Rating: PG-13 / R (for language)
Word Count: 4,800
Warnings: vague spoilers for the s.10 finale
Summary: It starts with the arrival of an invitation. Set immediately after 9.20 – Bloodlines.
Author’s Notes: Inspired by the prompt: It’s Death’s birthday – whoever would have thought it? Dean is determined to help him celebrate.
Afterwards, Dean won’t say much to Sam about it.
There’ll be reasons for that of course, there always are, and they’ll go something like this:
First: the whole thing is weird, but not, you know, weird. Okay, so maybe it’s a little bit weird, but the apocalypse doesn’t show up for a re-match and no one dies hard and bloody. Grab a blunt pencil from the drawer and scratch a mark in the column labelled, “Win”. Lightly, though, just in case it needs to be erased. When you’re Sam and Dean Winchester you learn to prioritize and take what you can.
Second: words always leave Dean feeling lost and slightly panicked, like that time when they wound up at the beach, some forgotten place down near Florida, and Sam convinced him to go swimming in the ocean. As stinging waves crashed against him, Dean had looked over to find that Sam was laughing, eyes squeezed tightly closed and face tilted up towards the sun. And well, yeah, that was that. Dean grit his teeth and stayed in the water for more than an hour.
Third: inarticulate isn’t as much of a problem as it could be, because Sam isn’t speaking to Dean at the time anyway. Imagine a silent film stripped of its title cards and music hall chords, blurred gestures shot at a frame rate levelling out somewhere ‘round sixteen. La sortie des travailleurs du bunker dans le Kansas, by the Lumière Brothers (2014). Angelic possession tends to have that effect.
Fourth: Dean bleeds out on the cold, concrete floor of an abandoned factory a few weeks later, which he figures is a pretty damn good excuse. The air’s heavy with the smell of old diesel, acid-etched with desperation. At least the arms Sam wraps around him are warm. See the first point above; that stuff about priorities, dying hard and bloody.
Five through nine are a tattered pinwheel of witches and vampires, bouts of marrow-sucking rage, a random ghost or two, and black eyes peering up from the bottom of whisky bottles. Okay, so not in that order, but squint and it’s close enough. Kind of. If pushed, even Sam will concede that keeping things straight is a struggle. He understands now why John was so obsessed with that fucking journal.
And then there’s ten, where Death turns to dust and –
But stop, ‘cause that hasn’t happened yet, will only come later. So let’s take a running leap backwards and start at the beginning. Or one of them anyway, the one that works best; let’s start a year earlier, with the arrival of an invitation.
Cars jostled for position heading west, the blink of each red light marking the start of an impromptu drag race. Traffic was heavy but moved almost quickly for once, lurching through the city like a woman wearing too high heels and a silk shirt trying to outrun the rain.
Dean shifted in his seat, fingers tapping out a disconnected rhythm against the wheel. He could feel Sam watching him, the series of quick, sidelong glances that his brother still thought passed for sneaky.
“What?” Dean asked.
Sam hesitated for a second before he spoke. “So, that’s it? Chicago’s being run by a syndicate of monsters and we’re just going to leave?”
“Yeah, we really are.”
He waited for Sam to say something else, but it didn’t happen.
“Oh, stow the disapproval,” Dean snapped, breaking the silence. “You want to clean out an entire city? Hell, why stop there! Let’s do the whole of North America while we’re at it. That should only take us, I don’t know, forever.”
Sam sighed, suddenly looking much older. “You know what, never mind.” He pushed his hands through his hair. “What did Cas say?”
Dean shrugged. “Not a lot. Like I said, thinks he has a play on Metatron. Told him to make for the bunker and we’d meet him there.”
“Yeah, actually, it is. So you could try sounding more excited.”
Dean knew the comment was a mistake as soon as he spoke, could see it in the way Sam sat up that just that little bit straighter, shoulders tight, eyes fixed on some distant point down the road. Dean swallowed, something sinking inside him.
