Dean loses his taste for most everything while his dad is dying. Pretty soon after he brings his dad home from the hospital to bite the big one in peace, inbetween cleaning up piss and vomit, he sits down in front of a soggy Big Mac and he just—isn’t hungry. Doesn’t want it. He picks it apart, sniffs at the lettuce and peels off the cheese and rips the buns into chunks, like dissecting it will tell him why it’s suddenly become so unappetizing. But then it’s just a pile of congealing grease in the box it came in, and Dean still doesn’t want to eat it. It’s the first time this has ever really happened to him, because usually he hoovers whatever he can get—a remnant of his kind of fucked up childhood, he figures.
He keeps expecting his appetite to come back—day after day, week after week—but it never does. Instead, he gets cravings for the weirdest shit. Rabbit food. Clean things, like—iceberg lettuce. Or carrots. Celery sticks—and not even the ones loaded down with spray cheese or peanut butter. Things that he can munch on that still leave him with a comfortable hollow in his stomach.
It’s a process. The first week of not really eating, he still drinks beer. Uncle Bobby convinces him to come out for drinks so he can get him away from his dad who’s dying of liver failure for a hot second—which seems counterintuitive, but Dean’s family has never been all that smart about those kinds of things. Except for Sammy, who’s at law school in California eating hippie food like quinoa and eggplant or some shit. When last Sammy had deigned to answer his phone, Dean had told him that they were bumping his dad off the transplant list and Sam had responded with an airy, Jess and I are thinking of going completely vegetarian, like he hadn’t just given their dad a death sentence.
Sometimes, when Dean is sopping up sweat from his dad’s forehead and he’s still asking for a drink, Dean finds himself wondering if Sammy ever did. Go off meat, that is. If Sammy had the balls to do something like that. Because he probably talks a big talk for his California buddies, but Dean can remember pretty vividly the little brother that clamored for hot dogs cut like octopi in his Kraft-fucking-dinner.
Anyway, he still drinks beers for a little while, but they make him feel weirdly off-kilter. And not in the, “I just drank four beers on a stomach that’s been empty for as many days,” kind of way. Mostly in the way he can feel them bubbling at the base of his throat like bile, in the way they make him feel really full even though beer’s just liquid. He’s got fat on him, he knows that—he pretty much lives off McDonald’s because he saves all Aunt Ellen’s healthy foods and pity casseroles for his dad in neatly labeled freezer Tupperware he bought off some door-to-door housewife—but he notices it more with the beers in him. He lays in bed after he drinks them listening to his dad’s oxygen compressor chugging through the wall and puts a hand on top of his pudgy belly like it’ll help stop the world spinning wobbly on its axis.
He goes on runs. The first time, the day after he drinks four beers, he wakes up too early in the morning, before his dad will have a chance to realize he’s gone, and he takes off in the sweatpants he slept in just in case his dad needed something in the night. He hasn’t really gone running in a good couple of years, not since Dad was still cognizant enough to criticize his health habits, but it feels good. Better than he remembers. They live outside of their little town, where there are just scattered farmhouses and fields as far as the eye can see. It’s the kind of place where the neat, parallel rows in the crops play some sort of weird perspective magic on your eye when you run by them.
He’s out of practice and he really feels it. He knows he’s moving slow, but someone manages to really drive it home when they run up behind him and overtake him on the open road, moving a helluva a lot faster than Dean’s sloppy, four-beer ass could hope to. It makes Dean feel gross and bloaty and weird to watch someone surpass him, but it’s nice to watch him go, at least. Dude’s got a great butt. Which probably has something to do with the fact that he’s beating the crap out of Dean in whatever race Dean just invented in his brain.
Dean finishes his run that day with about a million stitches in his side. Tells himself he can do better. Goes again the next. He has to watch beautiful-mystery-butt pass him for a whole week before he decides he needs to drop the beers and the pretzel sticks and peanuts that come with them. Bobby doesn’t much like that he stops coming along with him to the bar. He thinks that Dean doesn’t see enough people that aren’t his dying dad, and that’s probably true. Dean dropped his job at the garage so that he could take care of him, and now he doesn’t even leave the house for work. Nowadays he struggles through hen-pecking data entry on his ancient computer from home because he couldn’t find anything more accommodating on short notice. The only reason he got this job was because of Charlie and her mysterious tech connections with some big industries, and he was grateful to get this much. So Dean curses his way through boring-ass documents in the hours when his dad isn’t awake, all alone in his living room.
So yeah, Bobby’s probably right. Dean probably needs to get out more. Hell, he talked to the Tupperware lady for a full two hours just because she bothered to come to his door. It’s not like his dad is very good company. When he’s not raving, he sleeps most of the time. The pamphlets say that’s normal, that he’s gonna sleep more the closer he gets to the end. Dean figures he must be getting pretty damn close on the day he has to shake him for about five minutes before he wakes, disoriented, to Dean waving some of Ellen’s tuna surprise in his face. He eats it gamely, but he vomits it later, all down his front. Dean cleans him up and changes his sheets and then sits on the toilet lid in the bathroom with his thumb over the button on his phone to call Sammy, because Sam should know how close their dad probably is to biting it. He should know. Even if he chooses not to give a fuck, he should know.
Maybe it didn’t really sink in when Dean told him that they took Dad off the transplant list. Maybe he didn’t know what that meant. Maybe he thought that meant he was doing better and they’d taken him off because he was going to be okay. Dean seems to recall sounding pretty goddamn dire though, because he’d just loaded an oxygen compressor and an IV pole into the back of the Impala, and he was staring at a Caring for Your Dying Loved One pamphlet the whole time he was listening to Sam rant about sustainable farming practices.
Dean figures that somewhere along the line, he started to like the feel of an empty stomach so much because it always meant Sammy was going to be okay. He can remember lying in bed with a teenage-boy belly so empty and achy it was absolutely gnawing at him because he gave the last can of SpaghettiOs to his little brother, and he’d been eating smaller and smaller portions for days beforehand. An empty stomach meant that Sam was taken care of and that Dean was the one who took care of him. He thinks he wants the same to be true for his dad. He thinks that maybe some misfiring neuron in his brain thought things are better for everyone else when you’re hungry, and the rest of his neurons were so fucked up that they agreed and took away his appetite. That one misfiring neuron isn’t completely wrong. Dad is still fucked up, but Dean, at least, feels more in control of the situation. So even though the neurons that are still firing right watch him crunching lettuce and sucking ice cubes and say that’s not very healthy, dude, Dean ignores their little voices in favor of feeling less like shit.
So Dean eats veggies a few times a day and doesn’t call Sammy and cleans up barf and develops a very intimate relationship with jogging guy’s butt. It’s probably not a great routine, but it keeps him going. Most days, jogging guy is the only person he sees that’s not his dad. And that’s okay, that’s what he signed up for when he told them he didn’t want to send his dad to hospice. When he told them it was his responsibility to watch his dad die because his dad is family. Plus, Dad has been unemployed for the better part of the last decade, so it isn’t like he has a healthy insurance plan to keep him rolling in hot nurses to give him sponge baths. And Dean’s already in the hole from keeping his dad in the hospital long enough for a stuffy board of self-important asswipes to figure out that his dad had been the one to pickle his own damn self, and he didn’t deserve a fresh liver to pickle when there were people out there who’d had their livers pickled involuntarily.
He’s never seen jogging guy’s face, but he likes to believe he’s really handsome, because hey, sue him, it isn’t like he has much other interesting jerk-off fodder. Some days he imagines he’s like a Harrison Ford-type handsome. Some days, he thinks maybe he’s Dr. Sexy handsome. Or like, a young Robert Plant. Every day, he tries to keep up more and more, pants his brains out trying to reach even a fraction of the guy’s speed, if only just to get more than a belated passing glance at the back of his goddamn head. And maybe he gets a little bit faster after a couple pounds come off, but Dean’s still a goddamn fatass compared to this guy’s well-muscled runner’s body, and he never stood a chance. He makes himself light-headed trying. It’s a good thing that the runner never turns back to look at him, never gives a shit about the slow asshole he’s been sharing the morning road with, because a few times, Dean has to bend over his own knees panting after he’s passed, try to stave off the lightheadedness that washes over him. It’s probably better not knowing what he looks like, anyway. It’s stupid, but he almost doesn’t want another disappointment, and if he figures it out, what would he have to look forward to every morning then?
And he can be excused for a few ridiculous fantasies, can’t he? Because watching his dad die is hard. It’s really hard. He’s never told Ellen or Bobby because they have their own problems and they don’t need to be worrying about him, but it’s harder than the pamphlets had ever prepared him for. He read those stupid sons of bitches cover to fucking cover, but there was only one of them that had even a measly page-long section about Dealing with Liver Failure, and it wasn’t even especially specific. It offered vague advice like don’t be surprised if the patient has blood in their bowel movements or don’t be discouraged if the patient stops recognizing you, and things like that don’t exactly make Dean surprised or discouraged so much as they make him absolutely fucking terrified. He knows he’s doing a shitty job caring for his dad, he knows he is. He isn’t sure why he ever thought that he could do better.
The only acknowledgement Sam had really made of the whole situation was when he had texted to say, I don’t know why you’re doing this, it’s not like dad would do the same for you, shortly after that last phone call. Dean spends a lot of time staring at that stupid message. Because Sam is right—his dad would have left him in hospice if he were in the same situation, absolutely no doubt about it. But that’s only because he doesn’t know how to take care of people so well, not because he doesn’t care.
If Dean’s liver was failing, Dad would probably come by every couple of days to shoot the shit about hot nurses and hospital food until Dean kicked it, and that would be fine by Dean. Dad’s never been able to handle anything that he couldn’t slap a band-aid on to fix. That’s just Dad. Dean’s supposed to be the one who can keep it together and take care of shit. Dean’s the one that always has.
Some days, though, Dean looks at the it’s not like dad would do the same for you and thinks that maybe Sammy meant that he wouldn’t do the same for Dean specifically, that maybe he would do the job for Sam if suddenly liver failure was catching. He thinks there’s some truth in that, too. Dean’s a fuckup. Dean can’t even take care of his dying dad right. Sam’s smart. Sam could do it if he were here. Sam would feed him the right things so he wouldn’t vomit half so much. Sam would know when he was thirsty, so he wouldn’t get up and fall down halfway to the bathroom. Sam would know what to do.
Sam isn’t here. Dean eats vegetables and not much else.
Dean leaves the house less and less. Things get scarier, and Dean becomes more of a recluse, which is as new for Dean as the whole not-eating schtick. He’s not exactly a sharer, but he likes people. He talks to his best friend Charlie on the phone sometimes, never does let on exactly what’s going on in his life. She moved out of town, got away for work a few years ago, thank Christ, and Dean’s happy for her always. Really. But after he talks to her, Dean always ends up staring at the Star Wars poster on his wall and pushing down sick heartache until he can man the fuck up and go help his dad into the shower or something.
Lettuce and carrots and celery go south pretty quick, and Dean watches them wilt to nothing and slime in the fridge. But things are coming to a head here so quickly, things are running so terrifyingly out of his control, that he often shakes thinking of getting in the Impala and driving all the way into town. So he only does half the time. Maybe.
It’s not as if food should be a problem—there comes a day where he looks at his massive stock of food in the freezer and he thinks, numb and distant, I have more food than he’ll ever need. And it’s true, Dean’s got masking-tape labels on perfectly segmented portions out through the next three months at least, neater than he’d ever thought himself capable of. They’d only given his dad a few months to live when they’d left the hospital about two months ago, but at this point, it would feel bad and weird and wrong to start eating his food. It’s got his dad’s name on it. And Dean doesn’t deserve it anyway.
So no more vegetables. Dean chews ice.
Pretty much the only time Dean leaves the house is for his daily run—his daily affair with mystery man’s rear—so of course that’s when his dad chooses to bite it.
Dean’ll never be totally sure when it happens. He does know Dad’s still breathing when Dean leaves the house. Dean wakes up early as usual after a near-sleepless night with his data entry and staggers into the master bedroom to put a hand over his dad’s mouth to make sure he’s still breathing right. Sometimes he steams like a tank engine and sometimes he huffs soft as a bullet train. When he gets real quiet, Dean just needs to make sure.
He’s fine. He’s on his back, cannula under his nose, looking peaceful as someone jaundice-yellow as he is can manage to look. So Dean takes off running.
There are overgrown canal embankments on either side of the two-lane road that leads out to their farmhouse. It’s a steep roll down to the fields from the asphalt. He and Sam used to roll ass-over-teakettle down them when they were little, just for shits and giggles. He remembers that. And Dad had bent the front axle of the Impala all out of whack when he’d crashed down one driving home drunk. Dean had staggered down the steep hill then, hands scrambling for purchase in clods of dirt and butt completely grass-stained, while he wondered if his dad finally managed to kill himself. He remembers that, too.
Dean can’t remember falling down it this time. He remembers leaving the house, remembers making sure that there was a glass of fresh water on his dad’s bedside table. It’s still dark as far as he knows—it was dark with no light on the horizon when he left like five minutes ago—so it doesn’t make much sense that it’s light now, and the most beautiful face Dean’s ever seen is hovering just over him, shouting something.
Dean reaches up to pet at the guy’s cheek before he can think to do anything else. Screaming guy looks startled, and something in Dean pulls his hand back before he ever gets to him.
“Oh. Good. You’re alive. Does it hurt anywhere? Is anything broken? I didn’t want to move you just in case.”
Dean struggles to understand. It’s the first time he can recall talking to anyone in days—aside from asking his dad if he needed to use the bathroom, if he wanted another blanket, if he was done throwing up. Dean shakes his head and doesn’t think he’s lying, even though he isn’t really sure what the question is.
The guy narrows his eyes. “Do you understand me? Are you okay?”
Dean really does feel okay. He feels light, sort of outside himself, like he’s floating above the conversation, so he says, “Yeah,” and it comes out dreamy.
“I’m used to you running in front of me. When you weren’t there I got worried. I looked for you. For a long time.” He bites his lip. “You must’ve passed out. Rolled down the embankment.”
Dean decides to take his word for it.
“Okay,” he says.
The guy gives him a worried look, pursing his lips until they’re bloodless.
“Please. Is there someone I can call to give you a ride home?” he says, waving a cell phone he produced from who-knows-where in demonstration. It’s a demonstration Dean needs too, because his brain takes like a whole minute parsing the word “call” inside his head. At least the answer to that one is easy once he figures out what the question is.
“No.” Everyone Dean knows is still sleeping. No way is he making them drag their asses out of bed so he can tell them he passed out like a girl. Dean is coming back into himself now, and the more he becomes aware of the way he’s positioned, the more he realizes that his right arm is curled under his back and it hurts. It’s an arduous process, shifting enough to pull it out, and when he does, the guy’s eyes get wide.
“Your arm is broken,” he says.
Dean turns it this way and that. It’s not badly broken—there’s no bone poking through his skin or anything—but there’s something off about his wrist and his forearm. His fingers still wiggle okay, but trying to move anything higher up brings a sharp stab of pain that might’ve made his gorge rise if there was anything to be risen.
“Yeah. Huh.” Dean almost wants to ask if it’s weird that he didn’t feel that until a few seconds ago. Instead, he gets up and starts making his unsteady way toward the road, pulling his arm in tight against his chest.
The guy follows behind him, pushing on Dean’s butt to get him up the hill in a way that’d be embarrassing if Dean didn’t genuinely need the help on the steep climb.
“Let me call my brother. He’ll give you a ride to the hospital,” he says when they’re on the side of the road again, feet crunching on the loose gravel at the shoulder.
“Nah,” Dean says. “My house is just like a mile that way.” He points in the direction that he’s almost sure his house is in.
“I just found you passed out in a ditch,” he says, sounding unimpressed. “Your arm is broken. Why are you going home? You need to go have the break set and get some kind of checkup. I studied—in my degree, I studied psychology. Are you feeling disconnected?”
Dean ignores him, grunts, and starts in the home direction anyway. That’s how he gets a stray who follows him all the way to his house, straightens him when his path starts to meander, frets at him like a walking psychology textbook, and who, Dean eventually realizes when he wanders out in front of him, has a really nice ass.
“Hey,” Dean says as the two of them are getting close to his house. “You’re butt guy.”
The guy is in the middle of an involved lecture about Dean’s nonexistent sense of self-preservation that would give even Sammy a self-righteous boner, but he stops when Dean says it and tilts his head to the side like a fuckin’ cockatiel. Even in the midst of his single-minded determination to get home and check on his dad (because god fucking knows how long he was stuck being a little bitch at the bottom of a ditch), Dean can appreciate the fact that butt guy is just as pretty as he wanted him to be. Not in the Harrison Ford way, or the Jimmy Page way, or the cowboy-boots-and-hospital-scrubs way. He reminds Dean of a tired-looking bird of prey more than anything. It doesn’t make sense that his mushy brain gets the pretty haze when Dean looks at him, just like it does when he’s three sheets to the wind and staring down some real nice piece of ass at the bar.
“Excuse me?” Thank whatever’s holy that Dean’s door isn’t locked, because he’s pretty sure that taking his hand off his broken arm to get his keys would make it really start smarting. The dull throb against his hand as he tries to hold the thing together is probably the only thing keeping him upright. He hesitates before he ushers the guy in behind him, waving him toward the kitchen to get some water or something. It feels weird letting him into the house, but he doesn’t know what the fuck else to do with him.
Dean just says, “Gotta check on my dad. Then I guess I’ll drive to the hospital.”
Guy goes off again about how there’s no way Dean’s driving in his condition, how that would definitely be against medical advisement. Dean doesn’t really have the energy to tell him that there’s exactly one car here and only two of the three people present are allowed to drive it, and one of those people is currently—
Dean steps into his dad’s room. It smells weird. Different weird. Dean crinkles his nose, hopes his dad didn’t shit himself. The oxygen compressor is still puffing, but Dean can’t hear Dad breathing. When he steps forward to look, puts his hand over his mouth to check for breath, he notices there’s a puddle of sick on the pillow next to his head, leaking down the side of his face. He’s still peaceful on his back, like he couldn’t even be bothered to turn over as he aspirated on his own puke.
While Dean was passed out in a ditch like some fucking girl.
Dean wants to pound him on the chest, wants to cry, wants to breath into his lips, all three, all at once, for a split second. He has half a mind to start chest compressions with his broken arm, but when he puts his hand on his dad’s chest, he’s stone-cold, not breathing, already gone.
Then things go a little blank.
He starts doing things with his broken arm on the way out of the room. Flicks off the light with his broken hand, smacks the doorjamb, turns the door handle, feels bones grinding against one another.
He steps back out of the room, closes the door quietly, sees the guy fingering at one of his well-worn grief and death pamphlets with some unreadable expression on his face and says, “We need to call an ambulance.”
Guy drops the pamphlet and turns around too quick, guilty maybe. “Are you feeling light-headed? Does your neck hurt? Did you hurt yourself somewhere else?”
“No,” Dean says. “My dad is dead.”
And usually, in Dean’s admittedly limited experience announcing the death of his relatives to people he’s just met, saying that to someone tends to make them freak out. But bird guy just sort of tilts his head and does as he’s told. The paramedics arrive with two ambulances. Apparently, it’s so Dean doesn’t have to ride with his dad’s corpse, and so that there’ll be room for bird guy to sit with him on the way there, just quiet, stiffly holding his unbroken hand. It makes Dean drift, thinking about Sammy on his handlebars when they were both just babies, Sammy cradling his own broken arm and trying to be brave.
It’s nice, having someone sitting next to him.
They tell Dean at the hospital that he’s in about twenty kinds of shock. They talk to him real slow and give him blankets while he’s sitting on the papery hospital observation table and talk to the bird guy like he’s actually going to know something.
He doesn’t even know Dean’s name.
Dean figures they’re probably right about the shock since he doesn’t feel much but numb. But it doesn’t feel sudden. It doesn’t feel like something that happened because he broke his arm and walked in on his dad with a lungful of vomit. It feels like something he’s been working himself up to for a while.
They set Dean’s arm fine after his X-ray. They put him in a bright pink fiberglass cast up to his elbow because he isn’t aware enough to object to it, and then they dope him up on awesome painkillers and send someone in to talk to him about his dad. He’s out of his mind when he agrees to cremation because it’s the cheapest option and Dean doesn’t even have enough money for the overnight stay he’s in for himself. Bird guy’s name is apparently Cas-tee-ell, Cas, and he sticks around Dean’s bedside like he has any business being there, sitting stiff-backed and awkward and anxious in a plastic hospital chair.
Funny thing is, the grief counselor directs most of the questions at Cas, like he’s actually even privy to the situation at all—like he’s Dean’s boyfriend or something. Cas just sorta nods along with the questions and tries to break them down in terms that Dean’s drugged-out, shocked-up brain can understand. He’s not very good at it, but somehow Dean gets the words he’s feeding him. They click just right. And to his credit, Cas doesn’t even act like he just stumbled into some dramatic family nightmare when he found a guy passed out in a ditch today.
“Some repayment for your good deed,” Dean slurs. “I probly owe you like nine kinds of favors now, huh? Like a life debt or something?” Cas has one hand on the sheets by Dean’s, and every once in a while, Dean’s little finger will brush up against him and send a shock tingling up his spine.
“No. You don’t owe me anything.”
Castiel is even there for the best revelation, when it comes. Why Dean was face-down at the bottom of a canal. He’d probably only stuck around that long to figure it out, Dean thinks drunkenly. Probably just wanted to figure out if this whole mess was actually worth his time. Like, if he saved a drug addict or a child molester or a murderer or something, then everything would be a waste, and Cas would’ve lost an afternoon to the hospital for nothing.
Dean wants to tell him that he isn’t—worth it, that is—but it’s nice that someone thinks he is for a second.
“You’re malnourished,” the doctor says, flipping his chart dispassionately. He’s an older guy with a shiny, balding halo on the top of his head, and he doesn’t even look at Dean when he delivers the verdict. That’s okay. Castiel looks at Dean’s face enough for everyone in the hospital and then some. Dean’s not sure he’s stopped staring since he woke up in the dirt and those big blue eyes were hovering right over his face. “And just the wrong side underweight. You’re also dehydrated.”
The revelation comes with a meal. Probably not even a free meal. Ding, ding, ding. For every piece of information Dean already fucking knows, he gets a fifty-dollar plate of cardboard lasagna and broccoli and orange jello.
Castiel looks between Dean and the food tray and says, “You should eat.” He stands up, sort of gets in Dean’s personal space, ends up jerkily running both his hands over Dean’s shoulders in a way that makes him shiver with sensitivity. “I’m very familiar with your silhouette. You’ve lost weight here.”
And okay, that’s weird. Yeah, maybe Dean’s shoulder bones are a little wing-tippy under Castiel’s fingers, but he doesn’t look any different. His brain fuzzes out, more white-edged shockiness creeping into his line of sight. The fact that someone is touching him for the first time in a while eclipses everything else for a second. It feels nice. Even though Cas is a little bit wooden, a little bit rehearsed, it feels more heartfelt than Dad’s touches usually do.
Dad sometimes touched him. Big, tired, clumsy pats when Dean helped him do something or got him dinner, but the way he ruffled his hair always sort of made Dean feel like he didn’t know which son he was touching. Like he was expecting longer strands between his fingers. Besides that, he thinks he remembers being touched by Uncle Bobby, maybe a hug or a pat on the cheek, but this is just like touching his pinky finger except with a lot more skin. Electric.
Nobody seems surprised when Dean pushes away the meal, though. When the nurse asks Dean if his big ole bag of meds is upsetting his tummy and rubs her own in demonstration like Dean doesn’t know what the fuck a tummy is, he nods.
Cas disappears as quick as he came when Bobby and Ellen show up and stand around his room like it’s already a funeral in here. He’s out the door before Bobby asks Dean if he’s already called his brother. Dean misses him, acutely, aggressively, as he talks into Sam’s voicemail box, and he doesn’t even know the stupid, nosy motherfucker.
The next day, when Bobby comes to pick him up from the hospital, Dean thinks about how it’s going to be sort of funny to have to wear his neon-pink cast to his dad’s funeral. But it turns out you don’t really get a funeral when no one likes you and you owe everyone money that you’re never going pay up on and your son is a broke-ass piece of shit who had you cremated. Turns out when that happens, they just shove a box at your son with his prescription for hydrocodone and wish him happy ash-spreading.
Dean shakes his dad like a Christmas present, still drugged up and sick from the rich biscuits and bacon and eggs they made him eat this morning. The nurse eyes him funny and hands him all his dad’s belongings on top of everything else, right down to the broken wristwatch Dad put on one morning when he wasn’t out of it yet and just never took off. Stupid thing is so waterlogged now, it doesn’t even tick anymore.
Sammy probably would’ve given him a funeral, Dean thinks on the car ride home, looking at his dad’s box and trying not to think about how he can feel the lap band of the seatbelt in Bobby’s passenger seat chafing his pointy hipbones. Sammy’s apparently got some kind of law fellowship something-whatsit down in California. He’s digging around in books all day for shit lawyers don’t want to look up themselves, and he’s making better bank than Dean does chugging through his data entry all night. Night before Dad died, Dean had been doing something for a law firm, actually. Something for ambulance chasers about neck injuries and award amounts and. Something. Dean thinks that sums up his relationship with Sam pretty well. Sam charging ahead, doing the big work, and Dean in the background, doing clean-up, just trying to keep him in his sights. Not ever really fully understanding where he’s at or where he’s going.
“You okay?” Bobby says, both hands on the wheel, ten and two, just like they never are. Like he wants to drive careful and doesn’t want to jostle Dad’s ashes or Dean’s pretty pink cast.
“Fine,” he grunts.
“You sure you wanna go back to that house?”
That’s a trick question. Dean never wants to go back to that house. Never ever ever. It’s got a dusty hospital-issue cane and an IV pole with half a bag of pain meds attached and an oxygen concentrator that’s still puffing away like it means something, unless the paramedics had the decency to shut it off as they left. Dean’s going to have to clean up his dad’s puke and wash a whole room that still smells like him while his dad is sitting burned up in a box in the other room, and it’s going to suck.
But Dean doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Dean’s never lived anywhere else. Everything he knows is there.
Dean doesn’t say anything. It’s complicated, and it’s easier to not respond.
“You’re skinny,” Bobby says eventually, even and slow, like Dean’s going to get spooked and skitter out the door of a moving car. “You been eatin’ okay out here? I know Ellen’s been sendin’ you casseroles.”
Dean grunts. Tries not to think of the neatly segmented casseroles stacked three-high in the freezer, and how he’s going to have to dump every single one down the garbage disposal and peel off the tape that says they’re meant for his father. A nurse sat at his bedside this morning, waited and watched him eat stupid scrambled eggs forkful by tedious forkful, and now they’re a hard lump in his belly, edging at the base of his throat like they want to make a reappearance.
“You want somethin’ specific? Could have her make you some soup or something. Something more solid. Steak? Potatoes?”
Just the thought of steak makes his stomach roil. He hasn’t eaten red meat in probably three months. He shakes his head.
“Ellen doesn’t hafta make me anything special, Bobby. You both’ve done enough.”
Bobby doesn’t seem to agree. He keeps flicking his eyes between Dean and the road, Dean and the road. He eventually settles on watching Dean when the road reveals nothing more than the same familiar country highway Bobby’s been driving down to come help the sorry-ass Winchesters for basically Dean’s whole life.
“Sam ever call you back?”
Dean told Sam his dad was dead in a message. He unloaded on him that there wasn’t a funeral and it was up to Sam whether or not he wanted to show his face. Sam’s busy, Dean knows, so obviously he doesn’t need to make a huge fuss over Dean. And Sam must agree, because he hasn’t called Dean back yet.
Dean shakes his head.
“We can still have a service for your daddy if you wanna, boy. Ain’t nothin’ stopping us. Get ‘im an urn. Put ‘im down next to your momma.”
The only other place Dean ever lived in his whole life is the house where his mom burned. It’s still in town. As far as Dean knows, they cleaned up all the damage and there’s a nice family of four in it now. Some Bizarro-World version of his family living a pretty, two-story dream. It’s weird, because his mom was nothing but ashes too, but she got her own coffin anyway. She got a whole ceremony where they planted her in the ground. He figures it’s because there were people besides Dean who liked his mom when she died. Dad doesn’t have that. Even Bobby wasn’t been on speaking terms with his dad before he died. He almost helped him along to an early grave with a behind full of shotgun shell, though Dean’s still not sure what that particular argument was about.
“Naw. What’s the point, right?”
Bobby looks like he thinks the point might be sitting next to him in the cab of his truck, but they drive in silence until they hit his house anyway, and Bobby gets out of his truck and lingers. Dean just feels tired. Wants to leave the oxygen compressor on for another night and go sleep in his room with it chugging at him from the other side of the thin wall.
“You need some help in there?”
“Probly gonna take a pain pill and go to sleep, Bobby.”
Bobby takes off his baseball cap, nods, rubs at his head.
“When do you think you’ll wanna come back to the garage?”
Christ, the garage. Going back to the garage right now only sounds a little bit more appealing than the meal he choked down this morning. He spent the last few months wishing he was around more people, but now all he really wants is his dad. And his dad is ashes in a box.
“I don’t—Bobby…I don’t—”
Bobby looks all bittersweet sad for a sec, like Dean’s some sensitive flower and he understands. Then he claps Dean on the shoulder, gets back in his truck, and takes off, leaving Dean alone with his dad’s ashes and the house that he grew up in.
His arm is smarting fiercely when he gets inside, so he squints at the instructions on his bottle of painkillers in the morning light of the kitchen and takes twice the recommended dose anyway. He shuffles by where the wheels of a gurney have knocked the whole front room out of whack and collapses into his bed, more than a little high. The eggs and bacon push at his throat as he’s lying in bed, so he lays on his side. It would be pathetic to go the way dad went only a couple days later.
Dean wills the room to stop spinning so he can sleep. He concentrates on all the corners in turn, hoping the focus will take away some of the churning in his gut. He looks at his dusty husk of a cheap acoustic guitar, the one he got just like every other stupid, classic-rock-loving kid who thought he was going to be a real-life musician in high school. He looks at the box full of the soccer trophies that Sammy tried to throw out when he left for college. At his little TV with a build-in VCR, at his box of records. He closes his eyes and visualizes the Playboys under the bed. In the closet, he’s got a whole nother brand of skin mags, and he visualizes them, too, humiliating as they are. Then he tries to stop thinking of all that, because it’s not much to show for himself, considering how long he’s been here. Not a whole lot to show what he’s worth.
His dad would hate the way he died, Dean thinks, coming to the realization like a slow inevitability and opening his eyes to look dazedly at the stained wall opposite his bed. His dad had been trying to go out in a blaze of glory for a long-ass time, but Dean never let him. Now he thinks maybe he should’ve. If Dad had managed to find the keys any of the many times Dean had hidden them, he could’ve crashed the Impala into a tree years before he severed his ties with everyone and everything, and it would’ve at least felt like his death was on his terms. His dad’s death now feels like Dean tried to make it on his own terms, and that isn’t right. Dean didn’t own his dad’s life, his dad’s choices.
He drifts off thinking of all the ways his dad should have died.
He wakes, still fucked up on pain pills, to the sound of his phone, and he fumbles to answer it.
“Dean?” Sam says when Dean doesn’t say hello, just breathing heavy down the line. “Dean, you there?”
“Yeeeah,” he says, drawing it out and yawning, trying desperately to keep his eyes open. “Hiya Sammy.”
“Christ Dean, are you drunk?” Dean wants to speak up—insist that he’s only high, not drunk. And that his painkillers are both legal and legitimate. Instead, he shakes his head, feels it wobble on his neck, and sees the room spin. He gets dizzy real quick when he goes to sit up, and he doesn’t want to puke, but he does anyway. Right over the side of the bed.
The oxygen compressor chugs away in the next room, and Dean thinks that he should be allowed to get drunk as hell if he wants to. It’s his fault Dad is dead; it’s his fault he didn’t let Dad die sooner. He’s the one who got to watch Dad fall apart right in front of him. Dean looks down at the sorry pile of puke and thinks that it won’t be too far off from all the cleaning he’s been doing, so it won’t make a whole hell of a lot of difference. And Christ, he doesn’t want to admit it, but he feels so much better getting that gunk out of his system. Like someone lifted a massive weight off his shoulders. It feels nice to be hungry again, even if nothing else does.
“Jesus. Jesus, Dean. Dad dies of liver failure and you come home and what? Down a bottle of Jack? It’s like three in the afternoon where you are, dude.”
Sam’s voice sounds wavery. Dean hasn’t heard that kind of tone since Sam was a lot younger, just a kid on the edge of tears. When Sammy was eight and Dad didn’t come home on Christmas, when Sammy was twelve and Dean didn’t have the fee to send him on a class fieldtrip, when Sammy was sixteen and some chick turned him down for the school dance. When Sammy was six and he was hungry, because Dad sometimes left town and Dean sometimes didn’t tell Bobby, and sometimes people didn’t pay attention like they were supposed to.
Dean always did. Dean always did pay attention. Sam deserved better.
“M’sorry,” he says. His puke smells rank. If the nurses had just let him be, hadn’t forced a gross breakfast on him, it would’ve just been bile. Bile smells like sunshine compared to this. Dean would know. “M’sorry about Dad.”
Dean can kind of hear Jess down the line as she whispers near the receiver. Dean can see it—she’s probably pressed up against his chest. Probably rubbing her hands up and down his arms. Real soft. Comforting.
“So he’s really dead, huh?”
Dean runs his own hand up and down the arm holding his phone, rubbing out the goosebumps, like that’s going to make up for the fact that he doesn’t have a Jess. And fuck, that really hurts anyway, because his goddamn arm is broken.
“Yeah. Yeah, Sammy. He’s dead.”
“Well, I wouldn’t believe it if you hadn’t seen it yourself,” he says. Dean feels leftover bile burning at the back of his throat. He can see where his little brother is coming from on this one, because he probably wouldn’t believe it if he hadn’t seen it either. If their places had been switched—if it had been Sam calling Dean up to let him know that Dad bit the big one on his freaking voicemail—Dean would have called straight-up shenanigans until he saw a corpse. Because Dad disappeared a lot. Soon as Dean got old enough to be able to recognize all the buttons on the phone, soon as Dean got old enough to lie to the police and the neighbors and the school teachers, Dad took off near every chance he got. If Dean were Sam right now, he sure as hell would make sure he got a copy of the death certificate, or he’d be all for checking the local dives for Dad’s stupid, passed-out ass.
So yeah, Dean gets it. But Sam doesn’t seem to realize what kind of fresh hell he’s implying when he says that Dean had seen it. Because yeah, he saw. He saw his dad, who hadn’t fucking been there all through his childhood, but had been his dad nonetheless, and he was dead and gone and blue in the face.
