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War Wounds

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We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no words.” - Anna Sewell

The taste of copper fills his mouth, his body burning and lungs struggling for air. The weight on his chest is suffocating, pushing down harder with each breath he tries to take. He thrashes to break free, to escape the growing heat, pain scorching through his leg. He gasps with a lurch, nearly falling out his bed. Shaky hands cling to the headboard as he fights back the tremors.

A dream, it’s just a dream.

The taste of blood slowly goes away, the weight on Dean's chest lifts with each breath. The pain in his leg drains away to a dull ache as he stares at the twisted quilt in his lap. He pries his hands from the bed frame, moving to sit up as the vertigo gives him a rush of nausea.

The sun isn’t up all the way yet but his room has a warm glow to it. He can just make out the boxes still sitting in the corner by the closet. He hasn’t unpacked yet, part of him still not feeling like it’s a permanent home for him, despite Sam’s insistence that he can stay as long as he needs. But how pathetic is it to be living in his brother's spare bedroom? 

He obviously isn’t gonna be getting any more sleep, so he drags himself out of bed, pulling on some sweats and tiptoeing down the stairs. It’s not graceful since he has a bit of a limp in his left leg. He manages to not wake his brother as he switches on the kitchen light, waiting for the bulb to flicker on, and lets his eyes adjust.

He still feels the twist in his gut and wonders if eating something might help him feel less like puking. He finds himself sitting at the kitchen table, bare feet cold on the linoleum with a bowl of cereal before him. He doesn’t even remember fixing it. Dean swirls his spoon in his cereal, watching it slowly turn to mush before his eyes. He’s already regretting getting out of bed. 

At the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs he quickly raises a soggy bite to his lips. He can feel his brother’s eyes on his back as he comes into the kitchen and makes his way to the coffee pot. Dean braces himself for the coming lecture. It’s as familiar to him as the lyrics in a Zeppelin song. His brother can only go so long before he’s  unable to keep his mouth shut. Dean shovels another bite of bland cereal into his mouth and resists the urge to spit it back out.

“Morning,” Sam greets him, moving toward the coffee pot. He grunts in reply keeping his head down. “Have any plans today?”

Dean sighs drooping his spoon. “Same as yesterday,” he just stops himself from rolling his eyes.

“Dean, we gotta talk,” Sam announces, moving toward the table. May as well be stalking his prey.

“Do we have to do that right now?” Dean grumbles, pushing his bowl away from him and taking a sip of the coffee Sam set down for him.

“Yes, now, Dean. It can’t keep going like this.” Sam sighs, dropping heavily into the chair next to him. Dean seriously considers bolting back to his room, but Sam will only follow him.

“Fine. Say whatever it is you gotta say and then leave me the hell alone,” he snaps, the words coming out harsher than he wants them to. Which seems to be the norm lately.

“I’m worried about you. I know it’s been hard adjusting since you got back, and I wanted to give you time, but it’s only getting worse.”

“There’s no timeline on this shit, alright?” Dean scowls. It's been six months since he’s gotten home from his last tour in Afghanistan. Honorable discharge when injured in the line of duty is never how he intended to end his military career. But how often do things ever turn out how he expects them to? 

“I get that you’re still trying to figure things out. I’m just worried because you almost never leave the house, you're not sleeping, you hardly eat—”

“I’m eating,” he protests gesturing to the bowl of soggy, uneaten cereal and realizing he isn’t helping his case any.

“You're not…it’s like you're not you anymore. You don’t wanna work on your car, or watch the game with me, or find a job, or go out and see your friends.” Sam’s voice rises, and Dean can feel the tension in the room drawn tight like a bow string.

Dean can’t take another second of this, of Sam listing all the ways he’s a total failure. He pushes back from the table and Sam moves, blocking him from leaving. “Out of the way, Sammy. I’m done talking about this.”

“Done? We haven’t even started. Look, I know how much you hate to talk about this stuff, okay, and get it.But I need you to know I am here for you. You're not alone and I just want to help you.” Sam’s voice shifts at the end, making Dean look up. It’s a mistake—those hazel eyes can see right through him. Hiding things from Sam is always impossible for long. His brother can read him like a book.

