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In Still Water, We See

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Dean woke up to soft afternoon sunlight and the sound of dogs playing outside. He startled, his whole body tense for a long moment, where he located his gun (on the side table), Ruby's knife (under the pillow), and himself (in Bobby's white and yellow guest room).

He let himself relax back into the pillows, and shut his eyes against the bright, clean newness of it. Pale yellow walls, with newly white, fixed up furniture. Even plants, arranged around the window. The books that used to take up every available space in Bobby's house were now neatly filed. Some in the library downstairs, with the overflow extending to every room but the kitchen, on shelf after shelf.

It was Bobby's house, so there were still things out of place. A hammer on the side table, beside Dean's gun. A relic box, on top of the bookshelf. But there was space to move without tripping over some precious tome; space to sleep that wasn't the floor; living space. It was weird. Paint and new furniture aside. But there was a lot of weird to go around, with the apocalypse rescheduled for who the hell knew when. Long enough from now that everyone Dean knew, or would ever know would be dead. Long enough that they might be fighting demons with jet-boots and phasers. Which, hey, would be awesome.

Two years into the new world order, and Dean was still getting used to it: no heavy hitters to speak of, just low level demons that were easy to trap and exorcise, ghosts, werewolves and all your average creepy crawlies. Easy hunting - if hunting was ever easy. No big picture. No mission beyond the first, most basic one: saving people, hunting things.

A crash (something falling, glass breaking) outside his door, had Dean out of bed and padding silently toward it. Old reflexes, but still good ones, still needful. Bobby's house was as safe as it got, but there was no point in being careless. He pulled the door open a crack and peeked out, his body flush with the wall.

"Cas?"

Castiel didn't look up from where he was kneeling, just answered Dean with a sigh. Around him was what looked like every piece of clothing he owned, aside from the t-shirt and jogging pants he was wearing, and a bunch of Bobby's too. Add to that an overturned laundry basket, two pictures hanging crooked on the wall, with the matching third nowhere visible, and Dean could pretty well figure why he was out here, and not still enjoying his bed.

"Need some help buddy?"

"No," Castiel said evenly. It was a frustrated, long-suffering kind of even, not an angry, or annoyed one. Cas' voice was capable of producing every gradation of even there was, so they'd all had to learn how to interpret the shades of difference between them.

Cas flipped the laundry basket over, pushed it off to the side, out of the blast area, and set to shaking out his clothes. Dean ran through a series of possibilities: should he make a crack about angelic grace, or was it too soon? or about Cas turning into a desperate housewife, making more work for himself so he wouldn't go nuts? or Cas trying to get his attention? He filed them under Dickish, Even More Dickish, and Less Dickish, But Probably Just Too Confusing For Cas.

"Sure about that?" he finally asked.

"No." Something like a frown, or a smile - self-deprecating, but a smile - flickered across Cas's features. They promptly settled back into their default state; statue-still, somewhere between meditative and suspicious.

"Shove over there Chunk," Dean said, nudging Cas over, so he could get at the explosion of clothes.

"Chunk?"

"Guess Bobby hasn't started you on the Goonies yet."

"What is a goonie?" He wanted to correct him: 'What's a goonie?' Cas was sometimes too formal, to the point where it put people off. Even made them suspicious. He checked the impulse - he did that a lot - and made a note to subject Cas to the Goonies, asap. Sam had loved that movie when he was a kid. It had been on, practically every third Sunday afternoon. Dean could recite long stretches of dialog.

Chunk was the klutzy kid. Which Castiel most definitely wasn't, except for when he was.

"Pass me that sweater," Dean said instead. Castiel did, silently. Cas didn't exactly excel at small talk, so that was another thing he and Bobby were supposed to be working on. It was Cas, more than Bobby, who was so adamant about fitting in. He wanted to pass. It was hard to object to that, with Bobby still in the life, albeit on the edges of it, and Sam and Dean still hunting. Pretty much everyone Castiel could call a friend was a hunter, or connected, so it wasn't like he needed to pass for normal. Just human.

They made short work of it. Clothes into the basket, then the glass and cracked pieces of picture frame swept up, and thrown away.

"Thanks," Castiel said when it was done. Not in the low rumble that Dean had been used to, in the old days. Cas was still mostly impassive, still weirdly flat in places, but his voice, along with the rest of him, was starting to pick up colour. His 'thanks' was higher, lighter, almost casual. It sounded easy, but sounding easy - that didn't come easy to him. Everything was work, for Castiel. You could get exhausted watching him eat breakfast.

Going mortal hadn't been, wasn't, easy for Castiel. Maybe it would have been like that for any angel - there was no way for Dean to know. What he did know was that it was hard for Cas. As hard as it had been in that other future. He still didn't know if it had been a real, possible future, or just another of Zachariah's gifts. But he could recall that other Cas easily, too easily; see echoes of him, laid over this one, who was admittedly, better adjusted by a factor of five thousand.

So when Castiel pushed himself to get something just right, do it just like a human would, Dean found himself pushing back.

"Nobody's perfect Cas."

"Dude, you're never not going to be a little weird."

"Hey Stepford Angel, take a step off the crazy train."

These were all ways to say, "Change Cas, sure, but don't change too much."

"So, laundry huh? Joining the big boys."

"I'm licensed to drive cars, trucks and tractors, Dean. I believe I joined the ‘big boys’ some months ago." Dean could actually hear the air quotes, and couldn’t help a silent 'atta boy'. Even if they were as stylish as frosted tips: progress was progress.

"Still, Bobby's letting you do laundry now. Big step."

Cas sighed. It was the sigh that in anyone else, would have manifested as rolling eyes. Castiel had quickly graduated from putting his clothes in the hamper, to setting the table, to cleaning the house, cleaning the guns and beyond. These days he split his time between fixing up and/or cannibalizing the wrecks that Bobby still dealt in, and (obsessively) cleaning and improving Bobby’s house. He’d gone from being mystified by a fork, to being a wizard with a band saw in under a year.

Last time the Winchesters had been in town, there were only two chores that were to never, ever, on pain of death, appear on Cas’s list: cooking and laundry. Cooking, because his standards of good taste didn’t always correspond to those of humans. Laundry because Bobby still hadn’t forgiven him the first time.

Dean eyed the overflowing laundry basket. “Dude, two trips. The laundry won’t get lonely if some of it has to stay behind.”

Cas glared at him, but swept half the load off his basket to the floor by Dean’s door. He eyed the messy pile of underwear, socks, shirts and jeans, as though he might pick them up again. He obviously wanted to. “I’ll be right back,” he told Dean, then headed down to the laundry room.

“I have no doubt,” Dean said to Castiel’s back, already halfway down the stairs. And then, “Okay!” Because sometimes that was the only possible comment you could make, where Cas was concerned.

Dean checked the clock. Ten AM. Clothes, breakfast, then figure out what Sam was doing, and get in the way of it. Technically they were on vacation. Dean figured that his job for the duration was having as much fun as he possibly could. At Bobby’s house, a long drive away from bars, women, or women hanging out in bars, that meant bugging his brother.

He took a quick, lukewarm shower, made a note to remind Cas to fix it or call a plumber, dressed, and then left the upstairs behind, to face the (mid)day. Almost afternoon. Dean liked being on vacation. He liked staying in Bobby’s familiar/unfamiliar house.

Even with all the changes, it was still Bobby’s house. Some, like the chair lift, were for Bobby, and others were for Cas, by way of his boredom, and inability to handle downtime. Layered with more protections than any church, or even most witches homes, and an undefinable something else, that spoke of home. He didn’t always sleep through the night. He’d find himself waking up every hour, or every few, to check on things that didn’t need checking - the house was always quiet, and safe. But he could sleep in, without worrying about the local heat, whatever they were hunting, or even room service interrupting him. Not that they slept in places with room service all that often.