His fault. Dean’s fault. It isn’t anything he doesn’t deserve.
He just says, “Me either, man.”
They breathe silence down the line at each other. Dean isn’t sure exactly when he’d lost the trick of talking to Sammy. Probably around the time he’d started needing Sammy’s help. He’d never learned how to do that. How to need something from Sam back. The day that Sam left, left him with all Dad’s troubles and whole heap of his own, he’d needed.
“You, uh—you comin’ into town, y’think?”
Sam, I’m scared. Sam, I’m tired.
Sam, I’m falling apart.
Not in his vocabulary. All those years ago, Dean drove Sam to the Greyhound bus stop and tried to stop needing him. He puts a hand to his stomach, feels his ribs heave underneath his t-shirt, slick with sweat, and tries again now.
“Listen, Dean. About that. You’re not having a service for Dad, right? I talked to Bobby. That’s what Bobby said.”
Dean says they aren’t, and for the first time, he thinks about maybe going back on the whole no service thing just to spite Sam, because he knows exactly where this is fucking going.
Dean, I can’t do the laundry this week, I’ve got a lot of homework, can’t you—?
“It’s almost midterms. And if you’re not going to be doing anything special, can’t I just. Maybe come see you over the summer instead of flying out right now? We could clean the old place out, maybe. Dump Dad’s ashes down the toilet at Ellen’s bar, like he woulda wanted.” He’s trying for levity. Dean can’t bring himself to laugh.
This is how Sam is handling things, Dean tells himself. Sam’s upset. He can hear it in his voice. But Sam never had any clue how to deal with their dad without butting heads. The idea of him coming out to be weepy and sad with Dean about all the good times is laughable at best.
And if he asks, if he puts his foot down, if he tells Sam unequivocally that he needs someone next to him right now, Sam would probably come. Sam does love him. Dean knows that, he does. But Dean had never learned that language. Sam, I’m barely keeping it together, is about as accessible to him as any sentence in Japanese or German or Finland-ish, whatever the fuck they speak. And Sam had always told him that he finds Dean’s lack of cultural sensitivity embarrassing.
“No. No—yeah. Yeah.” He clears his throat. “Yeah, I’m alright. You own your midterms, Sammy. He’s just some ashes in a box, right? Not a lot you could do except come be bored here.”
The conversation always ends the same. Of course, Dean. I’ll call you soon, Dean. Thanks for understanding, Dean.
He sounds so relieved, and when Dean hangs up, he feels okay about how that went. Like he did way back in the beginning of all this, when he felt like going out for a beer with Bobby but he said no anyway. The ache in the pit of his stomach means Sammy’s taken care of, because Sammy deserves to be taken care of.
He cleans up his puke and tells himself he doesn’t even mind it.
When Dean goes out the door for his run the next morning, butt guy is there. Like, right there. Not even on the road. The front of the house has an old bench swing with a set of rusty chains attached, and he’s sitting on it, squeaking every time he kicks off the porch. He’s more presentable than Dean’s ever seen him, clean-shaven and showered and not even sweaty, so maybe he didn’t run. Or maybe he just doesn’t need to break a sweat by the time he reaches Dean’s house. After all, the guy’s usually still going full-bore halfway through Dean’s run, overtaking him from behind and reinforcing all the Dean-you-are-one-pathetic-motherfucker mantras he’s got going on in his head.
Dean figures he should remember the guy’s name, but he doesn’t. But, like the doctors said. He was in about ten different kinds of shock, so he can probably be excused for that.
Dean pauses when he notices him, right in the middle of locking his door. He fumbles the keys with his bad hand and says, “Oh. You.”
Butt guy stands up.
“Me,” he says. The porch swing keeps on swaying loud and rickety behind him, and Dean gets a flashback to when he used to sit on it with Sammy in the long and lonely summers of kid-dom, back when Sammy would run Hot Wheels cars along the flaking paint of their porch railings. “You’re not going for a run, are you?”
Dean looks down at himself. He’s in a big, holey Marines t-shirt that belonged to his dad and the only pair of sweatpants he has that don’t have sick on them. He pretty much looks like he’s going for a run.
“Your arm is broken.”
Dean looks down at his pink cast. He’s feeling a little slow with the pain meds he took about a half hour ago, but he thinks this guy might be even slower. Because, yeah. He was there when the whole thing got casted. He didn’t even have to be and he was anyway.
“Well it ain’t my leg, is it?”
“Did it occur to you,” he says, “that maybe you should take a day off?”
Dean blinks, and that’s almost funny, because it honestly didn’t. He spent yesterday doing more data entry for the law office. It wasn’t going to get done if he didn’t do it, and he didn’t have the presence of mind to call in sick. They wouldn’t care about his sob story, anyway, and he doesn’t blame them. They’d just find somebody else to take his place. And Dean doesn’t want an excuse to go back to the garage just yet.
But then he’d gone to bed and his alarm had gone off like normal, and what else was he going to do? His dad was dead. He didn’t need to stick around anymore. Take a day off? For what?
“Plus, your father—”
Butt guy tilts his head, and Dean remembers, shock or no, sitting in a hospital bed and thinking he looked like a bird. He still does. Like some blue jay, all curious and alert. And he doesn’t even bother to look chastised that Dean called him out.
“I studied psychology in college, you know,” he says self-importantly, and okay, Dean knows where this is going. It feels like people have been trying to psychoanalyze him his whole life, like he’s some prime candidate for psychological study because he seems so pathetic, and Dean isn’t going to stick around and wait for this guy to tell him that he seems depressed too. He doesn’t need to waste his breath telling another Freud wannabe that people like Dean don’t get depressed. Being depressed is for rich fuckers with too much time on their hands.
“You’re grieving,” he says, a recitation. Dean tromps down the steps. “People don’t just come back from the things that I’ve seen you experience, you know. You should take a day off,” he calls after Dean.
Dean rolls his eyes and takes off running. He starts jogging down the main road, and there’s no cars coming behind him or ahead of him because not very many people live this way. Butt guy must live around here if he’s stalking Dean this much, unless he goes out of his way to show up at Dean’s house who-knows-how-long before Dean’s early jog. Dean just wants to get away from it. Of course, Dean forgot the flaw in this plan. Butt guy can keep up with him easy. Butt guy runs way faster than Dean ever will. Especially now, when Dean’s maybe kind of sort of feeling a little tiny bit fatigued.
Butt guy is right behind him. Dean pants through his nose and pumps his arms, trying to pull ahead, and he does, a little, but it’s not any pace that’s going to last, and butt guy doesn’t even seem winded. Christ, if he turned around, he could probably still see his house, and he’s already seeing the black spots in front of his eyes that he usually only sees at the end of his run.
“Do you want to take a break?” butt guy says, like he’s got all the air he could ever want in his lungs. He jogs beside Dean at a high-kneed trot.
Dean gives in. He stops and doubles over, hands on his knees.
“What—the—fuck,” he lets himself pant. “What the fuck do you want?”
Butt guy shrugs, jogging in place like he’s got all the energy in the world, and Dean knows it’s just to prove a point.
“Mostly, I’d like to—be your friend.”
Dean eyes him up and down, taking breaths through his nose now and feeling more in control. He stands up straight.
“Well, you’re doing a piss-poor job.” Hurt flashes across his face, there and gone again in a second. “I don’t even know your name.”
He squints like the sun’s in his eyes, except it isn’t. It’s still dark out, and he looks like a dork. “I told you my name.”
“Yeah, well, I was having a stressful day.” Dean waves his casted hand in the air between them. “’Scuse me if I forgot.”
“It’s Castiel,” he says, very slow, and yeah, Dean guesses he sort of remembers that. He would remember it better if it was a little fucking shorter. “And that’s why I wanted to be friends. You seem to be having a rough time.”
“Well, Castiel,” Dean says. “What if I don’t want to be friends?”
Castiel stops running in place but keeps squinting a skeptical squint. “You seem lonely.” He says it deadpan, looking Dean right in the face all the while, and Dean doesn’t really know how to deal with someone just calling him out on his feelings like that. No one really—does that to Dean. Even Bobby and Ellen sort of pussyfoot around it. But hell, he’s not surprised he seemed lonely. If anyone asked, he’d probably straight up admit he’s lonely as fuck. And how pathetic is that? It’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. Not like it isn’t something he brought on himself. “Am I wrong? Are you not lonely?”
“I—no. No. Whatever,” Dean says, turning back toward his house. He feels his gorge rise even though there’s nothing in his stomach. “I’m going home. I guess I can’t stop you if you follow me.”
He can’t and he doesn’t. Castiel follows him. Same as before, little lost puppy-ing behind him. Except he seems to have more wisdom in him than Dean thought, now that Dean gets a proper look at him. He’s got the bird look down, but maybe Dean was wrong about the whole blue jay thing. Maybe he should’ve been thinking hawk. Or like, parrot at least. The kinds of birds that talk and look at you and seem to know what you’re thinking, even though there’s nothing human about their expressions.
“I was thinking we’d go to my house,” Castiel says when Dean starts down his driveway, fishing for his keys in his pocket.
“Why?” Dean bites. “Skeeved out? Don’t want to go in a house where a dude died a few days ago?” Dean says it cruel and hard, half to make Castiel go away, half to test if he actually will.
He’s not sure if Cas passes or fails when he says, “No,” with just a totally straight face, like that hadn’t even occurred to him. “I just thought a change of scenery might be good for you.”
And. Well. He’s probably not wrong about that.
Without another word, he starts for a little blue car that Dean hadn’t seen parked along the gravelly edge of their road, half-hidden as it is by an overgrown lilac bush. Dean doesn’t have time for more than a backwards glance at his door and a vague wish he’d at least let Dean change his clothes before they left. But now this guy’s got something in his head, and he’s determined as all hell. Dean half expects him to buckle his seatbelt for him when he climbs into the car.
Watching his house fade in the rearview mirror, Dean has to say he isn’t real sorry to see it behind him for a sec. Even if Castiel’s car—a fuckin’ souped-up little Lexus that smells like a weird mix of new car and dirt—kind of sucks ass.
Turns out Cas doesn’t live far at all. Out here in the country, there’s a weird mishmash of old houses left over from the people who farmed the land and brand-spanking-new upper-class-elite ranch houses that people who got tired of city life came out here and blew their life’s savings on. That’s probably the reason he never really knew Cas growing up—his house is the latter. Shiny and new. Dean’s is the former, old and ugly and completely unkempt.
Driving up Castiel’s long driveway, Dean finds himself having weird nostalgic flashbacks for things that never happened—being able to come over to a big house like this when his dad wasn’t around. He imagines eating real food and playing on Castiel’s computer and meeting Castiel’s normal, nuclear parents. It’s stupid. This house hadn’t been around when Dean was a kid. Dean doesn’t know Castiel from anyone. But he does know that he didn’t really have a whole lot of friends as a kid, and this kind of place would have been nice to have. Like, a retreat. A summer home. A hideout.
Castiel bullies him inside. He’s assaulted by that weird feeling you get when you go into someone else’s house for the first time—the itchy-skin foreignness of a million unfamiliar smells. Lilac coming from the laundry nook near the garage door, general stew-pot home-cooking smell laying over everything thick. Dean’s gone nose-blind to his own house by now, but he knows it smells like booze and dust and mildew and sick. It’s—nice not being in his house for a second, but it sucks knowing that his house is going smell about ten times shittier when he goes back to it, just because of this. And it sucks knowing that’s the smell that Dean himself is steeped in. It’s probably coming off him in waves right now.
Castiel asks him to take his shoes off by the door, has a special mat just for it, and Dean does. He curls his toes up in new, plushy carpet, and he can feel every fiber through a hole in his sock. The house is quiet in that not-awake-yet way.
He keeps getting those weird nostalgic-but-not thoughts. Racing up and down this hallway with action figures. Playing with Cas on this carpet with all his toys. Cas probably had awesome toys. G.I. Joes and He Man action figures and ThunderCats playsets with all the characters. Dean would bet money on it.
Castiel leads him down a hallway and into a big, white kitchen, and Dean gets blindsided by a hard, thrumming panic.
“Do you want bacon?” Cas starts pulling shit out of the fridge. Dean stands in the doorway to the kitchen feeling gross and underdressed. He tugs at the hem of his shirt.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making you breakfast,” Cas says, like it’s obvious. “Do you want bacon?”
“I’m not really hungry,” Dean says.
Castiel pulls out the bacon anyway, setting it on the counter, and he immediately turns back to the fridge.
“What about sausage?”
“I’m not hungry,” Dean repeats, like maybe Castiel didn’t hear him, even though he knows he did.
“Eggs,” Cas says. “How do you take your eggs?”
And Dean says, “Dude, I said I wasn’t hungry,” in a flat growl.
Cas peeks his head out from where it’s buried in the fridge—one of those big, sleek stainless steel motherfuckers—gives Dean a cool look, and sets the eggs on the countertop without breaking Dean’s eye contact. But Dean’s dug in deep on this one now, he’s got months of stubbornness piled into this little venture, even if at this point, there isn’t much reason. But he feels good with where he’s at right now. He’s riding high on the ache in his stomach, and it’s pretty much the only good thing he’s got.
He approaches Cas from behind to put those goddamn eggs right back where they came from. He picks them up off the counter and pushes them into the fridge again, right past Castiel’s head.
“Not hungry,” he repeats, dark, right up against Cas’s back.
Castiel’s hands go for the egg carton again, and his jaw is set hard—so hard it’s kind of scary. His eyes are steel in his face. Dean backs off when he realizes he’s about ten seconds away from assaulting some guy he probably likes, right in his own kitchen, because he’s trying to make Dean breakfast. Dean backs off, shakes his head.
“Fuck. Fuck. I gotta—where’s your john?” he says. Cas takes the eggs out and sets them absently on the counter, pointing wordlessly down the hallway. “Thanks.”
Dean retreats to the bathroom like a coward. Usually, retreating is something Dean only does around his own family, which must mean Dean thinks pretty highly of this Castiel guy already. Or it means he’s becoming some kind of pansy-ass. Either way, he plans to hang out in the bathroom for a good long while so he can get his shit together.
He walks by a doorway to a big living room and a library on his way to the bathroom, and somewhere after that, he starts seeing pictures on the walls. A big family in the beginning that dwindles down to three by the last photograph. Photo-Cas looks awkward and pulls at his sleeves all the way down the hallway. Then there’s some short dude who’s perpetually in profile for most of the wall. Dean doesn’t figure out why until he’s facing straight forward in the very last shot, and he can see a massive, bright red birthmark creeping up the side that was previously hidden. And the last person that’s in all of the photos is a woman with red hair who seems to get smaller and more—reduced the further Dean walks, until eventually she lands herself in a wheelchair in the picture right before the end of the hall.
Sure enough, when Dean makes it into the bathroom and shuts the door behind him, the whole thing is laid out like bathrooms always were at the hospital. Bars everywhere, big walk-in shower with a bench in it, sink that’s low to the ground and doesn’t have cabinets beneath it. Dean would have killed for a shower like that when his dad got real sick. He strokes a hand over the expensive-looking hardware and the tiles, up to the big, fancy showerhead that can detach from where it’s mounted on the wall. Dean had to pick his dad up from their deathtrap of a shower-bath combo at least four times before he died, and there’s nothing quite as dehumanizing as that, he’s pretty sure.
Dean picks up a Reader’s Digest from the back of the toilet and sits down in the shower chair, decides he’s not quite ready to face the outside. The Reader’s Digest is probably like four years old, and it’s got an article about Michelle Obama’s tips to a healthy, happy life advertised on the cover. Dean reads all the funnies and he’s halfway through an article on Eight Fun Ways to Lose Weight! when someone he assumes is Castiel knocks on the door and jiggles the handle.
“Dean, are you still in here?” he says, muffled. Dean stares pointedly at some picture of avocado smeared on a piece of toast and feels disgust roiling deep in his belly. And mostly, he thinks, the disgust is because he honestly doesn’t know what’s fucking wrong with him. He doesn’t know why this is a huge deal. He doesn’t know why just a picture of food is enough to fill him with dread—he just knows it is, and it does, and now he’s hiding in a bathroom to get away from a slab of bacon outside. He thought maybe he had an idea why when his dad was dying, but his dad is dead now, and he should want food again. Instead, he relishes in the hunger.
He closes the Reader’s Digest with a thwap.
“I’m not hungry,” he says again, helpless. “I’m really not, Cas.”
“I know,” Cas says. “I’ve overstepped. I do that. I apologize.”
The lock on the door isn’t a good one. One of those kiddie-proof things with a hole in the other side that’s pretty much made to provide the illusion of privacy more than anything else. Cas jimmies it without too much trouble, and when the door swings open, he’s holding a scraped-up bobby pin in his left hand and wearing a sad look on his face. He’s done this before.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
Dean looks down at the magazine cover. “Learning the eight fun ways I can lose weight,” he says.
Cas takes a slow step forward, foot hovering over the tile before he steps in. “I don’t think you need those.” He stops short, just by the sink, and taps his fingers absently on the enamel. “Do you…” Cas says, trailing off. Biting his lip. “Can I show you something instead? As long as we’re not eating?”
Anything is better than eating, so he nods and follows when Cas turns around. He leads Dean purposefully back down the family-covered hallway and through a living room with a high ceiling and a big-screen TV instead of into the kitchen again. He heads out a sliding glass backdoor to a big backyard where the sun is only just cresting on the horizon.
It’s funny, interacting with someone else right now. He’s not accustomed to seeing people who aren’t his family until like, at least nine o’clock. But Cas. Maybe Cas is okay. He’s used to his butt flying by every morning at just about sunrise, so he tells himself it’s not actually all that unusual to be here, now, not eating this guy’s bacon.
They’re still in stocking feet, both their pairs of shoes left in neat stacks by the door, so stepping onto the grass brings a wet shock of cold dew that soaks into his socks and sends a shiver down his spine. Cas, utterly unaffected, leads him around to the side of the house, and once they’ve rounded the corner, Dean can see where Cas is leading him. It’s a big, glass-walled structure with fogged-up panes, like the whole building is breathing for itself. They both have to step over a little lip to get in, blocked by a piece of wood that seems to announce more clearly than anything that this is Castiel’s space, no concern for accessibility here.
Inside, it’s a tangled mess of vines and flowers and leaves, and the air is moist and sweet and thick to breathe. It feels good in his lungs. Outside, it’s been getting colder, but inside, it’s humid and summer-hot. Tropical.
“Step in and shut the door. Don’t let the warm out.” Dean does, lifting his feet carefully over the lip and stepping onto hard-packed soil that warms his wet feet instantly. He feels grains of dirt through the hole in his sock.
“A greenhouse?” Dean says.
Castiel skims his hand over the tops of the plants right in front of him, real gentle, like Dean sometimes feels the need to touch the seats in his dad’s Baby, just to feel the leather under his fingers. Make sure all the stitches are in the right order or something. The plants sway and rustle back at him, waving hello.
“Is this the reason you brought me here?” he says. “For some—some plants?”
“No,” Castiel says, curling his index finger along the spine of one of the leaves. Like he’s coochie-coochie-cooing the plant. Babying it. It’s a big motherfucker with long, palmy fronds reaching up toward the glass ceiling, and it’s got a delicate pink flower perched on top and sort of looking in Dean’s direction. “I brought you here to feed you. The plants were my plan B.”
“Don’t gotta feed me nothing,” Dean mumbles. He’s afraid to touch the plants himself, but it’s hard to resist when there’s a plant with weird fuzzy leaves right next his hand. He brushes it with his knuckles, hopes it isn’t poison.
“I understand it was presumptuous,” Cas says. “But I’ve been trained to feed those who look even the slightest bit underfed.”
Dean rubs at his nose, feels like there’s soil tickling it. “Don’t worry about me. Not underfed. Just not hungry, dude.”
Cas looks at him for a long time, eyes all narrowed. Dean remembers that from the hospital, too. The staring. It comes back to him in nauseous waves. Cas looking at him when the doc delivered his diagnosis. Cas looking at him over the top of uneaten lasagna. Cas looking at his broke-ass arm. It makes his skin feel prickly.
Dean kind of expects him to press the issue, super aware of his presence in that moment and super aware of his eyes on him. There’s some layer of Dean that never wants people to pay attention to him, that wants to stay hidden away in his house, but then there’s another layer of him that wants all the attention it can get. That thinks, Christ how the fuck has no one noticed this by now? I’m fuckin’ dying here.
Cas doesn’t press it, though. Dean tries not to look needy.
“You seem to be favoring that African violet,” Cas says, pointing toward the velvety little plant Dean straight up started rubbing on without even thinking about it. He’s got one leaf between two fingers, and the veiny purple flowers are shimmying all around like they’re pleased about it. Dean backs off immediately, straight into a shelf full of more flowers, and they all rustle like they’re pretty put out.
“Say what now?” he says.
“The African violet. It’s a relatively easy to care for house plant.” Cas steps forward and picks up the plant, sturdy little fuzzed-over leaves sticking out straight and firm and solid. It looks like he’s got some sort of potting station over by the propane heater in the back of the joint, and he moves toward it, grabbing a terracotta pot as he goes. In a spray of potting soil and quick, sure-handed movements, he’s got the little thing out of its plastic pot and into the ceramic one. When he’s done, he hands the whole thing to Dean. “There. It’s for you.”
Dean takes it without thinking and gives it a quick turn in his hands. It’s funny how it’s leaning one way, like it was turning its back on some other plant schmuck it didn’t like. It’s only after he’s petted the leaves a couple more times that he says, “I can’t take this.” But he surprises himself with how much he actually kind of wants it. He’s even already scoping out places to put it in his head. The windowsill above the kitchen sink. The coffee table. If his dad were still around, he might put it on his nightstand to class up the place. Make it a bit less gross. Make it smell a little better. Cas’s whole place smells like earth and green, but Dean’s little guy in particular smells like just-turned soil and living thing. He already likes it more than every other plant in the greenhouse, just holding it in his hands.
He wonders why he never thought to get a houseplant himself, but it occurs to him what his dad would say if he saw little purple flowers on his nightstand, and he knows it’s nothing good.
“Yes you can,” Cas says firmly. “Plants are easy to talk to. Quiet. You’ll find that they listen to you when others will not.” He plants his hands in a mound of dirt on the planting station and then lets the soil sift out between his fingers on a long, drawn-out breath like a meditation.
Dean snorts, strokes at the pot with his stubby fingernails. “Do you just want me to leave here with something? Like—do you feel guilty or what? You don’t gotta give me anything, Cas. If anything, I should be giving you somethin’ for hangin’ with my sorry ass through—” He cuts himself off, starts stroking the plant again. “You know. All that shit.”
“You don’t owe me anything. Forgive me, but if I was able to be there with you through ‘all that shit,’ that’s enough for me.” Cas says it like Dean’s pathetic or something. Like he’s all alone in the great big wide world. It makes Dean’s lip curl. “Besides. The least I can do is give you something green. I feel. Uncomfortable. Leaving you alone in the house where your only family died.”
Dean blurts, “He wasn’t my only family,” without even thinking. It’s in his gut at this point to be defensive of Sammy, even though he hasn’t earned Dean’s defensiveness in recent years. No, that’s not fair. Sam’s just Sam. Sam’s always been this way. Dean’s a fighter; Sam’s a runner. Sam used to run away from home and scare the ever-loving shit out of Dean when they were little. When Sam was nine years old, he managed to make it to the Greyhound station and book a cheap-ass ticket to Flagstaff, like Flagstaff was going to have all the answers. Dean teased him about that all the way through high school. Used to wonder out loud what kind of bright future his baby brother was going to have there.
“I have a brother,” he says pained.
Dean chafes at the thought that Sam isn’t one-hundred-percent, full-blooded Winchester. “A brother.”
“He knows about your father,” Cas says, and Dean nods. “Is he coming home?”
Cas’s cocks his head to the side. It’s weird to Dean how calm he takes everything. Like Dean could say anything and Cas wouldn’t find anything wrong with it. He could say his little brother was an ax murderer, and Cas would just tilt his head and ask how many people he’d taken out. “Forgive me if this is personal, but why not?”
Dean shrugs. “Not personal. Sam’s in law school. He’s got better things to do than deal with my shit.”
“Yeah,” Dean says. “My shit.”
“He’s your brother. He is—he was—his father, too.”
Dean puffs up, ready to fight for Sam, even though there’s a tiny voice in his head that’s like yeah, man. Hell yeah. He’s your goddamn brother. He clenches his broken fist so hard it twinges. It’s been long enough that the pain pill is starting to wear off.
Cas has to know that it is Dean’s shit. John Winchester was both his and Sam’s dad, but the problems, the hardships over the last few years—those were Dean’s. He deserves to shoulder the blame. The responsibility. But Dean doesn’t know how to put that into words.
“Thought you said you didn’t want to get personal. I’m not exactly scrounging after information about your weirdo family portraits,” Dean says, deflecting, and making it pretty obvious that he ogled the hell out of them on his way down the hallway, maybe a little eager for someone else’s dirty laundry to stink.
“You need only ask about my family,” Cas says, taking the wind out of Dean’s sails. “I’m not particularly secretive about it. I don’t imagine I would have brought you into my home if I was.” He’s got those big blues fixed on Dean again, and Dean wants to go hide behind the foliage, lose himself in some of the leafy vines.
“Well good for you. But as for me, I didn’t really have a choice about you hearing my sob story, and maybe I am secretive, and maybe I never wanted you in that hospital room in the first place.”
Cas squints. “I suppose that would make things easier on you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It would make it easier to carry on the way you were before,” Cas says. His tone is hard, and it’s funny, because if Dean didn’t know any better, he’d say it kind of sounds like a threat.
“I been doin’ just fine, thanks,” Dean says.
“Are you?” he says without blinking. Maybe he doesn’t believe Dean. And isn’t that fine. It must be nice to be Cas in this house without a history. In this house with the new carpets and the soup smell and the platinum appliances and the misty, warm greenhouse.
Dean says, “Yeah,” and pulls the African violet in tight against his chest.
The bank waits a whole two days after that to sic the goddamn sharks on him. They’re circling the house like they smell fresh blood as soon as he gets back from his run that morning. He ran later so Cas wouldn’t be around to try and feed him breakfast again. That means he gets the news that they’re foreclosing on his house when he’s still covered in fresh sweat, while he still has black bubbles of enough-is-enough-pal popping in front of his eyes.
It’s stupid that he’s even surprised. He’s stupid for being surprised. And he looks stupid, too, standing there all slack-jawed on the front lawn, gaping his mouth like a fucking fish and holding a bright pink cast against his chest. He looks at the big FOR SALE FROM FORECLOSURE sign, the notice they’re taping to the front door, and he thinks that it should have been obvious the payments weren’t getting made. All his dad’s mail went to a PO box in town because his dad was a paranoid sonuvabitch who kept about five of them for all his illicit activities Dean tried to turn a blind eye to. Dean paid the electric bill, the water bill, and the gas bill with online accounts, but foreclosure notices or mortgage bills would’ve gone straight to the mailbox.
Sammy would’ve remembered them, he figures, walking into the front hall of a house that isn’t his anymore and feeling that floaty, shocky feeling again. If Dean called Sam right now, Sam would probably have an I told you so ready, because that’s one of Sam’s favorite phrases. He had a phase, when he was like fourteen or fifteen years old. Where no matter what Dean did, no matter how unpredictable any given situation might have been, Sammy always knew first. Like he had some kind of premonition powers. Like he could see into Dean’s future exclusively so that he could tell him he was wrong once the worst happened.
When Dad died. When Dean passed out in that ditch. Dean can just—hear Sammy now. In the back of his brain. That sort of nasally, know-it-all voice that drives Dean absolutely balls-out bananas.
I told you this would happen, Dean. I told you that he couldn’t be left alone. He needs supervision, didn’t I say it, Dean? Didn’t I? I told you that you needed to eat more, too. And now look what happened.
There’s so much shit in this house that he’s overwhelmed just thinking about it. He takes a second to scan the whole first floor, shuffling from room to room and thinking about all the work this is going to be. And when he reaches the narrow door in the hallway, he remembers that there are piles of shit in the basement, too. He put a lot of it down there himself. Sloppy boxes full of Sam’s old clothes and Sam’s old art projects and Sam’s old life.
Dean cracks open the basement door and creakily descends the stairs to scope out the situation, trying to imagine what moving out of here is going to entail after years and years of dusty neglect. His brain seems to fritz at the sheer incomprehensibility of it, like there’s a road to an inevitable future where he doesn’t live here anymore somewhere, but Dean’s whole brain is whited out like someone threw him in the middle of a blizzard, and he can’t find it. The only plus side is that he remembers through the haze that there’s an old carton of Camels that he kept by the window well when he was a teenager. He used to smoke up and out of the basement window, because it was usually easier than going outside, easier to bury himself out of sight down here amongst the boxes.
Dean didn’t eat breakfast and excessed on his painkillers this morning to make his run more bearable, so not-smoking is probably the only thing standing between him and straight up acting like a runway model. But fuck it, he thinks. It’s not like there’s anyone here to tell him no. He lights a miraculously dry match from his old stash off one of the brittle boxes lining the wall, and the fire cuts through the blizzard, focusing him in the same way an empty stomach does. When he feels more balanced, after he’s taken a minute to look at the uneven landscape of too much stuff, he goes back upstairs with the stalest cigarette he’s ever smoked.
He hopes African violets don’t mind cigarette smoke, because his is sitting on the kitchen table for now, waiting to find a more permanent place. It’s probably the most cheerful thing in the house, so it’s been migrating with him from room to room. He slept with it by his bedside, put it on the windowsill over the sink while he washed all Ellen’s casseroles down the drain, and put it on the coffee table in living room while he did some data entry last night.
Flowers don’t need to eat. Flowers sit on their windowsills and take in sunlight and drink water every once in a while and they’re golden. Dean doesn’t want to say something fruity like that he’s jealous of his African violet, but he’s kind of jealous of his African violet. He probably dropped another couple of pounds last week, and he’s feeling pretty goddamn good about it, but if Bobby decides to come back, he’s going have a helluva a time brushing him off. African violets never have to fucking explain themselves for the shit that makes them feel good. Jesus.
He takes a steadying breath. He’s just thinking dizzily about scoping out his dad’s room more thoroughly when there’s a knock on the door. He doesn’t move from the table, just takes another stale drag and looks at his little violet, making sure that he blows the smoke out the side of his mouth, away from its cheerful purple flowers.
Cas lets himself in. He thinks maybe Cas busted the door down until he remembers that he didn’t lock it. The house is the bank’s now, so what right does he have? And anyway, he can’t bring himself to be surprised by what this guy does anymore.
“What’re you doing here?” Dean says. The painkillers are a tingly thing, still creeping at his spine and dragging at his eyelids. They make him calm, or maybe something else does. They make him able to look at the piles of shit around his house and think man, look at all this shit I’ve got, instead of tearing at his hair in abject panic.
“They’re foreclosing on your house,” he says, unprompted, surfacing through a haze of smoke. Dean taps out the ash at the end of his cigarette on the floor, because why the hell not. It’s not even his house anymore. He’s all about pissing on some useless authority’s property.
“I guess that happens when you don’t pay the mortgage.” He shrugs.
“Do you need money?” Cas says. He sits at the kitchen table with Dean. He looks weird now in Dean’s environment. His house seems too shabby for someone like Cas, but Cas doesn’t really look uncomfortable here. He’s probably more easy-going in Dean’s space than Dean is. “I have money.”
Dean tries not to acknowledge the fact that Cas is offering him cash to pay for his house when he’s barely known him for a week.
“I was gonna sell it anyway,” Dean lies. He was going to let this shit-pile rot on its foundation. Maybe he was going to be inside it while it did. “Gonna get an apartment,” he lies again. He doesn’t know the first fucking thing about renting an apartment. “They crunched the timeline a little bit, but it’s good that I have an excuse to get off my ass, right?”
“Your father died less than a week ago. Studies indicate that the grieving process takes time.” Cas has a funny way of talking about human behavior like it doesn’t belong to him. It’s endearing, mostly, when it’s not off-putting. “I would think they would give you some time to breathe.” In that moment, Cas looks like the type of guy that’d write his congressman about it and expect something to happen. It’s cute, getting that concerned for Dean. Maybe a little weird. Dean doesn’t want to tell him how pointless it is. He’ll probably figure it out eventually.
“Cas, maybe you’re new around here, but you gotta know my dad wasn’t exactly getting any keys to the city. I’m lucky they’re giving me as much time as they are to get the hell out of dodge. I’m surprised they didn’t bulldoze the place today.”
“How long are they giving you?” he says.
Dean had read the foreclosure notice on his door, numb. It was full of legalese he didn’t understand. He probably should get a lawyer or something, but the only person even close to a lawyer that he knows is states and states away and ignoring his phone calls.
He rubs his head. “From what I got out of the letter, uh. They gotta sell it first? So I get it until they do, I guess. But I missed all the notices and the court dates, so I don’t get to, uh, contest it or anything.”
Cas’s eyes flick to the little plant between them, and he goes back outside. Dean sits with a gently smoking cigarette, half-convinced Cas left him, spacing out enough that he’s forgotten he was really here. When Cas comes back with the pink foreclosure notice, he has to snap his fingers three times by Dean’s ear to bring him back to himself.
“Are you alright?”
“Stupid question,” Dean grunts, gesturing toward the foreclosure notice with his cigarette-laden hand. The cigarette points a crooked arrow right at it.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Cas says. Cas starts reading the notice out loud with a real concentrated face. Dean thinks maybe he zones out again, because when he comes to, Cas is pulling the lit cigarette out from between his fingertips where it’s about to droop onto his chest.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Cas says tersely.
Cas waggles the smoking cigarette filter as if to say, and what do you call this?
“Found it downstairs.” He neglects to say that he found his own supply.
Cas exhales through his nose in a way that makes his nostrils flare up.
“Dean, this is very serious. They’ve already put your house up for sale. Do you not understand the gravity?”
Dean says, “Don’t you have a job or something?” He rubs his hand over his face. Cas squints at him, tilts his head. Doesn’t get it. Christ. “I mean, don’t you have something better to do?”
Cas answers him by reading the notice out loud again, now that he’s sure Dean’s listening. When he finishes the last line, he says, “That’s good news, Dean. They haven’t issued an eviction notice.”
“Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I just have to come up with a few thousand dollars—”
“Right. Fifty-seven thousand. By when?” Cas squints again, at the paper this time.
“By four weeks from now. That’s when the first auction is. You could buy it back.”
“Right. And we’re gonna have us some kind of miraculous sitcom-esque bake sale or some shit and get those funds together. You got any secret skills?”
“Yeah, like, you know. Maybe you’re a basketball player and there’s a prize basketball tournament in town and the prize is exactly fifty-seven thousand dollars. Maybe you’re gonna strap on the ole Air Jordans and go to town on the bad guys.”
