The garden spoke to him. Not in the traditional way people spoke to one another, with voices, but in the rustle of leaves in the breeze, in the unfurling of petals after a generous morning watering. A straightening of stems.
Every winter he mourned them when they went to sleep and, in the spring, eagerly awaited the emergence of green, that first push through the ground. What would grow that coming year was brand new. It had never touched wind or air or soil. The roots were the same, but each season the plants started over without any of the scars from the previous year. Those transgressions were forgotten, the old leaves dried up and burned at season’s end, sprinkled on the soil to enrich it. Any one of them might grow this year to be the tallest and you would never know this one had been trampled, or that the one with blue flowers had its stem snapped.
If only it were so with people. Castiel would die with his scars.
The realtor said the guy next door was a recluse, some work-from-home type. “He keeps to himself, takes care of the property,” she said, pivoting on a high-heel. She gave a smile that went unreturned. “Here are your keys.”
After she left, Dean dragged a broken chair into the scraggly yard along with a bottle of cheap whiskey and drank until the sun went down, until he wasn't sure if he cared whether he felt like punching his brother anymore.
He sat in that chair a lot, positioned so it faced the southwest corner of the property. The last tenants hadn’t had much of a green thumb. They’d left a broken terracotta pot, bits of it crumbled in the grass. Cigarette butts stuck out of the soil and a half dozen beer cans glinted in barren garden beds.
Dean added the whiskey bottle to the collection, and every couple days another joined it. Soon there were as many whiskey bottles as cans.
Sometimes he heard rustling from the yard beside his, blocked by a thick wall of plants that looked like pine trees, but softer. They bent in the wind.
The plants had been rustling a lot today. It was the last Tuesday in March, which meant he’d been here a month. He itched to do something but didn’t know what. The plants rustled again with no wind to stir them, and Dean lost it.
“In case nobody told you, staring’s fucking rude, asshole.”
He didn’t turn his head, didn’t look away from the corner of his property. The things that weren’t pine trees shuddered, and Dean thought he heard the soft fall of retreating footsteps.
To kill time, he found work in a local tavern tending day shift. When he got home, it was usually dark and he sat out under the stars.
His people skills and good looks earned him a quick promotion to evening shift. He had money left over after he paid rent and stuck it in a jar in the kitchen instead of his savings account. Enough customers bought him shots that he maintained a baseline numbness throughout the day and didn't think about his dad’s shop.
The Kansas weather grew mild. Bundled in his dad’s old leather jacket after work, Dean ate takeout in the crappy yard while the rest of the neighborhood slept. He often fell asleep there, shivering awake the next morning with a crick in his neck.
It was a morning like that in April when he noticed the vine.
It grew from a point he couldn't see on the other side of the fence, circling the plants he didn't have a name for, climbing through and through the chain-link and sending tendrils outward like hands.
He sheared them off with his dad’s pocket knife. They grew back with vengeance.
He sprayed the leaves with weed killer from the hardware store. As if to spite him, the plant doubled in size and burst with clusters of purple flowers. He pitched an abandoned bottle at it. The bottle shattered; uncaring, the vine turned its leaves toward the sun.
The not-pines didn’t stir. Dean wasn’t sure if anyone had been watching.
The vine claimed the chain-link fence and a neglected oak tree. Dean climbed onto a rickety kitchen chair and cut away at it with a pocket knife. “You’re gonna choke it, you bastard!”
A voice from the not-pines startled him. “It’s wisteria,” the voice said, a deep voice, throaty from overuse. A man’s. Mature, judging by the pitch, but far from elderly. “That won’t harm it.”
“I want it gone.”
“If you figure out a way to get rid of it, by all means. I’ve tried for years.”
“Shit,” Dean said. His foot went through the rattan and he ended up on his ass on the dirt.
“Are you alright?” the voice said.
“Yeah, I’m good. Just gonna stay down here a minute.” Dean rubbed his back where he’d struck the ground. “You got a name?”
