"What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way down to the coffin."
Fear of death is rooted deeply in fear of the unknown, Dean thinks. He sees people every day, wide-eyed and shaken by some violent end or another. Cancer, car crash, aneurism -- Dean's seen freak accidents and suicides and dozen or so clogged arteries, but it looks different on everyone. Sometimes there's the brave one, sometimes there's the one who can't stop crying. Everyone is different when people die, but the fact that they do never changes. Death and taxes, that sort of thing.
Dean's a constant, too. The Winchesters always have been. You do something special and you do it well, people notice. People come to Dean and they say, "This is my mother and she died last week and I want everything to be beautiful." They come to Dean and he makes them something beautiful. And they take it away and they throw it in the ground and they cover it with dirt and forget about it. His only comfort is that it may rot, one day, and he might hold an armful of pine and he might be old, but he'll know the wood and it'll know him and it won't be as hard as the first time he made a coffin, or the second and third.
It gets easier, but some days, the nails don't go so quiet in his hand and the wood cracks without grace under his palm and he has to walk away, gather himself between headstones and weeping willows. Maybe later he'll go back. Maybe later he'll go home. At the end of the night, he'll finish anyway, whether he finds himself or not.
Dean's shop is a quiet one, not far from the bakery and just across the street from the post office. People in town don't even notice, but tourists always look in the windows like it's some kind of show. Dean doesn't mind them -- he knows he's an oddity, even among a town full of them. Out-of-towners eat this shit up and, if he's in a good mood, he'll entertain them with a few words about what he does. Let the kids touch the boards of pine. That's when most parents get a chill and they head off because there's a nice thrift store down the street.
His father ran the shop until he died three years back. Dean built his casket, but it took a lot longer. Started earlier, too. John had been convinced in the months before he finally died that it was his time, and Dean couldn't do much else but listen and follow orders. His brother had been disturbed, returning Dean's solemn voicemails with enraged ramblings about doctors and chemo therapy and whatever else it was that Sam insisted on that John always turned down. In the end, Sam had been the most unwilling to let their father go, even though he'd been the first to get the hell out of Dodge the second he could. It's the way it was with Sam then and the way it is with him now -- he's too much like John to ever stay in town too long, and he couldn't exist between the spaces of their old lives the way Dean could.
Now, he runs it on his own. He's open every day, including Sundays. That's when most folks wander in. Bobby stops by to do some sanding. Says it calms his nerves. He brings Dean some coffee those mornings and they shoot the shit until lunch and he goes home to his wife and doesn't think about who'll be going into another box on Monday.
Dean does. Dean thinks about death all the time. Not even in the way people might think -- and no one really knows what to think about Dean Winchester. For Dean it's mechanical. Death happens and people react certain ways to it. They feel differently each time and they tell him different things. No one ever says the same thing twice when they're looking at his work and running their hands over the rounded corners of the box. No one ever has anything too profound to say either. It's always thank you, but it's always different. It's never the same kind of gratitude twice. Dean imagines the monotony of any other job might just kill him -- and then who would be there to build his box?
There's no season for death, but Dean finds he drops by more often in the winter. It gets cold in Oregon -- a real, tangible cold -- and sometimes folks are ice fishing or sometimes it's snowing and they're lonely and sad -- Dean doesn't try to dissect why people die. He just knows they do. But in the winter, they seem to die more, and he can understand why, to an extent. It's cold and pale and the world is dead, the ground frozen solid and the trees like twisted bones against the grey of the sky.
The people who usually die come from out of town. Not too far to be strangers, but far enough not to know too many names. There are big families that have spread out and away from their little spot on the coast, but they always come back. For Christmas and weddings -- for Dean, too.
Dean isn't too surprised to find Castiel Milton loitering outside of his store early one Wednesday morning. He hands Dean a cup of coffee and they exchange niceties as Dean unlocks the door and turns on the heat.
"Heard about your brother. It's a shame."
Castiel frowns. "He blew his brains out, Dean."
"Still a shame." Dean turns away and tugs out a binder of designs. He doesn't have too many -- box gets built, box gets buried. Shouldn't matter too much what it looks like, but he has nicer ones for folks with particulars about these sorts of things, and so he gets it out for Cas who seems repulsed by the idea of it.
"Just build me a box, Dean."
The Miltons have their roots in Manzanita. Castiel and Dean grew up together on opposites sides of the town. Their mothers delivered together and took Lamaze classes together. Mrs. Milton was a seasoned veteran of pregnancy by the time her youngest son was born, but Mary was new and it was painfully obvious. She was an older mother, too, and more patient than most other women were with their first child. She and Castiel's mother remained attached until she died, some six months after Sam was born. Dean still remembers watching his father stay up for three days without sleep, painstakingly creating the box she was buried in.
