Even the pole bean tendrils sought out and gripped their
frames within six hours of my setting them.
One of the things
that is breaking my heart is that I can’t trust language to
express any thanks.
My pole beans, my honeybees, my coyotes,
my dog, all my good horses.
- “Stories Are Made of Mistakes,” James Galvin
They’ve just come back from a hunt and Dean’s the kind of bone-tired that comes from slamming your body into a creature three times your size, over and over, for hours. The thing was gross too, spouting a fountain of poisonous green goo just for funsies, and though Dean called dibs on the shower on the way back, and though he stayed under the water for a good twenty minutes, letting the scald batter some life back into his ruined body, he can still see little bits of dried mucus under his nails, and there’s a weird metallic, toxic aftersmell that’s driving him nuts. It feels like he’ll never get clean.
He’s laid out on the bed, in their motel, the neon VACANT sign blinking on and off outside the window like a rhythmic scream, and they’re watching Mythbusters —most days he’s not sure he ever left purgatory—and waiting for Sam to get out of the shower. Cas, hair still wet and sticking up, smelling of cheap Dial soap, sits on the edge of the bed, at Dean’s feet, and he’s blocking half of the TV but Dean’s too tired to tell him to move. Dean’s eyes are half open and he’s getting to that sweet spot of pain and exhaustion that’s making his brain mostly white noise when Cas grunts.
“I don’t understand.”
Cas is given to stream of consciousness musings about the world that mostly tend to be rhetorical—some leftover angel radio thing, Dean thinks, because as far as he can make out, his angel consciousness had always been buzzing with chatter, like a ham radio. Now that he’s human, Dean suspects Cas misses the background noise, so sometimes he’ll chatter a bit, needing to be able to speak aloud, but not necessarily requiring an answer or a conversation, at least as far as Dean can tell. He just wants an audience or an observer, someone to witness his whirring brain. Dean makes a non-committal mm noise to let Cas know he’s awake.
“What is this show. Why are these men placing large quantities of these Pop Rocks”—Cas says the name of the candy like he’s pronouncing the name of an obscure Russian writer—“into the organ of a hog?”
Dean stares a bit more intently at the screen, fully opening his right eye. The dumbass with the beard is shoveling Pop Rocks into a pig stomach and kneading it. Next follows a two-liter of Coke.
“They’re palpating the organ,” Cas notes, sounding completely at a loss.
On screen, the stomach glistens as it distends and the two men draw nearer to listen to it fizz. They giggle and poke at the bloated stomach, hoping out loud that it will explode. They have named the stomach Herbert.
“A myth is a story cultures tell themselves about why the world is the way it is, so that they may comfort themselves that the world is not as strange or chaotic as it seems. Myths are prayers or lies made beautiful. This is a pig stomach.” He sits, contemplating the screen a bit longer, then: “I find these busters of myth disgusting,” Cas concludes.
Dean silently agrees, drawing his eyelids down to half-mast again. Add Mythbusters to the list of things Cas finds disappointing about the human experience, underneath: injuries that take months to fully heal; t-shirt tags; peaches (“Dean, no, this fruit has hair”). The t-shirt tag thing was a bad one, actually—Cas has faced monsters and creepy shit of all kinds without wavering, but Dean’s finding it’s the little things reminding Cas of the power he’s lost that completely undo him, not that Cas would ever tell him that. The day of the t-shirt tags, Dean had walked in on a shirtless Cas in his room, Dean’s and Sam’s and Cas’ shirts spread out all over the bed. Cas had cut all the tags off of all of their shirts, collecting the discarded tags neatly in a little pile next to his pillow, a tiny mountain of white flags. When Dean walked in, though, Cas was standing with a t-shirt in his hand, his brow furrowed.
“What’s up, man? You look like a demented Gatsby.” Dean had stood in the doorway, not wanting to get closer to Cas, who looked so bereft clutching Sam’s t-shirt that Dean was afraid to get nearer and spook him. Dean had seen plenty of trapped animals wear that same expression, starved, half-mad, right before they turned on him.
Cas had turned to him then, eyes red-rimmed. “I can still feel it.”
