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In Some Sacred Place

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When he first meets him, Castiel doesn’t like Dean. He doesn’t like that he roughhouses. He doesn’t like how toothy he smiles or how he gets special foods at lunch time or how he always wins heads-up, seven-up (he’s pretty sure he peeks). And most of all, he doesn’t like being told what to do, and all the adults tell him he has to be nice to Dean because Dean’s sick.

Dean doesn’t seem sick. They watch a video on the sick Dean is supposed to have when he first joins the class, halfway through the school year. He never can remember the stupid name of it, but the video makes it sound like Dean’s got a year-round cold that no one else can catch. When Castiel has a cold, he has to skip school and sit around miserable in bed. Dean has a cough sometimes, but aside from that, he’s just as loud and rude and overactive as anyone else Cas avoids on the playground.

When Castiel says so, his mom tells him that Dean’s sick is a “progressive illness,” and then she tells him that “progressive” means it’s going to get worse and worse.

“People like Dean die young, sweetie,” she says, eyes all squinched up and shiny. “People like Dean don’t usually live past thirty.”

Who cares. Thirty, Castiel thinks privately, is ancient. By the time Castiel is thirty, he’ll be married to someone cool. He’ll be a famous astronomer. He will have already been to the moon. He may have already been to Mars, but he figures it will take a long time to get there and back, so he might not be home from Mars yet. Either way, Dean doesn’t deserve special treatment just because he’s going to die someday, when he’s an adult. Castiel is going to die someday, too. His dad says that’s what makes people human.

“Nobody lives forever, Castiel,” he’d always say, drinking his adult drink and clinking ice cubes in his glass. “Remember that.”

Castiel does remember, and it’s why he spends his time reading books and doing homework instead of acting like an idiot like Dean. Cas spends a lot of time between math worksheets watching Dean screw around and get away with it just because no one wants to tell him “no.” Not even the teacher.

Apparently, no one told Dean he was going to die sooner rather than later. If somebody told Dean, he’d probably work a lot harder to make a name for himself, just like Castiel’s dad did when he wrote his first bestselling novel at twenty-three—“Like Hemingway,” his dad would say while his mom rolled her eyes in the background.

So one day, when Dean’s hogging Castiel’s favorite computer during playtime, he tells him, parroting what his mom told him in a high, authoritative tone.

“My mom says you’ve got a progressive illness,” he says. “My mom says you’re going to die young.”

Dean was playing a multiplication game on the computer, but he stops when the words come out, and the problems all pile up on the bottom of the screen and he loses. He looks at Castiel and Castiel looks back, arms crossed, even though he can kind of see all the things that are sick about Dean now that his shoulders are all drooped and he’s up close. He’s got thin arms. He’s got red under his nose like he’s been rubbing it. Bags under his eyes like he’s tired. And a soft rasp at the edge of every breath. Which either means he can’t breathe good or he’s about to cry.

“What’d you say?” he says.

Castiel can’t go back on it, though. “I said my mom said you’re gonna die soon.”

And it turns out he wasn’t about to cry at all, because next thing Castiel knows, he’s on the ground, and Dean is pounding his face with tiny, hard-edged knuckles. When Castiel punches back, shoving Dean hard, right in the center of his chest, until he coughs, Dean looks surprised. He’s got on this face of wide-eyed wonder before he manages to get in another couple punches.

After they pull Dean off him, they both get punished. Dean didn’t tattle on Castiel for what he said, but one of the girls on the computer next to them did. Dean gets off with just a missed recess and some bruised knuckles, but Castiel has to go to the principal’s office and write an apology letter to Dean that afternoon.

They do their best to pound into his head that saying something like that isn’t nice, which was kind of the whole point at the time. But Dean cracked right before he threw the first punch, and Castiel saw it. For a second, he wasn’t just the dumb goofball he always was in class. He looked sad and scared, like Castiel does after he has one of his falling nightmares.

So Castiel thinks he means his apology, anyway. Even though he doesn’t know exactly why.


Castiel’s mother kept the front page of the local newspaper from the day he was born. When he gets old enough to read it for himself, his mom tells him it was just her own sentimentality that made her keep it. She thought he might like it later, knowing what was important on the day he came into the world. But it’s all inconsequential, small-town stuff. The most prominent article is about a fat, red-faced farmer taking the “Big Jud Challenge” at the local diner and finishing a two-pound burger nearly twice the size of his head in under thirty minutes.

Under that, there’s an article about the famous local swimming hole—just a blurb about how some grad students from the community college were trying to figure out where the “natural phosphorescence” of it came from. When he asks, his mom tells him that “phosphorescence” means that sometimes, in the right light, the swimming hole seems to glow. Castiel’s never seen it himself because he’s never been there at night, but some of the kids from school swear it’s true when he asks them if they’ve seen it.

“They were all afraid the silly thing was radioactive,” his mother tells him. “Which is ludicrous. People are hopelessly paranoid.”

“Ludicrous,” Castiel repeats, though he secretly wishes it was radioactive, because he’d been swimming there enough that he’d probably have some kind of comic superpower by now if it was. Maybe he’d have sprouted more arms or a tail or wings or something.

He takes the newspaper to class for show and tell just before his ninth birthday and explains what his mom told him about the glowing and the not-so-radioactive pool, and Dean raises his hand halfway through the presentation, a cough caught just behind his lips, just like it always is.

“Where’s the swimming hole?” he says. Everyone in class looks at him and starts whispering. By then, nearing the end of the school year, the novelty of being the new kid in class has started to wear out, and Dean doesn’t really have friends. The adults all say that Dean’s sick isn’t something that anyone else can catch, but that doesn’t mean people like to listen to his coughing or his gross huffing all the way through the school day. Not knowing the most popular hangout spot in town is just one more strike against him. If Dean doesn’t know, it’s because no one cares enough to invite him.

“You mean you don’t know?” One of the boys sneers. Dean furrows his brow and shakes his head.

The teacher intervenes to take pity on Dean and explain that Dean’s only just moved here, and that, besides, “Dean’s cystic fibrosis might mean he’s not able to swim with everybody else. Remember how we talked about being sensitive?”

Dean slams his way to his feet. “I can swim,” he says, red-faced. Which is weird, because he doesn’t normally look red-faced. He normally looks pale. A little blue around his lips and dark around his eyes. “I can swim just as good as anybody.”

Castiel stands awkwardly at the front of the classroom with his yellowed newspaper wilting in his hand, and he’s got half a mind to tell everyone that he saw it himself just because he doesn’t like the idea of a teacher telling Dean what it is he can and can’t do. But he stays quiet and the teacher backtracks, patting at the air with her hands.

But Dean gets a lot quieter after that. And after school gets out, Castiel thinks of Dean the whole summer he’s swimming in the swimming hole, because the way Dean said he could swim makes Castiel wonder if he ever even had before. He goes almost every day in the summertimes, and sometimes he doesn’t even touch the water. He reads on the rocks, turns brown in the sun, runs his hands through the coarse sand at the shores. The swimming hole is aptly named—it’s settled in the remnants of an old quarry, so to get to the water at all, you have to go down a set of steps that somebody carved a long time ago to do work at the very bottom of the pit. It’s stuck into the ground like a footprint, like something from the sky touched down one day and then immediately decided to go back up. The water is the bluest he’s seen anywhere, and in the years since the old, barren pile of rocks has filled with water, green has started to creep all along the quarry walls, so now there are flowers and vines and trees growing out of the walls at odd angles, skimming close to the water’s surface. It’s pretty. It’s the prettiest place Castiel knows. He likes to sit on the shore and look in. He likes to float on the water and look up. He feels quiet in it. His brain does.

Dean’s quiet, but not the right kind. He’s the muffled kind of quiet that seems like he’s always holding something back. He seems like he could use this kind of quiet. The quiet that’s quiet because there’s nothing there to say.

That summer, though, he sees everyone but Dean, so he can only assume no one bothered to tell him where the best not-so-secret spot in town was, or Dean had been lying and he really couldn’t swim at all.


He’s not in Dean’s class in the fall. There are three fourth-grade classes, and Dean’s been placed in the smallest one. Which has always been code for he needs the most attention.  He hears from his friend Arthur that Dean’s not there at all, though. They called his name during roll and no one answered.

“You don’t just miss the first day of school. Maybe his whatever-it-is got him over the summer,” Arthur says at recess on the first day after summer vacation, twisting the chain on his swing up so he goes flying in a crazy circle when it unwinds. “Maybe he’s dead.” Castiel had been doing the same thing on his swing, but he stopped because he felt dizzy. He chalks the unbalanced feeling he gets when Arthur suggests as much to that, but he still feels off-kilter and weird about it all day. After school, when his mom puts a hand to his forehead and tells him he looks pale, he thinks about asking if Dean’s disease is so bad he could die “today,” because today is a lot sooner than age thirty is. Maybe Dean could die today without anyone ever having taught him to swim.

Dean didn’t die, though, so Castiel casts that thought aside. Castiel has special permission to read in the library some recesses, because the adults figured out he’ll just sit by the door and read if they make him go outside when he doesn’t want to. And inside, the librarian is able to put him to work reshelving books sometimes. Dean starts showing up there, too, about three weeks into the new school year.

He looks different. Before, you had to look real close to see the sick in him, but now he’s wearing it like a coat. He’s breathing heavy, he’s stuffed up in his nose, and every once in a while, he breaks off staring at his book to cough and cough and cough like that’s the only way he can breathe.

Arthur tells Castiel that Dean’s annoying in the classroom. Everyone in class thinks so. And it’s annoying in the library, too. Even more annoying probably, because it’s quiet and Castiel gets shushed when he rustles in his bag for too long, but Dean is just allowed to sit there and cough up gunk as loud as he can, as long as he can, into a gross paper cup. Castiel dismisses all the thoughts of Dean being quiet that he once had.

“What are you lookin’ at?” Dean says one day when Castiel has glared at him over the top of his book one too many times. Castiel knows he’s not even being very subtle about it, because half of him wants Dean to notice. He scrambles to look back down at his book when Dean speaks, but Dean’s already getting up from his chair a couple tables over with a loud scrape. A few seconds later, Dean’s paperback slams onto the table in front of him with a hard, sharp slap. Castiel jumps.

The librarian has to notice this. They can’t see her, but she’s sitting just behind them, a couple shelves over, and she hears plenty well when Castiel sniffles the wrong way. Her super librarian senses are probably telling her that it was the sick kid that made this noise, so he gets a pass.

“I said,” he rasps out. Castiel hasn’t heard him talk in a while. He’s talking rougher than Castiel remembers. “What are you lookin’ at?”

Castiel scowls, mostly just annoyed he’d been caught. “I know you’re used to everyone paying attention to you, but I was just reading my book.” Unlike Dean, Castiel whispers.

Dean sits down next to him. The hand that hadn’t plunked the book on his table had been down at his side, holding something, and when he brings the something up to put it down next to the book, much more gently, Castiel sees that he’s holding a rescue inhaler. Like his friend Jo, who has asthma, uses when she has an attack.

Castiel rolls his eyes.

“Why you got such a big problem with me, huh?” he says, hand twitching toward the inhaler. “You been after me since last year. I mean. I’m sorry I laid you out. But I don’t got a problem with you.”

“I don’t have a problem, either,” Castiel says lightly, shifting his attention down his nose to his book in lieu of looking Dean in the eye. “I’m probably the only one who doesn’t. You just think everyone does ‘cause you like the attention.”

Castiel stares pointedly at his book while Dean stares pointedly at him. Castiel thinks that eventually he’ll give up and head back to his seat across the library, but at some point, Dean just picks his book back up and starts reading again. They read together, side by side, in pointed silence, right up until the end of recess, and then they have to walk back to class together, because all the fourth-grade classrooms are right next to each other. Castiel doesn’t say goodbye and Dean doesn’t either.

Castiel thinks that will be the end of that, because he thought he’d been pretty clear about not wanting to waste his recess dealing with Dean, no matter how many times his mom tells him it’s nice to do that for a sick kid. But then Dean starts sitting by him. Every day. Recess after recess. Eventually, Castiel has to teach himself to phase out the coughs and the sniffs and the throat clearing and the huffing or else he’s going to go bonkers. And it works, Dean’s a lot less annoying for a little while. Right until Dean starts talking to him.

“Why do you read so many books about space?” he says just before Halloween, when he himself has some kind of dumb spooky stories book open in front of him. Despite the gross scowling ghost on the cover, it’s clearly not holding his attention.

Castiel doesn’t answer. Dean taps the back of Castiel’s astronomy book with his fingernails on one hand and coughs into his fist with the other. His rescue inhaler is never far from him, and today’s no exception. He takes it in and out of his right pants pocket to fiddle with it, running his fingernails along the lines of it.

Finally, Castiel looks up. “Because I’m going to go there one day,” he says. Dean looks mystified. “To space,” Castiel clarifies, just in case it was unclear.

“That’s awesome,” he says, smiling brightly. He goes back to his book and leaves Castiel to it, just like that, like he’d never asked anything at all.

The next day, he asks, “What are you gonna do in space? Like, do you want to work on the uh—” he searches for a word, sipping little breaths in his congested chest like it helps his thinking. “Uh. The space station? Or like. Are you going to like, go looking for aliens or—”

“That’s not the way working for NASA works,” Castiel says with a sniff, like he doesn’t have grand, lofty daydreams about cruising through the stars for months at a time and building a colony on Mars. “They’re gonna tell me what they want me to do and I’m gonna do it. They’re not gonna like, give me my own rocket so I can go do something stupid like look for aliens.”

“It’s not stupid to look for aliens,” Dean mumbles, turning back to his book. “If NASA ran their dumb operation like an episode of Star Trek, watching the news would be a whole lot more interesting.” He kicks his feet under the table. Castiel has no idea what Star Trek is about.

The next day, Dean asks if he believes in aliens. Castiel says he does, and Dean smiles.

“It would be stupid to believe that we’re the only life forms in this universe,” he elaborates.

The day after that, Dean asks what he thinks it would be like to live on Mars. He tricks Castiel into talking the whole recess about the differences in the atmosphere and the climate and the lengths of the days, and he just stares at Castiel and listens.

And it goes on like that, until Castiel finds himself waiting for Dean to ask him the questions, because he likes to talk about space, and Dean treats him like an authority. There are days that Castiel spends on the playground, but Dean never does. When Castiel goes outside and swings or slides or plays tag with the other kids, he wonders what Dean does. And he doesn’t talk about it, because people hate Dean more than ever, and Castiel doesn’t want to have even fewer friends than he already does. But still—how does he occupy himself when Castiel isn’t around to indulge him his stupid questions about black holes and supernovas and the atmosphere on Mercury?

Sometime before Thanksgiving, Castiel asks Dean his own question.

“Why don’t you ever go out to recess anymore?” he says, not even pretending to crack open his book. Dean fiddles with his rescue inhaler, plucking at it where it lays on the table while he breathes audibly into the stale air. “You always went out last year. I thought you liked it.”

Dean shrugs, lifting his shoulders. It’s kind of an underwhelming gesture on him, because there’s nothing to his shoulders. He’s skinny.

“I did like it,” he says. “I’m, y’know. Sick. I got a real bad infection at the beginning of the year and my lungs still suck.”

Castiel counts back the months to the beginning of the school year in his head. Dean missed the first three weeks of school, so some of August and some of September. It’s November, now. Nearly three months of this.

“You’ve been sick a long time,” Castiel says.

Dean shrugs again. “I guess I’m gonna be sick for forever. That’s what everyone says. But I’m more sick right now. Like, I get more sick and less sick. And the less sick is like healthy.”

They sit there for a second while Castiel tries to puzzle that one out. How life can be just different levels of sick and there’s never any better. He can’t.

Then Dean asks him what Saturn's rings are made out of, and Castiel has to answer. It’s a good question.


Here’s the thing about not liking Dean: it’s easy. Dean’s easy to hate because Dean’s weird, and Dean’s different and everyone at school knows it.

In the springtime that year, when all the trees are dropping flower petals and everything is covered in dusty yellow pollen, the doctor deems Dean well enough to go outside during recess again. Castiel finds that however annoyed he was with Dean’s grossness when he first showed up there, the library is quiet without him. So he goes outside to read. Sometimes, he even plays with Arthur and Jo.

For the most part, he avoids Dean.

Dean does try to talk to him, sometimes. He’ll sit down next to him or try to get his attention from across the playground. But Castiel doesn’t know how to feel about spending time with Dean outside the library, where everyone can see. He doesn’t want anyone to think that he’s been spending all this time inside to be close to Dean, or that he’s sick like Dean is. So even though Dean tires too easy when he’s playing on the soccer field and he can never quite climb up a slide without breathing so hard he has to stop, Castiel decides Dean seems mostly okay and he determinedly stops paying attention to him.

Which is why Castiel’s mom calls it “divine intervention” when he’s the one who saves Dean’s life one day in late April.

His mom is the type of person who thinks that everything happens for a reason. So she thinks that all those recesses he spent watching Dean play with his rescue inhaler were god’s way of preparing Castiel to know exactly where Dean had his inhaler stashed on the day he doubled over panting into his knees and collapsed, alone beneath the shade of the big, overgrown tree on the edge of the playground.

Castiel isn’t sure. Because he was the only one who managed to notice, sure. Maybe he was the only one who cared enough to notice, after all those weeks of talking in the library. And he was the only one to sprint across the playground. His were the only fingers that fumbled to take Dean’s inhaler out of the velcroed pocket of his cargo pants when he was too far gone in his struggling to get at it himself.

And he’d seen Jo have an attack before, so he’d seen Jo use her inhaler a couple times. He knows how it’s supposed to work. He knows how to bring the inhaler up to Dean’s mouth, and how to fit it against his teeth, and how to wrap Dean’s hand around it, and how to help him push down the red button at the top when it turns out his fingers are too weak to push the medicine into his own mouth.

He knows to take Dean to the nurse’s office just as soon as he can walk again, because he’s still all disoriented and breathing funny, and he knew from being in class with Dean that he saw the nurse throughout the day at school and needed her help when something bad happened.

The nurse, a tall, thin woman with bright red hair and dark brown eyes, tells Castiel that Dean is lucky he was there when Castiel explains the situation. She smiles prettily at him and gives him a lollipop and says he can stay with Dean while he waits for his uncle to come pick him up and take him to his doctor. And later on, Castiel’s mom will give the “luck” a fancier name, and she’ll say “divine grace” and smile at him like Castiel was touched by an angel.

But when Castiel is sitting beside Dean, both of them kicking their legs in big, tall chairs outside the nurse’s office—Castiel’s toes just skimming the ground and Dean’s not even coming close—and Dean says, “I wish it hadn’t been you to find me. You were the one person in this whole stupid place that treated me like a human being,” in a wrecked, rocky voice, Castiel doesn’t want to think it’s god. Because any dumb adult could have figured out that Dean was having an asthma attack. Any dumb adult could have gotten him his rescue inhaler. Any dumb adult could have saved his life. It wasn’t like it was hard.

But if god was the one that made him watch Dean wheeze so hard his eyes bulged, or god was the one who slicked up Castiel’s palms so that he flubbed the inhaler until he wasn’t sure he was going to get it to Dean’s mouth in time, or god was the one who pushed up his gorge until he felt like he was going to vomit, or god was the one who left him shivery and shaky for hours after Dean left with his uncle for the doctor’s office—

Or, most important, god was the one who sparked off two realizations in Castiel at the exact same time: 1) That he kinda liked Dean, and 2) Dean was Sick, and being Sick wasn’t just better snacks and more attention. Being sick was scary.

Well. If that was god, god was kinda a jerk.

And here’s the thing about liking Dean: it’s hard.

Chapter Text

“Dean’s real excited you invited him,” Dean’s uncle says while they’re loading picnic baskets that Castiel’s mom made into the trunk of an old, beat-up car. The fresh wicker of the picnic basket looks funny next to the rest of the contents of the trunk. There’s an old tire iron and a heavy-looking spanner right next to some medical equipment Castiel doesn’t recognize—a big shiny tank and some tubing, a compact plastic case that looks like the kit his mom uses to curl her hair. Plus a couple of pill containers.

Castiel stares at it and thinks sullenly, I didn’t invite Dean. His mom’s been fixated on him ever since Castiel “saved his life,” so she called Mr. Singer and Mr. Singer set up a “playdate,” and now he’s going to the swimming hole with someone who probably can’t even swim.

Castiel looks at the back of Dean’s head through the rear windshield. He sees he’s got a little brother, too—little enough to be strapped into a carseat. Which should be lame but is pretty cool, actually. Castiel always wanted a brother, but his dad says it’s “not in the cards” and his mom doesn’t like to talk about it.

All he says is, “No problem, Mr. Singer.” And he tries to stop himself hoping that none of his friends will be there when they arrive.

After Dean’s asthma attack, the teacher read a pamphlet to all the kids about the dangers of asthma. And the fact that asthma was just another side effect of cystic fibrosis, the monster disease that Dean had that was so bad it apparently had other diseases inside it. When they talked about what you were supposed to do if you saw someone having an asthma attack, Castiel’s heart started pumping so hard and fast that it hurt his chest and they sent him to the nurse to get checked out. The nurse asked him if he’d been feeling anxious lately, and when Castiel thought about it, he realized that he felt anxious when he saw Dean. So mostly, he kept on avoiding him. When Dean was forced to start doing his recess inside again, Castiel went outside and suffered through the pollen and the heat and the annoying people so he didn’t have to see Dean and think of the way his eyes bugged out when he was trying to breathe. And Castiel kept right on not seeing him through the end of the school year. He spent a lot of time convincing himself he didn’t like Dean after all, right up until his mom broke the silence for him.

He doesn’t talk to Dean on the way over. It’s not too much of a ride, the old quarry is in a field a few miles outside of town, probably just over a mile out from Dean’s house, but it still feels long in the silence. Mostly everyone listens to his little brother—Sam—chatter, and Dean occupies himself with a whole lot of coughing into his fist and spitting into a cup. Castiel’s afraid his heart is going to start beating funny the moment he has to say something to Dean, because he’s worried that Dean’s going to start clutching his chest or breathing funny.

It turns out, though, Castiel’s way too annoyed to get anxious at all. Normally, when Castiel goes to the swimming hole with his family, Castiel is in the water five seconds after they park the car. There’s an outcropping that juts out of the rocks a few feet above the water’s surface on one side of the pool, and Castiel’s mom always says that Castiel once set the record for car to cannonball in thirty seconds flat. But with Dean’s family, there’s a whole lot of waiting.

Waiting to get Sam out of his car seat. Waiting to unload all the food and equipment. Waiting for them to make their slow way down the stairs and onto the sandy shore. Waiting for Mr. Singer to inflate floaties and apply sunscreen. Waiting for Dean to take two pills with a long swig of water. Waiting and waiting and waiting. By the time Mr. Singer’s helping Dean put on some dumb arm floaties, Cas is rocking on the balls of his feet in his swim shorts at the edge of the water. Dean still has three strips of sunscreen that haven’t been rubbed in on his face, and he looks lame.

“You’re not going to take these tubes off, you understand Dean?”

“Yessir,” Dean says as Mr. Singer pulls a third floatie, a translucent blue donut that fits snug around his slim hips, over his head. It sits just below a weird plastic button Dean’s got in his tummy, and when Sam catches Cas looking at it, he tells him conspiratorially that that’s where the tube goes, like Castiel is supposed to understand what that means. He nods.

“Don’t you let water get in your nose.”

“Yessir.”

“If you inhale any water, you come straight to shore.”

“Yessir.”

“Don’t hold your breath too long.”

“Yessir.”

“You need me, I’m gonna be watchin’ right here. I got all your equipment with me if you have trouble breathin’.”

Castiel’s hands start to clam up, listening to all the things that they need to avoid. By the time Mr. Singer finally smiles and takes his thumbs and rubs in the sunscreen on Dean’s squinched-up face, Castiel isn’t really all that excited to get in anymore.

He turns to Cas, like he can feel his apprehension. “And Castiel, son?”

Castiel straightens, back going painfully straight. He says, “Yes?” He anticipates what Mr. Singer is going to say—keep an eye on him. Watch him. Save him, if anything goes wrong.

But instead he says, “Have fun,” and winks at the both of them from under his baseball cap.

Castiel says, “Yes. Uh. Sir.”

Dean takes off, waddling up to the edge of the water. He dips his toe in, and says, in wonder, under his breath, “You were right in your presentation last year. It’s so blue. And so warm. Does it really glow at night?”

He smiles at Castiel. Castiel takes a step toward the water too. There aren’t too many other people around today. Just a couple other kids and their families milling around in the shallow edge of the water. He doesn’t know any of them, so that’s good at least.

“That’s what everyone says.” He shrugs. “I’ve never been here at night, though. My mom says it’s not safe cuz there’s no lights out here.”

Dean takes a couple more steps into the water. The shallow end isn’t that big, and the deep end is blessedly empty. There’s a sudden drop off a few feet in, and the bottom of the swimming hole quickly becomes indiscernible after it. It’s a game all the kids at school play—trying to touch the bottom after the drop off, diving until their ears start to pop, but it’s so deep that he’s pretty sure you’d need diving equipment to get all the way down there. Not that he hasn’t tried to make it a few times himself. Everyone claims they’ve gotten close to the bottom—there’s a high schooler that said he saw it once—but Castiel is pretty confident that no one ever has.

“We should try and come here at night sometime,” Dean says, hiking up the toy around his middle as he sits down in the water about three feet from the shore. His skinny knees poke up above the water’s surface. Even as he nods his agreement, Castiel looks longingly at the deeper end of the pool. Then he looks back to Mr. Singer, who waves. Sam waves too, way too big, with both his arms. Cas waves back. He wades his way over to Dean, the blue, blue water rippling around his own ankles, and then he plunks down right next to Dean and looks calmly out at the glassy top of the deep end with him. Dean skims the top of the water with his hands, patting it every once in a while with soft smack.

“You been avoiding me,” Dean says without looking at him. Somewhere to their left, a couple of little kids splash loudly through the shallows. “I’m not stupid.”

Castiel traces the shadow of an overhanging tree in the surface of the water. He shrugs. Dean flattens his legs out under the water and looks at them, all wavery in the shallow water, thinner and paler than they even look above the surface. A few feet away from them, there’s a piercing laugh. The two little kids tromp in circles in the water near them, throwing up big splashes as they go, and without even thinking, Castiel shifts, shielding Dean with his broader chest. The kids laugh in piercing squeals, and Castiel can feel his heart rate picking up.

There’s another plunking splash right next to him, and when he looks back from the running kids, he sees Dean, underwater, his face distorted in the same way his legs were. A thin stream of bubbles trails up from his nose, and his hair floats away from his head in a dirty-blond halo. There are bubbles clinging to the tips of eyelashes. His floatie-covered arms and torso don’t want to sink, so the tops of his hands hover at the surface and the bright green of his swim shorts billow on top of the water. Castiel looks back at Mr. Singer for guidance, but he’s busy glopping wet sand onto a pile with Sam. Instead of waiting, he grabs Dean by the arm and hauls him up, and he comes up sputtering and laughing. Castiel searches his face for any signs that his eyes might be bugging or he might need oxygen, but there’s nothing there. If anything, he’s smiling. His lips look fuller and redder than usual, his cheeks rounder and pinker. There are still little drops of water in his eyelashes, and they reflect green.

“What are you doing? Didn’t your uncle tell you not to let water get in your nose?”

Dean shakes the water out of his hair like a dog. It sluices off him in thin lines, little torrents that define his nose and his eyes and his lips.

“Uncle Bobby doesn’t care.”

Castiel tries to reconcile that with the lecture he heard before they both got in the water.

“He sure seemed to.”

“Uncle Bobby knows that I know when I’m feelin’ bad.” He coughs chestily, but it doesn’t linger. It occurs to Castiel, all of the sudden, that this is the first time he’s heard Dean cough since they arrived. Castiel’s spent enough quiet time with him in the library to know that that’s kind of a miracle, especially considering how much he coughed just on the way over.

“You don’t feel bad.”

“Not really,” Dean says. “Since when are you so curious anyway? I liked you better when you just talked about space.”

Castiel slaps his own hand down in the water, careful not to splash Dean, even though he’s probably about as soaked as he’s liable to get already. Castiel doesn’t want to say that he’d been curious since he almost saw Dean die. Just the words make his breathing pick up though, form a big bubble of something in the back of his throat.

When he doesn’t respond, Dean says, “You think I’m boring.”

“No.”

“You think I can’t do anything.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“You probably don’t even think I can swim.”

Dean stands, wobbling for a second on unsteady legs. Water pours off his inflatable donut. Castiel stands too, crossing his arms across his chest, uncertain. He can feel goosepimples rising on his skin. It’s a warm summer day, nothing but blue skies with skiffs of white beyond the top of little pit where the swimming hole sits, but the water is so warm here that it can feel like stepping out of a hot shower just to leave it.

Dean starts walking away from the shore, closer to the dropoff that will take them straight into the deep end.

“Well.” Castiel licks his lips, rubs his arms once. “Can you?”

The water hits his thighs and wading through it becomes more of a struggle. Dean doesn’t seem fazed, even though the water hits even higher on him. It’s halfway up Dean’s thighs by the time it’s crept over Castiel’s knee at all.

“I mean. I know I could. I know I can.” Dean shrugs. “But I guess I don’t know if I’m able to now. I’ve never tried. You wanna teach me?”

What?” Dean walks faster, putting his whole body into walking now that the water is well past his legs and moving up his hips, sending his little shorts billowing again. His legs are wavery sticks under the water. “We should go back. Your uncle wouldn’t want you out here. I mean, there’s no lifeguard. This isn’t the best place to learn—maybe a swimming pool—”

When they hit the edge of the shallow part of the swimming hole, the water is at Castiel’s bellybutton, just about to hit the little plastic button on Dean’s side. The dropoff to the deep end is so sudden that there’s actually a lip underwater, a sharp precipice to a sheer cliff face and a would-be suicidal drop. Dean is so close that he’s probably got his toes hooked over the edge of it.

“Nah. I wanna do it now.”

Castiel grabs him by the arm again, like he did just a few minutes ago to drag him out from under the water. It’s not like anything would actually happen if he did go over the edge—Dean’s got three levels of floatie protection on; he wouldn’t sink. But he’s so skinny; Castiel could almost touch his thumb to his forefinger around Dean’s upper arm. It’s not hard to imagine him slipping right out of his blue donut and down to the unfathomable bottom of the pool. Castiel would never be able to reach him; no one would. As far as Castiel knew, no one had ever drowned in the swimming hole. Maybe if they had to send divers down to fetch Dean’s body, they’d finally find out how deep it goes. Castiel’s heart beats in his throat.

“I’ll call your uncle.”

“He knew I was gonna come out here. Why d’you think he gave me all the floaties? So I wouldn’t drown in two feet of water?” Dean waves his arms in emphasis. The floaties make squeaky noises when they rub against his chest.

Castiel’s grip slips, and Dean does too. The moment when he’s not standing anymore is obvious. The donut comes up under his armpits, and his face lights up in wonder when he’s suddenly weightless. Castiel doesn’t have any help from floaties himself, so when he slips over the edge to follow Dean, there’s a moment where his heart drops, and he’s weightless, and the water is suddenly under his chin and rising. By the time he remembers to start kicking his legs, he’s sputtering on water. When his head has cleared enough to know up from down again, he realizes that Dean is the one holding him now, his spindly fingers loosely wrapped around Castiel’s shoulder.

 

 

Dean looks at Castiel’s legs under the water, the blur of them in the crystal blue, scrutinizing like he’s forming a plan of attack. He starts kicking the same way Cas does, under the water, and even though there isn’t a whole lot of power behind it, he’s determined enough to move them both a little further away from the lip of the dropoff.

“There,” Castiel says, still spitting out water. Mr. Singer seems very far away. “You swam. Can we go back now?”

Dean blows a raspberry. “I’m not swimming. Teach me for real.”

He’s holding his own under the water. The way he bobs in and out of little donut lets Castiel know that it isn’t the only thing keeping him afloat. His heart is starting to calm down a little, because no, there’s not really anything Dean can do from there to hurt himself. He supposes there’s no harm in a little demonstration.

“Okay,” he says severely, “But don’t take your tube off.” Dean just tilts his head.

He lets go of Dean and doggie paddles further out into the deep end, swimming a couple rough circles. He talks about doggie paddling like it’s an Olympic sport. Dean looks at him like Castiel looks at an astronomy textbook, all open-mouthed fascination. Castiel does a few more little laps, switching up his strokes a little bit. He doesn’t know that much about swimming, technically. He took a few lessons, but he’d already been swimming a long time when his mom signed him up for them, and they were all for babies. He learned how to do some floats and paddle, which he already knew how to do. But he remembers how to instruct on a float from the lesson with some authority, so he does.

“You have to take a deep breath,” he says, even as he wonders if just that is beyond Dean’s means.

He flips onto his back, fills his lungs, and goes into a dead float, talking all the while. He can’t hear well with his ears under the water, and his own voice sounds shallow and foreign from underneath the water as he tries to get his legs to float straight out and breach the water just the way the instructor taught him. He keeps Dean in his sights, the top of his head just visible when he looks all the way to the left.

And then Dean disappears, slipping smoothly out of Cas’s periphery and into the water without so much as a splash. Castiel scrambles out of the float, righting himself in the water to see an empty tube floating about a foot away. He swipes at the wet, heavy hair in his eyes to get a better view, but when he doesn’t see anything in the first five seconds, he’s completely certain that this is the end and he’s going have to go back to shore and tell Mr. Singer to hire a diving team. Maybe a submarine. Then Dean resurfaces on his back, chest all puffed up and arm floaties doing a lot of the work for him as he kicks furiously to try and keep his bottom half on the surface of the water. Castiel sighs. Shoving the idiot isn’t going to do anything but push him further away, but he’s tempted to do it anyway. Because he’s an idiot.

“The water is like a million feet deep here, stupid,” Castiel yells, even though he knows Dean probably can’t hear him with his head mostly underwater. Dean looks over at him, smiling senselessly, arms flapping at his side, chest still with his held breath. It’s been about ten minutes, and he’s already broken every single rule Mr. Singer set out for him. But Dean is doing an admirable job of sticking to his back float, arm and leg flapping aside. He looks satisfied with himself.

Dean says, “What?!” way too loudly.

Castiel gives in to his instinct to shove. It throws Dean off balance and he tips to one side, laughing as he struggles to right himself. Castiel throws the donut over Dean’s head like the most frantic game of ring toss.

When Dean’s got the donut up under his armpits again and Castiel’s heartbeat has slowed down, Castiel says, “I said you’re an idiot.”

“I did good though, huh?” Dean beams. “I told you I could swim.” His hair is plastered to his head. He’s got no extra fat on him anywhere. It combines to make his eyes look huge in his face, like a weird alien poking out of the water.

Castiel wants to say that he didn’t swim. He flopped around like dying fish. But he also looks really pleased with himself, and he’s barely even breathing hard, so instead he asks, “Do you wanna learn how to tread water next?”

And Cas teaches him. And it turns out that he’s stronger than he looks, whatever his skinny arms and legs say about him. He’s not quite ready to throw away the donut, but he can keep his head above water, and Castiel doesn’t feel like he’s going to have a heart attack anymore.

When the sun has passed the rim of the quarry above them, shifting the shadows of the trees and making the air above the water seem even colder, Mr. Singer whistles like he’s calling a dog, and they make their slow way back to shore. Dean’s arms are tired, so Castiel helps him, dragging him along by the tube hooked around his chest while Dean chatters about how the different layers of rock that rise from their little hole in the ground probably look like the layers of rock on Mars, red as they are. Castiel’s breathing too hard to reply.

Mr. Singer greets them on shore with furrowed eyebrows under his baseball cap.

“Have fun, boys?” Dean nods breathlessly as he wades heavily through the shallows. Castiel doesn’t even have to think about it before he nods too, because at some point he forgot that Dean might stop breathing any second, and he’s barely forgotten about that since that day on the playground.

“I can swim,” Dean says.

“Funny. I thought I gave you real s’plicit instructions to not be swimming.” He winks at Castiel.

They all eat on the beach blanket. Dean pounds back more pills, something Mr. Singer calls enzymes, and then he only lets Dean have a tiny piece of the pie Castiel’s mom made specially for him, because Dean apparently has diabetes too, on top of everything else.

They’re all in good spirits until they’re climbing the stairs out of the swimming hole, when Dean slows down to a crawl, the tops of his toes skimming the rocks. There’s a thin layer of sweat on his forehead at the top of the steps. He starts rubbing his stomach halfway across the parking lot, and he vomits into a shoddy metal garbage can before they even make it back into the car. Mr. Singer rubs his back, and Castiel hangs back with Sam, biting at the skin around his nails. Sam doesn’t seem terribly concerned.

“He pukes all the time,” Sam says, drawing some kind of design in the fine coating of grime on Mr. Singer’s old car. “It’s gross.”

Castiel listens to the helpless gagging and Mr. Singer’s shushing, and he can’t help but think that he’d seemed fine, just a few minutes ago, kicking his feet in the blue water, flopping around on his back under the guise of a float. Castiel’s stomach does a few confused flips itself.

He doesn’t talk to Dean on the way back home, and Sam falls asleep as soon as they get in the car, so there’s nothing but Dean’s heavy breathing to fill the still air. He thinks that this will be the end of that particular relationship, and Dean’s never going to leave his house again. He thinks, quiet in the back of the car, that Dean will never learn to swim before he dies.

But despite that, Dean still wants to go back to the swimming hole two weeks later. Castiel teaches him how to doggie paddle.


In fifth grade, Castiel’s parents start fighting. It’s not that they didn’t fight before; they did. But they fight more now, and more obviously. They didn’t use to in front of Castiel, but now they’ll snip at the dining table or in the family room, when they’re all reading after dinner. And his dad acts—weird, sometimes. In public. He’ll mumble or scream or say weird stuff in public that embarrasses his mom. His dad is gone a lot, though, promoting things on his book tour or something, so it’s not so bad. His mom forgets to be angry at Dad while he’s away, and then everything’s fine when he gets home, and everyone’s happy again.

He spent time with Dean over the summer, swimming and playing in the water, but Dean gets another infection at the end of August and misses the whole first two weeks of school again, and Castiel spends his recesses outside trying to act like he doesn’t care about it. Nobody else does. He doesn’t talk about the time he spent with Dean over the summer either, and he definitely doesn’t talk about enjoying their days in the water. His mom tries to get him on board to visit Dean in the hospital, but Castiel feels sick to his stomach just thinking about it, and they don’t want him in there anyway because he has too many germs. He tries not to think about Dean alone in a hospital bed, either.

When Dean comes back to school in September, he’s all smiles. He’s still not in Castiel’s class, but Castiel spends recess inside with him, because he likes to talk about space more than he likes to pretend to be an astronaut and jump off the swing set, and Dean’s the only one who seems to get that. Or else he’s the only one who can’t go out and pretend to be an astronaut instead. But—they don’t just talk about space anymore.

“How come you’re living with your uncle?” Castiel asks one day when he’s too distracted to read. He can’t stop thinking of the loud fight his parents had in the living room when they thought he was asleep the night before. “Don’t you have parents?”

Dean’s back to wearing the sick on his sleeve. He looked so good for a while in the summer that there was a time when Castiel almost forgot that he was supposed to be worried. But now his eyes are droopy and watery and glazed, and he can’t stop coughing for more than a few minutes at a time.

“‘Course I got parents,” he says. A cough. “I mean. My mom died when I was little. But I got a dad, still.”

Dean looks proud when he says he has a dad, chest puffing up as much as it can, which isn’t much, because he’s still skinny and being in the hospital didn’t help him any.

“Oh. Does he—uh, live with your uncle?” Castiel’s mother keeps a casual tally of all the gay couples in town that are pretending they’re not gay. She points them out to his father during church or when they’re driving and talks about them over the breakfast table. He’s never heard Mr. Singer’s name before, but there’s always room for oversight.

What?” Dean sniggers. “You trying to ask if my dad’s with my uncle? Pff. No.” He sticks his tongue out. “My dad’s gone, mostly. He doesn’t stick around so much. Sammy and me used to go with him, when Sammy was real little.” He wipes the back of his hand under his nose and gets a sort of glazed look for a second. “He says he does, like, detective work with the FBI.”

Castiel never pays much attention to his book anymore, not when he’s got Dean around to talk to, but he looks at it now, eyes unfocused but centered on a big picture of a nebula that reflects a fluorescent light back at him like a sun in the center of the galaxy.

“Do you miss him?” Castiel asks without meaning to.

Dean sobers in a way he seldom does. Once when they were swimming over the summer, Dean started listing all the things he was allergic to while he floated on his back, ticking them off on his fingers above his head like his life-threatening allergies were some big joke. Castiel suggested that maybe being serious was one of them, but Dean didn’t hear him, his ears submerged beneath the water.

“I think so,” he says uncertainly, uncharacteristically fragile. “I mean, ‘course I do.”

They sit in the quiet for a while. Castiel listens to Dean breathe, and for some reason, he feels like crying.

“What do you do for fun,” is what he says instead, flat, only half a question.

Dean laughs a hack of a laugh. “What do you mean?”

“I mean—we talk all the time in here and we hung out but I don’t know anything about you.” What he also means is, what do you do to make your life suck less?

Because yeah, Dean’s life sucks. He’s so peppy all the time there’d be no telling if it weren’t for the rasp of his voice and the mantle of disease that’s draped around his shoulders. Castiel saw him struggling in the swimming hole all summer, and now he understands—happy is a job for Dean. A thankless one. One he works for every day. Before now, Castiel never felt like happiness was something he had to work for. Happiness was a thing that lived in him. But lately he’s just sad. And he sure could use some tips about how to make that go away.

“Hey,” Dean says, all intent, jerking Castiel’s attention from the picture of swirling space, up to his toothy smile. “I could show you. We could do something fun today.”

Castiel furrows his brow, doubt mouing his lips.

“What?” He knows Dean hates the word useless, but what he actually means to say instead of what is what could you possibly do right now, anyway?

It turns out, Dean can play video games. The town is too small for an arcade of its own, but Dean explains that there is a pizza parlor in town with a little alcove that has maybe a dozen machines. It’s only a couple blocks from school, so they call Dean’s uncle to tell him what they’re doing and where to pick Dean up. And when Castiel calls his mom, he knows that she wouldn’t like him wasting his time with something like an arcade, so he formulates a whole story about an educational after school club in the school library. He considers how long it would take him to sprint between the buildings to hold up his cover story, if need be, and he figures he could make it in less than five minutes, if his presidential fitness test is any indication.

But as it turns out—his mom doesn’t actually care. She sounds funny, over the phone, and asks him if he can just get a ride home. Which isn’t typical. His mom is always on time to school functions. He knows she likes to show the other moms in the church that she’s as “present” a parent as any of them—a word from her parenting books she likes to throw around. But she doesn’t sound present over the phone. She sounds very far away.

They walk to the pizza place. Dean has his portable oxygen concentrator on him, the clear tube winding out of his tattered Jansport to rest around his face, much to Castiel’s chagrin. He chatters about the games they have, the ones he wishes they had, as they plod slow and steady toward the pizza place, and it turns out that what Castiel didn’t account for was that if the pizza place was this close to the school, other kids from school would know about it too.

They stop outside the door so Dean can cough himself silly for a second, and at least three people from Castiel’s class go by. Castiel not-so-discreetly pulls up the collar on his jacket around his chin just as they’re stepping out of the autumn chill and into the cheesy-greasy-smelling warmth of the red-bricked pizza parlor inside. Dean waves at a man in a stained white apron standing behind the register when he hails him a hearty greeting.

“What do you want to play first, then?” Dean says as if Castiel had enough of an inkling of what he was talking about on the way over to form any sort of opinion. Dean takes a wad of crumpled ones out of his pocket to feed into the change machine by the pizza parlor’s front door. He unfurls them with patient, deliberate hands, smoothing the corners before he puts them to the machine’s mouth. It takes at least four tries before any of the bills get accepted, and they come out of it with just a handful of coins. He thrusts half at Castiel.

“Cas?” Dean says.

Castiel blinks at him. Dean waves his closed fist again. Cas holds his hand open for the coins and Dean lets them fall into his palm. They’re warm from Dean’s body heat. Just a little bit clammy.

“Uh. I don’t know what I want to play.”

“It’s cool if you don’t know the games yet. I’ll show you.”

The room at the back is dimmer than the rest of the restaurant, and it’s bustling with kids about their age, maybe a little older. He spots clusters of people he knows huddled around machines, their faces shifting with the spastic flashing of the overbright lights.

“That’s Street Fighter,” Dean says, pointing toward a far corner of the room. Castiel can’t hear his oxygen over the sudden din of electronic noise, but the lights glint off the tubing. “That’s the one I was talking about. I’m real good at it. Before the restaurant got bigger, that was one of the only machines they had out front, so I played it a lot.” Castiel looks at the machine in question. There are two boys Castiel recognizes from the grade above them playing, violently mashing buttons on the face of the console and throwing curses at each other. The characters on screen respond in turn with a flurry of punches and kicks, knocking one another to the ground over and over until one of them stays down. It’s no wonder his mother never brought him here. It’s all very—unchristian. “Last time I was here, the machine was down. I’m definitely gonna beat you, but do you want to try it anyway?”

Castiel nods distractedly and follows him to the machine.

“What’s the premise of Street Fighter?” Castiel asks. Dean gives him a baffled look.

“What do you mean premise? I mean, there’s a whole thing for each character, but you don’t gotta know a whole lot about all that to kick somebody’s ass at it. I take one joystick, you take the other one, and we punch each other ‘til one of us falls down.”

“Joystick?”

Dean doesn’t even deign that with a response. His lip curls, and he puts his hand in front of him in a vaguely lewd jerking motion. Castiel connects the dots to the handle the boys are using to move their characters.

“Oh.”

Dean takes one quarter from where he’s pocketed it, maneuvers his way around the squirming boys, and places it, face out, flush against the screen. When he turns back, Cas tilts his head toward it in question.

“Oh,” Dean says. “It’s a whole thing. You put a quarter up to reserve a machine, see? So they know someone wants to play the next round when they’re through.” Dean has to raise his voice to be heard over the loud machines, and the strain leaves him flushed and a little breathless. He fiddles with the cannula under his nose like it’ll bring him more oxygen.

Castiel nods again and settles in, watching. There’s a rhythm to each character, and there’s something infectious about it, something that is undoubtedly exciting about the atmosphere of the room and all the excited people in it.

He points to the console next to them, where two other kids hoist two bright blue guns and pull wildly clicking triggers rapidly at the screen.

“What’s that?”

Dean flicks his eyes away from the Street Fighter machine long enough to figure out what Castiel is talking about. “The House of the Dead.” He looks back.

“What’s the premise of The House of the Dead?”

“Uh—it’s a house full of dead guys. And you shoot ‘em. It’s pretty cool. I’m pretty good with a gun, so I’m awesome at that one too.”

“Good with a gun?”

“Yeah.”

“Like...a real gun?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve fired a real gun.”

Castiel strains to see him better in the dark, looking for any tells that he’s bluffing. He just looks annoyed. The same sort of annoyed he was when their third grade teacher assumed he couldn’t swim.

Yeah. What’s the big deal? My dad’s been teachin’ me guns and stuff since I was real little.” He puffs up, self-important. “Gotta know how to defend myself.”

Castiel’s about to ask what there even is to defend himself against that needs a gun when Dean makes an aborted move forward. The other boys’ Street Fighter game is over, but Castiel can tell they have no intention of moving anytime soon. The taller one—a good six inches taller than Dean himself—is buried wrist-deep in the pocket of his cargo shorts, jingling through what sounds like a veritable cache of coins. Dean doesn’t speak up until the boy hands one to his friend and then moves to put the one in his hand in the coinslot.

He shouts, “Hey! I put my coin up! We have next game!”

Castiel subconsciously pulls his collar up higher around his throat and holds it there when the kid turns on them, unrepentant. His eyes hover in the space above Dean’s head for a split second before he seems to realize that he’s talking to someone far below his eye level, and when his eyes finally land on the wispy top of Dean’s head, he busts out laughing.

“You don’t want to play this game.”

Dean’s eyebrows hit his hairline.

“Uh. Yeah I do.”

“I bet you don’t even know how to play.”

Dean grins fiendishly, like that’s what he was waiting for.

“You wanna bet?! I’ll play you!”

The boys make eyes between them and the taller one shrugs.

“How much you got on you?

“Uh, I got—two-fifty. And Cas has two-fifty.” He gestures at Cas. Cas waves the hand with the coins in them dutifully, keeping his face aimed down at his feet. Dean holds up his hand, palm flat. “Five dollars.”

“Fine. Five bucks to win.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” Dean says without hesitation.

They look funny, backs facing Castiel. The boy isn’t just tall—he’s broad too, shoulders that solidly fill out his blue t-shirt. He’s a head taller than Dean, twice his weight, and the disparity in their breadths alongside the winding oxygen tubing would make the whole thing seem grossly unfair if Dean didn’t thoroughly, promptly, and soundly annihilate him.

Castiel doesn’t know enough about the game to fully understand, but he gets the sense from the length of the match and from the flashing Perfect! that pops up on the screen, that the match was a little one-sided. And Dean is so graceful about the whole thing—no swagger. His movements are tight, controlled, and deliberate, like he’s staging an execution instead of playing a video game, and Castiel finds himself drawn to Dean playing the game rather than the game itself, able to picture, suddenly, the way he might hold a gun in his frail hands and not kill himself with the kickback.

He’s out of breath when they’re finished, but he doesn’t even crow out a victory—he just holds out his hand for the quarters he’s owed.

Castiel can’t really say he’s surprised when the boy doesn’t give them up. Dean doesn’t seem to be either. He sneers down his nose, and while Dean was intimidating playing the game, all his focus and concentration honed in on controlling the strong, agile avatar in the game, this Dean doesn’t stand a chance against the broad shadow cut against the flashing countdown screen behind him.

Wordlessly, the boy bumps Dean none-too-gently to the side and takes over the joystick for the game that Castiel understands Dean earned for winning the match-up.

The other boy, the skinnier one, says, “Beginner’s luck,” uncertainly, like he hadn’t just seen the same thorough whopping that Castiel had. Like the level of expertise wasn’t apparent just from the splay of the bully’s arms next to Dean’s solid, unflinching stance. “Nerds.”

And then he bumps Dean back to Castiel’s side.

Castiel, in all honesty, thinks they came out of it on top. At least they didn’t lose their quarters out of the deal. Dean, never-say-die Dean, obviously doesn’t see it the same way. And he stands fuming, waiting for the bout to be over, maybe hoping at least that the boy will finally give them control of the console when he’s done losing the bout that Dean earned.

He doesn’t.

Instead, when he loses the next match, he takes the quarter Dean placed on the front of the machine off, looks back at him vindictively, and uses it to start his own game. And Castiel doesn’t know all that much about the sordid political underbelly of the arcade world, but just judging on the way bright color fills Dean’s usually pallid complexion in the lurid lights of the arcade, he takes it to understand that might be a very taboo slight.

Dean shouts, “Hey!” Castiel can hear a deep wheezing rasp to the edge of his voice, leftover from the energy he threw into a futile battle, and it sends a healthy spike of fear through him. Dean’s still not well, coming back from a bout with an infection, and Cas has heard rasps like that preface asthma attacks. So maybe Dean’s about to stop breathing, or maybe he’s just really angry. But that’s a dangerous guessing game to play.

“C’mon. It’s not worth it. We can just play,” Castiel looks behind him, searching for an open console. “Space Ace.”

Dean pinches his eyebrows.

Space Ace sucks.”

“It looks nice.”

Nothing with space in the title could be too terrible. And at the very least it looks a bit more peaceful than the guns and the fighting and the bloodspray on the other machines.

Space Ace sucks, Cas, there’s a reason no one’s playing dumb Space Ace!”

Dean turns back, watching the boys’ backs with cold, calculated anger.

“Okay, what if we talk to the guy at the register?” Dean doesn’t respond. “Dean?”

Dean isn’t listening. He’s waiting for the opportune moment to strike out, eyes narrowed like a cat. Just as he gathers that the bigger bully is about to land some kind of critical blow on screen, Dean shoves him in the elbow from behind. When the bully doesn’t immediately turn around and deck him, Dean seems to gather that he can do it again and again and again. The other bully laughs and keeps whaling on him on screen as the tall one tries to play through it, but Dean is far too persistent, and he keeps at it right up until the the character on screen keels over in a dramatic death.

Which, Castiel gathers, is also a taboo move. If only because then the bully turns around and, no hesitation, pushes Dean right in the chest. Persistent though he may be, Dean just isn’t built for any kind of physical confrontation, and he stumbles to the floor with an involuntary squeal of air from high in his chest. The move also knocks a wet, hacking cough loose.

“You made me lose, you retard!”

The coughs devolve into struggled rasping, and the rasping amplifies, a hard grating sound against a backdrop of jingly melodies. None of the kids at the other consoles turn around to see the cannula is askew on Dean’s face, the way the bully squares off against him like he’s about to start pushing him again.

