In the manner of most important events, it happened suddenly.
Later Castiel would recall the moment in a series of facts, a sequence of images tucked carefully away in the back of his mind, to remember: a clutch of demons, the wide empty night and a confrontation somewhere in the depths of the woods, the whirling of trees. He would picture the blur of the fight, the colour and the noise. Gunshots, arcs of dark blood and a gibbering, a keening—and he would recall the thought that the noise Hellspawn made as they died was like the yelping of kicked dogs.
Almost precisely five months after the End had not come, nearly half a year after Castiel had turned his back on Heaven for good, he had a palm pressed to a demon's temple and its life was seeping out through its eyes when the last tendrils of his grace finally snapped.
He had screamed, in that instant. He had stumbled away from the demon's wilting body and landed hard in the grass, on his knees, feeling something huge and horrible flickering and swelling in his chest, like a white fire—he had lost track of sound and the battle and without knowing what he was doing he had felt himself turn inside out, had thrust fingernails into the searing, howling pain, and ripped.
It was only after he opened his eyes to silence and the wheeling night sky overhead, after he felt two pairs of hands grasping his arms and lifting him up, only after he felt his vessel's heart beating in a chest that felt ten times too hollow, that he realised. It had happened.
He had Fallen.
Sam and Dean had slung their arms around his shoulders—for his support as much as their own, for in his daze Castiel had seen that they were bloodied and bruised, that Dean had claw-mark gashes down his cheek and Sam had a blown pupil—and Dean had clapped a hand against his back and said, “You okay? The hell was that?”
And Cas would remember, vividly, that he had tried to speak.
He had tried to say, “I'm alright. My grace broke, it snapped—I tried to pull it out, and I think I've Fallen, now, and it didn't hurt as much as I thought it would.” But though the words pushed forward onto his tongue there was no voice behind them—only air—and he stopped short.
The brothers paused and looked at him.
He would remember that night as being chill, and feeling goosebumps rise on his bare arms. He had a gun tucked into the waistband of his jeans, against his back, and he was wearing one of Dean's old T-shirts, a pair of Sam's old boots; he had smitten two demons in the melee and their bodies lay smouldering on the grass behind them; he had the faintest sense that something, the way they had just come, was growing, something that smelled like new wood and furling leaves, like cold arctic air and paradise fire. And he would recall, for weeks and months afterward, the sheer shock of speaking and hearing no voice come out.
He had tried, again, to say something, but no matter how he moved his lips or pressed at his throat with pale fingertips no sound emerged.
He had almost panicked, there, for a moment—panicked because silence was such a foreign thing, to hear on his own tongue, to feel in his own throat, he a creature born to sing and praise, all speech torn off in an instant. He had gesticulated towards his throat, eyes wide, and Dean had seemed to understand.
“Hey—it's okay, don't panic, alright?” he had said. Collected, practical, as always. “Let's get out of here and then we'll see what's up.”
They had climbed into the Impala, and Cas had leaned against the window, swallowing reflexively as if trying to massage voice back into himself.
Over the tops of the trees he had seen it—branches, flowering and climbing, bursting through the leaves and reaching towards the sky, rich dark wood curling and knotting and pushing. His grace gone to seed amongst the bodies of demons.
Part of him had found it beautiful.
One year later
Well, Castiel signed, in Dean's direction, a small frown touching the corners of his mouth, I suppose some people would call this a house.
Unfortunately, Dean's usual vigilance to Castiel's speaking fingers seemed to have slipped. He was smiling up at the sagging facade of the house, one arm around Castiel's waist, green eyes drinking in the woods that enfolded it, the glancing of pale winter sunlight on the windows, the whistle of wind through the holes in the fence.
To be fair, it did have all the basic elements of one—walls, a porch, windows, a door and door-knocker, something resembling what might once have been a fence—but the further he looked the more ramshackle it seemed to be: shingles half-sliding off the roof, cracks in the shutters, paint peeling on all sides.
His frown deepened; he slid his glance towards Dean, praying silently that Dean wouldn't do anything rash, like open the front door, or—abandoned-Heaven forbid—fall in love with the place.
Leave it to Dean Winchester to find for a house that looked like something out of a horror movie, the place children were warned not to explore under any circumstances, a witchy sort of place in the middle of the woods. Leave it to Dean to pick a place most likely infested with any number of rodents or insects or otherworldly nuisances.
If the worst-case scenario should happen, and Dean should actually purchase this heap of plywood, Cas thought, he was going to smudge the house with sage until he set off smoke alarms.
Dean, you can't be serious, Cas signed as Dean fumbled the key to the house out of his pocket. We are looking for a house to live in, not a stack of kindling.
“Let's just have a look around,” Dean said, drawing a reluctant Cas up the porch stairs. They creaked ominously under his feet and for a fleeting moment Cas was sure they would collapse to rot under his weight. “It's out of the way, it's cheap, and you always said you wanted a fixer-upper.”
This is not a fixer-upper. This is a lost cause.
“I thought you were excited about finding a place.”
I was. Until you found this...thing.
Dean laughed, grasped his hands and kissed his forehead. “Just give it a try,” he said. With the grin he knew Cas couldn't resist, he added, “For me?”
Cas scowled, but obliged, and Dean twisted the key in the rusted lock.
The door, painted a dull and flaking green, rusted knocker dangling loose against the weathered wood, swung open to dark air and the smell of mothballs. Dean felt for a light switch and a flickering bulb in the ceiling over their heads blinked to life, illuminating greying wallpaper and a long, dim hallway, the vague hint of sunlight in the rooms at the back of the house.
Dean moved ahead, peering around the corner of the hall, and Cas took his time—frowning at the rips in the wallpaper near the wainscoting, the scuffs on the hardwood, the railing on the staircase. To the left of the foyer was a study, one bay window facing the front porch. Cas saw a window-seat built into the wall beneath it, and grudgingly took note.
He'd always wanted a window-seat.
He found Dean in what was apparently the living room, easily the biggest room in the house; the sun carved rectangles of light into the floor through the curtainless windows, and Dean was bent to examine the fireplace in the far wall; there were bookcases nailed to the partitions, big, wide, empty things, and despite himself Cas found his hands trailing along their edges, smooth unpolished wood leaving dust on his fingernails. He turned to see Dean smiling softly at him, hands in his pockets.
I do like the bookcases, Cas signed reluctantly. And the window-seat in the front room.
Dean nodded upwards towards the stairs.
“Want to check out the bedroom?”
They made their way up the stairs, and Cas was careful of the rickety banister. There was only one proper room at the top of the house—that is, one room and the attic—and it was a small bedroom, with a small bathroom and a small closet and a small window, cramped quarters (and that was putting it kindly); an octagon of glass overlooked the front yard, let light stream in to where the shadow of a bedstead still stained the floor.
It smelled, here, of old pine and dogwood blossoms from ages ago—damn Castiel's longing for a place of their own. This room, despite the flaws of the building and the land and the hideous wallpaper—this room was every bedroom he'd ever imagined, every perch or nest he'd pictured making a bed in, sleeping with Dean in, every loft of pale sunlight he'd dreamed of waking in.
Dean was very quiet as they surveyed what little space there was to see, and he looked at Cas for confirmation.
After a moment, Cas sighed, shoulders falling.
Only, he signed, if you promise to smudge and exorcise this place down to the last shingle and basement brick.
Dean grinned wide and leaned down to kiss him, and Cas closed his eyes to smell leather and dust and the old pine and the dogwood, and yes—of all places, of all houses, he could see himself here.
Two weeks later, Dean signed the deed to the house in the woods, and for the longest time Cas stared at the address he'd written down for safekeeping.
6940 Swallowtail Drive. It sounded like the sort of street name home-and-gardening magazines were delivered to, the name of a street where families with three point five children lived with white picket fences—not this isolated dirt road winding into the woods and ending at the sagging pale green house that now belonged to them.
Certainly not a home-and-gardening house by any stretch of the imagination, he thought—but he had to admit that he liked it all the same.
Castiel had Fallen a year before. He had been mute ever since.
He supposed—and he'd explained this to the Winchesters in his spidery, uneven handwriting, a few days after his voice had forsaken him for good—that it was just a side-effect of the descent, and the landing. Everyone Fell differently, after all.
And, really, it didn't make much difference. He learned a little sign language from Sam (who knew a bit) and from books (which knew a lot) that he pored over in the local libraries of the towns they passed through.
Most of the time, though, in those first few months, he sat in dim motel rooms creating signs, mixing and melding them, crafting them with his hands. Simple combinations of letters and motions, easy to remember and easy to communicate. After all, the only human beings he really spoke to were the Winchesters; if they understood him, it was enough. It was difficult at first, but soon his hands grew to form the motions with ease, and soon his vocabulary was big enough to carry conversation in diner booths or quiet beds with barely a pause. Dean called his hands eloquent.
His silence didn't ruin his marksmanship, and it didn't stop him from smiling at the jokes Dean made, and it didn't keep him from being with his boys, just as much a brother to them as he'd ever been.
And when it finally came to it, a month or more later, it certainly didn't stop him from kissing Dean for the first time in the darkened back alley behind a bar, only slightly drunk and slightly stumbling, in the first misting of a late-night rain. It didn't stop him from softly signing the letters of the words I love you against Dean's neck.
He couldn't exorcise demons anymore, and certain hunts became impossible for him—the danger of not being able to call for help was far too real—but all in all, everything was as it had always been, as it always would be—so he hoped.
They'd contemplated it—buying a house, settling down—for a while.
Castiel knew that Sam approved. There was something in his eyes whenever they talked about it, Dean with gesticulating hands and Cas with quick and agile fingers, that Cas thought said, it's what he needs, what he's always wanted, an apple-pie life. A place to be safe with someone he loves. Dean won't ever leave the life, but he doesn't have to live it all the time.
Cas lost track, eventually, of the conversations they had, of the dreams they shared quietly after dark about the colours of walls, the price of satellite television, city or town or country back-road, north or south or in-between—would Sam settle down, too? Would they find a place to stay close to one another? Where, when, how, a thousand questions that never seemed too overwhelming no matter how much they stacked up. Somehow they'd figure it out, Cas was sure. It was the way of things, with the Winchesters.
Many times they talked about children—it had become a dream close to Castiel's heart, and he had a feeling it was close to Dean's, too. Not anytime soon, he knew, but eventually. A year, two years. Someday. He dreamed of the sounds of small feet padding against wood, out of reach and out of sight. But there.
And then had come this place, which had, he was forced to admit—Castiel thought, as he made his slow and steady way up the front porch steps holding a box of books in his arms—grown on him the longer he had walked its halls.
Of course, they didn't have much. Their belongings had taken up no more than the Impala's back-seat, and moving in consisted of dropping the boxes into the corner of the living room; the rest meant digging out the least-suspicious fake cards they had, venturing out into the mist and rain of December along the slick back-woods roads to the nearest town that boasted a furniture shop, making note of yard sale signs and thrift stores as they went.
The day they made the house their own was a grey day, the kind that weighed heavy on the eyelids, and Castiel had to admit that moving from warm-lit antique store to rummage sale to Home Depot was strangely cosy. He kept an arm through Dean's most of the day and signed rapidly to him whenever he caught a glimpse of something he liked—the pale, weathered, charming dining room table a family was selling out of their garage, a cheap lamp with an antique shade, a set of old cups and plates and silverware going for twenty dollars at a place with a sign so weather-beaten they could hardly read it. They bought a mattress and sheets, vowing to return for a comforter soon, pillows and paint cans, hammers and nails and screws, ancient curtains for the living room windows, an antique writing desk haggled down from one hundred dollars to eighty. Inevitably wherever they went a few shoppers or cashiers side-eyed Cas for his silence, but he was well-used to that by now.
For a moment in the last antique shop they visited, Cas paused to stare longingly at a piano in the back corner, and Dean said, “We'll get that for you someday. Let's just get settled in first.”
When people asked where they lived, Dean told them, and some smiled and said they hoped they'd enjoy the place. Abandoned for years, they said. Glad someone finally bought it. Nice and quiet out that way, they said.
In one store Dean asked who had abandoned the house, received averted eyes and tight lips, and did not press the subject further.
In the next shop, though, when the woman carefully taping up a box of their purchases asked where they were living, and Dean told her, she raised an eyebrow and said, “Oh, that old place? You've heard about it, right?”
Dean and Cas exchanged glances. “No,” Dean said, leaning his forearms on the counter. “What, it's not haunted, is it?” he continued, with the air of a joke, but Cas frowned. They'd smudged the entire place as soon as they'd bought it.
The woman laughed. “I don't know about haunted, but I know no one's kept that house for longer than a year.” She set down her packing tape and punched some keys on the old till monitor on the counter. And she didn't say a word more; she winked, and levered the box into Dean's arms, and he smiled at her in a way that made Cas think perhaps she had been joking after all. He caught Dean's eyes as they left and Dean scoffed, softly.
“Hell, babe, every town's got some spookhouse they tell stories about. That house isn't any different than any other house we could have bought.”
Cas, frowning, slipped his arm through Dean's as they walked back to the car.
A couch that looked like the rejected leavings of a golf club, all dull-hued plaid and worn springs, but comfortable enough, for them. Mismatched chairs, four for the kitchen, too richly dark to match the pale wood of the table, legs in need of repairing and re-painting and re-attaching, some with ladder-backs and some without backs at all. A kind-faced man with a flatbed truck offered to help them move the bigger things and followed them up the muddy road to the house on Swallowtail Drive.
As he arranged his books on the shelves in the living room—thin volumes of poetry and prose he had hoarded along the road, from bookshop fire sales and Wal-Mart racks—Cas listened to Dean hammering away at the top of the house, fixing up the bed-stead they'd bought for just under two hundred dollars, an old wooden thing that Cas knew would creak and groan at the slightest movement. For some reason, the thought of it made him very happy.
It was late at night by the time all the furniture was in its place, and they were eating take-away Chinese by the light of the naked bulbs in the ceiling (lampshades, Dean had added to his growing list of things they still needed), cross-legged and facing one another on the sagging couch.
The clattering old radiator in the wall was chugging away, trying to warm the sluggish rooms, and it was then that Cas realised he was in love with this house.
It seemed Dean was an addict to all the clichés of going domestic, and so, later that night, when he suggested they christen the house in a low voice with his lips tucked under Castiel's ear, Cas was neither surprised nor unwilling.
Is the bed frame going to hold us? he signed, vaguely nervous, settling back into the taut mattress springs. It's a bit old—
“It'll be fine,” Dean said. “Fixed it myself.”
After that Castiel's hands were far too preoccupied elsewhere to speak.
The bed frame did, indeed, creak and groan, but it held them. The single streetlight at the end of their drive cast high, dim shadows on the cracked ceiling above them, the point of the eaves, and it was drafty at the head of the house but neither were cold, and when Castiel came it was with the open-mouthed wide-eyed stark-silent look of bliss that Dean so adored, his breath coming short and frosting like clouds in the cold air.
They burrowed under thick wool blankets that night, naked, arms and legs tangling, and just before Cas drifted off he heard Dean murmur “welcome home” against his temple.
No longer a house—a home.
Old pine, dogwood, and cooling sweat; they slept easily and deeply on the noisy bedstead in the witchy house on Swallowtail Drive, and Cas thought in the midst of his dreams that there were no ghosts here—only promises.
Sam came, at the end of that first week, to help paint the halls.
Behind the closed door of their bedroom upstairs—which had been christened four nights in a row, at this point, and was probably holier in that respect than the local church—Cas changed into one of Dean's old T-shirts and his rattiest pair of jeans. They had towels bunched in against the windowsills to keep out the cold and the whole house smelled of wood shavings and ripped painter's tape, and Cas couldn't help but think that this process, this rebuilding and tearing-down, felt like opening a book, cracking the spine for the first time. Sam had found an apartment in town a half-hour down the highway, and though no one had any illusions of the brothers leaving the life, it was a turning page, a different way of living the life, and despite the misgivings he'd had at the beginning of this venture Cas had to admit that he was looking forward to it.
The old wallpaper came down in loud curls, leaving bare plaster walls and wainscoting dappled with glue and years. They laid tarps down and opened cans of a pale winter-blue, and Dean found the one radio station that didn't crackle on the Impala's radio, left the front door open and his baby's windows down, blaring some kind of local country music into the chill front halls.
“Better than nothing, right?” he said, rolling up his sleeves as he came back inside.
They painted the whole first floor that day, and celebrated with beer and Sam's best spaghetti recipe, and when Sam had gone back to town for the night Cas caught Dean's hand and signed, You were right about this place.
It feels good.
Dean pushed his hands into his pockets, then, and glanced towards the front room, mostly barren of furniture but for the writing desk they'd bought and a haphazard bookshelf on the wall. “I got you something in town,” he said. “Think of it like a housewarming gift.”
Cas cocked an eyebrow. The owners of a house don't give one another housewarming gifts.
“Just go with it,” Dean said, rolling his eyes, gently pushing Cas towards the hall.
He felt for the light-switch on the wall, and when the naked bulb sputtered to life he saw it—something small and sturdy on the desk.
A typewriter, a few decades old by the looks of it, and four books Cas didn't recognise stacked precariously on the shelf.
“It's Frost you like, right?” Dean said, sounding half-nervous, as Cas reached up to let his fingers brush the spines of the books, leaned slightly down to let his hands rest on the cool keys of the typewriter. “Frost and Keats and—who else is up there? I forget.”
Bronte, Cas signed softly, gently pulling one of the books from the shelf. It was ancient—the stamp on the back placed it in the early 1900s—and he gently opened it, fingers drifting down the printed letters.
“Figured, you know. Poetry's kind of your thing now, right?”
