Ding dong, the witch was dead. Or rather, witches -- what had looked like one had turned out to be a whole coven. It was all a lot more complicated than expected, but then, when did anything go smoothly?
Finally, though, Dean could take a deep breath and let it out slow, listening to the sound of nothing. The air had a harsh feeling to it, it tickled his nostrils, but he didn’t pay it any mind. He liked this moment, when the fight was over and everything had stilled. Moments of calm in this life usually meant intoxication. Feeling good and fully lucid was a rare pleasure, and he’d take it where he could get it, even if that meant relying on the lingering endorphins from getting tossed into walls.
“What’s with the look, man?” Dean frowned, a mirror to Cas’ wrinkled nose and furrowed brow.
“Can’t you smell that?”
“It’s a witch house,” Dean shrugged. “Smelling bad is kinda what they do.”
“Ammonia,” Cas declared flatly. Upon sniffing a bit more deliberately, he added, “broken down from urea by bacteria and amplified by thiols.”
“Cas, are you… saying it smells like… pee?” Sam asked, haltingly, as he put the pieces together.
“Not human,” Cas elaborated. “There are feline pheromones and… the waste products of toxoplasma gondii.”
“So it smells like cat pee,” Dean concluded. “So? Again, witch house.”
Sam leaped immediately to the worst case scenario. “Crap, It’s not a familiar, is it?”
“No,” Cas said, utterly resolute.
Dean didn’t bother asking how Cas could tell the difference but if he said he could, then he could.
“Cas...” Sam ventured in a tone suggesting he would ask the next question against his own better judgment, “Are the cat… cats… whatever… alive? Can you tell?”
Cas closed his eyes for a moment, likely applying grace more deliberately to his information-gathering. “I believe there is at least one living cat, or at least, there was recently. Probably juvenile. That's the most I can glean without--”
"Don't stretch yourself," Dean said. "Not over something like this, it's not worth it."
Sam sighed. “Well, least we can do is find it and put it outside or something, at least give it a chance of not starving in an abandoned house.”
“Or put it down,” Dean pointed out, “if the witch, you know… did something to it, or whatever.”
Sam nodded, with more open distress on his face than had been present the entire time they’d been after the coven itself.
“Alright,” Dean took the lead, “Cas, second floor, Sam first floor, I’ll head down into the basement. Just give a shout if you see anything fluffy and breathing.”
The warped wood of the steps complained under Dean’s feet. He’d chosen the basement for himself on purpose, on the assumption that it was the most likely candidate for location harboring hidden cats, both alive and dead.
Sniffles be damned, it was best for everyone. If there were bodies, Dean would rather see them himself than inflict them on Sam or Cas, and if something had to get taken out, whether out of mercy or otherwise, he definitely wanted to have the chance to do it quick before any bleeding hearts got the chance to argue.
The beam of his flashlight swept the stairwell, and he found a light switch. The smell was stronger down here -- he couldn’t pick out all the bits and pieces of it like Cas could, but there was a very certain feline musk that sat on the ground like a cloud. Blended with the mildew and dust, it made him cough.
At the bottom of the stairs, the unfinished basement split into two sides. The room to the right was clearly more heavily used, so he went that way first, but found no sign of cat life around the stained concrete utility sinks, and the washer and dryer were clean-ish.
A chest freezer near the doorway between the two areas, however, confirmed what he’d thought. Cat parts of one kind or another were pretty common ingredients in witch magic, and these particular witches had been into some avant-garde stuff, lots of magical experimentation. They must have needed a steady supply.
Still, the ones in the freezer were adults, by the look of them, and had clearly been dead for some time. They weren’t what Cas was on about. So many, though -- it created questions, like how long the witches had been doing this, if these cats had been bred here, raised here, if they’d ever even seen the light of day.
“Talk about no way to live,” he muttered, glad to have put an end to it already. “Not even for a cat.”
The house was built into a steep incline, making the disused left side of the basement darker than the right, and with the ancient water heater in one corner, it was warmer as well. Cardboard boxes were stacked in a way that seemed like someone wanted them bumped into and knocked over, and there was no bulb in the light socket.