“Okay,” Sam said, expression carefully blank. “Thanks for the tip.”
A gas station appeared up ahead on the right. Dean swerved towards it without slowing down, a flurry of protests sounding as he cut off the motorists behind them. He pulled in with an abrupt stop that sent Sam pitching forward, one arm shooting out to brace himself against the dash.
“I’m hitting the head,” Dean said, turning off the engine.
The restroom was dank and empty, cheap fluorescent lights bleaching the walls a nauseating shade of pale green. Strips of pulpy toilet paper littered the floor. Dean grimaced. He walked over to the basin and splashed some water on his face, holding his breath until his lungs started to ache.
It felt like drowning.
He stood up with a gasp, opening and closing his eyes as if willing the scene to change, before grabbing a handful of paper towels. The reflection in the rust-spotted mirror did the same. He gave it a smirk that crumbled around the edges and ran a hand over his jaw, making a mental note to shave soon.
The noise hit Dean like a slap when he stepped outside; a frayed collective of ringing cell phones, the steady whine of passing traffic, and music spilling out from the doors of a nearby convenience store.
Dean rolled his shoulders and started back towards the car, pausing mid-step when he noticed something white fluttering on the ground just ahead. He took a closer look. It was a small, rectangular piece of cardboard starting to curl slightly along one edge, nothing special. Dean twitched, remembering the restroom and then, for some reason, he bent down and picked it up.
He turned the card over. On it were words printed in regular black letters:
To: Dean WinchesterIt was signed at the bottom with spiky strokes of ink that took Dean a few seconds to decipher: Death.
You are invited to hold a birthday celebration in my honour.
When: 31 May 2014
Location: Headquarters of the Men of Letters, Kansas
RSVP: Not required
“Son of a –“ Dean’s voice broke off.
He spun around, hand moving unconsciously to his knife, and scanned the gas station. His mind slipped into that blank, perfect space where all the answers came easy, the uncertainty of what could be tunnelling into the needle prick of now.
A sixteen wheeler chose that moment to try and pull in behind him, exhaust wheezing like the memory of a mechanised dragon Asimov might have dreamed up on a bender. The driver leaned hard on the horn, mouthing silent obscenities from behind the windscreen.
He turned a flat-eyed glare in the driver’s direction, lips curling back from his teeth, and -
Dean blinked, the world expanding outwards again as if dreaming itself awake.
He looked over to find Sam standing next to the car, eyebrows raised. Dean walked towards him, making sure to move nice and slow, just enough to piss off the truck driver.
“What was that about?” Sam asked.
“Nothing.” Dean frowned, studying the card. For a second he caught a faint smell of something acidic and musty, almonds mixed with stale tobacco and old, rotting leather. “You notice anything off since we’ve been here?”
“No,” Sam said, eyes wary. “Off how? What’s going on?”
Dean didn’t answer, just shrugged and held out the invitation. Sam reached over and plucked it free.
“Wow. Okay, so that’s...”
They looked at each other.
“So I guess you’re, uh, throwing a party,” Sam said.
“Seriously? I’ve never even been to a birthday party, let alone organised one. I’m supposed to do what exactly? Grab a box of cronuts and book some strippers? It’s freakin’ Death. Pretty sure that’s not gonna do it for him.”
Sam rolled his eyes and passed the card back. “I think you can cross strippers off the list.”
“We’ve got bigger things to deal with right now than throwing a shindig for the Grim Reaper.” He was so tired of this shit, the wheel of his life always landing on black when it should have been red. “If Cas has found something that gives me a shot at Metatron and putting an end to this whole mess? Then I’m gonna take it.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Sam said with a slow nod. “Message received loud and clear.”
“What’s to get?” Dean demanded. He forced himself to take a deep breath. “Look, the bunker’s got inbuilt mojo for keeping supernatural stuff out. So we just pull the lever and problem solved. Death will get bored with the delights of rural Kansas and go back to – “ he waved a hand around “ – while we focus on the job. I mean, that could work, right?”