The sink was empty. Bobby used to leave his dishes until he felt like washing them, but now he insisted on their being washed, dried and put away after every meal. Dean wasn’t sure if it was to assuage Castiel’s occasional squirreliness, or because Bobby didn’t want to feel like Cas was taking care of him. Or if it was just because things were different, and Bobby was different with them; exactly the same as ever, in other ways.

There was a stack of pancakes on the kitchen table. “Sweet.” He found syrup in the fridge, and low-fat margarine instead of butter, because Bobby was supposed to be watching something. Dean wasn’t picky. He popped the short stack in the microwave, and found himself a glass of orange juice, and a coffee. The coffee was old, but again, Dean wasn’t picky. He exchanged the pancakes for the coffee, and soon he had himself a truly awesome breakfast. Even considering the lack of bacon or sausage. Free pancakes. Awesome.

“Cas?” Dean called, around a mouthful of pancake.

“Yes Dean,” Castiel answered. He was downstairs, and his voice was muffled by distance and the thrum of Bobby’s new washer and dryer.

“Where’re Sam and Bobby?”

“They went to the market.”

“Seriously? They went shopping?”

“Yes.” And that, apparently, was all that Cas had to say on the subject. Dean was left to his breakfast, and the faint noises from downstairs, of Cas doing laundry. Jesus. Dean snorted, and somehow managed not to snort any pancake in the process. Castiel was pretty much walking cognitive dissonance.

Castiel, ex Angel of the Lord, now something like human. Legally, he was Cassidy Singer, second cousin to one Robert Singer. That was a convenience: when Castiel had gone mortal, (his own words - Dean had twitched, still twitched, at hearing them, like they were a trigger made special for him), he’d needed to be somewhere safe. Bobby had a house in the middle of a junkyard, the best panic room the brothers had ever seen, and he had the experience and the patience to deal with someone as strange as Cas.

Not that Sam and Dean didn’t, and not that they didn’t offer, but Cas had settled back into his chair, spine straightening, shoulders squaring, for just a second, angel in the flesh, all power and certainty, and said, “I’m staying.”

“That settles it,” Bobby said, and it did. That was it. There was somehow no more room for argument, or even discussion, because Castiel repelled all efforts at it, whether from Sam or Dean. With Bobby supporting him, and then Sam (“Dean, it’s the best choice.”), Dean folded.

 

 

A year ago, give or take a month or a hunt.

 

 

He was deep into a post-hunt collapse when he got the call, fuzzed out on pain and painkillers. His phone buzzed around on the side table, translating into a hummingbird, a mosquito, and weirdly, a ladybug, for his dreaming mind. Sam meanwhile, wasn’t doing as good a job of ignoring it. Dean heard him calling, loud and clear, even in his dream, but didn’t do a thing about it, because the hummingbird/mosquito/lady bug was so much more interesting.

“Answer your phone.”

“Dean, answer your phone.”

“Dean.”

It took getting hit in the face with his phone, courtesy of Sam, to wake him fully. It vibrated a while against his neck while he fumbled for it, scratched and poked himself uncomfortably, until he had it in hand. Flipped it open and blearily checked the number with one eye - the other was sewn shut with pain, and the simple biology of a really black, black eye - saw that it was Bobby, and decided to answer, rather than shoot it.

“Yeah?”

“It’s Cas.”

Dean paused for second there, to take that in. Tried to come up with some kind of rational response. Finally he gave up. “What the hell Bobby?”

The lamp on the bedside table clicked on - Sam waking up. “What is it?” he mouthed to Dean. Dean waved him quiet. Sam frowned but didn’t not-say anything else. Just pushed the covers down, and sat up in bed. Ready to be dressed and out the door in a minute, if necessary.

“Dean, he’s here.”

“Here, like my special friend Cas, who only talks to me when no one else is around, here? Or here here?” Sam’s eyes went wide. At the name, and then wider at Dean’s words. Dean nodded. Silent answer to his equally silent question.

“He’s here dumbass. In the flesh.”

“Castiel is in your house, in a vessel?”

The vessel. Look, Dean, I know it sounds crazy-”

“He’s dead Bobby. Cas is dead, and so is the poor bastard he was wearing.” Dean pulled the phone away from his face, and moved his thumb to hang up. Sam waved at him not to, and yeah, it was Bobby, but what the hell.

“Don’t you hang up, you idjit!”

“Bobby,” he said, putting everything into it.

“I’m not crazy and I’m not possessed. You can come here and see him.”

“Put him on the phone,” Sam hissed.

Dean nodded. “Let me talk to him Bobby.”

“He ain’t exactly up to chatting. Now you can believe me or not, but you need to get here quick.” Bobby hung up.

“Castiel is at his house,” Sam said slowly. “In a vessel.”

He said it like it was the craziest thing they’d heard all week, which it was, by a long shot. People, angels, didn’t just come back from being exploded across all of creation. Never mind that he had, and that Sam and Cas had come back too, because those had all been special circumstances. The kind of big picture special that was supposed to be out of their lives for good. People didn’t just come back. Not without divine, or more likely, un-divine intervention.

“In the body he died wearing, apparently.”

“What the hell, Dean.”

“I know.”

Sam stared down at his hands for a moment, thinking face in place. Dean was there with him, caught between his brain rebooting after a total freese, and planning. Running down the short list of possibilities, and recalling all the proven ways to kill demons, angels and things that were technically out of their pay grade. Circling around an even worse possibility, which was, what if it was nothing? What if Bobby was just imagining things?

“We need to go there,” said Sam.

“Yeah,” Dean said, and then again. “Yeah.” They’d pretty much finished the hunt the day before, but there were a few details to mop up. A lair to burn, and innocent bystanders that needed lying to. Dean was ready to drop all of that and go. Sam, from the hard look on his face, was too. And yet--

“I’ll pack up, you take care of the lair. The neighbors can invent their own story.” Sam nodded.

They were on the road an hour and a half later, Sam driving, because Dean’s depth perception was shot to hell, and mixing painkillers and heavy machinery was never a good idea (if you could help it). It was a long drive. Long enough for the sting of the black eye to settle into a steady ache, and for both of them to tie themselves in knots, wondering.

They checked in with Bobby a couple of times, before he called them both idjits and stopped answering their calls. He seemed fine, but that wasn’t as reassuring as it might have been. The drive was almost silent, just highway sounds, and the tape deck, blaring Metallica, Zeppelin, whatever else was close to hand and didn’t take a lot of thought.

When they got there, they approached the house cautiously, like it was a job, loaded down with EMF reader, salt, vial of holy water, Ruby’s knife, and guns. He exchanged a glance with Sam. Then they steeled themselves and walked up to the house.

Bobby met them at the door. Had it open in fact, before they’d made it onto the porch. “Get in here,” he said brusquely. They went. “Let’s get this over with.” He sighed his way through their examination, and when they were done, motioned for them to follow him to the kitchen.

“Bobby,” Sam said, all big eyes and apology. “We had to be sure.”

“Yeah, I know. Might as well splash some holy water in his face too.”

Jimmy Novak’s body - or a facsimile, a revenant, a skinwalker, something - sat at Bobby’s kitchen table. Nothing in the body language said Jimmy. The hard lines and formality were all Castiel, even absent the suit and trench coat. It looked just like him. Dean’s heart skipped a beat or three, and for once he could admit to it, because Christ. Which he actually said.

“Christ. Christo.” Cas. The Castiel-thing didn’t startle like a demon would. Didn’t flicker like a ghost would, and when he looked up at them, to Sam, who was holding the camera, his eyes didn’t shine.

“He isn’t a shapeshifter,” Sam said.