“What’s wrong? Can’t even speak up for yourself?” He turns on Castiel. “You got something to say?”

Castiel feels strangely calm about it. He squints. Shakes his head.

The tall bully crouches down to start gathering the coins Dean lost from his pocket and his clenched fist when he fell down.

“These are mine anyhow.”

The other bully is still playing the winner’s round of the game, but in-between the violent kicks, he lets out fake raspy wheezes, a cruel and exaggerated imitation of Dean, on the floor, looking absolutely livid as he reaches for his rescue inhaler and takes a long, hearty puff.

“Aw,” the big one says, jingling Dean’s coins in his open palm right in front of his face, “poor little nerd. Did I knock the air outta you?”

And—oh, Castiel thinks, a light switch being flipped.

These guys are jerks.

What’s it matter about jerks thinking he’s cool? What’s it matter about jerks thinking he likes Dean? They’re jerks.

And Dean’s—not. Dean’s smart, and he’s nice. Dean’s good. Dean deserves better.

Castiel looks down at his own palms, full up with Dean’s quarters, warm from his body heat. Then he clenches his fists, puts all his body weight into it, and shoves until the big bully, balanced on his toes to gather up the quarters, goes down as easy as Dean had. It’s strangely satisfying, the sting on his hands, the grunt when his knuckles make hard impact with the older boy’s sternum. He’s never punched anyone before. His mother definitely wouldn’t approve. But who’s to say she would even notice right now?

Castiel is feeling pretty good about his choices until the bully whirls back around with murder in his eyes, one too many slights against him, maybe. The other kids in the arcade have started to notice now, and those that don’t have their full attention on their games are all eyes on Cas and Dean. Dean has two fingers shoved up against the base of his throat, and he’s doing his best to make himself small while he struggles to even out his breathing, and Castiel doesn’t really feel like this is a battle he knows how to win on his own.

And then Castiel thinks, screw it.

He says, “I’m telling.”

He hightails it out of there, back into the main portion of the restaurant. He’s momentarily blinded by the brightness on his way out the door, having become accustomed to the dark of the arcade, and he runs blind right into the sturdy, solid legs of a deceptively slender woman who seems to come out of nowhere. His eyes trace her body up, up, up, until he’s able to blink the pale blob of red and white into focus and find a pair of dark, dark eyes.

“Where are you off to so fast?” she says warmly. Castiel has a moment of falling into her eyes, a strange sense of familiarity and comfort in them, when she shakes him by the shoulder and reminds him—

“My friend—” he says breathlessly, pointing an urgent, jabbing finger through the dark doorway. He doesn’t think too much about the word, but he does think, maybe, that’s the first time he’s called Dean a friend to another person. “Can you—someone’s gotta help.”

He doesn’t know how to explain the situation and not sound like the five-year-old tattle-tale who goes running to mommy at the first sign of trouble, and he doesn’t know this woman, doesn’t know if she works here or anything, he just knows she’s an adult, and that will probably be enough to make the boys stop, all by itself.

It is.

She doesn’t even have to say anything. When she steps into the room, Cas stumbling in behind her, a lot of things happen at once. She isn’t exactly an imposing presence, but she apparently knows where the lightswitch is, and she turns up the brightness when she steps inside. Everyone blinks. The few kids who were still playing their games through the trouble stop playing when the light glares on their screens, including the second bully, whose game abruptly malfunctions, sending his screen to static and spewing quarters from the two blinking coinslots at the bottom of the machine.

“I heard someone was making trouble,” she says diplomatically, hands clasped in front of her. The bullies don’t wait around for Cas to point them out in the crowd. They scramble out the door, one after another, and take a whole host of kids with them, leaving the arcade mostly empty, save for the few kids left who were in the middle of games and—Dean. On the floor. Breathing unsteadily and clenching his inhaler in a white fist.

She kneels beside him in one fluid motion, her back stiff and her movements graceful. She touches his knee with the tips of two slender fingers, and slowly, the white-knuckled grip he has on his inhaler loosens, and his breathing settles into something even, if a bit shaky.

“Are you going to be alright?” Dean’s face sours.

“M’fine, m’fine.” He waves her off.

“Alright.”

She doesn’t push it, which is the right thing to do when Dean gets ornery and noncommunicative. He appreciates her for it, especially because Dean really does seem to be alright. The breathing issues must not have solidified into a full-fledged asthma attack, or else his hits on the inhaler must’ve worked especially well. He’s breathing fine. Probably doesn’t even need a trip to a doctor.

She rises to her feet in one calm, fluid motion, a weird kind of quiet strength behind it, her straight-backed dignity strangely out of place amongst the newly bared grubbiness of a fully lit arcade.  

“Thanks,” Castiel says as she makes her way out the door. She smiles.

“You know, I’m certain they wouldn’t notice if those quarters were to go missing,” she says enigmatically. “They don’t seem to keep a very thorough inventory on the machines.” She nods toward where the abandoned Street Fighter machine has malfunctioned and vomited quarters all over the ground. There must be twenty dollars’ worth there, and Castiel nods back uncertainly but doesn’t move, half convinced his moral fortitude is being tested.

But she doesn’t stick around to see whether he takes her up on it, she just makes her calm way through the door, lowering the light again on her way out, and leaves them alone in the arcade.

Castiel eyes the treasure trove of quarters, glittering in the flickering demo screens of the machines, licking his lips tentatively. He takes one step toward them and looks back at Dean for affirmation. Dean isn’t looking at him. He’s looking at the inhaler has has cradled loosely in his hands.

“D’you need a doctor?”

Sullenly, “No.”

“That was dumb, you know,” Cas chastises.

Dean says, “You’re dumb,” no fire behind it. He’s quiet for a moment. “He took my quarters.”

Castiel knows enough about Dean to know he’s not exactly rich. He eats the same limp sandwiches at lunch every day. He’s got holes in his sneakers. Two-fifty probably wasn’t a whole lot for the jerk at the machine, but it sure was something for Dean.

Castiel rolls his eyes. He could report the machine malfunction but—but the woman was probably right. No one was going to notice a few missing dollars from a machine. Before anyone else can sneak in and snatch them out from under their noses, Castiel shucks off his backpack and shovels the small mound of quarters inside. The quarters that don’t make it into his bag join the two-fifty he still has in his hand, and then he crosses the room again to drop the lot of it in Dean’s lap.

“Here.”

Dean sniffs.

Castiel doesn’t really want to know if he was crying. Thinking of that sort of makes him wish he’d done more than just knock that jerk over.

“You’re such a rebel,” Dean says, a little warbly.

“Yeah, well, now we can play your dumb game.”

Dean picks up one quarter absently, drops it back into the pile.

“I beat him fair and square.”

“I know. I saw.”

“He cheated.”

“He sucks.”

“Should be able to—to take him. I’m so—” he makes an exasperated rumble in the back of his throat and claws his fists. Castiel gets the feeling he wasn’t supposed to hear that, so he dutifully ignores it.

Dean’s pensive for another moment. Quiet.

“I reckon there’s enough here that we could beat House of the Dead.”

He’s cheerful again. A classic Dean rebound that only took a little bit longer than it normally did.

“What do you mean ‘enough’?” Cas drawls.

House of the Dead is a quarter eater. The zombies eat you and then you have to pay for more play time. I never had the quarters to finish it all the way before.” He waggles a finger authoritatively. “And it’s NOT a question of skill, before you ASK, because they CHEAT. They put in fast stuff that drops from the ceiling that you can’t avoid. S’cheating.”

Castiel nods like he has any clue what Dean is talking about.

Dean starts struggling to his feet, and Castiel reaches out to help him. Dean takes his hand without acknowledging he needs to, wordless, looking down at where the quarters have dropped to the ground beneath them. He picks them all up one by one and plunks them into the pockets of his cargo shorts.

“Easy access,” he mumbles, patting his pockets. Castiel almost misses the wink in the half light of the arcade.

New kids begin filing into the arcade, restoring the balance and ending the eerie, choking feeling of being surrounded by a bunch of electronic voices and not much else.

Dean hands him a neon pistol on a short tether with a determined grimace set deep into his face. He feeds the quarters in one by one by one, so hard Castiel hears them clank off the metal innards. Castiel tests the weight of the pistol in his fist. Light, but it still feels powerful to hold it.

The demo screen for House of the Dead alone is violent and graphic and bloody and terrifying, and Dean bounces his eyebrows and backs away from the machine, juggling the little pistol in one hand and adjusting the cannula under his nose with the other. Castiel is still watching Dean instead of the screen when the game starts, so he sees the shift in his stance, the way the gun seems to melt into him, becoming a natural extension of his arm. He holds it like he’s holding a real weapon to kill.

Dean flicks a glance at him.

Scared?” he goads.

Castiel looks back at the screen, tilts his head. And surely this is—gross. And ridiculous. But There’s a calm in the black and white of this. There are bad monsters, and the main character is a badass in a suit and a trenchcoat, and he gets to wave around his gun and save people. So Castiel eases his shoulders into it, loosens his neck, tilts his head to either side and says, “No.”

For all that Castiel has never played a video game before in his life, he’s not bad at it. He knows how to aim at a target and pull a trigger, and he and Dean make a good team, because Dean reliably takes every single shot Castiel misses. And he really is. Good. To the point where Castiel again has a hard time reconciling the Dean that’s floored after an illness, coughing puking into a trash can in the library, with this sharp-eyed vision of sober concentration. It’s the same smart, quick focus he honed into whooping the bully at Street Fighter, but more dangerous now that Castiel can see the way he handles a real weapon.

Dean starts to wear out around level three though, missing more shots because he’s out of breath and he can’t hold his arms up straight.

“You’re getting sloppy,” Castiel observes, right after they’ve missed saving a female scientist from a fat zombie with a chainsaw. She gets chopped in half, screaming as she goes, and Castiel feels strangely awful about it. They could have been faster.

That, it seems, was the wrong thing to say.

Dean empties his gun at nothing on the screen, a quick succession of hard, jarring gunshot noises and bright, epileptic flashes that ends in the clatter of the gun against the console. Without Dean sharpshooting all the rabid monkey zombies that jump from the edges of the screen for him, Castiel dies pretty quickly.

They both watch in silence as the Continue? screen counts backward from ten to zero, and all their progress gets lost to the demo screen that had been playing when they walked up.

“Why’d you do that? I thought you wanted to finish.”

Dean shakes out his arms like he’s trying to bring the blood back into them.

“I can’t do it,” he says, voice wobbling and wavering again.

“That’s okay.” He eyes the girl at the arcade console next to theirs, concentrating hard on the whomp whomp whomps of a machine called Ms. Pacman. When Dean doesn’t respond, he gives him an awkward pat on the back. Because Dean is his friend, and he’s kind of a badass, and Cas doesn’t have to feel bad about liking him in front of the little girl on the Ms. Pacman machine.

“Do you want to play Space Ace now?”

They play Space Ace until Dean’s uncle picks them up. There are no zombies or sprays of blood. And it doesn’t make Dean tired or hard-edged while he’s playing it. He’s soft and breathing easier, and happy. Castiel likes Space Ace best.

Chapter Text

“Mommy just needs some time, Castiel,” his mother says from the front seat, trying to catch his eye in the rearview mirror. Castiel won’t look at her. He’s busy looking at the thick, wet snow that’s started to fall outside in earnest, the accumulation stacking high in thin little piles on the fingers of the boughs of the firs, glowing bright white under the streetlights. “Mommy needs some time, and with you home from school on vacation, I can’t—I can’t get a moment to think.” She has thick, bobbing curls that bunch up under her earlobes, and they shimmy in one uniform block when she shakes her head. “I need some time to talk with God in private, do you understand?”

Castiel is almost twelve now. A sixth grader. A stone’s throw away from a teenager. He stopped calling his mother “mommy” a long time ago, and she stopped referring to herself in the third person not long after. He’s not sure where she’s coming from with this, but on second thought, maybe it’s coming from the wine bottle he’d seen open on the kitchen counter.

In the seat next to him, the Christmas presents marked To Castiel and From Santa that had been underneath his tree at home before rustle with the motion of the car, festive paper and ribbons and bows all rubbing against one another, a noisy spray of red and green. He tugs against his seatbelt, furrows his brow, purses his lips.

He wants to ask, what about Christmas? He wants to ask if she’ll be back to pick him up before then. He wants to ask if they’re going to make cookies on Christmas Eve. But the gifts next to him and the way she’d stuffed his overnight bag seem to make all those questions unnecessary. No. It’s the twenty-third, Castiel counted seven pairs of underwear in his bag, and his mother isn’t coming home for Christmas.

They arrive at Mr. Singer’s dark old salvage lot before it’s even really sunk in yet that this is where he has to spend his holiday. He groans when his mom turns the car off, sits stationary behind the wheel as the car ticks and compresses in the cold. A gust of wind sends a spray of snow against the windshield, emerging from the abyss-like dark of the salvage yard and tapping the windshield like a million little daggers.

“You’ll be nice to Dean. Share your presents.” Then, absently, still staring straight out the front window, “Poor boy.”

She creaks open her door, climbs out, slams it. Castiel doesn’t move. He waits until she opens the back door to get his gifts and lingers so long the heat floods out. He shivers, sinking into the scarf she’d strung around his neck back at their house.

He wants to say, why Dean? Instead, he says, “Why here? I don’t want to stay in—in a junkyard over Christmas.” He likes Dean. But he likes Dean in the daytime, when he gets to go home after. He’s never been to Dean’s house before, but he can imagine what it’s like.

She looks up from gathering his gifts into her arms. They’ll need to make two trips. “Because all your other friends had holiday plans and mommy doesn’t have anyone else, sweetie.” The endearment rings strangely hollow, thudding dully against the snow. “Mr. Singer was nice enough to agree on such short notice, and you’ll be respectful.”

Mr. Singer is waiting at the door when they arrive on the step. Their drive is icy and hazardous and everything is covered in snow, like no one has even bothered to shovel.

“Why don’t you run along and find Dean? He’s in the living room doing his evening treatments.” Mr. Singer jerks his thumb over his shoulder, through the door. “I’ll help your mom out.”

They’re careful not to let the heat out as they pile Castiel’s belongings into the front hallway. Castiel watches them glumly, shuffling his feet at the bottom of a big staircase, and only goes to find Dean when Mr. Singer shoos him again. He watches them talk, ears perked, until the last possible moment, stretching his neck out like an owl as he rounds the corner, trying to catch any of the tense words. He doesn’t get anything, because as soon as he hits the living room, all he can hear is the TV blaring some Christmas special loud enough to be heard over the low, mechanized rumble of whatever it is Dean’s wearing on his chest. He’s looking all intent at the TV, but he spares a half a smile for Castiel when he steps in.

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year,” he says without preamble. Castiel stands in the doorway. “You ever seen it?” The buzz of whatever he’s wearing makes his voice tremor a little, too. It’s almost funny, like when people tap their adam’s apple when they talk. Castiel shakes his head. “You gotta.”

The room is small and cluttered, but very clean. It’s stacked floor to ceiling with books, and Dean sits swallowed up in the corner of an old, overstuffed couch, a blanket over his legs. Opposite him, there’s a big TV with a VCR, and backed up into the wall between two bookcases is an electric fireplace, crackling softly behind an airtight glass seal. There’s also some kind of something puffing next to the couch, breathing air from the room in and out like a little living thing. It’s—cozy. He’s not used to feeling so closed-in. His house has high ceilings, white walls, open spaces. His dad always said it inspired creativity. He scowls.

It’s hot enough in the little room that Castiel is sweltering in his outside clothes before long, and he sheds the coat and the scarf and the mittens and the hat that his mom guilted him into before they left and lets them fall vindictively on the floor, right where he stands. He doesn’t go to sit on the couch straightaway. Dean’s too enamoured with the movie to invite him, and he doesn’t want to get in the way of whatever’s vibrating on his chest. Plus, every once in a while, Dean picks up a cup from the table and huffs softly into it, coughing up something, and Castiel doesn’t really want to get in the way of that gross. They’ve cycled through a whole movie-commercial-movie cycle again before his mom comes in to say goodbye, and Castiel pointedly ignores her.

She kisses him on the cheek.

“Don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be. I swear, Castiel.”

She kisses him on the opposite cheek. He looks, eyes blurred and unfocused, arms lax and floppy, toward the television, like it’s the only thing he can bring himself to concentrate on.

“I’ve left all the phone numbers with Mr. Singer.”

Castiel curls his hands into fists. Still without looking at her, he says, “Can I call Dad?”

He can feel her hard eyes on him. The same bleakness they’ve had in them for the last few months.

“You can certainly try, Castiel,” she quips smartly. “But I think we both know you shouldn’t get your hopes up.” She hugs him again, quick and perfunctory. He stays limp. And then he hears her sweep out the front door, into the bright white of the afternoon snowscape.

Mr. Singer plods heavily into the room, rubbing at the back of his neck. He takes in the pile of outerclothes scattered on the floor with a raised eyebrow. “You want. Uh. Something warm to drink, Castiel? I got cocoa.”

Dean perks up. “I want cocoa.” The words waver and vibrate with whatever is happening on his chest, and this time, Castiel does laugh, hiding it behind a cough and half expecting to be reprimanded.

Mr. Singer doesn’t get mad, though. He chuckles himself, and it breaks up some of the tension that had been coating the room, like a hammer to a thin sheen of ice. “Yeah, I’ll bet you do.” He crosses the room and turns off a machine. The humming stops, and every sound in the room is suddenly clearer. Amplified. And it strikes him that the television is on way, way too loud. As he’s freeing Dean from the tangle of tubes and wires attached to the vest, Dean lets out a low whine and pops his head manically up and down, wriggling around like a gopher to see the screen around the broadness of his uncle’s shoulders.

“You seen this movie a million times. It was on last night, for chrissakes,” Mr. Singer says. “Now, up.” At the prompting, Dean lifts his arms over his head, straight up and parallel, and Bobby hoists the vest up and over. There’s a moment of struggle when it gets hooked on his chin and squinches his face up, but besides that, it’s all a well-worn routine. Like they’ve done it a million times before. Dean goes back to looking at the television with his hair all out of whack, a haphazard haystack on top of his head, and Mr. Singer doesn’t help the situation at all when he ruffles it and shuffles out of the room, laden down with all the heavy equipment. He spares the same treatment for Castiel, though, and Castiel goes completely rigor-mortis stiff until the touch has stopped. The last thing he mumbles on the way out is, “Cocoa, then.” And Dean grunts a half-hearted affirmative, eyes once again focused completely on the television.

He figures it’s safe to get on the couch now, intimidating medical equipment out of the way, and even though it’s comfy, there’s a twinge in the back of his mind that wants to hate it. Wants to hate everything about this stupid holiday.

The couch’s texture is stupid, he thinks sullenly, testing the give with his hand. Too soft. Dean coughs, and that’s stupid. The smell of the house is stupid—too clean, an absence of smells. With all the books around, it’s a wonder it doesn’t smell dusty, but the bookshelves are all meticulously swept clean.

“This movie is stupid,” he announces without prompting, crossing his arms and sinking back into the dumb cushion. There’s a stupid baby with dumb, gigantic ears and ugly buckteeth giggling on screen.

Dean doesn’t miss a beat. “You’re stupid.” He sips in an indignant, hitching breath and doesn’t look away from the screen.

Castiel doesn’t have a comeback. He sinks into the cushions harder, grudging respect keeping him quiet, pinning him there with just a little huff of his own. He always forgets that Dean doesn’t pull any of his punches. But admitting that he liked that about him would be admitting that something wasn’t stupid. Just like it would be to admit he’s enamoured enough with the movie to not even notice Mr. Singer had come back until he’s shoving cocoa under his nose.

The cocoa tastes weird, and Mr. Singer says it’s sugar free when he pulls a face, and that’s stupid too. After the movie, it’s bedtime. Thirty minutes earlier than his bedtime, which is stupid. As Dean trudges heavily up the stairs to get ready for bed, Castiel tugs on Mr. Singer’s flannel sleeve and asks if he can call his father.

Mr. Singer doesn’t give anything away with his face, he just pulls a battered white handset off a cradle on the wall and puts it softly in Castiel’s hands, waiting until he’s grasped it firmly to let it go. “You got the number, son?”

Castiel nods once, and Mr. Singer leaves the room, heavy thunks echoing into the kitchen when he climbs the stairs. The unfamiliar kitchen pulses with quiet expectation around him. He can hear both him and Dean shuffling around over his head while he hesitates, shuffling the phone around in his hands, biting his lip.

He ghosts the memorized number onto the keypad without actually dialing it, one shallow tap over each number in sequence. It’s the number is from the last hotel they know for sure his dad stayed at, the last number they ever got for him—nearly two months ago, now. Two months ago, Castiel talked to him there, in some random Marriott hotel, room three hundred and twenty-two, and then he didn’t talk to him again. Castiel had been asking for help on a math problem. They hadn’t even talked about anything important.

Finally, he dials. It’s the same front desk clerk he’s spoken to almost every day for two months. It’s only someone different on the weekends. He asks again, though. Just to be sure.

“Is there a Mr. Novak staying with you?”

There isn’t. There hasn’t been since he checked out, two months ago, and never gave them another phone number.

He presses the “End Call” button but clings to the phone, cradling it in the empty kitchen. He’s still holding it when Mr. Singer thunks back down the stairs and lingers in the kitchen doorway with a full day-to-day pill organizer rattling in his hand. He doesn’t say anything, but he can probably tell exactly how the conversation went from Castiel’s face. As much as he holds back the tears, there’s no fighting the way he knows they make his eyes shine.  

“You ready to brush your teeth?”

Castiel lets the phone drop to the floor. The battery falls out the back when it hits the linoleum hard.

“Tooth brushing is stupid.”

“Yeah, well, so are cavities.” Mr. Singer moves slowly, easily, to pick up the pieces of his phone, like he’s afraid he’ll startle him if he doesn’t. Castiel glares at him as he pieces the phone back together and replaces it in the cradle.

Mr. Singer doesn’t hover as he’s getting ready for bed. He trusts Castiel to put his own toothpaste on his own toothbrush, brush his own teeth for a whole minute, and wash his own face, which is more than Castiel could say for his own mom, who likes to hover when she feels like he’s not doing as she asks. He only shows up in time to gesture Castiel into a room at the end of the hallway, already dark, still smelling stupidly clean.

“You don’t mind sharing a bed with Dean, do you?”

He does. Dean probably snores. Dean probably spends the whole night coughing.

“No,” he says heavily.

“Don’t look so sour. Dean’s got a full bed he don’t need all to hisself. If it don’t work out, you can make the trek downstairs and use the quilt that’s hanging over the back of the couch. But I’m up and around pretty early, and I don’t wanna wake you with my stomping at four in the morning. Alright?”

Castiel doesn’t say anything, he just treks despondently into the room, dragging his feet across the carpet. There are two beds in the room, and the smaller one already has soft snores coming from it, little, even huffs of breath. Sam, must be, and Castiel can’t stop the distasteful crinkle in his nose when he thinks about two brothers sharing a room and a house that isn’t even big enough to support a family of three.

It’s obvious which bed is Dean’s. Not just because it’s bigger, but because Dean’s breath is distinctive with its breathy, uneven hitching. Plus, there’s a big metal pole that doesn’t seem to be in use tucked up against that one, glinting in the low light, and Castiel knows from experience, from this one time he went to visit his ageing grandmother in hospice, that it is an IV pole. For medicine. For sick people.

Dean’s nestled against the wall, so Castiel climbs tentatively onto the opposite side, the one facing the middle of the room, settling uncertainly under the heavy quilt and laying, rod-straight, so close to the edge of the bed that it feels like he’s about to tip off when he tries to shift into a more comfortable position.

“You can come closer you know,” Dean whispers into the dark. At some point after Castiel settled in bed, Mr. Singer closed the hallway door to just a crack, so all he can see is the bony outline of Dean’s body in the dark, the sharp swell of him under the blankets. The details of his face are lost to the dark, but the imperfections of his breathing are only more apparent.

Castiel inches away from the edge of the bed just enough that he’s not in danger of falling off anymore. Dean seems satisfied, and they lapse into silence for just long enough that Castiel isn’t sure if Dean’s still awake anymore when he breaks into another violent bout of coughing, loud and grating. Sam must be used to it. He keeps up the even breathing even as Dean pants through the aftermath. It sounds like he’s in pain.

“Does it hurt when you do that?” Castiel whispers, the dark making him bold. Dean shifts. Castiel can feel the blanket moving on top of them both, and he scoots a little closer.

“It always hurts,” Dean whispers back, completely matter-of-fact. Not the tone of someone looking for pity. Like that’s just the way of things. “That’s part of the whole—thing. Like, nerves or something. With the disease. Right now I got this.” He tugs the blanket down, a little wall between them. He must be gesturing his back, reaching for the phantom pain, but Castiel can’t see it. “Spine thing. On my back.”

“Sorry,” Castiel says uselessly, feeling small. Dean has this dumb way of making Castiel feel like his problems aren’t problems.

“Whatever.”

They’re silent for another minute. Castiel is hyperaware of his own breathing, the easy sound of it whooshing in the dark.

“Uncle Bobby says your dad left.”

Castiel stiffens.

“He didn’t leave.” He says it louder than they’d been talking before. Too loud in the quiet. It’s a good thing Sam is apparently used to sleeping through anything, because he just keeps on with it, not even a hitch. “He didn’t leave.” He makes sure to whisper the second time. “He just hasn’t been home in a while.”

Dean is silent. Still. The absence of his heavy breathing louder than anything in the quiet room.

“Sorry. My dad does that too.” A hard sniff. “Leaves.” He reaches out to give Castiel’s arm a clumsy pat underneath the blanket. “It sucks.”

He says “it sucks” in that same understated way Dean says everything. In the same way he’s able to say “it always hurts” without it being a big thing. It’s nice to hear him say it nonetheless. His mom hasn’t yet. Won’t. She acts like she’s embarrassed about it. Like mostly it’s inconveniencing her. But she hasn’t yet acknowledged that she’s hurt. Or that Castiel is. Instead, she just left too.

“Yeah. It fucking sucks.” The swear is hard on his tongue. It feels a little unnatural, but it feels good, and it makes Dean laugh. “Your dad comes back though. Doesn’t he?” He tries not to sound small and hopeful. Dean scoots closer to the edge of the bed. Closer to him. Yawning.

“Yeah. I. He loves Sam. And—me. He’s just. Busy. Maybe your dad is busy, too.”

That makes sense. Makes the tight ball in his chest unclench a little bit. Images of his dad hunched over his keyboard with his fingers splayed in his hair come to mind. Images from when Castiel was young and he wanted to play, but his mom shooed him away from Dad’s office because. Because. “My dad is very important,” Castiel says automatically. “He’s a famous author.”

“Maybe he’s off doing author stuff.”

“He was doing author stuff, last I heard. He was on a promotional book tour.”

“What’s that?”

“Like when you go around and sell your book in lots of places.” He sniffs. “You read it to people and they buy it.”

“Oh. Well maybe he’s busy with that, then.”

Castiel knows he’s wrong. He knows his mom wouldn’t be drinking wine and dropping him off at a stranger’s house for Christmas if she thought his dad was coming back. “He’s never been so busy he didn’t call to talk to me before.”

“Really?” Dean shifts up onto his elbow so he’s looking down at Castiel. It puts his left eye directly in line with the solid beam of light from the door so Castiel can see his raised eyebrow well. “My dad gets so wrapped up in work, sometimes he just doesn’t call for a long time. He’s real important so sometimes he has to go off the grid for whole weeks. Months, maybe.”

“Off the grid?” Castiel asks.

“Yeah, you know like...spies in the movies. When it gets too risky for them to answer phones because people tap the lines and stuff. So they stop calling people.” He flops back down onto the pillow and it poofs out a cloud of air. It’s the first time Castiel has gotten a whiff of anything in this weird house that smells anything but way too clean. And it smells human, like Dean. Like clean sweat and honey shampoo. Dean addresses the rest of his story to the ceiling, chest heaving in the dull light now that he’s on his back. “One time, when I was eight and Sammy was—I guess Sammy was still three, probably, Dad was chasing this one big group, like a mafia or a mob boss or something. Something real important. And he was still taking me and Sammy with him places. He was only s’posed to be gone one night, but he couldn’t get back to his car or call from his car phone because it was too dangerous where he was.”

Castiel’s stomach drops down to his toes. He thinks he might know how this story ends, because Dean was eight when he started at Castiel’s school.

“How long was he gone?”

“I’m—not sure. After four days, I ran outta asthma medication and I had an attack that wouldn’t stop. So I—Sammy called the ambulance. And then at the hospital they put in a breathing tube and I got an infection. So. I don’t remember mucha anything for a couple weeks.” He punctuates the story with a hard cough. “He was back by the time I woke up, though,” Dean says brightly, like that makes it better. “And he took out those bad guys. He told me soon as I woke up.”

They lay in silence for a few minutes, closer than they’ve been all evening. Close enough that they’re sharing warmth, now.

“He’ll come back,” Dean slurs groggily after a long quiet, just on the edge of sleep. “My dad said he’d come back for Christmas, too.”

For some reason, it doesn’t instill much confidence in Castiel, but he goes to sleep anyway. The thought may not be especially comforting, but the company certainly is.

He wakes up to an empty bed and comes downstairs to the same tableau as he’d entered to the night before. Mr. Singer is standing at the stove in the kitchen, and when Castiel rounds the corner into the living room, Dean’s on the couch again, in the vest again, breathing deep into a tube that steams around the edge of his lips like dragon’s breath. The only difference is that Sam is awake now too, and he’s coloring something just in front of the TV. There’s another dumb Christmas special on. Something to do with a donkey, now.   

Castiel perches on the edge of the couch. He can’t hear the TV over the hum of all the machines, so he’s not sure what Dean’s getting out of it with his eyes so fixed there. He watches the weird mask more than he watches the movie, and he can’t even bring himself to feel bad for staring.

The day for them starts out slow, just like it had going to the pool years ago, just like anything with Dean involved seems to. Dean’s treatments are apparently long, tedious, and dull, and even though Castiel is itching to go outside into the new skiff of snow before they even eat breakfast, it takes at least another hour of huffing and puffing and spitting and pill-swallowing before Dean’s able to change out of his pajamas and sit down in front of a bland bowl of oatmeal.

“You do that every day?” Castiel says, shoveling Lucky Charms into his mouth as Sam, beside him, diligently removes the marshmallows from his own bowl and slips every third one or so to Dean across the table. Mr. Singer pretends not to notice.

“Do what?” Dean asks, glooping his oatmeal into sturdy little mountain and waiting for his next marshmallow. When Sam doesn’t deliver, Castiel slips Dean one of his own. Because maybe everything is stupid, but he’s not cruel.

“You know. The weird tube thing.”

“My nebulizer?”

Castiel shrugs. That isn’t a word he’s heard before, but it rolls off Dean’s tongue naturally, like a part of his everyday vocabulary, so maybe that is answer enough to his question.

“I mean, yeah. It’s got my medicine. If I don’t take it, I’ll get an infection or somethin’.”

Dean plays with his oatmeal some more. Mr. Singer approaches the table, looking over Dean’s shoulder at Dean’s mostly full bowl.

“Dean.”

Dean makes a face into his bowl, sticking out his tongue. Sam hides his own sticky fingers underneath the table.

“My stomach hurts.”

“Funny. It seems to be handling those marshmallows real well.”

Sam ducks his head and Castiel does the same. Both of their bowls are the incriminating colorless tan of a sugared cereal picked dry.

Mr. Singer reheats Dean’s oatmeal for him but excuses Castiel and Sam, presumably so they can’t feed him any more sugar. Sam goes back to coloring in front of another Christmas special. Castiel does a few restless laps of the living room, eyeing Dean sitting sullenly at the table, still pushing the oatmeal around the bowl. This feels like another tired part of the same routine too. Castiel wonders how hard it would be for him to just eat it already.

“I’m going outside,” Castiel announces loftily to the kitchen.

Dean shuffles his feet, rubbing his toes along the back of his ankle, and takes a bite of oatmeal. He swallows audibly.

“Oh yeah?” Mr. Singer says.

Castiel looks down the short hallway that runs alongside the stairs to the only real Christmas decoration he’s seen in the house, aside from ornaments Sam and Dean have made in school scattered around—a tiny decorative tree that’s wedged on an end table with a phone book and a notepad. All his Christmas gifts are stacked neatly on the ground under the table, and he doesn’t see any gifts besides his own.

“Hold your horses. Dean n’ Sam can go with you. I’m gonna head out back to my workshop anyhow. Easier to keep an eye on you.”

It’s Christmas Eve. Usually—usually he’d have a routine. Where his father wouldn’t work for a while and would help him make a snowman and bake cookies. He’s supposed to build a snowman and bake cookies. But honestly, it doesn’t seem as if he’ll have time for either, even if Dean could eat the sugar after they’ve made them.

It’s another agonizing twenty minutes before Dean eats enough oatmeal to satisfy Mr. Singer. Another twenty after that to maneuver Dean into enough warm layers. By the time they make it outside, the clouds have started to move over the junkyard, muddying the dazzling white of the morning to a dull gray afternoon. Mr. Singer makes his way off to a warehouse with about a hundred locks on the door and leaves them with full run of the overcast junkyard and explicit instructions for Dean to not stay out too long. Dean’s eyes, just about the only thing that Castiel can see of him over the knitted fabric of two thick scarves, track Bobby all the way across the yard and into the workshop. The sound of Bobby locking the door after himself is audible in the echoing snowscape, bouncing off the cars and the ice in turn.

Castiel sets to work making a snowman out of sheer frustration, for want of anything better to do than go inside and watch Dean breathe heavily or something. But Sam doesn’t have the patience. He keeps throwing himself into the snow around Castiel’s feet, laughing, making snow angels, scooping up snowballs. The big swathes of uninterrupted snow disappear rapidly in the face of his manic energy, and Castiel moves further and further to the periphery of the salvage yard looking for clean, fresh, wet snow to roll into a ball. Dean follows doggedly behind him, breathing heavily before they’ve even gotten out of the line of sight of Mr. Singer’s workshop—not that he could see them, anyway, since the whole building has no windows that Castiel can see, aside from a couple with crosshatched metal gratings that are too high up to do anything but let in a bit of fresh air.

The junkyard is bigger than he would have thought. They’ve lost sight of the house completely before they’re even halfway through it, and it’s like a labyrinth in the snow because everything looks the same. No distinguishing colors or features with everything painted white—just heaps of icy twisted metal that tower above his head. When they’ve lost sight of the house completely and Castiel finally gets to work rolling the ball for the base in the fresh snow by the twisted, empty hull of an old Ford, Dean sits down heavily in the snow. And Castiel tries not to take notice until the heavy breathing and hard, wet coughs become impossible to ignore.

“What now?” Castiel says, chopping rough edges from the big snowball with the sodden edges of his mittens, smoothing it into a perfect ball. He doesn’t look back at Dean.

“I don’t feel good,” Dean says.

Castiel turns around and sighs.

“What’s new? You never feel good.”

“That’s not true,” Dean manages to get out before he’s cut off by a determined coughing fit, a fit so strong it keeps him hacking violently until he spits a wad of steaming something off into the snow. Which—ew.

“Come on. Do you have to ruin everything?”

“I don’t ruin everything,” Dean mumbles. He doesn’t really sound like he’s talking to Castiel. Mostly, it sounds like he’s trying to reassure himself, and Castiel feels so angry that it doesn’t seem like the time to indulge that. He kind of wants to be mad at someone, and Dean seems like the easiest target right now.

Castiel goes about doing his best to ignore him, starting in on the second ball, deciding he’s going to make a snowman astronaut with a rounded helmet. Somewhere in the middle of crafting a patch for the snowman’s lapel, Castiel starts to feel anxious that Dean hasn’t said anything to defend himself. He glances back to find Dean rising shakily to his feet.

Dean says, “I’m gonna go find my uncle.”

He takes off, and Castiel doesn’t follow. Without Dean coughing, the world is the type of silent it should be, the silent that Cas likes, muffled by the snow. Castiel finds that he’s able to foist off the thoughts of his friend and his dad in favor of feeling the cold bite of the afternoon, of shaping the snow under his fingertips. It gets even better when he takes off his gloves to mold and trace the spaceman’s details, and the cold of the snow turns his fingers red and tingling and takes away the feeling in them.

He thinks, Dean will get over it.

He makes a snowman that would make his dad proud. He finds scraps of metal and makes satellites. Finds one little scrap that turns into a badge for his chest, then a couple for either side of his head—communicators. When it’s all done, he looks so good Castiel feels like saluting. He sits down on the bumper of the Ford to admire it, pulling his gloves on again, and comes back to the world while the sensation comes back to his fingers. And when he’s sure of the color of the sky again, he gets up, dusts the snow off the back of his pants, and kicks his heavy snowboot right into the base of the spaceman he just crafted.

He’s not sure why he does it, but once it’s done, he can’t stop, and he stomps and stomps and stomps until the whole thing is destroyed, every little finely crafted detail. He knocks the head off, sends it halfway across the clearing. Strains his arms to pick up a heavy scrap of metal that bites a wide welt into the torso where he slams it like a baseball bat, grunting with the effort. And when it’s all in pieces on the ground, he stomps apart the fragments. The snow is so heavy, it falls apart like wet sand under his feet, like he’s a tidal wave overtaking a sandcastle. When it’s hardly anything more than the pile of snow it was when he found it, he feels like he can see Dean again without wanting to shout at him.

He’s tired, finding his way back inside. The continuous fall of snow has hidden his footprints enough that he has a bit of trouble retracing his way through the labyrinthine piles of cars and scrap metal, but Dean’s steps are a bit more obvious, because they aren’t distinct and discreet—they drag like a slug’s slime trail. Dean wasn’t lifting his feet.

He’s not sure why he was expecting that Dean’s uncle would be waiting for him on the porch for him. He’s not. No waiting cocoa, no help taking off his outerclothes. Instead, he’s sitting quiet at the table with Sam as Sam carefully eats around the crusts of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

He nods at Castiel.

“Feel alright? You were out there for awhile.” He talks soft. The feeling in the tip of Castiel’s nose creeps back in slowly. He rubs it with the flat of his palm and scrunches his face.

“Yeah.” He listens for the television. It’s quiet. The whole house is quiet. He can’t hear Dean coughing in the next room.

“Dean’s feelin’ a little rough. Reckon it’s gonna be a quiet afternoon,” Bobby says, reading his thoughts.

“It was a quiet morning, too,” Castiel sulks.

Bobby sets a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of Castiel as well.

“I guess we just like to keep quiet around here.”

Castiel picks up half the sandwich. It’s cut lengthwise instead of diagonally, which is almost enough to put him off it, if he hadn’t expended so much energy in the snow outside. He takes a bite and it’s not the right type of jelly, either. Cheap, viscous grape instead of sweet strawberry. He doesn’t say it’s stupid, but he’s definitely thinking it.

“S’there somethin’ you like to do at home on Christmas Eve that would make today better for you?” Bobby asks gruffly, dish towel slung over his shoulder as he washes dishes at the sink. Castiel eyes his presents down that hall, the nothing tree. The nowhere decorations. Once, he visited one of his father’s friends around Christmas time and their house looked like this. The sort of normal that wasn’t actually missing anything but felt empty and lacking nonetheless in the ornate overabundance of the holiday season. Later, Castiel found out they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t do anything during the holiday season. It’s sort of depressing that Dean’s family is just about as festive as they were.

“Um. My dad and I always make—” made, his mind supplies helpfully, “Cookies.”

“We don’t make cookies because of Dean’s stupid di’betes,” Sam announces, words thick with peanut butter and bread he can’t be bothered to swallow before speaking.

“Di-uh-betes.” Bobby enunciates. “And chew with your mouth shut, kid,” He thwaps Sam gently with the dish towel. Sam goes back to gnawing with his mouth closed and his cheeks puffed out. “Maybe Dean can’t eat ‘em, but we could probably scrounge something up for us three. Whaddya say?”

Sam gets his legs under him on the chair and starts bouncing on his bent knees and chewing faster. When he finally gets the whole mess down he shouts, “Yeah!” so loud it echoes in the over-quiet house.

Bobby shushes him. “Think your brother’s tryin’ to take a nap. So if we’re gonna make cookies, we gotta do it quiet.” He lays a single finger against his lips and Sam copies the motion as he takes a bite and forces down another too-big swallow of sticky peanut butter.

Castiel looks toward the door of living room. The lights are all out except for the flashing of the muted television set and the overcast gray light filtering through the windows. And if there’s one thing that Mr. Singer’s house has going for it, it’s that it’s warm. Looking at it from the outside, buffeted by the storm, it seems like it should be drafty, but it’s not.

He hopes, guiltily, that Dean is having a good nap.

Bobby pulls an ancient orange cookbook out of one of the cabinets. All the other cookbooks have stiff spines, the plastic shininess of the unused. Each of them boasts a label like The Diabetes Cookbook and Delicious Dishes for Diabetics, but the book they're using doesn’t seem to be one of the gross sugar free whatevers. The recipe looks like the one he and his dad use, but it was bound to be a little different, because theirs is written on a notecard that came straight from his grandma’s collection. His dad told him once, swirling a little tumbler and looking devious, that he stole it from her private collection so he could make her Christmas cookies all year round. Castiel catches himself smiling at the memory, frowns when he remembers himself.

Bobby isn’t a bad cook, but he isn’t a good one either. He would probably be better if they had all the ingredients, but they don’t, so they keep having to make odd substitutions that wreak havoc with the texture of the dough.

“My dad’s cookies were different,” Castiel says, glooping cookie dough the texture of pancake batter back into the bowl when it’s all said and done and they accidentally melted the butter in the microwave instead of softened it and used half brown and half white sugar because they didn’t have enough of the white. He tilts his head. “Maybe we should add more flour?”

They add more flour, but the dough still isn’t thick enough to roll out, though that doesn’t matter all that much because they don’t have the bell and the snowflake and the angel cookie cutters that Castiel has at his house.

It’s Sam’s bright idea to form the shapes themselves. Sam makes a pile with a big lumpy ball on the end that he calls Rudolph; Bobby, redfaced, molds a very detailed abominable snowman; and Castiel rolls fat little limbs for a gingerbread man that he then mounts doughy angel wings on, pushing his thumbnail into the wing shapes to make feathers.

“Do you guys leave cookies for Santa?” Castiel asks as he watches Sam painstakingly craft a Christmas tree cookie with tiny doughy lights and baubles. He doesn’t believe in Santa himself, too old now, but Sam’s the right age to. But Sam gives him a funny look, eyebrow arching skeptically.

“Santa doesn’t exist, Cas. Dad told me when I was a baby.” He has a gap where one of his bottom front baby teeth just fell out, but he says it with all the stiff authority of an adult. Bobby picks up the tray from between them and doesn’t say anything, but he’s got a set to his brow, and his hands are stone firm on the edges of the baking sheet. He puts it in the oven with a delicate clang.

For want of anything else to do, Castiel watches the baking dough rise and spread and distort with the oven light on. Two minutes into a nonsensical rant from Sam about how Castiel’s bubbling angel looks like some monster from one of Bobby’s books, they all hear Dean call, “Uncle Bobby,” urgently from the other room. Castiel doesn’t look, too busy watching the feathery details on his wings get subsumed by spreading cookie goo, but Sam perks up, and Bobby is in the living room before Castiel even realizes he’s gone. Castiel doesn’t look away from the oven until he hears gagging and then a high, whining cry that busts through the quiet shell of the afternoon more thoroughly than anything Sam could ever do.

He only sees Dean for a split second when Bobby rounds the corner to carry him up the stairs, and he has sick all down his front, and Bobby is mumbling quiet comfort to him, like Castiel’s mom did to him the last time he had the stomach flu. As they’re going up the stairs, Dean’s face slung over Bobby’s shoulder and echoing weakly down the stairs, Castiel hears him say, “Is Dad here yet?”

Neither of them hear Bobby’s response.

Sam and Castiel return to the solemn task of diligently watching their cookies bake, and it takes a whole two minutes of just listening to Bobby’s feet tromping in circles above their heads for Sam to say something.

“Dad was only here for Christmas one time,” he says. “And it was just ‘cuz his leg was broke and he couldn’t do anything else.”

“You don’t think he’s coming?”

“Nah.” Sam picks at a loose thread coming from a hole in his mismatched sock. “He says he’s gonna every year but he never does. And I dunno why Dean wants him here so bad either. That Christmas sucked. Bobby and Dad just shouted at each other the whole time.”

He shrugs.

The egg timer on top of the oven goes off before Bobby comes back from upstairs. Castiel does a few conflicted shuffle steps, because he knows he’s not really supposed to handle hot things alone, but he really doesn’t want go upstairs. He and Sam agree with a silent nod and then scramble around to find oven mitts. By the time they find them, Rudolph’s nose is carbon black, and the tips of the angel’s wings, already almost unrecognizable from the spread of the gooey dough in the oven, are brown and crispy at the tips.

He’s not good at it though, not by a longshot, and even though his hands are covered up to the forearm, he leans in too far and catches the underside of his elbow on the oven rack. It burns so badly his eyes fill with tears immediately, and he drops the hot tray full of cookies onto the linoleum floor with a cry. It’s loud enough to disrupt the enforced quiet of the house.

Sam stands helplessly over him, hands fisting in his pants.

“You okay?” he asks, crouching carefully to pile the crunchy cookies that had come off the tray back on it. Some of them broke, but most are miraculously still intact. Including Sam’s reindeer and Castiel’s puffy little angel. Bobby’s abominable snowman didn’t fare quite so well. It’s strewn in jagged pieces on the shiny-clean linoleum.

Castiel all but shouts, “No!” clutching his arm to his chest and really feeling the injustice of all of this. How wrong everything about today is. He doesn’t even feel the tears coming before they’re there, obscuring his vision, leaking down his face. He doesn’t notice when Sam leaves, barely notices he’s alone. He holds tight to the burn on his elbow, and he’s still holding it when the footsteps that had been above his head come tromping back down the stairs.

Bobby stops and sighs at the threshold of the kitchen. Through the wetness pooling on his lower lashes, he sees Bobby take off his baseball cap and rub his head. He looks almost as tired as Dean did, outside. Looks almost as tired as Cas feels right now. When he moves into the kitchen, a couple slow steps, Castiel can see Sam hovering in the doorway, biting his lip.

He says, “What happened?”

Castiel shakes his head and doesn’t answer.

“Hey,” he kneels down, face earnest. “I gotta know if you hurt yourself, kid.”

Suddenly, Castiel feels stupid. This isn’t anywhere near as bad as what Dean was dealing with. But he bends his arm and points out the sore spot anyway, sniffling when Bobby’s hands probe the raised red blister.

“Aw, hell. Let’s get that under some cold water.”

Bobby flicks off the oven, closes the oven door, and guides him upstairs, like he just did with Dean. In the bathroom, he helps Castiel lean up to get his elbow under the stream of water, then sits him on the toilet lid to put on some ointment and a Batman bandaid. It feels better, hardly any ache to it anymore, but Castiel finds that he can’t stop the slow leak of tears, in the unfamiliar bathroom, on the unfamiliar toilet lid. On Christmas Eve.

“I’m sorry you’re havin’ such a crummy time, kid. Looks like it’s a rough Christmas for all of us.”

Castiel sniffs and can’t help but feel bad getting all this attention when Dean was the sick one, Dean’s the one that just got carted up the stairs, Dean’s missing his dad too.

“Is Dean okay?” he blurts, rubbing at the bandaid. The tears don’t stop like he meant for them to.

Bobby leans against the bathroom counter.

“Oh, don’t you worry about Dean none. Sometimes his tummy acts up and he hasn’t been eatin’ so good the last couple of days. He’s fine. He’ll be right as rain for Christmas morning.”

Castiel bites his lip. He says, “I was mean to him.”

“Oh yeah?”

Castiel nods.

“Hey.” Bobby reaches down to rip a piece of toilet paper from the roll. He gives one of Castiel’s eyes a clumsy dab before handing him another wad to blow his nose in. “I don’t know what you said, but Dean wasn’t upset. Nobody here expects you to feel good either, huh?” Castiel bites his lip. Blows his nose. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

Castiel doubts that, but he can’t fault Bobby for trying to make it seem true. He herds him back downstairs and makes him real, sugary hot chocolate to go with their sugar cookies, which taste alright despite their dubious origins. Castiel eats the scrappy pieces of the cookies that broke, but he saves the angel he made, which came out of the oven doughy and a bit misshapen but mostly angel-shaped. Bobby doesn’t question when it’s the last one sitting on the plate. He just wraps it in cellophane and sets it down on the counter where Castiel can see it. They both know who they’re saving it for, anyway.

The afternoon takes on the timeless eternal twilight of the holiday, when nothing moves outside, no passing cars or police sirens, and the sun sets far too early. He watches something called A Christmas Story with Sam with the volume turned way down low. Just as his eyes are drooping with the quiet, Bobby suggests they decorate a little for morning, pulling out a whole ream of crisp white printer paper from his office and two half-used rolls of scotch tape. Together, he and Sam snip paper snowflakes with safety scissors that are so small they cramp up Castiel’s hand, and then they coat the walls with them. Sam’s are sloppy and square-shaped, with little snipped triangles cut from the inside, and he slaps them on haphazardly wherever his limited height allows, but Castiel’s are slow, hexagonal, deliberate. He’s done this in school before, but never to this degree, and he gets better and better the more he makes, until Bobby is helping him to put them in the frosty windows, to hang them on strings from the banister in the main hallway.

It makes him feel instantly better, to have something on the walls. Especially something he put there.

Dean doesn’t wake, not even when the quiet is broken by the shrill cry of the telephone in the kitchen somewhere around seven o’clock, or when Bobby raises his voice to as near a shout as Castiel’s ever heard from him in the other room.

“That’s Dad,” Sam says quietly. “Telling Bobby he’s not coming. They do it every year. It’s a Christmas tradition.”

Right on cue, Bobby slogs back into the room with the phone clutched tight in one hand.

“You wanna say Merry Christmas to your dad, kid?”

Sam bites his lip and doesn’t look up when he shakes his head. Castiel feels a little twinge of jealousy that he even has the option of talking on the phone and scowls at the thought that he might pass that up.

“C’mon now,” Bobby pushes. “Don’t be like that.”

Sam doesn’t look up when he thrusts his hand out for the phone, and he doesn’t say hello so much as he grunts a greeting when he puts it to his ear.

Sam’s half of the conversation is largely nonverbal, and when it’s not nonverbal, it’s a long string of grudging, “Yessir”s. The only answer that really means anything to Castiel is a short, “He’s sleepin’. He puked on the carpet earlier.” Clearly about Dean.

When Bobby takes the phone back after a lukewarm farewell, he says, “If’n you hold on, I’ll wake ‘im. He’d wanna hear from you.” A pause, then, “He’ll be fine.”

But their dad hangs up while Bobby’s foot is still on the bottom step. Castiel sees it in the way Bobby’s shoulders droop. The way he lets the phone fall, the way he looks at it a little bit like Castiel looked at it yesterday when his dad still wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

Castiel would normally be calling his dad right about now, if he were home. He’d sneak down to the kitchen while his mom was cloistered away in her room or drinking wine in the sitting room, and he’d call the same front desk at the same hotel that had given him the same answer every day for two months. If Castiel didn’t call today, it would be the first time since his father lost touch.

And Castiel doesn’t understand why he doesn’t care more. He watches Bobby replace the phone on the cradle. Everything is still stupid, but at least no one here is to blame for it. Castiel feels bad? They feel bad here, too. Maybe it’s just the four of them cloistered up against the world, safe and sad in a snowglobe of security.

Bobby says, “Who’s hungry?” and slaps his palms together like John Winchester never bothered to call at all. And Castiel got the unspoken sense that—for Dean, he never had. And they would never tell him.

Bobby feeds them a perhaps overly moist ham from a can, shiny and stamped with a glaze like grill marks and nowhere near as appealing as the picture on the top of the tin. He also serves instant mashed potatoes and green beans from a can. Castiel doesn’t complain, or gloop it around the plate to make it look like he ate it. He eats it. He watches Bobby pace around the kitchen and make a whole nother plate covered in tin foil for whenever Dean wakes up.

When they’re all finished, it’s quiet, and Sam is nodding off in his seat, talking half-heartedly about making more snowflakes. Bobby sends him to bed with a pat on the head.

“Think you might be ready for bed soon too, kid?” he says as Castiel takes his cleared plate from the table to the sink. “You got a nice pile of presents waiting for you in the morning. I got a few to wrap myself tonight.”

Castiel shrugs.

“Are things a little less stupid tonight?”

Castiel shrugs again. Bobby sighs.

“Nothin’ you’d like to do before bed…?” Bobby leads, shrugging a shoulder toward the phone on the wall.

Castiel clenches his jaw, firm.

“Maybe it’s better I don’t talk to him at all.”

Bobby chuckles and rubs at the bags under his eyes, tweaks his nose like he’s all stuffed up.

“You’re wise beyond your years, kid.”