Sam stiffened, a humourless, lopsided smile pulling at the corner of his mouth, and stared at Dean for a long moment across the roof of the car.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, voice flat and distant, emotion locked safely away and out of Dean’s reach. “Maybe. The wards never gave Gadreel too much trouble. But then you’re the one who let him in.”
Sam dropped his gaze and turned away, climbing into the passenger seat. The soft, metallic sound of the door swinging shut made Dean flinch.
“Good point,” he mumbled.
Dean shivered as a sudden gust of wind swirled around the gas station, pushing accumulated dust and grime across the concrete wasteland. He tried to zip up his jacket, cursing when its teeth jammed together, stuck in a sloppy, open-mouthed grin.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Frustration flared through him, kicking up sparks, but it was little more than a reflex that time, anger refusing to catch alight. He sighed and read the card again, before shoving it roughly into his pocket. Just one more thing he’d worry about later.
It’s not quite true that Dean’s never attended a birthday party before. He has, it’s just that he was only three and three quarters at the time and the memory of swollen, brightly colored balloons and childish shrieks of excitement has long since been lost in the shuffle. There was a big, round cake made to look like a swimming pool, with the centre scooped out and green jello for water.
Still, if Dean can’t remember then did he still go to that party? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s kind of that glass is half full thing, about hunting down the thrift store truth in the lie.
They drove straight through Des Moines without stopping.
Lunch was a travelling picnic of warm, bottled water and the energy bars Sam always kept in the glove box.
Once, Dean would have complained and found them some two-bit diner with sticky, laminated menus and at least two kinds of pie. Probably premade, not the good stuff, but on a scale of making do it still scored higher than nothing. Now he just tore one corner of the foil packet open with his teeth and took a bite, forced himself to chew and swallow. The gritty texture stuck in his throat and made him cough.
When he was finished, Dean screwed up the empty wrapper and held it out of the car window. It danced on the tips of his fingers for an instant in a suicidal waltz, before the wind snatched it away. Sam gave an irritated huff and shifted in his seat, long legs shuffling forward, but didn’t say anything.
“Couldn’t you wait and put it in the trash?
“You know that crap doesn’t just disappear, right? It ends up in the water system and flows out into the ocean. Birds and turtles mistake the garbage for food, and then starve to death when it blocks their stomachs.”
“Huh. Hate to break it to you, Sammy, but there’s not a whole lot of sea turtles ‘round here, unless they went rogue and mutated. Dude! Maybe there’s a bunch of mutant turtles lurking in the middle of nowhere, plotting revenge. Secretly. Like teenage ninjas.”
“You’re such an ass.”
“Hey, just sayin’. Farmers start showing up skewered and we’ve got ourselves a lead.”
“Do you even listen to yourself? No, seriously, because sometimes –“
“Settle down, Mr Environment. Besides, I seem to remember someone tossing plastic bags of clothes out the window. Man, I loved that shirt.”
“One time! It was one time, Dean, and they were covered in ectoplasm. That stuff reeks. You were the one who –“
The voices bounced back and forth inside Dean’s head, filling the silence as the car barrelled its way down the flat stretch of the I-80. He slid a hand into his jacket and thumbed at the creased card. He considered tossing it out as well – let some dumb animal eat it for dinner; see if he cared - before deciding against it, certain the damn thing would only fly right back again.
When not-Sam stopped talking to him, just like the real one, Dean leaned over and cranked up the music, letting the wild screech of guitars fill in the gaps.
It was dark by the time they finally turned off the highway, headlights hitting a dilapidated sign that said, Welcome to Lebanon, all faded paint that might once have been yellow.
Sam was asleep, body curled up at an awkward angle, head resting against the window. Dean glanced over and saw something pinched and unhappy drift across Sam’s face, a misshapen shadow running away from the light, before his expression went slack again.
“Sorry,” Dean said.
His voice was little more than a whisper, pitched low and rough, because despite everything that had happened he still couldn’t mean it the way that he should, not completely. He kept trying and falling short for exactly the same reason, and it was snoring next to him in the passenger seat.
