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He's a (Zoo) Keeper

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Fall was on its way. That epic planetary shift had begun; the evenings were shrinking rapidly, and what seemed like ten minutes of daylight were eaten up by every night that came around.

The heat remained, and Dean doubted it would go anywhere until November. He didn’t remember the seasons being like this when he was a kid, but then again, he spent more time outside now than he ever had before. It was hard not to notice the daily changes, the monthly ones, and compare them to years gone by. Each season ended later than it used to, and aside from when it snowed, or hurricanes hit, the weather was generally warmer and wetter than it ever had been before.

Dean had spent the past week at Sam and Jess’ place. Luckily he’d arrived wearing his work uniform, so he didn’t need a single thing from home. Sam had everything else covered, from underwear to loungewear, to a toothbrush, to a razor, to that comfy couch piled up with pillows and the good blanket. Hugs too.

Trudging into the zoo for work on a weekday – forgetting which weekday, Dean wouldn’t dare guess – Dean set his head down and did his job, smiling when people said hi, saying thanks when they offered congratulations on the engagement. He tried not to have emotions.

It was definitely a Friday when he got a call during his lunch break. He nearly dropped his rake, but rested it carefully on the mud wall of the camel hut, and fiddled with his phone to answer it. “Yo.”

Dean?

“Cas. Hi.” Dean’s heart started to clench. “Didn’t think you were gonna call.”

I...” Castiel hesitated. “Are you all right?

“Oh. Yeah.” Dean shrugged. “Sleeping at Sammy’s place.”

I thought you’d come home by now. I— I didn’t want to rush you. I supposed I hurt you too much, and you might have some things to work through before you were ready to talk...

Dean picked at some dirt under his nail, having found nothing to say.

Castiel drew a deep breath. “Is there any chance you’re still interested in having the wedding go ahead?

Dean stood tall. “What?”

I just. Um. We got so far, you see, and you did make a financial investment, which I know I didn’t clearly appreciate at the time, but I can assure you now: your money doesn’t have to be wasted.

“Wait, you— You wanna marry me? You’re saying yes?”

It appears... to be an... ideal... business... opportunity,” Castiel said carefully, sounding like he was choosing his words one-by-one. “After all, if I mean to set up a business at the end of a test run, I do... need to have experience of all aspects of a wedding ceremony. Including the physical set-up. Including preparing for any eventuality regarding the weather. Including... well, the wedding service itself.

Dean was quaking inside. “So you wanna go through with it. I-I-I mean... Sam said he got an invite but I thought it was— I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought. You seriously want this?”

Only if you still want to... help me with my business.

Dean wet his lips, eyes settled on an alpaca who was having a sneezing fit. “I want to help.”

Oh...! Good. That’s good, Dean! I’m glad!” ‘Glad’ was an understatement; he sounded ecstatic.

Dean tried to contain his grin, but let it overtake as he uttered, “Getting married for science.”

For science,” Castiel repeated. “Yes.” Dean could hear his smile.

Dean bit his lip. “Guess I oughta start writing my vows, huh.”

Yes. Also, if you have time, would you show me the venue? I’ve seen photos but I haven’t visited the southwestern side.

“Sure!” Dean left his rake behind and began a stroll towards the giraffe enclosure. “I’m on break, so we can do that now.”

Yes, I know, I called at this time so I wouldn’t disturb your work flow.

“Work flow!” Dean laughed. He kept grinning, a hand in his pocket as he ambled from the alpaca field to the zebras, then on towards the giraffes. He could see their tall barn from here. “Hey, Cas, you wanna meet Smol?”

Baby giraffe Smol? Oh, yes, yes, yes, please. Absolutely.

“A’right, switching to video mode, hang tight.” Dean thumbed at his phone, and when he saw an unflattering angle of the underside of his chin, sun blazing over him, he switched out of selfie mode and raised his phone towards the giraffe barn. On his phone he now saw Castiel staring intently, waiting to see a giraffe.

“You got a lil peach fuzz,” Dean noticed, bristling his own jaw with the backs of his fingers. “You stop shaving when I left, or somethin’?”

Castiel covered his chin, then glanced away, smiling. “Something like that.

“Suits you.”

Thank you.

The giraffe enclosure was wide and flat, mostly sandy, but with big, rough patches of grass here and there, with tall trees grown strategically so the giraffes had shade but the zoo visitors could still see the animals from the viewing platform, where Dean stood, raised several feet from ground level.

“There’s Zag,” Dean said, holding up his phone and putting his finger in the right place so Castiel saw him pointing on his screen. “Aaaaaand... There’s Tol – over by the barn. Smol’s gotta be somewhere nearby. He naps a lot. Might be inside, he really digs the barn.”