Since the Fall Cas had, indeed, become irretrievably fond of poetry—he snatched up books of verse from library sales and cheap vendors whenever he could, and he loved the way words flowed on a page in stanzas and rhymes. Besides his inability to speak his mind anymore, that was one thing he desperately missed about his voice—poetry begged to be read aloud, to be recited, and it was enormously frustrating to be able to imagine the sound of his voice forming the words, but being unable to. Poetry seemed to him like prayer, and prayer was something he longed for, sometimes.
He'd begun to write it, too, on the backs of diner napkins, in the margins of printed pages of research. Sam and Dean had known, but hadn't pried. It was his way of coping, they figured, his way of getting out all the emotions he had tangled up inside him in the aftermath of the Fall. And indeed, often he wrote of Heaven, couplets describing corners he missed particularly, siblings whose faces were fading from his mind. He hid the poems away in his bag and read them over when the homesickness became too much, and they soothed it, for a while.
Cas tucked the book in close to his chest and signed thank you, smiling.
The next day Dean took to the floors and the thresholds and the ceilings with thin brushes and paint, making wide circles emblazoned with symbols, Devil's Traps and banishing sigils, sealing the house from anything that might want to creep inside.
They might have been moving away from the life proper, but that didn't mean the life wouldn't come back for them.
Cas designated one cabinet in the kitchen for canisters of salt, sharp silver knives and boxes of empty rounds. He knew that Dean kept the Colt under a false bottom he'd made for the drawer of their nightstand, easily within reach, and they tucked guns out of sight in nearly every room for when Dean was away.
And away came sooner than either of them would have liked. Sam pulled up late one afternoon to tell Dean that he was heading upstate to suss out a crocotta, and Cas smiled softly and signed for him to go, that he'd be fine on his own. The house was quiet, folded away in the trees, and not a single thing had disturbed them in that first week and a half.
Dean promised to be home in three days if he could help it, and kissed Cas goodbye.
For the first time, but certainly not the last, Castiel was left alone in the pale green house in the forest, with a parlour full of books, winter on the trees, a typewriter with cold plastic buttons and a mind full of words waiting for stanzas to receive them.
Dean did come home, three days after that, with further news that he'd been offered a job hauling furniture for the local shop in town every now and then; they sat on the couch that night in front of a fire burning wood Cas had chopped himself in the early hours, bundled against the cold, listening to the roar and the flicker.
And so life went, and so life went, and all was well for a long time in the house on Swallowtail Drive.
Four months later
The attic, built like a listing corridor into the side of the house, rafters low and floor unsteady, was full of boxes left over by the previous owners. By all accounts they'd abandoned the place, and no one had taken the remains, and Castiel had found himself drawn by the stacks of cardboard boxes in the dark, full to bursting with everything from picture frames to books to children's rocking horses, dull and dingy jewelery, mirrors and chair legs and faded floral curtains, remnants of the lives of people he'd never meet.
He was sitting on the floor of the attic, legs crossed, tiny flashlight held between his teeth, gently turning the pages of a photo album that had been left behind. There were dozens of them, scattered through boxes and lying on the floor between the rafters; most had mildewed pages and water spots, but some still held Polaroids that, though faded, were in good condition.
The cover of this one read Baby Photos, and despite the odd shot of the lawn, a flower, or the dog that must once have lived there, it was indeed mostly photos of two wide-blue-eyed infants, siblings, possibly, in various stages of clumsiness and growing-up.
Cas found himself smiling at most of them. He had no idea who these children were—if they had grown up, if they were still alive, if they were married, if they were alone, if they remembered this place. He let his fingers drift down the crackling plastic that covered the pictures, tilting his head.
He and Dean had discussed it, more times than Cas could remember. Having a child. It would be complicated, they both knew—Dean's job was so irregular, and hunting took so much out of him, no matter how much he loved it and loved the time with Sam—and they still had not fully figured out domestic life. It was the dead of winter and the radiator still only worked six times out of ten, and more often than not they had to wear sweatshirts to bed and tangle themselves together to stay warm.
We aren't the best at this homestead business, are we, Cas had signed, recently, helping Dean fix the sink, which had broken for the fifth time that month.
“Yeah, well,” Dean had said, fingers brushing Castiel's as he took the wrench from him, “can't be perfect all the time, I guess.”
Currently Dean was downstairs, trying to get their new (or, for all other parties, very old) television to work. Since that first excursion their house had become considerably more crowded—they now had a coffee table in the living room, Castiel's bookshelves continued to fill, and an empty mason jar on their bedside table unceasingly jangled with spare change towards buying the piano Cas had seen months ago. Dean had repainted the kitchen chairs to match the table, Cas was teaching himself how to cook decent meals, and they'd placed two small landscapes above the fireplace of long, winding roads vanishing into trees, the sides of the trails heavy with underbrush. More and more it felt like a home.
Castiel sighed, setting aside the photo album, and reached over to pull two heavy boxes of picture frames across the warped floorboards. Then he bent forward, found a hollow spot in the wood, and knocked loudly three times.
It was a signal they'd decided upon a while ago, for if Castiel needed Dean but they were in separate parts of the house—three knocks on the nearest surface and Dean would come up or come down or come in.
Sure enough, a moment later Cas heard the buzzing of the distant television's static settle to a hum and heard Dean's boots on the stairs.
He leaned into the low attic door. “What's up?”
Help me bring out these boxes? It's too dark to see them in here.
Together they hefted the cardboard between them, let it drop to the floor of their bedroom in a small cloud of dust. Dean wiped his hands on his jeans.
“Anything interesting in there?” he asked, glancing back towards the attic door.
Photo albums, Cas signed. Carefully keeping his eyes averted, he added, Baby pictures. Lots of those.
“...cute kids?” he asked, hesitantly.
Cas smiled softly. I suppose.
He closed and locked the attic door, and they carried the frames down to the first floor.
Cas was beginning to think they'd never be fully moved in. Loose things still waited to be unpacked in almost every corner; they couldn't seem to stop finding things they needed in town. The barest room was the study at the front of the house, spartan but for Cas' writing desk and his typewriter and his bookshelf, and the window-seat in the wall. The light came through in that room in dusty streaks, painting the walls pale.
“By the way,” Dean said, as Cas sat down cross-legged on the floor to go through the boxes, “Sam's picking me up tonight. We're heading out east for about a week. Huge nest of vamps needs taking care of. Sam said he's never seen anything like it.”
Cas paused for a moment before he looked up at him. The words Sam's picking me up tonight had begun to make his heart sink, because they always meant Dean leaving. He had been trying to tell himself for months that this had to happen, that Dean couldn't leave the life and would never be able to, that it was in his blood and Sam's too, and that the absences were necessary.
He'd tried to think of it like other people thought of their spouses on business trips, but the house—though their own, and comfortable, and much-beloved—always seemed enormously empty without him, and the emptiness seemed to call to something in Castiel—the hollow where his grace had been—and it made him uneasy.
Castiel pressed his lips together and looked back down. He was holding a rose pressed under the dirty glass of a simple frame, petals withered and dried. Gently he set it down on the floor.
“Is that okay?”
Of course, Cas signed.
Dean stopped what he was doing at the television and knelt down next to him for a moment, touching the back of his hand. “Hey.”
Reluctantly, Cas looked at him.
“Things are still a little topsy-turvy on that side of the veil, okay? But it's bound to settle down soon, and then Sam and I can stop hunting all the time, and we can settle down for real.” Dean's eyes were wide and green and full of thin winter sunlight. “Just for a little bit longer, okay?”
It's too quiet when you're gone, Cas signed.
“Yeah, I know. I'm sorry.”
They sat for a moment in the buzz of television static, and then Dean leaned over to kiss the curve of his cheek, gently.
“I'll be back in a week. Less if I can swing it. And while I'm gone you can hang as many dead flowers on the walls as you want, okay?” His fingers rested on the pressed rose and he smiled, and Cas couldn't help smiling back.
...do we have time to...you know. Before Sam comes?
Dean glanced at the clock above the mantel. “I think we can manage that,” he said, grinning.
The rug they'd picked up for thirty bucks at a rummage sale left burns on Castiel's bare back, but he couldn't complain.
Before Dean left that evening, as Sam was waiting in the doorway, he kissed Cas for a long time, arms tight around the fallen angel's body.
Cas was tempted, when he pulled away, to hold his breath, to keep the taste and feeling of Dean inside his mouth for as long as he possibly could.
He let his fingers touch and drag down Dean's arm as the hunter slung his bag over his shoulder and said, with that roguish grin he always wore in the evening of a hunt, “See you in a week. Love you.”
I love you too, Cas signed, letting a feeble smile touch his lips. So much.
Sam cast him a smile as they walked out, down the dirt drive to the Impala, and Cas knelt on the window-seat in the study to watch them drive away, watch the headlights vanish into the cold dark.
Cas always had trouble sleeping the first nights without Dean. He had grown so used to feeling a body beside him on the bed, of having a shoulder to slip his hand against or legs to tangle his own with, a mouth to kiss when he woke in the middle of the night.
Sam had joked, a while after they'd first moved in, that they acted like newlyweds on perpetual honeymoon, and Cas was rather alright with that thought.
The house was very dark after nightfall; light did not seem to move past corners and corridors very well and so Cas often found himself in isolated islands of brightness, in the glow of a lamp on the edge of the couch, or the softly humming bulb in the kitchen ceiling. The darkness didn't bother him when Dean was home, but when he was alone the emptiness and the silence unsettled him, crept like an itch under his skin.
Sometimes he found himself thinking of the woman in town and what she had said, about the house.
He still didn't know exactly what she had meant by it, but he thought perhaps it had something to do with the way it felt as if the house moved, sometimes. How the walls weren't precisely stationary, after dark, at least in his mind. Imaginings, probably, but it unnerved him nonetheless.
Tired, but not tired enough to sleep, he carried a box down from upstairs and sat on the living room floor, back to the dark windows and the heavy woods, and lifted out rubber-banded stacks of paper: receipts, napkins, a thin ratty spiral-bound notebook, pages covered in his spidery close-tucked handwriting. Poems.
Someday, Cas thought, he'd organise them—collect them all in order and see what story they told. He didn't know if it would be his story or not. If it would be Dean's, or someone else's. He rifled through the pages and papers and slips until he found the first few he'd written, all on the backs of crumpled receipts, nearly unintelligible, but he could still pick out the words and mouth them, feel their shape on his tongue even if he could not speak them.
At first it had been difficult—the silence. He remembered clearly feeling incredibly frustrated, those first few days without his voice, when he'd opened his lips to say something and felt nothing come out. He'd had to write out everything, gesticulate and mouth, and the boys had done their best to comprehend him, had been patient and understanding, though none of them had any idea why this had happened. The Fall, or bad luck, or some misfired curse, they couldn't be sure, and though Cas was nearly certain it had to do with pulling out his grace, knowing didn't make him any less frustrated.
Perhaps the muteness had been the turning point, Cas thought, looking back—he gently laid the poems out side by side like tarot cards on the rug where he and Dean had made love that afternoon—for with silence had come a need to touch, a need for physical closeness that hadn't been necessary before. Touching a shoulder to get attention, spelling something out with his fingers. In the worst moments when all attempts at communication had failed him, on the rare occasions when he had felt the most helpless and bitter and had lost his temper, broken motel lamps or started to cry, that was when it had first happened—when Dean had touched him to calm him, had made him sit down on the bed and had held his shoulders and rubbed his back until he'd stopped shaking.
Dean understood—and Sam did, too, and often Cas had found Sam's quiet comforting embraces to be soothing, but not in the same way.
Dean knew what it was to scream and not be heard.
Hell, after all, had muted all cries for help.
Dean had been the one to practise sign language with him, as he was learning it from books and from Sam, had been the one to stay up late perfecting the alphabet and coming up with signs, this phrase or that. Helping Cas through the frustrations of inventing language, the aftermath of Falling. Dean had been the one to notice that Cas, now more than ever, needed someone to lean on, and had offered the left side of his bed to the fallen angel rather than consigning him to the sofa as before, had paid the greatest attention to anything Cas might need. It was rare for Dean to miss a sign from Cas.
And none of that, Cas thought, putting his chin in his hands and surveying the poetry laid out on the rug, had done anything to keep Castiel from falling more and more in love with him every day.
Dean had taken him out for drinks one night, to loosen up and have a good time and not worry so much, and on their way out Castiel had drawn him against the wet brick alley wall and kissed him.
And that had been that.
And now—Castiel leaned back against the cushions of the couch, resting his head on their curve, and looked up at the ceiling. Now he was living in a house with Dean Winchester, the man he'd Fallen from grace for, the man he'd pulled out of Hell. Now he was as human as they came and very much in love; three years ago he'd been a tight-lipped soldier of Heaven without emotion or free thought and now it had come to this, a ramshackle building in the woods where they made love on the living room floor and spoke with their hands and the tapping of knuckles on banisters. The way of things astounded him.
He decided, quietly, to himself, as he put his poems back in the box and hefted it into his arms and climbed the stairs in bare feet, that when Dean came home he was going to write him a poem, and it would say a million things about the way that Falling felt, and how he didn't regret a single one if it meant this house in this forest with this man.
The bed was cold when he slipped under their comforter. For a long time Cas let his hand rest on the indentation where Dean normally slept until he could bring himself to close his eyes.
Dean called home on the fourth day. It wasn't convenient, obviously, given that Cas couldn't speak back, but he tapped his fingernails against the phone's mic, once for yes, twice for no, three times for I love you.
“This thing is huge. Sam was right, it's ridiculous—never seen anything like it. Gotta be dozens of these things. Probably get back late Saturday night—you doing okay?”
“Be sure to text me or Sam if something comes up.”
The conversation was frustratingly brief, as usual, and after a quiet pause Dean said “Okay. See you on Saturday. Love you.”
Cas tapped on the phone nine times—I love you, I love you, I love you—and he could hear the smile in Dean's voice when he said goodnight and goodbye.
The next morning Cas woke with a sore throat and a stomachache, and, frowning, found neither tea nor soup in their pantry to soothe either of those things. Rubbing his eyes, he slipped their meagre address book from the niche next to the microwave and flipped through until he found the number for the wife of Dean's boss at the furniture store.
Her name was Abigail, and she lived with her husband down the road a mile closer to town, and she'd told Dean that Cas could contact her if he ever needed anything while Dean was away. She was a portly woman in her mid-forties, and she and her husband seemed fond of them, were constantly dropping invitations to supper that they rarely accepted.
Maybe someday, Dean had said, when things got into some kind of routine.
Cas sat at the kitchen table to text her, clumsily placing his fingers on the keys of his cell phone. He waited for it to buzz with a reply—of course, be round in twenty minutes—before he got up to put on clothes.
Abigail drove him to the store and back, with a plastic bag of Campbell's and Earl Grey in his lap, and chattered happily the whole way, smiling at him in the rear-view mirror. He signed thank you very much as he got out of the car and she waved as she drove away.
Dean would be home in two more days. Cas sat on the couch with a bowl of soup and a book of Shelley's poems and fell asleep there, feeling worse than he had that morning.
“Hey. You been sick while I was gone?”
Dean came home late on the seventh night, just as he'd said he would, and it was his hand on Castiel's shoulder that woke him.
Cas opened his eyes, blinked sleep away. Just a bit, he signed. Just a cold, I think. Hello.
“Soup cans all over the kitchen counter.” Cas watched as Dean gently flipped on the bedside lamp and began to unpack his bag, laying out knives and his machete wrapped in cloth. “Did Abigail drive you into town?”
She's very helpful, Cas signed, levering himself up in bed. He was feeling much better, but he'd slept most of the last day away, curled up on Dean's side of the bed in the crevasse left by his body. How was the hunt?
“Got a bit scratched up but we're okay,” Dean said. He had, indeed, what looked like fingernail rakings down one cheek, on his neck, and the skin beneath was raw and angry and red. Cas shifted uncomfortably at the sight of them. Dean smelled a bit like blood and ash, and Cas wondered if they'd burned the bodies or the nest, and then decided it didn't really matter. “You feeling better, at least?”
Yes. Cas glanced over his shoulder, up through the octagon window over their bed. Isn't Sam coming in?
“Nah, he was exhausted—went on home,” Dean said. “And I think,” he continued, leaving his knives for a moment to shed his jacket and overshirt, “I think I can safely say that that's the last hunt we'll be going on for a while, at least.”
Cas smiled. I'm glad.
“So did you miss me?” Dean said, grinning, pulling off his jeans and boots and climbing into bed beside him, pulling him back down against the pillows with a gentle hand.
Oh, terribly, Cas signed. He paused, and then added, it's so empty here when you're gone, and everything seems so big and cold.
“Good thing I'm not leaving again anytime soon, then, right?”
Please try to promise that you won't hunt so much. It's hard to build a life when you're gone so often.
“I know. I know, we just can't help it—Sam's only the second greatest hunter in the world, after all. Needs his big brother to show him the ropes again every now and then.” Cas didn't smile, and pulled his eyes away, and Dean touched his cheek. “Hey. We'll try, okay? I'll try not to go away so often.”
Cas nodded, and Dean kissed him, and they shifted in close to one another.
Cas fell asleep again to the smell of dust and flame on Dean's skin, and Dean watched his face for a long time before he, too, drifted off.
Tell me about the hunt, Cas signed over coffee the next morning, sitting cross-legged on the rickety chair at the head of their kitchen table. Dean was eating the scrambled eggs Cas had gotten up early to make for him and rubbing constantly at his neck over the scratches; they were inflamed and Cas frowned every time he saw them.
Dean shrugged. “Not much to tell.”
On the phone you said you'd never seen anything like it.
“Well—yeah. I mean, huge nest of vamps. Forty or more, I dunno, we lost count.” Dean wiped his mouth and cocked an eyebrow. “What else d'you wanna know?”