“I’m working on it, okay Sam? Just gimme a little more time.” It feels like an empty promise. Not because he doesn’t want things to get better, but just because he has no idea how to make that happen. Or if it's even possible.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t push you. I just get worried about you.” 

Pity spread plainly across Sam’s face makes Dean sick with shame. He forces a fake smile on his face and claps a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I’m fine, alright? Plus, I’m seeing about a job today.”

“Really?” Sam’s eyes practically light up. “What is it? Where?”

Dean scrambles since he has no actual idea about any kind of job. “I’ll tell you tonight once I know more, okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Maybe we can watch a movie or something. I can bring home steaks?” Sam smiles at him, genuinely hopeful. 

The smile he gives back is a little closer to the real thing. “Sounds good. Now, aren’t you gonna be late?”

Sam darts a glance at the clock on the wall. “Shit, you're right. Okay, see ya tonight.” Sam grabs his coffee and hustles out the door. Sam is  in his residency at the hospital and Dean still can’t believe his brother is actually a doctor now.

The house goes a whole new kind of quiet once Sam is gone. The kind of quiet that makes Dean’s skin itch.

Maybe today will be better.

Sure it will, keep telling yourself that.

He frowns at himself but heads upstairs to change. His knee protests at climbing the stairs, but he makes it all the same. He digs through one of his boxes of clothes till he finds a clean pair of faded jeans and crumpled t-shirt that he figures will do. He avoids the mirror, scratching at the short beard he’s grown the past few weeks.

By the time he makes it outside the sun is breaking over the treetops. It makes Dean feel exhausted just at the sight of the bright blue sky. Like the day is far too awake for his liking. He realizes then that he doesn’t have a ride. The Impala hasn’t been road worthy in…well, in a long time.

Could just go back inside, I tried, right?

Walking to the porch and back inside is not trying.

He scolds himself, looking out the dirt drive toward the road. It’s three miles into town where he might be able to see about some kind of work. His old friend Jo has a bar in town, maybe he can barback or something. With a goal in mind, he starts the trek down the road. The muscles in his leg begin to stretch and the pain lets up a little as he continues following the road. It’s a quiet morning with few cars passing by. He’s glad for it, trying to come up with something to say to Jo when he gets to town.

Hey, remember me? Long time no see. 

Real original, jackass.

He comes up on a line of white fencing and realizes he almost forgot there was a horse farm down here. It makes him smile a little, thinking of his grandpa Henry and his farm. There were no horses, but he had a few crops and some sheep.

He reaches the end of the drive and holds a hand up as he squints out across the pasture. Two horses stand at the far end, grazing. He leans against the fence a moment, watching them. Tails swishing at the flies, they move slowly together across the field. He thinks they look pretty peaceful. Must be a simple life. He gets caught up in watching them and jumps when he hears a loud whack sound beside him.

“Hello there.” A woman with jet black hair and olive skin smiles over at him as she hammers something below the farm sign, Stowaway Farm ,  in large black iron script.

“Uh hi,” he gives a little wave, figuring he should really keep going into town.

“You know anything about horses?” she asks him, flattening out her piece of paper before hammering in a nail at the bottom.

“Not really, no.” He shrugs a little and turns to watch as one of the horses bolts a few strides across the field before shaking its head and going back to the grass.

“Well, if you know anyone interested in a farm hand position…” The woman taps the paper, giving him a nod and heading back toward the drive. He glances over at the sheet.

Help Wanted: Farm Hand

Stall cleaning, Horse feedings, and Property Maintenance

Inquire with Barn Manager

“Hey, uh…” He calls out, before realizes he doesn’t know her name.

“It's Ellie,” she replies, turning around and raising her brow.

“Ellie, I’m Dean. I’m actually looking for a job. I don’t know horses but I helped my grandpa out with his farm as a kid. I’m pretty handy at fixing things.” He thinks this might be just what he needs, and he won’t even need a working car or a college degree.

“It’s pretty hard work—you sure you're up for it?” Ellie looks at him skeptically. He frowns, thinking he’s a little thinner than he used to be, lost some of his muscle tone the last few months. Still, how hard can it be?

“I’m up for it, if you give me a chance.” It’s really just the thing to get Sam off his back.