He took two steps in. Dean held his flashlight like a knife and cast yellow circles into the corners of the room.
Two tiny flickering spots shone back to him from around the side of the water heater.
This being far from Dean’s first time catching a small animal, he did his best to make life easier for himself -- he sat the flashlight on the ground, light-end pointing to the ceiling, and moved a couple of cardboard boxes into the doorless frame to keep the cat from bolting, or at least slow it down if it tried.
Plan B, if it got past the boxes, was to open the back basement door and just chase it outside and call it a job well done.
He got down on all fours and inched toward the boiler until, in the scattered soft light, he got a better look.
Whatever he expected, it wasn’t this.
The scrawny body was covered only patchily in short black hair, and its head was a harsh triangle-wedge with frankly ridiculous ears, each one at least the size of its entire face. It didn’t seem to have much control over its claws, likewise too big for its body.
It was a kitten, Dean supposed, though if pressed he’d say it more closely resembled a mogwai, or maybe a grounded bat.
As it regarded him, its head wobbled unsteadily.
The little thing did its best to stand, shaky though it was. It arched its tiny spine, drew back its lips, and let out a pretty useless attempt at a hiss.
A little shift in angle, and Dean saw the rest of the picture: there was another kitten farther back that he hadn't noticed before, because it was so still, with hair the same gray as the cement floor.
Its eyes were closed, and its little chest was not moving, no matter how long Dean waited, holding his own breath.
“I get it,” Dean murmured, not baby-talk, he would be quick to say, but still, gentle. He rocked back from his crouch into a cross-legged sit. “That’s your uh... brother or sister, right? And you’re…” Dean rubbed his face with one hand. “You’ve been playing defense.”
The kitten tried to hold its fearsome pose, but its muscles couldn’t keep up and it toppled over.
“It’s okay to be tired,” Dean said. “I get tired too, y’know? You… you do your best to try and protect everybody, but…”
Dean swore inwardly. Sam’s put it outside plan was evaporating fast -- there’s no way it wouldn’t just try and get back in and wind up trapped, and even if it didn’t, Cas’ proclamation that it was juvenile was turning out to be the understatement of the century. It was way too young to survive on its own. He ran down a list of people in his head he could dump it on, and rejected them all quickly for one reason or another -- too busy, too transient, too careless.
“Alright, kiddo,” Dean said, so sotto it was almost a whisper. “I know you don’t want to go anywhere, but I think your family’s had enough death already. Ask me how I know, huh? But... that’s why you can’t give up. Even if you kind of want to, sometimes. And listen, when you’re really low, like subterranean , sometimes you can’t save yourself. Sometimes someone else has to pick you up and drag you back to the land of the living. So… try not to hate me for this.”
The second he reached out, the thing absolutely screeched -- a ridiculously high pitched, shallow, miserable noise. “I know, I know,” Dean said, but didn’t stop his approach.
He scooped the kitten gingerly off the ground very much against its will, as it did its damndest to protest. It dug its claws into the skin of his fingers, but as claws go, Dean had had worse. He made a sort of cradle-cage with his hands as he ascended the stairs, giving the little thing space to fight and wriggle, but not to escape.
Sam was the first to get a look at him, but Cas was right behind, obviously having completed his own fruitless search.
Scream -breath- scream -breath- scream --the kitten was deeply stubborn, clearly intending to keep up its squeaker-toy routine as long as it drew breath.
“You found it!” Sam said over the noise, “Just one?”
“Just one,” Dean confirmed. “Alive, anyway.”
“Sure can make a lot of noise for something so small,” Sam mused. He spared a moment to glance over the scratches on Dean’s hands, “I hope you’re up to date on your shots.”
“Hey,” Dean defended the kitten, surprised to hear the affection in his own voice. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Or… cat, in this case, and this one’s nothing but fight.”
“No point in healing you until it’s stopped scratching,” Cas said with an air of futility. “Where are you going to leave it?”
