There's a call from a number Dean doesn't recognize. He is sitting on the couch underneath a pizza box, slumped over the armrest, half-asleep. When the phone rings he jolts awake, kicks the mostly-empty box off his legs, and stares down at himself like he forgot, he forgot he was in a body that could feel pins and needles in the toes. Just a normal body that was sleeping. His knees feel rubbery from being bent at a weird angle. His neck aches. But that's all. Nothing else. At least not at the moment. His phone is on the floor next to him: he picks it up and stares at the numbers for a second and then he presses the little green button. "Yeah," he says. Someone on the other end takes a breath, and then says,
"Dean Winchester?" It's a woman's voice. Not one he recognizes. For a moment his skin goes cold. He has to run through the faces, the names, the warehouses, the alleyways: he has to remember if he remembers everything right, wonders if he made promises, if he made threats, if he left something lying around, if somebody is still tracking him- "This is Hannah," she adds, and his lungs unclench a little. Hannah. Angel, about yea-high. Tailored jackets, sweater vests. Kind eyes. Not really a fan of Dean at all, which is par for the course. "Do you have a moment?"
"Uh," he says. "Sure."
"It's about Castiel," she says, "I think he needs help." For a second it doesn't register, and then he is swinging his legs over the side of the couch, already standing up, trying to remember where the fuck he left his good knives. He could be in Oklahoma City by noon or Albuquerque by nightfall or Des Moines by sometime, Jesus, why the fuck wasn't Dean paying attention? They could be fucking anywhere. The last time Castiel called Dean had to cut him off to google something about some shitty ghost, he shoved his phone under a pile of books in the library, the ringer was off. He should have known. He should have been listening. Everything's been white noise, he's tried so hard to listen again, to focus on things that are important. "He's-"
"Where?" Dean snaps. "Where is he right now?"
"He's, um," Hannah says, and there's a pause. "He's in the shower?" Her voice tilts up at the end like a question, and Dean stops in the hallway, takes the phone from his ear to look at it for no reason. He puts it back in a hurry. "-ust needed a moment to speak with you alone," Hannah is saying. "I didn't know who else to talk to about this. I'm concerned that he's, I don't know how to say this. He's changing."
"Changing?" Dean echoes. "Into what, exactly?"
"Into one of you," she says. "Human. Nearly human. I don't know."
"Oh," says Dean. He blinks. "He's done that before."
"Well, I haven't," Hannah huffs. "And I think you're the only two humans he actually knows."
"He needs better friends," Dean says, like it's a joke. He means it to sound like a joke but as he stands there in the hallway, staring down at his feet, at the tiles, he thinks, Cas needs better friends, and it feels true. On the other end, Hannah is silent for a second.
"You're the friends he has," she says, finally. "Will you help?"
"Tell me what you need," says Dean.
Hannah calls after four in the morning, and Dean has déjà vu as he rolls out of his armchair onto the floor. For a second he lies there on his knees, face mushed into the carpet a little bit, trying to will himself upright. He digs the phone out of his jacket pocket and hisses what into it, and Hannah says something chilly about if this is inconveniencing him, and Dean rolls his eyes to a ceiling he can't really focus on yet. Sam is still asleep in the motel bed, snoring like a champion. Dean was awake until about forty minutes ago, going over the sigils they found on some poor dead guy outside of Rock Springs, and casually shopping online for bunker shit, for a coffeemaker that won't make everything it touches taste a little like burnt plastic. He's tasting stuff again, tasting it for real, maybe even a little bit too much. When he got back, after everything, food was tasting like cardboard. Beer was tasting like cardboard, bacon was tasting like cardboard, everything tasted like the sad greasy paper bags he was getting it out of. But now flavors are bright and sharp again and he can even taste his own morning breath. Mixed blessing.
Dean goes outside and shuts the door as soft as he can behind him, puts the phone back to his ear. The air's crisp enough to wake him up, crystal cold but wet from rain. It feels good inside his lungs.
"Is it normal-"
"Nothing about Cas is normal," Dean says, a scrubs a hand across his face. "What's up?"
"He's been- I think he needs to eat," Hannah says. "At least sometimes. He says it's just a habit but I can see he's getting tired without it, almost hungry."