“And he ain’t a demon, a ghost or a revenant either. You can try him on silver, but be careful.” Dean shot Bobby a glance. He shrugged. “He’s not bullet proof, and he sure as hell didn’t fly here.” Castiel looked to Dean then, caught his gaze in a wide expanse of blue that was impossible to read. And he knew, knew in his gut, that this was the real deal.

“Dean.” Imploring but so certain, like his name was a Word, capital letter and all, like the kind that angels used to work their spells. Or not spells exactly, Cas always corrected him. Letters and Words that just were. Whatever that meant, aside from power.

“Cas?” Sam asked, for both of them, but Dean was incapable of saying anything, just then. “Is it really... I mean... Are you...?”

“I'm fine,” Cas said, like he was reading the phone book, it was that deadpan, but there was something dark in his eyes. He looked away then, to his hands, where they rested on Bobby’s kitchen table. His palms were reddened, like they’d been scraped, or scrubbed clean, but his nails were dark with dirt. Dean noted that - he was assessing the state of Castiel’s nails. They’d never been dirty before. Then his eyes were flickering over him, taking in Castiel model 3.0, in a kind of stunned... something. Dean didn’t know what the hell he was feeling, and much less was he able to articulate it. So don’t-- he thought, those thoughts all a jumble. Just give me a minute here. Asking it of himself, or the universe, maybe.

Castiel in frayed, mud-flecked jeans, a t-shirt and an old looking pullover, his feet bare and his nails dirty, sitting at Bobby’s kitchen table. The body saying human - the way his feet were huddled together, for warmth - but the eyes saying angel.

“What is this?” he asked, voice ragged, but there was nothing he could do about that. “Is this-- are you being punished?” Dean asked, jumping to the first thing he could think of - the thing most closely associated with an almost-human Castiel. That he’d been cast out.

“No,” Cas said.

“Christ.” Cas didn’t say anything about taking the Lord’s name in vain, and for a second Dean doubted, but then-- Castiel had long ago gotten used to Sam and Dean’s, and even Bobby’s vocabulary. “How are you even here?”

“I’m not certain.”

“We saw you die, Cas. You’re dead. You and this body too.”

“Clearly that is no longer the case,” he said dryly. Bone dry. No humour exactly, but plenty of feeling. Part ‘idiot human’, and part ‘how should I know’?

“Was it God?” Sam asked.

“Yes.” Cas sounded so certain, like there was no other possibility. Dean wanted to believe, and for damn sure Sam did too. None of the other candidates were on their fave five.

“So what’d the big guy say? Thanks for all your years of good service, have a happy retirement on earth?”

“My Father doesn’t-”

“Talk directly to the grunts, yeah, we know. So how do you know it was him?”

The answer was just that he did.

Dean knew that feeling, the gut deep certainty of something’s rightness, like when he’d just known that his father was alive, or when Cas had known, contrary to all the evidence, that God was out there, somewhere. But Cas, right up to the end, even after he’d taken improvisation to heights that scared Dean, was all about order. Which made sense, because that’s what angels were, when you got down to it: agents of order; dispensers of heavenly wisdom and justice.

Cas clung a little too tightly to the promise of order, of certainty, and it made Dean nervous. Set his too-good-to-be-true detector off like crazy. Cas had once said to him, “Good things do happen.” And that was true, it was a fact made obvious by the angel-man-person sitting in front of him, alive twice over. By Bobby, still stubborn as all get out, and still fighting. By Sam, who was alive, whole, free and himself. Which was all Dean could ask for.

Bobby wheeled over to the table, and dropped a couple of bottles of bourbon onto it. "Get the glasses," he told Sam, nodding to the chipped half dozen, air drying on the counter. Sam grabbed four that were reasonably clean, and put them on the table, one on each ragged placemat. He looked to Dean, who was hovering just as awkwardly, then shrugged. There was nothing for it - they sat, Dean closest to Cas, who was hunched tiredly but somehow still maintaining his yoga-perfect posture, and taking up more table than was strictly polite. Dean nudged Castiel's feet with his boots. Cas sat back in his chair, and pulled his feet in enough so that Dean could sit comfortably on one side of him, and Bobby could wheel into the table, on his other.

When Dean shuffled his foot Cas-wards, it was only half an inch before he hit the solid weight of Cas' bare feet. Cas looked up, startled, when Dean's boot tapped them, his feet still pressed together for warmth, like kids do. His pupils were wide, but his eyelids were low, managing to look exhausted and shocky, even half a day after he'd turned up at Bobby's. He needed a bath and bed more than anything else, Dean thought, but got stuck on the image of Bobby trying to push Castiel into the bathtub, stopping every three seconds to explain the finer points of personal hygiene.

"You want yours in coffee?" Dean asked.

"What?"

"Your bourbon."

"Oh." Castiel's gaze moved to Sam, who was pouring perfect three-finger glasses of the stuff. The look didn't have the weight it used to. Was that a human thing? But Castiel stared at the yellow liquor falling into Bobby's chipped glasses like it was the most fascinating thing in the world.

"You got any coffee, Bobby?"

"He's already had three cups of the stuff. And before you ask," Bobby said narrow-eyed. "He refused socks."

"I wasn't-"

"Quit your silent, mother hen-fussing, and make the man a hot chocolate. He's had enough coffee and the sugar will do him some good."

"Fine," Dean said.

Castiel watched the exchange with vague disinterest. "I've never had hot chocolate."

"You'll like it," Dean assured him.

"Are you going to get him a blanket while you're up?" Sam asked, smiling faintly.

Dean looked away from the not-boiling kettle long enough to frown at his idiot brother. "Shut up, Samsquatch." Castiel was cold and newly human - Dean felt justified in worrying a little.

But he let it drop, and the room lapsed into awkward silence. Castiel was a conversational black hole on a good day, and there were only so many times Sam could try to engage Bobby in small talk, before he snapped and called him a moron, idjit, or something worse. Bobby seemed reluctant for once, to dive right into things, and instead stared down into his bourbon, while Dean made hot chocolate, Sam fidgeted and Castiel sat quieter than any human should be capable of.

How much of the story had Bobby already gotten out of him, Dean wondered. Or had he spent the day feeding a silent Castiel cups of coffee, and trying unsuccessfully to bully him into talking? He caught Bobby watching him, out of the corner of his eye, and got the uncomfortable feeling that he was waiting for Dean. As if Dean had memorized Castiel's operating manual, front to back, and could make him spill all his secrets with a cup of hot chocolate and some prodding.

Dean was pretty much Cas' closest friend - it wasn't like there were a lot of other candidates lining up for the job, since Cas had turned his back on heaven. On his whole family, hell, his whole species. Since he'd done that, he'd stopped snapping to. He had his own to do list, and his own ideas of how he was going to get all the items crossed off. He couldn't give Dean the angelic equivalent of the finger, and teleport out of the kitchen, but he could do what every uncooperative human had done since the dawn of time, and give him the silent treatment. Like he was already doing.

He braced his hands and leaned against the counter. The kettle was just starting to steam. He wanted, for a long moment where he just gripped the counter and stared blankly at his reflection in the window, to throw the damn thing across the room. He wanted, not to feel-- any of this.

The kettle boiled. He poured it over the chocolate powder and stirred. He used to make hot chocolate for Sam, when they were kids. Always with marshmallows, even after Sam started saying he was too grown up for it. Until Sam went away to school, on wet, cold nights, or after particularly bad hunts, he'd make it for all three of them, him, Sammy, and his dad.

Dean laced Castiel's hot chocolate with a generous dollop of bourbon and put it down between Castiel's hands. His fingers twitched, then sort of fluttered indecisively toward the mug. He glared down at it so hard that if he'd still been an angel, the table might have cracked in two.