“Leave it?!” Dean protested. “Hell no. We’re keeping it.”
“What?” Sam and Cas chorused, the former more with shock, the latter flat and doubtful.
“Are you... sure that’s a good idea?” Cas worried -- too much, in Dean’s opinion. “You don’t know if it’s cursed, or something. Besides--”
“Well is it?” When he held the kitten closer, Cas actually recoiled slightly, more human of a gesture than Dean would have expected..
“Can we have this conversation in the car?” Sam urged, and Dean could see why -- the houses weren’t that far apart, and Dean’s little noisemaker was sure to generate interest sooner than later.
“Good point,” Dean said. He held the kitten to his chest with one hand, and ignored all the little needles digging through layers of fabric as he dug the keys out of his pocket and tossed them to Cas. “Cas, you’re driving.”
Cas shot a look of unguarded alarm at Sam, who responded in kind. Sam turned to appraise Dean with concern and doubt, while Cas looked down at the keys in his hand as if he thought he was perhaps imagining things.
“Guys, I’m fine. I haven’t gone nuts, I just can’t drive and keep this thing contained at the same time, and Sam’s on research duty. Besides, it’s not that far. You can get us there in one piece, right Cas?”
“Research?” Sam’s forehead crinkled even more than it already had.
“Yeah,” said Dean, already halfway out the door. “About kittens.”
It wasn’t often that Dean sat in the back of his own car, but the last thing Cas needed was a feline distraction.
Sam’s laptop was perched on his thighs. Dean didn’t see him set up the tether but he must have done it at some point.
You got a hell of a team helping you out, buddy, Dean thought.
They sifted through a little information and some reference pictures, and determined (over the sound of continued hoarse wails) that it was almost certainly he, though it wasn’t as easy to tell as Dean would have expected, and that he was probably a little more than three weeks old.
“Pretty rough few weeks, huh, little guy? Well, we’ll try and make sure bad times are over,” Dean said, and he saw Cas grimace for some reason in the rear view mirror.
The kitten did not acknowledge this in any particular way, other than pressing on with his tuneless lament.
“I’m gonna call him Batman,” Dean declared. Cas sighed, and Sam chuckled, so Dean explained: “I mean, look at him. Not you, Cas, eyes on the road. The color, the ears, the dead family… he’s Batman.” He turned his attention directly to the bellowing creature and asks, “Batman okay with you?”
The kitten stopped baying, licked his lips, and made an odd sort of clucking sound before vomiting a little pool of whitish-clearish liquid onto Dean’s sleeve and lap.
Sam, of course, found this hilarious. He passed back a couple of fast food napkins from the glove box. “I guess this makes you Alfred, huh?”
In the middle of mopping up, being careful to make sure the mess stayed on his clothes and not on the upholstery, Dean looked at Cas’ mouth in the rear-view mirror, and saw that the hard, anxious line of his lips had softened. It wasn’t a smile, but it wasn’t not a smile, which is the best he’d seen since coming out of the basement. He could work with that, even if it was just Schadenfreude.
“I’m surprised, Dean,” Sam admitted. “You usually gross out a lot easier than this.”
“Listen, I gross out at gross things. People coughing up clockwork organs,” Dean referenced the case they’d just finished, “Skinwalker leftovers, that kind of shit.”
“But not cat puke?”
“Hey, your baby puke was like ten times grosser than this, and I cleaned that up more times than I can count.”
“That’s good,” Sam said, “‘Cause according to this, kittens his age can’t poop on their own. You’ll have to uh… let’s see, it says, stimulate the anus area with a warm, damp washcloth, in a similar manner to the mother cat’s grooming.” Sam twisted around to watch Dean’s reaction expectantly, as if he was certain this would be some kind of last straw and Dean would give up on the whole endeavor then and there.
Of course, he was more stubborn than that. He wasn’t exactly enthused with the notion, but just like his namesake, Batman didn’t have a mom to do that kind of stuff. All the more reason to take him in, as far as Dean was concerned. What if someone else messed it up and he got hurt, or sick?