Ellie looks him up and down one more time, arms crossed, and he feels a bit like a horse at auction the way she’s looking at him. “Alright, why don’t you come with me. I can introduce you to the barn owner, and if he’s okay with it we can give you a trial run this week.” She strides off down the long dirt drive and he moves after her, trying his best to hide the small limp. Dean follows her toward a big barn on the back of the property.

“We have these two front pastures that we rotate the horses on during the good weather. Off to the left there are what we call the hillside paddocks for individual turnout, and off to the right we have a medicine paddock in case we have an injured horse.” Ellie gestures toward the different fencing as Dean nods, wondering how much of dealing with the actual horses he would have to do.

“So, you guys race horses here?” he asks, knowing next to nothing about horses other than what he learned from watching Mr. Ed in the mornings before school.

Ellie rolls her eyes at him. “Don’t get me started on horse racing. That’s not what we do here. We run a riding program, offering lessons in multiple disciplines, as well as offer horse training, therapeutic riding program, and we take in the occasional foster or rescue horse.”

Dean just nods, thinking how out of his depth he is. “Big, huh?” He looks up at the large barn in front of him.

“Yes, we have thirty-five stalls and an indoor riding arena. There’s also an outdoor arena in the back and round pen for training.” He only really understands half of what she's saying, but nodding and smiling seems to be working for him so he goes with that. He follows her through the barn, down a long aisle coming out toward the back, and he blinks at the sudden sunlight. Eyes adjusting, he sees a man standing down a ways in the middle of a circular metal pen… Huh, round pen . There is a large brown horse moving around him, tail swishing and head bobbing.

“Castiel!” Ellie calls with a wave. Dean watches as the man looks up at them, a little tilt to his head nodding them over. As they get closer Dean gets a better look at the guy. Dark brown hair and stubbled jaw, sat atop a strong physique. Broad shoulders fill out a green cotton button-up, and thick thighs stretch a pair of worn-looking wrangler jeans. Dean had been a soldier and was not unaccustomed to seeing fit, attractive people—something he noticed even more so, seeing as he swings both ways. Still, even he stops a moment to appreciate the man before him.

The horse continues moving around the pen, kicking up dust that Dean squints at. “Whoa, Sugar,” Castiel calls out to the horse, dropping the stick he was holding and raising one hand. The horse slows, turning to face him, nostrils flared and eyes focused. “Ellie, you made a friend?” Castiel asks, partially over his shoulder keeping his eyes on the horse. Dean feels like he’s watching some kind of staring contest.

“He might be yours—he’s looking for a job.” Ellie smiles and winks at him.

“Oh, well that's convenient.” Castiel glances over at Dean quick, eyes scanning him up and down. Dean freezes under the examination, wishing he’d worn a nicer shirt then remembers he is basically applying to shovel shit.

“Give me just a second.” Castiel bends down slowly, grabbing a pile of ropes off the ground and approaches the horse. “Good girl, Sugar,” Castiel praises lightly as he wraps the ropes around the horse's face.Dean realizes belatedly it wasn’t just rope, but a halter—at least he thinks that’s the name for it. The man leads the horse over toward them and rests one foot up on the bottom rung of the pen. “Castiel Novak.” The man sticks out his hand through the bars and Dean jumps to grab it, giving it a firm shake.

“Dean Winchester,” he tries for a smile, hoping it doesn’t come off false.

“Hmm, any relation to a Sam Winchester?”

“That’s my brother. You know him?”

“He treated me at the hospital once. He was very skilled, even though I believe he was just an intern at the time.”

Dean nods, unsurprised. It’s a pretty small town and there’s only one hospital in the area.

“Well, I’ll leave you two. I need to get the water troughs done. If he passes inspection you just send him back to me.” Ellie tips a nonexistent hat towards them before striding off. 

Dean fidgets a moment, till he feels cool blue eyes focusing on him and automatically goes still. Hands behind his back, he widens his stance and lifts his chin. He can’t help the response so ingrained in him from years in the army. He swallows hard as the man leads the horse out of a gate in the pen and walks up to him.

It's silent a moment, and Dean isn’t sure what to do. Does the guy think he’s a weirdo for standing at attention like this? Should he move? Say something?  

“At ease.” Castiel’s rough voice breaks through his racing thoughts and he feels his shoulders relax. He blinks at the man. Blue eyes are still searching him, like they are trying to puzzle him out. He almost wants to laugh at the thought—like there is that much going on up there to begin with. Last thing Dean is, is a man of mystery. “Come,” is all he says before turning and walking toward the back of the barn.

