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hard to handle, easier to hold

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Home. And family. And good water pressure.

Becoming human had been baffling, and frightening, and then wondrous for certain brief moments, and now Castiel is unscarred and warm and eating a burrito (so delicious...much better than the bland mashed potatoes and soggy carrots he’d been served at St. Anne’s, though he’d appreciated every single bite, then as well as now) and he was here, back in the bunker, with Dean and Sam.

Home. Family.

“You can’t stay,” Dean tells him, and at first it doesn’t register, what he’s said. Castiel blinks, and the spicy food turns to ash on his tongue.

“Why? Why can’t I…” Cas asks after forcing himself to swallow. He feels something start to rise up in his throat; this is what sick feels like. He pushes the rest of the food away.

“Cas,” Dean says calmly. “Finish your burrito. I have a plan.”

 

He has few belongings; the clothes he wears, the angel blade, a small sack with a toothbrush, comb, a chocolate bar, and peanuts inside. Dean emerges from his own quarters with a large, faded green bag and wordlessly tucks Castiel’s things into it.

They ride in silence (except for the music) for nearly 40 minutes before reaching the next town of any size, and Dean pulls into the lot of a big store and turns off the car. He stares at the keys in the ignition for a moment, and then yanks them out with a sigh, indicating that Castiel should follow him in.

 

“You’re okay for shirts -- I found a couple I could part with, but you need more pants, some underwear. Socks. Those shoes okay?”

Castiel examines his feet. His shoes are fine. “Yeah, you need better shoes,” Dean says. “Where’d you get the duds?”

“There was a laundromat,” Castiel explains, and Dean looks amused. He should feel worse about taking, guilty, but oddly, he does not. He’d been desperate.

“Where’s your trenchcoat?” Dean asks. Castiel shrugs. It was left in a still-damp washing machine, stained with Hael’s blood. It had belonged to Jimmy Novak and Castiel the angel, and he’s neither of these any longer. In truth, he misses the large pockets. Dean picks up a puffy deep blue jacket and holds the hanger up to Castiel’s shoulders. It will do.

Castiel is silent as Dean fills the cart. There’s only one thing he wants to ask again: Why can’t I stay with you? but no answer seems to be forthcoming. They carry plastic bags to the car, and Dean stops at another store as Castiel sits in the passenger seat with the heat vents blowing on his outstretched hands. He returns, drives on for a few blocks and pulls into a motel parking lot.

“I don’t have enough money to pay for this, or for these things you’ve purchased,” Castiel says, finally.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean replies, voice gruff. “Least I can do.”

Dean handles the check-in, and mutters about ID as they trudge up the concrete steps to the second story and to room 29.

Castiel sits on the chair, bags at his feet, and Dean grabs one, pulls open a box and fiddles with the contents for a few minutes. “Got you a cell phone. Here -- my number’s in it, and a direct line to the bunker. It’s pre-paid, so...”

Castiel looks at the phone, and sets it down on the arm of the chair.

“You’ve gotta charge that up, Cas, and keep it charged. Carry it everywhere. And uh, don’t tell anyone except me where you are, got it?”

Castiel nods.

“Cat got your tongue?”

“No,” Castiel says, because he won’t ask why again, if Dean won’t answer. But he answers anyway; Dean knows him better than anyone, above or below.

“Look, warded or not, April found you. Sam’s not well, and the bunker isn’t safe for you or for us if we don’t split up,” Dean says, thumb rubbing against his bottom lip. It’s the same thing he told Sam, Castiel knows, but it’s not the whole story; Castiel knows Dean as well. He nods again. “I’d tell you more, but it’s not...somebody could hurt you pretty easy now, Cas, and you’d want to tell them things you shouldn’t. Well, you wouldn’t want to, but you might not be able to fight it.”

“I wouldn’t want to,” Castiel agrees, brow creasing. This vessel is now vulnerable, but who could hurt him if he was with Sam and Dean? He knows enough to protect himself, and them too. He’s as capable of hunting as they are. He’s lost his grace, not his memory.

“You’re, uh, undocumented, but I know somebody here and she’s clearing out a room for you for cheap, and she’ll set you up, help you find something to do for money. You’re good for now though, huh?”

Castiel offers an affirmative murmur. He’s good enough. Warm enough. He has a place to stay. Not a home, but a place. For now. It’s certainly better than an underpass or an abandoned bus that smells of sweat and exhaust.

Working in this town, though, is not his purpose. He wants to hunt, not hide. He wants to stay with the Winchesters. He swallows hard and looks down at the plastic bags surrounding him.

