from Cas. A message from Cas to him!
Happy Birthday Dean,
If you’re reading this then that means I failed. I wanted to burn this letter to ashes, but clearly I’m not there to do that. I’m so sorry, truly. I’m not sure what could have happened to bring us here, but I need to confess something important. I know you said no more deals when Jack died, but I still made a deal with the Empty anyways.
When I went to Heaven to bring Jack’s soul back to his body things didn’t go as planned. The Empty was furious Jack’s human half sent him to Heaven. It tore through Heaven like it was tissue paper. I did what I had to for Jack, and for Heaven. My life for his.
I don’t regret it. But the Empty did promise not to claim me until I gave myself permission to be truly happy. I’m still trying to puzzle out exactly what that could be. My family on Earth: Sam, Jack, and you - make me happy each and every day. I need you to remember that.
Please be safe and live a happy life. You are so loved by your friends and family. They need you for the next several decades. I mean it Dean. (I may have been curing you of liver and heart disease every year on your birthday. Well fixing to the best of my abilities the damage you keep causing on those poor organs.)
I hope you enjoy the present I picked out. Quite honestly, I got it because it made me laugh.
I miss you.
Dean felt like a tangled mess of emotions. He needed to remember to breathe. Minutes later he carefully tore open the green wrapping paper. Curiosity poked at him. With Cas’ odd sense of humor, it could have been anything in the box.
Under the wrapping paper was a generic cardboard box, but inside were a handful of new cassette tapes. Dean fell over to be laying on his side. Laughing happily for quite a while, he studied each and every tape. They were all cassettes of modern music, specifically the pop artists Cas loved so much. The ones Dean used to tease Cas about while they’d be out on long drives.
He immediately knew which memory Cas was thinking of when he planned this. Dean remembered they were in the impala and Cas wasn’t in the mood for any of Dean’s old tapes. He teased that anything that came out after cassette tapes wasn’t real music. And only real music got to play in the impala.
Closing his eyes, Dean could picture the smug look Cas would be wearing right now. Tears started bubbling free from his eyelids. God he missed Cas with every ounce of his being.
A while later Dean got up and left his room, taking the tapes with him. He went for a long drive circling the neighboring towns while he worked through several of the tapes. If he relaxed enough, he could almost imagine Cas sitting in the front seat next to him, mumbling along to the lyrics of the songs he liked most.
Dean vowed that this time next year things would be different. He was owed a birthday wish and this was it: next year he’d be somewhere warm with his toes buried in the sand, and he’d have Sam, Eileen, Jack, and Cas with him.