Cas shrugged, picked at the handle of his coffee mug. Then, Was it hard? Did you and Sam have a good time?
“It was a mess for a while but we cleaned it up. Nothing we couldn't usually handle, if that's what you mean.”
There was silence for a moment, and Dean averted his eyes, and Cas looked at him hard. It was rare for Dean to be this quiet about hunts. Normally he waltzed in through the front door late in the evening smelling of celebratory beer and bursting with anecdotes, buzzing with the joy of finishing off some supernatural creature with flair and ease.
Oh, he signed, carefully, looking down into his mug. I just thought there would be more to tell.
Dean finished off his breakfast and dropped his fork onto the plate with a clatter.
“Sam and I were talking,” he said, “and, ah, we were wondering—if we ever catch wind of something you could handle, would you ever want to come with us?”
Cas looked up at him, and to his surprise he felt his stomach turn ever-so-slightly at the mere idea of it—going out on hunts again. He'd gotten used to having to stay behind, no good with exorcism anymore since he couldn't speak and had no grace, always feeling useless when he'd had to miss the battles or the kills because they couldn't risk him getting hurt and being unable to call for help. He thought of climbing into the Impala with the brothers and driving off to some backwoods town to hunt some sharp-toothed thing, uncertain of anything all the while, and it nearly made him nauseous.
It's a nice thought but it's hardly practical, Dean, he signed cautiously.
“Well, we were just thinking, I mean—you're cooped up in the house all the time as it is. Can't be good for you.” There was an undertow of concern in his voice when he said it and that made Cas almost as uncomfortable as the proposition.
I'm fine, his fingers said. Really. You don't need to worry about me. Even as he signed it he felt that there was the angle of a lie to it and, feeling more and more uneasy the longer this conversation lasted, he got up to put his mug in the sink. He held his arms akimbo as if to embrace the kitchen for a moment and then signed, I love it here. It doesn't matter to me whether I get out or not.
Dean set his jaw for a moment and then sighed, shoulders falling. “If you're sure,” he said, but the undercurrent of mild worry was still there beneath his voice. “I just don't want you locking yourself up in here forever. Just because you can't talk doesn't mean you can't go out and do things, you know? Doesn't mean we can't go out and go to movies or bars or whatever cliché shit couples do these days.”
He got up to put his plate in the sink beside Castiel's mug and chucked a finger beneath the fallen angel's chin, pulling his gaze up.
“Just promise me you'll try eventually?” he said, palm coming to rest on his cheek.
Cas nodded. Give me a little more time to get used to being human, he signed, and gently pulled away from Dean. Then it will be easier.
Cas smiled softly, lopsided, and his hands said I'm going to take a shower. After a moment more he added, ...if you wanted to join me.
Dean grinned, turning the faucet on to wash the dishes, and said, “Go on. Be up in a minute.”
As Cas turned to go upstairs he caught again the scent of ash on Dean's skin, lingering in the air from where he'd pulled his hand away, and he frowned. He'd be more than happy to rid him of that smell. It made him think of graveyards and burning bones and that—like anything that spoke of long drives on empty highways and the metal streak of the life—bothered him immensely, these days.
Dean would join him in the shower and he'd scrub the scent from his body, bring him back to smelling like leather and dust and dogwood and pine. And then everything, Cas told himself as he mounted the stairs, would be perfectly normal again.
Dean knocked on the bathroom door as Cas was washing up amidst the steam and the warm tile, and Cas knocked three times on the shower wall to let him know it was alright to come in. He saw Dean's silhouette through the shower curtain and smiled, turning his face up into the water until he heard Dean step in behind him, heard the tiny clatter of the bottle of lube on the shelf beside the shampoo and the soap.
“Four months of living in this place and I can't believe we haven't done this yet,” Dean said, and Cas could clearly feel the smirk on his lips when he pressed them against his neck, kissed beneath his earlobe.
He had found that Dean had hands that spoke almost as fluently as his own, in moments like these—hands that roamed and explored and weren't afraid of the small places, the delicate curves of bone, fingers that knew exactly where to slip and touch and tapped out volumes in Morse code on his chest, his shoulders, the dip of his hipbones and the fold of sensitive skin where his leg met his pelvis. He had found that Dean's hands could bring him up and push him over the edge by their brush alone, that Dean's touch was one of the few things he felt himself to be completely vulnerable to.
It was in moments like these that Cas could almost forget the strength and fury of what he'd once been, unaffected by most everything.
Dean's hands were the great exception. Dean's hands shattered him.
He turned his head back to kiss him, and Dean's hands, pressing and pushing down planes of skin and touching, made waterfalls down Castiel's chest, pulled him in close against Dean's body and trapped him there, sought out the places that made Cas open his mouth and seek air. He reached back a hand, brought Dean's head down under the stream of water, kissed him full on those ridiculous lips, tried to taste the cadence of a moan, the note and pitch of a sigh.
In instants like these Cas almost felt that he could eat language, could steal Dean's voice for himself and echo it back, give him some message, some sign that he was doing everything perfectly.
He hardly noticed when Dean caught up the lube from beside the shampoo and the soap; he was too distracted by the poems left by Dean's fingers on his skin, too busy trying to muster them all in the palms of his hands. Dean slicked two fingers and felt his way inside him and Cas closed his eyes, breath hitching, dancing on the edge of a moan that couldn't be heard, and Dean's other hand wrapped around him and began to move, easy and slow and agonisingly right, and Cas pushed back against him, took three fingers and gasped, always voiceless, almost breathless.
Dean never spoke when they did this, perhaps out of respect for the fact that Cas couldn't reply, but Cas always heard more than enough in the way he was touched.
When Dean pressed him up against the shower wall and pushed himself inside, Cas settled his forehead against the wet warm tile and closed his eyes, feeling Dean's mouth pressed against his neck, against the vertebrae of his spine and the nape where his dark hair ended, felt one hand on his shoulder like the mirror of a burn and the other on his hip to steady him. He arched back against him, breath misting on the white tile, his own silent hand coming to grip the back of Dean's, feel the spaces between his fingers, knuckles, nails.
The pounding steam and the water and the slick tile, Dean warm and solid and moving behind him, slipping kisses against the underside of his jaw, everything stole breath and the shifting of bones, everything seemed to build and climb until he lost everything but Dean's hands and his mouth and his cock and the way even the tattoo of the water seemed to shout something sacrilegious and profound about the flutter of his heart, everything broke over the edge of the poetry and white sparks burst behind his eyes, there, against the shower wall, and he let out a ragged breath, mouth an o, the soft taste of water and of Dean on his tongue.
Dean kissed his shoulder again and again and almost bit down when he came a moment later with a shudder and a moan, and he slipped sideways to rest against the wall, turn Cas around and take his face in his hands, kissing his eyelids and his cheekbones and his mouth.
All the prose had gone out of his fingers by then, but Cas held them anyway, like precious things.
It almost felt like a dream. The scent of ash on Dean's palms was blessedly gone.
They went downstairs, hair still wet (and Dean in the complicated throes of putting on a T-shirt), and Dean opened the curtains over the wide living room windows. It had snowed the night before, late April snow, but the chill behind the window glass seemed far away.
Castiel's cell rang from the kitchen, and Dean turned to go and answer it, and as Cas watched him go he saw it.
Not a limp, not a stumble, not a change of posture or a movement of the shoulders, but there was something—different in the way that Dean was walking. As if his bearing had shifted, as if his center of gravity had moved.
It was subtle, and it was slight, but Castiel's oft-remarked-upon staring hadn't been for nothing, all these years. He knew the way Dean Winchester moved down to the smallest bending of his joints, and though he couldn't put his finger on it, something had changed.
He heard Dean in the kitchen on the phone, and tried to shake the pall of uneasiness that had fallen, sweeping away all the afterglow of the shower. Dean was talking to Abigail, it seemed, and he could hear the exchange of words like coming for dinner and dropping by.
He got up off the couch where he'd sat down and walked into the doorway of the kitchen. Dean was leaning on the counter with the phone tucked against his shoulder.
“Hold on one minute,” he said, and faintly Cas heard Abigail's metallic muffled voice said that's alright! Dean covered the mic with one hand and turned his face to Cas, said, “The Shaws want us over for dinner sometime this week. You wanna go?”
Cas made a noncommittal face.
It wasn't that he didn't like the Shaws. They'd been nothing but kind and inviting since they'd moved in, and Henry Shaw paid Dean far more than he ever owed him to haul furniture across town, because he knew they were still starting out; Abigail was always willing to drive Cas into town and back, always eager to teach him how to cook this or that.
But Cas didn't want to go out. He didn't want to have to muddle through human modes of manner and stumble over the niceties of having dinner with the pleasant couple down the road. They were friends, of course, but Cas had always—since the Fall and even before—felt uncomfortable around humans he didn't know intimately, had felt like the most enormous, ridiculous, useless waste of space or a place at the table. He wasn't one of them yet, no matter how far from angel he had dropped. Dean and Sam loved him, could handle his awkward first steps into becoming one of them, but the thought of an entire evening with two people who were as good as total strangers compared to the Winchesters made him uneasy.
Dean blinked. “Is that a no?”
Cas shrugged, dropping his gaze. Maybe some other time? he signed sheepishly.
Dean looked at him for a moment and then tilted back towards the phone. “Give me a minute, Abigail, need to talk to Cas,” he said, and he put the phone mic-down on the counter.
“What's up?” he said, in a low voice, gesturing back towards the phone. “This is the fifth time they've invited us.”
You didn't have a problem with not going before.
“Yeah, because we were still getting moved in. Things are better now, and I'm home for a while at least, and if we keep turning them down they're gonna think we've got something against them.”
I'm not comfortable with it, Cas signed, frowning.
“What's not to be comfortable about? They're our friends,” Dean said, the confusion on his face settling into irritation.
Maybe next time, Cas signed again, firmly, and he stepped back into the hall, leaving the kitchen threshold to move towards the study at the front of the house.
“Hey, sorry, Abigail, not this time,” he heard Dean say as he went. “Yeah—yeah, Cas is, uh, he's still adjusting—yeah, I'm real sorry. Maybe next time. Yeah. Yeah, next time we'd love to.”
Cas shut the study door against Dean's voice saying “Talk to you later. Bye.”
Through the bay window the April sun was gleaming on the late-spring snows, and the dirt drive was icy where it curved off into the trees towards Swallowtail Drive. Instinctively Cas glanced at the Devil's Trap painted on the ceiling over the window—still unbroken—and pulled out the chair beside his writing desk.
He was aimlessly tapping a pen on his notepad, trying to call rhymes to mind, when Dean knocked on the door.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
Cas rapped his pen on the side of the desk to say yes and the door opened behind him.
“Hey,” Dean said quietly, and Cas heard him lean against the wall with a creak of old wood. He didn't turn to look at him.
There was a pause; he heard Dean lift up again, cross the noisy floorboards to the window. The jutting sound of the latch as he forced the old panes open and cool air wafted in.
“Stuffy in here,” Dean said.
Cas remained facing forward in his chair, eyes drifting over his notepad.
He heard Dean sigh. “—Look, I know you're still getting used to all this human social stuff, but the only way you're gonna get better at it is if you go out and be with humans, you know?”
Cas frowned at his empty notepad and turned halfway in his chair.
You've had thirty-odd years experience with the way of things. I've hardly had three. This isn't easy for me, Dean.
“I know. I know it isn't. But—” Dean sighed, running a hand over his face, and for a moment he looked off through the window to the drive. “We can start small, okay, but we need to start sometime.”
Yes, Cas said, turning his head away. Just not this week.
“Are you scared of something?” he asked, gently.
Cas may have been imagining the chill that fell on the room, in the wake of those words, but he couldn't be sure.
He didn't reply. He tapped his pen on his notepad until Dean sighed, and gently closed the door behind him.
He sat there a moment more and then uncurled, stood up, looked at the window Dean had opened. He frowned; his eyes pulled up to the Devil's Trap on the ceiling. Keeping the window open rather defeated the purpose. He crossed the room and pulled it shut, latched it tight.
Later that evening he finally wandered out of the study, having written nothing, his thin volume of Keats clutched against his chest. Dean was watching TV with his finger in the lip of a beer bottle, sprawled on the edge of the couch, and he glanced up when he saw him come into the room.
Dean swung his leg down off the cushions to make room for him, and, hesitantly, Cas sat down and leaned against him, tucking their legs close together. For a moment Dean didn't move, and then he let an arm rest across Castiel's shoulders.
I'm sorry about earlier, Cas signed.
“It's no big deal,” Dean said. He didn't say anything more than that, but his hand curled around Castiel's shoulder and brought him closer, let him rest his head against Dean's neck.
A week passed, and every day it became more noticeable: the change.
Cas still couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was. Was there a grace to Dean's movements that hadn't been there before? A lack of grace? A bruise or injury that made him walk strangely, though Cas had examined him head to toe under the cover of sex one night, fingers silent on his shoulders and chest and legs, and found nothing? A new lilt to his speech, a new roughness? None of those things seemed to be the case—or perhaps it was all of them, in some way.
It was Dean. There was no doubt about that. But he had shifted, like printer's ink missing the outline on the paper. Jarred.
It picked at him for days.
Dean leaned into the doorway of the attic, one dark afternoon, as Cas was going through yet another box abandoned by the previous owners. He was beginning to wonder what exactly had happened to them, what had made them flee this place—they had left behind so many photographs and books, baby blankets and mementos, that he was tempted to think that something had gone terribly wrong, here, a long time ago.
Cas lifted a hand to acknowledge him.
Dean ducked inside and knelt down on the floor beside him, picking up a framed photo of a newborn baby Cas had pulled from a box. “Is it just me or did these people have a thing for babies?”
Cas smiled, to himself. They hadn't talked about having a child in a while, but he had been considering bringing it up again, subtly, slipping it into the conversation somehow.
Dean put the photo down and crossed his legs, resting his elbows on his knees. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, “I'm picking up Sam tomorrow morning. There's a hunt out west.”
Cas paused, hands resting silently in the air over the box he was picking through. Gently he set them down to rest on its edge, staring into the near-empty bottom of it, past broken picture frames and a folded quilt.
Dean gnawed at his lip.
“I know it's soon,” he said. “Cas—”
By all means, Cas signed. Go.
“Cas, come on—”
Dean reached out to touch his shoulder, and Cas stood up, stepping carefully over the contents of the boxes.
Dean followed him down the stairs, into the kitchen, where Cas turned the tap on to wash the dust and dirt from under his fingernails; he braced one arm against the counter and leaned forward to catch his gaze, draw his face around.
“It's just a little thing,” he said. “We'll be back in two days tops—”
Cas cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand and shunted the faucet off.
If it's so small, why can't Sam take care of it himself?
“Cas, come on, it's not like this is new—”
We are trying to build a life here, Dean, and we can't do that when you're gone all the time. How are we supposed to be normal, and human, as you're so keen on teaching me to be, when half the time I'm alone in this house without you?
“When we decided to stop moving around we agreed that I would still need to hunt,” Dean said, standing up straighter as Cas turned away and moved to the cabinet, opening it to take a glass from the shelf. “Didn't we? There's still a world out there, Cas, and it still needs our help—”
You promised you'd try, Cas signed. You promised you'd slow down.
“I didn't say it would be overnight—”
Just go. Cas turned the faucet and filled the glass and stared off through the window, out into the woods, refusing to look at Dean. If you need it so badly. Just go.
Dean stared at him for a long time, but Cas didn't meet his gaze. The water in his glass stayed untouched, but his fingers clutched at the sides, reflexively, as if trying to hold onto something he couldn't quite grasp.
Quietly, Dean kissed his temple—a bit too hard, perhaps, a bit too firmly—and went up the stairs to their bedroom.
Cas let his forehead rest against the window and closed his eyes. He wished to God he could claw up voice from his throat so that he could speak again, say what he meant easily and fluidly, talk to Dean and make him understand—his whole reason for being was Dean, his reason for remaining on Earth and for Falling was Dean, and if Dean was gone and never lingered longer than a week—what did that make him? Where did that leave him? It dropped him into emptiness and silence and poems that refused to form themselves, a sad excuse for a creature trying and failing to be human.
Castiel almost feared melting into the walls, vanishing into the pale blue paint and antique curtains, disappearing pointless and unremembered, in the absence of Dean.
For the first time he began to wonder if he was doing something wrong, if perhaps he had caused the Change in Dean—certainly, they were both new to this, to this way of living and this way of loving, but all he had ever done was want Dean beside him, if not constantly then at least more often than he'd had him before—how could he have disfigured things?
For a fleeting moment Cas thought he caught the glancing scent of ash on the air, the same sick smell Dean had come home with the week before, but when he looked up, it was gone, and he was certain he'd imagined it.
They shared an uneasy dinner in the kitchen during which neither of them spoke or signed. Dean went upstairs to shower for the night.
An odd little itch took hold of Castiel's bones and in the absence of Dean he went from room to room, upstairs and down, closing all the windows if they were open, locking the ones that weren't locked. Closing all the doors behind him as he went. Drawing the drapes over the tall living room panes, clapping the dust from his hands when he was done.
Everything felt safer that way, he found.
Neither of them slept particularly well that night, and the next morning Dean got up early to pack. He was careful not to make too much noise, apparently unaware of the fact that Cas was already awake, and as he sat down on the edge of the bed to tie on his boots, he leaned over and kissed Cas and murmured “Be back in a few days. Love you.”
Cas didn't open his eyes until he heard the roar of the Impala leaving the drive, and even then he stayed in bed, staring at the plaster ceiling, for a long time.
When he did get up, he took a shower and put on his own boots. It looked warm enough to take a walk. Already the emptiness of the house was beginning to grind on his bones and the near-knocked trees seemed a much better place to spend his time.