The man was quiet for so long, Dean thought he’d walked away. Then: “Castiel Novak.”
The name sounded familiar but Dean couldn’t place it. “Dean Winchester.”
“Do you need help?”
Dean sniffed. “Probably. Not the kind you’re offering.”
“I see.” In the distance, a phone rang. “I’m sorry—I have to take that. It was a pleasure to meet you, Dean.”
There were footsteps on crushed stone, thumping up steps, the sound of a sliding door closing.
“Yeah, you too,” Dean said, looking toward the sky.
The next time they spoke, a few days later, Dean was four bottles into a six-pack, fishing a plastic bag that had been flapping around his peripheral vision out of a bush. The wall of plants separating his yard from Castiel’s moved without a breeze.
“This ain’t a peep show,” Dean said.
The wall of plants didn’t reply.
The plastic bag came free with a tug. Dean wadded it up and threw it into the trash bin. He sighed. “If you’re gonna stand there watching me, you could at least say hi.”
Again, the trees said nothing, but they moved as though something were moving against them on the other side, and Dean began to feel uneasy.
“Look, man, you try any funny shit, I’m calling the cops.”
He began to back toward the house, hesitant to turn his back toward the fence, and was startled when he heard Castiel’s sliding door. He stopped where he was, halfway between his chair and the back door.
“Gabriel, how did you get out?” said Castiel, coming toward the fence. “You know you’re not supposed to go outside.”
A cat that Dean deduced was Gabriel meowed pitifully.
“I’ll have to brush you again. You’re a mess. What is your fascination with arborvitaes?”
“Ar-bor-vite-ees,” Dean repeated, determined to remember it.
“Dean?” Castiel said. There was a smile in it. “Hello.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were there.”
“Story of my life,” Dean muttered.
“How’s your back?”
“From your fall,” Castiel said. “I hope you weren’t injured.”
“Oh. A few bruises,” Dean. “You want a beer?”
“I just finished work for the day. Why not?”
Dean shoved a bottle through the arborvitaes.
“What do you do?” he asked. “For work.”
“I’m a remote Customer Satisfaction Hero for an online software company,” Castiel said.
“Like phone support?”
“And online. What about you?”
“I tend bar at the Crossroads. You know it?”
Castiel paused. “I haven’t been there in many years, but yes.”
“It’s not too bad. They got a bad reputation because of some shit that happened a few years ago, some guy went postal, but the boss is pretty cool. I work night shift Wednesday through Sunday if you feel like venturing out.”
“I’m usually in bed by nine.”
“Don’t sweat it.”
“Thank you, though. What type of beer is this?”
“The cheap kind.”
“I like it.” Castiel paused. “May I ask an invasive question?”
“Do you want help cleaning up the yard? I know the previous renters didn’t leave it in good condition.”
Dean swallowed. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t know if I want to deal with that right now.”
“Of course,” Castiel said. “I have dinner on the stove, so I should get back inside. Thank you for the beer and the conversation. It was nice to talk to someone.”
“Don’t you talk all day?”
“It’s not the same. I really do appreciate it. Have a good evening.”
Dean put the empty bottles into the recycling bin on his way inside. He heard the sliding door open and close and wondered what the inside of Castiel’s house looked like, what he looked like.
Sometimes, when Dean heard him walking around the garden, he’d call out to Castiel.
“Hey, Novak … What’s this thing with the big-ass poofball flowers?”
There was a shuffling of documents. Dean imagined Castiel sitting at a fancy patio set.
“Lots of layers, like tissue paper?”
“Yeah. The whole plant’s weighed down by them.” Dean toed a stem nearly dragging on the ground. “It’s got ants crawling all over it.”
“This time of the year, it sounds like a peony. If you send me a picture, I can tell you definitively.”
“Why don’t you just come over and look at it? Isn’t there a gate in this fence somewhere?”
“Not anymore. It rusted so I had it removed.”
“So walk around.”
“I’d like to, but I’m working.”