In that moment, with the fierce look on Cas’ face, Dean remembered the barn, Cas coming for him out of the dark, eyes boring into him like he owned him, already owned Dean, this man he’d never met before, and the smoke and ash of his wings following him, beautiful and terrible, half-man half-bird. All the phantom things Cas must feel.
Dean took a step forward, then turned to examine a book on Cas’ dresser. Casually moving, by circuitous degrees, nearer the angel. Easy, easy. “Feel what, Cas?”
“I cut off all the tags. I hate the tags. They scratch me when I move, they’re always there. I don’t want you or Sam to have tags. But when I cut them off, there’s still a little bit there. I can feel it. I don’t know what—” Cas stopped there, evidently reaching the upper limits of the fury he could bear, and slumped to the floor, cradling the balled up t-shirt in the cave he’d made between his stomach and his legs. He squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself out of whatever emotional state that was passing its inscrutable weather system over his brain.
Dean took the opportunity afforded by Cas’ closed eyes and took two large steps across the room, closing the distance between him and Cas. Standing behind Cas, staring down at the angel’s back, he’d felt more powerless to help him than he ever had. Cas began to breathe audibly, the cadence shallow and uneven.
"Dean. Why…I can’t—breathe.” Cas was shuddering now, his face still hidden from Dean, though Dean could hear that Cas’ movements were moist…which meant that tears were involved. And still, though Dean’s own panic was rising steadily, he stood dumbly above Cas, unsure what to do.
“Hey hey, slow down, Cas. Just take it easy.” Cas laughed at that, a shrill ragged chirp that turned into a half-sob, and Dean clenched his fists, hanging inert at his sides. “Cas—what do I do?” Dean knew in these moments, the moments that really mattered, that he was and would remain an idiot. Evidently, this was not going to be something he got better at with age, and would always need someone to tell him how to handle these types of…internal crises. Cas would have to show him how to be what he needed.
“Touch me. Please,” Cas gasped, so Dean, never good at following orders but willing to try, crouched next to the ball of Cas-shaped panic and put a single palm on Castiel’s bare back. That distance spanned, Dean felt okay moving his palm in small concentric circles, doing his part to remind Cas to breathe by example: Dean breathing loudly out through his nose, until Cas’s breathing had slowed and he’d been able to look up at Dean, smiling, his eyes puffy, his eyes big, tears choking his eyes like a river flooded with rain.
Afterwards, he’d given Cas a seam ripper, and they’d gone, one by one, through everyone’s t-shirts. Then they’d been too impatient to sew the tag holes back up, and walked around with holes in their shirts ever after. It was fine, necessary, even. Dean had been shaken: Cas’ face wrenched in pain. He knew his job now.
Finally Sam gets out of the shower and they go to dinner at a Greek diner, one of those places called “Dino’s” with an eight-page menu and stuff like baklava sitting incongruously a page away from the matzo ball soup. Dean knows these places can get tricky for Cas—too many choices and he feels overwhelmed, though he would never tell Dean that. To his relief, Cas orders a cheeseburger and fries, and Dean does too, and then, for good measure, an order of the mini spanakopita, because he wants Cas to try them. Sam raises his eyebrows at that.
“Technically, a spinach and feta pie is rabbit food, isn’t it?”
“Pie, Sammy. The key word there is pie. ”
The spanakopita arrives, and the waitress: tall, brunette, nice blue eyes, kind eyes (—time was, Dean would’ve tried a bit harder to meet her after work, but now he’s so goddamn tired—) hangs around to ask them if they need anything else. But Cas has picked up a piece of the flaky pastry and Dean’s transfixed, waiting to see what he thinks. So the waitress waits too, they all do, watching as Cas, brow furrowed in scientific concentration, brings the pie to his mouth. He bites. He chews. Sam has his chin crooked on his hand, watching Cas like he’s television. Cas mourning his angelic form is a grief they all share—though they would never talk about it like that—but one upshot to that loss is that he and Sam both get a kick out of watching Cas try new things, watching him discover the little things about his personality that make him the man he’s figuring out how to be. Food has turned out to be the least fraught way for human Cas to play around with being human.
Cas swallows and smiles one of the big goofy human smiles that showed up only in the months after he lost his mojo. Angelic Cas half-smiled. Human Cas kinda glows when he smiles.
