They’ve been creeping down the same stretch of interstate for five hours. They long ago ran out of podcasts and Dean’s more bearable cassettes and weird lore chit-chat and dumb car games – Sam has learned the hard way that 20 Questions with Cas is actually either 5 Questions or Infinity Questions.
They’re finally in the same county as their turn-off, but they’re still at least three hours out from Lebanon and they’ve officially run out of silence, too. Castiel is pretty good at keeping quiet when he’s in the back, at least over long hauls – Sam used to catch Dean glancing into the rearview just to check that he hadn’t poofed out at some point.
Having Cas ride shotgun is something else. Just having another body there pokes Sam in the brain, demands comment. The other body is usually Dean, and Dean sucks at silence. If it’s not talking, it’s music. If it’s not music, he’ll start fucking humming or tapping or whistling. Dean is nature, abhorring a vacuum.
Only Dean’s not here. So it turns out that silence is currently a very painful conversation.
“I’ve been wondering about something,” Sam says.
Castiel has his eyes closed, but they snap open immediately. “Oh?”
Sam adjusts his grip on the steering wheel. “So…the other angels. They call you he, right?”
“They normally call me Castiel.”
Sam shoots him A Look, and is rewarded with a microscopic smile. “No, I mean – you all have…consistent pronouns. That don’t change based on your vessel. From what I can tell.”
Cas shakes his head. “Not usually, no. You have to understand, Sam – most angels have never occupied a vessel, nor would they ever expect to. It’s a specialized field.” He shifts down a bit on the bench, folds his arms.
“So you do all have…some kind of…essential gender? In your true forms?”
Castiel hums non-committally. “The pronouns you hear us use in English are an approximation of an Enochian form of address. One that has nothing to do with reproductive or social roles.”
“What’s it describe, then? Rank? Age?”
Sam can’t help it: he laughs. "What?" The unbidden mental image is of Castiel strapped on one of those vomitous centrifugal wheels they used to velcro kids into at Space Camp.
Cas sighs, although it sounds more embarrassed than aggrieved, as if Sam were asking after the origin of an off-color family in-joke. "When angels traverse the common areas of Heaven, our wings manifest as rotating bands of energy. There are two possible planes – axes – of rotation. The pronouns refer to which axis that angel’s wings occupy."
"So, what…it’s not he and she, it’s more like… righty and lefty?"
Cas snorts. "I’d never thought of it that way, but the analogy is apt."
"Are there any, um. Ambidextrous angels?" Sam squints and kicks on the turn signal as they crawl up towards the nearest eastbound exit. There’s a lava flow of red brakelights ahead of them.
"Anybody we know?"
"You know me."
Sam hesitates, glances over at Castiel. He's got his elbow up on the door, chin braced on the splayed fingers of his far hand. Everything he’s wearing looks like it needs ironing, including his face. "Oh yeah?" Sam manages, lamely.
"Mm," Cas replies, which is frankly about as much as Sam deserves.
"Is that...what's that like?"
A forest green Outback two lanes over is suddenly seized by the need to exit at 126 A and Sam has to stomp on the brakes to avoid getting side-swiped. By the time Sam has brought the car back up to speed, Cas still hasn't answered.
"I'm sorry," Sam says. "Kinda none of my business." His knee is starting to ache from kicking out the clutch. They could’ve switched drivers a few hours back when it was bumper-to-bumper. Sam officially chalks it up to his pride, but really it would be admitting that Dean will be gone long enough that Sam will have time to replace the clutch after Cas fucking incinerates it.
Cas lowers his arm. "I'm not offended, Sam. I was considering my answer."
Sam shrugs; “I know angel stuff is a sensitive subject. Didn't want you to feel interrogated or anything. I'm just, you know. Curious."
"Yes, I've noticed that about you." There's a thin smile in Castiel's voice. "It was...it is...largely unimportant. I would usually adopt the same manner as the angel I was interacting with. It makes it easier to coordinate our movements. Since the majority of angels are of the axial group referred to with masculine English pronouns, I'm usually considered," and here he deploys air-quotes, Jesus Christ, if that isn't a throwback –"one of the boys."
Sam frowns, squints against the reflection off the back window of a church minivan. "I think that'd bother me."
"Why? It's practical enough. It describes the greater part of my behavior, at any rate."
“I dunno, it’s still…reductive, right? I mean, which way would you–" Sam winces a bit in anticipation at how dumb this is going to sound –"rotate, if you were alone?"
Cas, as usual, takes the ridiculous at face value. "I truly don't have a preference. Each has its tactical strengths and shortcomings. The ability to alternate between the two is an advantage in battle, of course, and it grants me access to a broader array of potentially suitable vessels."
Cas turns his face away, as if he's checking out the blind spot, or maybe his own reflection in the side mirror. "It's part of why I was chosen to retrieve Dean from Hell, and then to interact with him after his resurrection."
They finally slip off the interstate and onto the four-lane state highway, a slim river cutting through an old growth forest of gas station signs and fast food logos. They could be literally anywhere in North America, and Sam feels his shoulders involuntarily relax. Anywhere In North America is Sam's hometown.
Cas sighs. "You must be hungry by now. You should pull in somewhere."
"Nah, I'm okay. I'd rather get back to the Bunker before dark."
There’s a pause which Cas somehow manages to imbue with maternal concern. "Sam. You do need to eat."
"We have food at home."
"Cas, seriously. I’m fine."
"I can tell that you've lost weight."
"Yeah, well. Probably because I don’t have Dean shoving garbage in my face every five hours.”
Sam feels the resulting silence as an actual, physical tension in his chest.
"I’ll stop somewhere when we’re over the state line," he concedes. Cas makes a little noise of assent.
After a moment, Castiel turns his face forward again, drops his hand into his lap. "It does make some in the Host uneasy. The dual axis," he clarifies, as if the remaining stewards of Heaven might possibly have an opinion on the particulars of where Sam gets his next chicken sandwich. "They think it suggests a deceptive or indecisive nature."
They hit their first stoplight, and Sam looks over at him. “You're telling me there’s an angel equivalent of biphobia."
"You are," Castiel says dryly, "a fount of damning analogies today, Sam Winchester."
"Wow. That’s, uh. That’s…fucked up?" Sam scoffs. "I don't know why I'm surprised, though. As above, so below, I guess."
"I’ve come to see the relationship between Heaven and Earth as more of a lateral one,” Cas answers. Then he smiles.
"But that’s just me."