“It’s about need,” Cas wasn’t asking. He skewered right to the heart of the thing without even a glance in the rear-view mirror. “Your disgust response is suppressed because you feel the cat is part of your in-group and is depending on you. You’re predisposed to it because of the quasi-parental role you were forced into as a child.”
“What ever ” Dean dismissed. What did the psychology matter? The situation was what it was. “Point is, it’s no biggie.”
“Take this exit,” Sam directed Cas. “If this is really happening, I guess we’re buying kitten formula.”
Cas followed directions with a nod. When they got into the parking lot, Sam insisted on going in by himself -- Batman was too young to have had his shots, and there could be bacteria or viruses in there that he wasn’t ready for.
So, Dean waited in the car, with Cas.
Better-out-than-in apparently applied to kittens as much as to people, because the silence in the car spoke volumes. No more hollering. Batman had settled down quite a bit after his upchuck incident. Dean couldn’t blame him for that -- he’d been tired from the start, and all that screaming had to wear a guy out.
Softly, so as not to disturb Batman as he started to doze in the warm pocket formed by Dean’s hand and stomach, Dean asked, “He’s not cursed, is he? Or… anything like that? Can you tell?”
Cas answered, though not without a little sigh and an eye-roll that Dean found unnecessary, “No, Dean. At least, not that I can tell. I can’t detect anything irregular. He’s a normal kitten.”
“So what’s your malfunction? I thought you liked cats.”
“Where did you get that impression?” Cas’ brow knitted together in the mirror.
“You, obviously,” Dean said, baffled that it was even a question. “You uh… kind of seemed like you had an affinity, back in the day. You don’t remember? Before Purgatory, when you were--”
“Right,” Cas interrupted. Something about his tone made Dean abruptly prefer not to finish his sentence.
Cas stopped looking into the rear view mirror entirely after that, all Dean could see of him was the back of his head. He thought about climbing into the front seat a couple of times, but Batman was comfortable, and the idea hit Dean like a ton of bricks that this could very well be the most comfortable Batman had ever been. Bothering him would be selfish.
Besides all that, Sam was back soon enough, laden with rustling plastic bags.
“You owe me one,” Sam commented. “This card is maxed.”
“I got the milk replacement,” Sam began to inventory, “the liquid and the powder, ‘cause I wasn’t sure how much time you’d want to spend mixing the stuff, but the powder was a lot cheaper -- seems like he’s gonna need to eat like six times a day at least…”
Batman raised his head and blinked a bit blearily at all the noise. Dean scritched him between his giant ears with one finger, and he yawned. His teeth were so small, Dean wasn’t sure what they could possibly be good for. Luckily he was only going to have to contend with formula for a little while.
Sam had gotten not one litter-box but a few, citing the size of the bunker, as well as some kind of special enzyme cleaning spray that seemed like it might be useful for more than just pet stuff. He’d stuck to the necessities for the most part, which was fine. Better to figure out what was actually needed versus what they could make do without, and Dean figured he could probably MacGyver a lot of it himself.
The rest of the drive was quieter. Batman fell asleep again almost the moment the engine started to rumble, demonstrating admirable taste in comforting sounds.
It was the first car trip in ages in which Dean didn’t even suggest turning on the music.
The first twenty-four hours were tough, there was no denying that. Dean was coming off a long hunt, and he was tired. Sam and Cas retreated to their own private spaces almost immediately -- Sam for obvious exhaustion-based reasons, Cas… well, the second he got a chance to put some space between himself and Batman he did just that, for whatever reason. It was concerning enough, but not a top priority.
So, Dean clattered around the kitchen alone, setting up for bottle-warming with one hand while the other cradled Batman against his sternum, up under both of the shirts he was wearing. The bunker was drafty, and Sam’s research had been extremely clear on the importance of warmth.
All of Dean’s worries -- was the milk the right temperature, was the hole in the bottle's nipple the right size, was the posture correct -- were over nothing. Batman absolutely descended on the bottle the moment he had an opportunity. His oversized ears wiggled and flapped and he stretched his tiny legs. Dean re-positioned so the flesh of his leg could provide a little resistance that Batman could knead against.