“This is lemony. This makes me very happy,” Cas says to Dean, and reaches for another spanakopita. On the other side of Cas, Sam’s eyes crinkle fondly—Dean’s not sure when Sam started getting a little wrinkly around the edges—and now that Cas has baptized their food with his approval, the closest thing they’ve ever gotten to a prayer before a meal, Sam reaches for one of the spinach pies.
The waitress’ eyes have gone a little soft as she watches Cas chew, and watches Sam and Dean watch Cas chew, and when she comes back with their burgers, there’s an extra little plate of baklava set down beside Cas’s burger.
“Thanks,” Dean smiles up at her, and the waitress turns a sunny grin on him.
“Y’all are sweet,” she says, and nods to indicate him and Cas. “Is he your—are you all together?”
Dean’s still contemplating how to answer this without saying something offensive—he never has figured out a polite way to say “no homo”—when Cas answers for him. Cas doesn’t even look up from his plate, his mouth full of baklava and some stray flakes of phyllo dough sticking to his lips when he says, “Yes.”
Dean feels more than sees Sam go very still across the table, forkful of salad and grilled chicken poised in midair.
“Oh,” says the waitress, “that’s what I thought. That’s good.” She turns to Dean and briefly rests a reassuring hand on his elbow. “I looked at my boyfriend that same exact way when we first started dating. You couldn’t tell me that every little thing he did wasn’t perfect. I thought he hung the damn moon. What an asshole,” she says fondly, a bit dreamily. Noticing that Cas’s coffee is low, she says, “I’ll bring you a refill, hon.”
And then she’s gone, and Dean’s staring down at his plate, and Sam’s still frozen in time, and Cas is still chewing like it’s the most natural thing in the world, eyes focused on his burger, going almost cross-eyed as he brings it to his mouth. Dean looks up at Sam then, and Sam manages, with a little cough, to unstick himself and bring the fork back up to his mouth, doing a passable imitation of someone normal, not someone whose previously straight brother has been outed by his secret boyfriend. Which Dean has not, because Cas is not.
It’s fine, though. This is another thing they’ll hash out, and it will be fine. It’s been a slow process of discovery for Cas, figuring out a new species’ customs, and there are bound to be some misunderstandings.
They spend the rest of their meal in silence and Sam goes up to pay. Cas sits happily across from Dean, finishing his coffee, exhaustion and contentment written in his slouch and the two unbuttoned buttons of one of the henleys he’d announced to Dean a week ago that he’d be wearing exclusively from now on.
“So, uh, Cas,” Dean tries.
“Yes, Dean.” Dean can’t be sure but it feels like Cas looks at him differently now that he’s human—there’s more warmth there, it seems less like he’s translating Dean’s every action and more like he’s present. He looks at Dean now, his eyes crinkling in fondness. He’s happy to be full, he’s happy to be tired, he’s happy to have ganked that thing and to think about the bed that awaits his aching mortal frame. It’s Dean’s happiness too—the hunter’s happiness, though perhaps happiness is the wrong term. It’s more a kind of immediate satisfaction, the best kind of happiness a hunter can hope for. It’s the life.
“Cas, buddy. What was that about, with the waitress? When you, uh, said we were together?”
Cas tilts his head and a pang shoots through Dean. He may be human now, but that head tilt is all angel. “Dean, we are together.”
“Sure, I mean, yeah, obviously we’re sitting at this table and eating food, you, me and Sammy, and in that sense we’re together,” Dean begins.
“And we work together and live together,” Cas finishes.
Dean tries again, “But that’s not how the waitress meant it…when humans…when we refer to two people as ‘being together’ we mean that they’re in a relationship.”
“We are in a relationship, Dean,” Cas says slowly, as if speaking to a two-year-old it pains him to correct.
“Right, of course,” Dean hurries, “but not the kind of relationship she meant. She meant to ask if we were in a romantic relationship. She wanted to know if we were…boyfriends.” This last part is mumbled through the loud scream of Dean’s blushing. He’s not even sure if that’s…what you call it? When two dudes are boning? Is it boyfriends?
“Dean, we are boyfriends,” Cas says solemnly, and for a minute, Dean’s brain shorts, goes completely blank and then--Christ why did Dean say ‘boyfriends’? It’s too much, a former angel of the lord saying ‘boyfriends’ like that, it’s not right. ‘Boyfriends,’ good god.