"Just drink it, you damn fool." Castiel broke away from glaring at his hot chocolate, to glare at Bobby. Aside from the glare, he went quietly. He sipped his drink carefully, considering. He licked his lips, still considering.

"Like it?" Dean asked.

After a couple of silent seconds, Castiel said, "Yes." And that was all. He picked up his mug though, and drank down more of his spiked hot chocolate. He liked it, Dean decided.

Nobody said anything for a long while. It was strange - if it were anyone else they'd be knocking back the brews and exchanging manly hugs. Hell, he almost felt like that's exactly what they should be doing, angel or not. Castiel had been - was still - one of them.

Dean drained his glass, and let it drop down to the table. Not a slam, but enough to startle Castiel out of his staring contest with the kitchen's walls. He turned to Dean, looking tired, and confused, and annoyed - definitely that - and Dean felt momentary guilt.

"So how did you get here?"

"I walked."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it." He couldn't help a trace of annoyance creeping into his voice. It was just so typically Castiel.

"That's all the answer I can give you, right now." Cas frowned. "I'm not being purposely evasive. Things are... confused. I can't remember..."

Sam leaned forward, face stamped with his usual helping-the-victims concern. "Just start with what you can remember."

"The battle." Cas' eyes darted from mug, to hands, to the tabletop, as if searching. "We were attempting to trap Lucifer. The circle wasn't strong enough. I stepped into it, to hold him. He... touched me."

 

He took hold of Castiel and forced him down on to his knees. It was no kind of struggle - Castiel was nowhere close to Lucifer's league. That much was immediately obvious.

"What a shame," he'd said.

Then he took hold of Castiel's head, and jerked it once, to the side. He let go, and Castiel's body fell to the ground, limp. There was a flash - Dean and Sam had to look away.

 

"And after that?" Sam asked.

"I don't know." Castiel frowned again. His obvious frustration was broken up by a huge yawn. His mouth opened, and his eyes went wide with it. Surprised.

"That was a yawn, buddy."

"I know. I just... I've never yawned before." Castiel rubbed his fingers across his lips, wonderingly.

"Looks like you need some rest."

"I've never slept before either."

"What a surprise," said Bobby. "Ok, that's it. We're calling it quits for the night."

"Bobby-"

"He walked here genius, in case you didn't notice, and he's been sitting here this whole time, waiting for you two to show up. He needs to rest." Dean nodded. "Sam, go make up a bedroll for him. Dean, you help him get cleaned up and ready for bed." Bobby backed himself up from the table, then turned toward the living room.

"The den's mine. You three can take the living room."

"What about the upstairs bedrooms?" Sam asked.

"They ain't exactly fit for company, if you know what I mean. Blankets are in the same cupboard as always." He left for the den.

"You need some help?" Sam asked.

"Nah." Sam left for the upstairs, to scare up enough blankets and mismatched sheets for three makeshift beds. If it came to it, there were blankets in the Impala's trunk. They were rarely used, but warm and serviceable. "So, you're going to be bunking with us."

Cas nodded. He knew what sleeping was, obviously. He'd watched over Sam and Dean enough times to know, even if he hadn't had millenia before that of watching humans do what they did. He'd never slept though. Never tried hot chocolate either. Never brushed his teeth, bathed, or changed his clothes.

"Come on, Cas. Let's go to the bathroom."

"Why?"

"We gotta get ready for bed. You know, wash your face, brush your teeth."

Castiel sighed then. Not a sigh of exasperation, but more a violent exhalation. "Yes, Dean." He put his mug down and stood up. He swayed. Dean reached out to steady him, but Cas immediately waved him off. He set his jaw and quickly found his footing. Through stubbornness, Dean thought, if nothing else.

He followed Dean to the bathroom, his shoulders tight, and his expression set. He concentrated on all of Dean's instructions and demonstrations. Concentrated through brushing his teeth, even while swallowing back his revulsion at a brush, slathered in gel, in his mouth. Concentrated through washing his hands, feet and face. Dean figured they could leave the rest for tomorrow - a bath might be beyond his ability to process, after coming back from the dead and walking to Bobby's place. Then he concentrated through changing into one of Dean's t-shirts and a pair of his shorts.

He did all of it tense, and careful, and vaguely terrified, but he didn't say a word. Dean could practically hear his teeth grinding. And then see his surprise at the whole teeth grinding phenomenon.

"Come on, let's get to bed." Cas nodded and quietly followed him down to the living room, where Sam had set up three beds. Cas surveyed them blandly, devoid of real interest.

"I didn't give Cas one of the bags," Sam said. Then in a whisper that only Dean could hear, "I didn't want him to feel closed in." Good idea.

Castiel got into bed without prompting. He lay down, and pulled the covers up to his chest, his hands folded over them. He stared up at the ceiling. "Do you intend to sleep as well?"

"Yeah, we're uh, coming." What else was there to say to that? Sam yawned, then Dean yawned. Castiel didn't. Maybe former angels were exempt from yawn contagion.

It had been a long day, and tomorrow promised to be even longer. Dean's whole body ached, and Sam couldn't be in much better shape. Small mercies: Castiel wasn't freaking out and neither was anyone else; he was going along with things, apparently resigned to them; they had warm blankets and a roof over their heads.

Sam and Dean lay down in their own beds, on either side of Cas.

***

In the morning, Dean stumbled more than walked, down to the kitchen. It was early, earlier than Dean liked getting up, and the kitchen was empty. The faint light of the sun just rising, came through the curtains. Dean's eye hurt, so he was thankful that's all it was. Mid morning sun probably would have been too much.

The door to the backyard was slightly ajar - not enough for the dogs to get in or out, so Dean figured that someone must have gone out. The wards wouldn't suffer for an open door, but it wasn't Bobby's style - he hated insects getting inside. He pulled it further open and peeked out. Sam and Castiel sat at the table out in the yard, talking. That was-- ok, not completely weird, because Sam and Cas had lots of opportunities to bond during the apocalypse. But not exactly a common sight. Not since Cas had died, and not before either.

He kicked the door shut, softly, and turned to the cupboards. If he were ibuprofen, where would he be? He rummaged through the drawers and cupboards, starting with the lower ones first. It would be within Bobby's reach, wouldn't it?

"Victory is mine!" he crowed at the bottle of ibuprofen he finally found in the spice rack. Pure Bobby, that one. He applied pills to tongue, added water, and let the magic of modern medicine do its thing.

Breakfast first, or stick his nose into whatever Sam and Cas were up to? Dean's stomach rumbled. Question answered, he decided.

Bobby had never had a fully stocked fridge and pantry, not so long as Dean had known him, and it hadn't gotten any better lately. Rather than stock up to avoid driving, Bobby had retrofitted one of his many wrecks so that he could drive it, and made just as many unplanned irregular trips into town for food. If anything, he seemed to find even more reasons to go to town than before. Dean wasn't sure if he was trying to prove something about his mobility, or if he was showing off his now tricked out wheelchair, but he did seem to take a certain delight in making would be do-gooders uncomfortable. Try to help Poor Bobby Singer and you were liable to get your toes run over, or your head bit off. Dean would be lying if he said he didn't find it hilarious. When it wasn't directed at him, that is.

He poked through the contents of the fridge, discarding one breakfast option after another.

He sniffed the questionable looking orange juice. "Jesus Christ, Bobby."

"You don't like it, you can go shopping yourself." Dean jumped, smashing his head into the handle of the freezer. Dean hissed out a series of curses and rubbed his head. He shot Bobby a glare and went back to foraging. "I'll save you some time - there's eggs, bread, and cereal."

"Is the milk toxic yet?"