Dean takes a deep breath and moves to follow him. Orders he can handle. The man leads the horse to an area with rubber mats and rings along the wall. Dean watches the hands move almost too fast to track as they tie the horse to the wall and he gives a few soft pats the horse's neck.

“I’m not sure if this job is going to interest you.” Castiel grabs a hose attached to the wall and begins to unreel it, seeming to test the water in his hand. “It’s a lot of manual labor and we can’t afford to pay much above minimum wage.”

Dean nods, watching as Castiel begins to spray the horse's lower legs and moves the stream of water slowly up to its chest. “I don’t mind, I can handle hard work.” He wishes it was something that paid better, but honestly he knows anything like that would likely have him in an office and he just isn’t qualified for that kind of job.

“What did you do for work before now?” Castiel moves his hand over the horse's muscles as he rinses away the sweat.

“I was in the military.” He digs his thumbnail into the palm of his hand, taking a few steadying breaths. “Been out for a few months. Just figuring out my next step.”

If by “figuring out” you mean wallowing on the couch and being a useless drain on your brother.

The man eventually shuts off the water, reeling up the hose and running a hand over the horse’s chest.

“Well, why don’t we start with a trial run this week, and if Ellie is happy with your work and you still want to continue on, we can make it official?” The man wipes his hands on his jeans and unhooks the rope to the horses halter.

“Thanks, I uh, really appreciate you giving me a chance.” He can only figure that this guy can’t see how damaged he is. Just making eye contact feels like a struggle right now. At least his mouth seems to be saying all the right things.

Castiel looks up at him again, a tilt to his head while he  runs a tongue out over his lips. Dean’s eyes track the movement and he again feels the urge to freeze under that stare. The man moves up to him right up into his space, and he feels his heart quicken. Instinct is telling him to hit the guy and run. He swallows the impulse down, though, meeting the man’s gaze. The silence hangs heavy between them and it takes all his willpower not to back down under a stare like that.

“Let’s get started then,” is all Castiel says before turning and walking to the barn. 

Dean lets out a long breath and hurries to follow the guy, still trying to figure out what the hell that look had been. 

Castiel turns out the horse and goes in search of Ellie. They find her in a back paddock scrubbing out a water trough.

“So, gonna give handsome here a chance huh, Cas?” The woman grins at them as she rights the large tub and grabs a hose to start refiling it.

“Figure you can whip him into shape.” Castiel smirks a little and Dean feels heat creep up his neck.

“I like a challenge. Come on, you can help me finish the water and then we have to muck stalls.” Ellie stands and gestures toward the next paddock. Castiel nods and gives Dean one last look before leaving them to it.

Dean spends the morning following her around and learning the property. They clean out and refill outside water troughs and Ellie shows him how to muck out stalls, which is just the kind of crap work he was expecting. They finish off the afternoon working on replacing some spark plugs in the tractor. By the end of it he’s exhausted and filthy, but he feels surprisingly good.

“Alright, you can head out for the day. I’ll bring the horses in for dinner.” Ellie gives him a pat on the shoulder. “You did good for your first day. Come back by seven tomorrow.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” He nods, stretching and hearing his back crack.

“Hot shower should help—you're gonna be sore;” She chuckles.

“Think that’s exactly what I’ll do.” He smiles, thinking about the warm water on his stiff muscles. He heads out for the walk home, a dull ache still in his knee. He turns back to look over the farm and sees a figure standing on the front porch of the house. Arms crossed, leaning against the porch beam, he can feel that blue eyed stare even from here. He throws up a hand in a wave, and watches as Cas returns it.

He stands in the road a second longer, and feels this strange draw to turn around and go talk to the man. He can’t seem to figure out why he just wants to be near him. He shakes off the feeling and puts his boots to the ground, heading for home. Tomorrow, he thinks, is going to a very long day.

rope

Cas leans against the banister, watching Dean as he disappears behind the treeline. He hasn’t been able to get the man off his mind since that morning. He stares up at the road, sun getting low behind the trees now. He can hear the peeper frogs starting to make noise in the brook behind his house.

“I know that look,” Ellie says, startling him from his thoughts.

“What look is that?”