"Okay," Dean says. "Okay. Then let him eat. Get him stuff if he forgets, don't let him go too long without it. He likes cheeseburgers," Dean says. He thinks about Castiel in that cheap gas station vest, eating out of a Burger Barn sack, that one night. Dean can still see the circles under his eyes, soft as bruises. Dean rubs his face some more, tries to get it out of his head. It makes Dean sick to his stomach, queasy, like he ate an empty hole. Swallowed a shadow. "He likes gross shit, Bugles and those Little Debbie's things. Don't let him eat all crap. Get him some veggies, like- carrot sticks, or-"
"Forgive me, but I do know how to sustain human life," Hannah cuts in. "It's just that he's having a problem with temperature."
"What?" Dean hisses. "Like, a fever?"
"No. It's his teeth. They ache, but only when he consumes cold things. Sometimes. It's inconsistent, which I find troubling. He said that didn't happen before. Is this some kind of condition that humans can catch? An illness?" Hannah goes on like that for a while, but Dean just stares up at the sky beyond the motel. He exhales up and feels lightheaded for a second, like a laugh is bubbling up through him, pressing at his brain, trying to come out his forehead. There's a thin line of orange coming up over the trees, the crickets are going absolutely fucking bonkers in the bushes behind the dumpsters, and Castiel, semi-angel of the fucking Lord, wrath of heaven, needs Sensodyne.
"Wow," says Dean.
"Is it- bad?" Hannah's voice gets closer, more urgent, like she's cupping a hand over the phone. "Is it a sign of something serious?"
"Yeah," says Dean. "About as serious as a tummyache."
"You're mocking me," Hannah says. "You don't have any concern for-"
"Sensitive teeth," Dean says. "Lots of people have those. Pick up some of that special toothpaste marked for sensitive teeth, and make sure he brushes with it, every day. He'll feel better in a week or so. Make sure he keeps it up."
"Oh," says Hannah. "Oh. I will. Thank you."
"Don't mention it," says Dean. She hangs up and Dean stays outside for a few minutes, sitting on the railing overlooking the parking lot, listening to the sounds of televisions playing in other rooms, trucks passing on the freeway a little ways out. Birds starting to chatter, making minor ecstasies over the fact that morning is actually coming, again. He didn't do a lot of listening while he was fucked up. Not to music, not really, and sure as shit not to birdsong. Dean stands until he's cold and then goes inside, watches Sam sleep for a while, one pillow wedged under his armpit and hair all over his face. Dean finds the rest of dinner in the paper bags left on the table. He goes back outside and stands at the railing and throws cold french fries out into the parking lot, a crushed handful at a time. He thinks about Castiel brushing his teeth in motel bathrooms, watching himself in the mirror. Coat off, tie undone, face reflected. That serious, sober face, with a little bit of toothpaste at the corner. Human. Human-ish. Maybe with morning breath. Dean thinks and then makes himself stop thinking, Dean tosses fries down. Eventually the birds notice. They swoop down and start tiny fistfights over them, over crumbs, and Dean watches them until the sun comes up.
"I told him I'd never seen a film," Hannah says, in a tone that implies mistakes were made. Dean's sitting in the car waiting for Sam to come back with the coroner's reports, and apparently Hannah and Castiel are just outside Waunau, visiting some kind of angel commune. There's five of them in a rambling Victorian house, five angels and three shelter mutts and a shared garden. None of them are going back to heaven, and Hannah doesn't sound irritated about it. Just sad. Castiel is taking a tour of the garden and the chicken coop and Hannah is sitting in the bathroom with the door locked, complaining to Dean. "He told me you were fond of something called a star war."
"Star Wars," Dean corrects, and Hannah makes a disgusted noise.
"He summarized the plots. It took the entire drive to Wisconsin." Dean laughs out loud, imagining it. Castiel intense and rambling about the dark side. It's fucking hilarious. "I'm glad someone can find this amusing. I heard about the blockade of Naboo for two hours."
"Jesus," Dean says. "Metatron crammed the prequels in there?"
"I'm reconsidering my stance on killing him," Hannah says.