If only wishes were fishes. Or mutant turtles. Whatever.
Dean’s fingers flexed around the steering wheel, the creak of old leather lost beneath the rattling hum of rubber against badly patched asphalt, loose gravel flying sideways. He wanted to stay in the car and keep driving forever, right over the horizon and off the edge of the world.
Sam’s developed an irrational fear of maps. Cartographobia. What started out as a vague sense of disquiet has grown into a hairy, eight-legged creeper that scuttles around in the space between his ribs and weaves sticky webs, makes his heart stutter-boom in a way that’s – Jesus Christ, stop - pretty unpleasant.
As if his life doesn’t have enough dread to be getting on with.
When he thinks about it, Sam finds a certain wry amusement in the fact that maps once marked out unknown places with the mythical beasts said to haunt them; serpents and grotesque sirens, winged leviathan that lurked down in the deep and didn’t explode in waves of black goo.
The source of Sam’s phobia is a different thing altogether, the kind of monster that a .45 can’t touch. He hates the sense of disconnection between his world and the small, crooked lines that masquerade as reality, a mad kingdom built on a foundation of lies. It’s fine when they’re in the car, no maps in sight, drifting from one town to the next just like magic. Figures he’d end up stuck in a place he can’t escape them.
Beware, Winchester the Youngest, says the map table in the bunker’s war room, shooting Sam a sly grin as his hands start to shake, for here be dragons.
Sam doesn’t bother much with dreams any more, but if he did…
One day Dean will wake up, sheets twisted around his ankles in a sweaty tangle, and realise moving into the bunker was a mistake; that he should have listened to the angel and stayed on the road.
He’ll barge into Sam’s room without knocking and say, “Wanna get out of here?” Sam will feel a blinding surge of relief and say, “Yeah.”
One week became two, transformed into three, gathered speed and started a slip-sliding descent down into four.
Castiel didn’t show up, just left a message on Dean’s cell. Something about atonement and needing more time, intercut with bursts of static. Dean listened and then smashed the cell down onto the table near his bed, over and over until the case broke apart, cheap plastic slicing into the side of his hand.
The weather turned bright and hot, a persistent haze hanging in the air. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
Weeds crunched beneath Dean’s boots when he ventured outside, a sheen of sweat breaking out on his forehead even as a shiver worked its way down his spine. He stood for a while, squinting at the faded graffiti scrawled across one wall of the bunker, feeling achy and strangely absent.
Maybe Sam had a point and he needed more sleep. Dean shook his head, as if trying to clear it, and went back inside.
After the glare, the shadows seemed deeper than usual.
He circled around the balcony, past the black metal railing, and headed downstairs. He grabbed a bottle of whisky from his closet and took it back to the map table, setting it down among a mess of paper and worn, open books. The familiar burn felt good when he swallowed. He chased the taste with his tongue, hesitating for a second before pouring another.
“Yeah, ‘cause that’s going to help.”
Dean looked up to find Sam leaning against the doorframe, hands shoved into his pockets.
“Bite me,” Dean said, raising his chin.
Sam paused, and then cleared his throat. “Have you thought any more about this party?”
Dean pulled one of the books towards him, leafing half-heartedly through the brittle pages. “Not really.”
“I don’t think it’s something you can just ignore,” Sam said. When Dean didn’t respond he tried again. “Look, none of this makes any sense. Why would Death suddenly want a birthday party? How does he even have a birthday?”
Dean slammed the book shut.
“I don’t know, Sam! Maybe he decided to skip the pizza and move straight to cake. Or maybe he’s hopped up on the Horseman equivalent of PCP and just wants to fuck with us. Last I checked you were the one all gung-ho about being reaped, so why don’t you call him and ask?”