There was a trail that led a little ways in, to an old water pump that didn't work anymore, and Cas pocketed his cell phone as he wandered past the pump and off the trail into the animal tracks through the trees.
It was a dark morning; he had a feeling it would rain later, but from beneath the trees the sky was a distant swirling grey mass, shreds of cloud turning over themselves, rushed east by the wind. He heard birds calling up ahead, and bent down—his fingers searched for a pebble in the dirt and when he found one, he hurled it at the nearest tree, scaring a tiny flock of bluejays into the sky, flapping their wings frantically.
Cas watched them vanish further into the woods. He envied them their flight.
He heard thunder, somewhere to the west, and paused. To look up was dizzying—the trees seemed to whirl and topple, the clouds rolled and plunged and grazed their tops, and he lingered there until he felt a raindrop on his face and turned to go back to the house. He held his arms close to his chest and took the porch stairs two at a time, ducked beneath the awning as the storm opened over the house.
For a little while Cas stood there, leaning against the house, gazing up at the angry sky from underneath the porch roof. The air grew colder the longer he stood, but he tucked his hands under his arms for warmth, let stray raindrops slip down his face.
This was the sort of moment he wanted to share with Dean.
This was exactly the sort of moment he never had the chance to.
Suddenly frustrated, feeling anger spark in his chest, Cas went inside and let the screen door smack shut behind him, slammed the lock home hard.
In the middle of the night he woke, for what reason he couldn't say; Cas cast his hand out for the clock on the nightstand and pulled its face towards him, reading just after one in the morning on its white face in the moonlight.
Feeling thirsty, he swung his legs out from under the comforter and paused. He had to shake off a shudder at it, feeling in his bones how empty the house was, how big the rooms beneath his feet were. All those pockets of darkness with nothing inside.
It was cold, so he pulled one of Dean's plaid flannel shirts off the bottom post of the bed, pulled the warmth over his arms. The shirt smelled like Dean's dust and leather, and for a half-awake moment he held the too-long cuffs up to his face and breathed in the scent. No ash and blood. Just Dean.
Down the stairs and into the kitchen.
He was filling a glass with water when he heard a loud creak behind him, as if someone had stepped on the loose floorboard in the hall, and perhaps too quickly he turned, one hand fluidly snatching up a knife sitting on the counter, the other coming to rest against the counter's edge.
The hall and the kitchen were dark.
But Cas knew better than anyone that hunter's instincts were not meant to die off, and he held the knife poised, paused, eyes darting round the room.
Nothing moved, and nothing shifted, so very quietly Cas pulled the sleeves of Dean's shirt down over his hands and moved back into the hall, towards the stairs, and that was when he stopped.
He paused, and turned, and he gently touched the corner of the door he'd just come through, glancing sideways.
He could have sworn this wall, on the right side of the jamb, had been shorter when he'd come in.
Cas was waiting up when Dean came home, late the next day, with that smell on him again, the smell of burning.
Hunting a ghost? he signed, foregoing a hello.
Dean nodded, pulling off his jacket and letting it drape over the old iron coat-rack. “Open and shut, nothing huge,” he said. He knelt down to unlace his boots, looking up at Cas, who was leaning against the foyer wall in his pyjama pants and T-shirt. “Everything okay while I was gone?”
Cas didn't flatter him with an answer. Slowly he turned around and began to climb the stairs up to the bedroom.
“Hey—you still angry at me?” Dean called, leaning around the banister. “Cas? Cas, come on, don't just ignore me—”
Cas was sitting on the bed when he came in, and Dean sat down hesitantly next to him, keeping his hands to himself.
Silence for a long while. Old pine and dogwood and leather and ash. The undertone of the smell of burning bones made Cas want to vomit.
“I'm sorry,” Dean said, shortly, as if he was having trouble forming the words.
Cas looked up at the wall, rolled his shoulders back, let his spine curve a bit.
When you're gone, he signed, slowly, I read the same books over and over again, and...I throw rocks at birds in the woods.
Dean was silent.
And I keep the television on all the time so I don't have to hear how quiet everything is. And I close all the windows and doors because it feels...safer. Controlled.
He paused to rub anxiously at his knees, and ran a hand over his face before flickering back to signs again.
Because when you're here, you're always making noise, you're hammering something, or cooking something, or you keep Dr Sexy up far too loud. And I can't make noise of my own, when you're gone.
“Does the quiet really bother you that badly?” Dean asked softly.
He saw the next question hovering on Dean's lips, but it never fell: why?
And while all Dean did was press his mouth closed and draw an arm around Cas, squeeze his shoulder comfortingly, Cas couldn't help but think of the answer—because he had been born into all the clamour and joy and song of Heaven, and all of that had been snatched away so utterly, so suddenly. None of it was coming back.
If Castiel hadn't been to the Pit, he would have said that silence was Hell.
After a while Dean asked, quietly, “Why do you keep shutting up the windows and the doors all the time?”
Cas shrugged against him.
“It's not like anything can get in here, y'know.”
There was no response. Cas' hands were still. He didn't know what to say, what to tell him.
Dean ran his hand up and down Castiel's arm and kissed his cheek. His lips were cold.
Before Cas fell asleep he remembered that he'd seen it as Dean had opened the door—the Change. In the bend of his knees or the flicker of his eyelids. Somewhere, it had been there, but he hadn't caught it, hadn't managed to snatch it up.
He dreamed about shooting birds down with slingshots, that night.
Dean, can I ask you something?
Dean glanced up at the sound of his knocking on the doorjamb. “Mm-hmm.”
Cas was standing in the hall near the living room and Dean motioned him over to the couch, where he was watching something Cas didn't remember the name of. Slowly, Cas sat down in the crook of his arm and let his eyes slip over him—catching the Change, clearer and clearer, in the glint of his eyes and the flash of his teeth, still unsure of what exactly it was, still uneasy, still unnerved.
Dean turned down the television and looked at him, face wide and open. “What's up?”
Did something...happen, on that hunt with Sam? That nest of vampires?
Dean frowned. “What do you mean?”
Cas shrugged, feeling ridiculous for even asking. Did you get hurt, or—
“Are you asking if I got turned?” Dean asked, a laugh on the front of his tongue. “Cas, don't you think that would've been obvious by now if that had happened?”
Frustrated, Cas clicked his tongue, signed, No, that isn't what I meant. I mean—I don't know how to explain it.
“Well—what do you mean, like...is something different?”
Cas paused for a long time before he signed, I feel like something has changed. And it happened when you came home from that hunt. I thought—
“Nothing's changed,” Dean said, soothingly. “Hey. Look at me.”
Cas turned his head, and for the twentieth time that day he felt ridiculous for ever thinking something had changed in Dean. The eyes that caught his were the same as they'd always been. The touch on his shoulder was Dean, the soft smile on his lips was Dean, the lounging of his body and the tiny strip of skin showing beneath his T-shirt was Dean.
Cas felt, suddenly, very twisted-up inside; he sighed and leaned down next to him, tucking his head against his shoulder, resting a hand on his chest.
“I'm still the same, and I love you,” Dean said, his other hand coming to rest on Castiel's hip, warm and close, “and nothing happened on that hunt that hasn't happened on other hunts. I swear.”
Cas didn't respond, but gently let his fingers clutch at the fabric of Dean's T-shirt, and Dean turned up the television again.
It was evening in the house on Swallowtail Drive.
Despite what Dean had told him, Cas could almost feel it under his fingers, like a different thrum to Dean's heartbeat, like an arrhythmia in the pulsing of his blood—the Change. He lay still against Dean and tried to let it speak back to him, identify itself, put his mind at ease.
He was afraid that, if he didn't pick it out soon, pluck it out like a feather and lay it to rest, it would worm into his mind and cast film over his eyes, that he wouldn't be able to see Dean without seeing It, too.
He was terrified that it would make Dean into something he wasn't, make him into someone Cas didn't love.
In the next three weeks, Dean went out on three hunts.
Each time he ducked into the attic or the kitchen or the back porch to tell Cas that he was picking up Sam tomorrow, there's a hunt out east or west or in Virginia, it seemed, they fought. Each time Cas tried to keep himself calm, tried to tell himself that they'd discussed this and that Dean needed to go, but every time he ended up signing something he didn't mean, something sharp-edged or rude.
“What the hell do you have against hunting all of a sudden?” Dean would say—each time his voice latched higher up on the ladder of shouting—holding his hands out as if to catch the reasons in the palms of his hands.
I've told you a thousand times, Cas would sign, fingers darting and forceful, that I don't like being left behind, and you promised you'd try to stop leaving all the time, and none of that seems to matter to you at all—
“Of course it matters to me, Cas, I want to move on with life as much as you do—”
You're doing a fine job of showing it, leaving me here every week to go off and hunt with Sam—
“He needs me sometimes, it's not like that's a new development or anything—”
You're acting like you don't care—
“Of course I care!”
If you want to leave the house and go back to living on the road you just need to say it and stop dancing around the subject, Dean—
And so it would go, for hours, sometimes, and inevitably it would end with sleeping stiff on opposite sides of the bed, backs turned to one another, to Dean leaving early in the morning before Cas was awake, to colder and colder greetings.
Every time Dean walked out the door, or walked back in, the Change seemed greater. A lower bend to his shoulders. A slower lope in his walk. A sharper edge to his speech.
When he was alone, increasingly Cas made his rounds of the house, drew every shade and drape, checked the locks on every window and unused door three times. Holed himself up in the study, coaxed poems out of the typewriter; more often than not he ripped them up and threw them away, frustrated that no phrase could catch what he wanted to say, no meter could fix on the exact cadence of the shade of green he had caught in his mind. He wanted desperately to say something about Dean's eyes—the only subject that seemed to spark anything in his mind anymore—to write stanza after stanza about them.
He wanted to write poems for days about Dean, about his entirety, about his eyes and his mouth and his hands, about the broad flat solidity of his chest and the sharp mountains of his shoulder-blades, about his hips and his cock and the small of his back, to capture him completely in a poem, and it wasn't until the morning after Dean had gone off on the third hunt, as he was frantically tapping his pen on his notepad trying to muster rhyme, that he realised why.
The Change. It. He was afraid, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the Change would eat him up, and he would forget Dean entirely.
Like pressing a rose under glass. He wanted to snare him in with words and preserve him there.
And constantly he worried that he was the cause of the Change, that he had done something to cause this shift, that if he lost his Dean it would be his fault, irretrievably damning, and he couldn't bear the thought of that.
Constantly he kept the television on, and when he was upstairs for the night he turned the radio downstairs on to an in-between station, static for hours, to give himself something to latch onto as he tried to fall asleep, some whisper of sound to remind himself that he wasn't entirely alone in the world, that something, somewhere, had voice.
The indentation on Dean's side of the bed was beginning to rise, to smoothe out and disappear, and the first night of the third hunt Cas pressed his hand into the mattress over and over again, to push it down, to keep the creases and the folds and the dip in the springs, to keep it from drifting away.
He tried to smile when Dean came home, tried to kiss him as if nothing had happened, but the scent of hunting was stronger and stronger every time, slipped under his skin and scratched at his bones like insects crawling over his flesh, and he hated it. He was terrified that the smell and the Change would become Dean, would dissolve his skin like acid and destroy him.
Increasingly thoughts came to him, in the empty days, that disturbed him. Was the Change Castiel's fault? Was Dean really—Dean? Was he hiding something from him?
He threw stones at the birds in the woods and tried to throw all his worrying thoughts with them, but it never seemed to work for long.
And Dean noticed, too, tried to reassure him, tried to say, “Let's go into town, later, maybe drop by Sam's place, see a movie, see the Shaws, get a beer,” but every time Cas shook his head, signed that he was tired or had a poem to work on, that he just wanted to be with Dean for a while, that he had more boxes to go through upstairs.
He knew Dean was frustrated with him, just as he was frustrated with Dean. Cas felt as if a rift was opening somewhere, in the cracks of the floorboards or the ceiling, in the dark spaces beneath the stairs, as if the house were yawning to draw them apart.
More and more Cas found himself almost afraid of the house, the way it opened its mouth wide when he was home alone to call to the silence in his own throat, the way walls seemed to grow thicker when Dean was there, swallow up Castiel's knock-knock-knock more and more, make it harder to hear. Muffling, pressing, exhausting silence.
Afraid to leave and afraid to stay.
Several times, when he was alone, he found himself pausing in the hallway, in the doorways, suddenly uncertain of the angles and corners of the house. Sometimes he found himself climbing the stairs and tripping on the landing because there should have been another stair there, he knew, he'd counted them in his head a thousand times—or his foot would catch because there was one more than he had expected. He felt that the walls sloped or bent, that the hallways grew and shortened, that the doors had knobs that changed when he wasn't looking.
He checked the Devil's Traps a thousand times to find nothing disturbed.
The smell of the road seemed to seep into the walls the longer Dean came and went.
It was the silence—always the silence, in every situation, it seemed—that woke him, one night before Dean was due back from yet another hunt. Something had shifted underneath it, like the stirring of some creature at the bottom of some ocean abyss, that pulled his eyes open.
Fear, for whatever reason, leapt in Castiel's throat as he quietly maneuvered out of bed, careful not to let his feet creak on the floorboards. He didn't know how, but he was certain something was happening downstairs.
For a moment he paused, hands gently tilted outward from his wrists as if testing his balance on the air, and he listened. There was absolutely nothing, only the sound of his own breathing, and the faint knowledge at the back of his skull reminding him that if something was happening, he wouldn't be able to scream.
Perhaps he was half-dreaming, or perhaps he'd lingered among these walls long enough to know their ways, now, because he felt certain he needed to go down the stairs. Down the stairs and into the unfurnished guest room.
Gently rubbing at his upper arms to slough off the cold, Cas stepped onto the landing, made his careful way down the stairs, blue eyes scouring the dark for any sign of movement. No matter how alone he knew himself to be, here, there was always the notion—always the possibility, he felt, the strong possibility that he wasn't.
There was a small table against the wall at the base of the stairs and gently he pulled its top drawer open, listening hard for the shift, the soundless growl of what had woken him. There was a knife in the back of the drawer and Cas picked it up, hefted its handle in his palm; with one hand out to feel against the wall in the dark, he moved around the corner, into the hallway that he thought had lengthened all those nights ago, holding the knife ready in the cold air.
The drapes were open in the guest bedroom, and the moon was high, casting bright rectangles of white on the dusty floor; at first glance it was empty, and so Cas hesitantly stepped inside, one hand on the doorjamb and the other curled around the knife, ready to lunge at anything that might be hiding in the shadows in the corners.
In any horror movie Dean had ever showed him, now would be the time to say “hello?” in a nervous voice, to fumble for a light-switch—but Cas had no voice, nervous or otherwise, and they'd never gotten round to fixing the broken bulb in the ceiling lamp in this room, and so he slipped inside to rest against the wall, scanning the dark for any hint of movement.
Castiel was so focused on the moonlight on the floor and on the empty walls that he hardly noticed when the door, left open when he'd entered, was suddenly—not open.
When he realised that the door had moved, he started violently, tore in a breath and wrapped his free hand around the handle to pull the door back open—he was nearly expecting it to be locked against him, but it opened too easily and nearly knocked him backwards. Cas stumbled back into balance and stared, wide-eyed, at the gaping doorway, at the dark dark hallway beyond it, and the thought of having to move back into that corridor was horrifying.
Cas swallowed hard.
The mute hum to the underside of everything was still throbbing in his ears, the feeling of being watched or touched or followed still lingering in the room. He turned, toward the window, knife still clutched in his sweaty hand, waiting for—what? He half-expected the walls themselves to leap at him and crush him, right there and then.
But nothing moved; nothing changed despite the nagging sensation that something was about to, that he'd catch it if he just stayed still—
He was turning slowly to face the other side of the room when he saw that the door had closed again.
A deep chill spiked up his spine and he froze, in the middle of the warped floorboards, staring at it.
He hadn't closed it. He hadn't even touched it. And the window with the Devil's Trap above it was closed tight, fair painted into its locks, and there were no drafts on this side of the house.
Castiel could have sworn he felt the floor itself shift, a nauseous racketing shift, as if growling, leave.
Dropping the knife to the clattering wood, he tore the door open and hurled himself up the stairs, and when he got into the bedroom he locked the door tight behind him, pulled the blankets up over his eyes like a child telling monsters if I can't see you, you can't see me—
—and the next morning when the whole house was filled with light, Cas retrieved the knife from the guest room, turned the key in the lock and stood there in the hall, staring at the pale painted wood of the door.
It didn't move.
Maybe nothing had ever moved.
But the hallway still felt longer than it had before, and whenever he passed the guest room that day he half-expected to see the door wide open again, yawning an invitation to come inside and know for
that all was as it should have been.
He was walking in the woods—past the water pump, into the animal tracks, wandering this way and that so long as he could see the pale green house through their trunks in the distance. Recently he'd been wary to go much further than that. The woods belonged to the house, but they were still an other, an outside, and he was growing more and more opposed to outsides and others.
Dean was in the house, fixing up a leak in the bathroom upstairs.
Cas picked a rock from the forest floor and hurled it at a tree to send robins chattering into the air.
He hadn't seen Sam in a very long time. Not since the big vampire hunt, he realised—since then Dean had always gone to pick him up in town. Sam hadn't even come for dinner, which was rare, too—they'd had him over at least twice a month, before, for what constituted family dinners, had invited him for Christmas and New Year's and had gone out with him for St Patrick's Day.