He hadn’t lied, about being alright with the next part. A couple of gentle swipes with a warm wet-wipe and Batman caught on quick to what he was meant to do. Definitely easier than a human baby.
With Batman fed, clean, and dry, Dean grabbed a beer and headed for the Dean-cave. He put his favorite recliner all the way back so he practically horizontal and could serve as a self-heating cat bed.
Both of them dozed off before he could even get halfway through his drink.
Dean woke with a start to the feeling of his phone vibrating in his pocket. His first thought was that it couldn’t possibly have been three hours already, he felt like he’d hardly closed his eyes, but the clock on his phone said otherwise.
His chest and neck felt strange, and his eyes itched. One hand came up to his collar to scratch, and found bumps.
A lot of bumps.
Batman grumbled lightly when Dean scooped him from his napping place and deposited him alone on the seat of the recliner. He stepped out of the Dean-cave, shedding his shirts as he went and swearing under his breath. The mirror, when he reached the bathroom, showed the damage: everything from chin to navel, covered in angry, raised red patches that itched like the dickens. On top of all that, his eyes looked like he’d been on a five-day bender in a chlorinated pool.
He bent into the sink to wash his face and neck, maybe get a little of the cat dander off it, and when he came back up again and opened his eyes to the mirror, he practically jumped out of his skin.
“Jesus! Fuck!” Dean scolded Cas. “Thought we were past this kind of shit, dude, what are you doing sneaking up on me?”
“I… assumed my footsteps were audible.” Cas defended, and then narrowed his eyes appraisingly. “You’re having an allergic reaction.”
“Way to go, Captain Obvious. Have to use your mojo to figure that out?”
From down the hall, Batman began to do what could only be described as crying. They both looked in that direction, as if the walls would part for them to see.
“You wanna help me out here?”
“Help you…” Cas trailed off, uncertain.
“You know, zap my allergy away or something,” Dean indicated. “You can do that, right?”
Cas’ jaw tensed, Dean saw the little twitch a few inches below his ear. “Of course, Dean.”
“No. No. Nevermind,” Dean corrected himself, waving a hand as if he could disperse the original request like a bad smell. “Sorry. I know you’re... rationing. I’ll go buy some Benadryl or something. Shouldn’t have asked.”
Almost imperceptibly (but not quite) Cas rolled his eyes. He laid a hand on Dean’s irritated shoulder, and a radial wave of cool sparks traveled out from the point of contact. When Dean glanced back at the mirror, the rash was gone.
“It should at least be a little less severe, now. I’m sorry I can’t do more,” Cas said. “To remove the allergy itself entirely would be--”
“Too much of a drain. I get it. Seriously, you probably shouldn’t have even done that much.” Guilt lanced Dean right through the chest. “No point wasting whatever you got left on me.”
There was a sad tenderness in Cas’ voice that practically gave Dean hives all over again when he said, shrugging, “You asked.”
He left Dean there, holding a bag of awkwardness, listening to Batman’s yawping down the hall.
Batman greeted Dean’s return with a trill and then silence. When Dean scooped him up off the chair for a trip to the kitchen, a buzzing against his arm told him that the little dude was purring.
Did they make shots for cat allergies? They had to, right?
The second feeding went much like the first, including the cleanup and subsequent nap for the both of them, and together, Dean and Batman repeated the pattern a few more times before the clock said it was morning.
Sam walked in on feeding number… Six? Seven? Dean was quickly losing count.
“You weren’t in your room,” Sam observed.
“Sleeping better in the recliner.” Dean gestured to the suckling cat with his free hand, “Sort of. S’rough waking up so often, but all the little dude wants to do is eat and sleep, so…”
That got a bleary laugh out of Sam. “Guess you two are a perfect match after all.”
“That is what babies customarily do,” Cas commented flatly from the doorway. His hair was a riot and his voice was rough with… wait.
“Dude.” Dean frowned. “Did you… sleep?”