Dean picked his way across the dirt path, hand over his eyes to shelter his face from the sun. He’d left his campaign hat at home, and still hadn’t decided whether to buy a new one. Thinking about that, he asked, “Hey, buddy? If the wedding’s on, am I allowed back home?”

Castiel seemed surprised. “Dean, of course.” His voice sounded so soft.

“Awesome.” Dean headed into the shade of the giraffe barn. He angled his phone towards the back of the barn, and bypassed a few Chinese tourists on his way to the wooden barrier. He stood on a thick rung and clambered over the fence, then hopped down onto the other side. “Cas, meet Smol.”

Dean crouched, smiling. Half a foot before him, the little baby giraffe took a nap in the hay, legs tucked under his brown-patched body, his neck curved over himself.

He looks like a basket,” Castiel smiled, delight brimming in his voice. “His neck being the handle.

Dean chuckled, reaching to touch Smol’s soft back. Smol’s ear twitched, but he was otherwise undisturbed.

He’s gorgeous,” Castiel smiled.

Those Chinese tourists were taking photos of Dean now, and Dean gave them a wink. He stood up, and launched himself one-handed over the fence, out of the hay-strewn area and back onto dust.

“So the southwestern courtyard is just out here,” Dean said. He cocked his head, heading around to the side of the barn, then following a path through a whitewashed tunnel, where ivy grew on both sides. The sound of his footsteps echoed faintly.

He came out on a sun-bathed plot of land, where the green of the grass faded to golden cobbles, seen through a hedge shaped into an arch. “This is the side entrance,” Dean said, taking Castiel through the arch. “Over on the far left, that arch, that’s where the brides come in when the music plays. Straight run up to the altar on the right. Over there, eleven o’clock, far side, those steps go up to a platform where the band would be, if we were havin’ a band. There’s a trellis and benches up there too, for putting a bar or something.

“Now down here,” Dean said, sweeping Castiel’s view along the wide expanse of cobblestones, “looks pretty blank right now, but this is where the benches go. They’d all face the wedding arch, which would be right where I’m standing now.”

Dean smiled, flipping the camera so Cas could see his face. “Do you, Castiel Tippens, take thee, Dean Winchester, to have and to hold... blah blah blah, yadda yadda, et cetera.”

Castiel beamed. “I suppose this is where we’d say ‘I do’.

“Sure is.”

I can see the giraffe barn past your head,” Castiel smiled. “And is that a peacock cry I hear?

Dean nodded. “You, uh. You have any preferences for who officiates? Jody said she’d do it. She ain’t religious, though. You want a pastor or someone?”

What about Pastor Jim? You said he and your father were close.

“Eh. Jody’s not gonna have opinions about the same-sex thing, though.”

Oh. Right.” Castiel took another look around as Dean rotated his phone. “Jody, then, Definitely.

“That, there,” Dean said, pointing to a Tudor-style white building with brown beams crossing every side, “that’s where the wedding reception would be. Cake-cutting, dancing, dinner. I don’t have the keys so I can’t show you, but you saw the pictures.”

Yes, it’s the one with mediocre lighting.” As Dean brought his phone back to centre, Castiel exclaimed, “Isn’t this exciting?! The place is so beautiful. And all those trees behind the reception hall, they’d make an exquisite backdrop for the photoshoot. I see what you mean about wanting to wait until fall. They’re all deciduous. The place would look like it’s on fire.

“Figuratively, not literally? Yeah. Gonna be sweet,” Dean nodded. “So, you’re happy with it?”

Completely. Thank you for making the reservation, Dean. I’m sorry I got mad. I know you were just trying to help.

“Hey, I kinda sprung it outta nowhere,” Dean shrugged. “A lot happened for me real quick, I guess I got caught up in the excitement.”

Castiel hummed. “Show me the giraffes again?

Dean laughed, taking Cas back to the giraffe enclosure. He stood on the fence between the sun-baked, sandy expanse, but didn’t see any giraffes. “They’re somewhere. Hang on. Aaa-hooooooo!” He cupped his free hand beside his mouth. “Y-ah-hooooooeeee—”

Dean... what...

“Don’t judge me, all right. Shut up. Look.” Dean pointed at a far side of the field, spying the tall, elegant shape of Zig running towards him. Soon came Zag, and Tol...

“A-yaaaaaaa-hhhhooooo’wh,” Dean called one more time, then laughed as the three adults came galloping up to the fence, making Castiel gasp and the zoo visitors coo and shriek with excitement.