"It's fine, you pansy." Bobby wheeled over to the door, and stayed there, staring outside. The window was too high for him - was that something they should look into adjusting? "How long have they been out there?"

"No idea. Just woke up myself." There was a missed conversational beat then, where normally Bobby or Dean would make a crack about Sam and Cas sharing their feelings and braiding each other's hair. Instead they fell silent, Dean assembling the makings of breakfast, and Bobby watching him. After a while, a minute or two maybe, he came over to help. They did it assembly line style, Bobby chopping, grating, cracking eggs, Dean manning the stove and the toaster. The prep work done, Bobby moved over to set the table.

By the time Sam and Cas came in, Dean was loading the table down with plates of western scrambled eggs (not omelets because he was omelet incapable) and toast.

"Oh, great!" Sam said. He looked over his shoulder to Cas, who was hovering in the doorway, considering the food. "Have you ever had eggs?"

There was a moment of desert-dry silence. "No."

"Oh, well they're pretty mild. I'm sure you'll like them. And there's cereal if you don't, right Bobby?"

"Yeah, of course," Bobby said.

"I've had toast."

"When did you have toast?" Dean asked.

Castiel shrugged. "When I was searching for my father, people often offered me food."

"Toast? That barely counts as food." Dean tried not to be disgusted with these unnamed food-offerers. "What else have you had?"

"Rice. Pita. Jello."

"Seriously?" Dean asked. "What flavor?"

"Lime," Cas said absently. In a burst of motion he pushed away from the door frame, walked over to the table and sat down. He looked up at the rest of them, still awkwardly arrayed around the table, with something like challenge. They took their places.

Castiel took the bowl of eggs and heaped some onto his plate - a moderate, sensible amount. A slice of toast completed his breakfast. While the rest of them were passing bowls and plates, absently chattering normal breakfast chatter, Cas picked up his fork and silently set to eating his eggs. The first bite didn't go over well. A flash of disgust in his eyes was all the evidence Dean (who was, he was not ashamed to admit, watching him like a hawk) needed.

Mouth open, he was ready to stop him, offer cereal, or more toast, or something, when Sam kicked him under the table. He bit back a grunt of pain (no way was he giving Sam that kind of satisfaction), and glared at his brother. Sam arched his eyebrows and nodded significantly at Cas. It was more silent communication than Dean really appreciated, first thing in the morning, but he looked.

He was staring down at his plate, as if wishing he could teleport the food directly into his belly, but Cas was mulishly working his way through his eggs, becoming less disgusted with every bite.

Sam leaned over and hissed into his ear. "Ease up, dude. It's only breakfast."

Later, when breakfast was eaten, the dishes washed, and the final battle dissected and analyzed in all it's non-apocalyptic glory, for anything that might apply to Castiel's current situation, he cornered Sam outside, at the same table Sam and Cas had sat that morning.

"So what do you think?"

"About what?" Sam asked. Dean shot him a look. Sam just shrugged. "I mean, about Cas? About his being here? If he's going to be ok? Hell, I don't know where to start."

Dean looked away, and took a pull from his glass of chocolate milk. Chocolate milk because it was to early to drink, and what the hell else was there? Too early hadn't stopped him last year, or the one before that. At least he wasn't drinking Crystal Light like Sammy, who stuffed boxes of it into his pack.

He had a whole lot more hustled money in his pockets these days, with less spent on liquor and other distractions. He had a future now too, supposedly. No looming crises. No deals coming due. Off scot-free for everything he'd done in his life, and no idea what to do with all that time. And now, Castiel too.

"Why is he here?" he asked.

"I don't think even Cas knows. Even when we pushed him..." There'd been nothing. Cas didn't have any details. Just the certainty that it had been god to bring him back.

***

Castiel’s certainty was all they had, for a long while. Because once they’d established the fact that Cas was Cas, not an angel, but not exactly human - something like Anna had been; in between two irreconcilable states of being, a literal impossibility - with human needs, and no one hot on his tail, there were practical considerations to take care of. Castiel needed food, water and rest, like any human, and a safe place to take off his boots while he worked some things out, and adjusted to being, not just inhabiting, flesh. So all their burning questions got pushed to the back burner, while they took care of living.

Every once in a while they’d have these heart to hearts, Dean and Cas, or Sam and Cas, (Bobby too, he imagined, but Dean had never asked). Things were said, learned, analyzed. Bits and pieces of what had happened, and what it had felt like, but they never got to the heart of it. Dean still had no clue as to how or why Cas was here. The answer was just ineffability itself: God.

As it became clear that no one was after him, except the standard evil things in search of a meal, and the IRS, who continued to insist that Cas Singer owed them some serious back taxes, it went from need to know, to something that just was. Maybe it was partly by design.

Instead of coming straight out and telling them something relevant, Captain Non Sequitur, would hand them gems like, “I’ve decided to learn carpentry.”

“Seriously? Why?” Because I felt like it, would be the answer, in Cas-speak.

Along with a whole other layer of meaning, religious, metaphorical and otherwise, and more complicated than Dean liked things to be.

Dean never pushed about that, and after a few months, even Sam stopped. So it wasn’t all Cas dancing around the giant pink elephant of his existence - without any pressing need to have all the answers, Dean, and even Sam, were willing to let sleeping dogs lie. Maybe not forever, but long enough. Cas didn’t seem to be ready to shuffle off this mortal coil in exchange for renewed immortality, nothing was looming on the horizon, and it was nice to be able to just let things be. When it was all tallied up, they were left with this:

Some months after the apocalypse was averted (or diverted, Dean wasn’t sure), Castiel woke up in an impact crater, naked, and covered in mud. There was a stretch of nothing, just dirt and gravel past the crater, then a ring of felled trees, and beyond that, forest.

He’d spat out a mouthful of muddy water, and crawled out of the crater. Once he hauled himself out, and found his footing, he started walking, the rain washing him clean as he went. He walked for hours, making a beeline to Bobby’s house. Right out of the Black Hills Forest, to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with a short stop at a Ranger’s cabin, for clothing. He’d stolen jeans, two shirts, socks, a jacket, boots and a knife. The boots were the wrong size, and rubbed the backs of his ankles raw, but he kept walking, stopping rarely to rest.

The knife he strapped to his forearm, beneath the jacket. He understood the physics that made firearms work, but he’d never used one - bladed weapons though, he knew how to use those.

It took him a day and a night, walking, and he almost collapsed onto Bobby’s front porch. But if there was one thing you could say about Castiel, any version of him, it was that he was pig-stubborn when he’d decided on something. Castiel had decided that he needed to make it to Bobby, and that was what he was going to do, whether the flesh was willing or not.

Dean had asked him, “Seriously, no one stopped?”

“Two truck drivers and a minister stopped.”

“And...?”

“They were concerned for my well being. I... couldn’t be sure of their sincerity,” Cas said, frowning. Before, when he’d been able to see into people’s hearts, that hadn’t been a problem. Now he was deaf, dumb and blind like the rest of them.

“Good.” Dean clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t take rides from strangers, buddy. Not for a while.” Cas nodded, like that was the gospel. No rides from strangers. Fine. No question as to why, or when that might change. It had been a while before Castiel was curious about anything. In those early days he’d had enough to deal with.

He’d been, not like a child, but as fresh and new as one. Everything was different. He’d changed species, and while he knew how to drive his body - possessing a human was, apparently, like riding in a mobile suit - he didn’t get it. Eating baffled him. Pain wasn’t new, but it came from so many different sources, and healing-- Cas’d had, for a while, a terrifying obsession with the body’s natural healing processes. His book knowledge of humanity, and the rest of God’s playthings, was unknowably vast, and intact despite the switch to what Sam had once called, “A lower grade operating system.” His actual, lived experience, was nonexistent.