"Did you just-"
"Yes," Hannah lowers her voice. "That was a joke. Was it-"
"It was awesome," Dean says. He taps the steering wheel. Fiddles with the radio tuner, even though it's set so low he can barely hear it. "You know, you're- what you're doing. He's lucky," Dean says. "Lucky to have you."
"To have us," Hannah says, gently. Dean makes a noncommittal noise but he doesn't correct her. He probably ought to correct her, because nobody is lucky to have Dean, for fuck's sake. But he doesn't feel like it. For a second he just wants to sit here and have this, hold it for a second, before he makes himself let it go. He doesn't know why she's being so kind.
"Take care of him," Dean says.
"Of course," says Hannah.
The phone rings three times while Dean is up to his elbows in ghoul, then again later while he is pulling lighter fluid out of the trunk. The day has been bullshit and the night has been worse: by the time Dean stomps back into the motel he is coated in grime and grave dirt and so fucking incandescently angry that he is actually afraid. He still doesn't know what the mark is doing, if it's still churning away in there, he doesn't trust himself to tell the difference between mad and dangerous and so he lied to Sam and said he really wanted Applebee's, because that was the furthest fucking restaurant in town. He'll be gone at least forty minutes and Dean needs all of it, needs every second to sit here on the end of the bed with his face in his hands, trying to get his heart to stop racing. He doesn't want to pick up the phone because he doesn't want to scream at somebody, he's terrified of losing it, because what if it's the last thing he loses, what if something gives? He used to know where the line was: the point where he could trust himself not to throw a punch, pull a trigger. But he doesn't know anymore. He doesn't know where he ends, where the drop-off is. He can't, he can't do this, he can't, he is gonna shake apart like a fucking torn-up transmission.
But it's Hannah, it's Hannah and he said he would answer when she needed him, and Hannah also means Cas, so he has to pick up. He can't not know. His hands shake a little but he hits the button, puts the phone to his ear. "Yeah?" he says, because he has to say something.
"I want to go home," Hannah says.
"I want to go home," she says, and now Dean can hear it, the hurt in her voice, the way it trembles slightly on the words. "We're not meant to be here, each of isolated inside these- we're meant to be together. We were made to be together. We've done nothing but war and argue for so long, I barely know- were we ever whole, were we ever right? I don't know anymore." She almost sounds like she's been crying. He doesn't know if that's something angels do, if that's something Hannah does. Something angels can only do when they've been here too long, soaking in the chaos. The rage slides away from him a little.
"I'm fine," Hannah says. "I'm sorry. I'm behaving like a human child. Our brothers and sisters, they're so scattered. Finding them has been draining. Facing the fact that so few of them are willing to return has been- more than draining. Disheartening."
"Yeah, well," Dean says. "All your bosses have been dicks. They're playing hooky. Can you really blame them?"
"No," Hannah says. "And yes." She exhales. "How about- how about you?" Hannah asks.
"Of course, I forgot," Hannah says, dryly. "Castiel's right, you're simply incapable of telling the truth about your own-"
"Hey, excuse you," Dean huffs. "What the fuck is that guy saying about me?" He can hear Hannah's faint laugh, and his stomach does a seesaw, halfway up on a burst of anger and halfway down on something else, something better. He wants to laugh too but he can't, not quite yet. He's still too worked-up, simmering too deep. But he wants to. That's something. The hand knotted up in the motel blanket starts to unlock itself, one joint at a time.
"Good things," says Hannah.
For a while she doesn't say anything else. They just sit there in the quiet, and Dean listens to the clock and the wind outside, the faint sound on the other end like Hannah is fumbling with a set of keys, crunching over a gravel parking lot. He hears a car door slam and then there's nothing but silence, soft and dulled. It's funny how alike they are, Hannah and Cas, funnier how he's only recognizing it now. The strange humor, the intensity. The sad sense of duty. Dean doesn't know how seriously they take the whole brothers-and-sisters thing upstairs, considering how much they stab each other in the face, but then: these two. Dean wonders if they know, it they realize how human it is, how mundane and small and common, to go out into the car for the privacy to complain about your family. It's something he's done about a billion times. He wonders if she knows, if Cas told her that, too. Dean thinks about that sometimes: my friend Dean, maybe. Or when Dean is feeling low, it's an acquaintance of mine. Someone I knew. Someone who turned into a fucking demon. Dean wonders what stories Castiel tells about him. If they're warnings now. If they used to be funnier. Maybe someday Dean will be dead and Castiel will be back in heaven, safe and holy again, strong as a fucking mountain, still telling fucked-up stories to Hannah about Dean hustling pool a thousand years ago. Yeah, right. But Dean wonders and worries anyway. It still doesn't really explain why he can't answer the phone when Castiel calls, can't bear to hear his voice.