“Cas, boyfriends means…we’re…” Dean fumbles around in language for a moment, seeking the tools to build the sentence he needs and utterly failing.
“Boyfriends means we’re in a relationship. In a romantic relationship between two men, the men may refer to each other as boyfriends,” Cas says, and then rolls his eyes, “Dean, I know what ‘boyfriends’ means, I’ve watched Pretty Little Liars.”
“You think we’re boyfriends,” Dean says. His face is not working.
“Boyfriends, yes, Dean. We are boyfriends,” Cas is speaking slowly again, concern in his voice, as if he pities Dean and whatever mental short-circuit is afflicting him at the moment.
“Oh, okay, then. As long as we’re clear,” Dean hears himself say in a fit of hilarity, because nothing is clear, no, not at all.
But they haven’t kissed, or even touched, really—not in the way that Dean would consider to be the “boyfriend” type of touching. Dean wonders then…is there something that he’s missing? Something that would make the waitress, watching Sam and him watch Cas, pick Dean as Cas’s obvious romantic interest rather than Sam? Something that even Cas, with his slightly skewed human impulses, could pick up on? Is Dean just broadcasting “fruit, I’m a big ole fruit” wherever he goes? It’s a distressing thought, and makes him wince in displeasure.
“Dean,” Cas growls then.
“What,” says Dean, not looking at him, looking instead at his battered, cracked hands.
“I can see your brain thinking something hateful. Stop it.”
Sam comes back then, and they go back to the hotel. It’s a silent drive back in the Impala. Everyone’s too tired and full and everything’s a bit too strange. They stumble into the room and into their beds. Cas takes the extra cot they got from the manager. Dean’s never liked the cot thing—they do it to save money but then whoever’s turn it is to sleep on it ends up sleeping parallel to the foot of the beds like a dog. This is most unsettling when it’s Cas’s turn: Cas, who already occupies a strange in-between in their lives, in his own life. Dean would like him to know, always, that he’s the same as them—human, their family, deserving of all the things that Sam and Dean are to each other. Only, that’s not quite right. He’s human, but he’s better than they are, more. And he’s not his brother, not quite. That’s the problem, for Dean: there’s no satisfying way to put it in language, what Cas is for them, for him. Cas and Dean’s wardrobe is mostly one beast, save for pants—there’s no distinction, for either of them, between which shirts belong to Dean and which belong to Cas. Dean teaches him things, like how to shave and how to tie a tie. Last week, Dean had to teach Cas to apply lotion to his elbows, which had developed troubling eczema-like dry patches that Cas was beside himself over. Dean’s constantly in his personal space, rubbing—Jesus, Dean thinks—creams and lotions into him and other weird shit. (Cas nearly crying in relief when Dean applied the Vaseline, Cas saying, “I just feel like I can feel everything on my skin, Dean, how do you live like this?” Dean, grim, quoting Seinfeld, “I don’t know how you walk around with those things.” Cas, nodding, “Yes, exactly. Bodies are most inconvenient.”) This must be the source of Cas’ confusion about their relationship, he thinks as he falls asleep.
In the morning, Dean wakes up blearily, disoriented at having slept a bit more than he normally does. His body feels thick and heavy with sleep. He feels hungover, almost, a headache throbbing on the horizon of his brain like a storm coming in. Across from him, Sam’s bed is wildly disheveled, as if abandoned in a panic in the night. Turning over, Dean discovers Cas curled at his side, hands folded under him like a cat, brow furrowed in unconscious concentration. Cas sleeps furiously, Dean’s noticed, abandoning himself to his sleep like it’s a serious project he has to complete. Dean, unobserved, but tentative (what is Dean without his self-policing mechanisms, is a thing Dean tries not to think about), reaches out a hand and places it on Cas’ bare back, feeling the deep rise and fall of his breathing. Cas’ back is warm and broad, lax muscle rippling with goosebumps under Dean’s touch. His human body, once just a means to an end, a tool necessary to make his project on Earth possible, is mostly reviled by Cas…its urges and needs confusing and “hateful,” a catchall word he uses to describe things he doesn’t like or finds repulsive or silly or trivial. It is, Dean thinks, miraculous, this fallen Cas, learning by fits and starts to live in his skin. He would never put it that way to Cas, but what Cas hates, Dean watches in awe, feeling himself lucky to see the quiet loveliness of this newborn human learning to human. Everything that Cas is is known to Dean, now. As much as one person can be known by another, he knows Cas. No more of the remote angel bullshit: the entire other world of Cas’ angelic form locked away in Jimmy’s meatsuit, inaccessible.