“Last but not least,” Dean uttered, showing Castiel the little baby giraffe as he staggered from the back of the barn, joining his family and trotting up to Dean, curious, long-lashed eyes and a big, fat nose. Dean reached out his hand and placed it on Smol’s nose, making Castiel cry out in delight. “Heya, lil buddy. Sorry for screwing up your nap.”

Dean, this is incredible,” Castiel rasped. “Do they always respond?

“Never had a kulning call go unnoticed, if that’s what you mean. Cats aren’t the biggest fans, though. Or red pandas named Tabitha who turn out to be completely deaf.”

Kulning,” Castiel uttered. “You told me about this. A Swedish herding call. I’m amazed it works on giraffes.

“Just that Disney princess magic,” Dean grinned, cocking his head. “Hey, Smol. Say hi to Cas for me.”

As Dean lowered his phone into the enclosure, Smol rose up, sniffing. Dean heard Castiel’s happy chortle, just as Dean’s knuckles were tickled by warmth. When Dean took back his phone, there was giraffe fuzz on his camera lens, and Castiel looked beside himself with joy. He was hugging his toy giraffe under his chin, eyes shining, unable to speak but showing Dean exactly how grateful he was anyway.

“You’re welcome,” Dean said with a wink.

I love you, Dean,” Castiel whispered.

Dean paused, still hanging on the enclosure fence. “Wh... Why’d you say it like that?”

Castiel gave a soft, sweet smile. He took a breath to speak, when he was interrupted by a yelp behind Dean—

“FIRE!”

Dean turned in one swift motion, dropping from the fence and bolting towards the call.

“FIRE—”

Dean grabbed Garth’s narrow shoulders with both hands, nearly dropping his phone, while Garth dropped his rake. “Where?” Dean demanded. “Where’s the fire? Help me, we’ll put it out—”

Garth pointed a thin, shaking finger towards a patchy green hedge, through which smokeless flames were visible, flashing neon orange. Dean sprinted that way, Garth at his heels, Dean’s hand still clutching tight to his live call with Castiel.

Dean skidded on the dust, kicking up a cloud as he came around the hedge.

He clamped a hand on his chest, heaving relief. His heart was slamming his ribs, but he laughed, falling to his knees.

It was just a construction worker, digging into the grass to lay down a new pipe. His fluorescent orange vest moved in flashes, catching the daylight, and through the hedge it had looked indistinguishable from flames.

Garth gripped Dean’s shoulder. “Whew,” he breathed. “That was a close one.”

Dean got to his feet, knees now scuffed with dirt. “Sure was,” he agreed, clapping Garth on the back.

Taking deep breaths, Dean walked away, head down, unable to meet the worried eyes of zoo visitors. He left it to Garth to shout to them, “False alarm! False alarm, nothing to worry about! Can’t be too careful, that’s all! As you were.”

Dean put a good amount of distance between him and the giraffe enclosure before he lifted his phone, checking Cas was still there.

Dean?” Castiel was asking. “Is everything okay? Should I call the fire department? I have the landline ready.

“It’s fine,” Dean said. He went into a sheltered area and sat on a bench with his back to a jungle mural, breathing out, head down, phone hung in the cradle of his hands between his knees. “False alarm.”

His body was drained of all emotional energy, but his heart kept thumping. Thumping. Adrenaline still gushed through him.

What’s wrong?” Castiel asked.

“Jess said you don’t like showing weakness in front of me,” Dean said roughly, not looking at his phone. “And that’s gotta change. For you and me both.” He wet his lips. “I’m scared, Cas. Right now. Right now, I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scar—” He folded forward, sobbing into his inner elbow.

Dean— Oh no... No, no, my darling, no. I wish I could be there, I— What do I do? What can I do—

“I’m scared of fire,” Dean sat up, sniffing, pushing away tears with his fingers. “I wanna stop, you know, but it’s that exact middle between irrational and rational. Fire killed my freaking parents, Cas, and there’s no coming back from that. You don’t get over that. I’m scared of fire. All of it. Candles too. It sounds stupid, I know, but—”

No... No, it’s not stupid. It’s not stupid, Dean.” Castiel sighed. “You need to come home. Please. Ask Jody for the rest of the day off.

“N-n-n, I’m not—”

I’m coming to pick you up.

“You don’t have a car.”

I’ll take a bus.

“You hate crowded buses.”

I will take a bus, Dean because you need me and I’m not there.

Dean laughed, sniffing away his tears. “Cas, I’m fine. I’ll drive home at the end of my shift.”

Are you sure? You’ve had a shock, it’s clearly triggered something. You’re in no state to work.