“What time do you get done?”
“Not until five,” said Castiel. “Will you be free then?”
“Yeah, I should …” Dean looked at his watch, remembering the day. “Shit, no, I said I’d cover happy hour tonight.”
“Some other time, then.”
There was noticeable disappointment in Castiel’s voice. Dean swatted at the sensation of something crawling down his neck and kicked at the fence.
“Hey, did you still want me to text you that picture?”
For a week, Dean snapped pictures of every unidentified plant coming up in his yard and Castiel sent back names: day lily, dianthus, salvia, speedwell.
He assigned Dean’s number a picture of the shrubs between their yards and grinned whenever his phone said Dean was typing.
A few weeks later, Dean worked a double, dead on his feet by the time he got home around three in the morning, got a shower, got something in his stomach. The night was warm and muggy. Cicadas creaked their eerie rhythm and Dean sat on the porch with a beer, bare feet in the grass. He flicked the beer bottle toward the recycling cans. It missed, pinging across the concrete pad.
“Dean, is that you?”
Dean took a long pull on his beer and smiled. “Hey, Cas.”
“What are you doing up so late?”
“Just got home from work. You?”
“I’m watching the meteor shower.”
Dean tilted his head back, expecting a light show, but the sky looked no different than any other night. The stars were unmoving, blurred at the edges by streetlights.
“What time’s it start?” Dean asked.
Castiel chuckled. “It’s been going on for a while. The meteors are sporadic. If you lie on your back and keep your eyes soft, you can take in the whole sky. You’ll have a better chance to see one that way.”
Stargazing had been something Sam liked to do when they were kids. Dean felt a pang in his chest as he stretched out on the shitty lawn, but a bright streak in his peripheral vision tempered his self pity.
“Did you see it?” Castiel asked.
“Yeah. Hey, there’s another!”
“I could lie here all night.”
“Sam would like them.”
“My kid brother. He was always into this stuff. Used to drag me into the backyard whenever there was an eclipse. We’d make those special viewers out of cereal boxes so we didn’t burn out our eyes.”
“I see. And is he… has he passed on?”
“Who, Sammy? Nah, he’s fine. He’s great, actually. He and his wife live out west. He teaches classical history at Stanford.”
“Oh. From the way you were talking about him, I thought something might have happened.”
Dean sniffed. “Yeah, well. We got into it over my dad’s business. He wanted to sell his half. I didn’t have the money to buy him out and my credit ain’t exactly stellar. No bank was gonna hand me that loan. So it was find a way to pony up the cash or work with whoever bought it.”
“I imagine that would be difficult.”
“That’s what I thought too. We received an offer for the whole business in January and I took it. Sold the house too. Not sure that was the right decision.”
“What did your father say?” Castiel asked.
“My old man didn’t say a thing. He’s six feet under. Died of a stroke when I was nineteen.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“People love to say that shit. What do you gotta be sorry for? You didn’t know him.”
“I suppose it’s something to say. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound trite.”
With the back of his hand, Dean swiped his eyes. “Nah, I’m sorry. I’m an asshole. You’re just being nice.”
After a while, Castiel asked, “Did you want to run your father's business?”
Dean thought about it. “I've been working there since I was big enough to hold a wrench.”
“Could you start your own?”
“How many auto shops does one town need?”
“You could go back to school.”
“I guess.” Dean rested the bottle on his stomach. “I don’t know what I’d study.”
“Study what interests you. You have plenty of time to build a career.”
“How’d you get into your line of work?”
Castiel audibly exhaled. “I wasn't able to leave my house for a while and it provided me with a distraction. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.”
Dean turned his face toward the wall of plants. “Are you from around here?”
“I’m from Illinois originally but I came here for college and never left.”
“How old are you?”
“I turned thirty in January. How come you couldn’t leave the house?”
The cloying scent of wisteria hung heavily in the air. Castiel was quiet for a beat too long and Dean regretted his question.