"Do you," Dean starts, after a minute or so, "do you- did Cas tell you if he's- when you guys have it sorted out, if he's going to go- back. Back with you. Has he said anything?"
"He has," she says, cautiously.
"Oh," says Dean. "So he's, he's set, then."
"He's good, he's gonna go- home."
"Dean," she says, "what are you saying?"
"I don't know," he snaps. "This is your angel crap. You guys are gonna angel him up again, and he's gonna go back where he belongs, and that's that. Right? What the fuck are you asking me about?" And when he's done talking at her like a rude jackass, Hannah says something unpronounceable that makes Dean's ears hurt and his eyes water, just for a second. Like it's a word that his human brain can't quite deal with on this plane of existence. "Whoa," he says. "Okay."
"Why do you do this?" Hannah says. "Why don't you talk to him? He calls you, too. I know he does. But you don't answer. I have to hide these calls, to spare his feelings. You won't talk to him, but he is all you want to talk about. Do you know how ridiculous you seem? Or are all humans like this, so afraid of-" she says, and Dean hangs up. She calls back immediately and Dean pushes the button to ignore it. A minute after that, there's a blinking indicator on his screen. He has a new text message.
he told me you were brave, it says.
Dean wonders if he meant it past-tense.
Hannah's number pops up but when Dean answers it's Castiel, Castiel in Missouri with a broken-down car and a suitcase and a human heartbeat, and almost absolutely nothing else. "She has taken on the leadership of heaven, such as it is. But things will be different. Very different. No more- coercion. She's guiding our kind into a new way," Castiel says, and there is awe in his voice, and a kind of grief Dean recognizes. Castiel tells him that there was a window of opportunity and Hannah took it, Hannah made the tough call. Gathered their ragtag flock together and headed for glory. Castiel says she made the right decision, but Dean can hear the holes in it, the places where he has repeated the same words to himself too many times. Light's coming through it, the worn places. Castiel sounds tired. Dean wonders how long ago she left, how long he's been sitting there in the same motel room, working himself up to call, to move. To go on with his life. His human life. "I miss her," Castiel says.
"You didn't go back," Dean says. He's repeated it three times since he picked up, and he feels increasingly ridiculous, but he can't stop saying it, can't think of something else to say, something better.
"No," Castiel says. "Hannah offered- but, no."
"This was my decision."
"No, I mean- yeah. That too. But, I'm sorry. I fucked up."
"You have nothing to be sorry for," Castiel says. It's immediate. Reflexive. He's never been angry with Dean for what happened, never held it against him. Just forgave him then and keeps forgiving him, like a tap that won't turn off. It drives Dean crazy, it makes him feel afraid, elated, hopelessly raw. At least Sam yelled at him a little, thank God somebody did. "The mark-"
"I'm not talking about the fucking mark," Dean says. "I'm talking about me being a- chickenshit."
"Oh," says Castiel.
"I left you hanging," he says, and it hurts to admit, hurts to see how cruel it was. "I stopped picking up. You dealt with all my bullshit, and I turned around and gave you nothing, just- nothing. I could have answered the fucking phone. I just didn't."
"There's no excuse," Dean interrupts. "Don't give me one." There's a silence, and then Castiel says, slowly,
"I wasn't sure why you stopped. I thought," he says, and trails off, and picks it up again, a different thread. "You talked to Hannah. Talked to her quite a bit. I was glad. That you were talking to someone."
"She, um. She's a good person."
"Yes," says Castiel. "She gives me hope. For us," he says, and then catches himself. "For them."