“I’m sure that what you owe will be a substantial amount more than fifty-seven thousand following insurance and interest payments. The basketball tournament would likely need to provide you with sixty thousand or more.”
Well. He didn’t say no.
“You tellin’ me that if there was a sixty-k tourney in town, you’d compete in my good name?”
“I’m sure I could try,” he shrugs. And that’s—nice, actually. That’s real nice of him to say. Dean surprises himself with a genuine wash of affection. “But I’ve never played basketball before. Honestly, this seems like a very impractical solution to your problem.”
Dean sighs. There’s the Debbie Downer again. He’s really raining on Dean’s painkiller parade. Dean was just going to ignore the whole foreclosure thing until his buzz went away, but this guy is making it super difficult.
“Seriously dude, don’t you have something better to do?”
“No. I’ve been a caretaker for several years, but I’ve recently found myself out of work.”
Dean doesn’t want to think about the implications of that. Mostly because if he were describing the last few months of his life, that’s how he would do it. He’s been a caretaker. It was his fulltime job and now it isn’t. People expect him to go back to his old life, and he’s doing a piss-poor job of it. But it makes sense. Cas is some out-of-work caretaker, and he’s taking on Dean as a pity case because he’s got nothing better to do.
Dean sure as hell hopes it’s a pro bono kind of a thing, because Dean doesn’t have the money to pay off his own hospital bills, much less to pay someone to try and prop his sorry ass up as he does his best to fall right the fuck over.
As if to prove a point, Dean falls asleep in the kitchen chair at the next lull in the conversation. Nods off midsentence like he’s a hundred goddamn years old. When he wakes up, Cas is gone, but he’s left a still-steaming bowl of cream of wheat—probably the only thing he could find in Dean’s barren cabinets, remnants of a long-forgotten contribution from Uncle Bobby—on top of the foreclosure notice, right next to his African violet. Dean’s stomach turns at the smell of it, so he takes his plant into the other room and watches Antiques Road Show until he falls asleep in front of that, too.
When he wakes up, he’ll find that Cas started boxing DVDs in the living room for him while he was out. Just started arranging Dean’s collection, neat and careful, into a box that he pulled from who knows where, all the labels facing up and out, just how Dean would’ve stacked them. It’s one of the weirdest, nicest things that anyone has ever done for him.
Dean saw his mom die. Didn’t mean to. It’s a little hazy, what happened now, but he remembers the moment clear as anything. Falling debris. A big, solid beam of his old wood house that came down right on top of her. They sued the company that was responsible for everything. The electricians had been negligent or something—put in some faulty wiring. Dean remembers that real well too, because they put him in a miniature monkey suit and took baby Sammy to Uncle Bobby’s, and Dean got to testify about watching his mom die to a room full of strangers.
Lawsuits are weird. Age five’s a real early age to learn that you can put a price tag on a human life—to learn that all the things his mom was going to do for him were things you could add up, calculate, and quantify. It’s weird that one of his earliest memories is a lawyer pacing a courtroom and ticking all the things Dean was going to miss out on off his fingers—bedtime stories, Christmas mornings, kisses on boo-boos, warm apple pie.
The money didn’t end up being much in his mom’s case, which fucked him up too. The lawyer for the other side—Dean remembers him having yellow eyes, now, but he knows that can’t be true—found some insurance loophole or something and his dad ended up having to settle for a measly few thousand dollars. His dad would bitch about it sometimes when he got real drunk, bring up how much their mom was worth whenever they were having money troubles. Like if they had been paid everything they deserved for Mom’s death, they would’ve been swimming in cash for the rest of their lives. As it was, they barely got enough to put a down payment on their shitty house, slap a new set of tires on the Impala, and buy about a month’s worth of diapers for Sammy.
Dad was always thinking like that in the back of his mind, and Dean knew it. And Dean couldn’t help but think that way himself from a time when he was real little, trying to rate where he stood with his dad. There was a price tag on everything, and if Dean’s mom was worth the whole world, worth enough money for a mansion the size of Cas’s where they could have lived out their lives longer and more peacefully, Dean figured he didn’t really rate. Couldn’t really compare. Because—god. It sounded shitty and selfish to say it but—Dean got a whole lot of nothing. An empty stomach means Sammy is happy, because there never was enough for both of them and it was always pretty clear who was meant to have the bulk of it. Dean’s life had always been pretty empty of things, too. Things he got for himself. Things his family got for him.
So maybe that’s why the final straw, the very last nail in his coffin, is probably finding out about Adam a measly week after the foreclosure notice. Adam, who got a copy of Dad’s will. Adam, who is years younger than Dean. Adam, who’s in college in Wisconsin, who has an address in in Windom, Minnesota with his mom, and who apparently saw his dad at least every other weekend growing up until a little over a year ago.
His dad John Winchester.
His dad John Winchester.
His dad John fucking Winchester.
Dean gets the will in the mail a week after Cas started cleaning out his house and sees his name there in the small print in the children section, right under Sammy—Adam Milligan. And even though he wants to believe he’s never seen the name before in his entire life, he thinks maybe he’s lying to himself. If he thought back hard enough, he knows that he’d hear the name from his dad’s mouth, in whispered conversation with somebody over the phone. Or maybe, more recently, when his dad was losing his shit and Dean was pretty convinced he was thinking about Sam every chance he got, turns out he was thinking about little baby Adam who, according to the will, gets a whole lot of everything.
Dean’s trying to imagine why he would have left him the house. Really, really trying. Because Adam has a house. Adam has a cozy little address; Dean can see it on the will, and he can picture it, imagines it’s something like Castiel’s house. Big and soup-smelling and clean. The street name is Pleasant Street for fuck’s sake, and they don’t put trailer parks on Pleasant Streets. Why he would want this shithole is beyond Dean. He probably sees the address in the will and thinks his dad’s leaving him something worth keeping. A mansion. Not some pile of garbage that has a foreclosure sign in the front yard and a definite odor still coming from his dad’s fucking death-bedroom.
The only thing that Dad left Dean officially is the Impala. The house where Dean grew up, the room where he’s keeping all of his shit, the place where he tried his damnedest to coax his dad back from death’s door, the place where he let his dad die—isn’t his. The place where Dean has all his memories with Sammy. The place where he taught Sam to ride a bike and struggled to make SpagettiOs, and now the place where he’s started vomiting in the toilet more often than is probably okay, curling around the porcelain and spewing bile like not eating isn’t enough anymore.
It belongs to some kid who’s never even been here. Who can’t even imagine it. Who couldn’t even dream the significance of every stain or blemish or furnishing. He gets all that.
And he gets his dad’s lifetime tickets to what Dean discovers after a quick Google search is a ballpark in Minnesota. The lifetime tickets his dad never would have needed if he weren’t up there every other weekend, taking the little brother that Dean never knew about to ballgames while Dean tried to keep the one he did from starving to death.
The mental math that’s been inside Dean ever since that fast-talking lawyer tallied up his mom’s life on a neat sheet of paper comes up with a fat lot of nothing in Dean’s books. It’s funny, because the house didn’t belong to him before this, either. The foreclosure notice means that it’s one step away from being bulldozed by the bank. But that feels less personal than this. The law has taken things from them before. Dean used to live in fear of being taken away from their dad. They got put in foster care once, got put on a state watch list, too, and had fun visits from social workers for about a year afterward. Dean can remember the terror of the foster home and the gut-churning certainty of knowing that if they didn’t get back to their cramped, filthy house, he’d never see Sam again.
But this time, it’s his dad taking it away from him. Straight up. It’s his dad pulling it out from under him, same as he’d taken away Dean’s baby blanket when he was four and mute and scared of everything. Same as he’d pulled Sam out from under him, because Dean sure as hell hadn’t been the one to make Sam leave. Same as Dean didn’t have much net worth, strictly speaking, on the books or otherwise.
For the week since Dean got his foreclosure notice, Cas has been there, quietly packing Dean’s things into boxes. Quietly making Dean sandwiches that Dean doesn’t eat. It takes a couple days, but he puzzles at Dean like a science experiment, and he figures out that Dean will eat salads if he makes them. Simple things with lettuce and cucumber and no dressing that Dean can pick the fatty avocado out of and mush into the side of the plate. He loads them up with cherry tomatoes that Dean eats painstakingly, one at a time, and never ever finishes.
Cas doesn’t make it through packing much every day, but somewhere along the way, Dean started helping him. “Helping” being mostly taking painkillers so that he can even think about using his still-painful broken arm to pack, but then losing his focus and getting himself stuck on little tidbits—things he should be throwing away, probably—from around the house.
Like, they start a day, once, by moving the TV stand, and they find a Lego that Dean snatches up and holds in his broken palm for what feels like hours. Just hours of a glazed, stupid stare at a red brick like it’s got all the secrets. By the time he shakes himself out of it, Castiel already has a load of old videocassette tapes in box labeled garbage, and he’s making a face at Dean like he’s going to break.
Cas doesn’t seem to be one for attachment to possessions, and that’s—helpful. He helps Dean throw away a lot of stuff, but not all of it really sticks. It just means Dean ends up making a lot of trips to his garbage cans at night when Cas isn’t around to judge him for it. Like with the VHSs—Dean tells Cas he can throw the box away, but he still goes outside, late enough that the wind is howling hard across the open farmland across the street from the house, and he fishes out the VHS copy of Star Wars that he used to watch with Sammy. His first copy of any movie. And he feels sorry for himself for a long-ass time. He knows that Cas knows that Dean cheats. Cas knows that Dean is cluttering up the house again just as soon as he cuts it down, but Cas lets him. God fucking knows why.
They’re moving so slow that they’re not even halfway through the front room when Dean finds out about Adam and kind of puts a stop to his whole slow, backwards process that Castiel is indulging him. Here Dean is lingering over all these memories, savoring these feelings like a goddamn sap, when all this. All his history here. Everything he’s ever done or tried to do. It turns out it isn’t really his. Turns out it wasn’t really important. The Star Wars VHS seems useless and stupid, now. The Lego, too. His little violet, swiftly losing the flowering petals on its crown and waggling its leaves up and down from the coffee table, is pretty much all that belongs to him.
Cas comes the same day the will does and finds Dean hovering at the threshold of his dad’s bedroom, head bowed and fists clenched on the doorframe. And all Dean has to choke out is, “I think maybe I should burn it,” before Cas is on it. Smooth and calm as ever.
Dean thinks maybe he just meant the sheets when he suggests it. Or the medical equipment that Dean should return to the hospital. Or maybe a couple of his dad’s shirts. Tops. But Cas rolls up his shirtsleeves to his elbows, high enough to show off the strong, sinewy lines of his forearms when he lifts his dad’s mattress off the box spring like it’s nothing and hefts the goddamn thing out to the front yard.
Dean listens to the sound of Cas dragging it outside. He wants to grab the box spring for himself, because actually, now that he thinks about it, it needs to go too. But when he reaches down to grab at the edge, he realizes he can’t. At first he thinks it’s just the painful twinging of the broken arm that’s not allowing it, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the other arm isn’t cooperating either. It vibrates like a plucked string when Dean hoists the box spring off the metal frame—not even picking it up properly, just sort of counterbalancing it to one side. He has a quiet moment of panic, broken arm held to his chest, before Cas comes back in and asks him if he wants the box spring gone too, and Dean nods like he hadn’t been trying to do just that.
Without anything on the bed frame, he half expects to unearth some secret treasure trove of pictures, like the mystery is going to be solved right here, and he’ll have a solid picture of Adam Milligan to touch and look at and understand. Like he’s going to think, hell yeah, for sure, I can definitely see why you liked that one better. Like he’ll immediately see that Adam’s taller or more athletic. Not better than Sammy though, probably. That’d be pretty difficult.
But there’s nothing under the bed except dust bunnies. Dean figures Dad kept all his important stuff at Kate Milligan’s house. He figures because she’s listed in the spouse section, she gets to share the house with her son. The will says she also gets his dad’s wedding band, even though he’s only had the one since Dean was real little. Just the one, sitting on his nightstand. The same one that Mom put on his finger at the altar a few years before Dean was born.
Dean pockets it.
He takes Cas on a mute tour of the house, nodding at all the things that were Dad’s, all the things he wants gone before someone else can claim them, not daring to acknowledge the fact that just trying to lift the box spring left him winded and tired. Cas gathers what he’s told to gather—big piles of his dad’s clothes with the hangers still in the necks, neckties with gross paisley patterns that Dad probably hadn’t worn in twenty years, razors from the bathroom, a corked change jar on the nightstand, dress shoes with the laces still done up in bows, a dartboard in the garage, his favorite kitchen chair, his favorite couch cushion, a few dusty self-help books and one or two mystery thrillers. Cas doesn’t even argue when he starts in on the little stuff—an empty box of Honey Nut Cheerios his dad never took out of the cabinet, Q-tips, a spray bottle of deodorant. All the fleece blankets and flannel bedsheets his dad ever used.
Dean thinks they could go down to the basement and have a fucking field day. His dad’s got old sports trophies and car parts and tax documents down there that Dean is itching to light up, but Dean can recall an early memory, when he was watching cartoons on the couch with baby Sammy on his lap while his dad sorted through the boxes of stuff that had survived the fire at their old place. He’d hold nightgowns or books or aprons to his face like he was trying to catch his mom’s scent in them, but Dean knew the whole pile just smelled like ash, and eventually, it all ended up in the basement, buried with everything else. Dean has no idea what he’s going to do with any of that stuff when he eventually has to go down there and clean it out, but he doesn’t know how it’d feel right now to see another piece of his mother burn.
They eventually get themselves a pretty sizeable pile in the front yard, right by the husks of the fruit trees his dad tried to plant one weekend when Dean was real little and then let go south. Dean won’t mind much if those go up in flames, too. All the apples had worms in them the moment they came into fruit, anyway.
After they’ve doused everything in lighter fluid, Cas says, “Are you sure you want to get rid of all of this, Dean?” As if the whole shebang isn’t covered in foul-smelling liquid and they could still go back from this splayed-out pile of disorganized mess to the house he had before. Dean didn’t have the strength to lift the box spring, but he definitely has the strength to light the match. He plucks the box from Castiel’s hands and throws in three or four lit ones for good measure, even though the first one lights up the trail of lighter fluid pretty good and the mattress catches immediately after that.
They stare at the pile for a while as the sun goes down. There’s a lot of metal in it that isn’t burning. It just scorches black and shifts and sends up clouds of fire and ash. Eventually, Dean sits when his legs start shaking. Without the momentum of his run to carry him, they’re useless. On the ground, he takes his dads wedding ring out of his pants pocket and lobs it in a gentle underhand, right into the center of the flame. It won’t melt, but they can’t give the thing to Kate Milligan if they can’t find it.
“So I guess,” Dean says, rubbing his nose. “I guess I got a little brother.”
Cas tilts his head, birdlike again. “I was almost certain you were already aware of that.”
Dean chokes out a laugh. “Well, yeah. Another one, I guess. One I never met.”
That catches Cas’s attention. “What?” He was standing before but now he sits as well, too close to the fire. It’s like they’re having a campout, all tucked up against the flames in the dying light of the dusk. If only Dean weren’t so anti-marshmallow right now, they could have themselves a regular campfire roast.
“Got my dad’s will in the mail today. He left the house to some kid named Adam Milligan,” Dean over-pronounces the name like it’s not the most standard, white-bread fare out there. Name like Adam Milligan, Dean can almost picture him. Probably blond, blue-eyed. Not dark like his dad or dark like Dean and Sam. No, Adam Milligan’s a good old American boy. “His son. My half-brother.” He startles when something pops loudly in the fire, a sudden decompression that causes the boards of the box spring to shift and spew sparks. Cas doesn’t even blink. “Guess they, uh. Spent a lot of time together.”
Cas stays silent for a while. “What is he going to do with your house?”
“Not my house. Really not my house. The bank’s house now.”
“Yeah. I mean. I dunno. I haven’t really—talked to him. And like I said, it’s not really his anyway. He’d have to buy it back from the bank same as me.” Dean thinks back to the will, the two addresses they delivered it to, listed right on the form. Adam and his mom. It looks like Sammy never got it, thank Christ. His name didn’t have any address listed. Dad didn’t keep very close track of Sam after he left, so Dean’s not exactly surprised. “He didn’t seem to be hurting for houses, anyway.” He shrugs. “I guess it’s out of my hands now.”
“I come from a large family,” Cas volunteers out of nowhere. Dean didn’t really expect a heartfelt talk with him, because they’ve been hanging out for a few weeks now and Cas has never bothered to divulge anything about his family (or himself or his feelings, which Dean is all about, to be quite honest), even though he’s said a couple of times that he isn’t ashamed to. “My father is very wealthy, and he divorced and remarried several times, so I have many half-siblings.” Castiel looks into the fire, and the glow does funky things to his eyes. The blue in them looks weird when you put that much raw red in it. “I grew up steeped in it, and it never became any easier for me to watch my father give attention to the children from his other wives. Especially because he gave his attention so sparingly in the first place. And especially because some of us were—were not capable enough to beg it of him.”
Capable enough. Like asking for your dad’s affection is some insurmountable trial. Dean rubs his nose to get rid of the ashy soot smell, but it’s all around them, pumping into the sky in big black clouds. “How many siblings you got?”
“Ten,” Cas says. He squints, so the red from the fire and the black from his pupils are all that’s there. “Six brothers and four sisters. But only two of them were born to the same mother as me.”
Dean whistles lowly and says, “Damn.” He swears he isn’t exactly gonna have a heart-to-heart with the guy since he doesn’t do heart to hearts on a good day, but he can’t help when he says, “I’m—I mean, I ain’t got anywhere near as many siblings as you. But I’m pretty used to playing second banana anyway. Sammy. That’s my brother. The one I told you about. He’s smart. Like I said, he’s in law school. Was always trying to follow along in his footsteps when I was a kid, and he was four years younger’n me.”
There’s silence for a moment more, and Cas says, “Are you and your brother close?”
Are they close. Are they close? They grew up in each other’s back pockets; Dean still feels his absence like a physical ache. And being so aware of this godforsaken house sure doesn’t help much. Dean had never come closer to moving out than he did when Sam left. His dad was always a bit of a mean drunk, Dean could admit that to himself, but he usually tried to behave himself around Sammy. When Sam moved out, Dean immediately jumped ship like a chickenshit and went to scope out some apartments in town. He really liked this little one, right over this hot, kooky psychic’s shop. It had a little stove and big windows and bookshelves that were built right into the wall. The psychic had winked, told him he would be able to hear the all the séances right under his feet. Told him that if he played along and banged on the floor at all the right times, she’d throw in the welcome mat. He’d really liked her.
But honestly, he knew deep down, even then, that shit was never going to fly. Eventually, he’d just gotten used to shutting the door to Sammy’s bedroom tight and pretending like he was still there.
But like he said before, he wasn’t so sure he knew how to talk to Sam anymore. He wants to say, hell yeah we’re close. We live for each other. They had, once. But anymore, he’s not so sure.
He doesn’t know how to answer this and sound aloof. Castiel’s seen enough of him and all the ways that he’s inadequate that Dean thinks he doesn’t also need to see exactly how much he wishes his brother were here every single minute of every day.
“Not. He. Lives in California now. Got a fiancé. So. I don’t,” he swallows. Smooth. Cas looks at him like he’s transparent as a piece of fuckin’ cellophane. “What about your ten siblings, huh?” he says, cold. “Close with them?”
“With the siblings from other parents? No. I see them at extended family gatherings. I attend weddings and funerals and an enormous family reunion every June.”
The wind shifts directions, and the smoke starts blowing in their faces. Cas wafts his hand in front of his nose, but his eyes tear up and his voice gets scratchy from it. He coughs and shifts closer to Dean so his face is out of the worst of it.
“I live with my brother. Gabriel. He’s from the same mother. So you could say we’re ‘close.’ And I lost my sister Anna a few months ago now.” Cas clears his throat. “But we were. Close.”
Dean feels his eyebrows hit his hairline. Cas struck him as someone who’s well-acquainted with loss from the moment he met him, but in a distant kind of way. Like the PE teacher who watches students running laps in the rain and kind of understands that he should feel bad about it, but makes them run laps anyway. Cas didn’t strike Dean as the type of person who’d lost someone himself. But maybe that wasn’t fair. Obviously everyone handles shit differently. Obviously not everyone burns their dad’s shit in their front yard. Obviously.
“Shit,” he says, eloquent. “Shit, sorry. How’d she…? If you don’t mind my…”
“She was years older than me, and she suffered a degenerative illness. We knew her time would come sooner rather than later, but it was still unexpected. A respiratory illness took her.”
Dean looks at the fire. Looks at the way the way the light catches the spindly, sickly apple trees. The line sounds well-rehearsed, but saying that doesn’t seem to cost Cas anything, and Dean wonders if he’ll ever get to a point where that’s the case for him. If he could ever practice enough to be able to say, My dad died, and not want to add a, I think I might have killed him to the end of it. If there would ever be a time it wouldn’t hurt him. He couldn’t even talk about his mom without it hurting though, and she’d died twenty goddamn years ago.
“You never asked but. My dad’s liver was fucked.” He shudders out a breath. “For a long time.”
He doesn’t say that his dad died of liver failure, because that would be a lie.
“Thank you, Dean,” Castiel says. He gives Dean’s leg a stilted pat that makes Dean feel like a kept dog. Dean bristles. Feels like Cas is talking down at him. But one look at Cas’s earnest face says he truly means it.
“Yeah. Uh. Sure.”
They stare at the fire until it dies, the ashes at the edges cooling. Cas talks to him, and Dean talks back sometimes. When he sifts through the ashes at the edge of the pile, when it’s dark enough that the only light is from the moon and his dim front porch bulb, he feels things and takes guesses at what they might be. Scorched coins that might have been in his dad’s pocket sometime. The half-melted cufflinks he probably left on one of his shirts. He remembers—when he shook the box full of his dad’s ashes, little…bits of him clunked around in there, and that’s the first thing that comes to mind here. Little hunks of bone falling between his fingers. He wants to hoard the pile of ashes with his dad’s things same as he’s hoarding his dad’s actual ashes. Cas sounds all happy, congratulating Dean on these things he did and the pieces of his life he burned like this is Dean—moving on or something.
“This is a good first step,” he says in his psych major voice. Or, “All the literature says that this is important.”
But Dean just thinks maybe he’s breathing easier because these are pieces of his dad that some other fucking kid never gets to have. Maybe Adam Milligan got baseball games and, ultimately, his house, but Dean got the box of Honey Nut Cheerios his dad finished last month and the dress shoes he wore to Sammy’s fourth grade theatrical production of Rainbow Fish and the mattress where he took his very last breath. And just like he had his whole life, Dean would take what he could get.
“Maybe I should just take the whole thing out,” he says at the end, when there’s not even embers and everything is cold. Cas gets up from the ground like an old man and Dean doesn’t even try until Cas reaches his hand down to help him. Cas jerks him up too quick, unfolding his limbs like a momma horse nudging on some little foal. He acts like he’d been expecting more weight at the end of his arm. “Maybe I should just burn the whole house down.”
But the fire is out. Cas goes home. Dean goes inside and flicks off the porch light.
There’s some fire damage above the sink that suddenly becomes real important after that. Right before his dad got knock-down, flat-on-his-ass sick, he tried to make himself something on the stove—Dean will never know what, it was just a charred block of nothing by the time he got there—but he fell asleep halfway through cooking and left the pan on the burner so long the whole goddamn stove went up like a leftover Christmas tree burning in July. Dean felt shitty he wasn’t there, and the damage had been ugly because the whole dusty curtain on the window near the stove had caught too.
There’s a whole host of things wrong with that stupid house. There’s a hole in the wall from where Sammy punched through it before he left for school. There are scuff marks on the linoleum where he pushed Sammy back and forth in a big plastic tub pretending they were scooting across the country in the Impala while Dad was away. Dean himself has always been a stupid, uncoordinated motherfucker, and one time, he ran his big boots into the molding around his doorframe and broke a whole hunk of it right off. But his dad never made much of an impression on the house, mostly because he was never around long enough. This is one of the only things he left infused in the structure of the stupid thing, and Dean wants it gone in the same way he wanted that Honey Nut Cheerio box gone.
It’s stupid, but it’s his.
He and Cas stand in Dean’s front yard for a while after Dean tells him his plans, because somewhere along the line Cas became his shadow, and somewhere along the line, a trip into the city to get some paint and drywall turned into an exercise in overcoming some pretty serious anxiety on both their parts. Eventually, Cas volunteers to drive, even though he doesn’t seem to like driving in the city. Dean hasn’t tried to get into the Impala since his dad died, and he’s doing his best to find excuses not to. It’s got a whole host of emotions bottled up inside it now, and even though it’s the one thing that really belongs to him, it’s tough to imagine being comfortable in there.
So that’s how they find themselves loitering in Cas’s stupid Lexus outside of a Bargain Heaven way earlier than anyone should be at one of those fucking Wal-Mart-ass superstores.
“What do you need?” Cas says, flexing his fingers on steering wheel and gritting his teeth. “Maybe some groceries?”
“I just got groceries yesterday.”
“We were literally just discussing the fact that you hadn’t taken your car out in quite some time.” Dean’s skin feels paper-thin today. And his clothes smell smoky, even though he’s not wearing the same shit he was last night. He doesn’t feel like arguing about groceries.
“Bobby took me.”
“I didn’t see any new groceries on your countertop.”
“They were in my fridge.”
“What did you get?”
Another lie won’t even come. He’s too tired. “Christ. I don’t know. Eggs? Milk?”
Cas looks at him, stone-faced. “Are you certain about that?”
“I just need paint and drywall, dude.” The kitchen has some shitty wallpaper borders in it. They’re leftover from the previous occupant, because god knows his dad never would’ve put that shit up. It has some picturesque farm scene with sunflowers and roosters and a farmhouse in the background. When he was little, Dean would imagine that there was a pie cooling on the distant windowsill that’s really too small to see. He should replace that too, but there’s no matching that stupid, ridiculous pattern, and Dean’s not about to get rid of it either.
They stick close together, and neither wants to be there. Bargain Heavens are stupid big—all of them are. And Cas seems even more anxious than Dean is about it. He stops three employees to make sure they’re headed in the right direction.
Dean has never really seen him in this kind of environment. He talks too loud, sometimes, and too blunt. Dean’s a straightforward guy, but he has to mumble a thanks to each employee when Cas takes off after assaulting them with his questions. He feels like Sammy must have every time he took Dean anywhere. It’s a kicker for Dean to be the polite one of the duo for once.
“I know where the paint is, Cas, you didn’t have to ask. Have you never been in this store before?”
Cas shakes his head adamantly. “I don’t approve of their business tactics.”
“But it’s the cheapest store in town. I hate how huge it is, and, y’know, that they’re fuckin’ evil, too, but sometimes you just gotta suck it up and come out here.”
Cas shrugs. Dean figures that means he doesn’t know what it’s like to be hard up for cash—he can shop anywhere he pleases.
Dean feels winded by the time they make it to housewares. Cas makes a point to very obviously investigate some fancy whorled doorbell casings at the head of the aisle while Dean looks for the right shade of paint at the back of it, and Dean can’t stop glancing over at him, because it’s putting him on edge that Cas is so twitchy. It feels like his skin’s crawling.
“You doin’ alright?”
“Fine,” Cas answers without hesitation. He keeps looking at the mouth of the aisle, but nobody’s coming their way. He rings one of the display doorbells. A muffled ding dong bounces off the linoleum floor and diffuses into the lofty rafters. “Do you have what you need?” He turns back to the doorbells and fusses. He rings the same one twice more.
“Uh, one sec.” Dean goes back to looking himself, but it takes twice as long because he’s got one eye on Cas. Cas’s hands twitch. And not even sporadically—there’s a kind of a rhythm to the way they chafe together.
When he’s finally figured everything out, Dean lifts the little paint can he’s selected, and it strains his arm, drawing his muscles tight like a bow. He lifts his biceps in a curl, but gravity wins and forces his arm to hang down. He realizes he won’t be able to lift the drywall too. His broken arm hangs limp and useless.
“Hey uh, Cas? I hate to ask but—”
Cas pushes another doorbell, and this one buzzes. He feels the hard vibration of it blitz through his bones, right down to the fillings in his teeth. The doorbell in his house hasn’t worked in years and it hasn’t really mattered because no one exactly comes around for casual visits, but he thinks that theirs used to sound like that, hard and jarring. It’s funny that he almost can’t remember.
“Cas,” Dean says again, straining to curl his arm and relieve some of the tension on his fingers.
“Hm?” Cas rings the doorbell twice more, evenly spaced like he did with the last tone.
“Um, will you—?” Cas looks his way, and Dean waves his casted hand at the little plastic bucket of drywall.
“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course.” Cas abandons the doorbell to pick up the drywall without any trouble, but he keeps on looking generally uneasy in his own skin.
Dean leads Cas away from the shelter of the aisle, past the rest of the housewares. And he’s about to head toward the exit by the groceries when he gets a whiff of something fresh just past an aisle full of rubbery-smelling garden hoses. It must be the garden center. It doesn’t escape Dean that Cas also inhales deep as they pass, and Dean makes a decision. Places like those, they always smell like watered plants and new dirt and chemical fertilizers, and as soothing as that has always been for Dean, he can only assume that it might also do Cas some good in calming his weird, jangly nerves.
“Are we going to the groceries section now?” Cas says, almost running into Dean’s back when he stops to turn around. There’s peace in the garden center. They’ve always got display fountains burbling and little birdbaths full of stagnant water sitting out in the middle of potted plants, and Bargain Heaven may be a giant superstore straight out of hell, they don’t skimp on anything, and their garden center is always jam-packed with green shit.
“You think they got somethin’ for my little guy here?” he says.
Cas squints at him. “Your violet?”
“Yeah. Him.” Dean rounds the corner toward the doors outside because that’s all the provocation he needs. “He’s lookin’ a little green around the gills. Well, not green. I guess that’d be good for a plant. More like yellow around the gills. Think they’d have something?”
“Probably,” Cas says as he trails after him. “I’ve never referred to my plants by a specific gender, you know.”
“Well my little dude is a little dude,” he says, shifting his fingers on the metal handle of the paint can to alleviate some of the pressure on his bloodless fingers.
There’s an immediate shift in Cas when they clear the automatic double doors into the outside section of the garden center. He looks about one thousand times more at ease out here, in the plants, underneath the overhanging tarps that protect the garden center from getting too much sun. The sound of running water rises above the murmur of too many voices.
The garden center isn’t warm, not with the encroaching fall drafting in through the chain-link fence and the dark tarps strung up all around doing nothing to hold in the warm. But it’s still humid with all the breathing life. The air feels good, just not as full and soft as Cas’s greenhouse. Walking through the door of Cas’s greenhouse is like getting a warm hug.
A shelf by the door catches Dean’s eye, and he takes a moment to investigate the impressive array of fertilizer pellets hung three-deep on wire rods. Cas hovers over his shoulder, snatching up a few, eyes flitting over the print and the diagrams before he decides on one and hands it to Dean.
“This will be good. For your ‘little dude.’” Dean looks at it for a second, discerning, like he knows anything about plants, then clutches it tight against his chest. “You just push it into the soil near the roots.” Cas illustrates with his thumbs, jerkily pushing at the air like he’s playing with invisible joysticks on an invisible controller. Dean nods along and tries not to smirk.
When Dean doesn’t make to leave immediately, Cas gravitates toward a set of risers covered in flats of multicolored flowers and Dean follows. He can see any leftover tension bleed out of Cas’s hands and into the leaves and petals as he drops the drywall he was holding to run them over the plants. Dean follows him as he leads the way down aisles of fresh-smelling green that stretch the entire length of the store. There are exotic plants of all different kinds, just like in Cas’s greenhouse, but in great enough quantities that it’s easy to feel engulfed by them. Lost in them. Distant.
Cas stops in front of one of the shelves. It’s covered in big plants with palmy leaves. All of them are stuck in cheap plastic pots that are probably, now that Dean looks closer, too small for them. They’re cramped up together so much that when the wind blows cold through the leaves, they rustle wetly against one another. Dean doesn’t expect Cas to kneel down in front of the shelf, perched on his haunches, and feel the things up, forehead to a palmy leaf like he’s trying to communicate. But he doesn’t exactly mind it. It’s endearing, watching him study each leaf between his big, gentle fingers.
When it goes on for more than a few minutes, Dean feels the strength in his hand giving out, and he lets the paint can drop to the cement floor. He absently sticks the little packet of fertilizer pellets he had in his casted hand in the front pocket of his flannel and sits down on one of the empty wood-planked risers near them as he lets Cas carry on. He seems to need it.
Dean’s yawning and Cas is moving steadily down the aisle, giving a bunch of other plants the same weird Cas treatment, when a worker with a green apron and a long-ass water wand finds them. They haven’t been there that long, but the dude looks like he’s caught them stuffing plants down their pants.
“Can I help you fellas?” he says, smiling too brightly.
Dean’s started to say no and shoo him away when Cas’s head whips up, his hair wild and frazzled and poofed up in the garden center’s humidity.
“Yes. Is there any reason this Aglaonema is outside?” Cas says, all urgency that reminds Dean of the first day they met. “And these palms?”
The store clerk backs up a few steps, tripping over the hose trailing behind him. He recovers quickly enough, barreling his chest out and hoisting the wand to cross his arms.
“We take care of all our plants well here. You’ll find that everything is in peak condition.” Cas squints hard. Dean should probably get up, interject, because Cas is getting right in this employee’s face like he doesn’t know the meaning of personal space, but all he has the energy to do is look at the leaves he sat himself down beside. Cas isn’t wrong. Some plants have yellow leaves. Some plants are curling up. Some leaves are withered or dry or veined in dark, unhealthy ribbons. Either way, they don’t look great.
When Dean looks up again, he sees that they’ve attracted the attention of another couple of nursery employees that are lurking off behind the other one. Cas is mumbling to himself and not looking at the employee engaging them, until he gets right back in the guy’s face and demands to see a manager. Greenhouse guy’s face sours. Dean laboriously stands again, leaving the paint can on the ground by the Agal-whosit-whatsit, and the employee turns to Dean like he’s going to save him from whatever shit Cas is throwing at him. Little does he know, Dean is going to do no such thing.
“Well?” Dean says.
“You have to know that he’s being unreasonable,” he says, like Cas isn’t even there. “The plants are perfectly healthy by corporate standards.”
That does it for Cas. He breaks away and starts up the twitching Dean thought they got rid of before, hands running through his hair every few seconds, mumbling again under his breath. Dean doesn’t quite get it, but he’s figured out by now that this is Cas, and Cas engages with everyone around him a little bit weird, engages with Dean a little bit weird, but Cas is good people, and he doesn’t deserve to be ignored just because he’s acting a bit loony.
“I think you were getting your manager,” Dean says again, trying to look bigger than he is, bigger than he feels. Cas deserves that much out of him.