“What the hell is up with you lately?” Sam demanded, pushing away from the door. “You smell like a brewery, you don’t sleep, and you’re wound so tight I’m surprised your head hasn’t sprung off. Whatever it is, I swear to god if you take your crap out on me one more time I’m gonna – ”
“Okay, I hear you. I hear you.” Dean slumped back in his chair and blinked up at the ceiling, rubbing absently at his right forearm. Small cobwebs had formed around the light fitting. He watched them wave back and forth in a non-existent breeze.
The chair groaned when Dean pulled himself upright again. He looked at Sam and took a deep breath. “So lay it on me.”
“Whatever it is about this invitation thing that has your brain ticking away like a bad episode of 24.”
“There’s another kind?” Sam asked dryly. He bit his lip. “Look, the idea of Death being born – the universe or whatever giving birth to Death - doesn’t really work, right? It’s a paradox.”
“Yeah, I hear you can buy medicated creams for that.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Philosophers have been debating for centuries whether death operates as a limit on life, or if life is defined by the existence of death. Which came first? Think about it like the chicken and the egg. ”
“Uh, right.” Dean frowned. “Okay. So when Death said he can’t remember who’s older, him or God –“
Sam nodded. “Exactly.”
“And you’re thinking…what? Death wants us to throw a party for his mystical un-birthday?”
“Um, yeah, I guess. A lot of cultures celebrate death anniversaries, but maybe this is supposed to be closer to a wake? I mean, wakes started out as a late night vigil for the dead. It fits with the whole two minutes to midnight thing.”
“Except Death’s not actually, you know, dead.”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Best I’ve got.”
Dean ran a hand across the slick edge of the table, and then swept the books and paper to one side, clearing a space. He kicked at the leg of a nearby chair, pushing it out from under the table. “Looks like we’re having a party, then. You, uh, wanna sit down for a bit and help me plan this thing?”
Sam went very still, staring down at the map table as if it spelt out the secrets of the universe in flashing, neon lights. He took one step backwards, and then another. “I can’t,” he said, before turning away and walking quickly out of the room.
He didn’t look back.
Excerpt from Dean Winchester’s Unwritten Guide To Party Planning:
Dude, so you’re planning a party?
Okay, so the first thing you’ll need is beer. Lots and lots of beer. Or pull out the big guns and go straight for the liquor. That shouldn’t be a problem, because you’ve been a mostly functioning alcoholic for going on four years now and that stuff’s squirreled away everywhere. I get it’s not something you like to think about too much, but times like this? Comes in real handy.
Feeling better? Great, ‘cause now it’s time for step two: deciding on a theme.
Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of douchey, but whatever. Now, you want something that’s gonna make your guest happy, but isn’t too complicated.
Completely lost? Man, I hear you.
Try asking your friends or family for help.
Usually that’d mean my brother, but we’re not talking so much at the moment. Guess that’s why God created the Internet, right? There’s a lot of crazy shit out there, though, so be careful with your search terms. And remember: not everyone appreciates the subtleties of tentacle porn, so if this is your first rodeo you might wanna go with something a little less ambitious.
There’s other stuff to think about too, like food and music and –
Actually, you know what? This whole thing is stupid. I don’t know the first thing about birthday parties or decorations, unless they’re made from beer cans. Ben had a party once, but Lisa pretty much organised everything and I – well, I’d kind of checked out by that point. Guess I should have paid more attention, huh?
Sorry, dude, but looks like you’re on your own with this one. Good luck.
The strains of Motorhead stuttered through the speakers Dean had hooked up in the corner, cables running from the bank of old computers in a confused tangle. Looking around the room, it occurred to Dean that parties – or really fucked up wakes for that matter – weren’t supposed to be quite like this.
Faded, metallic red streamers were stuck to the brick wall in awkward clumps, interspersed with the odd balloon. Some of them were already starting to deflate, cheap latex contracting back in on itself. The lights were all on but seemed dimmer than usual, fighting a losing battle against the gloom.
He’d found the decorations in one of the bunker’s storerooms, next to a box of dusty files about a suspected haunting from the nineteen thirties, and decided, what the hell.