And Dean hadn't said a thing about Sam's car being broken, or the cost of gas, or why, suddenly, it was Dean's place to pick up his brother on the way to Sam's hunts. And the calls he'd been getting, more and more over the past few weeks since the incident in the attic, calls that didn't necessarily sound like they were from Sam given what Cas had been hearing through the walls—maybe—
Cas heard a female bluejay calling, somewhere up ahead, and followed the sound, glancing back over his shoulder to the house as he went, pebbles clattering in his fist.
—no. Never. Dean wouldn't.
The mother bluejay called again and Cas spotted a nest, tucked between the branches of a tall tree a little ways further into the woods. He took aim and threw the pebble, hitting the tree below the nest, and the bluejay startled, flapped a little ways up into the air before coming back down and fixing him with a steely, beady glare.
But it would make sense.
Cas threw the last stone at the bluejay's tree again, and it flew away. He didn't linger to see it come back.
Slowly he walked back to the house, past the rusted water pump and up the porch stairs, through the screen door.
He could hear Dean clanging around up in their bathroom, hear metal on metal as he futzed with the sink, trying to keep the water from spurting wildly out of the tap whenever they turned it on. It seemed like the house was well into its second wave of breaking down.
Cas hoped that wasn't an omen.
He climbed the stairs slowly, holding his arms close to his chest.
The bathroom floor was slick, and he leaned against the doorjamb rather than chancing the wet tile. Dean was on his back on the floor, head vanishing under the sink cabinet, T-shirt spotted with drops of dark.
Cas felt dazed. How did someone even begin to broach this subject? He knew he could easily turn and go downstairs and try to forget about the idea, but the thought of it was pinching at his brain, and he knew it would only pinch harder if he didn't say anything, if he didn't find out for sure.
He knocked three times on the doorjamb and Dean levered himself out from under the sink, propped himself up on his elbows to look up at him.
“Yeah?” He sat up, crossed his legs, wiping wet fingers on his jeans. “What's up?”
Cas gnawed at his lip. He could feel his heartbeat like an anxious animal vibrating in his chest.
Every time you leave, Cas signed. Every time you go...out on a hunt. Are you...really hunting?
Dean blinked. “What are you asking?” His voice had an edge of uneasiness to it and that in itself was almost enough to make Cas stop and sign that he was being foolish and leave it at that, but his fingers were moving faster than his mind, it seemed, and he remembered this feeling from the days when he could speak—words spilling out before he could stop them.
Is there someone else besides me?
“What?” Dean asked, incredulous. “What do you mean, am I—am I cheating on you?”
Cas made anxious fists, eyes darting everywhere but never landing on Dean, feeling ridiculous for even asking. It's just that I haven't seen Sam in months and you always seem to be going in to town, and I just want to know if you might be—seeing someone else—
“Jesus Christ, Cas, of course not!” Dean said, getting up, one hand resting on the edge of the sink. “There's no one else, I swear to you, okay?”
His heartbeat was like a frantic bird. Cas reached up and rubbed at his eyes, tried to steady himself.
You would have every right to see someone else, he signed, hands whirling away from what his mind was trying to say. A hook of something like nerves was dangling around his ribs, now. I wouldn't be surprised if you'd gotten tired of me, after all what fun is a fallen angel who can't even talk and is too afraid to leave the house—
“Stop it,” Dean said, firmly, and Cas did.
He ran an anxious hand through his hair and dropped his eyes.
“Don't you dare say that. Any of that.” Dean reached down to grasp his hands, pull them up and let them rest against his chest, caught Castiel's eyes up from the floor. “Okay? I would never do that to you.”
Something's changed in you, Cas signed, feebly, slipping his fingers out of Dean's. I thought—
“Hey. Okay, I don't know what this change is you keep talking about, alright, but I'm not seeing anyone else. I swear to God. Hey.” Cas had averted his eyes again and Dean snatched them back in that way he always could, held them steady and firm. “I love you. You know that, right?”
“Just because I leave doesn't mean I'm not coming back,” Dean said, folding his arms around him, then, and Cas let his head lie on Dean's collarbone and closed his eyes.
Standing there, he realised that the bathroom smelled like ashes again.
For the first time in weeks they made love that night, rocking the bedstead into the wall, all pale limbs and fluent hands and open mouths, but afterward all Cas could think about was the Change. It was like a second skin creeping over Dean's body, changing the smallest subtleties in the thrust of his hips or the stroke of his hand, a darker flash in his eyes, a new curve to his lips.
Until well past midnight Cas lay awake examining Dean's sleeping features, trying to commit them to memory. More and more he felt the urge to write, steal everything away before the Change took over entirely.
Again he wondered if it was the house—pushing the Change, giving him these thoughts, shifting Dean out of focus. Scaring him. Again he thought of all the abandoned things in the attic, and wondered what Change had come over those people, forced them away, if any at all.
Cas thought, maybe we should leave this house.
But it made his stomach clench—though he couldn't tell if it was out of fear or longing—to think of abandoning the walls that both comforted and unsettled him so much, the idea of returning to the way it had been, once. Being on the road, where the smell of hunting was not an intruder but the norm, where they knew exactly where they stood, where there were no absences or too-quiet nights, no walls that seemed to move when no one was looking, no doors that startled him by standing open when he knew he'd closed them, seemed almost like a dream, a fantasy.
But he had to give it time to change. Humans fought, but Castiel's humans always made up in the end, and perhaps it was only a passing phase, and perhaps they could be happy here again.
He was pleased to find that the warmth and the pulse of Dean's heart had not been touched by the Change just yet, and let his hand rest against it as he drifted off into uneasy sleep.
But Murphy's Law seemed like mildew in the woodwork, water stains on the ceiling, and the next two weeks saw Dean descend into a black mood that Cas couldn't seem to shake him from.
While Cas was content to sit in his study window-seat and read, go through anything still unpacked after these long months, watch television in the crook of Dean's arm or simply lie with him in bed, Dean was restless, as if longing after movement—he would walk up and down the stairs for ages under this pretense or that, make up petty excuses to go into town, stand out on the back porch watching the rain or the wind or the clouds.
“Let's go out to eat tonight,” he'd say, and Cas would hover on the edge of saying yes before the fear set in, would sign I'm tired or I'm not hungry and vanish into the study.
In a dictionary at the bottom of one of their last unpacked boxes he stumbled across the word agoraphobia, fear of open spaces, fear of leaving the house, and he closed the book hard over that page, tucked it back into the box and left it there. For a long time after that he sat against the wall and wrote the word in the dust on the floor. Phobia—irrational—but for some reason he felt that it wasn't irrational, for him.
The house called to him constantly. It called with its silence and its promise and its rooms full of objects they'd found together, and he realised that perhaps he was afraid that he would leave and never come back, that all his dreams of a life with Dean would vanish if he turned his back on them for one second.
He wanted Dean in the house with him. That was all he wanted. He closed up all the open exits, an obsessive habit now, every night before he slept, as if to keep it all in, as if to keep Dean in.
Dean—to keep away the fear of the silence of the house, because the house didn't whisper and move when he was there. The house to keep away the fear of the outside.
There were only two boxes left in the attic.
Dean, who had been brooding and silent all day, frustrated with Cas yet again for refusing to leave the house, was downstairs.
Yet another box filled with abandoned photos of children, but more than that—tiny faded clothes, soft blue pants and shirts with lace collars, candy colours dull with years, infant blankets folded into neat triangles, a broken mobile, like the leavings of a nursery room.
Cas leaned against the tilting wall, holding his flashlight between his teeth, examining a studio portrait of one of the blue-eyed infants.
It had been months since they'd talked about having a child, months since Cas had even showed anything from the attic to Dean. In those first weeks of moving in they had spent hours under the rafters looking at the trinkets and mementos of the mysterious previous owners, tried to imagine their lives, usually failing, for neither had much of an imagination for those things.
Cas took his flashlight out of his mouth and looked up at the spiderwebs in the eaves.
He missed signing aspirations with Dean in the early hours when neither could sleep, thinking about their someday-daughter or someday-son, how if it were a girl they'd name her Ellie for Ellen Harvelle, if it were a boy they'd name him Sam, how they would raise their child as far away from the life as possible, watch them grow up into someone they could look at with pride.
There had been other dreams, too—holidays they had yet to take, places they had yet to see, adventures they had yet to embark upon—but the dream of adopting a child with Dean Winchester was the dream Cas had always held closest to his heart.
He picked up a moth-eaten blanket from the bottom of the box, unfolded it—it was soft, all pastel colours and faded animal shapes, kangaroos and rabbits, and it carried the faint scent of cottonwood in its folds. He smiled, let it drape over his arm, got up and stepped carefully across the unsteady attic floor out the door.
Dean was on the couch in the living room, watching something on TV, and he glanced up when Cas came into the room.
“Hey,” he said. “What's that?”
Cas sat down next to him and Dean looked at the blanket with mild interest. He took it, ran his fingers over it.
“You find this in the attic?”
Hesitantly, he signed, Dean—do you think we could talk about...you know.
Dean paused, let the blanket drop into his lap; he began folding it absently. “What?” he said, with a tone to the bottom of his voice that Cas found surprisingly unenthused. “Having a kid?”
Cas nodded again. I've been thinking. It could be good for us.
Dean didn't say anything. He was staring at the blanket as if it faintly repulsed him, and Cas twisted his lip.
It would give us something to do rather than sit around all day, here. Something you'd want to come home for. And we've not talked about it in a long time, and I know it's early, but—
“Forget about it,” Dean said softly.
He set the blanket aside on the couch and did not look at Cas.
Castiel's hands paused midair, drifted slowly to his lap, and his blue eyes went wide.
What do you mean, forget about it?
“I mean forget about it,” Dean said, still soft, but stiffer now. “It's not practical. Not now, and I doubt it ever will be, so just let it go.”
Cas felt his heart beginning to sink in his chest, like a stone to the bottom of a pool.
I—thought you wanted a child.
“Yeah, I did, when I thought I could actually get away with leaving the life, but that's clearly not happening, so just let it go.” Abruptly, he stood up. “Don't get your hopes up. It's not going to happen.”
Cas saw it—the Change like a harsh glare of sunlight on Dean's face, foreign and alien and leaching like a mold over him. Dean began to walk away, into the kitchen or out of the conversation, Cas couldn't tell which, and almost frantically he got up to stamp his foot three times on the floor, steal Dean's attention back.
Dean sighed and turned, reluctantly. “What?”
That's it? Cas signed, feeling his blood rising in his veins, anger or shock or something else entirely. That's all you have to say? That it's never going to happen?
Dean held his arms akimbo, a gesture of helplessness. “I don't know what you want me to say, alright?” he said. A wave of the smell of burning seemed to shift through the room and Castiel had to bite back nausea. “I'm just telling you the truth, it's not practical and it's not smart and honestly, given the way you've been acting I don't think—”
What? That I'm fit to raise a child? You don't think I'm fit to raise a child?
“Frankly, as of this minute right now? No. I don't,” Dean said, and his face had a sharpness to it that Castiel didn't recognise as being Dean at all, and the Change was everywhere, now—it was lurking in the corners of his down-turned mouth and in his mocking arms and bowed shoulders, and Cas nearly recoiled against the couch at the sight of it. “You're being ridiculous, Cas, you won't leave the house for anything and there's no reason for it, you're cooped up in that study all day writing or reading and that's all well and fine but it's no life, Cas, this isn't a life. This isn't the life I pictured when I dropped everything to buy a house with you, alright? I thought we'd be going out, doing whatever couples do, having a kid, yes, maybe, making this place ours instead of just yours, okay? It's frustrating, alright, yes—I am frustrated with you, Cas, maybe I'm even a little angry with you, and no, I don't think we should have a kid, not right now. Not with the way you've been acting. There are a million things you need to get over first, so let it go.”
Numb and shaken and shocked, Cas watched Dean leave the room, disappear into the kitchen and open the refrigerator with the clatter of bottles that signaled his intent to drink himself to sleep that night.
It took Cas fifteen minutes to move at all, and twenty minutes after that to realise that he was crying.
“I love you so much,” Dean whispered to him, very late that night, a soft breath against the back of Castiel's neck.
It fixed nothing. But Cas shifted to let Dean touch his shoulder, just gently, slide his hand down to find the valley of his side and rest it there.
“And I'm sorry,” he said next, and then fell quiet.
Cas found the back of his hand in the dark and touched it with his fingertips, wishing the soft contact meant something more than just a silent yes, I know. I'm sorry too.
When Dean's cell phone rang from downstairs, he left the flashlight he'd been holding on the floor of the attic, rolling slightly on its precarious perch across the slats. “Be back in a minute,” he said.
Cas nodded. They'd been going through the last two boxes, one full of newspaper clippings, most of little interest. A few crumbled to paper ash in Castiel's hands and the wood was littered with them. Dean had made a quiet point of asking to help out with the attic, as if apologising for the fight days before, but Cas was wary, unsure if anything had been forgiven.
He reached over to move the flashlight closer, angle it up in the crook of his crossed legs the better to squint at the tiny newsprint. Besides the dim yellow light, the attic was pitch-black. They'd been talking about knocking a skylight in the roof near the front of the house, to light up the corridor and make it easier to navigate.
He could hear Dean murmuring downstairs in the kitchen. Probably to Sam. Cas set his jaw and resolved not to sign anything snide should he come back up with news of a hunt.
The flashlight flickered and Cas tapped it with the heel of his hand to jar the batteries back into place. Then he sighed, put it down, ran his hands over his face and massaged at his eyes with his fingertips. He'd been up here for hours looking through old things and he'd found nothing of interest, only cobwebs and last decade's advice columns.
He sighed and reached into the box to rifle out another article, picked up the flashlight to read it. The print was faded but he could still make out the headline: 'Fact or—'
There was a soft electric fizz and the flashlight went out.
Clicking his tongue, Cas put the article down and thumped at the bulb, but the light didn't come back.
He tucked it under his arm and uncrossed his legs, sore from keeping one position for so long; he felt for the wall in the semi-dark. The slats with the thin ceiling between them were hard to distinguish but he was sure there were batteries in the drawer where they kept the Colt—
He felt something snag: a nail had caught the trailing end of his jeans leg.
Cas bent down to undo it.
The attic door swung shut.
He stopped cold, frozen, uncertain about moving when he couldn't see the floor, and straightened slowly.
Cas swallowed. Maybe Dean had come up and forgotten he was there, closed the door? He'd open it again any second now with a laugh and a flush on his face.
Acutely, he felt himself blink in the dark. It was dead silent with the door shut—he could hear himself breathing but even that was muffled, as if he were breathing into wool, and Dean didn't open the door.
Very carefully Cas felt out with his foot for the slats and made his way toward the thin strip of light beneath the door, found the cold knob and twisted it.
He could feel the bolt grinding in the jamb. It was locked.
Cas paused, ran a hand through his hair to think. Did he have the key? Or had Dean taken it downstairs with him? But how had it locked, anyway? It wasn't automatic, and Dean wouldn't have locked him in, not even by accident.
He knocked loudly on the door on the slim chance that Dean actually had locked him in, knocked three times, but there was no answer, and when he pressed his ear to the door he could hear only silence from their bedroom. Dean was probably still downstairs.
Had the floor been sloped? A draft? But the door had never shut on its own before.
Cas tried the knob again, but it wouldn't open. He pulled it back and forth, more violently each time, but it wouldn't give; the dark and the quiet were oppressively heavy on his shoulders.
Then he felt, like a vibration through his bones, something—else.
He froze, hand still wrapped around the knob.
There'd been no sound, no indication of anything like a voice or a breath or a footstep, but he'd felt it all the same, and he remembered this feeling from days when he'd had words in his mouth, the sensory awareness of something other—knowing without knowing that someone was just around this corner or behind that wall, feeling the nudge of another body in the space his mind inhabited. Just like that.
He turned, clicked the flashlight on and off a few times in hopes it would come back to life, but it didn't work. It was like a low growl only heard by his spine or his forearms, emanating from somewhere around the attic corner—something here with him, somehow.
Old instincts said stand and fight, but with what weapons, and with what light?
He turned round again and wrenched at the doorknob, pulling with all his weight on it, but it wouldn't move, and the lock squealed under the force. He slammed his hand into the wood three times and more, calling Dean up from downstairs, all the while the creeping sensation on his shoulders that whatever it was was moving closer, the distinct feeling that maybe it wasn't a whom or a what at all but the corner of the attic itself, or the darkness of the attic, or the silence made manifest, somehow—
Footsteps, then, on the stairs, and he heard Dean's muffled voice in the bedroom but couldn't make out the words. He jiggled the knob to say that he was locked in and faintly heard “Hold on, let me find the key,” a voice too calm, Cas thought, but then how could Dean know that there was something definitely behind him, definitely—definitely shifting closer, he could feel it simply slicing through his bones like a blow to the knee?
He heard the key scraping in the lock and pressed himself against the door as far away as possible from whatever was making adrenaline spike through his arms, and when the door opened he stumbled totally ungracefully into Dean, nearly knocking them both backwards onto the bedroom floor.
“Jeez,” Dean said, regaining their footing, with something of a smile on his face. “How'd you manage that?”
I didn't manage anything, Cas signed, turning to face the yawning dark doorway perhaps too quickly. It locked on its own.
“Maybe you knocked the bolt? It's not an automatic lock.” Dean moved forward as if to examine the knob and Cas made a half-hearted grab at his shoulder as if to hold him back.
Dean turned. “What? What's the matter?”
He saw the look of unease on Castiel's face and frowned.
“Aw, come on, babe, don't tell me you're afraid of the dark.” He grinned, that everything's-fine grin, and Cas looked away.
I thought there was—
But how could there have been? He knew there weren't any ghosts in this house—they'd burned sage in every corner the day they'd moved in, and there were protections and sigils in every single room. He thought of the guest room, the low and soundless growl, and felt shivers raise gooseflesh on his arms.
