Castiel hadn't heard his own name in two months. After eons of surviving wars, an apocalypse or two, and a species change it seemed laughable that he really cared about this detail. Especially when you consider how insignificant the time scale of months had been to him in his old life. Nothing was the same now, and he really wondered whether he could have coped better--or at least made some basic sense out of the fact he did, in fact, still exist--if he'd maintained the basic continuity of his real name.
He could hear Dean in his head deriding him for this picayune complaint. Dean seemed to relish the opportunity to swap names with rock stars on the job, gamely bedded any nameless human who aroused him with no expectation for more, and never complained about almost everyone he had known dying (usually horribly). This was happening more and more lately--comparing himself to Dean, having Dean’s face and voice conjure itself unbidden, painfully vivid in all his disappointment in Castiel, his disgust for his bad decisions or absent skills. Perhaps worst of all was his long-suffering tolerance of Castiel falling short of being a “real man,” even when he hadn’t been a man at all. But these constant visitations of Dean’s image, and opinions, should have been a moot point. Dean might even feel violated by Castiel thinking about him at all, now that their bond had been dissolved so thoroughly. It was always clear that to be an intimate, in Dean’s inner circle, one of the few on earth to interact with Dean Winchester in an ongoing way, was a very sparingly conferred honor. There was no reason the privileges of envisioning Dean’s face, wondering what Dean would think of him, should extend into his unceremonious exile in Idaho. Punching his fingers one by one onto the cash register buttons, Castiel decided this was one privilege he would claim for himself, Dean’s new cold attitude be damned. Afterall, he had to consult some human to know how to blend in, even if it was a memory of a human. And he had to blend in to survive. And he had to survive to…
His stomach felt leaden again and the floaty muffled distance that passed between his eyes unhooked him from the world around him, eclipsed everything for a moment, leaving him hissing air in outer space without energy or wherewithal to even attempt to draw in another lungful. A customer coughed expectantly and he used the small tether to consciousness to pull himself out this state before he lost his job and got one step closer to the ultimate death by starvation that felt like an inevitability these days. He stared at the face before him for five seconds without reacting, nothing really computing and another wave of pins and needles swaddling his brain in static.
“Beef jerky and a pack of menthols!” drifted over the Gas-N-Sip counter in a voice that must have been a flashback, should have been a dream, and felt like a nightmare. Half of Castiel felt rooted to the spot and utterly unresponsive, and half felt like breaking into an uncontrolled burst of something, whether anguished tears, murderous anger, blasphemy, or amorous clasping. In the instant in which to choose a path, he felt so equally frustrated by both active and inactive possibilities that in the end he just made a small, accusatory squawk from somewhere in his throat and then gritted his teeth with eyes closed.
“Gee it’s nice to see you too, Cas,” Dean grumbled. Castiel’s thick-flowing brain took a moment to hang on the resentment that the first time his name was taken of the shelf after all these months of him longing to hear it, alienated from his very identity and life force, should be this scornful scold about “bad manners” from a man who had abandoned him. Who had become his whole existence, promised a path more fulfilling than his life of heavenly duties, and then kicked him to the curb.
“I never said it was nice to see you,” Castiel answered automatically. Dean winced a little before brushing off the remark, and Castiel was pleased at the wince, even if nothing else about this moment held any other certainty to ground himself in emotionally.
Dean talks. Castiel hears. He feels his feet dragging himself to do whatever Dean needs, Dean wants, Dean asks for. He hates it. He’s pacing inside his own brain like an animal, confused, angry, desolated, and worst of all, speechless. He thinks they investigate something, he thinks they solve something, but his presence of mind has been on the fritz for a whole day before he has a real honest-to-God thought. And that thought is simply “No.” He takes comfort in having a word to cling to while he thrashes in the cold, dark waves crashing over his head every moment. He wants to get the neon pastel window markers he uses to announce sales and loop his way through that word over and over and over and over.
“So how about a beer, huh?” Dean says as he caps off some self-congratulatory speech about having to take the wins when they get them, and drown the future in alcohol.
“No!” erupts from Castiel with no warning, no nuance, and no context.
“No?” Dean steps backward before shifting his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably, head kicked back to inspect an unremarkable streetlight with sudden fixed attention while simultaneously shielding his eyes from the light of the same streetlight. “Got a hot date or something?”
“No,” Cas seethes. “I don’t have a hot date. I don’t have anything.”
“Ok, sheesh, looks like being human hasn’t softened you out at all. Might want to try a ‘no, thank you,’ next time, you know, for the next guy who doesn’t know you’re a warrior of God in a tax accountant meatsuit.”
“Dean, what do you think this is? A friendly visit between ‘buddies’?”
Dean sniffs sharply while throwing his chin at Castiel and scuffing the asphalt in a lazy half circle. “A beer is a beer, Cas, we gotta fuckin’ label it?”
“No, we don’t have to do anything. /You/ don’t have to do anything. I think it’s disingenuous of you to pretend you don’t know that, after evincing your comfortable relationship with that fact for several months now.”
“What? Cas, come on, have a heart and let me get a beer in me before you start lobbing your big words at me.”
“Is everything a joke to you? Am I a joke to you? You know I never would have left Heaven for you if I knew how little you thought about anything but yourself, what disdainful disrespect you have. I thought ‘free will’ meant something more than ‘I don’t want anyone with a grand plan to stop me from being a churlish schoolboy.’”
Dean blinked for several moments, then turned on his heel and strode to the Impala.
Castiel was glad he was leaving. He wanted to be glad. He wanted to be done. But he wasn’t done, and he was pissed, and he was apparently following Dean in hot pursuit. These disorienting periods in which the forces of consciousness, intention, and action desynchronized and jockeyed for supremacy were among his least favorite parts about being human.
He grabbed the human by the throat and walked a surprised Dean backward a few long strides till he was pinned against his beloved car, but Castiel didn’t have any follow-up actions planned and left the situation as it was, a tense standoff daring Dean to break eye contact. He hadn’t felt this alive, this himself, in months. In years, actually.
“You’ve got that imperious stare thing going on again,” Dean husked out absent-mindedly, with a clicking throat and eyes full of wonder.
The staring continued for several long minutes as their chests pumped air in aggressive heaves. Cas clenched his jaw and sucked in breath multiple times with no words coming. On one of many identical attempts to speak, he caught his own cresting momentum and managed to bark out one invocation with fiery bluntness. “We need to TALK!”
Dean was dazed and quiet, like a charmed snake. Eventually he swallowed and blinked slowly, eyes casting down to Cas’s elbow.
“I know we do.”