“I shouldn’t have asked that,” he said. “Sorry.”
Castiel cleared his throat. “I had an accident. There was quite a lengthy recovery period.”
“You mind me asking what happened?”
“I was shot while responding to a nine-one-one call.”
“You were a cop?”
“I went through a lot of therapy, but I couldn't go back to it after that.”
“That's a real shame.”
“But now I have time for things like this. I used to work nights.”
Dean wondered if Sam took Jess stargazing in California, if the stars appeared as brightly there.
“There's another meteor,” said Castiel.
Dean’s texts began to arrive without pictures of plants attached. He sent jokes he’d overheard at work or a complaint about his customers. Sometimes he messaged just to say hey.
The messages were the best part of Castiel’s day. He started keeping his phone beside him while he worked so he wouldn’t miss any.
There was a span in June when Dean worked ten days straight. It was sunny, breezy but warm on his eventual day off. He drank his coffee on the patio in boxers.
Castiel was right; the yard looked like hell. Dean ought to at least pick the trash out of the gardens.
He dragged the broken chair to the curb and drove to the hardware store. Inside the entrance was a gauntlet of patio grills. Dean stopped in front of a small Charbroil unit with a side burner.
“Would you like a flatbed cart?” asked a mousy employee in a vest.
He had plenty in savings and there was nothing like cooking outside on a summer day. Dean put the grill on the cart. He added a couple bags of mulch and a green plastic Adirondack chair. There was nothing lonelier than a single chair, so he bought two. He picked out a set of matching striped cushions and a weed wacker.
Back home, he fussed with the trimmer line while a couple steaks grilled. Mulch had covered the gnarled tree roots, the cans and bottles were in the recycling bin.
“I see you're making the best of the weather,” Castiel called.
“Come on over!” Dean called, feeling cheerful. “I've got plenty.”
“I would, but I have to stay near the phone.”
“Right. You're working.” Dean threw the spool of line down. Maybe he should’ve bought the pricier model. “You want me to run you over a plate? It's nothing fancy, just steak and baked beans.”
The wind stirred the trees overhanging the property. Someone's tires caught on gravel and Castiel said, “Thank you. If you wouldn't mind, I'm starving.”
“How do you like your steak?”
“Coming up. Give me about ten minutes.”
“I'll leave the door unlocked. Let yourself in.”
Castiel’s house sat back from the street at the end of a cracked driveway, the kind of house you drove past without really noticing.
The front door opened into an empty foyer. It joined a dining room, the table stacked with papers, and a dark hallway branched off to his left. The walls were empty except for a hook for keys beside the door and a framed portrait of a woman with dark hair. Castiel’s girlfriend, maybe, since there were no other pictures. Dean had seen her somewhere before, probably the shop.
“Hey, Castiel?” he called. “It’s Dean.”
There was a line of shoes inside the door. Dean left his on the doormat and crossed the hardwood floor in socks. He followed the sound of a computer keyboard through an archway, the sound of Castiel's voice.
Dean’s first impression of Castiel was that he looked tired. He sat at a cheap desk and wore a headset, nodding a head of messy hair. There were bags under his eyes though it was mid-afternoon, and he had the weary expression of someone who had stared too long at a computer. He raised his head to acknowledge Dean.
Castiel’s smile infused his entire face. He was unconventionally handsome. If you disassembled his face, the individual pieces would be discordant, but together he was unfairly good looking. Dean, who hadn’t hooked up with anyone since New Year’s, smiled back broadly.
“I understand,” Castiel said into the headset, still holding Dean’s gaze. His smile widened and he returned his eyes to the screen. “First, let’s verify your settings and then we’ll make sure your apps are connected.”
Dean came closer and mimed setting the plate on the desk. Castiel shook his head and pointed to the patio, spreading his fingers to ask for five minutes. He smiled again, warmly, and with his heart pounding, Dean went outside into the sun. He set the plate down on a red cafe table and drummed his fingers. He hadn’t thought to bring beer.