He may be wise beyond his years, but he’s not above the covert snooping he does to his own gifts as Bobby drags out one tired, wrinkled roll of wrapping paper to wrap up a few presents of his own. Castiel sees the little pile in Bobby’s arms, presumably for both the Winchester boys, and collectively, they have less than he does just for himself. Which hits him funny, fills him with a bubbling dread for the morning. The house is quiet, Sam and Dean asleep upstairs, and it seems like not even the creaky floorboards want to interrupt the hush of the evening. The only sound in the hallway is the snowflakes he hung with Sam rustling in some unseen breeze, gentle and reassuring.

He knows what all his own gifts are. His mom has only ever gotten him exactly what he asked for, a strict and thorough list-follower, and so he can track his way down the list and tell what each present is from the shape of every box and the rattle of all the contents within.

One present, though, he hadn’t really been expecting to get, given his family’s aversion to all things electronic. Dean had goaded him into asking for it because he wanted to use Castiel’s, and Castiel figures the pity of an absent father had played at least some kind of hand in his mom conceding to buy it for him anyway.

He picks it up and drags his fingernails along the sharp edges of the covered box. What gave it away more than anything is the separately wrapped package on top, tiny and shaped distinctly with four discrete cylinders. Batteries. There was a bow with carefully curled ribbon on top of them.

He keeps running his hands over it as a clock ticks somewhere in the hallways and Bobby’s indistinct curses sound over the rustling of paper from the den. He doesn’t know how long he stares at it before he walks down the hallway, turns the corner, and holds out his hands to Bobby, who stops with his scissors poised clumsily to tear off some excess paper from an erratically wrapped package.

He drops his hands. “Thought you were brushin’ your teeth.”

“I lied.”

“O-kay,” Bobby drawls, reaching out for the present.

 

 

“I know what that is.”

“Well, you’re a regular Sherlock Holmes. Couldn’t wait twelve more hours?” Bobby cracks a smile, holds it up to his ear, shakes it himself.

Castiel shakes his head.

“I want you to give it to Dean.”

Bobby’s brow furrows. There’s an over-full tumbler of some kind of amber alcohol on the floor next to him, and he pushes it aside so he can turn and face Castiel fully, the floor around him littered with ribbons of wrapping paper.

“Now why’d you wanna do a thing like that? This is yours.”

Castiel shrugs a half shrug. “He needs it more than I do.”

Bobby looks at him so hard that Castiel gets uncomfortable, has to look at the ground.

“Didn’t I tell you you don’t have to feel bad about whatever you said to Dean? You ain’t gotta feel—guilty for anything. It’s your Christmas gift.”

“I don’t feel guilty.” That’s not entirely true. He does. But it’s not the only thing driving him. This feels like something he should do. Something that’s going to fill him with some degree of peace, despite everything. They’re all in this thing together. He wants to do this. He looks Bobby in the eyes again. Bobby’s mouth screws up so hard his beard takes over the bottom half of his face.

“How’d your momma feel about you giving away one of your gifts?”

Castiel shrugs. “She won’t notice.”

Bobby lays a hand on his shoulder. And here’s what he likes about Bobby. Most other adults would treat him like he didn’t know what he wanted. His mother would never humor an idea like this, because she thinks he’s too young to know what he wants. But he knows what he wants. And Bobby respects that he knows what he wants. Bobby takes him seriously.

“Are you really sure about this, son?”

Castiel nods resolutely.

“Don’t tell him it’s my gift though. He’d hate it. Tell him it’s from you. His dad. Sam. Something.”

Bobby looks him hard in the eye for a long moment, and then he nods as well, scratching his beard and eyeing the liquor resting by his leg.  

“Alright. Alright, I’ll rewrap it. But now you gotta get off to bed.”

Castiel takes a tentative step backwards, away from Bobby, toward the stairs. He watches Bobby run his hands over the box, tap his fingers along the edges with his lips pursed. He speaks up again.

“Is it—is it okay if I sleep with him again?”

Bobby flashes a tired grin. “I’ll bet he feels a whole lot better, but if he doesn’t, you can come back and sleep on the couch, like I said.”

Castiel nods. He goes upstairs, creeps around the cracked door to the room the boys share, brushes his teeth, and changes into his pajamas. He looks at himself in the mirror, tilts his head back and forth. His hair is getting shaggier than he’s used to. His face looks—different. He wonders if his dad would even recognize him if he came back, but then he realizes that’s stupid to think, and he flicks off the bathroom light, plodding down the hallway with only the weak light flickering up the stairs. He stops at the top of the stairs and strains to hear the new noises floating up at him—it takes him a moment to realize that Bobby’s humming a soft Christmas carol under his breath. Some Bing Crosby croon that his father used to play on a record player.

He doesn’t hesitate getting into bed this time, and he knows his way in the dark. Dean’s breathing isn’t even now like it wasn’t even yesterday, and Castiel can hear the hitch in it, in the dark. The catch in his chest that has nothing to do with being in pain and everything to do with Bobby, downstairs, alone, wrapping presents.

“He’s not coming,” Dean says after what feels like forever staring quiet into the dark. “He never does.”

“Well,” Castiel shifts to face him. “My dad’s not coming either.”

He pauses. “Well, I guess that’s true.”

And that’s that. There isn’t anything left to say. Because for all the quiet sadness and realization in that, the both of them could honestly feel a lot worse about it. And they both sleep.

Bobby was right when he said Dean would feel right as rain in the morning—he does, and it turns out Christmas mornings here aren’t so different. Sam is his same burning ball of overexcitability he was yesterday, and it’s not even seven when he hops onto the bed Castiel shares with Dean and reminds them both that there are presents to be had downstairs. Dean’s awake before Sam even gets to them, and maybe that’s because he slept through most of yesterday, or maybe it’s because he never slept for thinking about his dad, or maybe it’s because he wants to get at those presents too. Whatever it is, Castiel has a new sort of anxious excitement trembling in him, different from the normal Christmas morning anticipation, at the thought of Dean opening the present Castiel has given him.

Bobby is awake downstairs, and fully dressed. His clothes are covered in soot and soil and his heavy jeans are wet at the cuffs, but he smiles to see three boys in pajamas traipsing down the stairs way too early. That’s not how his parents were. They slept in Christmas morning, every year. Made him wait for wake-up and breakfast before he could open presents, then rushed him off to church so fast he couldn’t even play with his gifts.   

He stops on the bottom step, watching as Bobby indulges Sam in a long good-morning hug. And he wonders, briefly, suddenly, what his mom is doing. Wonders where she even is. Where it is adults go on Christmas morning without kids to open presents with. Entertains, for a moment, the thought that she might run off like his dad did, and leave him here, with Bobby and Sam and Dean in this weird little not-family, forever. He’s not sure why that didn’t come to him before, but it occurs to him now—who’s to say that if his dad can break the laws of what parents are and what parents are supposed to do—who’s to say his mother won’t as well? His heart churns up his throat, tugs on his gut in the same way thinking about Dean and his inhaler on the playground did. He feels himself clutch the banister, hold on hard, and he comes back when Bobby says his name and clamps a hand, cold with outside chill, on his shoulder.

“You alright?” Bobby says. “There’s presents.” His eyes are soft and deep and empathetic, but there’s only so much empathy can do for the realization that everyone can leave him, rising in his chest like the sun on a snowy Christmas dawn.

Castiel nods anyway.

They delay Dean’s treatments to open presents because Sam refuses to wait, and Dean sits on the couch taking shallow sips of air and looking tired despite the sleep while he lets Sam bring him his presents to open. They take turns for as long as they can take turns, because Castiel has more presents than anyone, and he’s fully aware it’s going to be them watching him open his way too much at the end of everything.

Dean and Sam get practical presents, mostly. Shoes and books and jackets, notebooks and pens. Sam gets a few toys, action figures and coloring books. A soccer ball, which Dean scowls at. They’re things that look inexpensive but color his face rosy all the same. Castiel gets a lot of the same and more still, his favorite present being an impressive telescope that makes him so excited he forgets himself—he lifts his head with a thank you on his tongue and feels vaguely vacant when his mom isn’t there to watch him being happy about it.

After Bobby’s let Castiel sprint through the five gifts he has on Sam and Dean, and Castiel is hunkered down in a wrapping paper pile reading the box of his telescope over and over, Bobby pulls out two more gifts wrapped in shoddy faded newspaper, with headlines from somewhere in Florida and two names written in thick, dark marker. He hands one apiece to Sam and to Dean. Dean’s is flat and flimsy; Sam’s is heavy and hard. Sam tests the weight in his hands and lets them drop from the bulk of it.

“They’re from Dad,” Dean says flatly, curling his hands and the gift with it. Castiel can understand the implication. Their father left their presents in advance. He knew he was going to be out of town, and he lied.

Castiel knows something about lying fathers.

Bobby shrugs helplessly.

“You know the drill, kid.”

Sam doesn’t hesitate to rip his open, tearing eagerly at the paper. Dean’s slower, hesitant. Careful fingers made inky by the old newspaper. There’s more mystery once the gifts are open than there was when they were wrapped, though, because then Sam is holding a massive leather sheath in his lap. And when he takes hold of the handle poking from the edge of it, there’s no mistaking an equally long, sharp, and wicked-looking blade inside it. It’s a big knife, with a gleaming finish and serrated teeth near the handle. It looks sharp.

“Uncle Bobby—” Sam starts, but Bobby interrupts—

“Put it down, Sam. Put it back in the sheath, and put it down,” with tone in his voice that sends chills up the back of Castiel’s spine.

Sam doesn’t hesitate to obey, snapping the knife back into the leather with a sharp click and setting it down on the carpet. And all that is weird enough, until they all remember at once that Dean had a present too, and Dean’s barely spoken through the whole debacle with the knife because he’s just staring down at his lap, eyes on whatever a single tear of newspaper has revealed in his gift. Sam’s expression when he peeks over Dean’s shoulder tells them pretty quickly that Dean’s present is ten times as weird as Sam’s was.

“Uncle Bobby, there’s a naked lady on the front of Dean’s present.” Dean doesn’t confirm or deny this, just stares at his lap with his head tilted.

Bobby yelps, “Jesus Christ, John.” He’s nimble when he wants to be. Just a few quick hops over a sea of bows and wrapping, and he snatches the package out of Dean’s open hands. Then he reaches down to pick up the knife. “Christ almighty, what in the world was he—”

“Maybe the knife was supposed to be for me,” Dean says, shaking himself out of whatever meditative state he was in. “Bobby—was—did he mislabel ‘em? Maybe the knife was supposed to be for me.” He coughs into his elbow hard for a second. Castiel watches the exchange, mystified.

“The knife ain’t for anyone.”

“Bobby, maybe he wrote our names wrong. I’m old enough to have a knife now. He wants me to have the knife so I can—”

“Does that mean the naked ladies were for me?” Sam pipes, eyes on the Matchbox car he’s trying to pry out of a plastic package. Dean’s face is sort of crumpling in on itself like it did yesterday when Castiel told him he ruined everything.

“Bobby, can we call him and see? I bet the knife was for me so I can start—”

“The knife,” Bobby cuts in, loud and sharp, “ain’t for anyone. The—magazines ain’t for anyone. I think your daddy had a little bit of lapse in judgment where he forgot how old his goddamn kids were—” Bobby swipes off his hat and looks up at the ceiling like Castiel’s mom does when she prays. Dean coughs and coughs and coughs.

While Bobby’s still looking glazed at the snowflake he helped them hang from the lighting fixture, Castiel clutches his hands on his telescope box and says, “I think he has one more.” Just quiet.

Bobby blinks himself back in the room, face moving again like warmed up wax.

“Dean,” Castiel urges. “I think Dean has one more.”

Bobby looks at him like he just remembered that Castiel was there. His eyes linger while Dean coughs himself out, his breaths tripping over themselves like they do when he gets upset.  

“Yer right, kid, there’s one hiding back here.”

Dean goes quiet, and even Sam perks up interestedly from where he’s racing his new cars.

The package is in unfamiliar wrapping now, and there’s no tag on it. But it’s shaped the same, down to the second package full of batteries on the top. Castiel’s heart starts beating faster in his chest as Bobby passes it over, a fluttery feeling picking up in his chest.

“Who’s it from?” Dean says, fingers twitching in the wrapping.

Sam picks up in a low chant of, “Open it open it open it!” feet thumping on the hardwood floor.

“Just open it,” Bobby urges.

“Is it from Dad?”

Bobby doesn’t say anything, and Castiel isn’t sure whether Dean takes that as confirmation or denial, but he loses patience anyway, ripping into the main package with anxiously clawed fingers.

“A…” his eyes go wide, like it’s the last thing he expected, and he pales in something that looks like disappointment before his entire countenance brightens altogether. “A Game Boy?”

Castiel thinks, a Game Boy Color, automatically, because he remembers precisely what it said on his Christmas list. Down to the color of the console’s shell. (Green.)

Sam squeals, “Wow! Are you gonna let me play it?” He turns to Bobby. “Tell Dean he’s gotta let me try it.”

“Let him have a minute, Sam.”

Dean turns back to the wrapping and reverently unwraps batteries, holding them carefully in a hand that looks like it’s liable to start shaking.

“How’d you know? I mean—I never—I never asked. It’s expensive…”

“It ain’t from me. How’d I know?”

While Dean is still running his fingers reverently over the pristine packaging, fingertips going white with the pressure, Bobby turns to Castiel and winks an exaggerated wink, and Castiel feels liable to burst with the feeling filling his chest.

Bobby helps him unwrap it and load in the batteries, and then Dean plays it all the way through his morning treatments, eyes trained on it over the top of his steaming dragonfire mask and the vibrating vest on his chest, and even Bobby looks tender at that. It’s a good distraction, the jingly tones of the arcade echoing in miniature over the top of the harsh white noise of his medical equipment, the never-ending drone of the disease. He plays it through the day, too, until he falls asleep on the couch clutching it while Bobby assembles Castiel’s telescope.

 

 

Castiel expected he might be a little bit jealous, feel a little bit of regret to see Dean playing with it. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t when Dean shakes himself out of play long enough to give Cas a go at the Mario game it came with the day after Christmas. Doesn’t when Dean clings to it through another bout of stomach aches the day after that. And he doesn’t the whole rest of the week he’s there, until his mother picks him up with a distant half-smile on her face a couple days before New Years.

She’s all apology on his behalf, even though it’s her fault Cas is even here in the first place.

“I hope he wasn’t too much trouble,” she says half-heartedly, biting a nail and stubbing her toe into the muddy snow outside the junkyard while Bobby ducks carefully to load the telescope in the backseat. Half of Castiel is relieved, because his mother came back like his father never did. But the other half of him can’t shake the feeling that just because his mom is here in person doesn’t mean all of her came back from wherever she went off to while she wasn’t celebrating Christmas with her son.

Bobby just says, “Don’t you worry about that,” and they share a very secret smile.

Chapter Text

When he’s thirteen, his mom stops talking about his dad at all. She takes all the books he’s written out of the house, stores them away somewhere, forbids him from reading them. Maybe she’s trying to protect him. Maybe she’s trying to protect herself. Maybe she just can’t be bothered to assuage her only son’s fear that one day he’ll wake up and she’ll be gone too, along with everyone else, and maybe he’ll live at Bobby’s house with the other fatherless kids.

No matter what she doesn’t say, he knows that his mother is still in contact with him, and he learns pretty quickly which law firm is handling—whatever legal battle they’re embroiled in, because he noses through letters he shouldn’t when his mother tells him to go fetch the mail.

Castiel sometimes hopes, in secret, that it’s a custody battle, and that Castiel’s father is fighting tooth and nail for him, and will appear like some avenging angel to claim him. Take him on the road with him, on tour, all across the country. But he never does. His mother gets a job as a legal assistant, and the law firm mail stops coming quite so frequently, but he makes monthly visits to the bank with his mother to deposit sterile, loveless checks from his father and they live comfortably enough in the big, beautiful house his father doesn’t want anymore.

He still sees his father’s name everywhere, though. No matter how determined his mother is to act like he just doesn’t exist anymore. Because his father is well-known. Established. Respected. And he feels like he knows next to nothing about his father, knew nothing before he was left without him, and if that’s all he gets of him anymore, all that he ever will get—then he’ll take it.

At the very least, amid all the tumult, middle school makes sense to Castiel. Nobody cares that he’s friends with Dean anymore, not really, because everyone has their own clique, just like he has his. They join clubs, and the small, constricting tightness of the elementary school fades away. They make friends with a boy named Garth and a girl named Charlie, and Garth and Charlie readily accept that Dean is sick and Castiel is sulky and Dean & Castiel are a unit, a package deal with more collective baggage than most thirteen-year-olds twice over.

Charlie probably wouldn’t have cared if the two of them were conjoined at the hip and spit fire, because all she wanted when she met them was more players for the Dungeons and Dragons campaign she had at the public library every Wednesday. But Castiel imagines she might’ve found more than she bargained for in Dean, who was, Castiel could see, overjoyed to have a group activity that he could participate in, one hundred percent. And all the more excited that that hobby happened to include a lot of violent and bloody fighting.

“I’m rolling an animal handling check,” Garth says unhurriedly, his ever-present dopey smile splitting his face as he tosses his die. Castiel looks warily at Dean. Charlie looks like she’s about to bust out laughing, and she hides her smile behind her big DM screen.

Dean’s hand is clenched so tight that his fist is white. He’s on his knees, crouched on his plushy little chair and leaning halfway across the crude map on the table, and Castiel can tell he’s one of Garth’s dumb decisions away from being way too loud for their little library conference room.

“Garth, you can’t roll animal handling on every freakin’ wolf we meet,” he stops to take a few regulated little sips of air. His face is pale, and Castiel wonders if maybe the anger is coming from somewhere else too. If something is wrong. “Sometime, we’re gonna have to kill a stupid wolf!”

“They’re not stupid. You know I got a wolf friend!” Garth says, affronted. Probably too affronted to be talking about a fictional wolf. “I’m sorry I’m not all about going in guns blazin’ and expectin’ my cleric boyfriend to heal me.”

Castiel says, “He’s not my boyfriend.” But Dean doesn’t hear him, because he talks over him so loud he sets himself coughing.

“I’m a warrior! That’s what I’m for! That’s what I do!” Cough, cough, cough.

“Sometimes there are more creative solutions, that’s all I’m sayin’.”

Dean shoots Garth a dirty glare.

Charlie clears her throat. “You know, the goblins are still here. They’re looking across the room at you just standing there like you’re crazy.”

“Colt tells the goblins to hold their stupid horses because my idiot party member wants to steal their stupid wolf. Which I’m sure will go over real well with the goblins!”

“They don’t speak common. And you’re lucky, because they wouldn’t understand that idiom if they did. They might think you were making a threat.”

“Well—then—”

“Do you want me to cast comprehend languages?” Castiel asks diplomatically.

“Of course he doesn’t, he wants to cleave ‘em all to pieces with his broadsword and get their stuff,” Garth fiddles with his dwarf where it’s resting in a mountainous little portion of the gridded map.

“I didn’t say I wanted to do that!”

“You implied it.”

“That is what you tend to prefer, Dean,” Castiel placates.

“Well it usually works pretty well! We just beat—whatever his name was—”

“Torlath the Terrible, you rube,” Charlie says. “And Torlath would have killed you if Cas hadn’t cast divine intervention and saved your dumb warrior’s bacon.” Castiel blushes hotly, ducking down to hide his face under the guise of fiddling with his dice. He certainly did commit a whole lot of time in-game to taking care of Dean’s impulsive mistakes.

“Maybe a little bit of creative thinking is needed here.” He meets Dean’s eye. Dean looks completely put upon.

“Whatever.” He falls back from his crouch, sitting slumped with his back against the backrest. He crosses his arms. “Do whatever you want.”

Castiel ends up casting a charm spell on the leader of the goblins, Garth steals their wolves, and Dean sulks with his arms crossed while they all roll high and bamboozle all the goblins out of their treasure without breaking a sweat. Castiel offers Dean an equal share of the treasure even though he doesn’t deserve it.

They break up the group not long after, because Dean keeps on being obstinate and nothing is going to get done without their tank. Plus, the library is about to close anyway. Charlie and Garth disappear outside to their bicycles, but Castiel’s mother is supposed to pick him and Dean up, and there’s no telling when she’ll be around, so he and Dean make their way upstairs to all the science books. Everyone else is heading for the exit, so it’s just the two of them heading into a silence that’s even more aggressive than normal, while the lights flicker out a thirty-minute warning and throw them into intermittent darkness.

Dean’s not talking.

“Please tell me you’re not going to sulk the rest of the evening,” Castiel whispers through the oppressive quiet. “Sometimes you’re alarmingly uncreative in your approach to killing monsters, Dean. That’s all I’m saying.”

Dean mumbles something under his breath and follows behind him.

“What?”

Nothing.”

Castiel rolls his eyes and keeps walking. He’s about to take a turn into the depths of the science stacks when something on the other end of a long row of shelves catches his eye. It takes him a moment to really parse what he’s seeing, reassure himself that it’s not something he’s just producing in his head. Dean’s not paying attention. He runs straight into Castiel’s back.

“Ow,” he says, coughing. “What’re you—”

“Do you see it?” He points. Dean squints for a second at where Castiel is gesturing before Castiel takes off without waiting for a response.

It’s a picture. One he knows intimately, because it was taken in his own home, in front of the bookshelves in the study, not so very long ago. He gets closer, sees it’s mounted on cardstock, resting on an easel. His sound of his footsteps hits the muffling paper of the books and stops. When he reaches the end of the row of shelves, he can finally read the sign taped above the image, then the smaller one taped below.

The larger one says, “Spotlight on Authors with Mental Illness.”

The smaller one says—

“Do you know J. Novak?” A librarian appears beside him like she just manifested there, and he jumps forward, hitting the table beside the easel and knocking some of the books down off their display racks. “He’s one of my favorites.”

Now that he’s closer, he can see the books on the table too, and he recognizes almost all the covers. Maybe he knew some of them before he could even read. He saw printed prototypes of most of these strewn out on the dining room table. He can remember a hand on his as he moved his fingertips over two different types of laminate for the cover.

Matte or gloss, Cas? What do you think? And you don’t think just about how it looks. You have to think about how it feels to the reader, too.

He remembers saying he liked matte better. But all the covers in front of him are glossy and plastic-smooth.

He says, “Yes.”

He doesn’t say, he’s my father.

“Well, you might be a bit young for his work now, but his openness about his battle with mental illness is really quite admirable.” She beams. Picks up one of the books that fell and puts it back on a little display rack with tender care. It’s a library copy, so it’s all bent up and dog-eared, but she’s reverent and gentle nonetheless. Dean arrives at his side then, panting harshly, gratingly. He’s in some kind of pain. Castiel can’t be bothered to figure out where it’s coming from this time.

Dean looks at the picture on the easel and tilts his head like he’s trying to puzzle it out. Castiel sees the exact moment Dean catches on, sees the dawning realization in his face when his eyes skiff over the debossed, gold-foiled author name on the cover of each book. Castiel elbows him to keep his mouth shut when it looks like he’s going to pipe up.

“What do you mean—mental illness?”

“Oh, well. Mr. Novak is schizophrenic. You know what that means, sweetie?”

He’s not a baby, and he’s heard the word schizophrenia before—in movies, in books, on the television at Dean’s house—so part of him chafes at the condescension. But there’s a smaller part of him that wants to know what that means for him, for his father and his mother. And if that had anything to do with his father’s increasing distance and absences.

He whispers, “Not really.”

Dean picks up one of his father’s books and turns it over, makes a show of reading the book jacket. His eyes flick between the author picture and Castiel’s face, no doubt looking for similarities. It’s obvious, if you look for it. Dean’s never met his dad before and Cas doesn’t really talk about him, but everyone always told him how very much he looked like his father. In church. At parent-teacher conferences. At his father’s awards shows, when he and his dad were choked up in identical black tuxedos. Everywhere.

“Well, it means he gets delusions sometimes. Sometimes he hears voices or hallucinates or can’t control his own thoughts. Sometimes he has trouble functioning. It’s just a disease that affects your brain.”

He wants to ask, would it make him leave? Would it make him abandon everything? Would it make him stop loving me?

But that seems a little too on-the-nose with Dean beside him, trying to look busy.

He picks up one of the books from the display. It’s thick, hardcover, with crisp white pages. It looks newer than the others, less well-used. It’s called, In His Own Image.

The librarian says, “Good eye. That’s his most recent book. I think he’s come a long way as a writer in the last couple of years. Maybe you should give it a try, if you think you’d like it.”

Castiel nods. Turns the book over. Tries not to think about how a couple of years away from his family might make his father a better writer. He runs his fingers over an unfamiliar picture of his father—it was taken somewhere new. Somewhere unfamiliar. It’s more somber than the one that was taken in his study, the one on the easel. No, on this book, he looks back at Castiel from some white room, his face stony and stormy and solemn, his eyes identical to the ones Castiel sees in the mirror every day.

The lights flicker again, warning fifteen minutes until close, and it sinks the library into complete darkness, given that it’s gone full dark outside. So he says an awkward goodbye to the librarian, leaving her to straighten the mess he made, and heads toward the circulation desk, book in hand, without stopping to see if Dean is following him. Cas can hear Dean’s shuffling steps after him anyway. And he dreads the exact moment he catches up with him enough to whisper—

“Is that—is that your dad?”

Castiel nods.

There’s a line at the circulation desk, a whole slew of people trying to check their books out at the end of the day. And Castiel is trying to make it very clear that he doesn’t want to talk about it by staring hard at the wall over the circulation desk, where there’s a big poster of LeVar Burton telling him to read.

“You didn’t tell me your dad was famous!”

“I told you he’s an author.”

“Yeah but—he’s got. There’s a giant picture of his face.”

“Leave it alone.” Dean does, even though the whole time they check out, he vibrates with unasked questions. But he lets Castiel stash the book in their D&D bag with the satchels of dice and the character sheets, no questions asked. Doesn’t say a word to rat him out the whole car ride home, even though Castiel himself can feel the pull of the temptation. The whole ride home, he’s a half a second from jumping down his mother’s throat about that. About what it means. About why she never told him. Dean lets him keep the bag even when he gets out of the car at his house, to hide the book from his mother’s prying eyes.

At home, he reads the book in the quiet of his bedroom. Under his covers, flashlight on and carefully aimed away from the crack under the door. He marinates in his own breath there under the blankets, feeling giddy and lightheaded. The librarian was right, though—the pages are a bit too dense for him. Tough to understand. He gets the gist of it—that there’s a mentally ill man struggling with some brand of religious paranoia and an underaged love interest at his university. When he gets to the first flashy, heated sex scene, he slams the book shut, not even bothering with the bookmark. It’s a side of his father he doesn’t recognize, one he’s not sure he was meant to see.

In the end, he figures his mother was probably right. Maybe the asshole who left them wasn’t worth the time it took to wade through his pretentious novel.

The whole affair leaves swirling eddies of upset in his stomach nonetheless. He returns the book a week later, at their next D&D session, and by then, his father has been replaced by another author with a mental illness. A bipolar one, this time. And then he doesn’t think about his father anymore.


Based on everything Castiel has heard Dean’s uncle Bobby grumble under his breath, they don’t much care for the government. His mother doesn’t much either—she’s always talking about what the government is trying to take from them, how taxes are too high, how they’re infringing on her American right to freedom or something. And he gets the feeling she only likes it when they make his father pay child support. But Bobby’s grief seems different. Bobby says that they’re always sticking their noses where they don’t belong, that they can’t just live and let live. But the Winchesters seem to get a lot of help from the government for all that talk. Gallons of what Dean calls “government milk” in the fridge, blocks of “government” cheese. They give Dean his health insurance, pay for his medical equipment, send him a check—they seem to get all the services Castiel’s mother says are a drain on society, so it’s tough to see why they’d complain.

Until Agent Henriksen.

Castiel is at Dean’s house for an afternoon visit because Dean said the TV guide said there’s going to be a Star Trek marathon starting at two and Dean won’t shut up about the stupid show, hasn’t so long as Castiel’s known him, but Castiel can’t very well catch it at home because he doesn’t have a television.

Dean’s television isn’t much of a step above having none at all, but they huddle in close and turn the volume way up, and Castiel can concede he’s excited, because Dean’s not wrong about a show about space travel being in his wheelhouse, and Dean pays attention to the things he likes, and Dean really thinks he’s going to like this.

Bobby is just popping them what Castiel knows will be bland, butterless, saltless popcorn when Sam shouts from where his moppy head has vanished under the bottom of the drawn living room curtain.

“Uncle Bobby! The social worker man is here!”

The warm sound of popping kernels in the other room cuts out abruptly as the sauce pan clatters to rest on the formica countertop.

“Man?” Bobby calls.

“Yeah. Mr. Henriksen.” Bobby swears under his breath in the other room.

“Git away from the window, Sam,” Bobby says in that tone that brooks no argument, the one he doesn’t bust out that often and that’s all the more scary for it. Sam obeys. He sets the curtain softly to rest and then skitters away from it, his eyes still on the light prising its way from between the heavy, shuffling fabric of them. On the TV, the first staticky lines of a Star Trek episode have started already. They sound rounded and muffled and old, obviously not of this modern era—Space, the final frontier—but Dean isn’t paying attention to them anymore. He’s looking at Bobby, who’s looking discreetly out the window Sam just left. When he pops back out from behind the curtain, he’s looking straight at Cas.

“Come with me, quick now,” he says, again in that tone, and Castiel isn’t so stupid as to argue that the show has just started. He just shuffles to his feet and then to Bobby’s side, at attention. “Dean. Sam. You know what to do.”

They both nod, and Castiel sees Dean, strangely enough, pinching at his cheeks and running for the hall closet while Sam does something busy-looking with Dean’s equipment, before Castiel follows Bobby down the hall, up the stairs, and strangely, to Bobby’s bedroom. He’s never been in here before, but it’s about as warm and clean and sparse as the rest of the house. He’s at the end of the building so the eaves are high and sloping enough that it seems large, but Castiel can easily see that this room is smaller than the one he gave the boys. There’s not much in the room except a metal-framed bed that’s wilting in the middle, a dark wood armoire, and an altogether massive safe standing tall and straight in the corner. He has the abrupt illusion that perhaps Mr. Singer was actually wealthy all this time, but the illusion is shattered when the safe opens to reveal—guns. A lot of guns. Castiel has never seen a gun in person before in his life, much less this many in one place, and he feels his mouth go dry. As if that wasn’t enough guns, Bobby reaches into the back of his pants to pull out two more, then finds something else shiny in the sock at his ankle and stocks that away too. Bobby points to a thick leather book on his bedside table.

“Grab me that, will you son?”

Castiel does. There are about a hundred bookmarks in the thing and it’s so heavy he struggles to lift it, but Bobby takes it easily when he hands it over and, strangely enough, throws it into the gun safe as well.

“Alright, we ain’t got much time, and this is gonna sound weird, kid, I know it is, but bear with me ‘n do as I say. This guy downstairs is a social worker. Sam ‘n Dean’s social worker. Which means he’s the one who makes sure those boys are gettin’ taken care of. Dean in particular. He’s ain’t gonna interrogate you or nothing, but he might try to catch me in a lie.”

Castiel furrows his brow, nods.

“So.” Bobby claps his hands, rubs them together. “So far as you know, Dean’s well cared for, happy, well-adjusted.” Bobby ticks the buzzwords off on his fingers like he’s reading from an overhead projector. Castiel nods again. He doesn’t see how that’s contentious. Bobby takes good care of his boys. “He gets three squares, manages his diet well. Goes to bed on time. Always gets his meds.” Castiel nods again. The way Bobby says it, makes it sound like there might be times when Dean really didn’t get his meds. Which isn’t something that occurred to Castiel before.

“And here’s where it gets tricky, but you gotta understand, that these are people who have Dean’s best interests at heart, but they’re real strict. So, so far as you know, Dean doesn’t go swimmin’. Or ride on your bike handlebars. He does all his treatments on time. Doesn’t act out at school and Castiel, son—I can’t stress this enough.” Bobby lays a hand on his shoulder and looks straight into his eyes. “So far as you know, the boys never hear from their daddy, and he hasn’t come ‘round in years. Do you understand?”

The doorbell downstairs rings, and he hears Sam answer it, as loudly as he’s probably able to be.

Bobby lowers his voice and doesn’t look away. There’s more urgency when he repeats, “Do you understand, son?”

“I thought—I thought their dad still came to see them?”

Bobby looks pained. He takes the hand off Castiel’s shoulder to rub the back of his neck. “He does. He does. But here’s the thing—he ain’t s’posed to. We made an agreement when I took ‘em in. And they could take the boys away if they find out. It’s complicated, kid.”

Castiel balks. “Take away?”

“He just has to say the word, and they go into foster care somewhere else.”

That sets Castiel’s heart beating hard in his chest. Sometimes, he still wonders if his mom is going to go to work and never come back. Somehow, he never got quite so far as really figuring out what was going to come after that.

“Oh. Well they don’t want to be taken away from you?” he says. Upward inflection like a question, but he knows it’s a fact.

“No. They don’t.”

“Okay. So...I won’t. I’ll—”

—lie.

Bobby grins, pats him on the shoulder twice, and then turns around to close the well-oiled gun safe door with a massive resonating thunk. He twists the massive knob, and the bolts all slide into place with a metallic sound.

“Good. Good boy. If anyone asks why we were upstairs, you needed a band-aid.” Castiel nods and follows Bobby out the bedroom door. To be especially thorough, Bobby smacks into the bathroom without turning the light on and grabs a little bandage, slapping it on one of Castiel’s uninjured index fingers before they head down the stairs. It itches on healthy skin.

It’s kind of amazing watching how easy the lies come to Bobby, now that Castiel knows to look for them. They come just as fast and fluid as normal conversation. His mom always knows when he’s lying. He knows he has tells, because lies don’t feel good coming out of his mouth, so they probably don’t sound good either. He wonders, briefly, how much practice that took. How many other lies Bobby has under his belt to be able to rattle off new ones like that.

The social worker is on the couch when they come downstairs. He’s listening to Sam ramble about something, but his eyes aren’t on Sam. They’re tracing the room with an avian sharpness, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Dean sits on the couch next to him looking distinctly miserable. He’s uncharacteristically quiet. While Castiel was upstairs getting his warning, Dean must’ve put on just about every outer layer in the hall closet, because he looks bulkier. Heavier. The pinching Castiel saw him doing before has also brought some rosy color to his cheeks, and his hair is all combed and wetted down. It’s all temporary. Just another part of a lie. But for the moment, he looks healthier.

“Victor. Mr. Henriksen. Didn’t expect to see you ‘round here.” Bobby says deferentially, nodding his head when he crosses the threshold. “Whatever happened to Jody?” Mr. Henriksen doesn’t stop his roaming eyes to look at him. And he doesn’t say hello either.

“I’m afraid Ms. Mills is busy today,” he says, disarming, aloof. Then, “You left the stove on, Mr. Singer.”

Bobby’s composure breaks just a little bit. He glances over his shoulder into the kitchen at the red stove light, gleaming like a beacon. Castiel can see the flinch travel through his shoulders.

“We had a papercut situation that needed handlin’.” Bobby jerks his thumb toward Cas, standing by his side in the living room doorway. “Went upstairs to put a bandaid on it just real quick, and I was makin’ popcorn for the boys.” He disappears into the kitchen for a moment, and Castiel hears the click of the stove knob before he tracks his footsteps coming back.

Henriksen’s roving eyes land on the television set, muted now, though what Castiel assumes is Star Trek is still playing.

“Movie night, huh? You boys watching some Star Trek?”

He’s gentler talking to Dean than he is to Bobby, which Castiel knows from experience Dean despises. He can see it in the twist of his lips. Dean doesn’t answer. Instead, he picks up a long, wet cough.

When the cough finishes and there’s still silence, it becomes clear that Henriksen is determined to wait him out, so Dean says, “There’s a marathon on. Cas hasn’t ever seen it.”

“And this is Cas?” His eyes land on Castiel for the first time, and he shouldn’t be an intimidating figure. His eyes are sharp, but they’re a empathetic chocolate brown. And he does his best to soften the angles of his face with a kind smile, an unassuming expression. But Castiel knows now what he can do. With a word, this man can take everything from Sam and Dean and Bobby.

Castiel thinks that if he opened his mouth right now, the first thing to come out would be some upsetting truth. So he just nods.

“Always nice to meet a friend of Dean’s, Castiel.” Castiel tilts his head. Dean rolls his eyes. “I don’t mean to get in the way of your marathon. I just want to check in with Dean and have a look around, like usual.”

He pats his hands on his knees and then gets up. Even his outfit is trying to say not threatening—khakis and a sweater vest and a blue button-down shirt. But when he zips open his black messenger bag, pulls out a notebook, pointedly clicks a pen, and starts writing, he’s anything but. He wields his pen deliberately, like a weapon.

After he’s written his piece, he pulls Bobby aside in the kitchen, and as soon as he’s out of Mr. Henriksen’s sight, Dean starts pinching at his cheeks again in earnest, like a reflex. His eyes are overbright and worried. Sam though, Sam looks so anxious he’s almost paler than Dean. He sits on the couch by his brother, scoots in so close and starts whispering so low Castiel has to walk closer to eavesdrop.

“He knows.”

“He doesn’t know, stupid,” Dean whispers back. “They’re just doing one of the random checks they always do.”

“But normally they send the nice lady!”

“You heard him—Jody is busy.”

“But Mr. Henriksen—he’s the one that—”

“I know.”

“He’s the one that what?” Castiel says at a normal volume, and Dean looks at him like he’s just shot him in the chest.

“Be quiet!” he stage whispers.

“He’s the one that what?” Castiel repeats, whispering.

“He’s the one that took us away from Dad in the first place,” Dean says. “He’s the one looking for our dad.”

Looking for your—” Mr. Henriksen and Bobby walk by the open doorway to the living room, and they all three go silent at the same time, none of them even daring to breathe. But they move past them and mount the stairs, both of them talking quietly about air quality or cleanliness or humidity or something. When their footsteps disappear all the way up the stairs and down the hall, Castiel finishes his thought. “I thought your dad was in the CIA or something. Why would anyone be looking for him?”

“Dad stole Dean’s disability check this month.”

“Shut up, Sam! He’s gonna hear you! And he didn’t steal it, he can have it, it’s my check—”

“Well, maybe he should hear me! Uncle Bobby uses that—he uses that for your medicine, Dean, and Dad’s gonna—”

“Sam.”

“—Dad’s gonna use it on bullets or something.”

Castiel blinks. “What—”

“Don’t be such a little bitch, Sam.” Dean smacks Sam’s arm with the back of his hand. “Gonna tell on him, huh? Just like you always do—”

Sam says, “Hey!” Then he shoves Dean right back. Castiel takes a step back, and they seem to forget he’s even there. By the time Bobby and Mr. Henriksen come back down the stairs, Sam and Dean are on the floor having a full-blown meltdown. Dean has a split lip from one of Sam’s flailing limbs and he’s in the process of trying to use some kind of wrestling move to pull Sam’s hand behind his back. Bobby jumps right into the middle of it, pulling them with gentle hands, even though Dean refuses to let off, going after his little brother even as he’s screaming bloody murder. Sam has tears in his eyes, and his lip is warbling, and then Dean’s breathing picks up like he’s about to have an asthma attack.

In the midst of the chaos, Mr. Henriksen singles Cas out on the side of the room, sauntering over to him like two brothers in the midst of an actual wrestling match isn’t something that fazes him. And it probably doesn’t. He still has his notepad open in one hand, and with the other hand, he gives his pen an audible click.

“Have you been friends with Dean for a long time, Castiel?” Castiel feels sweat gathering at his collar. He can see the television in his periphery and he looks at it instead of at Mr. Henriksen just because it’s easier. On screen, a chubby guy in a yellow shirt chucks big fake boulders at somebody in a swamp thing suit. It looks ridiculous.  

He nods.

“So you must know a lot about him.”

He nods again, even though if he’s honest, the more he learns about Dean, the less he feels like he understands him.

“Do you think Dean’s been more sick than normal this past year?”

That’s an interesting question. He thinks of every time he’s missed school the last year, every time he’s coughed until he vomited or worn his oxygen or used his inhaler. It’s a lot. But it’s always been a lot.

He shrugs.

Across the room, Sam has finally lost it, crying big, gulping breaths. He holds tight to his shoulder where Dean probably got a good hit in, but Bobby isn’t paying attention, because Dean’s sucking on his rescue inhaler and Bobby’s busy patting him hard on the back.

“One last thing, Castiel—have the boys ever mentioned other members of their family to you?”

It feels like a leading question. Like he knows what they were just talking about while he and Bobby were checking out the upstairs. Like he heard them through the floor, and if Castiel shakes his head now, he’s going to be caught in a lie. He stands frozen with indecision.

“You don’t have to protect anybody who doesn’t deserve it, kid,” Mr. Henriksen says softly.

And then Castiel remembers that he could ruin everything for everyone, and he shakes his head so hard his hair flops against his forehead.

He sneaks a look at Mr. Henriksen when he hears him scribbling something on his notepad. Mr. Henriksen catches him looking and he smiles. It feels like a trap. But then—Castiel remembers what Sam said. About their dad taking a check that belonged to Dean. That Dean used to buy his medications. And he thinks that maybe, despite whatever Dean thought he wanted, it wouldn’t be so bad for somebody to find where he was.

“I’m not trying to trick you. I’m not bad. I just want what’s best for the boys.” Mr. Henriksen nods his head toward where, Dean’s crisis averted, Mr. Singer is doing his best to wipe the streams of snot from Sam’s face and Dean’s doing his best to look like he’s not the one responsible for it.

Castiel is a terrible liar, so he gives the only truth he can.

“Mr. Singer is what’s best. And—and being here. They’re good here.”

Mr. Henriksen smiles at him. Then, without a word, he flicks a sturdy, minimalist business card out of his sleeve like a magic trick and hands it off to Castiel. Cas takes a moment to look at the name, the phone number, and then tucks it carefully into his pocket.

Henriksen says, “I know.”

Bobby comes back into the conversation looking exhausted and apologetic. He’s wringing his normal brimmed hat between his hands, and he looks smaller without it.

“This ain’t normal. Normally they’re so—they hardly fight. I swear it.”

Mr. Henriksen holds up a hand and Bobby stops in his tracks. “They’re brothers. Of course it’s normal.” says Mr. Henriksen. “Boys will be boys.” And then he winks at Castiel. He spends the next half hour or so chatting with the boys. Bobby has to bribe Sam with cookies to talk at all, which involves a stumbling explanation as to why he keeps a cabinet full of cookies in a house with a diabetic kid and sparks an uncomfortable discussion about all of Dean’s stomach problems that leave Dean’s ears red and Castiel’s ears burning.

Eventually, he just starts watching Star Trek on his own with the volume turned way down low, and by the time Mr. Henriksen is gone and the boys have gotten a dressing down for their behavior while the social worker that could take them into foster care anytime was here, Castiel’s mom is there to pick him up. Dean watches him go without ever meeting his eye.

His mom asks him if he liked the show. The business card burns a hole in his pocket.


“You shouldn’t be eating that,” Castiel says, pointing warily at the Snickers bar in Dean’s hand. Dean feels good right now—on top of his meds, no infection for a while, but old habits die hard, and with Dean, there’s always something to be on the lookout for.

Dean mimics, “You shouldn’t be eating that,” in a high voice that makes Castiel roll his eyes and then rips open the candy bar’s wrapper vindictively with his teeth. “Hey, you’re the astronaut—do you think they’ve found the world where I care about that yet?”

They’ve foregone the lunchroom and the crowds in their middle school for the day in favor of making slow laps on the track outside. The loops are familiar enough for Castiel—he went out for cross country this year, because he likes running, and he likes how running lets him think more clearly. Likes the high that comes with flying down the track. He also knows he needs to be fit to go into space.

Dean, though. Dean’s never even had to run a lap for PE, which he loves to rub in Castiel’s face. He treats the springboardy rebound of the track like he’s walking in zero gravity. He stops every now and then to bend his knees into it and spring back up.

Dean takes too big a bite of his Snickers. Caramel strings from the end of the bar to his teeth, and Dean makes sure he can see by grinning right at him.

“Gross, Dean.” Castiel sticks his tongue out. Dean laughs. They walk in silence for a few more minutes, Dean biting on the candy bar much more sedately now.

“Hey—I.” Castiel concentrates on the lines of the track at his feet while he asks. Above him, there’s a smattering of lazy birdsong that sounds like the dying days of summer. “Speaking of spacemen. Did you do that career aptitude test in health class?”

Dean snorts.

“That dumb thing? Yeah.” He itches at the hair behind his ear. “Why?”

Castiel flits his eyes to Dean’s face, but Dean’s looking at the lines of the track too. Avoiding eye contact, maybe. “You think it’s dumb?”

Dean shrugs, thin shoulders moving in hard peaks under his shirt.

“Yeah, sure. You don’t? You really think you’re gonna figure out what you’re gonna do for the rest of your life from some scantron test when you’re fourteen?”

“Well—” Castiel starts before he knows where he’s going with that. When Dean puts it like that, it does seem a little silly, which is—surprisingly level-headed for Dean Winchester. The other students in his class were all buzzing about their future careers, spinning stories of what their lives were going to look like when they were adults. But here Dean was. Two feet on the ground.

He pauses, jaw ajar, and grits his teeth before he confesses, “Mine said I should be an author.” He recalls the abject horror of the results in his very bones, a familiar fear that’s manifested in an ancient ache in the pit of his chest.

Dean takes a thoughtful nibble on his Snickers bar.

“Like your old man?”

Castiel nods miserably.

“No astronaut or astrophysicist or nothin’?”

Castiel shakes his head.

“Well, that’s stupid. You’re going to go into space.”

Dean’s absolute faith in him makes his throat feel swollen up, just like it has since Dean sat down across from him in the library and asked him about Pluto.

“I just—it makes me think maybe I’m—meant to end up just like him and I don’t. I mean, he’s famous, so I guess I should be so lucky. I do want people to know my name.”

Castiel sprints ahead a ways and jumps up on a pyramid of lumber they’re using to build a new baseball pit on the other side of the field. He plays balance beam, one unsteady foot in front of the other. When he looks back, Dean is still walking at a steady pace, munching pensively. Cas had been thinking that Dean looks healthy, but there was no accounting for the nerve pain that left him floored sometimes, totally without warning or recourse, so Castiel could only figure he hadn’t followed because he was hurting somewhere.

Dean puts on a weary smile.

“Why d’you want people to know your name for? So they can pronounce it?”

“Ha ha.

Dean pauses in his tracks, rubbing the toes of his grubby sneakers together. The Snickers bar left smudges of chocolate on his fingertips because he didn’t eat it fast enough. He wipes his hand on his shirt absently and clenches his fist in the fabric.

“You know how I knew it was full of shit?” He laughs, dry and bitter. “It told me I should be an engineer.”

Castiel jumps from his makeshift balance beam, dismounting with his arms flung wide like a gymnast. The movement catches Dean’s eye, and he watches the feat of acrobatics with a scrunched-up nose.

“What’s so weird about that?” Castiel says, breathing hard. “You like cars, and you’re real good with computers—”

Dean looks at Cas like he just planted a knife in his gut and twisted.

“You want me to list the reasons, like, numerically or alphabetically or—”

“Dean.”

“For one thing, I’m not exactly the brains of my family.”

Castiel didn’t know exactly what that meant, because as far as he knew, Sam still didn’t color inside the lines, and John Winchester wasn’t smart enough to raise his own kids. But he didn’t say as much.

“And for another—you know how much school that takes?” he asks, pained.

“I’m sure you could get the scholarships if you do really well in—”

“Jesus, Cas, I can’t believe I have to spell this out for you of all people. You’re the first person who ever—who laid it down straight to my face, didn’t lie to me. Back when we first met.” It dawns on Castiel what exactly he means a moment before Dean actually says it, but it’s much worse coming out of his mouth. Like Dean pulled the knife out of his own gut and planted it back in Castiel’s. Mostly because Castiel can’t take back the fact that he planted that seed, and maybe there’s a pain in Dean right now that’s feeding it, but Castiel put it there in the first place.

“I’d be dead before I ever got my PhD, Cas. Hooked up to a machine in some state-funded apartment halfway through my master’s. So what’s the fuckin’ point?”

“I—” he lets his mouth gape. He doesn’t know how to take back something he said five years ago when he knows, now more than ever, that what he said is probably true. Dean is probably right. Statistically speaking, Dean wouldn’t live to have a long and fruitful career even if he did live long enough to get the education to have one in the first place.

So instead of saying anything useful, he takes what feels like a whole five minutes to stutter out, “Don’t say that.”

Which, he gathers, is the wrong thing to say.

“Sorry I’m making you uncomfortable! I’ll try to tone it down!”

Castiel starts, “You’ve been so healthy lately—”

Dean barks a laugh.

“Tell that to my spirometry results.”

“I—” he snaps his mouth shut, flustered. He can feel the flush of shame spreading up from his neck. “I can’t—” he can’t respond to that because he doesn’t know what that is. And he feels inexplicably guilty for not knowing that, too.

“Sorry,” Dean’s apology comes from out of nowhere, as premeditated as the whole outburst itself seems to have been. “Sorry. I didn’t mean nothing by it—I didn’t. Let’s go back inside.”

But Castiel is shaken.

“You don’t—is everything okay?”

“Fine.”

Dean doesn’t look at him. He bounces distractedly on the track, rubbing at his lower back and looking anywhere but at Castiel.

“If you don’t—” If you can’t, he thinks and doesn’t say, “If you don’t wanna be an engineer, there are lots of other things you can do, Dean. You can—leave your mark somehow.”

Dean sighs. He stuffs his hands in the pockets of his too-big cargo shorts and looks at the sky.

“I don’t—” he pauses. “You and me got different problems, Cas. Y’know?”

Castiel furrows his brow and kicks at the track with the brand new tennis shoes his mother got him for track. Dean’s wearing the sneakers that were too small for him a summer ago.

“No,” he says, not quite willing to agree.

“Yeah, well. Just trust me then.”

Dean starts back toward the school. People close to the building are starting to file toward the doors in preparation for the ring of the warning bell, which can’t be far off now. If Dean has his way, the conversation is supposed to be over now. But Castiel can’t escape one thing Dean said, playing it over and over in his head—

“Dean—” he starts.

Dean stops but doesn’t turn.

“What’s spirometry?”

Dean sighs. “It’s a test the doctors give me to test my lungs. And how well they work. Like, over time.”

“And it’s—” Cas tries to feel out the answer, but Dean doesn’t give him an inch. “It’s not good? I mean—it’s getting worse?”

Somehow he got to thinking that Dean’s recent stint of good health meant he was improving, or, at the very least, he wasn’t getting any worse. But.

“It sure as hell ain’t getting any better, Cas. The doctor thinks—I don’t need to know, but I’m not an idiot like they think I am. I heard ‘em talking to my uncle. Slow but steady.” The warning bell rings and jolts a shot of adrenaline out of him. “C’mon.”

Cas follows him inside, and they part ways in the hallway without even another word. Castiel spends his entire pre-algebra class replaying the conversation in his head. The exchange about scholarships. Slow but steady. And he’s filled with quiet, sinking dread.

It feels like the worst thing in the world when the teacher calls on him and he doesn’t know how to solve for “x.” But Dean has a quantifiable time bomb in his chest, charts and readings mapping the slope toward his death. And he understands.

He and Dean have very different problems.

Chapter Text

After tenth grade, Castiel’s chest starts to fill out and he gains a little bit of height, but Dean seems to stay the same size. Sam’s growing too. He’s about the same age he and Dean were when they met each other, but Dean never looked that healthy and Dean never had that much weight on him and Dean never got to go out for the soccer team like Sam did.

On the bright side, it’s easy to carry Dean on his handlebars of his bike and it gets easier every day. Dean doesn’t begrudge Sam his soccer games or his little soccer trophies or the sweaty look of exaltation he always gets when he scores a goal or blocks a pass, so he and Castiel bike to the soccer field to watch his weekend practices before they take their trips to the swimming hole.

Dean thinks Mr. Singer doesn’t know about it, and that he doesn’t know Dean doesn’t wear a helmet, and that he doesn’t know Dean’s not just in his room reading comics and doing his breathing treatments like a good little CF patient, but Castiel knows better. Dean makes a show of sneaking out when his uncle is working in his warehouse out back, but Mr. Singer isn’t an idiot, and just like he knew Dean was going to go out to the deep end on their very first trip to the swimming hole together, he’s sure he knows about their treks together now. He’s also sure Mr. Singer is waiting for the day Castiel takes him up on his offer to pick a car out of the lot out back and let him fix it for him, because everyone would probably prefer that Dean wasn’t perched on Castiel’s handlebars anymore.

Everyone—except Dean, probably.

It’s a normal summer Saturday, Dean’s body leaning heavily on his shoulder, cheek to cheek as they pedal down the road, but it stops being normal when they pedal into the parking lot of the park by the school and Dean tenses. He can feel it immediately. There’s not a lot between Dean’s bones and Castiel besides a thin t-shirt and little bit of paper skin, and going rigid throws off the easy, relaxed balance they’d been maintaining so well on their way through town.