“You found yourself a new project, you're just trying to figure out what to do about it.” Ellie leans against the pole opposite him and crosses her arms. Few people can read him the way that Ellie does, and he’s not sure if it’s just the time spent together or if it’s just her. He thinks it’s her.

“He’s a person, not a project.” He sighs, staring out again up the dirt drive.

“Just saying I know that look.” He feels her stare on him. “It’s a bad idea.”

“Hmmf,” he grunts noncommittally.

“He knows nothing about horses.”

“He can learn.”

“It’s a physical job, and I know you saw that limp.”

“He’ll get stronger.”

“It pays next to nothing, it won’t be enough money for him to stay.”

“That’s his choice, he knows how much it pays.”

Ellie just huffs, shaking her head. “Well, he takes direction well at least. Just remember you can’t fix everyone.”

“Not going to fix him…but if I can help him…” He leaves the rest unsaid.

“Come on, time to bring them in. I can already see Dakota pacing by the gate.”

Cas nods and follows her down the hill toward the paddocks. It’s a more of a planned dance bringing them in then most people would realize, needing to try and follow the pecking order to avoid any dinner time drama. Cas looks over each horse as he brings them in, checking for any fresh cuts or anyone walking funny. Fly masks get hung up with halters, and soon the barn is filled with the sounds of horses munching down their hay. He loves when the barn is full, all the snuffles and shifting and munching sounds are soothing to him. He and Ellie grab grain buckets and make their way down the aisle.

There are a few impatient whinnys during the process, but eventually everyone is fed and he begins his last walk through to make sure all the doors are locked, every bucket has water. There’s a loud banging sound part way down the aisle and he peers in at Louie, a sorrel gelding who's kicking the side wall of the stall as he inhales his dinner.

“Cut the crap, Lou, I mean it,” he grumbles. The horse pins its ears at him, though he does stop kicking. Castiel sighs, knowing as soon as he steps away the kicking will resume. It’s why he lines a few stalls with rubber mats for horses like Lou.

He goes over the paperwork one more time for the new horse coming in tomorrow. He’s concerned with what the owners told him about the gelding. He thinks there might be a lot of baggage to unpack and he hopes the owners are patient enough to let Castiel have the time he needs to figure the horse out. The way they talked about the horse sounded like they’d already written him off, and Castiel was the last chance before he was shipped off to auction.

He thinks back to Dean again. The man had a haunted look, like he wasn’t completely there. He smiled and said all the right things when Castiel had talked to him. Still, some it felt like a show, like the real person was off somewhere else very far away. He doesn’t know why, of course, though he figures it has something to do with his limp and history in the military.

He wonders if he might be able to convince Dean to help him work with some of the horses. It might help the man with whatever it is that seems to be bothering him. Castiel has seen a lot of lost souls find their way through a connection to an animal.

“You good, boss?” Ellie calls, peeking into the office.

“Yeah, just getting ready for our new arrival tomorrow. Can you put him in the lower paddock so he can see the other horses, but doesn’t share a fence line? Oh, and make sure the gate has a double lock on it? And that he has bell boots on, just in case he starts running around.”

“Already planned for that, control freak.” Ellie winks at him.

He chuckles, thinking if she only really knew. Aside from his public life of training horses and running the barn, Castiel has another extracurricular activity, one that he hasn’t indulged in for a long time. He’d found that being a Dom had come as naturally to him as working with horses. Didn’t hurt that he knew his way around a few knots either. For just a moment he envisions Dean, tied up in those knots, bound and trusting and open. He shakes his head, killing that line of thought immediately. “Thanks Ellie, I know you have it covered. Have a good night.”

“I’m heading down to the Lafitte’s if you wanna come get a drink?”

“No, I think I’ll stay in tonight. Have fun.” He waves to her as she heads off, closing up the office and turning off the lights. 

He goes to the front of the barn and plops himself down on the swinging love-seat. It’s one of his favorite spots, close enough to hear the horses, and he can look out on the pastures. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to make this place work. The barn had changed hands so many times before he finally bought it. Ellie had weathered the storm of several owners and he was so grateful for it. No one was better suited to manage the place and let him do what he loved most, which was training horses.

Cas leans back, closing his eyes and listening to the comforting sounds of the evening settling in, and wonders how his new green-eyed mystery man is doing.