"So you're really not-"
"No," Castiel says, like he doesn't know why Dean is making him repeat it. "I don't think it's where I belong." He sighs. Not thoughtful but exhausted, bone-weary. When he speaks again it's softer, like the thought is slipping out of him. If he were more alert, more awake, he wouldn't say it at all, maybe. Dean listens to him breathe, listens to every hitch and pause, every tinny fuzz where his mouth sits too close to the microphone. Dean's hungry for the sound of it, starving. "I don't know if I belong anywhere."
"You belong here," he blurts out, and hears the exhale, soft and then forced, pressed between Castiel's teeth, like something hurts.
"Dean," says Castiel.
"Come here," Dean says. He feels himself pouring out at the edges, feelings something coming loose: the bars, the bricks, the locks, all the bullshit. Feels the rage sluice away, carrying tiny boats like the tide. He hasn't felt clean in ages, hasn't felt good or even okay. He's been holding everything together so tight that he's squeezed it out through his fingertips, bled himself like a stone. He doesn't want to be angry anymore, afraid: he wants to let go. He wants to hang on. He wants Cas to be right about him, about what he used to be, what he could maybe be again, if he tried. If he worked at it. He wants to be brave. He wants to be worthy of the awe in Castiel's voice, like Hannah. Wants to do something tough, something fucking impossible. It's the most impossible thing he can think of: believing that there is something still in there, that anybody would want. That he could give somebody something worth having. "Come here," says Dean. "Come home."
Dean's sitting on the dock with his feet in the water, pant legs rolled up, toes skimming the low waves as they sway and chop themselves against the shoreline. The air is starting to crisp but the water's still warm, summer-light, just a shade cooler than bathwater. He smells pine trees and wet grass and ozone, moss and clean lake water, the first turning leaves. A shadow falls across him and he looks up, expecting somebody else. Hannah looks down at him, so gentle, sort of sad. She's twirling a yellowing leaf between her fingertips.
"Humans can't dream-walk," she says. "Not even humans like Castiel."
"Oh," Dean says. "Yeah."
They stare out together across the water, at the rise of the hills and the thin trails of clouds overhead, the birds wheeling in little chattering bursts. There's nothing but the woods and the lake and the sky out here, the big world painted in broad strokes, nothing to hunt in a thousand miles and nothing to hurt, either. It's the sweetest dream Dean's had in a long time.
"I can see why he wanted me to come here," Hannah says, after a while. Dean glances over, watches her drop the leaf into the water, watches it float away. "Seeing this world, and truly appreciating it," she says, and trails off for a second. "These are different things."
"Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," Dean says.
"True." She smiles at him. "When I was away from heaven I saw it for the first time. What we were supposed to be. How far we'd fallen." She looks down, curiously. "Did you love your humanity before you lost it?"
"No," Dean says. "I don't know." A fish jumps, breaking the surface, disappearing again in a ripple. He watches the rings dissolve. "I gave Sam so much shit about- about the blood, about being human or being something else. I fought so fucking hard over that, over that line, but I didn't- I don't think I loved it. Being human, it was just- it was be human, or be worse, be dead. I don't think that's love."
Dean shuts his eyes and tries to feel the sun against his face, the air moving across his skin, breezing through the hairs on the backs of his hands, the top of his head. Feels the wood of the dock pressing into the bottoms of his thighs through the denim. Smells the water, listens for the creak of the wood where the waves wash against it, straining to push it away, wear it down, slapping the underside of the dock and curling over the rocks at the shoreline. It's a dream but he can feel himself heavy and solid and warm inside, can feel his stomach churn and his knees creak a little when he swishes his feet in the lake. Can feel this body, can feel where it's worn away, where it's gotten stronger, where the lines are tighter, softer, where the scars have knit him in faint lines, the stubble, the fat.
"Yeah," Dean says. He doesn't open his eyes. Doesn't need to. He feels Hannah's hand against his shoulder, a steady press, and then it's gone.
"Good luck," Hannah says. "With living."
"You too," says Dean, and means it.
When Dean wakes up he goes into the kitchen for a glass of water. He takes a glass down from the cabinet and fills it and pads out into the library and then almost drops it, almost shatters it all over the floor because Castiel is asleep on their ratty old sofa, wearing his trench coat and using a dirty duffel bag as a pillow. He is fast asleep and drooling a little, with one arm hanging over the side of the couch, his fingertips almost brushing the floor. Dean puts his water glass on the table with shaking hands and kneels down at the edge of the sofa, hovers one hand over Castiel's scalp, over his fucked-up bed hair, but doesn't quite touch him. After a second, Castiel stirs and Dean startles and bumps him on the top of the head. Castiel cracks one eye open, dazed and sleep-drunk.