Castiel pumps on the brake to slow down and try to keep his balance as the front wheel wavers a wobbly warning line, but Dean isn’t paying attention, isn’t prepared for the stop, and he falls straight onto the gravelly hardtop, breaking his fall with his right arm. Castiel screeches the brakes so hard that he has to use his feet to keep his balance. He can feel where his heel, in nothing but a flip-flop, drags and scrapes the ground. It stings like crazy, but he doesn’t pay it any mind.

Dean,” he grounds out, dropping the bike to the ground and doubling back to Dean, collapsed on the ground and cradling his arm against his chest. “What the hell?”

Dean’s arm is bleeding. Dean’s arm bleeding isn’t much like other people’s arms bleeding. Nothing works right for Dean; nothing in his body was made right, and it’s hard to get his bleeding to stop once it starts. Castiel had a jacket wrapped around his middle, and he wraps it around Dean’s forearm before any blood can even drip on the ground. But they need to disinfect it, probably.

Dean doesn’t have an answer. He just points a shaky finger across the parking lot and says, “My dad’s here,” which is about the last thing Castiel expected.

He looks up expecting to find the man himself—John Winchester, how Dean always described him. Big, gruff, macho man with dark hair and dark eyes and—probably a gun in his hand, honestly. The way Dean talks about him. But instead, he sees what Dean’s pointing at. A big black behemoth of a classic car, sparkling at the far end of the parking lot, set away from the soccer-mom minivans and subarus like it’s trying to make a statement.

“Are you sure it’s him? Maybe someone else has the same car?”

Dean looks at him like he’s got two heads. Like it’s ludicrous that any car in the universe could ever look like that car.

“Right. Uh. Oh.” Castiel tries not to act like it’s weird that a guy who doesn’t ever seem to show his face around his boys would suddenly show up at a casual Saturday soccer practice like he belongs there. “Should we go—say hi?”

Dean looks down at his arm, face twisted like he’s torn. “What do I tell him? He’s—he’s not gonna like that I’m out. He probably thinks I’m at home—takin’ a nap or something.” But he wants to see him, Castiel knows. John Winchester is never in town, and whenever he is, Dean disappears. Goes home straight after school, stops answering calls. He can already see Dean’s mind racing—why his dad wasn’t at home, why he didn’t say hello, why he didn’t check in with Dean at home first. “He’s gonna be mad I haven’t put on any weight,” Dean says, more to himself than anything.

“You should put on more weight.”

“Yeah, well. It’s almost like I got this disease that makes me bad at digestin’ anything.”

“Well you should be doing more tube feedings.”

Dean’s face crinkles and he sticks out his tongue. “I hate tube feedings. You try pukin’ up stuff you never even ate and see how much you like it.”

Castiel shrugs. “Well. You would put on more weight if you did.”

“What’re you, my dad?”

“Dean.”

A big voice booms its way across the parking lot, and Castiel knows instantly that it’s John Winchester. He doesn’t even have to look up.

Dean gets a stricken look on his face and tries to hide his bloody arm, but the blood has seeped through the jacket in little speckled spots, and Dean’s face is even paler than it usually is.

“Dean. You answer when I talk to you.”

He’s big. He’s tall and imposing and dark-eyed and handsome. He can’t see any Dean in him, but there’s a lot of Sam in the set of his shoulders and the cut of his brow. Dean scrambles to his feet.

“Yessir,” Dean says sharply.

Sam comes up behind him in his muddy uniform and grassy cleats, soccer ball slung under his arm.

“Oh, hey Dean. Hey, Cas.”

“What are you doin’ all the way out here?”  He looks around the parking lot like he’s searching for Bobby’s old beat-up Chevelle. “You get a ride?”

Dean shakes his head minutely.

“Dean,” John says.

“No. No sir.”

“Him and Cas come out to watch me practice sometimes, Dad,” Sam says, gesturing at Castiel. Castiel feels himself go numb all the way down to his toes, just from being mentioned.

“Cas?”

“This is my friend Castiel, Dad,” Dean gestures with his shoulder, not taking his hand off his bleeding arm, and that is not lost on John Winchester.

“What happened to your arm?” He doesn’t spare a thought for Castiel. Instead, he descends on Dean like a man possessed. He holds Dean’s arm tenderly in his big hands before he forces the jacket off of him. Dean’s already tiny, but in John’s shadow, he looks even smaller. The injury isn’t actually that dramatic—just a little bit of a dirty, messy scrape up the inside of his arm that needs some treatment with disinfectant and bandages. If it wasn’t Dean’s arm, it might’ve stopped bleeding by now. John doesn’t seem to think so. He looks like the world is folding in. “Jesus Christ, Dean. What the hell happened?”

Without waiting for an answer, he leads Dean back to the big black car with a firm hold on his uninjured arm, and Castiel trails along helplessly. He tries to get some kind of solidarity from Sam, but Sam isn’t looking at him. He’s busy fiddling with the soccer ball he’s got slung under his arm and looking at his shuffling cleats.

Dean seems to have entered a whole other plane of existence, where there’s just John Winchester and him. When John pops open the trunk, he spares a glance for Castiel, and he’s quick about getting what he needs and closing it, and it turns out that what he needs is an altogether massive first aid kid, the kind you might see in a particularly well-stocked field hospital. He unclasps it, and when it pops open, there are multiple tiers of medical supplies—pills and bandages and ointments and vacuum-sealed pieces of surgical equipment. There are butterfly needles to start IV lines, pieces of tubing. Neither Dean nor Sam seem to think that’s odd.

“Is your dad a field doctor?” Castiel asks Sam under his breath as John busies himself with efficiently dressing the wound. The tender touches are gone, and he handles Dean like a patient, brisk and efficient. Dean looks at his dad like he can’t quite believe he’s there.

“What? Oh. Uh, nuh uh,” Sam says, shrugging. He’s got his ball on the ground, and he’s doing practice drills where he stands, shuffling his feet back and forth on either side of it. “He’s just real good at it. For his job.” Cas nods at the mention of John Winchester’s mythical job again. The job that makes him, apparently, a doctor and a master at hand-to-hand combat and killer shot with a revolver. He’s a soldier, Castiel knows. That’s pretty much all Dean seemed to know, too. That his dad was a Marine.

Once Dean’s arm is expertly swathed in an even layer of bandages and the kit is back in the trunk, John spares a thought for Castiel. He turns on him, at his full height, and even though Castiel’s definitely gained a few inches, this is not someone he wants to face down shortly after he broke the rules to put his sick son on his handlebars and threw said sick son to the ground.

“Castiel, huh?” he says. He shapes his tongue around the name like it’s something distasteful.

Castiel nods and says, “Uh. Yes.” From behind his father’s back, Dean mouths something, and Castiel has to squint to see it. The words all blur together, but eventually he’s able to discern, sir sir sir! Castiel blurts, “Sir. Yes sir.”

“Castiel. You happen to know how my kid came to get this nasty scrape on his arm?”

Dean’s eyes go wide. “Dad…that’s not. He didn’t.”

John just has to bark, “Dean.” And he’s quiet again, shrinking into himself.

Castiel tells the truth. “He fell. Sir.”

“Fell, huh?”

“From my handlebars. Sir.”

John runs a hand over his mouth and nods. It’s a gesture he recognizes from Dean—something he does fairly often and with far less impact. On John, it looks dangerous.

“You do that often? Carry my kid on the front of your bike?”

Dad,” Dean very nearly whines. “C’mon.” The whine draws a big cough out of his chest. John pats him on the back, hard, with a cupped palm.

When he’s done, John’s all sharpness, patience gone. “Dean, get in the car.” Dean shuffles his feet. John snaps his fingers. “Go. You too, Sam.”

They obey. Dean gives him a dour look over his shoulder as he climbs into the backseat of the big black car, and Sam tosses a sad little wave over his shoulder before he clambers in too, slamming the door behind him. He sees the top of Dean’s head surface over the backseat of the car in the rear windshield almost immediately.

“Well. Answer the question, boy.”

Castiel swallows. “Um. Sometimes. Sir.”

“I see. And you think that’s real appropriate? To put a kid with cystic fibrosis at risk like that?”

Castiel doesn’t answer. Mostly because he doesn’t know how to. He’s never hurt Dean before today, and they’ve been doing it for a couple of years. He never thought of it as putting Dean at risk, because it put Castiel in control, and Castiel is careful. The last thing he wants is to put Dean in any more danger than he’s already in.

John stares him down. When he keeps on not answering, John asks. “Lemme rephrase that, son. Do you even understand what you could do to him?”

And that question is hardly fair. Castiel has seen the aftermath of Dean’s infections loads of times. In the last couple of years, he’s been around a lot more often than John has for that. Of course he knows how sick Dean gets. He’s scared of it all the time. But he never does stuff like this when Dean is like that. Dean is pretty healthy right now. He can’t just stop doing everything, all the time.

“‘Course,” he says, a little affronted. “Sir.”

“Well you must not get it real good, because he’s in there bleeding.” He nods his head toward the car. He stoops down to Castiel’s level suddenly, and that’s almost scarier, because now Castiel can look him right in the eye. He also grabs hold of his shoulder with a little shake, jostling Castiel where he stands. “I made a lotta sacrifices for Dean. And I ain’t gonna see that wasted because some know-nothing kid decided to throw him off his handlebars, d’you understand?” When Castiel doesn’t answer right away, he jostles him again, another little shake. “I said, do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” Castiel bites. John Winchester doesn’t look satisfied, but he doesn’t shake him anymore either. He lets him go, drops his arm, sighs, and gets to his feet again.

“Good.”

He climbs back into the driver’s seat of his car and Castiel can hear him bark something at his boys, but Cas only has eyes for Dean, in the back window, mouthing swimming hole? Castiel just smiles tightly, nods. Waves a little wave when Dean climbs back down to sit properly in the seat, and then waves again when Sam passes by and waves sadly out the passenger window.

He doesn’t expect that Dean will meet him there, not actually. Dean has a bike, but he can’t ride it very far. And Dean’s uncle can probably only do so much to disobey direct orders from his dad and bring him here.

But Castiel goes straight there nonetheless, and he watches for a long time as families trickle in and families trickle out. He sits at the shore with his jeans rolled up over his calves, picking up handfuls of sand and letting them stream out his fist into little piles. As the sun sets behind the wall of the sheer cliff face surrounding him, he knows he should be getting home, because his mom will throw a fit if he bikes home after dark, but Dean said he would be here, and Castiel wants to believe him. He feels like John Winchester would almost be angrier if he let his kid come all the way here in the dark alone. So—he waits.

It will be the first time he’s ever been here after dark, and he can’t help but feel the anticipation building outside the dread. Because he’s finally going to know if the rumors are true. He’s finally going to see if this place really, truly, actually glows. He hasn’t heard much about it in recent years, no speculative reports on the evening news, Everyone’s gone before the horizon goes red, so no one’s there to see how pretty it is when it paints the quarry rock an even brighter hue. It’s gorgeous. Completely still and quiet save for the occasional passing car on the lightly trafficked roadway that leads here and not muchplace else.

Finally, just as the sun’s lit everything on fire, one last hoorah before it’s out for the day, one of the car noises lingers and increases in volume, heading straight for the swimming hole. It reverberates off the rock, and he can see when the bumpy glow of headlights joins the setting sun over the top of the ravine. The car shuts off and ticks quietly in the summer air. Then there’s just one door opening, one set of footsteps on the gravel above him, one echoey cough as one solitary figure makes its way down the inset red rock steps.

“Hello, Dean,” Castiel calls, not bothering to take his feet out of the water. Dean stops coughing when he dips below ground-level, bouncing down the stairs, breathing a sigh when he hits the humid air just above the surface of the water. He has a haphazard bag slung over his shoulder, and he’s wearing a too-big baseball cap that makes his head look small—his ears stick out on either side of it. He looks like he was trying to be covert. “Did your uncle give you a ride?”

When Dean gets closer, he can see that the backpack is actually his portable oxygen compressor, and he’s got the nasal cannula feeding a steady supply of oxygen into his nose. He doesn’t use his oxygen much, usually he only does when he’s forced to—though he’s been using it more, recently. Mostly, he wears it when he’s sick or stressed out. He looks pale, so maybe it’s necessary.

Castiel furrows his brow and pulls his feet out of the water. The sand sticks to them immediately, coating them in a fine layer of grains, down to the space between his toes.

“Are you alright?” Dean plops down next to him, hard, with a whumpf. He’s panting as he strips off his shoes and socks, yanking them off his feet and tossing them haphazardly into the sand at his side. He coughs, once more, like he’s trying to get something up and out of his lungs, but it’s drier than he sounded coming down the stairs. He usually sounds better at the swimming hole, and Castiel wonders if it’s the humidity that does it—clearing out his chest. Letting him breathe easier. When Dean just sits next to him, sending off hard, angry vibes, Castiel prompts him again. “...Dean?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, Bobby didn’t give me a ride.”

Castiel cocks his head to the side. “Did your dad?”

He snorts harshly out his nose, then sets his jaw and looks hard ahead. “My dad would never let me go swimming. Especially swimming with you.

Castiel scowls. Dean’s baseball cap rides low on his face, almost hiding his eyes with how heavily his brow is set. He’s never quite looked his age. He’s sixteen now and won’t be seventeen until January, but he looks about fourteen, maybe, if he’s lucky. The sulking doesn’t exactly mature him.

“Well, who did then?”

He sticks his own feet in the water, kicking and huffing hard out his nose. But he looks Castiel straight in the eye when he says, “I did.”

Castiel blinks. “You did what?”

Drove myself.

Castiel gets hit with a wave of anxiety at the exact same point he gets hit with a bolt of pride. “You didn’t. No way.”

“You think I’m a pussy too?” he shouts. It echoes off the canyon walls, and his voice cracks right in the middle of it.

“No, Dean I just—did you take your dad’s car?”

Dean looks horrified. “Baby? No way, man. He’d skin me. I took one of Bobby’s junkers. He’ll never notice it’s gone.”

Castiel feels a thrill shoot up from his gut. They’re both about to be in a world of trouble—Castiel’s mom is gonna kill him. Dean’s dad almost lost his mind when Dean was riding on the handlebars of his bike earlier, and Dean just stole a car and drove it without a license.

“They might notice you’re gone.”

“Yeah.” Dean grimaces. “Probly got a couple hours, though.” His breath seems to be coming easier than it was when he stampeded down the stairs, so Castiel doesn’t argue when he rips off the tubing and throws it onto the sand with his shoes. He rubs at where the plastic left red marks on his face. “My dad always makes me wear this stuff whenever he’s in town and I look like somebody’s grandpa. I hate it.”

They sit for a moment, contemplating how mutually screwed they are as the sun continues its slow descent.

“Well,” Castiel says slowly, tracking the progress of the sun in the quality of the light and squinting at the water, trying to discern if the luminosity of the water has changed since Dean arrived. “On the bright side. We’re finally going to get to see if it glows.”

Dean looks at him and laughs, and it’s strangely—tender. The two of them alone in a moment of quiet before the storm.

“Guess we better make the best of it.” Dean shrugs, tongue between his teeth. He waggles his eyebrows and Castiel knows they have the same idea.

They start stripping at the exact same time. Dean hooks two thumbs in the collar of his white t-shirt and pulls it fluidly over his head, leaving his hair even more disheveled than it already was. He drops the shirt on top of the expensive oxygen compressor, which Castiel has to resist moving further away from the water like a stick-in-the-mud. Castiel gets caught up on the buttons of his own shirt, before he eventually just pulls it off too, popping two buttons and piling more on the list of things his mom is going to kill him for when he gets home.

Dean beats him into the water, bolting through the shallows and powering his way toward the deep end. He’s just in a pair of white little-boy briefs that make him look even younger, and he keeps having to pull them up on his skinny hips. Castiel’s just made the switch over to boxers, because he’s old enough now to pick out his own underwear, so he doesn’t look quite as ridiculous when he plows into the water as well.

They’ve just hit the deep end when the sun disappears completely, and they didn’t really account for the the fact that they would definitely be in total darkness if not for the fact that—

“Wow,” Dean breathes, head bobbing above the water in a carefully controlled tread that Castiel himself taught him. And ‘wow’ is right.

It glows.

He’s not really sure how it was ever a question, how it was ever contested, how anyone ever looked at this and didn’t immediately know that the swimming hole glowed. The water is so clear, so blue, that he doesn’t just see where Dean’s underlit by the luminescence of the water, but he sees exactly where his skinny legs are kicking to keep him afloat, can see where his hands glide through the water in an almost graceful push.

Lightning bugs skim the of the water around Dean’s head, too, touching down on the water and then bopping along the top of it like a shiny stone that someone skipped from the shore. When he opens his mouth, his teeth shine like they’re under a blacklight. Castiel can see his deep, deep smile in the curve of his lower eyelid against the glowing white of his eye.

They feel close and enclosed like this, the walls of the ravine monolithic around them. The circle of the sky is small above them, and seems very far away.

“Wow,” Castiel breathes back.

Dean reclines into the water until he’s in a leisurely back float. He’s perfected his form since they were little, and he makes it look effortless, though Castiel knows that nothing is effortless for him. Castiel takes the hint and does the same, and they enter their mutual little solitary worlds. Alone together.

His mind is empty, even though it shouldn’t be. He should be worried. He should be panicking. But instead, he just concentrates on trying to hear something beneath the surface of the water, like someone listening for the ocean in a seashell. He feels like something should have changed about the swimming hole now that he knows it’s this and not just a normal small-town hangout spot. He feels like it should sound like something special. But he just hears his own heartbeat in his ears.

They drift a while. Castiel doesn’t have a concept of where Dean is in relation to him, no concept of where they are in the pool anymore, until he’s startled by the feel of Dean’s hand bumping into his, and he grabs it without thinking, giving it what he hopes is a reassuring squeeze. Dean doesn’t generally overthink things, he tries very hard not to, but he does when it comes to his dad. And he doesn’t want him thinking about the world of hurt he’s dug for himself anymore than he has to.

 

 

He can hear the muffled splash when Dean resurfaces, so he does the same, and he tries to let go of Dean’s hand, knowing he needs the extra support to keep himself afloat, but Dean doesn’t let him. He grabs on harder and holds tight, so Castiel sputters while he struggles to right himself and sees Dean do the same, bobbing violently while he stabilizes.

“I’m not weak, you know. I can do anything you can, even if I gotta fight harder for it.”

 

 

Cas blinks. “I know.”

And then Dean just—looks at him. He’s got droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes. It’s uncharacteristic, the silence is, and Cas is still waiting for the smartass remark when Dean leans forward and kisses him, right on the lips.

 

 

Castiel’s heart stops at the exact moment the pool goes dark around them. He pulls back almost instantly, blood running cold, and he disentangles himself from Dean’s hand, too, without even thinking. All he’s got in his head is an image of Dean looking small and young and sick—his usual. The little-boy briefs. The jut of his ribs above the little button in his side where his feeding tube goes. Dean. He gets a familiar tug of the disgust he felt when they were little boys and Dean, unfathomably, wanted to be friends.

There’s some frantic splashing, sounds of a struggle, that stops quickly, casting the world into suspenseful silence. Without the physical tie to Dean, he might as well not exist, and Castiel might as well be alone in the middle of the ocean. He has no idea which direction the shore is—there’s only one side of the swimming hole that leads to an embankment. The deep end just backs up against a sheer wall, and he totally lost track of which one was which while he floated with the water’s natural flow. The sky provides almost no natural light—there’s just a sliver of a moon out, and the stars do little more than show where the canyon walls end. The familiar disgust gives way to a familiar panic, the tugging at the edge of his gut that never really goes away—the one that says, Dean’s going to die and you’re responsible.

“Dean,” he says, breathlessly, as soon as he’s realized his mistake. He panics, casts out into the water by feel alone, scrounging for something, anything, under the surface of the water.

“Dean!” he calls, louder.

Another splash, further away than it was initially, and Castiel flails toward it. He hears Dean exhale and inhale, frantic, and it sounds wet, which is bad news for Dean, because inhaling dirty water is just about the worst thing he could possibly do for his lungs. He’s so susceptible to bacterial infections that anything is liable to upset the careful balance they’ve constructed with a cocktail of strong antibiotics. But he manages to get his hands on Dean when he resurfaces, and he grips him, vice-like, while he waits for Dean to regain his equilibrium and keep himself steady.

But he never does.

The gasping doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t sound normal, or even normal like Dean’s normal, the sort of labored inhales he always had when he was getting over an infection. It sounds like Dean’s trying to take in a breath between the rasping folds of a torn piece of paper all of the sudden—sounds like somebody’s punched a hole in one of his lungs.

“De-ean,” he says again, in two soggy parts this time, because keeping hold of Dean means Castiel keeps bobbing under the water as he kicks frantically to keep steady, inhaling water and spitting it out again. Dean keeps on gasping, incoherent.

There’s still no light. Castiel can’t tell what’s wrong. Can’t tell which way shore is. Doesn’t know what to do besides keep both their heads above water and try to keep both of them alive. Given the situation, though, he doesn’t think he feels as panicked as maybe he should. The swimming hole has always been good to him. It’s never led him astray before. Dean had never been sick here before—he feels confident in saying that the swimming hole would never let Dean die, but he doesn’t necessarily know where that confidence comes from.

The water surges and ripples around them both, which doesn’t strike Castiel as odd in the moment, even though one of the swimming hole’s virtues is that it’s preternaturally still and glass-smooth on top, punched deep into the earth where the wind can’t touch it. Waves burble behind him in tiny rolling peaks, a subtle push that he barely even registers until his toes skim the edge of the dropoff and he’s able to find his footing on solid, sandy ground beneath the water.

Dean doesn’t do any of the work for him, doesn’t help him to swim at all. He seems preoccupied with the business of breathing. Castiel can hear him trying to speak, soft little sounds of distress like he wants to tell Cas that something is wrong. Like Castiel doesn’t already know. It’s easy enough to tow him, though, now that he has his footing, and Cas tugs him along behind himself weightlessly until the water runs out closer to the shore, and he’s forced to find the secret, hidden strength necessary to lift Dean into his arms, heavier than he might have been if Cas weren’t used to the weightlessness the water gave him.

When he’s reached the shore, sand clinging to the soles of his feet and the noisy sluice of water gone, he’s able to hear Dean breathe, “Sorry,” in the absolute still quiet of the evening. Dean stopped apologizing for his illness a long time ago. He probably learned to be unapologetically ill early in his life, because the alternative was being sorry for every breath he took.

“Don’t apologize,” Castiel grinds out, gravel in his throat coming through on every word.

He puts Dean down in the sand of the shore, just out of reach of the gentle lapping of the water, letting his hands linger over his body like he’s looking for open wounds. Castiel feels the knobs of his spine, the bony protrusions of his shoulderblades, the cold plastic button in his stomach that is so out of place in the middle of warm skin. Moving down Dean’s body, he can feel where the sand is sticking to every inch of him it came into contact with, forming a coarse and even layer like a second skin.

“Cas,” Dean says around a sucking breath like a vacuum cleaner, airy and distant.

“What?”

“Is it bad?”

“Dean—I.”

“I don’t wanna go to the hospital again.”

“You won’t. We won’t,” he promises absently. “I just.”

He needs to see. As well as Castiel knows the swimming hole, he doesn’t stand a chance of getting up the rocky staircase without some light. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do once he gets out of the pit, but being able to see if Dean is bleeding out from his eyeballs or something seems like a paramount first step.

He doesn’t have a flashlight, a lighter, nothing—nothing but Dean’s oxygen machine, both their clothes, the car keys, and Castiel’s bike lock.

“Is it bad?” Dean says again, sounds like he’s outside himself. He doesn’t sound scared. More than anything, he sounds like he doesn’t want to be back in a hospital bed again, and he doesn’t. Castiel knows that his greatest fear isn’t being sick, it’s all the things that come along with being sick. But Castiel. Castiel’s—

Castiel’s back on the edge of the playground, years ago. He’s fumbling in Dean’s pocket for his inhaler. He can feel the tiny hooks of the velcro on the pads of his fingertips. He can smell the tangy salt of Dean’s sweat. He remembers what his mother said, about divine intervention, and even though he didn’t believe in it then, he tries to believe in it now, pulling from the sucking pit in his stomach where he sometimes feels like his faith should be.

Dean says, “Is it bad?” again, and Castiel needs some breathing room. He takes a blind step back from Dean, and the heel of his foot hits the gently lapping warmth of the water and—

There’s light again. Just a subtle, diffuse glow of it, spread like a blanket on the top of the water and wavering with every ripple. It’s not like the lights that shine from the sides of swimming pools, not exactly, because there’s no source of it that he can see, and it doesn’t change intensity or speckle or shift. It just is, an even presence under the water that projects itself ethereally upward and lights them from underneath like a television screen gone to still blue in a dark room.

Dean blinks like he’s trying to make sense of what he’s seeing and Castiel does the same. And this time when Dean asks, “Is it bad?” Castiel knows that his “no hospital” promise had been a very blatant lie.

There’s blood. A lot of it. All of it streaming steadily from Dean’s mouth, little tributaries that gush calmly in quantities of five or six from his lips, like he’s an overflowing cup of coffee that some tired someone poured into too long. It gets lost between his mouth and the ground, because Dean is still wet from the swimming hole, so Castiel can see where the rivers of thick blood have hit droplets of water and gotten sidetracked, bursting instead into swirling starbursts, a rusty galaxy against his skin. Drops of cream in the coffee on the counter. There’s so much of it that it has made its way down his chest to hit the white of his underwear and stain the waistband dark.

He’s seen Dean cough up blood before. He does it, sometimes, when he’s just been very ill. But it’s usually more violent and less extreme—coughed-up spatters that spray the inside of his elbow in a fine mist or that paint his tissues with tiny flecks of red. This though—this is like a horror movie.

“Cas,” Dean says, cloudy-eyed in the face Castiel’s slack-jawed silence. Maybe he can’t feel just how much liquid is gushing from his mouth because he’s already wet all over, but he must taste it—the blood’s colored his teeth pink. Castiel imagines he can smell it, even from here—the hard, coppery tang that must be pervading all of Dean’s senses.

Cas is just contemplating how he’s going to navigate this, fear rising in his chest with a tide of nausea, when the headlights appear over the top of the quarry, two parallel beams that neatly bisect the night sky above his head. Ankle-deep in the water with his boxer shorts clinging to him, he says a silent prayer to whomever he appeased long enough to get these favors. The water laps warmly at his ankles.

Feet crunch on the gravel of the parking lot above their heads and a third light joins the mix, then a fourth. Flashlights, must be, because some people are smart enough to realize that unlit swimming holes are not exactly conducive to late-night swims. He wonders who’s up there. Dean’s uncle knows how often they come here, so it wouldn’t be beyond him to check on them here. And since there are two lights, it definitely can’t be his mom. His mother would have come alone, and she wouldn’t have a flashlight powerful enough to burn a couple dots into the opposite side of the canyon. His mom barely has enough DD batteries around to keep flickery lanterns working when the power goes out.

“Help!” he cries to the sky. It echoes, bouncing off the water and the canyon walls. He waits a moment, hears the crunching of the gravel stop. The distant sound of bated breath.

So he cries, “Help!” again. “We’re down here!” Then, action. He follows the noisy footsteps with his eyes until the actual physical shapes come into view. Dean’s father comes into view. He takes the uneven, carved-out steps into the quarry two at a time, leading the assault like he’s charging onto a battlefield. Even in shadow, he looks just as big as he did earlier today—maybe even bigger now that his bulky coat seems a part of him, all of him blended into one deep shadow.  Dean’s uncle is a few long steps behind him, huffing his way down the steps at a more reasonable trot.

 

 

Dean’s father stops short at the bottom of the stairs. Once his feet hit the sand, he seems to notice the glowing of the pool, and even in the dark, Cas can see his eyes, sharp and squinting, making a series of snap assessments. Skimming the surface of the pool, the edges of the pool, the quarry walls above, for a lightsource. Finding nothing. And then, eventually, landing on Castiel. Mostly naked and shivering with the strange, glowing water whipping around his ankles. John Winchester looks at him like he isn’t some skinny teenager in his boxer shorts. John Winchester looks at him like he’s dangerous. And not just a dangerous threat to his son—dangerous like he’s facing down a big cat at the other end of the quarry, puffed up and alert. Even with Dean bleeding out from his mouth a few feet away, Castiel finds he can’t tear his eyes away. He’s never been treated like prey before. It’s hooked some primal instinct out of that pit in his stomach. Not fight or flight. Fight or fight harder. He wonders how he looks, backlit by this strange glowing pool.

Maybe it’s a trick of the light, and maybe he imagines it, but he thinks that he sees Dean’s dad going for something down the back of his pants, underneath his heavy jacket. It’s hard to make out in the dark.

Dean’s Uncle hits the sand and skirts around John, and even as John holds Castiel’s eyes across the distance, Bobby flicks his flashlight around the sandy shore. A beam of light lands on Castiel’s face, and he squints, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes.

“Cas,” he says. “That you? Jesus, John, this is Dean’s friend. Stand down.”

That breaks the spell for him, and he’s able to break away from whatever lock John’s got on him. He points dazedly with the hand that’s not over his eyes to where Dean is hunched on the shore beside him, his hands shaking under his mouth as he tries to catch the blood that’s still leaking from between his teeth like grapefruit juice pulsing through the tines of a fork.

“Shit—John—” Bobby says, trying to gain traction on the sandy shore and get there. But even with the lead Bobby’s got on him, John’s able to get there faster. The red of the blood glistening off the sand must spark something in him, and the spell is broken for him too. It’s like watching an amped up version of the cool, efficient way that he handled Dean’s scraped arm that morning. All the while, though, he keeps some fragment of his fractured attention on Cas, keeping himself open to Castiel’s unchanging, knob-kneed stance in the water.

Bobby asks, “What the hell happened?” and Castiel doesn’t have an answer. He shakes his head, working his jaw open and closed several times like the action itself will produce a response. It does not.

John only turns his back on Castiel when he reaches Dean, coming between them like a shield. Castiel’s still rooted firmly in the sand at the shore, feeling where the gentle motion of the water displaces the sand beneath his weight and buries his toes. He curls them in the mud, feels the tiny little crystalline shards of sand working underneath his nails. John must be saying something to Dean, because Dean’s little hand appears over the top of one shoulder and then the other, clutching at the brown leather. And the hands are blue and the nailbeds are blue, and he doesn’t know whether it’s just the light or whether Dean is running out of oxygen again. John hoists him into the air easily, and when he turns around, his arms are full of Dean. Dean’s arms, in turn, clutch the flashlight like a sacred duty. His skin in the light is so pale it’s almost translucent, like the fish at pet stores whose organs you can see pulsing inside them.

“What,” John grunts. “Singer, what is this—my boy—”

“It—well, it looks like a lung bleed.” Lung bleed. That doesn’t sound good. Castiel knows very little about medicine, but he knows that you’re typically not supposed to bleed from there. “But he’s not coughin’ any—”

“He needs a hospital. I’ll take him. You take care of everything here,” John gives him a knowing look, a raised eyebrow. “Then take the other car and get back home to Sammy.” He hoists Dean higher against his front, already making quick work of the distance to the staircase. He’s light on his feet despite the sinking suck of the sand.

Bobby looks like he doesn’t much care for the orders John is throwing his way. When he reaches up to fiddle with his baseball cap, Castiel can see that his brow is folded and wrinkled in the half light. “Now hold on a second, John, you ain’t got his insurance or his meds—”

“Then meet me there,” he barks over his shoulder. “We ain’t got time to argue.”

Bobby turns to him, and Cas startles when he starts talking. “Cas? You got the keys to my car, son?”

Castiel points again, another shaking hand toward Dean’s pile of clothes this time. “Dean’s pockets.”

“Good boy.” Bobby nods. He stops fiddling with his hat, settling it firmly on his head, then he turns back to John, raising his voice to cover the distance. “I’ll be along.”

But John’s already gone. Up the stairs and out. From the top of the quarry, just before the creak of the Impala’s door opening and closing, Castiel hears Dean’s cough, conspicuously absent before now that he’s heard it rip through the quiet night around them.  

Bobby swears. It’s not that Cas isn’t used to Bobby doing that—he’s heard it from him while he’s hanging out with Dean enough that his mother takes issue with it—but there’s a startling amount of vehemence behind this one, and it’s accompanied by a hard kick to the sand that sends it spraying across the beach. Castiel stays planted and fixed in the water, watching as Bobby bends down to sift violently through the pile of denim and soft cotton that they left on shore. When he reaches the oxygen concentrator that Dean brought along at the bottom of the heap, he stops to run the pads of his fingers over its contours. He must find the keys shortly after, because there’s a jingling when he pops back up.

Bobby turns to him, scrutinizing. For a second, there’s something sharp in his eyes, something like what John had there when he told Bobby to take care of everything here.

He says, “You got some blood on you.” He thumbs at the front of his his own shirt as a reference.

Castiel looks down, and sure enough, he does, diluted pink starbursts spattered all along his front and running thin rivers past his bellybutton. He crouches in the shallows, all but collapsing into it in his haste. His boxer shorts billow, and he cups his hands and splashes the water toward his neck, his chest, over his shoulder. Some on his face for good measure. It’s warm, a phantom sensation. It’s little wonder he hadn’t differentiated it from Dean’s blood. It makes short work of the mess, anyway, and the red diffuses into the water, disappears. Like it never even was in the first place.

“Sure is somethin’, ain’t it?” Bobby nods at the water when Castiel’s initial violent splashing has simmered to a more languid cleaning, each splash like an afterthought as he considers its luminescence—’something.’ Castiel grunts in agreement. “I’ve heard tell about the glowing. Came out myself to check it a few times. Never thought it might actually be real.” Castiel grunts again. Bobby sighs, his eyes softening in the half light. He saunters to very edge of the water, right to where the waves are nipping at his toes, and crouches heavily on his haunches, knees popping. “You wanna tell me what happened?”

Castiel shakes his head, moves his heavy hair out of his eyes where it fell there, parting the bangs like curtains. He doesn’t shake his head because he doesn’t want to tell. He shakes it because he honestly doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to talk about—the kiss. Because it’s embarrassing. And he’d just as soon never talk about it again. And everything after that is a blur of blue water, red blood. Dean. A hazy shade of blame hanging over the whole thing that’s tampered by his dogged insistence that Dean wasn’t supposed to kiss him.

“Lissen, I’m about to go to the doctor, and I’ve gotta give ‘em a full report.” Castiel shakes his head. Bobby furrows his brow. “Cas.”

“Nothing!” he explodes. “We were—swimming! Like we always do!”

“You sure there’s nothin’ you wanna tell me?” He replaces his cap on his head. “Anything I need to know?”

Castiel looks at him, and for a second he thinks, paranoid, that Bobby knows about the kiss. But the sharpness in his eyes is back. Something sinister and unfamiliar underlit by mellow blue. Something he’s never seen in Bobby before. They’re talking about two different things.

Castiel narrows his eyes and chooses his words carefully. “He got upset. Panicked. Inhaled some water. And I had to pull him out.” The water settles warm around his waist. He’s not technically lying.

Bobby looks at him a moment longer before he seems to accept that, rising to his feet with more crackling from his knees. “Get dressed. I’ll take you home before I head to the hospital.”

He really doesn’t want an entire car ride filled with another awkward twenty questions.

“My bike,” he says weakly.

“We’ll throw ‘er in the back.” Castiel nods.

Bobby gathers Dean’s clothes and his oxygen concentrator, shaking the sand from everything back onto the beach. Then he tactfully averts his eyes while Castiel shucks off his soaking boxers and puts his shirt and pants back on with nothing underneath. Bobby’s taken a strategic position between Castiel and the only exit, and Castiel feels like he’s some kind of prisoner, dressing down in front of the guard.

On their way to the stairs, Bobby settles a strange arm around his shoulder. Perhaps it’s meant to be a comfort, but it doesn’t feel like one. The cold metal of his wristwatch bites into the tender wet skin at Castiel’s neck, and he flinches. The arm is gone as soon as it came, a fleeting comfort that leaves him feeling cold. He may be imagining it, but the light from the water seems to fade the farther they move from it, too.

Once they’re in the front seat of the car Dean hijacked—an old, ugly thing with a yellow body and green doors that Bobby calls a “Gremlin”—with Castiel’s bike settled soundly in the back, Cas starts to shake, cold down to his bones in a way that the weak heat from the Gremlin’s ancient vents can’t push away. Bobby pulls his flask out of his front pocket.

“Here. Get that blood pumpin’.” Castiel looks between the beaten flask and Bobby’s face for a second, mind boggling. “What your mom don’t know don’t hurt her. You look like you could use a pick-me-up.”

Castiel has never had hard liquor before, but he takes the flask anyway, plucking it carefully from Bobby’s hand like he’s going to swipe it away at the last second and say ha! gotcha! He uncaps the bottle and takes too big of a swig just to prove he can, then he coughs when it burns back up his throat. He might be mistaken because it’s not like he has anything to compare the flavor to, but he thinks it might taste a little bit watery—which makes sense. Why would Dean’s uncle be giving him straight hard liquor anyway?

Bobby watches him throughout with carefully narrowed eyes, and Castiel hopes he’s passed whatever test he’s just been given as he swipes the back of his still-wrinkled hand over his wet mouth and hands the flask back.

“Thanks,” he grunts, trying to sound aloof. It’s made him feel better, anyway. More even-keeled.

Bobby looks at him for a moment more and then nods decisively. He tucks the flask back into the breast pocket on his vest. “Ain’t nothin’.” He cranks the heat up a little bit more and sits pensively while it chugs, trying to fill the car. “You had a tough night, eh kid?”

Castiel shrugs.

“You boys really were just swimmin’, huh?”

Just swimming. He struggles with the accusatory implications again.

“Dean and I were supposed to come here early today. But Dean’s dad wouldn’t let him. So he snuck out.”

Bobby huffs a laugh. “That’s kinda his way, son. John Winchester 101. And it always manages to backfire on ‘im.”

They sit in awkward silence for a moment, and just when it seems like Bobby’s given up on his weird third degree, just when he’s about to reach up to shift the car into gear, Castiel pipes in, “Is Dean gonna be okay?” He blushes. Wonders if he sounds too obvious. “I mean. A lung bleed. Is that bad?”

Bobby says, “It—ain’t good,” and then, firm, “But he’s gonna be fine.”

And they’re both left to contemplate exactly how untrue they know that to be in bleak silence of the car ride back to Castiel’s house.


Castiel wakes up the next morning, disoriented, after not realizing that he had fallen asleep. Dean’s uncle had either been too distracted or too nice to knock on the door and tell his mom what he was up to last night, so there’s a surprising quiet filling the house. There’s only the sound of his mother, downstairs, going about her normal morning routine. The metal recoil of the toaster, the sound of the coffeepot being replaced in the machine. Normal things that seem somehow foreign, now. Too average to exist in a world where swimming holes glow and his best friend bleeds out through his mouth while he watches. But there’s nothing to be done for it—for the smallness of all there is. So he puts on clothes and goes downstairs.

At the kitchen table, his mother isn’t doing much of anything, like she does. Head in her hand, elbow on the table, toast half-eaten on a plate in front of her. She either doesn’t realize how late he was out last night or she doesn’t realize he’s here. She can get pretty deep in her head now that Dad’s gone—she could before, too, but now there’s less to pull her out of it. She jolts when he clears his throat.

“Dean’s in this hospital again,” he says, conversational. It happens enough that it’s commonplace, so when she responds— “Oh, that poor boy” —it sounds like it comes from a script they’ve been rehearsing their whole lives. He gets it—most people have some kind of lifetime cap on concern, and Dean tends to exhaust his early. He sees it with the girls in his class all the time. People who think they can coddle Dean to feel better about themselves but run out of steam when they realize that this is a long-haul sort of situation, and worrying about him is never going to get any easier.

“I was thinking maybe I’d go see him.” That jolts her a big, enough outside of the script to take her out of her stupor. She blinks.

“You’ve never gone to visit before.”

He shrugs.

“Seems like it was serious.”

He doesn’t say he knows it was serious because he saw Dean leaking blood from his mouth.

“I guess you’re not a little boy anymore,” she says distantly. “Used to be they didn’t want you there because you had all those little boy germs.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to do with how wistful she sounds about his baby germs.

“Do you—need a ride?” she asks after a moment.

Castiel makes his way to the bag of bread resting on the counter, foregoing the toasting part of the process in favor of escaping his mother’s melancholy.

“No, I’ll—” he pauses, weighing the long-distance ride to the hospital against how very much he didn’t want to spend a car ride and then possibly an interminable wait at the hospital with his mother. “I’ll bike.”

“Oh. Well, alright. Should I bake a casserole for Mr. Singer while you’re out?”

Castiel flinches as he’s buttering his droopy bread. If his mother went to the house—well, Mr. Singer had taken pity on him, not telling his mother about last night’s excursion, but he had every little doubt that John Winchester, were he to encounter Castiel’s mother, would be nowhere near as merciful.

“No—no, I think Mr. Singer has, uh. Backup. Dean’s dad is in town.”

His mother’s eyebrows arch of their own volition. Condescension disguised as surprise.

Is he,” she tuts. “Did you meet him?”

Castiel swallows around a lump in his throat.

“Yeah.” He doesn’t elaborate, even though he knows his mother is dying for more information.

“Hmm.” She sniffs. “Well, alright. But you tell Mr. Winchester to let me know if they need more help.”

This is the way that most of his interactions with his mother go lately. Curt. Cursory. Cryptic. He lost the trick of interacting with her sometime after she left him alone on a Christmas Eve.

Castiel nods, bumping his way out of the garage door. “I will. Thanks.”

The bike ride there is long. He finishes his pathetic bread and butter two seconds into the excursion and immediately wishes he’d stuck around for something more substantial. As the morning turns to afternoon, the air gets sticky, and the asphalt starts waving with heat lines. His progress seems to slow with the deflated stickiness of his tires on the pavement. And his head is almost as muddy as the humidity makes the day, stuck in a fog of dire thoughts and dismal visions of droplets of blood diffusing in an unreal glow.

HIs mom wanted to make a casserole. What could a casserole do in the face of that? What was a fucking tuna surprise going to do when nothing was certain, nothing guaranteed. Not tomorrow, not the laws of nature as he had come to know them.

He meanders along backroads, on dirt paths and sidewalks. The day stands still around him, an unreal absence of wind that makes trees unnaturally still, that leaves Castiel feeling like the clouds are suspended on strings in the sky.

Nothing about the day feels right.

Castiel has never been to a hospital before. Not really. He visited his sick grandmother, but hospice was different. Hospice is saturated in the certainty of death, bogged down in the inevitable, but a hospital still has that energy of expectation.

When Castiel comes into what the signs tell him are the main doors for the emergency department, he feels buffeted by them, feels the movement of the day in a way he hadn’t outside, and it buoys him a bit. If Dean is here, he is probably doing his best trying not to die.

But now that he’s here, Castiel finds he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know where Dean is. He could ask, but is John Winchester here too? Is Dean’s Uncle Bobby?

What would they say to see him here after—

Well.

Castiel’s stomach turns, a visceral memory of Dean’s lips on his unsettling him, threatening a push of bile at his throat.

After it had been his fault anyway.

They blame him. He went to sleep thinking about it last night—John Winchester’s dark, heavy eyes on him. Bobby’s quiet scrutiny. The more he thinks on it, the more he knows they know. They know.

He picks a chair in a corner of the massive, crowded waiting room, buzzing with low conversation, and—waits. Dean is here. Above his head somewhere, so it makes sense that he’s here, too. What doesn’t make sense is everything else.

A mother comes into the waiting room cradling a whimpering toddler in a blanket. Castiel squints, scrutinizing her as she waits and waits and waits. The bundle in her arms cries and coughs and cries, tireless.

His mother told him once that he’d never really gotten sick as a baby. No croup or colic or fevers. No ear infections. His father had apparently chalked it up to good parenting on their parts, though he suspects now that his father had very little awareness of the type of parenting involved. His mother, on the other hand, blankly insists it was a miracle, just as she does for most things. Castiel suspects she’s just selling her parenting skills short. Though, to be honest, she has no shortage of pictures from when he was very little, and he never did look upset or ill—she never caught him crying. More often than not, she caught him staring, eyes wide at the camera like he was memorizing her in the same way the camera was capturing him.

“You’ve been here a while,” comes a delicate, wispy voice, shaking him from his reverie. Pulling him back to the waiting room with the mother. The baby. He looks at their chair before he looks to see where the voice is coming from and he sees—

They’re gone. Good. It was a relief they were getting some help, finally.

“Are you waiting to see someone?” comes the voice again. “If you’re looking for a doctor, I’m afraid you haven’t checked in yet.”

He blinks, swivels his head, focuses. A beautiful red-headed woman in light blue scrubs is hovering in front of him, smiling bright and white. He doesn’t want to deal with her. He doesn’t have a good response. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to get the memo. She waits expectantly while he flaps his mouth, finally arriving on, “I don’t need to see a doctor.”

She tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. And the movement is strangely deliberate, telegraphed, like Castiel is a cop and she’s a criminal putting down her gun.

“No,” she says slowly. “You don’t seem like you have an emergency.” She feels out the waiting room chair next to his before she sits down, seeking the armrest when she turns, lowering herself slowly. It looks strange on her, something that someone in the bulky mascot costume would do before they sat on the bleachers at a sports game. That sort of clumsiness seemed like a bad trait for a nurse to have.

“So what are you doing here, then?” She nudges him. “People watching?”

Castiel snorts.

“Who comes to a hospital waiting room just to people watch?”

She twists her fingers in her lap, watches them chafe together, watches her skin moving over the bone on her knuckles. “Oh, lots of people. I do, too, you know. That’s how I noticed you. The strange teenager who made a beeline, alone, for a corner chair in a hospital waiting room. And who looks like somebody kicked his puppy. See how interesting people watching can be?”

“I’m not interesting,” Castiel grumbles. The nurse’s eyes crinkle up at the corners, like he’s told a joke and she doesn’t quite get it, but she knows she’s supposed to laugh.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she says. “Why are you here?”

Castiel picks up a science magazine from the stout little table next to him. It makes him think of Dean. Long recess in the library a lifetime ago. There’s an article on black holes advertised on the cover.

He concedes, “A—friend. He came in last night. I suppose I’m wondering how he’s doing now but—”

He expects her to fill the gap, maybe direct him to a hospital directory and tell him she’s about to come off her break. She doesn’t. She waits, rapt and unblinking, like his friend with the bleeding lungs is the only patient in this hospital.

“But I don’t want to go see him.”

“You want to see him but—you don’t want to go see him?”

He shakes his head, crinkles the speckled purple image of a galaxy that’s resting beneath his palm.

“It’s not—so simple.”

Sometimes adults don’t think he can have deep emotions. That anyone his age can. Sometimes adults underestimate the stuff that he can feel. He wonders if she’s going to be like that—like his mom, when she says, in so many words, that he wasn’t hurt by his father leaving near as much as she was hurt by her husband taking off. When she tells him what he doesn’t understand.

He feels everything, deep. Deeper than he should, maybe. To the point where the hurt is dark and unfathomable, a black mark as low-down as the unreachable bottom of the swimming hole after the drop-off. He hurts.

“Did I say it was simple?” she placates. “No, it certainly doesn’t sound simple to me.” She pauses. “What’s this person’s name?”

It feels like a trap. He side-eyes her, looks at the empty chair where the coughing baby was. Looks back down into the soft, slippery blackness of space on a glossy magazine page. He doesn’t see the harm in it. It’s just a name.

“Dean.”

It doesn’t feel like just a name when his tongue wraps around it, though. He wonders if she can hear the significance in his voice.

She sighs, looks at the same chair with unfocused eyes. She looks like she’s seeing something Castiel cannot, and it sends a zing of fear through him—maybe it’s a name she knows, remembers. Maybe she knows something he doesn’t.

Instead of delivering any final blow, she repeats it.

“Dean,” laced through with grave finality.

He shifts in his uncomfortable chair.

“Do you—” His voice spikes. He evens it out. Smooths the magazine page. Clears his throat. “Do you know him?”

She sighs.

“Oh, yes.”

She doesn’t elaborate. Castiel looks at the badge pinned to her pocket, but it doesn’t provide any illuminating details. Doesn’t elaborate on her department or position or even her name. There’s nothing to tell him what put that wistful note in her voice.

Finally, the tension is too much, and he asks, “Is he—is he okay?” The fear pins him. He doesn’t fidget now—it feels like his thighs are nailed through to the seat.

“No, I don’t suppose he is,” she says enigmatically. “He’s ill, isn’t he?”

Castiel jolts back, away from her, taking her in again head to toe. “You’re supposed to be telling me that!”

“It’s something you know already though. It won’t have changed. But you’re here anyway. You’re a good friend.”

He doesn’t say what he wants to say to that, doesn’t scream about all the ways he’s been the worst friend in the world, starting with how he told Dean he was going to die the first time he ever spoke to him.

“Stop fucking with me and tell me if he’s alive, then!” The outburst catches the attention of a few people in the waiting room, draws them out of their own personal tragedies long enough to glare at him for busting the muffled quiet right open. The only person it doesn’t seem to phase is the person it’s directed at, who blinks, finally, and squints like she doesn’t understand the question.

“Of course he is,” she says. She reaches a hand up to nudge against his chest, light, light, pale fingertips that lie soft along the arterial beat of his pulse. “You would know. If he wasn’t, you would know, wouldn’t you?” He squints back at her, quiet, ensnared wholly by the strange surety of her words, her movements, before the reality of what is happening catches up with him, and he pulls back hard.

“You sound like my mom with that woo-woo—bullshit.” he spits. That makes her laugh for some reason, light and resonant and rounded like a bell. “Just—please.”

“He’s alive,” she says warmly, reassuring. Her hand falls back to her lap. “Upstairs. You should go see him. I know your presence would be a comfort to him.”

A comfort. He scoffs, dismissive. He can’t get the image out of his head, Dean and the blood. Dean pale. Dean, looking like he could die right in front of him. And over what?

Over—a little kiss. If Castiel was really a comfort, he would have sucked it up. If he’d thought about it for even a moment before he shoved him into the freaking drink. But he was.

Scared.

“You don’t know anything about it,” he grouses. He sounds like the moody teenager he is, which doesn’t necessarily help him on the emotional maturity front. “His dad. And his uncle. They. And. He’s probably be better off never seeing me again.”

The idea of never seeing him again is just as scary as the idea of doing so, of going up there to that hospital room. This waiting room is just a limbo where he doesn’t have to do either one, and he’s well aware of that.

“Cas!” A call comes from across the waiting room. Another disruption to the quiet that brings all the attention to him, lasered in like there’s a target on his forehead. It’s Sam. Halfway across the room, holding three schoolbooks and two muffins, which is just about standard for him nowadays. He shoulders his way through the room, and Castiel is so focused on his progress that he doesn’t even see the nurse leave, but he’d already taken so much of her time it’s little wonder she had to rush back to work.

When Sam reaches him, he looks grim.

“Cas,” he says. “Hey. You came to see Dean. He just got out of emergency surgery a few hours ago. He’s, uh, recovering, but he’s not talking yet.” He abruptly seems to become aware of the muffins in his hands, and he offers one up to Castiel. Castiel remembers he’s fucking ravenous and snatches it from Sam’s open hand before Sam can think twice about it.

Sam eyes him funny. “Dude, they’re free in the lounge over there. Chill.”

Castiel scarfs it down, big bites that fill his throat and give him an excuse to not talk while he waits for a response to come to mind. He doesn’t know how to ask if their dad and their uncle are upstairs waiting on Dean.

When Castiel is sweeping muffin crumbs off the front of his shirt he mumbles, “If he’s not up for visitors, I can leave. I just wanted to.” Make sure he didn’t die. “Check in.”

“Well, Dad and Bobby went home a little while ago because Dad has something to deal with or whatever.” There’s a hard thread of disdain weaving through it. It reminds Castiel of the Christmas he spent with the Winchesters, when John Winchester wasn’t yet a broad-shouldered badass in a leather jacket. Back then, he was just a tinny echo on the other end of a phone line that Sam didn’t want to talk to. “They left me to stick with Dean. I just came down to hospitality to get some muffins.” He takes in Castiel’s face. He can only imagine what he looks like. “They got coffee, too.”

Castiel wonders, distantly, what’s more important than being with your son while he’s in the hospital. But Dean had been in the hospital a million times before, and John was never there for any of those times, either.

He fetches a cup of coffee as if he actually drinks it. It’s a day of firsts.  First the swig of—whatever it was that Bobby had him chug last night. Now it’s this hospital coffee. It smells acrid and tastes ten times worse. And Sam watches him flinch and suggests cream and sugar like he isn’t equally clueless. He puddles in cream until the coffee is mostly white. Pours in sugar until it’s thick enough to settle in a slurry on the bottom of the cup. And this is how adults face their problems, so he feels a little bit more prepared when Sam starts to lead him down the serpentine, sterile hallways of the hospital.

“You’ve never come to visit him in the hospital before, huh?”

It isn’t an accusation—Sam’s tone is all crystalline curiosity—but it feels like one to Cas.

