Castiel finds Sam Winchester in the kitchen of the house he shares with Dean. He's spread a ratty plastic table cloth over the kitchen table cloth and is busy filling an array of yoghurt pots with earth from a large bag of potting soil. There's a jug filled with water set just far enough away from the edge of the table that it won't easily be knocked over by a chance blow. He's absorbed in his task, hair falling into his eyes, and for a moment Castiel considers not interrupting, lest he startle him too badly.
Sam pauses, yoghurt pot carefully held between the fingers of his broken hand, the cast barely impeding his movements now. The pot once contained a single serving of strawberry-flavoured yoghurt, Castiel notes the label. When Sam looks up, a smile spreads over his face. "Hey, Cas. You here for a visit?"
Sam nods. "Um, Dean's at the shop today. The bookshop. But it's Saturday, so it's busy. Did you see him?"
"I saw him. He said that he would be home in the early evening and that we could —hang out." Even though Castiel is fully cognizant that this is simply modern idiom, he can never quite banish the mental image the expression conjures —of swinging from a branch or a rafter by his hands alongside Dean. He thinks it would be undignified, but possibly also rather amusing, depending on one's perspective.
"Okay, then. I don't go in on Saturdays. It's too busy, and Dean has to work."
"So I gathered."
It's easy to forget, when he's not on earth, the small things that make up his friends' world. Sam repeats himself more now, clings to his routines, to things he knows are safe. If Castiel pushes, just a little bit, he can see Hell swirling just beneath the surface of Sam's thoughts, but he doesn't push, not anymore. Not since the first time, when it was necessary to determine just how extensive the damage was. Just the sight of it had made him feel ill in a way he hadn't experienced since the moment he'd reached out and wrenched Dean away from his place by Alastair's rack. It does no one any good to probe at the injury to Sam's psyche —it will never heal, but it has scabbed over, and that has to be enough.
Sam is staring at the small row of yoghurt pots he's just filled with a small frown. "Hey, Cas, do me a favour?" He holds out a black felt pen labelled 'Sharpie.' "Can you write 'Brandywine tomato' on the masking tape for the jars? I can do a little better now, but it's still hard to write with the cast. Please?"
Castiel takes the pen, pulls up a chair and flicks aside the tails of his trench coat so he can sit, and carefully prints the words as requested, until all thirty pots are properly labelled. "You're planting tomatoes?" He's stating the obvious, but he thinks Sam will want to talk about this, and he's not wrong, because Sam's smile is back, wider than ever.
"Uh, yeah. I, uh. Mrs. O'Keefe has a garden, and I helped a bit last year, and so she saved the seeds and she said I could have some because she's got too many. I've got cucumbers and squash and beans and carrots, too. Lots of vegetables." He looks down at his casted hand, flexes his fingers. "This'll be off by the time the last frost is past, so I can prep the garden. Dean said I could, that it was okay."
"Why wouldn't he?" Castiel looks up from where he's sitting, leaning on his elbows on the table.
Sam shrugs. "I dunno. I just... things aren't the same, sometimes. I have a grow light in the cellar," he adds, seemingly irrelevantly. "And I rigged up a heating pad. It'll help the seedlings to grow until I can plant them in the garden. The neighbours up the street give me the pots when their kids are done with them. It's like recycling, only better."
Castiel doesn't think Sam is expecting him to respond to that, so instead he asks, "Would you like help bringing these down to the cellar?"
"That would be great. I have a tray. I mean, I have a system, but yes. Sometimes holding the tray is, uh, tricky. With the stairs. And if you do that, then I can start on dinner and stuff."
Sam is already lining up the pots on the tray and carefully sweeping spilled dirt back into the bag. He works with the same methodical intensity and attention to detail that Castiel remembers from his hunting days, all his attention absorbed in his task. He follows close on Castiel's heels when he takes the tray of pots into the cellar, both of them ducking so as not to hit their heads on the low ceiling. Castiel thinks even humans of average height would need to bend over down here, and he wonders a little that Sam can stand to come here every day to check on his seedlings. The cellar has a hard-packed dirt floor, is mustier than he expected, but Sam appears to have done a creditable job in cleaning it up and setting up shelving along three of the four walls. There's a work bench set up against the far wall,where Sam has put all of his seedlings on a heating pad, under a grow light, and that's where Cas sets down the tray.
"Why do you have so many empty jars?"