He gets the manager. And that guy turns out to be maybe even more of a fuckwit than the first one. The dude introduces himself as Inias, overlord supreme of the entire garden center, and his apron is pristine in a way that says he doesn’t actually get up close and personal with the plants very often. He gives Dean a once-over before he talks to him like he’s about ten years old, and Dean tries not to take it personal. He lets Cas take over the conversation, talking too slow and too loud and repeating himself too many times between animated gestures at the rows and rows of what Dean can see now is lackluster merchandise. Dean does his best to hold onto the thread of that conversation, right up until he hears the peons laughing it up behind them, one aisle over, from between crinkly palm leaves that apparently have no place being outside in October.
Dean makes his way around the aisle, curious, and listens in just long enough for them to call Cas a “fucking freak,” before he barks, “Hey.” He hasn’t been this authoritative in a while. His throat cracks around the word.
That’s a word Dean won’t tolerate. Sam was in elementary school the first time he came home crying when someone called him a freak, and Dean always got the sense that the hurt of that never went away. That was something inside his little brother that festered and burned, always, no matter how many times Dean tried to beat the tar out of the kids that did his brother wrong. Dean wasn’t a nice kid, growing up. Not when it came to Sammy. Sammy gave him this fiery mania because Sammy was the only thing he had outside of his nowhere dad and his nothing house out in the country.
And right now, there is no Sammy. All Dean has is Cas.
Three pairs of eyes focus on him. They’re just teenagers. Just young idiots who probably have their first minimum-wage jobs here at the biggest fucking superstore chain in the area. They’re nothing little piss-ant employees, don’t mean shit as cogs of this big clock, which is why they’re probably not afraid t
o spout, “He’s here with the spaz,” loud enough for Dean to hear them.
And that—strikes Dean wrong too. Real wrong. He can only think of Cas gently boxing his DVD collection and sitting by his bed, patiently explaining to stupid, insensate Dean that he probably didn’t have enough money to worry about a burial.
“Hey, fuck you, buddy,” Dean shoots back. Real clever. Master wordsmith Dean Winchester. “You can’t just say that kind of shit.”
Two of the dudes clearly value their jobs, because they back off when Dean steps forward, but master gardener number three—not the guy who helped them in the first place but one of the winners that had been floating in the background—seems to be looking for a fight in a way that Dean remembers. All riled hormones and untamed anger that’s singing through Dean’s blood too, all the time now, except he just hasn’t had the energy to see it through. He doesn’t really now, either. He got winded just walking to the goddamn paint aisle just a few minutes ago, and he’s almost winded now, hot anger taking everything out of him.
“C’mon dude, I’m not trying to start something with seventy-five pounds of limp-dick nothing.” And then he turns his back on Dean like he really thinks that—like he doesn’t think Dean is a threat at all. Dean’s ears are buzzing so hard, he almost misses it when the kid say says, “He should just take his retard home already,” to his punk-ass friends, like Dean’s not going to hear.
Dean hasn’t thrown a punch over words like this since high school, and he really hasn’t thrown a punch like this since he started his supermodel diet. He can feel how weak it’s going to be from the moment he raises his arm. It doesn’t help that it’s his dominant arm that’s broken, either, but he used to be able to throw a halfway decent punch with his left—he left a couple guys’ ears ringing with it more than once. That’s why he really isn’t expecting this punch to just barely make an impact. It glances off the stupid fuck’s cheek like Dean’s skimming his fist against a fleshy brick wall. And Dean must’ve telegraphed like crazy too, because the guy is able to back up in one casual dodge with just his upper body, like Dean came at him in slow motion.
Dean’s about to come back with his other hand, but he’s absolutely not on his game, and in the unthinking, sloppy return, he leaves himself wide open for the one quick and effortless shove that sends Dean flying into a riser loaded down with petunias. The shelf’s just some boards stacked on cement blocks, but Dean’s weight isn’t enough to break it all the same—barely seems enough to crunch the helpless plants under his rear end—so he hits it like a wall. The impact sends his head spinning, lighting up a thousand points of pain where it feels like his bones made contact with the blocks and the wood beams. He chomped down on his tongue on the way back too, so blood fills his mouth in sluggish bursts, one oozing wave after another that make him want to be sick.
“Christ, Trevor, you just laid out a sick guy!” he hears from somewhere above him.
“Shit! I didn’t fucking mean to! I barely touched him!”
They move away, keep arguing, and all Dean can think, dazed, is, he had. He had barely touched him. Head resting on some crushed petunias, no will in him to get up again, it hits him ten times as hard as the riser full of flowers. He clenches his fingers in the earth, feels it crunch beneath the tips of his fingers and wedge under his fingernails. He couldn’t even defend Cas’s honor from some stupid pimply-faced teenager. He couldn’t even take a shove. Throw a punch. He can feel the bruises forming on his chest where some asshole barely touched him.
Cas appears above him, just like he did that first day. A pretty apparition with a furrowed brow.
“Are you alright?”
“Sorry,” Dean says dazedly, words slurring out of him. It’s important that he apologize right now, for some reason. Important that Cas knows he’s sorry for what he is and what he’s turning himself into. Sorry that even though this is lighting up big, bright warning signs in his head about some kind of cliff-edge approaching, Dean can’t stop himself from going at it full-tilt. “Sorry, Cas.” He lifts his casted hand, and he’s aiming to pat Castiel’s cheek, but he ends up clubbing him with his giant pink fist instead, just under his eye. To Castiel’s credit, he just winces and moves the hand back down to Dean’s chest real gentle, holding it there like he’s not holding it there, more like he’s just holding it in general.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Cas says firmly. “What happened?”
Dean says, “Fell.” Because this is a Dean he doesn’t know how to stop being. “I fell.”
Some part of him doesn’t want to admit he got knocked on his ass by a snot-nosed infant in a green apron, but another, louder part of him knows that admitting this to Cas means admitting exactly how weak he is. And how much he failed him.
Cas narrows his eyes and purses his lips, like he’s trying to skim Dean’s face like a textbook, but Dean’s not giving him any of the bullet points.
“Did you really.” It’s a statement. He’s wise to Dean’s bullshit.
Castiel squints harder, barely any white to his eyes. Pauses. And there’s a visible unclenching behind his eyes when he decides not to pursue it. He sighs.
“We need to pull the car around so the employees can load up those house plants.”
“Did you buy them?”
“No. They graciously released them into my care. It’s beyond their means to care for the more tropical plants in this climate.”
“What? That assclown looked like he thought you had one foot in crazy town.”
Castiel pulls back and holds out a hand to help Dean up from the risers. “Don’t say crazy, please, Dean.”
When Dean is able to take his feet again, he hears the squeaky unfurling of all the plastic planters as they try to recover from taking his weight.
“I said crazy town.”
He looks behind him. The petunias probably don’t look as worse for wear as they should, but there’s a Dean-shaped swathe of them that looks sad and tender and broken, flowers drooping from stalks on snapped stems.
“Don’t say crazy town.”
Cas’s first order of business is to run a gentle finger over one of the dead flowers, looking pensive. When he’s had his moment of grief or whatever for all the poor bastards that didn’t have to die, he turns back to Dean. Cas must see that his ass is covered in soil, because he starts brushing at it furiously, up and down and up and down with his hands. It doesn’t feel great. Dean feels like he’s being thrown all over again.
“You’re covered in dirt.”
“Ow,” he says. And then, “Ow,” again when the pain doesn’t let up. “Chrissakes, you’re killing me.”
“Hush.” Cas keeps right on keeping on. “I’m barely touching you.”
“I said fucking ow,” Dean says. He doesn’t mean to sound quite as angry as he does, but goddamnit, it actually hurts, and at least one of the snot-nosed teen brigade is watching Cas manhandle him, which hurts his pride as much as anything else. He pulls out of Cas’s grip, and Cas raises his hands in submission, looking at Dean with hooded eyes.
“Dean.” Dean huffs, crossing his arms and pulling himself in small. “Turn around again.”
“What, so you can smack the shit out of me?” Dean sneers.
Cas sighs and gets behind Dean again, but this time, he doesn’t brush. Instead, he gently pulls Dean’s shirt up and bares the curve of his back to the cool garden center air before Dean has a chance to pull away. Dean jerks forward, but not before Cas draws a sharp breath in a way that seems altogether overdramatic.
“What gives? It’s cold.”
“Your whole back is purple. This only happened a few minutes ago. How hard did you fall?” He reaches forward like he’s going to look again, but Dean does a few ridiculous little crotch-first shuffles forward to keep out of his reach. “Let me see again,” he demands.
“No,” Dean growls. “Aren’t we supposed to be getting your car?”
“Bruising that quickly, dramatically, and easily could be a sign of something more serious. An anemia, perhaps,” he says gravely. “Or a very pronounced vitamin deficiency.”
The manager from earlier is back all of the sudden, intruding into their awkward powwow as innocuously as possible.
“Mr. Novak,” he says, wringing his hands. “My employees are ready whenever you are.”
And whoa, this guy seems to have done a one-eighty in the respect department. He looks like he’s ready to get on one knee and kiss Cas’s shoes.
“Novak,” Dean muses. Cas narrows his eyes. The air around them goes still with expectation. “Huh. I never knew your last name before now.” Cas breathes out, shaky.
“Yes,” Castiel says slowly. “Is that a problem?”
Dean furrows his brow. “Why the hell would your last name ever be a problem? What is that, like, Polish?” He prods gently at the small of his back, testing the tenderness of the so-called bruising there. There’s no doubt it hurts. But it’s definitely nothing to make a scene over. “Should I have a problem with Polish people or something?”
Castiel shakes his head, slowly. The manager looks at Dean like he’s sprung a fucking leak. Before he can say anything about it, though, Castiel excuses them and ushers Dean back through the store, back through the front, out to get his car. He doesn’t say any more about the bruising, but he gets the door for Dean at the car, watching carefully as he lowers himself into the passenger side and hides a wince when his butt touches the seat.
The whole adventure kind of exhausts him, so he lets himself doze while Cas drives around to the garden center entrance and directs the workers filling the trunk and backseat to the brim with plant after plant after plant. He forces his breath shallow too, because letting his lungs expand all the way, pushing his ribs into the bruising at his back, that hurts too. And it’s easier to sit and barely breathe and not think for a second about all the shit he has to do.
Cas gets into the car, slamming his door definitively and clicking his seatbelt into place. When he pulls forward, Dean leaves his eyes shut, but he can still see the sunlight shifting on top of his eyelids, and he can hear the leaves rustling together in the backseat. The movement of the car is old and familiar. Movement under him is always nice. It makes him miss his Impala, the big black beast that hates being confined to neighborhood jaunts and grocery runs, probably hates that it’s been homebound for the last month even more.
Unconsciousness feels a lot like being awake nowadays, and Dean wakes up to Cas checking his pulse before he even feels like he’s been asleep.
“Whuff?” he grunts.
They’re parked outside Dean’s house. Cas has a bag of fast food in his lap and a half-unwrapped cheeseburger in his hand. Dean wasn’t awake when he ordered them, undoubtedly from some drive-thru.
“I got you a cheeseburger,” Cas says. Dean rubs his eye. “And a chicken burger if you don’t like cheeseburgers. And french fries. And onion rings if you don’t like french fries.”
“Goodie,” he grinds out. Cas makes a point of reaching into the bag and pulling out a crinkly, paper-wrapped burger, sodden with grease. He holds it out to Dean. When Dean doesn’t take it from him, he unwraps the top and sets it gently in Dean’s lap. Dean just stares at it, nose squinched, like Cas put a fucking pickled chicken foot in his lap. He feels like he barely even knows what to do with a cheeseburger anymore. “Your paint and drywall are in the backseat, too.”
Dean furrows his brow. “I didn’t pay for them.”
“Oh. They gave them to us.” Cas toys with a piece of lettuce poking out of the top of his cheeseburger. “For their poor service.”
Cas rubs his hands along his thighs rhythmically. His eyes keep popping from his lap up to Dean. He’s lying. Dean doesn’t know Cas all that well, not really, but he’s got the most obvious tells in the world.
“Did you pay for them?”
“No. They gave them to us.”
“Look, I know you think I’m pathetic or something.” Dean picks up the burger by its crinkly paper and loses a couple globs of mustard and a stray leaf of lettuce over Cas’s gear shift. “But I don’t need your charity, okay?” Shifting with the burger in his hand brings his attention to the lump in his front pocket, and he pats his chest until he finds the package of fertilizer pellets that he hadn’t paid for either.
“I straight-up stole these.” He’s definitely stolen from a Bargain Heaven before, because Sammy needed to get fed somehow and they had those greeters at all the doors but it was still easy as hell to pull one over on giant stores that had hundreds of people coming through the doors every hour. Dean felt a helluva lot less guilty about it, too.
“I’m sure they’ll manage.”
“Man,” he says, fingering the packaging, flipping it around and around between his fingers. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
He puts the burger on the dashboard and reaches for the door handle. Cas makes a hurt little whimper, and Dean stops with his broken hand dangling limply from the opener.
“Will you take the burger with you?” he says. “It will make me feel better if there’s at least something in your house. For later.” Dean glances over at him. His eyes are closed. His nostrils are flared. It really is hurting him, seeing Dean acting like a piece of shit, and that sucks. Dean had been trying to avoid this all along.
Dean growls, snatches the burger back from the dash, and clumsily rewraps it. When he goes to leave, Cas thrusts the rest of the bag at him and says, “These too?” all soft-hearted and hopeful, and Dean grumbles again and plucks it from Cas’s hand. He looks relieved. Some of the tension visibly eases out of his frame when Dean has everything in his hands. He doesn’t have the heart to tell Cas that this is going to be another moldering mess in his fridge in another few days.
“Oh, and I’ll help with the drywall.” He hops out of the driver’s side, leaving the keys in the ignition so that Dean’s left sitting in a gently beeping car with a sea of leafy palms that rustle energetically when Cas busts open the back door. They already seem to have more life in them than they did in the store, just being in the back of Cas’s car.
Cas takes both the cans, drywall and paint, and helps Dean up and out too, circling around Dean like a vulture while he pops open the front door. He takes the paint can to the kitchen, and Dean follows behind him slower. He doesn’t know how to tell Cas that he doesn’t have the energy to deal with all this tonight.
When Dean makes it to the kitchen, Cas is stroking the furry leaves on his violet with a look of consternation on his face.
“Novak,” Cas says, not taking his eyes off the plant. “That really doesn’t mean anything to you? Nothing?” Dean sets the bag of burgers and fries heavily on the table with a wet plop of sodden grease.
“No. S’just a name, dude. I mean. Should it?”
Dean sits heavily in one of his kitchen chairs. They burned the cushion from it last night. It had been his dad’s. The rest of the kitchen is approaching being packed up—there’s nothing on his table, no salt and pepper shakers, no weird wooden paper napkin holder. Now there’s just a pile of fast food he’s not going to eat. He swallows hard.
Cas’s furrows his brow. “No. I don’t suppose it should.” He pauses. “Will you hand me those fertilizer pellets?”
Dean reaches into his pocket for the package, fishing it out with two fingers. He sets it in Cas’s outstretched hand.
Cas busies himself with popping a few pellets out of the package, into his waiting palm, and pushing them down into the soil just like he’d demonstrated with Dean earlier. He asks Dean a few questions about how he’s caring for the plant, and Dean answers with all the best answers Google and Cas himself had provided him.
“Well, it sounds as if you’ve been taking good care of it. I don’t understand why it would be wilting like this.” He flips on the faucet and holds the plant under it for a moment, soundly watering in the fertilizer. “Perhaps I’ve got a bit of blight on some of my plants. I’ll check when I get home.”
Castiel is being nice, Dean’s sure. There’s no blight on his plants. Castiel’s greenhouse is immaculate. It’s Dean that’s killing the plant. Dean or something in Dean’s house. He’s surprised anything can live here anymore. Dean approaches from behind and fingers the plant too, shifting it to the left so that the leaves that weren’t getting the full brunt of the sun on his dirty windowsill are getting it now. One of the leaves on the stalk of the stem is shriveling sadly, curly and brown. He knows he should pluck it off, but he can’t bring himself to part it from the rest of the plant.
“Dean. Back at the store,” Cas says, and it makes Dean jump. He’s closer than he remembered him being just a second ago. “People say rude things about me often. It’s not of import. It’s not worth hurting yourself over.” He trails a tender fingertip over what must be dark black bruising on his lower back by now, and it doesn’t hurt, but he does feel hypersensitive. The touch sends a tingle up his back in unpleasant, shocky waves. Dean doesn’t pull away.
“So you heard ‘em.”
“Yes. I usually do. I am more attuned to my environment than I think people assume. They weren’t bothering me.”
“They were assholes.”
“Certainly. But they weren’t wrong. I’m not very socially competent.”
“You’re. You’re not—” Self-righteousness bubbles perilously up the back of his throat. Dean doesn’t even want to reuse some of the words they spat out. Dean’s talked a lot of shit in his days, but never anything meant to cut like that. He colors red. “They were assholes,” he repeats helplessly.
Cas looks at him like he’s never stopped looking at him since he found him totally out of his gourd in that ditch. He moves closer, gets right in his face. Looks at him. And then he—hugs him. Jerkily. It’s the most awkward hug he’s ever had, because Dean goes stiff as a fucking board and breathes shallow through it to keep from yelping out the pain he feels in his chest and his ribs and his backside. And Cas isn’t a natural at touching; there’s nothing in the way he touches Dean that isn’t stilted or weird. He holds himself all wrong. He’s forcing himself. Just like he had in the hospital—he’s doing it for Dean, and Dean can tell, and Dean feels gross about it. Dean can also feel where he’s clutching weaker than before, like he thinks Dean can’t handle it, and it tugs at him like it had earlier when that twerp of a teenager had turned his back on him in blatant dismissal.
Unfortunately, Dean can also feel every pressure point in his skin and his bones, so he can’t be entirely wrong to treat Dean with kid gloves.
When he pulls back, he says, “You’re a good person, Dean,” with so much authority that Dean can’t help but laugh. Because what does this guy know about anything? Really?
And just like that, he lets him go, says, “Eat your burger,” and turns tail out the door. He leaves Dean to laugh at the idea of his good personhood all by his lonesome, just like usual.
Layers. He figures the key to seeing Bobby again is layers.
As much as he doesn’t want to, he hits up Sam’s room. Sam’s always been leaner than him, ever since he was just a stretched-out teenager who grew up way too fast and way too poor to keep any meat on him. He packed up all the clothes he took to school, but he’s got old, worn-out thrift store finds in the back of his closet. The weird stuff he used to clamor to wear. Shirts with prints of animals and weird, curly designs and athletic brand logos. Shit he thought sort of looked like what the other kids in school were wearing, even though Dean knew that their Goodwill bargain hunts didn’t exactly give Sam the preppy and popular image he wanted. Dean always tried, though.
Dean puts on one of Sammy’s plaid shirts with its soft, worn-through elbows over two short-sleeved shirts from Sam’s closet and his own Henley from high school. Then he puts on a thick, blue button-down that’s always been snug. He considers himself in front of the bathroom mirror. He looks fine when his clothes fit him, and Sam’s high school wardrobe does. The only thing that makes him look weird lately is that all his clothes gape a little bit. They droop down his collarbones and billow around his belly. It makes him look like he’s lost a lot more weight than he actually has, just because Dean stretched his clothes out when he put on all the weight in the first place. He pinches his cheeks to put some color in them. Debates about putting on his leather jacket over everything.
His little adventure has left Sam’s room wide open, just like it never is and hasn’t been since Sam left town, and as Dean flicks off the light in the hall bathroom, a trick of the light and the unfamiliar positioning of the door make Dean feel like Sam’s in there. Like if Dean just waited a sec, Sam would come out and help him pack up furniture into Bobby’s old truck. Dean feels stupid and more than a little bit pathetic, but the bite of Sam’s old, starchy clothing against his skin makes him nostalgic and weak, and he goes back into Sam’s room. He expects to see all of Sam’s old photos, his medals, his trophies, his sports equipment, his science projects, his posters. Expects his room just the way it had been right before he took off—the mesh of new belongings and old furniture that came from being too poor to redecorate.
When Sam left, he packed everything up. Everything. Dean really thought that Sam did it just to spite him, just to be mean, because he saw Sam carting boxes back and forth, back and forth to the garbage can at the end of the driveway, heard him pulling eighteen years’ worth of thumb tacks out of the wall. He got to sit and watch while Sam dismantled his whole childhood, and it didn’t exactly feel good.
Dean rescued some of the stuff he kicked to the curb—the trophies, for one, the ones still in a corner of Dean’s room. Back then, Dean figured Sam would regret what he did when he came to visit and his room was just bare walls, a threadbare carpet, and a mattress that had been too short for him since he hit his first growth spurt at fourteen. But it turns out, Sam knew what he was doing. And he was right. For one thing, Sam never wanted to come back, and he never had. And for another, Sam had guessed that one day, they’d be doing this—throwing everything away anyway. He’d just been ahead of the game, like always. He’d made Dean’s life a whole lot easier.
Dean loses his energy like he does so often these days and sits down on Sam’s low twin bed, running his hand over the bare mattress, and that’s how Bobby finds him. He clears his throat in the doorway, and Dean’s reflexes aren’t what they should be, because normally, he would spring to his feet, stop rubbing, do something. Today, Dean looks up at him and smiles thinly, fingers curling against the top of the mattress like a dead thing.
“Bobby,” he says.
Bobby nods. “Good t’see you, boy. What are you doin’ in here?”
Dean shrugs and gets to his feet, struggling to recover his footing from the low position and staggering into the empty bedside table. He’d had a tough workout this morning, a tough run, and his muscles are still quivering a little. He’s also been doing some upper body stuff, some weights and push-ups and planks, because his precious moment with the box frame had surprised him. He hadn’t realized how weak all this was making him.
He tries to brush it off. Bobby makes it hard, like he knew he would. He jumps forward like he wants to hold Dean up. Dean acts like he doesn’t notice.
“Guess I’m finally thankful that Sam did all my work for me all those years ago. Didn’t seem like much of a blessing at the time, but now here we are.”
Dean left most of Sam’s closet in a heap when he was looking for the shit he’s wearing now, and Bobby nods at where it’s peeking out of the closet door.
“You cleanin’ out the last of it or makin’ the mess worse?”
Dean shrugs. “Just trying to get things up and out.”
Bobby looks at him for another few seconds, a hard, up-down scrutiny that says he knows exactly what Dean’s doing in Sam’s room and he’s not fooling anyone with his clever too-many-loose-shirts ploy.
“Ellen’s out in the car. Wants to take you out to lunch.” The immediate clench in Dean’s gut is familiar at this point, a cascading cramping in his stomach that reduces any appetite he might’ve had to nothing and releases a sort of foggy cloud of hungry endorphins to remind him exactly what’s at stake.
If you eat something, his stomach says, you’re gonna feel like shit.
“Thought you were gonna help me move some shit out,” Dean says, hand bunching in the too-much fabric at his middle. “Gotta make sure I get out of here before they sell the damn place. Don’t want just any old schmuck to end up with my classy entertainment center setup.”
What Dean doesn’t say is that he’s planning on asking Bobby to help him take it all to a Goodwill or dump it or some shit anyway. He can’t keep it for himself. He doesn’t really want to. He’ll get new shit when he moves into an apartment, maybe. Order a futon from Ikea. Eat off the floor. Something.
Predictably, Ellen and Bobby won’t take no for an answer on their stupid lunch crusade, and not ten minutes later, Dean’s climbing into the cab of Bobby’s truck, trying his best to act like he’s not sweating under about twenty layers of clothes, even though he still feels all cool and clammy. Bobby toes the pile of burnt metal and ashes over by the fruit trees as he makes his way over to the driver’s side, looking at Dean with narrowed eyes from under the brim of his baseball cap.
“Have yourself a barbeque?” he says.
Dean shrugs. “Naw, y’know, just a festive little bonfire.”
Bobby grunts as he hoists himself into the driver’s seat, buckling his seatbelt and exchanging some unreadable glance with Ellen.
“’Course it weren’t a barbeque,” Ellen says, looking him in the eye through the rearview mirror. “Barbeque mighta meant he ate something, and it don’t look like he’s been doin’ a whole lot of that lately.”
She has that concerned-mom-eyebrow down, and it hits him like a sack of bricks to the chest, smacking all the air from a set of lungs that aren’t chugging along too good right now anyway. He has to look away while he fastens his seatbelt, preoccupied with how hard the stupid cast makes things that should be easy. It takes him so long that Bobby’s the one looking at him in the mirror when he gets himself buckled in and looks back up again.
“You due for a checkup on that sucker soon? Make sure everything’s healin’ up?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Dean grumbles, pulling the cast defensively to his chest.
“Like I been sayin’ boy,” Bobby says, backing out of the driveway and onto the main road. “Don’t exactly look like you been eatin’ your Wheaties. That might not stitch together right if you ain’t careful.”
“Got an appointment comin’ up,” Dean admits, not mentioning that he doesn’t know the appointment details and he doesn’t really intend to go. That he mostly plans to take a handsaw to the annoying motherfucker the second his six weeks is up. “I can drive myself.”
“You sure about that? You been leavin’ the house on the regular since you lost your daddy?”
Dean puffs up. He’s more hurt than he’s willing to let on, just hearing the facts of his situation in such explicit terms.
“Sure. Been seein’ friends all the time.”
“Dean,” Ellen says, real gentle, and Dean just puffs up more, like maybe he’s trying to look big in a way the wilty shirts don’t do for him. “All your friends have been into the bar asking after you. We know you ain’t seen ‘em.”
And she might as well be saying, Dean, we all know you ain’t got that many friends. We all know how alone you are on this godforsaken track of land out here. But there’s a bright spot there. She might not have been wrong a couple weeks ago, but she’s wrong now.
“You don’t know all my friends.” Ellen raises a skeptical eyebrow, catching his eye in the mirror again. This time, Dean holds it. “You don’t know Cas.”
Bobby stops at a red light and it heightens the silence in the car. It’s a country signal, right at the edge of town, so there’s no one crossing the other way. It’s just the three of them waiting on a stubborn light to change. Normally, Bobby would have just gone for it, but he’s been treating Dean like he’s something fragile since that first day when he got to see Dean newly orphaned in the cab of his truck. Dean fucking hates it.
“Cas?” Bobby says. “Don’t know a Cas, kid. You know Ellen and I damn near know everyone in the whole town.”
“Well, I guess you don’t know Castiel.”
“Castiel,” he says, like Dean just made up the word right on the spot, just jammed some syllables together and hoped for the best.
The light switches to green, and even though they’ve been waiting there too long already, it takes Bobby a second to take his foot off the brake.
“Castiel Novak,” he says wonderingly, like Dean is talking about someone that doesn’t actually exist still. “As in, Chuck Novak’s kid? I thought all his brats were running that multimillion-dollar corporate nonsense out and away from our boondock. Never heard that one’s name, but they all got silly biblical soundin’ names so that don’t sound too off the reservation for him. Does he have more kids runnin’ around?”
Dean gets stuck. “Multimillion-dollar corporate nonsense?” he parrots. “What’s that mean?”
“Means he’s rich as all hell if he’s who I think he is. He really living in these parts now?”
Dean shrugs. Doesn’t really know what Bobby’s on about. “Don’t know about Chuck-Whatever. But I guess a coupla his kids are, maybe? Big house up on Riverview?”
Bobby nods. “I know the one. If he’s really who you say he is, I’d watch my back. Whole family seems a bit cutthroat.”
Dean can’t reconcile the word “cutthroat” with the feel of Cas’s hand in his that first day, when Dad had just kicked off and Dean had no one else. There was no one else. He could’ve just as easily left Dean to it. Hell, he could’ve just as easily left Dean in a goddamn ditch. He didn’t have to notice he was gone. He didn’t have to be nice to him. But he did.
It would be pathetic to say, He’s nice. I think he’s my friend. I made that friend without anybody’s help. So he doesn’t. He sits in the backseat and acts like he’s thinking real hard about what Bobby said.
Dean pretend-thinks so hard he almost manages to forget they’re on their way to a restaurant, so when they end up in front of the cornball Mexican place in the center of town that serves massive, greasy plates of food, he can’t hold back the groan.
Ellen says, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”
They both walk him through the steps of sitting down and ordering like he’s a fucking toddler—Ellen looks half tempted to put him in one of the bibs with the donkeys on them that they give out with the wooden high chairs at the door. The waitress, Krissy, is someone he knows, vaguely, from living here so long. She’s another town tragedy with a dead mom and a deadbeat dad. Dean thought they shared some kind of camaraderie right up until she makes a jab at his current babying situation by bringing him a bundle of crayons and a paper placemat with his water glass. But maybe he should thank her—it gives him a distraction from the menu. Crayon in hand, he very deliberately does not make fun of her fakey Mexican getup, all multicolored skirts and floofy white blouse. Camaraderie reestablished.
“Pork car-nitas,” Ellen says, all exaggerated interest in the menu Dean’s not touching with a ten-foot pole. “You like pork, doncha Dean?”
“Mmmmm,” hums Dean as a little dog appears beneath his hand, crudely drawn in yellow crayon. Even more crude because his right hand is currently halfway encased in a pink cast. He gives it a tiny ID tag shaped like a bone and thinks of Sam, thinks of the golden retriever puppy that Sam brought home when he was nine years old. That little bastard got hair every-fucking-where. He gives the dog floppy ears, a smile.
“Dean,” Ellen says. “Green or red?” Dean looks at his dog. Yellow, he thinks, blank.
“Uh,” he says, “Neither?”
Bobby snatches the placemat from him, and the yellow crayon leaves a thick jag down the page, right from where he was laying a blot for the dog’s nose.
“Red or green sauce,” he says harshly, more harshly than those words should probably ever be said. “For your burrito, Dean.”
Jesus. They’re still stuck on this burrito thing. “I was gonna do the crossword too, Bobby. Shit.”
Bobby grabs the crayon and replaces it with a laminated menu. It droops in Dean’s open hand.
“Christ, kid, what the hell is wrong with you? I’ve never seen anything like this. Are you seriously turning down free food now?”
The placemat beneath his paper one is colored like a Mexican sarape, made of vinyl and covered in pictures of Mexican beer and sombreros. Sammy would call it “tasteless” if he were here, like he always had before—they’d had the same placemats since about 1995. Dean’s always thought the placemats were funny as hell. Sam was always embarrassed, just like he was always embarrassed about everything. Even more embarrassed because this was the kind of thing dad might’ve called eating fancy as he pounded back salty cervezas and told his kids to share one plate from the kids’ menu.
Bobby’s fingers snap in front of his face, and when he looks up, Bobby’s got those soul-searchy, pleady eyes on.
“Is this about your house? Or is this all about your dad? What’s got you all out of whack? About your dad. You knew this was comin’ for a while now, Dean. I’m not sayin’ that you shouldn’t be sad or nothin’, you got that right. I know s’well as anyone that you can go right on lovin’ somebody that’s screwed with your head. But, well…”
Bobby knows. Ellen knows. The unspoken truth, here. Dad was kind of mean. Dad wasn’t around as much as he probably should have been. Dad, apparently, had another family. He doesn’t think anyone’s ever understood his unwavering loyalty to his dad, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t understand why he was torn up about him dying, either. They were all probably throwing parties around town, pouring one out for the dead town drunk.
Krissy comes by just then and takes their orders, and Ellen orders for him. Something with green sauce, like he gives a fuck. Like both options don’t make his stomach writhe. There’s another moment of awkward silence after the waitress leaves, because now Dean’s got nothing to fiddle with or hide behind.
“We wanted to talk to you about somethin’,” Ellen says, taking a sip from her water glass, “but I don’t think either of us were countin’ on you being quite so—” she waves a hand in front of her face, looking for an end to that sentence, and what Bobby eventually comes up with, mouth sounding foreign and clunky around the word, is, “Delicate.”
Dean snorts at that, wriggling his fingers into his water glass, fishing out an ice cube, and crunching it heartily as he says, “Delicate? Jesus Bobby, what do you think I am, a vase? I’m fine. I’m always fine.”
Bobby takes off his hat altogether, puts it on the table in front of him. He and Ellen exchange a conversation in some secret eyebrow language between them. Dean takes the opportunity to crunch another obnoxious ice cube, already thinking of how he’s going to get around eating his stupid burrito or whatever the fuck it is.
“Been talkin’ with Kate Milligan.”
It takes Dean a second to place the name, which is stupid, because he’s only been fixating on this woman and her kid since the moment he saw her name on the will. But it sounds weird coming out of Bobby’s mouth. Bobby’s not supposed to know who she is.
Dean breathes in and out through his nose, real slow and even. All he can say is, “What?”
“Kate Milligan. Your dad’s girl up in Windom.”
“I know who she is. Why were you talking to her?”
“Who do you think’s the executor of your fool dad’s will, Dean? He asked me to before I stopped talkin’ to him outright, and it was only right that I finish what I started.”
Dean puts his face in his hands, because he hadn’t even thought of that. Mostly, he’d been too preoccupied with the contents of the will to think about how it ended up in his mailbox. The betrayal of it makes Dean feel—hot. All over. Big, washing, lapping waves of heat. Embarrassed, maybe, that Bobby—that Bobby—
“You knew about them. The—the Milligans.”
“There is a reason I stopped talking to John, kid.”
Dean swallows. Does some backwards math in his head.
“That was—before I knew Dad was sick at all. Like two years ago! And what, you didn’t think to tell me? I saw you—I saw you almost every day! Jesus Christ, you didn’t think that was somethin’ I woulda liked to know?”
“It was something John needed to tell you himself.”
“Well he fucking didn’t!”
“Mind your tone, boy.” Bobby taps the yellow crayon he stole from Dean urgently on the paper placemat, striking dabs of wax on top of Dean’s dog and making it all spotty. “I know he didn’t tell you. You wanna know why? ‘Cause John was a goddamn coward.” Dean feels his own eyebrows furrow without his permission. “He knew that he was sick. And as much as he forced you and your brother into isolation in that godforsaken farmhouse, he was afraid you were gonna leave him alone to die just like every other person with half a brain did. So instead of doin’ right by you, he lied his way right into the grave, an’ he turned me into a liar too. But I’m tellin’ you now.”
Dean looks at the table. The sun-faded placemats. That doesn’t seem so unreasonable, he thinks, numb. Dad not wanting to be alone. Dean gets that. He gets that better than he gets whatever Bobby’s motivation was for lying to him. Some misplaced illusion of doing the noble thing, whatever the fuck that means. Not wanting to die alone, that’s basic human instinct, he thinks, clenching a hand against his gut. Nobility? That’s some home-brewed load of fuckery if he ever heard it.
“Does Sam know?”
Bobby shakes his head.