Sleepily, Cas groans awake, eyes still closed, stretching up against Dean’s hand like a cat, eyes flicking open as he realizes he’s being touched—not in anger or in passing—but really touched, intentionally, by Dean.
It’s a breathless moment, Cas’ wild blue eyes making contact with Dean, and there’s a tentativeness in those eyes that makes Dean feel a bit ashamed and queasy.
“The cot hurt my shoulder,” Cas says by way of apology. His shoulder needs ice after every fight now. Dean wonders if there’s any cartilage left. They can’t afford new cartilage even if it’s bone on bone. Like everything else in their lives, they’ll have to stumble through, make do with what they have. Endure the pain.
“Yeah, man, I think we oughta get that checked out at an urgent care soon,” Dean says, easy. His hand still rests on Cas’ back, an insanity that Dean doesn’t know how to extract himself from.
Sam chooses that moment to loudly announce his presence on the other side of the door to their room, dropping the room key and swearing expansively, rising in pitch and volume until the anxiety and the high whine of it must be beginning to attract all the local strays. Dean retracts his hand and Cas gets up, disappearing into the bathroom.
Sam finally walks in, eyes firmly on the floor, mumbling, “I got you coffee.”
“Easy, Sammy,” Dean says gruffly. “Cas’ shoulder hurt. He’s getting too old for the cot. We’re all getting too old for it.”
“When I woke up, you were spooning,” Sam says, handing Dean a paper cup full of gas station sludge.
“He doesn’t get personal space, alright?” Dean says. The coffee is terrible.
“I’m sorry, who is it that doesn’t get personal space? You were the big spoon. I think you were smelling him.” Sam’s eyes go all crinkly. He’s mortified but clearly happy.
“Ah, man. Can’t control the body’s needs. Morning after a hunt is hard on a guy.” Dean’s not sure how he’s managing this jocular tone.
While he and Cas shower—separately— Sam’s found another hunt three hours from where they are. They’d go home, let someone else catch this one, but it’s particularly gruesome—a lot of child deaths—and they’re the closest to the site. They get to town in time to gank a nest of vampires masquerading as a very invested pediatrician private practice. Kinky shit.
In the fray, Cas gets a deep cut on his shoulder and Dean nearly gets his thumb pulled off. After the vamp tackles him, stethoscope swaying like a maniacal metronome, Dean’s pinned to the ground beneath the nasty fucker, and manages a jaunty “Buy a guy dinner first, why don’t you?” to make up for his initial surprised unmanly yelp, but even to him, it sounds like a bad impression of John McClane, and the joke is lost in the strangled sound of fury Cas makes as he sprints across the room and beheads the vamp.
The vamp sorta crumples like a molted skin, leaving Cas staring down at Dean. Cas reaches a hand to Dean’s face, almost like he’s going to administer his grace, and then remembers. Dean sees him remember; sees the awareness move into the grim set of his mouth, and oh god, the tears of frustration that rise up in his eyes, but don’t quite fall. Dean opens his mouth to say something. Something stupid, probably, but anything to triage this moment—
“No quipping, Dean. No.” Cas gets up then and walks away, past the blood; the carnage, the hideous, banal evil of it; past him; past Sammy; into the car and a place that Dean can’t see.
Later, in the bathroom, the terrible light making their faces green-grey, Dean is sewing Cas up. The cut is clean but deep; blood like volunteer firemen rising to the occasion. A couple of stitches.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Dean tries, though as a beginning effort, it’s pretty thin.
“Shut up, Dean.” Cas grits. His body is giving off heat. Dean wonders, through the instant sear of pain of Cas’ rebuff, whether Cas is running a fever.
“Are you running a fever? Are you sick or something?” Dean concentrates on Cas’ cut, not meeting his gaze. Cas’ mouth is a thin line, his breathing heavy and pained.