Cas looked away, his non-answer clear. Sam shot Dean a look. Worse than we thought, it said. Worried. The look Dean sent back affirmed the concern. They didn’t have to speak to settle on a thing like this.
Who knew if sun and fresh air mattered to a re-(re)-falling angel? But given how rough the transition had been the last couple of times he’d been powerless, both Dean and Sam were quietly determined to do it right this time, to lighten the load, even after Cas had flatly refused to explain to either of them exactly why and how it had started in the first place. All he’d said was, this is it, this time.
Over the coffee Dean brewed with one arm (the other cradling a full and drowsy kitten) a plan was devised: Cas would accompany him to the vet and the drugstore, whether he wanted to or not. If a funk was descending, it was probably best to get him out of the house and make him feel useful, or at least that was Dean’s theory, since that was what usually worked on him.
Dean left Batman with Sam long enough to take a shower and change his clothes. He was on his way back down the hall, keys in hand, when he heard Sam’s semi-distant voice in the library.
“...Never thought of it that way.”
Dean froze. Cas said something, but the pitch of his voice was too low and he was speaking too quietly for it to be intelligible.
“You know what I think already,” Sam said. “I’m not a counselor, if it’s bugging you, you should tell him yourself.”
Cas rumbled again, then came Sam’s answer: “I still think you should say something about it. You know how he is. He makes a joke, brushes it off, argues, pretends he’s ignoring you, but… later, you’ll see him act on it. He takes stuff to heart, he just doesn’t want anyone to know it, for whatever reason.”
Dean caught Cas’ brief, half-dark laugh, but not what he said next.
Sam laughed back. “Well you don’t have to be like that if you don’t want to. You know… you don’t even have to [...]--” There was something unintelligible, which Cas interrupted, and then Sam replied, “Yeah, I kind of figured… Seriously though, if you decide you want to switch to ‘they’ or whatever, sometime down the road, once things have settled, just let me know. I’ll hook Dean up to one of those electric dog collars, zap him every time he gets it wrong.”
Cas said something that ended with the words “...very thoughtful.”
Dean bristled. About twenty things tried to run through his head and all crashed into one another. He jangled his keys as he rounded the corner, like a hiker warning bears of his approach.
“Ready to go?” Dean asked. He lifted Batman out of Sam’s arms, and Sam looked almost bereft for a moment -- Dean had known Sam would come around pretty quick, but this was faster than even he’d expected.
Cas visibly adjusted his face to something more neutral. “Sure.”
“Well aren’t you adorable… and feisty!” The vet’s name-tag read Ariel, like the mermaid. She was so petite Dean practically had to bend down to talk to her - she had to be older than she looked, right?
Ariel spoke very clearly over the rough scree- ing noises Batman had started to make the moment Dean had surrendered him. She chuckled at Dean, and only then did he realize the concerned expression that must have snuck up on his face.
Ariel glanced between Dean and Cas. “Don’t be nervous, Mr. Winchester… is this little guy your first pet together?”
“Toge--” Dean stopped short. “No. Not... I mean, we’re not…”
“Oh!” Ariel giggled placatingly. “I apologize. My mistake for assuming.”
“Just friends,” Dean chirped, a little too quickly.
All of a sudden, the way Ariel looked at Cas took a turn… specifically an up-and-down sort of turn. “Well. You’re very lucky to have such a good friend.” To Cas, she said, “Stoic, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been told that, yes,” Cas confirmed.
She laughed as if he’d told an excellent joke, and Dean caught Cas’ mouth ticking upward at the corners in response. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Dean watched her place Batman on the steel plate atop a digital scale.
The kitten arched away from the metal. Must be cold, Dean thought, a bit of a shock for his little feet. He wore an effortful expression for a moment, and then, all of the sudden… shat right on the scale. A perfect brown cat turd, in miniature.
“Hey--” Dean pointed.
“Not to worry,” Ariel assured, reaching for a wipe. “Happens all the time.”
“No, I mean, that’s his first one. On his own, anyway.”