He’d tried things out as an angel, ate, drank, even danced once, but none of that seemed to be applicable to Castiel’s new existence. Sometimes he walked and talked and did everything, just like a real boy, other times he shambled around off balance, like he’d forgotten what the hell hands and feet were for. Dean half expected to wake to Cas screaming in the middle of the night, like a veteran feeling the ache from his phantom limb. Only in Cas’s case it would be his eyes, ears - hell, his angelic radar. Whatever senses angels had, in a body that wasn’t body, just light and energy.

He didn’t though. Wake up, that is. If Cas was dreaming, he didn’t say, but there were no midnight wake up calls or crises. When it was time to sleep, he all but threw himself into bed, approaching sleep with the same dogged determination that he did everything else. He lay down, pulled up the covers and was asleep in minutes.

When it was time to eat, he ate. When it was time to work, he worked. He worked even when there was nothing to do, and he drove Dean, Sam, and Bobby (in that order), crazy. It was like going mortal had stripped all the spontaneity and humour from him, and he was just that hammer again.

Eventually, there was a hunt that needed the Winchesters' special touch. After that, there was another, and it was a long while before they wound their way back to Bobby's place. They checked in with Bobby of course, and after a couple of weeks, Castiel would actually get on the line and chat. Cas was always fine. Was he settling in? Of course he was.

To break the monotony, Dean started asking him how he felt about Saturday morning cartoons, or breakfast cereals, or a thousand other things that hadn't existed for Castiel before, but had simply been part of the scenery that made up the human world. In turn, Castiel would dutifully watch cartoons, or sample Captain Crunch, Count Chocula and Raisin Bran. It was a source of eternal horror and disappointment, that Castiel liked Raisin Bran best.

***

When they finally pulled up to Bobby's house, after another sleepless night of driving, and another punishing hunt before that, neither Dean nor Sam were interested in anything but bed. Or floor, being as it was Bobby's place. It was morning before they found out about the changes.

They were woken by clattering dishes, and the ambrosial smell of bacon. Well, Dean was woken by the dishes and the bacon, Sam, salad eater that he was, didn't wake up for frying meat. As it was, he was up off the floor like a bomb had exploded, instead of Bobby knocking a plate of eggs to the floor and cursing. Dean's half-sleeping mind managed to distinguish between those two very different situations, so while he was well and truly awake (long before he wanted to be), he didn't jump up like Sam did, or stumble into the kitchen to help.

The thing was, Bobby didn't take help easily, or well. His discomfort with it was bone-deep. It was hard to judge what kind of day it was: were you going to get a new one ripped wide open, for picking something up for him? Or for failing to pick something up for him? The whole situation though - Bobby's prickliness and changeability, the constant reminder that yes, Bobby was in a wheelchair and some things simply were different - was old hat by now. There was still a twinge, still bad memories like a nasty taste in his mouth that he could never get rid of, but-- it was what it was. And since Sam had cleanup duty covered, Dean was just as happy to skip out, and have his morning piss. There was plenty of time left in the day for Bobby to yell at him.

"You can't just wipe it up, you idjit."

"Yeah," said Sam. "I'm just going to-"

"Soap and water. I have to live here..."

Dean tuned it out long enough for him to make it to the bathroom, clear his bladder, and then grab a quick shower. It had been a rough hunt. With witches. He figured he could get away with spoiling himself. He spent ten minutes leaning into the hard, hot spray of the shower - did Bobby have a new water heater? - willing muscles that wanted to seize up to do the opposite, and instead relax. He brushed his teeth, and ran a cursory hand over his hair. Did all the mundane chores he did most every day, only slower, because he didn't have to be anywhere in a hurry. No one would care if he was late for breakfast - all it meant was that he would be eating cold eggs.

By the time he made it back down to the kitchen, the sink was full of dishes and Sam was efficiently moving them from the dirty pile, to the clean one. Bobby was nowhere in sight. Cas was sitting at the table, methodically stripping, cleaning and reassembling two pistols.

He had a cloth spread out, to protect Bobby's crappy kitchen table. One gun lay to the side, waiting to be cleaned. Cas had the other in hand, pointing away from himself, Sam or anything important. He unlocked the slide, and let the round drop to the table with a muffled plink. Then he pulled out the mag and put it to the side with practiced hands. Dean took half a step forward but stopped himself as Cas checked that the pistol was empty. Two checks - visual and tactile. Nimble fingers traced over the outside of the gun. He squinted at the gun, more in concentration than puzzlement - Cas looked entirely too comfortable handling the gun.

"Hey," Sam said. "You're on dry-duty." He flung a towel at Dean's mid section. He caught it, and joined his brother at the sink.

"You done with these?" he asked, nodding at the stack of clean-looking dishes, to the right of the sink.

"Yeah," Sam said, not looking up from the skillet he was scrubbing. Behind them, Cas worked away. Dean caught only some of it: Cas pulling it apart; wiping all the pieces down; carefully checking them over for signs of stress.

"Dude," he said.

"Yeah." Sam kept his eyes glued to the skillet, like it held the answers to all of life's mysteries - in fairness to Sam, it was encrusted with burnt something, and was resisting him fiercely. Still. Dean elbowed him. "What?" Sam asked pissily.

Dean smirked at that, then nodded, ever so slightly, in the direction of the gun safety tutorial going on behind them. Sam glanced over his shoulder - Castiel was now scrubbing out the magazine - and then shrugged. Dean raised his eyebrows insistently, willing his face to convey all the 'what the hell' he was feeling. In response, Sam's forehead and nose scrunched up in a definite 'I don't even know,' and he shrugged again. Which was, Dean had to admit, a good point. What was the appropriate response here?

Sam passed him another dish. Dean gave it a cursory pass over with the towel, then put it to the side. He leaned closer to his brother.

"Seriously?" Dean hissed.

"Dude, I don't know."

"Since when does Cas even know what the business end of a Glock looks like? Much less how to field strip one?"

Sam shrugged - again - and waved his sponge helplessly. "I don't know, but the angelic learning curve is... steep. To put it mildly."

"Last time we saw him, he hadn't grasped the finer points of the dvd remote." All of this in a stage whisper, that was increasingly hard to maintain with just the soft shush of Cas's brush over the gun parts, and the too infrequent clank of pots, cutlery and dishes.

"I can hear you," Cas said evenly.

Sam and Dean both spun around guiltily, Sam sending a line of suds spraying across the linoleum. Dean held his dish towel up in front of him; Sam his gloved hands and dripping sponge.

Cas just moved on to oiling and reassembling the gun, checking it over carefully, at every step. It wasn't like stalking a Croatoan-infested Kansas street, beside a drugged out, armed to the gills Castiel. It also wasn't like watching a newly reborn, newly mortal Castiel try to master the art of cutlery usage - he was absolutely sure in his movements; confident and comfortable. Like he'd grown up handling firearms. Sitting at Bobby's kitchen, taking apart guns with an efficiency that would do John Winchester proud.

He caught Sam's eye, thinking, maybe I'm crazy; maybe I'm being an emo dumbass here. David from 90210, distinctly uninterested in his bffl shooting off his own foot, or you know, possibly turning into an orgy-frequenting drug addict. But Sam had the same look of visceral and complete discomfort; of wrongness.

"Dude," Dean blurted out. "What the hell."

Castiel finished reassembling the Glock, and put it down. He looked up and hit them both with one of those thousand yard stares he specialized in; potent even without his wings to back him up.

"Did Bobby teach you this?" Dean asked.

"Who else?"

"Why the hell-"

"What Dean's trying to ask is, when did you learn all of this?

Cas shrugged then, and Dean-- he was tired of all this silent, manly non-communication. It had its place, don't get him wrong, but its place was not between him and answers.