“Shit. I don’t got any particular death wish right now, kid. Sam’s mad enough at your daddy as things stand, I didn’t need to add fuel to that fire. But yeah, I guess he’s gotta find out eventually. John did leave him some things in the will. He also sure as hell called that he wouldn’t be here.”
Dean spaces out for a sec while he’s trying to imagine what Sam would be doing if he were here now. How many times he’d have already said, “I told you so,” about Dad’s outside loyalties. Sam always had theories about when Dad disappeared. Mostly, he thought Dad was involved in some illegal something, and one day he was going to get caught and never come back. After all, he always had some money, and the boys never had any real inkling of where it came from. But sometimes, Sam would goad Dean about their dad having another family somewhere. Dean always thought it was completely beyond the realm of imagination. Deep down, he thinks Sam thought that too.
“And I need to tell you something else too.” He taps the crayon harder to get Dean’s attention, eventually just smacks his hand against the tabletop in front of Dean. He’d have jumped out of his skin if he hadn’t been swaddled into his body with so many layers of clothes. “Dean. Listen. Maybe—maybe you’re puttin’ out a witch hunt for Kate Milligan and maybe you ain’t, but no matter how you feel about her, it weren’t her fault your daddy’s a two-faced liar. She ain’t a bad lady. And her boy, Adam? He’s only just closin’ in on eighteen. They were plannin’ on selling the house in the will right up until they found out they were foreclosing on it and you still live there.”
“What,” Dean says faintly. “Now they wanna keep it? Buy it out from under me?”
“No, Dean. Kate said she’d like to help you pay it off. Guess she’s got a bit of a nest egg herself now that Adam’s got a bunch of scholarships to college. ‘N she’s real grateful to you for what you did for your dad. Real impressed with you.”
What Dean did. What Dean did? Funny, Dean’s pretty sure he as good as killed his dad himself.
“Didn’t do anything special.”
“She don’t feel that way. Sounds like your dad was—he was real special to her, I guess.”
“If he was so special to her,” Dean says, just a ghost of what he intended. Just a breath. “Then why didn’t she come out to take care of him?”
Why did it have to be Dean? Why is it always Dean?
“She didn’t know, Dean. Nobody did. Your dad got real private at the end. Didn’t wanna put his shit on nobody, I guess.”
The hot feeling painting his insides pulses and pinches against his esophagus, choking him up, clogging it. Nobody. Nobody but Dean.
“And who’s hungry?” the waitress announces her presence, plunking her big, circular tray at the edge of the table, and everything smells so strong. The plate that lands in front of Dean has helpings about two sizes bigger than either Ellen or Bobby’s—a big, green-colored log of a Mexican entrée wafting a greasy spiciness in his direction that encounters the hot wash inside him and surges out. Dean needs to vomit, wants to vomit, just looking at it. Then the waitress really drills the whole thing home when she waves a bottle of Tabasco sauce in Dean’s face.
She says, “You need this?”
Dean can barely shake his head. By the time she’s left, Ellen and Bobby are staring at him like he’s sprouted another head. Dean swallows convulsively to keep down bile, but he has to keep fighting it because the smell just keeps coming up at him from the table, and he never imagined it could be this bad. That he could be this much of a fucking chick about something. Christ, he feels ready to faint over a burrito. Talk about fucking dramatic.
Ellen reaches across the table and plants her hand on his forehead. He knows he’s gone cool and clammy and sweaty under her fingers. If she put her hand on his belly right now, she could probably feel it roil.
“Are you sick, baby?” she says. “You didn’t tell me you just weren’t feelin’ good. You’re looking a little green. Is there something goin’ on with your stomach?”
Dean’s first instinct is to deny deny deny, but a sickness gives him an out. An excuse for the hundred kinds of fucked up he’s currently inflicting on himself. They might try to drag him to the doctor, but at least it’ll buy him some time—time he urgently needs to remove himself from this godforsaken plate of food.
“Yeah. Yeah, I gotta get some air for a second.”
And he’s out, away from the table.
“Okay, sweetheart. You come back to the table when you’ve got yourself sorted out, okay?” But Dean’s already up, already on his way out the door. By the time they’ve probably started talking about what a walking freak show he is, Dean’s losing his watery not-lunch in the parking lot outside. Some old ladies getting out of their car are looking at him like he’s a legacy, the next town drunk here to uphold the Winchester family honor.
Despite what Ellen told him, he waits outside. Appearance-wise, he looks pathetic, shivering under all his layers. But on the inside, he’s trying to gather his energy reserves to be angry at Bobby, the traitor, who saw him every day when he came to work at the garage for over a year and just. Didn’t. Didn’t tell him. About the little brother that his dad liked better than him.
Well. The second one.
Dean thinks about running home, but he did probably one too many workouts this morning anyway and if he’s honest with himself—despite himself—he aches all over.
They come out with his burrito, lovingly boxed and bagged and ready to live the rest of its life as a solid, unappetizing hunk in his fridge, not ten minutes later, and by then Dean has managed to work himself up into a proper tizzy. He’s darkened his face, and he’s already doing his best to look big today, just by nature of the fact that he’s wearing about ten shirts, but he puffs out his chest and tries even harder.
Bobby and Ellen seem cautious, approaching him. “You still want to move your stuff, kid? Or have you been thinkin’ about takin’ Kate Milligan up on her offer?”
Dean thought about that too, in the five minutes he had. And it wasn’t much more than some wordless expletives in the back of his head, mostly, at the very idea of owing that much to someone like—like her. Because people don’t do that kind of shit for Dean for no reason; he’s not worth that. He would owe some kind of life debt to his dad’s kind-of replacement wife, and it would be impossible to balance the scales, and Bobby actually seems to think he should consider it. Being this in debt with Cas is stressful enough, already.
Dean glowers, shakes his head. He lets Ellen and Bobby take him home, silent in the backseat, and then he personally oversees the loading of his childhood home into the dirty bed of Bobby’s old truck. The futon in the living room, the wobbly entertainment center, Sam’s mattress, bedside tables that came out of boxes. Shelves caked in dusty, blocky patterns— years-old tracings of the spines of books that Dean fully intends to give away. He tries to help, but he keeps getting in the way, so instead he goes to his own room and packs away a few of his things. He listens vaguely to Bobby and Ellen making trips back and forth in the hallway and quietly puzzling between themselves over the fact that a lot of his dad’s things have already disappeared. And over the fact that maybe a few of them look suspiciously like the charred skeletons right outside the front door.
As they’re hoisting the kitchen table piecemeal into the back of the truck, Dean comes outside with his shitty guitar, his record player, a stack of his records, and his little TV and starts loading them into the cab of the truck, behind the driver’s seat.
Bobby approaches Dean, rubbing the back of his neck like doing all Dean’s heavy lifting put a crick in it. He’s sweating too, even though Dean’s freezing, can’t seem to keep any heat in him. Dean feels a hollow, familiar guilt nestle in behind the new blaze of anger.
“That for me?” Bobby says. “You get me a present?”
He grunts. “No. Donate it, too.”
Bobby raises an eyebrow.
“I understand donating some old furniture, Dean, but I get the feelin’ you’re gonna miss,” he picks up the first record from the top of the pile. “Jesus. Dark Side of the Moon. Dean. Chrissakes, what are you tryin’ to do here?”
“Cleanin’ house, Bobby. None of this shit is mine anymore.” If it ever was. If he ever even deserved it in the first place.
“I gotta wonder why your vinyls ain’t yours. Because last I saw, they were foreclosing on your house, not repossessin’ everything you own and then some. How ‘bout I keep this stuff at my house ‘til you get yourself that new apartment.” He settles Dark Side of the Moon back on top of the stack with a careful reverence. “You are looking for a new place, ain’tcha?”
Dean shrugs. Bobby sighs.
“Fine. I get it. Be angry with me. But Dean, listen. I know it’s hard right now. But people want to help you. They do want to help you. Just gotta let ‘em. You know you always got a place with me or Ellen, too. If you need somewhere to stay.”
Dean shrugs again.
Over the next few days, they come back a couple more times, dragging more and more of Dean’s house out with them. The third time they show up to gut the place, Bobby brings him a picture, shoves it right in his face while Dean’s sulking on the edge of his bathtub, trying to avoid getting in the way. And avoid talking to Bobby.
He only recognizes his dad in the picture, and even then, he only barely does. His dad looks happier than Dean had seen him in a long time before he died. Younger and healthier, too. His beard is neatly trimmed, his eyes are shiny. He’s probably not even drunk. He’s got one arm slung around a pretty, petite blonde woman and the other grasping firmly at the shoulder of a fair blond kid (of course) who must be about twelve years old. They look like a real happy family. The kind of family he’d expect to see over a mantelpiece.
When Bobby asks Dean if he’ll reconsider letting this nice-looking lady pay off the house for him, Dean tells Bobby not to come back. In so many words.
And Bobby, stupid sonuvabitch, actually doesn’t. Figures.
After they take off with Dean’s stuff for the last time, he’s left with not a whole lot. Dad and Sam’s rooms are totally empty, and all Dean’s got is a pile of blankets and a closet half-full of clothes and skin mags. There’s one set of dishes still in the kitchen and the cabinets are full of ancient, uneaten food, but the table’s gone and so are the chairs. The living room just has the television, plugged right into the wall and thunked down on the floor next to Castiel’s carefully packed box of DVDs. Then there’s the modem for his wireless, plus a couple books and knick-knacks and some other junk that Dean took off the shelves and out of drawers and didn’t get around to boxing up. Dean’s African violet is still there too, moving around as always—on a windowsill now, because the leaves are drooping a little, and he figured maybe the little dude wasn’t getting enough sunlight. It’s probably getting plenty now that there’s nothing to compete with it. And Dean keeps shifting it to make sure all the leaves get enough sunlight, each in turn.
The only room that’s still full is the basement, and it takes more energy than Dean has to even think about the layers and layers and layers of shit down there, like old rock formations, stages of their lives reflected in the worn quality of the different levels of cardboard, in the quality of his handwriting in the scrawled-on labels.
The old house creaks more without stuff in it—seems older and more worn down. Or maybe Dean’s just more aware of it now that there’s nothing to distract him from how shitty everything was before—how empty everything was in the first place.
It starts to rain on his jog the next day, which sucks. He’s been fucking cold lately, and he’s definitely been attracting some unwanted stares, so he decided to carry on with his clever layers trick when he left the house. It seemed like an awesome idea when he was shivering in his gloomy doorway, but now he’s realized that it means he gets to feel every piece of clothing, shirt by shirt by shirt, getting more and more waterlogged while he tries to keep pace on his run. And by the middle of his normal course, he’s pretty sure he’s gained about thirty pounds of pure water weight.
Since he fainted, Dean’s started eating as much as he thinks he needs to not collapse on his runs. Maybe a few more carrot sticks. Half an apple. But he didn’t account for thirty extra pounds when he budgeted out his calories. Before long, he has to stop running and start walking, slow and steady, heavy breath fogging out in front of him. He’s not sure he even recognizes where he is, what part of the road he’s on. It’s one of those dark rainy days too, the kind with clouds so black that the sun doesn’t penetrate. He can’t see all that well and he took some painkillers on top of that, so there’s a definite possibility that he could have gotten off track somewhere. And on top of all that, he’s not supposed to get his cast wet, but there’s nowhere to hide it and his arm is getting saturated.
He sees his own shadow in front of him, battered and pounded by the raindrops, two-toned and thin because there’s two light sources behind him that converge and conspire to make his shadow strange and unearthly. It’s a car coming up behind him. Dean tries to make himself look as not-pathetic as possible, like he really wanted to go out for a calm walk in the middle of a torrential downpour and like he definitely still knows for sure that he’s going in the right direction. But it must not project very well, because the car hovers behind him for a while before slowly pulling up alongside him. Dean hears the buzz of an electric window.
“This him, Cassie?”
Dean squints. He can’t see into the car very well, but he can see that the car, mud-splattered and stupid and ugly, is a blue Lexus.
“Cas?” He squints harder.
Dean doesn’t hear an answer from inside the car, but the door clunks open regardless, and the dude that pops out is a full head shorter than Dean and someone he knows he’s seen before.
The birthmark is the first thing he notices—can’t help it, he’s programmed just like any other human and that thing is big, a red stain over half his face. Even in the dark of the rainy afternoon, it looks red and inflamed. It snakes up the right side of his face, curves over his nose, and encroaches on his hairline and the collar of his shirt. He recognizes it immediately—he’d seen it on the dude in the pictures in Cas’s hallway. The scrawny motherfucker who was perpetually in profile until the last shot, where it was just three of them and he was smiling big for the camera with everything on display.
It takes Dean a long time to notice the guy’s holding the back door open for him, half-heartedly trying to shield his floofy hair from the downpour.
“Dude, I’ll introduce you to my birthmark later. We’ll do lunch, it’ll be a great time, but will you just get in the car?”
Dean does. The inside of the car has that underwater quality that cars get in the rain, like they’re a boat in the middle of the ocean and the asphalt is rocking underneath them. It makes everything feel real close and quiet and almost unreal, especially when birthmark guy gets back into the driver’s seat and closes the door.
“What the hell are you doing out here in this? I just about hit you, man, you weren’t even wearing any dorky reflectors.”
Cas is in the front seat. He’s not looking at Dean, and he’s got a big pot of flowers in his lap. They’re pretty, but even in the dark, Dean can see where the edges of the palmy leaves are tipped in yellow. He’s holding them real close and Dean thinks he might even be rocking a little bit. Maybe Dean isn’t one hundred percent imagining the wavy movement of the car.
“It wasn’t raining when I left my house,” Dean says absently, not sure why he owes this guy an explanation.
“Dude, it’s been raining like this for like an hour.”
When Dean doesn’t comment, birthmark guy shifts the car into gear and takes off again, not going in the right direction for Dean’s house. He looks at Dean in the rearview mirror. Dean’s found himself in the back and passenger seats more these last couple of weeks than he ever had in the last year taking care of his dad.
“You look like one of those floofy little dogs after you give ‘em a bath. Like, deflated.” He deflates himself in demonstration, going limp against the steering wheel.
Dean scowls. “Yeah? Thanks for your input. You look like a peach yourself. You gonna take me home? Because you’re going the wrong way.”
“No. I’m kidnapping you because visibility is like zero out here,” he says. “I know there’re no streetlights for miles around your fresh-backwater-hell house and I don’t have a death wish.”
The way he’s driving doesn’t necessarily back that up. He slings around corners too fast, and Dean’s almost sure they’re half a second from hydroplaning more than once, but he’s right—they’re closer at this point to Cas’s house than they are to Dean’s, at least by a few miles.
But that still begs the question, “How do you know where I live?” Dean asks, trying not to notice the way that his layers are losing the water they absorbed into the seat beneath him. He feels gross about the fact that he’s making a massive sodden mess out of Cas’s stupid car. Dean chafed against the dog comparison earlier, but this guy’s not entirely wrong to have made it in that regard—this deathtrap is probably going to smell like wet dog come tomorrow.
“Right, you don’t know who I am, I guess. I’m Gabriel. I’m Castiel’s brother.”
“Oh. Right.” Dean thinks he’s heard the name Gabriel before. Maybe. He rubs at the goosebumps on his arms. “Still doesn’t explain how you know where I live.”
Castiel’s house is like a beacon up on their rich hilltop. They’ve got a floodlight painting their driveway bright white, and the lights on in their windows make the whole thing glow like a barge adrift on the ocean. Dean didn’t realize how close he was running to Cas’s house, and it’s disconcerting to see he’d gotten so turned around in the rain. Disconcerting to realize he’d been lightheaded enough to genuinely not know where he was, where he was going. He thought he was going home.
“I’m pretty good at knowing what my little bro gets up to, right Cas?” Gabriel makes like he’s going to nudge Cas but he aborts at the last second, hand hovering stiffly at his brother’s shoulder before he brings it down awkwardly to his own lap. Cas starts up a continuous mutter to himself, quiet in the car, almost drowned out by the rain and then by the groan of the Novaks’ garage door when they pull into the driveway. Dean doesn’t really know what to do with that. He just knows he’s cold.
Cas doesn’t go inside the house when the car stops, either. He doubles back out the open garage door with his big potted plant still up against his chest, disappearing around the side of the garage. He doesn’t even say a word to Dean before he’s gone.
As Dean watches him go, Gabriel says, “He’s just going to his greenhouse. C’mon inside.”
“It’s raining out.” Dean’s teeth rattle when he talks.
“No shit, genius,” he says, and Dean figures that he shouldn’t be concerned if Gabriel isn’t, but it makes Dean feel—off. Itchy. Seeing Cas and not having his full attention.
Dean follows Gabriel in through the garage door, past the lilac-smelling laundry room. Gabriel doesn’t ask him to take his shoes off but he does anyway. His socks, too, because they’re completely soaked through. The soles of his running shoes have been pulling away from the tops for a while now, and they don’t offer so much protection from the wet anymore.
He almost feels guilty about moving forward on the nice carpet because he’s got water coming off him in torrents; he’s soaked through to his goddamn boxers. His hair has gotten long in recent months—he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to primp it. Normally, his hair is fine enough that it stays away from his eyes, floats off his forehead in girly waves when he lets it get too long, but it’s gotten a lot more straw-like in recent months, and the rain plastered it in his line of sight. He has to keep pushing it out of the way so he can see where Cas’s brother is leading him.
“Will he be okay?” Dean says.
“He can take care of himself,” Gabriel snaps, maybe a bit more defensive than the question deserves. “Whatever you think about people like Cas, he’s perfectly capable.”
Dean’s gut remembers the route they’re taking even if nothing else does. It does flip-flops like it knows Gabriel’s going to lead him into the kitchen, going to try to make him eat sausage and eggs and bacon. When they reach the kitchen tile, he can hear himself dripping water everywhere. In the good light, Gabriel’s birthmark is even more noticeable, a red stain that obscures his features and gobbles up his ear. Like Two-Face from Batman, except Gabriel’s smile isn’t crooked.
“People like Cas?” he says, trying not to look wary of the fridge.
Gabriel side-eyes him, disbelieving, as he starts rifling through a cabinet for something, “Yeah. People like Cas, doofus. You gonna make me spell it out? Folks these days call it being on the spectrum, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that he doesn’t think like them and they don’t like it. You got a problem with that?”
Gabriel reminds him of himself in that moment—stronger than him, probably. At least right now. Kids in his grade in school would say shit about Sammy sometimes. About his book-smarts or his homebrew haircut or his hand-me-downs, and Dean always bristled, put on that same tough-guy face Gabriel’s wearing now. It’s pure bravado. Dude’s feeling defensive. Dean can’t see a need.
“No,” he says faintly, shivering once with the cold and feeling drained from it.
“Yeah? Some people got a problem with that,” Gabriel says, turning from the cabinet to face Dean. Dean shrugs. “Some people real close to Cas have a problem with that. And if you do, I’m kicking your skinny ass back into the rain.”
“Jesus.” Why the hell would that matter to anyone anyway? Cas is just Cas. “What do you want me to say, you want me to write fuckin’ love letter while I’m drippin’ all over your expensive Parisian marble or whatever?” He waves a scraggly arm, spraying water over the counter, onto the cabinets and the stainless steel fridge.
Gabriel narrows his eyes. “Maybe I want you to turn down the sass there, mister.”
“Cas is good. I’m not gonna say he’s not a weird little dude, ‘cause he is. But who knows what I woulda done without him these last few weeks.” That comes out of him without his permission, more earnest than he would have liked. But it’s true.
“‘Little’ dude? I gotta wonder, champ, you been lookin’ in the mirror lately? Because I think Cassie’s got some definite poundage on you.” Gabriel claps him on the shoulder. Dean sways. “Lissen. I mean, he’s not so great with people normally, that’s his whole deal. But he sure likes you a whole lot.”
“I like him, too,” he says. And he means it. It makes him scared how much he means it.
That’s the right thing to say. Gabriel nods once, a solemn pause before he launches himself back to the cabinets, rifling for something again. Dean keeps expecting him to pop up with a protein bar or a bag of kale or some shit, but instead of trying to feed him, Gabriel grabs a kitchen towel. It’s a Christmas towel with a bird holding a sprig of holly in its beak on it, and Dean finds himself dropped into another one of those lost moments he had the first time he visited here. He thinks about what being a kid here would have been like, what Christmas would have been like. The gifts Cas would have gotten. How it all would have smelled.
Gabriel approaches Dean, picks up his pink-casted arm from where it hangs limp at his side, and starts the hopeless task of trying to pat it dry. It’s too late. It’s already a lost cause, probably, which means Dean’s going to end up tearing it off sooner rather than later because it’s not doing him any good anyway. At this point, it’s not even snug against his arm. He might’ve lost a bit of weight since he got it put on, so his arm rattles around inside it like the dangler inside a bell.
“Sheesh. Gotta get you into something dry,” Gabriel says, jerking helplessly at the sodden mass of wet fiberglass on his right arm. Dean hisses because it still hurts a lot, even after all these weeks. Should it still hurt like this? Like it hasn’t even started knitting itself back together? Gabriel lets him go and wrings out the bird towel over the sink. “You’re about a foot taller than me but you probably weigh, like, a hundred pounds less than Cas. Whose clothes do I even give you?”
Dean rubs his neck. “Got my own clothes at home,” he says. The rain hasn’t let up at all, but Dean’s beginning to suspect that maybe Gabriel takes after his brother and the visibility had very little to do with him ending up here.
“Yeah, well, that’s not helping us a whole lot right now, is it sunshine?” He breezes past Dean, a man on a mission. He comes back a few minutes later with a massive pile of dry clothes and leads Dean past all the pictures, to the bathroom Dean’s been in before. “Just gimme the wet stuff when you’re all done. I’ll toss it in the dryer.”
It’s a mismatched pile. He tries a combination of things and ends up in what he thinks are Gabriel’s pants and Castiel’s shirt, because Cas’s pants are too big to stay on his hips, and Gabriel’s shirt is more of a halter top than anything. The pile of clothes he strips off is big, and it feels like he’s shedding half his body weight onto the tiled floor. When he steps out of the bathroom, Gabriel takes the pile off him with this look on his face, like he knows Dean’s game.
“There’re like five shirts here. Why’re there like five shirts here?” Dean shrugs. Gabriel sighs. “God. Why couldn’t Cas just get a puppy or a baby bird or something? Go…sit in the living room.” He makes a shooing motion. Dean does. He follows Gabriel as far as the entrance to the living room when Gabriel takes a hard left toward the lilac-smell.
Their house is as big as Dean remembers. It’s got those high ceilings and the arching doorways and all, but it manages to feel small in the storm. The living room is lit by one small lamp on an end table and by a fake fireplace against the opposite wall, and the dark of the afternoon makes everything—cozy.
Dean stands in the entrance to the room for a whole minute before he feels like he can go in. He counts out steps in his head too, almost unconsciously, measuring how much his own living room would fill this space. Not much, he realizes, somewhere around his tenth funny-walking pace, heel to toe to heel again. Lightning strikes outside and Dean doesn’t jump, somehow feeling too mellow to be scared, but he finds himself wondering if Cas is okay. His hair drips a few cold drops down the back of his neck. He shivers.
Dean can admit to himself that for the past few weeks he’s had something boiling inside of him, blood and bile and anger about a lot of things. But here, now, he feels like a hot pot that someone took off the burner. Sam used to get so angry at their dad, at Dean for the things he did for their dad, but Dean would see him turn a one-eighty, go sixty to zero in no time flat, if he started talking to one of his friends. If he answered the phone. Something. Dean used to wonder if he could turn it off or if he was feeling it inside like Dean always did. Dean could turn things off outside if he had to, especially if he had to make things seem okay for Sammy, but he always felt them, pushing at him from the inside. Steam and boiling water. He used to wonder how Sam could even do that—turn everything off, flip that switch. But maybe it’s something like this for him. Maybe it’s something like when Dean sits down on Castiel’s soft, cushy couch, sinking into the depths of it.
Dean feels tired. Momentum gone. It’s the most natural thing in the world to pull his feet up, turn himself on his side, and sleep.
Cas is there when he wakes up. Looking at him. It’s properly dark now—not just rainy-dark, though it’s still raining and Dean can hear it splattering against the windows behind his couch. He doesn’t jump when he sees Cas, still surprisingly at peace with everything. He also doesn’t really feel like he could move if he wanted to, though. He’s sunk too far into the couch for that. And while he was sleeping, someone covered him in a thick blanket and he’s warm, which doesn’t happen all that often with Dean anymore. Someone also turned off the lamp by him, leaving only the flickering fire to light the room.
“I like your house,” Dean says drowsily, benevolently choosing not to acknowledge that Cas seems to have been very involved in the business of staring at him while he sleeps.
Cas doesn’t say anything for a sec. He reaches for the side table Dean can’t see over the armrest of the couch and grabs—he crunches through something orange. A carrot stick. Though a mouthful of carrot, he says, “I don’t much care for it,” in as light a tone as it seems he can muster.
Dean goes through the arduous process of hefting himself up into a sitting position, and he sees that there are like five bowls of various finger foods there.
“You don’t like your house?”
He sees Cas trying not to look at him when Dean picks up his own carrot stick and crunches through it, real slow, one inch at a time. Things feel real funny in his throat now, lumpy and big. It’s always a challenge to swallow but he does, because he’s in control of his body, and he can eat whenever he wants to. He takes little bites with big spaces between them.
“Are you hungry?” Cas says, a whisper. “I can make you something more substantial.” Dean drops the hand with the carrot stick, self-conscious, eyeing the orange bit where it rests between his yellow-nailed fingertips. “No, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Christ. Can’t we talk about—” Anything. Anything but Dean and his eating habits. “About you. For a second.”
“I—yes. Of course. If that’s what makes you comfortable.”
“It’s not all about me, dude.”
“No. Of course not.”
“You don’t like your house.”
It’s silent for a few more seconds of Cas pointedly not looking at him, and Dean bites down loudly on the carrot stick again. Motivation for Cas to continue not looking at him and get on with whatever he’s going to say.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he says, and it’s clear he doesn’t want to say it, so it feels like a reward. “But sometimes my house feels haunted.”
It feels like something that someone in a horror movie would say, but maybe that’s just because of the ambiance. Castiel isn’t like the characters in horror movies. He’s literal to a fault. If he says he’s being haunted by something, then he’s probably seen ghosts hovering candelabras in his hallways. If nothing else, the firelight makes things feel haunted. It makes Castiel’s face look like it’s haunted by something. He’s got these big bags under his eyes and the shifting light makes them grow and recede, turns him into different people in different stages of their lives. Old Cas to young Cas and then back again.
Dean gets another one of those disconnected moments all of the sudden, but he’s older in this one, a teenager maybe. If he’s honest with himself, his teenage years were probably the worst of them. Sometimes it feels like Dad only tried right up until Dean hit double digits and then he completely gave up on sticking around. And now it makes sense why. Neglect is a four-letter word, and it’s spelled A-D-A-M.
It’s funny how tame and well-behaved Dean’s fantasies are being. He thinks that maybe he kind of really likes Cas, and he definitely thinks he’s smoking hot. But Dean’s mind, much like every other piece of him, doesn’t seem to have the energy for the mental acrobatics required to whip up a decent sex fantasy. Instead, he gets a mental image of a Thanksgiving table where Cas is on one side of him and Sam is on the other and he wants to eat. And he doesn’t care about the calories. Doesn’t feel better when he’s hungry. He wants to be full. There are big mounds of potatoes and turkey and fruit salad and pie. Everything goes down easy. Cas’s big fireplace is glowing hot in the background. And Cas smiles at him a lot.
“Dean. Dean?” Dean blinks away from gold-tinted turkeys and pies. He looks down at the carrot again. Motherfucker’s playing mind tricks on him. He sets the tail-end down in his blanket-covered lap.
“I thought you were telling a story. How come you don’t like your house. Ghosts.”
“Do you find that you have trouble focusing?”
“Chrissakes, I thought we weren’t talking about me for a goddamn second.” Cas shrinks back. “Nah—Shit. Dude. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You go somewhere else sometimes,” Cas mumbles. “That’s all.”
“I know,” Dean thinks of Cas in the car, in the front seat but so far away. “Seems like sometimes you’re not so close either, man.”
There’s a bowl of peanut M&Ms on the side table, right next to the carrot sticks, and Dean’s feeling bold after the carrot. So he picks out three very, very judiciously. Blue, blue, and blue, because bullshit M&M coatings don’t have different flavors. He’ll swear on that one to the grave.
He resolves to eat them. One at a time, one layer at a time. After just a nibble into the first one, the sugar and the chocolate feel heavy and rich in his mouth. He remembers when he would have downed a whole bag of these all at once. They were one of his favorite things back when he liked to eat. He tries to remember if he told Cas that.
“No. I have trouble focusing at times too,” Cas says tentatively, grabbing a few M&Ms himself and crunching them in quantities of two, three, four at a time. “As long as we’re—we’re talking about me, I must tell you. Sometimes I feel we have much in common.”
“Yeah? Like what?” Dean crunches through another tiny bite of M&M. “And was that what was up in the car? Trouble focusing?”
Cas fidgets, dumping his handful of M&Ms onto his lap and starting to group them by color on the couch cushion beside him.
“I have ‘sensory issues.’” He waves his hand vaguely around the room. He sounds like he’s quoting something he’s read. “Sometimes things become too stimulating. Anna was always good at knowing when I needed time but—well.”
“Anna was your—sister.”
“Yes,” he says. “She died nine months ago. Today. And Gabriel and I were taking a plant to her grave. But the rain started. The soil would’ve wa-washed out. And there was blight. Blight. On the leaves.” He gets stuck in a bit of a loop there and Dean just lets him because he seems to need it. He moves his body like he did in the car, jerky twitches that Dean only sort of catches in the half-light of the room. He can hear where his fingers chafe against one another, a gentle sound over the crunch of the candy coating on Dean’s second M&M. When he fumbles to a stop, Dean can feel the absence of the frenetic movement more than he can see or hear it. “A number of my plants have some kind of blight. I was thoughtless in my care this year, it seems.”
In the hospital, Dean remembers Cas touching him. He’s so his own island right now that Dean can’t help but think even that must’ve been hard for him. Touching him. Touching hard, unassailable Dean like no one seems to want to. But Dean needed it, and Dean knows enough now, has seen enough now, to know it would be best if he didn’t return the favor. He puts a hand on Cas’s armrest instead. The fireplace hits his knuckles funny now that he’s not hiding them under blankets. They look almost skeletal in the flickery light.
“No. Your greenhouse is—” Words like perfect and gorgeous and pretty rest hard on the very, very tip of his tongue. He’s already giving himself the mental browbeat his dad would have given him for thinking it before the words can leave his mouth. Pretty, Dean? Pretty? Christ. But his dad’s not here, and it is. Pretty. Different types of plants, different colors of flowers, all blooming in tandem, in harmony, in thick, heavy air that seemed to filter the light like they were just under the surface of a clear pond. “Pretty, Cas. It’s real pretty. You gotta take such good care of it.”
Cas looks at him like Dean just gave him a fucking puppy. “I do. I try. I do. Thank you, Dean. But sometimes—we do our very best and the blight still wins.”
“You’re doing the best you can. I’m sure your plants are gonna be okay.”
“Some of them will, but some of them—once the sickness takes hold, there’s little we can do to stop it.”
“Cas.” And now he looks like Dean took the puppy back and stomped on it.
“Gabriel often reminds me that things happen that are beyond our control.”
Dean shifts in his seat, swallows nothing, still feels the chunky peanut coating his throat like it’s choking him. “We still talkin’ about plants here?”
“Dean.” Cas ignores him in favor of plowing ahead. “I want to tell you something. I was—I was Anna’s caretaker. She had multiple sclerosis. And she—died of respiratory complications. I told you that. I didn’t tell you that she should have been in the hospital. I didn’t catch it in time. It’s something I should have been watching for.” Dean rolls his last M&M between his forefinger and thumb, imagines the sticky blue dye coming off on his fingertips. He can’t see it well in the dark, but that was one of the things to watch out for, listed on every pamphlet. Blue lips and fingertips mean oxygen deprivation, he remembers reading. His dad had blue lips when he found him. He wonders, sometimes, in the middle of the night, if his dad’s lips would have been blue if he’d bothered to turn on the light that morning instead of just hovering a hand over his lips.
It’s young Cas looking at him when Dean looks back at him. Like, impossible-young. Like maybe he’s a fucking teenager imploring Dean to know what the hell he’s talking about. He has tics that he seems to cycle through, too—tugging at his hair, at his hands, at his nails. Dean wants to tell him to stop, because he’s making him feel like his skeleton’s going crawl out of his skin, but he knows that’s wrong too. He remembers yelling at him about bacon, weeks ago. Cas didn’t deserve to be yelled at about bacon.
“I don’t believe in ghosts, but there’s something always here,” Cas implores finally.
“Cas, I gotta be real honest with you, buddy. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No!” he shouts, and Dean would have jumped out of his skin if he weren’t so chilled out. The shout echoes in the eaves of the house, but the high, white, stuccoed ceiling sends his words back dispassionately, draining all the life out of them. “No, you do, I know you do. I’ve seen it on your face.” He takes a deep breath in through his nose. It sounds practiced, but shaky. “I majored in psychology because I thought it would help me to understand. Because I don’t communicate well and I know that, but—I sat beside you in that hospital watching you losing your father. You. The look on your face.” Cas turns in his seat and makes a point of finding Dean’s eyes, unblinking. His eyes are the same as they were when they were lighting his dad’s shit up. Full of the raw red. Smooth and cool blue with something bubbling up underneath. “And whatever has been haunting my house was on your face. In your eyes. And it has been ever since the first time I saw you.”
Dean blinks away from the eye contact and tries to let this roll right off his back, despite whatever gritty, uncomfortable sense of familiarity he’s getting in his gut. Maybe it’s just the M&Ms.
“I saw it, Dean. Sometimes I have trouble knowing what others are thinking or feeling, but you feel with such—violence. Such clarity.” Dean doesn’t expect the touch when it comes, a tentative and awkward grasp of a shaking hand right in the inside of his elbow, right where he feels tickly and vulnerable, right where his IV was that very first night. “I feel the things you feel with you like I never have before.”
“Don’t be stupid. You don’t even know me,” he spits, shaking Cas’s hand off. Dean decides he can’t stomach the last M&M, apparently two was the absolute limit, so he puts it back on the side table with an audible clack. As he brings his hands back to scrub over his face, he thinks, well that was mean. Cas doesn’t deserve him being mean. “Christ, I just meant—”
“No, I’m sorry, no one can understand how you feel.” Cas’s face is impassive, but he sounds sad. “Especially not—me.”
Dean sighs. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you.”
“No. There is.”
“Cas. I didn’t mean it. You’re fine. You’re better’n fine.”
“That’s not what my family thinks.”