She twirled around. “Well, congratulations, papa! There’s a milestone for you! Looks like a good healthy one, too. Memorize that poop, Mr. Winchester, that’s exactly what they ought to look like. If you see something much different, you call me, you got that?”
“Maybe you can get it bronzed,” Cas mused dryly.
There was that laugh again, from Ariel. “At any rate,” she said, “He’s a little skinnier than I’d like, but that comes with the territory... I think we can safely put Batman here at four weeks. If you come back oh… I don’t know, a month? We should be able to give him his shots and get him neutered all at the same time.”
She taught Dean how to wean him, with a mixture of wet food and formula to make a sort of odd brown gruel, and Cas examined the wallpaper.
Back in the car, Dean set Batman in his lap, but the kitten wasn’t having it. He’d had a long night of eating and sleeping and his batteries were charged, it seemed. He dug his claws into Dean’s jeans for purchase, and made a hesitant attempt at a hop that turned into at tumble onto to bench seat.
Batman let out a little squeak-grunt as he righted himself. He shook his head, flapping his big, wingy ears, and forged a shaky-yet-determined path toward Cas.
“Perhaps we should switch places,” Cas said, looking at Batman as if he were mildly dangerous. “If he isn’t going to sleep like he did on the way over…”
Dean took mercy on Cas and scooped the struggling kitten up too quickly for his claws to dig into the upholstery. He put the key in the ignition, but rather than turning it, he sat back and regarded Cas. “Alright, man, I can’t do this. You gotta tell me what’s up. ”
Batman started to scale Winchester Mountain, heading up one arm toward the shoulder. Dean let him.
Cas looked out the window, and then back at Dean. “Dean, are you under the impression that I… like bees?”
“The hell do bees have to with… is this about me thinking you liked cats, before? You don’t like cats after all, or you changed your mind, whatever, who cares?” Dean began to get agitated. “The bunker’s a big place, dude, once he gets used to it, I’m sure you’ll hardly see him. It’s not like you ever hang around that long anyway. You’re really gonna make a big thing of this? It’s just a cat!”
“Please answer the question.”
“I… yeah. I guess. I mean, you wouldn’t stop talking about ‘em. You brought Crowley a bag of honey.” Dean imitated Cas, “ I watch the bees. Not to mention the whole uh… incident, with…” Dean gestured to his body, or perhaps to his clothes, hoping that naked bee incident came across clear enough without him saying it out loud.
“I remember,” Cas said, sounding distinctly uncomfortable.
“So what was I supposed to think, exactly?” Dean huffed. “Everybody’s got their stuff. Sam’s into serial killers! Compared to that? Bees? Not so weird.”
Cas went silent for a long moment, staring forward, looking for all the world like a computer mid-buffer. Finally, he said, “It feels hopeless, sometimes.”
Dean said nothing.
His patience was rewarded when Cas finally elaborated: “Like I speak a different language to all of you, and now, to them too. I never fit in, in Heaven, not really. Even with all of the pop culture knowledge Metatron ever collected, I still don’t fit in on Earth. I just wonder if I can ever really belong anywhere. If maybe I should have just...” He stopped short.
“Should have what?” Dean practically croaked, but he knew what was coming.
“Stayed in the empty. Gone back to sleep, like it told me. Be… and… this is the Empty’s phrasing here.. a fond memory, rather than constant, festering disappointment. ”
“Cas…” Dean swallowed as he tried and failed not to remember the light burning out from inside Cas’ face. “You’re not a… festering…. You belong with us.”
“Do I? Really? Because--”
“Okay, fine, what was the deal with the bees?” Dean probed perfunctorily. “If you didn’t like them, and you don't like cats, and you’re telling me this now, there’s gotta be a reason, right?”
“I want to be heard, I guess. Understood.” Cas shrugged, as if he was having a hard time understanding himself.
“Fine,” Dean said in surrender. “So, shoot.”