Sam starts a little where he was realigning a few jars that were apparently placed somewhere not to his liking. "Um. Canning. I mean, they're canning jars. For the vegetables, and other things. I've been picking them up at garage sales and stuff. I found instructions on water bath canning on the net, and Mrs. O'Keefe said we could do some pressure canning together and use her pressure canner and she would show me."
It takes only a gentle nudge to Sam's elbow to get him back up the rickety wooden stairs to the kitchen. "You want to preserve your own food?"
Sam doesn't answer for a few minutes, busy methodically pulling out mixing bowls from the cupboards. His concentration is easily broken these days, so Castiel simply removes his trench coat and hangs it on the back of a chair before sitting down. The kitchen is still as tidy as ever —Sam has a system for keeping things clean, and the first time Castiel spent an extended amount of time here he learned that it was best not to get in the way of Sam's routine. When Sam does speak again, Castiel is almost startled.
"It's easier, and healthier. Dean bitches, but... he can't run anymore, and that's how we used to," he makes a vague motion with one hand which Castiel thinks is meant to denote exercise. "And eating out costs a lot of money. I don't do much during the day, except wait," Sam continues, but there's no self-deprecation in the words. "So it works. I do the translation stuff in the morning, after I come back, because I walk with Dean to the store first, but the morning is easier. But I didn't have anything today, I finished the last text the day before yesterday. It's already sent in. So I'm doing this instead."
"And the rest of the day you do this?"
Sam tilts his head in assent. "Yeah. Mostly. It keeps me busy, you know? But it's not just that." He pauses, staring at the mixing bowl on the counter. "I like it," he says softly, as though it's some sort of shameful confession.
Castiel laces his fingers together, and deliberately assumes a more relaxed pose. It gets easier every time he comes, to settle into this kitchen, to drink the coffee that Sam makes, to talk with Sam about his life here, and when Dean comes home, to chat with them both about this world that always seems more real, somehow, than the world Castiel lives in the rest of the time. Every time it's just that much harder to bring himself to leave.
"You like it here."
"Yeah. You know, Dean has friends. It's quiet. Dean deserves that, to have people. I mean, people who care about him, and not just you and Bobby. It's good for him, to have a community. He likes it, he helps out, when he can. He likes helping people," Sam says, lining up neatly-labelled jars of ingredients on the counter in front of him.
"Don't you have friends?"
Sam shrugs. "I'm trying not to get used to it. People... people are hard, you know? I get them all mixed up, and sometimes I can't remember their names. I make a shitty friend."
"It seems to me that a friend wouldn't blame you for your limitations," Castiel remarks mildly, only to be rewarded with another shrug from Sam.
"They're nice, here," he says, which Cas supposes is an answer in and of itself.
"There is nothing wrong with enjoying the life you have, Sam." Castiel wonders if he shouldn't leave well enough alone, but it's too late to take it back.
Sam flinches. "I don't... I don't know. There were so many people, Cas..."
Castiel sighs. "You don't deserve punishment. Whatever sins you may have committed, they have long since been expunged, atoned for."
Sam drums the fingers of his left hand against the counter in a brief staccato. "I wish I could believe that... I can't think about it," he says abruptly, turning to Castiel with a rueful smile, but his eyes have turned haunted, hollow. "It kind of makes me crazy. So I just keep my head down, don't think about it too hard. It works, mostly. Okay?"
"All right." It's easier to concede. "So what are you doing now?"
Sam's smile widens. "Dinner. Dean's gonna be back in a few hours, so I'm going to start a couple of things now. Bread," he clarifies, and Castiel guesses his confusion must have shown on his face. "Since you're here, and if you want to help. I can't knead the dough well on my own, not with the cast, but I can show you how, and then I'll start the pie. Since you're here, we can make an occasion of it."
"It's not necessary."
"I know, but I want to. Dean'll like it, and if you're here, he'll eat his vegetables without bitching too much. I think he's still bitter that he can't survive on cheeseburgers and onion rings anymore."
Sam measures out warm water into a large bowl, scoops yeast out of a small yellow pot, adds it in and stirs, staring intently as it dissolves. Cas watches the fingers of his left hand, long and deft, compensating for the lack of dexterity in his right hand, slowly mixing together the ingredients and stirring them, bracing the bowl against his hip with his right hand. It's a long process, though Castiel thinks his injury must be hindering him more than usual. The dough sticks to the spoon, moving along with it as it moves around the bowl.