“What?” Gabriel clearly fucking adores him, but he does have, like, eight or nine siblings that Dean doesn’t know shit about.
“Why do you think I’m here?” he waves his hand vaguely at the fireplace, the high ceilings, the pretty furniture and the nice appliances. “In the foothills of nowhere South Dakota? Gabriel and I came under the guise of caretaking for my older sister, but do you really think that they couldn’t hire a nurse? We’re fucking Novaks.” It’s the first time Dean’s ever heard him curse, but he says the last name like the actual swear word here, spits Novak like a fiery, distasteful grenade that he hates to have on his tongue. “We’re richer than the Waltons. I know you don’t know the name, Dean, and I can’t say that doesn’t make me pleased, but doesn’t it sound even slightly familiar? The Bargain Heaven Novaks?”
And oh. Yeah, alright. He feels like every piece of him has come to attention, like someone who fell asleep at the helm finally set off the alarm bells in Dean’s smoked-up head, even though the fire’s been raging a long time already. Business mogul Charles Novak and his kids always seem to be in the news for some underhanded business tactic. They’re just a peripheral thing to Dean, some evil Death-Star-type entity raging away out in parts unknown. He’s having a hard time connecting the people that run Chinese sweatshops with Cas. Just Cas. Smiling over his greenhouse plants.
“I’ve heard of you. Richer than the Waltons? Christ, Cas, you’re richer than god.”
“No. Not me. My family. Have you ever—I mean, have you ever even heard my name in the news?”
Dean thinks. News reports on the edge of his hearing about class action lawsuits or payroll scandals. News he’s usually on the low-income end of, given that he knows plenty of good people who get stiffed by the Bargain Heaven slave wages every day. He’s heard a lot of names in the news—Michael, Raphael, Luke, Naomi, Rachel. He wracks his brain. An immaculate parade of good-looking and well-groomed people comes fuzzily to his mind. But he’s never heard of a Castiel, much less a Gabriel or an Anna.
“No,” he repeats, softer. “That’s because this is where my father dumped the kids he didn’t want around to embarrass him. The sick one. The one with the facial disfigurement.” He pauses, and the finger he’s pointing at himself hangs wordlessly above him, all the mean things he thinks about himself shrouding his head like a smog cloud. “The ones that weren’t good enough to manage one of his hedge funds or appear behind his shoulder on camera.”
Dean wants to say dumped you? He wants to be skeptical of a grown-ass dude feeling trapped in a house by his old man, but he’s not too stupid to notice that’s a little hypocritical. Just a little.
He looks at Cas in the flicker of the firelight and tries to imagine him with oiled hair and toothy smiles on a twenty-four-hour TV network. He guesses what’s not right with Cas is that he doesn’t communicate so good. That he’s awkward. That he likes plants more than people. Because it sure can’t be that he’s not pretty enough. Cas is pretty—though, if Dean’s honest, he’s not podium pretty. Not press-conference pretty. Not talking-head pretty. Cas is pretty like his greenhouse is pretty, all organic and wild and unpredictable, and Dean doesn’t care that his dad’s in the back of his brain yelling about Dean’s thoughts on that.
“Least the old man stuck you with a nice house.”
Cas chuckles. “By what standards?”
Dean blinks. “Uh. By all of ‘em? Shit, how much did this place cost?”
“Far too much, I’m sure. My father had it built specifically with Anna’s special needs in mind. No expense was spared.”
“Yeah. See. Nicer’n I’d ever be able to afford.”
“Yes, but Dean. This house isn’t for me. It was made for Anna. And even she wasn’t comfortable here. I wonder, is this really the kind of house you’d want for yourself?”
Dean’s never really thought about that. Which is fucked up, maybe. The fact that he’s so genuinely stumped when someone asks what he wants for himself. And he can’t bring himself to think of the future, so he doesn’t even really dream about what he wants for himself. Instead, he sometimes gives himself a killer dose of what-could’ve-been nostalgia. He thinks of that apartment with the built-in bookshelves and the kooky psychic and the welcome mat. He’ll see a plaid couch on Craig’s List and he’ll think about how nice it would have looked against the wall under the window, completely out of nowhere. Cas kind of intrudes in these thoughts like the goofy neighbor in a sitcom. Just popping in at the edge of his visions to make him bacon or put his books on the shelf or draw up the blinds in the kitchen or—peck him on the cheek as he’s getting out of bed.
“I guess. When I first came in here, I guess I thought—nice house. New house. Pretty furniture. Comfy couches. Just seein’ nice houses like this one—it takes me places sometimes.” He shakes his head. “It’s stupid.”
Cas hums a question. “Takes you places?”
“I mean. You’ve seen my shithole house.”
“It’s a house, Dean. Your home.”
“Not anymore.” Dean reminds him like he needs reminding himself, too. “But the stupid thing is ancient. And ugly. It needs more in repairs’n it’s even worth anymore. So I see houses like yours and I think, like,” he blushes, though Cas probably can’t see in the firelight. “What it’d look like with a Christmas tree in the corner,” he waves a vague hand toward the nook by the fireplace, right in front of bookshelves in the walls. Watches the light pass over his bony hands. “What it would feel like to wake up here before school. Warm. Brown walls. Plants and. Y’know. Like if things had been different before.” Better. If things had been better.
Castiel hums again.
He thinks maybe he can feel it then, what Castiel means when he says his place is haunted, minus the ghosts. Cas’s house is bright and warm for Dean because he doesn’t have a history. Dean doesn’t feel pinned here like Cas does. Didn’t watch his sister die here. And it’s hard to believe, but maybe Dean’s dilapidated shitpile is just a house to Cas because he hasn’t been mired in it for his whole goddamn life.
They’ve got an easy, warm camaraderie here, in the quiet of the fireplace. Cas is right. They probably understand each other more than most, just by nature of the mutual invisible writing on both their walls. He thinks that maybe if Cas held his hand or sat next to him or kissed him right now, if he even wanted to, Dean would want that too. Dean wouldn’t have it in him to tell him to back off and give him space. He’d want to feel things with Cas that weren’t violent or painful or sad; he’d want to say that they’d shared something happy together. And nothing makes the acid in his gut boil more than that.
Cas remembers Dean’s four-week check-up for his arm. Dean doesn’t. He’s asleep when Cas knocks on the door—fully dressed in five or so layers and laying stiffly on the floor in front of a TV that must’ve gone to static half a night ago when it ran out of VHS. He’s got his violet up by his head, right in front of his face, like he thought that if he kept vigil over it in the night, it would stop losing its petals. But since he passed out last night in the middle of Star Wars, it’s lost even more green. Faded more to yellow.
He’ll use the fact that he was still most of the way asleep as an excuse for even getting into Cas’s car at all, for blindly trusting him because apparently that’s what he does with Cas now. It’s a good excuse, considering the circumstances. Dean finds it harder and harder to drag himself awake, takes longer and longer to nudge himself into productivity. Going where Cas propped him and tugged his arms was a lot easier than resisting. And Cas must’ve found him very easy to manipulate if the complete calm on his face as he was jerking him around was any indication.
Dean doesn’t even realize where they’re going until they’re halfway down the road and Cas says, “I think they’re going to have to re-cast it. After you were out in the rain it sort of—” he takes his fingers off the steering wheel long enough to waggle them like he’s about to do a magic trick. Dean understands now that he does this when he’s searching for a word. “Melted.”
Dean flicks his focus from the rise and fall of the powerlines behind Cas’s head to the sad state of his casted arm, trying to put the pieces together. The soft cotton under the hard pink fiberglass has lost its shape and all but fused with his skin. Something clicks.
“Wait. Are we going—?”
They are. Cas doesn’t answer him, but it’s only another few minutes of driving before they’re at a doctor’s office that’s attached to the hospital. When Dean grumbles about Cas even fucking knowing about the appointment, Cas points out, “I made the appointment, Dean. Do you even remember your doctor’s name?” He realizes he doesn’t. He looks out his own window.
The woman at the front desk gives him a double take when she takes his name. She’s probably thinking that they’re at the wrong kind of doctor for whatever brand of wacko’s going on in Dean’s head. When they take him back into the office proper and leave Cas reading a Better Homes and Gardens magazine with a very stolidly furrowed brow, the nurse gives Dean a double take, too. And then she gives the scale a double take when she weighs him, gives the color of his piss a double take when she accepts it, gives his cast a double take when she looks it over, and gives his shirts a double take when she hast to lift five of them up to get a good measure on his heartrate.
She has to go get a smaller blood pressure cuff to measure that, too, and as she’s pumping the hell out of her little bulb she says, “You get your cast wet, sugar?”
Dean nods while the blood pressure cuff takes its time sighing out all its air. The woman nods back.
“Probably shoulda come in as soon as you noticed.”
Dean shrugs. The Velcro cuff rips off loud enough that Dean flinches, and the nurse pats his arm in apology. When she leaves, he only waits about another fucking hour for the doctor, and he’d be complaining about what a giant waste of his time this is if the only thing waiting for him after weren’t his empty house. Instead, he focuses on trying to breathe steady through the clogged feeling he gets in his chest every time he gets a whiff of disinfectant. He recognizes it as the same hurt he felt in the hospital when he got his arm bandaged the first time, except now, there’s no shock feeling buzzing under his skin to make him feel like he’s looking at the whole situation through a paper towel tube. And there’s no Castiel. There’s just Dean cold-sweating through too many shirts and trying not to look at a tray of familiar medical equipment in the corner.
He startles himself wishing for Cas.
He remembers the doctor when he shows his face. The round, balding motherfucker with the shiny halo head who takes one look at the cast on Dean’s arm and whistles under his breath. They have to take off the cast because it’s utterly wrecked, useless at keeping anything intact anymore, and apparently not letting his skin breathe at all. Underneath the cast, Dean’s arm is lily white, rail thin, and irritated. A spidery red rash creeps from his hand to his elbow, and it doesn’t exactly smell powder-fucking-fresh. The doctor takes a long, hard assessment that involves too much jiggling and too many indelicate fingers right in the juncture of the break. And Dean wasn’t wrong, he can feel it for sure now—it’s not healing right. Or, rather—
“It’s not healing. At all, from what I can tell.” Dean nods absently. He hopes this means they’re going to give him more painkillers, because he ran out of hydrocodone a week ago. Maybe a nice Vicodin cocktail would do the trick. “I’d do another X-ray, but the state of your cast, your pain levels, and the instability of the break are telling me the whole story. We’ll re-cast it, and before you leave, I’d like to take some blood for tests.”
Dean shakes his head, grunts, “Just re-cast it.” Or don’t. It’ll heal on its own, right?
Does it really matter either way?
“You were malnourished when you were admitted to the hospital four weeks ago, and since then, you’ve lost—” the doctor flips through his chart, looking for a number. Dean doesn’t give him a chance.
“Just re-cast it.”
The doctor eyes him up and down like he’s a science experiment.
“I can’t send you out with nothing but a cast when the arm hasn’t healed at all after four weeks, kid. That’s a malpractice suit waiting to happen. We gotta answer some questions.”
Dean knows exactly which questions are coming next because he’s already heard them from three people too many, and there’s a sort of lightness in his chest when he realizes he doesn’t have to hear them from this asshole too. He hops off the table before the doctor can get the words out, his layers of shirts slipping easily over his arm. The feel of the shirts on his forearm is unfamiliar after so many weeks of nothing but a cast.
“Hold on, now.”
The doctor grabs for his shoulder just as he’s nearing the door, and Dean doesn’t hesitate in drawing his arm back, out, away, and straight into the wall on the side of the sturdy door frame. It sends a shock like a tuning fork straight through his unprotected fist, up his arm, through his shoulder and his neck and into his face to rattle at his teeth. Like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon where Jerry made the stupid cat stick his paw in the electrical socket. The doctor looks at him like he’s got a fuckin screw loose when Dean turns back, panting, nostrils flaring, eye blazing.
“I’ll sign whatever the hell you want me to sign. But I don’t need any fucking blood tests.”
There’s a finality in knowing that for sure. And a security in knowing, too. In knowing that when he looks at his life now as it currently stands, it doesn’t matter if this cast comes off in two weeks or six weeks or never because the future ahead of him is hazy. Indistinct. Like one of those mirages when you’re driving on a long straight road, the big puddles of water that evaporate before you ever reach them.
The doctor nods.
When all’s said and done and Dean’s thrown his temper tantrums, they just re-cast it. They slather on ointments and powders before they rewrap it, and then they roll on another casing, and even though they give him a choice on the color of the wrapping, he chooses pink again. It goes on bright and clean and unsullied, much brighter than the wrapping he’d been used to, imprinted into his eyelids even after he closes his eyes to breathe in deep and painful through his nose.
They leave him hanging a long time before they finish it, though. It takes a while for the fiberglass to set and solidify, but there’s no way it could need this much time. Dean’s one long eye-blink away from falling asleep on the paper-covered exam table by the time the nurse makes her way back in to get him. She’s avoiding eye contact and looking generally suspicious, and when he gets to the waiting room, Cas has a folder in his hands that looks even more suspicious than she did.
He does some insurance-less finagling with his bill that is, suspiciously enough, a lot easier and a lot cheaper than he thought it’d be, and the nurse keeps making eyes with Cas. He can’t stop thinking about the stupid folder in Cas’s hands all the way through setting up an embarrassing billing plan for the small amount that he has to pay. He hasn’t done any work for his data entry gig in at least a week now, and he’s already foreseeing the problems that’s going to give him with tired resignation. They haven’t bothered to check in with him though, because if he doesn’t ask for jobs they don’t give them to him, so he could be dead and they probably wouldn’t give a single shit. Plus sides of remote jobs, maybe. Truth be told, he’s not as worried about the lack of incoming funds as he probably should be.
“You got a new cast,” Cas says as they’re walking to his car again, arms cradling the folder close in his arms.
“How does it feel?”
Dean grunts again. Cas unlocks the car doors with his lock-button remote and they climb in, and Cas just sits there for a few minutes without starting the car, fiddling with the car keys.
“Do you want to go get something to eat before I take you home?”
Dean grunts again, sinks low into the seat, and crosses his arms. The broken one is sore from being fiddled with, and they didn’t even get him another fucking painkiller prescription. The whole day has been a giant goddamn waste so far.
“You’re angry with me,” Cas says, crestfallen. Dean’s heart sinks a little, immediately, completely without his consent. But he doesn’t exactly want to let on that making Cas upset tugs at his gut, because that’s something a man could take advantage of, so he just grunts again and resists looking in his direction. Cas nods, resigned, and sighs. “You’re about to be more angry with me.”
That’s not what Dean was expecting him to say. He looks over when Cas cracks open the folder he’s had in his lap and all kinds of papers start spilling out.
“They gave me some pamphlets for us to look at. Together. So you don’t get overwhelmed.” Dean’s scared at first, more than anything, because it makes him think of the caretaker pamphlets that the doctors gave him when his dad was dying. It’s nothing like that, though.
The pamphlet at the top of the pile says, Anorexia and You: A Nutritional Guide to Eating Disorder Recovery, and Dean’s heart starts going about a thousand fucking miles per hour.
“Huh-uh. Nope. We’re not doing this.” Dean tugs at the door handle. Cas keeps his hand poised on his lock-button remote.
“We are. Yes we are.” Dean taps the lock and tugs insistently at the door handle, but Cas locks the stupid thing before he can open it. “Dean,” Cas says, like he’s a little kid. Dean keeps up the pattern anyway, tapping the lock and going for the door handle, but Cas is on point and the stupid standoff would almost be funny if Dean very much didn’t want to be trapped here. He doesn’t want it to come to it, but he doesn’t think he’s above crawling out the window to get out of the goddamn car, either.
“I know I talked to you about Anna,” he says, louder over Dean’s harsh breathing. Dean batters his broken arm against the door lock over and over and over again, the electric schlock of Cas’s responding door-locking almost rhythmic in nature. “About how she should have been in the hospital before she died but I was too—inept—”
“Dude,” Dean says, taking a break in alternating his hands as a hook and a battering ram to hold one up in a clear no sign that any half-trained dog would recognize.
“No, it’s true. I didn’t see the signs, because I’m not good at—good at.” He trails off. “Because I am the way I am. Dean. You must understand why I can’t do that again,” he says firmly. “I refuse.” Dean’s hand drops from the door handle, and suddenly he’s miles away, weeks ago, watching his dad get sicker and sicker and sicker.
“We gonna have some big confrontation moment?” Dean says weakly, banging his new fiberglass on the window now. “Where you shove me in front of a mirror and force me to look at what I’ve become?”
Cas tilts his head, squinting. It’d be endearing if he wasn’t being such an asshat. Dean likes it when he does that. It makes him think of the first time they met. When Dean was outside himself and Cas looked like a bird.
“No. We’re going to talk about your anorexia nervosa. They gave me pamphlets,” he repeats firmly, shuffling through his papers one-handed, the other hand still poised on the lock. He holds up a pamphlet that says Confronting a Loved One with an Eating Disorder. “I am prepared.”
“Jesus,” Dean says, snatching it from him. Cas lets him. Dean cracks it open and figures jump off the page, immediately talking down at him. The first thing he sees how many women have got it compared to how many men do, and his whole face lights up bright red. “I don’t have fucking anorexia. Chrissakes. Sorry, I’m afraid you got prepared for nothing. Can you take me home now?”
Cas clears his throat, ignoring him. “I’ve suspected. For a long while. Though usually, according to my undergraduate studies, it presents in men more through excessive exercise. And while you do exercise regularly, it was hardly enough to raise any red flag initially. It seems your affliction has presented itself in a way that is more traditionally associated with females—”
Dean groans, sinks lower in his seat, and holds his hands over his eyes, rubbing at them until he sees white starbursts. “Stop talking. Stop talking.”
Cas doesn’t listen. He flips open another pamphlet with a papery whuff. Dean can’t see because he’s still got his eyes closed, but he can sense Cas holding it in front of his face, trying to get Dean to look. Dean squinches his eyes shut harder.
“They say that sometimes, this is an issue of control for the afflicted. That it can arise in times of high stress in a person’s life. And I know that the last few months before I met you must have been stressful, Dean. I know that.”
“Shut up and let me out.”
“It’s okay, um.” Cas says all stiff and stilted, like he rehearsed this shit in front of a mirror this morning but he still hasn’t quite got the hang of it. “To feel like you’re not in control sometimes. That’s fine.”
Dean peeks an eye open, looking through his fingers at where Cas has let his guard down and has both his hands and both his eyes on a pamphlet that’s spread open in his lap. From here, Dean can see all the stupid, smooth-talking sales language for a fancy rehab center two towns over. That is all the hell no he needs to propel him through the motions of unlocking and opening the door and stumbling face-first into the parking lot before Cas can even blink. He hits his nose on the way down on the cement curb surrounding a raised flowerbed, and he can feel it bleeding sluggishly into his mouth.
“Dean,” he hears Cas call after him. “If you don’t want to talk about it, we won’t now, but you have to stop this ridiculous avoidance.”
A nurse from inside the doctor’s office is smoking a cigarette outside, and she gives Dean a curious once-over. Dean flushes, nods back at her as casual as he can with his good hand under his nostrils to catch the steady stream of blood, and takes off down the road at a slow jog. The adrenaline isn’t quite enough to push him into a run. He hurts all over. Even his bones feel fatigued. His fight or flight instinct pushed him straight into flight mode this time, probably because it knew he couldn’t fucking well handle another incident like he’d had in Bargain Heaven. His back is still absolutely painted with bruises that have barely even faded to yellow.
Christ. He’s a goddamn mess.
And then Cas is pulling up alongside him in an even, steady trot, paper pamphlets balled up in one fist. He’s outpacing Dean like he always fucking manages to.
“Come back to the car,” he says steadily. Dean ignores him and crosses the street outside the entrance to the doctor’s office. That’s a mistake, because Cas just follows him, and Dean has nothing but open road on one side and a chain link fence on the other for at least the next few hundred feet, so it isn’t like there’s anywhere he can go to escape.
“You always run home. Why?” Cas asks lightly, like that isn’t the million-dollar, thousand-pound question hanging between Dean and the entire rest of the fucking world. Like his stupid fucking house isn’t the center of Dean’s whole gravitational universe.
Dean picks up a burst of speed that nearly sends him sprawling. His feet barely want to leave the ground. Dean wills his body to fucking listen to him. It’s pretty much the only thing that’s never let him down before. Listen listen listen.
“Dean,” Cas insists. “Dean. We’ve done this before. You have to know by now that I’m always going to beat you in a footrace.”
“Shut up,” Dean rasps. Cas isn’t even jogging anymore to keep up with Dean’s pace. He’s dropped down to a fast walk.
“I don’t think you’ve won once yet.”
“And you’re really only making it harder for yourself as time goes on. If you ever plan to beat me, you’re probably going to have to eat something every once in a while.” Dean stumbles, linking his fingers in the fence to keep himself upright and putting his casted hand underneath his nose to catch the blood instead. Cas stands there. He doesn’t make an effort to touch Dean or help him stand up straight, because that’s never been Cas’s jam. “You’re probably anemic. You’re so vitamin deficient that I’m surprised your whole body hasn’t staged some kind of massive revolt. Tip your head back and pinch the bridge of your nose.”
Dean tips his head back and pinches the bridge his nose. Sullenly. He tastes copper in the back of his throat and it makes him gag.
“Christ, Cas,” he says. It comes out sounding nasally. “Give a guy a break.”
“Anorexia is not a woman’s disease,” Cas says firmly. “I want you to understand that.”
A car driving down the stretch of road beside them pulls up to the curb and asks them if they need any help.
Cas calls, “My friend is coming to terms with his eating disorder.”
The guy in the driver’s seat looks like he has no idea what to do with Cas or that information, and he doesn’t even roll up his window before driving away.
“Jesus,” Dean mumbles to himself, rolling his eyes. “I don’t have a fucking eating disorder.”
“Come back to the car. We’ll talk about it.”
Dean stays hooked into the chain link fence, heaving at the edge of every breath while his throat floods with blood. When Cas hears the first heave, he tentatively pats Dean’s back. It’s ridiculously fucking awkward, like about ninety percent of what Cas does.
“Don’t touch me,” he bites. Cas backs off. Dean immediately regrets it.
“Stay right here,” Cas whispers. “I’m going to go and get the car.”
He does, hoofing it back to his car and circling around to pick up Dean. He herds him into the passenger seat, and Dean has no choice but to go with him, because what else is he going to do? Call Bobby? Yeah, right. Bobby would probably ask him if he wants good old Kate Milligan to come over and nurse him back to health. He could maybe get home under his own power by tomorrow if he took a couple naps along the highway on his way.
Cas takes his sweet-ass time getting Dean home, and Dean’s not sure what the game is there. He keeps asking him if he wants something to eat, slowing at the entrance to every restaurant they pass, which seems like a dumbass idea, because he just tried to confront Dean about an eating disorder, so Dean’s not sure what makes him think that’s going to go right for him. When he asks Dean if he’d like to turn around and go see a movie when they’re about two minutes away from Dean’s house after going about twenty-five all the way there, Dean’s had enough.
“What the fuck is your deal, man? I’m tired. I’m pissed. I wanna go home.” The moment the words come out, his stupid house comes into view, and it becomes clear real fast why Cas was being so fucking weaselly. There are cars everywhere on Dean’s lot. Behind the shrouded form of the plastic-covered Impala, in front of the burned pile of his dad’s shit, pulled on top of a flowerbed full of free-growing bindweed, in front of the overgrown lilac bush by the side of the road. The foreclosure sign that Dean’s gotten used to over the last couple of weeks has a brightly colored addition to it with four balloons strung up on top. It says, “Open House!”
Dean’s going to be sick. He’s going to find some well-hidden pouch in his stomach that’s still got food in it, and he’s going to be sick.
“You knew this was today.” Cas searches helplessly for a spot before he has to settle for parking on the side of the road opposite Dean’s house. He turns off the ignition. The car ticks quietly as it settles and cools.
“Someone has to pay attention to your life, Dean, because you certainly aren’t.” That’s about as close to snark as he’s ever heard from Cas, and Dean might be proud he’d dredged up some almost-sarcasm if it weren’t for the fact that Dean’s not feeling much of anything. From where they’re sitting, he can see some chubby guy with half a head of hair and a striped green shirt kicking at the hose caddy attached to the wall right underneath Dean’s window. He’s about two feet away from taking a spill into the window well lined with river rock that leads down into the basement. Dean wills the fall with all the strength he has left in him. “The auction is at the end of the week at the courthouse. Four weeks. You read the same notice as me. You read it with me.”
Dean’s brain feels like a fucking sieve lately, and at least some of that is pretty adamant selective memory on his part. Even though his house is foreclosing and even though he’s been going through the motions of acting like he’s clearing it out, there was literally never any point where he felt like he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life in this fetid shitpile.
“We don’t have to go in,” Castiel points out. “We can go to my house. Sit in my greenhouse.”
“‘We’ don’t have to do shit,” Dean says. “But I have to go inside.”
Dean gets out of the car and of course Cas follows him. They squeeze between two near-identical silver minivans to climb up the front porch, where there’s an old couple contemplating Dean’s creaky porch swing.
Dean pretends not to see them. He looks straight ahead.
The front door is already open, welcoming everyone in and airing the place out, and it smells unfamiliar. Dean could have sworn he’d locked it, but they must’ve had a key or called someone to bust it open, and now it looks downright welcoming. There’s a big plate full of flat, store-bought chocolate chip cookies on the counter. The blankets that he slept with last night are gone, and the TV has been pushed up against the far wall. The floor is vacuumed. Someone did some kind of cursory clean-up of the place. Someone that didn’t have permission had their mitts all over his shit.
Not that they need permission. This house isn’t his anymore, he reminds himself for the hundredth time. Surveying the items, he can see there’s one thing missing from the collection of junk that’s been getting him through the days.
“My dad’s ashes,” he says, clearing his throat around the quick breathing that he doesn’t want picking up anymore that it already has. “The box with my dad’s ashes. From the hospital.” He looks behind the TV like it’s going to hide anything. All around the floor. “And my violet.”
Cas says, “Don’t panic,” and Dean realizes yeah, he’s panicking. He does his best to blink away the familiar black bubbles that’ve been popping into his vision lately. He shakes his head and tells himself he’s not dizzy. “Someone cleaned up in here. They’ll know where it is. We just need to look for someone holding a clipboard.” Dean nods. It’s not like there’s much ground to cover.
They double back. In the kitchen, there’s just a middle-aged woman checking the water pressure at the sink. She opens up the cabinets underneath while Dean’s standing there, and Dean gets a flashback to his Dad, drunk, underneath the pipes in the kitchen and pulling out the u-bend because he dropped his wedding ring down the drain a-fucking-gain while he was cleaning up his latest cooking disaster. Dean swears, only his dad could be simultaneously so scary and so fucking pathetic as he was in those moments. Dean can see the snot in his mustache even now, watching this fucking housewife nose around his plumbing.
She nods at Dean when she sees him and says, “You can never be too careful with the pipes in these old houses. These don’t look too well maintained. Should drive the price down. That and the shoddy patch job over the stove.” Dean stares, blank, and turns away. He thought he did a pretty good job patching up the stove, all things considered. Fuck this lady.
Castiel grabs two cookies off the display platter and offers one to Dean as Dean opens the narrow door in the kitchen that leads outside. Dean pointedly ignores him. He tugs at where his pants are falling off his hips, even with his belt tightened to the last loop.
There’s a young couple strapped to a baby in the backyard. They’re surveying the dead lawn, looking out at the acres of dusty farmland that stretch on forever. The fields aren’t Dean’s, none of the property is. It belongs to a farmer who plants hay when he feels like it, “Just to be vindictive,” his dad always said. But he got the feeling Dad never really minded his hay fever during baling season because it just gave him an excuse to disappear on them. Dean never much minded the fields either. Once or twice a year, he got to sit on the rope swing on the dead tree out there and watch them go up in a smoky, controlled burn. Sammy never much liked that, though.
Dean can see them pantomiming putting up a fence. For the baby, he’s sure. No one wants their kid running off and disappearing into farmer whoever’s field, though his dad never seemed to care either way. Dean got lucky—Sammy hated to play in the hay. Dean would have lost his mind a hundred times over if he’d thought his little brother was interested in those fields growing up. Sometimes he’d lose track of Sam and he’d have visions of Sam’s little boy body getting caught up in a thresher or a tractor wheel, but he would always find Sam somewhere obvious—his room, the living room, Dean’s room—with his nose stuck in a book. Too fucking focused to answer Dean’s calls.
“I’ve never been out here,” Cas says, looking out into the distance, beyond the couple with the baby, and munching on a cookie. Dean looks at his face and tries to follow his line of sight, trying to decide where he’s looking. “It’s quite peaceful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Dean snorts. “Real peaceful.”
He maneuvers around Cas, back up the narrow staircase, back into the house. The lady has moved on to knocking on the wall by the window, whatever the fuck that’s going to do, and the old couple that was inspecting the porch swing has moved on to standing idly in the middle of the living room and talking too loud about the dusty cobwebs all strung up in the corners. Dean wants to believe that this accounts for everyone and no one is in his room or Dad’s room or Sammy’s room or, god forbid, the basement, because he’s one fucking second away from losing his goddamn mind. But the car count from out front doesn’t quite add up. There are people back there.
No one ever really came to the house when Dad was alive. In afterschool specials, there were always those kids who wore ratty clothes and moped on swing sets and acted all cagey about people coming home with them, and Dean had always been self-aware enough to know those kids were them. Sam never quite got the memo. He bitched and cried because Dean wouldn’t let people into their dirty-ass house to get a gander of their dad’s extensive collection of dusty liquor bottles. Most he ever got was moms in minivans picking him up at the edge of their property. Last thing they fucking needed was anybody noticing just how often their dad wasn’t around and calling someone, anyway. Cas is just about the only person besides Bobby and Ellen to be in the house in years and years and years, and that was enough of a shock without this herd of assholes literally evaluating every corner of his home.
“You’re panicking,” Cas says around his last mouthful of cookie, right near his ear.
“Fuck off,” Dean says weakly. He’s panicking. He lets his broken hand come up to cup his chest, right over his heart. It’s a reflex, because he feels like it’s about to beat right out of his fucking chest, but he knows he looks like a goddamn damsel in distress.
Someone pops out of his room looking busy just as Dean’s wilting like a flower in the living area, and it turns out, they don’t have to find the woman who’s running the show because she’s just found them all by herself. She’s doing a very good job of making herself look busy and hassled. In her hands, she’s got what Dean recognizes as an armful of his skin mags—and not the ones from under his bed. Not the respectable ones with tits all over the covers. These are the ones from the back of his closet. He knows where they’ve been, and seeing them out in the light of day in the hands of some park-bench real-estate type comes about as close to torture he can imagine. But she must be who they’re looking for—Cas was right about the clipboard after all. And Dean really should have guessed about the smart bun and the perfectly coordinated pants suit.
She smiles at them.
“Don’t mind the mess.” She lifts her hands to indicate the magazines. “Just making a run to the trash. Can I answer any questions for you boys?”
“Yes,” Cas says, right out. “Where are John Winchester’s ashes?” He squints.
Dean mutters, “Jesus,” under his breath just as the woman tilts her head and says, “Excuse me?”
“John Winchester’s ashes,” Cas says, looking unabashedly at the issue of Men at the very top of Dean’s shame pile. Gay porn mags are ten times more embarrassing than straight ones. He’s never been sure what fantasies generic male porn stars were catering to, but he’d never known a fucking soul that thought the weird, stacked, doughy triangle look was the pinnacle of masculine beauty. He wanted to scream that fifteen-year-old Dean had been desperate, able to get off to anything and anyone, and without regular internet access outside the library downtown. Dean has lots of fantasies about hanging out with Cas when he was younger, but if he’s real honest with himself, he wouldn’t have even known what to do with someone as beautiful as Cas when he was a teenager. He would have been jerking it twenty-four/seven.
“I’m—sorry?” says the lady.
“They were in a small cardboard box,” Cas continues, indicating the size of the box with a few vague gesture of his flattened palms.
“Apologies, but who are you?” She shifts her weight, slings the porn mags closer to her chest. The one underneath the top of the stack comes into view with some pretty explicit message about hard, hunky, hulky bods.
“Dean is the owner of this home.” Cas points back at him over his shoulder. Dean thinks he might try to sink into the ground. She blinks vacantly, looks over Cas’s shoulder at Dean, and looks back down at the haul in her arms.
“This house doesn’t have an owner,” she says real slow, talking him like he’s an idiot. Just like every-fucking-body else he’s talked to today. “This house belongs to the bank.”
Dean draws in a hard breath and looks down at the ground. But Cas read all the paperwork Dean didn’t bother to, and he comes back at that one with some serious sass.
“According to all the notices, Dean is entitled to this property and all of his belongings until the house sells.” Castiel makes his point by snatching the stack of magazines out of the woman’s hands and foisting them into Dean so hard all the air in his chest leaves him. It’s a reflex to put up a hand to hold them just to keep them from dropping onto the ground. He sags under the not insubstantial weight of his misspent youth. It’s a lot heavier in his arms than it looked in hers. “Which means that if you did something with his father’s ashes, it could be a criminal offense.”
Okay, that doesn’t sound real. House-selling lady doesn’t seem to think so either.
“The house is scheduled to go to auction this Friday,” she says.
Cas says, “It’s Monday.” Dean casts around for somewhere to set the stupid magazines, but there are basically no surfaces left in his house. Most everything he owns is in the garbage or on the floor.
“Generally, people don’t linger past the open house,” she says, placating. She’s trying to be patient, but it’s pretty clear she’s done with Dean’s shit. “We’d given up on Mr. Winchester removing everything from the premises, but we assumed he’d at least had the good sense to vacate them.”
“Well what were you planning on doing with all my stuff, huh?” Dean pipes up. She looks between them with narrowed eyes. They’re starting to catch the attention of some of the other open-house guests. Just a motley duo with an armful of smut. Nothing to fucking see here.
“We always hire someone to do cleaning prior to the sale, and in the meantime I was getting rid of some of it myself.” She wrings her hands. “We thought you’d vacated the premises. You understand.” She gives Dean a tentative once-over. “I—can I get you boys something to eat?”
Cas ignores her. “That means. What. For the box in the living room?” he says dangerously.
She gestures helplessly at the front door. “Anything you don’t see here is probably in the trash can outside. That’s where I was headed with this load.”
Dean’s whole world narrows to a single point just over the bank woman’s shoulder. His breathing quickens. His arms give out. He’s vaguely aware of gay porn spreading all over the living room floor in front of about twenty or so enamored open-house guests. And then he’s walking back outside on feet he can’t feel, down the porch steps, up the driveway to the big trashcan that sits on the edge of the road and hasn’t been picked up by actual garbage men in about three months because he stopped paying the collector fee.