After that, Dean was a fixture at the Milton house. He and Castiel grew up hip to hip, almost, but couldn't have been more different. Dean's brush with his mother death didn't faze him as he grew up, but Castiel seemed to brood, quiet and orderly to an almost disturbing degree.
The Miltons moved away when Dean and Castiel were eleven and it only made sense for them to drift apart. They met up on holidays and Dean would comment that Cas was bony and useless and Castiel would tell Dean he was mindless and hulking and they'd smoke cigarettes on the beach and toss shells at the gulls until they got caught and were hustled inside for dinner and prayer.
Michael Milton had always seemed impossibly sad to Dean, sometimes incurably so. Dean's heart aches when he hears he's gone. He'd made attempts a few times before, always with pills Castiel said. "Finally did it right this time," he mutters bitterly and Dean tries not to let it get to him as he puts away the binder and takes the cash for the box upfront. "I'll be in town for a bit. My mother wants him buried here. How's Sam?"
"Collegiate. Went to Stanford last fall." Castiel nods as he puts his wallet away. "You got somewhere to stay?"
"Ellen should have a room."
"Come up the hill and stay with me," Dean offers. Castiel freezes with his hand on the door and Dean can hear the No, Dean. Not this time, already coming before Cas's mouth opens and closes. "You don't have to. I was just--"
"Yeah," he finally says. "Okay."
Castiel kisses Dean for the first time when they're fourteen. It's November and it's snowing and the beach is icy. Dean digs himself further into his coat and listens to Cas talk about prep school for a while before stealing his cigarette.
When he puts it in his mouth, the filter is still wet with Cas's spit and it sets a spark in Dean's gut that he's too cowardly to think about.
"Did Gabriel tell you I came out?"
"Like, I came out." Dean blinks stupidly and Castiel sighs, taking his cigarette back. He puffs on it before answering. "I'm gay."
"Oh." Dean looks out across the ocean and wonders why they came outside in the first place. "That's cool."
"My mother's livid. She wants little dark haired grand-babies with pretty blue eyes." Cas laughs. "Silly, isn't it?" Dean shrugs. "Jesus, it's like talking to a wall. Aren't you going to--"
When Dean remembers it -- and remembers it right -- he was the one who kissed first. Not Cas. They're fourteen and it's November and it's snowing and Castiel's lips are dry and his tongue is warm and swollen in Dean's mouth as they grip at one another senselessly, fingers and hands numb with cold. Dean groans into Castiel's mouth, works his frozen fingers under the collar of his coat and curls them around his neck. Gasping, they pull away, Castiel's mouth slack with confusion and want. Dean swallows.
"Sorry. I...I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Don't be sorry for that." Dean nods and they sit awkwardly together for a while before someone calls them inside.
After that, things become strangely easy between them. Castiel likes long, languid make-out sessions, sprawled across Dean's bed with the top buttons of his shirt open, teasing and ridiculous. Dean comes for the first time with someone else's hand around his dick, gasping into Castiel's mouth. Dean sucks him off for the first time, and when he finishes and swallows and thinks so that's what that tastes like, Cas is looking at him like the universe suddenly started pouring out of Dean's eyes.
He closes them and they fall asleep.
my boy builds coffins
and i think it's a shame
that when each one's been made
he can't see it again
Dean looks up at his house and he isn't fourteen anymore or sixteen or twenty. He's a grown man and it's cold outside. He shivers and opens the door to the house.
The kitchen light is on and Castiel is banging things around, sorting plates out of the cabinet and uncorking a bottle of wine. "Make yourself at home."
"I usually do." He hands Dean a glass and takes a long swallow from his own. "You look like hell."
"It's ten below out there." Cas rolls his eyes and settles at the table. Dean washes his hands and sits next to him, staring at his food. "You cooked." A nod. "Thanks." They eat in comfortable silence for a while before Dean gets up to pour more wine. They stare stupidly at the bottle once it's empty and when Dean gets up to get another, Cas follows him, crowding his back and pushing himself up to presses his lips to Dean's neck. "Cas--"
"I've missed you."
"You're burying your brother. This is shitty." Castiel shrugs and finishes his wine. Dean refills his glass. They stand in the kitchen, drinking in silence. Dean chances a look at Castiel who's just staring like he always is. He’s missed him, Dean realizes, downing his wine and putting the glass in the sink. He's so lonely in this house. The company's never good and no one fills the quiet pits that have grown in his soul the way Cas does. He turns around to say something big, something profound and important -- but Cas is flush against him and Dean finds his lips instead.
