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For the Time Being

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In his dreams, they have wings. But Sam’s are Gadreel’s, a sketch of skeletal shadow, and Dean’s are a vast, soft darkness that covers the world. Sam and Dean are one another’s brothers; they cannot be his. If Castiel has learned to dream things otherwise, he should also have learned to accept the waking reality.

He disentangles himself from the bedclothes and Dean’s arm and gets up. The Bunker kitchen is quiet this early. Sam will wake at six, Dean some variable time afterwards. Castiel takes the edge of the bed nearest the door, Sam the farther edge, Dean the middle. That way they can rise in due order. Even now that he has accustomed himself to a form of sleep, Castiel likes to be the first one about, to greet the Bunker.

He starts the coffee, sits down at the table and closes his eyes. For a while he senses only the machine’s industrious gurgles, the smell percolating through the air, Sam and Dean’s deep breathing in the distance. Then (roused, Castiel likes to fancy, by the smell of coffee) the walls start to stir. Something brushes past his ankle, weaving figure eights. Then a warm weight jumps to his lap.

“Hello, Cat,” says Castiel.

Sometimes if he opens his eyes he can see it, a magnificent creature, huge, orange-striped with eyes of molten gold. More often, though, if he looks it will be gone. It’s better to feel it settle along his thighs. He strokes its ruff and it purrs thunderously, pricking his knees with its kneading claws.

“Careful, Cat,” says Castiel, “for a mere wordplay, you’re very sharp. I wonder if they make clippers.”

Castiel had become aware, as soon as he had spent any length of time here, that the Bunker is, in a sense, living. Sam and Dean are remarkably incurious about the lights and hot water for which they never pay bills, about the climate control in the vaults that keeps the mold from their books. Perhaps they are wise not to ask; Castiel himself does not like to think what the Men of Letters might have done to bind this place. But it had seemed discourteous to ignore it. Before he got the trick of sleep he’d spent many nights down here. Time enough to make friends. And he is rather proud of the clever name he gave it, though it doesn’t come when he calls.

“Who were you talking to?” Castiel opens his eyes. Sam is up. It must be later than Castiel realized. Sam is staring at him curiously.

When Castiel first knew Sam he had most often thought his eyes were brown, gold-brown flecked with Dean’s green. Now that Sam’s hair has greyed his perceptions have shifted. The browns are more muted, the greys more pronounced, with hints of blue. They are wood eyes still, but bare woods on a winter day. At least Castiel has Dean for eternal summer, as long as it lasts.

“Coffee?” says Castiel, ignoring Sam’s question.

“Can’t,” says Sam. “Colonoscopy tomorrow.” Ah, yes. Sam and his yearly checkups, his cholesterol measures, his tests at five-year intervals. “No coffee, no fucking breakfast, unless I want jello. Herb tea should be all right, though.” He goes rummaging through the cupboards, turning up chamomile and rose hip and some ginger and peach concoction. Castiel watches him. Sam chooses the ginger peach. Castiel could have predicted that. He clears his throat.

“You know these tests are …,” Castiel pauses. Undignified, inadequate, unnecessary.

“Just a precaution?” says Sam. “Yeah, Cas, I know. I take care of myself, OK? You’d think at least Dean would approve.” Dean mocks Sam’s lentil recipes, his morning jogs, his doctor’s instructive pamphlets and nasal voice, even Sam’s dentist, who once sent him home with a sample of cinnamon floss. Sam should know by now that doing what Dean wants will in no wise earn Dean’s approval.

“A pointless precaution,” says Castiel. “If there were something wrong, I would know. And I’d most likely be able to heal you.” Castiel cannot gainsay mortality, but there will surely be many deaths he can ward off before the ones he cannot. Surely. You would think Sam would let him.

Sam sighs.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, Cas, you know it’s not that I don’t trust, like, your angel expertise or whatever. I just, I’d rather just do it the human way.” He ducks his head back into the cupboard, pulls out a small box with a grunt of satisfaction. “Bouillon,” he says. “Better than jello. It’s really not fair. I loved jello when I was seven. They never tried to make me eat it then.”

He pours hot water over the cubes of bouillon and stirs efficiently. Dean comes in behind him, hair spiked with sleep, wearing his tattered grey robe. He peers into Sam’s mug with exaggerated disbelief.

“Granola’s bad enough. Now it’s fucking bouillon. That’s not breakfast.”

“Colonoscopy,” says Sam.

Dean grunts, halfway between objection and acknowledgment.

“At least have the jello,” he says. He takes bacon and eggs out of the fridge.

“There is no real reason Sam should do this,” says Castiel. Dean shrugs.

“Sam has a fetish about butt things. I’d think you’d have figured that out in the last couple decades, Cas.”