“I was ill, Dean. It was in every way my own fault, but I was still ill. I didn’t love bees, I didn’t want a cat. My… shattered mind was trying to reassemble itself. I watched the bees, because... They have orders, they follow them. They don’t ask questions, they just do their jobs. No bee has ever ruined their hive and killed half their family in the name of free will. They obey, and life is good.”
“You were working through your shit about the war in Heaven,” Dean summarized.
Batman found a spot between Dean’s neck and shoulder where he fit almost perfectly, and began to purr against Dean’s collarbone.
“I assume I associated cats with the opposite,” Cas said. “With you and Sam. Hence the one species short comment. They do what they want, when they want.”
“And now you associate all this shit with all that shit.”
“The feeling is… not pleasant,” Cas said quietly. “And even if I were to learn to tolerate it, the fact remains that bringing a pet into the chaos of your life is….” Cas searched visibly for the word, and settled on: “inadvisable, at best. I’m certain you would once have agreed. I find myself unsure of what changed, since then.”
“Alright, Spock, what was I supposed to do?” Dean defended. If it weren’t for the kitten on him, he might be shouting, but he didn’t want to scare the little dude. “He had nowhere else to go.”
Cas turned his body physically away when he sniped, “Neither did I.”
“Oh come on!” Dean whisper-yelled. “You’ve gotta be… Sam was in danger, you know that. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Are you.. actually defending...” Cas dripped incredulous venom. “You had the choice to tell me at least. To trust me, but instead, you just…” he stopped talking. His jaw worked.
“Fucked everything up, as always?”
“Don’t.” Cas wouldn’t even turn to look him in the eye, now.
“The… routine” Cas narrowed his gaze when he finally returned it and waved his hand dismissively as if indicating to Dean’s whole being. “You had no tolerance for my self-flagellation once upon a time, if you remember.”
Dean shifted Batman gently to the backseat to take the restraints off his gesturing. The kitten stood uneasily with a chirruping grunt. “If I said sorry now, so what? What difference does it make? I said it before, and I still didn’t help you. I could say it right now, you wouldn’t know if I even meant it or not.”
“It makes a difference.”
“Because it does.”
“Then I’m sorry,” Dean spat.
“Are you?” Cas did nothing to hide his skepticism.
It took everything Dean had to reach into his ribcage and pull out, “I don’t know. Give me a second.”
It was the truth. He wasn’t good at this, hadn’t grown up with a model for it. Most of the apologies in Dean’s life, his own and his father’s, were slimy -- a way to make someone do what you wanted, or stop hurting you, or bothering you. Cas was in the right -- he was entitled to his anger, and to just drop a sorry would almost be like trying to take that away from him. Don’t be sorry , dad always said, be better .
And why did this feel so much like the fights he used to have with Cassie?
He knew one thing for sure, he didn’t want this to be like that, so Dean picked apart his feelings like a biologist with an owl pellet until he found something to say to Cas, even if he couldn’t make eye contact while he did it, even if his voice felt like it got smaller and smaller the longer he spoke. “I regret not doing more for you. I’m not sorry I protected Sam, I can’t be, but... I should have found another way. I’m sorry I didn’t at least set you up better. I don’t know if it’s worth anything, but... I really hope you stay, this time.”
“It is,” Cas said, so quiet it was half-whisper. “Worth something.”
“Listen, man… all that stuff you said before? To me, that’s just evidence you do belong with us. We’re like the bad decisions baggage club. I know yours probably feels like it’s the worst, but we all feel like that, and it’s not a pissing contest. You know, when Death was gonna send me to the moon, or whatever…” Cas was visibly alarmed at that, and Dean realized they’d never really talked about it, but he went on, “When I killed him… Cas, he didn’t do anything wrong. He was important. He helped us, time and again, when he had no reason to. I killed him, and I had this flash, I thought… We’re not the good guys anymore.”
“And are we?” Cas asked.
“Welcome back to humanity, Cas. All we can do is try.” Dean looked out through the windshield at the strip-mall parking lot. He was genuinely doing his best when he said, “I’m not gonna make you hold Batman, but that means you’re gonna have to drive us to the drugstore.”