Never mind. Cas shook his head. Foolish. He took the flashlight from under his arm and set it on the bureau. Light's out of batteries.
“I think there's some downstairs in the cupboard with the kerosene.”
Cas left Dean peering at the lock of the attic door, sliding the bolt back and forth, in and out, easy as one pleased.
No way it could have stuck. No way Cas could have locked it accidentally.
Dean chalked it up to a fluke and called it a day, but Cas wasn't so sure.
He went back into the attic only once more that afternoon, newly replenished flashlight in his hand, to drag out the box of newspaper clippings to examine in the natural light of the windows. It wasn't until after he'd gone through the whole thing, late that night, that he realised the column he'd been reading when the light went out was nowhere to be found.
By the time Dean left on a four-day hunt later that week, the Change had almost eaten him up entirely.
Castiel was certain of it. It was in everything now, every angle and joint and word, and though sometimes his Dean shone through it was only briefly, only rarely. He found himself recoiling at his touch, once or twice, because the fingers were unfamiliar; he found himself shying away from kisses because the mouth and the tongue and the voice were not the same anymore.
No matter how many times Cas signed something about the smell of charcoal and ash that clung to Dean like a plague, no matter how many times Dean scrubbed himself raw on Castiel's request, it was almost constant now.
Cas sat on the window-seat and watched Dean step out onto the porch, turned his face away to hear the Impala roar off onto the drive. It was near-summer now.
As he curled there, a book open against the corner of the sill and his feet pulled up off the floor, he leaned his head back and his eyes drifted to the Devil's Trap above the window.
It wasn't broken. Not at all. The lines were still as strong as the day Dean had painted them in, and he could still feel the vibration of power it gave off, somewhere deep in his bones.
In all his confusion about the Change, he had never paused to wonder if perhaps there wasn't another explanation.
Perhaps this Dean wasn't his Dean at all.
Uncurling, feeling warm floorboards under his bare feet, Cas left his book open on its cracking spine and moved through the house, lifting up the rugs on the thresholds, examining each Trap for the slightest crack—in the foyer, by the living room windows, by the back door, beneath their bed—found nothing amiss but checked them all three times anyway, looking for any sliver that might have allowed something supernatural entrance into the house. The silver and salt and bullets remained where they'd always been, the guns hidden in the drawers or cupboards or beneath furniture had not been moved or emptied—but these were the most basic of protections and there were hundreds, thousands of horrors in the dark outside, any of which could have slipped into Dean's skin, crept their way inside, shapeshifter or changeling or vengeful spirit...
Paranoia, his mind said, in Dean's voice. You need to stop jumping to conclusions, Castiel. But conclusions were all he had, conclusions were all he could cling to anymore, and the Change had been so great and so sudden—surely Dean wouldn't have simply shifted like that, surely Dean Winchester would have known enough of himself to remain himself—frustrated and angry and restless, yes, but still the same, still the soul and body Castiel had fallen in love with all that time ago.
He opened the drawer in their bedside table, pushed open the false bottom of the drawer—the Colt lay there gathering dust, and gently he picked it up, brushed it off, stared at its barrel and trigger.
The window above their bed was open and through it came the scent of ashes. He climbed onto the mattress and pulled it shut and shot the lock home.
That night he tried to distract himself with inane television, tried to bore himself to sleep on the couch, but the silence of the house was pounding and pushing around the soap opera he had tuned to and he could feel it like oil creeping beneath the sofa; he tried to call Dean's cell and received no answer, heard only an incessant beeping that he couldn't understand.
In the days until Dean came home there were sounds—creaks like feet upon the stairs, groans like the walls settling, and Cas locked himself in the study where the noises were quietest. Several times he swore that someone was in the house with him, but he searched every niche and crevice and found nothing and no one. But even more than the tiny unsettling sounds there was the hollowness of the quiet, so deep that sometimes he startled himself by simply moving, because even the gentlest scrape of his skin against the fabric of the couch seemed to echo for ages into the halls.
It terrified him, being so unsure of this building, of brushing against walls he didn't perfectly remember, of reaching down to push open a door and jumping back because the knob had once been pewter and now was brass, of wondering why the living room was so dark and losing himself in counting the windows over and over, because hadn't there been three before where now only two gave light?
More and more the thought entered his mind that this house—this house was the problem; this house was alive in some way. This house changed people.
This house let the monsters in. Had opened its doors for the thing that wasn't Dean. The more he sat in the empty rooms the more he was certain that he'd been sharing the halls with some trickster creature. How else to explain it? How else?
He slept with the Colt beneath his pillow and he rarely slept at all.
“Cas, I'm home.”
He heard the front door close, the heavy thud of Dean's boots as he pried them off, placed them next to the coat-rack, the sound of his keys and the jangling of the knives in his bag as he hefted it on his shoulder.
He knocked three times on the table to say, I'm in the kitchen.
“I wanted to come back earlier but we blew a tire and had to stop the night in some shit town—”
Dean rounded the corner into the kitchen and stopped dead.
Cas was sitting at the table with the Colt in front of him, hands loose on the wood, looking down at it with an expressionless face.
“...what's that doing out?” Dean asked, setting his bag down on the floor.
Cas paused for a long time, brow knitting and unknitting.
He signed, without looking up, You're not Dean, are you?
“...what?” Dean stared at him, the Change ebbing through every minute motion of his body. Cas could feel it like a stench in the room. “What are you talking about? Of course I'm Dean.”
Cas shook his head. His fingers picked at the grip of the gun and then he signed, You haven't been Dean since that hunt. The vampires. With Sam.
“I don't know what the hell you're talking about—”
I don't know how you managed to get into the house, Cas signed. He felt like he was in a trance, a bad dream, but he'd been dwelling in these thoughts for days and they felt harder and surer and stronger the longer he held them in his mind, and he had to know, had to know for sure what was happening here in the house he hated and loved. But this gun can kill most anything, so I don't think it's a problem.
“Cas, stop it. This isn't you.”
So what are you? Cas signed, still avoiding his gaze. Shapeshifter? Changeling?
“I'm Dean, Cas, I'm—”
You're not my Dean.
“That's exactly what I am,” Dean snarled, and for the barest instant Cas heard it—the rip and the curl of the voice that was Dean, was the Dean he remembered, and it broke his concentration enough that he looked up and Dean leaned forward and snatched at the gun.
Cas stood up, nearly knocking over his chair to scrabble for it, grabbed at it, caught the hilt and yanked back.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Dean snarled, elbowing Cas' arm, trying to pull it out of Cas' grip but Cas braced and fought and didn't let go. “Are you out of your mind?! This thing is loaded—”
And Cas wrestled with him, turned both their wrists at awkward angles and tugged, had to get it back, had to steady himself and shoot, he was so certain—and nearly had it until Dean had the presence of mind to shove him, so hard that he stumbled backwards into the counter. Dean threw the Colt into the next room where it clattered on the floorboards and Cas made as if to scramble after it but Dean caught him mid-rush, grabbed his arms, and Cas, overcome, made fists to batter against his chest, didn't want to be held by this thing that wasn't his, would not be beaten—
“Hey,” Dean said, harsh, and then shouted—“Hey!” He grabbed Castiel's hands and held them tight and though Cas pulled and fought he didn't let go, moved to pin Cas against the edge of the table with his body, trapped him there.
“Listen to me. Okay? Listen to me, Cas,” he said, and it was his voice if only for an instant, if only right now, and Cas stopped fighting. He sagged against the table, clenching his jaw, and Dean pressed their foreheads together and caught his eyes and pinned them down, too.
“This is ridiculous,” Dean said, and Cas jerked, and was pressed down again. “Goddamn, will you hold still?”
Cas curled his lip, wrists still trapped, didn't want to be touched or held down by this
that wasn't Dean, or that might have been Dean, didn't want to be confused and vulnerable; he didn't hold still but writhed and pulled and managed to shove Dean off, pull his arms free, was about to go for the gun again until Dean pushed him back with more force than necessary. He stumbled, tripped, landed hard on the floor and stared up at him, shocked, a sudden burst of pain in his tailbone.
There was a pause in which they locked eyes, and Castiel saw the anger drain from Dean's face like blood, as if he'd realised what he'd done. Dean licked his lips and hesitated, and then took a step, leaned down to offer Cas his hand.
Cas took it and hauled himself up. His head was spinning. He moved to the side, slowly, and Dean caught his wrist and said, suddenly weary, “Don't, Cas. Don't. God. Forget the fucking gun.”
Cas pulled his wrist hard from Dean's grip and smacked him across the face.
The sound of it echoed through the kitchen and the house like a signal for silence. Too much anger and fear still under his skin for any kind of forgiveness. Too tired to go for the Colt. Too goddamn tired of everything.
He left Dean in the kitchen holding a hand to the red imprint on his face and mounted the stairs one by one, counting them in his head, obsessively, almost expecting them to warp and drop under his feet just to prove a point.
In their bedroom he sat on the foot of the bed, in the quiet dark, glancing slowly from window to door to door to door, finding them all closed every time, but unable to be certain. Unsure whether or not the number of stairs dancing numbly in his head was even the correct number anymore.
Dean did not come up to him. The hours passed and night fell and the doors stayed closed and Dean did not come to bed.
Dean put the Colt somewhere Cas couldn't find.
The guns in the drawers, tucked away, vanished, too.
When Castiel asked, Where did the guns go?, Dean said, “I don't want you hurting yourself. You're scaring me with the way you've been acting. I just want to keep you safe.”
It took ages for Dean to wake up, that night, to the press and push of Castiel's hand on his shoulder.
“What?” he mumbled as he blinked awake, and Cas, half-kneeling upright, waited for his eyes to open completely so that he could see his hands.
Something's happening downstairs.
“What do you mean something's happening?” Dean said, sounding weary but alert, sitting up. “I don't hear anything.”
Cas gnawed at his lip. He'd woken to the shifting silence again, and it was harsher now, like tectonic plates scraping against each other below his hearing. His heart was pounding so loudly he was shocked Dean couldn't hear it, hadn't been woken by it. His nerves were leaping and he let one hand clutch at the sheets, glancing anxiously toward the closed bedroom door.
He didn't wait for Dean to get up. He let his feet drop onto the floor and moved for the door.
“Cas, what are you doing?” he heard Dean say, but he was already on the landing and peering down the stairs.
He wished to God he had a name for it, the intense unshakeable sensation that everything was moving. Half of him wanted to just go back to bed, ignore it as if that would make it go away, but the dark at the bottom of the stairs was wide and yawning and the other half of him had to know.
Dean came onto the landing behind him and reached for his wrist. “Come back to bed,” he whispered, but Castiel's hand drifted away from him as he gently stepped down onto the stairs.
He held up one finger to signal quiet and I just need to look, and he heard Dean sigh, irritated and tired.
The hall—the moving hall that just never seemed quite right—seemed endless from where he stood, but Cas kept one hand on the wall, ready to slam his fist into it if he needed to. Thank God for Dean, here, Changed or not—on any other empty night Cas would have been locked in the bedroom wishing the walls away.
“Cas,” he heard Dean hiss from up the stairs, but he didn't turn to go back up.
He might have heard something groan, far off at the end of the corridor, but he couldn't be certain.
Before he could lose his nerve Cas stepped into the hall, fingers trailing on the partitions, squinting to see through the dark; there was the kitchen doorway on his left and a little further on the guest bedroom door on his right, locked tight.
He let his hands drift across the knob. It was cold under his touch.
A little ways past the guest room he paused.
He should have hit the mudroom by now, felt the wainscoting of the side wall against his bare feet, but the floorboards stretched on into the dark on to where he couldn't see—
A few more steps and he could hear Dean descending the stairs, behind him, and surely the mudroom was right here, the warped screen door was just ahead—he reached out a hand to feel for the metal latch but his hands met only air and then—
—then the kitchen doorway was on his left.
And the guest room was on his right.
Cas turned, whipping his head round so fast it hurt, to see the hallway stretching off long behind him, to see Dean at the edge of the stairs much, much too far away, and then the mudroom door was right in front of him, yes—just as it should have been but when he turned again it was the wrong way round and the kitchen doorway was on his left and the guest room was on his right—
Panic snatched at his throat with sharp claws and he stumbled, his shoulder met the wall and he turned to flee back to the stairs but there was the mudroom door and behind him he could feel the huge wide yawning expanse of the hallway—
—and the mudroom was behind him and the stairs seemed to be falling away like an accordion being pulled loose and a step forward spun the whole hall around again and he was between the doors again and—
—no matter which way he turned there were only doors and halls and far-off stairs and he could feel adrenaline and horror sparking behind his eyes so he did the only thing he could do and slammed his fist three times into the wall—
—and then he was slumped against the kitchen doorjamb and the hall was exactly the right size and Dean was holding his shoulders, half-shaking him, hissing “What the hell are you doing?”
The hallway, Cas signed, frantically, after his mind leapt back to the fact that he was safe again. The hallway was getting longer—
“The hallway isn't doing anything,” Dean said, lifting him up off his crouch on the floor. “Look, Cas, it's fine—”
But he refused to look, was terrified to look lest the whole corridor leap forward and devour them, and Cas pulled his arms away from Dean and nearly tripped getting up the stairs.
He felt motion-sick. Vertigo.
Cas stumbled to the bathroom door and held onto the jamb, waiting to see if bile rose in his throat. And Dean came back up the stairs and stood in the doorway waiting as well, and after a while when nothing happened he came to him and touched his shaking shoulders.
“Come on back to bed, babe,” Dean said softly. “Everything's okay.”
Cas shook his head. Behind his throbbing eyelids the hall was still spinning and throwing him this way and that and he couldn't shake the dizziness in his ears until Dean took his hand and led him back to the bed, crawled in beside him.
He didn't hold him. Just kept their hands laced together, and Cas could feel his green eyes tracing his face in confusion in the dark, and that even more than the moving of the house made it near-impossible for him to fall asleep.
It was late evening in the house on Swallowtail Drive.
Castiel was in the study, sitting cross-legged like a perching bird on his chair, was scribbling out incoherent rhymes, formless and scattered.
He didn't want to go into the living room. Dean was drinking—he'd been drinking more and more these past few weeks—and he had the feeling he'd be edging over the border from contented to bitter any minute now.
Something, at least, was giving Cas the smallest bit of hope—he could feel, finally, the poem he'd been trying to write for months now, about Dean, coming together like a cloud in the back of his mind, and he knew that within a day or two he'd have it. He was testing meters and cadences on his pad of paper, waiting to type until some form had drawn itself out on the paper beneath his hand, when Dean knocked on the door—three times, out of beat.
Cas paused. He could hear the anxious shuffle of Dean's feet outside that meant that he was very drunk, and he wasn't sure how drunk.
Reluctantly, he tapped his pen on the desk to say, come in.
“Took you long enough,” he heard Dean say, as he opened the door.
Cas closed his eyes. Very, very drunk then. And not in a pleasant mood.
He turned in his chair. If you're going to bed I'll be up in a while. I'm writing.
Dean had his flask tucked into one hand and was leaning against the study wall, looking bleary-eyed and irritated.
“Writing about how much you hate me?” he said, and smirked, as if he'd made a joke.
Cas frowned. Of course not. Is there something you want to talk about, Dean?
Dean laughed, and the sound startled him.
Dean's green eyes narrowed and he smiled, and it was the nastiest smile Cas had ever seen on his face; he took a drink and pressed his lips into a thin, disapproving line.
“You wanna talk about something?” he slurred, gesturing aimlessly. “Sure, let's talk—oh, wait, I forgot. You can't.”
Silence like a knife in his stomach.
Cas stood up, feeling his hands begin to shake, and felt a hot wave of shame rush over him as he signed, What did you say?
“I said you can't talk. Yeah? You wanna have a chat? We haven't talked in years, because you can't talk. You can wave your hands around but that's not talking. God.”
Dean took a long drink, and Cas could feel tears prickling in his eyes, could hear his own mind near-whimpering why? why are you saying these things to me?
“Do you—do you have any idea what I've had to put up with? Huh? With you? You don't pull your weight at all, you know that?” Dean laughed, a horrible, sharp, awful laugh, gesturing to the room, to the house, to everything, and Cas had to feel behind him for his desk to stop himself from falling backwards. “I—I go out and save people, I work in town and I save people's lives while you're—here—mooning around everywhere like some lovesick Romantic—shit—trying to write poems and being afraid of the front lawn, I mean come on, man!”
Cas wanted to say stop but his fingers wouldn't move. He was clutching the desk for support and the words were battering him like stones in the chest and—
“Jesus Christ. You're pathetic. Look at you! Do you even remember what you used to be? Huh? To me? To people out there? You used to be fantastic, man, you used to be—something—fuck—something I wanted to know and I wanted to have a life with you but you're—ridiculous, you're—you're honestly fucked-up now, you know that?”
He tipped back the last of his flask and spat, “You make me sick sometimes.”
He couldn't. In that moment Castiel would have traded all his strength and all these years for just five minutes of deafness so that he couldn't hear this, and he turned his back on Dean to steady himself against the wall, fingertips brushing the bottom of the shelf Dean bought for him, the books Dean bought for him, the desk Dean bought for him, the room they'd filled together in the house they'd bought together when they were happy and ambitious and had thoughts of children and paint chips and family dinners and making love on the floor of the living room and whisper-signing adorations against each other's throats in torrents like rainfall—
“Oh come on, don't leave me hanging. Go on,” Dean said. “Say something.”