“No,” Castiel says shiftily, turning his head to follow a nurse pushing an empty wheelchair briskly down the hallway. He keeps half an eye out for the red-haired nurse, but he has no idea what department she works in. And he doesn’t know what any of these departments are anyway. It’s a stark contrast to Sam, who navigates the halls like it’s second nature.

“Okay,” Sam says as they arrive at a massive elevator. He pushes the “up” button. “Okay so when I was little they always used to give me these lectures—the. The nurses. When I went to go see him.” Sam says “when I was little” with an air of adult authority. He’s barely eleven, if Castiel recalls correctly. “Because Dean’s on a ventilator and it looks scary, and they didn’t want me to get scared. And I get you’re not, like, a baby. But it can be.” He exhales. “Scary.” He finally sounds his age when he says it.

They shuffle into the elevator, and Sam pushes a button for floor four, and they’re apparently not talking now, quiet in the proximity of the scrubbed nurses coming and going through elevator doors. Castiel takes a drink of creamy coffee. He smacks his lips and sticks out his tongue; it’s still gross. Metallic and sharp smudged over by saccharine sweetness.

The fourth floor is lighter—airier. Big hallways, painted walls. The sun is out, and Castiel had almost forgotten it was still daytime down in the windowless basement waiting room. Here, it’s also more than just white like it was in emergency. Maybe it’s supposed to be a comfort, but Castiel’s too busy trying to imagine exactly what a ventilator looks like. It doesn’t sound good.

When Castiel doesn’t say anything, Sam says, “It’s just for a few more hours. It’s helping him breathe or whatever.” Castiel nods like he understands. “And you can’t act scared ‘cause he’ll be scared. Even though he’d never say it. So. Suck it up.”

Castiel feels like he’s being chastised for something he hasn’t even done yet. But maybe Sam knows him well enough to see that he’s good at taking the easy way out.

They arrive outside a recovery room, and Sam makes the both of them wash their hands at a sink down the hall before he holds opens the door for Castiel. Castiel blinks, waiting for him to go in first. He just keeps holding it.

“Aren’t you coming inside too?”

Sam shrugs. “I figured maybe you wanted a second alone. You asked if Dad and Bobby were here, so...”

Castiel flushes at the implication, a million different things popping into his head.

“I—why would I—”

Sam blinks, shrugs again.

“Iunno. I just—figured. You and Dean got this weird whatever.” He clearly doesn’t wanna deal with whatever Castiel’s damage is—Cas doesn’t particularly want to either. “Whatever.” Sam starts to head in without him, but Castiel pulls him back on reflex. He looks even more annoyed now.

“Before we—um. What was wrong with him?” Castiel bites his lip. “What happened?”

He’s not sure what he’s expecting—blame, probably. You broke his fucking heart and he bled out into his chest and up his own throat—

Sam narrows his eyes. “Uh, a lung bleed. When gunk gets all up in his lungs and something knocks it loose, sometimes it tears off the, the—lining and it bleeds. And he’s had ‘em before but never so bad they didn’t stop on their own, so. They stopped it.”

“So it wasn’t—” he stops himself, because it’s stupid to say my fault. He knows it wasn’t.

When he doesn’t finish, Sam jiggles the door impatiently.

“It wasn’t what?”

“Nothing.”

“Hey, they said it coulda been a lot worse. Considering the extent of the damage.” Sam’s eyes darken. He looks affected for the very first time. “The hemorrhaging didn’t really start until he was almost to the hospital. So. He didn’t lose too much blood and he’s fine now.”

Castiel swallows and nods and, for want of anything to say to that, trudges into the room, stopping a few feet short of the foot of the bed.

He gets why Sam gave him a warning.

He’s never been to visit Dean before and this is probably the reason. It’s always weird to be at Dean’s house, to see the sharpness of IV poles and medical equipment strewn around in the normal softness of their well-worn home. But at least there’s a comfort in it, then, in the familiarity of the environment. But this is that turned on its head. The soft quiet of Dean Winchester drowned on all sides by hard equipment. Ever since that day on the playground and Castiel’s frantic search through Dean’s pocket for an inhaler, it feels like Dean’s life has just been a steady encroachment of the inorganic, leading up to now, where it’s wormed its way down his throat, crept into the veins at his wrist. Like a fairy tale—like the vines in Sleeping Beauty crept into the windows of the castle. It feels like only a matter of time until they lose him to it completely.

Sam says, “Hey, Dean.” He pats Dean on the leg, and Dean twitches. Castiel cranes his neck to see if that means that Dean’s awake, because in medical dramas, whenever someone has a tube down their throat—ventilator, now he has a name put on them—they’re usually sleeping. In a coma. Something. “Cas here to see you.”

Dean can’t move to look for him, and even though Castiel feels rooted to the spot, that foists him forward like he’s been jerked by an invisible hook.

Dean’s eyes are open, but they’re foggy. Drugged. Periodically, his eyes roll back into his eyelids, then flutter back down to focus on Castiel’s face. There’s a tube in his mouth he can’t talk around—the silence is filled only with the sound of a machine doing Dean’s breathing for him, lifting his narrow chest in time with the drone of the machine. His lips around the tube are chapped and swollen and peeling. They didn’t feel that way on his mouth last night. Last night they felt soft. He sets his godawful coffee on Dean’s side table, under the light of a too-white lamp bulb. The room is dim besides it, and it creates a strange, sharp edge to every chaotic piece of equipment.

“Hello, Dean,” he whispers. He lets his hands creep up onto the white bedsheets, resting tentatively at Dean’s bedside. When he ticks his eyes up to look at Sam, he has his nose in a textbook.

Dean pats his hand, miles away, down the bed, and Castiel startles at the unexpected contact. He gathers his wits and pats it back, furrowing his brow. Looking at Dean completely unable to talk and feeling a quiet sort of rage simmering inside him, he gets an inkling of why he came here. Why he’s so afraid of John and Bobby and Sam—

“What did you—” It bursts out of him, but he bites his own lip to stop himself. What did you mean, kissing me last night? Dean looks so sick. And Castiel is angry with him. For being sick. For kissing him and then fucking getting out of talking about it with a tube shoved down his throat, just like he gets out of everything.

Oxygen deprivation does stuff to Dean, and sometimes when he’s about to get sick, and his lungs fill up solid, his brain doesn’t work quite right. Castiel saw it once, when they were younger, and Dean was a half a step away from a major infection. He got floppy-limbed and hazy-eyed and quiet. He asked Castiel why there were birds in the room, and he was hospitalized the next day.

Sometimes, Dean hallucinates or he doesn’t remember or he acts unlike himself. So—maybe the kiss was a fluke. Maybe he didn’t mean it. Maybe he doesn’t remember. Maybe he didn’t know what he wanted out of Castiel. Maybe he didn’t want anything. Maybe maybe maybe.

He looks so fucking sick.

“Are you okay?” Castiel asks then, instead of anything meaningful. Just quiet. The edge of a whisper that not even Sam can probably hear.

Dean nods delicately like that makes any more sense than the question did in the first place. Of course he’s not okay.

Sick anticipation surges through Castiel like a bolt of lightning, hot and unpleasant. Maybe they just won’t talk about it. It’s easier for everyone if Dean doesn’t remember the kiss, and Cas doesn’t talk about the kiss, and it never gets beyond the cloistered little world of the swimming hole. The bubble of blue they lived in together last night.

“Okay,” Castiel says. He senses Sam’s discerning eyes on him, but Sam doesn’t say anything and Castiel doesn’t acknowledge it. “Okay.” Then, he takes up Dean’s hand in his. He squeezes. The skin is chafing—dry. There’s a half-hearted heat burning under his skin, like a campfire that needs stoking.

Dean’s eyes slip shut, and his mouth around the ventilator tube curls up in a smile. He thinks about the nurse who insisted that Castiel’s presence would mean something to Dean. And maybe he can be excused for acting like an asshole, because fear is burning in his throat like nausea, and he thinks maybe he’s never been this scared in his life. More scared, even, than he was watching his best friend bleed out from his mouth.

On his way home, after Dean falls asleep, Castiel takes the long way past the swimming hole, with grand illusions of sitting in the shallows until the world makes sense again. But there’s a massive behemoth of a black Impala sitting dusty in the parking lot topside, and he never even makes it to the top of the stairs. He tries very hard not to think about that.

Chapter Text

Dean’s different after that. Maybe Cas is different, too.

Dean liked looking at the stars, once. Liked it because Cas liked it, maybe, but Cas liked looking at them with Dean, same reason he always liked talking about them with him. Because Dean was interested. But Castiel can physically feel Dean’s interest pulling away from it, from the sky. Maybe away from Castiel, too.

In the years since elementary school, his knowledge of the solar system and of the space beyond has gotten a whole lot more nuanced. He knows where to look for specific celestial bodies, and he knows when to do so. He knows the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, knows about black holes and white dwarfs and red giants. He knows the sun is a star, knows what type of star, knows that it can die like a star, too, and knows that someday it’s going to swell right up and consume the whole Earth with it. He knows that every star in the careful path of his telescope could do the same, maybe already has done the same, and they could just be seeing the lingering legacy of something that ceased to exist hundreds of years ago when they look up there.

“That’s...comforting,” Dean says, burritoed in a blanket on top of a stray car hood at the very edge of the salvage yard, looking at the dry grass in field in front of them shifting like waves instead of at the star that Cas is waxing poetic about. There’s always a moment when Castiel looks away from his viewfinder that feels like he’s being physically pulled back to Earth with something like a fishing lure hooked behind his navel. It takes a couple blinks to refocus, readjust. Head in the stars. Two feet on the ground. Castiel can barely see Dean’s face.

“What is?”

“That, you know, half those lights could be dead already. But we can see ‘em anyway.”

Castiel shrugs. “It’s sort of—” he trolls for a word, biting his lip. He arrives on, “—romantic, isn’t it? That they’re gone already, but the universe is so vast that we’re still getting their light. They’re still leaving an impression.”

Dean grunts. Looks up at the sky, finally. Castiel can see it reflected in the feverish glass of his eyes.

He says, “Must be nice.”

They spend the rest of the evening in the quiet, and even though Dean is so close to him, he feels as far away as one of those untouchable stars, dead already, and only he can still see the light.


Dean picks up an infection and misses the first two weeks of his junior year, and when Castiel sees him on his first day back, worn thin and fragile but breathing well with a new printed schedule clutched tight in his hand, they joke about him making it a habit. Neither of them can remember a year that Dean managed to make it to his first day in good health, so he was always off on the wrong foot at the beginning of the school year. And Dean is resilient, but this is a new school, new people, new dynamic—and this time, it kind of shows.

Maybe it’s the circumstances. The lung bleed. The escalation of the disease to whatever stage the lung bleed constitutes.

Maybe—the kiss. Which Castiel has officially taken a we don’t talk about it stance on. Regardless of whether or not Dean remembers, there must be a whole hidden reservoir of feelings he’s damming up there that Castiel can’t unknow. But he doesn’t have to talk about it and Dean doesn’t have to talk about it and so they just won’t.

Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that he isn’t in any of Castiel’s classes, or Charlie’s. Castiel knows from sullen tirades in the junkyard after school that Dean was lucky to progress along to the high school at all after all the days he missed last year. And the pity from the administrators could only take him so far. He’s in decelerated math, science, English doing work he doesn’t like with people he likes even less.

On Dean’s second day of classes, sitting together in the cafeteria, Castiel looks over Dean’s bland packed lunch to the math textbook open in his lap.

“What are you doing?”

Dean shrugs listlessly. “Tryin’ to play catch-up I guess. First test’s tomorrow n’ I haven’t even started.”

Castiel shakes his head, slides his own limp piece of pizza across the table to make room for Dean’s textbook in front of him. He lifts it, flips the front cover, and snorts in disbelief.

“Geometry? You took geometry last year.”

Dean scrubs a hand over his face, up through his hair. “So?”

“So? You’re going to be bored.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does.” Cas slams the geometry book shut. “You’re too smart for this.”

Dean cracks a smile. His teeth are almost as white as his face. He looks like he’s shot up a couple inches since Castiel last hung out with him properly—he’s a spindly teenager now, with long, skinny arms and legs that looks they stretched too thin as he grew. Were Castiel pressed, he might describe him as—gaunt.

“Yeah? Says who?”

Castiel opens his mouth to respond, but he takes a bit too long, because then the bell is ringing, and Dean has only eaten about half a rice cake, and he has to go to a grammar class that he probably outgrew a year ago, and Castiel doesn’t get to see him until the end of the day.

The high school is closer to Dean’s house than the middle school was, and Castiel rode his bike here. He hadn’t offered Dean a ride on his handlebars since he fell off in front of his dad, and Dean looks a bit peaky for it still, but it never fails to improve Dean’s mood, so he has half a mind to offer it up anyway after school that day. But Bobby makes the whole thing moot when he shows up in his old Chevelle and piles the both of them into the backseat.

“Got a good surprise for you boys.” In the rearview mirror, Bobby looks strained. Castiel hasn’t seen Bobby since he dropped Castiel off the night of Dean’s lung bleed, and now it feels like there’s something thick and tense hanging between them like a curtain. “Well, Cas, mostly. But you’re gonna like it too, Dean.” Castiel can see his face in the rearview mirror, and it takes him back to that first trip to the swimming hole, years ago. Bobby winks at his reflection.

The surprise, as it turns out, is an ugly old boat of a car with rust creeping on its rims and the general filth of the junkyard spread into every crevice it could be. But Bobby beams with so much pride, he seems a second away from saying “tada” and wiggling his fingers at it.

“A seventy-eight Continental?” Dean says.

“Sure. Good year. Good car.”

Dean wrinkles his nose. “No it isn’t.”

Bobby huffs out a laugh. “Well, it ain’t for you anyway, princess.”

Cas pulls himself away from trying to gauge the depth of the gold through all the grime to stutter, “Me?”

“You’re about to get your license, ain’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Bobby shrugs. “Bike handlebars ain’t no way to travel.”

Bobby gives him a heavy look, all crinkled brow and hard eyes. It occurs to Castiel, thinking back on that first day at the swimming hole again, how much older Bobby looks now even though fundamentally, nothing about him has changed. Same eyes, same hat, same worn clothes, but he has more gray in his beard. More lines on his face. The hair around the corners of his mouth is distinctly yellow, now. He can’t remember if that’s the way it was when Castiel saw him drinking alone on Christmas Eve, or if that’s a new development.

Every dealing he has with the Winchesters feels leaden and dragging nowadays, and even something with all the symbolic freedom of a car feels a bit like a weight on his chest. He struggles to breathe.

“I—I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you want the stupid car, dumbass,” Dean snarks over the top of the hood, where he’s inspecting a broken headlight. “Bobby’s never offered me a car.”

“You ain’t got a license, idjit.”

“Neither does Cas!”

“Well he’s a damn sight closer than you are. You know your daddy—”

“Is stupidly overprotective. Yeah, yeah. You don’t gotta be a goddamn broken record about it.”

“I know you didn’t just take that tone with me.”

Dean glares at him over the grime, then coughs hard into his elbow. This is clearly a point of contention. Castiel is used to sitting in the middle of these family squabbles, just like he was used to his mom and dad fighting. He just freezes up, lets it wash over him, and tries to relax into the discomfort. Tuck and roll into the jump and it’ll hurt less when you hit the ground.

“Anyway, don’t be so gung-ho for Cas to take it.” Bobby kicks a tire with the side of his foot, and it makes a dull thunk, bereft of air. “It don’t run.”

“Then what’s the point? Cas sure as hell can’t fix a car.” Cas hasn’t even mustered up the energy to be offended by that when Dean turns a sympathetic look on him. “Sorry buddy, but it’s true.”

“That’s where you come in. You can fix it up together.”

Dean glares. “Bobby.”

“Cas can do the heavy liftin’—”

“Bobby.”

“And you can show him the ropes.”

Dean’s face settles heavy, unimpressed, on his uncle.

“I get it. This is a trick. Fix the car, fix the broken kid—”

“If me givin’ you a project so you’ll quit all your pitiful bellyachin’ all over my house is a trick, then I’m a goddamn magician.” It’s the angriest he’s ever heard Bobby, his gruff growl thickening into a snarl, escalating in volume. Dean at least has the decency to look chagrined, but there’s still a curl to his lip that looks a lot like defiance.

“I’d like to fix it up, sir.” Cas pipes in, voice wavering unsteadily. Bobby’s expression softens immediately. He wipes a palm down his face and recomposes himself.

“Hell. Don’t call me sir, for chrissakes.” He pats the top of the car and sends up a plume of dust. “And do whatever you want with the ole girl. No skin off my back.”

They watch from either side of the car as Bobby treks back to the house with his head down, watching his own feet make trails in the gravel. He doesn’t look away until Bobby has disappeared behind a tower of flattened cars. Dean ducks his head quickly to look at the busted up headlight when Castiel looks back at him, not meeting his eye. Dean sticks his hands in his pockets, but he has to pull one out immediately to stifle a big, round cough.

Castiel says, “What the hell.” Dean spits a wad of disgusting lung goop behind the remains of a decimated Honda Accord.

Dean shrugs.

“Why is your uncle giving me a car?”

Dean shrugs again.

“Prolly ‘cause it’s the closest he can get to giving me a car without my dad shooting him in the dick, I don’t know.”

Castiel squints. “Is he giving you a project because you’re bored in all of your remedial classes at school?”

“School doesn’t matter, Cas.”

“You—you’re so good at it, though. You’ve always liked it.”

He has. He likes his art classes, loves science. He loved the books they read in their literature classes. He wasn’t always the best worker, but there was never any question he was capable of the work.

“It isn’t important. Whatever.”

Dean doesn’t say anything. His face is typically so unlike his father’s. There’s nothing soft about Dean, he’s too thin for that, but somehow his features manage to be so nonetheless. Friendly, almost feminine, sometimes. But Castiel can see him shuttering off some part of himself. A visible repression that’s an end to the conversation. Castiel lets it drop as well, but he wishes he had some insight into what, exactly, isn’t important.

Dean clears his throat. “Let’s figure out what this old girl needs, then.”

Turns out the answer is a lot. Castiel pulls a notebook out of his backpack and rolls up his sleeves. Dean rolls up his sleeves too, but he waits for Cas to lift the heavy hood of the car so he can inspect the engine block, and he covers his mouth and nose with his hand when a spray of dirt flies from the hinges and makes even Castiel cough.

It doesn’t look like much, but Castiel reassures himself that Bobby must’ve picked the car because it is fixable, and Dean insists that all the parts they’ll need are available here in the junkyard, strewn amongst the hollow carcasses of the cars. Once Dean’s scoured the car inside and out, and they have a working inventory of what needs to be fixed, they take a walk through the tight little corridors that the towers of cars make.

Castiel has spent a good part of his childhood here in this junkyard, but he hadn’t realized before how much life there still was left in every car. Dean points to functional scraps as they move through the maze, useful bits and pieces strewn amongst the creaking behemoths like blooming roses on the wall of a hedge maze. A tire there, a radiator there, rearview mirrors and headlights and tiny little metal pieces that Castiel doesn’t have names for. To someone with a practiced eye, the junkyard isn’t the piles of useless garbage that Castiel has always seen it as. It’s brimming with life and potential.

They locate all the parts they’ll need shortly before nightfall, when the stars have begun surfacing on the edge of a just-purple horizon, and the sun fades over the tops of the trees on the empty brush planes around Bobby’s scrapyard. The Continental rests just in the periphery of a yellow halo of brightness from the floodlight atop Bobby’s locked-door warehouse. Maybe another reason Bobby picked this spot. He knows Castiel likes the night, being under the stars.

“Cool,” Dean says, a little bit of color in his face. He needs his nebulizer treatments—Castiel can tell by now when he’s congested in his chest, when he needs something to break all that stuff up and shake it loose. But he looks pretty content. “You wanna get started tomorrow?”

He does want a car. So. That’s what they do. He asks his mother about it that evening when he gets home. They got a TV for themselves sometime in the last couple of years, probably because his mother found she had nothing better to do now, and she’s watching some drama she recorded on VHS, still wearing the pantyhose and the skirt from her day at the law office, and true to form, she doesn’t care. The child support will pay the gas and insurance until he’s eighteen she says, and she smacks her lips and smiles and pats him under the chin. She calls him, “my little miracle,” which she hasn’t done in a long time. And then she goes back to slowly unlearning his existence.

Once it comes right down to it, and he’s on his back on the dirty ground or under the hood getting oily and disgusting, Castiel can say quite confidently that the endgame of having a car doesn’t seem altogether worth it. If he can use his child support to pay to upkeep a car, maybe he should have have just bought a new one in the first place.

But Dean—Dean likes the project. Maybe needs the project. He’s sure he’s not imagining the light coming back into Dean’s eyes the more the car comes together—the light that he’s been missing ever since the lung bleed, that’s missing every day when he white knuckles his way through another tedious school day. And it’s something he can do, too. Castiel does the heavy work in the poorly ventilated areas, and all the work under the car, given that Dean doesn’t breathe so well on his back for too long, and he can’t risk inhaling anything suspect.

But Dean likes perching over his shoulder, and he knows how the pieces come together so well. And the kicker, most of all, he clearly likes—the proximity. Likes spending time with Cas in a way they haven’t in a while. And maybe, thinking back to that underlit kiss, he likes it a little too much.

Case in point—one breezy afternoon in October, just after school, Dean hovers and won’t stop hovering. They’re making progress on the car’s body. Dean did a lot of work preparing the interior, and the end of the build is in sight. What’s left over is a lot of detail work that Dean seems to think requires—micromanaging.

The proximity of Dean to his shoulder makes his skin prickle, raises goosebumps along his bicep, hairs along his forearm. Dean’s breathing is unnerving on the best days, but when it’s going in one ear and fogging up his head, it’s nigh intolerable.

“Do you have to stand right there?”

He’s trying to clean some terminal or another, whatever Dean said, stuck under the hood—Bobby deemed the engine functional after the last round of fixes, but there’s still the matter of making sure all the bits and pieces are clean enough to go on functioning. It’s not fun, and it’s not glamorous, and now he’s trying to scrub an acre of rust with a tiny, tiny toothbrush and thinking how much he’d rather be doing anything else while Dean gets up close and personal with his—all of him.

When Dean doesn’t take the hint, Cas gives him a panicky little shove back. Dean takes a couple unsteady steps and coughs into his elbow.

“I just want to make sure you aren’t butchering the parts, geez.” He trudges a few feet back to sit on a rusty fender. He’s all hunched in, guarded. Like a dog that’s been caught doing something it shouldn’t and tucks its tail between its legs. He breathes hard for a second, hand ghosting over the pocket where he keeps his rescue inhaler.

“I’m cleaning off rust with a toothbrush. What kind of damage could I possibly do?” He waves the toothbrush behind him in demonstration, the bristles all flattened and spread and unassuming.

Dean crosses his arms. “Oh, this coming from the guy who managed to flub replacing the wiper blades so bad he cracked the stupid windshield?”

He eases up and turns from the open hood of the car, butt against the the grill where his groin had been pressed. He ticks his head left to right then back again to get the kinks and crackles out of his neck, then he rolls his shoulders to ease out the tightness. He’s been hunched over a dirty motor too long to want to tolerate this kind of talk.

“Yeah, and we all know you could do so much better.” He rolls his eyes. “Dean Winchester, the only mechanic in the world who’s never touched a dirty car part in his—”

“I just did! I replaced the headlight, I—I took off the drive belt, I—” he struggles, tinges of red spreading under his freckles like ruddy paint splashes on a pale canvas. Castiel isn’t exactly being fair—Dean’s done more than his fair share. He’s not sure why he’s being so prickly, but at this point, backing Dean into a corner, at least he feels he can breathe again. No more claustrophobic closeness that makes his heart pound, makes him sweat. Dean starts coughing.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m doing the heavy lifting. Nothing would get done without me. No wonder Bobby gave the car to me.”

He doesn’t mean that either. The car wouldn’t be anywhere without Dean. He’d have a useless pile of scrap he didn’t know what to do with. But he can’t stop his stupid mouth.

“I could do it myself. Bobby knows I’m a good mechanic,” he mumbles. “My dad taught me everything he knows.”

Castiel can’t help his snort at that, and Dean’s eyes get abruptly—dangerous.

“What’s so funny?” he prods.

“Well, for one thing, the idea that you could do it yourself,” Castiel turns back with the brush in his hand, tries to concentrate on what he was cleaning before. “And for another, the idea of your dad sticking around long enough to teach you anything.”

With his back turned, he doesn’t see Dean coming for him, barely even hears his heavy breathing, and it’s probably the element of surprise that lets Dean take his limited strength and turn it into something powerful enough to whip Castiel around, sharp as if someone attached him to a tow chain and drove.

“Don’t,” he says, flimsy little hand shaking in the fabric of his shirt. “Talk shit about my dad.” Castiel can see his throat working against a cough, the line of his mouth wriggling to keep it restrained and keep his composure. It’s so easy to pull the hand off his shirt it’s not even funny, the grip so weak and tremulous he might as well be plucking off a bug.

“Why not? Your dad sucks. My dad sucks. You know it, I know it, we—”

Dean decks him.

It hurts. The punch itself isn’t that bad—sure, it’s a firecracker of a punch that takes him off-guard, bare knuckles right to the ridge of his cheekbone. But the real hurt comes from the fact that there’s nowhere to stagger to with his back against the front of the Continental. On impact, his head snaps backwards and makes a nasty, meaty thud against the latch on the raised hood of the car.

“What—” he starts, but before he can say anything else, Dean’s apologizing.

“Sorry,” Dean says, spiralling into a coughing fit, because of course he is. He’s going to take a hit on his inhaler and then he’ll be exempt from everything he ever did wrong, just like he always has been. Dean can get away with anything when he pulls the sick kid card.

“You’re—I’m—” Cas doesn’t know where to put his hand. The throb of his heartbeat on his cheek or the numb spot where the back of his head made impact. Eventually, he reaches back, parting his hair, and is surprised to find his fingers wet. When he pulls them away to look, they’re red.   

“Sorry, I didn’t mean it.” Dean coughs and coughs and coughs, spitting out words between them, and then, surprise surprise, the coughs go thin as he runs out of air, and he takes less air into his chest, and he takes a hit on his inhaler. Castiel thinks he’s still trying to apologize around the little plastic mouthpiece.

The bleeding is sluggish, just a little puncture where the latch caught the skin and tore. He can feel the ragged edges of the wound hidden in his hair.

“Why the hell would you defend him?” Castiel says. The only thing he’s got aside from his sleeve is an oily rag, which seems like the wrong thing to put against an open wound, so before long, there’s a thin trail of blood matting his hair and pooling at the collar of his shirt.

Dean shakes his head, the wheezing calming down after the hit of his medicine. That doesn’t answer Castiel’s question.

“He treats you like crap, you know that, right?”

Dean shakes his head again, pulling in his first real ragged breath in a few minutes. Despite himself, Castiel feels a thread of relief tangle in with the annoyance.

“You’ve always done this. I don’t get it.”

Castiel waits for his breathing to even out, settling into whatever it is Dean calls normal nowadays.

“He told me,” Dean pants, confessing down at the ground instead of looking Castiel in the eye. “He told me I could—maybe come with him.”

Castiel still has the rust-stained toothbrush in one hand, and he sets it down on the Continental’s bumper to contemplate that.

“What?”

The floodlight above Bobby’s garage flicks on like it does every night. It’s still bright enough to see out, the setting sun just now purpling the horizon, but the overactive thing always did come on the second it started to look dim out.

“He told me I could—” a wheeze. “Come with him. If I was good—got a little better with a gun and hand-to-hand and maybe could run some laps—”

“—Wait. Wait.” Castiel shakes his head like he was trying to clear fluid from his ears. “Like—travelling? He told you he was gonna take a sixteen-year-old kid with CF on his mysterious—missions or whatever they are?” Dean still liked to pretend his dad was in the FBI or something, but Castiel never forgot Victor Henriksen, and he wasn’t fully convinced that Dean wasn’t talking about chasing a wanted criminal around the country.

Dean narrows his eyes. He spits a wad of gunk at the ground and hides his next cough behind quivering lips.

“You think I can’t do it?”

“I—” Castiel feels the back of his head again. It’s still bleeding, and he wonders if maybe he’s concussed, hearing things. Because none of this can be right. “Dean I think it’s insane! What about school?”

“School is a waste of time.”

“Oh, because trailing your dad around the country doing what-the-hell-ever is such a productive use of your time?”

“Yes!”

“What would you even do?”

“I’m good backup! I can fire a gun—hold my own in a fight—”

“A fight?” Castiel slaps a hand to his forehead. “That’s—I don’t even know what to say. One missed antibiotic puts you in the hospital and you wanna travel the country fighting? Don’t be an idiot. You can’t even fight the common fucking cold.”

“Says you, you’ve got all the time in the world to make a name for yourself. I’m gonna—I don’t wanna—”

“Dean—”

“I don’t wanna die and only having a dumb high school diploma to show for it! With my dad I could actually—go out in a blaze of glory instead of waiting to choke to death on my own lungs in some dumb hospital bed—”

Dean.

“Don’t Dean me like you know what’s best for me.” Dean spits again. His lips are wet, the viscous crud from his lungs stringing between his lips, and Castiel can’t stop himself before he’s looking for blood, even as he bleeds sluggishly from the back of his head. Bobby said that they needed to be aware of bleeding after that first major lung bleed, warned him to keep an eye out like he always had. They’re maybe supposed to be worried about the awful fissure in his lung opening up again, and wouldn’t that just be a barrel of laughs? When Dean catches him looking, Castiel turns away. The new battery Bobby ordered for them so they wouldn’t have to rely on an older one is on a cloth on the ground by the car. Castiel makes a show of inspecting it just for something to do, like he even knows anything about it. Like he could do any of this without Dean.

Once he turns, though, Dean can clearly see the stain of sticky red running along the column of his spine. He gasps.

“Christ, you’re bleeding bad. Was that from—when I hit you?”

Castiel doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches back and smacks a hand over the evidence. He hears Dean’s shoes crunching on the gravel behind him, making a slow, careful approach. Castiel tenses, feels the presence behind him just as claustrophobically as he had when he was fixing the car. He blinks hard and long, clenches his jaw, breathes through his nose.

“I’m such an asshole,” Dean whispers, mostly to himself. Castiel thinks back to when they first met, and Dean punched him first and asked questions later. He remembers the grudging respect, that someone so sick had that much fight in him. But now it’s getting old. Most of the time, it seems like that’s the only way Dean knows how to handle things.

When he reaches Castiel’s back and makes a tentative motion toward Castiel’s matted hair, Castiel bats him away. Dean retreats immediately, seared.

“Sorry.” He sounds more dejected than ever. “You know—I mean—you don’t know what it’s like—”

“Oh, cut the crap, Dean.” He turns around. The sun has crept lower in the sky while he wasn’t looking, cutting parallel lines of purple and pink and orange across the horizon. The milky halo of light from the floodlight is just now visible, puddling at their feet in a sickly imitation of the setting sun. “You’ve got this complex about not having the time to do anything, but you’re the one who seems to be just—putting off anything.”

“I’m not.”

“Some days it feels like you’re waiting to die.”

“I’m—”

“You told me—you once told me that your dad left you in a hotel room without meds. And he didn’t do your treatments or your pills or take you for checkups.” Castiel bites his lip. “He stole your disability check for—for ammunition or something, Dean.”

Dean is quiet.

“So you just want to go with him and die as fast as possible? Because school is such a waste of time?”

“No.”

“How’s that supposed to make me feel, huh? I’ve been here all along!”

There’s a tire iron leaning up against the body of the Continental from when they replaced the flat tires a couple days ago. It’s a heavy, sturdy, blackened piece of metal and he picks it up before he even really knows what he’s doing and has it hoisted above his head, poised to drop it hard and heavy against the windshield. Destroy again what they had so very carefully replaced not a week ago.

“If school doesn’t matter—does this car we fixed together matter? Does any of this matter?”

Dean doesn’t react, and Castiel’s ready to do it. He’s ready for the swing and the follow-through and the splintering of tempered glass and he’s ready to walk away and not be a part of this drama anymore. To not be looking out for lung bleeds or stomachaches or infections. To be—young and remember he’s young and have his own future. Without thinking about this every day.

“And what about that—that fucking kiss? Does that matter? Or were you just gonna skip town and never, never talk about it again—”

Dean looks stricken. He probably looks something like Castiel did when Dean brained him against the hood clasp on the Continental.

“You.” Dean says, breathing hard through his mouth. “I thought you didn’t want to talk about that. You never mentioned—”

Castiel drops the tire iron onto the gravel to glint lurid in the light overhead.

“What was I supposed to say, huh? You—sprung it on me, and then you were sick, and then—”

“You don’t want that with me.” Dean says it in a statement that wants to be a question, a tentative little touch of his toe into freezing water before he retreats across the beach. He pauses like he’s looking for an answer, too. And the same panic chokes up at Castiel’s throat, grabbing hold of an answer.

“I—”

One syllable, like a confirmation of every bad thought Dean ever had.

“It was a mistake,” Dean blurts. “It was—I’m not some lovesick—queer.”

And Castiel’s face darkens, sure as the sky over their head is rolling over to dark, to stars. Because if he’s honest, that was never even the issue that came to mind when he thought about being with Dean. Kissing Dean. Loving Dean. He’s too consumed with the idea of loving someone with an expiration date.

He feels like Dean decked him again.

“Okay.”

“And I’m not fucking weak, you know? I’m not some damsel that’s gonna fall apart without you—”

“You said the same thing that night.”

Dean stops. He seems half a second from working up a lather. “What?”

“You told me—I don’t know if you remember, but you told me that you weren’t weak. That you could do anything that other people could do, even if you had to work harder.” The world has narrowed. To the flood light. To the front of the Continental and the discarded tire iron and to Dean, who’s starting to shiver in the evening cold, now. The last crickets of a dying summer have heaved a crescendo in the darkening meadows around them. The cars of the junkyard creak in the rising cold. “What you’re talking about isn’t strong. You wanna—run around the country like a big man with a gun—” Like your dad. “—fine. Then I don’t owe you anything.”

Dean swallows. Castiel thinks back to the kiss, and he thinks that everything, everything would be solved right now if one of them were to close that gap and kiss the other. But as blustery as Castiel is, as much as he can tell Dean off for being a coward, he’s one too. And he doesn’t want to love Dean the way he does. He just wants the same thing he’s wanted since he was four years old—to go to space. Make a name. He doesn’t understand how everything got so complicated between elementary school and now.

So they stand in quiet, and neither one breaks the silence, and neither one of them moves. Dean clutches at his stomach. Castiel ghosts a hand over his own stomach in phantom pain. He wonders, briefly, if maybe he’s being a hypocrite. Maybe what he wants is for Dean to live his life like he’s never going to die, just like Castiel does.

“I’m tired,” Dean says flatly. “I need to do a neb treatment. Can we just—forget about it? I just wanna act like—it never happened.”

“Okay. Fine. It never happened.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

It’s full dark now, and Dean doesn’t wait for him when he retreats from the pool of light, headed toward the distant lights of the house. And Cas doesn’t follow him. He waits off the road for his mom to pick him up.

The rest of the time they spend repairing the car is strained, but at the same time, Dean seems more determined than ever that she run perfect. That she be beautiful. That she shine through every detail. And when she finally runs, and they take their first illegal, licenseless test drive going twenty miles per hour down a desolate country road, Dean says, offhandedly, “She’ll probably be running a long time after I’m gone, huh?”

And Castiel reckons she will.

Chapter Text

If he had to pinpoint a moment when his life fractured into eras, into different-colored strata like rock formations, it’d probably be the moment that Daphne Allen pulled up alongside him at the first spring cross country practice of his junior year.  

He and Daphne don’t hit it off so much as she hits it off with him so hard she knocks it out of the park, and she’s so enthusiastic that he can’t stop himself following her around like a puppy. It’s a crisp day, the kind of clear that turns the sky just the right shade of watch glass blue, and Daphne is a good runner. Hell, maybe she’s even better than Cas, but she’s content to run beside him, mile after mile, smiling shyly until they stop for water and she has enough breath to tell him her name. Daphne. Long legs, pretty butt, toned thighs. Vibrant and in shape and smelling of clean sweat and flowery deodorant. They’re not in middle school anymore—they’re in high school. Castiel has a car and a license, and there’s a whole new dimension of existence open to him. Notably, pretty girls that like him. Pretty girls that he could like back.

The thing about him and Dean is this: the kiss didn’t not happen. Of course it didn’t. And they both know it. So they talk less. They meet less. They hang out less. Soon, the only thing they share are the rides to and from school in the car they built together, until a couple months ago Dean stopped asking for rides entirely. They pass each other in the halls still, but somewhere in the midst of new classes and new friends and new clubs, he loses track of what Dean is doing. He doesn’t know if he has an infection or if he’s lost weight or if he’s eating too many sweets at lunch. And he figures the distance is nothing if not good for them after all—that.

And the thing about Daphne is this: liking Daphne is easy. She’s smart, well-balanced, middle class, uncomplicated. Her dad is an electrician, her mom is an English teacher. She’s Christian. She likes romantic comedies and football games and baking. He takes her out for burgers the first week they know each other, and before he really knows what’s happening, they’re holding hands at the movie theater and she’s calling him her boyfriend. It’s delightfully simple, remarkably mundane, and if he’s honest with himself—everything that Dean is not.

His new friends are in his AP classes. Mick wants to go to Oxford and Ash wants to go to MIT, but they still like to get high and watch movies on Saturday. They don’t know about his missing dad and they ask him lewd questions about having sex with his girlfriend, and suddenly, about three years after he became a teenager, Castiel finds that he actually is one.

He and Daphne steadily take taboo bases until one night in the middle of late spring, when the leaves have started to grow in but the air is still sharp with cold. They’re eating in the parking lot of a drive-in burger joint when it strikes Castiel, looking at the way the red neon highlights the lines of her face in lurid detail—

“Do you—want me to take you somewhere really special?”

He’s interrupted her mid-sentence without realizing it, and she stops in the middle of a story about her dad trying unsuccessfully to fix her busted boombox to bite her lip and take a delicate sip of milkshake.

Eventually, she nods, pushing a heavy wave of hair behind her ear, and a healthy blush of pink extends all the way from the apple of her cheek to the delicate shell of her ear. Castiel starts the car, puts it into gear, and retraces a familiar path out to the swimming hole without even thinking about it. It’s one that he’s taken a million times, be it with his mother and father or on his bike with Dean. They have to pass the towering metal columns of Bobby’s scrapyard, and he watches Daphne’s eyes light with the glowing windows of Mr. Singer’s little house. Dean’s probably inside now, doing some treatment or another, breathing down a tube or sitting in a vibrating vest.

Castiel bites his lip.

“You know that guy, don’t you?” Daphne taps the window glass with a long fingernail, and the salvage yard is gone by the time Castiel can answer. “My mom says he’s the town drunk. My dad sees him in the hardware store all the time buying weird stuff.”

“Bobby Singer?”

“Yeah, that’s him. I think my dad thinks he’s a murderer or something.”

Castiel laughs despite himself, shifting in his seat, trying not to think about Bobby Singer’s locked doors. “He’s not a murderer. He’s got—well, he takes care of two kids.”

“Does he?”

“Yeah—uh. Dean Winchester? He goes to our school. And his younger brother Sam goes to the middle school.”

“Oh. He’s sick isn’t he? Dean?”

“He has cystic fibrosis.”

She scrunches her nose.

“What’s that?”

A million descriptors blitz to mind at once. He doesn’t think he could adequately describe it, just like that video hadn’t managed to capture the fear and the desolation and the hurt of it way back when he’d watched it as a little kid. The fact that she even has to ask the question in the first place is probably one of his favorite things about her.

So he says, simple as anything, “A lung disease.”

“Oh.” She taps her nails, all in a row, on the armrest set into the door.

“That—” He pats the dashboard of the Continental with a fond open palm. “He—well, that’s where I got this car.”

“From the salvage yard? Was it a junker?” He nods. “Did you fix it yourself?”

Castiel nods again. Doesn’t elaborate. Can feel the pieces of himself that he’s holding back wedged in his throat.

“Yeah.”

“So you’re good with your hands,” she purrs. Castiel can see the white of her teeth catching the headlights in the rearview mirror. “Even though this thing is a little jenky.”

He furrows his brow.

“No she’s not.” He says, defensive, his brain superimposing Dean on top of Daphne, hair a burnished gold in the sunlight as he rubbed a shine into dash panel, flickered between tuning stations on the vintage radio dial. Looking as vital as he’d ever looked. He picked up calling the car “her” from Dean somewhere along the line, and he can’t seem to stop now.

“Hey, you don’t hear me complaining, do you?” She shrugs. “You have a car. I don’t. This old thing’s as good as anything.”

Castiel is spared having to think about that when they reach the empty little gravel parking lot of the swimming hole, and he pulls into a spot where his headlights bounce off the opposite canyon wall. The shifting blades of grass in front of the headlines are magnified ten thousand times in the light. They’re alone out here, and it’s quiet for miles up and down the road. He kills the engine and plays nervously with the keys still jingling in the ignition.

“This is what you wanted to show me?” she says, slyly. He swallows.

“Yeah, see, at night—” Castiel says, reaching for the door handle at the same time Daphne unbuckles her seatbelt, leans over the center console, and takes his face between her hands. She kisses him, then lets one hand drop to shift the center console up between the seats so that she can slide more smoothly across the seat without breaking contact with his lips.

It’s full night, now. The stars are shining brightly, the moon is a waxing beacon in the sky above them, and the headlights that Castiel’s left on are the only artificial light to be seen for miles. It’s shifting darker by the second, though, as the lights inside the car scatter and diffuse through the slow-creeping fog on the windows.

It feels good, just like it does every time he kisses Daphne, and he brought her here because he thought it would feel even better, here, in his favorite place in the world. The rest of the world isn’t quite green yet, still working its way to full bloom, but the swimming hole stays some type of lush all winter. When she shifts her hand between his legs, though, he jumps, breaking contact with her mouth with a wet smack of her lips.

“You don’t have to—” he breathes. She rubs with greater purpose. “I mean—I didn’t bring you out here to—to—”

She shifts back, one leg folded under her as she kneels over him on the seat. He hadn’t noticed, but her cardigan is half off one shoulder, revealing the smooth, pale slope of her shoulder, her arm.

“You didn’t bring me to the swimming hole to fool around,” she says skeptically. “This is like, primo makeout spot.” He blushes. He hopes she can’t see it in the dim car.

“I—didn’t.” She pulls the cardigan back over her shoulder and shifts back into her seat, staring straight ahead. “We can still—I mean, we can...if you want to.”

“No, show me what you want to show me,” she says airily, reaching for her own door handle. Castiel’s door never shut, so he clambers out to follow her with a strange churning in his gut. He leaves the headlights on.

“I haven’t been here in ages,” she says. “I used to come here all the time when I was little.”

“It’s one of my favorite spots.”

“Still?” He nods. She wanders around the front of the car. He’s parked near the lip of the quarry wall, and she sashays into the beam of the headlights, kicking up dust motes from the gravel that swirl and swarm visibly in the air. The only sound is her flimsy black flats crunching in the gravel, and it’s amplified in the resonant chasm at their feet. About a foot away from the edge of the quarry, she stops, peers over the edge, and kicks a stone into the yawning dark below her.

“You want to go down there? It’s dark. This seems a little dangerous.”

“No no, I—” she rubs pointedly at her shoulders, and he realizes how brisk the night is out here, on the topside of a windy plain. He wonders if he’s meant to take off his jacket for her? But he’s shivering himself after the muggy warmth inside the car. “I know it like the back of my hand. And when we get down there—here. Let’s.”

Here’s something else that he hadn’t really let himself talk about—think about—since that night with Dean, months and months and months ago. Just another part of the whole ordeal that makes him feel anxious and crazy and—sort of disconnected from reality, if he’s honest. Every time it comes to mind. The water glowed when he touched it. He doesn’t want to think about what kind of chemical madness is involved in a process like that, if there’s some credence to the whole nuclear madness that was going around when he was a baby, doesn’t know who else it might respond to, if it was a coincidence that it lit up when it did before, how often it even responds—

And it’s almost funny that the whole glowing swimming hole thing had been, at the time, overshadowed by just Dean putting his lips on Castiel’s. He huffs a sigh.

“Here,” he says again, coming up behind Daphne at the edge of the quarry. The silhouette of his legs on the opposite wall shrinks as he moves away from the car. When he reaches her side, he takes her hand, and the delicate curve of hers comes together with the hard bow of his into one solid shadow. Her hand is cold.

He leads her down the stairs, and she goes with very clear trepidation. There’s no confidence in her movements as they trundle down the inset steps; she feels out every slotted stair like with tapping toe-heel-toe-heel hesitance.

“You know,” he says, licking his lips and clasping tight to her palm. He feels every stair like it’s an extension of himself—it doesn’t even occur to him to think that he will misstep. “Uh, you know, there’s.” His anxiety spikes. He can feel her impatience in the hard set of her hand. The stars above them are out in full force and he turns to them, like he always does. “You know, there are stars up there that have already been extinguished? Like—stars that went out a thousand years ago. But the light has to travel so far to get here that we still see the star in the sky a thousand years later.”

She pauses on a step. She shakes her hand out of his to trail it along the wall instead, and he tells himself that she’s just trying to keep her balance, but she’s strangely stiff, now, in the still, punched-earth quarry.

“Sheesh, that’s sort of depressing,” she says. They hit the sand at the bottom of the stairs and the walk becomes easier, but she doesn’t take his hand again. From here, they can see the edge of the water outlined in the white gleam of the moon. She continues, “I could’ve gone my whole life without knowing I was looking up at a buncha corpses.”

“I always thought it was sort of neat.” He shrugs stiffly. He can see her rub warmth into her arms in the dark, the sound of her chafing cardigan over-loud in the dark. They can barely hear the water, just like always, the silent stillness the most remarkable thing, as always. “Romantic, maybe.”

Romantic? Morbid much?” He’s not sure if her eyes have adjusted like his have, if she can even see the movement or the shape of him in the dark. But he knows she sees when he leans down to chuff off his sneakers, peel off his socks, and roll the cuffs of his blue jeans to his knees. “Are you going in? It’s freezing!”

“Just my feet,” he says, feeling rooted deep with his toes finally in the rough, grainy sand. She doesn’t move away from the staircase. “The water is always warm. You should come too.”

“I don’t think so.”

He swallows heavily.

“Okay—okay then, just watch—”

She does, impatient, arms crossed over her chest and body closed off as he makes his slow way through the sand, to the water. And it’s warm, but it’s different. And it doesn’t reach up to welcome him—doesn’t feel like an embrace. Doesn’t feel like coming home.

And it doesn’t light up.

He breathes shallow through his nose. Waiting for something to change. Has a silent conversation with the water in his head, negotiating with it like it’s just camera shy.

“Come on…” he says. Skims the top of the water in a half-hearted kick. He may be imagining it, but it seems to go colder around his ankles. He wades a little deeper, until the rolled cuffs of his pants are saturated. Normally the wind doesn’t touch the water down here, but he feels the chill creep over him gradually, like a slow-moving frost.

He waits. He waits. He—

“Am I supposed to be watching for something?” Daphne eventually calls across the distance.

“Making me look bad,” he mumbles under his breath, eyes on the concentric circles of water rippling away from his legs. He’s not sure if he should tell her the truth, if she would think he was crazy to hear him telling the truth, if he maybe really is crazy. However she feels, though, he feels like an idiot. She had her hand down his pants at the top of the quarry, which is what he’s thought he wanted for weeks and weeks, what he should have wanted, and here he is, knee deep in chilly, unwelcoming water and acting like an insane person.

“It’s—it’s supposed to light up,” he calls weakly. She doesn’t break the silence for a long moment, but it feels more pregnant than before.

“What are you talking about?”

“Haven’t you heard the rumors?”

“I mean—yeah. I just haven’t believed them since I was ten or something.”

“When I was here with Dean—” He bites his tongue.

“Dean? The one we were talking about on the way here?” Castiel bends down and lays his hand atop the water, willing it one last time to spark for him, just like it had before.

Distracted, he says, “Yes—he’s—he’s my—”

“Baby, you’re acting really weird. Can we just go?”

“You can ask him. Maybe it’s seasonal—?”

“Cas.” Sharp, a dagger of a name. The night feels even colder around him now.

“Okay,” he says, shaking the feeling loose. “Okay.” He slogs out of the water, and it feels dense around his ankles. It’s a relief to be free of it, which is so strange, it leaves him feeling uncertain in his own skin.

Daphne is shaking with the cold. Castiel is shaking with something else.

“Here,” he says, shrugging out of his jacket and approaching her, still barefoot. He casts it out in an arc and lets it catch the air behind her, pulling it soundly over her shoulders. She smells like sour perfume and burger grease from the diner, the artificiality cutting through the natural greenery of the swimming hole like a slap to the face. She tugs it in close to herself, and now that’s what he’ll smell like too.

“What’s gotten into you?” She runs a palm down the side of his face. Half of him wants to lean into it. The other half chafes at the contact like her palm is sandpaper. The question doesn’t make any sense, because it seems to him that nothing has gotten into him. This is only the most himself he’s ever been to her.

“The rumors are true,” he says softly. “I’ve seen it glow.”

She looks at him for a minute, eyes soft.

“I’d like to see it sometime,” she offers, and then she’s headed back up the stairs. His eyes have adjusted by now to the heavy dark, and he can see her shifting back, in his jacket. He lingers for a moment in the sand, watches her ascend the staircase. Then he turns back and plunks dejected into the shore to shake the sand out of his socks and do his best to pull them back over his wet feet.

“Fat lot of help you did me,” he mumbles at the water. “What, do you only light up for Dean? Are you trying to tell me something?”

There’s a pulse, then. That’s the only way he could think to describe it. A beat that visibly shifts the air around him, like the way air’s displaced during a thunderclap, and then a mumbling drone picks up in the back of his head, building until there’s a ring like megaphone feedback that picks up in his ear. He wriggles a pinky in his ear canal like that will clear it out, but it doesn’t stop—just keeps building, until the aural becomes something visible, and he could swear that the glow was back, and just in front of him.

But it stops, just as quickly as it started, and when he looks up at the still-illuminated patch of the wall where the headlights are glowing, he sees that it’s just Daphne flashing the brights. Trying to get his attention.

He gives one last dig at his ears once he’s managed to get his shoes back on his feet, snapping his fingers by either ear to make sure that his hearing was still intact.

He climbs the stairs slowly. It feels like something’s draining out of him as he surfaces, and when he climbs back into the driver’s seat, Daphne is making eyes at him again.

“I think—I think I might be getting a migraine?” he says, tapping his forehead with the butt of his palm, grinding into his eye sockets until he sees grainy fireworks. “I don’t. My head’s all fuzzy.”

“Oh, well, that explains it. You really haven’t been acting like yourself, baby,” Daphne coos. She has delicate fingers, and they stroke over his bicep, but she’s wearing his jacket, and he knows he gave it to her, but he doesn’t clearly recall taking it off. He’s cold. He reaches for the heater knob, cranks it up. There’s still dust in the air ducts from all the time this car spent languishing in Bobby’s lot, and it smells like burning.

The comment hits him funny, until the mumbling picks up at the back of his head again, and he has to shake his head to make any of his own thoughts come loose around it. Acting like himself. Acting like himself. He flaps his mouth soundlessly.

“Maybe we should both get home,” she says delicately. “Do you need me to drive?”

He jingles the keys. Starts the car. Shakes his head. The rumble of the engine drowns out the voices too, and then he doesn’t have to concentrate on trying to parse whether or not they’re English. He doesn’t have to quiet the panic, because the Continental does it for him. He appreciates her gleam, her purr. All the details that Dean gave him.

“I’ll be fine.”

He is. The voices fade the farther they get from the swimming hole, though, the pain in his head grows steadily worse. So much so that the gentle kiss goodbye that Daphne plants on his cheek grates on his very nerves and sends shocks of shivery agony blitzing through his temples.

He drives home with a pop station on the radio blaring some top ten hit he can’t stand, letting the brightness of the moon guide him. And when he gets there, he bypasses his mother sleeping on the couch, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and, very deliberately, sleeps.


The feeling from that night—the full-headedness, the headaches, and most concerning of all, the whispered voices, never truly go away. They’re with him sporadically through the day, every day—chorusing as he brushes his teeth, crescendoing in the middle of an English lesson, cresting up and plunging low on his rides to and from school. And they don’t interrupt his daily life or his time with his girlfriend or his friends as much as they probably should, because—well—he fills his head with clubs and people and schoolwork because that means there’s less room in there for all the bad stuff.

By the time a few months have passed, he’s so busy not thinking about anything that he doesn’t realize how bad it’s all gotten with Dean until he shows up at one of Castiel’s tutoring sessions with purple bags punched in so deep under his eyes it looks like he went ten rounds with a prize fighter. He’s not sure he looks much better, because nothing has been right since that night at the swimming hole, but at least he’s maintaining enough composure to be the one on the tutor side of the table in the library.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Dean says, all bravado, but it his voice is a croak. His posture is tight in a way that says he’s hurting somehow. Nerve pain along his spine, if Castiel had a best guess.