"Blurf," he says.
Dean leans forward and cups Castiel's face with one hand, crowds him and kisses the top of his forehead, cradles his jaw and spreads kisses across his temple, into the thick of his hair. Kisses his cheekbones, along his eyebrows. Dean has maybe lost his mind. He feels like he's floating. He doesn't know where the weight has gone, the weight and the worry, except that it's gone, it's all gone, everything but this. He pulls back and watches Castiel's face go blank and soft and stunned, a dozen years younger, as if every kiss bought them more time, minutes in handfuls, as if they could literally give back life.
Maybe they can.
"I couldn't say goodbye," Dean says. He might as well say it. Let it all out. "I thought if I answered- I thought if I picked up you'd be telling me you were going home, you were done, it was over. I couldn't hear it."
"Dean," Castiel says, still blurry. His face is so beautiful, was it always this beautiful? With wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Castiel wraps his hand around Dean's wrist so tight that Dean can feel the heartbeat pounding in his palm. The human heartbeat. As human as Dean is, or as human as Dean's gonna be again, someday, when they fix this. "You should have said that. I would have told you-" he says, and breaks off like he can't even get the words out of his throat. Dean tugs him forward and kisses him again, everywhere he can reach, until they're breathless.
"I'm sorry," he says, in between. "I'm so sorry."
"Stop." Castiel sits up, looms over Dean, who is still on his knees next to the sofa. "Stop. I already forgave you." He leans down and rubs his cheek against Dean's hair. They're so close Dean can feel him exhaling against the side of his face. He's so warm. Dean feels dizzy, overwhelmed.
"Your sister says hi," Dean tells him, kind of nonsensically. But Castiel pulls back, smiling. "Did she-"
"I dream now, too," he says.
"Oh," says Dean. "Cool." Something occurs to him and he glances around, up at the doorway, back to the duffel bag on the couch. "How did you get in here? We have like fourteen deadbolts." Castiel stops being so dazed for a second, draws himself up like a preening bird.
"I have skills," he says, haughtily, and Dean laughs so hard his heart aches.
"Dear Hannah, hallowed be thy angelness," Dean says, and snickers to himself because he is a fucking five year old. He clears his throat and sits up straighter at the edge of the bed, glancing at the door to make sure it's still shut all the way. "Uh, breaker breaker." Sam and Castiel are in the library watching old men of letters training films on the reel projector and taking notes, and Dean is supposed to be making sandwiches, but instead he's in here. He got angry earlier and almost threw a book at the wall, but he caught himself. Stopped himself. Swallowed the anger and made himself chew it, and felt okay enough to keep working. It's something. A milestone. The world's tiniest milestone. "It's not an emergency," he says, and feels like a jerk. "I know you've got big angel stuff, so. This is just me talking. You don't have to, um. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. Just wanted to say, I lost my shit but I handled it. I'm handling it. Getting better. Okay? This is me actually telling somebody something about my feelings, so, you and your brother can get off your high horse about it." Dean plays that sentence back and rubs his face with one hand. "I mean, okay. You left Cas down here, with us, with me, and I just wanted to tell you that I- I'm working on it, because I'd never want- I won't lose it again. He's human and, I mean I wouldn't-" he says, and stops. Looks up at the ceiling. "Take care of yourself, and don't be a stranger," Dean says. "I'm gonna take care of him."
There's just silence for a minute, and then a knock at the door.
"Dean?" It's Castiel, muffled. "Are you-"
"I'm fine," Dean calls. "I'm coming." He rubs his hands on his knees and gets up. Thinks about whether or not they have any turkey left, or if it's got to be ham and swiss. Nothing wrong with ham and swiss. He opens the door and Castiel is there in one of his ratty sweaters, pencil stuck behind his ear, ex-angel nutty professor. Dean smiles at him and Castiel smiles back. "You hungry?"
"So hungry," says Castiel.
Dean can work with that.