Cas is behind him. Of course Cas is behind him. And Cas has to open the lid to the trash can for him because Dean’s hands are shaking so bad just thinking about the fucking bank lady dumping a pile of his gay porn mags on top of his dad’s ashes that he can’t get a good hold. It’s Cas that moves the blankets that Dean was using last night off the very top of the pile, but it’s Dean that sees the box first, because it’s fucking hard to miss, even tipped upside-down as it is. He’s been staring at it just about every day for months.
“Jesus,” he says, shaky. “Jesus.”
The ashes in the box had been lined with what he can only describe as a Ziploc bag, fucking disturbing as that sounds, but it apparently hadn’t been shut totally securely, so when he reaches down into the garbage can to pull it out, grabbing onto the box with twitchy fingers and hefting it upward, a fine trail of dark gray ash follows it. Cas immediately cups his hands under it, but it still leaks out between his fingers, and it’s like watching a fucking horror show, in slow motion, right in front of his face.
“Jesus,” he says, because the box is a wet on the side, and there’s a film of ash and something else sticking to it. When he looks down into the trashcan, there’s a little pile of ashes sitting on top of another trashed box underneath it. Some of it has trickled down to the bottom, too—is still trickling down now, like sand in an hourglass. He can hear the hushed rushing noise of it cascading downward. And who even knows how much he lost down there? The box is definitely lighter. When he’d first gotten his dad’s remains, he hadn’t really expected how much there was going to be of him, just how much substance there really is to a person, even after you break them down. He tries to gauge how much mass he’s lost after he tips the box right-side-up and leans down to set it gently on the ground. He has no good goddamn clue.
He leans down into the garbage can again to go after the lid, and when he lifts it carefully from where it’s settled next to the ash pile, he sees his violet tipped on its side underneath. He never would’ve thought that would be the breaking point where he tipped straight into incomprehensible panic, but he realizes about ten seconds into grasping sightlessly at the side of the garbage can that the nightmarish whining noise is coming out of his own mouth.
Cas is shushing him in his obtuse Cas-y way, but the same Cas-y heart isn’t quite there. Cas has dusty fragments of his dad in his hands that he clearly doesn’t want to have there, and he’s probably tipping toward a panicky edge he doesn’t really want to hit either, which just makes Dean want to panic harder.
Nevertheless, Cas has the presence of mind to tip all the ash gently into one hand, and with the other, he reaches in to pick up the terracotta pot and nudge Dean’s hand until Dean opens it up and lets the pot be deposited in it. The plant trails a couple yellow leaves behind when he lifts it, drops some dirt on top of the ash pile, and looks a lot worse for wear than it did when it went in there. Which almost hits Dean harder than seeing his dad’s remains in a garbage bin in the first place.
It’s still clinging to life, though.
After he takes care of Dean’s problem, Cas kneels down and dusts his hands into the open ash box carefully. Then he backs away, takes a huffy and weird sort of breath, and starts flapping his hands at his sides, like some kind of weird bird. He doesn’t take his eyes off Dean.
Dean takes great care in setting his plant beside the open box of ashes, doesn’t want to traumatize the poor guy further, but then he’s got his hands free to start—scraping the ashes from the garbage into his hand. So he does, using the box’s lid as a grotesque makeshift dustpan, because there’s nothing else to do and he can’t exactly leave pieces of his dad at the bottom of a garbage bin. He dumps the first load of soiled ashes, now laced with whatever sticky liquid some asshole dumped on top of them and pieces of soil from his violet, back into the box. He goes in again, fully intending to dive into the bottom of the heap if he has to, again and again and again, because you don’t just leave your dad in the garbage for chrissakes, you just don’t.
As Dean continues his quest for buried fucking treasure, he’s aware, peripherally, of the trying-to-be-inconspicuous crowd, the couples and the housewives and old folks that are all ogling the extra-lean pot of crazy that’s rooting around for human remains in his trash bin. He can half see Cas doing crowd control, too, which probably amounts to him shouting off well-meaning folks. But all that’s secondary as he digs deeper and deeper down, sweating and panting and in pain—from his arm, from where he’s spent so long bent double at the waist with the lip of the garbage can digging right his ribs, and from a pounding that’s taken up near fulltime residence in his brain anyway.
The people come and go, but Cas remains, conspicuously unhelpful, pacing in circles and nodding his head to a rhythm Dean can’t hear.
He’s not sure how long has passed, how many loads of ash he’s been in and out of the garbage with, when Cas says, “Dean. Enough is enough.” High, shrill. Uncharacteristically out-of-whack.
Dean grunts. It’s weirdly hollow and thick bouncing back at him in the plastic.
“Dean,” Cas says again, sharper.
Dean pops up with a half-full box lid in one hand. He’s not sure what his face is doing, but Cas doesn’t look happy at all.
“It’s time to stop now,” he says, firm.
“Maybe it’s time for you to stop,” Dean grumbles back, goes for another dive into the trash can to continue his business.
“I know that this is important to you. I understand why. But you’re just hurting yourself.”
“You don’t understand shit,” Dean shouts with his head in the can still, and he can tell himself he’s completely unrepentant all he wants, but he can’t deny that he feels the back of his neck and the tops of his ears burning in shame.
“Don’t yell at me right now. I’m trying to help you.”
Dean pops his head out of the trash can again. “Well I didn’t fucking ask you to. I didn’t ask for the escort to the doctor. I didn’t ask for the diagnosis. And I definitely didn’t ask you to hover behind me like a dead fucking fish while I dove for one of the only important things I have left in the world in a trash heap!”
Cas’s nostrils flare. He looks a little pissed, a little constipated. A lot frantic. He can’t stop the movement, and Dean can tell those are his sensory issues acting up. He’d had enough the moment they opened the garbage can. Dean saw it then. But that’s not Dean’s goddamn problem. Dean’s problem is sifting through the wreckage of his wrecked life, so he can try and get it together for two fucking minutes. He can’t even keep that shit steady.
“Don’t yell at me right now,” he repeats, putting his foot down on the hard-packed ground. “I won’t tolerate it.”
“You can leave anytime!” Dean says, and god, that’s the last thing he means, because just saying the word leave already makes him want to curl up and cry.
“I cannot. I need to talk to you about what we discussed outside your doctor’s office.” And oh. Back to this shit again. “I need to. I can’t leave here knowing you’re just going to be destroying yourself in my absence.”
“Ohh, do you? Well thank god. I dunno what I’d do if you weren’t here to save my sorry ass.”
“It isn’t about that, Dean. You’re—”
“No? This isn’t you saving me, Cas? That isn’t what you’re after?” He makes a grand gesture at the garbage can, and he knows he must look like absolute shit. “Because if that’s the case—bravo. You’ve done it. I’m about as far from rescued as anyone can be.”
“Stop. Yelling.” He starts tugging at his hair. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I want to help. That’s all.”
“I don’t need it.”
“You do. You need me.”
“Listen Cas, I know what you think,” he builds steam as he powers through it, all but screaming by the end of it despite the distress that’s written all over Cas’s face and warning him not to, “but I’m not your fucking sister, and this little crusade to bring me back from whatever jaws of doom you think are snapping at my heels won’t make her any less fucking dead!”
There’s a visible break in Cas’s composure before he starts running, a look of pure, hot hurt written all over his face before he takes off down the road alone. Dean watches his back as he shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, running full-tilt in a button-down sweater and blue jeans. Dean doesn’t have a chance of catching up. He never did. Cas has always been too fast for him.
A small part of Dean breaks too, he’s almost sure, as he sinks down the side of the trash can to watch him disappear from a solid, grounded vantage point, right next to his violet and his dad’s soggy ashes. But another part of him, a louder part of him, just thinks finally. A tangible snap of tension in his chest and a wash of pure relief that the torturous waiting for Cas to leave him is finally over. It makes sense that he needed a shove in the right direction first, but he’s gone now, and Dean can get on with the business of the rest of his life like it was intended to be from the very start.
He sweeps the last of his dad’s ashes into the box and replaces the lid. Pats it like he’s tucking it in to sleep. And then he picks up his violet, settles it soundly between his knees, and goes about his business of waiting for the open house visitors to leave him, too.
Dean’s sitting on the floor with his violet when Sam calls him. He’s in the middle of the doorway to his dad’s en suite bathroom, legs sprawled open bonelessly around the door’s frame, half on the linoleum and half on the carpet. He’s been fingering the height chart carved into the old wood for probably a little over a half an hour. He does this more and more now, sits down and doesn’t get up for a while. Especially now that he’s chased Cas off and can really do some serious, quality moping all by his lonesome.
He relied a lot on momentum to keep himself going even back when he was eating more, but the momentum is getting harder and harder to find. So he’ll get down on his knees to clean a spot on the carpet, and then he won’t get up for the next hour. It gives him a lot of time to think, and contemplate the coarse texture of the old carpet, and wonder when he even last mopped the linoleum in the kitchen. His house seems to like the inactivity, embracing him with creaky groans of the floorboards, sometimes deigning to cast shafts of sunlight in his direction. It’s the most he can ask from it, really. It’s been shit at accommodating him otherwise.
He forgot the height chart even existed. He’s not sure how. It’s not like he never passed by it, especially in the last few months—with his dad sick as he was, he was in and out and in and out of the bathroom constantly for one reason or another.
His dad was the first one to line the boys up there, when Dean was just five and Sam was too little to even stand on his own to be measured properly. Sam’s first mark is just about a foot above the ground, where his head was when he was crawling, and Dean can remember the day they made the mark with a startling amount of lucidity—sharp and clear, compared to how everything else looks right now. He remembers the way baby Sammy smelled, fresh and clean right out of the bath. He remembers the way he got squirmy when Dean held him up against the doorframe too long, his little baby giggles as he resisted Dean’s hands. He remembers his dad’s heavy hand on his head as he ticked Dean’s height off on the wall, too.
Breathing takes a lot of effort—almost more than it’s worth when he gets into stupid, unproductive funks like this. When he gets stuck stroking his baby brother’s initials and trying not to feel like dog shit that his dad tracked onto his bedroom carpet.
Almost every mark after that very first one had been just the two brothers measuring each other, “S.W.” and “D.W.” in clumsy, uneven handwriting, so he strokes the first one, trying to absorb some little piece of his whole family through his rough, needley fingertips. He’s lucky he has his cell phone in his pocket, because when it rings, it’s all the energy he can muster to fish it out between two fingertips and breathe a, “Hello?” down the line without bothering to check the screen first.
There’s a long pause, like the person on the other end of the line hadn’t expected him to answer, but eventually he hears his baby brother clear as a fucking bell. His fingers twitch on the initials under his hand.
“Dean?” It’s a question. “Is that you?”
“Who else would it be?” he drawls. “You called my cell.”
“I don’t—you sound exhausted.”
Christ. Talk about transparent. A couple words into their first conversation in weeks and Sam’s already reading him like one of his stupid law books.
“Didn’t get much sleep last night.” That’s not true. Dean sleeps alright, usually. When he can manage to get to sleep and not have nightmares, he sleeps like the already dead—long and hard and way too often. But the tired has settled deep in his bones, and he’s finding it harder and harder to shake, so Dean’s not technically lying. Probably. “How are you doin’, Sammy?”
He starts to notice more beyond Sam’s voice. Dean’s got a little bit of Labrador in him, swear to god, because something inside him perks up and starts wagging its tail, just hearing Sam say his name. Like he hadn’t spent the last month of his life trying to be mad at the little fucker. But now that the stupid dog inside his brain is calming down a little bit, Dean can hear that Sam is probably in a car. In the background, there’s that familiar drone of ongoing traffic and the occasional horn-blare from a passing truck.
“I hope you’re not driving while you’re on your cell phone. Isn’t that shit illegal in California?”
Sam lets out one of his big, explosive sighs—the kind that makes it sound like he’s forcing all the air in his body out through his nose at once. “I’m pulled, over, okay? I’m at a rest stop,” he says. His voice spikes. He sounds about fucking five. “Jesus, Dean, are you screwing with me right now? Are you really asking me that? Why didn’t you tell me any of the stuff that’s going on with you, huh?”
“Nothing’s going on with me. Same old, same old here.” Not a lie either. Dean’s used to getting dicked over.
“Bullshit,” he barks it loud enough that Dean jerks back against the doorframe, his stomach muscles cramping with the sudden movement. Maybe he wasn’t moving for longer than he thought. “Bobby told me you’re doing bad. Said you look awful.”
“Well gosh, Bobby always was a sweet talker.”
“He said you broke your arm.” Dean looks down at his stupid pink cast.
“Yeah. Gettin’ it fixed up. Doctor said it’s healin’ fine. No big,” Dean lies smoothly.
“He said you lost a lot of weight.” Who gives a shit. Christ. A couple missed meals and suddenly everyone’s throwing around the word anorexia and reading him the riot act. Dean finally takes his hand off Sam’s initials on the wall to run it over his eyes. The cast is rough, bumping up against his cheekbones like it’s going to bruise. His skin feels papery and thin, his hair bristly and sparse. At least he hasn’t had to shave his face much. His beard’s been growing in spotty and weak and gingery lately. He’s barely had to think of it at all.
“So? Like, not a little weight. He says you seem sick. Are you sick?”
“That’s not a question, Dean.”
“No,” he growls.
“You’re lying to me.” He says it all accusatory, like Dean’s insulted him personally in doing so.
“I’m fucking not, Sam. I’m fine.”
“Bobby also sent me a copy of the will, you know.” That shuts him up. Dean and Sam sit in silence on opposite sides of the world. Sam’s room is empty, behind him and across the hall, but at least it matches the rest of the house now.
When Dean doesn’t answer, Sam says, real quiet, “Why didn’t you tell me you were losing the house?”
Dean’s shrugged before he realizes that Sam can’t seem him, and Christ, what a massive waste of energy that was. “Didn’t seem real important. Y’know. In the scheme of things.”
Sam talking to Dean about Dean and all Dean’s stupid problems makes him think that maybe Sam’s forgotten that their dad is dead. His gritty, sticky ashes are still in a box in the living room. He should get an urn or something, maybe, if only to prevent something else hideously disastrous from happening. But that’s another big, fat what’s-the-point thought in the back of his brain.
He remembers his violet, by his hip, and absently strokes a little leaf, crispy and yellow and not so soft anymore.
“I wish you had been the one to tell me we had a little brother,” Sam says. “I wish I didn’t have to hear it from a piece of paper.”
“Like I wanted to give you the ammunition, Sam.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I didn’t want to be the one to give you another reason to hate Dad more than you already do. He’s dead. He just died. I just wanna—let it be, for chrissakes.”
Dean’s butt hurts. It’s all bones, the linoleum is hard and there’s nothing to this carpet anymore. He lets go of his plant to shift a little bit, taking pressure off one side, then the other.
“Dean,” he says, and his Sam-compassion is back in his voice, that weird, deceptive softness he gets when he feels like Dean is delicate. “I don’t hate Dad. You know that, right?”
Dean doesn’t answer. He switches the hand holding the phone against his ear to his broken one, because his arm is starting to get fucking tired. It’s shaking a little from the strain when he lets it drop to his lap.
“I loved Dad. I did.”
“Coulda fooled me.”
“No, I’m serious. Actually, if I’m being honest, I mean not that it really matters with the foreclosure, but—I think he—I think he made the right decision giving the house away.”
Dean’s as close to interested by that as he gets nowadays, a tickle at the back of his brain that might’ve given rise to a raised fist in the past. A shout. Something.
“The hell are you talking about?” he says, flat.
He can hear Sam getting himself worked up. That thing he does with frenetic movement, hands through his hair, fingers waggling, big arms waving. So much energy. He looks so different now. Dean’s seen pictures of him online. Sam sends digital photos of him and Jess, him and his new puppy. His hair just keeps getting longer. He’s sprouted like five inches since he left home. Guy must go to the gym for about five hours a day. But every time Dean thinks maybe he might not know his little brother anymore, he does something like this. Something he’s been doing since he was tiny. There’s a swell of fondness in his throat like nausea.
“I mean—you’ve been in that house your whole life. You’ve never left. You’ve never—Dean, you barely go on vacations. Barely leave the city, much less the state.”
“So?” He wonders if Sam’s getting as tired of the word as he is.
“You came home early from a ski trip in high school because you were afraid Dad wasn’t feeding me.”
“Well. He wasn’t.”
“That’s not the point! I didn’t die because you were enjoying yourself away from home for two days!”
Dean hadn’t enjoyed himself. He hitched an early ride home because he’d been so fucking anxious that he puked the whole second day of the trip. He’d busted his ass to get home and found Dad gone on another week-long bender and Sammy making himself ramen on the stove, bitching at Dean for never trusting him to do anything.
“Not sure what you’re gettin’ at here.” They’re funny words for Sam to use, because Sam didn’t die just because Dean left, but Dad did. And who’s to say that if he’d just stayed gone for the whole weekend, Sam wouldn’t have fallen asleep with ramen on the stove and burned the whole place down?
“Don’t be obtuse. It’s not exactly a tough concept. I’m saying that you get to have a life of your own, man,” he sighs again, less explosive. “I know it’s—different for me. Because you had to become a lot of things to a lot of people that I never had to be. But I’m saying that this is your chance to get away from all that.” He sniffs. Dean can hear a big truck blaze by too close, a long, drawn-out blaring of a horn that makes Dean flinch.
“Why would I want to get away?” Dean says, knocking one foot against the door frame. It sends painful feedback up his foot like he just straight-up knocked his bones with a tuning fork. “This is home.”
“Christ, Dean. Listen to yourself. You sound—I don’t know—brainwashed. Like you’re in one of those weirdo cults that no one ever wants to leave.”
“Listen, man, I know you never put much stock in ‘home’ or ‘family’—” He scare quotes that, because it might as well be straight from Dad’s mouth, but he keeps the scare quotes around his leg, little twitches of his shaky fingers at his knees because lifting that hand up again after holding the phone for so long sounds like torture.
“Oh, don’t give me that. You’re trapped, dude. You do understand that, right?” The condescension sends shivers down his spine, waves of discomfort that make it feel like all his bones are gritting together like teeth. “You’re trapping yourself.”
“S’not exactly a trap if there’s nowhere else I wanna go.”
“Don’t be stupid. You can go anywhere you want. Do anything you want. You have to know that. Anything.”
Dean snorts out a laugh.
“Don’t laugh. I’m serious.”
“Have you seen me lately?” Dad’s closet doors are made of big mirror slats, so if Dean decided he had the energy to scoot to the middle of the room, he could see himself. He doesn’t. He tries to avoid that, mostly, because he looks different every single time he looks nowadays. Like a marble statue being formed, or something. Chipping away more pieces of himself. Except when he looked this morning, just on accident, it kind of looked like someone had taken the carving a step too far. Nonetheless, it doesn’t take Dean long to realize that no, he hadn’t seen him lately, so he amends, “Or talked to me ever? I’d say it’s not fucking likely, Sam.”
No one was exactly cruising the market looking for someone like him. He’d be lucky if Bobby wanted to take him back after the shit he put him through.
“Well, why not?” Sam says. Dean snorts again. It riles Sam up, just like it always has. Sam hates to be dismissed. Hates to not be taken seriously. “You’re smart. You could—go to school. Move. You didn’t have to waste all those years in that fucking—cesspit—”
Sam keeps going, but Dean gets stuck on waste, breathes out the word like he’s been punched in the gut. “Waste.”
Sam backtracks in a series of strangled noises, like Dean is the most infuriating thing that’s ever happened to him. “I don’t mean waste-waste.”
“Dad was dying, Sam. Is there something about that you’re not understanding? I wasn’t just here sitting around and jacking off and watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver. Our dad was dying—”
“He was. He was dying. He’s not anymore. Have you stopped to think that taking away the house is—it’s him repaying you for what you did for him? It’s him doing you a favor.”
“Christ, Sam.” But Sam gets even bolder.
“Dad dying is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Now you can get on with your life!”
Dean sucks in a breath that he forgets to breathe back out.
Sam says that like it’s easy, and Dean can hear in his tone how much he really means it, too, and he knows clearer than ever before that there’s a pretty fundamental disconnect in the way Sam’s thinking about their dad’s death. It wasn’t a process for Sam. It wasn’t months of watching him get sick, lie endlessly to Dean, get rejected for the transplant list, lose his coherency and his competency and his self. For Sam, it was an event. One day their dad was alive, and the next he wasn’t. A clean cut. A smooth break.
Dean couldn’t hope to express this revelation over the phone. He doesn’t have the fucking college vocabulary. What he wants to say is that Sam has it all wrong. It didn’t happen to Dean. It happened because of Dean. The idea of getting on with his life is a strange one. The idea that there’s a place to go from here it totally foreign. The idea that there’s anything beyond Dean in this empty house is, in that moment, unfathomable.
“Do you think dying’s easy, Sam? Or pretty?” Dean says, quiet. “You think anybody goes gently into the good fricken’ night? You think it’s as easy as sayin’, ‘he was around, now he’s not anymore’?”
“I think,” Sam says, and now at least it sounds like he might be trying to choose his words more carefully. For all the good it does him. “I mean. I get the impression. That you—maybe you suffered a lot. Watching Dad—get sick.” Ah, good old college boy Sam. Always astute with the observations. “I wish he would’ve made it easier on us and—yeah. ‘Gone gently into the good fricken’ night.’ This sounds—awful, Dean. I know. But—the only mistake Dad made for you was not going fast enough.”
Dean looks around his dad’s empty room. It doesn’t seem like that long ago it was full, doesn’t seem like that long since he’d lost his dad, though Sam is right—the actual process of dying had seemed to take ages. Eons. And he’s right about another thing too.
It had hurt. Every day had hurt.
It makes him think of Bobby and Ellen and their fucking burrito. And—
Cas. He didn’t mean to make someone else invested in him when he stumbled into a fucking ditch, but somehow he ended up here. With this nice guy who gave way too many shits about him.
Sam isn’t fucking wrong. Dad could have done him a favor and gone more quickly. And he, Dean realizes sharply, could stand to pay the same favor himself. Suddenly, Dean’s conscious of his every breath, jarring and wrong in his lungs, like each inhale from here on out is one more than he was meant to take.
He looks over. There are a bunch of leaves still clinging on for dear life to his little violet, but he can see they’re teetering on some kind of brink, about to fall off. They’re not alive anymore, not really, and babying the stupid plant with water and sun and fertilizer isn’t helping the damn thing any.
It’s surprisingly easy, considering how impossible it had seemed a few minutes before, to reach over and pluck two little leaves from the fading stalk.
Dean says, “Okay.” He plucks off two more.
Sam says, “Okay?” Dean plucks off three more, plus the sad, empty little sprout that used to have flowering purple petals. Cas’s pretty purple flowers, the ones he’d cultivated so carefully. Just a memory now.
Dean says, “Yeah. Okay.” And he plucks some leaves that hadn’t died yet, still green and furry, all dispassionate disconnect in the way they feel between his fingertips. It’s harder than he wants to admit to even get them off the stem. Tests his finger strength enough that they start quivering. He lets them flutter to the linoleum.
Sam starts up another rant on the other end of the line—Dean, I’m coming, okay? I’m going to come out. I’m finding the time and then I’ll—but Dean never wanted anything more than to make things easy on his little brother, and he hangs up the phone with clumsy fingers. He doesn’t even bother to let it down easy, just drops it, lets it slither down his side to land with a thunk on his dad’s carpet.
And then he finishes the job, plucking leaves until his little violet is just a sad, skinny stalk with wide, wet, weeping wounds where the leaves used to be. The terracotta pot Cas gave him is still pretty, still trying to hold the whole thing up, still feeding nutrients into a stem that Dean, the stupid, selfish motherfucker, managed to kill the first time he touched it.
“I tried,” he whispers to it, pulling the pot closer to his chest, the naked stalk tickling at the sensitive underside of his chin.
His violet doesn’t respond, and Dean doesn’t cry.
There’s still the basement. That’s it. Just the basement. Nothing but the basement now, actually. Sam is gone and Bobby’s gone and Cas is gone—all of them for good, now, probably, because Dean made damn sure he didn’t do that half-assed. When he gets rid of people, he gets rid of them for good, goddamnit.
Absolutely all the shit upstairs is gone, too. Down to the pointless knickknacks left in all the drawers and the take-out menus still pinned to the fridge with little fish magnets Sam got on some fieldtrip to an aquarium. Dean gave up on keeping the TV around once he realized it was pointless, so he gave it to Ellen’s tenant, Ash, to use as another monitor for his supercomputer or something. Mazel tov, anyway. Whatever made the guy happy.
Sitting upstairs in the empty, Dean kind of feels like he’s on top of a mountain—because it’s totally fucking foreign territory up here, now, for one. He’s not used to the bare walls and the clean floors. There’s imprints in the carpets where the old furniture sat for years and years and years of his life. The area underneath the couch still looks like the carpet did when they first moved in, way back when. There are no Sammy spills or wear and tear. It’s like some catastrophic geological event made everything shift, and all there is now is the pitiable remnants of his whole life. Footprints in the fucking snow at the top of Everest—one good gust of wind and it’s all gone again, no matter how much time it took him to get there.
And for another thing—the air feels thin like it would up there. Just sitting, Dean’s not getting enough oxygen. His head spins when he gets up, when he sits down, when he moves too fast, when he blinks wrong. There’s a whole world of shit going on inside his stupid brain, a million flashes of a lifetime of things inside this godforsaken house, but his body didn’t get the memo. It’s slow and tired and achy and not fucking listening to him.
He slept after Sam’s phone call. Thin air and all that. Not enough oxygen to work up the energy. He woke off and on to his cell phone ringing itself out, to the incessant beeping that meant he had voicemails and text messages and who knows what else. Eventually, it stopped ringing at all, and when he managed to get up and check the screen, its battery was dead.
Dean can’t say where his charger went. After his cell stopped waking him incessantly, his life had been a very literal blur of bad tastes in his mouth, bad smells in the air, bad feelings in his chest. Somewhere in the middle of all that, Ash had shown up, and in addition to getting Dean’s TV set, Dean sent another box of pretty much everything that was left in the house along with him. It was full of the random shit that pops up when you clear out a place you’ve been for years—bookmarks and half-used ballpoint pens and pencil erasers and McDonald’s toys and baseball cards. The charger probably ended up in there. He’d been half delirious when he’d shoved it into Ash’s arms, and he knows that he’d told him to do whatever the fuck he wanted with it.
It had the Star Wars VHS, too. The Lego. A little piece of Dean, somewhere small and hopeful inside of him, wishes he kept it. But that piece is all fragile, flickering like a candle flame in a jar after you put the lid back on. Because there isn’t a whole lot of oxygen up here to keep that shit burning, anyway.
So there’s the basement. Lower ground. The only place he really has left. It feels like the only thing anchoring him now, tying the whole place down. The last heavy pieces of his family that are keeping one strong gust of wind from blowing him away.
He sits on the ground, breathes in the dead air, and tells himself deliriously that it’s time to clean house. If he doesn’t do it, there’s going to be a cleaning crew down there by the end of the week, and it’s bad enough that there’s supposed to be a new crop of people in here with new stuff and new family. It’s quite another to have some big, burly, impersonal motherfucker tearing through boxes of Sammy’s mathlete medals and his mother’s lacey nightgowns and years’ worth of his father’s carefully finagled tax returns.
Dean puts a hand against the wall. He thinks of Adam Milligan and his house on Pleasant Street and his pretty mom. His goofy smile. He’s pretty much the age Sammy was the last time Dean really saw Sam, now. He’s probably got Sam’s big puppy paws, the ones that Sam still hadn’t grown into when he started college, and he imagines that they’d be all the fuck over his house, his shit, his life.
Dean puts his other hand against the wall. He thinks of his mom, and it feels like a physical strain. She’d never seen this house, probably would’ve hated it, but there were pieces of her everywhere, even if it was just in the way his dad had always said that his mother was worth more than this place, had been bigger than this, had inherently made their lives less meaningful just but never existing here. The fast-talking lawyer with the shifty yellow eyes had convinced everyone that she wasn’t worth whatever dollar amount they’d put on her motherly affection, but Dean thought maybe the lawyer just knew, even when he was five and scared and sitting on three books in the witness stand just to reach the microphone, that Dean wouldn’t be worth the whole of her legacy. All he was worth was a shitty farmhouse with thin walls and drafts and scuffs on the hardwood and threadbare carpets. Maybe that asshole lawyer had some kind of second sight.
Hands braced against the wall, Dean is able to find his feet. Wobbly knees, light head, and more of that godforsaken smell that he can feel coming off him. More of the gross air that’s straight up thin and poison-smelling.
On his feet, it’s easier. All Dean ever needed was a little bit of momentum, a shove in the right direction, because god knows he isn’t able to find the right direction by himself, god fucking knows he doesn’t know his own shaky palm from a compass rose. Wobbly steps across the living room, toward the narrow stairs against the far wall. He thinks of Sammy. He’d taken his first steps here, just like this, when he was little bitty and Dean didn’t know well enough to worry about how thin he was for a baby. He just remembers near enough busting with pride when Sammy went up on his wobbly baby legs and tottered across the room, right toward Dean, like he was the only thing in the whole entire world. Where else could he belong but here, where he’d been the center of Sammy’s whole world? Where else was there for him now?
Dean opens the door to the staircase once he’s traveled an eon’s-worth of the living room. There’s a naked lightbulb with a pull cord, but he doesn’t pull it, because he knows these stairs like the back of his goddamn hand, every bony knob of it, every creaky step.
He thinks of his dad. He doesn’t bother to step around the creaky spots going down because he doesn’t have the energy, but as a teenager, he needed to whenever he smoked, because Dad didn’t like him doing it, the absolute hypocrite. And he especially didn’t like him doing it around the only remnants of Mary Winchester that he had left. Teenage Dean thought privately that it all smelled like smoke anyway, but Dad was hell-bent on treating this place like a mausoleum for Dean’s whole life. Dad got to drop in occasionally to mourn what his family could have been, but Dean had to live here among the corpses and do his best to live with the bouquets that people left behind.
According to his dad, the basement is for the dead.
Dean knows he doesn’t have the strength to climb the stairs again once he’s gotten to the bottom. He hasn’t eaten anything in—days, he thinks, and momentum or not, you can’t make something go forward without the fuel or the push. Gravity was on his side going down. Going back up would be a helluva lot harder. That’s just fucking physics.
At least it’s easier to breathe down here, now, among everything that everyone that had left him had left behind. Lower elevation. More oxygen in the air. That’s physics, too.
He staggers to the far wall, right by the window well underneath his bedroom. The box he always used to sit on to smoke still sports his dusty ass-print. He grabs his pants by the belt and tugs them up on his hips, past his pointy hipbones, settling them too high so they’ll take a minute to fall back down, and then he sits. It’s meant to be more subtle than it ends up, but his strength fails him at the last minute, and up is down and down is up, and he falls into the box with a whumph that sends up a cloud of dust. He coughs, and it takes too long to catch his breath, because he wasn’t catching it so well in primo conditions, so a fucking dust assault isn’t exactly going to help him. He coughs until he’s dizzy. And he takes his luxurious time with it, too, because it’s not like there’s any hurry, and it’s not like there’s anyone coming for him. He allows himself a few clean, easy breathes when he’s done, and he’s hyperaware, suddenly, of the way the air feels on him and in him and around him and moving through him. Maybe even of the way the dust feels settling on his skin.
He remembers what it was like to breathe fire smoke. Just vaguely, because his little-boy brain had been trying to process about a million things at the time, and not being able to breathe right seemed secondary to watching his mom die at the time.
He doesn’t remember it being that bad, though that might just be his brain protecting him. He’d never seen a therapist, but he’d stayed up late one night, just after Sammy left for college, because a whole bunch of shit decided to come back to him around then. He’d spent half a night googling stuff like “repression” and “trauma” and a whole host of shit he’s pretty sure his dad would have said didn’t exist while he stared down the bottom of a beer bottle. Either way, no matter how it actually went down, he remembers it being warm. Like the air in Cas’s greenhouse. Like a hug. He remembers the comfort of baby Sammy in his arms. That’s about the size of it.
He pops open the box he’s been using as an armrest for the last ten years, and he’s in luck. Turns out it’s full of nice, crisp, dry papers. Dean takes a quick look, shuffling through to make sure the box is dry all the way down, and he sees what must be some of their attorney files from the court case. There’re yellowing old files full of dollar amounts and legal mumbo jumbo that Dean doesn’t have a hope to understand. Not that that matters. It’ll make excellent kindling, whatever it is, and if Dean plays his cards right, the rest of the place is going to go up quick. It’s just a bunch of brittle cardboard down here, after all. Just dry, dead remains of a life somebody lived once.
His broken hand finds the box of matches on his other side, just where they’ve always been. His old box of cigs is empty now, but he figures that’s probably for the best.
He strikes a match, experimental, where there’s a dent in the wood on the window ledge. It’s where he struck matches all through his adolescence. The match flares up, anticlimactic, because it’s apparently day out no matter what his brain thinks. He would’ve liked for it to be dark when the whole place went up. He likes the dramatics of the image. It was dark when his childhood home went up, so maybe he just likes the symmetry. There’s light streaming in the window.
Dean looks at the match and surprises himself.
He thinks of Cas.
It startles him so much that the exhale puts the match out before the fire can even hit his trembling fingertips. He breathes for a moment, stares at the black husk the fire left behind. Then he tosses it to the side and lights another one.
That’s where it comes from, he thinks, careful not to put the match out again, sheltering the tender little light with his other hand. The bonfire, the fireplace, the red in Cas’s eyes that burned weak in a blue that was too strong to let the fire take it.
He thought he was all done with remembering by the time he hit the bottom of the stairs, but it turns out that he’s still got these pictures left in him: a gummy smile in firelight, a hand on his arm, a light set of footsteps by his side. He hasn’t known Cas long so there’s no greatest hits, just a complete run of every moment they had together at doublespeed, triplespeed, condensed into the time it takes for the flickering light to reach his fingertips. He drops the match, hissing, moment lost to the pain. It flickers out on its way to the ground.
“It’ll hurt a lot more,” a voice above him says, hard and deep and solemn. Out of breath.
Speak of the fucking devil.
“What,” Dean says. His voice cracks. He doesn’t think he’s spoken since he hung up on Sam, and he’s out of practice. He’s glad, mostly, because it means he doesn’t let the pleased thrill he’s got in his gut—the sheer fucking giddiness that comes from the absolute impossibility of his friend being on those stairs— come out his mouth, too.
Cas came back.
“When it’s all around you,” he says. “When you kill yourself.” He says it easy. It comes out of his mouth smooth. If he didn’t know how hard talking could be for Cas sometimes, he’d think that Cas had some kind of motherfucking gift for it, just judging from the way Cas talked to him. Cas talked to him like the easiest thing to be was himself and the best person to listen was Dean. “That is what you’re thinking, correct? You’re wondering what it will feel like?”