“So, anyway,” Dean’s tone changes, lightens, paper crumpling as he opens another bag, pulls out a square-shaped bottle with a black and white label, and jiggles it. “You lose your liquor virginity yet?”

Castiel slowly shakes his head, then stops, considering. “I had a glass of beer,” he says. “When you took me to the whorehouse.”

“That...let’s, not count that. Let’s just count JD. While human.” Dean clears his throat and thrusts a plastic ice bucket into his hands.

“I also had an adventure in a liquor store once,” Castiel adds. “I might have tried everything.”

“Just get some ice, Cas,” Dean says, waving a hand.

 

“Jack ‘n’ coke,” Dean says. “You like it, huh?”

“I do,” Cas says, and he does. He hadn’t told Dean the entire truth; he’d had a taste of “hooch” on the streets, recently. It had burned his throat and nose, and he’d declined a second sip. He trusted Dean, though, and this liquor is better; it tastes...he doesn’t have the right word for it…strong, he supposes. It smells like a collision between the mouthwash he’d been given once and he cologne the tattoo artist had worn, but it’s sweet and doesn’t burn, doesn’t make him cough. He holds out his empty plastic cup and Dean plunks a couple of ice cubes in, floats them in golden liquid, and pours in more cola from the huge bottle.

“You can drink Jack Daniel’s straight, but I figure you’re new to this,” Dean says, smiling. Castiel doesn’t feel happy, exactly, but he feels a welcoming warmth spreading in his unmarred gut and better than he did three drinks ago, and he can’t help smiling back.

“I was...very glad to see you and Sam,” he blurts out, leaving the rest of the words behind his teeth.

“Yeah, well,” Dean says, brushing dirt Castiel can’t see from the front of his jeans. “Me too, Cas.”

“I didn’t like it, being homeless,” Castiel continues. “I was before, I guess, but I didn’t need to sleep before, or eat, or shower. I didn’t need a home before I was human.”

“You always have a home, Cas,” Dean says, so low Castiel can barely hear him. “This…” he waves at the room with gold wallpaper and sagging bed with a dark green bedspread. “This is temporary, you hear me?”

Castiel sighs and sips his drink as Dean’s phone chimes and he types something in. “Shouldn’t drive home. Had a few too many,” Dean says, and it makes sense, because his eyes look different, darker somehow, and Castiel finds the room’s a little blurry around the edges for him, too. “Alright if I bunk with you?”

“Sure, Dean,” Castiel says, and he’s warm inside, from the Jack Daniel’s and from not having to say goodbye, not yet.

“So, we gave you a hard time, but I guess it was good?”

Castiel cocks his head.

“The sex, Cas. How was it?”

Sex...Castiel believes he didn’t do too badly, but April might have lied about that to flatter him into complacency. Now that he thinks about it, he suspects she probably had.

“What’s the matter?” Dean asks at Castiel’s frown, and well, he already knows the story, so…

”She was a liar.”

“She was a reaper.” Dean shrugs. “I mean, for you to think…” he trails off.

“To think…” Castiel urges him to finish the thought. To think a woman could want to be with him, to think he was any good at carnal activity? Both, most likely. He sighs.

“You said she took you home, patched you up. What’d you tell her again, that you stabbed a guy?” Dean laughs, breathy and low. “See, you’re, you’re a looker, but no normal girl’s bringing home a sad-sack dumpster-diving drifter who could be psycho just for a roll in the-”

“April, when I thought she was April, seemed kind, and she wasn’t the first to show me kindness when I needed it. I was extremely naive,” Castiel interrupts.

Dean gives him his No Shit, Cas, look -- his eyes do look darker than normal -- and digs into the crumpled bag from the liquor store, producing a box he places on Castiel’s knee. “Here. Protection. For next time. Angel blade ain’t gonna cut it.”

The blade’s job is to cut, in a way, but Castiel catches the meaning of the phrase. He doesn’t think there will be a next time anytime soon, unfortunately, but Castiel examines the silver box. “Pure Ecstasy. For contraception,” he reads. “Plus STI protection.”

“Wrap your junk, especially if somebody’s that eager. This is gonna sound judgmental, ‘cause it is, but it probably means they’re not that choosy. Nothin’ wrong with a one-night-stand, but...” His brow wrinkles.

“It wasn’t like that,” Castiel mutters. It’s more difficult to choose the right words, after the drinks. He watches Dean untie his boots and set them together next to his chair, sets the box on the table and follows suit with his own, tucking them under the edge of the bed he’s sitting on. “We kissed. It just happened.”