Castiel does indeed have an adequate working catalogue of Sam’s erotic preferences. They are strong, specific, contradictory. Dean’s are more flexible and harmonious, parting and and flowing and carving away at Sam’s like water around stones. Castiel has gone fishing in that stream, bathed in it, shaped and tuned it, moving great boulders and small, round pebbles here and there till the cataract crashed to his liking. And sometimes he is pulled under, flash flood, rockslide, untamed spate. It’s dangerous, always, to work with the Powers his Father created.

So, yes, Castiel is aware that Sam likes to be fucked. It pleases Castiel, too, the concentration on Sam’s face when Dean or Castiel himself is moving in him. It’s the same intensity Sam brings to his work, to his files of cards and his Worldcat, and it’s that that Dean praises, Castiel thinks, a stream of yeah, that’s right, that’s good, that’s good, Sammy that Castiel finds distracting and annoying but that Sam and Dean both need. His own praise comes as a shout of light, a shadow of wings on the walls.

He doesn’t think this has anything to do with Sam’s adherence to regimens of medical testing. Every five years after fifty, the authorities say, and Sam reads their pamphlets and obeys. It’s the obedience that frets Dean. Sam will turn sixty this spring.

“At least they don’t schedule it on your actual birthday,” Sam had said the first time, a decade ago, “like the Registry of Motor Vehicles when your license expires.”

“Since when do we have real licenses with real birthdays on them?” Dean had asked. In Dean’s mind that no doubt constituted an inarguable refutation of the need for colonoscopies. But Sam had gone ahead and let his doctor schedule it. And Dean had grumbled and made no move to stop him

Sam is taking up the line Dean just tossed him now. They always close ranks, even when they’re at odds.

“Sorry,” he says, regretfully, “Dean’s right. The butt fetish won’t be denied. It’s been good, guys, it really has, but I’m leaving you both for a colonoscope.”

Castiel brings his fist down on the table with a crash. Sam and Dean both look at him, startled.

“Don’t be stupid,” he says. “Sam. What do you think will happen? Just what do you think you’re averting?”

Sam comes over and sits across from Castiel. His face has the patient expression he usually uses on Dean. Castiel has never disliked it before.

“Nothing,” he says, “I’m really not expecting anything to happen. It’s just a routine test. But some day, yeah. Some day they’ll find something, or not find something in time. And they’ll do stuff and eventually it won’t work. And that will be it. I’m not averting anything. That’s the point. No possessions, no heroic rescues. I’m not planning on jumping into a hole this time. Just a hospital bed and a chart, and then I guess heaven. They’ve probably got charts, too.”

Castiel has seen Sam’s face bruised from Dean’s fists. Once or twice it’s been the other way around. And he himself has come to blows with Dean. This is the first time he’s felt the urge to hit Sam. He folds his hands instead.

“And then heaven will use you for fuel. For food. Are you really so blind, to not have realized that? You are cattle, Sam. Humans are cattle. No. Nothing so pastoral. You are an oil well. Run by one of those big corporations you profess to vote against. Your death benefits nothing you would wish to benefit.”

Castiel’s argument has veered off its track, as though he thinks death is something that can be prevented, as though they aren’t arguing merely the means of delay and the mode of acceptance. But Sam leans over the table as though this is something he’s eager to discuss.

“I’m hurt you’d underestimate my capacity for stupid, Cas. But, yeah, I know. Heaven runs on souls. It’s some kind of big soul farm. Wasn’t hard to figure that one out. But listen. So it’s gone wrong, like energy’s gone wrong with us, but energy’s not wrong in itself, right? It can’t be, not the concept. It’s what’s supposed to happen. Not the Cage, not ghosts, not some Void thing. The memories, the souls, they all, like, go back into the system. Heaven gets something out of them. Recycling. I kind of like that idea.”

“Jesus,” says Dean under his breath behind them. He slams a pan onto the stove and starts frying eggs.

“It isn’t like that,” says Castiel. He feels enormously sad. “Heaven has changed, if it was ever like that. You know I’ve never been able to change it back.” At least here, with Sam and Dean, he does no harm. Survival may even be a kind of redemption.

Sam smiles and stands up.

“I have confidence in you,” he says. “If anyone can take down Celestial Big Oil, it’s Cas. Just remember that I want to be recycled. Anyway. I’m going to shower.” He leaves his empty bouillon mug in the sink and walks out.

“You and Sam have spoken about this,” Castiel says to Dean’s back. They’ve discussed it without Castiel, that much is clear. Castiel is furious. Not because Dean and Sam exclude him from fights over their shared mortality. Because Dean will die, too.

Dean snorts.

“He’s got a whole living will deal. No hunter’s pyre for Sammy. He wants to be buried in fetal position at the roots of a baby tree or some shit like that. It’s environmental. Believe me, I want to beat his face in every time he starts in on the subject. But I’m holding fire.”