"Hey, Cas, there's a wooden board in the pantry. Could you put it on the table?" Sam sprinkles some of the remaining flour he measured out for the bread onto the board, drops the dough on it, and uses his left hand to start kneading, showing Castiel the motions. "It goes better with two hands. You mind?"
Castiel unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt sleeves and rolls them up past his elbows. "Not at all. Like this?" he asks, grasping the dough tentatively. It's soft and sticky and surprisingly yielding between his fingers.
"It won't break. You can go at it pretty hard. If you were human, I'd say as hard as you can," Sam's grins unexpectedly, lighting up his face, "but you'd break my table. So, uh, hard, but not hard enough to damage our furniture." He puts a hand over Castiel's, guides his movements until Castiel gets the idea and begins kneading on his own. "Okay, I think you got it. Just keep adding flour until it doesn't stick to your hands anymore."
It's a strangely soothing process, kneading dough. Meditative, even. Castiel loses himself in the motions, barely notices Sam moving about the kitchen amid the quiet clinking of cutlery and dishes. By the time the dough is ready, Castiel is surprised to see that Sam is standing next to him, holding out a bowl that he's greased with butter.
"Put it in here, and flip it around until it's greased, okay? I'm going to need the board now, for the pie crust."
Sam is surprisingly deft with a rolling pin, even with a broken arm. Castiel watches as he rolls out the dough, tucks it neatly into a pie dish, then fills it with something out of a canning jar that it takes Castiel a moment to identify as cherry filling. Dean's favourite.
"I do make other kinds, sometimes," Sam says, as though reading his thoughts. "None of it is as good as Margery's, but she was nice enough to tell me I was doing a good job. We can't really afford to buy her stuff regularly. I think maybe we'll do it for special occasions. Thanksgiving and Christmas and stuff. The cherries are from the tree, from last year. I picked them, and I gave them to Mrs. O'Keefe and she made preserves. This year I want to do it myself. Uh, you need to leave the dough alone," he tells Castiel abruptly, eyes landing on where Castiel still has his hand in the bowl. "Use the cheesecloth to cover the bowl, and put it in the oven for me?"
Castiel does as he's told. "It doesn't feel warm enough to bake," he ventures, and Sam laughs and shakes his head.
"No, it's just the first rise. We'll come back to it."
Castiel helps Sam to cut the remaining pie dough into strips and lay them in a cross-hatch pattern across the dark red pie filling. Sam likes to clean as he works, and so by the time they've finished the kitchen looks as though they haven't spent any time in there at all, save for the uncooked pie sitting on the counter.
"The advantage is that I can bake the pie and the bread at the same temperature, so it'll all be ready at the same time, if I time it right. The pie has to cool to room temperature first, or else it'll all kind of go runny and get destroyed when you cut it."
"Do you need help with anything else?"
"Nope. I'm going to make lunch, though. You interested? Tomato soup and grilled cheese."
Castiel hasn't needed to eat for a very long time now —not since before Sam threw himself into Hell in order to save the entire world— but he still finds it pleasurable. He nods, just as there's a quiet beeping from Sam's cell phone. Sam reaches into his pocket, presses a button, then fills a glass with water at the sink in order to take his pills, then steps over the dog food dishes to get to the refrigerator and pull out a packet of cheese slices. He declines Castiel's offer of help, moves easily through the kitchen, all his gestures practised and smooth. Outside of the safety of his home, Castiel knows, those same gestures turn jerky, hesitant, as though he has no idea how to manage the unpredictability of the outside world. This kitchen is the only place Sam feels safe, Castiel thinks sadly. The only place where Hell doesn't lurk around every corner.
The afternoon passes quietly. Sam doesn't speak much as a rule —this morning having been an exception, apparently. Castiel doesn't mind. In fact, he's rather glad that neither Sam nor Dean have ever felt compelled to fill up silences with meaningless chatter. Sam doesn't like extraneous noise, doesn't even listen to music or the radio. They spend most of the time in the kitchen. Sam makes lunch —tomato soup which Castiel thinks he must have made from scratch, because it lacks the consistency of the canned soup he served the last time Castiel came to visit, and grilled cheese made with toast from a slightly-stale loaf of home-made bread. The only thing that's not home-made is the cheese, and Castiel notes idly as Sam carefully cuts away part of the plastic packaging that promises one dollar off toward the next purchase of the same product and drops it in a manila envelope marked 'coupons' taped to the side of the refrigerator.