“That’s how it always happens, Cas.” Dean stands and unbuckles his belt, drops his jeans, and lays them over the back of the chair. “Ought to be somebody you can trust.”

Easier said than done, Castiel thinks. He doesn’t trust many people. “Don’t you want to brush your teeth?”

“Didn’t really plan on a sleepover,” says Dean.

“I have a toothbrush. You can borrow it.”

One side of Dean’s lips tilts upward. “S’alright. I’ll live.”

Castiel shuffles to the bathroom with his bag, brushes his teeth, and washes his face with hot water and the tiny bar of motel soap. He’s become conscious of smells and tastes over the past several days, and what it means to be clean. It’s almost as good as sex. He pulls off his (clean) shirt and looks at his chest and stomach, runs his fingertips over the smooth skin and the tattoo, remembering the pain of the buzzing needle. The pain of the tattoo was nothing compared to the piercing of the blade.

 

“It was very enjoyable,” Castiel says, tucked into one side of the bed in boxer shorts. Dean’s wearing his t-shirt, but the darkened room isn’t cold.

“What” Dean murmurs into his pillow as he turns his head to face him.

“Sex,” he says. “It was educational, as I said. And it was good not to be...alone for a while.”

“I, we, we were worried about you,” Dean says, leaning back, fiddling with the sheet, the shiny quilted bedspread picking up the glow of streetlight through the wide crack in the curtains.

“I’m warded,” Castiel reminds him, twisting to reveal the tattoo, and Dean’s hand lifts, fingers hovering over the black sigils before he drops them to the hem of the bedspread.

“Saw that. Suppose you can take care of yourself,” Dean says, and it’s almost a question, but not quite. Castiel isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say. Of course he can. He might be naive but he’s not stupid.

“I don’t know how she found me,” Castiel bites his lip. “No one knew where I was.”

“We knew. Generally.” Dean says, facing him. “Followed the news. Couldn’t find you that easy, but we were able to track you down.”

“Yes.”

“And if we could…” Dean squints, sliding a hand over the edge of Castiel’s pillow, flicking at his hair. “You’ve gotta change your look, Cas. Grow out the beard, wear a baseball hat. The Angel network knows what you look like.”

“They’re not all bad, Dean,” Castiel says, and Dean doesn’t roll his eyes, which is surprising. “Many of them are confused. Seeking a purpose.”

“Besides hunting you down.” Dean sounds unconvinced.

“Seeking vessels,” Castiel continues. “It’s better if it’s consensual.” He thinks of Hael.

A twist of the lips. “No argument here, Cas.”

Castiel remembers April, closes his eyes and images flash before him, a curvy thigh, the shape of her shoulders. “It’s a shame I can’t alter this vessel more profoundly,” he says. “They wouldn’t be looking for a woman.”

Dean’s hand is still resting lightly in his hair. “That’s...that’s just weird to think about, buddy.”

“It doesn’t matter to me. On the other hand,” Castiel goes on, “It would be less convenient to urinate outdoors.”

Dean blinks, then laughs, shaking his head. “Don’t go changing too much, man. I already had to get used to you without the coat.”

“Uh huh,” Castiel murmurs, and he won’t have to count anything to fall asleep tonight; he’s been up since...early, he was stabbed repeatedly, he went shopping and lost his…JD virginity, and his eyelids feel as heavy as stone. The last thing he sees before drifting off is Dean’s face. His eyes are cracked open, just a little.

Maybe it’s Dean’s turn to watch Castiel sleep.

 

Castiel wakes to the sound of a car horn and finds his cheek pillowed on Dean’s shoulder, watches the slow, even rise and fall of his chest.

He’s aware of what “personal space” means, and how much Dean normally protests when he disregards it, but Castiel can’t bring himself to shift away. It’s his second time sharing a bed with someone, and he can’t believe any mortal would ever want to sleep alone. It doesn’t matter that Castiel can scar and choke and thirst now; humanity is still a puzzle.

He tucks his face into the curve of Dean’s neck, breathes in his scent. It’s familiar, but so much more so now that his senses are human ones. Other beings can smell things, certainly, strong things, mostly: heavy perfumes and incense, and brimstone. Perhaps this is why Hell reeks of sulfur; if the scent were subtle, no one there would smell anything at all.

Dean smells of soap and sweetness, last night’s liquor lingering on his breath.