Castiel can imagine all too vividly how it will go down, the day Castiel or the doctors’ instruments detect something, and the day that comes after that, the day Sam wants to draw the line and the day Dean stops holding fire. Sam saying no, Dean saying yes, the possibility of a last betrayal.

Except, if there is betrayal, it won’t be the last. It will become another thing they all have to live with.

Neither Sam nor Dean will hesitate just because Castiel will be caught in the middle. Nor will Castiel achieve neutrality. He knows that. He is as capable of selfishness as any of them. And he is afraid. More so than Sam, maybe even more so than Dean.

Dean’s eyes meet his in a complicity that may or may not be warranted.

“All is well for now,” says Castiel, temporizing. Putting the matter off, just as Dean has.

On this occasion everything is fine. Sam’s finicky obstinacy is still a living presence, persistent as the purr in the walls of the Bunker. Dean’s unwisdom is still in reserve against coming disaster. Castiel should welcome these things. Soon enough it will all be converted to ash or to leaves on a tree or the soulfuel of Heaven. And Castiel will inherit the nothing.

Sam was trying to provide for him, of course, with his Celestial Big Oil speech. Castiel recognizes the manipulation for what it was, a reason to make one more effort at reform, to try again at making Heaven a garden. Something to do when Sam and Dean have left him.

Perhaps he will stay here instead, he thinks mulishly, and catsit.

Dean finishes his breakfast and wanders off. Sam comes back in, damp and dressed in customary plaid. He brews another cup of the ginger peach tea. Castiel doesn’t comment. Let Sam select a topic.

“So, who were you talking to?” says Sam. “You know, when I came in, before. You were talking to someone. Unless you’ve taken up Hamlet monologues.”

Castiel decides on honesty. It can be a downpayment on the price of any lies to come.

“I was talking to the cat,” he says.

Sam looks at him warily.

“Cas,” he says, “we don’t have a cat.”

His voice is carefully unemphatic. Evidently he thinks Castiel unhinged. Castiel feels obscurely avenged. Sam is not the only one, Sam and Dean are not the only ones, who can worry those around them. I am but mad north-north-west, says a fragment of Metatron’s trove in his mind. But he honestly doesn’t intend to torment Sam.

“It’s a metaphorical cat,” he says. “You could say that you yourself are responsible for its form.”

“I did not give you an imaginary cat,” says Sam.

“For its form, not for its existence. Not for its residence here. The Cat is a manifestation of the Bunker. But I chose its name because of you.”

“Cas, what the fuck are you talking about?”

It’s always a small victory, when Sam starts to talk to him as though he were Dean.

“The Bunker is, in some degree, a living entity,” says Cas. “It’s also a library. There’s a catalogue you consult when you’re doing research. You called it Worldcat. I liked the term.”

“You mean it’s a pun? Your cat is a pun?”

“It’s a manifestation of a place of knowledge. The name seemed appropriate. The World Cat. So it’s a cat.”

Sam is pushing his hair out of his eyes. For all the grey, it’s no more under control than it’s ever been. Castiel and Dean both like to run their hands through it, fingers tangling in Sam’s tangles as they kiss over Sam’s head, Sam’s mouth busy on Dean’s cock. Castiel welcomes the heat that flares through him at the image, though it’s unlikely that Sam or Dean will want sex today. He recognizes it as a superstition, this belief he has contracted that the fact that he wants something means he will get to keep it. It reassures him nonetheless.

“Wait, this place is alive?” Sam asks. He’s looking around as though he expects flocks of birds to materialize from the ceiling.

“In a sense,” says Castiel. See what you will be missing, Sam? Don’t you want to stay alive for this universe of wonders? But that isn’t fair. Sam does want to stay alive. He just wants to do it in his own way, then die in the fullness of time. He wants the mundaneness of hospitals, a normal death. It is not for Dean or for Castiel to prevent him. All life has its conditions. Energy must be returned.

Energy. Recycling. The words spark in Castiel’s mind like static in a cat’s fur. It might be possible. Surely Sam would prefer it. He’s a Man of Letters. Dean won’t give a fuck — Castiel can hear him say it — it’s not the kind of gesture Dean cares about, but he’d do it for Sam. Let them rest here, if Castiel can arrange it. Let the Bunker recycle them. Better than fueling the corrupt machinery of Heaven. Let them hum in the walls like the Cat.

Castiel will think about it. In due time he will ask Sam and Dean. He will certainly ask. For now he returns his attention to Sam.

“Very hypoallergenic,” Sam is saying.

“What?” says Castiel. Sam can’t possibly know what Castiel was thinking about.

“Your cat,” says Sam. “Your imaginary cat.”

That night Castiel doesn’t dream of angels, of Sam and Dean with wings. He doesn’t dream. He lies awake in the night of the Bunker, listening to the hum of its walls and to Sam and Dean breathing. At length the bed jounces at his feet. He feels a warm weight settle across his legs.

“Hello, Cat,” says Castiel to the darkness.