Dean flicks another match to life. It bursts open in his hand.
“Here to get your car, or are you back to rescue me?”
Cas just hmmms. He’s calm as Dean’s ever seen him, and he doesn’t dignify Dean’s pettiness with a response.
“Well, nice try, anyway,” he says. “But I already know what it feels like. I mean, I can guess. Based strictly on what my mom sounded like when she was going.” Not good. She sounded real not good. Human skin crackles like pork roast. Phantom heat lights up the nerve endings in the skin on his arms, and he finds himself shying away, totally without his permission. “But you gotta do what you gotta do. And at least it’s effective, right? Boom and done, and the whole place comes down with me. More poetic than I even thought myself capable of, really.”
Cas looks at him from his vantage on the stairs. He sits on one of the middle steps. He’s not easy to see in the shadows, but Dean can tell he’s got that bird look about him again, the same one that he woke up to in that ditch. That same steady, intense, focused stare that made him feel like the only person in the universe.
“You’re talking about suicide,” he says, real slow.
Dean sucks in a breath. Lets another few precious seconds tick by.
“Yeah, Cas,” he says eventually. “I’m talkin’ about suicide.”
“Killing yourself,” Cas says.
Dean finds the energy to squirm a little, maybe just a little uncomfortable with the idea when he’s presented with it in no uncertain terms like that.
“You want to die.”
Frustrated, Dean rasps, “Yes. Fuck’s sake.”
Cas fixes him with another long, long penetrating stare before he says, utterly dismissive, “You don’t want to die.”
Castiel Novak may well be one of the most infuriating human beings on earth. Dean hopes that once he’s offed himself, they’ll build arching, bronze-plated monuments to his stubbornness. Maybe Dean’s even a little sad he’ll never get to see them.
“How do you figure?”
Cas shrugs. “Because I tried, too.”
Dean’s blood runs cold.
“I expected this because of what I said before. It’s part of the reason I was so reluctant to leave you. You were and have consistently been the first person whose feelings I knew so intimately, because I felt them too. And when Anna died, I withdrew.” Uncharacteristically now, he doesn’t look at Dean when he says it. He looks down at the stairs, tests at a sore spot in a rotten, splintered step with his toe. It groans a little into the empty house. The stairway is darker than the basement proper, and the light from the window well doesn’t really reach it, so he can’t quite see the flickers of emotion Cas lets on his face, but he—strains. And he tries. “I’ve never been good with people, and Anna was one of the only people that made it easier. She helped me through my degree, helped me navigate my family situation. And right after her funeral, Gabriel was asking me—where I wanted to eat. Where I wanted to get takeout. And I was trying to tell him that I just wanted to go home, and Anna would have known but Gabriel didn’t. He couldn’t read me like she did, though he tried. But at the same time, I didn’t know what right I had to be upset about all that when I was—the one who had killed her.” Seeing Cas’s composure fail him is a little like watching a crack form in a mountain. “I drew away. I hated the idea of a world after her. I ran.”
Dean knows that part. He saw that part every morning, flying down the road at a million miles an hour. It looked so natural on him, the running did, that Dean never could have imagined he was running away from anything. Not by the time Dean spotted him. Cas—Cas had purpose. Cas had something he was running toward.
“I thought about suicide,” he continues lightly, conversationally. Already back together. Like he’s patched the crack clean. “You know that support beam? In my greenhouse?” He paints the picture of his greenhouse with his hands, pointing up and running his palm along an imaginary ceiling beam while he waits for Dean to nod. “I would have hung myself there.”
Dean can’t stop the first image that rockets, unbidden, straight into his brain: Cas, swinging, in the middle of his pretty, pretty greenhouse among all the flowering plants, his fingers skimming the tops of the flowers like they had in the Bargain Heaven nursery, tender and quiet and gentle.
A very positive side effect of his decision to just burn this whole fuckin’ place down is that there wouldn’t be anything messy to deal with in the afterward. His flesh is half-gone, so it’s not like there’s that much effort there anyhow, but thinking about that pile of ash in his yard, thinking of all the pieces of himself he wasn’t going to have to give up. Thinking of how easy it was going to be from here on out. For him and everyone else. That was the nice part. When Cas started actually talking about the whole being dead part, Dean thought about—putting the brakes on a little. Because it was shit. Imagining Cas being dead. Cas hanging in his own greenhouse. Cas’s dopey, well-meaning brother having to be the one that found him like that. That makes everything sound so hard.
Dean never would’ve known him if that had happened. Maybe he would’ve disappeared from the road one day and Dean wouldn’t’ve cared what happened. Maybe he never would’ve known that awesome butt flying by him. It’s hard to imagine. Not knowing Cas. He’s a pretty memorable dude.
“I know how you’re feeling,” Cas says, like he can taste Dean’s hesitance in the air. He’s bold suddenly, back to maintaining eye contact. “I know you don’t want to die.”
“You don’t know shit,” Dean says. It’s lost its fire though, so Dean makes his own, strikes another match against the wall just to see it go up. Like that’s going to fuel the determination he can feel leaking out of his toes, like the cold of the cement basement floor is leeching it out of him. Cas doesn’t even have the decency to flinch, and he continues to be a stubborn, stupid jackass that believes in Dean way too hard, as Dean moves a quivering hand over the box of dry documents that’ll send the whole stupid place up in flames.
“You don’t want to die,” Cas repeats as soon as the match has flickered out and left them in the afternoon light and the heinous dust and the brittle old boxes. “You just don’t want to live another way. You don’t know how and you don’t want to ask, and even if you did, you don’t think you deserve it anyway.”
Dean sees white for a second, and part of that shitty feeling is Cas’s not-so-welcome personal revelations, but most of it is probably the feeling that’s been following him around for weeks and weeks now hitting an all-time high. Dean’s breaking all the records here, so it stands to reason that maybe his long-term effort to put his own lights out is finally panning out.
He didn’t want Cas to have to deal with this, damnit. He wanted to burn the whole thing down.
“You’re full of shit,” Dean says, flat.
Cas gets to his feet and finally makes his way down the stairs, picking around the boxes at the bottom on careful tiptoes, running reverent hands over the open lips of them like he knows they’re all that’s tethering Dean to this world. In a blink, he’s in front of Dean, moving so fast and so easy, just like he always has.
“What’s in this one?” he asks, pointing at the box on the floor across from Dean, like he’s making sure it’s not full of his grandma’s precious china before he plants his ass on it.
“It’s nothing, Cas. It’s shit. It’s all shit.” Dean nods to the rest of the basement, and the queasy feeling comes back until he closes his eyes and breathes in slow through his nose.
“It’s not shit,” Cas says. “It’s important to you.” Like Dean liking something gives it some kind of inherent worth. “Like this house.”
“It’s not important,” he mumbles. When he manages to pry open his eyes again, Cas is there, looking at him, eye level, sitting on a box that he’s pretty sure is full of Sammy’s baby sheets and baby blankets, just from the way it sags and sighs under his weight. He looks ridiculous with his knees up around his chest, still with an earnest-as-ever expression on his face. “It’s not important. It’s just—it’s all I have. It’s all I’ve ever had.”
Cas stares. It’s all the guy fuckin’ does. With his big, chapped lips and his pretty, squinty eyes. Guy that stares that much, should be fuckin’ illegal.
“Can I tell you something, Dean?”
Dean doesn’t trust himself to speak. He nods instead.
“Do you remember when you told me that you—sometimes imagined yourself in other houses, in other circumstances, with other people?”
Dean nods again. He does. It’s difficult to forget something that preoccupies so many of his waking thoughts. The little pieces of a normal he’s heard so much about.
“Well. I do the same. But only,” he fidgets, hands twitching in that way they did when he got nervous in Bargain Heaven. Dean can see him fighting it though, can see him doing his very best to tamp that shit down. They’re going to build monuments to his stubbornness for a reason. “Only since I’ve met you. You say our imaginings gave you affluence and comfort. Larger houses and Christmases. I have all that, Dean. I’ve always had all that. But my visions always had you.”
Dean clutches at the box of matches because he can’t fucking think of what else to do. He stares at a box of Christmas decorations somewhere to the left of Cas’s head and tries to make it look like he’s not studying Cas’s face right back.
He never told Cas that he was featured pretty heavily in his, too. Never told him that all that nice stuff was only useful because it came with people and warmth and an atmosphere that made him feel a little less lonely.
“What did you,” Dean starts to ask. It’s a croak. His throat is dry. His lips crack just from separating them. “What did you see?”
“A house,” Cas says, no hesitation, and he looks out the window at the crisp blue autumn sky so Dean looks too. “A little green house with big windows and white storm shutters. It was two stories, but it was squished and small, in the midst of a little city that I didn’t recognize. But the neighbors were very kind, I know, and liked the hummingbirds and bumblebees that our garden brought to the neighborhood.”
“Cas,” Dean says, drowsy, stuck on the word. And he doesn’t mean stop or go on, he just needs to say it, maybe to solidify himself to the here and now, because he’s started a backslide into the fantasy too, and the basement around him is fading into a mist, and outside the window there’s a neighborhood full of people who are all happy to see him.
“It was our house,” Cas says, “naturally. Ours together. And there was ivy growing up the sides and red brick everywhere that wasn’t painted. There were dark carpets and light walls and cheap furniture. A plaid couch and a paisley chair. Chipped countertops and tile above the stove. Food everywhere—good healthy foods. And a well-stocked kitchen. One of those silly banana hooks and a paper towel dispenser and a branded infomercial food processor that I’m sure I had to bribe you into buying. There was a pink bakery box on the counter.”
Dean doesn’t know that he even has the strength to interject, but he can see it now too, pretty clearly, this grand tour of an other-life with this weird guy from up the road. And his brain’s filling in all the blanks Cas leaves. The color of the paisley chair and the texture of the couch, the pattern of the tile on the kitchen floor. Everything is mostly blue—the fridge, the Formica on the kitchen table, the standing mixer in the corner, the twin coffee mugs still steaming on the table.
“There was no basement,” Cas says sternly. “And it was very light inside. Lots of large windows. There was a big television and a large collection of DVDs that—” he pauses for a second, and Dean can tell that next bit goes beyond dreaming of a place he lived and into dreaming of a place he lived with Dean. He gets on with it anyway. “—that you bought, mostly, to expose me to more of your varied interests. And there were the ones from this house as well. Your things. And your things were everywhere, too, pieces of you all over. Records on top of a record player by the window.” Dean’s first smile in a long time comes at the thought of Led Zeppelin getting a place in the sun. He thinks about what it would be like to restore a big, standing record player that he found in some junk shop. He thinks about how smooth she’d play because he’d make her that way. He’s still looking out the window, but he can hear Castiel’s answering smile in his voice, a flicker of a thing that makes the words warmer. “And your leather jacket on a hook by the door.”
“How’d you manage that?” Dean croaks.
“How’d you manage to get me to use a hook? Honestly, you would have been lucky if I made it to the back of the couch.”
“There’s no fake fighting about where we will hang our fake coats in my universe,” says Castiel. “If it has been a point of contention in the past, it was an argument that I won a long time before the dreams took place, and at that point, you hung your coat by the door because you—” He stops with a sharp intake of breath, a knife right to the heart of the banter.
“Because what?” Dean whispers. “Because I what?”
Cas doesn’t respond, but it hangs in the air with the dust as Cas describes the staircase and the pictures they’ll hang along it—Cas’s family, Dean’s family, the families that all of their siblings will probably have by then. Dean indulges himself a moment of imagining Sam’s kids. Blonde like Jess and dark-eyed like his little brother.
This house that Cas is laying on the table for him is a place he would bring his nieces and nephews. Just taking this mental fieldtrip now, just feeling the stray twinges of want in his lower gut, he can already tell that this place would feel more like somewhere he wanted to be than somewhere he had to. And Dean isn’t used to separating obligation from home.
“You likely hated the wallpaper in our bathroom,” Cas says haughtily. “But I liked it.”
“Wallpaper in the bathroom was our first mistake, Cas.”
“It was floral.”
“Like an old lady’s? Did we have potpourri on the toilet tank, too?”
“Not like an old lady’s, Dean. Like it was ours. I saw it in a magazine once. It was multicolored and subtle and quite beautiful.” He sniffs. Breathes in dust. Sneezes. He’s so ridiculous Dean could scream but.
But he trusts Cas’s judgement about the wallpaper, like he’s actually biting his tongue during a real argument about their home decor, and—if he’s honest with himself—he’s already imagining flowers and potted plants every-fucking-where because that seems to be the dude’s aesthetic and if he’s been kind enough to put pieces of Dean everywhere, pieces of him that he didn’t even realize Cas knew about, then Dean’s going to allow an—an orchid or a violet or a rhododendron or whatever the fuck it is the guy grows because it’s going to make him happy. And he’s happy, in Dean’s brain, and that’s more important to Dean than the fraying ends of the living room rug or the towel hooks in the bathroom that Mr. Literal wants to talk about. Cas happy lights up the whole place brighter than all the big windows he keeps coming back to. For a minute, that makes Dean happy too.
“There will be a down comforter and a memory foam mattress. And there will be a canopy over our bed,” Cas says when he reaches the bedroom and he’s finished describing the quality of wood in their bureau in loving detail. He sighs like a canopy is all he ever wanted in the world, and Dean can see his gums his smile is so wide, but—
The sudden switch to future tense is not lost on Dean.
“Will we?” Dean says carefully, prodding. Just to see if it was a mistake. “A canopy over the bed sounds pretty gay, Cas.”
“No gayer than the fact that we’ll be sharing a bed, I’m sure.”
Oh yeah. That hits him pretty hard, because he’s just starting to realize that what Cas fantasized and what Dean fantasized had one very crucial difference. For Cas, this isn’t just about what could have been. For Cas, this is about a future. It’s not just in his head; it’s somewhere beyond the dark basement and the piles of boxes and the bleak nothing that stretches out in front of Dean like an absolute certainty.
Dean loses his smile, sinks back into his boxes, curls his whole body around his box of matches, and hunches his shoulders in close. He hates that Cas tricked him into dreaming about tomorrow. He doesn’t have the strength for lazy Sunday mornings or eating dinner together or sharing the same mirror to shave. He doesn’t even have the strength to make it back up the stairs. He made sure of that himself.
“You should go,” he says.
“Really?” Cas sighs. “You really think I would leave? Now?”
“You did before.”
“A mistake. You think I would do it again?”
“I—” No. He knows he wouldn’t. Dean forced his hand last time. And who really gives a shit, because he came back. He lies. “I don’t know. But you should. I’d show you to the door, but.” He waves his hand vaguely at his own useless body.
“There will be a greenhouse in the back,” Cas says, a little desperate. He lurches forward on his cardboard box, so fast it overturns and he ends up on his knees. Like he’s praying at Dean’s feet. “And you’ll help me, won’t you? You’ll help me keep the plants alive, and we’ll tend to them together. I’ll teach you more about soils and fertilizers and temperature changes and growth speeds, and every year we’ll go back to Bargain Heaven, buy out their greenhouse stock, and nurse it back to health.”
Dean remembers, out of nowhere, that impulse he had on the first day he’d met Cas, to reach out and touch him. Run a finger over his bottom lip. Know how his face feels in his hands. He does it now, because whatever strength had stopped him from doing it then—he doesn’t have it anymore. His fingers are spindly, but Cas’s face is soft and stubbled and pretty under them.
“Fuck, Cas,” he says. “You know how shit I am at keeping things alive.”
A single tear leaks slow and quiet down his cheek, and Dean realizes he’s crying. Who even knew he could? Who even knew he had the moisture left in him?
“No,” Cas says, shaking his head under Dean’s hand. Dean’s arm moves with it, back and forth and frantic, no weight there to tether him down. Cas plants his hand on his own chest, five shaking fingers that twitch in the fabric of his shirt. He stutters a little bit when he talks, just on every few words or so. “Remember what I told you Gabriel said? I’m telling you now. Sometimes things die. Sometimes things just die.”
“Nothing just dies,” Dean says. His voice is shaky too. A second tear leaks its way out and finds a wrinkle in his cheek to meander down. “Don’t act like there’s no reason shit like this goes down.”
“You’re right. Sometimes the blight takes it away from us, and there’s nothing we can do.”
“Yes, Dean. A blight, like your violet upstairs—my sister, your father.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“They were ill, Dean. That’s all.”
“Yeah, and sometimes the blight is me,” he explodes, jerking his hand away from Cas’s face. “I’m poison, Cas.”
“You don’t think you deserve to be saved,” Cas says, calm as anything. “Or to—go on. To recover. But you do, Dean. You’re one of the reasons I’m still here. And if I do—then you do.”
“No. Fuck off.”
“You do. You deserve a future that’s yours.”
“I can’t, don’t you fucking get it? I can’t.”
“You deserve a home that you chose.”
“I don’t know how. I don’t know how to even begin to do that.” His face is all teary now, and he can’t fucking stop it. He doesn’t remember how to get it going, doesn’t know how to make it stop. He’s out of practice on the whole crying thing. He’s also covered in snot—he’s doing the fucking ugly cry that Sammy always did when he was little. The kind Dean could only stop with his shoulder and the little rocking sweet-nothings he remembered from his mom. It’s okay, right into his ear. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
“It’s not hard, Dean. It’s not anything hard. You just need to let this place go. That’s it.”
“I can’t on my own.”
“Not on your own.”
“I am.” And he has been for so long, and he’s fucking tired.
“I need help!” Quiet in the basement. The matches rattle in their box because they’re still stuck in his hand like a lifeline, and even that sounds stupid loud in the quiet empty of the house. The tears stop too, like his reservoir just went dry. He feels a little disgusted with himself, like he just screamed I’m weak! into a standing-room-only crowd of every person he’s ever respected, but—well. Hell. He’s weak as a kitten, can’t hardly fathom even picking himself up, and now that he’s said it once, he kinda wants to say it again.
“I need help,” he says again, all shellshocky. Shy of his own stupid emotions. And yet so immensely relieved he physically feels like he just passed an exam and got out of a speeding ticket and won the lottery and had an awesome orgasm. Just a solid unclenching of every muscle in his body at the same time. “I don’t—know how to stop. Being.” He gestures himself. The house. All around. Everything. “This. Just this.”
“You already are more than this, Dean,” Cas says. He touches Dean like Dean did him already, trailing awkward and unsteady fingertips through the drying tear trails on his cheeks. Drawing patterns in them. It’s not a normal thing to do. But it feels nice anyway. “But I’ll help you. Of course. We’ll help each other.”
Dean doesn’t know what to do with the enormity of that. Cas says it so easy, just like he says everything so easy, like even just asking that wasn’t a thousand years of bullshit in the making.
“It’s that fuckin’ easy, huh?” He’d been avoiding Castiel’s eye, but he finds them now.
“Of course, Dean. All you need to do is ask.”
Momentum takes him forward. Or maybe he does, under his own power. The energy rises out of somewhere, anyway, and he leans forward far enough to catch Castiel’s lips with his, eyes closing like he’s a proper romantic. Cas freezes, still on his knees, still very close to Dean’s face anyway. Dean knows he smells like death, knows he’s falling apart at the seams, knows it might be too late already to fix all the shit wrong inside him. He hasn’t got real high hopes, but Cas hasn’t lied about anything yet.
“Dean,” Cas says against his lips instead of reciprocating, like the guy never learned how to properly accepted an I-just-gave-you-fucking-everything kiss. When Dean opens his eyes, Cas’s eyes are still open, and he looks petrified. “You need a hospital.”
“You’re always such a fucking buzzkill,” Dean says, still into his mouth, still close enough that their breath is mingling. But Cas’s hands are down at his sides, and it looks like all the tension Dean lost bled straight into him. One solid transfusion of crazy.
“If I’m honest, I think the greater ‘buzzkill,’” he scare quotes it like a fucking nerd, “here is the ketoacidosis I can smell on your breath.”
Dean blinks. “What?”
“Ketoacidosis is a toxicity that comes from your body breaking down your muscles to find fuel when it has no other sources.” Never let it be said that Cas isn’t a romantic. “I could literally smell organ failure on that kiss, so forgive me if I,” more scare quotes, “‘killed the buzz.’”
Dean looks down at the ground. He’s already had one major personal revelation tonight, but apparently that’s not enough for his good buddy Cas.
“So. I’m helping you. We’ll need to deal with this problem first of all. At a hospital, preferably.”
And if that doesn’t sound like the worst thing ever, Dean doesn’t know what does. Go to a fucking hospital? He had big plans to go hide in the dark under a blanket for the next hundred years.
“Jesus. ‘Deal with’—I haven’t even agreed to leave my fucking basement yet.”
“Well I’m not going to let you burn it down. And I’m not leaving. So it’s either we leave now, or we deal with your problem down here, forever, and I’d really prefer we go to the hospital and leave the nice family that’s going to move in to their new house alone.”
Dean thinks about raking a hand over his face but he can’t find the strength.
“So. Just bring me a cheeseburger,” he says weakly, like that’s even within the realm of imagination anymore, like the very thought of eating a big hunk of carbs and red meat doesn’t send shivers and shocks up his whole body.
“If you try to eat a whole cheeseburger now, it’s very possible that you’ll experience great discomfort. Or get refeeding syndrome and die.”
Cas has a real neat way of putting things in perspective.
“So I’ll eat it slow,” he grumbles.
“I don’t think you understand,” Cas says. “You said you needed help. This is the part where people help you. That’s the way it works.”
Dean swallows and looks outside, fighting off another wave of lightheadedness by focusing on the clouds outside.
“What part of ‘I don’t know how’ don’t you get?” he snaps. Immediately regrets it. He’s always, always sorry. “That’s—it doesn’t get easier just ‘cause I asked. Especially—a hospital? I mean, can’t we just—go to your house. Do some carbo-loading? Down some protein shakes?”
“I can’t help you alone, Dean. I’m not qualified. You’re sick.”
A magpie lands on a powerline outside. Cas didn’t mention birds in his description of their house, but it seems like the kind of place that would always have birds singing outside it. Robins and bluejays and shit.
“Sick,” he says distantly. Almost dream-like. Sick?
“You’re very ill.”
Dean looks away from the magpie on the powerline to play with the hem of his shirt. He sees his own spindly fingers and his concave belly and his jutting hipbones, and he knows it’s not right. He’s always known it’s not quite right. But he doesn’t feel as wrong about it as he should, and he knows that’s not right either.
If he’s honest, it feels kind of good to be this way, even now.
“You think there’s something to this whole—anorexia thing, huh?”
His face still feels tacky from tears and he’s having a hard time shaking the desolation no matter what Cas says, but he’s too far gone in his life to not be a sarcastic, deflecting piece of shit when it comes to literally anything important.
“Yes,” Cas says. “I think there’s something to it. So much, in fact, that I have accumulated a great deal of literature on the subject and, if you’ll recall, I tried to commit you to the idea as well. You seemed to want nothing to do with it.”
“Fuck, Cas, it’s just my—same old, same old bullshit, y’know? I never been sick a day in my life. Sammy got sick and Dad got sick, but I didn’t. And this whole—not eating thing—”
“You mean starving yourself to the point of near-incapacitation?”
Dean wants to snap his fingers, bingo, but they feel too clumsy to manage it, and he guesses that proves Cas’s point more than anything.
“Yeah, uh. That.” He clears his throat. “That’s just—something I did to myself. Like an idiot. I should be able to take care of it.”
Castiel purses his lips.
“Your father was an alcoholic.”
Dean gives Cas a sharp look, jerks back in his seat about as fast as he can manage these days. That wasn’t something he’d talked to Cas about. It was something that Dean had researched at the library when he was fourteen, sweating under his armpits and wondering if someone was going track his check-out record and figure out what he was reading and use it to take him away from his little brother. He googled rehab facilities sometimes too, when he was feeling particularly deluded.
“How the fuck do you know that?”
“Please, Dean. I know I’m socially stunted, but give me some credit.”
It’s true, of course it’s true, but it still feels weird to talk shit on his dad. His dad’s dead.
“Right,” he admits.
“Right. So. Your father needed medical attention for that. You couldn’t have been expected to handle that on your own. He was sick. You’re sick, too.”
Something swells up the base of his throat. That’s comforting, in its own way, but it’s also—well. If his dad was sick before he was even sick.
“Huh. Uh. You think if I’d—” Cas tilts his head. “Y’know. Rehab. A little sooner?”
“Well. He never asked for help, did he?”
Dad really didn’t ask for help. He pretty much just showed up sometimes and expected Dean to cover his bullshit. He wonders if he ever poured his soul out to little Adam. If Kate ever offered to help him get into rehab. If they even knew half the shit Dean did on the daily. If he wanted them to. If Dad ever got tired of shouldering his torrential shitpile on his own. It was reassuring to think—probably not.
“Anna was very prideful,” Cas says, at what sounds like great expense to him. “Very strong. She didn’t like that her disease robbed her of so much of her dignity. And she didn’t like to admit that she was sick.”
That hangs between them. Cas is still kneeled between them, all the weight on his calves, close enough that he can probably still smell the sick on Dean’s breath.
Dean looks around the basement because, like, an hour ago, he’s pretty sure he meant to die here. Because it seemed like everything his life had amounted to was here. But the boxes don’t look the same as they did when he came down the stairs—rock formation strata of vast importance, anchoring the house to the ground with all its multilayered significance. Every box had a story and a name and a place and a history, but somehow, they aren’t that now. They’re boxes. All the way at the back, there are pieces of his mother, hidden behind pieces of his father and of Sam. And he could visualize every piece of her wardrobe they still had in all the fine-stitched detail. Every piece of her jewelry a golden outline in his head, despite however man years it’s been since he even touched them. Took them out. Held them.
What are you doing? He thinks. The things in these boxes are no more real to him now than a little green house full of plants and a four-poster bed.
“I need help,” Dean says, clearing his throat, “getting up the stairs.”
Dean knows he weighs next to nothing, but it’s still surprising when Cas can hoist him up so easily. He drops the box of matches on the floor next to the window well as he fumbles for a hold on Cas’s shoulder.
“What was—what was Anna like?” Dean asks, as Cas wraps an arm around his back and the begin a slow plod toward the staircase, side by side. Dean’s head is spinning, his lungs are clenching. Cas takes most of his weight like the nothing it is, but he lets Dean keep his own feet on the ground, because he seems to know Dean needs that.
Cas plants his right foot on the first step up and waits for Dean to do the same. It’s a narrow staircase—a tight squeeze side by side together. If Dean were any bigger, they might not have made it together. He fumbles his foot onto the step, shaking.
“She was,” another step that Dean, tremblingly, tries to copy. It hurts. Everywhere. They fall into a rhythm despite that. “Very beautiful. Very creative. Strong. Active.” Dean’s knees crumple on the third step up. Cas barely flinches. His breathing isn’t even strained. “Before the illness started affecting her coordination, she loved sports. Painting. Even after, she wrote poetry.” At the fifth step, Dean wants to fucking call it quits and go back down already, because if a staircase is this fucking hard, what’s the rest of his life going to be? “She saw potential in everything.”
“Yeah?” He pants.
“Yes.” Cas basically picks him up around step ten, and he’s pretty sure both his toes skim the top of eleven. He wouldn’t know. By that point, he’s too fucking out of it to know the difference.
“I think she would have grown on you. She was very determined.”
Twelve stairs he’s been up and down a thousand times before. They’ve never been so difficult. Cas congratulates him quietly when they reach the top step and Dean rolls his eyes, because that’s just about the only muscle in his body he feels like he has confident control over. But honest to god, he takes the praise and he clings to it hard, because it really did feel like climbing back up a mountain.
“Sorry for what I said before,” Dean says. “I know I wasn’t—some fucked up surrogate for your sister.”
“You were upset.”
“So were you.”
“It’s in the past.”
A moment of companionable silence passes between them. Dean can tell that Cas means it when he says that everything’s okay, and that’s just about the best thing Dean’s heard in a decade.
“And I’m—sorry I never asked before.”
Cas hums a question, rearranging his hands for easier walking now that they’re on even ground. Cas even goes so far as to pull Dean’s pants up where they were slipping down his ass before his settles his hand just above the hard crest of Dean’s hip.
“About your sister. I mean. What she was like. I didn’t know her so it’s hard to imagine sometimes, y’know. Like, there’s a big gap in someone’s life, but they always seem okay, and that’s the only way you’ve ever known ’em, so you don’t know if it’s something you’d be better to leave alone.” Cas hums again. Agreement this time.
Dean’s main floor looks different, too, just like the downstairs did. He’d been used to the empty look, but he thought he’d never see it again, and it was easier before to think about the way that it was in his memories. It was easier to go out thinking that things were the way he’d always remembered them.
Easier. Easier. Well Dean fucking isn’t having an easier time, now.
“I only wish I knew you without that gap in your life, Dean,” Cas says. “Though I suppose I never would have had an excuse to talk to you were it not for him and his extenuating circumstances.”
“Excuse, huh?” Dean says, dredging a smile. “You wanted to talk to me?” He doesn’t mention all the ogling he did of Cas’s butt from afar. It’s nice, having some kind of upper hand for a minute. He doesn’t have to mention that he got gooey over Cas’s ass while the guy is practically dragging him across the room if he doesn’t want to.
But Cas doesn’t recognize normal human conventions, of course he doesn’t, and he just says, “Yes. First you were handsome and then—I admit. You were right. You became a—” he chews the word over carefully. Cas doesn’t hesitate when he talks often, seems to have exactly what he wants to say right on the tip of his tongue. “Concern.”
Not a project. Not a client or a responsibility like his sister. A concern. Dean knows pretty well what that means, but he’s only still alive because Cas made him a concern, he wouldn’t have made it up the stairs if it weren’t for concern, so maybe Dean shouldn’t look a gift horse in its fucking mouth.
“Aw, I stopped being handsome?” He’s got all the mock-hurt he can muster in his tone to cover up on the real hurt creeping in underneath. Far as Dean knows, looks are all he’s ever had. Looking in the mirror anymore is like walking into a funhouse—he’s got no real idea how he looks to others because he barely knows what he looks like to himself.
“Gabriel says you look like a scarecrow. Gabriel threatened to set you in the garden outside the greenhouse.” Dean’s heart sinks. “But Gabriel is wrong. You’ll never stop being beautiful. You’re just sick.”
“Sick,” Dean says.
“Sick,” Cas confirms.
Dean stops moving his legs in the middle of the living room, just as they’re getting close to the little patch of linoleum and the front door, and Cas stops with him, because he must get that this is some kind of turning point. Like the opposite of carrying your bride over the threshold, but with all the same stupid, loaded significance.
Dean breathes through his nose, and Cas gives him a minute before he asks, all quiet reverence, “So what was your father like, Dean? What kind of gap did he leave?”
As a kid, there’s a particular sound to your parents in the house, a sound to the way they inhabit a space, that brings comfort. When you had nightmares or you couldn’t sleep or you just didn’t feel right in your own kid-skin, sometimes it was nice to know someone was in the house with you. That your parents were around for you if shit went south. Dean’s version of that was a ritual clattering in the front hallway prefaced by a long, steady creak from the door’s chronically unoiled hinges. He used to stay up waiting for it, stay up hoping for it, because he was hungry, or he was tired of making Sammy dinner, or he was sick and needed his dad there to make him feel better. Sometimes it happened, and Dean could sleep. Most of the time, it didn’t.
That’s the kind of gap his dad left.
Dean takes a couple tentative steps forward and Cas scrambles to follow, keeping him upright so he can wrap one set of long, broken, knobbly fingers around the doorknob and pull it inward. It drifts open and bumps gently against the wall, groaning its dismay all the while. The squeak echoes wrong in the empty rooms, bounces crazily off the bare walls.
“You know what, Cas?” Dean says, not taking his eyes off the doorknob. “He was kind of an asshole.”
He can feel Cas looking at him. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Cas’s very sage nod.
It’s surprisingly easy to leave once they’re over the doorjamb and Cas has closed the door again. Dean says not to bother to lock it, because really, who gives a fuck. He was about to burn the whole place down not an hour ago anyway.
“So what, now I just sell my house like a normal human?” he asks as they take the porch steps about ten times slower than they took the stairs from the basement, fatigue making him even weaker.
“It’s just—not my problem anymore?”
On the front lawn, as Cas hustles him along past the rubble from the fire where they burned dad’s belongings, Dean drags a useless foot through the ashes. And he’s suddenly reminded—his dad’s ashes are sitting on the kitchen counter. He liked the idea of the fire burning all the impurities out of them, so that they would be the same kind of pure they were when he first got them from the morgue at the hospital, and they’d look the same as everything else did once the fire took it. He’d been pretty content to just leave them there. And now—he still wants to, deep down. He wants to leave his dad here. It feels permanent, like this is Dean finally making his dad settle.
In reality, he’s just going to end up in another garbage bin, because his house isn’t going to sit untouched for the rest of his life. Someone else is going to live here.
Maybe Kate Milligan would appreciate having a little piece of his dad. Her—boyfriend. Whatever. Maybe this other kid wants a piece of his dad, too. It’s not his fucking fault John Winchester is kind of a douchebag. Dad clearly loved whatever was waiting for him up there in Windom. So maybe a piece of him should get to be there, too.
“Remind me. To make sure to send someone back here for his ashes before the cleaning crew comes.”
Castiel side-eyes him. “Of course.”
“Huh. You think they’re gonna sell off my stuff in the basement?”
“Or destroy it, I imagine.”
He feels a little like his chest is buoying along behind him at the thought of that.
Cas stops. “Dean, if that’s too much, I can have my brother hire someone to put it in storage for you.”
That feels strange too. As strange as watching someone else inhabit his space is going to be.
“But our new house doesn’t have a basement,” Dean says, lightly as he can. “Where are we gonna put it all?”
He’ll have to send someone back for his car too, maybe a few other valuables, but he gets the feeling that he’s going to be pretty otherwise occupied for the next few weeks. So maybe he’s not going to see this place again before it belongs to someone else.
He stuffs down the feeling of wanting to watch it burn instead.
He’s not cool enough to not look back once, so he does. And there’s no grand revelations in it. It’s a house that he lived in for a while, but the windows are dark and soulless and quiet and it’s not a home anymore, if it ever was one, because home is standing right next to him. Home’s keeping him steady and fully clothed with one hand in his belt loop and one around his shoulders.
Home leans over to give him a warm kiss him on the cheek, even though home just told him he smells like ass.
“You’re right, Dean,” Cas says. “Forgive me.”
“Now tell me more about how handsome you thought I was.”
And Cas does, and he stays even with him, side by side, down the path, past the overgrown lilac bushes, where Cas’s car is still waiting across the road. And a hospital is waiting. Rehab is waiting. Bobby and Ellen are waiting. His brother is waiting.
For the first time, they’re moving at the same speed because Dean asked him to stop and Cas cared enough to slow down. And he gets the feeling that this time, they’ll cross whatever finish line’s at the end of this hell together.
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