“Work takes my mind off stuff,” Dean said. “Seriously, I’m good.” He pulled himself together, sitting up, taking a deep breath, head back on the mural. “I’m good.” Eyes shut.

Rest, then.

“Hey,” Dean looked down at him. “I’ll see you after work, okay? Six o’clock.”

I can stay on the line if you want.

Dean shook his head.

Is there anything I can do, then? Anything.

Dean started to smirk. “Make me pie?”

Hmm, apple? We have apples.

“‘Kay.”

Okay.” Castiel’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled. “You’re safe, Dean. Nothing’s going to hurt you right now. You’re okay, remember that.

Dean nodded, gulping. “Ain’t me I’m worried about. The animals—”

—Have great people like you looking out for them.

Dean let out a long, slow breath. “Six o’clock?”

I’ll be waiting.” Castiel leaned in and gave his phone a kiss, then smiled before he ended the call.

Dean shut his eyes, sobbing out a smile. His heart swelled with gratitude, so thankful for Cas that his chest started to ache. He turned his eyes to the heavenly blue sky and whispered a single word of thanks to anyone who cared to take the credit. Someone out there gave him Cas. And Dean owed them everything for that one kindness.

 

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Dean staggered into the apartment trying to hold himself together, pretending he wasn’t floating in a post-shock stupor, numb, on edge, and slow. He remembered to close the front door behind him, moving forward towards the steamy kitchen, which smelled like a combination of American chop suey and apple pie, which didn’t smell great together, but still made Dean smile. Cas had made his comfort foods.

“You’re home,” Castiel breathed, leaving the wedding board behind, coming straight to Dean, taking his arms in his strong hands. Castiel drew a breath. “You’re trembling.”

Dean managed to meet his eyes, and they unexpectedly flooded with tears.

As Dean fell into Castiel, Castiel wrapped his arms around Dean, rubbing his back, chin-nuzzling his shoulder, pressing kisses to his work shirt.

“This is so stupid,” Dean breathed. “Nothing even happened. Nobody got hurt. It was just Garth being Garth. Why am I crying?!” He wrenched back, smacking tears off his face.

“Dean— Dean. Come here. It’s okay. Crying is okay. It’s more than what happened today, isn’t it? It’s your parents, it’s the wedding – it’s all so overwhelming, I—” Castiel got choked up too, and Dean saw the moment he stopped trying to fight it, and Castiel even started to smile, because tears poured from his eyes, his mouth tense and shaking. “I’m frightened too. This is a big thing we’re doing. We’ve been through much together, you and I. But somehow I think this is our biggest adventure yet.”

Dean reached up, awed. He touched a wet tear on Castiel’s fuzzy jaw, discovering two new things he’d never touched before.

“What are you afraid of, Dean?” Castiel asked him, softly.

“Losing everything,” Dean answered, voice rough. “I lost everything before. A hundred times, I’ve lost people I care about. My birth parents, then Rufus, then every – single – partner – I’ve had. Chiquitita too – we’re separated at the moment. And I— I can’t do it again. I can’t lose you too, Cas. Not ever.”

Castiel held Dean’s cheeks, thumbing away his tears, while his own went unwiped. So Dean reached up to brush them away, making Castiel grin, bashfully turning his head down.

Dean kissed his forehead.

I’m afraid,” Castiel said thickly, “of exactly the same thing. I don’t remember my birth parents, so I don’t carry the same weight as you. I never lost Crowley; I was freed from him. In some respects I’ve never lost anything. Which is what makes me so afraid of it. I’ve—” He breathed, struggling to speak, but forcing it out, looking Dean in the eyes. “I’ve never had anyone close enough to lose before.”

Just by the look in Cas’ eyes, Dean realised he himself was the most precious entity that had ever been part of Castiel’s life.

Although he now had strong suspicions, Dean was still not completely convinced Cas had the capacity to love him romantically. But in that moment, Dean ceased to care. Cas loved him more than anyone. And that was enough.

Dean shut his eyes, held Castiel’s jaw, and let Cas kiss him.

Somehow it felt like a first kiss.

It was a damp and hairy kiss, and Dean could smell his own anxiety, and the meaty pasta wasn’t helping. But it was still the best kiss he’d ever had. He loved Cas for precisely this reason: they were each other’s weakness. In each other’s presence, they became vulnerable. They could talk about their feelings and their fears and their failures, openly. And in Dean’s opinion, there was nothing more attractive than someone making him feeling safe enough to be openly vulnerable.

This was far from weakness. They kissed, and dried each other’s tears, and made each other strong.

 

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Dean stretched in the bed, groaning. He felt the warmth of late-morning sunlight on his bare chest, felt the ruffle of sheets that weren’t his own around his waist. He smiled, licking slime from his teeth and swallowing before he opened his eyes.