"I miss you. Constantly," Castiel murmurs, stretching his arms up and around. He's bony and all elbows against Dean's neck and shoulders, whipping around him like vines, snaring and dragging him down. Dean groans into his mouth and backs him against the counter, grinding his knee between Cas's legs, winning a satisfied, needy moan in response. Dean feels parched and hollow so he kisses like he's drinking and it fills him up gradually until he’s bursting and he can't quite breathe. He pulls Castiel up the familiar stairs, peeling off layers as he goes until he feels skin and the hot press of Castiel's hands on his hips, teasing and wanting.
"What do you want?" Dean murmurs, his tongue laving over the hollow at Castiel's neck as they crawl over the bed.
"You always ask that." Dean shrugs. "Tell me what you want," Castiel says, cupping his face and brushing the hair from his forehead. "Does anyone ever ask you that? All those people, telling you what they want. What they think dead people want. What does Dean Winchester want?" Castiel kisses the corner of his mouth, his chin and his neck. "What do you want?"
Dean is terrible at asking for what he wants. He's always filling orders, always doing as he's told, as he's asked of. It's never been another way. Sometimes with Cas, he'd make suggestion and he'd wonder and beat around it all -- beat around what he wanted and what he needed. Castiel's always known.
He feels a hand brush over his cock and he groans, resting his head on Castiel's shoulders and sucking in a breath. Cas is still waiting, the question hanging open in the air.
"I want you," he says. "All the time. Completely. One-hundred percent." Castiel kisses him. "Can I have that? Can I have you?"
"If that's what you want."
"It is. It's what I want."
Dean wakes up in the morning, sore and warm and pleased. Castiel's snoring -- he's an atrocious bedmate, Dean thinks to himself -- as Dean slowly rolls out of bed and dresses, managing his way to the kitchen to make breakfast. He's going to be late to the shop, but it's not too important. He has to finish Michael's box today. That's what's important.
Castiel shuffles in not so long after him, bleary eyed and mute. Dean hands him some coffee and goes back to his eggs, peppering them heavily and drizzling oil in a pan for bacon.
"You know I can't stay here," Castiel finally says, staring into his coffee mug. Dean holds a fork over the pan, flinching when the oil pops and hits his wrist. He nods stiffly. "I want to, Dean. I really do--"
"Cas. You're busy. I know that. I didn't mean for you to pack your shit and move out here to keep me from goin' stir-crazy. I've got work for that."
"You're lonely," Castiel says solemnly. "It's alright to admit it." Dean shrugs. "I can come out more often, if you'd like."
"Look, I'm not asking you for--"
"You don't ask for anything, Dean." Castiel shakes his head and grabs his coat. "I'm going into town to take care of some business." Dean nods.
"The box'll be ready by the afternoon." Castiel pauses at the door, shakes his head again, and leaves.
Dean eats breakfast alone.
He goes into the shop and finishes Michael's casket. He finishes it without decoration or embellishment. Dean thinks Michael may have wanted it that way. But really, he doesn't know.
When he dies, he's having himself cremated, so it doesn't really matter.
Dean won't have anyone build him a damn box. He won't go into some icy hole in the ground and he won't have a granite headstone with his pathetic lifespan carved on it. He finishes sanding the corners, starting when his phone rings. "Yeah?"
"I told you, it'd be done by the afternoon. It's--"
"I don't need it anymore, Dean." Dean frowns.
"My mother had Michael cremated without telling anyone." Dean hears the phone shift ears. "I don't know what's really happening. She asked for the coffin and for him to be buried here. I've had to reverse all the arrangements we made."
"There's nothing to be sorry about." He coughs on the other line.
"You can stay another night, if you want," Dean says hopefully. "I'm in the shop now--"
"I'm on my way home, actually."
"I have to take care of Michael's other arrangements and make sure she doesn't hide the ashes where no one can find them. I was going to stop by, but it's an emergency."
"Dean?" Castiel clears his throat. "Thank you for building it. Thank you for...for last night. And I'm sorry about this morning." Dean shifts the phone.
"You can't have too many coffins in this town, you know?"
"Yeah...I'll call later. Maybe I'll..." He sighs. "I have to go. Take care of yourself."
"You, too." Dean hangs up the phone and turns to the box.
He has a wall of them. Of boxes he's made and never filled. He set this one up next to the rest. No point in wasting it. Sometimes he takes them apart and reuses the wood. But this one...he thinks he'll save this one. He's not sure for what, but it'll make someone a good box one day.
Castiel doesn't call later, but Sam does. It's a good surprise and it makes Dean feel better about things.
It's later in the week when Dean realizes something very important. On Sunday, Bobby comes by the shop and sands. Dean's finishing up another box and softening the edges of it and getting the handles cleaned. He's locking the door and heading up the road when he realizes it. When it hits him and he isn't sure whether to feel comforted or sick. It's never just him.
With death as his constant companion, Dean is never quite alone.
he crafts every one
with love and with care
then it's thrown in the ground
and it just isn't fair