"That's not what Dean is asking," he said. "Dean wants to know why you and Bobby think you need to be Rambo, all of a sudden."

"I have no intention of becoming a guerrilla fighter, Dean," Castiel said.

"So what exactly is your intention?"

"Bobby is still a competent marksman-"

"Damn right he is," Dean said, without thought. Almost compulsively.

"But he lacks mobility." As much as Dean genuinely like Castiel, he wanted to drive his fist into his utterly calm face, for that. Sam gripped his shoulder, hard, digging his thumb in close to the bone.

"You wanted to protect him," Sam said far more calmly than Dean could imagine being.

"And myself, of course. But yes. Bobby may not be an active hunter, but he continues to supply information to hunters - he's a critical part of their network - and he has enemies."

"If something happened-"

"You would not be here in time." Cas picked up the second gun, and started over: unlocked the side, let the round drop to the cloth. "I would."

He didn't say anything like, 'I won't let anything happen to him,' or, 'I'll keep him safe'. Castiel didn't make a lot of promises, false or otherwise. When you spent all your time cooped up with a crotchety old dude, (with occasional visits from a dashing set of brothers), Dean guessed you didn't have to - what was he going to promise? "Yes Bobby, I will guard these dishes with my life?"

It was the same terrible honesty that he'd had from the beginning, wherever his orders didn't force him to be otherwise. And too, the same fierce stubbornness - Dean didn't know where he got it from, because most of his brother angels had all the fortitude of a wet paper bag. But that was Castiel: Good little Angel of the Lord.

"You don't have to do... this." Dean indicated the spread of gun pieces; it turned into a directionless wave. He didn't know what to do with his hands. "We're hunters. We were born into this life."

"Look, Cas, you were given a second chance," said Sam. "You could do anything. Don't fall into this just because everyone you know is... in the life."

Castiel looked-- honest to god offended at that. He frowned at Sam, a tremendous and awful thing, for Castiel, that on anyone else would be serious annoyance. "Lucifer and most of his servants are gone." The kitchen was quiet, save for the drip of the tap and the click, clack of metal over metal. "And yet you're still hunting. Because you chose this life." And when they tried to protest, he cut them off. "You were raised to be hunters, but you could walk away from this life at any time." Click, clack - the pieces slotting into place. "I was made for this as much as you were."

There was more after that; more words exchanged. Arguments hashed and rehashed until everyone was tired of them, and until Dean and Sam too, didn't know why they were still protesting. Things were different now, and that change was immutable fact. Castiel was figuring out who he was going to be, and friends or not, they didn't get a say in that.

Every stay at Bobby's place brought new changes.

Castiel liked plain oatmeal for breakfast, and milk-free Lucky Charms as a snack. He was ambidextrous, but tended to his right, and held his cutlery in exactly the same way that Bobby did. When he wasn't doing chores, he went for incredibly long walks to town and back, and through the surrounding country. He liked rain, and vehemently disliked humidity. He was alarmingly comfortable with Bobby's dog Rumsfeld, and had regular staring contests with her. He didn't shave if there wasn't a reason to, but was very, very clean.

Time passed; things changed.

When stung, Castiel had a streak of nastiness that would do a Winchester proud, but his biting cruelty was of a different kind entirely. When he was happy, he didn't declare it - he just sort of emanated it quietly. All of which worked for Sam and Dean. Most of the time Castiel and Bobby rocked the Odd Couple vibe, but they were both raw enough, and stupid enough to push each others' buttons until they were worn out.

They had this cold war going, Bobby and Cas. Where Cas cleaned, and fixed, and ordered, and Bobby pushed back, threw things back into disorder. Then, because Bobby was Bobby, and Cas was too blunt by far, things would blow up. It was nothing like family, as Dean had known it - Cas was unlike anyone Dean had ever known - but it was becoming achingly familiar. Comfortable. Like his own arguments with Bobby, or Sam and Cas’ nerdy one-up-man-ship. There was this whole network of comfortable, reliable relationships. Dean had to ask himself , and he knew Bobby must have, and Sam, what would it be like when Cas left?

 

 

a year or so later, laundry day

 

 

“Dean?”

“Yeah.”

“How do I know what clothes are delicate?”

“I don’t think Bobby owns anything delicate, buddy.”

"What about linen?"

"What are you doing with linen?"

"Darlene gave me this shirt..."

Darlene, Bobby's lonely-widow neighbor. No offense to Darlene, because she was hot for a lady in her sixties. Their last visit had netted Sam and Dean the awesome sight of a too-friendly MILF, all over Bobby's apparently much younger 'nephew'. And now she was giving him shirts?

"Did you read the care tag?"

There was a long, troubling moment of silence. "Care tag?"

Dean pushed away the last of his breakfast. "Don't touch anything. I'm coming." He all but ran down the stairs, past the old storeroom, to the new laundry room.

Cas was standing in the middle of several small piles of clothes, sorted by colour and fabric. It was freakishly scientific - Dean's laundry usually consisted of three loads: jeans, shirts, everything else. Cas meanwhile, was trying to puzzle out the mysteries of linen; peering at the care tag like it was written in some arcane tongue (which hey, it kind of was, if you were an angel, or even an ordinary, laundry-hating guy). But as far as he could tell there were no impending disasters, so he counted this venture as a win - so far.

"Here," he said, holding out his hand.

Castiel frowned at the label, and breathed out a sigh of absolute frustration. "Facing Lucifer was easier than this."

Dean laughed. "Laundry isn't exactly what I'd call a good time. Come on, hand it over." Finally, Castiel did, looking utterly resigned. "Come 'ere." He nodded for Cas to follow him to the sink.

"Looks like everything else you've got here is cotton, canvas or flannel, so this thing's going to have to be done separately." Cas looked at the shirt like it was a snake in the grass; the snake, even. "This looks like it's supposed to be wrinkled." When Cas kept on staring at the shirt like it was poison, he poked jabbed his ribs with a finger. "Am I right?"

"I guess so."

"Ok, so then it's washable linen. Cold water." Dean scanned the small selection of detergents. They were lined up, labels out, and alphabetized. "Did you organize this?"

Castiel nodded.

"Ex-angel OCD strikes again."

"You are an asshole, Dean Winchester."

"Like I haven't heard that one before," he said with a grin. "So you can do this in the washer by itself, but that would be a massive waste of water, and Bobby will probably tan your hide. Or you can do it in the sink. Might as well do it the old fashioned way." Dean let the water run until it was a comfortable cool, then wet the shirt. Dean poured some liquid detergent into a cup, followed by some water, and then worked it into the fabric. Castiel followed his movements closely.

"How do you know how to do this?"

"What, laundry? It's not like we have a service on the road."

"No - how do you know how to care for linen?"

"Better question, Cas. Why are you now the proud owner of a linen shirt?"

"Darlene is lonely." He made a cutting gesture. "Don't attempt to deflect."

"What's with the interrogation all of a sudden?"

"I'm just... curious." There was a smile in his eyes when he looked up and met Dean's gaze, and even a slight curve to his mouth. It was something that was becoming more and more common, and something that Dean was coming to appreciate. The easy crinkle of his eyes, and the momentary roundness of his stubbled cheeks, eyes a bright blue, even narrowed in amusement.

"I uh..." Cas leaned back against he washer, and curled his fingers around the edge of it. The long line of his body was utterly casual - he was comfortable in his skin. "I may have, possibly, learned it from Martha Stewart?"

It's like a light switches on. The hint of a smile becomes a wide, toothy grin, and everything about Cas is bright, and for a second, close to the surface. "You were of course bored one night."

"Obviously," Dean agreeed.

"Nothing else to watch." Dean nodded. "Sam was using his laptop, and you were forced into a corner: Shamwow, or DIY." Castiel frowned in mock sympathy.