Dean sighed and lifted a sweating six-pack of beer out of a plastic bag on the floor, setting it down on a crocheted doily in the centre of the table. He stared at it for a moment, and then tore the cardboard packaging open, pulling out one of the bottles. His fingers fumbled against the cold, slippery glass, losing their grip.
The bottle smashed against the floor.
“Tick…tick…boom,” said a familiar voice. “Starting things off with a bang, I see.”
Dean startled and turned around to find Death standing at the head of the table, one hand resting lightly against his cane. He looked as skeletal as ever, sharp shoulders poking against the fabric of his suit jacket like fossilised wings. Dark eyes glittered in the pale blade of his face.
Dean swallowed and lifted one hand in a half-wave. “Uh, hey.”
“As eloquent as ever,” Death said, face expressionless. He glanced around the room. “I do like what you’ve done with the place. Art Deco meets Cold War utilitarianism with a splash of DIY. It’s a combination I’ve not been exposed to since my last trip to central Europe.”
Dean stayed silent.
“Your brother isn’t joining us this evening?” Death asked conversationally. He started walking around the table in a slow, clockwise circle. Dean found himself edging away, trying to keep a safe distance between them.
“Um, yeah. I mean, no. He had other…stuff to do.” Dean hesitated and then added, “No offence.”
Death cocked his head. “You know, I could almost take an interest in the way Winchester relationships work. Almost. Deceit, irrational loyalties, sacrifice, betrayal. It’s rather like having a front row seat to the evolution of a new bacterial strain.”
“Uh, right,” Dean said. “So you, um, gonna tell me what the deal is with this birthday thing?”
Death sniffed and raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be labouring under the persistent delusion that you’re entitled to an explanation, and that your primitive brain would have the ability to comprehend its meaning even if you were.”
“Great.” Dean sighed. “I just thought that since you’re the one who wanted this little get-to-together –”
“Swat,” Death said, interrupting.
“Swat?” Dean repeated.
“Yes. As in, don’t make me.” Death continued his progress around the table, the tap of his cane a dull echo against the floor. He paused next to the broken bottle and stared down at it for a moment. “I’m sure you’d agree that there’s quite enough mess already.”
Death stepped over the remains of the bottle, cane pressing down on the splintered pieces of glass.
He came to a stop at the head of the table, back in the same place he’d started. He pulled out a chair and sat down, one leg crossed elegantly over the other. “Since this is a special occasion, I’m inclined to give you a hint: for someone like you, Dean, time and space move forward in a single direction, small detours notwithstanding. But to a thing like me, well. Tomorrow happened yesterday and last week’s appointment is tomorrow.”
“Gotta get you a blue box or something,” Dean mumbled, scratching nervously at the back of his neck. “I’ll be right back.”
He walked over to the wooden sideboard in the corner and picked up a silver tray with a domed lid, the kind he’d seen fancy people use in the movies. He carried it back and placed it down on the table in front of Death.
“So, um, Happy Birthday,” Dean said. He pulled off the lid to reveal a cheeseburger sitting in a nest of crinkled aluminium foil. “I know it’s traditional to go with cake and all, but –” He broke off with a shrug. “I’m better with the grill.”
Death studied the burger with eerie concentration.
Dean chewed on his lip. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, pink and white striped candle, turning it over a few times between his fingers. He held his lighter to the wick and stuck the candle on top of the bun.
And then he killed the overhead lights, all little kid bravado at the age of thirty-five, trying to pretend that he wasn’t afraid.
“You know,” Death said gravely, breaking the silence, “I think we should make this an annual event.” He reached a hand into his suit jacket and pulled out a small, leather bound appointment book. He wrote something down with the stub of a pencil. “Same time next year. It wouldn’t do to forget.”
Dean made a noncommittal noise.
“Many happy returns,” Death said. Their eyes met, Death holding Dean’s gaze as he leaned down and blew on the candle. The flame flickered wildly for a moment, refusing to go out, and then there was only darkness.