“You’ve gained weight,” is all Castiel says, as Dean puts down a biology test with a 52% marking on the front in red ink and an English essay that says SEE ME AFTER CLASS on the top. To someone else that might be an insult, but he knows that gaining weight is a point of pride for Dean because it’s near impossible for him to do. And he really has, too. He’s wider in the shoulders, filled out in the face. He doesn’t look like someone stretched him out on a rack anymore. In fact he looks almost—handsome. Boyish features sharpening and rounding out in all the right ways, and it feels like a smack in the face.

Dean smiles, puffs out his chest to make himself look even bigger.

“Been doin’ tube feedings.” He proudly pats his side where Castiel knows the little button rests under his shirt. Then he coughs into the crook of his elbow.

“Yeah, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” It’s a tired argument between them, and it’s like they never spent time apart, slipping back into the same worn old grooves.

Dean scowls, “You see how much you like pukin’ up—

“—something I never ate.” He waves him off flippantly, rolling his eyes. “I know, I know. So you’ve said.” He reaches across the table to pick up the biology test. Dean has the decency to duck his head a little bit, at least. Some kind of remorse flitting across his face.

“Didn’t even want to see a tutor,” he mumbles.

“Yes, well, the unfortunate consequence of failing is that your teachers take notice. If you didn’t want to be noticed, you should have kept to making Cs instead of Fs.”

Dean glowers, but he doesn’t say anything else obstinate. They spend some time going over the test and the paper, and he’s about halfway through an explanation of something that Castiel is almost certain that Dean already knows when Castiel notices that Dean is looking at him instead of the paper, sharp jaw perched on the edge of his hand. Castiel blushes hotly, doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. But Dean does look different. Handsome, Castiel reminds himself. The word he’d thought is handsome.

Looking into his green eyes, feeling the easy air between them, Castiel thinks that he’s missed Dean, even though he’s been right here at school with him. The last time they talked, a few weeks ago at least, Dean slammed a locker in his face when Castiel tried to ask him about doing homework, then he insisted he walk home from school, even though Castiel offered him a ride. Then Dean skipped two days of school and disappeared to God knows where.

Dean bites his lip.

“So.”

Castiel leans up from where he’d been hunkered over Dean’s paper and caps his red pens.

“So,” Castiel returns.

“Listen I—I was wondering if you maybe wanted to hang out soon? I know you don’t—I mean, we don’t. So much lately, but things’ve been—I mean just sort of, sort of shitty, and I—”

“Okay,” Castiel says. “Yeah, sure. Of course.”

Dean smiles.

“Okay good, because pretty much the only reason I agreed to this tutoring session is because I knew your nerd ass would be here.”

Castiel looks down at his failed test, his essay.

“It looks like you need it, Dean. If not with me, with someone else.”

Dean shrugs and grins. He takes a sharp breath and swallows down something that was threatening to bubble up his throat. Then he gathers up the papers, moves away from the table. Castiel wants to pull him back down and tell him to act as smart as he is, dammit. I know you can do better than this!

Dean says, “Um—you wanna do Friday after school?”

Castiel looks at him for a minute, and he can feel his mouth go slack. Handsome.

“Yes, Dean,” he says, dazed. “That sounds wonderful.”

Dean grins.

“Good. Cool. I’m glad.”

Dean starts to turn and walk away, but Castiel shouts after him, loud in the library, “You know you don’t need an excuse to talk to me.”

Dean’s turns, and his shoulderblades squinch together in a shrug and then a flippant wave over his shoulder, and it isn’t until Cas has stared at the doorway where he left from for a good couple of minutes that he remembers he’s double-booked himself for Friday afternoon.

It’s not his fault he forgot to tell Dean about Daphne, and it’s definitely not his fault that he accidentally invites Daphne along to the first outing with Dean he’s planned in months instead of telling her he has to cancel. It shouldn’t be a big deal, he tells himself. And for anyone else, it probably wouldn’t be.

But this is Dean, and Dean never did anything simple in his entire life.

It was Castiel’s idea to meet up at the pizza parlor, because it occurs to him, maybe, that he’s not sure what Dean is into right now. What might distract them adequately enough to not think about whatever seismic event is opening a chasm between them.

“Dean,” Castiel says. “This is Daphne.” The pizza parlor is quiet. It’s early in the afternoon, and the dinner crowd hasn’t arrived yet. It’s just the small gaggles of middle and grade school children entering the restaurant and beelining for the machines in the back. The quiet makes it imminently clear how unimpressed Dean is, staring at the delicate wave of Daphne’s little palm with barely concealed disdain, only his heavy breathing filling the quiet. After the silence stretches on too long and Castiel thinks that Dean will ignore them altogether, Dean says, simply, “Hi.”

Castiel perks up, tripping over his words in a rush to fill the awkwardness. “And Daphne, this is my friend Dean.”

Daphne is less awkward than Dean, but perhaps no less disdainful. She conceals it better though, with a smile that pulls tight under her eyes and stretches lines from the corners of her mouth like taut cellophane.

“Oh, I know Dean,” she says, slapping playfully at Cas’s shoulder. “Everybody in school knows Dean.” She doesn’t elaborate, but Castiel flinches. He knows as the words leave her mouth that it is the wrong thing to say, but he can’t stop the first impression before it’s made. She already has hers—Dean the sick kid, Dean the brave one, Dean the charity case, Dean the town drunk’s kid—and he can see Dean’s forming in the quiet shuttering of his eyes, more closed off than he even was before Castiel introduced him. They stand for another awkward moment, and then Daphne takes hold of his arm to drag him into the side of the booth opposite Dean, rubbing against him elbow to elbow.

It feels cruel.

“So.” Daphne says, eyes floating around the pizza parlor speculatively. “Are we getting pizza?”

Castiel taps his fingers on the table.

“We can if you like,” Castiel says, tentatively.

Dean spits, “I can’t eat pizza,” and follows it up with a deep, chest-rattling cough. “I’m diabetic. Cas knows. Right Cas?”

Cas knows that Dean’s diabetes has never stopped him from eating sweets until he vomits. One time, at a sleepover, Dean bypassed his allotted junk food allowance about ten times over, even after Bobby went to all the trouble of putting a padlock on the one of the cabinets where he kept sweets for Sam. He spent the whole early morning clutching his stomach and vomiting into garbage can in between fuzzy reruns of The Twilight Zone.

Cas just narrows his eyes, nods, and doesn’t point out what a fucking liar he’s being. Daphne pinches her brow, and Castiel gets stuck on it for a moment. He thinks about how that’s how her brow pinches when they’re kissing.

“Oh,” she says. She smacks her gum in her mouth, blows a little bubble. “Why’d we meet up at a pizza parlor then?” Dean narrows his eyes.

“It was Cas’s idea.”

Castiel doesn’t trust his mouth, because he feels eight years old, like he should be ashamed to be seen with Dean all over again.

Castiel shrugs, looks earnestly at Daphne. “Dean likes video games,” is what comes out, completely without his permission. He flinches. He knows what that sounds like. Like he’s humoring him. If he’s honest, he doesn’t even know how much Dean likes video games anymore. They haven’t played together in a while.

Dean looks at him with an unfathomable expression on his face as Daphne reaches for his hand on top of the table and twines their fingers together.

“So are you guys, like,” Dean wiggles bony fingers in front of his face, looking for a word, “a couple or something? ‘Cause that’s news to me.” The movement rucks up the floppy, too-long sleeve of his t-shirt over his elbow, and Castiel sees a wad of gauze pressed over a blue vein with yellow medical tape. He knows immediately that Dean’s had a checkup, because he knows Dean altogether too well. Bobby had called them “scheduled maintenance” or “Dean’s tuneups” since he was just a tiny thing, like maybe treating Dean like one of the cars in his lot would somehow make it less scary to see his lungs failing him more every six months.

It didn’t.

“Oh,” he says innocuously, gesturing to the wad of gauze with the hand not still caught up in Daphne’s. “Did you have a tuneup today?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “I’m not ten, Cas. You can call it a doctor’s appointment. And, yes.”

“Well, how did your doctor’s appointment go?”

Dean shrugs, wrinkling his nose, and the apathy inherent in his little palm wiggle means Castiel doesn’t see the, “Eh. Same old, same old. Still dying,” coming. Or he really wouldn’t have asked. He feels Daphne’s hand tense in his, tugging to retreat under the table. Castiel doesn’t let go. Maybe because it seems like that’s exactly what Dean wants.

“Jesus, Dean.”

“Well, what? What do you want me to say? Am I supposed to be making your little girlfriend more comfortable?” He coughs chestily, and this one clearly isn’t for show. Castiel knows from experience that when he gets worked up and starts shouting, he makes everything ten times worse.

“Why are you acting like this?” Dean coughs and coughs and coughs again, long and grating, until something starts to come back up and Daphne starts squirming in her seat. Wordlessly, Castiel hands him a napkin from the table dispenser to spit into, and asks, “Do you need some water?”

“Fuck—you—” Dean spits the words between thick coughs. He throws Castiel’s offering on the table and shoots his hand vindictively for the napkin dispenser himself. He grabs a big wad of them, one crisp white paper after another. When he deems he has enough, he noisily coughs up a wad of something and crushes it into the napkins. Castiel is used to it, which Dean is fully aware of, but if Daphne seemed uncomfortable before, now she’s downright squirmy, shifting restlessly in her seat while her hand in Castiel’s keeps her anchored.

It’s a familiar feeling—old, distant. He couldn’t feel that way about it now.  

Dean gets up to go to the bathroom without excusing himself, and Daphne doesn’t say anything while he’s gone. In the quiet of the afternoon, they can hear him coughing himself out behind the closed bathroom door. He’s still holding Daphne’s hand by the time Dean gets back, and Dean doesn’t even try to hide his disappointment.

“So. Listen,” Daphne says as Dean slides back into the booth across from them, looking pale. His eyes are red and his face is wet like he splashed it with water. He probably coughed so hard in the bathroom he ended up vomiting. “I talked to some of the other guys after school, and they’re all headed to this abandoned house out in the boonies.” She checks the delicate gold watch on her wrist. “Whenever it gets dark, I guess. But they’re probably there now. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if Dean came along.”

Castiel knows what this new crowd does in abandoned houses in the dark. It’s not something Dean should probably want to be a part of. And Dean doesn’t look like it’s something he wants to be a part of either, which is probably what Daphne is counting on. His eyes are screaming bloody murder. His hands are clenched tight on the table. Castiel hopes that he’ll just ask to be taken home and he’ll spare Castiel the agony of having to carry out this balancing act any longer.

But Daphne continues, “Apparently it belonged to this farmer who left really suddenly a few months ago because all his cattle, like a million of them, died all at once, and then like, all his crops died.”

Dean’s face changes so fast that Castiel gets whiplash.

“I heard about that,” he says, breathlessly.

“They say it’s haunted,” she says. She wiggles her fingers enigmatically, but there’s a laugh in her voice in a way that says she doesn’t really believe what she’s saying. Dean does, though. Dean looks more interested in that than anything Castiel’s seen him be interested in since his lung bleed over a year ago, and more than anything, he looks completely, deadly serious.

“Haunted,” Dean repeats.“Yeah, yeah I wanna go with you guys. I could help.”

Castiel rolls his eyes.

Help? Come on, Dean. I know you don’t believe all this.”

Daphne ignores Castiel. “Cool. It’s gonna be fun. Cas is way too much of a buzzkill to enjoy all this anyway. He wouldn’t know something supernatural if it bit him on the ass.” She flashes her teeth at him, a playful simper.

Dean’s eyes are hard while he grabs his backpack and they climb out of the booth. And he’s quiet even as he climbs into the backseat of his own pet project to let Daphne have the front so she can rub her hand on the seam on the inside of Cas’s thigh. That feels cruel, too.

They stop at a drive-thru for junk food, and Castiel gets Dean curly fries even though he doesn’t know if Dean has his enzymes or insulin on him and he shouldn’t be eating anything, much less something that seeps enough grease to puddle at the bottom of a bag. It seems like a worse and worse idea the farther they get from civilization, and he can’t stop himself thinking of Dean bleeding out through his mouth miles and miles from home, with only a car that Castiel didn’t know how to drive between them.

He shakes his head and tries to feel like a teenager again, instead of feeling like a babysitter.

Castiel looks at Dean in the rearview mirror as they drive into the growing dark and Daphne leads him down country roads that get progressively darker the further they get from streetlights and civilization and the more the sun sets. He’s quiet and drawn, clutching at his bag, and it’s—strange. The way his mood has taken an abrupt left turn away from hating Daphne and into suddenly acting like he’s on an important business trip to meet up with Castiel’s idiot friends while they smoke pot.

After driving for the better part of an hour, they reach the house, and it is creepy. He’ll concede that. It’s a little farmhouse with a weathervane on the eve and a wraparound porch, and if someone were living there and the windows were all warm with electric light and everything was well-maintained, it’d be cute and quaint. As it is, other teenagers have clearly been here before them, so it’s tagged to high heaven and the windows have all been shattered with thrown rocks. The door is ajar on its hinge where someone busted it open, and candlelight from his friends inside flickers eerily from between the naked panes. There’s no trees for miles around it, just the emptiness of barren fields that seem to corroborate Daphne’s story of acres worth of spontaneous death, and he could see how someone would say these grounds especially were haunted, because he can see long shadows for miles and miles in the moonlight, and even his eyes are starting to play tricks on him.

A mumbling picks up at the back of Castiel’s head as they make their way inside. Dean is wary and attentive, Daphne completely indifferent, and Castiel puts a palm aside his temple like that will force it out. His heart picks up in panic, and he does his very best to ignore it, just like he has since it started. Daphne swings open the broken door with a long, steady creak and loudly greets everyone inside, but Dean hangs back for a second, puts his hand on Castiel’s bicep.

He asks, “You okay?” It’s quite the role reversal.

“I’m fine. Fine.”

And he is, because the mumbling stops once he’s inside. It’s loud and smoky and bright with flickering candles. There are maybe ten people there, some Castiel doesn’t know, some he does. There may be more in the rooms that he can almost see down the dark hallway off the main room, because it’s clear they’re in the process of pairing off and utilizing the space in the way he’s come to understand teenagers do. Someone’s brought a boombox and is playing pop music on a low murmur in the corner. There’s more tagging in here, fresh spray paint fumes that say maybe they’ve done some of it themselves tonight. And when Castiel steps inside with a big bag full of more curly fries and burgers, he’s hailed as a hero.

Dean hovers by the door while Castiel divvies out the goods. And this is why Castiel never would have brought him. The whole environment is just about the worst thing for his lungs. Nothing sets Dean off like smoke, and if Dean has an asthma attack so bad he needs his neb, all the way out here—

“Who’d you bring?” Ash pipes up.

“My friend Dean. But he’s not—I mean—maybe I should take him home.”

Dean steps boldly inside, darting off to the edge of the room, and Castiel loses track of him for a second while he finishes up with the burgers and Daphne backs him into the empty husk of the kitchen with a few bold kisses. As soon as she gets her tongue out of his mouth, he’s looking over the top of her head for Dean, and he can’t help resenting Dean for that, even though it isn’t even his fault that Castiel is a paranoid bastard, and Dean is off in the corner digging through his backpack for something while Cassie Robinson tries to make small talk with him. He missed Dean, but he didn’t miss the constant paranoia that Dean was going to keel over on his watch.

“Oh my god, Cas.” Daphne rolls her eyes, grabs him by the chin to get his eyes back on her. “He’s fine. We got him off our backs now.”

Castiel prickles. He feels some invisible hackles on his back raise.

“I like Dean,” he says. “We were supposed to hang out.”

“No, no, I know, me too. It’s just. I mean, what’s the harm in,” she runs her palms over his chest. “Letting him do his own thing for a little while? He can make some new friends. I never see him hanging out with—”

“He has friends,” Cas says defensively.

Daphne rolls her eyes.

“I never said he didn’t. Why are you being so weird?”

“Because Dean—” He knows he’s about to say can’t take care of himself, despite how much Dean would hate it. And he knows that’s not even true. So why does he feel that way?

But before he gets a chance, Ash, across the room, says, “What’s that?”

Dean’s got the collar of his t-shirt pulled up over his mouth as a makeshift smoke filter, and in his hands, Castiel can see what Ash is talking about. It it looks like a sloppy tape player that’s vomited its insides on its outsides. As he’s watching, Dean taps it gently with the butt of his palm, and a single red light blinks on in the muted darkness.

Cassie says, “Looks like a weird Walkman.”

“That’s ‘cuz it was a Walkman,” Dean says without explaining any further.

Daphne looks at Cas like he’ll have an explanation, but he just shrugs.

“Wait, wait. I think I’ve seen something like that on TV,” says Cassie, peering at it over Dean’s shoulder. “Is that some kind of ghost meter?”

Dean tunes her out, even as a small, scattered hail of stoned laughter circles around the room. He puts on the flimsy headphones and slings his bag onto his back, looking intently at the little analog dial on the screen Castiel can barely see across the dim, smoky living room. Cassie and Ash exchange a look, then turn to Castiel with twin baffled expressions. They’re both glazed, stoned like he can smell that the rest of the party is, so when Castiel waves them off, they’re ready enough to drop the whole thing with another abbreviated chuckle.

Dean coughs, and Castiel’s chest clenches. He coughs and coughs and coughs, making his way around the main room, around the piles of disgruntled teenagers, waving his meter at the closet doors and the rafters and the abandoned appliances before making his oblivious way down the hallway.

“Is he—” Daphne bites her lip. “Does he always act like this?”

He can hear the discontented cries of the people tucked away in the back rooms for privacy as Dean, no doubt, systematically works his way through them.

“No—I’ll. Something was up with him, earlier this week.” He remembers Dean giving his life the “shitty” self-descriptor, which, given how understated Dean’s misery typically is, can’t mean anything good. “And he just had a checkup today so maybe he’s upset. I’ll see what’s up.”

He waits a moment for Dean to circle back into the main room, still coughing, and then make his way out the front door before he follows him. He wishes he hadn’t almost immediately, because the empty, burned-out stretch of fields and the particular quality of the moonlight on their too-open surroundings hasn’t gotten any less eerie. Doesn’t get any less eerie with the red glow of the device in Dean’s hand, nor with the whispering murmur that’s picked up again in Castiel’s head.

Dean’s just rounding a corner of the wraparound porch when Castiel catches up to him. Twin rocking chairs creak in the wind like they were put there specifically to creep him out.

“Dean,” he says. Dean doesn’t hear him. He waves the meter at the chairs, and the light flickers but doesn’t change. “Dean.”

He grabs Dean by the elbow to jerk him around, and he accidentally catches hold of the headphones in the process, pulling them from the weird Walkman. A low buzz picks up, a monotonous drone that echoes in the empty of the outside before Dean flips it off.  

“What?” Dean bites.

“You’re acting weird! Everyone inside—I mean. What even is that?”

Dean flicks his eyes between Cas’s face and the little meter in his hand.

“Sorry if I’m bugging all your little friends.”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

He looks chastised. Castiel feels guilty. The rocking chairs beside them creak. Castiel has to physically stop himself from flicking his eyes out to the fields beyond the porch, because his eyes are playing tricks on him, and he sees black figures everywhere. Movement and shadows. He doesn’t like it here. He wishes, abruptly, for the comfort of his favorite place. It doesn’t feel weird to be there at night.

Dean holds up the strange little device in his hand.

“It’s an EMF meter I made. I thought maybe,” he says, flicking it on again. It starts up its droning buzz. “It’s—it’s stupid.”

Dean sits down in the rocking chair and looks out into the distance. He doesn’t let himself be afraid of whatever unknown is hovering just outside of what they can see, so Castiel doesn’t either. He sits down beside him.

“I mean, that girl in there was right.”

“Cassie?”

“Yeah, Cassie. She was right about it being a ghost meter.” Dean looks at him, gauging his reaction. So Castiel doesn’t react. Dean doesn’t turn the device off, and the constant drone turns into unwavering white noise.

“She liked you. You could talk to her, you know.” Dean laughs and coughs at the same time, bringing his fist up to muffle it. It sounds wet and viscous, and then he spits a wad of something off the edge of the porch.

Castiel doesn’t know how to feel, but he knows that he’s strangely—relieved, at the disdain. Selfish as that may be.

“Whatever.” Dean takes as deep a breath as he ever gets, closing his eye against the cool of the open air. It hits Castiel that the silence is eerie because there’s very little interruption to it. No insects. No crickets or dogs barking. Not even the rustle of trees or grass. Everything around them is barren and dead, like they’re in the eye of a storm. “Is this what you do now? Come out to the country and get stoned and bang the girlfriend you never even bothered to tell me about?”

Castiel scuffs his foot against the worn wood of the porch and sets his chair to rocking. The creaking is all there is aside from the sound from the broken window just to his left, where another cloud of laughter floats out around them.

“I was going to tell you. We just. Don’t.”

“Nah, man, it’s—you don’t owe me nothin’.”

“But I want to tell you. I—you’re my friend. I want you to know what’s happening in my life. And I want to know what’s happening in yours.”

Dean bites his lip.

“He took Sam.” It bursts out of him, a broken dam. “I was going to tell you. That’s why I wanted to—to see you. You’re the only one that cares, probably.”

Castiel blinks. Taps at his forehead with a couple of fingers like that will clear the voices in the quiet and help him to understand. He tries to concentrate on the drone of the meter in Dean’s hand, the unintelligible murmur of the boombox inside, to give him something consistent to focus on. It helps. He blinks again.

“What?”

“My dad. He took Sam for the summer. Training. Or something. On the job.” He swallows. “And he left me here.”

“Oh.” Castiel says. And, more meaningfully, “Oh.” He remembers Dean in the junkyard, all the hope in the world that his father would give him the time of day if only Dean could be better. ”I’m sorry, Dean.”

Dean looks at the meter in his hand, and it blips briefly to life when he raises his hand to rub at his running nose. He sniffs.

“You’re not sorry. You never wanted me to go with him anyway.”

“No. But I’m sorry he isn’t any good to you.”

Dean huffs a laugh.

“Maybe you’re right.”

Dean’s hand, the one without the meter, rests innocuously on the armrest of the rocking chair, and Castiel can’t help himself reaching forward and—touching. Which is mean, cruel maybe, in the wake of the display at the pizza parlor, in the wake of all the pulling away he’s done himself, and Dean doesn’t take the hypocrisy sitting down. Indeed, he shoots to his feet, raising the meter to the sky as he wanders a little further down the porch. Castiel draws his hand into his lap.

Dean flashes the meter at the railings, at the gutters. Then he clunks down the steps and spins in a circle on the dead grass on the side of the house. But the drone stays even and constant. That doesn’t seem to be what Dean is looking for. He kicks at a mound of loose, dry dirt on the ground with dirty sneakers. His foot comes away coated in yellow. He sniffs again.

“I could be useful,” he says, back turned to the porch. He lifts the meter one more time. “I know Sam’s better than I am, but I could be useful.”

“Dean, you don’t have to be useful. You just—have to be Dean.”

Dean laughs again. Castiel is about to open his mouth to tell him it’s not funny when Dean says, “Does it—” he coughs, sniffs, spits, repeats. The coughing escalates—his lungs sound miserable. Castiel imagines it has something to do with the smoke inside. Fires and marijuana and spray paint fumes and curly fries, and Castiel is an idiot. Finally, the cough turns into the gag it was always meant to be, and Dean does that half-cough, half-vomit thing he does when he needs a neb treatment and breathing might as well be swimming in the open air.

“Okay, I’m gonna take you home.” He stands up himself, turns toward the front of the house. He has half a mind not to tell Daphne he’s leaving with Dean, because he knows what it will be if he does. He knows she’s going to ask him why he’s acting weird, why he can’t just enjoy himself. He’s already on thin ice after their trip down to the swimming hole. He has half a mind to take off and just get the hell away from this place.

“Cas, wait.” Castiel stops, feet scuffing. There’s a choice bit of graffiti by his head. Someone has painted a giant penis alongside the words chaos reigns.

“What?”

“Do you smell sulphur?”

Castiel lifts his nose to the sky and sniffs, until he realizes that he doesn’t have any clue what sulphur smells like anyway.

“Wait—smell what?”

“You know. Like, rotten eggs? I thought you were good in chem class.”

“I thought you didn’t pay attention in chem class,” he shoots back.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Castiel sniffs again. All he smells is marijuana and candle smoke and dead grass. “No, I don’t smell anything.”

Dean nods.

“Must just. Be me then.”

He flicks the meter in his hand off, and the absence of the sound is suddenly more intrusive than the sound itself was. Everything about him is hang-dog and dejected.

“Are you alright, Dean?” He doesn’t want to say you’re acting strange because he doesn’t want to sound like Daphne. He knows that frustration. He also knows that Strange for Dean and Strange for Cas are different metrics entirely. If Dean wants to wave a ghost meter around, if that’s something that makes him feel better, then so be it.

“Sure.”

He doesn’t subject Dean to the inside of the building again—there are plenty of people here to take Daphne home, and he’s too tired for the well-meaning wheedling he’ll get for taking off early. So he takes Dean home, and neither of them say it, but he knows that the both of them feel about a hundred times better when they leave the scorched earth and the not quite right behind them.


Castiel has a dream he’s falling.

It’s one he’s had before, but not one he’s had for a long time, and now, Dean is falling next to him, and he’s wearing a parachute, and Castiel keeps telling him to pull his ripcord, but Dean either can’t or won’t listen, and Castiel gets so far into the nightmare as seeing him hit the dirt and shatter bloody like a limp sack of potatoes before he jolts awake, flailing against the mattress, still falling for a second. The mattress flounces back up under him, and Castiel wakes up with voices still echoing in his head, harsh sounds reminiscent of words in a language he’s not sure he understands.

He’s given up searching for meaning in them, given up trying to tune them out, too. He knows something is wrong, and last week he stood in front of the “Mental Health” section at the public library with his hands trembling, remembering that recommended reading shelf from years ago and trying not to think about when schizophrenia might present itself or whether or not it was genetic and what it meant that the droning in his head was getting more and more and more difficult to tune out or turn down or ignore.

He wondered whether or not there were any astronauts out there with schizophrenia, but he thinks he knows the answer that question too.

He looks at the clock. It’s almost three in the morning. He can look outside his window and identify every single constellation, and he does so in rote, like an exercise in calm. Pisces and Andromeda and Ursa Major and Cassiopeia. And when he’s scanned the night sky outside his window ten times over and breathed deep for a good few minutes, he turns to his closed bedroom door and sees that the hallway outside is lit up bright—like every single light in the house is on.

Brow furrowed and lips pursed, he hops out of bed, pads to the door. The television is on downstairs. It’s an infomercial playing, meaning his mom probably fell asleep in front of the TV again, but that doesn’t account for the whole house being lit up like a Christmas tree, and it doesn’t explain why he can hear his mother talking when he pushes his door open and stands on the landing above the living room.

He calls, “Mom?”

She doesn’t hear him. He wonders if she’s drunk. If she’s called someone. If she’s talking into an answering machine, like she does sometimes. Dean told him that once she talked to Mr. Singer in the middle of the night, and Dean acted like it was funny. But it’s just—uncomfortable, for Cas to stop and really think about how much of a grasp his mother has lost. He remembers her being a put-together god-fearing woman when he was little. But anymore, it’s like something is all scrambled up in her.

He takes the stairs one tentative step at a time, the murmuring in the back of his head picking up until it plateaus into something tolerable at the sight of his mother with her back turned to him, her head hung over the big kitchen sink. He can see her fingers gripped to white on the porcelain, her chipped fingernail polish blood red on the pale of her hand. She’s still dressed in pantyhose and a skirt, but her legs are splayed like a baby deer, her feet bare and slipping on the white tile. He grabs hold of the vaulted kitchen doorway like it will support him.

He whispers, “Mom?”

She gasps. Turns around. Wipes hastily under her eyes, but her mascara is smudged dark all along her cheeks.

“Castiel,” she says. “Baby.”

Castiel blinks. He can’t remember the last time his mother called him that.

Warily, he repeats. “Mom.”

She says, “My serious man,” and then she comes at him, going in for a hug. He takes it, ramrod straight under her heavy arms, blinking into the abject darkness of the window over the sink. “What are you doing awake?”

He shrugs in her arms. She doesn’t smell like alcohol, so he’s not sure that she’s drunk.

“I had a bad dream.”

His mom nods into his shoulder.

“Me too.” She lets him go, pulls back to hold him at arm's length. “Look at you. Look at you.” She looks at him like it’s the first time she’s seen him in years, and maybe it is. He can’t remember the last time they had a conversation she was really present for.

“Who were you talking to?” He looks around the kitchen like someone will materialize, and when he arrives back on his mother’s face, she looks pained and tired. They don’t normally have the fluorescent overhead light on in the full dark, and it has a way of making the kitchen feel small and claustrophobic, turning all the windows looking out into mirrors reflecting in and all the surfaces and appliances into sterile white walls that press close around them. He feels like his breath is being robbed.

Instead of answering his question, she says, “Hey. Do you remember, when you were just a little thing, and your dad finished a book in the middle of the night, just the day before deadline, and he took us all to that little twenty-four-hour diner in town? And we got pancakes? Do you remember that?”

Castiel squints. It’s the first time his mom has mentioned his dad in—months, at the least. Years, probably.

“Yes.”

“Let’s go for pancakes. I’m not tired, and you’re not tired, and this house is really getting to me, so let’s—let’s go get pancakes. And. Talk. I have something I want to talk about.”

“Mom—what—”

“Shh,” she says, pats his cheek. “Pancakes.”

He nods, because why the hell not. Neither of them make an effort to change clothes—Castiel in his blue pajama bottoms and his mother in her skewed work clothes—instead they just pad themselves into more layers and pile into Castiel’s car. His mother lets him drive. She chews at her nails despite the fine tremble in her hands all the way to the restaurant. Castiel has gotten good at ignoring all the stimuli since his brain started working against him, but he can’t deny that the throbbing in his head picks up as they move away from the house and get closer to the restaurant. And it gets so bad that the headache progresses into a visual migraine that halos out the lights in front of him and turns every light source into spreading arcs of gold before his eyes. His mother doesn’t take notice until he’s nearly doubled up with his feet hanging out of the driver’s seat once they arrive at the restaurant, one of the only cars there at the delicate hour of four am. He feels delirious. He feels like none of this is real.

And even worse than that, once his mother helps him across the threshold, onto the worn carpet that hasn’t changed since his childhood, everything inside his head—stops. And then he feels even crazier. Because after living with nothing but the endless drone of noise for so long, it seems just as crazy to be without it. He tries to will it into existence, tell himself he hasn’t just been imagining it. But nothing comes, and it’s blissfully, blessedly quiet.

“Are you okay? Do you have a headache?” his mom asks, and he shakes his head. He’s never asked his mom about his dad’s mental health, and he’s been meaning to since all this started, but now, with her being so agitated and anxious, seems like the wrong time.

The restaurant is empty save one customer nursing a steaming cup of coffee in a corner booth, and it almost feels like it’s empty of workers, too, until the hostess behind the window that looks into the kitchen, obscured by order tickets clipped on a wire, yells, “Go ahead and seat yourselves. I’ll be out in a hot minute.”

His mother takes them to the table where they sat with his father all those years ago, even arranges them in the same way on the table. His mother where she would have been sat next to her father, Castiel alone on one side with his legs stretched out long enough to take up the whole bench seat. He doesn’t take up the whole bench this time. He sits sedately with his legs under the table, in a daze, staring at the table and trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t.

His mother, meanwhile, scans the room like a food critic might at a nice restaurant, all bright-eyed and attentive. She points effusively to a replica rifle that’s hung over the bathroom signs, then at a fake stuffed jackalope underneath a shaded green lamp that would be better suited for a bar with a billiard table. He nods.

Across the table, his mom grabs one of his hands with both of hers.

“My little miracle,” she says softly, and Castiel’s first instinct is to tug away, pull back, because it’s so unlike her. Strange and unfamiliar. “You know—did we ever tell you why we called you that? That was all we could call you for the first year you were alive, you know, I know you don’t remember.”

Castiel blinks.

“Mom—”

He pulls back. She holds on tighter.

“I was—they didn’t think I could carry a child, you know, Castiel. They said you were a medical miracle when I went to the doctor after my positive pregnancy tests. And then I had you. And you were a perfect angel, never cried, never kept me up half the night. And your father loved you so when you were born.” She jiggles his hand between hers in a way he thinks is supposed to be comforting. “He wanted more babies so badly. But it was something I couldn’t give him, you know. Not after you.”

He just says, “Mom,” again, slow and low, because now he’s gotten the sense that something is well and truly wrong, and this is more than just another weird step in his mom’s long-in-coming mental break.

“Castiel,” she says. “Your father died.”

He feels his mouth go slack, then his hand go slack in hers. She’s looking at him with that same watery look she had in the kitchen at home, like she’s really about to start crying again over a man that hasn’t paid them the slightest regard aside from checks from his lawyer in five long years.

“He—” He flaps his jaw. Maybe she mistakes the shock for sadness, because her eyes go soft and spineless like pudding, and she looks like she wants to creep across the table and take him into her arms. What he wants to ask is, why do you care? Because god knows that if he’d asked his mom about Dad yesterday, she would have pretended she never heard the bastard’s name.

He’s not sad, he doesn’t think. Mostly he’s stunned. Because his father, more than anyone Castiel ever knew—his father the obscured figure with the liquor glass and the authoritative voice and the quiet, contemplative take on the universe—was supposed to be immortal. Not infallible, maybe, if all the little things that came to light about him after he left were to be trusted—but mythical, still. Like a Greek god instead of a Christian one. A figure of such size and pomp and scope that someone with half a mind could embed him in the night sky and no one would question it.

“What happened?” he asks.

“They don’t really know. I only spoke with his lawyer, just a little while ago, and they found his body but they haven’t released any more information and—oh. Yes. Good evening.”

His mom stops to greet the waitress, takes her hands off his to wipe at her eyes, and then she picks up the menu on the table like she’d been looking at it all along. Castiel spares a glance at the head of the table, and it occurs to him that the waitress looks familiar, but he can’t be fucked to process where he knows her from while his mom orders pancakes for the both of them, strawberries on his, and then coffee for herself and orange juice for him, like he never aged beyond the twelve years he was when his father left. He half expects it to come back out with a smiley face when the waitress delivers it. His stomach roils at the very thought of food right now, and he curls in on himself tighter, half wishing for the tumult in his head to come back, because at least that’s something he expects by now. At least that’s something to concentrate on.

Castiel feels sort of. Cold.

And he realizes that maybe half of what he’s missing now is a potential, too, the warmth of one more thing and one more thing and one more thing in a life he could’ve lived, everything his father could have and should have done for him, and everything he half expected, half hoped he would do, someday. Just like he had just after his dad left, and he still thought he was going to turn around and come back for him, take him on tour.

Potential. The potential was always there, before. It’s not, now. That makes him think of Dean.

He swings his head around to ask his mom another question, but she’s gone, and the waitress is setting a massive stack of strawberry pancakes down in front of him. There’s is, in fact, a smiley face painted on the top in perfect, healthy daubs of whipped cream.

“Are you alright?” the waitress asks, when he blinks at the empty seat where his mom was, then puts a hand to his head.

“Yes, I just. I must’ve lost track of—” he rubs a hand through his hair. “I was thinking. I must’ve lost track of time. Do you know where she went?”

“She went to the bathroom,” she answers delicately, something high and wispy and ethereal about her voice. And that’s familiar too.

The words, “Do I know you?” are halfway out of his mouth before he even gets a good look at her face, but when he does see her, he knows it’s true. He’s seen her before—recently, and it takes a second, before he places her at the hospital. Blue scrubs. The same deep, dark eyes and bright red hair. Now though, she’s in a bright yellow dress and a pristine white apron, a matching set that doesn’t look like it’s ever been used to work in a day in its life. He looks at her nametag, and it’s not blank this time, like her badge was there. In heavy, broad-stroked script font, it says, Anael.

He tries to wrap his mouth around it. Which feels hypocritical, his name considered.

“Anna,” she says. “I prefer Anna.” She smiles a white smile, and that strikes him as familiar too, but in a different way. Not hospital scrubs and waiting rooms. A way that feels ancient, stretches back for as long as he remembers. A feeling, more than anything. “And you’re Castiel.” She smiles fuller, full as her voice, full as the light behind her eyes.

Castiel takes a moment to take in her face, her delicate, bird-like features. She even seems hollow-boned with how lightly she carries herself, like she weighs nothing at all. Behind her head, a broken chrome clock with a Coca Cola label is stuck, spitting its second hand at the same hash mark over and over and over again while the hour and minute hands stay perfectly still. Four-oh-six, forever.

“Anna. Aren’t you a nurse, Anna?” Her smile twitches, a little sad before she’s back to looking like a bright blank slate. She tilts her head.

“Oh, I get around.”

Castiel’s not sure what that’s supposed to mean.

“Listen. I don’t have much time. But I needed to speak with you.” He ticks his eyes toward the restroom, looking for any sign that his mom is about to come back out and save him from a weird, unwelcome discussion with some insane waitress, but instead he finds that the whole restaurant is quiet. He doesn’t see anyone, much less his mother—no chef. No other patron in the booth where he remembered him. Castiel shakes his head.

She asks, “Castiel, aren’t you tired of all this?”

“I’m still dreaming,” he says. “I’m still in the middle of a dream, and I’ll wake up and this diner will be—burned down or something, and my father will be alive and—”

“No, your mother wasn’t lying about that. Your father has passed away, I’m afraid.” He looks at her in disbelief. “I’m sorry.” She adds, an afterthought.

“What on earth do you know about it? You’re a—” Waitress. Nurse? A few more memories spring to mind of this familiar face in places where it didn’t belong, but he’s not sure that he can trust his mind to recall things as they were anymore, because he’s no longer certain that he knew how they were in the first place. He looks at the clock again, tick-tick-ticking away in the same moment they’ve lived in alone together for the last five minutes.

“I know far too much, I’m afraid. Honey, it’s why I want to know if you’re tired. Of the sick and the death and the hurt and—goodness knows your mother hasn’t been the same in ages—”

“You don’t know—” he growls.

But she cuts in, “Castiel, I do. I’ve helped you and watched you because I wanted you to have this, here. But now I’m here to tell you—it’s the end. You may not know what I’m talking about now, but I’m certain you will, and when the time comes, you’ll know: it’s the end. You’ve had a good run, Castiel. You’ve had a fine time here, amongst the precious people, alongside your very favorite tortured human soul, but. They’re getting close. They know where it is. And I can’t hold them back any longer. Your little exploration amongst the humans isn’t worth them getting hold of such a powerful source.”

None of the words coming out of her mouth make any sense. It’s like the echoing murmurs of the last few months have solidified here into this woman, one solid delusion that’s more terrifying than every unsubstantial hallucination he’s suffered thus far.

“What does—what does my father have to do with all this?”

“Honestly? He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another casualty of a holy war.”

She sighs a put-upon sigh, then she reaches out and, to his horror, runs a cold, rigid hand through the wispy tufts of his unbrushed, overgrown hair. He can feel what he noticed the last time they met when she does—how she moves like a doll, stiff at the joints, cycling through her points of articulation with an uncertain sense of the space she inhabits in the world. It’s a simulacrum of a comforting gesture. He knocks her back with his knuckles.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Castiel. You know where it is. I’ve protected it this long because you were my friend, but it’s time now. You’re the only one that can. Take it. Come back to us.”

It feels like a trick of his eyes when she disappears, just like it did when she came to the table in the first place. He didn’t think that he saw her walk away, but then again, he might’ve, and she might be just beyond the table in the kitchen. She might be anywhere. She might’ve never existed in the first place, but he’s almost certain she brought him the strawberry pancakes with whipped cream that seems to pull out of some suspended animation to drip a glob of compote on the table at the same time the clock on the wall sets to ticking again, at the same time his mother makes her slow way back from the bathroom, wringing her hands.

He feels the tabletop. It feels solid. He tests the memory of this place, in the back of his mind as his mother sits down and takes a bite of her pancakes, smiling at him like he’s about to break.

“Dad,” he tries. She looks up at him. “When we were here with Dad. He ordered.” He strains his mind. Looking back, like if he doesn’t remember that, none of this has ever been real. Since she disappeared, the murmuring has picked up in his head again, and what’s worse about it this time is that he feels like he can pick out certain words, now—understand them, even—where before it was just an uncertain murmur nothing in the back of his mind.

He’s being given orders, now. Imagining things that he needs to do. He knows from books and movies that this is where it gets dangerous. This is where the tragic story usually starts. Some hallucination, telling him to find something that isn’t there.

He squeezes his eyes shut, and when he opens them, his mom pushes his hair back from his eyes like the Anna of his dreams did a few minutes ago, only his mother’s hand is warm and weighted and fluid.

“Pancakes. He had pancakes too, Castiel. We all did.” She sighs, runs her fingers through his hair. “Your father wanted to know all the little details too. Always keeping things in mind for his stories. I swear, you’re more like him every day.”

They watch the sun rise in a watery dawn from a twenty-four-hour diner booth. In the morning, they find out his father was murdered, his throat slit, from the diner’s radio, before they even make it home to call their lawyer back.

Apparently, the report says, he was about to sign a movie deal, and he was back in town to talk it out with his legal reps. Apparently, his father was murdered right under his nose, in a small, sleepy town where nothing much happened, and nothing much mattered.

Wrong place, wrong time.

Chapter Text

The thing about liking Daphne is this: it’s easy. Kissing Daphne is easy. Talking to Daphne is easy. One time, she gave him a handjob in his bedroom while they were meant to be working on homework, and he came between her fingers just as easy as anything. It’s easy to get her things she likes, to please her, to hold her hand in public. What she has to give back is easy and uncomplicated.

But here’s the thing about Castiel’s life lately: it’s hard.

Ice that was thin before turns into flimsy rime, and the only thing that keeps their relationship from caving in completely is yellow police tape that stops either of them from ever stepping on the pond.

He expects leaving her out at an abandoned country house was the final straw, right after leading her down into a dark death trap and telling her it was going to glow, so he’s smart enough to take that first chilly plunge. Liking Daphne is easy, and it’s easy to get her to like him in return, but he’s somehow managed to fail that, too, like he’s failed a lot of things and people in his life lately.

The height of summer, just a week after they plant his father in the ground, and he goes over to her house, introduces himself to her father and mother for the express purpose of breaking up with her. Her house is nice, like his, but hers seems—more. Fuller. Crosses on the walls, shelves full of books, and nothing feels like it’s missing.

She says, “I’m sorry about your dad,” and it’s clear she means it. But she means it in the exact way it sounds. She is sorry for him. But it ends there. She doesn’t really get it. “And I’m sorry but. This isn’t working.” She really sounds sorry about that, too.

She plants a kiss on the ridge of his cheek, warm and soft and human. He leans into it and lets it linger, because she might be one of the least complicated things he’ll ever have, and even though it’s not as if his world is ending, this feels like an End with a capital “E,” for some reason.

“No,” he says. “It isn’t working.”

He lingers, pointlessly, uselessly, in her living room, and when he finally works up the courage to burst open that bubble and leave, in the heat of the late afternoon, she follows him to his car. First she asks, “Oh, hey, I know you’ve been busy what with—everything. But do you remember the night of that party? At the house? Do you remember—” She bites her lip. “I’m sure you’ve heard about all this. Do you remember seeing her? Did she leave the same time you did?”

That’s weeks ago for Castiel now—almost a month. And he knows who she’s asking about, because it would have been impossible not to notice in the papers, but Castiel has had more than enough going on in his life to forget about it, despite however many notices they’ve hung all over town. He remembers seeing one pushpinned into the community notice board at Dean’s favorite pizza parlor.

One of the girls at that party, a senior that he only occasionally crossed paths with, never went home afterward and hasn’t been seen since. No one is overly surprised she’s gone, and she took her car with her, and Castiel, along with more than half the town with him, suspects that Meg Masters finally just got tired of her father taking out all his frustrations on her, took her car, and left. He says as much to Daphne and she nods like she’s heard the same thing from everyone she’s asked. But there’s something behind her eyes that reminds him of how he’d felt, looking out into the woods that night, and he feels immediately guilty, again, that he left her to that alone. So he gives her a kiss on the cheekbone this time.

She says, “Say hi to Dean for me,” which strikes him as strange, until it doesn’t. Until he climbs into his Continental with the sparkling hardware and the immaculate detail work and knows exactly where he’s going next.

Here’s the thing about liking Dean: it’s hard. But what’s strange is, his father’s death has made him think twice about how hard it is.

He always expected, just based on the expectations that Dean had made for him, the expectations his mother made for him from the first moment she introduced Dean by telling Castiel when he was going to die. He always believed the first funeral he would ever attend would be Dean’s. One constant truth in his life is this: Dean is supposed to Die First. His father, his mother, Daphne, his friends. They never had a tidy label like he did, a sticker on his forehead with a Use By Age 30 in hard black ink.

They didn’t, but then his dad’s throat got split ear to ear like a hot dog left too long in boiling water.

His father told him once, one of his very earliest memories, that no one lived forever. And Castiel understood the notion of living as long as he could, making his name perpetuate itself in a way that his body could not. He understood working hard and trying to make the best of his time. But maybe what he didn’t understand was that time wasn’t promised to him anymore than it was to Dean. And not living forever could also mean not living to twenty, to tomorrow.

He arrives at Mr. Singer’s house and throws a little rock at the living room window, where Dean always sits in the evenings to do his treatments. It’s not something he’s ever done before, not for Dean, but it feels like the right thing to do. Dean appears in the window with his nebulizer steaming from his mouth, his chest strapped into his white vest. He waves, half a wave with curled up fingers before it becomes something he actually believes.  

Castiel waves back.

In the back of his head, the murmur goes flat, as silent as it ever gets, at the sight of him. A reverence. He thinks of what his hallucination said back in the diner, his favorite broken human, and he knew then, in a second what she’d meant. His head had been trying to tell him something. He’s still not quite sure what, but he’s here, and that has to mean something.

Dean appears at the door in pajama bottoms, without all his equipment, and he looks plainly miserable, but he’s smiling.

“You coulda just knocked on the door, idiot.” He coughs.

“You’re sick,” Castiel says, first thing, can’t help the fall in his voice. And yeah, it’s about that time of year where Dean gets so ill he’s hospitalized, just like always. Cas is set to start his senior year and Dean is—Dean is probably treading thin academic ice. He doesn’t know exactly what’s happening in Dean’s life like usual, and that stings. The most he knows is that sometime at the end of their junior year, Dean was failing a whole lot of things, and another round of infections isn’t going to help.

Dean says, “No. No, I’m fine.” He takes a sip of air, and even just that sets him to coughing. “C’mon inside it’s—chilly.”

Castiel doesn’t say that it’s hot, the heat of the day in the heat of the summer, and he doesn’t say that Dean’s sweating, because he is, which means he has a fever, which means—

He stops himself careening down that dangerous road.

“I wanted to talk to you about something. A few somethings.” he says when they cross the threshold. Inside, it’s not as hot as it is outside, but Dean hasn’t bothered to turn the AC on, and it’s still uncomfortably warm. “Where’s your uncle?”

Dean shrugs.

“He’s gone for a coupla days. Something important came up.”

Sam is gone too, Castiel remembers, for the summer. Off with their father. Castiel has never been in this house with just Dean and it makes him—nervous. He hasn’t been alone with him at all since he almost bled out through his mouth. But Dean is the same age he is—he’s seventeen and he knows how his body works and he should be allowed to be home alone for a day or so.

Only here he is. Eighty degrees indoors. Dean sits down on the couch like his strings have been cut and wraps a blanket over his shoulders. Castiel hovers in the doorway to the living room. It’s messier in here than Castiel has ever seen it too, and he knows, instantly, from the spray of junk food wrappers strewn all over the room, that Dean picked some lock he shouldn’t’ve. He probably has a stomachache on top of everything else.

“Are you sick?”

“Yeah, it’s real serious,” Dean says gravely. Castiel squints. “I guess the doctors say I got this lung thing called cystic fibrosis?”

Cas rolls his eyes.

“Dean, please.”

“They’re not sure I’m gonna make it—”

Dean.”

“Cas. Stop fucking worrying about me. I know I’m sick. Bobby knows I’m sick. I’m on a course of heavy-duty antibiotics. He left me anyway because he knows I’m a big boy now and I’m sick all the freakin’ time. C’n pull up my big boy pants all on my own.” He pauses. “Besides, I should be harpin’ on you about how you feel. Heard about your dad, man. That sucks.”

Castiel nods in acknowledgement, a practiced move in the last month or so that comes from having a famous father who turned up brutally murdered. He tilts his head.

“How did you hear about my dad?”

Dean pauses. “It’s all over the news, dude. Small town.”

Castiel hasn’t seen him since before the whole incident. Hasn’t talked to him. But he’s right. It’s a small town, and this has gotten national coverage, so it’s not surprising that even Dean’s gotten wind of it.

“Well, you must also know I’m not super crushed by the news. I haven’t talked to him since—”

“Christmas, that one year.”

“Yes. Before then, even.”

“Man, what a douchebag.” They sit in silence for a few minutes. Castiel is still standing in the living room doorway, tentative. He notices that Star Trek is playing on the television at a low volume, probably has been since he walked in. “Sucks anyway, though.”

Castiel hums his agreement. It’s strange, that Dean doesn’t go down the same road everyone else does in his questioning—it was a murder, a brutal one, in small town, and he hasn’t stopped to talk to anyone who hasn’t asked him for some brand of juicy detail.

“Hey, so long as you wanna be useful.” Dean bites his lip. Castiel jumps to attention. “There is—I mean, there’s one thing you can do.”

Dean eases off the couch, sits his butt on the floor, then he pats the couch behind his head.

“Sit down here.” Castiel does, awkwardly, his knees knocking by the knob of Dean’s spine, but then Dean scootches back just enough that Castiel has to spread his legs to accommodate him between them, and Dean leans forward at the waist, baring the delicate curve of his neck to the heat of the room. He drops the blanket on his back, and his shoulders come into view, writhing beneath the black of his t-shirt. There’s a list of tour dates running down his spine, all for a band Castiel doesn’t recognize. It’s a tour he’s almost certain Dean hasn’t seen at all.

“Okay normally Bobby or Sam or—or my dad does this for me when my chest gets real congested, but they’re not—here. And I know the vest is s’posed to do this for me, but I can’t shake all this loose—” He coughs into his knees. His chest sounds full and heavy. He picks up the cup he’d clearly been huffing into off the floor beside him. Hangs it down in front of his nose. “Okay, so hit me.”

Castiel balks.

“What?”

Dean squirms. “Okay, don’t be weird about it. Just cup your hand like this,” Dean shows him his hand, the palms cupped inward, the fingers held together like a seal’s fin. “And then hit me here. Where my lungs are.” He indicates a spot in his mid-back, traces a line between a couple ribs. “It knocks the shit loose and it feels really fucking good. Trust me.”

Castiel cups his hand the way Dean’s shown him and—hovers. He can feel Dean’s chest putting off an aura of sticky and hot.

Hit you. How hard?”

“Gimme whatever you got. I can take it.”

“Should I—I mean—”

“Cas, this ain’t your precious astrophysics. It’s just slapping me on the back a few times.”

“Oh-kay.”

Cas smacks him lightly, tentatively, with a cupped palm, right where Dean told him to.

Dean grunts, clears his throat. “Harder.”

Cas goes harder, pulling back farther and smacking down with the butt of his palm.

“Is that—the right spot?”

Dean nods, coughing already. There’s trail of mucus between his lips.

“Harder,” he says again. “C’mon. Like you mean it.”

That’s all it takes for Castiel to not hold back, and he hits, hard, with a thud that resonates through Dean’s whole chest. Dean coughs, and it sounds—productive. Like Cas has literally just thwapped something loose. Like Dean’s a broken piece of machinery that Castiel can just whack with a wrench until he starts chugging again.

There’s something reassuring about the solid feel of him—the hard cage of his ribs, when sometimes Dean can seem so fragile. And it’s intimate, and strangely satisfying too. He does it a few more times, pound pound pound. And Dean coughs, and Castiel can hear the heaviness in his chest loosening as he does his strangled cough-gag into the cup under his mouth.

Dean holds up his hand when he doesn’t seem have anything left to give. Castiel leaves his hands folded lightly on the swell of his back, the feverish heat of it clear underneath the t-shirt.

He’s breathing easier, his airflow settling into something more calm and regulated and normal.

“Jesus,” Dean says, flitting his hand up to press low against his sternum as his whole body moves his breath into a regulated pattern. He shoves his spit-up cup out of sight, off to the side of the couch. “I needed that. Thanks.”

Dean reclines into the bottom of the couch behind him so he’s resting neatly along the line of Castiel’s thigh. Castiel can feel every feverish inch of him pressed in close to his groin. Dean stares vacantly at the TV for a few minutes and Castiel does too, and it’s so low that they can barely hear it over Dean’s breathing, but neither of them seems to want to break the silence.