At first glance, the garden was nothing to write home about. The yard was surrounded on all sides by greenery, so thick he couldn’t see into any of the neighboring yards. The grass was overrun with clover. It grew in a semicircle along a bumpy stone patio. He was careful walking across it, mindful of a broken arm when he’d been nine and run down an old sidewalk when mom had said not to.
But the longer he cast his eyes around, the more he noticed spots of color: pink flowers underneath the broad, variegated leaves of a plant that looked straight out of Jurassic Park; something deep purple huddled against a chunk of white quartz; blue-tipped lavender that swayed with the breeze.
A meow drew his attention. A petite ginger cat stood next to his leg and looked at him disdainfully.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be out here, Gabe,” Dean said to it.
“He’s not,” Castiel said from the sliding door. Now that he was standing, Dean could see that Castiel was fit. Dark jeans hugged the muscles in his thighs; his arms were tanned and lean. He scooped up the cat with one hand and put him indoors. “His previous owner used to let him outside, but cats take such a toll on wildlife. He’s become an accomplished escape artist.”
“Food should still be warm.”
“It smells fantastic. Would you like something to drink?”
“Sure,” Dean said, sitting back. He had nowhere to be. He smiled again to make sure he and Castiel were on the same page. In response, Castiel blushed and licked his lips.
“I’ll be right back.”
He returned with two glasses and passed one to Dean so their fingers touched, instead of setting it down and letting Dean pick it up himself. Dean stared into several inches of murky green.
“What is this?”
“Iced green tea,” Castiel said. “I can’t drink while I’m—”
“Working, right.” Dean tapped his forehead. He sniffed the surface of the tea, finding it not unlike fresh-cut grass. “My brother claims this stuff’s supposed to be good for you.”
“So they say.” Castiel took a sip and cleared his throat. “Forgive me for being so blunt, but you’re incredibly attractive. It’s intimidating.”
Dean blinked at his honesty and Castiel looked mortified.
“Oh god, you were flirting with me a minute ago, weren’t you?” he said. “I’m terrible at this. If I’ve offended you, I’m so sorry.”
“No, you’re good, just caught me off guard. But if we’re talking looks, you’re not exactly Gary Busey.”
Castiel smiled toward the ground. “I haven’t been with anyone since my accident. I suppose I’m self conscious.”
“How long’s it been?”
“Five—no, six years?” Castiel said and then cringed.
“Wow. You do jerk off, right? We’re not talking six years of backup?”
Castiel coughed a little into his fist. “No,” he said, recovering. “And yes, occasionally. When the mood strikes.”
“You know, if you’re looking to end your dry spell, I could help you out.”
With a self-deprecating laugh, Castiel picked up his fork and began to eat. Then, realizing Dean was serious, he frowned and wiped his mouth. “I don’t need a pity fuck.”
“Who said anything about pity?” Dean lightly punched his arm. “I like you. How’s the steak?”
“Delicious, but we hardly know each other.”
Dean laced his fingers behind his head and rocked back. “What’s there to know?”
“The things people know about each other when they’re intimate. Your favorite color, your favorite song. How you take your coffee.”
“Blue, Ramble On, black.” Dean ticked off the answers with his fingers. “Anything else?”
“A—are you seeing anyone?”
Castiel shook his head and twisted his shirt collar.
“Any diseases I should know about?” Dean asked.
“No.” He looked at Dean seriously. “Are we really doing this?”
“If you want.” Dean grinned and returned all four chair legs to the ground. “Eat up before it gets cold.”
Dean drank two glasses of iced tea. Castiel complimented Dean’s cooking and walked him to the door.
“So I’ll … call you when I’m done working? It’ll be a few hours.” He leaned into Dean’s space but stopped before they touched. Dean took pity on him and cupped the back of Castiel’s neck, kissing him until the phone rang.
“I have to take that,” Castiel whispered. “Are you okay with takeout for dinner.”
Dean kissed him one more time and stepped away.