His hand is on Dean’s stomach, the edge of his palm and smallest finger resting against a sliver of bared skin. He can’t resist stroking the warm flesh, and Dean makes a soft sound in his ear. He tries very hard to stay still then and not move again but Dean’s breath changes, his hand sliding up his back to fall on Castiel’s shoulder as he mutters, “Cas, go back to sleep.”

It’s morning, but it’s early morning. He does fall asleep again, very slowly. He doesn’t count anything.

When he wakes again, Dean is sitting at the table, flicking through his wallet. “I’m giving you a card,” he says, and Castiel eyes him groggily. “Credit card. If someone gives you a hard time, act offended and walk out, but take it with you. If they keep it, call me. Or...call either way.”

“Yes,” Castiel agrees, sitting up as Dean pulls the other things from his wallet and tucks the card inside.

“Should have bought you one of these, too,” Dean squints at him. “You have a hangover? How’s your head?”

I miss you already. “Fine,” he says. “I’m just...very hungry.”

“Well then,” Dean says, stretching his arms upward. “Let’s get some breakfast.”

 

There’s a Biggerson’s, but they drive past in silent mutual agreement not to stop there, and choose another chain eatery in its stead. Castiel chooses waffles and bacon, and Dean has some kind of skillet breakfast with gravy, and gives him an approving look when he steals a few bites with his fork. Then Dean discovers that there’s a pecan caramel silk supreme pie on the menu and has that, too, and then the only thing between them is a pair of half-empty coffee mugs and a couple of crushed creamer packets, and Dean is stealing glances at his watch.

“I guess you’re going home now,” Castiel says. Dean looks away.

“Sorry, Cas,” and Castiel tries to look as if he understands. They pay at the register and head to the Impala, but Castiel decides he’ll walk back to the motel. “You sure?”

He nods as Dean slides behind the wheel, and watches his face, a ghost of what could almost be a smile, but isn’t. He waits until the car disappears from view before he walks back to the motel, hand wrapped tight around the key in his pocket, his breath forming pale clouds in the cool air.

In his other pocket, his fingers find the brass knuckles Dean gave him this morning in the car. “For...smiting,” he’d said.

Castiel appreciates Dean’s generosity.

 

He starts the job at the Gas-n-Sip a few days later, emptying boxes of peanut-butter crackers into racks, motor oil onto shelves. It’s not his purpose, no, but it’s something to fill the time. It’s satisfying to attempt perfection, all labels facing up or to the front.

He’s very careful not to knock anything over and to keep an eye out for things not of this earth.

(He bulk-blesses the supply line into the ice machine. It seems like a good idea, considering.)

Castiel learns that getting paid under the table is not what he’d assumed, and that he’s apparently weird, but “not the biggest weirdo who’s ever worked here, that’s for sure.”

He sees the sick and saddened often. It doesn’t take angelic sight to notice these things; there’s a small hospital in town. He feels some kind of guilt about that, and about all the prayers going unheard these days. There’s nothing he can do.

It’s after 11pm and it’s quiet, the rush of customers for gas and scratch-offs and coffee and little yellow bottles of Five Hour Energy easing to a trickle. Castiel cants a hip against the counter, watching the rotating paper plate in the microwave oven. These burritos aren’t as good as the one perfect example he’d had in the bunker, but he loves them anyway. He eats them all the time, and his supervisor teases him about it.

He doesn’t mind. Now Castiel understands Dean’s affection for pie.

Castiel takes his time with the rest of the Jack Daniel’s, and buys another bottle, just to have. He likes the way the label looks, and he pours the cola in last, the way he was shown. It’s for special occasions, like tonight, when he gets a text message back from Dean and they both have time to talk. He stretches out on his bed, jiggles the liquid in the light from the lamp.

“I screw up all the time, man,” Dean says in his ear. “I talk to you and I forget that you can’t hear me, or just...appear in the corner.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how much I miss being able to do that,” Castiel tells him.

A breathy laugh: “Yeah, I bet.”

There are rules about what they should say on the phone, so they employ a sort of code and they don’t use names, but they don’t need them anyway. Dean talks about Sam: “He’s getting better.” “I think he’s doing okay.” “He’s improving.” and Castiel tells him about the town and the store and the new things he tries. He’s been to a barbeque -- the beer brats were amazing -- but doesn’t have friends here, not really. He has an issue with trust, he explains to Dean.

 

He has a uniform shirt to wear on duty and enough clothing to get by, but he sets aside one of the worn black t-shirts Dean gave him, to sleep with. It smells faintly of him still, of home.

It isn’t the same, not even close. But it’s something.