"Was that supposed to be a joke?"

"Maybe." Dean jabbed at his ribs again, this time using his elbow. Castiel dodged, a quick and easy shift of muscle - Dean wasn't trying very hard anyway. "Possibly?"

"I liked you better when you didn't think you had a sense of humor."

"No you didn't," Castiel said with certainty. No he didn't.

"And then," Dean said loudly. "You ring it out, making sure there's no excess water."

"Tell me more."

"Hey, you're the one who wanted to do laundry."

"The mysteries of detergent and fabric softener have too long eluded me. Teach me."

"Dude, you used to be such a good angel. Obedient. Boring."

"Well dressed."

Dean laughed. "Yeah, you rocked the office drone look, all right." He gave Cas a once over - it was a change, to say the least. Now that he had a picture of the old Castiel in mind, the difference was more obvious. A mortal Castiel bore only a passing resemblance to the angel-in-Jimmy Novak's body. Low slung sweatpants, a too-big, worn out t-shirt and bare feet. Yesterday's stubble still on his jaw and cheeks. His hair a careless mess, clean, but pushed back out of convenience. He looked like some guy, any of a thousand guys that Dean had met in his life. There was a difference though.

Dean draped the shirt over the lip of the sink. It could stay there a spell. "How are you doing?"

"I believe I've grasped the underlying principles of old-fashioned laundry."

"Seriously."

"Oh, are we going to 'talk'?" Cas smirked into the middle distance. It was annoyingly effective.

"Air quotes are not cool," Dean said snidely.

"Strangely, the willingness to care eludes me."

"Cas" Dean said, putting his hand over his heart. "I can't withstand your early morning bitchery in my fragile state."

Cas looked him over. "And what fragile state is that?"

"Underfed and overworked."

"How terrible it must be for you."

"It really is. Hard life."

Maybe he put too much feeling into it, because Cas, suddenly serious, was silent a little too long. He hadn't intended anything, but that was the Singer house: landmines everywhere.

"Dean," he finally said. "I'm fine."
"Yeah?" Castiel nodded.

They looked away from each other, back, locking gazes then, as if the whole thing had been rehearsed. Castiel, through his eyelashes, looked as caught out as Dean felt. Oh, he thought. We're doing this now. He edged closer to Cas, found he was doing the same. They met in the middle, between the washer and the sink, with nothing left to lean on.

"So," Dean said.

"There are bad days and good days."

"I figured." Castiel sighed, and for once Dean couldn't decode it. "You and Bobby are getting on."

"More or less."

"The thing is-"

"Yes?"

Finding himself tongue-tied, hell, everything-tied under Castiel's full attention, Dean forced himself to move. He put his hand on Castiel's shoulder. In the early days, he could be skittish. Now, he leaned into the touch. "Do you ever think about moving on?"

"No," Cas said.

"That's it? Just 'no'?"

"Just no, Dean." He searched Castiel's face for... something. He didn't find it. Instead, certainty. "I've seen the world already. There are no surprises out there. No great discoveries."

"Maybe a few discoveries."

"Dean," Cas said again, this time with those invisible capital letters and three kinds of significant intonation. "There are far too many things in this house that I still need to fix. I will be busy for years." He pulled Dean's clammy hand from his shoulder with his warm one, and held on to it, in the small space between them. "I'm not going anywhere."

"That's good."

"I'm grateful for your approval."

"You should be."
"I think," Cas said. "That you should kiss me now."

"Alright." So he did.

Dean didn't, hadn't, spent a lot of time thinking about it. He didn't dream about getting Castiel naked. He didn't watch for exposed skin - that had been easy enough to come by, what with angel-to-human lessons, and Castiel's endless, backbreaking, often shirtless projects. He'd been watching Cas for over a year whenever he could, and chatting with him on the phone when he couldn't. He hadn't been looking for; he'd just been looking. Dean didn't have the details worked out, certainly nothing like a plan. He'd been looking, and he knew his way. It was that simple.

They moved, slotting together easily. Castiel's fingers tightened around Dean's. His free hand landed at Dean's waist. There was nothing urgent in any of it. So Dean matched him, leaned in until he could rest his forehead against Cas', press his nose into Cas's cheek, touch his lips with his own. He held Cas with a hand behind his neck, tilted his head up just enough, and kissed him.

***

Later - they didn't sleep, so it was just later - they cleaned each other up, and got back to the laundry. He made Cas rewash the linen shirt.

Dean settled in beside Castiel, crowding him, if it were anyone else. "You gotta demonstrate your technique."

"Will there also be an oral exam?"

"Definitely. How's this evening - you free?"

"Strangely, my schedule is wide open." Castiel grinned sweetly, as he wrung the shirt like it was a rabbit he wanted for dinner. It was kind of creepy, if Dean was being honest. He kissed him on the cheek and pulled the shirt away from him.

"You still have so much to learn."

"I am so lucky to have you," Cas said.

"Hey morons," Bobby called from upstairs. "Get up here and help with the groceries."

"We better get going," he told Castiel. "You can obsess your way through the rest of this later."

"Dean," Cas admonished. Admonished - who did that? Castiel, he guessed. "It's only that I like to do things right-"

"The first time. It's all about heavenly efficiency." Cas frowned. "Ok big boy, we gotta hang this pretty pretty princess shirt up, before it dries like this."

Dean tossed the shirt at Castiel. Startled, he didn't get his hands up in time, and was treated to a mound of wet-ish linen, slapping him in the face. Dean flew up the stairs, before even Cas's autonomic nervous system could decide how to react.

"Dean!" You asshole, was the unspoken subtext of that. No doubt he was gritting his teeth and hanging the shirt up to dry.

Dean burst into the kitchen, skidding across the linoleum, and stopping just short of Bobby's chair. Castiel followed him at a slower, and probably more dignified pace.

"Watch where you're going." Sam barely frowned. As though he couldn't even be bothered. That was not on.

"Dude! I was just telling Cas about the time you set fire to the washing machine."

That earned him a full (and glorious) Sammy bitchface, that was extended so far so to include a puzzled Castiel.

Cas, good ex-angel that he was, immediately bent to the task at hand, and pointedly ignored the series of increasingly dumb comments Dean made, and the increasingly spectacular looks that Sam threw his brother. Dean smirked. Bobby ignored the lot of them.

***

They're were lying on the grass, the small part of Bobby's yard that wasn't given over to scrap. Dean had asked him if he wanted a blanket. Cas blew him a raspberry. He didn't know where he'd picked that one up.

"Do you want to come on a road trip?"

"Sure," Cas said impassively. If anything, his only reaction was to somehow double his body weight, and collapse more heavily across Dean's chest.

"You can't mess with the tape deck - it's sacred."

"But Sam's right. An upgrade is sorely needed."

"Driver picks the music-"

"Whatever," Cas said. Dean could only roll his eyes.

"I was thinking we could head up to the Black Hills."

Cas hummed his agreement, and didn't bother to look up, socially awkward even in this.

"If anything, we should have gone sooner." He'd been worried.

"There's no rush, Dean."

"Sure, but-"

"Go to sleep," Cas said.

"In the yard?"

"It's warded. I'm tired," Cas said, then he quickly followed his own orders.

He let Cas sleep for a while, before hustling him up to bed, so he could help Sam pack the car.

"He good?" Sam asked.

"Yeah, he'll be fine." Sam nodded. His obvious satisfaction with Castiel's health and well-being slowly turned into a smirk.

"And you?"

"I'm great Sammy." Maybe just this once they could avoid talking about it.

"Yeah?"

"Affirmative, Major Feelings. Dean is feeling great."

"Ok," Sam said. And miraculously, that was it.