“I’ll pick something up.” He bent to put on his shoes. “Hey, who’s the woman in the picture? I swear I’ve seen her around town.”
“She was a friend.” Castiel absently rubbed his arm. “She died several years ago.”
Castiel was on edge when Dean came back with two bags of Chinese, shaking like he’d drunk a pot of coffee.
“Whoa,” Dean said. They were on the couch in the dark living room, the takeout untouched. “I was just playing around earlier. We don’t have to do anything tonight, you know? We can just hang out.”
But Castiel kissed him roughly. “I want this, Dean. Would you mind if we do it first?”
“You want to have sex right now? Before we eat?”
“Hell, why not.” Dean stood and stripped off his shirt and pants. Castiel flushed but watched him undress, and Dean lay back against the cool leather.
“It’s more fun if you’re naked too,” he said with a grin.
Castiel started, as though he hadn’t thought of it. His hands froze on the hem of his shirt. “The scars are ugly,” he said and slowly lifted it.
There were four: three on his right shoulder and one on his upper arm. Craters of pale pink skin where the bullets had hit him. Dean trailed his fingers over each one.
“D’you have condoms?” he asked.
“In the bedroom.”
Dean glanced to the sliding door. “No one can see into your yard, right?”
“Sun’s setting. Might be fun outdoors.”
Castiel looked impressed but wary. “Just because they can’t see us doesn’t mean they can’t hear.”
“Don’t you still have friends on the force?”
“A few. That won’t help against a public indecency charge.”
“I’ll be quiet.”
“I don’t know that I will be,” said Castiel, laughing. He walked down the hallway and came back with a blanket and a whole strip of condoms.
Dean had fucked in pools and in the back of his dad’s old Impala, but there was something mature about lying with Castiel in the garden. With no fear of discovery, there was no need to rush. The air was hot and still; tips of grass tickled his back through the blanket. Afterward, he reached up and caressed Castiel’s face almost shyly.
“Y’know, if Sam and I hadn’t had that fight, I wouldn’t have moved into this place. Do you think we would’ve met?”
“Probably not,” Castiel murmured.
“Why don’t you let me take you out this week? If you don’t mind bar food, I get an employee discount.”
Castiel kissed Dean’s palm. “I haven’t been into that bar in six years.”
Dean went very still. He recalled headlines in the paper about the shooting, fundraisers for the cop’s recovery, for the victim’s family. He suddenly understood why Castiel’s name had sounded familiar when they’d met, why he’d recognized the woman photographed in the front hall.
“That was you,” he said and Castiel nodded.
“My friend Hannah was the manager” Castiel said. His thumb idly traced the outline of Dean’s lips. “We’d shared an apartment in college, even dated for a while. One of the servers had an estranged spouse who came in with a weapon. My partner and I were the first on the scene. He got me in the parking lot trying to run out. He shot four people. Hannah didn't make it.”
“Cas, I’m sorry.”
“It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for her death. I kept asking myself, what if I’d driven faster? What if I’d tried harder to negotiate with him? So many ‘what if’s. You can spend a lifetime on them but they don’t change anything.” He brushed the hair back from Dean’s forehead. “You should call your brother.”
They stared at each other for a long time, until Dean's stomach growled.
“We never ate,” he said.
“I’ll reheat it.” Castiel lay his head on Dean’s chest. “Will you stay?”
Kansas turned brisk, then cold, and froze over, but the garden’s hibernation wasn’t as sobering this year. Castiel learned the weight of Dean's arm around his shoulders while they watched TV, the warmth of Dean’s lips against his shoulder during the night, the heft of him in Castiel's bed when they slept.
Winter eased. Warm winds blew up from the south with the arrival of spring, and the wisteria began to climb. Dean stopped fighting it. He made coffee for two in the mornings. He set out his deck chairs and spread new mulch around the peonies. He signed another year on his lease and enrolled in a marketing course at a nearby community college. He called Sam to apologize.
Castiel installed a gate.