Finally, Castiel says, “I broke up with Daphne.” Which isn’t exactly what he wanted to say, but Dean has a habit of making him lose control of his mouth, and it seems important for him to make that clear. Daphne is not in his life anymore and Dean is. And now all the cards are on the table.

Dean stiffens. Castiel can feel all his limbs go rigid at the same time. Then, very neutrally, he says, “Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” he says. When Dean doesn’t say anything, just gnaws quietly on his own cheekbone, Castiel shoots for levity. “My mean streak finally got to her.”

Dean snorts. “Shut up.” Dean isn’t facing him, but Castiel can hear the smirk in his voice.

“I did. I met her father and he forbade me from seeing her again.”

Dean cackles. “Ha, oh yeah, bad to the bone Castiel, the straight-A astrophysicist who spends ninety percent of his precious free time looking up at dead stars and tutoring idiots like me.”

“You’re not—”

An idiot. I know, yeah yeah, blah blah, self-esteem, whatever.” He pauses, playing with the drawstring of his pajama pants in his lap. “Y’know, though. My dad actually...did forbid you from seeing me.”

Castiel blinks. “What?”

“Oh. You know, I’m not supposed to see you anymore.” He leans his head back, so Castiel is looking at his tired smile upside-down and his wispy head is almost in Castiel’s lap. The bags under his eyes look funny from this angle, pushing up into his eyes with his grin. “Funny, right? Yeah, you’re bad news, so says the old man.”

Castiel furrows his brow.

“I haven’t seen your father since—”

“Yeah, months ago. I mean, it’s not like Bobby gives a flying fuck, so he doesn’t tattle on me or nothin’. But still. It’s funny, right? He thinks you’re evil or some shit. You. He still tells me on the phone sometimes.” Dean tucks his chin into his neck and puts on his best scowl. “You still seein’ that Cas-tee-el kid?” It’s pretty easy for him to sound like John, or whatever Castiel remembers of him—Dean’s voice is almost perpetually gritty. He’s sick so much that it’s more unusual for him to sound like his throat isn’t full of rocks. “You really made an impression.”

Castiel clenches his fist. He shifts, knocking Dean in the arm with his knee, and Dean takes the hint to scootch out onto the carpet and flop down onto his back. It will be short-lived. He can’t breathe well flat on his back. Castiel can hear crackling in his lungs already.

“Dean I—maybe I’m—maybe your dad’s—” he takes a deep breath.

Dean props himself up on his elbows.

“Do you remember when we were younger, and I found out—well. At the library? That my dad has—had—my dad had—” Castiel can’t get the thought out, he stumbles and stumbles and stumbles. The word itself is too hard to say, feels too real. Like saying it will give it power.

“Schizophrenia, right?” Dean supplies after a few torturous moments. “He was sick.”

Castiel clenches his hands in his lap, twining his fingers together. He nods.

“Yeah, Cas. I remember.”

Dean sits up fully, criss cross applesauce on the floor with Star Trek playing behind him.

“I just mean—maybe he’s right to not trust me because I’m having some trouble trusting myself lately.” He gulps, feels his Adam’s apple bob in his throat. “Dean, I think I’m sick too.”

Dean clamps down on a cough in his chest. He furrows his brow.

“What—Cas, why d’you think that?”

“Just,” he gestures vaguely at his own head. “There’s always something happening, up here, now. I mean, I’m always hearing something.”

“Like....voices? You’re always hearing voices?”

“Kind of?” He jerks his arms. “Kind of. I mean—they aren’t speaking a language I understand. So I’m not sure—but I’m sure they’re speaking to each other.”

“Are they talkin’ now?”

Castiel stops talking and listens. They are, just quiet, in his periphery. Whispers. Male and female voices. Breathlessly, he says, “Yes.”

“And there aren’t...any words you understand?”

Castiel shakes his head.

“And Dean—it was. I had a worse uh, episode the other day. I mean. When I found out my father died, it was late and I was tired and delirious but I had a—it must’ve been a hallucination. A delusion. I don’t know what else—” heb bites his lip. “This is all so difficult to—to describe. I’ve never tried to describe it before.”

Dean’s lips tick up in a careful, reassuring smile, but they’re so dry, they crack. They bleed.

“Did that hallucination speak English?”

Castiel nods. “It was a woman. She told me to. To retrieve it.”

“Retrieve what?”

Cas shrugs helplessly.

“Okay. Okay, Cas was it—” Dean’s eyes go hard. “Was it like, some kind of, of demon or something? Did it call itself a demon or monster or—”

It occurs to him that Dean’s line of questioning is—strange. That’s a strange question. Dean’s not asking about treatment of psychological assessment or seeing someone or how he’s feeling or. Anything like that, anything he thinks his mom would probably be asking.

But Castiel, strangely enough, has a strange answer.

“No. It was an angel. She was. She was an angel.”

Dean blinks. Castiel blinks.

Anael. Anna. Never said the word angel, but it’s a word his brain supplies without any effort on his part. Maybe it’s just another delusion, but it’s something he’s fundamentally certain of at his very core. Anael was an angel. And she wanted him to get it back.

He really is fucking crazy.

Dean’s face shutters off. Something has changed, now, and Dean probably thinks so too.

“Okay. Okay. Have you talked to anybody else about this?”

Castiel shakes his head, miserable. “Just you. Dean—what if I really am—”

He can’t say the word.

“Sick?” Dean chuckles a congested chuckle. Castiel feels like he’s on the edge of tears, gulping down a hard lump in his throat, swallowing around too much emotion, around the preemptive feeling of loss that feels so deep already, he’s not sure he can even fathom it. Dean pats him on the knee. He says, “Hey. Hey, there are worse things to be than sick, y’know.”

Dean always did have an obnoxious way of putting things into perspective.

Castiel smiles a watery smile. Dean uses the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe Castiel’s nose.

Chapter Text

Castiel’s mother catches him on a late-night trip between his room and the kitchen, headphones on tight over his ears even inside the house, because the noise in his brain has gotten so bad that only a Walkman helps anymore. Dean made him a mixtape for this kind of situation, a couple days after Castiel told him and he still hadn’t done anything about it. It was a brain-beating mix, for when his head was acting up and he didn’t want to think anymore--hard, heavy thrashers that could pound his head into submission. It was a measure of Dean's loyalty that he didn’t bother to ask him, instead, when he was going to do something about his screwed up head. More than anyone, Dean knows the fine art of keeping illnesses hidden until they debilitate you completely. And—

And Castiel is going to tell his mother.

He’s going to.

He’s going to get this all figured out, and go to a medical professional of some kind, and tell them that he’s hearing voices and seeing people and that someone’s given him some kind of—mission from god—and sometimes he can’t stop himself thinking about all the things he’s supposed to be doing instead of—going to school. Doing his homework. Doing his chores. Sleeping. He'll tell them there’s something pulling at him, tugging insistently on his brain like a dog on a leash, and he knows that can’t be normal but.

But.

But his mother wanders around the house in a daze after his father’s funeral, maybe more of a ghost than she was before it, like his father dying has shattered whatever was left of her. He hasn’t relied on her for a lot of things in recent years because she has been utterly unreliable, and he can’t imagine that getting worse. He can’t imagine seeking treatment and needing someone and having no one because his mother is too broken to do much more than zombie her way through work and then zone out in front of episodes of Judge Judy into the wee hours of the morning.

He catches his mom at the sink, staring at her in reflection in a dark kitchen window and cleaning a shiny white plate with the slow concentric circles of a yellow sponge. It looks like the plate was cleaned ages ago, looks like she’s been scrubbing the same thing so long she ran out of lather, but she’s clearly not concentrating on it. He’s surprised she even notices him when he grabs a box of crackers from the cabinet. He hadn’t planned on talking to her.

“Castiel, you never answered my question,” she says dazedly, picking up on some conversation he didn’t know they were having. He freezes, tugging his headphones off to rest draped at the nape of his neck.

“What?”

“You never answered my question about which colleges you were applying to.”

Castiel's blood runs cold, because he certainly remembers that being one of the most important things in his life, like it was yesterday, and he can feel that way still, if he really concentrates on it. Unfortunately, he’s been so busy not thinking about it, not thinking about anything, that he has no answer for her, and no real clue as to where his answers went.

He says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She mumbles, “Sure you do. You’re my smart boy. Applications start pretty soon after school starts, right? Didn’t you—didn’t you have a shortlist or something?”

He did. Junior year, he made one with the perky guidance counselor that Dean always hated. But between the heavy metal clamoring in his ears and the myriad voices vying desperately for his attention, he can’t for the life of him remember one school he put on it. And that—hurts. It feels like someone robbed him of what has been his number one priority for as long as he can remember and replaced it with.

Find it. You know where it is. Find it.

“I—did. I do. I’ll apply. I’ve got it. Got this.”

There’s a note of existential dread in that, like he’s losing track of himself. He almost tells his mother right then, right there, because if there’s equilibrium to be regained and identity to reclaim, now’s the time to do it, while there’s still some trace of what he wants to be in his head, just underneath whatever his brain is asking him to become right now.

But it all gets—muddled. So fast. Go to space. See the stars. Live forever—no. Immortality, in the loosest sense, maybe.

Go to space.

Find it.

“Okay, baby. Just don’t forget. Your father would be so disappointed if you didn’t go to school.”

His mother has been cleaning the same pristine spot on the plate since he came downstairs, and he doesn’t tell her.

When he goes upstairs, turns out the light, he fades into a dream that he’s falling without even being certain that he’s asleep first. There’s no discernible dip or fade from being awake and safe in his bedroom to the urgent feeling of wind in his face and a reeling, plummeting sensation so overwhelming and lucid that it leaves him sweating and shaking when the morning finds him.

The uneasy feeling of the dream extends through the morning. He wakes feeling like he barely rested and knowing that something is amiss, even more so than normal. There’s a sort of clairvoyant tendril that he can feel expanding around him in waves, and he’s not sure what it’s grasped onto, but he knows in his gut, in the clawing hole behind his navel, that it’s nothing fucking good.

They’re approaching the rainy and cold season quickly. The first day of what will be his senior year looms just on the horizon and there are already water droplets on the windowpane above his bed filtering gray light from beyond stormy clouds.

When he finally staggers out of bed, the feeling of uneasiness increases. He can’t get his bearings, can hardly get oriented in his own bedroom. And he has to put his hands on the solid things—the oak bookshelf with all his academic awards, the sturdy desk covered in graded assignments, the heavy armoire full of messy t-shirts—to even know which way is up. The voices in the back of his head usually give him a reprieve in the mornings, fading slowly into existence as he goes about his morning routine. But today they’re out in full force from the moment he jolts out of his nightmare.

He throws on clothes from his bedroom floor without bothering to shower and staggers his way down the stairs.

Before he’s realized what he’s doing, he calls, “Mom?”

But his mom is out, at work, and he knows that. He knows. It’s Wednesday or—Thursday. A weekday, anyway. And he has nothing to do and nowhere to be, which is good. But also. Bad. Because as the world solidifies and stabilizes and he gets his bearings, he realizes that he’ll go crazy alone in his house if he doesn’t manage to keep himself busy.

So he goes the only place he can go, to the only person that will understand. He piles into the Continental and drives to Dean’s.

He tells himself it’s not because something inside him is driving him there, but at the same time, he’s well aware that there’s a core to the anxiety, that the tendril is reaching for something, and like so many aspects of his life, he’s pretty sure all this comes back to him.

It’s early enough and chilly enough that despite the season, the fog hasn’t burned off from the junkyard and the surrounding plains, so the gray from the sky encroaches on the ground below, hanging heavy and low and pervasive over the whole thing. Bobby answers the door despite the hour, maybe because of it, and if he’s honest with himself, the news he has isn’t anything Castiel didn’t expect.

“He’s in the hospital. I got in late a couple nights ago and he was—he wasn’t doin’ so good. I guess the antibiotics they had ‘im on weren’t doin’ him much good, and his chest was congested and he had a fever. But it don’t seem like anything bad. He’ll be in and out, right as rain. You know he always gets sick this time of year.”

Castiel must look—about as good as he feels.

“Oh,” he says, feeling bereft. He takes in Bobby—Bobby in his flannel and his baseball cap, looking just the same as when he put a bandaid on his cookie burn when he was just a kid.

Bobby looks exhausted, but he says, “You alright, Cas?”

He’s not. He wants to have the biggest problem. He wants for his mom to just know he’s hurting. He wants for someone to tell him what to do. He wants everyone in his head to shut up for five minutes so he can think.

He says, “Yes. Can I—is it okay if I go visit him?”

Bobby smiles. Castiel notices the flecks of gray in his beard, the new wrinkles amongst his whiskers, under his eyes.

“‘Course. I’m headed over there later myself. He was feelin’ a lot better last night and he should be feelin’ even better today. Probly release him soon.” Castiel nods, starts back down the steps. He can barely see the edge of the salvage yard through the fog. When he doesn’t hear the sound of the door slamming behind him, he turns around for a quick look, and Bobby is still standing there, hand frozen on the knob, face determined.

“Is there something—else I should know?”

“Yeah. Probably. You should be real careful today out there, kid. There was another murder.”

Castiel inhales sharply, because when Bobby says another murder, he means that the last one was Castiel’s dad. He’s been avoiding the news since it happened, because in a town this small, there isn’t much to do but dwell on the same death for weeks at a time, speculating uselessly when there are no new leads and blowing every new piece of evidence out of proportion. And there's only so many times you can see a grainy police photo of your dad’s body covered in a sheet on the front cover of the local news rag before you stop looking at newspapers altogether.

“What? When?”

Bobby takes his cap off, rubs at the tarnished brass of his doorknob with absent fingers.

“Far as I understand, last night. Near—near where your daddy got found.”

Castiel nods, and that isn’t strange to him until he really thinks about it, doubt niggling through the haze of his crowded thoughts.

“How do you know about it?”

Bobby shrugs. “Got some friends in the business. You know.”

Castiel doesn’t know, but he nods anyway, because after spending enough time at his house, he’s more than willing to believe that Bobby has secret connections, secret motivations. Some kind of double life. John Winchester sure seems to.

“Okay. Um. Thanks. Thank you.”

Bobby squints. “I mean it. Stay safe out there.”

Castiel nods. Then with one backwards glance, Bobby heads back inside, slams the screen door then the front door behind him. Castiel fingers the key to the Continental, biting his lip. When he gets back into the car, he has to blast the heater to flush the chill from his bones, but he still can’t get warm. It’s too chilly, too wet. Unseasonably, upsettingly cold.

He makes his way to the hospital slow, meandering through the little downtown, past his old school and the pizza parlor. He stops at a coffee shop where he can get something to warm his bones, lift him up, despite however much he still can’t get much of a taste for the stuff.

It’s open but empty inside, save for an employee and one man in a suit sitting quiet in the back of the room. And the quiet in shop, on the streets, makes sense when he sees the headline, echoed harsh in each paper on a fat stack of them by the counter. They’ve just gotten there, still bundled in yellow plastic cords, and he has to ask the clerk for a pair of scissors along with his dark roast so he can cut one out to read.

The headline says, SERIAL KILLER AT LARGE IN SIOUX FALLS? RESIDENTS IN SHOCK. It’s big enough to take up the whole front of the paper where it’s folded at the middle, and when he stands by the counter and flips open the page, he can see that they haven’t even bothered to include any story on the front. Just the sensationalist headline and one large image with a note about where the story continues.

The image itself is in grainy black and white—the contrast is nonexistent, the angle is strange—so it takes him a moment of scrutiny to parse what he’s looking at, until he sees—a muddled figure. A woman. A corpse. And there’s something spread out around her. Dark on light pavement, shape indistinct, but there’s clearly something there. He squints.

“Freaky shit, huh?” says the barista. He inclines his head toward the paper. “You think it’s some religious nut?”

Castiel says, “What?”

“You know. The wings?”

And that’s when Castiel is able to make it out—two enormous wings, spread from her back, big enough to dwarf her where she lies on the pavement. They look as if they’ve been burned into the ground around her, each feather singular and unique. He traces it with his finger and tries to imagine the kind of psychopathy that would go into creating each of those feathers one by one by one while a corpse you just murdered went cold in the center of them.

He turns to the page where the article is listed, flipping past a page worth of cartoons and weather reports, but when he reaches it, he goes cold and sweaty all over his body, feels his stomach drop into the floor, feels his hands and feet go to pins and needles. He drops the paper, knocks over the coffee, scrambles backwards, right into a glass-fronted display full of baked goods. The barista makes an affronted noise.

“What the hell, man? You're smudging up my glass!”

Castiel flaps his mouth. The paper has settled, open, on the floor in front of him, so he can still see the picture that set his heart pounding.

“I—” he says. “Uh—”

It’s the head-on, dimensionless face of a pale, bloodless corpse on a metal morgue table, and it’s black and white, but he recognizes it nonetheless, because he’s been seeing it his whole fucking life, even if he only just got to put a name to the face.

Anael-call-me-Anna. The angel.

Without thinking, he turns to the barista. “You can see her, right?”

The barista, fetching the mop from the closet behind the counter to clean up Castiel’s spill, gives Castiel a look.

“What?”

He points at the paper, slowly soaking through with coffee now, as the guy emerges from behind the counter. “You can see her?”

He cranes his head to look at the picture Castiel is pointing at in the paper.

“Are you asking me if I can see the murder victim in the newspaper?” Castiel just looks at him, mouth a twitching line. “You’re serious. I—yes dude. Of course I can. She’s right there. Do you know who she is? She’s a Jane Doe, it says you’re s’posed to go to the police if you’ve got any info.”

A sharp pain lances through Castiel’s scalp and he clutches at his head. The voices are roaring, they sound angry, active and churning and tumultuous like they never have been. And he still can’t understand the words, not really, but if he really concentrates, if he tries very hard, he almost thinks he can understand scattered curses, calls to action, every word more familiar than the last. And he doesn’t know what that is supposed to mean, or if being able to understand the voices will mean he's well and truly lost it.

In the back of the room, the suited man is looking at him with calm eyes, like nothing is amiss, and Castiel feels an abrupt thrum of panic rise in his throat like nausea.

He needs to leave.

He grabs another paper from the counter, mumbles an apology to the shopkeeper still tidying his mess. He slams his way out the door to a violent tinkling of the bell over the entrance, and on his way back to the car, he manages to run into someone else, but he can’t look at them and he doesn’t want to look at them and he’s scared of them, suddenly, because if this woman who’s haunted his past is real and she’s dead, Castiel is fucked.

Perhaps worse, if this woman is not real, then his delusions just got a lot bigger, everything is bigger, and he can’t just not trust his own thoughts anymore, he can’t trust anything in the world around him. Not the way that anyone acts or the things that anyone does or—anything. Anything.

The Continental grounds him a little bit. He turns up Dean’s pulse-pounding tape with one decisive crank of the volume knob, feels the solid creak of the leather steering wheel under his hands, the cool metal of the dials and knobs. The screeching anger of the voices fades until he feels sane enough to drive, but his eyes flick to the paper in the passenger seat for the whole trip, the pages rustling against one another with the force of the heat that he’s turned up to full blast in an effort to fend off the chill.

When he gets to the hospital, he folds the paper one, two, three times, keeping the headline tucked tight under his arm. He asks for Dean with a trembling voice at the front counter. Dean’s name slips around on his tongue, eluding him, and he can’t look the nurse helping him in the eye, because he doesn’t know if he can trust her, and he remembers well how Anna had presented herself to him in the hospital, like she was some type of authority—like she was—like she was there to help. Like she belonged there.

He keeps his head down. Keeps his mind blank. And when he busts into Dean’s room, sweating, and slams the door behind him, he has to take a moment to stand with his back against the door, eyes closed to the room, before he can face whatever look it is that Dean’s about to level at him.

“Cas?” Dean says. “What’s—Cas, what’s wrong?” Castiel just shakes his head, shakes his head, pulls in trembling breath after trembling breath. “Jesus, man, you gotta talk to me.”

“I don’t know what’s real,” he says, finally. His voice cracks. He sounds pathetic. He feels pathetic.

“What? Cas—what’s—”

Castiel marches across the room to where Dean is sitting up in bed and foists the paper at him, pointing at the headline with pale fingers.

“I don’t know what’s real, Dean. I barely know if you’re here right now, if I’m here, if—if I’m...”

He crosses his arms over his chest in an effort to stave off the shaking. Bites his lip to make himself shut up.

Dean draws in a sharp inhale at the headline. Castiel stares at the linoleum under his feet, but he knows when Dean flips the paper open to the story inside, can practically hear the wheels in his head turning as the paper wrinkles loudly in his tense hands.

“Cas—what—”

“I know her!” he says, sounding pained and pathetic even to his ears. He thinks he might be talking louder too, to compensate for the sheer volume of whatever is happening inside his skull. “I know her, I’ve been seeing her my whole life, and I don’t know if I’m imagining this or imagining the paper or imagining you.”

“Is this—is this the angel? From your, uh, hallucination?”

Castiel nods miserably.

“Well. Cas. I mean. Not sure how much this helps. But I’m pretty sure I’m real.” Dean reaches for Castiel and pinches the flesh of his forearm. Castiel yelps and steps back. “And y’know, I—I know her, too.”

Castiel finally takes a good look at Dean. He certainly looks real.

And health-wise, he doesn’t look horrible, at least, not compared to the last time Cas came to visit him in this hospital. He doesn’t look great, but he’s breathing on his own and he’s barely hooked up to any machines at all, aside from the IV in his arm and the a couple monitors that are keeping track of his heart rate. There’s an empty barf bucket by his bed and a whole lot of exhaustion stacked underneath his eyes in layered black rings that both speaks toward him being just on the other side of a pretty serious illness, but he really looks alright.

Dean coughs.

“You do?”

“I’ve seen her. At—I dunno how old we were. Nine? Ten? She was at the arcade. You were there too.”

A memory surfaces above the tide of voices in his head, a beacon like a lighthouse in choppy seas. It’s something that he hadn’t really thought of at the time, something long-buried, something inconsequential. A nice lady, her hand on Dean’s knee. Flickering lights and a pile of quarters.

He moves toward the bed to take in the picture in Dean’s lap, the stone-cold corpse face above a police number for people to call with more information. It’s her. He’s right. Castiel remembers that day too, with frightening clarity.

“I don’t understand.” He shakes his head. “I don’t get what’s happening.”

Dean sighs.

“Okay.” He holds out a hand. “Help me up.”

Castiel blinks. Takes his hand. Helps him sit up straight and sling his bare legs over the edge of the bed. He’s still trying to gather his thoughts for some kind of rebuttal when Dean, no hesitation, jerks the IV out of his arm. He doesn’t even flinch. In the movies, when people do that, there’s no blood, but for Dean there’s a veritable fountain of it, arcing from the vein inside his elbow. Dean clamps his hand down over the stream too late—it splatters onto the white sheets, staining them red. When the torrent slows down a bit, it still bubbles up between the cracks of his fingers.  

“Hand me that.” He tilts his head toward a cotton ball dispenser on the wall next to a shelf of rubber gloves. Castiel scrambles, hands flailing, to hand him one. Dean gives him a look, like Castiel should have known that one wasn’t going to cut it. Then Castiel, remiss, brings him a whole handful. Dean holds the wad against the spray. “Okay. Now find me something to wrap it with.”

“Dean—what—what are you thinking—I should just call a nurse—”

“Jesus, Cas, don’t call a fucking nurse.”

What?”

“Listen. There’s some stuff, some stuff I shoulda told you—and I meant to like, twenty times—dude you gotta find me something to wrap this with, I’m leakin’ everywhere.”

Castiel groans a frustrated groan, raking his hand through his hair as he fumbles into the dark attached bathroom, casting around aimlessly for something that’s going to help, when he arrives on the paper towel dispenser. He pumps out about five feet of paper towel and rushes back into Dean’s room with it trailing behind him. Dean’s in the midst of doing something fiddly behind the machine that’s monitoring his vitals, and Cas watches as the screens go flat and black and dark without sounding any alarms. Then Dean starts peeling off suction cup monitors. He coughs.

“Hold still for a second, you idiot,” Castiel grits out between his teeth, catching Dean’s bleeding arm in careful hands. Dean breathes very, very deliberately shallow breaths, like Castiel won’t hear the infection in his lungs if he barely breathes at all. Like he doesn’t know all Dean’s stupid tricks by now anyway. Dean holds out his arm, and Cas wraps about half a ream of paper towel around it, so many layers that the blood stops seeping through it eventually. He ties either end in a huge, cumbersome bow over the top of the cotton balls.

“Okay, cool, now find my clothes. They’re here somewhere,” Dean says, stripping out of the open-backed hospital shirt to reach the monitors that are tickling at his ribs. He only shivers once in the cold room. Before Castiel looks away, he strains with two fingers behind his back, spinning a little like a dog chasing its own tail to get one that’s in an awkward place near the base of one of his shoulderblades.

On the bright side, Dean’s fuckery has made him panic so hard he’s lost track of why he was panicking before. He can only assume that this is reality, because he can’t imagine any hallucination of his being so deliberately obstinate and infuriating. Despite himself, he searches the room for Dean’s clothes, and eventually he finds them folded neatly in a drawer in the wheely bedside table, empty aside from the bag of Dean’s effects—clothes and a backpack—and a Holy Bible with gilded pages. He hands the clothes to Dean and then picks up the book, absently thumbing through the pages while Dean struggles into his jeans and t-shirt.

“Okay.” Dean appears by his shoulder, breathing hard like getting dressed has winded him. He’s sweating, and Castiel is half-tempted to feel his forehead for fever. “We don’t have much time before the next nurse check-in, so we gotta go.”

“Where—Dean you’re sick. You’re here for a reason. You can’t just leave.”

“Sure I can. Watch me. I’m gonna do it now.”

And Dean slips out the door.

Castiel’s not sure what just happened, but he rushes to catch up with Dean, who’s walking in a shuffling step down the hallway with his head lowered, pack slung haphazardly over his back. He’s doing his best to hide the bulge of the paper towel peeking from his short sleeve, just barely starting to bleed through with red, where Castiel’s clumsy attempts at first aid make the whole escape attempt pretty obvious to anyone who was actually looking.

Lucky for Dean, it seems like no one actually is. All things considered, it’s pretty easy for a patient to just waltz out of a fucking hospital, and he feels like it should be—harder.

“Where’d you park?” Dean says, palm to his chest, when they slide unnoticed out the big automatic doors at the emergency bay without a second glance from the nurses at the front desk. He looks tired already.

“You’ve done that before,” Castiel says, squinting.

“You caught me. I’m a bad egg.” Dean shrugs. “Where’d you park?”

Castiel leads him through a parking lot, and before they reach the car, Dean’s shivering with the unseasonable cold.

“What the hell happened to the weather while I was in the big house?” he says around chattering teeth.

“Are you alright? Do you need a jacket?”

“What, did you park the next town over?” He rubs at his arms. “Let’s just get to the car.”

They find the car where Castiel left it at the very edge of the parking lot, climb in and blast the heat, and Dean relaxes into the upholstery with a sigh. Outside the car, the wind buffets around them, knocking them with the fallen still-green leaves of healthy trees battered by the weather.

“Okay. We’re here. Now what?”

“Well, now I’m not in the stupid hospital for one thing.”

Castiel rolls his eyes.

“I’m not sure why this was so urgent you couldn’t wait until you were released. And I’m not sure why you think this is a long-term solution. The moment they discover you’re gone, they’ll call your uncle, he’ll come looking for you—”

“Yeah, that’s the thing. It doesn’t need to be long term. I just need enough of a head start to get the jump on my dad and my uncle with the case.”

Castiel rubs his a hand over his face, feeling suddenly out of his depth.

“The case.”

“Yeah, the case of the whatever it was that got killed.”

“The—the. Woman.”

“Well. I don’t think it was a woman.”

Castiel turns sideways in his seat. Dean’s red across the ridge of his nose, pale everywhere else. He probably does have a fever.

“That’s not funny.”

Dean furrows his brow. “What’s not funny?”

“You’re making—you’re making fun of me. I told you something deeply personal and you’re making a joke about it. Next you’re going to say she’s really an angel.”

“I don’t think she’s an angel. Angels don’t exist.”

“Well, of course angels don’t—”

“—I’ll bet she’s a demon.”

Castiel flushes up to his ears. “You are making fun of me!” He looks away so Dean can’t see the plain devastation on his face, because he’s been nothing but earnest with Dean, and this feels like a slap in the face. “I’m taking you back inside. You shouldn’t be out of bed, I don’t know what I was thinking.” He reaches for the handle on the door, but in the driving wind outside, a stray branch strikes the driver’s side window hard enough to make a sharp thwap. Castiel jumps back.  

“Cas. Castiel.” Dean’s hand finds his where it rests on the console between the seats, almost as startling as the branch on the window. It’s clammy. He wonders if the bleeding has slowed in the crook of his elbow, if that’s something else they need to be worried about. “I’m not. I’m not making fun of you. I would—never, ever, ever. I mean, not about something like this. I’m serious. There’s—there’s some weird stuff and I wanna explain it to you.” He twines their fingers together, like Castiel had tried unsuccessfully to do at—that godforsaken house. Before. He remembers the feeling of that night, the uncertainty and the charged atmosphere. The cold. The shadows flickering at the edge of his vision. He remembers the fear.

Pretty much the only thing that keeps him from charging back into the hospital with his wayward charge is a a gut inkling, a profoundly, uncharacteristically illogical notion that the whole town now feels like that farmhouse then—feels pervasively and persistently uneasy. And that’s not anything he knows how to fight. At this point, Castiel is just looking for an explanation for how truly awful he feels. Even if it doesn’t make any sense.

He sighs. “Well, what do you want to tell me then?”

Dean nods gravely, sits back in his seat, takes shallow sips of breath. Puffs out his chest. He slings his bag into his lap and starts rifling through it, mysterious clangs and thumps resonating from a bafflingly small space.

“We should go to my uncle’s house. And don’t drive around front. You know the shed out back? The big one he keeps locked?” Castiel nods. “Drive around to the back side and park near there.”

Castiel drives and Dean is quiet. As quiet as he gets when he’s sick, anyway. He doesn’t seem to be much worse off than he was when Castiel saw him earlier in the week. But then, he was sitting on the couch in his pajamas, covered in a blanket, rasping through a breathing treatment. Now he’s pale and breathing heavily riding shotgun on some fucked up murder mystery tour.

Nevertheless, he does what Dean says, drives as quiet and stealthy as he can alongside the trailer behind Bobby’s little farmhouse. And despite however he feels, however he sounds, Dean looks—excited. Positively brimming with exuberance and enthusiasm in a way that Castiel only saw when he was repairing a car or throwing around a—a homemade ghost meter. Jesus.

“Bobby’s probly gone, ‘cause the hospital probly called him when the nurses got wind I was gone. But we should be quiet anyway.” He lays a finger against his lips, his eyes gleaming with more than fever, as he directs Castiel to park the Continental behind a tower of junkers. Out of sight of the main road and of Bobby’s kitchen window.

They creep not-so-stealthily, out of the car, alongside the trailer. Dean’s breathing is shallow and erratic and loud and would absolutely give them away if this whole venture actually required any degree of secretiveness outside of what Dean seems to be projecting onto it like a grade school kid playing pretend. It occurs to Castiel that what he probably needs is—

“Hey, maybe we should go get your oxygen concentrator from inside. Weren’t you on oxygen at the hospital?”

“Fuck off, Dad.”

“Maybe your dad is right about some things sometimes.”

It’s probably a good sign that Dean has enough breath to huff a laugh. “Never thought I’d see the day you said something like that.”

“Yes. Well. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” The notion of secretiveness seems especially elusive when you have a hundred thousand voices screaming inside your brain, clamoring for attention.

“I’m—fine, anyway,” he says, breathing heavily from the short jaunt to the trailer. Castiel looks at the house, wondering. Dean looks at the trailer door. There are three padlocks on it, plus one lock on the door.

“Do we need to go in and find the key?”

Dean slings his bag from his back again with a flippant raspberry that turns into another cough. Castiel peers over his shoulders at the contents as he digs around inside, but he isn’t able to see much more than the lockpicking kit that Dean pulls from one of the front pockets.

“You pick locks now. Since when do you pick locks?”

“Oh ye of little faith,” Dean opines. And then he proceeds to pick every lock as Castiel watches, which, honestly, by now, after chronically underestimating Dean for most of the time they’d known one another, Castiel should have expected.

As Dean’s working, his bony shoulders shivering in the chill, he says, “Okay so. This is gonna seem—weird. It’s gonna seem. I dunno. I dunno what you’re gonna think, but you’re probably gonna think I’m crazy.”

“I honestly don’t think I could think anyone is crazier than I feel, at this point.”

Dean pops the last lock, the one on the door knob, and the door drifts slowly open to reveal—

It doesn’t look like much. It looks like a study. There’s a desk in the middle, overflowing with papers and parchment and old books. Almost every available wall is covered in bookshelves stacked with books. He takes a step forward, head tilted, and skims the shelves. He sees a lot of English, a lot of books he can see are about mythologies and folklore, but also whole swathes of books in Greek, Latin, Japanese, Spanish—words he doesn’t understand. Upon closer inspection, one of the bookshelves is filled instead with odd plants, spices, herbs. Dried in bundles, preserved in bottles, scattered in boxes, growing and green.

And all the walls that aren’t covered in books have something painted on them—vaguely satanic symbols in red paint and black paint lining up so cluttered they’re edge to edge. One particular piece of the wall is decorated with about seven phones, each of which, when he gets close enough to read the clumsy masking tape words over the top of them, he sees is labeled with a different law enforcement agency. FBI, CIA, local police, state—

It’s—strange. An understatement, maybe. But Castiel probably doesn’t think it’s anywhere near as strange he probably should. For one thing, some of the sigils on the walls look—familiar. In a way he can’t explain. Because he knows he’s never seen them before, but at the same time, he feels like they’re etched on the back of his eyelids, like he’s been staring at them his whole life up close, but never really got the perspective to understand them until now. He approaches one of the symbols in particular, this one etched with letters from an alphabet he isn’t familiar with but whose sounds he seems to know all the same, his mouth forming the shapes of the letters as he steps forward. And he gets as far as laying his fingers on top of it when the voices in his head flare to a screech and the ink under his hand seems to superheat and sear a line into the fleshy pad of his fingertips. He pulls his hand away with a gasp, but when he turns his hand to inspect the damage, he finds himself completely unharmed.

“Cas,” Dean snaps from across the room, all urgency. He’s probably been calling his name for some time. “C’mon.”

When Castiel turns around from the symbol that had stolen his attention, he finds Dean has opened the way to a yet more secretive place, a trapdoor that leads to a narrow wooden staircase, a claustrophobic tunnel descending down into blackness. Dean, a slender book already tucked under his armpit, trounces down a couple steps and yanks a pull cord to a naked lightbulb, then turns again to gesture for Castiel to follow.

“Dean. I think—maybe you should tell me what’s going on.”

Dean heaves a beleaguered and breathless sigh that undermines itself when it sets him coughing. “Okay, come on. I’m—I’m going to explain it, but I don’t want to miss anything. We gotta be quick to get the drop on this thing.”

Cas narrows his eyes, starts toward the staircase, his feet pattering uncertainly on the big, worn area rug, smattered here and there with piles of—

“Is this—salt?” he nudges one of the little piles with his foot.

“Geez—okay, c’mon. I never know where to start with this garbage. My dad always said, sometimes, you have the case where you have to explain everything all over again for the first time, and it’s different for everyone and it’s new every time. And you never know—how someone’s gonna react.”

Castiel follows Dean down the staircase, descending past where the light from the naked bulb extends, and then follows him through the dark when there’s no banister to follow anymore. He nearly bumps into Dean’s back when he stops, suddenly, to turn on another light, in the center of what must be a relatively large room, just based on the way their footsteps echo and resonate back at them with a metallic tone.

“But I know you, Cas. You can take it.”

And then the room fills with light.

And Castiel finds that he is standing in the middle of a weapons cache. His heart immediately thrums with panic, even as his mind quiets so much it feels like his whole head’s gone numb.

The walls themselves seem to be made of some kind of rough metal, thick and heavy and hard and held firm into place by massive bolts. It looks like they’re in some kind of ship, under the water. A storage room inside a metal hull.

Dean approaches one of the walls and raps on it with his knuckles.

“Iron,” he says, as if that should be obvious. Above them, there’s a slice of light that cuts in and out eerily, interrupted periodically by a slowly rotating fan. The room itself is large, larger than the study above, and instead of books, every single inch is covered in some kind of deadly looking something.

“Yeah, I’m not really wondering about the metal walls, Dean. I must say, I’m more curious about the armory.”

Dean approaches the wall, plucks a pearl-handled gun off it, holds it with the same deft competence Castiel can remember him holding a bright orange gun at an arcade console. He narrows one eye, stares down the sight, and looks unequivocally giddy about it.

“There’s no easy way to do this so I’ll just come out and say it. Monsters are real. My family hunts ‘em.” He stuffs the pistol down the back of his pants. They gape because they’re too big for him, because everything is too big for him, because Dean is the skinny little sick kid from down the road, and he should be in the hospital right now.

Castiel has to try a few times before he says, “Excuse me?”

Dean moves on to a shelf full of shotguns, to a whole cigar box full of strange-looking white shotgun shells. He loads a few shells into one, then crosses the room back to Castiel, and holds the gun out to him. Castiel takes it without thinking, a reflex. Muscle memory. Their fingers brush over the top of the barrel, Dean’s hands lingering on it with a certain strange tenderness.

It doesn’t feel wrong in his hands. He remembers the immediate competence he’d had with the play pistol at the arcade, remembers how well he and Dean had worked together, remembers, in some sensory way that doesn’t make much sense, this feeling of cool metal. Of power. Of confidence.

When Castiel looks up from the hard-wrought barrel of the shotgun, Dean’s smiling at him, wistful.

“You look good holding that.”

Castiel furrows his brow.

“Dean.” Dean clears his throat.

“You know uh—ghosts. Werewolves. Vampires. You know, all the shit we read about and watched movies about and. I mean, I know you and I were never much into horror stuff. But everyone knows what a vampire is.”

Castiel nods to the one point he’s understood thus far. Dean looks him right in the eye, like he’s practiced this. Like he might’ve last said all this looking straight into his own reflection.

“Well, they’re real, and they’re dangerous, and they kill people. But it’s okay, because there’s people out there—fuckin’ badasses—who travel the country and, and fight them. They’re called hunters. Uh, hunting.”

Dean nods, breaks the spell by letting the full weight of the shotgun drag down Castiel’s arms, going back to his walls of weapons, gathering supplies as he moves. He starts piling things into his little backpack, the one with his lockpick kit in it, and his ghost meter thing that suddenly makes a lot more sense now.

He tries and fails to come up with an explanation for all this as Dean natters on, carefully pouring water from a massive jug with a long string of rosary beads inside into a plastic water bottle. He thinks, manically, maybe Dean has a fever. Maybe Dean’s deluding himself with some strange illusion of grandeur. Some power fantasy. While his brain is boiling inside his skull. But that’s stupid, because it doesn’t explain—this. This metal room filled with torture devices that must’ve been underneath Castiel’s feet, every time he came to this house, for as long as he’s known Dean.

“And my dad’s the best hunter in the business, you know,” Castiel catches, while Dean grabs a chain etched with symbols off the wall, stuffs that into his bag too. The more he moves through the room, the harder it gets for him to lift the bag, and all the excitement and all the rambling has made him short of breath. He’s gasping out an explanation now, panting in between words, but he doesn’t stop, and he doesn’t calm down.

Okay. Castiel is the crazy one, then.

It’s entirely plausible that he’s been entrenched in one long lucid dream, a hallucination, a delusion, since he saw the picture of the angel woman on the floor in front of him, since he saw the newspaper article and the burned out wings and scared the shit out of some hapless barista. Because Castiel’s reality has been tenuous at best, lately. A steep incline from looking at colleges and tutoring students in the library to wondering if he can trust anything his brain interprets around him.

But.

But here is Dean. Sipping breath, bleeding through paper towels and cotton balls on one arm, blathering on about a ghost his dad killed in Omaha. And he can’t help but think that in any mental construct he was able to create, he would be able to make Dean this—imperfect. This flawed. This erratic and ugly and beautiful and—ill. In his world, in any world of his creation, however flawed it was in other respects, he can’t help but think that Dean would be healthy.

As fucked up as it is, every cough is like an affirmation that grounds him, that has grounded him since the very first time they met. And on a certain level—this makes sense for Dean. Fills all the gaps Castiel had in his picture of him. In all the time Castiel has known him, all the time they’ve spent together, there were still puzzle pieces missing, and Castiel would be remiss to not acknowledge that. This is them. Here they are. And they don’t fit especially well in his puzzle, but it isn’t his puzzle—it’s Dean’s.

Dazed, Castiel interrupts whatever Dean’s saying to say, “You know how all this sounds right?”

Dean rolls his eyes. He seems to be done gathering supplies. He’s got a knife in one hand that he hands off to Cas as he heads back towards the stairs, and it’s a visible effort to hook his old, tattered Jansport, overburdened now with all sorts of ridiculous weaponry, over his shoulder, bone-thin and heaving with his the visible struggle of his overtaxed lungs.

“I told you how it was gonna sound. I knew exactly how it was gonna sound. But, here. Let me show you something.”

He leads Castiel back up the stairs to the more sane part of the crazy bunker, flicking off lights as he goes. When he gets to the top, he waits for Castiel to come out behind him, then carefully replaces the trapdoor, doing his very best to make it look like he’s never lifted it in the first place. Not that it’ll do much good. If Bobby went down those stairs, he’d know in an instant that someone had been raiding his supplies, and he could only imagine how happy he’d be about it.

“Is this—this is where you father took Sam.” Dean isn’t looking at him, but he nods as he navigates around the big desk in the center of the room and unfurls what appears to be a map of Sioux Falls and the surrounding area. “He took him—hunting.” He echoes the word. Something that had rolled off Dean’s tongue earlier like the most natural thing in the world. Dean nods again.

“And he’s gonna take me too once I crack this case wide open ‘fore he even gets wind of it.” He grins, then he gestures for Castiel to come look, plucking a red pen from a pencil holder at the corner of the desk.

Castiel treads carefully around the desk, peers over his shoulder. Dean’s got several things circled already, or maybe whoever was looking at the map before him does, and he’s got messy notes scrawled in the white of the margins and over the top of landmarks.

“Okay, see, here. I’ve been doing a lot of research. I got a lot of theories. Because my dad and Bobby always guessed there was a case here right under their noses, but he never quite figured out what. But I got it.” He taps his head with the tip of the red pen. He’s moved on from being flushed to just being pale now. He looks like he could sleep a hundred years and never shake it. “And my dad, see, my dad always thought you had somethin’ to do with it.”

Castiel blinks. “Me?”

Dean shrugs. “Yeah, like I said. My dad never, uh. He never liked you much.”

“Did he think I was some kind of monster?”

Dean puts up his hands, placating. “He never knew for sure. He was—y’know. Careful.”

“Dean—”

Dean ignores him, turning back to the map.

“Okay, so, see here. I got it all worked out. Here’s where that house we went to was.” He circles the farmstead on the edge of town. The surrounding pastures and fields are blocks of solid green on the map, and they don’t at all do justice to the sea of brittle, yellow dead it was when they were there last. “Dead cattle. Dead fields. Big catastrophic stuff like that—those are demon signs.”

Castiel can feel his eyes widen. He hasn’t been to church since he was little, since his mom still cared enough about anything to take him, but that fear is still there, a fear as ingrained in him as the instinct to breathe.

“Demons?”

Dean flinches apologetically.

“Yeah. Demons exist. Sorry.”

Castiel doesn’t say anything, but Dean continues.

“Okay and this—this here. Uh. Shit.” He rubs the back of his neck, leaves a streak of red pen. “This is where your dad died.”

Castiel takes a deep breath.

Dean continues in a hurry, stumbling over his own words. “And uh, this hit me in the hospital room, when I saw that article and where, where that chick you said you know died.”

“The angel.”

Dean side-eyes him.

“Right. Uh. Listen—Cas. Angels don’t exist. Like I said, I’m pretty sure this is all a demon. All the classic demon signs are there.”

Castiel narrows his eyes.

“You’re telling me that demons exist and angels don’t.”

“I mean, not so far as we know—”

“That’s ridiculous. Why on earth would you pick and choose bits of myth to believe in?”

Dean pulls back, looking affronted.

“I ain’t picking and choosing shit. This isn’t in my head, Cas, I didn’t just in invent this right here right now.” He gestures around the room, the books, the phones, the plants. Solid, real evidence of whatever madness Dean is living. “I’m tellin’ you, no hunter out there ever met up with an angel, but we got plenty of demons on our asses.”

Castiel sniffs haughtily. “I still think it’s stupid.”

“Yeah, well, you ever meet an angel, maybe I’ll reassess, but so long as I’m in charge here, we’re dealing in facts.” Castiel rolls his eyes. “And anyways,” Dean kneads his hand along his spine, underneath his backpack—a familiar motion, like he’s trying to rub out the nerve pain there. “I resent the hell out of any god or any angel who lets shit like cystic fibrosis slip by ‘em.”

Castiel pulls his mouth shut tight, because more than anything else he’s heard today, he doesn’t have an argument for that.

Anyway, like I was saying.” He circles a new spot on the map, one without notes. “This is where that chick died.”

Dean rattles off a few more incidents, little details that say he’s been skimming papers for a long, long time for this sort of info. He sounds a little like an insane person, but there’s a pattern to it all, and a logic behind it, that begins to make sense to Castiel despite himself. And everything gets particularly clear when, after he’s circled at least a dozen data points and connected them into a haphazard but unambiguous circle, Dean draws a massive, emphatic X over the top of the tiny knob of blue that denotes the swimming hole. Sitting pretty, right in the middle of all the chaos.

“I think we’re dealing with demons. And I think those demons got somethin’ to do with you and your voices, and I think they got something to do with the reason that thing glows at night.”

He jabs at the swimming hole on the map a few more times, so hard and so self-assured that he leaves a few scattered pock marks around it. Castiel leans in, reaches forward and strokes his fingers over the top of it and—well.

It’d be stupid to deny Dean outright at this point. He’s not sure he buys everything he’s being fed, but there are things he can’t deny. The least of which is not—the swimming hole. The glow. The deaths. The—cattle. The weather. The eerie feelings. The unease.

And if there’s even a fraction of a inkling of a shot in the dark that the chorus of voices in the back of his head is something besides a mental illness, something that he can fight and win against and get back his shot at a future... He really, really can’t say no to it. Because he wants so badly for that to be true. More than anything, in every way he can imagine, Castiel does not want to end up like his father.

“Okay,” he says, nodding absently. “Okay, so, what are we going to do about it?”

Dean grins, a flash of teeth. It makes him look stronger. Fiercer. An artful facade that, right now, Castiel is willing to accept.

“We’re gonna find ‘em. And we’re gonna win.”

Chapter Text

Castiel convinces Dean to wear his oxygen concentrator when Dean’s breath goes shallow and thin on their way back to the car and Dean has to stop and cough until he gags alongside Bobby’s house. Dean concedes, reluctantly, that it will make the whole ordeal easier—and he gives Castiel one condition.

That Castiel let Dean drive the car.

It’s their car—they made it together. So Castiel doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on to say he shouldn’t. If Dean weren’t a fucked up kid with a fucked up set of circumstances, he’d have his driver’s license now, too.

And when he takes his tentative seat on the driver’s side, flexes two hands on the wheel, it’s probably the happiest Castiel has ever seen him. Tubing tucked up under his nostrils, pleased flush spread across his nose, a smile he doesn’t even seem to notice spreading his face wide and making black bags under his eyes less apparent. It makes Castiel feel—warm inside, whatever he’s just been told about demons and angels. Whatever he believes about the world, now. He’s not really sure. But he knows he likes seeing Dean happy, and boy does Dean look happy.

Castiel watches him, surreptitiously, the whole ride to the swimming hole, carrying a shotgun loaded with, as Dean explained, rock salt in his lap. Dean turns up the radio and hums along to some piece of rock music coming through uneven with the trembling static of the rocky old stereo. And once, he catches Dean looking too, at his face, at the shotgun in his lap, but Dean ducks his head as soon as he notices Castiel watching. He goes to both eyes on the road and cranks the stereo.higher, so that when Castiel speaks up next, he has to speak loud over the top of it.

“Dean is what hunters do. Is it particularly dangerous?”

It sounds like a silly question, when one considers dealing with vampires and demons and werewolves, just based on popular culture alone, but it also seems a legitimate one, because he’s walking into something completely unknown with nothing but a gun he’s never fired before.

Dean flicks his eyes toward him.

“Well. Sure. I mean—yeah. You know what it sounds like. And it’s pretty much a what you see is what you get sort of situation.”

Castiel clutches his hands around his shotgun.

“You were gearing up like you were about to go into some kind of battle.” Dean puffs up. “Have you ever—have you ever done anything like this before.”

Dean’s eyes go hard. He bites at his chapped lips.

“I thought you said you wanted to get this taken care of.”

“I do, but—is it really the smartest thing to just go stomping into danger like that? Just—arms open, into the lion’s den? Maybe we should wait for your dad if he’s so—”

“No!” Dean all but cries, a high-pitched bite of a wail with a world of hurt behind it. “No, no, no. That’s the whole point! The whole point is to do it without him!”

“The whole point is—I thought the whole point is to make demons stop killing people, not taking some fucked up little revenge quest to prove yourself to Daddy. Something killed my dad, Dean. I don’t know if you forgot.”

“Of course—of course not. And it’s not just—it’s not just about my dad, either. I mean that’s part of it but. But.” He glances over at Castiel again. A barely there flicker. “Do you remember playing House of the Dead when we were younger? We always did way better at the co-op games than we did fighting against each other, because we worked so well together.”

Castiel waits for him to continue. When he doesn’t, Castiel prompts, “And?”

And I always sort of dreamed. I dunno, I always wanted to tell you about hunters and the life and stuff because I always thought we’d—ugh. This sounds stupid.”

After a beat, Castiel says, “You thought we’d work well together.”

“Well. Yeah. And my dweeby little brother too. I mean, we always have before, haven’t we?” He shrugs helplessly.

“Always?” Castiel smiles, thin-lipped, close-mouthed, eyes cast down at his lap. “No. I used to hate you.”

Dean grins, gives a swaggering little jiggle with his shoulders.

“Well I won you over.” Castiel’s heart falters in his chest.

As they’re pulling into the gravelly parking lot by the swimming hole, so fundamentally unchanged from the very first time they did the same thing in Bobby’s old Chevelle, the storm that’s been threatening the town all morning seems to be coming to a dark and dangerous head. There’s no rain, doesn’t seem like there will be rain, but there’s a puff of a black cloud on the horizon, like a thunderhead. It swirls threateningly, a hard contrast to the yellow of the plains below it, to the looming green that peeks out from the pit the swimming hole lives in.

“Okay, plan of attack. We’re just gonna—take a look around with fresh eyes. See if there’s any demon signs or anything, maybe put down some sigils or some traps.”

“Traps?”

“Yeah. You can’t—I mean, I should have mentioned. You can’t really kill demons, but you can trap ‘em, exorcise ‘em, send ‘em back to hell.” He counts their terrifying options off casually with his fingers, like one of those options wasn’t sending something to hell. Castiel feels so woefully underprepared, clutching a shotgun in his lap. “It’ll be fine, man.”

Dean throws the car into park and slowly, reluctantly, pulls the key of the ignition. He hands it back to Cas without looking him in the eye as the car settles into its parking space, the world conspicuously silent without that old motor running.

“Thanks, man. I mean—thanks.”

“Of course, Dean.”

Castiel juggles the keys in one hand, hooking the keyring around his finger.

Dean is just reaching for the door handle, pulling out his backpack behind him, when Castiel says, “Wait.”

Dean stops, glances back at him. With Dean turned toward the door, Castiel can see the hard butt of the pearl-handled pistol peeking out near the base of his spine, just under the jutting protrusions of his spinal column. Dean’s backpack is even more overburdened now that it has his oxygen concentrator in it, too. The tubing peeks out, snakes up to his face. It reminds him of the arcade. But the gun is real this time. Maybe the monsters are, too.

“What?” Dean urges.

“So. Demons. Monsters. Most of these things—they’re not like the movies. They take on human countenances. There’s no—there’s no set appearance? They can look like you and me?”

“Yeah. Uh, I mean, stuff like demons, they have true faces that we mostly don’t see because they possess poor saps up here.”

Castiel swallows. “Possession?”

“Yeah. But then a lot of other monsters that we might think look freaky from watchin’ ‘em in movies actually just pass for human down here.”

Castiel nods, pauses.

“You said that your dad thinks I’m—he doesn’t trust me.”

The chorus of voices in the back of his brain picks up like a church choir, an affirmation. Dean grunts in agreement .

“Well. What about you?”

“What about me what?”

“Do you think I could be some kind of—monster?”

Dean catches him off guard with a laugh.

“Jesus, no. No, no. Never—Cas, no. Cas. C’mon. Don’t be an idiot.” He reaches back and cuffs Castiel, just gently, across his jaw. Any slower and it might’ve been a caress. But it isn’t. Very, very deliberately—it isn’t. “I could never.”