Before he knew what was happening his hands were under the bottom of the desk, the antique writing desk for eighty dollars, and he was hurling it sideways, throwing it over, and the typewriter, the gift Dean had found for him months and months and all happiness ago, smashed to the floor in a thousand pieces, black keys scattering to all corners of the room, metal springs and plastic jarred and broken and bruised—
—and the desk splintered and cracked among the books and paper and pens and unfinished poems, all the incomplete odes he had been trying to write to Dean's eyes and Dean's smile and Dean's soul, torn and ripped apart as he was torn and he was ripped, and he turned on Dean, breath ragged in his throat, tears burning in his eyes like paradise fire, and Dean was staring at him as if he'd startled him sober—
—and it only took one step forward for Cas to be on him all fists and kicking feet, connecting knuckles with his jaw and his chest and his throat, pushing him backwards into the wall that shuddered with the impact, placing punches like kisses and drawing blood and he felt the bones of Dean's nose break beneath his fingers but still he beat him, thrust all his fear and anger and sorrow and confusion into the momentum of his hands, screamed graffiti in sign language neither of them spoke—
—and then Dean's fists were hitting back, opening cuts in knuckle-strikes against his cheekbones, he could taste blood on his lips, so much salt, stumbled and took a breath to hurl fists back again, and Dean was shouting something he couldn't understand, didn't want to understand, they were thrown to their knees and lurching back up, sparking pain and smears of red against the wall, overcoming, pushing, grabbing and slamming and Dean's back hit the wall and he couldn't stop, couldn't—
—and somewhere in all of it he lost himself and woke up hunched next to Dean's shoulder, Dean who was bloodied and dazed on the floor; Castiel was hunched beside him and crying with wide open-mouthed sobs that made no sound, clutching at Dean's shirt, wanting desperately, desperately to reach inside with all his fingernails and rip out the real one, the one with the green eyes that wrinkled when he smiled, the one with the teeth that bent inward, the one with the calloused hands and the lean muscle and the warm heart and the wide, glowing, beautiful soul, but he'd lost him somewhere in this house, this house, this house had eaten him up and ruined them both, this house had driven them wrong. No. No. He clutched at the Dean that wasn't his because if he didn't hold on to something he was going to fall through the floorboards and never stop falling, never, never, never. No.
This house had let the monsters in.
When Dean came to himself a moment later, he didn't say a word.
He crouched against the wall with Cas weeping into his shoulder and didn't move a muscle, didn't say a word.
They slept separately, that night.
Or at least they were meant to.
Dean was on the couch, awake, when Cas came down the stairs in the very early hours, hands still shaking on the banister.
Dean sat up when he saw him standing there. There were still traces of blood on Dean's face, a cut on his lip, nose bent out of shape. Nothing that wouldn't heal.
He didn't say anything.
He didn't say hey, but he didn't say go, either.
Castiel stood at the end of the stairs, looking at him, for a long time.
The entire room—the entire house, it seemed—smelled of burning.
The first thing Cas signed was I'm sorry.
At that Dean shook his head and said, softly, “God. Don't be sorry. Please don't be sorry. It was me.”
Dean, I think I'm going crazy.
Dean said nothing.
He got up, came to him across the living room floor, and although Cas flinched at his touch he took his hand, gently, led him back to the sofa and settled back down.
“What do you mean, you think you're going crazy?” There was no condescension in his voice, no arrogance or disdain, and had Castiel a voice he thought he would have praised God for that small mercy.
This house is driving me insane, he signed, and to finally form the words seemed to rip a horrible weight from his shoulders. He sighed, spine bending. I'm in-between, I can't leave, I hate staying, and ideas keep coming to me here that shouldn't, thoughts about you and me. It makes me think things that aren't true. And when I'm alone I feel watched, and I swear the walls move and there are things that weren't there before, and when I'm alone something about this place calls to me, and I hate being hollow, Dean, I can't be hollow anymore, being hollow makes me so afraid—
“We can leave,” Dean said. “We can leave, Cas, we can go somewhere else—”
But this was what we dreamed about. This house feels so much more alive than you and I. I don't know if I'm insane, I...I just know that you've changed and this house is so quiet that it's screaming and I hate it. I hate it here. I hate it here.
“Let's go, then,” Dean said, and he sounded almost relieved, as if some great revelation or thought had come to him, as if he had been waiting for this, as if he was releasing some long-held breath. “Let's leave. We can go somewhere else. You can let all of it go.”
I want you back, he signed.
“I never left,” Dean said softly, and Cas felt something enormous shift, like a screw being nudged back into place, and the Change lifted like a veil from Dean's face. It lingered above him but did not fall, and Cas let himself drift sideways into his arms, felt comfort there for the first time in months.
“You just have to let it go, Cas,” Dean murmured, one hand coming up to stroke his hair and the other resting gentle on his thigh, keeping him warm and close. “I don't care if it's you or the house, if you're crazy or not, okay? I love you. I love you so much. You just have to stop being scared.”
I don't think I can.
“I'll be here until you can, then,” Dean whispered.
They curled there together on the couch, in the dark, and Dean murmured it over and over against Castiel's temples: “I love you so much.”
It almost became a mantra, or a lullaby, and Cas let the words drift into his fingers, breathed for what felt like the first time in eons, held them tight, and his body relaxed into the angles of Dean's, and Dean held him very close and very still.
It's all in my head, isn't it, he signed, and Dean said, “Maybe.”
Like radio static. Keeping the silence and the monsters at bay. Pushing the dark and the quiet back into their corners, pressing the house back into shape, pulling light in from the sky through the windows and the cracks in the wood, whispering, soothing, solid and safe and familiar.
Castiel woke to thin sunlight and the sound of his cell phone vibrating in the kitchen.
He was lying on his side on the sofa, one hand resting flat on the cushions, and Dean was no longer beside him. He sat up, rubbing his eyes; through the windows the sky was dark and low-slung, and it would rain later, he knew.
Slowly he picked himself up, walked into the kitchen to get his phone. The buzzing screen had fallen quiet but when he flipped it open he saw that he had one new text message from Sam.
Cas furrowed his brow. Sam hadn't texted him in years. He always called, or texted Dean, if he needed to talk to one of them.
He opened the message.
coming by later today. I'm so sorry it wasn't sooner.
Cas frowned. Perhaps Sam had sent it to him instead of Dean by mistake. He set the phone down, knocked three times on the wall to call Dean in from wherever he was in the house—he'd know what Sam was talking about, surely—and opened the cupboard to get a drink of water.
He waited against the counter for Dean to come down, but the house was entirely silent. Cas knocked again, hard, on the table, and paused.
There was no creaking of floorboards, no groaning of stairs.
Feeling his heartbeat begin to rise, Cas left his cell phone on the table and went up the stairs.
The bed was still unmade from where he'd left it the night before. The bathroom door was open and the shower was off; he peered inside and behind the curtain but the room was empty.
Pulling hard on the stuck knob of the attic door, Cas leaned inside, but the corridor under the eaves was empty save for the last untouched box, full of shadows and cobwebs and heavy silence but quite bereft of Dean.
Cas knocked on the walls as he went down the stairs again, feeling fear begin to slip around his ribs, one two three, one two three, their never-failing signal, and received no answer. He opened the door to his study to see that the desk and the typewriter were still in pieces on the floor, that the window was still locked; he moved through the living room and the kitchen and the mudroom, the empty unused guest room, knocked on every wall, one two three, louder and harder each time.
No response. No Dean. The silence of the house was deafening, now.
It was true panic, now, flooding like adrenaline through his veins—the Impala was still parked out front and there were no vanishing footprints in the mud outside. Cas opened the front door and leaned sideways to see the front porch—nothing—swallowed hard and ducked back inside, through the hall to the screen door and the back porch—nothing.
He slammed his fist into the clapboard of the side of the house, one two three, loud enough that it echoed against the trees just behind the property.
For a moment he leaned against the wall, breathing hard, feeling his hands begin to shake. His knuckles ached with rapping on the wood.
Where had he gone?
A mother bluejay left her tree and Cas remembered slinging stones and the old water pump and took the porch stairs two at a time, bare-foot, darted into the woods, down the trail to the pump to find it alone. No Dean. He paused for only a moment, looking this way and that, looking for footprints or broken stems or trodden grass, chose a direction at random and ran, slamming his palm into trees as he went—one—two—three—startling birds out of their nests and into the sky, calling for Dean in the only way he could, eyes searching desperately for a glimpse of the plaid shirt Dean had gone to sleep in, the tread of his boots, a flash of his eyes amidst all the green.
He pounded his fist against the trees, took path after ever-smaller path, finding himself in dizzying loops that led back to the water pump, listened hard for any sound, cracking twigs or footsteps, heard nothing, saw nothing. Oh, God. Oh, God.
Where could he possibly have gone?
For a moment Cas paused, unsure of where he was, and opened his mouth and tried with all his might to scream Dean's name, knowing nothing would come out but trying, hoping, praying anyway that it might work—but of course it didn't. There were tears in his eyes and every time he lifted his head he saw only the whirling sky above him ready to open wide with rain, but no, not yet, he pleaded silently, perhaps I haven't found his footprints yet, if it rains they'll be washed away, he must be out here somewhere—
But the panic said he's not in these woods, hurtled him back to the house, through the hall in his muddy bare feet, and he nearly made it to the bottom of the front steps before the fear slammed into him and he stopped short, gripped the railing for support and stared, breath ragged in his lungs, heart hammering, at the drive leading off toward the highway—if he left—if he went that way—he could go inside and wait for Dean, surely Dean would come back, surely—
It took all he had to step off the bottom stair and race down the drive, feeling nauseous and faint, feet pinching on stones and twigs. He made it to the road before he felt his knees buckle and had to reel backwards, back toward the house, the soles of his feet bleeding and stinging with dirt.
He managed to glimpse the edges of the road before he stumbled back—empty of people, empty of cars. No Dean.
Dean was gone.
Limping, dropping onto the front porch stairs for only a moment to pick tiny pebbles out of the soles of his feet, he hurtled back into the kitchen and snatched up his cell phone, dialed Dean's number and put it on speaker, waited, breath raw and burning in his throat.
Burning. The whole world smelled like burning.
There was no answer, only the constant beeping, and he tried three more times but received nothing different. He sent a text but couldn't be sure it had gone through, leaned against the counter to keep himself from shaking and called again and again and again.
No. No. This wasn't right. Something was different, something had changed, something was terribly wrong.
Cas slammed his hand into the counter-top over and over as if by just making enough noise he could scare Dean out of the woodwork, but nothing happened, nothing.
He left the phone still open and beeping incessantly and mounted the stairs again, feet stinging and aching, ripped open the drawers of their bureau and bedside table, hands searching frantically for a gun. He knew they had to be in the house still, somewhere, they'd had dozens and Dean wouldn't have taken them out completely—he found nothing and as he was turning to go downstairs he saw Dean's duffel bag open on the chair against the wall and stopped dead.
There was a pistol there, among the rosary beads and knives, and Castiel picked it up with shaking fingers, saw that it was loaded.
He nearly tripped all the way down the stairs, threw open the back door and hurtled down the porch steps and landed in the wet grass as the rain began to drift down from the sky, pulled off the safety and raised his arm into the air and fired three shots.
Breathing hard, standing in the downpour, Cas lowered his arm as silence fell in the wake of the shots, blue eyes slipping around the backyard and the trees and the tall quiet house, waiting, praying, desperate for Dean to answer him, hear his three-beat signal and come out of the trees, all open arms and concern and I only went for a walk. Waited and prayed and hoped so hard he nearly vomited, there in the grass in the rain.
But even though the storm was full-blown overhead and the rain was pounding on the roof and the porch and the trees, the silence of the house was still there, beneath everything, filling up his mouth like water.
He could hear his breath and his heartbeat like thunder in his ears, and he looked up at the house through the water streaming over his eyes.
For half a moment he thought, the house has eaten him up, and then he dropped the gun into the mud and sank to his knees in the wet grass.
Dean was gone.
Castiel's breath came in harsh, sucking gasps, pulling it in and gasping it out, and he felt panic spark like fireworks behind his eyes, felt as if he might faint. No, no, no. Dean couldn't be gone. Dean was still here, somewhere, just as he'd promised to be. He hadn't gone away. The house hadn't taken him. No, no, no.
Not at all. Not at all.
He just had to go back into the house, and Dean would be back any minute. The house was safe. The house was where he needed to be.
Cas pulled himself up off the ground and brushed away the mud on his T-shirt with dirty hands, running shaking fingers across his cheek to wipe away the tears and the water, smiled a trembling smile and walked, unsteady, back up the steps and into the house, shut the door quietly behind him.
Everything was fine. Everything was perfectly alright.
He had to pause to hold himself up against the wall for a moment, but just a moment. No, no, everything was fine. He was fine.
He reached up to run a muddied hand through his hair and smelled ashes on his skin.
When Sam Winchester knocked on the front door of the house on Swallowtail Drive late that afternoon, he was more nervous than he had been in a long time. He kept his hands in his pockets and kept stealing glances at the Impala in the drive; there was an uneasiness that had settled on him all the way up the steps, like some dark vibration pulsing outward from the house.
He knocked again, and this time the door opened.
Castiel held the door half-open against his chest and signed a soft hello, Sam.
Sam stared at him for a moment—took in the sunken eyes, knuckles reddened and bruised, traces of mud under his fingernails—and it took him a long time to speak.
Castiel didn't reply.
“—God, I'm so sorry I didn't come by sooner.”
Castiel frowned. You're welcome whenever you want to come.
Sam blinked, and his face had an edge of uncertainty that disturbed Cas. As if in defense he closed the door just the smallest bit, remaining behind it with his forehead against its edge.
“I—I wanted to come and make sure you were okay,” Sam said, then, and he paused and looked off sideways as if fighting back the urge of something—to cry, perhaps, and Cas had no idea why. It was only for a moment, and then he shifted his eyes back again. “You know. The—the Shaws called, they've been getting worried—”
They needn't worry. We're fine. Did you want to come in?
He reached down for the doorknob and when he looked back up, Sam's face had gone pale as death.
“...what did you say?” he said, hazel eyes wide. All the blood had gone out of him, and Cas felt a pinch of unease in his chest.
I said we're fine, he signed, frowning. Dean and I are fine and the Shaws needn't worry.
Sam was staring at him as if he'd just confessed to murder, mouth open and face corpse-white.
Why are you looking at me like that? Cas signed.
Sam took a breath, a deep and shuddering breath, and looked as if he were about to burst into tears, right there on the porch, eyes filling, pressing his lips. For all the world a child entirely lost.
“Cas,” he said, choked, “Cas, Dean's dead,” and the silence that fell in the wake of those words was the longest and darkest Castiel had ever experienced.
I'd like you to leave, he signed, very slowly, unable to tear his eyes away from Sam, whose face was slowly dissolving into tears.
“Cas—please, I came to ask you to leave with me—”
Go, Cas signed, and slammed the door in Sam's face, locked it, stared at the knob with shaking hands as Sam pounded on the door, shouting “Please, Cas, you've been up here for months and I should have come sooner, I should have—Cas, open the door, please—”
Cas bit back his breath and smacked his hand against the door, to startle Sam away, and he began to twist his fingers anxiously, move away from the door into the foyer, back into the open arms of the house.
Come back, it seemed to say. Come back. Dean is alive here. You can have him here. Dean isn't dead. That's absurd. That's completely absurd.
“Cas, please, you have to listen to me!” Sam shouted through the door, and Cas could hear him fumbling in his pocket for the extra key Dean had given him all that time ago, and he knew he couldn't keep him out forever.
Castiel's back met a wall and he stayed there, hands pulling and twisting at each other, staring at the door as Sam pushed his key into the lock, every minute movement shunting the stench of burning bones into the house, tainting the air, God, it smelled like the end of the world—
Dean wasn't dead. Dean wasn't dead, Castiel had fallen asleep in his arms not twenty-four hours ago, had kissed him a thousand times, had heard his voice and seen his eyes and felt his touch, Changed, yes, but very much alive, very much his—
—and not his.
Like lightning through windows slicing white across the walls he remembered, or didn't remember. It was hard to remember something that had been there all along—
Tapping out I love you three times into the mic of his cell-phone on the fourth night of the hunt.
Hearing the Impala pull into the drive and opening the door to greet Dean but seeing Sam, instead, cradling something big in his arms like a precious object wrapped in a blanket, a wool blanket, he knew distinctly, black and white and warm.
Feeling himself go numb to the core of every bone in every limb.
Laying him out on the kitchen table to clean the blood from what was left of his throat and sew him back together—
—standing still beside the body while Sam, with two gashes on his face, clutched at the stiff, curled hand as if trying to squeeze life back into it, watching him weep like a child and feeling, distantly, that he should have been weeping too—
—carrying the body to the funeral pyre hidden in the trees, pale and shrouded, lighting the match because Sam's hands were shaking too hard to do it himself, watching the flames race over his body like holy fire catching, risking a burn to numbly reach across and close his eyes, those green eyes still imbued with light even though they had seen nothing for days, reaching across the void between them to take Sam's hand, still strong for one more minute, one more hour, couldn't cry yet, couldn't accept it yet—
No, no, of course not, it never happened, it's a dream, it's just a bad dream.
—watching Sam leave, too wild with his own grief to think straight; going upstairs to their bedroom quietly and carefully and sitting down to touch the indentation in Dean's side of the bed and the warmth of him still lingering there and the smell of ash on his hands and dissolving, finally, into wide open-mouthed wracking sobs without sound, clutching at his chest because his heart felt like it was squeezing itself out—
No no no no no no no—
—waking to the sound of a voice he'd burned away the day before asking if he'd been sick while he was away and realising it had all been a bad dream—
No no no.
—Dean who only came when Cas knocked to bring him out of the walls.
Dean who had a Change about him that couldn't be placed.
Dean who smelled like burning bones. Who begged Castiel to leave the house.
Dean who pushed his fingernails between them and ripped, tried to tear him from the windows and the walls, tried to make him see something he couldn't see—
Let it go.