Castiel was there, lying beside him, a rainbow halo of sunshine hovering over his tufted dark hair, and a faint, pleased smile on his lips. “Hello, Dean.” His voice was like a butter lump on hot pancakes: perfect.

Snuggling closer through glowing white sheets, Dean murmured, “How long’ve you been watchin’ me sleep?”

“Wasn’t counting the seconds,” Castiel said, slipping a hand around Dean’s waist under the blanket. “Only your breaths.”

“How many breaths?” Dean asked.

“A hundred and six,” Castiel whispered, placing a plump kiss on Dean’s lips. “Lost count of your freckles, though.”

Dean grinned, shutting his eyes as he sank close, smooching Cas, relaxed in his arms, at peace with every part of his past that had led him to this one infallible moment. If Heaven existed, this would be part of Dean’s.

“I missed this,” Dean admitted, watching his knuckles as they smoothed down Castiel’s cheek, meeting his lips, thumb plucking at the lower one. “I missed you, Cas.”

“I missed you too.” Castiel said it with absolute truth in those summer-sky blue eyes.

Dean started to smirk. He nudged his hips closer, touching his morning wood to Castiel’s thigh. “Wanna fuck me?”

Castiel grunted into his pillow. “Dean,” he complained, smiling when he looked up. “No. No, I don’t want to fuck you. Not right now. Just let me enjoy this, please.”

Dean rolled his eyes, but smiled, eyes falling shut as Castiel outlined his face with a fingertip.

Quietly, Castiel asked, “Do you think it’s a problem that I... I’m not like you? You seem to find what you need amongst... dozens of people. Friends, family, lovers. People come and go but you always seem content. But me...? I have friends, but they’re your friends. I have family but I’m closer to yours. What if, in all my life, there’s nobody else in the universe who ever compares to you? What if you’re the only one for me? The only one I’ll ever love this way?”

So many questions had been answered by that musing, that Dean grinned, sighing in relief. “Then it’s a damn good thing you found me, then, ain’t it?”

Castiel pressed his lips together, tipping his head into the pillow in a ‘true, true’ kind of way. As he relaxed again, his smile spread, and he gazed at Dean with total, complete adoration.

Yeah, Cas loved him. In every possible way, including romantically. Cas had looked at Dean that way so many times Dean was astounded he’d never realised what it meant until now.

Dean held Cas’ hand under the blanket, drawing it up to kiss it. “Cas...?”

“Yes?”

Dean gulped. “I have a question.”

“Okay.”

Dean met his gaze, heart pumping in his throat. “What kind of person do you see yourself marrying?”

Castiel stared for a while. Dean’s left eye. Right eye. Left eye again. “Dean,” he said, with a flicker of an amused frown pinching between his brows, “I know people like to say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but I think that was quite possibly the stupidest.”

Dean huffed out a laugh, eyes lowered. “Humour me.”

“Hmm.” Castiel patted his head back on the pillow, gazing up through the skylight, pupils narrow. “Someone green-eyed. That’s very important. Tall, I like tall. Freckles are very fetching, too.”

“Personality, Cas,” Dean urged, although he was deeply flattered, not to mention relieved.

“Kind,” Castiel said, turning to look back at Dean. “So good that his urge to commit acts of kindness fuels his life. Every move he makes is founded in empathy, wanting to help others. But,” Castiel kissed their joined hands, as Dean had done, “he remains selfish when he must. He cares for himself physically, mentally, spiritually, if in unconventional ways. He doesn’t throw away his sense of self out of self-consciousness, not any more. On that note, he’s capable of change. He learns well. He listens. He’s patient even when he’s frustrated. He... chases the things that make him happy. He has so... so much love inside him that it would simply be too much for any one person to handle. So he shares his love with anyone who passes his way.”

Castiel smiled, bright-eyed. “He absolutely has to be a good cook, too. I’ll do dinner sometimes, but he’s doing breakfast. I refuse to spend my life in the kitchen.” His eyes seemed to twinkle even more as he asked, “Any chance you know someone like that?”

Dean’s happiness was not shown in a smile, but glowed from within him, so viscerally that he was sure his skin was alight with heat. “I miiiight know a guy,” he uttered.

Castiel chuckled, resting his forehead against Dean’s.

He stroked Dean’s neck, then whispered, “What kind of person do you want to marry?”

Dean ducked back, just enough that their noses could touch, eyes meeting.

“He has this thing for bees,” Dean said.

The biggest smile burst from Castiel, and all Dean could do was shut his eyes, lean into Cas, and kiss.

 

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