Castiel helps to punch down the bread dough and knead it again, finding it just as therapeutic as before. By the time the front door opens as Dean lets himself in, the smell of baking bread has filled the house.
"Sammy, I'm back!" he calls out, bending down gingerly to unhook Perry's harness. The dog wriggles excitedly, takes off at a sprint when Dean gives her the signal to go, and throws herself at Castiel, trying to lick every patch of bare skin available. Dean leaves his cane by the door, limps toward the kitchen, and grins at Castiel. "I guess I don't have to ask if Cas is here, then. You guys spend the day together?"
Sam has somehow managed to get across the kitchen without Castiel's noticing, as though Dean exerts some sort of magnetic pull over him. He nods, and Castiel sees him reach out with one hand, then pull it back just before he can actually touch his brother. "Dinner's going to be another half hour or so. I made lemon chicken —the chicken breasts were almost past due."
Dean apparently doesn't share the same qualms about touching his brother, reaching out to clap him on the shoulder, then letting his hand linger there, squeezing the back of Sam's neck. It's impossible to miss the way most of the tension in Sam's shoulders seems to simply melt away under Dean's touch.
"You're going to make someone a wonderful wife someday, Sammy," he says, and his hand drifts over Sam's other shoulder as he goes to the fridge and pulls out two beers. "You thirsty, Cas? Sam got a really good deal on beer. Did you know there are coupons for everything? It's freaky. It's like you don't have to pay for anything these days, if you know where to look. I wish someone had told Dad about that when we were kids. I never figured it out myself, either. We totally could have eaten better than Spaghetti-Os and Lucy Charms."
Castiel accepts the beer, pops the cap with the palm of his hand, and Dean snorts.
"Show-off. I was going to get you a bottle opener."
"It's not necessary."
Dean rolls his eyes, eases himself stiffly into a chair with a groan of relief. "Holy crap, it's been a long day. Aw, thanks, Sammy," he says when Sam pushes another chair at him to prop up his leg. "See, Cas? He makes a great wife. Except for the bitch faces," he teases as Sam scowls at him. He pulls out his packet of cigarettes, only to have Sam deftly snatch them away. "Hey!"
"Outside," Sam tells him firmly. "Outside or not at all."
"You suck. I've been on my feet all day, dealing with teeny boppers who think 'Twilight' is awesome and not at all about a creepy douchebag stalker vampire, and with some of their mothers too, which is even worse. It's warped, is what it is. People are crazy. I figure that means I deserve a cigarette."
"You can have your cigarette, but outside. Otherwise the whole place reeks of smoke for days. Anyway, those girls just like hanging around you," Sam pulls out a cutting board and begins dicing a zucchini. "The entire population of teenaged girls in this town has a crush on you."
"Not my fault I'm so awesome. Besides, they just think they can fix me. Like I need fixing. I mean, really, do I look like damaged goods to you, Cas? Seriously, Sam, do we have to have that?"
Castiel doesn't know if he's meant to answer, but luckily he's forestalled by Sam. "You like zucchini. I'm going to make it with onions and turnips, the way we had it last time. You enjoyed it, don't lie."
"You're a cruel, heartless man." Dean takes a swig from his beer, condensation running over his fingers, reaches down to fondle Perry's ears. She's sitting upright by his chair, ears perked up, panting happily and trying to keep an eye on all three men, with limited success.
Sam snorts softly. "You want help with your shoes, or are you going out now?"
Dean considers it. "Cas, you want to come sit outside for a while? So I don't pollute Sam's pristine kitchen with my filthy habit?"
Castiel extends his arm to help pull Dean back to his feet and steady him until he's regained his balance. Dean flashes Sam a small grin. "Back in a few, Sammy. Perry, you stay," he tells the dog. "And don't look as if I just kicked you. You like Sam, and he's going to give you food, which means you'll like him even more. Trust me. Besides, we'll be right back."
It seems to Castiel that Dean is limping more than usual as he leads the way outside, sitting on one of the chairs out there with the same care as he took in the kitchen and propping his foot up on the stool he and Sam keep on the porch. Without pausing to think about what he's doing, Cas reaches out to touch the fused knee, fingers brushing against the well-worn denim.
"Are you all right?"