Dean had told him to let him go.
By the time Sam opened the front door Cas was crouched on the floor against the wall, clutching his head in his hands, bent forward between his knees, mouthing without sound, swallowing up the silence. Drowning in it. Falling.
Perhaps Sam said something. Whatever it was, Castiel couldn't hear; his blood was roaring in his ears and it felt like the house was spinning, dissolving, shattering, and when he saw Sam's hands moving to touch him he started as if he'd been shocked, and colours swam in front of his eyes in dazzling nauseating patterns—he lashed out without knowing why, stumbling back up to his feet, pushing Sam away—if he could just make his way back into the house he'd turn around and Dean would be there, Dean would hold him tight and make all these bad dreams about funeral pyres and torn-open throats go away—
“Cas, please—” Sam was pleading, but he wavered and shifted past the blur in Castiel's eyes—was he even real? Was the open doorway behind him real? What—how had—Cas pressed the heels of his palms to his temples, trying to squeeze himself awake or quell the panic that was hurtling through his veins like grace, backing further into the hall—he wanted to flee up the stairs and bury himself in blankets on Dean's side of the bed to smell him on the sheets and call him up out of the floor with three raps on the headboard oh God please no—
He felt Sam's hands latch onto his bony wrists and reality slammed back in like a tidal wave, like a blow to the head, and Cas froze.
Sam's face was like—architecture. Grief and fear and panic and haste were etched into his skin as if with a chisel, into the lines of his mouth and the dull spark of his hazel eyes, and he was looking at Cas as if Cas was a child just woken from a nightmare. As if his only desire in the world was to lead him down the front stairs and take him somewhere safe, away from this house and all its tricks.
As if Cas was the only thing left worth saving in the world.
And he knew, then.
But—he'd always known, really.
Cas thought, absently, there in the front hall trapped in Sam's hands, reading all the lies he'd told himself in the dim green of Sam's eyes, that if he'd had a voice, he would have screamed.
He opened his mouth as if to try.
And then Sam's arms were around him, Sam's face was in the crook of Castiel's shoulder, and Cas reached up with feeble hands to clutch at his back and finally, finally—months and months after scaring out a dream with his knuckles on the walls, screaming at himself to leave these halls, he mourned.
He took nothing from the house.
Sam kept an arm around his shoulders as they left, walked down the stairs to his car. He didn't say very much. There was a gaunt edge to his face that Castiel didn't remember from the last time he'd seen him.
He did not look back at the house as Sam pulled out of the drive. He sagged into the front seat with his hands clasped against his chest, one atop the other, as if holding his heart inside his ribs.
Sam's apartment was small, sparse but comfortable, and hadn't changed much since the last time Cas had been here, months and months ago. It was in a quiet part of town, on the upper floors of a tight little building that from the outside might have been a large house, whitewashed and red-shuttered.
Sam was still shaken but he tried his best not to show it, showed Cas the unused second bedroom where a simple bed was made, asked if he was hungry. Cas shook his head, holding his arms close to his chest.
Even a half-hour away from the house he could still feel it calling, pulling him back like a fish-hook in his spine.
Sam made him a cup of tea to ward off the chill of the rain outside, and as afternoon drifted into evening they sat at his kitchen table, Cas staring into his cup, and Sam told him everything he hadn't remembered already.
The nest of vampires had been too much for them. Too much for anyone.
And after that there were parts Castiel knew, but also parts he didn't—how he'd refused to pick up his phone, hadn't answered the door to anyone, had been down to the last few days' worth of food stocked in the house, and only hearing Sam say it brought it back to his mind—freezing in the hallway at the sound of someone knocking on the door, Abigail Shaw or another neighbour, and blacking it out of his mind, turning back to the hallucination of Dean who had been trying to coax him away all this time.
“I just thought you were grieving,” Sam said quietly, at the end of the telling. “I thought you needed time to come to terms, and...I was here hating myself too much to come and find you. Make you come home with me. And I thought—you'd been up there all alone all this time and I'd waited way too long, so I came and...God, Cas, I didn't realise.” He let his face sink into his hands for a moment and Cas looked up at him. “I didn't realise how bad it was.”
Cas cupped one hand around his mug and reached the other across the wood, to touch Sam's arm.
When he raised his head Cas signed, It's okay. I didn't know, either.
For a long time they remained silent, there, together.
He was there in the house with me, Cas signed, slowly. He wanted me to leave. He wanted me to let go.
“Yeah,” Sam said, and Cas heard tears in his voice again. He was tapping one finger anxiously on the table, rhythmless and absent. “That sounds like Dean.”
We gave him a hunter's funeral. It wasn't a ghost.
Sam nodded, averted his eyes.
“Grief makes people dream, I guess,” he said. “You saw what you needed to see.”
They looked at one another in the quiet thrum of the refrigerator and the air conditioner, a hush that wasn't a hush. Sam said, “Wait here a minute. There's something I need to give you.”
He got up, let a hand brush comfortingly over Castiel's shoulder as he passed, and when he had gone Cas breathed a long sigh of relief, pushing steam out over his cup of tea, bowed his head and simply breathed.
Sam came back and sat down again, and he reached a closed fist across the table and opened it.
Castiel stared for a moment. He held out his hand and gently picked it up—the black cord with the golden idol dangling from its end, tarnished and battered with age and war.
“He didn't know I kept it,” Sam said, sniffing, knuckling the tears out of his eyes. “Dug it out of the trash. I think you need to have it.”
Castiel let the amulet rest on the table and shook his head. No. It should be yours. It means something to you—
“Dean would have wanted you to keep it,” Sam said. “I know he would have.” His lip began to tremble as he said, “That's the only thing we have left of him, Cas.”
All the more reason you should keep it. He was always yours, Sam. He was never completely mine.
Sam shook his head, gnawed at his lip for a long time, tapping his fingers nervously on the table. In their tattoo Cas heard, somewhere, the beat of one two three, three for 'come here' and three for 'I love you.'
“You know, night before—it happened,” he said, quietly, “he got off the phone with you, and he, ah...he put it down and he was, I don't know, unlacing his boots or something, and he didn't even look at me, he just said—he had this smile on his face and he said—you know, Sammy, every time I call him I know I'm not gonna hear anything except some tapping on the other end, but—those are the best ten minutes of my day.”
Cas lost the colour of the tea and the edge of the mug behind the hot blur of his eyes.
“And he said—he said I can't wait to get home, Sammy,” Sam said, half-smiling and face wet, “I can't wait to see the guy and tell him how much I love him.”
He leaned across the table and gently pushed the amulet towards him.
“Please take it,” he said, voice hitching. “For me and for him.”
Cas blinked, tears stinging down his cheeks, and let his fingertips rest on the idol's face, softly.
When he went into the spare bedroom to put on a pair of Sam's old sweatpants and pull off his T-shirt, after they'd hugged each other tighter than either had meant to and parted ways for the night, he felt the amulet's cold metal bounce gently against his chest, and sat down on the bed to hold it in his hand.
He remembered this object, how he'd held it like this before, in every corner of the Earth when he'd still had wings to reach such places, waiting for it to burn hot and tell him that God was there. It had been cold then. It was still cold now.
It was dark in Sam's apartment, and though it was quiet, it was not the same quiet. It was not a fearful silence. It was the soft buzz of the cooling system and the gentle slash of cars on the wet road down below them, the hum of the ceiling fan above the bed and the sliding of his legs on the cool sheets when he pulled himself up against the headboard. Castiel sat in the blue dimness with the amulet in his hand.
He had forgotten what it had felt like to know this thing as an object of power. To be certain that his Father was still out there, to know himself for what he was. The last time he had held this he had been a whirlwind and a fury and the smell of ash had not brought bile to his throat.
He wondered if there was any magic left in this necklace at all, if—had his Father come back—he would have felt it grow warm. If there were any creature left in all the universes that could bring his Dean back to him, if only for a little while.
Castiel slid down against the pillows and looked up at the ceiling fan spinning shadows against the ceiling.
If he slept tonight it would be a miracle.
He turned onto his side, holding the amulet in his fist, and closed his eyes.
Somewhere after three in the morning, he felt it.
It was soft, and barely-there, but Cas opened his eyes to the feeling of a hand on his shoulder, a dipping in the bed behind him.
“Long time no see, babe,” he heard a quiet voice say behind him, and his eyes grew wide.
He clenched the amulet until it pinched at his skin but now he could feel the presence of a body behind him, and the hand slipped down from his shoulder to the valley of his side, and the voice said, “Turn over. Let me see you.”
Cas closed his eyes tight for a moment. He was dreaming. He had to be. Unless—
He turned over before he could stop himself.
Hello, Dean, he mouthed.
There was no smell of burning, here. No Change on his face or in the touch of his hand. He was paler, dark circles around his bright green eyes, lips bluish and cheek scratched open, still, although there was no blood. Castiel saw the stitches in his throat that he had sewn, before they had burned him, on the kitchen table in their house.
How? Castiel signed, and Dean smiled and touched a finger to his forehead.
“You don't have to sign,” he said. “I can hear you.”
How are you here?
“How do you think?” the ghost said, curling his hand around Castiel's, in which the amulet was clutched. “Thank God for sentiment, right?”
Castiel let his fingers come undone around the idol, and Dean sought the spaces between them with his own. He was cold, but he was not unpleasant, and his hand was strong and solid.
“Missed you,” he said.
Cas blinked away the wetness in his eyes. It wasn't you in the house.
“No,” Dean said. “No, that was all you.”
I was trying to wake myself up. Castiel's other hand touched the stitches in Dean's throat, the back of his hand running over their edges. I was trying to make myself leave.
“It wasn't a good house,” Dean said softly. His hand in the valley of Castiel's side moved softly forward, resting against his spine, pulling him closer; gladly Cas came, shifting into the touch and the presence of him. “It knew too much. Played tricks on you.”
“It's not your fault.”
They lay, forehead to forehead, looking into each other, and Dean reached up from time to time to smoothe away the tears from Castiel's face.
You shouldn't have stayed behind.
“I was waiting for you to get your hands on this thing,” Dean said, tapping one finger on the amulet, and Cas glanced down at it. “I needed to say goodbye.”
What am I supposed to do now? Cas thought, biting at the inside of his lip, letting his hands curl against Dean's chest. There was no heartbeat beneath his touch. What kind of life are we supposed to have without you?
“You'll be okay,” Dean said, and his smile was sad. “Sammy'll look after you, if you look after him, too.”
I don't know where to start.
Dean closed his green, green eyes for a long time, and when he opened them again he leaned forward to kiss Castiel, blue lifeless lips seeking his, and though it was cold and strange and like no kiss they had ever shared before, Cas closed his eyes and leaned into it breathless, tasted leather and dogwood and pine on Dean's tongue, and though it was only the ghost of a kiss it was long and it was deep and it was right, for once.
When Dean pulled away he let his thumb toy at the corner of Castiel's mouth and he said, “First you have to let it go.”
He drew Castiel's head against his collarbone, lips resting against the crown of his skull, held him gently with cold hands.
“Love you,” he said, a long time later.
I love you so much, Castiel thought, loudly and desperately. I love you so terribly much.
“Promise you'll come see me on the other side?” Dean murmured, and Cas raised his eyes to him.
Don't leave yet.
“I won't.” Dean squeezed his hand tight. “I won't leave until you let me go.”
They lay there, tangled, until the miracle came, and Castiel slept, truly and deeply, for the first time in months.
He found the piano on the third day he spent in Sam's apartment.
Castiel had been drifting about as was his habit when he happened to glance inside Sam's bedroom; Sam had kept the door closed all the days before, but now it was standing half-open, and in the corner bunched in beside the bookcase and the window was the little white piano he'd seen in that antique shop in town, months ago.
The one Dean had promised to buy for him when they'd gotten settled. Sitting in Sam's bedroom as if waiting for him to see it.
He was lingering in the doorway, one hand on the jamb, staring at it, when Sam came in from the kitchen where he'd been starting lunch. Cas heard him stop short behind him.
“...I didn't think it was a good time to show you.”
Cas didn't respond. Softly he moved into the bedroom, almost afraid to touch the piano's wood but reaching out for it all the same.
“He bought it right before—” Sam fell silent, and when he spoke again it was very quietly. “We were keeping it here until he could get the truck from work...to bring it out to the house. For you.”
Sam followed Cas into the room, and his body moved as if he wanted to touch Cas, comfort him, but he didn't. He kept his hands in his back pockets and watched him slip his fingers over the keys, let them settle against the ivory to call out small discordant notes.
For a moment Sam thought Castiel was going to begin to play, but Cas let his hands drop heavily from the keys, and turned, and left the room.
For a week he passed quiet days in the apartment with Sam, moving silently from room to room, picking up a book here to read ten pages before setting it down, watching traffic move on the streets below from the window in his room, toying with the amulet in his fingers constantly.
Sam made meals for both of them, and though they ate without conversation there was a comfort in the act. Sam had an off-and-on job in town and was gone during the day, but when he came home he made a point of touching Castiel's shoulder and smiling at him, pulling a little of his grief out of him each time.
Cas wrote couplets on the blank leaves at the beginnings of Sam's hardcovers. Sam told him it was perfectly alright.
They embraced each night before parting for bed—a small ritual but a needed one.
Each was all the other had in the world anymore.
On Saturday night Castiel waited in his room until he heard Sam click off the lamp behind the dividing wall, and in the dark he dressed in his jeans and T-shirt, found an overshirt in the closet and pulled on his shoes.
The amulet dangled around his neck, catching the light like the beacon it had once been.
Quietly, carefully, he opened the door to his room and closed it. He lingered, looking at the door to Sam's room, until he was sure Sam was asleep; then he slipped the key to the house on Swallowtail Drive from the pocket of Sam's jacket and silently slipped out onto the apartment landing.
Down the stairs on hushed feet, he pocketed the key. It was hardly past true nightfall; the early night over the town was crowded with streetlights and headlights.
He touched the amulet with two fingers and began to walk.
He didn't know how long it took him to find the quiet edge of the highway that led past the drive to the house, didn't know how long it took to walk through the ditches past late-night drivers with the moon full overhead. The bottoms of his jeans were soaked with muddy water and someone honked at him as they went by, headlights rising and falling against his face.
It was sometime far past midnight when his feet found the dirt road that led up through the trees, and he clutched the amulet tight in his fist as he took it.
The house was quiet, as if it had been patiently waiting for him to come back. The trees around it were tall and leaning, dark shadows against the darker sky, and Castiel paused for a long, uncertain moment on the threshold.
Let it go.
He pulled the key from his pocket and opened the front door.
Inside his footsteps echoed, creaking on floorboards, the sound of his presence ricocheting against every wall and banister, but he did not linger anywhere except to gaze for a moment at the pile of splintered wood and broken plastic in the study, the remains of his desk and typewriter and the books of poems scattered on the floor.
He did not look for very long.
In the kitchen he opened the cupboard where the weapons still lay, the knives and salt and bullets, and from the back of the cupboard he pulled the bottle of kerosene, and from a drawer beside the sink he gathered all the matchbooks they had hoarded away.
He tried his very hardest to ignore the groan of the hallway behind him, stretching, he knew, and bending, playing upon the last remnants of the madness they had caused, trying to snare him in. He wouldn't fall for it anymore. He was awake now.
Let it go.
From room to room he went, in a trance or in a dream, the bottle of kerosene open and trailing liquid in his wake, a path behind him from the top of the house to the bottom.
He passed the attic with its one box still undiscovered, their bed still sunken with the weight of their bodies.
He passed the pressed rose hanging on the landing of the stairs.
He passed the bookshelves in the living room still full of his volumes, the couch they'd fallen asleep on together so many times, the landscapes above the fireplace.
He passed the rattling back-porch screen door and the kitchen table, and he found himself again at the front of the house in the doorway of his study.
He emptied the last of it onto the desk.
He'd always called this place a stack of kindling.
Castiel opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch, matchbooks clutched in one hand, the other tight around the amulet, and he turned to face the darkness and the breathing and the inexhaustible silence of this place.
With one match he lit each book on fire and hurled them into the hall.
It caught and spread like holy fire, hurtling into the back of the house, illuminating each wall and stair and ceiling, licking up the banister and the staircase, stealing smoke up from the darkness, and Castiel stepped backwards onto the lawn to watch it burn.
It was not silent now. The house shrieked and groaned beneath the roaring of the fire, windows lighting up with orange and red and vivid white, inferno howling as it tore through wood and wallpaper and wainscoting. Castiel could hear the cracking of timbers, imagined the corridors and walls leaping and shrinking to avoid the holocaust.
Briefly, he wondered if this house could feel fear.
Let it go. Let it go.
In the instant when the fire broke through the roof Castiel felt a strong calloused hand slip through his, smelled leather and dogwood and pine and dust, and closed his eyes to feel the heat of the burning against his face, feel it coax tears from his eyes and let them roll.
Let it go, Dean whispered, the echo of a voice from the golden idol strung around Castiel's neck.
And the thought came to him, then, that the house was still calling to him, still wide and open for him.
He could mount the stairs before they sank to flame and walk inside, stand in the hall of the house that bore him and the house that broke him, close his eyes and take flight as ash, open his eyes finally to see his Dean again.
The hand holding his did not tighten, but it did not fall away.
It was his choice.
All of it. Everything that had happened here. It had always been his choice to make.
Slowly, he stepped back up the stairs, let his hand come to rest on the post of the porch roof, stared into the holocaust raging inside. Screaming, singing, shrieking, almost speaking, almost saying, you know what you will do.
It would be so simple to join the song, to break the silence and send the rafters to ash, to shout praises one more time in the crumbling of all his dreams and all his fears.
It would be so terribly easy to step inside.