“Yes, I’m sick—I’m human and I’m always sick. It’s your—our— nature to be constantly sniveling, hurting. Humanity is sickness, Dean. Everything hurts.” Cas is staring at the ground, not looking at him.
Dean considers this for a moment, his eyes still on the cut. A constellation of freckles is spattered around it, covering Cas’ shoulder. Cas’ shoulder. Jimmy’s freckles. Freckles Jimmy got from a day at the beach or doing yard work. Cas is wearing a pre-owned tux, and it’s not as cool as the original. Or not as cool to Cas, at least. Personally, Dean thinks Cas is a walking, talking, moisturizing miracle. It’s hard to figure out how to say that to Cas, though. Especially when Dean can’t even fully comprehend the whirring, glowing, flying ray of moonbeams and fucking unicorn dust that Cas used to be—what it must have been to traverse millennia. But he knows a little, maybe, about loss. He finishes the stitches and applies the bandage, while his other hand, again, traitorous appendage that it is, seems to rise of its own volition to the side of Cas’ face, where his thumb scratches itself—faithless fucking digit—across the stubble there.
He meets Cas’ eyes then, and Cas is petulant, tired, his mouth thinned and white with pain.
“I woke up last night in the dark and looked for you.”
“You were…in bed with me.” Dean is going to have to practice turning down the five-alarm blush. Might need to start saying this shit in front of a mirror first.
“I know. Not like that. I looked for you…like I used to. With my other…eyes. I looked for your soul. I used to use it to orient me, like a point on a compass. But I don’t have those eyes. I can’t see you. You used to be the brightest thing in every room.”
Dean is not precisely sure how to handle this moment, so he begins churning up a quip. “Way to give a guy—”
“No. No fucking quipping.” Cas grips Dean’s wrist firmly in his hand, effectively removing Dean’s slutty little thumb from its travails across Cas’ cheek. Dean’s eyes are suddenly full of tears. Fucking bastards.
“Dean,” Cas is softer now, has released Dean’s hand into Dean’s responsible custody. “Why are you crying.”
Dean is not sure why he’s crying. “I’m not crying,” Dean says, through his tears. “I hate it…when you…I don’t know how to make it okay.”
“It’s not going to be okay for us,” Cas says reasonably. “That’s never bothered you before. Why are you crying, Dean. Tell me.”
The light is so aggressively grey-green that Dean feels like he might puke. The bathroom light does that shitty motel buzzing designed to make you want to fling yourself from the nearest cliff in despair. Cas is staring at him intently, and then, resigned, Cas begins to speak.
“I woke up and couldn’t find you, but of course you were right there. In fact, I was lying in your arms. When I repositioned, trying to give you space, you grunted and pulled me into you. You smelled very nice, so I submitted to the cuddling.”
After waiting for Dean’s unforthcoming response, Cas continues.
“You do my laundry, sometimes. You like being near me. Nearer than you get to Sam. The other day, when we were standing in line for a burger, I’m pretty sure you smelled me. I’ve never felt…things for humans the way I feel them for you. I think you…haven’t either? I think it is hard to recognize, if you’ve never felt it, or if you couldn’t have it, what it is.”
“What is it, Cas?” Dean’s a little hoarse now, a little cowardly.
Cas narrows his eyes like he can see straight through Dean. “It’s boyfriends, Dean.”
“I love you,” Dean says, not looking at Cas.
“Yes, I think that’s right. I think you do,” Cas says.
At first Dean is a little horrified that Cas Han Solo’d him, but evidently the ghost of those invisible angel eyes are still kinda working, because Cas reaches out and slides his hand underneath Dean’s shirt to grip him at the hipbone. Dean’s eyes snap shut. The, um, blatant skin-to-skin touching is an altogether shivery sort of feeling that Dean finds he wouldn’t mind exploring.
“You are mine.” Cas whispers. “I defy anything to take you from me.”
“I don’t…know how to do this.” Dean’s eyes are closed, but he opens them now, sees Cas staring up at him, beautiful, beautiful, a glow coming off him. He will have to figure out a way to show him.
“I know you’re scared,” Cas says, “but now I would like to touch you.”
And then he does.