They both pile out of the car, burdened by the weight of weapons and overzealousness. The route down to the swimming hole is overwhelmingly familiar and they take it with easy steps, because they’ve done this before a million times. Half blind in the dark, with Dean sick and dragging, with the both of them sun-drenched and exhausted. Dean perks up like he always does at the top of the stone staircase. Castiel knows when he’s excited, and right now, his hands are twitching with barely contained energy. Despite how lousy he might’ve felt before they got here, an hour out of an unadvised release from the hospital, the smooth, glassy waters, the rough red walls, the green vegetation, always have a way of making him seem okay. Picking up his energy, ticking up the corners of his mouth, letting him breathe.

There’s no one there. The beach is empty. They make a couple laps of the portions that are accessible on foot, inspecting the beach, the sandy shore where the beach turns dark and wet with seeping moisture. It’s not dark, not yet, but it’s so overcast that when Castiel steps close to the water, leans down and skims his hand over the top, he can see just the barely there hint of a glow against the blue veins of his hand. And there’s that pulse. The same one he felt with Daphne, the one that set his head on fire. It does it again, but he’s used to it now, so the momentary ringing takes him less by surprise.

He gathers himself again, breathes in deep through his nose while the aural nightmare fades and watches Dean fruitlessly but enthusiastically crouching over the stony outcropping they used to jump off of as children in order to inspect the quality of the stone.

“Dean,” Cas calls to get his attention.

He perks up, rights himself from his crouch. He readjusts the tubing under his nose. Then he picks his way back through the sand toward Castiel.

“Dean, I think whatever we’re looking for, if there is anything to be found, is under the water. I don’t think scrounging around in the sand is going to do us much good.”

And Dean has almost reached his side when another voice cuts across the length of the swimming hole, echoing off the opposite wall and coming back just as strong.

“You know, I think you’re right about that, kiddo.”

Dean and Castiel turn at the same time. Dean’s hand is already scrambling for the gun at his back, his backpack. Castiel doesn’t lift his arm, but he’s hyperaware of the shotgun where it’s hanging from his hand, down at his hip. He can feel the cool line of the sheathed knife Dean gave him along his back.

It was a woman’s voice that spoke—the timbre of it familiar but the tone not so much. The figure itself is the same—he knows the silhouette, the features, but the way she carries herself, how her clothes look, how she contorts her features—it’s utterly alien. She stands, eerily, at the bottom of the stairs. They didn’t see or hear her make any approach down them. Beside her are two suited men, and it takes him a moment to realize he recognizes one of them, too. From the coffee shop this morning.

He breathes, “Meg?”

Because despite all the dissonance in her behavior, it is Meg. The same Meg that went missing at that party, weeks ago, before his father died. The Meg that he tutored in chemistry. Sweet, smiley, well-mannered Meg.

“Hey, don’t be fooled,” Dean urges. “It’s not who you think it is.”

She walks toward them, across the beach, strangely even steps on the sand that should be sucking at her feet, making it more difficult to walk. She seems unaffected by it. Unruffled. When she’s about ten paces away, she stops, crosses her arms, ticks her eyebrow up. The body language looks strange on someone so young. There’s a self-assuredness and a raw, confident, predatory sexuality in each tenuous slide of her muscles. He’s never seen anyone, not anyone, at his high school, move with that kind of unnatural fluidity. Like smoke instead of bone and muscle.

Dean shouts, “Christo!”

And the effect is instantaneous. Their faces, all three of them, distort into something ugly and pained. And more terrifying than that is their eyes—as he watches, all three shift to a deep, reflective black.  

“They’re demons,” Dean spits.

“Your boyfriend’s right, Castiel.” She regains her composure quickly, settling her face back into an easy grin and throwing up her arms in a flippant shrug. “Guilty as charged!” She blinks, and the black peels back from her eyes like the second set of eyelids on a cat. Castiel’s heart skips a beat. In the back of his head, he feels the voices, still, but there’s a note of anguish in them now, of agony, or maybe it’s his imagination.

He looks to Dean. He doesn’t want to ask how’d she know my name what did her eyes just do because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this here is the entity they’ve been looking for. Even if Dean hadn’t told him to expect non-humans, if Dean hadn’t explained that monsters exist at all, if her eyes hadn’t gone inky dark, Castiel still would have known there was something not quite right about this woman.

It’s still unsettling, though—the instant shift in power that he feels like a physical thing. She knows things about him; he knows nothing about her. Who knows where that information came from. Who knows what else she knows. Dean, hands behind his back, makes another twitch toward his weapon.

When he listens closer, he realizes Dean is mumbling something too, just under his breath. The demon woman, not Meg, lays a hand to the shell of her ear when she notices too.

“Really? A fucking exorcism?”

Dean starts speaking louder, a litany of words in a language Castiel can’t understand, that roll off his tongue like a prayer, like it’s something he recites to himself on his knees at the side of his bed before he goes to sleep.

The demon woman just rolls her eyes.

“Listen, kid,” she says, “It’s been fun to meet you, honestly, a real hoot n’ a holler. And I’m so glad you brought our boy here for me, saved me the trouble of doing it myself. But I’m really not in the mood to deal with a Winchester right now. Even if you are just the phlegmy scrapings at the bottom of the Winchester barrel. So if you could just—” She clamps her fingers together like a chicken beak, like a teacher might if she wanted her class to shut up, but the reaction in Dean is instantaneous. He falls to his knees, panting in pain, breath coming in short, arms at his sides, mouth hard-wired shut. At the same time, Castiel’s shotgun takes a flying leap from his hand and plunges headlong into the depths of the pool at the far end of the quarry.

And he wasn’t expecting, when Dean handed him a loaded shotgun, how easy it would be for this to go to shit. Just what this entity was capable of. Which was, perhaps, Dean’s very profound oversight.

“Don’t hurt him,” he says, a reflex. “He’s sick.”

Dean grunts out another pained noise from behind a clamped jaw.

“And yet he still manages to be a pain in my neck. Impressive, that.”

“Please.”

“Oh boy,” she says, shaking her head and pulling closer to Castiel. He can still feel the knife, but he recalls Dean saying that demons didn’t die like normal people. If he’d been saying an exorcism, he’d been trying to use the one thing they really had at their disposal—he was trying to send her back to hell. And it didn’t work. “Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I know this ain’t your first rodeo, cowboy, and yet you still don’t seem to get how little I care. You must be one of those extra dense featherbrains.”

She’s close, now. Close enough to invade his personal space, to make him want to scoot back, if it didn’t feel so firmly rooted to the sand. When she’s close enough to reach out and touch him, she leans forward. Meg is short, always has been short, so she has to look up into his eyes, but it doesn’t make her any less threatening. And he’s not sure what she sees in him—if it’s just the fear there, or if she could see the profound uncertainty farther back, inside his head—but whatever it is, it makes her eyes widen in wonderment.

“Holy shit. This is your first rodeo. You did the whole kit ‘n kaboodle. I mean, you fell hard.”

She touches him, and it sends shockwaves of pain racing through his head, shrieking cries from the voices there that lance like lightning through his neurons. But touching him seems to make her realize that he’s soft, human. Her fingers are steely, and his flesh just yields.

“It’s just you in there. In that cute little pubescent meatsuit.” She pinches his cheek. “Hey, I’m genuinely curious. Do you like—look like your parents?”

He flaps his mouth, trying to dispel the lingering agony.

“Hey, answer me, birdbrain.”

To make a point, she waves her hand at Dean and he grunts in pain again.

“I—I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Your parents—who are your parents?”

“I—J-James and Amelia Novak—”

“And you got born and all, right into this lil meat prison?” He shakes his head like that will clear it.

“As—as far as I know?”

“You have a soul, too?” His eyes widen. “Okay, you know what, my bad, party foul. That’s probably a little existential for an idiot human kid.”

She rocks back on her heels, crosses her arms and tilts her head like she’s just been given some especially interesting piece of trivia.

“You hear that?” she calls to the stoic demons lingering behind her. “He’s a human!”

The demons guffaw dutifully. While she has her back turned, he looks over to Dean, who seems to have gotten some relief from whatever power she seemed to have over him with her inattention. He’s using the leeway to cough his brains out, high, hacking, hurting coughs that echo around them.

“A human.” She turns around and looks him up and down like he truly is a piece of meat this time. “This must’ve been quite the experience for you. Playing tourist for—how old are you?”

He holds himself taut while Dean keeps coughing. Out of the corner of his eye, though, he sees Dean doing something fiddly with his backpack, hiding the action with full wracking body coughs. And Castiel is immediately filled with dread, because he doesn’t know much about demons, about hunting, about all this, but he’s heard and seen enough to know that any half-assed efforts aren’t going to work. They’re just going to piss her off more.

“Seventeen.”

“Seventeen years, plus nine months give or take. But I can’t imagine those were very scenic.” She claps her hands. “I gotta tell you, you haven’t exactly seen the best of humanity.” She takes a couple big steps until she’s in front of Dean instead. When she’s close enough, she grabs him by the hair, jerking him painfully until he’s looking her in the eye. His eyes roll back into his head and he gasps the sort of gasp that usually prefaces a bad episode. His cannula tubing hangs listlessly off one of his ears, useless. Castiel’s heart hammers in his chest. “This here’s the dregs, ain’t that right, Deano?” She clicks her mouth, tutting. “I know they say that your good buddy, the, uh, big man.” She points skyward with the hand that’s not holding Dean’s head in place. “I know they say He doesn’t make mistakes but—”

Dean stops gasping, suddenly, like he never had been in the first place, and Castiel only has a split second to see the water bottle in his hand before he’s squeezing it straight up into her face, a fountain of water that splashes back on him to no effect. The effect on Meg, however, is profound. She drops him to the ground like a sack of flour and screams in a haunting, two-toned voice—half is the Meg he knows, but the other is something inhuman and deep and angry. Perhaps more terrifying is the way her face is smoking underneath her spasmodically clutching fingers.

Holy water, you little shit, I’ll tear your fucking lungs out—”

Castiel gasps, “Dean, are you okay—” But Dean is smiling, panting a laugh. He’s just reaching back into his bag, no doubt seeking another weapon, but he clearly underestimated how quickly she would recover—along with underestimating how much less patience she would have after he really made her angry. Which is pretty fucking typical, as far as his relationship with Dean goes.

When she pulls her hands off her face, her eyes are black again.

“You just got all kinds of tricks up your sleeve, don’t you, you pathetic little maggot?” She shakes her head, holy water flinging in every direction like a dog after a bath. The rest of the water evaporates, until the only thing that would indicate it was ever there is her slightly disheveled appearance—a little bit more ruffling in her hair. “Did ole Papa Winchester teach you that? Because he’s always been real good at pissing me off too.”

Her gesture is less flippant this time. Less a schoolmarm and more force choke, like in the Star Wars movies Dean showed him, ages ago. And true to form, Dean chokes. If Castiel hadn’t seen so much shit in the last twenty-four hours, he would think he was fucking dreaming when he lifted straight off the ground, his toes skimming frantic patterns into the sand. Cas is fairly certain the gasping is real this time.

“Too bad Daddy isn’t here now. Because god knows, you ain’t worth much on your own, are you kid?” And then, screwing her face up in rage or effort or something else, she pulls her hand back in the air and thrusts it forward. Dean might’ve taken the same arc Castiel’s shotgun did earlier if he weighed as much as a shotgun himself, but as it is, he doesn’t quite get the lift, instead he skitters headlong across the sand, making several hard impacts and leaving a desolate series of divots in the sand behind him. He comes to rest face down in the shallows.

From this angle, Castiel can only see his back, twisted at an unnatural angle. The arm on the ground trails out behind him—he doesn’t know if Dean’s face is in water, doesn’t know if he’s drowning now in less than a foot of water. He taught Dean how to swim here. This isn’t how it should be.

He screams, “Dean!” and makes to follow him, one hand down to catch himself in the skittering pattern Dean made in the sand when he falls in his rush to get to his side, but a force pulls at him, drawing his hands behind him, drawing him back through the sand so his feet make twin trails through the shallows Dean left before. He can feel the crushing force of her hold in his ribs, his lungs, his stomach. He panics when he goes to take a deep breath and finds that he can’t, like a boa constrictor is squeezing the air out of his lungs.

“Well, kid, all my efforts at being genial don’t seem to be getting through to you, so I’m gonna give you the Cliff’s Notes version.” Castiel gasps in just enough air that the lightheadedness fades a little bit, and the white creeping in on the edges of his vision recedes. He uses that clarity to turn his head, to look at where Dean still rests unmoving in the shallows. He’s not looking long before the force grabs hold even tighter, squeezing at his middle and whipping his head back around until he’s eye to eye with that new-old gaze.

“Eyes on me, kid. This is important.”

He starts struggling like it will do anything, kicking his legs where they hang uselessly in the air, pushing his arms out against some invisible nothing. He pushes and pushes and pushes the pull and doesn’t expect to feel any give at all, but with one particular hearty grunt, he feeling something—move. And he can see the movement in Meg’s eyes, too. There’s a twitch there, just at the corner of her eyelid. Strangely enough, that was one of Meg’s tells too, and he remembers. The twitch in the corner of her eyes that said she was annoyed or frustrated or angry. But the eyes behind it now are dead, cool and glassy.

“At first I thought you had done something super special awesome to hide it so we couldn’t get to it, so I figured I needed you specifically after we finally managed to take out your attack dog. But now I see you’re just—what? A normal fucking nobody whose grace fell and leaked a puddle of holy water in a fit of pure fucking dumb luck.”

Castiel gasps in another full breath to ask, “Grace?”

She slaps her palm against her face and drags down all her features until he can see the whites of her eyes, the base of her nose, the the pink of her gums.

“Okay, I’m about to blow your mind. You ready?” She looks at Castiel expectantly, but he can’t find the air to acknowledge her with any more than the fish-out-of water gasp he lets out.

“You’re not a human. I mean, you are. But not really. I gather your parents are old holy condoms whose brains just got more scrambled with repeated use, and you, my friend, are a consolation prize for their years of faithful service.” She pauses for effect. He can’t even tilt his head.

“You’re an angel, kid. And this here? This pretty little oasis? This is you.” She shouts “youso it resonates dramatically up the quarry walls. “You, my boy, got your ass thrown outta heaven, or you jumped—either way, the magical lil piece of you called your grace split off somewhere up in the troposphere. You went and got born somewhere while it made sweet love with mother nature.”

It’s not the dramatic reveal she wanted, clearly, because he can’t move much more than his eyes, so she seems to remember that she should unclench her hand if she truly wants him to appreciate her overblown theatrics. He falls unceremoniously to the sand beneath him, clenching his fists to let the grains run rough through his fingertips and gasping openmouthed at the earth.

The front of his mind is screaming, that doesn’t make sense, you’re Castiel, you’re a seventeen-year-old boy from a small town, your father is James, your mother is Amelia. Your best friend is Dean. You’re going to go to space.

But the back of his mind, the deeper part that has been fighting with a chorus of screaming voices through all hours of the day for weeks now, pounds with the deep tha-thumping resonance of the world around him. Suddenly there’s a music to the earth here that he’s a part of, a drumbeat in his skull that keeps time for the harmonious melody that is the green of the trees around him, the soft hourglass tinkle of the sand, the swelling glow of blue water that crescendos in lapping waves at the base of his skull. The words bring out an awareness in him that spreads out from every point where he’s connected to the earth in concentric circles, until it’s echoing up the quarry walls and beyond.

“Now, I don’t particularly care about all that, because I could, frankly, give two shits whether you live or die. Especially now that I know you ain’t special, and you’ve got no special key to the grace downstairs. But you’re what I got right now, and here’s what I need—I need you to bring that back to me up here, because that shit is like an atom bomb at the bottom of a swimming pool, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll fetch it and bring it back.”

“Get it yourself,” he spits.

“Oh, trust me, babycakes. I’ve tried. First, there was your little guardian angel—” An image flashes into his mind of a red-haired woman with fair features and feather-light skin. He sees the face he knew, he knows he knew, at various points in his life. But he sees something else, too—a second face, that’s so complex and nuanced and wise, he’s certain he doesn’t have words to describe it simply because those words don’t exist in his language. “And when we got rid of her, we thought it’d be an easy jaunt from there. But here’s the fucking kicker—whatever mojo you got in there? It went and made this water impassable to demons. Ain’t that a drag?”

He thinks back when she called it holy water. A whole pit full of holy water. The water bottle Dean wielded like a pistol earlier was just a drop to the ocean behind him. A whole consecrated holy sea.

And he can feel how deep it is—how deep it fell?—now. How deep, maybe, it pushed into the quarry when it—he?—fell from the atmosphere.

From heaven.

It doesn’t make sense, but at the same time, it makes more sense than anything he’s ever heard. It evens everything out in his head, makes it clear like the surface of the swimming hole, makes it glassy as if he can see his feet through it.

He chances a glance at Dean over his shoulder to see that he doesn’t seem to have moved, still sprawled awkwardly, but now the water is lapping around him, patting like so many reassuring hands, butting up against his body like the gentlest caress of a wave against a shore.

“He’s still alive. You can feel him, huh?”

He glares at her.

“I’m just saying—you want him to go on being alive, and, y’know, you want your poor loopy mom not to end up like your poor loopy dad—maybe you do as I say and you bring that little piece of blue heaven back to me. And hey, I might even leave you to live out the rest of your life sentence in peace. Because honestly, living in one of those stink suits for however long you got seems like punishment enough.”

His nostrils flare. He tests something out.

In light of his connection to this piece of earth, he realizes pretty quickly that maybe he’s been—manipulating things about it. For as long as he’s been coming here. He thinks maybe he’s felt the ebb and flow in him in more obvious ways. But he’s never tried anything deliberate. But now, thinking about manipulating this place, feeling the way that the waves burble around his friend in the shallows, feeling, even, the place where the shotgun from earlier is still parting the waters and drifting down through eternity—moving the water or the sand or the trees feels less like a physical impossibility and more like the tingling, painful process of relearning how to use a limb that’s so profoundly asleep, it no longer feels like a part of you.

So. Looking down at the ground in front of him, he nudges Dean with delicate, white-capped fingers. When he chances a glance behind him, he can see that he’s managed to shove Dean onto his back, face skyward. He can see the sucking, uneven quality to his breathing. Can sense the rapid flutter of his heartbeat. And it sets his stomach churning with fear.

So then, when Meg crouches in front of him on her haunches, that smarmy little smirk ticking up one corner of her mouth, curling Meg’s pretty young face into something unrecognizable, and says, “What do you say?”

It’s the easiest thing in the world to throw his whole body into a punch. But not one from his own body, no, he throws all his weight into a stream like a water funnel in a hurricane that rises out of the swimming hole and gains strength as he gains confidence. The bright glow he’s become familiar with in the dark of the night manages to cut through the fading daylight and throw their shadows into flickering, elongated distortions of what they were.

Castiel always was a fast learner.

It’s an exaggerated version of what Dean did with the holy water. A firehose of holy water to Dean’s eyedropper. But it has much the same effect.

She screams that two-toned scream, and her face sparks and smokes and burns, and when he pushes harder, he can feel it filling the niches of her throat and her stomach, burning her esophagus and tearing at her stomach. He wonders if he’s hurting his classmate, but at the same time, he doesn't know that he could stop himself if he was.

The two goons step forward, one of them pulling a slim, gleaming metal sword from the secret depths of his sleeve, and all this is only getting easier. He reaches for more power somewhere inside himself and finds it, and he tries to imagine the way that power would feel outside him instead, as it burns its way through the water around him, blue arcs of lightning that thread through streams of water. What would it be like, for it to be just as easy to destroy a human, a mountain, a planet—as it is to flick his pinky?

And then, he realizes, his body remembers, even if his fucked up head does not.

He saturates the three of them in a full-body wave that drowns out the screams for a moment, until they arrive on the other side of it still saturated, still writhing in pain, still sizzling with hurt. He thinks that maybe this should bother him more. But Dean is untouched on the beach, the water curling up and around him like he’s the staff that parted the Red Sea, and that’s the most important thing. He rests on the dry sand now, all the water having pulled away from his body and left him looking especially vulnerable, and Castiel feels the sudden impetus to end it. Knows he knows how.

The demons jump ship before he has a chance to do anything else, though. At least, he assumes that’s what it means when black clouds of smoke billow and scream out of their human mouths and flood the sky. He thinks he might see a face in that smoke, catches terrifying glimpses of distorted features cut against the dark sky in the same way he catches fragments of words in the guttural language of his mind. But by the time he can reconcile anything, he realizes that he’s won, and he’s saturated, and now there are three bodies on the beach that he’s not entirely certain are alive.

He doesn’t care.

He turns tail, goes to Dean.

Castiel’s hands are shaking when he reaches him, and they smooth over the water on his face, the clammy skin, breathing blue glowing life into the droplets in his hair, on his eyelids, his forehead. He puts a hand against Dean’s sternum and feels the swampiness of his chest beneath his palm, an already mistreated set of lungs struggling hard against further abuses. He can feel the fever, too, that’s probably been burning low under Dean’s skin since they left the hospital.

He doesn’t need to feel Dean’s breathing though, because he can see it. He can hear it. A visible and dramatic rise and fall, a gasping suck like a broken vacuum cleaner. Even worse than he sounded after the lung bleed, now he just sounds full. Congested all the way through like there’s no room in his lungs for air through all the other shit.

He knows he’s probably inhaled water, while he was facedown in the mud. He wonders why that’s not a good thing, if it’s so holy, and then he thinks maybe it is a good thing. He thinks maybe that’s the only thing that’s still keeping Dean alive at all.

“You idiot,” he says. He takes hold of Dean’s face between two hands and shakes. “You fucking idiot. You have to be a hero. You just have to—”

It doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help, either, when he leans down and kisses him, a chaste peck on pale, cold, blue lips, like that will breathe life back into him, like Prince Charming, like the most delicate CPR. He’s an angel, isn’t he? Shouldn’t that do something? What good is this to anyone if it can’t even do that much?

Dean’s little Jansport backpack came off him somewhere in the shuffle, and when he looks back behind him, he spots it. He lets go of Dean long enough to do a quick all-fours scramble for it, sand caked on his palms and his calves from knee to ankle. This is the human solution, the one that worked for him when Dean almost died on the playground, the very first time Castiel saved his life.

He crawls back to Dean, unzips the bag, and upends it onto the beach, expecting, maybe, to find a nebulizer, an inhaler, something, that will clear out his lungs and even his breathing, but as he shuffles through he just sees—

Weapons, the ones he saw him load in there hours earlier. Snacks. An empty water bottle. A rosary. A cross. Which wouldn’t have made a lot less sense for atheistic Dean before the utter world-upending nonsense of today.

There’s no medicine, here, though there should be, and that’s clearly very intentional on Dean’s part. But as he’s shuffling through piles of pistols and matchbooks and candy wrappers, he sees, at the bottom of the pile, a green Game Boy Color.

He pauses.

He hasn’t seen it in years—didn’t know Dean had been playing it for years—but when he flips the switch, The Legend of Zelda flickers to life in smatterings of scattered pixels, clear as the first day he ever saw it.

He’s still looking at that title screen when Bobby finds them both. Still holding that little machine when Bobby looks at the three bodies he’s somehow dropped and stops to check a pulse.

“Are they still alive?” he asks across a silence filled only by the heroic tinkling of the Zelda theme. His voice is broken.

Bobby looks at him like John Winchester looked at him, years ago—a flat, steely face that shuts off the warmth behind his eyes, takes all the dimension from him, tightens up all the loose bolts in him. He nods briskly.

“Yeah.”

He sees Bobby’s hand on his gun—realizes that Bobby is scared of him. Which hurts like a slap to his face, like a knife to his chest, like a cannonball to his stomach. Bobby, the most constant parent figure he’s ever known. Looking at him like he’s prey.

Castiel nods miserably. “Good. That’s—good.”

“You gonna hurt me if I take him now?”

Castiel tilts his head.

“Yes—no, no, I mean, just please, please help him.” Castiel tilts his head. ”Why would I—”

“I don’t know what you're capable of anymore, kid,” he says. Which is fair. Because an hour ago, he didn’t know what he was capable of either. He still doesn’t know the extent of it, beyond this.

“Okay,” he concedes.

“I don’t know what you are.” Castiel inhales sharply. That—that, though. That feels different. Because what he’s capable of isn’t what he is.

“I’m just Castiel,” he says, voice small.

Bobby squints, deciding, once and for all, that Castiel isn’t so much of a loose cannon that he’s going to attack when Bobby reaches down and takes Dean’s floppy body into his arms.

“I reckon maybe you should get back to me when you know what that means, kid.” He turns around. When he’s almost to the stairs upward, he stops for just a moment to say, “Soon as I get to a phone, I’m gonna call in an anonymous tip on these people. I recommend you skedaddle before then.”

He’s grateful for that chance, he thinks. Grateful to, perhaps, not be totally unredeemable. Despite the advice, he kneels in the sand clutching a tinkling Game Boy for far too long. Long enough for him to realize, after he’s turned off the Game Boy and he’s looking into the flat, dark mirror of the screen, that his eyes are glowing blue in the same blank, flat way that demons’ eyes go black. And they probably have been since before he talked to Bobby.

Bobby probably gave him more trust than he even deserved.

He makes it out of the pit, into his car, down the road, and he only just misses the telltale sound of sirens, halfway to the hospital, driving in the opposite direction.

Chapter Text

Here’s the thing about liking Dean: he does. And he tells himself that that’s what it is, that’s all it is, for years and years and years and years.

He tells himself Dean’s way of asking questions isn’t all that endearing, his smile isn’t all that captivating. His eyes aren’t all that soft, his interests aren’t all that interesting. His stubbornness is infuriating. And he isn’t all that smart, is he? Not all that funny or sweet or kind.

And he tells himself that because—because being left is hard enough when he doesn’t know about it beforehand, and he can’t, in good conscience, allow himself to be hurt like that if there’s something he can do to stop it. Because he’s not stupid.

So. He does his best to—like Dean. Just as much as he’s supposed to. But Dean has a way of pushing back—mentally, physically, to the point of self-detriment. Here’s the thing about Dean: he tries too hard. Loves too hard. Lives hard enough for three lifetimes when all he’s got in him is a quarter of one.

And here’s the thing about loving Dean: he does. He doesn’t want to. In all his life, it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done.

And he’s pretty sure he’s been alive for a long, long time.


Dean’s dying.

He always thought there’d be more to it than that, but there isn’t. That’s just the way it is.

Dean’s dying.

They won’t let Castiel into the room, but he knows regardless. He knows standing outside the hospital. He knows from halfway down the road. He knows the way Anna told him he would—in an all-over sort of pain. A full-body numbness. A constant aching agony at the back of his head. A sympathetic heaviness in his chest. A sureness that comes pulsing back with every beat of his heart.

He’s dying. He’s dying. He’s dying.

He waits outside the hospital. He can almost—feel the rumbling approach of a big black car vibrating up through his feet. So he knows when it leaves the hospital, too. He can barely explain it, this rootedness he feels to the earth and all the things around him now, the way his consciousness seems to spread in concentric circles from the swimming hole. How he feels like he’s—in more than one place now. He’s here. He’s at the swimming hole. He’s on the blood-soaked patch of earth where his dad bled out. He’s beneath the ground where the burnt-out pattern of feathers, of angel’s wings, extends to the clay of the soil, an echo of a scream to the Earth’s very core.

And then, before he knows what he’s even done, he’s at Dean’s room. Even though he didn’t know where it was, and he never stopped to ask, and he’s certain he’s not allowed. And some part of him that’s still just inside his body, the part of him that still lives inside his brain, sort of thought that maybe this wouldn’t be the case, and he wouldn’t get here and see what he already knew:

Dean’s dying.

He remembers his grandmother in hospice, in another lifetime. Just like with her, there are monitors on him, and an IV, but there’s none of the pretense that they’re trying to do anything other that make him comfortable. His bed is tilted all the way up, so he’s sitting nearly vertical, which has always helped him breathe before when he was having troubles, but it’s clearly not helping now.

Each and every one of Dean’s hard-won breaths sounds like pure suffering. It’s instinct, at this point, pure and simple, his body’s last ditch efforts to keep from suffocating. He’s profoundly unconscious, and each sucking drag of breath sounds so useless, brings in so little air, that his poor tired body tries to pull in another sharp, gasping suck of it almost immediately. Breath after breath after breath, solid in his chest, visible effort in the sharp rise and fall of it, and working that hard just to breathe? He’s going to get very tired, very very quickly.

He can’t bring himself to step further into the room, especially not when he feels what must be Bobby’s feet treading heavily down the hallway. There’s a resigned weight to them, and he wants to be here just as little as Castiel does. So Castiel lays two fingers against his lips, casts the sentiment roughly into the room, and then, he leaves.

It’s hard to leave him. But if there’s one thing that can be said for Dean, for Dean’s short life, for Dean’s dying in a hospital bed at the tender age of seventeen, it’s that he always—did. He always acted. Even if it was just to act out like an idiot.

The path of least resistance is probably to sit by his hospital bed and cry until someone from Dean’s family kicked him out or Dean, inevitably, just stopped breathing—whichever came first. But Dean—Dean would want him to try every goddamn thing at his disposal, and there’s one—massive thing. One massive, terrifying thing that he knows he can do now. And it would be disingenuous not to do all he could.


It’s cold, still, at the swimming hole. Like it was yesterday, when he arrived to the same place, the same parking spot, with Dean driving. Only today, the chill isn’t so—profound. Doesn’t feel unnatural. It’s just the regular old incoming change of the season, the encroaching fall and all that comes with it. His—senior year of high school, he thinks, like he’s thinking in a foreign language, is supposed to be starting in less than a week. He thinks his mother might be waiting for him at home. He wrinkles his nose. Can hardly recognize all the disparate elements in his head. It’s not that he doesn’t know these parts of himself or recognize them as a part of himself, but sometimes he’ll blink his eyes, and it will feel just as long as these last seventeen years and—

His head’s all fucked up.

He unbuckles his seatbelt, wants to laugh at the notion of a seatbelt while Dean’s legal guardian probably signs his DNR at the hospital.

He tries not to think of Bobby’s face. Grim, tired, accepting. He wonders if he’ll cry.

Dean’s green Game Boy burns a hole in his pocket. He kept it, coming out, but he left everything else, which feels criminally irresponsible. Bobby just left a heap of weird mystical weapons on the beach, but then, it’s no secret that Bobby had other things on his mind the last time he was here.

Castiel descends the stairs with a straight back, surveys the curling, potent green of the swimming hole in burgeoning winter. In the dark of the overcast sky, he can see the brightness of the glow beneath the surf ramp up in intensity, degree by degree, the further he descends. That’s the—grace, he thinks, testing the word out in his head. It sounds wrong, but it comes along with another word in his head that makes the chittering voices absolutely sing.

He loses time. Whites out between stairs, between steps on the sand across the beach. Comes to with his hands trailing the steep canyon walls, with sand seeping into his shoes in the middle of the beach, with two booted feed in the water. He’s not sure if the little whites in his consciousness are him feeling everything or him feeling nothing. Because there’s an aching pit inside him that’s opened up, but at the same time, it’s filling up so fast he can’t stop it, with something he can’t control.

Standing in the shallows, fully clothed, he takes a deep breath through his nose and asks, “Okay. Now what?”

He doesn’t expect an answer. Not from anything human, anyway. He suspects that there’s something supernatural in the back of his head that’s struggling to give him an answer in a language he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t expect that he’ll be able to understand.

Most of all, he doesn’t expect an answer to come from John Winchester, who has somehow managed to drive his muscle car to the edge of his canyon without him noticing, despite however aware he’s felt of the world around him.

“Now we do what I shoulda done the first time I saw you standing in a glowing pool of water.”

He—blinks. Turns from where he was facing the far edge of the swimming hole, where the water runs up against the steep cliff. Maybe the reason he didn’t see John coming is because he didn’t expect to see him come like this, with Sam by his side. Maybe it was because he just didn’t want to. Maybe he has a mile-wide blind spot for Winchester DNA.

Castiel hasn’t seen Sam in at least a year, and he’s barely recognizable. Castiel’s heart softens to see him grown so strong and healthy. He’s taller and broader than Dean, four years his elder, has ever been. He can feel the anxiety in him in the way his boots tremble in the sand. He’s posed like his father, but with his hand on some kind of holy book instead of a gun.

“Hello, Sam,” Castiel says warmly. “You’ve been to see him.”

He can tell it’s true from the way Sam’s face breaks. Sam’s eyes have always been expressive, and he can see in them exactly what Castiel felt and couldn’t speak aloud while he was looking in at his closest friend slowly suffocating to death on his own lungs.

Before Sam can agree, though, John puts a steadying hand on his shoulder, pulling him back with a firm grip.

“Don’t tell this monster shit, Sammy.”

Sam bites his lip.

He says, “Dad. I don’t—”

His hair is shaggy and ridiculous. Dean would make fun of him for it. He wonders if it’s only grown out in the summer since he left Dean here alone. He wants Dean to be able to see it. Run his hand through it and groan. He’ll hate it.

“Jesus Christ, Sam, have you really missed step number fuckin’ one? Try it out. Test ‘im. If I wasn’t here, would you just stand around engagin’ the monster in scintillating conversation?”

Sam shouts a half-hearted, “Christo.” across the space between them. He’d seen Dean do it before, and he gathers it’s supposed to elicit a response in demons. Castiel tilts his head and doesn’t flinch.

“See, Dad? I told you—I told you it wasn’t anything—Cas is a little weird but—”

“So he’s not a demon. So what. You heard what Bobby said. Found him with glowing eyes, standing over four bodies—one of which, need I remind you, was your brother.” Sam looks down at the ground. “Bobby let ‘im go because he’s a soft old fool, but you and me aren’t gonna.”

Castiel blinks in disbelief. The pool around him pulsates blue like an SOS, and John and Sam back even farther away from him, from where the water sweeps inward and outward agitated intensity.

“Now, hold on. I know what that looked like, but I—”

Castiel takes an abrupt step forward, the sand under his feet sucking at his shoes, and John Winchester responds by cocking the pistol in his hand and firing a warning shot into the water to his left. He watches the resulting sharp kick of water as if in a dream, and he finds himself amazed because it—hurts. Castiel knows he’s not imagining the sting of it. Like a BB pellet is ripping a hole in his soul. He gasps.

“Don’t you come any closer. This probably won’t kill you, but it’ll sure be a helluva bite.”

Castiel stops. He narrows his eyes. He waits for John to lower the gun, but when he doesn’t, Casiel speaks, slow and careful.

“He’s dying,” he says. “I’m upset too, but it’s not my fault.”

Sam looks absolutely crushed. He’s never been able to hide anything on that baby face of his, and despite however he looks now, there’s still a lot of the little boy Castiel knew left in him. John’s face, however, hardens until his features are so smooth, the emotion just falls right off of them. It’s clearly an art he’s practiced in; he doesn’t look like he’s just been told his eldest son is dying so much as he looks outraged to be spoken to out of turn.

“You shut your goddamn mouth.”

“I’m trying to help him!” He realizes that sounds like a stretch, given that he’s standing knee-deep in a glowing pool of water and generally not making himself useful. “I think I might be able to.”

“Yeah? Every time I seen you ‘help’ my boy, he ends up almost dead.”

Castiel doesn’t have a good answer for that.

“I know what it looks like, but I don’t want Dean to die.”

John ignores him.

“Alright, son,” John says. He’s speaking to Sam now, but he never takes his eyes off of Castiel. “I got a lesson for you, and the lesson is called, ‘sometimes you gotta empty a clip into a monster, even if that monster looks like someone you like.’” He uncocks the pistol in his hand and tries to pass it to Sam. Sam—doesn’t move to take it. Not even a tremor of a twitch.

“Dad, I don’t—”

“We talked about this bleeding heart shit when we first started this. He’s a monster. You’re a hunter. You wanna protect people like your brother? You shoot first and ask questions later. This shit ain’t fuckin’ rocket science.”

“He’s—my friend.”

John turns to Sam finally, waving the pistol butt-first in his face.

“He either looks like your friend or he killed your friend or he possessed your friend or your friend has always been a monster. Any which way you look at it, he’s still gotta go.”

“Dad, please, just—just listen—” he looks like he’s on the edge of tears, shaking his head violently back and forth.

“Jesus, Sam, this sort of sentimental nonsense is the reason your brother ended up dead, and I’ll be damned if I let my other son end up—”

Sam interrupts him to shout, “He’s not dead yet! He’s not—don’t say that, he’s not—Cas is trying to tell us something, and maybe instead of, instead of shooting first and asking questions later, we’d be better off seeing if he can help us with Dean. You want—you want another revenge plot like with M-Mom—”

“That’s enough, Sam.”

Sam’s crying now, big wet tears that fill his cheeks like they did as a baby. Castiel can’t just stand by watching anymore, because Sam is hurt, and it’s a hurt he knows. A hurt that’s living inside of him right now. He takes a few quick steps toward the shore, the blue glow shimmering around his feet.

“—’Cause it’s easy, ‘cause it’s easier than thinking about Dean dying in a hospital bed, or being with him while he’s sick, but you can’t avenge someone who isn’t even—”

There’s a sharp crack.

Castiel doesn’t recognize what it is for a moment—he thinks maybe Sam has gotten through to John, and the quiet from John means that he’s conceded the point. Until he sees the utter ruin on Sam’s face, sees Sam’s eyes fixed on Castiel’s chest, sees the smoking barrel of John Winchester’s gun pointed straight in his direction.

Cas looks down and is surprised to see a red stain spreading from a hole in his t-shirt. He staggers back, stricken, puts a hand over what he distantly recognizes as his heart at the first hard gush of blood.

“I—” he says. “I—”

Then the pain hits him, and he staggers back, like he’s only just felt the force of the blow.

“Cas!” Sam shouts, his voice wavering.

John, for all that it’s worth now, looks at him like he’s completely and utterly surprised, like Castiel bleeding red and dying when John shot him point-blank in the chest is the absolute last thing he could have imagined happening.

And if Castiel is honest, there’s a dissonance in this, in dying, when he really stops to think about it. And not just because someone just told him that he was some immortal angel, but because there was some part of him that was convinced, despite whatever his father said, that he was going to live forever.

He’s not afraid though. Not really. Not like he was. Dean’s done an excellent job of teaching him that there are worse things than this. Worse things than dying, young and nameless and—mortal. If nothing else, he likes to think that Dean would be proud he tried.

He falls into the welcoming embrace of the swimming hole and sees no more.


He doesn’t expect to wake up, but he does. He opens his eyes, blinks, and it takes him a moment of disoriented panic to realize where he is, and why it is he’s completely weightless.

He’s underwater. He’s falling. He wouldn’t know which way was up if it weren’t for knowing which way he was falling, because it’s just water all around him, the subtle, diffuse glow of it blanketing him like a warm embrace. His hand is stretched out in front of him, trailing, like he’s reaching out for something he can’t remember. His t-shirt billows with resistance. Even his shoelaces trail up after him as he descends.

He can’t see the sky anymore. He doesn’t see any bubbles, so he’s sure he isn’t breathing, but he is leaving a thick, distinctive trail of red from the injury in his chest. And looking up at it, seeing the way it swirls endlessly into the skyless abyss above him, he can just about figure that he’s lost every bit of blood in his body by now, even though he has no idea how long he’s been falling.

His heart isn’t beating, either, which is a strange thing to notice, but he does nonetheless. You never think about your heartbeat until it’s gone missing, he supposes, though most people don’t have the opportunity to be alive to know.

He’s falling. He’s falling. He falls. And that’s all there is.

He wonders if this is the afterlife. If this is heaven. If this is hell or purgatory or wherever it is that seventeen-year-old boys go when they’ve done their best but haven’t exactly managed it.

The water buffets around him, comforting in playful nudges and waves. Castiel thinks, maybe, as the horizon of the world around him fades, as his bubble of vision changes and the world beyond that goes indistinguishable, that maybe this is space, or maybe this is what space is like, or maybe this is some subtle brand of the universe’s twisted wish fulfillment before he heads into nothing.

Because this could be that—there are particulates all around him, swirling in eddies like galaxies. There are distant particulates like stars. The whole thing is lit cleanly and evenly in blue. Cold, but getting warming the closer he moves to whatever it is that’s giving this whole place light.

He thinks about everything, because he has nothing better to do.

About his parents. About who his parents are or may be or what that demon was lying about, if she was lying, how much she was. About his parents maybe being vessels for something greater than themselves when they left him behind, about the life-ruining ramifications of that. About whatever brand of crazy they might’ve been. About who they are to him, now that he knows what he is.

He thinks about Sam Winchester. How he’ll go on without Dean. How Bobby will go on without Dean. He has no doubt John Winchester will get along fine, because there’s something broken about him, and Castiel gets the feeling he’s maybe been treating Dean like he was already dead for a long time now.

Maybe he’s not so different from Castiel, then. He’s done much the same. But maybe that’s not fair, because Dean liked to live like he was already dead, too.

He thinks about Dean. He thinks about him, thinks about him. Tries not to think about him dead, struggling to breathe. He thinks about him living and sun-drenched and beautiful.

If it’s strange feeling your heart stop beating, it might be even stranger feeling the first fluttering beat of your heart in your chest after it’s been stopped for a long time. But he’s not imagining it, nor is he imagining the dawning warmth like a rising star. He’s been falling for such a long time, it’s difficult to parse what it is he’s feeling when his back hits something solid. He’s still not breathing, but he doesn’t seem to need to, somehow, miraculously. He notices that the red trail stopped about the time his heart started beating again. When he drags his hand slowly through the water to feel for the hole in his chest, it’s gone.

He makes his first attempt to move since he landed. It’s easy enough—swimming, he can do. Swimming, he is good at. He taught Dean how to swim.

The water parts around his hands like silk, bundles him in a comfortable, bubbling warmth. When he turns over, his overlong hair floating into his vision, he can see that he has landed against red rock, tiered and segmented and multi-toned like the swimming hole. And he remembers—maybe realizes for the first time—exactly where he is.

It’s the bottom. The bottom that everyone talked about, in school. The bottom so deep that no one could find. He turns again, and he sees—

Blue.

He’d be remiss to call it a light, because that’s what it shows up as above the water. Here it’s—one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen. It’s a mass that’s not solid and not light. Sitting at the bottom of the pool, but not touching the ground. The ground around it looks broken, shattered, crystallized, like something made impact there a long, long time ago.

Seventeen years, maybe. Give or take.

He swims toward it, and the light of it fills him. If being here, floating on the surface of the water, made him feel quiet and calm and at peace, then being here in the presence of this, he’s warm. Content. And—certain. Of himself, who he is, what he’s doing, what he wants.

He reaches for the mass of it, the closer he gets, and the caress of it feels like feathers, even under the water, on his outstretched hand. When he gets so close he feels he can almost touch it, he seems to hit the edge of a bubble, and suddenly, his outstretched hand is in middle of warm, dry air. He swims forward, and despite being underwater for who knows how long, he isn’t wet when he steps into its aura, and he doesn’t fall into it so much as he gently floats into its powerful embrace. He takes his first breath in that strange underwater air, and it doesn’t feel painful. It doesn’t feel as if he hasn’t been breathing, and the air around him is cool and soothing in his lungs.

There’s no sound inside the bubble except for the cascade of water around him, an endless waterfall. All there is is him and energy. And between them, there is only one entity here.

He knows, instinctively, that this is him. The demon in Meg’s body called it grace, and he likes that. He likes the quiet, powerful implications of a word like that. But Meg also called it an atom bomb, and to refer to this part of him that way means taking all the parts of Castiel out of the equation. Because it’s a part of him, and if it was ever an atom bomb, it was because he dropped it in the first place.

He reaches for it, decisive, and gets flashes of a former life. A big life. A long life, despite however separate it was from his conception of time now. His head can barely wrap around all of it; his eyes can barely see the things he saw then with any comprehension. And he knows, instinctively, that if he were to take this piece of himself back into his body—

He would be—he would be—

Flashes. Of Earth. Of creation, maybe. Creatures and people from different times and different places. Dinosaurs and Chinese dynasties and world wars. Flight. Space, nebulas, the creation and destruction of planets in front of his eyes. A million things he’s only studied, rapt, in history and science textbooks. And yet, perhaps the hardest thing to reconcile of his current life and his old one, in any of this, is how—aloof he was. How careless. How if he was an atom bomb, he didn’t care where it went off.

Another flash. There’s Dean, and here, the feelings become more familiar. More human. The skew of the lens more clear. Here’s a Dean he could have known, but never did—a Dean he would know, but never would. A Dean he saw from the moment he was conceived, a righteous, beautiful man with a hollow destiny, that would follow down a short and miserable path. Who would be sick and hurt and die alone, just a tool in the creation of the younger sibling. A stronger and more versatile Sam. He’s the Dean that Castiel saw before either of them was born, and he’s also the utterly unfamiliar Dean that never ever came to be, because—

He remembers falling. But that’s where the consciousness splits, because his grace remembers something separate from him. Castiel was born in a delivery room, young and weak and squalling, but his grace birthed all of this—a puncture in the Earth filled a precious font that sprang to life and lit the world when he let loose his very first cry.

He draws his hand back.

He’s Castiel.

If he were to take this piece of himself back into his body, he would be lost.

He would be immortal and powerful and free, a million things he’s craved since he can remember being human. But maybe those were just echoes of desires, cravings left over from when he was an entity who didn’t know how to do much more than observe. Take. Consume.

He reaches for the pocket of his jeans, taking the time to remember that he has a body, a soul within it, and he feels the Game Boy there. Green and perfect. It shouldn’t work after its long excursion underwater, but it does. Tinkling hero’s music filling the resonant little bubble of water and sound dramatically. He remembers how good Dean felt here. Above him, somewhere, splashing in the shallows. He knows he can’t just leave this here, a weapon waiting for the right hands to fall into, but he also knows that it doesn’t belong in him anymore, and it was him, but it’s not anymore. He’s just this. A little human who will live and love and die.

He knows from flashes what it is Dean was meant to do and be. But Castiel fell. Clearly, despite the fact that he only knows himself from scattered cuts of a million-year life, he gets the sense that he never was all that good at doing what he was supposed to.

He unfastens the lid to the battery pack and dumps the batteries right there on the shattered floor of the swimming hole.

He holds his human hand out to another piece of himself and says, “C’mon, then.”


He’s a seventeen-year-old boy with a glowing pocket, driving a heap of a car, and visiting hours have been over for a long time, but no one stops him when he walks, stiff-backed into the hospital. Maybe the grace shields him. Maybe it makes him look less like he’s about to collapse, buoys him upward.

After all, it pulled him up a mile-long drop to land safely on the dark, empty shore. It kept the greenery of the swimming hole lush and alive for years and years, through every season. So much so that he can see the plants there wilting almost as soon as he carries it out to the parking lot, to the waiting Continental. He wonders if the water level will drop and everything will die. He wonders if it will go back to being some useless quarry with a soggy layer of mud at the bottom. It’s a sting, bittersweet, but if this works the way he intends, it will be worth it, tenfold.

Bobby is in Dean’s room when he arrives, stroking Dean’s forehead with a wet rag, which is no great surprise. He’s the one who always has been. And Bobby manages to only look like he’s staring at a ghost for a few seconds before he blinks back into himself, crosses his arms, and says, “Cas.”

His eyes are wet. He’s been crying. Maybe for Castiel, because this is the face of a man who thinks that a bullet landed in his heart and a current swept him down to some unfathomable depths.

More probably, he’s crying for Dean, who really looks like a tragedy. Who is dying, soon, if the distance between his breaths is any indication. If the roving of his eyes in his sockets or the slowing of his heart is. Castiel realizes now that he’s seen a lot of people die, and it goes always goes something like this. Dean gasps and gasps and gasps.

It feels cruel.

“Bobby,” he says. “Is—John.”

“Don’t you worry about him none.” Bobby smiles a watery smile. He gets to his feet slow, his limbs crackling wearily. He walks around Dean’s bed, keeps his hand on Dean’s body like it’ll keep him comfortable. It probably will. Dean always did hate being alone.

“But Sam.”

“Hey,” he says, once he’s at Castiel’s said. “You worry about him even less. He’s home. Resting up. He’s a good boy. Dean made sure of that.” Bobby reaches out and pats Castiel’s face, smiles up into his eyes. He can’t ever remember getting taller than Bobby, but he must have, because he’s looking down on him now. On his kind eyes and his baseball cap. It feels earned. A long time in coming. Because the other piece of himself could be the size of the Chrysler building and used that vantage as an excuse to look down on everyone.  

“I—I think I’ve figured it out. I know what it means now.”

“Yeah?”

“Who Castiel is.”

Bobby grins.

“Reckon I know too.” Castiel furrows his brow, and it’s on the tip of his tongue to ask how he could possibly know all that, Bobby manages a smile, just for him. “Reckon you’re just exactly who you need to be.” He turns back for a quick look at Dean, and he’s not smiling anymore. “I’ll give you two a minute alone.”

A minute is enough. More than enough. Because he gets the sense that if he doesn’t do what he needs to do now, he won’t get a chance.

Turns out, a Game Boy works just fine as a grace receptacle, in a pinch. The last thing he wanted was to touch it, to pull that power into himself, even just a little bit. He just had to make it halfway across town with it.

He pulls a glowing green Game Boy out of his pants pocket and sets it next to Dean’s outstretched hand. Then he mimics the motion he saw Bobby make when he first walked in, a calm, soothing hand over his forehead. Cool fingers threading through his hair. If Dean recognizes him, he can’t say it, because every single piece of his consciousness, his attention, seems to be committed to getting the next breath in. A wholly fruitless venture. But he does look at Cas through half-lidded eyes and hold his gaze. Stronger and more resilient than anyone has any right to be. Gracefully accepting death like the selfless prick he’s always been.

“Not today, you idiot.” Castiel smirks. “I’m not gonna let you off that easy.”

He puts the Game Boy on top of Dean’s gasping chest, facedown. He wonders, giddily, if his grace would power the game like a battery pack would, but instead, he opens the battery compartment, upends the thing, and dumps the glowing blue energy straight onto Dean’s chest, just over the top of his struggling lungs. Dean’s face, pale and sweating and underlit by the eerie blue glow, still manages to be beautiful, and Castiel thinks of him, of that, of how long he’s dreamed of a moment where he’s allowed to fix all this, when he holds his hands above the piece of himself and pushes in.

He whispers, “Goodbye,” because it feels right, even though it’s just a piece of himself and a phase of his life, and now it’s a piece of himself that will live on in every healthy breath Dean takes. It’s also the loss of a whole lot of potential. Things he thought he wanted. And he’s allowed to mourn that, maybe, despite however much more this means. He does. It hurts.

He doesn’t dwell.

When he encounters the barrier of Dean’s skin, there’s some resistance, so he pushes harder, hands working his grace, burning a bit, maybe, but healing, too. An endless cycle of pain and healing and pain and healing until eventually, it’s all the way in.

And then Castiel rests his hand on Dean’s chest and guides it.

He wants it to be consumed. He wants the last of its strength, the last of his strength, to permeate the sickness in every one of Dean’s cells, so he guides it. Lovingly. Through every artery and vessel. In every inch of bone, every foot of intestine, every piece of tissue. He moves with it through Dean’s ravaged body until he can see the intricate swell of blood vessels glowing blue like the water under the paper paleness of his skin. Even the miniscule veins in his eyes glow with it.

It’s an atom bomb’s worth of power, but he keeps it in, contained, as it rockets through and repairs everything. Every scar, every scrape. The cut from when he rode on Castiel’s bike. The surgical-straight scars that litter every inch of his chest. He thinks of—every issue. Takes stock of everything he knows about Dean, everything he knows about the human body, every ounce of power he can muster, and he feeds it into creating the body that was always meant to match Dean’s personality.

He’s seen his brothers and sisters die explosions like supernovas, in bursts of white so strong they make men go blind. But watching this part of him die inside his best friend is peaceful. Quiet. A trickle of power for a long enough time, a trail energy from the back end of a childhood Christmas gift. And when the last traces of it finally die out, under the sheets at his toes, at the sides of his bed in his fingertips, at the very crown of his head, it’s not a bang. Not a whimper. A sigh, maybe. Contented.

And then there’s only him and Dean.

For the first time in weeks, his head is well and truly quiet. Just his thoughts and his soul and his own heart, his own breathing.

Dean takes his time opening his eyes, but Castiel can hear the difference in the way air moves through him. Though he can’t feel it anymore, can’t feel the roots of people in the hospital around him. Can’t feel Bobby pacing the waiting room. Can’t feel the movement of the cars outside or the life in the swimming hole miles away.

But he can see this.

Dean looks at him, smiles, and takes a deep, deep, deep breath. So deep he pulls the useless cannula over his head when it gets in his way. His clumsy fingers stroke at the Game Boy still perched on his chest, the black scorches where more power than that of a nuclear generator had been stored inside a child’s toy.

Dean starts to say a hearty, full-lunged, “What the fuck—”

But Castiel, human and fragile and happy, leans down, plants his lips against Dean’s, and takes his breath away again.