Dean shrugs, letting his head fall back against his chair for a moment, face tilted toward the darkening sky. "Pretty good, all things considered. Saturdays suck. I spend all day on my feet, so it kind of screws with me. The rest of the week isn't as bad, I get more breaks, but Saturday's the really busy day. So's Sunday, but only the part-timers work the whole weekend. Amanda says I need to work on changing how I walk —it messes with my hip, she thinks, but I don't know, it's working so far. Or, you know, maybe not as well as I thought." He lights a cigarette, tucks away the silver lighter into his shirt pocket, and pulls the smoke into his lungs with a blissful look on his face. "God, I've been dying for a smoke all day."
"Your boss won't let you smoke at work?"
"Sure, outside. But I'm trying to cut back. You know, it's bad for me and all that. Plus, these things cost a damned fortune. About the only thing for which you can't get coupons."
"You're having financial difficulty."
Dean blows a smoke ring into the air. "Not any worse than we ever had. It's better now, anyway. Sam's translation stuff meant there wasn't too much month left at the end of the money this time, too. He's better, you know," he says, seemingly to the smoke ring he just blew. "He keeps track of stuff better, keeps everything running. I don't know how he does it, I can barely make sense of that stuff. But he has a system. Excel sheets and everything." Dean's tone is fond.
"How will you manage?"
"Oh, you know us. We're kind of like cockroaches. We survive," Dean smiles a little grimly, and for the first time today Castiel sees a hint of the exhaustion that he wore like a mantle for years. Dean rubs a hand over his mouth. "It's not so bad, actually. Not lately. Not the past few months. You know, when we were kids, it was always me that handled the money. I mean, when Dad wasn't around. I thought I was pretty good at making every penny count, and I was doing okay when we first got here, but it wasn't enough. And then Sam got into that stupid accident..."
Castiel clasps his hands in his lap. "I'm not sure what I can do to help."
"Honestly, I don't think there's anything you can do. It's not like Heaven deals in American dollars. Besides, Sam's worked a damned miracle with the budget, now that he's, well. He's better. He's doing okay. Better than I ever hoped, really. He bakes, for God's sake." Dean stubs out his cigarette in a coffee can half-filled with sand.
Castiel has known Dean long enough to think he knows what's going through his mind. "You're concerned that you're relying too much on him for your financial well-being."
Dean pulls out the pack of cigarettes, looks at it, tucks it back into his pocket. "I just... what if it's too much pressure? He was so screwed up when I found him, Cas, I don't want him to... Shit," he breathes, and Castiel sees his hands twitch as though he wants to get up and pace, even though he can't anymore.
"You have too little faith in him," he says finally. "Sam pulled himself out of Hell. What makes you think he's not still pulling himself up?"
"I know, I know," Dean sighs, lifting his hands in a slightly helpless gesture. "I'm just having a hard time getting used to the idea that it's not just me looking out for him anymore. And yes, I know that that's part of what got us into trouble in the first place, you don't need to say anything."
"I wasn't going to," Castiel says primly. Before he can say anything else, the front door opens and Perry bounds onto the porch and shoves her nose in Dean's lap. Sam is right behind her.
"So, if you're done polluting your lungs, dinner's ready. If you're really good, I promise not to withhold the pie."
"There's pie?" This time Dean gets to his feet without help. "Awesome. You're staying for dinner, right Cas?"
"I was invited."
Dean claps him on the shoulder. "You've got a standing invitation. You know that, right? Come whenever you want, stay as long as you like. The sofa's a pull-out, if you want to stay the night, get some sleep like a person instead of whatever it is you do when you're off being a multidimensional wavelength or whatever."
"I don't need to sleep." Castiel follows him into the kitchen.
"Nothing to do with need. Sleep is awesome just by virtue of existing. Seriously, though, Cas. I know things —aren't great for you," Dean's tone turns serious. "You ever want to join the ranks of the retired... door's open."
For a split-second it feels as though he's all but human again, standing in the middle of a field in Kansas, watching Sam and Dean Winchester save the world all by themselves. Castiel hasn't felt a reaction from his vessel since that day, but now his throat constricts, and he nods.
"Thank you. I can't, but I appreciate the sentiment."
Sam pushes a chair at him, the one on which he hung his trench coat. The kitchen is filled with the savoury scent of the chicken, mingled with bread and the mild, earthy smell of dog. Dean is already seated, bad leg stretched a little to the side, Perry sprawled at his feet, tongue lolling happily. Dean will never admit it, but Castiel knows he'll spend the entire meal slipping her bits of chicken under the table. He takes the proffered chair, sits across from Sam, Dean between them, picks up his fork.
"Bon appétit, Cas."
Castiel looks up and smiles. "Thank you."